Did you hear the one about the four Minnesota sports fans who walk into a bar?
The Minnesota Wild hockey fan is bragging to the others about his team’s good fortune. “We just hired one of the winningest coaches in NHL history!” he crows with glee.
Unimpressed, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ fan is quick to respond. “Well, we just hired one of the winningest NBA coaches AND we have a couple of back-to-back Rookies of the Year!”
Not to be outdone, the Minnesota Vikings’ fan shakes her head and chuckles. “Big deal. We have a great coach, are defending division champs AND are about to open a $1 billion stadium!”
About this time, the Minnesota Twins’ fan is cowering in the corner. As all eyes shift to the balding fellow sporting the TC logo on his tattered cap, the old guy reluctantly responds: “That’s nice, but have you tried our new hot pretzel bites or Signature Pecos River Red Chili?”
With apologies to Chef Jeff Tiedeman, whose Unheralded.Fish recipes are to die for, fans shall not live by bread alone. Such is the sad state of affairs at Target Field these days, where our beleaguered baseball buddies have been battered and beaten beyond belief.
Since I’d like to begin on a positive note … and I happen to be that aging chap wearing the Twins’ colors … there are plenty of great seats available and the weather is turning quite nice. Not to mention, those hot pretzel bites aren’t bad, either.
Now for a dose of reality. At 10-31, the Twins own the worst record in baseball. With one winning season since 2011, attendance is plummeting every year. But maybe worst of all, there is not one phase of this year’s team that appears to be headed in the right direction.
The starting pitching is lousy. The bullpen is worse. The offense is sputtering and leads the league in strikeouts. Dismal defense. Base-running blunders. Rookies regressing. Misguided moves by management.
To get some perspective on this level of ineptitude, consider these facts. The 2003 Detroit Tigers own the worst record ever, for a major league team playing 162 games. They finished 43-119. At their current pace, the Twins would win 40 games.
Need a stat to make you feel better? Actually, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders would appear to be secure in maintaining the worst percentage ever. They only played 154 games back then, but their 20-134 record makes that .130 mark awfully tough to top.
Sounds like the Spiders needed to get a few of the bugs out. But they have little on the Twins, who have picked a terrible time to showcase their woes when there’s never been more intense competition in town for the almighty sports dollar. Here’s a quick breakdown on the team’s breakdown:
In fairness to Manager Paul Molitor, who could have possibly predicted this mess just two months ago in spring training?
- Phil Hughes was 27-19 in his first two seasons with the Twins and looked primed to be the team’s ace. He’s now 1-6 with a 5.70 ERA and a sore arm.
- Ervin Santana missed half of last year for using performance enhancing drugs, then came up with a lower back strain in late April and wound up on the disabled list.
- Kyle Gibson got shelled repeatedly after a decent 2015 campaign, then joined Santana on the DL with a bad shoulder. He’s still not back.
- Ricky Nolasco finally put up a few quality starts before reverting back to his disappointing ways.
- Tommy Milone was ineffective.
- Tyler Duffey had an awful spring and began the year in the minors.
- Even rookie sensation Jose Berrios was forced to pitch at the big-league level sooner than the Twins had hoped, leading to control problems, short outings and an ultimate departure to Rochester.
While this might be the biggest reason for the Twins’ horrible start, it’s probably the one that’s most defensible and least predictable. Yes, the decision-makers never pursued a true ace in the off-season. But there are other areas where coaching and management appear far more culpable.
Last year, the hiring of pitching coach Neil Allen looked like a breath of fresh air after several seasons of decline under Rick Anderson. But the wheels have fallen off this year and it’s only May.
- The Twins have used 13 relievers this year. With the exception of lefty Fernando Abad, not one has an earned run average less than 3.00. They should have seen this coming, for a number of reasons.
- Closer Glen Perkins was outstanding until the All-Star Break last year. But his sharp decline in the second half gave hints that age and injuries were catching up to the Minnesota native.
