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.
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!
Naturally, the big news coming out of the Twins’ “B” game against the Pirates Tuesday… the thing that had Twitter thumbs getting a workout… was the triumphant (and more importantly, healthy) return of first baseman Justin Morneau. Delmon Young’s debut, with a couple of walks in his two plate appearances, was less dramatic, but still noteworthy and smile-inducing. But once the dust settled on their stories, we started reading what arguably could be the most intriguing news to come out of that game, played before just a couple of hundred sets of eyes on a distant practice field that, starting this weekend, will be used exclusively for putting 18 and 19 year old minor leaguers through drills.
It seems not all of the folks watching that game were vacationing Twins fans. Among the observers were a handful of people with well trained eyes focused on Twins starting pitcher Kevin Slowey, who according to reports from those in attendance, pitched an effective few innings against the Pirates’ “B” line-up. Reportedly, several scouts from the Blue Jays were watching Slowey and even videotaping his performance. The Rockies also apparently had a scout at the game.
The Twins entered Spring Training with two rotation spots nailed down and a number of other pitchers, with varying degrees of Major League experience, competing for the other three starting pitcher jobs. Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano were considered locks, while Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Brian Duensing constituted the pool of arms from which the remaining three rotation jobs would be drawn. Top prospects Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers would be waiting in the wings for opportunities later in the season and the Twins also have a group of pitchers (for example, Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop, Jeff Manship, and perhaps others) that are initially competing for bullpen jobs but could be called upon in a pinch to start games, if need be.
It was a solid, if unspectacular, group of starting pitchers and the plan looked and sounded like a reasonable approach to get through the spring and probably through the first couple of months of the season, at least. Many of us think the Twins may still need a true top-of-the-rotation guy to carry the Twins beyond the first round of the playoffs, but that’s a need that is always easier to address in July, when a number of teams have fallen out of contention and enter cost-cutting mode, than it is in March when hope springs eternal in camps all over Florida and Arizona.
Pitchers and catchers had barely put on practice jerseys when media speculation about a possible trade of Liriano to the Yankees began to circulate. Those rumors have quieted now, but in the mean time, manager Ron Gardenhire has gone on record committing two more of those coveted rotation spots to Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn. If Gardy sticks to those commitments (which I don’t think is necessarily as certain as people may tend to think), that leaves just one remaining starting role up for grabs between Baker and Slowey.
That’s one too many roosters for the rotation henhouse and thus the scouting eyes focused on Slowey’s performance Tuesday and the inevitable speculation that Slowey may be on the verge of being traded to Toronto in return for some of the Jays’ surplus of bullpen arms.
People still aren’t comfortable with the prospect of letting Gardy and pitching coach Rick Anderson sift through the large group of relatively unknown options that GM Bill Smith brought in to camp to compete for the middle relief roles behind Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. So why shouldn’t the Twins go ahead now and trade their surplus starting pitcher to strengthen their questionable bullpen?
I’m glad you asked.
Let’s start with a basic truth. Starting pitchers good enough to hold down a spot in a Major League rotation are more important, more valuable, more difficult to find, and more difficult to replace when you need them, than even the best middle relief pitchers. They just are.
Second, you need more than five starting pitchers. Remember Scott Baker going on the Disabled List just before the Twins broke camp in 2009? Remember Nick Blackburn needing a family medical leave last April? Having six starting pitchers with a history of having success at the top levels of baseball should not be considered a luxury, it should be looked at for what it is… a potential significant advantage over the competition. Every team, including the Twins, is likely to need at least six starting pitchers, even during the first couple of months of the season. The difference between the Twins and other teams is that they have the depth to meet that need when it arises.
Has anyone read the reports about Liriano’s lack of offseason preparedness and his shoulder discomfort and not come away with some level of concern over whether he’s going to be reliable when the season opens in April? How many of the projected starting pitchers had some sort of “clean up” done on their elbows this winter? If we’re uncomfortable with the prospect of Perkins, Manship, Waldrop, et al, coming in for a couple of innings in the middle of games, just how comfortable are we going to be if those are the options to plug the holes in the rotation?
Does this mean the Twins shouldn’t ever consider trading one of their starting pitchers? Of course not. But why hurry? We’re still about three weeks away from Opening Day. Nobody can say with any certainty what the Twins’ real needs will be by then. The relief arms in camp right now have thrown about 4-5 innings each. That’s not nearly enough to conclude that the bullpen is going to need shoring up. What if one of the big sticks blows out a knee over the next three weeks? If guys like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Danny Valencia or Denard Span are forced to miss significant early time, don’t we think a surplus starting pitcher to deal away for a legitimate everyday replacement might be a nice option to have?
Making a trade now would also unnecessarily limit the market. When the Liriano rumors started flying, all anyone talked about was that the Yankees needed rotation help. Then the Cardinals lost Adam Wainright and the potential bidders doubled. Just in the last few days, the Cardinals have seen Chris Carpenter miss time with a hamstring issue, the Dodgers have found out they’ll start the season without Vicente Padilla and Jon Garland, and the Brewers announced Zack Greinke will miss time with a rib injury. How many more teams will figure out they’re short handed in their rotations over the next few weeks?
It just makes no sense to me to trade any of the Twins’ starting pitchers until (a) the Twins themselves are 100% certain they don’t need that pitcher themselves, (b) Opening Day is close enough on the horizon that the Twins know exactly what the most important position to fill via trade is, and (c) the market for starting pitchers is given enough time to fully develop, maximizing the number of potential bidders for a pitcher and therefore maximizing the value received in return.
There may come a time when it makes sense to trade from a perceived surplus of starting pitching. Now is not that time.
I admit that Saturday night I was ready to forcibly and forever remove the Twins logo from the chest of almost every member of the Twins’ starting lineup. I’ve regained my perspective since then. Well, most of it.
