Can this season get any worse for the Twins? Theoretically, yes, although it’s difficult to imagine how that could happen.
So many errors, on the field and in the front office. We're talking about Murphy's Law here -- everything from a pitching staff with the highest ERA in the American League to catcher John Ryan Murphy, acquired in a trade and sent to the minors after starting the season with an .075 batting average.
How did this total system failure -- a phrase that originated with owner Jim Pohlad and since turned into a catchphrase and hash tag by disgruntled fans -- come to be? Baseball writers La Velle E. Neal III and Phil Miller, and columnists Jim Souhan and Patrick Reusse, have combined to chronicle a dozen things that haven't gone as planned.
Complete pitching collapse
Ricky Nolasco has underperformed or been hurt since the Twins signed him
From top to the bottom the Twins pitching staff has failed to perform this season. A rotation that was built to grind through the season has failed miserably.
Phil Hughes is still searching for his 2014 form. Kyle Gibson was ineffective, then injured. Ricky Nolasco is constantly pitching in jams. Ervin Santana has been mostly reliable when healthy. Tommy Milone is in the minors. Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios are their most talented starters, and Berrios is back in the minors.
This has led to the teams pulling away from the Twins early in games.
The bullpen is reeling from Glen Perkins’ injury and struggles among other relievers.
There is nothing more demoralizing than a bullpen that can’t hold leads, and the Twins have one save over the last month. These are areas where the Twins need to aim high via trades or free agency — instead of waiting for their farm system to provide solutions.
That’s too unpredictable, as the Twins have learned with lineup players Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano.
--La Velle E. Neal III
Dozier has failed
There's no argument: Brian Dozier has hurt more than he's helped
Brian Dozier has led the Twins in home runs for three straight seasons. He was an All-Star last year. He is an excellent fielder and above-average baserunner. He has a winning personality and an admirable work ethic. And he’s failing.
His approach at the plate has left him vulnerable to outside pitches and he has failed to counterpunch, instead too often trying to pull outside pitches to left field. His track record suggests this is just an extended slump and that he will eventually become a dangerous hitter again, but his slump coincided with and helped cause one of the worst stretches of team baseball in franchise history.
With Buxton in the minors and Sano trying to find his swing, the Twins needed Dozier to again be their best player, and he has been far from that.
Signing Park made no sense
Byung Ho Park is contributing to a record-setting strikeout pace
Torii Hunter revealed that he was going to retire in late October. Ten days later, it was announced the Twins had won the bid to negotiate with Byung Ho Park, a 29-year-old slugger from Korea.
The Twins’ explanation was the need for a righthanded bat to make up for the loss of Hunter. Fair enough, if Park were an outfielder, but when he was eventually signed, it was to be the No. 1 designated hitter and a backup first baseman.
Miguel Sano was the DH for the second half of 2015. The Twins wanted to get him in the field regularly.
That would have been doable without Park: Play Sano 40 games at third, 40 games at first, with Trevor Plouffe and Joe Mauer serving as DH when Miguel was in the field.
Instead, the Twins signed a strikeout-prone slugger from a minor league and now must watch Sano in right field. Park can hit a hanging breaking ball a long way, but he’s overmatched by quality major league pitching. Signing Park made no sense last winter, and it still doesn’t.
Too much reliance on prospects
Casey Fien pitched poorly and was released
Every team would like to have a strong farm system, and the Twins do have quality prospects who are trying to break through and thrive in the majors. But projections this year were based on prospects playing key roles, which is dangerous to do and, in this case, failed to work.
Major league teams build depth by bringing in quality players to take the top spots on the depth chart, not waiting for prospects to fill the holes.
While waiting for relievers Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois and others to debut sometime this year, the bullpen has suffered from a dearth of proven setup men. Setup men last offseason cost $5 to $6 million a year, so the Twins' reluctance to spend big and block the path of prospects is somewhat understandable.
But most successful teams aren’t afraid to dive deep into the free-agent pool, and top relievers aren’t going to get any cheaper.
The Twins have enough prospects to craft a trade if they want to bring in quality talent. It also requires the willingness to spend on more than midlevel free agents. Take a big swing with a big free agent, for once.
