Monday, May 9, 2016

Twins, Terry Ryan and Mediocrity

As the Twins continue to struggle mightily, fans are naturally looking for someone to point the finger at. With Joe Mauer off to a spectacular start, fans don't have their usual punching bag to blame (wrongly, of course, Mauer's been a great player almost every year) so who is at actually fault?

A combination of poor player acquisitions, poor lineup construction and, well, just being poor as an organization are to blame. The Twins payroll is lower than most of the league yet again this year, but the team still is able to spend anywhere between $100 and $115 million per year on payroll. For a team with as much young talent as the Twins have (which means those players are making the league minimum) payroll shouldn't be a major concern. Teams have built better teams with even lower payrolls.

The poor lineup construction is due in part to a log-jam of 1B/DH types, as Mauer, Miguel Sano and Byung Ho Park are all best suited to play 1B or DH but the team needs to find a way to get all 3 bats in the lineup at the same time. Because of that desire, the team is misguidedly playing Sano in right field, where he's looked awful. Late in games, the team has put in a defensive replacement for Sano, losing their cleanup hitter because the team is foolishly playing him at a position he's terrible at.

Sano is capable of playing close to average defense at 3B, at least at this point in his career, but he's likely only going to be able to play there for a few seasons at most. As he continues to get bigger and bigger, he's going to need to be a 1B in my opinion. With Mauer's contract running out after the 2018 season, playing Sano at 3B for 3 seasons while Mauer finishes his contract would be wise.

Unfortunately, the Twins chose to hold onto Trevor Plouffe this off-season, so there was no opening at 3B for Sano. Even when Plouffe got hurt, the team only used Sano at third base for a few games. Whether that order came from Terry Ryan and the front office or Paul Molitor made the decision on his own, it was a terrible decision. As soon as Plouffe got hurt Sano should have moved to third base as long as possible until Plouffe was healthy.

It's impossible to know what kind of interest the Twins received in Trevor Plouffe, and the poor return the Reds for got Todd Frazier undoubtedly hurt the Twins in negotiations. However, Plouffe is now in the final year of his contract, and while he's been a solid player the last two seasons, he's going to be paid too much money for the Twins to keep with Sano waiting in the wings. The Twins should have simply accepted the best offer they received for Plouffe, realizing that last year's surprise "contention" was mostly a fluke aided by an unsustainable 20-7 record in May. But the Twins have never been good at understanding predictive stats, and for that reason we've seen the front office continue to make mistake after mistake.

Even when the team makes a good move, they find a way to do something wrong in the process. In 2001, when Terry Ryan and company drafted Joe Mauer first overall ahead of college phenom Mark Prior, they clearly made the right choice. Mauer has had a far better career than Prior did, as injuries destroyed Prior early in his career. However, everyone knows the Twins drafted Mauer because he was easier to sign. I don't doubt they had Mauer rated very very highly, but Prior was the best pitching prospect in decades. Prior reportedly asked for $10 million from the Twins prior to the draft, and Mauer eventually signed for $6.5 million. The team ultimately made the right choice, which is all that really matters, but there's no doubt they valued Mauer higher because he was cheaper to sign.

This off-season, the team signed Byung Ho Park out of Korea, paying his former team just under $13 million and then signing him to a 4-year, $12 million contract with a 5th year option for $6.5 million. That means the team paid $31.5 million over 5 seasons to get Park, Korea's best player the last few years. Just over $6 million sounds like a lot of money per season, but in today's world, that's peanuts for a starting 1B/DH. Unfortunately, by all accounts, the Twins basically low-balled Park in negotiations because he had no leverage and they knew he wanted to come to the US. Had another team won the bidding and the right to negotiate with him, he would've gotten considerably more money. Why is that an issue? Shouldn't the Twins try to save as much money as possible?

In general, yes. It's almost always a good idea to squeeze as much value out of every possible situation as possible. However, if the team is hoping to gain Park's trust, low-balling him to save $2 million a year when that money makes no significant difference to the bottom line makes no sense. The money they saved isn't going to bring in any kind of major league talent, and it's not like they'll shift that money to the draft or the international amateur market, as they rarely outspend anyone in those aspects. No, they low-balled Park so their billionaire owners could pocket an extra $2 million. It's like when the Timberwolves kept selling draft picks--there's no logical reason for it.

