Tellin’ it like it is.

I’ll be honest. While I’ve watched almost every inning of the Twins games this week, I haven’t been devoting as much time to really focusing on the games or on the Twins in general. My mind has been occupied elsewhere (Nebraska in the Big Ten? Where will the Longhorns go? Isn’t it time for the Irish to give up the “independent” foolishness and join the Big Ten?). I know they’ve won some games and lost some games and some guys have looked good and some guys haven’t looked good… and some guys aren’t even showing up. It’s time to do something about those guys. Not the end of July at the trade deadline. Not in a month at the All Star break. Not in a couple of weeks. The time is now. Right now.

We were all excited about the team Bill Smith built during the offseason and, for the most part, about the choices made with regard to who constituted the 25 man roster coming out of Spring Training. This was, arguably, going to be the most talented gathering of players to don Twins uniforms in years… perhaps even decades. This team was no longer going to send minor leaguers out to play on Sundays. Even the “B” lineup would have can’t miss Hall of Famer, Jim Thome, in the DH spot. This team, we felt, wasn’t going to have to overachieve to win the Central Division. They SHOULD win the Division and the talent was there to do some damage in the playoffs once they got there.

It wasn’t all that long ago that we felt that way. But let’s tell it like it is, gang. Twins fans can not feel that way right now. This team, as currently constituted, is still competitive… but it is far from GOOD. In fact, that lineup card Gardy turned in Sunday was an embarrassment.

Yes, there have been injuries. The nagging kind where you really don’t know if you should put the guy on the Disabled List or let him rest a couple of days. And in almost every instance (or so it seems) the result has been an extended absence from the lineup.

One of the things that has endeared the Twins to its fan base over the years has been the way we could enjoy watching young players come up through the organization and be ready to contribute when they get their chance. All five of the starting pitchers came up that way. Denard Span thrived when he got his shot. The list is long.

Suddenly flush with revenues as a result of moving in to their new stadium, the organization uncharacteristically brought in help to fill a couple of holes in the infield this offseason, even while giving Mauer and others big raises, where in the past they may have been traded away at this point in their career. It has been very encouraging.

Now many people weren’t thrilled with opening the year with Nick Punto as the 3B. Personally, I have been in the “as long as the Twins have improved offensive production from 2B and SS, they can afford one mediocre bat in the 9 position” camp. The problem is… they are no longer getting improved (or any) offense from those other infield positions.

A significant sector of Twins Territory (or at least the Twins Blogosphere neighborhood of the “Territory”) is insistently enthusiastic about “giving the kids a shot” whenever someone with the Big League team either gets hurt or is performing so poorly that replacement appears inevitable. That’s fine. I like to see guys who have worked their way up through the organization get their shot, too.  But the time has come to admit that the Twins do not have infield options that are Major League ready right now. Maybe Trevor Plouffe, Danny Valencia and Matt Tolbert will go on to have fine Big League careers. They seem like good guys who are easy to root for.

But they have no business being on the Major League roster of a team that sees itself as a World Series contender. Not as starting infielders and not really even as utility options off the bench. They just aren’t ready.

And what about that pitching staff? There are some talented young pitchers both in the rotation and in the bullpen. And they seem to be really good guys, too. Lots of reasons for fans to “like” almost all of them. Every member of the rotation has had some very good starts… and some that were pretty ugly. Bert pointed out during today’s broadcast that the Twins’ bullpen has the best ERA in the American League. That’s nice. Everyone out there has had some impressive appearances. But why is it that whenever virtually ANY reliever comes out of the pen, at least one person in any group you may be watching the game with is likely to say, “I wish I felt more confident with him coming in to pitch”?

Maybe JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson will come back from their DL stints healthy and productive. Maybe one or two of the starting pitchers will become a legitimate #1 guy (I’d settle for legitimate and reliable #2 guys at this point). Maybe Ron Mahay and Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain will become more consistently reliable. Maybe Jon Rauch will add a couple MPH to his fastball and we won’t always have to hold our breath every time he comes in with less than a 3-run lead.

But that’s a lot of “maybes” for a team with expectations at the level we have for the Twins.

It’s mid June. The Twins are 2 and a half games ahead of the Tigers, with whom they have a series in Target Field to close out the month. Between now and then, both teams have 4 interleague series. The Twins with the Rockes, Phillies, Mets and Brewers. The Tigers with the Senators (missing their phenom Stephen Strausburg), D’Backs, Mets and Braves.

