GameChat – Detroit Tigers @ Minnesota Twins 7:10pm

Interesting lineup for Ron Gardenhire tonight.  With Josh Willingham serving as the Twins’  DH tonight, Gardenhire had an opportunity to move Ben Revere into left field and move Trevor Plouffe into right field.  Instead Gardy leaves Revere out in RF where his weak arm is most exposed, and sends Plouffe out to LF where his limited range could come into play.  Perhaps Gardenhire is keeping Revere in RF to chase down liners and fly balls from the 5 left handed hitters in Detroit’s line-up, but a more likely scenario is Gardenhire keeping his guys where he likes them, not where it always makes the most sense to play them.

Either way, should be an interesting game.  Here are the rest of the line ups:

Detroit Tigers

@

Minnesota Twins
Berry, CF Span, CF
Dirks, LF Revere, RF
Cabrera, Mi, 3B Mauer, C
Fielder, 1B Willingham, DH
Young, D, DH Morneau, 1B
Boesch, RF Dozier, SS
Peralta, Jh, SS Plouffe, LF
Avila, C Casilla, A, 2B
Raburn, 2B Carroll, 3B
_Smyly, P _Swarzak, P

 

Detroit Tigers

0

4

0

2

1

0

3

0

0

10

16

2

Minnesota Twins

2

0

0

1

0

2

1

0

0

6

10

0

 

The Twins scored more than their fair share of runs tonight, but the pitching let them down for the second night in a row.Not a lot of positives in a game like this, but at least the Twins were not charged with an error, so that’s an improvement.

Back at it tomorrow.

-ERolfPleiss

 

Monday, Grumpy Monday

I’m in a bit of a grumpy mood this morning. That’s not an altogether unusual thing for me on a Monday morning, but I generally try to avoid human contact until noon or later on Monday so I can spare others having to deal with my mood and spare myself the chances I’ll say something I’ll regret later. I certainly avoid publishing written work on Monday mornings for a broad audience to read. But, despite that, here I am writing this.

Here are just a few things I’m feeling a bit… what’s the word my mom used to use?… “owlish”?… about this morning. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Twins Stuff

My mood isn’t only reflected in Twins-related topics, but since this is primarily a Twins blog, let’s start with those topics.

Brian Dozier

I like Brian Dozier. I think he has a chance to be a decent infielder, but I’m not optimistic that he’s going to be the long-awaited “answer” to the Twins’ revolving door at shortstop. But even if he is, I simply don’t get why he’s being called up now to be inserted as the everyday shortstop.

It’s not that I think Jamey Carroll is irreplaceable, nor is Alexi Casilla necessarily entitled to be an everyday infielder at the Major League level. But if you start a list of all the things that have worked WELL for the Twins this season, middle infield defense would be one of a very short number of things on that list.

Have Carroll and Casilla turned EVERY double play opportunity in to two outs? No. But if you can’t see the improvement over the swisscheese-like pairings that were on the field last year for the Twins, your memory sucks. The Twins’ pitchers are, by and large, awful and the results aren’t going to get better by changing the middle infield defense.

Speaking of the Twins pitching… talk about your mood dampeners. Can these guys get ANYONE out? If the Twins sent their entire rotation to Rochester and brought up the Red Wings’ starting pitchers, Wings fans would complain about getting the raw end of the deal… and rightfully so. Not that the starting quintet in Rochester has been all that good, but the Twins’ rotation has been THAT bad. Sending Hendriks down and bringing Scott Diamond up is a start, I guess, but both the Dozier and Diamond moves feel an awful lot like the proverbial, “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” to me.

I don’t envy Terry Ryan these days. There are no easy answers to fixing the Twins. There really aren’t even any difficult answers, if you’re thinking in terms of salvaging anything this season. He’s got a fan base spoiled by a decade of relative success, at least as measured by contention at the Divisional level. He’s got ownership that ‘s providing payroll levels at least 30% higher than the Metrodome days and expecting at least competence in return. That combination is resulting in fewer people showing up at Target Field, which means lower revenues, which means lower future payrolls, which means a tougher job to assemble a roster that can turn things around any time soon.

But while I may not envy Ryan, I don’t feel sorry for him, either. He may have just recently taken over Bill Smith’s mess, but his hands weren’t clean. He was playing a significant role in the scouting and player evaluation process, even while Smith sat in the GM chair. As a result, the players on this team right now and in the minor league pipeline are just as much Ryan’s responsibility as they were Smith’s.

