Be Careful What You Wish For, Twins Fans

We got what we wanted, right? Bill Smith is history as the Twins’ General Manager. Not only that, but he’s being replaced by Terry Ryan, the man credited with turning the Twins in to a contender through most of the past decade. All’s well in Twinsville, right?

Not so fast.

Before everyone spends the next week partying in celebration, I think we should look a little deeper in to what led to Smith’s departure.

Sure, the JJ Hardy trade, itself, was probably grounds for dismissal and there were plenty of other questionable personnel decisions to build a sound case for “termination for cause.” But that’s not why Smith is no longer the GM. Not according to Dave St. Peter and Jim Pohlad anyway.

No, they essentially trotted out the, “we just weren’t on the same page,” cliche. I’m beginning to think that means Smith wasn’t going along with the Pohlad family philosophy of, “slash the payroll.”

If Terry Ryan was replacing Smith because of Smith’s failings, I’d sponsor a little party, myself. I’ve always been a Terry Ryan fan. Like a lot of Twins fans, I’ve always wondered what Ryan could have done as a GM if he had been given some money to build a real roster with, instead of having to implement a system where he had to develop all of his talent internally, fully aware that he’d eventually have to watch every player worth a crap walk away as soon as they got the least bit expensive.

But that’s not why Ryan’s taking over and, based on what he’s saying, he’s not going to be given the same payroll that Smith had to work with.

Terry Ryan

In response to questions about payroll during the press conference, Ryan alluded to potential payroll levels between $90-$100 million. Those figures would be somewhere 10-20% LESS than the Twins’ 2011 payroll. Put another way, the Twins are going to let Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel walk away via free agency and use the money to bring in… absolutely nobody!

And we’re all supposed to jump up and cheer because it will be Ryan overseeing this crap instead of Smith?

It amazes me how so many Twins fans take the BS that the front office hands out, without a question.

Toward the end of the season, a lot of people were talking about what the Twins could do to rebuild their roster if the Twins payroll was allowed to grow just a modest amount… say from $115 million to $118-120 million.

Then Jim Pohlad was quoted in media reports as saying the 2011 payroll was a bit higher than he was comfortable with and likely would be just a bit lower in 2012. Fans and media didn’t seem to bat an eye. Everyone just accepted what Pohlad said and started looking at what could be done with a $112-115 million payroll.

Now, not-exactly-new GM Terry Ryan says the payroll will probably be in the $90-100 million range and again it’s just going to be accepted with little question? Why?

Throughout this whole process, I’ve yet to read or hear a single member of the media ask the Twins WHY they feel payroll should be reduced. Not once. If someone can show me a link to such a question, I’d be grateful, but I’m not holding my breath.

Maybe the Twins project revenues to drop? Not likely, given that they’ve got enough of a waiting list for season tickets to more than make up for the number of people who were so disgusted by what they saw on the field in 2011 that they couldn’t stomach the thought of watching something similar in 2012 and there’s been no hint of a drop in broadcast rights fees or any other revenue source.

Is it asking too much of the organization to suggest that slashing payroll after just two seasons in a new ballpark (largely publicly funded) should warrant some sort of explanation to the fan base? Shouldn’t they at least offer some kind of reason?

Apparently not.

Some people are suggesting that cutting payroll is fine because it reflects an acknowledgment that 2012 will be a rebuilding year and the focus will be on building a team to compete a couple of years in the future.

Seriously?

You’re paying Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau a total of $37 million a year and you’re not even going to try to put a team around them to be competitive for a couple of years (by which time Morneau will be gone, by the way)? And that’s OK with Twins fans?

The Twins are just one injury-plagued season away from having won the AL Central Division. Explain to me again why the organization shouldn’t spend the money coming off their books on players that could propel them right back up in to contention if some of the health issues work out better next year than in 2011.

Because they may be losing Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan? Nathan wasn’t even on the field in 2010 when they won their division, while Kubel and Cuddyer both had pretty mediocre seasons, posting almost identical OPS figures at around .750.

Don’t get me wrong… the Twins have significant holes to fill. Smith’s mistakes need to be corrected.

But if Terry Ryan, Dave St. Peter or Jim Pohlad use the misguided roster moves of Bill Smith as an excuse to slash payroll, they’re doing it for one reason and one reason only… to prove that this generation of Pohlads is every bit as cheap as the last.

And from I’m reading from various blogs and other social media responses, most Twins fans are just fine with that.

I’m not.

- JC

 

Are the Twins a Baseball Team or a Camel?

I’ve worked in a corporate office environment since I was 21 years old. Over the subsequent 30-some years, when it comes to management styles and philosophies, I’ve pretty much seen (endured?) them all.

I remember back in the 1980s and early 1990s, my company had a big push toward what I call “group think”. We had previously had a very autocratic, control freak-type president, so I suppose this may have been a bit of an over-reaction to that. In any event, everything became “team” oriented. We had teams (which is just a nicer way of saying “committees”) for everything. If you weren’t a member of at least half a dozen teams, you just weren’t trying very hard.

It wasn’t a total disaster, of course. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with tossing ideas around with a group of smart, progressive experts on whatever the subject matter assigned to that team might be. Some very good ideas came out of those meetings and if you ever did arrive at a consensus decision, it was helpful for implementation purposes to have gotten buy-in from around the table. Even if you didn’t happen to agree with the decision, you liked feeling your input had been considered. We all like that.

And when it turns out that your team made a good decision, it’s a great feeling to know you share the credit with your other team members. It’s a natural high to have the president of your company tell everyone what a great job your team did and how important that work was in the ultimate success of the company over the course of the year.

(Image: art.com)

But you know what’s coming next, don’t you? Yeah… how many committees are really made up completely of smart, progressive experts? Most aren’t and, as a result, the finished product is seldom smart or progressive. Often, the results are a disaster.

When that happens, good luck finding anyone willing to stand up and be accountable for the decision and taking responsibility for fixing things. Accountability can be a real problem in a “group think” organization.

