Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Whence the Optimism?

"Who cares about Derek Zoolander anyway? The man has only one look, for Christ's sake! Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigra? They're the same face! Doesn't anybody notice this? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!"
- Mugatu in Zoolander

Hold it – you mean I’M the optimistic one? This is going to take some getting used to.

The pessimism about the Twins making a significant trade before July 31st is everywhere. Joe Christensen kicked off the skepticism, even as he was detailing a trade target. Monday’s comment section reflected it. Then, as I went to lunch, La Velle E Neal and numerous callers on KFAN stated emphatically that the Twins would likely sit this one out too.

And I started to wonder – am I taking crazy pills? I’ve blogged about trade deadlines since 2002, so I was around in 2003 when they made that last significant trade. (And I trashed it, by the way. We all did. It seemed ridiculous at the time.) Which means I’ve covered all of the ones that are supposed to prove that the Twins will stand pat. So let’s review them. (If I can link to them, I will, but only the last three are still on the internet.)

2008 – Last year the primary target was a right-handed hitting third baseman and I wrote about that topic twice. The problem was that there wasn’t much available. Adrian Beltre turned out to be ridiculously expensive (and was terrible this year) and you can say the same thing about Garret Atkins and Kevin Kouzmanoff. The exception was Casey Blake, and of course he belonged to a division rival.

Conclusion: At the position of greatest need, there just wasn’t much. And we knew that. We just chose to ignore it.

2007 – This year hurt. We started talking early about trades because the team was struggling in a manner similar to this year’s. We talked about Ty Wiggninton, but in retrospect the Twins couldn’t afford to give up the middle reliever that the Astros did to eventually get him. Dmitri Young looked like an ideal fit, but Nationals GM Jim Bowden signed him to an extension instead.

Really, on the scale of dumbass contract extensions, this needs to be top five. Young had been floundering his way out of the league for years, both due to health and behavioral issues. Down to his last chance, he produced a monster year, making him the perfect trade candidate for a franchise looking to build. Instead, they signed him to a 2-year extension for $10 million, despite already having Nick Johnson signed through 2009 too.

The Twins have been victimized several times this decade by dealing with some incompetent organizations. In 2001, the Blue Jays agreed at the last second to the final trade piece that would’ve replaced Matt Lawton with Shannon Stewart, but ran out of time. Last year there was the Jarrod Washburn fiasco with the Mariners. And there was this mess with the Nationals. Of course, Young has had a total of 150 at-bats for the Nationals so far over the life of that extension. Nice to see Karma staying on top of things.

By the time the trade deadline showed up, we were debating whether or not the Twins should be buyers or sellers, and when they traded Luis Castillo, we assumed they were sellers. To this day I believe that the Castillo trade (a major gaffe, BTW) was done to free up payroll for another move that never materialized. Looking back, it’s clear the Twins were tapped out financially that year. They had signed Ramon Ortiz for $3.1 million late in the offseason and it pushed their payroll over $70 million for the first time. You’ll recall it was also the year they signed Ben Revere considerably below his slot value.

I’m also convinced this trade season is what convinced Terry Ryan he needed to move on. Like I said, this one hurt.

Conclusion: Financial flexibility and a couple of ill-fitting teams resulted in a stasis that couldn’t be overcome.

2006 – Again, the Twins were looking for right-handed power, and again it’s questionable about whether there was really any to be had. In the deadline recap I forgave the Twins for not trading for Alfonso Soriano because it was rumored they had offered Scott Baker and Jason Kubel and been turned down by – wait for it – Nationals GM Jim Bowden. Soriano played two more months for their last place team and left via free agency that offseason.

Apropos of nothing, the Nationals are in last place in the NL East again this year.

More embarrassing for me is that I ripped the Twins for not acquiring one of the two right-handed bats that were moved that offseason. One was Ryan Shealy, who is still kicking around with the Royals and has all of 17 major league home runs since then. That’s not good, but it’s better than the other guy, Craig Wilson. Wilson hit four home runs for the Yankees that year, and has hit one more in the majors since.

Conclusion: Again, there just wasn’t much out there in terms of high-end talent, and that which was available was controlled by a delusional and short-sighted general manager.

2005 – This one hurt more. We talked through a ton of options, like Soriano, Wigginton, Shea Hillenbrand, Lyle Overbay, Carlos Lee and Jorge Cantu. A week before the deadline, Ryan even said publicly that he thought they were going to make a move. Nothing happened, and I wrote very little about it because I had come down with a 102 degree fever and my whole body was swelling up. Alright, I walked into that one. Take your "I thought that happened immediately after college" fat joke now while you can. I notice that none of those players were actually traded during the deadline, and I'm pretty sure this is the year it ended up being eerily quiet at the deadline.

