A popular myth has once again been spouted by a local ink-stained wretch. That is, somehow, the Twins magically rebuilt on the fly in one season and are now on the threshold of the playoffs. The ink-stained wretch in question is Tom Powers, but I've heard something similar from Patrick Reusse and the beat writers at times this year as well.
It is true that the current team is quite different than the one that broke camp in April. And it is true that the newer members of the team have performed above expectations to help carry the team to an improbable run.
But what has happened this year is not rebuilding. Rebuilding is what the Twins went through from the 2003 offseason through the 2005 offseason. In that time, the Twins turned over the roster, with the exception of Santana, Radke, Rincon, Hunter, and Cuddyer. This year was just the culmination of those efforts. All the pieces of this playoff team were in place in spring training. The Twins just needed to clear some dead underbrush to allow the new shoots to grow into the players many of us expected them to be. And the fact that they did not clear the underbrush sooner is the reflection of conflict in the management ranks rather than talent on the roster. At least that's the point I will try to make below.
Exhibit A: Jason Bartlett. Powers says of him: "Shortstop Jason Bartlett, who has played beautifully, was on his last chance. If he didn't come up and turn a few heads, he was out of here."
Many of us thought Bartlett was the clear choice to be the shortstop of the future last August. Why he failed to make the team out of spring training and when he was recalled was on "his last chance" is beyond belief. It is very hard to develop a big league-caliber shortstop. Middling ones that look like complete players get $10 million a year once they establish themselves (see Renteria, Edgar). To think that the cash-strapped Twins would discard a guy because he struggled for his first two months in the big leagues is ludicrous.
But Powers is not the first writer to state this. Reusse, Williams, and Christensen have all said the same thing at times this year. So it's likely someone within the Twins organization just doesn't like the cut of Bartlett's jib and has lobbied against him. This same individual talks to the press, a lot. Fortunately, this individual is not the ultimate authority on Bartlett's fate, because the Twins would not be where they are with Juan Castro at shortstop.
The reality is, the Twins had their replacement for Guzman all along. They just never gave him a chance because this individual had enough influence to hold him back. Well, fortunately for the Twins and their fans, Bartlett is proving this individual wrong. Yes, Bartlett was not in the plan, but he should have been.
Exhibit B: Michael Cuddyer Going into spring training, this was supposed to be Cuddyer's year. He had done enough in right field in September last year to warrant a chance to play everyday there this year. And he was raking in spring training, until he tweaked a hamstring with two weeks left in the spring. This gave Lew Ford and Jason Kubel an extended look. Even though Cuddyer played well enough in the last week of spring to regain his spot, he did not start regulary until late April. And he didn't start hitting in the clean-up spot until late May.
Not coincidentally, April was the only losing month for the Twins this year. May was close to a .500 month. The Twins didn't start clicking on all cylinders until Cuddyer was inserted into the clean-up spot. Cuddyer has managed to drive in more than 100 runs despite playing sparingly in April. The adjustment to Cuddyer full-time in right field and in the clean-up spot was available to the manager in spring training. Cuddyer was the best right-handed hitter in camp. But they chose not to see the strong green shoot because they were blinded by the dead wood of Rondell White covering it up.
Exhibit C: Justin Morneau After a disappointing 2005 campaign (one in which he was in the Twins' top three in HRs and RBI), some in Twins management were calling this Morneau's last chance with the Twins. For that reason, he was hitting somewhere between 6th and 8th through much of April and May, while the juggernaut of Rondell White continued to make outs at a historic pace in the clean-up spot. In late May, widespread rumors--reported on no less than four radio programs and in one beat report--had Morneau going down to Rochester so the Twins could give Garrett Jones a chance. What the heck, if you're rebuilding for 2010, why not make 2006 a tryout year?
Fortunately, whoever was calling for Morneau's head (likely the same guy who suppressed Bartlett and had the media's ear) lost out on this argument. Gardy started hitting him with a little protection and he responded. Now he's a legitimate MVP candidate and the biggest reason this team is in contention for the playoffs. Imagine if the executive who wanted to send him down had had his way. We might be looking at rebuilding for 2010 right now.
I could go on, but I'll let you do that. And truth be told, some players have surprised me. I don't think anyone saw Punto as the third baseman of the future until very recently. But his defense is outstanding and his tenacious hitting and base running seem to outweigh his lack of power. Not too many thought Dennys Reyes would become the top set-up man in the bullpen, but that's what he is right now. Few saw Jayson Tyner or Boof Bonser coming. Though these guys were in camp, nobody blames the field staff for sending them down in the spring.
But management deserves some derision for not recognizing talent right under their noses and preferring washed-up veterans instead. I would suggest that the guy who suppressed Bartlett and tried to suppress Morneau should get some sort of reprimand. And those who thought the Twins would start rebuilding for the new ballpark this year, when the pieces were in place to contend all along, just weren't paying attention.