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

Monday, May 23, 2011

For Sale/Rent - 2011 Minnesota Twins: Gently Used, Abused, Need a Good Home

When the Twins finally get their Opening Day starting 9 back on the field, whether that's June 1, June 15, or July 1, it may be too late to make a serious run at another AL Central title. To be sure, there are many parties at fault: the front office, the on-the-field manager and coaches, the trainers, and the players themselves, most of whom, with the exception of Jason Kubel and Glen Perkins, repeatedly have failed to play consistent, professional level baseball.

Statistics indicate that, even if the Twins were to play out the 2011 season at a pace to win 90 games, they would end up with a record right around .500, which will not be good enough for any kind of postseason berth. Unfortunately, it will soon be time to consider shopping some of our players before the July 31 trade deadline, even some that have made great contributions over the last several years. Players such as Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome will be free agents after 2011, and could play important roles on a team that is in a playoff hunt. The Twins, in return, could get prospects with a potential high return. Make no mistake, I do not like to think about losing veterans, but this is what losing teams with high payrolls do. My main concern is not so much which players become available; rather, I worry about who is making the decisions.

General Manager Bill Smith left this team, on Opening Day 2011, without a major league level shortstop, and with a bullpen that, in polite terms, could best be described as weak and unproven. It wasn't so much that he left the bullpen/shortstop situations that way, it was that he actually created the problem, by failing to resign any one of Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, or Jon Rauch, and trading oft-injured, but reliable when healthy, shortstop JJ Hardy, for parts. In the offseason Smith failed completely to upgrade starting pitching, an area that has painfully been exposed in every recent playoff series. And as has become glaringly clear, Smith failed to retain a catcher to fill in for Joe Mauer when he is injured, disabled, or simply tired, despite the fact that, only one year ago, the organization had two such players who could have filled the role, only to be dealt away. Further, from a management standpoint, Smith and the front office have given the impression that Mauer himself, and not the organization, is dictating the "terms and conditions" of his rehabilitation, leading some to question who is running the ship.

Undoubtedly, the Twins have been victimized by a lethal combination of bad luck, compounded in the form of a series of injuries to starting MLB players; this string of bad luck underscores the fact that the roster is incredibly shallow. Nearly every offseason decision has, in the span of less than two months, come back to bite the Twins, and has exposed weaknesses in the farm system and in the ability of the front office to make trades and personnel decisions that benefit the Twins on the field, not just financially. For the record, I have supported certain of Smith's decisions, including not making a significant effort to resign Torii Hunter, and I applauded the "drive" at the trade deadline in 2009 that resulted in Orlando Cabrera and Carl Pavano. No doubt the Twins would not have won the division that year without the push from the front office. And I also supported the Mauer contract, under the reasoning of "what else was he supposed to do???" But in many other deals, including the bungling of the purported Johan Santana trade to the Red Sox, he has left me wondering what the hell is going on with this organization and its method of valuing talent?

If the Twins end up becoming sellers at the deadline for the first time in a decade, the first move they need to make is in-house: I do not want Bill Smith, who bears ultimate responsibility for the quality and depth of the talent at all levels of the organization, making the call on who stays, who goes, and at what price. He has made too many significant errors in his short tenure.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Why the Twins are Better than the Yankees

Today, Harmon Killebrew was laid to rest in Arizona. By a strange confluence of events, the Twins were also in Arizona. They face the Diamondbacks tonight to mark the beginning of the 15th season of interleague play. They have not played Arizona since 2008, and that was at the Metrodome, so a Twins trip to Arizona is anything but commonplace.

We often hear about baseball teams being family-like in nature. To be sure, they spend more time in a year with their teammates and coaches than they do with their own wives and kids. I was hoping that the current crop of Twins would show up en masse today for Harmon's funeral, and apparently they did not disappoint. Rhett Bollinger reported that the team held a meeting yesterday to go over details with respect to the funeral, and that two buses had been arranged to take any members of the team to the service that wished to go. Nick Blackburn indicated his understanding that "we're all going to be" in attendance. That, to me, is the Twins' way. And that's why they're better than the Yankees.

