GameChat – Twins @ Mariners #2, 9:10, FSN & am1500

The game itself doesn’t start until later but FSN will begin broadcasting at 8 pm with a memorial for Harmon Killebrew – ESPN radio will begin their tribute to him at 8:40. Seattle has lowered the flags in the park to half staff to honor and there will be a video tribute and a moment of silence before the game begines.

Obviously, Killebrew’s passing will be a major discussion point – not entirely excluding the fact that the Twins play of late hasn’t been worth talking about – so we’ll just embrace it. If anyone has a particular story they would like to share, I encourage them to do so! The Twins will be sporting a 3 patch on their uniforms in addition to the memorials they are planning at Target Field.  Even though there are innumerable writeups in honor of Killer, I think people should read an additional memorial from Harmon’s colleagues this afternoon: Twins Legends Remember

photo courtesy of @MinnesotaTwins

 

 

Minnesota @ Seattle
Span, CF   Suzuki, I, RF
Tolbert, SS   Figgins, 3B
Kubel, DH   Smoak, 1B
Morneau, 1B   Olivo, C
Cuddyer, RF   Cust, DH
Valencia, 3B   Wilson, Ja, 2B
Revere, LF   Wilson, M, LF
Rivera, Re, C   Ryan, Br, SS
Casilla, A, 2B   Saunders, CF
  Liriano, P     Hernandez, F, P

 

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

 

Well, goodness! THAT hasn’t happened in awhile! Whether or not the Twins won this one for The Killer or just got lucky on a couple questionable calls and took advantage of good pitching/bad pitching – it all just doesn’t matter. They won. They broke a freakishly long losing streak. They didn’t hit too much but they hit enough… AND they did play pretty aggressively on the base paths which I do like to see. And Michael Cuddyer gets a new pen for all those signatures he spent so much time improving with Harmon because of being the RBI man tonight.

But this game really came down to the pitching. And since we never know exactly which Liriano we’re going to see on the mound on a given night, I was ecstatic to have 7 innings of (mostly) thrilling pitches from him. For that reason, FranKKKie was voted today’s BOD! (funny thing, we’re so out of the habit, almost everyone left without voting!)

 

 

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

As my boyfriend less-than-amusingly pointed out yesterday, “At least the Twins didn’t lose today.” *sigh* True but sad that this is the point we have come to as Twins fans. That being said, I would really like the off-day to count as some sort of restart button for this team.  Can we please end the losing streak now and try to bring ourselves back into contention as a baseball team?

Quick update on stuff in discussion today: apparently we fans are not the only ones who are seriously questioning Lexi’s ability to be the starting SS for this team. Sadly, it appears that, for the moment, they are thinking about bringing up Plouffe. I mean no disrespect to Trevor because I actually really like him – but he’s not an MLB starter at this point. So I don’t see him as a solution to that dilema in the middle infield in any way. He may function as a bandaid or he may surprise us all and step up in a way that we haven’t seen from him yet. I just don’t know when that move will happen or if it will happen for sure. It’s all still rumor and with the late scratch of Jim Thome who is still struggling with that strained oblique, it appears he might make a trip to the DL to make room for Plouffe.  Joe Mauer will begin light hitting and throwing as part of a return to baseball activities. This is good news – just not happening fast enough for a team that is struggling with too many injuries. Hope his rehab goes well and quickly.

It would be especially good to beat the White Sox even though they are HARDLY doing better than we are right now – but it’s still beating the Sox!  Win Twins! Please!

Minnesota @ Chi White Sox
Span, CF   Pierre, LF
Casilla, A, 2B   Ramirez, A, SS
Morneau, 1B   Dunn, A, DH
Kubel, DH   Konerko, 1B
Cuddyer, RF   Quentin, RF
Tosoni, LF   Rios, CF
Valencia, 3B   Castro, R, C
Butera, C   Beckham, 2B
Tolbert, SS   Morel, 3B
  Liriano, P     Jackson, E, P

 

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 6 0
Chi White Sox 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

 

Goodness… yes, read that boxscore again. You don’t get to see those very often and especially not from Francisco Liriano. This is his first complete game ever and he gets a no hitter in the process. That’s just amazing to me from a guy who still managed to walk 6 batters. Interestingly enough though, it’s funny to see how much success he was actually able to have with that much ballyhooed “pitch to contact” process that the Twins have been trying to work into Liriano’s regime.

