Butterflies With Hiccups – Iowa Style

I’m taking advantage of a bit of extra free time I have this afternoon to do another post of random news items (if you use a very generous definition of the word “news”), most of it with an Iowa connection today.

I played hooky this afternoon and watched the Twins and White Sox. True, I had to deal with the Comcast broadcast out of Chicago due to the MLB blackout rules and that means listening to Hawk Harrelson, but that’s what the mute button is for, right? I hear he left the broadcast booth in the 7th inning of the Twins 18-9 blowout of the Sox on Tuesday night and I have to admit I wish I had witnessed that.

As this MLB season winds down, I’m rooting for two things: First, as many of you know, I’m a bit of an Orioles fan, so I still have a team in contention. I still think the Birds are doing it with smoke and mirrors, but I really don’t care how they get the job done, I just want them to beat the Yankees over in the AL East and get in to the playoffs. (Admit it, you wouldn’t mind seeing JJ Hardy and Lew Ford in the playoffs, either.) Second, I’m hoping that the White Sox end up on the outside of the playoffs looking in AND that they finish just close enough that their losses to the Twins this year account for their failure to qualify.

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Miguel Sano

Speaking of playoffs, I’m driving over to Clinton IA this evening to catch game one of the best-of-three playoff series between the Twins’ Midwest League (Class A) affiliate Beloit Snappers and the Clinton LumberKings (Seattle’s affiliate). Clinton finished the MWL regular season on a 10-game winning streak (the last three of which came against my Cedar Rapids Kernels). I saw all three of the Clinton-CR games this past weekend and I think Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and their Beloit teammates have their work cut out for them. Either way, at least I’ll get to check off another MWL ballpark with my visit to Beloit tonight.

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There’s nothing really new on the Twins’ affiliation front for 2013. Now that the minor league regular season is over, teams that are interested in exploring new affiliation options (both MLB teams and minor league teams) can notify the MLB Commissioner’s Office or the president of minor league baseball of such. The teams are not allowed to state publicly that they’ve submitted that notification, however.

The powers-that-be will provide a list of potential affiliates to those teams by September 15. Then, and only then, are the various MLB and MiLB clubs able to start negotiating possible new partnerships with one another.

There was a new article posted online at the website of one of the local CR TV stations (KCRG) this week, but it really didn’t tell us much we didn’t already know. KCRG is owned by the same company (SourceMedia) as the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the report was written by the Gazette writer, Jeff Johnson, that covers the Kernels beat. Johnson has written about the affiliation issue a couple of times already this season and I think he has a pretty solid sense of what’s about to happen.

I’m optimistic, at this point, that I’ll be watching future Twins play baseball at Perfect Game Field here in Cedar Rapids for the next few summers, but the Kernels Directors (essentially, the team’s “owners”) still have a few questions they should be asking the Twins (such as, “Are you planning on buying a MWL team and moving it to St. Paul in a couple of years?”) before anyone is going to sign a deal. As soon as I hear more, I’ll post something, but I don’t expect to hear a lot before the end of September.

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Since this is an Iowa-centered post on a baseball-centered blog, I thought I would mention this little piece of news, as well.

How many of you have seen the movie “Field of Dreams”? Everyone? I thought so.

How many of you have visited the site near Dyersville, in Eastern Iowa, where the movie was filmed? Did you even know the site has been a mini-tourist attraction, complete with cornfield-bordered baseball field, pretty much ever since the movie was released? No? Well now there’s going to be even more of a reason for you to visit, especially if you have kids who play baseball or softball.

Go the Distance Baseball LLC plans to build a $38 million youth baseball/softball complex at the Field of Dreams site. The complex will include 24 ballfields of varying sizes (over and above the original field, which apparently won’t be altered).  The company received approval of a $16.5 million sales tax rebate from the Iowa Legislature & Governor last spring and now have a $5.1 million property tax rebate from the Dyersville City Council, as well.

New Field of Dreams complex (from their Facebook page)

Here’s the artist’s rendering of the site:

Sounds like Ray Kinsella is hearing more voices, doesn’t it? He and his tractor are going to be kept awfully busy plowing under all those other fields. Almost makes me want to get back in to coaching youth baseball. Almost.

