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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Terry Ryan: Still Employed. Me: A Little Pissed

Terry Ryan and I back in 2012.
I might have different comments for him now.
Kevin Correia. 23 starts. 4.94 ERA.
Johan Pino. 11 starts. 5.07 ERA.
Sam Deduno. 8 starts. 4.6 ERA.
Anthony Swarzak. 4 starts. 4.6 ERA.
Logan Darnell. 4 starts. 7.13 ERA.
Mike Pelfrey. 5 starts. 7.99 ERA.
Tommy Milone. 5 starts. 7.03 ERA.
Kris Johnson. 3 starts. 4.73 ERA.

Mike Pelfrey. 29 starts. 5.19 ERA.
Scott Diamond. 24 starts. 5.43 ERA.
Pedro Hernandez. 12 starts. 6.83 ERA.
Liam Hendriks. 8 starts. 6.85 ERA.
PJ Walters. 8 starts. 5.95 ERA.
Cole De Vries. 2 starts. 10.80 ERA.

Nick Blackburn. 19 starts. 7.39 ERA.
Liam Hendriks. 16 starts. 5.59 ERA.
Anthony Swarzak. 5 starts. 5.03 ERA.
Carl Pavano. 11 starts. 6.00 ERA.
PJ Walters. 12 starts. 5.69 ERA.
Jason Marquis. 7 starts. 8.47 ERA.
Esmerling Vasquez. 6 starts. 5.68 ERA.

Ron Gardenhire took the fall yesterday for 4 seasons of disgusting baseball. That decision was correct. Baseball is a business. And lately, business hasn't been good for the Twins. After the press conference, I was left thinking, "well, that was pretty good as far as those things go. Very Minnesotan, really. But why the hell does Terry Ryan still have a job?" And it's still bothering me today.

As Gardy and Ryan both noted, the reason the manager got canned is because the team didn't win enough games. For sure, Gardy was a contributor to that. Guys were played out of position, he refuses to platoon players, the Twins are among the least likely teams to shift defensively, he uses his closer in a very limited, sometimes non-sensical role, and I have huge concerns about his ability to handle player injuries. Those are just a few things, though. Sure, maybe those decisions cost the Twins 3, 4, 5 games a year. Maybe more. Maybe less. Tough to tell. But the point is, a manager's role in the playing of the game itself is limited.

I keep going back to Terry Ryan. Gardy's job was not to set the roster; it was to play the players on the roster. A "field manager." Take a look at the motley crew of pitchers, games started, and ERAs that I listed above (note: for guys that both started and relieved, I just used their combined ERA -- but you get the picture; note also, I didn't include guys like Trevor May or Ricky Nolasco, who were bad this season but should improve -- there's a difference between a prospect like May learning the big leagues, or a veteran like Nolasco having a career-awful year, and Cole De Vries.). For 2012, that list accounts for 76/162 starts; for 2013 it was 83 starts; and for 2014 it was 63 starts. Those are huge chunks of the season where the Twins were trotting out starting pitchers (sometimes relievers masked as starters) who gave the team little chance to win. That failure is not on Ron Gardenhire. There's no way that Gardy said, after a bunch of awful starts, "Terry, I just know Jason Marquis is gonna turn the corner. Give him more time." Or, "Pedro Hernandez -- I need that guy starting right now!" Are you kidding?!?! I'm sure Gardy lost tons of sleep over his team's pathetic starting pitching, which, incidentally, continually wore down what may have been decent bullpens. Yes, Gardy defends his players publicly, but what manager wouldn't want great starting pitching? What manager wouldn't beg his general manager for help as his team gets shelled every night?

I know what you're thinking: I've completely forgotten the part of the narrative where Bill Smith ruined the organization and Terry Ryan is rebuilding it, and where Ryan is one of the best baseball minds out there. But if there's one thing Ryan can be faulted for, it's failing to draft/develop/acquire better-than-average starting pitching -- and this goes back quite some time, long before Bill Smith. A team can either draft, trade for (other otherwise acquire through the Rule 5 draft, for instance), or sign players as free agents. The Twins have always needed better starting pitching. For the love of God, Brian Duensing started playoff games! Ryan, by and large, has failed to get his manager good pitching. The team, understandably, is reluctant to part with prospects, the best prospects are just now beginning to get to the majors (note that the Twins did not draft May or Alex Meyer), and it wasn't until last off-season that Ryan went out on the free agent market to spend real money. Too little. Too late. For Gardy, at least.

