Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lost Faith

In a post-game press conference following Saturday's extra-inning loss to the Blue Jays -- the Twins' seventh consecutive loss overall and seventh straight at Target Field -- Ron Gardenhire placed blame on himself, dwelling on the decision to leave starter Nick Blackburn on in the eighth inning to face Corey Patterson, who delivered a game-tying RBI triple.

"We had a lead," Gardenhire grumbled repeatedly, treating the occasion as the true rarity it has been this spring.

On a day where his team scored three or fewer runs for a 24th time in 37 games, where his bullpen allowed six men to cross the plate in the 11th inning, where his club was blown out by a margin of 5+ runs in front of the home crowd for a seventh time this year (in 2010 it happened only six times all season), a dejected Gardenhire was kicking himself for leaving his starting pitcher in one batter too long.

It's safe to say 2010's AL Manager of the Year is feeling the frustration in a season where almost nothing has gone right for the Twins. His team is the worst in baseball, finding new ways to bottom out with each passing game, and with no relief in sight.

Few will blame this team's utter incompetence on minor gaffes by the manager. This is a situation that has been brought about largely by catastrophic injuries and inexplicably awful play from established players.

But the problems for this franchise run much deeper than slumps and injuries. When the pain of this perhaps unavoidably disastrous season subsides, we must turn our glare to a front office that has brought the organization where it is today: a last-place team burdened with horrible contracts, a lack of depth across the board and a barren minor-league cupboard.

Injuries happen in baseball and are always tough for a manager to deal with, but Gardenhire's difficulties have been magnified by the poor judgment and astonishing lack of foresight from Bill Smith and Co.

The Twins entered this season with no infield depth behind the unproven question marks up the middle, no real defensive assets in the starting lineup despite an extreme pitch-to-contact staff, no workable insurance plan behind the concussed first baseman, no bullpen to speak of, and no major-league catchers to back up a starter coming off knee surgery.

These decisions go beyond questionable and into the realm of blatantly irresponsible.

The Twins have long been an organization that has emphasized scouting over statistics, and in many ways that has worked out for them, especially when they had a renowned scout at the helm in Terry Ryan. Smith, however, is not a scout, and while he obviously doesn't make personnel decisions in a silo, he's ultimately responsible for the team's personnel decisions and he has listened to the wrong people far too often during his tenure.

Ever since Ryan's departure, the Twins have regularly been bitten by poor player evaluation in signings and trades. None of the prospects in the Johan Santana trade panned out. Delmon Young has not developed as the team hoped -- certainly not well enough to justify the value they gave up in acquiring him. Free agent signings have most often yielded poor results.

More recently the whiffs have ramped up. Matt Capps, who the team dealt its top catching prospect and best trading chip for, has proven no more effective than any number of other relievers who could have been acquired -- and tendered a contract -- for much less. Jim Hoey, who the team traded its starting shortstop for, has been awful. Dusty Hughes, signed to supplement a rebuilt bullpen, has been predictably terrible.

Smith has been very questionable in his player evaluation, but what's most frustrating is his blind spot when it comes to assessing the needs of his own organization. The Twins' two weakest positions, at present and going forward, are shortstop and catcher (assuming Mauer has to move, which I think he will soon). Within the last year, Smith has traded away the team's top catching prospect, its only other backup catcher with any kind of stick and its starting shortstop, all for relief pitchers -- the most fungible asset in the game. On top of all that, the bullpen is still one of the league's worst.

The Twins are now in a position where they will have to quickly rebuild while hoping that core long-term players like Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer can rebound. What we have to ask ourselves is whether we trust a front office that has contributed in plenty of ways to the franchise's current dismal state to guide it back to respectability.

I'm not sure that I do. I was fully on board with this group as recently as a year ago, but the terrible decisions -- and, more so, the shoddy reasoning behind those decisions -- over the past 12 months have almost completely eradicated my faith.


Ryan said...

This seems to be the trend for all of Minnesota's sports teams....

cheapseatchronicles.com said...

You said exactly what I've been thinking.

I felt like the team's downward spiral started with the Capps deal a year ago. We gave up way too much for a "proven closer" just to overpay him in a move that forced one of the games best defensive shortstops out the door. This past offseason was very, very underwhelming as our main objectives were to sign an unknown in Nishioka, re-sign a starter that no one else showed any interest in and re-sign our second left-handed DH (third or fourth depending on what you view Morneau and Mauer's roles going forward).

We needed right-handed punch and depth. I haven't trusted Bill Smith from day one and he's done nothing to make me change my mind.

USAFChief said...

Good post.

