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 couldn't have been as bad as they were during last week's sweep by Oakland, which rightfully caused alarm about whether the 2014 season was spiraling downward in a hurry.
The Twins likely aren't as good as they were last weekend, when they combined excellent starting pitching, some good hitting and a minimum of mistakes to sweep Kansas City, a team that has yet to find its hitting stride and exhibited some buffoonery in the field.
As one of my Twitterpals put it:
@afansview Well the beatings did continue this weekend.....:)— Rob Lien (@rlien33) April 14, 2014
Yes, they did, just with the roles reversed.
So now we're left to wonder what the settling point will be for the Twins in a season that, throughout the American League, has done nothing to shake itself out in the first couple of weeks. Oakland is the only team more than two games above .500, and nine of the 15 teams are at .500 or within one game either way. This has not been the season of the hot start, or the dreadful one, for the Twins and their rivals.
I won't tell you anything new here: The Twins' starting pitching should be better, the offense should be more functional than it was during the worrisome days of spring training, when it even had Ron Gardenhire and Rob Antony wondering what was up. (Remember that when you hear all the pronouncements now about how spring training doesn't mean much in its winding-down weeks.)
Here's my quick list of things to follow for now, a list open to your additions:
How long with the Twins stay with Mike Pelfrey if he continues his 2013 form? If the rest of the starting pitching is functional or better, I hope the Twins won't let Pelfrey get battered every fifth day if continues to struggle. He could swap spots with Samuel Deduno, or create the opening for Alex Meyer, who has been solid for Rochester in his first two starts. Two bad outing is no time to make that judgment. But another month of struggles would be cause for flipping that switch.
Pedro Florimon at shortstop. I'm a bit puzzled by the rush to judgment on Florimon, especially with the prospect of the mediocre-fielding Eduardo Nunez being raised as the alternative. There should be enough offense in the Twins lineup to tolerate a weak bat in the No. 9 spot, especially if Florimon plays the slick defense that is the major part of his game. A pitch-to-contact staff needs all the help in can get in the field, within reason -- and Florimon has reason to be out there for his glove alone.
What happens when Willingham and Arcia return? I don't know the answer to this one. What happens when the Twins have their full complement of heavy bats-and-suspect gloves at their disposal? That's going to be a daily puzzle for Gardy, and one for which he'll be second-guessed no matter what he decides. That's not a bad thing, and it's better than not having any options.
Jason Bartlett. Still don't understand it.
Gardy's weekend leave. If you have an issue with the manager leaving for the weekend to attend the funeral of umpire John Hirschbeck's son, that's your problem. It's not up for debate here.
That's my list. For a bit more, check out Michael Rand's video about five pleasant early-season surprises for the Twins.
Stay warm out there.
The optimism of a few days ago, sparked partly by the 3-3 road trip in the first week of the season and partly for no better reason that the Home Opener can bring on that kind of behavior, was replaced with the thump-thump-thump of the low-profile but high-achieving Oakland Athletics sweeping the Twins. One of the games was close, but even in that one the Twins were behind 4-0 before they got a chance to hit.
Mike Pelfrey -- whose name was misspelled "Pelfry" on the scoreboard during pregame introductions -- didn't bother in his second start with a few good innings before falling apart. On offense, the Twins called it a day remarkably quickly. Three of the first seven batters got hits; none of the next 25 did. The Athletics were dominant again, and the score would have been even more lopsided save for a baserunning flub by Nick Punto (Imagine that!) while they were expanding their lead in the sixth.
All of this was played out in front of the smallest crowd ever to show up at Target Field. It was announced at 20,650 and the out-migration started early. A Timberwolves assistant coach sitting a couple of trows in front of us left his seat in the fourth inning and never reappeared. Our seats, behind home plate and nine rows up, were grabbed off the Internet for $13 each, all fees included.
Oakland is a team of a few excellent positions players, a bunch of good pitchers and a batch of interchangeable parts. Sam Fuld, an undistinguished outfielder, hit the seventh home run of his seven-year career off Big Pelf. Punto, on his fourth team in four years since leaving the Twins, had reached base four times in 14 times up this season before reaching three times out of four on Thursday. Oakland put 18 runners on base, which meant they pretty much couldn't help but score six runs.
