Last week, Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan went back-to-back-to-back making three deals in three days in an effort to improve his club, winning the bidding for the right to negotiate with Korean slugging first baseman/DH Byung-ho Park, trading backup catcher Chris Herrmann for a prospect, which cleared the way for catcher John Ryan Murphy to be added via trade.
It has been almost a week since the last of those deals was announced, so the question has become, “Now what?”
I felt the catching situation was the most glaring need that had to be addressed this offseason and Ryan & Co. appear to have resolved that situation with the addition of Murphy.
Now, where should the GM turn his focus?
Given the state of the Twins the past four offseasons, it seems odd to say it, but I think Ryan’s offseason work should be about done already.
Let’s take a position-by-position look at where the Twins stand right at this moment, with some thoughts as to how they could still be improved.
Between incumbent catcher Kurt Suzuki and the newly-acquired Murphy, the position appears to be set. If Ryan could find a taker for Suzuki, they could just hand the starting job to Murphy and look for another backup, but that seems highly unlikely.
Joe Mauer is at first base and isn’t going anywhere. The Twins added another first baseman in Park, which was surprising to most of us, so the odds are stacked high against seeing another one added. Kennys Vargas remains on the periphery of the 1B/DH mix and now we’re seeing reports that he could make a good sized payday in Korea or Japan if the Twins are willing to sell his contract.
Brian Dozier will play second base. If the Twins get an offer they can’t refuse for Dozier, Jorge Polanco would likely get his shot at a permanent promotion to the big leagues. It’s hard to imagine the Twins adding someone else to the mix. James Beresford performed well in Rochester, but he’s a minor league free agent again this year and is at least an even bet to sign elsewhere after the Twins didn’t even give him a look in September.
Eduardo Escobar did everything anyone could ask of him at shortstop in 2015 and appears to have given the Twins the stability they’ve lacked at the position since the ill-advised trade of J.J. Hardy to the Orioles. The Twins will also have Danny Santana around as a utility player, should Escobar falter. It’s unlikely the Twins will go looking for another shortstop.
Everyone seems to think that third base is already crowded. Trevor Plouffe is still manning the hot corner, but is looking over his shoulder at the hulking figure of Miguel Sano. This has led many to recommend that the Twins trade Plouffe this offseason and hand the position to Sano.
While that might make sense, providing that Ryan could get fair value for Plouffe on the market (I’m not all that certain would be the case, but it’s possible), making that deal would mean putting all of the club’s third base “eggs” in the Sano basket. That makes me nervous.
Maybe Sano can play third base competently every day, but that’s hardly a certainty. If Plouffe is sent packing, Ryan had better have a reliable Plan B ready to step into the position. With Plouffe gone, who would that be?
There are few internal options that manager Paul Molitor could plug in. Do we want to see Eduardo Núñez as the Twins’ starting third baseman? Polanco and Santana have rarely played the position, even in minor league ball, but maybe one or both could do it.
Could a Plouffe trade be followed by the acquisition of a stop-gap type? Conceivably, yes. The Twins Daily Offseason Handbook projects 37-year-old Juan Uribe to sign a one-year deal for $3 million. That sounds a little high, to me, for Uribe, but if it’s in that neighborhood, it wouldn’t be a bad price for this particular situation.
Unless Ryan is really wowed by an offer for Plouffe, however, I think he’s better off keeping the status quo. Let’s see how Sano handles the position (and how he handles his sophomore season at the plate) before running the risk of turning the third sack back into the black hole it was between the departure of Corey Koskie and the arrival of Plouffe.
Likewise, the outfield appears pretty full, even with the departure of Aaron Hicks to the Yankees in the Murphy deal.
Eddie Rosario will be in one corner and the Twins are hoping Byron Buxton claims centerfield right out of spring training. They’ve expressed their intention to teach Sano to play a corner outfield spot, especially now that Park seems likely to get most of the DH at-bats. Oswaldo Arcia is another internal outfield option, but the Twins won’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) consider any option that results in Arcia and Sano sharing the same outfield, no matter how good the man in centerfield is. Max Kepler earned the opportunity to impress coaches and the front office enough in spring training to claim an Opening Day roster spot, but I suspect they’ll start him in Rochester, especially if the alternative is a fourth-outfielder role with the Twins.
And then there’s the pitching staff.
The predominant theory seems to be that the Twins have plenty of internal options to fill out their rotation, but need to look to the free agent and/or trade market to improve their bullpen.
I disagree. Not that the bullpen wasn’t bad (it was), but I disagree with that approach to fixing it. I would prefer to fix the bullpen by improving the rotation even more.
There are four pitchers that you have to figure should be locks to open in the Twins’ rotation. Ervin Santana, Tyler Duffey, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes will, unless traded or injured before then, open the year as Twins starters.
Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco all have starter pedigrees, in the minors and/or Major Leagues, and any of the five could earn the Twins’ fifth rotation spot. But if the Twins are set on being more than just a borderline contender in the American League Central Division, you have to ask yourself whether they could do better than those five pitchers in that final rotation opening.
Now, I’m a Zack Greinke fan from way back. After the 2010 season, I advocated here for the Twins to engineer a trade with the Royals to acquire Greinke. Five years later, I’d still love to have him at the top of the Twins’ rotation, but the Twins are not going to shell out the $25+ million per year over 5+ years that is being projected as being what it will take to sign the free agent – alas, nor should they.
Likewise, you can pretty much rule out names like Price, Cueto, Samardzija and Zimmerman, all of which are likely to garner $100+ million/5+ year deals on the open market. That’s an awful big commitment to make to pitchers who, in each case, come with some significant question marks about their abilities to perform at “ace” levels for the next half-decade. Only Price, in my view, is worth that kind of money. Unfortunately, he won’t be had for that kind of money – it will likely take over $200 million to get him. Ouch.
