Sunday Snippets

It’s Sunday afternoon, my Hawkeyes are getting drubbed by Purdue in mens’ hoops and even a Joe Posnanski in-game chat can’t get me enthused about watching the Chiefs and Ravens, so I thought this would be a good time to toss some things together and see if I could come up with enough material for a weekend post. (As if there’s any chance I won’t come up with about 1200 words without really trying!)

Unresolved Issues

The Twins really don’t have many things left to work out before Spring Training starts. This seems strange to say given that Bill Smith and his staff have made so few moves of any significance to this point. That said, there are a couple of issues yet to be addressed before camp opens up in Ft. Myers next month:

  1. The ‘Stache: If reports we’re reading are accurate, it’s just a matter of “when”, not “if”, Carl Pavano is officially signed to return to the Twins rotation in 2011. A while back, I noted that a lot of writers/bloggers who were not primarily focused on the Twins were predicting Pavano would be re-signed by the Twins, while almost all of the bloggers in Twinsville (myself included) considered it a foregone conclusion that he would NOT be returning. Guess now we see who knew what they were talking about. I’m still not able to figure out how bringing back the 2010 rotation improves your team, but maybe the thought is that Kyle Gibson will be ready to contribute by June and that’s their insurance policy in case someone is hurt or just not pitching well. He may free up one of the existing six starting pitchers to be dealt in a trade for more offense later, as well. I guess when it became clear that the Twins weren’t going to be able to trade for a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher, it became a case of, “the only thing worse than re-signing Pavano would be not re-signing Pavano.” I just hope it works out.
  2. Bench bat: Assuming the Twins keep 12 pitchers to start the season, that leaves four roster spots for non-starting position players. Jason Repko, Drew Butera and Matt Tolbert are penciled in to three spots. It’s not hard to come up with players on the free agent market that would be upgrades over any/all of these three, but it would also be pointless. If anyone steals one of those spots, it will have to be an internal option that shows up in Spring Training and just wows the coaching staff. There isn’t a legitimate hitter among that group, however, so it makes it critical for the Twins to fill the fourth bench spot with a hitter who can… well… hit. Most of us expect that hitter to be Jim Thome and unless he’s really letting someone convince him he should demand over $5 million, that’s who the choice will likely be. I’m ok with that, I guess. As a fan, who wouldn’t welcome back a guy who performed the way he did last season? He’s a class act and I’d be proud to see him get HR #600 in a Twins uniform. Still… if you’re impartially looking at who the Twins really SHOULD fill that final roster spot with, you’d have to say it should be a right-handed hitter. Then again, you would have said the same thing last off-season and that didn’t stop the Twins from signing Thome then, either. If they do end up looking at right-handed options, I suspect Vlad Guerrero is too pricey, but guys like Troy Glaus and Marcus Thames may be reasonably priced alternatives. This topic probably warrants a full length post of its own and I may write one in a few days… or not.
  3. The bullpen: I wrote a whole post on this last week and nothing whatsoever has changed. Not much point in writing more now, other than to point out the obvious: there will be some interesting Spring Training battles for spots in the bullpen.

Hall of Fame Leftovers

As expected, the election of Bert Blyleven to the Hall of Fame was followed by a number of articles questioning his selection specifically and/or the selection process itself. A lot of them trotted out the, “how could his numbers get better over 14 years?” argument. I’m so tired of that line of BS. While men and women of good conscience can disagree over whether Bert and others like him had careers worthy of HoF induction, only idiots can fail to understand that it’s not a player’s numbers that can change over an extended period of time, but the perspectives of the voters and the context with which that player’s career is viewed that is worthy of re-examining. It’s why they require the five year waiting period and why they allow a player to stay on the ballot 15 years. Blyeleven’s election is proof that the system works the way it was intended. If Mike Schmidt and his buddies don’t think so, tough shit. His suggestion that a committee of current Hall members determine who gets in might be the funniest thing Schmidt’s ever said… though that isn’t saying much. He’s always been an idiot, in my humble opinion.

