Butterflies With Hiccups

“Like butterflies with hiccups” is our tagline at Knuckleballs and today it’s a pretty appropriate heading for the following post.

I seem to find myself in a “very little to say about several unrelated things” situation a lot lately. Maybe I’ll make this a quasi-regular thing here. Or maybe this will be a one-time thing. Anyway, there are a few things I’ve read here and there that I feel inclined to comment about. Most are baseball related, but not all.

The Twins

Will Nick Blackburn be at Twins Spring Training in 2013?

On Monday, the Twins outrighted both Nick Blackburn and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, meaning they both cleared waivers and were removed from the Twins’ 40-man roster. Arguably, they were among the last remaining “scholarship” players on the Twins roster and clearly Terry Ryan finally had seen enough of both of them. I certainly won’t be surprised to see both players invited to Spring Training next year and given opportunities to regain spots with the Twins. Then again, I won’t be surprised NOT to see them in Ft. Myers, either.

With 42 games remaining on their schedule, through Monday night, the Twins are 51-70. That means, in order to improve on their 99-loss record of a year ago, they need to go 13-28 from here on out. A bit more than half of their remaining games are against teams that currently still have some playoff hopes, so winning 1/3 of their remaining games may not be as easy at you’d think it should be. Factor in that the final month’s games will pretty much all include line ups with at least one “September call-up” and the task of avoiding 100 losses gets’ trickier yet.

Still, I’m looking forward to seeing some of the Rochester and New Britain players show us what they can do in a Twins uniform. It will at least give me some reason to pay attention to the games, which I admittedly have struggled to muster much interest in doing lately.

The Playoffs

Way before MLB announced its new playoff structure, with 2 wild cards playing a single “play in” game in each league, I was on record here of liking that format. I’ve certainly seen nothing so far this year to change my opinion. I understand that some people (in particular, managers and players) aren’t as enthusiastic about it as I am. But even in expressing their dislike for it, they actually make the exact case FOR the new format. In one of Jayson Stark’s recent pieces over at ESPN.com, he related the following quotes from the Braves’ Chipper Jones:

“I’m not a big advocate of playing 162 games for a one-game playoff,” Jones told Rumblings. “You could easily see two teams in the same division have the two best records in the league, and one of them has the luxury of waiting a couple of days to play a best-three-out-of-five [series], while the other one has that one-game playoff. And I don’t see that as fair.

“It’s basically a Game 7, right off the gut,” Jones went on. “It’s win or go home — and three other teams [in that league] get to sit back and watch it. So that’s why, at least for the guys in this clubhouse, we’re putting the utmost emphasis on every game from here on out. For us, these are must-win games the rest of the way, because we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket, for that one game.”

Exactly, Chipper!

Winning your division SHOULD mean something. It should give you an advantage over a team that just happens to make the playoffs as a wild card for no other reason than that there happens to be an odd number of divisions in each league.

We’re already seeing writers speculate “what if” scenarios where managers may have to decide whether to use a Justin Verlander or Jared Weaver in the wild card game. Unlike many recent years, we won’t be seeing every playoff manager spend the final two weeks more concerned about setting his rotation than winning baseball games.

I have read that the new format meant there weren’t enough “sellers” at the non-waiver trade deadline for all of the potential playoff teams to pick from to help fortify their rosters. Gosh, I guess more teams will just have to try to win primarily with the players that they had on their rosters during the first four months of the season. Such a shame. #sarcasm

Keith Law on Miguel Sano

ESPN’s Keith Law got the attention of many of us who pay close attention to the Twins’ farm system last week when he Tweeted that he would be in Beloit over the weekend to watch the Twins’ prospects there. We were all anxious to find out what he had to say about Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, et al.

Law’s Monday post requires ESPN Insider membership to read, so we certainly will respect ESPN’s copyright to the material and not paste all of what he had to say here. In a nutshell, however, Law was impressed with Sano’s offensive talent and potential, but called Sano out for what he termed his “obvious disdain” for playing defense. He went on to compare Sano’s enthusiasm for defense to that of his own daughter’s enthusiasm for cleaning her room. Ouch.

Miguel Sano

Then again, Law admittedly only watched one game on the Friday night of that weekend.

I have nothing against Keith Law and he may be a pretty good judge of baseball talent. That said, I believe if you’re going to call in to question a young player’s work ethic (which he certainly did in this case), you should provide a little more information concerning the basis for doing so. Was it body language? Did he lollygag around the infield? Did Law speak to coaches, team mates, scouts or front office types?

I’ve seen Sano play 6-7 times this year and will see him some more this weekend. His defensive skills are not good at 3B. This is not news. But if there’s cause to question his work ethic and his interest in improving those skills, that IS news… and I’d be interested in knowing the basis for that conclusion (giving Law benefit of the doubt enough to assume it’s not based on seeing Sano play one game).

Joe Poz on JoePa

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a big Joe Posnanski fan. I may have also mentioned at some point that I’ve never been a huge Joe Paterno fan (even before the Sandusky s**t hit the fan).

If you also happen to follow Poz, you are probably aware that at the time of Paterno’s abrupt dismissal as Penn State’s football coach last November, Posnanski had pretty much moved his family to Happy Valley and was spending the better part of a year shadowing Paterno, his family and the Penn State football program as he researched an authorized biography he was writing on JoePa. Talk about finding yourself in the eye of a hurricane!

In the days and weeks that followed Paterno’s dismissal and, ultimately, his death, Posnanski kept almost completely mum on the subject of the coach. Frankly, I wasn’t even sure if the plans for the book were even going forward. However, now we know.

The book, cleverly entitled Paterno, hits bookstores today (August 21) and excerpts have been in GQ (and on GQ.com) in the days ahead of the book’s release.

