TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — As Hopes Peter Out, Twins Become Sellers

The dog days of August have arrived and our favorite baseball team is apparently “rebuilding” again.

For the better part of four months, the Minnesota Twins teased local fans with a brand of ball just good enough to make us believe there was hope. In fact, as recently as July 20, the Twins were within a half-game of first place Cleveland in the American League Central Division standings.

Never mind the numerous warning signs. Despite a 48-46 record on that day, the club had one of the worst home marks in the majors, had been outscored by more than 60 runs and owned an unsightly team ERA near 5.

But after losing 103 games the previous season, who could blame boosters for feeling optimistic? New front office moguls Derek Falvey and Thad Levine represented fresh faces after frequent failures … five of the previous six seasons, to be exact. Veteran pitcher Ervin Santana was having an All-Star season, the defense appeared much-improved, and youngsters like Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton all seemed headed in the right direction.

Then came the disastrous West Coast road swing, as Minnesota’s bullpen blew one game after another, losing five of six games to the red-hot Los Angeles Dodgers and the middling Oakland A’s.

When I climbed out of bed on the last day of July, the Twins were suddenly seven games out of first place. Baseball’s annual trading deadline had arrived and a good deal of grumbling had returned to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

As she gulped down her coffee and headed for work, my wife had a couple of reasonable questions for me. “Is it true the Twins just traded that guy they picked up a couple of days ago? How does that make any sense?” She was correct about the first part. It’s just that my answer to the second would need more time than she had available.

“That guy” was Jaime Garcia, a solid, if not spectacular, left-handed pitcher the Twins had acquired in a trade with Atlanta for a minor-leaguer earlier in the week. In fact, Garcia was the only Twin to win on that cross country crusade to California. And that wasn’t all. By day’s end, Minnesota had also unloaded their All-Star closer, Brandon Kintzler, for cash and a no-name from Washington.

Knowing the Garcia swap to the hated Yankees would be difficult enough to explain, I was especially thankful I wouldn’t have to break down the logic behind Kintzler’s departure as well. Laurie was already out the door by then.

Meanwhile, on Facebook and Twitter, there was the familiar frustration from Twins’ fans who had seen this act before. Even veteran infielder Brian Dozier publicly expressed his disappointment with the moves, as others lamented how the big money teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs predictably got richer while the “have-nots” were forced to start planning for the future again.

But sprinkled amidst the dissenters, was the equally predictable call for calm from those who like to think they know better. At the risk of coming off like a baseball snob, you can include me in that group.

In response to our slugging second sacker, I would like to suggest to “Doz” that perhaps his five strikeouts Sunday may have contributed to this housecleaning.  Then again, the moves by management were already happening. And they should’ve been.

Convincing casual fans like my wife, and even more passionate ones simply sick and tired of seven seasons of mediocrity, would seem more difficult. But let me try.

To begin with, if you want to be upset, the anger should be directed more at major league baseball in general rather than the Twins. Teams like the Yankees and Dodgers make mountains of cash from both national and local TV deals. Even with attempts at parity, the clubs with more money will spend it. Recently, the Yankees signed nine of the top 25 international prospects. Because they could.

So when the Bronx Bombers scoop up players like Sonny Gray, David Robertson, Todd Frazier and Jaime Garcia, it shouldn’t be surprising. Or the Dodgers snatch the biggest prize at this year’s deadline, pitcher Yu Darvish. They clearly have a competitive advantage.

That still doesn’t guarantee a pennant. But it does mean teams like Minnesota must always be creative and savvy to compete. It’s becoming clear that Falvey and Levine see pitching as their club’s greatest need. The roster is already blessed with a number of young, everyday players ready to contend at the plate and in the field.

For starters, let’s be realistic. Minnesota was going nowhere with this shaky staff. Garcia was viewed as a rental player, needed solely for the remainder of this season. Both he and Kintzler are eligible for free agency and could re-sign with any team next season. Both are over 30. What’s more important is to examine what the Twins got in return:

  • Zack Littell: Picked up in the Garcia trade, this 21-year old has been tearing it up in the Yankee organization. The right-hander is not overpowering but has great control, profiles best as a long reliever and is 14-1 in stints at High A and AA levels.
  • Dietrich Enns: Another former Yankee, this lefty is much closer to being ready for the major leagues. The 26-year old from Central Michigan has a good curve and changeup and should help in the late innings.
  • Tyler Watson: Acquired in the deal with Washington, Watson just turned 20. A big southpaw at 6-foot-5 and projected to be a back end of the rotation starter, this kid has potential breakthrough stuff.

If you agree that the Twins are still in dire need of pitching, then you should welcome any fresh arms to the system, even if it means those players may be a few years away from contributing. Considering that only Cincinnati and Baltimore have given up more runs this season, that would seem to be a logical deduction.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing Santana traded as well. He will turn 35 in December, is having a better than expected 2017 season and would likely yield more young arms from a contender desperate to win now.

Also lost in the shuffle was an interesting side benefit to the Kintzler trade. Remember that stat I mentioned about the Yankees and their ability to sign players overseas? Washington has included $500,000 in international bonus pool allocation, giving the Twins a better chance to compete on that level, too.

Yes, our boys have emerged from the cellar, only to become sellers one more time. But as Andy told old Red in “The Shawshank Redemption,” it’s either time to “get busy living or get busy dying.”  For now, the Twins need to die first to live later.

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