Side note: Personally, I had no problem with Gardy leaving Blackburn in to face Patterson Saturday.

I doubt Patterson hits if Gardy goes and gets Perkins anyway. Other teams, it seems, in addition to having real major league players in the lineup, have a bench to boot!

That hardly seems fair.

Anonymous said...

I'm still ok with the Hardy trade - he asked out of the lineup too much, wasn't going to be in their longterm plans after this year (nor give them draft compensation) and they could spend his money elsewhere - in that case, they used the money to help resign Pavano, which looks bad now, of course. But I understood getting rid of Hardy.

USAFChief said...

Trading Hardy only made sense if there was some other "part B" to the plan that included getting better at SS. It's almost impossible to have good infield defense without a good SS. Hardy was a good player, and his second half was one of the reasons the Twins ran away with the division. Alexi Casilla was a failure at 2nd base, forpetesake. Thinking he could play SS every day was wishful thinking at best.

The Pavano signing didn't look so good at the time it was done either, for some of us.

Anonymous said...

While I generally agree with you Nick that Bill Smith's decision making has been very suspect, I have 2 small quibbles. 1.) The Santana trade ultimately yielded a very solid starting SS in Hardy- and then they traded him for a bag of wrenches and a sack of coal 2.) Free agent decisions - signed their best starting 2B in a decade but decided they only needed him for 1 year.
Having both O-Dog and Hardy back this year wouldn't be a cure-all, but it sure would give us more reason for optimism going forward.
Agree that Mauer must move to RF - now!

T said...

I agree with what you have to say for the most part. Trading Ramos was a mistake if they were going to also trade Morales come season's end. They needed one of those guys to be the backup for Mauer, as it was obvious Butera was NOT the answer...not even close.

I'm less inclined to agree regarding Hardy, as there it seemed the frustration was less about hitting/fielding and more that he couldn't stay healthy and thus was too risky an investment. However if that was the plan, I would've liked to have seen them keep Hudson, or at least sign a vet to hold down SS so that Nishioka wasn't out there fending for himself with Casilla.

But I think the bigger issue is that after years of accusing the Twins of "building for a future that never comes", we're seeing the end results when they try and go all-in. They viewed 2010/2011 as their best shot and played for that, bringing in guys they hoped would solve their immediate needs and push them over that last big hump and into a serious play-off push.

Unfortunately they came up short, and we're starting to see the effects of that now.

As far as the rest of the season goes, it should be treated as a lost cause. But the saddest part of the whole thing is that even in that situation...there's little in the farm club that we can get excited to see come up to play in the bigs.

Matt Groff said...

I kinda think Bill Smith is toying with Gardy... Basically saying, "Ok you won manager of the year and the division without your MVP worthy 1B, allstar closer, a clear ace and a banged up MVP catcher... let's see you win it without any IF depth, and I'll chop off your left arm too....whoops everyone is hurt."

I've written off this year, I'm only checking box scores for fantasy purposes.

I'm hoping Thome gets his 600 and retires, I'm hoping we use Kubel's good season to get a catcher, and I'm hoping we can move mauer and that Morneau finds out what's wrong. I'm also hoping Gibson is ready to pitch.

T said...

I know when Morneau went down for the season the first time, Mauer was taking fielding practice at 1B as a just in case.

What are the odds that at some point we see a shift with Mauer going to 1B, and Morneau becoming a DH? Or is that just crazy talk akin to moving Mauer to 3B?

Likewise, I doubt Thome finishes the year with the Twins (provided he's healthy). It would be awesome to see him hit #600 as a Twin, but I think if this season is lost the best thing for Thome would be to put him on a team with a shot at the postseason. Especially if they could get a quality return (though even that would be questionable at this point).

Nick, maybe you've already written this elsewhere...but what would you consider the goal for the remainder of the season to be? Twins don't want to just play out the string and then go from there. Aside from Mauer/Morneau, is there anybody else that would be untouchable come the trade deadline?

Ed Bast said...

This season we're seeing all this organizations flaws on full display. This "Twins Way" philosophy needs to change. Bill Smith needs to go, period. We can't afford another offseason in which he runs this franchise into the ground. We need better scouting, and we need to quit insisting on drafting finesse pitchers and slap-hitting outfielders. We need to teach our pitchers in the minors that the expectation is not 100 pitches but 7 innings, that pitching inside is allowed, that if someone plunks our 40-yr old DH in the ALDS, the expectation is that the next inning, batter 1 gets plunked right back.

