Off-season Photo Farewell

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

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

Bullpen: White Knights or Black Hole?

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

Bullpen up in the air?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Never heard of him? That’s OK.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

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

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

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

Gotta be more important stuff, right?

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

– JC

Smith & Gardy: The New Goose & Maverick?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– JC

Baseball Means Saying Good-bye

I admit that Saturday night I was ready to forcibly and forever remove the Twins logo from the chest of almost every member of the Twins’ starting lineup. I’ve regained my perspective since then. Well, most of it.

We’ve begun to see writers/bloggers discuss various topics related to the issue of the makeup of the Twins’ 2011 roster. Some look at payroll figures and possible free agents. There’s also some good material about Twins minor leaguers who may be ready to step up on to the big stage next year.

My first reaction to reading this stuff was that it’s a bit early for all that. My team just “died” and I’m not sure I’m quite ready to look at who I’m going to be rooting for next season. But it was the first week of November last year when Bill Smith sent Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee for JJ Hardy. No doubt, the Twins’ GM is already working on piecing together the 2011 Twins, so I suppose a devoted blogger should start doing the same thing.

This is going to be a long process, however. I’m simply not prepared to ask and answer every roster question yet, so let’s do this in stages, shall we?

We’ll start with what is, perhaps for some of us, the most painful question to ask… who are we willing to say good-bye to?

To many of us, the players that make up our favorite team become pseudo-family members. This is especially true for the sort of players that traditionally make up the Twins roster. They’re good guys and they each have their own devoted following among fans. But every year, we have to say good-bye to some of them. Last year, in addition to Go-Go, we said farewell to Mike “Naked Batting Practice” Redmond, Joe Crede and Orlando Cabrera. Crede and Cabrera weren’t really with the team long enough to build much of a following, but Redmond and Gomez, despite being reserves, each had their own loyal fan base.

This year could see more dramatic changes. In fact, the number of players who are virtual locks to be on the team next year, whether because of performance or contract status, are very few. I would put Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Span, Valencia, Liriano and Nathan (assuming all are healthy) in this category. That’s it.

So let’s look at the rest.

A year ago, the Twins had five players eligible to file for free agency. In addition to Cabrera, Crede and Redmond, pitchers Ron Mahay and Carl Pavano also filed. While they followed different paths, both pitchers eventually found their way back to the Twins roster in 2010.

Will Thome hit #600 as a Twin?

This off-season, not only is the number of players eligible for free agency higher, but we’re talking about some guys who made major contributions this season. Pavano and Mahay are eligible again and they are joined by Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch and Randy Flores. While I think we can all agree that re-signing Flores and Mahay won’t be high priorities for Bill Smith, that still leaves half a dozen significant contributors that can walk out the door and sign with the highest bidder. The truth is, some of them will not be in Twins uniforms next year. In fact, it’s possible that none of them will be.

Other players, while technically still under Twins control, still present some tough decisions for Bill Smith in terms of deciding whether to exercise team options or offer arbitration.  Is Hardy worth $7 million to keep or do you let him become a free agent, too? Jason Kubel would make $5.25 million in 2011, the final year of his current contract… but the Twins can buy out that year for just $350,000, making him a free agent, as well.

Will Nick Punto and Orlando Hudson be back?

What about Nick Punto? The Twins have been paying him “starter” money and have an option for 2011 to do the same (at $5 million). They’ll certainly pay him the $500,000 buy out instead. Does he re-sign with the Twins for less money or will his agent find him a deal with a team offering more money, more playing time, and less blogger abuse than he’ll get with the Twins?

If you offer Delmon Young and Matt Capps arbitration, they’re going to get something between $5-6 million (Young) and up to $9 million (Capps) for 2011. If you don’t offer them arbitration, their agents will find someone more than willing to pay those amounts, or more. Don’t think you need both Capps AND Brian Fuentes with Joe Nathan coming back? OK… but keeping Fuentes from free agency means picking up the team’s $9 million option for him, too.

