How many times have we heard someone say, “The Twins need to get back to emphasizing the Twins Way?” Or, perhaps just as often we hear, “the Twins need to forget about the Twins Way crap… it doesn’t work.” Either way, “The Twins Way” has become a cliché and a pretty tired one, at that.
But what is The Twins Way? We have some vague idea that it’s about playing good defense, running the bases intelligently, moving runners effectively and, yes, “pitching to contact” (how’s that for using one tired cliché to define another one?).
It is a culture that has led to a fair amount of success for the Twins over the years, as a Major League Baseball team and as a privately owned and operated for-profit business.
It’s also a culture that has driven many Twins fans to such a level of frustration that they’re almost incapable of having any discussion about the ballclub that doesn’t include a loud cry to get rid of the ownership, the front office executives, the manager, the coaches or, quite often, all of the above.
Of course, taking issue with how those in authority run things is almost as ingrained in American culture as baseball, itself. On the other hand, whether the subject is government, business or sports, those with no clue about how to actually run something are often the most vocal critics of those who do.
But if we’re going to have a dialogue about the pros and cons of The Twins Way, I think we should get our arms around what that actually means, so at least we all know what we’re talking about when we hear the term used or, heaven forbid, use the term ourselves.
In my mind, The Twins Way starts with the concept of getting the best possible efforts and results out of whatever level of talent specific players might possess. The 1987 World Champion Twins. The “piranhas.” Brad Radke and Nick Punto.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this concept. It’s what every organization SHOULD strive to achieve, isn’t it?
And if you have a baseball team filled with overachieving mid-level talent, you can occasionally catch lightning in a bottle and accomplish great things. When that happens, the entire community and fan base rightfully takes great pride in the accomplishment.
Sometimes, however, it causes those in charge to conclude that catching that lightning is something that can be repeated consistently or, even worse, that what’s been accomplished is not due to something as random as lightning strikes, but was actually accomplished by intentionally identifying potential new piranhas or the “next Brad Radke.”
In fairness, this aspect of The Twins Way has its roots in necessity. Going back to the near-contraction days, the Carl Pohlad-owned Twins had to find inexpensive ways to compete with the rich clubs. They weren’t going to get Roger Clemens, so they needed to figure out how to win with Radke-types.
Scouts looked for a certain sort of “make-up” in high school and college players, not to mention minor leaguers. “Toolsy” position players and “pitch to contact” pitchers with good “make-up” were perhaps deemed more affordable, short term and long term, than top-tier talents who would not only be more costly to sign initially, but would be more likely to bolt for major market teams as soon as they could escape their serfdom with the Twins.
Shopping the free agent market meant picking through the bargain bins once the teams with real money to spend signed all the best available talent. There was never enough money in the coffers to retain the Twins’ own free agents, much less pay for those hitting the market from other organizations.
The move to the Target Field was supposed to change things and, in many ways, it has. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some of the people running the show and they are smart people. They know baseball and they know they need to put a better product on the field. To their credit, they’ve made some of the necessary cultural changes.
Starting with the draft and international signings, the Twins have begun to spend money. The Twins outbid the Pirates for Dominican Miguel Sano and they’ve used the early draft picks that come with having really bad seasons to select what are arguably the best athletes available, such as Byron Buxton, rather than use “sign-ability” as a code word for spending as little as possible on new talent.
They re-signed the players they deemed the most critical to retain from among their own group of free agents, including a significant extension for Justin Morneau and an eight-year contract for Joe Mauer at $23 million per year.
They’ve dipped their toes in the mid-range levels of free agency, signing players like Josh Willingham and Kevin Correia to multi-year contracts at mid-seven digit levels annually.
As the Twins complete a third consecutive season in which they’re likely to lose at least 90 games, it may not seem like it but The Twins Way is changing.
They’re still teaching the importance of fundamentals at the lower levels of the minor leagues, but they’re teaching those fundamentals to, on balance, a group of ballplayers with more pure talent than used to be the case. In time, we should see these talented players working just as hard as the piranhas did and winning more games, as a result.
As I see it, there’s really one remaining major cultural paradigm within the organization that needs to change and it’s probably the most difficult change for the organization to make. It has to do with being prepared to spend significant money on top-tier free agents from other organizations, even if it means having to risk paying more for their talents than your best judgment tells you they are worth.
Not doing so won’t prevent the Twins from eventually becoming competitive again. Three years from now (maybe even two, if everything falls right), the talent in their minor league pipeline could well have the Twins competing for an AL Central Division title again.
But if they show their historical patience, how many fans will still be showing up at Target Field by then? It’s a lot harder to get fans to come back than it is to keep them, but you need to be willing to give them a reason to keep showing up.
It doesn’t take a baseball genius to figure out what the Twins need to improve significantly next season. It will require the same thing everyone knew it would take a year ago… and the year before that. It will take better starting pitching – much better starting pitching.
Adding the kind of pitching required won’t be easy. They’ll have to outbid teams that have had more recent success for one or more of the best available free agent arms and/or they’ll need to let go of some of their highly coveted young prospects to get pitching help via trade. Either way, they’ll need to be willing to spend money, perhaps a lot of it.
If they add nobody of significance to their roster, they’ll start 2014 with a payroll just slightly more than half of what they had committed to their Opening Day roster in 2011, so there’s no argument to be made that money isn’t available.
The only remaining question is whether General Manager Terry Ryan and others running the organization are prepared to let go of the last remaining tie to the old culture and spend that money.
In his excellent article at TwinsDaily.com, Nick Nelson laid out a number of reasons Twins fans should be optimistic that Ryan will do exactly that.
I hope he’s right. I want so badly to believe he’s right.
But after expecting more aggressive moves the past two winters and being left thoroughly disappointed, I just can’t convince myself to believe it until I see it.