A Twins fan’s best advocate: Joe Mauer

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Justin Morneau said this about Joe Mauer during Monday’s MVP excitement: “The biggest thing now isn’t the money. It’s going to be whether or not he feels we can win every day with the talent we have.”

Morneau was talking, of course, about whether Mauer will sign a new contract with the Twins or choose to make his fortune elsewhere.

Right now, everyone is saying the right thing.

Mauer, especially: “I think it will all work itself out I definitely enjoy playing in front of my family and friends here in Minnesota, and that’s all I know. So can we win here? Yes, definitely, I hope so. And that’s what I would like to do.”

Whether the Twins can afford Mauer was the hot topic of the national media Monday.

As Minnesotans, we have an obligation to remind the outside world of the absurdity of that notion.

The Pohlads can afford anything they want. It’s a question of what they choose to do.

I will not whip the Santana horse (too much), in part because he may be a healthy arm and a leg less than he was with the Twins for the rest of his career. But, in (unfair) hindsight, the best course of action would have been to keep him through 2008, let him walk and take the free-agent compensation that would have come from losing him. It’s a pretty good bet that a surly Santana, pitching a showcase season, would have made the Twins at least one game better than they were that season — which would have meant a division title.

The best course of action with Mauer, obviously, is to get this deal done well before anyone even pretends to play contract chicken. With a new ballpark and a superstar behind the plate, the Twins could actually become a destination team for players who wouldn’t give Minnesota a second thought under the conditions that have existed. Target Field looks to be a player-friendly place, complete with a double-wide corner clubhouse locker for a certain No. 7 and the extra things he carries as a catcher.

If Mauer is happy, he will stay.

If Mauer stays, it will send the right message to teammates and others.

You can fool a guy paying $36 for a ticket. You can’t fool a .365 hitting catcher.

So Joe Mauer is the best advocate that a Twins fan has right now.

The MVP is not a lifetime achievement award

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Today, Joe Mauer should win the American League’s MVP award. We all know all the reasons why that should happen, so I won’t waste many words with a review.

Derek Jeter should finish second.

And all the chatterers who talk about this as some sort of injustice because of what Jeter has meant to the Yankees over the years should simply shut up. Most of the noise is coming from the usual suspects, the Yankees fans who call talk radio and sound as if they still reek of champagne from their post-World Series celebrations of a few weeks back. A New York state of mind can be a very tiresome thing.

Fortunately, the New York media haven’t been fanning the flames of the myopic — at least according to my Google checking — although there was a reference in an story noting that no Yankee has won a major post-season award since A’Rod “took home the MVP in 2007.” It’s going on two years now. Maybe ESPN can fix that.

Keep in mind that Jeter did have an MVP-caliber year in 2009 — .335 average, .406 on-base percentage, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, 103 victories during the regular season, World Series championship (decided after the votes were cast). By the numbers, it was his best season since 2006, when he finished second in the balloting to Justin Morneau, an outcome that was  much more debatable that what happened this season.

Joe Mauer: .365 average, .444 OBP, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove. More walks than strikeouts. Did all that after missing the first month of the season and while playing catcher. Find a measure and Mauer had the kind of season that he shouldn’t be expected to duplicate, even after he signs the long-term contract that the Pohlads can’t afford not to give him.

Imagine if the numbers were reversed and someone in Minnesota wrote what appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks before the end of the season:

No one would argue that Mr. Jeter’s statistics are better than those of Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer, the current favorite in the MVP sweepstakes, who is leading the American League in batting (around .370), on-base percentage and slugging average. For that matter, there are several players, particularly Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, who are outhitting Mr. Jeter in batting ­average and have better power numbers.

The case for Mr. Jeter as American League MVP is being made by more subjective arguments. “How do you measure the value of inspiration and professionalism?” asks Marty Appel, author of “Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain.” “Some people will ­argue that intangibles don’t ­exist, but in the ninth inning of close games everybody believes in them.”

If someone made that appeal of behalf of Mauer, or most anyone else for that matter, they would be hooted out of cyberspace. But we’re going to be too classy for that.

But what Twins fans should admire about Jeter is that, based on what he’s said, the MVP vote won’t matter not a bit. He has another World Series championship as part of his legacy. It is the position that I’m sure Mauer will take when he has the  third or fourth best numbers in baseball and his team has a legitimate shot at winning the World Series. (That team better be the Twins, of course.)

Jeter will get his: In Cooperstown five years after he retires.

Fixing the Twins without spending huge money

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

This is the time of year when people throw out names.

“Why can’t the Twins get Roy Halladay?”

“Well, Toronto will want this, that and the other thing and the Twins aren’t really in position to give up this, that and the other thing.”

“Let’s get Chone Figgins to play third base!”

“You like the idea, I like the idea, I suspect Chone Figgins doesn’t share our enthusiasm, though.”

And so it goes. Some good ideas, some awkward fits, some trade schemes that work only if you’re working both sides and only looking out for one of them.

