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Shoemaker, Happ, and institutional failure

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Where have all the pitching prospects gone?

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

I’m going to tell you a story. Unlike most stories, however, this one is not going to unspool chronologically. Think of it like a Christopher Nolan film—jumping backwards and forwards in time.

For this particular story, it is instructive to start at its inception...

The Beginning

In 2016, a Major League Baseball club experienced a “total system failure” of its entire organization.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins
The face of Total System Failure
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

As a result, a new general manager group was brought in to turn the tide. One of the supposed hallmarks of the incoming administration? The ability to build a pitching pipeline, seeing as how one of the hotshot young executives came from the Land of Cleve, where young hurlers are grown via proprietary formula and released upon unsuspecting batters on a yearly basis.

Not only was pitcher development a key tenet of the plan, however, but also pitcher resurrection, of a kind. A new coach of moundsmen brought with him a distinct ability to save sliders, correct curveballs, and finesse fastballs of those in and out of the organization.

It all seemed like a grand plan, and was met with much rejoicing. What happened next? Well, this is where we skip ahead a bit.

The End

Last Friday night, 34-year old Matt Shoemaker toed the rubber for the team that had now undergone 5+ years of building up the pitching coffers. He got one out—but allowed 9 to cross home plate. This gave him a stat line of 2-7, 7.28 ERA, 54 ERA+, & 1,58 WHIP in 50.2 innings.

At the same time as Shoemaker’s struggles, fellow rotation mate J.A. Happ (38 years old) was pitching to a 3-2, 5.61 ERA, 70 ERA+, & 1.33 WHIP in 51.1 innings.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
Not a Happ-y camper in 2021
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

How could it be possible that an organization which once promised a bushel of arm-first prospects could be reduced to trotting such poor performers to the center of the diamond twice in every rotation turn?

This is where we get to the “what happened?!” of it all.

The Middle

Truth be told, the answer to the above question might be “the plan failed” (or, if generously interpreted, “it hasn’t worked yet”). Prospects have surfaced, but none have made an impact at the big league level.

Names like Fernando Romero, Kohl Stewart, and Zack Littell? All had promise, scratched the very tip of it in MN, and are off to other teams/leagues.

Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, & Randy Dobnak? That trio has experienced a bit more success/seasoning on the parent club but still have not found a role, largely delegated to the “taxi squad” when the bullpen blows up and reinforcements are needed.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
Dobber has been unable to find a niche
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The promise of Jose Berrios becoming a legitimate ace? Unfulfilled, what with La Makina looking the same as he has year after year (strong #3 guy, occasional stretches at #2).

In fact, in an ironic twist of fate, one could argue the best—or at least most consistent—pitching performances of the last 3-4 years have come from “outsiders”—free agents like Michael Pineda, Kenta Maeda, Ervin Santana, & Jake Odorizzi.

The Moral

At this point, you know what Paul Harvey might refer to as “the rest of the story”. But every good writer knows that any story worth its salt also needs a moral or summation. The take-home point here? The team in question—obviously our Minnesota Twins—has failed to develop the promised stable of pitching quality—or even quantity. The continued usage of Shoemaker and Happ well past their sell-by dates is proof enough of that. At the moment, there are simply—and sadly—no better options.

The Twist

But wait—in a last-minute surprise reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan, the tale might not be over quite yet! Last Sunday, home-grown Bailey Ober delivered four innings and only allowed one run. Not exactly an afternoon to write home about, but progress over the carnage seen of late.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
It was Game Ober for the Royals this past Sunday
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

Contemporaries of Ober “down on the farm” include Jhoan Duran (routinely throwing 100+ MPH), Griffin Jax, Jordan Balazovic, Chandler Shepherd, Dakota Chalmers (although recently DFA’d and claimed by the Cubs,) Cole Sands, & Josh Winder. Perhaps these youngsters—and the organization grooming them—can succeed where the first wave has thus far failed.

As a noted fictional character once said: “It only ends once—anything before that is just progress”. If the Minnesota Twins want to compete deep into October—or even deep into the summer, the way things are going—they desperately need the “arms race” to shake out in their favor.