With the end of 2008 rapidly approaching, we are provided with a good opportunity to reflect on the year that was.
Amongst many fans, looking back at the '08 season brings up a wide-ranging discussion of all the things that went wrong. In a season where the Twins came just a game short of making the playoffs, there is a strong temptation to pinpoint precise mistakes that caused the team to fall just short. People will list the signings of Adam Everett, Mike Lamb, Craig Monroe and Livan Hernandez. They'll list the Johan Santana trade, and the Matt Garza trade. They'll list the team's failure to upgrade the fledgling bullpen during the season by acquiring Chad Bradford or LaTroy Hawkins. They'll list the organization's decision to leave Anthony Slama in Ft. Myers for the entire season (which was, in my mind, the single most inexplicable and inexcusable mistake committed by this club all year).
All of those criticisms are valid. But, in the spirit of the season, I'll opt instead to focus on the things that the Twins' front office did in right during Bill Smith's first year at the helm. The fact of the matter is that when a team consisting almost entirely of young, inexperienced players that was expected by almost all outside observers to be in a rebuilding phase is able to come within a game of making the playoffs, a lot of right decisions have to be made. And in the frenzy to assign blame for this team's failure to reach the postseason, I think people are too quick to overlook some of the savvy moves that even made the postseason a possibility.
Today, I'll go over what I felt were the five best decisions made by the Twins' front office during the 2008 year:
5) Cutting Mike Lamb.
Obviously, signing Lamb in the first place was a move that didn't work out. I'm not going to call it a mistake, because at the time I thought the reasoning behind the signing was sound and I still think it was. He fell apart in a manner that few could have anticipated. It's unfortunate, but it happens -- this wasn't a signing that was essentially doomed from the start like, say, Hernandez. In any case, it became abundantly clear midway through the season the Lamb simply wasn't going to get the job done as third baseman for this team. And, although the Twins still owed him $3 million for the 2009 season, they ate the cost and parted ways to make room for superior options. Say what you will, but that's an uncharacteristic move for this organization. And it was the right move. In 2007, the Twins made the mistake of bringing back Rondell White after a disastrous first year with the misguided hope that he'd rebound and fulfill the promise they had initially seen when they signed him. This time, they're not going to make that same mistake.
4) Drafting Aaron Hicks.
I think that the 2008 draft was, in general, a very good one for the Twins. They took some risks, grabbed a few players over-slot, and showed uncharacteristic aggressiveness in going after the players they wanted. But Hicks, their first overall pick, stands out to me as the best of the bunch. This was an encouraging selection, especially in light of some of the duds this organization has brought in with mid-to-high first-round picks over the past 15 years or so. The Twins nabbed Hicks, a tremendously gifted athlete and highly regarded high school prospect, with the No. 14 pick and quickly signed him. They were rewarded with a .318/.409/.491 hitting line from the 18-year-old over 45 games in the Gulf Coast League that helped silence criticism over how his bat would play in the pros. Hicks was somewhat spendy and he doesn't fill an organizational area of need (far from it), but he was the best player on the board and the Twins made the right choice. Hicks ranked as the organization's No. 1 prospect on Baseball America's postseason Top 10 list released in November.
3) Acquiring Craig Breslow.
This move doesn't get talked about much, but it has certainly turned out well. Breslow was nabbed off waivers from the Indians in late May, and went on to post a 1.63 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 38 2/3 innings for the Twins, emerging as one of the steadiest options out of a shaky bullpen. Breslow gave up only 24 hits, showing decent control along with an ability to miss bats. He shut down lefties and held his own against righties. It cost essentially nothing to bring him in, and now Breslow enters the 2009 season as perhaps the second-most reliable arm in the Twins bullpen.
2) The handling of Francisco Liriano.
Despite looking pretty good toward the end of spring training, Liriano did not make the Twins' Opening Day roster. Reportedly, the young pitcher wasn't terribly happy about this, so when an opening in the rotation arose in late April, the Twins called him up and gave him a shot. Liriano lasted four starts and was absolutely shelled. The Twins sent him back down to Triple-A, where he worked hard to refine his craft and showed remarkable improvement over the course of his next 15 or so starts. Eventually, he was dominating minor-league competition on a consistent basis, and -- while they may have waited a bit too long -- the Twins brought him back up to replace Hernandez in the rotation. The strong, confident Liriano was a force for the Twins over the final two months of the season, going 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA and 60-to-19 K/BB ratio over 11 starts and helping propel his team to a 163rd game. It seemed like an impossible notion when Liriano was being battered around in April, but he'll enter the 2009 season as a potential ace for this staff.
1) Signing Joe Nathan to a four-year contract extension.
Looking back, this seems like a no-brainer, but this was hardly the case at the time the Twins elected to hand Nathan a $47 million extension back in March. Many believed that it was a foregone conclusion Nathan would be dealt after the Twins moved Santana, and I heard plenty of arguments that the closer's value as a trade piece was much greater than his value to the Twins, especially considering that he'd be making over $10 million per year in a new contract. Personally, I was always a steadfast believer that Nathan should be retained, specifically because this bullpen contained far too many questions for his loss to be palatable. Now that Pat Neshek, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier have all become huge question marks going forward and Nathan is the one steady right-handed rock in the Twins 'pen, the signing looks incredibly savvy. That's especially true when you consider that Nathan, one of the very best relievers in all of baseball with basically no injury history as a Twin, will be earning less annually than the inferior Francisco Rodriguez and only marginally more than the huge injury risk Kerry Wood.