And we haven’t even discussed possible trades yet. In addition to the possibility that the Twins could trade any of the players mentioned above who are still under team control, you have to wonder if any of the five starting pitchers not named Pavano would be trade bait in the off-season. I don’t think any of them are untouchable except Liriano.

Finally, there are a handful of guys that may just be gone next year because, even though the Twins technically still control them, their performance levels make them candidates to either be traded or simply beaten out for jobs in Spring Training. I’m looking at you, Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, Drew Butera, Jason Repko, Jose Mijares and Pat Neshek.

By my count, that’s 25 players who may be playing elsewhere in 2011. A small number are almost certainly gone. A couple are almost certainly staying. Most are somewhere in between. Off the top of my head, I’d break it down like this:

Almost certainly gone: Mahay, Flores, Rauch, Fuentes

Probably gone: Guerrier, Crain, Hudson, Pavano

Virtually a toss-up: Punto, Thome, Repko, Butera, Neshek, Harris, Tolbert

Probably staying: Kubel, Hardy, Capps, Baker, Blackburn, Duensing, Slowey, Casilla

Almost certainly staying: Young, Mijares

We’ll share our own thoughts about what Bill Smith should or shouldn’t do with regard to roster changes in future posts, but for now, please use the comment section to let us know your opinions.

Who are you willing to say good-bye to? Who do you think the Twins MUST bring back? – JC

PROGRAMMING NOTE: We’ve had some inquiries about whether we’ll be hosting GameChats for any of the remaining postseason games and we’re more than willing to do that if anyone is interested in hanging out at the Knuckleballs Virtual Sports Bar. We’re hoping to open up a GameChat window during tonight’s Rays/Rangers ALDS Game 5 so check back later if you’ve got nothing better to do with your life than watch baseball with us! :)

How Did We Get Here? (Part 2)

Earlier, in Part 1 of this essay, we took a trip down Memory Lane back in to last offseason and through spring training and discussed some of the decisions made by Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire as they constructed the roster that the Twins would start the 2010 season with. Now let’s take a look at how those decisions worked out.

In essence, the Twins started the 2010 season with six starting pitchers that they felt pretty good about, a bullpen that was missing its anchor in Joe Nathan, but was otherwise solid, an improved starting line up and a bench with some speed and one very dangerous bat.

When Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy and Nick Punto (3/4 of the Opening Day infield) collectively made seven trips to the Disabled List, Alexi Casilla was there to fill in because the Twins decided not to risk losing him to waivers in order to keep Matt Tolbert or Danny Valencia to begin the season. The decision to start the year with Valencia and Tolbert in Rochester and Casilla with the Twins has resulted in all three of them being available to make significant contributions when the starting infielders went down.

Danny Valencia

By the way, it’s just plain mean to say that Nick Punto’s biggest contribution to the Twins success was getting injured and thereby allowing Danny Valencia to take over full time at 3B. Mean… and not altogether accurate. The truth is that Valencia’s ticket back to Rochester had pretty much been bought and paid for when Justin Morneau bumped his head against Blue Jays’ 2B John McDonald’s knee. It was Morneau’s absence and the resulting move of Michael Cuddyer to 1B that kept Valencia in Minnesota.

Of course, it was also Morneau’s injury that made Smith’s signing of Jim Thome all the more important.

Keep in mind, this is the same Jim Thome that mlb.com columnist Hal Brody had written the following about during mid-March:

So, Thome, in the twilight of a career that should land him in the Hall of Fame, will be used mostly as a late-inning pinch-hitter. This is Spring Training, when most everyone oozes with optimism, but the dark side is if Thome’s skills diminish during 2010 he might not finish the year with the Twins.

Or it could be a swan song, his final season.

