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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Johnny Damon -- Hall of Famer?

This is mostly a non-Twins post, but there's not much happening right now at Target Field. I always enjoy this time of year, though. Although the Twins' hot stove has cooled down (was it ever really scorching??), it's time for the Baseball Writers' Association of America to select, or not select, candidates for the Hall of Fame. This year, it seems like longtime Cincinnati Red shortstop Barry Larkin is the most likely to get in, but he's no lock. Those writers are certainly a goofy bunch of loons. They never vote 100% for any player, and have made many, many deserving candidates wait a year or two -- candidates that most would think of as "first ballot" hall of famers.

Current free agent Johnny Damon is sitting at 2,723 hits for his career. Here are his hit totals for the last 4 seasons: 168, 155, 146, 152. That averages about 155 hits per season. Those are respectable stats for a 38 year old Caveman. Make no mistake, though, Damon is on the decline. His batting average and his on-base percentage have declined each of these past 4 seasons, and he slugged just .401 and .418 in 2010 and 2011.

Damon has been very good at two things in his career: getting many hits in a season; and staying healthy enough to play many games each season. He has only been an All-Star twice, we all know that his defense was never great, and his arm may be comparable to Ben Revere's. And, interestingly, he only once had 200 hits in a season. Damon has been a good major league player for many years, and he did have some great seasons (2000 and 2005 come to mind). It's also noteworthy that he has played for 2 World Series winning teams, He had good speed, having stolen just over 400 bases in his career. But when you look at his stats, he doesn't jump out as hall of famer (.286/.353/.435; 231 HR; 1,120 RBIs; and the stolen bases). Sure, it's a great career -- probably better than 90 percent of MLB players. But is it worthy of the Hall of Fame? There are certainly many other very good players with similar lines and careers, that were never considered serious candidates for the hall of fame.

Sitting on 2,723 hits, Damon needs just 277 hits to reach the 3,000 hit club. If he continues to play 2 more seasons, he would need to average 138.5 hits per season to get it done. Damon has never played fewer than 141 games in a season (2007 Yankees), so his body has held up very well to the grind of playing baseball professionally for nearly 2 decades. And playing in the American League certainly benefits Damon, as he can DH.

It just so happens that every eligible (read Pete Rose) member of the 3,000 hit club that has not tested positive for steroids (read Rafael Palmeiro), has been inducted into baseball immortality. Derek Jeter and Craig Biggio have attained the feat, but are not yet eligible. Barring unforeseen allegations concerning PED use, both are sure to be hall of famers. So, Damon will, upon getting that 3,000th hit, join an exclusive club wherein every single eligible, non-confirmed steroid using member has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It almost sounds like a sure thing.

But what about Damon? His 1 great feat will be getting 3,000 hits. Assuming he does it, does that, alone, make him a Hall of Famer? I guess my answer is "yes," if the Hall of Fame voters intend to remain consistent. Although the number of home runs hit in the game of baseball has gone up, and 500 HR doesn't mean what it used to, 3,000 hits remains pretty special: only 28 players have done it. They hit for a good enough average (Cal Ripken Jr. was the lowest, incidentally, with a career .276 average) to stay in the game for years, and they had the health and duration to outlast many of their peers. Most were fantastic all-around players. Robin Yount, Stan Musial and Willie Mays come to mind. Sure, no one would serious suggest that Damon is like a Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, or even a Paul Molitor, but the value of getting a hit, and doing it consistently, for nearly 20 years in the major leagues, has not really changed all that much. It's still a valuable commodity. Last time I checked, hits lead directly to getting on base, which corresponds to scoring runs. I don't need a sabermetric stat to convince me that hitting is still, and will always be, one of the most important factors into the game.

In full disclosure, though, I think it's probably fair to note that, in the last decade or so, players have been reaching the 3,000 hit plateau more often than in previous generations. In fact, since the 1999 MLB season, 8 out of the 28 current 3,000 hit members reached their 3,000th hit. So, almost 29% of the 3,000 hit club was formed in just 13 years of baseball. Then again, though, it's not as if there is a gigantic waiting list of players with 2,900 hits. It's still a rare and impressive feat. Perhaps that's the way the game has changed? We certainly see a lot of players hanging around until they are 40 years, or even older, and remaining productive. That probably wasn't as commonplace 80 years ago.

Joe Posnanski had an interesting post the other day, in which he opined that approximately half of baseball's hall of famers did two of the following three things very, very well, in order to become hall of famers: hitting; fielding; base running. Where would Johnny Damon be? Well, he hit a lot, and for many years, and there were some years where he hit really well, but basically he just hit well for a long time. His fielding certainly was never a plus, and though his baserunning and base stealing used to be good, he was never a Ricky Henderson type of leadoff force. In any event, the bottom line is that he only did one of those three things, and only arguably did he do it very well. From that standpoint, he doesn't have much going in his favor apart from the likelihood of achieving the magic number of 3,000 hits.

I think it's going to be an interesting debate when it happens. And I do think that it's going to happen. Someone will employ Damon for 2 more seasons. He's a professional, and he still has talent (remember what he did against the Twins last season in Tampa Bay)? But he most certainly will not be a first ballot hall of famer, and he may have to wait several years before being voted in. If the body of voters has any consistency, however, it seems to be in electing players with 3,000 hits -- as long as you are not Pete Rose and haven't conclusively been linked to steroids.

I attended the entire Twins-Orioles series in April of 2000, when Cal Ripken, Jr. got his 3,000th hit. I was also there when Eddie Murray did it (also against the Twins) in 1995. It's an amazing accomplishment, and as long as we don't see players starting to reach that pinnacle every year, I think that the number 3,000, alone, does make a candidate worthy of the Hall of Fame, regardless of the quality of their other "tools."

Incidentally, for comparison, if Damon becomes the 29th member of the 3,000 hit club (just assume he stops with 3,000 hits even), here's his company for a couple other stats: The guys around 29th for all-time home runs are Lou Gehrig, Fred McGriff, Stan Musial and Willie Stargell. Wins for pitchers: Ferguson Jenkins (Bert Blyleven is currently 27th, incidentally). I'm sort of cherry-picking, but you get the point. The top 30 for most MLB career records is usually pretty good company. A hit is a stat just as much as a home run, or a win. And to me it's darn impressive. I'm not about to go out and buy a Johnny Damon jersey, much less his book, but don't be surprised in 10, 12, or 15 years, if he just eeks past that 75 percent threshold. There have been worse hall of famers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

First Pitch Strikes and Francisco Liriano: Take II

Last April, when basically no one was reading this blog, I wrote what I still consider to be an interesting piece on Francisco Liriano and his ability -- or inability -- to throw first pitch strikes. The long and short of the post was that, when Liriano had his couple good seasons, he often got ahead in the count with a first pitch strike; and when he had subpar seasons, he often fell behind in the count with a first pitch ball. If you have 5 minutes, it's worth a read (or so I think).

I wrote that piece on April 19, just a couple weeks into the season. I noted that, as of that date, Liriano had throw first-pitch strikes to 49.5% of batters. I compared that to his 2010 percentage, which was 61.7%. We all know that, for Liriano, the rest of 2011 was a pretty big disappointment. Yes, he threw a no-hitter, but even in that game, he walked 6 batters, threw a ton of pitches, and only struck out 2. I believed it in April, and I still believe it now: for Liriano, throwing a first-pitch strike around 60% of the time is a major key to his success.

I wanted to update my April post with some new data on Liriano and others with respect to this stat. So, how did Liriano fare for 2011? Not well. His first strike percentage was just 49.4% last season. That means that Liriano fell behind in the count just over half the time. If you're a fan who watches most games, you probably would believe that statistic, because for me, it sure felt that way. For comparison, let's see how this year's Cy Young award winners fared: Tigers' ace Justin Verlander threw a first pitch strike 61.4% of the time, and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw did the same 64.1% of the time. Both these figures are higher than the player's career average (in Kershaw's case, 64.1% represented a nearly 4% increase over his career average -- very impressive).

Liriano's career average is 56%, which is not fantastic. I do, however, think it's important to note that, in and of itself, there is nothing great about throwing first pitch strikes all the time. To be sure, batters will sit and wait on a first pitch fastball if they know that, time and time again, one is coming. It doesn't matter if you throw 88 or 98 miles per hour; major leaguers will figure it out eventually. Here's the first few in the list of 2011 first strike leaders: Kyle Lohse; Carl Pavano; Roy Halladay; Colby Lewis; Bartolo Colon; Josh Tomlin. As you can see, some are good pitchers, some are above average, some are below average, and some have actually been members of the Twins (coincidence?). Pavano is illustrative of the fact that a high first strike percentage doesn't necessarily equate to a low ERA or a high win total. You have to be able to record outs after you get ahead in counts, and that's where trouble can begin.

But for Liriano, that's exactly why I think the first-strike percentage is so important. Pavano, for example, doesn't have a great fastball, or a strikeout pitch like Liriano's slider. He relies on control and getting hitters to make contact on the pitch he wants them to swing at. Same with some of the others on the list. Liriano, when he is good, is more like a Verlander than a Pavano. That first pitch strike allows him to expand the zone, get hitters to chase at tough strikes and balls, and to go for the strikeout, perhaps with that great slider in the dirt. Falling behind 1-0 more than half the time leads to walks and hits, which is what we saw a lot of in 2011.

