Sunday, May 16, 2010

R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio

Dead at 67 Sunday morning.

May the music live on forever in memory of the Godfather of Heavy Metal.

Long live, rock 'n roll!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's Delmon Young Day!

Note: In the third installment of Twins’ bloggers addressing a common theme on a given day (Nick Punto and 2010 Predictions being the first two), we’ll focus today on the much-maligned, somewhat enigmatic, yet talented Twins’ outfielder Delmon Young. Be sure to check across the blogosphere for essays from many of the fine Twins’ bloggers. A special thanks to Andrew Kneeland for providing the inspiration.

Ever since he was acquired by the Twins on November 28, 2007, Delmon Young has been scrutinized heavily by Twins’ fans. Brought to Minnesota along with infielder Brendan Harris and minor league outfielder Jason Pridie in exchange for starting shortstop Jason Bartlett, starting pitcher Matt Garza, and minor league pitcher Eduardo Morlan, the deal for Young did not exactly quicken the collective pulse of Twins’ fans. Though Young was coming off a 2007 season which saw him hit .288/.316/.408 with 38 doubles and 93 runs driven in as a 21 year-old, little was done to exacerbate the skepticism of Twins’ fans. Many felt that giving up Bartlett and Garza would likely be a risky move. The fact that Bartlett batted .265/.339/.361 and Garza was 5-7 in 15 starts for the Twins in 2007 and battled with the field staff did little to calm the nerves.

Of course, the off-season of 2007-08 was very tumultuous for Minnesota fans in general. Torii Hunter signed a big deal with the Los Angeles Angels and the Johan Santana saga was about to culminate in a forced trade to the New York Mets for a package centered around another enigmatic outfielder – Carlos Gomez. Throw in losing the team’s solid (if not spectacular) starting shortstop and a potential long-term rotation leader in Garza, and the Twins had much to worry about heading into 2008.

And, predictably, Young disappointed.

Although he batted a somewhat respectable .290/.336/.405 for the season, he struggled to produce, not notching his first homer until June and knocking in 25% fewer runs than the year before. While Young was scuffling along for the Twins, Garza was winning 11 games and Bartlett was solidifying the Rays’ infield as the formerly hapless team battled all the way to the World Series while the Twins saw their season come to an end in a one-game playoff loss to the Chicago White Sox. To say that fans were upset with Twins’ GM Bill Smith for making this move would have been an understatement.

Still, for many (including this blogger) it was far too soon to pass any judgments on the trade. First off, Young was still only 23 years-old after the 2008 season, and the early-career comparisons to Frank Robinson were ridiculous. Young addressed a legitimate hole in the Twins’ lineup, which was right-handed production. Secondly, it’s not like Bartlett was the second-coming himself when he was with the Twins – and certainly not in his first season with the Rays. Although his .286 batting average in 2008 represented an improvement over his final year as a Twins, his OBP was ten points lower and his slugging percentage was an identical .361 over the previous year. Still, as the shortstop was receiving completely misguided MVP consideration and Twins’ fans were seeing their previous starting shortstop playing in the World Series, it was easy to see why many labeled the trade as a bust. Finally, although Garza demonstrated some of the promise for which the Twins had hoped when they spent a first round pick on him in 2005, he was not exactly tearing things up in 2008. He went 11-9 with a fine 3.70 ERA and an xFIP of 4.48, but starting pitching was far from the Twins’ biggest problem in 2008. Still, many Twins’ fans were probably secretly happy that the team actually traded from a position of strength (i.e., starting pitching) for an area of concern without having the move forced by contract considerations.

Young was handed a spot with the Twins in 2009 but was expected to share some time with a five-man outfield featuring Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, and sometimes Jason Kubel. Young responded by hitting a putrid .241/.276/.315 in April with just two extra-base hits in 58 plate appearances. By the All-Star break, Young was still scuffling along at .266/.292/.344 with 6 doubles, 3 HR, and 25 RBI in 202 plate appearances (with an inexplicable six walks) for a struggling Twins’ team. However, by the end of the season, thanks to Justin Morneau’s injury forcing Cuddyer into the infield and Gomez’s lack of consistency forcing him to the bench, Young was in the lineup every day and hit .340/.364/.544 in September with 7 doubles, a triple, 4 HR, and 18 RBI in 110 plate appearances. His torrid September helped cement him into the Twins’ plans for 2010.

