What Happened? Part 2: Roster Construction

30 Aug

also available at www.SethSpeaks.net -

Yesterday we discussed just how many injuries that the Twins had in 2011 and the effect they had throughout the season. Today, I want to discuss another glaring issue of the 2011 season.

When the Twins lost in three games to the Yankees again in the first round of the playoffs last year, it was pretty clear that they needed to add some pieces to the roster. However, even with a 15-20% increase in payroll, the Twins would be at about $110 million. However, much of that increase went to the annual raises to players in arbitration, increases in salaries, and in particular, a $10 million raise to their All-Star catcher. In other words, the payroll would go up, but it was unrealistic to expect the same group back. Then again, if a team stays the same, they really go backwards because other teams make improvements. So, what did the Twins do?

The QUESTION MARKS

Let’s look back at what we felt were the Twins biggest question marks going into the 2011 season.

1.)     The Middle Infield – In 2010, the Twins got solid, veteran play from Orlando Hudson at 2B and JJ Hardy at shortstop. In the offseason, the Twins decided that speed was something that they needed, and instead of obtaining speed to roam around in the outfield, they decided to add it in the middle infield. JJ Hardy missed about 60 games due to injury from a slide into 3B on a game-tying double early in the season. He had a couple of flare-ups as well from coming back too soon. He was a major disappointment, posting an OPS just over .700. However, even in a poor season, he played very good defense. Despite lack of foot speed, he showed great range and a strong arm, making all of the plays. Hudson was terrific in the first half of the season for the Twins and solidified the #2 spot in the lineup. He really struggled offensively and defensively in the second half of the season.

As much as Hudson is not missed in the clubhouse, it is pretty clear that both Hudson and Hardy were missed in 2011. Hardy ended up agreeing to a deal before going to arbitration that was less than anticipated. Obviously no one could have anticipated the number of home runs that he has hit in Baltimore this year. No one believes he would be anywhere near that home run total if he played with the Twins this year. But we do know that he would solidify the Twins infield.

The Twins decided that Alexi Casilla had shown enough in a reserve role in 2010 to earn a starting gig in the middle infield in 2011. It was hard to argue, although he was definitely a question mark. After a horrible April and losing his job for about 10 games to Trevor Plouffe, he was terrific in late May and for much of the rest of the season. That is, until he pulled his hamstring in late July.

The Twins spent nearly $5 million for the rights to negotiate with Nishioka, a batting champ and gold glove winner at both 2B and 3B in Japan. They then signed him to a three year deal worth about $9 million. After about five or six games, he broke his leg and missed a couple of months. He returned as the starting shortstop. He was terrible with the glove and the bat, and frequently showed a lack of basic instincts. He has been better of late, but it is fair to say Year 1 of the Nishioka experience was a complete failure.

The Middle Infield was a huge question mark heading into the season, and it is fair to say that the end result was far worse than could have even been expected.

 

2.)     The Bullpen – Following the 2010 season, the Twins allowed free agent relievers Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch leave via free agency. Oh, and Randy Flores and Ron Mahay were let go too. The Twins agreed to terms with Matt Capps for about $7 million to avoid arbitration, a move that was roundly criticized, and yet, Capps was to be the loan certainty in the Twins bullpen heading into spring.

Joe Nathan was coming back from Tommy John surgery. Pat Neshek was in his second year back from Tommy John. Jose Mijares had a rough 2010, but the assumption was he would be better. The Twins had the likes of Anthony Slama, Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, Chuck James, Jim Hoey, Anthony Swarzak and several more arms were vying for spots just a few spots after Nathan, Mijares and Capps.

The assumption was, and I fully subscribed to it, that the bullpen could be easily filled from within. Unfortunately, that is clearly not true after what we have seen in the Twins bullpen this year. Granted, the front office deserves a ton of credit for maintaining faith in lefty Glen Perkins who has been easily the Twins best reliever all season. Not one person reading this thought that would be the case. Nathan was given the closer’s role, and he gave it back to Capps, and it wasn’t too much longer before Capps gave it back to Nathan. Jeff Manship and Anthony Slama have had frustrating, injury-filled seasons and have not been able to contribute to the Twins. Jim Hoey throws hard, but isn’t able to hit the strike zone, as his track record indicated. Jose Mijares was a mess. The team DFAd Neshek who was then claimed by the Padres.

The one reliever that I wanted the Twins to pony up for was Crain. The others, I would have let them go too, so I’m not saying I would have done too much differently. However, clearly, the bullpen has been a huge issue.