If you recall, over the All-Star break in July, 2010, legendary, longtime New York Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppard passed away. If you also recall, not one current Yankee player attended Sheppard's funeral. Yankee captain Derek Jeter, by all accounts a consummate professional, "didn't even know" when Sheppard's funeral was. In fact, the only prominent Yankee representative was Brian Cashman (yuck), who delivered a eulogy.

I'm not trying to equate Bob Sheppard with Harmon Killebrew. Clearly, one was a player, and the other an announcer. But it is probably fair to state that Sheppard was "the Harmon Killebrew" of Yankee announcers: he announced for the Yankees from 1951-2007; he has a plaque in Monument Park, where greats like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are immortalized; Derek Jeter famously had Sheppard record his at-bat introductions, ensuring that Sheppard will be the only announcer ever to introduce Jeter; and Carl Yastrzemski once famously stated, "you're not in the big leagues until Bob Sheppard announces your name." Bottom line: Sheppard was a class act, and a Yankee great. Bottom line: Even during the All-Star break, not one Yankee player made it to Sheppard's funeral, which was in New York, and the organization failed completely to arrange any kind of transportation, or even to communicate to its players and staff the funeral arrangements.

That is why the Twins are better than the Yankees, and that is why I will always root for the Twins, even when they have 5 AAA players on their roster. Sometimes there are clear rights and wrongs. Today, thanks to the good fortune of MLB scheduling, the misfortune of losing Killebrew, and the veteran Twins leaders, the Twins did the right thing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Press Release: St. Peter Announces Twins to Bat from Just Beyond Pitcher's Mound

In what can only be seen as a 180 degree turnaround, the Minnesota Twins announced today that, in an effort to boost lackluster offensive numbers, beginning with the team's next homestand, players will begin batting from a location equidistant between second base and the pitcher's mound.

Stated Twins President Dave St. Peter: "After playing one season at Target Field, we were well aware of the statistics indicating that the stadium was, to say the least, stingy when it came to home runs and most other offensive metrics. We listened to the players in the offseason, deciding to remove those batter's eye trees, but it's clear that it simply hasn't made any difference at all. In fact, we're even worse this year. It was clear that we needed to go another direction, and signing Jose Bautista wasn't an option.

"Thus began the difficult conversation regarding whether to move the fences in. You see, aside from players from visiting teams, especially anyone wearing a Toronto or New York uniform, no one else has had very good success, due in large part to those damn trees, and just the size of the field. It was going to take a lot of manpower and money to move the fences in, and even with disabled list players willing to participate in the construction like Joe Mauer and Jim Thome, who are just sitting there and cashing checks, we decided it was going to be too much work. And in true Minnesota fashion, we didn't want to embarrass those nice construction guys who did a good job of building the thing in the first place.

"The next best option, then, was to move the players themselves closer -- much closer, in fact -- to the fence. We feel confident that by moving home plate approximately 90 feet closer to the center field fence, players such as Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer will see dramatic increases in their power numbers, and even players such as Drew Butera should exhibit so-called 'track power' on rare occasions.

"Now, we know what you're thinking, fans: Won't this result in an equal, if not greater, increase in the opposition's offense?? Long answer, yes and no. I should first note that we initially contacted Bud Selig to find out whether it would be fundamentally unfair for our players to bat from beyond the pitcher's mound, but for opposing players to bat from the original home plate. That was resolved by the Commissioner's office, pretty quickly and tersely I might add, and not in our favor. On the one hand, we acknowledge that it will be easier for everyone to hit the ball deeper into, and maybe even out of, the entire ballpark. On that note, we're recommending that fans in the left field bleachers wear helmets; the balls will be coming pretty fast. On the other hand, though, we still have a great crop of pitchers. We have always asked that they 'pitch to contact,' and we still will. If they give up 7 or 8 home runs in an appearance, well, that's the way it might roll sometimes, and we'll just have to work on keeping the ball down.

