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.
I will be as direct as possible here.
When I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I said that if Ron Gardenhire could keep the Twins together and finish the season in a way that showed some improvement over the last three seasons of almost 100-losses apiece, I’d like to see him get a shot at managing the 2015 Twins.
Based on the first eight games of the post-All Star home stand, I can’t see that improvement happening. The Twins have stumbled to a couple of victories and bumbled their way to a half-dozen defeats during a stretch of games that could have kept them relevant.
None were against teams with the eight best records in the American League. In other words, the players who were making pleas to keep the roster together for the season’s final months, couldn’t back up their talk with any kind of action in games against flawed opponents.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Words have become hollow at Target Field. And with other distractions coming along – Vikings training camp, Gophers football starting soon, the Lynx and Minnesota United chasing titles in basketball and soccer, even your local high school teams – anything that comes from Target Field will be increasingly ignored.
I went to the Lynx game Friday night and didn’t even bother checking on the Twins afterward. Twitter told me everything I needed to know. Later, I walked by the game replay on FSNorth and saw Kevin Correia's best toss of the night, when he hurled his chewing gum after a grooved pitch that Chicago's Jose Abreu smashed for a three-run homer in the first inning.
I’m not going to judge whether the best of the young pitchers should be called up soon instead of being targeted for 2015. What I do know is that I’d have a hard time justifying exposing any kind of promising young talent to what’s going on with the Twins right now. There’s too much bad out there. Let Yohan Pino be exposed to that instead of Alex Meyer.
Let Parmelee, Fuld, Fryer, Colabello and the other borderline major leaguers finish out this season and start fresh without them (and some others) in 2015. That must be ownership’s commitment to fans who have been sickened into apathy by the last four seasons. Just saying "losing sucks," a Jim Pohlad line from a couple of years back, doesn't win anything except wondering if he really means it.
A fresh start includes hiring a new manager.
In addition to not being very good, the Twins over and over again are showing that they’re not very baseball smart. I saw it in Wednesday’s victory when Brian Dozier, who is usually better than that, shoveled a gloved-hand throw over the first baseman’s head on a play he had no business even trying. I’ve also seen it in grooved pitches and taken pitches and poorly focused at-bats and base-running mistakes. You can get by with some suspect players if their mental game props up their physical limitations, but second-tier players making beer league choices equals no hope.
The endless loop of mental mistakes, which hasn’t improved as players have gotten more experience, is on the manager and his coaching staff. When I teach my college students, there are times when the repeated mistakes of a student wear me down to where I don’t see them. So if Gardy is worn down by what he keeps seeing, I get it.
Gardy has been given his chances to make things better – and his successes before 2011 earned him bonus chances that wouldn’t have been given to others. It hasn’t worked. If he gets a job managing elsewhere, which many of his supporters contend would happen, so be it.
That’s not a reason for keeping him.
I don’t know if Twins management has fully accepted the level of casual mocking that their team gets. It’s not just the always-angry on social media. It’s the people I know who have stopped going to games and those who are questioning whether to keep buying tickets – whether it’s to single games or season packages. Without the All-Star Game as incentive and with another sorry season concluding, many people aren’t going to keep buying in without an overhaul.
I asked around on Twitter for people to share their thoughts about the Twins.
There was this:
@afansview I hate to say this as a fan, but at this point I'm almost rooting for them to lose just to drive the point home to the Pohlads...— Matt Krier (@matthewkrier) July 26, 2014
@afansview The Twins are making me look forward to the NFL exhibition games.....— Big Steve (@darbywisdom) July 26, 2014
@afansview - I don't think it will hit the front office like it has is fans until it hurt them where it matters most- their pocket books.— Ex Twins News (@Ex_Twins_News) July 26, 2014
@afansview no apathy here. Frustration at about 8. Mix of feeling cursed due to injuries, and tired of seeing more AAA filler for 4th year.— Matt Kummer (@mattkummer) July 26, 2014
There's more, which you can find on my feed.
And there was this, from an email by Twins fan Max Athorn, who wanted to go beyond 140 characters to address stuff:
"This season, for some reason that I am still not entirely sure, I have actually paid closer attention to them than I have during the last three awful years. I have paid attention to the roster moves, read the blogs, read the scouting reports, and watched the brutally uncompetitive 3-1 losses (that are way different from the occasionally competitive 3-1 losses). I love the Twins, and to that end, I love these Twins just as much as I've loved any Twins in the thirty years I've lived. But now, as things just seemingly refuse to get any better or worse, to such a bizarre degree that they are just simply the same-ol' same, I have been more inclined to re-evaluate my position."
