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 wise Twin Cities baseball writer Pat Borzi, whose work frequently appears in the New York Times, pretty much said what I was thinking on Friday when he tweeted:
Re Sano's elbow trouble today: #MNTwins, like many teams, routinely underplay extent of injuries. Let's see how this plays out next 72 hrs.— Patrick Borzi (@BorzMN) February 28, 2014
So the next morning's news that Miguel Sano won't play this season and needs Tommy John surgery was more sad than it was a surprise.
Borzi properly points out that we're talking about an issue in the culture of sports as opposed to a Twins issue. The Wild's goalie, Josh Harding, was supposed to miss a few games to get his medication for MS tweaked, and he's still sidelined. The extent of injuries to Adrian Peterson, Nikola Pekovic and others on the local teams has been understated from time to time to time to time to time.
Remember Michael Cuddyer's wart?
So if you're expected a rant from afar about how the Twins should have handled Sano's situation differently, I'm sure you'll be able to find it somewhere else. From the media reports, the Twins did what they could -- with their in-house medical staff and with the consultation of Dr. James Andrews, one of the highest-profile practitioners of the Tommy John procedure -- to discern the best course of treatment. You don't have to be too cynical to assume that if the Twins had suggested surgery back when Sano's elbow problems were first known, they would have caught grief from those who wanted to see the 20-year-old third baseman playing in the majors as soon as possible, if not sooner.
Of course, the Twins did themselves no favors by creating the "bilateral leg weakness" frenzy that surrounded Joe Mauer during the team's 2011 meltdown. The Twins have bred skepticism on enough levels over the years -- going back to contraction and the political battles that eventually led to Target Field's creation -- that I won't be surprised about some of the mistrust and second-guessing that we'll hear about Sano.
Totally different issues can become intertwined at a time like this.
Now the challenge for fans is to remember that the Twins have a 2014 season to play and that Sano wasn't going to be a major part of it, aside from people looking wistfully toward the Class AAA Rochester team and wondering about Sano's readiness at the second or third sign of struggle for the Twins. Third base unequivocally belongs to Trevor Plouffe unless the Twins create a Plan B in the next few weeks to replace the Sano shadow that was supposed to be Plouffe's competition. (If you tell me that Jason Bartlett or Eduardo Escobar or Deibinson Romero are competition, I will tell you to that we'll talk baseball when you're serious.)
I hope that Plouffe steps up and can be a case study is how players can struggle with parts of their game and then break through to become complete players. Plouffe's goal should be to become so valuable that the Twins need to figure out a Plan B for what to do with Sano when he's back at 100 percent. (That's probably unrealistic, but aiming high is better than settling.) Can he become more of a Cuddyer than, say, Danny Valencia?
From what I understand, Sano should be able to return to third base and make a full recovery. At age 20 and without the potential to play this season, I will assume that he'll take his rehabilitation with the enthusiasm of someone who understands his potential to make more money that most of us will ever see.
This is the kind of bad that just happens. Not the kind of bad that the Twins have frequently created for themselves.
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.
It was 2004 when the debate kicked into full gear in Minnesota: Should slugger-in-the-making Justin Morneau take over first base from Doug Mientkiewicz, the incumbent who was known for getting on base and his slick glove. As time went on, and Mientkiewicz slumped in 2004, the decision became obvious. The Twins traded Mientkiewicz to Boston, while the Red Sox were playing at the Metrodome, and Morneau was installed at first base.
Now, nine years later, the debate fired up again and the sensible conclusion has been reached. It became time to trade Morneau and move on with the reshaping of the Twins. After the concussion that corruped a season that had MVP Candidate etched in its statistics, Morneau showed glimmers of his former excellence. But the statistics bear out that he has become a middle-of-the-pack first baseman, at bat and in the field.
To accept that for another year or three would have run counter to the extreme makeover that the Twins have to undertake.
For the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are making an unexpected pennant run in the National League, looking for a short-term spark is part of the equation for a team that has finished below .500 for the last 22 years.
For the Twins, This is another indication that, whether we like it or not, Joe Mauer will make the move to first base. A catcher audition begins Sunday with the arrival of young Josmil Pinto. And there will be no shortage of available catchers in the off-season free-market.
Enough with that.
Morneau's good years with the Twins were the ones when the team was in the postseason more often than not, although he wasn't on the playoff roster in 2009 and '10. He was an American League MVP, an MVP runner-up, a four times-in-a-row All Star and a two-time Silver Slugger winner. From his MVP season until the concussion, he had a batting average just under .300 and an on base-plus-slugging percentage of exactly .900.
Sometimes he was a team carrier. Never in that time was he a liability.
That's why it has been so hard to watch these last three seasons, from the time that reporters were called to a back field in Fort Myers to watch a B-game that marked his return to the field in 2011 to the booming home run Friday night that broke a 2-2 tie and gave the Twins an unexpected victory over Yu Darvish and the Rangers.
We'd see a few games and hope that the .298/.372/.900 Morneau was about to bust through.
Instead, the post-concussion Morneau gave us .256/.316/.728. It was a big enough sample size.
I'm not sure that, in the long term, there will be numbers from Morneau that will be much better than that. But I don't care about the long term right now.
The Pirates are tied for first place in the National League Central with 28 games to play. I hope Morneau gives them a September (and October) to remember.
It's probably not the way you want it, but Twins fans have a team to cheer.
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.
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