News To Start Off The Post Season

Sad News:

with Gehrig John Neshek, born 10/2/12, died 10/3/12

The first thing I’d like to share came out late in the night – asking for all your thoughts and prayers to be extended toward Pat Neshek & his wife, Stephanee, and their families. Their newborn son died in his sleep in his mother’s arms suddenly and with no obvious cause of death. Little Gehrig hadn’t even finished his first full day – not that that would have made it any better. Both Pat & Stephanee have expressed their grief, confusion and pain to those on Twitter. I simply can’t imagine their feelings right now. I hope that they are able to find some closure and peace in whatever form it comes as they learn more in the next few days and months. I’m simply heart-broken for them. So many of their fans and baseball colleagues have reached out to them already. I hope they are able to gain strength from those who surround them.

 Happy News:

In better and more baseball-related news, an event happened today that has not occurred since 1967. We have a triple crown winner: leading in all three categories of Batting average, RBI, and Home Runs is Miguel Cabrera. It’s an immense accomplishment and something to be honored no matter who he plays for. Congratulations Miguel! If someone had to beat Mauer for the batting title, it’s almost worth it that you were able to do it with admirable flair!

 

BIG TWINS NEWS!

Additionally, in current Twins news, it was announced this morning that some turnover in the Twins coaching staff has already begun. Rick Stelmaszek has been let go. I have to admit that I doubt ANYONE expected them to start with the longest tenured coach in Twins history. I seriously doubt it will be the last change to take place before next spring but it really wasn’t a change that was high on my list – so they must have their own list. We’ll see what happens next!

[UPDATE] Steve Liddle has also been let go and Joe Vavra has been reassigned so the coaching shakeup has only just begun. According to LaVelle E Neal III at the Strib:

Pitching coach Rick Anderson was scheduled to meet with Ryan around noon. Bench coach Scott Ullger was to meet with Ryan at 1 p.m. and Jerry White was expected to meet with Ryan at 2 p.m.

Class AAA Rochester manager Gene Glynn and Rochester hitting coach Tom Brunansky could be in line for promotions. So could Rochester pitching coach Bobby Cuellar.

I will continue to add updates to this post as we get more information so stay tuned!

[UPDATE 2] news on a couple more members of the staff from a couple different sources: Rick Anderson will be staying AS pitching coach. Jerry White however is an additional casualty of the turnover. Head Trainer Rick McWane is also gone. According to Rhett Bolinger, Scott Ullger will oversee outfield instruction while Joe Vavra will oversee infield instruction.

It was also noted by several beat writers that Gardenhire has one year left on his contract – it may be a situation where he’s been informed or will be that it will not be renewed unless there are dramatic changes in results. I believe the same is true for every person who is still under contract with the Twins.

This is the final list of departing staff from the Twins as presented by LEN III and Phil Mackey. No word yet on who will be taking on most of the open spots for sure but as you will read, there is a lot of speculation that the AAA staff will be moving up.

ALSO: Target Field is getting another facelift - this time in the RF bleachers.

GameChat – Twins @ Blue Jays #3, Final 2012 Game, 6:07pm

Welcome to the Final Game of the 2012 Twins Season! gotta admit, it suddenly hit home that there’s no game tomorrow.. weird. I’m not ready yet. The off season always seems so.. empty. I admit that I always seem to discover a tv show or something that I didn’t know existed to go catch up on with the empty time that I’m usually watching a game.

Before we get into the game though, thought you guys might like to join me in congratulating former Twins, Pat Neshek, on the birth of his first child. Gehrig John Neshek was born last night and managed to wait long enough for his daddy to fly from California to Florida so that he could be there for the birth. If you wish to hit him up, he’s on both Facebook and Twitter at @PatNeshek.

As for tonight, I think it’s now out of the range of possibility for Mauer to take the lead in the batting race but he WILL reach 147 games played which is a career high for a single season. Considering we were wondering how many games he’d play after the last couple seasons, I would have to say he’s set a few complaints to rest even if he only finishes 2nd or 3rd in BA – what a slacker. I’m kind of sad that we don’t get to see a little out of Willingham just to kind of have a chance to see him on the field one more time but we get what we get. I would love to see what Scott Diamond can do with his final outing of the year too – I’m pretty sure he’ll be back next year but this was the season that he surprised all of Twins Territory so it will always be special for him I think.