Berrios is a future Twins starter. May and Meyer could very well be future rotation fixtures, as well. The big unknown, in each case, is the definite arrival time of that future. We just don’t know. It could be April, 2016, and if it is, for just one of those pitchers, then the rotation question is asked and answered.
However, like the situation with Sano as a full time third baseman, relying on any of the five possible fifth starters currently on the roster to be good enough to help propel the Twins into an elite-level team in 2016 is pretty risky.
If Ryan decides to take that risk, it’s fine with me, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Twins take a one-year flyer on Doug Fister, who certainly will be looking for a make-good contract to rebuild his value with an eye on trying free agency again next year. Two years ago, Fister was traded to Washington after 2 ½ successful years in a Tigers uniform. Had he been a free agent a year ago after notching a 2.31 ERA over 25 starts for the Nationals, he’d have undoubtedly been near the top of every team’s free agent starting pitcher wish-list.
But he was Washington property for another year and he did not live up to expectations in 2015, to put it mildly. He lost his starting rotation spot as the dysfunctional Nationals faltered and he finished the season working out of the bullpen.
Could a return to the familiar AL Central spur a revival of Fister’s starting career? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind if the Twins spent $10-15 million or so to find out. At that price, they can afford the risk. If it works out, he’s more than just another fifth starter. If it doesn’t work, all they’ve lost is a few bucks and they move on with whoever is looking the best from among the internal options.
With a rotation of Santana, Duffey, Gibson, Hughes and Fister, you are left with a lot of pretty strong options to improve your bullpen.
Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen will be there. You have to be concerned with the way Perkins pitched the last half of 2015 and I’m not certain Jepsen is really as good as he looked after being acquired from the Rays, but those two will be cornerstones of the 2016 relief corps, if they’re healthy.
Now, just for fun, plug the following five arms into the bullpen: Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco.
Yes, that leaves just Perkins and Milone as lefty arms, so I’d like to see Logan Darnell make the team, meaning Nolasco is cut loose or one of Meyer/Berrios is kept in Rochester to stay stretched out in case there’s an early hole to plug in the rotation.
No team survives a season without running 7-10 pitchers through their rotation during the year and all five of these guys could work their way into starting roles either by their own performance or attrition among those who open the year as starters.
But the point remains that the Twins have pitching that is capable of bolstering their bullpen and I’d spend $10-15 million to take a chance on Fister improving the rotation. Then, as the dominoes fall, quality internal pitchers are pushed to the bullpen.
To me, that’s preferable to making multi-year commitments to one or more of the flavor-of-the-month relief arms available in free agency when the Twins have guys like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois, Taylor Rogers, Zach Jones, Alex Wimmers and Mason Melotakis (to name just a few), any of which could become high-quality internal bullpen options before 2016 is over. Even 2015 top draft pick Tyler Jay, who will be given an opportunity to work in a minor league rotation somewhere to start the season, could be called on for a big league relief role, if needed at some point.
The best free agent bullpen arms will command large, multi-year deals, which the Twins should not invest in, and the next tier on the open market are no more likely to provide consistent quality relief innings than the Twins’ own internal options.
The bottom line, for me, is that Terry Ryan can get Park signed, make a deal with Fister, then go on vacation, as far as I’m concerned. If he can get someone to take Nolasco’s contract off his hands, terrific, but otherwise, I’d be content to head to spring training with that roster.
Aaron Hicks’ trade to the New York Yankees on Wednesday brings to a close one of the more frustrating eras for a young Twins player in some time. Frustrating for those of us who closely follow Twins prospects, frustrating for the Twins’ front office and, I’m certain, frustrating for the player, himself.
The methods that Major League Baseball employ to bring new talent into professional baseball in the United States amount to the biggest crapshoot in professional sports. A 40-round amateur draft for domestic players, combined with a process for signing international talent at the age of 16, feeds at least a half-dozen tiers of development leagues. The result is a meat-grinder of a system that chews up and spits out young players by the hundreds every year, with only the strongest, most durable (and luckiest) few of the group even getting a taste of big league life, much less having a significant MLB career.
International players that garner multi-million dollar deals at the age of 16, like Miguel Sano, and top-of-the-first-round draft choices, like Byron Buxton, are better bets, of course, but the road is also littered with players in those categories that, whether due to injury or any number of other reasons, never lived their Major League dreams.
A then-18 year old Aaron Hicks was the Twins’ first round draft choice in 2008, the 14th pick of the draft, and immediately was penciled in as the next-generation fixture in the middle of the Twins’ outfield of the future.
It took 4 1/2 years for Hicks to get to the big leagues which, at the time, seemed like forever for a first round draft pick. Yet, when he did debut, after winning the starting centerfield job out of spring training in 2013, it felt to many like he was rushed. As things turned out, he almost certainly could have used more development time, rather than skipping directly from AA in 2012 to The Show to open 2013.
Hicks got off to a very good start with the Gulf Coast League Twins after signing in 2008, hitting .318 with a .900 OPS, in just over 200 plate appearances. From there, though, the path became more challenging.
He was targeted to start 2009 with Elizabethton, but by mid-June of that year, the Beloit Snappers needed outfield help and Hicks was sent there, instead. He struggled a bit at the plate, requiring him to repeat that level in 2010. His numbers improved in 2010 and, given that he was still just 20 years old, his prospect status jumped, as well.
Hicks’ 2011 at advanced-A Fort Myers was nothing to write home about, again costing him some prospect-status points. The Twins sent him to the Arizona Fall League that year for some more work and he excelled in Arizona, hitting .294 and racking up a huge .959 OPS, albeit in just 30 games. That was enough to get fans excited about Hicks’ potential again, heading in to the following spring.
He didn’t disappoint at AA New Britain, having the quintessential “break out year” with the Rock Cats, hitting .286 with 13 home runs.
That performance emboldened Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who saw Hicks as being so Major League ready that he traded away both of the Twins’ incumbent centerfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, during the offseason leading up to 2013. Again, the enthusiasm turned out to be a bit premature, as Hicks struggled not only with the Twins, for whom he hit below the Mendoza-line level, but also at AAA Rochester, where he continued to struggle at the plate.