I can’t help but feel Posnanski’s in a no-win situation in terms of the public’s response. Based on the excerpts I read, I’m pretty sure that Paterno’s family and defenders will object to much of what’s written and will probably feel betrayed for having allowed Posnanski inside their “circle.” I’m even more convinced that the anti-Paterno crowd will accuse Posnanski of going too soft on Paterno.

That’s enough for today. Maybe I’ll post some sort of “review” after I’ve read Paterno. Almost certainly, I’ll be posting something (a bunch of pictures, if nothing else) during or after the Snappers four-game series with my home town Cedar Rapids Kernels this weekend (the series runs Saturday through Tuesday). Until then, someone let me know if the Twins do anything noteworthy, ok?

- JC

Brian Dozier: Shortstop of the Future?

There was significant fanfare surrounding Brian Dozier following a successful Spring Training by the then 24 year old Twins shortstop.  Dozier hit .277/.333/.511 in 22 games at short stop during Spring Training to lead all shortstops, but without any Triple-A seasoning under his belt, the Twins sent him to Rochester to begin the 2012 campaign.  Dozier started out red hot for the Red Wings and raised a lot of eyebrows in the Twins’ front office.  After just 28 games Dozier was hitting .276/.339/.371 (about what he was hitting in 2009 and 2010, but his OPS was about 200 points below what he hit in 2011 between A+ and AA) and the Twins called him up the Minneapolis.

Brian Dozier

In the 55 games before the All-Star Game, Brian Dozier hit .242/.267/.332 with only 8 walks to go along with 41 strike outs.  Clearly, with only 28 games at AAA and 55 more with the Twins, Dozier would take a little time to adjust to the talent level of the best baseball players on the planet.  In just 28 games since the All-Star break Dozier’s bat has started to come around, his batting average has sagged (.228), but his OBP (.288) and SLG (.347) are both climbing towards acceptable levels for Major League shortstops, even with a BABIP of .244 (league average is around .300).  Along with increased on-base and power numbers, Dozier has matched his walk and home run totals from the 1st half, and cut down his strike out rate from 19.43% to 16.83%.

Yesterday afternoon, with the bases load in the 10th inning and 1 out, Dozier had an opportunity to either start a difficult double play, attempt to throw out the runner heading home, or take the safe out at first base.  Dozier chose to take the out at 1B, conceding what turned out to be the game winning run as the Rays went on to win the game 7-3, scoring three more times before the Twins could get out of the inning.  While it is hard to fault Dozier too much for his play yesterday, his defense has been up and down all season long.  He has 15 errors in 83 games, and his UZR is below zero, -2.8.  While fielding% certainly does not tell the whole story, Dozier sits at .963 while the average MLB shortstop is fielding 15 points better at .978, which is four errors better over the same number of attempts.  Coupled with his sub-par offensive numbers, Dozier’s defensive performance performance makes him easily expendable.

To the Twins’ credit, they keep running Dozier out there day after day, giving him the opportunity to prove he belongs, and luckily for him the Twins don’t really have a lot of other options to play in his place.  Alexi Casilla has played shortstop only as a last resort, Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a complete disaster, and while the 38 year-old Jamey Carroll could slide back into the shortstop role, he will not be factoring into the Twins’ future plans, so sticking with Dozier is the best of several below average options.  Hiding away at AAA Rochester is Pedro Florimon, a defense first shortstop who is hitting almost as well as Brian Dozier did before his call up, and the newly acquired Eduardo Escobar who the Twins likely view as a utility player, as he’s played 4 different positions for Rochester since joining the team just two weeks ago (and just a .557 OPS in 45 games for the Chicago White Sox).

If Brian Dozier does not make big improvements down the stretch, both offensively and defensively, he will not have a future with the Minnesota Twins.

-ERolfPleiss

GameChat – Twins @ Red Sox #4, 12:10pm

note: My apologies – the game actually begins at 12:30!

Holy Crap.. We are facing game #4 against the Red Sox and actually are able to use the word “sweep” as a hypothetical! (Won’t use it in any other way because well, I don’t want to be a jinx)

However, as far as I can tell, the Twins have already made me one of the happier fans on the planet just with the last three games. They’ve already won this series and in far more stellar a fashion than I could ever have asked for. The whole freaking team could stay home in the hotel for all I care and I would still be happy with this competition. That being said, I really hope they come to the park today so that we get to see baseball. And if we’re lucky, it will be GREAT baseball. Good luck Blackburn!

Minnesota

@

oston
Revere, CF Ellsbury, CF
Mastroianni, RF Crawford, LF
Mauer, C Pedroia, 2B
Willingham, LF Gonzalez, Ad, 1B
Morneau, 1B Ross, C, DH
Doumit, DH Saltalamacchia, C
Dozier, SS Middlebrooks, 3B
Casilla, A, 2B Kalish, RF
Carroll, 3B Aviles, SS
  Blackburn, P   Morales, F, P

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

R

H

E

Minnesota

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

3

4

6

0

Boston

0

0

2

0

2

0

1

1

x

6

14

0

Well that game was definitely less dramatic especially since the final rally didn’t quite make the mark. Blackburn only went 5 innings and it would have been better if he had been able to go deep but he also only had 4 of the runs tagged to him so.. today, as has been a familiar problem, there was just too big a deficit between our pitching and our offense. We all know how that goes.

HOWEVER, that does not mean that nothing happened to talk about!!

It was announced during the game that the Twins traded Danny Valencia to the Red Sox for a minor league outfielder. Boston actually claimed Danny of waivers two days ago and it just took awhile for them to work out the deal. The player the Twins got back is a 21 yo GCL player named Jeremias Pineda. Thrylos from Tenth Inning Stretch conveniently provided a mini-scouting report for us in the GameChat. By the way,  if you aren’t joining us for gamechats, you really should. Turns out that we were discussing the outline of this trade before it actually happened – just as much a surprise to us that we were right! LOL

In related news, to fill the infield vacancy left by Danny’s departure, the Twins have finally recalled, much to everyone’s shock except Thrylos, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Yes, that Nishi, the one with the one. Go figure.  He’ll join the team in Cleveland. This promises to be an interesting series.

