Friday, April 30, 2010

Quick Thoughts on Manship and Neshek

Our friend Phil Mackey had a bunch of interesting news tidbits within his latest filing on the ESPN 1500 SportsWire (which you should have bookmarked by now). Most intriguing among these are reports that Jeff Manship seems to be in line to start tomorrow and that Pat Neshek may soon be demoted to Rochester.

Manship's start tomorrow would come in place of Nick Blackburn, who has left the team to deal with a family matter. Manship, who posted a 5.68 ERA over 11 appearances for the Twins last season, may seem like a solid fill-in option based on his 3.48 ERA in four starts for the Red Wings this year, but a deeper look reveals that he hasn't been on top of his game.

While he's done a decent job of keeping runs off the board, Manship has yielded a .316 batting average to Triple-A hitters thus far. He's also getting more outs through the air than on the ground and he's already surrendered four home runs in 20 2/3 innings. Those are bad signs for a guy whose trademark coming up through the minors has been keeping the ball on the ground.

The more suitable candidate to make a spot start for the Twins would be Brian Duensing, but he's not stretched out since he's been pitching out of the bullpen. This is the downside to having your sixth starter working in a relief role; when needed in a pinch, he's not available. The Twins will have to hope that Manship can remain steady and get the job done tomorrow.

I was a bit surprised to read that the club is leaning toward sending Neshek to the minors, given how solid he'd looked over his first handful of appearances, but the move would not be unmerited. Neshek's availability as of late has been limited due to a finger injury and he couldn't throw strikes in his most recent appearance. More worrisome is that his velocity has dropped noticeably; the right-hander is averaging just 86.8 MPH with his fastball and he's showing significantly less faith in the pitch than in the past, having thrown it just 34 percent of the time compared to 45 percent last year and 51 percent in 2007.

A drop in a velocity and an unwillingness to lean on the fastball aren't uncommon traits for a pitcher fresh off Tommy John surgery, but if Neshek isn't at full strength the Twins would be wise to swap him with someone who can be relied upon right now, given that Jesse Crain has looked terrible. Maybe the team will finally give Anthony Slama a look, as the righty has continued to dominate by posting a 1.26 ERA and 18-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .109 average over 14 1/3 innings in Rochester this year.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Predictably Punchless

In past years, Twins fans have grown used to seeing a lineup trotted out on "getaway days" (usually Thursday or Sunday afternoon games) that featured several marginal backup players and inspired little confidence. On days like this, one could take a quick glance at the starting lineup and guess that a loss was in store.

This season, the Twins offense has featured enough depth that the team has been able to put forth a relatively imposing lineup even with a few regulars on the bench. That wasn't the case today, as soreness kept Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and J.J. Hardy all out of the lineup. As a result, the starting nine for the Twins' series finale in Detroit featured Drew Butera at catcher, Luke Hughes at third and Brendan Harris at short, with Delmon Young and Jason Kubel manning the corner outfield spots. Even the big left-handed boppers that remained in the middle of the lineup -- Jason Kubel and Jim Thome -- had tough match-ups with a lefty on the mound. From both an offensive and defensive standpoint, it was the worst group that Ron Gardenhire has trotted out all year, making it tough to see how the Twins would be able to come away with a win.

As expected, the Twins came out with little firepower in a 3-0 loss. Despite drawing a favorable pitching match-up with the erratic Dontrelle Willis on the mound, the Twins couldn't come close to mounting a rally, managing just four singles in the game and accumulating only one at-bat with a runner in scoring position. The characteristically patient Twins' lineup drew just one walk against Willis while fanning six times. In the few occasions where they managed to get runners aboard, they killed themselves with double plays. It was a brutal offensive effort that wasted a strong performance from Carl Pavano, who hurled an eight-inning complete game and allowed only two earned runs but took the hard-luck loss.

After losing two of three to the Tigers, the Twins have finally lost a series, making them the last team in the majors to do so. That's certainly nothing to be ashamed of, nor is being shut out for the first time on April 29 (last year, the Twins' first shutout game in their fourth game).

Butera, who went 0-for-2 and set up the Tigers' first run with an errant throw on Austin Jackson's first-inning stolen base attempt, has indeed looked brutal at the plate, but those who raised a huff about his presence on the Opening Day roster have been made to look silly as he's started only three of the Twins' first 22 games while drawing a total of just nine plate appearances. One could make a valid argument that Butera might be the worst hitter in all the majors, but -- as any rational thinker could have expected -- he's had minimal impact on the team's fortunes thus far. With Wilson Ramos looking overmatched against Triple-A pitching so far, it's certainly looking like the Twins made the right choice in bringing Butera north as Mauer's back-up. That being said, Jose Morales' return from injury couldn't come soon enough.


I posted an article breaking down last night's ugly loss to the Tigers over at Twinkie Town and I can't bring myself to write anymore words about it. Feel free to go check out that recap here. The short version: Jesse Crain is very bad.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Morneau is Cleaning Up

I'll be honest, I was a little worried about Justin Morneau this spring. He'd struggled through the latter portion of the 2009 campaign due to a back injury which ultimately forced him to watch the final weeks of the regular season (and the Twins' playoff series against the Yankees) from the bench. Rather than medical treatment for his fractured vertebrae, Morneau was told by doctors to simply rest and let the ailment heal on its own. We've seen this approach fail plenty of times in the past. Morneau also underwent wrist surgery during the offseason.

Spring training did little to alleviate my fears that Morneau may experience some after effects from the injuries that ruined the end of his 2009 season. He hit just .160 in Grapefruit League play, striking out 10 times while drawing only three walks. Morneau's worst season as a big-leaguer up to this point had come in 2005, after an offseason filled with various health issues, and there was legitimate reason to worry that he might be headed for a down year in 2010.

Thus far, Morneau has thoroughly squashed any such concerns. He left last night's game with a strained back, which is somewhat alarming, but the Twins insisted that his removal was strictly precautionary and that he will be fine. Hopefully that's true, because up to this point he's been an absolute monster amidst the Twins' lineup, batting .352 through his first 20 games while getting on base literally almost half the time and providing solid power with four homers, five doubles and a triple. The fast start is nothing new for Morneau, who is a career .298/.375/.540 hitter in the month of April, but he's doing things this year that we've never seen from him before.

Most intriguing has been Morneau's extremely impressive plate discipline; early in his MLB career, he would generally strike out about twice as often as he walked, which is fairly normal for a power hitter of his ilk. In recent years, he's seen that ratio draw closer to even, but in this young season he has already drawn 20 walks while fanning only 14 times (three of those coming last night). That's the type of K/BB ratio that would make even Joe Mauer jealous. Morneau has definitely been more discerning at the plate, as he is swinging at only 40.7 percent of total pitches offered, down significantly from his career rate of 49.7 percent. That includes a chase rate (swings at pitches out of the zone) of 25.4 percent, down from 29.4 for his career. It seems that Morneau is clearly benefiting from the overall improvement in the Twins' lineup -- pitchers are less inclined to throw him strikes and he's taking advantage by laying off more pitches. If this trend can continue it will be a huge boost for the offense, since Morneau (and others) constantly being on base is a big part of the reason the Twins have scored so many runs despite struggling to come up with big hits in scoring opportunities.

The early success of the Twins' first baseman looms especially large in light of the contract Ryan Howard signed with the Phillies on Monday. The five-year, $125 million extension will pay Howard an annual salary even higher than Mauer, and easily shatters the six-year, $80 million deal that Morneau signed prior to the 2008 season.

There's no denying Howard's amazing productivity when it comes to home runs and RBI, but it seems that those two categories are the sole basis for his towering contract. Going back to 2006, when both he and Morneau were named MVP of their respective leagues, Howard has amassed a hitting line of .277/.376/.584 while Morneau has turned in a .294/.369/.520. Now, Howard does have a significant edge in runs batted in (588 to 485) and homers (201 to 122) during that span, but the former is partially explainable by the fact that Howard has generally been playing in better lineups and given more opportunities to drive in runs, while the latter is partially offset by Howard's being far more prone to strike out (he's fanned 780 times compared to just 366 for Morneau). Sure, Howard's homers are nice, but do they make him worth almost $12 million more per season than Morneau?

Aside from their numbers not being all that different, there are other factors that make Morneau look like an enormous bargain in light of Howard's new deal. Chief among them is the age difference between the two players. When Morneau signed his six-year extension with the Twins, he was just 26 years old and clearly amidst his prime. Howard is 30 -- a year and a half older than Morneau is even now, two years into his deal. When you account for the fact that Howard seems unlikely to age well given his body type and historical comparables, it's easy to see which team is going to be feeling better about their first baseman's current contract in a couple years.

Even if Morneau doesn't continue to get on base at a .500 clip.

Monday, April 26, 2010

All Aboard

In an article listing Twins series that make for good road trip opportunities this summer, I expressed my excitement about a new venture from Scott Povolny called TwinsTrain. Basically, the deal is that you pay an (essentially) all-inclusive fee and you hop aboard a bus, head to a location where the Twins are playing and get hooked up with a hotel, tickets to a couple games and various other niceties. Given the Twins' centralized midwest location -- which is ideal for road tripping to numerous different away series -- and the generally excellent nature of the Twins fan base, I'd long been hoping to see something like this come together. Naturally, I was very pleased to see someone finally taking the steps to make it a reality.

