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.
So the Twins are excitedly exclaiming "Game on!" for tonight and expecting however many fans with tickets to brave the freezing temperatures and winds of winter's rotten return. They'll have the heaters turned up and free hot chocolate and coffee. An adventure for those who dare! Definitely an "Explore Minnesota" moment for those watching on TV from elsewhere!
I checked today and the Twins no longer have the policy that used to allow fans to exchange tickets up to 48 hours before first pitch for a game later in the season. It was a policy from the Metrodome years and, understandably, would not have been practical at Target Field when the team was selling out game after game during the honeymoon seasons.
Not that I want to make a practice of telling the Twins how to handle their affairs, but...
I'm hoping that someone at 1 Twins Way has sent one of their underlings to the print shop today to get certificates -- that would be handed to fans as they leave Target Field tonight -- letting them come back for a game at no charge.
Give 'em a half-dozen dates to choose from and tell 'em they have to redeem the certificates within a couple of weeks.
Even make 'em stay through five innings to qualify.
And, what the heck, when they come back for their free game, let 'em in an hour earlier than everyone else so they can watch batting practice!
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?
I would bet that Kevin Correia never imagined that he would be featured in a commercial touting the Twins chances in 2013. Without being harsh -- because the day when pitchers and catchers report to spring training is no time for snark -- the 10-year veteran with the sub-.500 record doesn't exactly inspire the kind of optimism that I'd like to associate with February in Fort Myers.
Of course, that the Twins have resorted to sarcasm in their radio ads doesn't help, either. You've probably heard it, the ad about "your new pitchers" -- Vance Worley, Correia and Mike Pelfrey -- and how "they'll win every game! Yessssss!"
That doesn't even qualify as a sorta deep thought, although I guess it's better than "Fighting for fourth place since 2011."
The best thing the Twins have going for them is a Twin Cities sports market that has taken a dramatic and stunning nosedive in recent weeks. The Timberwolves have gone from possible playoff contender to their natural habitat of last place. The Wild are celebrating its first road victory and have already turned the Xcel Energy Center crowd to booing. Tubby Smith and his Gophers have become a dispiriting train wreck. Jerry Kill and his Gophers just signed the lowest-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten.
Even Don Lucia and his Gophers, the best reason for hope among local teams of some profile, have dropped from No. 1 in the national rankings -- dropping behind a college you probably can't name and almost certainly can't find on a map.
It's enough to make you want to follow Class A high school hockey.
It is onto that bleak landscape that the Twins step this week with their pitchers and catchers -- the healthy ones, anyway -- going through the preseason rituals that will excite many of us, at present, only because they're taking place in warm weather.
This is the time of year when we'll hear guys like Pelfrey saying stuff like this: "From my understanding, this offense is going to put up some runs. If we can keep them in the game and get the ball over to the bullpen, I like our chances." (Read that one here.)
That's an offense without a leadoff or No. 2 hitter, at present, and more positions in the lineup unsettled than settled. And the comments come from a pitcher who had Tommy John surgery on May 1 and expects to be ready for the start of the season. From Adrian Peterson's knee to Pelfrey's arm to God's ears, I suppose.
Remember, at this time last year we were excited about Joel Zumaya.
Here's the disconnect between what you read and hear from the experts and you may be feeling as a fan: Many of the experts are willing to buy into the drawing of a bigger picture and have the patience needed to wait for it to come into view. They can look at a team that's dropped dramatically from first to worst in its division and offer wisdom about the benefits of waiting a couple of more years until things will be better. They'll contend that the minor-league system, after a significant dry spell, is stocked full of hope -- and fans should be patient for 20-whenever.
I've heard those experts talk about the inevitable "down cycles," the wisdom of piling up prospects and their disdain for fans who want the Twins to take shortcuts to success. I saw a tweet from a radio guy about how the Wild's slow start justifies the Twins approach.