The truth is, the Twins will not be leading the AL Central Division at the end of the month with a lineup featuring three starting infielders every game from the group of Valencia, Harris, Plouffe, Tolbert and Punto. Unless changes are made now, look for the Twins to be playing catch-up in the second half of the season… again.

I know the Twins have already stretched their payroll beyond anything remotely close to what they’ve historically spent on MLB ballplayers. I also know they don’t like to send their precious prospects around the country in return for more expensive veterans that may or may not be a part of the team beyond the end of the current year. I can’t argue with any of that when you’re trying to build a competitive team over time.

But if the Twins organization is really serious about being more than just competitive in 2010, it’s time to bring in some reinforcements. In recent weeks, the Twins have been linked to several players who are, or may become, available via trade. The names include top of the line starting pitchers like Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee and 3B/1B Mike Lowell, in addition to a variety of middle relief pitchers, such as former BitchSox David Aardsma.

It’s fair to debate whether each of these players, or any others that may become available, would be good “fits” for the Twins. Would they upset team chemistry? Would they stay healthy? Have their better years passed them by? Are they overpriced?  All fair questions for discussion. But there’s really only one question that should matter.

Will the Minnesota Twins win more games… now and potentially in the post season… with this player than with the player currently in that role? If the answer is “yes”, it’s time to make the deal, Mr. Smith. And when the names you’re looking at replacing are Harris, Valencia, Tolbert, Plouffe, Mahay, Crain, and Mijares, how could the answer not be “yes”?

My preference? I want Mike Lowell in my lineup as quickly as he can get to Minnesota. If/when Hardy and Hudson come back, we finally get Little Nicky Punto-Tiny Super Hero in his proper role as utility infielder. I also want one of those top of the rotation guys, Oswalt or Lee (heck, even Jake Peavy is making noise about wanting to be trade again). I know, I know… somebody’s favorite current starting pitcher is going to be asked to move to the bullpen (which shores up the pen, by the way), but when you have World Series aspirations and pitchers like that are available, you go get one. That’s how the big boys play.

Now we find out if the Twins front office believe they have truly joined that exclusive club. The clock is ticking, Mr. Smith.

Tick. Tock.

-JC

Friday Hot Dish

Way down south, where I’m living (in Iowa), it’s called a casserole. But as I recall from my younger years in Minnesota, up there it’s a hot dish. Either way, to me it’s still a bunch of stuff thrown together, cooked, and if you’re really good at it (or really lucky), it turns out tasty, satisfying and filling. So that’s the purpose of this post… throw a few things together and, since I’m not likely to be really good, I’ll hope to be lucky.

It didn’t take long for the Twins to completely disregard my suggested roster moves. In fact, not only did they NOT make the moves I recommended, even the one move that I said “we all know WILL happen this weekend” isn’t going to happen this weekend. JJ Hardy won’t be rejoining the Twins for their series against JJ’s former team, the Brewers, this weekend. I’m getting a bit more concerned about this slow-healing wrist. A couple of our readers added comments taking issue with my suggestion that it might be time for Brian Duensing to slide in to Kevin Slowey’s spot in the rotation. Whether my suggestions turn out to be as far off base as they’re already starting to look, only time will tell. Let’s see where things stand in 2-3 weeks.

By the way, given that Hardy isn’t ready yet, it makes perfect sense to have Trevor Plouffe join the team this weekend. Luke Hughes is on the DL and Matt Tolbert can’t return to the Bigs until 10 days after he was sent down, so Plouffe makes sense. Let’s just hope Gardy isn’t tempted to use him as a late-game defensive replacement in a close game. Trevor has eight errors already this year.

Joe Mauer... moving up TSN's "Best Player in Baseball" list.

The Sporting News polled 125 baseball “experts” (apparently my ballot was lost in the mail) to find out who they thought the best 50 players in baseball are. Guess what!? Joe Mauer isn’t #1! Yeah, that Pujols guy over in the National League (or as I call it, Class AAAA) got the nod for the second year in a row. But Joe’s on Albert’s heels at #2 after moving up 37 spots from last year’s poll. Seriously… these experts thought Joe was the 39th best player a year ago? I mean… I know he missed April with back issues so maybe the votes last year were influenced by what was then Mauer’s “current performance”, but 39th?

Doc not impressing the TSN 'experts'?