This past weekend, I made my first trip on TwinsTrain, which headed down to Kansas City for the Twins' series against the Royals. I can happily report that, despite being in its infancy, Scott's operation went very smoothly and I certainly speak for everyone that I went with in saying that it was an absolute blast. I'll give a rundown of the experience (as best I can remember it -- there was a lot of drinking) for those who may have an interest in taking one of the remaining trips planned for this summer.

Our bus departed early on Friday morning. The fans aboard the bus were essentially divided into two groups: the rowdy and ready-to-party crowd and the more reserved folks who actually care about the state of their livers. Naturally, I fell into the first group -- come on, I'm 24 -- and we congregated on the back of the bus where coolers of beer and other refreshments were provided. Those who were more interested in relaxing sat closer to the front of the bus. Despite the disparity in intentions for these two groups, everyone got along well and Scott did a great job of mingling with everyone and helping keep all parties comfortable and happy.

We arrived at our hotel in Kansas City in the mid-afternoon and hung out for a while before hopping back aboard the bus to head down to Kauffman Stadium. There, we parked and tailgated with some fellow Twins fans for a while before heading into the ballpark and watching a Twins victory from some nice seats down the first base line.

The next day, we headed to Gates Bar-B-Q for some lunch, then swung by a local bar to kill a few hours before the game. We got out to the stadium for a complimentary pregame buffet, and Scott somehow managed to get us in a free suite for not only the buffet but for the game itself (which was extremely nice since it was a rather rainy evening). The game was a 12-inning marathon, but in the end the Twins came out on top, improving their record in TwinsTrain-attended games to 4-0. After the game, we bussed out to the Power and Lights District in downtown Kansas City to check out the night life. I was blown away by how cool this area was, and more great times were had.

We jumped back on the bus around 10:30 on Sunday morning for the long ride home. Here, I exacerbated my hangover by making the mistake of eating a Double Down sandwich from KFC for lunch. If you've never heard of it, the Double Down is a chicken "sandwich" which substitutes two pieces of fried chicken for bread and includes bacon, sauce and two types of cheese. It is perhaps the single most unhealthy piece of food I've ever seen, but I had to try one just so I could say I had. This turned out to be a mistake. Wow, that was gross.

Anyway, in summary, the trip was an awesome time. Scott did a terrific job of keeping everything organized and on track, and our bus driver Ed was a hoot. I'm definitely going to aim to make another trip later this summer and I'd recommend that everyone else do the same. For future dates, rates and all other info, you can check out

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Aces in the Hole

Throughout the offseason, I repeatedly pointed to Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano as wild cards for the Twins rotation. The starting staff entered the season as the team's most glaring potential weakness, given that the Twins ranked 12th out of 14 AL teams in 2009 with a 4.84 starters' ERA and added no new pieces to the rotation from the end of last year to the start of this year. Yet, Slowey and Liriano -- who both had their '09 campaigns muddled by arm issues -- each had the ability to help turn around the fortunes of the Twins' rotation by simply bouncing back with healthy, productive seasons.

Slowey and Liriano have both given plenty of reason to believe they can develop into top-end starters. Slowey stampeded through the minors, posting a 1.94 ERA and 0.85 WHIP across five levels of competition before reaching the majors just two years after being drafted out of Winthrop University. He put in his first full big-league season in 2008, posting a 3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 123-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 160 1/3 innings as a 24-year-old. Meanwhile, Liriano had blossomed into a top prospect after being acquired from the Giants in the A.J. Pierzynski trade, and when he joined the big-league ranks full-time in 2006 he was an unstoppable force, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 144-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 121 innings.

Yet, Slowey and Liriano both entered this season with big question marks hanging over their heads. Liriano had seen his meteoric rise in 2006 come to an abrupt halt when his elbow gave out, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire '07 campaign and spent both of the past two years struggling to rediscover his command and velocity. Between those two campaigns, Liriano battled confidence problems while going 11-17 with a 5.12 ERA and 1.49 WHIP -- ugly numbers for the former phenom. Slowey ran into his own issues last year, as he posted disappointing numbers over his first 16 starts before succumbing to a painful wrist that ultimately required season-ending surgery. The right-hander had screws implanted in his pitching wrist, and it was unclear whether the operation would take a toll on his pinpoint command.

With Liriano looking to rebound from a lost season that had many questioning whether he'd ever be able to consistently throw the ball over the plate again and Slowey seeking to prove that his wrist surgery was but a bump in the road, this 2010 season loomed large for both starters, particularly given the hefty expectations being placed on his Twins team. Fortunately, positive signs began to emerge early for both pitchers. Liriano dominated the Dominican Winter League, garnering rave reviews and causing many analysts to declare he was back to form. The southpaw continued to impress in spring training, easily locking up the fifth spot in the Twins rotation by showing solid command of his mid-90s fastball while cruising to a 2.70 ERA and 30-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 20 innings of work. Slowey was equally sharp, posting a 1.95 ERA and 20-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 27 frames.

Of course, those encouraging signs don't mean a whole lot unless they are carried into the regular season, and thus far Liriano and Slowey have both been able to follow through. This was most evident over the last two nights, when both pitchers thoroughly dismantled the Indians at Target Field. Each hurler rattled off eight scoreless frames, and they both did it in their own signature style. Slowey outwitted opposing hitters by working all around the strike zone and painting the corners of the plate. Liriano whipped his hard fastball and darting slider into the bottom part of the zone, inducing whiffs and ground balls. Neither pitcher gave Cleveland's lineup a chance to breathe. In short, both pitched like aces.

Of course, one home start against a relatively weak lineup does not immediately vault either pitcher to elite status. But, in combination with all the promising signs they've given us leading up to this point, these outings from Slowey and Liriano are bound to boost enthusiasm among MLB betting fans starving for a true ace. And while neither pitcher is a sure bet to fill the void that continues to exist in the absence of Santana, both seem poised to go from question marks to exclamation points.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Fall of Glen Perkins

In 2008, we saw the foundation being built for the future of the Twins' rotation. Johan Santana and Carlos Silva had departed in the previous offseason, and young hurlers like Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn were stepping up to pick up the slack while Francisco Liriano embarked upon his comeback from Tommy John surgery. One entrenched figure in that '08 group, though, has seen his stock drop dramatically to the point that he's now not much more than an afterthought.

After an impressive rookie campaign in 2008, Glen Perkins opened the '09 season with three consecutive eight-inning gems and appeared poised for an outstanding sophomore year. Then, the wheels came off. Perkins struggled over the next few months, battling injuries and posting a 7.34 ERA over his next 15 appearances (14 starts). When he was sent to Triple-A in August, Perkins and his agent cried foul, claiming that the demotion was a ploy to delay his arbitration clock and rob him of future earnings. The Twins, who certainly had legitimate reason to send Perkins down given his terrible performance, were clearly annoyed by the accusations. When the Twins assembled a vast array of past and present players late in the season for a ceremony to bid farewell to the Metrodome, Perkins did not attend. Many saw it as a foregone conclusion that the lefty, a Stillwater native and University of Minnesota alum who had seemed destined to play out his career as a Twin, would be dealt during the offseason.

Perkins wasn't dealt, perhaps due to a lack of demand, and he entered spring training this year ostensibly vying for the fifth spot in the Twins rotation. It's impossible to say whether or not the Twins truly viewed him as a candidate for that spot, but Perkins did himself no favors by performing poorly in Grapefruit League play before being sidelined by yet another injury, and he found himself in the minors to start the season. Things have continued to cascade for him there. After allowing two runs over three innings in his first start for Rochester, Perkins was pounded on Monday night, allowing seven runs (five earned) on seven hits over just 3 1/3 innings. Perkins' ERA with the Red Wings now sits at 9.95, and it's tough to imagine at this point that he'd be even third or fourth in line to be called upon should one of the Twins' current starters falter or suffer an injury.

The Twins have a tough call on their hand with Perkins. He seems to be languishing in this organization. Whether due to confidence problems, lingering injuries or some other combination of issues, the 12-game winner with the Twins in 2008 can no longer seem to get Triple-A hitters out. At age 27, Perkins' career may hang in the balance. With Blackburn's arm hurting and the Twins dealing with some injuries in the bullpen, the opportunity definitely exists for him to get back onto the major-league roster and resurrect his career. But first, he needs to get on track in Rochester. Despite all the bad blood that seems to now exist between him and the Twins organization, I'm really hoping Perkins gets another chance -- if not here, then elsewhere.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bad Gardy

The lineups for tonight's tilt against the Indians have been released, and a quick glance at Ron Gardenhire's lineup has confirmed my fears: Delmon Young is starting in left field, and Jim Thome is on the bench.

