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. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nathan's Elbow Injury Leaves Twins With Questions

The results of Joe Nathan's CAT scan and MRI came back on Tuesday and they arrived with devastating news. The elite closer has a "significant" tear in the UCL of his right (pitching) elbow and he will likely need surgery to repair the team. In terms all can understand, unless a modern medical miracle occurs between now and two weeks, Nathan will need Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2010 season.

As LEN3's article linked above details, Nathan is one of baseball's most reliable closers, recording an MLB-high 246 saves since becoming the Twins' closer in 2004. He is 30 of 30 in save opportunities against the Detroit Tigers and has recorded an ERA of 0.85 against the Kansas City Royals over his career. Last season, Nathan recorded a Twins-record 47 saves in 52 save opportunities. He allowed just 42 hits in 68.2 innings. Although his five blown saves represent two months worth for many closers, they were the second-highest total for Nathan's career. The importance of Nathan's injury cannot be overstated.

Nathan will rest his arm for two weeks to allow the swelling to subside and then decide if surgery is an option. The Twins have been down this road before over the past few seasons with Pat Neshek and Francisco Liriano, who each attempted to rest the arm before delaying the inevitable surgery. However, with a significant tear in Nathan's case, it looks to a non-medical professional that surgery is the only option.

The loss of an elite closer puts a temporary damper on the sky-high expectations of this Twins team heading into 2010. The team will need to find someone to step into Nathan's shoes and close games in 2010. Internal candidates may include:
  • Matt Guerrier - The righty is a solid set-up man who has recorded one save in each of the past four seasons. He had a fantastic year in 2009, but seems to thrive in the role he currently occupies. Plus, he's a bit prone to the home run ball.
  • Jesse Crain - Crain has closer experience in the minors, but has only two career saves since joining the Twins in 2004. He pitched extremely well after his mid-season demotion to AAA, but he just doesn't seem to have the makeup for a closer at this level. He's just fine where he is.
  • Jon Rauch - My pick for the closer at the start of the season. The 6-11 Rauch saved 24 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals in 2008, so he has prior closer experience at the MLB level. He'll be an intimidating force on the mound in the 9th inning and pitched very well for the Twins after his acquisition from Arizona.
  • Jose Mijares - He's young and cocky, but he isn't a closer. Ask Delmon Young about his late-inning maturity level from last season.
  • Pat Neshek - He's coming back from his own arm surgery, so the Twins won't ask him to close even though he was a very successful minor league closer.
  • Francisco Liriano - This is perhaps the most interesting option for the Twins. Since his incredible 2006 debut and his subsequent arm injury, Liriano has struggled to come back as a starter. He seems to wear down in the middle innings, suggesting that he could be a closer-type who could throw as hard as he wants for one inning, mixing in sliders along the way, and then rest. The issue will be if he can pitch three days in a row, which is something the Twins simply cannot answer right now. He's in the battle for the final starter's position, but may shift to the 'pen.
  • Anthony Slama/Rob Delaney - Both have been solid minor league closers, but each has yet to pitch in a major league game. It's simply not the Twins way to ask someone to debut in the bigs in a pressure-packed environment.
With the Twins' payroll already at $95M, there is little chance of the team looking outside the organization for help. Whispers of Heath Bell abound, but it doesn't seem likely at this point. The Twins will circle the wagons and stay within the organization to replace Nathan in the near-term. If things fall apart early, look for GM Billy Smith to make a move. For now, however, the smart money is staying in-house to replace Nathan.

Don't think that Nathan's loss is going to bump the Twins from the pre-season division favorite perch. The Twins still have the best lineup they have fielded in several seasons. However, this is a temporarily devastating blow for the team right now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blackburn Signs; Nathan Has MRI

Sunday provided some good news and some concern in Twins Territory as the Twins announced the signing of starting pitcher Nick Blackburn to a four-year, $15.25M deal. The contract also contains a club option for a fifth season, keeping the pitcher under Twins' control through the 2014 season.

Blackburn has recorded 11-11 seasons in each of his two years in the Twins' rotation. In 2009, the righty made 33 starts, pitched 205.2 innings, allowed 240 hits, walked 41, and struck out 98. He pitched to the tune of a 4.03 ERA and an xFIP of 4.56.

In his two seasons, Blackburn has earned a reputation as a reliable innings-eater for a Twins' staff which puts a priority of getting the ball over the plate and making hitters earn their way on base. Blackburn doesn't walk many and doesn't miss many bats, but he battles and eats innings. On a staff where the bullpen is a strong suit, a starter like Blackburn who can keep the game close before handing it to the bullpen is very valuable.

