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

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: "Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit,' by Matt McCarthy

I have a confession: I don't read for pleasure as much as I wish I did. My day job requires reading (computer text or written pages) almost every minute of every day. Eventually, it will almost certainly blind me. As a result, I don't read books like I used to. Back in college, I really enjoyed Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, and a host of others. It's kind of disappointing, really. But, thanks to Hurricane Irene, Sunday presented me with no electricity, nothing to do but repeatedly mop the water out of the basement, and the time to read a great book -- a baseball book, nonetheless -- cover to cover.

"Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit" is by a former Yale pitcher and 2002 Angels' 26th round draft pick Matt McCarthy. If you are looking for connection between McCarthy, Yale, and former Twin Craig Breslow, look no further: they are former teammates, best friends, and Breslow plays a rather significant supporting role in McCarthy's true life story of his time as a minor league pitcher.

Without giving the ending away, let's just say that there's a reason that you have heard of Craig Breslow, and a reason that you probably have not heard of Matt McCarthy. But this book isn't about "making the big leagues"; rather, it's about the strange journey there from the viewpoint of someone who could have attended Yale on academic merit alone. Thus, the reference in the title to being a "misfit."

McCarthy is not unlike many of the people who read this blog. He's exceedingly smart (I like to think regular readers of this blog are a cut above the rest), having studied molecular biophysics and chemistry; he's funny; and he loves baseball. Unlike us, however, he was a pitcher that was able to throw just over 90 miles per hour, and was a lefty, to boot. This got him drafted, and that's where the book really begins. The next 200 or so pages chronicle his first minor league season playing in Provo, Utah, for the Provo Angels, the then rookie league affiliate of the L.A. Angels of Anaheim. McCarthy kept an incredibly detailed journal, not only of his on-the-field stats and information, but also of the exploits of being a low-level minor leaguer. The timing of McCarthy's career is interesting: guys such as Prince Fielder, Bobby Jenks, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, and other "household names" of MLB, all figure into the book, as they came up around the same time McCarthy was playing.

I should note that the book has received a little criticism, as well. There are some fairly lurid stories involving now-major leaguers, a handful of R-rated anecdotes involving McCarthy's manager and teammates at Provo, as well as allegations of steroid use, which was at a peak level in the early 2000s, by some of McCarthy's teammates. Some names were named, and certain facts from the book have been disputed.

All in all, this is a great, quick read. If you're at all into minor league baseball, you will likely enjoy this book. If you ever wonder what guys on the Beloit Snappers, or Elizabethtown Twins, go through on a daily basis, this will answer your questions, and then some. If you wonder what low-level minor leagues eat, where they stay, how they travel, and how they bond with each other, this is a book for you. And if you simply want to read some funny, gross-out stories about what 18 year old minor leaguers do when they are bored, this will give you a laugh. Here's the link to the book's website, where you can find out more about Matt McCarthy.

Final rating: 4/5 stars.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Twins' Hurlers: Average Innings Per Start (Spoiler Alert -- You Won't Be Impressed)

I was listening to the Colin Cowherd radio show on ESPN the other day, and retired pitcher Curt Schilling was on as a guest analyst. Schilling is always a blowhard, but is also equally honest, and even self-deprecating and humorous. I was living in Massachusetts in 2004 when the Red Sox "broke the curse," and even though I'm not really a Sox fan, I do appreciate what he did for Boston sports fans that year. Best (or worst) of all, Schilling always has an opinion. This particular broadcast was just a few days after Joe Girardi removed AJ Burnett in the second inning of a Twins-Yankees game, and Burnett had some, shall we say, parting words for Girardi. One of the topics of the broadcast, therefore, was getting taken out of a game as a starting pitcher. Schilling was pretty entertaining on this subject. He said that it always upset him to be taken out of a game, no matter if he was pitching well or not. He approached each start as if it was his obligation to throw a full 9 innings. Therefore, if he failed to complete a game, on some level, he was letting his teammates down and was failing in the task that he was hired to do. The bullpen, he said, was there not to pitch 3 innings every night, but to clean up for starters' failures. Interesting. Now, of course, it's great to say that you intend to pitch 9 innings each start, but we all know that's simply not possible. On the subject of Burnett, Schilling said that, in his opinion, Burnett has a top arm in the game, but is unlikely to ever reach his potential because Burnett views baseball as simply a way to earn a paycheck, and is unwilling to put in the work to become a star.

Listening to Schilling got me thinking about the Twins' starting pitchers. It feels like they seldom go deep into games. And by deep I guess I mean 7 full innings or more. What, maybe once a week this year our starting pitcher has gone 7 full innings? I can remember stretches where all 5 starters consecutively failed to pitch 5 innings, thus leaving our already depleted bullpen to throw essential a half game of baseball several nights in a row.

Now, onto the statistics. How do the Twins' starters fare in terms of average innings pitched per start? We'll begin with Francisco Liriano. In 2011, he has averaged 5.7 innings per start; in 2010 that figure was 6.2. Brian Duensing averaged 5.8 innings per start this season; in 2010 he averaged 6.6 (caveat being that he only started 13 games in 2010). Nick Blackburn has averaged 5.7 innings per start in 2011, and achieved a 6.1 figure in 2011. Carl Pavano leads the Twins with 6.7 innings per start in 2011, and 6.9 in 2010. Finally, Scott Baker averaged 6.3 in 2011, and 5.9 in 2010. The MLB average is 5.9 innings per start.

