Tough Decisions This Week

The Rochester Red Wings must cringe every time the phone rings in their office this season. Almost every player on their roster who’s shown any ability to play the game of baseball this season has been plucked from their clubhouse and given a ticket to Minneapolis (with Kyle Gibson being one obvious exception).

As difficult as it has been for Ron Gardenhire to keep 25 healthy bodies in the Twins clubhouse this season, his job may be getting even tougher this week. The Twins currently have eight players on the Disabled List. What could be worse than that? How about having eight players all ready to come OFF the Disabled List at one time?

Now, if the Twins were still playing like a bad American Legion team, the way they were throughout April and a good chunk of May, this would be no problem. You celebrate the return of all the “real” Twins and happily send Red Wings manager Tom Nieto back the players you’ve borrowed from him. But now, just as virtually every player on your DL is due back in uniform, you’ve got a team of young players who have been winning a lot of games.

Joe Nathan

Kevin Slowey is just starting to throw, so his return isn’t as imminent as the others, but Glen Perkins and Joe Nathan are going to be ready to return to the bullpen in the next week or two. The current bullpen is consistently shutting down opponents (finally)… so who loses their job when Perkins and Nathan return? How confident are you that those two guys will immediately be as effective as the pitchers they replace?

As tough as those choices may be, things only get tougher when you ponder the decisions coming up with regard to the position players. Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Joe Mauer, Denard Span, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are all scheduled to come off the DL at roughly the same time.

The decision concerning which catcher departs to make room for Mauer will be tough enough. Drew Butera has been with the team for most of the past two seasons, but Rene Rivera is reportedly out of options [UPDATE 6/15: Latest information is that Rivera is NOT out of options, which makes the rest of this paragraph moot. Butera and Rivera are therefore essentially on even footing], while Butera still has options remaining. That means the team would have to risk sending Rivera through waivers if they want to keep Butera. That said, the Twins will need to clear a 40-man roster spot for Mauer, so they may be willing to take that risk with Rivera. But you have to wonder if the Twins want to face the possibility of Steve Holm being the fallback option if Joe Mauer’s return is short-lived.

Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert

As tough as that decision may be, it’s nothing compared to how Gardy and GM Bill Smith will go about finding room for the others. Seth Stohs detailed the performances of the current position players over the course of the past 10 games over at SethSpeaks.net and it would be tough for me to find one or two non-catchers that I’d be anxious to pull out of the current line up, never mind more.

I’d love to get Span, Kubel and Thome back. But do you really want to see Ben Revere benched or, even worse, sent back to Rochester? I don’t. During the offseason, I wrote that I wanted to see more speed in the Twins outfield and now that they have it, I don’t want to give it up.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

The Twins made a three year commitment to Nishioka and it’s very possible that he’ll end up being worth every nickel of the money they’ve sunk in to bringing him over from Japan. But we haven’t seen enough of him to know that for sure. What we do know is that Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes have all been batting over .300 (with three doubles each) during the recent stretch of success. How comfortable are you with the prospect of plugging in the unproven Nishioka in place of one of those guys?

We’ve poked a bit of fun at the line ups that Gardy’s been turning in, with references to them being “Red Wings” line ups and comments about how they resemble line ups you’d expect to see at spring training road games. But they’re also line ups that have been WINNING and the Twins still have a lot of winning to do if they’re going to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in.

So who’s time with the Twins is drawing to a close?

Brian Dinkelman’s cup of coffee with the big club is probably about over. In fact, don’t be too surprised if he is passed through waivers to make room on the 40-man roster for Nishioka. Rene Tosoni is also a logical candidate to return to Rochester.

So, if we assume Slowey will be headed to Rochester to join their rotation and that Dinkelman, Tosoni and one of the catchers will be departing, that leaves us just three more players to drop to make room for those returning. Two will be pitchers… but which pitchers? Might the Twins be ready to insert Anthony Swarzak in to the rotation and, if so, would Brian Duensing be likely to head down to Rochester so he continues to get regular starts? Of the rest, you could make an argument that Jose Mijares is the most deserving of a free trip to Rochester.

And what about the remaining position player that we must bid farewell to? I don’t see Revere, Hughes, or Tolbert going anywhere. Is it time to give Danny Valencia a wake-up call? Or is it possible that Jason Repko’s run with the Twins might be nearing an end?

