Winter Meetings: Time For Terry Ryan to Step Up.

Baseball’s Winter Meetings get in to gear down at the Gaylord Opryland hotel in Nashville on Monday and that’s got me a bit nervous. The Twins, at least at the Major League level, are in a sorry state, having come off a 96-loss season which followed a 99-loss season. It just doesn’t get much worse than this, folks.

A year ago, just ahead of the Winter Meetings in Dallas, I wrote a post here headlined “M&M: Time to Step Up or Shut Up.” The point was that, following a season in which the Twins stars had spent more time not playing baseball than playing baseball, perhaps it wasn’t totally unrealistic for the front office to play a little “wait and see” before spending a bunch of money trying to rebuild the roster to a level capable of contending. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, among others, needed to play better in 2012 or it really wouldn’t matter whether the Twins spent money to buy them some help.

To their credit, I believe Mauer and Morneau did exactly what I asked. They both had much-improved seasons, managing to stay on the field and hit baseballs with some regularity. Whatever the reasons were for the Twins dropping 96 games in 2012, those reasons had little, if anything, to do with Mauer and Morneau. The failure can arguably be laid almost entirely at the feet of the pitching staff. And that’s not entirely surprising. We at Knuckleballs posted multiple articles last offseason expressing our disappointment about the Twins failure to add significant pitching help and we certainly weren’t the only people making that point.

So here we are, a year later, on the eve of yet another week of Winter Meetings, and guess what… the Twins need to significantly improve their pitching staff. Terry Ryan made what certainly appears to have been a reasonable trade this week when he sent popular and productive outfielder/leadoff hitter Denard Span to the Nationals for potential future top-of-the-rotation pitcher Alex Meyer. But that deal won’t do anything to make the product at Target Field any more watchable in 2013.

The reports we are reading leading up to these meetings indicate the Twins are expected to be very active and that Terry Ryan is looking to significantly improve the 2013 rotation largely through the free agent market. That’s encouraging to hear, but folks, we’ve heard that before.

Let’s hop in to our time machine and go back just one year ago, shall we? Here’s a summary of what we were reading about the Twins activities during the Winter Meetings last December:

  • On Day One last year, there was conjecture that the Twins remained interested in Edwin Jackson, but that Jackson was going to wait until CJ Wilson and/or Mark Buehrle set the market. The Twins were said to be interested in Jackson only if they did not spend the money to re-sign Michael Cuddyer. Of course, they signed Josh Willingham for considerably less money than Cuddyer was demanding, but we certainly did not see Jackson in a Twins uniform.
  • Speaking of Mark Buehrle, reports also came out of Dallas on Day One that the Twins were one of four teams (along with the Nationals, Marlins and Rangers) that were “still in on” Buehrle. He eventually signed with the Marlins and is now a Blue Jay.
  • So what DID the Twins do on Day One? They re-signed Matt Capps and claimed SS Pedro Florimon off waivers from the Orioles.
  • On Day Two, we read that Buehrle had narrowed his list to five teams and that the Twins had an offer in. Word also came out that the Twins would be meeting with Jeff Francis’ agent during the Winter Meetings.
  • On the other hand, the Strib’s LaVelle E. Neal III was reporting that the Twins had had no conversations with the agents of Francis and Jackson.
  • They didn’t add a pitcher on Day Two, but the Twins did part with one. They traded Kevin Slowey to the Rockies for a “player to be named later.”
  • And on Day Three, apparently worn out by all the activity the first two days, the Twins front office rested.

Of course, later in the month, Terry Ryan inked Jason Marquis to a one year contract, so it’s not like he didn’t add any starting pitching, right?

So what’s my point?

My point is that, while Terry Ryan and Dave St. Peter are saying all the right things right now about improving the Twins in 2013 by adding legitimate starting pitchers, I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve heard it before. Just a year ago, the media was being fed reports about how the Twins were in on Mark Buehrle and interested in talking to Edwin Jackson’s agent. But when it came to actually spending money, they signed Jason Marquis.

And make no mistake, it would have been pretty easy to make a case to a top pitcher that their 2011 failures were fluke-ish… that injuries to Mauer, Morneau, Span, and others were responsible for the lousy record… and that with some pitching help and a return to health by their stars, the Twins could contend again in 2012. It won’t be nearly as easy to convince a top free agent that they’d be signing on to a contender in Minnesota this year. Last year, all Ryan had to so was spend money. This year he has to do a helluva sales job AND spend money.

It’s perfectly fine for fans to be hopeful that Ryan will do exactly that. As fans, hope is what we live on in December and January.

It’s also perfectly understandable for us to be skeptical that the Twins are really serious about being willing to spend the money that would be necessary to bring legitimate starting pitching help on board.

As I’ve written this past week, Terry Ryan has been saying all the right things. I’m sure the Twins would like fans to take them at their word when they talk about being willing to spend money to make real and immediate improvements.

But if the Twins really want us to take their words seriously, they need to do more than talk about signing good pitchers. They need to do it.

You’re on deck Mr. Ryan. It’s time for you to step up.

- JC

Say, whatever happened to what’s his name?

We’ve been running into so many of our former players on opposing teams lately, like Nathan, Guerrier, Hunter, Hardy, Thome, Punto, Crain…. well, you know. With recent news on a couple more, it got me wondering about some of those guys we don’t hear so much about. Whatever happened to some of the players we used to spend practically every day talking about?

So I went and did a little looking around – not too much because I’m lazy so I’m sure there are lot more of our former guys out there doing things we wouldn’t expect or with teams we don’t see often. If you know of one I didn’t include here, feel free to share what you know! It’s always fun to to catch up..

