Friday, August 26, 2011

What Went Wrong with Twins?

There is a lot of finger pointing in the Twins blogsphere about whose "fault" it is that the Twins have struggled this year. First, let me be clear that I thought this might be the best Twins team ever. That was probably unrealistic even if everything went right. But very little went right.

Here is a list of potential culprits as identified by various bloggers and sports talk shows:

  • Twins management, specifically these moves:
    • JJ Hardy trade
    • Signing Nishioka
    • Not keeping Guerrier, Rauch and Crain or adding replacements
    • Trading Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps last year
    • Signing Pavano
  • Twins conditioning and medical staff
  • Twins scouting department
  • The middle infield
  • Lack of minor league depth
  • Ron Gardenhire
  • Joe Mauer

Of course all of these ignore the real culprits, under-performing players and injuries. Of course, under-performing depends on what level of performance was expected and you can blame Twins management for over-estimating their players. But its not clear that an accurate assessment of players before the season would have changed the outcome. Lets look at what happened.

During a recent game a tweet got passed around pointing out that Mauer, Morneau, Kubel and Cuddyer were in the Twins lineup together for the first time since early April. Of course those four players were part of the core the Twins were building their offense around - essentially they constituted the middle of the Twins order. Even the guy who was supposed to provide some depth, Jim Thome, missed part of the year on the DL.

What I found interesting was that the other two players who were expected to provide the core of the offense, Denard Span and Delmon Young, weren't in that lineup even then. Span is on the DL, while Young had been traded. The reality is that for most of the year, the Twins had a substantial number of guys in their lineup who were expected to spend the year at AAA. Hughes, Tosoni, Revere, Rivera and Plouffe got way too many plate appearances. And that doesn't count Repko and Tolbert, who were on the roster for their gloves, not their bats.

In short, its really impossible to know how good the Twins offense would have been had they not been decimated by injuries. No team is going to have that many major league quality players at AAA or on the bench who are ready to step into the middle of the lineup and produce. In fact, few would have even one the quality of Jim Thome.

But the production was not just down because replacements didn't produce. Delmon Young was hurt part of the time. But when he was in the lineup, his production was way down from last year. Morneau and Mauer were often hobbled by injuries when playing and didn't produce anything like the offense everyone expected. Nishioka was a huge disappointment, both as a number two hitter and in the field. Danny Valencia predictably regressed from his stellar season and Casilla struggled mightily for the first month of the season. Only Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel really produced as expected when healthy.

In short, the Twins offense was destroyed by injuries to all its key players and no one stepped up with a career year to help carry the team. The idea that Twins management could have prepared for that is, I think, ludicrous.

Of course, offense wasn't the Twins only problem. In fact, it probably wasn't the biggest problem. The defense, including pitching, was just as bad. And that was not caused chiefly by injuries. Baker and Liriano are now hurt. And Nathan, Slowey and Perkins all missed significant time on the DL. But that doesn't explain the overall poor results.

The main problem was with the starting rotation. The Twins went into spring training with six starters, giving Gardenhire the luxury of selecting the best five for the rotation. Slowey was the loser in that competition, struggled in the bullpen, unexpectedly I think, and ended up injured. He was then optioned to Rochester. That eliminated the depth, although the Twins got unexpected help from Anthony Swarzak as Slowey's replacement.

Unfortunately the winners of the competition mostly struggled. There will be a lot of opinions about which starters the Twins should have in the rotation next year, but you can make a case for and against everyone with the possible exception of Pavano. Again, its hard to say what the Twins management could have done to prevent this or even to see it coming. The signing of Pavano is a clear indication that they had some doubts about the other candidates for the rotation. But it wasn't realistic to replace three or four other starters with better candidates. I think they expected Kyle Gibson to be ready to help by the end of the season, but he came up sore-armed. Likewise Alex Wimmer, their 2010 first round draft choice, ended up on having control problems and spent most of the season on the DL at Fort Myers.

The failure of the rotation put pressure on an already thin bullpen. You kind of knew the Twins were in trouble when Matt Capps, their closer, was regularly warming up in the 8th inning. Predictably, those extra innings caught up with him and Joe Nathan regained his closer spot. The Twins expectations for Glen Perkins turned out to be right on the money as he stepped right into the role as setup guy. The only real disappointment in the bullpen was Mijares. The larger problem was that the veterans they grabbed to fill out the bullpen mostly struggled. They settled on Dumatrait as the best of the lot, but not before Hoey and Hughes had failed.

The minor leagues didn't produce any great replacements. Alex Burnett continues to entice with his stuff, but he again showed he isn't really ready to take on a central role. Manship and Slama were hurt. Gutierrez continued to struggle with his control Again Anthony Swarzak was the one bright spot and he was used more as a middle reliever than late inning guy.