Hicks lasted less than a month into the 2014 season before literally “hitting a wall.” He suffered a concussion after slamming into the centerfield wall at Target Field in a game against the Dodgers. He ended up spending time at AA, where he once again excelled in 43 games, and at AAA Rochester, where he certainly held his own. After getting a September call-up, he totaled 69 games with the Twins during the season, hitting just .215 in his time with the big club.
Justified or not, Hicks earned a reputation within the Twins organization as having a less-than-professional approach to his game. Reports came out that at times he didn’t even know who the opponent’s starting pitcher was. Struggling from the left side of the plate, he announced he would give up on switch-hitting (a decision he later reversed, after a chat with Rod Carew).
The Twins did not bring Hicks north with them to open the 2015 season, opting instead to start him at AAA Rochester. To his credit, Hicks immediately set about earning another chance with the Twins. He hit .342 with the Red Wings and put up a .948 OPS.
With the Twins, Hicks was respectable at the plate for the first time in his big league career, batting .256 and hitting 11 home runs in 97 appearances. In addition, his defense in centerfield was a critical contribution to the Twins’ surprising (to many) 83-win season, despite struggling with a hamstring issue.
That’s the history with the Twins that Aaron Hicks carried into this postseason. Given all of that, it certainly could not have come as a surprise to anyone that General Manager Terry Ryan was willing to listen when the Yankees’ Brian Cashman approached him about a possible deal involving Hicks.
Reports have surfaced that there was interest in Hicks previously on the part of other teams, but the Twins were unwilling to let him go. That’s not surprising, since any overture before the 2015 season would have almost certainly been a low-ball offer.
We’ve also read that Cashman got a lukewarm response from Ryan to his first suggestion of a trade involving Hicks for Yanks catcher John Ryan Murphy, but Ryan became much more interested in the idea after the Twins learned they had won the right to negotiate with Korean slugger Byung Ho Park.
Adding Park to the mix at first base and designated hitter meant the idea of Miguel Sano getting regular time in the Twins outfield in 2016 went from just a casual option to a much more real possibility. Inserting Sano into the outfield mix with Hicks, Eddie Rosario and, sooner rather than later, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, left Ryan with an abundance of outfielders.
It may be risky to assume (1) that Sano can play a passable outfield and (2) that Buxton and/or Kepler will be successful big league hitters in 2016. We also can’t rule out the possibility that third baseman Trevor Plouffe could yet be dealt by the Twins, opening up that position for Sano and taking him out of the outfield mix again.
On the flip side, however, given Hicks’ roller-coaster performance record, Ryan had to figure that now might be the best time to maximize Hicks’ trade value. The Twins needed a catcher capable of at least challenging Kurt Suzuki for the starting job behind the plate immediately. The Yankees had such a catcher available in Murphy and they were willing to part with him in return for Hicks, so Ryan pulled the trigger.
I’d like to say I wish Aaron Hicks the best of luck and I do – to a point.
If he had been traded to any team I either have some kind of affection for or at least have no feelings toward whatsoever, my wish for good fortune would be unconditional. He seems like a good guy and I truly appreciate the challenges he overcame to eventually be a significant contributor to the Twins at the Major League level.
But he’s going to the Yankees.
So the best I can do is wish Hicks all the personal good luck in the world in the future, while stopping short of being able to wish him good fortune in conjunction with his new team. I just can’t wish the Yankees anything close to good luck.
As for Murphy, I don’t know much about him, but all reports indicate that he has grown from a “bat first” catcher into a guy who is at least a legitimate MLB talent behind the plate. If he can perform in that manner and hit the way he has done historically, he’ll amount to a significant upgrade for the Twins at the position.
I believe that the Twins have multiple legitimate big league catching prospects in their organization. I believe that Stuart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto, to name just three, will someday catch at the MLB level, either with the Twins or elsewhere. They have different strengths and weaknesses and whether they become regulars or backups will depend on how they improve on those weaknesses, but they’ll get their shots.
It takes time, however, for most to develop into a regular big league catcher and it will be more than a couple of years before any of those prospects is ready to be “the guy” behind the plate for what, by then, should be a MLB contender.
For now, at least, Murphy seems like a very good cost-controlled addition to the roster and the price paid was reasonable.
No, not THAT kind of “park.” The Twins will continue to call Target Field their home for the foreseeable future.
On Monday, it was announced that the Minnesota Twins had submitted the winning $12.85 million bid to secure the rights to negotiate with Korean Baseball’s slugger Byung Ho Park. The Twins now have 30 days to work out a contract with the 29-year-old first baseman/designated hitter who slashed .343/.436/.714 with a 1.150 OPS for the Nexen Heros. He hit 52 and 53 home runs the past two seasons, respectively. He also has over 300 strikeouts combined over the past two years.
As Major League Baseball’s General Manager Meetings get underway in Florida this week, the GMs walking the halls must be just shaking their heads and saying, “That Terry Ryan is just so unpredictable, you never know what that crazy SOB is going to do next!”
I suppose the first thing we will need to learn, if the Twins do sign him, is how to write his name. I’ve seen Byung-ho Park, Byung ho Park, Byung Ho Park and Park Byung ho. I have no idea what’s correct, but I hope someone will check into that and let us all know.
Park is listed at 6′ 1″ and 195 pounds, so he’s certainly not a massive physical specimen, but there are plenty of videos available on YouTube that include compilations of his home runs. He has hit a lot of deep home runs and has mastered a variety of bat-flips, as well.
(This is a LONG montage of Park home runs, so I’m not suggesting you watch the whole thing. I didn’t.)
Reports have emerged, however, that Park will be toning down his bat-flipping in recognition that it’s not as “acceptable” in MLB as it is in Korea, where flipping the bat has become essentially an art form.
