Your place for Minnesota Twins and New Britain Rock Cats coverage, analysis and opinion.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Twins Picks

Well, the Florida portion of Spring Training has concluded, and the Twins are preparing for two exhibition games against the Braves in Atlanta. Then, it will finally be Opening Day. I try not to capitalize too many words, but Opening Day definitely deserves that emphasis. It has been a long winter, and the team (as well as the fans) officially needs to move on from, but not forget, the ugly October end to 2010.

Here are a few 2011 Twins-picks related to certain offensive and pitching categories. * indicates that the player will lead the league.


HR: D. Young, 31.

RBI: D. Young, 110.

Avg.: J. Mauer, .345*

OBP: J. Mauer, .410.

2B: J. Morneau, 34.

3B: D. Span, 12.*


Wins: F. Liriano, 18.

ERA: F. Liriano, 3.31.

Saves: M. Capps, 27.

Ks: F. Liriano, 220.

Long story short, I am expecting big things in 2011 from Young and Liriano. Young is playing for a contract, maybe in Minnesota and maybe not, and Liriano needs to establish that his 2010 numbers were not an aberration. I do think Morneau is going to produce, but I am anticipating a slow start. To be sure, giving Morneau extra rest in April could help ensure that September and October are healthy months. I think Joe Mauer will be back to his usual form, meaning a batting title. I don't expect that his home run production will necessarily increase. If the guy comes close to leading the league in average and on-base percentage, and hits 50 doubles, he almost certainly will drive in 100 runs with this offense, and that is a pretty great season.

I expect Nathan and Capps will both get plenty of save opportunities, but I simply am not convinced Nathan can be counted on to save games the first part of this season. I hope I'm wrong, but his spring training outings have done little to instill confidence. In the end, Capps simply may get more save opportunities if opponents continue to hit Nathan hard. I hope I'm wrong on this, because I like Joe Nathan and his recovery from Tommy John surgery has been amazing, but suddenly the Twins' decision to overpay Matt Capps in 2011 as "insurance" does not seem quite as bad as it did a few months ago.

Friday, March 25, 2011

AL and NL MVP Picks

Leading up to the regular season, I'll be posting my picks for some of the major baseball awards, as well as my predictions for which Twins players will lead team pitching and offensive categories.

I'm not really a betting man, although Mega Millions is pretty high right now (remember to play within your limits). If a were a gambler, however, here are my picks for the AL and NL MVPs for 2011. No real shockers:

Adrian Gonzalez, in his first year as a member of the Red Sox, will be batting cleanup in the most feared lineup in baseball, in a stadium that favors his opposite-field power, playing for one of the most heavily covered teams. Batting in front of him will be speedsters Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, as well as former MVP Dustin Pedroia, and behind him will be sluggers Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz. Simply stated, Gonzalez will have speed and high batting averages in front of him to create RBIs, and the threat of power behind him, ensuring that he will see pitches to hit. The Red Sox' rejuvenated, healthy, power-packed offense will be the front-runner in the AL East, following the failure of the Yankees to acquire a marquis player, and the liquidation of the Tampa Bay Rays. MVP voters look for large offensive numbers and passable defense from a star player on a team that is in contention for the playoffs. On paper, Gonzalez, already a 3-time All-Star and 2-time Gold Glove winner in his own right, is in line for what could be a legendary season with the Red Sox. Notably, as of the end of March, he has yet to sign an extension with Boston, and although many believe it is forthcoming, he is playing for his next contract. Though the expectations for Gonzalez are high, he is poised to have the most productive season of his career, and to help lead the Red Sox to the playoffs.

Dark Horse: Justin Morneau. Even if Morneau takes a month to get going, if he ends up having a great 5 months, stays healthy, and the Twins are in contention, he will get votes. After his injury in 2010, voters will want to see him succeed in 2011. Like Gonzalez with the Red Sox, he will be batting in front of a couple hitters who we (hope in the case of Nishioka/expect in the case of Mauer) to be on base very often, and behind him will be some combination of D. Young, Kubel or Thome. Morneau will have plenty of RBI opportunities and will see pitches to hit.

