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

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tempered Expectations for Parmelee

Chris Parmelee should be fine. He looked great last September in a Twins uniform, and was a bright spot during an otherwise dismal time. Of the three prospects called up -- Parmelee, Joe Benson and Liam Hendriks -- Parmelee looked the most ready for the show. After watching several Rock Cats games last year in person, I was a little surprised that Parmelee, and not Benson, looked better in his time as a Twin, but that is why I don't get paid to do anything baseball related. You can call it a small sample size, and you'd be correct, but for 21 games in a Twins uniform, Parmelee had a .355/.443/.592 slash line with 4 home runs and 18 RBIs, and most importantly, didn't looked overmatched at the plate or in the field. He also just looked comfortable playing in the majors, which some call-ups are not. And to Parmelee's credit, he followed up his September cup of coffee with a nice glass of Florida orange juice. His numbers aren't quite as impressive, but with a .269 average, 3 home runs and 9 RBIs, he at least has demonstrated that the power he exhibited last September wasn't necessarily a fluke.

With Morneau presumably starting the season as the full-time designated hitter, and with Parmelee's success, Parmelee is the odds-on favorite to start the season at first base. Understandably, once fans got past the news that Morneau will now be a professional hitter, many are excited by Parmelee's potential. In fact, there have been a few blog posts, and even newspaper articles, suggesting that Parmelee might be the next big thing for the Twins. I just don't think that we should get ahead of ourselves. There's likely going to be a big difference between what Parmelee can provide at the plate over the course of a full season in the majors -- seeing pitchers and ballparks for the first time, and becoming accustomed to the rigorous travel schedule and time demands -- and what he demonstrated in New Britain and Minnesota in 2011, and in a few weeks of exhibition games in 2012. I think Parmelee will be a success, both this year and the future, but I also think that in 2012 he will much more closely resemble the player that hit a composite .282 at New Britain than the player that took Target Field by storm last September. As fans, we should be fine with that.

Parmelee, who turned 24 last month, is a rookie in the truest sense, without even a game of AAA baseball under his belt. Though he has looked fairly consistent, be ready for slumps, and expect -- at least occasionally -- for him to look overmatched at the plate. It's been a while since the Twins had an exciting rookie prospect come up that both management and fans expected to have a good career (I won't even mention Wilson Ramos; and Danny Valencia, though he did well in 2010, by no means shot up through the minor league system and never batted at or above .300 in AA or AAA). In 2005, Justin Morneau's first season as a full-time first baseman, he batted .239/.304/.437 with 22 home runs, 79 RBIs and 94 strikeouts. The power was there, clearly, but he was still a little raw. The next season he was the American League Most Valuable Player. During his nacency, Morneau was also rated the #14 and #16 prospect by Baseball America. Parmelee, conversely, did not come up through the system with such expectations attached to him. Here's what I expect from Parmelee, assuming just for now that he is a full-time starter (though likely he will be splitting time at first with Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit and perhaps Morneau): .270/.345/.440, with 18 home runs and 70 RBIs. And I expect the defense to be solid, but not astounding.

Yes, Parmelee is ready to play in Minnesota. And yes, he looks like a really solid first base prospect with perhaps an exciting future ahead of him. But there's a jump between AA, a September call-up and Spring Training exhibition games, and perhaps having to face CC Sabathia one night, and Justin Verlander or Cliff Lee the next night. The good thing, though, is that Parmelee has looked like a professional this spring, and I have little doubt that he is the type of player that will make the adjustments necessary for long-term success.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Morneau DHing: Fine by this Fan

To say that Justin Morneau has been locked in the past few games is an understatement. How does 7-for-14 with 3 home runs and a double sound? If this was the regular season, we'd be beginning a campaign for Morneau to win the AL Player of the Week Award. Although these were only Spring Training games, his offensive performance was meaningful in the larger scheme of things. By "larger scheme," of course, I'm referring to Morneau's health. 

We learned over the past several days that what many thought about as a possibility is now a probable outcome, namely, that Morneau will at least begin the season as the Twins' designated hitter and will not be starting at first base. On the one hand, it's a little bit disappointing that the risk of further concussions is always going to factor into Morneau's assignments. On the other hand, though, at least it provides a little bit of certainty for now. We know where Morneau stands, and he's been remarkably candid. Here's just a small portion of what he said to Pioneer Press reporter John Shipley, when asked about playing first base: "Whatever's going to keep me in the lineup, and I know, I said it this spring, too, `if I'm well enough to play, I'm well enough to play first.' I think I have to say that to get myself ready to play the season, and obviously the goal is to play first and be able to, but in the end, like I said, it's going to be about being able to have at-bats. Whatever's going to allow me to have 600-plus at-bats and be healthy enough to play 162 games without, you know, playing two days and needing a day off, or whatever it is. We're not going to go through that whole up-and-down and all the rest of it. I think I can help this team by playing first, but I help us more by being in the lineup every day."
As it stands now, this could be a rare sight in 2012

I think Morneau is correct in the sense that -- if you had to choose one or the other -- his 600-plus plate appearances are more important to the club than his defense at first (though he worked hard to become a great defensive first baseman). Reading between the lines, DHing sounds like a rational decision for at least two reasons: first, as Morneau said, it will be easier on his body to only hit and not play the field; second, and perhaps more importantly, it will reduce the chances of Morneau suffering another concussion, which likely would end his career. I wonder, though, how much Morneau strictly DHing will actually reduce the chances of him suffering a concussion?

In his Twins career, of course, Morneau has suffered two concussions. The first happened in July, 2010, when he slid into the knee of Toronto Blue Jays infielder John McDonald, and the second took place in August, 2011, in a seemingly innocuous play when Morneau, playing first, dove for a ground ball. The resulting concussion was strange because Morneau didn't even hit his head on the ground, but the fall was significant enough to jar his brain to the point that it resulted in another concussion. The more we are understanding concussions now, the more we are realizing that, once a person has suffered one concussion, they are much more likely (perhaps up to four times) to sustain another concussion. 

It's a repeat of Morneau's second concussion that the Twins are trying to avoid, as well as other injuries that could be sustained while he plays the field. How about this play back in 2007, when a Nick Punto throw to first took a funny hop and hit Morneau in the nose, fracturing it. What five years ago was "only" a fracture, today would almost certainly result in a more serious brain injury to Morneau. If you count the fractured nose, Morneau has suffered three head/face injuries in his baseball career: two while playing the field and one while running the bases. 

For the sake of argument, let's say that in 2012 Morneau gets 600 plate appearances and gets on base 35 percent of the time, which would be in line with his career on-base percentage. That means that Morneau will get on base approximately 210 times. Lets subtract 25 of those times on base for home runs. So we're left with 185 times during the season in which Morneau will have to run the bases, and will be exposed to such things as line drives coming at him at first and third, having to execute take-out slides to second, diving back to first to avoid a pick-off, and possibly having to go hard into home plate to score an important run (I'm hoping the Twins caution Morneau not to try to run over the catcher). 185 times on the bases sounds like a manageable number. Add that 185 to the number of plate appearances, 600, in which Morneau will face the unlikely, but still notable, prospect of a beaning, a strange foul ball that ricochets off of home plate, or any other number of unlikely scenarios that could lead to injury. So if Morneau just serves as DH this season, we're left with about 785 times in which Morneau will put himself out there, so to speak.

