GameChat – Texas @ Minnesota, 7:10pm

UPDATE: After tonight’s game, the Twins announced that Denard Span was placed on the new 7-day DL for concussion injuries. Rene Tosoni has been recalled from Rochester. – JC

So the Twins are finally home! After a very heavy road schedule to start the season, the next couple of months are pretty heavily at home. That will be a nice change I think.  We have rain in the forecast for the evening but we’ll see if it holds off until after the game.

Rhett Bollinger provided a quick injury update for just about everyone on the team on twitter this afternoon – if you don’t follow him already you should because he’s very informative! @RhettBollinger:

  • Nathan and Perkins both threw bullpens today. Kubel played catch, hit in the cage, & did agility drills. Slowey threw from 150 feet
  • Gardy was hesitant to say Joe Mauer will return early next week because he still wants to see him catch more games.
  • Nishioka could also return next week but will play a few games with Triple-A Rochester before being activated.
  • Morneau also had an MRI on his wrist but it showed no structural damage. Just fluid. So cleared to play.
  • Thome’s quad injury is linked to his previous back problems. He’s scheduled to have an epidural in his back.
  • Span is going to meet with doctors again today. Feels better but suffered whiplash.
Texas @ Minnesota
Andrus, SS Revere, CF
Murphy, Dv, DH Casilla, A, SS
Hamilton, LF Cuddyer, RF
Young, M, 2B Morneau, DH
Beltre, A, 3B Young, D, LF
Cruz, N, RF Valencia, 3B
Moreland, 1B Hughes, L, 1B
Torrealba, C Rivera, R, C
Chavez, En, CF Tolbert, 2B
Holland, D, P Blackburn, P

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Texas 1 0 0 0 0 2 0 1 0 4 12 1
Minnesota 0 1 0 0 3 0 0 0 1 5 10 2

It was “Thirsty Thursday” at the CR Kernels game (1.50 beers) so $12 worth of beer and a thunderstorm later, I got home to listen to the last couple of innings of the Twins game. I did, however, follow most of it (until the rain started at the ballpark I was at) via GameDay. From what I can tell…

Delmon hit a long home run… he actually had three hits!

Cuddy hit a big time home run… maybe he and DY are tired of the little guys getting all the love (we can only hope).

Blackie pitched well (but maybe didn’t do as well throwing to 1B as he did to home plate).

The bullpen (with the possible exception of Jose) had another good night and Jim Hoey, in particular, came through with a big inning of relief.

But when you come through with a two-out walk-off RBI single to win the game, you get the night’s BOD award! Tonight, that would be you, Alexi Casilla! – JC

 

Alexi Casilla

Getting Reacquainted

 It’s been an odd season.

For a team in a league that limits active roster size to 25 players, the Twins have certainly manage to fit an awful lot of guys in to uniforms. 39 different players have taken the field for the Twins in 2011… 20 position players and 19 pitchers.

Of course, if you happen to be one of those fans that only pays attention to who’s playing when the Twins are taking the field at home in Target Field, you may not have noticed the constant roster adjustments that have resulted in Gardy putting something like 57 unique line ups on the field out of their 61 games. The reason you may not have noticed is that only 21 of those games have been at home.

From way down here in Eastern Iowa, I’ve personally attended almost 15% of the Twins’ home games. Quite the avid fan, aren’t I? Well, not really. I’ve actually only driven up to the Twin Cities for one series (the Angels)… and I didn’t even stay for every game of that series.

For those fans (and players) that may not remember what it looks like, this is Target Field

Well, get ready to get reacquainted with your team, folks, because all that is about to change.

The Twins will play 31 of their next 41 games at Target Field. They’ll have series in San Francisco and Milwaukee later this month and play a series in Chicago just before the All-Star Break, but otherwise, it’s time for some home cooking.

