ASKED TO DESCRIBE THE WHOLE BEAUTIFUL THING, IF I WERE A TWIN I’D GO DING-DONG, DING-DONG, DING
One of the simultaneously pleasurable and vexing aspects of the Twins renaissance of 2001-2003 has been the team’s successful reliance on homegrown players. While the Twins have succeeded in launching better than a dozen major league careers over the last few seasons, they have nonetheless made only a half-hearted commitment to several of their most promising prospects. Manager Ron Gardenhire and his predecessor Tom Kelly have indulged in an off-again-on-again, possibly self-defeating pattern of usage with several youngsters, potentially retarding the growth of some while keeping inferior players in the lineup.
Restrained by the owner’s parsimony from buying their offensive technology off the shelf, the Twins have been forced to entrust their fortunes to what they can draft and grow in the minors, a luxury that many of the more munificent clubs deny themselves. Fortunately for the Twins, the farm has been fed and run with such competency that in the last few years they’ve seen a surfeit of quality prospects, more than the Devil Rays have seen in their entire existence, more than the Tigers have seen in a couple of decades.
When Todd Walker and David Ortiz were added to the lineup in 1998, they became the vanguard of a great youth movement. The high tide came the next season, when Chad Allen, Christian Guzman (who had come in trade), Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, and Doug Mientkiewicz all received significant playing time. Matt LeCroy (2000), Bobby Kielty, A.J. Pierzynski, Luis Rivas (2001), Michael Cuddyer, Dustin Mohr, Mike Restovich (2002), Lew Ford, Justin Morneau, and Todd Sears (2003) followed them onto the major league roster.
So far, so good, but there have been a few complications. The list above contains two catchers, four first basemen, two second basemen, one third baseman, one shortstop, and eight outfielders. Of these, only Ortiz, Walker, and Allen have moved on, leaving logjams at several positions, especially in the outfield where Hunter and Jones have become fixtures, leaving only one position to be split amongst the remaining contenders. The result is that players like Kielty, Mohr, and Cuddyer have undulated in and out of the lineup or up and down from the minor leagues.
Population density among prospects does not account for the capricious way in which the Twins have handled some of their youngsters. Ortiz appeared in 88 games as a 22-year-old in 1998. Mientkiewicz surpassed him on the basis of first base glove work in the spring of 1999, and the Twins, in the words of Casey Stengel, “disappeared him” back to Triple-A. Though Ortiz hit extremely well at Salt Lake City and Mientkiewicz struggled to post a .650 OPS in the majors, the Twins refused to recall Ortiz. Finally, Ortiz was reinstated as the primary DH in 2000. Mientkiewicz himself was returned to Salt Lake City for the entirety of the 2000 season and not recalled despite a .930 OPS. Ortiz was wounded early in the 2001 campaign. Every year it seemed, Ortiz and Mientkiewicz couldn’t co-exist on the Twins major league roster without catastrophe ensuing.
LeCroy seemed to be on his way to becoming the regular catcher in 2000, but failed to hit in a 56-game trial. After that he was largely out of the Twins plans for two years, despite posting strong numbers in the minors. This year it appeared he’d finally started his career, as a DH, at the age of 27. But wait: the recent promotion of Justin Morneau has sent LeCroy into the same not-quite-a-regular limbo as the non-Hunter/Jones outfielders. Morneau himself, a slugging machine in the minors, has been in and out of the lineup. Meanwhile, Cuddyer, drafted as a shortstop, is being retrained as a second baseman after moving to third base and then the outfield.
Confronted with just slightly fewer youngsters than Minnesota has lakes, Gardenhire, like Kelly before him, has chosen not to choose. The question of whether or not their methods constitute the best usage pattern for the club remains an open question.
STENGELIAN ECHOES: FLEXIBILITY FOR PLEASURE, FLEXIBILITY FOR PAIN
As the success or failure of the Twins’ method of rotation in office is still in the future, examining the way Casey Stengel mixed youngsters into the lineup during his tenure as manager of the Yankees may provide hints as to the repercussions of failing to establish young players in definitive roles. The motives may not be identical; in rotating what he called the “Youth of America” from the lineup to the bench and back Stengel was often following multiple imperatives. Often, he was platooning, and not just on a lefty-righty axis, but also in reaction to his perceived defensive needs, his players’ emotional states, and hitter-pitcher match-ups (for example, if the opposition started a high fastball pitcher Stengel might ignore lefty-righty issues and focus on which of his players were good at hitting the high fastball). At other times, Stengel’s resistance to establishing a young player as a regular was punitive, either towards the player for failing to heed some aspect of the Stengelian approach or towards the organization itself, for sticking him with the player in the first place. As we shall see, this latter motivation became more prevalent as the decade of the 1950s wore on.