Of course, ‘contact’ usually means ‘hits’ and they managed to avoid that. In part, that was because of a few stellar defensive actions and one horrible call that went our way. Danny Valencia had one absolutely incredible catch at 3B of a ball that by all rights should have skipped out into the foul territory near LF after hitting the 3B bag fair – but he got it anyway. A few great double plays, a lightening infield grab by Tolbert thrown to Morneau that pulled him off the base and he went for a tag of the runner. We got the call even if Morneau didn’t actually touch the runner in any form I could see. Morneau made up for it by digging out another near out right at the base. There was a gorgeous catch from Span in the OF that didn’t quite look like it was humanly possible to get to. There was a terrifying catch in LF in which Tosoni and Tolbert tried very hard to accomplish a slow-motion merge into one human being – while that might east some of our roster issues just a bit, I really am glad that the out was made without anyone being hurt. All together, the defense did their best to let their struggling starting pitcher know that they have his back and that they’ll do their best to not let him down if he’ll give it a go – what a lovely message.  All you can eat desert buffet for the boys in the field.

Of course, there is another player we have to mention. There’s really only one way to win a 1-0 game – you have to get the 1. The 1 tonight belongs to Kubel – a solo homerun that put us on the board and allowed us to actually enjoy a no hitter, complete game, WIN. Kubes? This win’s for you.  Party like it’s your birthday and enjoy a great big ol’ cake on us here at Knuckleballs.

And yeah, normally, having the one and only RBI/Run in a winning game is almost always the best way to have yourself declared the BOD for the night. But yeah, a No Hitter? That kind of tops it I think. The chat unanimously agreed. So for going just that one step above and beyond, FranKKKKie Liriano is today’s BOD.

I’m praying that this is the key moment – the turnaround this team needs. Taking a no hitter into the home of the White Sox is a HUGE mental victory for these guys not to mention the fans. All over Twins Territory, fans were finally smiling again. They were smiling in the clubhouse just the same. Liriano got the boost he needed (we might have to tell him his job is on the line before every start) and we broke the losing streak in dramatic fashion. It does make me look forward to tomorrow in a very different way.

On a side note, the situation with Thome that I mentioned in the pregame became official and was announced after.  He’s been placed on the DL retroactive to Saturday and Plouffe will make his way up here. According to Twitter, Revere is also coming up but no one seems to know who is going down to make room for it. I’m sure we’ll know by morning!

The Cure For What Ails You

I’m not going to go through a recitation of all of the ailments currently afflicting the Twins. If you want to go through all of that even more than you have already, you can click on any one of about a dozen of the blogs in our Twins blogroll over on the sidebar (including Howard Sinker’s return to his “A Fan’s View from Section 219” blog… welcome back Howard!). Instead I’m going to focus on a cure.

If ever there was a team that appeared prepared to provide a cure for what’s ailing the Twins, it’s this week’s opponent, the Baltimore Orioles.

If you haven’t paid much attention to the O’s lately, you might wonder why I’d make that comment. After all, Baltimore got off to a 6-1 start during the first couple of series of the year. But things have not gone so well over the past week or so for the Birds. They’ve lost seven games in a row and have been scoring runs at a pace that almost makes the Twins’ offense look productive by comparison. Almost.

They’ve also been bitten by the same injury bug that has chewed its way through the Twins clubhouse. Don’t look for old friend JJ Hardy out there at shortstop for the O’s, he’s down with a strained oblique muscle. They’re also missing pitchers Justin Duchscherer and Brian Matusz.