Fixing things becomes problematic, too, because that assignment falls back on the team (or gets pushed to yet another team). That’s all well and good unless the problem needs fixing immediately, because while committees have some things they may do well, doing anything quickly is not generally one of those things.

There’s a reason that they say the definition of a camel is a “horse designed by a committee.”

All of which finally brings me around to the Minnesota Twins.

Since I don’t have an office in the Twins front office suite, I admit I have no first-hand knowledge about how they do things there. But from most accounts, it sure seems like they take the “management team” approach to an extreme, at least where it comes to the actual baseball operation (from all accounts, Jerry Bell pretty much took on responsibility for getting Target Field built and that turned out pretty well). Bill Smith isn’t so much “General Manager” as he is the “Team Leader” of the management group, which is made up of people like Mike Radcliff, Rob Antony, Jim Rantz, Terry Ryan and, of course, Ron Gardenhire.

All of these people have their respective areas of expertise, of course, but the public sense of how things work is that this group of people work together as a team to chart the course the Twins will follow in any given season and beyond.

It’s worked out great for most of the past decade or more, too. Most of these same people have been around in one capacity or another throughout a period of considerable success on the field. Terry Ryan,  Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire may be the guys most often credited for all the winning seasons this millennium, but they’ve all been quick to point out what a “team effort” it’s been by all of the management group as they’ve developed players, promoted from within, and watched as those guys have won division title after division title.

(Image: cafepress.com)

But the Twins didn’t win the division title this season. They didn’t even compete for it. They finished 8 games back… of the Royals… in the competition to not finish last. This comes just one year after winning the division.

And as fans, we want to know who’s responsible.

In typical “group think” fashion, however, the answer coming from the Twins front office is, “nobody”.

I suppose in some way it’s noble that people in authority aren’t throwing others under the bus… not directly, anyway. And some changes are being made. The AAA manager and hitting coach have been relieved of their duties, but that’s kind of like an executive committee responding to their company’s stock tanking by firing the manager of their mail room and issuing a press release to assure stockholders that they’re taking action. It’s nice to know they noticed something is wrong, but hardly reassuring that they know what to do about it.

Look around. The Red Sox won 90 games and their manager is gone… perhaps followed shortly by their GM. The Angels only won 86 games, so their GM and his top two assistants are excused… even though they have a manager who’s probably got even more say over his roster than Gardy does. We may or may not agree that those teams made the right decision, but the message sent to their fans is that they do hold people accountable when results do not meet expectations, especially when the owners have spent competitively on payrolls.

I’m not suggesting the Twins fire everyone… or that anyone needs to be fired, for that matter. But I do believe that the people running the team should have specific responsibilities and they should be accountable for the decisions made within their respective realms.

Everyone makes mistakes. But if one of my managers makes a mistake, I tell them to learn from it, don’t do it again, and move on. If mistakes are continuous or especially egregious, we’ll need to find someone else to do that job. But don’t tell me that you and your team got together and all agreed this is what we should do so none of you are really responsible.

Maybe Dave St. Peter has told Bill Smith exactly that… that he screwed up and he needs to fix things. Maybe the conference call with the season ticketholders was one way Smith was directed to address issues with fans. Maybe St. Peter was on the call primarily to make sure Smith did exactly that.

Maybe Smith’s acknowledgment that the team missed JJ Hardy most of all and now needs a shortstop was his way of telling Gardy, “that was your idea, it didn’t work, and now we’ll do things my way.”

I certainly don’t expect the Twins to suddenly start broadcasting every detail of their internal discussions. Maybe there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than what we’ve seen and heard.

Maybe we’ll see changes. Maybe we’ll see some accountability.

Let’s hope so.

Or they might as well just rename the team the “Minnesota Camels”.

- JC

 

Much Ado About Nothing

Yes, it’s true… “Much Ado About Nothing”, the title of a Shakespearean comedic farce, could well be an apt description of the comedic farce that has become the entire Twins season. In this case, however, its use is being applied to the fan angst over Jim Thome and Jason Kubel getting sent through waivers by the Twins.

Jim Thome in Spring Training... when there was still hope

I think the problem is that Twins fans have become a bit spoiled. We’re accustomed to trade deadlines being among the times of the year when we’re wondering which key veteran “spare parts” GM Bill Smith would/could/should snatch from non-contending teams in return for a prospect or two. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what trade deadline life looks like from the other side of the looking glass. Sucks, don’t it?

A year ago, I authored a post here entitled “When Is A Trade Deadline Not A Trade Deadline”, in which I gave a bit of a rambling, not-so-serious look at the waiver-trade process that teams go through in August. Go back and read it if you care to. It wasn’t my best writing, but I thought there was a line or two that worked. I admit, however, that it seemed a bit more humorous last season, when the Twins were “buyers” this time of year. Maybe I was just in a better mood at the time.

But here’s the deal. A team in the Twins’ situation (hopelessly and painfully going through the motions and desperately trying to find someone… anyone… who they think might be a capable MLB baseball player that can help their team in 2012) is going to put a lot of their roster through waivers in August. Most of those players will finish the season with the Twins. Perhaps, some won’t. 

Jason Kubel

Any player that isn’t under contract for 2012 is a likely candidate to be put on the waiver wire. Thome and Kubel are both pending free agents, so why shouldn’t the Twins see if there’s a contender out there who might give up something potentially useful in return for renting their bats for a few weeks? If the Twins want them back next season (and for some unfathonable reason, they would want to return to this crappy organization), they can bid for their services again this offseason, which they would have had to do anyway. Similarly, fans shouldn’t be surprised if Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan are put on waivers.

Teams also waive players under team control beyond this season that they think may be overcompensated, in the hope that someone will relieve them of the remainder of that contract. Delmon Young was such a player, as manager Ron Gardenhire pointed out yesterday. He told the media that Young was likely to be “non-tendered” (which is what you do to a young player instead of offering arbitration when you don’t want to pay anything close to what an arbitrator might decide he’s worth). A guy like Carl Pavano might also fit this category. The Twins have him under contract for 2012, but if another team claims him, the Twins may just let him go and let the new team pick up responsibility for the remainder of the contract.

