Did the Minnesota Twins Tank?

What is baseball going to do about teams tanking?

That question, framed in one manner or another, is being posed incessantly by baseball media’s talking heads as Major League Baseball prepares to kick off the 2016 season.

tanking2There’s no question that teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have emerged from prolonged periods of ineptitude to become not only competitive, but, in the case of the Cubs, the odds-on preseason favorite to win the 2016 World Series.

The focus of most discussions seems to be on trying to differentiate between “tanking” – that is, intentionally designing your Major League roster in such a way that it will be all but impossible to lose fewer than 90 games (and likely considerably more) – and “rebuilding,” which is simply attempting to do whatever is deemed necessary, within the rules of the game, to improve talent levels to the point where your team can realistically compete for a championship.

It is, seemingly, a distinction without a difference. Yet, “rebuilding” is almost always viewed as simply a necessary process teams having a bad season or two must undergo, while “tanking” is portrayed as a serious threat to the competitive balance of Major League Baseball.

Tanking, I suppose, is arguably just one method at a general manager’s disposal to accomplish a rebuild. If so, it is quite possibly the most effective method available to teams that are considered middle or small market organizations, without the necessary financial resources to fill every critical roster gap with a top-tier free agent.

While the Astros, Nationals and Cubs have been raised as examples of teams that have tanked their way back into competitiveness, the Oakland Athletics are often cited as an organization that takes a more noble tact. As ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote recently, “Oakland has never taken (the tanking) route since general manager Billy Beane took over the franchise. The Athletics just don’t quit.”

Here’s something else that the Oakland Athletics have never done under Beane’s leadership over the past two decades: win a World Series.

That’s a trait that the A’s share with Theo Epstein’s Cubs, Jeff Luhnow’s Astros and Mike Rizzo’s Nationals, though those GMs took over their respective teams far more recently than Beane took over the helm in Oakland.

It’s also an aspect that each of those teams share with the Minnesota Twins.

If it seems like forever for Twins fans since their team held up a championship trophy at the end of the 1991 season, there’s some small solace to be taken from the fact that Minnesota’s 1991’s success is more recent than anything the other four organizations have experienced.

The Athletics last won it all in the 1989 “Earthquake Series,” and the Cubs last took home the hardware in 1908. Astros fans have never celebrated a World Series title in the club’s fifty-plus years of existence, nor have Nationals fans (even those that can claim allegiance going back to the club’s days as the Montreal Expos).

There seems to be no doubt that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros tanked their way back in to baseball relevance. They fielded teams that were designed to lose so many games that they would consistently benefit from high draft picks and inflated international spending allowances.

Oakland, however, was really never bad enough to fall below middle-of-the-pack status for more than a year at a time. Beane couldn’t retain his big-money stars, so he often traded them for something of current MLB-level value before they would be lost to free agency. His now-famous “moneyball” strategies sought to unearth players with enough hidden value to allow his team to at least be competitive almost every season.

Who did it right? Baseball purists may claim that tanking is ethically wrong and others will claim Beane’s approach does little but perpetuate mediocrity.

However, based on what arguably is the most important criteria, World Series Championships won, it would be difficult to declare one strategy more successful than the other. Then again, the Nationals, Cubs and Astros are all projected to fare much better than the Athletics in 2016, so maybe this will be the year that tanking’s advantage becomes apparent.

But what about the Twins? What exactly was their strategy?

Regardless of what they were thinking at any particular point in time, there’s no question that the Twins have benefited from the high draft positioning that resulted from four consecutive seasons of winning 70 or fewer games (a benefit that could be negated considerably in the future if the anti-tanking crowd gets some of the rule changes they propose).

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

Miguel Sano was signed out of the Dominican Republic toward the end of the team’s run of qualifying for six postseasons within nine years, but both their top hitting prospect (Byron Buxton) and top pitching prospect (Jose Berrios) were available to be selected by the Twins because their 99 losses in 2011 allowed them to pick in the second position in the 2012 amateur draft. Buxton was chosen with the second overall pick and Berrios with the first pick of the supplemental first round.

Over the following several years, the Twins added a number of highly touted young players due to consistently picking at the top end of the draft. Kohl Stewart, Nick Gordon and Tyler Jay, the team’s first round picks over the following three years, all sit comfortably among the top rated prospects in the Twins organization and each has been ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game at one time or another.

Of course, the Twins also held picks at the top of each successive round of those drafts, enabling them to select from among the cream of the non-elite crop of young players, as well. The fact that the Twins continue to have one of the top rated minor league organizations is due, in no small part, to their draft position over the past four drafts.

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

In the end, whether by design or otherwise, the Twins have positioned themselves much the same way that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros have. By losing a lot of games for several consecutive seasons, they have amassed considerable young baseball talent, much of which is now positioned to arrive and contribute at the Major League level.

Yet you seldom, if ever, see the Twins mentioned in articles bemoaning (or praising) the practice of tanking.

Of course, you also won’t see writers praising the Twins as an organization that has consistently found ways to rebuild on the fly – remaining competitive, as the Athletics have, even after star players move on via trade or free agency.

The result is that General Manager Terry Ryan and the Twins front office get neither the credit (blame?) for being at the forefront of the tanking strategy that Epstein, Luhnow and Rizzo embody, nor the commendations that Beane continues to get for trying to rebuild while continuing to put a teams on the field that are at least close to being worth the price of a Major League ticket to watch.

So did the Twins really tank, and just do a better job of camouflaging it than other teams did, or was Ryan trying to employ the stay-competitive strategy that Beane did, and simply wasn’t as effective at identifying and acquiring new talent as his counterpart in Oakland was?

It would be a stretch to say that the Twins were tanking in 2011. They were coming off of an American League Central title season and most of the core players from that team were returning. There’s little doubt that then-GM Bill Smith thought he was creating a roster to contend again that season.

Then came the Tsuyoshi Nishioka disaster and very limited game time from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span in 2011. The result was a 99-loss team.

Another result was that 2011 also saw the return to Ryan to the GM’s office after the season.

Arguably, Ryan followed the Beane approach in his first partial postseason back on the job as General Manager. While his evaluation process was certainly more scout-based and less analytics-based than Beane’s, his addition of players like Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit indicated he was trying to add veterans with value, as Beane does, rather than tear the club down and build it back up from scratch.

Whatever he was trying to do, it didn’t work. 2012 was, once again, a disaster on the field. This led to a consistent, “there isn’t any shortcut,” line of quotes out of Ryan the following offseason.

It also led to the trading of two thirds of the Twins’ starting outfield, Denard Span and Ben Revere, for three pitchers, only one of which had any big league experience at all. Was that indicative of Ryan having decided to go the tanking route?

Even if so, you would never have gotten the GM to admit it then, and probably couldn’t drag it out of him now.

Target Field was still relatively new and so were the taxes being imposed in Hennepin County to pay for it. Joe Mauer, though coming off a challenging season, was still in the early stages of an eight-year mega-million contract. It would have been professional suicide for anyone in the Twins front office to come right out and declare an intent to tank.

Can you imagine Ryan telling the media, “We looked at the draft class we were able to put together after losing 99 games in 2011 and, given that we had so many things go wrong in 2012, we should expect to select a similarly strong class this year. We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose more than 90 games a while longer, as well, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”

Given some of the comments that Twins owner Jim Pohlad has made the past couple of offseasons about being tired of losing, I’m not sure Ryan would have dared to express those thoughts to Pohlad, even in private.

Then again, maybe he did tell Pohlad that. In fact, maybe he told all of us that he was planning to engage that kind of strategy.

Ryan is a man of few words. He doesn’t believe in giving his competitors a free look into his thinking on any subject related to his strategy for roster building. He’ll answer fan and media questions, but often you need to read between the lines a little bit to decipher exactly what he’s saying.

I wonder if it’s possible that he actually did say, “We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose 95 games a year for a while longer, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”

It’s just that, when he said it, all we heard was, “there isn’t any shortcut.”

Truth be told, I don’t believe the Twins intentionally tanked during any part of the past four years. After all, moves like spending several million dollars on the 2014 in-season signing of Kendrys Morales would not be consistent with intentionally trying to lose as many games as possible.

I think Ryan was simply trying to balance current competitiveness with future success. In other words, he was showing the ethical nobility of Beane’s approach, while realizing the same results as those teams who were intentionally assembling losing rosters.

In the end, all that matters is the results and the Twins have a significant number of talented young players about to arrive in the big leagues.

That said, it will be interesting to keep an eye on what anti-tanking steps MLB and/or the Players Union propose be built into the new Collective Bargaining Agreement next year. Specifically, what effect would those proposals have had on, not only teams that made no attempt to disguise their tanking strategies, but also the Twins.

