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Where The Twins Have Gone Wrong: A History

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When Jim Pohlad said “total system failure,” I think he was being far more accurate than he realized.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Multiple times I’ve been asked by various people, “What’s wrong with the Twins?” It’s a tough question and lately, all I’ve really answered was a shrug of the shoulders and a response that there’s no quick fix here. We’ve seen theories that it’s the missing leadership of Torii Hunter, a refusal to spend big bucks for high-profile free agents, the mishandling of prospects, etc. To be honest, it’s probably all of them combined and so much more. What follows below is my attempt to quantify all of the missteps the Twins organization has made since the 2010 season (their last visit to the playoffs, if you recall) which has contributed to their half-decade of ineptitude.

Failed Trades

I’m sure you know what’s coming. These were trades that didn’t look great at the time and have just been worse and worse as time moved on.

C Wilson Ramos and LHP Joe Testa for RHP Matt Capps

The gold standard when it comes to discussing front office ineptitude, this was a questionable trade when it happened and became far worse once Joe Mauer was moved away from catcher earlier than anyone had hoped. Ramos has had his ups and downs but has been a solid backstop overall for the Nationals. Meanwhile, Capps was a good pitcher for literally only the two months after he was first acquired. This trade is almost a carbon copy of the Kevin Jepsen trade from last season.

SS J.J. Hardy and IF Brendan Harris to Baltimore for RHPs Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen

This forever will go down as one of the worst trades in recent Twins history. If this had been merely a swap of Harris for Hoey and/or Jacobsen, we’d already have spent enough time discussing it. However, the overall transaction was so bad that Twins fans knew it was awful the moment it was announced.

If you don’t remember, the Twins had originally traded Carlos Gomez away to get Hardy, a move that looked pretty solid as Gomez had underperformed up to that point despite his former top prospect status and Hardy was a stellar defensive shortstop with 20-home run pop that had struggled offensively the prior season. In his lone season, Hardy was injury-prone mainly due to a sore wrist caused by a bad slide into third base. Although he spent time on the disabled list, he returned earlier than he probably should have but still put together an adequate .268/.320/.394 triple-slash for a shortstop. Nevertheless, the Twins (I want to say Ron Gardenhire specifically) lamented that Hardy lacked speed and they weren’t entirely sold on his range defensively and thus general manager Bill Smith sent Hardy away to Baltimore.

Since the trade, Hardy has had just one season below 2.4 WAR (an even 0.0 last season as his batting average and power completely disappeared) in his five years as an Oriole, he has always ranked above-average defensively, and he’s locked down the shortstop position in Baltimore. On the Twins’ side, Hoey gave the Twins roughly 25 awful innings in relief in 2011 while Jacobsen never saw the majors.

Note

I understand that some people would like to say the Ben Revere and/or Denard Span trades belong here, but I would argue that a) the Span trade was a good move at the time because Meyer was a top pitching prospect and the Twins were lacking arms with upside, and b) the Revere trade was a no-brainer when the Twins were offered a starting pitcher with major league success and a pitching prospect. As for Aaron Hicks getting prematurely handed the keys to center field, I’ll address that later on.

Free Agent Signings / Poor Waiver Claims

For an organization that prides itself on scouting, they’ve acquired quite a few players that never panned out.

SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka

This signing in tandem with the Hardy trade wrecked the shortstop position until Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez came along. Hindsight is 20/20, but how many red flags were there on Nishi?

  1. Despite his batting title in NPB during the 2010 season, his batting average of .346 was vastly higher than his career average of .293. (The Twins were buying into a career year.)
  2. It took Ron Gardenhire practically less than a day in spring training to figure out that Nishioka didn’t have the arm strength to play shortstop.
  3. Nishi apparently smoked three packs of cigarettes a day (that’s a joke - that it was a red flag, not that he smoked three packs a day).

It sincerely felt that the Twins didn’t sufficiently scout Nishioka and bought so much into his “upside” that they felt J.J. Hardy was expendable.

LHPs Dusty Hughes, Randy Flores, Phil Dumatrait, Matt Maloney, Aaron Thompson; RHPs Jeff Gray, Josh Roenicke, Matt Guerrier; UT Jason Bartlett; OF Jason Kubel;

I lumped these all together because they all had a theme: Players with limited upside that were given far more leash than they deserved. Hughes was picked up because a bunch of the Twins lefty hitters said he had some deception - he had a 10 ERA in 15 games. Flores was picked up for having a shiny ERA in Colorado even though literally everything else about him was bad. Guerrier, Bartlett, and Kubel were token signings that seemed to done more for nostalgia than actual upside. Admittedly, it’s a bit harsh to be nitpicking small signings like these, but I’m not interested in being nice here.