Remember, though, just because a team puts a player on waivers, it doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere. He may not get claimed, which on the one hand, means nobody in either league was certain enough that he’d be any help that he was worth taking a chance on having to pay off the rest of his contract, but on the other hand, means he can then be traded to any team. The terms of the trade could then involve the Twins agreeing to eat some contract.

Also, if a player IS claimed, the Twins can pull him back off of waivers one time. This is where the speculation gets interesting.

I don’t think most Twins fans would begrudge letting a guy like Jim Thome get another shot at the post-season. This may (or may not) be his last such opportunity. Similarly, why should we be upset if Kubel, Cuddyer or Nathan get a little unexpected taste of the post-season? At least it would give us someone to root for in October, because nobody else on this team is going to be playing late baseball.

But what if the first team to have the opportunity to grab one or more of these guys off the waiver wire is the White Sox? Would the Twins really do anything to aid the Bitch Sox in their effort to catch the Tigers?

Hell, yes, they would.

Kenny Williams is notorious (among White Sox fans, themselves) for overpaying to acquire veteran players. If he’s stupid enough to give up highly regarded prospects for the Twins’ spare parts, Bill Smith would be an absolute fool NOT to take advantage. OK… so maybe that means it’s not so likely after all, but he SHOULD take advantage.

It’s not very fun being a Twins fan right now. It’s not fun envisioning the players who have brought so much excitement over the past several years suiting up for other teams the rest of the season. But, as they say, baseball is a business. And while our friend Seth Stohs is trying to cheer us up by pointing out that the Twins minor league system is not totally useless, the fact is that it could use some shoring up (by the way, I firmly believe Seth knows more about the Twins minor leaguers than anyone within the Twins organization itself… I’m just not sure whether that says more about Seth or the people actually getting paid by the Twins). When you’re out of the race and you have the opportunity to get something useful for players that have expiring or expensive contracts, you do it. You have to, if you want to have any hope of getting competitive again any time soon. It’s how the business works.

And hey… look at the bright side… the team, as currently constituted can’t seem to score more than 1 run a game WITH Thome, Kubel and Cuddyer, so how much worse can the offense really get without them? Besides, think about how much cheaper tickets on StubHub or on the street corner the day of games are going to be for a while!

- JC

If The Price Is Right

If it’s the All-Star Break, then it must be time for fans to start talking about trades. We are, after all, just past the mid-point of the season and the non-waiver trade deadline is less than three weeks away.

At this point there are three kinds of teams… obvious buyers, obvious sellers and everyone else. The Twins are in that “everyone else” category because they haven’t established themselves as an obvious contender nor have they fallen so far back in the standings that they have virtually no chance of becoming contenders.

So, that means everyone is (or soon will be) posing the question, “Should the Twins Buy or Sell?” To me, the answer is… “Yes, if the price is right.”

What’s that you say, it wasn’t a “yes or no” question? Too bad.

Bill Smith

July trades generally are made between two parties, one a contender and one… well… not. The contender (or “buyer”) has a spot or two to fill to help push them to the top of the standings and/or prepare them to be a stronger playoff team. Their GM has to be willing to do one of two things… or both… (a) give up highly rated prospects or young (read: cheap) MLB-ready players; and/or (b) take on significant salary owed to an established (and often overcompensated) veteran player.

The other party to these trades (the “seller”) has some highly paid veteran players that are either having good seasons or have put up good numbers recently enough that a contending team might be willing to bet they could help put their team over the top this season and that team is looking to restock with young players that will help next season… and for several years to come. They also are likely looking to shed some salary because they recognize attendance is going to be dropping the rest of the season.

I think the Twins, thanks to the very weird season they’ve endured, find themselves in a unique position… they’ve pressed a lot of young players in to Major League action and many of them have performed well enough to demonstrate that they fit the “MLB-ready” criteria that “sellers” are wanting in return for established players. They also find themselves with an abundance of veteran outfielders and pitchers… many of whom will be free agents at the end of this season… that could be attractive to contending “buyers”. Finally, they’re already certain to exceed 3 million in paid attendance, so there’s no need at all to consider shedding salary to be a factor.

Denard Span

It amazes me how many suggestions I’ve read that the Twins trade a Denard Span or a Delmon Young for established relief pitching. That’s absurd on two levels. First, nobody who has top veteran relief pitching to trade is likely to look for expensive veterans in return. They’re going to want young players they can continue to pay the league minimum to for a while. Also, you simply don’t trade players of the quality of Span, Young, Cuddyer, etc., for relief pitching. Ever.  MAYBE you trade your Rene Tosonis and Trevor Plouffes… legitimate prospects (but not future superstars), guys you can (and likely will) find a way to live without in the future… for relief pitchers. The Twins SHOULD be “buyers”… they SHOULD get relief help… and they have enough decent young talent to use for that purpose. There are a lot of decent relievers (meaning better than what the Twins have been trotting out there for middle relief) on the market so it should be a buyer’s market. There’s no need to overpay.

At the same time, the Twins have demonstrated that they can compete without the likes of Delmon Young, Denard Span, and Jason Kubel in the line up. The question is… should they trade away a veteran or two and continue to try to compete without them? If the price is right, sure, why not?

Delmon Young

Of course, you do not just give any of these guys away. Even those who are going to be free agents are likely to be good for compensatory supplemental draft picks if they walk away at the end of the season. But because guys like Ben Revere, Luke Hughes, Anthony Swarzak, and Glen Perkins have demonstrated they can be relied upon to play a role with a contending team, the Twins CAN afford to deal SOME of their veterans and still remain in contention in the AL Central Division. If Twins GM Bill Smith can get real prospects in return for one of his outfielders or one of his pitchers, he should go ahead and do it. Would that mean running a risk in the event the Twins get hit with more injuries? Absolutely… but a GM’s job is to evaluate and take acceptable risks.

But what if the Twins do none of this? What if Smith takes a summer vacation and leaves his phone in the Twin Cities? Can the Twins compete if they do nothing at all?

Well, I still think getting some relief help is important, but otherwise… yeah… the Twins could stand pat and make a serious run the second half of the season… and in to the playoffs. How is that possible?