I don’t consider Ron Gardenhire blameless, either, but I really don’t know what manager could win with this collection of pitchers. I don’t know enough about the pitchers individually to know whether better “coaching” from Rick Anderson would help. But I do know that the organization is fast approaching a need to DO “something” to keep fans’ interest… or at least give us some sign that they’ve at least noticed that the wheels have come off.

Maybe it’s my mood this morning, but if I were Terry Ryan, I’d probably make a change right now in my manager and pitching coach. The problem is, I wouldn’t necessarily want to promote anyone from within my organization to the manager’s job that would give the impression he was going to be my manager for the next decade. Maybe Gene Glynn or Tom Brunansky or Jeff Smith will be logical selections or maybe I’d want to open up the search to outside candidates, but I don’t want to make such an important decision hastily.

Paul Molitor

So here’s my Monday Morning suggestion to Terry: Get on your knees and beg Paul Molitor to finish out 2012 as your manager. He’s supposedly not been interested in a field job with the Twins, but maybe on an interim basis, he could be convinced to take things over.

As for the pitching coach…  I really have no idea who in the organization would work on an interim basis, but try this name on for size: Bert Blyleven. OK, OK… once you’ve stopped laughing, think about it… he couldn’t screw the staff up any worse than they are already and at least he wouldn’t be up in the booth the rest of the year. Then again, I’m not sure how they’d get the monitor hooked up in the dugout in a way that would allow him to circle fans in the stands, so maybe it wouldn’t work after all.

Vikings Stuff

I’m a Vikings fan, not necessarily a “Minnesota” fan, so I’ll root for the Vikings wherever they call home in the future. That said, I’d REALLY prefer they stay in Minnesota. It’s where they belong, in my mind.

Philosophically, I understand the opinion that public money shouldn’t be used for stadiums. Then again, I think we use public money for a lot of crap that it shouldn’t be used for, while our health care system in this country is the laughingstock of the rest of the world’s modern civilizations.

Some things just are what they are and among those things is that communities that want major league professional sports teams have to pony up enough public financial support to provide modern playgrounds for those teams every quarter-century or so. This is particularly true with regard to NFL franchises, which are, whether we baseball fans want to admit it or not, the most popular major sports organizations in virtually every community that has one.

For the past couple of decades, this has been a difficult truth for Minnesotans and their political leaders (and I use the term “leaders” loosely here) to grasp.

So, sometime late tonight, I expect the Minnesota legislature to defeat a bill that has been negotiated in good faith by the Vikings, the city of Minneapolis, the Governor of Minnesota and legislators  from both political parties.

And that’s a damn shame.

I’ve been a registered Republican for over three decades and over that period, I’ve been relatively active in state and local politics where I live. While I don’t want to turn this in to a political discussion, I’ll say that I’m disappointed by the way my party has been hijacked by extremists over the past several years at the national level. But if there’s one thing that makes me feel better about what’s happened to the GOP at the national level, it’s seeing what a bunch of political hacks seem to be running the GOP in Minnesota.

Sure, there were missteps along the way by all parties and governing is often about compromise. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” is more inherent to American politics than separation of powers.

If, as a legislator, you oppose public funding of a stadium, in principle, so that’s how you will cast your vote, I can respect that. But what the GOP leadership is essentially telling the Governor… and the people of Minnesota… is that it’s not so much opposition to the bill in principle that could likely cause its demise tonight, it’s that the Governor wouldn’t give them his signature on a couple of tax and bonding bills and they’re going to vote against the Vikings stadium bill as political “payback.”

If that means the Vikings are playing in LA or Toronto in 2013, so be it… at least the GOP won’t have let a Democratic Governor “win.”

If that’s what passes for statemanship in Minnesota these days, that’s unfortunate.

– JC

If a Change Must Be Made…

I think most Twins fans had limited expectations for 2012, but this is getting ridiculous.

The theory was… with the health of Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Scott Baker uncertain, we had to keep expectations in check. But if all of those players proved healthy, the team could surprise some people. Of course, not all of those players proved healthy as Scott Baker never made it to the starting gate before undergoing season-ending surgery. But the others have not only been healthy, but quite productive, thank-you-very-much.

The pitching has been a disaster, plain and simple.

In situations like this, it’s tough to come up with reasonable solutions. As manager Ron Gardenhire told the media the other day, it’s not like they can just go out and buy more pitching at this point. They have to hope the guys they have do a better job.

But the Twins’ problems on the field are starting to have an effect off the field… in particular, in the stands. Target Field has about 40,000 seats and this week barely 3/4 of those seats have had fans’ butts in them. That means not only lower ticket sales, but fewer hot dogs, beers and jerseys being sold. That’s not good news when it happens toward the end of a season that doesn’t go particularly well. When it happens before May Day, it’s got the potential to be disastrous for an organization.

