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.
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.
This is what the outfield seats at Target Field looked like a couple of innings into Wednesday's night miserable baseball game:
Now, let's give the Twins the benefit of the doubt. It drizzled all day, clearing up and turning into a fairly nice night an hour or so before game time. And school's in session and the Royals are in town and ... blah, blah, blah.
Friends, this isn't working. If you wanted to go on StubHub and buy tickets at the last minute Wednesday, you could find a batch of tickets for $.01. Yes, that's a penny (plus a 10 percent surcharge -- $.001? -- and the $5.45 download fee..) At around 4 p.m., there were four tickets in the Legends Club listed for $5 each. Yes, that's five as in one-two-three-four-FIVE.) There were 2,500 or so unsold tickets on the 'Hub, all of which counted as part of the "attendance" of 28,139. Basically, you could have taken advantage of the one-cent sale and sat pretty much where you wanted, as long as you looked like you belonged.
In our row of 20, it was me 'n' Julie and the delightful couple who have the seats next to use and a party of four further down the row of 20. By comparison, we were packed in. By the seventh inning, the front three rows next to us in Section 220 were empty. Totally empty. We counted nine people in the no-alcohol Section 311 early in the game and figured that one fell off the wagon when we counted only eight a couple of innings later.
Here's the problem for the Twins: Attendance figures are being padded significantly by tickets already sold for 2012.
How will they sell those tickets for 2013?
My friends, who have varying degrees of baseball intensity, weighed in when they saw the above photo posted on my Facebook page:
"Holy Cow, that is bleak."
"Wow, that's sparse."
"Glad to see the new stadium was worth the investment."
"Seems like only yesterday I was hearing how a new stadium would allow the Twins to 'stay competitive.' What they didn't add was 'with the Indians.' "
And here's the best-face scenario from a season-ticket holder friend:
"Only difference, and it's a big one, the Metropolitan Club is a nice place to hang out when the game is too frustrating. I hate to admit it, but tonight I was one of THOSE people who watched very little of the game but had a great night at the ballpark chatting with friends. So wrong. But so fun. I'm sorry Grandpa. I'm sure he's rolling in his grave!"
One other fan-experience observation: Last year, we wanted to go out to dinner before the game at the Town Ball Tavern, the nice bar/restaurant in the left-field corner. We knew we pretty much needed to be there when the gates opened in order to get seated, even though it was a weekday night and not a particularly high-interest game. Last night, we did the same thing, getting to the restaurant about an hour before game time and having a number of tables to choose from.
I'm not talking baseball right now. If you want to watch Ryan Doumit's three-error inning, go here and skip to the 1:20 mark. I'm talking about observations and soft data. The Twins appear to be doing a pretty good job of dispiriting their fans.
Obviously, fans who just want to support a winning team are staying away. The more observant have spent another season wondering about the team's injury management, its pitching and defensive failures and much of anything that speaks to things getting better soon. The most intense have wondered about roster moves, recently focusing their nth degree analysis on why reliever Anthony Slama isn't being given another chance to see if his minor-league dominance can translate to the majors and why Chris Parmelee wasn't used in the outfield at Rochester, if that's where he has the best chance to play for the Twins. And we all marveled at the Nishioka thing a few weeks back.
When you can frustrate everyone from the advanced-statistics posse to the guy who asks which league has the designated hitter -- a question we heard last night -- it's a sign that the fan base is going, going ...
Putting my money where my blog is, I'll tell you that I'm involved with three sets of season tickets: My scorecard for 2013 has me keeping one, cutting back on another and bailing on the third. Am I alone?
Right now, I think the Twins can win back most of their fans by going boldly into 2013 with a makeover that could take many shapes. If they tarry and pretend that all is good enough at 1Twins Way, they run the risk of being just another pretty ballpark with plenty of good seats available.
Maybe it was a good thing that the Twins didn't sweep the Cubs. For one thing, it did some good for the self-esteem of the Cubs fans who made the journey to the Twin Cities over the weekend. If you were at Target Field, you know they were there. We were surrounded by them near the top of Section 114 on Friday night, and they seemed as resigned to that night's outcome (the bullpen blowing a couple of leads) as Twins fans were earlier in the season to watching one of the local starters get knocked around.