"This won't alter the way the Twins play ball. We'll still have two or three vastly overpaid players, at least one of whom is injured at all times; we'll have gaping holes at shortstop and backup catcher - - you can count on that; and we'll still walk number 8 and 9 hitters from time to time, because that's just what we do, it's what we teach players from day one."

When pressed for specifics, such as the movement of the foul polls, the erection of a new pitcher's mound, the relocation of the bases, and the generous amount of foul territory that Target Field will now have, St. Peter replied: "Listen, folks, those are details. I'm an idea man. We have a great team of interns, and veteran players, to work on those issues."

The following image is what St. Peter described as the official artist's rendering of the proposed changes to Target Field, though skeptics have claimed that it is, in reality, probably nothing more than a crude sketch, probably done on St. Peter's own computer:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Poor Us.

I think I was 10 or 11 when one of our family cats, Lucy, died. She had to be 15 or so, was a great cat, and had a wonderful life. I remember crying to my parents, "Poor Lucy," and my mom or dad responded, "Poor Us." Lucy, of course, was fine, in heaven, or cat heaven, or wherever you believe that beloved pets go. It was us that she left behind.

Not to draw an inappropriate parallel between the death of a family pet and the death of a human, Hall of Fame ballplayer, and hero like Harmon Killebrew, but that's what I thought yesterday after I heard the news and read scores of tributes and quotes about Harmon. "Poor Us." I was born in 1981 and missed Harmon's playing days, but I have read and heard enough about him over the years as a Twins fan to know that he was "one of us," and that he exemplified all that was--and is--great about baseball. I think the best tributes have been in the comment sections of the Star Tribune articles on Harmon, where literally hundreds of Minnesotans and baseball fans are sharing personal stories of their interactions with Harmon. The common themes: unfailingly polite, humble, talkative, and, oh yea, the greatest player to wear a Twins uniform.

It's tough when such a well-respected and revered public figure like Harmon Killebrew passes on. It's tough here, perhaps, because he contracted a very aggressive form of cancer, which I'm sure caused him considerable pain in the end. We don't like to think about that stuff, but it happens, even to greats like Harmon. But he had a great life and career, clearly touched a lot of lives, and showed us how, even in tough times, one can keep their dignity.

Poor Us.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Defense of Michael Cuddyer . . . Sort Of

Some thoughts on Michael Cuddyer, a player who I do not personally dislike, but who I believe has no place on this team after 2011:

1) His salary for 2011 was determined 5 days after the end of the 2009 season. Yes, that's the same season that he filled in admirably at first base for Justin Morneau, and had many clutch hits and RBIs down the stretch. Undoubtedly, the Twins would not have come back to win the division without Cuddyer that year. It was Cuddyer's agent that did the good bit of negotiating that caused the Twins, in November, 2009, to give Michael the substantial raise that he is receiving, but not earning, now. Doubtful the front office will agree to that kind of scheduling again!

2) At least the guy doesn't make excuses. Only one and a half months into the season, I have heard enough about weak legs, the flu, oblique strains, and mental problems that magically manifest themselves in physical symptoms (Francisco Liriano). Say what you will about Cuddyer - - it is probably deserved -- but he has played where he is asked to play, has not completely embarrassed himself in the field, and has not asked for days off. His batting average (though great relative to other Twins players) is subpar, he has shown absolutely no ability to drive in runners, as Howard Sinker recently noted, and it feels like he's going to come close again to leading the lead in one of the most frustrating stats, grounding into double plays. But, notwithstanding that, he is one of 4 or 5 genuine MLB players that we have in the lineup, and the last thing I expect him to do is ask for a day off.

3) I actually like the guy. If he were to be stuck in suburban Hartford, Connecticut, and needed a ride somewhere, or a hot meal, I would have no problem with that. We might even have a beer or two.

