GameChat – Twins@ Royals #4, 1:10pm

The Twins go for the sweep in Kansas City this afternoon with a lineup that still looks more like something that should be taking the field for the Red Wings than the Twins, but at least these guys are showing some life! Hopefully, the rest that Denard and Justin are getting this weekend will have them ready for Cleveland.

TWINS @ ROYALS
Revere, CF Gordon, LF
Casilla, A, SS Cabrera, Me, CF
Cuddyer, DH Hosmer, 1B
Valencia, 3B Francoeur, RF
Young, D, LF Butler, DH
Hughes, L, 1B Betemit, 3B
Repko, RF Aviles, 2B
Butera, C Pena, B, C
Tolbert, 2B Escobar, A, SS
Duensing, P Francis, P

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

That’s a SWEEP!

First sweep of a series longer than 2 games!

First four game winning streak!

Don’t look now, but that 16.5 game lead the Tribe had over the Twins last Thursday is now down to 12.5 and the Twins are headed in to Cleveland for a big series starting Monday!

It will be good to get Denard Span and Justin Morneau back, for sure, but this new generation of piranhas has been fun to watch this weekend. Alexi Casilla continued ripping the ball, Luke Hughes had a couple of hits and scored a couple of runs, and Jason Repko got in to the action, too, with a couple of hits and three RBI!

Brian Duensing hadn’t gotten a W in his past half dozen starts for the Twins, but he threw eight shutout innings, giving up just six hits and 1 walk, while striking out four Royals. For that performance, Brian is our BOD!

Brian Duensing

The Kevin Slowey Dilemma

I don’t often listen in via the internet to Ron Gardenhire’s Sunday morning appearances on ESPN1500, but I did yesterday. If you’ve been reading or listening to any Twins-related news in the past 24 hours, you’re probably already aware of his comments with regard to Kevin Slowey. If not, let me give it to you in a nutshell:  Gardenhire and Slowey met together to discuss Kevin’s role with the Twins and there appears to be some agreement between them that Slowey has not worked out as a relief pitcher, so they need to get him innings in a starting role… somewhere.

Gardenhire mentioned possibly sending Slowey to Rochester to be used as a starting pitcher. Slowey hinted to reporters that perhaps the Twins are no longer a “fit” for him.

Assuming Gardy is not going to go “Ozzie Guillen” on us and implement a six-man rotation the way the BitchSox have, there really are only three options for dealing with Slowey at this point: Insert him in to the Twins rotation to replace one of the five arms already there, send him to Rochester, or trade him to another team.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

If the Twins would decide to simply move Slowey in to the rotation, say for example in place of Brian Duensing, and have Duensing take Slowey’s bullpen spot, then I suppose it is relatively simple. But the Twins don’t really need a long reliever in the bullpen and that’s pretty much what Duensing would be. They need an arm they can use in critical set up situations. Maybe Duensing could do that, but it’s hardly a sure-thing.  

This swap would also result in the Twins having just one left hander in the rotation and while it’s easy to pick on Duensing because he hasn’t had a lot of success in the past month or so, a glance at his stat line shows us that opponents have a .381 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which is well above normal, indicating that he may be the victim of a little bit of bad luck. That particular stat, after all, was the one that fans of Francisco Liriano liked to trot out there every time a discussion about Frankie’s abilities took place over the off season (and his BABIP was only .335 last season).

So why not just send Slowey to Rochester and bring up someone else for the bullpen? Makes sense, I guess, but let’s be honest… the Twins haven’t exactly had a lot of good fortune with the bullpen arms they’ve brought up from Rochester already. Yes, Chuck James has performed well in Rochester’s pen and has arguably earned a promotion opportunity. But James is not currently on the Twins’ 40-man roster, so promoting him means someone currently on the roster has to be jettisoned. Would the world come to an end if the Twins lost Eric Hacker, Jim Hoey, or Scott Diamond? No. But I’m not sure the Twins are ready to give those guys up just to find out if James can pitch effectively at the Big League level.

That leaves us with some sort of trade scenario and the internet is abuzz today with “Twins will trade Slowey” stories. Heck, it may even happen before I can post this!

A lot of people thought the Twins should trade Slowey or one of their other starting pitchers before the season started. I disagreed, because it’s not at all unusual for a team to end up needing that sixth starting pitcher at some point during the first couple of months of the season. It turns out, the starting five stayed relatively healthy so the need to insert Slowey in to the rotation has not materialized. Certainly, none of the five guys in the rotation have been consistently effective, but despite the contention of his fans (and those fans who for one reason or another just dislike one of the current rotation members), there’s no solid evidence at all that Slowey would be an improvement over anyone currently with a starting rotation spot.

