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 thing about a bad baseball team is that you take a week away this time of year and don’t miss much. I watched the Twins stumble through their half-speed loss to the Mets last week and then pretty much took a vacation break.
Kyle Gibson 1.0 ended, Joe Mauer got concussed by a foul tip from Ron Davis’ kid and the team somehow won two out of three from Detroit. Let’s assume the latter was a result of Detroit’s disinterest, Justin Verlander’s struggles and the good fortune to miss Max Scherzer. The Twins reverted to all that ails them over the weekend in Cleveland.
This feels like a good time to offer thoughts on an assortment of topics. So here goes with 10 of 'em:
The Mauer concussion and position discussion. The “how much should he catch debate” has restarted with vigor. To me, it’s simple. If catching 100 games per season is going to hamper Mauer more and more as his career continues, then it’s time to turn him into a 6-foot-5 first baseman who does some catching on the side and is one of the best (count of fingers of one hand) hitters in the game. There’s an opposing opinion saying Mauer wouldn’t provide the same value at first base as he does catching. I say he’s already provided a ton-and-a-half of value behind the plate. Plus, value to whom? Are you more concerned that the owners get some kind of perceived “value” or that a healthy Mauer is in better position to be an offensive force, maybe for another decade, while evolving into a solid first baseman? I’ll take the assumption of added offense and better health, which should mean a better chance to win.
Morneau's future. Speaking of first base, the chatter about Justin Morneau’s future continues. Bless Morneau for all he contributed during a prime that is now three seasons past. Now? Let’s never have anyone else wear No. 33 for the Twins and wish him luck on his future endeavors, especially when there’s a logical heir to the first-base job. Money spent to keep him with the Twins is better spent elsewhere. If he goes somewhere else and does well, toques off to him.
Josh Willingham. There’s a touch of revisionist history at work about how the Twins should have traded him after the best season of his career – and a two-year run in which he had 64 home runs and an .851 OPS. As the Twins plot 2014, it makes sense to turn Willingham into a full-time DH who can play the outfield only if needed – and rarely. Let’s a presumed outfield of Oswaldo Arcia, Aaron Hicks and someone else play the field. Willingham has never had two subpar seasons in a row, but if 2014 feels like the start of a permanent decline, the Twins can part ways with him.
Starting pitching. In the post-Johan Santana era, the Twins went to the postseason twice (and Game 163 another year) with a rotation of No. 2 and 3 starters. Since then, Twins starters have been a collection of fours, fives and guys who shouldn’t be in the majors. One of Terry Ryan’s challenges is to sift through this year’s group of free agents, see who may be available in trade and simply do better than the Twins have been doing these last few years. Prevailing wisdom is that teams need to overpay for starting pitching, but (again) that’s not an issue for a fan to worry about. (Even less so when Jim Pohlad told Phil Mackey on Saturday in an ESPN 1500 interview that Ryan can increase the payroll significantly.) Find an ace, find a couple of starters more solid than Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia and let the others battle for the back end of the rotation.
Bring back Johan? I’d try it … but not at the expense of anything else. In other words, an interesting sideshow when there are more important things to do. (I'm assuming the Mets aren't going to pick up his option for next year.)
Adding the “right” veterans. When the Twins tried to explain their 2011 flop as a “perfect storm” of problems instead of recognizing the cliff jump that had taken place, the Twins brought in Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Jamey Carroll. All were useful; none, however, came from winning-team backgrounds. I made that point back then, contrasting them to the worst-to-first additions the Twins made between 1990 and ’91 (Jack Morris, Chili Davis, Mike Pagliarulo). In 2014, if Morneau doesn’t return, the core of Twins with winning backgrounds will be Mauer and … uh… pretty much nobody. I like numbers as much as most of you, but team building is a multidimensional task. Veteran players with skills – in the clubhouse and on the field – need to be part of the build.
Bring back A.J. Pierzynski? Let him catch 100-110 games and help whip the pitching staff into shape. It's called "adding the 'right' veterans."
The middle infield. If you’d asked me in April if I thought a middle infield of Brian Dozier at second base and Pedro Florimon at shortstop was a major league combination, I would have dismissed the query as rhetorical. Now, I’m pretty much sold. Ever since pulling his average above .200 at the end of May, Dozier has been a .265/.343/.488 offensive performer and a fine defensive second baseman. (Morneau’s numbers in that time are .241/.309/.439, by the way.) Florimon does what shortstops should do – field. Using Ultimate Zone Rating to judge, Florimon is second among American League shortstops. He makes plays that other shortstops don’t. His presence also allows the Twins not to worry as much about defense at third base, which could be an issue when Miguel Sano is ready for promotion. (Trevor Plouffe is second from the bottom is UZR among AL third basemen, ahead only of Miguel Cabrera, who brings a different set of superhuman skills to the ballpark.)
Gardy’s future. In Los Angeles, apparently there will be an off-season showdown in which only the general manager or manager Mike Scioscia will be survive. Here, ownership is committed to Ryan as GM. But even if Ryan truly leads the discussion about Gardy’s future, it’s naïve to think there won’t be input from the Pohlads. I’m not getting heavily invested in this discussion because it runs a distant third to acquiring better major league talent and continuing to develop the top players in the minors. For me, it’s a “whatever” debate. If that disappoints the Gardy-bashers, so be it.