Just Winging It: The 2012 Minnesota Twins Starting Rotation

There can be no doubts that a 63-99 team has plenty of areas for improvement.  In 2011 the Twins were 28th in team OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), ahead of only the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres.  Sure, they were playing half of their games in the pitcher friendly Target Field, but even when adjusting for park factors, the Twins posted an OPS+ of just 84 (100 is average), 29th in the MLB, this time behind the Padres.  Clearly there were issues with the Twins’ bats a year ago.  Part of that was attributable to injuries to Joe Mauer (replaced by Drew Butera and Rene Rivera) and Denard Span (replaced by Joe Benson, Rene Tosoni, and Jason Repko).  Another part of the hitting problem was related to dreadful offensive production from the middle infield, as Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Luke Hughes, Danny Valencia, and Matt Tolbert, and the the old Trevor Plouffe all posted below leave average offensive numbers.

As bad as the Twins’ bats were in 2011, it did not really matter what their pitchers were doing.  And maybe that is what the front office was thinking heading into Spring Training.  If the Twins could just upgrade their offense, even with a mediocre pitching staff, they were likely to see a big improvement.  Unfortunately, the Twins did not have a mediocre pitching staff in 2011, their 4.58 team ERA was 29th, and were one of just two teams (along with the Baltimore Orioles) to allow more than 800 runs.  So to go along with their 29th place OPS+, the Twins also had the 29th worst pitching staff, and yet somehow they still only lost 99 games.

After a winter of free agent signings and departures the Twins arrived in Spring Training as optimistic as any team in baseball.  After all, they were only a year removed from a 94-win AL Central Championship team, and they were truly healthy for the first time in more than a year.  Their franchise catcher, Joe Mauer, had finally recovered from whatever it was that was ailing him in 2011 and caused him to miss almost half a season, and Justin Morneau was finally overcoming his concussion symptoms that cost him the better parts of 2010 and 2011.  Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham were on board to replace Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, and the Twins signed veteran on-base sepcialist Jamey Carroll to compensate for the failures of Nishioka.  Alexi Casilla was coming off one of the best offensive seasons of his underwhelming career and looked poised to finally become the everyday player the Twins had been hoping he would be since 2007.  Despite all their failures in 2011, the Twins looked like their bats were ready to hit in 2012.*

*And to some extent, they are.  The Twins’ 2012 OPS+ is 6th in the American League, and they are scoring runs at an almost league average rate (4.30/4.47).  

The Twins, however, did little to improve a pitching staff that was one of the worst in 2011.    They inexplicably resigned 9th inning reliever Matt Capps to a $4.75 million dollar deal to step in for the departed Joe Nathan.  They also sent starting pitcher Brian Duensing back to the bullpen where he had previously been successful and replaced him in the rotation with free agent acquisition Jason Marquis, hoping that he would rebound from a broken leg that cost him the end of the 2011 season, and become the renaissance man that Carl Pavano had been for the Twins since he arrived in 2009.  But with just five real candidates for starting pitching Minnesota was walking a pretty thin line.  The Twins also brought in just about every free agent relief pitcher they could find hoping that a couple of them would pitch well enough in Spring Training to head north with the big league team.  They even went against their traditionally risk-averse strategy and signed Joel Zumaya to a minor league deal hoping to add a power arm to their bullpen without paying the power arm price.  And with that, the Twins were seemingly ready to start the season.

Just five starting pitchers and not a lot of MLB ready pitchers in AAA ready to step in if things went poorly.  Among the starting pitchers not in that group of five, only Liam Hendriks and Scott Diamond seemed like realistic replacements to join the Twins if things did not go well in Minnesota.

As you are well aware, things have not gone well for the Twins’ starting pitchers in 2012.  Even before leaving Spring Training the Twins were forced to move Liam Hendriks into starting rotation as Jason Marquis was pulled away from the team to be with his daughter while she was recovering from a serious bicycle accident.  To make matters worse, Scott Baker did not leave Ft. Myers with the Twins either, dealing with supposedly minor arm issues which ended up as a worst-case scenario as Baker would eventually require Tommy John surgery to repair the UCL in his pitching arm.  That meant that Anthony Swarzak would start the season in the starting rotation, leaving with Twins without their regular long-reliever until Marquis would be back with the team.  Before long the Liam Hendriks experiment was over and he was back in AAA looking garner some additional seasoning.  Now the Twins had to start getting creative.  They had already burned through the only two replacement options they’d planned for and with the Twins already well below .500, it was unlikely that they would be playing any meaningful baseball in October.  Since that time the Twins have used five additional starting pitchers, none of whom the Twins were counting on in April.  P.J. Walters was first, then Scott Diamond, Cole De Vries, Brian Duensing, and finally Sam Deduno.

The Twins still have 63 games remaining in 201. With Francisco Liriano now pitching for the Chicago White Sox the Twins will have to find another arm to step in.  While the next pitcher they call upon to start will likely not be a fresh face, they will still be tip-toeing around a problem unlikely to be resolved without the infusion of some fresh arms this winter.

Twins fans should have known that when Minnesota signed Jason Marquis and hoped for the best that the team was just winging it in 2012.