-JC

Let the Sano-Buxton-Park Era Begin

The Minnesota Twins held a press conference Wednesday morning to introduce their newest addition to the family, Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. The hope is that Park can approach the level of production he showed in Korea and, if so, join potential stars Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton as cornerstones in a Twins everyday lineup being built to contend for the postseason for years to come.

Park press conferenceBy now, everyone knows how he came to be a member of the Twins. His Korean team posted him, the Twins won the bidding for the exclusive rights to negotiate with him, they came to an agreement on a multi-year deal and, on Wednesday, he and the Twins’ brass spoke to the media about the whole thing.

The assembled media asked a lot of good questions. How will park adjust to facing better pitchers who throw better breaking balls and faster fastballs? How will he adjust to being a full-time designated hitter? What kind of fielder is he, in the event he needs to use his glove more frequently than is currently envisioned? How will he adjust to living and working in the United States?

The media got very few good answers to those questions, however.

That’s not the fault of Park, GM Terry Ryan or anyone else on that dias, really. The fact is, there are no good answers to most of the questions, yet. Park will need to answer those questions on the field, in the clubhouse and out and about in the greater Twins Territory community.

Ryan told the media that he feels his team needs to add offense and that he expects Park to replace Torii Hunter’s offensive production.

My goodness, I certainly hope he can do better than that. After all, while Hunter made significant critical contributions to the turnaround of the 2015 Twins, not a lot of those contributions were with his bat. If Park doesn’t exceed Hunter’s 2015 production, he may well be getting acquainted with upstate New York or south central Tennessee at some point.

It sounds like expectations are measured, which is good. Everyone with the club has indicated they expect Park to struggle a little bit as he adjusts to Major League pitching, but that he is also expected to successfully make those adjustments. I wonder how well those limited expectations will be remembered when the strikeouts come, especially if wins don’t come as quickly for this team as we think they should.

I’m looking forward to a full season of Park and Miguel Sano in the lineup. That’s a lot of long-ball potential that wasn’t there on Opening Day, 2015. It’s also a lot of strikeout potential, of course.

Ryan was asked if he expects to make more roster moves, obviously alluding to the possibility of trading incumbent third baseman Trevor Plouffe. His response seemed unequivocal, stating that he did not expect to make additional changes to the regular lineup. “We’re going to go with what we’ve got,” he said. He added, “We’re going to move Sano to the outfield.”

Things change, of course. Baseball’s Winter Meetings are coming up and it’s reasonable to expect that Ryan will get some inquiries about the availability of some of his players, including Plouffe. Maybe his unambiguous statements today are just part of a posture he’s taking to send a message to his peers that they should not expect to get Plouffe (or anyone) for peanuts.

But, to me, he certainly sounded and looked like a man who believes his everyday lineup is just about set in stone.

The additional power is good. It’s very good. I just don’t think it’s so good that it will, by itself, push the Twins over hump and propel them into the postseason. I believe that this team also needs more hitters who can get on base and contribute some extra-base hits with regularity.

For that to happen, Miguel Sano cannot afford a sophomore slump. He needs to not only continue to pepper the outfield bleachers with 400-foot home run balls, he needs to continue adding 30 or 40 doubles and get on base 38% of the time. In short, he needs to be a fixture in the cleanup spot for the Twins that strikes fear into the minds of opposing pitchers and catchers.

He needs to be that guy right out of the gate in 2016.

Byron Buxton also needs to arrive in 2016. And by “arrive,” I mean he needs to, as Nuke LaLoosh put it, announce his presence with authority.

If Buxton and Sano take control of the leadoff and cleanup spots, respectively, on Opening Day and both show the talent they have demonstrated at every minor league level (and that Sano demonstrated in half a season with the Twins this year), it will allow the rest of the lineup to easily fall into place.

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

Mauer and Dozier become the everyday number 2 and 3 hitters. Plouffe, Park and either Rosario or Arcia (whichever claims the third outfield spot) easily slot into the 5-7 spots, while Escobar and the catcher du jour, Suzuki or Murphy, pull up the rear.

In that scenario, the Twins lineup has become much “longer,” to use the buzzword currently in favor that describes a team with dangerous hitters even far down the batting order. It also allows guys like Dozier, Mauer, Plouffe and Rosario to successfully fill roles they are most suited to fill, rather than try to be something they aren’t.

Yes, I would have defensive concerns with any outfield that includes both Sano and Arcia in the corners. That’s a disaster waiting to happen, but I’m pretty confident that Rosario will be the winner of that battle this spring, so I’m not too concerned about it.

But if Buxton can’t be Buxton at the top of that order or if Sano struggles to make consistent hard contact at cleanup, suddenly your “long” lineup isn’t really so long and you’ve got some guys hitting in spots they really aren’t best-suited for.

Your leadoff hitter needs to work the count, hit for average, draw walks, find some gaps and cause all sorts of anxiety for pitchers, catchers and defenses on the basepaths.

Your cleanup hitter needs to consistently drive in runs. He needs to hit home runs in bunches. He needs to be able to do more than make pitchers pay for mistakes. He needs to hit a pitcher’s best pitch for extra bases. He needs to avoid striking out so often that opposing teams don’t worry about seeing him step into the on-deck circle.

If Buxton isn’t an effective leadoff man, someone else has to do that job and there is nobody currently on this roster that you could honestly say, “leadoff is his best spot.” The same is true of Sano at cleanup.

Yes Dozier could lead off. Mauer and Escobar could do it, too. But all three of those players have holes in their offensive games that make them much better suited to hit someplace other than at the top of the Twins’ order.

It’s possible that Park will turn out to be a legitimate cleanup spot alternative to Sano. If so, that’s a bonus. But right now, the best the Twins show me is a few guys who could serve that role if they absolutely had to. That’s not good enough.

If you have to slide Dozier and Mauer up a spot in the order and/or do the same with Plouffe and Rosario, not to mention Escobar and your catcher, suddenly that lineup doesn’t look so “long,” after all. You no longer have a lineup set up to challenge the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central Division, much less make a deep postseason run.

I know that I’ve totally ignored the pitching situation and, obviously, that’s very important, too. I also am aware that the Twins will be likely be a better team with Buxton in centerfield every day, regardless of what he does with his bat.

But for the Twins to become the team we all want them to be, they need Byron Buxton to be an All-Star level leadoff hitter, they need Sano to be a beast in the cleanup spot and they need those things to happen closer to April than September. They also need Park to quickly make whatever adjustments need to be made to allow him to be a significant contributor to a big league contender.

No pressure, guys. Just become great and do it now.

Next for Twins Offseason? Hopefully Not Much

Last week, Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan went back-to-back-to-back making three deals in three days in an effort to improve his club, winning the bidding for the right to negotiate with Korean slugging first baseman/DH Byung-ho Park, trading backup catcher Chris Herrmann for a prospect, which cleared the way for catcher John Ryan Murphy to be added via trade.

After one or two more roster adjustments, Ryan should R-E-L-A-X. (Photo: SD Buhr)
After 1 or 2 more roster adjustments, Terry Ryan should R-E-L-A-X. (Photo: SD Buhr)

It has been almost a week since the last of those deals was announced, so the question has become, “Now what?”

I felt the catching situation was the most glaring need that had to be addressed this offseason and Ryan & Co. appear to have resolved that situation with the addition of Murphy.

Now, where should the GM turn his focus?

Given the state of the Twins the past four offseasons, it seems odd to say it, but I think Ryan’s offseason work should be about done already.

Let’s take a position-by-position look at where the Twins stand right at this moment, with some thoughts as to how they could still be improved.

Between incumbent catcher Kurt Suzuki and the newly-acquired Murphy, the position appears to be set. If Ryan could find a taker for Suzuki, they could just hand the starting job to Murphy and look for another backup, but that seems highly unlikely.

Joe Mauer is at first base and isn’t going anywhere. The Twins added another first baseman in Park, which was surprising to most of us, so the odds are stacked high against seeing another one added. Kennys Vargas remains on the periphery of the 1B/DH mix and now we’re seeing reports that he could make a good sized payday in Korea or Japan if the Twins are willing to sell his contract.

Brian Dozier will play second base. If the Twins get an offer they can’t refuse for Dozier, Jorge Polanco would likely get his shot at a permanent promotion to the big leagues. It’s hard to imagine the Twins adding someone else to the mix. James Beresford performed well in Rochester, but he’s a minor league free agent again this year and is at least an even bet to sign elsewhere after the Twins didn’t even give him a look in September.

Eduardo Escobar did everything anyone could ask of him at shortstop in 2015 and appears to have given the Twins the stability they’ve lacked at the position since the ill-advised trade of J.J. Hardy to the Orioles. The Twins will also have Danny Santana around as a utility player, should Escobar falter. It’s unlikely the Twins will go looking for another shortstop.