The assumption all along has been that the Twins would promote top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson from Rochester in June, once the risk of accelerating his eligibility for arbitration passes. Gibson hasn’t exactly set the International League ablaze this season, but he’s held hitters to somewhere around a .250 batting average and has a nice 41/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while striking out almost one hitter per inning. The point being, we’re almost at the point in the season where the Twins can afford to trade one of their six pitchers with credentials as a Big League pitcher.

I’m just not sure that should be Slowey.

If it is, so be it. It’s not like he’s demonstrated that he’s irreplaceable. But I’m just not sure that’s the direction I’d go if I were the General Manager.

Slowey is making just $2.7 million this season, so there’s bound to be a market for him. Maybe the Twins could even get a serviceable middle infielder in return. But they aren’t likely to get anyone significantly better than the mediocrity they’ve been sending out to man 2B and SS so far and adding a MLB infielder means they’re still left with the dilemma of how to fit James on to the 40-man roster so they can promote him. In any event, while I’m not ready to give up on the 2011 season yet, if I’m running the Twins, I’m not going to feel inclined to trade one of my cheaper starting pitching options.

For the same reason, you don’t trade Brian Duensing either. He’s still barely making above the MLB minimum salary.

Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker are both roughly in the $5-6 million per year range through 2012. The Twins won’t (and shouldn’t) trade Baker, but if you can get some decent prospects for Blackburn, I suppose you listen to offers. I just doubt that Blackburn’s performance has done much to create significant demand for his services, given his contractual agreement.

Does Francisco Liriano still have significant trade value? He’s making $4.3 million this year but he’s likely to get more expensive next year. Still, I suspect there are teams who would be very tempted to give up something of value for the chance to see if Liriano can grow in to a consistently dominant lefty. If so, I’d be very tempted to make him available because I just don’t see it as being likely to happen in Minnesota. Blame Liriano or blame the coaches/manager, but either way, I don’t see him ever being worth what the Twins would have to shell out to keep him beyond this season.

And then there’s ‘Stache. Carl Pavano is getting $8 million this season and is guaranteed $8.5 million in 2012. Has anyone who’s been watching the Twins seen anything in Pavano’s performance to make them feel like he’s worth that deal? He certainly has not been the “innings eater” he was last year, having averaged just about 6 innings per start. I don’t know what he’s worth on the market, but I would imagine someone would give up something for him, even if the Twins do have to eat a little of that contract.

Trading one of these guys for decent prospects would clear a roster spot for James  (or for Gibson or possibly RP prospect Carlos Gutierrez next month) without leaving the Twins significantly short-handed in the starting pitching department.  If I could get something of real value in prospects for either Pavano or Liriano, I’d make that move right now.

That said, it will probably be Kevin Slowey sent packing. If and when it happens, I suspect most of us will be underwhelmed with talent received in return.

– JC

GameChat – Indians @ Twins #2, 12:10pm, FSN am1500

I’m sure last night’s rainout inconvenienced about 40,000 people who planned on attending the game, not to mention everyone who was hoping to watch it, but it also seems to have bought Justin Morneau just enough extra time to work his way back off the sick bed and in to the line up! Now let’s just hope he doesn’t take too long to get his game together.

INDIANS @ TWINS
Sizemore, CF Span, CF
Cabrera, A, SS Repko, LF
Choo, RF Kubel, RF
Santana, C, C Morneau, 1B
Hafner, DH Cuddyer, 2B
Cabrera, O, 2B Thome, DH
Brantley, LF Valencia, 3B
LaPorta, 1B Butera, C
Hannahan, 3B Casilla, A, SS
Carmona, F, P Duensing, P

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Cleveland 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 2 0 3 6 0
Minnesota 0 0 3 0 3 2 2 0 x 10 13 0

I don’t really believe in “statement games”, especially in April. That said, after the slow start the Twins have had and the way Cleveland has racked up wins this month, there’s something to be said for going out in the first head-to-head match up of the season and announcing loud and clear that if the Indians are going to be more than pretenders in the race for the AL Central championship, they’re going to have to go through Minnesota to get there. I think that was communicated clearly today.

I think our guys liked that unscheduled off day on Friday! Ten runs!! That’s the kind of thing we were hoping to see out of this line up! The Twins got two hits each out of Lexi, Denard, the Jasons (Repko and Kubel) and Justin, as well! In fact, Doc came through with a 2-run single immediately after the Tribe intentionally walked Kubel with runners on 2nd and 3rd. That’ll teach ‘em! Danny ValenSEEYA went yard for the second time this season. So much offense from so many contributors that a full dessert buffet for all is probably called for.