For their careers, here is the breakdown: Liriano: 5.8; Duensing: 5.9; Blackburn: 6.0; Pavano 6.2; Slowey: 5.7; Baker: 6.0. As you can see, with a MLB average of 5.9 innings pitched per start, those pitchers that were Twins' draft picks, or projects (basically everyone but Pavano), are all hovering right around the MLB average.

As a basis for comparison, what about Schilling, the man who hated to get taken out of games, and, on the air, made it seem as if he was always pitching 9 innings when he was in his prime? Well, I hate to say it, but the numbers almost back him up. His career figure for innings pitched per start is 7.1. Pretty impressive. How about this: For the 1998 season when he pitched for the Phillies, Schilling averaged 7.7 innings per start. That's right, on an average night, Schilling took his team to within 1 out of the 8th inning. How's that for leadership?

As another basis for comparison, how about portly, but effective, CC Sabathia. As of today, his average innings pitched per start is 6.7 But keep this in mind: In his rookie season with the Indians, that figure was only 5.5, but thus far in 2011, he is averaging 7.3 innings per start. He has gotten better, and more effective, with time (and I guess it doesn't hurt to play for one of the best teams in baseball that always boasts a powerhouse offense).

What do I make of these numbers? First and foremost, the Twins' starters are middling as a group. This is about what I expected. As a group, their ERAs are relatively high, they have not demonstrated consistent and continued periods of success this year (apart from Scott Baker), and, as a result, they have not been making it far into games. Second, I think this also supports the notion that some of the younger pitchers are still operating under some sort of a pitch count. Once they hit 5 and 2/3 or 6 innings, they often have thrown close to 100 pitches, and regardless of how they are pitching, they get Gardy's hook. Certainly this is no hard and fast rule, but I'm sure we can all come up with examples from this season wherein Gardy removed a pitcher, right around 100 or so pitches, for no clear reason, when that starter was facing no particular, imminent danger. Finally, I'm looking for a silver lining in all of this, so maybe these numbers give me a little hope. In his first year as a big-leaguer, CC Sabathia was no different, in terms of innings pitched, from some of our younger guys. Thereafter, he became much more effective and long-lasting. Of course, CC is a rare talent, but I guess anything is possible.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Joe Mauer on Base for Justin Morneau's Home Runs - - The Good Old Days

Boy, remember when Justin Morneau used to hit home runs at the Dome - - sometimes 30 in a season - - and it always felt like Joe Mauer was on base ahead of him?? I think my memory is a little faulty, and I'm probably waxing nostalgic about the 2004-2009 seasons, but Morneau's production was pretty impressive during this period of Twins history.

Last Thursday, in the bottom of the first inning against the Yankees and CC Sabathia at Target Field, Morneau hit a bomb down the right field line, that appeared at first glance to be a home run. Joe Mauer was at first base, and the pair rounded the bases. It reminded me of the good old days, when M & M were healthy and productive. Of course, that particular home run was overturned on review, Gardy was tossed, and Morneau subsequently went down on strikes. It's been that kind of a season for the Twins: any positive energy they would have had after taking an early 2-0 lead over one of the best pitchers in the game, and against a team with which they have struggled mightily, was completely negated. The wind (apparently gusting toward right field) was taken out of the sails.

This got me thinking, though: When was the last time Justin Morneau hit a home run when Joe Mauer was also on base? The answer is July 3, 2010. Thanks Otherwise stated, we're closing in on 14 months since Morneau has homered in Mauer. That's staggering, really. It's not as surprising, however, if you are at all familiar with Mauer and Morneau's significant, serious and (sometimes) suspect injuries the last two seasons. This got me thinking about other 3-4 baseball combos, and the pair that came to mind was Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, two Milwaukee Brewer studs competing for the playoffs this year. By comparison, the last time Prince Fielder hit a home run that drove in Ryan Braun was Saturday, August 20 -- this past Saturday.

As of today, Justin Morneau has hit 185 home runs in his career; 181 of those coincide with a time period when Joe Mauer was also a big-leaguer. 40 times out of those 181 home runs, Joe Mauer has been on base. This corresponds to approximately 22 percent of Morneau's total home runs. I don't know whether that is a high, low, or simply average statistic (keep in mind this is just rough information; as we all know, there have been many, many times where one or the other of M & M was on the disabled list, thus negating the possibility of Morneau homering in Mauer). On first glance, though, it seems like an impressive figure to me.

Prince Fielder has been batting behind Ryan Braun since May, 2007. They have formed a lethal 3-4 combination in the Brewers' batting order. They are what Twins fans wished M & M would have become, or, more accurately, would have continued to be. Since 2007, Prince Fielder has hit 48 home runs that drove in Ryan Braun (and others, of course). That's a pretty impressive number. In fact, Fielder and Braun have accomplished this 10 times already in 2011. Keep in mind that, on his own, Ryan Braun has already homered 24 times this season. In fact, here are his home runs by year, beginning with 2007 and ending with 2010: 34; 37; 32; 25. As the numbers suggest, there have been many situations wherein Braun has already cleared the bases with his own display of power, and yet Fielder has -- somewhat regularly -- been able to drive in Braun with home runs of his own. Out of 175 home runs since Braun was also on the big league club, 48 of Fielder's home runs, or 27 percent, have scored Braun. So that's approximately a 5 percent higher clip, which is even more notable considering Braun's significant home run and base-clearing power. I take from this that Braun and Fielder are both exceptional hitters, and regularly display power with men on base. We could use some of that across the Mississippi this year.

