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 season is quite interesting so far. Not quite fascinating enough to make me watch at the expense of a Stanley Cup playoff game, but I suspect that conflict will pass in a week or so.
If 2013 becomes the season of solutions for the Twins while they can avoid a tumble into the lower depths of the American League, then we can call it a victory and move ahead.
The good news about the problem-solving that's in progress is that it hasn't come at the expense of winning games. The promotion of Oswaldo Arcia, for example, has made the Twins a better team than if he was raising hopes by smashing the ball in Rochester. I'll take the .220 batting average with the assumption that it will get better over time and that he will let me see that much less on Josh Willingham in left field. (I pay to see the Hammer hit.)
Plus, the Arcia promotion and the struggles of Trevor Plouffe at third base have solved the problem of Gardy having some offensive pop in the dugout. Depending on the lineup of the day, Ryan Doumit or Plouffe or one of the regulars getting a day off is going to be available when the Twins need a bat off the bench. Think back to the pinch-hitting options of recent years, and that's an upgrade.
The limited exposure of Pedro Florimon, Eduardo Escobar and Jamey Carroll makes all of them more effective. Combined, they are so far batting .306 in 108 at-bats with nine walks. By comparison, the collection of spare-part infielders last season hit .199 in 346 at-bats, including the 0-for-12 in the frightful week that marked the end of the Nishioka era.
I bring up Nishioka -- one last time, I hope -- not to be abusive as much as to point out that the personnel choices made for this season are that much more solid than those of previous years, in which Nishioka, Luke Hughes, Matt Tolbert and others were playing the role of major leaguers. I am hard pressed to imagine Gardy creating one of those "Sunday lineups" of recent seasons that made Twins fans wonder why they are paying major league ticket prices.
Nishioka is hitting .298 in Japan, by the way.
The middle of the Twins infield, with Brian Dozier at second and the Florimon/Escobar tandem at shortstop, is better defensively than anything (except for the Orlando Hudson/J.J. Hardy-when-healthy tandem in 2010) since the Luis Castillo/Jason Bartlett combination from the mid-2000s.
In a few weeks, the Twins will reach the one-quarter mark of the season, which will be a time for Gardy and the front office to better evaluate those who are helping and those who are damaging the cause. Right now, Vance Worley and Mike Pelfrey are the two names generating the most negative buzz.
While a half-dozen starts doesn't make for a 100 percent fair test, that the Twins have Kyle Gibson getting back on track at Rochester, Cole De Vries trying to heal from arm problems and WBC-stud Samuel Deduno waiting to get healthy means there are alternative who would be hard pressed to do worse if the veterans don't improve. Also keep in mind that Worley was essentially the added player for the Ben Revere deal, which wouldn't have been made without the prospect Trevor May's inclusion.
Speaking of Revere, he finished his first month in Philadelphia with a .245 on-base percentage and has been dropped from the top to the bottom of the Phillies batting order. Manager Charlie Manuel told a Philadelphia reporter the other day: "He's had a hard time getting going. We just have to keep staying with him and see if we can’t get him playing better."
I am still unwilling to totally uncouple Ramon Ortiz and Kevin Correia when I watch Correia and his early-season prowess. It's impossble to argue with little more than a runner per inning and a 2.23 ERA through five starts. The best analysis of Correia's success so far comes from the blogger Aaron Gleeman. Rather than excerpt a portion of it here, it's best that you read the whole thing when you have a chance. A few more solid starts, though, and I promise to put much greater distance between the names Correia and Ortiz.
As a fan, I am willing to watch Hicks and Arcia grow into major leaguers because the alternatives at this point would be a concession to mediocrity. I am OK watching Parmelee grow into a regular right fielder and I am happy to see Carroll in a situation where he is likely to get half the at-bats that he did in 2012, which makes him that much more valuable. Gardy's patchwork calls for the left side of the infioeld will be among his on-going challenges and what happens with the starting rotation is another.
The Twins have played .500 baseball so far without getting much from Justin Morneau and with Joe Mauer having two cold spells surrounding one hot streak. In the American League, they are ninth in on-base percentage, last in slugging percentage and -- despite the troubles in the starting rotation -- sixth in team ERA while being last in strikeouts. Some of the first-month's success may have a smoke-and-mirrors quality to it, but a good chunk of it comes from being a better team than many of us imagined on the chilly April day when the first pitch was thrown.
