Looking for Breakout Seasons

By this point, everyone knows the variables that will determine whether the Twins will have a successful 2012 season, right? Mauer, Morneau, Baker and Span have to stay healthy and the bullpen needs to be vastly improved over last year. We know all of that because every beat writer, columnist and blogger has pointed at those issues over and over again since October.

Sure, if the established veterans all return to the level of productivity we’ve come to expect from them, the Twins should avoid the kind of meltdown they suffered through last season. That said, if the team is going to actually contend in 2012, they’re going to need more. They will need breakout seasons from players that have not yet demonstrated that they belong among the American League’s elite names at their positions.

But where can the Twins expect to find those potential breakout seasons?

The typical arc of a professional baseball player’s career is actually more predictable than one might think. Their prime years are pretty much from ages 26 to 32. We all spent a lot of time discussing the back end of that range during the offseason, as we discussed the pros and cons of offering multi-year contracts to Michael Cuddyer, who is just past that “prime” range, and Joe Nathan, who is well past it.

But when you are looking for potential breakout years, it makes more sense to focus on the front end of the range. The Twins are notorious for bringing their minor league prospects along slowly through the organization and, for a club with a reputation for disregarding advanced statistical analysis, it appears that they may have a basis for this particular proclivity. Projecting that most players hit their strides at age 26, I doubt that it’s a coincidence that most Twins prospects aren’t often starting their Major League careers (and their arbitration clocks) until they’re at least 24 years old. The Twins apparently try to time a player’s Big League debut a year or two before they expect him to break out and become a fully productive Major League ballplayer, then get as much of their peak years as possible while they’re still affordable.

Glen Perkins

For example, Cuddyer was getting his first real full-time duty with the Twins at age 25 and had his first OPS above .800 (or first OPS+ season over 100, if you prefer that metric) in his age 27 season. Torii Hunter got a taste of the Big Leagues in the season during which he turned 24, but he really figured it out in 2001, the season he turned 26. More recently, Glen Perkins may have made his debut at age 24, but it wasn’t until last year, in his age 28 season, that he carved out a meaningful role for himself with the Twins.

Armed with this knowledge, who should we be looking at in 2012 as having the potential to have breakout seasons? Here’s a list of possible candidates:

Trevor Plouffe turns 26 years old in June. He’s shown some pop in his bat and, let’s be honest, if he had demonstrated passable defensive abilities, he’d be the Twins regular shortstop right now. If he can play a decent outfield, Plouffe could establish himself this season. But few players really get it all figured out in their first full year of regular time in the Show, so we should probably hold off on establishing those expectations of Trevor quite yet. Maybe next year.

The same would be true of pitchers Anthony Swarzak and Kyle Waldrop. Both will be 26 years old pretty much throughout the upcoming season, but given their relative lack of Major League experience, it’s probably not realistic to expect them to have Glen Perkins-like results already this season.

Luke Hughes

Infielder Luke Hughes is starting his age 27 season and he got a few swings in at the Big League level last year, so we can hope to see him step his game up a little bit. He’s not currently penciled in for a regular starting job, though, so you have to wonder if he’ll get the plate appearances necessary to make significant strides in 2012.

So if those candidates aren’t likely to break out, who will?

First, keep in mind that Denard Span just turned 28 years old a couple of weeks ago, so while he’s arguably already had his breakout season, he’s still on the front side of his peak years. He’s reached the point of being physically mature and has enough experience that he really should no longer be seeing much of anything offensively or defensively for the first time. That being the case, I’d like to see Span take a big step forward with his game this season, assuming he can stay healthy.

Another familiar name on my list of potential breakout seasons is Francisco Liriano. We’ve been waiting for him to have a true breakout season for what seems like forever. Despite having several seasons of Major League experience in the books, Liriano is still just now entering his age 28 season. That’s slightly past our “breakout season” ages, but it’s not too late to see it happen… yet. That said, this is arguably the last year that anyone can make the, “he’s still a young pitcher with potential,” statement, so it’s now or never (at least with the Twins organization) for Frankie.

If it seems like Alexi Casilla has been around forever, too, it’s because he has. He was rushed a bit after being acquired from the Angels for J.C. Romero and his service clock started while he was still just 23 years old. That means he’s just now entering his age 27 season (he turns 28 in July). Casilla has been inconsistent, to say the least. But this season, he’s starting off at what’s arguably his best defensive position, second base, and so far this spring he’s making good contact from his spot at the bottom of the Twins order. The game should finally be slowing down a bit for Lexi and if he can play decent defense while getting on base with regularity, he could play a significant positive role for the Twins in 2012.

