Ominous Signs For The Twins

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If Twins’ GM Terry Ryan’s recent moves and statements are any indication, the team is well on the way to another long lull similar to the one they experienced from 1994-2000 when they were not only considered a dead franchise, but they were almost contracted from MLB entirely.

Considering the context of his remarks at the SABR 42 convention, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more vitriol coming from the stat person crowd at Ryan’s open decision to stay the course with his beliefs of scouting and intuition rather than numbers.

I’m no stat guy and I don’t think any organization in any industry should be run on numbers alone. I have no use for people who’ve watched baseball for two years, can read a stat sheet and pompously and condescendingly declare that they know more than people who’ve been involved with the game for decades, but those that haven’t fully incorporated the use of statistics into the equation are missing out on factors that can be used to make more informed choices.

Under no circumstances do I believe in absolutes when building an organization.

The statement of alteration in their draft strategy would concern me.

Ryan said that Target Field has changed his team’s Draft philosophies. The Twins used to look at left-handed pitchers and hitters when they played at the Metrodome, but he said that the team’s new outdoor facility favors right-handed hitters and outfielders who can cover a lot of ground.

Drafting to the ballpark or the organizational belief system has its place within reason. I wouldn’t draft a player who had a history of drug or alcohol problems; trouble with the law; character issues unless I was convinced the incidents were isolated or had been handled and hadn’t occurred in recent history. I wouldn’t exclude a player if he didn’t prototypically “fit” into my big league ballpark. If there was a debate between two players of similar ability and one was a better fit for the big league park, then it’s a sensible to take him. Specifically looking for players that fit into a big league park is a doomed strategy.

In football or basketball, where a player is stepping out of the amateurs and into the highest level of professional competition, it’s an understandable method to draft based on need. Not so in baseball. For most players it will take several years for them to be ready for the big leagues; foreseeing the “need” argument for 3-5 years down the line is impossible.

The absolutist mentality came into prominence after Moneyball because the narrative suggested that Billy Beane had stumbled upon the perfect method of drafting. But there is no perfect method of drafting. It doesn’t exist.

There does have to be adaptation.

The question about Ryan becomes is he equipped to function in today’s game? Is he willing to do what’s necessary to turn the Twins around? They just signed Ryan Doumit to a contract extension—a questionable move. They should look to trade Justin Morneau. Will they?

They’re currently a disaster and have little talent to speak of in their system. He’s got a lot of work to do and is functioning under an “interim” tag.

It doesn’t sound as if the Twins have learned from their mistakes in building this monstrosity. They’re changing their way of doing things, but still following strategies that were en vogue 20 years ago. They’ve taken a different form.

There were some nice moments during the SABR convention and Ryan was gracious to appear and share his views, but I can’t help but picture many of the participants rolling their eyes and referring to Ryan as an old-school dinosaur who’s refusing to change with the times and knowing that the Twins are in trouble if he sticks to the template he outlined.

Ryan’s been a high-quality executive, a good baseball man and a decent person.

But maybe it’s time for someone else to oversee this reconstruction; someone with fresh eyes; someone open to doing things differently.

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Off Season Losers In Retrospect

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Several days ago I listed the off season winners in retrospect discussing teams and the moves they made this past winter. Now it’s time for the losers.

New York Yankees

Acquired: Michael Pineda, Raul Ibanez, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Jose Campos

Subtracted: Jorge Posada, A.J. Burnett, Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi

The YES Network website still hasn’t mentioned Jose Campos since he got hurt. For that matter, nor have they mentioned Manny Banuelos’s recent injury. Maybe they haven’t been informed yet. Yeah. That’s it.

The trade of Montero and Noesi for Pineda and Campos is an absolute and utter disaster—a fireable offense for GM Brian Cashman.

Kuroda’s been good and unlucky.

Pettitte’s unexpected return has been a bolt from the blue and Ibanez has contributed the power I expected.

It’s fine to talk about them “having” to get rid of Burnett, but they’re paying him; they got low minor leaguers for him; he’s pitching well for the Pirates; and the players the Yankees got haven’t played yet in 2012. Had Pettitte not returned I guarantee there would be people now lamenting the loss of Burnett.