It was also good to see Joe Nathan come on to pitch the 9th inning, throw the ball up in the 93 mph range, strike out two hitters during a 1-2-3 inning AND get the kind of standing, stomping, cheering crowd support that a guy who has worked his butt off for the Twins and their fans for so long deserves. Well done, Joe and well done Twins fans!

But, as strange as it may seem on a day when the bats finally woke up, today’s Boyfriend of the Day has to be a pitcher. Brian Duensing flat out owned the Indians hitters, giving up only one run in seven innings. He gave up only 5 hits and walked just one, while striking out three. A very efficient day, throwing only 90 pitches. Keep it up, Brian!

Brian Duensing

Bert, Brian and the Bucs

I think I saw something in Bradenton Monday that I haven’t seen at any of the other Spring Training games I’ve watched over the past week. There were, in fact, a few clouds in the sky. I had almost forgotten what they looked like, though I suspect I’m going to be reminded pretty dramatically in a few hours, when I get back to Iowa.

McKechnie Field, Spring Training home of the Pirates... and a few clouds

I also hadn’t seen Bert Blyleven yet down here until today, though I did see Dick Bremer behind the batting cage last week exchanging a man-hug with Hall of Famer (and Bremer’s former broadcast partner) Harmon Killebrew. Not only did Dick and Bert broadcast today’s game with the Pirates to the folks back home, but Bert also threw out the first pitch. I thought that was kind of cool, given that he did pitch for the Pirates and they took this opportunity to recognize Blyleven’s recent election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bert Blyleven donned a Pirates jersey to throw out the first pitch, in honor of his election to the HOF

This was my second opportunity to see Brian Duensing start a game on the mound and he looked sharper today. I know there’s a lot of healthy debate around Twinsville about whether Duensing should start the season in the rotation or the bullpen, but I’ve felt strongly all along that he should be in the rotation and I’ve seen nothing this week to change my mind. It allows Ron Gardenhire to go Righty-Lefty-Righty-Lefty-Righty with the rotation and assures that teams see a variety of looks during a three-game series.

Brian Duensing looked good against the Pirates

Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Delmon Young were the only starting position players to make the 90 minute bus ride up to Bradenton for the game, but they gave the sizable contingent of Twins fans in the crowd plenty to cheer about. Span had a double in four ABs, while Mauer and Young each had two hits to lead the Twins 4-1 win over the Pirates.

The Bucs’ only run was unearned, which means that, once again, the whole parade of Twins pitchers shut down an opponent. Today, in addition to Duensing, that included Glen Perkins, Matt Capps, Carlos Gutierrez and Chuck James. The relief appearances were clean, though not dominating. Perkins had a couple of balls hit hard off of him, including a line drive to first base that became a double play ball. Gutierrez was getting ground balls, while James got all three outs on fly balls.

Carlos Gutierrez has been looking good all spring

While the Twins travel to face the Marlins tomorrow, I’ll be heading home to Cedar Rapids. I don’t leave until the afternoon, though, so I may hang out for a while in the morning at the Twins practice facility and maybe even watch some minor league games. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the Twins playing in those games, while few of the regulars make the long drive across the state to Jupiter FL where the Marlins train.

I’ve had a lot of opportunities to watch a lot of baseball this week and I’ve drawn a few conclusions concerning what I think Gardy and the Twins will be doing about those few remaining roster spots that are still up in the air… and about what I think they SHOULD do (I wish they were the same thing, but they’re not). In any event, I’ll think a bit more about that stuff and throw a post up in the next couple of days with my thoughts.

It’s been a fun trip… as always. The weather has been terrific and while I’d love to hang around here and watch more baseball, it will also feel good to get home again (at least right up until the time I have to show up for work Wednesday morning).

With that, I’ll leave you with a few more pictures from my day in Bradenton.

– JC

How close was my seat to the field? I had to move my knees to make room for this young man to get Matt Tolbert's autograph

I had a pretty good view of Denard Span taking the field, as well.

The Pirates mascots force two children to do the chicken dance... talk about child abuse!

Joe Mauer chats up Pirate 1B Lyle Overbay in order to avoid having to talk to 1B coach Jerry White

Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven get ready to go on the air before the game

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

Trade Pitching? What’s the Rush?

Naturally, the big news coming out of the Twins’ “B” game against the Pirates Tuesday… the thing that had Twitter thumbs getting a workout… was the triumphant (and more importantly, healthy) return of first baseman Justin Morneau. Delmon Young’s debut, with a couple of walks in his two plate appearances, was less dramatic, but still noteworthy and smile-inducing. But once the dust settled on their stories, we started reading what arguably could be the most intriguing news to come out of that game, played before just a couple of hundred sets of eyes on a distant practice field that, starting this weekend, will be used exclusively for putting 18 and 19 year old minor leaguers through drills.

