Before the All-Star break, the Twins won five of seven games on a road trip, then lobbied for General Manager Terry Ryan to keep the roster intact instead of dismantling the team at the trade deadline.
A successful week and a few optimistic words don’t alter reality: The Twins are marginally better today than they have been at this juncture the past three years, but this is not a good team, nor a promising team. The Twins would have to post a record of 37-31 in their final 68 games merely to reach .500. They might have to finish 43-25 or so to contend for a playoff spot. That is highly unlikely.
The Twins are tied for last place in a mediocre division. If Ryan can trade a player who is not part of the team’s long-term plans for value, he should.
Kurt Suzuki has excelled for three months. His value is higher than ever. If Ryan can trade the catcher for a good player or prospect, he should.
Potential trades will occupy the minds of fans for the next two weeks, but there are more important questions facing the franchise:
1. How long can even a franchise known for patience and stability keep key figures in place after four noncompetitive seasons?
While the Pohlads are known for staying the course, they have never before been in this situation, because they have never before lost so many games while playing in a new, expensive, state-of-the-art ballpark. The stakes are higher now because sellouts make the Pohlads so much money, and empty seats cost them so much.
2. Will Ryan keep the job long-term?
Ryan will turn 61 in October. He missed spring training and the beginning of the season while recovering from cancer. He has rebuilt the farm system and strengthened the front office and coaching staff, but injuries to top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, and the time required to break in even top pitching prospects, mean his team might not be ready to contend until 2016.
Does Ryan have the patience and energy to handle a draining job for years to come? (Ryan turned down an interview request this week.)
Remember, he retired after the 2007 season despite being being considered, at the time, one of the great GMs in the game.
3. If Ryan retires again, would ownership turn to assistant general manager Rob Antony or, for the first time since hiring Andy MacPhail from the Houston Astros, would ownership look outside the organization?
4. Will the Twins keep manager Ron Gardenhire if the 2014 team doesn’t rally? The Twins stuck with Tom Kelly through eight consecutive losing seasons, from 1993-2000, but he had won two World Series and was working for an owner who had intentionally stripped the payroll. The Twins signed Gardenhire to a two-year extension last year, which seemed more an attempt by Ryan to avoid blaming Gardenhire for the team’s problems than a long-term vote of confidence.
5. If Gardenhire’s run ends at the end of the season, is there any doubt Paul Molitor would be the next manager?
He was the most intelligent player of his generation. He is friendly with ownership. He has a rapport with the Twins’ top prospects, having worked closely with them in his previous job as minor league instructor. This spring, when I asked Buxton and Sano who they went to for advice, both said, quickly, “Molitor.”
Molitor has the cachet and name recognition of a homegrown Hall of Famer. While Gardenhire isn’t to blame for the poor pitching staffs he’s been handed, the sheer weight of losing, and the number of players who have thrived elsewhere after leaving the Twins, leaves him operating under a cloud.
So the final question for the Pohlads is this:
How much more losing can they stomach before they make a change?