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 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?
When a season blows up, as another Twins season is doing, one of the consolations should be the final few weeks of the season when some of the new guys get a chance to make names for themselves, and maybe improve their chances to have an impact in the following seasons. It can be fun to watch.
The current group of Twins isn’t even affording their fans much of that opportunity, mostly stumbling through a 10-game home stand in which they managed to get outscored by 37 runs. If you watched for any length of them, you were likely to see players throwing to the wrong base, giving half-hearted renditions of the little things (like backing up their teammates in the field) and continuing a season of cluelessness at the plate.
The other night, following a particularly substantial mental lapse in the infield, Kevin Correia threw his arms in the air like a substitute teacher wondering what he has to do to keep control of his youngsters.
There’s simply nothing to see here.
The glimmers, like Josmil Pinto’s game-changing home run Sunday afternoon, have simply been overwhelmed by all that’s been done wrong. Dick ‘n’ Bert have been unnaturally owly when I’ve caught them; Dan Gladden is a good radio guide for explaining the difference between what’s happening on the field and what should be happening.
The Twins aren’t even living up to the silly cliché of trying to be a spoiler for the teams they’re playing that do have a shot at the postseason. Gardy made that point, especially about the lack of hunger on display during Saturday night's shutout loss to Tampa Bay.
“This is an opportunity for these guys,” he said on his ESPN1500 radio show Sunday morning.
This post isn’t about suggestions for what to do. If five of us put forth our top five ideas, then we’d get tangled up in debating which ones should be at the top of the list. That’s not the point. If you want to know what I think, read this post.
Jim Pohlad acknowledged his embarrassment to a local columnist last week, and a Star Tribune letter writer – the thoughtful minor-league blogger Andrew Walter -- wondered the other day: “I’m curious to find out for how many years the organization can field a pathetic product using the mantra, ‘Target Field offers one of the best fan experiences in all of professional sports.’ “
I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know this: Two of my friends who operate the Section 219 ticket cartel sent around emails last week. They’re done. One wrote: “I have always said that watching baseball is ‘an exquisite waste of time,’ but if none of the play is exquisite -- and the Twins even drag down their opponents -- then it is just a waste of time.”
(Update from the original post: One of the group's leaders hasn't pulled the plug and is trying to find new members, so if you're interested, maybe we can work something out.)
I'm keeping my tickets, but I wonder whether I'll be in the majority. I suspect that one more year of this mess would cause me to get rid of 'em.
The thing about a bad baseball team is that you take a week away this time of year and don’t miss much. I watched the Twins stumble through their half-speed loss to the Mets last week and then pretty much took a vacation break.
Kyle Gibson 1.0 ended, Joe Mauer got concussed by a foul tip from Ron Davis’ kid and the team somehow won two out of three from Detroit. Let’s assume the latter was a result of Detroit’s disinterest, Justin Verlander’s struggles and the good fortune to miss Max Scherzer. The Twins reverted to all that ails them over the weekend in Cleveland.
This feels like a good time to offer thoughts on an assortment of topics. So here goes with 10 of 'em:
The Mauer concussion and position discussion. The “how much should he catch debate” has restarted with vigor. To me, it’s simple. If catching 100 games per season is going to hamper Mauer more and more as his career continues, then it’s time to turn him into a 6-foot-5 first baseman who does some catching on the side and is one of the best (count of fingers of one hand) hitters in the game. There’s an opposing opinion saying Mauer wouldn’t provide the same value at first base as he does catching. I say he’s already provided a ton-and-a-half of value behind the plate. Plus, value to whom? Are you more concerned that the owners get some kind of perceived “value” or that a healthy Mauer is in better position to be an offensive force, maybe for another decade, while evolving into a solid first baseman? I’ll take the assumption of added offense and better health, which should mean a better chance to win.
Morneau's future. Speaking of first base, the chatter about Justin Morneau’s future continues. Bless Morneau for all he contributed during a prime that is now three seasons past. Now? Let’s never have anyone else wear No. 33 for the Twins and wish him luck on his future endeavors, especially when there’s a logical heir to the first-base job. Money spent to keep him with the Twins is better spent elsewhere. If he goes somewhere else and does well, toques off to him.
Josh Willingham. There’s a touch of revisionist history at work about how the Twins should have traded him after the best season of his career – and a two-year run in which he had 64 home runs and an .851 OPS. As the Twins plot 2014, it makes sense to turn Willingham into a full-time DH who can play the outfield only if needed – and rarely. Let’s a presumed outfield of Oswaldo Arcia, Aaron Hicks and someone else play the field. Willingham has never had two subpar seasons in a row, but if 2014 feels like the start of a permanent decline, the Twins can part ways with him.
Starting pitching. In the post-Johan Santana era, the Twins went to the postseason twice (and Game 163 another year) with a rotation of No. 2 and 3 starters. Since then, Twins starters have been a collection of fours, fives and guys who shouldn’t be in the majors. One of Terry Ryan’s challenges is to sift through this year’s group of free agents, see who may be available in trade and simply do better than the Twins have been doing these last few years. Prevailing wisdom is that teams need to overpay for starting pitching, but (again) that’s not an issue for a fan to worry about. (Even less so when Jim Pohlad told Phil Mackey on Saturday in an ESPN 1500 interview that Ryan can increase the payroll significantly.) Find an ace, find a couple of starters more solid than Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia and let the others battle for the back end of the rotation.
