What I Learned On Vacation

Make no mistake, the worst part of spending a week hanging around the Twins Spring Training site in Ft. Myers is the first day back at work when you get home. But as bad as that is, it’s well worth it to have made the trip.

Channeling the inner child in me, today I thought I would reflect and write a bit about what I learned on my vacation, much the way my 2nd grade teacher asked the class to do upon the start of a new school year.

I attended five “official” spring training games, as well as parts of a few minor league games, several of which included appearances by various members of the Twins MLB club. I arrived at just about the right time to start getting looks at Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, who hadn’t taken part in games before I got down there. On the other hand, I only got to see Michael Cuddyer face minor league pitching and take batting practice (which, let’s face it, is pretty much the same thing for a hitter of Cuddyer’s abilities). So, what have I learned?

Tsuyoshi Nishioka looks like the real deal. He’s riding a ten game hitting streak and he’s been very impressive at second base. He and Alexi Casilla are looking very smooth turning double plays, as well.

Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert

There actually is a very real and very close competition for the utility infielder spot on the roster. Most of us just assumed Matt Tolbert would be handed the job, but Luke Hughes has hit five home runs and three doubles in 19 games. He’s also leading the team with 15 strikeouts, but the prospect of having a right handed hitter with some pop on the bench has to be pretty attractive for Ron Gardenhire. That said, over the past few days, it has been Tolbert that’s looking better at the plate and he’s certainly more accomplished and versatile with the glove. This race is still too close to call, though if I were the one getting to make the decision, I think having that strong righthanded bat available off the bench would nudge me in the direction of giving the job to Hughes.

Gardenhire has announced that Kevin Slowey is the odd man out of the rotation to start the season, assuming everyone stays healthy over the last week of Spring Training. That makes sense to me and Slowey is handling it like the classy professional he is. His shift to the bullpen means the competition is coming down to the wire for the three remaining spots in the pen.

Depending on which media outlet you read and on which day, any one of seven candidates are “likely” to claim one of those three roster spots. Here’s a rundown on the guys still competing for those spots, including the three that I believe should… and will… open the season in the Twins bullpen.

Scott Diamond, who is the Rule V draftee that the Twins took from the Braves, is a lefthanded pitcher that the Twins reportedly have long “liked”. I didn’t see enough of Diamond to really judge his abilities, but I don’t see much chance that he opens the season with the Twins. Ideally, they can send Atlanta a minor leaguer in exchange for the right to keep Diamond and send him to Rochester, but from what I’ve seen and read, if the Twins have to send him back to the Braves, it wouldn’t be a catastrophe.

I’ve seen articles indicating the Twins like Kyle Waldrop enough to keep him on the roster to open the season. Maybe. But if that’s the case, they sure have a funny way of showing it. He’s only pitched five innings in Spring Training (about half of what most of the other bullpen candidates have thrown) and while his numbers are impressive (no earned runs, 7 Ks, no walks), if they were serious about keeping him to open the season, I think they’d be giving him more opportunities to pitch. Let’s see how much work he gets in the next few games. UPDATE: mlb.com’s Rhett Bollinger reported Wednesday afternoon that the Twins announced Waldrop would be among a group of players who would make the trip to Atlanta for the final exhibition games and then be reassigned to a minor league team.

Jeff Manship is another guy who a lot of people seem to think will be sticking with the Big Club. I don’t see it, unless the Twins do trade Slowey before Opening Day. I see Slowey and Manship as potentially filling the same role in the bullpen and as long as Slowey is there, Manship would be redundent. Manship’s spring pitching line (6.30 ERA in 10 innings, 11 hits, 5 Ks, 3 BBs) just hasn’t been all that impressive when compared to some of the guys he’s competing with.

Carlos Gutierrez is the young, up and coming bullpen arm that Gardy has been hinting he’d like to keep around. It’s not going to happen. As long as there are other options, the front office is going to want to hold off on bringing Gutierrez up until at least June to keep his MLB service clock from starting until then. If he were head and shoulders better than any other option, you wouldn’t let the service time issue keep him down on the farm, but he’s not… so it will. UPDATE: mlb.com’s Rhett Bollinger reported Wednesday afternoon that, like Waldrop, the Twins announced Gutierrez would be among a group of players who would make the trip to Atlanta for the final exhibition games and then be reassigned to a minor league team on March 30.

