GameChat – Padres @ Twins #2, 6:10

Yes, I know this post is going up more than five hours before game time and we don’t have line ups to post, but all the Knuckleballs actually have lives away from the internet today.

So, because we love all of our regular chatters so much, we’re putting up the Chatroll early… really early.

Enjoy the game, all!

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
San Diego 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 0
Minnesota 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 x 1 6 0

Another 1-0 win! I’d like to start seeing a few more runs go up on the Twins’ side of the ledger in these games, but given how many 1-run games the Twins have lost this season, it’s sure nice to see more of them end with e win, lately.

Danny Valencia gets ice cream for his solo shot in the second inning, providing all of the game’s offense, but BOD could go to one person only… starting pitcher Scott Baker. 8 IP and only 4 hits and one walk, while racking up 10 Ks, leaving Matt Capps one inning of work for his 11th save.  WTG Scotty… keep up the good work!

Scott Baker

 

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GameChat – Rangers @ Twins #3, 3:10pm

The Twins are one of the FOX regional games today (not that it does me any good personally, since Iowa will get the Cubs/Phillies game shown down here).

Today, the Twins are inducting pitcher Jim Perry in to the organization’s Hall of Fame. I’d just like to say, it’s about damn time. As a kid who grew up watching the Twins during Perry’s time with the ballclub, he was always one of my favorite players. Our family only made one or two trips each summer to the Twin Cities for a Twins game, but I always hoped I’d get to see Perry (or maybe Jim Kaat) pitch.

Most people, I’m sure, are aware that he’s the brother of Gaylord Perry. I remember back then that whenever you bought a pack of Topps baseball cards and got either a Jim or Gaylord Perry card, the blurb on the back of the card that Topps used to write something about the player always pointed out that his brother also was a Major League pitcher. They just had to keep changing the team affiliation, since both brothers played for a few different teams.

Anyway… I’m glad the Twins are inducting Jim Perry in to their Hall of Fame. It’s well-deserved. Thanks for all the great memories, Jim!

In roster news, it sounds like Nishioka is headed to Rochester to play a few games for the Red Wings, while Mauer stays in Ft. Myers a bit longer. He’s going to take some live hitting off of Joe Nathan in a couple of days. Wouldn’t that be kind of fun to watch?!

Justin Morneau is going to be sitting out the next two games, as well. Gardy has made that decision against Justin’s wishes, apparently. It’s probably the right thing to do at this point, but I like that Morneau isn’t happy about it.

Here are today’s line ups.

RANGERS @ TWINS
Kinsler, 2B Revere, CF
Andrus, SS Casilla, A, SS
Hamilton, LF Cuddyer, 1B
Beltre, A, 3B Young, D, LF
Cruz, N, RF Tosoni, DH
Moreland, 1B Valencia, 3B
Napoli, C Dinkelman, RF
Murphy, Dv, LF Rivera, R, C
Chavez, En, CF Tolbert, 2B
Lewis, C, P Baker, S, P

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Texas 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 5 0
Minnesota 5 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 x 8 12 0

Talk about turning the tables on an opponent! Today’s game looked an awful lot like the Friday night game, but with the Twins jumping on Rangers’ pitcher Colby Lewis, rather than the other way around.

Alexi Casilla and Delmon Young each had three hits, while Ben Revere and Michael Cuddyer added two each. Brian Dinkelman got his first two career RBI at the MLB level.

When a starting pitcher gets staked to a 5-0 lead in the first inning, it certainly takes the pressure off and the defense (especially Revere) made some terrific plays behind Scott Baker. Baker was perfect through four innings, struck out Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton three times, and just generally cruised through a complete game performance. That earns him our Boyfriend of the Day!

Scott Baker

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The Kevin Slowey Dilemma

I don’t often listen in via the internet to Ron Gardenhire’s Sunday morning appearances on ESPN1500, but I did yesterday. If you’ve been reading or listening to any Twins-related news in the past 24 hours, you’re probably already aware of his comments with regard to Kevin Slowey. If not, let me give it to you in a nutshell:  Gardenhire and Slowey met together to discuss Kevin’s role with the Twins and there appears to be some agreement between them that Slowey has not worked out as a relief pitcher, so they need to get him innings in a starting role… somewhere.