Justin Morneau

It’s possible because, even if Bill Smith takes that long summer vacation, he will be adding three quality veteran players by the July 30 deadline and another… a former MVP… by the August 30 waiver-deal deadline. Delmon Young has been reactivated and Denard Span sounds like he won’t be far behind. Jason Kubel should be returning not long afterward. Justin Morneau’s recovery seems on target for mid August. Name me a contending team that wouldn’t give a boatload to get four players like that over the next 5 weeks! And Smith doesn’t have to give up a thing.

And here’s the bonus, in my mind… many teams (including past Twins teams) expend so much emotion and energy trying to make the surge necessary to dig out of a deficit in the standings that their tank is empty in September and October. They’re worn out mentally and beat up physically. But most of the Twins top players shouldn’t be feeling worn down. Mauer, Morneau, Young, Kubel, Span… they’ll all be far fresher than most players at that point in the season.

The Twins also have enough starting pitching, with Swarzak, Kevin Slowey and Kyle Gibson (again, we’re assuming the GM makes no deals) ready to step in, that any member of the current rotation who gets as much as a hangnail could be DL’d for 14 days, allowed to get rested up, and come back strong.

This is not the time for Bill Smith to overspend. He doesn’t need… in fact can’t afford… another trade where he gives up a top prospect for a relief pitcher, like the Ramos-for-Capps deal a year ago. He can afford to wait for a trading partner who’s willing to overspend and, if necessary, settle for a moderate deal for middle relief help.

I hope he shows patience because God knows the blogging world is likely to urge otherwise.

- JC

What Am I Missing Here?

I try very hard to avoid overreacting to decisions that the people running the Twins make. Ron Gardenhire, Bill Smith and the others running the club have tough jobs. I appreciate that, so I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt on most issues, even when I don’t agree with specific decisions. That said, I’m beyond confused about a number of things right now. Maybe some of you smart people can tell me what I’m missing.

Joe Nathan pitches a few successful innings in Florida and proclaims himself ready to rejoin the bullpen, but Gardy says “no… you need to go to Rochester first and prove you can get someone over the age of 19 out.”

Joe Mauer gets a few hits off of 19 yr olds in Florida, but he’s activated straight away, without having to prove he can hit AAA pitching. He promptly proves to be less productive at the plate than Drew Butera or Rene Rivera… a feat that most of us didn’t think was possible.

Not only does Gardy keep putting Mauer in the line up, but he keeps putting him in the 3-spot in the order… exactly the spot where his impotence can do the most damage to his team.

Yeah, Joe, I'm scratching my head, too.

Friday night, after another oh-fer, Gardy tells reporters that he’s considering using Mauer at 1B or even 3B. Why? Well, the announcement earlier in the day that Justin Morneau will miss at least six weeks for surgery on his neck (a topic I will revisit shortly) is a valid reason for looking for another 1B option. But that’s not Gardy’s reason… instead he’s intent on finding ways to keep Mauer’s bat in the line up (apparently even if it means he replaces the current third baseman, who has actually finally started hitting the ball with some success)!

So… if I understand this correctly… for the past few years, when Mauer was consistently hitting well over .300, Gardy steadfastly refused to even listen to anyone who dared to suggest that perhaps it might be a good idea for Joe to learn a position he could play part time in order to keep him healthy and in the line up more often. But now… when Mauer isn’t even coming close to making good contact… NOW we want to find creative ways to keep his bat in the line up???? Wouldn’t it make a little sense to worry about that some other time… like maybe if/when Joe remembers how to hit a baseball?

The Twins have 3 catchers, none of which can hit his way out of a wet paper bag right now, and the manager is trying to come up with creative ways to get TWO of them in the batting order? I don’t get it.

Butera and Rivera were actually occasionally coming up with some clutch hits during the team’s recent winning streak. They also were doing a good job behind the plate. I get that Mauer might need some time to get his timing back at the plate, but why the hell wasn’t he told the same thing Joe Nathan was… “show us you can compete with AAA players before we activate you”? If nothing else, after the way the Twins have had to leave Rochester with yet another crappy team, I’m sure they would have appreciated a couple of nice attendance nights at Frontier Field with Mauer on hand.

As for Morneau, I don’t have much more to add to what everyone else has been writing and tweeting. It dumbfounds me that someone let his neck issue go three months without appropriate treatment. I’d like to go back a couple of years and count the number of times one of the Twins players had an injury or illness, set out on an initial course of treatment with disappointing results, then got a second opinion which resulted in a different course of treatment, which essentially caused the recovery process to start over and thus delay the player’s return to the field. I don’t know how many times it has happened, but it sure seems to happen a lot.

So often, in fact, that one has to wonder… if these guys have to get second opinions so consistently in order to finally get the appropriate course of treatment, what kind of witch doctors are the Twins employing to hand out the worthless FIRST opinions? It’s bad enough when your $23 million a year catcher can’t hit .200, but when the doctors you employ can’t seem to “hit” on their diagnoses any better, that’s something that someone should be able to fix, isn’t it?

Is Rachel Phelps running the Twins these days?

The frustrating thing is that so many of these questionable decisions are being made just as the team was fighting its way in to contention. It really makes one wonder whether Rachel Phelps has somehow taken control of the ballclub and is doing everything in her power to make sure this team DOESN’T win more games.

Implausible? Yeah, probably.

But if the Twins find themselves without hot water for their whirlpools and being forced to take WWII vintage turbo prop planes or even buses on road trips… remember I told ya so.

- JC

 

Guest Post – Kirsten’s Letter To Santa Bill Smith

We’ve got a really good group of regular readers and we have a good time (usually) hanging out together during Twins games in our regular GameChats. One of them, Kirsten, made the mistake of agreeing to do some guest posting. She tells us that Eric gets the credit for the idea behind this post. Apparently either Eric or Kirsten (or both) had a little bit too much to drink and decided these two gentlemen are, in fact, the same person:

 

 

Dear Santa Bill Smith,

I’ve been a pretty good fan this season. I have tried to be patient and stay focused on the positives, but alas, I’m only human, and could not pass up the opportunity to make my demands… ahem… requests known. I’m a good baker, so if you bring me these things, I’ll make you approximately one metric ton of cookies.

