Twins Win a Little and Lose a Lot

After beating the Red Sox for the second straight day, the Twins are 2-0 in the young 2014 Spring Training season. They topped the Sox 6-2 on Saturday with a three-run Chris Parmelee blast providing the biggest offensive blow. That’s the good news.

But the good news of a virtually meaningless exhibition win pales compared to the bad news that came out of the Twins’ camp in Fort Myers Saturday morning.

Miguel Sano, perhaps the top power hitting prospect in all of baseball, will undergo “Tommy John” surgery to reconstruct his ulnar collateral ligament in his right (throwing arm) elbow. Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press posted a number of videos Saturday where you can hear from Twins Assistant GM Rob Antony and, if your heart can stand it, from Sano himself.

Miguel Sano as a Beloit Snapper

Miguel Sano as a Beloit Snapper

Judging from the way Twitter blew up after the announcement, Twins fans are clearly disappointed and frustrated. That’s understandable. But, obviously, nobody is more disappointed than Sano, himself (although manager Ron Gardenhire no doubt has cause to feel a fair amount of disappointment, as well).

As you’d probably expect, a number of fans were looking for someone to blame. Whenever stuff happens that disappoints a fan base, especially a fan base as frustrated as Twins fans have become after three years of dreadful results on the field, the immediate reaction is to identify people to blame. The Twins’ front office and their medical staff are catching most of the flack over Sano’s misfortune.

On the one hand, that’s understandable. You don’t have to go back many years to come up with any number of examples where injuries and other medical conditions were arguably initially misdiagnosed and players ended up missing more playing time than they probably should have. In fact, the Twins did make some changes to their medical/training staff going in to last season.

Sano’s UCL injury was originally identified after he felt twinges in his elbow last season and then was shut down after just a couple of winter league games. The Twins medical staff and Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the leading authority in the world with regard to UCL injuries, agreed in November that the best course of action at that time was rest and rehabilitation.

Of course, what the Twins SHOULD have done at the time was have their PR guys put out a poll on Twitter to get the advice of those fans who know better than the specialists when it comes to determining the best course of action for these things.

These injuries typically take pitchers a year to recover from, but position players can recover as soon as eight months, since they don’t contort their arms to spin the ball different directions when they throw it the way pitchers do. Sano should start being able to take swings in four months. Antony told the TV audience during Saturday’s game that Sano could possibly return in time to DH in some minor league games late this season, if that’s what the Twins choose to do.

Practically speaking, however, Sano’s 2014 season is going to be a wash. He should be fine to ramp up during next offseason and be ready to go all out during Spring Training 2015.

The Twitter experts, however, using perfect 20-20 hindsight, want to blame someone for not having the surgery done in November. If Sano’s injury had been a full UCL tear, that’s what they would have done. But it was only a partial tear and those injuries are less cut and dried. For position players, the real experts tell us that it’s possible to simply play through some partial tears with sufficient rest for the elbow.

Had Sano undergone surgery during the offseason, maybe he could have been cleared for full play in the field by August, in time for one month of minor league ball. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he would finish the season with the Twins.

Either way, 2014 was going to be virtually a lost season if it turned out resting the elbow wouldn’t allow him to avoid surgery. And either way, he was going to be ready to challenge for the Twins 3B job in spring training 2015. So it was clearly worth a try to avoid surgery.

And even if it wasn’t clear to me that it was the right course of action, it was the recommendation of people with medical degrees who have actual experience treating UCL injuries, including the doctor who is the preeminent expert in the field.

The arrival of Sano with the Twins, at some point in 2014, was at least something to look forward to during what’s expected to be another pretty disappointing season. It’s natural for fans to be frustrated to learn that’s not going to happen. But if he’d had surgery earlier, he wouldn’t have arrived in Minnesota this year anyway.

It’s not easy, I know, but we’re all just going to have to wait to see number 24 launch balls in to the left field seats at Target Field. It will be worth the wait.