The Twins traded Gomez to the Milwaukee Brewers in the off-season and planned to go with Young in left field every day for 2010. Despite signing Jim Thome to a free agent deal, Smith and manager Ron Gardenhire stressed that Kubel would DH, Young would play left, and Thome would come off the bench. Of course, Young has gotten off to another slower-than-expected start, hitting .267/.323/.442 in 96 plate appearances through Sunday’s game, and Kubel has seen quite a bit of time in left field to start the season despite a slow start himself.

So is Young a bust at age 24? Absolutely not. However, there are plenty of deficiencies in his game. For one, the guy does not take walks, as his career .289/.322/.417 batting line suggests. In 1.947 big league plate appearances, Young has walked 82 times. His eight free passes this season are already approaching the 12 he received all last season. Secondly, his production numbers are low for a player who was expected to be a big run producer. Though he has slugged .417 for his career, he was a .518 slugger in the minors and has yet to show he can produce consistently. In a lineup where he is protected by Joe Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, and/or Thome on a nightly basis, Twins’ management should expect more than a .416 slugging percentage with the Twins.

Thirdly, Young is a terrible defensive player. Despite having a reputation as a solid outfielder when he was acquired by the Twins, Young has proven to be an adventure in left field. He compiled a UZR/150 mark of (-22.9) runs last season, which followed up a (-18.9) mark in 2008. This means he was over 22 runs below league average defensively last season using a metric evaluating arm, errors, and range. He is a liability out in the field for a team which prides itself on team defense. One has to wonder how much of the Twins’ (-5.3) team UZR/150 mark was attributed to Young’s misadventures.

Delmon Young remains somewhat of an enigma at age 24. It is too early to evaluate his career after fewer than 2,000 plate appearances, but it is highly unlikely that he will be the player evaluators thought he would be when he was the first player taken in the 2003 draft. Still, he has shown signs of plate production – albeit streaky – over his short tenure and should hit for far more consistency in a Twins’ lineup with plenty of protection. This blogger would have been very pleased to have seen the Twins break camp in 2010 with an outfield featuring Cuddyer in right, Gomez in center, and Span in left every night, but am willing to take the good with the bad with Young. It’s up to him to prove me – and countless other Twins’ fans – wrong the rest of the way.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Twins Preview Day in the Blogosphere

It’s “Prediction Day” in the Twins’ blogosphere, and thanks to Josh Johnson of “Josh’s Thoughts” of coordinating this special event. On a day which ushers in a new era of Twins baseball with the pre-season opening of Target Field, it’s fitting to take a look at how the “experts” see the team shaping up for 2010. Be sure to check out the predictions offered by many of the fine bloggers found on the left side of this page.

This year is unique in many respects. For the first time in several years, there are legitimate expectations for the Twins to not only win the AL Central Division but to make some noise in the playoffs. With the divisional opponents either in transition (Cleveland is a few years away and Detroit looks to be retooling), in perpetual rebuilding mode (Kansas City, and don’t buy the contentions of some which suggest they may be improved this year), or possible contenders (White Sox), the Twins are the prohibitive favorite to win a second-straight Central Division title.

The high expectations are not baseless. The Twins will sport the best lineup in decades in 2010. The starting rotation is solid, if not spectacular, and has one more year of valuable pennant race experience upon which to tack. The bullpen is well above average, although the loss of Joe Nathan to season-ending Tommy John surgery creates an uncomfortable closer-by-committee approach (at least at this point). Many teams say they plan to go ahead with this approach (think Boston in 2003), but most either make a move for someone early on or designate one guy to fill the role. We’ll see how the Twins approach this as the season progresses.

