April 9, 2006

Patience


Shed a tear 'cause I'm missing you
I'm still all right to smile
Girl, I think about you every day now
Was a time when I wasn't sure
But you set my mind at ease
There is no doubt you're in my heart now

Said, woman, take it slow
It'll work itself out fine
All we need is just a little patience
Said, sugar, make it slow
And we come together fine
All we need is just a little patience


- Guns 'N Roses, "Patience"

I've criticized the Twins for many things over the years, but none more so than their handling of young position players. I've often suggested that the team has stunted the development of young hitters by asking them to play away from their strengths and jerking them in and out of the lineup, as well as back and forth between the majors and minors.

With Jason Bartlett being sent down to Triple-A for a third straight season in favor of Juan Castro, the issue is once again at the forefront. Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune had an excellent article Sunday on how the Twins' oft-criticized treatment of young hitters differs from the Brewers' approach:

Brewers manager Ned Yost shows unfailing patience with shortstop J.J. Hardy as he hits .187 before last year's All-Star break. Hardy responds by hitting .307 over the season's second half.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire lets Jason Bartlett open last season as a starting shortstop, but Bartlett gets sent to Class AAA Rochester by mid-May. Then after coming back to hit .382 in spring training, Bartlett finds himself at Rochester again.

Despite being a 22-year-old rookie who was limited to just 26 games at Triple-A in 2004 because of a shoulder injury, J.J. Hardy was given a long enough leash to hit horribly for an entire half-season without losing his job. Meanwhile, Bartlett was a 25-year-old rookie who batted .332 in 66 games at Triple-A in 2004 and was given a little over a month (during which time he hit better than Hardy) before the team decided to pull the plug.

And that's just comparing each player's rookie season. Now Bartlett is a 26-year-old rookie who has put up big numbers at Triple-A for two straight years, and he still "lost" the job to Juan Castro this spring despite hitting nearly .400. Young players struggle in the majors, that's just how it goes. The Brewers showed some patience and now have one of baseball's top young shortstops in their lineup, while the Twins showed zero patience and now have Castro starting again.

Christensen continues:

Michael Cuddyer gets banished from third base. Justin Morneau goes from batting cleanup to spending time in the No. 8 hole.

Meanwhile, the Brewers keep improving.

Yost sticks with second baseman Rickie Weeks through persistent fielding problems. Weeks has offseason thumb surgery and comes back to hit .385 in the season's first four games.

Now, it's Prince Fielder's turn. He starts the season by going 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts. Yost pulls him into his office for a meeting and drops him from fifth to seventh in the batting order to ease some of the pressure. But, as with Hardy and Weeks, there will be no abrupt benchings.

If this were simply about Bartlett it wouldn't be a big deal, but the issue was around long before he was in the picture. In some form or another David Ortiz, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Lew Ford, Michael Restovich, Matthew LeCroy, and Todd Walker were all jerked around by the team while trying to establish themselves as big leaguers. The lack of development from the players on that list while they were in a Twins uniform is startling, and I'm long past the point of chalking that up to coincidence.

Christensen concludes:

On the decision not to send Hardy back to the minors last year, [general manager Doug] Melvin said, "You try not to bring them up until they're ready, so when they come up, they can come up to stay.

"You don't know what psychological effects it can have when you bring them up and send them back down. Now they start doubting themselves, wondering if they're ready for the big leagues."

The Twins have had a different set of circumstances, but one can't help wonder how much Bartlett, Cuddyer and Morneau would have benefited from continued patience.

I'm not suggesting that the Brewers have uncovered the secrets to developing young hitters or even that what they've done has worked, because they've yet to come close to matching the success the Twins have already experienced this decade. Similarly, I'm not trying to paint Doug Melvin as a genius and Terry Ryan as a dope, because that's far from the case. This isn't about the Brewers, it's about the Twins.

Melvin's words are an indictment of the Twins' treatment of Bartlett and numerous other hitters. Melvin is rightfully saying that once you commit to a young player you need to do so without jerking him around if things don't go perfectly immediately. Yet that's the opposite of what the Twins do, giving and taking away spots in the lineup on a whim, shuttling players back and forth from Minneapolis to Rochester, and generally treating young hitters like dirt.

Giving everyday jobs to Castro and Tony Batista drags the offense down, but there are far bigger reasons for why the Twins don't score any runs. The combination of a questionable organizational philosophy toward hitting and the organization's sketchy treatment of young hitters is a dangerous one. Unfortunately, the people in charge thinking it's a good idea to give at-bats to the likes of Castro and Batista becomes more damning when they have to fill the gaping holes in the lineup where good young hitters should be.

TWINS OFFENSE UNDER RYAN

YEAR RUN RANK
1995 703 10th
1996 877 8th
1997 772 10th
1998 734 11th
1999 686 14th
2000 748 13th
2001 771 8th
2002 768 9th
2003 801 6th
2004 780 10th
2005 688 14th

In 11 years with Ryan as general manager, the Twins have had an above-average offense exactly one time while ranking 10th-or-worse seven times and finishing dead last twice. It's early still, but it doesn't look like they'll be avoiding another double-digit ranking this season. Despite a 13-run outburst in the second game of the year, the Twins are on pace for 729 runs in 2006.

With series against the A's, Yankees, Angels, and White Sox filling the next dozen games on the schedule, things could get ugly. The good news is that the pitching will undoubtedly get better, if only because they won't have to face Travis Hafner again until late May. The bad news is that the Twins might be out of the division race by then.


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