One of guys we didn’t get to see even though we could have hoped for it was Lew Ford! He recently came up from the minor leagues with the Orioles and got his first hit in MLB since 2007. During that time he played in Japan, Mexico and with an independent league before coming back to the minor leagues in the Orioles system. I’m not sure what it is about the Red Sox and the Orioles but they seem to be a haven for former Twins. And he’s finally on Twitter so you can follow @CaptainLew20 there – anyone else have a little trouble believing that it took a geek like Lew so long to finally join the social media world of micro-blogging?!?! Of course, I found out information about another former Twin by following him! It turns out Terry Tiffee is playing 3B for the AAA Gwinnett Braves. The interesting part is that apparently he recently got called upon to pull a Butera! He pitched an inning in the 22-1 Gwinnett loss. His line: 1IP, 5ER, 4H, 2BB, 0K,45.00ERA.

Also rejoining the ranks after an albeit VERY brief stint in independent league baseball is Luke Hughes! The very same day he announced that he was joining an independent team, he followed up with an announcement that he was going to Las Vegas instead to play for the 51s in the Toronto Blue Jays system. I am hoping his return to the big leagues comes a lot quicker than Lew’s!

Also still in the minor leagues is former utility everything guy, Matt Tolbert. He’s doing well with the Iowa Cubs. He’s also hitting significantly better in the minor leagues than he was able to achieve in the bigs. I suppose that is to be expected for a guy who is used to facing major league pitching. But he’s getting more multiple base hits including a recent outing where he was only a homer short of a cycle. I wish him all the best!

Of course not all former Twins are playing in the minor leagues. Plenty of them are still playing well in their new homes. Interestingly enough, I happened to catch the end of the Cardinals game on the radio on my way home from work on Sunday. Sure enough, there was a former Twin. Kyle Lohse racked up win #12 and is probably their best starting pitcher. I think he could be a good example for Liriano to look to – a guy with a LOT of talent who really struggled with the mental readiness required to anchor a rotation. Clearly Kyle figured something out after he left us.

Speaking of pitching, perennial fan favorite, Pat Neshek is providing a show relieving for the Oakland A’s. Yes, his pitching is still as awkward looking as it always was. And we just faced Jose Mijares with the Royals but yeah, he just got claimed off waivers by the Giants so he’s off to a new home. A couple other former Twins pitchers are currently on the DL, again. I guess they didn’t just have that problem with us. Things are looking up for Johan Santana who is expect to make his return from rehab on Saturday. Things aren’t as rosy for Kevin Slowey. There’s a reason we won’t see him playing the Indians. He’s been out since May with what was reported to be a strained lat. On Friday, trainer Lonnie Soloff said Slowey’s actual injury is a fractured rib. “That takes a long time to heal,” said Soloff. I guess the Twins training staff isn’t the only one having trouble with diagnoses.

It’s not like pitching is the only thing we lose over time. Two of our biggest hitters from last year are with new teams this year. Michael Cuddyer was having a good season with the Rockies – hitting .260 with 15 home runs and 56 RBI — but has been bothered by a strained right oblique muscle and hadn’t played since Tuesday. Does that sound familiar to anyone else?

And my thanks to Thrylos who got me to go check out what is going on with Jason Kubel these days. He’s doing VERY well batting .281 with 23 homeruns. And as Thrylos pointed out, he’s lost a significant amount of weight so in some pictures, it’s hard to recognize him! That has to be a LOT easier on his knees. Yeah, that’s him all they way over on the left. I think he looks taller in addition to looking smaller.

Manager Nelson Prada and Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

And there are the guys who aren’t playing anymore but are doing the best to pass on what they know to the next generation of players – they are coaching! I am amused by how many former Twins become Hitting Coaches.. really? But one we even get to interact with occasionally. JC just got see Tommy Watkins while visiting in Beloit because he’s still in the Twins system – coaching for us even! You can even follow him on Twitter: @TommyWatkins. He’s been fun to chat with.

Also filling the role as hitting coach are Doug Mientkiewicz and Jacque Jones. I’m very glad they are both still working in baseball but I have to admit that with Dougie especially, I wouldn’t have pegged him as a HITTING coach per se. But according to Utah’s Standard Examiner he’s making a big impact:

Baseball America, in their pre-draft player rankings comprised of both college and high school prospects, tabbed Rathjen as the 229th best draft-eligible player in the country. Had he been the 229th pick, he would have gone off the board early in the seventh round.

But instead of being taken where pundits predicted, he fell to the 11th round, and Rathjen seems pleased with how that’s worked out so far. He’s been given the opportunity to learn from Raptors hitting coach Doug Mientkiewicz, and the two have made a strong connection.

“(Mientkiewicz) was a player, and he was a good player, so he knows how to relate to us and explain things,” Rathjen said. “He can show us what we’re doing wrong and explain it in a way we can understand. For me, personally, that’s really helped.”

Already, Mientkiewicz has helped Rathjen speed up his timing and cut down his long, “metal-bat” swing to a short, direct-to-the-ball cut that’s more suited for wooden bats.

“He’s really done a solid job of (making adjustments),” Berryhill said of Rathjen. “He’s being able to recognize pitches a lot better, which means he’s getting better pitches to hit. He’s driving the baseball.”

I always wanted Dougie to get into coaching – hoped it would be for us like Tommy – because I really thought he had a gift for imparting his love of the game and ability to LEARN the needed skills on to others. I just never really thought it would be about hitting. It makes much more sense to me that Jacque Jones is doing the same thing for the Fort Wayne TinCaps in the Padres system. Since his last couple of playing years involved a LOT of bouncing up and down between the minors and the majors and from team to team, I am almost glad he decided to retire and go into coaching.

Last on my list today but most definitely not last in my baseball heart is Mike Redmond! He’s really making a name for himself Managing in the Blue Jays system. He has already been promoted to AA after a winning season with his A team, the Lansing Lugnuts, last year. His new team speaks pretty highly of him:

…the team will be operating under the guidance of a new skipper, former Major League catcher Mike Redmond.

Redmond made his managerial debut in 2011, when he took the Blue Jays A-ball affiliate, the Lansing Lugnuts, to the Midwest League Championship Series. Though the team fell in finals, the Lugnuts finished the regular season 17 games over .500 at 77-60, and won two post-season series under their rookie Manager.