In the National League, no player has more to prove in 2011 than Albert Pujols, namely, that he is worth the 10 year, $300 million contract he reportedly is seeking. Last month, all reports indicated that the St. Louis Cardinals offered to make Pujols the fourth or fifth highest paid player at his position, that the average yearly value of the contract was several million dollars short of Pujols' goal, and that the sides were never even close to a deal prior to reaching his self-imposed deadline for negotiating. In 2011, Pujols must prove to the Cardinals, the Cubs, and any host of teams that have a potential vacancy at first base, that he is worth the commitment he is seeking. He may be the odds-on favorite to win the NL MVP award each season, but it will not be enough this year to simply bat .300, hit 35 home runs and drive in 110 runs. Pujols needs a season for the ages, a season in which he is leading the Triple Crown race entering September, a season in which he hits 50 home runs and manages to make the Cardinals a competitive team. If he has that season, he will easily win the MVP and force the Cardinals ownership to essentially write him a $300 million check. If any player in baseball can, on demand, come up with that kind of season, it is Albert Pujols.

Dark Horse: If Giants catcher Buster Posey is the real deal, if he plays great defense, bats like he did in the World Series, and keeps the Giants competitive, he's going to get a lot of votes. Like Joe Mauer a few years ago, Posey might become a household name in 2011, if he is not already.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mr. Pohlad, Tear Down That Wall!

Joe Christensen over at the Star Tribune has an interesting piece discussing the Mauer contract, its scope in terms of the Twins' payroll, and whether, in retrospect, it was good long-term idea for the Twins. In it, Christensen quotes Mauer as stating, regarding Target Field: "A lot of times, I was hitting balls to left field that would be out of other parks, and they were caught for outs." This, of course, is not news for anyone that watched Twins broadcasts in 2010. It felt like Mauer hit about 50 lineouts or flyouts that were within 5 or 10 feet of being home runs. Christensen also notes that Target Field was was the stingiest ballpark when it came to yielding home runs, surrendering only 52 Twins home runs, and 64 opponent home runs.

I am ordinarily not one that believes in pandering to players' demands. I would have really liked to see the batter's eye trees given a chance to mature, and I think that Michael Cuddyer overstepped his role in complaining, publicly, about the trees. The fence issue, to me, is another story. Mauer has not out-and-out complained about the fence, but reading between the lines, his comments clearly indicate that he would be a happier camper were the left field fence moved in 10 feet or so. Justin Morneau, as well as other players, have said as much.

In my opinion, this is no more than a business decision. The Twins are in the middle of a relatively short window of time in which certain players (e.g., Mauer, Morneau, Young, Valencia, Liriano) are either affordable, in their athletic prime, or both. With respect to finances, Mauer and Morneau alone will cost the Twins $226 million on their current contracts, and that does not take into account any new contract or contract extension for Morneau that would begin in 2014. That's nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for two players that have, in some manner, voiced concerns about Target Field's dimensions, and that certainly have experienced some degree of difficulty hitting for power there.

Additionally, the Twins as a franchise are becoming increasingly reliant on power, as it is not unreasonable to expect a minimum of 20 home runs from 5 of the 9 likely opening day starters (Mauer, Morneau, Young, Cuddyer, Thome/Kubel). This is a far cry from the teams composed primarily of scrappy piranhas and cagy, over-the-hill veterans of just a few years ago.

2010 was the first year playing at Target Field, and the sample size -- 81 regular season games, 2 preseason games against the Cardinals, and 2 postseason losses against the Yankees -- is probably a statistically insufficient basis upon which to make a decision about the playing field dimensions. After 2011, however, if Target Field remains the stingiest ballpark in all of baseball with respect to home runs, and if the Twins continue to court and sign to long-term deals supposed power hitters, the field dimensions should be altered.

And if the Twins do move up the left field fence, I would like nothing more than to see a St. Paul Saints-esque hot tub constructed in that new patch of vacant real estate. Can you imagine the revenue?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Justin Morneau: Jayson Stark Article

For those who haven't read it, here is the link to Jayson Stark's excellent article on about Justin Morneau and his return to baseball.

With respect to Morneau's injury, I have always held opinion that he should not play until he is ready, even if that were to mean missing some, or all, of the 2011 season. Morneau has a lot more going on this year than he did last year; more important than being a very good ballplayer, he is a human being, a son, husband, and now a father. Of course, even if he were to retire today, he has earned more than enough money to comfortably support his family, so finances probably aren't as much a consideration for him as they are for most working-class people.

