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?
Joe Mauer's move to another position was inevitable. The question was always going to be at what position, and the impending presence of Miguel Sano made first base a much more logical destination than third. We can debate that one if you'd like, but it's just not worth the energy.
Next issue: What do Josmil Pinto, Chris Herrmann, Eric Fryer and Ryan Doumit have in common? They're the catchers on the roster whom, according to media reports, general manager Terry Ryan expressed confidence in to handle the Twins' catching duties next season. No matter that we were told toward the end of last season that Doumit was also done as a catcher.
Next issue II: A.J. Pierzynski, John Buck, Brian McCann, Brayan Pena, Carlos Ruiz and Kurt Suzuki. What do they have in common? They're among the free-agent catchers on the market. (You can find a dozen more catchers in this list, but none of those names should interest us as much as the five mentioned here. Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia is available, but his defense reminds me too much of the Vikings' secondary to take him seriously.)
I'm all for Pinto becoming the Twins' regular catcher at some point. But all of the enthusiasm about his offensive ability needs to be put into the context that he had only 83 plate appearances for the Twins. (Can you say "Chris Parmelee, 2011?") Plus, there are the concerns that you would have for any young catcher about his ability to work with the pitchers, especially on a staff as flawed as what the Twins have been putting forth.
If there's a team in need of a veteran catcher to work with a promising youngster and a pitching staff in flux, it would be the Twins.
One of our stories about the Mauer move listed McCann, Ruiz and Saltalamacchia as free agents but "too expensive."
Let's all call garbage on that one.
I'm not saying one of those three has to be the answer, but the words "too expensive" and the Twins ownership should never, ever be mentioned in the same sentence, paragraph or book. That goes double right now with all of the salaries that have been dumped. You can make these numbers wiggle a little bit, but the Twins' payroll in 2013 dropped to about $82 million, The commitment to their 11 signed and arbitration-eligible players for this season comes to about $53 million, which means about $60-$62 million when you add the baseball-modest salaries of the others likely to be brought back.
That leaves plenty of room for investment, both in shorter-term position enhancements and longer-term pitching help. You could read toward the end of the season about ownership's shame, most notable the Jim Pohlad line from last summer on his embarrassment about walking through the concourses at Target Field. If the Twins truly believe that Pinto and those other guys are the catching answers for 2014, then ownership's shame is a sham.
If the Twins are committed to fighting the tire fire their team has become, the improvements for next season will include a veteran catcher to go with the new first baseman and the pitching help and Jason Bartlett (Jason Bartlett?) and any other moves they make.
Besides, you know you want to cheer for A.J. one more time.
Back around the start of the season, a couple of people emailed and chewed on me for being -- in their opinions -- excessively grumpy about the Twins. One of them said that it made my voice in the discussion less relevant, which struck me as a little bit off. But in return for sharing my opinions, I have an obligation to be thick-skinned when they are critiqued.
I have to say that however harsh I may have been back them doesn't feel like it was harsh enough.
Let me put it this way so that nobody can misunderstand: From the front office to the playing field, the Twins made a mockery of 2013. Anything that smacks of progress is overshadowed by all that went wrong and needs to be overhauled. In fact, I'm kind of glad the Twins capped off their miserable season with such a miserable finish, losing 20 of their final 25 games and getting outscored by 90 runs in that span.
That way, nobody can look at anything that happened over the final month -- when positive signs are often illusions, anyway -- and look to it as hope for the future.
When I look at the extended September roster, plus those on the disabled list, I see 11 players that I want to see back in 2014. Maybe 12. Go ahead and do that exercise and see where you end up. There are about two dozen players who would be no great loss (or no loss whatsoever) to not see again in a Twins uniform. That's a telling head count.
I mean, I'm trying to figure out exactly who the Twins players and manager Ron Gardenhire are talking to in those sappy end-of-season ads in which they thank fans for hanging with them through the season. I know it's marketing, but it had the hollow ring of airline ads that talk about their customer service when dealing with them is another matter entirely. Despite being a season-ticket holder, they weren't talking to me.