Which brings me to my inevitable Joe Posnanski plug. He reacted to suggestions that the HoF is not exclusive enough with this terrific post. (There’s also a post over there about his trip to see the Harry Potter World in Orlando’s Universal Studios theme park that’s a must-read if you’re a parent or were ever a kid yourself and ESPECIALLY if you’ve ever worked with kids!)

Spring (Training) Fever

Maybe it was when I put together the slideshow for this post last week or maybe it was the announcement that Twins’ single game tickets for games at Hammond Stadium in Ft. Myers were going on sale this past Saturday, but something motivated me to start looking seriously at potential dates for my annual trek to Spring Training in March. I figured out exactly the dates I wanted to go down there… March 13-20… and quickly discovered that airfares for those exact dates are outrageously expensive ($600-800 and up). Forget that.

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

Maybe fares will come down before I actually get around to booking a flight, but I found a couple of alternatives that look pretty good. I can cut fares about in half by changing to 3/14-21 or by waiting and going down for about the final week of Spring Training, 3/20-28. Either option offers a nice blend of home and road games of drivable distances from Ft. Myers, as well as a day or two to hang out on the beach. It didn’t really help the below-zero wind chill factors feel any warmer here this weekend, but making some plans did remind me that winter won’t last forever. If you’re planning a trip to Spring Training, too, leave a comment or drop us an email (click Contact Us at the top of the page) and let us know when you’re planning on being down there.

Housekeeping items

This spring will also mark our first blogging anniversary here at Knucklballs. We hope you’ve enjoyed coming here even half as much as we’ve enjoyed this adventure. Personally, I wasn’t sure, at the onset, that this was something I’d really enjoy doing consistently, but it has turned out to be a lot of fun. That’s largely a result of the terrific reception we’ve gotten from our readers. Whether in comment sections of the posts, in our GameChats during the season, or through various opportunities to interact with other Twins bloggers, we’ve come to feel welcomed and accepted by an outstanding group of fellow Twins fans.

The upcoming anniversary also has us contemplating some changes here. We’re considering whether to remain with our current web hosting provider and may play with the format or “theme” of the blog a bit. I mention this for a couple of reasons. Since our traffic count is understandably lower in the off-season, now is a good time for us to play with things a bit. So if you come for a visit and what you find here looks a bit strange (or you don’t find anything at all… yikes!), don’t stop trying to visit us. We may just be in one of our “mad scientist” modes and one of our experiments got a bit out of control.

As always, if you’d like to share your thoughts in the comments section, feel free to do so… especially if there were particular features or regular topics that you want to make sure we continue or if you have ideas for things we could do to make your visits here more enjoyable.

OK, that’s all for now!

- 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

Is There a Magic Wand(y) Out There?

I find myself in unfamiliar waters these days.

Despite what some may believe, I tend to be pretty supportive of the job the Twins’ front office does. I know the organization is a business and understand they aren’t going to spend more money than they take in. I know they aren’t going to go out and overpay for free agent talent the way the Yankees do. Unlike many Twins fans, I’m not one who constantly finds fault with the owner or the GM or the manager. I consider the lack of recent success in the playoffs to be a source of frustration, but not abject organizational failure.

Yet, I’ve been quite up front about my impatience with regard to the Twins seeming lack of progress toward making any sort of real improvement in the make up of the roster so far. And Day 1 of the Winter Meetings did nothing to make me feel better. Bill Smith indicated that the only non-pitching positions that are undecided already are SS and 2B. And while he didn’t come right out and say that JJ Hardy would be traded once Tsuyoshi Nishioka is signed, that is clearly where the signs are pointing.

I also understand that my Zack Greinke wish is not going to come true. In fact, given that the Royals would clearly demand from the Twins a premium of prospects over and above the premium of prospects that they’re going to demand from teams that AREN’T in their own division, I’m willing to admit it would probably be foolish for Smith to pay the Royals’ asking price.