3.)     We need an Ace – The argument was made that the Twins needed an Ace at the top of their rotation. Most of us argued that although his mental toughness could be questioned, Francisco Liriano’s 2010 gave us a glance at how good he had been in 2006 and hopefully could be again. The Twins were rather wise to not give Liriano a long-term extension for the type of dollars that he would have wanted. Liriano has been a mess. Even with his no-hitter, he walked a bunch. It has been a frustrating year for Liriano. Zach Greinke was available for way too much, and although some minor trades happen within the division, it is rare for a deal of that kind of magnitude to happen. The Blue Jays sent Shaun Marcum to the Brewers for 3B Brett Lawrie. Marcum is not an ace, but a very solid 2 or 3 to fit in well with Greinke and Yovani Gallardo. Those were the aces that were available and realistic last offseason. I don’t think that aces (and there are like a dozen at most out there) are as readily available as people think.

4.)     Starting Pitching – Although the Twins had six starters for five big league rotation spots and Kyle Gibson just waiting in the wings, there were question marks with the rotation. The Twins stood by their guys, and in fact, gave Carl Pavano two years and $16.5 million to stay. There was no way that Pavano would match his 2010 season. Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing proved the stat-folks right by being not-too-good. Scott Baker was the one guy who stepped up and finally reached the level we thought he would, but then he got hurt. Again, the “pitch to contact”, don’t strike anyone out philosophy just is not going to work in the playoffs, much less over a long season.

5.)     The Bench – Jim Thome, Jason Repko, Matt Tolbert, Drew Butera – Pretty much the same bench as 2010. It was fine in 2010 because there weren’t injuries. The Twins weak bench showed through in 2011 with all the injuries. And, when there were weaker bats in the lineup, like Nishioka, etc., there weren’t many bench options. We knew all along that if something happened that caused Joe Mauer to miss a lot of time, the team would be in trouble. They traded Jose Morales (not a big deal) and brought in Butera clones, Rene Rivera and Steve Holm. They would be fine if Butera missed time, but the backup catching issue was exposed by Mauer’s injury.

The series on what went wrong will continue in the next days. There are so many reasons, and some do inter-lap a little bit. For instance, the Twins could have decided to trade Delmon Young last offseason, but coming off of a season in which he hit .300/20/110, and is still just 25 years old, I can understand not trading him and believing that he could maintain or even improve upon that. That would be an example of a player not living up to the expectations put upon them. Maybe that’s the player’s fault. Maybe it’s the front office’s fault for believing that. Maybe it is fans’ fault for having high hopes. But players no living up to their expectations is another area  that I will take a look at.

But for today, talk about the roster construction of the 2011 season. The front office deserves some heat for it, although I would caution that if any of us would have been in that position, our moves could be criticized too. It’s easy to say I would have done this, or would have done that, but when you actually have to do those things, and you have to work within a certain dollar figure, you have to make decisions. I think that sometimes fans don’t’ realize just how difficult the job is. And at the same time, the GM has to be held accountable for decisions made, good or bad. So, I do believe that this conversation is more than fair.  

What are your thoughts? Comment here.

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14 Responses to “What Happened? Part 2: Roster Construction”

  1. peterb18 August 31, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    Seth,
    Great post and I agree with everything. I would add that a terrible mistake was trading Wilson Ramos. It really hurt the Twins. The catching position would have been stabilized with Ramos. Our bottom 1/3 of the order puts the Twins in a difficult position. The Twins knew that Joe could have health problems and Ramos was the guy that could help solve this issue.
    We all know that Bill Smith is not a baseball guy; therefore, someone is creating those trades for him. Those people have to be evaluated.
    Also, some of the Twins philosophy has to be evaluated like “pitch to contact”, etc. I think they also should look into their training methods– Hardy’s wrist issue, and other examples. Seth covered the pitching problems beautifully.

    • Seth August 31, 2011 at 9:49 am #

      the Wilson Ramos trade happened last July, not in the offseason. I agree, it was a horrible trade from the start. We don’t know what ramos would have done for the Twins in the big leagues as a backup, but I would have liked to have seen. But yeah, I was probably higher on Wilson Ramos than anyone.

      Bill Smith has been in the organization for 25+ years… He may not be the ‘baseball man’ that Ryan and Radcliff are in terms of scouting, but in that amount of time, you pick it up, I’m sure! I think that’s a lot overrated.

  2. Matt August 31, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    “No one believes (J.J. Hardy) would be anywhere near that home run total if he played with the Twins this year.” I believe that he would. Does that make me no one?