In 2008, Morneau played 155 games at first, and had 1,409 defensive chances, which are defined as putouts + assists + errors. When I read that now, in light of everything that Morneau has gone through the past 20 months, all I can think is that, by avoiding playing the field -- at least for now -- Morneau is avoiding 1,409 chances of suffering another concussion. He won't have to field errant throws (even though Punto isn't around to break other of Morneau's facial bones), dive for grounders, react to 100 mile per hour line drives hit his way, catch pickoff throws from Francisco Liriano, or teeter precariously on the edge of the dugout stairs attempting to catch a foul pop-up. Chris Parmelee, Ryan Doumit and Joe Mauer can do all those things -- not as well as Morneau -- but well enough for right now to get the Twins through. That same 2008 season, Morneau had 712 plate appearances, and reached base 233 times (he hit 23 home runs, so we'll subtract that number to remain consistent). In addition to the 1,409 defensive chances, that's another 922 chances on the offensive side. In total, then, in 2008 Morneau accumulated 2,331 plays, plate appearances and times on the basepaths. Even though these calculations are rough and imperfect, you don't have to be a mathematician to see the difference between 2,331 and 785, and to understand why the Twins and Morneau, for right now, prefer that lower number. 

The other significant part of this equation -- perhaps the added benefit -- is that Morneau could have a fantastic offensive season. I have always wondered what Joe Mauer could do if he only had to focus on batting. Yes, his best value, far and away, is at catcher, and I know he likes controlling the game, but it's interesting to ponder what he could do as a "professional hitter." Morneau will have that opportunity. His knees and wrists won't be as achy, the bumps and bruises will be fewer, and I imagine he will have more time to devote to batting work and video review than he would during a traditional season. If Morneau can get into the rhythm of being a full-time DH, he could be great in that role.

As a final note, I want to talk about Morneau's value. Some fans, probably not too many that have found their way to this little blog, are going to argue that Morneau isn't worth the $14 million the Twins will pay him in 2012 and 2013 if he is only DHing. If you believe that "value" can be computed, Fangraphs indicates that, last season, when Morneau tried to make everything work, he was worth -.3 wins above replacement, and had a value of -$1.3 million. A negative value. As a full-time DH, if Morneau has a successful and healthy season, he could definitely "earn" his salary. For comparison, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who had a great season in 2011 (.309/.398/.554 with 29 HR and 96 RBIs), was worth $18.8 million. Morneau wouldn't have to quite approach those numbers to break even for the Twins this season.

As it stands, the Twins and Morneau have a plan that will hopefully allow him to play in almost every game, accumulate 600+ plate appearances and focus exclusively on hitting, for right now. Certainly, everything is subject to change, but this fan thinks that, all things considered, DHing Morneau is the safest -- and likely the most productive -- use of his talents. It certainly wasn't "Plan A," or probably even "Plan B," but who among us, in our personal or professional lives, hasn't had to go to "Plan C" in order to try and make things work?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Aaron Hicks to AA New Britain: Too Much, Too Soon?

Jeff Dooley, the voice of the New Britain Rock Cats, has been blogging about Twins Spring Training. A couple days ago, he stated in the blog that the Rock Cats' 2012 lineup would be headlined by prospect Aaron Hicks. This is generally in agreement with what I heard at the Rock Cats Hot Stove luncheon in January, where Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith suggested that, at some point in 2012, fans in Connecticut would be welcoming Hicks.

Though the promotion is certainly great news for Hicks (and for me, who will get to watch him play a bunch this year), I am wondering if it was the correct move at this moment. Hicks did not receive an invitation to Spring Training this season. Terry Ryan recently stated to Pat Reusse, regarding Hicks: "He didn't have much of a summer. We want the young players to understand that you need a good year -- not a few good weeks -- to be rewarded."

Was Aaron Hicks really ready for the promotion to
AA New Britain?
Those "few weeks" that Ryan referenced were Hicks' solid performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he ended up with a .294/.400/.559 slash line, along with 8 doubles, 5 triples and 3 home runs. Those numbers were encouraging, sure, but were comprised of just over 100 plate appearances. I think it's more important to look at what Hicks did in 2011 at single-A Ft. Myers, where he accumulated a .242/.354/.368 slash line with 110 strikeouts, 78 walks and 5 home runs in 528 plate appearances. If, as Ryan said, the organization doesn't want to reward players with a Spring Training invite (I assume they use Evite or some similar computer program to save on costs) based on a few good weeks of fall baseball, it's strange that Hicks was rewarded with a promotion to double-A on that same basis. It surely can't be based on his 2011 regular season numbers, which do not demonstrate any kind of mastery of single-A, at least with respect to offense. As we learned from the Terry Doyle experiment, success in the AFL doesn't necessarily translate to success at the next level -- whatever that next level is.

Hicks' promotion reminds me, on some levels, of Bryce Harper's recent promotion from double-A to triple-A. If you weren't paying attention to the news, it almost came off like a demotion. After all, some in the Washington Nationals camp thought Harper would begin the season as the Nationals' center fielder. It seems like it will just be a matter of months -- not years -- before Harper sets foot in the nation's capitol permanently, but I think the Nationals got a little ahead of themselves. Harper's line at double-A Harrisburg was .256/.329./.395 over 37 games. That's right, he only played 37 games at double-A. He struck out 26 times, walked 15, and hit 3 home runs, 1 triple and 7 doubles in that time. That hardly qualifies as mastery in my book, but he's on Washington's fast track, for better or worse. Don't get me wrong -- he seems a lock to be a star major league player, but why would it hurt him to bat .300 at Harrisburg before being promoted to AAA or Washington?

Unless there's a staffing emergency such as a sudden opening due to a trade, or a startling lack of depth at a particular position, it seems to me that, especially with respect to top prospects like Harper -- and Hicks -- it's best to have those players succeed at the lower levels before they are promoted. You can still promote players quickly, though. And for the Twins, if there's one position where there is not a staffing emergency or a lack of depth, it's at center field. We know that Hicks' glove is there, and from that defensive standpoint I'm sure he earned the promotion. But the streaky offensive side is alarming. I'd like to see Hicks start of at Ft. Myers and do well there, even if just for a month or two, before coming out to New Britain. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Hicks. Did he earn the promotion, or should he be spending a bit more time in Ft. Myers to prove that he's ready for the next step offensively?

On a side note, check out my recent post at Through the Fence Baseball, which includes a great picture of Target Field taken by Michael Cuddyer.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Biggest Sports Story in the Nation

This isn't a blog post about March Madness, Tim Tebow (**shudder**), Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods or whether the Yankees or Red Sox won or lost last night. In my mind, those come in a far distant second to what happened on Saturday down in Florida. Of course I'm talking about Justin Morneau's 2-for-2 game with 2 home runs and 5 RBIs. Every report had indicated that, although Morneau was still batting around .100, his timing was closer. La Valle E. Neal wrote about "loud outs," "hard hit balls" and pop-ups that Morneau had just missed. Still, though, it was hard to get past the fact that Morneau only had three hits all spring -- all singles. But then Saturday happened. Check out the replays, if you haven't already. The first home run, especially, was well struck. But the second one might have been more "vintage" Morneau: he hit it out to right-center with that signature 1-handed swing where his left had leaves the bat, and the right hand does most of the follow-through. It was exciting to see.