Gardenhire mentioned possibly sending Slowey to Rochester to be used as a starting pitcher. Slowey hinted to reporters that perhaps the Twins are no longer a “fit” for him.

Assuming Gardy is not going to go “Ozzie Guillen” on us and implement a six-man rotation the way the BitchSox have, there really are only three options for dealing with Slowey at this point: Insert him in to the Twins rotation to replace one of the five arms already there, send him to Rochester, or trade him to another team.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

If the Twins would decide to simply move Slowey in to the rotation, say for example in place of Brian Duensing, and have Duensing take Slowey’s bullpen spot, then I suppose it is relatively simple. But the Twins don’t really need a long reliever in the bullpen and that’s pretty much what Duensing would be. They need an arm they can use in critical set up situations. Maybe Duensing could do that, but it’s hardly a sure-thing.  

This swap would also result in the Twins having just one left hander in the rotation and while it’s easy to pick on Duensing because he hasn’t had a lot of success in the past month or so, a glance at his stat line shows us that opponents have a .381 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which is well above normal, indicating that he may be the victim of a little bit of bad luck. That particular stat, after all, was the one that fans of Francisco Liriano liked to trot out there every time a discussion about Frankie’s abilities took place over the off season (and his BABIP was only .335 last season).

So why not just send Slowey to Rochester and bring up someone else for the bullpen? Makes sense, I guess, but let’s be honest… the Twins haven’t exactly had a lot of good fortune with the bullpen arms they’ve brought up from Rochester already. Yes, Chuck James has performed well in Rochester’s pen and has arguably earned a promotion opportunity. But James is not currently on the Twins’ 40-man roster, so promoting him means someone currently on the roster has to be jettisoned. Would the world come to an end if the Twins lost Eric Hacker, Jim Hoey, or Scott Diamond? No. But I’m not sure the Twins are ready to give those guys up just to find out if James can pitch effectively at the Big League level.

That leaves us with some sort of trade scenario and the internet is abuzz today with “Twins will trade Slowey” stories. Heck, it may even happen before I can post this!

A lot of people thought the Twins should trade Slowey or one of their other starting pitchers before the season started. I disagreed, because it’s not at all unusual for a team to end up needing that sixth starting pitcher at some point during the first couple of months of the season. It turns out, the starting five stayed relatively healthy so the need to insert Slowey in to the rotation has not materialized. Certainly, none of the five guys in the rotation have been consistently effective, but despite the contention of his fans (and those fans who for one reason or another just dislike one of the current rotation members), there’s no solid evidence at all that Slowey would be an improvement over anyone currently with a starting rotation spot.

The assumption all along has been that the Twins would promote top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson from Rochester in June, once the risk of accelerating his eligibility for arbitration passes. Gibson hasn’t exactly set the International League ablaze this season, but he’s held hitters to somewhere around a .250 batting average and has a nice 41/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while striking out almost one hitter per inning. The point being, we’re almost at the point in the season where the Twins can afford to trade one of their six pitchers with credentials as a Big League pitcher.

I’m just not sure that should be Slowey.

If it is, so be it. It’s not like he’s demonstrated that he’s irreplaceable. But I’m just not sure that’s the direction I’d go if I were the General Manager.

Slowey is making just $2.7 million this season, so there’s bound to be a market for him. Maybe the Twins could even get a serviceable middle infielder in return. But they aren’t likely to get anyone significantly better than the mediocrity they’ve been sending out to man 2B and SS so far and adding a MLB infielder means they’re still left with the dilemma of how to fit James on to the 40-man roster so they can promote him. In any event, while I’m not ready to give up on the 2011 season yet, if I’m running the Twins, I’m not going to feel inclined to trade one of my cheaper starting pitching options.

For the same reason, you don’t trade Brian Duensing either. He’s still barely making above the MLB minimum salary.

Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker are both roughly in the $5-6 million per year range through 2012. The Twins won’t (and shouldn’t) trade Baker, but if you can get some decent prospects for Blackburn, I suppose you listen to offers. I just doubt that Blackburn’s performance has done much to create significant demand for his services, given his contractual agreement.

Does Francisco Liriano still have significant trade value? He’s making $4.3 million this year but he’s likely to get more expensive next year. Still, I suspect there are teams who would be very tempted to give up something of value for the chance to see if Liriano can grow in to a consistently dominant lefty. If so, I’d be very tempted to make him available because I just don’t see it as being likely to happen in Minnesota. Blame Liriano or blame the coaches/manager, but either way, I don’t see him ever being worth what the Twins would have to shell out to keep him beyond this season.

And then there’s ‘Stache. Carl Pavano is getting $8 million this season and is guaranteed $8.5 million in 2012. Has anyone who’s been watching the Twins seen anything in Pavano’s performance to make them feel like he’s worth that deal? He certainly has not been the “innings eater” he was last year, having averaged just about 6 innings per start. I don’t know what he’s worth on the market, but I would imagine someone would give up something for him, even if the Twins do have to eat a little of that contract.

Trading one of these guys for decent prospects would clear a roster spot for James  (or for Gibson or possibly RP prospect Carlos Gutierrez next month) without leaving the Twins significantly short-handed in the starting pitching department.  If I could get something of real value in prospects for either Pavano or Liriano, I’d make that move right now.

That said, it will probably be Kevin Slowey sent packing. If and when it happens, I suspect most of us will be underwhelmed with talent received in return.

- JC

GameChat: Twins @ RedSox #1, 6:10pm, FSN & 1500am

It’s game one of a “wrap-around” (Friday-Monday, “wrapping around” the weekend) series with Boston at Fenway and once again the Twins are showing some new faces in their lineup. Trevor Plouffe is plugged in at shortstop and Ben Revere in left field.  Cross your fingers and hope for the best, gang, as Scott Baker faces off against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who has fought his way out of the Boston bullpen and back in to a starting role (at least for now).

I’d make some sort of comment about another Red Wing-heavy line up, but frankly it’s not like the “veteran” Twins are exactly showing up the kids at this point, so let’s see what Plouffe and Revere can do. I was actually glancing over the MLB All-Star ballot today and realized Jason Kubel is possibly the only Twin worthy of representing the Twins at this point. Maybe Denard Span, too.

Ah well… let’s tee off on the knuckler tonight, boys!

- JC

TWINS @ RED SOX
Span, CF   Ellsbury, CF
Plouffe, SS   Pedroia, 2B
Morneau, 1B   Gonzalez, A, 1B
Kubel, DH   Youkilis, 3B
Cuddyer, RF   Ortiz, D, DH
Valencia, 3B   Drew, J, RF
Revere, LF   Lowrie, SS
Butera, C   Crawford, LF
Casilla, A, 2B   Saltalamacchia, C
Baker, S, P   Wakefield, P
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 1 3 0 0 4 1 0 0 0 9 12 0
Boston 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 7 2

 *still giggling uncontrollably*

yeah, that was fun! Not only was it good to see ANY win at all but it was good to see the bats actually come out in a big way, win a 3rd straight game – we don’t seem to be doing that too much lately – AND this was our first win in Fenway since 2007!!!!  Hello!?!

It was funny to see the ridiculous fielding from the Red Sox and it was great to see the way the guys all seemed to figure out Wakefield’s knuckleball pretty easily (just goes to show us knuckleballs aren’t so complicated afterall ;) ). I could not believe that Francona came out to argue the Balk – was shocked to see the physical pushing match that I will stoutly defend Joe West actually started by chest bumping Terry – and wonder if that could have contributed to the whole team just being off their game tonight.

Whatever. I don’t care. We WON! We HIT THE FREAKING BALL! Trevor Plouffe got a freaking homerun over the green monster in his first AB after coming back up to the big show to be our starting SS for awhile (maybe a LONG while at this rate). And Baker pitched his tail off – just for all you Gardy fans out there. Seriously, Baker pitched a FANTASTIC game. It was a beautiful thing.