Like last year when the Twins signed Scott Baker to an identical contract, the Twins identified a solid young pitcher and offered him a very affordable contract to keep him under team control for a few years. Blackburn just turned 28 last month and is a very solid pitcher on what should be a very solid starting staff in 2010. The Twins made great moves in locking in two of their most experienced youngsters to very affordable and responsible contracts.

On the negative side, closer Joe Nathan left Saturday's game with right elbow pain and headed back to the Twin Cities for an MRI and a CAT scan. No word on the results yet, but my feeling is that the team should shut Nathan down right now and let him rest. They are ok in the bullpen for a while, so there's no sense in blowing the guy out in the early season in the cold weather. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Going Dark.....

It's been a while since I last posted, but with Gopher winter sports heading for the stretch run and Olympic hockey in full swing, I've been posting heavily on Donny Puck and have neglected this site for a while.

It's relatively quiet in Twins Territory as pitchers and catchers report for spring training and game action does not start for a few weeks. Therefore, I'm going to go dark for a while and post exclusively on Donny Puck until the Twins' roster starts taking shape. If Twins' news breaks, I'll be sure to have my analysis good and ready. In the meantime, check out my Gophers/USA Hockey coverage on DP.

Hang with me, and enjoy the final throes of winter.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Baseball Bucket List - NL Version

In last Friday's post, I noted that my desire is to see a game in each of the 30 MLB ballparks. I listed that I had seen ball games in nine of the 14 American League teams and now move on to the National League to complete my journey.