- JC

Minor Leaguers Deserve Better

I haven’t written much lately. Honestly, I haven’t even read much lately. Not about baseball, anyway. There just isn’t much going on that I’m particularly interested in. Sure, spring training has started, but they haven’t even started playing spring training games, yet, so there just isn’t much going on to capture my interest.

I’m pretty sure I’ll get more interested when the Grapefruit League games get underway. I guarantee I’ll be more than casually interested a month from now when I’ll be actually on site at the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers.

However, for the past couple of weeks, it’s been really hard for anything baseball-related to capture my interest; difficult, but not impossible.

The story that broke a couple of weeks ago about three former minor league ballplayers filing suit against MLB, the office of the Commissioner, Commissioner Bug Selig and the three MLB organizations that owned their rights interests me.

There were several stories written about the filing, but if you didn’t happen to see any of them, this article from BleacherReport was one of the more thorough articles and former ballplayer (and author) Dirk Hayhurst had a pretty blunt take on the topic, as well.

JusticeBaseball400I know it’s hard for some of us to even fathom how guys who have the talent to play a game we love at a professional level… who have the opportunity to live a dream that so many of us can only imagine getting to live… could possibly not only complain about their working conditions, but even have the gall to file a lawsuit over those conditions.

It’s a cliché you hear often. “I loved baseball so much, I’d have played for free.” Given that so many fans feel that way, it’s pretty tough for us to empathize with these players who dare to clog our court system with a lawsuit that seemingly has little chance of success.

But saying you would have played the game for free and actually doing it for nearly exactly that amount of compensation are two very different things.

The attention fans play to their favorite team’s minor league organization seems to grow every season. Even so, the percentage of baseball fans who give minor leaguers even a casual thought during the summer is pretty small.

Those that do follow the minor leagues focus most of their attention on the early round draft picks and the big money international free agent signings. Those players get signing bonuses in the millions of dollars, so it would be pretty easy for us to just assume that most minor league ballplayers are pretty comfortable financially.

But we would be wrong.

Yes, if you’re among the first 50 or so players selected in the annual first year player draft, you’re likely to pocket a signing bonus upwards of a million dollars. But that’s not even the full first two rounds of a draft that goes on for a total of 40 rounds.

It’s pretty safe to say that most minor league ballplayers are not concerned about who is watching over their investment portfolios. Their “portfolio” can be stashed in to the trunk or back seat of a car they hope will keep running for another year.

Last year, the first year minor league player salary was $1,150 a month and that’s only for the handful of months during the year that they’re actually playing minor league baseball. That’s also before taxes, before food and housing costs. A player reaching AAA might double that salary. Whoopee, huh?

Just to be clear, it’s not the local minor league organization that pays the players, it’s the parent  MLB organization that is responsible for minor league payrolls. In fact, some minor league clubs (including the Twins’ Class A affiliate in Cedar Rapids) arrange host families for players to live with to eliminate the cost of housing during their time with the local ballclub. But not every player across the country has that option.

The players probably should splurge on some insurance, too, because they pretty much have no protection if they happen to incur an injury that precludes them from working. Good thing their work doesn’t often result in that kind of injury, right?

Obviously, they need to get other jobs during the offseason. Of course, for some of them, there is no offseason. Their teams want them playing winter baseball somewhere. They want them to show up for offseason workouts, “fanfests” and other events. At the very least, they have to work out daily to make sure they’re ready to compete for a roster spot in spring training (which, by the way, they don’t get paid for, either).

It takes a pretty understanding employer to hire a guy that has that many demands on his time and will just be leaving in a few months, anyway. But I’m sure there are plenty of those jobs available.

“But wait,” you say. “Don’t those professional baseball players have a union?”

Yes and no. For minor leaguers, it’s mostly no and they’d be better off if it was totally no.

There is a union; the Major League Baseball Players Association. However, the MLBPA’s sole use for minor leaguers appears to be to screw them over any time they can do so as a part of trade-offs to get something better for Major League players.

See, the MLBPA limits its membership to Major League ballplayers. But, for reasons that nobody has ever been able to explain to me in any way that makes sense, the MLBPA is allowed, as part of the collective bargaining process, to negotiate the compensation and working conditions of minor league players, as well.

