While perusing my daily slate of blogs yesterday, I came across an interesting and thoughtful post on Seth's site in which he basically wondered aloud why many Twins fans feel the need to expend so much energy complaining and venting about the same central issues when it comes to this club. The sentiment is hardly surprising coming from Mr. Stohs, who is one of the most mild-mannered and easygoing people you will ever meet, and without a doubt it's something I can connect with to a large degree. It is somewhat ironic, though, that his post popped up on the same day I chose to rattle off a rather vitriolic rant about Ron Gardenhire's continual fascination with penciling the struggling Nick Punto into the lineup on a daily basis.
Such outright negative posts are pretty rare around here; as you can ascertain from the blog's tag-line I make a pretty strong effort to remain level-headed in all my analysis. I'm not the type to get overly worked up over a single loss, or to become emotionally distraught when I disagree with a move the team makes. After all, it's just a game. But there is something distinctly therapeutic about venting one's frustration with their favorite team in situations where that frustration is clearly warranted. And apparently there's a similar benefit in reading such diatribes, since those occasional posts carrying the "rants" tag have been among the most popular -- in terms of readership and response -- in this blog's existence.
And while I'd like to keep positive and remark on the things that are going well for the Twins right now, it's difficult to do so when you've reached the point of questioning the basic competency of some of the organization's chief decision-makers.
I didn't always agree with the front office's actions during the Terry Ryan regime, but in general I almost always understood them. Acquisitions like Rondell White, Ramon Ortiz and Bret Boone might not have worked out, but a person could always at least see the logic in adding those players. Even in the early days of Bill Smith's tenure, I didn't find any of his moves to be without reason. Players like Mike Lamb and Adam Everett had been valuable pieces in the recent past, and even though they didn't work out one could see why they were brought in. The Johan Santana and Matt Garza trades both look brutally ugly right now, but one could see how Smith and Co. envisioned those moves ultimately improving the team. Moreover, during those days the organization's personnel moves were constrained by a perpetually limited budget.
Recently, my patience with the front office as headed by Bill Smith has been wearing thin. To cite a prime root of my irritation, let's talk about the bullpen. It has been a clear, unmistakable flaw for this team ever since Pat Neshek went down with a season-ending elbow injury early last year. The problem was compounded when the Twins learned that Neshek and Boof Bonser, another hurler who they'd envisioned as a potential late-inning dominator, would both miss the 2009 season due to arm surgery. And yet, the front office did nothing to address this issue other than letting Dennys Reyes walk and signing free agent leftover Luis Ayala, a supposed sinkerballer with a substandard groundball rate who was coming off a 5.71 ERA season.
The unaddressed bullpen has predictably caused plenty of problems for the Twins this year, and yet the team has done nothing to augment the unit other than calling up mediocre former minor-league starters like Sean Henn, Bobby Keppel, Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey. The trade deadline came and went without any move being made to improve the team's absurdly thin relief corps, which was made more frustrating by the assertions of Smith and other front office personnel that no usable relievers could have been acquired without giving up top prospects. Such a statement is suspect in its own right, and in fact provably false when you take into account the fact that several solid relief pitchers were swapped in late July at relatively modest costs. For the front office to shovel these excuses onto the fans is not only obnoxious, but flat-out insulting. (Aaron Gleeman has a great take on this whole situation here.)
Thinking about the severe problems facing the Twins' bullpen always brings me back to Anthony Slama. My frustration over the organization's handling of arguably its best relief prospect over the past two years has been aired here many times, but I simply cannot discuss the front office's inept management of the major-league bullpen without coming back to it. Slama was honored as the Twins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008, he holds a dazzling 1.75 ERA and 13.4 K/9 IP rate in his minor-league career, he is 25 years old, and yet still he remains mired in Double-A while veteran minor-league retreads lose games for the big-league club. Slama's numbers are, and always have been, exquisite; the only conceivable reason for holding him back is his unexceptional command (he has issued 31 walks in 62 1/3 innings this year -- a rate of 4.5 BB/9 IP). While somewhat troubling, this middling control has not prevented him from being highly effective overall in New Britain, and any notion that a mild problem with throwing strikes is sure to doom a player from having success in Triple-A and the majors should have been dismissed by Jose Mijares, who posted a 5.0 BB/9 IP rate in his minor-league career and has issued 4.5 walks per nine innings with the Twins this season but has still managed to be one of the team's three most reliable bullpen arms.
The Slama dilemma has become so obvious at this point that even Patrick Reusse, who rarely delves into the realm of prospect analysis, is advocating for his promotion. In Reusse's column, minor-league overseers Jim Rantz and Rob Antony suggest the possibility that Slama could be promoted directly from New Britain to Minnesota at some point this season, but such a drastic step should not even be necessary. Apparent complacency on the part of the Twins' front office personnel kept Slama stuck in Single-A for the entirety of last season and now in Double-A for the entirety of this year, in spite of his performance at both levels clearly indicating his readiness to move on. This conservative approach would be far more acceptable if it weren't for the dire circumstances that have been facing the Twins' bullpen for over a year now.
It almost seems like stubbornness is guiding the Twins' decision-making in this situation. And that annoying sense of stubbornness extends beyond the front office personnel and down to the team's manager and his lineup decisions. Joe Mauer has hit .398/.451/.707 as the Twins' No. 2 hitter this year, and yet Gardenhire has consistently refused to leave him in that spot for more than a few weeks at a time based on some apparent golden rule of baseball that middle infielders must fill that spot in the order. Early in the season, the manager wasted numerous rally-killing at-bats on players like Punto and Alexi Casilla, apparently not understanding that the second hitter in the lineup figures to receive the second-most at-bats of any player on the team and that wasting precious outs between two of your best hitters can be devastating to run production. Now, with the acquisition of Orlando Cabrera, Gardenhire has found another player to push Mauer down in the lineup. While it might seem silly to complain about this now, considering the amount of success Cabrera has had early on with his new team, nothing changes the fact that the newly acquired shortstop holds a .322 career on-base percentage and is much better suited for the bottom of the order. Yet, once he reverts to his career hitting levels, there is little doubt that he will remain in that two-spot, separating two of the team's best on-base threats with his mediocre production. One truly wonders what Mauer has done to make the manager believe that he is not perfectly suited for that second spot in the lineup.
With the injuries and poor performance they've gotten from their rotation, the Twins really have no business being in a playoff hunt this year. Yet, they are. They are within five games of first place with nearly two months remaining, because they play in a division without a single truly outstanding team, and despite their disadvantage in the standings they still remain in great position to come out on top due to an extremely favorable remaining schedule. Such opportunities do not come along often, but through inaction and inept decision-making the Twins are still managing to let it slide away.
This team is on the cusp of greatness, with Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and others all having career seasons. The club is being held back by a number of glaring flaws that could and should have been addressed long ago, but it seems that this front office's answer is to sit still, cross their fingers and pray for the best while hoping that lateral moves like replacing Ayala with Keppel and replacing Harris with Cabrera [EDIT: and replacing Perkins/Liriano with Pavano] will appease the team members and fan base.
For a fan who dedicates a great deal of time to watching, discussing and promoting the team, that course of action can generate quite a bit of well warranted frustration.