Again, my apologies for the shameless self-promotion nature of this post. However, I have a strong interest in MLB ballpark lore and am unapologetic about it.
  • Atlanta - Never been, but it looked like a nice ballpark from the freeway during my only visit to Atlanta in 2003.
  • Arizona - I took a tour of the place back in 2005 with my oldest son and my brother-in-law. Chase Field looks like a monstrosity from the outside and looks like an airport hangar when one flies into Phoenix. However, the inside is much more intimate and it looks like so many of the new-age ballparks. It's far too quirky for my liking, and I'm not just saying that because of the pool in center field. It just tries too hard. Perhaps when I see an actual ball game there, it will redeem itself.
  • Chicago Cubs - I have visited Wrigley twice and sat in the outfield both times. The first time, back in 1989, we sat in the left field section apart from the bleachers. The second visit was in 1992 and we sat with the bleacher creatures for a night game. Both experiences were very positive, although I have a feeling Wrigley will drop a few notches in my book for the same reason Fenway has dropped. The Cubs are the cool thing with which to be associated these days, and many go to the park purely for social motives. Not to say the Cubs don't have any die-hards, but the Cubs are the lovable losers. Unlike the baseball-mad South Side, where baseball is serious business and it certainly comes first, the Cub fans seem to have a laissez faire attitude toward baseball, and that bugs me. I'm sure I need to go back there for a game to see if it affects my opinion.
  • Cincinnati - The Great American Ballpark (best of the corporate names) is on my short list of parks I'd like to hit - perhaps this summer. It looks spectacular, and Cincy's a great baseball town.
  • Colorado - I walked by Coors Field in my visit to Denver in 1999, and I would like to see a game there soon. Homers aside, it seems like Safeco Field in Seattle in many ways - at least from TV.
  • Florida - I think I'll sit out a Marlins' game until they move into their new stadium currently being built on the Orange Bowl site. Of course, that place looks a little too cutesy for my liking - at least the renderings do.
  • Houston - One of the only multi-park opportunities I have managed in the NL, I caught an Astro game at the Astrodome in 1997 and witnessed a game played by the 'Stros and Colorado Rockies in less than two hours. The Dome was a rotten place for baseball, but it had spectacular food and was very efficient. I actually witnessed the first day game in then-Enron Field history, seeing them play the Texas Rangers in an exhibition game in 2000, and then returned for a regular season affair in 2001. The place is a bit of a band-box and reminds me a lot of Chase Field in Arizona. However, I recall it having great sightlines and outstanding food. My visits to Houston in 1997 and 2000 completely reversed my opinion of the city, from an absolute dump to a wonderful destination. I believe Minute Maid Park had a lot to do with that transformation. 
  • Los Angeles Dodgers - Strangely, the Dodgers are the only MLB team I have yet to see play live. Dodger Stadium was never on my list of places to visit until I drove by it in November 2006 and then stopped with my family at the team store atop Chavez Ravine. The place is top-notch, even after almost 50 years. I need to see a game there, pronto. Universal Studios Hollywood sells Dodger Dogs in the park, and my oldest son and I fell in love with them.  
  • Milwaukee - Old County Stadium was the site of my first road Twins' game back in 1988 and also the site of the beginning of my dislike for Kirby Puckett, the person. However, the experience was very pleasant. My expectations for the food were off the charts, and the brats were good. At a return visit in 1992, we sat through a multiple-hour rain delay and never did see a game, but it allowed us to concentrate on food. My brother got a steal of a deal on a Brewers' rain slicker ($3). Other than that, I was eager to see that garbage dump go. The replacement, Miller Park, is a showplace, and it's absolutely huge. In my two games there, I was awed by the size of the facility. Unfortunately, I have caught games on rainy nights, meaning that the roof was closed and I was unable to catch outdoor baseball in Milwaukee. Moving outdoors will probably change my opinion of the place from "adequate" to "good."
  • New York Mets - I saw two games at Shea Stadium and was rained out of a third. The place was a rat hole and anyone who visited the place doesn't have a differing opinion. Still, the place did have some charm to it. It was a ballpark, as evidenced by the open outfield section (which overlooked Queens instead of opening the other way toward Manhattan). The food was good, and I even caught a foul ball during my first game there in 2003 (Mets vs. Expos; Timo Perez at bat and Livan Hernandez on the mound). My second game there was delayed several times by rain, and each time the tarp covered the field, organ music blared over the speakers, moving the place toward the top of my list. The rusted-out dump that was Shea has been replaced by outstanding Citi Field, which I have not yet visited.
  • Philadelphia - Venerable Veterans Stadium gave way to Citizens Bank Park in 2007, and I have visited the place in 2007 and 2008. It is right up there, but drops below Pittsburgh because it is less intimate. Of course, Philly is not an intimate kind of town, and the park fits the city well. The Liberty Bell tolling after homers and Phillies' wins is kitschy, but is really cool. The food is great at Citizens Bank, and it's just an outstanding place to catch a game. 
  • Pittsburgh - The absolute best ballpark out there today, outside of Camden Yards, is PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The tickets are affordable, the ushers are friendly, the upper deck is small and close to the field, the view of the Pittsburgh skyline is spectacular, and the food is top-notch. I have visited the place twice with a buddy of mine, and we have been fortunate enough to catch post-game fireworks displays over the river both nights. There is no better setting for fireworks than PNC Park. Too bad the Pirates are absolutely awful, because this park deserves to be seen more often as the showplace that it is.
  • St. Louis - My first baseball experience in St. Louis came in 2005 at Old Busch Stadium. It was 100 degrees and we caught an afternoon game in blazing heat. Still, the place was packed in a sea of red. The cookie-cutter was better than many of its cousins, mostly because it had grass, but was still a cookie cutter. The two games I caught at Busch in 2006 showed me a new form of baseball experience. Dubbed "Baseball Heaven" by the team's marketing geniuses, the new stadium stressed the action of the field first while providing the nation's best baseball fans with all the newfangled gadgets. Seeing game 3 of the 2006 World Series there clinched the place for me. Nothing about it stands out as spectacular, but the body of work makes it tremendous. Go.
  • San Diego - Never been, but Petco Park looks fabulous.
  • San Francisco - Same as San Diego. I don't have a burning desire to go to SF any time soon, but AT&T Park is on the "must-visit" list.
  • Washington - Admittedly, I had some reservations about Nationals Park. When I attended a game there this past summer, I was part of a record-setting crowd (the Red Sox were in town), and the place was electric. I stood for the entire game in a SRO area in the left field corner, and my expectations were blown away. Sure, southeast Washington is still not the best area, but the Nationals are trying to spice up the area with Nationals Park as its cornerstone. It delivers. Some have said that Nationals Park will be the closest comparison to Target Field, given the modern look the place has. If that's the case, I cannot wait for April in Minneapolis. Food tip: try the chili dogs - you won't be disappointed.
Eight out of 16 NL team's parks visited here makes a total of 17 of 30. I have some work to do. Here's how the NL stacks up in my mind:
  1. Pittsburgh
  2. Philadelphia
  3. Washington
Overall, in MLB circles, and eliminating defunct ballparks (Old Comiskey Park is and always will be my all-time favorite), here's how I rank my top three:
  1. Baltimore
  2. Pittsburgh
  3. Philadelphia
Let the debate begin!

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's Nick Punto Day!

Twins' blogger Andrew Kneeland proclaimed today "Nick Punto Day" across the Twins' blogosphere. So, as a card-carrying member of the blogosphere, I find it my civic duty to pass along my thoughts on the diminuitive Twins' utility player.

Perhaps no single player attracts as much attention and/or scorn among Twins' followers than Punto. The facts show that Punto is a career .248/.322/.324 hitter in nine MLB seasons. Since joining the Twins in a trade prior to the 2004 season (along with Carlos Silva for Eric Milton), Punto has appeared many different places across the diamond and has hit .249/.325/.327 in just over 2,400 plate appearances. He is truly one of manager Ron Gardenhire's favorite players.