Sano’s future, Hicks' future and the future of the future. I still need to be convinced that anyone in the minor-league system will be ready to make an impact on the Twins in 2014. Miguel Sano, perhaps. But selling Sano without paying attention the organization’s other issues is a bit like having a really hot car – and leaving it outside during the Minnesota winter because you don’t have a garage. Aaron Hicks should get another shot at owning center field next year, but am I the only one who looks back on the young Torii Hunter’s struggles and wonders if it will take beyond 2014 for him to contribute at the level we’re expecting? I’m looking forward to the time when the minor-league system starts producing more than end-of-bench talents, but I’m not seeing that being the case in any kind of quantity until 2015.
That’s a list of 10 and I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on all of them. But these are my chattering points to get through the final few dozen games.
Brian Dozier and Justin Morneau hit home runs Wednesday night and the other side of the infield, Trevor Plouffe and Pedro Florimon, didn't do anything to hurt their team as the Twins beat the last-place White Sox for a second straight game. The home team will go for a sweep today.
It was an interesting game for an infield that's in flux.
All four of Wednesday's starters, which is pretty much the regular cast, are playing for their futures right now -- not bad drama when you don't have standings to watch with any seriousness.
At third base, Plouffe is contending with the shadow on super-prospect Miguel Sano in the long term and Rochester third baseman Deibinson Romero if things blow up (or he doesn't stay healthy) in the short run. When he's been healthy this season, Plouffe has put up numbers that should allow him to fend off short-term challenges. His statistics with runners in scoring position are .295 average/.353 on-base percentage/.432 on base-plus-slugging, compared with .206/.298/.327 in those situations in 2012.
At second base, Dozier simply hasn't put together acceptable offensive numbers, mostly because of an inability to hit right-handed pitchers.
Florimon has provided enough at shortstop to be considered the regular -- for now. But if the infield of the future includes Sano at third base and Eddie Rosario, another top prospect, at second, Florimon will have to grow into becoming their leader. An argument can be made that Terry Ryan should already be looking into the future a year or two for the kind of veteran who will be available to provide that leadership.
The Morneau situation is the diciest -- and probably beyond the Twins control. We were talking about Morneau at Target Field the other night -- the night when the mother-in-law ended up with a Joe Mauer foul ball that found its way to Section 219 -- and these things are clear.
*Morneau is not a $14 million player at this stage of his career. His power has gone missing and his overall offensive numbers are barely above average -- not even close to his prime years from 2006 until his concussion in 2010.
*Morneau has to decide whether he wants to do a Torii Hunter, and make his priority finding a team that considered a serious World Series contender. That's inexact science (See: Hamilton, Josh, among others.) Does Morneau want to be a DH and back-up first baseman for the Yankees, for example. Does he want to play in Canada, where Toronto's first base situation isn't very settled? Will those teams want him?
*There will be free-agent options if the Twins decide to go another direction. Here's the current list of guys who will be free agents after this season. Combine that with Joe Mauer gradually playing more games at first base and you have a murky situation that, right now, probably doesn't bode well for the kind of contract that Morneau will hope to get. And if Plouffe succeeds on offense, is he a candidate for a first baseman/DH role down the road?
Much of this, of course, is subject to change if Morneau goes on a power surge in the next few weeks. That could make him a bigger trade-deadline target for a contender, or change his value for 2014 and beyond -- for the Twins or another team. But it appears clear that Morneau has already gotten the best contract he'll ever sign, with the debate being about his worth over the next year or three.
Whatever the case, if you're a big booster of a Twins infielder or two, it would be wise to watch 'em now.
Sweeping four games from the Brewers gives a lot of Twins fans a little extra dose of giddy because it makes up for Minnesota fans having to look up at the Packers, the Badgers (in football and basketball) and the Bucks (despite their mediocrity) in the standings of those sports. But what does it really mean? That the Twins would go 120-42 if they played only the Brewers, Astros and Marlins?
Mostly, it means that the Twins did not shrivel up and blow away after the wretched baseball they played during their 10-game losing streak -- most of it coming against teams that are in first place in their divisions (Detroit, Boston and Atlanta.) That's not meant to be an excuse or a reason losing 10 in a row, but all teams have valleys during their seasons. It's a bit like life: You're never that good (and you're probably not that bad).
After a month with a rough schedule, the Twins have games in June against teams more their speed. The only teams they play next month with records currently above .500 are Detroit and Cleveland. So it'll take some undoing for the Twins to play poorly enough to restart the 100-loss discussion. And if they play really, really well...
With that unfinished thought in mind, here are a few quick observations:
*It's not good that the pitchers we're most excited about, currently, are Samuel Deduno and P.J. Walters. It means the 2013 rotation implants and Scott Diamond haven't given the Twins what they need, which is absolutely true with the exception of Kevin Correia. But here's my challenge to you: Go through the available free-agent pitchers from last winter and find three who would be giving the Twins a significant boost right now. You can use these rankings as a cheat sheet.