--La Velle E. Neal III
Trades have not helped
Terry Ryan has failed at helping the Twins through his trades
Terry Ryan declared himself ready and willing last July to make a deal. “I have every intention of trying to improve the club. We’ve got some areas we’re pinpointing,” he said. “But we aren’t going to do one just to make a trade. You’ve got to find a good match.”
That last part has been the hangup that has prevented Ryan, now in the fifth season of his second stint as general manager, from acquiring players to supplement the Twins’ development strategy — or even help clear gluts of players at some positions and better organize his roster. In his first tenure as GM, Ryan was able to pluck valuable players like David Ortiz, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, Joe Mays, Shannon Stewart and Jason Bartlett from other organizations.
Now? “It’s gotten more difficult, because contracts have complicated the process,” Ryan said. “It takes two sides to make a trade.”
The only current starting position player acquired in a trade is shortstop Eduardo Escobar, who was projected as a utility infielder when the deal was struck. Ryan’s gambles to repeat his hidden-gems success of a decade ago — deals that brought Alex Meyer, Trevor May, John Ryan Murphy and Vance Worley to Minnesota — have so far not made a big impact, with Tommy Milone, 9-7 with a 4.56 ERA since being acquired for Sam Fuld, or Kevin Jepsen, who saved 10 games in late 2015, the most notable successes in Ryan’s relatively infrequent dealings.
Not since Ryan’s interim peer, Bill Smith, dealt for J.J. Hardy in 2009 has a position player acquired via trade stepped right in to a starting position. Not since Smith picked up Carl Pavano a few months earlier has a starting pitcher been found who kept his job more than a few months.
Catching: Solution needed
John Ryan Murphy was sent to the minors and Kurt Suzuki's production has declined
When an interviewer lamented to Kurt Suzuki recently that he mostly is asked questions about being clobbered by foul balls, the veteran catcher said, “I wish I was doing something worth talking about.”
Signing Suzuki was the Twins’ stop-gap reaction more than two years ago to the decision to move Joe Mauer to first base, and the choice was validated with an All-Star selection a few months later. But the affable Hawaiian, popular with his teammates and especially the pitching staff, has declined considerably from that first impression. And the Twins’ inability to identify Suzuki’s successor, both immediately and longterm, is glaring.
At the plate, Suzuki’s production, as measured by wins above replacement, ranked 44th among catchers who played at least 80 games in 2015, and he’s been worse this year. He threw out only 15 percent of would-be base-stealers last year, worst in the majors, and the 80 stolen bases allowed led all catchers.
His backups have been worse. Eric Fryer and Chris Herrmann combined to hit .160 last year, with a .245 on-base percentage, and the Twins had no plausible solution in the high minors. That convinced the Twins to trade for John Ryan Murphy over the winter. The result? Three hits in 40 at-bats (.075) and a demotion to Class AAA Rochester.
Suzuki’s contract expires this fall, but if Murphy doesn’t live up to projections, the Twins will have to go fishing once more for an answer at a critical position.
Hunter’s absence hurts
Torii Hunter's fire hasn't been replaced
The Twins are on their way to losing 90 games for the fifth time in six years. The only time during that stretch they posted a winning record was with Torii Hunter on the roster. That is not a coincidence.
Hunter not only instigated dance parties into what had been a ridiculously passive and unproductive clubhouse, he brought fire to the dugout. He screamed at teammates who lacked fire. He pushed teammates to study opposing pitchers and dissect the game. He got big hits. He played hard. And his fire allowed Paul Molitor to be his usual, calm self, because Molitor knew Hunter would add heat to his messages.
The only current player who had a chance to take over Hunter’s leadership role was Brian Dozier, who is affable by nature and has never won anything. Dozier’s season-long slump robbed him of a chance to at least try out the role of clubhouse leader.
Joe Mauer has been among those who have struggled batting leadoff
The Twins correctly identified the need to boost their offense during the offseason and signed Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. Park looks like a good power hitter, but he’s adding to a strikeout-laden lineup that is threatening to break the club record of 1,430 whiffs in 2013.
A better fit for this particular club would have been to find someone with a solid on-base percentage who could bat at or near the top of the order.
The Twins don’t have a true leadoff hitter. They entered the weekend series in Seattle with their leadoff hitters ranked 29th in on-base percentage.
