As is the custom for every home game, a group of reporters huddled around Terry Ryan prior to a game last September. Ryan, who at the time was in the second year of his second tenure as GM of the Twins, was asked about the club’s moral obligation to put its best lineup on the field night after night despite being on course for a third-straight 90 loss season.
Ryan’s answer amounted to something like this: It’s the team’s duty to the fans and to itself to put the best possible lineup on the field every night. In short, Ryan was throwing cold water on any notion that the Twins might throw in the towel and tank for something even better than just a third consecutive top-five pick.
But a look at this September as well as the past three doesn’t paint a particularly flattering picture of the image Ryan is trying to convey.
Sept. 2011: 6-20
Sept. 2012: 13-15
Sept. 2013: 8-20
Sept. 2014 (through Thursday): 9-14
The sum of those efforts is a 36-69 record. Or in other words, a .343 winning percentage or the equivalent of a 56-106 full season record. It’s late-season swoons like this from a team previously known to play better as the season wears on which has the Twins, or at least their fans, considering what previously seemed unthinkable.
Blow it all up.
I can confidently say I felt the end more or less from the get-go in 2011. Maybe even earlier that winter when the club inexplicably dumped shortstop J.J. Hardy for little more than bullpen filler in a bewildering effort to “improve team speed.” But despite coming off a fantastic 2010 season — the club’s sixth division title and seventh postseason trip in nine seasons — I felt nothing but dread for this 2011 campaign. I didn’t renew my season tickets for the first time since getting them in 2006. And when Carl Pavano took the mound in Toronto that April Fool’s Day, I was legitimately uneasy about the Twins future.
The prevailing argument at the time was that the Twins lacked a ‘true ace’. And Pavano — coming off a season where he’d fanned fewer than five batters per nine with a FIP over 4.00 — starting on opening day speaks to the legitimacy of those claims. Francisco Liriano had a magnificent bounceback season for the Twins in 2010, but that pretty much spelled the end of joy during his tenure with the club, save for one of the ugliest no-hitters ever seen (two strikeouts, six walks) in May of that year.
I was notably anxious as the Twins took the field that Friday in Toronto, as my then-girlfriend and now-wife Amanda can attest. And from the outset, the 2011 season was an unconscionable disaster. Pavano gave up back-to-back singles to Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar, both of whom executed a double steal before Jose Bautista walked. Four runs scored by the end of the inning, the fourth on a grounder that could not be fielded cleanly by a young man making his major league debut — Tsuyoshi Nishioka. As that run crossed the plate, I looked Amanda squarely in the eye from our corner booth at the now-defunct Joe Senser’s restaurant and said “This season is going to be a disaster.”
In a way, it was sort of symbolic that the Jays would be a part of the dismantling of the Twins. It was at the Jays’ hands — specifically, second baseman John McDonald — that Justin Morneau’s career as a productive Twin ended when, on July 7, 2010, the slugger slid into McDonald and out of the lineup for the rest of the season due to a concussion. The contact looked innocuous enough, but in retrospect told us all we didn’t then know about head injuries. Morneau would miss the rest of the season — including his second-straight playoff race — and would come back to play just 69 games for the club in 2011, hitting just .227/.285/.333.
British science historian James Burke is credited with saying “You can only know where you’re going if you know where you’ve been.” To that end, it’s worth examining how the Twins got into this mess.
The post-World Series hangover from 1991 wasn’t pretty. Indeed 1992 was a fine season; just like 1988 after the 1987 title, the 1992 season was a 90-win campaign which failed to get the club to the postseason back in the pre-wildcard days.
But 1993 was an unmitigated disaster. The offense lacked any semblance of a threat beyond Kirby Puckett and the soon-declining Kent Hrbek, and the pitching staff tumbled from third in the American League in ERA to 13th amidst the departure of 16-game winner John Smiley and the unraveling of Scott Erickson, a sinkerballing youngster who just two years prior finished second in the Cy Young balloting to Roger Clemens.