A native of Seattle, Washington, Redmond spent 13 seasons as a catcher at the Major League level with three different Clubs (1998-2004 with FLA, 2005-2009 with MIN & 2010 with CLE), batting .287 with 13 home runs & 243 RBI in 764 career games.

I honestly couldn’t be happier for him and still really wish we could snag him away to help the Twins minor league system (and eventually the majors!) I think he has a long future in baseball ahead of him.

As I said at the beginning, if you know of someone else I didn’t mention here today, feel free to share! Obviously I love finding out what has happened to someone since the days I wrote their names in my scorebook.

**note: as I was putting the final touches on this post, in the space of about 10 minutes, I was lucky enough to see Brad Radke on TV and see a story about Corey Koskie tweeted out!! Bradke was discussing the American Indian Community Center in Minneapolis that he had recently helped remodel and the story about Koskie, you can read better for yourself: Koskie finds peace of mind.

Winter Meetings Chat: Day 2 (7:00-9:00 pm)

On the first day of Winter Meetings, Terry Ryan gave the Twins a new-old pitcher, Matt Capps, and a minor league shortstop out of the Baltimore organization, Pedro Florimon.

While the Capps debate rages on, here we’re ready to move on to Day 2. Let’s talk about what Terry Ryan has doing for an encore during the second day of baseball’s Winter Meetings. (We’ll open up the Chatroll window from 7-9 pm, then we encourage everyone to move on over to Seth’s and Jack’s Blogspot Radio podcast for additional arguing about the Twins’ moves.)

Kevin Slowey

  • The Twins started the day by announcing they’ve traded pitcher Kevin Slowey to Colorado for a “player to be named later”. This one had been discussed for a while as reports have floated around since before the season ended about the Rockies liking Slowey. Slowey was rumored to be a non-tender candidate, so chances are the Rockies aren’t giving up a significant player in return. For now, the Twins probably need the open roster spot, so it may be a while before we hear who’s coming over from the Rockies.
  • Not directly Twins-related but with the trade of Sergio Santos to the Jays, White Sox GM Kenny Williams has finally tipped his hand. He’s going to blow up the roster and rebuild. I’ve read comparisons to the Twins situation, but I think they’re very different. The White Sox didn’t have near the money coming off the books to work with in order to add pieces to remain competitive and, conversely, they have a lot more veteran players with significant trade value than the Twins do.
  • Jeff Francis’ agent will be meeting with the Pirates and Twins this week, in addition to the Mariners and, perhaps, others.
  • Mark Buehrle has “narrowed” his list of possible landing spots to five teams. Supposedly, the Twins are one team with an offer in to Buehrle. Here’s a question… if you were Buehrle, would you prefer to pitch for a team in the same division as the White Sox, where you have a significant amount of experience facing the hitters in that division, or would you prefer to go to a team where the opponents have little experience facing you (perhaps even to the NL)?
  • Not exactly Twins-related, but congratulations go out to Howard Sinker and the rest of the Star-Tribune staff who make their online content among the best in the business. The Star-Tribune web site has been awarded a “Top Ten” award by the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) in the large market category (over 2 million average monthly unique users).
  • Speaking of congratulations being in order, Michael Cuddyer tweeted today that his wife, Claudia, gave birth to twin girls (Chloe & Madeline) today. The Twins also reportedly have offered Cuddy a 3 year deal for $24-25 million. Having “twins” on the date you get an upgraded offer from the “Twins” must be a sign, right? Is this a proud daddy, or what?
  • Since multiple sources have been posting most of the news coming out of the Twins suite at the Anatole, I haven’t been crediting specific sources very often, but the Strib’s LaVelle E. Neal III added a few little factoids to the end of his blog post this afternoon that I haven’t read elsewhere (yet, anyway). According to LaVelle, the Twins have had zero conversations thus far with the agents of pitchers Edwin Jackson and Jeff Francis and their interest in Japanese pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Tsuyoshi Wada is “almost zero”.

Hints of a New Twins Paradigm?

I’m one of those people who likes to look beyond whether a decision is good or bad to determine the underlying reason a particular move was made. So while most of Twinsville spent last night debating whether the Twins’ decision to re-sign Matt Capps was good or bad (or apocolyptical), I’ve been trying to figure out WHY Terry Ryan made that decision.

I know they like Capps. I do too. I’m a little surprised more fans don’t, but fans are weird. And inconsistently hypocritical. The same fans that trash Joe Mauer for being soft and not playing through aches and pains, even if he wouldn’t have been at 100% also trash Matt Capps (and Michael Cuddyer, too, for that matter) for doing exactly that. Basically, fans apparently want players to perform at 100%+, regardless of their physical condition.

Matt Capps

But the reason the Twins are bringing back Capps can’t just be because they like his toughness and his presence in the clubhouse. Can it?

Terry Ryan has indicated he’s expecting payroll to come down considerably. He knows he has other needs to fill, so that $4.5 million he’s paying Capps is no small thing. But beyond that, Ryan is also turning his back on a supplemental draft pick. That’s not really as big a deal to me as it is to a lot of other people, but it certainly seems like the kind of thing that would be a big deal to Terry Ryan.

Ryan seems to be one of those baseball guys that loves the challenge of identifying and obtaining young talent more than just about any other phase of the game. The Twins, historically, have hoarded draft picks like they were gold. They didn’t sign Type A free agents. The didn’t often re-sign their own Type A or Type B free agents. They LOVED high draft picks.

Until now.

During a pre-Winter Meetings chat with local media, Ryan was asked about whether a compensatory pick was a consideration as they pursued deals with Capps, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. I was struck at the time by how un-Twinslike his response was. “We’ll take it, but we’d rather have the player.”

I’ve seen that quote in two different reliable sources (Phil Mackey and LaVelle E. Neal III) now, so I have no reason to question its accuracy. Questioning whether the ghost of George Steinbrenner has taken over Terry Ryan’s body has remained a viable option, however.