I’m not sure how I feel about that. I admit that I have been a bit old school in my views about bat-flipping. I’m willing to acknowledge, however, that those views may have been affected by the fact that the Twins haven’t had many guys lately who had the ability to do anything worthy of flipping a bat. With the arrival of Miguel Sano, potentially Kennys Vargas and, now, Park, maybe I’m not so anti-flip as I used to be.
I’m happy to discover that the Twins have put their Tsuyoshi Nishioka experience in their rear view mirror and not allowed it to sour them completely on risking some money in the Asian market.
You have to be careful about comparisons involving small numbers, but it probably didn’t hurt that the Pirates had success with third baseman Jung Ho Kang, who put up similar stat lines to Park a year ago in Korea. Kang hit .287/.355/.461 as a 28-year-old rookie in 2015.
With the technology available today to measure bat speed, velocity of the ball off the bat, etc., we can hope that scouting is a bit more precise than when the Twins took an ultimately ill-advised flyer on Nishioka. Still, conventional belief is that Park hasn’t faced anything near MLB-level pitching, either in velocity or breaking balls, so it would be premature to celebrate too much.
I do think it’s interesting that the Twins (and presumably other bidders for Park’s services) were willing to overlook his strikeout rate, given the concerns everyone seems have with Twins outfield prospect Adam Brett Walker II, who likewise has shown impressive power and excessive strikeout rates.
I’m not sure if that indicates the Twins might be more likely to give Walker a big league shot in the near future or simply that Walker, in a worst case scenario, could make some big bucks playing in Korea, but I find it interesting.
If the Twins sign Park, it also opens up questions about where he would fit in Paul Molitor’s lineup. This guy named Joe Mauer has been viewed as having pretty much a lock on first base. I saw a report that Park was working some at third base during his Korean team’s spring training this past year, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate he actually played that position during the season. In any event, the Twins already could have one too many third basemen in Trevor Plouffe and Miguel Sano.
The Twins have asked Sano to play outfield during winter ball, so that could open up the (perhaps most likely) possibility of simply having Mauer and Park split 1B/DH duties, but I’m having trouble imagining Sano going from full time DH in 2015 to full time right fielder in 2016. I think Sano will DH a lot next summer. I also have become irreversibly attached to the idea of a future four-man outfield rotation consisting of top-notch defenders Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks and Max Kepler.
I have to believe Trevor Plouffe is on the trade block. I wouldn’t give him away, however, and I’m just not convinced other teams value him enough to give up much of value in return. Of course, any of the four outfielders mentioned above, other than Buxton, would also be potential trade bait and one or two could bring more of a return than Plouffe.
For two years, I have made fun of anyone who claimed Mauer should return to catching. The man stopped catching for a good reason. He had brain injuries that resulted in his doctors telling him he needed to stop taking 100 mph foul tips off his head.
If his doctors still feel that way, then I still feel Mauer should not catch. Period. It’s simply not worth the risk to his future health.
Is it possible, however, that given his relative lack of additional concussion issues since moving out from behind home plate a couple years ago, that he has received medical clearance to return to the position? This is pure speculation, of course, but if so, a lot of pieces suddenly start falling into place. It seems highly unlikely, bordering on impossible, but stranger things have happened.
For example, did you hear the Minnesota Twins outbid everyone for Korean slugger Byung-ho Park?
Welcome back, Knuckleballs readers. Long time-no see.
My contributions here have been sparse, at best, lately. I’m hoping that’s about to change.
I took a little time off, for a couple of reasons. I think they were good reasons, but then I’m biased, obviously.
After completing my third season of covering the Cedar Rapids Kernels for MetroSportsReport.com and contributing articles to TwinsDaily.com, I simply needed time away from writing on a regular basis.
Oh, I also lost my “day job,” so that’s taken a bit of getting used to, too.
I got a decent “separation pay” deal from my employer and by officially “retiring,” I’m also able to keep most of the most important benefits (health insurance, etc.), so there are certainly worse ways to lose your job.
I’m not looking for sympathy here. I was ready to move on and, as it turns out, my employer was ready enough to have me move on that they’re willing to pay me for quite some time NOT to work for them. Not a bad situation, at all.
Still, it leaves me in a position to essentially reboot my life, or at least significant aspects of my future. I make a lot of “old man” jokes at my own expense, but I’m really not all that old. I haven’t reached the big six-oh yet, though I’m certainly closing in on it. The point is, I feel like it’s far too early for me to simply do nothing with my day.
The nice thing is that my financial situation allows me to take some time to examine my options and find something that I feel I’ll really enjoy doing with my time going forward. That will be a nice change.
In the meantime, I think I’m ready to get back at the keyboard on a more regular basis. For now, that means, hopefully, posting more frequently here. I realize that, when you take the kind of hiatus I’ve taken, it will be difficult (and, possibly, impossible) to get readership levels back to what they used to be.
That’s OK (for now, anyway).
I couldn’t decide on one topic to write about today, so I’m going to just touch on a number of issues.
World Series Game 1
Wow. How are they going to top that?
Game 1 had all the usual stuff (good pitching, good defense, good hitting) and then some:
- Human interest (Volquez pitching after his father passed away earlier in the day)
- Network difficulties (What the hell, FOX?)
- A totally unexpected defensive lapse that threatened to cost the Royals the game.
- A deep home run in the 9th inning off a shut-down closer to tie the game.
- Five extra innings, before the guy who made the aforementioned error drove in the walk-off run with a sacrifice fly.
On Twitter, I went on record as picking the Royals to win the Series in seven games.
That’s probably less of a prediction than it is a hope. I’m an American League guy so, as long as it’s not the Yankees in the Series, I’m almost always going to be pulling for the AL representative. Mostly, though, I just want to see a great Series and that would include a deciding seventh game.
Torii Hunter’s Retirement
Hunter made the right call. There’s no way to look at his work on the field this season and objectively say that it looks like he still has enough in the tank to be a regular contributor on a team that expects to be a contender and, let’s face it, Torii Hunter is not cut out to play a reserve role. It’s not in his personality.