Simply put, the guy cannot hit and is not an everyday player. Still, that has never stopped Gardenhire from finding ways to pencil him into a lineup. He shows occasional flashes of brilliance, such as his .290/.352/.3373 2006 campaign, the .284/.344/.382 miracle in 2008, and his outstanding .292/.407/.375 month of September last season. Throw in his fielding (Career UZR/150 marks of +3.9 at 2B, +19.9 at 3B, and +18.1 at SS, with at least 226 games at each position), and it's easy to see how Gardenhire became enamored with Punto.

However, in this day and age, Punto doesn't hit enough - and his defense is not good enough - to justify a spot in an everyday lineup. Twenty years ago, a career .248/.322/.342 batting line would warrant a "good glove, no hit" moniker and likely an everyday spot. However, with offensive production necessary in an extremely difficult American League, players of Punto's caliber simply don't cut it day in and day out.

In 2010, the Twins will almost certainly go to battle with either Punto or Brendan Harris as the starting third baseman. If Punto's the starter, I'm fine with that. Given the presence of Orlando Hudson in the lineup, batting second (instead of Gardy inexplicably putting Punto there far too often) and playing solid defense, the lineup is fine with Punto at third - provided he continues to catch the ball. With Punto batting ninth, the Twins will have plenty of offense from the other spots of the lineup to counteract Punto's complete lack of production. This is a far cry from the last six weeks of 2009 when the Twins had BOTH Punto and Matt Tolbert - nearly identical players - in the lineup each night, and somehow managing to win.

Punto's value to the Twins is in his versatility, his ability to field consistently, and his decent speed. He is not an everyday player, but the 2010 Twins may be able to get by with him in the lineup every day because of its overall balance.

For me, I hope Danny Valencia hits .600 this spring and Punto is relegated to the bench. Hey, a man can dream, no?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jacque In; Pridie Out

The Twins dipped into their past on Tuesday, signing outfielder Jacque Jones to a minor league contract containing an invite to spring training.

A second-round pick by the Twins in the 1996 draft, Jones spent seven seasons in Minnesota between 1999 and 2005. He was part of the core group of youngsters given the chance to play every day in 1999 by manager Tom Kelly, joining Torii Hunter, Cristian Guzman, A.J. Pierzynski, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Corey Koskie. Jones was a popular mainstay in the team which broke the string of eight-consecutive losing seasons in 2001 and then won back-to-back-to-back AL Central Division titles from 2002 to 2004.

Jones batted .279/.327/.455 in his seven seasons in Minnesota with 189 doubles, 132 HR, and 476 RBI in just under 3,800 plate appearances. His finest season was 2002, when he batted .300/.341/.511 with 37 doubles, 27 HR, and 85 RBI.  He left as a free agent after the 2005 season and signed a free agent deal with the Chicago Cubs. His first season in Chicago was productive (.285/.334/.499), but he soon fell out of favor after a largely unproductive 2007 campaign, and was traded in the off-season to the Detroit Tigers. Jones spent a month of the 2008 season with the Tigers and was released after hitting just .165/.244/.253 in 90 plate appearances, and was picked up by the Florida Marlins. Things did not go well in FLA, either, as Jones hit just .108/.227/.108 in 44 plate appearances and did not play the rest of the season.

He signed with the Reds last spring but did not make the club out of spring training. Jones worked out the rest of the 2009 season but did not play baseball. He received a loud ovation when he appeared to throw out the first pitch of the Twins/Tigers' tiebreaker game last season and went to the winter meetings in December in hopes of a comeback.

The move is a no-risk one for the Twins. Jones has essentially no shot at making the club out of spring training. The team is set at the outfield position, with the exception of fifth outfielder (more on that later), and Jones has agreed to accept an assignment to Rochester if he fails to make the club. Once he gets some PAs down on the farm and gets his timing back, he would be an option should the Twins run into injuries.

The fifth outfielder roster spot is open, and it has one less contender today after the New York Mets claimed outfielder Jason Pridie on waivers. The speedy Pridie was acquired by the Twins in the Garza/Bartlett/Young deal prior to the 2008 season and he spent virtually all his time in Rochester. He made six plate appearances for the Twins over two seasons, recording no hits and picking up one walk. In the minors, Pridie hit .265/.295/.382 last season, and was in the mix for a spot on the final roster this spring, mostly because he could run and was good in the outfield. However, he appeared to be regressing at the plate and was very disappointing in Rochester in 2009.

The Mets plucked him on waivers after the Twins removed him from the 40-man roster to make room for newly-signed Orlando Hudson. With Pridie gone, candidates for the fifth outfielder spot include Rene Tosoni from the minors, or Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto off the current roster. We'll have to see how it shakes out, but losing Pridie won't keep many in Twins Territory up at night.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Educate Yourself on Twins' Minor League Prospects

Spring training is just around the corner and it's time to think about Twins baseball and the 2010 season. Although there are seemingly few jobs open this year on the current roster, injuries and trades happen and the Twins often dig into the minor leagues to fill spots on the Major League roster.

