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.
We're halfway into the baseball season and this is what's certain:
(1) The Twins aren't good enough right now to be postseason contenders. The ugly combination of inconsistency on the field, some bad decisions off the field and yet another run of injuries has pretty much done them in. I tried building a case for being on the fringe of postseason contention earlier this season, but I'm done pretending about that.
(2) The "pace" you're on in baseball means nothing. The Twins' record at this point in 2014 is within a couple of games of where it was in the last three miserable seasons, when the only end-of-year question was whether they would lose 100. This team could lose 85 games and grab on to that as a positive ... or threaten yet again to lose 100. Neither would be a surprise.
(3) Because we've been focused on so many others things: Joe Mauer's lack of production, the Aaron Hicks silliness, some horrible roster management and an outfield defense that is second-to-everyone, we haven't focused on yet another season of injuries that has turned the job of managing the Twins into more of a chore than simply making the most of a bad ball club.
That last thing is what I'm talking about here.
The list of players who have missed time for one reason or another is pretty much a list of the players who make up the team: Joe Mauer at first base (now for the second time), Brian Dozier and his stiff back at second, Danny Santana and the mysterious bone bruise at shortstop and center field, Trevor Plouffe and his rib cage at third; Josh Willingham and his wrist in left; Aaron Hicks and his shoulder and psyche in center, Oswaldo Arcia and his wrist (and extended April recovery time) in right.
I'm leaving out pitcher Mike Pelfrey. He just doesn't count in the current scheme or things -- and quite likely in any future scheme for the Twins.
It's like the Passover story out there, a full-fledged plague of game-missing injuries that has spared only Kurt Suzuki, whose addition to the roster was pretty much scorned and whose solid play has been desperately needed during the first half of the season. When you watch the Twins, it looks like Suzuki gets hurt more than any other two players combined, but he hasn't yet cashed in an injury card while (so far, at least) while putting up better offensive statistics than at any time in his career.
Where am I going with this?
About this time last year, I was pretty much thinking that Ron Gardenhire's time with the Twins was done. His past work with the Twins was being done in by a hopeless looking roster filled with guys who were the return of trades made at the wrong time or forays through baseball's unemployment line. You know, the Alex Presleys, Pedro Hernandezes and Clete Thomases of the game. There was a resigned tone to Gardy's lineups, his demeanor and often to the way his team played.
That's what has been different about 2014, which has been a season where much of what counts as success has been fueled by out-of-the-box moves.
We can rightfully make fun of the Jasons (Kubel and Bartlett), but that resulted in running with Chris Colabello for as long as possible, a player who had no more reason to succeed, even if for a short time, than Kubel. (The Kendrys Morales signing has much of that action moot, as long as the Twins manage to make Morales a part of their future.)
We can wonder what's up with Hicks -- all the more with Byron Buxton in the future -- but choosing Danny Santana to be the center field option was a pretty sweet call. Gardy was quick enough to pull the plug on pretending that Eduardo Escobar was an outfield fit, but found that Eduardo Nunez can play out there when needed. And how much of a risk was it really to try Chris Parmelee in center field when your outfield is already the worst in the majors? Throw him out there and see if the ball sticks in his glove.
We can lose our focus on the team by talking about Mauer, but we're not going to do that here. He was having a wretched season until a couple of weeks ago, then started hitting at a Mauer-like pace and now he's out until after the All-Star break. But Mauer's health issues and lack of offense made it more vital that some of the things Gardy has been forced to try actually worked out.
So if you'd like, you can add a dollop of snarkiness to the season by counting down to Gardy's 1,000th career loss or scan the dugout and beg for a replacement, but I'm not going to join you there. My takeaway at the halfway point of this season is that Gardy has done a good job with the hands he's been asked to play -- surviving 7/2s from the dealer at the poker table and too many 16s at the blackjack table.
Yeah, I guess you could call it battling his managerial tail off.
The challenge for the rest of the season is to make sure the Twins stay at something close to their current pace instead of going on another skid toward toward 100 defeats. If he can do that, I want Gardy to have the chance to run this team when it becomes as good as we expect it to become.
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?
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.
The Twins regular season starts on Monday in Chicago and the excitement is underwhelming. I can tell you what I think, but my question to you is whether there's been a year when the start of the Twins season has been met with the amount of dread or apathy or whatever it is I've been sensing?
When I checked the Twins' web site this morning for Home Opener tickets, you could buy a pair 13 rows up -- in the section behind the Champions Club -- and pretty much right behind home plate. In other words, we're even further past the period when people will come to Target Field just because ownership (and the taxpayers) built it.
Even management is sounding more than a bit like frustrated fans -- or bloggers, even. Assistant general manager Rob Antony told Phil Miller in today's paper: "Who's had a great spring, of the position guys? I mean, has anybody really impressed? I read some of the clips on other teams: 'Guy hits his fifth homer of the spring.' We usually have a guy who does some of that too. We've been awfully quiet."