Even against that backdrop, there are several moves that could be made to make the Twins what they should be going into 2010. There are lots and lots of possibilities, but I’m going to throw out a few and get out, because doing anything else could numb the brain and threaten to douse the hot stove with spittle. However, if you want to play along at this point, here are two good sources to work with:

ESPN’s free-agent tracker lists players alphabetically and includes Type A and B free-agent notations. Click on a player’s name for career stats and his 2009 salary information.

Cot’s Baseball Contracts gives salary information for players on team rosters.

That being said, here are my three preferred and realistic moves in the free-agent market. None of them are especially novel, but they’re the result of sifting and sorting through all of the possible combinations and saying, “Hey, I think this could work.”

Playing second base and batting second … Orlando Hudson Felipe Lopez.

Orlando Hudson is an All-Star and a Gold Glove in 2009 for the Dodgers (his fourth), who signed him on the seriously cheap at $3.4 million and then gave his position to Ronnie Belliard for the postseason. But there’s something deceptive last year’s salary: Hudson had a novel contract that ended up paying him about $8 million in 2009 — more than twice his base. What made the contract especially interesting is that his incentives included $10,000 for every plate appearance from 576 to 632. (He ended up with 631.)  Here’s the breakdown on last year’s deal.

Hudson is a Type A free agent and would cost the Twins their first-round draft choice next June. A better move? Felipe Lopez is a Type B free agent, which doesn’t come with the loss of a draft pick, and a younger, cheaper version of Hudson. He made $3.5 last year, a cut from his $4.9 million in 2008, which came after he lost an arbitration case. He’s younger than Hudson and had better defensive numbers, when using revised zone rating as your measure. He also gives the Twins a second baseman and a No. 2 hitter who isn’t named Nick. Some can argue that he struck out 100 times last season, I’ll argue that a .383 on-base percentage (2009) and a career .338 mark looks a lot better than the pretenders who have been filling that spot in the batting order.

Playing third base and batting ninth … Pedro Feliz.

The main name that seems to come up (Figgins aside) is Mark DeRosa, who is 34 years old and had made a name by being versatile in the field and providing right-handed power at the plate. Wanna know why DeRosa is a man without a position? He doesn’t play any of them well and is pretty statuesque at third base.

Here’s my deal: With the current Twins lineup, I’m willing to trade on-base percentage for defensive prowess, and that’s why I want Feliz. I’ll take a solid glove and some power at that position, and feeljust fine about seeing him at the bottom of the order. Feliz, 34, made $5 million last season plus some modest performance incentives, and I suspect that he can be had for something close to that figure

Yeah, I’d rather have Figgins, but I’m not wearing drunk glasses.

And pitching for the Twins … Ben Sheets

Can you think of a pitcher with more to prove? He missed the entire 2009 season after major surgery to reconstruct his right elbow and will likely be forced to take a low-base, high-incentive deal. If Sheets can recover his old form, how could the Twins not take seriously a pitcher with Sheets’ statistics? Eight seasons with a 3.72 career ERA, 1.2 WHIP and hardly a weak number — aside from the entire reason that he’ll need to settle contract-wise. He made $12.1 million in 2008 with Milwaukee.

In addition to last season, Sheets also was on and off the mound from 2005-7, averaging only about 135 innings per season during that time. Jarrod Washburn? Jon Garland? Brad Penny? More Carl Pavano? I’d rather take a risk on Sheets.

Players can start talking to teams on Friday. Let’s hope there’s some action this winter to go with the noise.

I like Gardy, but…

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Ron Gardenhire coming in second in the AL Manager of the Year voting doesn’t work for me.

That would be a little bit like Bill Smith coming in second for Executive of the Year because the front office finally got its act together and made the needed moves that helped get the Twins in position to win the division, with a day of extra labor. The Twins went for too long with their pretenders and were both lucky and good when it came time to make the changes that let them live up to being the contenders they were supposed to be all along.

Yes, everything came together in the final weeks of the season and the Twins looked pretty sharp in that surge to overtake Detroit. But it was more a case of some players finally playing up to their ability in concert with those who were having their best years ever (Mauer, Cuddyer, Kubel) keeping up their star-caliber pace.

Remember, this was the third-best division in the American League. Put the 2009 Twins in the AL East and they’re  midway between Toronto and Baltimore Cleveland. Put ‘em in the AL West and they’re battling Seattle and Texas for runner-up honors behind California despite having better personnel.

Yes, Mike Scioscia deserved to win Manager of the Year. And it should have been unanimous.

The top three spots should have gone to AL West managers. Don Wakamatsu should have finished second for guiding Seattle from its pathetic 101-loss season of 2008 back above .500 while constantly turning wheels to put the right players in the right positions. Ron Washington of Texas should have finished third for an improved team that kept the heat on the Angels for so much of the season.

