Thursday, October 29, 2009

Birthday Wishes and a New Contest!

Since I know Bill Smith reads this blog and is wondering what I'd like for my birthday (today is the big 2-4), a contract extension for Joe Mauer and a new second baseman would suffice. Oh, and if he wants to throw me a few tickets to the Target Field opener next year, that'd be dandy, too.

Speaking of Smith and the Twins' offseason, I'd like to direct everyone to, which is hosting a new contest that allows you to predict just how exactly the Twins' brass will handle the upcoming offseason. The rules are simple: head to, click on the contest link beneath the main image on the front page, fill in your predicted 2010 roster and payroll estimate in the appropriate fields (of course, figuring out the salary figures and available free agents/trade targets will be extraordinarily simple if you have a copy of the TwinsCentric GM Handbook handy), then click submit. You can track your projected roster throughout the offseason, along with those of other participants, and the team/payroll that most closely resemble the actual results on Opening Day 2010 will receive a fabulous prize! Submissions are due by the final out of the World Series, so hop to it!

Also, I appeared as a guest on the Fanatic Jack podcast last night. You can check that out here.

That's all I've got for today. Probably no blog update for tomorrow, so I wish everyone a happy and safe Halloween weekend.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ron Gardenhire: AL Manager of the Year?

There are two general points of view when it comes to Ron Gardenhire.

Most people outside of Minnesota seem to feel that he's one of the game's best managers, a man who consistently gets the very most out of his players and puts the Twins in a position to contend year in and year out. When a Twins game is nationally broadcast, you almost always hear the announcers fawning over Gardenhire. Fellow managers and baseball people across the league consistently speak very highly of him. Joe Posnanski -- who I think is one of the very sharpest baseball minds in the country -- has repeatedly opined that the Twins' manager is the best in the game. Gardenhire had placed among the top three finishers in the Manager of the Year voting five times in his seven years as a manager entering this season.

Many people within Minnesota who follow the Twins closely, on the other hand, seem to feel that Gardenhire is a terrible manager who holds the team back year in and year out. Fans rail on him for his bullpen management. Bloggers rip him for his stubborn loyalty to bad players. It seems that every week during the baseball season there are multiple columns in the local newspapers in which scribes question Gardy's tactical decision-making.

Logically, it would seem that the group that follows the team closely and gets an intimate perspective of how the manager operates would provide the most accurate portrayal of that manager's job aptitude. However, I don't think that's the case here. I feel as though many hardcore Twins fans get so worked up over Gardenhire's flaws that they are unable to fully appreciate the man's full body of work -- an eight-year tenure which now includes seven winning records and five division championships.

The most recent of those AL Central titles stands as perhaps the most impressive, all things considered. By mid-September this year, the Twins sat several games out of first place with numerous key players on the shelf. The starting first baseman -- who had been a crucial contributor during a first half in which he'd posted MVP-caliber numbers -- was done for the year with a back injury, as was the team's slick-gloved, power-hitting third baseman. Three-fifths of the season-opening rotation had lost their starting jobs, due to either injury or ineffectiveness (or both). The team was relying largely on mediocre minor-leaguers and relatively underwhelming trade acquisitions to scrape by. Most fans had given up on the club, and it would have been tough to blame the players themselves for packing it in and beginning to concentrate on next year.

But, they didn't. The Twins rallied to win 16 of their final 20 regular-season games to draw even with the first-place Tigers and force a one-game tiebreaker at the Metrodome. There, in a hard-fought extra-innings battle, the Twins emerged victorious, capping off one of the most improbable late-season comebacks in franchise history. Plenty of credit rightfully goes to the players who stepped up and carried the team during this impressive late stretch, but it's tough to overlook the man who piloted the ship.

Without a doubt, Gardenhire has his flaws. As a person who has watched the team regularly during his entire tenure, I'm not ignorant to those flaws. But what people around here don't seem to realize is that every manager has flaws. Yes, Gardenhire is too stringently adherent to traditional closer usage when it comes to utilizing Joe Nathan. Yes, he's too stubbornly fixated on having a middle infielder batting in the second spot in the order, regardless of whether that player's offensive proficiency qualifies them for such an important duty. Yes, he's overly loyal to the players he deems "scrappy." Yes, he lets his obsession with veteran presence put younger and more talented players at an often unfair disadvantage. But these are flaws that plague many of the game's managers. We've seen the skipper of each team in the playoffs this year make questionable decisions. There's no denying that Gardy is largely able to succeed in spite of his downfalls.

For whatever reason, people around here seem quick to criticize Gardenhire but hesitant to credit him for the things he does well. During almost every game I hear people complaining about the way he operates the bullpen, but the Twins finished fourth in the the league in bullpen ERA and sixth in WHIP this year despite sporting a corps of relievers that -- early in the season -- looked like it was going to be a complete disaster. In fact, Gardenhire's bullpens consistently rank among the league's best, and I would argue that managing relievers is actually one of his greatest strengths. It's easy to play the "coulda shoulda woulda" game during the season and point out individual instances where Gardy perhaps could have more effectively utilized his bullpen arms, but again I encourage you to step back and consider the overall results.

Gardenhire is also liked and respected by his players, which is no small thing. He keeps the clubhouse loose and and avoids infighting. It's worth noting that, despite his troubled past, Delmon Young has had essentially zero publicized negative incidents since coming to Minnesota. Orlando Cabrera, who was reportedly run out of Chicago last year after run-ins with his White Sox teammates and manager, was praised as a clubhouse staple here after coming over. Players enjoy playing for Gardy and they seem to stay motivated and focused.

A manager's effect on the outcomes of ballgames tends to be overrated. Gardenhire made some tactical decisions that helped the team this year and some that hurt it. But, in the end, his players came together for him and made a huge push, winning game after game late in the season to capture the division title.

I don't know if Gardenhire excelled more than any other American League manager this year -- Mike Scoscia and Ron Washington both did excellent work -- but he certainly deserves to be one of the front-runners for the Manager of the Year award. Even if local fans are too blinded by his downfalls to admit it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quick Notes

Just some brief jottings on a couple different topics for today...

* Last week I was featured as part of the "Blogger Nine Innings" Q&A series for Jesse Spector's Touching Base blog at New York Daily News Online. I made sure to take advantage of the opportunity to be profiled in a New York publication by preaching the need for a salary cap in baseball and labeling Derek Jeter the game's most overrated player.

* Participating in the Venezuelan Winter League, Twins catching prospect Wilson Ramos is currently hitting .407 with five homers, six doubles, a triple and 21 RBI in 54 at-bats for the Tigres de Aragua. Before you get too excited, it's worth noting that hitters tend to dominate this league, but Ramos does lead all qualifying VWL batters in home runs (tied), RBI and OPS. Quite encouraging, but not quite enough so to make me very comfortable heading into the 2010 season with an unsigned Joe Mauer.

* Speaking of Mauer, Joe Christensen reports that the catcher was named Twins MVP yesterday by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. File that under "Unsurprising." Hopefully this is just a prelude to the real deal, which will be announced in late November.

* Make sure you check out our friend Andrew Bryz-Gornia's new Twins blog, Off the Mark.

* And, for good measure, my World Series pick: Yankees in six.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Very Comfortable

Last week, John Bonnes sat down with Twins general manager Bill Smith for an interview about the upcoming offseason. The interview, which serves as an addendum for the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook (if you've already purchased a copy, you'll be receiving the interview transcript in full, and of course you'll also get the entire interview included if you buy a copy from this point forward), covered a variety of topics, but today I'm going to focus on a particular portion of the conversation that lasted only a few seconds but may have provided one of the most compelling takeaways.

The Twins have a number of issues to tackle this offseason, but one pretty clearly rises above all others, and that's sorting out the Joe Mauer situation. The likely AL MVP and franchise cornerstone has just one year remaining on his current deal, and could become unaffordable to the Twins if he's able to venture into free agency next winter. I wrote a lengthy essay covering this topic for the Handbook, and ultimately concluded -- as I'm sure most fans have -- that working out a contract extension with Mauer during this offseason is absolutely imperative and should rank as Smith's No. 1 priority.

It was a topic that needed to be broached in the TwinsCentric interview, but Smith has been extremely tight-lipped when the matter of Mauer's contract has come up over the past few months. Seemingly realizing this, Bonnes was very cautious in approaching the subject during the interview, opening his line of questioning by saying, "I'm not sure how much I really want to get into this, but I want to ask a little bit about the Mauer extension." Smith quickly interjected, stating that Bonnes "may want to get into it deeply, but I'm not going to."

And so, John rerouted. "Well, let me ask one question that's not really about the contract," he said. "If an extension doesn't get done by spring training, do you feel comfortable going into next year with Mauer as a walk-away free agent?"

"Well, he's a player signed through 2010," Smith retorted.

Bonnes pressed on. "But for instance, Santana was a player signed for the next year as well..."

Finally, Smith relented and answered the question. "If we think Joe Mauer wants to stay here long-term, yes, we feel very comfortable going into next year."

It could be that Smith responded in this manner only to avoid backing himself into any sort of corner. Still, "very comfortable"? I wrote extensively in my essay for the Handbook about the perils of entering next season without a new contract for Mauer. His impending free agency would serve as an extremely unwelcome distraction as the team tries to build positive public sentiment in Target Field's inaugural season. And, of course, if Mauer makes it to the end of the year without an extension, the New Yorks and Bostons of the world will be able to jump into the bidding, which could put the Twins in a highly precarious position.

