A Tale of Two Franchises

The Minnesota Vikings brought the curtain down on their 2013 season over the last couple of days in a manner that was all too familiar to Minnesota Twins fans. And for those of us who are fans of both, the similarity was something we could certainly have lived without.

Still, there were some rather striking differences in how things played as those seasons drew to a close; differences that say something about how the two franchises are being run.

Back in September, the Twins wrapped up another disappointing season in which they accumulated just a .407 winning percentage. In the final days of the season, many players, including Joe Mauer, the Twins’ superstar face-of-the-franchise, publicly voiced their support for manager Ron Gardenhire.

Immediately after the season ended, Gardenhire was given a two-year contract extension to continue managing the Twins.

In early October, Twins owner Jim Pohlad said the following to Mike Berardino of the Pioneer-Press concerning the decision to retain Gardenhire:  “But in the end, it is his (GM Terry Ryan) decision. That’s his job. We could have the ultimate call if we wanted to, but Terry — we told him — he has the ultimate call. That’s the call we made: ‘Terry, it’s your decision.'”

Not long after, in an interview with TwinsDaily.com’s Parker Hageman, Ryan had the following to say about the decision to retain the Twins manager: “If Ron wasn’t coming back, I probably shouldn’t be back. Now, Jim Pohlad and Dave St. Peter invited me back, so I brought Ron back with me. A lot of times you should evaluate a manager on the personnel he has. And unfortunately, we’ve fallen a tad short here as far as productivity. And I take total responsibility on that, so I shouldn’t pass the buck on the manager and the coaching staff.”

The Vikings finished their season with a win over their least rival-like Divisional rival, the Detroit Lions, on Sunday, leaving them with a sub-Twins-like .344 winning percentage. The final game was a battle between two underperforming teams with head coaches on the hot seat. After the game, many Vikings players, including their superstar face-of-the-franchise Adrian Peterson, seemed united in their support for retaining head coach Leslie Frazier.

Monday morning, Frazier was fired by the Vikings with another year left on his existing contract.

According to media accounts of the press conference announcing Frazier’s firing, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf awkwardly read a prepared statement and left without hearing, much less answering, questions from the media, leaving GM Rick Spielman to deal with the fallout.

Vikings GM Rick Spielman

Vikings GM Rick Spielman

Spielman said the decision to fire Frazier was primarily made by the man who had just walked away without taking questions (wasn’t that convenient?).

Spielman also made statements that appeared to conflict with comments made by Frazier as recently as Sunday concerning who was deciding what with regard to the Vikings’ quarterback situation. Frazier had indicated that decisions concerning who would be getting playing time at QB were made jointly between himself, ownership and the GM. Spielman seemed to lay all responsibility in that area on Frazier.

Spielman did take responsibility for forming the Vikings’ roster but, unlike Ryan with the Twins, he seemed to wash his hands of any responsibility for those player’s performance on the field, which he blamed on Frazier.

So, according to Spielman, he isn’t responsible for anything that went on with the Vikings this year. Kind of makes me wonder exactly what he does to earn a paycheck.

There are a couple different ways you can look at the situations the Twins and Vikings found themselves in after their respective disappointing seasons.

You could argue that, unlike Pohlad, Wilf insists on someone being held accountable for failure. That argument seems to come down to an insistence that someone must be responsible for a losing season, so someone must be fired, period.

Those of that mind probably prefer Wilf’s more active and visible involvement in day to day decision making with the team he owns over Pohlad’s more laissez-faire approach to owning a major sports franchise.

Twins GM Terry Ryan

Twins GM Terry Ryan

Personally, I’m not sure what it is about billionaires who made their billions doing something other than running sports teams that we should assume makes them better judges of what it takes to win professional football or baseball games than people who have been making their livings their entire lives in such endeavors. Still, if you think being rich makes you smarter than everyone else at everything, I’m not going to bother trying to change your mind.

I guess if all you care about is that someone gets fired when you lose 60% of your team’s games, then you’re pretty happy with Wilf and Spielman this week. I’m sure if you polled Vikings fans, the decision to change head coaches is a popular one.

It may even turn out to be the right one.

If the only measure of success is whether you’ve won the Super Bowl or the World Series championship, then perhaps anything less than winning more games than you did the previous year is grounds for someone to get fired.

Personally, that’s just not how I think.

I think the smartest business owners are those who hire the most knowledgeable  people they can at running their specific type of business. They understand that all businesses have peaks and valleys and, while they expect to see well thought-out plans to extend peaks and pull out of valleys, they resist the urge to meddle or make dramatic changes out of emotional reaction, because doing so might just be good public relations or, worst of all, just out of a need to show people who’s in charge.

I don’t really know Ron Gardenhire, Terry Ryan, Jim Pohlad, Leslie Frazier, Rick Spielman or Zygi Wilf. I’m in absolutely no position judge their character.

