Editor’s note: This column originally published Saturday, before Jaime Garcia was traded to the Yankees. Since that time, the Twins have sort of answered the question central to this post. But with Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline approaching, the larger point still stands.
One of the best teams in baseball swept the Twins early this week, after Minnesota had a disappointing showing at home against the Detroit Tigers.
The Twins lost a season-high 4 in a row, which is both a a compliment and a bummer, if you’re a fan of the team. The problem isn’t that the Twins have hit the skids this week. The problem comes with a peek at the standings. The Indians and Royals have blasted off in the American League Central. The two teams ahead of the Twins in the division are on 8- and 9-game win streaks, respectively.
All this with just days to go before the trade deadline. That begs the question: Should the Twins turn heel and sell off veterans at the trade deadline? If you think probabilistically, we’ll agree on an answer. If you prefer to let emotions run your decisions, you’re going to be upset with this one.
The Twins should fold up their tents on the 2017 season, and make trades with the future in mind.
The Twins, for the better part of 4 months, have been masquerading around as Contenders. Maybe not in the World-Series-Hopeful way that the Dodgers or Astros are contenders, but Minnesota has been in the playoff picture basically all year long. Now, they’ve fallen out of that immediate picture. They’re 4 games out of a wild card spot, with several good teams between them and the postseason. They’re 6 games out of first place in the AL Central, with two better teams between them and the postseason.
To put it simply, the math for the Twins to make the postseason has started to look a lot grimmer in the past week. They added Jaime Garcia in a short-term trade, and turned in a good start Friday. Now he’s rumored to be back on the trade block. That’s how quickly things can turn around for fringe contenders with long-term plans.
At the heart of my argument is the way the Twins’ primary baseball decision makers — CBO Derek Falvey and GM Thad Levine — have operated since they took over. I don’t believe they took the 2017 team’s chances of winning very seriously, not that they could be blamed for that position following a 103-loss team just a year earlier.
Levine has talked in interviews about the belief that the Twins are not “one player away” from winning it all. If any decision forced the Twins to choose between the short-term and the long-term, they’d give favor to the patient path. Nobody has said this out loud to me, but if you look at the moves they made this winter leading into spring training, you can deduce it for yourself. A team that had glaring holes on the pitching staff did little to augment the group. The big offseason moves were signing Jason Castro and Matt Belisle, and they brought in Chris Gimenez and Craig Breslow on minor league contracts.
Those aren’t exactly the moves of a team with its sights set on the World Series.
Still, I think the Twins front office would agree with the contention that last year’s Twins team had more talent than a 59-win club. And by extension, this year’s version — with a few important additions and some good health and good luck — had a nonzero chance of contending for the postseason.
They did just that. Ervin Santana came out of the gates as good as he’s ever been; J.O. Berrios broke out and has been a fairly steady contributor atop the rotation; Brandon Kintzler and Taylor Rogers put in work at the back end of the Twins’ bullpen, a group that would look a lot worse if not for their input; Miguel Sano was playing like an A.L. MVP candidate for a stretch; Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer have been solid defensively; Byron Buxton was a whiz in the field even when he couldn’t make enough contact to be very useful at the plate; Eddie Rosario quietly been a great hitter for the Twins lately; and, specifically in the mathematical first half of the season, the Twins played excellent defensively to get the very most out of a roster with plenty of hope and likewise flaws.
But I believe that all along the executives were wondering how good this team really was. Their extremely negative run differential was hard to ignore, even if — as I’ve contended — the big negative number skews the picture of how well this team has played. The full body of work is not as bad as the run differential indicates. It’s also not as good as the record indicates. The underlying “talent” of the 2017 Twins currently lies somewhere between those two points, in my opinion.
And when your talent is a sub-.500 club in a division that’s looking now like a two-team race, that doesn’t seem like a time to trade a bunch of prospects to get some help. Not when the guys that sit upstairs at Target Field seem to think there’s a fairly bright future in years ahead. A future built around an emerging star Miguel Sano and bright young pitcher Jose Berrios. A future that hinges largely on the bat and defensive excellence of Byron Buxton. Perhaps the continued development of young outfielders Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario.
Based on what I’ve heard, the Twins were prepared to add some pieces to improve this year’s club — especially if they were pieces that would still be here next year and beyond. I also wonder, though, if they thought they were sitting on a house of cards, and that adding too much might be more costly to the long-term vitality of the club than it would have been worth. Even if it’s a house of cards, I think you could have reasonably made the argument two weeks ago that the Twins should augment that house–maybe give it a sturdier foundation and a new roof. That way, even if they’d played “over their heads” based on the record (and their run scoring and run prevention), they’d at least have a chance to contend with the other clubs with similar records during the race to October.
If you take the long view with this Twins’ rebuilding project, perhaps this season has represented about the best-case scenario. Sano and Berrios look like great pieces around which to build. You kept fans interested all the way up to the trade deadline (and maybe beyond). Some veterans played well, increasing their hypothetical trade value. And just in the nick of time, the Indians and Royals sprinted out in front, which relieves the pressure the Twins otherwise might have felt to trade prospects for win-now players.
ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, in a column last week, suggested that the Twins are among the teams that should be throwing in the towel. Here are two quick excerpts:
Throwing in the towel has a negative connotation, but the truth is that not every fight can be won. There’s no team with unlimited resources, and there comes a point when the near-term gains of staying in the race or even making a win-now acquisition is a far worse idea than simply living to fight another day. …
…Rebuilding successfully involves tough decisions, and while it would be take some organizational courage, the way to go is for the Twins to trade away players such as Ervin Santana to buttress a bright future rather than prospects to reinforce a middling present.
I have to say that, even as an objective observer who has previously been in the camp that advises reinforcing the playing-card house, I’ve now moved to the other side. Given the timing of the Indians and Royals win streaks, the Twins are now best-suited to look to 2018.
Some players that would have value on the trade market:
Brandon Kintzler, if a contender needs a late-inning reliever who gets ground balls.
Jaime Garcia, if a contender needs to mid-rotation-to-back-end starter who gets ground balls and has been to the postseason.
Chris Gimenez, if a contender needs a team-first backup catcher willing to play first base, outfield, and even pitch in mop-up relief.
This list comprises players that are under contract or otherwise team controlled next season:
Ervin Santana, if a contender needs a mid-rotation starter who’s proven durable and had spectacular results earlier this season, not so much lately.
Brian Dozier, if a team that will contend this year or next needs a second baseman who has played well in the field and has a track record of hitting home runs.
Taylor Rogers, if any team wants a team-controlled lefty out of the bullpen. (I’d think the Twins would keep Rogers, but he’d have value if he was on the trade block.)
Eduardo Escobar, if any team needs a bench bat willing to play second base, third base, or shortstop.
Jorge Polanco, if a non-contender needs a middle infielder with a strong track record of hitting–who’s been disappointing offensively and defensively this season but is still just 24.
Joe Mauer, if a team that will contend this year or next thinks a left-handed hitting former batting champion will waive his full no-trade clause.
Kennys Vargas, if any team wants a switch-hitting DH that never quite caught on but will hit for occasional power. (Probably contingent on the other club thinking there’s untapped potential in Vargas.)
Robbie Grossman, if any team wants an OF/DH with years of team control and a strong eye at the plate. His hitting has taken a nose dive recently, but he can draw walks with the best of them, and as a result his .379 on-base percentage still ranks 6th in the American League.