My first reaction to reading this stuff was that it’s a bit early for all that. My team just “died” and I’m not sure I’m quite ready to look at who I’m going to be rooting for next season. But it was the first week of November last year when Bill Smith sent Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee for JJ Hardy. No doubt, the Twins’ GM is already working on piecing together the 2011 Twins, so I suppose a devoted blogger should start doing the same thing.
This is going to be a long process, however. I’m simply not prepared to ask and answer every roster question yet, so let’s do this in stages, shall we?
We’ll start with what is, perhaps for some of us, the most painful question to ask… who are we willing to say good-bye to?
To many of us, the players that make up our favorite team become pseudo-family members. This is especially true for the sort of players that traditionally make up the Twins roster. They’re good guys and they each have their own devoted following among fans. But every year, we have to say good-bye to some of them. Last year, in addition to Go-Go, we said farewell to Mike “Naked Batting Practice” Redmond, Joe Crede and Orlando Cabrera. Crede and Cabrera weren’t really with the team long enough to build much of a following, but Redmond and Gomez, despite being reserves, each had their own loyal fan base.
This year could see more dramatic changes. In fact, the number of players who are virtual locks to be on the team next year, whether because of performance or contract status, are very few. I would put Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Span, Valencia, Liriano and Nathan (assuming all are healthy) in this category. That’s it.
So let’s look at the rest.
A year ago, the Twins had five players eligible to file for free agency. In addition to Cabrera, Crede and Redmond, pitchers Ron Mahay and Carl Pavano also filed. While they followed different paths, both pitchers eventually found their way back to the Twins roster in 2010.
This off-season, not only is the number of players eligible for free agency higher, but we’re talking about some guys who made major contributions this season. Pavano and Mahay are eligible again and they are joined by Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch and Randy Flores. While I think we can all agree that re-signing Flores and Mahay won’t be high priorities for Bill Smith, that still leaves half a dozen significant contributors that can walk out the door and sign with the highest bidder. The truth is, some of them will not be in Twins uniforms next year. In fact, it’s possible that none of them will be.
Other players, while technically still under Twins control, still present some tough decisions for Bill Smith in terms of deciding whether to exercise team options or offer arbitration. Is Hardy worth $7 million to keep or do you let him become a free agent, too? Jason Kubel would make $5.25 million in 2011, the final year of his current contract… but the Twins can buy out that year for just $350,000, making him a free agent, as well.
What about Nick Punto? The Twins have been paying him “starter” money and have an option for 2011 to do the same (at $5 million). They’ll certainly pay him the $500,000 buy out instead. Does he re-sign with the Twins for less money or will his agent find him a deal with a team offering more money, more playing time, and less blogger abuse than he’ll get with the Twins?
If you offer Delmon Young and Matt Capps arbitration, they’re going to get something between $5-6 million (Young) and up to $9 million (Capps) for 2011. If you don’t offer them arbitration, their agents will find someone more than willing to pay those amounts, or more. Don’t think you need both Capps AND Brian Fuentes with Joe Nathan coming back? OK… but keeping Fuentes from free agency means picking up the team’s $9 million option for him, too.
And we haven’t even discussed possible trades yet. In addition to the possibility that the Twins could trade any of the players mentioned above who are still under team control, you have to wonder if any of the five starting pitchers not named Pavano would be trade bait in the off-season. I don’t think any of them are untouchable except Liriano.
Finally, there are a handful of guys that may just be gone next year because, even though the Twins technically still control them, their performance levels make them candidates to either be traded or simply beaten out for jobs in Spring Training. I’m looking at you, Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, Drew Butera, Jason Repko, Jose Mijares and Pat Neshek.
By my count, that’s 25 players who may be playing elsewhere in 2011. A small number are almost certainly gone. A couple are almost certainly staying. Most are somewhere in between. Off the top of my head, I’d break it down like this:
Almost certainly gone: Mahay, Flores, Rauch, Fuentes
Probably gone: Guerrier, Crain, Hudson, Pavano
Virtually a toss-up: Punto, Thome, Repko, Butera, Neshek, Harris, Tolbert
We’ll share our own thoughts about what Bill Smith should or shouldn’t do with regard to roster changes in future posts, but for now, please use the comment section to let us know your opinions.
Who are you willing to say good-bye to? Who do you think the Twins MUST bring back? – JC
PROGRAMMING NOTE: We’ve had some inquiries about whether we’ll be hosting GameChats for any of the remaining postseason games and we’re more than willing to do that if anyone is interested in hanging out at the Knuckleballs Virtual Sports Bar. We’re hoping to open up a GameChat window during tonight’s Rays/Rangers ALDS Game 5 so check back later if you’ve got nothing better to do with your life than watch baseball with us! 🙂
After what can only be described as a truly ugly weekend series in Detroit, maybe what we need to get that taste out of our mouths is a Twins History Lesson “doubleheader”. Let’s look at highlights for both the past week and the upcoming week in Twins history*.
September 20 has seen a couple of interesting events:
1965: As the Twins wound the clock down toward their first World Series appearance, it’s hard to imagine just 537 fans showing up for a make-up game with the Kansas City A’s. “Catfish” Hunter beat “Mudcat” Grant 8-2 before the smallest home crowd in Twins history. I suppose the 52 degree drizzling weather kept people away. Almost enough to make you wonder if they should build a domed stadium in the Twin Cities or something.
2004: The Twins clinched the AL Central title as Carlos Silva picked up the win in an 8-2 victory over the White Sox.