This is egregious because Cleveland's starter in the game is Justin Masterson, a grounder-inducing righty who delivers from a three-quarters slot. Almost without exception, pitchers that throw from this angle are extremely vulnerable to opposite-handed batters (think Pat Neshek) and Masterson is certainly no exception. During his career, left-handed hitters have posted an OPS nearly 300 points higher than righties against him. That's not a platoon split, it's a chasm. It's an enormous, glaring number that should make the decision to bench a player like Young -- who already hits the ball on the ground too often and has always struggled to hit right-handed pitching -- an absolute no-brainer.

When Gardenhire made a similarly misguided decision earlier this month, I pointed out that the thinking behind his decision was "a significant flaw in Gardy's managerial approach, and one that is likely to manifest repeatedly throughout the season." Here, we see it again, in an even more inexcusable situation. Like last time, this is but one lineup decision and odds are that it won't be the deciding factor in tonight's game, but we're seeing a manager overlooking blatantly obvious statistical evidence and failing to put key players in a position to succeed.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Hits Just Keep on (Not) Coming

With a talented but erratic pitcher on the mound for the Royals yesterday, the Twins lineup did just about everything that could be asked of them. Everything, that is, except for deliver even one big hit.

With Luke Hochevar getting the nod for Kansas City, the Twins consistently took quality at-bats, forcing the young right-hander to throw 104 pitches (just 53 of them strikes) while issuing five walks and littering the bases with runners. The problem was that the Twins just couldn't come up with the big hits to drive those runners in. That problem persisted when Hochevar gave way to the weak Kansas City bullpen, as the Twins continued to turn in lengthy plate appearances and draw walks but still could not get the big hit that might have pulled them back into the game after Carl Pavano's ugly start.

A lack of timely hitting has sadly been a theme for these Twins thus far rather than an isolated issue in yesterday's loss. Their .367 team on-base percentage ranks third in the American League, and yet the Twins have failed to take advantage of their copious opportunities by hitting just .248 with runners in scoring position, including an ugly 3-for-19 mark with the bases loaded. They've also hit into 14 double plays, ranking them second behind the White Sox. That the Twins have managed to score more runs than any AL club other than the Yankees while posting a 9-4 record in spite of these problems is encouraging, but at some point the marquee hitters are going to have to step up and start delivering.

This lineup is packed with talent and there's no way these guys will keep coming up short so frequently in scoring opportunities throughout the season. I'm very confident in that. With that being said, it's tough to remain patient when seeing them leave so many runners on the bases day in and day out, particularly at home against pitchers like Hochevar and the Kansas City relief corps. The Twins have got to start better punishing opposing pitchers for their mistakes. Yesterday, they screwed up royally in that department.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Should the Twins Demote Mijares?

For the most part, the Twins bullpen has been outstanding this year. The one exception is Jose Mijares, whose struggles from late last season and spring training have carried into the start of the 2010 campaign. Mijares has made five appearances thus far, facing 16 batters and getting only nine outs while surrendering six hits (two of them homers) and two walks. He's struck out only two batters. In his most recent outing against the Red Sox, Mijares threw just 10 of his 21 pitches for strikes, laboring through a low-leverage inning in a blowout.

One wonders how much further into the doghouse Mijares will dig. He already angered his teammates and coaches late last season when he became frustrated during a game in Detroit and beaned a Tigers hitter, leading to a retaliation strike against Delmon Young. This came during a month of September in which Mijares looked increasingly hittable. The southpaw followed up his inauspicious finish to the '09 campaign by showing up to spring training late and out of shape, and proceeding to post a 6.75 ERA in nine Grapefruit League appearances. Now, his sophomore big-league campaign has gotten off to a rather dreadful start.

That the Twins recently called up Ron Mahay, a 39-year-old reliever who went unclaimed in free agency this past offseason before signing a minor-league deal in late March, would seem to reflect their current lack of faith in Mijares. The team already had a backup lefty in the bullpen in Brian Duensing, but the youthful Duensing can hardly be called upon to face tough lefties in high-leverage late-game situations, and now it seems the Twins may be hesitant to call upon Mijares in those same situations. Mahay missed nearly all of spring training and got just four tune-up appearances in Ft. Myers before his promotion. He replaces a promising young reliever in Alex Burnett, who'd performed admirably in his first couple appearances with the Twins, and bypasses the organization's top relief prospect, Anthony Slama.

Given how unreliable Mijares has been thus far, some fans are calling for his demotion to Triple-A, particularly now that Mahay is present as a second lefty specialist. Personally, I don't think it's time for that yet. Yes, Mijares is struggling, but a bad spring training and a handful of ugly April outings do not trump his outstanding performance throughout the minors and his dominance over left-handers throughout last season (.155 BAA vs. LH hitters). That Mijares is struggling with his control should come as no big surprise, given that he averaged five walks per nine innings as a prospect, but he managed to battle through that to post a 3.31 ERA in 270 minor-league innings and can overcome those issues at the big-league level as well.

For Mijares, it's all about confidence. Sending him down to Triple-A after just five appearances would send the wrong message. But at some point, if the hefty lefty doesn't shape up, the Twins will have a decision to make. That time might come when Clay Condrey is ready to return from the disabled list.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Right Idea, Wrong Approach

I begged for the Twins to sign Orlando Hudson two offseasons ago. This past winter, when they actually did sign Hudson, I was ecstatic. I repeatedly called Hudson the team's biggest offseason acquisition and lauded his ability to upgrade this team at the second base position and at the second spot in the batting order.

Thus far, Hudson has been a disappointment to me. Not just because he's failed to produce much on the field and has fizzled out in several key spots already, but also because of some recent comments he made off the field. In an interview with Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, Hudson implied that the main reason players like Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield have failed to find work this season is the color of their skin.

It's an outlandish accusation. Sheffield does indeed have a Hall of Fame caliber resume, but he's 41 with a reputation for pushing people the wrong way, and it doesn't take a tenured scout to see that his bat speed has dropped significantly in recent years. Dye, meanwhile, has turned down offers from multiple clubs this offseason. If he were willing to sign a deal that approximated the one Jim Thome got from the Twins, Dye would have been signed by December. (In fact, he probably could have gotten twice as much as Thome, as Dye reportedly turned down a $3 million offer because he didn't want to settle for a fourth outfielder role.) The reason clubs haven't signed black players like Dye and Sheffield -- not to mention white players like Jarrod Washburn and Joe Crede -- is because they don't want to be stuck overpaying aging players with diminishing skills when those players expect to be getting paid for production they're probably no longer capable of.

Of course, Hudson isn't the first guy with Minnesota ties to become vocal on this subject. Torii Hunter has lamented the dearth of African-American players in the game many times in the past, and made some waves earlier this spring when he told USA Today that dark-skinned Latin players are "impostors" who ostensibly give the false illusion that Major League Baseball's lack of black players is not a problem.

As Greg Doyel pointed out in his excellent article on the topic for CBS Sports today, the percentage of African-American players in the majors is nearly identical to the percentage of African-Americans in the overall U.S. population. Doyel also points -- as many others have -- to the expense of playing baseball as a reason that the sport isn't as popular as it could be among youngsters in the inner-city and urban communities. To his credit, Hunter has backed up his passionate words by putting a lot of his own money into helping create more opportunities for inner-city kids to get on the diamond; certainly that's a lot more helpful than making the type of bizarre accusational statements he -- and now Hudson -- have made.

Today, organizations and fans across baseball are celebrating the amazing accomplishments of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier some 60 years ago. It's certainly an appropriate time to discuss the racial issues which undeniably affect all aspects of society, including baseball. Yet, contrary to what my good friend Twins Geek says, comments like Hudson's and Hunter's don't help advance productive discussion. Claiming that major-league front offices across baseball have some sort of collective bias against American-born black players or that the dark-skinned Latin players who are helping increase the game's diversity are frauds only serves to rile folks up and perpetuate racial tensions.

I think that Hudson and Hunter, along with others who have come forth with similar sentiments, have their hearts in the right place. They look around them and see what they perceive as a small and ever-dwindling percentage of black players in the game, and they want to stem the tide. That's something I can absolutely get behind. But there are better and less contentious ways of addressing this important issue that won't cause the same type of defensiveness and divisiveness. Personally, I think that's what Jackie would have wanted. But maybe that's just me.

Thursday Notes

Yesterday, I made my first voyage to Target Field, taking in the Twins' 6-3 loss to the Red Sox. The rainy and windy conditions were not ideally suited for baseball, but I was of course dazzled by the ballpark and all of its various nuances. I look forward to further exploring it this summer. I don't have much time to write tonight, so here are a few links and notes:

* You can read my recap of yesterday's game on Twinkie Town here.

* Last night, I participated in a podcast with Fanatic Jack. Jack, who I met at the TwinsCentric gathering last weekend and is a really good guy, has a voice and persona seemingly tailor-made for talk radio, so it's always fun to go on his show and try to calm him down a little bit.

* Speaking of TwinsCentric, the next viewing party was announced yesterday. It will take place on Saturday, May 15 during the Twins' noon game against the Yankees, at the Majors in Bloomington. Yes, Bloomington. Despite the strong turnout and quality reviews for our past viewing parties, one recurring complaint was the distance of the venues (Apple Valley and Blaine). At least half of those complaints came from Aaron Gleeman. Well, Aaron, you can rest easy, as our next event will have a much more metro-friendly location. As in the past, food and drink specials will be made available to our guests and prizes will be given out. Hope to see you all there.