So given that the Twins won’t be bidding on the lone remaining top of the rotation pitcher (Cliff Lee) and probably shouldn’t be bidding on the next best starting pitcher (Carl Pavano) because of his expectations regarding a three-year contract, what does constitute a reasonable expectation for a fan who strongly believes the Twins need another strong starting pitcher?

Let’s try this scenario on for size.

Near the bottom of a column he wrote on December 1, Jayson Stark mentioned that the Houston Astros were in the market for a reasonably priced, left-handed hitting outfielder. If the Twins re-sign Jim Thome, they will, coincidentally, have an arguably superfluous lefty-hitting outfielder floating around in the person of Jason Kubel.

Wandy Rodriguez

The Astros, in return, have a certain lefty starting pitcher who’s going to start getting a bit expensive very soon. Wandy Rodriguez lost his arbitration contest with the Astros last year and ended up pitching for $5 million and now he and his agent are trying to work out an extension that will buy out his last year of arbitration and first couple of years of free agency.

Shortly after Rodriguez overmatched the Twins in a 4-1 Astro win in June, the Twins reportedly tried, unsuccessfully, to trade for the lefty prior to the trade deadline at the end of July. They should try again.

I’ll be the first to admit that I know very little about the Astros. (I think they play in Houston, right?) But what I do know is that they are reportedly for sale and they’re trying to cut payroll while remaining at least competitive enough not to screw up their sale price.

I have no idea whether Houston would want Kubel. I have no idea whether they might be interested in a shortstop like JJ Hardy. Maybe, instead, it would take prospects or maybe the Twins would have to eat part of Kubel’s or Hardy’s 2011 salary. Smarter people than I would have to figure out exactly what a fair exchange would be.

I don’t even know if Rodriguez would be available, but given the current state of that franchise, it’s hard for me to believe he’s going to be an Astro beyond 2011, his final arbitration year. In any event, the purpose of writing this is simply to demonstrate that there ARE options out there, other than Lee, Pavano, Greinke, et al. The Twins need to improve their rotation and the time to do it is now, before other teams beat the Twins to the punch.

I’ve heard enough about middle-weight infielders and middle-inning relief pitchers. I don’t want to hear that we should just be satisfied to replace most of the talent being lost to free agency. If you’re standing in place, you’re falling behind and there are options out there that can, and would, actually improve the Twins roster now and in the future. The Twins have some highly compensated businesspeople who should be able to turn over a few rocks and find those options.

Either that or they should find another line of work.

-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

To ‘Stache Or Not To ‘Stache: The Carl Pavano Issue

I’ve noticed something curious about the various “predictions” concerning the Twins offseason roster decisions. There’s a real disconnect somewhere on the topic of what the Twins should do about Carl Pavano.

When I posted my proposed “Twins blueprint” for 2011, the ‘Stache was not among the starting pitchers I projected for the Twins. Instead, I proposed trading for the Royals’ Zack Greinke and in that scenario, Greinke’s salary would almost certainly preclude the Twins from being able to afford to also bring back Pavano.

But among the various “blueprints” posted by the Twins bloggers I’ve read, I’m certainly not the only one who has proposed letting Pavano take his talents elsewhere. I probably haven’t read all of the blogs that have posted “blueprints” in response to the Twinscentric guys’ suggestion, but I can think of at least 10 I’ve read through just off the top of my head and, of those, only one proposed re-signing Pavano. In fact, for most of us, it seems the question most often discussed is whether the Twins should offer Pavano arbitration or not. He’s a Type A free agent, meaning if the Twins offer him arbitration and he rejects it, the Twins stand to get two high compensatory draft picks in return.

That’s a fair topic for debate that reasonable minds can agree to disagree on. If the Twins don’t offer arbitration, they get nothing for Pavano if he signs elsewhere. If they do offer arbitration, he MAY decide to accept the offer, leaving the Twins locked in to paying him possibly somewhere close to $10 million for 2011 and significantly limiting the front office’s other offseason options.

