Sunday’s 9-4 loss to the Red Sox put the Twins record at 12-20, 9.5 games behind the division-leading Indians, and just a half game ahead of the White Sox, who own the worst record in the Major Leagues. With the season nearly one-fifth complete, the Twins’ troubles can no longer be dismissed as a harmless early-season slump. The time is soon approaching for the Twins to make a decision:
They can either make some big changes and try to make another playoff run this year, or they can give up on 2011 and try to build for the future.
I strongly believe the Twins should focus on winning this year. It is still more than possible to do that, but they need to take some decisive actions. Quickly. The following is my five point plan to make the Twins competitive again:
1. Heal. This is the most obvious, and most important step to building a winning team. Unfortunately, it’s also the one over which the Twins have the least control. The fact is, that the Twins cannot and will not win until the heart of their batting order is healthy. Delmon Young should return from the Disabled List later this week. It is to be hoped that Jim Thome, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and Joe Mauer will all be ready to rejoin the team by the end of the month. All of these hitters need to contribute soon, and the team needs to avoid further demoralizing injuries.
2. Acquire a Middle Infielder. I don’t blame the Twins for giving Alexi Casilla one last shot to earn the starting shortstop job. But the team can’t afford to keep trotting out an infielder who sports an average well below the Mendoza line and commits “mental mistakes” on a daily basis (I’m sure even Albert Einstein made a mental mistake from time to time, but Casilla commits them with such frequency that I’m starting to think the guy just isn’t very bright). Trevor Plouffe might be a temporary stopgap, but I have little faith that he’ll produce much over the course of the season. Thus, the Twins need to try to trade for a shortstop. LaVelle Neal of the Star Tribune recently wrote a thought-provoking article about Jose Reyes. Such a move would be highly out of character for the usually cautious Twins, but it has the potential to be as big of a momentum shifter as the 2003 Shannon Stewart trade.
3. Demote a Starter. Scott Baker and Brian Duensing have been very good. Francisco Liriano has not, but his no-hitter gave us all a glimpse of his sky-high potential. Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano have had some terrible outings and very few bright spots this season. The Twins need to demote one of these two to the bullpen and replace him with Kevin Slowey, Kyle Gibson, or Scott Diamond. I have no illusions that Slowey, Gibson, or Diamond will pitch like a Cy Young winner, but such a move could have a deeper effect on the staff as a whole. Remember, the Twins rotation was struggling mightily last July before Duensing took Blackburn’s slot. The move seemed to re-energize all of the team’s pitchers, and the rotation as a whole pitched much better afterward.
4. Get Rid of Drew Butera. Drew Butera has no business being in the major leagues. Sure, he’s a decent defensive catcher who can throw out base runners and battles his tail off every day. But his hitting is so abysmal that it cancels out any positive traits he brings to the club. Everyone knows Butera is a bad hitter, and I don’t needs stats to prove this point, but I’m going to throw a few out there anyway because they are so alarming. Butera has a .115/.156/.148 slash line. You could double all of those numbers, and you’d still have a terrible hitter. Those numbers are not a fluke, either. Butera played five seasons in the minor leagues, and his batting average never topped .235 in any full season. His futility as a hitter might be an endearing quirk if he were only needed for 10 or 15 games per season. But with Mauer out indefinitely, the Twins absolutely need to improve behind the plate. The good news is that just about any player the Twins sign or trade for would be an improvement. They should call Bengie Molina immediately and try to work out a contract. Failing that, they need to try to trade a mid-level prospect for another team’s backup catcher.
5. Add a Reliever. This actually isn’t the most pressing concern. Matt Capps has been good as a closer, and Glen Perkins has been surprisingly effective in short relief. But if the Twins address the above needs, they will eventually find themselves with leads to protect in the late innings. They might consider adding another reliable arm near the trade deadline, just like they added John Rauch, Ron Mahay, Brian Fuentes, and Capps in 2009 and 2010.
There are other things that have to happen for the Twins to start winning. Michael Cuddyer and Francisco Liriano have to play closer to their potential, for example. I think they will eventually get there. In order for their efforts to have any effect, though, the Twins will need to take the actions I outlined above.
Please use the comments field below to tell me what you think the Twins need to do in 2011. Do you agree or disagree with my recommendations? If you were Bill Smith, what moves would you make to get the Twins back on track?
Tomorrow I’ll look at the other side of the coin and talk about what the Twins should do if they want to focus on the future instead of 2011.