Will New Major League CBA Screw the Twins?

If you’re one of those people salivating over the extra high draft picks that the Twins were going to get in return for losing free agents Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, that salivation might be a bit premature.

The good news is that reports coming out of Milwaukee, where MLB General Managers are meeting this week, indicate that the league and the players’ union are very close to agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). That means baseball fans won’t be going through the nonsense that we saw last summer with the NFL and are continuing to see with the NBA.

The bad news is that the new agreement could cost the Twins at least one of those compensatory draft picks in next year’s amateur draft… and possibly all of them.

As has been well documented by now, the Twins have three members of 2011’s roster that are classified as either Type A or Type B free agents. Under the current CBA, that means that they would receive one or two compensatory draft picks if those players sign with another team, provided the Twins offer them arbitration.

Michael Cuddyer

Cuddyer and Matt Capps both fall in to the Type A category, which would bring the Twins both a supplemental round “sandwich” pick (so named because the supplemental round is conducted between the first and second rounds of the draft) as well as either the first or second round pick of the team that player ultimately signs with (depending on that team’s record in 2011).

Kubel is a Type B free agent, which means the Twins would get one of those supplemental “sandwich” picks, but the signing team would not forfeit any of their picks to the Twins.

The conventional wisdom is that the Twins will not offer arbitration to Matt Capps because he would certainly accept it and would end up being awarded a 2012 salary that’s probably at least double what he’s likely to get on the open market. That means the Twins will get no compensatory pick for Capps.

But the Twins certainly would be planning to offer arbitration to both Cuddyer and Kubel.

Media reports, including one from NY Post columnist Joel Sherman, indicate that the owners may have traded away much, if not all, of the free agent compensation system during CBA negotiations in order to rein in the escalating salaries of draft picks AND that the changes to the system may take effect this offseason.

Would owners really change the rules in the middle of the offseason? To get what they want in terms of restricting salaries for unproven draft picks… absolutely. A formal announcement of the terms of the agreement could come yet this week.

Sherman’s sources tell him that the compensation program for the top Type A free agents (such as the Mets’ Jose Reyes) would not be changed, but that Type B compensation would end effective with the current offseason. Other media reports indicate that the new agreement will reduce the percentage (currently 20%) of players at each position that constitute the Type A category, as well.

Jason Kubel

If these reports turn out to be accurate, it means the Twins: (a) would get no compensation for losing Jason Kubel; and (b) COULD end up getting no compensation for Michael Cuddyer, either, if his ranking by Elias falls below whatever the newly negotiated cut-off line is for Type A players in the American League 1B-DH-OF category.

If you were hoping the three supplemental picks were going to go a long way toward helping Terry Ryan boost the organization’s minor league talent level sooner, rather than later, this turn of events is not good news.

If you’re the Twins GM, would the lack of compensation for losing Kubel and Cuddyer make you more likely to consider re-signing either or both?

– 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

THAT’S How Ya Do It!

After attending the debacle Friday night and then reading that Francisco Liriano had been scratched from his Saturday start in favor of Anthony Swarzak, who would be facing off with Jared Weaver, I can’t say I was optimistic about the possibility of witnessing a Twins win Saturday night.

Silly me.

OF COURSE this would be the circumstance under which the wins would put things together to pull out a W!

There was a great crowd on hand, reminding me a bit of the enthusiasm I felt during so many games last season. I think we all knew that the Twins were likely to have trouble scoring much off of Weaver, who’s had a pretty strong year, thus far. But Swarzak was every bit Weaver’s equal as the two pitchers matched one another almost pitch for pitch from one inning to the next.

Toward the 7th inning, Swarzak gave up a couple of pretty deep, well hit balls that found the gloves of Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young. In fact, the defense tonight was very solid all night long. It hasn’t been often that we’ve been able to say that this year.

With one out in the 8th inning Peter Bourjos laced a line drive down the left field line for a double to ruin Swarzak’s no-hitter bid and the crowd immediately rose to give the young pitcher a huge standing ovation. As we sat down, the three 20-something women sitting to my left asked me why everyone had been cheering… they had no idea Swarzak had a no-hitter going. I’m not sure they even knew what a no-hitter was, to be honest. Ah well.

