There are plenty of candidates for the Twins’ Least Valuable Player Award this season, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that the franchise’s return to the postseason could arrive in the near future.
One player above all others is at the top of both lists: Kyle Gibson.
Since Scott Erickson blew away American League hitters in 1991, making the All-Star Game and helping his team to a championship, the Twins have produced one homegrown starting pitcher who has represented them in the All-Star Game: Brad Radke, who was the Token Twin during a mediocre season in 1998.
Jose Berrios might be the future. Gibson should be the present and near future. Instead, he is 2-5 with a 5.02 ERA and a major reason the Twins stunk up the first half. He’s also capable of helping the franchise contend as early as next season.
The Twins have faced so many problems this season that the root of their woes has too often been obscured.
Over the past three months, their lapse has been blamed on Miguel Sano’s move to right field, or Torii Hunter’s retirement, or Eddie Rosario’s regression, or Joe Mauer’s contract, or John Ryan Murphy’s hitting failures, or Byron Buxton’s stagnancy.
None of those difficulties fully explains how a team that won 83 games in 2015 has become one of the worst teams in baseball in 2016. Whenever a team performs as badly as the 2016 Twins has, or as badly as the 2011-16 Twins have, there can be only one overriding reason.
Specifically, starting pitching.
The Twins’ inability to draft, develop, acquire or maintain top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers is the primary reason for their collapse this season. It’s also the primary reason for their collapse this decade, for their inability to win playoff series in the 2000s and for their collapse in the 1990s.
Sano misplaying the occasional ball in right in much the same way Oswaldo Arcia might have misplayed it is not this franchise’s overriding concern. Pitching is, was and will be the overriding concern until the Twins front office proves it can produce its own aces.
The Twins need Gibson to lead the way.
Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco have been disappointments for very different reasons. Berrios will need time to adapt to the big leagues. The rest of the Twins’ top starting pitching prospects are not yet on the cusp of the big leagues.
Of all the starting pitchers capable of taking charge of the Twins rotation, Gibson has the best pedigree. He was a first-round draft pick. He has shown stretches of dominance. He has an ideal pitcher build, a sharp downward angle on his pitches, quality pitches and a strong work ethic.
What he’s missing is the ability to think his way through a game, and to turn talent into production.
The Twins didn’t post a winning record from 1993 to 2000 largely because they couldn’t develop quality pitching. That trend would largely continue even as they became playoff qualifiers or contenders from 2001 to 2010.
They traded for Johan Santana, Rick Reed, Eric Milton, Joe Mays, Kyle Lohse, Carlos Silva, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser.
In 2007, the Twins farm system started offering help. Scott Baker, Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey contributed 18 victories. In 2008, Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn contributed to the rotation.
That wave of starters would fizzle, though. Garza was traded for Delmon Young. Baker and Blackburn were less than durable. Perkins would become an All-Star closer after failing as a starter.
General Manager Terry Ryan’s trades have been less than magical during his second tenure. He’s still waiting for Trevor May and Alex Meyer to justify his deals.
The Twins’ hope was that Gibson would rise to the top of the rotation and be joined by Berrios, while the veteran free agents provided innings and stability.
Nothing about that plan has worked, and the most disappointing of the Twins’ failed and injured pitchers has been Gibson.