Earlier this week, I wrote an article for The Hardball Times commending the Houston Astros for being willing to dedicate themselves completely to their rebuilding process, even though it means breaking things all the way down and dealing with some lean years in the process. If you haven't read it, the general gist is this - if the Astros rebuilding process doesn't lead to a successful run of contention, it will be because the pieces they're rebuilding with didn't pan out, not because of the philosophy behind the moves. The Astros have done the right thing by trading virtually every valuable asset they have to gather as many young, cheap pieces as possible, and can now begin heading in the right direction.
It's a difficult decision to rebuild, and the problem that many organizations run into is that they don't completely commit to the plan. Instead of completely tearing things down, they choose to keep a few pieces, typically fan favorite players or long-time team members, to save face in front of the fan base and keep some shred of respectability. It's these moves that, while they may help the short-term bottom line in terms of attendance and TV ratings, ultimately keep teams from rebuilding properly.
Not every team needs a complete overhaul to return to contention, but the Minnesota Twins are another organization that does.
What They've Done So Far
It's been a quick and drastic drop for an organization that won a back-to-back division titles as recently as 2009-10, but a rash of departing veterans and injuries have taken it's toll on the Twins, and it has unfortunately happened simultaneously with the opening of their new stadium.
The Twins did the right thing this off-season, entering rebuilding mode with gusto by trading outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere to the Nationals and Phillies, respectively, in separate winter trades, and letting Francisco Liriano depart via free agency. Most importantly, they have said that team centerpiece Joe Mauer is not being traded (more on that later).
For the services of Span, the Twins acquired Alex Meyer, a tall, projectable former first-round pick who has made great strides with his control since his time at the University of Kentucky, but still has a way to go in developing his off-speed pitches. The 6'9" right-hander should be, at the very least, a back-end bullpen guy, thanks to a plus-fastball and an even better slider, but if he can keep his command together, he could be a frontline starter.
For Revere, the Twins got Vance Worley, a pitcher who can fill a rotation spot this year, but also develop into a piece of their future, and Trevor May, the top pitching prospect in the Phillies system. May had his issues in his first taste of Double-A in 2012, but there are few scouts who think he'll be much less than a mid-rotation starter.
Acquiring this kind of pitching talent was a strong first step for the Twins, immediately giving them two potential rotation pieces for their next competitive team.
But they can't be finished.
Span had two years left on his contract, with an option for a third. Revere, having yet to even hit arbitration, is signed through 2017. If those two players were expendable, it's difficult to make a case for keeping Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau around this season.
For Morneau, nostalgia plays a part, and I get it. A former MVP, and a Canadian-born player on a northern team that borders his home country, Morneau has been a fan favorite for years. Additionally, he's battled injuries the past three seasons and his production has dropped off dramatically. He can still do a few things (like hit right-handed pitching), but he's nowhere near valuable enough to justify his $14 million price tag. The Twins have had some nibbles, especially at last year's trade deadline, but they're not going to get much of value for Morneau. They should be trading any asset that won't be around for their next competitive team (which clearly Morneau won't be), but you could make the case that he has more value to the fan base and at the ticket window than he does on the trade market, and I wouldn't argue with you too much.
The same is not the case for Willingham.
Josh Willingham has been in Minnesota for just one season, and it turned out to be the best season of his career. For the Twins, that's the equivilent of winning $500 on your $5 scratch-off.
The Twins were lucky enough to sign Willingham for a reasonable contract before the 2012 season. He's signed for two more years at just $7 per season, which is enough to make him more attractive to teams than one-year rental players, but not long enough to justify keeping him in Minnesota. The Twins will simply not be good within the duration of Willingham's contract.
So why keep him?
The Twins have said since last year's trade deadline that they're not trading Willingham, with the only conceivable reason being to try to keep some kind of semi-competitive team on the field. You know, like the one that lost 96 games last year.
Willingham isn't some star, but he is an effective power hitter signed to a reasonable contract. The market this off-season for Willingham would have consisted of a number of teams, including, but not limited to, the Pirates, Phillies (before the Revere and inexplicable Delmon Young signing), Mariners (before trading for Michael Morse), and Braves, to name a few.
Willingham wouldn't necessarily bring back a player the calibar of Meyer, but he's doing the Twins no good whatsoever, and he does have value. He would have brought back some pieces that they could have used to build around.
The Joe Mauer Factor
In general the philosophy to a rebuilding process should be to trade all valuable assets in order to obtain younger assets that will hit their peaks at the same time. In theory, Mauer should be the Twins most valuable asset. But thanks to the massave contract that still owes him $138 million over the next six years, he does't have nearly as much trade value as his production would indicate. If he had just a year or two left on his contract, thus putting his remaining service time with the Twins outside of the window in which they can next compete, then the Twins only choice would be to trade him for a fraction of his value and get what they can for him.
But with six years left on his deal, there's no reason to think, if things are done properly, that the Twins can't be competitive within the length of Mauer's contract. Additionally, Mauer is a local product and is as much associated with his team as any player this side of Derek Jeter, and while making baseball decisions based on fan emotion is a dangerous game to play, in this case, it is somewhat of a factor. It wouldn't be a dealbreaker in trading Mauer if he was owed less money and was more tradable, but it is a factor nonetheless.
I Can't Leave Out...
An integral part of the rebuilding process is success in the draft. There's not much philosophy to discuss here other than "they should draft good baseball players," but it is worth noting that they appear to have done a good job of that in the 2012 draft, if you put any stock in early, half-season returns.
With the second overall pick, the Twins selected outfielder Byron Buxton, the consensus top overall athlete in the draft. He held his own in rookie ball and we should have a better sense of just what kind of player he could become by this time next season, but the Twins are no-doubt envisioning a top-of-the-lineup that features Buxton and 2008 first round pick Aaron Hicks, who had a strong 2012 season in Double-A and is part of what made Revere and Span expendable.
With their second first round pick, the 32nd overall, the Twins grabbed Jose Berrios, a 6'0" right-handed strikeout machine who will be pitching in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico this spring at just 18-years-old. The Twins couldn't have asked for a better start to his career than the 14.4 K/9 Berrios produced in rookie ball last season, and they could very well have stolen a top-of-the-rotation starter at the end of the first round, assuming his frame can handle the workload.
The Twins have done a good job of beginning the rebuilding process, but they can't stop here, especially with Willingham on the roster. There is absolutely no reason for them to keep a 34-year-old left-fielder coming off of a career year when they can turn him into something useful for their future. In order for them to be successful in this process, they have to commit to it completely, and be willing to deal with the short-term consequences in order to benefit from the long-term gain.