Guarantee.

Boston Red Sox

Acquired: GM Ben Cherington, Manager Bobby Valentine, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Mark Melancon, Nick Punto

Subtracted: GM Theo Epstein, Manager Terry Francona, Jonathan Papelbon, Marco Scutaro, Josh Reddick, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek

It’s only when you look at the list above all at once do you realize how rancid an off-season the Red Sox had. Never mind the exchange of GMs/managers. Had he stayed, Epstein probably would’ve had better success fending off the advancing power grab of Larry Lucchino but it would’ve taken a Herculean effort for Epstein to prevent the mediocrity that the Red Sox have become.

I’m sick of seeing Francona complaining about how he was treated in Boston. If it weren’t for the Red Sox, the hot chicks to whom he’s sending candid photos of himself wouldn’t know who he is; not to mention would he not have two World Series rings and respect as a “great” manager—which he’s not.

Bailey got hurt as Reddick is on his way to making the All Star team and has been the Athletics’ best player. Melancon is back in the minor leagues; Shoppach is on the trade block; Ross was playing well before he got hurt; Punto is Punto.

No one’s saying they should’ve overpaid to keep Papelbon, but giving Scutaro away for a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen made no sense.

Detroit Tigers

Acquired: Prince Fielder, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Collin Balester

Subtracted: Wilson Betemit, Brad Penny, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Joel Zumaya

Fielder and Cabrera are doing their jobs at the plate and more. The porous defense created by the signing of Fielder and shifting of Cabrera to third base hasn’t been as catastrophic as expected. That’s unless the pitching staff has it in their heads that they have to strike out more hitters or pitch differently to prevent balls from being hit to the right or left sides of the infield—highly unlikely.

The Tigers are 5 games under .500 because their pitching has been bad. The off-season isn’t a failure because of the signing of Fielder, but 5 games under .500 wasn’t what Mike Ilitch had in mind when he paid all that money to sign a huge bat like Fielder to replace Victor Martinez and team him with Cabrera.

Minnesota Twins

Acquired: GM Terry Ryan, Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Jason Marquis, Ryan Doumit, Joel Zumaya

Subtracted: GM Bill Smith, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Kevin Slowey

Terry Ryan was supposed to come back into the GM’s chair and start doing things the “Twins’ Way”. Well, that “way” is no longer working. The reason that vaunted “way” worked in the past was because they had talent on the roster and a club that was built for how Ron Gardenhire managed.

That’s no longer the case.

Marquis was released. Carroll hasn’t hit. Willingham’s been fantastic. The Zumaya signing was worth a shot I suppose, but he got hurt again. What he needs now is a friend—a real friend—to tell him that it’s over and he should retire before he damages himself permanently.

Maybe that’s what the Twins need too.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Acquired: GM Jerry Dipoto, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Chris Iannetta, Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins

Subtracted: GM Tony Reagins, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Mathis, Tyler Chatwood

Pujols has started hitting and the Angels will rise and fall on what he does, but the uncharacteristic decision on the part of the Angels to depart from the template they’ve adhered to for a decade has led to this disconnect between GM Dipoto, manager Mike Scioscia and the club.

Scioscia’s hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, was fired against Scioscia’s wishes. They never took serious steps to bolster the bullpen and had too many players for too few lineup spots.

Owner Arte Moreno made maneuvers that were not team-related, but related to the TV deal he wanted to secure. And he did.

They did business like the 1980s Yankees and they’ve been playing and behaving like the 1980s Yankees. The one thing that will save them is the thing that was lacking in the 1980s: the Wild Cards.

Cincinnati Reds

Acquired: Mat Latos, Ryan Madson, Ryan Ludwick

Subtracted: Ramon Hernandez, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, Edgar Renteria, Francisco Cordero

The Reds are in first place and playing well no thanks to Latos (he’s been horrific); Madson (out for the year with Tommy John surgery); and Ludwick (.205/.290/.402 slash line with 6 homers in a homer-friendly home park).

