News Alert: Is the Universe Really That Obliging??

You may have heard the announcement already – it came out last night.

Our hometown boy, THE Minnesota Twin – yeah, you know who I mean, the newlywed Joe Mauer, announced that he and his new wife, Maddie, are expecting. Congratulations are in order, of course. But here’s the kicker: they are having TWINS.

No, seriously. That girl has some major league talent of her own to get this going – practically a storybook setup. (one that you would find ridiculous, unbelievable and too much of a stretch to make it good writing.) Good for them! (of course, it’s good for them but not exactly something on my wish list – twins are twice the work of one, I hear :) )

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Of course, this kind of makes me wonder what this team puts in the water… I can’t list all the twin births that have occurred in families of this team but my impression is that it’s far above the actual average. Could this be a symptom of having Twins on the mind too much?? [starts thinking very hard: singles, singles, singles..]

Now, back to your regularly scheduled Knuckleballs Keychain Contest!

The Key to Being a Knuckleballer

Thanks to the nice people working at WholesaleKeychain.com, Knuckleballs has four brand spankin’ new Minnesota Twins keychains to give away to our lovely readers.

Here they are:

TWINS KEYCHAINS!

TWINS KEYCHAINS!

These keychains not only hold your keys, but they send a message to the world that says, “I have keys AND a passion for Minnesota Twins baseball, and I don’t care who knows it!”  How could anything be better than that?  Rumor even has it that Josh Willingham and Trevor Plouffe use these EXACT same keychains!*  You can be just like your favorite Big League ballplayer.

*Maybe.  Probably not.  We have no idea what kind of keychain anyone uses.  We’re not even sure where our own keys are.

If you want one of the keychains, leave us a message below, or send us a tweet on twitter (@knuckleballs).  We’ll select four winners at random on Monday morning (meaning you’ll have all weekend to convince all of your friends to enter for a chance to win YOU a keychain) and drop these keychains in the mail so you’ll have your new Twins keychain just in plenty of time for Opening Day.

Thanks again to the folks at WholesaleKeychain.com for sending the Keychains our way.

-ERolfPleiss

A Bigger View of the Kernels’ Action

How desperate am I for good baseball news?

Suffice to say I’m really excited to see the Cedar Rapids Kernels new video board go up!

The old video board was installed when the current stadium was opened over a decade ago… here’s a picture from last summer:

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And here’s the new board!

KernelsNewBoard3

The new video board replaces not only the space that the old video board took up, but also one column of advertisements to the right of the old board, as well as the old electronic “line score” section of the scoreboard. Of course, it also takes up the space at the bottom of the old line score section where the “pitch speed” was found. Sure hope they find a spot for that somewhere!

Now… I can’t wait until there’s actually some baseball highlights being shown on that board!

- JC

Eddie Rosario turning Heads

Twenty one year old Eddie Rosario is with the Minnesota Twins in Big League camp this spring so he can get some extra work in before playing in the World Baseball Classic with his native Puerto Rico.  Rosario, who has not played above Low-A baseball, has made appearances in both of the Twins Spring Training games and he played in an intra-squad game prior to Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

In Saturday’s Spring Training opener, Rosario was 1 for 3 with single and on Sunday he was 2 for 2 with an RBI and a walk.  Offensively, things seem to going well for the youngster, despite his lack of experience against high-profile talent.

Eddie  Rosario (Photo credit Pioneer Press: John Autey)

Eddie Rosario (Photo credit Pioneer Press: John Autey)

Defensively, things have been a little rockier for Rosario.  A converted outfielder, Rosario has only one full season of play at second base, and this winter played outfield for his club in the Puerto Rican Winter League.  Jumping back into the infield Rosario likely has a few cobwebs to knock out.  In Saturday’s game Rosario missed an opportunity to throw out the lead runner at the plate when he was unsure where to go with the ball immediately after fielding it in the fifth.  On Sunday, Rosario misplayed a ground ball and was charged with an error on what should have been the first out in an inning where the Twins eventually gave up 3 runs.  When asked about the poor defensive play of the Twins in Sunday’s game, Ron Gardenhire said, “We’re seeing a lot of stuff you can talk about and hopefully make them better at the end.”

