The end of August was rough. The beat up Twins were in a seemingly endless free fall (it finally ended at 6 straight losses) after losing road series to division rivals Cleveland and Detroit. The rebuilding White Sox looked like they have arrived early and might be a legitimate contender in 2020. The once vaunted Twins bullpen and bomba squad were cratering. The trade deadline came and went without so much as a single trade reinforcement brought in. For fans, it has not been easy to keep the faith and stay positive. The team looked desperate for a jolt and many of us probably had an eye to the trade market to provide it – whether it be finally acquiring a true #1 starter, or a bullpen stopper, or something small to round out the edges of the roster. Despite our armchair management wishes, the front office decided to stand pat.
I think they made right choice in doing so. Here are five reasons why.
1) Not over-reacting to a losing streak
At the trade deadline on Monday the Twins had lost five of what would become six games in a row. Going through that is awful, but it’s important to keep perspective on the bigger picture. Losing streaks of that ilk are very common in baseball. It’s easy to lose sight of how frequent long losing streaks can be, even for the best teams, especially when it’s happening. Over the course of a normal 162 games the sheer volume of games helps us to forget about these kinds of streaks. But in a 60-game season these kinds of streaks feel magnified. However, the fact remains these happen every year, even to the best teams.
For example, just last season the Los Angeles Dodgers lost 6 straight games in April. The St. Louis Cardinals had three different streaks, losing 13 of 17 in May, 5 straight in June, and 5 straight in August. The Washington Nationals lost 5 in a row in May and then 5 out of 6 against their division rival Mets and Braves in August. The Houston Astros had a 7 game losing streak in June and then dropped another 5 games in a row in August.
All these teams were considered among the best in the sport last year and the Nationals went on to win the World Series. These types of streaks happen and don’t necessarily signal the end of a team’s chances.
2) Good organizations know the playoffs are a crapshoot
Even before the expanded playoff format was agreed upon, there were no guarantees that the best teams would ultimately come out on top in October. In the pre-season, the Dodgers were given the best chances of winning the World Series by Fangraphs’ models, at 19.5%. One in five. Those are the best chances in the sport. The Astros (16.1%) and Yankees (10.9%) were the only other teams with a better than one in ten chance, and the Twins and Rays were the only others with better than one in 20. Since then, the playoffs have expanded to 16 teams and those odds have been further diluted.
That isn’t to say it front offices shouldn’t do everything they can to maximize their chances. They should. The goal isn’t to win prospect rankings or awards for owning the most cost-controllable years. The goal is to win games – as many as possible and especially in the playoffs. But those estimates illustrate there is only so much within management’s control to actually move the needle within a season. The Dodgers are and have been widely considered the prohibitive championship favorites for several years now and they still don’t have a World Series to show for it. Well run organizations know that there are no guarantees in October, so they strive to put the organization in position to have as many shots at postseason success as possible, instead of trying to optimize for success in any given single season.
A big deadline trade might increase a team’s chances a few percent here or there, but it’s extremely difficult to make an acquisition at the deadline that will markedly change a team’s outlook in October. Because of the uncertainty and randomness that we know exist in October, good organizations understand that going all in (and potentially mortgaging the future) for one shot in October is less desirable than giving themselves chances at multiple Octobers.
3) This trade market didn’t have a true difference maker available
It’s even more difficult to move the October needle when the trade market doesn’t have topflight talent available. The playoff expansion shrunk the number of motivated sellers and may have increased the number of motivated buyers. That alone shrank the pool of talent to be moved and increased the competition for it. But there also was not a true star available this year. The past several years have seen major stars available at the deadline – players that are potentially future Hall of Famers. There were no Zack Greinkes, Justin Verlanders, or Manny Machados available this time around. Mike Clevinger was clearly the prize of the market, but he wasn’t coming to Minnesota because of the intra-divisional trade taboo. Josh Hader was rumored to be available, but the price was sure to be astronomical – and investing heavily in relievers (who are notoriously volatile year over year), especially one pitch relievers, just isn’t great business. The Rangers ended up holding firm on starter Lance Lynn and it’s unclear how interested the Twins were in trying that again. Lynn, for as good as he has been in Texas, isn’t a Verlander, either.
