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.
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.
If you took the time to watch some of Sunday's San Francisco beatdown on the Twins, you probably heard the statistic that Ricky Nolasco was 4-1 with a 2.55 ERA in his six previous career starts at AT&T Park.
There were also a couple of mentions about how some of the Giants had really, really good success against Nolasco during their careers.
Small-sample size meets small-sample size.
So let's throw a third one into the mix that helps explain how SSS1 and SSS2 were both true.
In three starts against the Giants last season, one for Miami and two for the Dodgers, Nolasco gave up 24 hits and 6 walks in 12 2/3 innings. That's a 2.37 WHIP (walk 'n' hits per inning) and resulted in a 9.95 ERA.
In that context, against many of the same batters, Sunday's pummeling made much more sense. Now, Nolasco has an 11.95 ERA and a 2.30 WHIP against the Giants in their last four meet-ups.
Keep that in mind when the Giants and Twins meet in the World Series, OK?
And if people tell you that today's pitcher, Kevin Correia (whose 6.52 ERA this season is even higher than Nolasco's 6.12), gave up only one earned run to Texas in 15 innings last season, they're not lying.
We now resume our Memorial Day weekend. Enjoy and remember.
It was June 1, 2011 when Trevor Plouffe killed a rally by striking out against Al Alburquerque during a Twins-Tigers game in Detroit. I remember Dan Gladden being especially cranky about the at-bat on the radio and Plouffe was exiled to the minors the next day. I wrote something unkind enough about Plouffe to receive a nasty email from one of his biggest fans – the kind of thing that happens when you tell people what you think and they reply in kind.
Since then, Plouffe’s career with the Twins has careened between being quite good (the home run surge of 2012) and suspect enough that he entered this season viewed by many as the placeholder at third base until Miguel Sano became major-league ready.
Plouffe is messing with that plan.
Just as important is that Plouffe’s play speaks well about what is happening with the Twins right now, a team that could really be better than we thought it would be. In addition to playing better than before – at the plate and in the field – Plouffe is playing with an understated confidence that hasn’t been present in the Twins’ dugout.
To me, one of the most distressing parts of watching the Twins over the last couple of years – in addition to simply following a bad team – was watching some of the giddy over-the-top celebrations when things happened to go well. There were buckets of sports drink dumped on players (and broadcasters) during postgame interviews that made it look like they were celebrating a meaningful victory instead of just a rare one. A walk-off hit? Let’s rip buttons off the hero’s jersey. It was pretty lame stuff, and many of the participants in that silliness no longer have Twins jerseys to rip.
I like a public display of emotion as much as anyone when it’s warranted. But it’s a lot more satisfying to me when I watch a game like Wednesday’s 2-0 victory at San Diego -- in which Plouffe hit a massive home run -- and the team comes off the field after the game with smiles, fist bumps and a few hugs. As a rule, I like it when fans get excited and players act with a happy calm that implies, “That’s what I do.” That beats overexcited players celebrating and a fan base in sarcastic-and-cynical mode.
Plouffe is playing like a guy who expects to be successful. His defense is better at third base and there’s an assortment of flattering offensive stats. He’s has a .432 on-base percentage this season when he’s ahead in the count or even – and he’s been ahead or even so far in more than three out of four 2014 plate appearances. He leads the American League in doubles and he should have more walks by the All-Star break than he had all last season. The numbers are good despite an 0-for-20 slump earlier this month, most of which coming during the ugly series in Cleveland when there was no time off for anyone healthy enough to play. (I’ve crunched other numbers, but my intent here is not to make your eyes glaze over.)
What’s the lesson here? It can take time and frustration before a player brings his game to the point where he’s much more of an asset than a liability. It took Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer – to name three – more time to break through than we like to recall. And you know you had doubts about Brian Dozier, right? Do you still?
And that doesn’t mean it will automatically happen with the others. Aaron Hicks? Oswaldo Arcia? The young pitchers being groomed in Rochester? Byron Buxton and Sano when their time comes?
None of this is meant to excuse the rosters over the last couple of years that included too many guys for whom there was little if any hope. You know who they were. Watching too many players try to develop at the same time means you’re probably watching a pretty bad team. But when things start to get sorted out, the ones who succeed after their struggles should be a source of great satisfaction – and maybe a little sheepishness for those of us who were looking to replace them too quickly.
If Trevor Plouffe keeps this up, maybe Miguel Sano will have to learn how to play the outfield.
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