La Velle E. Neal III has covered baseball for the Star Tribune since 1998 (the post-Knoblauch era). Born and raised in Chicago, he grew up following the White Sox and hating the Cubs. He attended both the University of Illinois and Illinois-Chicago and began his baseball writing career at the Kansas City Star. He can be heard occasionally on KFAN radio, lending his great baseball mind to Paul Allen and other hosts. Mark Rosen borrows him occasionally for WCCO-TV.
Johan Santana hasn't thrown a pitch in Minnesota since he left following the 2007 season. Thanks to the arrival of season-long interleague play to Major League Baseball in 2013, he'll get that chance.
Santana and the New York Mets visit Target Field on April 12. That's right, April. Thanks to Houston joining the American League, interleague play will be sprinkled throughout the six-month schedule - although the Twins won't face a NL team over the final two months.
The Twins are matched up with the N.L. East as interleague partners for the most part. In one unfortunate development, the Interstate 94 series between the Twins and Brewers has been shrunk to a pair of two-game sets May 27-30.
(note to self: embrace Houston as an AL team)
In addition to two-game series against Milwaukee, the Twins have home-and-home two-game series against Ozzie Guillen.
Another thing: The Twins will play 31 of their 81 home games in April or September. They play nine - nine - home games in July.
Also, the league has decided to poke Mother Nature with a stick, as Twins open the season at home, on April 1, against Detroit. Since moving to Target Field in 2010, the Twins started the season on the road.
The Twins haven't played host to the Yankees yet this season. Next season, New York will visit the Twins July 1-4.
Here are three things on my mind following the Twins' 4-3 loss to Kansas City on Friday.
1. This week has been disappointing for the offense. It's hard to believe the Twins couldn't figure out Royals righthander Luis Mendoza, but those things happen in baseball. But it's even harder to understand when the Twins' offense goes south twice in a few days. They should have clobbered Gavin Floyd on Tuesday. He was struggling on the road and the Twins have had their way with him in the past. But they lost 3-2 and lost the series to the White Sox. Now they let Mendoza shut them down on Friday. Once in a while, sure. Twice in four days?
2. Let's see how today's moves affect tomorrow's game: Twins manager Ron Gardenhire used four relievers on Friday on purpose so none of them would pitch too much to be unavailable for the doubleheader on Saturday. Anthony Swarzak and Kyle Waldrop both threw 25 pitches and should good to go tomorrow. Tyler Robertson threw 11 and Alex Burnett threw 14. They should have no problems bouncing back. The Royals should have no problems!
3. Liriano: Joe C. was told that the Braves are NOT interested in Francisco Liriano, so you don't have to study their farm system any more. But I was told that, if Liriano keeps throwing well, the Dodgers could be interested. Liriano has re-built his trade value. Now let's see if he can maintain it - or increase it.
Justin Morneau tried to take some swings in the cage this afternoon, but said his sore wrist has not improved at all. So the Twins will place him on the 15-day disabled list and replace him with someone from the minors.
The Twins don't have enough time to get someone out to Seattle, so they will officially make the move in time to start their three-game home series against the Angels at Target Field.
"He went down to the cage today, took about 16, 17 swings,'' Twins assistant General Manager Rob Antony day. "Said it felt about the same as it did about five days ago. So we're going to have to readjust the situation. We're not going to do anything today. We wouldn't be able to get anyone in here today anyway. We're probably going to have to do something before we get back home."
Morneau said he expects to be checked out by Twins specialist Dr. Tom Varecka when the team returns from its West Coast road trip. The Twins will backdate the move to Monday, when he left a game against the Angels.
"Give it a little more time and hopefully let it calm down to where I can swing normally and be productive," Morneau said.
This is something Morneau doesn't want to bother him all season. There has been no talk of him needing a pain-killing injection because he's dealing with tendonitis.
Check back later for more details.
Mauer in the bullpen
Joe Mauer hasn't caught in a game since taking a foul tip off the inside of his left knee on Sunday at Target Field. He ran the bases on Friday as if the knee still bothered him some.
But Mauer slipped on the tools of ignorance on Saturday and caught in the bullpen before the game.
"He said he's fine," Ullger said. "And, hopefully, Joe will be behind the plate [Sunday]. We'll see where he is when he comes in."
With Justin Morneau headed to the disabled list because of a sore left wrist, it's important for the Twins to keep Mauer's bat in the lineup, whether it's at catcher, first base or as the designated hitter. He had the game-winning hit on Friday in a 3-2 win over the Mariners.
Diamond coming up?
No word yet on if the Twins plan to call up lefthander Scott Diamond to join the rotation. Diamond was pulled on Friday after throwing 47 pitches over three innings for Class AAA Rochester. It could be a signal that they want him to start on Tuesday against the Angels.
Righthander Liam Hendriks is listed as the starter for that game, but he has struggled in recent outings and was criticized by manager Ron Gardenhire on Wednesday after putting the Twins in a hole while they were no-hit by Jered Weaver. By throwing 47 pitches, Diamond could come back on three days rest to start on Tuesday.