There isn't a grand point to this post, and that point certainly isn't to level more criticism at Morneau and Mauer. If anything, I really just want them both to succeed next year. I was watching the Brewers-Mets on FOX Saturday baseball this past weekend, and of course Braun and Fielder both played important roles in what ended up being a very interesting game. I don't want to say that I'm jealous of B & F (that doesn't sound nearly as good as M & M), but I am envious that they have stayed healthy enough and have been productive enough to have put together some monster seasons. I'll be writing more about Milwaukee this week. I think they're my NL team to root for this year . . . .

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gardy's Role: "Field Manager" Only?

Did you think Gardy looked a little more red in the face than usual last night (even before he was tossed for arguing the Morneau HR)? Do you think he took half a bottle of Tums or Rolaids when he found out that Luke Hughes had gone to the wrong gate and, accordingly, missed his flight to Minneapolis? As I have said before, between the quantity and severity of injuries, and the lackluster play by most healthy players, this has been a tough season for Gardy. Don't get me wrong - - I think Gardy deserves a portion of the blame. For example, we've seen recently that Glen Perkins is running out of gas. Maybe he needs a couple days off? But the manager continues to trot Perkins out there in high-stress situations. My question today, though, is not so much about the on-the-field decisions as it is the off-the-field construction and management of the team.

I was listening to Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN radio during my morning commute the other day, and they were interviewing a current or former NFL head coach. I didn't catch who it was. As always, it was a great discussion on the show. What stuck with me, though, were comments the coach made about the importance of the "coach" role in the NFL. This coach mentioned that, although he of course did not have the authority to directly sign players and work out extensions and such, he was very heavily involved in signing decisions and roster moves. As an example, he mentioned that the front office would approach him with the details of a suggested contract to lure a star player, the caveat being that the coach would have to decide if having this 1 particular star player, at this high salary, was "worth it," because it meant that the coach would have to give up 2 or 3 other, lesser players. From the radio discussion, it wasn't implied that the decision rested 100% with the coach, but it was clear that the coach played a very significant role in crafting the team's roster, and even had input in payroll decisions.

Of course, the NFL and MLB are not very similar in terms of operation, perhaps most significantly because of the existence of a salary cap in the NFL, and the lack thereof in MLB. And we all know that the luxury tax in baseball is really just a cost of doing business for some teams, like the Yankees. With the salary cap in the NFL, paying extra to retain 1 particular player could indeed directly impact the financial ability of the team to retain multiple other players. In baseball, not so much; though most teams, like the Twins, do have a soft "cap" of their own -- a level at which they are comfortable operating, feel that they can field a competitive team, and make a profit at the end of the day.

All of this brings me back to Gardy. We know he is respected by the front office and seems to be given a fair amount of discretion to make baseball decisions on the field. Unlike the Yankees' front office, I don't ever recall a Twins manager being called out publicly for game decisions. I'm curious, however, whether Gardy's discretion extends to the financial side of things at all? I'm sure that he is consulted on trades and free agent signings before they occur to get his opinion on the club's needs, but does it end there? If Gardy does have a significant vote in retaining players, how the heck did his darling Nick Punto end up in St. Louis making only $750,000? Further, what role does Gardy have in determining the September call-ups? I'm sure he keeps track generally of how the prospects are doing, but does he really have the time to know enough about the Twins' farm system to make educated choices on all the call-ups? Perhaps. On the Twins' website, Gardy is titled "Field Manager." This almost implies that his role is restricted to on-the-field decisions only, but we know there's more to it than that. I know there's an entire staff focused on player development, scouting and the like, but I think it would be interesting to find out how much, or little, Ron Gardenhire has to do with off-the-field organizational activities.

I give Gardy some of the blame for this year, and a lot of the credit for the few things that have gone right. I'm happy that, presumably, Gardy was finally able to get through to Joe Mauer that he couldn't only catch. We saw him play a decent right field last night, and he has been solid at first base, which is encouraging for the future. The 2011 Twins trotted out dozens of awful lineups at many stages of the season. That's not as much Gardy's fault as it is the product of a season lost to injuries. As we start to examine off-season cases like Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, I'm curious how much our "Field Manager" will have to say.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Twins' Depleted, Inexperienced Bullpen & Jim Thome: Now I Get It

So it turns out Bill Smith does know what he's doing. We all knew Jim Thome was going to hit #600 this year, and that the baseball would be worth a lot of money. There was some concern that Thome might not be able to get the ball back if a fan, for instance, just wanted to keep it. Accordingly, the Twins had dozens of people at Target Field working the outfield areas when Thome would come to bat, with the goal of quickly finding the lucky spectator that caught the ball, and organizing a meet & greet with Thome himself, in exchange for the ball. But what to do when the Twins are on the road??

