Fenway Park: Venerable or Just Old?

It’s a question that has to be posed, isn’t it? Is Fenway Park really worthy of “historic landmark” status or just a really old ballpark? And with the Twins starting their only series in Boston, now is probably the time to pose that question.

I went to a ballgame there a few years ago. I was in downtown Boston on business for a few days and I remember thinking I should make a point to get to a game because they were bound to build a new stadium there before long and I would like to say I’d been to a game at Fenway.

I don’t remember much about the game, but I remember my initial impressions of the ballpark when I walked through the turnstiles and made my way toward a concession stand to get a beer on my way to my seat. I think I could best sum those impressions up with, “What a dump.”

Things can get wet in the concourse (Photo: C. Laubenstein)

I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t expect it to impress me the way Camden Yards had done on my first visit there. But I recall thinking that the concourses reminded me a bit of Veterans Stadium in Cedar Rapids… the same Veterans Stadium that had to be torn down and replaced in order to allow the city to keep its low-Class A team in town.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I respect and appreciate the unique history of baseball in our country. So, from that standpoint, I can appreciate Bostonians’ reluctance to let go of this monument to their historic past. But then again, just how many “historic” moments took place at Fenway? It’s not like they racked up a ton of championships there. Generations of Red Sox fans were born, lived, and died without ever seeing a World Series Championship from Fenway’s home team.

Sure, some Hall of Famers called the place home, but that can be said of pretty much every old ballpark that’s been wrecking balled over the past century. It’s not an excuse for making today’s ballplayers and fans play/watch games in an antique. Or is it?

I think the “Green Monster” is just a romanticized quirk that was necessary because they built the ballpark on a plot of land that wasn’t big enough for a ballpark in the first place. It makes the leftfielder position for Boston probably the last remaining defensive position that most AL designated hitters could play, in a pinch. A shortstop with above average range and arm could probably just play deep enough to cover both positions. But if keeping that particular quirky ballpark fixture is so important, I would think a NEW ballpark could be built with a similar LF wall.

Remember to zip up, Manny?

They could even incorporate the manual scoreboard and the doorway that leads behind the wall (you know… the one Manny used to mistake for a bathroom door in the middle of innings) if keeping things like that mean so much to people.

As a matter of fact, this is pretty much what the owners of the Sox proposed to do a dozen or so years ago, but the outcry was so loud that the team sank close to $300 million in to a decade’s worth of “renovations” to the existing park, that supposedly make the park usable for another 40-50 years. Can you say “Money Pit”?

Of course, the Boston faithful are not alone in their irrational love for a ballpark that should have been demolished decades ago. Cub fans have pretty much the same relationship with Wrigley Field (and yes, having been to that ballpark, too, I feel pretty much exactly the same way about it). It probably makes even less sense for Cub fans to be so attached to their ballpark when you consider that they’ve won absolutely nothing at Wrigley Field during the lifetime of any fan still ambulatory enough to attend games there.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great bars surrounding both Fenway and Wrigley. I’ve had a very good time at some of those bars. But yanno what? If you build a new ballpark, it’s just possible that there will be some good bars near the new place, too (as any Twins fan who’s enjoyed the local pre-and-post-game festivities around Target Field will attest to)!

Anyway… it’s their ballpark and I really don’t care all that much what they do with it. There’s just a part of me that believes that if the good folks in Boston would put their mind to it, they could come up with a new ballpark that would show just how much better they could do with that kind of project than George Steinbrenner’s monument to excess in the Bronx (and people would actually show up to watch games in a new Boston park, I’m sure, unlike what’s going on in NY). The prospect of that, alone, should be enough to make it worthwhile.

What do you think? Have you been to a game at Fenway? Am I being too harsh? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

- JC

The Real AL Central Standings

We all need to feel better, right now. So, here today I present the REAL AL Central Division Standings. We all know the Indians and Royals will be faltering at some point, right? At least that’s our story until they prove us wrong. So that leaves the following as the REAL standings:

Team                            GB

Tigers                           –

White Sox                    1.5

Twins                           2.0

See? Things aren’t so bad! :)

- JC

Road Trip To Camden Yards

I’ve got a few new work responsibilities these days, so I haven’t been able to follow the Twins as much as I’d like, much less blog about them. On the other hand, those new responsibilities also have me in Baltimore this week and I’ve taken advantage of that by staying at a hotel just a few blocks from Camden Yards, home of the Orioles. Sure, it would have been nice if this trip had corresponded with the Twins’ series in Baltimore a week ago, but my luck doesn’t run that good (besides, the weather this week was much better for baseball in Baltimore).

I didn’t pack the camera on this trip, but I took a few pictures with my phone and thought I’d share.