I have heard or read comments from people who play/work for Gardenhire, Ryan, Pohlad and Frazier that indicate, to me anyway, considerable loyalty and some degree of respect for their integrity.

Gardenhire clearly has the respect of his players and coaches. Ryan acknowledged that he failed to assemble a competitive roster for the manager to compete with and had Gardenhire’s back in discussions with the Twins ownership. Pohlad is, for now anyway, trusting Ryan to do his job with the people he believes in, but he has made clear that he expects the Twins fortunes on the field to improve.

Frazier, similarly, had the respect of his players and coaches. Spielman, however, faced with an owner who appears to have been insistent on someone’s head rolling after a disappointing year, seems to have done what he had to do to save his own job. In doing so, he somehow managed to avoid being complicit in the team’s greatest failing (the QB situation) while also abdicating any responsibility for his coach’s dismissal.

I’m not smart enough to know whether Frazier was a good NFL head coach or if he was the right coach for the future of the Vikings, just as I’m not smart enough to know if Ron Gardenhire is a good MLB manager or the right manager to lead the Twins in the future.

In fact, I don’t claim to know anything.

But here’s what I think:

I think people with integrity eventually bring more success to their organizations than people without it. I also think people with integrity prefer to work for someone that they believe also has integrity.

Actually, there is one thing I do know.

I know that, if I were a gifted athlete, a coach, a manager, a trainer, a front office employee or worked in any field where I might find myself with a choice between working for the Pohlad/Ryan led Twins or the Wilf/Spielman led Vikings, I’d chose the Twins right now… and it wouldn’t even be close.

– JC

The Hall of Fame Ballot Gets Crowded

It’s time. There are only a couple days left before Hall of Fame ballots are due in. Yes, those holy guardians of all that is right and just in baseball (voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America) must soon stop writing about how hard it is to perform their duties as HoF voters and just vote, already.

As I’ve written several times, I don’t believe the writers have any business sitting in judgment of anyone else’s morality. If they would just vote based on players’ achievements, fine. But as arbiters of others’ morality, they have no business being judges and jury.

I’ve also been clear that my own criteria for voting would go beyond just statistical evaluation (though obviously, stats are a big part of the equation). As I’ve written before, it’s the Hall of FAME. So tell me what these players accomplished during their careers that stood out, that was remarkable, that made an impression on baseball in their era, that made memories, that fans of that era and beyond still talk about and recognize, that made the player famous or added to the general level of fame bestowed upon the game of baseball itself.

Baseball-Hall-Of-FameWith no player garnering the necessary 75% support a year ago and a sizable number of excellent players being added to the ballot for the first time this year, a number of writers with voting privileges have continued to complain about being limited to only listing 10 players on their ballots. To which I say, “Shut up. If you and your fellow writer friends would quit being so damn holier-than-thou, or if MLB would show some balls and act as the morality police for the game instead of expecting writers, of all people, to do so, you wouldn’t be having this problem. On top of that, you get all sanctimonious over who should even be allowed to get in to your little writers association club and then you whine about how hard it is to do the one mildly important thing that membership entitles you to do.”

I feel better getting that off my chest.

Don’t get me wrong. I love baseball writers. OK, not really love, but I like them a lot. Enough that I pretend to be one sometimes.

I think, by and large, baseball writers do a great job in every respect during the year EXCEPT when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. In this one area, the hand-wringing, judgmental crap that many (not all) writers shove down our throats just drives me nuts to read.

So, yes, it’s a tough job to come up with just 10 players to vote for this year, but the BBWAA has done it to themselves.

With that, here’s what my ballot would look like if I were doing the voting.

A year ago, I said there were five players that should either be in the Hall or you shouldn’t have a Hall. Now that list is at six. In addition to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire, I would add first-timer Greg Maddux.

Yes, that list includes five PED users. When we are told that their sins, like those of Pete Rose’s, make them ineligible for enshrinement, I’ll stop including them on my ballot. But if they are on the ballot, they get my vote. I’m the last person you want to have casting judgment over someone else’s morality. Unlike most of the real voters, at least I’m willing to admit it.

Andrew Walter, over at his Twins Fan From Afar blog wondered whether he would have taken PEDs if it would have made it possible for him to succeed as a professional baseball player. I think that’s something most BBWAA voters should ponder honestly, if that’s possible. I have no problem answering that question. I absolutely would have if I knew I could afford it, that it wouldn’t kill me immediately to do so, and if I’d have been relatively certain I could do it without penalty.

I know I would have, because I did, to a degree.

In Iowa, the high school baseball season is a summer season, which means most of the season takes place after school is out. For a senior, that means after you’ve already graduated. The summer after my senior year of high school, I worked construction 10 hours a day, five days a week, to make money for college. I took off work early on game days, but I certainly wasn’t well-rested for games. I took speed to get through those games. I know most BBWAA voters don’t count amphetamines as PEDs (or most of the 1960s and 1970s stars enshrined wouldn’t be there), but trust me, I was taking those pills to enhance my performance.

