March 2009

3 Up…or 3 Down?

andersoncallingbullpen-739405.jpgI will be very busy in the upcoming days leading up to the Minnesota Twins’ Opening Day on April 6th, so I just wanted to post a few season-preview thoughts before the regular season campaign kicks off.

The way I see it, there are three areas in which the Twins need to excel this season in order to win the division crown.  In all honesty, these areas are pretty much the same for all other teams as well, but the Twins have their own unique challenges:

1. First, the starting pitching quintet of Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins needs to continue to keep the team in games.  This is the most important cog in the machine, as if the quality starts keep pouring in the Twins will at the very least compete no matter how bad the bullpen or offense stinks.  The old baseball adage that “good pitching beats good hitting” holds as true now as it always has.  I mean, if say Johan Santana faced no one but Ichiro Suzuki all season long, the very best that Ichiro could do is get a hit four times in every ten at-bats.  Thus, the starting rotation is the anchor of every staff, and the Twins’ staff is still a bit of a question mark:

Baker: Has ace-type repertoire but struggles to pitch into the later innings.  Is usually up around 100 pitches by the fifth inning or so, putting a strain on the bullpen.

Cisco: Could dominate, could fall apart due to control issues.

Slowey: This is the guy I think is poised for a huge season.  He is essentially the second coming of Brad Radke, only with a better assortment of pitches.  Just needs to work on limiting damaging situations, as they tend to snow-ball on him pretty quick.

Blackie: As a play-to-contact, ground ball sort of pitcher, Blackburn walks the fine line between Carlos Silva and Jack Morris.  On some days he can be the most frustrating guy in the world to drive the ball off of, while on other days he gets lit up.

Perkins: The great unknown.  Was very up-and-down last season…showed flashes of both excellence and utter failure.

So, the extent to which that rotation comes together is the biggest factor in how the Twins will finish in the standings in 2009.

2. The bullpen, however, isn’t far behind.  Whereas I am confident that the starting five can find a way to hold up their end of the bargain, I’m not nearly as sold on the bullpen, which looks to include:

Joe Nathan: The only sure-bet of the bunch.  Will blow a few (who doesn’t…well, besides Brad Lidge last year), but let’s just say that a “down” year would be an ERA over 2.00.

Jesse Crain: Pretty much the root of all frustration in the world. Was overhyped even when he was good, but does have a glimmer of hope in that now is arm is finally “back” after having surgery a while back.

Matt Guerrier: Will have to prove that last year’s collapse WAS just a fluke (or due to fatigue), not because batters just figured him out.

Craig Breslow: The lefty-lefty specialist.  Will likely do a good job, and is an upgrade over Dennis “Throw One WP And Leave The Game” Reyes.

Luis Ayala: Don’t know much about his guy, only that he came from the Nats (not a good sign) and struggled mightily last year.  Has potential…but so did Mike Fetters.

The final bullpen spot, thought to be filled by Jose Mijares until he came to camp looking like Hideki Irabu, is now up for grabs between newcomer Brian Duensing, Philip Humber (obtained in the Santana trade), and R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer.

All in all, that is not a very impressive bunch.  Like I said, Nathan is solid, but getting to him will be the difficult part.  Someone is going to have to step up and become the eighth inning man that guys like LaTroy Hawkins and Juan Rincon were in the past.

3. Finally, I would like to quickly comment on the Twins’ offense.  Here is a sample lineup that the Twins could trot out on a semi-day basis:

Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Crede, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, Nick Punto.

Essentially, it would likely be the best starting lineup the Twins have had in quite some time (plus Carlos Gomez off the bench).  However, I am very wary of predicting a high offensive turnout from this bunch, as it so rarely happens up here in MN.  It seems as if the Twins are much better at developing pitchers than hitters (perhaps due to the small-ball philosophy that reins hitters in instead of turning them loose?), so even a lineup that looks rock-solid can quickly turn gooey.  Actually, I think the biggest positive this season, as opposed to ’06 or ’08, is that no old fogeys are being counted on to produce.  The days of experimenting with guys like Tony Batista, Rondell White, Mike Lamb, and (cringe) even Bret Boone seem to be behind the Twins, with the lineup now given over completely to the young veterans and just youngsters period.

So there you have it…how the Twins perform in those three areas will go very far in determining their division standings come October.  Hopefully before the season begins I will post an article about my divisional predictions for MLB (if it ever stops snowing here to allow the mail through!).

Thanks Again, Kirby!

