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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

2013: A Postmortem

Yes, I am aware that there are a couple weeks left in the season. But the Twins are dead. Dead as a door-nail. And they've been that way for months (years?). Shortly after this season comes to its pitiful end, the Twins' brass and field personnel will assemble, as they do every year, in Ft. Myers, for the organizational meetings. Among other topics, they will dissect the 2013 season, and what exactly caused this year's ineptitude.

Ron Gardenhire: 2002
If Terry Ryan, Ron Gardenhire or Dave St. Peter needs to do some cramming on the Delta flight down south, what follows is a short(ish) list of causes for this season's horrid, embarrassing play. Make no mistake, this is not an exhaustive or detailed list. And I'm not adding very many stats this time around (it's 2013: if you need statistical support for my proposition that Darin Mastroianni wasn't spectacular offensively, check out any number of websites). Without further ado, and in no particular order of importance, here are my Cliff's Notes for the 2013 Twins Organizational Meetings.

1. Aaron Hicks was Not Ready for Primetime

The Twins made good trades, getting (potentially) quality arms for centerfielders Ben Revere and Denard Span. By getting rid of Revere and Span, however, the Twins' thrust Hicks into the spotlight. To be sure, he put on a good show at AA in 2012, and was dominant in Spring Training in 2013. But we know now -- hindsight being 20/20, of course -- that he was not ready for the major leagues. Yes, he had flashes of brilliance offensively, and was solid defensively, but this was too much, too soon, for Hicks, evidenced by the fact that he didn't earn a September call-up, and that the Twins selected a replacement-level centerfielder, Alex Presely, when they traded Justin Morneau to the Pittsburgh Pirates last month.

2. Low Power in the Middle of the Order

Josh Willingham, who had a career year in 2012, was injured for a significant part of 2013, and his power numbers dwindled. He'll end up at around 15 home runs, and will be lucky to get 55 RBIs (last season, on an equally bad team: 35 dingers, 110 RBIs). Justin Morneau was serviceable, but also lacked the power that Twins fans enjoyed for the better part of a decade. Joe Mauer was good before his concussion, but his "power numbers" (dingers/RBIs) weren't high, mostly because no one was on base in front of him. In short, the guys that were penciled-in as the Twins' 3-4-5 hitters didn't do the damage that was expected. Make no mistake, RBIs are very much a team stat -- so perhaps it's more appropriate to say that the Twins as a whole under-delivered in giving the meat of the order opportunities to do damage.

3. Starting Pitching was Disgusting

Terry Ryan got what he (while spending Pohlad family money) paid for. It makes me physically ill reciting Twins' starting pitching stats from this season, so I'm not going to. But it's basically what you would expect: way too many hits, way too few strikeouts, way too few guys getting deep into games, and a batch of guys that probably wouldn't deserve more than a "cup of coffee" at the major league level being given multiple starts with the Twins this season. One thing to note: Vance Worley -- who projected to be not fantastic, but serviceable, failed this season. I didn't see that coming, and it's probably not fair to blame the front office for that (but note, at the same time, that Trevor May -- a better pitcher under team control for more years -- was the larger piece in that trade as far as the future goes).

4. Trevor Plouffe Showed Little Improvement

The Twins have given Plouffe, now 27, every chance. I know -- he showed great promise last season (I was at one of those games last July where he was just on fire, and it was exciting). But so far, those couple months have been, more or less, a flash in the pan. Although his average is a little higher than it was last year (.252 to .235), the OPS is lower, the defense isn't as solid as the team would like, and I'm not even sure how dedicated Plouffe is to the game (not my opinion -- based on a smattering of articles/tweets the past couple seasons from those "in the know"). With Miguel Sano on the rise, 2013 would have been a good season for Plouffe to establish himself as the Twins' starting third baseman to beat. Now, I expect the competition will be on in March, 2013. Sure, Plouffe will be better defensively than Sano, but will Plouffe be able to compete with Sano's power, and, equally as important, Sano's desire  -- desire to succeed, to improve on defense, to be an All-Star?

Ron Gardenhire: 2013
5. No Help from the Top of the Order

Aaron Hicks failed to get on base when the Twins gave him lead-off hitter duties. Here are some other guys that hit out of the 1-hole this season: Clete Thomas, Eduardo Escobar, Jamey Carroll, Alex Presley (and Brian Dozier, who really hasn't been bad in that position, but is an ideal 2-hole hitter). Not quite Denard Span-esque, huh? It's tough to give Dozier (when he's batting second, that is), Mauer, Morneau, Willingham, Oswaldo Arcia and Ryan Doumit the opportunity to do much damage with that rather pathetic crop of players occupying what is supposed to be a high on-base percentage spot in the lineup.