One place 1993 wasn’t a complete disaster was in the first round of that year’s amateur draft. And even that may be a stretch, as the Twins used the first of four selections — the compensation pick on Smiley, incidentally — on an 18-year-old outfielder from Pine Bluff, Ark. who would usher in the next era of winning baseball in the Twin Cities.
That man was Torii Hunter.
But even the rest of that first round summed up the season, and subsequent draft failures for the Twins. The Twins couldn’t sign its second pick, a college catcher by the name of Jason Varitek, and the other two picks (Marc Barcelo and Kelcey Mucker) didn’t even make the major leagues.
This was the first hit on a first round pick for the Twins since 1989 (Chuck Knoblauch), and would be the last until Michael Cuddyer in 1997. The names in between are utterly forgettable: Midre Cummings, Todd Ritchie, Scott Stahoviak, and a pair of top-three picks in David McCarty and Travis Lee all failed for one reason or another as the club simply wasn’t able to make solid first round selections. Even Todd Walker, an LSU product who was believed to be extremely polished and the heir apparent to Knoblauch at second or perhaps a fixture at third, found more success elsewhere after clashing with then-manager Tom Kelly.
The Twins continued to flounder into the 1994 players’ strike. Ryan took over as GM when Andy MacPhail left to be president and CEO of the Cubs, so his GM story starts here after a number of years the the club in various scouting duties, including director of scouting. Hrbek became immobile and retired after that season, with Kirby Puckett a year behind him after a Dennis Martinez beanball ended his 1995 season, and glaucoma his career some nine months later. An attempt to build a respectable team around Puckett in that 1996 season resulted in the club’s best record and winning percentage since that 1992 season, but without Kirby meant just a 78-84 record. And despite the additions of third baseman Dave Hollins, designated hitter Paul Molitor, and the remaining solid core of Marty Cordova, Rich Becker, and a suddenly-elite Knoblauch, the Twins remained well out of the playoff hunt in 1996, finishing 21.5 games behind the 99-win Cleveland Indians.
The subsequent three seasons were downright awful, as the club dropped an average of 94 games a season in that stretch. Literally, the only bright spots were drafting a high school shortstop (Cuddyer, who needed 1100 plate appearances to convince the Twins he was ready to hold down a starting spot regularly), a no-hitter for Eric Milton against one of the worst Angels lineups ever, and the assimilation of a bunch of rookies which would usher in an upstart era of Twins baseball which told the contraction talks to stick it and made the Metrodome as relevant as it could possibly be.
The 2000 season was the first in which that promise began to shine through, though it was still much like how the sun sneaks through drawn shades. The Twins lost 90 games again for the fourth consecutive season, marking the only time in major league history a manager kept his job after such a streak.
That season stands as the debut or marks the breakout/first significant big league exposure for players like Hunter, A.J. Pierzynski, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, and Cristian Guzman. Doug Mientkiewicz would rejoin the fold in 2001 after an ugly 1999 led him to spend the whole season at Triple-A Salt Lake.
The 2001 season was iconic in a number of ways, as the Twins battled all season for relevance and stayed in the race into the final weeks of the season. This was the first time the club had finished over .500 since 1992. The offseason was a contentious one, not only because the manager stepped aside, ushering in the Ron Gardenhire era, but because the Twins and Expos faced the threat of contraction from commissioner Bud Selig. That core of players brought relevance back to Twin Cities baseball for the first time in nearly a decade, and helped the club stave off contraction as is commemorated by a blown-up ESPN Magazine cover page which hangs in the Twins media dining room.
The next year is remembered for multiple reasons; not all of them are good. That group of Twins not only won more than 90 games for the first time since the 1991 World Champions, but also stands alone as the only group since that title run to advance past the first round of the playoffs. In fact, had this column been written four years ago instead of now, that would be a main bullet point of the presentation rather than a footnote. It’s impossibly hard to convey how upset people were that the Twins couldn’t get past those damned Yankees, especially in the vein of the apathy that has struck the fanbase in recent years.
But 2002 is also remembered negatively for one bad reason: the club inexplicably cut David Ortiz following what was, by most accounts, a productive season. Ortiz had managed to play in 125 games, and had popped 20 home runs en route to a .272/.339/.500 batting line. And heading into his second year of arbitration eligibility, the then-budget conscious Twins determined for whatever reason that paying him a raise likely around $2 million for a team whose payroll would be right around $55 million when the dust settled in 2013.