Everyone seems to think that third base is already crowded. Trevor Plouffe is still manning the hot corner, but is looking over his shoulder at the hulking figure of Miguel Sano. This has led many to recommend that the Twins trade Plouffe this offseason and hand the position to Sano.

While that might make sense, providing that Ryan could get fair value for Plouffe on the market (I’m not all that certain would be the case, but it’s possible), making that deal would mean putting all of the club’s third base “eggs” in the Sano basket. That makes me nervous.

Maybe Sano can play third base competently every day, but that’s hardly a certainty. If Plouffe is sent packing, Ryan had better have a reliable Plan B ready to step into the position. With Plouffe gone, who would that be?

There are few internal options that manager Paul Molitor could plug in. Do we want to see Eduardo Núñez as the Twins’ starting third baseman? Polanco and Santana have rarely played the position, even in minor league ball, but maybe one or both could do it.

Could a Plouffe trade be followed by the acquisition of a stop-gap type? Conceivably, yes. The Twins Daily Offseason Handbook projects 37-year-old Juan Uribe to sign a one-year deal for $3 million. That sounds a little high, to me, for Uribe, but if it’s in that neighborhood, it wouldn’t be a bad price for this particular situation.

Trevor Plouffe in a Twins uniform, where he should stay, at least for now (Photo: SD Buhr)
Trevor Plouffe in a Twins uniform, where he should stay, at least for now (Photo: SD Buhr)

Unless Ryan is really wowed by an offer for Plouffe, however, I think he’s better off keeping the status quo. Let’s see how Sano handles the position (and how he handles his sophomore season at the plate) before running the risk of turning the third sack back into the black hole it was between the departure of Corey Koskie and the arrival of Plouffe.

Likewise, the outfield appears pretty full, even with the departure of Aaron Hicks to the Yankees in the Murphy deal.

Eddie Rosario will be in one corner and the Twins are hoping Byron Buxton claims centerfield right out of spring training. They’ve expressed their intention to teach Sano to play a corner outfield spot, especially now that Park seems likely to get most of the DH at-bats. Oswaldo Arcia is another internal outfield option, but the Twins won’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) consider any option that results in Arcia and Sano sharing the same outfield, no matter how good the man in centerfield is. Max Kepler earned the opportunity to impress coaches and the front office enough in spring training to claim an Opening Day roster spot, but I suspect they’ll start him in Rochester, especially if the alternative is a fourth-outfielder role with the Twins.

And then there’s the pitching staff.

The predominant theory seems to be that the Twins have plenty of internal options to fill out their rotation, but need to look to the free agent and/or trade market to improve their bullpen.

I disagree. Not that the bullpen wasn’t bad (it was), but I disagree with that approach to fixing it. I would prefer to fix the bullpen by improving the rotation even more.

There are four pitchers that you have to figure should be locks to open in the Twins’ rotation. Ervin Santana, Tyler Duffey, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes will, unless traded or injured before then, open the year as Twins starters.

Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco all have starter pedigrees, in the minors and/or Major Leagues, and any of the five could earn the Twins’ fifth rotation spot. But if the Twins are set on being more than just a borderline contender in the American League Central Division, you have to ask yourself whether they could do better than those five pitchers in that final rotation opening.

Now, I’m a Zack Greinke fan from way back. After the 2010 season, I advocated here for the Twins to engineer a trade with the Royals to acquire Greinke. Five years later, I’d still love to have him at the top of the Twins’ rotation, but the Twins are not going to shell out the $25+ million per year over 5+ years that is being projected as being what it will take to sign the free agent – alas, nor should they.

Likewise, you can pretty much rule out names like Price, Cueto, Samardzija and Zimmerman, all of which are likely to garner $100+ million/5+ year deals on the open market. That’s an awful big commitment to make to pitchers who, in each case, come with some significant question marks about their abilities to perform at “ace” levels for the next half-decade. Only Price, in my view, is worth that kind of money. Unfortunately, he won’t be had for that kind of money – it will likely take over $200 million to get him. Ouch.

Berrios is a future Twins starter. May and Meyer could very well be future rotation fixtures, as well. The big unknown, in each case, is the definite arrival time of that future. We just don’t know. It could be April, 2016, and if it is, for just one of those pitchers, then the rotation question is asked and answered.

Trevor May - Bullpen or rotation in 2015? Answer: yes (Photo: SD BUhr)
Trevor May – Bullpen or rotation in 2015? Answer: yes (Photo: SD BUhr)

However, like the situation with Sano as a full time third baseman, relying on any of the five possible fifth starters currently on the roster to be good enough to help propel the Twins into an elite-level team in 2016 is pretty risky.

If Ryan decides to take that risk, it’s fine with me, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Twins take a one-year flyer on Doug Fister, who certainly will be looking for a make-good contract to rebuild his value with an eye on trying free agency again next year. Two years ago, Fister was traded to Washington after 2 ½ successful years in a Tigers uniform. Had he been a free agent a year ago after notching a 2.31 ERA over 25 starts for the Nationals, he’d have undoubtedly been near the top of every team’s free agent starting pitcher wish-list.

But he was Washington property for another year and he did not live up to expectations in 2015, to put it mildly. He lost his starting rotation spot as the dysfunctional Nationals faltered and he finished the season working out of the bullpen.

Could a return to the familiar AL Central spur a revival of Fister’s starting career? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind if the Twins spent $10-15 million or so to find out. At that price, they can afford the risk. If it works out, he’s more than just another fifth starter. If it doesn’t work, all they’ve lost is a few bucks and they move on with whoever is looking the best from among the internal options.

With a rotation of Santana, Duffey, Gibson, Hughes and Fister, you are left with a lot of pretty strong options to improve your bullpen.

Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen will be there. You have to be concerned with the way Perkins pitched the last half of 2015 and I’m not certain Jepsen is really as good as he looked after being acquired from the Rays, but those two will be cornerstones of the 2016 relief corps, if they’re healthy.

Now, just for fun, plug the following five arms into the bullpen: Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco.

Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva chatted during a spring training game in March. They should be able to have chats like this at Target Field in 2016 (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva chatted during a spring training game in March. They should be able to have chats like this at Target Field in 2016 (Photo: SD Buhr)

Yes, that leaves just Perkins and Milone as lefty arms, so I’d like to see Logan Darnell make the team, meaning Nolasco is cut loose or one of Meyer/Berrios is kept in Rochester to stay stretched out in case there’s an early hole to plug in the rotation.

No team survives a season without running 7-10 pitchers through their rotation during the year and all five of these guys could work their way into starting roles either by their own performance or attrition among those who open the year as starters.

But the point remains that the Twins have pitching that is capable of bolstering their bullpen and I’d  spend $10-15 million to take a chance on Fister improving the rotation. Then, as the dominoes fall, quality internal pitchers are pushed to the bullpen.

To me, that’s preferable to making multi-year commitments to one or more of the flavor-of-the-month relief arms available in free agency when the Twins have guys like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois, Taylor Rogers, Zach Jones, Alex Wimmers and Mason Melotakis (to name just a few), any of which could become high-quality internal bullpen options before 2016 is over. Even 2015 top draft pick Tyler Jay, who will be given an opportunity to work in a minor league rotation somewhere to start the season, could be called on for a big league relief role, if needed at some point.

The best free agent bullpen arms will command large, multi-year deals, which the Twins should not invest in, and the next tier on the open market are no more likely to provide consistent quality relief innings than the Twins’ own internal options.

The bottom line, for me, is that Terry Ryan can get Park signed, make a deal with Fister, then go on vacation, as far as I’m concerned. If he can get someone to take Nolasco’s contract off his hands, terrific, but otherwise, I’d be content to head to spring training with that roster.

-JC

What if…?

Here we are in the final week of the 2015 MLB season and the Twins are still in contention for a playoff spot. All things considered, that’s pretty incredible. Virtually none of us expected this when the season began.

what if questionHoped for it? Sure. We all hope for it. We’ve hoped for it for the past four years, too, but show me someone who went on record in April that the Twins would have a .500 record locked down and still be pushing for a wild card berth, then I’ll believe someone actually expected this to happen.

The Twins front office, their manager and coaching staff, and particularly the players, deserve a lot of credit for putting the team in this unlikely circumstance. Twins fans should all appreciate the hard work that has produced the most encouraging Twins season in at least five years.

And yet…

It’s really hard for me not to play a little “what if?” game. If the Twins are not able to overcome both the Astros and Angels to capture the coveted final American League wild card spot, they’ll almost certainly finish within a couple of games of doing so.

A couple of games.

That makes it pretty easy to go back and look for opportunities that were lost to turn enough losses into wins to put the Twins in the playoffs.

The easy part is looking at late game leads that were blown by a failed relief pitching, by a late error, by a baserunning mistake or by failing to capitalize on runners in scoring position. Those examples are easy to come by.