Jim Thome

In the second half of the season, Thome has hit for a .310 average, with a .450 on-base percentage and a .722 slugging percentage. That’s a 1.172 OPS in 44 games (38 of which he has started as the DH). “Swan song” indeed.

So yes, decisions to sign Hudson and Thome and to keep Casilla to start the season have proved to be huge.

But let’s look at the pitching.

Yes, the Twins have been without the services of Joe Nathan. But they have three pitchers who have racked up over 20 saves each this season (though obviously not all for the Twins). Jon Rauch did well filling in at the back end of the bullpen during the first half of the season. When he started to show some signs of faltering, the Twins traded for Matt Capps. Sure, maybe they overpaid for him, but he’s gotten the job done. Then just for good measure (and to have a shut down arm against lefty hitters), Smith went and got Angels closer Brian Fuentes.

Jesse Crain

So the Twins replaced Nathan with three closers… and yet none of them has been their best relief pitcher this year. That would have to be Jesse Crain (the same Jesse Crain who was rumored to be a non-tender candidate in December), who recovered from a shaky start to the season to become virtually unhittable for the past few months. He’s the guy who has come in to get the critical outs against the opposing team’s toughest hitters before the ninth inning rolls around.

Finally, how huge does that decision NOT to convert Francisco Liriano to a closer look right now? The Twins started the season with six starting pitchers they felt they could rely upon. The two who were battling for the final roster spot, Liriano and Brian Duensing, will pitch games 1 and 3 of the ALDS in October, but the other four haven’t been shabby either.

Those six pitchers, Liriano and Duensing along with Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano, have  started all but three games for the Twins this season and nobody outside of that group has started more than one game. All six have been credited with at least 10 wins this season. (By comparison, in 2009, the Twins used 11 starting pitchers, 8 of them started at least 9 games, and only three of them notched 10 or more wins.)

So, how did the Twins get here…with a Division Championship already under their belts with another week and a half of games to play?

I don’t want to minimize the contributions of the other starting pitchers or of guys like Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel who have all obviously played significant roles in the Twins’ success and the ironman versatility of Michael Cuddyer shouldn’t be underappreciated.

But in my mind, the decisions to retain Pavano and Crain, add Thome and Hudson, keep Liriano in a starting pitcher role and give Casilla the final roster spot out of Spring Training made the difference between the 2010 Twins once again being borderline contenders and being a team capable of blowing away the AL Central competition.

It’s been a fantastic ride so far… let’s hope the best is yet to come! – JC

How Did We Get Here? (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Smith

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

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

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

Orlando Hudson

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

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

Joe Nathan

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

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

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

Alexi Casilla

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

Francisco Liriano

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

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

Minnesota State Fair!

Hey folk, it’s that time of year again!  I thought I would make sure you knew where to go to get your baseball fix while doing the Fair thing.  The Twins and FSN have their little shindig set up on the South East corner of the fair by the Snelling entrance.  If I remember correctly, it’s a big tent on the East side of Judson between Underwood and Cooper.   How about a helpful Map

Of course they have tons of Twins gear and such that you can pick up.  They have official Minnesota Twins Baseball licensed merchandise plus an exhibit of Twins baseball memorabilia and interactive activities for children and adults.  They also have free stuff and prize giveaways.  At the very minimum you can get Twins bags and schedules for next year!  Here’s the Fair promotional guide that you can look through for deals – baseball and otherwise!

I will admit that I really did only the most basic of searching for this and while I tried to find out if there was a schedule of player appearances at the Twins site and they didn’t have any Fair related info for current players.  But here’s a link to the alumni players who are going to be there. 

I did at least grab the link to the daily schedules.  If you know what day you are going, you can check to see what’s going on that day.  Of course, I have gotten the word from TC Bear that he will be in the parade every day at 2 pm so if you haven’t gotten your Twins fix by that point in the day, you know where to go.

And just because I found it and couldn’t resist sharing, here’s a little insight from April this year into what some of our Minnesota boys think about all that food on a stick!

