Monday, September 30, 2013

Reviewing MLB Preseason Predictions

With the Rangers and Rays scheduled for a Game 163,  it's the final day of baseball's regular season. Two teams are fighting for the final Wild Card playoff spot and the winner gets to play Cleveland, the hottest team in baseball. Twins fans are well aware of what can happen in a winner take all scenario but those playoff dreams seem like many moons ago in Minnesota.

At the beginning of the year, it is always fun to try and make predictions. There are going to be some teams that overachieve and there are going to be some teams that don't live up to expectations. This is what happens in the wild world of baseball. 

NL East Winner: Atlanta Braves
The Nationals looked loaded at the beginning of the year but things didn't fall into place for them in 2013. Washington looked better in the second half of the year but it was a little too late to make a serious run. The Braves jumped out to an early lead in the division and stayed at the top all year. In my preseason post, I said the Braves would challenge the Nationals so this prediction wasn't too far off. 

NL Central Winner: St. Louis Cardinals
In what turned out to be the toughest division in baseball, the Cardinals ended up ahead of the Reds and the Pirates in the final weeks. St. Louis has the right combination of pitching and offense to make a run in the NL playoffs. For the Cards, it was the first time winning the division since 2009 and they could be one of the favorites to win it all this October. 

NL West Winner: Los Angeles Dodgers
Things didn't look so good in Los Angeles at the beginning of the year and it seemed like the team was close to parting ways with manager Don Mattingly. The team stayed the course and got outstanding performances from players throughout their line-up. Clayton Kershaw might be the best pitcher in baseball and the emergence of Yasiel Puig helped to power the team to the top of the division. 

NL Wild Card Winners: Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds
The Giants tanked in their attempt to defend their World Series crown. Pittsburgh became the darlings of the baseball world with their first winning season and playoff berth since 1992. The Reds were the last team to be left off of my preseason picks but they had enough in the tank to fight their way into a do-or-die Wild Card game. 

AL East Winner: Boston Red Sox
After a terrible 2012, there were few who picked the Red Sox to be as dominate as they were during the 2013 regular season. Boston could be the favorites to win the American League with their dominant line-up and strong pitching options. Moving players from Miami to Toronto was supposed to help the Blue Jays but things didn't go well. Injuries and poor play cost the team a chance to finish near the top.

AL Central Winner: Detroit Tigers
Detroit was in the World Series a season ago and they added some veteran pieces to set their course back for the Fall Classic. Their romp through the AL Central turned out to be a little more difficult with surprise performances by Kansas City and Cleveland. The Tigers were still strong and they will try and claw their way through the playoffs for a second straight year.

AL West Winner: Oakland Athletics
The Angels monster line-up was suppose to be enough to get past some of the other pesky teams in their division. Mike Trout had another MVP worthy season but the rest of his team forgot to follow in his path. The Rangers and the Athletics made things interesting at the top of the division and Oakland won the West for the second straight year. 

AL Wild Card Winners: Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Rays*, Texas Rangers*
Things got a little crazy in the AL Wild Card race as three teams fought to the finish. Tampa Bay and Texas are headed to a one-game playoff to get into the playoffs and play a one-game playoff. Are you confused yet? Major League Baseball wanted some late season drama and they definitely will get it over the next couple of days.  

Friday, September 27, 2013

Talk to Contact: Episode 52

Episode 52 of the Twins baseball podcast, Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.
Ryan Doumit Pumpkin
Eric spends most of this episode belittling Ryan Doumit and then trying to convince me that Doumit should play more often than I think is reasonable. We talk about Twins prospect Tyler Jones and wonder aloud what the roles will be for players like Doumit, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe and Chris Parmelee. Summer is officially over and pumpkin beers have arrived across America. Tune in to find out about Paul’s favorite pumpkin beer and a bunch of Twins talk.



You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and read his writing at PuckettsPond.com!

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes (ratings and reviews have magical iTunes powers).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Liam Hendriks Deserves Another Chance

Plenty of Twins players will have things to reflect on this coming offseason. When a team has multiple 90-loss seasons in a row, changes are likely and some of those situations started to play themselves out. Minnesota needs pitchers to stand out in the final games of the season as the team tries to figure out the future.