On Tuesday, I joined a few coworkers at the first game of the O’s/Red Sox series (the company has some pretty nice seats just up from the visiting dugout). It was a bit warm… close to 80 degrees… and a bit on the humid side, but it sure beat the 40 degree weather back home.

A fixture out on Eutaw Street beyond RF at the ballpark is “Boog’s Bar-b-q”. Wednesday night, Boog Powell was on hand to sign autographs, pose for pictures with fans and just generally shoot the bull with anyone who cared to do so. Seemed like a really good guy. (If you don’t know who Boog Powell is, I’ll try not to hold your relative youth against you… but he and Harmon Killebrew were having their own little “home run derby” contests during Twins/Orioles games throughout most of my youth.)

I moved around a bit on Wednesday. I spent some time early in the game in the upper deck, under the overhang, avoiding raindrops and hoping the lightning I was seeing to the west of the stadium didn’t get much closer.

Fortunately, the storm moved just to the north of Camden Yards. Again, it was in the mid 70s and humid… with a few raindrops here and there… but nothing to complain about, especially compared to the snow that the Twins and Rays were playing in back at Target Field!

Later, I moved back down to the RF line… grabbing a beer and a bit of Boog’s BBQ and watching an inning or so from the standing room area above the large out-of-town scoreboard that serves as the RF wall.

Then I grabbed a seat near the RF foul pole.

Speaking of the foul pole… I didn’t realize those poles were actually carry-overs from old Memorial Stadium. Gotta like that they brought a bit of the “old ballpark” to their new one (hard to believe this place is already 20 years old, though!).

Finally, on my way out, I just snapped a shot of Eutaw Street between the signature warehouse and the OF seating area and the Oriole Hall of Fame plaques behind the large scoreboard in CF.

Oh… and I apparently brought a bit of good luck to the O’s as they beat the Red Sox both games I attended… 4-1 on Tuesday, when I got to see young Zach Britton pretty much shut down the Red Sox, taking a no-hitter through roughly the first half of the game, and 5-4 on Wednesday, when balls were flying out of the park a bit. Luke Scott and Adam Jones went back-to-back to stake Jeremy Guthrie to a 3-0 lead over Josh Beckett, but a Kevin Youkalis 3-run HR tied the game at 4 in the 8th inning. Vlad Guerrero’s RBI single in the 8th provided the margin of victory for the Orioles.

I made my first trip to Camden Yards just a year or two after it was built and it’s still one of my favorite ballparks. I’m looking forward to making more trips out here during the summer months over the next few years.

- JC

The Cure For What Ails You

I’m not going to go through a recitation of all of the ailments currently afflicting the Twins. If you want to go through all of that even more than you have already, you can click on any one of about a dozen of the blogs in our Twins blogroll over on the sidebar (including Howard Sinker’s return to his “A Fan’s View from Section 219” blog… welcome back Howard!). Instead I’m going to focus on a cure.

If ever there was a team that appeared prepared to provide a cure for what’s ailing the Twins, it’s this week’s opponent, the Baltimore Orioles.

If you haven’t paid much attention to the O’s lately, you might wonder why I’d make that comment. After all, Baltimore got off to a 6-1 start during the first couple of series of the year. But things have not gone so well over the past week or so for the Birds. They’ve lost seven games in a row and have been scoring runs at a pace that almost makes the Twins’ offense look productive by comparison. Almost.

They’ve also been bitten by the same injury bug that has chewed its way through the Twins clubhouse. Don’t look for old friend JJ Hardy out there at shortstop for the O’s, he’s down with a strained oblique muscle. They’re also missing pitchers Justin Duchscherer and Brian Matusz.

We’re all familiar with the early season struggles of Francisco Liriano (0-3, 9.42 ERA), but if you wanted to conjure up a cure for Frankie’s ills, I’m not sure you could do much better than the lineup he’ll face tonight in Baltimore… not to mention his opponent on the mound. Chris Tilman sports an 0-1 record and a 7.30 ERA covering three starts, during which he’s amassed just 12 and 1/3 innings pitched.

In fact, the only game in this series that looks to have to potential to be a bit of a pitchers’ duel is game three on Wednesday, when Nick Blackburn takes his 3.06 ERA up against the Orioles’ Zach Britton, who’s been pretty much the O’s lone reliable starting pitcher. Britton sports a nifty 2.75 ERA over his three starts.

