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.
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?
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.
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.
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