A kind concessionaire named Brandi looked at the menu behind her and summarized it thusly: “How much more Minnesota can you get? Everything on a stick!”

Such adventuring spirit hasn’t quite infiltrated the home team, which, during the yearly Minnesota State Fair, tends to find itself in pennant races. Finding a walleye-on-a-spike veteran was harrowing.

Manager Ron Gardenhire? Nope.

“I’ve seen my buddy Walleye walk with a stick because he’s so drunk,” he said.

Reliever Brian Duensing? Negative.

“I don’t know if I could trust it,” he said. “The stick scares me. If it’s one a plate, sure. I might try it. I’m sure it’s not bad.”

Second baseman Orlando Hudson? You can’t be serious.

“I ain’t eating no fish on no damn stick,” he said. “I eat bass, crappy, walleye. But not on no stick. That don’t sound right.”

Everything else was fine. “This is a great town,” Hudson said, and it got even better when the threat of baseball contracting the Twins forced the city’s people to save their team. They could’ve said no. They could’ve done a bootleg job. Instead, they’ve got this new jewel in the middle of their city, set up and finished with a spike.

You know, I really think it would be fun to walk around the Fair with a couple of these guys on their first time!

Pitching and Defense (and Reincarnation)

Nick Blackburn

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.

Justin Morneau

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.

Kirby Kestrel

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

Twins Are “Losers”? Say It Ain’t So!

I’m still trying to get my head around all the trades that went down over the last few days. The folks over at MLBTradeRumors always do a terrific job of keeping up on who’s doing what and they put together a recap of the moves, by contending team. Here’s the AL Central:

So who were the winners and losers after all of this past week’s trades? That depends on who you ask.

ESPN’s Jason Stark:

Winners: Rangers, Padres, Yankees, Astros, Phillies, Nationals, D’Backs, Cards, Dodgers

Losers: WhiteSox, BlueJays, Orioles, Giants, Twins, Rays, Mets

MLB Fanhouse (AOL):

Winners: Yankees, Astros, Rangers, Nationals (“may have pulled off the heist of the entire trading season” by getting Ramos for Capps)

Losers: RedSox, Giants, Tigers

Hardball Talk (NBC):

Winners: Angels, Rangers, Phillies, Yankees, Pirates (honorable mention: Nationals, Padres, Dodgers)

Losers: WhiteSox, Twins, Giants, Cardinals, Rays (dishonorable mention: Astros, DBacks, Tigers)

Yahoo Sports:

Winners: Rangers, Angels, Yankees, Phillies, BlueJays, Mets, Dodgers

Losers: WhiteSox, Giants, Tigers, Twins, Cardinals, Rays

So to summarize… it seems most of the national media is agreement with most of the Twins blogosphere in that they feel the Twins overpaid for Matt Capps and overvalued the ‘save’ statistic. The good news is that the Twins AL Central competition is not viewed has having improved themselves much at the deadline. It’s hard to imagine Jhonny Peralta being a true “difference maker” for the Tigers and the WhiteSox appear to have a much higher opinion of Edwin Jackson than… well… pretty much anyone else.

In addition to feeling the Twins gave up too much for Capps, the media also seems to feel the Twins inability to acquire starting pitching help moves them in to the “trade deadline loser” category. But before we all retire to our caves sobbing hysterically about being fans of the “loser” Twins, let’s remember a few things.

First… the Twins Major League team IS better with Matt Capps. Those of us who want to see the Twins win THIS YEAR can look past the cost and point out that while Jon Rauch did a nice job of stepping in for Joe Nathan, Capps (and the extra 3-4 MPH he has on his fastball) is likely going to be more reliable at the end of games and Rauch makes the group of quality set up relief pitchers much deeper.

