Three previously rebuilding teams had good seasons in 2015. The Cubs and Astros were each the second-best team in their league according to third-order winning percentage, and the Twins, despite the AL’s second-worst third-order record, won 83 games and stayed in the Wild Card hunt until late September. It was Houston’s first winning season since 2007, Chicago’s first since 2009, and Minnesota’s first since 2010. All three have positioned themselves as contenders in 2016, to varying degrees, and each is eager to tell you how great it is to be done with the hard endeavor of trading so many todays for a better tomorrow.
Alas, there's an impostor among us. I referred to these three teams as rebuilders, above, because colloquially, that's what they are. Each was talent-deficient and non-competitive for multiple seasons, and each accepted that fate by making moves aimed not at shoring up their immediate weaknesses, but at deepening their pool of team- and cost-controlled talent, presumably improving their long-term competitive outlook. That's the definition of rebuilding around which baseball’s commentariat has wrapped its arms.
It's a bad definition, though. It’s too broad and too generous, and in some cases, it's even dangerous. The Cubs and Astros have engaged in rebuilds over the past five years. The Twins haven't. The Twins have grimly accepted the repercussions of being poorly run, changed as little as possible, gleefully collected as much young talent as they could to shield themselves from criticism for the failure of their entire organization to keep up with the progression of baseball intellect into the 21st century, and profited nicely from the combination of a lovely new ballpark and a fan base trained to believe that patience and trust in the process isn't an option, but the only option.
Carl Pohlad bought the Minnesota Twins in 1984, which is a shame, because otherwise, the Twins had a good time of it that year. For the first time since 1979, they won as many as they lost, and the young core assembled by farm director George Brophy (the closest thing they had to a real GM back then, with owner Calvin Griffith generally holding the title himself) began to bear fruit. Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, and Gary Gaetti all established themselves as young regulars. The only player who saw substantial playing time and was older than 27 was left fielder Mickey Hatcher. Things were looking up.
Griffith’s ownership was never exactly good for the Twins, and early on, Pohlad’s looked wonderful. He hired Andy MacPhail as his new GM in August 1985, and MacPhail, in turn, hired Terry Ryan as his scouting director. Ryan hired Larry Corrigan and Mike Radcliff for his scouting staff. Brophy retired for health reasons, and Jim Rantz, already pushing 20 years in the Twins’ front office, moved up the role of farm director. That small cadre—less MacPhail, who left to become President of the Cubs late in 1994—would run the Twins for 20 years solid. In fact, truth be told, they basically run the Twins right now. Rantz retired in 2012 (just shy of 75 years old). Corrigan drifted off to the Pirates and Angels during Ryan’s brief time away from the GM’s chair, but returned after Ryan took that job back. Radcliff remains a key evaluator for the team. It's been over 30 years, and although there are two pre-Wild Card World Series trophies being painstakingly dusted everyday down at Target Field, the Twins are 102 games under .500 since Pohlad bought the team. In 31 seasons, they've posted 14 winning records and reached the playoffs eight times. They've lost at least 90 games 10 times, and won at least 90 eight times.
In any other organization, a track record this mottled and mediocre would be the shared responsibility of a half-dozen or more general managers, and dozens of key front-office staff members. Just ask the Cubs, whose (admittedly, even uglier) mediocrity resulted in the following men serving as GM between 1985 and the end of 2011; Dallas Green, Jim Frey, Larry Himes, Ed Lynch, MacPhail, and Jim Hendry. Or the Astros, who (despite the best success of the bunch) went through Al Rosen, Dick Wagner, Bill Wood, Bob Watson, Gerry Hunsicker, Tim Pupura, and Ed Wade over the same span.
The Twins’ advantage is their institutional memory. Ryan and the guys he hired ages ago know what they're doing, have a clear and shared idea of their objectives, know what they like and dislike in players, know each other's biases, and have developed a strong organizational culture that is unique to the Twins. Some time ago, though, or so I am prepared to argue, that advantage came to be outweighed by the disadvantages of the Minnesota Model: a slowness to change, a habitual conservatism that borders on timidity, and an inability to see when something isn't working until it's guzzled up far too many of the still-scarce resources available to the rising mid-market club.