Leave it to Bill Smith to come up with a crafty, if not unorthodox solution that had totally escaped me: in-house options for ball retrieval; namely, the bullpen. It makes sense. These guys are on the payroll anyway, just sitting there in the outfield doing nothing until the 3rd or 4th inning, so put them to work when a Thome fly ball looks like it's headed their way! As luck would have it, #599 sailed directly into the Twins' bullpen, and #600 was deposited into the Tigers' pen. This made for a quick and easy exchange. In a matter of seconds, that priceless baseball was in Matt Capps' meaty hands.

Though it looked smooth and flawless in execution last night, a lot of behind-the-scenes work went into constructing this particular bullpen. Instead of focusing on pitchers that could eat up innings, strand inherited base runners and save games, Smith wisely chose to focus in 2011 on relief pitchers with three particular skill sets: the ability to track and retrieve home run balls; and the ability to barter with members of the opposing bullpen or fans; and the ability, if necessary, to physically intimidate those same persons into giving you the ball if everything else has failed. It all makes sense now. Even though Jim Hoey didn't work out as a pitcher, he's so damn tall that his vertical leap makes him an attractive bullpen home run catching candidate. So too with Matt Capps - - he may not be great at saving games, but if there's a skirmish over a home run ball with a fan, I want plump, stocky Cappy in there duking it out. And those rumors about the Twins trying to re-acquire Jon Rauch, he of the gigantic height, muscles and crazy neck tattoos, before the trade deadline? It all adds up. Well played, Mr. Smith.

Here's some more serious blog coverage of #600.

Monday, August 15, 2011

If You Think Dick & Bert Are Bad . . .

Many casual Twins fans seem to genuinely enjoy Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven calling Twins games for FSN. If you tune in just once or twice a week, or for snippets of games here and there, the truth is that they do a pretty good job. Yes, they are "homers," but that's expected. Dick Bremer calls a decent game, and Bert does have good baseball insight.

Of the Twins fans that watch almost every telecast, however, some grow weary of Dick and Bert's style, especially Bert's repeated sayings, such as "You are hereby circled," his dislike for the pitch count, his (up until this season) pleas to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, his general dislike for Kevin Slowey, etc.

Although I watch most Twins games, I think I fall into the first camp. I really don't have a strong distaste for Blyleven and Bremer, and I actually think they do an all right job. Admittedly, I never look forward to Blyleven's insight, and, to that point, Tom Kelly in the booth provided an excellent alternative last month. One of the reasons, though, why I haven't grown tired of Dick and Bert is because I am within earshot of the Yankees' radio broadcasting dynamic duo of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. Now, I understand of course that radio and TV are different media markets, but the Sterling/Waldman duo is as famous regionally in NY as Dick and Bert are in Twins Territory, so I think it's a fair basis for comparison.

If you haven't heard Sterling and Waldman call games on ESPN radio, consider yourself lucky. I'm not quite sure where to start. First, I'll give them a little credit: both know baseball pretty well, and they are familiar with players on other teams. OK, now the criticism. John Sterling is a moron. Aside from his trademark "TTTTTTTHHHHHHHHHEEEEEEEEE YANKEES WIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" following a victory (length of "the" is dramatically elongated based on importance or drama of particular win), I find positively annoying his home run calls. Almost every Yankee batter has a Sterling home run nickname. For instance, if Brett Gardner hits a HR, Sterling will excitedly proclaim, "Gardner PLANTS one!" Here are some more: "Robinson Cano, Don't 'Cha Know"; Mark Teixeira has 2: "He sends a Tex-message!" and "You're on the Mark, Teixeira!"; Alex Rodriguez: "An A-Bomb From A-Rod!"; Curtis Granderson has 2: "Oh Curtis, You're Something Sort of Grandish!" and "The Grandy-Man Can!" These are just some examples. Presumably, each Yankee batter has at least one personalized home run call. In and of themselves, there's nothing wrong with it. But, for some reason, the manner in which Sterling uses these catch phrases just drives me absolutely crazy. I strongly prefer a classic "Touch "Em All," or something of that ilk, from a baseball announcer.

Now for Suzyn Waldman. She takes more of a backseat in the broadcast booth, but apparently was very close with George Steinbrenner. She famously cried on-air following the Yankees' loss to the Indians in the 2007 postseason. I guess she's unfamiliar with the cardinal rule that there is no crying in baseball. Additionally, she has been significantly, absolutely and overly dramatic on occasion. When Roger Clemens was visiting with Steinbrenner to announce his return to baseball, and the Yankees, here is what Waldman reported: "Roger Clemens is in George's box and Roger Clemens is comin' back. Oh my goodness gracious, of all the dramatic things - - of all the dramatic things I've ever seen, Roger Clemens is standing right in George Steinbrenner's box announcing he is back!" This, by the way, from a woman that presumably watched the first moon landing and Kennedy's assassination coverage. Just sayin'. Now, to be fair, Waldman apparently had a very close relationship with Joe Torre, and was emotional that the end of the 2007 season likely meant the end of his tenure as Yankees' manager. And, the Roger Clemens thing was, I'm sure, exciting for Yankees fans. But come on.