To be prepared for these moves, I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of the Minnesota Twins 2010 Prospect Handbook. Compiled by Seth Stohs, linked here often, especially when talking about Twins' minor league prospects, the handbook is jam-packed with information about the players populating the Twins' minor league affiliates. The 2010 version has over 120 pages of solid information, including some of the following (thanks for providing highlights, Seth):
  • Foreword by Kelly Thesier
  • Over 150 Twins minor league profiles
  • In-depth statistics and splits
  • Scouting reports from several people in, around, and outside the Twins' organization
  • Top 5 Prospects from the Twins DSL Team
  • Twins as Players in the International Markets
  • Twins in the AFL
  • Interview with Jeff Manship: Big Leaguer
  • Profile of Danny Valencia: On the Cusp
  • 2009 Draft and Derek McCallum Q&A
  • SethSpeaks Top 30 Twins Prospect lists, 2006-2010
  • Top 10 Twins prospect lists from several minor league experts and some of your favorite Twins bloggers
Seth provides a ton of great content to fans of Twins Territory throughout the season. Do yourselves a favor and buy this book - like I did - and get prepared for the upcoming season.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Twins Bring "O-Dawg" Into the Mix

Many Twins' fans' prayers were answered late Thursday night when it was announced that they signed free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson to a one-year, $5M free agent contract.

The 32-year-old Hudson is an eight-year MLB veteran who spent last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, batting .283/.357/.417 in 631 plate appearances with 35 doubles, 9 HR, and 62 RBI. He also won his fourth Gold Glove award, despite recording an UZR/150 of -3.7. After starting out last off-season seeking at least a three-year deal, the free agent market for his services dried up and he signed a one-year deal with LA for $3M. The events played out similarly this off-season, although he will make more money with the Twins.

For his career, Hudson is a .282/.348/.431 hitter and has won four Gold Gloves at second base, where he has recorded a career UZR/150 of 2.6.

Hudson's signing solidifies the lineup both offensively and defensively. His defense at second base is solid, although ESPN's Keith Law thinks it is over-rated, and the UZR/150 suggests the same. Still, he is as good as option defensively as the Twins currently have and he'll do well catching the ball. At the plate, he is superior to internal options Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, or Matt Tolbert, and is a good #2 hitter to add to a potent lineup.

If the Twins started the season today, here is their probable batting order:
  1. Denard Span, CF
  2. Orlando Hudson, 2B
  3. Joe Mauer, C
  4. Justin Morneau, 1B
  5. Jason Kubel, DH
  6. Michael Cuddyer, RF
  7. Delmon Young, LF
  8. J.J. Hardy, SS
  9. Nick Punto/Danny Valencia/Luke Hughes/Brendan Harris/Matt Tolbert, 3B
That's as good a lineup as the Twins have fielded in many years, and Buster Olney said the same a few days ago when Hudson's signing was speculated.

The Twins are likely done in the free agent marketplace, and rightfully so. They have an open spot at third base (as evidenced above), but are fine with any of the internal options listed. The same is true with the fifth starter's position, where internal candidates Brian Duensing, Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, and Jeff Manship are all in the mix and each would be adequate. The Twins' payroll will be at least $96M on opening day - a team record - and surely to go up once the Joe Mauer extension is announced.

The Mauer extension would be a perfect cap to a good week for the Twins, who spent money responsibly to add the perfect compliment to an already good lineup.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mauer Agrees to 10-Year Extension, Sources (But, Wait!)

WCCO is citing sources saying the Twins have agreed with Joe Mauer on a 10-year extension Monday. Details are sketchy and developing and we'll be sure to have much more analysis as it emeges.

However, ESPN's Buster Olney cites multiple sources of his own saying that the report is NOT accurate.

Obviously, things appear to be moving on this one, and we'll keep an eye on the blotter this afternoon.

Are the Twins Done? - Tolleson Update

UPDATE, 12:52pm Monday - MLB Trade Rumors is reporting that the Oakland Athletics claimed Twins' minor league infielder Steven Tolleson off waivers, meaning that the Twins gave his spot on the 40-man roster to newly-signed Jim Thome. Tolleson was expected to be potentially in the mix for an appearance in Minnesota this year and was ranked by Aaron Gleeman as the Twins' 37th-ranked prospect in his post just this morning.

With TwinsFest in the rear view mirror, spring training is right around the corner. It's always nice to think about baseball in the depths of winter here in Minnesota, especially with the knowledge that pitchers and catchers report for duty in a few short weeks.