September 21 has seen both highs and lows:
1963: Harmon Killebrew hit three home runs in the first game of a doubleheader at Fenway Park. To prove it wasn’t a fluke, he hit another one in the second game against the Red Sox. While it would seem that Fenway would be a great place for a guy like Killebrew (a right handed hitter known for his towering fly balls to LF) to hit, it was actually the only multi-home run game for Killer at the home of the Green Monster. It was also the only 3-home run game of Harmon’s career.
1997: There weren’t a lot of Twins highlights in the late 90s, but on this day Brad Radke gave us something to cheer about. He pitched all 10 innings of a 2-1 win over the Brewers at the Dome, striking out 9, walking nobody and giving up 6 hits (including a Jeff Cirillo solo HR). The Twins won on a Paul Molitor triple that drove in Brent Brede from first base. The Twins would finish with just 69 wins on the year… and Radke won 20 of those.
Looking at September 22:
1968: Proving he could “do it all”, Cesar Tovar played one inning at each of the nine defensive positions in a win over Oakland. Tovar pitched the first inning and not only threw a scoreless inning, he struck out future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson in the process. The game was the ONLY time a position player pitched for the Twins at a game in Metropolitan Stadium, the only time a position player has been the starting pitcher for the Twins, and the only time the Twins have ever won a game in which a position player has pitched. It was obviously a Calvin Griffith publicity stunt and I suppose you would say it worked. The game drew the second highest paid attendance among the final 10 home games of the season… 11, 340. Griffith was so moved by Tovar’s willingness to do his part to bring in the extra fans, that he gave Tovar a little bonus… a new color TV.
1969: The Twins clinched the AL Western Division title with a 4-3 win over the Royals, on the strength of Harmon Killebrew’s 47th home run of the year. Bob Miller was the winning pitcher. (See NOTE at September 28 entry)
1970: Exactly one year later, to the day, the Twins clinched their second AL Western Division title with a 5-3 win over the A’s.
1978: California Angel (and former Twin) Lyman Bostock, Jr., was shot and killed in Gary, Indiana. He remains the only Major League Baseball player murdered during a baseball season while he was an active player.
2003: The Twins clinched the AL Central title as they defeated the Tribe 4-1 at the Metrodome, then watched the White Sox and Royals both lose their games.
Johan Santana became the first Venezuelan to record 20 wins in a season on September 24, 2004, with an 8-2 win over Cleveland. In the process, he established a new Twins record with his 13th consecutive win and also broke Bert Blyleven’s franchise single-season strikeout record.
September 25 has seen its share of eventful games:
1985: Bert Blyleven was the winning pitcher as the Twins beat the Rangers 5-1… win number 2,000 for the Twins
2000: One of those “things you don’t see every day in MLB.” The Twins beat the Indians in the nightcap of a split doubleheader. What’s odd about that? Well, it was the only game of the doubleheader that the Twins participated in. In the afternoon game, the Tribe lost to the White Sox 9-2. This sort of 3-team twinbill has occurred only twice in MLB history.
2008: The White Sox had come to Minnesota with a 2 and a half game lead over the Twins in the AL Central, but that lead was down to a half game when the teams took the field for the final game of the series. The Sox built a 6-1 lead through the top of the 4th inning, then managed just 4 baserunners the rest of the game. The Twins scored 2 in the 4th on a Carlos Gomez triple and Denard Span double and added another in the 6th on another Gomez triple and a successful Span suicide squeeze bunt. The 8th inning saw two more Twins runs on a double by Brendan Harris, a single by Gomez and a triple by Span that tied the game at 6. The game stayed that way until the bottom of the 10th inning when Alexi Casilla singled home Nick Punto with the winning run, sending the Twins a half game ahead of the White Sox and forcing Chicago to play a make up game in Detroit the following day in an attempt to force a Game 163 with the Twins.
On September 26, 1965, the Twins clinched their first American League Pennant, with a 2-1 win over the Senators at DC Stadium. Jim Kaat got the complete-game win for Minnesota, striking out 10 and walking nobody. Kaat and battery-mate Earl Battey were among 7 Twins on that team that had played for the organization as Washington Senators in 1960, before the move to Minnesota. Surveying the crazy scene in the winners locker room after the game, Battey smiled and said, “You guys act like you have never done this before.” It had been over three decades since the franchise had won a pennant.
September 27 has witnessed a couple of games of note:
1981: In recording their last win at Met Stadium, the Twins beat the Rangers 5-2 with John Castino and Gary Ward each hitting a pair of home runs.
1987: The Twins set a team record for single game regular season attendance when 53,106 watch a day game with the Royals.
1998: Paul Molitor ended his Hall of Fame career by going 2 for 4 with a single in his final at-bat in the Twins 6-2 win over the Indians.
Of interest for events of September 28:
1969: The Twins clinched the AL Western Division championship with a 5-2 win over the Mariners in the opening game of a doubleheader in Seattle. (NOTE: As indicated in the entry for September 22, there appears to be some confusion as to exactly when the Twins clinched their title in 1969. Perhaps they clinched at least a tie on 9/22? In any event, rather than digging to find out which is accurate, I’m reporting both… I’m feeling particularly lazy today.)
1974: The Twins were on the losing end of Nolan Ryan’s third (of an eventual seven) career no-hitter as Ryan and the Angels topped Minnesota 4-0. Ryan struck out 15 Twins in the game.
1978: This is the date of “the Speech”, given by Twins owner Calvin Griffith at a Lions Club event in Waseca MN. You can read all about it here, if you haven’t before. It was… unbelievable. For me personally, the low point in Minnesota Twins history.
1987: A much higher point in franchise history was reached when the Twins clinched the AL Western Division title with a 5-3 win over the Rangers in Arlington.
1995: Kirby Puckett’s jaw was broken by a Dennis Martinez pitch. It would be the last regular season appearance of Puckett’s career. He would go through spring training the following year, but be diagnosed with glaucoma before the regular season would begin.
