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 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.
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?
Let's get one thing straight for starters, OK? I'm not going to be the one who will question how badly Joe Mauer is hurt. Some of the nasty comments that started with the first announcement that he'd left last Sunday's game with back spasms are from the place in Internet hell where the all-seeing-but-unknowing reside and make me feel the need to shower after reading. There are enough valid Mauercentric issues to debate in which cases can be made for all sides.
I'm writing this after a trip to a sports medicine place Friday morning. Because of the NFL draft and a couple of other things that are current increasing the volume of work in the "A" job, my mousing hand was bothering me enough that I figured I should get it checked out. It wasn't a huge deal, but I'm sure you understand: Check something small before it becomes bigger. I had X-rays and saw the doc and he delivered a less-than-dire diagnosis.
I'm not going to share it with you, beyond calling it Unilateral Hand Weakness.
Back to Mauer: There's enough blame to go around on this one. The Twins missed a prime chance to move on from some of their errant personnel ways. What if the Twins had told Mauer: "Joe let's give this a couple of days and then, if you can't play, we'll put you on the disabled list so you can heal." Yes, there would have been some ugly chatter but first basemen do get hurt. (See Killebrew, Harmon.)
In recent years, the Twins have let the day-to-day thing drag on and on to the point that I have interpreted "day to day" as meaning an eventual trip to the disabled list. (See Willingham, Josh.) During Thursday's loss -- which will be remembered as the afternoon of the one-man bench and a lineup that would get hooted at during spring training -- there was chatter that Willingham, now out for more than a month, could be transferred to the 60-day disabled list to help the Twins through their current roster problems. That's a lot of days, by any reckoning.
And there was this report on Oswaldo Arcia, who hurt his hand and wrist during the first week of the season. If you don't want to click, it says the Twins planned to rest Arcia for a few days "so it's possible he might not return until at least Wednesday, April 9."
Today is the one-month anniversary of that diagnosis, which seemed pretty glum at the time considering the injury was thought to be pretty minor. Arcia was back in action at Class AAA Rochester on April 26, but scuttled the Twins' plans to call him up this week when he came to the ballpark in Rochester complaining of "stiffness."
So if Mauer goes on the disabled list during the Detroit series, I won't be shocked. If he doesn't, I'll be happily surprised. The bigger point here is that the Twins have lost credibility in their proclamations about player health. The point is not that I'm expecting them to share ever detail. If the Twins wanted to call the thing that haunted Mauer "bilateral leg weakness" a few years back, so be it. (I'm assuming that would be a lower body injury in the NHL.)
The point is that I expect the Twins to have a better handle of what's going on with the health of their players and to err on the side of telling them, "Dude, if you can't play, we'll sit you down for a spell and get somebody else." That's not a bad way to set a tone when it comes to roster management.
And as long as I'm on the topic of roster management, this 14-pitcher thing -- one of the contributors to Thursday's Florimon-only bench -- has me kind of puzzled. Gardy brought in Michael Tonkin to pitch an inning of relief Thursday. It was the first time he'd pitched since the previous Thursday, when the crisis alert was sounded after the doubleheader with the Dodgers. Anthony Swarzak pitched a bit Thursday after making only one appearance since that doubleheader.
That alone should debunk the need for 14 pitchers, along with the fact that Caleb Thielbar had pitched to only five batters since April 25 before coming in Thursday. I'm just not getting it, and I suspect I'm not going solo there. Gardy should have been able to do more than throw up his hands in frustration over Mauer's back and Sam Fuld's concussion.
Going into Detroit, which has the best record in baseball along with aces Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer ready to pitch the next two games, the Twins still have 14 pitchers and three shortstops on the roster. Great, huh? I'm glad I have the Wild and a college graduation to distract me this weekend. (And just so you know, despite my Unilateral Hand Weakness diagnosis, I'll be back in the Web chair at startribune.com on Sunday for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.)
Seriously, here's the deal: I don't expect the Twins to me totally honest with you and me. I do expect them to be totally honest with themselves.
