Monday, February 22, 2016

Is the Twins System Broken?

Brad Rempel- USA Today Sports
An annual ritual for many baseball fans is the release of the Baseball Prospectus Handbook. It has in-depth coverage for every MLB franchise and commentary on almost 2,000 players. For some fans, this is the "Baseball Bible" for the coming season as they try and gain an advantage in the fantasy baseball realm or just want to know more about the sport they love.

I was first time buyer this season and was surprised to see how big the almost 600-page book was when it arrived at my home. After marveling at it's size, I quickly paged open to the Minnesota Twins section of the book. Twins Territory is flying high after last season so I was ready to read great reviews about the little team that could in 2015.

I was wrong. In fact as I flipped through the pages, a thought started to creep into my head. What if the Twins system is broken?

It's no secret that the Twins aren't exactly at the forefront of the analytic-driven baseball universe. In fact, Minnesota might be one of the organizations that is furthest behind when it comes to using analytics to drive front office decision making. Under the Terry Ryan regime, the way teams are built is through player development and acquisitions.

Last spring, the folks at Baseball Prospectus attempted to name "Every Team's Moneyball." This series looked to identify the one area team's use to gain an advantage over other clubs. Spoiler alert: The Twins don't have a "Moneyball" strategy. With Ryan at the helm, they are attempting to use scouting and player development because that's the strategy that worked with the Twins teams of the 2000s.

Player Development
Developing prospects is challenging since there's no magic formula to turn a budding prospect into a contributor at the big league level. Miguel Sano's talent was hard to deny even as the organization signed him as a teenager. Sano's rookie campaign was great but he's got a lot left to prove before he can solidify himself at baseball's highest level.

For every one Miguel Sano story, there are going to be other young players that aren't able to make consistent contributions. Oswaldo Arcia was ranked highly on many Twins prospect lists and he even hit 20 home runs in 2014. Last year, he was limited to 19 MLB games and the team didn't even get a September call-up. Like Arcia, fans were excited by Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas in their rookie seasons. Each of these players has shown their flaws with more big league time.

Players like Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, and Max Kepler haven't played enough at the big league level to grade the organization on the player development. Kepler made major strides last season and Berrios continues to look like the real deal. If Buxton can become the player most think he will be, the Twins system might be back on the right track.

Free Agent Acquisitions
In the last handful of seasons, the Twins have signed some of their richest free agent deals in team history. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes were brought into the fold during the 2014 offseason. Nolasco's four-year deal is looking like a disaster after two seasons. Hughes had a record breaking first season in Minnesota but the Twins decided to reward him with an extension and he came back down to earth in 2015.

Kurt Suzuki fits into the same mold as Hughes. He was selected to the AL All-Star team and the Twins signed him to an extension before seeing a drop in production in 2015. Ervin Santana signed last offseason and the team quickly found out that he would be suspended for the season's first 80 games. Santana's second half was up and down and fans will have to reevaluate his signing after a full campaign.

Other teams might have looked at Suzuki and Hughes and known that their age and previous track records were more indicative of their future performance. Trading those players at a the peak of their value could have brought other assets into the organization. This offseason Minnesota has been much quieter on the free agent market and this could be a result of some of their decisions over the last two years.

Aaron Hicks was starting to look like a player to be filed in the failed prospect development department. This was before the 2015 season where he finally looked like he might be able to contribute on a regular basis. With the Suzuki situation mentioned above and top catching prospects at least a year away, the Twins needed to add some catching depth. Minnesota dealt Hicks to the Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy. Murphy could be a huge piece for the Twins moving forward but only time will tell about what he can do in Minnesota.

Minnesota surprised a lot of the baseball world by being in contention around last year's trade deadline. To help bolster their bullpen, Ryan dealt Chih-Wei Hu and Alexi Tapia to the Rays for Kevin Jepsen. With closer Glen Perkins dealing with injuries, Jepsen was asked to take over the closing duties. He lead the American League in appearances and he will be a vital part of the Twins 2016 bullpen.

With Sano's emergence, there has been plenty of talk about trading current third baseman Trevor Plouffe. Minnesota doesn't seem to be in a hurry as Sano will be relegated to outfield duty this year and Plouffe can't be a free agent until 2018. There still might be a future trade involving Plouffe and maybe Ryan is waiting to get the right kind of value in return.

At this point, it seems tough to know if the Twins system is broken. Ryan has been back at the helm for four years and the picture is still being painted. Can a core of Buxton, Sano, and Berrios be the team that brings a title back to Minnesota?

Only time will tell.

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