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

Posted on November 6th, 2009 – 3:40 PM
By Howard

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.

The ending we pretty much expected

Posted on October 12th, 2009 – 12:11 AM
By Howard

Earlier this season, I wrote about how the good things that happen in baseball make me feel very good — and that while the bad things are annoying, the lowest of lows doesn’t come close to rivaling the highest of highs. The Twins can make you numb for a while with the performance they turned in during Game 2 against the Yankees, but I could make a list of a dozen things that happened this season — each of which would outweigh how that loss made me feel. OK, maybe only a half-dozen, but you get the idea.

Yeah, I’m still pretty incredulous that Nick Punto made his heads-down base-running blunder in the eighth inning — rounding third, heading toward home and getting thrown out trying to return on the single that Derek Jeter tracked down behind second base. And I’m even more incredulous that Punto — while being a stand-up guy for talking about the play — cited the crowd reaction to Denard Span’s grounder: “55,000 people screaming, the crowd got me.” We’ll make sure to whisper next time.

Nobody out, tie game, Scott Ullger (the third-base coach) giving the stop sign. It was as if Punto wanted to cement the folly of those who still talk about the Twins “doing the little things right” — and as if Carlos Gomez hadn’t driven home that point with his Game 2 gaffe at second base. Jerry White, the coach responsible for issues on the bases, needs to spend the winter revising his curriculum.

Yeah, I’m still trying to figure out what happened to Jason Kubel, who had one hit and nine strikeouts in the three games. And the whole Joe Nathan thing in Game 2 and the three walks-by-three relievers breakdown in the ninth that let the Yankees extend their lead from 2-1 to 4-1.

And I’m annoyed that it is the Twins who are contributing so mightily to the rehabilitation of A-Rod’s reputation as something other than an October choke artist. Good and annoyed.

So many parts went kablooey over these last three games that it’s a wonder two of them were as competitive as they turned out to be. Face it, kids. The Yankees are the best team in baseball. They won 103 games and pretty much ran off with the best division in baseball. Would they have won 123 if they played in the AL Central? That doesn’t excuse the Minnesota mistakes as much as make me wonder why the games weren’t tennis-match scores — 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.

The best team doesn’t always win in October, but it’s kind of nice to have a No. 7 batter (Robinson Cano), who batted .320 and hit 25 homers, and a No. 8 (Nick Swisher) who had 29 homers and a .371 on-base percentage. How does that compare to Brendan Harris and Jose Morales, the Twins 7/8 guys in Game 3? After the game, a spent-sounding Gardy gave appropriate props to the Yankees while duly noting the breakdowns by Punto and the bullpen.

Some of the fun memories from Game 3 will come from the 54,000 or so people with whom Ms. Baseball and I shared the Metrodome for its last major-league baseball game. These things had little to do with the game. The stadium-wide laughter and “A-Rod” chant following the playing of that public service announcement with the crumbling statue: “Sports are good for a kid’s body. Steroids aren’t.”

The sign in left field my colleague Chris emailed me about about that I’m sure the TBS camera crew opted not to show: These Baseball (announcers) Suck.”

And while I’m not normally a fan of chucklebrains who run on the field during games, I will cite the one Sunday night as the exception that proves the rule. The guy — wearing a powder-blue Blyleven jersey — jumped over the wall between home plate and first, and led more than a dozen security officers on a ninth-inning chase all the way out to the center field wall. He was finally tackled while trying to scale the wall, after one pursuer fell to the ground and several others showed they weren’t quite in chase-down form.

(Ethical disclaimer: Nothing here should be considered an endorsement of running on the field or any other form of game-delaying behavior by spectators. This was simply an epic run, and I am pretending that the motive was simply to get Mariano Rivera’s arm to stiffen during the delay, as opposed to anything that might have been fueled by stupidity borne of alcohol or the man’s parenting.)

So that’s it. The team that thrilled us during the final weeks of the season, and especially in the final days of the regular season, went three-and-out against a better team.  The team that spent five months making us wonder about the depth of their heart and soul, got us all revved up for the stretch drive and teased us with thoughts of playing later into October. The team that has some flaws that need fixing for 2010 (more on that another time) gave us a 2009 to remember.

We were witness to a historic performance by a solid M-V-P candidate. (Sorry, Derek, you’re second) and a fifth division title in eight years. Yes, I want more than division titles in the future. But right now I’m feeling pretty good about the hometown team. I’m happy with the return on my investment of time and energy.

All the more knowing that the next time I see them play, it’ll be outdoors.

Have fun, Yankees. It’ll be interesting to hear you explain why you lost to the Angels.

Nobody to blame but themselves (and Phil Cuzzi)

Posted on October 10th, 2009 – 2:00 AM
By Howard

Well, that was craptastic. Yes, I know that word is probably beneath the dignity of our slice of the Internet, but the only other ones I can think of are a little bit too vile, and I would regret seeing them attached to my name when looking back some day at my body of cyberwork.