Park has been a good signing and he's producing thus far, so all in all it was a good move. It's just frustrating to watch the team give mediocre national league pitchers like Ricky Nolasco big money deals while low-balling someone with actual talent. The Twins "scouting over everything" attitude is killing the team when it comes to acquiring players that have major league experience.

Scouting is necessary for amateurs and certain prospects, and it has a lot of value if done correctly. But when a scout tells you that John Ryan Murphy "looks the part" and his bat is coming around, a simple look at his statistics would show otherwise. Murphy never had a good offensive year in the minors, and at 24 years old he'd never shown anything in the big leagues either. I have no issue with the team trading Aaron Hicks, as he was a bit overrated, but to target John Ryan Murphy was a poor decision at the time and looks even worse with him being demoted to AAA already. (Wilson Ramos continues to club NL pitching, by the way. Another poor deal at the time that only looks worse as time goes on.)

I would love to see the Twins clear out the front office and bring in an ivy-league educated general manager, who's preferably under 40. The team needs to start being more progressive in acquiring undervalued players, rather than trusting their scouts. The "eye-test" is stupid regardless if it's a fan or a seasoned scout. All humans are biased, and in my experience the ones who are so sure they aren't biased are actually the most biased. There's a reason the most successful GM's in today's game generally have an Ivy-League education---it's because those people understand that finding a small advantage in 10 different aspects of the game can be as good or more beneficial than acquiring one major upgrade.

Sadly, Terry Ryan's job looks to be safe. Despite a losing record as the team's GM, and a terrible 4 year run since taking over in 2011, Ryan continues to have more job security than just about anyone in the world. As a Twins fan, it's frustrating that he isn't held accountable for his poor decisions. Making it more frustrating is the fact that almost every move that has backfired on the Twins was seen as a poor trade or signing at the time as well. Ramos for Capps. Garza AND Barlett for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. Extending Kurt Suzuki after a fluke-filled first half despite him sucking for five years prior. Extending Phil Hughes (and giving him a raise) despite having him under contract for two full seasons, after he had one good season. Signing aging starting pitchers to 4-year-deals, at a time when the Twins were still multiple years away from competing. Dumping JJ Hardy to two pitchers that the Twins released almost immediately.

There are other moves as well, but I'm getting frustrated just recalling those few screw ups. A simple look at the players statistics and circumstances made all of those moves look bad immediately and even worse in hindsight.

The way the team reacted to their terrible start this season, by waiving veterans to call up worse veterans and demoting Buxton to play Rosario or Danny Santana in center field is even more troubling. It proves the front-office doesn't understand small sample sizes, as one bad month doesn't mean much in baseball. I understand Buxton was struggling terribly, but the team had already tried the "Yo-Yo" experiment with Aaron Hicks, giving him a month or two in the bigs before sending him back down, then back to the bigs, then again to AAA. Buxton is going to need at least a full season as the team's center fielder so the team can gauge improvement and determine if he is indeed as good as his prospect status indicated. Him going to AAA and doing well does very little, despite what the Twins and Dick Bremer will continue to tell you. Replacing Tommy Milone and Tommy Fien with replacement level AAA players is just silly, especially since they agreed to pay those two over $7 million just a few months ago. (Fien has since been lost to the Dodgers on waivers)

The only reason a team should shuffle up their roster as much as the Twins did is if they have a lot of young talented prospects waiting in the wings. Waiting until May to call up those prospects makes them a free agent a year later, so that would make sense. Cutting a few decent major league veterans who have at least been average in the past to promote players like Juan Centeno and Darin Mostrianni makes no sense. It just shows that the Twins front-office continues to blame the players they bring in, despite those players A) not being very good and B) often being used in a role or at a position they aren't comfortable with.

But once you consider that Terry Ryan has proven for almost two decades now that he's a below average general manager and ownership continues to treat him like this generation's Branch Rickey, it's easy to see that the team seems to love to overvalue mediocrity. That's really the "Twins Way." Being mediocre, year after year. Instead of shuffling a poorly constructed roster, the more prudent move would be shuffling the front office and bringing in someone who's simply put, much better than Terry Ryan. To be frank, that shouldn't be too hard.

Is it football season yet?