Then again, you can say that about literally every team that finishes just short of the postseason, every year.

Similarly, though to a lesser extent, fans of any team that falls just short can come up with strategic managing/coaching decisions that failed and, ultimately, led to enough losses to make a difference. Not every decision made by a team’s manager is going to work and when a decision ends up in a loss, second-guessing is easy and, with Paul Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, there have been plenty of second-guess-worthy decisions to choose from if you want to find a couple of games that could have had better outcomes.

And then there’s the front office.

On August 3, I wrote about my disappointment with the lack of results from the Twins at the non-waiver trade deadline.

To demonstrate that none of us are above being second-guessed, I obviously undervalued the addition of Kevin Jepsen at that time. Despite being underwhelmed with the Jepsen trade, my biggest problem wasn’t the trade itself or the prospects that were given up for the reliever. My problem with it was that it was the only deal made.

It seemed to me that either General Manager Terry Ryan should have acquired more help for his manager to take in to the final two months of the season than just an additional bullpen arm or he shouldn’t have bothered going out to get even that much.

Clearly, Jepsen has been a life-saver in light of the free-fall we’ve seen from closer Glen Perkins. Without Jepsen, the Twins would have almost certainly been eliminated before now, so kudos to the front office for that deal. I was wrong about Jepsen.

Terry Ryan must feel it's lonely at the top at times (Photo: SD Buhr)
Terry Ryan must feel it’s lonely at the top at times (Photo: SD Buhr)

I’m still playing coulda-shoulda-woulda, however, on the question of whether there might not have been one or two other deals that “coulda-shoulda” been made in July that “woulda” made more than a couple games’ difference in the Twins fortunes this year.

It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. And, to be fair, you can’t just throw out a name and say, “if the Twins had gone out and gotten this guy, they’d be playoff bound by now.” There’s no way to know that.

The primary positions most people talked about upgrading were shortstop and catcher.

But would any of the shortstops available at the time done better at solidifying the position than Eduardo Escobar has? That’s a debate we could have, but it’s certainly not a given that any addition would have been a net-gain over Escobar for the Twins in the win column.

Kurt Suzuki has struggled to control opponents’ running games, but catching is about so much more than throw-out rates that I think it’s impossible to say whether a change at the starting catcher position would have had a positive effect on the team over the final two months. We simply don’t know what effects that would have had on the effectiveness of the pitching staff.

Could the Twins have added a starting pitcher at the deadline? Sure. But you have to ask who would have been the likely odd man out of the rotation to make room for a newcomer. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider that it might have been rookie Tyler Duffey. The same Tyler Duffey who has been arguably the most consistent starter in the rotation over the final two months.

If the Twins end up falling short of the playoffs this week, it will be almost impossible for us not to ask, “what if?” I know I’ll do plenty of that.

Sure, we can pretty much all agree that this Twins roster doesn’t look like it’s built for a deep playoff run this season, anyway. With the young talent in the pipeline, maybe 2016 or 2017 will be more likely seasons for legitimate title contention.

But, as Twins fans have learned, you can’t for granted any opportunity you get to qualify for the postseason. You can’t assume other opportunities are just around the corner. Stuff happens and that stuff isn’t always good stuff.

So I’ll continue to ask, “what if?” I’ll continue to maintain that more help should have been brought on in July; that Molitor was not given the tools to make a legitimate playoff run this season.

I’ll also acknowledge, however, that it wouldn’t have been easy and that there’s no assurance that any such additional “help” would have necessarily improved the results. I’m smart enough to know that any additional “help” that would have been brought in might have actually ended up resulting in fewer wins, rather than more (see: Nationals, Washington).

In the end, I’m glad it was Terry Ryan making those decisions in July, rather than me. Ryan may not have done everything right and he’s certainly accustomed to second-guessing from people like me. It all goes with the GM job.

And we are still paying attention to the Twins during the final two series of the season. I’d almost forgotten how much fun that is.

It’s Official – Paul Molitor Will Manage the Twins

Regardless of whether you believe the Minnesota Twins’ extended search for new manager was thorough or a sham to cover for what was a foregone conclusion all along, the wait is finally over and Paul Molitor is taking over the manager’s office at Target Field.

The Twins announced the hiring Monday morning and will hold a press conference at 10:00 am on Tuesday to introduce Molitor as their new manager, though the decision was leaked to the traditional media types in Minneapolis days earlier.

MolitorKelly
Former Twins manager Tom Kelly and new Twins manager Paul Molitor

Molitor wasn’t my first choice as manager, but I do believe he is qualified and potentially could be a very good choice. In fact, when you boil down all the criticisms of the choice of Molitor, they really come down to two points:

  • He was already employed by the Minnesota Twins.
  • He has never managed at any level of professional baseball.

I get that a certain segment of the Twins fanbase flat out did not want a manager who had any prior connection whatsoever to Twins organization. I understand that position, though I do not agree with it.

I do believe that part of the Twins’ problems has been that, as an organization, it has become a bit too insular. I think that it was important to hire a manager that brings a fresh approach to the manager position and that will be more open to new ideas than Ron Gardenhire appeared to be during his tenure with the Twins.

I just don’t believe that the only way you get that is to hire someone with absolutely no prior ties to the club. I think we’ll quickly notice that a team managed by Molitor is not simply Ron Gardenhire Part 2 (or Tom Kelly Part 3, if you prefer).

It sure appears, based on everything I’ve read and heard from people who know Molitor and have seen him work during his time as a minor league instructor and Major League coach, that he not only genuinely enjoys teaching the intricacies of baseball to young players, but he also continues to strive to learn more about the game, himself.

Many former elite ballplayers come across, as they age, as guys who think they already know all there is to know about the game because they were very, very good at it when they laced up their cleats – as though all knowledge of how to play the game is a finite base of knowledge that can never be improved upon.

Others simply seem to have trouble teaching the game to young players that, in most cases, simply do not have the kind of natural talent that they had during their playing days.

Neither of those factors appear to be the case with Molitor, so while I would be more comfortable with this choice if he did have some managing experience at some level of professional baseball, I don’t necessarily believe it should be considered a disqualifying factor for Molitor.

I don’t believe that General Manager Terry Ryan stretched out the process simply to appease the fan base before making the hire he intended to make all along. I think anyone who does believe that is being extremely cynical.

Of course, the Twins have given their fans plenty to be cynical about lately, so it’s not altogether unrealistic to suspect the worst in this case.

Perhaps I’m just a bigger believer in Terry Ryan than many are, but I trust that he set out to conduct a thorough search for the best candidate and he was not going to announce a hiring until that process was complete.

I also think it is possible – though not probable – that Ryan actually preferred Red Sox coach Torey Lovullo over Molitor, but was overruled by Jim Pohlad, who, by multiple reports, has had a strong relationship with Hall of Famer Molitor for years and strongly favored Molitor since the time Gardenhire was dismissed (if not before).

Honestly, since we’re on the subject of Pohlad’s relationship with Molitor, let me just throw out now, for the record, that I won’t be one bit surprised if, ultimately, Molitor succeeds Ryan as the Twins’ General Manager.

I can envision a scenario where Ryan may have favored Lovullo, but was unable to convince Pohlad that Lovullo was such a better choice than Molitor that Pohlad would be willing to risk seeing Molitor to walk away from the Twins organization altogether..

However, since this choice is likely to determine how Ryan’s legacy as Twins GM is ultimately judged, it is difficult for me to imagine him agreeing to hire a manager he did not personally believe was the right choice to help him turn the club’s fortunes around. I think Ryan is the sort who would resign rather than allow the Twins ownership to impose a manager on him that he did not support in this situation.

If, in fact, Ryan had a slight preference for Lovullo, but not so strong as to resign over Pohlad’s insistence on Molitor (if such was actually the case), then I could only conclude that the GM is very comfortable with Molitor, as well.

In the end, I’m encouraged that Ryan’s top two choices for the job both have reputations for utilizing technology and advanced metrics to prepare their teams for success on the field, something Gardenhire had a reputation (deserved or not) for resisting.

Along with the rest of Twinsville, I’ll be very interested to find out who Molitor and Ryan will decide upon to fill out the Twins’ big league coaching staff (could Molitor really bring in Robin Yount as a bench coach, giving the Twins a pair of Hall of Famers in their dugout?). Naturally, I’ll also be interested to learn the organization’s minor league assignments.

It has certainly been an interesting first few weeks of the offseason for the Twins and it certainly appears it will continue to be the case as we move toward free agency season.

– JC

And Then There Were Three

Immediately after the Minnesota Twins’ 2014 season ended, General Manager Terry Ryan announced that longtime manager Ron Gardenhire would not be returning to his job in 2015.

That was three and a half weeks ago and we still don’t know who will be guiding the Twins on the field next season.