Danny Valencia

Finally, the guy with perhaps the greatest potential for having a true breakout season is third baseman Danny Valencia, who will be 27 years old throughout the first five months of the season. Valencia’s had two full years now to adjust to Big League pitching and there’s no reason he shouldn’t take a major step forward in 2012. Everyone seems to project Valencia as hitting in the #7 spot in the Twins lineup and he very well may start the season there, but if he’s still hitting in the bottom third of the order in August, I’ll be disappointed.

So those are my “breakout season” picks… Liriano, Casilla and Valencia (with some additional improvement also from Span). Talk all you want about Mauer, Morneau, Baker and the bullpen, but in my mind, the Twins’ success, or lack thereof, this season is riding just as much on the ability of these players to make significant strides as any other factor. They are hitting their prime years and it’s time for them to show fans what they’re made of.

- JC

When a Number is Not Just a Number

We all know that professional athletes that rise to the highest levels of their respective sports are often largely out of touch with the rest of us. It’s to be expected, I suppose, when you’re talking about a profession where the “minimum wage” is somewhere around half a million dollars a year.

But every once in a while, something comes up that reminds us just how out of touch some of these guys really are.

Usually, it involves their paychecks… like when an NBA near-star complains about not being able to feed his family on the $3-4 million his current contract calls for or when someone with 2-3 years remaining in his contract “holds out” of training camp or spring training because he wants a new contract more befitting his recent contributions. (Funny how none of these guys follows up a crappy year by insisting on taking a pay cut, though, isn’t it?)

A couple of recent reminders of just how out of touch players are with their fans, however, have had little at all to do with their inflated paychecks. No, the issue was something a bit more subtle… their jersey numbers. Both instances involved players from Minnesota’s major sports.

Did you shell out $100 for a #19 Valencia jersey? Tough sh*t.

As many of you may be aware, Danny Valencia has decided to change his jersey number this season. Instead of the #19 he’s worn during his first couple of seasons as the Twins third baseman, Valencia has elected to switch to #22 for the 2012 season.

Valencia was one of the players participating in the “Tweet and Greet” during Twinsfest on Saturday afternoon and he was asked by one of the fans what he suggests fans who bought his #19 jersey should do with them. His response was something along the lines of considering it a “throwback jersey”. When the fan responded with, “you mean throw away jersey?”, he didn’t seem amused.

Not to pick exclusively on Valencia, because he’s certainly not the first Twins player to change numbers. Justin Morneau switched from #27 to his current #33 a few years back, as well. But his perturbed demeanor at having a fan dare to even question him on the subject just demonstrates how out of touch he is with the fans.

Valencia’s going to be among the lowest paid players in Major League Baseball this season at a mere $480,000, but you would think that he’s still young enough to remember when shelling out over $100 for a player’s jersey (and a replica jersey, at that) was a big deal. His cavalier attitude on the subject indicated that he clearly doesn’t “get it.”

Frankly, if I were running the Twins and Valencia told me he wanted to change jersey numbers, I’d have told him he should learn how to field his position and make a decent throw to first base (not to mention getting on base more than 29% of the time) or he can ask for whatever number he wants… from his next team.

Peterson will keep #28

But Valencia’s nowhere near the biggest name on the list of Minnesota sports heroes that “don’t get it.” That honor (for this week anyway) goes to the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson.

It seems “AP” decided he’d like to turn in his #28 for #23 next season. Exactly why seems to remain a bit of a mystery, but it hardly matters because once Peterson found out he’d have to write a check for about $1 million to cover the cost of all of the #28 jerseys the NFL and their licensed retailers have in stock, he decided against the change.

But he wasn’t happy about it.

Get a load of these quotes, (courtesy of 1500ESPN’s Tom Pelissero):

“Ok so I see maybe ten thousand dollars of my total jersey sales! That’s it!!!” Peterson wrote, referring to a player’s cut of the licensing fee.

“(And) I know I’ve mostly likely been in the top ten (w)hen it comes to top sales ! Why in the hell do I have to pay a Million dollars to change my number! I don’t even get paid a million (d)ollars by my sponsors a year! Wow!!! (And) I’m talking about my (N)ike deal!”

I guess that kind of reaction shouldn’t surprise us. After all, this is the same guy who complained a year ago that being an NFL player constituted “modern day slavery.”

Poor Adrian. Maybe we could arrange a telethon or something.

Yo Adrian! It’s not all about YOU, jerk!

