Monday, July 2, 2012

A .500 Team?

After a pretty good weekend which saw the hometown club win 3 out of 4 against divisional rival Kansas City, the Twins are now 33-45 and 8.5 games behind the division-leading Chicago White Sox. The Twins' record still doesn't look pretty, but I'm here to tell you that it's not as bad as it looks. Since May 1st, the Twins have gone 27-29 thanks in large part to an offensive that has been out-producing some pretty horrible starting pitching.

Aside from Joe Mauer, the offensive production has come from a couple of unexpected performers in the likes of Josh "Hammer" Willingham and Trevor "Plouffda" Plouffe who both seem to have made it their mission to lead the team in homeruns this year. In yesterday's game against KC, both Willingham and Plouffe went deep and Trevor managed to have the upper hand at the end of the day, hitting two bombs in a 10-8 Twins' win. On the scorecard, Plouffe leads the team in HRs with 18 and Willingham is one back at 17 (Morneau is a distant 3rd place with 10 homeruns so far this season). In only 59 games so far this season, Plouffe has managed to rack up 31 RBI and 35 Runs and has asserted himself in the middle of what has become a very formidable lineup for the Twins. The 3, 4, 5, and 6 hitters for the Twins are Mauer (.324/.414/.445) and then some combination of Willingham, Morneau, Plouffe and Doumit, all of whom bring some thunder (or at least the potential for it) to the plate with them.

Getting back to the pitching; after owning an MLB-worst 5.64 team ERA in April, the staff as a whole has been slowly improving. In May the team ERA dropped to 4.96 and in June it dropped again to a mildly respectable 4.33 mark. Twins' starters have improved quite a bit as well. After posting a miserable 6.75 ERA in April, they posted a 5.74 mark in May and improved again in June with a 5.09 ERA collectively. A 5.00+ ERA is still pretty brutal, but at least they are moving in the right direction. It's possible that the Twins could get Carl Pavano back towards the middle or end of this month and I have a feeling that Nick Blackburn will begin to figure out his issues and start to pitch better as well. It would be hard to get much worse than his current 7.74 ERA...

With 4 teams ahead of them in the standings, it's impossible HIGHLY unlikely that the Twins will be contending for anything come September, but I think that over their past 50+ games, the Twins have shown that they are at least capable of competing on a night-in, night-out basis. It's been good to see some of the youngsters like Plouffe, Scott Diamond, Cole DeVries and Ben Revere step up. The result has been much more watchable than last year's 99-loss team and gives me a little more hope going forward. The only thing I hope this recent success doesn't lead to is hesitation on the part of the front-office to make the trades they need to make. Despite being "only" 8.5 games back in the standings, the Twins still need to be sellers and with players like Span, Willingham, and Liriano performing well of late, the team has some decent trade-bait to dangle out there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Remembering a Good Man: Dark Star

I don't know how the news escaped me, but it wasn't until yesterday that I heard of Dark Star's passing. By now I've had time to process it - I've watched the tribute videos out there, listened to the interviews with people who knew him, and taken time to remember what I liked so much about Dark Star's evening radio program on WCCO back in the day.

My tribute needs a little bit of back story. When I was growing up, my parents decided (rightfully so) that TV had little to offer young they got rid of it. From the time I was 9 or 10 years old, there was no functional TV in the house. So what did I do? I bought myself a little handheld radio and immediately fell in love with the AM dial. It took me no time at all to find The Good Neighbor (WCCO for those of you not familiar with MN radio) which, at the time, was a mostly-sports/news station. They were the home of the Twins, they had radio personalities like Steve Cannon, Dark Star, Tim Russell, Dave Lee (still there), and everyone's favorite weatherman, Mike Lynch. My bedtime as a kid was usually sometime between 7pm and 8pm which afforded me a good amount of time to listen to Dark Star's show.

I liked his irreverence, I liked his optimistic attitude, I liked the way he joked around with everyone. I admired the way he handled people who didn't like him. I liked that he was respectful of those who disagreed with them. I liked it that he knew when to be serious, but never took himself too seriously. I liked that he was unpredictable. There was no doubt that he was a diehard Twins and Vikings fan. Truth be told, he put me to sleep a lot of nights - not in a bad way - and usually I went to bed smiling.