Liam Hendriks is one player on shaky ground for 2014. The team rushed him to the big leagues as a 22-year old and struggles followed him since he got called up. Next season, he will be 25 and there is a chance the Twins remove him from the 40-man roster. As Nick Nelson wrote over at Twins Daily, Hendriks might have run out of chances.

Minnesota needs some semblance of a starting rotation for next season and there aren't any sure bets on the free agent market. This could leave a window open for Hendriks to get one more chance in 2014. It might not be a good chance but there is at least an opportunity.

The Twins jerked him back and forth between the minor leagues and the big leagues over the past three seasons. With the Twins, he has never started more than eight games consecutively and that was at the end of last season. It would be a challenge to figure out big league hitters when a pitcher isn't given the opportunity to start consecutive games. His pitches are already bottom of the rotation material and moving him up and down hasn't helped.

In 2011 at Double-A and 2012 at Triple-A, Hendriks was a very effective pitcher. He posted ERAs of under 3.00 and he averaged over six innings per appearance. Strikeouts have never been his specialty but he is most effective when he limits walks and induces ground balls. This hasn't happened at the major league level but he has shown these skills in the minor leagues.

Another reasons to keep Hendriks around is the fact he won't be arbitration eligible until the 2016 season and he can't reach free agency until 2019. This means he will be a relatively cheap player on the roster and the Twins can use the money they save on him to spend on other pieces of the roster.

Even in their recent down years, the Twins have found effective relief pitchers in various ways. One way to add to a relief pitching core is to shift starters into the bullpen. Minnesota has seen successful transitions from Glen Perkins and Anthony Swarzak and this could be a path to follow with Hendriks. Minnesota has already used him as a long-relief man at the end of 2013 and it could be a sign of things to come.

Is Hendriks going to be a key piece to the potential Twins turnaround? Likely not but it still doesn't mean that it is time to give up on him. It would have been nice for Hendriks to get more opportunities at the big league level. The team has never given him a consistent shot at sticking in the rotation and most of this has come from his ineffective pitching.

Hendriks might not be the answer to all of the Twins pitching problems and he deserves another chance to make it work in some kind of role for 2014.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Examining Twins Managerial Candidates

There is less than a week left in the regular season and the Twins don't have a manager under contract for 2014. With Minnesota on their way to a third straight 90-loss, there are questions about whether Ron Gardenhire deserves another opportunity at the helm. He won 2010's AL Manager of the Year but things have been ugly since that season.

Since Tom Kelly was hired in 1987, the Twins have employed two managers so change has been far from commonplace. Terry Ryan cleared out most of Gardenhire's coaching staff last season in an attempt to bring in some new voices to the clubhouse. Even with the coaching changes, there wasn't much improvement on the field.

Gardenhire might not be out the door but the team doesn't have to bring him back. The Twins will have to make a managerial decision and they are reasons for and against each candidate.

Ron Gardenhire
Reasons For: He's a very well respected manager and he's been with the organization in some capacity through multiple decades. The Twins front office hasn't given him much in the starting pitching department. He knows the Twins way of doing things and the Pohlads have avoided managerial changes during their ownership.

Reason Against: It's been a rough couple of seasons and it might be time for a new voice. Most of the veteran players on the roster have left for green pastures and this could mean a youth movement. It could help to bring in a different manager that has worked more recently with a younger core of players in the minor leagues. Fans have called for a change and it could be time.

Paul Molitor
Reasons For: The Twins like to stick with organizational guys and Molitor has held a few different jobs within the organization. He worked as the bench coach under Kelly and more recently he has served as a roving minor league instructor. His experience with some of the younger players could play to his advantage.

Reasons Against: Molitor doesn't have any managerial experience and this could be one of the biggest strikes against him. There have probably been chances for him to enter the managerial ranks in the Twins farm system but the schedule of a minor league instructor fit his needs. The experience of the other men could make it tough to pick Molitor as the man for Minnesota.

