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

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.