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.
First of all, I'm disappointed the Twins didn't sign Brian Fuentes. I wish the Twins would have come at him aggressively early on and made it clear that they saw him as part of a Nathan/Capps/Fuentes/Mijares quartet that would rule the final three innings in 2011. To me, he could have been an end-game difference maker that the Twins didn't have in the other guys they let walk.
I'm also trying to imagine the howls if the Twins had signed Jesse Crain or Matt Guerrier to the three-year deals they sucked out of the White Sox and Dodgers. The system worked for those guys.
That being said, I simply can't get all worked up about the current state of the bullpen.
Concerned, yes. Wondering about Joe Nathan's return and Jose Mijares' maturity and how Matt Capps will do as a set-up guy for Nathan, which is the way things are supposed to work out. Right now, I'm wondering if Brian Duensing is a fine fit as the bullpen fourth and thinking that from the rest of the relief candidates -- Hoey/Neshek/Diamond/Perkins/Manship/Slama -- the Twins should be able to find two set-up guys and someone to eat the ugly innings of lopsided games.
I'm also wondering if the Yankees and Twins would have an interest in a Kevin Slowey-for-Joba Chamberlain deal. Both are struggling pitchers who have frustrated their teams with a lack of progress. The Yankees have become dismissive of Chamberlain, all the more when you consider that they need starting pitching and his name doesn't come up much when potential rotations are vetted.
Make that deal and the Twins would even cut a bit more than $1 million from the payroll while adding a heavy arm to the bullpen mix. I'm all about saving the Pohlads money, you know. (Wink. More on them later.)
Now, for a more serious message. I've been hearing and reading a lot about payroll and budgets as they relate to the Twins.
Can we agree on two things?
1. With Carl Pavano and Jim Thome back, an improved middle infield (let's assume that as the best-case scenario) and a revamped bullpen that's as good as the 2010 model (again, work with me, people), the Twins are in fine position to.... to... to... compete for another AL Central title. Did I just see a yawn?
2. If the Twins are that good, they'll still need an upgrade at the top of the rotation to battle through the postseason -- and almost certainly the closing months of the regular season in an improved division. Maybe Francisco Liriano will become a Top 5 pitcher who works as well in big games as he does in the other ones. But I'm skeptical. So that means the pressure will be on Bill Smith and the Pohlads, come summer, to make a Cliff Lee-type move. Otherwise, the Twins will be reduced to playing the hope card again, and I think even the most patient among us are starting to find that tiresome.
Twins management has the financial wherewithal to do pretty much whatever it wants. The tenant days at the Metrodome have been replaced by the ringing cash registers of Target Field and a business operation headed by the late Carl Pohlad's three sons that appears to function smoothly and aggressively. According to Forbes magazine, Carl was worth $3.6 billion in 2008 and the brothers sold off their soft-drink bottling and distribution business for $2.12 billion in 2010. It wouldn't at all be a stretch to continue investing in the baseball team, right?
The Twins will start the season with a payroll of about $113 million. Some are clucking about the $18.4 million that's tied up in the back end of the bullpen (Nathan and Capps) but that's an amount the Twins were backed into by Nathan's injury. The Joe Mauer legacy contract of $23 million per season is such a unique situation that I consider his salary a separate expense beyond payroll -- a business decision that had to be done and a baseball decision made with logic and crossed fingers.
So I'm quite comfortable arguing that the Twins were queasy about throwing out multi-year contracts to relief pitchers they felt could be adequately replaced. That was a baseball decision and didn't have anything to do with the Pohlads and their advisors getting dry heaves when looking at the team payroll. If they're OK with paying Capps $7.15 million, we probably shouldn't lose any sleep over it. If Crain, Rauch and/or Guerrier were going to be keys to a championship, they'd still be Twins. Among those four, I'll take Capps.
And I'm just as comfortable saying that when the Twins show themselves to be contenders come midseason, the pressure will be on Bill Smith to get the pitcher that will get them past the discouraging three-and-out syndrome that has become the story of October baseball in Minnesota. That would be a wise business (and baseball) decision.
If Smith and the Pohlads get to that point and don't come through, fans will have reason to howl.
