Friday, October 06, 2006

Twins Geek's 2007 Cheat Sheet

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OK, all the evidence is in. You've seen them through six months, you've seen them through the playoffs (such as is was). So, what are you gonna do?

Is it crass to start talking about next year this early? Well, yeah, I think so. But in case you haven't noticed, here's the recipe for the end of season articles in the dailies:

Day after clinching loss - recap of clinching loss
Two Days after clinching game - recap of year and what to expect in the offseason

That's about it. A hell of a lot of perceptions are set by that article two days after the season ends, like two years ago when every sportswriter decided that Cristian Guzman would be returning to the Twins. Not that I've been much better. I didn't think there was any way the Twins didn't get a deal done with Corey Koskie, let alone hang onto Jacque Jones.

(There's a lesson there, by the way. Timing in the offseason is important. The Twins didn't necessarily want to keep Jones over Koskie - they lost out on Koskie and decided to put that extra money towards Jones. It's damn important to understand that some of these decisions need to be made very early, even before the free agent starts, let alone heats up.)

Here's the mission as first published a couple of weeks ago: create a competitive team for 2007 while keeping the total payroll under $67 million (a pretty realistic guess as to next year’s total). I'd encourage you to try it yourself from the link above before continuing.

But I'm gonna get started below. I'll start with players who will likely be back, including listing their approximate salaries, along with some reasoning, in case you want to go in a different direction.

Below that, we’ll list the positions where there will be more debate, and list some of the players (and how much they cost) for each of them. You can build your team, and compare it to how Ryan does this offseason – just make sure it comes in under $67 million. (Or figure out how you’re going to get Carl to part with more.) Today I'll list my choices. Tomorrow will be my best guess on what Terry Ryan will do.

The Core

Joe Mauer$ 3.50
Justin Morneau$ 2.50
Jason Bartlett$ 0.40
Michael Cuddyer$ 4.00
Torii Hunter's Buyout$ 2.50

If you've already done the earlier version, you'll notice I pulled Castillo and Punto from this list. I want more offense and less piranhas. I think they'll be back below, but I'm keeping the option open for now. On the core lineup, we’ve spent $12.9 million.

Starting Pitching

Starter 1
Johan Santana$ 12.00
Starter 2
Francisco Liriano$ 0.40
Starter 3
Boof Bonser$ 0.40

We’ll assume Brad Radke retires (or at least doesn't pitch next year) and that Liriano starts the year with the Twins. They'll cover for the injury risk by keeping one of our other youngsters around (Garza, Baker, Durbin, Slowey) in Rochester as a 6th starter. That leaves two spots open, and our total now is at $25.7 million.


Luis Rodriguez$ 0.40
Mike Redmond$ 1.25

Redmond’s under contract (though terms haven’t been released) and we’ll assume Rodriguez comes back as a middle infielder. That leaves at least two spots open that can be filled with veterans or farm players, and just a small bump to $27.35 million.


Joe Nathan$ 5.25
RH Setup
Juan Rincon$ 1.50
LH Setup
Dennys Reyes$ 1.00
Jesse Crain$ 0.40
Pat Neshek$ 0.40
Long MR
Willie Eyre or Matt Guerrier$ 0.40

Now that Reyes is in the fold, the only assumption we have to make is that the Twins will offer Rincon arbitration. We’ll also assume six bullpen spots for now, but if you’re attached to Eyre and Guerrier, you can bring one back as the 25th man. Our final tally is $36.3 million….

We’re 60% of the way there! Fifteen of the 25 roster spots are spoken for, and $36.3 million is spent. That leaves $30.7 million to fill eight spots. Let’s see how you want to spend it…..

The Options
CFHunter9.5The big question is answered. One more year to prove his foot can stay healthy on this surface, without all the "I want to paly 162 games" nonsense. A month ago, I might have chosen a platoon of Tyner and Ford, but the risk on not being able to sign a free agent with that money is big, and the Hunter decision must be made first. Plus, I want fewer piranhas, not more.

I know many want a bigger bat at third base, but there aren't any on the free agent market. Seriously, here's the list. The only impact bats at that position are Aramis Ramirez, who reportedly has a deal in place with the Cubs, and Aubrey Huff, who is left-handed.

I'd support the Twins attempting a trade, but that hasn't worked out too well recently, especially for a big right-handed bat. I also believe that Punto's defense is better at third than second - he seems to be more a reaction guy than a range guy - so I'm hesitant to move him.


Here's the toughest decision on this list. Alfonso Soriano lacks the plate discipline you woule like to see from a middle of the order hitter, but he's right-handed, has power and speed, and would be a great fit between Mauer and Morneau. He's going to cost $13 million (at least), but that's affordable if Castillo is signed, and he'll be a nice replacement to Torii next year. Finally, there's no risk here, because Ryan can either keep Castillo or trade him based on whether he "wins" Soriano.

But I just can't find that extra $7 million, and believe me, I've tried. If I have $7.25M left over when I'm done with the rest of this list, I'll consider it.

