March 2010

One Joe Gone…

amd_nathan.jpgWell, it’s official…Joe Nathan is now lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery.  Wow.

You know, as good as Nathan has been since coming over to the Twins in 2004, he has always been somewhat under-appreciated by many Twins fans, I think.  Part of that can be due to two heart-crushing blown saves against the Yankees in the ’04 and ’09 ALDS.  But when you really think about, Nathan has been the best closer Minnesota has ever seen.  Consider this lineage:

In the 1960s, before the term “closer” was even used, Al Worthington…

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…and Ron Perranoski…

ron_perranoski_autograph.jpg …”saved” games (often pitching multiple innings) for some pretty good teams.  They were two great pitchers, but you can’t really consider them “closers” in the traditional sense.

The next time the Twins were good enough to need a closer (mid-1980s), the great Ron Davis experiment failed miserably…

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Thus, the emergence of Jeff “The Terminator” Reardon…

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…seemed like heaven on earth, even though his stats (31 saves, 4.48 ERA) would be considered poor by today’s standards.

Next in line was Rick Aguilera:

 
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Aggie was really good for a short period of time (1990-1992) and pretty good for the rest of the 1990s, but during both those periods he was always susceptible to giving up baserunners and needing to pitch out of jams.  He would usually do it succesfully, but not without a few heart-stopping moments nearly every night.

During the late 1990s, a closer wasn’t really needed when the Twins would only win 70 games a year, so Mike Trombley…

mike_trombley_autograph.jpg

…usually did the deed.

In 2001, the year the Twins jumped back into contention, LaTroy Hawkins…

latroy_1.jpg …wowed fans with his live fastball, but his late-season meltdown was partially to blame for the Twins missing the playoffs.

Thus, the switching of Eddie Guardado…

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…from “Everday” to “closer” was like another Davis-Reardon transition.  Eddie was deceptive, but like Aggie he had a propencity for making things interesting since he didn’t have electric stuff.

Then, Joe Nathan rode into town and dominated like no other before him:

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He had the blow-‘em-away fastball, coupled with an array of breaking pitches that kept batsmen confused inning after inning.  Despite a few high-profile blowouts (but nothing worse than, say, Brad Lidge has gone through in recent years), he had joined the company of Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon as the best closers in the majors.

Now that he is gone for the season (and likely more, if not his career, at least with the Twins), the Twins have a complex choice for that crucial ninth inning.  Pat Neshek would be my choice, but management is taking it slow after his own major arm surgery two years ago.  Jon Rauch used to close games for the Nats, but his control is spotty.  Guerrier would probably do okay, but his setup role is so valuable as not to be lost.  Mijares/Crain would a disaster, Ron Davis-esque.  Hopefully the Twins can find someone to fill that final frame.

For the time being, I will continue to call this blog “The Closer” until the fate of Nathan is more determined.  He was always a favorite of mine (thus the blog title), and I am hoping (one day in the future) to hear this booming through the speakers at Target Field…

 

A Word Of Warning For Joe Mauer…

Just saw this story on Yahoo! News today…

http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news?slug=ap-knoblauch-assaultplea&prov=ap&type=lgns

First off, I hope that Chuckles gets his life put back together.  It’s always sad to me to see a former Minnesota athlete struggle like that, and my prayers go out to him.

That being said, his life story (at least as it relates to baseball) could be a sort of warning for Joe Mauer (who is perhaps considering a shot in the Big Apple himself, seeing as how he hasn’t signed a contract yet):

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In 1991, Knoblauch was the spark-plug that helped drive the team to their World Series title.  He proceeded to become an elite lead-off hitter in the American League for the next 5-6 years, even on abysmal Twins teams.  He was a doubles machine, and could steal bases with the best of them.  However, he decided to opt for the big market of New York after “serving his time” here in Minny.

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In the City that Never Sleeps, unfortunately Knobby didn’t get much shut-eye either. Under that big-time pressure, he never re-captured those glory years with the Twins, and suddenly developed an inability to throw the baseball from his second base position over to first.  The mental block got so bad that he eventually changed positions to left field, which led to this career path:

AADC038~Chuck-Knoblauch-Studio-Portrait-Posters.jpgI don’t think I have to tell you how that turned out.

So Joe, before you even think about how playing in NYC is all playoff games and confetti showers, consider the sad story of one Chuck Knoblauch, a living example of what pressure (even leading to his being named in the Mitchell Report a few years ago) can do to a person.  The grass always seems greener (literally, in this case) on the other side, but only if you can enjoy the grazing.  Think about it.

Fingers Crossed

fingers-crossed_sxc-776014.jpgRight now, this is the approach I am taking towards the Joe Nathan situation.  There have been many dire predictions about the Twins’ chances without The Nathanator (predictions I don’t necessarily agree with) this season, but I’ll get into that in two weeks’ time if the arm still isn’t ready to go.