I couldn’t afford the kind of PEDs Bonds and others took and wouldn’t have known what they were in 1974. But I took what I could afford, in amounts I felt were safe and knowing there was almost no chance of being caught. In other words, I did exactly what the 1990s-era juicers did.

Anyway, those guys are on my list and will stay there until they aren’t eligible any more or until players I deem better at playing baseball push them off. That leaves just four spots on my ballot to fill.

The next tier for me a year ago was Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. I still think they are a cut above guys like Craig Biggio, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. I think Frank Thomas joins them on their level, however. So the next three names on my ballot are Bagwell, Piazza and Thomas.

That leaves one spot left and I’m going to skip over several guys that I admittedly feel are more worthy for enshrinement and write Jack Morris’ name down.

I understand if you disagree. If your criteria is all about numbers, Morris’ career arguably doesn’t measure up to Biggio, Raines, Trammell, Glavine, and maybe even Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez. I’m sure a few other guys could make a better case statistically than Morris, too.

In most years, I would probably pick one of those guys over Morris, too; but not this year.

This is Morris’ final year on the ballot and given the criteria for consideration that I have shared in the third paragraph of this article, I would vote for Morris with an absolutely clear conscience. He wasn’t the best pitcher in baseball over any period, long or short. But on a few very big stages, he was magnificent. He gave baseball fans moments that will live for as long as anyone who witnessed them remains alive. There should be a place for a pitcher like that in the Hall of Fame and there would be a place for him on my ballot in this, his final (and likely unsuccessful) year of eligibility.

When all of the ballots are finally counted, I think two first-timers, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas, will be elected.

Maddux is a shoe-in. He’s one of those guys who should be unanimous, but won’t be because some voting members of the BBWAA actually died a few years ago and nobody noticed or they just really suck at this HoF voting thing.

Thomas will be a closer call because there will be more voters who won’t list him on their ballots either because they don’t feel his career warrants a “first ballot” HoF election or because they discount him due to primarily being a designated hitter and, for whatever reason, some writers seem to think that means he wasn’t a “real ballplayer.” But I think enough writers will feel awkward enough about not voting for half a dozen of the best players ever due to their PED ties that they’ll be unable to resist voting for perhaps the best supposedly clean slugger on the ballot.

It’s a huge ballot this year, filled with a lot of very good ballplayers. If you’ve got a favorite or two that you want to speak up for, feel free to make a case in the comment section.

– JC

P.S Something like 5-10 minutes after I posted this article, the writer I probably have the most respect for in the entire business, Joe Posnanski, Tweeted a link to his post entitled “Time For a Hall of Fame Stand,” where he suggests that the HoF itself should take a firm stand on the PED issue. Click here and go read it.

Merry Christmas from Knuckleballs!

If you’re reading this on Christmas morning, you seriously need to find something better to do on Christmas morning!

Regardless, we here at Knuckleballs want to wish you a very Merry Christmas!

Maybe it’s because I just really like this particular cartoon that we’ve run for the past two Christmas mornings or maybe it’s because I’m just too lazy to find a new one… or maybe it’s that I’m a new grandpa and that gives me a renewed affinity for the cartoon… but whatever the reason, I’m running it again this year.

post christmas-baseball-cartoon1-598x540

On behalf of the whole Knuckleballs crew… CapitalBabs, Eric, KL and myself… thank you all for coming by to share our Twins fandom with us throughout the year and have a joyful and safe Holiday season!

– JC

Episode 64: Twins Trade Ryan Doumit

Episode 64 of the Twins baseball podcast, Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

The Twins are wearing this patch on their hat and jersey every single day next season.

The Twins are wearing this patch on their hat and jersey every single day next season.

Paul is away celebrating his birthday but this week on the podcast, Cody and Eric spend 60+ minutes talking about the Ryan Doumit trade, if Josmil Pinto needs a real backup, what to do with all of the Twins’ mediocre pitching, and the awful All-Star Game Logos that the Twins are putting all over everything.

Down on the Pond we take a look at the 2014 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook and the profile of Bryan Haar. They also talk beer, and baseball news.

A fun podcast from two 29-year-old morons.

Enjoy the show.

 

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and read his writing at PuckettsPond.com!

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 are probably useless.

Can Terry Ryan Truly Change His Stripes?

There’s a lot of chatter on this here interweb thingy lately concerning what Twins General Manager Terry Ryan’s next moves will be and should be. He came out of the gate fast this offseason, immediately setting out to shore up – if not completely rebuild – the Twins’ starting pitching rotation by signing free agents Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey.

But there’s still more than a little doubt as to whether this is truly a new Terry Ryan, willing to spend Pohlad money to make the Twins more competitive (or at least more watchable) immediately. There seems to be two schools of thought concerning what Ryan is likely to do next.