Bring back Johan? I’d try it … but not at the expense of anything else. In other words, an interesting sideshow when there are more important things to do. (I'm assuming the Mets aren't going to pick up his option for next year.)
Adding the “right” veterans. When the Twins tried to explain their 2011 flop as a “perfect storm” of problems instead of recognizing the cliff jump that had taken place, the Twins brought in Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Jamey Carroll. All were useful; none, however, came from winning-team backgrounds. I made that point back then, contrasting them to the worst-to-first additions the Twins made between 1990 and ’91 (Jack Morris, Chili Davis, Mike Pagliarulo). In 2014, if Morneau doesn’t return, the core of Twins with winning backgrounds will be Mauer and … uh… pretty much nobody. I like numbers as much as most of you, but team building is a multidimensional task. Veteran players with skills – in the clubhouse and on the field – need to be part of the build.
Bring back A.J. Pierzynski? Let him catch 100-110 games and help whip the pitching staff into shape. It's called "adding the 'right' veterans."
The middle infield. If you’d asked me in April if I thought a middle infield of Brian Dozier at second base and Pedro Florimon at shortstop was a major league combination, I would have dismissed the query as rhetorical. Now, I’m pretty much sold. Ever since pulling his average above .200 at the end of May, Dozier has been a .265/.343/.488 offensive performer and a fine defensive second baseman. (Morneau’s numbers in that time are .241/.309/.439, by the way.) Florimon does what shortstops should do – field. Using Ultimate Zone Rating to judge, Florimon is second among American League shortstops. He makes plays that other shortstops don’t. His presence also allows the Twins not to worry as much about defense at third base, which could be an issue when Miguel Sano is ready for promotion. (Trevor Plouffe is second from the bottom is UZR among AL third basemen, ahead only of Miguel Cabrera, who brings a different set of superhuman skills to the ballpark.)
Gardy’s future. In Los Angeles, apparently there will be an off-season showdown in which only the general manager or manager Mike Scioscia will be survive. Here, ownership is committed to Ryan as GM. But even if Ryan truly leads the discussion about Gardy’s future, it’s naïve to think there won’t be input from the Pohlads. I’m not getting heavily invested in this discussion because it runs a distant third to acquiring better major league talent and continuing to develop the top players in the minors. For me, it’s a “whatever” debate. If that disappoints the Gardy-bashers, so be it.
Sano’s future, Hicks' future and the future of the future. I still need to be convinced that anyone in the minor-league system will be ready to make an impact on the Twins in 2014. Miguel Sano, perhaps. But selling Sano without paying attention the organization’s other issues is a bit like having a really hot car – and leaving it outside during the Minnesota winter because you don’t have a garage. Aaron Hicks should get another shot at owning center field next year, but am I the only one who looks back on the young Torii Hunter’s struggles and wonders if it will take beyond 2014 for him to contribute at the level we’re expecting? I’m looking forward to the time when the minor-league system starts producing more than end-of-bench talents, but I’m not seeing that being the case in any kind of quantity until 2015.
That’s a list of 10 and I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on all of them. But these are my chattering points to get through the final few dozen games.
But maybe the third time will be a charm, or at least a call to action for the Twins, from ownership to the players who wouldn't be here if the team resembled a competitive club.
"Our fans don't deserve to watch this crap."
Spot on, Gardy. And I'm not intending to use this space to assess who deserves what share of the blame. We've already gone that route. It simply bites to be a Twins fan right now, especially for those who have made the commitment to pay major league prices to watch what has transpired this year. (Guess what my answer was when I was asked, on the Twins' season-ticket holder survey, if I'd be willing to pay more for my season tickets in 2014.)
No amount of happy talk or diversionary tactics, whether they be advertising yuck-yucks or the 2014 All-Star Game, can take away from the fact that the Twins are a bad team that is running in place -- if not backward. This week's unveiling of the All-Star logo, with guys in suits on the beautiful field in a staged event, had a little bit of a North Korean TV feel to it. (Start at the 4 minute mark, if I made you look.)
The hope of reinforcements from the minors will mean nothing if the Twins don't make intelligent decisions about the veterans who should be brought in to augment Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and the others. Jim's column makes the point about the Twins lack of veteran leadership. If that's not addressed, there's no sense in addressing anything else.
That will cost money -- or maybe even one of the promising minor-leaguers. (Not Buxton, not Buxton, not Buxton, OK?) The Royals, the team we used to laugh at, traded the future star Wil Myers to Tampa Bay for starting pitcher James Shields (and another starting pitcher) and took advantage of a salary dump to get Ervin Santana from the Angels.
Now, the talented young Royals have starting pitching that isn't a joke to go their young players who continue to get better, or whose shortcomings are less of a liability.
When Twins blog commenters are reduced to debating when Delbinson Romero might be a better third base option than Trevor Plouffe and radio chatter spews about how Justin Morneau should be offered another contract "because there's no one else in the system," then fans might as well give up -- and you all might as well join me and buy Lynx season tickets to get through the summer. Or watch the Saints or Minnesota United or the horses at Canterbury.
I'm not going to Target Field this weekend. Astros vs. Twins? I have, ummmm, standards. Call them minimum daily baseball requirements.
Or, as Gardy said: "Our fans don't deserve to watch this crap."
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