"What's wrong with the Twins?"
Before we answer that question, let's ask (and answer) another ...
"Is it fair to ask what's wrong with the Twins?"
At first glance, it looks like a very fair question. Remember, we're talking about a team that 1) won 94 games in 2002, 2) picked up Kenny Rogers in the offseason, 3) entered this season loaded with outstanding young hitters and 4) plays in what must be Major League Baseball's weakest division.
Yet, with all that, the Minnesota Twins have lost exactly as many games (44) as they've won, and somehow they're four and one-half games behind ... the Kansas City Royals? The same Kansas City Royals who lost 100 games last season? The same Kansas City Royals whose ace pitcher is ... Jose Lima?
Yes, it's all true. So it does seem fair to wonder what's wrong with the Twins.
True, if you look at the elements -- the little pieces that become the runs scored and the runs allowed that in turn become the wins and the losses -- the Twins have played better than their record. Nevertheless, when a team's not winning -- even if the elements say they should be winning -- then it is fair to wonder why, because if the elements were better then the team's record would better, too. Maybe not as good as we think it should be. But better.
So it's fair to look at the Twins, and wonder if they've done everything right.
As it turns out, not only have the Twins not done everything exactly right, but they've done two things exactly wrong.
Joe Mauer, A.J. Pierzynski, Dustan Mohr, Michael Restovich, Michael Cuddyer, Bobby Kielty, Matthew LeCroy, Justin Morneau, Todd Sears ... the Twins have enough good young hitters to fill out an entire lineup. They have more good young hitters than any other team in the game, and nobody else is even close. True, you can't play all of those guys at once, because there's not a shortstop or a second baseman among them. But this is what's known as "a good problem to have," because a smart baseball executive can turn excess talent into useful talent (and we haven't even considered Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones yet).
That's not what Twins GM Terry Ryan has done, though. Instead, he's kept all of his good young hitters, every single one of them, in the organizational fold. Now, from an organizational standpoint, there's nothing particularly wrong with keeping plenty of talent on hand ... if you don't have any holes to fill. But the Twins did have some holes to fill, most notably in the middle of their infield. Here's what second baseman Luis Rivas and shortstop Cristian Guzman did last year:
Rivas .305 .392
Guzman .292 .385
That's not good, and we're not talking about a couple of Gold Glovers here, either; Rivas is a poor defensive player, and Guzman is just adequate.
Here's what they're doing this year:
Rivas .327 .372
Guzman .286 .350
You see what's happening here? The Twins' middle infielders aren't very good. They're not bad, exactly. But they're a problem because the Twins don't have any great players to cover for them. Rivas and Guzman were, in short, a problem. But there's no indication that management recognized the problem when the time was right to do something about it.
The other mistake, perhaps less serious but probably more obvious, concerns Ryan's utter misuse of the most talented pitcher in the entire organization. I'm referring, of course (as every Baseball Primate or Prospectusite knows), to southpaw Johan Santana, who is just now officially joining the Twins' starting rotation.
Here are Santana's statistics as a starting pitcher over the last couple of seasons:
Starts Innings BB K's ERA
16 93 41 106 2.72
Yes, he's also pitched impressively as a reliever ... but the Twins have plenty of guys who can pitch impressively as relievers. Lately, it seems like whoever they send to the bullpen becomes impressive. Meanwhile, this season the Twins' rotation includes Rick Reed (14 starts, 4.54 ERA), Kyle Lohse (18, 4.63), Rogers (17, 4.87), Brad Radke (18, 5.56) and Joe Mays (18, 6.57).
Now, of course there's no guarantee that Santana would have pitched significantly better than one or more of these fine examples of flingerhood. But don't you think it's likely? The problem, at least in this humble columnist's opinion, is that while Ryan obviously knows quite a bit about finding and then developing talent, he seems to fall short when it comes to employing talent.
Or maybe it's something else. Maybe Ryan suffers from Winner's Paralysis, an illness that often causes winning teams to avoid change because they don't want to fool around with a "winning formula" (for another excellent example, see the 2003 Anaheim Angels).
Either way, Ryan should have traded some of the talent that he can't use for talent that he can, and he shouldn't have let his best pitcher rot in the bullpen for three months. Bottom line, the Twins aren't winning because 1) their best player is a pitcher (Santana) who's pitched only 66 innings, and 2) their only All-Star is a pitcher (Eddie Guardado) with a 3.82 ERA. Shoot, the Kansas City Royals have more All-Stars (2) than the Twins (yes, those Kansas City Royals).
The Twins might be dummy-proof. If Ryan doesn't do a single thing between now and October, the Twins still could cruise to another division title. But you know, with all the talent on hand, there's simply no good reason for all this uncertainty. Elements or no elements, the Twins shouldn't be trailing anybody in the American League Central, and they especially shouldn't be trailing ... the Kansas City Royals?
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book and Rob's upcoming book signing in Denver (July 9), visit Rob's Web site.