We need to clean house on the training staff. We need to tell minor leaguers that as professional athletes, you will never be 100% physically, and you will need to play through some pain. Offseason work out plans need to be managed and monitored. When injuries inevitably do happen at the MLB level, they need to be managed by doctors, not PR folks and not the front office.

The Twins Arrogance that we can plug anyone into the bullpen and SS and we'll make it work needs to stop. The Twins Arrogance that "we do things the right way" needs to stop, because it hasn't been true for a couple years now. The Twins Way of overpaying veterans because they are nice needs to stop - just because we have a larger payroll doesn't mean we need to dish out expensive extensions just because we can.

We need a manager who has control over this team. We need leadership in the clubhouse. We need to play with attitude and passion. When your best and top-paid player sits out and indefinite amount of time with soreness, and refuses to come back as a DH to help out the worst-hitting team in the league, what sort of example does this set for the younger players? If He gets to make up his own rules, why can't I?

The small-market attitude has to go. We are a big market team, and players need to perform. No more excuse-making. Trees will not be cut down because players whine.

For this rebuilding project, we need a plan. We need outsiders to come in and objectively view players and staff, not get caught up in nice-guy biases or the Old Twins Way. How soon can we gear up for a playoff run?

The windfall from Target Field won't last forever. Look at the Mariners, Indians, Orioles for examples of this. Look at the MN Wild for an example of how quickly and drastically a poor GM can run a "model" franchise into the ground. And look at the 2010 Twins as an example that when you have a lot of pieces in place, you go for it 100% - and trading for a relief pitcher because he has an option for next year is NOT going for it.

And the Pohlads need to treat their fans with respect. The product on the field matters. Fans pay a lot of good money to watch the club play. Most just want a competitive club. Don't stick it to your fans by raising ticket prices after 1 season. More than anything, show how unacceptable the performance of the 2011 Twins is by making changes from the top down.

lvl 5 Charizard said...

"a barren minor-league cupboard. "

To be fair their minor league system has been rated as above average and I dont think the total number of potential mlb caliber players is lower than its been recently. The system certainly isnt deep enough to throw away good players in always foolish 'win now' dead line deals but no team is. That won't stop a huge portion of the fan base from glamoring for these types of moves every time the twins are contending at the trading deadline. If you want to take issue with how the minor leagues are run i'd focus less on the talent level and more on the fact that the twins are consistently one of the lowest spenders in the draft, which hurts their ability to acquire talent outside of the first round of the draft.

And for those who are giving gardy a pass and piling this on bill smith, I think this team has ron gardenhires finger prints all over it. I think gardy led the way to adding speed to the middle infield even though that speed predictably led to worse defense and offense at both middle infield positions. I think grady buys into the importance of a closer. Ultimately bill smith makes personnel decisions but the way gardy prefers to play baseball has never been smart.

Dan Gausman said...

Joe Mauer will play catcher again. I have no doubts on that. However, riding a nine game losing streak and a 12 and 27 record, I think it would be wise of the Twins to experiment with him in some other fielding positions upon his return, I'm guessing early June. His knees are no doubt sore, and with day after day games and travelling, there is no hope of them feeling better until next April. And there should be many different faces in the dugout and bullpen by then (Cuddyer, Nathan will be only the tip of that iceberg)...

Jaden said...

I absolutely agree with cheapseatchronicles. We WAY overpaid for Capps. Mauer was hurting last year, and we traded away our top prospect for the sake of a trade-deadline deal. No foresight whatsoever from Bill Smith. Fire his @$$ and get somebody in there that knows what they're doing. I long for the days of Terry Ryan and his talent evaluation. The last good decision Bill Smith made was accepting the job as GM(good decision for him).

Anonymous said...

It's not only the front office and the manager. It' the players as well.

Only two players on the team have a higher slugging percentage than Nick Punto (Kubel & Plouffe).

Only two pitchers have a lower ERA than Pat Neshek (Hacker & Perkins).

This year is already lost. It's time to start unloading contracts for prospects. I would rather see a team that's trying and getting better than what we have now.

mgraves said...

Unfortunately the minor league system--AA and AAA--is barren. Last year the Red Wings lost 100 games, in a 140 game season. Players who can't hit AAA pitching won't be able to hit ML pitching, and pitchers who can't get AAA hitters out are certainly not going to be able to get ML hitters out.

New Britain was only slightly better last year, than were the Red Wings. A solid minor league system is going to have guys who can come up and produce at least at replacement level. There is not a catcher in the Twins system not named Mauer who can do that. Let's assume Plouffe is the answer at Short--who's his back-up? Sano? The upper reaches of Twins farm system are barren of ML talent.