So, if indeed the Twins feel that Mauer wants to stay here long-term, it's hard to imagine that they'd actually be comfortable entering next season without a new deal in place. Which brings us to the other question raised by Smith's comment: what if the Twins don't get the sense that Mauer wants to stay?

Being a rather timid St. Paul native with countless ties to this area, it seems highly unlikely that Mauer would be opposed to forging a long-term deal with the Twins. But I suppose it is possible that he has his sights set on the huge money and increased national exposure that would come along with a move to a larger market. Or perhaps he doesn't feel that the Twins will ever be willing to take the steps needed to win a championship. It was a combination of those factors that seemingly fueled Johan Santana's desire to move elsewhere.

If the Twins get the sense that Mauer would like to test the free agent market, one has to believe Smith would not be "very comfortable" at all entering the 2010 season saddled with the risk of losing his star catcher at the end of the year for only a pair of draft picks, and the general manager essentially admitted that fact by including that big old "if" in his answer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rational vs. Emotional

At times, the two sides of one's brain conflict when contemplating a certain decision. In marketing, there's a great debate over whether customers are more likely to stick with the company that offers the lowest prices (rational) or the company that forms a deeper long-term connection by offering stronger customer service (emotional). For the record, things seem to be shifting in the latter direction.

Which, oddly enough, brings me to Orlando Cabrera. He's an impending free agent whom the Twins will need to make a decision on in the near future. The rational side of my brain tells me there's no way he should be brought back. He'll turn 35 in less than two weeks. He's shown clear signs of decline defensively (the former Gold Glover posted a horrendous -9.9 UZR this season and earned the nickname "Cabrerror" by committing 11 errors in 57 games with the Twins).. And his .313 on-base percentage was a major liability in the No. 2 hole, where Ron Gardenhire seems fully committed to playing the shortstop whenever he's in the lineup.

These are all major red flags for anyone looking at the game with an analytical mindset. Yet, there's something deep inside me that -- for whatever reason -- likes having Cabrera on this team. While I fully believe that the notions of clubhouse chemistry and clutchness and veteran leadership are overrated to a degree, it's not so easy to downplay the positive impact that Cabrera had on the team after being acquired at the trade deadline. Coaches praised his attitude, teammates credited him with helping them become more comfortable, and fans embraced his gritty play and determination. Even though he encompasses a number of qualities I dislike in a ballplayer -- namely, playing poor defense at an important position and failing to reach base at an adequate rate while batting at the top of the lineup -- I can't deny that I enjoyed watching Cabrera play. It also didn't hurt to finally get some power from a middle-infield spot; Cabrera slugged .430 while with the Twins, which certainly stands out for a club that hasn't received a slugging percentage over .400 from the shortstop position since 2001.

Ultimately, I caved in to the rational side of my brain and opined that the Twins should let Cabrera walk this offseason. But I can't say I'd be all that furious if the Twins let their emotional side win out and bring him back on a one-year deal.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Offseason Blueprint

The following is featured in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook, and you can check out that document in order to see how I came up with the payroll figures and to read more about some of the names listed. But I thought I'd post this here to rev up the conversation about potential moves for the Twins this offseason. Agree? Disagree? What would you do?


1) Let free agents Orlando Cabrera, Ron Mahay, Joe Crede and Mike Redmond walk.

2) Re-sign free agent Carl Pavano for two years, $12M.
This might be a conservative estimate for what Pavano could command after he proved himself healthy and relatively effective during the 2009 season, but he did settle for only $1.5M plus incentives this past season so a two-year deal averaging $6M might be palatable, especially since he seemed to enjoy playing with the Twins. He adds much-needed veteran depth to the rotation and is a strike-thrower in Rick Anderson’s mold.

3) Reach arbitration agreements with Boof Bonser ($900K), Matt Guerrier ($2.8M), Francisco Liriano ($2M), Pat Neshek ($750K), Carlos Gomez ($1.5M) and Brendan Harris ($1.1M).
These are the median salary agreements we’ve estimated. They might be a little conservative or aggressive in some cases, but for the most part this should give an idea of what to expect.

4) Non-tender Jesse Crain.
Crain recovered from some early struggles to come back strong late in the season, but he will be expensive in arbitration and is the odd man out in a suddenly crowded bullpen picture.

5) Trade Delmon Young for prospects.
Young’s big late-season offensive push may have upped his value, making this the perfect time to deal. I’m not convinced the power he flashed over the final weeks of the season is for real,
and the Twins need to settle on three outfielders so they don’t have the same playing time issues next year. See what you can get for Young and cut ties.

6) Trade pitchers Glen Perkins and David Bromberg to Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Perkins had a rough year but maintains value as a young left-handed starter with major-league experience and a strong minor-league track record. Bromberg is one of the Twins’ top pitching prospects who finished the 2009 season in Single-A. It’s a steep price, but Hardy’s young and arbitration eligible so he won’t come cheap even coming off a down year.

7) Sign free agent second baseman Placido Polanco for two years, $9M.
Unlike shortstop, the free agent market for second basemen is deep this year so players won’t have a ridiculous amount of leverage. Polanco is 34 so he’d likely have to settle for a short-term commitment, and he’s a great contact hitter with a sterling defensive reputation who Ron Gardenhire would love to throw at second base and in the two-spot in the order.

8) Sign Mike Sweeney for one year, $1M.
Sweeney signed a minor-league deal with the Mariners last year where he enjoyed a solid season, and says he wants to return for another year. He seems like a good fit with the Twins, where he can take some DH at-bats against lefties, spell Justin Morneau at first on occasion and serve as a pinch-hitter.

9) Give Joe Mauer eight-year, $150M extension.
The same deal mentioned in my essay earlier in this book. The deal wipes away the 2009 season of Mauer’s current contract and starts anew. The annual salary is a shade under $20M, which is less than he’d be able to get in free agency, but the hope is that the security and comfort provided by the length of the deal sway Mauer.

2010 Opening Day 25-Man Roster:


C: Joe Mauer ($16M)
1B: Justin Morneau ($14M)
2B: Placido Polanco ($4.5M)
3B: Brendan Harris ($1.1M)
SS: J.J. Hardy ($5.5M)
LF: Denard Span ($450K)
CF: Carlos Gomez ($1.5M)
RF: Michael Cuddyer ($8.5M)
DH: Jason Kubel ($4.1M)

(Approx $54M)


C: Jose Morales ($450K)
IF: Mike Sweeney ($1M)
IF: Nick Punto ($4M)
OF: Jason Pridie ($450K)

(Approx $6M)


SP: Scott Baker ($3M)
SP: Carl Pavano ($6M)
SP: Kevin Slowey ($450K)
SP: Francisco Liriano ($2M)
SP: Nick Blackburn ($450K)

(Approx $12M)


CL: Joe Nathan ($11.25M)
RP: Matt Guerrier ($2.8M)
RP: Jon Rauch ($2.9M)
RP: Jose Mijares ($450K)
RP: Pat Neshek ($750K)
RP: Boof Bonser ($900K)
RP: Brian Duensing ($450K)

(Approx $19.5M)

TOTAL 2010 PAYROLL: $91.5M

The payroll rises drastically, by about $20 million. Arbitration raises, along with Mauer’s new contract, have taken their toll, and you’ve got to pay to upgrade the paltry production in the infield. While this is a major payroll leap, the Twins seemed headed for a $90 million payroll around this time back in 2007, at which point they boasted a $71M payroll after having increased spending for three straight years. Twelve major-league teams had a payroll over $90 million in 2009, and with their brand-new stadium the Twins should be joining that upper half in spending.

This lineup has the potential to be a significant improvement over the 2009 unit, but much depends on Hardy bouncing back. That’s a better gamble than getting adequate regular production from Punto or Alexi Casilla (who opens the season in the minors). People surely won’t be excited about the prospect of Harris and Punto splitting time at third, but the upgrades in the middle-infield should offset this and hopefully Danny Valencia will be ready to take over at some point during the season. Jason Pridie serves as a defensive replacement and pinch runner while Punto returns to his super sub role. The bullpen features three or four reliable late-inning guys (depending on how Neshek looks); Bonser and Duensing are available for long relief and are potential options to step into the rotation should anyone stumble or get hurt.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Po$itive Trend

We were led to believe that the Twins would ramp up spending in the years leading up to the opening of Target Field, but that hasn't exactly been the case. After having their payroll peak at $71 million in 2007 (the year after the stadium was officially approved), the Twins saw that figure drop to $56 million in '08 and then rise modestly to about $65 million on Opening Day this year.

The gradual budget incline hasn't happened as we might have expected, but that doesn't mean the Twins aren't showing signs that they'll be willing to open up to the wallet a bit more as they prepare for the big revenue boost provided by their new stadium. There are examples everywhere you look. That $65M opening-day budget has risen rather dramatically over the course of this season through the additions of Orlando Cabrera, Carl Pavano, Ron Mahay and Jon Rauch. In the case of Rauch, the Twins even took on several million dollars in extra salary for next season, which is rather uncharacteristic of them. The team also splurged big on the international market for the first time I can remember, snatching up the top Dominican prospect with a bonus exceeding $3 million while also tabbing a handful of other spendy high-profile foreign teenagers. Beyond all that, the Twins went well over-slot to get their first-round draft pick, Kyle Gibson, signed. Add it all up and we see a very positive trend as we move forward into the new era of Twins baseball -- this team is willing to spend.