It's also worth noting that by the time the end of July rolled around, the Twins were playing pretty miserable baseball, or at least they were judging by my posts.

Conclusion: The Twins were again looking for a bit impact guy and that player ended up not being availabe to anyone.

2004 – In 2004 the Twins were doing well and they had received a boost from this Justin Morneau kid. So all the buzz at the deadline was about whether the Twins would be able to trade away Doug Mientkiewicz. Make that the moody Mientkiewicz, who had become so distraught over possibly being traded that he pulled himself out of the lineup late in July. That led to this little tirade...

Finally, Dougie
Doug Mientkiewicz's legitimate sensitivity and illegitimate martyr complex deserves its own column, but as far as trading him goes, it doesn't sound like the Twins are close. Doug reportedly can't believe nobody wants him. Uh, believe it Dougie.

Because Terry Ryan shouldn't be the only one trying to work a deal for Doug. Mientkiewicz's agent, who must be getting a good chunk of that $7 million contract that Mientkiewicz is getting, is likely also working the phones. If Mientkiewicz is a Twin tomorrow, rather than doubt the organization's commitment to him, he should start by looking in the mirror. He also might want to ponder if he might be a little more driven to concentrate through this mess if he wasn't guaranteed a $4 million payday next year.

If Doug wants to prove that he's a valuable major league first baseman again, he may have to do so the same way Justin Morneau just did - by waiting for his opportunities, playing his butt off, keeping his self-pitying trap shut, and not taking his major league playing time for granted.

Is that a tough lesson for a major league player and gold glove winner? Yes. But there are tougher options. Like walking away from $4 million guaranteed. Or being out of baseball by 2006.

Thanks for indulging me on that. I laughed out loud when I reread that 3rd paragraph. I swear the only time I really think my writing is any good is several years after I’ve written it. But I REALLY enjoy it then. Boy, was Mientkiewicz an ass during that whole episode.

The popular hope was that the Twins would get back a pitcher, with Kris Benson from the Pirates being mentioned most often. Actually, he was the second most mentioned name. His wife, Anna Benson, was mentioned more. As she should be.

Anyway, both were wishful thinking. The primary goal of trading Mientkiewicz was getting his $4 million contract off the books for 2006, so the Twins were willing to take whatever they could get. They ended up in a four-team trade that successfully ditched Mientkiewicz and got back a minor league prospect named Justin Jones. He ended up being injury prone, and the last I heard of him he had a knee injury in 2008 while pitching in AA for the Washington Nationals.

Conclusion: If we had any expectations for a significant trade, shame on us. It was Doug Freakin' Mientkiewicz.

So let’s take a look at those conclusions. In most cases, we ended up being disappointed because the Twins needed an impact player, and there just weren’t that many available. When dealing with scarcity, everything needs to go right for those few names that fit the bill. If you’re dealing with a difficult GM or you can’t swing it financially, or the market is just slow, you’re out of luck.

This year there is no scarcity of players. That’s the silver lining for Twins fans who have had a front row seat to watch the worst collection of second baseman in the major leagues. Even finding an average second baseman would provide a significant boost to this team. Just look at some of the candidates:

Adam Kennedy – The definition of an average second baseman, and his GM is Billy Beane.

Felipe Lopez – A gamblers pick, since he’s as likely to be terrible as tremendous for any two-month stretch. And the DBacks GM, Josh Byrnes has already started dealing.

Freddy Sanchez & Jack Wilson – Sanchez is close to the perfect fit for this team. His $8 million option next year, which others view as a deterrent, might even be a benefit in the minds of the Twins. Wilson won’t bring the the lumber, but he brings a glove this infield sorely needs. And the GM of the Pirates has also been actively swinging reasonable trades.

Julio Lugo – He’s average, but he gets on base. Plus, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein might be willing to let him go for a song. And the Twins can afford that contract over the next year and a half.

Cristian Guzman – There’s a lot of scary stuff here, but he’s hitting .300. And the Nationals have a new acting GM, Mike Rizzo, who seems to be reasonably sane. They’ve also completed a decent trade already.

This year there isn’t a shortage of options, there isn’t a shortage of money, and it appears there are some competent GMs on the other end. It shouldn’t even be particularly challenging. All the Twins need to do is make sure the competence extends to their half of the table to make this thing happen.