On the Twins side, some things evened out and some didn't. Chris Colabello ended the series with the same 11 RBI that he started with after going hitless in 13 at-bats. Twins starting pitchers have a combined 6.89 ERA through the first nine games. Take away Kyle Gibson's start (1 earned run but only 5 innings) and the other four have a combined 7.50. Darin Mastroianni was called up (finally) after the Willingham, Arcia and Bartlett injuries from that road trip and pretty much by default was placed in the leadoff spot. Joe Mauer is still on pace to drive in zero runs.
We are nine games into the season and the Twins have played only one -- Gibson's victory at Cleveland last weekend -- in which the team can take any sort of pride. The other two victories were outlasting jobs that looked more like a night in New Britain than a day in the big leagues.
The best rationale for saying that things will get better is that they can't really get much worse.
Already, the chatter among those who chatter with me is whether the 2014 Twins will finish with a worse record than the teams of the last three years. Does 3-and-6 through nine games become 54-and-108 through 162? Basically, a team that pretty much failed at improving itself in the winter has played failing-grade baseball through the first 10 or so days of the season. And if things remain the same -- on the field and off -- how can a reasonable person expect the Twins to have better success at attracting the needed talent for '15 and beyond?
Someone e-mailed me after the game, a person whose name you might know if you follow business and education issues: "Wow, a disaster is unfolding before our eyes."
There's a verse in the New Testament that describes the Twins right now. It's about reaping what you sow. Galatians 6:7. You can look it up.
I think I can say this will the credibility of someone who has told you what I really think about the Twins: The home opener is a day to suspend belief and just enjoy the festivities, in addition to as much excitement as we can muster.
The Twins are turning home after a 3-3 road trip, which is probably two games better than some thought after the Friday meltdown in Cleveland. The sour note of the .500 start is that none of the games have been the sharply played sort that the Twins will need to exceed whatever expectations you've set for them.
But we'll get back to that another day if we need to.
Today is for celebrating the first-week thrills of Chris Colabello, who turned down good money to play in Korea for one more chance at the majors. Most of us had him pegged as a fill-in at the end of the bench even if he made the club, but Gardy will now have a hard time keeping him out of the lineup. It's also a day to laud Trevor Plouffe and wonder if he can continue his new look and early success, which has included him finding a solid stroke to the opposite field instead of the pull-or-nothing approach that had people anxious about when the injured rookie Miguel Sano would be ready to push him aside.
Today I'm closing my eyes to the Jason Bartlett silliness and not thinking about Ricky Nolasco's first two starts.
Everyone has their own things to add to the list of good that comes with the opener. Mine includes the after-market tickets near home plate that we found for $25 below face value ... temperatures that are supposed to be in the mid-50s ... and the hope that enough pieces of our discontent will be unfounded so that we'll have reason to keep going back to Target Field without having to feel sheepish..
I get the frustration with the Twins, count myself among the frustrated and feel fortunate to have this platform for us to share the bad and the good.
Today, I'm choosing to share hope. Enjoy the day.
Here's the starting point: Anyone who cares about the Twins want things to be better, unless you're the person who watches NASCAR only for the crashes or hockey only for the fights. No matter the level of suspicion that we brought to the first week of the season, fans wanted to start building a case that enough things would be better to compensate for the areas that are still lacking.
Watching Chris Colabello bring home seven runs in Thursday's and Friday's games is that kind of salve.
But I'm hard pressed through this first weekday of games to give you anything beyond that Exhibit A, and I have little for you to counter the argument that Friday's loss in Cleveland was a return to the same old same old. The "best" thing that happened was the game being delayed long enough by weather that I could give it a thorough viewing.
Here we go:
*Twins take a 2-0 lead and blow a chance to expand it when Joe Vavra, the third-base coach, made the horrific decision to send home Kurt Suzuki on Brian Dozier's two-out single to left in the second inning. Cleveland's left fielder had the ball as Suzuki reached third base. The bad judgment ended the inning instead of giving Joe Mauer a chance to bat with the bases loaded.
*No hitting in clutch situations. The Twins loaded the bases with one out in the fifth, when they were still ahead 2-0, and failed to score. Down 7-2, they had runners on second and third with one out in the eighth and again didn't score. Dozier's hit mentioned above was the only one Friday with runners in scoring position.
*In the sixth, Suzuki struck out on an awful swing (on a 3-and-2 pitch) that resulted in a double play when Oswaldo Arcia was easily thrown out at second. Suzuki has done more than his share of heavy lifting on offense through these first four games, which makes it even more painful to bring up that single shortcoming. But it was flat-out glaring.