The Twins’ other representative in the top 50 is another head-scratcher. Justin Morneau is ranked 23rd by these experts. If current performance is important, how is Doc’s 2010 not being recognized? He’s off to arguably the best start of his career. And he’s DROPPED 9 spots from last year?

The panel, as described by TSN, “included 18 Hall of Famers, 12 Cy Young award winners, 8 MVPs, 15 rookies of the year, 3 batting champions, 3 home run champions, 9 Silver Slugger award winners, 18 Gold Glove winners, 6 ERA champions, 4 World Series MVPs, 2 relievers of the year, 7 managers of the year, 5 former executives, 6 media members and 9 team broadcasters.” Sounds like a bunch of old men, to me.

Apparently senility has set in among some of those old “experts”.

It wouldn’t be a JimCrikket link fest without something from Joe Posnanski, of course… so I’m going to link to two of Joe’s recent efforts. Don’t worry, they’re both short.

First, Poz (I don’t know if that’s really a nickname he uses, but if it isn’t it should be) looked at the Hanley Ramirez fiasco and posed the question “What if it had been Jeter?”  He’s also given us a peek inside the Sports Illustrated tent and, as someone who’s giving some thought to buying an iPad in the near future, I found his “Sports Illustrated for iPad” posting of some interest.

You may have noticed how I’ve avoided any mention of last night’s loss to the East Coast Bitch Sox in Boston. It was aggravating on so many levels, but I think the thing that stood out the most, right from the start of the game, was the absolute joke that particular umpiring crew has become. Since the Twins have a “history” with some of those guys (remember Brendan Harris not being allowed a time out and having a pitch zip by him while not even looking?), it was probably predictable. But rather than me ranting today, I’ll just send you over to k-bro’s place to see her scientific (I’m sure) diagram of the strike zone last night.

I guess I need to get a little real work done this morning, so that’s enough for now. Check back later… if I come across any other interesting ingredients for today’s hot dish, I’ll add them as the day rolls on. – JC

UPDATE 1: I did mean to include this post from Jim Manelaro concerning the Stephen Strasburg “event” in Rochester. Strasburg, the uber-phenom of the Washington Nationals who is being kept busy mowing down minor leaguers until the Nats can be sure he won’t qualify for “super 2″ arbitration status in a couple of years, pitched against the Red Wings Wednesday night.

He pitched well (although newly promoted Twin Trevor Plouffe did get one hit off him). As you’d expect, the Rochester stadium was overflowing (with a significant number of fans wearing Strasburg T-shirts sold at the stadium by the Red Wings!) and when Strasburg was finally relieved of duty, he was given a huge ovation as he left the field. However, he apparently did not acknowledge the ovation with the traditional “cap tip”, causing much of the ovation to turn to boos. This has apparently become a bit of a “thing” now. So my questions, working backwards a bit, are:

1- Why is it a big deal that Strasburg didn’t tip his cap to the opposing crowd?

2- Why would an opposing crowd be THAT enthusiastic in the first place toward an opposing pitcher?

3- What the heck were the Red Wings thinking when they printed up T-shirts and turned their entire crowd in to an 8,000-strong Syracuse/Strasburg love fest? (Yes, I know, money.)

4- I want to know what the Red Wing players… and for that matter the Twins organization… thinks of Rochester’s bizarre promotion of an opponent? (If I were a Red Wing player, I’d have been pissed!)

UPDATE 2: This one made me laugh and almost cheer a bit, as well. Seems the people who run the city of Los Angeles decided they should boycott the state of Arizona over the issue of their controversial immigration law. Now, this blog is not the place for me to express my feelings regarding the law itself, but I REALLY don’t like it when the people on either coast (who think they know everything and that the rest of us should do things the way the folks on the coasts tell us to) start throwing their weight around.

So THAT’S why I found this response from an Arizona Corporation Commission (an oddly named agency that oversees electrical power plants in Arizona) member to the Mayor of Los Angeles hilarious:

“If an economic boycott is truly what you desire, I will be happy to encourage Arizona utilities to renegotiate your power agreements so Los Angeles no longer receives power from Arizona-based generation.”

Seems Los Angeles gets about 25% of their electricity from power plants in Arizona. Oops.

Yeah, I know it’s unlikely they could actually withhold electricity from LA, but any time someone is willing to stand up and say “stick it, jerk!” to bullies, I love it. I also know this article has almost nothing to do with baseball… except let me say that if Bud Selig actually does change his mind (what mind?) and pull the 2011 AllStar game from Arizona over this issue, the good people of Arizona should tell Bud to “stick it”, too. Immigration is a serious issue and should be dealt with by serious people… and that leaves out Bud Selig (and the LA City Council, too).

