Monday, February 28, 2011

Success vs. Failure

The turning point in Game 1 of last year's ALDS match-up between the Twins and Yankees came in the sixth inning when Curtis Granderson delivered a two-run triple against Francisco Liriano with two outs.

You might recall the situation. The Twins led 3-2 at the time, and Liriano had been dominating for much of the game. At the time Granderson stepped in, Minnesota's starter had pitched 5 2/3 innings, striking out seven while allowing only two runs on five hits. If he could retire Granderson -- who had fared very poorly against left-handed pitchers throughout his career -- Liriano would have had a quality start in the books and sent the Twins into the seventh with a lead.

Unfortunately, that's not how it went down. Granderson drove a ball high off the right field wall, bringing home two runs and knocking Liriano out of the game. The Yankees would go on to win and sweep the series.

Many sour Twins fans look at this event as a failure on the part of Liriano -- further evidence that he buckles under pressure and cannot be trusted in big spots (this analysis, of course, ignores the fact that he shut down the league's highest-scoring offense over the first five innings).

But if you ask a Yankees fan about the play, they'll give you a different viewpoint. Most likely, they'll tell you that it was a great piece of hitting by Granderson, who managed to get the best of a very good pitcher, changing his team's fortunes.

This is a topic I've been wanting to write about for a while: the difference between success and failure. Or, more specifically, the difference between our perceptions of success and failure.

There's a psychological aspect here that tends to cloud fan analysis. When a player on our favorite team reaches an unfavorable outcome -- a batter strikes out, a pitcher gives up a home run, a base runner gets thrown out stealing -- we tend to blame it on him rather than crediting his opponent. The opposite is also true. When Twins fans reminisce about Kirby Puckett's momentous home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, our first thought isn't, "What a crummy pitch by Charlie Liebrandt." Similarly, when we recall Jack Morris' gritty 10-inning performance the next night, most of us don't think, "Boy, the Braves' lineup sure did suck in that game."

So, setting aside our emotional intensity as fans, can we really claim with confidence that Liriano failed in that key spot? He went to his best pitch, delivering a slider that tailed away from the lefty swinger, and Granderson simply went out and got it. It's true that Grandy has had his struggles against southpaws over the course of his career, but he's a good baseball player. He's collected 55 extra-base hits against lefties in the majors, and not every one of those has come on a mistake pitch.

I write this post not to make any specific point, but rather to get people thinking about success and failure in a different way, especially when analyzing specific events. Just because things don't go the way we'd like, it doesn't mean we always have to blame somebody. In major league baseball, and especially in the playoffs, the opposition comprises the most elite players in the world.

Sometimes it's more a matter of the other side succeeding than our own side failing.

The juxtaposition between success and failure exists in many places, from baseball fields to poker sites.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Span's Grounders Must Get Moving

Denard Span burst onto the major-league scene in 2008, hitting .294/.387/.432 in 93 games for an .819 OPS that bested any previous seasonal mark in the minors by at least 70 points. It was a stunning emergence for the 24-year-old, who had been written off by many as a potential fourth outfielder at best.

Given that Span's success in '08 -- both in Triple-A and the major leagues -- seemed to come out of nowhere, some analysts wondered whether he would be able to carry it forward. In 2009, he did just that, assuming full-time duty and posting a similarly excellent .311/.392/.415 hitting line as the Twins' leadoff man.

That was all the team needed to be convinced that Span was legit. Last spring, they locked him up with a five-year, $16.5 million extension, buying out all of his arbitration years with an option for his first season of free agency.

So it was unfortunate when Span took a massive step backwards last season, hitting .264/.331/.348 in 153 games. Those numbers made him look much more like the fourth outfielder he profiled as in the minors than a quality starting center fielder and leadoff man.

With a relative unknown taking over the No. 2 spot in the batting order this year, it's imperative that Span reestablish himself as a strong top-of-the-lineup threat. How can he accomplish this?

In his excellent article for the Maple Street Press Twins Annual 2011 (which you can receive in a matter of days by ordering now), Adam Peterson breaks down the four components of offensive production: discipline, contact, power and base running. Peterson notes that last year Span led all Twins players in the discipline component, which quantifies expected runs when the ball is not put into play (specifically: strikeouts, walks and HBP). Span also ranked sixth among all MLB hitters.

In the contact component -- expected runs based on ground balls, line drives and bunts that are put into play -- Span ranked as the third-worst on the Twins, ahead of only Drew Butera and Jason Kubel. This was surprising because the component excludes power hitting, an area where Span has never been particularly strong. In the past, he'd made his living on succeeding with grounders, line drives and bunts, thanks largely to his speed.

Peterson's reasoning for this outcome struck a chord with me: "Most likely, this was the result of Span tending to hit the ball weakly when he hits ground balls."

Span himself has attributed his struggles on ground balls last year to the playing surface at Target Field, saying that it "felt at times like the infielders were catching up to those up the middle" and it "seemed like the grass would slow it up just a little."

Certainly it's true that grounders moved more slowly on the natural outdoor grass than the indoor carpet at the Metrodome, but to Peterson's point, I specifically recall thinking to myself on many occasions last summer that Span just wasn't making very good contact with the ball. Quite often he'd weakly tap it to the right side of the infield or back to the pitcher, and those simply aren't going to turn into hits much on any type of playing surface.

Span is a player who's going to put the ball on the turf quite a bit no matter what; his grounder rates over the past three years have remained constant (53.9% in '08, 53.1% in '09, 54.3% in '10). The key, especially now that he can no longer rely on the Dome's plastic floor, will be putting a jolt into those grounders so they can escape the infield with higher frequency, moving him closer to his .287 BABIP on ground balls from 2009 than his .223 mark from last year.

Raising his batting average will be the biggest key for Span in rejuvenating his offensive game this year. His excellent plate discipline and base-stealing ability make him an asset if he's racking up hits, and if you apply his same Isolated Discipline and Isolated Power figures from last year to his .311 average from 2009, he'd have hit .311/.378/.395, which is perfectly solid production from a leadoff man.

No wholesale changes are needed in Span's approach at the plate. Just a little more oomph.

I'm not one for online gambling, but if I were I'd bet on significant improvement from Span this year. What about you?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Three-Bagger: Pavano, Prospects & Antony

* Ron Gardenhire officially announced yesterday that he has Carl Pavano pegged as his Opening Day starter.