“We looked and asked around everywhere and couldn’t find a taker,” Ryan opined last year. “People always ask why he was let go; we couldn’t give him away.” Some of that has merit, considering Ortiz didn’t link up with the Red Sox until late January, over a month after the Twins let him go.
But that doesn’t necessarily address why he was let go, as if he was burning a hole in Ryan’s pocket. No sane explanation really works here, and even the budgetary one seems feeble in light of a hitter like Ortiz only taking up about four percent of a team’s payroll. Given the number of young, pre-arbitration players on those teams, it just seems like an odd conclusion to come to. Regardless, a young Matthew LeCroy soaked up those at bats while Ortiz went on to do his thing with the Red Sox.
But Ortiz’ release sparks at least what I consider a series or an epidemic of questionable personnel moves made year after year, in an attempt to do….well, nobody really knows what. Ultimately, what likely will be found here by you the reader is that even when the Twins were successful, it was almost as though it was in spite of themselves rather than because of the direction which they had set upon. One could almost argue the Matt Lawton-for-Rick Reed deal from mid-2002 falls into this category, as Reed proved to be adequate in 2003 but not particularly helpful in 2002 — the year he was acquired to actually help the team down the stretch — or 2003, his final season in the league. Lawton would be somewhat productive over the last five years of his career, but certainly not so much so that the Twins need to lament losing him.
The problem with bringing on Reed, and to that same effect Kenny Rogers the next spring, was that the Twins were going the exact opposite direction they appeared to be set on when bringing up all the kids. Rogers certainly was useful in his season with the Twins, but perhaps the most troubling part of his tenure was who he blocked. That is, only the guy who would win the AL Cy Young award the next season — Johan Santana.
It’s unclear exactly what the Twins hadn’t seen in Santana the year before, when he fanned 11.4 per nine, carried a 2.99 ERA, and made 14 starts, but he was again banished to the bullpen to start 2003. Santana wasn’t made a full-time starter until after the All Star break that year, from whence he proceeded to do Johan Santana type things: 8-2 record, 3.22 ERA, .216/.267/.392 opponents’ line, and 92 strikeouts in 92.1 innings. Of course, this is all revisionist history, but knowing what we know now doesn’t necessarily absolve some of the decision-making here.
The 2004 season makes for a good break to re-visit the Twins drafts from those days. So bad were the Twins in 2000 that they secured the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft. This was back in the days when the MLB draft alternated leagues selecting first, so by this stroke of luck the Twins selected first despite having the same record as the Pirates in 2000, with three other teams even worse. That led the Twins to nab local boy Joe Mauer, a catcher from nearby Cretin-Derham Hall who was not only an elite baseball player, but also recruited to play quarterback at Florida State. Some believed Mauer was a signability pick, or a cheaper pick than collegiate right-hander Mark Prior — largely believed to be the superior talent — but in the end the Twins managed to do right — thanks in large part to freak injuries to Prior, of course.
In spite of the Mauer selection, missed draft picks in subsequent years continued to pile up. Between Cuddyer in 1997 and Mauer in 2001, the Twins drafted Ryan Mills, B.J. Garbe, and Adam Johnson with top-six picks. Johnson is the only one of that trio to have made the bigs, and he was battered so badly (10.25 ERA in two separate stints) that some wondered if the Twins rushed him. It’s worth noting that his 2002 season at Edmonton — his first after his big league debut — resulted in a 5.47 ERA and precipitous drop in strikeouts. Outside of independent ball he wouldn’t find any more success as a professional.
First round hits have been hard to come by in the time since Mauer. Like Hunter, 2002 first-rounder Denard Span was a late-bloomer who is now playing a pivotal role — elsewhere. To some degree the same can be said about Matt Garza and Ben Revere.