The Joe Mauer contract situation is resolved, removing a potential distraction from the team. Having to enter the season answering questions about pending free agency was distracting in 2007 (Torii Hunter and Johan Santana) and would have been so this year. Long-term extensions were reached with Nick Blackburn and Denard Span, keeping two young components under team control for the next several years. Manager Ron Gardenhire’s field staff returns in-tact again this season and the patented stability trickles into the front office as well, as GM Bill Smith enjoyed a fine off-season.

The highlights of the winter were the offer (and acceptance) of arbitration to starting pitcher Carl Pavano, who pitched well for the Twins in August and September after being acquired from Cleveland. Jim Thome was signed as a free agent to bolster an otherwise weak bench and provides a significant upgrade over the past several years. Clay Condrey was signed as a bullpen option and provides insurance in the event Pat Neshek is not ready to return to his traditional 7th inning role. More significant, however, was the improvement of the team’s middle infield with the acquisition of shortstop J.J. Hardy from Milwaukee (for Carlos Gomez) and the free agent signing of Orlando Hudson. The defense up the middle has been improved by acquiring the two, and each has some pop in their bats. The Twins have struggled with these two positions for several seasons, and they will break camp this spring with stability at SS and 2B for the first time in a while.

Off the field, the team’s PR was improved by the Pohlad family’s willingness to put the team’s payroll close to the $100M mark and the signing of Mauer to an 8-year, $184M extension, keeping him in Minnesota through at least 2018. The thing fans are most anxious to witness is the spectacle which is Target Field. Gone are the days of antiseptic indoor baseball, but the days of turf-induced infield singles and crazy outfield bounces are also in the past as well. Target Field is an open-air, natural grass, paradise which will be subject to elements the Twins have not had to face since 1982. It will be interesting to see how the dimensions play out. Justin Morneau casually mentioned last year after a batting practice session that he thought there was a bit of a wind tunnel in right field. The Twins certainly hope that Target Field does not become “New Yankee Stadium West,” and with a pitching staff which induces a lot of fly balls, the general concern of Twins’ management and fans is genuine. One thing that is certain is that the fans will pack this place all season long. The Twins say there is a chance that all games will be sold out in advance.

In short, 2010 is a season of great anticipation for Twins’ fans.

That is not to say the Twins will coast to the Central Division title. With 19 games against the four division rivals, anything can happen. The Twins usually do well in the division, clean up in interleague play (the opponents this year are Milwaukee, Atlanta, Colorado, Philadelphia, and the Mets, so the road will be tougher this season), and struggle against the AL East and West opponents, so there are certainly some question marks there. However, the Twins’ lineup should carry them to the top of the division if the hitters have the years they are capable of having. Also, adding a healthy Kevin Slowey to the starting rotation definitely improves upon last season, when the Twins were forced to send inexperienced starters like Brian Duensing, Jeff Manship, and Armando Gabino to the hill in pennant race conditions.

So, in my mind, the Twins are the team to beat in the AL Central and will make some noise in the playoffs. Here are my predictions and we’ll see how they shape up come season’s end….

Twins-Specific Predictions:

Twins MVP: Denard Span

Twins Top Pitcher: Kevin Slowey

Twins Best Rookie: Danny Valencia (I predict he’ll be called up in early May)

Twins Most Improved Player: Delmon Young

Bold Predictions:
This blogger shares the high expectations, but is careful of tempering them somewhat, given the relative disappointment of his winter sports teams (i.e., Gopher basketball and hockey). However, the Twins’ lineup is far too strong, and the Division is too much in flux, for the Twins to not at least win the AL Central Division. If Joe Nathan was healthy, I believe the expectations for this team to go beyond the first round would be legitimate, but his injury has given the expectations some reprieve. However, I still believe the Twins have the tools to go beyond the first round, and I expect them to do so this year. Remember, despite five Division titles (and one tie) Gardenhire’s eight seasons in the dugout, the Twins have advanced past the first round just once, and that was in 2002.
  1. The Twins will trade for or sign a free agent closer in mid-April
  2. Kevin Slowey will win 14 games in 2010
  3. Jason Kubel will hit 35 home runs in 2010
A.L. Central Prediction (Standings):
  1. Twins
  2. Chicago White Sox
  3. Detroit
  4. Cleveland
  5. Kansas City
Three Keys to Success for the Twins:
  1. Bullpen stability, especially in the late innings
  2. Starting pitching must hold up for the entire season
  3. The team cannot rely on Mauer and Morneau to provide all the offense; guys like Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young must produce
Rest of the League Predictions:

A.L. MVP: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
N.L. MVP: Hanley Ramirez, Florida
A.L. Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, Seattle
N.L. Cy Young: Chris Carpenter, St. Louis
A.L. Rookie of the Year: Scott Sizemore, Detroit
N.L. Rookie of the Year: Jason Heyward, Atlanta
A.L. Breakout Player of the Year: Jason Kubel, Minnesota
N.L. Breakout Player(s) of the Year: Colby Rasmus, St. Louis / Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh
A.L. Comeback Player of the Year: Francisco Liriano, Minnesota
N.L. Comeback Player of the Year: Carlos Beltran, NY Mets
A.L. Playoff Predictions:
  • Minnesota over Boston (Wild Card)
  • NY Yankees over Texas
  • Minnesota over NY Yankees (why not?)
N.L. Playoff Predictions:
  • Philadelphia over Colorado
  • St. Louis over San Francisco (Wild Card)
  • Philadelphia over St. Louis
World Series Prediction:
  • Philadelphia over Minnesota

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Next Fantasy Baseball Champion!

I haven't played "real" fantasy baseball since high school, but I was persuaded to join a league with some fellow Twins' bloggers (or "Twoggers"). We concluded our draft last Sunday night, and I was fortunate enough to snag the second-overall pick and ended up with Albert Pujols. I was relieved when Erin Moore took Joe Mauer first overall, since I assumed Pujols would be the #1 and I didn't know whether to take Mauer, Hanley Ramirez, A-Roid, or Mark Teixeira.

Still, my team will likely be pounded this season. I loaded up with offense early and then ended up having to supplement my roster with some youth. Either way, here is my roster for opening day:
  • Catchers: Russell Martin
  • Infielders: Pujols, Ian Kinsler, Mark Reynolds, Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar, Mark DeRosa, Kevin Kouzmanoff
  • Outfielders: Matt Holliday, Bobby Abreu, Andrew McCutchen, Raul Ibanez, Nolan Reimold, Hideki Matsui, Matt LaPorta
  • Pitchers: Cliff Lee, Matt Cain, Heath Bell, Jose Valverde, Rick Porcello, Joe Blanton, Brandon Lyon, Hiroki Kuroda, Bronson Arroyo, Derek Lowe

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

As Expected, Nathan Done for 2010

As expected, Twins' closer Joe Nathan will have Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow and will miss the 2010 season. He hopes to be ready by opening day 2011.

Nathan discovered the right elbow damage a few weeks ago and rested in the hopes that it would heal enough to give it a go. He played catch Sunday morning with pitching coach Rick Anderson, and the pain was too intense.

The Twins' all-time saves leader, Nathan has saved 246 games for the Twins since joining the team via a trade with the San Francisco Giants prior to the 2004 season. He saved a team-record 47 games in 2009. Nathan is midway through a four-year, $47M deal he signed prior to the 2008 season.

As written previously, the Twins will audition closer candidates throughout spring training, including Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and Jon Rauch. Rumors are flying about the team checking out San Diego's Heath Bell, but for now, the Twins appear to be looking internally.

One was always holding out hope for a miracle concerning Nathan, but Twins' fans feared surgery was going to be the case. In the end, it's better he got this problem taken care of now instead of trying to pitch through pain in some early-season games which could mean the difference in a division which has been decided by a tie-breaker game two seasons in a row.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mauer Signs

The Twins signed Joe Mauer on Sunday to an eight-year, $184M contract extension, keeping him in Minnesota through the 2018 season.

After Mauer makes $12.5M for the 2010 season, he'll rake in $23M annually from 2011 through 2018, and will also have a full no-trade clause for the life of the deal.

