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.
It's been a couple of weeks since we slogged through the wreckage of the final days of the Twins season, during which the most cheerful of Twins fans could celebrate the final two victories that kept the team from losing 100 games. Whether or not they lost 100 wasn't a big deal to me because the reality that things need to change for 2012 and beyond should have already sunk in to those who can do something about it, whether they be players and their work ethic or the front office and its need to openly acknowledge reality.
There's no shortage of interesting stuff out there how the Twins can better themselves. The TwinsCentric crew is putting together a lively portfolio of work and Phil Mackey at ESPN1500 has an interesting three-part read on what the Twins could and should do.
If you want to play along, here's a list of free agents for 2012.
So far, the most interesting event of the Twins offseason has been the phone call that general manager Bill Smith held with season-ticket holders on the Tuesday after the season ended. Fielding prescreened questions, Smith showed more range than usual. He acknowledged that it was hard to give a No. 1 priority because so many things have to be better. The best things I took away from the phone call, which Joe Christensen reported on, was an acknowledgment that some of 2011's starting pitchers could be in 2012's bullpen and that getting a solid starter is vital. Also, that going outside the organization for an everyday shortstop is a priority.
Smith also said that the backup catching needs to be upgraded. Yup.
Those things being said, here are the interesting things I've learned paying attention to baseball in October.
*Ron Washington is a fine manager. He has built a team in his image, with the support of a Texas front office that backed him through his unfortunate cocaine-use episode in 2009 and saw his methods when others wondered if he was going to survive. Washington was a utility player for the Twins in the mid-1980s and, even though he could hit, you could see how the Twins of that era suffered when they had to rely on him as an every-day shortstop. (The late Twins president Howard Fox used to refer to Washington as "Roberto Duran." Those of you who remember Duran also remember his nickname: "Hands of Stone." )
Washington was among the middle infielders, holdovers and hopefuls, purged form the roster before the start of the 1987 season. (One of the guys trying out that spring was named Gardenhire. He didn't make it either.) But Washington can manage, and I made the unpopular argument last season that he should have been the American League manager of the year -- an award that went to Gardy. Washington should win it this year.
*For all the grief we (rightfully) give Twins management for the understated way it acts publicly, the events in Boston of the past week have been pretty incredible. Winning masks many dysfunctions and losing, especially falling apart so dramatically, can blow up some things out of proportion. I hope that the Twins, after seeming to fool themselves into thinking that all was going to be fine for an indefinite period, can make the changes they need without putting on a pro-wrestling style freak show. There's a middle ground of acknowledging that all is not well, without the ugly scenes that played out with the Red Sox.
*Delmon Young hit a batch of home runs for the Tigers --including a couple of dramatic ones -- but most of his offensive statistics in Detroit were pretty similar to what he did with the Twins. And it's not like the trade made him a better defensive player, either. I'm glad for Delmon that he had some success and raised his profile and gave the illusion that the Twins somehow made a huge fail by dealing him. The fail, of course, was trading him when his value was at its lowest.
*For the $750,000 that Nick Punto is getting from the Cardinals, I would have kept him, providing Gardy signed an agreement that, come hell or high water, Punto wouldn't have more than 250 plate appearances.
*My favorite piece of radio in the last couple of weeks was Dan Barreiro's interview with Chicago Sun-Times columnist (and part-time Minnesotan) Joe Cowley, who doesn't exactly flatter Joe Mauer when the talk turns to what other major leaguers -- not to be confused with sports reporters, bloggers and those who add comments to our work -- think of him.
*Justin Verlander pitched a nice enough game on Thursday when he helped extend the ALCS, but his pitching line looked a lot like a so-so Scott Baker performance -- save for the 30 extra pitches. You would have thought from some of the reporting on his work that he'd done a Jack Morris on the Rangers. Seriously? During the postseason, Verlander had a 5.31 ERA and opponents hit .330 against him. (Opponents hit .300 against Brian Duensing this season, but only the right-handed ones.) Verlander is a pitcher who had a great regular season and was picked up by his offense in the postseason.
*Carlos Gomez makes me laugh more now that he plays for someone else.