Concussions -- especially multiple concussions -- are no joke. The fact that Morneau couldn't comfortably watch television for several months underscores the degree to which these injuries affect daily life. The Twins organization has done the right thing by not urging Morneau's return. As a basis for comparison, just take a look at former NFL greats who return for their Hall of Fame or number retirement ceremonies, or listen to them on TV interviews: many players, only in their 40s or 50s, cannot comfortably walk, and exhibit other signs of lasting physical and mental injuries. Of course, football is, by its nature, much more physical than baseball, but the NFL has always had a policy of "encouraging" quick returns from injuries, even concussions. Unfortunately, although it may be better for television ratings to encourage star players to return to action, it is those players that pay the price for this unwritten policy of fast returns to action.

10, 12, 15 years from now, should the Minnesota Twins Baseball Club decide to retire Morneau's number or induct him into the Twins Hall of Fame (hopefully after a World Series or two), I hope to see a healthy, physically fit Morneau, rather than the shell of a man that was once a great ballplayer, who came back to his sport too soon after a brain injury, the full medical scope of which has yet to be fully understood.

I hope Justin Morneau is starting at first base on April 1 in Toronto, and, although I will be disappointed as a Twins baseball fan if he is not, I will understand on the human level that many things transcend the game baseball.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Would You Like to Buy a Tree for Charity?

I read with great interest the saga concerning the batter's eye black spruce trees at Target Field. When I visited Target Field last June, I actually thought the trees were a great natural feature, and it was cool to imagine what they might look like in another twenty years. Half of me understood the player complaints, namely, that the trees could sway during windy days, thereby prettymuch defeating the purpose of a batter's eye. The other half of me (that cynical part that seems to win out most of the time) thought that these complaints lacked validity, and recalled that I did not read about players from visiting teams voicing similar complaints. Nonetheless, it wasn't altogether surprising when the Twins announced that the trees were being removed, and would be relocated to other parts of the stadium, with the exception of a couple trees that were to be auctioned off.

So, had you been in the market for a 14 foot tall black spruce tree, authenticated by MLB, you were probably very excited when the Twins announced the auction. I happened to stop by the Twins' MLB auction website this afternoon, and was surprised that the auction had commenced, and was, in fact, already almost over. As of 10 pm eastern time on March 16, there were 4 bids, and the current high bid was $1,400. At first glance, this sounds like a lot of money -- and it certainly is. But you have to look a little closer.

If you are a Twins die-hard, this is a piece of living history that you can own; second, at its current price, it really is not a bad deal. A quick search of spruce trees that are around 14 feet tall reveals that a price of at least $1000, plus shipping and installation, is common. For slightly more, you are getting a unique piece of history that has been well cared for. For all the complaining Michael Cuddyer did about these trees, I bet for an extra $200 to charity, he'll personally install the thing in your backyard. He seems like that kind of guy. Plus, since he's not yet playing in games, I think he could benefit from the manual labor.

You are also donating to charity. The auction indicates that 90 percent of the purchase price is donated, which is pretty darn good. Although I am not a tax attorney, I think that a portion of the purchase price (whatever you pay over the cost of that a normal 14 foot spruce would cost) would be deductible on your 2011 taxes.

The Twins MLB Auction website, here, is actually a great website. They have autographed baseballs, bats and memorabilia from most Twins' greats, as well as a lot of baseball cards. Many items end without bids at all, so it's not tough to find a good deal. I purchased a Harmon Killebrew autographed official MLB baseball a few months ago, and was the only bidder. He was one of the few Twins legends whose autograph I did not have, so I thought it was a good opportunity to get something to make me happy, yet also do something good with my money. If you haven't been to the auction website, it's worth a few minutes of your time. And, if you have $1,500 to burn on a tree, check in soon!

On the Topic of Spring Training

This winter in Connecticut we had more snow - - a lot more, in fact - - than in any year since I have lived here. Starting around the beginning of January, I started saying to myself (internally, hopefully), "pitchers and catchers on February 17." When that day finally arrived, it felt nice to begin reading news dealing with actual on-the-field baseball, and it began to feel like the regular season, and green grass, would be here in no time.

It was also exciting when spring training games began. I have enjoyed reading LaVelle E. Neal's columns, and especially Seth Stohs' excellent, detailed recap of his spring training trip. Check it out. Although I enjoy reading almost anything about the Twins, including their minor league players, I have reached the point of saturation with respect to my actual interest in spring training.

