Welcome to the All-Franchise Starting Lineup, where we review each of the 30 current MLB franchises to determine the best players by position in franchise history. Our alphabetical tour takes us to Minneapolis this week, where we’ll dig into a Twins franchise that spent the first half of its existence in our nation’s capital.
The Ground Rules
- Each player’s WAR with the franchise was the primary driver of the selections. We used two WAR calculations, one from Fangraphs and the other from Baseball-Reference. When the WAR between players was similar, we considered other factors, such as stats and awards, to break the tie.
- We only considered statistics earned with the franchise in question for each player. For example, Albert Pujols wasn’t the Dodgers’ first baseman since he only played with them for part of a season near the end of his career.
- Players with multi-position eligibility can play any position they played for a reasonable period in their career.
- Outfielders can be shifted between center, left, and right as long as it makes sense defensively – especially for center field.
- Since we have universal DH now, we will assign one DH per team. Doing so also allows us to get more deserving hitters into the lineup who played at a log-jammed position.
- Three pitchers will be named – one right-handed starter, one left-handed starter, and one reliever.
The Twins franchise began as the first MLB iteration of the Washington Senators in 1901. The team was one of the eight original American League teams, and though they were officially named the “Nationals” for much of their history in D.C., most people referred to them as the “Senators.” The franchise struggled out of the gate but began to turn things around in 1912 when they finished second in the AL. It took another twelve years for them to win the pennant, but in 1924 they won their first World Championship by defeating the New York Giants in seven games. They repeated as AL champs the following season, but this time fell in the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Senators returned to the Fall Classic only once more, in 1933, over the next 35 seasons. In 1961, the franchise joined the relocation boom when they moved to Minneapolis and changed their name to the “Twins”. MLB granted an expansion team to the city of Washington, keeping the Senators’ name despite a completely different roster. That franchise moved to Texas in 1972 and became the “Rangers”. The Twins were successful from the get-go, finishing in second place in their first year in Minneapolis and advancing to the World Series in 1965. They lost the series but made the playoffs twice more in 1969 and 1970 before suffering a long dry spell that ended in 1987 when the franchise won its second World Championship. Four years later, the team added a third. The Twins have not returned to the World Series since 1991 but have made the playoffs in nine of the past 21 seasons and are perennial contenders in the AL Central.
Catcher: Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer was one of the best offensive catchers of all time. His .306 average ranks sixth among catchers with a minimum of 5,000 career plate appearances. He also spent his entire career with the Twins and was perhaps the easiest choice for our lineup.
Mauer hit .308 in 35 games as a 21-year-old rookie in 2004 and was the Twins starting catcher the next season. In his third season, Mauer made his first of six All-Star squads, won his first of five Silver Sluggers, and led the AL with a .347 batting average. Two years later, he won another batting title and added his first of three consecutive Gold Gloves. The following season, 2009, was Mauer’s best. He led the league in batting average, OBP, SLG, and OPS that year en route to the AL MVP. Mauer atypically hit for power that season, slugging 28 home runs.
The toll of catching began to catch up with Mauer. After an injury-plagued 2011, he began to play more at first base and DH. By 2014 he was done behind the plate, and his batting average began to dip below .300. He remained a solid offensive player but not the offensive force he was earlier in his career. Mauer retired at the end of the 2018 season after donning the catcher’s gear for one pitch in his final appearance. The Twins retired his #7 the following summer. Mauer will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2024 and should be able to gain admittance quickly.
First Base: Joe Judge
The decision at first base came down to Joe Judge vs. Kent Hrbek as we slotted others who played the position for the franchise, like Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, and Mauer, at other spots. It was a coin flip between Hrbek and Judge, both of whom played for World Championship squads. Hrbek had more power, but Judge was a better hitter and defender and got the nod for our lineup.
Judge debuted for the Senators in September 1915 and was the team’s primary first baseman for the next 15 years. He was an excellent defender who finished his career with a .993 fielding % that ranks among the best ever. Judge could also hit. His batting average finished below .285 only once from 1917 to 1930. When the Senators won the World Series in 1924, Judge hit .385 with a .484 OBP in the seven games.
By 1931, the aging Judge struggled to stay healthy and was finished in Washington the following year. He played two more seasons in a part-time capacity before retiring in 1934. Judge ranks third in runs scored all-time for the franchise and sixth in RBI and stolen bases.
Second Base: Rod Carew
Rod Carew was one of the greatest hitters of his generation. He won seven batting titles with the franchise, including four consecutive from 1972 to 1975. Carew owns the third-highest lifetime batting average of any player who debuted after 1965, behind Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs. He was an All-Star for an incredible 18 consecutive years, starting with his rookie year in 1967 when he also was the Rookie of the Year. His best season came in 1977. Carew took home the AL MVP that year after hitting .388/.449/.570 with a league-leading 16 triples and 100 RBI. By then, he had shifted to first base, where he would remain for the second half of his career.