But that’s not the “disconnect” I’m talking about. Almost all of us seem to agree that we’ve seen the last days of ‘Stache as a Twin. Almost uniformly, we agree that the Twins have upgrade needs and there simply isn’t room for the upgrades we want to see while also retaining Pavano for the price he’s earned the right to command on the open market.

And yet…

Has anyone else noticed that the predominant “outside” opinion about where Carl Pavano will be pitching next season seems to be that he’s going to remain a Twin?

I can’t say I religiously check all of the national online writers, but I do check in on si.com pretty much every day (probably because I go to cnn.com for my daily news fix). Both Jon Heyman and Ben Reiter at si.com think the Twins will/should re-sign Pavano. In addition, Tim Dierkes over at MLBTradeRumors.com feels the same way. In fact, three out of the five MLBTR writers are on board with ‘Stache staying a Twin. 

That’s got me asking myself, “Are we missing something here?”

On the surface, reports that the Twins made a competitive posting bid for the rights to Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma would seem to indicate that the Twins certainly aren’t counting on Pavano returning. But having been unsuccessful with that bid, would Bill Smith re-think the situation?

I’m not backing off from my stated desire to land Greinke, but based on what we’re starting to hear about Kansas City’s trade demands*, I’m beginning to accept that there’s not likely going to be a deal made to get Zack in a Twins uniform during the offseason. My best hope might be that nobody meets the Royals’ price and that perhaps once KC is realistically eliminated from the AL Central race next season (that should be what… mid May?), their front office becomes a bit more anxious to relieve themselves of Greinke’s contract.

But if Greinke isn’t an option, then I think perhaps the Twins do need to think harder about keeping Pavano around. I just don’t see a lot of opportunities for significant upgrades out there and if you can’t improve the top of your rotation, at least you’d better make sure you keep what you’ve got.

If the Twins offer arbitration, I really don’t see Pavano and his agent accepting it as they did last season. The free agent market for starting pitchers, after Cliff Lee, is pretty thin. Pavano will get two-year offers and perhaps the Twins should be one of the teams willing to go that route. I suppose it’s possible that some team may be desperate enough to offer three guaranteed years, but if it also means they cough up a draft choice? I’m not so sure.

Keeping ‘Stache around likely means starting the season with a rotation of Liriano, Pavano, Baker, Duensing and Blackburn/Slowey.  If Kyle Gibson is everything people seem to think he’s going to be, maybe by mid-year he’ll be wowing us all the same way Liriano and Santana did once they finally forced their ways in to the rotation.

If not, I’m sure Bill Smith still will have the Royals’ phone number… they aren’t going anywhere. – JC

*This from ESPN’s Jayson Stark regarding the Royals’ demands for Greinke:

…according to clubs that have spoken with them, they’re telling bidders up front that (A) they would need to “win” the deal, (B) they would have to get the kind of four-for-one haul the Rangers got for Mark Teixeira to pull the trigger, (C) they need a bunch of “front-line, winning, quality players” in return, and (D) at least one of those players has to be a pitcher capable of turning into the next Zack Greinke in a couple of years.

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! :)

The 2010 “Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year”

This seems more timely than the other random stuff I was pondering to ramble about so thanks for the heads up, Dewluca!  In our previous discussions about Carl Pavano’s now famous mustache, I have leaned heavily on the American Mustache Institute as a resource.  David over at 7th Inning Stache is leading the charge to nominate Carl as a leader in the fight against facial hair discrimination.

The American Mustache Institute (AMI) is now accepting nominations for the 2010 “Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year,” the award Time magazine, the NBC Nightly News, physicist Stephen Hawking, and High Times magazine said is on par with the Nobel Prize for Peace.

The 2009 winner was Arizona Diamondbacks standout relief pitcher Clay Zavada, and the first recipient of the award in 2008 was retired New York City police detective Tim Galvin, who had received three medals of valor and retiring as a captain after being shot twice – in the face and leg – while working undercover.