Let's pretend for a minute that the Twins manage to get healthy, pull the season together, and, stay with me here . . . win the World Series in 2011. I know, it feels unlikely now that they will even get to .500. But, for the sake of argument, let's say that happens. Regardless of what happens to Cuddyer in 2012, if the Twins win the World Series, he's going to go down, eventually, as some sort of hero in Minnesota.

I am the biggest Kent Hrbek fan of all. I grew up at exactly the right time to enjoy his prime, and to feel sad when he retired. He was a fan favorite, had his share of great games and key plays, and gave good sound bites, but he was never a marquis player. Granted, in his best years he was better that Cuddyer was, however, he never reached the upper echelon of major league baseball players. But, Kent Hrbek was the first baseman on 2 World Series teams, the last World Series teams in Minnesota. I know Hrbek likes to fish, and frequents the lakes and resorts in northern Minnesota. I have it on good authority, also, that he enjoys having a few drinks after a day on the lake, and have heard great stories about Hrbek talking to fans, just like us, sharing beers and shooting pool, at places like Grand View Lodge and Madden's. Kent Hrbek is immortal in Minnesota, literally, because his number 14 is retired, and figuratively in the hearts of people like me. A native Minnesotan, he wisely stayed there and let his legend grow.

If the Twins were to somehow pull it together this year, Cuddyer, a career Twin and the most senior member of the organization, might deserve to have his number 5 retired just as much as Kent Hrbek did. History is interesting, and also revisionist. Today we complain about Cuddyer grounding into double plays and failing in the clutch. Assuming postseason success, twenty years from now, we might remember a key play or two of Cuddyer's, a very good postseason OPS, and the fact that the guy never asked out of the lineup.

The bottom line is this: we can scream about Cuddyer all we want; he is overpaid for the production he has given in 2011 so far; and I have no confidence in him batting in a clutch situation. If the other veterans on this team decide to get healthy and contribute, however, some of the heat will be taken off of Cuddyer, he can bat 7th or 8th in the lineup, and perhaps he will produce down there. If not, and if the Twins can't turn this season around, we have an extra $12 million to devote to middle infield, starting pitching, or the bullpen in 2012.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dear Minnesota Twins,

Dear Minnesota Twins,

Please don't suggest that I should vote for Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau to represent your ball club in the 2011 All-Star game. A handy little piece of PR propaganda from Rhett Bollinger, Twins beat reporter at, states that "both have missed time in the early going this season because of injury and illness, but when they're healthy, it's hard to find a better 1-2 punch than the pair of former MVPs who make up the Twins version of the M&M boys."

I just gagged a little when I read that. Now don't get me wrong. I'm 100% a fan of Mauer and Morneau. Though I am angry at the organization for the way they have generally failed to give updates on Mauer, I have every confidence that Mauer will play healthy, probably starting in June, and that Morneau will slowly but surely become close to the player that we all remember. But it's going to be a longer road than expected for both of them. To suggest that I should vote for a catcher that, to date, has played in about 9 games and has compiled 1 extra base hit is insulting; to suggest that Justin Morneau, barely batting above .200 with 1 home run, is an All-Star, is embarrassing.

From an offensive standpoint, there are exactly two players worthy of All-Star consideration to represent the Twins in 2011: Jason Kubel and Denard Span, in that order. Kubel won't win the fan vote, but could (and very well might) be a manager's selection; Span, though he has tailed off a little from his fast start, is still batting close to .300 and has been, at the very least, a constant presence in the lineup. I also think his defense has been better than it was last year. I guess another candidate, from the pitching standpoint, could be Glen Perkins. Wow, did I write that? A commentary both on the fact that Perkins has exceeded expectations, and that that many others, in both the starting rotation and the bullpen, have not.

