Morneau is “Old School”

In ancient days, when I was in school and Tony, Killer and Carew were patrolling the field at Met Stadium with Billy Martin chewing umpires up and spitting them out, players from opposing teams did not play buddy-buddy with one another. I don’t know if those were the “good old days” or not, but there’s something “old school” about players genuinely carrying the same disdain for rivals and rival players that we, as fans, carry for those bums.

So I loved reading the piece by Doug Padilla of ESPN Chicago with the following quotes from Jesse Crain and Mark Teahan (who was Justin Morneau’s workout partner in Arizona this offseason):

“He never congratulated me; he’s the one guy who didn’t,” Crain said. “Even [Michael] Cuddyer and [Denared] Span and all those guys, [Joe] Mauer, everybody did. But Morneau was the one guy who never did it.”

Told that Morneau still hadn’t congratulated his buddy Crain on landing a financially solid deal and winding up with a winning team at the same time, Teahen didn’t seem too surprised.

“You know that there’s that rivalry there, but with Morneau, he seems to take it hard even off the field,” Teahen said. “It was fun to see and it lights your fire to want to have the same passion back the other way.”

So when it was time to end the workout routine and head in their respective directions for the start of spring training, was Morneau able to wish Teahen well?

“He gave me a little fist pump and said, ‘All right, I’m going to act like I don’t know you until the end of the season,'” Teahen said. “I told him I was cool with that.”

LaVell E Neal III at the StarTribune went straight to the source for the information, posting this reaction from Morneau in LaVelle’s Twins Insider blog:

I got reaction from Morneau about a ESPN Chicago article in which Jesse Crain claimed Morneau was the only Twin not to congratulate him for signing a three-year deal. Morneau said he jokingly texted Crain.”The White Sox? Are you kidding me?”

But, at the end of our talk, he referred to comments from Alex Rios about Chicago being the favorite to win the division.

“They said they are the team to beat in the division, so whatever,” Morneau said.

So from accounts, Doc has a particular dislike for the White Sox. I knew there was a reason I liked that guy!

– 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

Off-season Photo Farewell

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

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

Matt Capps: The “New Nick Punto”?

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

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

Photo: Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: AP/Ted S Warren

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Knuckleballs/Jim Crikket

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

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

One final thought on Matt Capps…

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

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

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

– JC

Bullpen: White Knights or Black Hole?

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

Bullpen up in the air?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Never heard of him? That’s OK.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

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

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

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

Gotta be more important stuff, right?

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

– JC

A Mid-Offseason Report Card

It’s been a while since I was in school (though perhaps not as long ago as one might expect for someone of my advanced years). That said, I do recall something called “mid-term grades”. The cool thing about them was that they told you how you were doing in your coursework, but they didn’t really “count”. If you were doing well, you could afford to have a few beers and relax over the weekends, but if you were coming up short, the mid-term grades served as a wake-up call of sorts.

Sometimes, I think it would be nice if I could get the same sort of feedback once out in the real world. And if I think that would be of benefit to me, certainly an intelligent man like Bill Smith must feel the same way, right?

As hard as it may be to believe, we’re approaching the half-way point between the end of the Twins’ 2010 season and the date pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, 2011.

So it’s in this spirit of helpfulness that I offer the Twins’ GM his mid-term grade: D+.

And that grade assumes Tsuyoshi Nishioka gets signed by the December 26 deadline. If Smith doesn’t bring that home, the grade drops to an F.

The good news is, just like in college, the mid-term grades don’t really count. There’s still time to bring that grade up and not screw up the GPA. But time is wasting.

Monday at the the Swan and Dolphin hotels at DisneyWorld, MLB’s movers and shakers get together for their annual Winter Meetings, which wind up Thursday with the Rule 5 draft. Over the past five years, there have been an average of just over 10 trades announced during each year’s Winter Meeting gathering. It might be a very good idea for one or two of those deals this week to involve the Twins.

Why? Well, let’s take a look at what we’ve seen so far this offseason.

Unless/until deals are reached to bring some of these guys back in to the Twins fold, the Twins have lost their most reliable starting pitcher, Carl Pavano, their most prolific power hitter, Jim Thome, and four solid (or better) relief pitchers in Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes.. The Twins have done absolutely nothing about replacing the departing talent, much less making any improvements in those positions.

Nishioka is, so far, the only meaningful addition this offseason (and he isn’t even officially on board yet). And you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not as convinced as others seem to be that he represents a certain improvement over Hudson, Hardy or whoever’s roster spot he ends up taking.

Of course, Justin Morneau should be back and healthy by Opening Day and that represents a significant upgrade over Michael Cuddyer at 1B. But the Twins have done nothing to improve their lack of speed in their outfield, they haven’t replaced Pavano’s innings in the top half of the rotation and there looks to be a significant drop off in bullpen talent between the back end arms, Joe Nathan and Matt Capps, and the rest of the pen arms.

The Tigers have added Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, the White Sox have added Adam Dunn to the heart of their line up, the Red Sox have acquired Adrian Gonzalez and are still kicking the tires on Jayson Werth [UPDATE: Werth has signed with the Nationals], the Yankees are going to add Cliff Lee and both the Angels and Rangers are in the hunt for Carl Crawford. Meanwhile, the Twins have done little but try to strengthen the Rochester Red Wings roster.

And excuse me if I don’t believe the chatter about potentially trading JJ Hardy for middle relief pitching would constitute any sort of improvement whatsoever. There are 70 or so middle relievers on the free agent market, including the four pretty good arms that wore Twins uniforms last season. Trading Hardy for talent you could easily bring on board through free agency would be a total waste of a valuable asset.