*Here's a statistic: Colabello, Suzuki and Trevor Plouffe have 18 hits through four games. The rest of the team has 19. Those three have a combined .419 average; everyone else is a combined .181. Without naming names, "everyone else" includes the guys who are supposed to carry the offense. (This also is my first chance in 2014 to use the phrase "small sample size," but I'm citing this to show only that the Twins are getting a chunk of offense from some unexpected sources.)
*It's only one start, but the Mike Pelfrey of 2014 didn't inspire much confidence with his sudden meltdown in the sixth. He retired 12 straight, battled through the fifth and then melted down in the sixth -- exiting after giving up two home runs and three walks, not to mention giving up the lead. The bullpen didn't bail him out.
*Bert Blyleven rightfully called out the defense for misplaying a rundown in the fifth inning that allowed the batter to reach second base on a grounder to Pelfrey. No harm came from the misplay, but it did nothing for any notion that the Twins are improved at basic things you need to do well to compensate for the things you don't.
*Another reminder of 2013: The Twins struck out 11 times.
Most of the numbers with certainly right themselves. Joe Mauer won't hit .125 with a .263 on-base percentage and the bullpen won't yield an earned run per inning (13 ER in 13 1/3 innings, so far). But neither is Colabello going to get extra bases in two of every three hits or Plouffe and Suzuki have an OPS (on base-plus-slugging percentage) north of 1.000.
The issue will become whether that evening-out process will result in something better than what we've been seeing for the last few years. I really want to build you a case for optimism. But if you've read this far, you'd be too smart to buy it.
Maybe we can try again in a couple of weeks.
The Twins regular season starts on Monday in Chicago and the excitement is underwhelming. I can tell you what I think, but my question to you is whether there's been a year when the start of the Twins season has been met with the amount of dread or apathy or whatever it is I've been sensing?
When I checked the Twins' web site this morning for Home Opener tickets, you could buy a pair 13 rows up -- in the section behind the Champions Club -- and pretty much right behind home plate. In other words, we're even further past the period when people will come to Target Field just because ownership (and the taxpayers) built it.
Even management is sounding more than a bit like frustrated fans -- or bloggers, even. Assistant general manager Rob Antony told Phil Miller in today's paper: "Who's had a great spring, of the position guys? I mean, has anybody really impressed? I read some of the clips on other teams: 'Guy hits his fifth homer of the spring.' We usually have a guy who does some of that too. We've been awfully quiet."
For context, Antony said he believes things will be better when the nine starters are on the field for nine innings. But based on last season's anemic statistics and the total lack of significant changes made to the offense, Antony is believing in something he hasn't seen. I can do that with a Higher Power, but not with the kind of power Antony is hoping to see.
The Twins have scored 23 runs in their last 10 games -- games when the regular-season roster is starting to take shape and regulars are getting more playing time. I wish I could offer you something to grab on to right now, but if that's the best Antony can do, I can't do any better.
Wait, here's one! Joe Mauer is batting 81 points higher than the departed Justin Morneau is with Colorado. Of course, they're tied in home runs (zero). Seriously, even taking into account anything that resembles power and the game-losing fumble he made at first base on Wednesday, Mauer is one of the few things I'm not worried about. If I turn out to be wrong on that, the 162 games will either drag on forever if you're still paying attention, or fly by if you choose to ignore them.
Those who care about the Twins should dread that the arc of their season will imitate that of the Timberwolves: Hope at the start while fans were watching for something better than they'd seen in recent years, followed by game after game that become easier and easier to ignore.
I haven't watched every inning this spring -- far from it -- but my eyes (and the eyes of others who have watched more closely) haven't seen anything that foreshadows a return to when the Twins were known for doing things the right way. I feel like every time I watch for a couple of innings, Jason Bartlett (3 for 35) or Josh Willingham (2 for 36) is making an out. I am puzzled over the debate over who should fill the last few spots on the roster, knowing that none of the candidates would be taken seriously on a team with serious expectations.
Bartlett vs. Escobar? Parmelee here and Herrmann in the minors? Spare me. The inability to upgrade the offense is a giant fail for the front office.
I'm hopeful but that I'm wrong about some of this. Bearing gloom is something I don't enjoy. But I don't want to hear Dick'n'Bert, Danny'n'Cory and the others talking "the fine work of the starting rotation that doesn't show up in the win-loss records." Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes and other others could have fine seasons based on many metrics-- and still lose twice as many as they win if the offense continues to rot.
So is this going to be another season when even more people shrug their shoulders at mention of the Twins, another season that will fall short of putting a competent team on the field? Can you build a case for hope in 2014?
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