Posted tagged ‘Minnesota Twins’

Loving the Twins and Tim Wakefield


My favorite players are Twins.  My all-time favorite was Kirby Puckett, followed ever so slightly by Roy Smalley.  My next favorite players include Brad Radke, Torii Hunter, and Joe Mauer.  I’m a Twins fan to the core, and unsurprisingly all of my favorite players have spent significant chunks of their career with the franchise.  But if you move into that benighted circle of those who have never been graced by a Twins uniform, all is not darkness and despair.  And in this realm full of non-Twins, written about extensively by such famous sports journalists as Dante Alighieri, my favorite player, for years, has been Tim Wakefield.

Last night, Wakefield pursued his elusive 200th victory against God’s elect, getting a lead in the eight on an error by the aforementioned Joe Mauer.  In a year in which the Twins are disastrously bad, it was easy, for a single night, to hope for Wakefield’s triumph, and I would be thrilled to welcome him to the 200-win club.  Unfortunately, his bullpen blew it in the bottom of the eighth, delaying his quest for 200 for another start.

What’s not to like about Wakefield?  He had the misfortune of joining the Pirates just as the franchise collapsed, and he did not start his career until age 25.  He lost part of his best season to the strike in 1995.  In that season, he went 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA (165 ERA+).  He finished third in AL Cy Young voting, behind his polar opposite, Randy Johnson.  Without the strike he would already have 200 wins.  His best playoff run was in the ALCS in 2003, when he went 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings.   But the 5.65 ERA of Pedro Martinez, the 6.43 ERA of Derek Lowe, and the 7.36 ERA of John Burkett kept the Yankees in the series, leading to Wakefield’s one bad pitch to Aaron Boone.

Through it all, Wakefield kept pitching.  He is now 45, and he has pitched for 19 seasons despite his late call-up.  He is now third on the Red Sox all-time wins list, second in games pitched, first in innings, second in strikeouts, and as any good knuckleballer should be, first in wild pitches by nearly 50.  He has been a model of class and skill.  He will never touch the Hall of Fame and shouldn’t.  But I hope that people will remember one of my all-time favorites, even if he never was a Twin.  May God have mercy on his soul despite that.


Revisiting Predictions at the 70 Game Mark


Earlier this year, I wasted all of our collective time by putting up some predictions for the upcoming baseball season. How are they going now that teams are 70 games in?

AL East – Yankees (First place by 1)
AL Central – Twins (First place by 1.5)
AL West – Rangers (First place by 3.5)
AL Wild Card – Rays (First by .003 over the Red Sox)

NL East – Phillies (Third place, 5.5 back)
NL Central – Cardinals (First place by 1.5)
NL West – Rockies (Third place, 4 back)
NL Wild Card – Braves (First place in East by 2.5)

Obviously I am pleased with the American League results, and I think I have a decent chance of pulling off the season sweep there. Odds are, at least one National League pick will miss, given that I have two teams off the pace. We will see.

AL MVP – Evan Longoria – Been very good, but currently trails Robinson Cano and Justin Morneau in the MVP race.
AL Cy Young – Felix Hernandez – Been good, but not the best on his own team. Right now, the favorites look like David Price and Cliff Lee.
AL ROY – Brian Matusz – Disappointing year on an Orioles team even worse than expected.

NL MVP – Albert Pujols – In a supposed down year, he still leads the NL in OBP and OPS. He is quietly 4th in the NL in home runs. His biggest challenge is his own stats the last couple of years.
NL Cy Young – Chris Carpenter – This was a typo. As you can clearly see, I meant to type Ubaldo Jimenez.
NL ROY – Jason Heyward – Still the frontrunner, especially if Strasburg’s limited innings make him sit out September.

All in all, the predictions aren’t looking as bad as I expected. I expect both Cy Youngs to be deeply wrong, and I see little hope of Matusz turning things around for the ROY. Pujols might lose the MVP, but he will be in the debate as will Longoria. We will see.

Joe Mauer’s New Contract


Yesterday, the Twins signed Joe Mauer to an 8-year, $184 million extension.  It is rare to watch your favorite team lock up its best player long-term and have mixed emotions, but that is how this contract makes me feel.  Let me try to elaborate on my mixed feelings in order to sort this out for my own self.  Hopefully, someone else can find the discussion at least vaguely illuminating as well.