6. Little Assistance from the Farm

Long story short, when the Twins really needed talent to come up from their farm system and produce, they didn't get results. Yes, there were bright spots. In fact, I'm sure every guy called up this season performed well at some point. But in the aggregate, it was insufficient. Hicks, Kyle Gibson (remember the "Free Gibson" movement?), Chris Parmelee, Chris Colabello (I hesitate to even put him here -- I'm a big fan, he performed so well at New Britain and in Rochester, and he's been up-and-down so much in 2013 that the Rochester-to-Minneapolis flight attendants probably know him by name -- but I've been let down), and Oswaldo Arcia (who started off well, and is doing all right now, but had a horrid stretch that resulted in a demotion to AAA) haven't given the Twins the boost they needed this season. And I'm not going to mention the rest of the pitchers (but I am glaring at Liam Hendriks, and he knows it).

7. No Top Prospect Forced their Way Up

Don't get me wrong. Miguel Sano had a great, great season. He exceeded expectations. But in the end, he didn't deserve a call-up -- unless you believe his call-up would have been just for the fans this season (not an unreasonable proposition, by the way). Sano slowed down at AA, and was inconsistent (though powerful and exiting). Trevor May was stable, in the sense that he was uninjured, but was never good enough to warrant a promotion to AAA, much less the Twins. And the best pitching prospect, Alex Meyer, was limited because of injuries, thus never even entering the equation for a mid-or-late season promotion. I need to be measured in my observations, because Sano and Meyer were very, very good, and May did improve. But make no mistake, none of these guys really forced Terry Ryan's hand when it came to a September call-up. Accordingly, they were unable to breathe life into the dead MLB team. But maybe that's for the best. I'm not sure I want Miguel Sano's first game to be one where Mastroianni is batting leadoff and one where the Twins are about to lose their 90th game of the season in front of an "in-the-stands" Target Field crowd of 8,000.

The end results: The Twins stopped playing meaningful games back in May or June. Again. Payroll decreased. Again. The Twins sold off an asset (Morneau). Fans stopped coming in person to the ballpark like they used to (even if they had paid for tickets in advance).

There is hope in sight (a very good farm system), but I am not at all convinced that the talented prospects, alone, will bring relevance to this organization.

As I mentioned, this was a non-exhaustive list. Please, leave a comment. Add your thoughts on what else factored into the Twins' failures this season.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Late Summer of My Discontent

When Target Field opened, I was living in Connecticut (as I do now), but harbored a dream of moving back to Minnesota. I was naive. I thought -- even though I was an attorney licensed to practice in Connecticut only, even though I owned a home in Connecticut, and even though many of my professional ties to Minnesota had dwindled -- that I could somehow easily move across the country and re-establish things back home. For many, many reasons (the prolonged economic crisis being one of them), that didn't happen. I'd be lying if I said that a part of me doesn't dream of going back to the Twin Cities, but I am very happy personally and professionally now. But that's not the focus of this post, believe it or not (but for my self-help blog, go here). No, I do aim to write about the Twins tonight. So read on, it's all connected.

When I thought, or, rather, naively dreamed, that Minnesota was in the cards for me, I filled out a form and paid something like $200 to get in the "On-Deck Circle" for Twins season tickets. I was only interested in a 20-game plan, which was the lowest that was offered. Yes, there was a time when demand for season tickets -- any package, anywhere in the stadium -- was so significant that the Twins simply couldn't supply tickets and seats for everyone that was interested. Long story short, I ended up getting out of the "On-Deck Circle," and of course am still writing this blog from Connecticut (side note: there's no "On-Deck Circle" for my awesome Rock Cats seats, which I very much enjoy).

The amazing part of this story is that my membership in the on-deck circle, and exit therefrom, took place in 2010. Only 3 years ago. Tonight, I could click on this link and place a deposit for up to 8 tickets for a 2014 20-game, 40-game, or full season plan for the team who will host next season's All-Star festivities, a team only 3 years removed from being one of the best teams in baseball playing in one of baseball's best stadiums.

What frustrated me in 2010 was that there was a certain hubris in the Twins organization. "We can't offer you any season ticket plan this year, or maybe not even next year or the year after, but we will hold your $200 in trust in the event that something ever becomes available. Then, we'll give you a call and take the rest of your money. OK? Talk to you later."

Good Seats Still Available
And now, in September, 2013, here is the Twins' crowd tonight (first image from Brandon Warne's Twitter account) as Pedro Hernandez was taking his warm-up tosses just before the game started. Yes, many of these seats were paid for, so the Twins received that money, but they sure are missing a lot of food, merchandise and beer revenue from that American Legion-esque crowd.