1.) Bullpen help: people whined about Guerrier a lot, but I sure do miss being able to put him on the mound every day for 2-3 innings and feel reasonably good about it. Rauch was pretty good for my confidence too. Now I find myself begging the Baseball Gods to let the starting pitchers pitch forever…. even when they suck. Swear to God, Joe Nathan makes me as twitchy as he is when he pitches.

2.) Harry Potter injury healing: I never really read the books, but from what I understand, you can drink something and it makes your bones heal! Sounds like you need to come up with some of that magic, stat.

3.) President Pelton’s Weather Machine: at my Alma mater, the President of the University had a weather machine that he busted out for all important events. This weather machine was so powerful that it could even make the sun appear on demand in Oregon. He has left the university, so now’s your chance to snag it!

4.) More fun promotions: I’m not a huge Mauer fan, but my friends and I got a lot of prank mileage out of Joe Mauer Sideburn Night. An alternative suggestion might be food specials or letting the fans pick the walk up music for the players for a game. If nothing else, we’d rip each other to shreds about something harmless instead of personal matters.

With warmest regards,

Kirsten

P.S. If you thought I was going to ask for something else, shame on you.

What do you guys think? What would you ask Santa Bill Smith for?

 

Does the Twins Front Office kill your Offseason Optimism?

Ok, this is now the third rewrite of this post because I’m so distracted/lazy/busy/otherwise occupied that every time I’m about ready to put it up, the Twins front office goes and does something else that changes (AND ADDS TO) at least part of what I had to say.  So… if there are parts that are confusing, just keep all that in mind.

The original beginning of this post covered the seemingly rare ability our team management has to keep whatever discussions they are having so quiet and under the radar that there is virtually no discussion of it – which is a GREAT aggravation to fans who are assembling/disassembling/reassembling the 2011 roster in hopes of coming up with that perfect proposal for Bill Smith if only he would listen to us bloggers.  In fact, some fans mistake that discretion for lack of activity.  Do I know for certain that discussions are actually taking place?  Well, no, not until they do something like sign a couple contracts out of the blue.  Do I prefer to choose the optimistic viewpoint that Smith likes his job and isn’t sitting on his thumbs wondering why no one is calling him? Yes, yes I do.  I’m not sure where the overreaction to silence comes from in the blogging/sports fan community.  But then again, I have never known why there is so much overreaction to any given activity in the fan base.  It’s almost as if it’s an addiction to the drama.  The Twins fan/blogosphere is like an odd combination of American Idol+Twilight+WWE. (Besides, I’m sure that Simon Cowell is already a vampire, right?)

Of course, that’s all setup for this optimist to say I’m still looking forward to the season! Do I agree with all the moves that the team has made this offseason?  Not even close.  It’s about 50% for the moves I like vs the ones that puzzle or annoy me.  It’s hard to settle down my feelings in a general way without covering specifics for a few of them.

So, my offseason commentary will continue with the most recent activity and move backwards:

A) Pavano’s contract is exciting for me.  They stuck to their guns when a talented pitcher wanted to go three years.  It’s my biggest pet peeve that these contract extensions are just getting ridiculous.  This game is just too unpredictable to sustain that level of commitment.  And they didn’t overpay either which leads me to believe that Carl Pavano and his family actually really liked it here and wanted to come back.  I’m sure that he didn’t give the Twins a discount per se but I think he was ready to take whatever they were willing to give (within reasonable negotiations of course).  I like having him in our rotation.  Of course, that gives us 6 starting pitchers.  Yet another calculation that has some fans up in arms.  Is there a trade in the works? Who should go? Honestly? I don’t think there is going to be a trade. I’m not worried that any of my favorite arms are going to be gone (unlike my favorite fielders *sigh*). I am simply looking forward to spring training to see what shakes out. It seems more likely given the emptiness of our bullpen, that whoever doesn’t make the starting rotation in April, will occupy the BP until the inevitable bump in the road for one of the lead-off guys which will be very handy to have an experienced starter ready to step into the spot.  Whoever that pitcher ends up being is probably less happy with that option than I am.

B) Matt Capps being signed is far less interesting for me.  I know this may be hard to believe but I disagree with JimCrikket and his premise that Capps is the new Punto. Maybe I’m projecting my own feelings out there on other folk but this is my perception.  The feelings about Capps just aren’t strong enough about him personally to equate to the love/hate extremes Punto engenders. And for the record, it has NOTHING to do with Ramos. I still haven’t figured out what it is about Capps that people like. There’s just nothing there for me. Maybe it is my love of Joe Nathan and the holdover disappointment that Capps just isn’t it him. But you know, I didn’t have that reaction with any of the other temporary closers we had in Nathan’s place. I actually grew to like Rauch a lot despite his somewhat rocky second half. So, I don’t really think it’s the disappointment factor for me entirely.

I propose that Matt Capps is actually the new Delmon Young. I think he has a LOT of talent but doesn’t employ it consistently enough to give fans confidence in him when he walks out onto the grass. Those who want to see the talent develop and feel like the potential is just too high to let go (especially given Nathan’s uncertainty) are excited by this signing… I’m just not one of them. I don’t despise Capps, that would imply a level of investment that I just haven’t made with him – again much like Delmon. I just haven’t felt the ‘chemistry’ yet. His record is what it is and he could get better or worse – stats just don’t have much to do with it at this point in my book. The one thing I keep reminding myself is that, again like Delmon, he’s a much younger guy than he looks when he’s out there. He’s only 26 and that supposedly gives him time to continue to improve. I hope he does. I wish him well and would love to see him succeed – again like Delmon – I just think we’re paying him too much for I feel is at best a ‘maybe’.