Take aim! Eutaw Street beyond Camden Yards' RF fence (Photo: Brian Cassella-Times)

This would also appear to be a good series for Jim Thome to resume his assault on 600 career home runs. Not only is Oriole Park at Camden Yards known as a hitters’ park, but all four of the O’s starting pitchers this series are right-handers and Baltimore pitchers have already given up 19 home runs this season. That means Jimmers should get plenty of opportunities to put a ball out there on Eutaw Street. In fact, this would be an ideal time for Justin Morneau to find that home run stroke and the way Jason Kubel is swinging the bat, he could add a few taters to his total, as well.

Right now, the only Orioles hitter that’s been making solid contact is second baseman Brian Roberts. If you think Kubel and Denard Span are feeling a bit like they’re having to carry the load for the Twins, pity Roberts who doesn’t even have a partner to share the load with.

The Twins return home after this series and the Orioles will be hosting the Yankees and Red Sox as their homestand continues after our guys leave town. I’m sure both of these struggling teams are looking for this series to provide a cure to their recent ailments. Let’s hope it’s the Twins that come away with that cure.

Getting their first series win of the season on the road in Baltimore would go a long way toward making everyone, players and fans alike, feel better.

- JC

BASEBALL’S OPENING DAY IS HERE!!

Congratulations baseball fans - the off-season is over and you have survived to begin again!

We Twins fans don’t see action until tomorrow but regardless, it’s a good day to be a baseball fan.

Here’s the schedule of games that will be played today:

All times Eastern. Subject to change.

 

 And in another piece of just general news, I received this notice from Tinger this morning:

“All these years we’ve been calling C.C. “Captain Cheeseburger”. They just said on ESPN that he dropped 25 pounds this winter by cutting Captain Crunch out of his diet. We’ve been going about this all wrong! I think that’s a solid reason for a name change.”

Given the long history many of us have with the Captain Cheeseburger moniker, and given the general distrust I have for C.C.’s ability to maintain this supposedly lower weight – afterall, who can actually tell? – I will accept BOTH names as appropriate nom de plume. I wonder if C.C. has an opinion on the cut mouth situation??

[EDIT]  Seth from SethSpeaks is offering a special discount on his Twins Prospect handbook in honor of Opening Day!  If you don’t have one already, you should check it out!

[UPDATE]  Two former Twins played today and had records I thought worth noting. 

A) Pat Neshek recorded his first National League Win for the San Diego Padres tonight. I couldn’t be happier for him.

B) Livan Hernandez pitched his 4th Season Opener for the Washington Nationals – and recorded his 4th Loss.  Ouch.

Out On A Limb (Care to Join Me?)

Now that Spring Training is wrapping up, it’s time to turn our focus to the regular season.

I’m tired of debating who the last member of the bullpen should be and who the last reserve on the bench should be. In the grand scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter. The things that do matter start happening at the end of this week!

That means it’s time for all of us to consult our Zoltar machines.

I’m sure there will be no shortage of other Twins blogs who will be giving all of us opportunities to offer our predictions concerning how the Twins, collectively and individually, will perform in 2011. We will be able to proudly predict another AL Central Championship or share our thoughts concerning which Twins will lead the team in various statistical categories.

Here at Knuckleballs, we’re not going to let you off that easy.

We want to stretch those imaginations and predictive powers that lie deep within the grey matter that fills that lump three feet above your ass (I promise… that’s my last Tom Hanks movie reference in this post) and make everyone go out a bit on a limb with their prognostications.

We want to know what sort of crazy stuff you expect to happen this season. To that end, here are some questions we want you to give careful, considered thought to (or just throw out the first response that comes to mind… we really don’t care). The key is… tell us something you expect to happen that we aren’t going to hear from many (if any) others over the next week or two.

1. A prediction specifically related to the performance of a Twins player.

2. A prediction specifically related to the unexpected (in a positive or negative way) performance of a non-Twins player.

3. A prediction related to the unexpected (positive or negative) performance of a team other than the Twins.

Finally, let us know what you expect from the Twins this season.

4. Fill in the blanks: The Twins will win ___ games and finish in ___ place in the AL Central Division. They will (choose one):

___ not make the playoffs

___ be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs (again!)

___ be eliminated in the AL Championship Series

___ lose to the NL Champion in the World Series

___ WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS BABY!

To get everyone started, here are my predictions:

Future ROY: Tsuyoshi Nishioka

1. Tsuyoshi Nishioka is going to win the AL Rookie of the Year award.

2. If he gets healthy enough to pitch this season, Johan Santana will finish the season in the NY Yankees’ rotation.

3. The Baltimore Orioles will finish 2nd in the AL East and challenge for the Wild Card playoff spot.

4. Twins will win 97 games, finishing 1st in the AL Central and get ready to hoist a new banner, boys and girls, because our guys are gonna win it all in 2011!

So… what about you? Use the comment section to dazzle us with your predictive powers!

