Eleven days. That's all the Minnesota Twins have left to demonstrate that they actually know what they're doing. They're 44-53, in last place in the AL Central, and just got convincingly swept by the equally last-place Rays of the AL East. Eleven games back in the division, seven-and-a-half out of the wild card. These Twins, quite frankly, are done. The only thing left to do is to cash in whatever chips they have left, and reload for 2015. But time is running out.
I imagine this isn't a popular sentiment. We are all tired of seeing the Twins lose, and the prospect of losing a Josh Willingham, or a Kurt Suzuki, or anybody from a generally effective bullpen rubs many the wrong way. Believe me, I am as tired of the so-called "seller's mentality" as the rest of you. But "winning mentality" or not, this team is not poised to make the postseason, and finishing strong while holding on to veterans won't do the club any good in the long run.
Regardless of whether he gets traded or not, Willingham is an impending free agent and won't be a Twin next year. Suzuki has a lot of reasons to test those same free agency waters after a career year, and very few to stay and sign an extension for below market value. And while many members of that bullpen remain under team control for years to come, guys like Michael Tonkin, Ryan Pressley, Logan Darnell, and Kris Johnson are ready to contribute to a major league bullpen right now, and 2nd round pick Nick Burdi looks primed to move quickly through the minor leagues with unhittable stuff. The Twins have a surplus of relievers, and more importantly, experience with Casey Fien (waivers), Jared Burton (minor league contract), Caleb Thielbar (independent league), and Glen Perkins (failed starter) effectively demonstrate that it's still possible to construct a good bullpen out of duct tape and freely available talent.
Meanwhile, it's clear that these Twins still need to build up their depth. On Saturday, their outfield consisted of two shortstops and a first baseman. Yesterday, Eric Fryer caught his ninth game of the year. Tomorrow, the decidedly low-upside Johnson gets his third start. They opened the season with Aaron Hicks in centerfield with no backup, and 30 year old rookie Chris Colabello as their best hitter. Good teams do better than that.
Look at the Oakland Athletics. Their two-headed catching tandem of Derek Norris and John Jaso has raked, as has third stringer Stephen Vogt. With Josh Reddick hurt, the A's have been able to supplement their lineup with Vogt, Kyle Blanks, and Nate Freiman, and still have the competent Craig Gentry as a 4th outfielder. Faced with an injury to Jarrod Parker, they had Drew Pomeranz and Tommy Milone ready to fill in. When Jim Johnson fell on his face to open the year, they had Sean Doolittle and a collection of castoffs to supplement a strong bullpen.
I understand it's not productive to compare the Twins to the best team in the American League, and say "Why don't we do that?" Every team is different and faces its own set of challenges. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. But what is clear is that the A's have faced some of the same problems the Twins did this year, and they persevered because they were prepared to handle them. They had the foresight to realize that the best plans often don't survive Opening Day, and were flexible enough to move forward with alternatives that don't wind up costing the club wins.
The Twins have a series of choices to make in these next eleven days. None of the players they should look into dealing is going to net them a top prospect, and these deals may feel like admissions of defeat. Nobody's going to get excited over acquiring a guy who profiles as a backup catcher or a decent fourth outfielder. Those aren't sexy deals, but they're worth making. If the Twins can use this trade deadline to build up their talent base, and to keep them from again having to rely on the Chris Hermanns, Chris Parmelees, and Pedro Florimons (or the woefully unprepared Aaron Hickses) of the world, that's actually far better for their long term health than zealously guarding the last two months of either Willingham or Suzuki's contracts, or clinging to effective relievers who are redundant. But time is running out for the Twins to realize that. Eleven days goes fast. Tick...tock...tick...tock.