There are no guarantees about what they'll be called heading into the third week of the baseball season, but going into the second, the local major league baseball team can be called the "first-place Minnesota Twins" without lying or hallucinating. I would suggest that in all of your conversations from now until it no longer applies, you refer to them -- both here and in all of your baseball chatter -- as "the first-place Minnesota Twins."
Or "first-place Twins" for short.
If you need a qualifier, you can always say they're the "first-place Twins, with 156 games left to play in the regular season," or something like that. (Yes, I know they're tied for first with the White Sox, but "tied for first-place Twins..." is a bit much after you've said it three or four times in the coffee line.
We might as well have some fun as long as it lasts, whether it's through the rest of the day, the day of the week ... or whenever. Anyone who has watched enough baseball knows that it would be foolish to read much into the opening two series. The first-place Twins are not going to keep up this pace and win 108 games any more than Aaron Hicks will finish the season with his current .077 batting average or Joe Mauer will keep up his current pace and strike out 177 times if he plays 150 games.
Not to be a thrower of cold water, but a trip or three through the starting rotation means little. You need only go back a half-dozen years to Ramon Ortiz, who won four of his first five starts with a 2.57 ERA -- and was gone from the 2007 Twins rotation forever after five more starts in which he put together an ERA near 11 and put on base more than two runners per inning.
I'm not going to be the one to put a end date on your fun.
However, I'll suggest these first-place Twins might be better than we thought -- especially in a league that could feature more struggling teams than suspected. Are the Blue Jays, for example, headed for a replay of the promise-and-crash that enveloped the Miami Marlins last season? Are the old-and-injured Yankees toast? Is Oakland that good?
I'm not putting a yes or no tag on any of those questions, but the first week of this season has provided good reason to come back for the second.
The first-place Twins came through their first week winning two of three games apiece from teams that went to the 2012 postseason. They rallied from behind, held on to some small leads and exiled Tyler Robertson to Rochester after his ill-fated pitch to Chris Davis on Friday afternoon, which came on top of an unpromising spring training and a mediocre 2012, in which there simply weren't better alternatives.
I am willing to suggest that the current bullpen will prove to be a better collection and there will be more choices in the starting rotation than the 2012 last-place Twins, in which appearance-by-default treated us to pitchers you would prefer seeing in the other team's uniform. I am also willing to bet on this year's middle infield play to be superior to last season's.
Ii is no disrespect to 39-year-old Jamey Carroll when I say that I hope he has half the number of plate appearances as the career-high 537 that he had in 2012. I mean no disrespect to Denard Span and Ben Revere, but I'd rather be watching Aaron Hicks and Chris Parmelee right now.
I don't expect anyone in the front office to be raising their arms in triumph right now, but I'm looking forward to seeing how the collection of modest parts that Terry Ryan has collected -- Florimon, Escobar, Ramirez, Pressly and Roenicke -- among others, will be judged when the season reaches the quarter and halfway marks. (I still wish there had been a significant help-now acquisition over the winter, but reliving that battle can only lead to a concussion.)
I am happy we're one week into the season and Ron Gardenhire's job security isn't an issue.
Late-afternoon game today. Who's leaving work a bit early?
Those of us from the smallest crowd ever at Target Field who were still in our seats in the ninth inning weren't expecting much. After all, Gardy had used his entire skinny bench and there was no choice but for Eduardo Escobar to bat. That's the Eduardo Escobar who brought a .217 career batting average to the plate -- complete with more strikeouts (32) than hits (30) -- from his previous two short stints in the majors.
With two on, one out and the Twins trailing by one, you wished that Gardy and Terry Ryan had opted for one more bat on the bench instead of Wilken Ramirez, who had driven in the other run, and the small-ballers Escobar, Jamey Carroll and Darin Mastroianni.
Escobar walked to the plate and I said aloud, "Prove my cynicism unfounded, Escobar!"
Who would have thought that two full games into the season, the longest ball hit by a Twins player would come off the bat on Escobar, a little guy taking a big-guy swing that would have gotten him chastised -- "trying to do too much" -- if the ball hadn't kept sailing through the wind toward the wall in left-center -- and the Tigers outfielders hadn't been doing their best Delmon Youngs in pursuit.
