Five years ago to the day Wednesday, Twins owner Jim Pohlad sized up his team's miserable start to the season and came to the conclusion that he and everyone else was witnessing a "total system failure." His blunt assessment became both a punchline and headline for a 59-victory season.
I didn't make another phone call to Pohlad on the anniversary of our conversation, but total system failure … hmmm. The critique still applies if evaluating the current bullpen.
Repeated struggles by the relief corps are sucking the life right out of this season.
Byron Buxton should be Topic A right now. He is having a start for the ages, but he's been rendered a secondary story with the bullpen ruining winnable games.
The postgame conversation Tuesday night should have focused entirely on Buxton's performance, which included another home run and another diving catch against Texas. The guy is playing like a superstar. Instead of enjoying his brilliance, another bullpen meltdown drew our venom.
The hiccups continued in Wednesday's 3-1 loss to Texas. Cody Stashak entered a 1-1 game in the sixth inning with runners on first and third and no outs. He allowed both inherited runners to score, on a wild pitch and sacrifice fly.
The front office initiated a bullpen makeover this offseason, and it has backfired to this point. Rocco Baldelli doesn't trust veteran closer Alex Colome in important situations, and the bullpen collectively ranks 24th in ERA with an MLB-leading nine losses. The bullpen also ranks last in allowing inherited runners to score at 60%.
The blame game is in overdrive, understandably so with this many issues. Let's give one-third of the blame to the Falvine front office for bullpen construction, one-third to Baldelli for bullpen management and one-third to pitchers for performance failures.
The problems are being compounded by the fact that Twins starters seem to last only 5⅓ innings every game.
The personnel turnover made bullpen a big, bold question mark coming into the season. At least to outside observers. Here is how Baldelli described his 'pen when asked about it at the end of spring training:
"It's an exceptionally deep group," he said. "Looking at the number of guys that can and have pitched late in games successfully, it gives us plenty of really good options."
Six weeks later, that quote is cringeworthy.
Baldelli came as close as he'll ever go to publicly criticizing players after Tuesday's late-inning giveaway. He didn't name names or name positions, but the message was not hard to decipher.
"We've played a lot of games where we're playing winning baseball, we're going into the last inning or two ahead — sometimes well ahead — and we haven't been able to win those ballgames," he said. "We have to win those ballgames. We just have to."
Baldelli contributed to that futility Tuesday by using Brandon Waddell in the 10th inning one night after he got hit hard by the same lineup. Baldelli can cite lefty-vs.-lefty analytics and splits all day long, but there is no way that Waddell was a better option than hard-throwing Jorge Alcala in that spot. Or anyone else who was available.
Predictably, Waddell faced five batters and gave up a home run and two doubles, amounting to three runs. The team demoted him to St. Paul on Wednesday.
Granted, Baldelli is not blessed with an abundance of surefire options. That's the kicker here: The front office has invested heavily in research and development, analytics and cutting-edge trends in technology and biomechanics. And with the game on the line, they gave the ball to a guy who belongs in the minors.
Where are the reinforcements? Hotshot prospects? Jhoan Duran is one highly regarded prospect who could shift to the bullpen, but he's recovering from a shoulder injury and has pitched in only seven games above Class A level.
Any fixes likely must come from within the clubhouse. That will require Colome to figure things out and everyone else to be more reliable. That seems like a tall order right now.