So, for those of you who have kind of lost touch with this team since the season started, here are a few things you should know:

  • You may have heard the Twins have a new second baseman. You may have heard that he’s from Japan. You may have heard wrong. Or not. Tsuyoshi Nishioka did start the season at 2B, but only lasted a week or so before breaking his leg, so when you go to the game, expect to see Matt Tolbert there. Or Luke Hughes. Or Michael Cuddyer. Or Alexi Casilla. Then again, Nishi is hopefully wrapping up his rehabilitation work in the minors soon, so you MAY see him out there. Or you may see him at shortstop instead. Or it may be Casilla there. Or Tolbert. Yeah… better just check the lineup on the big screen.
  • You may remember that the Twins have a home-grown All-Star MVP catcher. Well, yes they do. He’s currently DHing and catching a few innings here and there… for the Class A team his brother manages down in Ft. Myers. He, too, may be back on the field for the Twins some time during the next few weeks. But I wouldn’t bet on it. His legs are weak. Seriously… that’s the story… the $23 million/year hero is apparently taking the year off because his legs are weak.
  • You may have heard that Jim Thome is approaching a career milestone… 600 home runs! That’s true. He’s just approaching it very… very… slowly. He’s on the Disabled List at the moment (where he has lots and lots of company).
  • You may have heard that you can at least cheer for Jason Kubel and Denard Span because they have been among the few Twins actually hitting the ball well this season. Well… maybe. Kubel is keeping Thome and the others company on the Disabled List and Span has been missing games lately with what could be a recurrence of some vertigo issues he had a couple of years ago. Or maybe he just misses Thome and Jason (and the other Jason… Repko) and Joe (and the other Joe… Nathan) and the other guys on the DL and wants to hang out with them for a while.
  •  You may have heard that the Twins’ bullpen is full of guys you’ve never heard of. This is true. It’s just not necessarily the SAME group of guys you’ve never heard of that started the season out there. The good news is that THIS group of guys has actually been getting hitters out lately. Still… if you go to a game and the Twins have a lead of say 2 runs (or 3.., or 4… or 5) heading in to the last couple of innings, it might be premature to assume it’s safe to go line up at the light rail station.

Hopefully, during the course of the next 6-7 weeks, Twins fans will get to see more familiar jersey numbers at Target Field… either that or the team is going to have to consider putting names on the back of those old-school throwback uniforms they’re wearing at home (something they decided to do to honor Harmon Killebrew).

Even more importantly, I hope the performance on the field continues, as it has over the course of this past road trip, to resemble something fans have come to expect from the Twins in recent years. Their record is still the worst in baseball, but the pitching is more consistent (in a good way) and while the remaining sluggers still haven’t been slugging, the guys at the top and bottom of the order have been finding ways to score some runs. It has become fun to watch the Twins again… just in time for this long homestand.

I wrote a few weeks ago that I didn’t believe the Indians were for real. I’ve seen nothing to change my mind. The Tigers are the team that everyone in the AL Central need to focus on and the Twins are currently exactly 10 games behind Detroit. Six weeks from now, the Twins will be wrapping up this favorable stretch of their schedule by hosting the Tigers for a four-game series. If they aren’t within clawing distance of Detroit at that point, you might want to get a good… and last… look at some of your favorite players in their Twins uniforms, because many of them will likely be wearing someone else’s colors a week or so later.

- JC

GameChat – Twins @ Royals #3, 6:10pm

Ok, I spent the day on the river, got a decent sunburn to start off my summer and now am joining the BF’s family for drinks and dinner. The boys better win for me.

Minnesota @ Kansas City
Revere, CF Gordon, LF
Casilla, A, SS Cabrera, Me, CF
Cuddyer, 1B Hosmer, 1B
Valencia, 3B Francoeur, RF
Young, D, DH Butler, DH
Dinkelman, LF Aviles, 3B
Repko, RF Getz, 2B
Rivera, R, C Treanor, C
Tolbert, 2B Escobar, A, SS
Blackburn, P Hochevar, P

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 1 0 0 2 3 0 1 7 13 0
Kansas City 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 8 1

Three in a row! And tonight’s win clinches a series win, with the brooms all getting ready for Sunday!

Things got a bit dicey when Nick Blackburn left the game after 5 innings with back stiffness. Fortunately, the bullpen was rested after getting last night off and Slama, Dumatrait, Hoey, Burnett and Mijares pieced together four innings of one-hit relief pitching.

Alexi Casilla went 4 for 5 with a double, a run scored and a couple of RBI. It would have been hard to imagine this a few weeks ago, but the truth is that Lexi is the guy that’s holding this line up together right now… and for tonight’s performance, he’s our Boyfriend of the Day!

Just Keepin’ It Real

Wow, that game last night was kinda fun… the way it ended anyway. Not so much the first seven innings, but in Big Boy League, they play nine (or in this case, 10) and it was great to see our guys show some backbone and scratch out a W in the Bronx.