Puck.jpgWhile rambling around on YouTube the other night, I was reminded that it has been three years since Kirby Puckett passed away (March 6, 2006), so I wanted to post another little tribute to the player who was my baseball hero growing up (hopefully this will become an annual tradition on the date of his sudden passing).

Even though I really wasn’t that “into” baseball (I was born in 1985) during the heyday of Puckett’s great career, I still give him a lot of credit for fostering my life of the game that still burns within me.  I mean, it takes a rare player to captivate an area like Puckett did.  Even though I don’t think I watched an entire baseball game until about 1996 or so, I have fond memories of Kirby, such as being present when he received the Silver Slugger Award in 1990, or sitting “right above him” in ’94-’95 when he was in right field.  Like I said, even though my childish interests were more directed at Batman, Superman, and Power Rangers at that time in my life, I was still captivated by Kirby Puckett.  The only player the Twins have had even come close to that sort of charisma/recognition is Torii Hunter, but he still wasn’t Puck and I think Torii himself would even admit it as such.

To be honest, though, I think the saddest part of Kirby’s death three years ago was that he wasn’t yet comfortable enough to return to MN after his court trial some years earlier.  However, just the fact that Puck was embarrassed about the whole thing tells me that he really wasn’t a bad guy…he just made a mistake that, because of his celebrity, got dragged through the mud.  Thus, I respect Puck’s decision to get away from MN for awhile after that nasty trial, but I truly believe that the community would have welcomed him back at any time.  There was just too much to love about Kirby that could not be overshadowed by a couple of undoings, which was proven by the overwhelming tributes after his death.

Here are two tribute videos to Kirby that I found on YouTube that, at least to me, convey the essence of Kirby Puckett:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y3m_mY02mo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aPU2dJZJxg

The Japanese Revolution

japan%20flag.jpgFor all the apathy I have shown towards the World Baseball Classic this year (not commenting on it once on this blog until now), there is one thing that both installments of the tournament have clearly shown me: the Japanese style of baseball is the most effective at winning ballgames.

Now, of course I realize that if the United States team really did choose all our best players, and if guys like Johan Santana and David Ortiz wouldn’t bug off the Dominican Republic squad, the tournament may play out much differently.  However, even if each team’s best possible squad was on the field every day, I think Japan could compete with any of them.  Their small-ball, advance-the-runner style of play (plus, nearly every player can run the bases effectively) has really become the sought-after way to win games.  I mean, how fitting was it that Ichiro Suzuki (the player who best personifies the Japanese game) got the game-winning hit against Korea?!  I’ve never seen a batter where luck plays as big a role at getting him out.  Since he never strikes out, retiring him requires the luck of the ball-in-play being hit right to a defender…that’s about it.  Pitchers may have learned his tendencies a wee bit, but now he “just” hits .320 every year instead of .350, and has 220 hits instead of 257.

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier back in the 1940s, it completely changed the way baseball looked, as it allowed black players to increase the quality of play.  What’s interesting is that you can almost say that the same sort of thing happened to the Japanese market in 2001 when Ichiro hit the major leagues and brought his much more exciting brand of baseball to a game then bogged-down by steroid oafs.  Now, Japan is continuing to get the recognition they deserve, and you can bet that many more single-hitting, base-stealing, wacky-delivery Japanese players will be popping up on rosters all over MLB.

We Are Family (Minus One)

koskie.jpgI was saddened to hear yesterday that former Twin, Blue Jay, and Brewer Corey Koskie announced his retirement from professional baseball.  As Twins fans, how can we not respect the tenacity that Koskie showed for the game of baseball, as he was one of those guys without much raw talent that needed every ounce of skill in his body to hit .280, 20 HR, and play fabulous defense at the hot corner.  Sadly, however, his strange concussion-like malady has now forced him to leave the game he loves.  Though even he admitted he could probably play through the discomfort, he did not want to put himself through another rough year or two, and with young children growing up at home I don’t know how you can blame him for that.

During my time as a writer for the University Register at the University of Minnesota, Morris, I penned an article about Koskie (and other former Twins) that I thought would be appropriate to share on this blog.  Just remember that the article is a wee bit dated (written just in advance of the start of the ’07 season), but the basic principles of the piece still hold true:

Over the last seven seasons, the Minnesota Twins have become a perennial powerhouse in the American League.  Yet, besides a winning product on the field, the Twins have created a family-type atmosphere that makes them so endearing and fun to watch.  While many baseball teams disperse their own separate ways the minute a game is completed (i.e. the New York Yankees), the Twins stick together, evidenced by the roommate pairing of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau last season.  Journeyman players who have wandered the major leagues or young rookies fresh from the bush leagues can be considered “part of the family” once assigned a Twins uniform.  However, in order to stay competitive in baseball’s current economy, many a fine Twins “family member” has needed to be disowned.  In almost all cases, leaving the Twins’ family produced disastrous results…

Christian Guzman–Endeared himself to Twins fans in 2001 with his unusual goatee and that “bionic sound” he made while scampering to third base with another triple.  Since leaving the Twins after 2004, Guzy batted .219 for the Washington Nationals in 2005 and missed the entire ’06 season due to shoulder surgery.