I'm not going to make too much of it, of course. It was just Spring Training, Morneau is still batting under .200, and he hasn't played first base in over a week, leading to speculation that Chris Parmelee has perhaps played his way onto the 25 man roster to start at least the first part of the season at first base (with some right field possibly mixed in). But still, I think we should be excited that Morneau is playing in games -- in fact, one side of the debate concerning his recent role exclusively at DH is that it simply gives him more at-bats, and allows him to focus only on batting, rather than defense -- and that those "loud outs" may start falling in for hits. I know a few bloggers are down in Ft. Myers, or are headed there shortly, and I'll be curious for a firsthand, non-media observation of how Morneau looks. Sure, he may be skinny, but he hit the baseball a combined 800 feet on Saturday.

Although it's unrealistic as fans to get ahead of ourselves because Morneau hit two home runs in an exhibition game, it is appropriate to consider what those hits could signify in the larger context, namely, that the swing is coming around. And with that being said, I'll leave you with this vintage Morneau clip as a reminder of what that swing looks like when it's at its best.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Eight Reasons Why Brian Dozier Should Start at Shortstop for the Twins in 2012

He wasn't a household name last year at this time, even among many followers of the Twins' minor league system, but much has changed in the past 12 months. Depending on whom you speak to in the front office, there seem to be differing interpretations on Dozier's role in the Twins' organization this season. Make no mistake -- everyone is speaking of him highly right now. Terry Ryan, for instance, recently mentioned that he would not hesitate to call a player like Dozier up to the major leagues straight from AA New Britain, saying, "[t]hat's not going to scare us off. If he looks like he's mature enough . . . ." And we all know, now, that Ron Gardenhire actually wanted Dozier on the team last season, but that request was refused by management (side note: what does that tell you about how dire the Twins' middle infield situation was?). If Dozier stays healthy, and remains productive, it's a matter of when, not if, he will make his Twins debut. But today, I want to give you 8 reasons I think the Twins should add Dozier to the 40 man roster, award him the starting shortstop job in Minnesota for 2012, and call it a done deal.

Brian Dozier can take the shortstop job and run with it in 2012

1. Defensively, I acknowledge that some aren't very high on Dozier, and actually view him as more of a second baseman. Even assuming that he is not the greatest defensive shortstop (although the reports have been pretty positive this spring), the falloff from 38 year old Jamey Carroll to 24 year old Dozier will not be significant. Carroll has limited range, and actually was not even predominately a shortstop earlier in his career. I simply don't see a downside -- defensively -- to having Dozier man the 6-hole, when compared with the alternative.

2. Correspondingly, if Dozier plays shortstop, Carroll could move to second base. Carroll can still bat at the top of the order and be that on-base guy that the Twins desperately need, but I think he would be better, and perhaps more comfortable, at second. The stats on Carroll seem to suggest just that: his total defensive contribution at second has been positive (49 runs above average), but has been negative (4 runs below average) at shortstop.

3. Taking this one step further, having Dozier at short and Carroll at second essentially solves the Twins' utility infielder conundrum: Alexi Casilla is the answer. The Twins do not need to think about looking outside the organization for a Nick Punto-esque player (or even Nick Punto himself) to play second and short in a pinch.

4. The Twins, in all likelihood, won't be winning the division this season. Even if things go right offensively, I think the starting pitching will again be problematic. I'm not going call 2012 a rebuilding year, because a team with a $100 million payroll is not in rebuilding mode, but still it's fair to point out that, with the Tigers perceived dominance and the Twins' perceived weaknesses, it could be a challenging year. What better time to bring in a young prospect. Sure, the expectations will still be high for Dozier, but it presents a good opportunity to let a young guy get a year of MLB experience under his belt.

5. The Twins haven't shied away from aggressive moves this month, most notably by demoting failed shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka to AAA Rochester. The organization, in my opinion, has effectively admitted that the $14.5 million investment in Nishioka was a bust -- but also that the team will not let Nishioka take up a spot on the Target Field bench just because of the paycheck he is "earning." Tough love, indeed, for Nishioka. But Nishioka's loss -- and the Twins' aggressive move to jettison him -- could bode well for Dozier. Additionally, if the Twins plan to use Nishioka at shortstop in Rochester, he will have to split time with Dozier there. From a practicality standpoint, if the Twins ever want Nishioka to get better, he will have to play every day somewhere, just like Dozier. Another aggressive decision -- this time a promotion instead of a demotion -- will send the signal to some of the other young prospects (and perhaps some of our veterans) that hard work can quickly be rewarded in this organization.

6. Dozier has not looked lost in Spring Training. I haven't been following every at-bat, but I have read enough to know that Dozier is holding his own (batting .273 going into Thursday's game), and there has been little mention of bonehead fielding plays or dumb baserunning gaffes. Not that these won't come with any rookie, but it's fair to state that Dozier has not embarrassed himself at all while playing alongside some guys he probably looks up to in a pretty big way.

7. Why should Dozier spend a superficial 3 or 4 months at Rochester? If the Twins expect Dozier to hit major league pitching in the very near future -- like July or August or September of 2012 -- and then to continue hitting major league pitching for the next 10 or more years, why not start now, especially if there are not very many good players at Dozier's position above him on the depth chart? In Rochester, Dozier would be seeing some pitchers on their way up, some on their way down, and maybe a couple major league pitchers rehabbing injuries, but the competition would not be as fierce.

8. Last, but not least, this move gives fans something to be excited about. Carroll is not by any means a sexy or dynamic player. Dozier, on the other hand, could be the first in a wave of "new Twins" (hopefully soon to include Joe Benson and Chris Parmelee), like Mauer and Morneau in the early 2000s, and gamers like Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie and Johan Santana before that, and Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti even before that.

There are probably 8 or more reasons not to directly promote Dozier (including the issue of whether he is really going to be a solid defensive shortstop, the fact that having Casilla as the utility infielder raises an issue for a substitute third baseman, and the argument that the Twins should wait to promote Dozier to avoid him achieving Super 2 status), but I'm not convinced by any of them. Under my plan, the only thing that is really "lost" is a full season of Casilla at second base. But I guess I'm at the point with Casilla where I would rather gamble on Dozier, who admittedly is not a sure thing, than on Casilla, who most certainly is not a sure thing (and is no longer a young player, either). In the worst case scenario, Dozier cannot hack it in the majors yet, and will be sent down. This could be tough on Dozier, but it happens dozens of times a season, sometimes even to well established players -- but you know what -- adults learn to deal with it.

I'd be happy to hear your thoughts. Am I way off-base here? Or do you agree Dozier is ready for his shot?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Twins Notes and a Preview of What's to Come

I'm in a holding pattern with the Twins right now. I was thrilled with Tsuyoshi Nishioka's relatively early demotion to AAA, I'm becoming worried about Justin Morneau's wrist, and I'm encouraged by the Spring Training performances of prospects like Chris Parmelee, Joe Benson and Brian Dozier. Perhaps most importantly, Francisco Liriano has looked -- save only one inning all spring -- better than he did at any point in 2011.

