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David Ortiz is the elephant in the room

When we talk about “what could have been,” he is where Twins fans start

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Last week, I suggested that Falvey and Levine consider the possibility of trading Byron Buxton for pitching. This suggestion sparked a conversation, much of which centered upon how obviously unsound my mind is, but nevertheless, it seemed to get people talking.

Many…well…some…well…a couple of you…even agreed with me. To recap briefly, my premise was that Buxton has unlimited potential but potential often doesn’t get realized and thus perhaps his possible trade value is highest now and may be worth exploring. Many of you thought the only thing “high now” must have been the guy writing the suggestion.

I don’t want to appear defensive, and nobody is as defensive as Buxton, who plays the best defense in the league in centerfield, and I didn’t really want to be so offensive, but I’m concerned that Buxton’s offense is just not up to par, and I’m thinking it may never be.

As a long-time Twins fan and a fan of sports writing, sports talk radio, and just…well…sports, there’s nothing safer than proposing a trade that will likely never happen, because even if people think the proposed trade is idiotic, they really can’t prove something to be idiotic that never actually happens. Being idiotic is when a teenager, or drunken college student says “watch this” before doing something that inevitably results in pain and suffering. Throwing out a trade idea can elicit the same reactions in those who listen and watch, but without the inevitable emergency room visit in the end.

So, at the risk of giving away the secret to putting words on paper that carry only minimal value in the grand scheme of things, I’m not above proposing more of these potential trades and seeking consensus among the readers. And I appreciate the readers, sincerely I do. I’d much rather you hate my ideas, than you not bother considering my ideas, and I promise I won’t take that for granted along the way.

But it also got me thinking about the psychology of why it is that we fans are often so reluctant to make trades. I blame one person. Not Delmon Young, though it’s tempting to blame him for many things. Not Tommy Herr, though for old-timers, it’s tempting to blame him for many things too. No, there is simply one person to blame for all of this…it’s David Ortiz. I’ll return to why he’s to blame for all of this, in a moment.

When the Twins traded Frank Viola, it wasn’t because anyone thought doing so would make the team better, it was because the Twins weren’t about to pay him market value, and they needed to optimize a return because they wouldn’t re-sign him. Similarly, most of our trade deadline moves in recent years, like trading away Brian Dozier, or Eduordo Escobar, weren’t done to improve the team but to save money, or get something before free agency occurred. The fact that not re-signing Dozier for big money has proven to be prudent didn’t diminish the fact that it wasn’t necessarily done for the “right” reasons.

As I reflect upon what I wrote last time, and the comments that many of you made, I couldn’t help but be gratified that no matter what trades we proposed, no matter what ideas you floated around, it didn’t seem like saving payroll was the first consideration of any of the fans who weighed in. Truly, what a genuine breath of fresh air as a Twins fan.

That doesn’t mean we are safe from future payroll constraints that seem entirely unreasonable, though we can hope, nor does it mean that payroll considerations shouldn’t be a part of the entire discussion, but how nice it was to not “go there” in the opening of our discussions. Maybe, just maybe, the Twins organization really is turning a corner and a focus upon winning big, not just winning the almost always relatively weak and low payroll AL Central, can be our future.

But enough sunshine and roses, I want to stir the pot a bit more when it comes to thinking about making the team better. Rather than beat the Buxton possibilities into complete submission, I want to focus upon minor league possibilities.

To begin that discussion, I want to suggest that we pump the brakes a bit on how much we love our minor league prospects. Remember David West? Most of you don’t, but back in the Frank Viola era, David West was considered far and away the best minor league prospect available. Not just in his organization (the Mets) but in all of baseball. He was a minor league beast, couldn’t be touched. Remember his major league career? I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t, because he barely had one. His “unlimited potential” was never realized, and it appears, was actually fairly limited.

Likewise, Carlos Gomez (again, gotta admire the PR department of the Mets in selling the “can’t miss” nature of their prospects) while having a very respectable major league career can hardly be described as a true superstar, nor as a player that could get a team over the top. Gomez was a super-fast “can’t miss” prospect who kind of, at least a little bit, reminds me of someone, but I won’t go there.

The point of that is not to disparage any of our “can’t miss” prospects, it’s only to suggest that there isn’t actually any such thing as a “can’t miss” prospect. Which means then, maybe it’s always best to trade prospects rather than proven major leaguers. If that’s the case, and it may be, then I take back everything I said last week about trading Buxton for pitching. Instead, I say trade away one of our “can’t miss” prospects for pitching, and without hoping anyone fails, accept the reality that they very well might fail at the major league level.

Not having to focus on money and payroll first (and sometimes only) means that trading away prospects doesn’t have to be so terrifying because we can get great players via free agency (like Josh Donaldson for example). Obviously, we’ll never run the team like the Yankees and Red Sox do, simply getting the best free agents available when they need them, but it does seem like we’re at least moving towards considering a high-end free agent every now and then. That consideration would allow us to not be paralyzed by the thought of trading a high potential prospect.

