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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Morning Letter to Bill Smith

Dear Bill Smith,

First, thanks for reading! It means a lot knowing that perusal of my little blog is part of your Sunday morning routine, along with brunch, "Meet the Press," and reading the Star Tribune. So thanks for that.

Because I know I have your ears and eyes for a few minutes, I want to implore you not to trade Denard Span for Drew Storen and children of former Twins' players to be named later (CFTPTBNL). I'll enumerate things to make it easy, and perhaps you can just cut and paste some of my comments in your emails with Nationals GM Mike Rizzo.

1. We already have a closer, Joe Nathan, in house. Sure, we don't want to pay him his 2012 salary of $12.5 million, but you can decline that option, pay him $2 million and then renegotiate. It will still take some money off the books, and he has performed pretty well lately. It's a possibility, anyway.

2. Glen Perkins can close next year. Admittedly, I really like the fact that he has been effective in many relief situations from the 6th inning on, and having him as the designated closer would decrease his usefulness somewhat, but it is at least an option. You want your closer to be your most "lights out" pitcher, and he has been that for the Twins this year. He would also be inexpensive.

3. A very good middle-of-the-field position player, for a young (albeit very good) closer doesn't make sense to me. As we have seen this year, the Twins need a couple things more than they need a closer right now. They need middle infield help, a better backup catching option, and deeper and better starting pitching. Sure, they also need bullpen help, but we all know that bullpen arms are relatively cheap at the deadline. If you were intent on shopping Span, he should have been part of a package a starting pitcher, a very good starting shortstop, or something else noteworthy that filled an immediate, gaping hole. Now that Matt Capps hasn't been closing games, the hole, though still somewhat present, is at least not the biggest problem with the Twins anymore.

4. Denard Span was on his way to an All-Star selection this year, he is a good guy, and, most importantly, is a very good center fielder. Ben Revere could be good someday soon. We have seen brilliant plays from him this year, though his arm is awful. And his ability, once on base, to do serious damage, is game-changing. But he is not ready, on July 31, 2011, to assume starting center field and leadoff duties for the Twins.

Mr. Smith, thanks again for reading. Just cut and paste these comments in an email to Mike Rizzo, or use them verbatim if you have to talk on the phone. You have my permission.


Andrew (Twins Fan From Afar)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Umm, Let's Keep Denard

With the July 31 trade deadline, rumors are spiraling regarding a Twins outfielder. Not Delmon Young, not Michael Cuddyer, and not RF/DH Jason Kubel. Not even Jason Repko! Surprisingly, the rumors are targeting center fielder Denard Span.

If the rumors have merit, the proposed trade has Span going to the Washigton Nationals in exchange for Nationals' closer Drew Storen, who is pretty darn good and young, and I'm sure some other pieces. If you're like me, you gagged a little when you read "Washington Nationals," "trade," "Minnesota Twins," and "closer." Not that this proposed deal is anywhere near as bad as the deal that sent Wilson Ramos to Washington in exchange for Matt "belt high fastball or slider without movement down the middle of the plate" Capps, but if there's one team out of all the teams that maybe I don't want to make a deal with this year (unless the package is overwhelming), it's the Washington Nationals.

Of all our outfielders, the one to keep is Denard Span. Sure, he's injured now with a concussion, and there are no guarantees about his recovery. But it sounds like he's on the mend. Denard is still relatively young; he is signed to a team-friendly contract (5 years, $16.5 million); he is an above-average center fielder; he has the makeup of a very good leadoff hitter; he has good speed; he was having an All-Star 2011 season before his injury; by all measures, he has been an outstanding Twins citizen; and he seems like basically a nice guy. He is the piece of the outfield to build around for the next few years.

I have gone on the record indicating that I like Ben Revere's future in Minnesota, and I still stand by that statement. Yes, he has slowed down recently, with a pretty big slump and some defensive miscues. Let's not forget, though, that he is 23 and still seeing "the league" for the first time. If, in another year or two, he's still not drawing walks and hitting for a better average, maybe it will be time to pass him along to another team, but I like his upside. Instead of listening to offers for Span (unless, again, those offers are overwhelmingly great), the Twins should be listening to offers for Young or Kubel, if they really have no intention of signing either player after 2011. And Jason Repko.