Is Kevin Slowey on the market?

It seems not all of the folks watching that game were vacationing Twins fans. Among the observers were a handful of people with well trained eyes focused on Twins starting pitcher Kevin Slowey, who according to reports from those in attendance, pitched an effective few innings against the Pirates’ “B” line-up. Reportedly, several scouts from the Blue Jays were watching Slowey and even videotaping his performance. The Rockies also apparently had a scout at the game.

The Twins entered Spring Training with two rotation spots nailed down and a number of other pitchers, with varying degrees of Major League experience, competing for the other three starting pitcher jobs. Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano were considered locks, while Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Brian Duensing constituted the pool of arms from which the remaining three rotation jobs would be drawn. Top prospects Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers would be waiting in the wings for opportunities later in the season and the Twins also have a group of pitchers (for example, Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop, Jeff Manship, and perhaps others) that are initially competing for bullpen jobs but could be called upon in a pinch to start games, if need be.

It was a solid, if unspectacular, group of starting pitchers and the plan looked and sounded like a reasonable approach to get through the spring and probably through the first couple of months of the season, at least. Many of us think the Twins may still need a true top-of-the-rotation guy to carry the Twins beyond the first round of the playoffs, but that’s a need that is always easier to address in July, when a number of teams have fallen out of contention and enter cost-cutting mode, than it is in March when hope springs eternal in camps all over Florida and Arizona.

Pitchers and catchers had barely put on practice jerseys when media speculation about a possible trade of Liriano to the Yankees began to circulate. Those rumors have quieted now, but in the mean time, manager Ron Gardenhire has gone on record committing two more of those coveted rotation spots to Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn. If Gardy sticks to those commitments (which I don’t think is necessarily as certain as people may tend to think), that leaves just one remaining starting role up for grabs between Baker and Slowey.

That’s one too many roosters for the rotation henhouse and thus the scouting eyes focused on Slowey’s performance Tuesday and the inevitable speculation that Slowey may be on the verge of being traded to Toronto in return for some of the Jays’ surplus of bullpen arms.

That seems to make sense to a lot of people. In fact, during his podcast last night, Jack Steal (Twins blogger “Fanatic Jack”) voiced a number of concerns that I think a lot of Twins fans have. (TwinsCentric blogger John Bonnes, of “TwinsGeek” fame, and I sparred with Jack on this and other issues… you can listen to the archived podcast at 612sports.net.)

People still aren’t comfortable with the prospect of letting Gardy and pitching coach Rick Anderson sift through the large group of relatively unknown options that GM Bill Smith brought in to camp to compete for the middle relief roles behind Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. So why shouldn’t the Twins go ahead now and trade their surplus starting pitcher to strengthen their questionable bullpen?

I’m glad you asked.

Let’s start with a basic truth. Starting pitchers good enough to hold down a spot in a Major League rotation are more important, more valuable, more difficult to find, and more difficult to replace when you need them, than even the best middle relief pitchers. They just are.

Second, you need more than five starting pitchers. Remember Scott Baker going on the Disabled List just before the Twins broke camp in 2009? Remember Nick Blackburn needing a family medical leave last April? Having six starting pitchers with a history of having success at the top levels of baseball should not be considered a luxury, it should be looked at for what it is… a potential significant advantage over the competition. Every team, including the Twins, is likely to need at least six starting pitchers, even during the first couple of months of the season. The difference between the Twins and other teams is that they have the depth to meet that need when it arises.

Will Liriano be ready to lead in April?

Has anyone read the reports about Liriano’s lack of offseason preparedness and his shoulder discomfort and not come away with some level of concern over whether he’s going to be reliable when the season opens in April? How many of the projected starting pitchers had some sort of “clean up” done on their elbows this winter? If we’re uncomfortable with the prospect of Perkins, Manship, Waldrop, et al, coming in for a couple of innings in the middle of games, just how comfortable are we going to be if those are the options to plug the holes in the rotation?

Does this mean the Twins shouldn’t ever consider trading one of their starting pitchers? Of course not. But why hurry? We’re still about three weeks away from Opening Day. Nobody can say with any certainty what the Twins’ real needs will be by then. The relief arms in camp right now have thrown about 4-5 innings each. That’s not nearly enough to conclude that the bullpen is going to need shoring up. What if one of the big sticks blows out a knee over the next three weeks? If guys like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Danny Valencia or Denard Span are forced to miss significant early time, don’t we think a surplus starting pitcher to deal away for a legitimate everyday replacement might be a nice option to have?

