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November 8, 2011

The BP Broadside

Tumbling in the Twin Cities

by Steven Goldman

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As an aficionado of failure and perversity in ballclubs, I was greatly disappointed when the Minnesota Twins stalled out at 99 losses. The 100-loss mark is the traditional mark of abject failure in baseball. The Twins haven’t fallen so far since 1982, a transitional year in which the team first gave full-time jobs to several future stars, including Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Frank Viola. Given that the Twins were a very young team (average age of 25.2) sorting through their options, this last-place finish in the AL West was about as healthful as such seasons can be.

More often, though, an extreme losing season serves as a final wakeup call to a team that has been doing something wrong, except in the special case of teams like the Orioles, Pirates, and Royals, in which 90-plus losses are the equivalent of an airplane’s low-altitude warning alarm continuing to sound long after the pilot has ditched into the Hudson River. Having seen their record decline over four seasons from 97-64 and a playoff berth to 71-91 and not even a copy of the MLB home game, Cubs ownership finally got the hint and tore the nameplate off the general manager’s door for the first time since 2002. Similarly, the Astros, having endured a third straight losing season that saw them lose 106 games, a total surpassed only by 16 post-war teams, fired—oh, wait: The Astros didn’t do anything. Pretend I was talking about the Angels.

 

The Twins took the hint yesterday, so belatedly as to have been shocking, when they punted general manager Bill Smith after four years in charge and 25 years in the organization. While the Twins were in many ways far more miserable than their record would suggest, in some ways there was no hint to get: Minnesota had had one losing season in the previous 10 seasons, back in 2007. In those seasons, lasting from 2001 to 2010, the Twins had averaged an 89-73 record, won 90 or more games five times, and made six playoff appearances. They had won 94 games just a year ago. This was in no way an unsuccessful organization until this year.

 

Aesthetically, the Twins have been another matter. I realize that talking about team-design aesthetics is not only snooty, but wholly subjective. I will stipulate that, but I challenge anyone to say that they truly love the kind of baseball the Twins have given us over the last decade, a neither-fish-nor-fowl aggregation of a couple of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau mixed together with a bunch of guys who hit like Luis Rivas.

 

Yes, that’s hyperbolic—there were good years from Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie, and others mixed in during the run, but this was also the organization that tried to change David Ortiz’s swing and then non-tendered him. They compounded their distrust of power hitters by doing whatever they could to eschew power pitchers. The Twins finished last in the American League in pitcher strikeouts in 2011; they were last above average in 2007, when Johan Santana was still part of the team. In an era in which pitch-to-contact too often means “Bombs away!” Minnesota largely eschewed drafting and developing strikeout pitchers.

 

And yet, as the record of 2001-2010 shows, the Twins mostly made it work. Their design wasn’t sufficient to win a World Series—they escaped the first round of the playoffs only once, in 2002—but it was more than good enough to get them into October in the generally soft division that is the AL Central, and at least in theory, once a team gets into the postseason, anything can happen—just witness the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.

 

So what changed? The 2011 Twins did have a perfect storm of things go wrong, including Morneau’s possibly career-altering concussion after-effects, and back and leg problems that may permanently force Joe Mauer away from catching. In addition, injuries sat Denard Span, Jim Thome, and Jason Kubel for long periods of time. Younger players such as Alexi Casilla, Danny Valencia, Delmon Young, and Ben Revere failed to come close to picking up the slack. Injuries also abounded on the pitching side. Worse, left-handed pseudo-ace Francisco Liriano regressed after appearing to lick career-long command problems in 2010, and Joe Nathan did not return from Tommy John surgery as the same excellent pitcher he had been before.

 

In many senses, then, what happened to Minnesota could be written off as an Act of God—the club had been constructed to live or die on the performance of the M&M boys, and divorced from them it simply had no chance. All the other injuries accomplished was to push the club beyond the pale of respectability. This is not explicitly the general manager’s fault.