Isn’t that convenient?

So, if the MLBPA can get a little bit more for the millionaires it represents by allowing teams to implement lower bonus allowances for new draft picks or control their minor leaguers an extra year before they are entitled to free agency, no problem.

Even the drug testing program is uneven, at best. For example, once you’re on a Big League roster, you can test positive for pot regularly and chances are nobody will ever know, because there are no real consequences. If you’re a minor leaguer when you test positive twice, however, plan on sitting out a couple of months’ worth of games… without even that meager minor league paycheck to buy those Pringles chips you have to live on.

But if conditions are so bad, why have minor leaguers never unionized?

The obvious reason is that minor league players all dream of being Major League players and doing anything to antagonize the people who decide which players will and won’t become big leaguers is probably not a wise career move. And if players with U.S. high school and college educations fear challenging baseball’s power, how likely is it that even younger men (boys, really) from impoverished regions of Latin America will do so?

No, since even the Major League players that endured the same conditions on their way to the big leagues have long ago decided they have no interest in making life the least bit easier for the younger players coming up behind them to challenge for their jobs, there’s almost no chance of minor leaguers ever benefiting from collective bargaining. The best they can hope for is for the courts to determine that they should at least not keep getting screwed over by someone else’s collective bargaining.

I’m not a labor lawyer (or a lawyer of any kind, for that matter), so I won’t opine about the chances of success for the plaintiff ballplayers in the suit they’ve filed in a Northern California court.

They claim teams are violating federal and state employment laws. I would imagine that players often work more than 50 hours a week and they are not paid overtime. At many minor league levels, the players are arguably being paid less than minimum wage on an hourly basis.

Logically, I think most of us know that these players are being exploited unfairly. We know the system is wrong. But the people who would benefit from righting that wrong have no power to change things and the people who do have that power benefit the most from keeping the status quo. And unless MLB concludes it is in their own financial best interests to make changes, changes may not happen for a very long time, if ever.

Things could be worse for these young men, though.

What if remarkable athletes like these players got paid nothing at all? What if they weren’t even allowed to accept help from host families and other fans? What if they weren’t allowed to work other jobs to make ends meet?

Those are silly questions, of course. If all of those things were true, these players wouldn’t be working under the rules of minor league professional baseball.

They’d be working under the rules of the NCAA.

But that’s another rant… and another legal matter (or matters)… for another day.

Of course, given the rediculous NCAA restrictions college ballplayers lived under, maybe it’s understandable if they think getting $5-6,000 a year to play minor league baseball is a good deal.

It doesn’t make it right, though.

- JC

Twins Caravan/Kernels Hot Stove

UPDATE: After publishing just the pictures last night and sending out a few quotes via Twitter, I’ve now updated this post with some additional observations and quotes from the Caravan participants. The updates are all in this cool blue color, so you can tell what’s been added. – JC

For the second straight year, the Cedar Rapids Kernels and Minnesota Twins joined forces Monday night, combining the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet with a stop on the Twins Caravan.

Pitchers Brian Duensing and Ryan Pressly joined new Twins coach Paul Molitor, Kernels manager Jake Mauer and, of course, TC Bear, in Cedar Rapids. The emcee for the evening was Twins broadcaster (and former Cedar Rapids sportscaster) Dick Bremer.

I had a chance to talk to Molitor, Duensing, Pressly and Mauer before the event got underway and, as is part of the Caravan routine, they all answered questions posed by Bremer as part of the program. They also answered a number of questions from members of the crowd.

Without a whole lot of thought, formatting or context, below are some of the comments from the Caravan participants during the evening.

Paul Molitor talked about his move from minor league roving instructor to full-time Major League coach with the Twins. Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson and I kind of double teamed Molitor during the media interview session before the night’s festivities. Rather than me typing a bunch of quotes out, you should just click here to go to Johnson’s story at the Gazette’s site and watch the video he recorded of Molitor talking about his new gig.

During the question and answer segment of the Caravan program, Molitor was asked from the crowd for his feelings concerning expanded use of instant replay in Major League Baseball. He’s clearly not a fan.

