Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Blessing and a Curse

As I wrote in the wake of the Twins' disappointing 1-0 loss in a one-game playoff against the White Sox last week, this was a pretty incredible season for the hometown nine. They did just about everything short of making the playoffs to delivery a memorable campaign to the fans. The team engaged in a season-long tight playoff race, featured multiple MVP candidates, got a couple out-of-nowhere performances from young players, and pulled off some unbelievable comeback victories. As the sting of the season's final game wears off, fans are realizing more and more what a tremendously fun year this was.

But this success may come with some negatives going forward.

I'm sure you all remember the 2006 season. A couple months into the season, the Twins found themselves deep in a hole, and many passed off the season as lost. Yet, surprisingly, the team rebounded and went on an incredible mid-season run thanks in large part to MVP-caliber contributions from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, as well as a trio of starting pitchers in Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke that was seemingly unbeatable for a period of time. The Twins captured the division on the last day of the season, and despite their early playoff exit the season was viewed as a huge success, and one that had fans feeling good going forward.

Unfortunately, this success made the front office complacent. Terry Ryan's outside additions over the following offseason amounted to Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Jeff Cirillo, a group of washed-out vets who all failed to make it through the entire season in Minnesota. Because of the strong results the team got in 2006, Ryan was content to count on Nick Punto to deliver again as a starting third baseman despite the fact that his '06 campaign was an unprecedented career year. Ryan made no legitimate effort to fill the void left in the rotation by Liriano's season-long Tommy John rehab (unless you count Ortiz and Ponson). Ryan brought back Rondell White, apparently hoping that the aging and ailing hitter could magically bounce back from a truly horrific first season with the Twins.

The result of all this non-action was a highly disappointing 2007 season in which the Twins posted a losing record for the first time since the turn of the millenium. Punto was a disaster at third base. White continued to provide nothing with his bat. Both Ortiz and Ponson were predictably as bad as they'd been in the preceding years. Luis Castillo wore down. Jason Bartlett regressed. Heck, nearly everyone regressed. The Twins probably wouldn't have made the playoffs even with a proactive approach in '07, given that Mauer and Morneau both had relative down years and Johan Santana was not his usual transcendent self. But had Ryan shown a little more foresight rather than sitting on his laurels, the season could have been much more than it was.

As disappointing as that 2007 campaign was, it did prompt action. Ryan resigned from his post near season's end, and Bill Smith took over the reigns as general manager. Realizing that fans were displeased with a poor season and the impending departure of popular players like Santana and Torii Hunter, Smith went to work and made some aggressive moves. He traded Bartlett and Matt Garza -- fixtures during the prior season -- for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. He traded Johan Santana for a package of of prospects. He signed Adam Everett and Mike Lamb, who the team viewed as legitimate starters rather than the role players this organization typically spends its limited funds on each winter.

Not all of these moves worked out -- in fact, you can argue that none of them worked out -- but nevertheless they went against the organization's historically conservative nature and revved up fan interest. For fans that had grown used to watching winters pass by with no move more meaningful than the signing of a backup third baseman or a washed up veteran pitcher, it was exciting to see this team populating the headlines on news Web sites with blockbuster trades and recognizable free agent signings.

In spite of the fact that many of those moves had an adverse affect on the team this year, the Twins were still a surprisingly strong team, and fan interest rose to unprecedented levels. Fox Sports Net set record highs for viewership. Carlos Gomez jerseys flew off the shelves in pro shops. I could barely glance in any direction in public without spying Twins caps adorning people of all genders, ages and ethnicities.

The concern, now, is that this success will put the Twins' front office back into that mode of complacency that we saw following the 2006 season. That can't happen, or a repeat of 2007 could very well be ahead of us. There is almost no question that this division is going to improve next year. I don't necessarily buy that the improvement is going to be as vast as some others believe*, but I have little doubt that it will take more than 89 victories to claim make the playoffs out of the AL Central next season.

* Aaron Gleeman guessed in his live chat yesterday that 89 wins would be good for third place in the division next year... come on. The Indians will be better but they'll be without C.C. Sabathia, and the Tigers' pitching staff has a long ways to go before they're even decent. And once again I've stolen Joe Posnanski's asterisk style. Hey, imitation is the highest form of flattery.

The Twins almost certainly will not score 800-plus runs next year with the same type of offensive performance; they were fortunate that many of their hits happened to come with runners in scoring position which superficially inflated their scoring. Moreover, some players are likely due to regress. Some are likely to get injured. This team lacks stable situations on the left side of the infield and can hardly count on all five starting pitchers to repeat the performances they did this season. Smith must be proactive if he wishes to keep his club as legitimate contenders. Whether that means putting the team's budget surplus to use by bringing in some legitimate free agents (as I've discussed the past three days) or making a trade to bolster an area of weakness (as I'll discuss next week), Smith needs to show the same type of risk-taking ability that he did in his first winter at the helm.

8 comments:

SoCaltTwinsfan said...

Actually, the Twins would have been better served to stand pat this year. If the Twins had done nothing other than claim Craig Breslow, they would have won the division, and probably rather easily. If the Twins had not made either trade, their rotation would have been Johan, Garza, Baker, Slowey, and Liriano to start the season and then Boof or Blackburn to fill in when Liriano went to AAA. They would have also started the season with Buscher, Punto, and Tolbert starting in the infield instead of Lamb, Everett,and Harris. Denard would have started the season as the leadoff hitter and CF, with Kubel in left and Cuddyer in right. Randy Ruiz would have probably won the DH spot. Jason Pridie would have been the fourth OF and would have had a significant role when Cuddyer got hurt. And of course Casilla would have taken over when Tolbert got hurt. Overall, that would have been a better team as it turned out (assuming the rookies would have performed as well without spending time in AAA).

SoCalTwinsfan said...

Whoops. Pridie would not have been with the Twins if the Garza trade hadn't happened. Oh well, I don't think it would have been that difficult to replace him.

Nick N. said...

Those are good points, but I think it was tough to predict during the last offseason that Span was going to transform into a legitimate major-league caliber leadoff hitter. And as easy as it is to say, in hindsight that a starting infield alignment of Buscher, Punto and Tolbert would have been fine, I don't think many people would have thought that last offseason.

One can argue that the Twins won in spite of the offseason moves, but that doesn't mean they were ill-advised moves. For years, people have been begging the Twins to move some pitching in return for hitting -- I think Garza-for-Young qualifies nicely. I'm always a fan of a GM trying to aggressively (but responsibly) upgrade his club.

Anonymous said...

With regards to Span, I get the impression that it took the accusition of 3 CF's to get him to come out of his shell & perform at the level he did. In a matter of 6 months he went from the heir apparent to seeing the Twins draft a CF in the first round (Revere) and bringing in the other two by trade (Gomez & Pridie). I can't help but think that he saw himself as the next Michael Ryan/Restovich and went & did something about it. If that's the case it's too bad that he didn't take the bull by the horns sooner.

Shannon

Nick N. said...

Great point Shannon. I think Span does care about what people think about him; I've read interviews where he's made note that it's bothered him having bloggers and writers put him down. Seeing the organization make those moves might have lit a bit of a fire under him and motivated him to make some changes in his game.

J. Lichty said...

I get the impression that it took the accusition of 3 CF's to get him to come out of his shell & perform at the level he did.

Yeah, but that ignores the last part of his season in 2007.

Sometimes things just click for player. Span seems to have developed a different approach which has helped his OBP tremendously (along with eye surgery), and he does a good job at driving the ball.

While he may have had some extra motivation, motivation alone will not get you on base. He has matured as a player beyond which can be attributable to competition.

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