I would have preferred the Pohlads looking earnestly into a camera and saying, "We're sorry, fans. This won't happen again. Not only are we as peeved as you are, we have the power to take action and do something about it." Twins players could have thanked their fans in September by showing a pulse rather than being the Happy Meal of teams clinching their spots in the postseason.
Incredibly, during this final and dismal homestand, Twins batters struck out 91 times in 244 at-bats -- a 37 percent rate. In other words, the Twins struck out last week at the same rate as Mark Reynolds, the notorious MLB strikeout machine, during his seven-year career.
Now comes the off-season. It is time to be done with the players who take a step back back for every hint of progress when their careers should be beyond that stage. While waiting for the arrivals of the talented young players about whom we hear so much, it is time for the Twins to build a base of quality players with experience to greet them. Cleveland showed what can be done this season. Tampa Bay has done it season after season. There are others, too.
To have promoted anyone with promise into what was happening at Target Field this season would have exposed them to nothing good. In fact, it's logical to wonder whether some of the issues that Gardenhire had with young and talented Oswaldo Arcia were steeped in the environment that he entered. Nobody was here to help steer Aaron Hicks, who probably shouldn't have been here at all, and certainly it was best to keep Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario as far from the troubles as possible.
It is better to bring in the Swishers, Pierzynskis, Napolis and their veteran ilk than to engage in silly debate about whether guys like Chris Colabello and Alex Presley and Chris Parmelee are of major-league caliber beyond a 24th or 25th roster spot. (We can disagree on names, but I hope we agree on philosophy.) I'll take failure when there are expectations over failure based on the unwillingness to engage.
The Twins have risked little with the players they've brought in because, frankly, there would be little market for them elsewhere. They give off the scent of an organization that is afraid to take risks. I haven't said this for a while because I may have said it too often in the past, but this ownership never had any reason to hide behind payroll as a reason for player moves (or inactivity). And it has even less reason to do so now..
There has been some brave chatter about tapping the free agent market in ways the Twins haven't tried; yet there was also Terry Ryan's scary contention a couple of weeks back that Josh Willingham's $21 million deal somehow represented a "huge" contract. Willingham, remember, signed with the Twins for $10.5 less over three years than the player he replaced -- 2013 National League batting champion Michael Cuddyer.
Yes, it is possible to both spend more and spend intelligently. There's even more urgency to do it starting this very minute because waiting any longer will make it that much more difficult to have credibility among the players who could help them improve. It was only a few years back when coming to Minnesota was an opportunity to compete at the highest level. Now it's on the precipice of being an organization of last resort. To hear Astros and Twins in the same sentence -- "The Astros and Twins have lost more games over the last three years than any other MLB team." -- is ugly.
That's all for now, friends. I'd like to end the season with something wistful for you, but there's nothing to look back on that way. I backed out of a couple of chances to go to the ballpark one last time this month and, yes, I'm glad the season is over.
At least we have October basketball to engage us. Go Lynx!
When a season blows up, as another Twins season is doing, one of the consolations should be the final few weeks of the season when some of the new guys get a chance to make names for themselves, and maybe improve their chances to have an impact in the following seasons. It can be fun to watch.
The current group of Twins isn’t even affording their fans much of that opportunity, mostly stumbling through a 10-game home stand in which they managed to get outscored by 37 runs. If you watched for any length of them, you were likely to see players throwing to the wrong base, giving half-hearted renditions of the little things (like backing up their teammates in the field) and continuing a season of cluelessness at the plate.
The other night, following a particularly substantial mental lapse in the infield, Kevin Correia threw his arms in the air like a substitute teacher wondering what he has to do to keep control of his youngsters.
There’s simply nothing to see here.
The glimmers, like Josmil Pinto’s game-changing home run Sunday afternoon, have simply been overwhelmed by all that’s been done wrong. Dick ‘n’ Bert have been unnaturally owly when I’ve caught them; Dan Gladden is a good radio guide for explaining the difference between what’s happening on the field and what should be happening.
The Twins aren’t even living up to the silly cliché of trying to be a spoiler for the teams they’re playing that do have a shot at the postseason. Gardy made that point, especially about the lack of hunger on display during Saturday night's shutout loss to Tampa Bay.
“This is an opportunity for these guys,” he said on his ESPN1500 radio show Sunday morning.
