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.
Well, they’re back at it and we’re into Year 3 of having the Twins report to spring training with the biggest question for many people being whether this is a team built to win 70 games or so. You’ll remember that the great collapse of 2011 was attributed to such a perfect storm of woes the season before that it couldn’t possibly happen again. But it did … and it did ... and now we wonder whether it will again.
I want to be optimistic about this year’s team and I will do my best not to swing the sickle of cynicism during these weeks in Florida. That wouldn't be fair to the children or the optimistic. I am also willing, because I’m patient and still have some faith in the decision-makers, to let some things play out before carrying on about not going far enough to make the 2014 Twins as competitive as I’d like them to look right now.
A brief review for those who have excised my thoughts from the baseball part of their brain: I have chided the Twins frequently for not building a bridge to the talented players that we assume will be part of the team for years to come. That’s the Byron Buxton/Miguel Sano/Alex Meyer/
Eddie Rosario group who will be on display at spring training. (Oops, Rosario has taken a leave for now -- for reasons within his control, apparently. Not a good sign.)
But the start of spring training is supposed to bring optimism. I'm going to try.
Right now, as pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, it feels like the Twins have done some building but are a couple of supports short of where they could and should be. Let’s call this No. 1 on the list of things I want to be wrong about.
While the 2014 Twins are a team that should have better starting pitching than the past two years, that area has been so bad the last couple of years that the real question is: How much better? How good will the new free agents (Nolasco and Hughes) be? How much better, if at all, will Pelfrey and Correia be? Which pitcher from the gang of a half-dozen will be the fifth starter? Someone who will benefit from getting knocked around last season (Kyle Gibson, Vance Worley or Scott Diamond)? Someone who has both teased and disappointed (Diamond or Sam Deduno)? Someone unexpected (the Kris Johnsons of the roster)?
Does anyone else have questions about the wisdom of bring back Mike Pelfrey? I know the second-year-after-Tommy John surgery philosophy, but there was so much else about last season that makes me wonder about bringing him back as opposed to going fishing for a replacement. Let’s call this No. 2 on the aforementioned “things” list. I want Pelfrey’s performance and demeanor this year to match the determination that was so much discussed last year.
I want the veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to be good enough that we don’t have to pin too many hopes on Josmil Pinto as Joe Mauer’s replacement. I don’t want the month of promise that we saw from Pinto last year to devolve as has so far in the case of Chris Parmelee.
I want Joe Mauer to hit .390 (OK, maybe .350 with some power) and make the money he’s being paid to now play first base irrelevant. I don’t care how much players are paid – as long as the deep-pockets ownership doesn’t spend too much (read: any) time talking about payroll as a percentage as revenue. May that phrase, in regard to the Pohlads, go the same way as the “perfect storm of injuries” claptrap we heard going into spring training a couple of years back.
I want Buxton, Sano and May to be Twins when they are ready and not a week before. One-and-done. In other words, one call up and they’re done with the minors. I want to assume they’ll start in the minors, and have the guys whom they will replace in time be motivated to improve because they’ll have a damn tough time finding jobs elsewhere if they don’t. It doesn’t take much to figure out that guys could underperform the last few years without much risk. Who was going to replace them?
I want Jason Kubel to prove that 2013 was a fluke, and that he will be the weak glove/good bat third outfielder (with Oswaldo Arcia in left and Aaron Hicks in center and Josh Willingham as the DH). If Darin Mastroianni or Alex Presley is the Opening Day center fielder, I'll be calling that a failure.
I want Brian Dozier and Pedro Florimon to be that much better in 2014 so that the middle infield is settled for the next few years.
I want the anticipated work of Glen Perkins to be for a team where having an excellent closer really matters.
I want talk of 2015 and beyond to be put on hold. This is 2014 and Twins fans deserve better than what they’ve gotten in recent seasons. Looking ahead is for losers.
Baseball is starting up. Let’s hope it makes us happy more than it makes us mad. Or almost as much. Is that too much to ask?
It was 2004 when the debate kicked into full gear in Minnesota: Should slugger-in-the-making Justin Morneau take over first base from Doug Mientkiewicz, the incumbent who was known for getting on base and his slick glove. As time went on, and Mientkiewicz slumped in 2004, the decision became obvious. The Twins traded Mientkiewicz to Boston, while the Red Sox were playing at the Metrodome, and Morneau was installed at first base.