Minnesota

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Toronto
Span, CF Davis, R, LF
Revere, RF Hechavarria, 2B
Mauer, DH Lawrie, 3B
Parmelee, 1B Lind, DH
Plouffe, 3B Gomes, 1B
Carson, LF Arencibia, C
Escobar, 2B Vizquel, SS
Butera, C Sierra, RF
Florimon, SS Gose, CF
  Diamond, P   Morrow, P

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Minnesota

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Toronto

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Would it have been nice to win the last game of the year? Yes, yes it would. But that didn’t happen and to be honest, I don’t know how many of us actually expected it. Highlights from this game included Terry Ryan in the booth with Dick & Bert having a startlingly honest conversation about the pluses and minuses of the current team by position (player) and what he thinks they need to do this off season. I never judge the winter until Spring Training starts but it does at least give me hope that we might see more activity this year than we could otherwise expect from salary limitations. It makes me wonder if he had a similar conversation time with the radio guys.

The other highlight from tonight is the final game for Omar Vizquel. He seems to be one of those guys that was loved by every fan of every team he ever played for and is pretty certain to be in the HOF at some point. The crowd at home got a great opportunity to share their appreciation and I think Mr. Vizquel can be very proud of his accomplishments as a professional baseball player.

POST SEASON officially starts tomorrow. I’m sure that we’ll be doing a gamechat here and there during the month of October so keep your eyes peeled for the subject line. I can’t say that I’ll be sad to say goodbye to the 2012 season but I will miss baseball… Spring Training, you’re in my thoughts!

Say, whatever happened to what’s his name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manager Nelson Prada and Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BASEBALL’S OPENING DAY IS HERE!!

Congratulations baseball fans - the off-season is over and you have survived to begin again!

We Twins fans don’t see action until tomorrow but regardless, it’s a good day to be a baseball fan.

Here’s the schedule of games that will be played today:

All times Eastern. Subject to change.

 

 And in another piece of just general news, I received this notice from Tinger this morning:

“All these years we’ve been calling C.C. “Captain Cheeseburger”. They just said on ESPN that he dropped 25 pounds this winter by cutting Captain Crunch out of his diet. We’ve been going about this all wrong! I think that’s a solid reason for a name change.”

Given the long history many of us have with the Captain Cheeseburger moniker, and given the general distrust I have for C.C.’s ability to maintain this supposedly lower weight – afterall, who can actually tell? – I will accept BOTH names as appropriate nom de plume. I wonder if C.C. has an opinion on the cut mouth situation??

[EDIT]  Seth from SethSpeaks is offering a special discount on his Twins Prospect handbook in honor of Opening Day!  If you don’t have one already, you should check it out!

[UPDATE]  Two former Twins played today and had records I thought worth noting. 

A) Pat Neshek recorded his first National League Win for the San Diego Padres tonight. I couldn’t be happier for him.

B) Livan Hernandez pitched his 4th Season Opener for the Washington Nationals – and recorded his 4th Loss.  Ouch.

Spring: A Time of Change

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

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

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

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

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

A Day in Dunedin

Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin

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

The Thirst Inning Lounge, inside the stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Rauch, Blue Jay

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

On Deck: Where’s Crikket?

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

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

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

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

- JC

 

Are The Twins The Team To Beat?

The Twins and their consensus AL Central Division challengers, the White Sox and Tigers, are all about 25-30% of the way through their Spring Training exhibition schedules, so maybe now is a good time to sneak a quick peek at how they’re measuring up. With the caveat being, as always, that you really shouldn’t read too much in to Spring Training performances, at least we aren’t having to do all of our evaluation “on paper”, as we did all off-season.

A lot of us were pretty harsh in our evaluations of the Twins’ moves (or lack thereof), especially during the first couple of months of the off-season. The Twins lost over half of their historically reliable bullpen and both of their starting middle infielders. With only one exception, the plan clearly became to replace those vacancies either from within or with spare parts picked up from other teams’ cast-offs. That strategy could very well work, at least in the bullpen, where there are a couple of guys with pretty good track records looking to regain past levels of effectiveness.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Photo: C Krupa/AP)

That one exception, Japanese batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka, comes with his own set of question marks, though the biggest is not necessarily one of his own making. Nishioka is relatively young for a guy making the transition from the NBL to Major League Baseball. He’s had a successful career in Japan, though he’s had some trouble staying healthy at times. The relative lack of experience, compared to other Japanese stars who’ve made the jump to the US, makes it impossible to know just how good he really is. On the other hand, it’s pretty tough to find comparable Japanese position players who have come over and become true stars at the MLB level. There’s Ichiro and… well… nobody else, really. The result is that American fans rightfully take a “show me” attitude toward Japanese imports.

