Off-season Photo Farewell

With all the off-season signings that took several of our Twins to other teams, we thought we would take a moment to bid a fond farewell with a little photo montage of some of our memories of their time with the Twins.  Obviously, for those that had been with us longer, I had a LOT more time to take pics of them.

Since we won’t get to see their adorable faces (or other features of choice) on the field this spring, here’s an opportunity for you to get one last look of Guerrier, Crain, Fuentes, Rauch, Hardy, Punto, Hudson and Harris in Twins uniforms.  We really do with you all the best with your new teams guys!

Matt Capps: The “New Nick Punto”?

UPDATE: Just a quick midafternoon update. MLB.com’s Kelly Thesier’s report from the Twins Caravan  included a couple of notable items: She reported that Dave St. Peter announced that the Twins will be unveiling a bronze statue of Tony Oliva outside Gate 6 at Target Field on/about Opening Day (YAY!).  In addition, she (and other various media reporters) provided an update on Harmon Killebrew’s ongoing battle with cancer. Kelly also included this link to the Get Well, Harmon Blog for anyone wishing to pass on messages to Killebrew. – JC 

Based on early returns, it’s starting to look to me like relief pitcher Matt Capps could give Michael Cuddyer a run for the money in the race to replace Little Nicky Punto as the Twins’ MOTO (Most Often Trashed Online… a term I just made up) player for 2011 among the “blexperts” (blogger/commenter experts… another term I just made up. Am I on a roll here, or what?). I have to say, I really don’t understand the disdain so many people have for Capps.

Photo: Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

On Tuesday, the Twins announced they had reached a contract agreement with Capps that avoided arbitration. They signed Capps to a one-year, $7.15 million deal for 2011. Based on the electronic reaction, you would have thought the Twins just signed Brett Favre to pitch.

I’ve been trying to figure out WHY Capps’ signing caused so much consternation.

I know that it’s widely believed among the blexperts that closers are overpaid because the Save statistic is overvalued. They are and it is.

It’s kind of funny, though, how two years ago so many people downright demanded that the Twins, with a new stadium on the horizon, give then-34-year-old Joe Nathan whatever it would take to stay in a Twins uniform. And the Twins did… to the tune of a contract that guaranteed Nathan something like $35 million over three guaranteed years plus an option year. The primary concern at the time, as I recall, was simply that the signing may have made it difficult for the Twins to also afford also re-signing Joe Mauer (which, of course, it didn’t).

But now, folks are downright apoplectic that Bill Smith would give Matt Capps $7+ million, while letting Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch leave town via free agency and trading away JJ Hardy. The argument is something like, “the Twins could have kept two of those pitchers or a starting shortstop instead of Capps.”

Well… first of all… no they couldn’t have. Hardy was no longer going to be the Twins’ starting shortstop regardless of what the Twins did with their bullpen… the two things weren’t related whatsoever… and Guerrier, Crain and Fuentes all signed elsewhere for multi-year deals with total values well above what the Twins have committed to Capps.

Still, some maintain that, “the Twins could have paid Rauch half as much and had a pitcher just as good as Capps.” Seriously? Even totally forgetting the Save statistic, when you compare the two over the last half of 2010, you would have to get very creative to make a statistical case that  Rauch is “as good” as Matt Capps. There was a reason the Twins traded for Capps, whether a person wants to believe it or not.

Photo: AP/Ted S Warren

And Fuentes? Look… I’d have loved to have him back with the Twins because he absolutely shuts down lefty hitters. But there’s a reason the Angels gave him up and it has nothing to do with “Saves”. It has to do with his .747 OPS against him in the first half of the season, on the heels of an even worse .830 OPS the second half of 2009. The guy has not been strong against right handed hitters in a while.

As for Guerrier and Crain, hey… both guys have served the Twins well and they were entitled to go after the free agent money. But it would have been absolutely nutty to match the three-year deals they ended up signing elsewhere. The Twins offered arbitration to Crain and he (wisely) turned it down. They didn’t offer it to Guerrier because they were afraid he wouldn’t turn it down and they’d be stuck paying a 30-something middle reliever they have no confidence in ever being more than a middle releiver $5+ million.

