It has been a miserable season thus far for the Twins, but since the calendar flipped to June, they’ve shown signs of life. On the heels of a three-game sweep by the Tigers, the two-time defending AL Central champions rebounded to take four straight from the Royals in Kansas City, then kicked off a three-game series in Cleveland with a 6-4 win, their fifth straight. Their streak ended on Tuesday with a 1-0 loss to the Indians, but where they were 20 games under .500 and 16.5 out at the close of play on June 1, they’re now 16 under (22-38) and 12.5 out. While their performance to date still qualifies as the team's worst start since 1995, the run offers the faintest flicker of hope that the club can climb back into the AL Central race.
Coming off a 94-68 season—their best since 2006—the Twins were forecast to be in the thick of another three-way scrum in the Central, with PECOTA pegging them as a .505 team (roughly 82-80), a narrow third behind the Tigers and White Sox. Projected to rank seventh in the league in scoring, the offense instead ranked 12th at 3.75 runs per game amid a slew of injuries and underperformances. Through Monday, they also ranked 12th in batting average (.243), 13th in on-base percentage (.303), slugging percentage (.349), and home runs (35), and dead last in isolated power (.106). Meanwhile, the pitching staff ranked 13th in runs allowed per game (4.95) and strikeouts per nine (5.8).
It has taken a perfect storm of bad luck and bad performance for the Twins to play down to this level, but nonetheless, it's clear that general manager Bill Smith and the rest of the organization made numerous mistakes in preparing for this season, mistakes that have compounded their misfortunes to make a bad situation so much worse. What follows are the five biggest ones.
1. Misevaluating Joe Mauer
The 2009 AL MVP spent last season battling shoulder, heel, and knee injuries, and while he steered clear of the disabled list, he needed off-season surgery to alleviate irritation caused by the plica band, a fold of tissue in the lining of his left knee joint. Since he didn't go under the knife until mid-December, he wasn't fully recovered by the time camp opened, and didn't catch his first Grapefruit League game until March 19. He was significantly less than full strength as the season opened, and caught just nine games before landing on the disabled list with bilateral leg weakness exacerbated by a viral infection. Further slowed by shoulder issues—problems that have come as part of a cascade that Mauer believes began with his April 2010 heel woes—he’s now catching in extended spring training but is no imminent threat to begin a rehab assignment.
Losing an MVP-caliber bat is bad enough, but worse is the fact that the Twins have gotten just a .150/.186/.224 line from Drew Butera, who has started 31 of the team's games; his .157 True Average is the majors' lowest among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Throw in Rene Rivera, Steve Holm, and the minimal production from a weakened Mauer, and Twins catchers have combined to hit .178/.229/.252—far inferior to Livan Hernandez's career mark (.221/.231/.297)—while stinking at a level roughly one win below replacement level. In light of what the Twins should have known about Mauer's injuries, their lack of major league-caliber backup—which the 27-year-old Butera, who hit .197/.237/.296in 155 PA last year, decidedly ain’t—is inexcusable, as is the way they rushed their star to be ready for Opening Day.
2. The Middle Infield Muddle
Over the winter, the Twins let starting second baseman Orlando Hudson depart as a free agent, and traded starting shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Orioles in a four-player deal for Not Much Beyond Salary Relief (reliever Jim Hoey, and a 24-year-old who'd never thrown above High-A, Brett Jacobson). Hardy wasn’t great as a Twin, hitting .268/.320/.394 while limited to 101 games due to three stints on the disabled list, but his 2.0 WARP was enough to justify the $5.85 million salary he received from Baltimore in his final year of arbitration eligibility.
The Twins chose to turn one middle-infield job over to Alexi Casilla, a homegrown 26-year-old who in parts of five seasons had hit just .249/.306/.327 in over 1,000 plate appearances while irritating the brass with a seemingly never-ending series of mental lapses and lack-of-hustle incidents. They signed 26-year-old Japanese free agent Tsuyoshi Nishioka for the other spot; the three-time NPB Gold Glove winner and 2010 batting champion has drawn unflattering comparisons to Kaz Matsui and earned a reputation for fragility. Manager Ron Gardenhire spent spring training trying to figure out which players belonged where; concerned about their import's arm strength, they moved Nishioka from shortstop (where he played exclusively in Japan) to second, and placed Casilla, who had yet to show himself to be particularly adept at the keystone, to short. Nishioka's inexperience at second quickly manifested itself in costly fashion; six games into the season, he suffered a broken fibula via a Nick Swisher takeout slide after straddling the base for too long on a potential double play.