-ERolfPleiss

Twins Predictions

Real live baseball (in America) begins tonight, before ramping up on Thursday, leading to the Twins’ opener on Friday in Baltimore.  With opening ceremonies in mind, here are the Knuckleballs Twins Predictions for 2012:

Pitcher of the Year: Scott Baker (minor early season DL stint not-withstanding) Baker was the best of a bad Twins pitching staff in 2011, despite missing chunks of the season on the Disabled List.  I couldn’t tell you why I think he’s going to be healthy and productive this year (which already seems like a bad idea), but I think he will be great.  Jim Crikket thinks that Francisco Liriano will be the best pitcher of the year.   His spring numbers were very positive, he limited his walks and earned plenty of strike outs.  Unfortunately, if you look back just a little farther to his Winter numbers, they’re terrible.  Let’s hope the recent results tell more of a story for 2012.

Hitter of the Year: Justin Morneau  “Morneau is swinging like I haven’s seen him swing in a couple of years. Vicious cuts.” – Jim Crikket  Again, these are only Spring Training at bats, but ever since Morneau flipped the switch and hit two home runs in a game a couple weeks ago he’s been a man on fire.  Moving into the DH position and focusing solely on hitting seems to be working for Morneau.  Success in 2012 will help distance Morneau from his 2010 concussion and he could be playing first base everyday by the All-Star Break.

Defender of the Year: I wanted to select Alexi Casilla as the defender of the year, hoping against hope that he will remain focused, healthy, and attentive at second base and play more than 100 games for the first time in his career.  Jim wanted to go with Denard Span, because for the Twins to succeed in 2012 Span is going to need to cover huge amounts of ground in the left field and right field gaps (gaps which are now wide open with the move to put Josh Willingham and some combination of Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Doumit in the corners).

Rookie of the Year: Chris Parmelee/Liam Hendriks If Parmelee continues to hit like he did last September and this Spring he’ll be a top choice for the Twins’ best rookie.  The other candidate, who made the 25 man roster and will open the season in the starting rotation is Liam Hendriks.  Hendriks was probably slated to come up after 5-10 AAA starts, but because Scott Baker and Jason Marquis are not ready to start the season Hendriks gets a chance to showcase his skills earlier than anticipated.  If he keeps his spot in the rotation when both Baker and Marquis are back you’ll know he’s pitching well and on track to steal a Rookie of the Year award from Parmelee.

Most Valuable Player: Justin Morneau The engine that makes the Twins go is Joe Mauer, but Mauer is even better with a healthy Justin Morneau hitting behind him, forcing pitchers to attack Mauer allowing him to hit doubles all over spacious Target Field and driving in runs for the Twins.  If Morneau comes back and is indeed the hitter of the year, selecting him as the MVP will be as much about what he does as an individual, as what he does in the lineup to help those around him.

Comeback Player of the Year: Francisco Liriano Obviously Justin Morneau is a candidate here if he hits well and helps the team succeed, but after a horrendous 2011, if Liriano returns to his 2010 form he’s one of the best players in baseball.  If Morneau and Liriano are both All-Stars, this team will be lucky to two potential comeback players on their squad.

Expected Record: The Marcel projections peg the Twins for just a 70-92 record, relying heavily on the Twins’ 2011 results as a predictor of 2012 success (and a heavy dose of regression to the mean).  Even if Joe Mauer’s Cindarella Spring Training Clock strikes midnight and he turns in another injury plagued 2012, simply trading Drew Butera for Ryan Doumit means turning a -1.2 WAR into a 1.2 WAR, 2.4 additional wins, and that’s not even factoring in upgraded seasons the Twins are likely to receive from Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Jamey Carroll (vs. Tsuyoshi Nishioka), Danny Valencia, and at least half of the Twins’ pitching staff.  Assuming then that the 70-92 record is the worst that the Twins could do in 2012, what is a reasonable expectation for the Home 9?  My best guess, 82-80, Jim Crikket is more optimistic, suggesting even 86-76 for the Twins.  Either way, the Twins are going to be competitive, entertaining and might even be relevant in September.  Will any of this come to pass?   I don’t know, but we’ve got 162 games to find out.  Bring on the baseball!

-ERolfPleiss

St. Patty’s Day is Separation Day

St. Patrck’s Day means different things to different people. But if you’re a baseball player trying to make a Big League ballclub, you should have a pretty good idea of where you stand with your manager and General Manager by the time you lift your first green beer of the evening on March 17.

At this point, there are just over two weeks left of Spring Training, so if you have any hope of heading north with the Big Club, you had better have made some sort of positive impression by now. You simply can’t look like Leprechaun feces on the field for the first half of March and expect to be wearing a Major League uniform on Opening Day.

The Twins had 67 players in their Big League camp to begin with and will take only 25 with them to Baltimore to begin the regular season. In reality, there were only a handful of spots open on the Twins roster to begin with and not much has changed with regard to those players that were “locks.” Of course, Joel Zumaya’s injury immediately made one more bullpen spot available and now there’s some question whether Scott Baker’s tender elbow could cause him to start the season on the Disabled List, which would open up another pitching spot. Otherwise, the Twins were really only looking to determine who their bench position players would be and fill out the back end of their bullpen.

So let’s look at who the leaders are as the guys take that long bus ride across the state of Florida for a St. Patty’s Day contest with Ozzie’s new-look Miami Marlins this afternoon. (Our friend and fellow blogger, Thrylos, has been maintaining “scorecards” that track game-by-game performance of those contending for bench positions and bullpen spots over at The Tenth Inning Stretch. It’s a handy tool that you should glance at regularly.)

All statistics are through Friday, March 16.

Third Catcher:

It’s been almost a foregone conclusion that the Twins would carry a third catcher, in addition to Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit, They’re still carrying six other catchers, but Danny Lehmann, Chris Herrmann and Daniel Rolfing will be heading back to minor league camp as the number of pitchers is thinned out.

The assumption has been that non-roster invite J.R. Towles would challenge Drew Butera, but Rene Rivera has perhaps been the most consistent performer of the group. Towles made a good first impression early in the month, but has been mediocre, at best, since then. Don’t rule out Butera, however. After a slow start, he’s had a couple of good games recently. I think Drew remains the odds-on favorite to keep his spot on the Twins bench. Here’s a fun small sample size Spring Training fact, however: Going in to today’s game, all three of these potential back-up back-up catchers are hitting at least .300 in official Spring Training games.