First pitch strikes are not a cure-all for Francisco Liriano. I think he needs a different coaching strategy, he may need the assistance of a sports psychologist to help him get through the first inning of games without incident, and he certainly does not need to be instructed to "pitch to contact," whatever you believe that term means. But first pitch strikes for Liriano are similar to a Denard Span walk to lead off an inning: good things will often happen. My prediction is that if Liriano can deliver around 60% first pitch strikes, he will have a good 2012 season. First pitch strikes are indicative of a general command of the strike zone, and I think that we can all agree that Liriano is his best when he exhibits that command.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Nishioka Signing Still Hurts

Apart from his awful play in the field and at the plate, the Twins' contractual obligation to Tsuyoshi Nishioka pains me right now. After learning that the Twins were hoping to achieve a salary cap of approximately $100 million, I was hopeful that this was a "soft" cap -- that Terry Ryan was either not being honest with the media and fans, or that he would have the ability to spend above that for a player that could be a big difference-maker. It's no secret, of course, that the biggest difference-maker the Twins need would be a #1 or #2 caliber starting pitcher, or at least a #3 level veteran with the ability to miss some bats.

Then, we hear yesterday that the Twins officially signed veteran starter Jason Marquis to a 1-year, $3 million contract. Sure, the financial investment of this particular contract is relatively minimal, and it is a short time commitment. Those are the only positives that I can take from this. As others have noted, Marquis is really not much better than Nick Blackburn, and he is in the mold of either a Blackburn or Carl Pavano (Could we call him a hybrid, a Pavburn, or Blackvano ???). He is a pitch-to-contact thrower with a somewhat high walk rate, and a career ERA of 4.55. In other words, he fits the Twins' mold, but certainly does not represent much of an improvement, at least in terms of ERA, over the Twins' starters' 2011 ERA of 4.64. If a stated goal of the offseason was to lower the staff ERA, this signing is unlikely to go a long way toward achieving that result, even though Marquis is presumably replacing Brian Duensing, who owned a 5.23 ERA last season.

Although I'm trying to remain positive this holiday season, the Marquis bargain basement signing sends a pretty strong message that the $100 million payroll is not exactly "soft," and that the starting rotation of Liriano, Baker, Pavano, Blackburn and Marquis is going to be the planned rotation (not necessarily in that order) in 2012. As a fan, this is tough to accept, given previous statements from the Twins that they were going to try to upgrade starting pitching this off-season. Clearly, the "upgrade" was from Duensing to Marquis. It's like trading a newish, crappy car for an older, crappy car: in the end you're still driving a crappy car.

So where does Nishioka fit into this? Well, the Twins are paying him $3 million this year, and it is generally assumed that, because Jamey Carroll is manning shortstop and Alexi Casilla is presumably the opening day second baseman, Nishioka will be a highly paid utility infielder. Others believe he may actually start the season at AAA Rochester so he can learn how to play American professional baseball. $3 million -- 3% of the Twins' 2012 payroll -- on a player that: 1) may not be on the opening day Twins' roster; and 2) even if he is on the Twins' roster, is unlikely to positively impact the team, is significant wasted money. Even if Nishioka is OK this season, paying 7 times the league minimum for a player that, in all likelihood wouldn't be worse than Brian Dozier or some AAA call-up, is damaging to the organization.

Imagine, instead, if the Twins didn't have Nishioka, and did have the extra money, which I approximate for the sake of argument at $2.5 million ($3 million minus $500,000 for a rookie infielder). That would have left $5.5 million for a starter, rather than $3 million (I'm assuming, maybe incorrectly, that the $3 million the Twins spent on Marquis represented close to the maximum that they wanted to spend on any starter). Clearly, the Twins could have been in negotiations for a better starting pitcher if they had nearly double the money to spend filling that role. Or, think of the quality relief arm/arms that the team could get for $5.5 million.

Now sure, I know that you can make this argument about any player that has failed completely to achieve even mediocre results -- and that every organization makes these mistakes at some point -- but Nishioka hurts now because his signing is still a recent memory, the dollars are not insignificant, he is still on the payroll for two more seasons, and the Twins apparently need every last dollar to put together a competitive team in 2012. As I have said before, I would love to be wrong about Nishioka, but I have a tough time thinking that anything has changed dramatically in the 3 months that have passed since Nishioka last donned a Twins uniform. For a team that still does not have an unlimited budget, every mistake hurts. It's one thing to spend $1 million on an aging veteran for 1 year, taking a chance that he has one more decent season left in him. Those deals fail pretty often, and that's part of baseball. It's another thing to make a multi-year commitment to a player that has failed, thus far, to demonstrate that he has discernible role at Target Field in 2012.

My Christmas wish is that Terry Ryan isn't done working on the pitching staff. This offense, if healthy, is going to score some runs because there are several players that are good at getting on base, and there are several players with the ability to drive in runs. The starting rotation, and the bullpen, both need help. Otherwise, I fear that we're going to see a lot of 10-8 Twins losses in 2012.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Departed Twins' Playoff Stats: What Have We Given Up?

If there's been a constant theme lately in the comments to this blog, and others, it is that the Twins not only need to be a competitive team in 2012, but a team that is capable of advancing past the first round of the playoffs. Sure, that feels pretty far away right now, coming off a 99 loss season, but I don't think that most fans are going to give the team a free pass in 2011 and call it a "success" to spend over $100 million and win 81 games in a ballpark that is only 3 years old, and was supposed to usher in a new era of Twins' success. And I agree. Although I personally don't think that the Twins have the pitching -- right now -- to get in the playoffs and win a playoff series, 2012 will be a failure if we see more of what we saw in 2011. So that's what I want to talk about today -- the playoffs, and, specifically, what the Twins have given up in recent weeks with the departures of Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan.

Michael Cuddyer, a guy not necessarily known as Mr. Clutch throughout his career as a Twin, was very consistent in the playoffs. Here's his slash line: .338/.372/.473, in 74 at-bats. Those figures are all above his regular season career averages. In 2010, he hit a home run in Game 1 of the ALDS at Target Field against the Yankees, and I thought for a second that things were going to be different this time around. And then, just like Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown for the hundredth as he went to kick it, the Twins fooled me one more time. So, say what you will about Cuddyer and his penchant for swinging at sliders in the dirt, but the man was at least consistent when it counted the most, and he in fact played better in October than he did during the regular season. The Twins' playoff struggles certainly can't be blamed on Cuddyer.

How about Kubel? I had remembered that he struck out a lot in the 2009 ALDS, but that was about it. The stats are not encouraging: in 29 at-bats, here is Kubel's slash line: .069/.156/.103. 13 strikeouts; 2 total hits -- a single and a double. Simply stated, Kubel has been horrific in the playoffs. As consistent as he was in helping the Twins compete and win in the regular season, his playoff track record is abysmal. Without looking into the detailed, game-by-game stats, I'm guessing that some of Kubel's failures are the result of facing tough leftys, including CC Sabathia, in October. Kubel, never known for hitting southpaws very well, would have been put in a situation where he was very likely to fail. Add that to the stress of the playoffs, and you apparently end up with a slash line that makes Drew Butera's look like Ted Williams'.

As consistent as Joe Nathan was in the regular season throughout his career saving games in Minnesota, he was equally inconsistent in October when it mattered the most. For his playoff career, Nathan owns a 7.88 ERA in 8 innings of work, having allowed 2 home runs, and striking out 10 while walking 7. According to my notes, he has 2 blown saves, 1 save, and 1 loss in 8 appearances. Unfortunately, Nathan's playoff legacy in Minnesota is that he was unable to get the job done when it counted most. Sure, some of the blame rests on the Twins as a whole, for not scoring more runs or not fielding a better playoff lineup, but Nathan couldn't earn his closer money when the Twins most needed a closer.

What about Matt Capps, who the Twins re-signed a few weeks ago? Well, for the definition of a small sample size, here you go: 1 total inning pitched, 2 hits, 1 earned run. Sadly, the man we traded Wilson Ramos for, the man who was supposed to help our playoff run in 2010, pitched 1 lousy inning in the playoffs.

So there you have it, a quick rundown of what the Twins have given up, in terms of playoff performances, from their free agents that have left for (perceived) greener pastures. Of course, the big caveat with these figures is the extremely small sample size, with the exception of perhaps Cuddyer. But isn't that what the playoffs are about -- who can succeed, and who fails, in an extremely small window for success that has extremely large implications? Perhaps there's a reason that Cuddyer has been more successful in October than in the regular season, and that otherwise-reliable players such as Kubel and Nathan have been dreadful? I don't know much about clutch hitting as a reliable statistical measure, but it certainly is worth exploring. And, of course, not every at-bat in the playoffs is a clutch situation. But how else do you explain Kubel's absolute inability to play the game of baseball -- even the inability to make contact in nearly half of his at-bats --when the calendar turns to October? I'm sure others have more informed views on this topic, and I'd love to hear them. In any event, however, if we are thinking about the Twins, either in the short term or the long term, as a playoff team, the only major loss statistically was Michael Cuddyer. The problem, though, is that players such as Nathan and Kubel were huge reasons that the Twins ever got to the playoffs in the first place.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cautious Optimism

We have Willingham; we have Doumit; we have Carroll. Joe Mauer reported that he's happy, healthy, and is ready for a rebound season. Justin Morneau's workouts are reportedly going well (I think I've heard that before, though). Willingham effectively replaces Michael Cuddyer's offensive production (and we didn't have to pay him $10.5 million to do it), and may even be a better overall player. Doumit hits for average and some power, though he has had significant injuries. Carroll, though no spring chicken, is an on-base percentage guy with a decent bat, and should do well as a table-setter for the middle of the lineup guys. Long story short, it's feeling better as a Twins fan than it did a month ago.