The guy to my right almost flipped out when Matt Capps entered the game to start the 9th inning on the mound for the Twins… but he stood and gave Capps an ovation with the rest of us after his hitless inning. Alex Burnett followed with a clean inning of relief, himself. (Where have THESE versions of those two pitchers been lately… and can we keep them a while?)

And then it was the bottom of the 10th. Lefty reliever Hisanori Takahashi took over for Weaver and struck Jason Kubel out looking before giving up a solid line drive single to Justin Morneau. Jason Repko ran for Morneau and righty Kevin Jepson took the mound for the Angels. Michael Cuddyer grounded a single past the SS in to left field and Delmon Young lined a single to center field. Unfortunately, Repko couldn’t get a jump on that single because there was a real chance it could have been snagged by the shortstop (I thought he was going to catch it from where I sat).

A lot of people around me were upset that Repko didn’t score, but to be honest, he HAD to make sure that ball got through. The LAST thing you want is to have him get doubled off 2B to end that inning. He still got to 3B and the bases were loaded with just one out and Danny Valencia at the plate.

The Angels used five infielders, all playing in on the grass, and just two outfielders, but it didn’t matter. Valencia lifted a fly ball to RF and right off the bat, everyone knew it was deep enough to score Repko from 3B. Torii Hunter jogged back a bit but he knew it didn’t matter whether he got to it or not and it landed well beyond Hunter. Game over.

The Twins celebrated on the field and you could just tell this was a win that made everyone feel good… players and fans alike.

I didn’t take as many pictures this trip as I usually do at games and many I did take are far from high quality, but I thought I would post a few anyway… hope you enjoy!

– JC

Pregame fraternization between Torii, Denard and Cuddy, as well as Justin and Russell Branyan

TC Bear fires tshirts in to the crowd

Anthony Swarzak was very, very good

Jared Weaver was also very, very good

Torii Hunter went hitless... but looked good doing it

An appreciative crowd gives Swarzak a standing ovation after he gives up the first Angels hit in the 8th inning

The Angels play a 5 man infield when the Twins loaded the bases in the 10th

Danny Valencia strokes a deep fly ball to right field...

... and the Twins celebrate a much-needed win!

Early Adjustments

Yes, a 5-10 record after the first 15 games of the season looks ugly… every bit as ugly as this Twins team has played much of this young season. Make no mistake, they have totally earned that 5-10 record.

Obviously, things are not going the way anyone with the team (not to mention its fans) hoped for. With that in mind, some changes are now being made.

On Sunday morning, Manager Ron Gardenhire announced that Matt Capps would be taking over Joe Nathan’s duties as closer. Not only that, but it seemed Nathan was not going to be relied upon to fill a significant set-up role, either, so that meant more adjustments were necessary in the bullpen roles.

Jose Mijares appears to be losing his late-inning lefty spot to Glen Perkins. But that still left a hole at the back end of games for a right handed set up arm. With Kevin Slowey on the DL and Jeff Manship not pitching well, only newly arrived Alex Burnett could even be considered for important right handed innings.

Jim Hoey

So, exit Manship to Rochester, enter Jim Hoey. Hoey’s promotion was announced following Sunday’s win over the Rays.

Hoey had several good performances in spring training (along with a couple of clunkers) and was told by the Twins, at the time he was sent down, to work on developing a reliable offspeed pitch to go with his high-90s fastball. The theory is that if a pitcher doesn’t have an offspeed pitch to keep batters off balance, MLB hitters are good enough to time any fastball, even those that approach 100 mph, like Hoey’s. Since I have doubts about whether a pitcher can develop a good offspeed pitch in two weeks, I guess we’re about to test that theory.

Down in Rochester, Hoey has struck out 8 hitters in 6 2/3 innings, while giving up 5 hits and walking only 1 (for a .90 WHIP) while appearing in four games and accumulating a 2.70 ERA. Maybe AAA hitters are more easily overwhelmed by pure heat than MLB hitters?

These moves are encouraging to me and not just because I advocated for using Capps as the closer and Hoey earning a spot in the bullpen out of spring training. At this point, my encouragement comes from the organization’s recognition that adjustments must be made… that you can’t wait until May or June to correct obvious problems. The 5-10 record is ugly, but the Twins situation could be much worse.

