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Note to Small Market Teams: Pay Attention to the Twins

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After forcing a one-game playoff to decide the AL Central at the Metrodome on Tuesday night, it’s time to give the Twins some credit.  Win or lose.

I’m not much of a Twins fan.  In fact, in many ways, I despise the Twins.  But they draw my ire because they are successful.

How do the Twins do it?  They really have a simple plan.  They take advantage of the competitive advantages of being in the AL Central.  Ignore the Royals for a second; stupid is as stupid does.  If you have not considered this question before, ask yourself which team in the last decade you would rather root for given only their accomplishments:

Team A — 4 division championships, 8 years over .500, no finish below third place since 2000, one playoff series victory

Team B — 2 division championships, 5 years over .500, one playoff series victory, 3 fourth place finishes

The differences between the two teams is not in the competition they play, as team A is the Minnesota Twins, and team B is the Cleveland Indians.  The Indians and Twins have similarly strict budgets, but the Indians cycle through rebuilding every few years in an attempt to remake themselves.  It hasn’t always worked.  The 2oo7 version of the Indians was quite good, but the underlying performance factors did not support a 96 win team.  That team also extended a bunch of bad contracts to players like Johnnie Peralta and Travis Hafner.

The Twins do it differently.  Their superstars come and go: they essentially received nothing but mid-tier prospects for Johan Santana, but the Twins never concern themselves with being great in any given year.  If you play your games in the AL East, you, well have more of a budget to work with, but you have to concern yourself with being a top five team in the league in any given year to be competitive.  If you aren’t great, you’re wasting your money.  For the Blue Jays, that principle costed J.P. Riccardi his job.

Life is different in the AL Central.  What the Twins do is entirely different from what the Tigers do, which is very different from what the Indians do (and what the Royals do shouldn’t concern anyone).  And while the outcome of the game on Tuesday proves absolutely nothing, you’d have to argue that the Twins’ method of doing business has been the most optimal.

So how does the Twins’ plan work?  Well, you have to start with defense.  When they go outside the organization to acquire talent, defense is a primary consideration.  This isn’t any different from what the Tigers do, except in the fact that the Twins have been doing it much, much longer.  This year, Minnesota ranks in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency, but the plan remains the same.

You also have to consider that the team has been lucky to develop the amount of superstars that they have.  Between Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau, we’re talking about one league MVP, another who will be league MVP, and a multi-time Cy Young winner.  It’s no secret why the Twins have been able to compete despite their budget.  But the second part of the Twins plan is that they know that every one of those players is expendible in the long run.  The Twins won’t give Joe Mauer a Travis Hafner type extension simply because he’s the best hitter in baseball right now.  They’ll probably get a value signing on Justin Morneau, but if they don’t they’re not married to him.  And closer Joe Nathan, such a huge part of the team’s success, is liable to be a trading chip as soon as the Twins have their next non-competitive season.

The Twins can compete with or without their superstars.  Obviously, this isn’t to discredit the season Mauer is having: without his awesome-ness, this playoff race would be over already (read: MVP).  But he very well might not be on the roster in 2011, and the Twins can justify it.

Finally, its that because the farm system is so strong, and the division is so perenially weak, the Twins can be legitimately projected to win 70-74 games, and go out and win the division at the end.  That’s the third part of their plan.  They don’t have to project as buyers or sellers, and they don’t even have to make a move at the trade deadline to be buyers.  They can “buy” from their farm system.  That’s something the Indians have never been able to do.  The Indians usually exhaust the resources in their farm system, go to compete, and then if they get off to a slow start, they’ll go out and replenish the farm system.  The Tigers will reach down to their system whenever they need to, and they also draft well enough to make that viable.

The Twins don’t need to draft expensive to draft well.  By being fiscally responsible, they put themselves in a position to take on a small portion of other teams bad contracts in August without having to trade any of their talent (see: Mahay, Ron).  They don’t put money into the draft like the Tigers do, and they don’t really even out-scout other teams.  They out-develop them.  They are patient with underperformers who don’t cost them a lot.  If you fail to develop with the Twins, you probably aren’t cut out for this league.  They don’t give out very many bad contracts.

The last time the Minnesota Twins won more than 95 games in a season, the AFL was an outdoor football league.  But by being unconcerned with trying to force greatness, the Twins are a very good organization who fields a strong team year in and year out, and doesn’t get deterred by a sub-.500 season or two.  After all, some teams with similar financial resources can have a bad decade or so.  There’s not a whole lot of pressure to perform, and frankly, the Twins need it that way.  On Tuesday, you’ll get to see if they can pay it off with a playoff berth.  And if they don’t, well, it’s not a crippling loss like it would be for the Tigers.  And that just might be the decisive competitive advantage.

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  1. October 6, 2009 at 8:30 am

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