May 17, 2006

More Deck Chairs

Add Kyle Lohse's situation to the growing list of the things that the Twins have botched over the last couple years.

Lohse is one of many prospects Terry Ryan has plucked from the low levels of other farm systems over the years, with Lohse coming to the Twins as part of the deal that sent Rick Aguilera to the Cubs in 1999. The Twins then developed Lohse in their own system, sticking with him through some tough times before eventually turning him into a quality big-league pitcher. For that Ryan and the Twins deserve a ton of credit.

Unfortunately, as they've done so many times with so many young players, the Twins erased many of the gains made with Lohse in the developmental stage by mismanaging him as a major leaguer. Not only didn't he improve with experience--something that's usually been reserved for the Twins' young position players--the case could easily be made that Lohse actually regressed in several keys areas.

Lohse's command wasn't consistent from start to start, let alone year to year, and early on he didn't have an approach to getting hitters out that went beyond simply throwing the ball really hard. At some point pitching coach Rick Anderson tried to change Lohse from being a hard-thrower who didn't strike many hitters out to being a hard-thrower who focused on inducing ground balls, but that lasted about a month.

This season, Lohse was worse than ever. His control was spotty, his fastball wasn't missing bats regardless of how hard he threw it, his breaking pitches were flat, and perhaps most maddening of all he seemed incapable of finishing hitters off once he got ahead of them in the count. That's a recipe for disaster, and sure enough the Twins demoted Lohse to Triple-A yesterday after he went 2-4 with an 8.92 ERA in eight starts.

On Opening Day I predicted that Lohse would "be traded or sent to the bullpen before he makes his 20th start." Technically I was wrong, since Triple-A isn't the bullpen and he hasn't been traded yet, but the point is that for me at least it was easy to see where the situation was headed. Rather than trade Lohse last season when he still had some value, the Twins chose to keep him for the remainder of an 83-win season and then compounded their mistake by paying him $4 million to return this year.

While sadly not unique, the team's handling of Lohse is a perfect example of why they are no longer contenders. Rather than trust the impressive assortment of young talent they've been able to produce on a yearly basis, the Twins jerk their young players around, stick with mediocre, overpaid veterans for far too long, and then finally turn to the young guys out of panicked necessity.

In Lohse's case that meant not getting something in return for him when his perceived value was still relatively high, inexplicably deciding to pay him far too much money to come back when the team had comparable, cheaper options available, and then finally realizing their seemingly obvious mistake only after it's too late to really do anything about it.

Did the Twins need to see another 38 innings to decide that Lohse is a lost cause? Did they need to hold onto Lohse until his potential trade value dropped to an all-time low? Did they need to waste $4 million in the process? Of course not, and it doesn't take any second-guessing or hindsight to see that. For a year I've been encouraging the team to do what they now realize they should have done, but now it's too late.

Lohse is a complete mess who is surely irate about being demoted back to the minors and has probably burned bridges within the organization. I'd be surprised if the Twins don't deal him in the coming weeks, but I won't be surprised when the package they receive in return is a disappointing one. That's what happens when you go against Branch Rickey's advice and trade a player a year too late.

Amongst fans and within the media the focus of this situation is understandably on Lohse and Boof Bonser, his replacement in the rotation. However, when patterns repeat and the same mistakes are made on a regular basis, it's no longer about individual players or specific circumstances. This goes far beyond that, and gets to the core of why the Twins have gradually lost their short-lived grip on winning.

Somewhere along the way the team got away from the very thing that made them successful, which is trusting the young talent that the organization produces. The Twins once did that and the result was three straight division titles from a team full of homegrown talent. Now young players are pushed aside in favor of guys like Juan Castro and Tony Batista. Lohse is the epitome of that changed approach, going from being "young talent" to being "overpaid veteran" while the Twins held onto him.

Bonser replacing Lohse is not going to fix the Twins' problems, and even Francisco Liriano stepping into the rotation for Carlos Silva will barely make a dent. What plagues this team runs much deeper than that, and Lohse's situation is simply the latest example. Later this year the Twins will be in a position to make similar decisions regarding pending free agents Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart, and if the past is any indication they'll botch that as well.

The Twins deserve praise for their ability to identify, acquire, and develop young talent in the minor leagues. Few teams can boast similar success and it's without question what the organization does best. Unfortunately, what the organization does worst is making the most of that young talent once it reaches the majors, as the development seems to stop around Triple-A and players like Lohse stagnate rather than reach their full potential.

Perhaps a byproduct of that is the sudden distrust in the current crop of young players, and a byproduct of that is certainly the misguided reliance on mediocre veterans that leads to things like playing Batista and Castro every day, and wasting $4 million on Lohse when he could have been traded for something useful and the money could have been better spent elsewhere.

While the Twins are being praised in some circles for cutting bait on Lohse and turning to Bonser, I find it hard to do that when they're the ones to blame for the problem in the first place. Sending Lohse to Triple-A is akin to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, because while it may seem to be making a difference at first, in the end the ship is still sinking.

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