Despite his personal success, Carew’s Twins teams did not win much. They only made the playoffs twice in his tenure and never went to a World Series. When it became evident Carew’s destiny was elsewhere, the Twins traded him in February 1979 to the California Angels. Unfortunately for Carew, he wouldn’t find much postseason success in Anaheim either.
Carew retired after the 1985 season despite a still-productive season in which he hit .280 with a .371 OBP. Two years later, the Twins honored him by retiring his #29. In 1991, Carew was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with 90.5% of the vote. He ranks sixth on our list of the Top Ten Second Basemen of All-Time.
Shortstop: Joe Cronin
Joe Cronin was only with the Senators for seven seasons, but they were so impactful that his WAR far surpassed other candidates. Cronin began his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates but played only 40 games with them. In 1928, Washington purchased the 21-year-old’s rights and installed him at shortstop. It was a smart move by the club, as Cronin developed into an MVP candidate within a few seasons. The slick-fielding shortstop led the league in triples in 1932 and doubles the following year when he finished second in the MVP voting to Jimmie Foxx and played in the first All-Star game.
The 1933 season was a landmark one for Cronin in another way, as he took over as player/manager of the Senators. The decision to elevate him raised eyebrows, but Cronin silenced the doubters when he led the club to the World Series. They lost in five games, though Cronin acquitted himself on the field, batting .318. His second season at the helm did not go as well. The team struggled, and Cronin’s production on the field regressed, though he still played well enough to attend the second All-Star game. Little did Cronin know that his time in the nation’s capital was almost at an end. After the season, the club traded him to the Red Sox for Larry Lyn and the exorbitant sum of $225,000.
Cronin player-managed the Red Sox for the next 11 years, plus two more as a manager only when he retired from the field in 1945. He played in five more All-Star games with Boston and led the club to the World Series in 1946. He also served as the club’s general manager and later became the American League President. Cronin was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Third Base: Harmon Killebrew
Harmon Killebrew was the only player in our lineup to play for the Senators and the Twins. He’s also the greatest slugger in the franchise’s history, leading the club in home runs and RBI. Killebrew played for the franchise for all except the last of his 22 professional seasons. Washington signed the young Harmon in 1954, just before his eighteenth birthday. He played sparingly and bounced between the majors and minors for his first five seasons before taking over as the club’s starting third baseman in 1959. Killebrew led the league with 42 HRs that season and played in both All-Star games.
Two years later, the Senators became the Twins, but that didn’t slow Killebrew down. He was a double All-Star again in his first season in Minneapolis and led the AL in HRs and RBI in 1962. Killebrew was the AL HR king six times in total and the RBI champ thrice. He also represented the club at 13 All-Star games. His crowning achievement came in 1969 when he played in all 162 games and led the league with 49 HRs, 140 RBI, and a .427 OBP en route to being named the AL MVP.
Killebrew’s Twins made it to the postseason three times, including the 1965 World Series, which they lost to the Dodgers in seven games. Harmon hit .286 with a .444 OBP in the series with a home run and two RBI. The other two appearances came after the creation of the ALCS, each consisting of sweeps at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles in 1969 and 1970. Killebrew’s bat began to slow as he aged, and the Twins released him in January 1975. The club retired his #3 that May, even though he was still playing his final season with the Royals. In 1984, the BBWAA elected Killebrew to the Hall of Fame, making him the first player to join the hall donning a Twins cap.
Left Field: Goose Goslin
Leon “Goose” Goslin broke in with the Senators in 1921 and established himself as their left fielder the following season. Goslin hit .324 that season and didn’t hit below .300 again until 1929, his last season in his first stint in Washington. During the 1920s, Goslin led the AL in triples twice, RBI once, and took home the batting title in 1928 after hitting .379. He also shined in the Senators’ two trips to the World Series in 1924 and 1925. In 14 games, Goslin hat 17 hits, including six HRs, scored ten runs, and drove in 13.
Midway through the 1930 season, the franchise traded Goslin to the St. Louis Browns after a salary dispute. The Browns traded him back to the Senators in December 1932, and Goose played in his third World Series for the franchise. His second tenure was short-lived, though, as the club moved him to Detroit after the season. Many in the organization felt Goslin’s best days were behind him, and he clashed with new manager Joe Cronin. The move worked out for Goose, who returned to the Fall Classic with the Tigers over the next two seasons, finally winning a second ring in 1935. Goslin was an All-Star in 1936 with the Tigers at the age of 35, but that was his last hurrah. He struggled in 1937, and the Tigers released him after the season. He returned to Washington for one final season in 1938 before retiring. After a long wait, the Veteran’s Committee inducted Goslin into the Hall of Fame in 1968.
