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 don't think anyone was expecting the Kendrys Morales news, and that's a gold star for a Twins front office that has so far this season given reasons to feel it wasn't up to figure out how to make the team better.
Adding a switch-hitting, power-hitting, cleanup-hitting potential fixture to the roster has good ramifications for both the short term and the long term.
In the short term, it means roster juggling can take place without having Gardy worry about which mediocrity he'll be forced to use in a day's lineup. One piece already played out Sunday morning when the official announcement of the Morales deal allowed the Twins to rid themselves of overmatched Jason Kubel, whose struggles this spring were sad to watch. Another can happen when Sam Fuld returns and the Twins can move Aaron Hicks to the minors to work on his right-handed-only batting.
Between Fuld and Danny Santana, the Twins can get by just fine in center field in the short term. And maybe Hicks will be in position to help the team next season -- not to mention having an inside track on left field when the Byron Buxton era eventually begins. And I won't be surprised if Santana gets more time at shortstop.
In the longer term, providing the Twins keep Morales, it prepares the Twins for life without Josh Willingham in 2015. Morales is the DH -- could spell Joe Mauer at first base. As excited as you may be about what the addition says about 2014, it will feel a bit hollow if Morales goes elsewhere after this season -- unless he pulls a Jack Morris and is remembered for Game 7 World Series heroics on his way out. (No, I'm not holding my breath.)
Yes, this cuts into the idea of Josmil Pinto's offensive presence as a designated hitter. (I know he has the same number of extra-base hits as Joe Mauer in 98 fewer plate appearances**) But I'm reasonably certain the only way to maintain Kurt Suzuki's unexpected impact over the rest of the season is for him to catch fewer games. I could see a 60/40 split between Suzuki and Pinto as time goes on, or even closer to 50/50. I also buy the position that, as a catcher, Pinto is learning even when he isn't playing.
Many of us may have forgotten this as we've watched the Twins slide, but good teams have depth. Josmil Pinto > Chris Herrmann; Danny Santana > Darin Mastroianni + Alex Presley + Pedro Florimon.
And I'll give the Twins credit for one more thing right now. The willingness to sign Morales makes you intrigued about what they may do next week, next month or beyond. There are nine teams within 3 1/2 games of the two American League wild-card spots. I've written, enough times to bore you in the last couple of seasons, that the Twins failed their fans and themselves by not bringing in players who could put the team in a competitive position while waiting for the ones who are expected to make 'em really good.
I'm seeing that change.
The signings of Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco (even taking into account Nolasco's struggles so far) and Suzuki, combined with the Morales addition, gives reason to believe that Minnesota is being seen by players as a place to come after the talent migration that started with Michael Cuddyer and some of the others after Target Field opened. If that's true, it's nothing but good.
(**Gratuitous Mauer mention in the spirit of the years of gratuitous Nick Punto mentions here and elsewhere over the years. You can also do this: Willie Mays at age 31: .315/.390/.585; Joe Mauer at age 31: .320/.402/.462.)
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 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?
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