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.