The Twins made the move to keep the three-time AL batting champion in Minnesota for the long term and this was a solid PR move by the organization. Some in Twins Territory were sweating it out a bit as the negotiations dragged out, but one had to believe a deal was going to eventually be struck. Mauer's agent, Ron Shapiro, is notorious for advising clients who wish to stay in one city throughout their careers, namely with Cal Ripken, Jr. and Kirby Puckett.

From a baseball perspective, this is a no-brainer. From an organizational perspective, this is a hamstringer for the Twins. They have esentially committed 25% of their payroll to one player for the forseeable future. Twenty-three million annually is a lot of money and the Pohlad family certainly has the means to dole it out., However, the Twins operate under a business model consistent with middle market teams. Despite glistening new Target Field opening up some new revenue streams for the team, money is not all of the sudden going to be printed. The Twins are realistically not going to have a payroll much over $100M (and it makes sense to keep it under that mark) and now are committing 1/4 of that to Mauer. Not that Mauer isn't worth it, but the prospects of signing Justin Morneau after his deal expires after 2013 is less than it was 24 hours ago. Jason Kubel will hit the market after the 2011 season, and there won't be a lot of money left to sign the team's third-best hitter. You get the point.

The full no-trade clause is also problematic for a team like the Twins. Say that the Twins hit the tank in 2014 and are still committed to Mauer for another four seasons. The team has no leverage in moving the catcher should they need to do a quick re-build. The team was in a similar predicament in the 1990s when Puckett accounted for a huge chunk of the payroll. The couldn't move him (bad PR move dealing the only star on the team) and the team experienced losing seasons from 1993 through 2000. Not that the Twins will have the same thing happen to them during this deal, but I'm just saying.....

If I were the GM, I don't think I would have gone beyond six years for Mauer. The money was within the range I expected, but I don't think I would have gone beyond six years and $125M for Mauer. Catcher is a short-term position and committing to one for eight years is just not feasable. He has a bit of an injury history and will likely have to change positions some time within the term of the deal.

It's a risky deal for the team, given the length of the contract, the money, and the full no-trade. However, the Twins had to do this deal. The public would have revolted against the team had they allowed Mauer to walk away. However, this blogger would have been just fine with the Twins saying that they offered Joe Mauer $20-$22M annually for six seasons and he said no. That's a PR move I would have been able to forgive.

For now, let's celebrate keeping the best player in the American League in Minnesota for a long time.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Twins Extend Span

The Twins locked up outfielder Denard Span on Saturday with a five-year, $16.5M contract extension, keeping the young outfielder in Minnesota through at least 2014 with a $9M club option for 2015. Joe C of the StarTribune has a breakdown of how the back-end-loaded contract is paid out over its term.

The Twins' first round pick in the 2002 MLB Draft, Span played five full seasons in the minors from 2003 through 2007 before his recall in early 2008. In 2,388 minor league plate appearances, Span hit .287/.357/.358 with 68 doubles, 26 triples, 10 HR, and 192 RBI. Since his recall, Span has established himself as one of the American League's best leadoff hitters, batting .305/.400/.467 in just under 1,100 plate appearances with 32 doubles, 17 triples, 14 HR, and 167 RBI. His MLB numbers are far superior to his minor league figures and he seems to be getting better with each plate appearance.

Handed the starting CF job this season after the trade of Carlos Gomez, Span is a career (13.8) UZR/150 in center field, but has posted career +5.8 and +16.7 UZR/150 marks in right field and left field, respectively. 

The extension is the team's second such deal in a week, following Nick Blackburn's. It is another example of the Twins signing a core player to an affordable contract early on while the player gives up some free agency time. The Twins will pay Span $750k this season, and the team will be well over the $95M mark as a team by opening day. With some bigger contracts on the horizon and the extension for Joe Mauer hopefully looming on the horizon, the Twins will likely see their payroll continue to rise as their young core matures, but the Span deal offers nothing outrageous throughout its term.

Great move by the Twins, as fans can be assured that the team's core players of Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel (assuming the Twins pick up his 2011 option), Scott Baker, and Nick Blackburn are all under contract for next season. Add Span to that list. The big question is where Mauer fits into this list, and that will take care of itself one way or another in the next few weeks.