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.
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.
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.
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