Only 10 of the Twins’ 25 first-rounders since Mauer have even made the big leagues. Those 10 have a combined fWAR (Fangraphs WAR) of 62.1, while Mauer himself checks in at 45.6. It’s also worth noting that Matt Garza’s career mark is 20.4, and that just 2.0 came with the Twins. In other words, Mauer has out-produced every Twins first-rounder after him — combined.
That isn’t to say the Twins weren’t self-sufficient through the draft; their budget basically meant that they had to be. They found Justin Morneau, a Canadian high school catcher, in the third round in 1999. Jason Kubel, who was expected to be the third left-handed hitting masher with Mauer and Morneau before a knee injury in the Arizona Fall League derailed him, was a 12th round pick in 2000.
The Twins also moved to drafting college right-handed pitchers; typically strike-throwing polished guys but every now and then they broke the mold. It worked for a while too, as the Twins nabbed Garza, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, and Scott Baker with high picks — though only Garza was a first-rounder. Even that plan fizzled into outright failure relatively quickly. Other than that quartet, the Twins have drafted Matt Fox, Kyle Waldrop, Shooter Hunt, Carlos Gutierrez, Matt Bashore, Kyle Gibson, Alex Wimmers, and Luke Bard as college pitchers with first-round picks. And as of this writing, only Gibson has reached the big leagues with any semblance of success, and Bard and Wimmers’ chances looking grim of changing that.
As Mauer and pals rounded into form, some of the plucky bunch that ushered this team into the new millennium and into the next era of competitive baseball started to get expensive. At least too much so for a team hamstrung by the Metrodome and its revenues — or lack thereof. Mientkiewicz was traded across the stadium to the visiting Red Sox to make room for Morneau. Koskie departed after 2004. So did Guzman. Jones found himself in perpetual non-tender limbo, but played out his string of indentured servitude to the Twins before signing with the Cubs in free agency after 2005. This continued and perhaps reached its head when Hunter and Santana departed, via trade and free agency respectively, after 2007.
The budget became a huge talking point, not to mention a huge source of angst among Twins fans. At this time the Twins were known as a team with limited financial resources, but a good farm which could patch up any losses. And astonishingly, that was true. The Twins stumbled in 2005 but bounced right back with a ridiculous 2006 season spurred by a blistering mid-summer stretch led by newcomer Francisco Liriano and sudden stalwart Santana.
But even as the Twins frustrated fans by not bringing back old favorites, they also flummoxed with their propensity to add….well, how to put this delicately: crap. The likes of Livan Hernandez, Sidney Ponson, and Ramon Ortiz took up rotation spots; similarly, on offense the Twins gave the keys to guys like Tony Batista and Juan Castro. On the rare occasions the Twins did spend a little added money, it was because it was late in the offseason and a player/s market had cooled (Joe Crede), or it completely imploded on them when they ‘bought something’ (Rondell White).
And yet oddly, the club just kept winning. It didn’t matter when Hunter and Santana departed after 2007; the Twins went out and came within a game of winning the division when a Jim Thome home run sent them packing in game 163. And the club went out and won its own game 163 the next year before saying goodbye to the Metrodome one last time.
And saying goodbye the the Metrodome was supposed to save the Twins in countless ways. Not only could the Twins finally afford to keep its own good players — which they promptly did with a Mauer extension that is probably the single-most contentious thing among fans — but this major league team was finally being rewarded with a major league facility.
Mr. Ryan stepped aside at the end of the 2007 season, citing exhaustion among other things for the reason to vacate the GM’s chair he had taken some 13 years prior. Like most good Twins employees and even some bad ones, Ryan wasn’t really gone. He was named his successor’s “senior advisor,” a title just vague enough to make one wonder what his role was in subsequent decisions made by the team, but also enough so that he could distance himself if they were to run south. Well, that wasn’t the intention of course. It is, however, what happened.
With great lamentation fans watched as Hunter signed with the Angels on Thanksgiving Day. Santana was flipped two months later, after a long and arduous winter of ‘would he stay or would he go?’ Negotiations which dazzled with promise of names like Lester, Kershaw, Kemp, Lowrie, and other possible Yankees-centric packages gave way to the ultimate dud:
Via BaseballReference.com: February 2, 2008: Traded by the Minnesota Twins to the New York Mets for Deolis Guerra (minors), Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey.