In his well-written article previewing the Twins' offseason for the Star Tribune on Tuesday, Joe Christensen surmised that, without taking on any additional salary or re-signing any eligible free agents, the Twins' payroll will bump up to about $78 million next year. John Bonnes, who was a bit more conservative in his arbitration estimates, has that number closer to $75 million. Either way, you're looking at an increase of $10 million or more in payroll without any offseason maneuvering. If we start factoring in contract renewals for guys like Orlando Cabrera and Carl Pavano or an extension for Joe Mauer that would increase his 2010 earnings, that payroll increase just continues to escalate. Even with projected revenue increases of around $25 million in the new stadium, one can hardly expect payroll to suddenly rocket past $100 million. The space for free agent signings and added salary via trade may somewhat limited, even though the team has begun showing an increased willingness to spend.

This will be something to keep in mind as we launch into the offseason discussion. Undoubtedly we'll get started on that next week. Of course, you can get a jump-start here...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Following Up on Tuesday's Post

I expected that my post on Tuesday would be controversial. Any time one complains about the nature of Major League Baseball's uneven payroll structure, there are bound to be numerous dissenters. What I didn't expect was that Rob Neyer would feature the post on his blog and send a swarm of peeved Yankees fans over here to spout their disapproval.

Of course I'm glad that Neyer saw fit to bring up the discussion over at this SweetSpot blog, and it was nice to see some outsiders voicing their opinions in the comments section here, even if the majority of those opinions basically boiled down to me being a whiny, know-nothing moron from a fly-over state (I <3 NY!).

What disappoints me is that many of these people seemed to miss the central point of the original post. Perhaps that's my fault for not clearly conveying that point. With that in mind, there are a couple key aspects of argument that I'd like to re-emphasize today:

1) This is NOT just about the Twins and Yankees.

I used the Twins and Yankees as examples because I had just gotten done watching a three-game playoff sweep in which the Yankees threw three starting pitchers who made a combined $36 million this year (compared to three Twins' pitchers who made less than $5 million combined) while sporting a lineup whose 2-through-4 hitters earned a combined $72 million -- more than the Twins' entire payroll.

The general sentiment from Yanks fans seemed to be that I was unfairly singling out the Yankees and/or pouting because my team had just lost. Neither of those things were true.

The Yankees are the most prominent example of baseball's imbalanced financial field, given that their payroll is 33 percent higher than any other team, but the same issues apply to any large-market team that holds a marked advantage when it comes to signing free agents, internal players, draft picks or international talent. For the most part, the revenue advantages of these free-spending teams are far more correlated with the size of their market than the quality of their fans or the devotion of their ownership. It's simply unfair that they should be rewarded with a substantial competitive advantage as a result of where they play.

And this isn't whining. I fully expected the Twins to lose, and they lost. I was frustrated when the Yankees bought three of the top free agents last offseason, I was frustrated watching them win 103 games this season largely as a result of that spending spree, and I was frustrated watching them pound an understandably less stacked team in the first-round of the playoffs. My ranting post was the culmination of plenty of pent-up annoyance with baseball's current system, and the fact that it appeared in the aftermath of this playoff sweep is only because I deemed the timing appropriate.

In truth, the Twins probably aren't the greatest example to illustrate my argument, given that they've enjoyed relative success over the past eight years and could have probably defeated the Yankees in this series if not for some bad breaks and terrible baserunning blunders (which our friends from out east were so eager to point out -- repeatedly). But don't tell me that this team would not be in far better shape if they had an extra $100 million in payroll to throw around. Which brings me to my next point:

2) Higher payroll does not guarantee success, but there is no denying that it provides a distinct inherent advantage.

I can't believe how much energy some people spent trying to produce evidence proving that the Yankees' giant payroll doesn't actually provide them with a meaningful advantage. It is not debatable. If spending more did not make a team better and increase its chances of winning, then the Yankees would not run up a $200 million payroll, and other large-market teams wouldn't spend well over $100 million to assemble their rosters. No one has ever claimed that spending a certain amount of money guarantees wins or World Series titles -- and the Yankees have proven that over the past decade -- but there's no question that having the ability to employ significantly more high-paid players provides an advantage. The best players eventually command the most money, and while baseball's system does keep all players relatively inexpensive in their early years, it's damn near impossible to have a roster stacked full of superstars who haven't yet hit arbitration or free agency. It is not, however, hard to have a roster stacked full of superstars when you can flex a $150-$200 million budget.

One can debate how much of an advantage is gained by perpetually sporting a payroll that is more than twice the size of your opponents, but it's simply ignorant to try and argue that this isn't an advantage.

3. This argument should not have anything to do with the Pohlads.

Many, many people pointed out that the Twins' ownership is one of the wealthiest in sports, and that if they really wanted to they could outspend the Yankees in payroll outright, paying for Target Field in its entirety and bailing out the automobile industry while they're at it. But, in the same breath, many of these same people were quick to argue that baseball is a business.

Don't those two statements run somewhat contradictory to one another? If baseball truly is a business, how could anyone expect an owner to put more into their product than they're getting out of it? Look, I was never a big fan of Carl Pohlad and by no means was as a defense of him or the way he operated this franchise. But it's perfectly fair to expect a team in a smaller market's expenses to be commensurate with its revenue, regardless of the owner's worth, and it's also worth noting that most owners of small-market clubs don't have as much money as the Pohlads, which brings me back to my initial point: this ain't about the Twins. It's about baseball, and all of its overshadowed and unfairly disadvantaged small-market clubs.

To close today's post, I would like to highlight two examples from Tuesday's 50-comment maelstrom which I felt most thoughtfully and eloquently supported the two sides of this debate.

The first, which falls into the anti-cap category, comes from an anonymous commenter:

The beauty of baseball is that the very best teams (regardless of payroll) end up playing .630 ball, and they end up playing a bunch of .530 - .600 teams in the playoffs. Unlike the NBA or the NFL, the best teams don't make it to the championship series every year simply because their advantage of the other teams in the playoffs is marginal, and baseball is a game of funny bounces.

Yankees / Twins was hardly a walkover, and it ultimately came down to the Twins making Little League baserunning mistakes and their $11 million closer spitting the bit. Yes, the Yankees had a better team top to bottom and a larger margin for error, but just by the nature of baseball the lesser team had a legitimate chance to win.

In the big picture, MLB wants NY, Boston, LA, etc. to have the very best teams. Successful teams in the largest, most affluent markets = maximum ticketing, concessions, merchandising, TV, and radio revenue + greater global branding opportunities. Common business sense says you probably want 20 million happy fans in New York than 1 million in Kansas City.

But for those niche markets, devise the "AL Central" and "NL Central" where you let a less talented team with a worse record into the playoffs every year. That way, every fan can dream every spring.

But make sure you institute a "Wild Card" so that you get an extra large market team into the playoffs every year while giving niche market teams another hope to grab onto.

The only way to guarantee that this works and to maximize MLB revenues is to make sure you DON'T have a salary cap. What's wrong with that?

The second comes from Bill Lindeke, who probably did a better job of summarizing my argument than I did in one long-winded post and several meandering rebuttals in the comments section:

Nick... I'm a long-time reader of your blog. I fail to understand why people aren't getting your rather obvious point. I suppose the ideology of fandom is that owners are philanthropists, paying players out of personal or civic pride.

The fact is that, unlike other pro sports, baseball has a very imbalanced financial landscape. The reason Yankees fans are so annoying is that they (willfully) blind themselves to this fact.

We all see what we want to see, but the massive payroll discrepancies in baseball are a crying shame. The vast majority of teams have no real shot at winning in the playoffs most years. The fact that baseball still manages to keep a semblance of competitiveness is a testament to the inherent strength and beauty of the game.

(Incidentally. the same argument about inequality would hold true for the Mets or Cubs even though they're consistently mediocre. If all the big-market teams had decent management, baseball's uneven playing field would be truly intolerable, condemning Pittsburgh, K.C., Baltimore, and the rest to lifetimes of baseball purgatory.)

And, just for good measure, I'll republish this doozy, which I think portrays me very accurately:

awwwwww, boo hoo hoo. I'm a sad sack twins fan named Nick who cant seem to understand baseball economics and the idea of "fair" are not a mutual concept. I guess the twins should have just not even showed up bc I mean it was such a foregone conclusion that the big bad yankees would beat them and not even have to swing the bat. The yanks just show up and teams tremble at their massive salaries and just give up. boo hoo hoo. In the words of a great comic book master.....WORST.....BLOG....EVER.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse had an article in yesterday's paper laying out his offseason plan for the recently eliminated Twins. The first two steps on his list (both plastered on the title of the column): Trading Joe Nathan, demoting Carlos Gomez.

My problem with Reusse's suggestions isn't so much that they are unreasonable; one can make an argument that this is the right time to move Nathan and it's certainly fair to say that Gomez needs some more time in Triple-A. My problem is that I fully believe Reusse -- like many other Twins fans -- is basing his current convictions on the small sample size provided by the past week's playoff series against the Yankees. Had Gomez batted .400 and made a game-saving catch during the series, or had Nathan pitched lights-out in his two appearances, I sincerely doubt we'd be seeing the columnist clamoring for their dismissal from Minnesota. That's not a good way to make personnel decisions.