If the season were to start right now, I peg the Twins as a .500 team. Yes, this could be a pretty good offense. Span/Carroll/Mauer/Willingham/Morneau/Doumit/Valencia/Casilla/Revere. I see some speed at the front and back of the lineup, some power in the middle, and a balance of lefty and righty hitters. I also note, however, that the 3-6 hitters in this projection each have significant injury risks, so who knows the likelihood of seeing this lineup intact throughout the season. In any event, though, it is a much superior lineup to the Tosoni, Parmelee, Dinkelman days of 2011. Nothing against those guys, but I do want this team to be competitive now, not in 2014.

What's left? Pitching, then a little bit more pitching. Followed by just a pinch of pitching. That's what will get this team above the .500 mark. I don't know how they are going to acquire it, but I do know that good starters are expensive. This is no time to close up the wallet, though. If the organization really was committed to spending $25 million on Cuddyer, even after landing Willingham, then logic would suggest that the roughly $8 million a year is still available -- for the right player or players. Perhaps a trade is possible? I honestly haven't spent much time analyzing the possibilities, because, frankly, it feels like an exercise in futility. Plus, many others have. As a fan I would rather just see pitching deals get done. Edwin Jackson is an option, though he reminds me of Francisco Liriano.

But I do now have reason for cautious optimism: the organization wouldn't already be pushing $100 million for 2012 payroll if it was in a rebuilding mode, and would not have handed out multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts to veterans. Hopefully Terry Ryan won't be resigned to dumpster diving for pitching. Perhaps talks for a starter that can miss opponents' bats are in the works already? Maybe I should give him a little time - - it has, after all, been a busy week in Twins Territory. Today, Friday, is a day for optimism. Things look much better than they did just weeks ago. This lineup, though perhaps not the favorite to win the Central Division, at least won't lose 99 games.

What do you think? Am I drinking too much of the Terry Ryan Kool-Aid? Am I happy because I'm taking a half-day off today? Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Eulogizing Michael Cuddyer

From the sound of it, Michael Cuddyer is done as a Twin. Terry Ryan and the organization moved in on Josh Willingham, presumably after getting tired of waiting to hear back from Cuddyer on the Twins' 3 year, $25 million (or so) offer. Cuddyer was/is seeking in the neighborhood of 3 years and $30 million, but understandably and logically, the Twins weren't willing to go there. It looks like, by jumping in and signing Willingham for 3 years and around $21 million, the Twins effectively cut off negotiations with Cuddyer and have made it easy for him to leave Minnesota while not having his reputation tarnished by being labeled as a player who had no loyalty to the team or who jumped ship when times got tough. Wherever Cuddyer goes, I wish him the best of luck. I thought that this might be an appropriate time to contemplate Cuddyer as a player and person, and to reflect on where this leaves the rest of the team.

It's always tough to lose your longest-tenured player, whether that comes via trade, free agency or retirement, so make no mistake, Cuddyer does leave a void to be filled, and not just out in right field. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span, and maybe even a guy like Glen Perkins, are going to have to step up as leaders, and will need to be accountable to the media in the same way that Cuddyer was. And Danny Valencia, I'm looking at you specifically: it's time to grow up. It's not going to be sufficient for Mauer to duck reporters in 2012 and to leave others to clean up his mess. He needs to lead now, regardless of whether he's initially comfortable in that role. It quite simply comes with the contract and the "hometown hero" status that he cultivated in the mid-2000s.

Equally as important, who will do the magic tricks in the clubhouse from now on? I have no idea whether the Twins have any other amateur magicians on the roster. My guess is no, unless Bill Smith had more foresight than I thought. If not, we could use one of the supplemental draft picks gained by not signing Cuddyer and scout a player with that attribute. Just an idea.

And as far as Cuddyer's work in the community, though it has little bearing on the on-the-field product, it is noteworthy. Again, this is an area where other guys are going to need to step in. Fans like to think that players are just like the rest of us. Seeing them wait tables, serve drinks, sign autographs for kids and host charity events, goes a long way toward cultivating a brand of baseball in Minnesota that, I believe, is actually pretty great. Players here are simply much more approachable and nice than they are in most other cities I have visited -- especially New York and Boston (good luck getting within 100 feet of Derek Jeter; and watch when he then refuses to sign autographs for kids).

Cuddyer's power -- don't forget he lead the Twins in home runs in 2011 -- should be replicated nicely by Willingham. As will his RBI and slugging percentage totals. So that's a wash. In fact, Willingham may display more power than Cuddyer. But as far as versatility, Cuddyer has a leg up. No more do we have an outfielder that can fill in at second base or first base. But that's OK. Let's not forget that Cuddyer wasn't especially good in those positions, and that, if this team is really trying to compete for the playoffs, having an outfielder playing second base for an extended time period isn't a good sign. Further, we saw Mauer play a decent first base last year, and it sounds like Nishioka will be a utility infielder at least to start off 2012. Cuddyer's versatility and willingness to play anywhere, though laudable and necessary in years past, hopefully will not be missed much in 2012.

Double play ground balls, low-and-away sliders: Achilles heels of Michael Cuddyer. I have to admit that I won't be sad to not watch him flail helplessly at a slider in the dirt for strike three, with a runner on second and two outs. It's an image that has been repeated many times over the past several years. Sure, every player has holes in their swing, but this was a crater that was never patched up. And don't forget that Cuddyer started off miserably in 2011, threatening not to drive in a runner with a base hit until approximately June (it felt like). Granted, he really heated up in the middle of the season and had a respectable 2011, but boy, those first couple months were painful. I'm not sure exactly what to expect from Willingham (I know the batting average won't be sky high), but a consistent .270 with power would be all right by me.

Finally, it's worth noting that it sounds like Cuddyer might have wanted out of Minnesota. And that's his right. He has every reason to doubt that the Twins will be playing in a World Series during his playing days. Still, though, with the teams courting Cuddyer rumored to be the Rockies and the Mariners, it's not exactly as if he would be leaving for necessarily greener pastures. Sure, the 3 years and $24 million the Twins offered represented a yearly pay decrease for Cuddyer, and it was below the $30 million he had hoped to get, but at the same time, I have yet to read that a team has approached him with that kind of money. In the end, Cuddyer probably didn't accept an offer from the Twins that, I bet, will be within a couple million dollars annually of the offer that he finally does sign. Maybe he wanted out; maybe he thought he could get a couple million more out of the Twins. Who knows?

Although Cuddyer has ups and downs as a player, he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. And now he has new Twin girls to take care of, so he definitely has other things on his mind. I'll applaud him when he comes back to play against the Twins, or wherever else I might see him on the road, and I hope he has a productive few years before he retires. Thereafter, I'd love to see him come back to Minnesota as a radio or TV personality. Say what you will about Bert Blyleven, Roy Smalley, Ron Coomer and the rest, but Cuddyer would be just as good, if not better, than than anyone in that group. Good luck, Michael!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Improving Target Field for the 2014 All-Star Game

It's been reported that the Twins have a few upgrades in store for Target Field, with an eye on securing the 2014 All-Star Game. Certainly, I think it would be great for Minnesota to host the mid-summer classic for the first time since 1985, and would be an excellent opportunity to show off our new digs. In an effort to make their bid as strong as possible, the Twins plan to add more photos and displays, new carpeting and flooring, and improve both their wi-fi network and the ballpark food options. These sound like solid plans, but nothing very exciting. In fact, now that I think about it, these plans kind of mirror the 2011 Twins' off-season moves thus far: a couple things here and there, but nothing flashy or difference-making. If the Twins want to compete on the field in 2011, they are going to have to make some major moves; and if they really want the All-Star Game in 2014, we need to see dynamic changes to ensure that Target Field is as good as it possibly can be. My first suggestion would be to bring back those damn center field trees. But I digress. Today I want to discuss another option.

If you haven't yet seen the schematics or artist's renderings of the Miami Marlins' new ballpark, you should take a look. Personally, it's not quite my style, but I'm sure it will be a big hit in southern Florida. The park itself has many cool features, one of which is an aquarium. But it's not just any old aquarium -- this one is located in the backstop on either side of home plate -- where most teams simply have advertisements or green screens. The tank is going to be reinforced with some kind of super-thick Plexiglas to avoid the possibility of a batted or thrown ball shattering the aquarium, which will prevent thousands of parents from shielding their children's eyes as tropical fish flop helplessly in the on-deck circle on a 105 degree Miami afternoon. Here's the rendering:

Although we don't have Marlins, rays or tropical fish in Minnesota, I think something can be taken from this and used at Target Field: Even though I don't live in Minnesota, I've read many articles about the Asian Carp infestation in Minnesota's lakes, including the severe and long-lasting damage that these fish do to the ecosystem. But, apart from trying to eat them (yuck!), is there perhaps another beneficial use to be had with this species? I think the answer is a resounding Yes.