When Puerto Rico begins pool play in the WBC on March 8, Rosario will be back in the outfield, so he will have to transition back to second base when he rejoins the Twins.  Rosario’s future with the Twins will be largely based on his ability to play passable defense at second base, as the Twins outfield is packed fill of high end prospects and Rosario’s bat plays much better at second base because he does not have the requisite power to compete with a typical corner outfielder.

At the conclusion of the World Baseball Classic Rosario will likely return to Minor League camp, but for now he certainly seems like he is enjoying his time with the Big Leaguers and while he is not listed in the starting line up for Monday’s game against the Pirates he will likely be making an appearance after the first few innings.

-ERolfPleiss

Baseball is Back! Twins Spring Opener

Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota

Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota

While it may be taking place 1,000 miles away from almost everyone who cares, the fact remains that baseball is being played today by the Minnesota Twins… or at least a bunch of guys wearing Twins uniforms, anyway. The Twins kick off their Spring Training schedule with a game today at 12:05 CT against the Orioles from Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.

Actually, the starting lineup includes a lot of players that Twins fans will recognize and newcomer Kevin Correia starts on the mound. There won’t be a lot of recognizable names among the pitchers that follow Correia, however.

The Twins will send out Mastroianni (CF), Escobar (3B), Willingham (LF), Doumit (DH), Parmelee (RF), Colabello (1B), Dozier (2B), Butera (C) and Florimon (SS) to face Orioles’ pitcher Zach Britton.

The game isn’t televised but it is being broadcast on the Twins new radio affiliate, 96.3 FM in the Twin Cities. No change for me, of course, I’ll be listening on mlb.com, as usual.

No matter what happens during the game, the important thing is that baseball is officially back! – JC

Minnesota Twins Podcast – Talk to Contact – Episode 26

Episode 26 of the Twins baseball podcast,  Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

Thanks to Mark Smith (@MarkArtSmith) for the new logo!

Now more than 6 months into the podcasting experiment the Pleiss brothers tackle the glory and excitement that is the dawn of the 2013 baseball season. Among things discussed are the real value of spring training stats (none), things to watch around the diamond in 2013 for the Twins (infield, outfield, rotation, bullpen) and a discussion of arguably the biggest post MVP flop in baseball history (Zoilo Versalles); toss in some banter about whether or not bigger is actually better, prospect talk (Jorge Polanco and Niko Goodrum) with Seth Stohs (@SethTweets) and some other baseball banter and you’ve got a fine mess for your listening enjoyment.

http://talk2contact.podomatic.com/entry/2013-02-21T21_18_03-08_00

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes (ratings and reviews have magical iTunes powers, which help increase our Spring Training stats).

You can follow Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) or read his writing at  Puckett’s Pond.

- ERolfPleiss

Who will be the Twins’ Opening Day Starter?

With the Twins likely done making moves this winter, and with Spring Training games just around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to put my predictive powers to the test and try and suss-out the Twins’ plan for the Opening Day starter.  With the Twins opening the season at home this year, the Opening Day start has a little more significance than it has the past couple of years when the Twins started the season on the road.  The Twins have not started the year at home since 2009, and the last Twins pitcher to win the Opening Day game at home was Livan Hernandez in 2008 against the Los Angeles Angels.  In fact, the Twins haven’t won an Opening Day game since 2008, working on an 0-4 streak losing 6-1 in 2009 against the Mariners, 6-3 against the Angels in 2010, 11-3 in 2011 against the Blue Jays, and 4-2 a year ago in Camden Yards against the Orioles.  An Opening Day win would be a nice change of pace.

opening day optimism

Since the Twins moved to Minnesota to start the 1961 season, Opening Day starters are just 14-25, with 12 no decisions.  Not exactly a great track record on baseball’s biggest day, but with names like Camilo Pascual, Jim Kaat, Jim Perry, Bert Blyleven, Frank Viola, Brad Radke, and Johan Santana, the Twins’ Opening Day starter has historically been some of the most beloved players in Twins history.