The 1990 Twins were a bad team. They won 74 games and finished in the bottom half of just about any statistical category you could name -- at bat and on the pitcher's mound. A couple of guys who were better suited to reserve roles were in the lineup as regulars and some of the veterans had poor seasons.
Changes needed to be made -- and changes were made. The 1991 World Series winners were a pretty extreme makeover of the 1990 team, and that's why we're celebrating the 20th anniversary of a Twins' World Series championship this weekend.
Here's the shorthand version of what was done:
The pitcher who threw the most innings in 1990 was Allan Anderson, a one-tine ERA title winner whose record slipped to 7-18 in 1990. There was nothing hard-luck about that record. In his place at the top of the rotation was Jack Morris, signed as a free agent to a one-year deal. And Scott Erickson, in his first full major-league season, got off to a spectacular start and won 20 games. Anderson became the fourth starter behind Morris, Erickson and Kevin Tapani, who was part of the haul the Twins received by sending Frank Viola to the Mets.
Popular third baseman Gary Gaetti, a hero of 1987, batted .229 in 1990 with a .274 on-base percentage and 18 errors at third base. In 1991, he was playing for the Angels and replaced by Mike Pagliarulo, a veteran who had played for the Yankees and caused the Twins all kinds of grief when he played against them.
Gene Larkin was the primary DH in 1990. He was a switch-hitter who had OK numbers -- five home runs and a .392 slugging percentage. Numbers like that don't win titles, no matter how many little things are done right. The Twins went out and picked up Chili Davis, who hit 29 home runs and was a fearsome presence in the middle of the lineup. Larkin still appeared in 98 regular-season games in 1991 and got the Game 7 hit that you'll likely see more than once over the next few days.
Playing second base most of the time in 1990 was Al Newman, a wonderful and valuable utility player. In 1991, he was replaced by rookie Chuck Knoblauch, who brought the Twins more offense and more speed without losing anything on defense. Newman resumed his valuable role as a utility player, appearing in 118 games, mostly as a middle infielder but at one time or another playing every infield spot and left field. Newer fans know Newman as a cheerful presence; older fans know him as tough.
The 1987 Twins were the weakest of the four division winners and took advantage of the Metrodome and an injury-depleted St. Louis roster to win the World Series -- advantages that mattered not one bit to the local celebrants but that played in the background when the season's outcome was discussed more globally. (It should be noted there was nothing fluky about the thumping those '87 Twins gave much-favored Detroit in the Championship Series that year.)
The 1991 Twins were solidly constructed and played with a surly confidence that doesn't exist among the current Twins. If there were any lingering doubts about the soft, immature and inconsistent nature of the current club, they were put on display yet again for those who suffered through Thursday night's game. You could hear the frustration in Bert's voice when he was talking about Francisco Liriano's lack of maturity and Danny Valencia's soft slide into home in the eighth inning. (Did anyone hear how Gladden described that play -- and would care to share?)
The '91 group had to be that tough to successfully battle Atlanta through one of the best weeks of baseball ever played. I wasn't covering the Twins by then, but I was asked to write stories for the front page of the Star Tribune -- an assignment described as "writing about the game for people who don't want to read the sports section"
OK, a little vanity here:
Here's my Game 6 story.
And here's Game 7.
I was lucky to be there.
Back to today. Yes, we're all disappointed in the current Twins -- some more than others. But the roadmap that was used by general manager Andy MacPhail and his baseball staff back then is one that Bill Smith should take quite seriously. It's history well worth studying.
There are people who think the Twins should "sell" as the trading deadlines approach at the end of this month and next. That implies shedding of veteran talent will result in the acquisition of players who will strengthen the team in the years to come. That proposition, however, is as dicey as expecting that top draft picks will make your team better just because they were high-round picks.
Right now, 6 1/2 games back with more than 2 1/2 months to play, the Twins have put themselves in position where it's not unreasonable to expect them to defend their American League Central title. The bullpen needs to be upgraded, as it has at this time for the last two years, and it would be nice to have healthy versions of Jason Kubel, Justin Morneau and Denard Span for the final pull.
Before we get too far into things, let's not forget that the reason the Twins are back in contention is through the largesse of the other teams in the division. Division-topping Detroit is only six games over .500. Move the Twins to the East and they are 13 1/2 games behind Boston based on actual performance, which doesn't take into account what their record could be with a fuller menu of games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays. In the East, the Twins would be sellers -- and maybe even in the cellar.