“I don’t like it. I had trouble with the home runs, originally. I understand why they want to do it, because of football leading the way and we have the technology. I’ve already gotten emails from Terry Ryan about this list of what you can contend against and what you can’t and you can throw the flag once before the sixth inning and twice after the seventh inning. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I, I don’t like it.”

Molitor was also asked what other moves he thought the Twins might still make before the season starts to add more offense to the lineup.

“I know Terry is still out there looking at the free agent list. Some of the better hitters remaining, Morales and (Cruz), have a draft choice attached and really aren’t very good fits for our club. There’s some potential trades out there, but Terry’s very protective of the players in our minor league system. He’s not going to give up some of our top guys to improve our offense.”

“Last year was a rough year offensively. We struck out too much. We didn’t hit the ball over the fence enough. Baserunning wasn’t very good. There’s a lot of room for improvement. But that doesn’t mean the guys who are coming back won’t have a chance to improve in some of those areas, either, through experience, through whatever it takes for them to get better. We have to find a way to score more runs, that’s the bottom line.”

After you check out the Molitor video and while you’re clicking, go on over to MetroSportsReport.com and read through Jim Ecker’s story on Jake Mauer. Jake and his wife, Rachel, are due to have a baby on February 4 and Mauer said all’s going well on that front.

During the question and answer segment, Mauer was asked whether he thought the addition of starting pitching via free agents might potentially block some of the young pitchers moving up through the organization.

“I think having too much pitching is a pretty good problem to have. I think I speak for everybody (saying) we would definitely love to have that problem. The cream kind of always rises to the top and sometimes it’s not a guy that you expect. It’s always good to go in to spring training with competition. If pitching’s one of those competitions, that just makes the ballclub a lot better.”

Mauer’s best line of the night may have come during the question and answer segment when a member of the crowd asked if he thought his brother Joe might return to his MVP form with the move from catcher to first base.

“I hope so. He’s a lot easier to deal with when he’s on the field, I can tell you that. He’s an ornery guy when he’s not playing.” The crowd laughed, appreciating the candor.

“I think the move to first base will be a very good one for him. I know the concussion that he had last year, plain and simple, scared him.”

“I think he still feels he’s a catcher and he still feels he can be a very good catcher. But I think he understands what could happen if he gets dinged in the noggin again. That’s probably my fault from beating on him when he was a little kid.”

“I think it will be good for him. Not to say he doesn’t like first base, but I think he’s going to fall in love with it in August and September when his body feels pretty good and the bat speed is still there. I know he’s looking forward to getting back on the field with these guys and hopefully making something good happen.”

I talked to Brian Duensing and Ryan Pressly about their impressions of the moves Terry Ryan has been making in the offseason to add a number of pitchers to the roster (and the relative lack of moves to shore up the offense) and about the number of pitchers who will be in the Twins’ spring training camp when it opens.

Duensing: “It’s tough. I think the situation we’re going to be in, it’s got to be heavy one way or the other, in order for us to get back (where we want to be). We need to focus on more or less one spot and then try to fill the bats back in. I think Terry Ryan’s up to going with starting pitching. That’s our most important aspect we need to improve on and then we’ll find hitting as we get confidence going deep in to games. I think that’s maybe how we’re going about it. As relievers, I think we’re excited about it.”

“Unfortunately, our starters kind of struggled last year so we got worked pretty good. Maybe if we get a little deeper in to games, we can be even better.”

I brought up the fact that, although the new pitchers being added thus far are rotation help, there are a number of pitchers who started last year who are out of options going in to 2014 and they could find themselves competing with last season’s relief corps for spots in the bullpen.

Pressly: “You’ve got to love competition. I look forward to going to spring training and seeing what everyone’s been working on in the offseason. But yeah, not having a lot of options I guess can kind of hurt you in the long run.”

Duensing: “Unfortunately, it’s part of the business. A lot of these guys coming in to camp that don’t have options are our friends. We hang out with them a lot. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast. But competition doesn’t hurt anybody.”