In watching the interviews with people who worked closely with Dark, you can tell he was a well liked guy. Paul Allen broke down when he was interviewed, Reusse wrote a very nice tribute to his fallen friend, hell, even the guy at Canterbury Park was distraught. I guess its in seeing the real emotion in those who knew him that lets me know that his personality wasn't just a radio thing - its a tribute to him that those he knew closely are so affected by his passing. I don't live in Minnesota anymore so I haven't been able to listen to him for awhile, but I will miss tuning in to hear him when I visit. Rest in Peace, Dark Star, and thank you for what you brought to sports talk radio.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Seeing the Future

I had the pleasure, this Memorial Day, to take in a Kane County Cougars game here in the Chicagoland area and was pleasantly surprised to find that their opponent today was the Twins' Single-A affiliate Beloit Snappers of the Midwest League. I had nice seats, 3 rows from the field on the 3rd base side and witnessed a donnybrook of a game; a 41-hit, 24-run affair that featured 2 homeruns, 4 errors and a total of 11 different pitchers.

It was a hot one at Fifth-Third Bank Stadium today (95 degrees) but that didn't scare away the fans which included many families out there enjoying some Minor League Baseball. The wind was blowing straight out and the players came to the park with their good bats. It was 5-4 Snappers by end of the 3rd inning and the two teams played see-saw until the bottom of the 9th when Cougar Orlando Calixte hit a 2-run HR to left field which tied the game up at 9 a piece. The two bullpens then pitched a couple of scoreless innings each before the Snappers blew it wide open in the top of the 12th, plating 6 runs, capped off by a monstrous center-field moonshot off the bat of Miguel Sano, his 12th of the season. I'm telling you, this homerun hit off the top of the scoreboards in center, he absolutely mauled it.

One cool sidebar from the game: a row in front of us and a few seats down was a kid sitting with his dad. He was wearing a Yankees hat, but as the game went on I noticed that he was rooting for the Snappers. Eventually he and I realized that we were both cheering for the road-team and for the rest of the game I had a cheering buddy. Every time the Snappers would do something good, he would look over and give me a thumbs-up. It was cute. When I left I gave him a high-five and a "Go Twins".

Getting back to Sano, he was pretty unimpressive for most of the game. Up until his HR in the 12th he was 0-for-6 and committed an error at 3rd. His body type reminds me of Hanley Ramirez. He has a big athletic figure, but he also has speed evidenced in the game by a close play at 1st when he grounded to the shortstop. I knew that he had been slumping of late at the plate so I didn't have a whole lot of expectations but was very happy to see him hit a homerun. A couple of other players that caught my eye were Eddie Rosario (2B) and Adam Pettersen (SS) who went 3-for-7 in the game with a triple, 3 runs and an RBI. He has good energy and though he is small, he has a quick bat and plays a decent shortstop. In looking at his numbers on Baseball-Reference he doesn't have a very impressive resume and lacks any real power, but he's only 23 years old and has good energy. I know that last remark isn't all that informative but hey, I only saw one game.

Pitching-wise there was nothing all that impressive. Snappers starter Matt Summers pitched pretty well (5IP, 4R, 1ER, 7H, 8K, 1BB) but didn't look overpowering or as dominating as those 8Ks would suggest. His fastball looked to be topping out at about 92mph. After having himself a nice season in Rookie ball last year, he has failed to translate that success into the Single-A level, carrying a 4.21 ERA into the game with a paltry 5.1 K/9 ratio.

All in all, it was a great time. If you haven't had a chance to see some Minor League baseball, I highly recommend it. It's very family-friendly stuff and it's cool to see players like Sano and Rosario who might make it to the Bigs one day. Kinda like getting a glimpse of the future...or at least the potential that the future may hold.

Sano "The Future" in the foreground, Rosario in the background.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A History Lesson: Twins Pitching - Draft Edition

I was scanning through boxscores this morning, pausing on the boxscore of the Twins' latest defeat and suddenly I had a particular curiosity. After writing yesterday about how an organizational change in philosophy is needed, I thought, "besides the Twins current lot of mediocre pitchers, who else is out there that has come through the Minor League system with the club...what have been their results?" As I compiled the list, with the the help of some of my twitter followers (@KirbysLeftEye, @Robert_Short, @trtx84, @thisisbeth, and @SethTweets), another question became rather obvious...what has the Twins farm system really produced in the way of pitching in the last 10-15 years?