Not good news for Class AA righthander Alex Wimmers, the Twins' first-round pick in 2010. Assistant General Manager Ron Antony, who's with the Twins on the road trip, revealed that Wimmers has a small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. Wimmers doesn't needs surgery but is out indefinitely as he will rest then go through rehabilitation.
Infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, on the disabled list at Rochester with a high right ankle sprain, could return to action in a few days.
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jamey Carroll, SS
3. Joe Mauer, DH
4. Josh Willingham, LF
5. Ryan Doumit, C
6. Chris Parmelee, 1B
7. Danny Valencia, 3B
8. Erik Komatsu. RF
9. Alexi Casilla, 2B
Jason Marquis, RHP
1. Dustin Ackley, 2B
2. Brendan Ryan, SS
3. Ichiro Suzuki, RF
4. Jesus Montero, C
5. Kyle Seager, 3B
6. John Jaso, DH
7. Justin Smoak, 1B
8. Mike Carp, LF
9. Michael Saunders, CF
Felix Hernandez, RHP
i covered Paul Molitor's 3,000th hit when I worked for the Kansas City Star (I guess that means I also covered Chuck Knoblauch's 1,000th hit).
I was there for Cal Ripken's 3,000th hit, which happened at the Dome.
This was better to watch. Don't get me wrong, hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do is sports. To do it 3,000 times is amazing.
To hit it in the seats 600 times is mind-boggling. And Thome has done it without the cloud of PED use hanging over him like it does Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, A-Rod and others.
The man is 40 years old. And he's still hitting bombs to the opposite field.
``The thing that everyone doesn't see is that he probably gets here an hour before everyone,'' Justin Morneau said. ``I get here early and he's probably here an hour before I am. How much work he goes through,, even the days he's not playing, How much work he goes through, he prepares he does everything just to get his body ready for four at bats, or pinch hit if he is not starting that game.
``The amount of work he puts in is amazing. If you had a camera follow him around, the cameraman would get tired from watching.''
Here's the point of this blog. How they got the ball.
The Twins had been concerned about how they would be able to track down the ball if it was hit in Target Field, but they had dozens of people they could send out into the crowd to reach whoever caught the ball. Once on the road, they were at a disadvantage.
But the baseball Gods smiled on them Monday as Thome went oppo.
``I remember Frank Thomas once telling me, `Man, don't ever lose that left field swing,' '' Thome said.
Both bullpens are in left field. The ball landed in the Tigers bullpen. Bullpen coach Mike Rojas ended up with the ball, And he simply handed the ball over the wall separating the two bullpens to Matt Capps.
``Cappy ran off with it like this,'' said closer Joe Nathan as he pretended to prance with the ball like he just recovered a fumble.
As the Twins wrapped up their win, Thome's son Landon, had the ball in his hands in the visitors clubhouse.
Good thing Thome never lost that left field swing. And didn't hit the ball 450 feet.
Getting back into the swing here after the Twins' playoff train sputtered to a halt just a few miles out of the station, forcing me into time off I had hoped wouldn't start until November.
Late in the season, I started sharing Baseball America's rankings of the top prospects in each league. I mentioned the Midwest League prospects here. And Twins prospects in his the Gulf Coast League here. With the Twins' season now over I'll try to finish up.
So now I'll go backwards - because I never mentioned the Appalachian League, where the Twins normally do well and end up with several players among the top prospects. This season was no different.
One player in particular, Oswaldo Celestino Arcia, did so well he hit his way into my Top Ten prospects list late in the regular season - not too shabby for a short-season player.
Arcia was ranked as the third best prospect in the league. Here's BA's take:
An easy choice as league player of the year, Arcia led the Appy in nine key categories, including batting (.375), on-base percentage (.424), slugging (.672) and RBIs (51). His slugging percentage was the second-highest in the league in the last 14 seasons, behind only Greeneville's Mitch Einerston's .692 in 2004, and he fell just three homers short of the triple crown.
"He's the best hitter at that age I've seen," Princeton manager Michael Johns said. "Even in lefty-on-lefty situations, he keeps his shoulder in and stays on the pitch."
Despite Elizabethton's inviting right-field porch, Arcia consistently lined the ball up the middle and to left field with authority, showing a mature, all-fields approach. The numbers back this up, as he hit 12 of his 14 homers on the road.
Reviews of the rest of Arcia's game were mixed. He swings and misses a lot, especially against lefthanders, and he struggled at times to maintain balance against breaking balls. He also fought a hitch in his swing where he would drop his hands during his load. Arcia runs and throws OK and profiles best as a run-producing right fielder, though he played mostly center for Elizabethton.
Righthander Adrian Salcedo was ranked eighth. He's the latest command and control guy many people in the organization are high on. Here's BA's take.
The Twins sent Salcedo from extended spring training to high Class A Fort Myers in mid-May to cover for injuries. He ran up a 6.26 ERA, relying mostly on his fastball, while waiting for Elizabethton to begin play at the end of June. In the Appy League, he did a better job of incorporating his secondary pitches.