Jake Mauer
Reasons For: The elder Mauer has built up a strong reputation during his time as a manager in the Twins minor league system. In his first year with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, he guided the team to what might have been the best minor league regular season in 2013. There were plenty of changes to the roster and the team kept winning games. He knows how to work with a young roster and to get the best out of up-and-coming players.

Reasons Against: He lacks any experience at the big league level as a player or a coach. This could mean a tough adjustment as he looks to figure out life as a major league manager. His younger brother is also the best player on the team and that could lead to an interesting family dynamic. He has done some good things in the minor leagues but it might not be enough to earn him the job.

Gene Glynn
Reasons For: The Rochester Red Wings rallied under Glynn this season and earned a Wild Card playoff spot on the season's final day. Multiple coaches from his staff were brought up to Minnesota this season and this could make for an easy transition. He also has spent multiple years in different coaching roles at the big league level to give him the experience he would need.

Reasons Against: He isn't exactly a flashy name and many Twins fans might not have ever heard of him. At 57-years old, he isn't exactly a spring chicken. In fact, he is two years older than Gardenhire. If the Twins want to find someone to work a young roster, Glenn might not fit the bill, as most of Rochester 2013 line-up was older minor league veterans. Experience is great but he might not be the best choice for the long-term.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Two Separate Sophomore Seasons

When the Twins left spring training, there were multiple Twins players in line to get playing time during their sophomore seasons. The second year can be a huge year for players trying to make their mark at the big league level. There can be positive signs during a rookie season but continuing those early impressions and making adjustments is key to solidifying a player's future.

Two of these second year players were set-up for very different starts to the season. Scott Diamond had seemingly come out of nowhere to be the Twins best starting pitcher in 2012. Brian Dozier had struggled mightily during his first trip through the American League. Diamond was lined up to fit into the rotation for multiple seasons while Dozier had plenty of question marks around him as he shifted to a new defensive position.

Early Season Impressions
Diamond started the year on the disabled list after having a bone chip removed from his elbow in later portion of the offseason. This might have taken away from his offseason routine and this definitely showed up on the field. By the end of June, Diamond had an ERA of 5.40 with opponents batting .320/.355/.502 against him. It wasn't exactly a dream start to the year.

Dozier didn't exactly start the world on fire at the beginning of the year. In the middle of April, he was hitting under .200 and things wouldn't improve in a hurry. For the entire month of May, he hit .190/.227/.286 while being limited to four extra-base hits. There were some positive signs at his new defensive position but his offense was still reminiscent of his poor rookie campaign.

Mid-Season Changes
Things would continue to go down hill for Diamond in the middle portion of the season. The month of July would be another bad month as opponents hit .264/.336/.500 with six home runs in five games started. Other teams were hitting the ball hard and Diamond's 1.538 WHIP continued to be tough to swallow. Minnesota decided to make a change and Diamond was sent to Rochester in August for the rest of the Triple-A season.

While Diamond was busy trying to figure himself out in the minors, Dozier made some adjustments to put him on a record breaking pace. He would knock five home runs in June while boosting his batting line to .257/.389/.514. July would see Dozier hit 11 doubles, more than the first three months of the year combined. Ron Gardenhire had more faith in Dozier to bat near the top of the order and the second baseman made the most of this opportunity.

Late-Season Adjustments
Rochester needed every win the team could get down the stretch and Diamond helped to solidify their rotation. He would make six starts at Triple-A and he posted a perfect 4-0 record with a 2.40 ERA. Opponents hit .217/.259/.336 against him and he averaged almost seven innings a start. Minnesota had seen some positive changes in Diamond so they brought him back to the big leagues for the team's last handful of games. There are open spots in next season's starting rotation and Diamond needs to show that he deserves a spot.

Dozier continued his hot hitting as the Twins season has progressed. August would turn into his best offensive month, as he became a power hitting threat. He hit .276/.333/.535 with six home runs, 11 doubles, and three triples. This outburst of power put Dozier on pace to set the franchise record for home runs from a second baseman. Minnesota had used Dozier at the bottom of the line-up, as a leadoff hitter, and now he has worked his way to the middle of the order.