RHPs Jason Marquis, Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Ricky Nolasco

The Twins have struggled to put together even a half-decent rotation for years and their constant targeting of mediocre pitchers through free agency have compounded those problems. Correia and Pelfrey did put together one alright yet unspectacular season apiece, but keep in mind that they were signed for five combined years. Marquis didn’t even last two months and I’m sure Twins fans hope that Nolasco had been cut loose just as fast.

Unnecessary Contract Extensions and Re-Signings

This is an area that frustrates me to no end. The Twins make one-year signings of players who then put together an overall positive contribution, yet the organization overrates the player and tacks on a few additional years hoping for more of the same. However, the player clearly outperformed expectations and either fell back to his career norms or too often even became worse.

Ryan Doumit

In 2012, Doumit joined the Twins as a backup catcher to Joe Mauer and to also serve as an occasional corner outfielder. He hit .275/.320/.461 (109 wRC+, or 9% better than average) with a career-high 18 home runs, so the Twins locked him up with a two-year contract extension in June. I did a double-take when I saw that. I remembered it was a midseason extension, but I swore it was later than effing June. Well, Doumit hit .247/.314/.396 (94 wRC+) in his second year as a Twin while being worth 0 WAR, suffered a concussion in August that season, and was then traded to the Braves in the offseason.

Mike Pelfrey

I legitimately don’t know how Mike Pelfrey keeps getting guaranteed contracts. Coming off Tommy John surgery, Pelfrey vowed to be the fastest ever to return and he did accomplish that, but he also accomplished a 5.19 ERA over 29 starts. He did have a 3.99 FIP (mainly due to his continued ability to avoid giving up home runs) and it almost felt like the Twins made a foray into the world of sabermetrics when they gave him his two-year extension. Yeah, FIP is a better predictor of future ERA than the prior season ERA, but Pelfrey didn’t strike out a lot of hitters and didn’t have a great walk rate. Anyway, Pelfrey was hurt almost all of 2014 and then finally put together a decent year in 2015 before the Twins were saved from themselves as the Tigers gave Pelfrey a two-year contract of their own.

Matt Capps

The Twins gave Capps a one-year contract for the 2012 season after his disastrous 2011 year. I don’t need to rehash anything else about him so I’ll give you this tidbit instead: His middle name is “Dicus.” I’m going to pretend his parents misspelled “discus.”

Nick Blackburn

When this four-year contract was first signed, it was a bit quizzical as it was completely unnecessary hadn’t even hit arbitration yet. He was coming off back-to-back years of an ERA just north of 4 with excellent control, though he was a sinkerballer that didn’t strike anyone out and also didn’t get a lot of grounders. The purpose of the contract was for cost certainty - if Blackburn continued to pitch adequately, the Twins had predetermined salaries in place. Well, he ended up struggling mightily in his third major league season, was bad for the first two years of that four-year contract, and didn’t even see the majors for the final two years.

Phil Hughes

At first glance, this appeared to be mimicking the other low-upside signings the Twins made in the past to fill out their rotation, but then Hughes went out and set the major league record for K/BB ratio in a season by a starting pitcher. The Twins could have been content that he was locked up for two more years, but instead they chose to tack on an extra three years on top of that. Hughes has now lost about 1.5 MPH off his fastball, he can’t strike out hitters anymore and his issues with the home run ball have returned. We’re not even halfway through this era and yet the future already looks bleak.

Bad Luck

Sometimes the Twins justifiably cut bait on an underperforming player just to watch him rediscover his form with another team.

Pat Neshek

Neshek blew out his arm in 2008 and looked like a shell of himself in 2010 when he was throwing nearly 5 MPH slower than when he debuted. The Twins cut him loose, the Padres watched more of the same in 2011, but his velocity started to return when he joined the Athletics in 2012. Everything didn’t click again until 2014 with the Cardinals, however. Though he was one of my favorite Twins ever, I don’t blame the organization for letting Neshek go when he was only throwing 86 MPH and it’s not like he’s a dominant reliever.

Danny Valencia

Valencia burst onto the scene when he hit .311 as a rookie in 2010. Despite his 15 homers the following year, his offense was 17% below average and he was a poor defender as well. His 2012 season was even worse and with a grating attitude, the Twins traded him to the Red Sox. In spite of his struggles, Valencia always hit lefthanded pitching well and the Orioles took advantage of that when he joined them in 2013. After a brief stay with the Royals, the Blue Jays taught Valencia how to become a better hitter in 2014-2015 and now the Athletics are the team reaping the benefits of an improved Danny V.