Nathan (as evidenced in the name of this blog) has been a favorite of mine since replacing Eddie Guardado, so I would really miss watching him do his thing.  Until the docs are scrubbing up, though, I’m holding out hope.

Early March Twins Ramblings

The Good…

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We locked up Blackie for four more years.  While I don’t ever think that the sinker-balling righty will be the ace of our staff (pretty much because of that darn unpredictable pitch!), he is durable, an innings-eater, and usually always gives you a chance to win.  You don’t want to lose a guy like that.

The Bad…

alg_joe_nathan.jpg After leaving his first spring training game action with “arm tightness”, Nathan will now undergo some more tests and an MRI to find out why.  No need to tell Twins fans how big of a loss Nathan would be if removed for a prolonged length of time from our ‘pen.

The Ugly…

Each day that goes by without Joe Mauer doing this…

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…makes me nervous.  Until his John Hancock is dryed on the page, I won’t completely exhale.

And now, the Weird…

http://minnesota.twins.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20100308&content_id=8712418&vkey=news_min&fext=.jsp&c_id=min

I’m sorry, but NOTHING can ever replace this…

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Minnesota Twins Spring Training Preview 2010

sect-101-450.jpgNow that the Twins are cranking things up down in Fort Myers, here is a little preview of what to expect in terms of the build-up to Opening Day 2010:

Last Year: 87-76, 1st in American League Central Division (1 GA of Detroit Tigers), lost to New York Yankees in ALDS (3-0).

 

Manager: Once again, the Twins will have Ron Gardenhire at the helm.  Since taking the reins from Tom Kelly back in 2002, Gardy has posted a 709-588 (.547) record with the Twins.  Besides the lone 1969 Billy Martin tenure, that winning percentage constitutes the highest mark in franchise history, and trails only TK (1140-1244) in overall wins.

 

Venue: After nearly three decades of playing in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the Twins will now christen open-air Target Field as their new home.  Dimensions: LF-339, LCF-377, CF-404, RCF-367, RF-328.

 

Projected Starting Lineup & Positions:

 

  1. Denard Span (R), CF (2009 stats: .311 BA, 97 R, 180 H, 23 SB, .807 OPS): Though primarily just a singles hitter who runs the bases well, Span is very adept at working counts, getting on base, and coming up big in the clutch.  The best lead-off hitter wearing “TC” since Chuck Knoblauch jumped ship.  Plays Torii Hunter-like defense in the outfield.
  2. Orlando Hudson (S), 2B (for LA Dodgers: .283 BA, 74 R, 35 2B, .774 OPS, All-Star, Gold Glove): One of the newcomers this year.  Can’t say I’ve watched him play much, but the stats don’t seem to lie.  He’s very comparable to the departed Orlando Cabrera, who did wonders for the top of the order down the stretch in ’09.
  3. Joe Mauer (L), C (.365 BA, 94 R, 96 RBI, 28 HR, 1.031 OPS, All-Star, Gold Glove, MVP, Silver Slugger): Perhaps the most talented player in baseball this side of Albert Pujols.  The kind of guy who could hit .320 and call it a “down year”.
  4. Justin Morneau (L), 1B (.274 BA, 100 RBI, 30 HR, .878 OPS, All-Star): Take a look at those stats, and then consider he missed the final month of ’09 due to injury.  His ability to hit for average and maintain a selective eye separates him from the hackers.
  5. Michael Cuddyer (R), RF (.276 BA, 93 R, 94 RBI, 32 HR, .862 OPS): The biggest hurdle for Cuddy is making it through an entire season.  When hurt, he struggles with things like consistency and strike outs.  When healthy, he puts up numbers like last season.  Possesses a rifle arm.
  6. Jason Kubel (L), DH (.300 BA, 28 HR, 103 RBI, .907 OPS): Could be the cleanup hitter in many other teams’ lineups.  Is just coming into his own (a bit late) after struggling through a serious knee injury as a rookie.  Can also more than hold his own in the outfield, where he may find himself on more than a few occasions if Jim Thome heats up.
  7. Delmon Young (R), LF (.284 BA, 60 RBI, 12 HR, .733 OPS): Will be the first to sit if Kubel and Thome play their way into the lineup, but also has tremendous upside.  Is clumsy in the field (but just good enough to make up for it) and prone to hitting nothing but singles for long stretches, but when locked in can be a deadly force.
  8. J.J. Hardy (R), SS (for Milwaukee Brewers: .229 BA, 53 R, 47 RBI, 11 HR, .659 OPS): The Twins are hoping for the ’07-’08 Hardy to re-emerge…the one who hit 25+ homers and posted a respectable average.  The verdict is still out on his D, which is decent but not Punto-like.
  9. Nick Punto (S) (.228 BA, 56 R, 82 H, 16 SB, .621 OPS) or Brendan Harris (R), 3B (.261 BA, 44 R, 108 H, .672 OPS): A classic “offense vs. defense” choice here.  Gardy loves Punto for the defense he brings to the infield, but Little Nicky is often an albatross at the bottom of the order.  Harris is an average fielder, but can rattle one off the wall every so often.