The list of home-grown Twins pitchers, excluding anyone on the current roster, is actually fairly short...shorter than I thought it would be. I didn't differentiate between starters or relievers, the only requirement was that the pitcher had to have come up (more or less) through the Twins farm system and had to have reached the Majors at some point in their career. Here's the list:

*Matt Garza - currently a starting pitcher for the Cubs
*Jose Mijares - currently a reliever for the Royals
*Kevin Slowey - currently in the Minor League system for the Indians
*Jesse Crain - currently a reliever for the White Sox (on the DL)
*Pat Neshek - currently in the Minor League system for the Orioles
*J.C. Romero - currently a reliever for the Cardinals
*LaTroy Hawkins - currently a reliever for the Angels
*Kyle Lohse - currently a starting pitcher for the Cardinals
*Grant Balfour - currently the closer for the Athletics

**Notable names missing from this list include Johan Santana (a Rule 5 selection who only spent one year in the Twins Minor League system), Matt Guerrier (taken off waivers from the Pirates in 2003), and Carlos Silva (came over in the Eric Milton trade).

Here's another list - of pitchers the Twins have drafted in the first or second round since 2000 (source):

2000 - Adam Johnson, Aaron Heilman, J.D. Durbin
2001 - Scott Tyler
2002 - Jesse Crain
2003 - Scott Baker
2004 - Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop, Matt Fox, Jay Rainville, Anthony Swarzak
2005 - Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey
2006 -
2007 -
2008 - Carlos Gutierrez, Shooter Hunt
2009 - Kyle Gibson, Matt Bashore, Billy Bullock
2010 - Alex Wimmers
2011 - Hudson Boyd, Madison Boer

When you look at that list, one thing should pop out to you and that is this fact: the Twins have not produced even ONE big-league pitcher drafted within the first two rounds of the draft in the past 6 years. The last couple of draft classes excluded (for obvious reasons) the Twins have only drafted ONE pitcher in the first two rounds who even stands a decent chance to be a Major Leaguer and that is Kyle Gibson who is currently on the DL after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. Since 2006, the Twins have drafted only two pitchers anywhere in the draft who have reached the Majors: Jeff Manship (14th round, 2006) and Anthony Slama (39th round, 2006), both of whom are currently pitching for AAA Rochester.

Maybe suggesting that the Twins need an "organizational change in philosophy" is putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps what really is needed is a change in the methods (or the personnel) that this team uses to scout young talent. (Side note: It's interesting when you take a look at the tenures of the current members in the Twins scouting department. Deron Johnson, the Twins current Director of Scouting started in 2007, the same year Bill Smith took over as GM.) To be fair, most other teams in MLB have only had a small handful of pitchers drafted in '06-'11 reach the Majors, but the Twins currently have zero. Another thing to point out here is the hit-or-miss nature of drafting's like drafting a starting quarterback in the NFL. Unless you're looking at a Stephen Strasburg type who is clearly a big-league commodity when drafted, it's difficult to project what a pitcher's potential will be 2-5 years down the line when they finally make it to the Big Leagues. That said, prior to 2006 the Twins did have some success drafting pitchers which bore fruit in the likes of Scott Baker, Glen Perkins, Matt Garza, Jesse Crain and Kevin Slowey - all of whom had at least a good season or two with the Major League club. Perkins is currently the best reliever in the Twins bullpen and Matt Garza has had some very good numbers for the Cubs over the last two seasons and tossed a no-hitter in 2010 with the Rays. They've shown the ability to identify good talent, at least at some point in the past, but that ability appears to have waned...or flat out disappeared.

I'd love to hear what you readers think - also, let me know if I left anyone out of the first list above.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Move the Twins Can Make Now

My fandom for this team is wavering - I can admit it. In March I was optimistic that the Twins could put the 2011 disaster behind them and have a respectable season, hell maybe even a winning season. It is now clear that my 'rose-colored glasses' were on and those glasses now lay broken in pieces on the ground. Reality is a bitch sometimes. After watching historic offensive ineptitude over the last 5 games, watching the team get no-hit and swept by the Angels and handled easily by the lowly Mariners, it's getting to the point where I can't follow this team on a daily basis any longer. I'm not going to stop being a fan - it just hurts too much to continue watching day after day. All that said, I think it's time that the Twins front-office took a realistic look at things. This team isn't going to win anything this year...and likely won't be winning anything next year either. The current team in inept on a number of levels with too many holes to address all at once. So, knowing that the mountain lay in front of you, first steps need to be taken and taken soon. The first thing I would do is see what you can get for Matt Capps.

