Process, Results and the Front Office
The Twins are projected for 81 wins this coming season, which is fairly generous for a team coming off a 78-84 season that is losing its MVP in Carlos Correa. The front office is on the hot seat, having failed to win a playoff game in their six year tenure after inheriting a young, cheap and talented roster prior to 2017. That front office believes in its process to the point it apparently feels comfortable running back pretty much the same guys and hoping that fewer injuries vaults them up the standings. A recent Gleeman and the Geek mailbag episode featured a discussion of whether the Twins process lined up with its results. Gleeman and our fearless leader eventually came to the conclusion that the front office’s process was a little ahead of the results, but not by as much as said front office would hope. I am about to argue the opposite.
The plan going into the 2017 season was to develop the emerging young players (Kepler, Polanco, Buxton, Sanó) into cheap, controllable stars, avoid long-term commitments unless they came at a steep discount, develop home-grown pitching, try to find unlockable pitchers off the scrap heap using newfound analytics and tech, and become a sustainable winner on a budget, much like Cleveland. But is the front office sticking to that?
It certainly is an improvement. Part of the problem with the Terry Ryan regime was that the team never sold high on any of its assets, letting Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Jason Kubel and the like play out their years of team control or let them lose all their trade value through injury or under-performance and get flipped for a bag of balls. This kept the farm system gutted and resulted in the kind of painful rebuild this new regime is now trying to avoid.
Will they avoid it? Let’s examine their process and match it up to reality.
They definitely have kept the books clean, with only Byron Buxton’s team-friendly deal carrying any real weight. Many Twins fans blamed Joe Mauer’s contract extension as the reason the team fell out of contention in the early 2010’s, but any logical person knows that the previous core got old and there was no one to replace them. The Twins also didn’t get any value out of that core before they got old or ineffective. That’s how Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Oakland have contention windows open longer than a team like the Royals, who rode with its stars from its World Series runs, gave some of them extensions and watched it all fall apart. They did take advantage of the two playoff runs they got, but that’s an awfully short time to be relevant, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.
As far as developing their own pitching, the Twins haven’t shown much. While Cleveland and Tampa Bay churn out a new four WAR pitcher every year, all we have to show for ourselves is Bailey Ober and the reliever versions of Griffin Jax and Jhoan Duran. Matt Canterino and Blayne Enlow look like sure relievers at this point, Jordan Balazovic is a mess, and Louie Varland has a ceiling of a third starter. Cade Povich looked good, but was traded for Jorge López. Ditto Steven Hajjar, who was included in the Tyler Mahle trade. Josh Winder gets lit up on every fastball he throws, so all hopes land on Connor Prielipp and Marco Raya at this point, neither of whom are close to the majors. After six years, one would expect a little more from a front office that claimed to specialize in this area. They have added pitching talent via trade, and it looks like that will need to continue.
The way the Twins’ roster currently sits is intriguing in its lack of second and third year arbitration players. That sets up a lot of value to be gained if some of those players turn into stars, like Luis Arraez for instance. He’s now an All-Star utility player who just won a batting championship. We know his flaws here locally: his knees wear down and he doesn’t offer much at third and second base defensively. But for a team looking for that difference-maker in the playoffs, Arraez looks plenty enticing, which I am sure is why the Twins are listening to offers on him currently. Doing so has the potential to bring back multiple Arraez’s who are potentially cheaper. Winning that kind of trade is exactly the kind of process Falvey and Levine should value if they want a Cleveland style contention window, but they haven’t done much of that, either. So far, the team has traded Jose Berrios for two likely big league contributors, (how much they contribute is very much in question) traded the last year of Taylor Rogers for three years of a talented starting pitcher in Chris Paddack, and traded a young pitcher, Brusdar Graterol, who was destined for relief work for four years of Kenta Maeda. All of those trades netted the team positive value, and none of them made the team worse in the immediate future considering how bad Rogers and Berrios have been.