It’s not as if they needed Alonso with Joey Votto ensconced at first base. They have a young catcher in Devin Mesoraco so they didn’t really need Grandal. And Volquez has been consistently inconsistent and injured since his great rookie year with the Reds.

But the winter moves are what’s relevant here and if they’d held onto the players they traded for Latos (and I’m not retrospectively ripping the deal since I thought it was good for both sides), they could’ve gotten mid-season help rather than an in-season nightmare.

Milwaukee Brewers

Acquired: Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Norichika Aoki, Jose Veras, Brooks Conrad

Subtracted: Prince Fielder, Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee

Ramirez is starting to hit and will hit put up numbers by the end of the season. We’ll never know whether the improved defense and pop from Alex Gonzalez and a full season from Mat Gamel would’ve made up for the loss of Fielder because both blew out their knees within days of each other.

It’s not really anyone’s fault. They did the best they could under their financial and practical circumstances.

St. Louis Cardinals

Acquired: Manager Mike Matheny, Carlos Beltran, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist

Subtracted: Manager Tony LaRussa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, Albert Pujols, Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Nick Punto.

So wait…now that the Cardinals are at .500 and freefalling it’s been miraculously discovered that the transition from a Hall of Fame manager/pitching coach combination to a manager who’s never managed before anywhere wasn’t going to go as smoothly as it did when they got off to a hot start?

That replacing Pujols wasn’t as simple as signing Beltran and moving the now-injured 36-year-old Lance Berkman to first base?

Shocking.

Colorado Rockies

Acquired: Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez, Jeremy Guthrie, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Colvin, Jamie Moyer

Subtracted: Chris Iannetta, Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith

The starting pitching has killed them.

They loaded up on starters, but it hasn’t been enough as Drew Pomeranz got hurt and they gave Moyer 10 starts. It hasn’t helped that Hammel has been very good for the Orioles while Guthrie has been terrible for the Rockies.

Cuddyer has been everything advertised. Scutaro and Hernandez haven’t.

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The Twins As League Tomato Can

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First it was the Red Sox and now it’s the Angels. Two teams with high preseason expectations and off to atrocious and scrutiny-laced starts are righting their flagging ships by beating up on the Twins.

For a franchise that had grown accustomed to winning and garnering a playoff spot as if by divine right (and being in a bad division), the Twins have rapidly become the league punching bag.

It’s going to last all season.

The return of former GM Terry Ryan was greeted with much fanfare and expectations of improvement. In the winter, he made a series of old-school “Twins” moves by signing the underrated Jamey Carroll; the innings-eating Jason Marquis; declining the contract option and re-signing veteran reliever Matt Capps; signing Josh Willingham and the competent backup catcher/first baseman/outfielder Ryan Doumit.

He also brought in an array of arms for the bullpen in the hopes that a few of them would be cheap, useful cogs in the machine.

But none of that addressed the fundamental problems that led to the 99-loss disaster of 2011.

The starting rotation is still contact-based and the pitchers are eerily similar to one another; the bullpen is serviceable but nowhere near what it was when manager Ron Gardenhire had durable veterans who knew their roles and were backed up by an All-Star closer, Joe Nathan; the lineup has black spots and no replacements on the horizon.

Already 6-17, Ryan doesn’t even have the option to clear out the house and build for the future because there are few players that any other team would be willing to give up a ton to get. Justin Morneau is a shell of what he was after concussions and their aftereffects. He might be worth a shot if he wasn’t due $28 million for 2012-2013. Perhaps they could eat some of the money to get back better young players in a deal.

Denard Span would bring back value, but he’s signed cheaply (a guaranteed $14.75 million with an option for 2015 at $9 million) and, with it so difficult to find a competent centerfielder, it makes no sense to move him unless they’re bowled over with an offer.

Joe Mauer is hitting again, but with Mauer, the residue of the failed tenure of demoted GM Bill Smith remains. Had the Twins held onto Wilson Ramos instead of trading him to the Nationals for Capps, they’d have a big league ready catcher who would free them to move Mauer to another position at least part time. In much the same way the Yankees are proving now with the burgeoning nightmare trade of Jesus Montero to the Mariners, if you’re trading a top prospect who can catch and hit, you’d better get something useful and proven in return.