First, if any player is worth being paid $23 million, it is the reigning MVP. Last year, Mauer won his third batting title, giving him as many as every other catcher in major league history combined. He also cruised to the AL MVP, picking up all but one vote. He led the Twins to the postseason, despite missing a month of the season himself and the Twins’ second best player, Justin Morneau, missing the month of September. Fangraphs credited Mauer with 8.1 WAR last season, and their measure does not include catching defense. They almost certainly undervalued his season, and they convert his WAR into approximately $36.6 million dollars of value. His 2008 was also excellent, as he won the batting title and produced 5.8 WAR ($26 million). Those sort of numbers make $23 million a year seem downright reasonable.

Second, Mauer is a Minnesota native. Being from St. Paul, he was a locally popular first overall draft choice in 2001. He is already a legend in the area, by far the Twins most popular player since Kirby Puckett. Mauer’s presence on the Twins sells tickets, even if he wasn’t as outstanding a player as he is. In this sense, Mauer is worth more than just his onfield performance to the Twins organization.

Third, Mauer is only 26 right now. At that age, his prime might still be ahead of him. Players tend to peak around age 27-29, and Mauer is one of the best players in all of baseball before he reaches what are usually players best years. Huge free agent contracts are often inflated by being based on past performance more than future results. At Mauer’s age, that problem is not as severe as it otherwise could be.

Fourth, Mauer is injury prone. Catchers already play less games than most position players, and Mauer is not at the high-end of catchers. Consider his games played in his 5 full seasons as a major leaguer: 131, 140, 109, 146, 138. The three years in which he played more than 132 games, he won a batting title and was in MVP contention. But for a player going into his seventh season, it is worrisome to look at only two seasons over the 140-game mark. Cal Ripken he clearly is not. At this same point in Mike Piazza‘s career, following the 1998 season, he had topped 140 games 4 times, and he missed it twice due to the 1994-95 strike. Ivan Rodriguez had only topped 140 games twice, like Mauer, but he also had two seasons caught up in the strike and his two big seasons topped the 150 game mark. Neither of those players lost much time to injury, and it is tough to see how a catcher much worse than them can be worth $23 million a year.

Is Joe Mauer worth it? Probably not. Given his struggles with injury, the quick dropoffs of most catchers, and the length of the contract, it is tough to imagine him living up to the money being paid. However, this contract is the Twins best chance to win in the next couple of seasons. Paying Mauer big money when he is 35 is much more palatable if he led the Twins to the World Series at age 28. It is certainly more palatable that watching him lead the Yankees to the World Series at 29.

Signing Jim Thome


Yesterday, the Twins completed a deal for Jim Thome. He signed for 1 year, at $1.5 million. It is tough to resist a 39-year-old coming off the worst season of his career, and the Twins fell for his charms. To be serious, though, what should a Twins fan make of this signing?

First, consider Thome in terms of position. Thome, because of his age, his back, and his never spectacular defensive skills, can do nothing but DH. Last season, the Twins used Jason Kubel at DH, a tantalizing prospect given that Kubel can both hit and play a horrific left field. The Twins current outfield, prior to the Thome signing, looked like Michael Cuddyer in right, Denard Span in center, and Delmon Young in left. Now, one of these five players will always be on the Twins bench. That adds serious punch to the Twins bench, but I am not sure if it is optimal use of roster space. Regardless, the Twins have no great hitting prospects being pushed out of the lineup for Thome, so it does not seem ridiculous.

Second, consider Thome in terms of likely playing time. Last season, Thome came to the plate 434 times, his fewest since an injury-ravaged 2005. This number was depressed because he only had 17 plate appearances in 17 games spent with the Dodgers in the non-DH league. Given this track record, Thome is likely to stay healthy, especially in limited playing time.

Finally, consider production. What sort of production should the Twins expect from Jim Thome. He will likely have a batting average just south of .250, given his last two seasons he hit .245 and .249. He should stick up an OBP in the .360 range, given last 2 OBP’s of .362 and .366. Slugging percentage should likely hover in the upper .400s. Last year he recorded his lowest slugging ever at .481. His counting stats are much tougher to predict, given how contingent they are on his amount of playing time. Production-wise, Thome appears to be a useful hitter, especially given how little he makes.

I think evalutations of Jim Thome on the Twins come back to evaluations of Ron Gardenhire as a manager. For Thome to be useful, Gardenhire must successfully juggle five players playing time. If he can do that, Thome should be a good pickup. If not, Thome will be one more poor-fielding deadweight, along the lines of Young and Kubel. I think Gardenhire can handle it, so the Thome signing leaves me cautiously optimistic.

