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.
What do we want?
Change! (The right change)
When do we want it?
Now! (If not yesterday)
It's tough not to be impatient.
The Twins left the Winter Meetings without enhancing their roster for 2014, which shouldn't mean a whole lot because of the way that baseball has changed. It used to be that the Winter Meetings typically resulted in a flurry of trades and other moves, and then baseball pretty much slowed down for the holidays. It's not like that now.
It was pretty clear that some of the Twins' presumed targets aren't feeling any rush to decide where they'll be playing next season. That the main public drama playing out for the Twins this week centered on whether they would re-sign Mike Pelfrey tells you a lot about how unsettled the really big issues are right now. I know the Twins felt they were bringing in a veteran presence when they signed Pelfrey last season, and I was predisposed to root for him, but the truth is that even billing him as a No. 4 starter heading into spring training is a stretch.
I want to be wrong about my Pelfrey skepticism and buy into the notion that he'll be that much better in his second year removed from Tommy John surgery.
But in a rotation that has Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Kevin Correia as locks for the top three spots right now, Pelfrey feels like he should merely be in the mix for one of the final spots, an uncomfortable fallback if the Twins fail to bring in one of the bigger names who are still weighing their options. (Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo and Ervin Santana.)
In a better Twins world, Correia comes to spring training in Fort Myers as the No. 4 starter with competition wide open for the final spot among Pelfrey and the others, which is better than filling the rotation by default and prayer. (Hello, Vance Worley, Liam Hendriks and others.)
I also don't want to believe that the amount of Pelfrey chatter is an indication that the Twins aren't really serious contenders for the others. (I'm smart enough about these things to know how much I don't know.) It also shouldn't obscure the fact that, as Terry Ryan has pointed out, the roster still needs to be upgraded in other areas. Making assumptions about Josmil Pinto's ability to be the starting catcher is unwise and there are outfield needs in the short term that were made clearer when the Twins tried unsuccessfully to sign the speedy-but-flawed Rajai Davis. (Cutting a minor-league deal with Jason Kubel does nothing for the notion that the Twins need outfielders who can catch the ball.)
I'm struck by the direction that the New York Mets appear to be taking this off-season. After finishing 22 games behind the division leaders in the National League East last season, they have signed Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon. They are still a flawed team, but a flawed team that is hovering around the .500 mark come August can position itself to be in the postseason discussion in baseball's expanded playoffs.
That's what I want from the Twins in 2014, to be in the postseason discussion come late summer rather than careening toward another season when we wonder whether they'll be closer to losing 90 games or 100. Yes, "playoff discussion" is weak soup compared to our expectations from a few years back. But an equation of improved roster + improved performance + a surprise or two should be able to yield some excitement that's been lacking from Target Field for the last three years.
For the Twins to be taken seriously in 2014 and a team to be reckoned with in the years following would keep me happy for now..
It was Thanksgiving morning six years ago when the news broke that Torii Hunter had agreed to a new contract with the Angels after playing his entire career with the Twins. He wanted something more than he could get in Minnesota, and got a lot more than the Twins were willing to pay.
For most of the years since, we've watched at this time of year as other teams have been major players in free agency and the Twins have nibbled around the edges. Yes, even the Josh Willingham signing -- the previous "richest free agent signing in Twins history" -- was a small mouthful compared to what other teams have been doing.
Ricky Nolasco is a good start to the rebuilding of the Twins. He'll come in with huge expectations only because he's Cy Young compared to what we've watched take the mound at Target Field for the last couple of seasons.
A friend e-mailed me this morning, asking basically, "Jack Morris or Vance Worley."
Talk about zero shades of gray.
My response: "Carl Pavano+."
Nolasco is a No. 2-starter type who could well play the role of an ace from time to time. He's one of a number of needed pieces, and I'm hoping he's one of three starting pitchers with credentials who the Twins sign for 2014 and beyond. I like two from the group of Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo, Ervin Santana and Scott Feldman. And there are several catchers on the market who would make me happy.
Do that, and I'll trust the Twins to cobble together what's needed for the rest of the roster. (Hey, they're saying Denard Span is available from Washington, you know.)