On September 29, 1991, the Twins clinched the AL Western Division title despite their 2-1 loss to Toronto, when the White Sox also suffered a 2-1 loss to the Mariners.
There have been two historic Twins games held on September 30:
1981: 15,900 fans attended the final home game played at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Roy Smalley made the final out of the final game, a 5-2 loss to the Royals.
2008: We try not to hold it against him today, but on this date, Jim Thome broke our hearts with a home run off Nick Blackburn, accounting for the sole White Sox run in their 1-0 win over the Twins in the extra “Game 163” necessitated when the Twins and Sox finished the season tied for the lead in the AL Central.
Let’s look at October 1:
2002: Despite falling behind 5-1 after the first two innings, the Twins came back to defeat Oakland 7-5 in Game 1 of the ALDS. Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz each homered in support of winning pitcher Brad Radke.
2006: It had never happened in MLB history before but it did on this date… a team that had not held sole possession of first place in their division/league for a single prior day the entire season, claimed their title on the last day of the season. The Twins won their game and then watched with fans as the Tigers blew a 6-0 lead over the Royals before losing 10-8 in 12 innings. 23 year old Joe Mauer became the first AL catcher to win a league batting title, hitting .347 to lead the Major Leagues.
A few oddities are mixed in with the events of October 2:
1974: In a game against the Twins, Texas manager Billy Martin became the first AL manager in the DH-era NOT to use a DH… allowing pitcher Fergie Jenkins to hit instead.
1988: With a crowd of 35,952, the Twins became the first team to pass the 3 million mark in paid attendance for a season. It was a Twins attendance mark that would stand unitl… well… a few days ago, when the Twins broke that record during a game at Target Field last week.
2004: Play was suspended at the Metrodome after 11 innings with the Twins and Indians tied at 5. Why? So crews would have sufficient time to convert the playing field for the scheduled Minnesota Gopher football game that night. Hmmm… maybe they should think about building a basball-only ballpark?
2009: Joe Nathan notched his 46th save, breaking Eddie Guardado’s prior team record of 45, which he recorded in 2002. Nathan would finish the season with 47 saves.
For those who may be tempted to take the Twins recent success for granted, let me end this History Lesson with a review of the final game of the 1999 season at Comisky Park on October 3, 1999. The White Sox scored in the bottom of the first inning and neither team tallied again until the top of the 7th when Doug Mientkiewicz singled and Torii Hunter drove him in with a double, both coming with two outs. At that point, with the score tied 1-1 in the middle of the 7th, the game was called due to rain, wind, cold and, I would imagine, indifference.
The Twins simply didn’t matter in 1999.
Win or lose this post season, the Twins matter now and they’ve mattered for the past 9 seasons. It’s good to be a Twins fan! – JC
Earlier, in Part 1 of this essay, we took a trip down Memory Lane back in to last offseason and through spring training and discussed some of the decisions made by Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire as they constructed the roster that the Twins would start the 2010 season with. Now let’s take a look at how those decisions worked out.
In essence, the Twins started the 2010 season with six starting pitchers that they felt pretty good about, a bullpen that was missing its anchor in Joe Nathan, but was otherwise solid, an improved starting line up and a bench with some speed and one very dangerous bat.
When Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy and Nick Punto (3/4 of the Opening Day infield) collectively made seven trips to the Disabled List, Alexi Casilla was there to fill in because the Twins decided not to risk losing him to waivers in order to keep Matt Tolbert or Danny Valencia to begin the season. The decision to start the year with Valencia and Tolbert in Rochester and Casilla with the Twins has resulted in all three of them being available to make significant contributions when the starting infielders went down.
By the way, it’s just plain mean to say that Nick Punto’s biggest contribution to the Twins success was getting injured and thereby allowing Danny Valencia to take over full time at 3B. Mean… and not altogether accurate. The truth is that Valencia’s ticket back to Rochester had pretty much been bought and paid for when Justin Morneau bumped his head against Blue Jays’ 2B John McDonald’s knee. It was Morneau’s absence and the resulting move of Michael Cuddyer to 1B that kept Valencia in Minnesota.
Of course, it was also Morneau’s injury that made Smith’s signing of Jim Thome all the more important.
Keep in mind, this is the same Jim Thome that mlb.com columnist Hal Brody had written the following about during mid-March:
So, Thome, in the twilight of a career that should land him in the Hall of Fame, will be used mostly as a late-inning pinch-hitter. This is Spring Training, when most everyone oozes with optimism, but the dark side is if Thome’s skills diminish during 2010 he might not finish the year with the Twins.
Or it could be a swan song, his final season.
In the second half of the season, Thome has hit for a .310 average, with a .450 on-base percentage and a .722 slugging percentage. That’s a 1.172 OPS in 44 games (38 of which he has started as the DH). “Swan song” indeed.
So yes, decisions to sign Hudson and Thome and to keep Casilla to start the season have proved to be huge.
But let’s look at the pitching.
Yes, the Twins have been without the services of Joe Nathan. But they have three pitchers who have racked up over 20 saves each this season (though obviously not all for the Twins). Jon Rauch did well filling in at the back end of the bullpen during the first half of the season. When he started to show some signs of faltering, the Twins traded for Matt Capps. Sure, maybe they overpaid for him, but he’s gotten the job done. Then just for good measure (and to have a shut down arm against lefty hitters), Smith went and got Angels closer Brian Fuentes.
So the Twins replaced Nathan with three closers… and yet none of them has been their best relief pitcher this year. That would have to be Jesse Crain (the same Jesse Crain who was rumored to be a non-tender candidate in December), who recovered from a shaky start to the season to become virtually unhittable for the past few months. He’s the guy who has come in to get the critical outs against the opposing team’s toughest hitters before the ninth inning rolls around.