And it’s fine that we were all giddy last night… including the players, if some of their Tweets are any indication.

But today brings another game and the reality that not too much should be read in to that win. Just as I’d caution people not to think Monday’s loss was an indication that the season is going in the toilet or that the Yankees will continue to forever dominate the Twins, let’s not jump to the conclusion that last night’s win gets King Kong off the Twins’ backs, either.

As our old friend Nuke LaLoosh so profoundly stated, “Winning is like, you know, better than losing!” But as the Twins learned last season, pulling off one come-from-behind win over the Evil Empire in that Mausoleum in Bronx (and seriously, that’s all the better Yankee fans can do in terms of showing up for a ballgame? I don’t care what the weather was… that’s a joke. They call themselves baseball fans?) does not, in itself, constitute a reversal of a trend.

I have to kind of like the pitching matchups for the next two games and I’ve held the minority view that the Twins bullpen is actually better than the Yankees’ overall, despite how “vaunted” it is by the media (especially the YES network broadcasters, apparently). I mean really… how many fans would have been screaming for the heads of Bill Smith, Ron Gardenhire, and/or pitching coach Rick Anderson if the Twins would have left Ft. Myers with Luis Ayala in the bullpen (again)?

But we can debate pitching and middle infielding until we’re all out of breath (or our typing fingers fall off) and it really won’t matter in the long run. Yes, the starting pitchers need to stop giving up early gopher balls. Yes, Casilla and Nishioka need to step up their games a bit.

It's time for Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer and Thome to show up

But no matter what anyone else does, this team’s fortunes are going to be tied to how the heart of the batting order performs with the bat and, so far, they flat out haven’t performed well. If and when Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Jim Thome start hitting with some consistent authority, this team will win a lot of baseball games. It’s really that simple.

At this point, none of those guys has been able to accumulate as much as a .150 batting average. Yes, I know BA isn’t the be-all and end-all of offensive statistics, but I think it’s safe to say that if you aren’t hitting above .150, chances are none of your other fancy in-depth sabremetric offensive stats are going to be looking too good either.

If all people want to fret about is whether your middle infield or 4th and 5th starters or middle relievers are performing up to standards, then everyone is missing the giant elephant in the room. It’s only five games in to the season, but the problem right at this moment is not the middle infield… it’s the heart of the batting order.

Pardon me for continuing to channel my inner Nuke today, but it’s time for the studs on this team to start announcing their presence with some authority.

- JC

Moving On From Toronto To The Bronx

The first series is in the books and while it didn’t go as well as we would hope, the Sunday afternoon win certainly should make everyone feel a bit better. It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win.

Honestly, I’m not concerned about getting only one win out of three games in Toronto to start the season. That’s hardly devastating.

I’m really more concerned… perhaps a better word is leery… about the way the Twins played than I am about the results themselves. I have no idea what the reason is… season opening nerves, lack of preparation, lack of Spring Training time for some of the star players, or anything in between… but I just felt there were concentration issues out there among a lot of guys.

Carl Pavano pitched like I’d expect him to pitch in Spring Training… kind of out of sync. He had a great spring statistically, though he, himself, commented several times that he didn’t feel he was pitching all that well. For some reason, I’m not optimistic that he’s going to find himself against the Yankees in his next scheduled start.

Francisco Liriano just wasn’t very good, period. He had some issues in Spring Training, too, so it will be worth watching to see how long it takes him to find a rhythm.

Justin Morneau looks like he’s just started swinging a bat after a long offseason… which is pretty much accurate. His bat looks slow to me, so let’s hope get starts seeing the ball and getting around on it more consistently.

The new middle infield hasn’t gotten off to a very good start. Interestingly, though, while most people were nervous about Alexi Casilla and felt confident of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, it’s actually been Nishioka that’s been the poorer performer, so far. Nishioka has two errors already and he’s struck out five times. Casilla was given Sunday off, but he had the only Twins extra base hit in the first two games (his only hit in five ABs, however). Nishioka frankly not only looked tight in the field, but his right handed plate appearances have been particularly ugly. He steps in the bucket on virtually every pitch.

Denard Span has gotten off to a good start at the plate, but even he got caught losing track of the number of outs when he was a baserunner at 1B early in Sunday’s game.

The bullpen has had mixed results, at best. Sunday saw solid performances by Matt Capps, Jose Mijares and Glen Perkins, but otherwise you have to look pretty hard to find a member of the pen to praise. I know Joe Nathan got a save Sunday, but that was by no means a good performance by Twitchy.