The Twins Roster – What to do, what to do?

I’ve stayed away from watching the Twins the last couple of games, partially of necessity and partially by choice, but I’m ready to get back in the game. I figured a good way to jump back in would be to share my wisdom with Gardy and Bill Smith on the subject of what roster moves should be made.

I know they say you don’t mess with something that isn’t broken, but let’s be clear… even though the Twins have won several more games than they’ve lost, this roster is at least cracked, if not broken. You don’t carry 13 pitchers, even for just a couple of days, and even pretend that all’s well.

One roster move we all know WILL happen this weekend is that JJ Hardy will be coming off the Disabled List. What’s less clear is who will be removed from the 25-man roster to make room for Hardy. The most likely move will be to send pitcher Jeff Manship back to Rochester since, according to media reports, he was brought up just to give the Twins some bullpen depth in Boston after the pen got used and abused in Toronto earlier in the week. In all likelihood, that’s the only move the Twins will make this weekend… but that doesn’t make it the only move they SHOULD make or even the best move they COULD make.

Casilla should have been Hardy's replacement.

But before I get to my wish list of roster moves, let me take a step back and discuss the Hardy situation briefly. Yes, it will be good to get JJ back and yes, he’s been a very good defender and no, you dare not underestimate the value of his defense to his team and specifically to his pitching staff. That said, I really would love to know why the heck Gardy hasn’t simply plugged Alexi Casilla’s name in to the lineup in Hardy’s absence instead of moving players around the infield like chess pieces. Specifically, I’d like to know what it is that Brendan Harris has done to warrant getting as many starts in Hardy’s absence as Casilla has.

Look, I like Casilla… always have. But I’ve also been a bit of a fan of Harris, so this is not a personal preference thing on my part. This is a “the numbers couldn’t possibly make things any more obvious” thing. Hardy’s offensive contribution so far this year has been pretty pedestrian, but that’s OK for your #8 hitter. His .250/.299/.400 line (batting average/on base pct/slugging pct) isn’t great but it’s tolerable at this point in the season.

But when faced with replacing Hardy for a couple of weeks, why in the world would you give as much playing time to Harris (.181/.277/.264 on the season and .148/.179/.185 the past two weeks) as you do to Casilla (.273/.351/.364 on the season and .294/.400/.471 the past two weeks)? It’s not like Harris is better defensively at SS, either. It just baffles me. In fact, even with Hardy coming back, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be starting Casilla until I’m sure JJ is 100%. Ah well.

Now about that roster.

Valencia isn't ready to replace LNP... yet!

What you won’t hear from me is a loud cry to “bring up the guys from AAA!” I believe there is generally a reason why some players are in the Bigs and some are in Rochester. And let’s face it, the Red Wings aren’t exactly ripping up the International League folks. After getting blown away by Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg last night, they’ve got the worst record in the I-League. So I’m not going to rant about how half their roster should be promoted while the Twins send a bunch of guys packing who have been contributing (in various degrees) to the Twins success this season. For example, count me as one vote against bringing Danny Valencia  and/or Trevor Plouffe up until they show more (Valencia more power and Plouffe more glove) in Rochester.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anyone down there who could improve things for the Twins, either.

First, there’s no point in screwing around with the position players. You add Hardy and leave it at that. But the pitching staff… oh my… yes there are some improvements that could and should be made there.

This is perhaps a good time for me to say I wish people would stop with the “Rauch is doing so well that the Twins don’t really miss Nathan” crap. Jon Rauch has been great. But wouldn’t you love to have him being great as Nathan’s set-up man, instead? You’d basically be shortening every game the Twins led after 7 innings to a 7 inning game.

But we’ve got to deal with the situation as it is, without Nathan, and they’re going to have to get down to a 12-man staff to make room for Hardy. As I mentioned, sending Manship down to Rochester is the easy call. But is it the only call or even the right call? Well, kinda.

I do believe you send Manship down. In fact, I don’t quite understand why he was the choice to be brought up in the first place since he really hasn’t been Rochester’s best pitcher (or even their best starting pitcher… among a group of pretty poor starting pitchers). In fact, I can only think of one reason to keep Manship with the Twins… and that’s so you can use him as your long reliever while you send Brian Duensing down to Rochester.