Focus on the Future
Diamond has a lot left to prove to the Twins before the 2014 season starts. There is going to be some room in the team's pocket book to court some free agent pitchers. If the Twins pursue multiple starting pitching options, Diamond could end up back in Rochester. This seems like a long shot at this point but Mr. Diamond won't feel nearly as comfortable this offseason. Maybe it is better for him to have to earn a spot than to be guaranteed one.

Minnesota has Eddie Rosario pushing towards the majors but Dozier looks to be blocking his path to the big leagues. Fans are going to want to see Dozier continue his impressive offense for another full season. It has been rare for the Twins to have a middle infielder molded in their own farm system and the team seems pleased with Dozier. He has slowly become a team leader and the Twins future plans seem more likely to include their current second baseman.

Sophomore years can be tough but Dozier and Diamond have sure taken different paths in their second year in the big leagues. Diamond in the middle of a year long sophomore slump and Dozier showing that there can be some success in a player's sophomore season.

Two different players... And Two Different Sophomore Seasons...

Monday, September 16, 2013

Looking Forward at Twins Catching

The Twins continue to play out the rest of the 2013 season without their $23 million man, Joe Mauer. There is plenty of concern surrounding Mauer's concussion related injury. As Twins fans are well aware from recent incidents with Denard Span and Justin Morneau, head injuries can be tough to solve. This leaves Minnesota with an interesting situation behind the plate as the team looks to the future.

No one knows when Mauer will be back on the field and if he will ever be able to suit up behind the plate. The Twins have been auditioning a variety of players this September in hopes of shedding so light on the situation. Will one of these new players be the Twins full-time backstop by the start of next year or will Mauer be able to solve the puzzle of his brain injury?

Here's the breakdown of the men fighting for catching time in 2014. It is a mixture of young and old as the Twins begin to shift their roster to a more youthful core of players.

Joe Mauer
2013 (113 G, 73 G started at C): .324/.404/.476, 11 HR, 35 2B, 62 R
Concerns over Mauer's injury will be one of the biggest story lines entering spring training next year. The 2013 season was only the second time since 2007 where he has failed to play over 135 games. Justin Morneau is gone and this leaves a hole at first base. Mauer's power numbers don't exactly fit with the typical first baseman mold but the Twins need him to fit somewhere. Depending on how the offseason progresses, fans have to hope that Mauer will be able to do some catching, play some time at first, and even get into the line-up as a DH. This could be a wild dream at this point but there are multiple months until Opening Day 2014.

Ryan Doumit
2013 (124 G, 41 GS at C): .239/.310/.386, 13 HR, 24 2B, 43 R
With Mauer out of the line-up, one would figure Doumit would get some more time at catcher. This hasn't been the case and Doumit had his own concussion related DL stint earlier this season. Minnesota loved the production Doumit provided in 2012 and the team signed him to an extension. His offensive production dropped a little this season and there's a chance the team could try and deal him in the offseason. He will be 33-years old next season and in the last year of his contract. His does represent the lone veteran presence behind Mauer so this could give the Twins a reason to keep him around.

Chris Herrmann
2013: (49 G, 22 GS at C): .218/.302/.361, 4 HR, 7 2B, 14 R
Herrmann can't be a free agent until after the 2019 season and the Twins have been willing to use him in multiple defensive positions. His numbers dropped across the board as he struggled at the plate in Rochester and Minnesota. There were some good signs from him during 2012 at Double-A. One has to hope for that version of Herrmann to transfer to the big league level especially if Mauer is no longer able to catch. If he is able to make the right adjustments, Herrmann could end up taking over the role vacated by Doumit after next season. Otherwise, he is an adequate back-up catcher to keep on the bench.