Among the follies of this season was starting out in spring training believing that Pedro Florimon would be the starting shortstop; Aaron Hicks was ready for center field (without any kind of serious Plan B; Danny Santana has been a lucky stopgap that spared us another Darin Mastroianni-type); the pitching staff would be better, and a couple of returnees named Jason would help with their experience. That’s not hitless in four tries.
That’s four strikeouts on 12 pitches.
It doesn’t matter if I thought Hicks was ready, Florimon would be fine or Jason Kubel and/or Jason Bartlett could play a role. It was the organization’s call and it failed miserably. Perhaps the surprise of 2014 should be that the Twins didn’t become ignorable more quickly. But giving Gardy and his staff credit for that is a C-minus paper in a year of failing work. It’s not enough to pass. Because Terry Ryan was out of the general manager’s office at the time fighting his cancer battle, it was even more important for the field staff to fight for the right moves during spring training.
Here's more from fan Max Athorn's email:
"As the weeks and months of mediocrity in Minneapolis drag on, there is one thing that we have learned that Ron Gardenhire is NOT: He's not an innovator. He can't pull any tricks that he hasn't already pulled. He has no secret weapons and no master plan. Finally, a couple of days ago, I realized where it stands for me: I feel the same way about Ron Gardenhire as the Twins feel about Matt Guerrier.
"The Twins loved Matt Guerrier, and I think most Twins fans understood why. This past week, though, it became clear that Matt Guerrier just didn't represent the same stability and success that he once did.
"My favorite part about the Twins broadcasts are Ron Gardenhire's press conferences. (Let that set in for a minute!) Actually, I truly enjoy watching him. I think he's funny, I think he's thoughtful, I think he's empathetic and articulate and I think he knows a lot about baseball. I like that he's a little erratic, and I like that he's curmudgeonly; I like his loyalty to his pitching coach and his most hard-working players. I like everything that I know about him.
"The Twins' failure is not Ron Gardenhire's fault. But it becomes increasingly clear to me, that the next time the Twins are riding a September winning streak into the playoffs, it won't be because of Ron Gardenhire."
Gardy’s contract runs through next season, so there would be a year of severance for him as a reward for the better times. That’s fine with me. I don’t know whether the next manager is sitting in the Twins’ dugout, another team’s dugout or a broadcast booth. I do know that I can’t imagine a scene in which Gardy returns and the team has any credibility with many, many of its fans.
It’s time for a change. I’ve been cautious in reaching that conclusion -- frustratingly so to some of you, I know – but I think that gives my conclusion extra weight.
I have pretty much done my best to stay out of the Joe Mauer discussions, which is a polite term for much of what I’ve heard and read, because so much of it runs counter to what I value as a fan, a media member and a neighbor. A few weeks ago, I had some fun comparing Mauer’s production at the time to that of the legend Nick Punto and it set off people in all kinds of ways.
Joe Mauer is having a mediocre year. You know it, he knows it, your co-worker who searches for truth by watching nothing but al-Jazeera and FOX News knows it. Whether it means that he’s started a career decline at age 31 or this is a big bump in his career, we’ll eventually find out. What do I think? I don’t know.
What I do wonder about is how Mauer would be remembered if his career was pretty much done at age 32 in a manner similar to Tony Oliva, who went from one of the game’s best outfielders to just-another-starter (at DH, no less) for the final few years of his career because of the knee injuries that wrecked his game. Have Mauer’s injuries taken a gradual toll much less dramatic but just as problematic as what happened to Oliva? I don’t know.
Or what would happen if Mauer’s career disappeared without warning, as it did with Kirby Puckett at age 35 because of glaucoma? Would Puckett’s legacy have been changed for some people if he’d been able to return from the fastball-to-the-face that he took in the last plate appearance of his career, but was never again capable of the play that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer? I don’t know.
Was the prevailing wisdom that Justin Morneau was done because his play ranged from mediocre to pretty good in the three years after his concussion? Yes, you and I both know the answer to that one. And as well as Morneau is playing right now, his statistics aren’t as good as in any of the seasons from 2006-10, when he was the league's MVP, an All-Star or both.