Francisco Liriano

An enigma his entire time as a Twin, we never knew if Liriano would mow down opposing hitters or labor over four innings. The Twins finally traded him away after it appeared that the bad times were more frequent than the good and they even got Eduardo Escobar (and Pedro Hernandez) back from the White Sox in the process, a trade I didn’t like at the time but currently causes me to eat crow. For what it’s worth, the Sox couldn’t fix Liriano either, but upon joining the Pirates as a free agent he’s been a top-tier starting pitcher. This year has been a different story as his control problems have resurfaced along with a gopher ball issue, but the Twins could have used his pitching for several years now.

Steve Pearce

This is one that I didn’t consider at the time when I first started this post but was reminded that the Twins briefly had him in spring training in 2012. A former top prospect, Pearce was in “bust” territory until he quietly hit .261/.362/.420 with the Orioles over 44 games in 2013. He broke out in 2014 by hitting .293/.373/.556 that was 61% above league average, regressed in 2015 but has rebounded this season with the Rays as he’s now at .322/.393/.540 while fulfilling a super-utility role.

Liam Hendriks

A soft-tossing finesse righty with the Twins, the Blue Jays got their hands on Hendriks in 2015 and converted him into a reliever. All that happened was that he suddenly started throwing 95 MPH and became a shutdown reliever. Though he’s struggled a bit this season, he’s still averaging 94 MPH with his fastball and his secondary numbers look far better than his 6.15 ERA.

Kendrys Morales

Morales has had just one year in his career with a below-average isolated power. Naturally, that year was when he signed with the Twins. Back in 2014 when the team misguidedly thought they were somewhat in contention, they made the bold move of signing Morales who was sitting out until after the draft due to the draft pick compensation attached to him. Once the draft passed, the Twins snatched him up to be their designated hitter, and well, he didn’t hit. After “hitting” .234/.259/.325 and getting traded to the Mariners, Morales joined the Royals, remembered that he was a power hitter and won a World Series.

Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau’s Concussions

The ultimate in bad luck, two of the Twins’ best lefthanded hitters in our generation had their careers derailed by concussions. To this date, Justin Morneau’s best season by WAR was 2010, which also was the same year he took a knee to the head while sliding into second base in Toronto. That’s how ridiculously good he was mashing. As for Mauer, he was always an above-average hitter (excluding the bilateral leg weakness year) until his concussion in August 2013. Yeah, the same exact month as Doumit’s concussion. Before that month, Mauer was a career .323/.405/.468 (134wRC+) hitter. Since his concussion, he’s hit just .269/.352/.376 (99 wRC+).

Stuck In Past Success

This is something I feel I could write about for days, but I think we already get the feeling that this is true. The organization noticeably makes baseball decisions that seemingly eschew the sabermetric line of thinking. It appears as though scouting and gut feeling often take precedence where Brad Radke was the model pitcher so the team went out and found nearly every righthanded pitcher that succeeded on guile rather than stuff. I do believe the team thinks that the tactics used during the 2000s would carry over to now and they have had a difficult time adjusting to the new game of baseball.

Additionally, another issue has been the “country club” mantra that many fans already cite. The Twins have been run by Terry Ryan - with a brief switch to Bill Smith - since 1994. They’ve had just three managers since 1986. This is an organization that sticks with what’s familiar and rarely strays outside the box, which can have its benefits but when the team is stuck in a rut, it does nothing but contribute more to its undoing. This organization is dying for a breath of fresh air but I don’t think the people in charge actually realize it because they’re convinced it’s not necessary.

Overall Bad Baseball Decisions

These are things that didn’t really fit into the above categories so I made one on its own. I think you’ll get the vibe I’m going for as soon as you read the first entry, which is...

Handing Aaron Hicks Center Field Following The Span and Revere Trades

As I said much earlier, I don’t think the Span and Revere trades were bad on their own. Having them both in the same offseason, maybe I can get on board with that. However, the utter worst decision was determining that Hicks was ready for the major leagues after having a good but not necessarily great Double-A season. In hindsight, the team should have found a stopgap CF that could hand the position over to Hicks once he proved himself ready. Instead, the Twins have been struggling to find a full-time CF, even with Byron Buxton now in the majors.

Trading 1B Justin Morneau to Pittsburgh for RHP Duke Welker LHP Kris Johnson and OF Alex Presley

The original trade was Morneau for Welker and Presley, but just months later the two teams struck a second deal that returned Welker back to Pittsburgh and the Twins received Johnson instead. I included this because it seemed to reaffirm that the team has looked completely lost at times. How exactly does a team pull off a trade, then figure out just months later that it acquired the wrong guy? To make things even better (worse?), Presley was claimed off waivers by the Astros just seven months after the trade, showing that both pieces in the original trade were deemed unfit for the organization shortly after being acquired. This wasn’t a make-or-break deal, but it just puzzles me that the team could change its mind so fast.