Now, nine years later, the debate fired up again and the sensible conclusion has been reached. It became time to trade Morneau and move on with the reshaping of the Twins. After the concussion that corruped a season that had MVP Candidate etched in its statistics, Morneau showed glimmers of his former excellence. But the statistics bear out that he has become a middle-of-the-pack first baseman, at bat and in the field.
To accept that for another year or three would have run counter to the extreme makeover that the Twins have to undertake.
For the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are making an unexpected pennant run in the National League, looking for a short-term spark is part of the equation for a team that has finished below .500 for the last 22 years.
For the Twins, This is another indication that, whether we like it or not, Joe Mauer will make the move to first base. A catcher audition begins Sunday with the arrival of young Josmil Pinto. And there will be no shortage of available catchers in the off-season free-market.
Enough with that.
Morneau's good years with the Twins were the ones when the team was in the postseason more often than not, although he wasn't on the playoff roster in 2009 and '10. He was an American League MVP, an MVP runner-up, a four times-in-a-row All Star and a two-time Silver Slugger winner. From his MVP season until the concussion, he had a batting average just under .300 and an on base-plus-slugging percentage of exactly .900.
Sometimes he was a team carrier. Never in that time was he a liability.
That's why it has been so hard to watch these last three seasons, from the time that reporters were called to a back field in Fort Myers to watch a B-game that marked his return to the field in 2011 to the booming home run Friday night that broke a 2-2 tie and gave the Twins an unexpected victory over Yu Darvish and the Rangers.
We'd see a few games and hope that the .298/.372/.900 Morneau was about to bust through.
Instead, the post-concussion Morneau gave us .256/.316/.728. It was a big enough sample size.
I'm not sure that, in the long term, there will be numbers from Morneau that will be much better than that. But I don't care about the long term right now.
The Pirates are tied for first place in the National League Central with 28 games to play. I hope Morneau gives them a September (and October) to remember.
It's probably not the way you want it, but Twins fans have a team to cheer.
I felt a little bit sheepish turning away from the Twins a couple of times this week to watch the Wild flail through its playoff run, which ended up looking like of one those Twins-Yankees playoff series from the last decade. But through the miracle of the iPad and MLB At-Bat and a Twitter feed that pretty much tells me everyone -- more than I need to know sometimes -- I was able to keep up and ...
keep up and ... (searching for the right words)
keep up and (trying for some understatement here) be pretty impressed with the way things went this week. After scuffling through Detroit and Cleveland, where they played some games that looked like the games we were scared about, the Twins battered Boston in three out of four -- and came awfully close to sweeping the first-place Red Sox.
Thirty-one games into the season, the Twins are above .500. Granted they could be below .500 by the end of Saturday's game, but I'm guessing you would have given me odds if I'd been willing to bet on the Twins having a winning record after 31 games and their first road trip of substance.
Stuff is happening that we couldn't have expected, most noticeably to arrival of Oswaldo Arcia, who was supposed to be here for a quick look and has pretty much announced that he has little intention of returning to Rochester. Through 18 games, Arcia has pretty much been to hitting what Aaron Hicks hasn't been -- and his offensive leaps have allowed to Twins not to be overly concerned with the baby steps of progress and regressions shown by Hicks. I'm still convinced the Twins are doing the right thing by letting Hicks make his mistakes in Minnesota rather than Rochester.
Arcia's work in Boston obscured the Fenway troubles of Josh Willingham (hitless in his last three games in Boston) and that Trevor Plouffe has reversed a career trend and is hitting this season for a higher average (by 50 points) with men on base than with the bases empty.
Some of the confidence in Arcia should come from the way he has batted -- hitting to all fields and, according to those who know more than I do, making adjustments that you wouldn't expect from such a young player. "Pace" is a tricky thing, but I am OK with him striking out 140 times in 500 at-bats (his current rate) in return for a combination of power and smarts at the plate.
But the point here isn't to go too deep with numbers or figure out why things have been happening. It's much simpler: The Twins are 16-15 and not close to the disaster that lots of people were anticipating. Remember, after 31 games last year, the Twins were 8-23, and the year before they were 12-19 -- and would be 12-27 before winning another game.
To compensate for watching the Wild, I'm going Target Field tonight (and Saturday and Sunday, too). Yes, I'm more in than I thought I'd be.
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.
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