There is an interesting chicken-egg question here. There was a time when Twins starters were limited to around 100 pitches. This year, I think in part because he lacked confidence in his bullpen options, Gardenhire was having starters throw a lot more pitches. But with the starters struggling, more pitches didn't necessarily mean getting deeper into games. The result was that the burden on the bullpen also increased. Particularly on the guys who had Gardy's confidence. Nathan is really the only pitcher who seemed to be protected from overuse.

To put some numbers on that, last year the Twins pitchers faced an average of 37.7 batters per game, a total of 6106. So far in 2011 they have faced 38.3 batters per game, on target for 6205. I don't know if that is a significant difference in terms of work load, but it amounts to pitching almost 3 extra games.

In any case, would having invested more money in keeping guys like Crain and Rauch around have helped? No doubt. Its hard to see how that would have been a better use of money than resigning Pavano if everything worked the same. But if a deeper bullpen had picked up innings from the starters who had then in turn performed better, reducing the burden on key members of the bullpen, they may well have had better results.

Could a better medical and training staff have prevented the injuries? I think that is highly doubtful. They certainly weren't going to prevent Span from getting a concussion or Mornea continuing to suffer from the results of his concussion last year. There is nothing with the other injuries to indicate that they could have been prevented. The Twins were just snake-bit this year. That said, Morneau, Span and Mauer's injuries all have the danger of being chronic problems. There is nothing the Twins medical staff can do about that.

The complaints about the Twins scouting department seem mostly related to trades. But the Garza-Young trade was hardly a scouting failure. Every scout in baseball thought, and many may still think, Young was a future star. Phil Humber's performance to start the season showed the Twins scouts didn't miss when he was included in the Santana deal. He just didn't develop quickly enough for the Twins to get the benefits of his talent. And Delios Guerra has thrived since moving to the bullpen at New Britain. The Hardy deal was clearly a budget decision, he was going to be non-tendered if they couldn't trade him. Hoey looks like he may never develop, but he has the kind of arm you take a gamble on. Nishioka looks like he is overmatched, but scouting the Japanese leagues has been notoriously tough.

In terms of the minor leagues, a lot of the past complaints about the Twins are once again being disproved. It looks like both Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe are going to be major league contributors, despite the negative reviews the Twins have received over the past couple years for drafting them.

While the middle infield has been a problem this year, you can attribute that mostly to injuries. When hs is in the lineup, Casilla is a solid major league player, despite his early season struggles. Nishioka was a problem. But the reality is the middle infield was not the even close to being the Twins biggest problem. They could have contended with the players they have.

Complaints about minor league depth are actually kind of strange. Revere, Hughes, Plouffe, Tosoni, Swarzak, Burnett and Rivera all contributed at the major league level. None of them are ROY candidates. None of them are middle of the order bats. None of them are the team's new ace pitcher. But no team has a stable of those kinds of players waiting to step into the major league lineup. And every team will suffer when half its lineup is still learning the major league game.

Can Ron Gardenhire be blamed for this year's debacle? I don't think so. But that said, I think his weaknesses are starting to show. Its not enough to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. The reason the Twins had a reputation for defense and doing the "little things" right was that every player in the organization knew they couldn't play for Tom Kelly if they didn't learn those things. Minor league managers and coaches may still tell players that if they want to play for Ron Gardenhire, they are going to have to do the little things right. But the players will quickly catch on if that is just lip service. When a team makes mental mistakes, those are things a manager can and should fix. Complaining about them in the media is not the answer.

The other problem with Gardenhire is that he manages to much day to day. Players need days off before they recognize it, not afterwards. And tired players are much more likely to get injured. Gardenhire seems to ride players hard with guys like Cuddyer, Kubel, Morneau and Span in the lineup every day until they break down. The same thing happened with the pitching staff this year. The argument that pitchers should be able to go more than 100 pitchers is an interesting mind game on the internet. But the Twins have had a lot of success working with that limit. Pitchers perform better and they break down less. But that means sacrificing immediate results for long term health. That is not Gardy's style.

Joe Mauer. Yep. Its all his fault. He is overpaid. He is injury prone. He isn't a team leader ... I think there is something to all of those and the Twins success depends on Joe Mauer being healthy and productive. He is not only the face of the Twins, he is the central core of core players who can make the Twins a special team. The danger is that, like Kirby Puckett, health problems make him just a giant drag on the budget. If that happens, the Twins are going to have another decade of struggles like the 90's.

It seems like everything that could go wrong this year, did go wrong. Whether the Twins can turn that around in a single year is an open question. Aside from injuries, the Twins central problem this year was their pitching. Their success next year will depend on Twins management making the right decisions this winter to correct that. There are no clear answers as to who to keep, who should go or what additions will make a difference. But that's what they get paid for.

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