1. Bullpen pitchers can be replaced.
2. Twins have no reason not to contend. (Sorry for the double negative.)
3. Top-line starter will be needed for late season and post-season.
4. Money for that starter is available.
5. Let's get the guys on the field.
If you're looking for something to do on Friday, January 28, let me suggest joining up with a bunch of us for the "Third Annual Last Hot Stove League Banquet and Charity Auction," a production of Julian Loscalzo and the Save the Met gang. Despite the name, the event dates back almost 30 years and this year's banquet will feature former Twins pitcher and broadcaster Jim Kaat. Tickets are $30 in advance and you can get 'em by mailing a check (made out to BPT) to 1141 Portland Ave., St. Paul, 55104. Event location is at the Carpenter's Hall, 710 Olive Street in St. Paul.
If you want certainty, baseball is not a good place for you.
Baseball players are more like mutual funds (and sometimes like penny stocks) than certificates of deposit. A flawed portfolio can leave you vulnerable.
For all of the money it spent last season, the Twins front office decided that it owned a flawed portfolio. Orlando Hudson outlived his usefulness at second base, J.J. Hardy wasn't the answer at shortstop and the bullpen could be replenished with better values than the departed cast.
The decision-makers may make wrong choices. But if the idea is to get past the first round of the playoffs, you need to do more than tap Hardy on the head and say, "We expect more from you than your slightly-above-average performance of 2010, young man. And don't get hurt again, OK?"
The Twins are opting for speed and hope. That's the Plan A of giving the middle infield spots to Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla. Nobody expects Nishioka to be Ichiro-the-sequel, but the Twins are hoping for more than teams got from Kaz Matsui. Casilla was a bust when handed second base in 2009 and the Twins are hoping he's learned from that experience and will be stronger, at shortstop presumably, in 2011. I don't think it will turn out to be a defensive downgrade, either.
Look back a decade: Torii Hunter spent a couple of seasons making people wonder about his skills before becoming a star. Look back a generation: Frank Viola spent two seasons with a five-plus ERA before blossoming. Tell me why Casilla is utterly hopeless?
If the Twins think more team speed is one key to improvement, then I'm OK with the uncertainty that will come along with adding some. If I'm remembering right, the Twins have outperformed most teams over the past 10 years or so, which is why the "idiots-in-the-front-office" foolishness wears a little thin. There have been some mammoth fails and puzzlers along the way, but the overall record works for me.
If something doesn't work out, there will be infielders available. I'm more concerned about how the Twins are positioning themselves to make a run at a top-of-the-rotation starter sometime during the 2011 season. That's been a missing piece in October since Johan Santana left.
Speaking of starting pitchers, good luck to the Brewers and Royals with this Zack Greinke thing. I don't have much to offer, except that Carl Pavano no longer seems relevant to Milwaukee, which is good news for the Twins.
The Royals are perpetually rebuilding and they have received a promising young outfielder, their 132nd shortstop in the last six years, a minor-league pitcher and a player to be named later. Fourth place in the AL Central is within their grasp.
Rather than set off on my own about the complicated Greinke, the best thing is to leave you with this wonderful blog post from Joe Posnanski. It's very long.
Sometimes 3,500 words are worth more than a picture.
But if you really need a picture, here's one from the Twins:
The Twins need to rebuild their bullpen in 2011. They need to hope Joe Nathan rebounds from his Tommy John-forced sabbatical, that Matt Capps can do whatever job for which he's called upon, that Jose Mijares discovers some consistency and that the rest of the parts can be cobbled together from the minors and the guys who will be available as winter wears on.
For those of you playing along, the best free-agent tracker I know of is at mlbtradrumors.com, where you can see that Boof has signed a minor-league deal with the Mets (There goes Plan Z for the Twins) and Juan Cruz is available again.
Not to be too snarky about it, but it made me quite happy to see Jesse Crain sign with the White Sox. I really wanted to believe in his streak last summer -- when he gave up only four earned runs in 41 2/3 innings from mid-June through Septemeber. I wanted to believe that it was just a belch when he blew up against Toronto in a meaningless game in the season's final weekend, but I had noticed that he was having more trouble locating his pitches as September wore on.