It’s about the store owners who still have a crapload of your junk with #28 plastered all over it that they couldn’t sell because you and your team stunk the place up this season.

And while you may “only” have seen about $10K of the money spent on your crap, your fans have spent MILLIONS of dollars for the privilege of wearing your name… and number… on their backs.

Frankly, I think the NFL is letting you off easy by just making you pay for the unsold stock of #28 jerseys. If changing your number is so important to you, you should have to pay to REPLACE all of the jerseys your fans have purchased and which would become instantly outdated for no reason other than your own self-centeredness.

I’d like to see fans send a little message to Adrian Peterson, Danny Valencia, and any other big time player who changes their jersey number. It’s simple really. Don’t buy their stuff. Any of it.

Let Valencia look around Target Field for kids wearing his #22 and see… nobody.

If AP is so proud of being in the “Top 10″ of jersey sales, let him drop through the floor in those rankings and see how big his next Nike deal is.

Maybe at some point these guys will start to understand that every dollar they make originates with us… the fans… and maybe at some point they’ll realize the effects that their stupid whims have on their fans.

Nah…. probably not.

- JC

 

Twins Projections, Reactions & Words From @TwinsPrez

I spent the weekend doing almost no thinking about baseball, as difficult as that is to imagine. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve totally run out of opinions, so here are a few things on my mind at the moment.

Focus on Pitching

I think it’s almost a given that Terry Ryan will be bringing in at least one more pitcher and probably some more potential bullpen help, but I really don’t expect that to happen until at least January some time (and perhaps even right up to the date pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers in February). Honestly, I think waiting out the market at this point is probably the smart thing to do.

Paul Maholm can pitch in inclement weather. That could be handy, right?

I advocated in my “blueprint” for consideration of adding Rich Harden and/or Paul Maholm to the rotation and I wouldn’t mind seeing the Twins pick up either guy (or both, if Ryan is feeling particularly ambitious with the Pohlads’ credit card). Frankly, however, the difference between those guys and any of about half a dozen others that are still floating around out there is so marginal that it probably makes sense to see who’s still available in a few weeks when the players and their agents start getting nervous about not having a roster spot and the prices come down.

If you’re just going to sign a guy to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation and maybe a guy to pitch the 6th or 7th inning out of the pen, what’s the hurry?

Exit Kubel

Jason Kubel

We formally bid farewell to Jason Kubel this week as Kubes signed on with the Diamondbacks. I didn’t expect to see him return to the Twins (like Cuddyer and Nathan, it was pretty clear he wanted out of Minnesota). That said, I sure didn’t see the D’Backs as a logical landing spot. They’ve kind of got a pretty full roster of outfielders already and it’s not like they have a DH spot to offer. Maybe they have additional irons in the fire to open up a spot for him and, if so, I can certainly see him having a big year in that ballpark in Arizona.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of player Kubel could have turned out to be for the Twins if he hadn’t blown up his knee in the Arizona Fall League just as he was getting ready to become a regular in the Twins outfield. In any event, I wish him well in Arizona.

Will the Twins be Better?

Since it is now likely that the Twins are done shopping in the free agent market for position players this off season, I was comparing the Opening Day line up the Twins fielded in 2011 with the line up we would anticipate opening the season in 2012.

2011 Opening Day   2012 Projected
Span CF   Span CF
Nishioka 2B   Carroll SS
Mauer C   Mauer C
Morneau 1B   Morneau 1B
Young LF   Willingham RF
Cuddyer RF   Doumit DH
Kubel DH   Valencia 3B
Valencia 3B   Casilla 2B
Casilla SS   Revere LF
  _Pavano P     _Pavano P

Yes, I know the Twins could still trade away one of the projected starters for some pitching and/or payroll relief and that, even if they don’t, the line up could see Willingham hitting 4th and Casilla may be 9th, but these are the players in play right now and this projection is good enough for comparison purposes. Keep in mind, many of us had every expectation that the 2011 line up was at least good enough to compete in the AL Central Division. Essentially, you’re replacing Nishioka, Cuddyer, Young and Kubel with the foursome of Carroll, Willingham, Doumit and Revere.

We could debate whether or not that’s an overall upgrade or downgrade offensively, depending upon which offensive categories you value over others, but I think we would reasonably have every hope that the replacements constitute an improvement on the defensive end. I’d give Cuddyer an edge over Willingham in RF purely based on Cuddyer’s arm and Willingham’s lack of recent experience playing in that corner of the OF. But while Revere’s arm doesn’t have half the oomph that Young’s does, I’d still take Revere in the outfield over Young every day. I think it’s also clear that we all expect the combination of Carroll/Casilla will out-defend the Casilla/Nishioka pairing that opened 2011 in the middle infield.