But I'm just not one of those people that goes crazy with the identity of the player that ends up winning the utility infielder spot, or of the last guy to round out the bullpen. I know, especially after watching last season, that those are both important roles on any team, but I just can't get too excited about it. I'm basically ready for Spring Training to be done. Maybe I'd feel differently if we had travel plans to Ft. Myers . . . .

Joe, I'm hoping you play in Baltimore this year
so I don't have to keep recycling this picture
from Camden Yards taken in 2010.
 But there are a few things that I am excited about. First, in just a couple weeks I'll be attending the New Britain Rock Cats Annual Welcome Home Dinner. That should be pretty fun -- a player sits at each table, the manager introduces the roster and there is a bar. The very next night, I'll be at the season opener against the Richmond Flying Squirrels (great name of the San Francisco Giants' farm team). I will be providing blog coverage and some pictures from both nights, as well as a game recap. I'm expecting that New Britain might not be very good the first part of the season (no Parmelee, Benson and Dozier), but hopefully by the second half there will have been a couple promotions, and I'll be seeing a player such as Aaron Hicks leading the charge.

Finally, I'm hitting Baltimore for the last two games of the Twins' series there. Again, expect game recaps and pictures. I'm hoping the Twins field a better lineup this time around, than they did last season in Baltimore (Mauer or Morneau weren't even at the stadium).

My post from earlier this week, Centerfield Trade Bait, was well read both at this blog and at TwinsDaily. There are great comments and ideas on both sites, so be sure to check out the comments section if you haven't already. Also, the TwinsDaily version was linked to on ESPN's SweetSpot page (thanks for pointing that out, NoDak Twins Fan!).

If you have time, check out my recent post at Through the Fence Baseball. It's about the Twins and the upcoming draft. With 5 out of the first 75 picks, I want them taking a couple of the best available pitchers early.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Centerfield Trade Bait

The Twins certainly don't have a surplus of major league ready talent at most positions, such as catcher, third base, middle infield, starting pitching, and the bullpen. -- just to name a few areas of concern. But if there is one position where there is a good amount of talent, both on the major league club and in the minor league system, it probably is centerfield.

Is this a make-or-break year for Aaron Hicks?
Denard Span is an above average defender, and has matured into a good leadoff hitter. He was having one of his best seasons in 2011 before a concussion deralied him, but we hope he'll bounce back in 2012. He just turned 28, and is under contract for $3 million in 2012, $4.75 million in 2013, $6.5 million in 2014, and there is a $9 million team option in 2015 (with a $500,000 buyout). If Span is healthy and continues to perform, it seems like a reasonable contract. If Span plays in 2012 like he did the first few months of 2011, and shows that he is completely recovered from the concussion, it's also a contract that the Twins could move.

Ben Revere, who will turn 24 in May, is speedy and can track down almost anything hit to center field, but lacks an arm (not physically lacks an arm, but it's almost that bad); he is at best a good contact hitter who can wreak havoc on the basepaths, and at worst a player that will only get on base 30 percent of the time. Importantly, he is still under team control for the near future.

Joe Benson, also 24 this season, has the most potential for power among the centerfield group. He also is reportedly just a shade slower than Revere, which is impressive. He didn't look quite ready for the big leagues in his September call-up last season, with a .239/.270/.352 slash line, but he is still a very good outfield prospect.

Finally, there is Aaron Hicks, age 22, the Twins' first round (14th overall) draft pick from 2008. It's not an understatement to say that Hicks' star has fallen. Baseball America rated him the 19th best prospect pre-2010, the 45th best prospect pre-2011, and the 72nd best prospect pre-2012. That's not the direction Twins fans would like to see Hicks moving on the prospect charts. In 2012, he also vanished from Baseball America's top 10 outfield prospect list, which is not a good sign. All that being said, he is one of the Twins' top prospects, and he is expected to see a promotion to AA New Britain this year (at least according to Bill Smith).

My point in outlining these players is that, even if none ever become stars, the center field position is perhaps the deepest in terms of talent for the Twins. And interestingly, three of the four players listed are within roughly two years of age. Aside from Span, the veteran, we're talking about 22-24 year old prospects. Finally, Hicks is the only one without a day of major league service time, so to an extent (a small extent for Benson), they have been MLB-tested.

It's tough to imagine all four players being in the Twins organization two years from now. By that time, Benson will be 26 and will either be playing centerfield, which would be the best use of his speed and arm, or a corner outfield position. I have no doubt he's next in line for a promotion. Who knows where Revere will be? I still believe he can be a good (but not great) major league outfielder, but he will need to show major plate discipline this season, as well as the ability to bunt successfully. Hicks needs to have a solid and consistent season in order to regain his status as a Twins top prospect. And Span needs to stay healthy.

There are two things that excite me about this group of players. First is the prospect of having Span and Benson in the same outfield. I think it could be great defensively and offensively. The second thing is the prospect of trading one of these guys for something the Twins desperately need, such as pitching. It would be great if the Twins could make a "sell high" trade, if they come the realization that there are not enough outfield positions for the number of established major league outfielders, and legitimate major league outfield prospects, currently in the organization. Of course, we'd have to avoid a Wilson Ramos-type trade, but given these 4 players, the odds of that kind of an error in judgment don't seem quite as high.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts. If Benson is good at AAA Rochester this season, how long can we keep him there -- and whose place does he take in Minnesota? Could we get anything on the trade market for Revere? And if Hicks has a great season between A and AA in 2012, what do we do if he suddenly re-emerges as our #1 outfield prospect?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kent Hrbek's Last Game

Most of us remember Kent Hrbek for his lumbering physique, affable nature, power swing, underrated defense and, of course, his roles on the 1987 and 1991 World Series teams. Do you remember how his career came to an end? I bet some of you do, but others might have been too young (gasp!) to recall. Hrbek was 34 years old for most of the 1994 baseball season. Though he had been healthy and productive most of his career, injuries and age (code for "weight" and "not taking great care of yourself once your metabolism slows down") started taking their toll on him following the 1991 season. He batted .284 in 1991, .244 in 1992, and .242 in 1993.

I wish they would bring these jerseys back.
Maybe with buttons, though.
1994, of course, was the year that there was no postseason due to the baseball strike. The strike began on August 12, 1994, and lasted until April 2, 1995. As a 14 year old, I was just old enough to begin to understand some of the economics, but still young enough not to understand how the heck baseball could be cancelled.

Hrbek played in 81 games in 1994, and put together a decent season for a guy whose best days were clearly behind him. He ended up with a .270/.353/.420 slash line, hit 10 home runs, and drove in 53 runs. The Twins finished in 4th place that season, at 53-60. Their last game that season was August 10, home at the Metrodome, against the Red Sox, who, like the Twins, finished 4th in their division with a 54-61 record. The Twins ended up winning big, 17-7. Hrbek batted 6th in the order. In fact, the starting lineup was pretty decent:

Chuck Knoblauch 2B.
Scott Leius 3B.
Kirby Puckett RF.
Shane Mack CF.
Dave Winfield DH.
Kent Hrbek 1B.
Pedro Munoz LF.
Matt Walbeck C.
Pat Meares SS.

Hrbek played the entire game. Here's how his night went:

In the first inning, Hrbie came up with two outs and the bases loaded . . . and was hit by a pitch, scoring buddy Puckett. The Twins take a 1-0 lead, and Hrbek gets credited with an RBI (and probably also gets a bruise somewhere).