The Twins will get low level prospects for pending free agent Carl Pavano (trade him to the Yankees!) and probably less for fellow free agent Francisco Liriano.

The organization had been the dominant force in the AL Central for a decade, but now they’re relegated to the equivalent of a found opponent that the managers and promoters of rising boxers use to fatten up their charge’s knockout record.

If I were a Twins’ fan, I’d get used to the abuse because it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

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2012 American League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cleveland Indians 91 71
2. Detroit Tigers* 88 74 3
3. Kansas City Royals 81 81 10
4. Chicago White Sox 72 90 19
5. Minnesota Twins 70 92 21

* Denotes predicted Wild Card winner

Cleveland Indians

The Indians have all the components to take the next step from their near .500 season in 2011.

There are positives amid the negatives of the old warhorses’ injuries and contract statuses. Grady Sizemore keeps getting hurt, but the Indians couldn’t have expected him to return to form nor expected him to stay healthy. His injury and absence will give them the chance to see what Ezequiel Carrera can do. Travis Hafner is in the final guaranteed year of his contract and some players manage to stay healthy when there’s a large amount of money on the line.

Carlos Santana is a mid-lineup run producer; they have a highly underrated 1-2 starting pitching punch with Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez; and their bullpen is deep.

Detroit Tigers

The entire season will come down to how obstinate Jim Leyland is about the decision to move Miguel Cabrera to third base.

I was about to say “experiment”, but is it really an experiment if we know what’s going to happen?

He can’t play third; the Tigers have pitchers—Doug Fister, Rick Porcello and even Justin Verlander—who need their defense to succeed; and Leyland is adamant in saying that not only is Cabrera going to play third but that he won’t be removed for defense in the late innings in favor of the superior gloves of Don Kelly and Brandon Inge.

Eventually Leyland will probably bow to reality and Cabrera and Prince Fielder will share first base and DH.

I say probably because it depends on whether Leyland is going to be the old-school baseball guy who’ll see weakness in admitting he’s wrong or the one who admits the team’s playoff spot in jeopardy and bows to reality.

The extra Wild Card will save the Tigers.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals are loaded up with young players and have to give them the chance to sink or swim on their own without looking at them for a month and sending them down.

Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will be in the lineup every day for the Royals for the next decade, but the other youngsters Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, John Giavotella and Danny Duffy have to be given the legitimate chance to play without wondering if they’re going to be sent down immediately if they slump.

The starting pitching is young and improving; the bullpen has been bolstered and is diverse.

Chicago White Sox

Is this a rebuild or not?

Are they going to continue listening to offers for the likes of Gavin Floyd or will they hold their fire?

The decision to hire Robin Ventura as manager was a “he’ll grow with us” maneuver, but the foundation of the team is still in place.

It’s not a rebuild or a stay the course blueprint. They’re just doing things.

When serious structural alterations needed to be made, just doing things translates into 90 losses.

Minnesota Twins

Much was made of Terry Ryan’s return to the GM seat.

But so what?

They made something of a lateral move in letting Michael Cuddyer leave and replacing him with Josh Willingham; they got a solid defender and good on-base bat with Jamey Carroll; and they did the “Twins thing” in signing cheap veterans who can contribute with Jason Marquis and Ryan Doumit.

Their bullpen is loaded with a bunch of bodies and has already lost Joel Zumaya.

Much depends on the health of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and even if both stay on the field, there are still too many holes offensively, defensively and—most importantly—in the rotation and bullpen to ask how much they can be expected to improve from losing nearly 100 games in 2011.

Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Even With Willingham, the Twins Have a Long Road

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Twins GM Terry Ryan is making intelligent acquisitions to address some of the issues that caused the Twins to fall from being picked in certain circles to go to the World Series down to a 99-game losing disaster. But even with the apparent contract agreement with Josh Willingham, they’re still only about a third of the way to putting a competitive team back on the field.

