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.
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.
There are no guarantees about what they'll be called heading into the third week of the baseball season, but going into the second, the local major league baseball team can be called the "first-place Minnesota Twins" without lying or hallucinating. I would suggest that in all of your conversations from now until it no longer applies, you refer to them -- both here and in all of your baseball chatter -- as "the first-place Minnesota Twins."
Or "first-place Twins" for short.
If you need a qualifier, you can always say they're the "first-place Twins, with 156 games left to play in the regular season," or something like that. (Yes, I know they're tied for first with the White Sox, but "tied for first-place Twins..." is a bit much after you've said it three or four times in the coffee line.
We might as well have some fun as long as it lasts, whether it's through the rest of the day, the day of the week ... or whenever. Anyone who has watched enough baseball knows that it would be foolish to read much into the opening two series. The first-place Twins are not going to keep up this pace and win 108 games any more than Aaron Hicks will finish the season with his current .077 batting average or Joe Mauer will keep up his current pace and strike out 177 times if he plays 150 games.
Not to be a thrower of cold water, but a trip or three through the starting rotation means little. You need only go back a half-dozen years to Ramon Ortiz, who won four of his first five starts with a 2.57 ERA -- and was gone from the 2007 Twins rotation forever after five more starts in which he put together an ERA near 11 and put on base more than two runners per inning.
I'm not going to be the one to put a end date on your fun.
However, I'll suggest these first-place Twins might be better than we thought -- especially in a league that could feature more struggling teams than suspected. Are the Blue Jays, for example, headed for a replay of the promise-and-crash that enveloped the Miami Marlins last season? Are the old-and-injured Yankees toast? Is Oakland that good?
I'm not putting a yes or no tag on any of those questions, but the first week of this season has provided good reason to come back for the second.
The first-place Twins came through their first week winning two of three games apiece from teams that went to the 2012 postseason. They rallied from behind, held on to some small leads and exiled Tyler Robertson to Rochester after his ill-fated pitch to Chris Davis on Friday afternoon, which came on top of an unpromising spring training and a mediocre 2012, in which there simply weren't better alternatives.
I am willing to suggest that the current bullpen will prove to be a better collection and there will be more choices in the starting rotation than the 2012 last-place Twins, in which appearance-by-default treated us to pitchers you would prefer seeing in the other team's uniform. I am also willing to bet on this year's middle infield play to be superior to last season's.
Ii is no disrespect to 39-year-old Jamey Carroll when I say that I hope he has half the number of plate appearances as the career-high 537 that he had in 2012. I mean no disrespect to Denard Span and Ben Revere, but I'd rather be watching Aaron Hicks and Chris Parmelee right now.
I don't expect anyone in the front office to be raising their arms in triumph right now, but I'm looking forward to seeing how the collection of modest parts that Terry Ryan has collected -- Florimon, Escobar, Ramirez, Pressly and Roenicke -- among others, will be judged when the season reaches the quarter and halfway marks. (I still wish there had been a significant help-now acquisition over the winter, but reliving that battle can only lead to a concussion.)
I am happy we're one week into the season and Ron Gardenhire's job security isn't an issue.
Late-afternoon game today. Who's leaving work a bit early?
So the Twins named their Opening Day starter and he was a six-game winner in an injury-curtailed 2012 season. That's Vance Worley. And the Twins top pitcher from last season, Scott Diamond, will start 2013 on the disabled list in his comeback from arm issues that surfaced during the off-season.
And come Monday morning, the Twins will be tied for first place in the American League Central. We'll see if that lasts until sundown.
I've learned over the years to cut down on my blogging during spring training, which is one of the reasons Section 219 has taken a break during the Twins stay in Florida. There's little I can add from up here that can't be told better from reading the reports from our crew on the scene in Fort Myers and from our TwinsCentric crew.
That Jared Burton seemed to get lit up every time I listened for a few innings adds little to the discussion -- except nervousness, maybe. (On closer inspection, most of those were unearned runs.) I've learned over the years not to look at exhibition ERAs. Joe Nathan getting knocked around was Exhibit A; Dusty Hughes getting people out was Exhibit B.
Besides, February and March are kind of a busy time in my A-job of keeping this web site together. This last month or so, I've been living with Tubby, Percy, Gophers of many sports and all of the related excitement that comes with this time of year. One beauty of baseball is that it hits you smack in the face right when you emerge from the weeks when so many winter sports finish up in their haze of tournaments.
Plus, you can only be grumpy about stuff so many times and -- having reached my grumpy limit -- it's time to look ahead and try to get excited, or at least intrigued, about the flawed Twins.
I am prepared to look for the best, and I hope that feeling lasts. My list includes:
*Aaron Hicks. God bless Darin Mastroianni and the Puntonian hustle (without the head-first slides into first base) that he brings to the Twins. But if he had been the Opening Day starter in center field, it would have symbolized all that is wrong with the team's decline. I know that spring training can be filled with illusions, but I hope that Hicks isn't one of them.
*Tom Brunansky. Is it a problem when No. 2 on your hope list is a coach? I'm intrigued about whether Brunansky's approach to hitting leads to some improvement. We're not talking about helping Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau as much as lessening the feeling from the last couple of seasons that, on many days, the Twins were fielding a lineup in which several spots were being filled by players for whom a hit would be a happy accident.