This team may be 6 games out of first place, but the teams at the top of the AL Central are the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals… two teams that, let’s be frank, are not likely to remain in their lofty perches throughout the season. Following Sunday’s games, the Twins trail the White Sox by only two games and, depending on how their late afternoon game turns out, will trail the Tigers by either 1.5 or 2.5 games. Those are the two teams the Twins are likely to be contending with over the course of the season and neither of them have exactly rushed out of the starting gate, either.

So… there’s plenty of time to get this thing turned around. It would be nice to get guys like Joe Mauer (viral infection), Justin Morneau (flu symptoms) and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (broken fibula) back in the line up and to get some other players hitting the ball. But I believe the offense will come around.

And if I’m wrong, there are signs of offensive life already down in Rochester.

Outfielder Rene Tosoni is off to a hot start for the Red Wings, with four doubles and three home runs already and shortstop Trevor Plouffe has also already knocked three balls out of the yard, to go with a pair of doubles.

I’m trying to remain hopeful, despite some tough losses lately. But for right now, I’m just encouraged to feel the Twins are showing signs already that they won’t hesitate to make necessary changes. That has not always been their method of operation.

Finally, just in time if you happen to be a fan in dire need of a smile right now, the Twins have come up with another commercial (courtesy of a tweet from @MinnesotaTwins)… this one featuring Jim Thome and one or two other Minnesota icons!

– JC

GameChat – Twins @ Yankees #2, 6:05, FSN & am1500

Over the noon hour today, I was catching up on my reading over at Joe Posnanski’s blog and came across something I feel compelled to share with everyone as we wait for our guys to prepare to do battle with the Evil Empire once again.

In one of Posnanski’s recent posts, he paraphrased something the late, great Buck O’Neil said a few years back and while the subject of the discussion was the ability (or rather the perceived lack thereof) of the Kansas City Royals to compete with the Yankees, if you can’t draw some parallels to the Twins’ situation right now, then you really just aren’t paying attention. You can (and should) read the entire post by clicking here, but let me paste a couple of the more pertinent paragraphs, too. The background is regarding a panel that Posnanski participated on in Kansas City a while back.

So that’s what we were talking about on the panel — the Royals utter inability to compete with the Yankees — when suddenly Buck O’Neil raised his hand. He was in the crowd, and he stood up, and here’s what he said: “OF COURSE we can beat the Yankees.” Everybody in the room stopped, because that’s what Buck’s voice did to a room. I don’t have his words memorized, but he said something like this:

“OF COURSE we can beat the Yankees. It’s not even a question. The Yankees can only play nine players at a time. They can’t sign all the good players out there and play them. They can’t use more than one pitcher at a time. They can’t play two shortstops or three center fielders. They have nine guys, we have nine guys. They might be able to get nine more expensive guys, but that doesn’t mean they get nine BETTER guys.

“Baseball is the fairest game in the world. It doesn’t matter if the other guy is bigger than you or taller than you or stronger than you or faster than you. The only thing that matters is who plays the game better. I’m sick of excuses. People say we can’t beat the Yankees. That’s ridiculous. We beat the Yankees before when we had players like George Brett and Frank White and Amos Otis and Willie Wilson and Hal McRae. Yeah. We just need to find the players and develop them into good players. If we don’t do that, it’s not the Yankees fault.”

Were truer words ever spoken? Sure we can (and forever will) hold Bud Selig and his co-conspirators accountable for fostering an environment that tilts the playing field in the Yankees’ favor year after year, but in the end, someone with the Twins organization simply needs to stand up and say, “enough is enough!” If we don’t do that, it’s not the Yankees fault.

There’s another paragraph I want to share… it’s about the genuine dislike that the old Royals teams of the late 70s held for the Yankees.