This post isn’t about suggestions for what to do. If five of us put forth our top five ideas, then we’d get tangled up in debating which ones should be at the top of the list. That’s not the point. If you want to know what I think, read this post.
Jim Pohlad acknowledged his embarrassment to a local columnist last week, and a Star Tribune letter writer – the thoughtful minor-league blogger Andrew Walter -- wondered the other day: “I’m curious to find out for how many years the organization can field a pathetic product using the mantra, ‘Target Field offers one of the best fan experiences in all of professional sports.’ “
I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know this: Two of my friends who operate the Section 219 ticket cartel sent around emails last week. They’re done. One wrote: “I have always said that watching baseball is ‘an exquisite waste of time,’ but if none of the play is exquisite -- and the Twins even drag down their opponents -- then it is just a waste of time.”
(Update from the original post: One of the group's leaders hasn't pulled the plug and is trying to find new members, so if you're interested, maybe we can work something out.)
I'm keeping my tickets, but I wonder whether I'll be in the majority. I suspect that one more year of this mess would cause me to get rid of 'em.
I put this statistic on Twitter Tuesday (@afansview, if you want to follow), so bear with me if you're bored with it. Here, at least, I can share in complete sentences:
In the 92 games that Ron Gardenhire has managed for the Twins against the Yankees, he has won 23 of them. That record, 23-69, includes the postseason and gives him a .250 winning percentage in those games.
In 1962, their first team as an expansion franchise, the New York Mets went 40-120 and are generally regarded as the worst team in baseball history. The '62 Mets had two 20-game losers in the starting rotation, a 19-game loser and a reliever with four saves and 17 losses. The offense wasn't much better.
The '62 Mets had the same winning percentage as Gardy's Twins against the Yankees since he took over for Tom Kelly, who managed a 74-86 record (.463) against the Yankees during his years, according to a helpful tweet I received late Tuesday night.
Kelly, whose retired-number status comes from winning two World Series as opposed to year-after-year greatness, had a .478 winning percentage in his 16 seasons as Twins manager (1986-2001); Gardenhire has a .520 winning percentage since taking over for TK.
I can't tell you what that means with any degree of certainly worthy of blogging about. Anyway, it will be more interesting to hear what you all think of those numbers.
I do know this: The Twins have lost to the Yankees under a full array of circumstances, ranging from early season games (when fans were hopeful that things would be different) to meaningless late season games (when fans were hopeful that things would be different) to postseason games (when fans were hopeful that things would be different).
They almost never are.
In a story that appeared on CBSsports.com last year, former Twins Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter pretty much acknowledged that their team was psyched out against the Yankees in postseason play. "It was never about talent in those series. We played with them all of those games," Cuddyer. (One caution about the CBSsports.com story: Hunter's description of the game situation he talks about isn't accurate.)
There are 14 postseason Twins-Yankees game in Gardy's time. The Twins won two.
This Yankees domination during Gardenhire's tenure is in its 12th season and has been with teams of assorted abilities. As a rule, they have been more talented than most of Tom Kelly's teams that fared better -- if not well -- against the Yankees. This isn't a deal that can be explained away with a valid reference to small sample size.
The last two nights have been noteworthy because the Yankees have been fielding a lineup that would barely pass muster as the road team at a spring training game. The position players are the extraordinary Robinson Cano, fun-to-watch Brett Gardner, aging Ichiro and a half-dozen other guys who you thought were retired or never have heard of.
No Jeter, no Teixeira, no A-Rod, no Granderson, no Youkilis? No problem.
The Yankees have won these first two games just by showing up, pretty much.
That's all the more notable because in their previous 18 games before getting to Target Field, the Yankees had lost 13 of them. So with decent efforts, the Twins could be prolonging the buyer vs. seller nonsense they'd been attempting to pass off.
So maybe we're lucky that way.
The Yankees know they can beat the Twins with Laynce Nix at shortstop, David Adams at third and Zoilo Almonte in the outfield -- and would be pretty sure of beating them with the 10,000th, 20,000th and 30,000th paying fans at Target Field filling in at those positions.
Oh, wait. The Twins didn't draw 30,000 fans for the first two games against the Yankees on beautiful summer nights during a holiday week? Never mind.
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