LFKubel.4Getting Kubel's bat into this lineup is a priority for me, I'll admit. If his knees can't handle left field in the dome, we'll swap him back and forth with...
DHRondell White3Once he regained his health, he was great, and well worth the money. Timing also is a factor. The Twins will need to decide on this option before they know if the can get someone like Frank Thomas.
4th starterWoody Williams4I'll admit it, I'd like a veteran to provide playoff experience, eat innings, and mentor the younger guys. But I also don't want to block the talent coming through the pipeline, and I don't see that player on the free agent list. Williams is close. I'd gamble on Eaton. I won't on Carlos Silva, or at least not at that money.
5th starterGarza.4There's too much talent in the minors to not leave a spot for it to prove itself. I'll got with Garza for now, but Baker, Slowey, Perkins, Durbin and others could also be projected here.
backup IF???.5I don't know who it will be, but it'll be someone cheap.
4th OFTyner1There needs to be a decent backup for Hunter, and a platoon of Tyner and Ford might be the answer. Tyner is locked up first, because the Twins will need to make a decision on him first.
25th spotFord


see directly above

Sigh. There's $3M to spare there, which is just painful, because if you can find another $4M, a premier right-handed hitter could find his way here. There are plenty of options (and I'm sure you'll list the best of them in the comments) but I can tell you my favorite - Carl opening his wallet.

We'll be back tomorrow with our best guess on how Terry Ryan is going to fill out this sheet. We'll see you then.

2006 Postmortem

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It would be nice to publish something about how great the year has been. This team deserves that. It may have been one of the most rewarding regular seasons any Twins team - and maybe any Minnesota team - has ever had. On the other hand, there are reasons postmortems are done immediately, and that's the way this is going to go....

Geez, it's hard to judge a team by their postseason
There's almost no truly analytical approach one can use. Most will claim the regular season is a more accurate view, and it's tough to argue with that. On the other hand, nobdoy dreams about just winning 95 games. The playoffs count. And you could make a fair argument that the last three games were worth the same as the previous 162. I mean, would we really have celebrated a pennant race and division championship if we would have know this week was going to go this way? Hell no.

But I'm sensitive to the overreacation that can result from watching three games against one team - and a very good team at that. Evidence is in short supply, so it becomes a vote by perception. That has a bad rap, but isn't necessarily a bad thing. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Blink, instantaneous perceptions have likely been cultivated by millions of years of evolution to be invaluable. We should trust them, and we usually do. So let's go with some perceptions:

The team looked unprepared for the bright lights
That's not an easy thing to admit, frankly, but you'll have trouble finding anyone who disagrees with it. I've spend umpteen words pointing out how solid Jason Bartlett's defense has been, but he was terrible. For two years I've claimed that Jesse Crain should have been brought in for Game 2 of the 2004 ALDS, and today I couldn't feel more wrong about that. Joe Mauer had a number of weak swings, which I had previously chalked up to being worn down, but he had quite a bit of rest the last week plus. If you're looking for an LVP offensivly, he's at the top of the list.

The bottom line is that the Twins failed to make a a lot of plays, both offensively and defensively.

The Piranhas were overrated
And they likely have been since they got that nickname. Nick Punto and Bartlett didn't hit worth a damn in September, and probably should swap places depending on the pitcher. Jason Tyner lost his job, and I don't know I trust him to ever be more than a platoon center fielder on a winning team.

That leaves Luis Castillo. He was passable in Sept, but not great, and shaky in the playoffs. He showed some playoff savvy the first game, but really screwed up in not advancing a runner to third with no outs. he was terrible in Game 2. He wasn't particularly good in Game 3. I still don't know what to make of him. For most of the season I thought he felt like he was a little too cool to play aggressively. Later, I wrote it off to injury. Either way, I'm not sure I can trust him to be much above average next year.

It's a nice nickname, but I think we need less of them.

Johan Santana may need to focus more on winning and less on strikeouts
It might be time for Santana to consider how much he shows certain pitches early in the game, particularly that devastating changeup. It seems that every time the A's hit a ball hard, it was a changeup, like they were sitting on it, especially when they had two strikes. It's a great strikeout pitch, but I'd love to see his strikeout rate early in a game versus later. (Actually, I can check that. Wait a minute. Hmm, it looks like he strikes out 29% of batters in innings 1-9, 26% in innings 4-6 and 24% after six innings). OK, so the statistics don't support me. I still think that he needs to show less to good batters in early innings.

The bullpen might just need a hierarchy
God forbid I suggest that pigeon-holing a guy into a role might enhance their performance as the stakes are raised, but the bullpen looked as crummy as it's looked since the 2002 playoffs when they were clearly overworked. Coming into this series, this bullpen looked as deep as any the Twins had ever had, but they were crummy under the bright lights. Maybe, just maybe, the comfort level of having roles defined such as "I pitch the eighth inning" means something to these guys. Maybe more than "if I get this guy out, I might get to pitch to the next guy, but if I don't, the left-hander is coming in". Or maybe they were just overworked in the regular season. I don't know, but it's worth noting.

They were cold
I'll be honest - I don't know what this means, or if it makes any difference. But Sunday's excitement glossed over that this team absolutely backed into the division championship. IN fact, they weren't really challenged for the wild card after the middle of September when the White Sox were beat up by - oh, yeah, it was the Athletics. That explosion we saw on Sunday might have been more about relief than excitement. The players might have understood that they weren't quite that good. Or at least they didn't prove to themselves that they really were as good as they were.