Really, it's OK not to think about that too much just because I brought it up.
To me, the frustrating part if the Twins make a successful comeback is that the team will be in the same position it has been in previous years -- built to prevail in the regular season, but not constructed for October baseball. We've gone over this again and again in the past, but the advantage of being probable division winners instead of possible winners (the Twins' current status) is that we could have reasonably expected the Twins to swing moves designed for the postseason -- acquiring an ace, for example, or juicing the offense with another right-handed bat.
Instead, any upgrades will likely be in the more modest fashion of years past.
But a massive comeback will give the appearance of triumph rather than running in place. The Minnesota comeback of 2011, if it happens, would even trump the Minnesota comeback of 2009, when the Twins rallied from seven games back during the final three weeks of the season.
And anything could happen in the postseason, even if it probably won't.
Still, this has been a fascinating half-season. The Twins were 20 games under .500 on June 1 and have since won 24 of 35, even though they had a six-game losing streak in the middle of that run. That week of defeat was more frustrating than the early-season struggles because there were days in that opening stretch when the Twins took the field with little chance to win, and any kind of substandard performance would pretty much guarantee defeat. You didn't have to be a raging pessimist to talk about the 100-loss pace at which the Twins were performing until early last month.
The recent spell has been notable because some young players who were liabilities in their initial stints with the Twins have made contributions -- some modest, some significant -- during their more recent call-ups. Ben Revere 3.0, currently playing center field and batting leadoff, is a significant upgrade from the versions that were with the team at the end of 2010 and for a spell earlier this season. The same can be said of Luke Hughes and Rene Tosoni, and I suspect the same will be true of Trevor Plouffe, who will return after the All-Star break.
In Rochester's last 15 games, Plouffe has started five as a corner outfielder and the last seven at first base. In addition to another right-handed bat, it gives the Twins another option in the first base/right field mash-up that Gardy has been forced to orchestrate. (Hughes last played first base in the minors in 2007.) Plouffe has a 1.050 OPS (on base-plus-slugging percentage) in 50 games at Rochester. (A bit of context: Plouffe is 27 plate appearances short of qualifying to be among the International League leaders in OPS. The league leader among qualifying players is at .911.)
Another thought on Gardy: After last season, I argued that he was a fine second choice for manager of the year behind Ron Washington of Texas. The baseball writers who voted disagreed and gave the honor to Gardy. I think that 2011 has been his best managing job ever so far -- showing patience when necessary, throwing bombs at other times, nursing a flawed bullpen and seeming to solve what had appeared to be a hopeless middle infield situation by flipping Nishioka and Casilla.
And he's managed for extended stretches without Span in center... Mauer catching... Morneau at first... Young in left... Thome at DH... Kubel in right... and Nishioka at shortstop. That's two-thirds of the Opening Day lineup, plus Thome. I'm going to trust Gardy to keep making the right moves if-and-when the veterans return to health. He's on a roll -- and the Twins are on enough of a roll to make things very interesting when the season resumes on Thursday.
Given all that's happened in this extremely bizarre season, I'm happy.
I'll be on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday show with Gary Eichten at noon on Tuesday. You can listen at 91.1 FM or on the web. Also, if you're trying to figure out when to go to the State Fair this year, there are tentative plans to do something Twins related at the Star Tribune booth on Saturday, August 27. More details on that when I know them.
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.
The World Series started Wednesday night with 18 runs, six errors and evidence that your team won't win a postseason game just because Cliff Lee is pitching. The guy who I think is the American League's Manager of the Year, Ron Washington, made a fat mistake by not having his bullpen firing up earlier in San Francisco's big fifth inning. He must have been fooled too by Lee's amazing postseason stats.
The Rangers outfield, with gimpies Nelson Cruz in left field and Vlad Guerrero in right made the Twins' 2010 regulars -- Young, Denard and Kubel -- seem like a trio of Ichiros by comparison.
It was ugly enough that it made sense to pay more attention to the Wolves opening-night disappointment (another exercise in bad defense).
It still feels kind of empty around here, 2 1/2 weeks after the Twins waved goodbye so weakly to their 2010 season.