When the Twins no longer are as concerned about high draft picks when determining whether or not to sign a player who isn’t a superstar, something has changed.

As I skimmed through our blogroll this morning to read what those fine Twins bloggers had written overnight about the Capps deal, I think I may have found at least one possible answer. At least it makes more sense to me than anything else I’ve considered.

Over at Baseball Outsider, Edward Thoma wrote:

“I don’t believe for a moment that the Twins don’t take the value of compensation picks into serious consideration. Their historic reluctance to give up first round picks to sign Type A free agents is evidence of that.

“But I wonder if they are uncertain today of the real value of those picks under the new labor agreement and the formalized, enforceable restrictions on spending. I haven’t seen any explanation of how the spending ceilings are to be set, but if the ceilings are too low, it may be difficult to get high school prospects to sign— which will push teams to overdraft collegians and thin out the quality choices by the time the sandwich picks come up.

“If that’s a realistic possibility, then Ryan has a good point about preferring the player to the pick. Draft picks are hardly a sure thing.”

It makes some sense when you think about it. If the new bonus ceilings are low enough that teams are going to be reluctant to draft high school players in the first round and risk having them decide to go to college instead of playing Rookie Ball, it won’t take long before the best college players are off the board. That could leave teams with supplemental round picks having to decide between choosing from the college leftovers that in prior years would have been 2nd and 3rd rounders, HS players that you can no longer offer “above slot” money to, and HS players that you think are “signable” (who also probably would have been lower round picks in previous years).

So, if you’re the Twins, you have to be asking yourself just how good the prospect is that you’re losing by signing one of your own free agents. It’s impossible to know for sure, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to foresee that the quality of those supplemental round picks could take a nosedive under the new system.

Which brings us back to the original point. Is it possible that the Twins have given more thought to this possibility than fans have? Is it possible that Terry Ryan knows more than we do? And if high draft picks turn out to be less likely to turn in to contributing Major League players (and it’s not like it’s a guarantee already), is it possible that this is evidence of a significant shift in Twins philosophy?

I, for one, am willing to admit that it’s not only possible, but likely, that Ryan is smarter than we are. The rest, only time will tell.

In the end, none of us will know for a while whether the Capps deal turns out to be a good one. By spring, we’ll know if he’s healthy. By draft day, we’ll know what the compensation pick would have been like, and by this time next year we’ll know if it all worked out.

For now, we just see how Day 2 of the Winter Meetings plays out. It seems it’s starting with a small bang as Kevin Slowey has been traded to the Rockies for the infamous “player to be named later.” In other words, the Twins cleared a roster spot and are in no hurry to fill it.

Best of luck to Slowey. I hope he finds success in Colorado.

- JC

Hump Day “Hmmmmm”s

Today was hump day and here’s a rundown of a few things that made me go “hmmmmm” today.

Matt Capps

Matt Capps

There’s been a lot written in Twins blogdom about the pros and cons of re-signing Matt Capps. There’s certainly room for fair debate since Capps’ history with the Twins has been inconsistent.

But here’s what makes me go “hmmmmm”… Since the announcement that the Twins would get a supplemental round draft pick in 2012 if Capps signs elsewhere, without having to offer him arbitration, there’s been almost unanimous opinion expressed that this settles the question on the side of, “don’t bring him back.” Yet, it’s not as if giving Terry Ryan extra high draft picks to work with guarantees he’ll turn them in to productive Major Leaguers.

As Nick Nelson reminds us, in 2004 Ryan had a boatload of high picks which he turned in to shortstop Trevor Plouffe and pitchers Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop, Matt Fox and Jay Rainville. I’m not intending to pick on any of those players or on Ryan, but merely to remind everyone that even high draft picks face long odds against becoming productive Major Leaguers.

The bottom line is that I agree that the draft pick compensation the Twins can get for Capps does make it less likely that they re-sign him, but I’m not so certain that it should.

Twins Winter Meeting Trade Market

I opined in an earlier post that the period between now and the end of the Winter Meetings may determine the Twins’ 2012 fate. Even earlier than that, I published a couple of posts containing “blueprints” for how I would go about assembling a roster for 2012 if I were GM. In fact, November has been pretty much non-stop chatter about what Terry Ryan (and before him, Bill Smith) should do. But the more I hmmmmmm, the more I’m convinced that I know what Ryan and the Twins will do over the next two weeks.

Absolutely nothing.

He doesn’t have the money to sign a Mark Buehrle or Edwin Jackson or Josh Willingham (or even a Michael Cuddyer, though he won’t come right out and say it). Most of the second and third tier of free agents aren’t going to sign anywhere until some of the top tier start signing and establishing the market rates.

Ordinarily, Ryan could make a trade or two to free up some payroll space, but he really can’t even do that for a while. There are two times you want to make meaningful trades… one is when the player(s) you are offering are at peak value and the other is when the player(s) you are offering play positions that are in high demand compared to number of options on the market. Quick, off the top of your head, how many players does Ryan have that fit either of those criteria?

If you make a list of the players Ryan could look to trade to shed salary, almost all of them are coming off “down” years. He’d be selling low on Mauer (who has a no-trade clause anyway), Morneau, Baker, Liriano, Span, Nishioka, Blackburn, Slowey… almost every player earning more than $1 million a year. Except Carl Pavano.

Pavano might bring fair value, but it’s not going to happen within two weeks. There’s no shortage of teams who want the kind of rotation help Pavano would bring, but almost all of them still think they’re in the mix for Wilson, Buehrle, Jackson and others. Only when those players land elsewhere will teams be likely to consider trading away meaningful talent for Pavano. Ryan needs to wait until the demand for Pavano rises before even considering a trade.

“Experienced Closer”

The last thing a team with serious doubts concerning their expected competitiveness needs to do is spend more than $4-5 million for a “closer”.  If it’s a questionable use of resources to overspend for guys who have racked up “saves” when you’re a contender, then it’s insanity to do so when you probably aren’t. Hold auditions in Spring Training and if they carry over in to April, that’s fine, too.

