As Twins ownership searches for its new baseball bosses, Jim Pohlad and Dave St. Peter have to keep two words in mind: Worst. And: Pitching.
Those words can be used together or separately, as curses or laments, but mostly as impetus to change everything the Twins have been doing to build a pitching staff since the departure of Johan Santana.
The Twins are in the midst of what could become the worst season since the franchise moved to Minnesota, and pitching is the reason.
What is important for the Twins is the methodology of the new administration, and its ability to perform the magic trick of identifying and acquiring competent and durable starting pitchers. If they can improve the organization’s pitching via advanced analytics, that would be wonderful. If they can find a pitcher diviner or a pitcher whisperer or someone who can rub exactly the right snake oil on exactly the right elbows, that would be fine, as well. All that matters is that the new bosses know whom to take and how to develop him.
Whatever problems existed under ousted General Manager Terry Ryan, he has stocked the organization with good or promising position players. Where he failed was in the drafting, development, signing, nurturing and caretaking of their pitchers, from the day Twins scouts first eyeball them to the moment they take the Target Field mound.
The 2016 Twins currently own their worst seasonal winning percentage since 1982. Before winning Wednesday, they had their worst winning percentage since they were the 1957 Washington Senators. They have a chance to lose 100 games for only the second time since moving to Minnesota.
The easiest answer to any baseball problem is “fire the coach” and that seems likely to happen. Neil Allen is the Twins pitching coach. He seemed to do good work in 2015 and seems to have done little of substance this season, during which he was arrested for drunken driving.
The Twins might find it convenient to move on from Allen, but if they do they can’t pretend to have fixed a problem that is the definition of systemic.
Big-league coaches are more mental masseuses than architects. They rarely make or break careers. What the Twins need are better acquisitions, via the draft and free agency, and then a minor league system that prepares those acquisitions to deal with the mental and emotional rigors of engaging big-league hitters.
The Twins rank last in the majors in team ERA (5.25) and last in starting pitching ERA (5.60). While any group assessment commits the sin of generalization, as a pitching staff they possess mediocre stuff and no idea how to use it.
It is difficult to see Eddie Guardado languishing as the team’s bullpen coach, watching pitcher after pitcher take better stuff than he had to the mound while displaying a small fraction of his guts and know-how.
Wednesday night, Kyle Gibson took his pretty-good stuff and above-average size and impressive downward angle and first-round pedigree to the mound and meandered through six innings. Given his season, that was an improvement. It also provided a reminder, in the Twins’ 6-5 victory over the Royals, that mere competence from starting pitchers gives the team a chance to win, or at least to avoid approaching 100 losses.
At some point you would expect Twins pitchers to become embarrassed enough that they would throw inside. Not at heads, but at ribs, or elbows. Opposing hitters often look like they’re swinging from Barcaloungers, they’re so comfortable in the batter’s box.
So far reports have the Twins looking at former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos and a couple of Cubs executives in what is expected to be a wide search.
The new bosses probably will find the Twins’ young talent to their liking. Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Kennys Vargas, Nick Gordon and Dozier should provide the basis for a strong lineup, perhaps as soon as next season.
And they will be losing games 8-6, if the Twins’ new bosses can’t dramatically improve the quality of arms and brains taking the mound at Target Field.