And that's why I want to present to you my idea for an Asian Carp Aquarium at Target Field. It's a winner from all sides: It's "Minnesotan" as much as the Walleye on the menu, the Grain Belt beer, the limestone facade, and the soon-to-be Kent Hrbek statue. Moreover, an aquarium is a moving, attention-getting attraction, so if the 2012 Twins are as bad as the 2011 Twins, at least there's something to watch. Finally, rounding up as many of the carp as is feasible and putting them in one place is part of the solution to this environmental woe.

I haven't done much research, but I'm fairly confident in stating that this Asian Carp Aquarium will be the first in professional baseball -- maybe even all of professional sports. Sure, new carpeting is nice to look at, and has that gluey smell. And wi-fi and food options are certainly important at any modern ballpark. But those things, by themselves, aren't going to get the Twins the All-Star Game. Fans today want sexy features, and I don't know what is sexier to baseball than an Asian Carp Aquarium.

Where would we put this thing? Well, I guess the Twins could directly copycat the Marlins and just put it right behind home plate. This idea has some merit -- plus, given the average velocity of most Twins pitchers, the reinforced Plexiglas probably wouldn't even be necessary. Another option is actually right on the playing field: As long as the Twins don't sign a real power hitter, the deep right-center and left-center gaps of Target Field are unattainable for most of our players. That's unused real estate. A gigantic fish tank would at least occupy some space there until we get a real hitter.

In the end, I'm doubtful that the Twins will go for this option. And if they did do an aquarium, I'm sure they would choose more "classic" Minnesota fish, like walleye, bass and perch. Asian Carp might not feel like the "Twins Way." But if the organization really wants to set itself apart from other stadiums, it's an idea at least worth considering. And financially, because the Twins would be doing the state a big favor by removing these carp from Minnesota lakes, I bet the DNR would subsidize this project. Now I'm speaking the Pohlad's language . . . .

Friday, December 9, 2011

Twins Fans Deserve Better

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that the Twins' front office was correct when it repeatedly has stated that the dismal 2011 season was the result of a barrage of injuries to most every single player that had been counted on to produce. Mauer, Morneau, Span, Thome, Baker. The list goes on and on, and there's definitely merit to this contention. Let's also say, for the sake of argument, the the Twins' front office is also correct when it says, now, that Mauer is healthy and ready for a big season, that Morneau's workouts have been going well, and generally there is every indication that last year's injuries were just a terrible confluence of events. Where does that leave us?

It leaves us in October, 2010, when the Twins were swept again in the playoffs by the Yankees, when the differences between the haves and the (sort of) have-nots were, for what felt like the thousandth time, exploited. Yes, the 2010 Twins were a very good team. But they were not capable of winning even a single playoff game. In an era in which it seems that the team with the best and hottest pitching has a dramatic advantage in the playoffs, the Twins started Brian Duensing in the third and final game, in the Bronx no less. I felt bad for the guy just watching him warm up on the mound. I'm not sure that I have seen a less confident pitcher, yet that's what the Twins were left with.

In the time that has passed, what moves have the Twins made to address the significant holes in their roster, and to become a more powerful force in baseball, not just in the AL Central division? No big moves come to mind. It's been the same old, tired story for years now: this organization rarely signs other teams' free agents, and is not very often successful at resigning its' own free agents. Furthermore, when the Twins have been aggressive at the trade deadline -- and willing to deal a top prospect -- it hasn't been in exchange for power starting pitching (which, I know, comes at a premium), but for an average, at best, closer. In short, even assuming that health returns to all those that were DL'd in 2011, this team is in no better position to have a chance at winning a playoff game or series than it was in 2010. Further, the 2012 Twins will lack Jim Thome (who was a driving force in 2010), as well as Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, or even both! Yes, theirs skills are replaceable through free agent acquisitions, but, at this point, am I crazy for harboring a little doubt that the Twins actually will swing a deal to bring in another power bat/outfielder? In fact, the Cuddyer deal is taking so long to get done that, by the time he actually decides whether to accept the Twins' offer, Josh Willingham could very well be gone to another team.

Am I wrong to expect that, after a 99 loss season, the Twins would seek to add at least 1 All-Star level player -- a player that wasn't on last year's team -- into the fold, in an effort to return to contention? A healthy crop of current Twins, plus Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit, do not a World Series team make (my intent is not to criticize these particular moves, as they undoubtedly do make the Twins stronger, but to emphasize that these moves are not nearly enough). At this point, I feel like the Twins may have done the worst thing possible: field a $100 million dollar team that cannot compete in the playoffs, instead of fielding a subpar team for 2 years while loading up great minor league prospects, and giving our own rookies a chance to play in the majors without immediate expectations, in anticipation of a return to greatness in or around 2014.

My Christmas wish is for a little more transparency from the front office. What exactly is going on here? I'm a little confused by the "moves" at the Winter Meetings. Is this a subtle re-tooling, the beginning of a multi-year rebuilding, or are these just decisions that I don't quite understand yet? Sure, the off-season is far from done, but do Terry Ryan, Ron Gardenhire and Dave St. Peter really think that this group -- with this questionable, to put it nicely, starting rotation -- is poised for a playoff run? If not, they why are they spending money on a "proven" closer, and contemplating committing around $30 million to an aging right fielder?

At least White Sox fans know that their team is rebuilding. At least Angels fans know why their ticket prices are going to increase in years to come. Twins fans, I feel, are being punished for not continuing to sell out Target Field last year, when the Rochester Red Wings played about 50 games there. Dave St. Peter has stated that payroll is a function of revenue, and that revenue is expected to drop in 2012, and that, because payroll is a function of revenue, payroll will also drop -- or at least won't increase. This sounds to me like a circular argument. Maybe if the Twins went out on a limb and signed a player that fans could be excited about (Edwin Jackson comes to mind as a somewhat realistic option with at least some upside), for more than 1 year, revenue would not be expected to drop?

There is still plenty of time, literally months, left in the off-season. Now that Albert Pujols has made his decision, it's Prince Fielder's turn. And on and on. There are many players left that need a home in 2012 and beyond, and there are numerous phone calls Terry Ryan should be making to try to put together a trade or two in order to help the Twins now. If they're committed to spending around $100 million on payroll, instead of $80 million and calling it a rebuilding year, then they may as well go on a limb and increase payroll a bit more so that they can secure a missing piece or two to help this team not only get back to being a relevant team during the regular season, but actually becoming a relevant team in October.

As always, I welcome and appreciate any comments.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Albert Pujols to the Angels: A Bad Day for Baseball

Albert Pujols could have been our generation's Stan Musial. In fact, offensively, he will be better than Stan Musial by the time his career ends. If there's one thing I appreciate, it's star players that play their entire career in one city, through ups and downs, through championships and rebuilding seasons, through different stes of management and ownership, and spanning generations of players that come and go. Fixtures: Kirby, Cal, Stan, Derek, even Kent, come to mind. Note that most of these guys are identifiable by just one name. There's a sentamentality -- a special connection with the city, state and fan base -- that accompanies these unique players long after their days grinding it out between the foul lines have long since passed.

It is being reported that Pujols has signed with the Angels for 10 years, and a total contract value of between $250 and $260 million. The full details aren't in yet. Furthermore, we don't know what the Cardinals' offer topped out at. But, for the sake of argument, if the Cardinals matched the years, and were within $2-3 million per year of the Angels, then I say shame on Albert. For some reason, I foolishly believed -- or wanted to believe -- that Pujols truly valued the St. Louis fans, the community, and his legacy in that city more than it turns out he actually did.

He played in 3 World Series in his 11 years in St. Louis, winning 2. That's pretty remarkable. Though the Cardinals are rarely a pick to go to the World Series going into each season, Pujols, and his amazing offensive skills, catapulted them to success twice. Most players consider themselves very lucky to go to 1 World Series, and even luckier to win it. Clearly, Pujols values the money more than he does playing for a competitive team. This is not to state that the Angels won't be great in years to come -- in fact, they very well might become favorites to win the AL West in 2012 now -- but only to state that Pujols left a pretty great team in St. Louis -- the defending World Series champions -- for a team that, last year, didn't even make the playoffs, and that competes in a division with the new-perennial favorite Texas Rangers. Maybe he wants a new challenge and a change of scenery?

I'd like to say that I wish Pujols the best, but I guess I don't. Not right now, anyway. I'm sure he will continue to do great charity work in California, and will probably continue to support whatever initiatives he started in St. Louis. I just can't help but feel that, in exchange for about 10 percent of his total career income, Pujols missed out on an opportunity to truly immortalize himself in the St. Louis community. I wonder if he had a conversation with his "idol," Stan Musial at any point in this process? Probably not.

I'll probably have some more thoughts once the contract details are posted, but for now, this is how I feel. I'd be happy to hear what others think.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Matt Capps Signing: It's Not Really All That Bad

Let me preface this post by stating that I'm not a Matt Capps fan. I didn't like the deal that sent him here in exchange for Wilson Ramos, I don't like the fact that he is a closer who doesn't strike out batters, and, like the rest of you, I watched him implode this summer, throwing belt-high fastballs and sliders down the middle of the plate, while experienced major league hitters teed off. It was interesting to find out, well after the fact, that Capps was playing with an injured arm during this period of awfulness, but let's face it, he wasn't "lights out" in 2011 even when healthy, and he certainly didn't earn the $7.15 million that the Twins paid last year.