Josmil Pinto
2013: (11 G, 9 GS at C): .405/.463/.703, 2 HR, 5 2B, 6 R
In his first taste of the big leagues, Pinto has made a quick impression on Twins Territory. The kid can hit the ball and he has continued to show this ability as he has moved through the upper levels of the Twins farm system. In the past, there have been some questions about his catching ability and this year there were concerns about his shoulder. He was able to throw out 29% of base stealers between New Britain and Rochester this season. At the big league level, he has caught three out of seven potential runners. Fans that continue to watch the Twins in September will keep their eye on Pinto because he might be getting a lot more time behind the plate next year.

Fans might be worried about Mauer's future so it's good to have a future plan in place. Pinto has been impressive but it has been a small sample size and it's tough to get too excited before seeing a full season of play from him. It would be great for both men to be able to spend some time behind the plate next season but for now the future is a little cloudy.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Mysterious Lost Season of Aaron Hicks

Aaron Hicks had to be flying high at the conclusion of spring training this season. He had won the starting center fielder job for the Twins and he would be making his big league debut in front of the Target Field faithful. His 2012 minor league campaign was fantastic as he showed much of the promise the Twins had seen in him when they took him as a first round pick.

The future seemed nothing but bright and there were comparisons being made to some of the best outfielders in the game.

Those flowery thoughts didn't last too long as Hicks would struggle mightily on the offensive side of the ball. At the end of April, he had a batting line of .113/.229/.127 with a double being his lone extra-base hit. These were tough numbers to swallow especially with the expectations coming out of spring training.

Switching the calendar to May helped Hicks with his power swing but the other numbers didn't follow suit. After one extra-base hit in the first month, he cracked 10 extra-base hits in the second month of the season including six home runs. This raised his slugging percentage almost 200 points from .127 to .315 and it lead some to believe that Hicks might have turned the corner.

Throughout his minor league career, he had been praised as being a patient hitter but pitchers were able to attack him at the plate. In the first two months of the season, he struck out 49 times and he was only able to coax 17 walks. Combine his low walk total with the fact that he wasn't hitting the ball all that great and there were some red flags starting to appear.

June would see Hicks trying to overcome his first extended stay on the DL. He would be sent to Triple-A for the first time as part of his rehab and it seemed like he might have gotten more out of staying at that level. Instead the team brought him back for the start of July and there were a few more baby steps in the right direction.

Hicks batted .230/.292/.379 after returning from the DL. His batting average and OBP were the highest marks for any month so there were some positive signs. He was able to steal five bases while only being caught once. On the negative side, he struck out 26 times and was limited to six walks. The Twins decided it was time for Hicks to try and be successful at Triple-A and he was sent down for the remainder of Rochester's season.

Things weren't much better for Hicks in limited action in the minors. For the season, he played 22 games with Rochester and posted a batting line of .222/..317/.333 with six extra-base hits but no home runs. He was able to draw 10 walks but he averaged close to a strikeout a game. There was no shining light at the end of the tunnel.

Hicks wasn't among the Twins September call-ups and there are plenty of questions surrounding him after his first big league season. Should the Twins give up on Hicks in favor of stud prospect Byron Buxton? What is the future of role of Hicks with this team? Will he ever be able to be a consistent hitter at the big league level? Was this a lost season for the former top prospect?

Everything seemed bright for Hicks under the color of the Florida sun but things quickly turned cold in the brisk Minnesota spring. Perhaps he can have a bounce back sophomore year like Brian Dozier. For now, it will be an offseason of reflect for Mr. Hicks and hopefully a chance to enter next season with the ability to forget what happened in 2013.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

September Tanking and the Twins

The calendar turned to September over a week ago and some changes can follow a failing team in the final month of the year. Younger players continue to get more playing time over veterans like Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham. It is the time of year for the Twins to see what the future can hold and changes like this can bring up some other questions.

During the last two seasons, the Twins have been able to see the value of having a high draft pick. Byron Buxton and Kohl Stewart were added to the fold over the last two years to help bolster a minor league system that is considered one of the best in baseball. The higher a team can draft, the more money the club can spend, and the better prospects a club will likely receive.