Finally, how huge does that decision NOT to convert Francisco Liriano to a closer look right now? The Twins started the season with six starting pitchers they felt they could rely upon. The two who were battling for the final roster spot, Liriano and Brian Duensing, will pitch games 1 and 3 of the ALDS in October, but the other four haven’t been shabby either.
Those six pitchers, Liriano and Duensing along with Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano, have started all but three games for the Twins this season and nobody outside of that group has started more than one game. All six have been credited with at least 10 wins this season. (By comparison, in 2009, the Twins used 11 starting pitchers, 8 of them started at least 9 games, and only three of them notched 10 or more wins.)
So, how did the Twins get here…with a Division Championship already under their belts with another week and a half of games to play?
I don’t want to minimize the contributions of the other starting pitchers or of guys like Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel who have all obviously played significant roles in the Twins’ success and the ironman versatility of Michael Cuddyer shouldn’t be underappreciated.
But in my mind, the decisions to retain Pavano and Crain, add Thome and Hudson, keep Liriano in a starting pitcher role and give Casilla the final roster spot out of Spring Training made the difference between the 2010 Twins once again being borderline contenders and being a team capable of blowing away the AL Central competition.
It’s been a fantastic ride so far… let’s hope the best is yet to come! – JC
FIRST: This is going out early so that people have a heads up to watch the Legends Game! It’s not on the same channel as the game itself but it is being broadcast so if you aren’t actually in in Target Field like I am today, you should be sure to catch it – here’s the bit from FSN about the Legends Game:
On Sunday, FOX Sports North will televise the Twins Legends Game live from Target Field at 12:30 p.m. (Just don’t call them old-timers!) The three-inning game will feature some of the greatest names in Twins history reunited: Bert Blyleven, Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek, Ron Coomer, Tim Laudner, Tom Brunansky, Greg Gagne, Terry Steinbach, Brad Radke and Eddie Guardado.
Managing the two Legends Game teams will be Tom Kelly and Frank Quilici. Numerous players in the Legends Game will wear wireless microphones for the FS North telecast, along with Don Shelby from WCCO-TV, who will serve as home plate umpire.
And if that’s not enough, current Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, a former Twin, will don a Twins uniform, sit in the Twins dugout and play in the Legends Game … just before he switches dugouts to manage the Rangers in the regular game.
SECOND: The actual Twins game is on the schedule for 1:10 but it’s my understanding that the game is going to be delayed because of the Legends game and isn’t actually starting until 2 pm. You will have to change over channels to WFTC29 but I think y’all can manage it.
Our news update since yesterday’s game is that Ben Revere has gotten his shot at being a September callup. AND according to Sunday Sports Talk this morning, Neshek, Slama and Perkins could also be brought back up today. SIDESHOW!!! I’ve really missed him but I’m glad to see his name being mentioned by someone other than the bloggers. Kubel says he’s feeling better and might be ready to try a little action today. There are also rumors that Punto might be ready to come back today if necessary – which would require activation. That means a lot of crazy shenanigans with the 25 man roster and according to people who know more than I, it’s likely that Fox and Flores will be the ones removed to make room. I’m not entirely sure that I am ready to swap Perkins for Flores but I’ve hardly gotten a chance to get to know Flores yet.
** Matt Fox has been officially designated for assignment to make room for Revere
I may or may not be able to get the fancy lineups in before I head off and JC will not be joining us today as he has a daughter to take off to college. Hopefully, you will get a visit from KL during the game but I don’t know her schedule either – I trust y’all know the drill and can manage to chat without us including any game end decisions that might be necessary! I will check the archives and make any appropriate announcements.
I don’t have much to say in terms of summarizing the game. I really should have just ignored baseball today. See… after I got my daughter moved in to her dorm at college and got back to town, I turned my car radio on and it was the top of the 9th inning of the Sox/Sox game and the BitchSox were about to lose to Boston. By the time I got home, Boston had essentially handed Chicago a win. Then I turned on the Twins game and it was the top of the 9th there too, with the Twins leading 6-2. Thee runs and one “out on coach’s interference” call later, the Twins had held on to notch a 6-5 win.
I’m relying on the rest of the gang in the GameChat for Boyfriend of the Day decisions today, since I certainly didn’t see anyone worthy in the half inning I watched! The offense was spread around pretty broadly. Michael Cuddyer, with his 2 RBI, certainly earned some raspberry cheesecake, and Jason Kubel, being the only guy with 2 hits, gets some as well. But the clear BOD for the day appears to be Nick Blackburn. Once again, the Twins got a very good start out of Blackie, throwing 7 complete innings and giving up only 2 runs (both earned). It wasn’t anything approaching perfection, as he walked 3 to go with the 4 Ks he racked up, but given what I saw of the two pitchers-who-shall-remain-nameless who worked the 9th inning, he certainly had to look like an All Star by comparison… and that makes you, Nick Blackburn, our BOD!
I should add… there also seemed to be a great deal of support for awarding various foodstuffs to some of the Legends in recognition of their efforts in the 3 inning Legends Game held prior to the Twins game today. However, after seeing a few of these guys the other night during the ceremony, I think most of them would benefit from something other than high-calorie sweets. So I’ll award a couple of cases of LITE beer and a healthy supply of tylenol and Ben-Gay to the Legends! I hope I get an opportunity to see a replay of the event… it sounds like a good time was had by all. Since Babs was in attendance, I’m counting on her to post a full report, complete with a multitude of pictures, in the near future! – JC
While Babs and KL have been en route up to St. Cloud to party with Sooze and the TwinsCentric crowd, poor old JC has been left at home to slave away on the blog and get the GameChat post up. They never take me anywhere!