An exceptional athlete, Salcedo picks things up quickly, works hard and throws strikes. His sinker sits at 90-93 mph and bores down and in on righthanders. His slurvy, low-80s slider shows consistent tilt when he gets on top of the pitch.
With his athleticism and arm strength, Salcedo is a safe bet to reach his potential. Whether he does so as a starter or reliever will depend largely on how well he can fine-tune his changeup.
The 10th best prospect was righthander Manuel Soliman, an interesting case. He used to be a third baseman but was converted to a pitcher. Twins officials told me he's touched 94 miles an hour, so I'm wondering if there's a chance he'll throw more consistently at that speed with more experience. According to BA:
Past Elizabethton clubs relied on high-powered offensive attacks to bludgeon opponents, but this year's Twins were different. Jim Shellenback, in his 14th year as pitching coach, called this year's staff the deepest group he's had in a while. Soliman's performance may have been the most impressive, given that he spent his first three seasons in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League, the first two as a third baseman.
Soliman resembles Salcedo as a fastball/slider/changeup righthander who throws boatloads of strikes. He pitches at 90-92 mph and can touch 94, and he led the league with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. His resilient arm and sound delivery should allow him to remain a starter.
Shellenback worked with Soliman to improve his tempo, so he wouldn't jump at hitters, and to maintain his high three-quarters arm slot. When he stays on top of his slurvy breaking ball he gets two-plane break at about 80-82 mph, but he'll need to make continued strides with his changeup.
Lethander Pat Dean was ranked as the 16th best prospect in his first pro season after being drafted out of Boston College. He seems to be someone who could have opened his career at Beloit. After five scoreless innings for the GCL Twins, Dean was promoted to E-Town. Here's BA's take:
A third-round pick from Boston College, Dean was more advanced than most Appy pitchers and proved too crafty for the league's raw, developing hitters. Counting the playoffs, he had a 40-1 K-BB ratio in 30 innings. He consistently put opponents on the defensive with first- and second-pitch strikes, then finished them off with one of four pitches that grade as fringe-average to average.
Dean's velocity was down when he joined Elizabethton, but he soon found his customary 89-91 mph fastball and topped out at 92. He turns to his 12-to-6 curveball for most of his strikeouts, especially against lefthanders, and keeps hitters guessing with a fringy changeup and small-breaking slider.
Dean missed time with elbow inflammation in the spring, and because the Twins have no short-season affiliate, they opted to take it slow in his debut. Expect him to move quickly once he touches down in full-season ball in 2011.
It's so hard to predict how kids in the Appy League will develop. BA pointed out that its top 20 list five years ago included Juan Portes. Alexander Smit and Ryan Mullins. Still, it's good to know who's worth tracking.
Will check back either tomorrow or Thursday with a look at Florida State League prospects. The plan is to build up to my end-of-season Top Ten Twins prospects list.
Anyone who remains in a panic over how the Twins have played since clinching the division title must be addicted to feeling alarmed.
This is when the critical eye needs to be turned on this team as it opens a four-game series against Toronto.
I could care less how they played on the road trip. Know why?
Francisco Liriano was sick before his last start. The start before that, he was struck with a rash so bad it looked like someone painted his chest red. All indications are that he's fine for today's outing.
Carl Pavano had nine days off between starts,. so it was expected that he would be off his game a little when he started against Detroit.
Relievers need to take the blame for the 11-10 and 10-8 losses on the trip. That is one area that has been disappointing.
But now the playoff rotation is set and throwing on a regular schedule. The lineup is getting healthy, as Joe Mauer and .J. J. Hardy are back in tonight. NOW let's see how this team does.
Justin Morneau, for the first time in weeks, looked happy to be speaking to the media. He took early batting practice and will work out with the lads tomorrow, barring any setbacks tonight.
But anyone who is dreaming of Morneau being a factor in the postseason, wake yourselves up.
I'm just glad the man has been symptom-free and can enjoy being a father. He's been out two-plus months because of his concussion and needs a bunch of at bats before the Twins can even consider placing him on the postseason roster.
``I feel pretty good right now.'' he said, ``but it's still day-to-day.''
I don't think he'll be ready for the ALDS. ALCS? That's a possibility. But he needs to face live pitching. He can do that here in simulated games and down in Florida for instructional league. But even he said it's too early to look that far ahead.
1. Travis Snider, LF
2. Yuniel Escobar, SS
3. Jose Bautista, 1B
4. Vernon Wells, CF
5. John Buck, DH
6. Aaron Hill, 2B
7. Edwin Encarnacion, 3B
8. Jose Molina, C
9. Mike McCoy, RF
Shawn Hill, RHP
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Orlando Hudson, 2B
3. Joe Mauer, DH
4. Delmon Young, LF
5. Jason Kubel, RF
6. Michael Cuddyer, 1B
7. Danny Valencia, 3B
8. J.J. Hardy, SS
9. Drew Butera, C
Francisco Liriano, LHP