Nah, we don't actually need you back. Thanks Nick! Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

The Last Place Minnesota Twins: What happened?

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Ron Gardenhire, probably singing. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

There isn’t a single team in any sport that wants to finish in last place.  Sure, there are times when a team might relish the opportunity to finish last and reap the reward of a top draft pick, but the idea that a team sets out to finish last is borderline crazy.  Even a team that looks terrible on paper, secretly has a fan base, front office and roster full of players that hopes magic will happen.  The Twins have finished in last place two years in a row.  Without major changes, a three year streak is a possibility.  How did we (I use we because I am including the fan base) get here?  Are we (remember, fan base) doomed to relive the 90s, when last place finishes instinctively flocked like the salmon of Capistrano?

Ron Gardenhire has been the Twins manager for the past 11 seasons.  In those 11 seasons, the Twins have had a record over .500 eight times, have won six AL Central Division titles and won {redacted} playoff games.  Ignoring the obvious lack of playoff success, the team has been generally successful over that period of time.  From a fan perspective, it is hard not to get used to watching a successful team.  In fact, things seemed to be lining up for the Twins to continue this success into the next decade.  By the end of 2010, Target Field had opened, Joe Mauer was signed to a long-term deal and the team was coming off of two consecutive AL Central Titles.

However, the last two seasons have not matched the previous nine.  That might be the understatement of the century.  The Twins have won an average of 64.5 games the past two seasons, after averaging slightly over 89 wins the previous nine seasons.  Perhaps some of that previous success can be attributed to a weak division, but the fact remains that the Twins won a lot of games between 2002 and 2010.  A drop of nearly 25 wins on average would indicate a pretty major shift in the organization.  So, what happened the previous two seasons?  Four key factors seem to be used to explain this lack of success.

Injuries

Occam’s Razor states that all things being equal, the simpler answer is usually more likely than the more complex answer.  For the Twins, injuries would seem to be the simplest explanation.  The Twins’ teams of 2002-2010 weren’t always perfectly healthy, but typically avoided the avalanche of injuries the Twins had in 2011 and 2012.  Sure, extremely important players missed significant time during that era.  That can’t be avoided.  However, rarely were there multiple important pieces missing for extended periods of time.

2011 was a year filled with injuries.  The opening day lineup averaged roughly 96 games played.  Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span, arguably the 3 most important position players on the team only played a combined 221 out of a possible 486 games.  Injuries forced all of the following players to play 60 or more games:  Drew Butera, Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, Rene Tosoni, and Jason Repko.  It would be very difficult for a team to field a makeshift lineup with many of those players and win significant games.  When you throw in a mediocre pitching staff, there is just far too much to overcome.

In 2012, the injuries hit that mediocre pitching staff.  Scott Diamond threw 173 innings, to lead the team by a mile.  Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing were the only other pitchers to throw over 100 innings.  That fact is pretty staggering.  Carl Pavano last pitched on June 1st and only threw 63 innings.  Scott Baker missed the whole season due to injury.  So, the Twins essentially lost their two best starters from 2011 for the vast majority of the 2012 season.  While the volume of injuries was not as great as 2011, the significance of these injuries clearly hurt the team.  If you want to throw in Kyle Gibson‘s Tommy John surgery from the year before, there were 3 pitchers who could have contributed to a 2012 rotation that pitched a combined 63 innings.

Injuries are a part of baseball.  All teams deal with them.  The Twins have operated with the best players they can get, but outside of Joe Mauer, do not have a team filled with superstars or even young budding stars.  The loss of multiple pieces would hurt any team, but 2011 and 2012 indicate that the Twins cannot overcome major injuries.

Joe Mauer is good, so leave him alone!!!! Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE

Player Development

The narrative states that The Twins of 2002-2010 were constantly bringing up players from the minors that could impact the major league team.  Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer were drafted by the Twins and put up MVP seasons.  When Torii Hunter left for Anaheim, Denard Span was ready to take his place.  Later in the decade, guys like Scott Baker, Ben Revere, Brian Duensing, Jason Kubel and even early Nick Blackburn were able to come up and contribute.  If players suffered injuries during the salad days, there were guys at AAA ready to come up and not completely embarrass themselves.

A two-year lull from these glory years of minor league excellence is not all that crazy.  It is entirely possible that the Twins finally had a more reasonable amount of young players to go to.  From 2001-2007, the Twins first round has produced a major league player all but once (2003 – Matt Moses).  While Trevor Plouffe, Glen Perkins, Ben Revere and Chris Parmelee are not superstars, they do appear to be useful players.  Denard Span is an underrated player and Joe Mauer is Joe Mauer.

In the next two years, there might be more in the reserve tank.  Aaron Hicks, the Twins’ first round pick in 2008 took some time to develop, but should be about ready in 2013.  As should Oswaldo Arcia, another young, promising outfielder.  Kyle Gibson, the 2009 first round pick, might be ready to take over a spot in the rotation by mid-2013.  Also, Joe Benson is still lurking.  It won’t be long before Miguel Sano, Adrian Salcedo, Travis Harrison and Eddie Rosario are getting MLB buzz.  This doesn’t even address the super young players like Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, and Max Kepler.

