September 30, 2009

The End

They needed to take three of four games in Detroit to give themselves a reasonable shot at the playoffs going into the final weekend, but instead two poor pitching performances, a ton of small ball-obsessed over-managing from Ron Gardenhire, and an injury-depleted, scrub-filled lineup has all but destroyed the Twins' hopes for a division crown even before the final game of the Tigers series. There's still room for a miracle if things break perfectly for the Twins and horribly for the Tigers, but short of that it's over.

Playing meaningful games during the final week of the season perhaps makes it seem like 2009 was a success for the Twins, but that entire notion is just built around the AL Central once again being bad enough to allow a flawed, mediocre team to stay in the race. Yes, they hung with the similar flawed and mediocre Tigers until almost the very end, but the Twins would have been eliminated from contention weeks ago in any other division in baseball.

With four games remaining they have the seventh-best record in the league and the 15th-best record in baseball, which basically epitomizes mediocrity and seems like a waste of Joe Mauer's amazing year. Last season Bill Smith and company completely failed to address obvious weaknesses and the Twins lost the division by a game. This season the front office waited until the team had dug itself a big hole before making some modest midseason additions and will likely lose the division by 2-3 games.

Injuries to Justin Morneau, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Joe Crede obviously played a huge factor in their being an 85-win team rather than a 90-win team, but some semblance of depth would've made those losses much easier to take. Instead the Twins will end up giving 700 plate appearances to Nick Punto and his doppelganger Matt Tolbert, starting Delmon Young's bad bat and worse glove 90 times, and trotting out Rochester-caliber pitchers for a couple hundred innings before calling in some cavalry.

As has been the case for most of this decade, the Twins had the elite, top-end talent to be an excellent team and struggled mightily filling in the rest of the roster with capable role players. So for all the good Mauer, Morneau, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer did at the plate the Twins are just a league-average team offensively, which combined with a tremendously disappointing season from the rotation and a terrible first half by the non-Joe Nathan relievers adds up to ... well, an 85-win team.

Of course, the season was far from a disaster. Mauer stayed healthy after spending all of April on the disabled list and put together one of the greatest seasons of all time by a catcher. Span solidified his standing as one of the team's long-term building blocks and one of the AL's top all-around outfielders. Kubel took a step forward as one of the league's top hitters. Nathan was once again among baseball's most dominant closers and Jose Mijares showed that his September debut last year was no fluke.

Scott Baker rebounded from a homerific April to basically perform just like he did last season to earn a $15 million deal. Cuddyer bounced back nicely from an injury wrecked 2008 and Matt Guerrier shook off any workload-related concerns. Jesse Crain salvaged his season and perhaps his career following a demotion to Triple-A. Jose Morales looks ready to take over for Mike Redmond as Mauer's backup. And after 15 months of ignoring bullpen problems Smith added Jon Rauch for this season and next.

Ultimately, though, I'm left feeling like the Twins wasted an excellent opportunity for the second season in a row because their big moves were disastrous and their small moves were too little or too late. Yes, playing meaningful late-September games in back-to-back seasons beats the alternative that everyone suffered through in 2007, but being good enough to finish a close second in a terrible division is hardly success for a team with the Twins' core. Smith and company need to get their act together this winter.

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