Matt Lawton–Lawton was the most talented Twins outfielder during the doldrums of the late 1990s.  Never sniffed .300 after leaving the Twins via a trade in ’01 and was busted for steroids with the Yankees in 2005.

A.J. Pierzynski–You know the fan who gets a few beers in him and annoys the heck out of his entire section?  A.J. Pierzynski was that guy’s hero.  Pierzynski is still a quality catcher for the Chisox, but his trade brought the Twins Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser.

Luis Rivas–A mainstay (admittedly if only because of a lack of depth) at the second base position from 2001-2004 and often single-handedly defeated the Kansas City Royals.  Could not make the Tampa Bay Devils Rays roster in 2006, one year after the Twins released him.

David Ortiz–The one who got away.  The gregarious “Big Papi” was a fan-favorite in 2001-2002, but also quite injury-prone, leading to his departure.  Ortiz latched on with Boston and is now arguably major league baseball’s biggest superstar.

Doug Mientkiewicz–Led the Twins’ surge to prominence in 2001, but is now best remembered for stealing a baseball, not hitting or catching one.

Eric Milton–A solid, if not spectacular, starting pitcher for the Twins who pitched a no-hitter in 1999.  Now regularly leads the NL in home runs allowed.

Joe Mays–Highly-touted Twins prospect who, after one great season (2001) fizzled out.  Was recently cut from LA Dodgers training camp.

Jacque Jones–Teamed with Torii Hunter to create the “Soul Patrol” outfield but could not be afforded after 2005.  Last year, Jacque was a steady contributor (.285, 27 home runs) for the Chicago Cubs.

LaTroy Hawkins–After first succeeding (then failing miserably) as a closer, “Hawk” became a premier middle reliever before pricing himself out of a Twins uniform.  Hasn’t been nearly as dominant since leaving Minnesota (4.48 ERA in 60 innings for the Orioles last season) and still collapses in pressure situations.

Eddie Guardado–“Everyday Eddie” earned his nickname as a middle reliever, but transformed himself into a reliable (if not spectacular) closer.  Recently, Eddie has become anything but reliable due to chronic left elbow problems.

Yet, there is one player who has fallen on especially hard times after leaving the Twins family.  The name noticeably absent from this nostalgic list is Corey Koskie.  In 2001, Koskie banded together with Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, and Doug Mientkiewicz in order to bring winning baseball back to Minnesota, much like Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Kirby Puckett did in the early 1980s.

Koskie debuted with the Twins organization in 1999 where, at third base and right field, he made an immediate splash (.310 batting average) on a punchless team.  However, Koskie struggled mightily with his third base defense, not exhibiting enough quickness or range to play the position.  Yet, on a team where playoff aspirations were nonexistent, Koskie was given the time necessary to develop his fielding skills, eventually molding himself into a perennial Gold Glove candidate, with his diving stops and on-target throws (even if he did have to occasionally bounce them off the old Metrodome turf) becoming commonplace.

After being a key contributor to the Twins’ playoff teams of 2002-2004, Koskie was courted by a number of teams who coveted the slick-fielding, decent power/average third baseman.  Though pursued by the Twins, Koskie was ultimately signed by the Toronto Blue Jays of his native Canada.  Before leaving Minnesota, in a gesture demonstrating his appreciation of the Twins’ organization and fans, Koskie took out full-page ads in both the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune expressing his gratitude for being allowed to thrive in Minnesota.

After a disappointing and injury-riddled season in Toronto, Koskie again changed teams, this time heading to Milwaukee.  With a fast start to 2006, Koskie seemed to be getting his career back on track until disaster struck on July 5.  While chasing a pop-up at Miller Park, Koskie overran the ball, had to bend backwards, and ended up falling to the ground, his neck whip-lashing before impact.  While the incident did not seem overly violent, Koskie’s next at-bat was like something out of the fifth dimension of the Twilight Zone, complete with images coming in and out of focus and spells of dizziness.