Making a trade now would also unnecessarily limit the market. When the Liriano rumors started flying, all anyone talked about was that the Yankees needed rotation help. Then the Cardinals lost Adam Wainright and the potential bidders doubled. Just in the last few days, the Cardinals have seen Chris Carpenter miss time with a hamstring issue, the Dodgers have found out they’ll start the season without Vicente Padilla and Jon Garland, and the Brewers announced Zack Greinke will miss time with a rib injury. How many more teams will figure out they’re short handed in their rotations over the next few weeks?

It just makes no sense to me to trade any of the Twins’ starting pitchers until (a) the Twins themselves are 100% certain they don’t need that pitcher themselves, (b) Opening Day is close enough on the horizon that the Twins know exactly what the most important position to fill via trade is, and (c) the market for starting pitchers is given enough time to fully develop, maximizing the number of potential bidders for a pitcher and therefore maximizing the value received in return.

There may come a time when it makes sense to trade from a perceived surplus of starting pitching. Now is not that time.

– JC

Early Impressions

Spring Training Rule #1: Don’t read too much in to… well… anything, really.

I know, I know… I have some trouble taking my own advice at times (like, for example, when the Twins hitters can’t seem to get a ball out of the infield off of a procession of wanna-be Red Sox pitchers). But the rule still holds. This early during Spring Training, you just have to try to sit back and enjoy the simple fact that our guys are playing baseball again… finally. Well, most of them are, anyway.

Still, we do have blog space to fill here, so there’s a certain amount of obligation to write SOMETHING about the first few Spring Training games. So here’s what I’m thinking at the moment:

It’s very cool to see Joe Nathan back.

I’m one who’s remained skeptical that he would be able to return to his old form right out of the gate, just a year after Tommy John surgery. It’s sure looking good at the moment, though.

And here’s a couple of positive thoughts regarding Joe. First, I think it’s great that he’s been working on change up to add to his arsenal of pitches. He says it’s to try to stay a step ahead of hitters who, he believes, were starting to figure him out a bit. Second, I would imagine he could benefit a bit from the fact that hitters HAVEN’T faced him in over a year. If they were, in fact, starting to figure out his pitch patterns, etc., then they’d have to go back about a year and a half in their memories (and scouting reports) to recall what to expect. That lack of recent familiarity, along with a new pitch to think about, could give him a little edge.

There’s nothing to the Liriano trade rumors. But still…

Yes, it seems like every day a new report surfaces alluding to some kind of “inside source” indicating the Yankees and Twins are talking about, have talked about, will talk about, would talk about, might talk about a swap of Francisco Liriano to the Yankees for either five top prospects or five magic beans (depending on the source). It’s either just one source feeding garbage to all those reporters or it’s just a coincidence.

Yes, Terry Ryan was spotted scouting the Pirates/Yankees game this week. I’m sure it was just a coincidence.

Yes, I know the Twins, one of the most tight-lipped organizations in baseball when it comes to personnel matters, have gone oddly public with their pronouncements that they are not interested in extending Liriano’s contract. That’s a coincidence, too, I’m sure.

Finally, I know the team has announced Liriano will pitch in a “B-squad” game against the Rays on Friday, instead of the regularly scheduled game that afternoon. I can’t think of any reason why that might be significant, but I will say that, if I were in Ft. Myers this week, I’d be camped out at that B-squad game at 10 am Friday and checking to see who all was sitting around with clipboards and speedguns.

It’s all just a bunch of idle chatter and coincidences right now and it would be absolutely nuts for the Twins to even consider trading any of their six starting pitchers before they get much, much closer to Opening Day. But if March 15 rolls around and all six starting pitchers are healthy and looking relatively sharp… well, I’m not a real big believer in coincidences in the first place.

Brian Duensing’s role

There’s been a lot of debate over whether Brian Duensing should be in the rotation to start the season or whether he should be the guy, assuming all six experienced starting pitchers are healthy, who is sent to the bullpen.

Some people say he should go to the pen because he’s proven to be effective there the past two years. Some say he’s “earned” a rotation spot with his excellent stats the past two years when called on to be a starting pitcher. Others point out his peripheral stats may indicate he’s likely to regress a bit. In other words, everyone has a couple of different reasons why he should or shouldn’t be a starter or a bullpen guy. So I’m going to simplify it.

If, at the end of Spring Training, he’s looking like one of the best five starting pitchers, then he’s going to be in the rotation. Period. Nothing else should matter.

Look, this shouldn’t even be a debate. There simply is no comparison between the value of a starting pitcher, who will have a major influence over the outcome of every fifth game of the season, and a middle relief pitcher, who will very, very rarely EVER have a major influence on the outcome of any game.