Of course, the factors that will likely determine whether the 2012 Twins improve their run production and scoring defense enough to restore some level of pride to the organization are the guys hitting in the 1, 3, and 4 spots. Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have to return healthy enough to put up the kind of numbers we expected a year ago. If that happens, I can see it being enough to lead this team to 81 wins and a .500 record.

To improve more than that, it’s going to take similar significant improvement from the pitching staff and we’ll have to wait a while longer to even project the likelihood of that happening.

Executive Communes with the Masses

Twins President Dave St. Peter (Photo: John Mowers)

Twins President Dave St, Peter continues to make himself available to fans via Twitter (@TwinsPrez) and I think you have to give him credit for putting himself out there. Every so often, he sits down and just responds to one question/comment after another. I certainly don’t agree with everything he writes, but he’s by far the most accessible member of the Twins organization when it comes to interacting directly with fans.

Here are a few interesting things I learned from St. Peter’s tweets on Monday night:

  • The Twins’ special event calendar will be announced in February, but he did whet fans appetites with news about one thing planned for 2012: The Twins will have a promotion this season that will involve wearing 1951 Minneapolis Millers throwback uniforms. The opponent will be the Kansas City Royals, with the Royals wearing KC Blues throwbacks. The Millers throwback jerseys and caps will, of course, be available for sale.
  • In response to a question from TC Bear (@TC_00), St. Peter was noncommittal concerning TC getting a Millers throwback jersey to wear, as well. He asked TC whether the Millers had a bear for mascot. TC asked if that meant he would get a night off. The Prez’s response: “No chance!!!!” I guess you can’t blame a bear for trying.
  • He believes the Twins can overcome the losses of Nathan, Cuddyer and Kubel much the way they did the losses of Santana, Hunter and Koskie.
  • Spring Training tickets go on sale January 14.
  • The autograph schedule for Twinsfest will be made public in early January.
  • He likes Bing Crosby Christmas carols. Then again, who doesn’t?!

Again, I could take issue with St. Peter on some issues and I’m certainly not on board with the organization’s mandate to slice payroll more than 10%, but I like that he is willing to answer fans’ questions and even respond to criticisms occasionally. If you’re a Twins fan and aren’t yet following him on Twitter, you definitely should be!

- JC

Twins Regime Change: Winners and Losers

You may have heard the news… the Twins fired General Manager Bill Smith Monday and replaced him with his predecessor, Terry Ryan.

The news has been received well among most Twins fans. That’s not surprising. Most of us had lost much of whatever confidence we may have once had in Smith’s talent as a GM and what better guy to replace him with than the GM who gets most of the credit for molding the Twins in to a contender for most of the past decade? It does seem pretty convenient though, doesn’t it, that fans tend to overlook the fact that he also failed miserably at the GM job during his first half dozen or so years in the GM chair. Then again, he was barely over 40 years old when he first got the job and we all know that nobody under 50 knows a damn thing, anyway.

In any event, I’m certainly not disappointed to see Ryan back in charge. It was a good and necessary move by the Twins ownership and top management.

But make no mistake, this move means things are going to be done differently and there will be changes, both at Target Field and across the Twins organization, from the minor leagues to the international scouts and beyond. You might not think that someone with merely an “interim” GM title would have the clout to turn an organization on its head, but this is no ordinary “interim” GM. There is nothing “interim” about his level of authority.

All of this has me thinking a bit about who the potential winners and losers are likely to be when the dust settles on this little internal drama that’s playing out within the team’s front office.

WINNERS:

Twins prospect Aaron Hicks

Minor league prospects: If you’re a prospect in the Twins organization and were starting to get concerned that the Twins might go out on the open market and sign a free agent to a multiple-year contract that could essentially block your path to the Big Leagues, you’re a winner in this deal. It wasn’t all that likely to happen in the first place, but now, those chances are considerably smaller.

By association, our friend Seth Stohs over at SethSpeaks.net is a winner, too. Seth lives and breathes minor league baseball and nobody knows that stuff better. I doubt that Seth was ever too concerned that the Twins might become a “trade all your prospects for old guys” organization, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Terry Ryan will make improving the Twins minor league organization a high priority. That’s going to make Seth (and, eventually, the rest of us) very happy.

Ben Revere

Ben Revere: Terry Ryan made perfectly clear on Monday that the Twins need to improve their defense. There are questions about whether you’ll ever be a Major League hitter, but if Ryan truly believes that better defense will lead to better pitchers, I think you just got locked in to a starting spot in the 2012 Twins outfield.