- JC

Are The Twins The Team To Beat?

The Twins and their consensus AL Central Division challengers, the White Sox and Tigers, are all about 25-30% of the way through their Spring Training exhibition schedules, so maybe now is a good time to sneak a quick peek at how they’re measuring up. With the caveat being, as always, that you really shouldn’t read too much in to Spring Training performances, at least we aren’t having to do all of our evaluation “on paper”, as we did all off-season.

A lot of us were pretty harsh in our evaluations of the Twins’ moves (or lack thereof), especially during the first couple of months of the off-season. The Twins lost over half of their historically reliable bullpen and both of their starting middle infielders. With only one exception, the plan clearly became to replace those vacancies either from within or with spare parts picked up from other teams’ cast-offs. That strategy could very well work, at least in the bullpen, where there are a couple of guys with pretty good track records looking to regain past levels of effectiveness.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Photo: C Krupa/AP)

That one exception, Japanese batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka, comes with his own set of question marks, though the biggest is not necessarily one of his own making. Nishioka is relatively young for a guy making the transition from the NBL to Major League Baseball. He’s had a successful career in Japan, though he’s had some trouble staying healthy at times. The relative lack of experience, compared to other Japanese stars who’ve made the jump to the US, makes it impossible to know just how good he really is. On the other hand, it’s pretty tough to find comparable Japanese position players who have come over and become true stars at the MLB level. There’s Ichiro and… well… nobody else, really. The result is that American fans rightfully take a “show me” attitude toward Japanese imports.

Early returns are mixed on Nishioka. Scouting reports that his arm strength made him a better match for second base than shortstop have been somewhat backed up by his performance and after just a couple of games at each position, manager Ron Gardenhire announced that Nishioka would, indeed, play second base. Alexi Casilla, who broke in to the Angels organization as a shortstop, has the stronger arm and shortstop is his position to lose, at this point. But Nishioka seems to put bat on ball pretty well and that’s going to be critical if he hits in the #2 spot in the order.

Nishioka may be the lone “big addition” to the Twins roster over the winter, but the two biggest additions to the Twins’ 25-man roster entering the season stand to be names very familiar to Twins fans… Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau.  Some of us tend to forget that the Twins essentially won the AL Central last season with little contribution from two of their biggest stars. Nathan missed the entire 2010 season and Morneau missed the last half of the year. While Nathan appears to be back and ready to reclaim his closer role, Morneau has yet to be cleared to play in games. If the Twins have a healthy Morneau on the field most of the season (especially at the end, for a change) and if Nathan’s arm stays intact and he maybe gets a little help from Pat Neshek, who’s also hoping to return to past levels of effectiveness, there’s no reason the Twins shouldn’t be considered the favorite to defend their Division Championship.

The Competition

The Indians and Royals should be interesting to watch this season. Both have some very highly regarded young players, though it’s too early to know for sure how much time those prospects will see at the Major League level in 2011. In any event, it would surprise just about everyone if either of those teams was in contention for the AL Central title in September. But the White Sox and Tigers almost certainly will be.

A year ago, it seemed like everyone was handing the Division to the White Sox, on the strength of their starting rotation. The Sox’ brain trust (yeah, I know, referring to Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen as a brain trust is downright giggle-inducing) apparently felt their pitching was so good that they could and should dump Jim Thome from his DH spot and replace him with Mark Teahan… no, seriously, that’s what they thought! I don’t believe even the Sox fan base was surprised when they turned out to be wrong.

This year, the Whities have tweaked the pitching staff a bit, including signing away Jesse Crain from the Twins, but their biggest addition (both figuratively and literally) is 6’6” hitting machine, Adam Dunn. Dunn sees himself as a complete player, capable of playing defense as well as hitting, and hoped to stay in the National League, where he’s played his entire career. But he got only a token offer from the Nationals, while several AL teams made significantly higher offers, virtually all of which came with the catch that he’d primarily be a DH. Dunn may be reluctant to embrace that role, but make no mistake, he will excel at it. In his last six seasons, Dunn has hit 40, 40, 40, 40, 38 and 38 home runs. Hmmm… I wonder how many he’s likely to hit for the White Sox, especially in that Little League ballpark they have on the South Side.

The White Sox definitely should be better this year, but the Twins still have one thing going for them… that “brain trust” (giggle) can probably be counted on to screw things up somehow.

Speaking of screwing things up, I’m not sure whether Vegas let’s you bet on who will lead the Divisions at the mid-point of the season, but if they do, you can pretty safely put your money on the Detroit Tigers. Absolutely nobody will be shocked if the Tigers come out of the gate strong and lead the Twins and White Sox in to July. Likewise, absolutely nobody will be shocked if they go 10-20 in August and fade away in September.