Other bench players:

The Twins really only have open spots for a utility infielder or two, if we assume that Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe have secure spots as the third and fourth outfielders. There was no shortage of infield candidates, but to be brutally honest, there haven’t been three guys who have thus far demonstrated that they deserve to get a MLB paycheck.

The best of the bunch, so far, is Chris Parmelee (.368/.478/,684). His performance this spring would seem to indicate that his impressive September call-up was not a fluke. The problem is, it’s unlikely that the Twins really want him to spend 2012 sitting on the Twins bench. He needs to play baseball every day and, unless Justin Morneau is unable to answer the bell in April, Parmelee is going to be the Rochester first baseman.

Non-roster invite Mike Hollimon has looked good (.400/.455/.700), but he has to keep it up if he’s going to force the front office to give him someone else’s spot on the 40-man roster. On the other hand, unlike with Parmelee, the Twins wouldn’t think twice about letting him collect splinters on the Big League club’s bench if he can fill in around the infield and be effective in a pinch-hitting role.

Luke Hughes (.273/.333/.500) is definitely still in the hunt for a bench spot, as well. He’s out of options, which helps his cause. He also started out physically behind other contenders, as he nursed his shoulder back to health. Since returning to regular playing time at bat and in the field, his performance has picked up considerably and he finished this week strong.

Of the rest of the candidates for bench spots, nobody as been absolutely terrible, but nobody has been consistently good, either. Outfielder Joe Benson (.250/.304/.400) has been impressive at times, especially defensively, but he’s got the same issue Parmelee does… the Twins won’t keep him just to sit on the bench. Brian Dozier (.250/.294/.375) is probably in the same boat.

Handicapping the race with two weeks left, I’d say the early favorites remain the most likely players to open the year in Twins uniforms. Luke Hughes has a spot unless he kicks it away. Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.261/.292/..348) probably does, too, not so much because he’s looked good, but because almost nobody else has looked a heck of a lot better. Keep an eye on Hollimon, though, because if he finishes strong, he could force the Twins to make a very difficult decision regarding Nishioka.

The rest… Aaron Bates, Sean Burroughs, Ray Chang, Brian Dinkelman and Pedro Florimon… have had a moment or two they can be proud of, but I look for each of them to be sent down or released over the next 7-10 days.

Pitchers:

Things are much more interesting… and surprisingly optimistic… on the pitching front. For all the fretting about how the Twins would manage to cobble together a bullpen capable of backing up one of the most mediocre rotations in baseball last season, we’ve seen a number of candidates make strong cases that they deserve a shot.

Let’s start with Liam Hendriks (7 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1.000 WHIP). He started out pitching just an inning in his outings, but threw three hitless innings at the Red Sox when he got a chance to start. He was never likely to fill a bullpen role for the Twins to start the season, but if Baker has to postpone his season debut a while, Hendriks has looked good enough to step in to his spot. Whether he’s a Twin on Opening Day or not, I look for Hendriks to play a significant role for the Twins over the course of the season.

Alex Burnett, Carlos Gutierrez, Jeff Manship and Kyle Waldrop needed to perform well this spring. Those are guys who have been brought up in the organization and who the Twins expected to be developed enough at this point to be contributing at the Major League level. A big reason there are so many pitchers in camp that have been signed from other organizations within the past year or two is that those four pitchers have not yet proved they can do the job.

Burnett (2.2 IP, 16.87 ERA) has struggled, but the other three guys have been pitching well. They are getting some competition from Matt Maloney, Jared Burton, Casey Fien and P.J. Walters, all of whom have been pretty impressive, as well.

Others have had a good day here and there, as well, but I think the field has been narrowed to Gutierrez (5 IP, 1.80 ERA, 1.200 WHIP ), Manship (4.1 IP, 2.08 ERA, 0.462 WHIP), Waldrop (4 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.750 WHIP), Maloney (5.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.750 WHIP), Burton (5 IP, 1.80 ERA, 1.000 WHIP), Fien (3.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.300 WHIP) and Walters (5 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1.000 WHIP).

Keep in mind that Gutierrez, Manship and Waldrop are all already on the Twins’ 40-man roster, while the four “outsiders” are not which means the Twins would need to find room for any of them they decide to keep. [EDIT: Matt Maloney is also already on the 40-man roster... my bad.] This race is still too close to call, but I’m excited that there are so many guys who are meeting and even exceeding expectations as we head in to the final couple of weeks of Spring Training.

I’ll be heading down to Ft. Myers for the final week of Spring Training and I’m looking forward to seeing how this all shakes out.

- JC

Twins Regime Change: Winners and Losers

You may have heard the news… the Twins fired General Manager Bill Smith Monday and replaced him with his predecessor, Terry Ryan.

The news has been received well among most Twins fans. That’s not surprising. Most of us had lost much of whatever confidence we may have once had in Smith’s talent as a GM and what better guy to replace him with than the GM who gets most of the credit for molding the Twins in to a contender for most of the past decade? It does seem pretty convenient though, doesn’t it, that fans tend to overlook the fact that he also failed miserably at the GM job during his first half dozen or so years in the GM chair. Then again, he was barely over 40 years old when he first got the job and we all know that nobody under 50 knows a damn thing, anyway.

In any event, I’m certainly not disappointed to see Ryan back in charge. It was a good and necessary move by the Twins ownership and top management.

But make no mistake, this move means things are going to be done differently and there will be changes, both at Target Field and across the Twins organization, from the minor leagues to the international scouts and beyond. You might not think that someone with merely an “interim” GM title would have the clout to turn an organization on its head, but this is no ordinary “interim” GM. There is nothing “interim” about his level of authority.