    • Ryan Glanzer (@glanzerr) August 31, 2011 at 8:53 am #

      No he wouldn’t, because he would have been injured for most of the season along with everyone else. Everything is the trainers’ fault!

    • Bryz August 31, 2011 at 10:37 am #

      Believe it or not, but Target Field has actually ranked about average in the HR department on ESPN’s park factors, so you may actually be correct. http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/parkfactor/_/sort/HRFactor

      • Jon F September 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

        Unfortunately, the 2009 season had Target Field at #30.

        2008, ‘Homerdome’ was 8th.

  3. Ryan Glanzer (@glanzerr) August 31, 2011 at 9:00 am #

    In June I moved from Minnesota to Texas, and am no longer right in the middle of this putrid season, so I’ve learned to take a more laid-back look at things, which by the way has been amazing for my health and finances… rather than spending my nights screaming at the TV or blowing $40 on beer at the ballpark, I can calmly review the box scores and blog posts after the game. Plus my blood pressure condition has actually improved dramatically. I may have saved myself a few years of my life by not being able to follow Minnesota sports as closely!

    So anyway, here is my new-found broader perspective of the ’11 season.

    The Twins dominated for a decade. Then they had a terrible season that no one saw coming. Everything goes in cycles; the Twins weren’t going to be division champions every year just because of a new stadium and higher payroll. Dumb as many of us believe Bill Smith and the front office to be, they’ll probably address some of the issues in the offseason and the team won’t be as bad next year. By 2014 when the Rosarios and Sanos of the system arrive in Minnesota, the Twins may be the best of the AL Central once again.

    • ScruffyRube August 31, 2011 at 10:54 am #

      I like the long term view, and I think in terms of roster construction the Twins might have done the same thing.

      Rather than keeping Hardy & Hudson as short term stop gaps in the middle infield, try investing in the unproven (Casilla) and untested (Nishioka) with the hopes that one or both of them prove to be a solid foundational piece for the middle infield for many years to come.

      Ditto with the pitching (save Capps as the insurance policy), with Crain, Geurrier and Rauch eating fewer innings you could easily imagine Perkins, Mijares and Burnett growing into the role of quality relief arm (unfortunately only Perkins has); and as long as Liriano, Duensing and Blackburn were cost effective long term projects they might turn into the #1, #3 and #4 pitchers we wanted them to be.

      If the team had been mediocre this year as multiple players made progress towards fulfilling their potential the roster construction would be disappointing but not infuriating. Since the team has been lousy and very few made progress the front office gets some blame. But I won’t give up yet. I can’t believe that Bill Smith could construct 3 contending teams in 4 years by dumb luck, this season seems to be the outlier in his (short) tenure.

  4. Ben August 31, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    Hey Seth, you read anything into Benson not going to the AFL this year? Possibly a sign they don’t think he needs it? He therefor has a firm place in their plan for next season?

    • Seth August 31, 2011 at 9:52 am #

      I read nothing into the AFL rosters, regardless of who goes or doesn’t go. I don’t think it has a huge bearing on what happens next spring. What happens with michael cuddyer and jason kubel has much more to do with joe benson being with the twins next april than anything the AFL would do. I don’t think anyone thinks that Benson is necessarily ready to start opening day for the Twins. He will need time at AAA, and he should and will get it.

  5. scot August 31, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    Giving up on Hardy and going with an unproven Nishi was just stupid, can’t believe they didn’t see this coming. OK I would have said goodbye to Hudson also and given Casilla or who ever stepped up their chance at 2B. I would have resigned Crain and Fuentes and not traded Ramos away.

  6. USAFChief August 31, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    Nitpick: It is unreasonable to describe Hardy’s 2010 as “a major disappointment.” His 2nd half, as he started to regain his health, was very good, and he was one of the primary reasons the Twins pulled away in the second half last season.

    As to “what went wrong,” again, one must start with Blll Smith. I doubt any other major league team would look at his 4 yr track record of deals and let him keep his job.

  7. kay September 2, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    seth, still wonder why Waldrop was never given a shot at the ‘bigs’ this year?

  8. mnpundit September 8, 2011 at 3:32 am #

    A quite word on Delmon Young:

    Since he was traded to Detroit his OPS has gone up about .100 points. That’s still well below where he was in 2010 but it is far better than he was with the Twins. Is this attributable to Detroit’s better lineup? Do you think he’s trying harder being with a contender (feeding into the “lazy” Delmon critique)? Does Detroit quite simply employ a more talented coaching staff?

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