Look again at that list. 76 starts. 83 starts. 63 starts. Just for fun, imagine that, in just 20 of those starts each year, the Twins had a starting pitcher who could go 6 innings and give you a 3.5 or 4.0 ERA. I'm not even talking about a superstar. Just a better-than-average pitcher. Might the Twins win half those games? Perhaps. Imagine what another 10 wins would have made you think about the Twins' 2014 season. 80 wins and 82 losses sounds a hell of a lot better than 70-92.

In the end, Gardy had to go. He was past his prime, the Twins have a bunch of young guys coming up, and sometimes change for the sake of change is reason enough. But I can't get over the feeling that Ryan somehow is coming off unscathed in this mess, as if he has lifetime tenure, when in reality the Twins' record is as much a reflection on him as it is on Gardy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

So ... That Happened

You've probably heard the news by now that the Twins are out, and the Colorado Rockies are in, as New Britain's class AA affiliate. It's been a strange few months here in Connecticut on the baseball and political fronts, culminating with yesterday's news.

Back in June, Rock Cats managing partner Josh Solomon triumphantly (and surprisingly) announced from the steps of Hartford City Hall that the Rock Cats would be moving from their longtime home of New Britain to a brand new stadium in Hartford, effective for the 2016 season. That announcement shocked many, including the entire New Britain community, who apparently had been left in the dark and were at no point appraised of the fact that the new Rock Cats owners were negotiating with other parties with the goal of leaving Hardware City. I'll be honest -- I would go so far as to call Solomon's behavior arrogant. But the plans for the stadium were nice, and if you accept the fact that the team's owners were going to leave Connecticut for another city if they could not get a deal in Hartford (I don't), well, then I guess it's better to keep AA baseball in Connecticut than to let it go. When Solomon made this announcement, he indicated on the radio that the Twins were aware of and supported the move, though they had no part in the negotiations. My, how things changed in 3 months.

The new stadium deal, however, has become a disastrous headache, and was not, as Hartford's mayor stated during that initial press conference, a "done deal." Hartford, like many other cities, doesn't have much money to spare. So when news broke that the city of Hartford would be financing part of the stadium through about $60 million in bonds, many bristled at that idea. Solomon and Hartford's mayor had a lot of explaining to do -- not just for the financing of the stadium, but for their purported secret negotiations to get out of New Britain. Here's a good read on that subject.

Now, we're at the end of September, and there still is no stadium deal in Hartford. After a request for proposal process, the mayor's office reviewed 3 different stadium plans, and selected 1 plan to forward to Hartford's city council. That plan is interesting in that it includes much more than just a ballpark. Specifically, a brewery (with brewpub and outdoor patio), a grocery store, and commercial and residential development are all part of this comprehensive plan. The financing is very complicated, so I'll condense it to one sentence: the city of Hartford still will be paying millions of dollars to partially finance this project -- it just is not bonding the money. In fact, when all is said and done, it could be just as expensive as that initial $60 million figure that was floated under the original proposal. The new proposal has not yet been fully vetted by the council, and I have no indication that it will be approved any time in the near future.

So where does that leave the Twins? Well, you know by know that it left them in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A minor league player development contract (PDC) is for a minimum of 2 years. 2015 is the last season under the Rock Cats' lease with the city of New Britain (the city owns the ballpark), but 2016 is, as you get by now, uncertain. I'm not sure how the Twins could have signed a 2 year deal for a facility that hasn't been built, and the details of which haven't even been agreed upon. I can hardly blame the Twins for exercising some caution. As you can read here, the Twins also reportedly had concerns about the quality of the playing field in New Britain (not the first time I had heard that) and the team's travel schedule. The Colorado Rockies, however, were apparently happy to come to Connecticut.

So where does his leave the Rock Cats? Well, they're lucky to have a team. There's no real penalty possible -- if no one voluntarily affiliated with them, baseball would have assigned them a team. But I think Colorado could be a good fit. They're similar organizationally to the Twins, and of course we'll get to see Justin Morneau or Michael Cuddyer on a rehab assignment next season (hopefully not, actually). But here's my sneaking suspicion, which I have long harbored: the Rock Cats' owners eventually want a local team. The New York Mets' affiliation in Binghamton is up after the 2016 season. If that doesn't get renewed, I look for the Rock Cats to team up with the Mets. It makes tons of sense. Perhaps that's why the Rock Cats-Rockies deal is only 2 years.

