Woe Unto We Twins Fans

twinsThe baseball season ended yesterday, at least for the Minnesota Twins. And sadly, I hardly noticed or paid attention, which is saying something.

I tuned into some of the last game of the season for my hometown nine, flipping over from the Vikings game to see if the Twins could pull out a win, but when I first got there, we were already behind early in the game, and each time I came back, we kept dropping further and further back.

It doesn’t help matters that the Twins major league roster right now is basically what it’s Triple-A roster was at the start of the season. And it doesn’t help matters that very few of those players actually appear to be either ready or capable of playing at this level.

This is the third straight season that the Twins have finished with more than 90 losses, and because it’s the third straight year of futility, even we hard-core fans have to look at the team with disgust, because it’s very obvious that nothing has been done to improve the team at all in that time.

Oh sure, there are some dim glimmers of hope that makes this mess of a season feel better: the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs, and we still finished a full three games ahead of the White Sox, and we did not have the worst record in baseball–in fact, we were tied for the fourth worst record, though the down side there is that we ended up tied for fourth with the perennial also-ran, hapless Chicago Cubs.

So while the rest of baseball focuses on the coming playoffs–complete with a game 163 between Texas and Tampa Bay–Minnesota fans are already jumping into hot stove mode, wondering if Gardenhire will quit, or if the Twins will let him go, or if there’s enough hope in the front office to keep him on for one more year. Remember that the GM shook things up in the coaching circles last season by firing a slew of coaches, mixing things up, and bringing in a few new faces: Brunansky, Steinbach, and Cuellar.

If I were Gardenhire, honestly, I’d retire right now. This team, even with a new ballpark and all of the revenue that’s supposed to bring, has been very hesitant to sign any kind of A-list free agent. And somehow, we managed in just a few years to deplete any kind of talent from our minor leagues. So success, by any measure, is still a few years off. And the way the Twins do things, we probably can’t count on seeing any dramatic improvement for at least another couple of years. I’m not sure that’s worth the headaches of managing a mediocre team for another season or two. (Gardenhire speculation is over…I wrote this at lunch and the Twins had a press conference announcing Gardenhire’s back for two more years)

So what should the Twins do? Or better put, what do I, as a die-hard Twins fan hope to see the team do in the next four months?

First: decide where we’re going. Are we going to be competitive in the short term while still trying to build the minors? Or are we going to just stockpile talent in the minors and bring them along at the cost of having a horrible product at the major league level? I’m of two minds here, mainly because I’ve seen the Twins slowly build the minors into a great collection of players (anyone else remember the bulk of the roster for ’86-’92?). But during the great runs of ’87, ’91 and even ’92 (which was a better team than the ’91 squad), we went out and signed some key free agents who augmented what we were missing here. And we haven’t done that since.

If it’s going to be a complete rebuild, then commit to it and do it. Draft and trade for some truly great young talent. Get maximum value out of the older and more expensive players we currently have. But don’t coddle the youth in the minors. Rush them along, push them to be great and make them show how great they are. Bring them up fast. The rest of baseball has shown off some great rookie talent that are only a couple years out from their draft class, so it’s a proven path. Cleveland, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh are your examples here.

If we’re going to do this from both ends, then we also need to commit to that. Be really smart in the draft, and also be aggressive bringing those players up. But at the same time, sign some young-ish, very talented, top-notch, expensive free-agents. Build an experienced, talented core of free-agents and fill it in with the young kids who hopefully will soak in the knowledge. The Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers are examples of this.

Second: do everything you can to get great starting pitching. We’ve drafted and traded for this before, so we can do it again. But we might just need to sign a free agent who isn’t just good…

Third: recognize the need for talented utility players. I’ve said for a long time that one of the biggest mistakes we made was letting Nick Punto go. Sure, the guy was a .250 hitter at best, but he could play almost anywhere in the infield, and almost never made an error. He hustled on every play, and did it for practically nothing pay-wise. We need a guy who just wants to be in the lineup every day, isn’t flashy, but just gets the job done, because for every hit he didn’t get, there were at least one or two in a game that he’d prevent for the other side as well.

Fourth: please stop ignoring the 8- and 9-batters. For the last three years we’ve had a parade of horrible hitters at the bottom of the order who couldn’t come up with a clutch hit, and/or couldn’t run worth crap. Build the roster with speed and clutch hitting again so that they could set the table for the 3-4-5 spots.

Fifth: settle the manager situation soon. Sign Gardenhire or let him go before the first round of the playoffs are over. Because then the brain trust can sit down and formulate a plan before the free-agent period starts. Gardenhire’s been signed for two more years, so part of this is moot.

Sixth: decide on a realistic budget. Mauer is eating up $23 million a year, which is more than the entire major league pitching staff makes combined. But at the same time, he’s the face of this team, a hometown kid, and a fan favorite. So sit down with him, much like the team had conversations with Hrbek and Puckett when we were at similar crossroads, and see what can be done to keep him happy as a player while building a competitive team around him. Everyone wants to get Morneau back, but we can’t do that if he wants $11 million a year because he just isn’t worth it anymore. We’ve been in this new ballpark for four seasons, and only one of them produced a competitive team. The economics of baseball claim that a new ballpark will generate the revenue needed to buy a better team. Prove it.

And Seventh: stop being so complacent. The front office and management of this team has been so typically Minnesota nice for so long that it’s become tired and ineffective. I don’t feel like either the ownership or management really wants to win a championship anymore because their reaction to the end of this third-straight dismal season has been lacking any kind of emotional response. “Oh, gee, yeah. It’s bad, but we’ll talk about it and figure out what needs to be done.” Minnesota fans are notoriously fickle, especially about baseball. The team has been so bad for so many years, that there’s really only a small core of die-hard fans, and everyone else jumps on board when the team is winning. If we aren’t going to win for a couple of years, give those fans a reason to come out to watch the games–generate more buzz around the young talent, make some more ticket promotions and specials, or something…

See you tomorrow.