 

Bench:

 

  1. Jim Thome (DH/1B, L) (for White Sox & Dodgers: .249 BA, 23 HR, 77 RBI, .847 OPS): Hopefully the big bat the Twins have desperately needed off the pine.  Could easily play his way into everyday lineup if balls start clearing the walls.
  2. Jose Morales (C, S) (.311 BA, 119 AB, .742 OPS): Showed enough poise as a youngster for the Twins to let veteran Mike Redmond leave.
  3. Alexi Casilla (2B, S) (.202, 228 AB, .538 OPS): At times provides a spark to the top of the order and plays flashy D, but is still far too prone to mental errors/goofs that Gardy can’t stand.
  4. Matt Tolbert (IF, S) (.232, 198 AB, .611 OPS): Plays the kind of scrappy ball and defense that the manager loves and his adept at handling the bat (if not racking up hits).

-Others battling for roster spots include Drew Butera (C), Wilson Ramos (C), Jacque Jones (OF), Luke Hughes (IF), Trevor Plouffe (IF), and Danny Valencia (IF).

 

Starting Rotation:

 

  1. Scott Baker (RHP, 15-9, 4.36 ERA, 200 IP): Baker has shown spurts of ace-like outings, but needs to consistently pitch further into games to really match up against the league’s best.
  2. Nick Blackburn (RHP, 11-11, 4.03 ERA, 205.2 IP): Has a knack for coming up big in the clutch starts, but also needs to work on consistency.  A typical sinkerball pitcher in that if the ball isn’t diving, it’s jumping (off bats, that is).
  3. Kevin Slowey (RHP, 10-3, 4.86 ERA, 90.2 IP): At times looks like the second coming of Brad Radke, but needs to stay healthy for an entire season to prove it.  Has absolutely pin-point accuracy with an assortment of pitches to keep the hitters guessing.
  4. Carl Pavano (RHP, 5-4, 4.64 ERA, 73.2 IP): The only veteran in the starting rotation, but his overall effectiveness is questionable.  Showed he could compete against the AL Central after being acquired during the latter months of the season, but needs to prove his worth against the “big boys” of the league.
  5. Francisco Liriano (LHP, 5-13, 5.80 ERA, 136.2 IP), Glen Perkins (LHP, 6-7, 5.89 ERA, 96.1 IP), Brian Duensing (LHP, 5-2, 3.64 ERA, 84 IP), Anthony Swarzak (RHP, 3-7, 6.25 ERA, 59 IP), or Jeff Manship (RHP, 1-1, 5.68 ERA, 31.2 IP): Liriano is obviously the wild card of this group, as he could become unquestioned ace of the staff or play himself right out of the majors.  Perkins is not on the organization’s good side after squabbles over service time and just plain poor performance, while Duensing is the conservative pick after impressing in the heat of the pennant race last year.  Swarzak and/or Manship would have to pitch their tails off to even warrant consideration.

 

Bullpen:

 

  1. Joe Nathan (RHP, 2.10 ERA, 68.2 IP, 47 SV): Still a top-tier closer in all of baseball, but somehow needs to shake late- (and post-) season demons.  Too many batters (7) tagged him with the long ball last year, so that is a good place to start.
  2. Matt Guerrier (RHP, 2.36 ERA, 76.1 IP): The primary setup man to Nathan.  Is very solid, but fatigue always an issue due to over-use.
  3. Jose Mijares (LHP, 2.34 ERA, 61.2 IP): The lefty-lefty matchup guy who his almost unhittable when in decent shape and possessing a clear head.  Has tendency to put balls in the dirt and sometimes inexplicably loses his control for short periods of time.
  4. Pat Neshek (RHP, DNP-Injured): After missing almost two whole seasons due to Tommy John surgery, the side-winding Minnesota native is back to confuse opponents once again.  Could be a god-send to take some of the strain off Matty G.
  5. Jon Rauch (RHP, 1.72 ERA, 15.2 IP): One of the big (literally!) reasons the Twins made the playoffs last season.  Is very flexible in terms of duration (1-3 innings).
  6. Jesse Crain (RHP, 4.70 ERA, 51.2 IP): An enigma: some fans love his electric stuff, while others cringe at his predictability, wobbly control, and inability to pitch out of jams after creating them.
  7. Clay Condrey (RHP, for Philadelphia: 3.00 ERA, 42 IP): A newcomer who is coming off two solid seasons in the National League.  Adds valuable depth to a unit that would often carry a green rookie or past-his-prime vet in this spot.

 

Prediction: If the starting pitching holds up for the entire season and the bats produce even a trifling of what they should, this could be a very scary team.  Must prove first and foremost that, as well as beating up on the Kansas City’s and Cleveland’s of the world, they now have the firepower to take on the likes of New York and Anaheim (teams that destroyed them in ’09).  A division championship is a very achievable goal, with the sights set on further venturing into the playoff tournament.

 

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