While the Twins appear hopeful that Joe Nathan will be fully recovered to start the year, there’s no way they can be sure and absolutely need a Plan B in place. Since Crain and Guerrier were certainly not returning and Fuentes has not been effective enough to provide reliable back up in case Nathan isn’t his old self, Capps is obviously the best Plan B. So why do so many blexperts think keeping Matt Capps is a mistake?

Could it really be that people think Capps is taking a spot that should go to someone that came up through the Twins’ system (e.g. Crain, Guerrier, Pat Neshek, or a prospect such as Anthony Slama) and still hold it against him that Bill Smith traded catching prospect Wilson Ramos to get him? 

There’s really no other good reason not to like having this guy (and frankly, even this reason is damn silly… it’s time to get over the Ramos-love, folks!). Capps throws harder than any of the bullpen arms that left, with the possible exception of Crain. He throws harder than Joe Nathan. Is his fastball more hittable than we’d like? Yes… but that’s exactly what a lot of people have criticized Crain for over the years and Capps’ career strikeout/walk ratio is better than any of the departing guys (especially when you factor out the oddly high number of intentional passes the Pirates ordered Capps to give out… could he really have faced Barry Bonds THAT often?).

Photo: Knuckleballs/Jim Crikket

Capps, at just 27 years old, may just improve a bit yet, as well. Of the departing arms, only Crain (at 29) is still south of 30. Go back and look at where Joe Nathan (or pretty much any of today’s top relievers not named Mariano Revera, for that matter) were at age 27 and compare them with Capps. How many of them already had four seasons of entering games in critical situations under their belts?

By the way, a closer may not be getting used most efficiently by always being saved for the 9th inning, but almost every time he enters a game, he’s coming in to a situation where having a bad night is very possibly going to cost his team the game. A guy who comes in and coughs up a 3 run lead in the 6th inning can take a seat and tell himself, “I just didn’t have it tonight,” while he watches his team mates try to fix the damage. The closer who has that kind of night doesn’t have that luxury. Closers may not deserve to get paid 10 times what middle relief pitchers do… but getting paid 2-3 times that going rate is not outragious. While you’d like to think every pitcher at the Major League level has that sort of mental toughness, it’s simply not the case.

One final thought on Matt Capps…

The stat website baseball-reference.com performs some sort of calculation (supposedly using a method adopted originally by the patron saint of stat-heads, Bill James) to determine each Major Leaguer player’s top 10 “most similar” players. According to that site, Matt Capps’ closest comparable player is the Padres’ closer, Heath Bell. The same Heath bell that many blexperts were crying for the Twins to trade for when Joe Nathan blew his elbow out a year ago.

Capps is six years younger than Bell and the Padres avoided arbitration with Bell on Tuesday by signing him to a $7.5 million contract… $385K more than the Twins are paying Capps. And, just for context, Bell’s salary accounts for just about the same percentage of the Padres’ anticipated 2011 payroll as Capps’ and Nathan’s pay… combined… do of the Twins’ payroll.

I’m glad Matt Capps is a Twin and I expect others will be, too, by the end of the season.

- JC

Cupcakes and Free Agents

While 1-11-11 may not technically qualify as an official “Cupcake Day“, we’re declaring it to be an Honorary Cupcake Day. Why? Because we don’t think anyone should have to wait another ten months for cupcakes!

Speaking of cupcakes… and having to wait… has anyone else noticed that the list of serviceable free agents who wouldn’t be considered “cupcakes” themselves has been reduced to a very short list?

At the beginning of the free agency period, MLBTradeRumors.com published their list of “Top 50 Free Agents” on the market. Thirty-nine of that Top 50 have found new teams… none of them with the Twins. Yesterday, MLBTR listed their “Top 10 Remaining Free Agents” (and noted Johnny Damon is the eleventh and final player on the list).

Today, I thought it might be interesting (even if rather pointless), to take a glance at the list to see how many might potentially still fit in the Twins’ plans for 2011.