- The Twins patched things together with the acquisition of Kevin Jepsen, who saved several games down the stretch. But his history was one of wildness and inconsistency.
- Predictably, Perkins got hurt and Jepsen got shelled as the Twins lost their first nine games in 2016. Minnesota didn’t have a backup plan.
Middle “relief” has been even worse. Consider this:
- Casey Fien was sent packing after several bad outings.
- Trevor May throws hard but his poor location has led to lots of long balls.
- Ryan Pressly can’t throw strikes. The team did little to address this area in the off-season.
The Twins have a reputation for being “free swingers.” That’s a nice way of saying that they strike out frequently. So in the off-season, their biggest acquisition was free-swinging South Korean slugger Byung Ho Park.
Yes, Park has hit nine home runs for the Twins, so his power is undeniable. But he’s also struck out 43 times. That would be fine, except that nine other Twins already have 20 strikeouts or more. And Park’s home runs have not been launched with runners on base, as evidenced by his meager RBI total of 15.
Instead of adding patient hitters who can put the ball in play and occasionally force defenses to make plays, the Twins make it easy on opponents by whiffing constantly.
I’m not a batting coach. But how many times must we watch Brian Dozier attempt to pull every pitch to left field and either strike out or pop up? That means you’re stuck with a lead off hitter batting .208.
Oswaldo Arcia has a powerful stroke, when he makes contact. But watch his swing and you’ll notice he drops his hands slightly before every pitch, making it difficult to adjust in time to 95 mile per hour fastballs.
Miguel Sano has 60 Ks already! Youngsters Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario teamed up for 55 more, eventually forcing the club to demote both, for more seasoning.
Joe Mauer is unquestionably the team’s best and most patient hitter, but even he has faded lately. Today, his average is a mere .265, with an even 26 walks and 26 strikeouts. Not to mention, a first baseman driving in only 11 runs won’t help much.
This is where Twins’ management deserves its greatest criticism. Remember that classic song, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown?” The Twins’ defense reminds me of Leroy’s face, which “looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.”
Sano’s natural position is third base. But because the Twins still have serviceable Trevor Plouffe, Sano is left to lumber around aimlessly in right field. Plouffe could be moved to first base, but then, that spot is occupied by Mauer. His natural position is at catcher, but concussions have rendered him incapable of returning to his best location.
The Twins did trade for a catcher in the off-season, but John Ryan Murphy failed to hit even .100 and like so many others, was shipped off to Rochester.
Infielders are forced to play outfield, when young outfielders can’t hit big league pitching yet. On and on it goes. With so many players forced to man positions of unfamiliarity, Minnesota’s defense has been embarrassingly bad.
This is the area where ineptitude has been most surprising. Sano tries to stretch a double into a triple and is thrown out at third. Danny Santana tries to leave early to steal second and is picked off easily by an alert pitcher. Mistakes happen, but these blunders occurred in the late innings with the game on the line.
Manager Molitor was arguably one of baseball’s best, on the bases. For whatever reason, his strength hasn’t translated over to success for his 2016 team. Seeking an identity for this struggling squad hasn’t been easy, but one would think that at least smart, savvy base running would be the hallmark for a Molitor-coached club. It has not.
Few, if any, baseball prognosticators saw this kind of collapse coming. After narrowly missing the playoffs last year, optimists hoped for a few more wins this season. Realists perceived the Twins to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. Even pessimists figured Minnesota would muster at least 70 victories or so.
At the quarter-mark of the 2016 season, the Twins look overmatched against almost every team in baseball. That is stunning, to say the least. They have already been swept a remarkable eight times. Their record within the American League Central Division is 4-17.
Logic says there will eventually be improvement. Starters Santana and Duffey are trending upward. Gibson will return to the rotation soon. Buxton has regained confidence in his swing and may be recalled in the next few weeks.
After all, things can’t get any worse. Or…can they?
If so, it could prove to be a long, lonely summer at Target Field. At least the lines for those pretzel bites and Pecos River Red Chili should be much easier to negotiate.