The Twins gave away Game 2 in so many ways: Leaving 17 men on base… Gomez’ run-erasing baserunning gaffe… Leaving 17 men on base… Nathan’s pathetic ninth inning… Leaving 17 men on base… Young and Gomez swinging at first pitches in their bases-loaded at-bats in the 11th… Leaving 17 men on base… Nathan’s pick-off throw into center field in the 10th… Leaving 17 men on base… Kubel’s four strikeouts… Leaving 17 men on base.

So while Nathan’s performance will likely be the one that stands out over time, there were plenty of other people who contributed to the Game 2 demise.

As Joe Mauer said afterward, “We could have won the game earlier.”

Gotta like that for understatement.

Mauer made his comment when he was weighing in on the hubbub surrounding the blown call in the 11th by umpire Phil Cuzzi, who ruled Mauer’s fly ball foul when it clearly dropped about 10 inches inside fair territory. Called correctly, it would have been a ground-rule double. According to SI.com, Mauer went so far as to imply that Kubel’s at-bat could have ended differently if Mauer had been on second base instead of first (with the single he got after the blown call) because there wouldn’t have been the big hole between first and second that resulted from him being held on base. Kubel singled through that hole to right.

I also can’t help but think about the pitch that hit the muumuu that Brandon Inge wears for a baseball jersey during Tuesday’s Game 163. You know, the one that would have given the Tigers a lead in the 12th inning if it had been properly called. (Wearing a uniform top four sizes too big isn’t against the rules.) As Twins fans, we can be outraged by one call and whimsical about the other, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be called on our inconsistency.

This is probably petty, but the thing that seems to be bugging me most about these first two games is what the Twins have done to rehabilitate A-Rod’s reputation as a post-season puddle of ineptitude. He had two key hits in Game 1 and the game-tying homer off Nathan, which included that smarmy look-at-me fist pump toward the Yankees dugout — just so he could make sure they’d all been watching, I guess. Lame.

The Twins have proven beyond doubt that you can beat a favored team without playing excellent baseball.

It’s just that when you reach a critical mass of mental mistakes, individual meltdowns and game-long bouts of ineptitude, you’re not likely to beat the New York Yankees — or even the New Britain Rock Cats.

***

There’s been a lot of blog comment chatter about the Chip Caray/Ron Darling team that’s calling the games on TBS. Normally, I stay away from critiques of network announcers because, frankly, I don’t expect much from them. However, I can say without hesitation that listening to Caray and Darling is like hearing an audition tape from a couple of guys in Moose Jaw. The omissions and mistakes are painful. I’m still trying to figure out who the “Spanish players” are on the Twins’ roster, a conversation snippet from Game 1. Rafael Nadal and Pau Gasol? Darling often sounds like he’s trying to figure out what Caray just said.

Richard Sandomir, who writes about sports media for the New York Times, offered the other day: “Every announcer makes mistakes, but Caray’s lips form a pattern of an announcer out of his element.” For Sandomir’s entire takedown, go here.

It’s kind of sad to write this. I remember listening to Chip’s grandfather, Harry, do White Sox games (which was before he started the doing the Cubs). When I was in college, and cable was rare enough that you had to go to a dive bar in Bloomington to watch the Cubs on cable, Harry was there watching them (he was in town for a Twins-White Sox game) and he bought me a Budweiser.

At least on Sunday, I’ll be at the Dome so I won’t have to listen to Chip ‘n’ Ron The baseball in this series so far has generated enough pain. The broadcasters needn’t add to it.

***

Saturday morning update: There’s a query below asking if I’m “going to own up to my miscall” about the Twins starting Gomez in center field for Game 2.

No, I’m not.
As the questioner points out, Span made a catch early in the game that I don’t think Kubel makes. And I’m not sure if Span, who doesn’t have Gomez’ range in center, gets to Posada’s fly ball that led off the sixth. And Gomez’ two-out walk — yes, a Carlos Gomez walk — started the two-out, two-run Twins rally in the eighth.

So, yes, Gomez made an egregious error that went a long way toward costing the Twins the game. But  calling the decision to start him a “miscall” in short-sighted and revisionist.

Back for more — and wanting Gomez in the lineup

Posted on October 9th, 2009 – 10:18 AM
By Howard

(I’ll be on MPR with Gary Eichten talking Twins at noon today. We’re at 91.1 FM and www.mpr.org for the webcast.)

I’m glad that Nick Blackburn is pitching because, between his excellent tie-breaker pitching last season and his gems against the Tigers in Game 1 of last Tuesday’s doubleheader (which seems like a month ago) and against Zack Greinke on Saturday, he is my big-game choice. In his last four starts, he’s given up only 5 runs in 27 1/3 innings and let barely put than one man on base per inning (28 in that stretch). Whatever his mid-season struggles were, he seems to have dealt them and I’m glad he’s the choice.