Evidence: Craig walked 7 of 35 batters during a seven-game stretch in September after walking only 7 of 88 batters in 29 appearances before that. But we were so caught up in the Twins running away with the division that individual malfeasance was easy to overlook. And in 2009 there was a stretch of 17 appearances without allowing an earned run and, in 2006, Crain ended the season with 22 2/3 innings in which he gave up only one earned run.
In other words, his entire career has been about streaks and valleys -- and to read much more into last summer's hotness is a flawed premise. If ther White Sox want him -- and want him for three years, at that -- good for Jesse and good luck with that. Same goes for Matt Guerrier, who has parlayed his Twins service into a three-year deal with the Dodgers. Happy for him -- and happy it didn't happen here
Look at the mlbtrademrumors.com list and it isn't hard to convince yourself that there will be arms who will come cheaper and give the Twins just as much.
I think the White Sox have just done some subtraction by addition.
Thirty years ago, I was in Ely writing about the American Legion World Series. The future Mets lefty Sid Fernandez was pitching for the Hawaii team (and kind of freaked out during a northwoods thunderstorm). Bob Melvin, the former Seattle and Arizona manager, played for a California team. It was a big enough deal in Ely that they even had souvenir beer, which we think stayed out of the players' hands.
But the most memorable part of the week was being invited with to sit in the high school library for an hour with Bob Feller, Ted Williams and an old spitball pitcher named Burleigh Grimes. It was described as a press conference, but it was much better -- about a half-dozen of us listening, mostly, to Feller and Williams ask each other questions. We asked a few and then pretty much knew to shut up.
"Who was the best fielding shortstop you ever saw?" Williams asked Feller.
"Never paid much attention to that," Feller replied.
He led the American League in strikeouts seven times, which meant that the guy at shortstop didn't much matter.
Grimes, who pitched from 1916 to 1934 and was 87 years old at the time, told them both: "I could throw my best stuff to (Rogers) Hornsby and he'd hit it on the end of the bat and poke it over first base."
Williams played reporter for much of the hour. He asked Grimes, inducted into the Hall by the veterans' committee, and Feller about the icons of their eras. He wanted to know from Grimes what it was like to face Lou Gehrig and he asked Feller about Hank Greenberg, among others.
"Hall of Famers discussing fellow legends," I wrote. "Awe was present."
Speaking of legends, Gardy says he wants to bring Nick Punto back.
I have this unfortunate image of Gardy going into Bill Smith's office, plugging his iPod into the speaker dock and doing a Justin Timberlake cover.
You know, PuntoBack
I'm bringing Punto back/Those other boys don't know how to act/Bill, let me make up for the things he lacks/He'll burn it up for me and that's a fact.
Will Smith tell Gardy to just be gone with it?
The drama goes on.
Who has the next verse?
I have some trouble reading the baseball blogs during the off-season because, quite frankly, the 200 or so games from the first exhibition until the final out of the World Series is enough to tide me over until the cycle of life begins anew. I bear no malice toward those who keep up their intensity year-round, but I'm not in your club.
I've also noticed, when I do go take a peek, that the dialogue and disagreement seems sharper and more impatient this time of year.
Now, let's talk J.J. Hardy.
Compared to other shortstops, he graded out slightly above average when he was healthy enough to play last season. There were the extended stretches during the first half and the days-here-and-there parts of the second half of the season that added up to 61 games missed with injuries. Having a slightly-above-average shortstop for about 100 games is nice, but when you're looking at parts of your team that can be added or subtracted for 2011 -- the Twins were fortunate to find a market for their slightly above average and frequently banged up shortstop.
If you're of a mind that the Twins need to be about more than just making the playoffs in 2011, I argue you should be of a mind that risks need to be taken.
The Twins are betting that Tsuyoshi Nishioki will be a significant upgrade in the middle infield -- a top-of-the-order presence with more speed and solid defense than Hardy could provide. (Please let him not be the Japanese Nick Punto.)
And the Twins are betting that Alexi Casilla's improved performance when he returned from elbow surgery for the second half of the season -- especially his numbers from late July through the end of August -- is an indication that he had the potential to improve and has the stuff to be a lineup fixture. (The Twins were burned by this line of reasoning when they tried to install Casilla at second base in 2009, but does that mean you give up on him forever and ever?)