But again, the Twins don't need to sell these players in exchange for scrap metal right now. The team is still in the hunt somehow, attendance is still solid at Target Field and will continue to be, so, unlike teams like Kansas City or Baltimore that are forced financially to give up each August, the Twins are not in such a situation. The bottom line is that Denard Span should not be moved unless the package is so great that it actually makes the Twins better in 2011. To be better in 2011, whomever the Twins receive would have to more than make up for the difference between having Span in CF, and having Revere there in his place.

I don't see such a package in the proposed Storen-Span trade, especially because Storen would only pitch 1 inning in games that the Twins are winning by 3 or fewer runs, whereas any every day player, and especially a center fielder that is also your leadoff hitter, will make thousands of more significant contributions during the course of a 162 game season. In the end, I hope that this particular trade rumor is just that, a rumor.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Big Day for # 28

This weekend, Bert Blyleven will officially be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Most of us Twins fans have been clamoring for his induction for years now, as has Bert himself. The truth of the matter is that his election was a long time coming--way too long, in fact. I'm no sabermatrician--in fact I'm not even really advanced when it comes to traditional baseball stats--but Blyleven's peripheral numbers, when viewed through the lens of the many subpar teams he played for, made him a shoo-in in my book.

Think for a second about where Bert, if he were in his prime in 2011, would be on the Twins' depth chart. There is no argument he would be our ace. In fact, his services would be right up there in terms of demand with pitchers such as Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay. And, maybe, that fellow from Detroit named Verlander who seems to be pretty good at throwing a baseball this year.

Perhaps a better analogy is Zack Greinke. He earned a Cy Young award in 2009 for winning only 16 games for the hapless Kansas City Royals. Greinke is representative of the sea change that has taken place in baseball statistics and voting for awards: no longer are wins the dominant statistic for pitchers. Greinke's case suggests that if the statistics available today were available (and relied upon) when Blyleven played, there likely would have been Cy Young awards and more All-Star teams for Blyleven.

I wrote this in 2009 for the Star Tribune in support of Blyleven. It was by no means groundbreaking or well researched, but I was, by that time, getting very irritated as each year passed without receiving the requisite number of votes. I realized immediately after writing that letter, however, that I wrote it to the wrong audience: everyone in Minnesota knew about Blyleven, and I'm sure all HOF voters with any Minnesota connection were already voting for him in the first place. It was the old-time, East Cost voters that likely thought that Blyleven wasn't worthy, whether it was a result of not achieving the magic 300th victory, only having made 2 All-Star teams, or having surrendered many home runs. The next year, 2010, I tried to submit better-researched and more convincing letters/op-eds to east coast papers and sporting publications, to no avail. All else being equal, I'm sure if Bert had been a (you pick the major market team from the east coast), his plight would have attracted much more attention, and the fantastic work of Rich Lederer would not have been necessary.

But this isn't a post to complain about the inequities of the Hall of Fame voters. Hall of Fame voting is goofy and steeped in strange traditions--sort of like electing a Pope. This post is to celebrate Bert. I had the good fortune of meeting Bert when I was a kid at spring training in Ft. Myers. Ironically, it was in 1993, the year that Bert returned to MN, but failed to make the Twins out of camp, and subsequently retired. We saw him in the parking lot waiting for a ride. I shook his hand and said I was a big fan. He was as nice as he comes across on the FSN broadcasts where he makes his "second" career. Now, Bert will be waiting for a ride from the Otesaga Resort Hotel to take him to the Hall of Fame, where he will add another Twins hat to the collection. Congrats, Bert.

Summer baseball, a team in contention playing a division rival, and a Twins player getting inducted into the Hall of Fame: a good weekend to be a Twins fan.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cuddyer's Gamble: The Right Play at the Right Time

We all saw it last night. 1 out, bases loaded, bottom of the 9th inning and the Twins losing 1-0. Danny Valencia hits something between a traditional bloop single and a fly ball down the left field line. The surprise was not so much that Mauer scored but, rather, that Michael Cuddyer, who was on second base, began running hard toward third a mere split-second after contact, and was able to score the game-winning run relatively easily.