But we’re getting closer.

Lovullo
Torey Lovullo (AP Photo)

After considering, by my count, at least seven or eight candidates during the first two weeks of the offseason, Ryan set aside the managerial search while he holed up in Fort Myers with his staff for their annual week of postseason organizational meetings (though reports are that he did find time for a second interview with Doug Mientkiewicz while in Fort Myers).

Coming out of those meetings, media reports indicate that several candidates have been informed they are no longer being considered and, while the Twins are characteristically tight-lipped on the subject, it appears that the list of potential skippers has been whittled down to three: Paul Molitor, Doug Mientkiewicz and Torey Lovullo.

Looking at them, it would appear that there isn’t a lot of difference. All three are white, middle-aged men. Mientkiewicz is the youngest, at 40; Molitor the oldest at 58. Lovullo splits the difference at 49.

There’s not a lot of “diversity” readily apparent by looking at them, so if Ryan is going to make good on his pledge to add more of a Latin presence on the staff, it will need to come from among the coaches that he and the eventual manager hire.

But when you dig deeper, you see that there are plenty of differences between these three gentlemen and if you’re the Twins, you have an opportunity to make a statement with this hire concerning what traits are most important to you, as an organization. The question is, what kind of statement are you looking to make?

Paul Molitor
Paul Molitor (Knuckleballs Photo)

If you’re looking to say, “We have a youth movement brewing and we are going to do what we did when we hired Tom Kelly – hire a manager that has already spent time watching, evaluating and coaching the young players who will form the core of the next generation of Twins players,” then your first choice is Mientkiewicz. He has had two successful seasons in Fort Myers while managing Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios and the rest of a very talented “class” of minor leaguers currently rising up through the ranks.

Paul Molitor gets a few points in this category, too, however. He spent time as a roving minor league instructor prior to his one season on the Twins’ major league bench, so he also has a lot of familiarity with these rising stars.

If the statement the Twins want to make is, “We want the most qualified man for the job of managing a Major League baseball team,” the decision becomes a bit murkier.

Molitor does not have a single day of experience as a manager at any level of professional baseball. If managing only involved the work required between the time you fill out a line-up card and the final pitch of the game, I don’t think experience would be an issue for Molitor. It’s hard to imagine any circumstance arising that he has not prepared for during his Hall of Fame playing career and his time on coaching staffs at various levels. Anyone who has had even a short conversation with him about baseball will likely tell you that his baseball IQ level is off the charts. Also (and this is important), he apparently understands that he can always learn more and is open to doing so.

But game management is not all a manager has to do. There’s media relations and public relations and front office communication and clubhouse relations… and… and…

It’s a big job and while I don’t think it’s impossible for someone who has never managed at any level before to be successful, I do think that having some amount of experience in a managerial position is helpful. Without it, Molitor would very much be “learning on the job” when it comes to off-the-field aspects of the position for a year or two.

For whatever reasons, family or otherwise, Molitor has chosen not to take opportunities to get that experience by managing at the minor league levels. Should that disqualify him from consideration? Absolutely not. Should he get a free pass on this factor if other qualified candidates have emerged who HAVE that experience? No. He made the decision not to take that route and if that turns out to be a determining factor in him not getting the job this time, so be it.

If the Twins had narrowed their choices down to Mientkiewicz and Molitor, I would not consider the former’s two years in the Fort Myers dugout to be much, if any, of an advantage. Other managers in the Twins organization, such as Gene Glynn (AAA), Jeff Smith (AA), Jake Mauer (low A) and Ray Smith (rookie) all have far more minor league managerial experience than Mientkiewicz.

Yes, Mientkiewicz has had successful teams both years in Fort Myers, but take a look at his rosters those two years. If you can’t win a few games with those guys, you really are in the wrong line of work.

Personality-wise, you have very different men. Molitor seems to bring a cerebral intensity to the game, while Mientkiewicz is all about the fire and he doesn’t even pretend to contain it.

Both would bring a familiarity with the Twins organization to the job, without the baggage of being one of “Gardy’s boys.” There are various reports and rumors out there concerning how well (or not well) these guys got along with the Twins’ former manager, but it’s probably safe to say neither would be prone to adopting any approach to managing simply because that was the way Ron Gardenhire would have done it.

So, depending on what he decides is the most important quality in a manager, Terry Ryan has an acceptable internal choice in either Molitor or Mientkiewicz.

Want someone who will get in the face of players and umpires? Doug’s your guy.

Want a brilliant baseball mind? I doubt you could do better than Molitor.

Want someone open to utilizing more advanced analytics? Molitor appears so inclined, though there are indications Mientkiewicz is more of a “gut feel” kind of guy (though, to be fair, the amount of detailed analytics available to minor league managers is limited and their job is more to develop talent than to win games).

Want someone who has the credentials as a player to garner respect among the troups? Molitor’s a Hall of Famer and Mientkiewicz has a World Series ring and sufficient MLB experience to give him plenty of credibility.

If you want someone familiar with the players who are moving up through the organization and are preparing to arrive at Target Field over the next two or three years, both men have that familiarity, though in somewhat different amounts.

The only thing neither man has would be the, “fresh set of eyes,” that some would consider helpful, if not critical, to this organization.

Which brings us to the third finalist for the Twins managerial job, Torey Lovullo.

Lovullo has nine years of experience managing in the minor leagues, including time at both the AA and AAA levels, which neither internal candidate can say. There is little doubt that, of the three, he would be the most prepared to handle all aspects of the job on the first day he’s in the position.

Lovullo has experience as a “second-in-command” bench coach at the big league level. Molitor was part of Tom Kelly’s bench staff for a time and was a hitting coach for the Mariners for one year. All of that experience is at least a decade old, however. He was on Gardenhire’s bench this past season. Mientkiewicz has not held a field manager/coach job above Class A.

From all accounts, Lovullo has a baseball mind and eye for detail that may not be quite on par with Molitor’s, but isn’t all that far behind it.

He not only is “open” to new ideas, he has a history of actively seeking them out.

Based strictly on a managerial/coaching résumé, there doesn’t appear to be much doubt that Lovullo is more qualified, right now, to be a big league manager.

But we all know this choice doesn’t just come down to that factor. We knew it when Terry Ryan told the media that he would be looking at both internal and external candidates, that what was important was finding the “right” person, but that, “ideally,” that choice would come from inside the organization. We’ve known it all along.

Here is what Lovullo does not have:

  • Experience as a Major League manager
  • Significant successful Major League playing experience (Lovullo was, in today’s parlance, a “replacement level player,” who saw big league time as a utility infielder in eight seasons, but played in over 100 games just once, putting up a .224 career batting average)
  • Direct experience within the Twins organization

The first two points are really not factors at all. None of this group of finalists has big league manager experience and I think history has pretty much borne out that experience as a player in the majors is not predictive of success as a manager. He successfully climbed the ladder and reached “the Show.” That should be all the credibility he needs with a group of young players who have been doing the exact same thing.

But then there is the final bullet point.

And really, that’s what we knew it would come down to all along, isn’t it?

An objective look at the qualifications of these three guys (albeit an outsider’s look, given that we aren’t privy to information in background checks or reference checks, etc.) would seem to tell us Torey Lovullo is the most qualified of the group to manage in the Major Leagues.

But will Terry Ryan and the rest of the Twins’ leadership really be comfortable turning over the manager’s office to an outsider – someone who they have absolutely zero experience dealing with outside of a job interview that reportedly went extremely well?

If Mientkiewicz doesn’t get the job, he’ll almost certainly remain in the organization, either back in Fort Myers or in Chattanooga, most likely.

But if Molitor doesn’t get the gig, there is probably some serious doubt as to whether he would remain in the Twins organization at all. Make no mistake, he has been a valuable resource in the roles he’s played with the Twins, whether as a roving minor league instructor or a coach with the Twins. Passing him over may cost the organization that resource, altogether.

Given the competition he’s up against, I don’t see Mientkiewicz getting this job. I think it’s down to Molitor and Lovullo.

When it comes right down to making that decision, I don’t think Ryan and Jim Pohlad will give the position to even a highly qualified outsider. I think we’ll be seeing Paul Molitor named the manager within the next week or so.

If that’s the case, I’m fine with it. I like Molitor and I think he could be successful in the role, given the right coaching staff and resources (both in terms of players and technology) to compete.

Choosing Lovullo, on the other hand, would not only surprise me, but give me a little extra optimism that things at One Twins Way are actually changing and while I already have considerable respect for Terry Ryan, making this sort of choice will significantly raise that level of respect.

It would be an uncharacteristic choice. It would be a bold choice.

It also, I am coming around to believing, would be the right choice.