If there are no reasonable solutions, however, what’s a front office to do? It really only leaves one option… consider UNreasonable solutions.

I’ve said many times that I believe baseball managers, like football and basketball coaches, get too much credit for their teams’ success and too much blame for the failures. It’s a basic truth of professional and major college sports. Another truth in big time sports is that, whether right or wrong, it’s easier to make a change in management than it is to make all the roster changes that are called for.

Would Terry Ryan really do it though? Would he fire Ron Gardenhire?

He may have no choice.

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky (photo: Jim Crikket)

Gardy has his supporters and his detractors. Many people question his strategies… his fondness for (some might call it an obsession with) “scrappy” ballplayers who “get after it.” Others point to the success his Twins teams have had over the past decade… the Division titles won with arguably marginal talent. Others point to the postseason failures.

But none of that really matters right now. This decision… if it’s to be made… would not be about Ron Gardenhire’s basebally smarts or lack thereof. At this point, it would be a business decision for Terry Ryan and the Twins ownership, pure and simple.

The Twins front office wants to win, of course. They are competitive, by nature, and that means they want to beat the competition. But does that mean winning baseball games or making more money? Some people seem to think that Twins ownership only cares about the latter, but that’s absurd. Even if that’s true, now that they have their new stadium, the two are intractably intertwined. The Twins can’t beat the competition in the financial competition if they don’t also beat them on the field.

Fans are telling the Twins, loud and clear, that as nice as Target Field is, they won’t fill the stadium to watch bad baseball… frustrating baseball… consistently losing baseball. If that’s the kind of baseball the Twins are going to play, changes must be made… and probably sooner rather than later. If only 30,000 fans are coming to games at the end of April, how many are going to be coming through the turnstiles in August and September?

But would a change in the manager’s office mean more wins? Maybe… maybe not… but it would do one thing for certain and that’s generate discussion… generate renewed interest. Whether they agree or disagree with the decision, fans would pay attention… they’d tune in to see IF it makes a difference.

And that’s a factor Terry Ryan may not be able to ignore much longer. Major League Baseball history is littered with fired managers who didn’t suddenly get stupid, but found themselves fired… or “reassigned other duties”… anyway. It’s a cruel fact of Big League life that Ron Gardenhire may be on the brink of finding out about first hand.

All of which begs the question, if Gardy’s days are becoming numbered with the Twins, who would… or should… Terry Ryan replace him with?

When a manager loses his gig mid season, often the replacement is someone within the organization… usually the bench coach or maybe whoever is managing the organization’s AAA affiliate. But if this really would be primarily a business decision, would putting Steve Liddle or Gene Glynn in charge fire up the fan base enough to keep their interest? I have my doubts.

Who would make people start paying attention again, even if the chances of the Twins climbing back in to contention are all but gone?

I’ve had a hunch that the Twins have been kind of grooming Tom Brunansky to take over down the road at some point, but he hasn’t even managed a full-season minor league affiliate yet (he’s Rochester’s hitting coach this season). He would be someone the fans would recognize and would have credibility in the clubhouse, but it’s hard for me to imagine the Twins trusting him in the manager’s chair this soon.

So who would they hire?

I don’t have any answers to that question, yet. But it’s probably time to start sorting through potential candidates.

It’s a good bet that Terry Ryan has already started doing just that.

– JC

Are the Twins a Baseball Team or a Camel?

I’ve worked in a corporate office environment since I was 21 years old. Over the subsequent 30-some years, when it comes to management styles and philosophies, I’ve pretty much seen (endured?) them all.

I remember back in the 1980s and early 1990s, my company had a big push toward what I call “group think”. We had previously had a very autocratic, control freak-type president, so I suppose this may have been a bit of an over-reaction to that. In any event, everything became “team” oriented. We had teams (which is just a nicer way of saying “committees”) for everything. If you weren’t a member of at least half a dozen teams, you just weren’t trying very hard.

It wasn’t a total disaster, of course. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with tossing ideas around with a group of smart, progressive experts on whatever the subject matter assigned to that team might be. Some very good ideas came out of those meetings and if you ever did arrive at a consensus decision, it was helpful for implementation purposes to have gotten buy-in from around the table. Even if you didn’t happen to agree with the decision, you liked feeling your input had been considered. We all like that.

And when it turns out that your team made a good decision, it’s a great feeling to know you share the credit with your other team members. It’s a natural high to have the president of your company tell everyone what a great job your team did and how important that work was in the ultimate success of the company over the course of the year.