Early returns are mixed on Nishioka. Scouting reports that his arm strength made him a better match for second base than shortstop have been somewhat backed up by his performance and after just a couple of games at each position, manager Ron Gardenhire announced that Nishioka would, indeed, play second base. Alexi Casilla, who broke in to the Angels organization as a shortstop, has the stronger arm and shortstop is his position to lose, at this point. But Nishioka seems to put bat on ball pretty well and that’s going to be critical if he hits in the #2 spot in the order.

Nishioka may be the lone “big addition” to the Twins roster over the winter, but the two biggest additions to the Twins’ 25-man roster entering the season stand to be names very familiar to Twins fans… Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau.  Some of us tend to forget that the Twins essentially won the AL Central last season with little contribution from two of their biggest stars. Nathan missed the entire 2010 season and Morneau missed the last half of the year. While Nathan appears to be back and ready to reclaim his closer role, Morneau has yet to be cleared to play in games. If the Twins have a healthy Morneau on the field most of the season (especially at the end, for a change) and if Nathan’s arm stays intact and he maybe gets a little help from Pat Neshek, who’s also hoping to return to past levels of effectiveness, there’s no reason the Twins shouldn’t be considered the favorite to defend their Division Championship.

The Competition

The Indians and Royals should be interesting to watch this season. Both have some very highly regarded young players, though it’s too early to know for sure how much time those prospects will see at the Major League level in 2011. In any event, it would surprise just about everyone if either of those teams was in contention for the AL Central title in September. But the White Sox and Tigers almost certainly will be.

A year ago, it seemed like everyone was handing the Division to the White Sox, on the strength of their starting rotation. The Sox’ brain trust (yeah, I know, referring to Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen as a brain trust is downright giggle-inducing) apparently felt their pitching was so good that they could and should dump Jim Thome from his DH spot and replace him with Mark Teahan… no, seriously, that’s what they thought! I don’t believe even the Sox fan base was surprised when they turned out to be wrong.

This year, the Whities have tweaked the pitching staff a bit, including signing away Jesse Crain from the Twins, but their biggest addition (both figuratively and literally) is 6’6” hitting machine, Adam Dunn. Dunn sees himself as a complete player, capable of playing defense as well as hitting, and hoped to stay in the National League, where he’s played his entire career. But he got only a token offer from the Nationals, while several AL teams made significantly higher offers, virtually all of which came with the catch that he’d primarily be a DH. Dunn may be reluctant to embrace that role, but make no mistake, he will excel at it. In his last six seasons, Dunn has hit 40, 40, 40, 40, 38 and 38 home runs. Hmmm… I wonder how many he’s likely to hit for the White Sox, especially in that Little League ballpark they have on the South Side.

The White Sox definitely should be better this year, but the Twins still have one thing going for them… that “brain trust” (giggle) can probably be counted on to screw things up somehow.

Speaking of screwing things up, I’m not sure whether Vegas let’s you bet on who will lead the Divisions at the mid-point of the season, but if they do, you can pretty safely put your money on the Detroit Tigers. Absolutely nobody will be shocked if the Tigers come out of the gate strong and lead the Twins and White Sox in to July. Likewise, absolutely nobody will be shocked if they go 10-20 in August and fade away in September.

How and why they do it is always a mystery. Maybe their pitching will fade, maybe a star player will need to detox. Every season we get to watch a new drama unfold in Detroit.

Again, make no mistake, the Tigers made some moves that look to improve themselves. Victor Martinez will make hitters around him better and Joaquin Benoit should improve their bullpen. I’m just not sure it will be enough to keep the Tigers in contention all year. Benoit can’t do it all himself and the rest of the Tigers bullpen isn’t terribly scary. Joel Zumaya throws serious heat, but the only thing he’s reliable at is getting hurt at some point. In fact, he’s already had the predictable “setback” in his recovery from elbow surgery. And let’s face it, Miguel Cabrera is a time bomb waiting to go off on that organization and, from all appearances, Tiger management’s plan to deal with his drinking problem consists of sticking their heads in the sand. Good luck with that.