All of this has me thinking a bit about who the potential winners and losers are likely to be when the dust settles on this little internal drama that’s playing out within the team’s front office.

WINNERS:

Twins prospect Aaron Hicks

Minor league prospects: If you’re a prospect in the Twins organization and were starting to get concerned that the Twins might go out on the open market and sign a free agent to a multiple-year contract that could essentially block your path to the Big Leagues, you’re a winner in this deal. It wasn’t all that likely to happen in the first place, but now, those chances are considerably smaller.

By association, our friend Seth Stohs over at SethSpeaks.net is a winner, too. Seth lives and breathes minor league baseball and nobody knows that stuff better. I doubt that Seth was ever too concerned that the Twins might become a “trade all your prospects for old guys” organization, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Terry Ryan will make improving the Twins minor league organization a high priority. That’s going to make Seth (and, eventually, the rest of us) very happy.

Ben Revere

Ben Revere: Terry Ryan made perfectly clear on Monday that the Twins need to improve their defense. There are questions about whether you’ll ever be a Major League hitter, but if Ryan truly believes that better defense will lead to better pitchers, I think you just got locked in to a starting spot in the 2012 Twins outfield.

Talented prospects buried in other organizations: Terry Ryan’s forte is identifying young talent, whether in his own organization or others, and bringing that talent to the Twins where they get a chance to prove themselves worthy of a shot at the big time. If your organization has been holding you back, there’s a decent chance Ryan already has a file on you that’s about an inch thick. Make sure your agent has Ryan’s number on speed dial.

Wayne Krivsky: It’s been quite a rollercoaster ride for you over the past week. A week ago, you were a frustrated, seldom listened to, advisor in the Mets front office. Then you got the good news… the Twins GM wanted you back in the organization in an advisory capacity. Then you got the bad news… the GM who wanted you back was being canned. Then you got more good news… the new interim GM is your old buddy Terry Ryan and now you’re close enough to sniff your next opportunity to become a Major League GM, once again. That is, if you’re the one person on the planet who actually believes that Terry Ryan is just the “interim” General Manager of the Twins.

LOSERS:

Twins Medics: You may have breathed a sigh of relief a while back when Bill Smith stated publicly that there would be no blood-letting among the organization’s doctors and trainers. Better get back to work on those resumes, folks.

Cuddyer, Nathan, Kubel (assuming any of them wanted to return to the Twins for 2012 and beyond): Bill Smith grew to genuinely like certain players and some feel that he allowed those feelings to affect his decisions. Terry Ryan isn’t heartless, but he is first and foremost an evaluator and appraiser of baseball talent. The next time he overpays for the declining years of a player who’s productivity level has arguably peaked will be the first time.

Mike Radcliff: A week ago, you were being mentioned as a possible GM candidate in Baltimore, then the Twins declined to allow the Birds to interview you. Now, your new boss is publicly talking about how you’ve been spread too thin and will have some of your responsibilities reassigned. Word is that you decided you weren’t interested in their job and the Twins “declined permission” for the Orioles to talk to you merely to allow them to save some face. If that’s the case, you may be regretting that decision. Now, instead of the organization’s highest ranking player-personnel guy and heir apparent to Bill Smith, your new boss is twice the baseball man you are and he’s bringing back his former right-hand man in Krivsky. Ouch.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: There is absolutely no way Terry Ryan would have committed $15 million to acquire you a year ago and given that you embody everything that Ryan feels is wrong with the current roster, your already meager hopes of ever playing another inning of baseball for the Twins just became virtually non-existent. I don’t know where you’ll be playing ball in 2012, but it won’t be in the Twin Cities.

Trevor Plouffe: Did you hear what Ryan said about needing to improve the Twins defense? Yeah… he was talking about you, Trevor. You’re still inexpensive, so if you’ve been improving your glovework, you may get a shot at redemption in Ft. Myers, but you’d better demonstrate marked improvement or you’re going to be the “throw in” player in one of Ryan’s inevitable trades.

Anyone who pitched for the Twins in 2011: Glen Perkins might be the only pitcher on the roster who’s spot is relatively safe. The rest of you, either by virtue of your performance or your contract (or both… see: Blackburn, Nick, et al), are just as likely to be playing elsewhere in 2012 as playing on a Terry Ryan team.

Carl Pavano

Carl Pavano: I don’t believe for an instant that Ryan would have re-signed you to a two-year deal last offseason. If he can find someone willing to take on most of your remaining salary, I believe you’ll be wearing another uniform in 2012.

Bloggers who spent time assembling a 2012 “blueprint” (unless you didn’t really like your blueprint, in which case you’re in luck because now you can start over and do a new one): Back to the drawing board. Any of us that still want to spend $35 million on free agents need to get creative about figuring out how to cut $15 million from the existing commitments. Then again, we can pretty much rule out the Mark Buehrles and anyone else likely to get several million dollars for multiple years.

TOO EARLY TO TELL:

Ron Gardenhire

Ron Gardenhire: You didn’t see eye-to-eye with Smith on a number of personnel issues, so you’re probably feeling pretty good about things right now. But keep in mind that Terry Ryan just actively participated in the firing of one of his best friends. He says he’s going to assemble a team that he thinks should be competitive in 2012. If it isn’t, he’s not going to hesitate for a moment to send you packing, too.

Danny Valencia: On the one hand, Danny, you’re young and cheap and you hit the ball a little bit. On the other hand, your defense is not good and some reports indicate you’re not exactly the prototypical “Twins guy” in the clubhouse. That may not have been a big deal a week ago, but there is absolutely nobody in the organization that’s more of a believer in the “Twins Way” than Terry Ryan. If you thought Gardy was anal about that kind of thing, you’re REALLY gonna love the new sheriff in town.