This can lead to some questions of tanking in the final month of the year. Over at ESPN's SweetSpot Blog, the idea of tanking was discussed since there is a cluster of team's battling to be in the top 10 draft picks for 2014. For example, the Mets are trotting out a final month rotation that includes Daisuke Matsuzaka and Aaron Harang. These aren't your father's "Amazing Mets."

Minnesota hasn't signed a bunch of aging veterans in the last couple weeks to fill into their rotation but some might argue that was the team's overall strategy during last offseason. Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey have pitched the most innings on Minnesota's staff and each man has an ERA north of 4.00. One could have expected this time of production from these two men and it doesn't help that other members of the rotation have failed to live up to expectations.

At the end of 2012, the Twins finished with 96 losses but it wasn't because of terrible play in September. The club went 13-15 during the final month and their .464 winning percentage was their second highest for any month. June was the only month the club finished over .500 with a 14-13 record. Minnesota entered the month in the fourth draft position and that's where they would finish.

The month of September in 2011 was a little bit different story. Minnesota started the month in fourth place in the AL Central and they were in line to get the fourth pick in the 2012 draft. An awful final month saw the team go 6-20 to post a .231 winning percentage. It was their worst record for any month and the team would end up improving their draft position from fourth to second.

As the final month of the 2013 season is underway, the Twins were in the sixth position for next year's draft. There were only four games separating them from the Angels, the team that started the month positioned to get the 13th draft pick. Entering play on Wednesday, Minnesota had accumulated a 4-4 record for the month and they are now tied with Milwaukee for the fifth pick.

There are plenty of benefits to having a top 10 pick in the draft. Obviously, a team gets more money to spend in their draft pool for next June. Also, a team with a top 10 pick has a protected first round pick. This means the front office can approach top tier free agents without fear of losing the club's top draft pick. Some teams have run into this issue with the recent switch in the collective bargaining agreement and it doesn't seem fair for club's trying to rebuild.

The Twins haven't been known to spend a ton on the free agent market so this wrinkle in the free agent system might not be a huge issue. Willingham has been the club's biggest free agent acquisition in recent years and he wasn't in the top tier. Other names like Doumit, Pelfrey, and Correia haven't been huge names but they have found their way in Minnesota.

There are going to be plenty of openings in the starting rotation for Minnesota and it might be nice for the team to have the opportunity to go after a top free agent. This would likely only happen if the team's first round pick were protected. It has never been Terry Ryan's strategy to spend big money on pitchers but the club might have to change this trend to be productive next year.

September can be a time to try out plenty of pieces for the future. Minnesota will continue to audition some of their younger players in order to see what they have lined up for next year. The losses might continue to pile up but the team isn't exactly in tank mode.

At least not yet...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pros and Cons: Picking the Twins Clubhouse Leader

With Justin Morneau's exit from the club in the last week, the Twins are searching for someone to take over his leadership role in the clubhouse. This seems to be a reoccurring theme for the Twins in recent years as the club shifts away from veteran leadership to a more youthful roster.

A couple of years ago Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan were considered among the team's strong voices and both players left in free agency. Morneau filled the void left by Cuddyer and it seemed like a smooth transition from the outside looking in.

There probably won't be a breaking news story to say who takes on more leadership behind the closed doors of the Twins clubhouse. For fans, it might be more of a talking point in a season that seems destined to be heading for another 90 losses.

Here are just a few of the names that will be asked to take on more leadership this season. There are pros and cons with each player involved so it will be interesting to see who becomes the new voice of the Twins.

Joe Mauer, Catcher
Pros: He is the highest paid player and the face of the franchise so it would make sense for him to be the leader of the clubhouse. Mauer is a quiet but he has been known to approach younger players when something doesn't go right on the field. In the past, he has been a leader because of his strong play on the field. He leads by example and this can be very beneficial to future Twins players.

Cons: Since Mauer is a catcher, he can be very busy with his catching related duties. There are extra meetings for him to confer with the pitching staff and he spends time studying video to learn more about opposing hitters. This is all time where he is not in the clubhouse with the other players. Injuries have also forced him to miss time and he can't be a leader if he isn't traveling with the team.