(Image: art.com)

But you know what’s coming next, don’t you? Yeah… how many committees are really made up completely of smart, progressive experts? Most aren’t and, as a result, the finished product is seldom smart or progressive. Often, the results are a disaster.

When that happens, good luck finding anyone willing to stand up and be accountable for the decision and taking responsibility for fixing things. Accountability can be a real problem in a “group think” organization.

Fixing things becomes problematic, too, because that assignment falls back on the team (or gets pushed to yet another team). That’s all well and good unless the problem needs fixing immediately, because while committees have some things they may do well, doing anything quickly is not generally one of those things.

There’s a reason that they say the definition of a camel is a “horse designed by a committee.”

All of which finally brings me around to the Minnesota Twins.

Since I don’t have an office in the Twins front office suite, I admit I have no first-hand knowledge about how they do things there. But from most accounts, it sure seems like they take the “management team” approach to an extreme, at least where it comes to the actual baseball operation (from all accounts, Jerry Bell pretty much took on responsibility for getting Target Field built and that turned out pretty well). Bill Smith isn’t so much “General Manager” as he is the “Team Leader” of the management group, which is made up of people like Mike Radcliff, Rob Antony, Jim Rantz, Terry Ryan and, of course, Ron Gardenhire.

All of these people have their respective areas of expertise, of course, but the public sense of how things work is that this group of people work together as a team to chart the course the Twins will follow in any given season and beyond.

It’s worked out great for most of the past decade or more, too. Most of these same people have been around in one capacity or another throughout a period of considerable success on the field. Terry Ryan,  Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire may be the guys most often credited for all the winning seasons this millennium, but they’ve all been quick to point out what a “team effort” it’s been by all of the management group as they’ve developed players, promoted from within, and watched as those guys have won division title after division title.

(Image: cafepress.com)

But the Twins didn’t win the division title this season. They didn’t even compete for it. They finished 8 games back… of the Royals… in the competition to not finish last. This comes just one year after winning the division.

And as fans, we want to know who’s responsible.

In typical “group think” fashion, however, the answer coming from the Twins front office is, “nobody”.

I suppose in some way it’s noble that people in authority aren’t throwing others under the bus… not directly, anyway. And some changes are being made. The AAA manager and hitting coach have been relieved of their duties, but that’s kind of like an executive committee responding to their company’s stock tanking by firing the manager of their mail room and issuing a press release to assure stockholders that they’re taking action. It’s nice to know they noticed something is wrong, but hardly reassuring that they know what to do about it.

Look around. The Red Sox won 90 games and their manager is gone… perhaps followed shortly by their GM. The Angels only won 86 games, so their GM and his top two assistants are excused… even though they have a manager who’s probably got even more say over his roster than Gardy does. We may or may not agree that those teams made the right decision, but the message sent to their fans is that they do hold people accountable when results do not meet expectations, especially when the owners have spent competitively on payrolls.

I’m not suggesting the Twins fire everyone… or that anyone needs to be fired, for that matter. But I do believe that the people running the team should have specific responsibilities and they should be accountable for the decisions made within their respective realms.

Everyone makes mistakes. But if one of my managers makes a mistake, I tell them to learn from it, don’t do it again, and move on. If mistakes are continuous or especially egregious, we’ll need to find someone else to do that job. But don’t tell me that you and your team got together and all agreed this is what we should do so none of you are really responsible.

Maybe Dave St. Peter has told Bill Smith exactly that… that he screwed up and he needs to fix things. Maybe the conference call with the season ticketholders was one way Smith was directed to address issues with fans. Maybe St. Peter was on the call primarily to make sure Smith did exactly that.

Maybe Smith’s acknowledgment that the team missed JJ Hardy most of all and now needs a shortstop was his way of telling Gardy, “that was your idea, it didn’t work, and now we’ll do things my way.”

I certainly don’t expect the Twins to suddenly start broadcasting every detail of their internal discussions. Maybe there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than what we’ve seen and heard.

Maybe we’ll see changes. Maybe we’ll see some accountability.

Let’s hope so.

Or they might as well just rename the team the “Minnesota Camels”.

– JC

 

What Am I Missing Here?

I try very hard to avoid overreacting to decisions that the people running the Twins make. Ron Gardenhire, Bill Smith and the others running the club have tough jobs. I appreciate that, so I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt on most issues, even when I don’t agree with specific decisions. That said, I’m beyond confused about a number of things right now. Maybe some of you smart people can tell me what I’m missing.

Joe Nathan pitches a few successful innings in Florida and proclaims himself ready to rejoin the bullpen, but Gardy says “no… you need to go to Rochester first and prove you can get someone over the age of 19 out.”