How and why they do it is always a mystery. Maybe their pitching will fade, maybe a star player will need to detox. Every season we get to watch a new drama unfold in Detroit.

Again, make no mistake, the Tigers made some moves that look to improve themselves. Victor Martinez will make hitters around him better and Joaquin Benoit should improve their bullpen. I’m just not sure it will be enough to keep the Tigers in contention all year. Benoit can’t do it all himself and the rest of the Tigers bullpen isn’t terribly scary. Joel Zumaya throws serious heat, but the only thing he’s reliable at is getting hurt at some point. In fact, he’s already had the predictable “setback” in his recovery from elbow surgery. And let’s face it, Miguel Cabrera is a time bomb waiting to go off on that organization and, from all appearances, Tiger management’s plan to deal with his drinking problem consists of sticking their heads in the sand. Good luck with that.

So far this spring, the Tigers’ rotation is looking pretty good. Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are all throwing strikes and getting outs. The guy to watch the rest of the spring, though, might be former Yankee Phil Coke. He’s looked pretty good over his first three starts and if he carries that performance in to the season, he could make an already strong rotation a very, very good rotation. On the offensive side, things aren’t so rosy yet. The three big bats in the middle of the Tiger order, Martinez, Cabrera and Ordonez, have accumulated OPS’s of .566, .334 and .286, respectively. Yes… those are the SUMS of their on-base percentages and slugging percentages. Ouch. Then again, small sample size. One of the games I’m planning on attending down in Florida in a couple of weeks is a Twins/Tigers matchup in Lakeland. I’m anxious to get a look at this year’s edition of the Tigers as we get deeper in to the exhibition season.

Over in Arizona, the White Sox are not having fun (at least not during the games). They’re 1-6, heading in to this week, and much of the blame for that lies with their vaunted rotation. While Peavy, Danks and Jackson got through their first starts without incident, Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd got beat around pretty good. Mr. Crain hasn’t looked too good yet, either, by the way. Dunn hasn’t gotten untracked either yet and, in fact, their only regular with a respectable showing with the bat so far is Juan Pierre, who’s OPS is north of .900. Alex Rios has the only HR for the White Sox in their first seven games.

To wrap things up on a positive note, I thought I would share this video from Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, evaluating the Twins prospects for defending their Division Championship. – JC

P.S. I did a guest spot on Seth Stohs (Sethspeaks.net) Sunday night podcast and you can click here to listen to the half hour program, during which Seth and I touched on a number of Twins topics. I’m also scheduled to appear with John Bonnes (TwinsGeek) on Fanatic Jack’s podcast at 9:00 this Wednesday night. – JC

If The Season Started Today…

There have been a lot of things written and said around Twinsville lately concerning the comparative off-season activities of the Twins and their AL Central competitors. Those discussions generally are boiled down to this conclusion: “If the season started today, the Twins would be picked to finish third in their division behind the White Sox and Tigers.”

I’m not going to sit here and loudly proclaim that such an opinion is wrong, but I’m also not going to join the chorus quite yet.

Before I make my contrarian points, let’s be clear about a couple of things. First, I’m not impressed with the way the Twins have molded their 2011 roster, so far. I wanted to see a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher added and someone with better defense and speed added to the outfield (even if it meant trading someone like Jason Kubel). Obviously, the Twins were no more impressed with my suggestions than I’ve been with their moves, since they’ve done nothing whatsoever with regard to improving their rotation and have publicly stated that their plan is to bring back last season’s outfield group (though this would include Michael Cuddyer getting most of the playing time in RF, rather than Kubel).

Another thing I would make clear is that I agree that the Tigers and White Sox have been making moves that could improve those teams significantly. Picking up Victor Martinez will improve the Tigers and adding Adam Dunn should be a significant offensive upgrade for the Sox. I’m giving them less credit for their bullpen additions of Joaquin Benoit and Jesse Crain, respectively. If “closers” are significantly overvalued on the market and by many fans and analysts, then middle relievers who cash in with three-year deals for eight-figure guarantees are hitting the lottery.

In fact, it sounds like Crain is going to get his shot as a closer for the White Sox. Jesse did a very nice job for the Twins last season (after the first couple of months anyway), but is there anyone around here who’s watched Crain pitch for the past few years that would be comfortable with him as your closer? Not me. If the Sox fans dreaded seeing Bobby Jenks take the mound to protect small leads in the ninth inning, then they’re really in for some Maalox moments with Jesse. At least that’s my gut feeling. (Get it? “gut feeling”… Maalox… come on, this is my best Monday stuff here!)