When you begin with a glass full of the arrogant and annoying (and very good at baseball) New York Yankees, add in a strong dose of John Sterling's personalized home run calls, and a dash or two of a potentially emotional Suzyn Waldman, you have created a fatal and disgusting cocktail. Consider yourself lucky if, as with most of Twins Territory, you are not within the broadcast of ESPN AM 1410 radio in New York!

In a way, repeatedly harping on Dick and Bert is sort of like contiunally criticizing a serviceable, veteran outfielder (whose name may or may not rhyme with Michael Buddyer): when there might not be a reliable, proven option off the bench, in the farm system or available via trade, and when this veteran done the job reasonably well, suddenly that career .270 hitting player looks all right. Sure, maybe Dick & Bert are average, and maybe TK would do a good job filling in more often, but I don't see TK as an everyday fit in the booth. What I have heard in New York actually makes me thankful we don't have such bozos on the (broadcasting) payroll. If you take a listen to Sterling and Waldman, I bet you might appreciate Dick and Bert just a little more!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

M & M Boys: Together Again

If I had the ability, or time, I would try to Photoshop an image of of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau holding hands as they strolled down a sidewalk in Central Park, bundled up to protect against the harsh late-fall wind; or perhaps as they clinked wine glasses in the back corner of an elegant French restaurant, leaning toward each other illuminated only by candlelight; or maybe just an image of them cozying up by a fire in a Northwoods lodge. It would have been great.

But you get the picture: they will be back together in the lineup Friday, and hopefully for the remainder of the season. Too little, too late, certainly. Nonetheless, this is good news for Twins fans. Morneau has been "killing the ball" at AAA Rochester, and was anxious to join the real club. Mauer, for his part, has been in the lineup almost every game and, though the HR total remains at 1, he has been flirting with .300, has been having quality at-bats, and has been driving in runs when there are runners to drive in.

Pat Reusse and others have noted that, since Morneau's concussion on July 7, 2010, the M & M boys have played in 9 games together out of a total 195 games. That is less that 5 percent of the schedule. If you're wondering why the Twins were again swept in the playoffs in 2010, and why the team has been unable to play .500 baseball in 2011, that might be the most telling statistic. Let's put aside for the moment the starting rotation, the awful bullpen that was gutted by Bill Smith, the shaky middle infield and the host of other injuries. The 2 former MVPs have both been shelved for significant amounts of time, and, when healthy, have rarely appeared on the field together.

One of the reasons that Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have achieved success in New York is because, more often than not, they are the 3 and 4 hitters in the Yankees' lineup. With A-Rod batting behind Teixeira, it's not possible for opposing pitchers to simply "pitch around" Teixeira, as A-Rod (when healthy), is still a force to be reckoned with. Similarly, in Boston, as Twins fans have just witnessed, Kevin Youkilis is a great hitter, and David Ortiz still has pop in his bat. With Ortiz a constant power threat, and with Youkilis' ability to reach base, pitchers are forced to give league-leading hitter Adrian Gonzalez hittable pitches. They can't just walk him and know that Youkilis or Ortiz will make an out.

And so it is too in Minnesota. When healthy, M & M are still two of the best hitters in the game, and are just as good of a 3-4 combination as exists. But one without the other just isn't the same (sort of like Bert & Ernie). As good as he has been this year, Michael Cuddyer is not the same cleanup hitting threat that Justin Morneau was, for example, in the first half of 2010 (.345, 18 HRs, 56 RBIs, if you had forgotten). For the Twins to work offensively, M & M have to bat 3 and 4, and have to be healthy. As we have seen this year, the fallout from either player being injured and on the DL, or being significantly injured/impaired/bilaterally weak and still playing, is too great for the team to function for large stretches of the season.

Let's hope that the results we see in August and September, 2011, give us optimism for what could be next year. A batting order that begins Span, Revere, Mauer, Morneau, and either Cuddyer/Good Delmon/Free Agent Stud, looks pretty good to this fan.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Job Opportunity for Jim Thome


Thanks for your service to the Twins, and to Major League Baseball, for more than two decades! Us Twins fans can't wait to see you hit #600 this year, and we thank you for all the great memories during your tenure in Minnesota. I know, though, that you're contemplating retirement after this season, and it comes as no surprise given that, at age 41, the human body can no longer do what it could at age 20. You have had a fantastic career, and no doubt are a future Hall of Famer.

If you do indeed decide to retire after this season, I have a job opportunity I want to talk to you about. No, it's not in broadcasting, though I bet you have some great stories and insight. And no, it's not working for MLB in some sort of ambassador capacity, though I bet you would be a great fit in that role. This is a real job. You would work for the judicial branch in my state so that you could play on my work softball team.

Interested? I thought so.

Let me tell you about the team and league. First, we only play 7 regular season games, and there is only 1 game per week, so the stress on your back/knees/legs won't be that bad. But do be prepared to bat often; I had 8 plate appearances in last week's game and accumulated approximately 20 total bases. Second, there are no called strikes or strikeouts. Let me repeat: you cannot strike out. You can stand up there and wait for your perfect pitch all day if you want. I know, you're thinking that this is a dream scenario, right? But the corollary of this is that there are no balls called, either, so you're going to have to earn your way on base, Jim. No free passes in this league. Third, when we have more than 10 players, you can DH. If we're short that week, though, we expect you to field a position. Maybe you can just stand behind the plate and "catch." Just grab one of Michael Cuddyer's 15 different position gloves on your way out of town; he won't notice.