Can Terry Ryan change his stripes?

Can Terry Ryan change his stripes?

First, there’s still some smoke out there indicating Ryan is not done shopping for starting pitching. The top tier of free agent starters haven’t really fallen in to place yet while the world waits to hear whether Masahiro Tanaka will be posted by his Japanese team. Would Ryan make a play for Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo or even Tanaka, himself? There are at least a few people out there who think he might.

The more prevalent thought, however, seems to be that Ryan is done shopping for starting pitching and is shifting his focus toward addressing what was a pretty anemic offense in 2013. He swung and missed at the top catching free agents, but may still be kicking the tires on backups, especially now that Ryan Doumit has been shipped to Atlanta to make room for Pelfrey on the 40-man roster.

Ryan has added a pair of former Twins, Jason Bartlett and Jason Kubel, on minor league contracts with invitations to the big club’s spring training. But, as people far smarter than I am have been pointing out, no combination of the Prodigal Jasons and a new backup catcher is going to result in significantly improved run production for the Twins.

The good folks at MLBTradeRumors.com pointed out recently that, of their “Top 50 free agents” list going in to the offseason, only five position players remain unsigned. That list includes Stephen Drew, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez.

A while back, there was some buzz that the Twins were one of the teams that agent Scott Boras was talking to about Drew. I’m not sure which surprised me more, that the Twins were actually considering signing a player that would cost them a draft pick as compensation (Drew rejected the Red Sox’ Qualifying Offer) or that Terry Ryan apparently sat down in the same room with Scott Boras.

Certainly, the Twins have had Boras clients in their organization (and still do). But Boras has clients and then he has CLIENTS. Players like Drew are Boras CLIENTS – the kind that Boras uses every bit of leverage he can find to pull every last nickel and every last year out of a team to sign.

From what I’ve read among the Twins blogosphere and twittersphere, it’s hard enough for most Twins fans to believe Ryan would allow a draft pick – even a second rounder – to be pried from his hands in order to sign a free agent, but to give up that pick for a free agent represented by Scott Boras is just not something fans can get their heads around.

If you’re one of those fans, that’s okay. I understand. I do. But you might want to stop reading at this point, because if you can’t grasp that concept, what I’m going to propose next could make your head explode.

If I were Terry Ryan, I wouldn’t sign one of those five remaining “Top 50” MLBTR prospects. I wouldn’t sign one of the free agents that would cost me a draft pick. I wouldn’t sign one of Scott Boras’ CLIENTS.

I’d sign two.

First, I would absolutely sign Stephen Drew. He’s okay defensively and he’d be an offensive upgrade at one of the very few positions that the Twins could logically expect to upgrade at this point, given that third base and centerfield will be getting upgraded with top prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton soon enough that it is likely impossible to attract strong free agents at those positions.

If you or Terry Ryan have concerns over losing that second round draft pick, I suggest you glance over the list of recent second rounders that Andrew Bryz-Gornia assembled over at Twinkie Town earlier this week. Or you could just take my word for the fact that giving up a second round pick for multiple current years of Stephen Drew is a no-brainer.

And, once I had a deal with Boras for Drew, I’d tell him I want Kendrys Morales, too.

Morales makes sense for the Twins.

Trust me, it feels as peculiar for me to say that as it does for you to hear it. But it’s true.

Morales turned down Seattle’s Qualifying Offer, as Drew did Boston’s. But if Drew is worth coughing up a second round pick, then the third round pick that Morales would cost the Twins is barely worth mentioning.

Morales was the Mariners’ primary designated hitter, but also filled in at first base occasionally. He’s a switch hitter with better results on the right side, which is something the Twins could make use of.

Certainly, you could make the argument that the Twins already have a relatively crowded DH corps with Kubel, Chris Parmelee and Chris Colabello already on board. But, seriously, those are exactly the types of players the Twins should be looking to improve upon. Having their presence keep you from signing a Morales is even more absurd than letting the presence of Bartlett, Pedro Florimon and Eduardo Escobar keep you from adding Drew. A guy like Florimon at least has some defensive value to consider, which is more than you can say for Kubel, Parmelee and Colabello.

But even if Ryan could be convinced that the two draft picks are worth giving up for Drew and Morales, could he find the money to pay what Scott Boras would extort from the Twins to sign them?

Heck, that’s the easy part.

After jettisoning Doumit’s salary commitment, my back-of-the-napkin math estimates the Twins are on the hook for about $80 million for 2014 (and that assumes that Kubel makes the team and gets the roster bonus that’s part of his minor league agreement with the Twins). So, as things stand, even after adding multi-million dollar deals for Nolasco, Hughes and Pelfrey, the Twins are still a couple million dollars BELOW their 2013 Opening Day payroll.