Talented prospects buried in other organizations: Terry Ryan’s forte is identifying young talent, whether in his own organization or others, and bringing that talent to the Twins where they get a chance to prove themselves worthy of a shot at the big time. If your organization has been holding you back, there’s a decent chance Ryan already has a file on you that’s about an inch thick. Make sure your agent has Ryan’s number on speed dial.

Wayne Krivsky: It’s been quite a rollercoaster ride for you over the past week. A week ago, you were a frustrated, seldom listened to, advisor in the Mets front office. Then you got the good news… the Twins GM wanted you back in the organization in an advisory capacity. Then you got the bad news… the GM who wanted you back was being canned. Then you got more good news… the new interim GM is your old buddy Terry Ryan and now you’re close enough to sniff your next opportunity to become a Major League GM, once again. That is, if you’re the one person on the planet who actually believes that Terry Ryan is just the “interim” General Manager of the Twins.

LOSERS:

Twins Medics: You may have breathed a sigh of relief a while back when Bill Smith stated publicly that there would be no blood-letting among the organization’s doctors and trainers. Better get back to work on those resumes, folks.

Cuddyer, Nathan, Kubel (assuming any of them wanted to return to the Twins for 2012 and beyond): Bill Smith grew to genuinely like certain players and some feel that he allowed those feelings to affect his decisions. Terry Ryan isn’t heartless, but he is first and foremost an evaluator and appraiser of baseball talent. The next time he overpays for the declining years of a player who’s productivity level has arguably peaked will be the first time.

Mike Radcliff: A week ago, you were being mentioned as a possible GM candidate in Baltimore, then the Twins declined to allow the Birds to interview you. Now, your new boss is publicly talking about how you’ve been spread too thin and will have some of your responsibilities reassigned. Word is that you decided you weren’t interested in their job and the Twins “declined permission” for the Orioles to talk to you merely to allow them to save some face. If that’s the case, you may be regretting that decision. Now, instead of the organization’s highest ranking player-personnel guy and heir apparent to Bill Smith, your new boss is twice the baseball man you are and he’s bringing back his former right-hand man in Krivsky. Ouch.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: There is absolutely no way Terry Ryan would have committed $15 million to acquire you a year ago and given that you embody everything that Ryan feels is wrong with the current roster, your already meager hopes of ever playing another inning of baseball for the Twins just became virtually non-existent. I don’t know where you’ll be playing ball in 2012, but it won’t be in the Twin Cities.

Trevor Plouffe: Did you hear what Ryan said about needing to improve the Twins defense? Yeah… he was talking about you, Trevor. You’re still inexpensive, so if you’ve been improving your glovework, you may get a shot at redemption in Ft. Myers, but you’d better demonstrate marked improvement or you’re going to be the “throw in” player in one of Ryan’s inevitable trades.

Anyone who pitched for the Twins in 2011: Glen Perkins might be the only pitcher on the roster who’s spot is relatively safe. The rest of you, either by virtue of your performance or your contract (or both… see: Blackburn, Nick, et al), are just as likely to be playing elsewhere in 2012 as playing on a Terry Ryan team.

Carl Pavano

Carl Pavano: I don’t believe for an instant that Ryan would have re-signed you to a two-year deal last offseason. If he can find someone willing to take on most of your remaining salary, I believe you’ll be wearing another uniform in 2012.

Bloggers who spent time assembling a 2012 “blueprint” (unless you didn’t really like your blueprint, in which case you’re in luck because now you can start over and do a new one): Back to the drawing board. Any of us that still want to spend $35 million on free agents need to get creative about figuring out how to cut $15 million from the existing commitments. Then again, we can pretty much rule out the Mark Buehrles and anyone else likely to get several million dollars for multiple years.

TOO EARLY TO TELL:

Ron Gardenhire

Ron Gardenhire: You didn’t see eye-to-eye with Smith on a number of personnel issues, so you’re probably feeling pretty good about things right now. But keep in mind that Terry Ryan just actively participated in the firing of one of his best friends. He says he’s going to assemble a team that he thinks should be competitive in 2012. If it isn’t, he’s not going to hesitate for a moment to send you packing, too.

Danny Valencia: On the one hand, Danny, you’re young and cheap and you hit the ball a little bit. On the other hand, your defense is not good and some reports indicate you’re not exactly the prototypical “Twins guy” in the clubhouse. That may not have been a big deal a week ago, but there is absolutely nobody in the organization that’s more of a believer in the “Twins Way” than Terry Ryan. If you thought Gardy was anal about that kind of thing, you’re REALLY gonna love the new sheriff in town.

