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.