Now please don't laugh or call me names, but on Saturday -- for the first time this season -- I did some scoreboard watching during the game. The division lead has been cut to single-digits for the Twins and, providing things continue somewhat close to as they have been lately, we'll no longer talk about the Twins in the "worst team in the majors" context.
Now, the coming dilemma. If the Twins continue playing well and chopping a few more games off the division lead in the next couple weeks of interleague play, they will be within aroma distance on first place in the American League Central. Then they'll have a week against the White Sox and Royals before the schedule turns tougher.
And then the buyer/seller question will be asked.
A few days back, Jim Souhan wrote that the team's recent success shouldn't alter plans to sell off some veterans and look to the future. He's right.
I know that some people feel you should never turn down a chance to take a run at a title, no matter what the circumstances, but the fact remains that the Twins' roster still needs to get stronger to do anything more than lurk at the fringe of one of baseball's two weakest divisions. (The NL Central, ft. the Cubs, is the other.) They could have dealt with issue this last season, but opted not to -- with the possible payoff being further down the road with the extra draft picks the Twins received through free-agent departures.
Baseball's free-agency rules have changed so that is almost certain not to happen in 2013, and for as long as the new rules remain in place.
The Twins have several bargaining chips that could help them get stronger -- and without sacrificing much in the short terms. If Denard Span is traded, Ben Revere can move into center field. If Matt Capps is traded, Glen Perkins and Jared Burton can move to the end of the bullpen in its current build. If Francisco Liriano is traded, we will finally be done with the drama.
If you want to commit to Brian Dozier at shortstop, the Twins could still stand to be stronger at second base and third base. If you are willing to give Trevor Plouffe 400 at-bats, you have the flexibility in the long term of having him play third base, right field or (if Ryan Doumit isn't around after this season) DH.
Justin Morneau is an issue deserving of more than a sentence, which it will not get here. If another team thinks he'll help bring a championship and offers a good haul in return, then it should happen. That's the starting point for a discussion that will take place for the next season-and-two thirds -- until his contract expires at the end of the 2013 season. A Morneau deal is the only move that could create a gaping short-term hole -- based on the idea of losing a 25-homer talent.
The Twins are in a position where they can make trades and not suffer much in the short term. In fact, the right pieces could even make them stronger for the short haul, as well as for the years to come, when the current group will be joined (in theory) by reinforcements from the minor-league system.
Whatever moves are made need to strengthen the starting pitching.
I'm not expecting Terry Ryan and his staff to bat 1.000 with their personnel moves. That simply doesn't happen. But the good has outweighed the bad so far and I do expect Ryan's posse to have the fortitude to make moves with the coming seasons in kind, not the coming months.
In return for that, I promise not to bring up (too often) that things should never have reached this point in the first place.
Well, we got the Papa John's 50 percent discount Wednesday because the Twins won the night before, so the household pizzas really did have Josh Willingham's name on them. And we'll probably hit Leeann Chin in the next few days because those ticket stubs from a victory are good for 2-for-1 deals for a week. Combine those deals with the almost half-price seats in the Legends Club that we picked up for the Willingham walk-off, and Twins tickets are still a great value, don't you think?
At least in a coupon-clipping sense.
We were ready to be really frustrated on Tuesday. Remember how they were hitless in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position going into the ninth, and then -- after getting the first two guys on base -- Ben Revere popped out bunting and Joe Mauer came within an shifted infield of adding to his GIDP (grounded into double play) total.
And then Willingham made it all go away -- and came back the next day, with his kids in the stands, to drive in three of the Twins four runs in the Liriano/Burnett/Gray shutout of troubled Oakland.
Back to Tuesday's game, though. More than anything else, it was a game that made me wonder about the Twins' future. How will the twins continue to keep fans engaged and buying tickets through the struggles the organization has brought upon itself? The promise of discounted food only goes so far, after all. The most noticeable thing about the Tuesday game was how empty the stands were by the time Willingham hit his home run.
The announced crowd was 31,781; the actual crowd was smaller and I'm sure the number of people in their seats at game's end was no more than half of that number.
People took in their seven or eight innings and took off. Given the 2012 product, I totally understand -- although we did wonder why so many fans stayed through the top of the ninth and then left before the Twins had their final at-bat. I mean, if you're in for that long, you might as well stay to the end.