* Today's tilt looms large in this young season. Francisco Liriano, who tantalized us with his dominant work in the Dominican League and in spring training, will make his home debut after producing mixed results in his first start against the White Sox. If Liriano can dismantle a good offense in front of the home crowd, it could do wonders for his confidence. And a healthy, confident Francisco Liriano could do wonders for the Twins.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


When Brad Childress was first hired as head coach of the Vikings several years ago, he famously promised fans that he would implement a "kick-ass offense." Of course, in his early years at the helm, few would have described the Vikings' plodding offensive unit with that terminology, but by last year -- with the right pieces in place -- the Vikes had become a point-scoring juggernaut and were able to come within a game of the Super Bowl.

The Twins have similarly added some key pieces during their most recent offseason, and the early results in their 2010 campaign have been similarly -- well -- kick-ass. It might not be appropriate to compare J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson to Brett Favre and Percy Harvin, but the Twins had an immensely talented core in place already and by shoring up some holes in the lineup (and on the bench, with the addition of Jim Thome), they have seemingly taken their offensive game to the next level.

Last season, the Twins ranked fourth in the American League in runs scored and ninth in home runs. Those are respectable placements, but given that they boasted the league MVP and two other hitters who gained some measure of consideration or the award (Justin Morneau probably would have garnered votes as well if not for his injury), one might have expected the '09 Twins to have been a truly elite offensive club. What held them back was the number of plate appearances that went to substandard hitters like Alexi Casilla, Carlos Gomez, Nick Punto, Joe Crede and Matt Tolbert. Each one of those players accumulated at least 200 plate appearances last year, and not one managed an OPS much over .700. The addition of players like Hardy, Hudson and Thome prevents the Twins from being forced into heaping playing time on overmatched reserves and helps supplement a lineup core that has clearly established itself as one of the most formidable in baseball.

Punto remains a fixture in the Twins lineup, but if his struggles continue, Brendan Harris and Danny Valencia await as viable options to replace him at third. Meanwhile, the rest of this offense looks very strong. Hudson and Denard Span have both gotten off to slow starts, but given their histories there's little reason to expect that to continue. The middle-of-the-lineup hitters have been predictably excellent and Delmon Young is off to a very promising start. Already, we're seeing that this lineup is deep enough to sustain slumps from a few key players and teamwide struggles with runners in scoring position, as they've managed to average 4.62 runs per game despite the lack of production from the top of the order and a .239 team average with runners in scoring position. That's what power up and down the lineup and a core packed with elite hitters can do for you. Once Span and Hudson get it going and the Twins start better taking advantage of scoring opportunities in general -- look out.

Watching this offense provides a new and exciting sensation for Twins fans. This is a lineup that legitimately strikes fear into opposing pitchers and doesn't really let up or relent. It's probably not realistic to expect this group to score 30 a game, as the Vikings did last season, but it would hardly be surprising to see this kick-ass Twins offense put up a touchdown or two from time to time. And it would be somewhat surprising if they weren't among the league leaders in scoring throughout the summer. This lineup is legit.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

So Far, So Good

With today marking the first off day in this young season, it seems an appropriate time to look back and review what's happened so far. Basically, the Twins have been on absolute fire. They've won six of their eight games against three quality teams and been competitive in both their losses. They've outscored all but two AL clubs and rank second in homers. Perhaps more surprisingly, they've allowed fewer runs than any other team in the league.

For those, like myself, who spent a lot of time raving about this lineup throughout the winter and spring, the team's fast offensive start should come as no surprise. The strong work from the pitching staff, though, was not necessarily a given. With a rotation filled with question marks and a bullpen that lost its best member during spring training, preventing runs certainly appeared to be the Twins' biggest hurdle, but thus far the team's arms have been up to the task. Starters have been delivering quality starts and the bullpen has been lights-out with a few exceptions.

The Twins have started their season on a hot streak, to be sure, and as such it would be wise not to jump to grandiose conclusions. Sure, right now they have the look of a 100-win team, but we haven't yet seen the bats hit their first power lull, nor have we seen our first late-inning bullpen implosion. These things are bound to happen, and I'm sure they will serve to dampen enthusiasm somewhat. However, what is clear is that this is a very good team, with a lineup that stacks up favorably against even the mighty Red Sox and a group of pitchers that appears more than capable of supporting that lineup. So far, so good.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Let's Take This Outside

Much discussion in the wake of yesterday's loss to the White Sox revolved around the frustrating manner in which the game ended. With the Twins trailing 5-4 in the ninth inning, pinch hitter Jim Thome delivered a scorching two-out double over the head of left fielder Juan Pierre. J.J. Hardy, who had been on first base representing the tying run, came charging into third just as the ball was reaching cut-off man Mark Teahen. Unfortunately, Scott Ullger failed to throw up the stop sign, and as a result Hardy was easily thrown out at home plate to end the game.

It was a disappointing conclusion to the Twins' season-opening road trip, but the overall results in the first seven games have been undeniably positive. The Twins went on the road to face a pair of relatively strong teams and came away with two series victories. The starting pitching has been solid, the bullpen -- with the exception of Jose Mijares -- has been highly effective, and of course the offense has been stellar.

Indeed, the team's play thus far has given fans plenty to be excited about. And that excitement will culminate this afternoon when the Twins officially christen their brand new ballpark. Jon Lester and Carl Pavano will face off in the inaugural regular season contest at Target Field at 3 pm, and the next chapter of Minnesota baseball will get underway.

A 5-2 opening road trip bodes well for a team that went 38-43 in opponents' ballparks last year, but one of the Twins' greatest strengths over the past decade has been their ability to consistently win games at home. Today we'll get our first meaningful glimpse of the Twins in Target Field, a stadium they are at this point mostly unfamiliar with. Acclimating to the quirks and tendencies of this field will be a process for the Twins, so it's unclear how much of an advantage they will hold in their new outdoor stadium, especially in the earlier games when cool weather might suppress the power that is shaping up to be this team's hallmark.

Boston makes for a tough match-up in a home opening series, but if the Twins can keep playing the way they did during the first week of the season they should be up to the challenge. The Angels and White Sox are viewed by many as playoff-caliber teams, and the Twins came out of both teams' stadiums looking like the superior club. If the Twins can get off to a fast start against a quality opponent in their own home park, I think fans will have enough positive signs to make them forget about the missed sign at third base yesterday.

The long wait is over. Outdoor baseball in Minnesota begins today. Let's play ball.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Master Blasters

Last year, the Twins ranked fourth in the American League in runs scored with 817. That's impressive. They also hit 173 homers to rank ninth out of 14 AL clubs, which -- while hardly astounding -- represented an improvement from their usual standing among the bottom two or three teams in the long ball department.

This year, the Twins brought back every key offensive player from last year's roster while (perhaps dramatically) upgrading both middle infield spots and signing a Hall of Famer to serve as a part-time bench bat. This created a lot of enthusiasm amongst fans eager to see what this loaded lineup could do.

Just four games into the season, these Twins have given us a pretty good idea. Already they've blasted nine home runs (last year it took them until April 17 to reach that mark) and they've demonstrated an ability go get power from the bottom of the order, something rarely seen around these parts. Delmon Young and JJ Hardy, who typically will serve in the No. 7 and 8 spots in the order, each homered twice in Anaheim. Unsurprisingly, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Jim Thome have gotten in on the action as well, and it surely won't be long until Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel join the parade.

The score in last night's game went from 3-1 to 10-1 in an awful hurry. That's the beauty of the multi-run homer, which will be a more potent weapon for the Twins this season than perhaps ever before. Sort of a surreal feeling.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Playing Against the Percentages

I'm generally supportive of Ron Gardenhire. He runs a good clubhouse and you can't argue with the results he's gotten since taking the helm here in Minnesota. With that being said, it is not infrequent that the man makes a completely illogical managerial decision that drives me bonkers. I had been wondering when the first such occasion would arise in this young season; it happened last night, when Gardenhire elected to work Jim Thome into the starting lineup by benching Jason Kubel rather than Delmon Young.

Ervin Santana, who started the game for the Angels, was basically a nightmare match-up for Young. Over the course of his career, Young has hit just .232/.266/.308 against "power pitchers" -- a term referring to hurlers who rank among the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks. That's a category that Santana will typically fall into with his nasty stuff and somewhat shaky control. Additionally, Young has posted a weak .715 OPS against right-handed pitchers, while the righty Santana has been substantially more effective against same-handed batters over the course of his career. It was a fairly obvious instance in which Young should have sat.

Instead, Gardenhire decided to bench Kubel, one of the league's premier hitters against right-handed pitching. Last year, Kubel posted a phenomenal 1.014 OPS against righties, and Santana was clubbed by lefty hitters to the tune of .323/.385/.526. Perfect match-up. Yet, Gardenhire didn't see it that way -- likely because Kubel had previously only managed two hits against Santana in a meaningless 14 at-bat sample.