In all, the best thing you can really say about this first series of the season is that it’s over and the Twins managed to salvage one win. That’s one more than the Red Sox or Rays managed to come up with against the Rangers and Orioles, respectively. Those two teams, along with the Brewers and Astros in the National League, could still go 0-162. That’s a joke of course… though if I were an Astros fan, I might feel like it’s not so far-fetched. They could be really bad. Fans in Boston, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee, however, all have some reasonable playoff expectations and I doubt being winless at this point dampens those expectations too much.

Home of the Evil Empire

Monday night, the Twins will start a four-game road series in the Bronx against the Evil Empire. The Twins have the talent to match up with the Yankees, but we all know that doesn’t seem to matter when they go in to New York and routinely seem to play with one hand wrapped around their collective throats. I’d be pretty happy with a split of those four games.

Finally, in case anyone is inclined to put a lot of emphasis on the results of the first series of the season, allow me to just point out that the Kansas City Royals currently lead the AL Central standings after taking three of four games from the Angels in their opening series.

UPDATE: It’s not often I update a post just to link to another blog, but Jon Marthaler over at Twinkie Town posted a beaut over there this morning. Go check it out… he tells us all exactly how the rest of the season is going to play out!

- JC

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You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant
You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant
Walk right in it’s around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant

It’s All Coming Together

I’m trying to restrain myself, but on days like this, it’s not easy. I think with good health and a little bit of luck, this Twins team could be something special.

As Joe Reardon, the fictional manager of the Durham Bulls so eloquently put it, “This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” On Saturday afternoon, the Twins did all of that and did it well.

This is what I came to Ft. Myers to see. Now I just hope everyone stays healthy and we see exactly this kind of performance all season long.

Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey both looked sharp. Blackburn gave up seven hits, but 2-3 of those were infield hits that I generally don’t mark against a pitcher’s performance. He did give up a 2-run home run, but since it was off the bat of a former Cedar Rapids Kernel (Casey Kotchman), I’m willing to let it slide. Slowey struck out three in his three innings and gave up only one hit.

Jim Hoey, who got one inning of work sandwiched in between Blackburn’s five and Slowey’s three, had another solid performance. That’s two appearances I’ve seen this week from Hoey and let me just say, this man can throw a baseball! He was in the upper 90s again today and he sure didn’t look like he was having any control issues to me.

Every starting position player except Jeff Bailey collected at least one hit. Delmon homered. Span and Nishioka doubled. Span, Casilla and Young all stole bases.

Speaking of Nishioka, I’ve been very impressed with his play at second base. He made three excellent defensive plays in today’s game, in addition to teaming with Casilla to turn a couple of double plays. Denard flashed some speed and leather, as well, tracking down a couple of gappers.

But my goal here today is to try to give you a bit of the flavor of a beautiful day at a ballpark. After all, you can read all you want to know about the performances on the field by checking out any of the great beat writers. Speaking of beat writers, mlb.com’s Kelly Thesier is moving on to greener pastures (quite literally, I suppose, since she’s going to work as communications director for the LPGA) and Sunday is her last day covering the Twins. I’ve enjoyed reading Kelly’s reports, her blog and her Tweets and I wish her all the success she deserves in her new job.

I worked up the nerve to introduce myself to both Kelly and the Strib’s LaVelle E. Neal III on Thursday over at the minor league complex when several Twins were getting some extra work in over there. They were both very gracious (meaning neither of them yelled at me for bothering them) and I appreciated that.

So let me tell you about my terrific day and share a few pictures (I took 257 of them today… I get carried away sometimes).

I slept in a bit after the late night on Friday. I didn’t get back to Ft. Myers from Sarasota until nearly midnight and by the time I uploaded pictures and posted on the blog, it was after 2:00 before I get to sleep. I’m too old to get by on very little sleep, so I decided that the three days I’ve spent over on the practice fields this trip will have to suffice.

I pulled in to the stadium parking lot about 11:00am and spent a little time dickering with some of the ticket brokers there, before finding one with a single seat available in the section I was hoping to sit in today… the area behind the Twins dugout. Around noon, I entered the stadium and wandered around, watching a few Twins wrap up their workouts. As I was enjoying a beverage, I looked out over the now-deserted Twins practice field and saw a solitary figure in workout clothes, wayyyyy down the far left field line, signing autographs for fans who handed him things to sign over the fence.