This led to some grumbling from fans who rightfully view Francisco Liriano as the superior arm, but I'm not too bothered by the news. It's possible that the Twins see Pavano as a better pitcher, but their decision to start Liriano in Game 1 of the ALDS last year would suggest otherwise.

More likely, this is a respectful nod to the veteran, akin to Gardenhire's decision to give Brad Radke the Opening Day start in 2005 right after Johan Santana won his first Cy Young Award.

It's also worth noting that Scott Baker was originally slated as the Twins' Opening Day starter in 2009 but missed the assignment due to injury (his replacement, coincidentally, was Liriano), so making this announcement six weeks away from the start of the season guarantees nothing.

* Baseball America released their annual ranking of the Top 100 prospects in baseball yesterday, and four players from the Twins organization made the list. Kyle Gibson was ranked 34th, with Aaron Hicks 45th, Miguel Sano 60th and Joe Benson rounding out the list at 100.

These placements fall in line with my Twins' preseason prospect rankings, where I had those four players ranked first, second, third and fifth, respectively. I did place Ben Revere one spot above Benson on my list, but there's certainly a good argument to be made the other way. Benson undoubtedly holds more upside, but Revere -- in my opinion -- has fewer hurdles to clear before making a positive impact in the majors.

* If you haven't already, make sure to swing by Twinkie Town and check out Jesse Lund's interview with Twins assistant GM Rob Antony. Jesse did a great job with the questions, probing Antony about some of the team's more controversial moves of the offseason. While the answers weren't always fully satisfying, there's definitely some good insight to be gleaned about the organization's thought process.

Great work, Jesse.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Protecting Mauer

Joe Mauer is the Twins' most valuable asset. I'm not breaking any ground with that statement; he's the proverbial "face of the franchise" and his salary consumes roughly 20 percent of the team's total payroll.

There's no question that when he's healthy, Mauer can be one of the league's biggest difference-makers. As such, it could be argued that the single most important priority for Ron Gardenhire this year is doing everything within his power to keep his star catcher free of injury.

That's no secret to Gardy. He has always made a point of resting Mauer at regular intervals throughout the season (for instance, when the team plays a day game following a night game).

Resting Mauer carries a price, though. Now that the Twins have traded away every other catcher in their organization with any semblance of offensive ability, they're left with Drew Butera as their sole backup option at the position. While I find Butera to be a likable player and easy to root for, it's not a stretch to say he might be the worst-hitting position player in the major leagues. He hit .197/.237/.296 last season, and considering his .214/.296/.317 career line in the minors, we should expect more of the same in the future.

The idea of taking Mauer out from the catcher position every fourth game or so was more palatable when his backup was Mike Redmond, a thoroughly competent offensive player, but when you sit Mauer in favor of Butera you're replacing one of the best bats in the league with one of the worst. Shifting Mauer to DH only means that you're replacing a quality bat like Jason Kubel or Jim Thome with Butera's meager stick.

The challenge for Gardenhire will be finding the right opportunities to rest Mauer while limiting the negative impacts of increased Butera dosages. Last year, Gardy's savvy handling of this issue may have had a significant impact on the team's fortunes.

Midway through the summer, Mauer was banged up. An array of ailments was taking a toll on his performance, and frustration came to a head when the reigning MVP elected to lay down a bunt in a vital late-game situation in July.

When the All-Star break rolled around, the Twins' season was seemingly hanging in the balance. They had sunk to third place and their best player just wasn't hitting. So Gardy took the opportunity to provide Mauer with some additional rest. In the five weeks following the break, Mauer caught only 19 of the Twins' 32 games, seeing an increased mix of DH duty and full days off. During that span, the Twins went 24-8, rising from 4.5 games out in the AL Central to 5 games up -- a commanding lead they'd never relinquish. It could be said that this was the defining stretch of their season.

The team's success during this span, with Mauer catching a little over half their games, can be attributed to a few different things, some not relating to the catcher position. Butera had maybe his best offensive stretch of the season, maintaining a .757 OPS over 14 games. Incidentally, it was also a relatively soft spot in the schedule, with 19 of the 32 games coming against the Indians, Royals, Orioles, Mariners and Athletics.

Most importantly, though, Mauer responded extremely well to the increased rest, hitting .442 with a 1.185 OPS.

It was an ingenious bit of strategy from the man who would go on to win Manager of the Year. Gardenhire recognized that his star player was lagging, noticed a lull in the schedule, and responded accordingly. Over the course of a full season, Gardy will have a hard time getting away with playing Butera at catcher more than 40 percent of the time, but during stretches like that one, the opportunity is ripe to rest up and rejuvenate Mauer.

It's a formula that Gardenhire would be wise to follow again this year. Mauer certainly will need his time off, as he's still experiencing issues with his surgically repaired left knee, but his resting pattern shouldn't be as simple as "every Thursday/Sunday afternoon and whenever Carl Pavano is pitching." The manager should seek to limit Butera's exposure against strong opponents as much as possible, and to react appropriately when Mauer seems to be especially tender.

Of course, this whole topic will likely reignite the debate over whether or not Mauer should at some point be moved away from the catcher position. For the long-term, that course of action is starting to seem more and more logical. He's had an extremely difficult time holding up over a full season at the game's most physically demanding position, and with $23 million owed to him annually over the next eight years that's becoming more and more tough to stomach.

Unfortunately, the front office traded away last year the one player in the organization with a decent chance at becoming an everyday big-league catcher. So unless a younger prospect can rise meteorically over the next couple seasons, Mauer's replacement would likely have to come from outside the organization.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Liriano and Work Ethic

Signing Francisco Liriano to a multiyear contract this offseason has long seemed like an obvious move to me, so I was puzzled when the Twins expressed little interest in doing so. I was even more puzzled earlier this month when reports dropped that the team was open to trading the southpaw.

Three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Liriano had finally returned to his previous level of filthiness (or at least pretty close) and established himself as the Twins' most dominating and exciting starter since Johan Santana's departure.

And now, the front office was thinking about trading him, with free agency still two years away?

There had to be more to this. I know the Twins don't rely as heavily on statistical analysis as some other clubs, but they're certainly not ignorant to Liriano's relative dominance. Surely they are aware that he was one of the league's most prolific strikeout artists, and that no other pitcher was as stingy with home runs. They weren't asleep while Liriano was breaking off two lengthy scoreless-inning streaks last summer.