With that said, the off-season still moves on and the Minnesota Twins still have some perceived holes in their lineup. Jim Thome was signed last week to bolster a weak bench and provide some late-inning pop in a pinch-hitting role. The Twins got him for an affordable price ($1.5M plus incentives) and are assured to break camp with a payroll of at least $90M in their inaugural season at Target Field.

Still, one cannot help but think that the Twins may be done with free agent signings this winter. There are still huge question marks at third base and second base, as well as the absence of a true #2 hitter in the order. It's almost certain that Nick Punto will be penciled in as the starter at either second or third base, regardless of whether the Twins bring in a free agent or not. As I've stated here and elsewhere many times, I'm fine with that, provided that Matt Tolbert is not the starting third baseman and Punto starts at second, as the team did so effectively down the stretch last season when everyone was playing out of his mind.

The obvious choices at second base are the usual suspects: Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez. Both are still out there and apparently both still making multi-year demands. Hudson's reported contract demands were somewhere in the three year, $9M range, which seems reasonable, other than the fact that he is already 32 years old and no team wants to go that deep with Hudson. The Twins should try to split the distance with the O-Dog, and offer him two years at $6M plus an option for a third. That would seem a reasonable price to pay for a Gold Glove second baseman who can hit a little. The article linked above mentions the Twins as a possible fit, but to my knowledge, no discussions have occurred between the Twins and Hudson's representatives.

Lopez is in a similar position. He is coming off a fine season in 2009 where he made $3.5M between the Diamondbacks and Brewers. He is more versatile than Hudson in that he has experience at second, short, third, and the outfield. Still, he is still hunting for a job. The Twins have not been mentioned in the Lopez discussions, but he seemingly would be a good and affordable fit for the team at second base.

Of course, the Twins' could choose to stand pat and try to fill the third base position internally. Minor league prospects Luke Hughes and Danny Valencia will both be in big league camp this spring with chances to win the job. Tolbert is in the mix at third, and the Twins still have Alexi Casilla at second base. Giving the job to either of those guys is not likely to excite Twins Territory, especially if the team decides not to pursue Hudson, Lopez, or someone like Adam Kennedy. Hughes and Valencia are going to have to hit their way onto the team this spring, and manager Ron Gardenhire is not going to hand either of them the job if neither one proves he can catch the ball at third.

The Twins are in a somewhat enviable position this winter. They are set in the starting rotation (with a plethora of candidates to fill the fifth starter's spot), around the diamond (except at second and third), in the outfield, the bench, and the bullpen. One hopes that either Hudson or Lopez finds his way onto the roster this spring, or that either Hughes or Valencia hits .500 this spring to force the Twins' hand.

With a payroll of $90M, the prospects of the Twins digging deep to sign a free agent to play either second or third base seem remote. That may prove to be enough this season to win the AL Central, but won't likely translate to post-season success.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Baseball Bucket List

Like many passionate baseball fans, a goal of mine is to visit all 30 MLB stadiums. This is one of the many facets of baseball which makes the game special. As nice as it would be to be able to say one has visited all 30 NHL arenas, the bottom line is that they are not all that dissimilar these days. The dimensions are all the same, the interiors and exteriors of the buildings are similar, and the days of the unique old barns like the Boston Garden, Buffalo Auditorium, Maple Leaf Gardens, Montreal Forum, and Chicago Stadium are long gone. Can anyone name one unique quality which distinguishes the Sommet Center, Bank Atlantic Center, or the HSBC Arena?

Baseball's ballparks, however, remain unique in American folklore. Yes, the wave of new stadiums which began with new Comiskey Park in Chicago, was perfected by Camden Yards in Baltimore, and continues with Target Field this season, is helping to level out the landscape somewhat. However, the parks are all unique, with different dimensions, quirks, and character.