I give credit where I believe it’s due, however. His presence on the team was a net-positive for the Twins and, without him, I do not believe they have as much success in 2015 as they did.
It sounds like he’ll get an opportunity to join the Twins’ front office in some capacity. I have mixed feelings about that and I suppose where I come down on the subject will depend on what role he’s given.
On the one hand, clearly Major League Baseball needs more African-Americans in front office positions and Torii Hunter has the background and personality that one would think might make him successful in some kind of front office role.
On the other hand, given some of Hunter’s stated views on certain social issues, I would have a difficult time trusting him to make any sort of personnel decisions that call for inclusion of staff from diverse backgrounds and beliefs.
In the end, nobody really should care all that much what a professional baseball player believes, with regard to racial, religious or any other social issue. I know I don’t. But if/when that player is being considered for a position in a professional business organization (which is what the front office is), now we can and should care about those views because they can impact who that team hires and how employees are treated in the workplace.
It will be interesting to see how this turns out. In the meantime, I would congratulate Hunter on a terrific Major League career and thank him for what he contributed to my enjoyment of Minnesota Twins baseball during his years in a Twins uniform.
Big Ten Football
Yeah, I know this has been primarily a baseball blog since we opened the doors here going on six years ago. It will probably stay that way, for the most part, but I do have interests outside of baseball, so sometimes I’m going to write about those things. This is one of those times.
I gave up my Iowa Hawkeyes football season tickets this season for a number of reasons. I’m not sorry I did so. Surprisingly, even though I now have a lot more free time on my hands, it would have been very difficult for me to make it to many games at Kinnick Stadium this year and the home schedule, frankly, was not something to get too excited about.
Fortunately, the Hawkeyes have rewarded my lack of financial support by going 7-0 so far this season and, thanks to a pretty weak B1G West, they have a reasonable shot at being undefeated in the regular season and heading to Indianapolis for the conference Championship Game.
I have probably jinxed the Hawkeyes, however. I bought Championship Game tickets on Stubhub last week.
I also have tickets for the November 14 game against Minnesota.
That should be an interesting day, for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s a night game at Kinnick and that’s always a good time. The Hawkeyes and Gophers usually battle one another pretty hard, so it shapes up as being perhaps one of the few really good games left on the home schedule.
Iowa will also finally join the “alternate uniform” trend that night with all-black uniforms on tap for the game with the Gophers.
As a warm-up for the game, Hawkeye wrestling has a meet with Oklahoma State scheduled for 11 am that Saturday – in Kinnick Stadium. Yes, an outdoor college wrestling meet in Iowa in November. What could possibly go wrong?
The plan is to break the college wrestling meet attendance record set at Penn State last season. Based on initial demand for tickets, the old record won’t just be broken, it will be obliterated.
So on the 14th, I’ll need to get to Kinnick for wrestling by 11, then tailgate a few hours before the Hawks and Gophers tee it up at 7 pm. It’s quite possible that I’m too old for that, but we’ll see how it goes.
On a much less pleasant note, I think everyone who’s a fan of college football was sad to see Minnesota coach Jerry Kill step down from his job with the Gophers for health reasons. It’s impossible to watch the video of his press conference and not feel heartbroken for the man, his family and, by extension, the U of M Community.
Despite seeming to take a bit of step backwards this season, Kill appeared to have the Gopher football program moving in a positive direction, but regardless of what you feel about the program, he has always come across to me as a genuinely good man with his heart in the right place.
I’m confident he will successfully transition in to other roles that he will find fulfilling, eventually. I wish him all the best.
That’s it for today.
I’ll do my best to be back with more regular postings and you can look forward to on-site reports (and photos) next week from the Arizona Fall League in Phoenix. I’m looking forward to spending a few days down there because there are several Twins prospects (most of them also former Kernels) playing and – well – it’s Arizona in November.
Here we are in the final week of the 2015 MLB season and the Twins are still in contention for a playoff spot. All things considered, that’s pretty incredible. Virtually none of us expected this when the season began.
Hoped for it? Sure. We all hope for it. We’ve hoped for it for the past four years, too, but show me someone who went on record in April that the Twins would have a .500 record locked down and still be pushing for a wild card berth, then I’ll believe someone actually expected this to happen.
The Twins front office, their manager and coaching staff, and particularly the players, deserve a lot of credit for putting the team in this unlikely circumstance. Twins fans should all appreciate the hard work that has produced the most encouraging Twins season in at least five years.
It’s really hard for me not to play a little “what if?” game. If the Twins are not able to overcome both the Astros and Angels to capture the coveted final American League wild card spot, they’ll almost certainly finish within a couple of games of doing so.
A couple of games.
That makes it pretty easy to go back and look for opportunities that were lost to turn enough losses into wins to put the Twins in the playoffs.
The easy part is looking at late game leads that were blown by a failed relief pitching, by a late error, by a baserunning mistake or by failing to capitalize on runners in scoring position. Those examples are easy to come by.
Then again, you can say that about literally every team that finishes just short of the postseason, every year.
Similarly, though to a lesser extent, fans of any team that falls just short can come up with strategic managing/coaching decisions that failed and, ultimately, led to enough losses to make a difference. Not every decision made by a team’s manager is going to work and when a decision ends up in a loss, second-guessing is easy and, with Paul Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, there have been plenty of second-guess-worthy decisions to choose from if you want to find a couple of games that could have had better outcomes.
And then there’s the front office.
On August 3, I wrote about my disappointment with the lack of results from the Twins at the non-waiver trade deadline.
To demonstrate that none of us are above being second-guessed, I obviously undervalued the addition of Kevin Jepsen at that time. Despite being underwhelmed with the Jepsen trade, my biggest problem wasn’t the trade itself or the prospects that were given up for the reliever. My problem with it was that it was the only deal made.