This is such a crazy series in that the Twins basically were in no realistic position to compete well in Game 1 without an extraordinary effort, which didn’t happen. Now, against the team with the best record in baseball and a stranglehold over them during the past few years, the Twins have to win three out of four.

Twins chances: slim and some.

There are so many words in motion about this game, that I want to make one suggestion and then get out:

I want Carlos Gomez in center field tonight.

There’s lot of ground to cover in the Yankee Stadium outfield, especially from left-center to right-center, and we’ve seen several balls in recent games that may have been caught if Denard Span was in right field instead of center. (There’s less ground than the old Yankee Stadium, but still a lot.) During Gardy’s late-game defensive moves, Span has made two catches — one against Detroit and one against Kansas City — that were beyond what Kubel would have made. (Kubel is a workmanlike outfielder; Span is an excellent corner outfielder.)

And the Jose Morales of the last couple of weeks isn’t hitting like the Jose Morales whom many people wanted to see replace Mike Redmond earlier this season. Morales was so overmatched against Rick Porcello on Tuesday that Gardy lifted him after two at-bats, and I don’t think that bodes well for a prime-time appearance in Yankee Stadium. In addition his 4-for-29 in the last couple of weeks, Morales has only two extra-base hits (doubles) since being recalled in September and given significant DH time. (Both of those doubles came in one game against Cleveland.) This just isn’t his time.

I’ve been telling people who wondered about the Young-Span-Kubel outfield as a daily event that it’s been worth giving up the offense to get Morales or Harris in the lineup at DH.

Now, it’s different. Big outfield, big game … and the potential for a fly ball or a line drive that may call for one of the biggest defensive plays of the season.

Start Gomez.

So that was pretty much expected

Posted on October 8th, 2009 – 9:55 AM
By Howard

(Note: I’ll be doing a baseball hour with Gary Eichten on Midday at noon Friday. You can listen at 91.1 FM or www.mpr.org.)

All of the talk about momentum and a fresh start and this and that was pretty much fueled by the same lack of sleep and focus that made the Game 1 outcome pretty much inevitable. Team gets to New York at 4 a.m. or so with a 6 p.m. game ahead of it after the tumultuous excitement of the previous day and you expect them to go out and beat the Yankees, of all teams?

In normal times, this would have been one of those games where you put out the “B” lineup and hope for the best.

Of course, that wasn’t going to happen in the postseason opener.

Instead, rather than try to bring Nick Blackburn back again on short rest, Gardy and Rick Anderson opted to throw rookie Brian Duensing at the Yankees — and got predictable results. Using Blackburn would have been like inviting the Cub Scout troop over for dinner and bringing out the good china, a waste of effort and quite possibly destructive in the long term. If Blackburn pitches well and the Twins lose 3-2, they’re still the same one game down as they are by losing 7-2 … or if they’d lost 17-2 and actually gotten more of the suits in the $1,506 seats behind home plate to cheer once in a while.

Now, if the Twins somehow force this series to a fifth game, Gardy can use Blackburn on Wednesday with regular rest. In the meantime, Duensing can be available if the Twins need to get through a left-leaning inning and Francisco Liriano can check out all the cool stuff in and around the Yankee Stadium bullpens. (Yes, it was weird to hear John Gordon introduce Liriano as “the Franchise” during Sunday’s Metrodome-closing ceremonies, but keep in mind that franchises come in all kinds — and I’m not going to be the one snarky enough to call him “Dollar Store.”)

The play that reinforced no how/no way/no win came in the bottom of the fourth when Nick Swisher doubled with two outs and Robinson Cano scored from first base when Delmon Young bounced his throw to Orlando Cabrera and Cabrera’s replay bounced and went wide of the plate. If those throws had been better, Cano is out at home. If one of them is better, Cano is probably out and the score stays tied at 2.

Then, in the next inning, Duensing found too much plate while facing A-Rod and Liriano grooved a pitch to Hideki Matsui and it was pretty much game over.

Again, in a game played on more equal footing, I don’t think Liriano is the one who comes in to face Matsui.

Don’t read this as complaint about the conditions under which the Twins were required to play. The Twins could have avoided this by winning the AL Central in 162 games instead of 163 and the Yankees were perfectly justified in choosing to start Wednesday instead of today. Those are the same advantages we would have expected the Twins to take if circumstances were in their favor.

What happened in Game 1 was that the Twins pretty much did what they could to survive and, yes, it’s improbable to imagine them winning three of the next four from the Yankees after all of the recent history between the teams.

But the current Twins are no strangers to the improbable, right?

I wouldn’t take it to the bank. But I’m cool with going into an alley and rolling the dice.