So, it wasn't great news to read last night that the Twins signed Capps to close in 2012. Thus far this offseason, I have thought that spending high dollars on an "established closer" is a waste of money for the 2012 Twins. I doubt that they will have the health and talent to win the AL Central and, accordingly, to spend upwards of $8-10 million on a veteran closer is a real waste of money. Viewed in this light, the Capps signing, at $4.75 million with a $6 million option (I have to imagine a team or mutual option) for 2013, isn't awful.

By comparison, Jesse Crain got paid $4 million last year by the White Sox, and will earn $4.5 million 2012 and 2013; Matt Guerrier left Minnesota and got $12 million over 3 years. Yes, both of those players did very good things in Minnesota, and yes, they also were both tough to watch during long stretches. I still wish we had kept at least one of them. I guess my point is that everyone seems to pay, or overpay, for established, late-inning relievers. Is Matt Capps at $4.75 million to close worse than Jesse Crain at $4.5 million, or Guerrier at $4 million. Maybe? Is he really that much worse? Probably not. And, in 2012, will it really make that much difference? Probably not.

I'm glad the Twins balked at Joe Nathan and his $7 million each of 2012 and 2013. This club didn't need to invest $14 million in a closer when they may be lucky to play .500 baseball. Similarly, I'm glad the Twins weren't foolish enough to spend $9 million on Heath Bell each of 2012, 2013 and 2014. Clearly, the Miami Marlins expect to compete, and they think that guaranteeing $27 million to an aging closer is the way to go.

The Twins still need another couple good, established bullpen arms. They still need to shore up the outfield, and they still need to figure out the rotation. Kevin Slowey's probably out, but what about Carl Pavano? Could they get something good in return for him? If so, who replaces him in the rotation? The point of this post isn't to discuss the Twins' remaining holes going into 2012; I'm simply stating that, in and of itself, this Capps signing doesn't really handicapp (see what I did there?) the front office all that much for 2012, as it would have if the Twins spent nearly twice the value of the Capps contract on a different, better, free agent closer.

Matt Capps, if healthy, will probably be better than he was in 2011. If the Twins don't compete next year, other clubs will be willing to take the rest of his relatively modest contract at the July trade deadline (either to close or to set up), just like the Twins did with Brian Fuentes in 2010. And if Capps somehow outperforms all expectations, increases his disappointing strikeout ratio (4.66/9 innings last year), and becomes an "All-Star closer" again, well, the Twins got a pretty good deal, and they have an affordable option for 2013 if Capps really can figure it out. Again, I doubt that will be the case, but the front office has not "ruined" the Twins now or in the future, by any stretch, with this signing.

Finally, about the supplemental draft pick that the Twins gave up by signing Capps. Yes, this could have been an important pick in the Twins' effort to re-stock the farm system. Yes, the Twins' farm system is in need of high level talent. But who knows what the Twins would have gotten, especially considering that this upcoming draft class is supposedly the weakest in a few years? Sure, it could be the next Derek Jeter or something, but it could just as easily be the next David McCarty or Todd Walker. I'm just throwing out names here, but you get the point. The Twins draft second overall, and will get one sandwich pick if Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel depart, or, obviously, two if both depart. Coupled with the pick they would have had if Capps signed elsewhere, that's a lot of money to spend to sign prospects in one year. If I felt the Twins were in a position for a deep and extended retooling, I might have more of an issue with the Capps signing, but I believe that the Twins should be making moves to remain watchable in 2012, with an eye on competing in 2013 and 2014. Accordingly, the loss of 1 pick, in and of itself, is not going to make or break this organization's future. Rather, what the Twins do with the 2-3 early round picks is of much greater importance.

This is a great topic for debate. Just like others, I found Matt Capps tough to watch last year. But, perhaps this isn't an awful signing. I'm curious what others think. Let me know in the comments.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Possible Kent Hrbek Statue Poses

Charlie Walters of the Pioneer Press is reporting that the next installment of a statue at Target Field will be of former Twins' slugger Kent Hrbek. This makes sense. As Walters reports, Blyleven and Hrbek are the only players that have had their numbers retired by the Twins that have not yet been immortalized in a Target Field statue. The statue, to be located outside the entrance to Hrbek's own Gate 14, will, I imagine, be unveiled some time during the 2012 season.

This got me thinking: Tony O is set in stone with his distinctive swing; Rod Carew with that unique batting stance; Kirby with his Game 6 fist pump; The Killer with his explosive swing. So, what for Hrbek? There are some obvious choices: He had a memorable batting stance and a distinctive swing, both of which are entrenched in my mind. He played a great first base, and I remember several diving stops and picks in the dirt that he made to save what would have been hundreds of throwing errors over his career. Those, though, are the obvious choices. Here are a few others that come to mind:

How about the infamous Hrbek-Ron Gant play from the 1991 World Series. The Twins already immortalized it with the production of a bobblehead this past season that was extremely popular. Why not take it a step further?

If the organization is going for a moment "later" in Hrbek's career, what about the divot he created at Target Field while diving for a ball in the old timer's game. Here's the video if you haven't watched it. It's glorious. I can just imagine a bronzed, lifesize Hrbek on his knees, staring helplessly at the small section of the Earth that his rotund, William Howard Taft-like frame has just destroyed.

How about Kent partaking in this activity, which I'm sure he did both during his playing days and after his retirement?

If I had to bet, though, here is my guess. Although I was only 6, the image of Hrbek jumping at first base after catching the final out of the 1987 World Series -- Minnesota's first -- is seared into my memory. This would be a great way to immortalize #14, as well as the 1987 Series. Kent, this is a well-deserved honor! If anyone has any other possible statue poses, I'd love to hear them.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ryan Doumit: Now this Makes Sense

I wasn't too terribly excited about the Jamey Carroll signing. Don't get me wrong - - he's an upgrade. But he's no all-star, and he is not a long-term solution to the Twins' chronic middle infield problem. The Twins overpaid a little for Carroll, and he is definitely not what I would call a "difference-maker." Still, though, he should be a stop-gap between what the Twins have going into 2012 and what they hope to have going into 2014 in terms of homegrown shortstop talent. At least they did something.

Word is breaking that the Twins signed catcher Ryan Doumit to a 1-year, $3 million deal, with the possibility of more money based on certain performance bonuses. This deal is smart and necessary. Doumit catches and can play first base, and apparently even the right field, which is convenient, because we have health issues at catcher and first base, and our right fielder may be departing for greener, more easterly pastures. So with one signing and one roster spot, all at a fairly low price, the Twins bought insurance on Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and are getting the flexibility of being able to rest those players on a regular basis even if they are healthy. Further, this hopefully will give Chris Parmelee the ability to get a little more seasoning in the minors. Don't forget -- he was a AA call-up, and has never suited up for Rochester. I expect good things from Parmelee, but most would probably agree that at least a few months of AAA might be best for his development. Additionally, Doumit should lessen the need for Drew Butera. Sure, maybe he calls a good game, but he has no place on the roster of a team that should be competing for the playoffs. To be sure, Doumit's 2011 line of .303/.353/.477 looks pretty good right now.

Terry Ryan was smart to make this move. I would like to think that Bill Smith would have made the same move (in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if talks had initiated between the parties before Smith was fired). If the Twins can get another few smart signings like this, I think they can have a respectable 2012. Admittedly, I'm not all that excited by the Hot Stove season. I enjoy reading what others have written about, and suggested for, the Twins in 2012, but just haven't had the desire to make my own offseason "blueprint." That's probably why I haven't been writing more often lately. But when the organization does something to fill a glaring need, that must be acknowledged. Well done, front office.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Get Ready for the End of the Cuddyer Era

Reports are that Michael Cuddyer was in Philadelphia yesterday meeting with Phillies' brass and manager Charlie Manuel. This should come as no surprise to those who have been following baseball's hot stove thus far. The Phillies, among other teams, had expressed interest in Cuddyer early on, and are usually pretty aggressive when it comes to acquiring the talent they want. If I had to make a wager right now, my bet would be that Cuddyer will be suiting up for the Phillies next March, instead of re-signing with the Twins or going elsewhere, such as Colorado. Philadelphia is a good fit for Cuddyer for several reasons.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way: The Phillies spend money on the players that they want, they have deep pockets, and they will offer Cuddyer more years and more money than will the Twins. I had always thought that, if it was a difference of, say, $1 or $2 million a year, Cuddyer is the kind of guy who would stay in Minnesota just to have a legacy as having played his entire career for one organization. I think it's a safe guess that Philadelphia is willing and able to pay Cuddyer probably $3 or $4 million more a year than Terry Ryan would, and that the Phillies would go to a third or fourth year at that salary to land Cuddyer.

Second, the Phillies need a flexible player, and Cuddyer is nothing if not flexible. If signed, Cuddyer would see playing time at first base in place of the injured Ryan Howard, in the outfield of course, and perhaps even an infield position such as third base. As we know, Cuddyer can play many positions, none exceptionally well, but versatility with a solid bat is a marketable commodity, and he fits some needs for the Phillies.