These will all be critical… and difficult… decisions. Two players are going to have to pass through waivers and could be claimed by other organizations, so the Twins must choose wisely. The current roster has been making an impressive run and in the process, they’ve closed the gap between themselves and the division leaders. Shaking up the roster at this point is a risk, even given the talent level that’s returning.

As early as a week from now, we may be seeing a line up that includes Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, Jason Kubel, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and Denard Span. It will certainly look a lot more like the line up that we expected to see when the Twins broke camp in Ft. Myers. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

- JC

GameChat – Rangers @ Twins #4, 1:10

The Twins have a shot at winning yet another series from a first place ballclub today as they close out their series with Texas. With Scott Baker’s complete game gem yesterday, the bullpen should be plenty rested to support Francisco Liriano, if necessary. But will the Minnesota Red Wings line up continue to wreak havoc at the plate and on the basepaths against Rangers lefty Matt Harrison? Harrison has been just about as consistent as Liriano (which is to say, not at all), so it’s all up to the baseball gods today. Speaking of which, if it’s not asking too much, maybe those baseball gods could find a way to drop a loss or two on the Tigers and White Sox?

RANGERS @ TWINS
Kinsler, 2B Revere, CF
Andrus, SS Casilla, A, SS
Hamilton, LF Cuddyer, 1B
Young, M, 1B Young, D, LF
Beltre, A, 3B Hughes, L, 3B
Cruz, N, RF Valencia, DH
Torrealba, C Repko, RF
Murphy, Dv, DH Rivera, R, C
Gentry, CF Tolbert, 2B
_Harrison, P _Liriano, P

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Texas 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 2 2
Minnesota 1 0 0 0 0 0 5 0 x 6 9 1

Terrific ballgame! Combined with losses today by Cleveland and Detroit, today’s win moves the Twins within 9 games of the AL Central leaders.

Luke Hughes with three hits certainly seems determined to make a case that he deserves to stay with the Twins, no matter who comes off the DL, Lexi Casilla “only” had two hits (the slacker!) and Michael Cuddyer hit home run #9 on the season.

But Francisco Liriano was headed for his second no-hitter of the season through the 7th inning, until the seventh inning stretch and a five-run outburst by his team mates forced him to sit for a half an hour before taking the mound for the 8th inning. Still, you can’t argue with 1 earned run on 2 hits, no walks and 9 strikeouts over 8 innings of work. That earns Frankie our BOD award!

Francisco Liriano

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Realignment? So Goofy It HAS To Be Bud’s Idea

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the geniuses that have been running (or should that be ruining?) Major League Baseball have come up with an idea. Realignment.

It’s almost as thought Bud Selig woke up one morning, looked at the standings, and said, “Hey… we don’t have the same number of teams in each league.”

You would think that would be ridiculous… that the Commissioner would just now notice that their are 16 teams in the National League and 14 in the American League (especially since the team he owned at the time, the Milwaukee Brewers, that switched leagues as part of the weird scheme that led to the unbalanced leagues in the first place). But, then again, Bud apparently was the last person in the country to notice some players might be taking steroids, so he’s obviously not the sharpest tack in the drawer.

So now that Bud has noticed this imbalance, what’s he going to do about it? Why… move one of the NL teams to the AL, of course!

So the Brewers are coming back to the AL? That’s GREAT!

Oh… no… they aren’t. Apparently, baseball thinks the Houston Astros would be a better fit in the AL. It’s not altogether clear whether they’ve bothered to ask the Astros how they feel about that, but since the team us up for sale, I guess nobody really cares.

It makes sense, though, right? Why not have two 15-team leagues? Why were they not balanced in the first place? It’s a scheduling issue, of course. If you have 15 teams, you end up having to stretch out your interleague series over the entire season because you need to have at least one such series going on at all times.

But maybe you think that’s a small price to pay to have balanced leagues and besides, it would allow for six 5 game divisions, right? Well… no. The proposal would eliminate all divisions. There would simply be two 15-team leagues. Yes, this means the Twins would not currently sit in 5th place in the AL Central… they would be 14th in the American League.

The proposal is that teams would play a balanced schedule (within their own league anyway) with the top five teams in each league making the playoffs.