If you have a guy who gives every appearance that he’s one of your best starting pitchers, that’s how you use him. The ONLY legitimate reason not to do so would be if you have reason to believe he’s not going to be able to give you 180+ innings of work in a season (due to pitching significantly fewer innings than that the prior season, for whatever reason).

Duensing threw about 130 innings last year. If you want to pace him a little bit to keep him from risking getting worn down just when you need him most, fine… maybe have him skip a start here or there. But there’s no reason he shouldn’t be ready to go 180 innings this season.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s early reviews

Nishi hasn’t hit much yet, but at least he’s making contact. He’s also apparently looking pretty good covering ground at second base. It’s still way too early to judge how the Nishioka-Casilla experiment is going to play out, but I haven’t heard or read anything yet to raise my concern level.

One thing I really am glad to be reading is that he seems to be getting pretty comfortable in the clubhouse and on the field with a number of his team mates… or at least as comfortable as you can get when you have some obvious communication hurdles to overcome. But from all accounts I’ve read, both he and the other Twins players are making efforts to make his transition as smooth as possible.

And I know it’s just one fan’s opinion, but I think he looks much better in the uniform pants than he did in capris.

Michael Cuddyer’s wart

I was bound and determined not to even bring this up in a post, but you can’t read an article about the Twins without it being mentioned, so there you go. It’s simple really… not all warts are the same. Some are totally harmless, some are in a location that is problematic. Some go away easily. Some don’t. Michael and the Twins are doing their best to get rid of the damn thing. Hopefully, they’re successful. ‘Nuff said.

Justin Morneau’s head

This may be the issue I’m struggling with the most, in terms of trying not to be concerned. I really want to just sit back and not worry about Doc until Opening Day rolls around.  But we’re about eight months out from when he incurred his concussion and he’s obviously not yet asymptomatic.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being critical of Morneau or the Twins or their doctors. It is absolutely right that everyone concerned approach this issue conservatively. We may still not know all we’d like to about concussions, but one thing the researchers have figured out is that incurring another concussion before you’re fully recovered from your last one is bad. Bad bad. Really bad.

So, from that standpoint, I’d probably be inclined to have him stay out of competition until days… maybe even weeks… maybe even a month… after his last symptom. If we learned one thing from Joe Mauer missing the month of April a couple of years ago, it’s that missing a little time early in the season is not the worst thing that can happen.

I want to see Justin Morneau hitting the crap out of the ball in September (and maybe even October?) for a change and if it takes a little extra time in March, or even April, to assure that we get to see that… so be it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned.

T-minus two weeks and counting

March 16, exactly two weeks from today, I’ll be watching the first of six Spring Training games I hope to attend on my annual trip to Florida, when the Twins host the Mets in Ft. Myers. This is going to be a long two weeks.

– JC

PROGRAMMING UPDATE: What’s that you say? Reading all this stuff and you still need MORE JimCrikket? If so, you should probably get a life, but if that’s just not realistic, consider tuning in to Fanatic Jack’s podcast tonight (Wednesday) at 9:00. Jack will be talking Twins baseball with John Bonnes (the TwinsGeek) and me. Should be a hoot. Never mind… Jack had to cancel his podcast. Everyone is spared having to listen to me!- JC

T.G.I.F.

I realized this morning that I haven’t posted anything here in almost a week and a half. If not for Babs’ great Farewell Photo Montage, we might very well have had our first full week without a Knuckleballs post since we started this blog 11ish months ago. I realize that there has been at least a little bit of news coming out of Twinsville that I certainly could have commented about. But there’s a good reason why I haven’t.

This week has sucked and I’ve been in a really… really… bad mood.

My family and those who report to me at my place of employment apparently realized quite early in the week that this was going to be one of those weeks where they’re better off just leaving the man alone. My boss, who works in an office about 1500 miles away from where my office is, had no way of knowing it was a bad week to talk to me… especially about things he knew (or should have known) were going to piss me off even more. I believe, after a couple of mid-week conversations, he now would agree with everyone else that avoiding me was probably in everyone’s best interests.

In the middle of all this, I’m not really sure what I could have or would have written about the Twins… but there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have been very nice.

But today is, after all, Friday. The workweek is all but over. I’m still employed (for the moment, anyway). I’m not sure my family’s continued silence isn’t indicative that they’ve permanently disavowed me, but I’m relatively certain they’ll need money at some point and will break down and talk to me again.

So to honor the end of this dreadful week in the life of Jim Crikket, let’s quickly hit on a few Twins-related items before we tackle the weekend.

Twinsfest, et al.

I think the entire 2-week period leading up to Twinsfest is very cool. I know many teams have some sort of “fanfest” event in the offseason, but I don’t know of any that do it up the way the Twins do.