So, anyway, after watching a sweep and having a couple of beers, that's one geek's take. Do with it what you will. Tomorrow (or maybe even later today) we'll be back with the 2007 GM Cheat Sheet filled out Twins Geek style - and then my best guess on how Terry Ryan will do it.

Links of the Day for Game 3

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Brad Radke has pitched for the Twins for twelve seasons. It is rare, in the age of free agency, for a player to spend that many years with one team, but Radke has remained. He’s been the constant—none of his teammates from that 1995 squad remain with the team (and, based on their 56 wins (, that’s probably a good thing). Now, today, he takes the hill for what could be the final time.

This series has not gone as planned. Frustration has mounted ( But today is not the day to dwell on plays that were not made. Today is the day to put that aside and give Brad Radke his due.

His arm could remove itself from his body at any moment, but he takes the hill in Oakland today, looking to get the ball to Santana in a Game 4. Regardless of today’s outcome, we need to credit Radke for the pain he has pitched through, and we also should credit the rest of this team for making its improbable playoff run. They’ve given Radke one last shot, to go out the way he should.

Here’s an “oh Canada” take on Radke (, found thanks to the incomparable Athletics Nation (

Jim Caple gives Brad some props as well (

We’re all about small victories here, and this ( will help the cause a little.

The AL Central isn’t dead yet. The Tigers won Game Two of their series yesterday, knotting it at one-all (

Homefield advantage is tough to hold. The Padres dropped Game Two yesterday (, sending them to St. Louis in a 2-0 hole. Sound familiar?

Enjoy the game today, even if it doesn’t go well. It’s been a hell of a ride.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Oakland Athletics

The following is a playoff preview from October's GameDay

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On May 30, the Oakland Athletics lost to the Kansas City Royals, eight to seven. It was Oakland’s third straight loss, and their tenth in the last eleven games. There record was just 23-29. Less than three weeks (and a ten-game winning streak) later, the A’s wrapped up a three-game inter-league sweep of the Dodgers, putting them seven games over .500. The rest, as they say, is cliché.

As the A’s watched their record swell from two games over .500 to twenty, they’ve witnessed the resurgence of someone familiar to Twins fans everywhere. Last season, Frank Thomas watched from the sidelines as the White Sox won the World Series. The health of his ankle was in serious doubt, and Chicago replaced him with Jim Thome. Thomas limped (literally) to the Bay, inking an incentive-laden one year deal worth just $500,000 in base salary. Fortunately for both the Big Hurt and the team, Thomas is cashing in on nearly every one of those $2.6 million of performance bonuses (although, somehow, I doubt he will collect the $50,000 bonus for winning the Gold Glove—yes, it’s in the contract).

At 38 years old, Thomas isn’t just an iron-clad lock for the Comeback Player of the Year award—he’s making a legitimate case for Most Valuable Player. In a lineup that has seen Mark Ellis, Milton Bradley, Bobby Crosby, Eric Chavez, and Mark Kotsay struggle with injuries (and first baseman Dan Johnson just plain struggle), Thomas has been the stabilizing factor, putting up a .950 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in the clean-up spot.

At Thomas’s side is Moneyball hero Nick Swisher. Along with providing manager Ken Macha with some much-needed lineup flexibility (while he’s listed as a left fielder, he has actually played slightly more games at first base), Swisher provides a second fearsome bat. His combination of power (a slugging average near .500) and patience (drawing about one hundred walks) has been indispensable for Oakland.

Two of Oakland’s “Three Aces” (Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder) have departed the team, but the pitching staff remains a strength. While assumed staff ace Rich Harden has struggled with injury problems all year, Oakland has found success with a rotation of former Cy Young winner Barry Zito, youngsters Dan Haren and Joe Blanton, spell-check nightmare Kirk Saarloos, and winter free agent signing Esteban Loaiza.

But the real strength of the staff is the bullpen. Oakland finished with the third-best bullpen ERA in the league, led by second-year stopper Huston Street and his sub-3.00 tally. The A’s also got excellent production out of Chad Gaudin, Justin Duchscherer (speaking of the unspellable), Kiko Calero, and the aforementioned Saarloos, who has split time between the pen and the rotation. With the problems Oakland experienced with their starting staff, it was the bullpen that propelled them to the AL West championship.

When playoff baseball starts, with its shorter rotation and intense games, having a superior bullpen is often the difference between an unceremonious exit and a champagne shower. And that strength, along with the mashers in the middle of the lineup, makes the A’s a dangerous team and a legitimate contender for October glory.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Game 2: Things end poorly, or they don’t end at all.

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Yesterday, before Game Two, my son chose his first Twins shirt. It was a t-shirt, dark blue, with “Twins” emblazoned across the front. And #48 and “Hunter” on the back.

It was appropriate. While watching a game a couple of months ago, the announcer referred to “Torii” and my son immediately turned to me and said “Is that Torii Hunter?” It was the first time he had recognized a Twins batter. Hell, it was the first time he had shown any recognition that a sports team was made up of individuals.

And if there’s one thing Torii has been, it’s an individual. He hasn’t been afraid to criticize the organization. Or to talk publicly about his contract status. Or to charm audiences nationwide with his personality. It’s part of why he’s perceived as so valuable to the franchise. A player can’t be the face of a team if he isn’t memorable. Torii, on and off the field, has given plenty of memories.