Glen Perkins, Closer
Pros: Much like Joe Nathan before him, Perkins can become a leader because of his importance to the bullpen. The Twins have him signed for multiple years and beyond Mauer, he is the longest tenured Twins player. He came up through the Twins organization with a few bumps and bruises but he found a way to be successful at the big league level. His involvement in the community continues to grow and this is an example for other players to follow.

Cons: Since Perkins is a relief arm, he spends time during the game out in the bullpen. This keeps him from being able to speak to non-pitchers on the bench for different parts of the game. Also, he isn't an everyday player so his impact on a daily basis might not always be seen on the field. He has only been a full-time close for the current season so he might not have built up the respect he needs.

Brian Dozier, Second Baseman
Pros: He is in the middle of a breakout season and this has helped him to become a leader on the field. Media members have cited him as always being available after wins along with tough losses. During his minor league career, he showed some leadership skills and this seems to be translating to his big league career. Dozier has been performing with his bat and his glove and this can help him to continue to gain respect in the locker-room.

Cons: While Mauer and Perkins have been with the club for multiple seasons, Dozier is still relatively new to the scene. He has less experience and less of a track record than the two names mentioned above. There are also some questions about how long he will be with the team. Eddie Rosario is slowly working his way to the big leagues and he plays the same position as Dozier. Right now, it looks like Dozier could stay at second for multiple years but it is hard to know what the future will bring.

Josh Willingham, Outfielder
Pros: Throughout his career, Willingham has played with multiple organizations and he has seen what leadership means to different teams. He is the oldest player on the team and his experience is well respected by the younger players around him. His monster season last year gave him respect on the field and he has tried to play through some tough injuries this season. Younger players can approach him for advice on a multitude of topics since he has spent time playing in both leagues.

Cons: There is only one year remaining on his contract with the Twins and the team could trade him at some point in the coming year. Much like Mauer, he is a quiet leader so sometimes it is tough to notice the work he is doing for the clubhouse. His play has fallen off this year and he has missed time because of injuries. If a player isn't on the field or even with the club, it can be tough to build rapport in the locker-room.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Talk to Contact: Episode 51

Episode 51 of the Twins baseball podcast,  Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.
The Minor League season has ended for all of the Twins MiLB affiliates except for the Rochester Red Wings.  We take a look at some standout seasons and team reviews around the Twins system.  We also spend a good deal of time discussing Aaron Hicks’ role in 2014 and the possible leadership void left in the wake of Justin Morneau’s trade to Pittsburgh.

84 minutes of cantankerous babble.
You can follow me on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read my writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and read his writing at PuckettsPond.com! Don't forget about Eric (@ERolfPleiss) and his writing over at Knuckleballs blog
If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes (ratings and reviews have magical iTunes powers).

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Twins Minor League Report (9/4): Rochester Romps

Night two of playoff action saw plenty of stories to follow in the Twins farm system. Rochester was kicking off their postseason run with a game in front of their hometown fans and Cedar Rapids had to go on the road. Fort Myers was at home but their season was on the line and a loss would mean the end of their title chances.

Rochester Red Wings 7, Pawtucket Red Sox 1 (Game 1)
Box Score
Rochester was out to prove that their last day qualification for the Wild Card spot was not a fluke. The team went out and scored runs in the first four innings to grab an early 6-1 lead. Antoan Richardson singled and James Beresford doubled to set up a 2-run first frame. Eduardo Escobar scored Richardson on a sacrifice and this was followed by an RBI-single from Chris Parmelee.

Beresford found himself up in another important spot in the second. With runners on first and second, he cracked a single to center field to score the third run of the game. The third inning was characterized by multiple bunt attempts. Aaron Hicks and Eric Farris bunted in back-to-back at-bats but it took an Eric Fryer single to plate two runs. Hicks would also be responsible for a sac fly in the fifth to cap the early offensive onslaught from Rochester.