I understand the fundamental arguments for and against fans selecting the starting roster for the MLB All-Star game. I actually like the fact that the fans vote, even though it leads to players like Derek Jeter starting when there are perhaps at least 5 better players at his position. What I refuse to accept, however, is the organization pushing fans to vote for players who are: injured and not playing at all and not in the foreseeable future; playing, but barely contributing; simply a shell of their former self. Mauer and Morneau, at least at this point in 2011, fit some or all of those categories.

Joe Mauer will not be taking home any hardware this year. I doubt he will compile enough at-bats to even qualify for a batting title. You almost have to wonder, given that the Twins are paying Mauer $23 million to "rehab" for at least 20% of the season, why they would also want to pay his contractually-negotiated All-Star selection bonus? Morneau could win the Comeback Player of the Year award, and maybe rightfully so. But to suggest that either of them are worthy of being considered All-Stars, is insulting, especially when Jason Kubel actually is playing like an All-Star, and certainly could use a little good press from the organization.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Jose Reyes to the Minnesota Twins???

Let's face it, the Twins have no discernible, MLB-ready alternative at shortstop to Alexi Casilla, who has proven himself, again and again, not-quite-ready-for-primetime. Trevor Plouffe, playing shortstop tonight against the White Sox, could very well be an improvement over Casilla, but I am not convinced that he is the shortstop of the future on a team that should be contending for a division title and World Series. Although Casilla's 2011 may be a small sample size, it's enough to convince me that Casilla is never going to be a MLB starter (forget the fact that he is right now). I'm not big into the minor league system (and for that reason I appreciate Seth's analysis over at SethSpeaks, but I do know that there is no fantastic alternative in our system, no guy that can come in, bat a consistent .270 and play good defense. If such a player existed, he probably would have been called up already.

I want the Twins to make a statement: I want them to get Jose Reyes from the Mets. It's no secret that the Mets, set to lose $70 million this season and sell a minority stake in their ownership, probably will be shopping Reyes this season, and it's no secret that the Twins haven't had a great shortstop in many years. Middle infield has been one of the most significant weaknesses in otherwise competitive Twins lineups. There's obviously a fit, at least from the Twins' standpoint. My question, though, is what would it take for the Mets to deal him to us?

Certainly, there will be several interested teams, and I have no doubt, given the fact that Reyes will be a free agent after this season, that the Mets will want at least one MLB starter in return, plus prospects. Who would we give up? I would give up Denard Span, not because I think he's a weak link or anything (in fact, I really like him, his attitude, and his 2011 play thus far), but because the Twins have more depth in their system in outfield positions than in other areas. Similarly, I would give up Delmon Young, and I would be willing to listen to a conversation about any of our starting pitchers. If, for some reason, the Mets were interested (presuming they also get rid of Carlos Beltran this year), I'd give up Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel. As far as prospects, I am only (and admittedly, shortsightedly) unwilling to discuss Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers. Let me reiterate, though, I would give up 1 starter and prospects. No more, of course.

Reyes is being paid $11 million this year, and will be 28 in June. He has a lifetime .286 batting average, a .335 on base percentage, and 341 stolen bases. He could be a fixture in the Twins' lineup for a number of years.

Will Bill Smith even place a courtesy call to the Mets? Probably not. It was a bad sign on Monday, the day off following a horrible week of Twins baseball and the end to an awful first month of games, that the Twins did nothing in terms of personnel moves. Casilla could have been demoted to a bench role, but was not. Sending him to 2B in no way diminishes the fact that he is not a good fielder and cannot hit. I think, out of the 5 tools, that he might have 1.

I expect that Young, Thome, Valencia, Mauer and Morneau will start hitting sometime this year. When these guys start contributing, the lineup will be very good again. But, Casilla/Plouffe/Tolbert or any AAA player at shortstop is a glaring weak link for this lineup. Although a move to get Reyes will cost money, let's be real and note that seats at Target Field will be empty the second half of this year if the Twins fail to compete. That's millions each night in lost revenue. I doubt the Twins will get Reyes, but I want to see something that tells me that this team will try to compete in 2011, notwithstanding the unlucky string of injuries that has befallen our guys.