Friday, May 26, 2006

A Misguided Philosophy

In 2001, after almost a decade of losing, the Twins posted a record of 85-77, finishing above fourth place in their division for the first time since 1992. They were able to accomplish this by faithfully trotting out young, mostly homegrown players. The Twins opened 2001 with an outfield of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Matt Lawton. The infield was comprised of Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Corey Koskie, Cristian Guzman and catcher A.J. Pierzynski. With the exception of Guzman (who was acquired as a prospect from the Yankees in the Chuck Knoblauch trade), each one of those players was drafted and developed by the Twins, and at the outset of the 2001 season each was under the age of 30. The Twins played these guys and stuck with them through thick and thin. This strategy led to a winning season and that success carried over into the next three years, as the Twins formed a monopoly over the AL Central. Given the success of this philosophy, it is beyond perplexing that Terry Ryan and the organization have been so quick to abandon it.

The Twins are a franchise that has long been heralded for its ability to replace departed free agents with good young talent from their minor league system. For one reason or another, Ryan seems to have gotten away from this philosophy, opting instead to fill holes with overpaid veterans or bargain-bin free agents. This type of management is not only bad for the team in the present (as evidenced by the Twins' current 20-26 record), it is extremely bad for the team in the long run. Prospects are left to toil away in the minors without gaining valuable major league experience, while veterans who will almost certainly be gone next year put up below-average numbers for the tanking Twins.

One good example of Ryan's apparent change in philosophy would be his handling of the Kyle Lohse situation in the past offseason. With Lohse entering his last year of arbitration and fresh off the best season of his career ERA-wise, the time was ripe to get rid of him. The Twins had a kid by the name of Francisco Liriano who had absolutely decimated the highest level of the minor leagues the previous season and was pretty clearly ready to join the ML rotation. While I'm not of the mind that Lohse would have fetched Hank Blalock or Alfonso Soriano in a trade, I do think that he would have been a fairly valuable trade piece considering the dearth of quality young pitching around the league and the fact that Lohse has widely been viewed around the league as an underachiever in Minnesota. Instead of parting with Lohse at the right moment, the Twins went to arbitration with him and lost, meaning they'd have to pay him almost $4 million dollars this year.

I don't think anyone could have predicted that Lohse's season would be as disastrous as it has been, but there are plenty of people who could have told you during the offseason that Liriano needed to be in the rotation and dealing Lohse was a no-brainer. Five years ago it would have been, but for some reason the Twins have reverted to a different and pretty clearly less intuitive strategy.

And then there's the Juan Castro situation. This is something that has been harped on repeatedly all over the Twins blogosphere, but I think it is necessary because the situation is extremely undercovered in the mainstream press. Coming into the season, I didn't think shortstop would be an issue. Jason Bartlett, who had hit .332 for two straight years in Triple-A, had a terrific spring in which he hit .382. On a team that scored the fewest runs in the league last year, Bartlett seemed like the clear choice to take over at short. Inexplicably, just before the start of the season the Twins sent Bartlett back to Rochester once again and named Castro, a career backup and .230 lifetime hitter, as their starting shortstop. Ron Gardenhire explained the decision in a Star Tribune article in late March, claiming that Bartlett lacked a "commanding defensive presence."
"He's a quiet kid," Gardenhire said. "But in the middle, you have to be vocal. You have to lead, and that's what I told him you need to do. 'You go down there and take control of the infield. You be the leader. Once you start getting that part of the game down, you'll be more confident all the way around.' "
Leadership? Well, Castro certainly isn't leading by example with his six errors and his .551 OPS. Just in the past week, Castro has done several things to remind us why he has no business starting in the major leagues. Last Friday in Milwaukee, he went 0-for-4 at the plate, including grounding into a double play with two on and nobody out -- his usual rally-killing style. In Sunday's game against the Brewers, Castro booted a groundball with the bases loaded, allowing two runs to score. And in Tuesday night's game against the Indians, he failed to cover second base when Johan Santana picked off a Cleveland baserunner and caught him in the basepath. It should have been an easy out but nobody covered second base which allowed the runner (Lou Merloni) to slide in safely. Clearly, Castro is not even making the heads-up plays that you'd expect from defensive-minded veteran.

The only instance in which having a guy like Castro starting would be even remotely acceptable would be if there were absolutely no better options in the minor leagues. When you have a 26-year-old down in Triple-A that has hit .330 for two straight years and is currently hitting .321/.339/.470 there... it's flabbergasting to say the least. There is not a team in the baseball that is handling a prospect as idiotically as the Twins are Bartlett, and yet I have not seen a single reporter get after Gardy or Ryan about it, which is one big reason the mainstream media continues to bother me. We bloggers can complain about the team's management with rational analysis all day long, but we don't have access to the players and coaches so in the end there's only so much we can do. I realize that beat writers have a relationship to upkeep with the people they cover, but it is possible (and, I would say, imperative) to be objective and critical and ask the tough questions instead of writing trite crap about how Castro is "doing exactly what the Twins had hoped he would do in his first season as an everyday player." But, I digress...

The Twins are pretty clearly the fourth-best team in the AL Central this year, and that is more than likely where they will finish. Ryan's new-found strategy of trying to stock up on washed-up vets rather than trading expendable assets for young talent and promoting from within has come up with some pretty ugly results. For the sake of the team's future, let's hope he realizes the error of his ways and starts to make some changes in order to give guys like Bartlett the regular major league experience they need in order to be effective players in the coming years.

5 comments:

SBG said...

Everything that you have said seems so obvious. And yet, you don't hear a word about it in the newspaper. Stunning.

J. Lichty said...

The only antidote for "veterans" not doing well is "mooooooooooore veterans"

Perhaps we will see Julio Franco in a Twins uni after all (which would have been great, say back in 1988)

bob said...

None of the division winners based on the 2001 team would have been able to compete with the White Sox, Tigers, and Indians of today. Unfortunately, the Twins are heaped with unrealstic expectations which force them to behave as if they are contenders. This just delays the rebuilding process and lets new talent go to waste without being given a real chance to prove themselves.

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