Michael Rand at the Star Tribune liked Cuddyer's play. La Velle E. Neal had great post game quotes from Cuddyer regarding his base running, most notably: Cuddyer's knowledge that the left fielder, Luis Valbuena, was, in reality, a second baseman; that Valbuena was playing deep no-doubles defense; and that Valbuena was an inexperienced outfielder. You have to wonder how much Cuddyer was able to process in the time period he was standing on second base, but, given those statements, it's hard to fault the guy for taking a gamble. Perhaps the Twins even had a discussion on the bench when Valbuena entered the game in left field?

My take on Cuddyer's gamble last night is that it was correct for another reason aside from Cuddyer's knowledge of the left field situation: The way the Twins' offense has been scuffling since the All-Star break (pathetic is a word that comes to mind), what are the odds that yet another batter is going to reach base successfully or somehow drive in another run? Otherwise stated, the Twins had loaded the bases as a result of Mauer's walk, Cuddyer's ground-ball single, and an intentional walk to Jim Thome. There was one out, and batting was Danny Valencia, who, despite having a disappointing season, was 7-for-15 with the bases loaded. He presented the best opportunity for the Twins to score one or two runs. Valencia was the fourth straight runner to reach base against an otherwise very good closer. That doesn't happen too often.

Had Cuddyer stopped at third on the single, after Valencia in the batting order would have been Delmon Young, and then Nishioka. If this had this been July, 2010, I would have wanted Young up in that position. But not this year. Similarly, I have little doubt that Nishioka would not have come through. Maybe next year, maybe even later this season, he will be a better player. But for right now, I don't want him up in any clutch situation. Further, the Twins had already depleted their thin bench by giving Trevor Plouffe Drew Butera's spot in the lineup and having Luke Hughes pinch-run for Jim Thome.

Imagine if Valencia's hit had instead been a sacrifice fly to left field that scored Mauer, or even a short fly ball that didn't score anyone. Under the first scenario, the game would have been tied with 2 outs, and runners on first and second; under the second scenario, the Twins would still have the bases loaded and still be losing. Under either situation, however, 2 disappointing hitters would be due up, only one of whom Twins fans have ever had confidence in, and that was a relatively short period of time one year ago.

The conclusion: The Twins' best chance to win the game was in Danny Valencia's bases-loaded at-bat. Though it was a gutsy play on Cuddyer's part to take off, he clearly had assessed the situation, and I'm sure, internally, knew that Valencia was the best bet, and it worked out.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Doubleheaders = Greatness

I wish that MLB would begin to schedule doubleheaders as a regular part of baseball. In the beginning, I'd settle for even once a year. Just imagine, for example, 4th of July weekend. The Twins are home at Target Field, American flags are everywhere, the players sporting their patriotic hats; perhaps there's even a military flyover. The Twins are scheduled to play 2 games against the White Sox (or maybe even our old border rivals the Brewers). Aside from the postseason, I can't think of a better day to go to the ballpark. And, under my plan, this wouldn't just take place in Minnesota. It would be a "National Doubleheader Day," more or less. Naturally, it would switch from year to year, so the Twins would be on the road, hopefully playing another rival, the following year.

I certainly understand the reasons against scheduled doubleheaders, the first of which is financial. Back "in the day," one cheap ticket would get you in for the entire day of baseball action. Now, there's little chance that ownership would want to lose 1/82 of revenue just for a feel-good, nostalgic event. Similarly, I'm quite sure that the players do not get too excited to play back-to-back games, especially in the summer when temperatures can hit triple digits across the much of the country.

What I propose, then, is the following financial structure: Instead of paying, for example, $50 for a seat to one game at Target Field, the cost of that seat for the doubleheader should be $80 or, at the most, $90. Under this structure, the fans are getting the perceived benefit of saving a little money, when compared to the cost of purchasing 2 tickets to separate games. And although the ownership is eating that $10 or $20 per ticket, a portion of that will be made up in concession and merchandise sales. Not only will there be food, liquor and merchandise revenue from two games, but there will also be at least a small bump in sales during the time period between the two games. People might take that hour to mill around the park, and perhaps eat at a restaurant such as Hrbek's that they haven't tried before, or stop in at the team's official merchandise shop. In short, I don't think the financial losses, if they exist at all, would be noteworthy to ownership. Although I don't anticipate Bud Selig checking out my blog and bringing this up at the next ownership meeting, my only real point is that I don't think the financials of a scheduled doubleheader, which are perceived as the largest obstacle, are really an insurmountable problem. There can be creative solutions and marketing strategies that could result in a big payday for teams.

