Reusse: Down on the farm, there are no horses

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2011 - 8:36 AM

The Twins thought they could rebuild their bullpen and find capable fill-ins from their minor leaguers, and they aren't there.

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Twins' Alexi Casilla hasn't done nearly enough to prove to the Twins he's the answer for the team's hole at shortstop.

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The 2010 Twins won a surprising 94 games and then suffered a three-game playoff sweep against a New York Yankees club that was beatable. The reaction to this was to dismantle the bullpen and the middle of the infield.

Lefthander Brian Fuentes was obviously a late-season rental, but the other veterans -- Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch -- had been key ingredients in manager Ron Gardenhire's bullpen throughout the season.

The contention in the baseball offices at Target Field was that there would be enough options available in spring training for Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson to rebuild a bullpen, as they had done a couple of times in the past.

There were contrasting reasons for getting rid of the veterans in the middle, shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Orlando Hudson. The Twins were wary of Hardy's frequent injuries in 2010, and they weren't overly impressed with Hudson as a player or a personality.

There were financial considerations with all these non-returnees. Joe Mauer's salary was increasing by $11 million, and there were significant raises for others. As it was, the payroll was headed to $113 million -- and it would've been close to $130 M if they had brought back, say, Crain, Guerrier, Hardy and Hudson.

The Twins did invest substantially in one replacement: infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the batting champion of the Japan League. They gave him a three-year, $10.5 million contract after also paying a $5.3 million fee to his Japanese team for negotiating rights.

The Twins' idea was to pair Nishioka with former backup Alexi Casilla, and then to reach into the minor league system for relievers and fill-ins when the inevitable injuries surfaced with the big club.

A couple of problems with that:

• The Rochester Red Wings, the Class AAA affiliate, were 49-95 in 2010. That was the worst record in the International League by nine games. They had a team ERA of 5.42 that was .43 runs worse than any other club.

• The New Britain Rock Cats, the Class AA affiliate, were 44-98. That was the worst record in the Eastern League by 22 games. They had a team ERA of 5.66 that was .36 runs worse than any other club.

You can say that amidst the carnage there was player development taking place. You can say that often enough to convince yourself that relief pitching and infield options and fill-ins for injuries will be available for the 2011 season, and then a month into the schedule you will know the horrible truth:

It wasn't misfortune but a dearth of talent that caused your top farm clubs to be embarrassments to everyone, including their cities.

Class AAA and Class AA are where the new arms and the options and the fill-ins are supposed to come in from for the next season. And if such players were there, you would not field teams with winning percentages of .340 and .310.

The talent at these levels was so short of what existed in other organizations that the Twins signed 12 minor-league free agents -- veterans of six pro seasons or more -- in an attempt to provide competitive clubs.

You can claim this was done to get young players at the right level, but when guys such as Joe Benson, Chris Parmelee and Deolis Guerra are again back in Class AA, what's that say about the warmness of these prospects?

This is all you have to know about the current condition of the Twins: Casilla could not have done more to play himself out of the lineup (and the big leagues), and his veteran backup, Matt Tolbert, won't claim the job.

Yet, even with failings at shortstop, Gardenhire remains unenthused about bringing in Trevor Plouffe from Rochester. Plouffe is seven years removed from being a first-round draft choice, and the manager still doesn't trust his fielding.

In the bullpen, the Twins have Jose Mijares pitching like a rank amateur, which puts him only fourth in line behind Alex Burnett, Jim Hoey and Dusty Hughes among relievers trying to earn a demotion and/or release.

Yes, this failure has more to do with Mauer saying he can't play because of "soreness" than it does Casilla, Tolbert, Drew Butera and Steve Holm not being functional big leaguers, and this failure has more to do with Francisco Liriano flopping around the mound like a Little Leaguer than it does Mijares, D. Hughes, Burnett and Hoey, but this is what we have with the 2011 Twins:

A team that entered this season with a bad plan, and with no backup plan at all when it didn't work.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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