The coaching staff knows what a dangerous weapon Liriano is, and that's why the lefty was tabbed as Minnesota's Game 1 starter in the ALDS, even with Carl Pavano coming off a 17-win season.

The Twins are obviously familiar with Liriano's ability, so it seems odd that their attitude toward him this offseason could best be described as "indifferent." Long-term contract discussions between the two sides reportedly went nowhere, and while club officials haven't openly confirmed that they're shopping the left-hander around, they haven't really backed away from the reports of his availability either.

It may be that the Twins are afraid of another major injury. I've been a little baffled by that line of reasoning, since he was mostly healthy last year and has had a full offseason to rest his arm. Then, I came across this bit in La Velle E. Neal's Twins notes for today's Star Tribune, under the scalding header "Failure to exercise is Liriano's issue":
Liriano threw several bullpen sessions in the weeks leading to the start of camp but came down with tendinitis just before he left his native Dominican Republic for Fort Myers. An MRI done in Miami showed no structural damage.

Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said he asked Liriano whether he did all of his shoulder exercises during the offseason, and Liriano said no.

"He's been doing them here, and now his shoulder is strong,'' Anderson said.
That's a surprisingly direct criticism of Liriano's work ethic. I'm sure other Twins players have failed to keep up with their exercises in the past, but I can't remember ever reading about it. 

Well, actually I can. While I don't feel like digging through newspaper archives to find quotes, I'm pretty sure I've seen Twins officials grumbling about Liriano's work ethic before. Those gripes may have some validity. He showed up noticeably heavier in 2008 when returning from a year-long Tommy John rehab, suggesting he hadn't been working to keep himself in shape while away from baseball. He battled arm fatigue in the latter months of the 2010 season, a recurring issue which has been attributed to his between-start regimen.

I love watching Liriano pitch and would hope to see him do so in a Twins uniform for years to come. I still feel like buying out at least his first year of free agency should have been more strongly considered this offseason, and I still feel like the idea of trading him at this point in time is loony. 

But if quotes like the one Anderson provided above accurately reflect the lefty's work ethic, it's hard to fault the club for being hesitant to commit long-term, or for being perpetually irritated when apparently avoidable injury issues like his current shoulder soreness crop up.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sorting Out the Bullpen Options

The most daunting challenge for the Twins' coaching staff over the next six weeks will be assembling a competent bullpen from an assortment of unproven minor-leaguers and arms recovering from surgery. Over the offseason, the front office watched five quality relievers who accounted for nearly 50 percent of the team's total relief innings last year sign elsewhere, and not a single established major-league arm was signed to replace any of them.

Meanwhile, both of the Twins' top rivals in the Central made major acquisitions to supplement their bullpens, with the Tigers adding Joaquin Benoit and the White Sox adding Jesse Crain. One can certainly argue that the clubs overpaid for these players, but that doesn't change the fact that these are frontline relievers who figure to be strong late-inning options.

The Twins are taking a potentially dangerous gamble in bypassing the market in hopes of filling out their bullpen internally. They enter spring training with only two known commodities: Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. Capps performed well in the closer role after being acquired at the deadline last year, converting 16 of 18 save opportunities with a 2.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 21-to-8 K/BB ratio in 27 innings. If things go as planned, he'll slide down to a setup role this year and should be well suited for it. Mijares, meanwhile, is coming off an unspectacular season in which he was limited to 32 2/3 innings by injury. He should be fine as a lefty specialist.

Presuming the Twins roll with a seven-man bullpen, as is their norm, this leaves five remaining bullpen spots. One of those will most assuredly be filled by Joe Nathan, and I'm growing more and more confident that he'll be able to fulfill his goal of taking back the close role at the outset of the season. Reports on his throwing sessions this spring have been consistently positive, as he's registered higher velocities than he normally does at this time of year when completely healthy.

It's rare that a pitcher can return at something close to his prior level of effectiveness only 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery, but Nathan has plenty of things going in his favor. He's got a great work ethic, an optimistic attitude and a history of sustained good health. Those factors can go a long way toward aiding a speedy and successful recovery.

Assuming things go smoothly for Nathan, that gives the Twins three established late-inning options in the bullpen. Unfortunately, that might be where their comfort zone ends. Let's look through the candidates to fill the remaining four spots, along with their numbers from last year (only players currently on the 40-man roster will be considered):

Brian Duensing, LHP
2010 Stats (MLB): 130.2 IP, 2.62 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 2.4 BB/9

Duensing is the one of the only players on this list who would provide the Twins with a fourth established commodity in the bullpen, having amassed 76 1/3 innings as a reliever in his first two big-league seasons (with tremendous success last year). However, Ron Gardenhire seems to feel that the southpaw has earned a spot in the rotation, so unless he struggles in spring training Duensing will likely open the year as a starter.

Kevin Slowey, RHP
2010 Stats (MLB): 155.2 IP, 4.45 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 1.7 BB/9

After battling stamina issues while in the rotation last year, Slowey could be a candidate to succeed in shorter stints out of the pen. At the same time, 137 of his 149 professional appearances have been starts, so he has very little experience pitching in a relief role. He also seems a bit too hittable to be trusted in key late-inning spots, with a .280 lifetime BAA in the majors.

Nick Blackburn, RHP
2010 Stats (MLB): 161 IP, 5.42 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 3.8 K/9, 2.2 BB/9

Like the two pitchers before him, Blackburn is a trained starting pitcher who could be relegated to the bullpen as the victim of an overcrowded rotation this spring. Since becoming a full-time big-leaguer, only two of Blackburn's 94 appearances have come as a reliever, so as with Slowey it'd be an on-the-fly transition. I have an exceedingly difficult time envisioning Blackburn as an asset in the bullpen.

Pat Neshek, RHP
2010 Stats (A/AAA/MLB): 49.1 IP, 4.56 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 4.2 BB/9

Bill Smith has described Neshek as a "wild card," pointing to his previous standing as one of the league's better setup men. Unfortunately, the right-hander hasn't been a particularly effective pitcher since the first half of the 2007 season, and that was a long time ago. In his first year back from Tommy John surgery, he battled spotty command and an 85-mph fastball. The results weren't very good. Neshek has much to prove.