During his Yankee years, Stengel was confronted by two distinctly different farm systems. During the first half of his Bronx tour, the system continued to be among the most productive in baseball, as it had been since it was established with the purchase of the Newark Bears of the International League in 1932. From 1949 to 1954, non-pitchers developed by New York included (in roughly chronological order) Cliff Mapes, Hank Bauer, Charlie Silvera, Jerry Coleman, Joe Collins, Jackie Jensen, Bill Virdon, Gil McDougald, Mickey Mantle, Bob Cerv, Andy Carey, Bill Renna, Moose Skowron, Gus Triandos, Woodie Held, Dick Kryhoski, Clint Courtney, and Lou Berberet. Two other key players, Gene Woodling and Billy Martin, came as a result of Stengel’s sojourn with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League from 1946-1948. Stengel personally developed Martin, while Woodling had had sporadic trials in the majors but impressed the Old Man as an opponent with the San Francisco Seals.
Today, some of these names are preserved only in the memory of aficionados, but the bulk of this group went on to have solid, and in some cases spectacular, major league careers.
As is typical for Stengel, one could make interesting observations on his handling of each of these players, but for our purposes it suffices to say that of the prospects that were not traded, playing time was accorded in a roughly precise ratio to the player’s ability with little regard for who was supposedly blocking him. Conversely, a hierarchy based on incumbency clearly exists with the Twins.
Stengel rightly thought Mantle had the potential to be the best baseball player ever, so he played every day. Outfielders Woodling and Bauer were established in a loose platoon that saw the former play about 75% of the time and the latter 85%.
McDougald, a broad-based offensive player (a righty, Yankee Stadium killed his power–his career H/R home run split was 29-83 but he was still good for 12-14 home runs and 65 walks a year) who was a Gold Glove-level defender at three infield positions, not only played every day but was used to push other, inferior players out of the lineup. Jerry Coleman was the everyday second baseman in 1949-1950, and the World Series MVP in the latter season. When his bat slipped a little in 1951, McDougald began appearing at second base. In 1956-1957 McDougald became the shortstop when Billy Hunter proved to be an inadequate replacement for Phil Rizzuto. In 1958, Stengel used McDougald at second base in order to keep a young, punchless Bobby Richardson out of the lineup.
Two players who benefited from less playing time were the first basemen Joe Collins and Bill Skowron. From the moment Lou Gehrig stepped out of the lineup in 1939, the Yankees had struggled to find an enduring first baseman; in 1949 alone, the Yankees used seven players at the position. Stengel observed to Leonard Koppett that, “When you got four first basemen, you got no first basemen” and endeavored to fix the problem himself. Collins was a middling lefty power prospect, but by judiciously alternating him with Johnny Mize, another lefty, Stengel maximized his ability. From 1951 to 1954, Collins had only 1,635 plate appearances, but gave the Yankees an .822 OPS.
Skowron was a more promising hitter, a right-hander who Stengel eased into Collins’ job, gradually allowing him to hit his way out of a platoon role, but only after Stengel was satisfied with Moose’s defense (Casey sent him to dancing school to improve his footwork), and gave him a choice between learning to go the other way with men in scoring position or being a pull hitter in the minors. The payoff was tremendous; despite back problems caused by an ill-advised wrestling match with an air conditioner, Stengel’s Skowron was a .305 hitter with a .505 slugging percentage.
Again, trying to gain some insight into the Twins’ distribution of playing time, it is useful to ask if the 2000-2003 classes are being used to improve upon the class of 1999, if players of superior ability are stealing time from the incumbents. Certainly this has not been the case with Mientkiewicz, Jones, and Hunter. Confusing experience with ability and according veterans the right to play their way out of their jobs are two of the most common managerial misjudgments. Stengel’s denial of these fallacious beliefs marks a major difference between his and the TK/Gardenhire handling of youngsters.
E-10 (MANAGER’S MISJUDGMENT)
Of course, there were a few occasions where Stengel misjudged a player. His handling of outfielder Bob Cerv raises a question that may be applicable to future Twins transactions as, at some point in the indeterminate future, they begin to dispose of their player surplus: How do you know who to trade if you don’t know what you have?