We’re all familiar with the early season struggles of Francisco Liriano (0-3, 9.42 ERA), but if you wanted to conjure up a cure for Frankie’s ills, I’m not sure you could do much better than the lineup he’ll face tonight in Baltimore… not to mention his opponent on the mound. Chris Tilman sports an 0-1 record and a 7.30 ERA covering three starts, during which he’s amassed just 12 and 1/3 innings pitched.

In fact, the only game in this series that looks to have to potential to be a bit of a pitchers’ duel is game three on Wednesday, when Nick Blackburn takes his 3.06 ERA up against the Orioles’ Zach Britton, who’s been pretty much the O’s lone reliable starting pitcher. Britton sports a nifty 2.75 ERA over his three starts.

Take aim! Eutaw Street beyond Camden Yards' RF fence (Photo: Brian Cassella-Times)

This would also appear to be a good series for Jim Thome to resume his assault on 600 career home runs. Not only is Oriole Park at Camden Yards known as a hitters’ park, but all four of the O’s starting pitchers this series are right-handers and Baltimore pitchers have already given up 19 home runs this season. That means Jimmers should get plenty of opportunities to put a ball out there on Eutaw Street. In fact, this would be an ideal time for Justin Morneau to find that home run stroke and the way Jason Kubel is swinging the bat, he could add a few taters to his total, as well.

Right now, the only Orioles hitter that’s been making solid contact is second baseman Brian Roberts. If you think Kubel and Denard Span are feeling a bit like they’re having to carry the load for the Twins, pity Roberts who doesn’t even have a partner to share the load with.

The Twins return home after this series and the Orioles will be hosting the Yankees and Red Sox as their homestand continues after our guys leave town. I’m sure both of these struggling teams are looking for this series to provide a cure to their recent ailments. Let’s hope it’s the Twins that come away with that cure.

Getting their first series win of the season on the road in Baltimore would go a long way toward making everyone, players and fans alike, feel better.

– JC

Moving On From Toronto To The Bronx

The first series is in the books and while it didn’t go as well as we would hope, the Sunday afternoon win certainly should make everyone feel a bit better. It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win.

Honestly, I’m not concerned about getting only one win out of three games in Toronto to start the season. That’s hardly devastating.

I’m really more concerned… perhaps a better word is leery… about the way the Twins played than I am about the results themselves. I have no idea what the reason is… season opening nerves, lack of preparation, lack of Spring Training time for some of the star players, or anything in between… but I just felt there were concentration issues out there among a lot of guys.

Carl Pavano pitched like I’d expect him to pitch in Spring Training… kind of out of sync. He had a great spring statistically, though he, himself, commented several times that he didn’t feel he was pitching all that well. For some reason, I’m not optimistic that he’s going to find himself against the Yankees in his next scheduled start.

Francisco Liriano just wasn’t very good, period. He had some issues in Spring Training, too, so it will be worth watching to see how long it takes him to find a rhythm.

Justin Morneau looks like he’s just started swinging a bat after a long offseason… which is pretty much accurate. His bat looks slow to me, so let’s hope get starts seeing the ball and getting around on it more consistently.

The new middle infield hasn’t gotten off to a very good start. Interestingly, though, while most people were nervous about Alexi Casilla and felt confident of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, it’s actually been Nishioka that’s been the poorer performer, so far. Nishioka has two errors already and he’s struck out five times. Casilla was given Sunday off, but he had the only Twins extra base hit in the first two games (his only hit in five ABs, however). Nishioka frankly not only looked tight in the field, but his right handed plate appearances have been particularly ugly. He steps in the bucket on virtually every pitch.

Denard Span has gotten off to a good start at the plate, but even he got caught losing track of the number of outs when he was a baserunner at 1B early in Sunday’s game.

The bullpen has had mixed results, at best. Sunday saw solid performances by Matt Capps, Jose Mijares and Glen Perkins, but otherwise you have to look pretty hard to find a member of the pen to praise. I know Joe Nathan got a save Sunday, but that was by no means a good performance by Twitchy.