Denard Span

Denard Span and Alexi Casilla: I’m honestly not sure what Terry will do with you two. You’re not gold-glovers in the field, but by comparison to almost everyone else the Twins have on defense, you almost look the part. I suspect he will start his purge elsewhere, but your salaries are getting to the point where Ryan starts to think he can find someone comparable for less money. Not to mention, you may be two of the few members of the current roster with actual trade value.

Fans: I stand by my previous statements that fans should not accept a slashed payroll without loud objection. We can hold out some hope that Ryan was just tossing out numbers during the press conference and, by the time spring rolls around, the payroll is pretty close to the 2011 levels. At any rate, if (and this is a very big “if”) Ryan can actually unload some dead weight and replace it with players who can actually… you know… play baseball, then fans may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

What are your thoughts? Who do you project to be the big “winners” and “losers” under the Terry Ryan Regime, Part Deux? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

-  JC

Span Trade Needed… And Soon!

Gotcha.

You saw that headline and I hooked ya. Now it’s time to reel you in.

No, I certainly do not believe the Twins need to trade Denard Span for Drew Storen or any other package centered on a relief pitcher. They’re seriously talking about trading him for relief pitching? REALLY? I wish someone could give me an example of when another organization traded away a guy of Span’s talents and contract status for a damn relief pitcher. I don’t care if someone is calling to offer me Dennis Eckersly in his prime, unless Eck is going to be used at the top of the rotation, I hang up the phone.

In fact, the more I  look at this stuff, the more amazed I am that the Twins would even consider dealing Denard Span for anyone, really. They probably aren’t going to offer Delmon Young arbitration this offseason and both Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer are going to be free agents with no shortage of suitors.

Ben Revere, Aaron Hicks, Joe Benson, and/or others among the Twins’ reputably talented outfield prospects may indeed combine in some manner to give us a “golden era” outfield, but I don’t believe for a moment that such an era is set to begin in 2012.

Denard Span... Twins need to trade FOR him, not trade him away

So yes, Denard Span needs to be traded, but the trade that needs to happen is one the Twins can implement all by themselves. Span needs to be traded TO the Twins by the Rochester Red Wings… and it needs to happen really, really soon.

Hey, I admit I’m no doctor and I would never, ever, advocate doing anything that would put a player’s health at risk. That’s particularly true when we’re talking about something as important as the man’s brain. If Span’s concussion symptoms are hanging around similarly to what Justin Morneau’s did a year ago, then sit him out until they’re gone. No doubt about it.

But he’s not sitting down. He’s playing baseball almost every day… in Rochester. If he needs a few extra days off, that’s fine. But when he does play, it should be while wearing a Minnesota uniform!

Look, if Alexi Casilla hadn’t pulled a hammie, a few days more or less of Denard entertaining fans at Frontier Field instead of playing for the Twins might not be a huge deal. But Lexi DID pull that hammie and he’s out for what the Twins witchdoctors say will be 2-3 weeks, which means we’ll be lucky to see him in a Twins uniform by this time next year, given the track record of the Twins’ medical staff (and I use that term loosely).

Did you see that line up Ron Gardenhire fielded in the final game of the Rangers series last night? Rochester wouldn’t be able to win an International League game with a line up that has Matt Tolbert, Ben Revere and Tsuyoshi Nishioka batting back-to-back-to-back in the 9, 1 and 2 spots, respectively… though I think I’d be OK with sending them down to let them try!

That may be being a bit harsh, I know. Tolbert actually got a couple of hits in his return last night, so the Twins certainly didn’t lose that game because of his presence. But as much as we all enjoy Revere’s approach to the game and appreciate the boost he gave the Twins when it was needed most, his performance at the top of the order has been really bad lately.

And then there’s Nishioka.

I am trying, for the life of me, to figure out why he’s still holding down a regular spot in the Twins line up while they are still considering themselves playoff contenders. Manager Ron Gardenhire has, as we all know, been known to stick with “his guys” through thick and thin (and thinner and thinnest), but I don’t recall many guys getting the level of patience Nishi has. Nick Punto, in his worst times, performed better than what we’ve seen this season out of Nishioka.

The man is a ground ball machine. You would think that just the law of averages would mean a few more of those ground balls would find holes in the infield, but they don’t. They aren’t hit hard enough to get through any but the most minute gaps and he’s not the fleetest guy from home to first base, so he’s not beating many of those infield grounders out.

Maybe I’m not seeing what Gardy is, because of everyone on his bench, he’s the last guy I would have moved up to the 2-spot in the batting order when Lexi went on the DL. As a matter of fact, since I’m advocating a “trade” with Rochester for Denard’s services, let me strongly suggest that it be Nishioka who gets sent to the Red Wings in return.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka... good chance he just grounded out.

The quotes from Gardy about this guy are consistently about how they still believe he can be a good ballplayer and they don’t want to destroy his confidence. I get that. It’s admirable. But do they think he’s an idiot and doesn’t see for himself that he’s hitting for sh*t? What’s more demoralizing for a player’s confidence, getting benched or continuously being overmatched by even the most mediocre Major League pitchers?

I keep hearing the excuses… the pitchers throw harder here, the strike zone is different in the US than Japan, he got a “star” level of respect from Japanese umpires and he’s getting “rookie” respect (e.g. none at all) from MLB umpires, his injury set back his learning curve.  blah, blah, blah. I don’t care.

HE’S NOT HITTING THE BASEBALL!

I know the Twins have few other middle infield options. Matt Tolbert is barely replacement level, Trevor Plouffe would make the Jolly Green Giant leap to catch throws from SS, Luke Hughes doesn’t play short, and now Casilla is out of commission. At least Nishi is making the routine defensive plays at shortstop (and a few not-so-routine plays, as well), so I know there’s a case to be made that he’s the best of a bad bunch of options. But as long as we’ve still got a couple of days before the deadline, maybe Bill Smith can find someone with a spare AAA shortstop who occasionally will get the ball out of the infield. If not, I’d probably be fine with letting Tolbert or Plouffe get another shot, rather than continuing to watch Nishi flail away at the plate. It’s just too painful to watch and it has to be even more painful for him to experience.