At first, I couldn’t tell who it was, but I suspected it might be one of today’s cut victims, getting every last moment he can out of his allotted time with the Big League club before moving over to the minor league complex. I thought he would probably sign for a few people, like the players generally do, and then go about his day.

I was wrong on both counts.

Joe Nathan accommodated every autograph request

The player turned out to be Twins closer Joe Nathan and he just kept signing… and signing… and signing. I watched him sign anything that people stuck over the fence to him for close to half an hour, until he had literally signed for everyone who asked. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Major League player anywhere near Nathan’s level sign autographs until there’s nobody left to sign for.

In fact, he signed two more autographs when he finally did reach the fence that connects the practice field to the stadium. It takes a lot for professional athletes to impress me when it comes to interacting with fans, but I was impressed. That earned Joe my “good guy award” today.

All that signing may have tired Joe out...

... but it didn't stop him from signing more

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortly before game time, I grabbed some food and another beverage and found my seat. Before I could even sit down, someone a few seats away recognized me as Jim Crikket from the  Knuckleballs blog. Seriously. I’ve never had that happen before. Thank God he didn’t ask for my autograph… I haven’t given any thought whatsoever to what I should charge for that kind of thing yet.

This was my last visit to Hammond Stadium this spring. I’m going to two more games before heading home Tuesday, but both games are on the road. Sunday is up in Dunedin against the Jays and Monday is in Bradenton against the Pirates. I’ve never been to the Jays’ ballpark, so I’m looking forward to seeing that. It’s been a couple of years since I was at the ballpark in Bradenton, but it’s one of my favorites, just because it’s an old-school neighborhood setting that reminds me of the ballparks you used to find in small and medium sized towns across Iowa and Minnesota back in the 1960s.

With that, here are a few more pictures from my day at Hammond Stadium:

Hammond Stadium brats are some of the best I've had... well worth the wait

Grab food and beer, then check the lineup board

Newbie Luke Hughes with Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan

Casey Kotchman and Joe Mauer, just prior to Kotchman's launch

Picture quality doesn't do justice to this Nishioka web gem

Coach Steve Liddle "communicating" with Nishioka

Coach Jerry White and Jason Kubel (for our Jerry White fan club)

It's all good fun when TC Bear breaks out the super-soaker...

... until he's looking straight at you!

So long, Hammond Stadium... see ya next year!

 

JC in Spring Training: Focus on Communication

Yes, I know the big news at the Twins Spring Training site on Wednesday was the long-awaited debut of Joe Mauer in their game with the Mets, but what is there really to say about that? He hit a line drive up the middle in his first plate appearance off of Mets starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey. In fact, Pelfrey himself might have said all that needs to be said about Mauer’s debut. “I threw a slider in, and he hit a rocker right up the middle,” he was quoted as saying after the game. “He’s obviously Joe Mauer for a reason…” Indeed.

But for those of you who don’t believe what you don’t see, here’s the evidence I captured at the game.

For me, though, I’m a bit of a people watcher and today, I was interested in watching people just talk… communicate.

Not the greatest picture, but it was entertaining to watch... and listen to

One of the more humorous bits of “communication” was the bantering between Manager Ron Gardenhire and the fans surrounding the backstop of the Twins’ practice field during batting practice. Just before the last player (Jim Thome) finished getting his cuts, Gardy himself picked up a bat and stepped in the cage. From that point on, the only “communication” coming from Gardy was the word “ouch!” after each swing.

Not long after I settled in to watch some batting practice on the field where the AA level minor leaguers were getting their swings in, a group of today’s cuts from the Major League camp showed up. Rene Tosoni, Joe Benson and Chris Parmalee were not going to be going north with the Twins and today was the day they got the official word and joined their minor league brethren… and the coaches working with those young players. Among the coaches and instructors on this particular field were former Twins outfielder Tom Brunansky, who’s now a coach in the Twins organization, and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. I just hope all of these guys know enough to take advantage of the advice available from the guys who the Twins have around this camp.

Chris Parmelee and Paul Molitor have a chat around the cage

Before heading in to Hammond Stadium for the game, I stopped along the “autograph fence” that runs between the Twins practice field and the stadium. This is where players often pause on their way to the stadium after practice to interact with fans. I found two players doing exactly that, pitcher Scott Diamond and Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome. Diamond certainly seemed popular with the young ladies.