I asked Pressly for his thoughts on the Rule 5 draft experience last year:

Pressly: “It all kind of sparked in the Arizona Fall League. I went out and threw really well there and the Twins picked me up in the Rule 5. I came to spring training and it just kind of carried over to that. It was an awsome feeling having Gardy tell me, especially at the Red Sox facility, ‘hey you made our team.’ I didn’t even get one step in to the dugout and he told me, so it was pretty fun.”

Finally, pictures from the festivities:

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Ryan Pressly (standing) answers questions from Dick Bremer, as Brian Duensing (seated) waits his turn

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Jake Mauer talks about his expectations for 2014

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The full dias with TC Bear, Brian Duensing, Ryan Pressly, Dick Bremer (standing), Paul Molitor and Jake Mauer

The autograph line in Cedar Rapids (from top down): Mauer, Pressly, Duensing, Molitor and TC

The autograph line in Cedar Rapids (from top down): Mauer, Pressly, Duensing, Molitor and TC

ARod, Selig, Bosch, Yankees, CBS: Nuke ‘em All

I know, you’re tired of talking about Alex Rodriguez and his war with Bud Selig and Major League Baseball over his use of Performance Enhancing Drugs.

nuke2Me, too.

Still, we all knew we were going to have to go through another bombardment of stories about the subject whenever the arbitration system played itself out and a final decision (and I use that term loosely, because I’m not all that convinced this decision is “final”) was announced concerning ARod’s suspension for using PEDs.

That decision came down over the weekend and the tie-breaking member of the panel ruled that a reduction from the MLB-imposed 211 game suspension would be reduced to 162 games. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that baseball plays 162-game seasons.

As I read and heard the details of the decision, I couldn’t generate even a little bit of enthusiasm for it. Even the promotional spots during CBS’ NFL Playoff game Sunday afternoon for the big “60 Minutes” interview of ARod’s one-time PED supplier, Tony Bosch, couldn’t get me to care about what any of the parties had to say. I wasn’t even going to watch the interviews that CBS magically had conducted, edited and prepared for airing the same weekend as the announcement of the arbitrator’s ruling.

I channel surfed a bit after the football game ended, but I found nothing I really felt like watching. So I watched “60 Minutes.” After the half-hour segment in which Bosch, Bud Selig, Selig’s likely heir as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and ARod’s attorney Joseph Tacopina all got face time, I came away with one thought on the whole thing.

Nuke ‘em all.

I don’t believe any of them. Every one of them is lying or, at best, not revealing the entire truth.

Bosch is the embodiment of sleaze.

Selig did nothing to change my feelings about him. I thought he was a sanctimonious, incompetent ass before and his small bit of camera time on the show reinforced that view. Manfred is nothing more than a Selig lap dog.

Tacopina has a job to do, I know. If serial killers are entitled to the best legal representation they can afford, then certainly a baseball player who finds himself on the opposite side of the Commissioner of Baseball deserves the same. But he still came across as a slimy lawyer representing an even slimier client.

CBS and their interviewer, Scott Pelley, couldn’t have possibly created a more one-sided piece than what they ended up airing. I grew up watching Mike Wallace and others on “60 Minutes” play hardball with interview subjects. Bosch, Selig and Manfred got slow-pitch Nerf balls.

What a joke.

Some media are saying there were no winners in this debacle – that it made everyone look bad. I disagree. There was a winner. The New York Yankees escaped the “60 Minutes” segment without so much as seeing anyone have to answer a question over their obvious motives for wanting Rodriguez to be assessed the longest possible suspension.

But, as everyone who is not a Yankees fan knows, any time the Yankees win at anything, everyone else loses (at least everyone else who isn’t in the business of making money from the Yankees winning a lot of baseball games).

In fact, the Yankees are having one helluva party right now.

With Rodriguez’’s suspension, they’re off the hook for the $25 million salary he was due for the 2014 season. That means they can either spend that money on someone who, unlike Rodriguez, is actually still good at baseball or they can use the savings to meet their stated goal of remaining below the league’s luxury tax limit for payroll this year.