Giving Thome a start at DH last night was a good choice. Doing so by sitting Kubel against a pitcher he was almost ideally suited to face was astonishingly misguided. Some might argue that it's a moot point, given that the Twins won the game in spite of Young's 0-for-4 performance. But the guiding philosophy behind this decision is a significant flaw in Gardy's managerial approach, and one that is likely to manifest repeatedly throughout the season.

Gardenhire's a good manager overall, but he's far from perfect. Last night, we were reminded of that. Fortunately, the Twins still won, reminding us that -- while impactful -- singular lineup decisions don't determine who wins and loses games. The players do. Hopefully Kubel will be back in the lineup to help the Twins win tonight with another right-hander on the hill.

Ninth Inning: Safe So Far

Just three games into the season, two save opportunities have already emerged for newly appointed closer Jon Rauch. Rauch has responded by going 2-for-2 in those opportunities, and the Twins are 2-1. Despite widespread panic that arose over the course of the spring that the Twins would be unable to hold late leads in the absence of a proven, steady closer, both of the Twins' relatively narrow victories have been finished by Rauch without much drama. Already, we are starting to see how overstated the fan and pundit reaction surrounding Nathan's loss has been.

Rauch's performance in last night's 4-2 victory over the Angels was not even a particularly good one. In his one inning of work, he allowed a pair of hits and a run. That's the type of outing you'll see a bit more often from a non-elite reliever like Rauch than you would with Joe Nathan. Yet, as is often the case in save situations, Rauch was given a multi-run pad and the run he allowed was ultimately meaningless.

After coming to the Twins in August last year, Rauch made 17 relief appearances. He allowed zero runs in 16 of those appearances. I certainly don't expect him to continue with that outstanding rate throughout this season, and indeed he already experienced his first blemish last night, but the fact remains that when a solid reliever comes on with the bases empty at the top of an inning, he'll rarely allow a run. And he'll very rarely allow more than one run. Rauch is no superstar closer, but if the Twins keep providing him with a two- or three-run cushion they will have very little to worry about in the ninth inning. And even when the lead is only one, Rauch will get the job done most of the time. As would basically any other candidate to fill the closer role.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Five Things Working Against the Twins in 2010

As the season approached this spring, I was accused by plenty of people of being overly rosy in my assessment of these 2010 Twins. Admittedly, I think Bill Smith and his front office colleagues have done a great job of assembling a well balanced and star-heavy roster for this season, so this is the most excited and optimistic I've been about a Twins team in my lifetime.

Still, no team is perfect and there are plenty of things that could derail the Twins in their first season at Target Field. It seems fitting that I was pegged to write the counterpoint to Parker's article outlining five things working for the Twins this season. Below, I lay out five things working against the team in 2010:

1. No Established Closer

Over the past six years, most other teams around the league have envied the Twins’ closer situation. Joe Nathan has been among the most dominant and consistent closers in all of baseball during that span, leaving the Twins with little to worry about when entering the ninth inning with a slim lead. Now, with Nathan out for the year due to an elbow injury, the Twins will have to learn what it’s like to move forward without a superhuman door-slammer at the back end of the bullpen.

Between Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Pat Neshek and Jesse Crain, the Twins should still be able to field a competent relief corps and it’s unlikely that Nathan’s loss will crush them. Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that a few more leads will be slipping away in the ninth this year, which can be crushing to a team’s morale.

2. Lack of Team Speed

Twins teams in past years have been built with athleticism as a guiding tenet. Ron Gardenhire and Co. like guys who can hustle out infield hits, make opportunistic plays on the base paths and chase down balls in the field. Players like Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla have embodied this approach. This year, however, the Twins are departing from that philosophy, leaning more toward powerful but slow-footed players like Jason Kubel and Jim Thome. Neither of the team’s starting middle infielders could be described as a speedster; this is the first time I can remember being able to say that. In fact, there’s really only one projected regular who I can realistically envision swiping 20 or more bases, and that’s Denard Span.

This is hardly a crippling detriment - I’d rather see the front office focus on filling the lineup with guys who can actually hit than with guys who can run fast - but it will be a change. And the biggest impact of this lack of speed may be seen in the field, which brings us to our next topic…

3. Outfield Defense

On days where the Twins had Gomez in center and Span in left last season, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a better defensive outfield alignment anywhere in the league. Gomez has been one of the best defensive center fielders in the majors over the past two years and Span’s outstanding range in left has stood out at a position where teams often stick plodding defensive liabilities.

With Gomez absent this year, Span will shift to center field, where he is far less spectacular. Meanwhile, Delmon Young (speaking of “plodding defensive liabilities”…) takes over as the full-time left fielder. The drop-off from Span to Young in left field cannot be understated. Michael Cuddyer remains in right, and while he was never a particularly adept fielder to begin with, he’ll have a whole new set of challenges in learning how to handle Target Field’s quirky overhang.
With a fly ball heavy pitching staff, these three will get plenty of work, and chances are that fans will be subjected to some adventures out there. Since balls that don’t get caught in the outfield often turn into extra-base hits, this could be especially damaging.

4. Substandard Production at Offense-Oriented Positions

Behind first base and right field, left field and third base were the strongest offensive positions on the field across the major leagues last season. These are positions where teams often settle for less defensively in order to plug in strong offensive producers. Unfortunately, the Twins’ regular starters at left field and third base are Young and Nick Punto, neither of whom has proven capable of posting even average numbers for his respective position.

The Twins are hoping to offset this flaw by trotting out unusually strong hitters at the middle spots (catcher, second base, shortstop and center field) but if those positions should be ravaged by injury or ineffectiveness, Young and Punto could become liabilities.

5. No Bona Fide Ace in Rotation

The Twins’ 2010 rotation is shrouded in question marks and hypothetical scenarios. If Opening Day starter Scott Baker can consistently pitch the way he did in the second half last year, he could be a frontline starting pitcher. If Kevin Slowey can rebound from the wrist injury that ended his 2009 season and start to mimic the work he did in the minors, he could be one of the league’s top starters. If Francisco Liriano can translate his fine work in the winter league and in spring training into regular-season results, he could start reminding us of his phenomenal rookie campaign when he was an ace-caliber pitcher.

Unfortunately, for all their ability, these pitchers have also flashed their downside at times in the past. And having an elite starter at the top of the rotation is definitely important; in the four years when Johan Santana led their pitching corps, the Twins never ranked lower than fifth among AL teams in ERA. Last year, with no Santana and no one stepping up to deliver even a sub-4.00 ERA, the Twins ranked fourth-to-last.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Sour Grapes

The Twins' opener last night in Anaheim provided a deflating start to one of the most anticipated seasons in franchise history. The Twins fell behind early and, while they battled back to tie the game a couple times, in both instances the Angels retook the lead in the following half-inning. Scott Baker struggled to locate his fastball and lasted only 4 2/3 innings while issuing an uncharacteristic three walks, and the vaunted big bats in the middle of the Twins' lineup were for the most part very silent.

Among the few bright spots in the game were Delmon Young, who homered, beat out an infield single and stole a base in the game, prompting numerous premature declarations that his offseason weight loss has truly transformed his game. Jesse Crain's performance was also highly encouraging, as he picked up where he left off in the '09 campaign by tossing 1 2/3 innings without allowing a baserunner.

Unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good last night. Baker, as mentioned, seemed uncomfortable throughout his start. Jose Mijares, who came on in relief in the eighth inning, let the game get out of hand by serving up a pair of homers and expanding the Angels' lead from one to three. Denard Span went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel combined for just three singles.

Of course, the beauty of baseball is that this was only one game and the Twins will have their shot to erase all the bad memories tonight, when Nick Blackburn faces off against Joe Saunders. I'm not particularly optimistic about this match-up, as the southpaw Saunders could present some problems against the Twins' lefty-heavy lineup and I've got real concerns about Blackburn this season, but as they say, games aren't decided on paper.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Opening Day Site Update

Note: What follows is an update on this blog and its author. If you're more interested in digging into some baseball stuff, you can click here or scroll down to read my Twins season preview.

It has become tradition on this blog that every year on Opening Day, I post an update on the current state of this site and of my life in general. I know most people don't come here to read about me, which is why I only do this once a year, but some folks are interested and really I do this for myself as much as anyone, so that I can look back in the future and recall how things have progressed.

As far as blogging and baseball writing are concerned, the past year has been very, very good to me. Starting in the middle of last season, I teamed up with three talented, passionate and motivated fellow bloggers to form TwinsCentric. Together, we have produced three publications: the Trade Deadline Primer last July, the Offseason GM Handbook last October and most recently the Maple Street Press Twins 2010 Annual this spring. These projects have each presented their own sets of challenges, but overall the work has been fulfilling, particularly since all three publications have been met with such support and enthusiasm from our readers.

Earlier this spring, the Star Tribune approached me and my TwinsCentric colleagues about starting our own blog on the newspaper's website. That blog is now fully operational, with the four of us alternating posts and hopefully infusing the more traditional brand of coverage at the Star Trib with a refreshingly different modern flavor. Having a blog on a heavily trafficked and respected site like has broadened our scope and allowed us to reach out to a whole new set of Twins fans, which has been terrific.