Mulvey and Humber were total non-entities for the Twins. Guerra is still in the system and may still make it as a reliever, but as a major chip in a trade package even that would be a pittance.
And yet we come to Gomez. Ah, yes. The toolsy but rawer than a fresh-picked carrot centerfielder whom the Twins decided to rush along to the big leagues rather than just hand the job to the more polished in-house option. That’s right, the one who came right up and was solid from the get-go, and is now patrolling that same spot for the NL East-champion Washington Nationals.
In retrospect, it seems odd the Twins never, ever sent Gomez to the minor leagues. Like, not at all. Instead, the club let him hit .258/.296/.360 in year one, and inexplicably watched him regress to .229/.287/.337 in that second year. Gomez batted leadoff NINETY times last year. That’s right, if you read that with Mr. Rooney’s voice from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’re not alone. On the other 53 occasions he made the starting lineup, Gomez batted ninth, which basically coincided with Span finally getting the keys to the leadoff spot, though he’d have to bide his time in right field.
After that second year, with the club at wit’s end, the Twins engineered an enigma-for-enigma swap with the Brewers for embattled shortstop J.J. Hardy. Hardy wasn’t known as the fleetest afoot, and at times his plate approach left something to be desired, but he was a former 20-plus home run hitter and solid defender at a position that is an absolute black hole in Twins annals.
Hardy’s year with the Twins wasn’t perfect. Maybe even far from it. He only played in 101 games as wrist injuries dogged him for much of the year, but when he was healthy he was productive. And yet still, the Twins dumped him at the end of that season for Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson, a pair of relievers who have since moved on to….well, nothing. Hoey kicked around for a bit and wound up in Independent Ball before hanging it up in the last year or so, and Jacobson fell off the radar after getting blasted at Colorado Springs to the tune of a 9.00 ERA and 13.8 walks per nine innings.
That, for a productive big league shortstop. And it wasn’t a move that seemed defensible even from the get-go. This was a “fire the man responsible” move that makes less and less sense by the day. And maybe there was something going on behind the scenes that the Twins never let on, whether it be the wrist injury and his willingness to play though it — why should he? — or maybe it was the salary he was due in arbitration that offseason — also a point of contention that should have been considered PRIOR TO ACQUIRING HIM — but in the short span of one baseball season, Gomez and Hardy were someone else’s problems. Except, well, Hardy hit 30 home runs that year. And while it took Gomez a bit longer to get going, he turned into an even better player than Hardy — a burgeoning big league superstar who can hit, run, hit for power, and is one of the finest defensive centerfielders in the game.
Moves like this on their own may not justify sweeping changes — at least not in the scope of how the Twins do business. Which is to say, rather conservatively.
But it’s a pattern of moves. Of jerking around players like Kevin Slowey, who — rightfully so — didn’t want to pitch out of the bullpen in favor of a veteran right-hander with a bigger contract coming off a 5.42 ERA. And again, there may be more than meets the eye with that situation. Slowey’s year, and ultimately career fell apart pretty much right then and there.
And then, in almost a ‘history repeats itself’ sort of dynamic, the Twins set out on a rebuild armed with top picks, and signing guys like Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey. More or less the modern-day Ponson’s, Ortizes, and Hernandezes of the world. Again, pitchers like that have value — Correia likely fulfilled his for what he was paid — but it doesn’t lend to the public perception that the Twins aren’t particularly concerned about the product on the field now as opposed to in the future. Almost as if being there in the future is certain, or something else that we just can’t quite put our fingers on.
The past offseason found the Twins giving out the two biggest free agent contracts in club history: a four-year deal to sturdy veteran right-hander Ricky Nolasco, and a three-year pact to a complete and utter wild card in former Yankee Phil Hughes. Hughes was a former thoroughbred, a first rounder who had lost his way in the Big Apple but still was obviously talented if a bit snakebitten.