– JC

Picking a Twins Manager: Get it Right

Over a week ago, I wrote about what I would do if I owned the Minnesota Twins, including giving my GM instructions to fire his manager. Obviously, Jim Pohlad not only read my article, but took it to heart because less than a week later, Ron Gardenhire was out as manager of the Twins.

GM Terry Ryan
GM Terry Ryan

In the days since that announcement, speculation has been rampant concerning who the next manager might be.

For his part, General Manager Terry Ryan said he would cast a wide net. He indicated he would look inside and outside the organization and that “diversity” would be a factor, both for the manager position and, ultimately, for the Twins’ coaching staff (further evidence that my advice, which included instructions for adding more Latin American coaches, was being followed almost to the letter).

It occurs to me, now, that I may have done a disservice to the Twins GM in my earlier article. I honestly didn’t expect Twins ownership to follow my advice. Heck, I didn’t even know Pohlad was one of my loyal readers.

Had I known how quickly he would take my advice to heart and act on it, I would have included advice to Ryan on how to go about replacing Gardenhire. But I didn’t. My bad.

But today, I’m going to rectify that oversight. Better late than never, right?

The Twins are a tight-knit organization. Rare is the case when something involving the internal workings of the front office reaches the public until the top dogs in that office want it to.

How do you know when they want the public to know something? Just assume that if you’re reading it, they want you to know it. You’ll be correct 99% of the time.

So here’s what the Twins want us to know about their manager search, so far:

Paul Molitor and Doug Mientkiewicz have been interviewed, Molitor more than once. Both are serious candidates for the job. Gene Glynn will be interviewed. Ozzie Guillen will not. That’s about all of it.

You know what? Molitor, Mientkiewicz and Glynn would all, in my opinion, have the potential to be excellent choices. If Terry Ryan introduces one of them as the next manager on Monday morning, you won’t find me yielding a pitchfork and marching on Target Field.

But it would be wrong.

To explain, allow me to digress briefly and talk about Iowa Hawkeyes football – specifically the head coaching job at Iowa.

A lot of Hawkeye fans love long-time coach Kirk Ferentz. A lot of Hawkeye fans would like to see Ferentz replaced. But, a good number of those fans have an unrealistic view of the Iowa program and the kind of coaching candidates the Iowa job might attract. Iowa is not Alabama, USC or Ohio State. You would not get top tier coaches tripping over themselves to take over the Iowa program. You would have to either hire from within or hire a lower tier outside candidate who has not yet proven himself.

In other words, when you talk about replacing Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, you’d better be careful what you wish for.

But here’s the thing: The Minnesota Twins are not in that position.

Sure, they’ve had 90+ losses for four straight years. That might seem like the kind of thing that would relegate the organization to a position where they have to be satisfied with the left-overs after the good teams in Major League Baseball decide who they want as their manager.

However, “good” MLB teams already have their managers in place. It’s not like there are going to be teams in the postseason immediately letting their managers go the day after their seasons end.

Manager candidates are being interviewed in a number of locations across baseball, but each of those teams has one thing in common – they played bad baseball in 2014.

Currently, there are three managerial openings: the Texas Rangers, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Twins. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Milwaukee Brewers added to that list in coming days, but as things stand right now, the Twins’ 92 losses are the fewest among teams currently interviewing for a new manager.

The Minnesota Twins should be choice number 1 for anyone with designs on landing a big league manager’s job in 2015.

Texas and Arizona have had front office disruptions in recent years. In Arizona, your new General Manager was a player agent a couple weeks ago and will be reporting to an executive who was a Hall of Fame caliber manager. In both locations, the manager is going to have multiple bosses looking over his shoulder, all of which likely believe they could do your job better than you do (and in at least one case, he’d probably be right).

Arizona and Texas don’t have terrible talent. They have some guys who know how to to play baseball and they have minor league organizations considered to be at least average in terms of the talent moving through the pipeline. (It’s that dreary farm system of the Brewers that anyone considering a run at a potential Milwaukee opening should be wary of.)

Arizona is going to be rebuilding and trying to compete in a division with the Giants, who field perennial championship level teams, and the Dodgers, who are clearly committed to leaving the New York Yankees in the dust when it comes to being willing to spend money to buy championships.

The Rangers “only” have to deal with the Angels and A’s, I guess.

The Twins, on the other hand, had one of the top ranked farm systems in baseball heading in to 2014 and have a General Manager about whom their owner has stated that he’d be the GM for as long as he wants to remain in the job. That GM leads an organization that has demonstrated loyalty (to a fault, some might say) to managers.

The Tigers are aging and the Royals’ postseason run assures that they’ll retain Ned Yost as manager, which virtually assures that you won’t be viewed as the worst manager in your division, no matter what.

Who, in his right mind, would prefer one of the other open positions over the Twins’ job?

Which, finally, brings us to this advice for Terry Ryan:

You need to get this right. That’s not only the most important thing, it’s the only important thing, in this process. And here’s the process:

Step 1 – Talk to those in baseball you respect and ask them who they believe are the top 3 potential managers in all of baseball not currently under contract to manage another MLB team. Then make your own list of the top half dozen names or so.

Step 2 – Interview everybody on that list and identify those that not only are likely to succeed in 2015, but have a, “you never stop learning,” approach to life in general and baseball in particular, which you can envision allowing him to lead your team to success for the next decade. Ask each of them to tell you what they’ve learned about the game of baseball in the past two years that they didn’t know before. Anyone who can’t give you a number of ways in which they have expanded their baseball knowledge in that time should immediately be crossed off your list.

Step 3 – Rank your candidates after interviewing all of them, and not before.

Step 4 – Hire the name at the top of your list.

It’s really that simple.

Don’t get lost in a quagmire of details like how many years of experience they have as a manager at the big league level or at the minor league level or as a coach in the big leagues or whether their players liked them or not. Everyone who has coached/managed at any level has players who liked them and players who didn’t. Every one of them has success stories – and has failed at something.

Just act like you are the General Manager offering the best managerial opportunity in baseball and you are entitled to hire the best managerial candidate. You deserve that. The Twins deserve that.

Twins fans deserve nothing less.

– JC

If I Owned the Twins

I’ve been a bit out of touch with Twinsville for a couple of weeks as I’ve had some business travel and other non-Twins-related matters to occupy most of my time.

I did catch up a bit on my Twins reading in the past day or so, however, and – well – let’s just say I’ve been much more interested in the writing about the Twins than I have been with what’s transpired on the field with the Twins.

I read the columns by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s baseball writers and columnists recently, in which they were asked to share their ideas concerning what the Twins need to do to “fix” the sorry state of affairs at Target Field.

Jim Souhan believes manager Ron Gardenhire has to go.

Patrick Reusse believes the Twins need coaches who relate better to the increasing (and increasingly important) Latino segment of their roster.

LaVelle E. Neal wants the Twins to do whatever it takes to add an “ace” at the top of their rotation.

Phil Miller says, as hard as it may be to do so, the answer is patience, as we await the imminent arrival of some outstanding young prospects.

Their respective articles reflect opinions I think we’ve all heard voiced many times as this fourth consecutive 90-loss season has been completing its death spiral.

The only near unanimous opinion is, as TwinsDaily’s Nick Nelson penned this week, “The Twins Have a Problem.”

After doing all that reading, I paused and contemplated what it must be like right now to be Jim Pohlad.

I honestly believe he’s embarrassed by what his team has become – an irrelevant organization. The Twins are irrelevant among their MLB brethren. They are irrelevant within the Minnesota professional sports scene.

Owner Jim Pohlad, GM Terry Ryan and President Dave St. Peter
Owner Jim Pohlad, GM Terry Ryan and President Dave St. Peter (photo: SD Buhr)

Say what you will about the Pohlad family, they did not get to where they are in life by being irrelevant.

I began to wonder what was going through the Twins’ owner’s mind these days as he prepares for, perhaps, the most difficult offseason since the passing of his father, Carl. Maybe Jim is asking himself, “WWCD?” What Would Carl Do?

Naturally, that led me to ponder what I would do if I were in Pohlad’s shoes. What steps would I take to make sure I never, ever, felt like this going in to an offseason again.

One awful season was an unpleasant aberration. Two was uncomfortable. Three was painful. Four is… I don’t even know, but you wouldn’t want to be around me much if I owned a team with the record of abject failure that the Twins have had so far this decade.

I thought all four of the Strib’s writers had good thoughts. I also believe there isn’t a single one of those ideas that would satisfy me if I owned the Twins.

If the four Strib guys worked for me and came to my office with those ideas, here’s what I’d say:

I think you’ve all made valid points. But here’s my problem.

Patience, Phil? I’ve been patient for three years. Don’t talk to me about prospects. Until they prove themselves at Target Field, those guys are nothing but business assets. They represent fluxuating inventory with short shelf lives. You’re not asking me to be patient, you’re asking me to be comatose.