In addition, you may notice a new emblem on the top of the right sidebar. As I revealed in earnest last fall, my blog is now partnered with as a part of Rob Neyer's SweetSpot Network. Through this arrangement, I will be involved in various ways with the baseball coverage on their site, which is obviously a big thrill and a huge honor. As a sports writer, you can't really ask to be affiliated with a more prominent network.

When I launched this little blog experiment back in 2005, I never would have imagined at any point that my writing would be featured on the websites for organizations like the Star Tribune and ESPN -- definitive sports sources that I grew up reading. It's basically a dream come true and I can't begin to express how flattered and grateful I am to have these opportunities.

It's going to be a busy summer for me, though. Keeping up with the blog will be harder than ever. Between working two "normal" jobs as well as my writing gig at Rotoworld, playing in a softball league, advancing my musical hobbies, contributing to John Burnson's wonderful Heater Magazine, churning away on upcoming TwinsCentric projects, actually watching the baseball games and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life, my plate is going to be full to say the least. I share this not to elicit pity, but to inform the faithful readers of this blog that posting here may be more sporadic than ever this summer. While it has been customary over this blog's lifetime for me to have a new post up almost every weeknight around midnight for folks to read the next morning, I'm not sure it will be possible for me to stay true to that schedule this year. Instead, I'm going to have to post new entries whenever I have the opportunity to write them, whether that's on my lunch break from work, at 2 am on a Thursday night, or on a lazy Sunday afternoon. If you come here looking for a new post in the morning and don't find it, check back later in the afternoon. On my end, I'll try and do a better job of updating my Twitter account when I post new entries. Of course, you can also subscribe to the blog's RSS feed or follow through Google Reader.

As always, my favorite aspect of operating this blog over the past year has been interacting with fellow fans and bloggers. I've conversed a lot of great people online through this avenue, and was fortunate to meet many of you in person at the TwinsCentric Viewing Party back in early March. I hope to meet even more of you when we hold a similar event at Majors in Blaine this Saturday.

I don't think there's ever been a better time to be a Twins fan. The club is opening a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium that has drawn rave reviews from folks across the nation. The franchise player and reigning MVP has just been signed to a massive long-term deal. An outstanding slate of offseason moves by Bill Smith and Co. have positioned the Twins as legitimate World Series contenders and almost unanimous AL Central favorites. This is going to be an awesome season, and I'm pleased as pie that I'll be able to write about it on so many different forums.

But it all comes back to this blog, and to the loyal readers who have helped make it such a successful and satisfying venture. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all of you who have supported me, even by stopping by and leaving a comment from time to time.

Now, with all of that out of the way... let's play ball!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Minnesota Twins 2010 Season Preview

It's been a long time coming. Such a long time, in fact, that now that it's actually here, the feeling is surreal. The Twins have an outdoor baseball stadium, a payroll approaching $100 million and the league's best player locked up for the next nine years thanks to one of the largest contracts in the history of the game. Back in the mid-90s, few would have ever guessed these things would be possible, but a string of fortuitous events have ensured the Twins' long-term future in Minnesota while also setting the stage for the club to remain consistently competitive over the next decade and beyond.

Seeing a team in a beautiful new state-of-the-art stadium is always fun, but seeing a contending team play in said stadium is of course far more enjoyable. Fortunately, Bill Smith and the Twins front office took plenty of steps during the offseason to make sure that fans will be exposed to a quality club when attending games at Target Field during the stadium's inaugural season.

The acquisitions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson address longstanding concerns at the middle infield spots. The signing of Jim Thome provides a quality veteran pinch-hitting option and another daunting left-handed bat to be plugged into the middle of the Twins' lineup against right-handed pitchers. When Thome's name is written into the starting lineup, the heart of the Twins' batting order will be vastly more intimidating than any core this franchise has ever put forth. From Mauer to Jusin Morneau to Michael Cuddyer to Jason Kubel to Thome, opposing pitchers will be faced with the relentless task of trying to get past five stellar power hitters. Should Hardy and Delmon Young take their offensive games to the next level, as many believe they can, the Twins could very well boast the best lineup in all of baseball, one capable of hitting over 200 home runs and scoring over 900 times.

If there are significant concerns surrounding this 2010 Twins team, they fall on the run prevention. A starting rotation consisting of Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano certainly has the potential to be very strong one-through-five, but none of those pitchers posted an ERA below 4 last season. Liriano's outstanding work in winter ball and spring training has produced a lot of optimism and few people doubt the ability of Baker and Slowey to perform like frontline starters, but the impetus is on these young hurlers to actually step up and get it done over the course of an entire season. The Twins' offense is good enough that they stand a good chance at winning the division even with mediocre results on the mound, but if this team aspires to make a deep run in October, they'll need a few starters to turn the corner.

Of course, the one sour note amongst all the positives for the Twins the past several months has been the loss of Joe Nathan. One of the league's most consistent and dominating closers over the past six years, Nathan's absence will be felt in the late innings, where the Ron Gardenhire will be without his best bullet. Fortunately, the Twins have more bullpen depth this year than they've had in the past. That depth will be strengthened by the return of Pat Neshek, who missed the most of 2008 and all of 2009 due to elbow problems but was one of the league's best setup men prior to getting injured. Jon Rauch will hold closing duties early in the season, but if he can't get the job done Gardenhire will have a number of competent alternatives in the wings, including Neshek, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain.

With the American League Central looking eminently winnable, the Twins have an excellent shot at capturing a sixth division title in nine years. Much will depend health, and on several key players continuing to perform at an elite level, but on paper these 2010 Twins certainly look like one of the league's best teams and a legitimate World Series contender. At this time of year, that's all you can ask for.

National League Preview

Hi folks and Happy Easter. Typically, before the start of each season I've posted a preview for each league on this blog, with the AL Preview being written up by me and the NL Preview being written up by Nick Mosvick. Sadly, I just haven't had the time to sit and write the AL Preview this year, but Mosvick held up his end of the bargain and provided a breakdown of the National League, with predicted finishes and synopses of all 16 teams. You can check that out below. Then, be sure to check back later tonight and tomorrow for a Twins Season Preview and my annual Opening Day site update.

NL PREVIEW - By Nick Mosvick

NL East

1) Atlanta Braves
The Phillies seem to be the consensus pick to win the NL East, but the Braves make a good pick to beat them to the punch because of their rotation. While they've lost Javier Vazquez, they have Tim Hudson back, they've got a full year of Tommy Hanson to look to, and, as long as his health holds up, they've got Jair Jurrjens too. That doesn't even count Derek Lowe, who for whatever reason has been tabbed as the opening day starter, despite having a 88 ERA+ last year. Hudson probably won't replicate Vazquez's production, since he's coming off of major surgery, but that gives the Braves three above-average starters. And they've got Kenshin Kawakami, who put up a 107 ERA+ in his rookie season. Bullpen-wise, much will rest on how good Billy Wagner is still, but he looked pretty dominant in limited action last year, so I'd hedge my bets that he'll have a very good season closing for the Braves.

The big news for Braves hitters is that top hitting prospect Jason Heywood will be joining the fold. While its hard for a 20-year to jump from Double-A and kill major-league pitching, Heywood's comparables suggest that he'll probably have an impressive rookie season. I'd expect 20-25 homers from him, good plate discipline, and the Rookie of the Year. Otherwise, the Braves smartly cut ties with many of their worst hitters from last year, specifically Jeff Franceour, Garrett Anderson, and Kelly Johnson. Instead, they'll have a offense built around old-timer Chipper Jones, Yunel Escobar, Nate McClouth, and young guys like Jordan Schaffer and Heywood. The Braves probably won't have a great hitting club, but they should get on-base well as a team and they should have a good enough pitching staff to win the division.

2) Philadelphia Phillies
As noted, most experts seem to be picking the Phillies to win the division. And its understandable why. The Phillies had, by all measures, the best offense in the NL last year and may well repeat that feat. However, I think there are some reasons to doubt that. For one, two key contributors last year should be in for a regression. Raul Ibanez had a career year last year at age 37, posting a 131 OPS+. While ZIPS projects him to post a 125 OPS+ this next year, I'm not entirely sold and neither are many other projection systems. Ibanez regressed in the second half last year, posting just a .774 OPS in the final three months while dealing with injury issues. At 38, I suspect that he may have trouble staying healthy and may not be able to produce at the same rate. Another candidate for regression is Shane Victorino. Both Bill James and the CHONE projections have his power sliding a good deal. Of course, while the offense may slip, what is more important is the Phillies' lack of pitching depth.