As for the rest of the bullpen, I’m perfectly fine with not spending $2-3 million per arm to fill out the pen. I was similarly fine with that approach last off-season. It wasn’t the plan that was faulty last year, it was the execution of that plan. The problem was that the players the front office brought in were not good pitchers.

And by the way, the people who made the decisions about which pitchers to sign and invite to Spring Training were the same people in charge now. Bill Smith didn’t make those evaluations, Terry Ryan and the scouting staff did. Then Gardy and Andy decided which pitchers to take north to start the season. All of those people are still making those decisions. Just sayin’.

Anyway, I just don’t see Terry Ryan as likely to do anything any time soon. He’s just got pretty limited options right now.

Twins Hall of Fame

The Twins are lettng the fans have a say in who the next inductee(s) might be to the organization’s own Hall of Fame. It’s not clear to me how much weight the fans’ votes carry, but it doesn’t really matter because it is clear that to vote you have to broadcast your votes via Twitter or Facebook. I don’t care enough to do that.

For what it’s worth, though, I’d strongly support Camillo Pascual and Cesar Tovar for induction. Frankly, it’s rediculous that they aren’t already in. You could also make the same statement about Chuck Knoblauch if all you base the determination on is his performance on the field while he was a Twin. That said, given all that happened with Knoblauch toward the end of his time with the team and on through the disclosure of his use of steroids, I’d also be perfectly fine with not inducting him right now. Let’s face it, he wouldn’t show up for the induction anyway, so why bother? Give the honor to someone who truly would appreciate it.

Programming note:

Jack Steal (Fanatic Jack Talks Twins) has returned to Blogspot Radio and he’s asked me to be a guest on the podcast tonight (Nov 30). The podcast starts at 9:00 pm and I’m tentatively scheduled to join about 20 minutes after the hour.

Figuring out why anyone would care to listen to me is truly something to hmmmmmm about.

- JC

If The Price Is Right

If it’s the All-Star Break, then it must be time for fans to start talking about trades. We are, after all, just past the mid-point of the season and the non-waiver trade deadline is less than three weeks away.

At this point there are three kinds of teams… obvious buyers, obvious sellers and everyone else. The Twins are in that “everyone else” category because they haven’t established themselves as an obvious contender nor have they fallen so far back in the standings that they have virtually no chance of becoming contenders.

So, that means everyone is (or soon will be) posing the question, “Should the Twins Buy or Sell?” To me, the answer is… “Yes, if the price is right.”

What’s that you say, it wasn’t a “yes or no” question? Too bad.

Bill Smith

July trades generally are made between two parties, one a contender and one… well… not. The contender (or “buyer”) has a spot or two to fill to help push them to the top of the standings and/or prepare them to be a stronger playoff team. Their GM has to be willing to do one of two things… or both… (a) give up highly rated prospects or young (read: cheap) MLB-ready players; and/or (b) take on significant salary owed to an established (and often overcompensated) veteran player.

The other party to these trades (the “seller”) has some highly paid veteran players that are either having good seasons or have put up good numbers recently enough that a contending team might be willing to bet they could help put their team over the top this season and that team is looking to restock with young players that will help next season… and for several years to come. They also are likely looking to shed some salary because they recognize attendance is going to be dropping the rest of the season.

I think the Twins, thanks to the very weird season they’ve endured, find themselves in a unique position… they’ve pressed a lot of young players in to Major League action and many of them have performed well enough to demonstrate that they fit the “MLB-ready” criteria that “sellers” are wanting in return for established players. They also find themselves with an abundance of veteran outfielders and pitchers… many of whom will be free agents at the end of this season… that could be attractive to contending “buyers”. Finally, they’re already certain to exceed 3 million in paid attendance, so there’s no need at all to consider shedding salary to be a factor.

Denard Span

It amazes me how many suggestions I’ve read that the Twins trade a Denard Span or a Delmon Young for established relief pitching. That’s absurd on two levels. First, nobody who has top veteran relief pitching to trade is likely to look for expensive veterans in return. They’re going to want young players they can continue to pay the league minimum to for a while. Also, you simply don’t trade players of the quality of Span, Young, Cuddyer, etc., for relief pitching. Ever.  MAYBE you trade your Rene Tosonis and Trevor Plouffes… legitimate prospects (but not future superstars), guys you can (and likely will) find a way to live without in the future… for relief pitchers. The Twins SHOULD be “buyers”… they SHOULD get relief help… and they have enough decent young talent to use for that purpose. There are a lot of decent relievers (meaning better than what the Twins have been trotting out there for middle relief) on the market so it should be a buyer’s market. There’s no need to overpay.

At the same time, the Twins have demonstrated that they can compete without the likes of Delmon Young, Denard Span, and Jason Kubel in the line up. The question is… should they trade away a veteran or two and continue to try to compete without them? If the price is right, sure, why not?

Delmon Young

Of course, you do not just give any of these guys away. Even those who are going to be free agents are likely to be good for compensatory supplemental draft picks if they walk away at the end of the season. But because guys like Ben Revere, Luke Hughes, Anthony Swarzak, and Glen Perkins have demonstrated they can be relied upon to play a role with a contending team, the Twins CAN afford to deal SOME of their veterans and still remain in contention in the AL Central Division. If Twins GM Bill Smith can get real prospects in return for one of his outfielders or one of his pitchers, he should go ahead and do it. Would that mean running a risk in the event the Twins get hit with more injuries? Absolutely… but a GM’s job is to evaluate and take acceptable risks.

But what if the Twins do none of this? What if Smith takes a summer vacation and leaves his phone in the Twin Cities? Can the Twins compete if they do nothing at all?

Well, I still think getting some relief help is important, but otherwise… yeah… the Twins could stand pat and make a serious run the second half of the season… and in to the playoffs. How is that possible?