It seemed to me that either General Manager Terry Ryan should have acquired more help for his manager to take in to the final two months of the season than just an additional bullpen arm or he shouldn’t have bothered going out to get even that much.
Clearly, Jepsen has been a life-saver in light of the free-fall we’ve seen from closer Glen Perkins. Without Jepsen, the Twins would have almost certainly been eliminated before now, so kudos to the front office for that deal. I was wrong about Jepsen.
I’m still playing coulda-shoulda-woulda, however, on the question of whether there might not have been one or two other deals that “coulda-shoulda” been made in July that “woulda” made more than a couple games’ difference in the Twins fortunes this year.
It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. And, to be fair, you can’t just throw out a name and say, “if the Twins had gone out and gotten this guy, they’d be playoff bound by now.” There’s no way to know that.
The primary positions most people talked about upgrading were shortstop and catcher.
But would any of the shortstops available at the time done better at solidifying the position than Eduardo Escobar has? That’s a debate we could have, but it’s certainly not a given that any addition would have been a net-gain over Escobar for the Twins in the win column.
Kurt Suzuki has struggled to control opponents’ running games, but catching is about so much more than throw-out rates that I think it’s impossible to say whether a change at the starting catcher position would have had a positive effect on the team over the final two months. We simply don’t know what effects that would have had on the effectiveness of the pitching staff.
Could the Twins have added a starting pitcher at the deadline? Sure. But you have to ask who would have been the likely odd man out of the rotation to make room for a newcomer. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider that it might have been rookie Tyler Duffey. The same Tyler Duffey who has been arguably the most consistent starter in the rotation over the final two months.
If the Twins end up falling short of the playoffs this week, it will be almost impossible for us not to ask, “what if?” I know I’ll do plenty of that.
Sure, we can pretty much all agree that this Twins roster doesn’t look like it’s built for a deep playoff run this season, anyway. With the young talent in the pipeline, maybe 2016 or 2017 will be more likely seasons for legitimate title contention.
But, as Twins fans have learned, you can’t for granted any opportunity you get to qualify for the postseason. You can’t assume other opportunities are just around the corner. Stuff happens and that stuff isn’t always good stuff.
So I’ll continue to ask, “what if?” I’ll continue to maintain that more help should have been brought on in July; that Molitor was not given the tools to make a legitimate playoff run this season.
I’ll also acknowledge, however, that it wouldn’t have been easy and that there’s no assurance that any such additional “help” would have necessarily improved the results. I’m smart enough to know that any additional “help” that would have been brought in might have actually ended up resulting in fewer wins, rather than more (see: Nationals, Washington).
In the end, I’m glad it was Terry Ryan making those decisions in July, rather than me. Ryan may not have done everything right and he’s certainly accustomed to second-guessing from people like me. It all goes with the GM job.
And we are still paying attention to the Twins during the final two series of the season. I’d almost forgotten how much fun that is.
We’ve reached the end of the Dog Days of Summer, that period that stretches from 20 days before Sirius (the Dog Star) is precisely in conjunction with the sun until 20 days after those bodies are in alignment.
Those 40 or so days are typically the most cruelly hot of the summer and, coincidentally or not, the days when young professional baseball players often hit the proverbial “wall” during their first full season of pro ball. Players that are accustomed to playing anywhere from 40 to 70 games in a summer, find themselves having already eclipsed that mark by mid-June, with another 70 yet to play on the schedule.
It’s when bats become heavier in a hitter’s hands and pitchers often lose velocity or some sharpness to their breaking ball due to a “tired arm.”
Then again, the Dog Days of Summer really is a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, so Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Sam Gibbons, who hails from Geelong, Victoria, in Australia, may well be immune to the Dog Day effects.
After a shaky start to his season, the 21-year-old Aussie didn’t really begin to hit his stride until the second week of July.
As Gibbons toed the rubber in Kane County on July 12 to begin his seventh start after joining the Kernels at the end of May, he shouldered an unimpressive 5.34 ERA after giving up 21 runs (19 of them earned) in his first six starts for Cedar Rapids.
The righthander gave up one run in the fourth inning of what would become a no-decision start against the Cougars that night and, from there, ran his scoreless inning streak up to 28 consecutive innings before giving up a pair of runs (one earned) in an 8-2 win over Bowling Green on Saturday night before a near-capacity home crowd.
Included in that stretch was a nine inning complete game shutout on the road at Kane County on August 1. It has been the only complete game shutout twirled by a Kernels pitcher this season and only the Kernels’ second complete game this year. (Mat Batts lost a 1-0 decision despite throwing a complete seven-inning game in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Peoria in May.)
Finishing the complete game meant Gibbons threw a few more pitches than normal.
“Last year, we were generally around the 80-90 (pitches) mark,” Gibbons explained, “but very rarely would we go over 85. Throwing 110 pitches (in the complete game), I was feeling it the last inning, but there’s no way I was going to give in.”
After that extended outing, Gibbons knew he was destined for a shorter night in his next start on Saturday.
“I think I was on some sort of pitch count (Saturday), but I was cruising through the middle three through six innings pretty well and then got two outs in the seventh. Then things got a bit sticky. But, you know, things happen. It’s OK and we ended up winning, so that’s the main thing.”
How has Gibbons gotten stronger as the summer heat has been at its most oppressive?
“You know, I wish I could bottle it and pass it around to other guys,” said Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla.
For his part, Gibbons said he does feel like he’s getting stronger, but doesn’t think his workload this season has been all that unusually heavy.
“The thing is, I pitch in the ABL (Australian Baseball League) every year, so I have at least 30 innings before I get to spring training on my belt,” Gibbons explained.” So I’m pretty used to having a fairly deep workload.”
We may not know what to credit for Gibbons’ improvement through the past several weeks, but he knew exactly who to blame for the scoreless streak coming to an end on Saturday.
“I spoke to my mom (after the game) and I told her it was all her fault for making me aware of it,” Gibbons related, with a smile.