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This is rivalry week down here in Iowa. It’s the week of the annual Iowa – Iowa State football game, which I know is of very little interest to much of anyone outside our state’s borders. But it’s a big deal here. It’s in Iowa City this year, which means that’s where I’ll be spending most of my Saturday.

I’m a Hawkeye season ticket holder, but I’m not “anti-ISU” like a lot of people are. I went to high school over in central Iowa, about 40 miles from Iowa State’s campus in Ames. My parents were even ISU season ticket holders for a few years (back in the days when Johnny Majors coached the Cyclones), so I saw a game or two back then. I enjoy taking jabs at my ISU-fan friends and co-workers, but I really don’t mind them having some success on the football field from time to time.

But not this Saturday.

The trophy case in the Iowa football complex that is built to hold the various traveling trophies that the Hawkeyes play for is empty at the moment, with all three of them currently in the possession of various rivals. It’s time the Cy-Hawk Trophy resumes its rightful place in Iowa City.

It may feel a bit lonely for a while, but come September 29, after the Gophers have been sent packing, Floyd of Rosedale will be there to keep it company.

- JC

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

Flipping The @MinnesotaTwins The Bird

Some of you may still recall my rant a week or so ago about the absurd, insane, unfair, and downright indefensible blackout rules that prevent me (and all of my fellow Iowans) from watching Twins (and Brewers and Cardinals and Royals and Cubs and White Sox) games online. I mentioned somewhere in that rant that this would be my 51st and final year as a Twins fan if the rules don’t change by next year… which I know they almost certainly won’t do.

Many of you, I’m sure, believed that vow to be nothing more than an emotional (over)reaction to a situation that has, after all, existed for years and that I would eventually calm down and remain a lifelong loyal Twins fan. It’s a fair assumption.

It’s also going to prove to be an erroneous assumption. I’m going to burn all of my Twins gear… 3 jerseys, 3 Spring Training sport shirts, at least 3 caps, and more t-shirts than I can count… on Opening Day 2012 if the Twins still insist on including Eastern Iowa in their “protected home market”, despite FSN not bothering to do what it takes to actually get carried on a local cable provider.

In fact, I’ve already chosen the team I plan on devoting my fandom to, in place of the Twins. I’ll be trading in my navy and red for the black and orange of the Baltimore Orioles.

As a matter of fact, thanks to those absurd, insane, unfair, and downright indefensible blackout rules, I’ve actually already watched more Orioles baseball than I have of the Twins.

And I gotta say… I’m loving this year’s Orioles team.

I expected them to be better than they have been in several years. In fact, in my “offbeat predictions” post last week, one of the limbs I went out on was to predict the O’s would finish second in the AL East this year. That was before Baltimore went on to win their first four games of the season, with a sweep of the Rays down in St. Petersburg and before the Red Sox lost their first six (and counting) games of the season!

As you may be able to tell, I’m actually getting excited for this team. The “veteran” sluggers they brought in to shore up their offense haven’t even started hitting yet. Vlad Guerrero finally hit his first HR of the season tonight, Derrek Lee has just one (as of the 5th inning of Thursday’s game, which I’m watching as I write this), and Mark Reynolds still hasn’t gone yard. (It seems the Twins aren’t the only team yet to get much thunder out of the heart of their batting order.)

JJ Hardy in his (and my) new colors

But Brian Robers has been hot and good old “number 2 in your program and number 1 in your hearts” JJ Hardy has been a double machine. He may only have three hits on the season, but they’ve all been two-baggers. And the young starting rotation has really done a nice job so far.

It’s actually kind of fun to root for a young-ish team on the rise (hopefully), that’s been built by former Twin GM Andy MacPhail and is being managed brilliantly by Buck Showalter. Only the Twins, among AL teams, had a better record from August through the end of the regular season last year than the Orioles did.

As an Orioles fan, I still get to vehemently root against the F’ing Yankees and the East Coast Bitch Sox.

Of course, the BEST part about becoming an Orioles fan is that I get to actually watch them play every game. OK… not EVERY game… for example, later this month when they host the Twins, I WON’T be able to watch those games (thanks to the absurd, insane, unfair, and downright indefensible blackout rules).