The Twins, by pretty much any reasonable estimate, operated a year ago well below their often self-stated goal of spending just over 50% of revenues on Major League payroll. They, like every other MLB team, are benefiting from new TV money that is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $25 million per team.

Conservatively – VERY conservatively – the Twins should be able to absorb a $110 million payroll in 2014 without so much as breaking a sweat concerning whether they will end up spending more than 50% of their revenues on payroll. Remember, that new national TV money comes with zero additional expenses to offset it. If the Twins took in $200 million in revenue a year ago (again a conservative estimate), those revenue projections just went up to $225 million.

That’s all a long way of saying that, yes, Terry Ryan can afford to add the $25-28 million in annual salary it may take to get Drew and Morales on board. From that point, you’re just talking about how many years and who has what options, etc.

But, would Drew and Morales actually sign on to join one of the worst MLB teams to take the field in 2013?

I grant that neither of them, nor Boras, certainly, had joining the Twins in mind when they rejected their old team’s Qualifying Offer. But times change.

Who else will give enough money to either of these two players to make rejecting those Qualifying Offers a good decision? The list of teams with enough payroll flexibility to afford one of them is short. When you cross off those teams that have no need for a shortstop or a designated hitter (no matter what Boras claims, I can’t see any NL team paying Morales to actually field a defensive position every day), the list all but disappears.

The Red Sox and Mariners, the players’ former teams which would not have to give up draft pick compensation to re-sign them, have recently added new talent at the players’ positions, quite possibly eliminating chances for return engagements.

The Yankees could use Morales, if not for the fact that they already have a boatload of over-the-hill position players that they’ll almost certainly need to rotate through the DH spot. The other free-spending clubs (the Dodgers, Rangers, Angels, Phillies, Tigers, Giants) look to me to be pretty set at Drew’s and Morales’ positions.

From where I sit, Terry Ryan and Scott Boras need one another.

Ryan’s Twins represent the kind of “surprise” team that Boras loves to pull out of his hat to prove how smart he is and that, when he tells a player he’s going to get paid, he gets paid.

Boras and his clients can provide Terry Ryan with what are realistically perhaps the only two true offensive upgrades that match his needs and will prove, once and for all, that he and his bosses are done sitting and waiting for “someday” to come.

Tell me this line up wouldn’t score runs:

  1. Presley CF
  2. Dozier 2B
  3. Mauer 1B
  4. Morales DH
  5. Drew SS
  6. Willingham LF
  7. Arcia/Kubel RF
  8. Pinto C
  9. Plouffe 3B

And now, with just a couple of adjustments later in the year or by 2015:

  1. Buxton CF
  2. Dozier 2B
  3. Mauer 1B
  4. Sano 3B
  5. Morales DH
  6. Drew SS
  7. Rosario LF
  8. Arcia/Kubel RF
  9. Pinto C

If you like Hicks in there somewhere to provide more OF defense, OK. Certainly, we could debate who should hit where in that line up. But the point is, that is a line up that suddenly looks very different than what the Twins trotted out there every day in 2013.

And it still wouldn’t project the Twins to be above the middle third of MLB team payroll on Opening Day (which is about where they rightfully should be), nor would it hamstring them from making future moves. In a worst case scenario, Drew and Morales are likely to be marketable assets, assuming Boras doesn’t talk the Twins in to full no-trade clauses.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen.

I expect Boras to let things play out for Drew and Morales, much like he did for Kyle Lohse a year ago before matching him up with the Brewers shortly before spring training camps opened up.

In the mean time, maybe Terry Ryan will find creative ways to improve the Twins’ offense.

But if February rolls around and it still looks like the Twins are counting on Jason Kubel to provide their improved offense and Scott Boras is still looking for face-saving options for these two CLIENTS, then Ryan and Boras need to get back in a room together.

Of course, I’d prefer they do so right now.

– JC

Winter Meetings and Expectations

I typically take a little business trip to the Tampa/St. Petersburg FL area in December and did so last week.

After years of hearing about how interesting baseball’s Winter Meetings are, this year I found myself within reasonable driving distance of those Meetings when they officially opened up. That being the case, I decided I would check the situation out for myself.

The Dolphin half of the Swan & Dolphin Resort

The Dolphin half of the Swan & Dolphin Resort

I had heard about all the players, agents, front office staff and media folks rubbing elbows and making deals in the hotel lobbies and bars at these Meetings. That sounded very interesting. It also sounded very unbelievable, to me.

I’ve been to more “national conferences” in my life than I care to remember, much less count, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned by attending all those conferences it’s that absolutely nothing noteworthy gets done in the lobbies and bars (well, nothing noteworthy that pertains to the business at hand, anyway).  So, it was hard for me to imagine that anything noteworthy would be going on in the public areas of the Swan & Dolphin Resort on Disney’s Boardwalk either.

But I drove up anyway, just in case I was wrong.

I wasn’t wrong.