That leaves these three guys as those I believe should, and will, fill those final three spots in the pen:

Glen Perkins

Glen Perkins is a guy a lot of Twins fans seem to love to hate. He’s certainly given plenty of reasons for us to doubt him over the past few years, but this spring, when asked to compete for a bullpen job, he’s done so and pitched well. He’s thrown 9 innings and has accumulated a 2.00 ERA, giving up 8 hits, striking out 6 and walking 3 hitters. I suggest fans put the past behind us and look forward to Perkins being in the Twins bullpen. He’s out of options and there’s no way he would clear waivers so the Twins would lose him if they don’t give him one of the bullpen spots. They could conceivably still trade him before Opening Day, but he’s clearly been one of the three best relief pitchers among the contenders listed here, so I expect #15 to open the season with the Twins.

Dusty Hughes

The Twins are likely to open with three lefties in the pen because, in addition to Perkins and Jose Mijares, Dusty Hughes is going to make the team. The Twins snatched him off waivers from the Royals, largely because a number of Twins hitters confirmed to the staff that the guy is tough for them to hit. If the Twins’ own talented stable of lefthanded hitters think a pitcher is tough, he’s a guy worth taking a chance on. Hughes has proven worthy of their praise this spring, having yet to give up a run and allowing only six hits in 10 innings on the mound. He has walked five hitters, however, which matches the five he’s struck out.

That leaves one final spot and this is the spot I feel strongest about. The Twins need Jim Hoey in the bullpen.

Jim Hoey

Hoey, obtained from the Orioles as part of the JJ Hardy trade, got off to a bit of a slow start this spring in his first few appearances, but over the past week, he has demonstrated why the Twins wanted him. He brings one thing that none of the other Twins bullpen arms (or starting pitchers, for that matter) have… and that is overpowering velocity. While virtually every other pitcher on this list has a fastball that tops out in the low 90s, Hoey throws 95 mph… warming up. When he’s serious, he’ll fire in there somewhere in the 97-99 mph range. His issue, early in camp, was controlling that heat, but he’s been throwing his fastballs at the knees and if he can do that regularly, look for a lot of strikeouts, ground balls, and broken bats.

And here’s the thing… when you have a guy who’s 6′ 6″ and throws the ball almost 100 mph, you don’t really WANT him to have pinpoint control. The only chance 90% of Major League hitters have of hitting a ball traveling that fast on the sweet spot of the bat is if they can dig in and swing early. If the pitcher has a reputation for being jussssssst a little wild, not many hitters will be doing that “digging in” thing. We’re not talking Nuke LaLoosh wild here, either. TC Bear isn’t going to get beaned and John Gordon isn’t going to have to be ducking in the radio booth.

Finally, while not a lot has been written about it lately, a decision is going to have to be made with regard to whether Joe Nathan or Matt Capps starts the season as the Twins closer.

The sentimental favorite is Joe Nathan. He’s certainly earned the faith and loyalty of the Twins coaches, as well as the fans’ devotion. But, frankly, he just hasn’t pitched as well as Matt Capps this spring and unless something changes over the next week, I’d have to give the closing job to Capps while Nathan serves as the primary set up arm. Nathan has an 8.53 ERA and has given up seven hits and walked three, in just 6 and a third innings of work. Granted, a lot of the damage was inflicted in one very poor outing, but as much as I wanted to see the old Twitchy out there on the mound this past week, I don’t think he’s all the way back. Capps, on the other hand, has yet to give up a run in 7 and a third innings, allowing only four hits, not walking anyone, and striking out five hitters. Sentiment aside, Capps has earned the closer role, at this point.

In the end, here’s the main thing I learned on my vacation… looking at this lineup, and even at the quality of the players who will NOT make the Opening Day roster, I see a team with the potential to be very, very good.

Let’s get this party started!

- JC

Spring: A Time of Change

It’s never easy to say good bye to friends and make no mistake, Pat Neshek was our friend. Some of us got to “know” Pat via his blog while he was still working his way up through the Twins’ minor league system and when he and his funky sidearm delivery made their MLB debut, he already had a sizable fan base. That was the same year that he made the AAA All-Star team on the strength of a huge voting block of devoted electronic followers.