The ball skipped against the wall and the Twins went all giddy on the field. A couple of years back, when they were on the outside of the division title chase in July -- just before starting their miserable slide -- the Twins beat Cleveland in similar walk-off fashion and the guys were chastised by some for a disproportionate-looking celebration. Someone got their jersey buttons ripped, if I remember correctly, and the wise consensus was that the guys should have acted like they'd been there and winning in that manner was no big deal.
Things have changed a lot. The Twins ran on the field and pounded one another in celebration. Josh Willingham gave Escobar the first big hug and Pedro Florimon almost jumped over both of them with a gleeful leap. Phil Coke walked toward the Tigers dugout alone and talking to himself, far different demeanor from when he retired Justin Morneau and Ryan Doumit to end the season opener.
On a chilly late afternoon, it all seemed appropriate because this group of Twins hadn't been there before.
And anyone who says they were anticipating "Eduardo Escobar, off the wall, walk-off double" is a liar.
Day game today. Enjoy.
So the Twins named their Opening Day starter and he was a six-game winner in an injury-curtailed 2012 season. That's Vance Worley. And the Twins top pitcher from last season, Scott Diamond, will start 2013 on the disabled list in his comeback from arm issues that surfaced during the off-season.
And come Monday morning, the Twins will be tied for first place in the American League Central. We'll see if that lasts until sundown.
I've learned over the years to cut down on my blogging during spring training, which is one of the reasons Section 219 has taken a break during the Twins stay in Florida. There's little I can add from up here that can't be told better from reading the reports from our crew on the scene in Fort Myers and from our TwinsCentric crew.
That Jared Burton seemed to get lit up every time I listened for a few innings adds little to the discussion -- except nervousness, maybe. (On closer inspection, most of those were unearned runs.) I've learned over the years not to look at exhibition ERAs. Joe Nathan getting knocked around was Exhibit A; Dusty Hughes getting people out was Exhibit B.
Besides, February and March are kind of a busy time in my A-job of keeping this web site together. This last month or so, I've been living with Tubby, Percy, Gophers of many sports and all of the related excitement that comes with this time of year. One beauty of baseball is that it hits you smack in the face right when you emerge from the weeks when so many winter sports finish up in their haze of tournaments.
Plus, you can only be grumpy about stuff so many times and -- having reached my grumpy limit -- it's time to look ahead and try to get excited, or at least intrigued, about the flawed Twins.
I am prepared to look for the best, and I hope that feeling lasts. My list includes:
*Aaron Hicks. God bless Darin Mastroianni and the Puntonian hustle (without the head-first slides into first base) that he brings to the Twins. But if he had been the Opening Day starter in center field, it would have symbolized all that is wrong with the team's decline. I know that spring training can be filled with illusions, but I hope that Hicks isn't one of them.
*Tom Brunansky. Is it a problem when No. 2 on your hope list is a coach? I'm intrigued about whether Brunansky's approach to hitting leads to some improvement. We're not talking about helping Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau as much as lessening the feeling from the last couple of seasons that, on many days, the Twins were fielding a lineup in which several spots were being filled by players for whom a hit would be a happy accident.
*Joe Mauer. If felt like every time I watched or listened to part of a Twins or World Baseball Classic game, Mauer was on base or in the process of getting on base. That he has a combined .558 on-base percentage with the Twins and for Team USA this spring confirms that it almost wasn't an illusion. I am beyond the "how many home runs should Mauer hit" issue. I want Mauer to play every day -- somewhere in the lineup -- and have the kind of year in which we won't leave our seats or the TV when we know he's coming to bat.
*The middle infield. I want to believe that what Brian Dozier learned as a failed major league shortstop will help him become a successful major league second baseman. I will make no other comparison between Dozier and Torii Hunter except to cite that it took a couple of extra trips to the minors for Hunter to get it right. I want to believe that we won't cringe when Pedro Florimon comes to bat, although his spring training numbers do not fill me with hope. I do like that Dozier and Florimon are Nos. 1 and 2 in innings played in Florida. That statistic speaks to a commitment that I hope isn't being made in vain.
