How to fix the Twins, Part 1: Pitching staff is fundamentally flawed
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The Minnesota Twins have lost 195 games over the past two seasons. Since the franchise arrived to Minnesota in 1961, at no point have the Twins lost more games over a two-year stretch.
This isn't the futile stretch many people imagined after the Twins sold out their new ballpark nearly every night in 2010 during a 94-win season.
As a result, three coaches were dismissed, two were reassigned, the head trainer was let go, and marketing people have been fired.
Things are bad.
Can the Twins build a contender before April 1, 2013?
Didn't you try 'fixing the Twins' last year?
And in truth, the Twins made several similar moves to the ones suggested in this series last offseason. They also failed to address certain areas.
• One of the main messages written here last October was "It's time to stop messing around with Trevor Plouffe and Tsuyoshi Nishioka and put a reliable glove at the most important position in the infield (shortstop)." The suggested free agent was Clint Barmes, but the Twins went with Jamey Carroll. Both men fielded extremely well, but Carroll was actually a better hitter last season.
• If the Twins weren't able to re-sign Michael Cuddyer for $8 million per year, which they didn't, "the only other reasonably-priced right-handed outfield bat on the market is Josh Willingham." That signing turned out quite well.
• Of course, improvements to the defense and offense were rendered almost entirely irrelevant because of how bad the Twins' starting pitching was. It was pointed out in this space last year, "Twins pitchers allow more contact (83.4%) than any staff in baseball. ... The philosophy shouldn't be 'pitch to contact.' It should be 'induce more groundballs and mix in a few more strikeouts.'" Instead, however, Twins pitchers once again allowed more contact than any staff in baseball (82.4%) while also striking out the fewest hitters. Combine that with injuries to Scott Baker and Carl Pavano, and a Jason Marquis meltdown, and the Twins never stood a chance with that pitching staff.
Contact: No pitching staff has allowed more contact over the past two seasons than the Twins, and it's a recipe for disaster.
Groundballs are good, but just any old kind of contact is a recipe for disaster, as evidenced by MLB hitters batting .335 with a .534 slugging percentage on balls hit into fair territory last season.
Think about that -- .335 with a .534 slugging percentage on contact. That's no different than facing Buster Posey for every single at-bat.
Tigers pitchers allowed the least amount of contact last season. It's no coincidence they went to the World Series. The Rays' and Nationals' staffs weren't far behind.
Punch(out)-less pitchers: Twins pitchers, collectively, struck out only 5.9 batters per nine innings, which was nearly three strikeouts per nine innings worse than MLB-leading Milwaukee (8.7) and almost a full strikeout worse than the next team on the ladder, Cleveland (6.8).
Too much contact combined with not enough strikeouts usually mean bombs away for opposing hitters, which is exactly what happened.
The Twins have gotten away with low strikeout totals in previous years mostly due to their pitchers collectively having elite control. Rick Anderson-led pitching staffs walked fewer batters between 2002 and 2010 than any staff in baseball.
The Twins ranked 12th in walk rate in 2012, issuing 2.9 free passes per nine innings. The Phillies led the majors (2.5) with the Cubs bringing up the rear (3.6).
Four open starter slots: Scott Diamond is a lock.
Beyond that, everything is up in the air with the Twins' rotation.
Kyle Gibson looks strong in the Arizona Fall League, but he is likely to be capped at 130 or 140 innings next season, and it sounds as if the Twins could ease him through April and May.
Liam Hendriks has dominated every level of the minor leagues, but he hardly proved himself as a viable starter last year. Samuel Deduno is a 29-year-old journeyman who has never figured out how to control his fastball over long stretches.
Who should be used as trade bait? The Twins seem to have a surplus of outfielders, first basemen and designated hitters on the major league roster and high up in the minor league system. Justin Morneau, Chris Parmelee, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Josh Willingham, Denard Span and Ben Revere all deserve starting roles. Outfielders Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks tore up Double-A last season and figure to knock on the door in 2013.
The Twins should be looking to trade from this crop of players to bolster the starting rotation.
Span ($4.75 million in 2013, $6.5 million in 2014) has an extremely team-friendly contract. Morneau is set to earn $14 million in the last year of his deal, but his injury history has teams wary. Willingham was the Twins' best power hitter last season, but he'll be 34 years old next season. This could be a good time to sell high and capitalize on Willingham's value.
Find a way to shorten DL stints and keep pitchers healthier: Injuries were not as big of a problem in 2012 as they were in 2011, but things were bad enough for head athletic trainer Rick McWane to lose his job.
Maybe injuries are 90% bad luck. Maybe not. Maybe Twins doctors and trainers can do more to help. Maybe they can't. But Twins pitchers have missed nearly 1,000 days (in-season) due to arm, back and oblique issues since the beginning of the 2010 season, and that doesn't include Kyle Gibson, Joel Zumaya or Alex Wimmers.
That's too many days.
Too many black holes in lineup: Between Danny Valencia, Alexi Casilla, Brian Dozier and Pedro Florimon, the Twins gave 950 plate appearances (15% of team total) to rolled up, wet newspapers.
Dozier and Florimon figure to be in the mix for starting jobs next spring. Gardenhire praised Florimon profusely after a late-September win, saying, "Our shortstop was outstanding. That was really, really fun to watch. ... He's got that reach and that wing span where he can reach out and catch balls, and it makes it look effortless. It's fun to watch him out there. He's a very fluid kid."
Florimon was rated as one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball according to plus/minus data, but he hit just .219/.272/.307, and his minor league track record doesn't suggest a breakout is on the horizon.
The defense was much better: Thanks in large part to Florimon, Carroll, Ben Revere and Denard Span, the Twins rated as 29 runs above average defensively last season, which is a huge improvement from their -61 rating last season (per BillJamesOnline.com).
The biggest weaknesses defensively were left field (mostly Willingham) and third base (mostly Plouffe).
The Toronto Blue Jays led the American League with a +59 rating.
After filling in the open 25-man roster slots with minimum-salaried players ($500,000), the Twins are tied up for approximately $74.5 million heading into the offseason.
The list of departures includes Pavano ($8.5 million), Marquis ($3 million), Nishioka ($3.25 million), and possibly arbitration-eligible Casilla ($1.38 million). Capps ($4.5 million) and Baker ($6.5 million) also became free agents.
In Part 2 we'll identify potential free agents and trade candidates.