Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.
The Twins sent their season-ticket holders an email earlier this week. The first paragraph read:
As the Minnesota Twins look to develop strategies that will shape future initiatives for our organization and brand, we’re looking for the feedback from our most valued fans. With season ticket holders being at the top of the list, we invite you to participate in an exclusive focus group session!
I offered the Twins my services on this one, but was turned down -- and quite appropriately -- one question into their check-me-out phone call because I work for one of the types of companies they don't want in the room.
The mosaic of Twins fans is made up of more than season-ticket holders, right? You can be a fan and be so miffed about things that you haven't attended a game since the first of the recent 90-loss seasons. Or you can be a fan who attends dozens of games per year by finding cheap tickets on the web. (My personal best is getting into the Legends Club for $17, by the way.)
I don't think you have to be a season-ticket holder to be important. If you know me, you know I'm not big on exclusive sessions, anyway.
So I'm convening the Section 219 Focus Mob right here. Use the comments section below to tell the Twins what you think, and react (respectfully, please) to other people's comments.
Here are a few (very general) rules that I'd like us to abide by:
1. No personal attacks. Criticize the performance ... the idea ... the whatever. Do better than "he's a jerk." I'm gonna have my finger on the bad-taste trigger.
2. Be reasonable. Joe Mauer isn't going to be released and he has a full no-trade clause. Serious to me would be a suggestion that he move to an outfield spot if you think Kennys Vargas should play first base. Serious to me would be that the Pohlads go after the highest-profile of the free agent pitchers this winter because, sometimes, throwing money at a problem can help -- and Twins ownership has money. I have a very inclusive view of what's reasonable.
3. Try not to write a novel. If you want to share a lot, send me an email. Those have a way of showing up on the blog from time to time, and could become a guest post.
4. Best comment (as judged by me 'n' me alone) gets my tickets for a game in September. I'll even give you a couple of choices. (No, second prize isn't two games in September -- but thanks for asking.)
As the Twins said in their Focus Group letter: Your time is deeply appreciated!
Have at it.
I will be as direct as possible here.
When I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I said that if Ron Gardenhire could keep the Twins together and finish the season in a way that showed some improvement over the last three seasons of almost 100-losses apiece, I’d like to see him get a shot at managing the 2015 Twins.
Based on the first eight games of the post-All Star home stand, I can’t see that improvement happening. The Twins have stumbled to a couple of victories and bumbled their way to a half-dozen defeats during a stretch of games that could have kept them relevant.
None were against teams with the eight best records in the American League. In other words, the players who were making pleas to keep the roster together for the season’s final months, couldn’t back up their talk with any kind of action in games against flawed opponents.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Words have become hollow at Target Field. And with other distractions coming along – Vikings training camp, Gophers football starting soon, the Lynx and Minnesota United chasing titles in basketball and soccer, even your local high school teams – anything that comes from Target Field will be increasingly ignored.
I went to the Lynx game Friday night and didn’t even bother checking on the Twins afterward. Twitter told me everything I needed to know. Later, I walked by the game replay on FSNorth and saw Kevin Correia's best toss of the night, when he hurled his chewing gum after a grooved pitch that Chicago's Jose Abreu smashed for a three-run homer in the first inning.
I’m not going to judge whether the best of the young pitchers should be called up soon instead of being targeted for 2015. What I do know is that I’d have a hard time justifying exposing any kind of promising young talent to what’s going on with the Twins right now. There’s too much bad out there. Let Yohan Pino be exposed to that instead of Alex Meyer.
Let Parmelee, Fuld, Fryer, Colabello and the other borderline major leaguers finish out this season and start fresh without them (and some others) in 2015. That must be ownership’s commitment to fans who have been sickened into apathy by the last four seasons. Just saying "losing sucks," a Jim Pohlad line from a couple of years back, doesn't win anything except wondering if he really means it.
A fresh start includes hiring a new manager.
In addition to not being very good, the Twins over and over again are showing that they’re not very baseball smart. I saw it in Wednesday’s victory when Brian Dozier, who is usually better than that, shoveled a gloved-hand throw over the first baseman’s head on a play he had no business even trying. I’ve also seen it in grooved pitches and taken pitches and poorly focused at-bats and base-running mistakes. You can get by with some suspect players if their mental game props up their physical limitations, but second-tier players making beer league choices equals no hope.
The endless loop of mental mistakes, which hasn’t improved as players have gotten more experience, is on the manager and his coaching staff. When I teach my college students, there are times when the repeated mistakes of a student wear me down to where I don’t see them. So if Gardy is worn down by what he keeps seeing, I get it.
Gardy has been given his chances to make things better – and his successes before 2011 earned him bonus chances that wouldn’t have been given to others. It hasn’t worked. If he gets a job managing elsewhere, which many of his supporters contend would happen, so be it.
That’s not a reason for keeping him.
