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.
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?
What do we want?
Change! (The right change)
When do we want it?
Now! (If not yesterday)
It's tough not to be impatient.
The Twins left the Winter Meetings without enhancing their roster for 2014, which shouldn't mean a whole lot because of the way that baseball has changed. It used to be that the Winter Meetings typically resulted in a flurry of trades and other moves, and then baseball pretty much slowed down for the holidays. It's not like that now.
It was pretty clear that some of the Twins' presumed targets aren't feeling any rush to decide where they'll be playing next season. That the main public drama playing out for the Twins this week centered on whether they would re-sign Mike Pelfrey tells you a lot about how unsettled the really big issues are right now. I know the Twins felt they were bringing in a veteran presence when they signed Pelfrey last season, and I was predisposed to root for him, but the truth is that even billing him as a No. 4 starter heading into spring training is a stretch.
I want to be wrong about my Pelfrey skepticism and buy into the notion that he'll be that much better in his second year removed from Tommy John surgery.
But in a rotation that has Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Kevin Correia as locks for the top three spots right now, Pelfrey feels like he should merely be in the mix for one of the final spots, an uncomfortable fallback if the Twins fail to bring in one of the bigger names who are still weighing their options. (Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo and Ervin Santana.)
In a better Twins world, Correia comes to spring training in Fort Myers as the No. 4 starter with competition wide open for the final spot among Pelfrey and the others, which is better than filling the rotation by default and prayer. (Hello, Vance Worley, Liam Hendriks and others.)
I also don't want to believe that the amount of Pelfrey chatter is an indication that the Twins aren't really serious contenders for the others. (I'm smart enough about these things to know how much I don't know.) It also shouldn't obscure the fact that, as Terry Ryan has pointed out, the roster still needs to be upgraded in other areas. Making assumptions about Josmil Pinto's ability to be the starting catcher is unwise and there are outfield needs in the short term that were made clearer when the Twins tried unsuccessfully to sign the speedy-but-flawed Rajai Davis. (Cutting a minor-league deal with Jason Kubel does nothing for the notion that the Twins need outfielders who can catch the ball.)
I'm struck by the direction that the New York Mets appear to be taking this off-season. After finishing 22 games behind the division leaders in the National League East last season, they have signed Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon. They are still a flawed team, but a flawed team that is hovering around the .500 mark come August can position itself to be in the postseason discussion in baseball's expanded playoffs.
That's what I want from the Twins in 2014, to be in the postseason discussion come late summer rather than careening toward another season when we wonder whether they'll be closer to losing 90 games or 100. Yes, "playoff discussion" is weak soup compared to our expectations from a few years back. But an equation of improved roster + improved performance + a surprise or two should be able to yield some excitement that's been lacking from Target Field for the last three years.
For the Twins to be taken seriously in 2014 and a team to be reckoned with in the years following would keep me happy for now..
It was Thanksgiving morning six years ago when the news broke that Torii Hunter had agreed to a new contract with the Angels after playing his entire career with the Twins. He wanted something more than he could get in Minnesota, and got a lot more than the Twins were willing to pay.
For most of the years since, we've watched at this time of year as other teams have been major players in free agency and the Twins have nibbled around the edges. Yes, even the Josh Willingham signing -- the previous "richest free agent signing in Twins history" -- was a small mouthful compared to what other teams have been doing.
Ricky Nolasco is a good start to the rebuilding of the Twins. He'll come in with huge expectations only because he's Cy Young compared to what we've watched take the mound at Target Field for the last couple of seasons.
A friend e-mailed me this morning, asking basically, "Jack Morris or Vance Worley."
Talk about zero shades of gray.
My response: "Carl Pavano+."
Nolasco is a No. 2-starter type who could well play the role of an ace from time to time. He's one of a number of needed pieces, and I'm hoping he's one of three starting pitchers with credentials who the Twins sign for 2014 and beyond. I like two from the group of Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo, Ervin Santana and Scott Feldman. And there are several catchers on the market who would make me happy.
Do that, and I'll trust the Twins to cobble together what's needed for the rest of the roster. (Hey, they're saying Denard Span is available from Washington, you know.)
If you're playing at home, here's a good free-agent tracker to bookmark.
In contemporary baseball, you can't cobble together an entire roster. But if the Twins are on their way to an aggressive overhaul, they could very well be a good team in 2014 and a very, very good team in 2015 and beyond. I'm still in the "if" camp on whether it will happen, but I'm allowing myself to be optimistic.
One move does not make an overhaul or change in tactics.
But bringing in established starting pitchers raises the bar for the young pitchers whose acquisition was the excitement of last winter and, for the most, had an assortment of struggles during their first year in the Twins organization. It's a lot easier to forecast an eventual leading role for Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano than for Trevor May, Alex Meyer or Jose Berrios. If one member of that pitching group comes through, that's good. If two come through, that's excellent.
Have a great Thanksgiving everyone. Maybe there will be more to get excited about in the weeks to come. At the very least, this Thanksgiving is better than the one when Torii Hunter got away.
As the trading deadline approaches at the end of the month, there will be talk about teams interested in Twins players A, B, C and a few others. Think of Glen Perkins as A, Justin Morneau as B, Ryan Doumit as C and a bunch of others, including Jamey Carroll and Mike Pelfrey, as being among the few others.
The wisdom behind trading Perkins is that a terrible team doesn't need a first-rate closer and the lefty closer is the guy on the roster who would bring the most in return.
That's true ... but that doesn't mean the Twins should trade him.
