The irony is unintentionally rich. One of the most optimistic voices about the Twins’ near future, from an insider who believed the era of 90-loss seasons would be a brief one, belonged to a player who was banished shortly after expressing his confidence in that future.
“We’ve seen how fast it can turn around. We’ve gone through it. You start winning, and everybody gains confidence from it, and it just sort of snowballs,” said Justin Morneau, invoking the Twins’ miraculous June-to-September charge to win the 2006 American League Central title. “This season hasn’t been what we wanted, but with the guys we have here and the young guys we have coming, I feel good about where we’re at.”
Where he’s at has changed, of course. Morneau delivered his sermon of hope while standing in the Twins clubhouse in mid-July, roughly six weeks before he was swapped to Pittsburgh in a move designed, at least on paper, to hasten the better days he envisioned.
But there is reason to believe Morneau’s baseball GPS needs recalibrating, too, because wherever the Twins are at, it doesn’t appear to be on playoff contention’s doorstep. In fact, it’s quite possible the Twins, division champs and winners of 94 games as recently as 2010 (but with only four of those players remaining), have not yet bottomed out, and that while next season may incorporate more promise and potential, it won’t necessarily come with more victories.
Yes, patience is hard.
“Everyone would like to plug Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano into your lineup, and off you go,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It doesn’t work like that. It takes time to build up your roster. In our case, we’ve got some core guys, and we bring up some young guys to fit around them, and see who’s ready and who’s not. And as they get better and develop, [your record] does, too.”
That’s not, however, a recipe that normally produces sudden reversals in the standings, especially considering these Twins’ starting point. The Twins have limped to the finish this fall, a third consecutive 90-loss season all but guaranteed. That’s a level of sustained failure that the franchise has endured only once before, suffering 90-loss seasons every year from 1997 to 2000 (though a players strike in 1981 likely prevented another three-year drought).
“It’s just really disappointing,” Gardenhire said, even if the Twins win a handful of games more than last season’s 66. “It’s hard to say it’s a better year when your record doesn’t indicate it. But we’ve seen some improvement in a few places, and we’ve used a lot of young people. But right now, it doesn’t feel [better].”
How much better it can get in 2014 depends largely on the roster revamp that General Manager Terry Ryan will undertake, beginning next month. Wish him luck: He has got to fix a starting rotation that had the worst ERA and fewest strikeouts in the majors, and a lineup that is in danger of scoring the fewest runs by a Twins team in a non-strike season since 1968. They have inadequate power, little speed and sub-mediocre starting pitching. The bullpen is good and the defense improved, but at baseball’s most basic level — scoring and preventing runs — the Twins are a fiasco.
And that leaves plenty of issues to address: Oswaldo Arcia appears to be the only outfielder relatively certain of a starting job. Pedro Florimon steadied the infield defense, but does his bat make him a better fit for a utility role? Is it time to move Joe Mauer, or will he still catch? Who replaces Morneau — or should he be re-signed? Can Trevor Plouffe improve at third, or is it time to find an alternative? And what should the rotation look like?
That last question is the most pressing, even though the Twins are actually on track to give up about 60 fewer runs this year than last. But of the 10 pitchers who started a game this season, only three possess an ERA below 5.25 — Samuel Deduno, whose season ended with shoulder surgery; Andrew Albers, whose junkball repertoire makes him a risky bet; and Kevin Correia, probably the only pitcher with any reason to be confident he will be in the 2013 rotation.
The solutions, though, aren’t particularly obvious. Free agency is a popular quick fix, but for a team like the Twins, that would be like shopping for a 100-person formal banquet at 7-Eleven — the needs are many, and the selection, particularly this year, is meager. Ryan has all but ruled out this route, saying, “If we’re going to do anything here [to] succeed in the near and long-term, it’s probably not going to be in free agency.”
Make a trade? That will take some creativity, since unlike with last offseason’s deals sending away Denard Span and Ben Revere, the Twins have few surpluses. Jared Burton, Casey Fien and Glen Perkins give them flexibility to deal a relief pitcher, but only Perkins figures to fetch much — and he’s a hometown bargain. Few other players have much trade value, for various reasons.
They could make small fixes around the edges; sign some low-profile free agents in the mold of Correia and Josh Willingham; and hope that some of their more disappointing players — Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks, Kyle Gibson, Scott Diamond — improve enough to lift what’s left of their “core” into contention. But that would be an unpopular product to sell to a skeptical fanbase.
Waiting on Sano and Buxton
No, the Twins have made it clear that the Buxton Era, or perhaps the Sano Era, is their chosen route to contention again, and if the comparisons to Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton, two of the game’s brightest young stars, are accurate, it’s a pretty good idea. Though it’s also worth noting that neither Trout nor Stanton has ever played a postseason game.
There are also some potholes on that route, particularly in 2014. The Twins’ top prospects probably aren’t ready. There’s no guarantee that the team will win when they are. And even the most successful rebuilds don’t win right away.
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.”