Twins switch things up with veteran help
Castillo, White, Batista and Sierra change Minnesota's dynamic
FT. MYERS, Fla. -- The majority of the baseball world searched, as usual, for pitching this winter. The Minnesota Twins were one of the fortunate few who were not short in this critical area. The Twins, though, had some shortcomings elsewhere.
"Unfortunately, we just had a very humbling year on the offensive side of the game," general manager Terry Ryan said Monday. "But nonetheless, I've never tried to separate the two. As a team, we didn't get it done. We didn't do a lot of things that we historically have done. We didn't execute. We certainly didn't situational hit. We didn't remain healthy like we had. We didn't have some of the years that I was hoping for.
"But we tried to address a few of those question marks. We brought in some veteran players here for a reason, because last year we did rely maybe on too many younger guys. Good or bad, it just seemed like we needed a little more veteran presence in our lineup. We had a lot of things that went on that just weren't our history or our reputation. But the one thing that did give us a chance to compete last year was that our pitching was pretty good.
"We feel like we've got some depth there. I'll probably regret saying that, but that's probably the strength of our club, we do have arms."
Oh, yes, they do. It starts with the starting staff, headed by Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. A deep and versatile bullpen is anchored by closer Joe Nathan. The vast majority of these pitchers were in place last season, too, but Minnesota's lack of offense was serious enough that even superior pitching could not carry this team to a fourth straight AL Central title.
"Last year we won 83 games, which was a huge disappointment for us," Ryan said. "Eight, nine years ago I would have been thrilled to win 83. That's no longer the case."
So, over the winter, rather than typically filling the gaps with players from their top-shelf Minor League system, the Twins acquired immediate veteran help. That help includes second baseman Luis Castillo, designated hitter Rondell White, third baseman Tony Batista, and more recently another veteran hitter, Ruben Sierra.
The Twins needed hitting. At the same time, Ryan easily resisted the urge to trade the Twins' blue-chip pitching prospects for that hitting. For instance, Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker are on everybody's list of top pitching prospects. But they're still Twins and they'll be vying for the fifth spot in the rotation this spring.
"Anybody who's young, affordable and talented is going to have some attractiveness to any club; it doesn't matter if it's the Royals or the Yankees or the Twins or the Dodgers," Ryan says. "And if it's a young player, a young pitcher, they're always going to be in demand. Our livelihood here has been our youth and promoting from within. You don't see us messing around with those types of guys much. We usually give them a chance and fit them right in. They certainly are aware of who we are, they've come through our system, there's no surprises. This year we were a little out of our norm because we had the ability to get a guy like Rondell White or Luis Castillo.
"We haven't changed much. We're about the same. We've got the same manager, the same farm director, the same scouting director, and that's kind of what makes us tick. We're going to end up doing it with youth more often than not. We've gone a little bit out of our box because we brought in a couple of veterans here, which is unusual for us. But sometimes that's a necessity. This year, I think it probably was a necessity."
These were not the most highly-publicized free agents of the offseason. But then, the Twins aren't going to be in the running, financially, for those. The Twins believe that players such as Castillo and White are exactly what they need.
"Our lack of offense last year was not so much not hitting it over the fence, it was being unable to generate runs, create runs," Ryan said. "[Castillo] is a three-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glover, he's the toughest guy to strike out in the National League, hit the best average against lefties in the National League last year. It's tough for me to think that there's much here that doesn't fit with us. He's everything we kind of need.
"You do background work on any acquisition. Ultimately, every time I ask somebody about some guy we're thinking about here and we get nothing but positives about the character and the makeup and the fit with our club, that always makes you feel pretty good when you go get a guy that everybody's raving about. Rondell White is about as good a human being as I've ever met. I think he's going to be a tremendous asset to the whole operation, not just having his bat in the middle of the lineup, but with his type of background, his character, the things he brings to a clubhouse. He's exactly our type of guy."
On paper, the Twins are better than they were last year at this juncture. The problem is that the entire AL Central may be better than it was last year. The White Sox were, of course, the World Series champions and the Indians nearly caught them down the stretch. The Twins were third. The Indians, Ryan notes honestly but not happily, finished ahead of the Twins with a payroll less than that of Minnesota. For a franchise that has been known for achieving a lot with limited financial resources, that kind of thing stings a bit.
"I think our division is going to be very competitive, top to bottom," Ryan says. "The Royals added more pieces to their club than any team in our division. And I know that the Tigers feel good. No. 1, hiring Jim Leyland, they feel good about that. But two, if they could keep their position players on the diamond on a regular basis, they're pretty good. Adding [Todd] Jones and Kenny Rogers, and adding a year of maturity for the [Jeremy] Bondermans of the world, I know the Tigers feel pretty good about their club. The days of winning 85 games and winning our division are long gone.
"And the White Sox are setting the standard for the rest of us. They had a great year in 2005, and then they had a great winter. They brought in some pieces and then they resigned a guy like [Paul] Konerko. They had a tremendous winter."
Ah, the White Sox. Their GM, Kenny Williams, made a point of saying last season that his club's return to an emphasis on pitching and defense was modeled after the Twins, who had already succeeded with exactly that emphasis.
"Kenny Williams has always been very gracious in talking about us, which is flattering," Ryan said. "And he says he's doing things that we have done and so forth, and that's awfully gracious of him. But he's done a wonderful job over there."
Now, in the midst of perhaps even tougher competition, with the addition of some veteran players, the Twins hope to get back to their best form. The Twins have been known throughout baseball for exactly what Terry Ryan says is their goal: "Playing the game right and having respect for the game.
"That's what we try to accomplish," the general manager said. "Sometimes, we don't play as well as we'd like to, but we play the game right. Last year, we just didn't play it as well as we hoped."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.