You want me to buy (in money or prospects) an ‘ace,’ LaVelle. Great idea. I’ve been telling my General Manager to feel free to spend more money on whatever he thinks will improve this team. But we can’t force players to sign with us and pretty much every long term, big money, contract for an ‘ace’ that has been signed has turned out to be a bad contract for the team. And I may not be in love with prospects, but I’m not going to give them away in return for an aging pitcher who my stat buddies tell me has seen his best days behind him. If my GM can find an ‘ace’ available on the market who is willing to come to our town or one with enough tread on the tire left to be counted on for a few years of ace-hood that’s available for any trade even close to reasonable, we’ll go get him.

Jim, I really don’t think any manager in history could have won half his games the past four years with the collection of has-beens, wanna-bes and never-weres wearing a Twins uniform, so if you really believe firing Ron Gardenhire is going to fix things, you know a lot less about baseball than most baseball fans. And that’s a tough bar to get under.

Pat, same for you. I think it makes a lot of sense to have more of a Latin-American presence in the clubhouse. But do you think having a dozen Latino coaches would make this team a winner? I don’t. By the way, between the four of you guys, there must be about a zillion years of covering baseball between you, right? How’s your Spanish? I think every coach in our organization should learn Spanish, but I also think every media member who covers baseball should, too, and until you do, you’ve got very little room to criticize.

The problem is that none of your ideas will fix things. Not if that’s all we do.

Our fans aren’t stupid enough to believe that any one player, no matter how good he is, will turn this team in to a contender. Not if he’s a current Tigers ace, LaVelle, and not if he’s a near-certain future Hall of Fame center fielder who hasn’t completed a full game (much less a season) above high-A ball, Phil.

Many of them want Gardy gone. I understand that. But even the Gardy haters don’t really believe replacing him will turn a 90-loss team in to a 90-win team. Replacing even an unpopular manager won’t put butts back in the seats and replacing his staff with five guys from Venezuela won’t, either.

So, no, we’re not going to do a single one of these things.

We’re going to do all of them.

And more.

That’s when I would thank the Strib guys for their time, give them some drink tickets and send them to Hrbeks for a couple of refreshments while I talk to my President and General Manager.

With Dave St. Peter and Terry Ryan in my office, here’s what I lay out for them.

“Gentlemen, the good news for you is that neither of you are fired. Yet.

But I’m tired of losing. I’m tired of losing games and I’m tired of losing fans. And you two may think I don’t know crap about baseball, but I suspect that just maybe losing games and losing fans might be related.

Terry, I tried to tell you a year ago that I was tired of people telling me I’m cheap and won’t spend money for top talent. Some bozo on the internet even made up a parable about it. I want you to go read it and then, Terry, use the damn ladder!

I’ve got a list of the top 20 starting pitchers in baseball, ranked by some goofy thing called WAR. By the date season tickets have to be renewed, one of those guys is going to be working for me, Terry – or you won’t be. Do we understand one another?

Speaking of people working for me, you’re going to go tell Ron Gardenhire that he doesn’t. At least not as my manager.

Gardy’s a helluva guy and he’s had some good days as our manager. We’ll give him a nice watch, but I don’t believe he’s the guy to lead this team for the next 10 years and neither do our fans. Who you hire is your business. I’m just telling you who you’re going to fire.

I take that back, I am going to tell you a little bit about who you’re going to hire.

When spring training opens, I want at least two Latino members on the bench staff.

I mean it, Terry. And I’m not talking about a couple guys who took Spanish class in junior high. I’m going to send Tony Oliva to talk to whoever you hire and they’d better be able to keep up with him in a conversation.

Every company in every industry in this country has been getting on the diversity bandwagon for years. Everyone figured out long ago that having management that can communicate in Spanish is critical to attracting and retaining top Spanish speaking employees. I don’t know why you haven’t figured this out on your own yet, but now I’m telling you.

One more thing, Terry.

If they’re healthy, Alex Meyer, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton will open 2015 with the Twins. How do I know? I heard all about it in the giant advertising campaign that St. Peter and the marketing folks are putting together the moment he walks out of this meeting. Right Dave?

That ad is going to run on the local affiliate carrying the Super Bowl. I want everyone in town talking about the Twins the next day and I want them buying tickets. Lots of tickets.

Dave, I keep reading about how attendance is going to drop next year. I’m telling you that it won’t. If it does, the attendance in your office will drop by one.

Our season ticket holders have been paying Major League prices for minor league performance for four years. I don’t care how far you have to slash prices, you put butts in the seats.

Next summer, people may call us crazy for what we’ve done. They may say we’ve lost our minds. But if they’re still saying the Twins are irrelevant, you two will not be calling me your boss.

Give my love to your families.

And then I think I’d take a very long cruise around the world on a very large boat and look forward to seeing what my team looked like when I got back.

– JC

Interview with Twins GM Terry Ryan – Part 2

Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan had surgery for squamous cell carcinoma in February and has undergone radiation treatment as well. In the meantime, Assistant General Manager Rob Antony has filled in as the interim GM for the Twins, though Ryan has been in regular contact with Antony and others in the Twins front office.

During the past Cedar Rapids Kernels homestand, Ryan was in town observing the Twins’ young Class A prospects and sat down Sunday for an interview that covered a range of topics.

In Part 1, we covered his return to work, his view of the current state of the Twins at the big league level and his thoughts concerning the upcoming MLB First Year Player Draft.

Today, Ryan shares some thoughts and observations concerning the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

Like their parent club, the Kernels have hovered near the .500 mark most of the season. That’s been no small achievement given the number of injuries that manager Jake Mauer’s club has sustained. They currently have seven players on the Disabled List and have others who have been on the DL and come back already.

Terry Ryan
Terry Ryan

Ryan acknowledged that it’s a very different club than local fans saw a year ago when top prospects like Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Adam Brett Walker and Travis Harrison were wearing Kernels colors.

“We had a very talented club here last year, you’d like to think we could supply this affiliate with that kind of talent every year, but it’s not going to happen. We’ve got a different looking club this year.

“We’ve got some pitching here. Don’t have the thump. Don’t have the type of line up we had last year, which was a very dangerous line up. We don’t have that type of size. We had monstrous guys here so yeah it’s different.

“But every year is going to be different no matter what you try to do or accomplish at a minor league affiliate. You’re looking for players, you’re trying to develop players. This is a little different lot.

“So you adjust. Jake and Tommy (Watkins, the hitting coach) and Ivan (Arteaga, the pitching coach) are going about their business. It’s a little bigger challenge this year because you don’t have a Buxton here, you don’t have a Walker. You don’t have a Polanco.

“But that comes with the territory. When you’re running a Class A club, you’re going to have different personnel every year. You’ll have a few repeats, but for the most part it’s a different club and a different atmosphere and different results.”

Asked for his observations on specific players, Ryan was reluctant to go in to much detail, given that he had seen just four Kernels games at the time of the interview.

“It’s a little dangerous when you start naming names.

“I haven’t seen Stewart (Kohl Stewart, the Twins first round draft pick a year ago), of course. He’s pitching today. But he’s the most recognizable name on this roster for a lot of reasons. He’s talented and he’s a big draft. I’ll be interested to see how he does today.

“He had a tough outing his last go, I understand, I didn’t see it. He went two or three innings and they had to go get him. I doubt very much that he’s experienced that in his life but this is the ideal spot (to experience that). Alright, let’s see how he handles this. We’ll see if he bounces back today and gets back to his normal self. If he doesn’t then I would be a little concerned. But if he does, which I would expect, it’s just a matter of growth.

For the record, Stewart did indeed bounce back under the watchful eyes of the GM. Stewart threw six innings Sunday, giving up just one earned run, in the Kernels’ win over Burlington.

“He’s an athlete, he’s confident,” continued Ryan. “He’s got the skills that you’re looking for. There’s a reason the guy was picked fourth in the (draft). He was picked up there because he’s got strength, he’s got a body, he’s got mechanics, he’s got stuff, he’s got competitiveness.

“He’s got the kind of mechanics and arm action that would be conducive to pounding strikes, which is good.”

Kernels fans are getting the opportunity to see a native Cedar Rapidian in action with the Kernels this season.

Chad Christensen, the Twins’ 25th round pick a year ago out of the University of Nebraska, played high school ball at Cedar Rapids Washington. He came north with the club out of spring training and is hitting .290 while playing all over the field for the injury-plagued Kernels.

“One of the things that I think we were impressed with when he came out of Nebraska was his ability to have some versatility for a club,” Ryan said of Christensen. “He’s got strength and he’s got speed. He’s got strength in his bat. He can play a number of spots, including centerfield, which is pretty good.