As fans, it's probably good to be detached right now. I mean, there's just so much questioning of Gardy's managing and Joe Mauer's toughness and Justin Morneau's willingness that I'm can read before wishing that the Internet had never been invented.Talk radio I can turn off, but the Internet comes with the job.
The Twins are about to begin their organizational meetings for 2011, where we can assume a frank and honest exchange of ideas among Gardy's staff, the baseball executives and the rest of management will take place. Here are some questions, which are not presented in order of priority:
*If Gardy is down on Orlando Hudson, someone needs to ask why Alexi Casilla will be a better bet at second base in 2011 than he was when handed the starting job in 2009.
*Morneau's situation needs to be combined with the issue of getting another significant right-handed slugger in the lineup. Paul Konerko? That means taking a one-year salary hit on Michael Cuddyer (at $10.5 million in 2011 and assuming he won't be back) and knowing that you'll be picking up a first baseman if Morneau doesn't return and a full-time DH if he does. Yes, I love Jim Thome too, but what if you can get Konerko for three years at $45 million?
*When everyone agrees that Francisco Liriano's best years are still ahead of him, someone needs to say, "That's great! We have our No. 2 pitcher, now what about getting an ace?" Rather than going chapter-and-verse through the options, here's a link to the latest TwinsCentric post, which is a fine surrogate for having that discussions right here and right now.
*If Gardy says he's fine with an outfield of Young/Span/Kubel-Cuddyer, then someone needs to ask: "So you're willing to settle for second-rate defense in exchange for filling other needs?" If the answer is yes, then so be it. It'll be a source of frustration at times, but where does "fixing" the outfield rank in the priorities for 2011 and beyond?
*Who can go? Not counting the late-season lefties (Fuentes, Flores) who aren't coming back, the Twins have a pool of about $39 million in players who could be released or not re-signed. The guys who would free up the biggest chunks are Pavano ($7 million), Kubel ($4.1 million this season, $5.25 million option for 2011) Hardy ($5.1 million), Hudson ($5 million), Punto ($4 million this season, $5 million option for '11), Matt Guerrier ($3.15 million). Cuddyer's $10.5 million could come off in 2012. I'm assuming that Delmon and Matt Capps are coming back for 2011, so I didn't include them among those who might simply not be invited back. Choices have to be made.
*How does Morneau's health figure into when you make key decisions? I assume the Twins know more than they've been sharing, but I also assume that nobody's close to having an answer about Morneau's future. That raises the level of risk in lots of decisions.
*Bill Smith to Gardy: "Well, Ron. You've gone to the postseason with the momentum of season-ending triumphs and, in other years, with a couple of weeks to prepare ... and it hasn't really mattered. What have you learned that will make you a better postseason manager?" In the would of bizmetrics, that's called "continuous improvement."
*Chorus to Jim Pohlad: "So, Jim, what's the baseball payroll?" Much has been made of the fattened payroll -- up from about $65 million in 2009 to $97.5 million at the end of 2010. We do know that Target Field is a money-maker for the Twins in so many ways that the Metrodome wasn't, so we shouldn't have been overly surprised (nor overly impressed) with the payroll increase.
*Where should the Twins payroll be in 2011? I can make a pretty good argument that a responsible business plan includes a legacy factor -- putting enough resources into winning the World Series. The Twins "brand" should not be synonymous with "first-round knockout." If the Twins expect us to dig deeper into our pockets to afford the game, I'm fine with us expecting ownership to dig as deeply as necessary into its pockets to fund wise baseball decisions. I don't expect the answer to be "the checkbook is wide open, Bill and Ron." But I won't abide by a "Mauer's contract makes us cut corners" defense.
"Speaking of Mauer, discussion about his future better go deeper than, "Joe wants to catch, so let him catch." Even if a transition isn't going to begin for a few years, which is reasonable, discussions behind closed-doors should be happening now.
Let me end with a suggestion -- for you. If you want the best data for playing along with the Twins front office, what you really need to do is order the soon-to-be-released Off-Season GM HandBook by the TwinsCentric crew. It's 30,000-plus words about all the issues that will go into shaping the Twins in 2011 and beyond.
It's on my list of the Top 10 things you can buy for under $10, right up there with the Kramarczuk's sausage at Target Field.
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