Denard Span

Denard Span and Alexi Casilla: I’m honestly not sure what Terry will do with you two. You’re not gold-glovers in the field, but by comparison to almost everyone else the Twins have on defense, you almost look the part. I suspect he will start his purge elsewhere, but your salaries are getting to the point where Ryan starts to think he can find someone comparable for less money. Not to mention, you may be two of the few members of the current roster with actual trade value.

Fans: I stand by my previous statements that fans should not accept a slashed payroll without loud objection. We can hold out some hope that Ryan was just tossing out numbers during the press conference and, by the time spring rolls around, the payroll is pretty close to the 2011 levels. At any rate, if (and this is a very big “if”) Ryan can actually unload some dead weight and replace it with players who can actually… you know… play baseball, then fans may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

What are your thoughts? Who do you project to be the big “winners” and “losers” under the Terry Ryan Regime, Part Deux? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

-  JC

GameChat – Indians @ Twins #4, 12:10pm

So… final game of the Indians series.. we break even if we win this today. Which would be VERY good.. at least we’d still be where we started on Monday and last night’s comeback win should be pretty good for morale.

Of course, the story for the day is still the hellish weather. I’m contributing this little bit of something a friend (several actually) shared on Facebook:

 

Yeah, you have to wonder if Cleveland keeps double checking their plane tickets to make sure they are in Minnesota.  This is the land of the frozen north right?? Welcome to summer in a state covered with water folks – we get humidity and heat.. and today the combo is still working against us.  At least it’s a bit better than both Monday and yesterday out there.  Humidity is actually dropping a tad already and yes, it’s over 90 but the heat index isn’t over 100.. yet.  They are saying there is supposed to be a BIG break in the weather tonight before the heat returns on the weekend.  It will be a gorgeous day tomorrow.. looking forward to one beautiful day at least!  Anyway, lets see what the boys have to work with after this tropical marathon. 

Interestingly, even though it’s a getaway day and the final game of the series, it seems that both teams are putting out their regular starting rotation of players – no one gets a day off – which I think is an indication how seriously both teams are taking this division battle.

Cleveland

@

Minnesota
Carrera, CF   Revere, CF
Cabrera, A, SS   Casilla, A, 2B
Hafner, DH   Mauer, 1B
Santana, C, C   Cuddyer, RF
LaPorta, 1B   Thome, DH
Cabrera, O, 2B   Valencia, 3B
Chisenhall, 3B   Young, D, LF
Kearns, RF   Nishioka, SS
Valbuena, LF   Butera, C
  Tomlin, P     Blackburn, P

 

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

R

H

E

Cleveland

0

0

0

3

0

1

0

0

1

5

8

0

Minnesota

2

0

0

2

0

0

0

3

x

7

13

1

 

WOOHOOOO!!!!  That was exciting, frustrating, dramatic baseball! There was passion, tragedy, aggravation, relief, miracles & errors – everything you want in a division race actually. It seemed as though each player had a moment you wanted to pat him on the back and then immediately followed by something that made you want to strangle him.. Butera was BRILLIANT throwing out base-stealers but a passed ball (which Blackburn totally misplayed at the base) let a run in. Speaking of Blackburn, it was a GREAT outing from Nick on a day that eats pitchers and spits them out but the 4th inning was PAINFUL and the aforementioned fielding goof cost an out that could have saved Butera’s error by getting an out. Yeah, it was Butera’s error but in my book, there is no excuse for a pitcher not getting an out because he’s on the wrong side of the base. But even after that, he came back out and pitched great again. So I’m granting both Butera and Blackburn rootbeer floats as a cooler/reward.

We also had some CRAZY miscues on the defense – like Revere getting to one of those ridiculous OF flies he catches up to and then missing the catch in the sun.  On the other hand, Joe played 1B today by his request and managed to use every inch of his 6’5+” frame to rescue errant throws on several occasions. One of my favorite moments of the game included a misthrow from Casilla to Mauer at 1B that Mauer seemed to miraculously dig up and get the out. Even Lexi knew he owed Mauer in a HUGE way because as the players entered the dugout, Casilla tackled Joe in an impromptu hug shocking Mauer and delighting the fans who witnessed the event via tv broadcast.  I’m hoping to find a pic of the event to share with you because the WTF posture from Mauer and the sheer ridiculousness of the activity will entertain us all. However, Lexi also had some really good AB’s and overall had a good game so both he and Mauer also get rootbeer floats for their efforts. Until I find a pic of the actual hug – here’s a pretty entertaining interview with Mauer where he & Casilla joke about the hug – there’s a clip of it right at the end.