I’ve never attended any of the Twins Caravan stops (they don’t get within even a couple of hours of my home), but from all reports, these are great public relations events and do a lot to not only get fans thinking about baseball in January, but also to introduce some of the younger players to the Twins community. It seems to be a bit of right of passage for players who are just now beginning to live their dream of being a Big League ballplayer.

I watched some of FSN’s webcast of the Diamond Awards Banquet last night and that looks like another pretty impressive event. Again, I don’t know how many other organizations put together a charity fundraiser out of their team awards, but it’s cool thing. I have to say I was very impressed that Jesse Crain showed up to accept the team’s Community Service Award. I don’t know how many people have faced the gut-wrenching prospect of leaving the only real employer you’ve ever worked for, but as one who has, I can only say that I understand his emotions getting the best of him a bit when he spoke. It’s tough for me to “like” anyone wearing a White Sox uniform, but Crain definitely won me over a bit last night. I appreciate class in a person, regardless of the uniform, and he showed class.

Crain will also be the last Twin to wear #28 as the Twins brass announced at the event that they’ll be retiring that number in honor of Bert Blyleven. The ceremony will take place July 16 before the Twins game with the Royals that day. It’s an appropriate… and probably long overdue… honor for Bert.

As for Twinsfest itself, I’ve only been to the event once and I won’t be attending this weekend. A few years ago, my son and I attended and while I really enjoyed the event, what I remember most about it was lining up to get inside the Dome an hour or so before doors opened and standing that entire time in about 15-below-zero temperatures. I’m not saying I’ll never attend the event again, but I have to admit that when I put together a list of my preferred places to travel to in January, Minneapolis (or even Blaine) is not anywhere near the top of the list. I’ll try to be patient and wait to see the guys in Ft. Myers in March.

Oh… and for anyone still unsure, it was absolutely the right decision to tell Justin Morneau to stay on his program at home and skip Twinsfest. If you can’t see that, I’m  not sure what to say… you’re just wrong. Period. I think we should all also stop parsing every word Bill Smith says about Doc as if he’s speaking in some sort of code that needs to be deciphered. Given the issues Morneau had last season after his injury, the prudent thing to do was make sure he gave his head a lengthy rest period followed by a workout program that gradually built up to having him ready to go full tilt on Opening Day. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, that is exactly what the Twins have done.

Jim Perry, Twins Hall of Fame inductee

I haven’t paid a lot of attention to who is and isn’t in the Twins Hall of Fame. My first reaction, though, when I read that Jim Perry had been elected this year was, “How could he just now be getting elected?”

Then I was reading another blog about Perry’s election and the very first comment under it said something about picking from the “bottom of the barrel” and how they should just stop electing people if they aren’t going to give Chuck Knoblauch his due. Well that pissed me off (then again, it didn’t take much to piss me off this week).

I guess this is where I resort to being an old curmudgeon, but I think pretty much anyone who’s been following the Twins throughout their time in Minnesota, as I have, would tell you that not only should Perry have been elected to the Twins’ HOF long before a lot of the guys who are already there, but there are still a LOT of Twins from the 1960s-70s-80s who deserve that honor. With all due respect to those who have already been so honored, it’s hard for me to take seriously any Twins HOF that doesn’t already include Perry,  Camilo Pascual, Cesar Tovar, and Dave Goltz, among others. Whoever votes for this honor isn’t anywhere near the “bottom of the barrel” yet, believe me.

Things that rhyme with “itching”

Again, it may be at least partially reflective of my overall sour mood this week, but I’ve grown REAL tired of all the bitching about the pitching.

Look, I know we need to have something to talk about and I understand that the bullpen is nothing but question marks and we didn’t get the top-of-the-rotation guy many of us (including me) hoped for. But we’ve all been spending way too much effort analyzing, cross-analyzing, re-analyzing, and most of all criticizing every move the Twins make with regard to their pitching staff.

We can all pontificate for weeks about what we think the Twins’ pitching staff should be, will be or might have been… but there’s only one thing I can say on the subject with any confidence and that’s that we would ALL end up being wrong. If there’s one thing history tells us, it’s that a team’s pitching never goes exactly the way anyone expects it to. Remember… with just a week or so before the Twins wrapped up Spring Training last year, all the chatter was about whether Francisco Liriano would be the Twins’ FIFTH starter or work out of the bullpen. People who think Brian Duensing or Kevin Slowey are destined to be sent to the pen or traded mid-year to make room for Kyle Gibson might want to keep that in mind.

And I won’t even go in to how desperate we must be for something to debate about when the best we can come up with is whether or not the Twins should have risked losing Rob Delaney to pick up Dusty Hughes from the Royals’ scrapheap.

Hammond Stadium is waiting

OK, I can tell my mood is starting to affect my writing at this point, so it’s best that I stop here.