Now, there are a few details to get out of the way. You probably noticed that I described this proposition as a "job opportunity." Well, that's because it is. Because this is a work team, we need you on the payroll. I'm not sure what skills you have that are transferable to the judicial environment, but I can imagine that you could thrive in a role as a mail room worker, file clerk, courier, or perhaps a bailiff/judicial marshal. The State offers a fantastic benefit package and pension, so you needn't worry about your financial security. Even though you're getting a late start, quick math tells me that you could be eligible to retire when you're 67 or so.

The other thing I need to tell you up front is that #25 is not available as of now. Sorry, but a clerk of the court on the team has worn that number for years. I'm not sure what constitutes a customary "offering" for a jersey number, but I have heard tales of Rolex watches and such. Between the two of us, though, I think a $10 Starbucks gift card will do the trick.

The team just lost its best player, who is moving to Chicago to pursue an opportunity at a large law firm. He batted clean-up, so the opportunity is there for you to step into the 4-hole if you really want it. I'm not saying that there wouldn't be a "tryout" of some sort, but if you play your cards right, it could happen.

I don't need you to decide right now. Our league doesn't start up again until June, 2012. So take your time. Just remember: excellent benefits and a pension with a 40 hour work week and several paid holidays; short season = happy back and legs; #25 "available" at the right price.

Thanks for reading, Jim,

Twins Fan From Afar

Monday, August 8, 2011

"When You're Down and (10 Games) Out"

I had to look it up to be sure, but it turns out that Paul Simon was in fact not singing about the 2011 Minnesota Twins when he penned the lyrics to "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Phrases such as "When you're weary, feeling small," and "When times get rough, and friends just can't be found," might make you think otherwise, but it turns out there's a light at the end of the tunnel for the subject of Paul Simon's song. I don't see our Twins as having anyone to "comfort [them]," "ease [their] mind," or otherwise act as their bridge over troubled water. No, this team is most certainly drowning a slow death in a shallow pond of their own making.

Anyone who was at all capable of contributing from the AAA level has already been called up and has received significant playing time, or, as in the case of Kyle Gibson, is injured. Almost every single offseason move (e.g. posting for Nishioka, getting rid of J.J. Hardy in a salary dump, not trading Liriano when his value was high, gutting the bullpen) is now cringe-worthy. Simply stated, it's been rough to be a fan this year.

Nonetheless, I was able to watch part of all three weekend games against the White Sox. This was one of those weekends I wish I could have been at Target Field. The weather looked fantastic, the organization did a great job of planning and executing the reunion weekend, including the Hrbek-Gant bobblehead giveaway, and it had the makings of being, if nothing else, a 3-day respite from a subpar season. It was neat, as one who was 10 years old when the Twins won it all in 1991, to see many of the favorites from that championship team back in Minnesota. It was utterly embarrassing, though, the way the current Twins team played during this reunion weekend. The lack of offense, the mental and physical errors, the weak at-bats, the poor pitching. All in all, the Twins' sorry play (against a team that they have owned in recent years) did much to negate the good cheer and feelings of nostalgia that were present at Target Field over the weekend. I can only imagine what the '91 crew thought (and probably said privately between themselves) about the current group wearing the same uniform.

What I realized, seeing some of my 1991 favorites on the same field as some of the core 2011 Twins, was that our current crop cannot hold a candle to the '91 champs, notwithstanding that the level of on-the-field talent is not all that different. It is indeed true that I look at the 1991 Twins with rose-colored glasses, first, because I was a kid, and second, because they won the World Series. But guess what? Some of the 1991 Twins' underachievers got the job done. We forget that Junior Ortiz was 1-for-8 in the playoffs that year because he did a good job catching Scott Erickson, and because the Twins won. I forget that my hero, Kent Hrbek, was 3-for-26 in the World Series that year, because the Twins won, and he played a great first base.

What I'm getting at is that there are always going to be Drew Buteras on the playoff roster that simply can't hit, or Jason Kubels -- players that are good in the regular season but completely ineffective in the postseason. But the '91 crew had players that came to the rescue when it counted: light-hitting Greg Gagne's Game 1 home run; Chili Davis and Scott Leius home runs in Game 2; Kirby Puckett, of course, with "the catch" and "the home run" in Game 6; and Gene Larkin with a pinch-hit single in Game 7 for the win. These are just a few examples that come to mind, but we all know that there were dozens of key plays in the 4 Twins victories that, combined, turned the tides in the Twins' favor. Our Twins teams of recent years have been very good, but they have completely lacked the ability -- seemingly out of nowhere -- to turn the tides of a game in the Twins' favor, and to capitalize on that turn in the late stages of games.

