October 7, 2007

Gone: Ford, Rodriguez, Rabe, Watkins

It's often been overlooked because it's much easier and more interesting to focus on the big-picture issues, but one of the Twins' main problems recently has been their lack of position-player depth in both the majors and high minors. When the Triple-A team's best hitter for much of the season is Garrett Jones and the major-league team's best bench bat is Jason Tyner, that's a problem that costs runs and wins.

Part of the reason behind the organization's erosion of major league-ready hitting talent is that from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau to Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett, the Twins have worked several young hitters into the lineup in recent years. Unfortunately, there wasn't a next wave ready once those players established themselves as quality regulars. First-round picks Matt Moses and Denard Span were supposed to be part of that next wave, but have been busts at this point and aren't MLB-ready.

Teams like the A's and Padres are always looking to improve the bottom half of their 40-man roster, regardless of the size of the improvement. That means small major-league trades, swaps of minor leaguers, smart free-agent shopping, and a willingness to shuffle the roster when a quality player becomes available on the waiver wire. Quality players can be had and marginal improvements can be made at what is often surprisingly little cost and few teams do it better than the A's and Padres.

The Twins have shied away from those types of roster tweaking during the past several seasons, which along with the minor-league factory ceasing to produce MLB-ready bats has led to a thinned out crop of position players. While the A's and Padres grab guys like Jack Cust, Scott Hairston, Morgan Ensberg, and Jack Hannahan off the scrap heap, the Twins have largely stuck with their home-grown mediocrities. That gradually begins to add up and has left the Twins with an ugly depth chart.

Fortunately, Bill Smith's first official moves as general manager offer hope that things may change. The first domino fell when he exposed Luis Rodriguez to the waiver wire (after Ron Gardenhire inexplicably played him over Brian Buscher and Alexi Casilla all September) and lost him to the Padres, who provided another example of their willingness to roster shuffle even if Rodriguez isn't much of a pickup. Following that, Smith purged Lew Ford, Josh Rabe, and Tommy Watkins from the 40-man roster.

Minor moves to be sure, but those four players spent a combined 35 years in the Twins' organization and taken together they signal that Smith is unsatisfied with the players who've constituted the team's "depth" over the past several seasons. A smart general manager who's willing to get his hands dirty by constantly re-shaping the edges of his 40-man roster realizes that there are almost always marginal improvements to be had, especially over players like Ford, Rodriguez, Rabe, and Watkins.

Rather than spend another season with those same mediocre players providing the team with sub-par depth, Smith has chosen the unknown and will now go about looking for upgrades (Watkins may return on a minor-league deal, but won't be on the 40-man roster). There's no guarantee that he'll replace Ford, Rodriguez, Rabe, and Watkins with better players, but there's zero question that the opportunity to do so is there if Smith gets his hands dirty while making smart moves over the next several months.

All of which is to say that while parting with the dead weight is a good sign and something that Terry Ryan often struggled with, it means little unless Smith follows through on the next step by bringing in superior players to replace them. The Twins' tendency has been to do that by simply promoting different home-grown players, but the organization's lack of MLB-ready hitting prospects is striking and greater gains can be made by plucking players from other organizations.

When an intriguing player became available at pennies on the dollar, my sense is that Ryan either didn't consider them or considered them briefly before deciding that it wasn't worth making changes. Choosing familiarity over quality may work in some situations, but building roster depth isn't one of them. During the next few months dozens of quality role players will become available at minimal costs and the first test for Smith will be whether he can restock the Twins' system with some of them.

Twins drafts have long focused on pitching and the few hitters they used early picks on recently have failed to pan out as well or as quickly as hoped. That makes it difficult to stock the Double-A and Triple-A rosters with good prospects capable of helping the big-league team in the near future, but it also means that the focus should switch to filling those teams with minor-league veterans and outside talent who can potentially do what the prospects can't. It's time to go digging in the scrap heap.

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

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