Looking over the current 40-man roster, and some non-roster invites to Spring Training, there are several players who have a shot at being the Opening Day starter.  I’ll rank them from least likely to start to most likely to start on Opening Day.

Rafael Perez  (1% chance to start Opening Day) – Perez was just signed to a Minor League deal with the club a week ago.  He’s spent his entire big league career working out of the bullpen, and has not had a K/9 above 6 since 2008.  He has put up strong ERAs every year except 2009, but with the declining strike out rates and a ballooning walk rate, his ERA has been propped up by an above average strand rate.  Perez has an uphill battle to even make the team as a left-handed reliever, and an even tougher climb into the starting rotation.

Rich Harden (4%) – Like Perez, Harden is with the Twins on a Minor League deal.  Harden has not pitched in the big leagues since 2011, and while he has had a consistently above average strike out rate, he has not been an above average pitcher since 2009.  There is some question as to whether or not Harden’s shoulder can stand up to the high pitch counts associated with starting, so there is a pretty decent chance that if he makes the team at all, the Twins would prefer that he work out of the bullpen to keep him healthy for the entire season.  I like him more than Perez because Harden has a track record as a starting pitcher, and because the Twins are so desperately in need of strike outs, but he is still a long shot to even break camp with the Twins.

Mike Pelfrey (7%) – Pelfrey signed a 1-year deal with the Twins this offseason hoping to rebuild his value coming off of Tommy-John surgery.  Pelfrey is still not a ful year removed from surgery, so there are concerns about his ability to be ready to start the season in the rotation.  Unlike Harden and Perez, if he is healthy, Pelfrey has a guaranteed spot in the rotation.  If I was confident that Pelfrey would be healthy when the Twins break camp I would have him higher, but it is early in camp and I anticipate that he will end up needing an extra few weeks go get all the way up to speed.

Liam Hendriks (10%) – Hendriks is a fringe candidate to make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, but with questions about health among several of the arms ahead of him on the pecking order, he is likely to be the next man in if any one of the projected five starters are not ready to start the season.  Even a healthy Liam Hendriks is a long shot to take the ball for the Twins on Opening Day as Ron Gardenhire usually likes to reward his veterans.

Kevin Correia (12%) – Poor Kevin Correia has been written off since before the ink was dry on his shiny-new 2-year $10 million dollar contract.  Correia certainly is not the type of pitcher that would typically get the ball on baseball’s biggest stage, but the Twins seem to like his veteran leadership and clubhouse presence, something that went a long way for Carl Pavano (who started back-to-back Openers in 2011 and 2012).  Pavano had almost a year and a half of starts with the Twins under his belt prior to taking the mound on Opening Day, but with no other experienced veterans on the roster, Correia might end up pitching by default.

Kyle Gibson (13%) – The Twins seem dead set on starting the year with Aaron Hicks in center field field despite not having any Major League experience.  If the Twins are trying to build excitement in 2013 and invite fans to buy into the Twins future, Gibson could wind up pitching on Opening Day to help build momentum toward 2014 and beyond.  But like Pelfry, Gibson is coming off of Tommy-John surgery, and unlike Pelfrey, Gibson figures heavily into the Twins future plans, so they are likely to treat him with kid gloves.  The Twins are looking to limit his inning totals in 2013, so putting him on the mound from Day 1 does not do a lot to aid that effort.

Scott Diamond (15%) – After playing the role of savior for the 2012 Twins, Diamond was the overwhelming favorite to take the ball on Opening Day.  If Diamond is healthy he will undoubtedly be pitching on April 1st.  But Diamond had surgery in December to remove some bone chips from his throwing elbow and is reported to be progressing through his rehab slower than anticipated.  There is still an outside chance that Diamond is healthy when the Twins open 2013, but the Twins want Diamond healthy long-term, so if any question marks remain about his health, expect the Twins to take things nice and slow.