*Joe Mauer. If felt like every time I watched or listened to part of a Twins or World Baseball Classic game, Mauer was on base or in the process of getting on base. That he has a combined .558 on-base percentage with the Twins and for Team USA this spring confirms that it almost wasn't an illusion. I am beyond the "how many home runs should Mauer hit" issue. I want Mauer to play every day -- somewhere in the lineup -- and have the kind of year in which we won't leave our seats or the TV when we know he's coming to bat.
*The middle infield. I want to believe that what Brian Dozier learned as a failed major league shortstop will help him become a successful major league second baseman. I will make no other comparison between Dozier and Torii Hunter except to cite that it took a couple of extra trips to the minors for Hunter to get it right. I want to believe that we won't cringe when Pedro Florimon comes to bat, although his spring training numbers do not fill me with hope. I do like that Dozier and Florimon are Nos. 1 and 2 in innings played in Florida. That statistic speaks to a commitment that I hope isn't being made in vain.
*Gardy. Toward the end of his managing years, Tom Kelly's frustration with his players was pretty evident. If you'd gone from managing two World Series winners to relying on Chad Allen, Scott Stahoviak and some of the others, you'd be miffed, too. So far, Ron Gardenhire hasn't gone that route. His spring training desire for Jim Thome was odd, but -- reading between the lines -- I hope it was his way of saying that he needed more offense on his bench. Demoting Drew Butera was a step in that direction. Now, if he can resist the temptation to carry 13 pitchers ... If he goes, I don't want him to go beaten down.
I'm starting the 2013 season prepared to have more hope than expectations. If you've read this blog, it hasn't always been a pretty journey to reach that place and, yes, it may make me a sucker. I promise not to turn aluminum foil into silver linings. I promise to try having fun while being realistic about what we're going to be asked to support at Target Field this season. I got my Section 219 tickets this week and I'm looking forward to using them.
After all, it's baseball.
I would bet that Kevin Correia never imagined that he would be featured in a commercial touting the Twins chances in 2013. Without being harsh -- because the day when pitchers and catchers report to spring training is no time for snark -- the 10-year veteran with the sub-.500 record doesn't exactly inspire the kind of optimism that I'd like to associate with February in Fort Myers.
Of course, that the Twins have resorted to sarcasm in their radio ads doesn't help, either. You've probably heard it, the ad about "your new pitchers" -- Vance Worley, Correia and Mike Pelfrey -- and how "they'll win every game! Yessssss!"
That doesn't even qualify as a sorta deep thought, although I guess it's better than "Fighting for fourth place since 2011."
The best thing the Twins have going for them is a Twin Cities sports market that has taken a dramatic and stunning nosedive in recent weeks. The Timberwolves have gone from possible playoff contender to their natural habitat of last place. The Wild are celebrating its first road victory and have already turned the Xcel Energy Center crowd to booing. Tubby Smith and his Gophers have become a dispiriting train wreck. Jerry Kill and his Gophers just signed the lowest-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten.
Even Don Lucia and his Gophers, the best reason for hope among local teams of some profile, have dropped from No. 1 in the national rankings -- dropping behind a college you probably can't name and almost certainly can't find on a map.
It's enough to make you want to follow Class A high school hockey.
It is onto that bleak landscape that the Twins step this week with their pitchers and catchers -- the healthy ones, anyway -- going through the preseason rituals that will excite many of us, at present, only because they're taking place in warm weather.
This is the time of year when we'll hear guys like Pelfrey saying stuff like this: "From my understanding, this offense is going to put up some runs. If we can keep them in the game and get the ball over to the bullpen, I like our chances." (Read that one here.)
That's an offense without a leadoff or No. 2 hitter, at present, and more positions in the lineup unsettled than settled. And the comments come from a pitcher who had Tommy John surgery on May 1 and expects to be ready for the start of the season. From Adrian Peterson's knee to Pelfrey's arm to God's ears, I suppose.
Remember, at this time last year we were excited about Joel Zumaya.
Here's the disconnect between what you read and hear from the experts and you may be feeling as a fan: Many of the experts are willing to buy into the drawing of a bigger picture and have the patience needed to wait for it to come into view. They can look at a team that's dropped dramatically from first to worst in its division and offer wisdom about the benefits of waiting a couple of more years until things will be better. They'll contend that the minor-league system, after a significant dry spell, is stocked full of hope -- and fans should be patient for 20-whenever.
I've heard those experts talk about the inevitable "down cycles," the wisdom of piling up prospects and their disdain for fans who want the Twins to take shortcuts to success. I saw a tweet from a radio guy about how the Wild's slow start justifies the Twins approach.
I've heard fans argue that a "down cycle" should have the Twins on the edge of contention instead of battling to lose fewer than 100 games. I've heard the skepticism about relying so heavily on prospects, steeped in the list of failures that any serious fan can create if given a few minutes. I've contended that bringing in veteran players to hold down key positions until the prospects are expected to be ready isn't a shortcut as much as it's an obligation from a financially able ownership to its ticket-buying public.
So far, I've kept the promise of my last post not to use the phrase "Kansas City North" in describing the Twins -- and I'm not going to use the phrase "Kansas City North" because snark will not come from this keyboard on the day that pitchers and catchers report.
After all, we've been promised that Worley, Correia and Pelfrey are going to win every game! Yessssss!
So cheer up, OK?
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