Where do the Minnesota Twins go from here?
Since 2011, the Twins have been the second-worst team in baseball; only the Astros have won fewer games. But while the Astros made the playoffs last year and are again contenders, the Twins continue to struggle with a 33-58 record, proving last year's 83-79 record was a fluke, built primarily on a stretch of timely hitting early in the season.
General manager Terry Ryan paid the price for the team's struggles when he was fired Monday. With the organization since 1972, the 62-year-old Ryan spent four seasons as a minor league pitcher and worked his way up to general manager, serving from 1995 to the end of the 2007 season, when he stepped down to become an assistant to new GM Bill Smith. When Smith was fired after the 2011 season, Ryan took the reins again, but he hasn't been able to match his previous success, when the Twins won four division titles in five years under him (and then two more under Smith).
A lot of what has happened was predictable. The Twins are last in the AL in runs allowed while giving up the most home runs, but a rotation that was counting on the likes of Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson didn't project as a good one, anyway. The bullpen lacked obvious upside. For years, the Twins' development strategy was to build around strike-throwers -- call it the Brad Radke model. The Twins have issued the second-fewest walks, but a lack of power pitching is no longer a viable alternative in the 2016 baseball universe.
It hasn't helped that the defense has been credited with minus-42 defensive runs saved, second-worst in the majors. This was also predictable, starting with the ill-advised idea to try Miguel Sano in the outfield. Eduardo Nunez hit his way into a regular role, but he's a defensive liability and has been for a long time. Paul Molitor and Ryan shouldn't be surprised at his minus-10 defensive runs saved.
More problematic has been the lack of growth from the young hitters. Check out these numbers:
Sano: 89 SO, 36 BB
Byron Buxton: 65 SO, 9 BB
Eddie Rosario: 34 SO, 4 BB
Danny Santana: 38 SO, 9 BB
That Buxton, Rosario and Santana have struggled is, again, not necessarily a surprise; they had poor walk rates last year. The Twins simply misjudged these hitters. Can they get better? Maybe, and they obviously need Buxton to mature into their center fielder of the future. But he has 300 plate appearances now in the majors and is hitting .206 with 109 strikeouts and 15 walks. At this point, even though he's only 22, I'm not sure he will develop into even a league-average hitter.
Still, it's Sano, Buxton and Max Kepler that will have to form the nucleus of the Twins' offense. But who else on this roster will be around for the next Twins' playoff team? Brian Dozier is signed through 2018, but this team isn't going to be competitive in the next two seasons, not with this pitching staff. Interim GM Rob Antony should consider trading Dozier, although the demand for a second baseman among the playoff contenders doesn't appear high.
The Twins should also considering cashing in on Nunez's big first half. He's under team control through 2017, but this is likely a career year and he doesn't have the defensive chops to play shortstop on a full-time basis. Ervin Santana is a capable back-end starter right now, although given that he's owed $28 million beyond 2016, he might not bring much of a return. Mostly, however, the Twins don't have that many interesting trade parts; that's why they're 25 games under .500!
Basically, the road back to the playoffs must focus on developing pitchers and teaching their young hitters better plate discipline. Jose Berrios bombed out of the rotation back in May, but has appeared to right himself in Triple-A and should be back soon. Stephen Gonsalves is one of the more underrated pitching prospects and has reached Double-A. Tyler Jay, last year's No. 6 overall pick, has also reached Double-A, as has Kohl Stewart, the fourth overall pick in 2013, who has dominated but is just 21.
That group is the Twins' future. Last year's season masked the general lack of talent and depth here. The new GM -- whether it's Antony or somebody else -- will have a tough road in rebuilding the franchise.