Alex Burnett, RHP
2010 Stats: (AAA/MLB): 67.1 IP, 5.34 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 4.1 BB/9

Converted from starter to reliever in 2009, Burnett was outstanding between Single-A and Double-A in his first year after the switch and got an early look in the Twins' bullpen last season. He impressed in mostly low-leverage situations over the first three months but then unraveled around the halfway point, earning a demotion to Triple-A and continuing to struggle there. Despite the overall shaky results in 2010, Burnett is only 23 and he's got pretty good stuff. He could develop into a trustworthy option, but that's more hope than expectation after his ugly results in the second half last year. He needs to get his control in check.

Jim Hoey, RHP
2010 Stats (AA/AAA): 52.2 IP, 3.25 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 12.0 K/9, 5.8 BB/9

Acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade, Hoey possesses high-end velocity that manifested in a jaw-dropping strikeout rate in the minors last year. The right-hander last appeared in the major leagues back in 2007 before missing all of the 2008 season due to injury. Since returning to action, he's had an extremely difficult time throwing strikes consistently, issuing 66 walks over 100 innings in Double-A and Triple-A over the past two years. The high-90s heat is enticing, but are the Twins ready to trust him to keep the ball in the zone? They showed little patience with Juan Morillo, a pitcher with similar issues.

Jeff Manship, RHP
2010 Stats (AAA/MLB): 127.1 IP, 5.16 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9

Whether pitching in Triple-A or the majors, Manship got pretty dreadful results last year, allowing a ton of base runners and a ton of runs. He's now 26 and does have a fair amount of MLB bullpen experience over the past couple seasons, so I see him as a likely candidate to grab a spot if he holds his own in spring training. With his solid command and legit curveball, it's not that difficult to envision him developing into a Matt Guerrier type, but considering how poorly Manship performed last year it's tough to confidently view him as anything more than a mop-up guy at this point.

Glen Perkins, LHP
2010 Stats (AAA/MLB): 145.2 IP, 5.81 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9

I'll be honest: I was pretty surprised when the Twins tendered Perkins a contract this offseason. Not only does he have a history of clashing with the front office, he couldn't even hold his own against Triple-A hitters last year, going 4-9 with a 5.81 ERA in 26 games at that level. I know he's had some success with the Twins in the past (back in '08) and the coaching staff felt they saw some flashes out of him in the bullpen late last year, but lefty hitters have a career .319 average against him and it's not hard to find southpaws in their late-20s with middling stuff (in fact, there are several others on this list).

Scott Diamond, LHP
2010 Stats (AA/AAA): 158.2 IP, 3.46 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9

Plucked out of the Braves organization in the Rule 5 draft, Diamond is coming off a very solid season between Double-A and Triple-A, and has been fairly impressive at every level in the minors. He also has yet to throw a pitch in the bigs, and all but two of his 76 career appearances have been starts. He might make sense as a long relief guy, but it's hard to see him fitting in as anything more than that initially.

Dusty Hughes, LHP
2010 Stats (MLB): 56.1 IP, 3.83 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 3.8 BB/9

The good news is that Hughes spent all of last season pitching out of a major-league bullpen. The bad news... well, where to start? It was his first time getting an extended look in the majors and he was 28, his numbers (aside from ERA, which isn't always a good stat to evaluate relievers in small samples) were thoroughly unimpressive, and he's been a rather mediocre pitcher throughout his minor-league career. In addition, the Twins lost an intriguing right-handed relief option (Rob Delaney) by claiming Hughes, who seems redundant with Perkins and Diamond -- not to mention non-roster invites Chuck James and Phil Dumatrait -- already around.

Anthony Slama, RHP
2010 Stats (AAA/MLB): 70 IP, 2.57 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 4.8 BB/9

Slama's numbers stand out on this list, especially the strikeout rate. That's been the case for the 27-year-old right-hander throughout his minor-league career, but the Twins have opted to move him along slowly, apparently doubting his long-term outlook. In a brief MLB debut last year, Slama undeniably looked over-matched, allowing six hits and five walks in just 4 2/3 innings. If he can find a way to get the free passes in check, Slama could certainly be a difference-maker, but that's a big "if" for someone who's issued 77 walks over the past two years.

Eric Hacker, RHP
2010 Stats (AAA): 165.2 IP, 4.51 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 3.4 BB/9

Looking past his 16-8 record, Hacker put up pretty unimpressive numbers last year as a 27-year-old in Triple-A, though it's worth noting that he was pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Like several others listed, his potential for this year looks closer to serviceable long reliever than impact arm.


To summarize, it seems like the Twins are taking a "quantity, not quality" approach with the bullpen for this season. All 12 of the players listed above can be called legitimate contenders for those final four relief spots (more accurately, it's nine pitchers going for three spots, since one is guaranteed to the loser in the fifth starter competition).

At the moment, though, it seems like a stretch to call any of those nine players major-league relievers. Some haven't proven fully recovered from past medical issues, some are aging minor-league journeymen, and the rest flat-out haven't proven they can throw strikes. You can add some of the non-roster invites in camp -- like James, Dumatrait, Carlos Gutierrez and Kyle Waldrop -- but they exhibit the same flaws.

I realize that many of the Twins' high-leverage innings will be handled by Nathan and Capps, but those two will only combine to accumulate -- optimistically -- about a quarter of the team's total relief innings. Other guys are going to need to contribute, often in crucial spots. Can it be said that any of the players listed have really shown enough in the past few years to be trusted in such situations?

Sure doesn't seem like it to me. But the Twins are gambling that a few of these guys will step up and take their game to the next level, and in a hurry. I suppose the team can also trade for bullpen help at some point if no one emerges, though hopefully not at the same exorbitant price they paid last year for Capps.

Some stat-savvy folks might tell you that the value of a bullpen is overrated. And largely that may be true. But having more than a couple relief pitchers who can be trusted to hold a lead is a vital aspect of any team that wants to go anywhere. From a fan's perspective, there's nothing more frustrating than seeing a hard-earned lead frittered away because the manager had no decent bullets to throw at the opposition's big hitters in the late innings. Many players will tell you there's nothing more demoralizing.

That's a feeling we in Minnesota have been fortunate to avoid for most of the past decade. The Twins have done a truly impressive job of maintaining a good-to-great bullpen year in and year out despite a fair amount of turnover. But I can't remember a time Gardy and Co. have faced so many question marks.

