Tuesday, May 03, 2011

It's Not Thanksgiving, But Vikings Still Grateful for Twins

Nothing smooths over off-season mistakes in the NFL quite like the misfortunes and bumblings of the local MLB team. When that team is the Minnesota Twins, even a questionable draft at one of the more critical junctures in the NFL team's history, seems acceptable.

For many years, this site has attempted to hold the Vikings organization accountable for its on- and off-the-field exploits, suggested moves and changes, critiqued moves, and applauded the relatively sparse moments due such credit. The rationale for this approach is simple--most, if not all, of the local media covering the Vikings are too heavily invested in the enterprise to do anything other than cheerlead. Even when the Vikings stand as one of the few, if not only, teams to select a bona fide starter at a position of need for 2011, the vast majority of those covering the Vikings have fallen back on the tired cliche, lifted this year from the mouth of Vikings' Director of Pro Personnel, Rick Spielman, that "we need to wait 3-4 years to assess this draft." That's a convenient excuse for all who produce suspect results and not very comforting either for fans or team veterans who do not have 3-4 years to wait.

Similar unquestioning coverage allows the Minnesota Twins to hide behind a thin veneer masking the teams annual problems. This year, with the team facing non-division rivals right out of the gate and much-improved division rivals shortly thereafter, the Twins have struggled. They have struggled to pitch, hit, field, run bases, and, yes, to coach and assess talent.

The current wisdom by the paid media, allowed only after the Twins stopped contending that "if this were an NFL season we'd still be in the first half of game one," is that the players on the field--read, the players with small contracts--are the problem. To be certain, Alexi Casilla and any relief pitcher previously considered only for a mop-up role in other MLB stops, are a tremendous part of the problem. But so, too, have been virtually all other players on the team.

Whether Morneau is making the Bad News Bears look professional in a botched run-down play, Denard Span is being picked off of first yet again, Michael Cuddyer is overthrowing the cut-off and launching one over the catcher's head, Sal Butera is creating a new Butera-zone (.100 BA), Francisco Liriano cannot find the strike zone, yet again, or players are routinely injured to the point that they are unable to play for long stretches at a time, the players on the current version of the Twins certainly bear much of the burden for the team's awful play.

That awful play, however, is really only different in marginal kind to the type of play long exhibited by the Twins. Since Ron Gardenhire took over for Tom Kelly, the Twins have "prided" themselves on playing Twins' baseball. Ostensibly, that meant moving the runners into scoring position, making efficient use of the hit and run, driving in runners from second and third with less than two out, working the opposing pitcher, leading the league in fielding (factoring in chances), hitting the cut-off, reading pitchers and pitch counts, and being accountable or being gone.

Under Gardenhire's watch the slide immediately began. Although the Twins have qualified for several post-seasons under Gardenhire, they have done so almost exclusively due to the weakness of the remainder of the division. With Kansas City, Detroit, and Cleveland re-joining the ranks of major league teams, the Twins no longer can pad a .400 non-division record with a .700 division record and make it into the playoffs.

The reason the Twins are in this predicament is not just because the current players cannot get the job done, however, but also because the current manager either does not preach or does not properly teach the fundamentals of baseball, and the current over-his-head General Manager, Billy Smith, does not know how to assess talent.

Despite the highest payroll in team history, the Twins are on pace to finish the season last of all MLB teams. Without an injection of speed at all outfield spots, MLB capable players up the middle (catcher, short, second, pitcher), a semblance of a starting pitching staff that includes at least one true number one starter and one true number two, better base running, and, generally, vastly improved fundamentals, the Twins face their current predicament not only for the remainder of this season, but also for the next several seasons.

What needs to go? That's the easy question. The Twins need a center fielder who can hit and cover ground, freeing up Denard Span to move to a corner position--preferably to Cuddyer's after-trade position. They also need a shortstop and second-baseman who have range, can field, and can hit above .225 with at least one of the two having some slugging power; the team had this last season, but felt they could improve on what they had by offering what they did this season. Clearly, along with the trades of Johan Santana, Wilson Ramos, and Jose Morales, and the permitted departures of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, the decision represents yet another coup for Smith.

This suggests that, in addition to several players that they are likely to obtain only in off-season free-agency, the Twins need also consider hiring a competent front office person to allow Smith to devote more time to mastering the art of proper tie-tying and suit-sizing. And maybe it's time to recall Tom Kelly or check on the status of Phil Roof, or anyone whose mind-set is not characterized by the philosophy that the number two spot in the lineup is the place to hide a weak bat.

Though the Vikings are coming off a 6-10 season with the strong possibility, absent some substantial free-agent acquisitions, of failing to return to the playoffs in 2011, they can at least lay claim, however faint the title may be, to being the best run "professional" sports franchise in the market. At least they have that going for them. For that, they owe a strong debt of gratitude to the Twins being who we thought they were.

Up Next: Assuming Free-Agency...

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