I don’t know what’s ahead for Mauer. I do know that trying to find silver linings in this season is as ridiculous as using this season to say that he’ll never return to his previous form. I’ve heard a half-dozen theories of what Mauer should do, ranging from the insightful Dan Gladden to insight-impaired talk show participants who make me hit the radio button that takes me to old-school Hip Hop.
It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.
I’ve watched the comparisons of Mauer at age 31 to Puckett and Derek Jeter at age 31 – and I’m pretty sure those are intended to enrage the debaters more than to advance the discussion. I failed my purity test this week by comparing Mauer to the legendary ex-Twins catcher Corky Miller at age 31. In case you’re wondering and don’t want to look it up, Mauer does well in all three comparisons.
All of the Mauer battling takes away from something more interesting, and more in line with enjoying what’s happening rather than picking apart players and each other:
For all of their shortcomings, the Twins will be a .500 team more than one-third of the way into the season if they beat Milwaukee again tonight. I was among those who were convinced that 2014 could easily be the worst of the bad seasons, so being this OK is a pretty good diversion. All the more because some pretty rotten things were done with roster management, much of it revolving around outfield depth and players named Jason.
Focusing entirely on that discounts the moves that have so far turned out to be well executed and a season that’s been better than expected.
If I’m going to carry around any distress about what’s going on, it’ll happen when I look in the Milwaukee outfield and see Carlos Gomez … and in Baltimore’s infield and see J.J. Hardy … and on the roster of all-time Twins and see Jim Hoey. I’m working on getting over it, but that’s not easy.
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 wise Twin Cities baseball writer Pat Borzi, whose work frequently appears in the New York Times, pretty much said what I was thinking on Friday when he tweeted:
Re Sano's elbow trouble today: #MNTwins, like many teams, routinely underplay extent of injuries. Let's see how this plays out next 72 hrs.— Patrick Borzi (@BorzMN) February 28, 2014
So the next morning's news that Miguel Sano won't play this season and needs Tommy John surgery was more sad than it was a surprise.
Borzi properly points out that we're talking about an issue in the culture of sports as opposed to a Twins issue. The Wild's goalie, Josh Harding, was supposed to miss a few games to get his medication for MS tweaked, and he's still sidelined. The extent of injuries to Adrian Peterson, Nikola Pekovic and others on the local teams has been understated from time to time to time to time to time.
Remember Michael Cuddyer's wart?
So if you're expected a rant from afar about how the Twins should have handled Sano's situation differently, I'm sure you'll be able to find it somewhere else. From the media reports, the Twins did what they could -- with their in-house medical staff and with the consultation of Dr. James Andrews, one of the highest-profile practitioners of the Tommy John procedure -- to discern the best course of treatment. You don't have to be too cynical to assume that if the Twins had suggested surgery back when Sano's elbow problems were first known, they would have caught grief from those who wanted to see the 20-year-old third baseman playing in the majors as soon as possible, if not sooner.
Of course, the Twins did themselves no favors by creating the "bilateral leg weakness" frenzy that surrounded Joe Mauer during the team's 2011 meltdown. The Twins have bred skepticism on enough levels over the years -- going back to contraction and the political battles that eventually led to Target Field's creation -- that I won't be surprised about some of the mistrust and second-guessing that we'll hear about Sano.
Totally different issues can become intertwined at a time like this.
Now the challenge for fans is to remember that the Twins have a 2014 season to play and that Sano wasn't going to be a major part of it, aside from people looking wistfully toward the Class AAA Rochester team and wondering about Sano's readiness at the second or third sign of struggle for the Twins. Third base unequivocally belongs to Trevor Plouffe unless the Twins create a Plan B in the next few weeks to replace the Sano shadow that was supposed to be Plouffe's competition. (If you tell me that Jason Bartlett or Eduardo Escobar or Deibinson Romero are competition, I will tell you to that we'll talk baseball when you're serious.)
I hope that Plouffe steps up and can be a case study is how players can struggle with parts of their game and then break through to become complete players. Plouffe's goal should be to become so valuable that the Twins need to figure out a Plan B for what to do with Sano when he's back at 100 percent. (That's probably unrealistic, but aiming high is better than settling.) Can he become more of a Cuddyer than, say, Danny Valencia?
From what I understand, Sano should be able to return to third base and make a full recovery. At age 20 and without the potential to play this season, I will assume that he'll take his rehabilitation with the enthusiasm of someone who understands his potential to make more money that most of us will ever see.
This is the kind of bad that just happens. Not the kind of bad that the Twins have frequently created for themselves.