Unfortunately, the memory that may stick for a while was yesterday’s. Lost in all the talk about the boneheaded decision to dive for that ball was a sadder truth: that was a catchable ball. A late break and limited speed led to the decision to dive. Most center fielders would have caught that ball. Certainly, Athletics centerfielder Mark Kotsay has demonstrated that he would have caught that ball. There are two Twins, Jason Tyner and Lew Ford, who likely would have caught that ball.

And I wonder if the reason Hunter dove is because he knew, from years of flying around and flying higher than most, that he should be able to catch that ball.

This year he can’t. And he hasn’t been able to since he returned from the disabled list. Everybody recognizes this, and yet nobody wants to take the next step. Torii admits his foot is making him run differently. The media says he’s not making catches he used to. The coaching staff talks about how he’s playing at 70%. The tone is similar to that used when talking about gas prices. After all, what can you do?

Turns out, there are things you can do about gas prices. But it’s got to get bad. Real bad, because the next step is too painful. There’s too much invested in our SUVs and our suburban office complexes and low-priced, outer-ring, dream homes. Better to wait it out a while. It might get better.

And there’s too much invested in Hunter, too. Money, you say? Sure, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s a coaching staff who remembers his home run to seemingly ice game 2 of the 2004 ALDS. And fans that remember him giving notice to the All-Star Game audience that Minnesota defense can match roid-induced offense. And there’s all those damn kids that are wearing that #48.

So we delayed the decision, at least until the offseason. The procrastination was rewarded by a torrid offensive pace in September, which helped overlook the continued defensive deficiencies. Three days ago, in most fans minds, Hunter was inked into the 2007 lineup, not just the 2006 playoff roster.

Then a short fly yesterday tried to remind us that Hunter’s limited range likely isn’t temporary. The stress fracture that’s causing him to run differently wasn’t caused by a fluke kamikaze play this year, it was caused by repeatedly pounding it on that damnable padded concrete parking lot we call “the outfield”. The home run wasn’t the result of a premier center fielder trying too hard. It was the result of a player, and a team, and a franchise and a state ignoring a hard truth - that their premier center fielder no longer was. And was no longer likely to be, at least not in this unforgiving ballpark.

The short fly tried to remind us, but for the most part it has failed. We’ll live in denial for at least one more game, because dammit, we want things to be different. I certainly do, partly because I’d like my 6-year-old to be able to watch his favorite Twin a bit longer. But mostly because there’s something I don’t want to end. It’s the feeling of privilege – that’s the word – to have watched Hunter’s defensive efforts. Including his latest disastrous one.

Links of the Day for 10/5/06

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I made the mistake of listening to sports radio on the way home from work today, I tuned in just long enough to hear a local Twin Cities sports personality say that the A's were out-pitching the Twins. Fortunately, has a cool feature which rates the teams' playoff pitching prowess. For game 1, they gave Santana an A- and Zito a B-. For game two, they gave Boof a C+ and Loiza a B-. These statistics don't tell the whole story, but I don't think you can blame the Twins pitching on our 0-2 deficit.

  • Clearly, the fault for the Twins shoddy play lies in the lack of homer hankies. The dome and all of the stores around the dome are sold out. Looking around the stands, they did not appear to be in the hands of the fans. Did Billy Beane buy them up with all of that money hey saved signing Frank Thomas as his DH?
  • Scanning through the A's Nation, I've discovered we share something with the A's fan other than love for a small market team. We share the same feelings for espn.
  • This picture has been plastered all over the net- it was featured on the front page of,, and Torrii's botched dive has already been written to death, and the daily papers haven't even been printed yet!
  • If you haven't already, check out Micheal Cuddyer's blog. Fortunately it sounds like he and the rest of the Twins are less pessimistic than myself.
  • On bat-girl, a fan in Oakland has posted an inspirational letter telling the twins nation to keep the faith.
  • If that doesn't cheer you up, perhaps some of the Gamle-Tron's confidence in the Twins can rub off on you.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Game 1: Nuts

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The orange shirt sits in the corner, and it won’t be touched again until the playoffs are over. I’ll be getting a haircut tomorrow, since these hairs on my head obviously aren’t doing their job. And the rally pistachios – 99 cents of mellow salty smoothness – won’t appear at another game.

They’re all dead to me for the remainder of October. That’s the power of the playoffs, especially when the Twins lose a game like this. There were too many Oakland hits that fell just fair. Too many Twins hits that went right at a glove. Not that it was all luck – Oakland deserved that game – but one got the feeling that things weren’t quite aligned.

I'm sure the rally pistachios did their best. I blame myself for being slow to open them before Cuddyer grounded out to end the sixth. They were distributed just prior to Rondell’s home run. And I’m giving them full credit for Cuddyer’s Metrodome-assisted “triple”.

But we can’t forget the eighth inning. Any rally token worth it’s juju MUST get the lead runner from second to third base when there’s no outs. In a day full of miscues, few of which hurt the Twins, that one felt like the difference in the game. Like the Twins effort, the legumes came to life too late and provided just enough to lose.

