Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Scapegoat

Who's to blame for this fiasco? There has been an abundance of failure this season, and there will undoubtedly be changes for 2012. It would be great to find an individual whose removal would assure an upturn in the Twins' fortunes for next year. But, when a team loses 30+ wins year-over-year, can any one person account for the fall?

If I had to single out a player, it would be Matt Capps. From the beginning of the season until he was taken out of the Closer role in mid-July, Capps went 15/22 in save opportunities with a 4.76 ERA and 7 HR allowed in 39.2 IP. The Twins lost 6 of those 7 games that they were leading late. Had he converted at least 3 more of those opportunities, the Twins would have been trailing the Tigers by just 3 games in the last week of July, putting them in a clear position to deal for reinforcements and potentially head off the free-fall they've been in since the trade deadline. Capps has been better lately, but still has blown 2 leads while holding just 3, and has lost 2 games that were tied when he entered. Basically, he single-handedly cost the Twins at least 5 wins, which is a ton for a guy who's only pitched about 5% of the team's total IP. But even if he'd been great, it probably wouldn't have been enough to turn things around.

It's typical to lay blame for a disappointing season upon a head coach or manager, but I don't think Gardy deserves much. He's coming off a tremendous, Manager of the Year season. His staff is the same group of coaches who have consistently led the Twins to competitive finishes. Prior to this year, the only 2 seasons he didn't have his team in contention were 2005 & 2007, when the offense failed to support the pitching staff thanks to flukishly low BABIPs. There are certainly a couple of managerial decisions that contributed to the mess. He should have reinstalled Joe Nathan as the Closer 2-3 weeks earlier than he did. And his misguided displeasure with JJ Hardy's 2010 performance seems to have been a factor in prompting that trade and, consequently, a significant downgrade to the SS position. But more often than not, I've felt bad for Gardy. He only got to play his opening day lineup a couple of times. He frequently had to work with a short bench. Basically, he had no choice but to pencil in a bunch of guys who weren't ready to contribute at the Major League level.

Part of that was the result of poor scouting. Somebody recommended to the front office that Tsuyoshi Nishioka was capable of being an every day middle infielder in The Show. Somebody thought that Eric Hacker, Scott Diamond, Jim Hoey and Dusty Hughes were worthy of 40-man roster spots. Those scouts might find that their jobs are on the line now, or at least that they've lost some of the credibility they once enjoyed.

Part of it was the result of poor player development. With the exceptions of Anthony Swarzak and Chris Parmelee, the common thread running through all the guys the Twins brought up from the minors was that they were bad at their jobs. Position players that couldn't hit. Pitchers who couldn't throw strikes, or miss bats, or keep the ball in the yard. Baserunning blunders. Inability to execute with RISP and less than 2 outs. The reinforcements couldn't do the big things, but they couldn't do the little things either. The Rochester coaching staff already got the axe after producing back-to-back 90-loss seasons, and the organizational shakeup may not stop there.

But part of the reason that Rochester struggled so much was that the players who began the season there didn't have much upside to begin with. A few who did have some favorable projection - Alex Burnett, Swarzak, Rene Tosoni, Luke Hughes, Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe - were called up to the Majors multiple times, some before they were ready, some into part-time roles that kept them from establishing much of a rhythm. A few others were lost to injuries - Kyle Gibson, Anthony Slama and David Bromberg, for example. But guys who had been discarded by other teams - guys like Steve Holm and Rene Rivera, Phil Dumatrait, Chuck James, Hacker - were never expected to contribute much to the Twins. When the tattered depth chart forced them into service, the dreadful results should have come as a surprise to no one.

It was clear going into the season that the depth on this team was paper-thin at several positions. Bill Smith has to be accountable for that. Several rival GMs did a much better job of building depth. Tampa Bay, for example, had even more desertions to its playoff-caliber bullpen than the Twins did. But they rebuilt on the cheap, and their unit owns a solid ERA and the second-fewest blown saves in the league. Still, I don't think it would have been reasonable for Smith to expect that so many of the journeymen he signed to flesh out the AAA team should have found their way onto the Major League roster.

The biggest problem with the 2011 Twins is that the 1st-string guys weren't able to play together. They had to use the DL 27 times this season. And that didn't even account for all the games lost to injuries. Regularly, 1 or more players were held out of the lineup for several days with "day-to-day" injuries, shortening the bench for Gardy. Too frequently, those guys wound up on the DL eventually, anyway. Whatever the initial estimates for recovery times, it always seemed to take longer for people to heal. On more than one occasion, a player came back, played poorly for a short period, then went right back on the shelf.

I'll try to quantify how much injuries hurt the Twins this year. Joe Mauer appeared in 82 games this year, including just 52 at Catcher. His 333 PA were about 55% of what he would accumulate in a healthy season. Justin Morneau played 69 games (we'll call that 45% of a healthy season). Denard Span played 70 games (45%). Jason Kubel and Alexi Casilla were at 70%. Nishioka was at 45%. Nick Blackburn made 80% of the 33 GS we would have liked to see. Francisco Liriano made 75%, Scott Baker 64%. Joe Nathan's 44.2 IP were only 64% of the roughly 70 IP he worked in typical seasons.

Apply those percentages to the salaries those guys earned this season, and you wind up losing nearly $30M. Throw in the DL stints for Delmon Young and Jim Thome prior to their trades and you're easily over that. The Twins' opening day payroll was in the top 10 in baseball, but injuries effectively reduced it to the bottom 12. A likely contender was turned into nothing special.

It is the job of the training staff to keep the players on the field. They should put the players on a workout regimen that will give them the strength and flexibility to play at their peak level of performance without breaking down over the course of the long season. When injuries occur, they need to diagnose them quickly and accurately, and realistically assess what the recovery time will be. They need to put hurting guys on a rehab program that will get them back to 100% within their projected timetable.

The Twins' training staff conclusively failed to do this. The injuries began in the offseason and lingered through September. The team the Pohlads paid for never came together. Head Trainer Rick McWane, Assistant Trainer Dave Pruemer and Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Perry Castellano do not have the same track record of success that the coaching staff has earned. In fact, they have drawn criticism from a number of players over the past couple of seasons for the mishandling of various injuries. I don't know the degree to which they did or not, but it's pretty clear to me that there must be somebody out there who could fill their roles better. If I were running the show, I'd make it my 1st order of business on Thursday morning to fire all three of them. That would be a solid 1st step toward making things go better in 2012.

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