The Cubs and Astros got lucky, in some senses. They each had veteran contending teams burn out badly and slowly, making the need for change impossible to ignore or refute. Concomitantly, they got new owners who encouraged an aggressive, bottom-up approach to reshaping their respective organizations. The Twins went from being quite good (at least at the big-league level) in 2010, to nearly losing 100 games in 2011, and even that happened mostly when the 2011 team collapsed in on itself during the second half. That not only left the impression that the organization’s maladies ran only skin-deep, but sped the franchise’s intake of elite young talent. One year after their burnout began, they could claim one of the best farm systems in baseball, thanks to the additions of Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios in the first round of the 2012 draft.
That's a good thing, generally speaking, but it might not have been the best thing for the Twins. Discussions of rebuilds focus way too much on the accumulation of talent, and not nearly enough on the things that make that accumulation sustainable, actionable, and systematic. The Twins didn't gain insight into their processes of scouting, player development, player evaluation, or player valuation. They didn't change their philosophy about risk-taking, or about how to time the development of key players to sync up with the availability of resources to augment those players and make the most of their best years. Faced with what they perceived as temporary adversity, Ryan and the Pohlad family tried to pull their heads into their shell and let the storm pass.
Unfortunately, the Twins’ problem wasn't temporary. Five years later, they're closer to winning the AL Central only because the pack has come back to them. They haven't changed the way they acquire players, or the types of players they most often acquire. Baseball is constantly changing, and the Twins aren't changing with it. No matter how talented a team they assemble—and it would take some dreaming to assess them as any kind of favorite for a playoff spot anyway, at least right now—they will still not have rebuilt themselves. The structures in place are the same now as they were a quarter-century ago, just as the personnel are. At this point, the Twins have been left in the dust.
That isn't to say that they never show signs of hope; they do. The signing of Byung-Ho Park earlier this offseason was a good gamble, the kind of opportunity they too often let slide by the boards. Signing Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million deal two winters ago was a great move in the same vein, though the team felt the need to hedge their bets with a disastrously ill-conceived contract for Ricky Nolasco at almost the same time, and though they overextended themselves out of exuberance after Hughes’ strong first season with the team. It doesn't take a lot of savvy moves like those, if you hit often enough on high draft picks, of which the Twins have had so many over the last few years. Unfortunately, it isn't clear that the front office can sustainably produce even the number of clever moves they do need.
Late in the 2011 season, the movie version of Moneyball came out, and Sports Illustrated ran a lengthy article on it. Alongside it, they ran a piece entitled: “The Art of Winning an [Even More] Unfair Game,” about the juggernaut Red Sox. Theo Epstein still ran the Sox then, and first and foremost, the article was about the way he had hacked the post-Moneyball world of MLB. Boston was pouring money into scouting and hoarding draft picks, and paying overslot bonuses to ensure that they got more talent with each draft pick than any other team in baseball. The article didn't mention the Cardinals’ miniature dynasty, built on the strength of their own drafts, though that would be a focal point a couple months later, when St. Louis won the World Series.
Within a few months, of course, Epstein would be the new boss of the Cubs, and Jeff Luhnow would give up the work of crafting those Cardinals drafts for the work of building the Astros back into contenders. Both encountered some immediate encumbrance, though, when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement cut off the talent flow described in that SI article. Whatever plans those two men had had for their new clubs’ rehabilitation, the cessation of direct, doubled compensation for lost free agents and the hardened slotting system for draft bonuses made them almost obsolete. Even the international market was no longer a free-for-all. The task at hand had changed radically, and the two new front offices of the NL Central cellar had to change radically in response.
The Twins had no new front office. They had no new ownership, open to a new direction or a new approach. They changed very little, and so, very little has changed. Their top roster spots are slowly filling with promising players like Buxton and Berrios, but they continue to flesh out that roster with the wrong kinds of complementary pieces and low-ceiling, medium-floor veterans. This sounds like a cruel indictment of Ryan and company as baseball men, or of the Pohlad family and its stewardship. It isn't meant to be. The fact is, though, that 31 years of being afraid to rock the boat has left the team totally adrift. To create is to destroy, and often, to rebuild is to fire people. The Twins can't do the former, for real, until they get up the courage to do the latter.
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