Back around the start of the season, a couple of people emailed and chewed on me for being -- in their opinions -- excessively grumpy about the Twins. One of them said that it made my voice in the discussion less relevant, which struck me as a little bit off. But in return for sharing my opinions, I have an obligation to be thick-skinned when they are critiqued.
I have to say that however harsh I may have been back them doesn't feel like it was harsh enough.
Let me put it this way so that nobody can misunderstand: From the front office to the playing field, the Twins made a mockery of 2013. Anything that smacks of progress is overshadowed by all that went wrong and needs to be overhauled. In fact, I'm kind of glad the Twins capped off their miserable season with such a miserable finish, losing 20 of their final 25 games and getting outscored by 90 runs in that span.
That way, nobody can look at anything that happened over the final month -- when positive signs are often illusions, anyway -- and look to it as hope for the future.
When I look at the extended September roster, plus those on the disabled list, I see 11 players that I want to see back in 2014. Maybe 12. Go ahead and do that exercise and see where you end up. There are about two dozen players who would be no great loss (or no loss whatsoever) to not see again in a Twins uniform. That's a telling head count.
I mean, I'm trying to figure out exactly who the Twins players and manager Ron Gardenhire are talking to in those sappy end-of-season ads in which they thank fans for hanging with them through the season. I know it's marketing, but it had the hollow ring of airline ads that talk about their customer service when dealing with them is another matter entirely. Despite being a season-ticket holder, they weren't talking to me.
I would have preferred the Pohlads looking earnestly into a camera and saying, "We're sorry, fans. This won't happen again. Not only are we as peeved as you are, we have the power to take action and do something about it." Twins players could have thanked their fans in September by showing a pulse rather than being the Happy Meal of teams clinching their spots in the postseason.
Incredibly, during this final and dismal homestand, Twins batters struck out 91 times in 244 at-bats -- a 37 percent rate. In other words, the Twins struck out last week at the same rate as Mark Reynolds, the notorious MLB strikeout machine, during his seven-year career.
Now comes the off-season. It is time to be done with the players who take a step back back for every hint of progress when their careers should be beyond that stage. While waiting for the arrivals of the talented young players about whom we hear so much, it is time for the Twins to build a base of quality players with experience to greet them. Cleveland showed what can be done this season. Tampa Bay has done it season after season. There are others, too.
To have promoted anyone with promise into what was happening at Target Field this season would have exposed them to nothing good. In fact, it's logical to wonder whether some of the issues that Gardenhire had with young and talented Oswaldo Arcia were steeped in the environment that he entered. Nobody was here to help steer Aaron Hicks, who probably shouldn't have been here at all, and certainly it was best to keep Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario as far from the troubles as possible.
It is better to bring in the Swishers, Pierzynskis, Napolis and their veteran ilk than to engage in silly debate about whether guys like Chris Colabello and Alex Presley and Chris Parmelee are of major-league caliber beyond a 24th or 25th roster spot. (We can disagree on names, but I hope we agree on philosophy.) I'll take failure when there are expectations over failure based on the unwillingness to engage.
The Twins have risked little with the players they've brought in because, frankly, there would be little market for them elsewhere. They give off the scent of an organization that is afraid to take risks. I haven't said this for a while because I may have said it too often in the past, but this ownership never had any reason to hide behind payroll as a reason for player moves (or inactivity). And it has even less reason to do so now..
There has been some brave chatter about tapping the free agent market in ways the Twins haven't tried; yet there was also Terry Ryan's scary contention a couple of weeks back that Josh Willingham's $21 million deal somehow represented a "huge" contract. Willingham, remember, signed with the Twins for $10.5 less over three years than the player he replaced -- 2013 National League batting champion Michael Cuddyer.
Yes, it is possible to both spend more and spend intelligently. There's even more urgency to do it starting this very minute because waiting any longer will make it that much more difficult to have credibility among the players who could help them improve. It was only a few years back when coming to Minnesota was an opportunity to compete at the highest level. Now it's on the precipice of being an organization of last resort. To hear Astros and Twins in the same sentence -- "The Astros and Twins have lost more games over the last three years than any other MLB team." -- is ugly.
That's all for now, friends. I'd like to end the season with something wistful for you, but there's nothing to look back on that way. I backed out of a couple of chances to go to the ballpark one last time this month and, yes, I'm glad the season is over.
At least we have October basketball to engage us. Go Lynx!
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