Gardy, at best, is No. 4. Maybe him, maybe Joe Girardi.

What does Gardy need to do to be a serious MOY contender? Win a game in New York? Limit Nick Punto to 250 at-bats? Play Delmon Young every day? Get rid of Delmon Young?

None of the above, really.

The saddest reality of Twins baseball in 2009 was that it continued its slide away from that horribly cliched mantra: Doing the little things right.

The Twins simply don’t. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard that line used about them — more globally than locally, which is fortunate — since last July 4, I’d be close to paying for a nice dinner out. How did the Twins bollocks up the postseason? On the bases in Games 2 and 3 were the most notable examples, and representative of so many other goofs during the regular season. Yes, the Yankees were so good and played so well that they put tremendous, error-inducing pressure on all of their postseason opponents.

But the Twins are still carrying a reputation for being better than that — and the challenge for Gardy is to get them back to deserving such accolades.

That has to happen because there’s anything but a guarantee that the excellent performances of this season will be replicated.  Mauer could be the MVP (and a Hall of Famer) with lesser numbers, Justin Morneau will be a question mark because of his health, and how confident can you really be that Kubel is a 100-plus RBI guy on an annual basis and Cuddyer will keep cracking out 30 or more home runs.

To compensate, the front office will need to find the proper replacement parts through trading and the free-agent pool. And, even more important, the Twins will have to get back to being what they used to be — a team that sweated the small stuff and won because of it.

Combine that attention to detail with the dramatic increase in power (111 home runs in 2008 to 172 in ’09) and a solid (not spectacular) pitching staff, and the Twins can churn out the results that should make Ron Gardenhire a legitimate Manager of the Year candidate. Better even than a second-place finish that wasn’t really deserved.

Gardy is a good manager, so it’s a very achievable goal.

The deal: Little bit sad, a good deal of glad

Friday, November 6th, 2009

The 2010 Twins need a shortstop. The 2009 Twins had five outfielders, if you include Jason Kubel in that mix.

So trading for J.J. Hardy, a point of view espoused by Section 220 at about this time last November, is a good move. Hardy struggled significantly this season (even earning a several week stint in the minors, which the Twins never dared to do with Gomez) but has an offensive track record from the previous two years and good enough defense (He led National League shortstops in revised zone rating this season despite his problems) to make Hardy-for-Carlos Gomez a worthwhile risk.

This means the Twins are willing to settle for a second-best defensive outfield (compared with Gomez in center and Denard Span at one of the corners) and that those who wanted the veteran leadership of Orlando Cabrera on next year’s roster will be disappointed. The Cabrera issue is really a nonstarter, however, because his defense was flashy but suspect and, for the spectacular flashes he sometimes provided, that was a .313 on-base percentage he ended up with during his Minnesota time. And based on these numbers, you couldn’t find an AL shortstop who played worse defense.

In the cold light of the hot stove, OC was short-term salve. We should be happy for that and wish him well.

The Twins have also decided, for now, that Delmon Young has a better chance than Gomez to be the everyday impact player they imagined with making those trades. You can still have a good debate over that one, and the Twins could have come to that conclusion as a convenient truth after testing the market for both players.

As for Gomez, I’ll miss him. I loved what he brought to the outfield — save for the maddening bunny hops that increasingly became part of his throwing motion — and the good at-bats when he figured out which of his tools to use at the plate. But for a guy in his sixth year of professional baseball, there were just too many times when he didn’t do the right thing in all facets of the game.

If the Twins are to regain their reputation for doing the little things right — a phrase that still gets misapplied to them in the national media — guys like Gomez will not be part of the solution. Given a chance, his skills will probably improve in the lesser National League. Likewise, Hardy shouldn’t be expected to return to his 2007-08 numbers. But numbers in the neighborhood would be good.

The Twins now have a shortstop they can pen into the lineup whose name isn’t Punto. They still need a third baseman. (That would be free agent Chone Figgins, if you want to know how know I really feel.) Figgins and a “Top Two” starting pitcher are the gifts I think fans deserve from Twins management as we all move across downtown to Target Field.

Another reason I’m glad to see this deal is that it speaks to an aggressive stride that Bill Smith appeared to find as last season wore on — when Cabrera, Carl Pavano, Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay were brought in. Each played a role in the run to the AL Central title, with Rauch and Mahay having a good chance to be factors in the coming season. The market for Pavano is uncertain, but I’d like to see the Twins involved as middle-of-the-rotation prices. Five from among Free Agent/Blackburn/Baker/Slowey/Pavano/Duensing is a rotation that I’d be fine with.

Here’s the best current list of potential free agents that I could find today. ESPN’s web site has a free agent tracker that hasn’t yet been updated with 2009 names.

Finally, there’s some below-the-radar good from this deal in that it reunites Gomez with ex-FSN chatterer Telly Hughes. That duo combined for an interview I never get tired of watching. I hope they get encore opportunities in Milwaukee.