If you're playing at home, here's a good free-agent tracker to bookmark.
In contemporary baseball, you can't cobble together an entire roster. But if the Twins are on their way to an aggressive overhaul, they could very well be a good team in 2014 and a very, very good team in 2015 and beyond. I'm still in the "if" camp on whether it will happen, but I'm allowing myself to be optimistic.
One move does not make an overhaul or change in tactics.
But bringing in established starting pitchers raises the bar for the young pitchers whose acquisition was the excitement of last winter and, for the most, had an assortment of struggles during their first year in the Twins organization. It's a lot easier to forecast an eventual leading role for Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano than for Trevor May, Alex Meyer or Jose Berrios. If one member of that pitching group comes through, that's good. If two come through, that's excellent.
Have a great Thanksgiving everyone. Maybe there will be more to get excited about in the weeks to come. At the very least, this Thanksgiving is better than the one when Torii Hunter got away.
As the trading deadline approaches at the end of the month, there will be talk about teams interested in Twins players A, B, C and a few others. Think of Glen Perkins as A, Justin Morneau as B, Ryan Doumit as C and a bunch of others, including Jamey Carroll and Mike Pelfrey, as being among the few others.
The wisdom behind trading Perkins is that a terrible team doesn't need a first-rate closer and the lefty closer is the guy on the roster who would bring the most in return.
That's true ... but that doesn't mean the Twins should trade him.
Some people argue with vigor that it's reasonably simple to find someone who can be plugged into a closer's role. Maybe it was the time I spent covering the Twins -- when they traded for Yankees set-up guy Ron Davis and tried to make him a closer -- but I don't buy it. In addition to being a game of ever-expanding statistical models, which is a good thing, baseball is a game in which the same player can perform differently in different situations.
Check out RD's statistics in his four years as the Yankees set-up man versus his 4 1/2 as Minnesota's closer.
A few years back, Cleveland liked the stuff of the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona to try him as a closer, an experiment that failed horrifically the season before he won 19 games as a starter.
Another example of a different sort: Journeyman Pat Tabler, a .282 hitter in 12 career seasons, was a killer force batting with the bases loaded during his career. How good? This good: In 109 bases-loaded career appearances, he had a .489 average, .505 on-base percentage and 1.198 on base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS).
By comparison, Miguel Cabrera, a pretty good baseball player, is .417/.413/1.034 in those situations. Joe Mauer? .333/.322/.850. (I use Mauer as a comparison not to make mock, but because Mauer has significantly more power than Tabler, but Tabler's numbers in this particular clutch situation are so incredibly extreme.) And yes, I know, we're doing some cherry-picking of stats here, but this is a five-minute model. Give me five hours and I'll find you more.
Not everyone can switch roles as gracefully as the fabulous Joe Nathan, who was a set-up man in San Francisco before the Twins traded for him 10 years ago.
OK, back to Perkins.
He is among the best in baseball at what he does. If you favor a trade, you're betting on finding a suitable replacement for what is currently the team's No. 1 strength. Plus, you may be conceding that the Twins are on a treadmill of trading top talent because you don't expect them to be competitive for another few years. I've made the case, more often than some would like, that one of the current Twins' failings has been their inability to field a competitive team while waiting for their young talent to be ready for Target Field.
Give up Perkins and you're creating another hole.
Trade Morneau or Josh Willingham (which won't happen right now because of his injury) or Carroll or Doumit, and you should quickly find someone to adequately fill those roles right away based on current, or even anticipated, performance.
Trade Perkins to an American League team and, a dozen years down the road, maybe the Twins would be presenting him with a rocking chair made of their broken bats. Trade Perkins and you're asking for trouble.
West Coast baseball tonight. Take a nap and maybe we'll trade some tweets.
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.)
The Twins season is quite interesting so far. Not quite fascinating enough to make me watch at the expense of a Stanley Cup playoff game, but I suspect that conflict will pass in a week or so.
If 2013 becomes the season of solutions for the Twins while they can avoid a tumble into the lower depths of the American League, then we can call it a victory and move ahead.
