You’re familiar with most of the four-letter words that go by one letter: the S-Word, the F-word, the B-Word, and more. But you may not have heard of the R-word: Rebuilding.
“That is an ugly word,” says Twins Vice President of Player Personnel Mike Radcliff. It has 10 letters, not four, but the sound of it still stings the ears of the Minnesota Twins brass. Maybe it’s because of the lingering organizational memory of what happened 20 seasons ago. After Andy MacPhail left the GM’s chair, two World Series titles in tow, to become President of the Cubs, his top lieutenant Terry Ryan took over. And for the first six years of his tenure, there were struggles galore.
Over a four-year span from 1997-2000, the Twins were bad on the field, averaging 94 losses; in the political arena, failing to get funding for a new stadium to move them out of the ghastly Metrodome; and unpopular even with their owner, who tried to get them to, of all things, fold. “I know at the end of the ’90s we never thought there was gonna be light at the end of the tunnel, it was so bad,” Radcliff told us on Sirius XM’s MLB Network Radio.
A funny thing happened on the way to obsolescence, though. With Ryan, their former Scouting Director, in charge, the Twins focused on scouting and player development and entered into an unprecedented era of regular-season success that saw them post nine winning seasons in 10 years, claiming six division titles (and a heartbreaking 1-0 loss in a tiebreaker for another) and making an ALCS appearance.
Remaking the Twins, the first time, was a long and arduous task for Ryan. Of the 42 players I identified as being “key components” of those Twins—that is, they were staples for multiple seasons—15 were acquired via trade. The Chuck Knoblauch deal that netted the Twins Eric Milton and Cristian Guzman trade and the more famous Pierzynski deal with San Francisco provided huge returns. Other trades, like trading Bobby Kielty for Shannon Stewart or Matt Lawton for Rick Reed, raided the big-league roster to help improve the squad.
Trades weren’t the only source of the Twins’ new talent. Minnesota had success at the top of the draft, like most successful teams. From that list of 42 (22 pitchers, 20 position players), 22 players were drafted by the Twins, one more was an undrafted free agent (Bobby Kielty), and just two were international signings (RP Juan Rincon, 2B Luis Rivas). Whilethe Twins landed some productive players late in the draft (Corey Koskie, a 26th-rounder, contributed 21.1 WARP in his Twins career), the vast majority (14) of those picks that paid off came, as they often do, from the first three rounds.
Still, that initial 2001-2002 Twins staff featured four starters acquired via trade (Milton, Reed, Joe Mays—acquired in 1996 from Seattle for Roberto Kelly—and Kyle Lohse, who was added in 1999 from the Cubs for Rick Aguilera). The lone “system guy” in the rotation? Brad Radke. As the Twins continued to develop pitching, their most significant find was Rule 5 selection Johan Santana (Astros), whom they let develop in the bullpen of a contending team.
Fast forward to today. The Twins are a team in transition, and while they’re hopeful that they’ll be more competitive with a veteran pitching staff, most of their future rotation success likely hinges on guys acquired via other organizations. Trevor May (acquired for Ben Revere) and Alex Meyer (the return for Denard Span) will likely make their major-league debuts in the next 18 months. Vance Worley (Revere deal) and Scott Diamond (Rule 5 from the Braves) are already in the rotation, as is draftee Kyle Gibson (who hit 96 yesterday in Ft. Myers).
May is of extra interest. While the Twins feel that Meyer can be a true top-of-the-rotation starter, I asked one long-time Twins official if there was a staff “anchor” in the organization—a pitcher who can play the role of Radke. May was the response, without hesitation. While Radke wasn’t an ace, he was dependable and largely durable. And he provided a bridge from the bad years to the good, when Santana, Scott Baker, and Francisco Liriano helped sustain Minnesota’s success.
The draft has also provided the Twins with position players like Aaron Hicks (who could be their Opening Day center fielder). The Twins have been patient with the toolsy Hicks, who was drafted in 2008, and his development has been a slow process not unlike that of Torii Hunter. Hunter made his major-league debut in 1997, but the Twins’ top pick in 1993 didn’t play his first full season in the big leagues until 1999, at age 23 (the same age Hicks is now).
Ryan sees Hicks and Hunter in the same development mold. “[It’s] very similar to what Torii Hunter went through. Hunter had a breakout season at Salt Lake and just dominated for two months before he ultimately got up here and stayed. Hicks had a good year at [Double-A] New Britain. He hasn’t had an at-bat at Triple-A. He’s got good strike zone discipline, but he’s got a lot of pro at-bats [2110 minor-league PA] and there’s something to be said for that. He had the year we were all looking for last year.”
Ryan also believes there are some parallels to the talent the organization was adding throughout the late ’90s.
We’ve got guys like that. We’d like to think about the similarities, but they’re a little farther back. Guys like (Oswaldo) Arcia and (Miguel) Sano, and (Eddie) Rosario and Gibson. They seem to be made up correctly, and they seem to be guys who want to get things back into the right direction. Now, whether or not they’ll be Johan Santana and Torii Hunter and some of those…well, that’d be great.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this Twins, um, rebuild (there, I said it) and the last is the greenest kind: money. No longer forced to deal players as they get to the brink of free agency, the Twins have carried a payroll of over $97M the last three seasons. However, most of that money has been spent on retaining their own players. While Joe Mauer signed what was at the time the third-richest contract in the history of the sport, the biggest expenditure the Twins have ever made on a free agent from another organization is the three-year, $21M commitment to Josh Willingham. (A deal that was sealed only after Michael Cuddyer turned down $25M from the Twins). It’s one of the more interesting aspects of the Twins organization. They’ve had success in free agency without a real long-term contract bust from outside the organization in the last decade. Yet deals for Mauer and Justin Morneau, their own players locked up in their primes, have had a lower success rate.
As Radcliff put it, “Sustaining [success] is very difficult, whether you have a lot of resources or minimal resources. We’ve found that out here the last few years.”
As excited as the Twins are about their future talent, the odds are overwhelming that the careers of some players on the team’s Top 10 list will look more like Mike Restovich’s or JD Durbin’s than Jason Kubel’s or even Kevin Slowey’s. Being able to spend money to fill holes via free agency can speed up the process.
All quotes courtesy of SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio Spring Tour.