Secondly, I am now trending fire Gardenhire when Smith is fired. Dark Star was telling the Common Man a couple weeks ago that much of DYoung's injury was related to not wanting to play in the cold. The other day, Young did his patented, bad jump/bad route/run as though he's testing out new feet and let one fall in. He compounded that by not running after the ball and pointing for Span to get it. Young should have been on the bench immediately. He should have been benched for at least one more game.

Gardenhire does not appear to get results from his players because he won't discipline sloth. Maybe it's a contrary reaction to being a military brat growing up. Whatever it is, the absolute least that Twins fans should expect is players who play hard and a manager who pushes his players to do so. The Twins are awful to watch.

The number of players who care is low, and of those, some just don't have the talent to do much (e.g. Tolbert).

T said...

I disagree with benching Young after that play on Sunday. If the Twins were in any sort of position of contention, yes...you bench the guy and bring up somebody who gives a crap.

But the way I look at this situation...if Young is pulling a Manny and dogging it to try and get dealt/benched, he should be left out there.

While he may be dogging it, it's not like the rotating door of prospects has shown any promise (at least not the ones they've called up) that they gain anything by playing a half-assing Young.

If you're preaching that Gardy needs to man up and start being an enforcer, I think in this situation you make Young go out there and start until either a better player is available or he's not with the team anymore. You can't say that Gardy lets the team push him around and then suggest he lets a guy get out of playing by dogging it. We saw that to some extent in previous years where pitchers would start pouting in an ugly loss and just start flinging with an impatient eye to the bullpen.

To me that's disrespectful, and if I were a manager I'd make that guy go out and take his swings and play the field just like anybody else. I guess the counter argument is that Young decreases his trade value by dogging it...but in reality does he have that much value?

Ed Bast said...

"the absolute least that Twins fans should expect is players who play hard and a manager who pushes his players to do so."

Fans and Twins personnel paying attention and not preoccupied with making excuses for last year's playoff failure would have noticed this problem was evident in the last 2 games of 2010, as well. Game 3 in particular was as embarrassing as anything we've seen this year. It's nothing new - it's just easier to notice when the excuses run out.

lvl 5 Charizard said...

"Unfortunately the minor league system--AA and AAA--is barren."

Off the top of my head gibson, hendricks, bromberg, gutierez, revere, benson, parmelee, tosoni are all mlb caliber prospects in the high minors. Then there are players like manship, slama, swarzak, singleton, waldrop who arent terrible. There arent any stars in this group but lets not confuse a lack of star talent for barren.

T said...

I think the issue is that while those prospects may be "MLB calibur" they're not ready for primetime quite yet...and certainly aren't capable of creating a competitive team when all called up at the exact same time.

Anonymous said...

As if this season doesn't suck enough, I just found out we lost Harmon. The greatest Twin ever, and a truly great man. What next???

cy1time said...

Fortunately, they are on the West coast and I'm too old to stay up late to watch.

Bgrant said...

Great post and some great replies here. How about this question: How many of last years Twins FA's should have been offered arb? Seems like at least 2 or 3 could/should have been with the expectation of getting a draft pick as compensation. Is this a FO strategic error or was it a bottom line issue where the team is reluctant to pay for additional 1st/2nd picks?

Anonymous said...

... meanwhile here is an org that covets draft picks:

mgraves said...

lvl 5 Charizard--have any of those names been able to play at replacement level, when they've been called up? A dozen names at two levels who aren't prepared to play ML ball? (If any of them are prepared, there is no excuse for the continued existence of Casilla/the bullpen/Butera). Who is pushing Valencia? Hughes?--the Twins seem to have him as a utility guy. Sano?--He's at what, High A?

T--in what alternate universe are you going to get the team to play harder when there is no accountability? Having actually been a leader, I can assure you that Gardenhire cannot be respected by his players if this is the level of effort he is given. The Twins are not competitive. They're actually playing better then their RS-RA would suggest (which would put them at .250 baseball). They are a bad team. I'd rather watch mediocre prospects play hard than watch overpaid ninnies dog it. Incidentally, Young is "hitting" .192 with zero power (ISO .041, by way of comparison, Punto has never had a season with an ISO that low).

lvl 5 Charizard said...

"vl 5 Charizard--have any of those names been able to play at replacement level, when they've been called up? A dozen names at two levels who aren't prepared to play ML ball?"

Of the decent prospects I listed I believe only revere and tosoni have been called up and neither has played very much. I think making the requirement that an organization have a lot of major league ready standouts in AAA who immediately perform at the major league is unrealistic. Few teams in baseball have lots of top prospects in their upper levels, and most prospects struggle when they first move to the major leagues. That being said I expect gibson, hendricks, and benson to be solid major league player in the future. Its a process. And people who are frustrated that the minors cant fix the twins problems dont understand how that process typically works.