When you find three, of course, then you have to be confident in your ability that you would have chosen those three to the exclusion of all others who were available. Here are a half-dozen names that engendered varying degrees of disappointment when the Twins didn't pluck them off the market: Edwin Jackson (1-7, 6.11), Joe Blanton (1-8, 5.94), Joe Saunders (3-5, 5.57) Brandon McCarthy (2-4, 5.00) Brett Myers (0-3, 8.02), Erik Bedard (0-2, 5.32).
[Sarcastic interlude] It's tough all over, and I'm sure all the barstool, basement and blogging GMs would have honed right in on both Scott Feldman (5-4, 2.82) and Carlos Villanueva (1-3, 3.65) as 2013 Twins starters. Absolutely sure. Yeah, I know I would have. And I would have brought back Jason Marquis (6-2, 3.70), too. [End sarcastic interlude]
In no way does this excuse what was allowed to happen to the Twins pitching in recent years. The atrophy was avoidable. But fixing a pitching staff is a tough, tough business. A look through the lists I linked to shows that.
*I'm glad the Twins stuck with Aaron Hicks. Deciding when a player is ready for the majors is as much art as science. You can hurt one player by bringing him up too soon and you can hurt another with too much time in the minors. By season's end, I think most of those who were clamoring from the Twins to return Hicks to the minors will be happy he stayed. And, yes, it may have been the organization's good fortune that nobody in Rochester would have been a reasonable replacement in center field.
I'm anticipating the debate in a couple of years over who plays center field: Hicks or Byron Buxton. That'll be fun.
*I like Pedro Florimon. Sometimes the best answer is gambling on a player that another team (Baltimore, in this case) had no use for and give him a chance. Claiming Florimon on waivers, a month after Terry Ryan replaced Bill Smith, is turning out to be a pretty sweet replacement for J.J. Hardy (and others who shall not be named).
(Update: For some interesting data on Florimon and Hardy, including some numbers that surprised me, check the comments below.)
Watching the Twins broadcasters after Thursday night's frustrating-for-all loss to Detroit was a little bit like listening to me talk about the basketball teams I used to coach -- the elementary school team in the Golden Valley/Crystal Park and Rec League and the sixth-grade B team I coached in Hopkins. After a loss, we'd chatter about the effort and look for the bright spots -- winning the fourth quarter against the tough kids from Eden Prairie or how we'd run some good offense and "did everything but make the shot."
That's how it should be when you're coaching preteens.
The Twitterverse was a bit cranky after the Twins blew that lead in Detroit.
One of my friends tweeted: "After 9 straight losses, this is where we'll find out what kind of Twins fans we are. Does that represent the kind of person we are too."
To which someone responded: "I don't think that expressing frustration and expecting those who run the Twins to do better constitutes being a bad fan."
When Bert Blyleven tweeted this afterward:
Now that was a tough loss 4 the Twins. Good thing about baseball: tomorrow is another day to play the beautiful game of baseball. Go Twins— Bert Blyleven (@BertBlyleven28) May 24, 2013
Someone responded: "Oh c'mon, Bert, the team sucks! When Molitor takes over, I hope you are the pitching coach."
And so it went. In the best of times, some true fans hold animosity against those who jump on the bandwagon, which is silly. In bad times, they sometimes talk smack at each other, which deflects from the real problem of how incredibly poorly the Twins have been playing since the start of their last homestand.
That 2-7 stretch followed by a clean sheet of defeat on the first half of the current 10-game road trip has landed the Twins solidly at the bottom of the AL Central, with the only worse record in the league belonging to pathetic Houston. In the name of looking at the present and future, I called a personal halt at the start of the season to writing about how the mistakes of the last few years had created a team for which there was little hope.
"Kansas City North" was the term I used a few times, and Twins fans are getting a first-hand look at what that means. We used to watch the Royals talk about how better stuff was ahead and then they'd get off a respectable start -- followed by a tumble to the bottom. That's exactly what's been happening to the 2013 Twins, who worked so hard to be respectable for the first five weeks that little appears to be left for the next five months.
(Quick aside: I know I'm not the only one a bit skeptical about all of the optimism being directed toward the Twins of the future who are currently playing their way through the lower minors. Hopeful, yes. Convinced, no.)
The awful starting pitching has begotten tired relief pitching. The poor pitching has created an overall sense of hopelessness, leading some fans to bicker about who should be called up from Rochester among the collection of players currently in last place in the International League.
The biggest frustration there is the perceived "Anthony Slama treatment" of pitcher Kyle Gibson by Twins management, which has called up Samuel Deduno and P.J. Walters as current stopgaps. We've heard buckets about how Gibson has thrown shutouts in two of his last four starts, one against a team with a record almost as bad as Houston's (and the other also against a sub-.500 team), and little about the other two.
In the other two, Gibson gave up nine runs and 18 hits in 7 2/3 innings against two of the league's better teams.
For the Twins to seek more consistency from Gibson is understandable.
For fans to expect (and have expected) more competence from the Twins is, too.
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