So far this spring, the Tigers’ rotation is looking pretty good. Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are all throwing strikes and getting outs. The guy to watch the rest of the spring, though, might be former Yankee Phil Coke. He’s looked pretty good over his first three starts and if he carries that performance in to the season, he could make an already strong rotation a very, very good rotation. On the offensive side, things aren’t so rosy yet. The three big bats in the middle of the Tiger order, Martinez, Cabrera and Ordonez, have accumulated OPS’s of .566, .334 and .286, respectively. Yes… those are the SUMS of their on-base percentages and slugging percentages. Ouch. Then again, small sample size. One of the games I’m planning on attending down in Florida in a couple of weeks is a Twins/Tigers matchup in Lakeland. I’m anxious to get a look at this year’s edition of the Tigers as we get deeper in to the exhibition season.

Over in Arizona, the White Sox are not having fun (at least not during the games). They’re 1-6, heading in to this week, and much of the blame for that lies with their vaunted rotation. While Peavy, Danks and Jackson got through their first starts without incident, Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd got beat around pretty good. Mr. Crain hasn’t looked too good yet, either, by the way. Dunn hasn’t gotten untracked either yet and, in fact, their only regular with a respectable showing with the bat so far is Juan Pierre, who’s OPS is north of .900. Alex Rios has the only HR for the White Sox in their first seven games.

To wrap things up on a positive note, I thought I would share this video from Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, evaluating the Twins prospects for defending their Division Championship. – JC

P.S. I did a guest spot on Seth Stohs (Sethspeaks.net) Sunday night podcast and you can click here to listen to the half hour program, during which Seth and I touched on a number of Twins topics. I’m also scheduled to appear with John Bonnes (TwinsGeek) on Fanatic Jack’s podcast at 9:00 this Wednesday night. – JC

SPRING TRAINING IS FINALLY HERE!!

There are finally Twins players playing baseball!!! Yes, it’s down in Ft. Meyers so most of us don’t get to see any of it but Pitchers & Catchers officially reported today. Obviously, several have already been there and working and several of our position players are getting some early work in as well – including Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Since we don’t get to see that happen on TV for a bit yet, I thought I would give you a little video taste of his workout down there courtesy of ESPN:

But obviously, the position players will mostly get their day in the sun later. Today is all about pitchers and catchers. Of course, the one getting all the attention on the catching front is Joe Mauer. ESPN talked with him about what kind of shape his knee is in and if he’s feeling ready for spring.  He’s still treating it very gently and is pretty up front about the fact that it was never anyone’s intention to be 100% by February – he’s aiming for April 1st – but he’s still feeling pretty good.  Given his history of cautionary language, I think that is about as solid an answer we’re ever going to get from Joe on his knee.  So, I’m good with it.  But it’s still good for all of us to remember that he was actually on crutches about 2 months ago so it’s probably a wise precaution if he’s being a little less aggressive about his catching workouts early this spring yet.  I don’t think that is reason for concern if they are giving Butera and the other 7 non-roster invitee catchers some reps.

And the OTHER big question out there of course, is the other Joe!  It sounds like Joe Nathan is doing very well in his rehab – but as always the team puts on the cautiously optimistic front.  If he continues to improve at the pace he seems to be pushing himself, I do think he’ll be a legitimate contender for the closing role.  He’s highly motivated to return quickly given his age and the fact that Twins retained Matt Capps.  Do I think it’s LIKELY that this will be the case? Well, no. I think the odds are against him but people do occasionally beat the odds and Nathan always had an intensity to pitch that set him apart from others.  We’ll see what happens.

The discussion that seems to be lighting up the blogging community is at what point of improvement does Nathan have to be at for Gardy to say, “you’re the guy”? Obviously, if his return goes more on a traditional schedule, this really wouldn’t be under discussion but when he’s already throwing 40-50 pitches in an outing, he’s getting higher velocity, his location is good and in general WANTS to be the guy which shows the mental fortitude necessary to be a closer, we definitely have to talk about it.  He’s not a starter – this isn’t a guy who is going to need to pitch for 7 innings or even start the season at 5.  Joe Nathan COULD pitch two innings when necessary but we all have to admit that none of us really ever wanted to see that happen.  We want one inning of balls to the wall pitches that make opposing batters look silly.  Nathan is in a perfect position to be able to produce that if he can get that perfect location he was known for back.  Obviously, his velocity is still about 3 mph slower than his average before surgery but that may yet come along in ST AND he’s a savvy experienced pitcher who knows how to get the job done even when he doesn’t have his best stuff… if anyone could come back in a single year, it’s Nathan.