Justin Morneau

It’s possible because, even if Bill Smith takes that long summer vacation, he will be adding three quality veteran players by the July 30 deadline and another… a former MVP… by the August 30 waiver-deal deadline. Delmon Young has been reactivated and Denard Span sounds like he won’t be far behind. Jason Kubel should be returning not long afterward. Justin Morneau’s recovery seems on target for mid August. Name me a contending team that wouldn’t give a boatload to get four players like that over the next 5 weeks! And Smith doesn’t have to give up a thing.

And here’s the bonus, in my mind… many teams (including past Twins teams) expend so much emotion and energy trying to make the surge necessary to dig out of a deficit in the standings that their tank is empty in September and October. They’re worn out mentally and beat up physically. But most of the Twins top players shouldn’t be feeling worn down. Mauer, Morneau, Young, Kubel, Span… they’ll all be far fresher than most players at that point in the season.

The Twins also have enough starting pitching, with Swarzak, Kevin Slowey and Kyle Gibson (again, we’re assuming the GM makes no deals) ready to step in, that any member of the current rotation who gets as much as a hangnail could be DL’d for 14 days, allowed to get rested up, and come back strong.

This is not the time for Bill Smith to overspend. He doesn’t need… in fact can’t afford… another trade where he gives up a top prospect for a relief pitcher, like the Ramos-for-Capps deal a year ago. He can afford to wait for a trading partner who’s willing to overspend and, if necessary, settle for a moderate deal for middle relief help.

I hope he shows patience because God knows the blogging world is likely to urge otherwise.

- JC

Tough Decisions This Week

The Rochester Red Wings must cringe every time the phone rings in their office this season. Almost every player on their roster who’s shown any ability to play the game of baseball this season has been plucked from their clubhouse and given a ticket to Minneapolis (with Kyle Gibson being one obvious exception).

As difficult as it has been for Ron Gardenhire to keep 25 healthy bodies in the Twins clubhouse this season, his job may be getting even tougher this week. The Twins currently have eight players on the Disabled List. What could be worse than that? How about having eight players all ready to come OFF the Disabled List at one time?

Now, if the Twins were still playing like a bad American Legion team, the way they were throughout April and a good chunk of May, this would be no problem. You celebrate the return of all the “real” Twins and happily send Red Wings manager Tom Nieto back the players you’ve borrowed from him. But now, just as virtually every player on your DL is due back in uniform, you’ve got a team of young players who have been winning a lot of games.

Joe Nathan

Kevin Slowey is just starting to throw, so his return isn’t as imminent as the others, but Glen Perkins and Joe Nathan are going to be ready to return to the bullpen in the next week or two. The current bullpen is consistently shutting down opponents (finally)… so who loses their job when Perkins and Nathan return? How confident are you that those two guys will immediately be as effective as the pitchers they replace?

As tough as those choices may be, things only get tougher when you ponder the decisions coming up with regard to the position players. Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Joe Mauer, Denard Span, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are all scheduled to come off the DL at roughly the same time.

The decision concerning which catcher departs to make room for Mauer will be tough enough. Drew Butera has been with the team for most of the past two seasons, but Rene Rivera is reportedly out of options [UPDATE 6/15: Latest information is that Rivera is NOT out of options, which makes the rest of this paragraph moot. Butera and Rivera are therefore essentially on even footing], while Butera still has options remaining. That means the team would have to risk sending Rivera through waivers if they want to keep Butera. That said, the Twins will need to clear a 40-man roster spot for Mauer, so they may be willing to take that risk with Rivera. But you have to wonder if the Twins want to face the possibility of Steve Holm being the fallback option if Joe Mauer’s return is short-lived.

Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert

As tough as that decision may be, it’s nothing compared to how Gardy and GM Bill Smith will go about finding room for the others. Seth Stohs detailed the performances of the current position players over the course of the past 10 games over at SethSpeaks.net and it would be tough for me to find one or two non-catchers that I’d be anxious to pull out of the current line up, never mind more.

I’d love to get Span, Kubel and Thome back. But do you really want to see Ben Revere benched or, even worse, sent back to Rochester? I don’t. During the offseason, I wrote that I wanted to see more speed in the Twins outfield and now that they have it, I don’t want to give it up.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

The Twins made a three year commitment to Nishioka and it’s very possible that he’ll end up being worth every nickel of the money they’ve sunk in to bringing him over from Japan. But we haven’t seen enough of him to know that for sure. What we do know is that Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes have all been batting over .300 (with three doubles each) during the recent stretch of success. How comfortable are you with the prospect of plugging in the unproven Nishioka in place of one of those guys?

We’ve poked a bit of fun at the line ups that Gardy’s been turning in, with references to them being “Red Wings” line ups and comments about how they resemble line ups you’d expect to see at spring training road games. But they’re also line ups that have been WINNING and the Twins still have a lot of winning to do if they’re going to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in.

So who’s time with the Twins is drawing to a close?

Brian Dinkelman’s cup of coffee with the big club is probably about over. In fact, don’t be too surprised if he is passed through waivers to make room on the 40-man roster for Nishioka. Rene Tosoni is also a logical candidate to return to Rochester.

So, if we assume Slowey will be headed to Rochester to join their rotation and that Dinkelman, Tosoni and one of the catchers will be departing, that leaves us just three more players to drop to make room for those returning. Two will be pitchers… but which pitchers? Might the Twins be ready to insert Anthony Swarzak in to the rotation and, if so, would Brian Duensing be likely to head down to Rochester so he continues to get regular starts? Of the rest, you could make an argument that Jose Mijares is the most deserving of a free trip to Rochester.

And what about the remaining position player that we must bid farewell to? I don’t see Revere, Hughes, or Tolbert going anywhere. Is it time to give Danny Valencia a wake-up call? Or is it possible that Jason Repko’s run with the Twins might be nearing an end?

