Tampa Bay is the best example of that, having collected a decade’s worth of high draft picks such as Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young, but finding it hard to gain any traction in the majors. Not until Evan Longoria arrived in 2008, and Young was dealt to the Twins for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, did Tampa Bay become anything but a cellar dweller.
Similarly, the Royals began moving their best prospects to the majors three years ago, but only now have they reached .500. And even the Twins of the past decade, who won six division titles in nine years, needed a couple of seasons to develop.
And that’s the biggest reason the Twins’ 2014 record might not be much better than the three seasons before it. Even in the best of circumstances, Ryan cautions, roster-building is a challenge “that’s going to have a certain number of setbacks, a certain number of misfires, because you’re dealing with people, with kids,” he said. “You never know how they’ll respond.”
That could have served as the Twins’ slogan in 2013. Arcia once looked like a Rookie of the Year candidate, then got so tangled in a slump that he was sent back to Class AAA Rochester in July. Hicks might have been the Twins’ best player for much of spring training, then was entirely overwhelmed at the plate when the season began; his 2013 was such a setback, the center fielder will likely open next year in Rochester. Yet Ryan Pressly made the same Class AA-to-the-majors jump as Hicks, and thrived in the bullpen.
With that sort of unpredictability, it’s no wonder that Ryan chose not to jettison his veterans, in the manner that Kansas City and Houston have in recent years, and commit completely to a youth movement. That’s a delicate balance to manage, even when you’re armed, as Ryan is now, with one of the most burgeoning farm systems in the game. For one thing, none of his best prospects — third baseman Miguel Sano, outfielder Byron Buxton, second baseman Eddie Rosario — has even reached Rochester yet, and Hicks was a useful reminder of the danger of giving in to temptation and rushing a player.
And while he waits, Ryan had hoped to keep the Twins competitive, even contending if things had gone perfectly, as he transitions to the next generation of players.
Didn’t work. Morneau’s on-base and slugging percentage (OPS) was the second-lowest of his career, a painful knee basically halved Willingham’s production, and Ryan Doumit’s extra-base pop declined noticeably. Morneau was moved in a trade (as was Jamey Carroll), but Willingham, who turns 35 before Opening Day, and Doumit, who will be 33, remain. So does Joe Mauer, who was enjoying a strong season as a 30-year-old until a concussion intervened; he’s under contract at $23 million per year through 2018.
Not that money should be an issue. The Twins spent roughly $80 million on players this year (counting savings through trades), or more than $30 million less than in 2011. And baseball’s new national TV contracts with Fox, Turner and ESPN go into effect next year, doubling each team’s share to more than $50 million, according to reports.
Trouble is, there are fewer impact players than ever to spend it on. MLB teams have made it a habit in recent years of signing their own players to long-term deals that keep them from reaching free agency in their prime. This year’s crop of free agents include one player, Cano, almost certain to receive a deal larger than Mauer’s $184 million; a handful of good-but-not-great pitchers; and plenty of guys in their 30s, well past their best seasons. Ryan figures to do some shopping, but he is unlikely to land a star.
That’s why the Twins figure to keep preaching patience, even when the fan base wants DEFCON 1 urgency. Gardenhire, for one, has seen it work before — given time. The team he inherited from Tom Kelly in 2002 had largely risen to the majors as a group in 1999 and 2000, losing 190 games along the way.
“That group was a very confident group. They had come up together, won in the minor leagues together, and they were hungry, really hungry,” Gardenhire said of the Torii Hunter/Jacque Jones/A.J. Pierzynski/Corey Koskie/Cristian Guzman/Doug Mientkiewicz nucleus. “Right now, we have a mixture of kids and five-year free-agent guys here. And they haven’t really played a long time together, so it’s different.”