Since that day, Koskie has not played an inning of baseball for the Brewers.  A week after the concussion, Koskie tried returning to the Brewers’ lineup, but was overcome by dizziness, fatigue, and nausea, requiring him to leave the field once again.  After visiting a neuropsychologist, Koskie was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome from his fall.  For the rest of that season, Koskie could only work out in small increments without the symptoms returning.  His head injury even affected his family life, as watching his son’s hockey games became impossible due to the bright lights giving him terrible headaches. 

As for 2007 season begins, Koskie has begun rehabilitating both mind and body at his home in Minnesota, hoping to rejoin his team at the earliest possible date.  Though post-concussion symptoms can last for years, Koskie seems to be on track to the major leagues again, as evidence by rising scores on the reaction-time and cognitive ability tests he regularly undergoes.  According to Koskie himself (in an interview with the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse), “I’m going to play again.  I’m sure of that.  If I wasn’t, I would have a lot more depression to deal with.”

In 1982, a promising young outfielder named Jim Eisenreich debuted with the Minnesota Twins.  After suffering several mystifying seizures at his left field post, Eisenreich was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, putting his major league career in serious jeopardy.  However, after three years of undergoing treatment, Eisenreich returned to the major leagues.  In 1993 he helped the Philadelphia Phillies to the National League Championship by batting .318.  In 1996 he hit .361 with the Phillies, and ’97 brought him a World Series championship with the Florida Marlins.  Hopefully, Corey Koskie can do much of the same.

 

A Schilling For Your Thoughts?!

curt-schilling.jpgWith the recent retirement of Curt Schilling, there inevitably comes the question of whether or not he is Hall of Fame worthy.  To me, Schilling is one of those guys knocking on the door, but not quite good enough to get in.  I was watching Baseball Tonight the other day and they listed some pitchers (Bert Blyleven, for example) that have good stats but aren’t in the Hall.  However, the name that most intrigued me was Jack Morris, whom I feel had a career very similar to Schilling.  Both won three World Championships, both were great pitchers, but neither really dominated their respective eras or put up really gaudy numbers.  The stat lines for both guys read as follows:

Schilling: 216-146, 83 CG, 20 SO, 3,116 K, three times second in Cy Young voting

Morris: 254-186, 175 CG, 28 SO, 2,478 K, twice was third in Cy Young voting

Though I will always have fond memories of Morris (Game Seven, 1991) and was enraptured by Schilling’s incredible pitching performances in 2001 (World Series Co-MVP with Randy Johnson) and 2004 (bloody sock), I don’t think either of those two are Hall worthy.  Actually, I think that Morris probably has a better case, though Schilling may get many votes right off the bat for playing out East.

So, like I said, I truly believe that Curt Schilling was a great pitcher (at times unhittable), but I don’t think he had the sort of career that gets one into Cooperstown.  His Co-MVP trophy and bloody sock should have their own display, though!

Say It Ain’t So, Joe…

backache.jpg

Well, to put it simply, I was duped…hook, line, and sinker.  During this entire offseason, all Twins fans kept hearing the reports about how Joe Mauer had some sort of kidney problem that required surgery, but that he should (key word) be fine for Opening Day 2009.  Over the course of the past few days, however, it has become painfully (for both Mauer and his fans) obvious that he will not be in the Opening Day lineup come April 6.  In fact, no timetable has even been set for his return, which is a bit scary.

From the very beginning, the entire Mauer situation has been shrouded in mystery, some of which still remains unknown.  All we were told early-on is that Mauer had surgery on his kidney, yet (after talking with my Dad, a doctor) there aren’t too many things besides kidney stones or tumors that need to be surgically dealt with on a kidney.  Plus, the extent of Mauer’s pain was not nearly known until just recently, when it was announced that he has inflamation in his right sacroiliac joint, which I guess is basically where the bottom of the spine meets the top of the pelvis.  Why that information wasn’t released sooner is beyond me.

What I guess I find so interesting about this whole thing is how it harkens back to the old days of reporters covering for baseball players.  For example, Babe Ruth went out and got himself a venereal disease and writers said he just had a “bellyache” from eating too many hot dogs and drinking too many beers.  Now, in no way am I saying that the MN Twins and related media are covering up some sort of indescretion on Mauer’s part, but they are protecting him from the media scrutiny, perhaps to not perpetuate his reputation as “weak” or “injury-prone”.

Personally, I would have like to have seen the Twins be a little more honest about the whole affair.  Sure, some people will criticize Mauer for being injury-prone, but those people are idiots, by and large, as injuries are something that really can’t be controlled.  Instead, why not just level with us and move on from there?