I don’t know if Twins management has fully accepted the level of casual mocking that their team gets. It’s not just the always-angry on social media. It’s the people I know who have stopped going to games and those who are questioning whether to keep buying tickets – whether it’s to single games or season packages. Without the All-Star Game as incentive and with another sorry season concluding, many people aren’t going to keep buying in without an overhaul.
I asked around on Twitter for people to share their thoughts about the Twins.
There was this:
@afansview I hate to say this as a fan, but at this point I'm almost rooting for them to lose just to drive the point home to the Pohlads...— Matt Krier (@matthewkrier) July 26, 2014
@afansview The Twins are making me look forward to the NFL exhibition games.....— Big Steve (@darbywisdom) July 26, 2014
@afansview - I don't think it will hit the front office like it has is fans until it hurt them where it matters most- their pocket books.— Ex Twins News (@Ex_Twins_News) July 26, 2014
@afansview no apathy here. Frustration at about 8. Mix of feeling cursed due to injuries, and tired of seeing more AAA filler for 4th year.— Matt Kummer (@mattkummer) July 26, 2014
There's more, which you can find on my feed.
And there was this, from an email by Twins fan Max Athorn, who wanted to go beyond 140 characters to address stuff:
"This season, for some reason that I am still not entirely sure, I have actually paid closer attention to them than I have during the last three awful years. I have paid attention to the roster moves, read the blogs, read the scouting reports, and watched the brutally uncompetitive 3-1 losses (that are way different from the occasionally competitive 3-1 losses). I love the Twins, and to that end, I love these Twins just as much as I've loved any Twins in the thirty years I've lived. But now, as things just seemingly refuse to get any better or worse, to such a bizarre degree that they are just simply the same-ol' same, I have been more inclined to re-evaluate my position."
Among the follies of this season was starting out in spring training believing that Pedro Florimon would be the starting shortstop; Aaron Hicks was ready for center field (without any kind of serious Plan B; Danny Santana has been a lucky stopgap that spared us another Darin Mastroianni-type); the pitching staff would be better, and a couple of returnees named Jason would help with their experience. That’s not hitless in four tries.
That’s four strikeouts on 12 pitches.
It doesn’t matter if I thought Hicks was ready, Florimon would be fine or Jason Kubel and/or Jason Bartlett could play a role. It was the organization’s call and it failed miserably. Perhaps the surprise of 2014 should be that the Twins didn’t become ignorable more quickly. But giving Gardy and his staff credit for that is a C-minus paper in a year of failing work. It’s not enough to pass. Because Terry Ryan was out of the general manager’s office at the time fighting his cancer battle, it was even more important for the field staff to fight for the right moves during spring training.
Here's more from fan Max Athorn's email:
"As the weeks and months of mediocrity in Minneapolis drag on, there is one thing that we have learned that Ron Gardenhire is NOT: He's not an innovator. He can't pull any tricks that he hasn't already pulled. He has no secret weapons and no master plan. Finally, a couple of days ago, I realized where it stands for me: I feel the same way about Ron Gardenhire as the Twins feel about Matt Guerrier.
"The Twins loved Matt Guerrier, and I think most Twins fans understood why. This past week, though, it became clear that Matt Guerrier just didn't represent the same stability and success that he once did.
"My favorite part about the Twins broadcasts are Ron Gardenhire's press conferences. (Let that set in for a minute!) Actually, I truly enjoy watching him. I think he's funny, I think he's thoughtful, I think he's empathetic and articulate and I think he knows a lot about baseball. I like that he's a little erratic, and I like that he's curmudgeonly; I like his loyalty to his pitching coach and his most hard-working players. I like everything that I know about him.
"The Twins' failure is not Ron Gardenhire's fault. But it becomes increasingly clear to me, that the next time the Twins are riding a September winning streak into the playoffs, it won't be because of Ron Gardenhire."
Gardy’s contract runs through next season, so there would be a year of severance for him as a reward for the better times. That’s fine with me. I don’t know whether the next manager is sitting in the Twins’ dugout, another team’s dugout or a broadcast booth. I do know that I can’t imagine a scene in which Gardy returns and the team has any credibility with many, many of its fans.
It’s time for a change. I’ve been cautious in reaching that conclusion -- frustratingly so to some of you, I know – but I think that gives my conclusion extra weight.
We're halfway into the baseball season and this is what's certain:
(1) The Twins aren't good enough right now to be postseason contenders. The ugly combination of inconsistency on the field, some bad decisions off the field and yet another run of injuries has pretty much done them in. I tried building a case for being on the fringe of postseason contention earlier this season, but I'm done pretending about that.
(2) The "pace" you're on in baseball means nothing. The Twins' record at this point in 2014 is within a couple of games of where it was in the last three miserable seasons, when the only end-of-year question was whether they would lose 100. This team could lose 85 games and grab on to that as a positive ... or threaten yet again to lose 100. Neither would be a surprise.