So if I’m unimpressed with the Twins’ moves, so far, and I agree with the masses who think the Tigers and White Sox have improved themselves, why am I not jumping aboard the “Twins will fall behind the White Sox and Tigers” bandwagon?

Because even as currently constituted, the Twins have not merely swapped out JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson for Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla (which I do believe has a chance to reflect a more significant upgrade over the tandem they’re replacing than most others seem to believe will be the case). They’ve also added Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan to their active roster.

I don’t expect Nathan to walk in to Spring Training and immediately be the closer he was in 2009, but I do believe that he and Matt Capps comprise as solid a set-up/closer duo as any other team in the AL Central is likely to have (granted, I’m bigger on Capps’ potential  than most people are). In addition, as they tout the White Sox, I’ve read so many people talking about Chicago not only adding Dunn, but also re-signing Paul Konerko. That’s fair… but only if you ALSO mention the Twins getting their All Star 1B back, as well. Is it possible that Nathan or Morneau (or both) will fail to return to their prior levels of productivity? Of course. But I have to say I like Morneau’s chances of having a big season as much as, if not better than, Konerko’s.

But the biggest reason I’m not ready to hand over the Division to the Kittens and BitchSox is that, obviously, the Twins aren’t finished forming their roster yet. I still want more at the top of the rotation. Ideally, I’d prefer they make a deal for a Wandy Rodriguez-type, if they can find a willing trade partner. Failing that, bringing back Carl Pavano wouldn’t be a terrible idea, either. The Twins are likely to be less experienced (and thus, less reliable) with their middle inning bullpen options, so having a guy that has been pitching in to the 7th or 8th inning with some regularity wouldn’t be a bad idea.

I also still expect to see Jim Thome back on the Twins bench and, hopefully, playing the role he was intended to play last season before injuries forced him in to the regular DH spot. If it were me, I’d also try to find a spot for someone like Marcus Thames on my bench as well… though that seems unlikely since the Twins re-signed Jason Repko.

The way the chips have fallen, I also won’t be a bit surprised to see Nick Punto return at a reduced pay rate. The dangerous side to that prospect, of course, is that Ron Gardenhire may yank Nishioka or Casilla the first time one of them irritates him (which, let’s face it, isn’t likely to take long), giving him the excuse to insert Nicky in to the line-up as a regular again.

Let’s also not forget that the Tigers and White Sox aren’t necessarily finished making deals yet. While some people suspect the Tigers may still have some payroll flexibility, the White Sox seem to be in just the opposite condition. The price tags on Dunn, Konerko and Crain have already pushed their payroll above what many people speculated they would be prepared to spend. As a result, there’s still talk of them perhaps trading away someone like Edwin Jackson in a salary dump. Without Jackson and with Jake Peavy not available, at least to start the season, that Sox rotation doesn’t look nearly as formidable.

Spring Training is now less than two months away from getting started and while the Twins’ front office still has a lot of work to do before pitchers and catchers report, I think it’s premature to write off 2011 and just hand the Division Championship to the White Sox or Tigers.

In fact, I think the only thing we can safely say for sure is:

If the season started today… fans and players alike would be freezing their butts off at Target Field! -  JC

Picure: MLB/Minnesota Twins

RIP Sparky Anderson

Sparky Anderson passed away today at the age of 76.

While perhaps his closest connection to the Twins would be that his 1987 Tigers lost the ALCS to the Twins’ eventual World Series Championship team, I feel compelled to acknowledge the passing of a man who gave so much to the game of baseball and was so well respected by seemingly every player who ever played for one of his teams.

The crank that turned the Big Red Machine (AP Photo)

Anderson managed in Cincinnati and Detroit for a total of 26 years, won 2,194 games and three World Series titles (in 1975 and 1976 with his Big Red Machine teams, and 1984 with the Tigers). But numbers are not a meaningful measure of a man like Anderson and yet it would be presumptious of us to try to craft a post honoring him. So, instead, let’s share what those who knew him best over the years have to say.

Former player Jack Morris: “He was a good guy. Baseball will have very few people like Sparky. He was a unique individual. He was a character with a great passion and love for the game. He had a lot to do with molding me professionally and taught me a lot about perseverance.”

Former player Alan Trammell: “He was tough on us early on. Once you get older, like with your parents, you appreciate that but at the time, amongst ourselves, we were like, what’s going on? But he did it for a reason and we’re all appreciative. He did it the right way. There’s a right way and a wrong way. Not only in baseball, teaching us the game, he wanted us to know more about conducting ourselves on and off the field like a true professional.”

Former player Pete Rose: “Sparky was, by far, the best manager I ever played for. He understood people better than anyone I ever met. His players loved him, he loved his players, and he loved the game of baseball. There isn’t another person in baseball like Sparky Anderson. He gave his whole life to the game.”