The weekend is almost here, Twinsfest is hopping over in Blaine, and we’ll have pitchers and catchers reporting to Ft. Myers in three weeks! Thank Goodness it won’t be long before we’ll have real baseball stuff to talk about!

– 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! :)

How Did We Get Here? (Part 2)

Earlier, in Part 1 of this essay, we took a trip down Memory Lane back in to last offseason and through spring training and discussed some of the decisions made by Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire as they constructed the roster that the Twins would start the 2010 season with. Now let’s take a look at how those decisions worked out.

In essence, the Twins started the 2010 season with six starting pitchers that they felt pretty good about, a bullpen that was missing its anchor in Joe Nathan, but was otherwise solid, an improved starting line up and a bench with some speed and one very dangerous bat.

When Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy and Nick Punto (3/4 of the Opening Day infield) collectively made seven trips to the Disabled List, Alexi Casilla was there to fill in because the Twins decided not to risk losing him to waivers in order to keep Matt Tolbert or Danny Valencia to begin the season. The decision to start the year with Valencia and Tolbert in Rochester and Casilla with the Twins has resulted in all three of them being available to make significant contributions when the starting infielders went down.

Danny Valencia

By the way, it’s just plain mean to say that Nick Punto’s biggest contribution to the Twins success was getting injured and thereby allowing Danny Valencia to take over full time at 3B. Mean… and not altogether accurate. The truth is that Valencia’s ticket back to Rochester had pretty much been bought and paid for when Justin Morneau bumped his head against Blue Jays’ 2B John McDonald’s knee. It was Morneau’s absence and the resulting move of Michael Cuddyer to 1B that kept Valencia in Minnesota.

Of course, it was also Morneau’s injury that made Smith’s signing of Jim Thome all the more important.

Keep in mind, this is the same Jim Thome that mlb.com columnist Hal Brody had written the following about during mid-March:

So, Thome, in the twilight of a career that should land him in the Hall of Fame, will be used mostly as a late-inning pinch-hitter. This is Spring Training, when most everyone oozes with optimism, but the dark side is if Thome’s skills diminish during 2010 he might not finish the year with the Twins.

Or it could be a swan song, his final season.

Jim Thome

In the second half of the season, Thome has hit for a .310 average, with a .450 on-base percentage and a .722 slugging percentage. That’s a 1.172 OPS in 44 games (38 of which he has started as the DH). “Swan song” indeed.

So yes, decisions to sign Hudson and Thome and to keep Casilla to start the season have proved to be huge.

But let’s look at the pitching.

Yes, the Twins have been without the services of Joe Nathan. But they have three pitchers who have racked up over 20 saves each this season (though obviously not all for the Twins). Jon Rauch did well filling in at the back end of the bullpen during the first half of the season. When he started to show some signs of faltering, the Twins traded for Matt Capps. Sure, maybe they overpaid for him, but he’s gotten the job done. Then just for good measure (and to have a shut down arm against lefty hitters), Smith went and got Angels closer Brian Fuentes.

Jesse Crain

So the Twins replaced Nathan with three closers… and yet none of them has been their best relief pitcher this year. That would have to be Jesse Crain (the same Jesse Crain who was rumored to be a non-tender candidate in December), who recovered from a shaky start to the season to become virtually unhittable for the past few months. He’s the guy who has come in to get the critical outs against the opposing team’s toughest hitters before the ninth inning rolls around.

Finally, how huge does that decision NOT to convert Francisco Liriano to a closer look right now? The Twins started the season with six starting pitchers they felt they could rely upon. The two who were battling for the final roster spot, Liriano and Brian Duensing, will pitch games 1 and 3 of the ALDS in October, but the other four haven’t been shabby either.

Those six pitchers, Liriano and Duensing along with Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano, have  started all but three games for the Twins this season and nobody outside of that group has started more than one game. All six have been credited with at least 10 wins this season. (By comparison, in 2009, the Twins used 11 starting pitchers, 8 of them started at least 9 games, and only three of them notched 10 or more wins.)

So, how did the Twins get here…with a Division Championship already under their belts with another week and a half of games to play?

I don’t want to minimize the contributions of the other starting pitchers or of guys like Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel who have all obviously played significant roles in the Twins’ success and the ironman versatility of Michael Cuddyer shouldn’t be underappreciated.

But in my mind, the decisions to retain Pavano and Crain, add Thome and Hudson, keep Liriano in a starting pitcher role and give Casilla the final roster spot out of Spring Training made the difference between the 2010 Twins once again being borderline contenders and being a team capable of blowing away the AL Central competition.

It’s been a fantastic ride so far… let’s hope the best is yet to come! – JC