(3) Because we've been focused on so many others things: Joe Mauer's lack of production, the Aaron Hicks silliness, some horrible roster management and an outfield defense that is second-to-everyone, we haven't focused on yet another season of injuries that has turned the job of managing the Twins into more of a chore than simply making the most of a bad ball club.
That last thing is what I'm talking about here.
The list of players who have missed time for one reason or another is pretty much a list of the players who make up the team: Joe Mauer at first base (now for the second time), Brian Dozier and his stiff back at second, Danny Santana and the mysterious bone bruise at shortstop and center field, Trevor Plouffe and his rib cage at third; Josh Willingham and his wrist in left; Aaron Hicks and his shoulder and psyche in center, Oswaldo Arcia and his wrist (and extended April recovery time) in right.
I'm leaving out pitcher Mike Pelfrey. He just doesn't count in the current scheme or things -- and quite likely in any future scheme for the Twins.
It's like the Passover story out there, a full-fledged plague of game-missing injuries that has spared only Kurt Suzuki, whose addition to the roster was pretty much scorned and whose solid play has been desperately needed during the first half of the season. When you watch the Twins, it looks like Suzuki gets hurt more than any other two players combined, but he hasn't yet cashed in an injury card while (so far, at least) while putting up better offensive statistics than at any time in his career.
Where am I going with this?
About this time last year, I was pretty much thinking that Ron Gardenhire's time with the Twins was done. His past work with the Twins was being done in by a hopeless looking roster filled with guys who were the return of trades made at the wrong time or forays through baseball's unemployment line. You know, the Alex Presleys, Pedro Hernandezes and Clete Thomases of the game. There was a resigned tone to Gardy's lineups, his demeanor and often to the way his team played.
That's what has been different about 2014, which has been a season where much of what counts as success has been fueled by out-of-the-box moves.
We can rightfully make fun of the Jasons (Kubel and Bartlett), but that resulted in running with Chris Colabello for as long as possible, a player who had no more reason to succeed, even if for a short time, than Kubel. (The Kendrys Morales signing has much of that action moot, as long as the Twins manage to make Morales a part of their future.)
We can wonder what's up with Hicks -- all the more with Byron Buxton in the future -- but choosing Danny Santana to be the center field option was a pretty sweet call. Gardy was quick enough to pull the plug on pretending that Eduardo Escobar was an outfield fit, but found that Eduardo Nunez can play out there when needed. And how much of a risk was it really to try Chris Parmelee in center field when your outfield is already the worst in the majors? Throw him out there and see if the ball sticks in his glove.
We can lose our focus on the team by talking about Mauer, but we're not going to do that here. He was having a wretched season until a couple of weeks ago, then started hitting at a Mauer-like pace and now he's out until after the All-Star break. But Mauer's health issues and lack of offense made it more vital that some of the things Gardy has been forced to try actually worked out.
So if you'd like, you can add a dollop of snarkiness to the season by counting down to Gardy's 1,000th career loss or scan the dugout and beg for a replacement, but I'm not going to join you there. My takeaway at the halfway point of this season is that Gardy has done a good job with the hands he's been asked to play -- surviving 7/2s from the dealer at the poker table and too many 16s at the blackjack table.
Yeah, I guess you could call it battling his managerial tail off.
The challenge for the rest of the season is to make sure the Twins stay at something close to their current pace instead of going on another skid toward toward 100 defeats. If he can do that, I want Gardy to have the chance to run this team when it becomes as good as we expect it to become.
I don't think anyone was expecting the Kendrys Morales news, and that's a gold star for a Twins front office that has so far this season given reasons to feel it wasn't up to figure out how to make the team better.
Adding a switch-hitting, power-hitting, cleanup-hitting potential fixture to the roster has good ramifications for both the short term and the long term.
In the short term, it means roster juggling can take place without having Gardy worry about which mediocrity he'll be forced to use in a day's lineup. One piece already played out Sunday morning when the official announcement of the Morales deal allowed the Twins to rid themselves of overmatched Jason Kubel, whose struggles this spring were sad to watch. Another can happen when Sam Fuld returns and the Twins can move Aaron Hicks to the minors to work on his right-handed-only batting.
Between Fuld and Danny Santana, the Twins can get by just fine in center field in the short term. And maybe Hicks will be in position to help the team next season -- not to mention having an inside track on left field when the Byron Buxton era eventually begins. And I won't be surprised if Santana gets more time at shortstop.
In the longer term, providing the Twins keep Morales, it prepares the Twins for life without Josh Willingham in 2015. Morales is the DH -- could spell Joe Mauer at first base. As excited as you may be about what the addition says about 2014, it will feel a bit hollow if Morales goes elsewhere after this season -- unless he pulls a Jack Morris and is remembered for Game 7 World Series heroics on his way out. (No, I'm not holding my breath.)