Today and tonight, I'm excited for the doubleheader. For the afternoon game, I'll just be periodically checking the score on, but I'll be able to watch tonight. This is a good time to be a Twins fan: the team is back in the hunt, players that we need to succeed are beginning to show signs of life (Mauer, Young), and they have just completed the first small goal (that I had set for them, anyway), which was winning the first series after the All-Star break.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tempered Excitement

The next 12 games, over the span of only 11 days, should tell us a lot about the 2011 Twins' chances. A 6 win, 6 loss split will still leave them significantly under the .500 mark, but would not kill them. A 4 win, 8 loss record will likely categorize them as sellers, it being probable in such a case that teams such as the Indians or Tigers had walked over Minnesota in their respective series. On the other hand, winning the next 3 series would give the Twins, at worst, a 9-3 record; even winning 2 series and splitting one would be a solid 8-4 start to the second half. It would demonstrate that the spark the team showed leading up to the break has not dwindled, and that the team should be looking for missing parts, rather than selling their important parts.

I think the most important game of this homestand is tonight, against the Royals. Sure, they Royals are the only team in the AL Central that's not in contention, but for Minnesota, this is a game about sending a message. Francisco Liriano goes up against Bruce Chen, who is not a bad lefty. A win tonight could exemplify the following: a home victory; a victory against a divisional opponent; a solid performance by Liriano. These are three major keys to second-half success for the Twins.

I'm excited (cautiously) about the second half. In early June, it appeared that the Twins weren't even going to be playing meaningful games down the stretch. But here we are, with a decent chance to overcome a horrendous start. Nishioka is beginning to hit, although he still looks uncomfortable from the left side. Denard Span should be coming back soon. Delmon Young will be back, and he needs to step up immediately, as he did in the second half of 2010. Jason Kubel hopefully will return sooner than later. His formidable presence in the lineup, and the solid stats he put up until his foot injury, have been missed.

Joe Mauer, though still lacking power, had been hitting for average in the days leading up to the All-Star break. If the Twins intend on making a run, it begins and ends with Mauer. Will we see "Hobbled Joe" batting .235 and dribbling out to second base, only able to play in slightly more than 60 percent of games, will we see "Average Joe line-drive-to-left-center Mauer" that can bat .315 with some doubles, or will we see "Contract Joe" of 2009, hitting the ball with authority everywhere? My guess is that it's going to be a mix of the "Hobbled Joe" and the "Average Joe." Until/unless he gets his left leg strength back, I don't see much power in his 2011 future. I would love to be wrong on this, though.

Many things have to go right for the Twins to come back and win. Just because it has happened in years past, such as in 2009, doesn't mean it will happen this year. It starts and ends with winning ballgames against divisional opponents, and the test begins tonight.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Ideal Mix for Mauer

Not surprisingly, our athletic, superstar catcher -- yes, the same guy that could have played D1 football in Florida, was pretty darn good at basketball, and apparently is a respectable golfer and bowler, as well -- didn't embarrass himself at first base last night in Chicago. He committed no errors, made a couple nice plays in the field, and also was 3-for-5 with 2 RBIs. All in all, a good night. Now that Mauer ha cleared this first hurdle, it raises the larger and more imminent question: Where exactly do we go from here?

Justin Morneau is out at least until the beginning of August, and perhaps longer. That leaves at least a few weeks worth of games where Morneau will be unavailable to play first. Mauer, for his part, apparently views the move as both temporary and rare, saying "Like I said, the manager asked me to go over there and play, and I did tonight, and I had fun doing it. But I'm a catcher, and I think sometimes we lose track of that. That's what I'm here to do." Forgive us, Joe, if we have "lost track" of that; maybe it's because you didn't play a game at catcher for 2 of the first 3 months of the season?