Most importantly, where does this leave me? First, a little disappointed. The Rock Cats were a great tie to Minnesota for me. The Rock Cats were my niche. The Rock Cats were my hobby. The Rock Cats grew to comprise probably 75% of this blog at times. I'm especially bummed I won't get to see Buxton, Sano (again), and several others come up next season. But, as you know, I've had a tough time writing on the team this past season. Between work and life, I couldn't get out to the ballpark nearly as much as I wanted to. I'll still go to Rock Cats games now and then. I'll be excited if they open a new stadium in Hartford. But that's about it. As of today, I think I'll still cover the Chattanooga Lookouts "from afar" to the best of my ability. We'll see what I can come up with.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Baseball & Business: The Twins and Timing

Source: NBC Hardball Talk (Aaron Gleeman)
Last season, I'm sure you remember the Twins' ill-fated attempt to charge a select group of fans to watch the Twins take batting practice at home games. To be fair, fans currently don't get to watch the Twins take BP at Target Field, and several teams have a similar program in place, so this idea was not at all unfounded. But the reaction was crazy. People railed against the team such that, only a few hours after the team released the announcement, it was retracted. I didn't blog about this at the time, because it was covered everywhere. But to me, this was an example of really poor timing -- not a poor idea. The team was bad and fielding rather pathetic lineups. The idea that fans would pay extra to watch players like Wilkin Ramirez or Pedro Florimon take BP -- players that would be in AAA on a good team -- suggested to me that the organization was out of touch with a large portion of its fan base.

Yesterday, as I'm sure you've heard by now, the Twins released a "brand" survey to some fans, which included the question "[c]urrently, which one brand is the most similar to the Twins brand?" The answer choices were all automobiles: Taurus; Volvo; Mustang; Ford pick-up; Cadillac Escape; BMW; Mercedes; Mini Van; Dodge Viper; Prius Hybrid. Accompanying the car names were descriptors such as "fast and sporty," "quality and luxury," and "efficient and forward-thinking." Of course, none of these automobiles, and none of these descriptors, match the Twins. Maybe mini van comes the closest, but perhaps a more accurate descriptor for the current Twins brand -- "cruising" toward its 4th consecutive 90-loss season -- would be "my '97 Honda Civic after the CD player was stolen and there was a big hole so you could see almost into the engine."

Not surprisingly, this question became a laughingstock. How bad did it get? Keith Olbermann named the Twins' marketing department as his nightly "World's Worst." On national television.

Fast-forward nearly 24 hours later, and the Twins have yet to say anything publicly about this. Nothing on Twitter from the team, President Dave St. Peter or Mike Kennedy (Twins PR). Do they need to apologize? Of course not. It was a stupid little marketing brand question that went viral, and that seems to happen frequently these days as businesses realize the importance of social/digital marketing and venture into previously uncharted territory. But it did suggest that, perhaps, the organization hasn't learned much in the past year. If the front office really thinks that the Twins are anything like a BMW, or are "urban and street-wise" (how can that even translate into athletics???), or any of those other vehicles or descriptors, the front office is still very much out of touch with what is apparent to everyone else.

Social media and digital marketing failures happen all the time. And people get past them. But this is still an embarrassment for the Twins who, in my opinion, are usually pretty good with their ads and marketing stuff. To do nothing for 24 hours, especially after you've been taken down on national television, is just stupid. So what do I suggest? Think like a minor league team would. Do something outside the box. Just. Do. Something. I'm not just going to sit here and make fun of the team without suggesting alternatives. So here are 2 awful ideas.

1) Really own this failure and give away a mini van at the last home game of the season. Or donate one to one of the many deserving MN nonprofits. It can be from Mauer Chevrolet. 2) Have a Keith Olbermann day at the ballpark. Invite him to throw out the first pitch. Or ban him from the ballpark for life. Whatever. Free or discounted tickets to people with the legal name "Keith" or "Olbermann." If your birth name is "Keith Olbermann," you get Champions Club seats.

Now, I'm an attorney, and I rarely get involved on the creative side at my job. You can see why. But at least these ideas are something. It's better than silence. At the very least, Dave St. Peter should get on twitter (where he is very accessible and patient with fans), and say something funny to Olbermann. Maybe take him down a peg?? Again -- something. Like the batting practice thing, this will go away in a few days. But the team: a) demonstrated once again that it's out of touch with reality; and b) missed an opportunity to turn an embarrassing negative into something positive, or at least a little funny.