Why send a guy who’s pitched as well as Duensing has down to AAA? Only one good reason… to have him stretch his arm out so you can bring him back up and plug him in to the rotation. When he’s ready, you call him up and give him Kevin Slowey’s spot, move Slowey to the long relief role and send Manship back down.

Now, last but not least, we come to the obvious question everyone is asking. When are the Twins going to give up on Jesse Crain? The answer should be “now”. It is time to designate him for assignment and, if the Twins can’t get anything for him in a trade, eat the $1 million or so they’d owe him and release him. Even saying that, I believe Crain will go on to have a productive career somewhere else. I just don’t think the Twins, in a year in which they believe they have World Series expectations, can afford to have even one pitcher that they clearly have lost all confidence in.

Anthony Slama and his old school stirrups are ready NOW!

So when Crain is gone, who takes his place in the bullpen? Here’s where the Twins have a number of options. Rob Delaney, Kyle Waldrop and Anthony Slama have all been very effective in Rochester and, that being the case, it makes even less sense to keep calling Crain’s number and holding your breath, closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best when he takes the mound. My preference, for what it’s worth, would be Slama.

Will any of these moves actually happen this weekend? Besides the Hardy-for-Manship swap out, probably not. Slama probably won’t make his Twins debut until June so the Twins can postpone his arbitration eligibility an extra year. By the way, I think that kind of thinking is fine when you are just trying to be competitive and build for the future, but when you have a chance to win NOW, it’s just silly… and I feel the same way about the Nationals delaying Strasburg’s MLB debut for the same reason. They’re going to end up a game or two out of making the playoffs and have only their frugalness to blame. I just hope the Twins aren’t looking back and feeling the same way.

 In any event, whether it’s this weekend or two weeks from now when the service time issue is no longer a concern, here’s my recommended roster:

Starting position players: Mauer, Morneau, Hudson, Hardy, Punto, Young, Span, Cuddyer, Kubel.

Bench position players: Thome, Casilla, Harris, Butera (yes, I agree with having Morales and Ramos in AAA… for a little while longer).

Starting Pitchers: Liriano, Baker, Pavano, Blackburn, Duensing.

Bullpen: Rauch (closer), Guerrier (set-up), Slama (set-up/mid relief), Burnett (mid relief/set-up), Mahay (mid relief/LOOGY), Mijares (LOOGY), Slowey (long relief/spot start).

Now… would someone please pass this along to Gardy and Bill Smith? They don’t seem to be returning my calls. Or maybe I should try Tweeting it… I heard Pat Neshek say Gardy really likes the whole Tweeting thing, right? - JC

Fun in the Ft. Myers sun!

There’s really no excuse for how I feel tonight (Thursday) as I write this. I’m 53 years old. I know better. I’ve been hibernating in Iowa for 5 cold months. I’m in Florida to catch some of the Twins’ spring training for something like the fourth straight year. I knew it even as I stood in the cloudy chill of the mid morning watching Twins prospects going through drills on the minor league complex adjacent to Hammond Stadium.

“You should have stopped to pick up sunscreen, dummy.”

Ah well. It’s not like it’s the only dumb thing I’ve done in the years I’ve been coming down here (and some dumb things, I’ve done more than once), so if I’ve gotten it out of the way early this year, I can live with it (although not particularly comfortably).

But you didn’t come here to read about my pain. You came to read about the Twins’ spring training game vs. the Pirates, so here goes…

The Twins won.

I could tell you about how Carl Pavano struck out former Twin and current Pirate Garrett Jones. I could tell you about Jim Thome hitting his first home run of the spring. I could tell you about so much more. But I’m tired and I’m in some pain. So, instead of writing about what I saw, I’ll show you instead. (Yes, the downside of having a seat 2 rows up and just to the side of home plate is that pictures are taken through the netting of the backstop. I can live with it and I hope you can, too.)

Carl Pavano went five strong innings

Garrett Jones goes down swinging

Jason Jaramillo bows to Ben Revere (ok, not really)

Doc's HR swing! (ok, so he grounded out to 2B... but it looks good!)

Jim Thome and Jason Jaramillo knew this one was gone.

Trevor Plouffe scores around the tag on a SAC fly by Chris Parmalee (background)

That’s it for Thursday. Friday is a trip across the state to Port St. Lucie. It’s a couple of hours away, but with the Twins facing the Mets and a certain former Twins left-handed starting pitcher, I’m sure it will be worth the time! – JC