Then the Royals came to town, and from 1976 to 1980 they had a rivalry with the Yankees that matches anything in baseball history. Four times in five years, they faced each other in best-of-five playoff series to determine the American League pennant. “I hated the Yankees,” George Brett said. “I mean that sincerely. I HATED those guys.” One series ended on the famous home run of Yankee Chris Chambliss. Another ended with Kansas City’s Fred Patek in the dugout, his face red with tears. The only Royals victory of the four was clinched when Brett turned on a neck-high fastball from Goose Gossage. There were fights, there were titanic performances, there were famous moments like when Cliff Johnson threatened to fight Kansas City’s spiritual leader Hal McRae before one game, to which McRae replied: “I don’t fight extra men.”

THAT is the attitude I’ve been waiting for years to see our Twins have toward the Yankees. Where is it? I don’t know if anyone has an answer to that question, but until someone finds it, I’m not sure the Twins will ever conquer the Evil Empire.

– JC

With that, here are tonight’s lineups. No Morneau tonight for the Twins. Let’s go chew up and spit out some Captain Cheeseburger!:

TWINS @ YANKEES
Span, CF Jeter, SS
Nishioka, 2B Swisher, RF
Mauer, C Teixeira, 1B
Young, D, LF Rodriguez, A, 3B
Cuddyer, 1B Cano, 2B
Kubel, DH Posada, DH
Valencia, 3B Martin, C
Repko, RF Jones, An, LF
Casilla, A, SS Granderson, CF
Duensing, P Sabathia, P

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 0 1 5 7 0
NY Yankees 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 6 0

I really don’t know what to say about this game other than the right team came out on top!

I do have to laugh a bit at the thought of the Steinbrenners avoiding eye contact with GM Brian Cashman as Rafael Soriano, the pitcher they overruled Cashman on and forced him to sign, totally crashed and burned. The rest of the Yankees “vaunted” bullpen didn’t exactly have Soriano’s back, though, either. The sight of Nick Swisher stumble/falling/diving for DY’s bases-clearing bloop double to right field was pretty funny, too. He kinda makes me glad to have Delmon in our outfield.

It was great that our guys once again didn’t let that immediate 4-run deficit kill their spirit (though, seriously, can we stop spotting the Yankees four runs every damn game… please?), but it was pretty tough to really come up with an offensive nominee for Boyfriend of the Day. Brian Duensing took a page out of Scott Baker’s book last night and hung in there after a rough start to the game. So Young and Duensing get some honorable mention for BOD (along with honorable honorable mention to Rafael Soriano, without who’s effort the comeback would not have been possible).

But in the end, it was just too tough to come up with just one relief pitcher to bestow tonight’s BOD upon. Matt Capps pitched not one, but TWO, perfect innings, on a mere 16 pitches. And our old friend Twitchy McXanax (aka Joe Nathan) sure looked like his old self out there nailing down the game with a perfect 9th inning. So for your combined efforts, Matt and Joe, you are our first co-BODs of the season.

Matt Capps

Joe Nathan

Moving On From Toronto To The Bronx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home of the Evil Empire

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

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

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

– JC

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You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant
You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant
Walk right in it’s around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant

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

Bert, Brian and the Bucs

I think I saw something in Bradenton Monday that I haven’t seen at any of the other Spring Training games I’ve watched over the past week. There were, in fact, a few clouds in the sky. I had almost forgotten what they looked like, though I suspect I’m going to be reminded pretty dramatically in a few hours, when I get back to Iowa.

McKechnie Field, Spring Training home of the Pirates... and a few clouds

I also hadn’t seen Bert Blyleven yet down here until today, though I did see Dick Bremer behind the batting cage last week exchanging a man-hug with Hall of Famer (and Bremer’s former broadcast partner) Harmon Killebrew. Not only did Dick and Bert broadcast today’s game with the Pirates to the folks back home, but Bert also threw out the first pitch. I thought that was kind of cool, given that he did pitch for the Pirates and they took this opportunity to recognize Blyleven’s recent election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bert Blyleven donned a Pirates jersey to throw out the first pitch, in honor of his election to the HOF

This was my second opportunity to see Brian Duensing start a game on the mound and he looked sharper today. I know there’s a lot of healthy debate around Twinsville about whether Duensing should start the season in the rotation or the bullpen, but I’ve felt strongly all along that he should be in the rotation and I’ve seen nothing this week to change my mind. It allows Ron Gardenhire to go Righty-Lefty-Righty-Lefty-Righty with the rotation and assures that teams see a variety of looks during a three-game series.