Video: Mauer, Casilla talk 7-5 win

Thanks to Thrylos, we have a screen shot from the video!! Thanks Thry!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 But as was necessary last night, the game was tied and required late inning offensive heroics to get us back in the lead and eventually get us the win. You’ll never guess who got another terribly important bases-loaded hit to give us the lead… yeah, Danny Valencia. His team was also pretty excited about his efforts today because several of his teammates decided to gang-pie him in the postgame interview… yeah, he can have a rootbeer float too if he can ever get all the shaving cream out of his mouth but until then, he was voted todays unanimous BOD!

 

 

The REAL joy comes in the fact that for now, the Twins are once again 5.5 Games back in the division race and set to take on the newly division-leading Detroit Tigers. The boys should have great morale and motivation to bring every ounce of their ability and luck to continuing the upward climb for the season. *crosses fingers, toes, hair & whatever while holding breath*

GameChat – Indians @ Twins #3, 7:10pm

Wow, I thought sitting through YESTERDAY’s games was a hot deal.  It’s like some little blond girl is staring at a dopplar screen and saying “it’s baaaa-aack.” We’re looking at temps around 95 degrees for game start time and given the ridiculous levels of humidity, the heat index says 117 degrees. Yeah, that’s even worse than it was yesterday.  At least they are only playing one game today – too bad it’s after the last three. At least the evening looks clear for any more storms so we shouldn’t have to deal with any rain delays.

After yesterday’s performances though, I have to say that as long as Liriano holds it together for more than 5 innings, the problem is going to be OFFENSE. We simply have to see more guys hitting more often with men on base. Gotta start getting runs before the last inning of the game.. first rule in the baseball primer is: you win when you score more often than the other guys. If we’re able to win tonight and tomorrow, we’re at least back to where we started in relation to Cleveland. We fought pretty hard to get to the point where we were in striking distance. I would hate to see all that dissipate in a single series.

At any rate, thinking positively, I think we can do this. Win Twins!

Cleveland

@

Minnesota
Carrera, CF Revere, CF
Cabrera, O, 2B Casilla, A, 2B
Cabrera, A, SS Mauer, 1B
Santana, C, 1B Cuddyer, RF
LaPorta, DH Thome, DH
Kearns, RF Valencia, 3B
Hannahan, 3B Young, D, LF
Marson, C Nishioka, SS
Buck, T, LF Butera, C
  Masterson, P   Liriano, P
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Cleveland 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 5 1
Minnesota 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 2 6 0

I have to say that game didn’t exactly come with the offensive outburst I think many of us have been hoping to see, but a win is a win and the guys certainly came through with a big ninth-inning come-from-behind walk-off win over the ‘Toons.

Frankie wasn’t exactly efficient, but he survived six innings of 1-run pitching and the bullpen arms of Dumatrait, Capps and Perkins were just about perfect, so can’t give anything but praise to the pitching staff tonight. They also got some excellent defense from their team mates behind them, as well.

But at the end, when it was needed the most, Michael Cuddyer doubled and then read Danny Valencia’s game-winning base hit perfectly to score from second base behind Joe Mauer. So Cuddy and Danny V are our co-BODs tonight! – JC

Danny Valencia

Michael Cuddyer

THAT’S How Ya Do It!

After attending the debacle Friday night and then reading that Francisco Liriano had been scratched from his Saturday start in favor of Anthony Swarzak, who would be facing off with Jared Weaver, I can’t say I was optimistic about the possibility of witnessing a Twins win Saturday night.

Silly me.

OF COURSE this would be the circumstance under which the wins would put things together to pull out a W!

There was a great crowd on hand, reminding me a bit of the enthusiasm I felt during so many games last season. I think we all knew that the Twins were likely to have trouble scoring much off of Weaver, who’s had a pretty strong year, thus far. But Swarzak was every bit Weaver’s equal as the two pitchers matched one another almost pitch for pitch from one inning to the next.

Toward the 7th inning, Swarzak gave up a couple of pretty deep, well hit balls that found the gloves of Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young. In fact, the defense tonight was very solid all night long. It hasn’t been often that we’ve been able to say that this year.