Watching Joe Mauer at the start of Friday night's game got me to thinking about 2009, when he was the American League MVP, was named an All-Star and won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. That was also the year of the superhuman start that, along with the opening of Target Field and the increased financial resources coming with the new ballpark, were among the things leading the Twins to sign Mauer to a contract that pays $23 million per year until many current high school juniors and seniors turn 21.
As you ponder what's to follow, please keep in mind the anti-ownership insurrection that would have followed if Mauer had been allowed to leave through free agency.
Through 27 games in 2009, Mauer had a .417 average, .500 on-base percentage and an .844 slugging percentage. That's .417/.500/.844 in what we sometimes call a "slash line." His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) through those 27 games was 1.344. Seriously, friends, that was superhuman and unsustainable, although his end-of-season numbers were still an incredible .365/.444/.587.
Through 27 games in 2014, Mauer's slash line is .282/.385/.336 -- quite good for a singles hitter. It should be noted that Mauer, currently batting second more often than not, has never in his career had a slugging percentage lower than his on-base percentage. The closest he came was in 2011, the season of general soreness and the like, when he had a .360 OBP and .368 slugging percentage in 88 games.
The career numbers for Mauer: .404 OBP and .465 slugging percentage. So if you have an expectation for Mauer to do more, you can base it on career stats that include all of those years when Mauer was hitting only a handful of home runs but still showing the extra-base power that has been on leave so far in 2014.
One more thing. Through 27 games in 2006, the Twins player who batted second more often than anyone else on the roster that season had a slash line through 27 games of .293/.379/.362, and an OPS of .741. (Those were numbers the player pretty much kept up for the entire season, by the way.)
The 27-game slugging percentage was 26 points higher than Mauer's right now and the OPS was 20 points higher.
Any guesses who that was?
It was THIS GUY.
One of the already-too-old themes of the 2014 season has been the idea that Sam Deduno should be brought into games at the start of an inning because of the unpredictability of his pitches. I've heard it talked about, maybe, 1,234 times already this season. And it makes sense.
So far, Deduno has pitched six times in relief -- the last four times he's entered in the middle of an inning, and he has usually made things worse before they've gotten better.
Here's my issue: Kyle Gibson had nuthin' Tuesday night. He'd given up five runs on eight hits and two walks through the first three innings, even if one of them was the ridiculously called hit on the pop-up that Pedro Florimon missed during the three-run first inning. (The conventional wisdom was that the ball was "lost" in the Tropicana Park roof, but Ron Gardenhire said after the game that Florimon just missed the ball. If you want to debate Gardy's sincerity on that one, you can do it with someone else.)
The Twins rallied from that 5-0 deficit to 5-3 on the home runs by Brian Dozier and Chris Colabello in the fourth.
That would have been a fine time for the Twins to practice what they've been chattering about and get Deduno in the game to open the Tampa Bay fourth.
Instead, Gibson gave up two singles before Deduno came in -- and fell behind 7-3 (the eventual final score) when the first batter he faced, Matt Joyce, doubled. Deduno gave up only one more hit and one walk during the rest of his four innings.
Last Tuesday, Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons handled a similar situation differently at Target Field. His starter, Brandon Morrow, was struggling badly and the Jays trailed the Twins 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth. Morrow had given up four hits and four walks and -- with a runner on third and Joe Mauer coming up -- Gibbons replaced Morrow with a left-hander who retired Mauer to get Toronto out of the inning without more damage.
Toronto rallied to win 9-3.
The details are different, but the issue is how aggressive a manager should be about pulling a struggling starter early in the game.
In this case, Gardenhire had a chance to act of what he's talked about doing. And he didn't do it. If he really, really, really wanted to stay with Gibson for some reason, Gardy could have brought in someone else to get through the fourth and had Deduno start the fifth. With 13 pitchers on the roster and an off day on Monday, it wasn't a question of having the arms available.
The next time we hear about this Deduno issue, I hope it's when he's opening an inning instead of replacing a starter who has already dug a deeper hole for the Twins.
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