I Think I’m Gettin’ Old

Two hot topics circulating the baseball newswires (especially Baseball Tonight!) right now are really making me feel old…

Pudge.jpg

First is the notion that no team will sign Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez because he is too old and his skills are declining.  I remember that during Pudge’s prime, he was so good defensively that teams just stopped running against him altogether.  Plus, at least while in Texas, he was ALWAYS good for a .300 average (if not much higher) and 30 home runs.  All told, he could probably challenge the old notion of Johnny Bench being the greatest backstop of all time.  Now no teams want him?!  Heck, if Joe Mauer ever got hurt for an extended period of time, I would take Rodriguez in a heartbeat.

umart.jpg

Secondly, can you believe that Pedro Martinez is not on a major league baseball team right now?!  I know that his “heater” only tops out around 90 mph (if that) these days and his chances of making it through an entire season are slim, but c’mon…it’s Pedro!  An interesting conversation-starter that I like to pose to fellow baseball fans around my age (23) is this: If your team needed to win one game, which pitcher (in his prime) would you want on the mound: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, or Pedro Martinez?  For me, the answer was always Pedro, as his late 1990s seasons were the stuff of legends.  As long as I live, I will never forget watching Pedro strike out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire in the 1999 All-Star Game in his Carl Hubbell impersonation.

I guess what this means is that, if I were a GM, I would be the type that allows the old guys to hang on a bit too far past their prime.  But seriously…let’s say for a second that the Twins picked up Martinez on a whim.  In Game Seven of the hypothetical World Series, who would you want on the mound…him or Scott Baker (no disrespect to Scotty)?  I thought so.

The Ongoing Clemens Saga

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Not that I enjoy posting this sort of news on my blog, but the most recent development in the Roger Clemens vs. Brian McNamee case involves McNamee claiming that he injected Clemens multiple times (either in an apartment or right in the Yankee Stadium hot tub) during the 2001 with steroids and HGH.  Supposedly, the syringes McNamee handed over to the federal government some time ago even contain traces of Clemens’ DNA.

As I’ve said many times before, I think that Clemens is one of the most obviously guilty parties of the Steroid Era.  The only difference between him and pretty much all the others (McGwire, Sosa, etc.) is that Clemens (being a hothead his entire playing career) is fighting McNamee tooth and nail instead of just keeping quiet.  Thus, McNamee is now bringing out his big guns.

Of course, I don’t know what it says about McNamee’s character that he saved syringes that Clemens wanted him to discard, but this could be one of those situations where the ends justify the means.

Okay, I’m Starting To Get A Bit Nervous Now

mauer.jpgToday a report came over the Yahoo! Sports news service that Joe Mauer is still experiencing back pain that is not allowing him to participate in game activities.

Throughout the entire offseason I have been fed the “company line” about Jo-Mo being ready for Opening Day and believed it, but now I am starting to have serious doubts.  I mean, I doubt Mauer needs a whole lot of time to get ready for the season, but if he can’t play right now the clock is really working against him.

Even more frightening, though, is who the Twins have to replace Mauer should he not be ready to go come April.  I mean, Mike Redmond would likely start out the season, but as good as he is at poking singles to right field his 38-year old body can’t nearly start for an entire season.  To be completely honest, I actually have no idea what other catchers the Twins even have on their active roster, as the organization likely figured Joe would lock up the position for a decade or more.

This is a situation that Twins fans need to keep their eyes on…

Cookin’ Up A Few More Years

20080924_scott_baker_33.jpgA few days ago, I was excited to see that the Twins signed their young ace Scott Baker to a new four-year contract (worth something like $14-15 million, I believe).

All things considered, Baker is the current ace of the Twins’ pitching staff.  Though Francisco Liriano may have a better fastball/slider combination and Kevin Slowey probably has better command of the breaking stuff, Baker is able to put everything together in a devastating arsenal of pitches.  When Baker is “on”, as evidenced by his near no-hitter towards the end of the 2007 season, he is almost unhittable.

The one key area that Baker needs to improve upon to vault himself into the elite American League pitchers, though, is his ability to pitch deeper into games.  For the first five innings of any ballgame, I would take Baker right up there with the best of them.  By that point, however, Baker will likely have thrown over 100 pitches already and thus always be on the verge of being yanked by Gardy.  Johan Santana had the same problem at some points with the Twins.  Thus, Baker needs to either become more economical with his pitches, or condition himself better so as to be able to throw 120 pitches a game (although that would be difficult due to the “magic pitch counts” firmly in place these days).

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