Many people are frustrated with the handful of players who are perceived to be heavily responsible to the Twins' defeat. In particular, I've seen plenty of folks directing vitriol at Nathan, and the "Trade Nathan" bandwagon seems to be gaining steam on numerous fronts. But it's important to keep in mind how heavily the deck was stacked against the Twins and many of their players in this series. Yes, Nathan blew an opportunity for the Twins to even the series on Friday night by blowing a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. But it's not like he gave up a walk-off grand slam to David Eckstein. Nathan was facing the heart of baseball's best lineup in a hostile stadium. He walked one of the league's elite offensive players -- a likely top three MVP finisher -- and then gave up a home run to one of the most accomplished hitters in baseball history. It was tough, but it happens, and Nathan was hardly the only closer to struggle in the first round of this postseason.

It sort of astonishes me that this unfortunate turn of events has so quickly caused fans to sour on a guy who turned in a 2.10 ERA and 11.7 K/9 rate while notching 47 saves this season. Are people really forgetting that there was a stretch this year where Nathan went 24 straight appearances without allowing a run? That he was the steady rock for much of the year in an often erratic bullpen? He seemed to wear down at the end of the year, yes, but Nathan can still pitch and his contributions this season were absolutely elemental to the team's success. He remains one of the game's very best closers in spite of some rough patches against an offensive juggernaut in New York.

Laughably, Reusse's candidates for replacing Nathan are Jose Mijares -- who was playing over his head for much of the year and who looked worse than almost any Twins reliever over the final week -- and Pat Neshek -- who hasn't thrown a pitch since early 2008. If Twins fans are annoyed now by having a mostly dominant closer who gives up a couple runs every now and then, I hate to think how they'd react to the number of ninth-inning leads that would slip away under that inferior pairing. It's almost like we've become spoiled around these parts; Nathan has been so good for much of the year that any team he gives up a lead it gets blown wildly out of proportion. An outside observer would have no trouble noticing that Nathan was one of the very best in the league this year at converting slim ninth-inning leads into victories, just like he has been in past years. It is unfortunate that a couple of his rare misfires had to come at such inopportune times, but no pitcher is perfect.

The Twins have performed terribly in the postseason ever since 2003. This understandably causes fans to grow exceptionally frustrated when they are forced to suffer through another quick first-round exit. But understand that while Nathan did blow that Game 2 save and subsequently allow a couple crucial insurance runs across in Game 3, he was facing a powerhouse offense that any pitcher is liable to get nailed by. Understand that while Gomez struggled at the plate and made a costly baserunning error, he was just a kid who'd barely played over the past month, in over his head on the biggest of stages and in the harshest of environments. Understand that while Jason Kubel looked completely overwhelmed at the plate in this series, he drew unfavorable starts against two tough left-handed pitchers along with one of the league's best right-handed strikeout pitchers. That while Nick Punto committed a rather inexcusable error on the basepaths, he had been a key contributor over the rest of the series.

There's a tendency to dwell on the negatives at a time like this, but the Twins did hold their own in that series, largely thanks to some stellar contributions from Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer. The challenges those players faced should only be magnified by the struggles experienced by some of their teammates, and those strong performances should not be forgotten.

The time will come during this offseason to make many important decisions about the future of this ballclub. But don't let the disappointing outcome of a three-game series shade your viewpoint on these decisions too much.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Baseball's Crooked Playing Field

A week ago, the Twins and Tigers played out their respective regular seasons in a thrilling 12-inning tiebreaker at the Metrodome that ultimately ended in a walk-off victory for the Twins. The historical contest was everything a baseball game should be: two evenly matched teams battling one another to the bitter end in a high-stakes, must-win affair. Both the Twins and Tigers had their own sets of strengths and flaws, forcing each team's manager to engage in a lengthy chess match in an effort to work around his roster's weaknesses and put his best players in position to step up and deliver.

The Yankees/Twins ALDS match-up was a different story entirely. The Twins were severely overmatched from the start in this series, because the Yankees are a far, far better team. And that's not because their roster is more smartly assembled or because they are a more well-coached group of players. It's because a nearly unlimited payroll has allowed them to construct what is essentially an All-Star team. Each player in the Yankees lineup is a quality hitter and a legitimate home run threat. Their pitching staff is star-studded. Their bullpen is lethal.

But it's not difficult to see why this Yankees team is so dominant. Just look at who New York's big contributors were in this ALDS series. In Game 1, the Yankees received a dominant start from C.C. Sabathia, who they purchased for $161 million during the offseason. In Game 2, they got another strong start from A.J. Burnett, another spendy offseason rotation addition. That game ended when Mark Teixeira, their $180 million first base acquisition from the past winter, hit a walk-off homer. And the Yankees' biggest offensive game-changer throughout the entire series, Alex Rodriguez, is an admitted steroid user who made $32 million this season. In the end, the Yankees beat up on a far lesser team and got exactly what they paid for during the offseason: a trip to the ALCS with a World Series berth likely to follow. As we are all surely aware (especially after listening to the TBS announcers ogle over them for the entirety of the series), the Yankees are a great team. But, is that really anything for them or their fans to be proud of?

Major League Baseball's failure to create a remotely even playing field is rather egregious, and I think it's pretty sad that at this point it is widely accepted. The Yankees' $201 million payroll is about 33 percent higher than that of the next closest team -- the Mets -- and more than three times that of the Twins.

Whereas focusing their funds in certain areas forces small/medium-market teams to live with weaknesses in other areas, the Yankees are able to spend at will, filling nearly every position with star-caliber players. Whereas small/medium-market teams necessarily must occasionally let in-house talent walk when it gets too expensive, the Yankees are able to retain any player they want to (imagine how differently this series may have shaken out if the Twins still had Torii Hunter and Johan Santana). Whereas small/medium-market teams must build by drafting wisely and uncovering hidden gems on the interational scene, the Yankees are able to flex their financial muscles by plucking prospects whose signing bonus demands put lower-payroll teams out of the picture and by throwing heaps of cash at all the top international talent.

MLB has taken measures to keep big-market teams from gaining too large an advantage over their smaller-market counterparts, but these efforts have fallen laughably short. Without a draft slotting system, an international draft or a salary cap (or at least a luxury tax system that actually gets meaningful results), the big-market teams have pulled away and gained a massive competitive edge. The Yankees are making a mockery out of baseball's system by piling up a $200 million payroll and buying up all the top players on the free agent market.

Obviously, having a massive payroll does not automatically ensure outstanding results. The Mets ranked second in the majors in team payroll this year and were miserable. The Yankees, prior to this ALDS sweep, hadn't won a postseason series since 2004. People point to the fact that baseball has crowned eight different World Champs in the past nine years as some sort of proof that the system is sound and that the league features plenty of parity, but there is no denying that being able to outspend your opponent threefold provides a massive inherent competitive edge. That's just not right.

The Twins have overcome their budget constraints and have enjoyed more sustained success than almost any other small/medium-market team over the past decade or so. They have consistently posted winning records, they've made the playoffs five times in the past eight years, and they gave the Yankees a run for their money in this most recent ALDS series. But the fact remains that the Twins went 0-10 against the Yankees this year and were outhomered 6-0 by New York's cash-soaked lineup during this past series. People look at the Twins' epic struggles against the Yankees over the past eight years or so -- particularly in New York and in the postseason -- and they talk about how the Twins are mesmerized by the Yankee mystique. I'm not sure I buy that. The Twins are just consistently getting beat up on by much better teams. The Yankees don't make the same type of fundamental errors as the Twins in these games because they have better players. That's what money buys you.

As a fan of the Twins, I feel the burden of this remarkable payroll disadvantage, so I can't even imagine how much heavier that burden must weigh for fans of teams like the Royals and Marlins, who've not been lucky enough to escape from the doldrums.

The token response to these complaints is that life isn't fair. Well, baseball isn't life, it's a game. And it sure as hell ought to be fair.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Quick and Painful

It was tough watching the Twins trudge dejectedly off the field after last night's 4-1 loss, which completed an ALDS sweep for the Yankees and officially ended the Twins' 2009 season. Not just because the Twins lost the series -- I expected that. And not even because they failed to win a single game -- I pretty much expected that.

It was tough because the Twins gave themselves enough opportunities to make a series out of it. Much like their three-game set in New York during the regular season, the Twins were swept in this series but hardly laid down for the Evil Empire. After being soundly defeated in a first game on Wednesday that hardly anyone could have expected them to win, the Twins pitched well enough and collected enough hits to take both of the next two games. But given the inherent disadvantages the Twins faced in this series, they stood no chance of overcoming the Yankees with all of their terrible baserunning blunders, the brutal work from their seemingly depleted closer, and their complete lack of execution with runners aboard (32 runners stranded over the three games). We can talk all we want about Phil Cuzzi's unspeakably horrendous call on the left field line on Friday night, but the fact is that the Twins are ultimately responsible the fate that fell upon them. I do wonder if having had their repeated fundamental lapses on display for the entire nation over the past week or so will put a dent in the commonly held notion that the Twins are a sound fundamental team that does all of the little things.