In fact, those two guys caused quite a debate in the BOD discussion of the gamechat. You know what I like? When there are enough Twins players doing something marvelous enough during games that we get to debate who gets to be the BOD! So we enjoyed debating the various merits of both guys, how good the others were, back to the various merits of Plouffe & Baker, and enjoyed ourselves immensely in the whole process before deciding to encourage both good pitching and good offense by giving the BOD to BOTH players.  Co-BOD’s today!

GameChat – Twins @ Orioles #4, 6:05, FSN am1500

OK boys and girls, let’s think positive and try to get a split out of this series so the guys come home to Target Field with some momentum!

TWINS @ ORIOLES
Span, CF   Roberts, B, 2B
Casilla, A, SS   Markakis, RF
Kubel, RF   Lee, D, 1B
Cuddyer, 1B   Guerrero, DH
Thome, DH   Scott, LF
Valencia, 3B   Jones, A, CF
Hughes, L, 2B   Reynolds, M, 3B
Butera, C   Wieters, C
Repko, LF   Andino, SS
Baker, S, P   Guthrie, P

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

Hey that was a WIN!

Sure, the Twins only scored 3 runs… but two of those runs were on HOME RUNS! Yes… you read that right… the Twins hit TWO HOME RUNS… in one game! Michael Cuddyer hit his second home run in as many games. If he keeps up that pace he’ll hit… um… well a LOT more home runs! Baked goods for Cuddy!

Jim Thome mashed another tater, too! And he added a second ribbie with a single to drive Alexi Casilla in from second base. I believe we awarded a keg of the Minnesota microbrew of his choice to Jimmers.

But the consensus Boyfriend of the Day is tonight’s starting pitcher, Scott Baker. Baker K’d nine Orioles in his seven innings of shutout work, while giving up only four hits and one walk. This quite honestly was the kind of pitching performance this team needed as it tries to get a few guys healthy enough to get back in the lineup. Congratulations Scotty… you are the Knuckleballs BOD!

Scott Baker

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

 

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):

 

Trade Pitching? What’s the Rush?

Naturally, the big news coming out of the Twins’ “B” game against the Pirates Tuesday… the thing that had Twitter thumbs getting a workout… was the triumphant (and more importantly, healthy) return of first baseman Justin Morneau. Delmon Young’s debut, with a couple of walks in his two plate appearances, was less dramatic, but still noteworthy and smile-inducing. But once the dust settled on their stories, we started reading what arguably could be the most intriguing news to come out of that game, played before just a couple of hundred sets of eyes on a distant practice field that, starting this weekend, will be used exclusively for putting 18 and 19 year old minor leaguers through drills.

Is Kevin Slowey on the market?

It seems not all of the folks watching that game were vacationing Twins fans. Among the observers were a handful of people with well trained eyes focused on Twins starting pitcher Kevin Slowey, who according to reports from those in attendance, pitched an effective few innings against the Pirates’ “B” line-up. Reportedly, several scouts from the Blue Jays were watching Slowey and even videotaping his performance. The Rockies also apparently had a scout at the game.

The Twins entered Spring Training with two rotation spots nailed down and a number of other pitchers, with varying degrees of Major League experience, competing for the other three starting pitcher jobs. Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano were considered locks, while Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Brian Duensing constituted the pool of arms from which the remaining three rotation jobs would be drawn. Top prospects Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers would be waiting in the wings for opportunities later in the season and the Twins also have a group of pitchers (for example, Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop, Jeff Manship, and perhaps others) that are initially competing for bullpen jobs but could be called upon in a pinch to start games, if need be.

It was a solid, if unspectacular, group of starting pitchers and the plan looked and sounded like a reasonable approach to get through the spring and probably through the first couple of months of the season, at least. Many of us think the Twins may still need a true top-of-the-rotation guy to carry the Twins beyond the first round of the playoffs, but that’s a need that is always easier to address in July, when a number of teams have fallen out of contention and enter cost-cutting mode, than it is in March when hope springs eternal in camps all over Florida and Arizona.