C) THOME! Ok, I really like this signing and it does make me feel better about the offseason. Do I think there were other DH’s out there we could have signed that would have had fun hitting in TF? Yep.. and I could have accepted Vlad (he still scares me at the plate) or even Thames in that role but I LIKE Thome and I think he was a natural fit here and still has the ability to play for what we need in that spot. Like Pavano, I think he feels the same way and hearing that he received legitimately good offers from other GOOD teams but chose to stay here for less tells me that he has a lot of faith in what this team can do in 2011. I choose to see that as optimism.

As for the rest of the moves made this offseason (excluding the outlier event of Nishioka), I have been disappointed in the actions. I thought they should have kept more of our bullpen intact and we have a seriously depleted pen now. I would have liked to see us keep Guerrier and possible Rauch but obviously my opinion carries little weight. I’m downright depressed that Hardy is gone, and I’m not sure I will know what to do with a bench with no Punto.  But here’s the thing, I don’t think I need to agree with the moves the Front Office makes in order for me to believe they are actually trying to do what they believe is best for the team. Even when I disagree, I can trust the motive. The track record for this team’s success isn’t when they have miraculous signings or when they got that perfectly right player over the offseason. This team succeeds when they take whoever they have (or have left) and go out and play with everything they have. It’s the character of the guys in the locker room that will or won’t send us to the postseason again.  Whether it happens during Spring Training or August, they rally together and fill the holes.  That attitude is more important to the success of the team and to this fan than any single contract’s consequence.

*Per MLB Trade Rumors: Nick Punto is going to the Cardinals. *sigh* I’m going to miss him for all the flak he got around here.  Good Luck Nicky!  http://bit.ly/e1wGXg

For this optimist, I’m taking it all in stride and looking forward to Spring Training and really curious and excited to see where the 2011 season takes the MN Twins!

Smith & Gardy: The New Goose & Maverick?

“I feel the need… the need for SPEED!”

Some of you are probably too young to remember this line from Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards in “Top Gun” (is it really possible that movie is 25 years old?). The two actors portrayed Naval Aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his backseat RIO, “Goose” (20 bonus Knuckleballs points if you can tell us Goose’s character’s real name without looking it up… I couldn’t) as they piloted their F14A Tomcat from the USS Enterprise (that’s the aircraft carrier, not the starship) to Top Gun training at Miramar Naval Air Station.

Maverick, you see, was one helluva pilot (sorry… naval aviator) and there’s no doubt that if he would just “do it right”, he could be the best.

But Maverick’s personality was such that he had to go faster than anyone else. Goose would try to maintain some level of control and impress on his friend that being smart about things is important, too. In the end, however, he always went along with Maverick’s reckless “winning means doing it faster than anyone else, no matter what” approach. Goose knew better, but dangit, Maverick was such a lovable guy that in the end, all he could do is shake his head and go along for the ride.

The Twins never showed interest in bring back Orlando Hudson and now, with the addition of Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka and subsequent trade of JJ Hardy to Baltimore on the last day of MLB’s Winter Meetings, Twins General Manager Bill Smith officially bought in to Manager Ron Gardenhire’s desire to begin bringing the running game back in to the Twins’ offensive game plan.

Does Bill Smith really believe in this change in approach? Did he try to point out to Gardy that his team scored more runs than anyone else in the AL Central Division, even if Target Field proved more difficult than expected to hit a baseball out of?

It doesn’t really matter, of course, whether Smith knows the important thing is to outscore your opponents and win games, because dangit, Gardy is such a lovable guy and you know that, in the end, all Smith can do is shake his head and go get the kind of players Gardy wants.

A year ago… and really all throughout the 2010 season… a lot of us were having some fun drawing comparisons between the Twins and White Sox. Years earlier, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had given the Twins a cute nickname… the piranhas (or was it “piranyas”?)… that portrayed the Twins as a scrappy group of speedy little guys with limited real athletic ability that consistently beat Ozzie’s more talented teams by nibbling them to death. By 2010, the roles had reversed and Ozzie had apparently convinced Sox GM Kenny Williams that he needed more versatile ballplayers who would battle their tales off, while Bill Smith went out and stocked the Twins with more professional hitters.

The beefed up Twins went something like 99-1 against the Sox team that Ozzie and Kenny had built in the Twins’ former image. As a result, this off-season, I’m not sure Williams has even asked Ozzie what he “wants”. He went out and bought the ultimate power hitter, Adam Dunn, in addition to re-signing Paul Konerko. (Alas, Mark Kotsay’s days DHing for the BitchSox are over… dammit.)

I’m concerned that Gardy got bored last year. Sure, the Twins scored a lot of runs and would almost certainly have scored even more if Justin Morneau hand’t been shelved by a concussion half way through the season. But something just didn’t feel right to Gardy. There were times, no doubt, when his instincts were to steal, bunt, hit & run… all those things the piranhas did… but there wasn’t a piranha in sight. Instead he had Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome and JJ Hardy out there clogging up the basepaths.

So what if the runs still scored (perhaps because the Twins weren’t needlessly giving up outs by bunting and getting caught stealing)? It just wasn’t the kind of baseball team Gardy enjoyed managing. It was like taking Maverick out of his F14A and putting him in a “clunky” B1 bomber. Sure he might eventually inflict more damage on the enemy, but without the speed and maneuverability of his Tomcat, it’s just not as much fun for the guy at the controls.

Look, I get that Target Field isn’t built for marginal power hitters… guys that rely on balls that barely clear fences to generate their HR numbers. But Bill Smith should remember that last season’s strategy of bringing in better offensive players, even if they weren’t the fastest guys in the game, resulted in the Twins winning 94 games.

And before Bill Smith completely buys in to Gardy’s dream of bringing us Piranhas II – The Sequel, he might also keep one more thing in mind…

While “Top Gun” ended with LT Mitchell all smiles, going along with Maverick’s “need for speed” didn’t turn out so well for Goose.

- JC

Twins Won’t Sign Cliff Lee… Will They?

My posts are too long. I know. This one is even longer than usual. Sorry. -JC

It’s impossible. It would be lunacy. And say what you will about the Minnesota Twins front office, they aren’t prone to lunacy. Sure, they occasionally screw up and overpay a light-hitting utility infielder by a couple million dollars or so. But the Twins don’t out-lunatic the lunatics in New York when it comes to bidding for the services of 30+ year old starting pitchers.