I'm disappointed by this outcome but not at all surprised, and given the spectacular end to the regular season I do feel like this 2009 Twins team gave me my money's worth. I'll have further analysis of this series and of the Twins' season as a whole over the remainder of the week, so be sure to check back. Within the next few weeks I'll also start diving into discussion of issues facing the team during the offseason. You can get a jump start on that conversation now, though, with the perfect offseason companion, which I invite you to read about below.


Back in July, I joined forces with John Bonnes (the Twins Geek), Parker Hageman and Seth Stohs to develop an eBook called the TwinsCentric Trade Deadline Primer. This was very much an experimental project, but the results were encouraging. The product generated a lot of good buzz and I'm extremely appreciative of everyone who bought a copy or supported our efforts in any way. But there were two central problems with the Deadline Primer. The first was that neither me or my TwinsCentric partners had much experience with designing and marketing something like this so there were a number of rough patches. The second -- and more troubling -- issue was that the Twins simply don't have a history of being real active at the trade deadline, so people had a hard time getting excited and shelling out money for an extensive write-up on the topic.

That second issue was one we had foreseen, and unsurprisingly it was one of the main areas of negative feedback we received. It was completely understandable. That's why I'm extremely excited about our newest venture, the TwinsCentric 2009-10 Offseason GM Handbook. Not only does this book cover a lengthier period of time where the Twins are much more likely to be highly active participants, but the product itself is built around a unique and fun concept that I think people will really enjoy.

The basic premise of the GM Handbook is that rather than simply providing an outlook for the next several months while predicting what Bill Smith and the Twins will probably do or what we ourselves would do, it actually puts you as the reader in the position of general manager. You are provided with a schedule of key offseason dates, a comprehensive breakdown of the team's payroll outlook, an incredibly thorough organizational depth chart, a listing of arbitration-eligible players, a collection of potential trade candidates, an overview of the entire free agent market position-by-position, and a whole lot more. With all this information at hand, you can either draw your own conclusions about the direction that the front office will take or you can create a personalized offseason blueprint. How would you fix the problems facing this team as they move forward into a new stadium while remaining within a reasonable budget? This book gives you all the information you'll need to come up with your answers, rounded out by plenty of opinion and analysis from us dopes.

Smith and the Twins have a tough task ahead of them over the next few months. If you're not content to sit back and see what they do, perhaps you'd like to formulate your own ideas. The GM Handbook provides an excellent resource for this endeavor, and of course picking up a copy will provide some much-appreciated support for your local Twins bloggers. If you'd like a sneak peek, you can download a free 61-page preview (a little over one-third of the book) at the TwinsCentric website.

Thanks to everyone for your support this year, and I look forward to continuing the discussions and debate throughout the offseason.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Time To Regroup

For a multitude of reasons, last night's game was absolutely one of the worst I can remember watching. Joe Nathan chokes away a two-run ninth inning lead, Carlos Gomez makes an unbelievably stupid baserunning error, the offense strands 17 baserunners, and an umpire makes one of the most inexcusably awful calls I have ever seen in a baseball game.

The Twins had every chance to sneak out of New York with a win, but they continually threw away opportunities, repeatedly handing breaks to a team that already holds just about every imaginable advantage in this playoff series.

As I tweeted in the wake of this disheartening loss: "Tuesday's game reminded me of everything I love about baseball. This series is reminding me of everything I hate about it."

All the Twins can do now is regroup and hope to win one back in their home park on Sunday. That won't be easy, as I'm sure this loss stings worse than any most of these guys have experienced.

I'll finish by repeating the front-page headline on after the game, which accompanied a photo of Mark Teixeira: "Simply Clutch." Yeah, that must be it.

Friday, October 09, 2009

ALDS Game 2 Preview: Twins @ Yankees

Physically worn down and emotionally exhausted after having arrived in New York at 4 a.m. the previous night in the wake of their spectacular regular-season finale against the Tigers, the Twins went into Yankee Stadium on Wednesday evening and were predictably served a beat-down in Game 1 of this ALDS Series. Despite the momentum they've gained over the past few weeks, it was tough to imagine the Twins finding a way to hang with the Yankees in that game considering all the factors playing against them, from the aforementioned fatigue to the lopsided pitching match-up to the hostile environment.

The Twins will enter Game 2 tonight facing slightly less disadvantageous circumstances. They've had a full day to rest and recuperate. Rather than sending out Brian Duensing, owner of nine career major-league starts entering this postseason, the Twins will bring Nick Blackburn, who has established a reputation as a big-game pitcher. The Twins will also be facing the erratic A.J. Burnett rather than dominating lefty C.C. Sabathia.

Of course, the Yankees still hold a considerable edge entering tonight's game. It's still being played in their home park. They still have a far superior lineup and a far superior bullpen. The pitching match-up still favors them, because despite the fact that he leads the league in walks and wild pitches, Burnett has notched 195 strikeouts in 207 innings this season while holding opponents to a .247 average. The Twins' starter, meanwhile, could have some problems on his hands.

Blackburn was lights-out for the Twins down the final stretch, posting a 1.65 ERA and 18-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final four starts, all Twins victories. With his outstanding performances in must-win contests against the Tigers and Royals during the final week of the season, he's a huge part of the reason the Twins find themselves playing right now. But Blackburn remains a contact pitcher with a middling ground ball rate, and over the course of his career he has been a much worse pitcher on the road than under the Metrodome roof. He held his own in a start at Yankee Stadium earlier this year, allowing four runs over 7 2/3 innings, but this is a lineup that could give him some real problems. He gave up more hits this year than any other AL pitcher and these Yankees hitters tend to punish guys that pitch to contact, as evidenced by their .307/.361/.521 hitting line against finesse pitchers (defined as pitchers who strike out or walk less than 24 percent of batters faced, which is certainly a category that Blackburn falls into).

Blackburn is already gaining legendary status in Minnesota as a guy who steps up and delivers on the big stage, but the deck is really stacked against him tonight. He'll need to be on top of his game and commanding his cutter with expert precision in order to suppress this powerful New York lineup, and in a packed Yankee Stadium that will be a tall task indeed.

Burnett is a fireballer with filthy stuff but he is beatable. The Twins will likely need to push several runs across to defeat this offense in their home park, so we can only hope they're up to the challenge. Obviously, this is a game they'd really like to win because coming home down 2-0 and on the brink of elimination would be a dreadfully dire situation.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

One Down

All in all, it's tough to be overly upset about the way the Twins played in last night's ALDS opener at Yankee Stadium. On little rest, they headed into hostile territory to face a vastly superior and more experienced team, and while the results may not bear it out, the Twins held their own.

The 7-2 final score would suggest that the Twins were soundly defeated in their postseason opener, and there's no doubt that this was the case. Yet, while they were only able to scratch a couple runs across, the Twins did manage to register nine hits and numerous lengthy at-bats against the Yankees' ace and bullpen.

Untested rookie Brian Duensing, who prior to last night's game had never even visited New York City -- much less pitched there -- went out and showed good poise while attacking the Yankee hitters from the start. He threw 59 of his 79 pitches for strikes and issued only one walk over 4 2/3 innings. He did end up being charged with five earned runs during that span, but one of those runners would have been thrown out at the plate on a decent relay throw from Orlando Cabrera when Nick Swisher doubled, and another scored on a home run hit against Francisco Liriano after Duensing was (prematurely?) pulled from the ballgame.

Really, the Twins showed no signs of being overwhelmed or intimidated. They played with confidence and mounted rally attempts late into the game, but simply couldn't compete on this night with a better and far more well-rested team. I'm not going to complain about their effort. If I were going to complain about anything it would be the fact that this sport enables one team to outspend another more than threefold, but that's a rant for another day.

For now, we'll see how the Twins perform on Friday night with an extra day of rest and with a slightly more favorable pitching match-up. I'll have a preview of that game up tomorrow morning. For now, I recommend that everyone uses this day off to reflect on the amazing events of the final weeks of the regular season, rather than the deflating but expected result in their first contest at Yankee Stadium.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

ALDS Game 1 Preview: Twins @ Yankees

When I was younger, one of my favorite cartoon characters was Underdog. A scrappy little pup with tiny lumps for biceps who doubled as a humble shoe-shiner in his normal life, Underdog spoke in constant rhymes and did battle with nefarious villains who always held numerous clear advantages in battle. When the evil-doers were terrorizing the town, Underdog would fly in and spout off his famous catch-phrase ("There's no need to fear, Underdog is here!") before ultimately overcoming the bad guy and saving the day.

Underdog was a great character because he was designed to be loved. Everyone loves the underdog. When it comes to sporting events, disinterested fans will quite frequently root for the team that is widely expected to lose, if only because a victory by the underdog will make the game all the more dramatic and exciting.

The Twins, who battled back from a seven-game deficit in early September to capture the AL Central crown, will assume the underdog role once again this evening when they take on the mighty Yankees in New York in the first round of the American League playoffs. Just 20 hours removed from their whirlwind victory over the Tigers in a thrilling AL Central tie-breaker, the Twins will venture into one of the toughest postseason atmospheres in all of sports to challenge a club that has knocked them out of the playoffs twice in their past three postseason trips.

