Over the past couple of years, I've taken up a hobby playing a tactical miniatures game based of the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset.
(At this point, two things are happening: first, everyone who thought the 'mini' in the title was an attempted burn on the Twins are wondering what the hell miniatures have to do with baseball; second, those who recognize me are wondering how I can possibly get any less attractive to the fairer sex. On the first point, I can assure you that this is a post about the Twins -- just bear with me.)
Every couple of weeks, our group of skirmishers gets together at a local game shop to test out their creations against one another. Basically you select a 'warband' from a pool of pre-published miniatures, complete with stat cards that show their ability to attack, deal damage, and perform other special tricks. You build within a pre-set point limit, select a map that represents the ground on which you wish to do battle, and pit your band against those of the other players in the tournament.
Prior to the tournament itself, I'd spend hours poring over my collection of figures, trying to identify the best figures from a cost/performance standpoint, or looking for figures that worked particularly well together. I'd slowly piece together a warband based on a particular strategy I'd expect to be able to execute against my opponent, then show up on Saturday morning, eager to captain my merry band of warriors to victory.
Round 1, traditionally, was the round in which everything worked perfectly -- my scouts raced out and secured the necessary objectives, my main 'hitters' (our term for the guys who deal the big damage) would strike often and true, and the synergies I'd planned would be executed to near-perfection. I'd usually get the win in this round.
Round 2, conversely was usually the round in which everything went wrong -- I'd end up playing on someone else's chosen terrain, where my scouts would get bogged down, my hitters seemingly incapable of landing a damaging blow, and my strategies in shambles.
Rounds 3 and 4 would start out promising, but small problems in my warband design would show up, depriving me of a win at the last moment; my main champion would fail morale and race off the board like a frightened chicken at precisely the wrong moment, or my opponent, faced with a roll that would lose him the game if he failed, would succeed and push on to victory. If anything, these losses were even more frustrating than being blown away in round 2.
After this week, I believe Ron Gardenhire understands how I feel after a typical D&D Miniatures tournament. Game 1 against the Angels was a textbook win based on the blueprint drawn up in spring training -- Gomez racing around the bases, the other guys at the top of the order punching balls through the infield, the defense supporting the starting pitcher until the bullpen could trot out Neshek and Nathan for the 8th and 9th. Game 2, nothing seemed to work -- Bonser got pounded, the offense couldn't get on track, and the team went down in flames. Games 3 and 4 were potential wins that slipped away thanks to one or two bad breaks -- a double instead of a double play here, a strikeout instead of a homer there.
The hardest part about figuring out what I was doing wrong was that the warbands I was choosing weren't made up of bad pieces -- many of the pieced I'd pick would be pieces being played by the guys winning the tournaments. At first, this convinced me that my ill fortune was just that -- fortune -- and that skill wasn't significant in the outcome of the games. Then, after a while, I began to realize something -- it wasn't that my warbands were bad, they were just poorly designed, in the sense that I put them together with the idea that, if everything went right, I couldn't help but win. Now, on the whole, that turned out to be true -- the games where I made no bad rolls or bad decisions were games I generally won. The problem was that my bands left me no real margin for error or bad luck; if something went wrong, it generally exposed a problem that my opponent could exploit to take the win away.
Likewise, despite my earlier prediction that the Twins could lose as many as 100 games in 2008, I really don't think the club is all that bad. If the starting pitcher keeps the game close, and the hitters get on base and put pressure on the opposing defense, and the game gets to the late innings with the Twins leading, then by and large the Twins should probably expect to win. Problem is, if the starter gives up four runs through three and two-thirds? The offense isn't good enough to make a rally, and even if they do the middle relief isn't as strong as the end of the bullpen. If the leadoff man doesn't get on, or the cleanup hitter goes into a slump? There aren't enough extra bats in the lineup to pick up the slack. If the big piece you've been holding in reserve turns out not to be as prepared as you thought (Liriano was hit hard in A ball and might end up spending more time than expected in minor-league 'rehab')? There isn't anyone else to pick up the slack, or even most of the slack.
No team can be made up of Hall of Famers at every position, and there's no way that a club can be so resilient that they can stand up to every possible thing that might go wrong (see New York Mets, 2007). But a well-designed ballclub shouldn't have to worry about going into a prolonged funk if they lose their #7 hitter, because the guy stepping in hits like their #9 hitter. It doesn't congratulate itself that any of four guys could become consistent enough to be the #4 starter when there's nobody filling the #3 slot yet.
If the Twins do badly in 2008, and I still think they're likely to, it won't be because they're a bad team per se -- as others pointed out in the comments of my '100 Losses' post, the 1999 Twins were arguably far more bereft of baseball talent than this club, and they managed to stay above 65 wins.
If they do badly, it'll be because the 2008 team is badly designed.
The larger question then becomes, can the design be improved by 2010?