Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Middle And Its Dangers

It's 2015 and the Minnesota Twins are playing baseball in September. While that happens every season, what doesn't happen often (or at least for the past four seasons), is meaningful September baseball. Paul Molitor's club finds themselves in the thick of a heated Wild Card race with just over a month to play. The unfortunate reality is that Terry Ryan and the Twins brass has decided to toe the middle this season, and it could prove costly.

For whatever it's worth, the Twins were absolutely not supposed to compete in 2015. Another season eyeing 90 losses was more realistic than one nearing 90 wins. Because baseball happens though, Minnesota finds themselves above .500 and in striking distance of a one-game Wild Card playoff.

In order to not sacrifice the future, Minnesota had to navigate their current winning carefully. Having went through four poor seasons, Ryan and the Twins brain trust have built what can be regarded as one of the best farm systems in all of the big leagues. Knowing that the fruits of their labor are ready to overflow and pay dividends, sacrificing them substantially for what has been a surprise season would seem foolish.

Pushing the envelope with the talent on the 2015 roster, the Twins looked to improve without going all in. While the Toronto Blue Jays made deals for players like Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, Minnesota shored up a bad bullpen with Kevin Jepsen. It was a low cost acquisition, that carried future value as well. In the context of the season and organization both now and in the future, it made a lot of sense.

That's where things stop making sense, and the Twins find themselves in dangerous waters.

During the month of August, the Twins made another acquisition. Neal Cotts, a 35-year-old veteran, was acquired from the Brewers as a rental knowing free-agency loomed following 2015. The acquisition cost was minimal for the Twins (cash considerations or a player to be named later), but so was the return. Cotts compiled a 3.26 ERA with the Brewers across 49.2 IP, but a 4.72 FIP (fielding independent pitching) and 3.1 BB/9 loomed ominously.

Regardless of what has or will come to fruition, the move was a sign of the Twins looking to further capitalize on the good fortune of their current Wild Card positioning. Within striking distance, Molitor needed another bullpen arm capable or bridging the gap to his All Star closer. Cotts' rental status made him an intriguing option to go for it in 2015, without sacrificing the future.

Following the two steps forward, the Twins then took two steps back.

With a starting rotation boasting bloated ERA's (Kyle Gibson 6.00 ERA in Aug, Tommy Milone 5.40 ERA in last 3 starts, and Ervin Santana 9.12 ERA in Aug), and injured hurlers (both Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco may not contribute the rest of the way), the Twins decided to ignore a glaring weakness. Not needing to trade for a David Price of their own, or make a significant future deterring move, Minnesota stood pat.

Meanwhile, at Triple-A Rochester, Jose Berrios kept rolling. In front of Terry Ryan, Berrios was lights out. In August, he owned a 2.03 ERA and a 48/3 K/BB ratio across 40.0 IP in which batters hit just .203/.232/.324 against him. Despite the performance to the tune of a 2.67 Triple-A ERA, the Twins looked past their top pitching prospect.

In holding him back, the club doesn't need to answer to service time implications until 2016 at the earliest. In the meantime, they may have cost themselves much more.

Berrios' promotion would have started his service time. In the long run, that could end up costing the Twins a year of team control, forcing them to pay more down the line. However, they also could have maximized both 2015 and 2016 by being savvy with roster control.

By promoting Berrios to the rotation now, the Twins would have immediately had another plus option to help carry them to September. The workload has appeared to be well within the Puerto Rican's wheelhouse, and the output would no doubt benefit the Twins. Following a postseason run, or whatever may have taken place in 2015, Minnesota could have then addressed 2016 in the spring.

Having started the service clock in September, a year of arbitration could have been saved in early 2016. Rather than having Berrios start in the rotation out of spring training (which, judging by the Twins handling of the situation, seems like a long shot regardless), he could have made his 2016 debut in mid-May. In promoting during September 2015, and then May 2016, Berrios's service time implications would be as if he was not promoted this season at all.

Because of handling things how they did, the Twins find themselves right in the middle of an uncertain equation. The playoffs are in the picture right here and now. Terry Ryan got Neal Cotts in a move to help get Minnesota there. Instead of making the internal decision with Berrios for the same reasons, he played the opposite side of the fence. Now the Twins must hope that 2016, and the next few subsequent years after, are as good as they are being perceived. If they aren't or if larger moves need to be made to accomplish a playoff berth (the same goal as 2015), this season could end up being a distant "what if?"

The business side of baseball is definitely one that isn't traveled without navigating murky waters. In a game with so much uncertainty however (again, were the Twins really supposed to be here), tempting fate and betting against the present is a difficult game to play. More often than not, being in the middle isn't going to produce the results to get you to the top.

For now, the Twins will have to live with their decision and wait.

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