There are a number of teams right now with struggling and/or injured Closers. Potential teams that would be looking for a closer include: Yankees, Marlins, Nationals, Blue Jays, Angels, Red Sox, Athletics, Giants, and on and on. Trading for Matt Capps was the beginning of the fall for the Twins and dealing him now could be the beginning of the healing process. I know that not all of the teams I mentioned above are going to be interested in an overweight closer with a suspect history of success in the 'Closer' role, but surely there must be a team or two out there who could be duped into giving up a prospect or two for the 28-year-old right-hander, just as the Twins were 2 years ago. The bottom-line is that the Twins aren't really going to need Capps and there is currently a lot of potential demand for someone with his experience. Not only that, you clear the remainder of his $4.5M salary off the books.

There are other players the Twins could trade. Denard Span, Carl Pavano and Josh Willingham come to mind. None are more useless to this team, however, than the portly Capps. The Twins have a strained bullpen already, but with the way the starters have pitched it doesn't really make sense to hold on to a guy like Capps given the closer situations on so many other teams. The Twins have to start turning the ship around by rebuilding their depleted Minor League system and that happens by trading expendable talent like Capps.

Beyond trading Capps, this organization needs to take some serious time in thinking about their philosophies towards pitching and hitting. The "pitch-to-contact" philosophy that has now become the punch-line to jokes when referring to the Twins, is obviously flawed. Without good defense to back up these types of pitchers, the results are bound to be disastrous. From an offensive standpoint, the brass seem to put an emphasis on the elusive concept of "team speed" but a) poorly utilize the speed they do have and b) don't understand that "team speed" and winning don't correlate very well. The teams that are successful have a balance between "power" and "finesse". They have the boppers who can hit one out at any moment and they have the scrappy singles and doubles hitters who can pester the opponent with speed. They have power arms and they have control pitchers. They don't get stuck trying to hoard one type of pitcher or hitter. They put a high value on players whose strengths translate into winning matter the particular way in which they go about it.

I want to be optimistic about this team, but Twins fans, I'm afraid we're in for a few years of losing baseball before things get better. There are a lot of factors, both internally and externally, working against this team. The division has gotten better. The Twins minor league system has some talent, but that talent is currently at the A and AA levels and is not nearing maturity to the Bigs. The current squad of big-league talent isn't that good. Payroll will continue to shrink as attendance wanes. The Twins don't have much to offer in the form of trade-bait. In summary, this team needs Terry Ryan's savvy more than ever, to dig out of a hole that has quickly gotten very deep.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Time for Joe to Go?

I know it's 'in vogue' to call for the head of the hitting coach when things are going badly. I'm hardly the first and if things keep going like this for the Twins (6 runs in 4 games) more and more people will jump on that bandwagon. The fact of the matter is that in each of the past two season, the Twins offense has gotten off to a very slow start and sometimes a change a scenery is needed, even if the old scenery isn't necessarily the problem.

Last year, the circumstances were different, but the outcome was the same. In their first 29 games of 2011, the Twins managed only one game in which the offense scored more than 5 runs. Injuries were to blame more than anything else for the slow start in 2011, but this year the Twins entered and emerged from Spring Training with a fully capable lineup that had been playing well leading up to the beginning of the season.

Their struggles so far this year are no mystery when you look at the data. As a team they seem unable to hit a ball that doesn't hit the ground before it hits a glove. In fact, of all the balls the Twins have put in play so far this season, 67.7% of them have been groundballs which, far and away, leads the Majors. Their GB/FB ratio is 3.35/1 -- almost DOUBLE that of any other team (the next closest is the Giants at 1.87/1 GB/FB ratio). The propensity to hit groundballs has led to an understandably low BABIP (.184) which pretty much explains why the Twins have been unable to score runs. To put it a different way - the Twins have scored 6 runs in 4 games and 3 of those runs have come as a result of HRs hit by Josh Willingham. If not for that, the Twins would have been shutout twice in the first 4 games. [all stats courtesy of]

Joe Vavra's had a good run. He was hired following the 2005 season and in 2006, the Twins scored over 800 runs and won 96 games. After a down year in 2007, the Twins again reached the 800+ runs mark in both 2008 and 2009 and almost reached that mark in 2010 scoring 781 runs. Last year, well, we all know what happened last year - the team only scored 619 runs on it's way to one of the worst years in franchise history.

I'm only half-heartedly calling for a change. I know it's only 4 games and I also know that there are 158 games left this season. The Twins offense could (and probably will) turn it around at any point. I'm saying that if this offensive futility continues, then there needs to be some changes made -- and in this case I think it should start with the hitting coach.