Yes, this cuts into the idea of Josmil Pinto's offensive presence as a designated hitter. (I know he has the same number of extra-base hits as Joe Mauer in 98 fewer plate appearances**) But I'm reasonably certain the only way to maintain Kurt Suzuki's unexpected impact over the rest of the season is for him to catch fewer games. I could see a 60/40 split between Suzuki and Pinto as time goes on, or even closer to 50/50. I also buy the position that, as a catcher, Pinto is learning even when he isn't playing.
Many of us may have forgotten this as we've watched the Twins slide, but good teams have depth. Josmil Pinto > Chris Herrmann; Danny Santana > Darin Mastroianni + Alex Presley + Pedro Florimon.
And I'll give the Twins credit for one more thing right now. The willingness to sign Morales makes you intrigued about what they may do next week, next month or beyond. There are nine teams within 3 1/2 games of the two American League wild-card spots. I've written, enough times to bore you in the last couple of seasons, that the Twins failed their fans and themselves by not bringing in players who could put the team in a competitive position while waiting for the ones who are expected to make 'em really good.
I'm seeing that change.
The signings of Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco (even taking into account Nolasco's struggles so far) and Suzuki, combined with the Morales addition, gives reason to believe that Minnesota is being seen by players as a place to come after the talent migration that started with Michael Cuddyer and some of the others after Target Field opened. If that's true, it's nothing but good.
(**Gratuitous Mauer mention in the spirit of the years of gratuitous Nick Punto mentions here and elsewhere over the years. You can also do this: Willie Mays at age 31: .315/.390/.585; Joe Mauer at age 31: .320/.402/.462.)
I have pretty much done my best to stay out of the Joe Mauer discussions, which is a polite term for much of what I’ve heard and read, because so much of it runs counter to what I value as a fan, a media member and a neighbor. A few weeks ago, I had some fun comparing Mauer’s production at the time to that of the legend Nick Punto and it set off people in all kinds of ways.
Joe Mauer is having a mediocre year. You know it, he knows it, your co-worker who searches for truth by watching nothing but al-Jazeera and FOX News knows it. Whether it means that he’s started a career decline at age 31 or this is a big bump in his career, we’ll eventually find out. What do I think? I don’t know.
What I do wonder about is how Mauer would be remembered if his career was pretty much done at age 32 in a manner similar to Tony Oliva, who went from one of the game’s best outfielders to just-another-starter (at DH, no less) for the final few years of his career because of the knee injuries that wrecked his game. Have Mauer’s injuries taken a gradual toll much less dramatic but just as problematic as what happened to Oliva? I don’t know.
Or what would happen if Mauer’s career disappeared without warning, as it did with Kirby Puckett at age 35 because of glaucoma? Would Puckett’s legacy have been changed for some people if he’d been able to return from the fastball-to-the-face that he took in the last plate appearance of his career, but was never again capable of the play that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer? I don’t know.
Was the prevailing wisdom that Justin Morneau was done because his play ranged from mediocre to pretty good in the three years after his concussion? Yes, you and I both know the answer to that one. And as well as Morneau is playing right now, his statistics aren’t as good as in any of the seasons from 2006-10, when he was the league's MVP, an All-Star or both.
I don’t know what’s ahead for Mauer. I do know that trying to find silver linings in this season is as ridiculous as using this season to say that he’ll never return to his previous form. I’ve heard a half-dozen theories of what Mauer should do, ranging from the insightful Dan Gladden to insight-impaired talk show participants who make me hit the radio button that takes me to old-school Hip Hop.
It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.
I’ve watched the comparisons of Mauer at age 31 to Puckett and Derek Jeter at age 31 – and I’m pretty sure those are intended to enrage the debaters more than to advance the discussion. I failed my purity test this week by comparing Mauer to the legendary ex-Twins catcher Corky Miller at age 31. In case you’re wondering and don’t want to look it up, Mauer does well in all three comparisons.
All of the Mauer battling takes away from something more interesting, and more in line with enjoying what’s happening rather than picking apart players and each other:
For all of their shortcomings, the Twins will be a .500 team more than one-third of the way into the season if they beat Milwaukee again tonight. I was among those who were convinced that 2014 could easily be the worst of the bad seasons, so being this OK is a pretty good diversion. All the more because some pretty rotten things were done with roster management, much of it revolving around outfield depth and players named Jason.
Focusing entirely on that discounts the moves that have so far turned out to be well executed and a season that’s been better than expected.
If I’m going to carry around any distress about what’s going on, it’ll happen when I look in the Milwaukee outfield and see Carlos Gomez … and in Baltimore’s infield and see J.J. Hardy … and on the roster of all-time Twins and see Jim Hoey. I’m working on getting over it, but that’s not easy.
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