Twins won’t win championships without more championship players

See if this sounds familiar: The Twins lose a game because one of their overachieving grunts screws up. Then after the game, said grunt comes to his locker, mans up, takes the blame and answers every difficult question. His manager and teammates defend him, pointedly saying his action did not lose the game.

Nick Punto was the grunt in question after American League Division Series Game 3, and by now you all know why. In the eighth inning with the Twins down a run to the Yankees, Punto trusted the Metrodome crowd of 54,735 instead of third base coach Scott Ullger. He overran third on Denard Span’s infield single, assuming the crowd’s roar meant it had gotten through (wrong) and was gunned out diving back, Derek Jeter to Jorge Posada to Alex Rodriguez.

This was unconscionably stupid on a bunch of levels. Listening to 50,000 yahoos who blindly cheer fly balls caught 10 feet in front of the warning track instead of a third-base coach with a perfect view of the play is, well, about as dumb a decision as a professional player can make. And this isn’t the first mistake of over-aggressiveness by Punto, who, as manager Ron Gardenhire’s pet, receives perpetual absolution for miscues large or small.

Stark differences
But it showed, again, graphically, the difference between the Twins and every team they’ve lost to in postseason since 2002. And it has nothing to do with bad luck or curses or somebody else’s bloated payroll.

The Twins lose in the playoffs because they lack enough championship players. And unless Twins management finally decides that’s unacceptable, and aggressively remedies it, Joe Mauer is out of here, and the Twins might not see another World Series for 30 years.

That’s the biggest challenge facing general manager Bill Smith and his staff as the Twins move into Target Field next year. They have obvious needs — figuring out who plays third, short and second; adding a veteran arm or two to their young rotation of interchangeable No. 3s; and convincing Mauer, a free agent after next season, that the club is as serious about winning a world championship as he is.

Smith and his scouts should be commended for finding and acquiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera and pitchers Carl Pavano, Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay, all productive players and good fits in a Twins clubhouse that badly needed veteran guidance. Whether that’s enough to convince Mauer of the club’s commitment to winning remains unclear.

Mauer still noncommittal on future
In interviews with me and national writers in the last few weeks, Mauer remained noncommital about his future. Sunday night, after the Twins were eliminated, Mauer made a face when asked if the front office showed the commitment he requires. “I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I wanted to play [Monday] and get back to New York. I’ll maybe need a few weeks to evaluate it a little bit.” 

Mauer is too gracious a person and too good a teammate to say what needs to be said: How are we supposed to beat the Evil Empire, or anybody else formidable, when you surround your studs with meatheads? And what the hell do you plan to do about it?

Let’s face it: This year’s Twins were a mediocre team that won baseball’s worst division by playing superbly for exactly three weeks. Take away the injured Justin Morneau, and they finished the season with five dependable everyday players — Denard Span, Orlando Cabrera, Mauer, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. Often the pitching was frightful, and the fundamentals absent. Over two homestands in midsummer, the Twins had five base runners picked off. That’s five years’ total for a championship team.
 
The Twins won the division because the Tigers yipped a three-game lead with four to play, umpire Randy Marsh did not hear a baseball brush Brandon Inge’s uniform, and Tiger manager Jim Leyland trusted nobody else to follow closer Fernando Rodney in the tiebreaker.

Punto had a strong final month (.274), and Delmon Young a big final weekend (three homers, 10 RBI). But over the course of the season, those two, along with Alexi Casilla, Brendan Harris and Carlos Gomez, showed they cannot be trusted as everyday players on a team with championship aspirations.

Gomez and Young refuse to listen to the coaches, Gomez from a lack of maturity, Young because he’s an enigma.

Even after two years of instruction from the coaching staff, Gomez still plays as if he never saw a baseball game until yesterday. He’s more interested in swinging out of his shoes than bunting, working counts or hitting outside pitches to right field, which is why he hit .229 with 14 steals, both well down from last year. His careless base running and batting used to be amusing. Now, it costs the Twins victories (see: Game 2).Before Game 3, Coach Jerry White was on the field early to tutor Gomez on bunting — something that, by now, Gomez should not need.

As for Young, he may need to be traded once or twice before his stubbornness subsides.

Harris never was an everyday player, and Casilla seems as dense as Gomez. And Punto looks more and more like a backup who can’t do the little things consistently enough to warrant regular time even as a No. 9 hitter, which is a problem given his $4 million salary. Smith signed him to a two-year deal as a favor to Gardenhire. Now, that looks like a waste of money.

All of these guys need to go, either to the bench, or off the roster entirely. With an expected bump in the Twins’ $68 million payroll going into Target Field, Smith should have flexibility to pursue more savvy players with some experience who play smart and fit the Twins’ style, either as free agents or in trades.

It comes down to this: As a franchise, what do you aspire to be? If “world champion” is your answer, you cannot tolerate or coddle role players who botch bunts, run the bases poorly and miss signs or cutoff men — brainless mistakes that cost you runs, and games, especially against the monsters of the American League East.