If they can forge an above-average bullpen out of this group, it will be their most impressive work yet.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Backup Plan

Thursday marks the deadline for Twins pitchers and catchers to report to camp in Ft. Myers. It's an annual holiday for baseball fans, and this year it will serve as prelude to a very interesting six weeks leading up to the start of the regular season. Rarely has a Twins team entered spring training with as many questions needing to be answered as this one.

How will Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer look after going through minor offseason knee surgeries? How will Scott Baker's arm look after reports of a setback in his recovery from a seemingly minor elbow surgery? Can Joe Nathan return to form just 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery? How will the middle infield and bullpen shake out?

Order the MSP Twins Annual 2011
All important questions, to be sure, but without a doubt the most discussed topic over the next month-and-a-half will be Justin Morneau. Trying to return to baseball for the first time since suffering a concussion over seven months ago, the first baseman will have his every move and word  closely scrutinized, especially with club officials hinting at the possibility that he might not be ready for Opening Day.

Everyone hopes for the best with Morneau this year. But there's a realistic chance that he suffers a setback and the team is forced to open the season without him in the lineup.

It's important that they have a plan in place for that scenario.

Last year, the Twins got by fine without Morneau by sliding Cuddyer to first, Jason Kubel to right, and Jim Thome to regular DH duty. Those players all return this year, but it's awfully optimistic to expect that plan to pay the same kind of dividends, especially if Morneau will be missing months and not weeks.

Cuddyer and Kubel are defensive liabilities when venturing out of their expected roles, and over time such liabilities become magnified. Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine Thome, who will turn 41 this season, playing almost every day without breaking down.

There's really no candidate other than Cuddyer to play first base (which makes one wonder what Ron Gardenhire would do if both he and Morneau were unavailable) but the Twins can limit Kubel's exposure in right field, which will help both his knees and their defense. Jason Repko is available, but Gardenhire will want to avoid writing his punchless bat into the lineup too frequently.

The door would be open for Ben Revere.

If the 22-year-old outfielder has another hot spring (last year he hit .326 in exhibition play) he could put himself in line for a quick call-up should Morneau open the season on the disabled list. Revere could serve as part-time right fielder, representing a massive defensive upgrade over Kubel and an offensive upgrade over Repko (especially against right-handed pitching). This would allow Thome to be used more as a bench bat and occasional DH, increasing his odds of staying healthy and productive throughout the summer.

The Twins would benefit from getting an extended look at Revere in the big leagues. Kubel and Cuddyer will both be free agents after this season, and Delmon Young could be due for another significant pay raise. There's a good chance that the team will have an opening at one or both of their corner outfield spots, and I'm sure the organization would like nothing more than for the inexpensive, speedy and likable Revere to step in. Gaining some valuable experience this year would help prepare him for the challenge.

Revere looked pretty raw in his first sampling of the majors last September, and he has yet to spend any time above the Double-A level in the minors. But, if he looks the part this spring, there's no denying that he's an appealing option should Cuddyer be forced to serve as the team's first baseman.

If he's able to make meaningful contributions to the big-league club less than four years after joining the pro ranks, Revere would go a long way toward proving wrong those of us who doubted the Twins' wisdom when they reached for him in the first round of the 2007 draft.


The image in this article is the first page of a story I wrote about Morneau and concussions for the Maple Street Press Twins Annual 2011, which can be ordered here. This is your chance to get it before it even hits newsstands. Thanks to all for the support!

Monday, February 14, 2011


This winter has been one of the hardest I can remember for the good state of Minnesota. I don't think I'm alone in saying I've been cooped up in the house far more often than I'd have liked over these past several months, unwilling to brave the multi-foot snowfalls and subzero temperatures that have comprised most of our days. A winter that began with a Twins sweep at the hands of the Yankees gave way to miserable seasons from the Vikings and Timberwolves, sprinkled with the stunning success of every team in Wisconsin. It's enough to make a lifelong local sports fan raise his eyebrows while driving past the "Are You Depressed?" billboard.

Yesterday, I woke up, walked to the window, opened up the blinds and looked outside. Suddenly, everything changed. My eyes were instantly drawn to the gushing sunlight and the water dripping from the roof. I didn't even need to step outside to realize that finally, after this maddening and forgettable winter, we were getting our first thaw. The days are getting longer. Summer is quickly approaching.

Like so many seemingly unrelated things, it got me thinking about baseball.

Baseball is, of course, one of the best parts of summer. My excitement this offseason has been tempered by what I view as a baffling course of action from my favorite team's front office, but -- much like this hellish winter -- I feel ready to put it firmly in the rear view mirror. I'm just ready for the boys to start playing some games.

So I was struck hard by this bombshell dropped by Joe Christensen last week, which hits like a blizzard after the melt. While the Twins have weakened themselves over the past few months, one big reason they've still got a shot at a title is Francisco Liriano. He's one of the league's most dominant pitchers, he was their Game 1 starter in the ALDS (delivering a far more impressive performance than Carl Pavano or Brian Duensing) and for now he's exceedingly cheap. 

The Twins have a window for winning a championship, with a number of talented players currently on the roster -- most importantly a prime-aged Joe Mauer. What I loved about last season was that every move the team made, whether trading for J.J. Hardy or signing Jim Thome or trading for Matt Capps, was geared toward maximizing their chance at taking advantage of this window.

By trading Liriano right now for a package of prospects, which Christensen presents as a possibility in drawing comparisons to the Zack Greinke and Matt Garza trades, the Twins would effectively be slamming the window shut on themselves. Hypothetically, they could still compete for a division title, but contending teams just don't trade their best pitcher away.

I'm reminded of the situation that took place four years ago, in Bill Smith's first winter at the reigns. The Twins had turned in a sub-.500 record for the first time in seven years and seemed to be bracing for a bit of a rebuilding period. In an offseason where they'd watched Torii Hunter walk away as a free agent, the front office elected to trade away Johan Santana to the Mets for four prospects, and Matt Garza to the Rays for a package that centered on Delmon Young.

Over the next two years, the Twins surprised. The offense churned and young pitchers stepped up. The Twins came just a game short of a playoff berth in 2008 and sneaked in with an incredible late-season run in '09 before being swept by the Yankees. It's fair to say both those clubs were surprisingly good, but a bit short of greatness.