Center Field: Kirby Puckett
Kirby Puckett’s ever-present smile and infectious personality made him a fan favorite in Minnesota. He was much more than that, though; he was a complete baseball player. Puckett’s relatively short twelve-year career was filled with accomplishments. After finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting in 1984, “Puck” led the league in at-bats the following season and only missed 14 games from 1985 through 1989. His first All-Star game came in his third season, and he didn’t miss another one until he retired ten seasons later. In addition, he won six Gold Gloves and six Silver Sluggers in his career and finished in the top ten of the MVP voting seven times. Puckett led the league in hits four times, RBI once, and won the batting title in 1989 with a .339 average. He could do it all on the field – hitting for average and power, stealing bases, and playing excellent defense.
Puckett was also a two-time World Champion, leading the Twins to World Series victories in 1987 and 1991. In the 14 games he played in the Fall Classic, Puck hit .308/.393/.519 with two HRs, nine runs, seven RBI, and two stolen bases. He was also the ALCS MVP in 1991 after hitting .429 with two HRs and six RBI in the five-game series against Toronto.
In Spring Training 1996, Puckett woke up one morning with blurred vision, which turned out to be retina damage caused by glaucoma in his right eye. His vision never recovered, prompting him to retire at the age of 35. The Twins retired his #34 the following year, and he became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2001. Despite playing only twelve seasons, Puckett ranks second in franchise history in hits, third in RBI, and fourth in doubles and runs. Tragically, he passed away after suffering a stroke in March 2006, just a few days shy of his 46th birthday.
Right Field: Sam Rice
Sam Rice sits atop the franchise leaderboard in several offensive categories, including plate appearances, hits, doubles, triples, and runs. He also ranks second in stolen bases and fourth in RBI. Rice began his career as a pitcher in 1915 when he was already 25 years old. Despite pitching relatively well over nine games in 1915-1916 (his lifetime ERA is 2.52), Rice transitioned to the outfield in 1917. The following season he played only seven games as World War I pulled him away, but he returned in 1919 with a flourish, leading the AL with 141 games played.
Rice’s career took off after his return from WWI. He became a fixture in the Senators’ outfield for the next 15 years. He was an iron man, leading the league in at-bats three times. Rice could also run and hit, leading the AL in hits twice and SB once when he nabbed 63 in 1920. Rice played on three World Series clubs for the Senators, winning in 1924 but coming up short in 1925 and 1933. He was limited to a single pinch-hitting appearance in 1933, singling in what would become his last at-bat with the Senators. The club released him the following January, but the soon-to-be 44-year-old wasn’t ready to retire and played one more season with Cleveland. It took a while for Rice to make it into the Hall of Fame, but he finally did in 1963 when the Veteran’s Committee inducted him.
Designated Hitter: Tony Oliva
We could have gone with several players at DH instead of Tony Oliva. Most notably, Kent Hrbek, Bob Allison, Mickey Vernon, and Stan Spence were excellent offensive players. However, Oliva was the best hitter of the bunch and the only Hall of Famer. Oliva’s first major-league at-bat came in September 1962, but he didn’t stick with the big club until 1964. All he did during his rookie season was make the All-Star team and lead the league in runs, hits, doubles, total bases, and batting average. It was no surprise when he was named the AL Rookie of the Year. Oliva continued to hit and make All-Star teams through 1971. Over his career’s first eight full seasons, he led the league in hits five times, doubles four times, batting average three times, and runs/SLG once. He also won a Gold Glove in 1966.
Oliva played on three postseason clubs during this run, making it to the World Series in 1965. He fared better at the plate in the Twins’ two ALCS losses to the Orioles in 1969-70. In those six games, Oliva hit an incredible .440/.462/.840 with two HRs, five runs, and three RBI. Amazingly, the Twins lost all six games despite that kind of production from one player!
In late June 1971, Oliva injured his knee diving for a ball in the outfield. He played through it for much of the year and still won the batting title, but it continued to hamper him into 1972. Ultimately, Oliva only played ten games that season before undergoing surgery. He rebounded and continued to hit over the next three seasons, thanks in large part due to the adoption of the DH, but the injuries proved too much for him, and he retired in 1976. In 1991, the Twins retired Oliva’s #6, and last year the “Golden Days Era” committee admitted him into the Hall of Fame.