I've heard fans argue that a "down cycle" should have the Twins on the edge of contention instead of battling to lose fewer than 100 games. I've heard the skepticism about relying so heavily on prospects, steeped in the list of failures that any serious fan can create if given a few minutes. I've contended that bringing in veteran players to hold down key positions until the prospects are expected to be ready isn't a shortcut as much as it's an obligation from a financially able ownership to its ticket-buying public.
So far, I've kept the promise of my last post not to use the phrase "Kansas City North" in describing the Twins -- and I'm not going to use the phrase "Kansas City North" because snark will not come from this keyboard on the day that pitchers and catchers report.
After all, we've been promised that Worley, Correia and Pelfrey are going to win every game! Yessssss!
So cheer up, OK?
One of Section 219's frequent and valued commenters, "conormacleod," took some exception to my last post on the frustration of finding much to light the hot stove with when it comes to the 2013 Twins. He wrote: "Jeez. One of the most depressing articles on baseball I've ever read. And it's in the middle of a cold front in January. Realism is one thing, but this just stunk to read. I'd rather a breakdown of position by position, even if the numbers aren't that good, than just saying 'they suck.' "
Well, OK then. In that spirit, here's a breakdown of what I'm seeing with the 2013 Twins, although I hesitate to use the word "breakdown" because it may well come close to what could be happening. I'm not going position-by-position, but rather thought-by-thought. (And, seriously folks, comments that take exception to what I'm saying or thinking about the Twins are always appropriate. I like when you agree with me, but you certainly don't have to be as kind to me as you should be to your fellow commenters. Dissent is good. Young 219 had a "Question Authority" t-shirt before he knew what authority was.)
Settled positions: The Twins are set at three positions -- catcher, first base and left field. I'll be watching to see how many games Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham are in the lineup together. All have injury histories of one sort of another and, if health issues act up, the Twins' skinny every-day lineup will become even unhealthier than what I currently imagine.
The No. 9 spot in the batting order: All kinds of candidates. Pedro Florimon, who appears to be the front runner at shortstop, has shown an inability to hit at all levels, with a .321 on-base percentage in 2,900 minor-league plate appearances. Darin Mastroianni, who could well be the starting center fielder if Aaron Hicks isn't ready, also put up numbers worthy of a No. 9 hitter in 2012, although Gardy put him everywhere except the 3-4-5 spots. Jamey Carroll batted ninth more often than any place else last season. And reserve catcher Drew Butera will also battle for some of those at-bats when he gets a chance to play.
The unsettled outfield: We're not going to argue the merits of the Span and Revere deals here. But coming into spring training with two of three outfield positions pretty much unsettled is unsettling. The reliance on youth and hope is a problem, and an example of what I've written about when I've taken issue with the Twins unwillingness to build a bridge to 2014 or 2015, when they're much-touted youngsters are expected to become contributors.
The top two spots in the order: See "unwillingness to build a bridge."
Much-touted youngsters: On a yearly basis, many have written about how the promising youngsters in the Royals organization were finally going to end their more than quarter-century of postseason futility. Ever year, in talking about the upcoming season, I've been among those saying the Royals were going nowhere. Dermal (Dee) Brown? Luke Hochevar? Eric Hosmer? It's all well and good to hold out hope that reinforcements will soon turn around the Twins' fortunes. But I'll believe it when I see it. In the meantime, I'll try to use the phrase "Kansas City North" in describing the Twins as infrequently as possible.
Second, third and shortstop: If you know who's going to see a majority of time at those positions, please tell me. The list of candidates is long. The list of those who would be more than placeholders is not. Trevor Plouffe has the best chance at third base, but he needs to be closer to his May 15-July 20 form (.296 batting average/.344 on-base percentage/.618 slugging percentage) than the August/September numbers when he returned from his hand injury (.196/.254/.344).
Starting pitching: I'm going to err on the side of respecting the judgment of the Twins front office about its pitching acquisitions, although Aaron Gleeman is among those who has written smartly about why that could well be anywhere from wishful thinking to full hallucination. The Twins could be a postseason contender with a rotation of No. 3-type starters, providing they are pitching for a team that can hit and field. Right now, I'm more concerned about the hitting and fielding thing, which the Twins seem to think will take care of itself.