Tiger Hall of Famer, Al Kaline: “Sparky was one of the greatest people I’ve met in baseball. He was a leader to his players both on and off the field. He was an incredible person and I cherish the time I was able to spend with him.”

ESPN Writer Tim Kurkjian: “No manager in baseball history was more true to his nickname than George ‘Sparky” Anderson. No manager ever loved the game more than Sparky. No manager did the job with the same relentless energy and enthusiasm as Sparky. No manager smiled as often as Sparky. No manager was more of a gentleman than Sparky. No manager was nicer than Sparky. Late in his career, Anderson asked the media to start calling him by his given name, George, saying no man in his 50s should be called Sparky. But, it never took. He was and always will be Sparky.” Click here to read Kurkjian’s full story.

Sparky Anderson, about himself, in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech: “I got good players, stayed out of their way, let them win a lot and then just hung around for 26 years.”

If you’d like to read more memories of Sparky Anderson, I highly recommend you check out this post by si.com’s Joe Posnanski,  who authored a book about Anderson’s Big Red Machine teams, as well as this column by fellow si.com writer Steve Rushin.

Finally, even long after the words of those who knew him and played for him have been lost or forgotten, future generations will read this… on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame: “The crank that turned the Big Red Machine. Revered and treasured by his players for his humility, humanity, eternal optimism and knowledge of the game.”

Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Carol; his sons Lee and Albert; his daughter Shirley Englebrecht; and his nine grandchildren.

-JC

Yankee Fan vs. Jim Crikket, ALDS Offense

In this final installment of the YF vs JC discussion of the Yankee/Twin ALDS series, they take an in-depth look at the two teams’ respective offensive lineups.

Let’s start with a look at the likely starting line ups for the Yankees and Twins.

 

YANKEES @ TWINS
Jeter, SS   Span, CF
Swisher, RF   Hudson, O, 2B
Teixeira, 1B   Mauer, C
Rodriguez, A, 3B   Young, D, LF
Cano, 2B   Thome, DH
Posada, C   Cuddyer, 1B
Thames / Berkman   Kubel, RF
Granderson,   Valencia, 3B
Gardner   Hardy, SS

 

Yankee Fan: There is a nice symmetry with this lineup comparison.  The scary parts are the 3-7 hitters, with the 8-9s being setups for the top of the order.  Some speed mixed with some station-to-station guys, and of course, some power through the order.

Looking at the top third of the order, for the Yankees, ideally, Jeter gets on, Swisher walks, and Tex/A-Rod clear the bases.  Problem is, Swisher has fallen in love with the long ball and savvy ground ball pitchers are his weakness.  On the other hand, I firmly believe that Jeter’s batting troubles are behind him and that non-strikeout pitchers who depend on contact are good for him.  Confident that he wont strike out, I think he’ll be comfortable spraying singles to all fields.  The most troubling component here is Tex and his tendency to wilt under pressure.  Until I see otherwise, I think he’s a buzzkill in the top third of the lineup.

For the Twins, Mauer is the key here.  I don’t foresee him leaving men in scoring position.  The man is clutch, has intangibles, and don’t forget the sideburns!  Jeter doesn’t have sideburns… If you haven’t figured it out by now, I worry about Mauer in any situation.  You have two guys who can get on base at a decent clip in Span and Hudson, and Span can go first to third in an instant.  Indeed, the threat of power from the 3-7 hitters will keep Yankee pitchers honest, and Span could have his way on the base paths.  I see that top third scoring 2+ runs per game.  So before we get to the meat of the order, I give the advantage to Minnesota.

 

Derek Jeter shows his form at Target Field in May

Jim Crikket: You’ve seen the Yankees more than I have, certainly, but I’m not so sure Jeter’s hitting problems are behind him. He’s an extreme ground ball hitter and the Twins infield doesn’t let a lot of those get through. Swisher is the guy who concerns me here. I want to see Teixeira coming up with the bases empty as often as possible.

Mauer certainly has earned the respect you give him, but if Span and Hudson aren’t getting on base at a healthy clip, the damage Mauer inflicts will be suppressed considerably. Neither of those guys at the top of the order were getting on base nearly frequently enough the last month of the season. Until I see evidence that they’re going to do better, I give a slight advantage to the Yankees.