(The truth is, I’ve spent the afternoon getting a haircut, loading the dishwasher, buying some groceries and watching a “classic” Twins/BitchSox game on Comcast Sports. It’s from 2003 and, as we’d expect since it’s on Chicago’s cable channel, the Sox won the game 8-6 in 12 innings on a Frank Thomas HR. Nonetheless, it was kind of fun watching Kyle Lohse, AJ Pierzynski, Bobby Kielty, Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie, Denny Hocking, LaTroy Hawkins, Christian Guzman, et al, along with a VERY young looking Canadian first baseman wearing number 27. I REALLY miss Justin!)
Anyway… the important thing is that we have the Twins to watch (at least those of us in areas of the country where FOX is showing the Twins/Mariners instead of the Phillies/Padres do, anyway). There isn’t much point in scoreboard watching today, since the Bitch Sox and F’ing Yankees don’t play until tonight. The Tigers did lose to Toronto earlier today, however, and I suppose we should continue keeping an eye on the kitties for a while yet.
According to LEN3, the newest kid on the block, Brian Fuentes, is on the scene and wearing jersey # 51, so watch for him to enter if the occasion calls for someone to face a tough LH hitter late in the game (assuming the Mariners HAVE a tough LH hitter… I suppose Ichiro may still qualify).
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this game. Nick Blackburn pitched like…well… unlike I ever recall seeing him pitch before. He’s had some very good games as a Twin. He’s been a money pitcher late in other seasons, so it’s not like it would be unheard of for him to throw a good game against the Mariners today. But 2 hits (BOTH in the first inning), 2 walks (one erased on a DP ball), 6 strikeouts and only 98 pitches over 8.2 innings? I didn’t see that one coming.
Good thing he came through with a lock down game, though, because the Twins apparently have not burned their assbats. Danny Valencia, JJ Hardy and Denard Span deserve to share a giant banana split for stringing together three consecutive hits in the top of the 3rd inning to account for the Twins sole run. And the new guy, Brian Fuentes earns his own personal hot fudge sundae for coming in to nail down the win by striking out the Ms’ big lefty Russell Branyan for the final out of the game. (There was plenty of discussion around Twinsville, I’m sure, about whether Gardy should bring Fuentes in or let Blackburn try to complete the game… but when you are fighting for a playoff spot and you have a left handed closer-quality pitcher who is as close to being perfect against LH hitters as you can get, the decision becomes pretty clear. Good call, Gardy.)
As for Boyfriend of the Day, I’m not sure we’ve ever had an easier choice to make. Nick Blackburn, you are our BOD. Keep up the great work! – JC
I read a few articles and posts on Tuesday about Nick Blackburn (“is he back?”, etc.). You can’t draw conclusions based on one start, but given how anemic the offense was and how the defense failed time after time to come up with a big play (or even a few routine plays) Monday night, there’s no doubt Blackburn deserved better results than he got. When you get 7 good innings out of him, you need to capitalize on that opportunity. The Twins failed to do so Monday night.
Then, apparently just to prove that failure wasn’t a fluke, the Twins turned around and wasted a nice complete game by iron man Carl Pavano on Tuesday night, too. True, the offense at least got on the board last night and yes, you can argue that an umpire call here or there might have erroneously gone against the Twins. Still, the fact remains that the Twins blew several scoring opportunities and, once again, allowed the Rangers to score runs they didn’t earn due to not making defensive plays that should have been made, particularly in the fourth inning. (In fairness, there were also a couple of pretty nice defensive plays made last night, as well.)
The Twins, as an organization, have clearly made a decision that they are willing to live with more limited defensive abilities in the corner outfield positions (Young, Kubel and Cuddyer will never impress anyone with their range or glovework in the OF). That’s fine, I suppose, but it means they really need a CF with exceptional range and ability. The organization may have expected Denard Span to provide that exceptional range and ability, but he simply has not done so on a consistent basis this season.
Having weak OF defense in the corners AND a mediocre CF will result in a lot of batted balls falling for hits that should be finding gloves. A good Major League CF makes the catch at the low wall Monday night and Denard simply misjudged where the ball was coming down. Would it have been a good play to make that catch? Yes. Is it reasonable for a Major League team to expect its CF to make that play? I believe so. I won’t even waste words on the ball that fell between Kubel and Span last night.
Of course, it wasn’t just outfield play that let Blackburn down Monday night.
Whether it was Hudson’s decision to play shallow RF against Hamilton or a failure by the coaching staff to position him correctly is a fair question to ask, but Hamilton had no business reaching first base on his “infield hit”. Likewise, sure the runner was going on the pitch and bearing down on JJ Hardy as he tried to turn the double play in the fifth inning and you’d like to think the guy you’ve got over at 1B will scoop up most throws that land 5 feet in front of him and bounce up, but it’s hard not to think that Hardy’s sore wrist affected that throw and ended up costing a run.
JJ Hardy is a very good shortstop and he may potentially be the best #9 hitter in baseball, but if his wrist is that sore, Alexi Casilla should be playing SS until Hardy is healthy. The difference between the two of them simply is not so great as to warrant having a Hardy who’s playing at less than 100% in the line up every day. (Oh, and by the way, if Hardy’s wrist is so bad that Gardy had to send Matt Tolbert up to hit trailing by one run with two out in the ninth inning last night, then Hardy should be DL’d to make room for someone who can provide a better bat than Tolbert off the bench.)
All of this, together, has me wondering a bit about how fair it is for so many people to be criticizing the Twins pitching to the degree that’s been going on this summer. I’m sure there are sabremetricians who would be happy to debate various player’s talents with me, but I’ve watched almost every game the Twins have played this season and based purely upon those observations, here’s what I’ve seen in this team’s defense:
Catcher: Several weeks of Joe Mauer with shoulder/toe/whatever problems that clearly affected his ability to throw out runners and even get down and block relatively routine pitches in the dirt.