If Joe Mauer is sincere about doing whatever it takes to help his team win and get back in the AL Central race (and I would like to think he is), here is what I think should happen until Morneau makes it back: Of the 5 starting pitchers, Mauer should catch for 3. This seems to be about all he can handle right now, anyway, and this will hopefully keep his legs fresh enough so that he is productive in the event the Twins are playing meaningful games in September. Ideally, on one of the other two days, he can play first base, and on the other of the two days, he can DH or sit, as the case may be. So that adds up to: 60 percent catcher; 20 percent first base; and hopefully a split of approximately 10 percent DHing and 10 percent sitting. This mix, which will of course be unnecessary when Morneau returns, also will allow Cuddyer to play more right field, a position at which he is much more comfortable, and where his good arm is of more use.

As far as which particular pitchers Mauer catches, I could care less. I really don't think that Carl Pavano deserves a personal catcher, but the way things have gone thus far, Pavano can have his way and have Butera catch his starts; perhaps Liriano can have Butera or Rivera, as well. Butera and Rivera are absolutely pathetic with a bat, so this is far from an ideal situation, but if Joe begins swinging well, I want his bat in the lineup as often as possible.

Further, easing Mauer into the idea of playing another position now, in 2011, is going to make the inevitable conversation that takes place in 2012 or 2013 that much easier for the front office and Gardy. The Twins are establishing a precedent now that Joe Mauer is not exclusively a catcher, and that he is a versatile athlete who will play wherever his manager directs him to play.

I have long since given up on the notion that Joe Mauer will be worth $23 million annually for his play on the field. Few of these contracts are ever really worth it to the team. I still think signing him was the right thing to do, though. Now, the focus should be on maximizing Mauer's value. He (hopefully) has several years left as an elite hitter, but now we know that his years as a youthful, vibrant catching phenom are past. The best value from the Twins' standpoint is to take advantage of the fact that Mauer, when healthy, can bat close to .350. They can find a place, or places, on the field for him in the future. To destroy part of his value now by acquiescing to his statements that he is "here to catch" will be a disservice both to Mauer and to the organization.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Cuddyer an All-Star: Well Deserved

In a year in which the Twins sit comfortably in 4th place in the AL Central, 10 games under .500 halfway through the season, and decimated by injuries, there really was only one logical choice for Texas Manager Ron Washington, with respect to Minnesota Twins' position players: Michael Cuddyer.

This is, in fact, the same Michael Cuddyer that I poked fun at over his large contract and ability to perform magic tricks, and the same guy that took forever to record an RBI on an actual base-hit. In the face of significant injuries to perennial All-Stars Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, as well as disappointing injuries to would-be All-Stars Jason Kubel and Denard Span, suddenly, Cuddyer's season was starting to look pretty good. As in past years, he played right field, first base and second base in place of injured Twins, and again, he never asked out of the lineup for those daily bumps and bruises that inevitably come with the territory. Again, he filled in adequately. Interestingly, however, his bat has really come alive the past couple months. As Pat Reusse noted today, after May 10 of this year, Cuddyer is batting .319 with 13 doubles, 8 HRs, and 30 RBIs. Sure, that doesn't excuse his slow start (.242 with 3 doubles, 3 HRs, and a shockingly low 4 RBIs from Opening Day-May 10), but it does cast doubt against those of Cuddyer's critics who call him an overpaid, double-play machine. In short, he's been doing what a middle-of-the-lineup guy is supposed to do: have a respectable batting average, hit for power, and drive in runners.

Will Cuddyer go down as one of the greatest Twins All-Stars? No way. But on this team, in this year, Cuddyer is one of the few reasons that the Twins have not already become sellers. I went on record in February stating that, if Cuddyer had a 2011 that was similar in production to 2009, the Twins would re-sign Cuddyer somewhere around 3 years and $27 million, or $9 million a year. On the other hand, if he had another subpar year, I expected 3 years and $18 million, or $6 million a year. Right now, it's tough to predict exactly where Cuddyer will finish up. I don't think he's going to equal his impressive 32 HRs and 94 RBIs from 2009, but he could still have a better than average year. At this point, even if the Twins decide to sell off some spare parts, I will be surprised if they move their lone All-Star, and I will be shocked if the parties cannot reach an agreement in the off-season to ensure that Cuddyer remains a Twin for another few years. When that day comes, it will certainly generate some good blog postings around Twins Territory.