Pitchers and catchers had barely put on practice jerseys when media speculation about a possible trade of Liriano to the Yankees began to circulate. Those rumors have quieted now, but in the mean time, manager Ron Gardenhire has gone on record committing two more of those coveted rotation spots to Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn. If Gardy sticks to those commitments (which I don’t think is necessarily as certain as people may tend to think), that leaves just one remaining starting role up for grabs between Baker and Slowey.

That’s one too many roosters for the rotation henhouse and thus the scouting eyes focused on Slowey’s performance Tuesday and the inevitable speculation that Slowey may be on the verge of being traded to Toronto in return for some of the Jays’ surplus of bullpen arms.

That seems to make sense to a lot of people. In fact, during his podcast last night, Jack Steal (Twins blogger “Fanatic Jack”) voiced a number of concerns that I think a lot of Twins fans have. (TwinsCentric blogger John Bonnes, of “TwinsGeek” fame, and I sparred with Jack on this and other issues… you can listen to the archived podcast at 612sports.net.)

People still aren’t comfortable with the prospect of letting Gardy and pitching coach Rick Anderson sift through the large group of relatively unknown options that GM Bill Smith brought in to camp to compete for the middle relief roles behind Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. So why shouldn’t the Twins go ahead now and trade their surplus starting pitcher to strengthen their questionable bullpen?

I’m glad you asked.

Let’s start with a basic truth. Starting pitchers good enough to hold down a spot in a Major League rotation are more important, more valuable, more difficult to find, and more difficult to replace when you need them, than even the best middle relief pitchers. They just are.

Second, you need more than five starting pitchers. Remember Scott Baker going on the Disabled List just before the Twins broke camp in 2009? Remember Nick Blackburn needing a family medical leave last April? Having six starting pitchers with a history of having success at the top levels of baseball should not be considered a luxury, it should be looked at for what it is… a potential significant advantage over the competition. Every team, including the Twins, is likely to need at least six starting pitchers, even during the first couple of months of the season. The difference between the Twins and other teams is that they have the depth to meet that need when it arises.

Will Liriano be ready to lead in April?

Has anyone read the reports about Liriano’s lack of offseason preparedness and his shoulder discomfort and not come away with some level of concern over whether he’s going to be reliable when the season opens in April? How many of the projected starting pitchers had some sort of “clean up” done on their elbows this winter? If we’re uncomfortable with the prospect of Perkins, Manship, Waldrop, et al, coming in for a couple of innings in the middle of games, just how comfortable are we going to be if those are the options to plug the holes in the rotation?

Does this mean the Twins shouldn’t ever consider trading one of their starting pitchers? Of course not. But why hurry? We’re still about three weeks away from Opening Day. Nobody can say with any certainty what the Twins’ real needs will be by then. The relief arms in camp right now have thrown about 4-5 innings each. That’s not nearly enough to conclude that the bullpen is going to need shoring up. What if one of the big sticks blows out a knee over the next three weeks? If guys like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Danny Valencia or Denard Span are forced to miss significant early time, don’t we think a surplus starting pitcher to deal away for a legitimate everyday replacement might be a nice option to have?

Making a trade now would also unnecessarily limit the market. When the Liriano rumors started flying, all anyone talked about was that the Yankees needed rotation help. Then the Cardinals lost Adam Wainright and the potential bidders doubled. Just in the last few days, the Cardinals have seen Chris Carpenter miss time with a hamstring issue, the Dodgers have found out they’ll start the season without Vicente Padilla and Jon Garland, and the Brewers announced Zack Greinke will miss time with a rib injury. How many more teams will figure out they’re short handed in their rotations over the next few weeks?

It just makes no sense to me to trade any of the Twins’ starting pitchers until (a) the Twins themselves are 100% certain they don’t need that pitcher themselves, (b) Opening Day is close enough on the horizon that the Twins know exactly what the most important position to fill via trade is, and (c) the market for starting pitchers is given enough time to fully develop, maximizing the number of potential bidders for a pitcher and therefore maximizing the value received in return.

There may come a time when it makes sense to trade from a perceived surplus of starting pitching. Now is not that time.

- 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!

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! :)