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Total Support: Why Jim Pohlad's Unsatisfying Comments May Be Wise

Posted by dwade , 06 May 2016 · 1,366 views

twins terry ryan jim pohlad front office paul molitor
For the Twins to make a serious run at a division title in 2016 with the roster they had leaving Ft. Myers, a whole lot had to break right. Byron Buxton needed to take a big step forward at the plate, Joe Mauer needed to return to his old form, Phil Hughes needed to make 2016 look more like 2014 than 2015, Byung-Ho Park needed to hit the ground running, Glen Perkins needed to come back healthy, and about a half-dozen other things had to fall into place. Very little of it was outlandish in and of itself, but like predicting 10 flips of a coin, the sheer number of correct outcomes needed was what made the task so daunting.

Some of them happened: Mauer had as good an April as he has since 2010 and while Park was uneven in his first 10 games, he then hit .326/.375/.767 with eight of his 14 hits going for extra bases in the next 13. But far too few of the others did. Buxton looks lost, Perkins is still out injured, Hughes has been inconsistent at best, Eddie Rosario can’t stop swinging, and the list goes on. At a 10,000 ft. level, that’s how any team ends up 12 games under .500 fewer than 30 games into the season: The list of things that are going poorly is much, much longer than the list of things that are going well.

Few who have watched this team so far would disagree with owner Jim Pohlad’s characterization of the team to the Star Tribune’s Chip Scoggins as a “total system failure.” The offense sits in the bottom third of the league, eight percent below league average; their defense has provided negative value. Their starters, expected to sit around league average, haven’t been close to that modest mark, and the bullpen has caved in, in the absence of Perkins. There are individual successes, but it’s hard to look at a unit on the field and say that they’re performing at or above expectations.

What will raise more than a few eyebrows is that Pohlad then gave both general manager Terry Ryan and manager Paul Molitor an unequivocal vote of confidence and while it’s not always immediately clear, it didn’t seem to be the dreaded vote of confidence either. If there was any hope that the disastrous start to the season would result in a change in leadership, it’s gone for at least the rest of the season.

To be frank, firing a GM midseason would be fairly out of step with how the Twins tend to conduct business, and that’s before taking into account Ryan’s years of service to the organization. One bad month, even one bad half season isn’t going to earn Ryan a midseason public dismissal. Short of a catastrophic error -- a rules violation during the draft/signing process resulting in a huge fine, releasing Buxton outright without cause, burning down Target Field -- it’s hard to imagine what Ryan would have to do to have his season end before the team’s did.

If the goal is to keep the 2016 postseason in play, removing Ryan would do little good. There are no impact free agents available, no one in the draft is going to join the team and add seven wins from June 10 until the end of the year, major in-season trades are far more uncommon now than they used to be, and it’s hard to envision any other move designed to save 2016 that wouldn’t end up weakening the team substantially in the future. Yes, promoting and demoting players to their right levels is exceedingly important for the Twins in both the short- and long-term, but a new GM is actually less likely to make those calls correctly than Ryan is, simply because of his familiarity with the players up and down the system.

Paradoxically, if the Twins were playing a little better, perhaps Ryan’s job would be more vulnerable because the marginal utility of changing GMs would be higher. Bringing in someone who had shown an aptitude for working the trade deadline in July and the waiver wire in August would be appealing since the AL looks like it will be decided by a razor-thin margin. (This presupposes such a person is freely available at this point in the season, but that’s another column entirely.)

Out of sheer proximity to the problem, the manager ought to be able to make the types of changes in-season that a GM can’t. But as the team has shown over the last few weeks, new blood isn’t enough to spark the team. Not counting pitchers, the team has had 15 players take the field with Brian Dozier, Eduardo Escobar, and Rosario about the only players who haven’t split a meaningful amount time at their respective positions, so it’s not as if the opening day lineup has been run out for 28 consecutive games and this is the result. Changes are being made, they’re just producing the same outcomes.

Moving on from Molitor would certainly shake things up, and unlike Ryan, there are logical candidates available to take over. Gene Glynn, Mike Quade, and Doug Mientkiewicz are all within the organization and were either considered for the managerial vacancy left by Ron Gardenhire or have MLB managerial experience. So whereas Ryan is virtually locked in until the end of the season, Molitor could theoretically be moved.

The downside is that it means burning a bridge with a legendary hitter who the players -- at least publically -- seem to like and to whom they respond. There’s also no guarantee it will work. Glynn and Mientkiewicz have good minor league track records to buoy their candidacy, but there’s a huge difference between motivating a 19-year-old kid whose dreams are still ahead of him to work hard and getting the same response out of veterans like Eduardo Nunez or Kurt Suzuki. Quade did have some time working with the Cubs during their rebuilding phase, but they finished 20 games under .500 during his only full season at the helm, which is hardly a sterling reference.

Molitor’s managerial ability is far from a known quantity. Last year’s team overperformed in his first full season by nearly as much as this year’s team is underperforming. He hasn’t shown an unhelpful fetishization of one particular type of player, nor has he proven incapable of handling a bullpen. The obvious warts aren’t there, but that doesn’t make him good, it just makes him not-bad-in-readily-apparent-ways. It may become clear what his deficiencies are as the season progresses, but losing him in service of a vague effort to spur a team that may well have put themselves in too deep a hole to recover from doesn’t seem like a good use of resources. Because, while he may prove himself to be a poor fit for a team that figures to be young and volatile for the next few years, it’s equally possible that he’ll prove to be a tremendous fit even if the team finishes 71-91. Plus, statistically speaking, firing a manager midseason doesn’t make your team appreciably better in the vast majority of cases. It’s a show of force, but if it doesn’t translate to more wins on the field, it can hardly be considered worth doing.

Given that he’ll have just one more year on his contract after the die is cast on this season, it seems more than likely that the Twins will give Molitor the full value of his contract, then evaluate his performance from there. Assuming this year finishes in the same vein as it has started -- if not the exact same path -- that will put quite a bit of pressure on Molitor going into the 2017 season, as he’ll have one impressive season under his belt and one fairly poor one.

While there is good reason to keep both Ryan and Molitor where they are for the rest of 2016 season, the takeaway here isn’t that Pohlad was right and that Ryan and Molitor are unquestionably the right people for their jobs. Ultimately, Ryan is the architect of a team that has been dire since 2011 (with a brief respite last year) and Molitor is the final authority on game-to-game matters for a team on pace to finish 47-115, the worst mark in franchise history and the Twins’ first 100+ loss team since 1982. And while 115 losses would be embarrassing even given how the season started, that 1982 mark is very much in play.

The takeaway here is that, as with virtually everything in baseball, there is a rhythm and a seasonality to leadership changes, and that jumping out of that order doesn’t necessarily produce better outcomes. If the ownership group believes there is even a 1% chance they’ll want to move on from Ryan come the offseason, start making those determinations now. Do the necessary due diligence and be ready to make a call at the right moment. Taking the time to do the requisite research, let Ryan know what to expect, and to position either his return or his departure to the public will go a long way to making sure the 2017 Twins aren’t fighting these same battles.

Next week, I’ll take a deep dive into Ryan’s time with the Twins. The highs, lows, and how he stacks up against some of the league’s top architects right now.