*Gardy. Toward the end of his managing years, Tom Kelly's frustration with his players was pretty evident. If you'd gone from managing two World Series winners to relying on Chad Allen, Scott Stahoviak and some of the others, you'd be miffed, too. So far, Ron Gardenhire hasn't gone that route. His spring training desire for Jim Thome was odd, but -- reading between the lines -- I hope it was his way of saying that he needed more offense on his bench. Demoting Drew Butera was a step in that direction. Now, if he can resist the temptation to carry 13 pitchers ... If he goes, I don't want him to go beaten down.
I'm starting the 2013 season prepared to have more hope than expectations. If you've read this blog, it hasn't always been a pretty journey to reach that place and, yes, it may make me a sucker. I promise not to turn aluminum foil into silver linings. I promise to try having fun while being realistic about what we're going to be asked to support at Target Field this season. I got my Section 219 tickets this week and I'm looking forward to using them.
After all, it's baseball.
First of all, the Twins didn't intend for the news to come out this way, for the coaching staff casualties to dribble over over the course of Thursday in ones and twos.
That was the excellent work of writer La Velle E. Neal III, who was hard-wired into the organization and went all Brian Urlacher, totally disrupting whatever plans existed and reporting on the firings in as close to real time as they could be confirmed. La Velle was also in transit from Toronto to the Twin Cities, getting the information and getting it to startribune.com as quickly as he could confirm things.
Let me suggest that the Twins should get on with their overhaul with the same intensity that La Velle showed on behalf of Twins fans.
General Manager Terry Ryan decimated Ron Gardenhire's band of brothers Thursday -- firing three coaches, reassigning two and sparing the manager's best baseball buddy, pitching coach Rick Anderson. If we assume that the Rochester pitching coach, Bobby Cuellar, will take over as bullpen coach and Gene Glynn, the Rochester manager, will get a Twins coaching job, you can consider Gardy and Andy to be on a very short leash in 2013.
Talk all you want about the weak starting pitching -- or obfuscate even more and blame it on the injuries to several of the failed starters -- and you ignore the fact that the "Twins way" has become one of mental mistakes in all aspects of the game: Mental errors, giveaway at-bats, flawed pitching. All of those traits manifest themselves in a second season of frightful baseball unworthy of their new ballpark.
However hard the coaches and Gardy were working, things were lost when the messages were delivered from the staff to the players. Ten years ago, the Twins were in need of Gardy's folksy approach as a replacement for the taciturn Tom Kelly.
Now, Gardy is being told by Ryan that what his staff was doing had stopped working and that he'll be given one more chance to fix things without a staff of his own choosing. Faced with what Ryan decided, there are managers who would have walked away with their guys.
I'm going to take it as a good sign that Gardy decided to take on the challenge. Whether he can lead the change is an interesting and debatable question.
Over the last few weeks, when people have asked what I thought would happen, I suggested that things were too quiet for big changes not to be made. I am also certain that nobody in the Twins organization thinks a new coaching staff alone can be sold as big change.
Players will come and go during the off-season. I would bet on minimal drama before things happen and a couple of dramatic moves intended to make 2013 more than a season of meandering toward .500. Many of the empty seats that you could see at Target Field as the season wore on were generating revenue because they were held by absentee season-ticket holders. In my circle, many people are bailing out on their season-ticket investments -- cutting back or getting out entirely.
Baltimore and Oakland this season have shown what's possible. Keep in mind that, with better geography, either of those teams would have handily won the AL Central based on the bigger chunks of Twins, Royals and Cleveland on their schedules.
The Twins not only finished last in their division, but they finished last in the only division in baseball that had three teams lose 90 or more games. The AL Central finished 28 games under .500 against the West and 24 under .500 against the East. (The Twins were 22-50 outside of their division, a .305 winning percentage.)
What happened on Thursday was a message to Gardy. He will have a boatload of work to do during the winter, preparing a new coaching staff -- one that won't of his choosing, however the replacements get spun -- to function the way he needs when the Twins gather in Florida next February.
In return for keeping his job, Gardy has basically forfeited the right to make personnel decisions about his staff that, in a better situation, a GM wants to be able to mostly leave to his field manager. On Twitter, Patrick Reusse described Gardy and Andy as being on "double secret probation."
That's the price of stink.
What needs to happen next are more moves by Ryan and ownership to further show that the painful performances we've witnessed for two years will be replaced by ones we can watch without holding our noses and looking away.
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