Calling the Twins underdogs in this series is hardly novel. Anyone flat-out predicting a series victory for the Twins is either doing so to shake things up or out of pure homerism. This ALDS is the classic David and Goliath story; the Twins, a team armed with a $65M payroll that just barely managed to claw their way out of a weak division, taking on the Yankees, a $200M team with that won 103 games this year and and came out on top of the league's best division by a healthy eight games. The Yankees went went 7-0 against the Twins during the regular season this year and are 26-5 against the Twins in New York during the Ron Gardenhire era.

By their own standards, the Twins had a fairly strong year offensively, but they are certainly no match for the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees lineup features seven players with 20-plus home runs; their No. 8 hitter went deep more times than all but two players who will be in the Twins' lineup tonight. Eight Yankees regulars finished the regular season with an OPS over 850, a claim that only three Twins players will be able to make tonight.

And then, of course, there's the Twins' huge pitching disadvantage. Brian Duensing entered this season as a mediocre 25-year-old minor-league lefty coming off a 5-11, 4.28 ERA season in Triple-A. Had you told me in April that he'd be the team's Game One starter in a postseason series I'd have gone Joe Wilson on you. Yet, here he sits as essentially the only remotely well-rested pitcher on the Twins' roster, and his unexpectedly solid performance after being added to the rotation in August has the Twins hoping he can hold his own against the league's most potent lineup in a hugely intimidating setting. The Yankees will counter with their prized offseason pitching acquisition, C.C. Sabathia, who has lived up to the hype in the first year of his mega-deal by posting a 19-8 record and 3.37 ERA. Sabathia, a self-proclaimed Twins-hater, has accumulated a 3.05 ERA in 28 career starts against Minnesota.

Beyond the mismatch on paper, we must of course note the fact that the Twins are undoubtedly exhausted both physically and emotionally after last night's 12-inning marathon and in general after the past couple weeks of non-stop must-win baseball. Not only have they had a couple days to rest up, the Yankees have had their postseason slot locked up for some time now and have been essentially been preparing for this series for weeks. They've got their top starters in line to pitch the first three games, and all their best hitters healthy and locked in.

It's tough to imagine the Twins taking this series. In fact, it's pretty tough to imagine them even taking a game. But this is a Twins blog, so dammit, let's lay out three reasons why the Twins might stand a chance tonight:

1) The Yankees haven't seen Duensing as a starter.
Sometimes minor-league pitchers with mediocre stuff are able to initially garner effective results in the majors since hitters haven't seen them before and scouting reports haven't really caught up with them. We saw that earlier this season with Anthony Swarzak, who posted a 3.74 ERA over his first eight starts before imploding, and we seem to be seeing it now with Duensing, who has gone 5-1 with a 2.63 ERA since joining the Twins rotation in August (that excludes a scoreless inning of relief in the Royals series this past weekend). The Yankees haven't had a prolonged look at Duensing, so it's possible he can keep them off-balance with his crafty stuff.

2) The Twins have some power.
Home runs can change the complexion of a ballgame, as we saw last night when home runs by Jason Kubel and Orlando Cabrera awakened the Twins offense from its early-game slumber. Last year, the Twins ranked dead last in the AL with 111 home runs; this year, they were closer to the middle of the pack with 172. Balls also tend to fly out of this new Yankee Stadium, particularly to right field, which should benefit Kubel and Joe Mauer. A few long balls, particularly with runners aboard, could go a long way toward giving the Twins a chance in this game.

3) These are the 2009 Minnesota Twins.
It sounds cheesy, but really, can we put anything past this team? Contemporary analysts and stat-heads like to downplay the true value of "momentum," but it's tough to do so with the way the Twins have played lately. Right now it seems like they're coming through with big hits at every crucial moment and getting every break to go their way. Never was that more evident than in last night's game. It has often been theorized that the reason the Twins have played so poorly against the Yankees during Gardenhire's tenure is because they don't believe they can win in New York. But if that was true before, I have a hard time believing it is now. With the way things have gone for this team recently, I doubt there's a team out there they don't think they can find a way to beat. That confidence, combined with the low expectations nearly everyone has placed on them in this series, could prove crucial.

There's no need to fear, the underdogs are here. Go get 'em.

The View From Up Top

It was a game filled with miscues and missed opportunities on both sides. It featured substandard players being forced into extremely high-leverage situations. It was the most important game of the Twins' season, and it ended with Carlos Gomez batting in the cleanup spot, Alexi Casilla batting in the DH spot, and Bobby Keppel as the Minnesota pitcher of record. It was also one of the best baseball games I've ever seen, and certainly the best I've ever personally witnessed.

The 163rd game of the Twins' season was a four-and-a-half hour battle of attrition, ending in the bottom of the 12th inning when Casilla -- who had entered the game having amassed a total of 16 plate appearances since the beginning of September -- atoned for a brutal baserunning error just two innings earlier by singling in Gomez to lift the Twins to a 6-5 victory over the Tigers and a division title. This came after Keppel, a career minor-league journeyman who served mostly as a mop-up man out of the Twins bullpen this season, had preserved the tie game in the top half of the inning by escaping a bases-loaded jam with a strikeout. It was only one of several occasions in which it appeared the Twins were all but defeated, yet they continually clawed back into game and ultimately were able to cap off an improbable late-season comeback in the standings with one of the most improbable victories you will ever see. Could there have been a more fitting finale to this 2009 Twins season?

In order to truly comprehend what an absurd roller coaster of a baseball game this tiebreaker was, let's run it back from the start.

Tigers starter Rick Porcello looked absolutely stellar through the early innings, blowing Twins hitters away with mid-90s heat and looking nothing like the worn-down hurler who had struck out only 10 hitters in 36 1/3 September innings and prompted his manager to start limiting his innings during the final weeks of the season. Over the first five frames, Porcello allowed only three hits and struck out seven Twins hitters. The 20-year-old rookie showed no signs of nerves aside from possibly a couple breaking pitches that bounced before the plate and a wild pick-off throw to first base that led to the Twins' only run during that span.

By the time the bottom of the sixth rolled around, the Tigers had accumulated a 3-1 lead thanks to a rough third inning for Scott Baker, and the Metrodome's crowd of 54,000 had fallen into a stunned silence. Porcello was cruising and the Twins were being thoroughly outplayed. Then Jason Kubel delivered a mammoth home run to right-center field with two outs, and suddenly the Dome's atmosphere transformed dramatically. The enormous crowd awakened from their lull and erupted as Michael Cuddyer followed Kubel's homer with a walk. That was the end of the night for Porcello. Jim Leyland went to right-hander Zach Miner, who promptly put two more runners on with a single and a hit by pitch to load the bases. Miner managed to induce a fly ball to escape the inning, but the Twins had moved back within one run and the massive crowd had been awakened. This game was just getting started.

The Twins went through three relievers in the top of the seventh but Matt Guerrier managed to strand runners on first and third and escape unscathed. In the bottom of the inning, Orlando Cabrera delivered a two-run blast to put the Twins in front 4-3. The lead was quickly relinquished in the top of the eighth when Guerrier surrendered a leadoff homer to Magglio Ordonez. The Tigers subsequently put two more runners on with walks, but Nathan entered the game and retired the next two batters to escape the jam and preserve the tie. This would become a theme.

In the top of the ninth, Nathan again found himself facing a daunting jam with runners on first and third and nobody out. Nathan absolutely needed a strikeout, but Placido Polanco -- one of the toughest players in the majors to ring up -- was stepping up to the plate. The Twins closer managed to freeze Polanco with a nasty curveball for a called third strike, but the crisis was far from averted as Ordonez dug in with runners on the corners and one out. Ordonez ripped a hard liner off Nathan that looked like a go-ahead hit off the bat, but fortunately the ball flew straight at the shortstop Cabrera, who quickly fired over to first to double off Curtis Granderson.

In the top of the 10th, Jesse Crain yielded a two-out double to Brandon Inge, scoring Don Kelly (who had pinch-run for Aubrey Huff after Huff was hit by a pitch) from first and putting the Tigers on top by a run. The Metrodome crowd was once again sapped of its energy, but they quickly regained it in the bottom half of the inning when a crucial defensive misplay by the Tigers put the Twins in position to pull even once again.

Cuddyer led off the inning with a soft liner to left field. Ryan Raburn charged the ball and foolishly tried to make a diving catch rather than playing it on a bounce for a single. The ball skipped past the diving Raburn and rolled to the wall, enabling Cuddyer to reach third with no outs. He scored on a Matt Tolbert base hit later in the inning to tie the game. The Twins had an opportunity to claim victory one batter later when Nick Punto ended a great at-bat by hitting a line drive to medium-deep left field, but Casilla -- who had reached third on Tolbert's single after coming on to pinch-run for Brendan Harris -- had wandered off the base rather than staying put on the liner. He scurried back to tag up as Raburn caught the ball in left, but due to the lost momentum he was late to reach home plate and Raburn's excellent throw beat him for the third out. A prime opportunity had been wasted.

By the time the top of the 12th rolled around, the Twins had burned through six relievers and were down to the last man in the bullpen, Keppel. Not surprisingly, Keppel worked himself into trouble by loading the bases with one out. Brandon Inge hit a bouncer up the middle that Punto fielded and threw home for a heady force play, leaving the bases loaded with two outs. In the next at-bat, Keppel fell behind Gerald Laird but managed to battle back into a full count and ultimately got Laird to strike out chasing ball four to leave the bases loaded. The Tigers had missed a tremendous opportunity of their own, and it was starting to seem like neither team was going to take advantage of all the chances they were being given.