The cuddly, underdog designation used to be cute. Now, it’s old and annoying. It’s time to win. The Twins need fewer Muppets and more Huns, and this is the off-season to find them.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/13/2009 - 09:57 am.

    Ouch!

  2. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 10/13/2009 - 11:12 am.

    Harsh words, but they needed to be said and I agree completely. The baserunning mistakes lately have been terrible and have cost us games. And the pitching, well, let’s not go there. I would hope that with the move to Target Field, the Twins will also move to make their team much more competitive and keep the core productive players around for a long time.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/13/2009 - 12:02 pm.

    This is absolutely the best analysis of the Twins situation I have read. Management has to upgrade the lineup to proven, quality players in the off season to fill obvious holes in the current lineup.

    Last year they signed a third baseman with a bad back, and a stiff in the bullpen.

    Gomez, Cassilla have to go. Young has potential, but is slow and inconsistent. Punto is a fabulous journeyman player who can have a role; but a better hitting second baseman would be an improvement. And at least one quality starting pitcher has to be added with the current injured pitching roster.

    The fans want this…the players want this…the new stadium demands improvement. Now the ball is in Smith’s court.

  4. Submitted by tom moore on 10/13/2009 - 03:17 pm.

    i totally agree with the attitude (for any team in any sport) of, “is this how we are/build/become a champion?”. something like that. the goal should always be to win the championship. sometimes it’s unrealistic in the short term (t-wolves). and sometimes you are a couple of players away, conceivably (twins). and addition-by-subtraction may be the twins’ way.

    i like carlos gomez. is a tough spot as it may blow up his confidence to send him to AAA next year – but he also obviously needs to get a better understanding of the basics of the game – a guy with his speed and potential power would really benefit by being forced to slow things down while also getting as many at bats as possible. if he learns to bunt and the basics of baserunning, he’d be a great, late season add next year as a call-up and to perform the late inning/pinch running role he performed this year (and/or to start in centerfield in 2011 – with span moving to right or left and cuddyer either gone in free agency or young gone in a trade or by his lack of output).

    but the baserunning errors by this team, for a few years now, have been off-the-charts. don’t know if it’s a coaching thing, a lack-of-talent thing, a system-wide thing or what.

    thanks for the post, pat.

  5. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 10/13/2009 - 08:25 pm.

    My only quibble is the prace of Orlando Cabrera. Although he certainly had some timely hits down the stretch, he’s 35, his range and arm are questionable for a starting shortstop, and his overall offensive stats for the Twins are not impressive.

    Then again, compared to anything else they ran out at shortstop, he’s ARod in his prime.

    If any of Punto/Tolbert/Casilla/Harris are starting next year, you’ll know the Twins are not taking winning seriously. Doesn’t matter how hard they try or how big their hearts are; they simply make too many mistakes and lack the talent to be starters on the major league level. That’s the long and the short of it.

  6. Submitted by phil bisher on 10/14/2009 - 06:22 am.

    The twins are a lame team. They don’t have what it takes for post season success and never will.
    About the only thing lamer than the team is putting an open-air stadium in Minnesota, down wind from a toxic trash incinerator.
    The toxic twinkies – now that has a nice ring to it.

  7. Submitted by Ross Williams on 10/14/2009 - 10:31 am.

    “This was unconscionably stupid on a bunch of levels.”

    That pretty much sums up my response to this article.

    This is a review of a team that has won the division 5 of the last eight years. They missed last year after tying for the lead and losing a one game playoff. They just lost a playoff series where their first game starter had a total of five big league starts and they played without their former MVP first baseman or their regular third basemen (yeh that may exaggerate Crede’s actual playing time). This blames the number nine hitter’s base running error for their failure.

    MnPOST’s Twins coverage is embarassing. It needs to lose the bloggers with an attitude and hire some intelligent baseball analysts. You see more intelligent commentary than this in the comments section on the STRIB sports page.

  8. Submitted by Joel Gingery on 10/15/2009 - 12:01 pm.

    Did you see the faces of the Yankees fans around inning 6 of the second game? Sweet! The Twins could have, should have won, but for…

    Re Gomez: The Twins had to play mistake free and get all the breaks to win; chalk it up to enthusiasm and inexperience; notice the level of play of the Twins vs the Yankees?; Mr. Nathan was mentally intimidated; couldn’t make the play. And Mr. G, who used his bullpen marvelously earlier, didn’t yank Povano after Jeter’s double; (You need to consider that it is much harder to pitch against the Yankees than the Tigers–a pitcher won’t last as long;) and the decision to use Mahares in relief is beyond me–he had shown himself to be not up to the task during the Detroit series.

    Re: Nick Puto’s base running; It is poor coaching, third base coaching that led to the problem, not Punto’s; the third base coach did not properly position himself where Punto could see him BEFORE rounding the bag; Punto couldn’t see the play, the coach could.

    Re: Twins salary, etc. The players have only themselves to blame; until the MLB Players assoc agrees to a salary cap & meaningful revenue sharing, the Twins won’t have a meaningful chance; ironic isn’t it?