It’s tough to really get your mind around this proposal if you do nothing more than think about it as a concept. So let’s put the concept in to practice. Let’s look at what the current American League standings would look like if the proposed realignment were in place today (understanding that teams would not have played the exact schedule they’ve played this season).

AMERICAN LEAGUE GB 1st PLACE GB 5th PLACE
Boston - -
New York 2 -
Cleveland 3 -
Detroit 3 -
Texas 3 -
Tampa Bay 4 1
Seattle 5.5 2.5
Toronto 6.5 3.5
Baltimore 7 4
Chicago 7.5 4.5
Los Angeles 8 5
Kansas City 10.5 7.5
Oakland 11 8
Minnesota 13 10
Houston 14.5 11.5

There are a couple of interesting things about these standings. First, notice how tight the race at the top is. Six teams within four games of the league leading Red Sox. Then there are also six teams within five games of the final playoff spot.

Another interesting thing, at least for Twins fans, is that the Twins are no further out of a playoff spot in this scenario than they are in today’s standings… 10 games. Of course, the real difference is that, instead of only having to pass four teams to reach that playoff spot in the Divisional set-up, the Twins would have to climb over nine teams to claim 5th place.

It’s easy to see who would really like this approach. If you’re a fan of the Orioles, Blue Jays or Rays, this gives you a much more realistic hope of reaching the playoffs than having to displace the Yankees or Red Sox and claim one of the top two spots in today’s AL East.

But if you’re the GM of the Twins, A’s or Royals, while today you can still convince yourself (and more importantly, your ticket-buying fans) that there’s still some hope, under the “one league” alignment there would be virtually no chance to scratch past all the teams you’d have to get by to claim that 5th spot.

But the Twins have had a pretty good run in the Central Division, having won six Division Championships since 2002. That’s six trips to the playoffs. Would they have done as well without the division alignment?

Well… maybe.

Again, the schedule would have been very different, so you don’t know how many games each team would have won or loss with a balanced schedule, but assuming identical records, let’s see how the Twins would have fared.

YEAR Actual AL Central Proposed Single League
2001 2nd 5th
2002 1st (by 13.5 games) 4th (9 GB 1st)
2003 1st (by 4 games) 5th (11 GB 1st)
2004 1st (by 9 games) Tie 3rd (9 GB1st)
2005 3rd 7th (19 GB 5th)
2006 1st (by 1 game) 2nd (1 GB 1st)
2007 3rd 8th (9 GB 5th)
2008 2nd (lost game 163) Tie 5th (12 GB 1st)
2009 1st (won game 163) Tie 5th (17 GB 1st)
2010 1st (by 6 games) 3rd (2 GB 1st)

Interestingly, in the two years the Twins had to play an extra game to determine the AL Central Champion, they would have tied with the White Sox (2008) and Tigers (2009) for 5th place and, we would assume, would have still resulted in those teams playing a game 163 to determine the final playoff participant.

So, what should we make of this proposal?

To the old school baseball purist in me, there’s something about the “one league” format that I like and it’s clearly the “fairest” approach.

But Major League Baseball isn’t fair. Until baseball establishes a financial model that levels the financial playing field, the Yankees and Red Sox will always have an advantage in any system. The single league format would assure that the “best of the rest” challenge the Yankees and Red Sox once the playoffs start.

But will fans’ interest be as high in other parts of the country when the local team is “just” challenging for 5th place and the final playoff spot, as opposed to being in a pennant race for a division “championship”? I’m not so sure.

Word is that the Players Association is receptive to this realignment plan, but the chances of adoption are less than 50-50. It sounds to me like we’re getting a trial balloon… someone wants to get a sense of fan and media reaction.

My reaction is “forget about it.” Until MLB is willing to show some balls and find a way to enforce a more level financial playing field, I won’t support any system that just makes it even more likely than today that the Yankees will be in the playoffs every season. Fix the financial disparity and you’ll fix the competitive disparity. Teams with resources that are at least in the same universe can compete in a single 15-team league. Otherwise, just add a single “wild card” play-in game, but leave the divisions alone.

But what do you think? Keep the Division arrangement or realign in to two 15 team leagues? Let us know in the comments section.

- JC