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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.