But there’s a chance I’ll be in Baltimore the last week of April and they’re hosting the Red Sox for three games that week, so there’s a very real possibility that I’ll actually be watching my first regular season MLB game in Camden Yards, instead of Target Field, this season.

I’ve even started checking out some of the Orioles blogs (scouting the future competition, you might say). There don’t seem to be nearly as many as the umpteen million Twins blogs around so I think maybe that’s a lineup that could use me!

And with that.. YESSSSSSSSS Adam Jones just tied the Tigers 4-4 in the sixth with his first HR of the season!

I wonder if there’s a song I need to learn. Ah well… until I find out, I’ll just stick with…

~You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant~

- JC

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

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!

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

Smith & Gardy: The New Goose & Maverick?

“I feel the need… the need for SPEED!”

Some of you are probably too young to remember this line from Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards in “Top Gun” (is it really possible that movie is 25 years old?). The two actors portrayed Naval Aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his backseat RIO, “Goose” (20 bonus Knuckleballs points if you can tell us Goose’s character’s real name without looking it up… I couldn’t) as they piloted their F14A Tomcat from the USS Enterprise (that’s the aircraft carrier, not the starship) to Top Gun training at Miramar Naval Air Station.

Maverick, you see, was one helluva pilot (sorry… naval aviator) and there’s no doubt that if he would just “do it right”, he could be the best.

But Maverick’s personality was such that he had to go faster than anyone else. Goose would try to maintain some level of control and impress on his friend that being smart about things is important, too. In the end, however, he always went along with Maverick’s reckless “winning means doing it faster than anyone else, no matter what” approach. Goose knew better, but dangit, Maverick was such a lovable guy that in the end, all he could do is shake his head and go along for the ride.

The Twins never showed interest in bring back Orlando Hudson and now, with the addition of Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka and subsequent trade of JJ Hardy to Baltimore on the last day of MLB’s Winter Meetings, Twins General Manager Bill Smith officially bought in to Manager Ron Gardenhire’s desire to begin bringing the running game back in to the Twins’ offensive game plan.

Does Bill Smith really believe in this change in approach? Did he try to point out to Gardy that his team scored more runs than anyone else in the AL Central Division, even if Target Field proved more difficult than expected to hit a baseball out of?

It doesn’t really matter, of course, whether Smith knows the important thing is to outscore your opponents and win games, because dangit, Gardy is such a lovable guy and you know that, in the end, all Smith can do is shake his head and go get the kind of players Gardy wants.

A year ago… and really all throughout the 2010 season… a lot of us were having some fun drawing comparisons between the Twins and White Sox. Years earlier, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had given the Twins a cute nickname… the piranhas (or was it “piranyas”?)… that portrayed the Twins as a scrappy group of speedy little guys with limited real athletic ability that consistently beat Ozzie’s more talented teams by nibbling them to death. By 2010, the roles had reversed and Ozzie had apparently convinced Sox GM Kenny Williams that he needed more versatile ballplayers who would battle their tales off, while Bill Smith went out and stocked the Twins with more professional hitters.

The beefed up Twins went something like 99-1 against the Sox team that Ozzie and Kenny had built in the Twins’ former image. As a result, this off-season, I’m not sure Williams has even asked Ozzie what he “wants”. He went out and bought the ultimate power hitter, Adam Dunn, in addition to re-signing Paul Konerko. (Alas, Mark Kotsay’s days DHing for the BitchSox are over… dammit.)

I’m concerned that Gardy got bored last year. Sure, the Twins scored a lot of runs and would almost certainly have scored even more if Justin Morneau hand’t been shelved by a concussion half way through the season. But something just didn’t feel right to Gardy. There were times, no doubt, when his instincts were to steal, bunt, hit & run… all those things the piranhas did… but there wasn’t a piranha in sight. Instead he had Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome and JJ Hardy out there clogging up the basepaths.