Target Field's opening this spring will mark the Twins' third ballpark in 30 seasons, and the Twins will become the only non-re-located club to lay claim to three parks in 30 seasons. I was fortunate enough to catch a few games at Met Stadium in my youth and caught hundreds at the Dome along the way. So, in a shameless shout out to my good fortune, plus the benefit of having grown up with a baseball-crazy father and a very understanding mother, I decided to track my progress of visiting all 30 MLB teams' stadiums. We'll start with the American League today and finish with the NL at a later date, and will update this as more are visited. I realize this will be a self-centered post and that I will use the noun "I" a lot, but please indulge me.
  • Baltimore - Although Camden Yards opened in 1992 and I actually lived in Washington, DC (40 miles away) for awhile, my first visit to Baltimore came in the summer of 2007. We caught an Orioles/Angels game on a glorious Sunday afternoon in Baltimore and found seats down the third base line in the shade. After a while, I took a stroll around the park and found a standing area overlooking the visitors' bullpen in left-center field which offered a perfect view of the field while being in the sun. Needless to say, I called by buddies and we stood for the remainder of the game. The food is tremendous. The sightlines are perfect. The people are friendly. The atmosphere is spectacular. I came to Camden Yards with sky-high expectations and the park exceeded them. It is as great as advertised. I paid a return visit in 2009 just to test my initial experience and it passed with flying colors again. Do yourself a favor and go!
  • Boston - My only visit to Fenway was in 1990. The Sox were in a pennant race and played the Baltimore Orioles in a late-summer matchup. We sat down the third base line right behind an obstruction, yet I remember sitting next to a guy with a thick New England accent who really knew the game of baseball. The Fenway Franks which I had heard so much about were simply awful and the place was generally crowded, inefficient, and rather rotten. New ownership has dumped millions into improving the old place, which is starting its 98th season hosting Red Sox games in 2010, but in 1990 it was run-down. Those who have visited recently also say that the younger generation of Red Sox fans have pushed out guys like the gentleman I sat next to and the place is a place to be seen rather than to watch a ball game. That's a shame. Of course, my absolute hatred of the Red Sox probably diminished my rating of Fenway as well.
  • Chicago White Sox - My folks and I visited old Comiskey Park in the late summer of 1989. The place was unkempt and in its penultimate season of hosting White Sox baseball, as the Sox prepared to move across the street for the 1991 season. We settled into great box seats right above the first base dugout, sampled the outstanding food, and watched an awful White Sox team get beat by the eventual World Series champion Oakland Athletics. Old Comiskey Park was and is my favorite ballpark. It oozed baseball tradition and was just a trap of history. The place was run-down to say the least, but it was just so cozy inside and a fabulous place. I caught my first game in the new park in 1991 and returned in 1992, 1994, and 2002. The new park gets a bad rap because it was the last of the dinosaur age of cookie-cutter parks built in the 70s and 80s. However, it was a baseball park first and foremost, and the South Side of Chicago has always been a place where baseball is serious business, unlike their neighbors to the north. The food at New Comiskey rivals the old place, and any place which features Nancy Faust on the organ gets positive points. I have yet to visit US Cellular Field and witness the renovations, but I can only imagine how much better and more intimate the place looks than when it opened.
  • Cleveland - I first visited Jacobs Field in 2005, and suffered through a two-hour rain delay. That was fine, as I was able to sample the ballpark fare, and test how many foods could be improved by adding Cleveland Stadium mustard. The answer was 201. The Jake is a nice, intimate place whose opening coincided with the Indians' renaissance. The Tribe struggled last season and the attendance has dwindled in Cleveland's struggling economy, but the Jake is a wonderful place to watch a ball game.
  • Detroit - I went to Detroit on the same trip in which I checked out Cleveland in 2005 and managed to see the Twins in a day-night doubleheader at Comerica Park. The experience was ok. The park is nice; the neighborhood sucks. The people were wonderful; the food sucked. It was kind of a contradictory place for me, and I really wished I had been able to see a game at old Tiger Stadium.  
  • Kansas City - Our family first visited Royals Stadium on a stifling hot July afternoon in 1985. I distinctly remember the crown scoreboard, the piping hot Astroturf, and the Royals sandals I received as a giveaway. Since it was my first non-Minnesota MLB experience, I remember the visit very well. I managed to catch another game in 1997 after the place had been renamed Kauffman Stadium and had the turf replaced by natural grass. The grass made the place look glorious, and I've been able to go back at least a dozen times since - never to see the Twins, I might add. I am hoping to get down there again this spring to see the newly-renovated Kauffman Stadium, but all my experiences have been wonderful to date.
  • Los Angeles Angels - I drove by the place back in the fall of 2006 on my family's way to see an Anaheim Ducks game. Angel Stadium is definitely on my short list.
  • Minnesota - Duh
  • New York Yankees - My first visit to Yankee Stadium came in 2002 and it was an almost cult-like experience for me. As someone who grew up a Yankee (and Twins) fan, visiting the place I saw so many times on TV as a kid left an incredible impression on me. Although the park was rebuilt and lacked the character of the version which hosted Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle, the field was still the one in which those greats graced once upon a time. In return visits over the years, the place got better and better. At one point in a 2007 game, my friends and I were sitting a few rows off the field down the right field line when one of my friends - making his first visit to the Stadium - pointed to the field and said, "Babe Ruth stood right there!" I went to two games during the final year of the Stadium with my dad, brother, and my oldest son in May of 2008, each of whom was making his first visit. What an incredible experience for three generations of Pietrzaks - passionate baseball fans all. I was fortunate enough to catch the final game in the old yard in September of that season and one cannot put into words the emotions of that night. For someone with absolutely no ties to New York other than Yankee fandom, it was an incredible night. I stood silently for over an hour after the game ended and just soaked it in. My dad, brother, and I trekked to New Yankee Stadium this past season and the park is a showplace and will serve the Yanks well for many years to come. However, it just wasn't the same.
  • Oakland - Haven't seen a game there but I snuck in to catch a glimpse in March of 2000. I don't think I'm missing too much. It would have been a nice place to watch a game before Mount Davis obstructed the view of the Oakland Hills.
  • Seattle - Safeco Field is one place in which I would really love to get to soon. I was in Seattle in the fall of 2006 and never saw the sun for three days. Every review I have read about Safeco is glowing and I cannot wait to get out there.
  • Tampa Bay - Never been, but my brother has and said it really sucks.
  • Texas - My first visit to the Metroplex was in 1992 and I caught a game in the giant kiln known as Arlington Stadium. The place sure held the heat well, and it was mostly forgettable - except for the excellent nachos. My first visit to the Ballpark in Arlington in 1997 was much better, and my three subsequent visits (most recently in 2005) have been wonderful. The Ballpark is a giant place, but feels cozy inside. The food is great too, as one would expect in a great food town. D/FW gets a bad reputation of a place to be avoided in the summer heat, but do make a point of visiting this fine baseball park.
  • Toronto - I have never been to Toronto, but I would love to go - to a hockey game. For some reason, my oldest son thinks we're going to go to a game in Toronto this summer, mostly because he wants to get a passport.
So, in the American League, I have visited nine teams' parks out of 14 clubs; not a bad start! If I had to rank the top three places I have been able to visit, I'd go this way:
  1. Old Comiskey Park
  2. Oriole Park at Camden Yards
  3. Old Yankee Stadium
Curious as to your thoughts..... 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Twins Sign Thome, But Why?

