Twins may have dark years ahead

It was just a decade ago when the Minnesota Twins were nearly contracted -- when then-owner Carl Pohlad was ready to wipe their existence off the face of the baseball planet for a few more millions. But the Twins not only survived that, they turned into a model franchise despite a limited budget. They won six AL Central titles from 2002-2010, and lost a tiebreaker game for a seventh. They moved out of the wretched Metrodome and into Target Field last season.

In fact, the Twins became so successful that they became a big-market franchise. They began 2011 with a higher payroll than the Tigers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Rangers or Braves. At $112 million, the payroll was up $15 million from 2010 and up $47 million from just two years ago.

And that payroll has produced one of the worst seasons in Twins history. The Royals are about to catch them in the AL Central. The Twins' run differential of minus-147 is just seven runs better than the Astros ... a team now running out lineups with five or six rookies on a regular basis. Long a team built around pitching and defense, the Twins have allowed the most runs in the American League. The defense has been so bad, the fundamentals so poorly executed, that the team will start spring training three days earlier next year to work on more defensive drills. Even Joe Mauer has been booed and now faces criticism for a series of ads he did for a local fitness gym. Local columnists are calling for him to improve his offseason conditioning.

Mauer made $23 million this season and has started just 45 games behind the plate. He'll be making $23 million per season through 2018. Justin Morneau, the former MVP making $14 million, has hit four home runs in his return from last July's concussion. He has battled injuries along the way, including a sore shoulder that kept him out of Monday's game.

But the Twins' problems run much deeper than the bad seasons from their two best players. For years, they've relied on a formula of finesse pitchers who throw strikes. Carl Pavano won 17 games a year ago despite one of the lowest strikeout rates among AL starters. His ERA has predictably risen nearly a run this year. Soft-tossing Brian Duensing fooled big league hitters a year ago; they caught up to him in 2011. Nick Blackburn was signed to a four-extension in spring training of 2010 and he's posted a 4.98 ERA the past two seasons, not surprising given that he has the second-lowest strikeout rate among all pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2008. Matt Capps had two good months with the Twins so they signed him to a $7 million contract. Predictably, he's been mediocre.

It may be time to scrap that strikes-and-defense approach. What we learned this year is how much the Twins relied on Mauer and Morneau. And if they don't return to their previous levels, this is a franchise that has a lot of rebuilding in front of it. None of the younger players on the team project as stars and the farm system isn't highly rated. The new riches were spent carelessly in 2011.

I'm trying to find a silver lining here, but I don't think three extra days of fundamentals drills are going to solve the Twins' problems.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.