Few are truly realizing how bad the Twins were last year. It’s not injuries and poor personnel decisions that caused the train wreck but that they were simply bad.

Offensively, the Twins were next to last in the American League in runs scored, OPS and total bases; they were last in home runs.

Their pitching was last in BABip; next to last in ERA; gave up the second most hits and runs; and were last in strikeouts. Their starters didn’t provide depth and the bullpen led the league in allowing inherited runners to score.

Defensively they had the second most errors; were next to last in fielding percentage; and last in defensive efficiency.

On the surface, it’s clear why they were so atrocious, but you need to look at these numbers closely to truly understand the level of awfulness they exhibited in all phases.

It was cyclical. When you combine an injury-ravaged team that doesn’t hit home runs, doesn’t get on base and can’t score with a pitching staff that doesn’t strike anyone out and has a horrific defense behind them, you wind up with 63-99.

Ryan has gotten an adequate part-time backup for Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau with Ryan Doumit; using addition by subtraction, he removed Tsuyoshi Nishioka from the regular lineup; shored up the defense by signing Jamey Carroll and moving Alexi Casilla back to second base where he belongs; and he’s brought in a proven and underrated power bat in Willingham.

When he was with the Marlins and Nationals, the player to avoid in their lineups with runners on base was Willingham—not Hanley Ramirez nor Ryan Zimmerman.

The improved defense will help the contact-centric pitching; the offense will be better with the new players they’ve imported; but the bullpen hasn’t been improved—in fact, it’s been downgraded with the departure of Joe Nathan. No matter how much better the Twins defense is, they can’t rely on their old template of fundamentally sound defenders; functional starters; and a deep, interchangeable bullpen if they don’t have the bullpen arms they once did.

Bullpen performances fluctuate so there’s a good chance of marked improvement; but their starting rotation is still mediocre at best.

Ryan’s made decisions to bring them back to respectability and they’re cheaper. Given how atrocious and overpaid they were in 2011, that’s not all that difficult. Fixing the other holes and bringing them back to where they were for a decade—as an annual playoff participant—will be.

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Terry Ryan’s Back

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If there had been any doubt as to the new direction of the Minnesota Twins under new/old GM Terry Ryan, that was dispatched with his signings of under-the-radar, inexpensive and useful free agents Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit.

Under fired GM Bill Smith, the Twins signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a 3-year, $9.25 million deal to play shortstop not knowing how the Japanese import would react and transition to the North American game. He didn’t transition very well. In fact, he was awful in every single aspect of the game. He couldn’t field or hit. It was a terrible signing in theory and, predictably, in practice.

With Ryan in command, they’re paying less money to the long-underrated Carroll to a 2-year, $6.5 million contract and will know they’re getting an experienced and versatile veteran who can hit, field, get on base and steal a few bases.

Doumit was signed to a 1-year, $3 million deal. With Doumit, the only question about him is whether he can stay healthy. Has he overcome his concussion problems? Is his shoulder is in good enough shape to throw acceptably from behind the plate so teams won’t go crazy when he’s catching? Doumit’s a switch-hitter with some pop; he can play first base and the outfield in addition to catching and that’s precisely what the Twins—with the frequent injuries to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau—need. They couldn’t go into the 2012 season with Drew Butera or some similar no-hit journeyman functioning as Mauer’s backup. If Doumit can catch, that frees Mauer from having to catch 20-30 games while still keeping the star’s bat in the lineup. Doumit could be another player who blossoms when he’s released from the Pirates’ purgatory and is in a venue with more structure and positivity.

Now the Twins are on the lookout for a closer and you can bet Ryan’s not going to revisit the insipid Smith idea of trading Denard Span to the Nationals for Drew Storen.

Ryan doesn’t function that way.

He’s either going to bring back Matt Capps; look for a cheaper arm on the market that’s been a closer previously; or he’ll find a pitcher that another team might be willing to trade—Luke Gregerson, Bobby Parnell, Michael Stutes, Santiago Casilla—who could conceivably close if given the opportunity.

This is Ryan’s way and it’s better than the desperate staggering around in the dark the Twins have been doing since he retired.

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