The Twins are probably not going to get back in contention. I know that. And if they’re ready to throw in the towel, so be it. I can’t really argue against that, at this point. If that’s the case, then yes, let Nishioka keep trying to see, nevermind hit, American League pitching if we no longer care about winning games. Give Denard all the time he might need to get his game back together and be able to contribute 9 innings for 3, 4, 5 days in a row… whatever. Let’s get innings for Hughes, Plouffe and whomever else might warrant an extended look.

But, Bill and Gardy, don’t tell me you’re serious about getting back in to contention when you’ve still got Nishioka in your batting order, much less up near the top of it. It just makes you sound like idiots.

- JC

Let The Trade Rumors Begin: Denard Span

And so it begins.

This afternoon, the Twins hit the rumor wire as word spread that they were talking to the Washington Nationals about a trade involving centerfielder Denard Span.

Denard Span

At first, I thought this had to be some kind of joke. Certainly Bill Smith wouldn’t be looking at the results of the past two series and think, “We seem to have too much offense on this team right now, especially at the top of the order… there’s no way we have room for Denard Span when he’s ready to return.” Would he? Ken Rosenthal at FOX seems to think so.

Is it possible Smith has looked at Ben Revere’s hitting lately and figured he’s just what a contender needs leading off? Yes, the guy is great to have in the outfield, but he’s almost been the worst looking hitter in the Twins’ batting order lately.

Almost.

The worst, of course, has been shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka. I’m 55 years old and I’d be willing to bet I would at least look better swinging lefthanded than Nishi has and I’d have almost as many hits. NONE would be “almost as many” as Nishi’s had lately. In last night’s game wrap-up, I mentioned that if I were the GM, I’d be looking for a shortstop who might sniff at getting a hit occasionally. And therein lies the rub.

The Nationals need a centerfielder and they apparently feel they have an extra middle infielder. Word is, they’re shopping shortstop Ian Desmond and would shift their current second baseman to shortstop in order to make room for a rookie they think is ready to come up to the Big Leagues. (That rookie’s name is Stephen Lombardozzi, by the way… a name that should sound familiar to Twins fans. Yes, he’s the son of THAT Steve Lombardozzi). The Nats also have a couple of right handed relief pitchers that they may be willing to part with.

So… if you got Desmond and a productive reliever for Span, would you make the deal?

Not me.

First of all, if the Twins don’t score more than two runs a game, all the relief pitching in the world won’t help. They need more offense and the most likely way they can get it is to get Span back in the line up and let Revere take over 4th outfielder duties. Second, Desmond’s stats aren’t all that much better, if at all, than Nishioka’s and they certainly are nowhere near Span’s. Rosenthal mentions that Desmond’s .584 OPS is the lowest in the National League… but I guess it’s still better than Nishi’s .544 OPS, right?

I don’t blame the Nationals for wanting to make a deal with Bill Smith. They clearly are fondly recalling the deal they got in return for Matt Capps a year ago and if you’re in their front office, there’s no reason to think you shouldn’t be able to get a favorable return from Bill Smith and the Twins again.

That doesn’t mean Smith has to oblige them.

Ben Revere may be a legitimate full time MLB player some day. Joe Benson could, too. Rene Tosoni has similar potential. Aaron Hicks and Angel Morales? Sure… some day.

Some day, the Twins won’t need Denard Span in their line up. Today is not that day, unless Bill watched the half-assed efforts his guys put forth on the field against the Tigers over the last few games and has decided it’s time to hold a fire sale. In that case, Denard’s name won’t be the only one we see showing up in MLBTradeRumors this week.

- JC

GameChat – Tigers @ Twins #3, 3:10 FOX

So Jason Kubel came back Friday and Scott Baker returns today. It’s about time to end this “can’t beat the Tigers” BS, isn’t it, guys?

Everyone else can beat the kitties so there’s no reason to think the Twins shouldn’t be able to.

Brad Penny’s been pitching well lately for the Tigers even if he hasn’t been getting the Wins to show for it. It’s time for Twins hitters to step up. If  they embarrass themselves today like they did last night, it will be in front of a near-national audience on FOX.

TIGERS

@

TWINS
Dirks, CF Revere, CF
Boesch, LF Casilla, A, 2B
Ordonez, RF Mauer, C
Cabrera, Mi, 1B Cuddyer, 1B
Martinez, V, DH Kubel, DH
Peralta, Jh, SS Valencia, 3B
Guillen, 2B Young, D, LF
Avila, C Plouffe, RF
Kelly, 3B Nishioka, SS
  _Penny, P   _Baker, S, P
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Detroit 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 8 1
Minnesota 1 1 0 2 0 0 0 0 x 4 7 0

That wasn’t exactly the offensive breakout game I’ve been hoping for, but we’re going to just enjoy the win, right?

Getting ahead on the scoreboard early was a nice change and Scott Baker looked pretty damn good to me in his first game back from the DL. He only went five innings but they were a really good five shutout innings.

Danny Valencia launched a solo shot and Delmon Young had a nice two-run double. Joe Nathan slammed the door shut and Phil Dumatrait threw a scoreless inning of relief, as well.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka was the only Twins hitter with more than one hit, collecting two singles (though neither figured directly in the scoring). But his biggest contribution was in the field. He ran down three flares in shallow left field, a couple of them very nice plays in critical situations. In addition, Glen Perkins not only pitched a scoreless inning of relief, but struck out Ordonez and Cabrera back-to-back to cap his work. For those performances, Nishi and Perk are our co-BODs today!

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Glen Perkins

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