The StarTribune's Joe Christensen reported last Friday that the Twins were interested in signing free agent Jim Thome. Although Joe C. was able to dispel rumors circulating via a Chicago radio station that the signing was to be concluded last Friday, the deal did not go down. However, the Twins' interest appears real, so real that they signed him Tuesday to a one-year, $1.5M deal. The question I have is "why?"

The left-handed hitting DH will turn 40 during the season and is a veteran of 19 MLB seasons. Thome is a career .277/.404/.557 hitter with 564 HR and 1,565 RBI in 9,463 plate appearances. He hit .249/.372/.493 with 23 HR and 74 RBI for the White Sox last season before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for the stretch drive. Used as a pinch hitter 17 times with the Dodgers, Thome went 4-17 with 3 RBI and 7 strikeouts.

Thome's days in the field are over, as the big slugger's last appearance in a position other than DH came in 2007 when he played but one game at first base for the White Sox. The Twins are set at first base with Justin Morneau and have Jason Kubel established as the team's everyday DH. With an already crowded outfield with Delmon Young, Denard Span, and Michael Cuddyer manning the starting spots, Kubel would be able to fill in for either of the corner spots, and someone like Thome would then serve as the DH. However, Thome's primary role would be as a potent option off the bench. The Twins don't have much in the form of options off the bench (Brendan Harris is the most serviceable option which comes to mind) and Thome would definitely bolster that situation. However, if he takes any at bats away from Kubel, the signing would be misguided. Kubel is a superior hitter at this stage of his career and is 12 years younger. The team's third-best hitter behind Joe Mauer and Morneau, Kubel came into his own in 2009, batting .300/.369/.539 with 35 doubles, 28 HR, and 103 RBI in 578 plate appearances.

Thome made $13M last season in Chicago, serving out the option year of a six-year deal he signed with Philadelphia in the winter of 2002.

The Twins have already been willing to spend $5M on Jarrod Washburn this winter, only to be rebuffed. However, it would be far better to have seen them use that money toward a deal for either Orlando Hudson or Felipe Lopez which would fill a gap in the lineup with a far younger player. Realizing I am continuing to beat a dead horse on the Hudson/Lopez situation, signing either of those is a far better option for this team right now. Of course, giving Thome $1.5M doesn't preclude signing the aforementioned players and it certainly makes more sense to toss a one-year reasonable deal toward Thome than it does to give $5M to Washburn. 

Thome is clearly one of the game's all-time great guys and has been a productive player for a long time. His career will likely lead to induction in Cooperstown one day. However, he is clearly on the downward slope of his career and would be a misguided use of money which could be better utilized on a player of more pressing need. If he is truly a bench player and does not grab plate appearances which would otherwise be given to Kubel, then this is fine. As Aaron Gleeman points out, however, if Thome gets DH PAs, and Kubel gets LF appearances otherwise given to Young, then I'm really on board. However, that seems unlikely at this point.