So tomorrow, the kids will be going to the game, I’ll be wearing the numberless Twins jersey, and wearing a hat on my neatly coifed haircut. The pistachios will be left in a bin at Cub. Time for the popcorn to step up to the plate.

Twins Takes
Random, pistachio-free notes from yesterday’s game, featuring insight you can only get watching a game from 550 feet away...

  • Maybe the biggest, and most disappointing surprise was the complete lack of Homer Hankies. It was apparent in the first inning that nobody had them, and about 10 seconds later it was apparent that nobody missed them much.

    There was a part of me that was pleased, since it’s started to feel forced, and a bit more profit-oriented than in the past. Are the proceeds even going to the Twins community fund anymore? And would it kill them to give them out to attendees of the opening game?

    But mostly, it’s sad, primarily because tomorrow will be my kids’ first Twins playoff game. I don’t know how they’re going to react, sitting 550 feet away from the action, following a game that they don’t completely understand, and not having the unfettered access to popcorn or ice cream that exists when the crowds are smaller. But I wanted them to experience it in part because I wanted them to feel what it’s like to be a part of 50,000 people fabricating a textile snowstorm.

    And now, I think that’s gone. And I’m not sure what’s next. If the Twins come up empty tomorrow, odds are we’ll need to wait at least a year to answer that question.

  • It was sure nice to see that the Twins haven't lost their ability to run themselves out of a an early inning in the playoffs. That didn’t get nearly enough attention in the 2004 ALDS because Juan Rincon gave up the home run to Ruben Sierra, but the Twins had several opportunities snuffed during that game because they were “aggressive” on the bases.

    In reality, I was encouraging Luis Castillo to run. I’m not going to let that stop me from being bitter.

  • The playoffs isn’t really the time to start something new, but I would’ve liked to see the Twins swap Jason Bartlett and Nick Putno in the order when they face southpaws.

  • If the Twins are looking for a new revenue stream, I suggest they take a collection to make sure that Bert Blyleven NEVER leads us in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” again. I’m in for $5. It wasn’t a stretch. It was a hymn.

Sorry folks, I’d like to talk more, especially about the danger of Santana falling in love with striking out people with his changeup, but I’m done. See you tomorrow at Game 2.

Links of the Day for Game 1, ALDS

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The playoffs kick off at noon today, and like many of you, I’m really unhappy about when the Twins are scheduled to play. As an entry level worker at an office without a television outside of Minnesota, I have no chance to see the games live. Which leaves me with a dilemma: do I Tivo it and see if I have the will power to avoid my normal, sports related internet sites? Or do I follow along on MLB Gameday?

And why do I have to make this decision for all of the games? How is this fair? Or an intelligent decision for MLB? I know that New York is the bigger market by far, but is it really intelligent to insure that entire fan bases might not be able to watch a single one of their team’s playoff games?

Oakland fans are equally up in arms, but they aren’t sitting on their hands about it. They’re taking their issues to MLB. I already made a phone call, and I urge you to call or send an email as well. The cynic in me says that it won’t matter, but maybe it will finally make MLB understand that the small market teams are just as important to their league as the big market ones (a guy can dream, right?)

Whether or not you’ll be able to see it, it should be a pretty good series. The Athletics have a quality pitching staff, play solid defense and have some big boppers in Frank Thomas and Nick Swisher. Want to know more? Well, that’s what the quick links are for.

  • Athletics’ Nation compares the two teams and my guess is you’re going to like their prediction.

  • One of Billy Beane’s famous maxims is that the playoffs are a crapshoot. Since then, he’s revised his master plan, finding new inefficiencies to exploit. And he’s revised his view of the postseason to go along with it.

  • The Athletics Supporters have three keys to the series for each team.

  • Deadspin is previewing all of the division series as well. They have predictions, and run downs on all the teams, including the Twins and Athletics.

  • If you were at the game on Sunday, you probably had an amazing experience. If you had any doubt, so did Pat Neshak.

Enjoy game one everybody. And Win Twins!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Dugout Splinters: Oakland Athletics

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The Short Version
Whew! For a second it looked like the Twins would have to face the Yankees, and it’s so much better to face the Athletics, isn’t it? Wrong. With their rotation and bullpen, they’re arguably a tougher team to beat in a five game series. They kill you with their defense, their bullpen, and an occasional long ball from Thomas or Swisher.

Don’t Know Much Philosophy
Stop me if you’ve heard this someplace before.

A small market team has a multi-year run where they’re competing with the big boys. They make three straight playoff appearances, but fail to make much noise. More recently they’ve failed to make the playoffs, mostly because their division was so loaded.

This year, their young pitching staff, and particularly their bullpen, propelled them to an incredible second half of the year. They have a pair of great bats - one youngster and one MVP candidate - but most of the rest of the lineup needs to do the little things well to succeed.

With similar payroll limitations and similar success stories, the Twins and Athletics have become icons for opposing philosophies about baseball. The Athletics have been hailed as the progressive thinking organization, embracing the sabermetric community and a trend towards brash young executive outsiders. The Twins have been portrayed as the antithesis of this philosophy, emphasizing traditional scouting and a stable organization of baseball lifers. The two organizations have been endlessly compared and contrasted, but mostly contrasted.

So why are the end results so much alike?