That ended in the bottom of the 12th. Gomez led off with a base hit and then moved into scoring position on Cuddyer's groundout. Delmon Young was intentionally walked to bring up Casilla and his .198 batting average. Casilla laced a grounder between second and first, Gomez raced around third base and dove into home and the Twins stormed the field to celebrate their first division title since 2006.

There are so many things that have yet to soak in. In the victory, Joe Mauer locked up his third batting title in four years. The thriller was the final regular-season baseball game ever to be played in the Metrodome, and also impressively the most well-attended regular-season game in the stadium's history. Ron Gardenhire ran through seven relievers after pulling Baker in the seventh but managed to coax six innings of two-run ball out of his bullpen. The Twins became the first team ever to overcome a three-game deficit with four games remaining, the first team this century to reach the postseason in their final year before moving into a new stadium, and probably the first team to do a whole bunch of other stuff.

All of these things deserve discussion, but as we speak the Twins are already in New York preparing to take on the Yankees in an ALDS series that begins at 5 o'clock central time this evening.

I'll try to get a preview of Game One up sometime this afternoon, so be sure to check back. For now, I'm absolutely exhausted.

The Minnesota Twins, your 2009 AL Central Champs, against all odds. What a season.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

No. 163 (Again)

Quick Housekeeping: Plenty of game preview stuff below, including Q&A with a Tigers blogger, but before getting started I just wanted to mention a development that I find pretty cool but that many of you may not really care about. Yesterday, you might have noticed the appearance of an ESPN emblem on this blog's right sidebar; that's because Rob Neyer has invited NTB to become part of the SweetSpot Network of blogs being featured on As a guy who holds vague aspirations of becoming a sportwriter one day, becoming affiliated in any way with Neyer and the global sports coverage juggernaut that is ESPN is a tremendous honor. None of this will really affect any of the daily operations of this blog, but I'd just like to welcome anybody who's stopping by via the SweetSpot portal. Hope you'll stick around and share your thoughts.

It sure doesn't feel like it has already been a year since I last wrote a post previewing a play-in game to determine the AL Central champion. The wounds from that tough 1-0 loss to the White Sox in Chicago remain fresh. If only the Twins could have scratched one run across; if only the Jim Thome homer had fallen short of the wall; if only Michael Cuddyer could have jarred the ball loose from A.J. Pierzynski's mit when he careened into home plate on an attempted sacrifice fly. Everything is magnified in a game such as that one, because it is the very definition of "must-win."

Today, the Twins find themselves in the very same position. Amazingly, they are set to participate in a 163rd game to break a tie atop the AL Central standings for a second consecutive year. Last season, a coin flip forced the Twins to play the decisive game in Chicago, putting them at a marked disadvantage despite the fact that they'd won the season series against the White Sox. Fortunately, Major League Baseball made the decision to abolish that illogical method after the 2008 season, but few would have predicted that this rule change would come back to benefit the Twins so quickly. Going 11-7 in head-to-head match-ups with the Tigers this year has earned the Twins home-field advantage for today's game, which should prove crucial as 50,000-plus raucous fans pour into the Metrodome for what could be the final major-league baseball game ever to be played within its confines.

The Twins enter this game with just about every advantage they could ask for. Even looking beyond the home-field edge, the Twins will be sending out their best starting pitcher in Scott Baker, who has recoved from a rough start to go 15-5 with a 3.79 ERA over his past 28 starts (the Twins are 19-9 in those games). They'll be facing Rick Porcello, who has put together a strong rookie season but certainly is not Detroit's ace. He's also only 20 years old and is unaccustomed to pitching on a stage of this magntitude. His right-handedness plays well for a Twins lineup that will come very lefty-heavy. Furthermore, the Twins hold a sizable advantage in the momentum game -- they've won 17 of their past 24 contests while the Tigers have dropped 15 of 26 and are dealing with the ill-timed off-the-field issues of their best hitter, Miguel Cabrera (for more on this, check out the Q&A at the bottom of today's post).

But, as we all know, anything can happen in baseball. These teams are pretty evenly matched, and once they take the field today all the things I mentioned in the paragraph above are going to shrink vastly in significance. One team is going to play a better game, win, and move on to face the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. The other team is going to lose and go home. We Twins fans are all too familiar with that latter feeling after last year's finale against the White Sox.

But, how are the Tigers faithful feeling? I ran some questions past Kurt Mensching, who runs the excellent Mack Avenue Tigers blog, to get his thoughts about Cabrera, Ron Gardenhire and his team's chances this evening. Here's what he had to say:

NN: First things first, since I'm sure it's your favorite current topic, let's talk about Miguel Cabrera. You've written about the situation on your blog, but give us a quick rundown of the general sentiment out there regarding your team's star first baseman. Are fans angry that he is engaging in this type of irresponsible behavior during the most important part of the team's season? And do the Tigers deserve to be scrutinized for allowing him to play roughly 12 hours after he blew a .26?

KM: Well, in case your readers haven't gotten the full story yet, I'll give a bit of background first. Miguel Cabrera came to Saturday's game with scratches on his face and told reporters his dog did it to him. He went 0-for-4 that night, including hitting into a double-play in a key eighth-inning situation. Speculation was that it probably wasn't his dog.

Turns out, he came home around 6 in the morning drunk after a night out with some friends on the White Sox. (I know what we're all thinking. Friends on the White Sox? How is that even possible?! The WHITE SOX?!) But the bigger deal was that when police administered a test of his alcohol level, it came back .26. That's about eight hours before he was due at the ballpark. After he spent all night out drinking.

The series with Chicago was incredibly important for the Tigers to win, and the cleanup batter was incredibly drunk just 12 hours before it.

Fans can only be disappointed that he apparently cares so much less about winning the Tigers' first division title in 22 years than we do. Not all of us. Some say his private life is up to him. But I and many others believe his professional obligation was to be in peak condition for a key game, and he was not.

I do think it's fair to question why manager Jim Leyland allowed Cabrera to play Saturday night, but he was closer to the situation than I am. So if he felt Cabrera had sufficiently recovered from his mroning, then I'll stand by his decision.

I just wish this entire mess never occurred.

NN: The Twins have been playing good ball, but their comeback would not have been possible if not for the epic slide the Tigers have experienced. What are some of the key reasons for the team's struggles late in the season? How can they overcome these issues and pick up a win in Tuesday's game?

KM: I don't think the Tigers' slide actually was epic. They went 17-15 from Sept. 1 until the end of the season. Given no team in this division was more than a handful of games over .500, it seemed to be in line with their typical month. In the past, they've surprised against teams and disappointed against others. Certainly going 2-for-7 the final week does feed into the viewpoint of a collapse. But fact of the matter is, this just isn't all that good of a team to begin with.

To me, the true story remains that the Twins went 16-4 down the stretch.

As for why the Tigers disappointed, a few reasons: LHP Jarrod Washburn, who came over July 31, never pitched all that well due to a knee injury and was lost for September. Another starter, Armando Galarraga, was lost with an elbow injury for most of the month. Edwin Jackson turned back into a pumpkin.

And the Tigers batters continued to be awful, making the pitchers have even less margin for error. August trade-acquisition Aubrey Huff stunk up the joint too. (I think GM Dave Dombrowski shopped at Rent-a-Wreck this summer.)

I believe Leyland relied too much on some veterans down the stretch and not enough on the younger players like Ryan Raburn who got them a seven-game lead in the first place.

NN: Ron Gardenhire is generally viewed as a bum in Minnesota (though not by me) and as a genius nearly everywhere else. What's your outsider's take on him as a manager, and how would you compare him to Jim Leyland?

KM: Just watching Gardenhire timing the pitcher to decide whether he has an opportunity to steal a base excites me.

It's hard to judge a manager from the outside of course. Followers of the team record every decision that makes no sense or doesn't turn out right. Outside the team, we only see the end result of a Twins organization always in the AL Central contention. How much credit the organization as a whole gets and how much Gardenhire gets, I'd be hard-pressed to say.

Still, if Detroit had an opening at manager, I think I'd be pretty happy if it stole him away. He just seems like a guy you'd love to have running your clubhouse.

NN: Do the Twins or Tigers match up better against the Yankees in a first-round playoff meeting? Would either team stand a chance, in your mind?

KM: Honestly, I don't see how either team has a chance, especially after having the play-in game the night before New York chose to open the ALDS. But right now, I believe Minnesota has a better team than Detroit does, so it probably gets a slight edge.

Detroit's rotation looked amazing in August. Still acceptable in early September. But now it seems to end after Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello. As well, we don't have nearly enough left-handed pitchers to contain the Yankees. Nor any batting really. I don't necessarily think the Twins pitching is a whole lot better, but it's hard to argue with the results Minnesota is getting. And the batting order is a whole heck of a lot more dangerous than Detroit's.

So I guess either team has a puncher's chance, but I really don't think the Yankees are going to stumble, unfortunately.

NN: Break down the pitching match-up for tonight's game, including your thoughts on Scott Baker and your prediction for how the youthful Rick Porcello will handle this giant stage.