  1. Rafael Soriano: Yeah right… dream on. The Twins won’t (and shouldn’t) spend big money to fill their remaining relief pitcher roles. Nathan and Capps already will account for about $20 million in salary (that’s almost half what the Padres plan to spend on their entire payroll this season!).
  2. Carl Pavano: We keep hearing the Twins and ‘Stache are “close” to a deal. I’m still not convinced it’s ideal to bring him back, but as I’ve said before, at this point, the only thing worse than re-signing Pavano might be NOT re-signing Pavano. Get it done, Mr. Smith.
  3. Jim Thome: Bill Smith says the Twins are still hoping to re-sign Thome, but the Rangers are also interested, now. Personally, it seems like both the Twins and Rangers should probably be looking for right-handed bats that could play some defense in a pinch, but my heart would still like to see Thome in a Twins uniform one more year. He’s not an ideal fit for the Twins, but he wasn’t last year either when he was signed. And the Twins DO need a bench bat… desperately.
  4. Vladimir Guerrero: Being righthanded makes Vlad a slightly better fit for the Twins than Thome, perhaps. But anyone who watched him try to play the outfield in the World Series last year knows that he wouldn’t really bring much, if anything, more to the defensive side of the equation than Thome would.
  5. Manny Ramirez: Fortunately, Manny is probably still looking for a full-time DH job and wouldn’t want to come to a situation where he’d be platooning with Jason Kubel. As much as it might be entertaining to see him with the Twins at times and he can still occasionally hit a ball very hard, let’s just say “no”, OK?
  6. Andy Pettite: The “Brett Favre” of Major League Baseball. Nobody knows if he’ll play in 2011 yet, but we know it won’t be with the Twins if he does.
  7. Brian Fuentes: He still gets linked to various teams every few days but is it possible his options are dwindling far enough that he’d re-sign with the Twins for an affordable amount? Probably not… but I can’t help but like the idea of having his left arm available late in games in addition to (or instead of?) Jose Mijares’. Fuentes wants an opportunity to close, but there really aren’t many teams left who are in a position to hand him that job. The best he may get is an opportunity to compete for a late-inning role in Spring Training… and the Twins can offer him that.
  8. Kevin Millwood: He’s thrown over 190 innings each of the past couple of years, so he could be considered Pavano-lite, but you really have to ask yourself if he’d be a real upgrade over any of the Twins’ existing starting pitchers. I personally don’t think so.
  9. Grant Balfour: Could Balfour return to the Twins? No, probably not. It’s not that he’d be a bad option to fill one of those open spots in the bullpen, but his Type A status means that, in addition to a pretty significant salary, he would cost the Twins their first round draft choice. No way the Twins would give that up for Balfour… nor should they.
  10. Scott Podsednik: Early in the post-season, I suggested the Twins find a way to upgrade their outfield defense. Podsednik might have been one option for doing so, though he wouldn’t have been at the top of my list of possibilities. For one thing, he’s lefthanded and the Twins already list a bit to the portside. That said, in a perfect world, I’d certainly take Pods over Jason Repko on my roster. Not gonna happen, though.
  11. Johnny Damon: This isn’t gonna happen either. Not only is Damon also a lefty, like Podsednik, but he wouldn’t even be an upgrade defensively in the outfield for the Twins… and that says a lot.

So, in the end, it comes down to this… with about $100 million already committed to the 2011 payroll, the Twins could have room to sign a couple of the remaining “Top 50″ free agents, even if it’s just players from last year’s roster that would be returning. Of course, we don’t know for sure what the payroll target is and we don’t know whether the Twins are negotiating extensions with arbitration-eligible players (like Francisco Liriano or Delmon Young perhaps?) that would add to their 2011 total.

Absent the possible signing of any of these players, the Twins will need to fill out the rest of their roster by promoting from within (Seth Stohs suggests Luke Hughes, perhaps?) or looking to the bargain bin for… well… cupcakes. Maybe they could wring a productive year out of a Troy Glaus or Marcus Thames on the cheap.

Let’s hope Bill Smith isn’t really on vacation… in fact, maybe he’s already got Pavano, Thome and Fuentes signed and he’s just waiting to make a big splashy announcement right before TwinsFest! OK… I know… probably not. Ah well.

- JC

Bullpen: White Knights or Black Hole?

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

Bullpen up in the air?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Never heard of him? That’s OK.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

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

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

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

Gotta be more important stuff, right?