Blaming mom? Wow. That’s harsh.
“I had to blame someone,” a laughing Gibbons reasoned.
Typically, Gibbons likes to take a bit of time off in the fall after the season winds up, but things didn’t work out that way for him this past offseason.
“My plan last year was to play after Christmas and the New Year,” he recounted. “Then I was asked to play on the under-23 Australian Team. so I went in November last year. That kind of interrupted things but any chance you get to play for your country is a great opportunity, so I definitely wanted to do that.”
Perhaps taking the extra off-season work into account, the parent Minnesota Twins held Gibbons back in Extended Spring Training when the Kernels came north to start the season, then promoted him to Cedar Rapids on May 28. He made his Kernels debut May 31. His first four starts after arriving were not pretty. surrendering 16 runs in 20 innings of work covering that initial stretch.
“Obviously, I had a bit of a shaky start, but things are coming good now,” Gibbons understated.
“I think after the first month, I was struggling with fastball command a bit, and not being able to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, where I have been now. I’ve been attacking guys, but attacking with my off-speed pitches, which is something I’ve never been able to do, really.
“So, having command and just having faith that if I make a bad pitch, that I’m going to come back and make a better pitch to get weak contact or a swing and a miss. I feel that fastball command, knowing I can throw a fastball wherever I want and when I want is something that is pretty big and that will progress you through the ranks.”
Bonilla, his pitching coach, agrees.
“He just came up and he’s been a strike thrower,” the coach observed. “He’s always been a strike thrower, he’s going to throw it over and I think that’s to his credit and also to his detriment. He didn’t really locate. He just said basically, ‘somebody’s going to hit a ball at a guy. If I throw a strike, I’ll be ok.’
“It worked for a while with some of the younger hitters that don’t really drive the ball, but some of these guys are prospects, they can hit the ball, or some of them are grown men. Some are 24- 25 year old men that can hit the ball far. He’s learned that the hard way.
“The first couple outings he got kind of hit around. To his credit, he’s allowed himself to change. He’s going to the corners a little bit more, he’s attacking down in the zone, being more aggressive by not throwing so many strikes. He’s throwing ‘quality misses,’ is what we call it.”
According to Bonilla, a lot of Gibbons improvement has come from his mentality, as much as any improvement he’s shown with his mechanics or pitch selection.
“He’s trusting it,” Bonilla said. “I think one of the biggest things for him is his confidence. He’s out there confident that he can make pitches. He does it and he does it with a purpose with all of his pitches.”
The coach also conceded that sometimes a little early failure greases the skids a bit for quicker improvement.
“It’s hard to go away from success on the field,” he explained. “If a (hitter) is hitting .300 and we’re telling him, ‘hey, it’s not going to work when you get to the big leagues,’ he’s going to be like, ‘well, I’m hitting .300.’ If a (pitcher) is getting outs here, he’s like, ‘what do you mean it’s not going to work?’
“So it’s hard for them to get themselves out of immediate success and look at four years down the future. To their credit, the ones that do are the ones that kind of take their lumps early, but you can see them kind of turn it around and stay with it and go good. And he’s one of those guys that’s been doing that. So he’s done a great job, I’m very happy with him.”
Gibbons was signed by the Twins as a 17-year-old in July, 2011, but continued to play in his home country for a while and didn’t make his first appearance for a Twins affiliate in the States until the following year.
“Our school (in Australia) works a bit differently, so I was actually halfway through my senior year of high school, so it was a bit different to how things are out here. It was a big thing for my mom to make sure that I finished high school.”
There’s that “blame mom” thing again. How dare she do something like wanting him to finish high school before moving thousands of miles away to play baseball for a living?
“I look back on it and I wanted to get over here as soon as possible,” Gibbons recalled, “but it was a slight decision, finishing high school at least.”
In the end, mom won out – as moms are prone to doing.
“So, I made sure I did that (finish high school) and then came over the following (extended spring training). The Twins don’t tend to like to bring Aussies over here for spring training their first year,” he explained. “Trying to wet their feet a bit, I guess, by just coming to extended and seeing how things work and then their second year, bring them over for spring training.”
Gibbons played two years for the Twins Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers, then moved up to Elizabethton for the 2014 short season, where he teamed with many of the same guys he’s sharing the Kernels clubhouse with this season. That’s not an insignificant factor in his recent success, according to the pitcher.
“I feel that the (catchers) we have on our team, they really take notice of what pitches you have and what works well for the situation. Having (Brett) Doe, Navi (Brian Navarreto) and (Alex) Real behind there, it’s pretty good,” Gibbons offered. “All three of the catchers on this team now were in E-town last year and the majority of our pitching group is the same from last year, so everyone has a good idea of what we throw and when you want to throw it.”
All three Kernels catchers have been successful at controlling the opponents’ running games. Navarreto, for example, has thrown out over half of the runners attempting to steal off of him. That’s a factor Gibbons appreciates.
“Having Navi behind the plate the last couple of outings has been exceptional. We’ve played together for three years now, so he’s known me pretty well. I’m pretty lucky to have him behind there pitch calling and his defensive work is immaculate.”
Gibbons doesn’t appear to be exactly a high-maintenance pitcher for his catchers to have to deal with. If you find him sitting alone for a couple of hours before each start, he’s probably watching a movie or listening to music, not focused on envisioning every pitch that’s about to come out of his hand.
“No, no, not at all,” he admitted.” I don’t really do that until I’m out on the mound going, ‘ok, let’s go and see how this goes.’”
As the season winds down, Gibbons stands to play a critical role in the postseason for the Kernels. He’s thrown just over 64 innings since joining Cedar Rapids, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about the front office limiting his work just when the team needs him the most in the playoffs.
When his year in Cedar Rapids wraps up, Gibbons will be headed back “down under” for the off-season. For him, that means beach time.