This was not a defensive struggle, and Hrbek led off the third inning, the Twins up 5-3 by now. He took a called third against Scott Bankhead, the second pitcher of the night for the Red Sox. In fact, Hrbek's third at-bat, in the fifth inning, wasn't much better. The Twins were leading 9-3. Hrbek struck out swinging to end a scoring threat, stranding Puckett on third, Mack on second, and Jeff Reboulet (in as a sub) on first. But don't worry -- Hrbek would redeem himself.

By the seventh inning, the Red Sox had made it a game. Mo Vaughn had just homered off of Mike Trombley in the top of seventh to bring the Sox within two runs. Hrbek came to the plate, again with the bases loaded. Puckett was on third, Mack on second, and Reboulet had just bunted for a single. On a 2-1 count, Hrbek laced a line drive single past second base, scoring Puckett and Mack. He would later score on a Pat Meares single.

The Twins would actually bat around in that seventh inning. Hrbek came up again, but by now the Twins were up 17-7. He flew out to center field on the second pitch he saw. That would be his last career at-bat. For the night, Hrbie ended up 1-for-5, with 3 RBIs and 2 strikeouts. He was also credited with 11 put-outs and 1 assist on defense. It's interesting that he came to bat 3 times with the bases loaded in a single game. And that hit-by-pitch in the first inning -- it was the only time he was hit that entire season.

I wonder if Hrbek had 100 percent decided that he would indeed retire after that game -- if he knew that August 10, 1994 would be the last time he would wear #14 as a player? What do you think he did after the game? My guess would be beers and pranks in the clubhouse with Puckett and some of the other guys (Hrbek never seemed a somber one), but given the fact that the strike was commencing, who knows if the players were even allowed to linger like they normally would.

It's easy to remember Puckett's final at-bat, unfortunately, because he was hit in the face with a Dennis Martinez fastball. It's easy to remember Ted Williams' final at-bat, September 28, 1960, because he hit a home run in Boston, beyond that cavernous Bermuda triangle near center field. Not to imply that Hrbek was on the same level as Puckett or Williams, but he was important, and remains important, in Twins Territory. His career ended in strange circumstances. Sure, the Twins weren't going to win the division and go to the playoffs, but perhaps Hrbek (and the other players that saw their last MLB action in August, 1994) wish they left the game under different circumstances. Hrbek, at least, received a much better sendoff the very next season, after the strike ended, when the Twins retired #14, and he officially became a legend in Minnesota Twins history.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Twins Fan from Afar's Friday Links

Terry Doyle, Rule 5 pick, sure had a tough outing yesterday, allowing 8 of 10 batters to reach and only making it 2 outs into the first inning (and one of those outs was Joe Mauer throwing out a would-be base stealer). His Grapefruit League ERA is now 16.88. There's that old saying that even the worst day at a ballpark (or on the golf course, or on the lake, or pick your place that you love to be) is better than the best day at the office, but I don't think I've ever had that kind of a meltdown at my job.

It's nice to see #33 hitting in batting practice, even if it
hasn't exactly translated to success in games yet.
Image courtesy of Chris Polydoroff, Pionner Press.
As Twins fans, the positives we can take away from these past few days of games is that Joe Mauer is back to looking pretty comfortable at the plate and his arm seems to be in good shape, Justin Morneau hasn't been held back from any games or activities (although he has not yet found his timing), and Denard Span looks like he hasn't missed a beat, playing well in center field and hitting a ton so far. Now, on with the links.

Jim Crikket at Knuckleballs is looking for a few Twins, such as Trevor Plouffe and Danny Valencia, to have breakout seasons.

Edward Thoma at Baseball Outsider opines on the 2013 Twins' starting rotation.

PK at Minnesota Twins Musings discusses the advantages for veteran pitchers in Spring Training, as opposed to young pitchers trying to make the team in the first place.

Thrylos98 at The Tenth Inning Stretch has been keeping us updated on the Twins' bullpen and bench battles. Good work, thrylos!

Finally, it's time for a little self-promotion. I started a new position this week at Through the Fence Baseball. I'll be writing there a couple times a week on Twins related stuff. I'm not sure exactly what my voice will be there; I think the pieces will be read by as many non-Twins fans as Twins fans, so it will be a little different in scope than this blog. But I'm excited to try something new. Anyway, here's the link for my work there.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Early Reports: Span, Morneau and Carroll

Denard Span rounding the bases.
Jime Mone, AP

I think I have used the title "cautious optimism" on this blog a few times before in describing my feelings toward our slew of injured players rebounding this season. I don't like redundancy, but I'm not sure that there's a more accurate term. Based on the extremely small sample size, it seems that Denard Span, one of the most important cogs in the lineup and on the field, has essentially returned to form. Yesterday, for instance, returning to the lineup after missing a few games with a sore neck, he went 3-4 and, from the little I have seen, has looked sharp in the field. It's tough not to get excited thinking about a healthy Span at Target Field this spring. Don't forget -- before his June, 2011 concussion, Span was having a very solid year, batting .294 with a .361 on base percentage. Most of us talk primarily about having Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau back in the 3 and 4 spots, but a healthy Span leading off is, arguably, just as important in the overall scheme of things. When he was "on," Span was able to set the tone for the whole offense, working at-bats, drawing walks and getting on base at a good clip. To see that kind of production again would be welcome. Also, in positive news, Span has not yet struck any family members or friends with foul balls. Way to go, Denard!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Morneau and Jamey Carroll seem to be starting off pretty slow. I think it's too early to be concerned, though. I commented on the TwinsDaily site yesterday that, for me, there are two issues with Morneau: ability and health. If he is not healthy, it sure sounds like he's going to retire. But if he is healthy, I'm confident that the athletic ability is still there -- it's just going to take some time to shake the rust off. If he's still batting .136 at the end of Spring Training, then maybe it's time to be concerned. But for now, I give him a couple more weeks to get back in the routine.

Finally, for those that are interested, I posted my first introductory article for Through the Fence Baseball yesterday. Take a look!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Do the Twins Need to Hire a Sports Psychologist?

Much has been made over the past year or so of the physical injuries suffered by the Twins, especially injuries to Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span and, to a lesser extent Francisco Liriano. All of these players had a tough time staying in the lineup last season, and we are hoping for better health this year. But that might only be half the battle.

In yesterday's Spring Training game, for example, Liriano was perfect for two innings (striking out three), then imploded in the third inning, giving up four runs very quickly. "I started rushing like I always do," Liriano was quoted as saying. He also stated, "I can't get mad at myself like that."

Then there's Mauer, who hit 28 home runs in a shortened 2009 season, and who has hardly hit any since then. It's abundantly clear that the not-so-friendly confines of Target Field have gotten in his head. I can scarcely remember Mauer pulling a ball in Target Field that even looked close to becoming a home run; rather, it seems that has become a singles and doubles hitter, with the occasional home run (on the road, no less). Would this change have occurred even if the Twins had stayed in the Metrodome, or was this brought on by Target Field? Or was it some combination in between?