The “Goulet” is an award for the everyman: the teacher, the community leader, the celebrity, the dwarf, the politician, the psychotic Florida minister. It recognizes the person who has best represented or contributed to the Mustached American community during the past year.

Nominations will be accepted until Friday, Oct. 8, and on Oct. 11 the pool will be streamlined to a worthy group of finalists selected by AMI’s certified mustacheologists for voting.

So I’m asking all our readers to step up and assist the effort by nominating Carl Pavano for the 2010 Mustached American of the Year.  Just click on the nomination form and submit your name, your favorite photo of the Carlstache and why you think he should honored.  I will do my best to continue to follow this topic and provide all the appropriate information for the next level which will be VOTING.  But first we have to get him on the list – here is the text I used when I submitted my own nomination:

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 Major League Baseball has a long tradition of facial hair discrimination to varying degrees and while the MN Twins have not prohibited the growth of mustaches, most players don’t pursue it. But Carl Pavano not only pursued, he persisted in the face of genuine criticism that it wasn’t flattering.  And then, by leading his team to double-digit wins as the most veteran starting pitcher, he also brought along his teammates and many fans. In fact, popular culture (including the media, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other forums) has even granted independent personality and credit to the now famous mustache amongst baseball fans.  In fact, many credit the power of his singular facial hair with success of the MN Twins in their pennant race including being the first team to clinch a playoff position for the postseason.  While that may or may not be true, Pavano’s success is not just as a man with a mustache but specifically highlights the mustache as a crucial part of his successful identity. That is why Carl Pavano should be the 2010 “Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year”

  

Please spread the word!!

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

How Did We Get Here? (Part 1)

No, I’m not contemplating the origins of the universe and I’m certainly not about to begin a debate over Creationism, Darwinism, or any other “ism” that much deeper thinkers than myself have put forth to explain mankind’s existence.

I just thought now might be a good time to take a look at just how our Twins went about becoming the first team in Major League Baseball to clinch their Division’s championship banner. It feels like this season has just flown by.

It seems like just yesterday that I was earning a March sunburn as I followed the Twins around Florida for a week during Spring Training. At the same time, it also feels like ages since we’ve been able to enjoy the sight of Justin Morneau in the batters box. Still, here we are… 152 games in to a 162-game schedule and the Twins are the AL Central Champions!

When your team has put together a second half like the Twins have, it’s easy to overlook just how difficult winning the AL Central really was. So today, before we get back in to discussions about playoff rotations and whether the Twins should carry 3 utility infielders or 3 catchers on their ALDS roster, let’s pause to glance back at what the Twins have accomplished this season… and how they did it.

In the first part of this post, let’s look at what went on before the 2010 season even got started.

Bill Smith

Let’s start by giving credit to General Manager Bill Smith. While other GMs made the big offseason splashes, Smith quietly laid the groundwork for this season. Shortly after the end of the 2009 season, Smith struck a deal with Milwaukee for shortstop JJ Hardy, in return for Carlos Gomez. The trade was widely viewed as two teams exchanging spare parts, each hoping the player they were getting might bounce back from an off year and fill a need for their new team.

There was speculation that the Twins might not offer arbitration to Carl Pavano, allowing him to become a free agent without the Twins receiving any draft picks as compensation. But Smith offered arbitration to Pavano and the offer was accepted. Still, Smith and the Twins were being loudly criticized by the end of the Winter Meetings in December when none of the Twins’ perceived needs had been addressed.

There was also speculation that the Twins might not have enough money to keep their bullpen depth together. Jesse Crain was considered a possible non-tender candidate. But Smith offered arbitration to all eight of the Twins arbitration-eligible players and signed all of them to deals… including Crain (whew!).

Orlando Hudson

As January came to a close, the Twins finally created a little buzz when it was revealed that the they had interest in Jim Thome, primarily as a late inning pinch hitter and occasional DH. On February 4, the Twins signed Thome to a one-year $1.5 million base contract that would, at best, be considered adequate for a part-time role player. The buzz got a bit louder the next day when the Twins announced they had signed 2B Orlando Hudson to a one-year deal.

