We’re at a point in the season where there’s a lot of baseball left: Why not the Twins?
I’ve read there were a handful of clubs that were chasing Kendrys; we were ahead of many of those clubs in the standings.
-- General manager Terry Ryan at the Morales signing press conference (6/8/14)
The Minnesota Twins signed Kendrys Morales a day after beating the Houston Astros 8-0 and improving their record to 29-31. Ryan felt this was a move that would improve the team’s anemic offense while also infusing a rush of confidence to the clubhouse.
Later that day, Minnesota would get routed by Houston, 14-5, and there were mixed feelings in the clubhouse. Everyone was down because the team had just lost a series to a rebuilding Astros club, but there was still a feeling of excitement in the clubhouse because of the new addition. “That does a lot just for the guys in here for how they reward our play so far," said closer Glen Perkins. “We have a similar record to what we had last year, but we think we’re a lot better team, and making moves like that, taking chances on guys and making us better goes a long way here for guys’ confidence and that we’re all on the same page here."
The Twins never reached .500 after signing Morales. In fact, they suffered two separate five-game losing streaks and stood at 44-50 entering the All-Star Break. Morales, a designated hitter and first baseman, entered the break hitting .229/.254/.582, worse numbers than his rookie year and far lower than his .277/.329/.471 career line. “Since I last talked you about that subject," said Ryan, nearly a month later, in regards to whether the Twins would be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline, “we have gone the wrong way. We’ve lost too many games, and now we’re in a tough spot. Do you know whose shoulders that falls on?
That was on July 6, a day before Minnesota went on a seven-game road trip to Seattle and Colorado. Before the road trip, the Twins appeared to be in fire sale mode, but after going 5-2 against the Mariners and Rockies, the dynamic shifted. “We knew coming into this whole road trip, it was not necessarily make-or-break, but it was a huge test of what we’re going to do after the break, whether buy or sell, all that stuff," second baseman Brian Dozier told Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press. “I want to try to do everything to contend. In all our opinions, we think we’re good enough."
The Twins need to go for broke right now. There is no shame in aiming for the playoffs and ending up with a 75-win record. Shoot for the moon, land among the stars, as the say. It would be an improvement, but more importantly it tells you a lot about how much team management considers the fans in their decision. The bottom line is: This is a no brainer. The Twins need try and contend for a playoff spot because a) they don’t have much to sell, and b) a fire sale creates a culture of losing, which is already forming at Target Field.
The time to win is now.
Lack of tradable assets
The Twins basically have four trading chips: Morales, pitcher Kevin Correia, left fielder Josh Willingham and catcher Kurt Suzuki. Only one of those guys would get a decent return: Suzuki. Morales, who was signed to a prorated $8 million contract, will be sold for cents to the dollar right now. Correia was an All-Star in 2011, but has never pitched 200 innings in a season and owns a career 4.50 ERA. Willingham hit .260/.366/.524 with 35 home runs and 110 RBI in 2012, the first year of his 3-year, $21 million contract -- at the time, the biggest free agent contract in Twins history -- but the 35 year old has become inconsistent and isn’t hitting much better than his .208/.342/.368 line last season.
Suzuki earned his first All-Star appearance this season after a strong first half (.309/.365/.396) but had suffered from wear and tear in his previous three seasons, batting only .230 while battling wrist issues and other ailments as a member of the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals. Not only will teams expect his production to regress over time, but he’s valuable to the Twins right now. Without Suzuki, the team is relying on career minor leaguer Eric Fryer and outfielder/catcher Chris Herrmann behind the plate. Josmil Pinto may take over at some point, but right now his defense needs a lot of work. A 2- or 3-year extension should be in order for Suzuki, 30, this offseason.
If the Twins are going to trade Morales, Correia or Willingham, it would be to create space on the field for their young players. Kennys Vargas is a 23 year old that is hitting .291/.364/.480 with 15 home runs at Double-A New Britain before the break. Like Morales, he is a designated hitter that can make spot starts at first base and has shown enough to get a shot in the majors sooner than later. Correia could be moved for top pitching prospects Alex Meyer or Trevor May, who are the future of the Twins rotation. By moving Willingham, Minnesota allows Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia and perhaps Chris Colabello to audition for a spot on the major league roster next season.
In this case, the Twins aren’t selling in hopes of a big return -- none of those four players, even Suzuki, would merit a Top 100 prospect -- but rather to create room for their younger players to get major league experience or compete for a spot on next year’s roster. By moving Morales, Correia and Willingham, the focus would be on selling off spare parts, not trying to add new ones.
Reversing a culture of losing
Everyone was shocked when the Twins lost 99 games in 2011. ESPN and Sports Illustrated had Minnesota winning the AL Central again, and nobody could have predicted that the M&M Boys -- Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau -- would suffer from significant injuries that hampered their production that season or that the rotation -- Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker -- would have imploded.
In 2012 and 2013, poor management decisions from years past haunted the team. The lopsided J.J. Hardy trade and failed Tsuyoshi Nishioka experiment left the Twins without a major league caliber shortstop. Delmon Young’s attitude made fans wonder why the team traded away Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for him when there was a need for quality pitching and a plug at short. And Aaron Hicks was not ready to make the leap from Double-A when Denard Span and Ben Revere were traded away.
As a result, the Twins, once a model small-market team that had won six division titles from 2002-2010, whose No. 1 concern was how they would beat the New York Yankees in a playoff series, suddenly had other issues to deal with. After christening Target Field with a 94-win season in 2010, the team had become cellar dwellers in Target Field. One losing season is an anomaly. Two is the start of a pattern. Three becomes a trend.
Fans went from wondering why Ron Gardenhire wasn’t annually given the Manager of the Year award -- he was a runner-up for five years before winning it in 2010 -- to wondering why he had a job. He joined Tom Kelly, the man who brought two World Series to the Twin Cities, in the 1000-win club in April of this year, but he will also hit 1000 losses this season. He would have been left hanging at 998 wins last year if he had not been offered a two-year extension shortly after the 2013 season concluded.
Gardenhire, who only had one losing season from 2002-2010, suddenly is faced with the realistic possibility of enduring four straight.
This is the year to establish a winning culture again. Even though it hasn’t worked out perfectly, ownership made an effort by signing Morales, and Ryan did so by speaking his infamous words: “Why not the Twins?" There is no reason to burn it down and wait for next year. Yes, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are supposedly on the way. So are Meyer and May. But none of those players will succeed when introduced to a losing culture.
Trading away players at the deadline can be an effort to lay down the foundation for a winning team years down the road, but retaining players to make a playoff push -- even if it proves fruitless in the end -- can have the same effect in the right circumstances. Right now, the Twins have to approach the second half of the season like they did all those years when they came out of nowhere to force Game 163: playoffs or bust.
Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.