Twins GM Terry Ryan chats with members of the Cedar Rapids grounds crew
Twins GM Terry Ryan chats with members of the Cedar Rapids grounds crew

“When he showed up last year after signing, he made a good impression and then in spring training. He’s got the type of make-up that you want to have him on your club. I’m sure Jake was pleased when he did come here and I think he’s even more pleased with what he sees in the results.

“He’s just been a good player on this team, home town or not. That’s a little bit more pressure for a kid to come in here and play in front of your home town. He’s handled it quite well. In fact, he might be the most consistent guy we’ve had on this club. Not that I’ve been around much, but I read those things, the reports and that stuff.”

Ryan is aware that the Kernels have had more than their fair share of injuries, but doesn’t feel they should be keeping the team from performing well on the field.

“It’s no excuse. We’ve got other players.

“(Jason) Kanzler came in because of an injury to Zack Granite. So here comes Kanzler and he’s been quite good here. There are other people that we can go get and hopefully fill in for an injury.

“Now, we’re starting to get healthy. A bunch of these guys are going to get healthy here soon.

“Getting back on the diamond is important for a 21 year old, because they can’t afford to spend a lot of time on the Disabled List. You just can’t do anything with them. There’s no development time, they’re getting bypassed, stuff like that. They’ll get healthy and we’ll get them back here.

“We’ve got some kids with ability but so far it’s been a slow go for them. I’m not so sure the weather was too conducive to what they were trying to do. The thing is, you’re going to have to learn to do that. We play in Cedar Rapids, we play in New Britain (CT), we play in Rochester (NY) and we play in Minnesota. Minnesota is not too much different than Cedar Rapids.”

About a year ago, Twins top prospect Byron Buxton and others were promoted from the Kernels up to Class high-A Fort Myers shortly after the mid-June Midwest League All-Star break. Ryan’s visit shouldn’t be interpreted as a precursor to similar promotions, however.

“When I come in here, I don’t worry about that stuff. That’s Brad Steil (Twins minor league director) and that would be Jake and the minor league coordinators.

“If someone is dominating, as you know, we’ll move them. I don’t know if we’ve got any of that going on here. I don’t think we’re in that position quite yet.

“Although if somebody starts dominating this league in the next month or so and they put up numbers and you say, ‘what more do they have to do?’ That’s about the time you start saying ‘let’s move him up.’”

Ryan was asked for an update on the condition Buxton, who has missed almost the whole season so far with a wrist injury.

“We had him see a specialist with that wrist about two weeks ago and there was no alarm. He re-aggravated that thing and we’re taking our time. It’s getting better. I read that yesterday in a medical report. He’s still not ready to take the field.

“He’s not going to lose a whole year. Unfortunately, April and May are shot, but he certainly played pretty good in March (during spring training). With him going through Major League camp, it was a good experience. He handled himself pretty well. He handled himself with some class. He understood, he listened, was very coachable.

“We’ll get him back up there. We’ll salvage the year, I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll be able to do some things to get him at-bats.”

Interview with Twins GM Terry Ryan – Part 1

During a routine physical exam early this year, Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan asked his doctor to take a look at a lump on his neck. Testing found Ryan to have squamous cell carcinoma.

Ryan had surgery in February and has undergone radiation treatment as well. In the meantime, Assistant General Manager Rob Antony has filled in as the interim GM for the Twins, though Ryan has been in regular contact with Antony and others in the Twins front office.

GM Terry Ryan observes Cedar Rapids Kernels batting practice on Sunday
GM Terry Ryan observes Cedar Rapids Kernels batting practice on Sunday

During the past Cedar Rapids Kernels homestand, Ryan was in town observing the Twins’ young Class A prospects and sat down Sunday morning for an interview that covered a range of topics.

In Part 1, we’ll cover his return to work, his view of the current state of the Twins at the big league level and his thoughts concerning the upcoming MLB First Year Player Draft that kicks off Thursday, June 5.

Usually a regular presence at spring training and all around the Twins minor league affiliates during most seasons, Ryan has understandably not been making those trips to this point this year. So the first question anyone would likely ask is, how is he feeling?

“I’m feeling OK. This is my first trip. I wanted to come here (to Cedar Rapids) so just in case I couldn’t handle it, I could just get in my vehicle and come back, but I can handle it.

“I’ve got a lot of physical therapy and a lot of rehab to go still. I’m doing that. But I’m OK, I’m fine, I’m fortunate actually.”

Ryan indicated, however, that there still is no specific timetable for his return to full time General Manager duties.

“I’m going back for the draft after this game today (Sunday). That’s a huge piece to our year. It’s one of the most important days to our entire year – maybe the most important. So I’ll be going back for the draft. That’ll be a huge step for me, because I’ve got to get acclimated to the players.

“On an everyday basis, I’ve certainly been participating. I haven’t taken any road trips but that’s about all. And when we’re home, I’m usually at a game up there. So it’s not like I haven’t been involved.

“(Rob Antony) has done a nice job. He certainly knows what he’s doing, he’s been around it. He’s been around Gardy a lot and he’s been around the team a lot. We’re in good hands.

“Ultimately when the time is right, I’ll take a road trip and we’ll kind of make a seamless transition again. I’m not sure when that’s going to be, but it shouldn’t be down in the future too far.”

Asked if that meant we should expect to see him back in the GM chair before the end of the current season, Ryan responded, “Yeah, no question.”

As Ryan indicated, he was headed back up to Minneapolis after Sunday’s Kernels game to participate in the organizational preparations for the First Year Player Draft. The GM wouldn’t tip his hand concerning who the team is targeting with the fifth overall pick in the first round, but Ryan shared what he’d like to see accomplished in the draft.

“Where we’re picking, everybody’s always trying to get the best guy. Nobody cares if they take a pitcher or position player.

“It’s like when took (Byron) Buxton. Everybody thought we were going to take a pitcher. We didn’t. And I caught hell up there. It was ‘pitching, pitching’. Well, the guy is named minor league player of the year. We’ll take the best guy there.

“This has got a little more pitching flavor to this draft. There’s not a clear cut number 1. There are a handful of guys that could go 1. But at 5, we’re sitting in a good spot. We’re going to get a good player or pitcher, it doesn’t matter which way we go. We’re going to take probably the best guy.”

Ryan was asked whether this year’s high number of “Tommy John” injuries among pitchers across baseball makes him feel any greater inclination to draft heavy on pitching.

“I’m guessing we will. We did last year. We did the year before. We’ll draft a lot of pitching just because of the attrition. We need to make sure we have numbers and competition.

“Actually the depth and some of the talent in our organization is starting to lean toward pitching. We’ve got some pitching in AAA. We’ve got some arms that can run it up there with some velocity now, which is good to see.

“But we won’t have enough, so we’ll take a bunch more.

“I’d like to see us take more left handed pitching. That would be my preference. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the first guy, but that wouldn’t bother me either.

“For me, left handed pitching is a commodity that’s very difficult to come by. You’ve got to take it and hopefully develop a few of them and get lucky with a few of them. If we took a lot of left handed pitching, I would be very pleased.”

While his trip to Cedar Rapids was his first road trip of the season, Ryan has seen a lot of the parent club’s home games in Minneapolis. The Twins have hovered near the .500 mark through most of the season and just completed a rare series win over the Yankees in New York over the weekend. Ryan was asked for his impressions of the Twins’ performance so far.

“We’re better. It didn’t help us when (Josh) Willingham and (Oswaldo) Arcia both went down at the same time. Although at that time, we were scoring runs. (Chris) Colabello carried us for a month, maybe more. We’ve had trouble offensively again this past month.

“Our pitching is improved, our hitting went the other way. It was directly opposite in April. We’re a better club. We’ve got more depth.

“We’ve had a couple of pleasant surprises, particularly (Eduardo) Escobar. He’s kind of emerged and looks like he might want to take that shortstop job. I think (Trevor) Plouffe has improved. (Kurt) Suzuki has been a good addition. (Phil) Hughes has been a good addition. Unfortunately, we lost (Mike) Pelfrey, again. But we’re better.

“We’re competitive. We have not embarrassed ourselves, maybe a game here or there, but not too much. Unlike last year when we were out of games in the fifth (inning) a lot.

“We do have some chemistry and character on this club that seems to mesh pretty well . When you go to the park, you feel pretty good. At least we’re going to be a competitive team in this game. That’s a big difference.

“The one constant, our bullpen has been pretty good over the last number of years. (Glen) Perkins in the back side of that thing has solidified that.

“We’ve got a handful of guys up there that people didn’t see last year, which is kind of neat. Between (Josmil) Pinto and Escobar and (Danny) Santana and (Caleb) Theilbar and Arcia, all those guys are 20-25 or so.

“We’re getting there. We’ve got a ways to go. What we’ve done the last three years has not been good at all, but we are getting there. It’s going to take a little bit more.”

Tomorrow, in Part 2, Ryan shares some of his observations concerning the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the challenges they’ve faced this season.