So what if the runs still scored (perhaps because the Twins weren’t needlessly giving up outs by bunting and getting caught stealing)? It just wasn’t the kind of baseball team Gardy enjoyed managing. It was like taking Maverick out of his F14A and putting him in a “clunky” B1 bomber. Sure he might eventually inflict more damage on the enemy, but without the speed and maneuverability of his Tomcat, it’s just not as much fun for the guy at the controls.

Look, I get that Target Field isn’t built for marginal power hitters… guys that rely on balls that barely clear fences to generate their HR numbers. But Bill Smith should remember that last season’s strategy of bringing in better offensive players, even if they weren’t the fastest guys in the game, resulted in the Twins winning 94 games.

And before Bill Smith completely buys in to Gardy’s dream of bringing us Piranhas II – The Sequel, he might also keep one more thing in mind…

While “Top Gun” ended with LT Mitchell all smiles, going along with Maverick’s “need for speed” didn’t turn out so well for Goose.

- JC

(Over)reactions to JJ Hardy Trade

If you aren’t one of those people who stay up in to the wee hours of the morning during MLB’s Winter Meetings, you may have awoken to the news that some time after midnight that the Twins and Orioles had agreed to a trade that sends JJ Hardy and Brendan Harris to Baltimore in return for two minor league relief pitchers, Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey.

It appears that the two pitchers have good velocity and could contribute to the Twins sooner, rather than later and I’m sure we’ll get more details on the trade during the course of the day Thursday. Still, I’m a bit disappointed in the return obtained for a very solid Major League shortstop. Of course, eliminating both Hardy’s estimated $6-7 million salary and the $1.75 million owed to Harris in 2011 does free up payroll room to be used elsewhere.

But, while I hoped to either keep Hardy around or get more in return for him, I’m not sure what surprises me more… that the Twins would trade JJ Hardy for no more than they are getting in return from the Orioles or that Twins fans/bloggers are so universally up in arms over the trade.The large and diverse Twins blogging community, by and large, has trouble agreeing on anything. No matter what moves Bill Smith makes, some people will like it, some people won’t like it, and some people (you know who you are) will think it’s the dumbest move ever made by any MLB front office since the last move made by the Twins… because every move made by the Twins is, by definition, the worst move made by any team, ever.

But long before this trade was finalized, the blogs, podcasts and Tweets were lighting up with almost unanimous criticism of the deal. There was some acknowledgment that the limited return the Rays got for Jason Bartlett on Wednesday indicated that Twins fans should be prepared to see similar limited returns for Hardy, but that hasn’t kept the complaints from pouring through cyberspace in the first hour or so following the announcement. That’s pretty incredible, when you think about it. How bad must a deal be to get all of us to agree that it’s bad?!

Hardy

The assumption seems to be that the Twins simply needed to dump Hardy’s estimated salary to make room for Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka… that having scored too many runs last year, Gardy longed to return to the “piranha”  game that he enjoys managing. I’m on record of being skeptical about the prospect of turning over a middle infield position to Nishioka before he’s taken a single ground ball in Spring Training and dispensing Hardy to Camden Yards certainly is risky, to me.

That said, we’re talking about JJ Hardy here, not Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau. I get that he’s developed a certain loyal fan base (largely among the womenfolk, for some reason), but let’s keep in mind this is a guy who the Brewers demoted to the minor leagues just 18 months ago and traded for Carlos Gomez just over a year ago. (Gomez is now available on the trade market again, by the way.)

If we want to take an honest look at why the Twins moved Hardy just a year after trading for him, we should take a step back and recall why they traded for him in the first place. A year ago, the Twins were intent on adding offense, even if it meant sacrificing some defense. Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson were brought in for their bats. They traded away their best defensive outfielder for a shortstop that they hoped might hit a few home runs. And the Twins, at that point, couldn’t really know how their new home, Target Field, would play.

Now fast-forward a year and put yourself in the Twins post-season organizational meetings. You know, now, that your new shortstop essentially has warning track power in Target Field (like pretty much everyone else). He’s not fast. He’s not quick. He’s an above average defensive shortstop in much the same way Cal Ripken was an above average shortstop. He positions himself very well. He just seems to get to the ball very well.