1B: Nearly two months now of missing Justin Morneau. Cuddyer has filled in admirably, but he’s just passable defensively.
2B: This position may have been the best, most consistently manned, position as Hudson and Casilla have, together, played a pretty good 2B.
SS: Hardy gets to a lot of balls other shortstops don’t but he’s missed a ton of playing time and when he has tried to play with his wrist injury, his throws have been less than perfect. Combine that with having a backup at 1B and you get a few more baserunners than you should.
3B: Once we got past the early-season games that had Matt Tolbert, Brendan Harris and Michael Cuddyer at the corner, this has been a pretty well-fielded position. I’m not yet convinced Danny Valencia’s defense is as good as his metrics so far have said he is (I don’t think he charges bunts particularly well and while he has a very strong arm, he seems to have trouble getting the ball out of his glove and getting a throw off at times), but he’s certainly been better than advertised at this point and Nick Punto has fielded the position well, also.
LF: Delmon Young is lighter and he moves better than he did last year, but nobody is going to mistake him for a “good” outfielder.
CF: Denard Span has been average, at best.
RF: Whether it’s Cuddyer or Kubel, you aren’t getting good range in RF and while it was possible for a guy to cover up other deficiencies by figuring out how to play the baggie at the Dome, I’m not sure it’s even possible for anyone to do that at Target Field with all of the various types of building materials that make up the RF wall.
I guess my point is that all things considered, it’s probably not all that surprising that opponents are getting on base and scoring at a higher rate against the Twins this season than we’d like to see and I don’t think you can lay all of that at the feet of the pitching staff. The powers-that-be decided the Twins were going to build a stronger offense in 2010 and that came with a price on the defensive side. Unless you suddenly build a pitching staff full of power pitching strikeout artists, you shouldn’t expect your pitchers to put up numbers comparable to years when you focused on putting a strong defense behind them.
Of course, perhaps this is all just a very long-winded way of saying that while this patchwork defense is good enough to beat the Orioles, Royals and White Sox, if the Twins are serious about competing with the Rangers (and the Yankees and the Rays), they are going to need #33.
Finally, one more thought this morning…
My beliefs concerning the afterlife do not include putting any stock in reincarnation. As much fun as I might think it would be to perpetually come back around as one of any number of noble species, I just can’t buy in to the belief that we get to keep coming back to the world again and again. That said… on the off chance that I’m wrong about all this, I just want to submit a request that at some point I get to return to this earth as a pigeon. I’ve already got this 7 foot tall hunk of bronze in Milwaukee picked out to rest upon after meals.
On the other hand, coming back as a kestrel wouldn’t be such a bad deal either. At least you wouldn’t be concerned about rising season ticket prices. – JC
As I went to bed last night, I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the Twins trade of premier catching prospect Wilson Ramos along with minor league pitcher Joe Testa to the Nationals for closer Matt Capps and half a million dollars cash. This morning, I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
I admit I haven’t had time yet to read many of the reactions from the rest of the Twins blogosphere, but I do feel most of this community tends to overvalue the Twins’ prospects, so I’m guessing the reaction in the blogs will be largely negative. TwinsGeek John Bonnes found eight things he didn’t like about the trade, while over in Section 219, Howard Sinker seemed to offer a conditional thumbs up to the deal.
I’m not a terribly patient person, by nature, but I’m going to suggest we all try to exercise some patience here. There’s no doubt in my mind that this trade makes this year’s Twins better. How much better? That’s certainly a fair topic for debate. Capps is probably a moderately better closer than Jon Rauch, but that’s only part of the story. Adding a reliever at the top of the bullpen food chain has a ripple effect which means (or should mean, anyway) that the Twins would actually be replacing their LAST arm in the pen with Capps.
Who you feel that person is depends on how you personally feel about Ron Mahay, Jose Mijares and Nick Blackburn. Mahay and Mijares are lefties and with Brian Duensing in the rotation, it seems unlikely they’ll be sent packing. There’s also an argument to be made that Blackie, if he’s ever going to regain his effectiveness, needs to pitch regularly in Rochester rather than waiting around for a long relief spot in Minnesota. But if he leaves, who exactly IS the Twins long reliever who can go 3+ innings if the starting pitcher struggles early? [EDIT: I realized I should have also included Anthony Slama on the list of guys that could be bumped to make room for Capps. Sitting here thinking about it, unless they decide Blackburn needs regular starts, he’s probably the guy on his way out for now.-JC]
Then there’s that $500,000 that the Twins are getting back from the Nationals. What’s that all about? We can certainly all speculate about just how close the Twins are to being maxed out on their payroll for the year, but it just seems odd that half a mil would have a major bearing on that issue. I mean, that’s a good chunk of change for you and me, but for a Major League Baseball team?
Weighing all of this brings me to only one logical conclusion. Bill Smith isn’t done yet.
I realize MLB Trade Rumors is reporting that the Cubs and Dodgers are talking about a deal to send Ted Lilly to LA and they mention that the Twins (and other teams) have “cooled” on Lilly. But whether it’s Lilly or someone else, I’m betting (or at least hoping) Smith is fairly certain he’s going to land a lefty starting pitcher. It may or may not be before Saturday’s non-waiver deadline, but that’s really a pretty soft deadline these days because of the size of contracts the players involved have. They pass through waivers pretty freely.