The good news about the problem-solving that's in progress is that it hasn't come at the expense of winning games. The promotion of Oswaldo Arcia, for example, has made the Twins a better team than if he was raising hopes by smashing the ball in Rochester. I'll take the .220 batting average with the assumption that it will get better over time and that he will let me see that much less on Josh Willingham in left field. (I pay to see the Hammer hit.)
Plus, the Arcia promotion and the struggles of Trevor Plouffe at third base have solved the problem of Gardy having some offensive pop in the dugout. Depending on the lineup of the day, Ryan Doumit or Plouffe or one of the regulars getting a day off is going to be available when the Twins need a bat off the bench. Think back to the pinch-hitting options of recent years, and that's an upgrade.
The limited exposure of Pedro Florimon, Eduardo Escobar and Jamey Carroll makes all of them more effective. Combined, they are so far batting .306 in 108 at-bats with nine walks. By comparison, the collection of spare-part infielders last season hit .199 in 346 at-bats, including the 0-for-12 in the frightful week that marked the end of the Nishioka era.
I bring up Nishioka -- one last time, I hope -- not to be abusive as much as to point out that the personnel choices made for this season are that much more solid than those of previous years, in which Nishioka, Luke Hughes, Matt Tolbert and others were playing the role of major leaguers. I am hard pressed to imagine Gardy creating one of those "Sunday lineups" of recent seasons that made Twins fans wonder why they are paying major league ticket prices.
Nishioka is hitting .298 in Japan, by the way.
The middle of the Twins infield, with Brian Dozier at second and the Florimon/Escobar tandem at shortstop, is better defensively than anything (except for the Orlando Hudson/J.J. Hardy-when-healthy tandem in 2010) since the Luis Castillo/Jason Bartlett combination from the mid-2000s.
In a few weeks, the Twins will reach the one-quarter mark of the season, which will be a time for Gardy and the front office to better evaluate those who are helping and those who are damaging the cause. Right now, Vance Worley and Mike Pelfrey are the two names generating the most negative buzz.
While a half-dozen starts doesn't make for a 100 percent fair test, that the Twins have Kyle Gibson getting back on track at Rochester, Cole De Vries trying to heal from arm problems and WBC-stud Samuel Deduno waiting to get healthy means there are alternative who would be hard pressed to do worse if the veterans don't improve. Also keep in mind that Worley was essentially the added player for the Ben Revere deal, which wouldn't have been made without the prospect Trevor May's inclusion.
Speaking of Revere, he finished his first month in Philadelphia with a .245 on-base percentage and has been dropped from the top to the bottom of the Phillies batting order. Manager Charlie Manuel told a Philadelphia reporter the other day: "He's had a hard time getting going. We just have to keep staying with him and see if we can’t get him playing better."
I am still unwilling to totally uncouple Ramon Ortiz and Kevin Correia when I watch Correia and his early-season prowess. It's impossble to argue with little more than a runner per inning and a 2.23 ERA through five starts. The best analysis of Correia's success so far comes from the blogger Aaron Gleeman. Rather than excerpt a portion of it here, it's best that you read the whole thing when you have a chance. A few more solid starts, though, and I promise to put much greater distance between the names Correia and Ortiz.
As a fan, I am willing to watch Hicks and Arcia grow into major leaguers because the alternatives at this point would be a concession to mediocrity. I am OK watching Parmelee grow into a regular right fielder and I am happy to see Carroll in a situation where he is likely to get half the at-bats that he did in 2012, which makes him that much more valuable. Gardy's patchwork calls for the left side of the infioeld will be among his on-going challenges and what happens with the starting rotation is another.
The Twins have played .500 baseball so far without getting much from Justin Morneau and with Joe Mauer having two cold spells surrounding one hot streak. In the American League, they are ninth in on-base percentage, last in slugging percentage and -- despite the troubles in the starting rotation -- sixth in team ERA while being last in strikeouts. Some of the first-month's success may have a smoke-and-mirrors quality to it, but a good chunk of it comes from being a better team than many of us imagined on the chilly April day when the first pitch was thrown.
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