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.

Posts about Twins offense

Adding Kendrys Morales (Sick of being -- and looking -- bad)

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: June 8, 2014 - 11:41 AM

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.)

Trevor Plouffe's play a lesson for fans and a good sign for the Twins

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: May 23, 2014 - 8:38 AM

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.

Where is the 'settling point' for the Twins?

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: April 15, 2014 - 9:07 AM

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:

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.

Hoping for good more than expecting it (and hoping to be wrong)

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: February 17, 2014 - 8:41 AM

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?

End of an era for one of the best Twins

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: August 31, 2013 - 4:09 PM

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.

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