Casilla has been a mild surprise, hitting .255/.327/.342 for a .257 True Average, 23 points higher than his weighted mean PECOTA projection. He has been above average with the leather while splitting time between second and short, and ranks second among the team's hitters in WARP, which says more about his teammates than it does about him. Alas, the other infielders—Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, Trevor Plouffe, even Michael Cuddyer—have combined to hit .204/.257/.327, netting out at zero WARP. With their subpar defense, the Twins’ .696 Defensive Efficiency Ratio lags six points below the league average, a costly shortfall given the staff's propensity for pitching to contact. Perhaps the D will improve with Nishioka's return; he has just begun his rehab assignment, and will reportedly return to shortstop upon rejoining the Twins.
3. Doubling Down on Carl Pavano
The oft-injured Pavano enjoyed his best season since 2004 last year, throwing 221 innings with a 3.75 ERA as the staff workhorse. Posting the league's second-best walk rate (1.5 per nine) and a career-best ground-ball rate (53.1 percent), he overcame a pedestrian strikeout rate (4.8 per nine, the fourth-lowest among AL ERA qualifiers) and got by with a little help from his friends (.283 BABIP). Given his newfound propensity for durability—he threw 199
4. More Rotation Frustration
With Pavano returning, the Twins claimed a surplus of competent starters, with righties Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Kevin Slowey and lefties Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing competing for the other four spots. The team initially floated the idea of trading Liriano at a time when his stock was high, coming off his best campaign since his 2006 rookie season. By mid-March, Gardenhire anointed Blackburn as one of his starting five, a curious move given his unimpressive 2010 numbers (5.42 ERA, 3.8 strikeouts per nine), even if he did finish on a hot streak.
Ultimately, Slowey lost out on the final spot despite his proclivity for both missing bats (a career 6.9 K/9) and throwing strikes (1.5 per nine, for a stellar 4.6 K/BB ratio); an extreme fly-baller, he has always been rather homer-prone (1.4 per nine), and hardly durable, topping out at 28 starts in 2010, and never throwing more than 160
Despite throwing a no-hitter on May 3, Liriano has done little for his own trade value either, racking up a 5.73 ERA and an unappealing 1.1 K/BB ratio, and serving time on the DL due to shoulder inflammation; he was just activated on Monday. In all, this supposedly deep unit's 4.36 ERA and 5.7 K/9 both rank 13th in the league, and their 49 percent quality start rate is tied for 12th.
5. Not Enough Big Bats
Once upon a time in a land far, far away—the first half of 2010, say—the Twins had a logjam at the left end of the defensive spectrum. They had an All-Star first baseman putting up MVP-caliber numbers in Justin Morneau, a 24-year-old former top prospect who appeared to have turned a corner in Delmon Young, two players coming off 2009 career years in Cuddyer (versatile enough to plug in around the infield) and Jason Kubel (better suited to DH, and shielded from lefties), and a 39-year-old legend enjoying a renaissance in Jim Thome. Then Morneau suffered a severe concussion that cost him the entire second half of 2010. Thome rose to the occasion with a season for the ages, and while Young finished with career-best numbers, both Cuddyer and Kubel fell off considerably. The Twins brought back Thome for just $3 million (a move I lauded at the time), but did nothing else to fortify their bench in the event Morneau struggled in his return.
And struggle Morneau has, hitting .232/.286/.345 for a .224 TAv, which ranks 25th out of 26 first basemen with at least 150 PA. Last week he revealed that he has been dealing with a pinched nerve in his neck, which has caused weakness in his shoulder. Kubel (.310/.355/.465) has rebounded to become the team's most productive regular, but he just went on the disabled list due to a sprained foot. Cuddyer (.264/.326/.399) continues to slip, and Young's performance has completely collapsed; he's hitting .223/.255/.270 while battling mechanical woes and an oblique strain. Thome (.237/.372/.447) has hit well when available, but oblique and quad strains have limited him to just 94 plate appearances.
In all, the aforementioned players gave the Twins a .283/.348/.505 performance over 2,234 plate appearances in 2009, and thanks to the addition of Thome, spread similarly high-quality production (.284/.356/.490) across an even larger footprint of 2,558 PA in 2010. This year, they're down at .257/.316/.383, and lo and behold, the team has nothing remotely resembling a power hitter to add to the equation; slap-happy Ben Revere, recalled to replace Thome on the roster, has hit just .278/.304/.296 in his limited exposure.
Though other serious problems have befallen the Twins, none could have been anticipated to the extent of the aforementioned five. The bullpen—which shed mainstays Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and Jon Rauch via free agency but regained Joe Nathan in his return from Tommy John surgery—has been lit for a league-worst 5.15 ERA, and the team is just 17-8 when leading after seven innings, a shortfall of 4.8 wins relative to the major-league average. Nathan struggled so mightily that he was quickly displaced as closer by fill-in Matt Capps, who was retained to account for just such a likelihood. The two have converted just 11 out of 17 save opportunities, and Nathan is now on the DL with a flexor strain. Third baseman Danny Valencia, who enjoyed a strong rookie season last year, is hitting just .219/.282/.335. The rash of injuries has forced the team to use the DL 13 times, which is tied for second in the majors, and that may climb if Denard Span's collision-induced dizziness turns out to be a concussion.