In other words, I'm ready for opening day. I suppose that makes me impatient. While the players may need more at-bats, more innings pitched, and more time to let warts heal (aside: regardless of whether you like Michael Cuddyer, I think we can all agree that it is not good to have Google prepopualte the word "wart" after your name is entered), I am ready to be in regular season mode, which, for me, generally consists of having the Twins Radio Network feed on my computer, unless the team is playing the Red Sox, Yankees or Mets. Perhaps I would feel different if I were in Florida right now.

Long story short, my new mantra is "April 1."

Finally, a couple links that I enjoyed: Corey, over at AL Central In Focus, had an excellent analysis of the Twins bullpen.

Nick Nelson, over at Nick's Twins Blog, is doing a position-by-position analysis of the Twins, and today featured Justin Morneau, with Nick's predicted hitting line for our Canadian slugger.

Monday, March 14, 2011


As others have noted, Kirby Puckett would have turned 51 today. I was born in 1981, and grew up at the time that, perhaps, almost perfectly coincided with Puckett's career in Minnesota. Although I was an adult and living on my own when Kirby died, and although he had long since retired and been elected to the Hall of Fame, his death was one of those "growing up" moments; one of those events that further separated my youth from adulthood.

I don't intend to break any ground with today's post, and I can't sit here and pretend that I have vivid memories of of the 1987 World Series, although I certainly remember the aftermath, including the Wheaties box that I still have in mint condition (sans Wheaties), and the parade that was broadcast on television at school.

Although my memory fails me with respect to most of 1987, what that World Series did for kids in Minnesota was to propel Puckett to superstardom. I was 10 when the Twins won again in 1991, and attended one of the ALCS games against the Blue Jays (aside: I was so sick when it came time for the game that I missed school that day, but my parents thankfully allowed me to go to the game). For those that were too young for the 1987 World Series, well, the 1991 Series really cemented Puckett's status as a hero for the ages.

Today, on Kirby's birthday, I thought I would share just a few short non-World Series memories that brought a smile to my face this morning as I was thinking about one of my childhood heroes.

1. Kirby sometimes wore loud sweaters. I recall press conferences, photos, and clips from his celebrity billiards tournament where he was sporting, shall we say, vibrant, Bill Cosby-esque sweaters.

2. Growing up, 34 was always the first choice when it came time to choose jersey numbers. Not only that, but it didn't matter what sport it was. Kirby transcended baseball, at least with respect to his jersey number.

3. As I just alluded to, Puckett hosted an annual celebrity billiards tournament. He used to get quite a showing from great athletes, including my other baseball hero, Cal Ripken, Jr. The tournament benefited pediatric heart research. The Twins are, and have always been, very good with respect to charitable causes and taking active roles in the community. I can state with pretty firm conviction that they do a better job with charitable work than most other teams. Kirby certainly set the standard for charitable work, something that has since become almost a prerequisite to becoming a Minnesota Twin.

4. I have to end with an on-the-field accomplishment, and this one I actually do remember: Weekend series in Milwaukee, August, 1987, Kirby goes 10-11, 4 HRs, 6 RBIs, 7 runs. And to think - he could have had more RBIs if people actually had been on base in front of him (I'm looking at you Greg Gagne, Randy Bush and Al Newman, a collective 6 for 29 with a walk that series).

Happy Birthday, #34.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Losing Streaks

Be warned: This is only a quasi-Twins post tangentially related to baseball.

I am a native of White Bear Lake, MN, and am a 1999 WBL high school graduate. I didn't play on the hockey team (full disclosure: I quit hockey at age 8 or so, right when players, much larger than me, started to check), but of course was a hockey fan. White Bear Lake is a pretty large high school, and generally has fielded a competitive hockey team. In fact, since I have been around, several players went on to play Division I hockey, many for the Gophers, and a couple have made it to the NHL.

For those that follow hockey, you are aware that perennial power house Hill-Murray plays in the same conference as WBL, the Suburban East Division. A private school with an incredible hockey history, Hill-Murray recruits from within the state and produces some of the best players. Not that WBL is an underdog in comparison to many teams in the state, but Hill-Murray historically has been the New York Yankees of the Suburban East Division.