Two of the biggest flaws on both teams were a lack of front-line pitching and the lack of a passable regular shortstop. Instead of one year of Santana and two years of Garza and Jason Bartlett (who'd have fit those billings incredibly well), the Twins were forced to endure the growing pains of Young and Carlos Gomez, products of the trades. The two young outfielders provided more negative value than positive in those two years, and that swing of production may have been the difference between the Twins taking advantage of their window and failing to do so.

One could argue that dropping hints they're shopping Liriano is the responsible thing to do for the Twins' organization, ensuring that they'll avoid becoming out-leveraged by waiting until the lefty's last year before free agency to talk trade. Some see it as an indication that Smith learned his lesson from the Santana debacle that took place in his first months on the job.

The thing is, if Smith had learned his lesson, he wouldn't be discussing a Liriano trade at all. The southpaw is quite probably the only chance this team has at a truly elite starting pitcher in the next two years, making him one of the organization's most irreplaceable commodities and one of their best hopes for bringing home a championship with Mauer, Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Carl Pavano, Jim Thome and others all helping contribute.

I'm not saying I would never trade Liriano. Every player has a price. But I find it impossible to believe that any general manager in baseball would give up enough for a pitcher with his track record to make losing him worthwhile. Even as one of the Liriano's most adamant supporters, I was taken aback by rumors that his camp was looking for a three-year, $39 million extension. It shocks me that his agent wouldn't bring a more reasonable offer to the table in order to secure some up-front money for the next few years to insure his client's somewhat fragile arm.

But any pitcher can get hurt, so unless the Twins have specific reason to believe his arm is going to fall off this year (and if that were the case Liriano, who knows his body better than anyone, would be rushing to a long-term contract), there's no reason to even entertain the notion of trading him right now. Maybe in a year, if he inflates his value and holds unreasonable contract demands, but not right now. He's far too important.

When I actually stepped outside yesterday, I was reminded that it was in fact still decidedly chilly, and six-foot piles of snow stretched in every direction. It was a beautiful day, in its own right, but also a reminder that we'll have to keep waiting before the snow is gone and spring is here.

By trading Liriano before the 2011 season even starts, that's the message the Twins' front office would be sending championship-hungry fans.

Keep waiting.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Three-Bagger: Young, Annual & Touchy Subjects

* Since demanding a trade from the Rangers earlier this week, Michael Young has had his name bandied about by a lot of Twins fans. It's not hard to see the appeal a big name acquisition that would break the monotony of this offseason, but a quick examination of the facts quickly rules out such a move.

Let's think about this. The Twins parted with Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy this offseason because they wanted to add speed and youth to the infield while cutting down on salary. Young is 34 with diminishing quickness, and he's owed $48 million over the next three years. The Twins would be completely reneging on their stated offseason philosophy by dealing for Young, and paying dearly to do so.

One could certainly make the argument that Young would be useful addition for the Twins (though his numbers overstate his value), but acquiring him would only make sense if Texas was willing to eat the vast majority of his salary -- like over 75 percent. I doubt the Rangers would be willing to do that without getting a significant return -- it sounds as though the Dodgers were rebuked on such an attempt -- so it's safe to say Young won't be ending up here.

In fact, I suspect that in spite of his wishes, Young is going to end up playing in Texas this year. Sometimes we forget that players only have so much leverage in these cases.

* Have you heard? The Maple Street Press 2011 Twins Annual is now available for pre-order! Believe me when I say that you are going to need this product to get you ready for the season. It's packed full of great stuff from an outstanding stable of writers that includes the TwinsCentric gang, Howard Sinker, Judd Spicer, John Sickels and many of the very best Twins bloggers and authors. You'll find stories covering everything from the players to the prospects to the history to the ballpark and everything that surrounds it.

It's 128 pages, ad-free, packed with enough excellent content and big full-color pictures to get you through spring training. You can click on the cover image below to pre-order your copy for $12.99, and you'll receive it in your mailbox by early March.

* For the sake of my sanity, I'm just going to ignore this for now.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

NTB Top 10 Prospects: 2011

It's time for this year's preseason ranking of the top ten prospects in the Twins' system. Over the course of the season, I'll be checking in on the progress of this group, which represents the cream of the crop in the Twins organization and -- hopefully -- the bright future of the franchise.

Listed below are my 2011 Top 10 Prospects, with the level they finished last season and their ranking on last year's list. You can find the 2010 Top 10 list here and the 2009 list here.

10. Carlos Gutierrez, RP | Class-AAA Rochester (9)
The Twins are still apparently trying to figure out whether Gutierrez is a starter or a reliever. He spent the bulk of his season in New Britain last year, where he made 32 appearances -- exactly half of them starts. Late in the season, he moved up to Rochester and made a pair of relief appearances. A big right-hander with a heavy sinker, Gutierrez could work his way into the big-league bullpen mix this year but he needs to find a way to cut down on base runners; in 178 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, he's allowed 203 hits and 76 walks.

9. Liam Hendriks, SP | Class-A+ Ft. Myers (NR)
One of only two new names to appear on this list, Hendriks placed himself firmly on the prospect map with a stellar season between Low-A and High-A in 2010, going 8-4 with a 1.74 ERA and 105-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 108 2/3 innings spread across the two levels. The 21-year-old Australian native has allowed only seven home runs in 236 professional innings, but his true test will come when he faces Double-A and Triple-A batters.

8. Angel Morales, OF | Class-A+ Ft. Myers (5)
Morales slid three spots this year after a solid season split between Beloit and Ft. Myers, which is more a testament to the strength of the players above him on this list than an indictment of his own progression. The athletic outfielder posted an outstanding .362 OBP, but saw his power -- which had been one of his most intriguing strengths -- take a severe downturn, especially after moving up to Ft. Myers, where he managed just one home run and a .349 slugging percentage in 301 plate appearances.

7. Alex Wimmers, SP | Class-A+ Ft. Myers (NR)
The first-round pick from last June's draft has the looks of another success story for the Twins scouting department. Selected with the 21st pick out of (THE) Ohio State University, Wimmers signed in time to make four late-season starts and allowed just one earned run in 15 2/3 innings while notching 23 strikeouts. We'll need to see more of the 22-year-old right-hander before crowning him a top prospect, but he shows the early signs of a guy who could be on the fast track.