But still…

I have to admit that I find the Cliff Lee storyline 100 times more fascinating than the laughable Derek Jeter drama we endured last week. While they both involve the Yankees and thus share the same prospect of the Evil Empire ending up looking foolish, that’s about all the two have in common. There are many more compelling reasons to become enthralled with the unfolding Lee scenarios. For starters, Cliff Lee is still really good at baseball.

Cliff Lee

To bring people up to date (though “up to date” in this unfolding drama is, to say the least, a very fluid moving target), Lee is by far the best free agent starting pitcher on the market this off-season. In fact, if you look at pitchers with contracts expiring next year, we’re probably not going to see anyone better at what he does hit the market then either. The term “ace” is thrown around pretty loosely these days, to the point that I’m not even sure what it means any more. But Lee pretty much is everything a team would want in an ace. He’s left-handed. He works deep in to games and saves your bullpen. He has excellent command of multiple pitches. He (generally) stays healthy. He rises to the occasion in the post-season. He beats the Yankees.

The bidding for Lee had the potential to be a story worth following even before the Winter Meetings started this week in Florida. The Yankees and the Texas Rangers were expected to do battle for the right to pay him over $100 million over the next five seasons. In the end, of course, everyone expected the Yankees to get their man. After all, they “need” Lee and they always get what they need when the only determining factor is money. (By the way, I find this concept of the Yankees “needing” Lee to be typical of the Yankees and their fans. What other franchise would have CC Sabathia at the top of their rotation and yet feel they NEED Cliff Lee? What they NEED is someone better than Javier Vasquez and AJ Burnett to add to their rotation… how hard could it be to find someone like that?)

But a funny thing happened on the way to this two-team Battle Royale for Lee’s services. Other teams showed up with money in hand, too. So many teams showed up with so much money, in fact, that the price for Lee seems to be rising by the hour. Almost immediately, it became clear that a five year contract wasn’t going to cut it. It would take six. Reportedly, that was more than the Rangers were willing to go. The Yankees supposedly are willing to do six years… but no more. But so, perhaps, might the Nationals, Angels, Red Sox, Cubs or Orioles. Then, Tuesday, reports started coming out that one team (or possibly even two teams) might go seven years for Lee!

Speculation started about who might raise insanity to levels past all prior boundaries (a.k.a. beyond Yankee-Insanity). Immediately, eyes looked toward Washington where, it seems, the ownership has allowed the team’s close proximity to Congress to instill a total lack of fiscal restraint on the Nationals franchise. The Nats have already made the most excessive (read: dumbest) signing this year by paying Jayson Werth $126 million over the next seven seasons. But the Nationals deny they’re willing to go seven years. As do the Angels. And the Orioles. And the Cubs. And every other team that’s been asked, “Are you the crazy one?”

Which leads us to one of two conclusions: 1) Someone is lying… either about there even being a seven year offer out there (never mind two of them) or about not being the team to have made such an offer; or 2) there’s a mystery team (or two) laying in the weeds who’s willing and able to commit over $20 million a year for the next seven years for Cliff Lee’s services. The entertainment value alone of watching all the big (and small) media types chasing down the answers through the pastel-colored halls of the Dolphin and Swan hotels would almost have been worth the price of airfare to fly down there!

Speculation as to who the “mystery team(s)” might be has run the gamut from the Cubs to the Tigers to the Astros to the Brewers (seriously… the Astros and Brewers?!).

There’s every possibility that the seven year offer is nothing more than a phantom, leaked by Lee’s representatives to drive up the price or by another team just to… you know… drive the Steinbrenners a little nuttier than they already are. In either case, the end result would at least be that the Evil Empire would feel compelled to jack up their offer and overpay even more than they would have if they were only bidding against themselves (see: Jeter, Derek and Rodriguez, Alex).

But what if there IS someone out there with a seven year offer for Lee?

What sort of team would be willing to take on that sort of risk and be able to stay under the radar? Let’s look at the criteria any such team would have to meet.

Need. You have to really, REALLY, need a top-of-the-rotation difference maker. You don’t do something this crazy if you already have one of the best in the business heading your rotation… unless you’re the Yankees.

Motivation. You need to be a contender (or at least see yourself as being a contender) or close enough to being one that adding Lee would sure make you look like one. Ideally, you’re a contender who believes you may be an “ace” away from a World Series.

Resources. You need to have money. This can be tricky for outsiders to figure out because teams don’t broadcast how much money they have so the best anyone can do is estimate. Estimates are loosely based on two criteria: 1) how much you spent on payroll last year (teams supposedly dedicate about half their total revenues to their Major League payrolls); and 2) your home attendance levels.

Stealthy Insanity. You need to have ownership and front office people willing (or at least motivated, for some reason) to do something a little crazy… or a lot crazy… AND be able to keep their craziness quiet.

When you apply those four criteria, the possibilities narrow in a hurry. (Again, I say, the Astros and Brewers? Really?!)

The Red Sox, maybe. They’ve got solid starting pitching already, but they missed the playoffs last season and they could use Lee. They have no shortage of money, though they’re going to have to shell out megabucks to keep newly acquired Adrian Gonzales around more than a year. They’ve shown a willingness to do crazy stuff before (like post a bid of a gazillion dollars to Dice-K’s Japanese team a while back). They’re also motivated by Yankee-envy and could figure that even if they don’t get Lee, at least they’d have the satisfaction of knowing they made the Yankees pay more for him than they wanted to.

The Tigers, perhaps. They had over $50 million come off their payroll this year and they’re clearly intent on spending it. They have every fan’s dream: an owner who’s really just a fan with an obscene amount of money who just wants to win, no matter what it costs. In addition, despite the Detroit economy, fans are still attending their games.

But let’s quit beating around the bush. We all know where this post is heading.

What about the Twins?

Do they need a playoff-proven, Yankee killing, ace?

Are they a contender that’s perhaps one or two key pieces from a World Series?