For context, Antony said he believes things will be better when the nine starters are on the field for nine innings. But based on last season's anemic statistics and the total lack of significant changes made to the offense, Antony is believing in something he hasn't seen. I can do that with a Higher Power, but not with the kind of power Antony is hoping to see.
The Twins have scored 23 runs in their last 10 games -- games when the regular-season roster is starting to take shape and regulars are getting more playing time. I wish I could offer you something to grab on to right now, but if that's the best Antony can do, I can't do any better.
Wait, here's one! Joe Mauer is batting 81 points higher than the departed Justin Morneau is with Colorado. Of course, they're tied in home runs (zero). Seriously, even taking into account anything that resembles power and the game-losing fumble he made at first base on Wednesday, Mauer is one of the few things I'm not worried about. If I turn out to be wrong on that, the 162 games will either drag on forever if you're still paying attention, or fly by if you choose to ignore them.
Those who care about the Twins should dread that the arc of their season will imitate that of the Timberwolves: Hope at the start while fans were watching for something better than they'd seen in recent years, followed by game after game that become easier and easier to ignore.
I haven't watched every inning this spring -- far from it -- but my eyes (and the eyes of others who have watched more closely) haven't seen anything that foreshadows a return to when the Twins were known for doing things the right way. I feel like every time I watch for a couple of innings, Jason Bartlett (3 for 35) or Josh Willingham (2 for 36) is making an out. I am puzzled over the debate over who should fill the last few spots on the roster, knowing that none of the candidates would be taken seriously on a team with serious expectations.
Bartlett vs. Escobar? Parmelee here and Herrmann in the minors? Spare me. The inability to upgrade the offense is a giant fail for the front office.
I'm hopeful but that I'm wrong about some of this. Bearing gloom is something I don't enjoy. But I don't want to hear Dick'n'Bert, Danny'n'Cory and the others talking "the fine work of the starting rotation that doesn't show up in the win-loss records." Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes and other others could have fine seasons based on many metrics-- and still lose twice as many as they win if the offense continues to rot.
So is this going to be another season when even more people shrug their shoulders at mention of the Twins, another season that will fall short of putting a competent team on the field? Can you build a case for hope in 2014?
When a season blows up, as another Twins season is doing, one of the consolations should be the final few weeks of the season when some of the new guys get a chance to make names for themselves, and maybe improve their chances to have an impact in the following seasons. It can be fun to watch.
The current group of Twins isn’t even affording their fans much of that opportunity, mostly stumbling through a 10-game home stand in which they managed to get outscored by 37 runs. If you watched for any length of them, you were likely to see players throwing to the wrong base, giving half-hearted renditions of the little things (like backing up their teammates in the field) and continuing a season of cluelessness at the plate.
The other night, following a particularly substantial mental lapse in the infield, Kevin Correia threw his arms in the air like a substitute teacher wondering what he has to do to keep control of his youngsters.
There’s simply nothing to see here.
The glimmers, like Josmil Pinto’s game-changing home run Sunday afternoon, have simply been overwhelmed by all that’s been done wrong. Dick ‘n’ Bert have been unnaturally owly when I’ve caught them; Dan Gladden is a good radio guide for explaining the difference between what’s happening on the field and what should be happening.
The Twins aren’t even living up to the silly cliché of trying to be a spoiler for the teams they’re playing that do have a shot at the postseason. Gardy made that point, especially about the lack of hunger on display during Saturday night's shutout loss to Tampa Bay.
“This is an opportunity for these guys,” he said on his ESPN1500 radio show Sunday morning.
This post isn’t about suggestions for what to do. If five of us put forth our top five ideas, then we’d get tangled up in debating which ones should be at the top of the list. That’s not the point. If you want to know what I think, read this post.
Jim Pohlad acknowledged his embarrassment to a local columnist last week, and a Star Tribune letter writer – the thoughtful minor-league blogger Andrew Walter -- wondered the other day: “I’m curious to find out for how many years the organization can field a pathetic product using the mantra, ‘Target Field offers one of the best fan experiences in all of professional sports.’ “
I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know this: Two of my friends who operate the Section 219 ticket cartel sent around emails last week. They’re done. One wrote: “I have always said that watching baseball is ‘an exquisite waste of time,’ but if none of the play is exquisite -- and the Twins even drag down their opponents -- then it is just a waste of time.”
(Update from the original post: One of the group's leaders hasn't pulled the plug and is trying to find new members, so if you're interested, maybe we can work something out.)
I'm keeping my tickets, but I wonder whether I'll be in the majority. I suspect that one more year of this mess would cause me to get rid of 'em.
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