The Phillies do have Roy Halladay for a full year, and he should make a run at the Cy Young. Additionally, Cole Hamels has a good chance to have a bounce-back year, given that his FIP last year was nearly identical to his FIP in 2008, when he posted a 3.09 ERA. However, the Phillies have a candidate for a good deal of regression in J.A. Happ. Happ was perhaps the luckiest pitcher in baseball last year, as he had the greatest gap between ERA (2.93) and FIP (4.33) and managed to strand an incredible 85.2% of baserunners. Not surpisingly, most projection systems have Happ posting an ERA right around were his FIP was last year. Similarly, Joe Blanton experience a big jump in strikeouts last year that may not stick and he's likely to be merely a league-average pitcher. Whomever else fills out the rotation isn't too impressive, given that the candidates include Kyle Kendrick, 47-year old Jamie Moyer, and Satchel Paige looking (but not pitching) Jose Contreras. As for the bullpen, no closer or reliever period was as bad as Brad Lidge last year. Lidge posted a 59 ERA+ last year and allowed a incredible 11 home runs in 58 2/3 innings. Ryan Madsen should close, but something tells me Charlie Manuel, ever the "gut-feeling manager," will probably foolishly stick with Lidge and perhaps cost his team some wins as he did last year.

3) Florida Marlins
The Marlins have a lot of incredibly talented players (Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson) but don't quite have a complete team right now as they want for prospects like Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton. However, they should win more games then the Nats and Mets. Josh Johnson was amongst the best starters in the NL last year and should be right up there again. Ricky Nolasco is sort of the anti-Happ, if you will. While he posted a 5.06 ERA, incredibly, his FIP was 3.35, giving him the highest disparity between the two. Why such a high difference? Despite an outstanding K/BB ratio (4.43) and one of the highest strikeout rates in the NL (9.49), he only managed to strand 61% of runners. That's some extreme bad luck unlikely to show up again. Of course, after Johnson and Nolasco, its a bit of a crapshoot. Chris Volstad, Anibal Sanchez, and Andrew Miller are all pitchers with the potential to have a big season, with Sanchez the most likely to do so. They also don't have much of a bullpen. With hitting, while they may have Ramirez, they also appear poised to put out hitters like Emilio Bonifacio, who may have been the worst hitter in the majors last season when he posted a .252/.303/.308 line with a 61 OPS+. They do have the reigning ROY in Chris Coghlan, however, and of course there is the chance that a hitter like Morrison or Stanton arrives at the majors this year and lights up the league.

4) New York Mets
It's been a turbulent couple of years for the Mets, but it seems like once again, they'll be paying an awful lot of money for a very mediocre team. And, of course, a lot of it is related to health. Jose Reyes? On the DL. Carlos Beltran? Out until June, possibly later. Johan Santana? Coming off of major surgery and looking in less-than-stellar form this spring. David Wright? Coming off a year that revolved around a major power outage. While I suspect, as many do, that Wright's year was a blurb and that the power will return this year, the rest of the team just doesn't look good. Yes, they did sign Jason Bay to a big contract, but Bay seems to have become an overrated player in his time in Boston. He'll be a good, but not a great hitter whose glove leaves a lot to desire. Outside of Wright and Bay, the Mets lineup includes bats of the no-power variety (Luis Castillo) and bats of the mediocre-power and no plate discipline variety (Jeff Franceour, Dan Murphy). The rotation is equally unimpressive. Even if Santana is back to form, everyone after him is a question mark. Can Oliver Perez ever find the strikezone? Will John Maine return to form after two injury-plagued seasons? Will Mike Pelfrey ever live up to the hype? My guess is that the Mets have neither enough hitting or pitching to contend this year. Worse yet, they don't seem to have too much hope on the horizon either, like the next team on this list.

5) Washington Nationals
Part of me felt like putting the Nationals fourth, if only to both give Nats fans a little hope and to make a bold statement as to how bad the state of the Mets franchise is right now. Why is there hope for the Nationals? One answer is pretty obvious. Stephen Strasburg should be arriving sometime this year and I don't think its beyond him to put up numbers similar to the ones Tommy Hanson put up last year once he reaches the majors. They also have a up-and-coming shortstop in Ian Desmond and a blossoming star in Ryan Zimmerman. They probably still won't win very much this year, but at least the state of the franchise is starting to look better. What is really going to make the difference is if the Nationals can do what the Rays did a few years ago and use their position in this year's draft to continue stocking their farm system with loads of talent.

NL Central

1) St. Louis Cardinals
There are a good deal of reasons to suspect that the Cardinals may not be quite as good this year, the NL Central also doesn't appear to be the most competitive division in the NL. The Cards, of course, has a good deal of stars to put on the field. They have reigning three-time MVP and Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, and Cy Young-runner up Adam Wainwright. There isn't a ton of depth in the rotation beyond their two aces, given that Joel Pineoro left in free agency, but Brad Penny is a comeback candidate who could have a good year as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Additionally, they have several hitting candidates who have the potential for big years, especially with Ryan Ludwick (37 homers in 2008) and Colby Ramus. I don't love the bullpen and I think that Ryan Franklin is probably in for a regression (he had an awful 44/24 K/BB ratio in 61 innings, not the sign of a truly dominant closer). But, with the star power that they have in both hitting and pitching in what looks to be a weaker division, they should win out.

2) Milwaukee Brewers
I admit that there is some bias in this pick. I could never view the Brewers as a rival, but rather as another midwest team that I could easily get behind if not for my high level of fandom for the Twins. They lost before Mike Cameron and J.J. Hardy in the offseason, so that could haunt them. But they still have one of the best 3-4 tandems in the game in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Casey McGehee had himself a nice rookie year last year (.301/.360/.499) and Corey Hart certainly seems like a good comeback candidate. And the team has a potential Rookie of the Year candidate in Alcides Escobar. They don't have a very imposing pitching staff, but they did sign Randy Wolf in the offseason and they have Yovani Gallardo, who is young (24) and struck out 204 hitters last year. Once again, given the mediocrity of the NL Central's competition, I think that the Brewers can easily be second in the division.

3) Chicago Cubs
Given all the money they spend, the Cubs really should be better. But spending doesn't mean much if you make poor investments. Case-in-point: Alfonso Soriano. A eight-year deal is often a potentially bad bet, but it was even worse given Soriano's age and skill-set. Soriano put up a terrible .241/.303/.423 line last year that amounted to a 84 OPS+. Yes, Derrek Lee had a great season last year (.306/.393/.579, 145 OPS+), but it won't be enough. Aramis Ramirez has struggled with injuries the last few years, so if he's healthy, he could change things. Granted, the Cubs had a pretty good rotation last year. But, let's keep a few things in mind. For one, they lost Rich Harden who despite being limited by injuries again, still managed a 110 ERA+ and 171 Ks in 141 innings. Two, Randy Wells was pretty lucky last year in posting a 3.05 ERA despite a very low strikeout rate (5.7 per nine) and only a decent K/BB ration (2.5), so its no surprise his FIP was 4.24. Now they still have Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Ryan Dempster, but they are also adding the terrible former Twin Carlos Silva to that group. The Cubs also have a weak bullpen who's likely closer (Carlos Marmol) can't find the strike zone. I suspect they'll be a mediocre team again like last year, despite the high payroll.

4) Cincinatti Reds
The Reds do have a bright future in many respects, but its still not here. Jay Bruce should make the jump and be one of the most improved players in the game, given his impressive power that he's already displayed in the big leagues (.247 isolated power last year). They also have Joey Votto, who was amongst the best hitters in the NL last year despite missing some time with personal issues, putting up a .322/.414/.567 line, amounting to a 155 OPS+. They also have the talented Brandon Phillips at second. However, there are a lot of questions after that. How good will Edinson Volquez be after major surgery? Which Bronson Arroyo will show up? Will Johnny Cueto put it together? Will Aaron Harang bounce back or will he be traded? Will Homer Bailey finally live up to the hype? Too many questions now to be a great team, but a lot of young, blossoming stars to keep the fans watching.

5) Houston Astros
I was tempted to put the Astros last, if only because I'd like the Pirates to do better this year and because the Astros just didn't do anything this offseason except for give out one of the worst contracts of recent memory (Brandon Lyon). There are really only a few bright spots on the team. Wandy Rodriguez was amongst the best starters in the NL last year, putting up a 139 ERA+ and striking out 193 in 205 innings. Hunter Pence continued his development last year, increasing his walk rate (58 walks) and power (25 homers). But their establish stars are hurting. Lance Berkman had great year last year (139 OPS+) but he's already hurt. Roy Oswalt had his worst year in his career last year (102 ERA+). And worse yet, the Astros have one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Doesn't look good for 'Stros fans.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates
Its more or less wait and see at this point for the Pirates. They got rid of all their established stars via the trade over the last two years (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez) and free agency (Adam LaRoche) in trying to resurrect the franchise through a serious rebuilding process. The biggest positive is that Andrew McCutchen was a rightful Rookie of the Year candidate last year, posting a 122 OPS+. Garrett Jones, the ex-Twin, showed great power last year, hitting 21 homers in 314 at-bats and posting a 147 OPS+. But otherwise, the Pirates have to wait now and see if the prospects they got via trade, such as Jeff Clement, pay off and if draft picks like Pedro Alvarez can do the same. Its going to be another year or two at least.