 

Yet, Smith was hardly blameless. Going back to his earliest days in office, he had made a series of blunders that showed questionable judgment. The Johan Santana and Matt Garza deals dealt off two top-of-the-line piitchers for little return. J.J. Hardy came in a good exchange for jumped-up fourth outfielder Carlos Gomez, but went out for bit players, and Tusyoshi Nishioka came in. Most damning, a depth of catching behind Mauer in Jose Morales and Wilson Ramos was dealt away in cavalier fashion. Ramos, who will help push the Nationals into contention over the next few years, was dealt for the not-particularly indispensible Matt Capps, one of those just-okay pitchers who gains a reputation as the Lord’s anointed because he saved a few games. Either of those catchers would have come in handy this season, sparing the Twins from 93 games of death by Butera.

 

Perhaps most damning was the eight-year contract extension to which Smith signed Mauer in March of 2010, a deal that will pay the catcher at least $184 million through 2018. Mauer was an excellent player, and may yet be one again, but he also bore at least a superficial resemblance to cautionary tale Jason Kendall (see our commentary from Baseball Prospectus 2009 on Mauer’s player card) and also happened to be one of the larger physical specimens to attempt a career behind the plate. Subsequently, the termites went to work on Mauer’s body while Target Field ate away at his power, and suddenly the former MVP was half the man he used to be at twice the price.

 

Due to his indiscriminate trading and largesse toward Mauer, then, Smith deserved to be let go. Yet, it is doubtful that interim GM Terry Ryan will ring in a true change in philosophy—after all, it was his blueprint that Smith tried, ineffectually, to follow. But Minnesota does need a fresh philosophy, one worthy of a fan base that has swelled their new ballpark with over 3,000,000 bodies in each of the past two seasons, one that knows the value of pitcher strikeouts, batter home runs, and—oh, yes—walks. Though the team has had decent walk totals at times, no Twin has drawn 100 walks in a season since Harmon Killebrew in 1971, and only two Twins, one of them Mauer in 2008, has drawn more than 79 walks in a season.

 Since 1985, the Twins have had all of three general managers—Andy MacPhail, Ryan, and Smith. Now Ryan is back again. For all of the Twins’ impressive stability, the lack of churn also suggests a certain amount of complacency and intellectual indolence. On Monday, they took a first step into a wider world, but another step must follow.    

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Minnesota Twins,  Managers Of The Year,  Twins

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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jj0501

The Twins haven't hit bottom yet, I fear, in that their isn't recognition of the need to change. Otherwise, as you
point out, they wouldn't return to a past that put them
where they are today. They remind me most of later era Mariners under Bavasi, but with the added burden of not having a decent stock of nearly ready for prime time minor leaguers. They still have to go through their denial stage, the one that insisted publicly this spring that Maurer is a full time catcher because we paid him big bucks and that's his job. Even casual TV fans could see Joe hurt all year.


Nov 08, 2011 03:07 AM
rating: 1
 
Luke in MN

Little things like taking credit for comparing Mauer to Jason Kendall in 2009 sort of grate on me. Mauer's been worth about 16 wins since you made that projection 3 years ago, while Kendall was worth about 8 over the same age period. Should you really be taking credit for that prediction just because Mauer had a single injury-plagued year? It's hardly been proven right and really its' been far wronger than right so far.

Nov 08, 2011 05:03 AM
rating: 10
 
Jay Taylor

Also I don't think it's fair to say the Garza trade showed "questionable judgment". At the time of the trade, the majority of people thought that the Twins had made a great trade, ending up with the (supposed) best player in the deal.

Nov 08, 2011 08:41 AM
rating: 1
 
thegeneral13

There are many reasons to ding Smith and I'm glad he's gone, but he was boxed in on Mauer and I won't hold him accountable if that ends up being a bad contract. After finally getting taxpayer dollars to fund a new stadium, it was impossible to let Mauer walk.

