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.
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.
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.)
The question for some of us when the Twins started playing was how long the 2014 season would hold our interest began to treat them as a secondary topic in our summer. This was about the time it started happening last year, when the Twins won half of its first 30 games and then went into a tumble for the rest of the season.
That could very well happen after these first 42 games of 2014.
But I’m finding these Twins to be intriguing – from the front office through the bottom of the roster. That doesn’t mean it’s all been good, but it has been interesting enough to bear watching and reacting to what’s going on.
Let’s talk about Ron Gardenhire.
First of all, I’m done bashing the Jason Bartlett thing. It’s the winner of the Bonehead Move of 2014 competition (with the horrible front-office management during the Cleveland series two weeks back a close second). The Bartlett fiasco resolved itself quickly and without causing even more embarrassment. We’ve acknowledged it, made fun of it, laughed about it, cried about it – and it’s time to move on. Right now, I’m more inclined to give Gardy praise for the way he’s handled a roster that has very, very few reliable parts.
Here’s the deal: No matter how good, every team has a few players whose best performance comes when you limit their playing time – a guy who is valuable when he gets 200 plate appearances becomes a liability when you try to use him all the time. (For a historical lesson, see Punto, Nicholas Paul.) What’s interesting about these Twins is that, among the position players, a majority of them on the roster are players who fall into that category.
In fact, my list of players who need that sort of management is more than twice as long as the list of players who don’t.
The “don’t need to manage” list includes only Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe and Kurt Suzuki. And I’m not 100 percent sold on Plouffe, which is still an upgrade over past seasons, and Suzuki will need some time management simply because he’s a catcher and not A.J. Pierzynski. (A cynic could argue that Mauer and Dozier are the only automatics on the current roster and I would listen.)
Every other position player on the roster isn’t, right now, a player who want to see get 500 to 600 plate appearances – and Gardy has so far done a pretty good job of making lemonade from the ingredients he’s been given. Compare that to 2010 (the season before the stinking started) when the lineup was pretty much a lock, load and repeat affair – especially during the second half of the season.
Trying to figure out, for example, whether this is a day when the lineup can handle a faux outfielder or two (Nunez in left, Santana in center and/or Colabello in right) … or whether this is a left-handed pitcher that Kubel or Parmelee can handle … or measuring how much he can get out of Pinto in his first full year … or how long he can roll with Escobar at shortstop. These are daily questions to which the answers will be a moving target. You can sometimes bat Suzuki fourth right now, but can you keep him fresh enough to handle that role late in the season if you need him?
The puzzles will only continue when Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia make their returns. Will Gardy do what I hope he does and bat Willingham sixth or seventh until he shows he can handle more? How much will Arcia play and whose playing time will suffer for it? Would Gardy chance that Chris Parmelee is a better bench option that Jason Kubel when the roster is healthier and part with the veteran when moves have to be made? Should he?
Does Danny Santana become your starting shortstop/back-up center fielder when Eduardo Escobar starts to fade? Is Chris Colabello really a major leaguer or will he remembered mostly for his April of excellence? That’s a painful question because of how much we’re predisposed to like the story of his ascent to Minnesota. But still it has to be asked.
Do the Twins have the strength to admit that their deal with Mike Pelfrey was a mistake and relegate him to long-reliever status or try him in a set-up role when whatever tweak he suffered a couple of weeks back becomes untweaked? How long is
Do the Twins look for a veteran upgrade in center field if they keep winning as often as they lose and last week’s orchestrated criticism of Aaron Hicks “wears off?” Maybe someone who can bat leadoff so Gardy can do what he’s mentioned and move Dozier to third spot in the order?
Here’s the deal: If Gardy can somehow manage this collection to a .500 finish, he becomes a Manager of the Year candidate – not a winner but an “also receiving votes” candidate -- based on where people thought this team was going when the season started. Don’t ask me to bet on .500 right now, because I’m not taking that action. But the wheels are still turning and the vehicle hasn’t gotten stuck in the mud.
I’m calling that a victory while fully aware that 2013’s OK start (18-17 through 35 games) was followed by a 10-game losing streak that turned the season into a waste of our time. I will bet against things falling apart as completely as they did last year. How many of us noticed that white-hot Detroit is 15-4 in its past 19 games, with three of those losses coming in its five games against the Twins?
Keep this in mind: If the second quarter of the season are a repeat of these first 42 games, we could be having some interesting chatter about the rest of 2014. You interpret that the way you want. OK?
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?
The wise Twin Cities baseball writer Pat Borzi, whose work frequently appears in the New York Times, pretty much said what I was thinking on Friday when he tweeted:
Re Sano's elbow trouble today: #MNTwins, like many teams, routinely underplay extent of injuries. Let's see how this plays out next 72 hrs.— Patrick Borzi (@BorzMN) February 28, 2014
So the next morning's news that Miguel Sano won't play this season and needs Tommy John surgery was more sad than it was a surprise.
Borzi properly points out that we're talking about an issue in the culture of sports as opposed to a Twins issue. The Wild's goalie, Josh Harding, was supposed to miss a few games to get his medication for MS tweaked, and he's still sidelined. The extent of injuries to Adrian Peterson, Nikola Pekovic and others on the local teams has been understated from time to time to time to time to time.
Remember Michael Cuddyer's wart?
So if you're expected a rant from afar about how the Twins should have handled Sano's situation differently, I'm sure you'll be able to find it somewhere else. From the media reports, the Twins did what they could -- with their in-house medical staff and with the consultation of Dr. James Andrews, one of the highest-profile practitioners of the Tommy John procedure -- to discern the best course of treatment. You don't have to be too cynical to assume that if the Twins had suggested surgery back when Sano's elbow problems were first known, they would have caught grief from those who wanted to see the 20-year-old third baseman playing in the majors as soon as possible, if not sooner.
Of course, the Twins did themselves no favors by creating the "bilateral leg weakness" frenzy that surrounded Joe Mauer during the team's 2011 meltdown. The Twins have bred skepticism on enough levels over the years -- going back to contraction and the political battles that eventually led to Target Field's creation -- that I won't be surprised about some of the mistrust and second-guessing that we'll hear about Sano.
Totally different issues can become intertwined at a time like this.
Now the challenge for fans is to remember that the Twins have a 2014 season to play and that Sano wasn't going to be a major part of it, aside from people looking wistfully toward the Class AAA Rochester team and wondering about Sano's readiness at the second or third sign of struggle for the Twins. Third base unequivocally belongs to Trevor Plouffe unless the Twins create a Plan B in the next few weeks to replace the Sano shadow that was supposed to be Plouffe's competition. (If you tell me that Jason Bartlett or Eduardo Escobar or Deibinson Romero are competition, I will tell you to that we'll talk baseball when you're serious.)
I hope that Plouffe steps up and can be a case study is how players can struggle with parts of their game and then break through to become complete players. Plouffe's goal should be to become so valuable that the Twins need to figure out a Plan B for what to do with Sano when he's back at 100 percent. (That's probably unrealistic, but aiming high is better than settling.) Can he become more of a Cuddyer than, say, Danny Valencia?
From what I understand, Sano should be able to return to third base and make a full recovery. At age 20 and without the potential to play this season, I will assume that he'll take his rehabilitation with the enthusiasm of someone who understands his potential to make more money that most of us will ever see.
This is the kind of bad that just happens. Not the kind of bad that the Twins have frequently created for themselves.
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