Unsouring the fan base will be a major challenge. What will the Twins do with the $23 million (or more) that almost certainly will come off the payroll during or after the 2012 season. (Those are the contracts of Carl Pavano, Jason Marquis, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano.) What else could be freed up when the Twins become sellers at the trading deadlines in July and August? And can the Twins use that money as wisely as they did in picking up Willingham and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Doumit?
Knowing that others -- Justin Morneau, Nick Blackburn, Jamey Carroll and Tsuyoshi Nishioka -- are signed only through 2013, will the Twins combine their richness in next week's amateur draft with a payroll bump for next season to juice the schedule for recovery?
Here's a list of potential free agents for 2013. It's an interesting list to play with, and sometimes you (you = Pohlads) need to spend more than you might like to keep people buying those $7 beers in the short term and bringing back those who are drifting away.
I have confidence in Terry Ryan's ability to make more good decisions than bad ones: Willingham + Doumit + Carroll + Burton > Marquis + failures sniffed out during spring training. I want to have confidence in the revamped front office to do better in developing talent, a test that will be passed or failed by looking at draft results and the progress of players still a couple of years away from the majors.
It's an interesting time, even if it's not what most of us imagined for the Twins. It's also a dangerous time if things continue going so wrong.
Let's not argue about using "the worst team in baseball" label when talking about the Twins. As long as they have the worst record in the league, that's how they'll be known here -- all the more because they have the worst record while playing in one of the two worst divisions in the majors. With some success in Chicago against the White Sox over the next few days, the Twins could upgrade their status to "worst team in the American League."
Keep your fingers crossed.
But here's something I like: The Rochester-to-Minneapolis shuttle has been in full effect over the last few weeks, and the Twins seem to have a clue when moves are being made. It took five starts for the Twins to act on the folly of the Jason Marquis signing, with his awful finale on Sunday dropping his statistics into Francisco Liriano territory.
My hope is they'll use the occasion to liberate Brian Duensing from the bullpen, where he appears to have cured himself of the extreme difficulties that he faced in 2011 against right-handed batters. I wouldn't be opposed to seeing the former Gophers pitcher Cole De Vries get a shot at the rotation, but that could also happen in the Nick Blackburn slot if he remains sidelined (or ineffective) or the P.J. Walters slot if his success turns out to be a mirage. (Four home runs in 12 1/3 innings concerns me a bit.)
I can come up with no better context for Marquis' awfulness than what Aaron Gleeman wrote on his latest blog post: "...opponents hit .371/.434/.629 (against Marquis). To put that in some context, consider Albert Pujols is a career .325/.417/.609 hitter, so Marquis basically turned every batter he faced into a souped-up version of this era's best hitter."
Last year, it felt like roster moves were being made to fill dead space. Yes, injuries had something to do with that, but you wonder how much the progress of some players -- Ben Revere, Chris Parmelee, Rene Tosoni and others -- was impeded by coming to Minnesota and then not playing as much, or being instructed as much, as they would have been in the minors.
By comparison, after keeping him with the team at the beginning of this season, Revere was held back at Rochester while the Twins brought in (the quickly departed) Clete Thomas, Erik Komatsu and Darin Mastroianni. None of those three players figure to have a future with the Twins that would rival Revere's, but it looks like Twins management showed some discipline in using his time in the minors as a teaching tool. I'll use four extra-base hits in 17 at-bats as early evidence, especially compared to Revere's 14 extra-base hits in 481 plate appearances in 2011.
Sometimes, minor league stats can be deceptive -- Revere had only one extra-base hit during his Rochester weeks -- when they're compiled while a player is being asked to try different things. But I'm also hoping that Drew Butera's time in the minors will make him a more functional hitter (read: not an assumed out) if he stays with the Twins. It's not often that a guy could have a .315 on-base percentage and it would be a 50 percent improvement over the previous year.
Whether time spent in Rochester with hitting coach Tom Brunansky and manager Gene Glynn, both in their first year with that team, will help Danny Valencia, Parmelee and some of the others is worth watching. At the very least -- and I am well aware that I'm operating in faint-praise territory here --the worst team in baseball is making like it has a plan for shedding that label.
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