Finally, Span and Morneau are both recovering from concussions. The pair has been playing hard all spring, and despite the fact that Span sat out the last couple games with neck pain, there has been no indication that either is suffering from post-concussion symptoms -- right now. But you have to wonder what's going on inside their heads. We all know, because Morneau told us, that he is essentially one injury away from retiring. Span, though younger and with less of a history of concussions, has had a tough road to recovery, as well. Certainly, these players -- arguably the core of the Twins -- are thinking about more than balls, strikes, and what restaurant they're going to after the game.

As far as I can tell, the Twins do not employ a full-time sports psychologist. A computer search reveals a few websites for professional sports psychologists that have consulted with the Twins. The Twins website listing their front office personnel notes four physicians: two orthopedic surgeons, and two preventative/occupational medicine specialists. There are also two trainers and one strength and conditioning coordinator. It appears that the physicians all have their own individual practices, which is no surprise, but as far as I know, the trainers and strength coordinator are full-time Twins employees. In other words, there are seven professionals on the Twins' payroll that deal exclusively with the body, but not one that is trained in dealing with the mind.

Might it be a good idea to staff a full-time sports psychologist for this team? I can't see the harm. We have a would-be ace pitcher who is consistently inconsistent and gets too amped up, even for Spring Training games; a former MVP whose power has taken a nosedive after his team moved stadiums; and two very good players that are enduring a difficult physical and mental period. Granted, these players are all multi-millionaires, represented by premiere sports agencies, and have, at their disposal, access to first rate medical care across the globe. But just maybe, when the team is on the road, say in Kansas City, and it's two in the morning, and Morneau can't sleep because something is plaguing him, might it not be useful for the Twins to have a trained and experienced professional sports psychologist just down the hall at the team hotel? Or, think about Liriano, pitching in an important nationally televised game against the Tigers in August, with the Twins just two games back in the division. It's a situation where, if history is any indication, Liriano might be too amped up to be successful. Having someone on staff -- someone that can talk about something other that sliders, shoulders and arm angles -- seems potentially valuable to me. For all the money the Twins have spent on player payroll, and even on insurance for certain player contracts, it might be beneficial to bring a psychologist into the fold.

What do you think? As always, I'm happy to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Couple Announcements

I love running this blog. I've been doing it now for just over a year, and it honestly has become one of my favorite pastimes. I've especially enjoyed getting to know (at least in the blogging sense) a bunch of other Twins bloggers and fans. This is a really good and fun community to "work" in, and the best thing is that writing about the Twins never really feels like work. Yes, things weren't nearly as fun last season when, for example, Rene Tosoni was leading the charge late in 2011, or we had to learn how to pronounce the word Dumatrait, but there was always stuff to write about, and there was always quality stuff to read. The blog has also served as a good distraction from the mundane aspects of work and life.

The first announcement is that, this past weekend, Twins Fan From Afar surpassed 20,000 page views. Yes, I'm sure that is a laughable number to most of you that operate your own Twins blogs, but let me tell you, it took me a while to get there! First, I am basically a Luddite: I am not the most computer literate person out there (in full disclosure, I just added an RSS feed to this blog, because apparently you are supposed to do that, but I don't know what the hell an RSS feed does), so it took me a while to figure out the relatively easy world of blogging. Second, no one read the blog for the first few months. In February, 2011, my first month of blogging, Twins Fan From Afar had 148 total views. Mom and Dad back in Minnesota, on their home and work computers, probably accounted for 100 of those views; and I was responsible for the other 48, because I had not yet figured out that, as a blog author, you could make your individual page views invisible. Third, it probably didn't help this blog's initial popularity that the Twins were generally just awful last season. Baseball fans were probably searching for information about the teams that mattered, and frankly, the Twins didn't matter. But, over the course of the season, I began to truly enjoy the ritual of writing about baseball, and more people began to read what I wrote. Yes, some posts were better than others, but, much like the ritual of going to the gym, or reading before bed, it's become a nice part of my life. Now that I have this blog -- and regardless of whether more or less people view it in the coming months and years -- it's tough to imagine not doing it.

My second announcement is that, starting later this week, I am going to begin providing content for Through the Fence Baseball, a national baseball website that provides information on all MLB teams. I'll be writing just a couple times a week for them on Twins related topics, and I'm looking forward to reaching a new audience. Nothing will change at Twins Fan From Afar. If you enjoy what you read here, or at least are nice enough to read what I write, please continue to do so. I'll be writing here just as often, but will just be writing some other stuff for TTFB.

So, thanks for 20,000 page views, and I look forward to a full blogging season in 2012. And, hopefully, the Twins can scrape together a considerably better season this year.

Twins Fan From Afar

Monday, March 12, 2012

Which Danny Valencia will Show Up in 2012?

The Twins had some encouraging Spring Training results over the weekend. I realize that Spring Training games don't count for anything -- they are, in fact, for "training." That's why you see guys taking a lot of pitches, just trying to get their timing down, or you might see a pitcher throw a curveball five times in a row. These guys are trying to get ready for the season, not trying to set Grapefruit League records. But still, tangible results are always nice, and Danny Valencia had a good weekend. Valencia hit two home runs and a double in two games. In those two games combined, he was 3-for-6 with 4 runs batted in. And it wasn't just that he was hitting the ball; he was hitting it hard and far, judging from the replays. At the very least, it's nice to see him locked in this early in the season. I hope he keeps it up!

I bet you didn't
know that Valencia
attended the
U of Miami

In 2010, of course, Valencia impressed most of us, with a .311/.351/.448 slash line in 85 games after a mid-season call up. He was also third in rookie of the year voting. 2011 wasn't so great. In what could be described as a textbook sophomore slump, Valencia regressed to .246/.294/.383. Though he was healthy the entire season, which in and of itself was "highlight-worthy" for the 2011 Twins, Valencia did not impress. He defense was not reliable (he had the second most errors at third base), he did not consistently take good at-bats, and he came off as arrogant in the press.

Quite frankly, I don't care at all that Valencia went to the University of Miami, and I suspect that his teammates, manager and coaches don't either. I can absolutely see how, over the course of a 162 game season, Valencia rubbed some in the Twins' organization the wrong way. But still, it's fair to note that Valencia was at least healthy and on the field, even if he wasn't fantastic. Last year, Ron Gardenhire was quick to throw Valencia under the bus, when sometimes there were other parties that were equally, if not more, guilty of bad baseball transgressions. For whatever reason, Valencia was often in the doghouse. At that time, I suggested that Gardy lay off of Valencia (publicly, at least). Looking back, however, maybe Valencia needed to be taken down a couple pegs in the press, even if he didn't always deserve it. I seriously doubt that Valencia feels less full of himself now than he did last year, but perhaps his second full season will bring greater maturity. After all, he's not young -- 27 this season -- and he's been in the show for about 18 months now. And after the departure of several veterans in the past few months, he's starting to climb the Twins' seniority ladder.