In all, the best thing you can really say about this first series of the season is that it’s over and the Twins managed to salvage one win. That’s one more than the Red Sox or Rays managed to come up with against the Rangers and Orioles, respectively. Those two teams, along with the Brewers and Astros in the National League, could still go 0-162. That’s a joke of course… though if I were an Astros fan, I might feel like it’s not so far-fetched. They could be really bad. Fans in Boston, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee, however, all have some reasonable playoff expectations and I doubt being winless at this point dampens those expectations too much.

Home of the Evil Empire

Monday night, the Twins will start a four-game road series in the Bronx against the Evil Empire. The Twins have the talent to match up with the Yankees, but we all know that doesn’t seem to matter when they go in to New York and routinely seem to play with one hand wrapped around their collective throats. I’d be pretty happy with a split of those four games.

Finally, in case anyone is inclined to put a lot of emphasis on the results of the first series of the season, allow me to just point out that the Kansas City Royals currently lead the AL Central standings after taking three of four games from the Angels in their opening series.

UPDATE: It’s not often I update a post just to link to another blog, but Jon Marthaler over at Twinkie Town posted a beaut over there this morning. Go check it out… he tells us all exactly how the rest of the season is going to play out!

– JC

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You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant
You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant
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Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant

It’s All About the Pitching

A lot of the media folks that cover the Twins and a lot of the bloggers, as well, have been writing about the team’s pitching, lately. Everyone has an opinion about who should be in the rotation and who should be kept around to fill out the bullpen. I’ll probably get around to trying to sort out my own opinions on those issues eventually, too… but it won’t be at 1:30 in the morning after getting back to my Ft. Myers hotel from the Twins/Orioles game in Sarasota.

Let me just say this… for tonight anyway, the Twins pitching was really good.

Francisco Liriano was looking good against the O's

If tonight’s performance was any indication of things to come, we no longer have to be concerned with Francisco Liriano. Tonight, he demonstrated why you just don’t put a lot of stock in the first couple of Spring Training appearances. That said, in fairness, this one excellent performance doesn’t guarantee Liriano will look just as good when the regular season rolls around, either.

But Liriano did look really good. He struck out 7 Orioles in his five innings on the mound and gave up just one earned run on three hits (two by Vlad Guerrero).

And he wasn’t the only pitcher who looked good. In fact all five Twins who took the mound to face the Orioles had pretty good nights.

Joe Nathan is all smiles as he continues his successful return

Of the four relief pitchers who each threw one inning (Jose Mijares, Joe Nathan, Alex Burnett, and Glen Perkins), only Nathan gave up a run and that was unearned. In fact, Nathan’s the only one of the foursome who gave up a hit and he only gave up one.

Matt Tolbert had a big night against the Orioles

The offensive side of the ledger wasn’t quite as impressive, but the Twins did collect nine hits. Matt Tolbert may have decided not to just roll over and let Luke Hughes have his roster spot without a fight, as Tolbert was the only Twin with more than one hit… he collected three, including a line drive home run over the LCF wall in the third inning.

My seat for the game was in the first row, down the left field line, so I had a nice close-up view of our guys as they loosened up before the game. I have to admit, between seeing several Twins play up close and personal on the minor league complex Thursday and then having this vantage point on Friday, I’m getting a bit spoiled. Here are a few more pictures from Sarasota.

Sarasota gave Ed Smith Stadium a major facelift. They did it right!

Ben Revere shares a smile during warm ups before the Orioles game

 

Jose Mijares signed autographs for fans for several minutes before the game

Vlad Guerrero accounted for half of the O's four hits

Former Twin JJ Hardy went hitless in 3 at-bats against his old team mates Friday night

Saturday afternoon, the Rays visit Ft. Myers to play the Twins. We’re expecting Joe Mauer to catch a few innings for the first time in a Twins spring training game and Justin Morneau is supposed to DH, making it the first time he’s played in back-to-back games. The Twins don’t have another home game until Wednesday, so I suspect we’ll see the A-list lineup against the Rays.