Regardless of who is responsible, Hughes’ growth this season — a year in which he set the all-time K/BB rate record and more or less cashed-in on his significant promise — has been nothing short of sensational. But on the other hand, Nolasco has completely fallen apart, pitching so terribly at times that he eventually confessed to pitching injured — a claim that should be taken at its word but will always make one wonder.
The Hughes-Nolasco conundrum is the one which pretty much spells out the issue facing Twins management when it decides the fate of its coaches, likely sometime early next week: who gets credit for what, and how, and why?
These are not easy questions to answer.
The saving grace — if there is one — for this regime is the farm system, and even that took what has to be considered a sizable step back this season. Top prospects Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Kohl Stewart, Jose Berrios, and Eddie Rosario each missed time for injuries or other, perhaps more worrisome reasons. In fact, it’s almost indicative of how the season has gone that if someone suggested in April that a good-hitting speedster and a hulking slugger of a corner infielder would be bright spots on this club, the easy answers would be Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano.
Instead, it’s Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas, both of whom — despite their warts — have done very well in their first cups of coffee with the big club.
It’s not fair to lump all those minor league woes into one basket and place the blame; these things happen. But it does bring up a fair issue, and that is that fans have always had something to look forward to with Target Field. In the first year it was the park itself — heck, even in subsequent years this is true, because it rocks — and the prospect of October baseball. And there was October baseball in 2010 — and not since. During the bad stretch, fans were promised an All-Star game, which came and went with much fanfare. It was a gala which showed off the downtown area and fit the bill in every way imaginable. Even the Future’s Game seemed to point to the future, with Berrios starting and Vargas and Alex Meyer starring.
But coming off a fourth brutal, losing season, with the specter of a fifth hanging not too far in the offing, many folks believe it’s time for change. It’s truly hard to reconcile to what extent each coach and staffer has. Some believe when pitchers pitch poorly, the coaches are the fall guy — whether it’s deserved or not. “Can’t fire the whole team,” fans routinely offer in support of the move.
And it’s not as though different parts of the organization haven’t overseen success in some form or fashion. Hitting coach Tom Brunansky is widely credited for building Brian Dozier into the hitter he is today. Reviled pitching coach Rick Anderson can hang his hat on Phil Hughes’ 2014 season, and most certainly can take some credit for the relievers the Twins have unearthed in recent seasons like Casey Fien and Jared Burton — both of whom were minor league free agents. Ryan was the architect of the each of the non-Bloomington-centric runs in Twins history, and in his defense most likely did what he felt was the best he could given the constraints handed him by ownership, his ballpark, or whatever else.
But in the end, only one manager has ever survived four-straight 90-loss seasons, and that’s Gardenhire’s predecessor. And that was 1997-2000, when the Twins were in the deepest funk perhaps in club history. At least until now. Firings before were only window dressing, as Scott Ullger has held more positions than Denny Hocking, and Joe Vavra was simply re-assigned as well. Dumped were the bullpen coach who was largely believed to be retiring, and a first base coach who was also in charge of outfield positioning.
It’s impossible to levy the blame of this whole collapse on one person. Many might try to do so on the shoulders of Bill Smith, Ryan’s hand-chosen successor who lasted just four seasons on the job and is the only GM in post-Washington club history to be fired. Fired is a harsh word; he still draws a paycheck from the organization in a lesser role. His trades of Santana, Garza, and Hardy all played a role in where the organization is today. In the end the team was top heavy, and when the top faltered, there was nothing below to sustain it.
And that’s how it gets to this point today, where even in the most loyal of professional sports organizations, there is a call for change. It’s not fair for any of these men to shoulder just the negative burden a stretch like this carries, but at the same time it bears asking:
“What needs to happen, exactly, for these guys to lose their jobs?”
This is as hopeless as Twins baseball has ever felt. Mauer will be 32 on Opening Day next year. Essentially, that’s the end of his prime. More worrisome yet is how he played for a large portion of the 2014 season, leaving his actual future value up in the air especially at a position which demands offensive production.
If the Twins don’t make wide-sweeping changes soon after the team hops off the charter back from Detroit Monday, it’s time to call a spade a spade. These guys are more or less employed for life, and that the PR hailstorm that will follow will be deservedly so.