I had an enjoyable enough evening. I had a meeting. In fact, you could say I had a couple of “meetings,” but only if you stretched the definition of “meeting” to include having a beverage with some of the Kernels’ staff after their Affiliates Dinner with the Twins. Though, honestly, that’s a meeting I could have had at the Stadium Lounge in Cedar Rapids just as easily.

But the people-watching at the Stadium Lounge wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining as at the Dolphin’s lobby. It was absolutely packed with, from what I could gather, hundreds of 20-somethings in suits who I believe were trying their damnedest to find work in the baseball industry somewhere. The competition for whatever jobs are available must be intense.

I couldn’t help but feel they might have a better chance of standing out and eventually landing a gig if they’d simply start a blog.

Or maybe not.

Anyway, upon my return to the great white north, it occurred to me that, after a similar business trip to Florida a year ago, I posted some thoughts I had concerning the way the Twins’ 2012-13 offseason was shaping up at the time. If that was a good time for mid-offseason reflection a year ago, it probably is now, as well.

A year ago, I wasn’t feeling terribly impressed with the roster reconstruction work Twins General Manager Terry Ryan was doing. While he had added some future pitching, in return for his top two Major League centerfielders, the only additions to his 2013 rotation he’d acquired had been Vance Worley and Kevin Correia.

My take on Correia wasn’t really negative (I wrote, “he could well be better than most of the in-house options the team has,” and added that, “My problem at this point isn’t with signing Correia, it’s with NOT signing other… better… pitchers.”). I think, even with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I’d stand by that opinion now.

Last year’s top starting pitching free agent, Zack Greinke, had signed by this time, as had Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster and others of that ilk, pretty much establishing what the market rates were for starting pitching. This season, the market has been slower to set as pitchers such as Matt Garza wait for the Masahiro Tanaka drama to play out.

But, unlike a year ago, Ryan has already made a legitimate effort to improve his team. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes aren’t aces, but they are starting pitchers who have been good at times in their careers and there are reasonable cases to be made that they have upsides that could make them valuable additions to the Twins rotation. There were various reports linking both pitchers to multiple teams, but Ryan was aggressive and got them on board before the Winter Meetings.

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his 2013 rehab start in CR

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his 2013 rehab start in CR

The re-signing of Mike Pelfrey has widely been panned by fans, but I’m OK with it. I feel much the way I did about the Correia signing a year ago. The Twins probably overpaid with a two-year deal, but I think he could be better than almost every other in-house option. And since, unlike Correia a year ago, Pelfrey is not the best free agent pitcher signed by the Twins, I’ll give Ryan the benefit of the doubt. If the Twins saw something in Pelfrey toward the end of 2013 that makes them believe he’ll be better in 2014, I’ll trust their judgment for now.

I suspect that we’ll be seeing the Twins trade Sam Deduno, however. He, along with Worley and lefty Scott Diamond, are out of options, so the Twins are likely going to have to part with at least one of them. Deduno, it seems to me, is the only one of the group with any trade value at all right now. That would leave Diamond and Worley left to fight for the final rotation spot, with the loser perhaps getting the long-relief role in the bullpen to start the season.

I won’t be surprised if Ryan makes another splash in the free agent market, however. It sounds like he’s continuing to at least stay in touch with the agents for Garza and Bronson Arroyo. I’m not sure that would change the dynamic significantly, though. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Correia traded if Garza or Arroyo is signed. It would be worth it, to me, if it’s Garza that’s added. I’d be less enthused with Arroyo because it almost feels like you’d just be adding another Correia, but paying more and committing for more years.

What’s more important, to me, is that the Twins add some offense before camp opens. I’m just less optimistic that it will happen.

There simply aren’t logical options, now that the offensive-minded veteran catchers are pretty much off the market.

Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier are locked in on the right side of the Twins infield.

Trevor Plouffe is going to hold down third base until Miguel Sano arrives.

Josh Willingham has no trade value at this point, so he’s likely to be the primary left fielder.

Oswaldo Arcia should open in right field unless the Twins think he needs more AAA time. Even if so, it’s unlikely any replacement would be a significant offensive improvement over Arcia.

That really leaves just center field and shortstop as possible positions where an offensive upgrade would be feasible. The Twins have been linked to Stephen Drew and I think that idea has some merit.

In center field, however, it’s hard for me to imagine any free agent signing with the Twins, knowing that the top prospect in all of baseball is due to arrive within a year or two, at most, to claim that position.

In any event, as the folks at MLBTradeRumors.com point out, there simply aren’t many position players with impact potential still on the free agent market. Just five of the position players originally listed on MLBTR’s “Top 50 free agents” remain on the market. They are Drew, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez. Unless the Twins make a run at Drew, it’s hard to imagine any of those guys wearing a Twins uniform in 2014.

Will Jason Kubel find some old magic in 2014?

Will Jason Kubel find some old magic in 2014?