6. David Bromberg, SP | Class-AAA Rochester (8)

Bromberg rose through the low minors with surprisingly strong results despite his middling command and fastball velocity. Last year, he got his first shot at the upper levels and performed well, turning in a 3.75 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 112-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 151 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Most encouraging were his career-low walk rate (2.9 BB/9IP) and his improved peripherals after jumping from New Britain to Rochester. He lacks huge upside, but has a big curveball and profiles as a better version of Jeff Manship.

5. Joe Benson, OF | Class-AA New Britain (10)
Last year, when I ranked Benson as the organization's 10th-best prospect, I concluded my write-up by stating that he'd "need to ramp up his power in order to transform into a legitimate big-league prospect." In his age 22 season, Benson did just that, shattering previous career highs in home runs (27, previous best was five) and slugging percentage (.538, previous best was .428). As a result, he shoots up my list by five slots. Benson is a tremendous athlete and an asset in the outfield, so if he can improve his plate discipline and raise his batting average, he'll have a serious shot at an MLB job in 2012.

4. Ben Revere, OF | Class-AA New Britain (4)

If we were ranking the players on this list by how soon they're likely to make an impact for the Twins, Revere would sit right at the top. He already gotten his first taste of The Show as a September call-up last year, and he's clearly well liked by the coaching staff. Also, as one of the fastest players in all the minors, he fits with the organization's stated plan of adding speed to the roster. Revere's line in Double-A last year (.305/.371/.363) was remarkably similar to his line in Single-A the year before (.311/.372/.369) so it seems safe to say he'll settle in as that type of player in the majors. The power might never come, but if he can keep getting on base at a solid clip while covering lots of ground in the outfield, he'll be a valuable big-leaguer.

3. Miguel Sano, SS | Rookie-level GCL Twins (5)
He ranked fifth on this list last year despite not having a single professional game under his belt, and he showed why during the ensuing season while splitting time between two rookie leagues -- the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League. In 61 games, Sano hit .307/.379/.491 with seven homers and 29 RBI. He struck out in a quarter of his trips to the plate and was very raw in the field -- committing 22 errors -- but Sano is still (ostensibly) only 17 years old and his offensive upside is massive.

2. Aaron Hicks, OF | Class-A Beloit (1)
In each of the first two seasons that I published my own top 10 lists for Twins prospects, Hicks ranked No. 1. This year, he finally relinquishes his crown. It's not that I'm down on the 2008 first-round draft pick, but a .279/.401/.428 line in his second season against Low-A competition just isn't quite enough for him to maintain that status. Hicks still has all the tools to be a superstar, but he'll need to turn in the kind of production that reflects those tools in order to vault back to the top of this list.

1. Kyle Gibson, SP | Class-AAA (2)
Gibson didn't throw a single pitch after being drafted in '09, but still ranked second on this list a year ago. His spectacular debut in the Twins organization was enough to move him up to the top spot. After opening the 2010 season in Single-A, Gibson dominated his way through three levels, closing out the year in Rochester. Overall, the 22-year-old right-hander went 11-6 with a 2.96 ERA and 126-to-39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first exposure against professional hitters, yielding only seven home runs in 152 innings. His outstanding ground ball rate should protect him even if his strikeouts don't immediately translate to the bigs. Gibson is MLB-ready and should be the first guy called upon this year if a starter goes down.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Experience Matters

It seems safe to say that the Twins value the presence of veteran experience on their roster. This has been evident in their personnel moves throughout recent history.

When Jason Bartlett played his way up to the big leagues, Ron Gardenhire blocked him with Juan Castro, preferring the latter's infield leadership.

When Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey were knocking on the big-league door in 2007, the Twins signed Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson to build a reserve and avoid rolling with a bunch of rookie starters.

There was the trade for (and subsequent re-signings of) Carl Pavano to infuse the rotation with veteran depth.

And at the deadline last year, the Twins traded away one of their top prospects for the luxury of a reliever with closing experience at the back end of the bullpen in Joe Nathan's absence.

Over the years, this organization has consistently placed a premium on experience -- sometimes to a fault. So it surprises me that now, in a year where they will start three infielders without much history as major-league regulars, the Twins appear prepared to move forward with no veteran infield depth whatsoever. In fact, it makes me wonder if we won't see another move made sometime this month.

Regardless of your level of optimism regarding the team's middle infield experiment this year, it's important to acknowledge that Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are probably going to miss some time between them. Here are the number of games missed by Twins' Opening Day middle-infield combos over the past five years:

2010 (Hudson & Hardy): 97
2009 (Casilla & Punto): 119
2008 (Harris & Everett): 146
2007 (Castillo & Bartlett): 99
2006 (Castillo & Castro): 132

Whether because of injury, poor performance or trade, the Twins have annually gotten far fewer games than expected from their season-opening keystone combos. Unless Casilla and Nishioka can miraculously shatter that trend, we should expect to see other players getting significant time in the middle infield this year.

Last season, the Twins were well equipped to handle injuries from Hudson and Hardy because they had Casilla and Nick Punto in place as backups. Casilla was enjoying one of the best seasons of his career and Punto -- for all the grief he takes -- brings value in his ability to play strong defense at every infield position (most importantly shortstop).

Now Casilla is a starter and Punto is gone; in their stead the Twins figure to count on Matt Tolbert and a stable of marginal, totally unproven minor-leaguers like Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes. Being forced to rely on these players as regulars during a pennant race could prove problematic.

All of which is why it might make sense for the Twins to pursue a free agent like Orlando Cabrera here in February. He's now 36 and not very good, but one would think he'd have to be willing to take a low-dollar backup gig at this point, and he strikes me as a better fallback option than Plouffe (at the least, it couldn't hurt to have them both around). Cabrera has a lot of experience playing for contenders, and that was a big reason the Twins acquired him at the trade deadline in 2009 (and later credited him as an important figure in their run to the playoffs).

I have no illusions about Cabrera's caliber as a ballplayer, but he has significant experience playing shortstop in the major leagues, and with Hardy and Punto gone, that's something that no one else currently in the organization can claim. Knowing the Twins, that seems like an issue they'd want to address.

Monday, February 07, 2011

One Year for Liriano is a Mistake

It's probably no secret to people who read this blog often, but I'm a huge Francisco Liriano fan. While I feel nervous about what to expect from a number of Twins players this season, I feel supremely confident that Liriano will be one of the top pitchers in the American League.