Vance Worley (38%) – Vance Worley seems to have become the Twins de facto Opening Day starter because there really is not anyone else with a real shot at keeping him from it.  He has a lot of things working in his favor; he is healthy, he is young and exciting, has a chance to be a long-term part of the Twins ballclub, and he is not Kevin Correia (which is to say he is not old, ineffective, and overpaid).

When the Twins traded away Ben Revere for Worley and Trevor May I would not have though Worley had any shot to pitch on Opening Day, but he seems to be the last man standing.

-ERolfPleiss

A Tale of Two (AL Central) Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

OK, not so much the former, but 2012 certainly would have to be considered among the worst of recent times for the fan bases of both the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians.

Progressive Field, ClevelandThe Tribe lost 94 games in 2012, which was just good enough to allow them to finish two games ahead of the Twins in the final AL Central Division standings. It was a disappointing season after Cleveland came within a couple of games of .500 in 2011. That had given fans some cause for optimism (or at least hope) as it came after a two-year stretch in 2009-2010 in which the Indians lost a total of 190 games.

So, as the Cleveland brass sat down after last season to plot out their offseason strategy, they faced these stark realities: Their team had lost over 90 games in three of the past four seasons, with only the 82-loss season of 2011 breaking up the string. Attendance at Progressive Field was 29th in Major League Baseball, drawing in just 19,797 fans per game.  More fans showed up for Astros games than in Cleveland (not by much, but still). Only the Rays got worse fan support.

In setting their payroll budget over the previous several seasons, Cleveland’s front office had followed a pattern that should sound familiar to Twins fans. After winning the AL Central in 2007 with 96 wins, payroll jumped about 27% heading in to 2008. That season, the Tribe was just a .500 ballclub, but management stayed the course and, in fact, even increased payroll slightly in 2009, when it reached $81,579,166.

But in 2009, Cleveland lost 97 games and attendance dropped by about 18.5%. Of course, conventional small-market (or is that small-minded?) wisdom called for a corresponding slashing of payroll for 2010. In fact, the Indians cut payroll closer to 25%. Despite the payroll cut, the Indians actually improved on the field. Instead of losing 97 games, they only lost 93. Naturally, a second 90+ loss season called for an even greater reduction in payroll (is ANY of this starting to sound familiar to you, Twins fans?) and in 2011, the Tribe opened with a payroll below $50 million.

The 2011 bargain-basement Indians arguably surprised fans on the field, falling just short of reaching the .500 mark. The fans didn’t exactly flock to Progressive Field, but they showed up in enough numbers to result in an attendance increase of over 30% above 2010. That got the front office’s attention and in 2012, they committed to an Opening Day payroll also more than 30% higher than in 2011. As we now know, they were rewarded for their generosity with a 94-loss season, which was witnessed in person by just over 1.6 million Cleveland fans.

Target Field, Minneapolis

You could argue that the Twins are following a similar franchise arc to that which the Indians have been on, just a year or two behind them. Of course, they also have a much newer ballpark (can you believe that 2013 will be the Indians 20th season in their “new” park?!) so the raw dollar amounts they’re dealing with are higher than what the Tribe’s front office has been working with.

But while they may be in slightly different spots on their shared arc, these two organizations found themselves entering this past offseason in very similar positions. They both compete (if you can call 94 and 96 losses “competing”) in one of the weakest divisions in Major League Baseball. Only the Tigers can even be considered anything close to being at the same level as the top teams in other divisions. They were both seeing home attendance sag. Both teams had little for elite prospects ready to bring up and play meaningful Big League roles.

With that in mind, let’s compare the moves the two teams’ front offices have made since the end of last season.

Field Staffs:

Cleveland started making moves even before the end of the 2012 season. On September 27, they fired manager Manny Acta. A couple of weeks later, they made a splash by hiring Terry Francona to manage the team in 2013.