With the general dearth of quality middle infielders on the open market this winter, now might have been the Twins’ best opportunity to get anything of value for Hardy. While it may be difficult to make that argument with a straight face, given the return received from the Orioles, what we don’t know today is what Hardy’s performance level will be in 2011.

In the grand scheme of things, however, the Twins’ fortunes in 2011 aren’t likely to be significantly determined by having Nishioka and Casilla in the middle of the infield instead of one of those two paired with Hardy. And if one of them gets hurt or underperforms, it’s not like the Twins don’t have a couple of hundred middle infielders in their system that could step in.

I’ve felt from the beginning that the key to the Twins improving their roster for 2011 is improving the top of their starting rotation. Other than the fact that devoting so much of their time to the Nishioka/Hardy issue has kept them from focusing their attention on improving their rotation, I just can’t get all that worked up over this trade. In fact, part of me feels like anything disliked so much by so many of us must have a pretty good shot at turning out well!

I like JJ Hardy and I even like the Orioles. I hope he does well there.

And I hope the Twins and their scouts are right about Nishioka, not to mention Jacobson and Hoey.

-  JC

P.S. It appears that I can pretty much forget all about my off-season “blueprint”. Not only is it virtually impossible that the Twins would be able to get my preferred “ace”, Zack Greinke, but now my suggestion for a flyer in the outfield is off the table as well. Melky Cabrera has reportedly agreed to terms with Greinke’s Royals. Ah well.

Is There a Magic Wand(y) Out There?

I find myself in unfamiliar waters these days.

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

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

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

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

Let’s try this scenario on for size.

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

Wandy Rodriguez

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either that or they should find another line of work.

-JC

Shortstop: JJ Hardy vs Tsuyoshi Nishioka

UPDATED UPDATED UPDATE: The Twitter reports are flying now… Joe Christensen, Ken Rosenthal and Parker Hageman (among others) are keeping up with the news, but the long and short of the situation at 11:00 am CT Friday appears to be that the Twins HAVE won the bidding (for about $5 million) for the rights to negotiate with Nishioka and that the contract could come in at $2-3 million per year on a multi-year contract. If those numbers turn out to be relatively accurate, that’s not an unreasonable financial risk to take, in my opinion. – JC

Early this week, we should find out whether the Twins have posted a successful bid for the rights to negotiate with Japanese 2010 batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Chiba Lotte Marines’ shortstop. This is kind of exciting for Twins fans. Our team has never had the money to consider signing significant MLB free agents, much less throw several million dollars at a Japanese team for the rights to pay several million dollars more to the actual player. The Twins are apparently swimming in revenue! So, you ask, why not go get this young Japanese hero?

I’m glad you asked.

Nishioka

We’ve been reading that Gardy and the Twins front office want to add speed to the Twins’ offense. It turns out that it’s kind of hard to hit baseballs out of Target Field. Those hard hit baseballs find lots of room in the gaps for doubles and triples, however. So the braintrust has decided they should add players that hit balls in the gaps and then have the speed to get around the bases quicker. I can’t really argue with this. It’s logical.

Of course, by my logic, they should probably look to upgrade that speed in their own outfield positions so they not only get better results on the bases, but also reduce the chances of opponents’ batted balls finding those wide gaps between the not-so-speedy outfielders the Twins send out to the corner OF positions.

Instead, apparently Gardy and Bill have decided that the upgrade in speed should be made at a position where the team already has one of the best defensive players in the league… shortstop. And since there are absolutely zero speedy shortstops available domestically, they’ve turned their eyes to the Land of the Rising Sun.

On the surface, it makes some sense, I suppose.

Nishioka did win the batting title in 2010 with a .346/.423/.482 split, good for an OPS of .905, and hit 11 home runs. He also stole 22 bases, while playing in all 144 of Chiba Lotte’s regular season games. He’s said to possess a strong arm and above average range at shortstop. He could also play second base if the coaches decide Alexi Casilla is the better shortstop. He’s also only 26 years old, so he could be a member of the Twins’ core group for several years to come. What’s not to like?

Plenty, actually.