BUT

Do we want him to push it that hard and do we really think that he’ll be ready?  How ready is ready?  If Nathan is 80% of his former self at the beginning of the season, is that enough to give Matt Capps the setup role?  Especially since multiple innings and tighter scores are frequently within the domain of the 7th inning setup man. We don’t have Guerrier or Crain anymore for whom that spot always pointed to.  What about a 60% Nathan?

Honestly, I don’t know but I’m REALLY REALLY REALLY looking forward to seeing some games so I can see him throw in a real mound situation.

I’m also looking forward to seeing how much progress Pat Neshek has made.  I am giddy with hope for the return of the crazy sideshow! I am certain that our depleted bullpen would be ecstatic to have that arm back with the ability to perform that we all remember.  I’m sure that he’s itching more than anyone to have his surgery ordeal completely behind him.

EDIT: We have another post-surgery update – totally forgot about Scott Baker! Yes, things are progressing.  But he’s not quite where he wanted to be at this point of the pre-season.  In discussions with the training staff and his docs, they have actually backed off his program just a little bit because the elbow was flaring up a bit.  I think that is a wise move since he IS a starter that we would like to start the season being able to pitch MULTIPLE innings.  Funny how it works that way.  He estimates that his season-readiness is about a week behind the rest of the pitching staff.  My only issue with that is that I don’t see how someone coming back from surgery “catches up” but a week of the long baseball summer is really negligible.  It’s just sometimes hard to remember that.  Every game counts.

And of course all of this plays into who of the 6 starters currently on our roster makes the cut on opening day and who is helping the team at the back end of the game instead.

Also – in readiness for the new baseball season, I have changed our countdown to reflect the Season Opener! And you will all be wanting to see the Spring Training Schedule so that you will be able to join us for any game chats you are free for.

Yes, it’s THAT time of year again!  Knuckleballs will be return to the regularly scheduled game chat so watch for posts announcing the days selection so that you can join whoever else is taking a break from the weary dregs of MN winter to catch whatever baseball can be found.  I’m not exactly sure what the broadcasts will be but anything that is either televised or radio broadcast, we’ll try to have a chat for.  That should get us back into the habit for the regular season!

Matt Capps: The “New Nick Punto”?

UPDATE: Just a quick midafternoon update. MLB.com’s Kelly Thesier’s report from the Twins Caravan  included a couple of notable items: She reported that Dave St. Peter announced that the Twins will be unveiling a bronze statue of Tony Oliva outside Gate 6 at Target Field on/about Opening Day (YAY!).  In addition, she (and other various media reporters) provided an update on Harmon Killebrew’s ongoing battle with cancer. Kelly also included this link to the Get Well, Harmon Blog for anyone wishing to pass on messages to Killebrew. – JC 

Based on early returns, it’s starting to look to me like relief pitcher Matt Capps could give Michael Cuddyer a run for the money in the race to replace Little Nicky Punto as the Twins’ MOTO (Most Often Trashed Online… a term I just made up) player for 2011 among the “blexperts” (blogger/commenter experts… another term I just made up. Am I on a roll here, or what?). I have to say, I really don’t understand the disdain so many people have for Capps.

Photo: Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

On Tuesday, the Twins announced they had reached a contract agreement with Capps that avoided arbitration. They signed Capps to a one-year, $7.15 million deal for 2011. Based on the electronic reaction, you would have thought the Twins just signed Brett Favre to pitch.

I’ve been trying to figure out WHY Capps’ signing caused so much consternation.

I know that it’s widely believed among the blexperts that closers are overpaid because the Save statistic is overvalued. They are and it is.

It’s kind of funny, though, how two years ago so many people downright demanded that the Twins, with a new stadium on the horizon, give then-34-year-old Joe Nathan whatever it would take to stay in a Twins uniform. And the Twins did… to the tune of a contract that guaranteed Nathan something like $35 million over three guaranteed years plus an option year. The primary concern at the time, as I recall, was simply that the signing may have made it difficult for the Twins to also afford also re-signing Joe Mauer (which, of course, it didn’t).

But now, folks are downright apoplectic that Bill Smith would give Matt Capps $7+ million, while letting Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch leave town via free agency and trading away JJ Hardy. The argument is something like, “the Twins could have kept two of those pitchers or a starting shortstop instead of Capps.”