Second… keep in mind that the nonwaiver deadline has become a very soft deadline. All Much of the help that Bill Smith brought in to push the Twins toward the playoffs in 2009 (Cabrera, Pavano, Rauch, Mahay) was obtained after July 31 last summer. [Correction made thanks to commenter Deb who correctly pointed out that Cabrera was obtained pre-July31 last year and Pavano should have been included in the post-July 31 group. My bad.-JC]

The biggest improvements that can be made to the Twins at this point are the additions of Justin Morneau and Orlando Hudson. Hopefully, they’re both on their way back toward rejoining the team and in the mean time, I doubt Bill Smith plans to take the month of August off.

Oh… and as for the whole trade deadline winners and losers thing, keep in mind that the Yankees were on Jason Stark’s ESPN “trade deadline losers list” last year. They managed to find a way to overcome that label and finish the season in good shape.

So let’s not fold up the tent quite yet. – JC

GameChat – Twins @ Orioles #4, 12:35 pm, WFTC29 & am1500

Remember how I was saying yesterday that the Twins & Orioles keep working very hard to split the season series?  Here’s the chance for the Twins to prove me wrong.  We’re one game up on them and it’s time to finish strong.  It’s definitely the B squad lineup today though so it will be interesting to see what happens because the Orioles have the A team out there – including ‘just off the DL’ Wieters behind homeplate. Given the younger boys on the field behind him, I’m hoping that Kevin Slowey improves on his last start and has a kickass day.  We could all use it.  According to LENIII, Gardy has the roster subs out there for a few reasons: Span was sick all night after the game (heat can do nasty things like that), he really felt that Hardy needed a day off, Mauer is getting the day game after a night game off (he told us he was going to be doing that more) and still no official word on Hudson.  I have to admit that I am kind of looking forward to seeing what the young guys can do when give the opportunity – even Lexi.. again.

Minnesota @ Baltimore
Repko, CF   Patterson, C, LF
Casilla, A, 2B   Tejada, 3B
Young, D, LF   Markakis, RF
Thome, DH   Scott, 1B
Cuddyer, 1B   Wigginton, DH
Kubel, RF   Pie, CF
Valencia, 3B   Wieters, C
Punto, SS   Lugo, 2B
Butera, C   Izturis, C, SS
Slowey, P   Arrieta, P

 

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 4 1 1 3 0 0 1 10 19 0
Baltimore 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 4 10 1

 

Well that was an interesting ‘getaway day’. The Twins claim the series 3 games to 1 with a 10-4 win over the O’s after a rain delay in the middle of the 7th inning. Kevin Slowey earned various baked goods, at least, with a  very nice 6 inning performance (we won’t go in to Blackie’s 9th inning hiccups that delayed the inevitable at this point). Jason Repko and Alexi Casilla did a nice enough job of getting on base in the 1-2 spots that any concerns about the two of them being inserted there (not that anyone here would question Gardy’s decisions!) proved without merit… today anyway. Lexi, Little Nicky and DannyV all contributed 3 hits each, Jim Thome launched his 12th HR of the year and Repko claimed his first dinger as a Twin. Baked goods all around.

But Jason Kubel earned Boyfriend of the Day honors with his 3-for-5 performance that included a 2-out Grand Salami in the 3rd inning to give the Twins the lead and a little breathing room besides. Let’s hope this is what Kube needs to get himself on a bit of a roll.

After the game, the Twins announced Orlando Hudson would indeed be going on the Disabled List to rest his strained oblique muscle and catcher Jose Morales would be called up from Rochester. It’s an interesting move and it makes one wonder if Gardy will be giving Joe Mauer more games at DH and letting Butera and Morales handle more of the catching duties while Joe nurses his heel, shoulder, or whatever the heck else is wrong with him back to health.

Oh, and since I didn’t get my wish to have the Twins trade for Cliff Lee, it’s only fair, I suppose, that those of you who preferred Dan Haren as a trade target don’t get what you wanted either. The Angels have acquired Haren for pitcher Joe Saunders and others.   – JC