This year, WBL and Hill Murray advanced to the title game of the Suburban East Division, and somehow WBL managed to upset Hill-Murray in double overtime, snapping a recent 14 game losing streak against Hill-Murray. The fact that they advanced to the state tournament was pretty incredible itself. Now comes the rub: The WBL Bears are the proud owners of an 0-17 losing streak in the first round of the state tournament, dating all the way back to 1945. That's right - one of the better high school hockey programs in one of the larger towns in Minnesota has never advanced in the winner's bracket of the state tournament, let alone won the darn thing. Today, the Bears lost their first round game in double overtime to Duluth East, another great hockey program, stretching their streak to 18 first round defeats over the course of more than 60 years.

Suddenly, the Twins' (relatively) recent struggles in the first round of the playoffs, going 0-12, mostly against the Yankees, don't seem quite so bad.

OK, on second thought, the Twins' streak still seems pretty bad. Now I guess I'm annoyed on two fronts.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Nishioka: What Constitutes a Good Result

I was pleasantly surprised to read that our new second baseman was 2-for-3 the other day, and both hits were interesting: a hit-and-run single to the hole between first and second, and a well-struck triple to right-center. Through 17 spring training at-bats, Nishioka has 5 hits, the triple being the lone extra base hit, and 3 RBIs. His defense also has reportedly been above average.

Most Twins fans, of course, would be thrilled if Nishioka could replicate such numbers through the regular season. That, however, is a lot to expect from a rookie, notwithstanding the fact that he excelled in Japan. I was on an airplane this morning thinking what we reasonably should expect from Nishioka in order for the Twins' deal to have made sense. In writing this, I am aware that this is the first year of his contract, and I expect that he will improve as he logs more time in MLB. Assuming Nishioka stays healthy through the 162 game season, here is what I would be content with in 2011: .270 batting average, .340 on base percentage, 25 stolen bases, and a total of 35 extra base hits. I would basically like to see Orlando Hudson-esque numbers, with better speed. And we would be getting that at about half the price.

Nishioka will be viewed as a success offensively if he gets on base in front of Mauer and Morneau. And, because pitchers will want to get him out so that they don't have to face two of the league's best hitters, Nishioka will see a lot of fastballs. If he can prove early on that he can hit a MLB fastball, it could be an interesting season. With Nishioka in a groove, the 2-5 portion of the Twins' offense could be lethal.

What do you think? What's a fair expectation for Nishioka's rookie season with the Twins?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nova/Pena/Chamberlain for Liriano: No Dice in 2011

Andrew Marchand over at ESPN is reporting that the Yankees offered pitcher Ivan Nova and infielder Ramiro Pena for Francisco Liriano. Marchand describes this offer as "underwhelming" at first glance, but indicates his belief that the Twins like these two guys, and notes that Liriano has yet to pitch back-to-back good seasons. He thinks that the deal as proposed is not going to happen, but that if Joba Chamberlain is added, it would be possible.

Let's assume that the Twins would (and probably did) reject the Nova/Pena deal. But what if Chamberlain was added to the package? As a fan, it would not change my opinion that, for 2011, the Twins should hang onto Liriano. Yes, he has a strange, problematic delivery and will always be one pitch away from another major injury, and yes, he has not been consistent from year to year. Neither of those facts militate in favor of this trade.

I'm concerned with what the Twins are going to do in 2011, and am less concerned with 2012 and beyond. This is because I am a fan. If I ran the Twins or even worked for them, my views would be equally geared toward 2011, and toward the future. 2011 will undoubtedly be the last year featuring this ensemble of players: Cuddyer, Kubel, Thome, Liriano and Young. One or more will be traded, leave in free agency, or retire after 2011. And 2011 represents a year when we are still expecting great things from Mauer and (a healthy) Morneau, and when Danny Valencia could come into his own and be extremely affordable. Regardless of whether you like these players, or believe that they are overpaid and undertalented, they all have had successful seasons for the Twins, and it is very valuable to have them all on the same team, at the same time. To disrupt what, on paper, is a wonderful roster, by trading our only left-handed power pitcher, does great violence to the Twins' ability to compete in 2011.

I'm not suggesting that Liriano doesn't have a price, but, heading into a very important 2011 season where the expectations are high, that price is not a right-handed pitcher, an infielder and a potential closer (aren't we paying 2 right now?) who showed up fat to spring training and whose arm may be ruined. I think the Liriano conversation is one best saved for next offseason.