What’s Working
Billy Bean’s Offseason Deals - This winter, in true Moneyball fashion, the Athletics tried to exploit a perceived market inefficiency – obtaining talented “clubhouse cancers”. First they traded for Milton Bradley, (yes, that’s his real name) who had been traded by the Indians and the Dodgers despite being a center fielder with speed and power entering the prime of his career. He missed a good chunk of the season with an injury, but when healthy he’s been the Athletics third best hitter.

The biggest offseason gamble was signing Frank Thomas, who wasn’t just a clubhouse cancer; he was a fragile clubhouse cancer. He hasn’t managed to stay compltely healthy this year, but he’s batted enough to qualify for the end-of-year awards, and will almost certainly win Comeback Player of the Year. In fact, with 38 home runs (including 10 in September) and 108 RBI (30! in Sept) in an otherwise anemic lineup, Thomas has a stronger argument for the American League’s Most Valuable Player than Derek Jeter. Best of all for the cash-strapped Athletics, he was only guaranteed $500,000 this year, though he’ll likely make almost $3 million when all his incentive bonuses are paid. That’s still a bargain for his production.

Youth - Oakland’s other power source has been second year player Nick Swisher. Swisher had a monster April and May, but has slipped significantly in the middle of the season before bouncing back with a strong September. He’s only hitting .254, but his 35 home runs and 95 RBI are second on the club. At just 25 years old, he looks to be a productive player whom Oakland can count on in the future.

The Defense – Oakland’s reputation is that of an over-muscled softball team, going back to the Bash Brothers and continuing through the Giambi Brothers. But this version is the polar opposite of that perception. They now live on pitching and defense, and if you think that’s playing the game “the right way,” you’ll love this team.

I’d like to spout some statistics about how fantastic Oakland’s defense is, but the statistics that are usually cited are mostly worthless, and the statistics that might be more useful are both obscure and lack obvious value. Nevertheless, in their May visit, they were clearly the best defensive team to come through the Metrodome this year. Watch and judge for yourself.

The Bullpen – Everyone is wondering how the Athletics ran away with the AL West. The answer is their bullpen. Barry Zito is one of the most highly regarded starting pitchers in baseball, and he leads the Athletics rotation in ERA. But there are seven members of the Athletics bullpen who have ERAs lower than him.

They’re led by closer and 2005 Rookie-of-the-Year Huston Street (3.23 ERA). Street did blow two saves in the Athletics’ last ten games of the season, but he also followed that up by striking out the side for his 37th save a couple days later.

The other dominant setup man the A’s will lean on is Justin Duchscherer, who saved eight games this season while Street was out with a groin injury. But there’s hope here, too. Duchscherer didn’t pitch this weekend because of a recurrence of back pain. He’s supposed to be fine for this series, but that might explain why he walked two batters in 1/3 of an inning in his last appearance.

How the Twins Win
There’s a reason that Twins fans wanted to play the Athletics instead of the Yankees, and isn’t just the bad Yankee juju that has popped up in previous playoffs. They can be beat if a team plays solidly. Scrape together some runs against their pitching and defense and then make sure you don’t let Thomas and Swisher beat you. The Twins have some experience with that, having beaten the A’s six times this year out of the ten games they played.

On the Hill
Athletics: Barry Zito (16-10, 3.83 ERA)

  • 2006: 221 IP, 211 H, 151 K, 99 BB, 27HR

  • 2005: 14-13, 3.86 ERA, 228.1 IP, 171 K

  • Zito is a left-handed Cy Young award winner. Read that sentence again and then remind me - why did we want to face these guys again?

  • He’s famous for his curveball. It’s so good that it’s not uncommon for the umpire to be fooled by it.

  • It seems like every year Zito is the subject of trade rumors. And yet, of the “Three Aces” that the A’s carried into their last playoff run, Zito’s the only one who hasn’t been traded.

  • This year the rumors started as soon as Loaiza was signed, and didn’t stop until the trade deadline had passed. The team most often rumored to be interested was the Mets.

  • He’ll be a free agent next year, and likely be the shiniest ring on the shelf. After all, the guy has won 148 games, has a career ERA of just 3.55, and is just 28 years old.

  • Not too surprisingly, most Twins have struggled against Zito, but Phil Nevin and Rondell White have hit him and hit him hard. Combined they’ve hit .354 with 3 homeruns in 31 at-bats.

Tuesday: Johan Santana (19-6, 2.77 ERA)

  • 2005: 16-7, 231.2 IP, 238 K, 2.87 ERA.

  • 2006: 233.2 IP, 186 H, 245 K, 47 BB, 24 HR

  • Led the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched. Here’s your 2006 Cy Young award winner. Unanimously.

  • So let me get this straight – he’s been a full-time starting pitcher for three seasons and he has two Cy Young awards and one third place finish? Seriously? We’ve spent a lot of time talking this year about how beneficial the trade of AJ Pierzynski has been, but don’t forget that Santana was acquired for NOTHING.

  • After two sub-standard starts in a row, he put any worries to rest by pitching eight innings and giving up just two runs in his last start of the year.

  • Right about now, you’re probably wondering how much longer he’ll be around. He’s signed through 2008. If he hadn’t signed a long-term deal before the 2005 season, he would be a free agent this upcoming offseason.

Thanks for stopping by. Tomorrow we'll have a Game 1 recap. See you then.

