The last couple of years have been rough for Minnesota, so it's time to change tactics
The Minnesota Twins haven't been a very good baseball team for two years running. In 2010, they won 94 games and the American League Central, but they've tallied just 129 victories in the two seasons since. There are multiple reasons for both poor campaigns -- injuries, for one -- but the primary problem is that the Twins just aren't a very good team anymore.
The 2011 season was an issue because Joe Mauer played in just 82 games, and his production fell from about 40 percent better than average to a .287/.360/.368 line that was much closer to the average catcher. Justin Morneau played more games at first base than anyone else for the Twins in 2011, but that's all relative: He played in just 69 contests, missing significant time due to concussion problems, and hit all of .227/.285/.333 when he did manage to play. International acquisition Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a complete bust as the club's new shortstop. Danny Valencia, after a solid rookie campaign, suffered the dreaded sophomore slump. Delmon Young reverted to his pumpkin form at the plate*, and Alexi Casilla and Ben Revere couldn't pick up the slack at the plate. As for the pitching, Scott Baker was the lone better-than-average hurler in the rotation, and he made just 21 starts.
*Defensively, though, no one noticed the difference, as the two share similar mobility
That was all unfortunate, but for the most part, it looked like a mass-case of bad timing. It was hoped Morneau and Mauer would play more -- and more productively -- in 2012, and given the recent past of Valencia and Gang, that the offense would be able to muster better secondary help as well. Just in case, the Twins added Josh Willingham and his three-year 126 OPS+ to take over in left field for the departed Young, and they brought in Ryan Doumit to replace Michael Cuddyer, who had been one of the few productive Twins on the roster in 2011.
It wasn't a perfect team, but given the weakness of the AL Central -- yes, the Tigers added Prince Fielder, but they also lost Victor Martinez -- and the belief that 2011 didn't represent the a true baseline for many Twins, it looked like a potentially competitive one.
Mauer ended up having a bounce back campaign, playing in 147 games while leading the AL in on-base percentage. Morneau, while not quite his old self, managed to hit .267/.333/.440 while playing most of the season. Doumit and Willingham both worked out as expected, Denard Span had an above-average campaign at the plate, and they even ended up with surprising productive seasons from Trevor Plouffe and Ben Revere.
The problem? Everything else.
Part of the reason Plouffe got a shot is because the rest of the infield that had been so awful in 2011 was once again terrible. Valencia ended up in the minors then traded for a non-prospect. Nishioka played in three games, and was released from the last year of his deal after the season. Brian Dozier ended up playing shortstop, and produced a 67 OPS+ while leading the team in games at the position. His double-play partner, Casilla, was equally unproductive.
Scott Diamond, who struck out under five batters per nine in true Twins' fashion, led the team in starts with 27. He also led in ERA+, and was one of two starters with over 100 innings in 2012. The other, Francisco Liriano, was demoted to the bullpen, returned to the rotation, and traded mid-season before he could cause further damage to either his value or Minnesota's record. To avoid traumatic flashbacks, it's best we skip the details and just tell you the rest of the staff failed miserably, too.
While 2011 justifiably looked like a bump in the road, it turns out the team just didn't have enough, even if Mauer and Morneau were around and some help was brought in. The pitching was and is a mess, and the lineup, while average, needed to be among the league's best to even think about making up the difference. Enter the plan for this winter, where the Twins look to take a step back in order to take a few forward once again.
Denard Span was traded for Alex Meyer, a 23-year-old pitching prospect who could begin the year in Double-A. Ben Revere was dealt to the Phillies in exchange for starter Vance Worley, his three remaining seasons of team control, and pitching prospect Trevor May. While these are the only two players moved, one has to believe they'd be willing to talk trade for just about anyone who isn't Joe Mauer.
They have holes to fill, but it's likely the Twins look for inexpensive options -- John Lannan, Joe Saunders, and others like them have reportedly interested Minnesota. The plan seems to be to bridge to the next quality Twins team, trying to take advantage of a weak AL Central, but without sacrificing what could be a brighter future with the right coats of paint slapped on. This is why Mauer will remain, as will Willingham, unless the Twins get a bushel of prospects from the farm for him. It's also why Morneau likely stick as well, at least for now. As an impending free agent with his concussion history and lukewarm 2012, it's unlikely any team will give the Twins more value for him than they could get by holding on to him until mid-season, when he's shown himself to be closer to the expected form.
The Twins aren't totally giving up, but they aren't going all-in, either. That's a change in direction from last winter, when they spent to plug holes in the hopes that 2011 was an aberration. Good on the Twins front office for recognizing that no, 2011 wasn't a one-off. The new direction might sting at first, but in the long run, it could help Minnesota get back to where it needs to be.