As we start to think about 2012, it's impossible to predict, of course, what free agents or trade candidates could provide that "spark." But I hope that the front office has begun to realize that the status quo does not produce world championship caliber teams. With significant funds coming off the books after this season, it will be a good opportunity to begin to reconstruct a team that still has the possibility of being very good next year, but that most certainly needs an attitude adjustment. We need the next Torii Hunter, Dan Gladden, Kirby Puckett-type personality on this team, because we most certainly do not have it now.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A-Rod, Jim Thome & 600

Between his arrogant and annoying off-the-field behavior, his arrogant and annoying on-the-field behavior, and just the fact that he is generally a first-class, PED-using, illegal gambling jerk, I don't have very much respect for Alex Rodriguez. Now, don't get me wrong: he is a talented baseball player, and I would like to think that many of his seasons were played without the assistance of illegal substances. But, we don't really know, and, as with hundreds of other ballplayers, probably never will. But I know enough about A-Rod to know that I wouldn't like to have him over for dinner.

A-Rod was the most recent player to reach 600 home runs. Living near the New York sports market, I can tell you that this was followed almost as much as Derek Jeter's methodical pursuit of 3,000 hits. And I'm sure you remember the national media coverage on ESPN surrounding A-Rod and 600. 3,000 hits and 600 home runs are both important and relatively rare accomplishments. Like others, however, I lament that there is not more national coverage of Thome's march to 600.

I agree that Thome's run to 600 may not be quite as exciting to the casual baseball fan for the following reasons: he is old; he is playing for a 4th place Midwest team in a weak division that has little shot at making the playoffs; and he is not "sexy" in terms of advertising and merchandising like A-Rod, Derek Jeter and other such personalities. But, damn it, he's our guy Jim Thome, the one that wears the lumberjack flannel, the one that makes Target Field look like a hitter's park, and we have a duty, as Twins fans, to root for him and watch as he makes history, hopefully at Target Field. For Thome's pursuit of 600 -- untainted by steroid allegations - - is a much more historical and important event for the integrity of baseball than was A-Rod's pursuit of the same.

When Thome does hit number 600, I'm sure it will be the lead story on SportsCenter that night, and it will probably be the headline on for the next day. But we know it's much more important than that, especially in this 2011 season that has been disappointing for Twins fans on many fronts. I look forward to what others have to write about in the coming days as Thome makes history. National media outlets may drop the ball on this one, but I have faith that our local newspapers and Twins bloggers will come to the rescue and give Jim the respect that he has earned.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

2012: Who Stays and Who Goes?

The coming offseason is shaping up to be very interesting, at least from the standpoint of Twins fans. Howard Sinker from the Star Tribune posted today on the subject of Michael Cuddyer's future, and other bloggers have begun to turn their attention to 2012. I guess this is what happens when your team has settled comfortably into 4th place and looks like it's not going anywhere. For what it's worth, here's my take on a few moves the Twins should make, and not make, during what will likely be one of the most interesting and active offseasons in recent memory.

Michael Cuddyer: Keep him if you can. Boy, he started off slow. Painfully slow. But he really has turned it on, and, as in past seasons, has filled in admirably at other positions. The Twins decided not to trade Cuddyer at the deadline, despite interest from teams such as the Phillies and Giants, and thereafter indicated that they would like to re-sign the "Magic Man." What will it take? I wouldn't pay more that $8-9 million a year for 2-3 years. Despite the fact that Cuddyer is leading the Twins in many offensive categories, his career has peaked. We have been fortunate that he has not been injured this year, but that will not necessarily be the case as he continues to age. If Cuddyer gets an offer of $10-15 million on the open market, and if he elects not to give the Twins a "discount," then he should take the larger payday and I wish him well. If he will forgo some money in order to finish his career in Minnesota, then I would like to keep him around. On the subject of Cuddyer, I'll close with this, which is something I have mentioned before: If Cuddyer stays with the Twins, and if they are fortunate enough to win a World Series during this time, I would not be at all surprised to see the #5 retired. The Twins reward loyalty, and Cuddyer's career (with a World Series ring) would be, in many respects, similar to that of Kent Hrbek's.

Delmon Young: A corollary to Cuddyer staying in Minnesota is that there would exist a surplus of outfielders. Delmon should go. Yes, this has the potential of being another David Ortiz situation, but I wouldn't bet on it. Young has shown nothing this season to suggest that 2010 was anything but a fluke and career year. And aside from 2010, the Twins have little to show from Young's four seasons here. Letting Young walk will give the Twins an opening in left field, which could be filled by Ben Revere, if the Twins do indeed believe he is a part of their future plans. It will also free up significant payroll room.

Matt Capps: Have a clubhouse assistant help pack his bags, hail him a taxi, and call it a day.

Jim Thome: Barring further injury, he will hit his 600th home run in a Twins uniform this season. Hopefully that will propel him to retire. Last year, Thome was a great deal financially for the Twins, and stayed remarkably healthy. This year, not so much. Not that he has been bad, but he simply hasn't stayed healthy enough to be able to make as significant of contributions as he did in 2010. Let me state, though, that I have thoroughly enjoyed watching him in a Twins uniform, and I think that the decision to re-sign him in 2011 was correct, especially considering the glut of injuries the Twins faced this year. I hope Thome retires after this season, but if he elects to play another year, I would expect him to sign elsewhere.