For 2012, I don't know that we can expect Valencia to be a .300 hitter. After last season, .275 would look pretty good in comparison. And, to be honest, if Miguel Sano keeps maturing into the ballplayer that everyone expects him to become, Valencia's time at third base is probably limited to the next 2-3 seasons. Sure, Valencia developing into a complete ballplayer would be fantastic, and I would never suggest that having talented players on the field is bad, but Valencia was never a blue chip prospect to begin with: he never even hit .300 in AA or AAA. But I hope that Valenica shows a little more maturity this year, that he stays out of the doghouse (whether deserved or undeserved), and that the reported hard work he has been putting in this offseason pays dividends. It's funny -- for as much as people (especially bloggers, myself included) talk about Mauer, Morneau, Liriano and Span -- Valencia could be just as important a cog if he put together a great season. He'll likely never be a 40 home run per year guy, but he has shown flashes of greatness, as well as the ability to hit in the clutch. He certainly has talked the talk, maybe in 2012 he will walk the walk. I'd be content with a .275/.350/.445 season out of Valencia, accompanied by stable defense.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins & Friday Links

The Twins' offense hasn't really showed up this far in Spring Training, but yesterday, Francisco Liriano had a great 3-inning start against Tampa Bay, striking out five and, most importantly, walking none. Additionally, the three innings took only 34 pitches to get through. Sure, many in Tampa Bay's lineup weren't major league hitters, but it's still encouraging and hopefully is a sign of things to come.

The big Twins news yesterday, of course, was that the Twins and left reliever Glen Perkins agreed to a 3-year, $10.3 million extension, which keeps him in a Twins uniform through 2015, with a team option for 2016. This should prove to be a great signing, I think. First, if last year (and this year, so far) has taught us anything, it's that you simply cannot completely destruct a bullpen and easily rebuild it from scratch -- there has to be some continuity, some returning veterans. This contract ensures a veteran bullpen presence for the foreseeable future. Second, the value of the contract is reasonable, especially if Perkins pitches at the same level he did most of 2011. Third, although the contract reportedly contains escalators if Perkins finishes games (takes over as closer), his base salary for 2014 and 2015 is only $3.75 million. In other words, even if you tack on, say, an extra $1 million if Perkins ends up assuming the closer's role in another couple years, $4.75 million for a (hopefully) effective closer is a bargain for the Twins. And even if Perkins just continues to be the late-inning, high-leverage situation guy for the Twins, which is, for now, where I think he's most valuable to the Twins, it's still a great contract. Now I look for Perkins to take that next step and really become a bullpen and clubhouse leader. Congratulations, Glen.

It was a busy week for the Twins, and also for Twins bloggers. Here are a few links that I enjoyed reading this past week.

First, respected Twins' veteran blogger Aaron Gleeman lost 150 pounds this year. Amazing. Congratulations, Aaron.!

Capital Babs from Knuckleballs is at Spring Training right now, and on her honeymoon. She has some good pictures and posts from attending the Twins' B-game, which really featured a lot of the A-lineup.

NoDak Twins Fan analyzes the scenarios under which the Twins could either keep Francisco Liriano through all of 2012, or trade him before the deadline. Personally, it's a lot easier for me to imagine the scenarios where we trade Liriano, than it is to imagine the scenarios where we keep him, especially as he nears free agency. Time will tell.

John J. Parent at Call to the Pen wrote a great season preview for the Twins. Spoiler alert -- he's concerned with the health of Mauer and Morneau. This is a very well done piece.

The Common Man reviews MLB 12 the Show, which is about the only video game series that I enjoy playing. I think I might save the $60 and not buy it this year, though, as I bet the Twins are pretty awful in it.

Last but not least, Minnesota's own Lindsay Guentzel was selected for the starting 9 in MLB's 2012 Fancave. Some of the other winners include Yankees and Braves fans, so things could get ugly fast. In all seriousness, though, this is a big deal, and hopefully will help Lindsay in her journalism career. Congratulations, Lindsay!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Justin Morneau and the "Honeymoon Period"

All the reports have been great. He woke up early for the first day of training camp, lost a little weight, has participated in all drills, and stands ready, today, to play in back-to-back games. From the little that I have watched, he appears healthy (if a little thin) and alert, and his swing looks as good as it did at any point last year (maybe that's not saying a lot, but you have to take the positives where they come). In short, if you didn't know any better, Justin Morneau looks like any other baseball player getting ready for the 2012 season. But we do know better, and so does Justin.

At the beginning of many romantic relationships, there is the so-called "honeymoon period." You know -- that time when everything feels just great, you think that you've found the perfect partner, and believe that nothing will ever change. **Cue the Tony Bennett music and the sounds of birds chirping** Well, for most couples, even those that persevere, the honeymoon periods ends at some point. Some of those things that were once cute and funny about your partner eventually became annoying; you realize that they aren't, in fact, perfect; and sometimes they simply drive you nuts.

I'm worried that some Twins fans, myself included, are in the midst of a honeymoon period -- another honeymoon period -- with Justin Morneau. The pure Twins fan in me, the human side of me, wants more than anything to see him just have a healthy season, whether he bats .245 or .345. That same side of me craves Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, ESPN and AP articles that support that belief. I even look for pictures, like the picture below, to provide documentation for the proposition that Morneau is, in fact, healthy and in Florida.

Pioneer Press photographer Chris Polydoroff captures Justin
Morneau and, is that Joe Mauer catching a bullpen session?
 Even watching the Twins-Red Sox game a couple nights ago, I was looking for the positive in everything that Morneau did. In his first at-bat that ended with a routine ground out to second base, I focused instead on the hard foul he hit down the right field line ("he made solid contact there," I told my wife). Even on defense, when he threw a ball into a runner going to second base, I thought, "well, at least it was a good pick-up to make the play at first base." Clearly, I'm still in the honeymoon period. Who knows what I'm going to think if/when he actually does start to hit home runs and doubles, and if he reemerges as the great defensive first baseman that he had worked so hard to become.

The realist in me -- the part of me that is an analyst, and, well, an adult -- is worried about what happens when that honeymoon period ends. I know it's inevitable at some point. The head, the wrist, or the knees, are bound to act up. Or some other, not-yet-existing injury, could come to light. Even if Morneau is reasonably healthy, there eventually will be some sort of headline after a game or workout, reading, "Morneau to take Thursday off, citing wrist pain." What will we think then? Probably the worst -- and with good reason. There have been very few issues for Morneau in the last couple years that have not become serious, to the point of eventually requiring surgery or time on the disabled list.

But for right now, this fan is content living in the delusional honeymoon period. It's March, it's sunny in Florida, and Opening Day is now less than a month away.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mauer's Off-the-Field Value to the Twins

I've written before, as have others, that Joe Mauer isn't only valuable to the Twins for his contributions as the star catcher and third batter in the lineup. Make no mistake, that's how he earns his paycheck, but it's also evident that, over the last few years, he has become his own brand. Even where I live, far removed from Twins Territory, I have noticed more Twins hats, and even the occasional Mauer jersey or t-shirt, than I did even five years ago. Sure, part of it is undoubtedly due to the presence of the New Britain Rock Cats, but part of it is simply because Joe Mauer is regarded as one of the best players in baseball and has helped popularize the Twins' brand (the team's success for most of the first decade of this century probably didn't hurt, either).

For the 2010 season, Joe Mauer jerseys ranked as the second highest selling jersey in all of baseball, trailing only Derek Jeter. Damn Yankees. Roy Halladay, Chase Utley and Cliff Lee rounded out the top five. Without putting too much thought into it, I had assumed the Twins derived some specific financial benefit from the sale of so many Mauer jerseys. In turn, I had always credited Mauer's popularity with respect to apparel sales and revenue as part of his off-the-field value.

