Monday, June 20, 2016

Where Did Minnesota Get Off Chicago's Road?

As things stand for the 2016 Minnesota Twins, Paul Molitor's club is a Major League Baseball worst 21-48. Things are bad, that's pretty obvious, but the question is where things went wrong. I'm not here to tell you that I have all of the answers, but I'm pretty firm in the belief that Terry Ryan and his cronies certainly do not either.

Let's set the stage here; the parallels came full circle once again on Sunday night as I watched Cubs rookie catcher Willson Contreras launch a home run. The Pirates pitcher hung a changeup on the first big league pitch Contreras saw, and he deposited it into the Wrigley Field seats. Eddie Rosario had a similar moment in his debut for the Twins, but for Minnesota, that's where the happiness ends. These two clubs couldn't be less comparable, Chicago sits at a near opposite of the Twins, 47-20. What's sad is you can only look at Minnesota and think what could have been.

2010 represented that last season of true relevance for the Twins. That year, the Cubs didn't have the same fortune, but were far from a dumpster fire. Minnesota owned a 94-68 record while claiming first in the AL Central. The Northsiders finished 75-87, a mark that put them at the bottom of the NL Central. The draft picks is where this narrative gains more steam. From 2011 through 2015, here's where Minnesota and Chicago made picks:
  • 2011: Twins 30 Cubs 9
  • 2012: Twins 2 Cubs 6
  • 2013: Twins 4 Cubs 2
  • 2014: Twins 5 Cubs 4
  • 2015: Twins 6 Cubs 9
Now, to be sure, there's plenty of talent taken at those spots by both clubs. In fact, here's the names of those selected, and where they currently are at in the organization:
  • 2011: Levi Michael (AA) Javier Baez (MLB)
  • 2012: Byron Buxton (MLB) Albert Almora (MLB)
  • 2013: Kohl Stewart (AA) Kris Bryant (MLB)
  • 2014: Nick Gordon (A) Kyle Schwarber (MLB)
  • 2015: Tyler Jay (A) Ian Happ (A)
Alright, so where does that put us? Well, in short, things are virtually a direct reflection of the big league records. The Cubs have done an excellent job developing their drafted talent, and doing so quickly, while in turn righting the ship at the highest level. On the flip side, well, the Twins have not. Byron Buxton is the lone first pick since 2011 to reach the big leagues and he's scuffled there mightily. Of the other picks, there's plenty of intrigue in regards to Stewart, Gordon, and Jay, but they still have plenty to prove. At this point, Michael seems all but a lost cause.

So, why aren't the Twins the Cubs? It's a reasonable expectation that based upon the rebuilding arcs and developmental process, that they should be closely compared. I think probably the best answer as to why the Twins are lagging behind is because they have yet to commit to moving forward. Chicago knew they were approaching a crossroads, and they turned the keys over to people capable of putting them back into a sustained version of relevance. 

Theo Epstein was brought in, Jed Hoyer came with, and together they represent some very elite baseball minds. As the organization was rebuilt with talent, the duo knew they needed someone in place capable of harnessing it, enter Joe Maddon. A farm system chock full of some of baseball's best prospects, the club now had arguably the best manager in the business to deploy them at the highest level. 

On the flip side, Minnesota stayed with what has worked, or maybe better put, what they have known. Terry Ryan has been a symbol of mediocrity for quite some time. He handpicked Bill Smith who failed miserably in his absence. For the years of relevancy he's been a part of, Ryan has also orchestrated plenty of losing. Known as a guy who's far too committed to his dear friends within the front office, there's a real problem with a lack of innovation anywhere withing the organizational structure. That couldn't be more visible as the Twins struggle with many of the same issues this season that they always have.

In trying to come full circle from a rebuild, you also must realize that it's as much about developing from within as it is about making the right moves to supplement your club. The Cubs have clearly done a better job with player development than the Twins, but then they also have been much more adapt at bringing in talent than Ryan's clubs as well.

It's hard to overstate how shrewd of a move flipping Jeff Samardzija for Addison Russell was. That was a big needle mover, and something that probably doesn't happen all to often. However, a trade like that is made possible because the Cubs don't sit in the middle ground during free agency. As the talent has came up through the system, Epstein has brought in players like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist, He realizes that baseball is a sport in which it takes a full 25 man to compete, and that requires talent that is near guaranteed to produce.

Even if Minnesota was developing players at an adequate rate (which you can argue they aren't), Ryan is doing himself next to no favors by the players he's supplementing with, Bringing in Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, and Ricky Nolasco on bloated starting pitcher contracts allows little room for error. Minnesota has long shed it's mid-market definition, but spending smartly has never been something Ryan has been criticized of.

Take a minute to imagine a Twins team with some of the draft talent developed and producing at the big league level. Then, instead of a host of mediocrity in the rotation, a top tier pitcher or two that takes some of the heat off of the lineup and the rest of the staff. It's far from a surefire turnaround, but the results would likely be considerably more productive than where the Twins find themselves or see themselves going.

At the end of the day, Minnesota's biggest problem is themselves. They've become incredibly too committed to Terry Ryan, and in turn, he's far too committed to those who consistently fail to move the needle across the board. Right now, the Cubs are playing baseball like one of the best teams in history. Asking the Twins to replicate that is a giant reach for the a group currently losing at a historical pace. However, expecting a few key changes to result in a situation that is much more similar is not hard to imagine, and one that makes you think what could have been.

The Twins aren't the Cubs by any means, but right now, they aren't anywhere near what they should have been at this point either.