KM: I'll tell you what, I don't think Porcello knows there even is a stage. That kid is unflappable as any young pitcher I've ever seen. A lot has been made about Verlander's game face, but Porcello is every bit as intense. Playing in key games for the past month, he has a better ERA (3.22 in September) than Verlander. And he's only allowed Minnesota in the past 12 1/3 innings he's faced them.

As a Tigers fan, I like the matchup against Baker better than any other Twins starter. He may be their ace, but he's also the only Twins pitcher Detroit has seemed to touch this season. He comes in with just one quality start in four tries against the Tigers and has allowed four runs, five runs and six runs in those other three games. Of the Tigers' likely lineup against him, only Brandon Inge and Placido Polanco have shown signs of struggle, while Magglio Ordonez hits him pretty well.

The crowd noise will obviously play a factor for both pitchers, but I really do think this is one of the best-case scenarios for the Tigers. If Carl Pavano was on the mound, I think you could break out the Champagne right now!

NN: Who wins, and why?

KM: For probably the first time, I feel like the Tigers can win. I truly do. Yes, it's freaking me out, and no, I'm not a homer. Despite the fact the Tigers struggle in the Metrodome, I like the pitching match-up a lot and feel like the Tigers have done well with their backs against the wall all season.

Big thanks to Kurt for the thoughtful answers. The Twins and Tigers battle for AL Central supremacy today at 4 o'clock, winner-takes-all. This is what it's all about, folks.

Monday, October 05, 2009


Back on September 9, with the Twins sitting 6 1/2 games out of first place with just 24 left to play, I proclaimed that the time had come "for any realist to stick a fork in these 2009 Minnesota Twins."

Kudos to all the non-realists who maintained their faith.

In the four weeks since I wrote that pseudo-eulogy of the Twins season, the team has gone on an extremely impressive run, winning 17 of the final 24 games on their regular-season schedule to improve their record to 86-76. An impressive victory over the Royals on Saturday night, in conjunction with a Tigers loss to the White Sox, gave the Twins a share of first place in the AL Central for the first time since May 14. With both the Twins and Tigers winning yesterday, the two finish the 162-game season with identical records and now -- for the second straight year -- the Twins will participate in a single-game playoff to determine the division winner.

For many reasons, the Twins' late-season surge to the top of the division has been incredible. Multiple injuries to the starting pitching corps forced them to cycle through nearly their entire Triple-A rotation in a desperate attempt to find serviceable innings. When it was announced on September 14 that Justin Morneau had a fracture in his back that would force him to miss the remainder of the season, any dim playoff hopes for the Twins -- who were presently 5 1/2 games back with a .500 record -- seemingly evaporated. Instead, Michael Cuddyer took over at first and began punishing the ball as the Twins won nine of their next 10 contests to move back within a couple games of the division lead. Suddenly, a formerly unthinkable comeback seemed like a real possibility.

The Twins were still within two games of the Tigers when they headed to Detroit for a pivotal four-game series late in September. The prevailing wisdom was that the Twins needed to win at least three of the four games in order to have a realistic shot at catching the Tigers. So after the Twins dropped the second game of the series, most fans and analysts understandably were writing them off. Aaron Gleeman posted a column titled "The End." The Twins had seemingly missed their chance. After all, no team in baseball history had ever overcome a three-game deficit with only four games left to play.

But the Twins did what they needed to do. They won all four of their remaining games while the Tigers dropped two of three to the White Sox this weekend, and now here we are.

For all the excitement and enthusiasm that has been created locally about the Twins' great run of late-season play, the bigger story here is the epic collapse that the Detroit Tigers have experienced. The Twins have been playing well, but it's not like they've gone on a 2007 Rockies type of September streak. They needed some help from the Tigers, and they got it. Detroit has failed to take advantage of a relatively soft late-season schedule, losing 15 of their past 26 games and going 1-5 against the last-place Royals during that span. When the Tigers came home for their final series of the season with a two-game lead in the division and a chance to bury the Twins, they lost the first two games against a sub-.500 White Sox team that had nothing meaningful to play for while being outscored 13-1. While a fan in Minnesota might be tempted to call this late-season turn of events magical or miraculous, fans in Mo-Town doubtlessly have some other choice words to describe the situation.

Regardless, the view from here in Minneapolis is pretty sweet. The Twins came home for what was anticipated to be their final series in the Metrodome, and they swept the Royals with a high-powered offensive attack while the White Sox took care of business against the Tigers and now the two teams will play one last game to settle matters. The Twins have all the momentum in the world and -- thanks to a rule change put into effect just this year -- they'll be playing the game in front of 50,000-plus fans on their home field.

The reality is that these Twins are a flawed team, one that underperformed throughout much the season and would be hugely over-matched in a playoff series against the Yankees. The reality is that their shot at a playoff berth can be credited as much to the lackluster effort put forth by the Tigers late in the season as it can to their own stellar play. The reality is that, despite the huge disparity in momentum, the Twins and Tigers are fairly equally matched and tomorrow night's tilt could easily go either way.

But sometimes reality is no fun. These Twins, who most had left for dead weeks ago, are making a late charge and playing meaningful baseball here in October as they prepare to close down the stadium where they have captured two World Championships over the past 22 years. This season has the feeling of a storybook, and frankly I'm not ready to see the ending yet.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Hanging On By a Thread

The Twins faced elimination in Detroit yesterday, but were able to avoid being shoved completely out of the playoff picture by salvaging a series split with a lopsided 8-2 victory. Scott Baker tossed five solid -- if inefficient -- innings and the offense took care of business against Nate Robertson and the Tigers bullpen as the Twins moved back within two games of the Tigers heading into the season's final weekend.

And so, the Twins come home maintaining a slim shot at catching the Tigers and sneaking into the playoffs. Beating the Royals in each of the next three games at the Metrodome is basically a necessity (and perhaps a stretch, considering that Jeff Manship is set to start for the Twins tonight and Zack Greinke is scheduled to start for the Royals tomorrow), but even then the Twins would need some help. And that help will have to come from -- of all teams -- the Chicago White Sox.

Oh, the irony.

We're talking about the same Chicago White Sox that bounced the Twins in a one-game playoff a year ago. The same Chicago White Sox that are widely considered to be the Twins' most bitter rival. The same Chicago White Sox that nearly any Twins fan would label their most hated MLB team. If that White Sox team, which has essentially nothing to play for at this point, can't find a way to take at least two of three from the Tigers in Detroit this weekend, the Twins are sunk.

It's not unthinkable, really. The Twins themselves dropped two of three at home against the Royals when they had a chance to clinch the division last year. And this Tigers team has shown a clear lack of ability to slam the door, as illustrated specifically by their big loss yesterday and in general by their late-season slide that has let the Twins back into this race in the first place.

It's nice to know that this weekend's season-ending three-game set will have significance beyond being the final Twins series played in the Metrodome. And while it's overwhelmingly unlikely that the Twins will catch the Tigers in an unprecedented comeback, at least Twins fans have something to cheer for, as awkward as it might feel.

So, um... Go White Sox?

Thursday, October 01, 2009


By splitting the first two games of their four-game set against the Tigers on Tuesday, the Twins put themselves in position to control their own destiny. If they could win last night's favorable match-up, they'd have had the opportunity to move into a first-place tie with another victory today. Given that the Tigers had a weak right-hander taking the hill last night while the Twins were countering with a starter who has been one of their best, things seemed aligned for a key victory that would back the Tigers into a corner entering this afternoon's contest.

Unfortunately, Carl Pavano collapsed against a team he has dominated all year. Despite entering last night's start with a 4-0 record and 1.69 ERA in five turns against the Tigers this season, Pavano was knocked around for seven runs on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings of work, watching the Twins season circle the drain as the Tigers teed off time and time again on his meatballs.

There were certainly a number of forces working against Pavano. He didn't have his best stuff and might not have had his best command due to the chilly conditions. Perhaps most damaging to Pavano's chances was home plate umpire Marvin Hudson, whose strike zone was roughly the width of a grapefruit. Hudson would call no strikes on either outside corner, which is where Pavano typically lives. That forced the right-hander to bring his mediocre fastball over the middle of the dish, and the Tigers took full advantage.

Unfortunately, the Twins' hitters couldn't do the same. The tight strike zone worked both ways, but the Twins managed only two walks in five innings against substandard Tigers starter Eddie Bonine and repeatedly got themselves out by swinging at bad pitches. They jumped all over Bonine in the first inning for two runs, but that was all they'd register against him over frames in what -- considering the circumstances -- has to be viewed as the most disappointing effort we've seen from this offense all year.

Every now and then, all teams are going to lose to a bad pitcher. It hadn't happened to the Twins for a while, as their only two losses in the past eight games had come against Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander. But it happened last night, and at a very inopportune time.

The Twins face another bad pitcher today in Nate Robertson. If they can beat him, their postseason hopes will remain alive, but the heartbeat will be faint. The Twins would need a home sweep against the Royals in conjunction with a White Sox series victory over the Tigers in Detroit (or a series victory against the Royals with the Tigers being swept) this weekend in order to move into a first-place tie and force another one-game playoff.

It's tough to like those odds. In all likelihood, the Twins missed their chance last night. They deserve credit for battling back from a big deficit earlier in the month and earning that chance, but I doubt that serves as much consolation for them or their fans right now.