And that last sentence might be from where much of the pessimism comes. If so, shame on you. It's not like we're saddled with the Nationals here. If it's nuts to believe that a franchise that has this much success this decade can pull off a fairly simple trade, than I’ll continue to happily pop those crazy pills.


Anonymous said...

Just spitballing here...but if the Twins are always the team involved with various other 'incompetent' GMs, and the Twins are always the one who took steps 1 and 2, but couldn't complete the deal with step three, and the Twins are always the one selling low, and...maybe one should start looking at how the TWINS GM operates, rather than always blaming the others.

I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.

John said...

Sorry, but I don't feel ashamed for doubting Bill Smith's competence. He has done nothing to indicate he is competent, but several things to suggest he is not.

The Young trade of course is a massive debacle. I know I know, Young was the greatest prospect ever, the trade made total sense at the time, and so on. But yet Tampa Bay was only too happy to trade him, and Smith was only too happy to oblige. It's clear who was more competent between the two franchises in that case.

Then of course there's the ill-advised Santana deal. While there is some 20/20 hindsight involved in analyzing the Young trade (though I believe criticism is warranted nonetheless given fans' information disadvantage), that's not the case with Santana.

Smith made the judgment that a speedy CF who can't hit, and a teenage pitcher with significant mechanical problems, was worth a year of Santana and 2 high draft picks. It was an immediately obvious error and it cost the Twins at least a trip to the postseason, if not more.

Meanwhile, Smith utterly failed to address the bullpen this past off-season while foolishly signing Punto to be a starting position player- something Punto had worked tirelessly to prove he was not.

If you want to be optimistic, great, but don't turn around and act like your confidence is based on Smith's track record. The reality is that, to date, Smith has been as incompetent as any GM in the league. Going back to 2003 or whatever doesn't bear on this issue.

I have no doubt teams are anxious to talk trade with the Twins this year. Who wouldn't want to trade away replacement-level players and get stars in return?

Jesse H said...

I am kind of thinking it is suspicious that the Twins are always being asked for more then other teams. This offseason the Twins made statements that they were not going after a trade for DeRosa because the Cubs wanted one of our starters in return. Eventually the Indians got him for a collection of A ball suspects. We didn't go after Wiggington this offseason because he was going to seek a contract like Blake (3yrs/$16 million) and he signs for 2yrs/$6 million. Last year we also needed a relief pitcher and because we are so cheap the Twins got Eddie Guardado on the cheap instead of actually paying a little money and getting LaTroy. I think the Twins often make up stories as to how unreasonable other GMs are to cover the fact they are alergic to taking on any salary.

Nuke said...

Jesse's comment reminds me of one of the biggest head-scratchers I can think of: why the hell didn't Smith go after Chad Bradford last year? The team was in desperate need of bullpen help, and an established, reliable arm was available for relatively little. But the Twins did nothing, and it could have cost them a playoff berth.

Nathan Gau said...

The real question I have is who ends up on the bench if we pick up a 2B/SS. My fear is that Brendan Harris ends up benched while Nick Punto takes over. I'd hope, if Smith does this, that Punto gets tossed in as part of the trade... even if it means we have to pay a better prospect in the deal.

Anonymous said...

Trading for Sanchez is a plus only if it lands LNP on the BNCH

Anonymous said...

Dave Cameron thinks the Mariners should trade starting pitching for J.J. Hardy. Seems like something the Twins ought to look into also, although I don't know if they would/should be willing to trade two of their current starters.

Anonymous said...

I guess the Twins should do what they can to win their weak division, but how much can they afford to trade? They don't have 9 legit major leaguers to start now and not much in the way of prospects. Letting Torii Hunter walk was a debacle on par with the Santana and Garza trades. If Gomez, Young, and Casilla can turn on the "competent" switch, then maybe the Twins only need some pitching help. Otherwise, this team has too many holes to fill.

jeff in so cal said...

Hi John
Thanks for the compliment on my article today in the star tribune. I kind of figured you would like it! Coming from you that was a compliment as I always respect and enjoy your work.
I have been talking with grain belt about my efforts to get a booth for them at target field. If you have any ideas or can help please let me know.
thanks John
Jeff Thompson
Thompson Beverage Grain Belt Beer Distributor 1933-1990

Anonymous said...

"Twins sign Mark Grudzandlantlandiick"

Still optomistic, Geek?