Joe Mauer gets a few hits off of 19 yr olds in Florida, but he’s activated straight away, without having to prove he can hit AAA pitching. He promptly proves to be less productive at the plate than Drew Butera or Rene Rivera… a feat that most of us didn’t think was possible.

Not only does Gardy keep putting Mauer in the line up, but he keeps putting him in the 3-spot in the order… exactly the spot where his impotence can do the most damage to his team.

Yeah, Joe, I'm scratching my head, too.

Friday night, after another oh-fer, Gardy tells reporters that he’s considering using Mauer at 1B or even 3B. Why? Well, the announcement earlier in the day that Justin Morneau will miss at least six weeks for surgery on his neck (a topic I will revisit shortly) is a valid reason for looking for another 1B option. But that’s not Gardy’s reason… instead he’s intent on finding ways to keep Mauer’s bat in the line up (apparently even if it means he replaces the current third baseman, who has actually finally started hitting the ball with some success)!

So… if I understand this correctly… for the past few years, when Mauer was consistently hitting well over .300, Gardy steadfastly refused to even listen to anyone who dared to suggest that perhaps it might be a good idea for Joe to learn a position he could play part time in order to keep him healthy and in the line up more often. But now… when Mauer isn’t even coming close to making good contact… NOW we want to find creative ways to keep his bat in the line up???? Wouldn’t it make a little sense to worry about that some other time… like maybe if/when Joe remembers how to hit a baseball?

The Twins have 3 catchers, none of which can hit his way out of a wet paper bag right now, and the manager is trying to come up with creative ways to get TWO of them in the batting order? I don’t get it.

Butera and Rivera were actually occasionally coming up with some clutch hits during the team’s recent winning streak. They also were doing a good job behind the plate. I get that Mauer might need some time to get his timing back at the plate, but why the hell wasn’t he told the same thing Joe Nathan was… “show us you can compete with AAA players before we activate you”? If nothing else, after the way the Twins have had to leave Rochester with yet another crappy team, I’m sure they would have appreciated a couple of nice attendance nights at Frontier Field with Mauer on hand.

As for Morneau, I don’t have much more to add to what everyone else has been writing and tweeting. It dumbfounds me that someone let his neck issue go three months without appropriate treatment. I’d like to go back a couple of years and count the number of times one of the Twins players had an injury or illness, set out on an initial course of treatment with disappointing results, then got a second opinion which resulted in a different course of treatment, which essentially caused the recovery process to start over and thus delay the player’s return to the field. I don’t know how many times it has happened, but it sure seems to happen a lot.

So often, in fact, that one has to wonder… if these guys have to get second opinions so consistently in order to finally get the appropriate course of treatment, what kind of witch doctors are the Twins employing to hand out the worthless FIRST opinions? It’s bad enough when your $23 million a year catcher can’t hit .200, but when the doctors you employ can’t seem to “hit” on their diagnoses any better, that’s something that someone should be able to fix, isn’t it?

Is Rachel Phelps running the Twins these days?

The frustrating thing is that so many of these questionable decisions are being made just as the team was fighting its way in to contention. It really makes one wonder whether Rachel Phelps has somehow taken control of the ballclub and is doing everything in her power to make sure this team DOESN’T win more games.

Implausible? Yeah, probably.

But if the Twins find themselves without hot water for their whirlpools and being forced to take WWII vintage turbo prop planes or even buses on road trips… remember I told ya so.

– JC

 

Respect The Streak? Not This Time

For weeks, we’ve been moaning and groaning about the bad luck that’s befallen the Twins this season on the injury front. As the injuries mounted, so did the deficit the Twins faced in the standings.

For a while, we fans held out hope… if only they can keep things reasonably close until guys could get healthy. But they didn’t. In fact, not only did injured players not get healthy, but more players got hurt. Until it reached the point where only the most avid “prospect watchers” among us even recognized the names of some of the players wearing the Twins uniform.

And hope faded almost to black.

Almost.

And then a funny thing happened. These guys started to win.

Sure, they weren’t playing the Yankees and Red Sox (or even the Rays, Orioles or Blue Jays, for that matter) any more, but last I checked, all the games count the same in the standings, regardless of who the opponent is.

And they kept winning. They swept four from the Royals. They took 2 of 3 on the road from the AL Central leading Tribe. They took 3 of 4 from the AL West leading Rangers.

They aren’t making the errors (mental or physical) that they had been making. The pitchers aren’t giving up runs the way they had been. They finally managed to burn the assbats and started hitting the ball hard… and often. The new guys started hitting… then the few remaining regulars started hitting.