Third, Cuddyer is a native of the Chesapeake, Virginia area, which, although not exactly next door, is about a 5 hour drive from the Philadelphia area. Cuddyer makes his off-season home in his native state, so he clearly has set his roots on the eastern seaboard. Though not the determinative factor, I'd imagine that Cuddyer views playing nearer to his home as a "plus." Aside from playing in Baltimore or Washington, D.C., this is about as close to a homecoming as Cuddyer could get.

Fourth, Jim Thome, one of Cuddyer's favorite teammates, is a new Phillie. Jerry Manuel, a well respected "players-manager," is at the helm. Cuddyer will not only be looking for a winning team, but also a clubhouse culture in which he would be a good fit. With Manuel, Thome, and others such as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley as seasoned Phillies veterans, Cuddyer would most certainly enjoy the the home clubhouse atmosphere at The Bank.

Fifth, and probably most important to Cuddyer, the Phillies are poised to win -- now. Their pitching is deep, players such as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley can practically carry the team when healthy, and the fan base is . . . rabid. It will be an exciting environment in which to play, and the Phillies will most likely start the season as favorites to win the NL East division, and possibly the World Series. If Michael Cuddyer wants to play October baseball and win a championship, Philadelphia might be his best bet.

Sixth, the Twins are in a very confusing state: They just fired their general manager. Are they rebuilding, re-tooling, or somewhere in-between? Are they going to surprise fans and get a couple big free agents, or are they going to be dumpster diving this winter? It took a confluence of events for the Twins to lose 99 games in 2011, and it's going to take a confluence of events for them to even have a shot at winning the AL Central in 2012. If the Twins were to match the Phillies' offer for Cuddyer, it would certainly be the only notable free agent acquisition in Minnesota this winter; Cuddyer might end up playing alongside rookies, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and some "pitch to contact" starters for the duration of his career. I'm not saying that things can't be fixed in Minnesota; I am suggesting, however, that if Cuddyer wants to win a World Series now, it probably won't happen in Minnesota in 2012.

So, one of these Sundays, don't be surprised if you open the Star Tribune only to find a full-page paid for by Michael Cuddyer, thanking the Minnesota fans for their support over the last 14 years. Cuddyer's a classy guy, and I wouldn't expect much less from him. And if the Phillies do offer $50 million over 4 years, I couldn't blame the guy for taking his 4 baseball gloves, media availability, and penchant for low-and-outside sliders to the City of Brotherly Love.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Re-Tooling vs. Rebuilding: Is There a Difference?

Well, I'm back. Thanks to that damn storm Albert that ravaged my Connecticut town, I had no power for 4 days. Then, the wife and I packed it up and went to Key West, Florida, for some much needed relaxation (and electricity and hot water). Last night, I had a pleasant surprise when I turned my phone on after arriving back in Connecticut, namely, that the Twins did indeed make a front office move by "replacing" (MN nice term for firing) GM Bill Smith with Terry Ryan. Of course, for many fans and bloggers, this was good news. -- not that you personally like the idea of a man losing his job, but that the move represents a level of accountability within the Twins' executive ranks. Someone had to take the fall for 2011, and it was Bill Smith.

Equally as interesting as Smith's departure were Terry Ryan's comments concerning payroll, in which he indicated that payroll would be around $100 million for 2012. For those keeping track, this is approximately $15 million lower than the 2011 payroll. If this is indeed the case, it likely means that Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan (or at least 2 of those 3) will be playing elsewhere in 2012. It also means that the front office will be unlikely to sign a quality veteran starting pitcher, a marquis reliever, or talented middle infielders. Keeping in mind that about $38 million alone in payroll is devoted to the M & M boys, you can see that the $100 million figure will be easy to hit without actually doing anything to improve the 2011 team.

Does that mean we have again entered a rebuilding phase in Minnesota? I sure as hell hope not. The fans that packed Target Field for the first 2 years of its existence, and that will again in 2012 notwithstanding the horrendous preceding season, deserve better. Make no mistake: I do not believe that payroll should be decreased; rather, I think a modest increase is warranted. As Jim Crikket at Knuckleballs has noted, there has been neither a justification given nor an apparent compelling need to lower the Twins' payroll. It scares me considerably to think that the "lean years" could be coming back to the Twins after only 160 games played at Target Field.

It's one thing to rebuild an organization; it's another to re-tool for a brief and definite time period. Up until a few months ago, most of us thought that Kyle Gibson was going to be a starting pitcher in the Twins' 2012 rotation. That's no longer that case. Justin Morneau's athletic career is very much in doubt; for the 15th consecutive year, the Twins have no settled shortstop and second base; Michael Cuddyer is looking for a $52 million commitment during years in which he almost certainly will decline; Denard Span, once viewed as a relative bargain, is a question mark physically and possible trade piece; Joe Mauer may never catch more than 100 games in a season again, and the Twins don't have a reliable back-up catcher. If the 2012 Minnesota Twins are a paragraph, the sentences comprising that paragraph conclude with many more question marks than periods. And there are probably some frowny-faced emoticons in there, as well.

Does this mean the Twins shouldn't try to be competitive, to sign free agents, to improve the club in 2012? Absolutely not. Does it mean that perhaps some money that might normally be expended on expensive veteran free agents (like Michael Cuddyer or Joe Nathan) or other above-average players might be better allocated -- this year -- to things such as making sure you sign the second overall pick in the amateur draft? Perhaps. To me, it means that any deals that happen this off-season are going to be equally, if not more, about 2013 and 2014, as they are about 2012. It's a frustrating position to be in, as a Twins fan, and I'm sure as a player and a member of the front office. Re-tooling -- being competitive in 2012, with an eye on 2013 and 2014, I can live with; rebuilding -- cutting costs and perpetuating the stereotype that Pohlads are parsimonious when it comes to their ballclub, I cannot stomach.

I like that Terry Ryan is back in charge, but I'm unsettled by the payroll estimate he gave. If it's true, fans are in for a long winter. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt, which he deserves as a result of his track record. He produced more with less in the past, so I'm anxious to see what he can do this time around.

Friday, October 28, 2011

If the Cardinals Win Tonight, Pujols Stays

After 2 pretty impressive comebacks last night, the St. Louis Cardinals forced the first game 7 of a World Series since 2002. All in all, it has been a good series, and it's nice to see it go the full 7 games. Tonight in St. Louis, Albert Pujols may take his final at-bats as a Cardinal, which, to me, is a scary prospect for the game of baseball. Sure, the sun will still rise if Pujols is a Cub or Marlin or Yankee (actually the world might end if he were to sign with New York), but I have always appreciated 1-team players like Cal Ripken, Jr., and, to date, Joe Mauer. I hope that St. Louis finds a way to retain Pujols for the duration of his career. Certainly by making the playoffs this year, and now being 1 game away from a World Series title, one cannot really suggest that Pujols should go to a team where he has a "chance to win" every year. For Pete's sake, this is his third World Series since he came to the big league club in 2001, and his second in the past six seasons!!

If the Cardinals win tonight, I think it's going to be extremely difficult for the organization to let Pujols walk. Winning the World Series will bring several months worth of great PR into St. Louis, will revitalize the fan base (if they needed revitalizing), and certainly would put some extra money in the organization's coffers through World Series merchandise and increased ticket sales. If I was running things in St. Louis, and if the team wins tonight, there is NO WAY I'm letting Pujols get away. Pujols leaving St. Louis only months after a World Series victory would replace one of the best sporting moments in the city's recent history, with feelings of anger and rage that, regardless of what actually happened in the negotiations, would mostly be directed at the organization. Quite simply, the great press that should accompany a World Series winning team would quickly, and loudly, become negative press over the course of mere weeks. The onus, if the Cards win, is on the front office and ownership to make things work to keep Pujols around. From the PR standpoint, can you imagine more momentum going into 2012 than the following scenario: 1) win the World Series in 7 games in dramatic fashion; 2) soak up the glory for a few weeks; 3) announce some time around the holidays that you have signed the best player in baseball to essentially a lifetime contract. If that doesn't make you want to buy a season ticket package for your spouse as a Christmas present, I don't know what would!

Pujols, too, will have his share of pressure not to leave. What is his justifiable reason for leaving the city that has embraced him for the past decade?? An extra $2 million a year, maybe $3 million a year? 1 more year guaranteed?? We're talking about a guy who has played his entire career in one city, who is undoubtedly the modern face of the franchise (no disrespect intended to Mr. Stan Musial, who is the all-time best Cardinal), who could break the home run record without the taint of steroids, and who genuinely seems like a decent guy. His family has become deeply rooted in the St. Louis community, and he has done great charitable work there. If the Cardinals put together an offer that is 85-90 percent as good as the best offer Pujols receives on the open market, I think he would be a fool to leave. Though it wouldn't tarnish his numbers, it would, at least to me, tarnish his legacy to an extent.