This blogging thing is becoming exhausting… I need sleep!

– JC

Trade Pitching? What’s the Rush?

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

Is Kevin Slowey on the market?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m glad you asked.

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

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

Will Liriano be ready to lead in April?

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

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

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

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

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

– JC

Early Impressions

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

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

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

It’s very cool to see Joe Nathan back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Duensing’s role

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s early reviews

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

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

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

Michael Cuddyer’s wart

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

Justin Morneau’s head

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

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

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

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

T-minus two weeks and counting

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

– JC

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

Slow News Days

For all the build up about Spring Training “reporting day”, once that day comes and goes, things kind of grind to a halt in terms of interesting stuff going on. In fact, just about the only things that pass for “news” coming out of Fort Myers is bad news… sore arms, shoulders, knees, etc. That’s what happens, I guess, when there are no games to report about.

That’s not meant to downplay the importance of the information being reported out of the Twins’ camp about Scott Baker’s elbow and Francisco Liriano’s shoudler. In fact, I think people now understand why having six experienced starting pitchers does not mean you have an “extra” starting pitcher. It may be a cliché that, “these tends to work themselves out,” but it’s a cliché because it’s true.

Francisco Liriano

Speaking of Liriano’s sore shoulder, I just have to say right now that this thing smells funny to me. A year ago, he was coming off a very successful winter ball season and everyone was wondering whether that meant we were going to finally see “the Franchise” again. Liriano didn’t play winter ball this year (a bit of rest was certainly in order), so he essentially disappeared somewhere in to Latin America and none of us (including the Twins, apparently) knows what he’s been doing.

Now he shows up to Spring Training with a sore shoulder and gets an MRI done by some doctor in Miami that nobody in the organization knows which supposedly is “clean”. What’s with that?

The Twins caught a lot of grief around Twinsville for not locking Liriano up for 3-4 years this off-season, but is it possible they had reason to be a bit suspicious about his health? Maybe, maybe not. But from what we read of GM Bill Smith’s comments that clearly indicated the Twins were not interested in doing anything but going year-to-year with Frankie, there’s obviously some reason they don’t trust their young pitching star.

I remember when Johan Santana was a Twin, there were several articles in the media written every season about Santana’s work ethic… his Spring Training routine… his offday workout routine during the season… from all reports, this was a guy who took care of his body and worked very hard to be the best pitcher he could be.

I have never read anything from any reporter that gives even a hint that anyone thinks Liriano is a hard worker. If he does anything beyond just the required bullpen sessions, I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning it.

I hope Liriano has another fantastic year, but his spring has not gotten off to a start that makes me feel optimistic.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka Arrives

Of course, there is one non-injury item that’s generating “news” this spring and that’s the arrival of Tsuyoshi Nishioka. I’m not sure what the Twins or anyone else expected to see when Nishioka arrived at camp, but if they expected him to show up, don the same Twins workout gear that everyone else wears and join his team mates on the field for their informal pre-reporting workouts, then the Twins folks have to be disappointed.

In a post immediately after the Twins signed Nishioka, I wrote, “I’m not sure any of us really are prepared for what comes next.” I think we’re starting to see a bit of what I was referring to.

The Twins agreed to provide am interpreter, but Nishioka showed up with what can only be called a posse. Media reports have him being followed around the field not only by his interpreter, but his personal trainer and a third person who’s role is somewhat of a mystery (some have suggested perhaps it’s his massage therapist). While he’s spent a bit of time taking some ground balls with team mates, most of his workouts have been alone, off on a distant field and in the bowels of the minor league batting cage area.

Once you find out where he’s working out, he’s not hard to identify, however. In a black sleeveless Addidas shirt and pants that have been described as “capris” with neon piping, rather than the navy blue Twins gear, he obviously stands out. Oh… and no Twins cap (or any cap, for that matter), either.

