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Minnesota Twins’ Player Development Key To Establishing Trust With Fan Base Again

Posted by Tom Schreier , 19 May 2015 · 1,428 views

minnesota twins terry ryan aaron hicks byron buxton miguel sano
This isn’t exactly the blueprint that we had in mind, going out and signing a guy to $55 million. The ideal is to have them keep coming through the system.
– Twins GM Terry Ryan after signing Ervin Santana, 12/15/14


Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan said some intriguing things this offseason, chief among them were:
1) That he wants to make the playoffs this year (“I’m trying to be realistic. Our expectations in that clubhouse should be to make the postseason.” — Nov. 11).

2) That the team is fine with five strong and no ace (“I’m not sure you need a true No. 1 to get to the postseason. We have not had a true No. 1 in many of those years that we got there, so if you’ve got the five solid, you’ve got a pretty good chance to get there, and then let the playoffs dictate exactly where you’re headed.” — Dec. 15).

3) That the team still adheres to a draft-and-develop philosophy, but their hand was forced and they had to sign expensive veterans like Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana in subsequent offseasons (quote above).

For as much as Ryan and the Twins can be fairly criticized for poor trades — some of which were executed by Bill Smith, who still works under Ryan — and hemorrhaging talent (the two are not mutually exclusive) you’ll get straight talk from Minnesota’s GM. While he does often protect his players and occasionally refute a line of questioning, Ryan didn’t hold anything back heading into this season knowing that the Target Field honeymoon was over, the All-Star Game had come and gone, and the team was looking more and more like the mid-2000s Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles than fans and management alike would like to believe. No taxpayer wants to contribute two-thirds of the cost of a $545 million ballpark, only to have it be home to a perennial 90-loss team.

Ryan has not been smug about his team, which has surprised everyone by getting off to a 21-17 start with a starting rotation that has been, well, competent to start the season. Ryan came under fire for giving Mike Pelfrey a two-year, $11 million contract extension after a season in which he went 5-13 with a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts. The former first-round pick looked like he couldn’t pitch after coming off of Tommy John surgery, but has given Minnesota a handful of strong starts this season. Blaine Boyer, a 33-year-old journeyman reliever, broke camp with the team and hasn’t given up a run since April 12. And after a slow start, Torii Hunter is showing glimpses of his younger self: hitting home runs, flipping bats and swallowing fire.

So much for the people that didn’t like the Twins filling their roster with low-ceiling veterans instead of high-upside veterans to start the season, I guess. So much for the people who wrote this team off after a 1-6 start that including a 12-3 dismantling by the Kansas City Royals in the home opener. So much for the people that thought he shouldn’t call up Eddie Rosario, who hit a homerun in his first at-bat. Or thought Aaron Hicks, who is currently on the roster after hitting .336/.415/.561 to begin the season at Triple-A Rochester, was a first-round bust after struggling in the last two seasons. Or wanted to write off Joe Mauer, currently hitting .283/.344/.366 with two triples, as simply dead weight on the payroll. All are legitimate gripes in some capacity, but in the end it’s the wins and losses that count.

All of those players, and more — like Shane Robinson, who was a replacement-level player in the St. Louis Cardinals system, and Trevor Plouffe, who has had trouble adapting to third base in recent years — have been critical to the team’s hot start. And all of them have been roundly criticized recently: Pelfrey’s contract was puzzling, Hunter’s defense was awful last season and Mauer is owed $23 million a year. To be fair, Pelfrey has had a few duds, Hunter’s defense isn’t what it once was, and Mauer is not hitting for power, but collectively this team is doing enough to surprise everyone that’s not in the Twins organization.

Ryan could be smug about this, but everyone knows that a 21-17 start doesn’t matter if the Twins lose 90 games again this year, and it is up to Twins management to keep that from happening. Players will have their ups and downs, of course, and Ryan emphasized being five-deep in the starting rotation, rather than relying on an ace, and he’s got just that. Santana will be coming off of his suspension soon, Tommy Milone has struck out 20 hitters in two starts with Rochester, and Alex Meyer is a highly-rated 25-year-old prospect that still hasn’t pitched in the majors yet.

But there’s still cause for concern with this team. Oswaldo Arcia is flawed at the plate and isn’t a great outfielder. He is hitting .257/.350/.427 with 10 strikeouts against righties and .304/.320/.304 with five strikeouts against lefties, and if he can’t play in the outfield, he’s going to create a logjam at first base and designated hitter. Kennys Vargas has been sent down to Triple-A to clear his head despite hitting .248/.295/.362 with three home runs this year. And it is probably do-or-die for Hicks after two failed attempts to get him hitting at the major league level in the past couple years.

As far as the bullpen goes, the team needs a youth movement in order to keep games from getting out of hand. Veteran reliever Tim Stauffer, 32, was supposed to throw three innings in a Class AAA rehab stint, but was removed from the game when he gave up two runs on four hits, had two walks and only recorded four outs. Brian Duensing, 32, owns a 10.57 ERA in 7.2 innings pitched. And setup man Casey Fien, 31, is coming off the disabled list. While Fien and Glen Perkins, 32, are pretty secure in their spots as the eighth and ninth inning guys, sustained success in the bullpen will likely come from the team’s prime-age relievers.

Aaron Thompson, 28, is a former first rounder who owns a 3.32 ERA and 1.062 WHIP. Ryan Pressly, 26, is a Rule 5 pick from the Boston Red Sox system that has impressed Ryan since his call up in early May. “Pressly’s got so many good pitches,” said the GM around the time of the call-up. “He’s got enough experience. I was disappointed that he didn’t make this club out of spring training. I’m not surprised, because we’ve seen him do well up here; I’m surprised he didn’t make our club out of camp.” Lester Oliveros — the player to be named later in the Delmon Young trade — is turning 27, has major league experience and owns a 2.08 ERA and 0.923 WHIP in Class AAA this year. And two 25 year olds, J.R. Graham and Michael Tonkin, have major league stuff that they have to hone in order to gain manager Paul Molitor’s trust in high-leverage situations.

Hope for a better future ultimately resides in the development of the so-called Glimmer Twins, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who are supposed to be the team’s Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, but their success will be predicated on what kind of environment they are in once they reach the major leagues. If they are surrounded by low-ceiling veterans and failed prospects, they will likely fail to reach lofty expectations. If they are surrounded by players in their mid-20s, a handful of veterans and a team on the rise, they will likely provide a boost to a team that’s starting to see its season-ticket holder base, and therefore attendance, dwindle as a result of four losing seasons.

For a person deciding whether or not they want to purchase a season-ticket holder package — or just show up to a few games a year knowing beer, food and parking is expensive — they must decide for themselves if they believe in this team’s ability to identify and develop talent. Is Hicks a bust, or is the third time a charm? Is Arcia simply going through growing pains, or is he the next Chris Parmelee, a first round pick in 2006 that is no longer with the team? Is Meyer simply anxious about being on the cusp of the major leagues and therefore not throwing strikes, or are fans going to wish that they could get a refund for Denard Span?

Time will tell, but the same people who are handling these three young players right now are also the people that are in charge of developing Sano and Buxton. At heart, the Twins are a homegrown organization, and if they can’t turn their prospects into stars, they won’t be reversing their fortunes anytime soon.

This story was originally posted on the Cold Omaha section of 105TheTicket.com.

Tom Schreier can be heard at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays with Ben Holsen and Mike Morris and co-hosts a morning show 8-10 a.m. on Sundays.

Follow Tom on Twitter @tschreier3.