Hardy

Let’s start with those stolen bases. He’s averaged about 25 stolen bases a year over the past five years and actually led his league with 41 six years ago. But he’s also been caught stealing about 1/3 of the time. That’s actually a bit above the average throw-out rate for MLB catchers. So you have to ask, do the stolen base totals indicate you’d be upgrading your speed or will he just be running the team out of rallies on a regular basis? In other words… if JJ Hardy attempted 30 steals every year, would he be successful much less than Nishioka would?

Of course, one knock on Hardy is that he’s been injury prone. If he and his bum wrist can’t take the field, what good is he? Let’s go get the guy who plays every day. OK… but that guy may not be Nishioka. While he did play the entire 2010 season, he missed anywhere between 14 and 29 games of each of his other five full seasons with the Marines, with injuries to his hamstring, knee, neck and… wait for it… yes, his wrist.

Don’t get me wrong… Nishioka may turn out to be the next Ichiro and if he does, it would be fun to see him in a Twins uniform. And maybe JJ Hardy will never regain the offensive talent he showed in 2007 and 2008. But finding out if either of those turns out to be the case will come with a cost.

Under the agreement between MLB and Nippon Baseball, once Chiba Lotte posted Nishioka, MLB teams had four days to submit a sealed bid to the Marines for the rights to enter a 30-day negotiating period with the player and his agent. It’s hard to predict what the winning bid might be, but given the lack of top tier middle infield options on the free agent market this off-season, it’s hard to imagine the winning bid being less than $10 million and I won’t be surprised if it’s closer to $15-20 million. [UPDATE: Boy did I miss on that assumption! The actual winning bid was reportedly around or just over a quite affordable $5 million.] That money only gets paid if the winning team eventually signs the player to a contract, however. Any team shelling out that kind of money for negotiating rights is going to want to lock the player up for several years.

If the Twins offer Hardy arbitration, they’ll probably end up negotiating a one-year deal for something between $6-7 million (though the possibility of signing him to a two-year deal for slightly less per year certainly exists). Compare that to the posting fee and multi-year commitment they’d have to make to acquire Nishioka, which would conservatively have to reach $25-30 million over 3-4 years. You have to ask yourself if you realistically should expect enough of an upgrade at the shortstop position to warrant that additional investment. Consider that the money you’re sending to Japan for the posting fee alone could otherwise be spent on bringing Carl Pavano back for 2011. [UPDATE: In addition to the actual $5 million-ish winning bid, early reports also indicate the possibility that salary demands may be somewhat lower than I projected here... if it's closer to $3 million/year, this becomes a much more reasonably priced "risk" in my opinion. But would it be reasonable enough to ALSO keep Hardy? Stay tuned.]

And it’s not like the Twins stand to profit by selling broadcast rights in Japan… MLB controls all international rights and divides all revenues (broadcast, merchandise, etc.) evenly among the teams. The Twins might get some additional advertising dollars from Japanese companies, but that’s about it.

In addition, while I’m not really a big “team chemistry” guy (I think it’s overrated as a success factor), I do have to wonder how well Nishioka would fit in with the Twins. In 2007, he announced that henceforth he would be listed on the Chiba Lotte roster simply as “Tsuyoshi”. Kind of like “Cher” or “Madonna”. Or that other diva, “Ichiro”.

Nishioka and fiance Tokuzawa

On the other hand… the guy has dated models and even a professional golfer and he’s apparently engaged to model/actress Naoko Tokuzawa, so he’s got that going for him. She’d certainly constitute one of those “Target Field enhancements” the Twins have been talking about if she attends his games. And get this… both Noshioka and Tokuzawa have blogs! (You might want to brush up on your Japanese before you add them to your daily list of “must reads”, though.)

This guy clearly is not short on self-esteem. However, until this past year, it doesn’t look to me like he had the performance to match his ego. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he chose this year to request that his team post him to MLB. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that Chiba Lotte agreed to post him this year. They’re selling high and hoping to cash in if one MLB team will overpay for a young player who’s had one good year in an inferior baseball league.

I don’t think that team should be the Twins.

- JC

UPDATE 12/18: Click here to read our post welcoming Tsuyoshi Nishioka to the Twins, now that he’s officially signed with the Twins. – JC