Right-Handed Starter: Walter Johnson
The Twins and Senators have produced several great right-handed pitchers in their history. However, with all due respect to Bert Blyleven, Brad Radke, Camilo Pascual, and Dutch Leonard, there was only one Walter Johnson. “The Big Train” was our choice as the Greatest Pitcher of All-Time thanks to his longevity and dominance, and since he played his entire career with Washington, there was no other choice for our righty starter. Consider Johnson’s career rank among pitchers who threw 2,000+ innings in their career (397 players):
The Big Train debuted in 1907 and played 21 seasons for the franchise. Over the course of his career, he had the lowest ERA in the league five times and the lowest FIP nine. To further this, Johnson’s ERA was under 2.00 twelve times in his first thirteen seasons. He led the league in wins six times, IP pitched five times, strikeouts twelve times, WHIP six times, and took home the Pitcher’s Triple Crown thrice. In 1913, Johnson was the AL MVP after winning 36 games with 29 complete games, eleven shutouts, a 1.14 ERA, and 243 strikeouts in 346 innings. He won a second MVP at the age of 36 in 1924 on the heels of 23 wins, 20 complete games, six shutouts, a 2.72 ERA, and 158 strikeouts in 277 IP.
Johnson’s Senators only won the pennant twice in his 21 years. The 1924 and 1925 World Series were both seven games long, and the Big Train started five of the 14 contests and finished another. In his 50 postseason innings, Johnson won three games with five complete games, one shutout, and a 2.52 ERA.
When Johnson finally retired in 1927, his 3,509 strikeouts led all historical pitchers. His record held for over 50 years, and he still ranks eighth on the all-time list despite not pitching in a strikeout-heavy era. Johnson was inducted into the initial Hall of Fame class in 1936, along with Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner. That’s some pretty good company.
Left-Handed Starter: Johan Santana
It was a tough call between Jim Kaat and Johan Santana as our lefty starter. Kaat was with the franchise far longer, throwing over twice as many innings as Santana. He’s also one of only eight Twins players to have their number retired by the club. Kaat was a very good pitcher over a long period for the club, but Santana was electric in his relatively short time in Minneapolis. We went with dominance over longevity in this case.
Santana did not begin his career in the Twins’ organization. He was signed by the Astros out of Venezuela in 1995 as a teenager but made his way to the Twins in the 1999 Rule V draft. The Twins had to keep the 21-year-old on their roster the entire season, even though he wasn’t ready. Predictably he struggled, but the club stuck with him, and it paid off. In 2002, Santana posted an ERA under 3.00 and garnered Cy Young votes the following season. Over the next four years, he became one of baseball’s best pitchers.
In 2004, Santana won 20 games and led the AL with a 2.61 ERA, a 2.92 FIP, 265 strikeouts, and a 0.92 WHIP en route to his first Cy Young award. The next year, he made his first of three consecutive All-Star appearances for the club and led the league in strikeouts, FIP, and WHIP again. Santana then topped himself in 2006, winning the Pitcher’s Triple Crown with 19 wins, a 2.77 ERA, and 245 strikeouts. He also led the AL in IP, FIP, and WHIP and took home his second Cy Young. Santana’s last season with the Twins came in 2007, and he finished his time with the club in style, leading the league in WHIP and winning his lone Gold Glove. The following spring, with free agency on the horizon, the Twins traded him to the Mets for a package of young players.
Santana pitched well in New York, but injuries began to affect him, and he missed the entire 2011 season due to shoulder problems. Other ailments held him to 117 IP in 2012, and he underwent surgery again in 2013. Santana tried a few comebacks but never regained his velocity, and his career ended prematurely. The lack of innings kept him from serious consideration by the Hall of Fame voters, but there’s no denying he was one of the best pitchers in baseball during the early 2000s.
Reliever: Joe Nathan
The choice for reliever came down to Rick Aguilera vs. Joe Nathan, the top two saves leaders in the franchises’ history. Aguilera was with the club longer, elevating his WAR, but Nathan was the better pitcher. He began his career as a starter for the San Francisco Giants in 1999, but after two mediocre seasons, Nathan underwent surgery and didn’t return to the majors until September 2002. Nathan transitioned to relief and became one of the best closers in the game. He was so good that we ranked him eighth on our list of the Top Ten Relief Pitchers of All-Time.
After the 2003 season, the Giants traded Nathan to the Twins, and he became their closer. He saved 44 games in 2004 and made his first of six All-Star teams, four of which came during his time in Minneapolis. Nathan remained one of the AL’s most dominant closers through 2009, averaging 41 saves per year with an ERA of 1.87. In 2010, Nathan lost another season to injury when he underwent Tommy John surgery. He jumped back into the fray in 2011 but struggled to regain his form. The Twins let their aging closer go to the contending Rangers via free agency after the season. Nathan returned to All-Star status over the next two seasons, then jumped to the Tigers in 2014. After one season in Detroit, Nathan underwent a second TJ surgery, and though he tried to come back in 2016, his career was essentially over. Nathan ranks in the top ten in saves all time with an ERA, FIP, and WHIP that rival the best. His career has been underappreciated and overlooked.
We’ll head to the Big Apple in a few weeks and start our New York tour with the Metropolitans, aka the Mets. If you love baseball as much as we do, check out the We Love Baseball section for more great content!
Featured Image Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)