Roy Smalley, Superstar


If I ever made it to Cooperstown, I would be a bit disappointed that there was not an entire wing devoted to the greatness of Roy Smalley. Sadly, Smalley never sniffed the Hall of Fame, and even more sadly his exclusion is entirely correct. Nevertheless, if I had my own personal Hall, he would be a charter member. I think many baseball fans have a player like Roy Smalley in their background, someone they loved when they were younger for reasons that are a bit tricky to articulate. As a matter of fact, most folks I know tended to have two favorite players as kids, one true superstar and one truly unique to the fan. In my case, I loved Kirby Puckett, but I loved Smalley first. So today, let’s here the tale of Roy Smalley, one time shortstop for the Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, and New York Yankees.

As a shortstop, Roy Smalley was a failed prototype of the Cal Ripken model. Smalley was the first overall pick in the January amateur draft in 1974, a draft open to players who graduated from high school or college in December. (This draft was discontinued in 1986.) Smalley came out of USC, where he had won the College World Series every year he was in college. Taken by the Rangers, Smalley quickly became one of the larger shortstops in baseball, and an early power-hitting shortstop. Compare him to two top shortstops of the time, Mark Belanger and Dave Concepcion.

Belanger was 6’1″, and weighed 170 lbs. In his biggest power year, he hit 5 home runs in 1974. Concepcion was slightly bigger, at 6’1″, 180. He hit double digit home runs twice in his career, with 14 in 1974 and 16 in 1979. Smalley, a rookie in 1975, was 6’1″, 185, but he combined the slightly higher weight with legitimate home run power for a shortstop. He would hit double digit home runs 9 times, topping 20 on 4 separate occasions. During the 1976 season, he was traded to the Twins for, among others, Bert Blyleven. While with the Twins, he would be one of the best hitting shortstops in the American League, trailing Robin Yount. He would make the All Star team once, in 1979, also the only time he received an MVP vote. In 1982, the promise of the power-hitting shortstop, first seen in Ernie Banks and then revived by Roy Smalley would come to fruition in Cal Ripken, Jr. While Smalley would hit double digit home runs 9 times and top 20 4 times, Ripken would top 20 home runs each of his first 10 full seasons. Smalley was an important part of that transition, but obviously his numbers don’t stack up to his Hall of Fame contemporaries.

For his last hurrah, Smalley would make the World Series with the 1987 Twins, in his last season. He would pinch hit four times, going 1 for 2 with a double and two walks. For his career, Smalley hit .257 with 163 home runs. He had an OPS+ of 103. He was a fairly average fielder, with a fielding percentage nearly identical with the league average for shortstops and a range factor slightly above the average. This is not the resume of a Hall of Famer, though it is arguably the resume of the best shortstop the Twins have ever had.  Smalley was a good player, and in his best years he was very good.  Unfortunately, that description pretty accurately fits many players that have been or will be long forgotten.

Who are the completely random players that would make your own personal Hall of Fame?

The Decade’s Best Game


As we wrap up the year, my posting is liable to be a little spotty due to a host of family commitments.  Regardless, check in each Thursday for continuations of the series on the men who integrated the major leagues.  Today, though, I want to join the bandwagon of sports sites doing best of decade retrospectives.  In particular I want to focus on the best regular season baseball game of the last 10 years.  In the postseason, I think Game 7 of the 2001 World Series wins hands down, though Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS will always have a special place in my heart. (Check out the Retrosheet play-by-play for Pujols’ home run – “Pujols homered [Eckstein scored, Edmonds scored]; the ball hit the windows above the train track on top of the wall” – that is the greatest Retrosheet play-by-line I have seen, and the emphasis is in the original.) Postseason games will always outweigh regular season games, but baseball lets us cheat. One-game playoffs are regular season games, and there have been three (2007-2009) in the last decade. Which was the decade’s best game?

The 2008 tiebreaker is the first game eliminated. Though this game may have been the most crisply played of the three, it lacked the sheer excitement of the two that bracket it. It did not go to extra innings, instead revolving around two excellent pitching performances. John Danks went 8 innings for the White Sox, giving up no runs and getting the win. Nick Blackburn went 6.1 for the Twins, giving up a home run to Jim Thome leading off the bottom of the 7th inning. That would be the game’s only run. A well-played game? Certainly. Exciting? Sort of, because it was close. The best of the decade? No, because the other two tiebreakers were better. It also loses points for thwarting the will of God, i.e. that His Chosen Team should always win.

