Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fix My Team!: Minnesota Twins Edition

By The Common Man

Last night, the Twins capped off what has been an excrutiating season by losing their fifth game in a row. In the last four, they’ve scored a total of two runs in the last four games, including one run in their last 32 innings, and hit .153/.191/.194 as a team. Mercifully, they’ve also now been officially eliminated from the race for the postseason, allowing us to speculate about where the team has been and where it should go from here.

The most frustrating aspect of 2011 as a Twins fan has undoubtedly been all the injuries. Joe Mauer’s mysterious leg and back problems, Justin Morneau’s lingering concussion and neck issues, Denard Span’s concussion, Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s leg, Michael Cuddyer’s neck and wrist, Jason Kubel’s foot, Delmon Young’s ankle and oblique muscle, Alexi Casilla’s hamstring, Jim Thome’s oblique and quad, Glen Perkins’ oblique muscle, and the arm troubles faced by Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano, Jose Mijares, and Joe Nathan have sapped this club of energy and effectiveness. It has, at times (including last night), left the Twins looking like a AAA club, relying heavily on the contributions of Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe, Drew Butera, Rene Rivera, Dusty Hughes, Matt Tolbert, Anthony Swarzak, Rene Tosoni, Jason Repko, Steve Holm, Jim Hoey, Phil Dumatrait, and something named Brian Dinkelman, whose name the team apparently be bothered to spell correctly on the lineup card. What’s worse, the Twins have been incredibly slow to put players on the disabled list, classifying their injuries as “day-to-day,” while sacrificing bench depth for weeks at a time.

The Twins have also been undone by sloppy play, including what will likely be the club’s highest error total since 1986, when they flubbed 118 plays, the American League’s second worst Defensive Efficiency rating, and the 9th worst baserunning in baseball according to Fangraphs. They’ve thrown to the wrong base, forgotten how many outs there were, and botched more rundowns that TCM cares to count. Minnesota has often looked like a Little League team whose coach didn’t emphasize fundamentals in practice.

The Twins are also suffering from acute fourth-starteritis, in which they have plenty of starters, but none of them (save for Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano) are particularly differentiated. Carl Pavano continues to be a workhorse, but he has slowed with age and his strikeout rate has actually dropped to just 10.4% of the batters he faces, or just a tick above where he was at the tail end of his disastrous run with the Yankees. Nick Blackburn has never struck out more than 11.7% of batters faced in a full season, and has seen his control fade, along with his durability. Brian Duensing’s mediocre strikeout rate finally caught up to him this year too, and he posted a 5.34 ERA. Kevin Slowey has struggled with injuries and with his attitude (some of that his own fault, some the Twins’), has been effective in the past, but remains extremely homer-prone. Anthony Swarzak, Jeff Manship, Scott Diamond, and Liam Hendriks all boast 90 MPH fastballs, good control, and middling results. Even prospect Kyle Gibson, now sidelined with Tommy John surgery, profiles more as a #3 starter than anything else. Even Baker and Liriano have raised red flags with their durability concerns in 2011, and Liriano’s control has vanished. This club has no reliable front-line pitching, nor does it likely have the means to acquire it via free agency.

Sure, the Twins would be able to give up prospects to bring in a quality starter, but the club remains very willing to fritter away talent around the margins that could be used in such a deal. Among the players who would have made less than $1 million the Twins have given away or chosen not to re-sign in the last 18 months includes Nick Punto, Jose Morales, Rob Delaney, Pat Neshek, and Wilson Ramos. None of these players, save Ramos, is a building block, yet all of them are decent players who could have helped stabilize the Twins in a terrible year, where they had weaknesses behind the plate, in the middle infield, and in the bullpen. They also gave away the more established JJ Hardy for two minor league relievers, neither of whom had demonstrated promise previously, and who continue to struggle today. It’s extremely troubling that the Twins seem unable or unwilling to use their second-line talent to bolster the club in meaningful ways or to acquire more front-line talent. It’s left them thin and weak at several positions on the diamond.