There’s a bit of speculation over how the team might manage to keep the player out of their Spring Training camp without violating the terms of the player agreement negotiated with the MLBPA, but here’s a point I haven’t seen mentioned in the media: If the Yankees manage to qualify for the postseason, I don’t think there’s any reason they couldn’t activate Rodriguez at that point.

Would they want the pariah in their clubhouse and in their dugout?

Don’t kid yourself. If there’s anything the Yankees organization wants more than to rid themselves of as much as possible of the stupid contract Rodriguez was handed by George Steinbrenner on his way to his everlasting resting place, that thing is winning another World Series. If they believe Rodriguez can help them get that with his bat in the postseason, they may posture and moan about it, probably telling the world that they’re only doing it because they “have to” for legal reasons, but then they’ll suit him up.

[NOTE: A review of the actual arbitrator decision, now made public as an exhibit in Rodriguez's lawsuit against MLB and the MLBPA, clarifies that his suspension is for the entire 2014 regular season AND the 2014 post-season.]

As Ed Thoma at Baseball Outsider reminded us in his piece on Monday, this isn’t the first time the Yankees have attempted to escape responsibility for a badly thought out long-term contract. In 1990, Commissioner Fay Vincent banned George Steinbrenner from baseball for life* after an investigation revealed that the Yankees’ owner paid a sleazeball informant to provide dirt on Dave Winfield in the hope that it would provide sufficient grounds to void his contract.

* As it turned out, “for life,” in this case, turned out to be a bit over two years, after which Vincent gave in and lifted the ban. Too bad Pete Rose couldn’t have had the same kind of “lifetime” ban. Even more so, it’s too bad Steinbrenner didn’t have the same kind of “lifetime” ban that Rose has had enforced upon him.

So one Commissioner banned a Yankees owner for life for paying a scumbag for dirt on a player, in an attempt to void the player’s contract.

Now, over 20 years later, a different Commissioner pays a different scumbag for dirt on a player, in an attempt to suspend that player for a full season of games, far more than anything called for under the terms of the current negotiated drug plan with the players’ union. In doing so, the Commissioner gets the Yankees off the hook for $25 million of salary owed to the player otherwise.

But I’m sure that’s just a very happy coincidence for the Yankees.

I agree with Thoma’s conclusion. The lesson here is that, if you want to get off the hook for your stupid decisions and get out of a contract, you don’t take action yourself – you get the Commissioner’s office to do it for you.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel at all sorry for Rodriguez. He made his bed and he can lie in it. He’s about as unlikeable a player as there has probably ever been in baseball (and in a game that’s given us Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds, that’s saying something).

But this action by MLB sets a dangerous precedent and the next player they decide to go after with another “the ends justify the means” vendetta may not be someone as universally despised as Rodriguez. Now, when that happens, they will have precedent on their side and it will be challenging, at best, for the player or the union to do much about it.

In addition, as John Paul Morosi pointed out on Monday, Selig’s actions seem to have turned the players and their union from allies in his war against PED use in to adversaries again. While clean players and the MLBPA have been on board with tougher testing and attempts to clean up the game, they certainly are not going to stand by and let the Commissioner unilaterally blow past the penalties called for in the negotiated agreement. Frankly, nor should they.

Morosi speculates – and I think he’s right – that Selig’s actions, by turning the relationship with the Players Association in to something much more adversarial in nature, pose a risk to future labor peace.

Those who have stood up most often to defend the overall record of Bud Selig’s reign as Commissioner have consistently pointed out that he has overseen a long period of relative stability in labor relations. In many minds, the labor relations peace alone is more important than his failures (including, perhaps most damning, the way he and the rest of the league turned a blind eye to PED use in the first place).

It would be ironic if one of his last, and most dramatic, actions as Commissioner turns out to undo whatever previous good he may have done in the labor relations area.

Anyway, you can tell me you hate Alex Rodriguez; or you can tell me you hate Tony Bosch; or you can tell me you hate the lawyers involved; or you can tell me you hate the Yankees; or you can tell me you hate Bud Selig

I’ll agree with you.

- JC

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

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

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