"Sano?--He's at what, High A?"

He's in extended spring training. Good guess though, I can see you take your twins minor league seriously. I expect him to lead those appy twins come june, but hes like 4-6 years from the majors so I wouldn't look for him to replace casilla.

Jay Hamilton said...

Smith is an idiot. Gomez would have made at least 3 game-saving catches so far that Span couldn't get to. Trade Delmon to Nats for Ramos. Trade Liriano to whatever contender (Yanks?) that will give us best SS prospect. Trade Thome and Casilla to Tigers for Inge (C-3B). Put Joe in LF. Rest of this year spent having new fellas getting used to each other, and keeping W.Sox from winning. Next year we come back strong.

Matt said...

The Twins are now in a position where they will have to quickly rebuild while hoping that core long-term players like Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer can rebound.
They'll both rebound... maybe... eventually... Whatever.
I think the Twins need to be sellers at or before the deadline.
Morneau and Liriano need to be traded as both could probably help a contender (hopefully Morneau can still hit, yet to be seen) who would love to pay us what we need, right? Catcher, middle infield...
Hang on to younger guys and younger veterans (like Young and Kubel) but trade these "core" guys. The depth is sorely needed!

USAFChief said...

"And for those who are giving gardy a pass and piling this on bill smith, I think this team has ron gardenhires finger prints all over it. I think gardy led the way to adding speed to the middle infield even though that speed predictably led to worse defense and offense at both middle infield positions."

I couldn't disagree more regarding Casilla. I don't think Gardy ever wanted Casilla, and the fact he couldn't get Casilla off SS fast enough this year is revealing. The Casilla at SS experiment didn't even last through April. If Casilla was Gardy's choice, he'd have kept him there much longer than that. Gardy's not stupid, and if there's one thing he knows it's infield play. There's no way he'd put Casilla at short every day if he had any option.

I think Gardy was just spouting the company line this winter when Bill Smith decided $6M for a competent major league shortstop wasn't doable.

lvl 5 Charizard said...

"and if there's one thing he knows it's infield play."

Really? They've had almost no good players at those positions and continue to run the same sorta fast, bad defensive slap hitters through there. If he understands middle infield defense so well how do you explain him crippling the ss position defensively giving brendan harris time there because he didnt turn double plays well at 2b? 2 years in a row hes made the bold statement that middle infield defense means absolutely nothing if you can his some hr by playing michael cuddyer at 2b. Why is infield defense the one thing gardy knows? Because he was a bad middle infielder 30 years ago? I guess its possible hes a mastermind that has been given no tools by bill smith but i dont think theres much evidence he makes good decisions with the players hes got.

USAFChief said...

They've had almost no good players at those positions

Correct. Yet you complain because one of the bad players is on the field. Is Gardy supposed to leave the SS position empty?

I guess its possible hes a mastermind that has been given no tools by bill smith but i dont think theres much evidence he makes good decisions with the players hes got.

It's hard to make good decisions with bad players. Would you rather he let Casilla stay out there?

The next time Bill Smith provides Gardenhire with a quality middle infielder and Gardenhire doesn't play him, you'll have a complaint. Until then, you're just inventing issues.

lvl 5 Charizard said...

He's given cuddyer time at 2b and 3b 2 years in a row and i suspect well see more of cuddy at 2b this year. He's the worst infield defender in baseball. Gardy in both cases had plenty of superior defenders he chose cuddy over. He maximized brendan harris' defensive short comings by playing him at short, at times while playing adam everett at 2b.

He was vocal in the offseason about adding more speed and said that middle infield was the logical place to add speed. Maybe hes just spouting company line but I dont think he is.

USAFChief said...

He's given cuddyer time at 2b and 3b 2 years in a row and i suspect well see more of cuddy at 2b this year. He's the worst infield defender in baseball. Gardy in both cases had plenty of superior defenders he chose cuddy over.

Cuddyer has a total of 107 innings at 3b in the last two years, 67 at 2b, and I'd like to know who the clearly superior PLAYERS were. Offense is part of the equation too. In any case, Cuddyer isn't even the worst infield defender on his own team as long as Alexi Casilla is around.

He maximized brendan harris' defensive short comings by pla. ying him at short, at times while playing adam everett at 2b.

Is that the same Adam Everett who needed a relay to get the ball to first base?

Believe what you will. It's pretty clear to me Gardy didn't want Casilla, or he wouldn't have pulled the plug after 3 weeks.