What did you think Hardy was going to bring? A(nother) middle-of-the-rotation starter? A right handed bat with power? Wasn't going to happen. The Rays are about to trade Jason Bartlett to San Diego for two relievers with a bit of major league time and minor-league numbers that wouldn't get you excited.
We liked Hardy because he solved a problem. Now, we should expect Nishioka to be an even better solution.
I think some people also liked Hardy because it allowed them to say, "We'll at least, the Twins got him and Jon Rauch 'for' Santana."
Now -- with Rauch a free agent, too -- the Twins have the unknowns Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey "for" Santana.
But it's time to get over the Santana thing in the same way that it's time to stop looking at Delmon Young in the prism of that deal.
And one more thing. The Twins got Baltimore to take Brendan (Happy) Harris, the utility infielder/political science major whose on-field demeanor was of a man who felt the world was conspiring against him at every turn -- or umpire's call. Harris, a self-proclaimed conservative, should at least be able to talk some sense into the head of his new teammate -- the birther Luke Scott. (Good luck with that, Happy!)
Back to the important stuff:
The Twins need to hold bullpen auditions this spring and they need to figure out who plays where in the middle infield. They need to make sure that Danny Valencia is most of the player that he was during the second half of last season and that Justin Morneau's health allows the Twins to talk Mauer/Morneau in the same way the Tigers will tout Cabrera/Martinez and the White Sox their upgrade of Dunn/Konerko.
They need to make a call on Carl Pavano and, even if they sign him, still will need to be the team willing to get next summer's Cliff Lee as a postseason booster shot.
Then there's Joe Nathan and the four outfielders and the hope that Francisco Liriano's mound presence in big games catches up with his season's statistics.
In other words, you can really drive yourself crazy thinking about the wants and needs and moves and such. I recommend chillin' for now because, come the spring, we'll find no shortage of stuff to get worked up about.
It made sense for the Angels to let Brian Fuentes go in a waiver deal. They weren't going to bring him back in 2011 and they feel good about having Fernando Rodney step into the closer's role for now -- and for 2011. Plus, the Angels are in the closing weeks of a disappointing season and the post-trade quotes from their general manager about not giving up on this season have the scent of an ethanol plant on a bad-wind day. (The Angels are 10 1/2 games behind Texas and third in the AL West.)
With Rodney around, Fuentes took on the role of the quarterback who was less popular with the fans than the second-stringer sitting on the bench. (Of course, that's an affliction currently absent in Minnesota.)
Despite leading the majors in saves in 2009, Fuentes was a target of boos from many Angels fans. They were particularly unforgiving, apparently, because of the home run in gave up to A-Rod in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. The Angels had scored in the top of the 11th and A-Rod tied it off Fuentes in the bottom of the inning. The Yankees won in the 13th.
The Angels fell behind two games to none and went on to lose in six.
Yet, that pitch was enough for one Angels blogger to describe that situation as "that awful pitch to Alex Rodriguez in the playoffs that might have cost the Angels the ALCS."
After the trade, Fuentes was asked if he felt appreciated by Angels fans. His response, in the Los Angeles Times: "I don't know. I feel like I was pitching on the road quite a bit here. I came in to a lot of boos. But the fans here come out in droves, they're here to be entertained, and one way or another, they're going through my frustrations and my success."
This season, Fuentes went on the disabled list after an Opening Night save against the Twins (a back muscle strained while lifting weights) and struggled for a spell upon his return. In his first two months back, he had a 6.61 ERA and three blown saves. In his next 20 games, he gave up one earned run in 20 innings, a hot run that ended when he gave up three runs in a get-some-work inning against Tamba Bay on Tuesday.
He's been megatough on lefties -- who are batting .132/.209/.158 against him. That's five hits and 15 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances.
Fuentes' contract is guaranteed only through this season and it's improbable that he'll meet the condition -- 55 games finished -- for it to be automatically renewed in 2011.
But he's come to an interesting situation in Minnesota. There's the title race into which he's been thrust, plus the sorting-out process over the winter that will involve the bullpen in a big-time way with Joe Nathan's rehab, Matt Capps' presence, Jesse Crain's current dazzle and a host of other set-up guys.
That's an exercise for later.
For now, the new lefty's goal should be to get some love from Twins fans. That'll mean things are going well.
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