If the Twins were a bad team, of course, I’d never suggest any of the things I suggested last week or this, as Buxton could be a star in this league for many years, and our best prospects may also be future stars and waiting for stardom to occur is fine for bad and mediocre teams. Waiting for that future is not fine, while many of our players are in their prime, and Nelson Cruz is still playing as if he’s in his prime. Why shouldn’t we explore all viable options now to make this team better?

After all, while some of you made many valid points regarding Buxton’s potential and the great months he’s had here and there, there’s also some evidence that suggests that he really won’t be a superstar and I’m not solely focusing on the injury history. Injuries happen, and blaming the athlete for the injury seems rather unseemly, even for me. I’m actually suggesting that if one actually and sincerely considers his career, his bat has been a liability far more than it has been an asset. If we can get another team to focus on the potential upside, and forget about the potential downside, then why not?

But enough about Buxton, let’s say for the sake of argument that those of you who thought this was a truly terrible idea win the day, and Falvey and Levine agree with you. Then who else might we consider as trade bait in order to improve this team? The present minor leaguers about whom we all rave? Larnach? Lewis? Kirilloff?

Like the back-up quarterback on NFL teams, nobody is often more lauded than the guy who patiently waits his turn while tearing it up at a lower level. Back-up quarterbacks often excel when they play, because they tend to play against other back-ups. Outstanding minor leaguers often excel because they are facing minor league pitching. That’s not their fault, it just suggests, as all of us know, that making the transition from the minors to the majors is difficult and doesn’t happen for most. That’s not a criticism in any way, most people who write on the internet don’t transition into best-selling authors either, but it doesn’t make us bad people.

Will Larnoch, Kirilloff and Lewis all be stars? Maybe, but logic, the past, and even math, suggest that they won’t. In truth, we simply don’t know. Maybe one will be amazing, maybe two, maybe all three. But then again, maybe all will struggle with the transition or maybe one or two will suffer serious injury along the way. Who knows? Which brings me to the point of this diatribe. Who the heck knows? If we could be certain they’d all be great, we wouldn’t consider trading them. If we could be certain they’d all fail, we’d trade them right now while everyone seems to believe they’ll all be great.

It’s not news to suggest that fans view their team’s players with the passion that makes them fans in the first place. We “love” these guys, and some of us struggle with the very idea that we’d trade away “our” guys, but the truth is that sometimes we have to trade away “our” guys in order to make “our” team better. We all love Nelson Cruz now, but he’s only been “our” guy for a bit more than a year. We mostly love Eddie, and we mostly love Max, and we mostly love Mitch, and we love them enough for me to call them by their first names and you all still know precisely who I am talking about.

Sometimes getting better means making tough choices, and sometimes it means trusting management to do the right thing. As I wrote a few weeks back about Rocco and the Twins brain trust…I really trust these guys. I’m not guaranteeing that I always will, nor am I guaranteeing that I won’t turn on them if they let me down, but for now, I trust them, and those we trust should be granted much discretion to explore the possibilities and do the right thing. If we didn’t trust them, I’d feel differently. But we do, so why not allow them the freedom to know that the vast majority of the fans will support them even if they try something that might seem controversial at the time?

Finally, for those of you who are truly reluctant to pull the trigger and trade away a prospect or a young major leaguer, I promised I’d explain why it’s the fault of David Ortiz. The Twins didn’t trade Ortiz, they just gave up on him, and for most of us, giving up too early on him still stings. After all, while Nelson Cruz is probably the best DH now, it’s very possible that David Ortiz was the best DH ever.

But Ortiz wasn’t really a force with the Twins, he was hurt frequently, and he was anything but consistently clutch. In fact, his 2003 numbers with the Red Sox were not all that different from his 2002 numbers with the Twins. But then, starting in 2004, his change of scenery really seemed to work. Sometimes it just does (of course there are some suspicions surrounding Ortiz’s change from mediocrity to superstar seemingly overnight…but why focus on the negative)?

Ortiz seemed to be the driving force behind more than one Red Sox World Series win, and while some truly analytical people suggest that there’s no such thing as “clutch hitting,” and the numbers suggest they may be right, still it seemed like nobody delivered more often than David Ortiz did in huge moments. He was ours, and we gave up on him. The brain trust at the time, clearly didn’t see what they perhaps should have seen (though in their defense, the Red Sox really didn’t see it either as when he arrived in Boston he platooned at First Base with Jeremy Giambi, not Jason Giambi, JEREMY Giambi).

Let’s face it, the Red Sox (like the Patriots in drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round) were far luckier than they were brilliant, but nevertheless it stings, it still stings, it may always sting. It may always make us terrified of giving up too early. I get it, I really do, but it’s almost impossible to give up on a player at exactly the moment their career arc falls off (though as much as we all liked Brian Dozier, he may be the best recent example of doing just that). More often than not, we either give up too soon, or hold on too long. Being a GM is complicated, apparently, it’s like healthcare.