August 1, 2004

Dealing Mientkiewicz

The Twins took two out of three from the Boston Red Sox over the weekend and Johan Santana out-dueled Pedro Martinez in the third game, but that wasn't the big story. The biggest news of the weekend was that Doug Mientkiewicz, after 643 games with the Minnesota Twins, actually played against the Twins Saturday night, after he was traded to Boston Saturday afternoon.

Mientkiewicz's departure was far from a surprise. The rumors of a trade have been swirling around Minnesota for a couple weeks now. Still, I think a lot of Twins fans were legitimately shocked when it became a reality.

I was at a St. Paul Saints game on Saturday night, watching a little outdoor baseball, when someone behind me asked out loud if Mientkiewicz had been traded. I turned around and told him that he was sent to Boston just a couple hours earlier. "Wow," the guy replied. "They really traded him?" He then turned to his wife and said, "Grandpa isn't going to be very happy."

You see, Doug Mientkiewicz was never a great player, but he, along with Torii Hunter and Brad Radke, was the face of the Twins as they went from consistent cellar-dwellers to contenders, seemingly overnight. He was part of a wave of young players who, unlike waves of young players the Twins had before them, actually developed into solid major leaguers.

They led the division for most of the year before collapsing down the stretch in 2001, and then bounced back to win the division in 2002 and 2003. Mientkiewicz hit .290/.382/.437 in those three years, playing great defense at first base every day. He had some great stretches, like when he hit .380 in April and .370 in July of 2001, but also had some terrible cold streaks, like when he hit .177 in September that same year.

He had good seasons (.306/.387/.464 in 2001, .300/.393/.450 in 2003) and bad seasons (.261/.365/.392 in 2002, .246/.340/.363 before the trade this year), and he was absolutely one of the Twins' most valuable players during that time.

Perhaps the ironic thing about Mientkiewicz being traded now, as the team goes for a third straight division title, is that he was once the young, inexperienced player trying to put the team on the map and now he has been pushed aside by Justin Morneau, a 23-year-old prospect with huge potential.

That's the cycle of baseball and that's definitely the cycle of the Minnesota Twins. Young becomes old and old becomes expensive, and then old gives way to young again. A.J. Pierzynski came up through the Twins' system just like Mientkiewicz, helped the Twins become respectable again just like Mientkiewicz, and was traded away to clear room for someone younger and cheaper just like Mientkiewicz.

Latroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado tell a similar story and the same thing will probably happen to Corey Koskie and Jacque Jones soon. And, if my prayers are answered, with Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas too.

The problem with Mientkiewicz was two-fold. The biggest issue is that, while he has been a good player, he is a flawed player who plays an offensive position. At his best, he does things -- hit for average, draw walks, play defense -- that can make up his his lack of power, but when he's not playing at his peak level he's a sub par player.

Having a first baseman who plays good defense and hits .300/.380/.450 is just fine, but having a first baseman who plays good defense and hits .250/.350/.350 is unacceptable, particularly when he makes $3 million a year on a team where that accounts for 5% of the total payroll.

All of which brings us to the second problem with Mientkiewicz: Justin Morneau. Morneau is everything that Mientkiewicz is not. He is young, he is cheap, he is a highly thought of prospect, he has incredible potential, and he has big-time power and a lack of defensive skills.

When Mientkiewicz is hitting .300, smacking doubles and getting on base, you can make the case that he shouldn't have been pushed aside for Morneau. But as his average dipped and his lack of power production was magnified, the Twins had little choice but to move on.

Aside from those who are simply upset that Mientkiewicz is gone, many Twins fans seem dismayed that the team did not get a major-league pitcher in return for him. Instead, they got a 19-year-old pitching prospect.

While I am generally not one to take anything local columnist Sid Hartman says seriously, I think something he wrote yesterday perfect summarizes the thoughts of many fans who I have spoken to about the deal. Hartman wrote:

Twins General Manager Terry Ryan didn't want to trade Mientkiewicz. But he felt that the relationship between the first baseman and manager Ron Gardenhire was so bad that he didn't have any choice, even though he received little in value. The Twins got Class AA pitcher Justin Jones from the Cubs in the trade.

Setting aside the fact that Jones is at Single-A, not Double-A like Hartman wrote, the idea that they received "little in value" in the trade is simply wrong.

Justin Jones is young, he is inexperienced, he is at Single-A, he is not major-league ready, and he is not someone who is going to help the team this year. But he is or is not all of those things because he is a prospect, not because he doesn't have value.

While I understand the skepticism most casual fans have in regard to prospects, the fact is that every major-league player, Doug Mientkiewicz included, was once a prospect. If the Twins had traded away Doug Mientkiewicz back when he was hitting .291 at Single-A Fort Myers in 1996, would Mientkiewicz have been someone of "little value"?

Perhaps, but Justin Jones is a far better prospect than Mientkiewicz ever was. Jones is a 19-year-old lefty with good stuff and good numbers, and he was ranked as Chicago's #2 prospect by Baseball America before this season.

If all goes well, he'll start the season at Double-A next year, advance to Triple-A in the second-half, and perhaps make his major-league debut in September. Then, in 2006, when Morneau has been established as the Twins' cleanup hitter and the sadness of trading Mientkiewicz has long been forgotten, Jones will compete for a spot in the Twins' rotation.

And that never-ending cycle will just keep going. Maybe Jones will be a bust. Maybe he'll get injured or flame out and never pitch an inning for the Twins. But maybe he'll fulfill his potential and become one of their best starting pitchers and maybe, someday, they'll trade him for a prospect when he gets too expensive and everyone can wonder how in the world the team could do something like that after all the good years Jones has given them.

Doug Mientkiewicz was a very nice player for the Twins and I think there's a good chance he'll turn things around with the Red Sox and play more like he did in 2001 and 2003. But he's going to make $3.75 million in 2005 and another $3.75 million in 2006, and he turned 30 years old this past June.

Some teams, like the Boston Red Sox, can afford to pay him for his defense and on-base skills and hope he can improve his offense a bit, but the Twins, with a low payroll and a steady supply of quality hitters coming from the minors, are not one of those teams.

I'll miss Doug Mientkiewicz, but if Twins fans let him, Justin Morneau will make them forget all about Mientkiewicz.

If Terry Ryan had unloaded Mientkiewicz for a bag of baseballs, it would not have been a poor trade. He's provided value to the team, he's helped them become contenders again, and he's gotten too expensive to keep at a position where they have other, better options. The fact that Ryan was able to cash him in now, in the middle of a poor, injury-plagued season, and get a prospect as good as Justin Jones is a huge credit to his ability as the team's GM.

Ryan has flaws as a decision-maker, just as anyone in his position would have, but the one thing he has consistently been able to do is find quality minor leaguers through trades with other teams. Right now Justin Jones is just some 19-year-old kid no one has ever heard of, but if you wait a few years he might be David Ortiz or Joe Mays or Lew Ford or Cristian Guzman or Eric Milton or Kyle Lohse or Johan Santana -- all players Ryan plucked from the minor-league systems of teams in trades.

Good luck in Boston Doug, and thanks for the memories. Now, let's start the Justin Morneau era.

New article at The Hardball Times: Analyzing the Deadline Deals

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