So what’s to do in 2012?

Clean house within the medical staff.

It’s not clear that the Twins’ medical staff is entirely to blame for the problems of their players. After all, they work for the Twins and they may receive their marching orders the same as anyone else in the organization. That said, there is a disturbing pattern of weird injuries, of players showing up to Spring Training in lackluster condition or even hurting while nobody checked up on them during the offseason, of injuries taking longer to rehab than initially reported or misdiagnosed entirely, and of players complaining about the care they receive from the Twins’ trainers. Regardless of who is ultimately to blame, the Twins need to reassure their players and fans that their concerns are being taken to heart. They also need to take full stock at how decisions regarding player injuries are made within the franchise, especially regarding roster moves and the organization’s general attitude toward playing hurt, which has turned injuries into lingering season-long problems and hindered player effectiveness, while fueling hostility toward some of their players, Joe Mauer in particular.

Stress fundamentals and defense again.

The Twins have been praised for more than two decades for “playing the game the right way,” even though that ceased to be true many seasons ago. The current Twins are plagued by sloppy play and bad decisions. It’s time to send everyone back to school, from the minor league camps to the Big League club. Nobody misses drills. Ron Gardenhire has always been a player’s manager, but on the field he needs to get tough on his beloved veterans.

The difference between a team that is strong fundamentally and weak fundamentally is not terribly great. It probably can’t, for instance, turn a bad team into a good team, or a mediocre team into a great one. But it can add at least a few wins to the overall total, and for absolutely no additional cost to the club. It also, from a fan’s perspective, makes the team less embarrassing and more fun to watch overall.

Focusing on improving the overall defense will also have trickle-down effects, helping the rotation to go deeper into games and throw fewer pitches, allowing the bullpen to stay fresher.

Figure out what to do with Joe Mauer.

It’s become increasingly clear that Joe Mauer simply isn’t physically built to be able to stay behind the plate over the long term. He is literally the tallest catcher in Major League history at six-foot-five. One of the other six-foot-fivers, Sandy Alomar suffered from massive back problems that sapped his effectiveness. Similar problems have hounded tall catchers like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Chris Snyder, and Chris Stewart. It’s time to acknowledge that Mauer’s bat is more valuable simply being in the lineup 90% of the time than behind the plate 50% of the time and on the DL the rest of the time. The Twins need to move him now.

Whether that means putting him at third base, right field, or at designated hitter, Mauer needs to be put in a spot that will maximize the value of what he can contribute to the club on a daily basis. That may mean allowing him to continue to backup whoever the new receiver is, but there’s no doubt that Mauer should not be the Twins’ primary catcher next year. Figuring out a plan for what to do with him, and quickly, will allow the Twins to decide what to do about the rest of their offseason, and whether they need to pursue Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel via free agency.

Improve the organizational depth.

The Twins have almost $66 million committed to eight players next year, according to the essential Cot’s Contracts (now on Baseball Prospectus!). They also have eight players facing arbitration, five of whom could earn in excess of $1 million. They could potentially fill the rest of their bench, rotation, bullpen, and lineup with guys making at or near the league minimum. That said, the club has need at catcher, in the rotation, the bullpen, and potentially in the middle infield. They have a corner outfield spot opening up, but TCM would like Mauer to fill it, if possible. Aside from either Cuddyer or Kubel, the Twins are unlikely to find a big-target free agent within their price range. But they will certainly have the ability to target quality bullpen options with one- and two-year contracts. They can bring in Chris Snyder or Ramon Hernandez to catch regularly. They can also focus on retaining and bringing in more minor league veterans and fringe major leaguers, who can forestall the need to call up the Brian Dinkelmans of the world again and again.

Regardless of what they do this offseason, the Twins are going to have to improve tremendously to go, yet again, from worst to first in their division. But given how much of the problem is health-related, they are in a decent position to do just that, so long as they stop neglecting the margins and provide ample security in case of additional injuries. Though, really, if Morneau, Span, and Mauer are permanently busted, there’s little hope.

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