Wanna vend?

Lots of Twins stuff below, including Sam's links of the week, so feel free to scroll down, but something has come up an I thought some of you might be interested.

Because of the noon start on Tues and Weds, several of our usual vendors can't be selling GameDay before the game. So, we're recruiting vendors. We anticipate over a thousand sales, and vendors get $0.60 of each one, plus you'll be supporting solid baseball coverage in the Twin Citis while being a part of the excitement. You'll need to be there about 10:00 AM, and you'll be given a corner and some guidance. If you're interested,
let me know and I'll put you in touch with our vendor coordinator.

Twins Geek

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Dugout Splinters: Minnesota Twins

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Status Report – This team has defied every expectation, both good and bad. When they were supposed to be great, they were awful. When they were supposed to be unbeatable, they couldn’t gain a game on the leaders. And when they were supposed to be finished, they won a division.

So is it good or bad that we’re excited to face the A’s instead of the Yankees? At this point, I have no idea. I just know it won’t be what I expect.

What’s Working

Name me the Twins’ hottest hitter. I dare you.

No, it’s not Torii Hunter. Maybe you chose Torii because he’s the name most associated with the franchise, and maybe you chose him because he’s often been referred to as unbelievably hot (and not just by The Voice of Reason) over the last month. He has been unbelievably hot, hitting .314 with nine home runs in September. That’s great, but Hunter’s weakness, patience at the plate, has limited his ability to get on-base, decreasing his value. (Though, when he’s been on base, he’s made things happen. He had six stolen bases just last month.)

Then it must be Justin Morneau, right? Well, Morneau has been awfully good, despite (or maybe because he’s) not hitting many home runs recently. Justin “-credible” Morneau had just two home runs in all of September, but hit .348 and drove in 19 runs. In the past, when he’s hit for average, it’s been a precursor of hitting for power, as pitchers adjust to his opposite field hitting by trying to sneak balls past him on the inside of the plate.

If we want to focus on batting average, we might want to look at the number of the American League’s batting champion, Joe Mauer. “Chairman” Mauer has regained his swing and his confidence in September, hitting .329 with patience (16! walks) and power (.506 slugging percentage). He should also be slightly more rested as he’s had three off days in the last week. But he’s still not the Twins hottest hitter.

That honor belongs to the most unlikely candidate of all – Rondell White. Yes, the same guy that inspired you to make that #24 voodoo doll back in June. And stuff it with firecrackers in July. White’s overall numbers are still pathetic because he did so much damage before the all-star break, but it’s been a different story since his return from the disabled list, and especially in September. He’s hit for nearly as much power as Hunter (.568 slugging percentage) while hitting .351.

Combine those four with Michael Cuddyer, whose production has remained steady in the critical spot between Mauer and Morneau, and for the first time in fifteen years, the Twins have a middle of the lineup that should cause some teams concern. And just in time.

What’s Not Working

For several months we waited for the light-hitting infielders to come back to earth. For several months they defied us, even earning praise and a “Piranhas” nickname from White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.

At which point they came crashing back to earth.

Hey, I like the piranha concept as much as anyone, but for the last month they’ve been more hype than bite. Jason Tyner has been put into a platoon role because he not only struggles to hit left-handers (.265 BA vs. LH pitching), he struggles to even get on base against them (1 walk in 50 at-bats). Oh, and he doesn’t have a single extra-base hit against them either.

The heralded left side of the infield has continued their stellar defensive play, but clearly wore down offensively in September. Or maybe they just regressed back to the mean. After all, Nick Punto was a career .238 hitter coming into the season. In that light, September’s .252 batting average wouldn’t be viewed as a disappointment, but considering he was hitting .307 on August 31st, there’s plenty of cause for concern.

Even worse has been the quiet regression of Jason Bartlett. Bartlett has had some big hits for the Twins over the last month, which conceals the adjustment the league seems to have made to him. Over September he hit just .228 with just three walks and two extra-base hits. That’s not just bad, it’s Juan Castro-phic.

There is an exception. The piranha with the sharpest teeth is the one most likely to be wearing dentures, veteran Luis Castillo. One of Castillo’s more infuriating traits is that he seems to play better when he’s interested, and he looks interested now. His sore knee (that kept him out of several games after the Twins clinched) didn’t slow him down as he got on base at a .400 clip for the last month.

What to Watch

Manager Ron Gardenhire has been praised for his ability to handle a bullpen, mostly because it’s been a strength for his tenure. This playoff appearance will test that perception.

For the first time this postseason, it isn’t clear exactly what each reliever’s role is in the bullpen, or exactly when each will be used. Juan Rincon doesn’t own the eighth and Jesse Crain doesn’t own the seventh. Instead, Pat Neshek seems to be the most trusted reliever – unless he’s facing a left-hander with power. In which case Dennys Reyes is the most trusted – unless he’s facing a right-handed hitter. In which case it can be Crain. Or Rincon. Or even Joe Nathan if it’s late enough in the game.

That might sound like a problem, but it’s also liberating, as Gardenhire no longer has to play his bullpen “by the book”. In the postseason, where every pitching change is packed with pressure, it will be interesting to see if this new found freedom is a benefit or a curse.