As for that five-game winning streak, it's worth noting that while the Twins received four quality starts as the rotation pitched to a 2.31 ERA, the starters struck out only 4.1 per nine, not exactly a recipe for sustainable success. Furthermore, four of the five wins came against a team that had lost 13 of 18 coming in, one that has the majors' worst run differential over the last month by a country mile. The Playoff Odds still give the Twins a 2.0 percent chance of making the postseason—smack dab between the likelihoods of the Orioles and Mariners, and nobody's sprinting to Vegas to lay money down on them. Even with that mini-surge, the team is likely to do little more than play out the string over the next four months. Hopefully, their front office will absorb some of this season’s harsh lessons as they do.Paste post text here
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That said, I'd nominate bullpen mismanagement above rotation frustration. Putting Slowey in the 'pen was a poor move, and I'd add that the Twins have shown as much lack of grace as Slowey has in their remarks to the media about him (and Liriano). Reupping Pavano was questionable, although at the going rate for starters the duration and size of his deal didn't look that bad in March. As for the rest of the starters, Twins management knew the upside (above-average command across the unit) and the downside (low K rate) and there was little they could do about it in the immediate term but to hope for a repeat of the success the rotation saw in 2010.
But while the Twins were right to let Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier walk -- and I think they should have offered Guerrier arbitration first, he being a Type-A -- they could have re-signed Jon Rauch for a song. Moreover, they could have added any of several good relievers cheaply in the late offseason (though I will grant that 20-20 hindsight helps us to define "good" where the likes of Kyle Farnsworth and Todd Coffey are concerned). Paying for relief pitching may be a cardinal sin, but it should have been apparent to the front office that the Twins lacked relief help in the minors, and that Jim Hoey wasn't going to cut it. Good relief pitching covered a multitude of the starters' sins in 2010, and now it's doing the opposite, covering some of the achievements of the admittedly lackluster rotation.
But while the first two were unbelievably stupid ex ante (and I complained about them quite a bit at the time), I'm kind of at a loss as to how nos. 3-5 were so foreseeable. 3 makes it sound like resigning Pavano was a good idea at the time (as I think it was), and 4 illustrates that they had a really nice stable of pretty good starting pitchers that has just been entirely snakebitten.
5 is trickier, because no, they didn't really have a backup plan for Morneau, but then, they had one of the best offenses in the game for the second half of last year without him. The bigger problem has been nearly everyone else either getting injured or just dropping off the table, and while *some* of that might be foreseeable, I think most of it is just dumb luck.
I think the three big, obvious mistakes they've made have been (1) the middle infield (though they've even been unlucky there, of course, with Nishioka), (2) the catching situation, and (3) the bullpen (I wasn't worried about it before the season, but I should've been). Those turned a good team into a very mediocre one. That much is all on the manager and front office. But I think it's astoundingly terrible luck, with regard to injuries and player performance, that's carried them the rest of the way from mediocre to terrible.
Again, though, I can accept the argument that the bullpen belongs on the list.
The other issue was signing a somewhat fragile player to play catcher for his age 29-36 seasons, right after his career year when you don't HAVE to do anything given that he still had one more year on his contract. The $160 million (or whatever) for Mauer is going to sink the Twins over the next decade, I'm afraid, unless they can talk Boston into taking him.
Bill Smith looks to have the same old Twins mentality: sign players who've already played for you (and give them too much), and be afraid to sign other teams' free agents.
I'd argue the same for #5. A mid-market team just doesn't have the $$$ to stock the bench. They re-signed one starting pitcher and one slugger for the sake of depth. Unless you're one of the big-market boys, that's about the extent of what you can afford.
I think it's an excellent analysis of what's GONE wrong for the Twins. In terms of 'this is what they DID wrong', I don't know that I buy any of it. Seems more like 'the Twins made 5 coin-flip decisions each of which came up tails.' Happens once every 20-30 years, and when it does, that season just goes into the crapper.
In the case of 5, essentially what I've suggested is that the Twins should have anticipated a potential injury stack. That's a tall order for any team, but given the length of time it took for Morneau to return and the fragility of the aging Thome (who probably would have hit the DL in each of the past two Septembers were it not for roster expansion), I'm arguing that it wasn't an altogether unreasonable scenario.
Furthermore, it's one thing to go cheap on backup catcher, and another to go incompetent. Vets like David Ross, Henry Blanco, Brian Schneider and Ronny Paulino - to name a few off the top of my head - are making between $1.1 and $1.6 million, but for less than a million bucks, the Twins have settled for a hitter worse than Jeff Mathis.