This franchise has fans that are used to seeing young players come up and contribute.  I am guessing 2011 and 2012 will end up being the anomalies and that player development will return to being a strength of the organization.  Perhaps player development was never the problem it appeared to be, but the farm system was simply correcting itself after years of pumping out quality MLB players.

Middle Infield

This one is pretty easy.  The Twins have lacked good middle infielders for quite some time.  The Twins have had good players in their middle infield over the years (Luis Castillo, Jason Bartlett and J.J. Hardy).  These players never last and typically for good reason.  Castillo was getting old, Bartlett was used in a trade and Hardy just wasn’t good when he played here.  For the most part, the Twins bring in older, cheaper middle infielders (Adam Everett, Juan Castro, Orlando Cabrera, Jamey Carroll) to fill in for disappointing young players or to fill a gaping whole with a few shovels of dirt.

The young players they have had never really developed like hoped.  Christian Guzman looked like a potential star, but didn’t reach that level.  Luis Rivas was awful.  More recently, Alexi Casilla did not pan out and Brian Dozier failed to hit in his 2012 debut.  The inability to draft and develop a middle infielder leads the team to free agency.  The free agent market is never overflowing with affordable talent.  Any shortstop that reaches free agency and is worth their weight in beans is going to get a big contract.  Take a look at the free agent middle infielders this off-season:  Click Here for Excitement!

The Twins have also not drafted a lot of middle infielders with high draft picks.  Since 2001, the Twins have had 23 first round and first round supplemental picks.  With those picks, they have drafted two middle infielders:  Trevor Plouffe and Levi Michael.  This does not bother me, especially if the Twins felt that better players were available when they were drafting.  It does help explain why there hasn’t been a young, exciting middle infielder on the roster for quite some time.

The good Twins teams could either make up for poor middle infielders, or had players at least capable of some level of production.  This lack of talent at important positions has seemingly caught up to the Twins.  It really isn’t even all their fault.  Getting a good shortstop is really difficult.  Most minor league shortstops move off the position.  Good Major League shortstops make a boatload of money.  There is a reason why elite shortstops rarely get to free agency.  When you find a guy who can play short, you covet that player.  The Twins need to find that player, as it would fill a huge hole.  It just simply isn’t that easy.

Pitching

Is the Twins’ pitching philosophy at least partially to blame?  Is the “pitch to contact” philosophy catching up to the team?  Did Brad Radke’s success as a low strikeout, low walk, good results, extremely rare pitcher spoil it for everyone else?  The league has changed in the past 20 years.  Strikeouts are simply more important.  In 1991, no one who pitched significant innings for the Twins had a K/9 over 6.5.  In 1991, that wasn’t really such a big deal.  In 2011 and 2012, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano and Samuel Deduno reached that threshold.  Unfortunately, Liriano and Deduno have sky-high walk rates, without a dominant strikeout rate to compensate.  Baker was the best pitcher on the Twins in 2011, but of course, he couldn’t stay healthy into 2012.  Does this mean the twins should only employ pitchers who can strike out a certain amount of batters per game?

Team philosophies do not always seem to correlate to success.  It would be a lot easier to address ideological flaws if there was an ideology that guaranteed success.  The 2012 Detroit Tigers are the anti-Twins.  They have loads of power pitching.  They were in the World Series.  Does that mean the Twins should copy that philosophy?  The San Francisco Giants rely more on their defense to make up for fewer strikeouts.  Their pitching staff is more balanced, with a better overall bullpen.  They beat the Tigers.  Should the Twins copy that philosophy?  WHO SHOULD THEY COPY?!?!?!?!?

The goal of baseball is to score more runs than your opponent.  There is no perfect recipe.  It takes a blend of pitching, offense and defense; the ratio of each is very hard to quantify.  The Twins may have ignored power pitching for many years, but they also seem committed to improving in that area, as evidenced by their most recent draft.  The pitch to contact philosophy helped produce winning teams.  It may not have been the only, or even most important reason, but pitching certainly contributed.

When we look back at 2011 and 2012, it is entirely possible that we see those seasons as temporary lulls in what are normally competitive teams.  A road map certainly exists that leads the 2013 Twins to a much improved season and possibly even a playoff appearance.  This off-season is extremely important.  The issues brought up above are fixable.  Injuries can’t be predicted, but a season of good health is just as likely as another season of bad health.  The farm system seems to be somewhat rejuvenated.  Players like Arcia and Hicks make it possible to trade a guy like Josh Willingham or Denard Span for a decent shortstop.  There is plenty of pitching available in free agency.

Perception is reality.  If the Front Office views this team as one that is a few pieces from contention, they will go out and pick up some pieces.  If the Front Office thinks that more work needs to be done, then this off-season could be remembered as the Winter when the Twins started a real re-building process.  One thing is certain, things cannot stay the same.  Status Quo isn’t working.  The team needs to make strong moves.  Signing Jason Marquis is not a strong move.  Signing Josh Willingham is a strong move.  The pieces needed to contend are out there, do you trust this organization to accumulate them?  I kind of do.  What else can we (as fans) do?

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