Scott Diamond poses for a picture

Jim Thome signing autographs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once inside the stadium, I spotted a few people having conversations that I would have been interested to listen in on… like these:

I couldn't help but wonder what Morneau and Nishioka were talking about during warm ups

Morneau and Jason Bay chatted before the game. Bay, Like Morneau, missed the second half of the 2010 season with a concussion

I'm not sure if Nishioka understood anything 1B coach Jerry White was saying, but he nodded a lot.

Nishioka didn't seem to have any trouble understanding what TC Bear was communicating

After coming out of the game, Alexi Casilla and Nishioka got some running... and talking... in, out along the LF wall

What’s that you say? Wasn’t there an actual game going on today?

Why yes, there was. In fact, the Twins won the game with a walk off hit in the bottom of the ninth inning. After Matt Brown opened the inning with a double to the RCF gap, Danny Lehmann followed up with a hit that drove in Brown and saved his team mates from having to endure the most hated thing among ballplayers… a spring training extra-inning ballgame. Here, below, are a few more of the 250 or so pictures I took today, beginning with a shot of Lehmann’s game winning hit.

Lehmann drives in the winning run in the 9th

Brain Duensing had another effective start

Jim Hoey hit 99 mph with a fastball on the Hammond speed gun while striking out two Mets

Finally, while Johan Santana is still on the shelf, the Twins did reunite for the day with a couple of former team mates. Jason Pridie started in centerfield and Luis Castillo started at second base for the mets.

Jason Pridie

Luis Castillo

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s a wrap for today. I’m not sure whether I’m going to make the trip up to Lakeland for the Tigers game Thursday or stick around Ft. Myers. Media reports are that Carl Pavano, Drew Butera, Matt Capps, and Joe Mauer are going to be playing in a minor league game at the Twins’ complex and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew is reportedly going to be arriving at the complex Thursday as well.

If you want to read a bit more about my time at the Twins complex, check in periodically with Howard Sinker’s “A Fan’s View from Section 219” over at the StarTribune site. I’ll be sending periodic reports to Howard which he may be posting.

Of course, I’ll be trying to post something daily here at Knuckleballs, as well.

-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

Bullpen: White Knights or Black Hole?

If you’ve been reading anything about the Twins’ offseason, you may have heard this already… The Twins are going to need some new relief pitchers to fill out their bullpen. Shocking, I know.

Bullpen up in the air?

Truth is, the thing I find more surprising than anything else is that so many people seem to care so much about who’s going to make up the bullpen on Opening Day. I’m not ignorant of the fact that the Twins are losing half of the strong bullpen they finished the 2010 season with. Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier are already members of other teams, with Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, Randy Flores and Ron Mahay likely to follow.

So with all of the uncertainty about who will be keeping bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek company this season, why am I surprised that so many people are devoting so much time to fretting over the makeup of the Twins’ relief corps? It’s simple really.

It matters to me that the Twins appear at least one top-of-the-rotation pitcher short at the moment. Going in to the season with the current five young starting pitchers, backed up only by unproven younger options, and relying on being able to trade for a top starter at mid season is a risky proposition. It may work out. It may not. But it matters and if they don’t have someone like Carl Pavano in the rotation that can consistently go deep in to games and give the bullpen a rest, then it matters even more.

It matters to me that the Twins are apparently comfortable with a defensive outfield that is, to be kind, less than swift. It baffles me a bit that the Twins looked at the way Target Field played in its inaugural season and recognized that they needed more contact hitters with speed on offense to take advantage of the field’s outfield gaps that tend to kill power but favor gap hitters… but didn’t also arrive at the conclusion that they should upgrade the defense with the addition of at least one more outfielder with the range to prevent opposing hitters from benefiting quite so readily from this particular stadium quirk.

It matters to me that the Twins will once again start the season with a new middle infield combination. I happen to be more of an optimist with regard to Alexi Casilla than many are and, while I’m on record as having preferred that the Twins hang on to JJ Hardy, I believe there’s been far more gnashing of teeth over his departure than is warranted. I suspect Tsuyoshi Nishioka will do just fine offensively and defensively… and is much more likely to bring stability to the middle infield for the next few seasons than either Hardy or Orlando Hudson would have. But regardless, yes, this new middle infield combination matters to me.

