The Minnesota Twins needed to shake up their philosophy when they were looking for someone to replace Terry Ryan. They compared themselves to some of the most forward-thinking organizations in baseball and ultimately turned their attention to the Cleveland Guardians.
The Guardians were experts at developing their own talent and had just gone to the World Series. If the Twins were going to poach an executive, they might as well do it from a division rival; thus, they landed on Derek Falvey.
Six years later, Falvey’s Twins are in trouble. Losers of nine of their past 11 games, the Twins are falling out of contention. A weekend sweep by the Guardians leaves them 3.5 games out of first place in the American League Central. With the wild card out of reach, their playoff hopes are on life support.
That’s not what the Twins had in mind coming into the season. Falvey and his front office were aggressive in trying to fix what was wrong with his team one year ago, yet they may wind up in the same spot. It has the Twins searching for answers. Right now, the Guardians do everything the Twins do not.
One of the biggest examples came on the mound this weekend. The Guardians have built a homegrown pitching staff that is on team-friendly contracts. Those pitchers turn into trade bait once they become too expensive.
The Guardians threw out three homegrown arms over the weekend with Cal Quantrill, Triston McKenzie, and Shane Bieber. All three pitchers shut down the pitchers with little resistance and showcased a strategy that has fueled not only a deep pitching staff but also a quality lineup.
Two years ago, they traded Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds for Franmil Reyes, Logan Allen, and Victor Nova. Allen and Nova flamed out due to injury, but Reyes became a fixture in the lineup. Bauer went on to win a Cy Young with the Reds, but a domestic abuse case has stalled his career.
The following offseason, the Guardians traded former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers. Kluber pitched only one inning for the Rangers while Cleveland got a little-known pitching prospect. That prospect is Emmanuel Clase, who made the All-Star team and is now regarded as one of the best closers in baseball.
A few months later, the Guardians sent Mike Clevinger to the San Diego Padres. The return not only netted Quantrill but revamped their lineup with Austin Hedges, Josh Naylor, and Owen Miller going to Cleveland.
The Twins have tried to copy this formula but haven’t had the pitching depth to pull this off. It has Falvey and his staff reaching for pitchers to put a band-aid over a flesh wound. They compounded the problem by trading for players who quickly suffered injuries.
There is no better comparison than the three pitchers the Twins sent to the mound last weekend. Dylan Bundy was the first pitcher signed last offseason and was nothing more than a reclamation project. The Guardians tagged him for seven runs in Friday’s opener while Quantrill allowed two runs over five innings.
Chris Archer was a similar reclamation project who they signed as a stop-gap. The Twins have been overly cautious with him all season but still saw him leave Saturday’s start early with a pectoral injury. Homegrown arm Cole Sands came into the game, but he allowed the lead to swell to 6-0 before the Twins mounted a comeback in the ninth.
The Twins trotted out Josh Winder in the series finale, one of the few pitching prospects who have panned out. Winder allowed two runs over four innings before the Twins pulled in favor of the bullpen.
But even the relievers show signs of the Twins’ ineptitude. The Twins were right to trade a homegrown arm in Taylor Rogers, but they did it for an injured starter (Chris Paddack) and a reliever (Emilio Pagán) who has given up the third-most home runs since the start of the 2021 season. (For what it’s worth, homegrown reliever Griffin Jax is second on this list.)
Therefore, they had to reach at the trade deadline. The Twins gave up four prospects, including Spencer Steer and 2021 second-round pick Steve Hajjar to acquire Tyler Mahle. The former Cincinnati pitcher was on the injured list with a shoulder injury in July, but the Twins made the deal anyway. The right-hander has been on the injured list twice with more shoulder issues, and there is no guarantee he pitches again this season.
The Twins coughed up more organizational depth when they traded for Michael Fulmer and Jorge López. Fulmer owns a 1.50 WHIP in 16.2 innings with the Twins, and Lopez has allowed seven earned runs in 14.1 innings since coming to Minnesota.
The front office didn’t give up a ton in the deals to acquire either reliever, but the Guardians have made a habit out of late-round gems.
Bieber was a fourth-round pick in the 2016 draft. Clevinger was a fourth-round pick by the Los Angeles Angels in the 2011 draft. Kluber was taken in the fourth round by the Padres in 2007. Success like that is unlikely, but it still matters.
All of this is compounded by the product on the field. The Guardians attack the strike zone. They don’t have mental lapses on the field. Cleveland doesn’t try to hit a three-run homer every at-bat, and they don’t give up outs on the basepaths. Terry Francona has a World Series ring; Rocco Baldelli is trying to win his first playoff game.
The Twins have dealt with a historic number of injuries this season, but it’s not an excuse. Luis Arraez is competing for a batting title. Carlos Correa is a former World Champion who is making $35.1 million. The Twins should be competing for a division title, but that won’t happen until they become more like the Guardians.