Maybe the Twins will catch lightning in a bottle and get a boost from one of their returning Jasons (Bartlett and Kubel), but I think the best shot at significant offensive improvement might be if Sano gets off to a hot start and earns a mid-year promotion. Likewise, while it would be unreasonable to expect, it’s fun to consider what could happen if Byron Buxton gets off to a start at AA similar to what he showed a year ago during his time in Cedar Rapids.

Still, there’s a lot of conjecture going on about just how much improved the Twins could be if the roster stands more or less as it currently is constituted. I don’t think it’s post-season competitive yet, but I’m a lot more hopeful than I was a year ago.

Was the Twins rotation so bad that the addition of Nolasco and Hughes could result in as many as 10 more wins for the Twins? I think so.

It’s not that I think those two pitchers will be solely responsible for 10 additional wins, but I could see them accounting for, say, one additional win per month between them from April through August. If the Twins are healthy (read that as saying “if Mauer is healthy”) and not just going through the motions in September while providing cannon fodder for every team on their late-season schedule, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that they add a handful of wins to their 8-20 September record from 2013.

I don’t think Terry Ryan is done making deals that he believes will improve the 2014 roster. Considering that and considering the pitching upgrades already made, I don’t think expecting an improvement of 10 games over 2013 is unrealistic.

That’s not enough to get this team to “good,” but it would signal that things are once again moving in the right direction.

– JC

Episode 63: Winter Meetings Edition

Episode 63 of the Twins baseball podcast, Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

winter-meetings-2013

This week we delve into the winter meetings, or rather, we get together and speculate wildly about things that may or may not happen. Will Bronson Arroyo or Mike Pelfrey end up in a Twins uniform in 2014? What about Stephen Drew? We also attempt to discuss the moves other teams are making around the league. Later on we attempt to give Joe Mauer a nickname, but despite many great submissions we never settle on something we can all agree on. Finally we take an in depth look at Twins prospect Lewis Thorpe.

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and read his writing at PuckettsPond.com!

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 are probably useless.

What Are the Twins Doing… and Why?

It has been a weird offseason for the Twins, hasn’t it?

I’m not complaining. mind you. It’s refreshing to see General Manager Terry Ryan being aggressive in the free agent market to address the team’s starting pitching needs. Signing Ricky Nolasco to a four-year contract with a fifth year vesting option was more than a little out of character for the Twins.Adding Phil Hughes on a three-year deal two days later was almost downright giggle inducing.

Terry Ryan (Photo:Jim Crikket/Knuckleballs)

Terry Ryan (Photo:Jim Crikket/Knuckleballs)

I mean, not only did Ryan go sign a couple of guys that were clearly in demand elsewhere, but the organization obviously looked beyond just wins, losses and ERA in determining who to target. That’s just not normal for this front office.

But the thing is, Ryan’s apparently not even close to being done with his offseason shopping. Based on media reports, Ryan has also been actively looking to upgrade his roster at other positions, most notably at catcher and in the outfield. And despite a number of assumptions to the contrary, he’s also apparently not done trying to land starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo.

Like most Twins fans, I would imagine, my first reaction to all of this activity has been, “Great! It’s about time!” But, at the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, my second reaction has been to wonder why this is happening all of a sudden.

I suppose, if you were inclined to take the comments made by the Twins ownership and front office management at face value, none of this should surprise us. I think owner Jim Pohlad, team president Dave St. Peter and GM Terry Ryan have all pretty consistently told any reporter inclined to ask that they were not happy with recent results on the field and they understood that the roster had to be improved.

But after three consecutive 95+ loss seasons, they’d have sounded pretty out of touch with reality to say anything else. They all said pretty similar stuff a year ago and, probably, a year before that.

So, again you ask yourself, why has the approach apparently changed so dramatically this offseason?

Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have some theories to share.

New MLB Media Money

The Twins, like every MLB team, have a big chunk of new annual national media rights money coming in starting this year. Reports estimate it at $25 million per club, though the MLB offices have tried to downplay that a bit by pointing out that, while the new overall money divided by the number of teams might be $25 million, part of the money is retained by Major League Baseball itself. I guess to pay for Bud Selig’s platinum parachute, maybe.

Regardless, it’s a bunch of new money and it’s essentially “found money” because it doesn’t come with a nickel’s worth of corresponding expenses. In theory, it could (and arguably should) be dedicated wholly to improving the talent being put on the field at the Major League and minor league levels. That is to say, there’s no reason that only half the money should go to payroll, which is the portion of revenues that the Twins have claimed in the past that they earmark for payroll.

The bottom line is that, between the new money, the $40 million or so of payroll space the Twins would have had even without the new money and the lack of any significant long term commitments for anyone not named Joe Mauer, money honestly is no object for the Twins this offseason. That’s a concept that is almost impossible for most Twins fans to grasp, but it’s true.

