Vienna
Twins catcher Joe Mauer’s health remains the team’s top question mark, while his contract remains immovable. -- Buck Monson/BuckMonsonPhoto.com

GM Ryan, Twins have a long climb back to the top

Published 9:15am Thursday, February 16, 2012

Column: Second Thoughts

I’ve never doubted the Minnesota Twins. But until last season, I’ve never had to.

The small-market model franchise raised its payroll last season and its wins total plummeted, and I’m afraid the future doesn’t look much brighter.

Based on ESPN.com’s Future Power Rankings, the Twins are projected to be the 25th best team in MLB in five years. The rankings were based on five important categories: teams’ major league rosters and minor league systems, finances, management and mobility. The categories were voted on by the company’s top three baseball analysts — Jim Bowden, Keith Law and Buster Olney — and the Twins finished in the bottom half of the league in all five.

The Twins major league roster was voted eighth of all MLB teams (First is the worst and 30th is the best). A team whose Opening Day roster last season looked like it could rival the Yankees’ suddenly has a ton of question marks. The team let go of sluggers Jason Kubel and Jim Thome, and all-around good guy Michael Cuddyer, who became the face of the franchise last season in the wake of Joe Mauer’s mystifying injuries and illnesses.

The Twins, unlike another team in the American League Central, did not make a large haul in free agency, either. The team’s top incomers are outfielder Josh Willingham, infielder Jamey Carrol and catcher Ryan Doumit. The Detroit Tigers locked up two-time Silver Slugger Prince Fielder and are now an easy pick to win the Central with one of the top lineups in baseball and the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Jason Verlander, and the Indians are in talks with the Yankees to deal for pitcher A.J. Burnett.

The Twins did retain its two stars — Mauer and Justin Morneau — but their health is perhaps the team’s biggest question mark and the reason Minnesota was ranked sixth in mobility.

The M&M boys will be paid a combined $37 million in each of the next two seasons, limiting the space General Manager Terry Ryan has to work with. At one time, Mauer and Morneau were arguably the best 1-2 punch in baseball, but injuries have since jeopardized their careers.

If the Twins ever wanted to trade either one of its MVPs — trust me, that’s not far-fetched — it likely couldn’t find a suitor based on their salaries and all-time low performance levels.

The Twins’ farm system is also ranked 13th. It has only four prospects in ESPN’s Top 100 of 2012 and its highest is Miguel Sano at No. 28. The Twins won’t trade any of its top prospects away this season because it won’t contend in the division and can’t afford to let go of what little it has. Minny will fight with Chicago, whose future is even gloomier than the Twins’, for fourth place in the Central, and the team needs to start replenishing its minor league system soon. Bowden’s advice for Ryan is to deal Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker “for any young arms it can find.”

The Twins’ finances and management is ranked 13th and 12th, respectively, and give the team credit for having the ninth-highest payroll in baseball last season. That said, the Twins did post the second fewest wins, and the team’s brass said during the offseason that its payroll was too high. That number will surely drop in 2012 and may not reach $115 million mark again for some years.

The Twins best move this offseason wasn’t in player personnel but in the front office. The firing of Bill Smith as GM and subsequent hiring of Ryan will help the team make better roster decisions in the future. It was Ryan’s teams who won four division titles in five years with one of the lowest payrolls in MLB. Smith was given a shiny new stadium and more money to work with but couldn’t produce the same results.

The Twins have the cards stacked against them in 2012 but have something other teams don’t: a little Minnesota Magic. Here’s hoping for another division title in what is once again becoming one of the toughest in MLB. But don’t count on it.

 

Tribune Sports Editor Andrew Dyrdal’s column appears weekly in the Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @ADyrdal_Tribune.