The point is, we should try to keep a realistic perspective on what was possible and reasonable. Nobody available for trade was going to make a major impact on this team’s 2020 chances. There wasn’t a playoff ace available to the Twins at this time. The prices for relief stoppers was too high. Forcing the issue to reinforce a team when the prices aren’t reasonable is how you end up trading Wilson Ramos for a year and a half of Matt Capps. Yes, this Twins team has some holes – but this market wasn’t going to be able to fill the holes in a way that would matter in October.
4) The AL is wide open, and the other favorites stood pat too
I found it interesting to look back and see who was doing the buying this past weekend and Monday. By and large, the heavy favorites sat out the deadline – making only minor moves, if any at all. I believe this is due in part to the fact that there wasn’t a lot available that would make a marked difference for the top teams. The teams that bought were decidedly in the second tier of contenders, a place on the win curve where they could still make an impact on their chances. It makes sense for teams in those positions to try to fortify, especially with the expanded playoffs. San Diego’s aggressiveness, for as unprecedented as it was, was logical and strategic. Philadelphia, Miami, and Toronto’s buying fits their current situations, too.
But the buying teams were mostly working to enhance their chances of making the tournament. That’s a different calculus than what the Yankees, Astros, Twins, Rays, and A’s were dealing with. In a seller’s market, there just wasn’t much motivation for these strong, favored teams to give up what it would cost to make an impact move. In light of the Twins six game losing streak, you might be questioning whether the Twins should be worried about making the playoffs. But here again, thanks to the expanded format, their odds remain around 95% and it’s looking more and more likely just a .500 record will be good enough to be in the top 8 in the AL.
While we can be frustrated the Twins sat it out, perhaps we can take some solace that the expected competitors for the AL crown did too. It’s also worth pointing out that many of those clubs have been dealing with similarly bad, and perhaps worse, injury situations than the Twins. All the pre-season AL favorites have been decimated by injuries in 2020, yet they remain on top in part because of relentless focus on building and maintaining roster depth – which is another reason not to make panic trades in a bad market. Maintaining your roster depth is key for weathering uncertainty. All in all, the Twins are mostly in the same position now, relative to their AL competitors for making the playoffs and winning the World Series, as they were when the season started.
5) The cavalry is on the way
Yet another reason the Twins likely felt comfortable sitting it out was what they expect to get with the return to health (and eligibility) of players already on the roster. We already saw the potential impacts of this last night, when Byron Buxton and Michael Pineda returned and positively impacted an important game. Offseason free agent prize Josh Donaldson is expected back today. In effect, those are similar to mid-season trades – especially in Pineda’s case. No, he isn’t a Verlander either, but he was arguably the Twins best pitcher down the stretch last season and should bring some stability and innings to the fragile rotation. Perhaps he can be 80% of what Lance Lynn would have brought, but at considerably less marginal future value cost (i.e, none!). Buxton just makes this club better as we witnessed last night with his homerun robbery and game winning hit. He has a way of injecting life and energy into this team that is difficult to tangibly measure, but very impactful nonetheless. He and Donaldson both ought to aid the lineup’s struggles with left-handed pitching and improve the defensive side of the ball. Beyond them, there’s reason to believe Jake Odorizzi will also return this month, and possibly Mitch Garver, too. The point is, help was already on the way, which undoubtedly influenced the decision makers’ choice to hold tight.
Ultimately, this is how we should want our favorite franchise to operate. Sure, going all in on a specific season is exciting and drives interest, but it doesn’t keep the balance of the long view with the near term that we should want. When Falvey and Levine started after the 2016 season we wanted them to rebuild a consistent winner, giving chances in October frequently.
Falvey articulated that as the goal in his introductory press conference, saying “The goal here is straight-forward and measurable. It’s to build a sustainable and championship-caliber team and organization.” Yes, we all want to win the World Series in 2020. But I’d also like to have a shot at it in 2021 too. And 2022. And beyond that. Titles aren’t often won on the backs of large, risky decisions (but they might be lost). Titles are often won on the backs of consistently getting lots of smaller (and boring) decisions right. Because we can’t predict the future, we should want the decision makers to put the organization in position to thrive through a wide range of potential outcomes.
This 2020 team was already set up to have a good shot at October glory. It also looks to be set up well for the future. For that, I appreciate the leadership for sticking firm to its principles and evaluations and not letting emotions drive them into near-sighted decisions that could have negative long term consequences.
Standing pat was the right call – now it’s up to Rocco and the players to prove it.
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.