Cerv, 25, got his first cup of coffee with the Yankees in 1951 after a .344-28-108 season (with 22 triples) with Kansas City of the American Association. That winter, Joe DiMaggio left New York’s outfield for good. Cerv was never given a shot at the opening, nor was Jackie Jensen, another promising 25-year-old. Instead, the durable Woodling-Bauer platoon was broken up to take some of the DiMaggio’s at-bats. The distinctly unspectacular Irv Noren got the rest after he came over from Washington in May in exchange for Jensen. Cerv spent the bulk of the season back at Kansas City.
It was more of the same for Cerv in 1953, who was becoming such a fixture in Kansas City that the city fathers considered giving him his own fountain. While he hit .317-22-91 in 123 games, the Yankees showered playing time on Bauer, Mantle, Woodling, rookie Bill Renna, and the again unimpressive Noren. Cerv finally stuck in 1954. Renna had been traded and Stengel standard bearers Woodling and Enos Slaughter suffered injuries.
Even with the departure of Woodling to Baltimore that year, Stengel never let Cerv escape the pinch-hit/platoon role. From 1954-1956 he remained on the roster but never exceeded 56 games or 115 at-bats. His totals for the three seasons:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB AVG SLG OBA OPS 165 300 47 90 15 8 11 60 36 .300 .513 .378 .892
Late in 1956, Stengel sidled up to Cerv on the bench. “Nobody knows this,” he said, “but one of us has just been traded to Kansas City.” Cerv, now 30, had been sold to the A’s, a move that was likely a quid pro quo for the A’s August sale of the 40-year-old Country Slaughter to the Yankees–Cerv functioned as the unnamed player to be named later.
For three seasons Cerv was the best player the second-division A’s had to offer. In 1958 he had an MVP-quality .305-38-104 (.963 OPS) season. Unfortunately for Cerv, the Yankees’ attitude towards Kansas City was not unlike that of René Belloq towards Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “There is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away.” In May, 1960, the Yankees sent a mononucleosis-debilitated Andy Carey to the A’s in exchange for Cerv. After playing 87 games for New York, Cerv was allowed to go to the Angels in the 1961 expansion draft. After that he was reacquired, again, and sold, again.
In pre-judging Cerv to be a role player, and even then ignoring what Cerv achieved in that role, Stengel had denied himself the opportunity to evaluate him properly. It was only after getting rid of him that the Yankees could see the player they had in the first place.
DUMBING DOWN THE HONORS CLASS
From 1955 to 1960, the Yankee farm system presented Stengel with a number of options, which he proceeded to condemn, deprecate, and finally dispose of after giving them fractured opportunities to win major league jobs. A man on a first-name basis with both irony and subtext, Stengel was trying to maximize a dying farm system while at the same time using its very products to expose the farm’s dire state. Of course, like the soldiers in Vietnam who destroyed villages in order to save them, Stengel had to kill the crop to save the farm. It didn’t work.
By the mid-50s, the famously productive Yankees farm system was drying up, a process that picked up speed as the decade progressed. There were multiple reasons for the drought, some the result of historical/societal trends, others self-inflicted:
- Television was shrinking the minors, making it prohibitively expensive, if not literally impossible due to the resultant dearth of leagues, to support the vast chains that had existed since the 1920s.
- The Yankees were stingy on cash bonuses then being paid to prospects, preferring to use the prestige of the Yankees name and record of post-season play as an enticement; youngsters didn’t need high base pay when they were sure to receive a World Series share. Carl Yastrzemski, a native of Southampton, New York, would have been a Yankee if the price was right, as would have other stars of the 1960s.
- The ownership decided to sell the club; as they wouldn’t see the results of reinvestment in the team, they didn’t reinvest.
- A shrinking pool of talented white guys due to the post-war increase in college enrollment and the rise in popularity of the NFL and NBA, coupled with…
- A reluctance to play Hispanics, and…
- A refusal to play African Americans–the organization’s, not Stengel’s.
The year 1955, when the Yankees finally lost the World Series to the Brooklyn Dodgers, marked a turning point. The players that came that year through the end of the Stengel years included Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson, Marv Throneberry, Johnny Blanchard, Norm Siebern, Jerry Lumpe, Tony Kubek, and Russ Snyder. Clete Boyer, another young Yankee of this period, was largely developed by the Kansas City A’s.
This was a different breed of cat. While Howard could have been a star for any team–and in a more egalitarian era would have been–the other players in the group were severely limited. In particular, Richardson, Boyer, and Kubek, who would form the nexus of the Yankees infield for half a decade, were all strong defensive players with extremely limited offensive capabilities. Stengel railed against all of them, turning harshly critical when they proved incapable of being the equal of the previous generation of prospects. Stengel expected more Mantles from the Yankees organization. Instead, they gave him one-way players.