2007 and 2009 both went to extra innings, the 2007 game going 13 and 2009 12. Both games existed because of great runs/great collapses. The Rockies were in the midst of one of history’s great hot streaks, and the Twins had a very good run of their own. Simultaneously, the Padres and Tigers were both choking away easy playoff spots. Neither game was crisp. Jake Peavy, about to win the NL Cy Young Award, would walk 4 in 6.1 innings, and the Padres walked 8 batters in the game. Rick Porcello of the Tigers would hit a runner with a throw to first, and Alexi Casilla of the Twins would get thrown out at the plate with the potential winning run. Nevertheless, both games were extremely tight. The biggest lead of 2007 was three runs; the Rockies led by 3 after 2 innings but instantly gave up 5 in the top of the 3rd. In 2009 the biggest lead was also 3, held by the Tigers after the top of the 3rd; the Twins would get their first run in the bottom of the inning. Each game had a team take the lead in extra innings, only to lose. So how can these two be separated?

I think the only thing to hold against either game is the last run of 2007. Matt Holliday scored the winning run off of Trevor Hoffman on a face-first dive for the plate. From every angle I have ever seen, he missed the plate. Nevertheless, he was credited with the game-winning run. In 2009, the since-traded Carlos Gomez scored cleanly on a single by presumed-goat Alexi Casilla. Because of the cleaner ending, I give the nod to the 2009 tiebreaker, won by the Twins over the Tigers, 6-5. If you prefer 2007, I would give very little argument. Both were great games, and baseball’s now yearly tiebreaker has added a distinct level of excitement to the regular season.

Any games that have stuck with you from the last decade? I have only focused on the one-game playoffs, leaving out great games like Randy Johnson’s perfect game and, of course, this gem. Joking aside, what do you think was the best regular season game of the last 10 years?

Revisting the Johan Santana Trade


Now that Carlos Gomez has been sent to the Milwaukee Brewers, it is time to look back at the trade that brought him to Minnesota. Gomez was the centerpiece of the Mets’ trade for Johan Santana. Santana was at the time coming off a 5th place finish in the AL Cy Young award, and he had won the award twice in the last 4 years, coming in 3rd in the other season. But Santana was one year away from free agency. The Twins did not want to pay the full price for a Cy Young winning pitcher, so they looked for trade partners and found the Mets.

The Mets traded Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, and Deolis Guerra for Johan Santana on February 2, 2008. Guerra was in advanced A ball at the time, and he has moved onto AA. His minor league numbers are not great, but he is only 20. Mulvey was in AA at the time and has since advanced to AAA. His numbers are not bad, though not great either, and he should at least spend some time with the big league club next year.  Unfortunately he was claimed by the Diamondbacks off of waivers, and he basically became the “player to be named later” in the trade for Jon Rauch.

Gomez and Humber were the two major league ready players in the deal. Humber has pitched in 19 MLB games in the last 4 seasons, with one start. He has an ERA above 6, walks as many as he strikes out, and gives up a home run every other inning. He has been exceptionally bad at the big league level, and being 26, age is no longer an excuse. He was released in April. Gomez has 1100 plate appearances in the last 3 seasons, playing 290 games in his two years with the Twins. With an OPS+ of 75, he is a well below-average hitter. Gomez, however, is an outstanding center fielder. Given that he makes the major league minimum, he is a useful player. If he ever makes more than that, Gomez will have to learn to hit. He is only 23, so there might be some hope.

Gomez’ true value for the Twins was a trading chip to acquire JJ Hardy. Hardy is coming off his worst season, but he remains a very good defensive shortstop. Because of his fielding, he contributed 1.4 wins above replacement in a down hitting year.  Is all of this worth Johan Santana?

Santana was 3rd in the Cy Young voting in 2008. He led the league in ERA in 2008 and his ERA rose to only 3.13 in 2009. His won/loss numbers are depressed because of the anemic Mets offense and poor bullpen, but he has still been an exceptional pitcher for two years. It is tough to see how he was not worth more than two minor leaguers, only one of whom looks like a major leaguer, and two below average major league players.

How do you feel about the Santana trade two years out?