I think the contract that ultimately keeps Pujols in St. Louis could be an interesting and unique document. When Derek Jeter was negotiating with the Yankees last year, some in the New York media floated the idea of a legacy contract -- a contract that would pay Jeter, say, $8 million a year for 5 years to play, and then would pay him $1-2 million annually for the next 20 or so years to stay with the Yankees in a leadership role within the organization. Now, of course, this never came to fruition, but if there is a possibility of exploring such an idea with Pujols, I at least think it's worth discussing with his agent. If he plays out the next 9-10 years in a Cardinals uniform and retires as a Cardinal, you know he's going to take some sort of "Executive Vice President" type of role, like Kirby Puckett did. St. Louis would be wise to never, ever let Pujols get away from the ballpark. Did you see the way the fans still embraced Musial last night? Why not put it in writing now, so that everyone knows Pujols will be a Cardinal for life, even after his playing days are done?

Even if the Cardinals lose in game 7 tonight, there will still be a positive baseball vibe in St. Louis this off-season, and it's still going to be difficult, both for Pujols and the organization, to sever their relationship. I don't pretend to know Pujols, but my best guess is that he wants to get paid, wants to play on a team that can compete for the playoffs every year, and wants to use his celebrity to do good things in his community. Sure, he can accomplish those things in many cities (even Minneapolis!), but, barring a horribly low offer from the Cardinals' brass, there's no good reason for him to leave Missouri.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Joe Mauer, Malcolm Gladwell & Bill Gates: Success and a Confluence of Events

I read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers several months ago. As with most of his other stuff, I enjoyed his analysis on the extent to which circumstance factors into success. Among other examples throughout the book, Gladwell focused on Microsoft's Bill Gates. I don't know much about computers, and I know nothing about computer programing, but I do know that Bill Gates is generally considered a genius and/or a pioneer of the personal computer. How did he get there? Sure, he was smart and had a knack for computer programming. But I'm many other kids were just as smart, or smarter, and were "gifted," if you want to use that word, when it came to technology and the burgeoning computer industry, and the majority of those other kids just ended up with normal careers. Apart from his level of genius, was there anything different about Bill Gates in particular?

Gladwell reveals a few interesting thing about Gates that factored, perhaps to a significant extent, into his eventual success: First, when Gates was in high school, his school happened to have recently purchased a new and extremely expensive computer, and actually had in place a computer club, both of which were extremely rare for the time. Second, Gates had extensive access to the University of Washington's computer lab, where he reportedly logged some 10,000 hours programming computers by the time he turned 20. When Gates was asked how many individuals had as much computer experience in the 1970s as Gates did, his response was, "if there were 50 in the world, I'd be stunned." Gladwell's point, expressed much more convincingly and eloquently than I could re-write it, is essentially that for Gates and many other extremely successful (rich and famous?) people, circumstance and timing were a factor in the mix; not that circumstance and timing were predominant, or more important than intelligence and effort, but that they did indeed play a role. As food for thought, Gladwell also noted that Gates, Steve Jobs and Sun Microsystems' famous computer scientist Bill Joy were within a year or two of each other.

So what does this have to do with Minnesota Twins baseball and Joe Mauer? Well, there's no direct correlation, of course. I haven't read anywhere that Joe Mauer had unique access to baseball training facilities, though I'm sure he did. And he wasn't born at an especially important time in the development of the sport of baseball. I was just thinking, though, of the confluence of events that brings us, and Joe Mauer, to the present day Minnesota Twins.

Two major things stand out: First, Joe Mauer was born in 1983, and participated in the MLB amateur draft in 2001. In 2000, the Twins finished last in baseball with a 69-93 record, and, accordingly, "earned" the fist overall pick in the 2001 draft. Between 2001 and 2011 -- thanks to generally competitive teams and the dividends of drafting early in the first round of the late 1990s -- the Twins did not draft earlier than 14th (That all changes, as we know, in 2012, when the Twins draft 2nd overall). So Joe Mauer was a Minnesota native, and was already a household name (at least among households where prep sports were followed), when he was draft-eligible, and his hometown team held the #1 pick in that year's amateur draft. As we all know, the Twins selected Mauer (over other notables such as Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira), and the rest is history. Simply stated, as when he connects on a 95 MPH fastball, Mauer's timing (more accurately, his parents' timing) with respect to his age couldn't have been better when it is compared ot the Twins' circumstances in 2001.

The second thing that stands out to me is the role that Target Field has played in Joe Mauer's Twins career -- or maybe it should be more accurately stated as the role that Joe Mauer played in helping the Twins secure Target Field? Or, maybe most accurately, it should simply be stated that the two are intertwined. In 2002, the threat of contraction loomed over the team, even as they played winning baseball on their way to the first of 3 consecutive Central Division titles. Now, of course a lot of ugly politics went into securing Target Field, but the fact that the team won 4 Central crowns in 5 years -- with Mauer playing an important role the final 2 of those years -- after having sucked for the better part of the previous decade, was important. The rest is history, really. Mauer became a very famous and well-paid All-Star, and the Twins got Target Field. And now we have Mauer for at least 7 more seasons, and probably for the rest of his career.

Mauer's connection, in my opinion, with Galdwell's Outliers, concerns Mauer's timing. To say the least, it was very good (up until 2011 and bilateral leg weakness, that is). The story in Minnesota might be a little different if the team was just a little better in 2000, and accordingly missed the first or second overall pick in the draft. Now, Mauer didn't play on the big league team in 2002 and 2003, so we can't credit him for the success of those teams, but 2004-Present is on his shoulders, good and bad. What if the Twins took Mark Prior or Mark Teixeira instead? Or Dewon Brazelton, who was the third overall pick and heralded by Peter Gammons as the second coming of Roger Clemons? What if the Twins hung onto AJ Pierzynski and didn't ship him off to San Francisco in exchange for Joe Nathan (and Boof Bonser)? What if the winning stopped after the 2003 season with no Mauer around which to build the nucleus of a team that was very competitive from 2004 until this past season? Would we have Target Field now? Maybe. Probably. At the least, it's an interesting question. And Mauer certainly benefited from Target Field. Without it, there is no doubt that the Twins would not have been able to afford his $23 million salary without gutting the rest of the team. Mauer's timing in arriving in 2004 on a good team, in later becoming the face of that team, and in later using that success (and the increased revenue from Target Field) to his advantage when negotiating a contract, again is nearly perfect (for the record, I have no doubt that Mauer, even if he had been drafted by another team, would have become an All-Star and MVP candidate, but it certainly is interesting to think -- sort of in an "A Christmas Carol" sort of way -- about what might have happened in the Twins' past, present and future).

Bill Gates had access to a computer lab, a new and expensive computer in his high school, and even was in a computer club -- all at a time when such things were relatively rare. It helped him become who he is. Joe Mauer had the fortune of being from Minnesota, and being draft-eligible the last time his home team had the #1 overall pick in the draft. Mauer was also placed onto a pretty darn good team in 2004. The Twins' play on the field in those pivotal years made the prospect of contraction difficult, especially when the other team to be contracted was the lowly Montreal Expos. Building upon on the success of those good teams into the Twins' new home at Target Field, Mauer was able to secure a "market rate" contract to stay with his team, a contract that would have mathematically been impossible for the Twins to offer had they stayed in the Metrodome. For Joe Mauer, certainly there is a unique athletic talent. Heck, I very well could be writing the same article about whatever NFL team Mauer was quarterbacking. But it would be remiss, in any full "study" of Mauer's professional career, to fail to note the incidents of circumstance and timing that factor into his professional life story.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oh, Delmon

Oh, Delmon, why didn't you play like this when you played for the Twins?

Wait a second - - you played exactly like this. I remember a stretch in 2009 where you were hitting the hell out of the ball, and during significant portions of 2010 you really led the team offensively. When I went to Baltimore in July, 2010, it seemed that every ball off your bat was a rocket, regardless of whether it was a hit or an out. But I also remember you flailing in left field, turning singles into doubles, and taking the strangest of routes to fly balls. In your hitting you were inconsistent, and occasionally brilliant; in your fielding you were both consistently dangerous and a liability, and also sometimes just cringeworthy.

I'm happy to see you having your moment in the national spotlight. In fact, I don't wish anything negative for you. It's actually nice to see an AL Central team doing relatively well (relative being winning 1 postseason game) in the playoffs. Right now, you're clearly in the middle of a hot streak, made all the more impressive by the fact that you are playing through an oblique injury, and are facing some pretty decent pitching.

But I'm also happy the Twins got rid of you (though I wish they had just done it when your value was higher). Those with more advanced metric skills than myself have pointed out, time and time again, that your fielding is so awful that, unless you DH, you provide hardly any aggregate value to a team, even if your offensive statistics are decent. If there's one thing that the 2012 Twins can't have, it's more weak fielders. So, I'm sure you will catch on somewhere in 2012, and are probably playing yourself into a pretty decent contract by the way you are using the national spotlight. Good luck, and hopefully when we see you next season you will be playing left field, and won't be in the midst of a hot streak at the plate.


Twins Fan From Afar

Friday, October 7, 2011

Please Don't Take All the Power Away

Watching Delmon Young do his best Reggie Jackson impression for the Detroit Tigers this past week has been pretty impressive. No, I don't wish the Twins kept him, but I do wish they would have pulled the trigger when his value was higher. Seeing Robinson Cano, a fellow named Goldschimidt, Ryan Braun and others slug baseballs all over the October sky got me to thinking about the Twins and home run power -- or, rather, the lack thereof.