Down cycles: There was some chatter, especially as talk perked up around TwinsFest, about how all teams go through "down cycles." I agree. The issue, however, is that the Twins were positioned not long ago so that a "down" year meant they would be a playoff contender, but not built to survive the haul that the postseason has become. Then, the Twins went far enough "down" that 100 losses became the number to avoid for two straight seasons. It's so far down that merely finding a way to get into the wild card race seems like way, way up.
That's my breakdown. I doubt it makes you feel better, conormacleod. But you asked.
First of all, the Twins didn't intend for the news to come out this way, for the coaching staff casualties to dribble over over the course of Thursday in ones and twos.
That was the excellent work of writer La Velle E. Neal III, who was hard-wired into the organization and went all Brian Urlacher, totally disrupting whatever plans existed and reporting on the firings in as close to real time as they could be confirmed. La Velle was also in transit from Toronto to the Twin Cities, getting the information and getting it to startribune.com as quickly as he could confirm things.
Let me suggest that the Twins should get on with their overhaul with the same intensity that La Velle showed on behalf of Twins fans.
General Manager Terry Ryan decimated Ron Gardenhire's band of brothers Thursday -- firing three coaches, reassigning two and sparing the manager's best baseball buddy, pitching coach Rick Anderson. If we assume that the Rochester pitching coach, Bobby Cuellar, will take over as bullpen coach and Gene Glynn, the Rochester manager, will get a Twins coaching job, you can consider Gardy and Andy to be on a very short leash in 2013.
Talk all you want about the weak starting pitching -- or obfuscate even more and blame it on the injuries to several of the failed starters -- and you ignore the fact that the "Twins way" has become one of mental mistakes in all aspects of the game: Mental errors, giveaway at-bats, flawed pitching. All of those traits manifest themselves in a second season of frightful baseball unworthy of their new ballpark.
However hard the coaches and Gardy were working, things were lost when the messages were delivered from the staff to the players. Ten years ago, the Twins were in need of Gardy's folksy approach as a replacement for the taciturn Tom Kelly.
Now, Gardy is being told by Ryan that what his staff was doing had stopped working and that he'll be given one more chance to fix things without a staff of his own choosing. Faced with what Ryan decided, there are managers who would have walked away with their guys.
I'm going to take it as a good sign that Gardy decided to take on the challenge. Whether he can lead the change is an interesting and debatable question.
Over the last few weeks, when people have asked what I thought would happen, I suggested that things were too quiet for big changes not to be made. I am also certain that nobody in the Twins organization thinks a new coaching staff alone can be sold as big change.
Players will come and go during the off-season. I would bet on minimal drama before things happen and a couple of dramatic moves intended to make 2013 more than a season of meandering toward .500. Many of the empty seats that you could see at Target Field as the season wore on were generating revenue because they were held by absentee season-ticket holders. In my circle, many people are bailing out on their season-ticket investments -- cutting back or getting out entirely.
Baltimore and Oakland this season have shown what's possible. Keep in mind that, with better geography, either of those teams would have handily won the AL Central based on the bigger chunks of Twins, Royals and Cleveland on their schedules.
The Twins not only finished last in their division, but they finished last in the only division in baseball that had three teams lose 90 or more games. The AL Central finished 28 games under .500 against the West and 24 under .500 against the East. (The Twins were 22-50 outside of their division, a .305 winning percentage.)
What happened on Thursday was a message to Gardy. He will have a boatload of work to do during the winter, preparing a new coaching staff -- one that won't of his choosing, however the replacements get spun -- to function the way he needs when the Twins gather in Florida next February.
In return for keeping his job, Gardy has basically forfeited the right to make personnel decisions about his staff that, in a better situation, a GM wants to be able to mostly leave to his field manager. On Twitter, Patrick Reusse described Gardy and Andy as being on "double secret probation."
That's the price of stink.
What needs to happen next are more moves by Ryan and ownership to further show that the painful performances we've witnessed for two years will be replaced by ones we can watch without holding our noses and looking away.
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