So recently, the Minnesota Twins seemed the model franchise: new ballpark, high payroll, big stars, perennial contenders ... despite playing in a mid-size market, the Twins had it all.
Things can turn around so, so fast. Their biggest star, Joe Mauer, hasn't been himself this season. Their second-biggest star, Justin Morneau, hasn't been even a shadow of himself. And as David Schoenfield writes, that's not all:
But the Twins' problems run much deeper than the bad seasons from their two best players. For years, they've relied on a formula of finesse pitchers who throw strikes. Carl Pavano won 17 games a year ago despite one of the lowest strikeout rates among AL starters. His ERA has predictably risen nearly a run this year. Soft-tossing Brian Duensing fooled big league hitters a year ago; they caught up to him in 2011. Nick Blackburn was signed to a four-year extension in spring training of 2010 and he's posted a 4.98 ERA the past two seasons, not surprising given that he has the second-lowest strikeout rate among all pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2008. Matt Capps had two good months with the Twins so they signed him to a $7 million contract. Predictably, he's been mediocre.
The Twins have had exactly three hitters this season with better-than-league-average hitting stats: 29-year-old Jason Kubel, 32-year-old Michael Cuddyer, and 40-year-old Jim Thome. As Schoenfield notes, none of the Twins' young players project as stars. Alexi Casilla, Ben Revere, Danny Valencia ... one or two of those guys might become solid regulars, but none have any real chance of being stars.
The same goes for their young pitchers. Actually, they don't really have any young pitchers, unless you count 24-year-old reliever Alex Burnett (5.28 ERA, 1.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Anthony Swarzak is two years older, and the same sort of roster-filler. Francisco Liriano ... well, I guess you know about him.
One year ago, most of these same Twins were on their way to 94 wins. Today they're on their way to the worst run differential in the American League. They were probably a little lucky last year, and they've undoubtedly been unlucky this year. But it's now pretty clear that they can't win without Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer playing like Hall of Famers, and without a true ace in the rotation. And it's not at all clear that they'll ever have any of those things next year, any more than this year.