The part that bothers me, aside from the fact that the Twins are cruising toward their 3rd straight 90+ loss season, is that what I would consider to be the requisite humility from the front office simply isn't present. On the one hand, they are saying the right things, as in: "The losing is unacceptable"; "We're committed to doing better"; "This isn't the `Twins Way.'" But on the other hand, these are the exact sentiments fans heard after 2011. And after 2012. Heck, there was even anger in 2010 after they were swept -- again -- by the Yankees. I swear they recycle the same press releases. On paper -- in the win-loss ledger -- there hasn't been improvement.

Thank you to @Tappen2Feet for this image
I'll be the first person to tell you that the organization is in much better shape than it was a couple years ago. To be sure, I watched it all summer with Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Josmil Pinto and others. But with the exception of Pinto, those guys aren't contributing to the major league team now, and probably won't be on Opening Day 2014.

I hit a point where I need more. I need more than the promise of prospects (even though I understand that good prospects are the best way to build a sustainable winning franchise). I need actual accountability. I need results. On Twitter, I noted, after the Twins were swept at Target Field by the Yankees in a 4-game series over the 4th of July, that some managers in Ron Gardenhire's tenuous position would have been fired after that series. Not for losing 4 consecutive games, mind you, but for how those 4 games, against the Yankees, at home on a holiday weekend with fans having paid "premium prices," were representative of this organization's deficiencies.

As @Kayla_86 noted, the upper deck is empty
The Twins can't sell me, and many fans, on the All-Star Game in 2014. I wouldn't be there anyway, and it's really just a few events. At some point, the Twins have to sell fans on at least a few established players purchased in free agency. I'll just say it: they need to spend probably $30 million in free agency in order to make this team competitive for 2014. They have to make at least some changes at the very top levels of management, if for no other reason than that is the way it works in the business world. The problem with the Twins, though, is that unlike most businesses, even when their "product" is awful, they still turn a significant profit. So understand that the impetus might not be there to make the wholesale changes that some expect.

There is no grand point to this post, so apologies if you are looking for it. I would, however, sum it up this way: The organization doesn't have the humility I would expect for a team that has been one of the very worst in baseball for the past 3 seasons, and I am not at all confident that losing records are sufficient -- on their own -- to force the organization into wholesale changes. As fans, I guess we are forced to hope that this solid group of prospects does indeed pan out. I have little faith in the Twins hitting a home run on each one of their Top 10 prospects.

One final note: 2013 was the first year since Target Field opened that I didn't make it there for a game. In fact, I didn't make it to a Twins game in Boston, Baltimore or New York, either. I -- not intentionally, really -- didn't purchase any memorabilia related to a current Twins player. Heck, I didn't even renew my Twins radio subscription for $21.95 (or so) a season. I guess I'm unwilling to pay for this product. In the end, while I'll pay to watch the minor leaguers any day of the week, I'm unwilling to pay to watch the Twins waste the rest of Joe Mauer's prime years.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

2013 Rock Cats MVP: Josmil Pinto

Rock Cats, Red Wings, and now Twins catcher,
Josmil Pinto
I'll be the first to admit that the bulk of my Rock Cats coverage this season has centered around Miguel Sano. And it's for a reason -- he's the best prospect that has played for New Britain since I have been following the team. People were interested in watching grainy videos of his #PowerBanana shots, and were curious about his defensive progression. Also, he's simply an electric personality. Trust me, you'll experience it firsthand in Minnesota next season. But there was much more to this team than Sano. And in my opinion, Sano wasn't the team's most valuable player, even in the months he was here. That honor belongs to Josmil Pinto.

What a 6 months it's been for Josmil Pinto. He started in April as the Rockcats' everyday catcher, and produced offensively and defensively. In fact, he hit .308/.411/.482. Watching him in person several games, it wasn't just his line drive swing that impressed me. He is a decent catcher with a very good arm. He was promoted on August 1 to AAA Rochester. That alone is a significant accomplishment. But Pinto didn't slow down. He continued to excel as a Red Wing, hitting .314/.333/.486, and is now a member of the Twins. He'll see significant playing time behind the dish, I expect, as the Twins would be wise to exercise caution with Joe Mauer.

The Twins gave Pinto at least 2 major votes of confidence: first, giving him 2 in-season promotions; and second -- and just as important -- trading Drew Butera at the deadline. These moves suggest that, between Chris Herrmann and Pinto, the Twins' back-up catching spots are covered.

To be sure, many guys offered great contributions this season in New Britain. Miguel Sano, Danny Santana, Trevor May, Michael Tonkin, Daniel Ortiz, Alex Meyer (pre-injury), and Nate Hanson (played all over the field very well) all come to mind. But none of these guys was as valuable on both sides of the ball, and was as consistent, as Pinto. He hit over .300, had a good K-to-walk ratio, showed good power, and continued to improve on defense. Yes, he still has a ways to go on the defensive front, but it won't stop him from being able to contribute to the Twins this September and next season. And in my opinion, the fact that he left the Rock Cats the last few weeks (give or take) of the season wasn't significant enough for another of the guys previously listed to trump his place.