It WOULD matter to me if the Twins had nobody returning with a history of providing adequate performance at the back end of the bullpen. But while they won’t start the season with as many proven late inning options as they had at the end of 2010, the combination of Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and (to a somewhat lesser degree) Jose Mijares has demonstrated in the past that they are capable of getting a few outs toward the end of a ballgame. Even though Nathan’s healthy return to pre-injury status is not guaranteed and that, as is the case with Lexi, I’m a bigger fan of Matt Capps than most of Twinsville seems to be, I can’t honestly say I’d be a whole lot more comfortable with late inning options if any of the departing arms were still around. Some people act like Crain, Rauch, Guerrier and Fuentes never coughed up a game in their careers.

There are four open spots in the 2011 bullpen. All are long relief and middle inning positions. Who will fill those spots? I’m sorry… but I can do no better than turn to the wisdom of Bill Murray for a response. In his first leading role in the 1979 “classic” film, Meatballs, Murray captured my feelings perfectly when he said (repeatedly)… “It just doesn’t matter!… it just doesn’t matter!…”.

Will Glen Perkins or Alex Burnett or Jeff Manship or Rob Delaney be the long relief options… or will one of the current five starting pitchers get bumped to the pen if Pavano re-signs? Who cares? It just doesn’t matter! They’re going to be used when the starting pitcher gets shelled in the first three innings of a game the Twins are highly unlikely to come back and win anyway.

Who’s going to bridge the gap between a starting pitcher who labors through four or five innings and the set-up guys during a game that the offense is managing to keep close? Will it be Pat Neshek, Scott Diamond, Jim Hoey, or some free agent yet to be signed? I don’t know and it just doesn’t matter! Regardless of who fills those spots, I can guarantee you that sometimes they are going to pitch well and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they will get lucky and sometimes they won’t. If they pitch poorly or are unlucky too often early in the season, one of the other candidates will be plugged in and get his shot. But, as Ed Thoma pointed out this week on his Baseball Outsider blog, it’s not like Gardy and Rick Anderson have never had to build a bullpen before.

Still… since so many people see the bullpen as an issue to get riled up about (and because I’m devoting 1,000 words or so to the topic here), I feel compelled to come up with at least one suggestion for the Twins to consider. So here it is.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Never heard of him? That’s OK.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Kobayashi is a Japanese free agent (which means he’s available to sign without having to go through the posting process), was a team mate of Nishioka’s with the Chiba Lotte Marines and does have some international experience as a member of the Japanese national team. After a few mediocre seasons as a starting pitcher under the Marines’ former manager, Bobby Valentine, Kobayashi was moved by Valentine’s replacement in to the closer role in 2010 and apparently performed well enough to help Chiba win the Japanese championship.

Reports are that he doesn’t throw extremely hard (fastball runs 89-91 mph) but mixes in several other pitches effectively enough to miss bats consistently (striking out around 8 hitters per 9 nine innings in his career).

Some people have lamented the Twins not being aggressive about signing Hideki Okajima or some other Japenese relief pitcher to perhaps minimize the cultural shock Nishioka is inevitably going to face next season. What better way to do that than to bring in one of his team mates?

Gotta be more important stuff, right?

That’s enough from me today. Now we can turn our attention to more important stuff… I’m not sure what that might be, but there has to be SOMETHING more important than finding out who gets the duty of carrying the backpack of goodies to the bullpen this season.

- JC

Baseball Means Saying Good-bye

I admit that Saturday night I was ready to forcibly and forever remove the Twins logo from the chest of almost every member of the Twins’ starting lineup. I’ve regained my perspective since then. Well, most of it.

We’ve begun to see writers/bloggers discuss various topics related to the issue of the makeup of the Twins’ 2011 roster. Some look at payroll figures and possible free agents. There’s also some good material about Twins minor leaguers who may be ready to step up on to the big stage next year.

My first reaction to reading this stuff was that it’s a bit early for all that. My team just “died” and I’m not sure I’m quite ready to look at who I’m going to be rooting for next season. But it was the first week of November last year when Bill Smith sent Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee for JJ Hardy. No doubt, the Twins’ GM is already working on piecing together the 2011 Twins, so I suppose a devoted blogger should start doing the same thing.

This is going to be a long process, however. I’m simply not prepared to ask and answer every roster question yet, so let’s do this in stages, shall we?

We’ll start with what is, perhaps for some of us, the most painful question to ask… who are we willing to say good-bye to?