These will all be critical… and difficult… decisions. Two players are going to have to pass through waivers and could be claimed by other organizations, so the Twins must choose wisely. The current roster has been making an impressive run and in the process, they’ve closed the gap between themselves and the division leaders. Shaking up the roster at this point is a risk, even given the talent level that’s returning.

As early as a week from now, we may be seeing a line up that includes Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, Jason Kubel, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and Denard Span. It will certainly look a lot more like the line up that we expected to see when the Twins broke camp in Ft. Myers. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

- JC

The Kevin Slowey Dilemma

I don’t often listen in via the internet to Ron Gardenhire’s Sunday morning appearances on ESPN1500, but I did yesterday. If you’ve been reading or listening to any Twins-related news in the past 24 hours, you’re probably already aware of his comments with regard to Kevin Slowey. If not, let me give it to you in a nutshell:  Gardenhire and Slowey met together to discuss Kevin’s role with the Twins and there appears to be some agreement between them that Slowey has not worked out as a relief pitcher, so they need to get him innings in a starting role… somewhere.

Gardenhire mentioned possibly sending Slowey to Rochester to be used as a starting pitcher. Slowey hinted to reporters that perhaps the Twins are no longer a “fit” for him.

Assuming Gardy is not going to go “Ozzie Guillen” on us and implement a six-man rotation the way the BitchSox have, there really are only three options for dealing with Slowey at this point: Insert him in to the Twins rotation to replace one of the five arms already there, send him to Rochester, or trade him to another team.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

If the Twins would decide to simply move Slowey in to the rotation, say for example in place of Brian Duensing, and have Duensing take Slowey’s bullpen spot, then I suppose it is relatively simple. But the Twins don’t really need a long reliever in the bullpen and that’s pretty much what Duensing would be. They need an arm they can use in critical set up situations. Maybe Duensing could do that, but it’s hardly a sure-thing.  

This swap would also result in the Twins having just one left hander in the rotation and while it’s easy to pick on Duensing because he hasn’t had a lot of success in the past month or so, a glance at his stat line shows us that opponents have a .381 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which is well above normal, indicating that he may be the victim of a little bit of bad luck. That particular stat, after all, was the one that fans of Francisco Liriano liked to trot out there every time a discussion about Frankie’s abilities took place over the off season (and his BABIP was only .335 last season).

So why not just send Slowey to Rochester and bring up someone else for the bullpen? Makes sense, I guess, but let’s be honest… the Twins haven’t exactly had a lot of good fortune with the bullpen arms they’ve brought up from Rochester already. Yes, Chuck James has performed well in Rochester’s pen and has arguably earned a promotion opportunity. But James is not currently on the Twins’ 40-man roster, so promoting him means someone currently on the roster has to be jettisoned. Would the world come to an end if the Twins lost Eric Hacker, Jim Hoey, or Scott Diamond? No. But I’m not sure the Twins are ready to give those guys up just to find out if James can pitch effectively at the Big League level.

That leaves us with some sort of trade scenario and the internet is abuzz today with “Twins will trade Slowey” stories. Heck, it may even happen before I can post this!

A lot of people thought the Twins should trade Slowey or one of their other starting pitchers before the season started. I disagreed, because it’s not at all unusual for a team to end up needing that sixth starting pitcher at some point during the first couple of months of the season. It turns out, the starting five stayed relatively healthy so the need to insert Slowey in to the rotation has not materialized. Certainly, none of the five guys in the rotation have been consistently effective, but despite the contention of his fans (and those fans who for one reason or another just dislike one of the current rotation members), there’s no solid evidence at all that Slowey would be an improvement over anyone currently with a starting rotation spot.

The assumption all along has been that the Twins would promote top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson from Rochester in June, once the risk of accelerating his eligibility for arbitration passes. Gibson hasn’t exactly set the International League ablaze this season, but he’s held hitters to somewhere around a .250 batting average and has a nice 41/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while striking out almost one hitter per inning. The point being, we’re almost at the point in the season where the Twins can afford to trade one of their six pitchers with credentials as a Big League pitcher.

I’m just not sure that should be Slowey.

If it is, so be it. It’s not like he’s demonstrated that he’s irreplaceable. But I’m just not sure that’s the direction I’d go if I were the General Manager.

Slowey is making just $2.7 million this season, so there’s bound to be a market for him. Maybe the Twins could even get a serviceable middle infielder in return. But they aren’t likely to get anyone significantly better than the mediocrity they’ve been sending out to man 2B and SS so far and adding a MLB infielder means they’re still left with the dilemma of how to fit James on to the 40-man roster so they can promote him. In any event, while I’m not ready to give up on the 2011 season yet, if I’m running the Twins, I’m not going to feel inclined to trade one of my cheaper starting pitching options.

For the same reason, you don’t trade Brian Duensing either. He’s still barely making above the MLB minimum salary.

Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker are both roughly in the $5-6 million per year range through 2012. The Twins won’t (and shouldn’t) trade Baker, but if you can get some decent prospects for Blackburn, I suppose you listen to offers. I just doubt that Blackburn’s performance has done much to create significant demand for his services, given his contractual agreement.

Does Francisco Liriano still have significant trade value? He’s making $4.3 million this year but he’s likely to get more expensive next year. Still, I suspect there are teams who would be very tempted to give up something of value for the chance to see if Liriano can grow in to a consistently dominant lefty. If so, I’d be very tempted to make him available because I just don’t see it as being likely to happen in Minnesota. Blame Liriano or blame the coaches/manager, but either way, I don’t see him ever being worth what the Twins would have to shell out to keep him beyond this season.

And then there’s ‘Stache. Carl Pavano is getting $8 million this season and is guaranteed $8.5 million in 2012. Has anyone who’s been watching the Twins seen anything in Pavano’s performance to make them feel like he’s worth that deal? He certainly has not been the “innings eater” he was last year, having averaged just about 6 innings per start. I don’t know what he’s worth on the market, but I would imagine someone would give up something for him, even if the Twins do have to eat a little of that contract.