As Lou Brown, the fictional manager of the Indians in the “Major League” movie said, “We wear caps and sleeves at this level, son.”

Let’s just say, Nishioka’s first priority obviously is not to just blend in with his new team.

A lot has been written about the “risk” the Twins are taking by jettisoning experienced middle infielders Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy, in favor of Nishioka and Alexi Casilla. Generally, the risks referred to are related to what can reasonably be expected in terms of performance levels from the lesser known entities.

But what I’m going to pay closer attention to will be the effects of introducing an unproven potential prima donna with his own posse and a sizable media contingent whose questions will focus exclusively on that player, with little or no concern for the team’s results on the field.

A part of me thinks this organization could use a shot of personality… something to generate a bit of an edge in the clubhouse and on the field. But make no mistake, Nishioka and all that comes with him will be a distraction, the Twins have invited this distraction in to their midst, and in doing so, they’re taking a sizable risk that goes well beyond the risk of turning over their middle infield to a couple of younger ballplayers.

Other News from Florida

Finally, the lack of anything terribly compelling in terms of news about baseball has resulted in me watching a lot of racing from Daytona this weekend. Now, I’m NOT a racing fan… at all. But I was with family at a sports bar Friday night and sat with my brother-in-law, who IS a big race fan and we watched most of the truck series race that kicked off Daytona weekend.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. It was different watching with someone who knew what the hell was going on. I also found myself watching the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, which ended with one car beating another car by about a foot. I admit I was kind of in to it.

Today, the “real” Daytona 500 is about ready to start. I’m not sure how much of it I’ll be able to watch because I’ve got a family dinner to go to. But I find myself hoping I’ll get home in time to see a fair amount of the race.

I’m not yet sure what to make of this new-found interest, but I’m pretty sure I’ll find myself exceeding the speed limit at some point on my drive across town to dinner.

– JC

The Frankie Affair: Stats v. Scouts

Can’t we all just get along?

It was inevitable, I suppose.

It happens every so often.

For a while everyone coexists well enough, but sooner or later, the battle begins.

(Image: Stephen Webster, Picture: AP)

Which camp are you in? Do you judge a player based on what you see with your own eyes… or do you believe a player’s value is found by perusing his baseball-reference.com pages?

Make up your mind… you can’t serve two Masters (as much fun as that may sound to some of you… you know who you are).

Every season… at least once a season… an issue comes up that gets hackles up on one side or the other and that’s when the uneasy truce between baseball’s modern version of the Hatfields and McCoys gets interesting.

This week, the battle erupted around Francisco Liriano and all it took to light the fuse was for someone to point out that Twins’ lack of interest in a multi-year contract extension with “the Franchise” indicates he’s not currently a factor in their long term plans and might possibly… maybe… could be… sorta… made available on the trade market for the right price.

It’s curious that Liriano would be such a polarizing figure because it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t “like” Frankie. Sure, we may have grown a bit impatient with him as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery. He just wasn’t his old self in 2009 and heading in to spring training last year, there were plenty of questions about what expectations should be. There was even speculation that he might be destined for the bullpen. Even then, however, we all WANTED to see Liriano have a strong season and reestablish himself as a front line starting pitcher. Which he certainly did… there’s nobody really debating that.

There’s also a pretty solid consensus that, while the Twins have six experienced starting pitchers at the moment, they aren’t exactly top heavy. Carl Pavano is being counted on to provide a lot of solid innings. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn have each shown the ability to get outs at various points in their careers and still have the potential to be effective big leaguers. Brian Duensing certainly has shown promise during late season stints in the rotation the past two seasons. But none of those five pitchers is the kind of legitimate “ace” that conventional wisdom says a team must have to be considered a championship caliber ballclub.

No, the only pitcher on this staff that even resembles an ace is Liriano. That’s another thing that pretty much everyone agrees on.