THE LAST ANGRY OLD MAN
This late period, when Stengel was in his late 60s, has been used to show how Stengel was insensitive to young players. “He sure wasn’t patient with us, I can tell you that,” Jerry Lumpe told Dick Lally. “Stengel was constantly on my case, and Siebern’s and Kubek’s as well. Casey liked his veterans. I’d hit up in the lineup, but if I went bad for a few games, he’d drop me to eighth. Then he’d drop you out of sight.”
Some of the prospects of this period came in for some of his most famous put-downs. On Jerry Lumpe: “He looks like the greatest hitter in the world until you play him.” On Richardson: “Look at him. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t chew, he doesn’t stay out late, and he still can’t hit .250.”
Siebern, an outfielder who had put together a Larry Walker season at Denver of the American Association in 1957 (though given what we now know about Denver park factors, it’s hard to say exactly what Siebern’s .349, 24-homer season was worth) came in for relentless criticism over his defense. After the left fielder allowed a bloop single to land in front of him in the ninth inning of a Bob Turley no-hitter, Stengel was asked if Siebern should have caught the ball. “Shouldn’t anybody?” he snapped back. Siebern heard him and wept. (Joseph Durso, Casey, p. 158). After two Siebern miscues put Game Five of the 1958 World Series out of reach, Stengel was livid. The next day, Stengel, who was not known to hang around the cage during batting practice, made a point of being there as Siebern hit so he could needle: “A man drops two or three fly balls in the sun, you’d think he’d get a glove and go out there and practice a little.” Siebern was not seen again during the Series. (Robert Creamer, Stengel, p. 271) Ironically, he won the Gold Glove that year.
Siebern played poorly in 1959, supposedly because he couldn’t take the heat from Stengel, and the Yankees made him part of the package for Roger Maris that winter. Away from Stengel, Siebern blossomed, posting an .844 OPS in four seasons as a Kansas City outfielder/first baseman.
Clete Boyer also provoked Stengel’s displeasure. One of the all-time great gloves at the hot corner, Boyer’s weak plate judgment neutered him as an offensive player. Stengel started Boyer in Game One of the 1960 World Series, but with the Yankees down 3-1 in the second inning, Stengel pinch-hit for him in his first at-bat. Stengel seemed to have had an epiphany about Boyer at that moment, something like, “I really don’t want to use this guy.” Boyer did not reappear until Game Six, yielding to a now aged McDougald.
Stengel’s lack of patience–the result of justifiable feelings of betrayal as he made do with the Richardsons and Lumpes of the world while all around him other teams were promoting (in 1958 and 1959 alone) players like Orlando Cepeda, Vada Pinson, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, and several Alous–was nonetheless a failure on his part. It is a manager’s job to make effective use of whatever tools the organization gives him; destroying a young player’s confidence runs counter to that.
The Yankees needed whatever they had. Though the trade for Maris temporarily redeemed the team after a dismal 1959, the dynasty had only a few years to run. In the fall of 1960, Stengel was forcibly retired by the Yankees. His successor, Ralph Houk, picked up another four pennants with the team Stengel had built. The Yankees then disappeared for better than a decade.
HHH CRUCIBLE DOME
In his long career as Yankees manager, Casey Stengel showed the Minnesota Twins both the right and wrong way to cope with young players: make an impartial analysis, not just of the rookies but of the veterans too. Don’t accept a weaker performance from the veteran just because he’s “earned” a spot. Establish a usage pattern in which a player who is something less than a Mantle can succeed, then gradually test him with expanded usage. Then there’s the wrong way: dislike players for what they are not, rather than what they are. Yank a player from the lineup when he doesn’t instantly display the instincts of a Mickey Mantle. Bench him to make him feel bad instead of to protect him from his faults. Be unwilling to risk being embarrassed by a young player’s mistakes.
The Twins have gifted themselves with one of the best groups of young players that one organization has seen in some time. They can win multiple pennants with them or fritter the opportunity away. One key to the future lies in the team’s ability to embrace the good Stengel of 1949-1954, to see, as he would have seen, that Jacque Jones may be a more stylish player than Bobby Kielty, but style counts less than bases on balls; to note with appreciation that Justin Morneau’s glove may be half of Doug Mientkiewicz’s, but his bat might herald the second coming of Kent Hrbek…and then to do the right thing.
Steven Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com. Your questions, comments, bouquets, brickbats, and futile appreciations of Bobby Richardson welcomed at email@example.com