To many of us, the players that make up our favorite team become pseudo-family members. This is especially true for the sort of players that traditionally make up the Twins roster. They’re good guys and they each have their own devoted following among fans. But every year, we have to say good-bye to some of them. Last year, in addition to Go-Go, we said farewell to Mike “Naked Batting Practice” Redmond, Joe Crede and Orlando Cabrera. Crede and Cabrera weren’t really with the team long enough to build much of a following, but Redmond and Gomez, despite being reserves, each had their own loyal fan base.

This year could see more dramatic changes. In fact, the number of players who are virtual locks to be on the team next year, whether because of performance or contract status, are very few. I would put Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Span, Valencia, Liriano and Nathan (assuming all are healthy) in this category. That’s it.

So let’s look at the rest.

A year ago, the Twins had five players eligible to file for free agency. In addition to Cabrera, Crede and Redmond, pitchers Ron Mahay and Carl Pavano also filed. While they followed different paths, both pitchers eventually found their way back to the Twins roster in 2010.

Will Thome hit #600 as a Twin?

This off-season, not only is the number of players eligible for free agency higher, but we’re talking about some guys who made major contributions this season. Pavano and Mahay are eligible again and they are joined by Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch and Randy Flores. While I think we can all agree that re-signing Flores and Mahay won’t be high priorities for Bill Smith, that still leaves half a dozen significant contributors that can walk out the door and sign with the highest bidder. The truth is, some of them will not be in Twins uniforms next year. In fact, it’s possible that none of them will be.

Other players, while technically still under Twins control, still present some tough decisions for Bill Smith in terms of deciding whether to exercise team options or offer arbitration.  Is Hardy worth $7 million to keep or do you let him become a free agent, too? Jason Kubel would make $5.25 million in 2011, the final year of his current contract… but the Twins can buy out that year for just $350,000, making him a free agent, as well.

Will Nick Punto and Orlando Hudson be back?

What about Nick Punto? The Twins have been paying him “starter” money and have an option for 2011 to do the same (at $5 million). They’ll certainly pay him the $500,000 buy out instead. Does he re-sign with the Twins for less money or will his agent find him a deal with a team offering more money, more playing time, and less blogger abuse than he’ll get with the Twins?

If you offer Delmon Young and Matt Capps arbitration, they’re going to get something between $5-6 million (Young) and up to $9 million (Capps) for 2011. If you don’t offer them arbitration, their agents will find someone more than willing to pay those amounts, or more. Don’t think you need both Capps AND Brian Fuentes with Joe Nathan coming back? OK… but keeping Fuentes from free agency means picking up the team’s $9 million option for him, too.

And we haven’t even discussed possible trades yet. In addition to the possibility that the Twins could trade any of the players mentioned above who are still under team control, you have to wonder if any of the five starting pitchers not named Pavano would be trade bait in the off-season. I don’t think any of them are untouchable except Liriano.

Finally, there are a handful of guys that may just be gone next year because, even though the Twins technically still control them, their performance levels make them candidates to either be traded or simply beaten out for jobs in Spring Training. I’m looking at you, Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, Drew Butera, Jason Repko, Jose Mijares and Pat Neshek.

By my count, that’s 25 players who may be playing elsewhere in 2011. A small number are almost certainly gone. A couple are almost certainly staying. Most are somewhere in between. Off the top of my head, I’d break it down like this:

Almost certainly gone: Mahay, Flores, Rauch, Fuentes

Probably gone: Guerrier, Crain, Hudson, Pavano

Virtually a toss-up: Punto, Thome, Repko, Butera, Neshek, Harris, Tolbert

Probably staying: Kubel, Hardy, Capps, Baker, Blackburn, Duensing, Slowey, Casilla

Almost certainly staying: Young, Mijares

We’ll share our own thoughts about what Bill Smith should or shouldn’t do with regard to roster changes in future posts, but for now, please use the comment section to let us know your opinions.

Who are you willing to say good-bye to? Who do you think the Twins MUST bring back? – JC

PROGRAMMING NOTE: We’ve had some inquiries about whether we’ll be hosting GameChats for any of the remaining postseason games and we’re more than willing to do that if anyone is interested in hanging out at the Knuckleballs Virtual Sports Bar. We’re hoping to open up a GameChat window during tonight’s Rays/Rangers ALDS Game 5 so check back later if you’ve got nothing better to do with your life than watch baseball with us! :)