Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Spring Cleaning

The Twins open their 2006 season tonight in Toronto, with what should be an entertaining pitcher's duel between preseason Cy Young Award favorites Johan Santana and Roy Halladay. I think we've pretty much exhaustively covered just about every offseason angle we can here, so I'm about ready to watch some baseball and get down to business. To close out the offseason, a few quick notes regarding the offseason, the spring, and what to look forward to early in the season, as well as some random observations from yesterday's slate of games:

It seems like Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan might be trying to make an annual tradition out of making one inexplicably stupid roster decision heading into the season. Last year, it was carrying four catchers, including the despicable Corky Miller. This year, it is the demotion of Jason Bartlett in favor of Juan Castro as the starting shortstop. Maybe Gardy and Ryan are closet blog readers who get sick pleasure out of reading the angry rants from Twins fans who understandably cannot comprehend the reasoning behind decisions like this. Either way, Castro will be trotting out to shortstop and batting ninth today against one of the game's best pitchers. How exciting.

There will be a variety of new faces for Twins fans to get used to early this season. Luis Castillo will provide range and stability at second base. Rondell White (if healthy) will be a more polished and consistent hitter than we've seen in the clean-up spot in some time. Who knows what to expect from Tony Batista. Scott Ullger will now be waving men home as third-base coach, replacing the departed Al Newman. Joe Vavra will hopefully bring a fresh offensive approach as the new hitting coach. Jason Kubel, after missing all of the 2005 campaign, may be the starting right fielder tonight against Halladay. Scott Baker will be a full-time member of the rotation, and a pair of rookies will come out of the bullpen in Francisco Liriano and Willie Eyre. Some questions to ponder about a couple of these guys as we watch them play in the coming weeks:

-Castillo was once a tremendously prolific base-stealer, but that aspect of his game has kind of disappeared in the past few years. Castillo has stated that the reason he didn't steal much last year had less to do with injuries and more to do with hitting in front of two monster run producers (Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Delgado). Gardenhire has said that the Twins will run Castillo aggressively on the bases. Should be interesting to see what he does when he gets on base.

-If Batista gets off to a slow start and can't make the plays in the field, how long does it take the team to start trying other options at third base? Does Luis Rodriguez start to see some play time?

I'm a little scared about the Chicago's new DH, Jim Thome. When the White Sox made the move to acquire Thome, I casually brushed it off, reminding myself how ineffective he was last season and convincing myself that he'd miss most of this season due to injury. However, the guy hit a whopping 8 home runs in 7 exhibition games this spring, and he looked really good on Sunday night against the Indians. I could tell in watching his first at-bat that his swing was really on; he popped out to center but he hit the ball really hard. Sure enough, he hit a monster homer later in the game. If he stays healthy, the White Sox are going to be very hard to stop, and I'm not sure the Twins have a bullpen answer for him. Their only lefty, Liriano, is inexperienced.

The MLB season got fully underway yesterday with several interesting games. A few notes of interest:

-Jimmy Rollins had been a big storyline this spring. He ended the 2005 season on a 36-game hitting streak, and needed to get hits in his first 20 games this season in order to match Joe DiMaggio's legendary streak. Facing the Cardinals yesterday, Rollins was 0/3 when he stepped up against Cards' reliever Adam Wainwright. Rollins worked the count to 3-0 before pounding a double down the right field line. I don't believe Rollins has any chance of reaching 56 games, but with each game he adds on to the streak, the storyline becomes more fun to follow. In the same game, Albert Pujols homered twice, walked twice, and drove in four. People complained that we were being "unoriginal" by choosing Pujols as our NL MVP favorite, but how could you not pick this guy? He's plain and simply the best hitter in baseball.

-Former Twin Jacque Jones nearly homered in his first game with his new team, the Cubs. He drove a ball deep to left field and flipped his bat, thinking it was gone, only to watch Adam Dunn make a leaping catch at the wall.

-It was a day of good first impressions. Mike Piazza homered in his first at-bat for the Padres. Kenny Rogers pitched six very solid innings to pick up a win for the Tigers in Kansas City. Juan Pierre had three hits, including a triple, for the Cubs. Japanese import Kenji Johjima homered for Seattle. Xavier Nady went 4/4 for the Mets. Mike Lowell (surprisingly) homered for the Red Sox. Heck, even J.C. Romero pitched 1.2 hitless innings for the Halos.