If the Twins do pick up a LH starter, it frees them to push Duensing back in to his role as the team’s long reliever AND top lefty out of the pen. That sends either Mahay or Mijares packing (I’m guessing Mijares to Rochester). Of course, the Twins don’t have Ramos around to deal for a top lefty SP any more, but I have to figure the teams they’re talking to about such players weren’t after Ramos (if they were and Smith dealt him for a reliever, then I’m completely baffled at the logic). And maybe that $500K gives the Twins some flexibility in terms of taking on more of the next trade target’s salary and thus not having to part with as much talent in the deal? I dunno. Just spitballing here.
So I’m holding off on passing judgment… for now. If it turns out this is it… and the Twins spent arguably their top trade chip for a relief pitcher, then that’s going to be tough for me to swallow. I was all for trading Ramos, but it just seems like that’s not a fair return, given Capps’ contract situation (he’s going to start getting very expensive the next year or two… probably too expensive for the Twins to keep). But after the series of deals Bill Smith made in August last year that, despite not all being widely popular at the time, turned out very well for the Twins, I’m going to sit back and hope this is all part of a larger plan to strengthen more than one area of the roster and prepare the Twins for a playoff run. – JC
“That wasn’t the same Brewers team we played at our place [in May], and we weren’t the same either,” the Twins first baseman said. “I didn’t like our energy today. We got down early and didn’t show much of a fight. Obviously you give some credit to their pitcher, but at the same time, the energy in our dugout wasn’t very good.”
Reading all this stuff about a lack of energy riles me up a bit, to be honest. I spent virtually the entire first 40 years of my life in baseball dugouts. From the time I started going to practices and games for the Albert Lea HS teams my dad coached to the time I started playing ball myself and on through the years I spent coaching CABA and traveling teams, I pretty much figured out what creates energy among a team and what depresses it.
Winning energizes and losing sucks the life out of dugout. It really IS that simple.
Yes, I know all about the rampant amphetamine use among ballplayers that has (supposedly) been curtailed since MLB started testing for the drug 4-ish years ago. I did, after all, read Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four”. (You haven’t read it? Seriously? And you call yourself a baseball fan!? Go read it. Now. The rest of this blog will still be here when you’re finished.)
There’s all sorts of speculation about how player performances (particularly older veterans) are not up to what they used to be because they aren’t as revved up, mentally and physically, as they were when the clubhouse coffee pots were marked “leaded” and “unleaded”… and it had nothing to do with caffeine. I can’t discount the possibility that some players really do have trouble performing at high levels, day in and day out, without a little chemical help.
If that’s the Twins problem, then I say we all pitch in and send them a 4 month supply of the energy drink of their choice.
But I honestly believe the solution is more basic. Win more games. Lose fewer games.
Last Sunday the Twins were coming off an emotional extra-inning game against the Phillies on Saturday and were set to face Roy Halladay in an afternoon “getaway day” game. I didn’t see any sign of an energy shortage on Sunday. (I also didn’t see a “B-squad” lineup on the field for the Twins that day, either, by the way.)
After a couple of losses Tuesday and Wednesday, all it really took to KNOW that the Twins were going to phone it in on Thursday afternoon was a look at the lineup cards. Facing the Brewers’ ace, the Twins were Mauerless, had Cuddyer at 3B and Nick Blackburn on the mound. Seriously… how much energy would YOU have been pumped up with if you were in that dugout Thursday?
Here’s a little secret that those who haven’t played the game might not be aware of: Ballplayers can read scoreboards. They know when their starting pitcher has given up bunch of crooked numbers early in a ballgame. If you have to stage a comeback like last Saturday’s once in a while, players can and will rise to the occasion to do so. But when you have pitchers who are consistently digging early holes for themselves and their team mates, it WILL drain the team’s energy.
It would be great if the Twins, as a group, would come together and say, “hey, the Tigers and WhiteSox are playing well and gaining on us, we need to ramp it up and ‘battle our tails off’ every game and blah, blah, blah.” But I’m here to tell you, if the Twins starting pitching does not improve, they will continue to lack energy and continue losing games. Lots of games.
There are two things I think should be done as soon as possible.
1. Replace Nick Blackburn in the rotation with Brian Duensing. I know Blackie has had tough stretches in the past and has bounced back to be productive later. That’s great. I hope he can do it again. But until he gets his crap together, let him work on his issues out of the pen. Duensing has earned a shot at proving he can do it better.
2. Trade for Cliff Lee. I know this topic is already getting old and people are tired of hearing about it. I know some people don’t think he’d be a good clubhouse guy. You know what makes a starting pitcher a good clubhouse guy? Giving him run support when he busts his butt to shut down the other team. In other words, winning doesn’t just boost energy, it also makes for a happy clubhouse. Funny how that works.
By the way, if this report is accurate, not only will a certain Omaha resident who frequents our blog not be a very happy camper, but it could also make it impossible for the Twins to execute both of the above improvements.
Actually, there is a 3rd thing that should be done immediately. Move Delmon Young up in the order. Gardy is just being pigheaded (again) and there’s no excuse for not having made this move already. It has nothing to do with energy (except that Young has it and Cuddyer doesn’t, lately), but it still needs to be done.
By the way, in case anyone was thinking that there might be an energy boost available in Rochester to help the Twins situation, go read the last couple of posts (June 23 and 24) on Jim Mandelaro’s blog concerning the Red Wings, who just wrapped up a 1-7 homestand. In the final sentence of yesterday’s entry, Jim tells readers that he’s taking a day off Friday (today) to cover the LPGA golf tournament being played (we presume) nearby. ” It’s a welcome respite from the deadly quiet atmosphere of the Red Wings’ clubhouse.” When your beat writer is looking forward to covering a women’s golf tournament instead of your game and hints that the golf tournament might not be as “deadly quiet” as your clubhouse, things are not going well.
Doesn’t sound like we should be expecting newly arrived outfielder Jason Repko to be providing an energy boost, does it? – JC