With one out in the 8th inning Peter Bourjos laced a line drive down the left field line for a double to ruin Swarzak’s no-hitter bid and the crowd immediately rose to give the young pitcher a huge standing ovation. As we sat down, the three 20-something women sitting to my left asked me why everyone had been cheering… they had no idea Swarzak had a no-hitter going. I’m not sure they even knew what a no-hitter was, to be honest. Ah well.

The guy to my right almost flipped out when Matt Capps entered the game to start the 9th inning on the mound for the Twins… but he stood and gave Capps an ovation with the rest of us after his hitless inning. Alex Burnett followed with a clean inning of relief, himself. (Where have THESE versions of those two pitchers been lately… and can we keep them a while?)

And then it was the bottom of the 10th. Lefty reliever Hisanori Takahashi took over for Weaver and struck Jason Kubel out looking before giving up a solid line drive single to Justin Morneau. Jason Repko ran for Morneau and righty Kevin Jepson took the mound for the Angels. Michael Cuddyer grounded a single past the SS in to left field and Delmon Young lined a single to center field. Unfortunately, Repko couldn’t get a jump on that single because there was a real chance it could have been snagged by the shortstop (I thought he was going to catch it from where I sat).

A lot of people around me were upset that Repko didn’t score, but to be honest, he HAD to make sure that ball got through. The LAST thing you want is to have him get doubled off 2B to end that inning. He still got to 3B and the bases were loaded with just one out and Danny Valencia at the plate.

The Angels used five infielders, all playing in on the grass, and just two outfielders, but it didn’t matter. Valencia lifted a fly ball to RF and right off the bat, everyone knew it was deep enough to score Repko from 3B. Torii Hunter jogged back a bit but he knew it didn’t matter whether he got to it or not and it landed well beyond Hunter. Game over.

The Twins celebrated on the field and you could just tell this was a win that made everyone feel good… players and fans alike.

I didn’t take as many pictures this trip as I usually do at games and many I did take are far from high quality, but I thought I would post a few anyway… hope you enjoy!

- JC

Pregame fraternization between Torii, Denard and Cuddy, as well as Justin and Russell Branyan

TC Bear fires tshirts in to the crowd

Anthony Swarzak was very, very good

Jared Weaver was also very, very good

Torii Hunter went hitless... but looked good doing it

An appreciative crowd gives Swarzak a standing ovation after he gives up the first Angels hit in the 8th inning

The Angels play a 5 man infield when the Twins loaded the bases in the 10th

Danny Valencia strokes a deep fly ball to right field...

... and the Twins celebrate a much-needed win!

GameChat – Royals @ Twins, 7:10 pm, FSN & am1500

I hope the boys enjoy the nice day tonight because it’s supposed to be cool and rainy the next couple days.  I have yet another meeting tonight so I won’t be here for the beginning of the game but I will definitely be back before things are over… I hope. LOL

Kansas City @ Minnesota
Getz, 2B Span, CF
Cabrera, Me, CF Mauer, C
Gordon, A, LF Morneau, 1B
Butler, 1B Young, D, LF
Francoeur, RF Cuddyer, RF
Betemit, 3B Kubel, DH
Aviles, M, DH Valencia, 3B
Pena, B, C Hughes, L, 2B
Escobar, A, SS Casilla, A, SS
Francis, P Duensing, P

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

Well THAT was interesting! We saw some things we haven’t seen much of so far this season. Let’s see…

We saw the Twins score first AND we saw the Twins put up a crooked number in the 4th inning!

We saw Michael Cuddyer go four-for-four and more than DOUBLE his batting average for the year, from .107 to .219! That certainly warranted some BOD consideration. Even his one non-hit plate appearance was a walk in the 10th inning that moved the winning run over in to scoring position at 2B. WTG Cuddy, keep it up!

We had a nice starting pitching performance from Brian Duensing (tell ya what, Bri, we’ll just pretend you didn’t even take the mound in the 7th inning since you didn’t retire any of the 3 hitters you faced that inning anyway… and those first 6 innings were pretty darn nice!)

Then we saw 12 straight hitters sat down by the bullpen… a K by Mijares, five straight outs by Matt Capps (including a K that stranded a runner at 3B in the 7th inning), a 1-2-3 by Joe Nathan in the 9th and Dusty Hughes wrapped up the bullpen’s night with a perfect 10th inning (and a Web Gem of a diving catch, as well) to earn the Win. Not too shabby for a bullpen that so many people have expressed so little confidence in.

But our GameChat Boyfriend of the Day award really could go to nobody other than the guy who delivered the game winning RBI with a solid single to right center field with bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th inning. That heroic feat earns you our BOD award, Danny Valencia!

Danny ValenSEEYA tomorrow!

 

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