The 5 best debut seasons in Twins history

February 1st, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- First impressions aren't everything, but a good one certainly does help ingratiate a player to his new fans, whether he's a rookie getting his first taste of the big leagues, a Trade Deadline acquisition expected to help a playoff push or a veteran signed in a splashy free agent deal.

Who can forget when Yasiel Puig had a highlight-reel week of outfield assists, homers and clutch hits when he first played for the Dodgers in 2013? Or, more recently and closer to home, how about the first impression that Sergio Romo made in stabilizing a playoff-bound Minnesota bullpen when he arrived down the stretch in 2019 -- or the stretch of elite performance that Randy Dobnak rode to a start in Game 2 of the American League Division Series?

In the history of Twins baseball, strong first impressions have been indications of everything from decorated Hall of Fame careers to harbingers of an upcoming World Series title. Let's take a look at the most significant of them all.

1) , 1964
Yes, Oliva had 19 plate appearances in 1962 and '63, but let's call those cameos inconsequential and instead recognize that Tony O became the first rookie to win a batting title in Major League history when he hit .323/.359/.557 as a 25-year-old in 1964. He has since been joined by only Ichiro Suzuki, who replicated the feat in 2001 after several seasons as an established star in Japan. It wasn’t just the average, though, as Oliva also hit 32 homers and an American League-best 43 doubles while stealing 12 bases, showing off the five-tool skill set that helped him lead the AL in hits five times in seven seasons before knee issues led to an early downswing in his career.

Oliva also won the batting title in '65 as the Twins won the AL pennant, making him the only player to lead the league in hitting in each of his first two full seasons. He added a third crown in '71, the final season of his eight-year streak of making All-Star teams and receiving votes for the Most Valuable Player Award -- but that was also the year in which he first injured that right knee on a dive in the outfield. Fortunately, the introduction of the designated hitter allowed him to extend his career until '76 -- albeit through much pain.

2) , 1991
Really, World Series Game 7 alone just about propelled Morris to the top of this list. The Hall of Fame right-hander and St. Paul native only pitched one of his 18 seasons for his hometown team -- and not until his age-36 campaign, at that -- but it was one of his best after he signed a one-year deal in free agency. His 3.43 ERA in 1991 was his best since '87 as he led the American League with 35 starts and finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting -- two spots behind rotation-mate Scott Erickson, who didn't come close to Morris' starts or innings totals.

That durability, of course, came to a head in the final game of the World Series, when he held the Braves scoreless in a 10-inning complete game with 126 pitches to secure the Twins' second title -- and their most recent championship to date. He allowed only two runners to reach third base and retired the final seven batters he faced from the eighth to 10th frames before Gene Larkin walked off for the title.

3) , 2004
When Nathan arrived from the Giants in the trade that sent A.J. Pierzynski out west, he was handed the closer's job and told it was his to lose. He left no doubt. How's a 1.62 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings for a debut with your new club? How about 44 saves for the division champions and a fourth-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting? That exemplary first season in Minnesota proved the launchpad for the most decorated career by a reliever in club history, with Nathan's 260 saves propelling him to the top of the Twins' all-time leaderboard. That '04 season was also when Johan Santana won his first Cy Young Award, setting the Twins up with one of the premier aces and closers in the game for a lot of fun in the 'Dome.

4) , 2019
It wouldn't have been the record-setting "Bomba Squad" without the centerpiece designated hitter and team leader who spent much of the season at age 39 but led the team in homers (41), OPS (1.031) and naps above replacement. The Twins' DH situation had been a revolving door for some time before Cruz arrived to solidify the position for a division championship team, and he not only defied the aging curve, but actually set career-highs in slugging percentage and OPS as he finished third in the AL in long balls. Cruz's influence was also felt off the field, of course, as his rigorous work ethic and giving spirit proved a strong model in particular for young slugger Miguel Sanó, who also posted the best season of his career.

5) , 1996
There are a couple of different seasons that could have fit here -- Dean Chance, Al Worthington and Mudcat Grant were all considered -- but we'll give a leg up to Molitor, who arrived in his hometown for his age-39 season in '96 after playing across the border in Wisconsin for most of his Hall of Fame career before briefly playing across the other border in Toronto for a World Series title. He still had plenty left in the tank, leading the AL with 225 hits as the Twins' primary designated hitter and matching a career-high with a .341 batting average. He gave Minnesota a memorable capstone to the season by punching his ticket to the 3,000-hit club on Sept. 16, becoming the first player in MLB history to reach the milestone with a triple.

Honorable mention

Francisco Liriano, 2006
This season was tough to handle because it wasn't easy to classify as Liriano's "debut" season, considering he'd made six appearances -- including four starts -- in '05. (Yes, Oliva, too, made small cameos before his '64 entry, but 19 plate appearances across two seasons would qualify as much less significant.) Still, Liriano's rookie campaign deserves a mention somewhere on this list because of what it meant to fans at the time: the possibility of a true second ace atop the rotation alongside Santana, which became apparent when Liriano was moved from the bullpen to the rotation in mid-May and he immediately won 11 of his next 13 decisions, stringing together eight straight quality starts at one point.

But, as Twins fans know, Liriano blew out his arm and needed Tommy John surgery -- and he never returned to that elite form.