He's 27, he's four years removed from surgery and -- for the first time in his Twins career -- he's had a full offseason to rest up. No rehab from injury, no winter ball. Liriano's arm should be as strong as ever this year, and that should help him last deeper into games and avoid wearing down at the end of the season again.

In 2010, Liriano was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, but his ERA and win/loss record stayed in check -- in part due to an inflated batting average on balls in play. His unremarkable core numbers have made him something of a well-kept secret, but that secret is likely to get out this year if his BABIP normalizes and he keeps racking up the strikeouts and ground balls.

If that's the case, the Twins may be missing their last chance to lock up the left-hander at a reasonable rate by opting for a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. I've been calling a long-term contract for Liriano the team's top priority since last August, but it seems that -- like with so many things this offseason -- the Twins brass sees it differently than me.

While chatting with fellow TwinsCentric blogger Seth Stohs at Twins Fest, Bill Smith acknowledged the downside of going year-to-year with Liriano: "We definitely recognize the risk in doing that and if he has another big year, it will cost us some money."

I don't presume the Twins want to cost themselves money, so the above quote indicates to me that they're not fully confident in the durability of Liriano's arm. I have a hard time understanding why, given that he's averaged 175 innings in his three seasons since Tommy John surgery and was hitting 96 mph in the playoffs last year, but I guess they have more insight on the subject than me. It's fair to say his arm is fragile; he had a lengthy injury history prior to his torn ligament (part of the reason the Twins got him so cheaply) and does go through periodic dead arm spells.

But those facts are all the more reason for Liriano to accept a multiyear deal right now and guarantee himself the first big payday of his career. Hammering out a contract with Liriano two years from free agency and coming off a good-not-great season gives the Twins an opportunity to negotiate from a position of leverage, but for whatever reason they seem perfectly willing to pass on it. I suppose I shouldn't get too worked up about it -- it's not my money -- but I wonder about the implications if Liriano goes on to enjoy a healthy and spectacular 2011 campaign, as I expect he will.

With core numbers that match his ace-caliber peripherals, he would become a much hotter commodity, viewed around the league in the same category as David Price, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee. And, with only one more year standing between Liriano and free agency, leverage will have shifted largely to his side. At that point, the Twins will face the difficult decision of meeting the potentially exorbitant demands of Liriano's agent, or risking the loss of another prime-aged lefty ace.

Of course, if Liriano doesn't have a great year, these points are mostly moot and it probably ends up being a fine decision. I admit that my opposition to this course of action is completely vested in the notion that he'll take another step forward this year, which could easily be wrong. Maybe he'll get hurt. But injuries are almost impossible to predict for pitchers. When the Twins handed totally unnecessary long-term contracts to Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn, both of those pitchers seemed to be in fine health, but neither has had a fully healthy or productive season since inking the dotted line. Given an opportunity to gain similar cost certainty with Liriano, a far more irreplaceable asset, it appears they'll opt to let things play out year-by-year, gambling that the southpaw won't continue his ascent and price himself right out of their budget.

Between Baker, Blackburn, Joe Mauer, Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer, the Twins have handed out a lot of bloated contract extensions to their own players in recent years that haven't turned out to be particularly team-friendly (at least so far). Liriano's situation struck me as a chance to buck that trend. Whiffing on the opportunity to reach a long-term pact with the only ace-caliber pitcher in the entire organization on somewhat team-friendly terms while his value is superficially low hits me as another misguided decision in an offseason that has featured far too many.

Friday, February 04, 2011


Nothing new here today, but I am filling in at the now-vacant SweetSpot blog over at Please check in there throughout the day as I'll be posting new entries periodically in the morning and afternoon, beginning with this piece on the need for a Francisco Liriano contract extension.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Joe Nathan and History

Joe Nathan is saying all the right things as he attempts to come back from Tommy John surgery.

Upon learning last spring that he'd be spending the next year rehabbing from one of baseball's most serious medical procedures, Nathan pledged to return at full strength in 2011. Every step of the way, he has remained positive, hopeful and determined in his demeanor. He's backed up his words, too. The right-hander hasn't reported any setbacks in his recovery, and was so confident while throwing a bullpen session at Target Field last Friday that he asked his manager to step into the batter's box for a few pitches.

During an interview with ESPN 1500 later in the weekend, Nathan reiterated that his goal is to be the team's closer this year. There's nothing surprising about that, and -- like Twins fans everywhere -- I'm pulling for him.

My interest was piqued by a comment Nathan made in the same interview, when discussing his future outlook: "Before (the surgery) I didn't know how many more years there were. But now that I've had this I feel like this is something that could let me go for another five, six, seven more years."

Now, that's obviously a very optimistic estimation for the 36-year-old reliever. Coming back from Tommy John surgery at this age is one thing, but coming back and pitching effectively for another five, six or seven years?

It's hard to imagine. But if there's one guy who could pull it off, it's Nathan. He's a fiery competitor with a tremendous work ethic, and he'd avoided injury almost completely over his first six years as Twins' closer.

So, for the sake of today's column, let's say Nathan manages to make good and close for another six years, pitching effectively through the age of 41 like fellow closer and recent retiree Trevor Hoffman was able to. Not only would this be an impressive personal feat and one of the great Tommy John success stories of all time, it would also place Nathan among the top statistical closers in baseball history, with a case for the Hall of Fame.

Let's say Nathan averaged 35 saves per season over the next six years. (In his first six years as Twins' closer, he averaged 41.) That would give him 457 career saves and place him fourth on the all-time list, behind only Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith.

It's difficult to guess how Hall of Fame voters will view closers in a decade, when Nathan would become eligible, but big save totals have certainly aided some cases (Hoffman and Rivera are widely considered locks and Smith has received as much as 45 percent of the vote despite being far less dominant than Nathan by other measures).

It's odd to think of Nathan as a Hall of Fame pitcher, because while he's clearly been one of the game's best closers, it doesn't seem like his service in the role has spanned enough time for him to be considered one of the all-time greats. And it hasn't. He's only closed for six years and he's 36, which is why his suggestion that he'd like to do it for another six or seven seems extreme.

The man likes to dream big and set his sights high. I respect that. But for now, he can aim for a more immediately attainable goal: the Twins' all-time save record, held by Rick Aguilera. Nathan is only nine short, and if all goes well he'll own it by the All-Star break.

Then, he can shift his gaze to 450 and the Hall of Fame. Knowing what we know about Nathan, I'd expect nothing less.