You don’t improve your chances of success in this league by trying to simply maintain the status quo while everyone else is focused on improving. Yes, the Twins won 94 games in 2010, but those who think they don’t have to improve the roster just to have a shot at being competitive in their division next season are kidding themselves.

Smith and his front office team have shown very little progress during the first half of the “semester” and that’s what they’re mid-term grade reflects. But there’s still time to salvage a passing grade. The second half of the offseason starts this week at Mickey Mouse’s Magic Kingdom.

It’s time to get to work, Mr. Smith.

– JC

Who’s Closing for the Twins in 2011?

Since the Twins were eliminated from the 2010 postseason, we (and a whole lot of other people) have written a bit about the roster decisions the Twins will be making this off-season. I still haven’t quite landed on what I really want to see Bill Smith and the gang do about the roster. One thing I have figured out, though, is that if I sat down to write a blog post about what I think the Twins should do, it would be a very… very… long post.

So I think we should attack this subject a little bit at a time. Like, maybe just one or two players in a post. Let’s especially look at some of the guys that may or may not be wearing the Twins pinstripes next season. Along the way, if we decide they may not be around, we should also mention something about the options the team might explore to replace that player.

Let’s start with Jesse Crain and Matt Capps because I believe their futures with the Twins are mutually exclusive. If one stays, the other goes elsewhere. And I think both of their fates are entangled a bit with Joe Nathan’s.

Jesse Crain

Let me just say that I’m one of those people who think the “save” statistic is wayyyyyy overrated as a meaningful statistic. That said, I don’t believe you can just plug any decent bullpen arm in to the closer role and watch them succeed. Mental makeup matters. But it’s really too bad that saves have become the kind of statistic that makes the difference between whether a pitcher makes $8 million a year or $3 million.

Think that’s an overstatement? Consider that for most of 2010, Jesse Crain was clearly the most effective pitcher coming out of the Twins’ bullpen. But he wasn’t getting saves. Matt Capps was. Jon Rauch was. Brian Fuentes got saves for the Angels before coming over to the Twins. Next season, unless he and his agent can find a team willing to just hand him a closer job (and pay him accordingly), Jesse Crain is probably going to be pitching somewhere for less than $4 million. All three of his team mates mentioned above, who racked up over 20 saves each during the season, may be making “closer money” somewhere… likely twice what Crain will get.

As much as I would love to see Crain back in the same role he had this year with the Twins… coming in to games in the most critical late-inning situations (which I think is when teams SHOULD use their most dominant reliever)... you really can’t blame Crain for publicly stating that he’d like get an opportunity to be a closer somewhere. Yes, you and I could live just fine on $3-4 million a year. I’m sure Jesse does, too. But we’re talking about possibly doubling his pay if he can work himself in to a closer role in the next year or two and start notching those saves. That would matter to me, too.

Joe Nathan

The Twins are a bit handcuffed by the $12.5 million they’re going to be obligated to pay Joe Nathan next season. That’s high-end closer money going to a guy who probably is not going to be closing for them. Yes, it would be wonderful if Nathan came to Spring Training and just picked right up where he left off before having his elbow rebuilt this past March. But it’s really just not reasonable to expect that to happen. It would be rare for a pitcher to return to that level of effectiveness that soon. It would be foolish of the Twins not to have at least one other option they trust to slam the door on opponents in the last inning.

Sure, maybe one of the cheaper arms in the Twins’ stable could step in… Mijares or Neshek maybe… or perhaps one of the kids who have been toiling in Rochester or New Britain could rise to the challenge. But if you were Bill Smith, would you want to rely on that? I’m not Bill Smith and I don’t want to rely on that.

The Twins need a Plan B (or arguably a Plan A, with a fully recovered Nathan the Plan B). That’s where Capps and Crain come in.

Matt Capps (PioneerPress photo)

Matt Capps is arbitration eligible and people who know this stuff much better than I do say he’d get something around $8-9 million in arbitration because that process rewards those pesky save statistics. I know Capps is not exactly Mr. Popular among a lot of Twins fans/bloggers. I’ve never quite understood that. He’s still young and I expect he’ll perform well in a closer role for several years to come… somewhere. Then again, Jesse Crain has felt the wrath of Twins fans/bloggers, as well, over the years.

Crain is a free agent. To bring him back, the Twins will need to outbid other teams who might be interested in his services. I’m not sure any team will pay him $5+ million and promise him the opportunity to close, but they might. If he gets that kind of offer, he should take it and the Twins should thank him for his services and say good-bye. Hey… at least that would free up the Twins to retire #28 when Bert is elected to the Hall of Fame this year, right?

But if Crain doesn’t get that kind of offer elsewhere, maybe he’d be willing to come back for another year with the Twins at $3-4 million (perhaps with a much higher option for 2012 with a reasonable buy-out) and the promise that he’ll be given an opportunity to compete for the closer role.

If the Twins could make that deal with Crain, they could non-tender Capps and save a few bucks to use elsewhere. Alternatively, they could go ahead and take Capps to arbitration and then let Capps and Crain compete in March. The winner gets the Twins closer gig and the loser gets traded to someone else who suddenly finds themselves needing a closer as Opening Day nears. Someone always needs a closer as Opening Day nears.

The risk of this approach, however, is that if one of those guys gets injured, the Twins are stuck paying both Capps and Crain next season.

The bottom line is, I don’t see a need to carry Nathan, Crain and Capps in to 2011. That’s about $25 million in salary to three relief pitchers and I believe that’s a luxury the Twins can’t afford if they’re going to maintain a competitive group of every day players. – JC

Use the comment section to tell us who you think will/should get the opportunity to fill the role of Twins’ closer in 2011.

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

How Did We Get Here? (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Smith

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

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

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

Orlando Hudson

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

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

Joe Nathan

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

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

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

Alexi Casilla

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

Francisco Liriano

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

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