And they don’t have a true No. 2 or No. 3 hitter, depending on where Joe Mauer isn’t batting on that particular day. They entered the series at Seattle with 33 of their 44 home runs being solo shots.
It is the classic sail-or-fail batting order. When the Twins aren’t hitting home runs they are hard to watch at the plate. It’s time for a remodel.
--La Velle E. Neal III
Beat-up vets don’t bounce back
It was foolish to expect 33-year-old players to bounce back
Joe Mauer, Glen Perkins and Ricky Nolasco are all 33 years old. Mauer hasn’t been productive since 2013. Perkins is coming off three straight All-Star berths as a closer, but he was abysmal and injured down the stretch last season. Nolasco had been here two seasons, and was awful in 2014 and injured in 2015.
The Twins went to spring training holding onto the dream of a Mauer return to his former glory. They failed to add a reliever as insurance against the possibility that Perkins’ soreness returned. They watched Nolasco look good on back fields against hitters from the low minors and decided that he should be in the rotation.
Mauer has repeated 2015: a strong April, and now a fade. He is what he is at 33 — a .270 hitter who gets some walks. Perkins is on the 60-day disabled list. Nolasco, after a few respectable starts, is brutal again — and would be released if not for $21 million still owed.
Only the Twins would expect beat-up 33-year-olds to bounce back and become solid assets for a playoff push.
Top prospects must be stars
Instead of being stars, Byron Buxton is in the minors and Miguel Sano is erratic
Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano remain two of the most prodigiously talented youngsters in baseball. Any projected Twins success was based on the two becoming stars. They haven’t, not yet, and that has left the 2016 Twins with a roster filled with average players who are underperforming.
If Buxton had broken through offensively this season, the Twins would have had an incredibly fast run-producer at the top of their lineup, and a Gold Glove-caliber fielder in center. If Sano had hit this season the way he did last summer, the top of the Twins’ lineup might have been fearsome instead of pathetic. If they had taken the lead, perhaps players like Brian Dozier wouldn’t have felt so pressured to produce big numbers.
Buxton and Sano are the Twins’ two most important dominoes, and they’ve fallen the wrong way this season.
Sano fails to get the message
The Twins moved Miguel Sano to right field and it hasn't gone well
Baseball is unique among the major professional sports in that players who make up a huge percentage of the game’s best talent can make themselves hard to keep tabs on in the offseason, if they so choose.
The wave of players from the Caribbean — and particularly the Dominican Republic — has allowed the game to fill the talent void as a much-lower percentage of great African-American athletes turned to baseball.
Sano is the Twins’ most important player. He left for the Dominican last fall weighing 270 pounds. The Twins wanted him to lose 10 pounds, partially for right field but mostly to play at his full potential. He weighed in at the start of spring training at 278.
The Twins have not been able to get through to Sano to accept the fact there’s much work to do for him to be the star that he believes himself to be. I have no faith in the current administration to get across that message.
Learning on the job
Eddie Rosario's gaffes resulted in a demotion to the minors
Overthrowing the cutoff man. Bunting with two outs. Trying to steal third base with two outs. Swinging at the first pitch after a walk.
When a team is winning, when a player is crushing the ball, it’s easy to overlook some occasional bad judgment. Not so much when the results aren’t there.
“Young guys make mistakes. You expect that — running on their heels, or bobbing their heads [when they run] or messing up some footwork,” former manager Tom Kelly said during spring training. “But they have so many talents that complement them while they fight inexperience.”
The Twins counted on a brigade of players who haven’t even turned 25 this year, and they’ve paid the price in fundamental errors. “There was a time when guys spent years in the minor leagues, and you were expected to master both the physical and mental parts before you could be a big-leaguer,” said manager Paul Molitor, a Hall of Fame player. “But circumstances change. I spent one year in Class A and went right to the majors, with no understanding of how to win. You just count on your talent to carry you, and you absorb the mental part as best you can.”
Eddie Rosario had barely played more than 100 games above Class A before he was called up to Minnesota. Danny Santana had two dozen games in Class AAA before getting there, and Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton had none.
“You’d rather not have to learn on the job, so to speak, in the major leagues, at least what I would consider the fundamentals,” Molitor said. “But sometimes that’s the reality.”