NL West

1) Colorado Rockies
The Rockies seem like a chronically underrated team. They have some great pitching they've develop and they have several good young hitters. Of course they better, since I just did the insane thing and picked them to win the World Series. Lets list off the young players they have who have already broken out or are ready to: Troy Tulowitzski, Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart, Chris Iannetta, and Carlos Gonzalez. And what about the pitchers? They've got Jeff Francis coming back and they got breakout years last year from both Ubaldo Jimenez (132 ERA+, 198 Ks in 218 innings) and Jorge de la Rosa (193 Ks in 185 innings, 105 ERA+). They also established a good closer last year in Huston Street. I think with all the young talent they have, the Rockies can take the division.

2) San Francisco Giants
I feel like this is a bit of a questionable pick, but the Giants have a few very talented players and one rookie ready to take on the big leagues. I of course am talking about consecutive Cy Young award-winning Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandaval, and Buster Posey. Even with just one starter hitting above the league average (Pablo Sandaval), the Giants won 88 games last year. They have plenty of pitching depth with Matt Cain (151 ERA+), Jonathan Sanchez (a great breakout candidate, 177 Ks in 163 1/3 innings, 103 ERA+, no hitter) and even (no joke) Barry Zito, who was much better last year with a 108 ERA+ and a much improved strikeout rate (7.2/9). The Giants should be a good team again and give the Rockies a run for their money. That's a lot of top-end talent.

3) Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers had a terrible offseason and it seems mostly because of owner Frank McCourt's very public divorce proceedings. They lost talent (Orlando Hudson, Randy Wolf) without doing much to replace it. Their one notable signing (Garrett Anderson) is not only old, but was one of the worst hitters in baseball last year (88 OPS+, just a .303 OBP). Granted, they still have formidable talent in Matt Kemp, Manny Ramirez, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, and Jonathon Broxton. In fact, Kershaw deserves credit for posting what seems to be like one of the most underrated seasons ever, given how much criticism I've read about him and his need to improve despite posting one of the best pitching seasons ever for a 21-year old, leading the league by allowing only 6.3 hits per nine innings, striking out 185 in 171 innings and posting a 142 ERA+. Yes, he needs a lot of improvement. Not really an ace yet (yes, ERA+ was by far the best on the team). Maybe, given all this talent, I'm just punishing Joe Torre for the head-scratching move of the week in making Vicente Padilla his number one starter.

4) Arizona Diamondbacks
I can't pick them to win anything anymore. Most of the young talent that was supposed to come to fruition just hasn't and the farm system is pretty bare. Yes, Justin Upton was great last year (26 homers, 20 steals, 126 OPS+ at 21) saving my fantasy team. Mark Reynolds was great too, with 44 homers and a 123 OPS+. But what about Chris Young, who was terribly disappointing with a 80 OPS+? Or Stephen Drew, of the 89 OPS+? And while Dan Haren was great last year (146 ERA+, 223 Ks), their other ace Brandon Webb is still hurting after a season-ending injury at the beginning of last year and I think that the Diamondbacks made a major downgrade in trading Max Scherzer for Edwin Jackson. Just not going to be enough without anymore help coming.

5) San Diego Padres
The Padres have not had a friendly past year or two. They traded their ace last year (Jake Peavy). Their other good pitcher, Chris Young, got hurt last year and was ineffective (5.21) and looks to still be hurt this year. They had a great hitter in Adrian Gonzalez (166 OPS+), but they really don't have much else and they also don't have a great system right now. Really, what seems to be the talk of the Padres right now is only about whether they'll be trading Gonzalez or closer Heath Bell this year. Its unfortunate, but things just don't look very good for the Padres.

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Nicks' Picks 2010

As is the case each year, me and my former blogging partner Nick Mosvick have put together our predictions for the outcome of each division, playoff round and major award for the upcoming season. This year, we've also added a number of Twins-specific predictions, both because it seemed fitting for a Twins blog and because Josh Johnson started a campaign to make today "Twins Predictions Day."

Without further ado, our humble predictions for your 2010 MLB season, which kicks off on Sunday night:

Nelson's Picks


AL West: Mariners
AL Central: Twins
AL East: Yankees
AL Wild Card: Red Sox

NL West: Dodgers
NL Central: Cardinals
NL East: Braves
NL Wild Card: Phillies

World Series: Red Sox over Cardinals

AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young: Chris Carpenter

AL MVP: Joe Mauer
NL MVP: Albert Pujols

AL Rookie of the Year: Neftali Feliz
NL Rookie of the Year: Jason Heyward


Twins MVP: Joe Mauer
Twins Top Pitcher: Francisco Liriano
Twins Best Rookie: Anthony Slama
Twins Most Improved Player: Liriano
Bold Predictions: Jesse Crain will lead team in saves; Nick Blackburn will post 5+ ERA; J.J. Hardy will win first Gold Glove
A.L. Central Prediction (Standings): Twins, White Sox, Tigers, Indians, Royals
Three Keys to Success for the Twins: Slowey and Liriano stepping up, bullpen staying healthy, success at Target Field.

Mosvick's Picks


AL West: Rangers
AL Central: Twins
AL East: Red Sox
AL Wild Card: Yankees

NL West: Rockies
NL Central: Cardinals
NL East: Braves
NL Wild Card: Phillies

World Series: Rockies over Yankees

AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young: Tommy Hanson

AL MVP: Joe Mauer
NL MVP: Hanley Ramirez

AL Rookie of the Year: Neftali Feliz
NL Rookie of the Year: Buster Posey


Twins MVP: Joe Mauer
Twins Top Pitcher: Scott Baker
Twins Best Rookie: Anthony Slama
Twins Most Improved Player: Kevin Slowey

Bold Predictions:

1) Brendan Harris will get more at-bats than Delmon Young. I say this because of two reasons. One, I'm just not sure I buy into the notion that Young is new and improved and ready to break out. I think that it's going to become clear early that the Twins are better off putting another subpar fielder, but a much better hitter in the field (Jason Kubel) in order to get another superior hitter in the lineup (Jim Thome). Maybe I'm hoping for too much out of a 39-year old hitter, but I think that Thome has plenty left in terms of power and plate discipline. Second, I think that Punto may struggle again out of the gate at the plate and may force Gardy to play Brendan Harris a lot more at third and use Punto as a defensive replacement.

2) Jon Rauch will have 30 saves. While I would probably prefer Neshek to be the closer, I suspect that Rauch will end up with the role to begin the year. And I think he'll probably keep it. This is mostly because I believe that Gardy prefers to have defined roles in the bullpen and I doubt that he will really do too much playing around with who gets saves. I think he'll stick with one candidate most of the year, the Twins will get plenty of save opportunities, and that the guy picking them up usually will be Rauch.

3) Scott Baker gets over 200 strikeouts. I feel like this is probably my "boldest" claim, but I really like Baker, even though he just got beat up in a spring training game. Baker had an outstanding K/BB ratio last year (162/48 in 200 innings) and posted a good strikeout rate. My sense is that Baker will make the jump this year and get up to around 220-230 innings. If he does so and just moderately improves his K-rate, he'll be able to hit 200 strikeouts. It would be quite the impressive accomplishment, but I think Baker can do it. I'm sure most Twins fans feel that Liriano is more likely to get 200 strikeouts, but I think Baker will get the innings necessary to do so before Liriano does.

A.L. Central Prediction (Standings): Twins,Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Royals

Keys to Success for the Twins:

1) Proper Lineup Management. To clarify, by this I mean a few things. For one, I mean that Gardy will have to use his players in a way somewhat uncharacteristic for him. He'll have to pay more attention to splits, especially given Jim Thome's presence on the bench. I think that in order to maximize wins, Gardy is going to have to find a way to get Thome's bat in the lineup versus right-handed pitchers. This is especially true given that the AL Central has many more good right-handers (Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke) than great lefties (Danks is the only real standout). Getting Thome as many bats as possible will be key.

2) Bullpen Stability. I doubt this will be an issue, but its still important to the Twins' success. As Nick Nelson has already noted earlier this week, its unlikely that Gardy actually sticks with a closer-by-committee set-up. Whether its Pat Neshek or Jon Rauch who becomes the primary closer, it will be important that the bullpen maintains some defined roles that I'm guessing it will. That is, Jose Mijares should stick as a lefty-specialist, Matt Guerrier should stick as a set-up guy, and so on. As noted, I don't think this is an issue, because they Twins have a good amount of talented arms in their bullpen, but with a still-relatively young rotation, the Twins will need have strong bullpen in to maintain success.

3) Health. Health is always important. And its hard to ignore it for the Twins. Joe Mauer missed a month last year and has battled injuries throughout his career. Justin Morneau is coming off a serious back injury. Pat Neshek is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Kevin Slowey is coming off of major wrist surgery. This isn't to say that any of these guys is going to get hurt again, but just to make a fairly obvious point. Any of the Twins top stars could get injured at any time and keeping Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Baker, Slowey, and many other key contributors healthy is going to determine how the season goes. Granted, the Twins could get lucky again and have a situation like last September in which a slumping star goes down with an injury (Justin Morneau) and is replaced by a streaking hitter (Cuddyer), but that's something hard to count on.