  9. Submitted by Leslie Monteiro on 10/15/2009 - 05:10 pm.

    Great column that you wrote about the team, Pat. It was the best column you ever wrote for MinnPost.com, and I read your stuff going back to your days at the Newark Star-Ledger (former subscriber)

    It’s refreshing to see you and Reusse take the team to task rather than moan about how the Twins never had a chance against the Big Bad Yankees due to payroll (see Tom Powers’ Monday column) or hear Brad Lane talk about Joe Nathan blowing saves happens (I listen to Saturday Morning Sports Talk for the purpose of Reusse savaging Nathan, but the guy from Fulda picked a bad day to be sick).

    I already gave the team a proper tribute last week in an email that I sent you so I don’t feel the need to be sentimental in light of what took place in the ALDS. I am not in a mood either after what happened this weekend.

    Let’s cut to the chase here. This type of playoff performance that the team displayed was unacceptable. You can’t have a closer who pitched scared in Game 2. You can’t have baserunning gaffes as Carlos Gomez and Nick Punto demonstrated in the ALDS. You can’t have players hitting for singles in the playoffs, which has been the norm since their playoff appearances in this decade. You can’t have this team play awful fundamental baseball in October. This isn’t going to cut it in October. They were never beating the Angels, Red Sox or the Yankees by playing this way.

    I watched the Phillies/Rockies game Monday night. What I saw was the Phillies knowing what they were doing when it came to situational hitting. They knew how to get it done. They expect to succeed by having a big inning of their own. Those guys don’t look scared. With the Twins, that’s not the case.

    Notice how the Yankees and the Angels executed the fundamentals in Round 1? For all the talk about the Twins playing the right way, they sure don’t play like one, and this took place during the regular season. I always wondered if Ron Gardenhire really has some of the players’ attention. This is not just Gardy. I blame it on the players too, but a manager like Tom Kelly would command guys to pay attention to him. Think Mike Scioscia or Joe Girardi would tolerate this type of stuff? They played dumb baseball for most of the season to be honest with you, and they revealed this for America to see in the ALDS. I am sick of it. Either Gardenhire needs to toughen up or guys need to go. For me, it’s the latter. It’s time for Carlos Gomez, Glen Perkins,
    Delmon Young, Nick Punto, Joe Nathan, Alexi Casilla and basically everyone not named Joe Mauer/Michael Cuddyer/Matt Guerrier/Justin Morneau/Jon Rauch/RonMahay to get out. I don’t want to watch any of them at Target Field next year especially Joe Nathan.

    It does not become an accident anymore when the Twins lost nine straight playoff games. It exposes the Twins’ flaws, and things have to change.

    You read the New York newspapers. Most of the baseball writers here called the Twins out for blowing opportunities. Bob Klapisch nailed it today when he said that the Twins were mentally soft, and who can disagree with him?

    For me, the Twins need to spend money to christen Target Field this offseason. That means either signing John Lackey or Rich Harden, sign Chone Figgins at third and make a deal for a closer like J.J. Putz. I want to see guys ship out. I like to see guys start being accountable.

    You said it best along with Dan Barreiro. The little engine they could sounds nice, but after awhile, it gets annoying. Twins fans want more, and it’s up to this organization to stop being a developmental organization and start acting like a championship organization.

    They can start by stop playing the 163rd game of the season, and start winning 95 games so that they don’t need to fight for an extra game to get there. This year was a great year, and the Yankees and the critics can’t take away what happened last Tuesday night, but with that said, I like to see a championship one day.

    The way it’s going right now though. The Twins would be hard-pressed to win a playoff game let alone a playoff series, and that has to change. I hope they don’t pat themselves in the back for just getting there.

  10. Submitted by Anthony Salamone on 10/27/2009 - 11:43 am.

    Some of the best of us have overran third base at least once in our lives.
    -Tony Sal

  11. Submitted by nicholas samuelson on 11/02/2009 - 10:07 pm.

    I have to disagree with the basic premise of this post. Not until the second – to – last paragraph do you ask “As a franchise, what do you aspire to be?” Yet, the entire post up until that point assumes that the answer is “a championship contender.” What if it’s not? Seems to me that many Twins fans, myself included, only ask that the team win more than it lose. The “championship-or-else” mentality is what turned me off to the NFL. It is also a common symptom among fans of the Yankees. Perhaps they, or the Vikings, would be better suited to your rooting tastes. I, among many, will gladly go to games at Target Field and root for your so-called “meatheads,” and any postseason action we enjoy is a bonus, not a platform from which to snipe at the players we had (presumably) been cheering all summer long.

  12. Submitted by Pat Borzi on 11/06/2009 - 05:57 pm.

    If No. 10 is the Tony Sal I think it is, he’s the best first baseman I ever played with, and he knows where the bodies are buried. Email me, my brother, and we’ll catch up.

    And Mr. Samuelson: If you spent 10 minutes with Joe Mauer or Terry Ryan, you would understand why a winning record alone isn’t good enough for competitive people.

Leave a Reply