With most of the roster set, Smith and the Twins headed to Spring Training with really only one more major issue to spend some time working out… a little matter about a contract extension for their catcher. But only the most pessimistic of Twins fans and media doubted that eventually a deal would get done… and it did.

Joe Nathan

The Twins entered March widely considered the favorites to win the AL Central again in 2010. That consensus lasted just long enough for Joe Nathan to take the mound in his first Spring Training game. On March 6, Nathan was pulled from the game “for precautionary reasons” due to “tightness and achiness” in his right elbow. After giving the injury a couple of weeks to magically repair itself, the Twins announced Nathan would miss the 2010 season and undergo Tommy John surgery. Immediately, the national media experts declared the Twins dead meat without their All Star closer and declared that the White Sox and Tigers would battle for the AL Central crown.

While Smith sniffed around the Padres camp for a possible trade for their closer Heath Bell, Gardy declared that the Twins would have a, “closer by committee… I think… no wait… I mean Jon Rauch will be our closer… for a while.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

There were a few final roster spots and pitching roles up for grabs as the Twins prepared to break camp and a couple of them would turn out to be critical to the team’s ultimate success.

Alexi Casilla

The last position-player spot was given to Alexi Casilla, over Matt Tolbert, largely because Casilla was out of minor league options and Tolbert wasn’t. Danny Valencia was given a long look in Ft. Myers but in the end it was felt he needed more time in AAA to work on his defense.

Francisco Liriano

As difficult as it may be to imagine now, Francisco Liriano ended Spring Training in a battle for the fifth spot in the Twins rotation. A fair number of people felt he couldn’t be relied upon to pitch deep in to games, but might make a good closer. Brian Duensing ultimately lost out to Liriano for that final rotation spot but made the team as the long relief arm in the bullpen.

I don’t know who made those final roster decisions… Ron Gardenhire, Bill Smith or some combination of the two… but those decisions would prove crucial to the Twins’ ultimate success. We’ll take a look at just how that happened in Part 2. – JC

Boyfriend of the Month for August: Dead Heat at the Wire

The folks who have gathered in our GameChats handed out 22 Boyfriend of the Day (BOD) awards in August (a few more than the actual number of Twins wins because we had some co-BOD games mixed in there). Heading in to the final game of the month, there were no fewer than eight players tied for the lead in the Boyfriend of the Month battle. That’s a far cry from the month of July when Delmon Young had his monster month and walked away with BOM honors.

But before we get to this month’s BOM award, let’s take a glance at where the race for Knuckleballs’ Boyfriend of the Year stands heading in to September. This race is all but over, folks. It will take someone getting awfully hot down the stretch to overtake DY’s lead in the BOY race, given that he holds a 12 to 7 lead over Francisco Liriano on the year. Frankie’s grip on “runner up” honors is much more tenuous, however. Fellow rotation members, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano have racked up 6 BODs each, while the group of Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, and Danny Valencia all are still within reach of Liriano with 5 BODs a piece.

Turning back to Boyfriend of the Month… as it turns out, it was very appropriate that Valencia and Michael Cuddyer wrapped up the month of August with co-BOD performances against the Tigers on Tuesday night. Heading in to that final game, those two guys joined Mauer, Liriano, Slowey, Jim Thome, Scott Baker and Brian Duensing with two BOD awards during the month, making August by far the month with the largest number of players earning multiple awards.

But with their efforts on Tuesday, Michael and Danny did just enough to separate themselves from the pack and earn co-Boyfriend of the Month awards for August! – JC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

P.S. A huge thank you to Joe Christensen at the Star Tribune for sending out via text message (and his blog) a link to this column by Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin. It’s a terrific read for anyone who saw games at the Met, the Dome and Target Field (and a pretty darn good read even for those who didn’t). If you only have time to read one more article online today, make it that one. – JC