Terry Ryan coming back is good only in the sense that it makes another big, damaging deal (trade or FA signing) less likely. But that's mostly because it makes any significant deal at all less likely. Ryan built a legacy of shrewd moves but also inaction during his tenure as GM. He was never willing to risk overextending himself to add significant pieces to a contender, and constantly patched over holes with washed up vets. He can right the ship, but he will bring no fresh thinking, no creative moves, and I hope he is not the medium-term answer.

Having Krivsky back in the mix makes me nervous. He seemed to be a driving force behind bringing in washed up stiffs like Juan Castro and Tony Batista, and then had a bad showing as GM of the Reds. He shares a philosophy with the existing Twins brass, a philosophy that has worked in repeatedly winning a dysfunctional AL Central but nothing more, and on top of that has already shown flashes of tactical incompetence. I'm not excited to have him back in the fold at all.

On top of all this, the Twins still have Gardenhire at the helm, and his preference for grinders (and hogies?) over talent is a problem, as it has become clear that he is not a good evaluator of talent and yet has considerable influence over personnel moves and roster construction.

In short, "getting the gang back together" is good only insofar as it reduces the likelihood of further screwups with long-term implications. Unless Terry Ryan spent his sabbatical reading Baseball Prospectus and perusing Fangraphs, a legitimate turnaround requires fresh blood, and we apparently aren't going to get that.

Nov 08, 2011 07:47 AM
rating: 4
 
bobbygrace

There are reasons to be worried about the Twins' future and wary of the new/old leadership. But for what it's worth, the old crew may have new marching orders.

Word out of Minnesota is that the decision to fire Bill Smith came only recently, after a meeting in which he proposed changes less sweeping than the owners envisioned. Perhaps the owners envision a fundamental change in the "Twins way" of finesse pitching and scrappy hitting. It could be that they share the view that the front office has bowed too much to the will of Ron Gardenhire. Gardy clearly didn't appreciate what he had in 2010, and that team was built on a new and promising model that very much departed from the "Twins way." Ryan could be just the guy to nudge the team back in the new direction it seemed to be taking before it needlessly and disastrously changed tack post-2010. He's a "baseball man" and a "front-office man," diplomatic but forceful enough that the team should know who's in control of personnel decisions.

Talk of a reduction in payroll is disturbing. The Twins don't need to rebuild or win now: they need to do both. With Mauer and Morneau locked in, the Twins need to build a team that's ready to go if they return to health and productivity. At the same time, the only hope down on the farm is in the lower levels. To the extent that we build for the future, it should be for the late years of Mauer's contract and thereafter.

It's a mess up and down. Ryan has been in a similar situation before and succeeded. My hope is that he was brought in as a man who can deftly reshape the "Twins way" and handle the two-pronged mission of winning now and building for the future. My fear is that he'll use the past formula for success, which, as discussed, was a success only in the context of the weak AL Central. I think the hope and the fear are equally justified.

Nov 08, 2011 08:37 AM
rating: 2
 
amazin_mess

The Joe Mauer contract is going to hurt them badly. It already is.

Nov 08, 2011 08:00 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

Increasingly odd, the Twins will also be cutting payroll despite the new ballpark: http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2011/11/08/twins-cutting-payroll-by-15-million-in-third-year-at-target-field/

Nov 08, 2011 08:00 AM
 
thegeneral13

Dave St. Peter (Twins' President) indicated on Twitter that the payroll reduction stems from the expectation of lower revenue in '12, which is a reasonable assumption coming off a 99-loss season.

I suspect the "philosophical difference" cited by Pohlad in Bill Smith's firing was that Smith wanted to keep spending to fix the team and ownership didn't think that was prudent given the base case expectation of lower revenue in '12 and the magnitude of the downside if Smith's plan didn't work and the team still stunk. If I'm thinking about multi-year commitments (Cuddyer, external FA's), I need to think about what my budget will look like in 3 years; if I suspect that this team will not contend in 2012 or 2013, revenue will fall, my budget will fall, and my long-term commitments will grow as a percentage of that budget, reducing my flexibility. I think ownership's concern over that risk was much greater than Smith's, who no doubt felt this team could bounce right back.