Yes, the Twins are on a winning streak… and you don’t have to be someone who’s watched Bull Durham 391 times to know that you don’t f… fool… with a winning streak. You respect the streak.

But Ron Gardenhire and the Twins are about challenge Crash Davis’ conventional wisdom. They really have no choice. But I’m betting it bothers Gardy at least as much as it does me… probably more.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Starting Thursday afternoon, the first of the Twins’ walking wounded returns to the line up. Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been out of action so long that this will be his first appearance in a game at Target Field. He’ll play shortstop, which means Alexi Casilla moves to second base. For all the talk about rookie Ben Revere and the pitching staff, it has quite possibly been Casilla whose performance, at bat and in the field, has been most responsible for the Twins’ recent success. Now he’s changing positions.

Joe Mauer

Friday, Joe Mauer is expected to take his rightful place behind the plate and in the heart of the batting order. He’s done neither for two months (and the season is only 2 and a half months old). It’s a no-brainer, of course. Mauer HAS to return to the line up if he’s healthy. Drew Butera and Rene Rivera are making more contact than they had been, but there’s a reason Mauer’s the starting catcher. Actually, there are about 23,000,000 reasons.

And that’s just the beginning. Over the course of the next week to 10 days, we can expect to see a lot of familiar faces return. Glen Perkins was arguably the most effective (only effective?) member of the bullpen when he went down. He’s due back by the weekend, but he’s rejoining a bullpen that’s been much better, perhaps because everyone there now has pretty well defined roles. Where will Perkins fit and will he be as effective as he had been?

Remember when Jason Kubel and Denard Span were the only hitters even coming close to performing at expected levels? They haven’t been in the lineup during this surge… but they will be returning before long. Who’s At-Bats will they be taking and… perhaps more importantly… who’s spots in the field will they be taking? There’s no question that the OF defense has improved since Ben Revere was recalled June 2.

Joe Nathan and Jim Thome are also on the road to recovery. They’ll be taking roster spots from a couple of guys who have contributed to the Twins’ recent success, too, but how certain are we that they will outperform the guys they’ll be replacing?

The last to return will possibly be the most recent to go on the DL, Justin Morneau. But has anyone else noticed that Luke Hughes and Michael Cuddyer are actually doing a better job defensively at 1B than Morneau had been?

Don’t get me wrong… I’m very happy to see these guys coming back. But I’m just old-school superstitious enough to be nervous about the timing, too.

If all of these guys come back and perform at the levels we expected from them when the season opened, the Twins may not only catch the rest of the Division, but absolutely destroy it. I just wish I was more confident of that.

One thing I’m pretty sure about, though, is that the Rochester Red Wings are on the verge of getting much, much, better.

– JC

What I Learned On Vacation

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

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

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

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

Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glen Perkins

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

Dusty Hughes

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

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

Jim Hoey

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get this party started!

– JC

JC in Spring Training: Focus on Communication

Yes, I know the big news at the Twins Spring Training site on Wednesday was the long-awaited debut of Joe Mauer in their game with the Mets, but what is there really to say about that? He hit a line drive up the middle in his first plate appearance off of Mets starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey. In fact, Pelfrey himself might have said all that needs to be said about Mauer’s debut. “I threw a slider in, and he hit a rocker right up the middle,” he was quoted as saying after the game. “He’s obviously Joe Mauer for a reason…” Indeed.

But for those of you who don’t believe what you don’t see, here’s the evidence I captured at the game.

For me, though, I’m a bit of a people watcher and today, I was interested in watching people just talk… communicate.

Not the greatest picture, but it was entertaining to watch... and listen to

One of the more humorous bits of “communication” was the bantering between Manager Ron Gardenhire and the fans surrounding the backstop of the Twins’ practice field during batting practice. Just before the last player (Jim Thome) finished getting his cuts, Gardy himself picked up a bat and stepped in the cage. From that point on, the only “communication” coming from Gardy was the word “ouch!” after each swing.

Not long after I settled in to watch some batting practice on the field where the AA level minor leaguers were getting their swings in, a group of today’s cuts from the Major League camp showed up. Rene Tosoni, Joe Benson and Chris Parmalee were not going to be going north with the Twins and today was the day they got the official word and joined their minor league brethren… and the coaches working with those young players. Among the coaches and instructors on this particular field were former Twins outfielder Tom Brunansky, who’s now a coach in the Twins organization, and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. I just hope all of these guys know enough to take advantage of the advice available from the guys who the Twins have around this camp.