As you of course know, Young and Jim Thome are already gone. In a good season, they each might account for 20 home runs or so. Michael Cuddyer, who hit 20 this past season to lead the Twins in that category, is a free agent, as is fellow slugger Jason Kubel, who, when healthy, can also hit in excess of 20. There's a very good chance that one or both of Cuddyer and Kubel won't be returning next year. If that happens, what will happen to the Twins' home run power, and what does that mean in terms of success?

I believe that, even if Cuddyer and Kubel go on to other teams for big money contracts, and even if the Twins do not replace these players with other power-hitters, the Twins still could be competitive in 2012, at least in the AL Central. It will certainly be a different style of baseball than we saw in 2010 (I'm discounting 2011 because, after all, the Twins were not competitive from day 1). We won't see very many 3-run home runs because, frankly, there aren't going to be any guys that hit home runs with regularity. I would LOVE to see Justin Morneau rebound and have a 20 home run season, but that frankly seems unlikely after what we watched in 2011. It's probable that Joe Mauer is going to hit more home runs in 2012 than he did in 2011, but I doubt he'll hit 20. I expect we'll see a lot of doubles from him; and that's fine with me, as long as the batting average is high. In short, with Ben Revere probably playing a starting role in the outfield with Denard Span, and with Alexi Casilla back at second base, if this team will work at all offensively, it's going to be based on speed, stealing bases, turning singles into doubles, and turning doubles into triples.

Here's an interesting fact, though: I did a little research going back to 1987, and every World Series-winning team was comprised of at least 1 player that hit 23 or more home runs (with the exception of the 1997 Marlins, the number would have been 25). Not surprisingly, many of the teams had multiple players with 20 or more home runs, and a few teams had multiple players with 30 or more home runs. I acknowledge that some of the years during this time span were marred with steroid use, thereby artificially bolstering the power stats, but even in the last several years, since baseball has been much more proactive in testing athletes, these figures are relatively unchanged. The bottom line is that you need a least 1 major power threat in your lineup if you are going to succeed. (By the way, the 1987 Twins had more power than I remembered: Kent Hrbek hit 34 home runs to lead the team; Gary Gaetti 31; Kirby 28; Bruno 32. Roy Smalley had 8 in 100 games. Smalley would have tied for 5th on the 2011 Twins, incidentally.)

A legitimate power threat gets walked at higher rates (assuming they have a good eye); a legitimate power threat has a direct and positive effect on the batter preceding him in the lineup; a legitimate power threat forces pitching changes; a legitimate power threat ends games. I don't wish to overstate the value of home runs. In fact, doubles and triples are generally fine with me, especially in a stadium like Target Field, where many players already have found hitting home runs difficult. But a home run is still a special, necessary, and game-changing part of professional baseball. Sure, the Twins have many needs to fill in order to have any chance in 2012, including starting and relief pitching, shortstop, backup catcher, and on and on. But without retaining, or acquiring, one or two power bats, it's going to be even more of a tough climb.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mauer vs. Montero: Career Post-Season RBIs

Well, here I go again. I couldn't help myself. I guess a byproduct of the Twins having an abysmal year was that I started keeping track, tongue-in-cheek (mostly), of a meaningless stat between 2 players that don't have much in common, apart from the fact that they were both top catching prospects and are expected to be great for several years to come. As you may recall, I charted the progress of Yankees' Jesus Montero as he caught, then passed, Joe Mauer for home runs on the season, in just a handful of at-bats. What can I do now that the Twins' season has ended, but the Yankees are still playing?

Naturally, I can look at postseason RBIs, a somewhat meaningless statistic, especially given the fact that runs have been at a premium for the Twins teams that have competed in Octobers past. Without further ado, here is the Jesus vs. Baby Jesus (thanks for the catchy title, Seth!) postseason RBI comparison: In 35 postseason at-bats, Mauer has 1 RBI. For what it's worth, his slash line is not bad, but it is not especially good: .286/.359/314. He has one extra base hit -- a double -- in his postseason career. This suggests that, although Mauer is hitting singles at an acceptable rate, and is drawing some walks (4 in his playoff career), either no one is on base when he hits, or he is not getting the runners in, by getting big hits, when it counts. Montero, on the other hand, just got his first taste of playoff baseball last night, where he was 2-for-2 off the bench, and recorded his first postseason RBI in his first postseason at-bat. So as it stands today, Mauer and Montero are tied in postseason RBIs, and Montero tied Mauer in 1 at-bat. Depending on the lineups for tomorrow's Game 5 against the Tigers, where presumably Joe Girardi will put everything on the table, Montero might see more action, and might have a chance to leap ahead of Mauer. I promise to keep you posted.

In all seriousness, though, this has been an interesting last 24 hours in Twins Territory. Joe C. at the Star Tribune had a good recap of a season ticket holders conference call with Bill Smith, where, apparently, Smith was pretty candid about the 2011 shortcomings, including awful production at the shortstop position, and Nishioka's future (personally I think his future is not on this continent). It's a step in the right direction, anyway, but I want to see this organization move quickly once the World Series ends.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Target Field: Is the "New Car Smell" Gone?

From my perspective as a Minnesota outsider, I would still welcome the opportunity to go to most any Twins game at Target Field. Even if the weather is going to be unseasonably cold or hot, or if heavy rain is forecasted, I would still make the trip to Minneapolis in order to go to Target Field. I've been only twice - - once each season - - and I sat in generally the same area down the left field line, so there is still about 90 percent of the ballpark I haven't really experienced. I've never been to the upper parts of the stadium; to Hrbek's; to the Champion's Club; and have never sat in the home run porch or the right field overhang. For me, there's still lots to see. Even if the 2012 Twins play like the 2011 Twins, I would still eagerly go to Target Field, if not to watch the players, then to experience the ballpark.

I expect that I might be in the minority. Most Minnesotans who are interested in Target Field have probably been there by now. To be sure, if they were initially turned off by the high ticket prices and sell-out crowds, then this September probably provided them the best opportunity for bargain baseball. The last week of the season certainly saw plenty of empty seats, and you could get tickets on for literally pennies on the dollar.

The Twins took out a full-page ad in the Star Tribune, promising to rally in 2012, and indicating that, although injuries played a role in the 2011 failure, the 2011 awfulness and disappointment would "motivate [the club] to a better 2012." I want to believe that. But then you read LaVelle E. Neal's interview with Jim Pohlad, which really sends mixed signals. On the one hand, Pohlad said that there were significant holes in the lineup, and that the Twins would be using the free agent market to sign one or more talented players (I assume, and hope, that signing one or more of Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel is not what Pohlad was referring to; I'm interested in talent outside the organization). On the other hand, Pohlad notes that the Twins are not a "knee-jerk organization," and that Bill Smith's job, in particular, is safe. Don't get me wrong: I didn't expect Bill Smith to be fired. But it wouldn't have disappointed me.

Look at what is happening in Boston (certainly the definition of a knee-jerk organization): Terry Francona, the man who broke the Red Sox' World Series curse and actually won it for them twice, and who got the team to the playoffs more often than not, was dismissed (or quit, or some combination thereof) because his players had an awful month. And the rumors are that GM Theo Epstein may be on his way out, as well. I'm not looking for the Twins to go this route, but if significant acquisitions are not made over the next few months, if the manner in which the team analyzes and scouts player attributes does not soon join the 21st century, and if the team has another clunker year, yes, I do want Bill Smith dismissed. That's what happens in the business of baseball, regardless of whether the organization is knee-jerk.

This brings me, finally, to my question: Is the "new car smell" at Target Field gone? Short answer: Not yet. There is still a waiting list for season tickets, and although I have read reports that several people are not renewing their ticket plans, I do not doubt that many of the 3,000-plus people on the waiting list will still want seats. Unfortunately, all the Twins have to do to sell out Target Field next year is have a respectable product on the field. They don't even need to win the division. For Twins fans that have been to Target Field plenty of times, however, it might be a different story. If the new car smell is not yet gone for them, I suspect that, perhaps, Target Field and the expensive tickets might be analogized to a brand new car that has been in a moderate accident, and, unless it is perfectly repaired, might never feel quite like it did off the showroom floor. So, although it might still smell new, it's tainted.

The Twins have the ability to turn things around in 2012. Aside from having healthy players, the front office needs to shore up the middle infield (through an acquisition, not through promotion); the bullpen needs to again be re-vamped; and something in the way of starting pitching needs to take place. I have read several times that not many good starting pitchers will be available, but CJ Wilson and Mark Buherle top the list. Why couldn't the Twins out-bid other organizations for Wilson? Sure, he's not Cliff Lee, but he's much better than any other option we have. In fact, the savings from not re-signing Kubel, and declining Joe Nathan's option (and thereafter negotiating a lower salary), could go a long way toward paying a top-of-the-rotation starter. I'm not saying that CJ Wilson needs to happen; I'm only suggeseting that an argument that the Twins cannot acquire a high-profile free agent for 2012 is patently false.

Taking out a page in the Star Tribune to apologize for the awful season was a good first step in acknowledging that things can't remain the same for the Twins. It was a nice gesture. As my good friend pointed out, though, perhaps Twins' fans would have been best served if the thousands of dollars spent on a full-page ad had just gone straight to payroll for a free agent acquisition. As always, actions speak louder than words.