Do they have money?

Of course, the question is, “How much money do they have?” Nobody knows. But here’s what we DO know. They posted a bid for Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakura and were rumored to have posted the second-highest bid. Oakland “won” with a $19 million bid. Let’s say the Twins bid $10 million (I suspect it was more). They would have had to be prepared to shell out a total of $15 million in 2011 for Iwakura (including posting bid and at least $5 million for his first year). In 2012, the Twins potentially have over $15 million in payroll coming off the books in just two outfielders (Cuddyer and Kubel) just as the next crop of young (cheap) outfielders should be arriving. The Twins also have every reason to expect that they’ll continue to sell out Target Field’s 40,000 seats, resulting in another 3,000,000 attendance figure next year. While their average ticket price is only about $35 (thus just over $100 million in ticket revenue), let me ask you… how much money do you suppose the average ticketholder spends at a game? Does $30-$50 over and above his/her ticket price seem unlikely? And we haven’t even talked about media rights or advertising. Is it really impossible to imagine that the Twins are pulling down $300 million in revenues?

But even if we all would agree the Twins have the need, the motivation and the resources to make a seven year play for Cliff Lee, do we have any reason to believe they’d actually do something so totally un-Twinslike? Of course not.

But still…

A year ago, Bill Smith traded for a new shortstop, signed Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson as free agents, and went out and obtained Brian Fuentes and Matt Capps during the season in order to give his team its best shot at a serious title run. All in addition to locking up Joe Mauer to about the richest non-Yankee contract in baseball. In previous seasons, losing cornerstones like Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau would have meant writing the year off and dumping contracts, not to mention trading Mauer away for whatever they could get for him or watching him sign with New York or Boston as a free agent.

This is all a long (too long, perhaps, but what do you really expect from one of my posts, by now?) way of saying that if I were a writer covering this story in Florida this week and I was trying to unearth the identity of the crazy “mystery team” who’s made a seven year offer to Cliff Lee, I’d at least ask Bill Smith if he’s the nutty GM who’s made that offer.

On the other hand, Smith’s also the GM who probably wouldn’t give a straight answer to a writer who asks what he had for breakfast, so you might not even bother asking about this.

So… do I REALLY believe the Twins might be making a seven year contract offer for Cliff Lee, just because they have the need, the motivation, and arguably the resources to do so? No, of course not. The Twins never do that kind of thing. Ever.

But still…

-JC

A Mid-Offseason Report Card

It’s been a while since I was in school (though perhaps not as long ago as one might expect for someone of my advanced years). That said, I do recall something called “mid-term grades”. The cool thing about them was that they told you how you were doing in your coursework, but they didn’t really “count”. If you were doing well, you could afford to have a few beers and relax over the weekends, but if you were coming up short, the mid-term grades served as a wake-up call of sorts.

Sometimes, I think it would be nice if I could get the same sort of feedback once out in the real world. And if I think that would be of benefit to me, certainly an intelligent man like Bill Smith must feel the same way, right?

As hard as it may be to believe, we’re approaching the half-way point between the end of the Twins’ 2010 season and the date pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, 2011.

So it’s in this spirit of helpfulness that I offer the Twins’ GM his mid-term grade: D+.

And that grade assumes Tsuyoshi Nishioka gets signed by the December 26 deadline. If Smith doesn’t bring that home, the grade drops to an F.

The good news is, just like in college, the mid-term grades don’t really count. There’s still time to bring that grade up and not screw up the GPA. But time is wasting.

Monday at the the Swan and Dolphin hotels at DisneyWorld, MLB’s movers and shakers get together for their annual Winter Meetings, which wind up Thursday with the Rule 5 draft. Over the past five years, there have been an average of just over 10 trades announced during each year’s Winter Meeting gathering. It might be a very good idea for one or two of those deals this week to involve the Twins.

Why? Well, let’s take a look at what we’ve seen so far this offseason.

Unless/until deals are reached to bring some of these guys back in to the Twins fold, the Twins have lost their most reliable starting pitcher, Carl Pavano, their most prolific power hitter, Jim Thome, and four solid (or better) relief pitchers in Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes.. The Twins have done absolutely nothing about replacing the departing talent, much less making any improvements in those positions.

Nishioka is, so far, the only meaningful addition this offseason (and he isn’t even officially on board yet). And you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not as convinced as others seem to be that he represents a certain improvement over Hudson, Hardy or whoever’s roster spot he ends up taking.

Of course, Justin Morneau should be back and healthy by Opening Day and that represents a significant upgrade over Michael Cuddyer at 1B. But the Twins have done nothing to improve their lack of speed in their outfield, they haven’t replaced Pavano’s innings in the top half of the rotation and there looks to be a significant drop off in bullpen talent between the back end arms, Joe Nathan and Matt Capps, and the rest of the pen arms.

The Tigers have added Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, the White Sox have added Adam Dunn to the heart of their line up, the Red Sox have acquired Adrian Gonzalez and are still kicking the tires on Jayson Werth [UPDATE: Werth has signed with the Nationals], the Yankees are going to add Cliff Lee and both the Angels and Rangers are in the hunt for Carl Crawford. Meanwhile, the Twins have done little but try to strengthen the Rochester Red Wings roster.

And excuse me if I don’t believe the chatter about potentially trading JJ Hardy for middle relief pitching would constitute any sort of improvement whatsoever. There are 70 or so middle relievers on the free agent market, including the four pretty good arms that wore Twins uniforms last season. Trading Hardy for talent you could easily bring on board through free agency would be a total waste of a valuable asset.

You don’t improve your chances of success in this league by trying to simply maintain the status quo while everyone else is focused on improving. Yes, the Twins won 94 games in 2010, but those who think they don’t have to improve the roster just to have a shot at being competitive in their division next season are kidding themselves.

Smith and his front office team have shown very little progress during the first half of the “semester” and that’s what they’re mid-term grade reflects. But there’s still time to salvage a passing grade. The second half of the offseason starts this week at Mickey Mouse’s Magic Kingdom.

It’s time to get to work, Mr. Smith.

- JC