Chris Parmelee and Paul Molitor have a chat around the cage

Before heading in to Hammond Stadium for the game, I stopped along the “autograph fence” that runs between the Twins practice field and the stadium. This is where players often pause on their way to the stadium after practice to interact with fans. I found two players doing exactly that, pitcher Scott Diamond and Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome. Diamond certainly seemed popular with the young ladies.

Scott Diamond poses for a picture

Jim Thome signing autographs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once inside the stadium, I spotted a few people having conversations that I would have been interested to listen in on… like these:

I couldn't help but wonder what Morneau and Nishioka were talking about during warm ups

Morneau and Jason Bay chatted before the game. Bay, Like Morneau, missed the second half of the 2010 season with a concussion

I'm not sure if Nishioka understood anything 1B coach Jerry White was saying, but he nodded a lot.

Nishioka didn't seem to have any trouble understanding what TC Bear was communicating

After coming out of the game, Alexi Casilla and Nishioka got some running... and talking... in, out along the LF wall

What’s that you say? Wasn’t there an actual game going on today?

Why yes, there was. In fact, the Twins won the game with a walk off hit in the bottom of the ninth inning. After Matt Brown opened the inning with a double to the RCF gap, Danny Lehmann followed up with a hit that drove in Brown and saved his team mates from having to endure the most hated thing among ballplayers… a spring training extra-inning ballgame. Here, below, are a few more of the 250 or so pictures I took today, beginning with a shot of Lehmann’s game winning hit.

Lehmann drives in the winning run in the 9th

Brain Duensing had another effective start

Jim Hoey hit 99 mph with a fastball on the Hammond speed gun while striking out two Mets

Finally, while Johan Santana is still on the shelf, the Twins did reunite for the day with a couple of former team mates. Jason Pridie started in centerfield and Luis Castillo started at second base for the mets.

Jason Pridie

Luis Castillo

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s a wrap for today. I’m not sure whether I’m going to make the trip up to Lakeland for the Tigers game Thursday or stick around Ft. Myers. Media reports are that Carl Pavano, Drew Butera, Matt Capps, and Joe Mauer are going to be playing in a minor league game at the Twins’ complex and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew is reportedly going to be arriving at the complex Thursday as well.

If you want to read a bit more about my time at the Twins complex, check in periodically with Howard Sinker’s “A Fan’s View from Section 219” over at the StarTribune site. I’ll be sending periodic reports to Howard which he may be posting.

Of course, I’ll be trying to post something daily here at Knuckleballs, as well.

-JC

Gardy’s Bi-lingual!

Who’da thunk it?

We all wondered how long it would take for Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to learn to communicate with the Twins’ most recent import from the other side of the globe. Well, thanks to 1500ESPN radio’s Phil Mackey, we now know that Gardy has learned enough of his new infielder’s native language to communicate a bit… even if the player himself appears to be having a little trouble understanding exactly what his manager is saying.

Oh… you think I’m talking about Gardy knowing enough Japanese to chat with Tsuyoshi Nishioka? Heavens no… I think we’ll be seeing Gardy with his handy-dandy English/Japanese pocket dictionary all summer long.

Luke Hughes (Photo: Brian Henricksen)

But apparently he’s been much quicker to pick up enough Australian to communicate with red-hot rookie infielder Luke Hughes, as evidenced by this quote from Mackey’s post game notes:

“I asked him, ‘Mate, have you ever played shortstop.’ He went, ‘Are you serious?’ And I went, ‘Very serious.’ Then I went, ‘Nevermind the question, just go play short.'”

That’s our Twins manager… Crocodile Gardee!

One other item in Mackey’s post that I really liked to see was his quotes from Kevin Slowey.  You may have heard that Gardenhire has handed out four of the starting rotation spots already and, with one spot remaining, Slowey and Scott Baker are the last two men waiting for the music to stop in this rather bizarre cake walk game.

Slowey’s thrown 10 innings in his past three starts without giving up a run, so you could certainly understand if he was feeling a bit overlooked, and possibly even disrespected, by his manager stringing him along. But here’s Slowey’s response when asked how much he’s sweating out these last couple weeks of Spring Training:

“None, really,” he said. “It’s not really worth sweating it. I think you ask any one of the guys in this clubhouse, we’ll do anything it takes to help this team win. And I think we’ve seen that the last couple years.

“You’ve seen a guy like Jim Thome, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he doesn’t get 300 at-bats last year. He’s not complaining one bit. He’s talking about how excited he is to be a part of a championship team. I think if a guy like that can be satisfied with just being part of the team, certainly I can do the same.”