Thanks for stopping by. Below you'll find Sam's links of the day, which are fantastic. Tomorrow we preview The Oakland Athletics and the pitching matchup. See you then.

BRING ON THE YANKE… um. oh. Well, that’s cool, too.

Powered by Intern Sam

What a way to end the regular season! A division championship that looked like a fantasy a few short weeks ago became a reality when Detroit choked their way to a sweep at the hands of one of the most inept teams in the league, and the Twins rode an unexpectedly strong performance from Carlos Silva to a fourth division title in five years. The enduring image of the afternoon has to be the entire team of Twins coming back onto the field after the game to watch the end of the 12-inning Royals-Tigers battle on the JumboTron with the tens of thousands of fans who stuck around to do the same. But it was a day full of highlights: Joe Mauer is your American League batting champ, Justin Morneau got his 130th RBI of the season (tying Larry Walker for the most ever by a Canadian,) and Minnesota wrapped up its best-in-the-majors home record at a tidy 54-27.

You probably know how the playoff schedule shakes out by now, but just in case you don’t, the division title gives the Twins home field advantage for the first round of the playoffs, and forces the Tigers to head to New York. (Yes, yes, we know some strong arguments have been made that the Twins would be better off facing the Yankees in a 5-game series than they would in the 7-game ALCS, but y’know, that Dome-field advantage is a doozy, so let’s count our blessings and cross the pinstriped bridge when we come to it.)

As we gear up for what should be a wildly entertaining October, Intern Sam thought it would be worth poking our head out of the Minnesota burrow to take a look at what writers in Oakland and New York are saying about what’s to come. (We’ll leave Detroit out of it, if you don’t mind. There’s just wayyyyy too much negativity going on over there at the moment, and it’s harshing our buzz.)

(By the way, Intern Sam happens to be in possession of two Upper Club seats to the Tuesday and Wednesday games at the MetroDome that he cannot use, because his employer does not recognize the Division Series as the official holiday that it obviously is. Furthermore, it’s too late to list them for sale on StubHub. So if anyone out there in Geekland wants to go to the game, and is willing to pay face value (or something approaching face value) for the tickets, click here to say so. First come, first served, and the tickets can be hand-delivered anywhere in the Twin Cities metro…)

Now, on to researching the enemy teams…

  • Murray Chass offers New Yorkers a primer on the bizarre and exotic strategy of building a winning baseball team without spending $200 million, with the Twins and A’s serving as proof that such a thing can, in fact, be accomplished.

  • Putting a serious dent in the notion that New York sports reporters are unaware of the existence of a world west of the Hudson River, Joel Sherman says that the Twins deserve to nearly sweep the postseason awards, even at the expense of minor deity Derek Jeter. The headline writers at the Post apparently aren’t real clear on the spelling of “Morneau,” but hey, at least they’ve heard of him.

  • There’s been a tendency this September to ignore the Oakland A’s, as if they were just another edition of the same old Billy Beane squad that comes on like gangbusters in the second half only to fold like a pup tent every October. But Gwen Knapp says that there’s ample reason to believe that this fall could be different.

  • The Twins have been feasting on weak bullpens of late, and the late-inning comeback has accounted for several key wins. But in Oakland, the piranhas could face a bullpen that is every bit as solid as theirs, and that will make scoring early runs essential.

  • As ESPN and Fox gear up to once again force endless Subway Series storylines down everyone’s throats, Mike Vaccaro turns in a pretty good piece on why being a baseball fan in New York (or any city with more than one team) really is different than being a fan in, say, St. Louis.

  • Hating Yankee fans has pretty much become America’s real national pastime over the last several decades, but Sarah Bunting, co-founder of the hilarious and informative Television Without Pity site, makes an excellent case that our national conception of what a Yankee fan even is has been irrevocably warped by ESPN, countless blowhard sports talk hosts, and some idiot from Sports Illustrated.

  • Before we get too warm and fuzzy about the Big Apple, though, one of the city’s crustiest writers is right there to remind us that New York just about has a corner on the known world’s supply of smug. “Minnesota, Detroit and Oakland, are finishing the best kind of seasons they could have expected. But a spot in the World Series? Nope, that's too much to ask.” This, of course, is exactly what everyone in New York said about the ’02 Angels, the ’04 Red Sox, and the ’05 White Sox.

  • Contrary to much of what’s been reported around these parts lately, the Yankees haven’t actually given up on the notion of Randy Johnson pitching a game in the first round of the playoffs…

  • …but they have officially thrown caution to the wind and installed Gary Sheffield as their starting first baseman. Sheffield plays first the way Matt LeCroy plays catcher, so this should just be entertaining all the way around.

  • Finally, in a story that threatens to dominate the postseason, Jason Grimsley, the retired pitcher who admitted to using human growth hormone and agreed to cooperate with the feds in a wide-ranging investigation, has reportedly named Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Miguel Tejada, and three other players who he knows to have used performance-enhancing drugs. Make no mistake – this is huge, and not only because the Rocket is on the list. (Just imagine the furor had Houston managed to overtake St. Louis for the last NL playoff spot!) Grimsley himself is complaining that investigators put words in his mouth, but it’s a little tough to buy his line that he wouldn’t throw a teammate under a bus when he’s admitted to wearing an FBI wire in the clubhouse earlier this season.