Brian Duensing looked good against the Pirates

Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Delmon Young were the only starting position players to make the 90 minute bus ride up to Bradenton for the game, but they gave the sizable contingent of Twins fans in the crowd plenty to cheer about. Span had a double in four ABs, while Mauer and Young each had two hits to lead the Twins 4-1 win over the Pirates.

The Bucs’ only run was unearned, which means that, once again, the whole parade of Twins pitchers shut down an opponent. Today, in addition to Duensing, that included Glen Perkins, Matt Capps, Carlos Gutierrez and Chuck James. The relief appearances were clean, though not dominating. Perkins had a couple of balls hit hard off of him, including a line drive to first base that became a double play ball. Gutierrez was getting ground balls, while James got all three outs on fly balls.

Carlos Gutierrez has been looking good all spring

While the Twins travel to face the Marlins tomorrow, I’ll be heading home to Cedar Rapids. I don’t leave until the afternoon, though, so I may hang out for a while in the morning at the Twins practice facility and maybe even watch some minor league games. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the Twins playing in those games, while few of the regulars make the long drive across the state to Jupiter FL where the Marlins train.

I’ve had a lot of opportunities to watch a lot of baseball this week and I’ve drawn a few conclusions concerning what I think Gardy and the Twins will be doing about those few remaining roster spots that are still up in the air… and about what I think they SHOULD do (I wish they were the same thing, but they’re not). In any event, I’ll think a bit more about that stuff and throw a post up in the next couple of days with my thoughts.

It’s been a fun trip… as always. The weather has been terrific and while I’d love to hang around here and watch more baseball, it will also feel good to get home again (at least right up until the time I have to show up for work Wednesday morning).

With that, I’ll leave you with a few more pictures from my day in Bradenton.

– JC

How close was my seat to the field? I had to move my knees to make room for this young man to get Matt Tolbert's autograph

I had a pretty good view of Denard Span taking the field, as well.

The Pirates mascots force two children to do the chicken dance... talk about child abuse!

Joe Mauer chats up Pirate 1B Lyle Overbay in order to avoid having to talk to 1B coach Jerry White

Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven get ready to go on the air before the game

Spring: A Time of Change

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

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

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

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

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

A Day in Dunedin

Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin

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

The Thirst Inning Lounge, inside the stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Rauch, Blue Jay

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

On Deck: Where’s Crikket?

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

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

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

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

– JC

 

A “Minor” Change of Plans

When I set up my plans for this year’s trip to Ft. Myers, I knew the Twins would only have two home games during the six full days I would be here. That’s really not a big deal to me because I kind of enjoy seeing some of the other spring training sites around the state of Florida.

I planned to make the trip up to Lakeland today for my first look at the Tigers’ spring training home, not to mention seeing a bit of action from the only other member of the AL Central Division that trains in Florida. In fact, I was so certain I would be making the 2+ hour drive north that I did something I don’t normally do down here… I bought a ticket in advance.

That ticket is still waiting for me at the Will Call window, I suppose.

When the Twins announced yesterday that the batteries of Carl Pavano/Drew Butera and Matt Capps/Joe Mauer would be getting some work in during a pair of minor league games, I decided to skip the Tiger game and hang around the Lee County Complex today. I’m really glad I did.

Sure, I would have enjoyed seeing Luke Hughes hit home run number five this spring and it sounds like Dusty Hughes, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla provided some highlights. But I didn’t really need to see Brad Penny drill Casilla and Delmon Young with pitches and I certainly didn’t need to see Pat Neshek give up two home runs.

Instead, I got out to the Twins complex around 9:00 this morning and spent some time watching the minor leaguers working out before heading in to Hammond Stadium where some of the Twins who didn’t make the trip to Lakeland were taking batting practice.

The last grouping included Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer (nattily attired in his WIN!/Don’t Be Denied! t-shirt) and sure enough, there next to the batting cage were none other than Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew. Oliva has been a fixture at the complex, but Killebrew just arrived Wednesday night.

