In baseball, you get a million chances a year to do something right. A regular player comes to bat 600 times. An ace hurler faces 1,000 batters. A rangy shortstop touches the ball 800-plus times. Front offices have 40 draft picks, a trade deadline, a non-tender deadline, a Rule 5 draft, the whole winter roster of free agents and a bunch of minor leaguers to call up, or not. Everyone signs two dozen Latin American, Asian, Australian, German or Italian players each year. Every team does 100 things right by accident in every calendar year.
It’s nice when a few of the things you get right, or that break right for you, turn out to be hugely impactful. That’s what’s happened to the Minnesota Twins lately. Hell, that’s what’s happened to the Minnesota Twins for over 10 years now. In 2001, with the first overall pick of the amateur draft, they took a player the whole industry (the Twins included) knew was not the best one available, for financial reasons. That player has won three batting titles and an MVP award, and after a decade behind the plate, is now due for another half-decade as the everyday first baseman.
In 2012, the Twins had the second pick in the draft, but because another team made the same choice the Twins did 11 years earlier, they got the consensus top talent on the board. In a year flat, that player blossomed into the best prospect in baseball.
I don’t mean to make it sound like the Twins made only the easy choice, or that they don’t deserve credit for making the right one. It’s just that Joe Mauer and Byron Buxton sort of fell into their laps. Miguel Sano didn’t do that. The Twins had to fight for him, and they won him over with the second-highest expenditure in the history of non-Cuban Latin American amateurs, $3.15 million. They deserve full credit for signing Sano, but the fact that he’s become the game’s best power prospect is partly lucky: Michael Ynoa, the only player paid more to leave the Dominican for MLB, is a lost soul these days, a virtual non-prospect. That happens as often as those players succeed.
When the Twins get it right, they get it very right. It seems to me, though, that they don’t get it right all that often. They just plain do not sign significant free agents. The Johan Santana trade tree has been a disaster. Trades of Wilson Ramos, Ben Revere and Denard Span look only slightly better. When drafting outside premium position, they’re hopelessly conservative, and even their high-floor, low-ceiling guys have tended not to have such high floors, after all.
I’m a huge fan of some of the Twins’ individual players. Buxton and Sano are the best prospect pair in baseball, and probably the best in five or 10 years. Mauer is a joy to watch, Joey Votto in a worse hitters’ park. Oswaldo Arcia, though a miserable fielder in many ways, is a really good hitter, I think, and will grow into a better one.
I am not, however, a fan of the Twins’ field staff. I’m not a fan of their front office. I’m not a fan of their scouting or player-development groups. This is the organization that has changed the least over the last 25 years, and while that was an asset for a while, I view it as not only a liability, but very likely a fatal flaw. This is a team incapable, at the moment, of the kind of top-to-bottom change and aggressive advancement that is an absolute prerequisite to sustainable success in the big leagues today. I don’t see the talent to win anything within this organization, and I don’t see the guy who’s going to acquire that talent, and if that talent did show up, I don’t see the guy who’s going to maximize it.
I don’t want to be too gloom-and-doom, but it would be foolish to pretend this isn’t a problem. You can’t build a contending team without making forays into free agency, and without winning trades. Even the famously homegrown-heavy 2013 St. Louis Cardinals had as key contributors Matt Holliday, a trade acquisition-turned-free-agent-signee; Carlos Beltran, a veteran free agent who cost the team $26 million over two years (the Twins have never signed a free agent to a deal richer than Josh Willingham’s three-year, $21-million pact); David Freese, whom St. Louis got in return for Jim Edmonds at what looked, at least briefly, like the very end of Edmonds’s career; and Adam Wainwright, part of the return for J.D. Drew a decade ago.
Now the Twins are making noises about spending big(ger than usual, for them) on a free agent, namely Ricky Nolasco. Great. Nolasco is not an elite arm, but he’s serviceable, and he likes striking people out, so pursuing him could indicate real growth on the part of the league’s last bastion of velocity and strikeout aversion. Depending on the price tag, he could be a great addition, and because he’s a workhorse with a fly-ball tendency that should play well in Minnesota, the downside of a deal with him would be minimal.
I’ll believe their interest is sincere when Nolasco’s name is on the bottom line. History just pushes back too hard for me to grant the benefit of the doubt.
Brian Dozier had a breakout season at second base, and Trevor Plouffe looks like a decent complementary piece, albeit in a part-time, four-corners role. Dozier, though, broke out at age 26, or the second-to-last peak season of a typical second baseman. Plouffe’s above-average power showed up in 2012, but didn’t hang around for 2013.
Arcia has to learn to take pitches occasionally, and drew comps to Delmon Young in a conversation with my in-laws the other day, but bats left, has power and should be an average-plus regular for years to come. Josmil Pinto provided the most exciting, surprising report on the Twins’ Top 10 Prospects list at Baseball Prospectus last week, although not technically the most glowing one. He profiles as an average-plus big-league catcher, starting now. Aaron Hicks has had his warts exposed, but still looks like a solid center fielder and potentially fine hitter. Mauer is in place. Buxton and Sano aren’t far away. There’s cause for optimism about the positional core.
On the other hand, the Big Red Machine this ain’t, and will not be. Mauer is going to start seeing real, if gentle, decline just as Sano and Buxton establish themselves. There’s no fourth star forthcoming. The supporting cast is less inspiring, especially defensively, than the Reds’ was. The Twins might have it in them to add major talent via trade or free agency, but if they were a prospect, that skill would be in their scouting report, not on their stat sheet. On the rare occasions when they have hit with outside acquisitions, they have squandered the success with bad tack-on deals or lacking patience.
The pitching philosophy within the organization is a nightmare rivaled only by the actual roster of pitching talent there. Their best pitcher is a left-handed reliever who openly campaigns to get into more games, and get into them sooner, but whom Ron Gardenhire pigeon-holes as a strict save-rule Closer: Glen Perkins. Their second-best pitcher is a potential mid-rotation starter or dominant closer, but he’s six-foot-nine, and in his first year with the organization, he spent more time rehabbing a shoulder injury than pitching: Alex Meyer. Their third-best pitcher is their 2013 first-round pick, a high-school arm ages from MLB: Kohl Stewart. The pitcher whose name Twins fans recognize most readily, after Perkins perhaps, is a 30-year-old with control issues, a long injury history and limited upside: Samuel Deduno.
Could they add external pitching to help solve that problem in the near term, while revolutionizing their scouting and development objectives in order to infuse some modern pitchers into the system and foster long-term improvement? Sure. But the guys in the room have been there a long time, and the trend of skyrocketing strikeout rates is a half-decade old, and nothing has changed yet.
This is a wildly unpopular, and perhaps too-harsh, perspective on the Twins. They have the best farm system in baseball. They have some stars. and a lovely park, and an organizational discipline that probably helps, so long as the talent is there to make it matter. I want to stop well short of saying that the Twins can’t win the AL Central, even fairly soon, or that these problems will persist. I can’t pretend they aren’t there, is all. This is a team with a modest offense, a poor defense and the worst pitching staff in baseball, at least right now. They have plenty of reinforcements coming, but they’ll have to pull out clubs I can’t even see in their bag in order to leverage those reinforcements into substantial success.Next post: The Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler Trade: Will Fielder Rediscover Elite Power for Texas Rangers?
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