Well… first of all… no they couldn’t have. Hardy was no longer going to be the Twins’ starting shortstop regardless of what the Twins did with their bullpen… the two things weren’t related whatsoever… and Guerrier, Crain and Fuentes all signed elsewhere for multi-year deals with total values well above what the Twins have committed to Capps.

Still, some maintain that, “the Twins could have paid Rauch half as much and had a pitcher just as good as Capps.” Seriously? Even totally forgetting the Save statistic, when you compare the two over the last half of 2010, you would have to get very creative to make a statistical case that  Rauch is “as good” as Matt Capps. There was a reason the Twins traded for Capps, whether a person wants to believe it or not.

Photo: AP/Ted S Warren

And Fuentes? Look… I’d have loved to have him back with the Twins because he absolutely shuts down lefty hitters. But there’s a reason the Angels gave him up and it has nothing to do with “Saves”. It has to do with his .747 OPS against him in the first half of the season, on the heels of an even worse .830 OPS the second half of 2009. The guy has not been strong against right handed hitters in a while.

As for Guerrier and Crain, hey… both guys have served the Twins well and they were entitled to go after the free agent money. But it would have been absolutely nutty to match the three-year deals they ended up signing elsewhere. The Twins offered arbitration to Crain and he (wisely) turned it down. They didn’t offer it to Guerrier because they were afraid he wouldn’t turn it down and they’d be stuck paying a 30-something middle reliever they have no confidence in ever being more than a middle releiver $5+ million.

While the Twins appear hopeful that Joe Nathan will be fully recovered to start the year, there’s no way they can be sure and absolutely need a Plan B in place. Since Crain and Guerrier were certainly not returning and Fuentes has not been effective enough to provide reliable back up in case Nathan isn’t his old self, Capps is obviously the best Plan B. So why do so many blexperts think keeping Matt Capps is a mistake?

Could it really be that people think Capps is taking a spot that should go to someone that came up through the Twins’ system (e.g. Crain, Guerrier, Pat Neshek, or a prospect such as Anthony Slama) and still hold it against him that Bill Smith traded catching prospect Wilson Ramos to get him? 

There’s really no other good reason not to like having this guy (and frankly, even this reason is damn silly… it’s time to get over the Ramos-love, folks!). Capps throws harder than any of the bullpen arms that left, with the possible exception of Crain. He throws harder than Joe Nathan. Is his fastball more hittable than we’d like? Yes… but that’s exactly what a lot of people have criticized Crain for over the years and Capps’ career strikeout/walk ratio is better than any of the departing guys (especially when you factor out the oddly high number of intentional passes the Pirates ordered Capps to give out… could he really have faced Barry Bonds THAT often?).

Photo: Knuckleballs/Jim Crikket

Capps, at just 27 years old, may just improve a bit yet, as well. Of the departing arms, only Crain (at 29) is still south of 30. Go back and look at where Joe Nathan (or pretty much any of today’s top relievers not named Mariano Revera, for that matter) were at age 27 and compare them with Capps. How many of them already had four seasons of entering games in critical situations under their belts?

By the way, a closer may not be getting used most efficiently by always being saved for the 9th inning, but almost every time he enters a game, he’s coming in to a situation where having a bad night is very possibly going to cost his team the game. A guy who comes in and coughs up a 3 run lead in the 6th inning can take a seat and tell himself, “I just didn’t have it tonight,” while he watches his team mates try to fix the damage. The closer who has that kind of night doesn’t have that luxury. Closers may not deserve to get paid 10 times what middle relief pitchers do… but getting paid 2-3 times that going rate is not outragious. While you’d like to think every pitcher at the Major League level has that sort of mental toughness, it’s simply not the case.

One final thought on Matt Capps…

The stat website baseball-reference.com performs some sort of calculation (supposedly using a method adopted originally by the patron saint of stat-heads, Bill James) to determine each Major Leaguer player’s top 10 “most similar” players. According to that site, Matt Capps’ closest comparable player is the Padres’ closer, Heath Bell. The same Heath bell that many blexperts were crying for the Twins to trade for when Joe Nathan blew his elbow out a year ago.

Capps is six years younger than Bell and the Padres avoided arbitration with Bell on Tuesday by signing him to a $7.5 million contract… $385K more than the Twins are paying Capps. And, just for context, Bell’s salary accounts for just about the same percentage of the Padres’ anticipated 2011 payroll as Capps’ and Nathan’s pay… combined… do of the Twins’ payroll.

I’m glad Matt Capps is a Twin and I expect others will be, too, by the end of the season.

- JC

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

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! :)