It's the All-Star break and I find myself looking at the Minnesota Twins, doing the typical midway analysis.
I keep feeling something is missing. I have spent a lot of time talking about what the Twins could do to improve their chances of overtaking the White Sox and winning the division this year.
It would be quite the feat to do so, considering the preseason message about how this team was “building toward 2010”, and the fact that the Twins continue to hit insanely well with runners in scoring position without getting most of those runs off the long ball, which seems to be a staple of offense for every other team in the league.
Moreover, this team continues to win in spite of the continued struggles of Delmon Young, the undisciplined approach of Carlos Gomez, and the disappointing year Michael Cuddyer has had thus far, both from a health standpoint and a production standpoint.
Plus, this team lost their set-up man for the year, forcing the rest of the bullpen to shift their roles and get used in situations they simply are not comfortable in. Matt Guerrier is not a set-up man, yet. Brian Bass probably should not be in the majors. Jessie Crain probably should not be called upon as much as he has been, as this is his first season after major shoulder surgery.
Oh yeah, and this team has a ridiculously patchwork “platoon” manning third base.
Yet, here they are, within spitting distance of first place in the division, and most recently won three of four games against the division rival Detroit Tigers. This comes after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox in Fenway.
The bounce back from that embarrassing series sweep might very well be a signal that this team is for real. However, the fact that they could not get a sweep of their own in the Detroit series, especially when they remained tied with the Tigers as they got into the fifth inning, shows that there are still things missing from this ballclub.
I believe this team must address their killer instinct in the second half if they wish to propel themselves into the postseason and make any kind of significant run.
So, Mr. Smith, GM of the Minnesota Twins, let’s have a seat here. I would like to discuss a few things with you, if you don’t mind.
You were with this team back in 2006, as an assistant GM under Terry Ryan. You watched this team make an improbable run to the playoffs, winning the division and earning a postseason berth against the Oakland A’s in the first round.
To some, getting Oakland in the first round might have been the better draw than to be in the wild card slot, taking on the Yankees.
Back then, however, some of us felt differently. This team thrived on being the underdog, the little team that could. Had they had the opening matchup against the juggernaut Yankees, I believe this team would have answered that challenge as yet another mountain to climb and would have won that series.
But that’s a lot of “what-ifs”. What's important is the attitude this year, but a lesson can be learned from the past. I think the attitude from 2006 is pretty similar to that of this year, and if the Twins continue this run and manage to somehow make it into the playoffs without any changes to the lineup or pitching staff, there will still be a little something missing come the postseason.
What this team needs, in order to take the next step and get into the playoffs, and beyond, is an infusion of, not only confidence, but killer instinct, the utmost belief that when you go out on that field, you’re not just looking for a chance to win. You’re looking to beat the other team.
You’re taking this game from them and they will have to fight tooth and nail to take it from you. This is what great teams do.
How do you accomplish this?
For one thing, listen to your manager a little: bolster the bullpen. You acquire a set-up man who can help shorten the game to get the ball to Joe Nathan with the lead in the ninth. This need is even more acute since you have a manager who refuses to use Nathan in any other situation that might stretch him beyond the obvious “save” situation.
Giving Gardy someone else to call upon in the eighth who can shut opponents down will take care of this problem.
Knowing that opponents only really have through the sixth or seventh inning to get ahead of you is a gigantic mental boost, and certainly can affect this team’s confidence level.
Plus, having one more shutdown guy along with Nathan could really boost the killer-instinct level in this pitching corps, something particularly lacking in that bullpen.
As a fan sitting either at home on the couch or in the stands, I feel a large amount of uneasiness whenever Gardy goes to the mound to call upon the bullpen. If I do not have confidence as a fan, how do the players feel?
I think it is also time to start punishing your young players for not playing up to major-league standards. This is not necessarily your province, but you might want to suggest it to your manager, after you listen to him a little.
When Alexi Casilla blows play after play at second, sit him for a day. Let him think about how important defense really is to this ballclub. The same should be true for Young. Make him work harder on his defense. Make sure he shows improvement in the field and at the plate, or else send him down and keep Denard Span in the majors.
In fact, perhaps this should be done with Gomez. He’s flailing at the plate. The patient approach Casilla shows at the plate clearly has not rubbed off on his best buddy on the team, and yet there has been no effort to minimize the negative impact his recklessness has on the rest of the lineup, and thus, this team’s chances of winning.
Move him to the ninth spot until he figures it out, or demote him to the minors when Cuddyer returns.
Accepting anything less than a winning approach to the game is not something a team should do at any level, in any stage of a building process. If you do not show your players that their continued mistakes will not be tolerated, they will not learn. There must be consequences for a clear lack of willingness to learn from one’s mistakes.
What might help mitigate these factors would be some added pop to the lineup, particularly against left-handed starters, as your manager suggested. Craig Monroe has shown signs of life, but clearly is not a guy who can be counted on to produce on a consistent basis against righties. Mike Lamb’s acquisition has been a bit of a bust.
Making a move to acquire, say, Adrian Beltre, might be a worthy endeavor. You lose nothing in terms of defense, and you add a solid, right-handed power bat at a power position. Not a bad move, depending on what you have to give up to acquire him and how much of his large salary you can get the Mariners to eat.
Making this kind of move would signal the exact opposite of the signal sent in the second half of last year, when this team clearly threw up the white flag and traded Luis Castillo to the Mets for prospects.
This would be a boon not only to the fan base, but I think to the rest of the team. Certainly your stalwarts in the middle of the lineup, Mauer and Morneau, would know that they will not be the only ones carrying the load as this team starts the pennant race in earnest.
More firepower in the lineup breeds further confidence, and the feeling that when it's time to get the job done, nobody can do it better than you. And nobody better stand in your way.
This is killer instinct.
It starts from the top. Teams that win championships do so because their front office has that instinct—the willingness to make bold decisions to take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses while mitigating their own.
The rest of this division is weak this year. The Twins are pretty strong, Mr. Smith. Make your team stronger. Show that this is not a stepping-stone year, that you’re willing to throw it away if the team does not win as currently constructed.
Some tweaks and a slight shift in thinking could have you, Mr. Smith, as the GM who finally made the Twins a champion.
The first step toward winning a championship is always made from the top. Show your killer instinct, Mr. Smith. Make some moves, hold some guys accountable, and see if you can make this team a contender a year or two early. You might be glad you did.
I think your phone is ringing. You probably want to get that; it might be the Mariners calling back...