The tough pill to swallow is that to truly compete at a Cleveland-Tampa level, young stars will have to be traded near the peak of their career, not just when they get expensive in arbitration. Look at the Mike Clevinger trade from 2020. In exchange for two and a half years of Clevinger, who to that point was coming off of three years with a combined 152 ERA+, Cleveland received Josh Naylor, Gabriel Arias, Austin Hedges, Owen Miller, Cal Quantrill and Joey Cantillo. Two of those guys, Naylor and Quantrill, are established starters on a division winning team. Shortstop Arias and starting pitcher Cantillo are rookies who both figure to play big roles in their next one to two seasons with Arias ranking number 57 on Baseball-Prospectus’ mid-season rankings. Hedges was their catcher this past year, and Miller their top pinch hitter. Those last two are disappointments for Cleveland, but the trade was a massive success even without their inclusion. Clevinger got hurt immediately once he became a Padre, sat out 2021 and was ineffective in 2022. The trades of Berrios, Graterol and Rogers were a net positive, but unless Austin Martin and Simeon Woods-Richardson significantly outperform expectations, they didn’t do much to stack the roster for the future. Getting Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ronny Henriquez for Mitch Garver was a reasonable play, but trading him after 2019, knowing he wasn’t likely to age well and that his defense was just okay, could have set the team up at multiple positions. It just doesn’t seem like that’s part of the Falvine process.
Which is unfortunate because the front office has to make unpopular decisions if it wants to compete against teams that can spend more and absorb bad contracts. Of course the Twins could certainly raise payroll, but they have shown that they won’t, and even if they did, luring free agents to Minnesota has proven to be a tough sell. They need to overpay, but they have shown they will not look stupid by giving a player “too much money.” Brandon Nimmo, for instance, has never been a 162M player, but the Mets wanted him so they paid him 30-40% more than was projected. If Nimmo continues being who he is, a three WAR player without power who can stick in center field for a few years, the contract won’t age well. But the Mets don’t care, and if the Twins front office wants to toe the line between the Cleveland-Tampa model and the Phillies-Padres one, they will have to show a free agent they don’t care either. Once in a while, at least.
They could also follow the Atlanta Braves model and sign all their emerging stars to team-friendly extensions. These contracts can look bad, as well- just ask the Mariners about Evan White, or the Cardinals about Paul DeJong. The pay-off is enormous though, as you can keep your roster flush with stars without having to trade your next star for it. The Twins are in a position to make some of those types of deals, with Alex Kirilloff, Nick Gordon, Bailey Ober, Trevor Larnach, Joe Ryan, Jhoan Duran and Jose Miranda potentially big parts of the team’s future. Some of that crop has injury issues, which is bad, but also depreciates the value of any extension that player might sign. You might be able to get three years of Kirilloff’s or Ober’s free agency for 30M each. Duran might be the next reliever to secure a 100M contract, but if he agreed to a buyout of his arbitration years plus two more for a total of 40M, that could pay off handsomely and he might accept it, given his history of arm injuries in the minors.
All three routes, early trades, overpaying free agents and extending pre-arbitration guys, require a little luck, but that’s why you have a sophisticated and robust scouting and analytic presence. You have to trust your guys and take some risks, and right now the Twins are stuck in limbo, afraid to lose prospects who may blossom elsewhere, to overpay for free agents, or to hand out extensions to players who may end up chronically injured or bad.
The sad truth is that avoiding long-term commitments and getting value out of scrap heap pitchers isn’t much of a process, especially when the pitching pipeline is bare. They won’t overpay like the Padres, Phillies or Mariners, they won’t deal guys at the peak of their value like Cleveland and Tampa, and they don’t extend hardly any of them early either, like the Braves.They just wait for their prospects and hope to get lucky with a Josh Donaldson or Correa. They will describe this non-action as being opportunistic.