The 2014 All-Star Game

During the fourth season in their new stadium, the Twins hosted the MLB All-Star game. They put on a good show, but the game itself was not all that exciting and the Twins, in the midst of yet another generally poor season and sitting 11 games out of first place at the break, had only the minimum allowable one reserve player named to the American League roster.

No, I didn’t slip in to my DeLorean and zap in to the future for that information. Rather, that’s a recap of the 1985 All-Star Game that the Twins hosted at the HHH Metrodome.

I don’t think Jim Pohlad likes the fact that most Twins fans in Minnesota (and a few of us in Iowa and the Dakotas, too) wonder why, with that beautiful taxpayer-funded ballpark, he won’t spend the money necessary to put a decent team on the field to watch. If that’s true, he’s probably even less enthralled with the idea of every baseball fan in America asking the same question during All-Star week next July.

If the Twins are going to suck in 2014 – and they certainly may – I don’t think Pohlad will let it be because he’s seen as having pocketed all of the new stadium and national media revenues, rather than spending some of that money on real Major League ballplayers.

Peer Pressure

When you own a Major League baseball team, you run with a pretty fast – if somewhat conservative – crowd. And I’m not talking about your fellow owners.

Your peer group includes owners and CEOs of other big time businesses and, while I certainly have no personal experience to back this up, I have to imagine that such a peer group tends to keep score.

If you can run your baseball organization at a good profit, see your organizational value (which is reported on annually in business magazines such as Forbes) climb and do it all while making customers/fans happy by winning consistently, your fellow local billionaires are going to look on you, personally, as a winner.

But if you, say, lose 95+ games a season for, I don’t know, maybe three years in a row and you see attendance start to dwindle and your fans are all talking about how cheap you are now that they have paid for your new stadium, those peers (some of which are probably paying premium prices to advertise at your stadium) may start to ask some of the same questions your fans are asking. Like, for example, “do you really need TWO AAA teams, one in Rochester NY and one here in Minnesota?” That’s embarrassing.

So…

Looking back at a number of interviews with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I think there are two quotes, one each from Pohlad and Ryan, that give pretty good clues as to what’s gotten in to the Twins.

The first, from the owner, I included in an earlier post. In an interview with Adam Platt of Twins Cities Business, Pohlad acknowledged that roster changes were needed and that improvements would necessitate spending money on free agents. He finished with, “I’m not encouraging him (Ryan) to wait.”

Was that just an owner saying what he thought fans wanted to hear? Was it a not-so-veiled statement that, if money wasn’t spent, it wasn’t because he told his GM he couldn’t spend it? Or was it a hint that perhaps he had given his GM direct instructions to, “use the damn ladder to get out of that hole,” and spend some money to put real ballplayers on the field?

We don’t know.

We do know, however, that about a week or two later, Nolasco and Hughes had deals with the Twins.

This past Monday, Terry Ryan was quoted by Star-Tribune beat reporter LaVelle E. Neal III as saying the following concerning the Twins’ own homegrown talent: “If they take a step forward, they will answer some of our problems and questions. A step backwards is going to be concerning not only for us but for their careers. We have given opportunities to guys here the last two years. And it hasn’t gone so well. So now we may have to look out for ourselves here a little bit more.” (Emphasis added)

I found that quote to be about as interesting as anything the Twins GM has uttered publicly in years.

The Twins – and Terry Ryan specifically – have been famously adherent to a process of building from within. They focus on the draft and international signings. They work hard to develop players and promote them deliberately through the minor leagues. When those players are ready, they use them as their primary source of talent to replace players that have aged and/or been judged too expensive to retain. That’s all part of the Twins Way.

Ryan’s quote is a shot across the bow of Chris Parmelee, Kyle Gibson, Aaron Hicks, Trevor Plouffe and any other young player who might be inclined to think that, having survived several years of development in the Twins organization, they now are enetitled to roster spots with the Twins. And just in case any of those players didn’t grasp the meaning of Ryan’s statement, they can now ask Liam Hendriks, who has been Designated for Assignment, for an interpretation.

Why is Terry Ryan talking to free agent catchers and free agent outfielders when he has Josmil Pinto, Chris Herrmann, Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia?

Ryan answered that question pretty clearly, in another part of Neal’s posting Monday.

“We have all kinds of areas that could be upgraded,” Ryan said. “We’ve got people where, if I told you the positions you would say, ‘Well, this guy is going to be there.’ But some of those guys we need to take a step forward. We can always upgrade any spot anywhere. So if something came to our attention and it looks like an upgrade, we should probably pursue it.”

When Ryan said, “we may have to look out for ourselves,” I’m not sure if he was referring to the Twins, generally, or to himself.

But I wouldn’t be feeling too comfortable if I were any player on the Twins 40-man roster not named Mauer or Perkins, because I think Terry Ryan means what he’s saying right now.

And I like that.

– JC