And “Sideshow” was good, too! He was a dominant set up man for the Twins in 2006 and 2007. Being a “local boy” in the Twin Cities certainly didn’t hurt his popularity, either.

In typical Neshek style, Pat broke the news of his own waiver by the Twins via Twitter, along with the message that he had been picked up by the San Diego Padres, where he’ll be reunited with other former Twins like Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson.

While you couldn’t help but root for Neshek to find the magic he showed us before undergoing Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, it was becoming clear that he was not in the Twins plans for 2011. He wasn’t missing many bats in his handful of appearances this spring and his velocity, while better than last year, still has been a few clicks below the low 90s he routinely hit at his best.

Neshek still had one minor league option year left, so the Twins could have sent him to Rochester to start the season, but going to San Diego represents a fresh start for Pat and I hope he makes the best of that opportunity.

A Day in Dunedin

Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin

I made the 2+ hour trip up the highway to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area this morning to watch the Twins take on the Blue Jays in Dunedin. The Florida Auto Exchange Stadium was one that I had not yet attended a game at, so I was anxious to see something new. I won’t say that I regret my decision, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by either the stadium or the Twins performance there.

The Thirst Inning Lounge, inside the stadium

The ballpark is easily the worst of the 8 or so spring training sites I’ve been to. I did have a terrific Italian Sausage before the game and I certainly appreciated the air conditioned Thirst Inning Lounge, where I spent an hour before the game watching basketball, but other than that, this was really just a bad ballpark. With all the communities in Florida and Arizona trying to lure teams in to their areas, I’m surprised the Jays can’t do better than this.

The game wasn’t without its highlights, even though the Twins managed to get shut out 3-0 by the Jays.

Scott Baker threw four good innings. The only run he gave up scored on an RBI single that glanced off the glove of a leaping Alexi Casilla in shallow centerfield. Baker struck out six, walked none, and gave up 3 hits in his four innings. The pitchers that followed all did OK, I guess… but they were nowhere near as solid as what we’ve seen the last few games. Matt Capps, Dusty Baker, Phil Dumatrait and Jeff Manship all gave up some hits. Manship managed the odd combination of giving up a two run home run AND striking out the side in his inning of work.

I also got to watch both of the Hughes boys, pitcher Dusty and infielder Luke. Like the fan-friendly guys our Twins are, they even posed together for a picture.

Luke Hughes (1B) and Dusty Hughes (P)

My own personal highlight of the game came in the eighth inning when Daniel Santana, a minor league infielder called up to finish the game at shortstop for Casilla, lined a foul ball in my direction. Actually, it wasn’t just in my direction, it curved directly at me. I’d like to say I caught the ball bare-handed, but I didn’t. I used two hands (my Little League coaches would be proud), but it smacked my hands and fell at my feet. I then picked up the only MLB foul ball I’ve ever had hit to me and handed it to the boy sitting next to me. I really don’t need another baseball at this point in my life and I’d like to think he’ll enjoy it much longer than I would. Besides, I’ll have these bruised fingers to remember the event by for some time to come, I’m sure.

Jon Rauch, Blue Jay

The ninth inning gave us the opportunity to see yet another former Twin, as Jon Rauch closed out the game on the mound for the Jays. Big Jon was only hitting 87-88 mph with his fastball but that was enough, combined with his towering gaze, I guess, to cower the various minor leaguers finishing the game for the Twins.

On Deck: Where’s Crikket?

Tomorrow will be the last game I’ll be attending on my trip down here this spring as the Twins travel to Bradenton to play the Pirates. Just a reminder that the game will be televised on FSN (and, one assumes, MLB.tv). CapitalBabs has found her way home and that means there SHOULD be a GameChat set up (I think).

As I mentioned during the GameChat last Monday, you all are invited to play “Where’s Crikket?” during the game. I have a ticket for the first row, down the left field line. (At least the ticket says “Row 1″… I suppose it’s possible there’s a row of “Premium” seating in front of it, but I don’t recall Bradenton having those the last time I was there.)

I’ll even give you a little help… the only clean sportshirt I have left is a white one, so there’s a pretty good chance that’s what I’ll be wearing. I’m also wearing the same cap you can see perched on my head in my picture here at Knuckleballs.

Let me leave you with a little air guitar, courtesy of these two fans competing in a contest between innings in Dunedin today!

- JC