The team has assembled a good amount of talent, but without the intentionality of those other teams, there is less cohesion; the team just grabs what talent it can and crams it all together. That isn’t so much to say that Joey Gallo is a bad fit, as it is to say the front office never gets their first, second or third choice in free agency or in trades. The Twins needed a frontline pitcher at the deadline and it seemed like they got one in Tyler Mahle. Except Mahle was hurt. He and the Twins hoped it wouldn’t be a problem, but it was. If he hadn't just come back from shoulder problems, the Twins would have had to give up more than the three good prospects they did give up, such as someone the national media actually knew about or who played on the big league roster. Their likely first choice, Mahle’s teammate with the Reds, Luis Castillo, ended up going to the Mariners for a boatload of prospects that surely gave the Twins and Yankees a feeling of relief. But the Mariners wanted an ace for their return to the playoffs, he was the missing piece that team needed, and that team ended up beating a formidable Blue Jays team on the road in the wild-card round, and playing the Astros tougher than any other team, as it turned out. Even before signing Castillo to an extension, they didn’t regret the trade. It reminds me of a line from King of the Hills’s Dale Gribble, trying to goad his friend Hank into mooning a hotel lobby from a glass elevator::
Dale: “[Hank] Can we ever have a party you don't poop? You still owe me one from high school when the whole team mooned Belton and you just held up a sign saying, ‘Good game.’ It was the single greatest time I have ever had with my pants off.”
Hank: “The vice principal gave you a week's detention for that stunt.”
Dale: “Nobody remembers the detention, Hank. Everyone remembers the mooning.”
Noelvi Marte may end up being a star, but everyone in Seattle remembers Castillo’s 7.1 shutout innings in game one.
Shopping for discounts leads to getting players on the downside of their careers, players who are trouble in the clubhouse, or players with injury questions. With Josh Donaldson, the Twins got all three! It’s hard to establish an identity when your additions to the roster are hurt, playing badly but need to play based on what you gave up for them, and are getting in insular beefs with Gerrit Cole.
I’m sure the Twins do target players they want, but when they do, they either aren’t dreaming very big, or they aren’t giving big enough offers. Other teams may even use the Twins lack of free agent appeal against them in trade discussions, and ask more knowing that they represent the only way for the Twins to improve from outside their organization. The Correa pursuit showed both the Twins desperation, as 10/285M was an enormous offer for the team historically, and the issue I am referring to, that they couldn’t add that one extra year that may have added 25-30% to the odds of Correa being swayed to stay in Minnesota.
Of course, even with all the inaction, the front office has made some unexpected and creative trades, such as unloading Donaldson’s contract to free up money to target Trevor Story last year. Story didn’t want to play in Minnesota, or at least he didn’t for the offer they gave him, and the front office was fortunate that Scott Boras called with his Correa proposition. Being nimble is a nice benefit of the payroll flexibility the team enjoys, but it doesn’t move the needle of turning this team into a real contender.
Here’s how I would say the team has performed using the processes they were brought in to execute:
Not taking on long-term deals: A+
Finding scrap heap pitchers and unlocking their potential: D-
Develop position players into major league contributors: C
Develop home-grown pitching: D-
Here’s how they performed using other, successful, processes:
Overpaying for free agents to add talent without dipping into farm system: F
Extending emerging stars before they break out: D
Trading players with years of team control who are playing at a high level to replenish the farm system and/or augment the major league roster: C
This is why injuries can’t be blamed for the lack of recent success. There is a problem with the process. One, their pitching expertise has proven dubious. Two, their process model doesn’t include the boldness exhibited by teams they are trying to emulate. The scrap heap pitchers they are trying to unlock are waiver claims, not major league bounce back candidates. The pitchers they target in trades are of the scratch n’ dent variety, not sure things. Imagine if the team had struggled getting its high position player draft picks to the majors and there was no Gordon, Miranda, Larnach, Kirilloff, Royce Lewis, Ryan Jeffers, or Buxton to even worry about projecting for the 2023 roster. That’s the only positive thing keeping this team from becoming Detroit or Kansas City.
My advice would be to get Chris Sale for a prospect and take on his entire salary, flip Sonny Gray and Max Kepler to San Diego, where they are short a starter and a corner outfielder and try to pry Ha-Seong Kim from them. But hey, that’s just my process.