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

- JC

A Dreary Day Gets Drearier

For the second straight day, I woke to a blanket of fog outside my window. It’s slightly warmer today than yesterday, but that just means the drizzle isn’t freezing… yet.  Suffice to say, it isn’t exactly one of those days that make me want to sing, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” as I step outside (although I can’t honestly ever remember doing that anyway).

After making my way to the office and doing the normal “first thing” stuff… coffee, check email, coffee, check calendar, coffee… I took a glance at the morning Twins news and saw, on several sights, the statement issued by my boyhood hero, Harmon Killebrew:

“I was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer.   With my wife, Nita, by my side, I have begun preparing for what is perhaps the most difficult battle of my life.   I am being treated by a team of medical professionals at the Mayo Clinic.  While my condition is very serious, I have confidence in my doctors and the medical staff and I anticipate a full recovery.

The Mayo Clinic is one of the largest and most experienced medical centers treating esophageal cancer in the world.  In the past decade, they have made tremendous advances in the treatment of this disease.  Nita and I feel blessed to have access to the best doctors and medical care.  

I thank everyone for their outpouring of prayers, compassion and concern.  Nita and I ask for privacy during this difficult journey.” 

Yeah, my dreary day just got a lot drearier. I have some personal family experience with fighting cancer (but what family doesn’t?) and with the Mayo clinic (though I understand Killebrew is being treated at the Arizona clinic, rather than at Rochester where the halls and waiting rooms of the clinic became all too familiar to my family). 

I’m sure we’ll all respect the Killebrews’ wish for privacy, but I couldn’t let the day pass without acknowledging that my own heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with Harmon and his family, as well as with the outstanding medical team working with him. 

Other Items 

I spent about half an hour last night as a guest on “Fanatic Jack” Steal’s podcast, along with Topper (from Curve for a Strike). Jack’s often a bit overly critical of the Twins for my tastes, both on his podcasts and in his blog… but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong (at least not all the time!)

As you might imagine, much of our discussion centered on what the Twins have done (or, more accurately, failed to do) so far this off-season. You can download the podcast here, if you want to verify that I’m just as much of an idiot when I talk as I am when I write. 

We talked about Carl Pavano quite a bit. I’m honestly not sure which would bother me more… if the Twins re-sign Pavano or if they don’t re-sign him. This is a rare lose-lose decision for the Twins, I’m afraid. If they don’t sign him, it’s hard to figure out where they’re going to find another starting pitcher who can consistently pitch in to the 8th-9th inning to give their bullpen a rest… and with what looks like it will be a young, inexperienced bullpen, that could be important. On the other hand, it’s just hard to justify shelling out close to $10 million a year for one year, much less the multiple years that Pavano and his agent want, for a pitcher of Pavano’s age and medical history. That money could be used to bring back Jim Thome AND Brian Fuentes, combined. 

I know it’s a long shot, but I’m hoping Fuentes’ options have been reduced to the point where returning to the Twins on a one year deal with perhaps some vesting/performance provisions might start to sound good to him. I know he wanted a deal to close for someone, but there aren’t a lot of those openings still out there… especially among contenders… and with the Twins, at least he would have a fair opportunity to close some games against teams sending up lefties in the 9th inning. It’s clear to me that the Red Sox are going to be the team the Twins will have to go through to get to the World Series in 2011 and with the lefty hitters they’re going to have, I’d sure like to have a strong LH arm at the back end of my bullpen. Wouldn’t hurt to have him around when Adam Dunn comes to bat late in White Sox games either.

As for Pavano, it sure looks like he and his agent may be overplaying their hand. If the Nationals or Twins decide to move in another direction, he’s screwed. He’ll be lucky to get a deal matching what he got from the Twins last year from whichever remains the last team interested in him. Maybe the decision to reject the Twins’ offer of arbitration wasn’t such a no-brainer after all. Frankly, if I were the Twins, I wouldn’t offer more than a one year deal with maybe some kind of performance-based vesting option for 2012… and I’m not sure I’d even do that if it means I don’t have the money to beef up my bullpen and find a bench hitter who won’t induce giggles from opposing pitchers any time he pinch hits.

That’s enough dreariness for today. I’m getting out of the office and going to see the new Harry Potter movie this afternoon… maybe that will brighten my outlook!

-  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

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