Trading one of these guys for decent prospects would clear a roster spot for James  (or for Gibson or possibly RP prospect Carlos Gutierrez next month) without leaving the Twins significantly short-handed in the starting pitching department.  If I could get something of real value in prospects for either Pavano or Liriano, I’d make that move right now.

That said, it will probably be Kevin Slowey sent packing. If and when it happens, I suspect most of us will be underwhelmed with talent received in return.

- JC

What I Learned On Vacation

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

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

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

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

Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glen Perkins

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

Dusty Hughes

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

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

Jim Hoey

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get this party started!

- JC

It’s All Coming Together

I’m trying to restrain myself, but on days like this, it’s not easy. I think with good health and a little bit of luck, this Twins team could be something special.

As Joe Reardon, the fictional manager of the Durham Bulls so eloquently put it, “This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” On Saturday afternoon, the Twins did all of that and did it well.

This is what I came to Ft. Myers to see. Now I just hope everyone stays healthy and we see exactly this kind of performance all season long.

Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey both looked sharp. Blackburn gave up seven hits, but 2-3 of those were infield hits that I generally don’t mark against a pitcher’s performance. He did give up a 2-run home run, but since it was off the bat of a former Cedar Rapids Kernel (Casey Kotchman), I’m willing to let it slide. Slowey struck out three in his three innings and gave up only one hit.

Jim Hoey, who got one inning of work sandwiched in between Blackburn’s five and Slowey’s three, had another solid performance. That’s two appearances I’ve seen this week from Hoey and let me just say, this man can throw a baseball! He was in the upper 90s again today and he sure didn’t look like he was having any control issues to me.

Every starting position player except Jeff Bailey collected at least one hit. Delmon homered. Span and Nishioka doubled. Span, Casilla and Young all stole bases.

Speaking of Nishioka, I’ve been very impressed with his play at second base. He made three excellent defensive plays in today’s game, in addition to teaming with Casilla to turn a couple of double plays. Denard flashed some speed and leather, as well, tracking down a couple of gappers.

But my goal here today is to try to give you a bit of the flavor of a beautiful day at a ballpark. After all, you can read all you want to know about the performances on the field by checking out any of the great beat writers. Speaking of beat writers, mlb.com’s Kelly Thesier is moving on to greener pastures (quite literally, I suppose, since she’s going to work as communications director for the LPGA) and Sunday is her last day covering the Twins. I’ve enjoyed reading Kelly’s reports, her blog and her Tweets and I wish her all the success she deserves in her new job.

I worked up the nerve to introduce myself to both Kelly and the Strib’s LaVelle E. Neal III on Thursday over at the minor league complex when several Twins were getting some extra work in over there. They were both very gracious (meaning neither of them yelled at me for bothering them) and I appreciated that.

So let me tell you about my terrific day and share a few pictures (I took 257 of them today… I get carried away sometimes).

I slept in a bit after the late night on Friday. I didn’t get back to Ft. Myers from Sarasota until nearly midnight and by the time I uploaded pictures and posted on the blog, it was after 2:00 before I get to sleep. I’m too old to get by on very little sleep, so I decided that the three days I’ve spent over on the practice fields this trip will have to suffice.

I pulled in to the stadium parking lot about 11:00am and spent a little time dickering with some of the ticket brokers there, before finding one with a single seat available in the section I was hoping to sit in today… the area behind the Twins dugout. Around noon, I entered the stadium and wandered around, watching a few Twins wrap up their workouts. As I was enjoying a beverage, I looked out over the now-deserted Twins practice field and saw a solitary figure in workout clothes, wayyyyy down the far left field line, signing autographs for fans who handed him things to sign over the fence.

At first, I couldn’t tell who it was, but I suspected it might be one of today’s cut victims, getting every last moment he can out of his allotted time with the Big League club before moving over to the minor league complex. I thought he would probably sign for a few people, like the players generally do, and then go about his day.

I was wrong on both counts.

Joe Nathan accommodated every autograph request

The player turned out to be Twins closer Joe Nathan and he just kept signing… and signing… and signing. I watched him sign anything that people stuck over the fence to him for close to half an hour, until he had literally signed for everyone who asked. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Major League player anywhere near Nathan’s level sign autographs until there’s nobody left to sign for.

In fact, he signed two more autographs when he finally did reach the fence that connects the practice field to the stadium. It takes a lot for professional athletes to impress me when it comes to interacting with fans, but I was impressed. That earned Joe my “good guy award” today.

All that signing may have tired Joe out...

... but it didn't stop him from signing more

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortly before game time, I grabbed some food and another beverage and found my seat. Before I could even sit down, someone a few seats away recognized me as Jim Crikket from the  Knuckleballs blog. Seriously. I’ve never had that happen before. Thank God he didn’t ask for my autograph… I haven’t given any thought whatsoever to what I should charge for that kind of thing yet.

This was my last visit to Hammond Stadium this spring. I’m going to two more games before heading home Tuesday, but both games are on the road. Sunday is up in Dunedin against the Jays and Monday is in Bradenton against the Pirates. I’ve never been to the Jays’ ballpark, so I’m looking forward to seeing that. It’s been a couple of years since I was at the ballpark in Bradenton, but it’s one of my favorites, just because it’s an old-school neighborhood setting that reminds me of the ballparks you used to find in small and medium sized towns across Iowa and Minnesota back in the 1960s.

With that, here are a few more pictures from my day at Hammond Stadium:

Hammond Stadium brats are some of the best I've had... well worth the wait

Grab food and beer, then check the lineup board

Newbie Luke Hughes with Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan

Casey Kotchman and Joe Mauer, just prior to Kotchman's launch

Picture quality doesn't do justice to this Nishioka web gem

Coach Steve Liddle "communicating" with Nishioka

Coach Jerry White and Jason Kubel (for our Jerry White fan club)

It's all good fun when TC Bear breaks out the super-soaker...

... until he's looking straight at you!

So long, Hammond Stadium... see ya next year!