Joe Nathan: This is a tough one. He has looked very good the past several weeks, and is on the cusp of breaking the record for saves by a Minnesota Twin, a record he absolutely deserves and has earned through years of consistent great performance. The first question is should the Twins exercise his 2012 option for $12.5 million? I think the answer there is a clear "no." If the Twins agree, and buy out his option for $2 million, where do the parties go from there? Should they try to negotiate with Nathan to have him come back at a reduced rate? Should they just let him walk and thank him for his fantastic career? The fact that the Twins were trying to deal for Nationals' closer Drew Storen suggests that the front office may believe that Nathan's days in Minnesota, at least as a closer, are coming to an end. In my heart, I'd like to see Nathan and the Twins reach a compromise that would allow him to stay in MN, for something around $5-6 million (plus the $2 million the Twins would pay to buy out his option). My brain suggests that, if Nathan continues to pitch well the rest of the season, some team, somewhere, will take a chance on him as their closer. As we have seen this year, though, a quality bullpen is not a given, and the front office has some work ahead of them to re-construct the Twins' bullpen.

There are many more decisions that must be made, and I'm sure I'll get to those in due course. As you can see, the 2011 offseason will present a headache for the front office. I wish I had more confidence in Bill Smith to make "correct," or at least intelligent decisions, but what can you do as a fan sometimes besides hope that Smith reads Twins blogs?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: Failure in 2011, Hope for 2012?

I have to admit, I was excited when the Twins won the rights to negotiate with Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and, shortly thereafter, when they signed him to a 3 year, $9 million deal. It seemed like a decent price to pay for a Japanese player who, although not guaranteed to be a "star" in MLB, would likely be a good, starting infielder for the Twins. Back in March, I posted what I thought would be good first-year numbers for Nishioka: .270 batting average, .340 on base percentage, 25 stolen bases, 35 extra base hits. I envisioned him running wild at Target Field by hitting the ball hard to the gaps and down the lines.

Even taking into account the 2 months Nishioka missed as a result of the broken leg, and the fact that he was a rookie who would have to "learn the league," boy, was I wrong! As it stands today, Nishioka is batting .208 with a .259 on base percentage, has 4 extra base hits (all doubles), and is 2-for5 in stolen base attempts. As we all know, Nishioka's defense hasn't made up for his lack of offense. He has 8 errors in 132 attempts; his fielding percentage at shortstop is .967, while it is .923 at second base (where he no longer plays). If you watch Twins games regularly, though, you can probably remember another 10 or 20 plays during the season where a hitter was given credit for a hit on what should have been an error, or, more commonly, where Nishioka was out of position and it cost the Twins an out, thus prolonging the inning and further wearing down our pitching staff. Now, to be fair, every defensive player occasionally gets the benefit of errors credited as hits, and all fielders are caught playing out of position during the course of the long season, but, as with everything, it seems compounded in Nishioka's case. From the Twins' standpoint, things probably couldn't look much worse for Nishioka. In all seriousness, Toby Gardenhire's 2011 AAA offensive line of .262/.294/.333 looks pretty good right now. Maybe I'm being too critical, especially considering that Nishioka is still seeing teams, pitchers and ballparks for the first time as a result of his broken leg, but I guess I did expect more from the former Pacific League All-Star, batting champion and Gold Glove winner.

Where do the Twins go from here with Nishioka? They're into him for 2 more seasons and $6 million; I doubt any team would be foolish enough to want that contract on their books. The Twins, then, are in a position where they have to work with what they've got. They can't simply give up on Nishioka. To be sure, there have been some fantastic defensive plays, and a couple clutch hits this season, including a well-struck bases loaded double against Tampa Bay last month.

I would immediately send Nishioka to AAA for the rest of the season, not as a punishment, but for instruction and extended time to transition into MLB style baseball. There are times still where Nishioka seems confused by the strike zone, and his batting style of leaving the box as he hits the ball simply doesn't work for most players not named Ichiro. Nishioka clearly needs assistance and coaching, all of which could be provided to him, out of the spotlight, in Rochester. I'm sure Nishioka, as an accomplished athlete, wants nothing more than to succeed and help his team, and he simply is not doing that any better than could a career minor league player. But, he is relatively young, he is coachable, and he is a talented athlete. If the front office has any guts, this should be one of the first personnel moves as the team starts looking toward 2012.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tuesday Morning Links

Good Morning,

Even though the Twins had no activity at the trade deadline despite racking up some long-distance charges to Washington D.C., and despite the fact that the ball club was off last night, there's a lot of good things going on in Twins blogosphere. Here are just a few must-reads:

NoDak Twins Fan has a great recap of a special Twins game from 1986 featuring career milestones from Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven. That would have been a good one to be at!

Seth Stohs, over at, is among the parties giving away a 1991 World Series DVD. Enter if you haven't already!

Jim Crikket over at has some great photos from the Beloit Snappers, the Twins' low Class A affiliate here and here. Nice photos, JC! If the Twins have an opening for team photographer, you would get my vote.

Fanatic Jack Talks Twins has a good critique of the Twins' inactivity at the deadline.

Finally, everyone needs some humor in their day. The good people at the Onion Sports Network will make you chuckle with this one, entitled "Manager, Pitcher Go Through Entire Bottle of Wine During Really Great Mound Visit."

That's all for now. Let's hope the Twins can start marching toward .500 and shave a few points off their current 7 game deficit in order to make the last two months of the season at least competitive!