The middle of the order is where things get interesting for both teams. There’s a healthy debate among Twins fans as to whether Mauer or Young was the team’s MVP during the regular season. I don’t think there’s a wrong answer to that question but for my money, I’d go with Delmon. He can be streaky, but he has come through in the clutch time and time again. Jim Thome isn’t going to win any footraces, but he’s still as dangerous as any hitter in this series. His effectiveness is, however, likely to be more limited against the Yankees’ left handed starting pitchers. Cuddyer is not having one of his better offensive seasons, but he’s got as much power potential as the others. It would be helpful, however, if we could get a rule adopted outlawing the throwing of breaking balls to Michael. Even without the rule adjustment, I like him in the 6-spot over Posada.

On the Yankee side, as long as Gardy never… ever… lets Matt Guerrier face Alex Rodriguez again, I’ll be more concerned about Robinson Cano than Rodriguez. Rodriguez had a good post-season last year and it’s funny how now all of a sudden all those choke jobs he pulled in prior Octobers apparently never happened. As for Posada, in my opinion he no longer belongs in the middle third of a contending team’s batting order. I give the middle third to the Twins.

Yankee Fan: A-Rod and Cano are monsters right now.  If I was looking at pairs of hitters instead of trios, those two would be (by far) the best combo (only because Morneau is out).  The only issue here is Posada.  Yes, Posada will crush a mistake here and there, and sometimes even in an important spot.  That Minny is throwing some contact pitchers out there benefits Jorgie.  Alas, old grey Jorgie ain’t what he used to be, and again the Yanks have an anchor to sink this middle third of the lineup.  Because of Tex and Jorge, the offense will start then sputter.

Jim Thome

In addition to Mauer, another Twin who scares me is Thome.  Anchoring the second third of the lineup, he acts as a second cleanup hitter of sorts.  With Mauer keeping innings going, I see Thome driving him in.  Young and Cuddyer are perfect Yankee Stadium hitters — that ballpark lends itself to some decent home runs.  The end result here is that every player scares you, and Thome might scare you the most.  He’s a savvy veteran who knows how to keep an inning alive. Advantage: NYY (A-Rod and Cano are that good).

Looking at the bottom third of the Yankee order, Thames/Berkman have their strengths.  Thames is a power threat and handles himself at the plate decently.  Berkman, like Thome, knows how to get a job done when necessary, like driving in a run from third with less than 2 outs, or hitting to the right side when the runner needs to advance from second to third.  The lineup brightens for the Yanks at the bottom — Granderson has a mix of decent hitting, power and speed.  Gardner gets on base and can run, setting up Jeter for more “intangible” and “clutch” postseason moments.  Sure, it’s a joke when McCarver (can we agree that he sucks?) raves about Jeter, but you have to admit, he’s been pretty clutch for the Yanks in the past.

Similarly to the Yankee analysis — Kubel can pound the ball, and Valencia and Hardy can set up the potent top of the order.  Granted, Danny and JJ (which I think was the name of my second favorite ’80s sitcom after Dukes of Hazzard) aren’t as big of a threat to steal bases, but they are better than your average 8-9 hitters. I give the advantage to the Yankees.

Jim Crikket: For someone who’s been looking at things in such a balanced manner, I think you finally let your Yankee bias shine through, YF. There frankly isn’t a single Yankee in the bottom third of their order that I would take over his counterpart on the Twins side. Kubel has certainly earned his drop in the order to #7, but I’d still take him over whichever DH the Yankees trot out there. Granderson hasn’t hit lefthanded pitcing since before he left the Tigers (and isn’t hitting righties particularly well either this season), and Gardner, after getting off to a decent start to his year, has not really hit well since the All Star break.

Danny Valencia

Danny Valencia is probably the best hitter of the six guys in the bottom of these orders and JJ Hardy has put up an OPS of nearly .800 over the last month of the season. A case could be made that Valencia and Hardy have been producing better than Span and Hudson.

So, YF… after all of this analysis, how do you see this series going? Another 3-game sweep for the Evil Empire?

Yankee Fan: With hitting being the deciding factor, I do think the Yankees will prevail once again.  I think the Twins can outhit the Yankees, just not over a 5 game series.  If the Yankees want to win, they need game 1, and hope to outslug the Twins in games 2-4.  Sorry, I know I am a guest to this blog, but I think the Yankees have too many good hitters against contact pitchers. Prediction: Yankees in 4.

Jim Crikket: This is not the same roll-over-and-find-a-way-to-lose Twins team the Yankees have casually discarded in years past. They have deeper pitching, a more balanced offensive line up and a defense that is at least comparable to the Yankees… and they get to begin and end (if necessary) this series in Target Field. I honestly believe the Yankees tanked on purpose to get the Wild Card and this match up with the Twins, rather than face Cliff Lee and the Rangers in a short series… and they’re going to regret having done so.  Prediction: the Twins in 5 games… and if Gardy’s boys can beat Captain Cheeseburger in Game 1, get out the brooms!