I decided to look into this just a little bit more, and was a bit surprised at what I found. MLB's revenue sharing arrangement, part of which is comprised of a central revenue fund, gets its money from national TV and radio deals, the MLB network, and merchandise sales. Thereafter, the money in the central fund is distributed equally to the 30 teams. In 2009, for instance, each team received approximately $30 million from this arrangement (now, there also is another revenue pool that deals with local TV contracts, concessions and ticket sales -- and it is a large source of disagreement between small market and big market teams -- but that is another post for another day).

In other words, the fact that more Joe Mauer jerseys are sold than almost any other jersey does not specifically benefit the Twins more than it benefits any other baseball team. Interestingly, the fact that Mauer jerseys are so popular might not even provide extra cash in Mauer's own pocket. The Major League Baseball Player's Association states, regarding player licensing revenue, that "[p]layers receive a pro rata share of licensing revenue regardless or stature," and that the amount of the share is dependent on that player's actual days of MLB service in a given season. But don't worry, fans, Joe has Gatorade, Nike and Head & Shoulders royalty checks coming in, so I'm sure he's able to afford gas to fill his Chevy, and the weekly Cub Foods trip.

So, it might have been premature on my part to think that Joe Mauer jersey sales bring in a considerable amount of revenue for the Twins. That being said, a healthy Mauer does put people in seats, and those people purchase food and booze at Target Field, even if the team is not playing great.  That is money in the Twins' pocketbook. Finally, I also don't think it's completely incorrect to give Mauer at least a tiny portion of the credit for helping the Twins land Target Field: yes, the deal was years in the making, and yes, taxpayers prettymuch footed the bill, but it's a lot easier to sell a fan base on a new stadium when the team is winning -- as the Twins did several times in the years leading up to 2010 -- than when it is losing and being threatened with contraction. And there was no player more instrumental to many of those winning seasons than Mauer. The concept of "value" is tricky. Clearly, for franchise players like Mauer or Jeter, it extends beyond the foul lines.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

If You Could Undo a Recent Twins Move, or Make a Move that the Twins Failed to Make, What Would It Be?

I try to be a (mostly) practical Twins fan. I knew the Twins would never go after Albert Pujols. Last year, I wrote that I thought that Jose Reyes would be a good fit at shortstop, but realistically knew that the pieces would never fall into place for him to come to Minnesota. And, now I'm optimistic about Brian Dozier. Sure, I guess it's fun to dream (and even write) about those big free agent signings every now and then, but that doesn't seem, for a Twins fan, to be a very productive use of time.

For 2012, the Twins seemed very locked into the $100 million payroll. I'm not by any means fine with that, and have serious concerns about the starting rotation and the bullpen. But I'm more or less at piece with it: the payroll, and the team, are what they are, and there's nothing I can write that would have made Terry Ryan make a push for, say, C.J. Wilson (though, I'm not sure that Wilson will be worth what he got from the Angels, anyway), or Mark Buehrle.

But because we're fans, and we don't have to live in the here and now in the same way that Terry Ryan, Rob Antony and Ron Gardenhire do, I want to pose a question: If you, as General Manager for a day, could UNDO any one move made by the Twins in the last few years, or MAKE a move that the Twins failed to make, what would it be? I'm thinking about player acquisitions, letting certain free agents depart, picking up or declining options, trades that shouldn't have been made -- that sort of thing. But be creative. And, extra points if you explain what you would have done instead. It's easy to criticize, but often is difficult to find alternative practical solutions.

Here's mine: The Twins should have traded Francisco Liriano last year at this time, perhaps to the Yankees. Andrew Marchand at ESPN reported that Brian Cashman's offer to the Twins was Ivan Nova and Ramiero Pena for Liriano, and he suggested that the Yankees may have thrown in Joba Chamberlain to make a deal. A year ago, I was against the trade, because I, along with most of Twins Territory, was viewing Liriano as our de facto ace going forward after his very solid 2010 campaign. Well, with the benefit of hindsight, it might have made sense to sell high on Liriano -- especially if the Twins don't have much of an interest in extending his time with the team past 2012. Now, it seems that, either Liriano will have a good year and very well may price himself out of the Twins' range, or he will have another year of a 5-something ERA, and the Twins will be able to replace that spot in the order with many cheaper, and perhaps in-house, options. And Liriano will become a free agent after 2012, so the Twins will gain nothing if they let him finish the year in Minnesota and have no interest in re-signing him,

I'd be happy to hear your ideas in the comments. Thanks for reading!

[Update: I posted this same piece at TwinsDaily, and the responses were great.]

Monday, March 5, 2012

Twins-Red Sox Reflections: Liriano's Strikes, Revere's Speed and Ray Chang's Head

In the end, Francisco Liriano's pitching line yesterday looked fine on paper. He gave up no runs, walked one, and struck out two, in two innings. Still, though, even though this was his first start of the spring, I was left wanting a little bit more. The frustrating aspect of Liriano's outing, for me, was that 12 of his 25 pitches were balls. In the first inning, Liriano fell behind all three hitters, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Cody Ross. Pedroia walked, but Liriano got Ellsbury to line into an unassisted double play at first, and struck out Ross on a nasty slider. The best aspect of the outing, though, was that Liriano settled down thereafter, and he averaged 12.5 pitches per inning. We all know that Liriano is much more effective if he doesn't get that pitch count up to 40+ after the first couple innings.

I don't want to make too much out of Liriano's performance: it was his first outing; it's Spring Training; and he did not give up any runs. And the slider looked very good. But as usual with Liriano, I'm left wanting a bit more. I want to see him attack the strike zone early in the count. I've harped on Liriano and first pitch strikes before, and it probably has become an obsession with me. So forgive my indulgence. But I really do think it's one of the few things separating Liriano from taking that next step in his career (and, generally, just having better control overall). Call me crazy, but I think that veteran hitters like Dustin Pedroia are going up to bat in the first game of Spring Training looking to see some pitches, have good at-bats, and get their timing down. So Francisco, go ahead and throw a 90 MPH fastball on the outer half just to get ahead in the count!

I thought Ben Revere looked good. I may be wrong, but in the three at-bats I saw him take, I don't recall him swinging at a first pitch. That's a good sign for a hitter that hopefully will someday become capable of taking on a leadoff role, and for a hitter that, last year, swung at a lot of first pitches, and needs to increase his on-base percentage. He was speedy on the basepaths, stealing second with ease in the first inning. Unfortunately, though, he was picked off of first base later in the game, thus negating, more or less, the stolen base. It's hard to complain, though, with a 2-4 day at the plate, a stolen base, and 2 RBIs.

Finally, there was a scary moment, when Ray Chang slid into second base and appeared to hit his head on the leg or knee of the shortstop. If you haven't seen the play, you don't have to watch it: it looked very much like Justin Morneau's July, 2010 slide that caused his infamous concussion. Here's hoping that Chang feels fine today when he wakes up. For what it's worth, Chang was having a good game, going 1-1 with 2 walks (both on full counts) and a stolen base, and looking good at second base. I don't know if he's our second baseman of the future, but I did like what I saw of him last season in New Britain.

Thanks to my east coast proximity, I will be enjoying at least part of tonight's Twins-Red Sox game on NESN, and will be back with a report tomorrow.