Josh Willingham

This is similar to the contract extension/re-signing section as Willingham had a career year belting 35 homers and was 42% above average as a hitter in his first year as a Twin, but the organization didn’t attempt to cash him in when his value was at its highest. I recall reading the team wanted an offensive threat in the lineup and also didn’t want future free agents to think the Twins would trade them just a year after signing them. No, I don’t think the Twins would have gotten a top prospect back, but Willingham was injured and so bad in his final two years that it’s hard not to wonder why the team (at least publicly) didn’t explore any trades to capitalize on his success.

OFs Carlos Quentin and David Murphy’s Retirements

During the offseason, the Twins signed Quentin to a minor league deal and trotted him out constantly during Spring Training. At the conclusion, there wasn’t room for him so they asked him to accept an assignment to Triple-A Rochester. Even though he likely would have made it back to the major leagues provided he hit even a little bit for the Red Wings, Quentin told the team he’d rather retire.

Then in April, the Twins signed veteran OF David Murphy to a minor league contract. This one is even more egregious because they wanted to call up Murphy but needed to clear a 40-man roster spot first. Thus, they removed catcher John Hicks even though Kurt Suzuki and John Ryan Murphy weren’t hitting for the big league club. Well, after the necessary move of Hicks was made, Murphy (the outfielder) told the team he’d rather retire instead. For as much as the Twins have worked to be a classy organization that treats its players right, I found it telling that two outfielders that had opportunities determined that staying home was a better option.

Dumping RHP J.R. Graham

A talking point from Aaron Gleeman on his podcast, I’m in full agreement here. The Twins drafted Graham in the Rule 5 Draft, had him stay on the active roster (when healthy) the entire season, then demoted him to Triple-A this season as many teams do with Rule 5 picks. However, after calling him up for just one game, the Twins designated him for assignment and watched the Yankees claim him off waivers. Like Welker and Johnson in the Morneau trade, the team apparently was very high on Graham but then quickly soured on him.

Miguel Sano in RF

We don’t need to go over this. It was a dumb decision from the very beginning and we’re lucky nothing worse happened while Sano was out there.

Ignorance of Injuries

This is one that has driven me crazy for years now. I don’t know if the same is true for other teams, but the Twins still seem to have no clue what to do when a player becomes hurt. J.J. Hardy was sent packing after he played through a wrist injury and he attributed his success with the Orioles to successful treatment of his wrist. Vance Worley admitted he wasn’t 100% after his struggles with the Twins. Chris Colabello had his own wrist injury that he played through and the observant fan would notice that his offensive dropoff coincided with the same time that he was drilled in the hand. These are just three examples, but we could easily put together a laundry list of players that were either misdiagnosed, played through injuries, or hid them from the team.

One other thing I’d like to rant about. Every once in a while I see a fan complain when a player struggles only to be put on the disabled list later. No, it’s not that the player was playing hurt, but rather that it was “convenient” that he magically developed an injury after struggling for weeks or months. I cannot express my opinion strongly enough here: If you think that players make up injuries because they’re struggling, YOU ARE WRONG. It’s utterly asinine to believe that. I heard it when Colabello stopped hitting, that he couldn’t accept that he was a bad player so he had to blame an injury. That’s such a pessimistic line of thinking. It’s just - nah, I’m done wasting my time on this. If you hear a person say something like this, slap them for me.

Focusing on the Bad

This goes all the way back to when David Ortiz was still a Twin. He was an injury-prone DH but had been average to above-average as a hitter every season in Minnesota. He was cut loose. Hitters have been constantly told to hit the ball the other way. Pitchers have been told to get quick outs instead of hunting for strikeouts. J.J. Hardy was let go because he couldn’t steal bases. Carlos Gomez had to keep the ball on the ground because he couldn’t use his speed on a fly ball, even though he had plenty of power potential. The team refuses to platoon because they’d rather have players that can hit pitchers from both sides instead of a guy that can only mash against one or the other. They don’t want players that lack defensive versatility, even if (like Michael Cuddyer) they’re not actually good at any position. It’s just a common refrain where it seems that players are to overcome their weaknesses instead of maximizing their strengths.

Lack of Native Spanish Coach

The final thing I’m posting is one where I don’t necessarily know its impact firsthand, but theoretically it makes sense. For the longest time, the Twins had coaching staffs that lacked Spanish-speaking coaches. That seems like a massive misstep when a significant amount of your roster is made up of Hispanic players. The Twins then made a minor correction when they hired Bobby Cuellar, except, well, he was an old white guy from Texas. Finally a step in the right direction was made when Venezuelan Rudy Hernandez was named as an assistant hitting coach. Again, I don’t know if this necessarily made a huge impact, but it just seemed like an obvious move that was never made in the first place.

Well, now that I’ve typed nearly 4000 words on the Twins and their mistakes, what else can you think of since 2010 that has hurt the team?