The Twins retained manager Ron Gardenhire, but did not extend his contract beyond the upcoming season. They parted ways with three coaches and reassigned duties of some of the holdovers, while adding Tom Brunansky, Bobby Cuellar and Terry Steinbach.

Player moves:

The first major move by the Twins was to trade highly regarded outfielder Denard Span to the Nationals for highly regarded starting pitching prospect Alex Meyer.

Without Meyer, the Twins’ sole “top 30” prospect this offseason would have been an infielder (3B Miguel Sano) who had not played above Class A yet.

Less than two weeks later, the Indians made their first major move. They participated in a three-team, multi-player trade that saw them saying good-bye to highly regarded outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, in return for highly regarded starting pitching prospect Trevor Bauer (yes, there were other lesser pieces involved, too).

 Without Bauer, the tribe’s sole “top 30” prospect this offseason would have been an infielder (SS Francisco Lindor) who had not played above Class A yet.

Both teams had made a clear signal with their initial deals that they were heading toward an offseason of rebuilding for the future. The Twins took that signal to another level by also trading outfielder Ben Revere to the Phillies for pitcher Vance Worley (who won’t be arbitration eligible until 2014) and pitching prospect Trevor May.

Before the end of the year, however, both teams made moves that could arguably be viewed as efforts to pacify their fan bases by showing they weren’t totally giving up on 2013. The Indians signed Mark Reynolds in December, while the Twins inked veteran pitchers Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Rich Harden before year-end.

Still, as 2013 dawned, it was apparent to most of us that both teams were more interested in setting themselves up to compete a couple of years in the future than in 2013.

Well, we were half right anyway. The Twins front office took a few weeks off, apparently, and made no moves of any significance until signing pitcher Rafael Perez to a minor league contract last week.

The Indians, however, have continued to stay busy… and not just with tweaking their roster around the edges on minor league deals with invitations to Spring Training.

On January 4, they signed Nick Swisher to a four year contract, plus an option, and just for good measure, also inked pitcher Brett Myers to a one year contract.

Over the following couple of weeks, they signed minor league deals with a number of players, such as pitchers Scott Kazmir and Matt Capps.

Then they added pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Finally, they added outfielder Michael Bourn on another four year contract, plus an option.

In all, Cleveland committed to $117 million of guaranteed money to free agents during the offseason.

One could easily argue that the Indians have done pretty much exactly what many of us hoped the Twins would do… make some trades and free agent signings that would make them stronger immediately AND add a pitching prospect that has the potential to grow in to someone that could head a rotation in the future.

As these two teams prepare for 2013 to open, the Twins have the deeper minor league organization, while the Indians have done more to improve the product on their Major League field in 2013.

As a Cedar Rapids Kernels fan, I’m thrilled with the depth of the Twins’ farm system right now. However, as a Twins fan, I’m disappointed that the front office did so little to follow through on their pledge to improve the current Major League product.

I have a difficult time understanding any of the arguments made that the Twins had to choose to either compete now or in the future… that they couldn’t do both… that good players won’t sign with losing teams.

It’s especially difficult to accept that argument when Cleveland did exactly that. Miraculously, the Tribe managed to not only trade for an excellent young starting pitching prospect, but also get some veteran free agents to sign with their 94-loss team! Those free agent signings came with a price, of course. The Indians lost some draft picks, although their first round pick this June was protected. Was that too much to give up in order to try to be more competitive with the Tigers in 2013? None of us can know that, yet.

In fact, it’s impossible to judge right this minute whether the Indians or the Twins had the better offseason. We can’t yet know whether the Tribe’s focus on improving this season will help them compete or bring more fans to their ballpark. Nor can we say, yet, whether the Twins’ actually did fail to improve their current roster. It will also be years before we know whether the prospects that the two teams acquired in trades will make them better teams 3, 4 or 5 years down the road.

What I do know is that, right now, both the Cleveland and Minnesota front offices are claiming that they have improved their current rosters enough to be more competitive this season than last, while acquiring needed young pitching talent for the future.

Right now, I agree with the claims of one of the two teams. I wish it were the other one.

- JC