Killebrew met with the media earlier in the morning and is expected to be on hand for three days. Usually, by the time I get down to Ft. Myers, Killebrew has been here and gone, but this year, his trip was delayed a bit due to his health issues. I hate that Harmon is going through the challenges related to fighting esophageal cancer, but for a child of the 60s like me, it was terrific just to get to see him on a ballfield again.

After the Twins’ BP finished up, I slipped back over to the minor league side of the facility again and struck up a nice conversation with a couple from the Quad Cities while we waited to find out which fields Pavano, Butera, Capps and Mauer would be playing at.

I’ve got to be honest… I’m not a huge Carl Pavano fan. Sure I want him to do well and since Bill Smith couldn’t/wouldn’t come up with a true top-of-the-rotation pitcher in the off-season, I was fine with bringing Pavano back as long as it wasn’t on a bank-breaking deal. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret… when media types write about what a great, fan-friendly group of guys the Twins players are, they aren’t referring to Carl Pavano. He may be a lovely human being among his friends and family and he may even love kittens, but… well… yeah I’d bet he hates kittens… almost as much as he seems to dislike baseball fans.

And in case you think this is just a JC thing… I’ll just mention that it’s an opinion I found to be shared rather widely among other fans I talked to today.

I even have to admit I found it just a little amusing when Pavano got knocked around a bit by a bunch of kids wearing Red Sox minor league uniforms. Some people just seem like they could use an occasional humility lesson. I suspect Pavano is one of those people (then again, some would say I am, too). I also could almost see him do a slow burn when one of those Red Sox punks laid down a bunt that died along the third base line for a hit.

Not to fear, however, the ‘Stache’s trusty sidekick, sweet Drew Butera, gunned down the little twerp when he tried to steal second base.

I was actually more interested in the game on an adjoining field where Matt Capps was pitching the first two innings and Joe Mauer was doing the catching.

Capps looked pretty good to me and I think the young hitters he was facing would probably agree. He didn’t give up any earned runs (a bit of miscommunication between his left and center fielders resulted in an unearned run) and it was good to see he can go more than one inning, when necessary.

Joe Mauer batted in both the first and second innings and while he was 0 for 2, he hit a couple of balls very, very hard. He hit a deep fly ball to CF and almost ended his day by hitting in to a triple play. He hit a shot at the third baseman who immediately doubled off a runner at second base. The second baseman didn’t make a throw to 1B to try to turn the triple play and probably wouldn’t have got that runner if he had made the throw… but it might have been close.

After Capps and Mauer finished up their two innings, I watched Pavano and Butera a bit more. Drew had a nice double to the gap and Pavano settled down after that nasty second inning. I watched Pavano throw five innings before heading out to a Sports Bar to watch some NCAA Tournament basketball. I don’t know if he threw another inning or not, but then again, I really didn’t care all that much.

If you’re wondering what it’s like to have Major League stars play in minor league spring training games, imagine having them show up at your local beer-league softball complex. It makes getting your picture album filled up pretty easy, that’s for sure. Here are just a few examples from the 150 or so I took today.

JIm Thome gets some BP, surrounded by Mauer, Morneau, Killebrew, and Cuddyer (Tony Oliva was behind the cage)

Michael Cuddyer's shirt says it all

From inside Hammond Stadium, looking out over the practice fields

Denard Span doing the autograph thing

Joe Mauer gets loose before his game on the minor league complex

The 'Stache delivers during his game on the minor league fields

Matt Capps was looking good against the RedSox kids

Of course, these were MINOR LEAGUE games, so we really should give a couple of those guys some love. A couple of the Twins top prospects were also playing in these games. Miguel Sano was a team mate of Joe Mauer for the day and Aaron Hicks provided some offense behind Carl Pavano.

Aaron Hicks

Miguel Sano

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it for today. Friday night, I’ll be making the trip up the highway to Sarasota to watch Francisco Liriano face off with the Orioles (again). Rumor has it that Justin Morneau may make the trip and Joe Mauer may get a few more swings in during another minor league game in the afternoon.

I hope all of you in the great upper midwest are staying warm! Excuse me while I put something on this little sunburn before I head back to the Sports Bar for some more basketball.

– JC