Nov 08, 2011 08:21 AM
rating: 2
 
amazin_mess

They're following the Mets' plan by the looks.

Nov 08, 2011 08:07 AM
rating: 2
 
Peter7899

The Twins reliance on Morneau and Mauer sure sounds a lot like the story of the '06 Cubs. That year the Cubs put all their eggs in the Wood and Prior basket when all signs pointed to that being a bad idea. The '06 Cubs lost 96 games.

Nov 08, 2011 09:40 AM
rating: 0
 
bobbygrace

It may have been a bad idea for the Twins to have committed to Mauer and Morneau to the extent that they did. Now that they have done so, though, there's no turning back. For better or for worse, they are the core of the team. Their contracts are too large to move. And in any event, at their best they are a good core. The only way to play is to act as if the team will contend now and plan accordingly, since there's no help in AAA or even AA, and nobody who could be offered in a trade to rebuild at those levels. The Twins should be focusing long-term and short-term and leaving the medium term (say, 2013 through 2018, when Mauer's contract finishes) to sort itself out.

Nov 08, 2011 10:09 AM
rating: 0
 
Peter7899

Very true, they made their bed with M&M, and now they have to lay in it. Still, they need to sign competent back ups at 1B and C or they will suffer the same fate as they did this year. No other way around it.

Nov 08, 2011 10:13 AM
rating: 2
 
richardkr34
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Mauer is a galloping racist, or so some say

Nov 08, 2011 12:02 PM
rating: -15
 
WaldoInSC

I did an Internet search of "Joe Mauer" and "racist." It turned up nothing connecting the two. You might want to check your sources before reporting such incendiary conjecture.

Nov 08, 2011 18:40 PM
rating: -1
 
thegeneral13

But what about this galloping allegation?

Nov 09, 2011 05:41 AM
rating: 2
 
Bradley Ankrom

Smith should've known better than to guarantee a centaur $184 million.

Nov 09, 2011 08:13 AM
rating: 0
 
John Collins
(110)

I can't reply to richardkr34, for some reason, but I follow the Twins closely and have never heard such a thing.

What surprises me about this move is that the Twins *never* fire anyone at the top. The last manager they fired was Ray Miller in 1986, and I can't remember the last GM they fired. They kept the guys they liked even through long fallow periods.

Nov 08, 2011 12:18 PM
rating: 0
 
DandyDan

I believe technically, they have never fired a GM before now, because MacPhail came on board when Carl Pohlad became owner, and Calvin Griffith was his own GM, and Clark Griffith in the Senators days.

Nov 08, 2011 14:13 PM
rating: 1
 
eighteen

Go to Tools and activiate Compatability View. that usually works.

Nov 09, 2011 11:30 AM
rating: 1
 
John Collins
(110)

That worked! And now I can +1 as well. Thanks.

Nov 09, 2011 17:34 PM
rating: 0
 
richardkr34
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Maybe because you're a racist yourself? Did I just blow your mind?

Nov 09, 2011 17:40 PM
rating: -4
 
Richard Bergstrom

Maybe it's just me, but I think Goldman channeled a bit of Kahrl's writing style, especially the "Aesthetically" paragraph.

Nov 08, 2011 16:18 PM
rating: 0
 
jessemumm

I'm 'pahturbed' (as Kharl would say). Everyone on BP talks about how playoff outcomes are pretty much random, but when it comes to the Twins' run in the '00s, it switches to "yeah but they never got anywhere"

M&M will be back next year, and they'll be fine. Liriano is a good ace pitcher

Nov 09, 2011 17:09 PM
rating: 1
 
Behemoth

You hope.

Nov 10, 2011 04:41 AM
rating: 0
 
davidlthomas

Twins AAA & AA teams have been bad over the last 2 years.

Nov 10, 2011 18:21 PM
rating: 0
 
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