Being completely honest, my decision is swayed in part by Joe Mauer's concussion. The concept of "most valuable" is subjective. I happen to see more "value" in places where it's needed. A prospect's value isn't tied solely to his current team so much as it is to the organization as a whole. In the Twins' present situation, we might see more value in prospects at shortstop, third base, starting pitching (ouch) and catcher, especially considering Mauer's advancing age and the recent concussion. In short, Herrmann and Pinto will need to step up. If not in 2014, then in 2015. The fact that Pinto has taken major strides this season, while Herrmann had, for the most part, a rough go of it, reinforces that Pinto is going to get the shot to prove himself at the major league level.

Congratulations, Josmil Pinto, on one hell of a season.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Justin Morneau Trade: My Reaction

I was at New Britain Stadium this morning
to take batting practice. This was the first
thing I saw upon entering the gates.
I've always been unable to separate the business side from the personal side when it comes to Justin Morneau. He's been my favorite Twins player for the better part of the last decade. I've met him a few times, I've watched him donate large sums to charity -- and organize his own charitable events, and I've watched him hit the hell out of the baseball and give 100% on the field all the time. I read every article on his concussion and rehabilitation, hoping against odds that he would come back to resemble the guy that was on an MVP pace the first half of 2010. This past month, I knew a trade was probably coming, but today my heart is still a little heavy knowing that #33 won't be manning first base any longer for the Twins. It's no understatement to say that this is the end of an era: the end of the "M & M" Era. I can acknowledge that Morneau probably wouldn't have been part of the next competitive Twins team, but that doesn't mean that I wanted to see him go.

The good news for Morneau is that he's healthy, he's been hitting for power this past month, and he's getting the opportunity to play in meaningful games for the first time in 3 years. He gets to go to Pittsburgh -- a fun, energized baseball city with one of the best parks. Hopefully, he'll play an important role for a team that has a good chance to compete in October. As much as Morneau's identity was intertwined with Minnesota and the Twins community, he's a professional athlete, and I'm sure the possibility of taking September and October at-bats in a pennant race produces a special kind of energy -- an energy he hasn't felt in several years.

But my source of frustration is that, in this trade, the Twins didn't really do anything to get better for the future -- aside from the possibility that the remaining $2+ million owed to Morneau could be spent this offseason on talent. Believe me, I completely understand that every single baseball team passed on Morneau during the waiver period. That alone is significant, and it strongly suggested that any trade return wouldn't be impressive. But if the Twins had been willing to eat part of that $2 million, could they have netted one solid prospect, rather than 28 year old fourth outfielder Alex Presley (we already have a few fourth outfielders), and Duke Welker, a righty reliever that throws hard but has control problems (note that at this time, Welker is only rumored to be the player to be named later)? Otherwise stated, my question is this: if the Twins had paid half or more of the money owed to Morneau, could they have received a better prospect from Pittsburgh? If the answer to that question is yes, then I'm disappointed with the result of this trade.

The Twins are obviously rebuilding. They haven't said it, which frustrates me, but it's happening. Part of a rebuild is that deals have to be made with the future in mind. If I'm Terry Ryan, I'm evaluating every trade with the following mindset: "Is Player X (meaning the player the Twins are to receive) likely to play a role on the next Twins team that is legitimately competing for a division title, which probably won't be until 2015 or 2016?" If the answer is "no," or if it would take a miracle for the answer to be "yes," then Ryan should go back to the drawing board. Yes, sometimes a legitimate return isn't really possible. Maybe that was the case with Jamey Carroll, in which case cash probably was an acceptable return. In fact, sometimes just having a player off your 40-man roster, and having another team take on the contract, might be enough of a return. But something was different about Morneau. Yes, he's not as good as he once was, but there is still gas in the tank. What if the Twins had let it be known that they would pay all the money owed to Morneau, but would expect a better return? It's tough for me to imagine that no team would have offered better than Alex Presley and a PTBNL.

This trade is complicated for me. I'm disappointed that I'll probably never see Justin Morneau play a game in person again. I'm sad -- as a fan -- that the M & M Era is over. I mean, these guys lived together and were practically best friends. I'm sad that Justin Morneau won't get to see good baseball in Minnesota again, when guys like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton come up. I'm disappointed that, unless the PTBNL pans out, the Twins probably saved $2 million, but didn't improve one iota for the future. In the end, maybe Ryan did offer to pay the entire $2 million, and maybe no team had a better offer. But I can't get it out of my mind that this feels like penny-pinching Twins deals of the mid 1990s all over again.