Is that a great response, or what? It also goes to show what kind of example Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome, is providing in that clubhouse.

I’m outta here!

This is it… the time has finally come… I head to Ft. Myers tomorrow (Tuesday) morning and while the weather outside isn’t TOO bad here, it’s nowhere near what I’m seeing in the forecast for Ft. Myers for the next seven days. (Wednesday through Tuesday… Highs ranging from 83-84, lows 58-62 and Sunny every day except Wednesday, when I’ll have to deal with partly cloudy skies. I’ll try to cope.)

I’m planning on spending Wednesday morning at both the Major League and minor league practice fields and then catching the Twins and Mets in the afternoon. Media reports are that Joe Mauer may very well making his Spring Training debut as a DH Wednesday and, since the following two games are on the road, I would expect to see pretty much all of the A-list position players in that game.

I am wondering a bit, though, how both Mauer and Thome will be managing to get swings in during the week I’m down there. The Twins have only two home games during the next week, Wednesday’s game with the Mets and Saturday’s with the Rays. The other four games between now and a week from today are road games with the Tigers (Lakeland), Orioles (Sarasota), Blue Jays (Dunedin), and Pirates (Bradenton). It’s hard to imagine either Mauer or Thome rattling across Florida on a bus. With minor league games getting started, maybe they’ll get a few cuts in one or two of those games.

Check in here at Knuckleballs from time to time… I’ll try to post a bit while I’m gone. I’m also going to try to send Howard a report or two that he can post over at “A Fan’s View From Section 219″… something he’s been gracious enough to let me do for several years now.

Finally, let’s sign off by sharing the following excellent Public Service Announcement, shown during Monday’s Twins/Marlins broadcast, from Michael Cuddyer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (video clip from the Star Tribune):

 

It’s Mardi Gras, Let’s Celebrate!

It’s not like we really need an EXCUSE to party tonight, but we might as well get in the Mardi Gras spirit, right!?

I may not be the biggest party animal in Twinsville, but there are plenty of reasons for Twins fans to be celebrating tonight!

First and foremost, there was the return of Justin Morneau to the playing field. Check out the video of both of Doc’s plate appearances this morning in the ‘B’ game with the Pirates!

This got everyone pretty excited!

It doesn’t take much to get the Twinsville Tweeters’ fingers going (much to Gardy’s chagrin, at times… does anyone else find it just hilarious that he hasn’t quite come to grips with the fact that things he tells reporters no longer take 18 hours before those words become public?) and we certainly had reactions flying across the airwaves today. Here’s just a sampling of today’s revelry:

Justin was all smiles after the game… at least I THINK there’s a smile under that fu manchu somewhere. Check out the pic link:

@Twins_morsecode Photo of the day – #Twins 1B all smiles. Justin Morneau. http://plixi.com/p/82536411

Naturally, Carl “the ‘stache” Pavano, himself, was not easily impressed:

@JoeCStrib Pavano on Morneau: “He shaved into a handlebar moustache. You gotta be feeling really good if you are going to be wearing that around here.”
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Joe Mauer was duly impressed… kind of:

@JoeCStrib Huge crowd was watching Mauer take swings in batting cage. I told him Morneau hit a 3-run 2B. “Did he?” Mauer said. “That’s pretty good.”

OK, so I’m not really sure this falls under the category of “revelry”… but it’s interesting anyway:

@JoeCStrib Blue Jays had 3 scouts watching B-game, one with a video camera. I’m told they like Slowey and have relievers to spare. #stribtwins

Tsuyoshi Nishioka got in to the Mardi Gras spirit:
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@TwinsNow Japanese media said Nishioka was very excited today because, for the first time with the #Twins, he started a double play.
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and…
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@JoeCStrib Nishioka lines an opposite-field single to left and is replaced by a pinch runner. He was 1-for-2 today. #stribtwins
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Ben Revere had his own way of celebrating:
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@PMac21 Ben Revere just made a ridiculous diving catch on the left-field warning track.
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Gardy was in a jovial mood, as well:
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@TomPelissero #Twins manager Ron Gardenhire when asked how Justin Morneau looked in his spring debut: “Canadian. Real Canadian.”
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Of course, Gardy made sure everyone knew Doc wasn’t the only guy making his spring debut today:

@TwinsNow Gardy on DY’s 2 walks today: “Haven’t seen that in a long time, ever maybe. … We thought that was historic.” #Twins
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OK I guess that’s enough celebrating for this old man tonight… and enough of stealing others’ work to fill blogspace here at Knuckleballs.
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So let me leave you with this final Mardi Gras thought… and image.
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Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!
-JC