“Back home, I live about 15 minutes from the beach,” he said. “I’m always going down there with buddies or just hanging out and kicking back. I play club ball sometimes or I practice and train with my brother. (Club ball) is like a mens’ league sort of thing that I just go down and I have some fun with my brother and my buddies that I grew up playing with.”
He’s going to take a bit more time off this year before starting the real training for his 2016 season.
“Definitely take off a fair chunk of the offseason and come back in mid-January at some point, I guess,” Gibbons said of his plans. “Play a bit of ABL and get a couple of starts before spring training.
“I have to be in contact with (Twins farm director Brad Steil). Henry (Bonilla) and I will sit down before the season finishes and see where the innings are at and see what they want – a pitch count or innings limit sort of restriction.”
Those limits will then be communicated to Gibbons’ ABL coaching staff.
“They’re happy to have me pitch whatever that is,” he added.
It’s good that the ABL coaches are so easy to work with. At least that’s one less thing Gibbons should have to blame his mom for.
I suppose this is what we asked for, Twins fans. Our team is playing “meaningful games” in August. Technically, they even continue to possess the second American League wild card spot (for a few more hours anyway).
Entering the season, if someone had told us that our Twins would be right in the thick of the hunt for even a wild card postseason spot, I think most of us would have smiled and said, “thank you.”
Some of us have had some elevated hopes for 2016 and even more would have projected 2017 as a reasonable goal to see the Twins contending for the postseason. But 2015? No, not really. There were just too many question marks and, frankly, calling some areas of the Twins Opening Day roster “question marks” would have been being generous.
So, given this unexpected bonus of meaningful play in August, why don’t I feel like celebrating?
To begin with, it’s not like the Twins’ hold on that final wild card spot is exactly something you’d call a death grip. OK, bad wording. Maybe that’s exactly what you would call it, as in, “they are about to lose that grip and see their season die.”
The Twins enter Monday with a one game lead over Baltimore and Toronto, a three game lead over Tampa and Texas, and a 3.5 game lead over Detroit and Chicago. That’s a lot of competition and it doesn’t even include the Angels, who currently hold the first wild card spot, just one game ahead of Minnesota.
Certainly, the front offices of some of those teams have already decided not to even try to compete for a spot in the league’s one-game, win or go home, wild card play-in game. Detroit and Tampa appear to be selling off parts. I’m not sure what the White Sox front office is doing, other than apparently trying to overcome the shock of discovering they’re actually not mathematically eliminated from the postseason yet.
Then again, as a Twins fan, I probably shouldn’t be too critical of another organization’s inertia in the face of unexpected contention for the postseason.
After all, while Chicago has only recently pulled themselves in to the hunt by winning a whole bunch of games in a row, the folks running the Twins have had an entire season to get acclimated to the fact that their guys actually have a shot at doing more than just playing meaningful games this late. And yet, the Twins front office gave no indication at the trading deadline that they had noticed.
That’s not really true, of course. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan did give such indications. He indicated to the media on more than one occasion last week that he intended be active in the trade market in an effort to improve his ballclub.
Then he did nothing.
And no, don’t even try to claim with a straight face that adding Kevin Jepsen, the relief pitcher they acquired from the Rays for two minor league pitchers, constitutes making a serious bid to improve the Twins.
Pioneer-Press Twins beat reporter Mike Berardino asked Ryan last week if the GM felt a responsibility to the current players to improve the roster. His reply:
“That’s correct,” Ryan said. “That would be very accurate. I know that. There’s nobody that’s more sensitive to that than me. I know they’ve done a hell of a job of getting to this point and we’re in a good position. Now it’s my responsibility to help the cause.”
Then Ryan went out and added Kevin Jepsen and – nothing else.
As a result, the Twins open a four-game series with one of the teams who is nipping at their heels in the wild card standings, the Blue Jays, without the benefit of any significant help from their front office.
Meanwhile, those Blue Jays have added Troy Tulowitzki, David Price and Ben Revere in the past few days. That’s a top of the rotation starting pitcher, a good-hitting veteran shortstop and a centerfielder who improves their club’s defense (and, therefore, their pitching as a whole).
Maybe this was never going to be the year the Twins made a postseason run. It certainly wouldn’t help their cause that Ervin Santana won’t be available to them in the postseason, even if they found themselves there as a team.
But Ryan was right. This collection of ballplayers has worked hard, exceeding everyone’s expectations, and he owed them a better result last week.
I’m not suggesting he should have traded away a bunch of top prospects for rental players. You don’t mortgage your entire future on a slim chance at the brass ring in 2015. But you don’t pay lip service and then try to convince the guys in your clubhouse that adding a middle inning reliever is all you could come up with to give them a boost while their nearest competitors are making serious improvements.
Making no deal at all – just saying right out loud that you don’t think this year’s club is built to not only get a wild card, but contend in the postseason once they get there – and explaining that you are not willing to give up any of your above average prospects at all in this environment would have been courageous. Likewise, making Toronto-sized mega deals that would have cost you some serious prospects would have been courageous.
Taking either road would have required some real stones, because either approach would have been controversial and would have met with loud criticism from the fan base. Yet either approach would have at least been defensible.
Dipping your toes in the water and giving up a couple of decent, but very young, pitching prospects for a middle reliever, but doing absolutely nothing else, is neither courageous nor defensible, in my opinion.
Of course, we know that the end of the non-waiver trade deadline in July does not necessarily constitute the end of all trade opportunities. Terry Ryan can still improve this year’s Twins roster in August via waiver trades. If he does, I’ll be among the first to applaud.
But waiting too long to provide that help is a real concern and making deals later this month certainly won’t help the Twins this week in Toronto.
Ryan is sending Paul Molitor in to Toronto this week to fend off one of his club’s closest challengers and Molitor’s club is seriously outmanned. The reason is as simple as it was preventable. Molitor’s club was not given the kind of boost that the Blue Jays got from their GM last week and that was, by his own admission, Terry Ryan’s responsibility.