Some people argue with vigor that it's reasonably simple to find someone who can be plugged into a closer's role. Maybe it was the time I spent covering the Twins -- when they traded for Yankees set-up guy Ron Davis and tried to make him a closer -- but I don't buy it. In addition to being a game of ever-expanding statistical models, which is a good thing, baseball is a game in which the same player can perform differently in different situations.
Check out RD's statistics in his four years as the Yankees set-up man versus his 4 1/2 as Minnesota's closer.
A few years back, Cleveland liked the stuff of the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona to try him as a closer, an experiment that failed horrifically the season before he won 19 games as a starter.
Another example of a different sort: Journeyman Pat Tabler, a .282 hitter in 12 career seasons, was a killer force batting with the bases loaded during his career. How good? This good: In 109 bases-loaded career appearances, he had a .489 average, .505 on-base percentage and 1.198 on base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS).
By comparison, Miguel Cabrera, a pretty good baseball player, is .417/.413/1.034 in those situations. Joe Mauer? .333/.322/.850. (I use Mauer as a comparison not to make mock, but because Mauer has significantly more power than Tabler, but Tabler's numbers in this particular clutch situation are so incredibly extreme.) And yes, I know, we're doing some cherry-picking of stats here, but this is a five-minute model. Give me five hours and I'll find you more.
Not everyone can switch roles as gracefully as the fabulous Joe Nathan, who was a set-up man in San Francisco before the Twins traded for him 10 years ago.
OK, back to Perkins.
He is among the best in baseball at what he does. If you favor a trade, you're betting on finding a suitable replacement for what is currently the team's No. 1 strength. Plus, you may be conceding that the Twins are on a treadmill of trading top talent because you don't expect them to be competitive for another few years. I've made the case, more often than some would like, that one of the current Twins' failings has been their inability to field a competitive team while waiting for their young talent to be ready for Target Field.
Give up Perkins and you're creating another hole.
Trade Morneau or Josh Willingham (which won't happen right now because of his injury) or Carroll or Doumit, and you should quickly find someone to adequately fill those roles right away based on current, or even anticipated, performance.
Trade Perkins to an American League team and, a dozen years down the road, maybe the Twins would be presenting him with a rocking chair made of their broken bats. Trade Perkins and you're asking for trouble.
West Coast baseball tonight. Take a nap and maybe we'll trade some tweets.
Sweeping four games from the Brewers gives a lot of Twins fans a little extra dose of giddy because it makes up for Minnesota fans having to look up at the Packers, the Badgers (in football and basketball) and the Bucks (despite their mediocrity) in the standings of those sports. But what does it really mean? That the Twins would go 120-42 if they played only the Brewers, Astros and Marlins?
Mostly, it means that the Twins did not shrivel up and blow away after the wretched baseball they played during their 10-game losing streak -- most of it coming against teams that are in first place in their divisions (Detroit, Boston and Atlanta.) That's not meant to be an excuse or a reason losing 10 in a row, but all teams have valleys during their seasons. It's a bit like life: You're never that good (and you're probably not that bad).
After a month with a rough schedule, the Twins have games in June against teams more their speed. The only teams they play next month with records currently above .500 are Detroit and Cleveland. So it'll take some undoing for the Twins to play poorly enough to restart the 100-loss discussion. And if they play really, really well...
With that unfinished thought in mind, here are a few quick observations:
*It's not good that the pitchers we're most excited about, currently, are Samuel Deduno and P.J. Walters. It means the 2013 rotation implants and Scott Diamond haven't given the Twins what they need, which is absolutely true with the exception of Kevin Correia. But here's my challenge to you: Go through the available free-agent pitchers from last winter and find three who would be giving the Twins a significant boost right now. You can use these rankings as a cheat sheet.
When you find three, of course, then you have to be confident in your ability that you would have chosen those three to the exclusion of all others who were available. Here are a half-dozen names that engendered varying degrees of disappointment when the Twins didn't pluck them off the market: Edwin Jackson (1-7, 6.11), Joe Blanton (1-8, 5.94), Joe Saunders (3-5, 5.57) Brandon McCarthy (2-4, 5.00) Brett Myers (0-3, 8.02), Erik Bedard (0-2, 5.32).
[Sarcastic interlude] It's tough all over, and I'm sure all the barstool, basement and blogging GMs would have honed right in on both Scott Feldman (5-4, 2.82) and Carlos Villanueva (1-3, 3.65) as 2013 Twins starters. Absolutely sure. Yeah, I know I would have. And I would have brought back Jason Marquis (6-2, 3.70), too. [End sarcastic interlude]
In no way does this excuse what was allowed to happen to the Twins pitching in recent years. The atrophy was avoidable. But fixing a pitching staff is a tough, tough business. A look through the lists I linked to shows that.
*I'm glad the Twins stuck with Aaron Hicks. Deciding when a player is ready for the majors is as much art as science. You can hurt one player by bringing him up too soon and you can hurt another with too much time in the minors. By season's end, I think most of those who were clamoring from the Twins to return Hicks to the minors will be happy he stayed. And, yes, it may have been the organization's good fortune that nobody in Rochester would have been a reasonable replacement in center field.
I'm anticipating the debate in a couple of years over who plays center field: Hicks or Byron Buxton. That'll be fun.
*I like Pedro Florimon. Sometimes the best answer is gambling on a player that another team (Baltimore, in this case) had no use for and give him a chance. Claiming Florimon on waivers, a month after Terry Ryan replaced Bill Smith, is turning out to be a pretty sweet replacement for J.J. Hardy (and others who shall not be named).
(Update: For some interesting data on Florimon and Hardy, including some numbers that surprised me, check the comments below.)
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