So why didn’t the Twins front office negotiate a multiple year contract extension with Liriano and lock him up for a few years, like they’ve done in recent years with Baker and the less impressive Blackburn? General Manager Bill Smith has been remarkably frank about the organization’s lack of interest in committing big money to Liriano long term… at least at this point.

This is what has some fans up in arms. If you do nothing but look at the stat sheet, you see a young pitcher who strikes out a lot of hitters and who, despite having a very respectable numbers last season, arguably could have had an even better year if not for a bit of bad luck that resulted in a few more batted balls finding grass than the statisticians tell us should have been expected. In short, based on his 2010 stat pages, Francisco Liriano arguably is not a potential ace… he already is an ace.

Liriano: To trade or not to trade?

The Twins, however, aren’t so sure. This organization is not exactly known for using advanced statistical analysis to evaluate players. There are certainly people in the Twins organization that know how to use a computer (even Twins President Dave St. Peter is now Tweeting), but it’s quite possible there’s more time spent in the front office playing solitaire than looking up a pitcher’s WAR, ERA+, xFIP, or any other advanced metric. They may very well be the last front office in Major League Baseball to rely almost exclusively on human scouting… the old “eyeball test”… to make player personnel decisions.

Of course, the anti-stat clan of fans are quick to point out that these dinosaurs in the Twins front office have managed to put together teams that have won a Division Title or two… or six… recently. So why should they change the way they do business? If their eyes tell them that Frankie’s delivery is too violent to stay healthy over the long run or so quirky that it is too difficult to consistently be repeated, who are we to tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about? It’s a fair question.

Personally, I think the advanced statistics (at least those that I’ve bothered to learn something about) provide some interesting comparative data. I don’t believe, however, that numbers are infallible. The Twins employ scouts and coaches who have watched hundreds of pitchers throw hundreds of thousands of pitches. They’ve seen more than their share of career shortening injuries resulting from unusual and/or inconsistent pitching mechanics. In short, if the Twins have serious questions about the likelihood of Liriano remaining healthy through the length of a pricey 3-4 year contract extension, just maybe they know what they’re talking about.

Does that mean I think it’s just fine for the Twins to continue to virtually ignore advanced metrics while virtually every other MLB team commits considerable resources to analyzing those statistics and relies more and more on those numbers in making their personnel decisions? In a word… no. In fact, hell no!

Here’s how I look at it… If I ran the Twins and I learned that many of my competitors had come to the conclusion that redheaded players were likely to outperform players with brown and blond hair, I would think they were out of their minds. But you can bet I would make sure I knew the hair color of every player in MLB and every minor leaguer, as well. Why? Because at some point I’m going to be talking to the other GMs about trades and I want to know everything I can about what the competition considers important, even if I don’t share their opinions.

To put this in to more practical context, let’s say that the Twins really do decide they’re going to listen to offers on Francisco Liriano because the Twins’ scouts doubt his mechanics will ever allow him to reach and maintain true “ace” status. Maybe they think last season is likely to be as good as he ever gets. But if you’ve had someone in the organization seriously study the guy’s advanced statistics, then you at least are in a position to know how other GMs will value the player (AND how they value the players in their own organization). That knowledge allows you to negotiate the best possible deal.

And who knows? Maybe once you have your own people doing the statistical analysis, you may just discover there’s some value in using those numbers to supplement the work of your scouting department.

I don’t mind so much that the Twins continue to rely primarily on the opinions of their scouts, coaches and other “baseball people” to decide whether to trade a player. However, I DO mind if they don’t bother to do basic statistical research that would allow them to make the best deals possible. That’s just bad business.

Anyway… at least the Liriano issue has given all of us something to chew on during the final few days before pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers. It beats the heck out of arguing about trees, like we were last week! – JC

T.G.I.F.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twinsfest, et al.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Perry, Twins Hall of Fame inductee

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

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

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

Things that rhyme with “itching”

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

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

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

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

Hammond Stadium is waiting

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

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

– JC