August 12, 2007

Wait Til Next Year

Rather than hand rotation spots to Matt Garza, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, or Glen Perkins coming out of spring training, the Twins chose expensive veteran mediocrity over cheap young talent, spending about $4.5 million of their limited payroll on Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson. Ortiz was last effective in 2004 and posted a 5.47 ERA in 362 innings since then. Ponson was last effective in 2003 and posted a 5.76 ERA in 431 innings since then.

Yet despite the presence of several talented, minimum-salaried starters and multiple weaknesses to address offensively, the Twins felt it necessary to devote an extra $4 million in payroll to fill two-fifths of the rotation with a pair of washed up veterans. Both Ortiz and Ponson predictably bombed, combining for a 6.22 ERA in 17 starts, at which point the Twins pushed them aside for the aforementioned young, inexpensive talent.

Considering how things played out last season with Juan Castro and Tony Batista, it was nice that the Twins realized their mistake relatively quickly this time around, letting Ortiz and Ponson start "only" 17 games. However, they also wasted $4.5 million on 17 bad starts when they could have spent $650,000 to achieve at worst the same result, and cost themselves multiple wins in the process. Plus, they never did address those weaknesses offensively.

When Nick Punto predictably turned back into a pumpkin following his career-year in 2006, Terry Ryan failed to provide a capable alternative at third base and Ron Gardenhire continued to write Punto's name into the lineup (often at the top) nearly every day. Punto ranks fifth on the team with nearly 400 plate appearances despite his awful .206/.296/.269 hitting line making him arguably the worst hitter in all of baseball this season.

Rondell White was re-signed following a year in which he hit .246/.276/.365 while sitting out 63 games, which wasn't a horrible move given how well he hit down the stretch. However, not having a capable backup plan in place for when his inevitable injuries knocked him out of the lineup was inexcusable. White made it through three games before heading to the disabled list, at which point the Twins filled his spot in the lineup with the likes of Lew Ford, Jason Tyner, Josh Rabe, and Mike Redmond.

Tyner is one of the worst-hitting outfielders of the past half-decade, yet he's racked up over 225 plate appearances while often starting at designated hitter and leading off against left-handed pitching. Seriously. Despite a .319 career slugging percentage, Tyner has started at designated hitter 14 times (while manning an outfield corner another 30 times). And despite a putrid .257/.299/.265 career hitting line against lefties, he led off against a southpaw three times in a four-game stretch two weeks ago.

Ford began the year on the disabled list following knee surgery and hasn't been an effective hitter since 2004, yet racked up 123 plate appearances in less than three months while hitting .232/.301/.366. Redmond is a fine backup catcher whose solid work against southpaws makes him a perfect caddy for Joe Mauer. Unfortunately, he's slugged .368 for his career, including .272/.328/.332 against righties, which makes him horribly miscast as a designated hitter, a role he's filled 14 times.

Along with Punto dragging the offense down at third base, the infield has also featured Luis Rodriguez coming to the plate 119 times despite showing over the past two years that he offers almost nothing offensively or defensively. Rodriguez has hit a Punto-like .196/.271/.280 after batting .235/.315/.322 last season and is stretched defensively as a middle infielder, yet the Twins chose to keep him around when they jettisoned Jeff Cirillo and his .293/.348/.466 line against lefties last weekend.

None of these things are going to crush a team on their own, but taken collectively they quickly begin to add up. If they avoid wasting time, money, and wins on Ortiz and Ponson, perhaps they find some semblance of depth offensively. If they add some moderately capable bats, perhaps they don't give over 1,000 plate appearances to Punto, Tyner, Ford, Rodriguez, and Redmond (plus another hundred or so to Rabe, Darnell McDonald, Garrett Jones, and Tommy Watkins).

Instead, the depth-starved offense ranks 12th among AL teams in runs scored thanks largely to a league-worst .393 slugging percentage and has averaged an MLB-worst 3.1 runs per game since the All-Star break. And that comes despite the foursome of Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer combining to bat .288/.353/.492 with 66 homers in 1,738 plate appearances. The rest of the team has hit a combined .249/.309/.331 with 23 homers in 2,708 plate appearances.

In the past Ryan's inability to improve the margins of his roster to push the team over the top has perhaps kept the Twins from following up their division titles with corresponding deep playoff runs, but this year it may lead to essentially a wasted season that simply didn't have to be wasted. With Hunter on the verge of free agency and Johan Santana one year closer to the open market himself, the Twins have failed to live up to their reputation for "doing the little things" so well, both on and off the field.

With an eye that's clearly pointed toward the future and a mindset that's always locked at conservative, Ryan failed to adequately prepare this team by wasting money on misguided attempts to fill spots that didn't need filling and simultaneously neglecting spots that were screaming for help. It now seems likely that the Twins will wind up a handful of games out of the playoffs in a year when Hunter, Mauer, Cuddyer, and Morneau have been outstanding and the pitching staff is among the league's best.

If that happens, Ryan's inability to provide offensive depth while putting the team in another early hole behind more veteran mediocrity will prove to be the difference. Many people will no doubt see a young team that was within striking distance of making the playoffs and simply write this off as a rebuilding year, but somewhere between Ortiz, Ponson, and the never-ending stream of plate appearances being wasted on weak bats are those handful of wins that could have put the Twins back into the playoffs.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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