Cole De Vries started for Rochester and pitched into the sixth frame. While striking out six and walking one, he allowed one run on five hits. Aaron Thompson pitched two shutout innings of relief while only allowing one runner to reach base. AJ Achter closed the door in the ninth to cap a key victory for the Red Wings.

What's Next: Rochester will host the second game of this series against the Red Sox on Thursday. The scheduled pitcher for the Red Wings is PJ Walters. He finished the regular season with a Triple-A record of 7-5 while posting a 4.18 ERA in 103.1 IP. The Red Sox will counter with big league hurler Clay Buchholz who is rehabbing on his way back to help Boston on a run for the AL East crown. In his one Triple-A outing this year, he lasted 3.1 innings and gave up one run on seven hits.

Fort Myers Miracle 1, Charlotte Stone Crabs 2 (Game 2-- 10 innings)
Box Score
In the first game of the series, the Miracle were shutout and the Stone Crabs were able to sneak away with a 1-0 victory. This low scoring affair continued into Game 2 of the series with both starting pitchers lasting posting zeros into the eighth inning. Fort Myers needed to find a way to get on the board or their fantastic season would come to an end.

Taylor Rogers was outstanding on the mound and he did everything he could to keep the Miracle from being eliminated. Over nine shutout innings, Rogers limited the Stone Crabs to three hits with nine strikeouts and one walk. With two outs in the ninth, a Stone Crabs batter reached on a single but Rogers talked his way into staying in the game. He struck out the last batter of the frame to finish his nine innings of work.

The Miracle were forced to turn to the bullpen and pitcher Zach Jones. In the Stone Crabs half of the 10th, the leadoff batter singled and then things started to get a little dicey. During the next at-bat, the runner broke for second he actually came up short of second base. The throw was high to Levi Michael and the runner was able to pop-up and still make it in before the tag. A walk and a sac bunt would put two runners in scoring position.

Jones tried to intentionally walk the next batter but he threw the ball to the back top and the first run of the game was on the board. After a pop-out bunt, Jones walked a batter but he followed this with another at-bat that included a wild pitch. The Stone Crabs left the top of the 10th with a 2-0 lead and survived a rally in the 10th to end the Miracle's campaign.

What's Next: The Miracle have been eliminated from the Florida State League Playoffs. Plenty of Miracle players and the coaching staff have been honored for their terrific season. The offense just didn't show up over the course of this best of three series. Byron Buxton has been the talk of the prospect world this year and it was tough to see the Miracle season end this way.

Cedar Rapids Kernels 1, Quad Cities River Bandits 2 (Game 1)
Box Score
The Kernels have been one of the best minor league teams in all of baseball this year but anything can happen in the postseason. Players have come and gone from the Cedar Rapids roster but the team kept finding a way to win. Things got off to a good start in the playoffs with the Kernels scoring the first run of this game.

In the top of the second inning, Adam Walker singled to leadoff the frame. Mike Gonzales doubled to deep center field and Walker was able to come all the way around to score from first. The Kernels would get two more runners on base in the inning but those men were left stranded. Cedar Rapids had the first lead of the series but it wouldn't last.

Quad Cities tied the game in the bottom of the fourth when former first overall pick Carlos Correa worked his way around the bases. It was the only run scored against Kernels starter Brett Lee but it would be an important run for this game. Lee lasted five innings and struck out six. Alex Muren came on in relief and was fantastic. He struck out three over two innings and didn't allow a hit.

Cedar Rapids looked to swipe the lead back from the River Bandits in the fifth. After a Niko Goodrum walk, there were men at first and second. Jorge Polanco hit one up the middle but the pitcher knocked it down and was able to record the out at first. This left two runners in scoring position and Max Kepler in the batters box. In an unfortunate turn of events, Kepler would pop up to the first baseman in foul territory and the Kernels never had another runner in scoring position.

What's Next: Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Thursday evening in Cedar Rapids. Tim Shibya will take his perfect 4-0 record to the mound for the Kernels. Over 37.2 innings, he posted a 0.96 ERA while striking out 25 and walking four. Single-A opponents were only able to hit .173 against him and he has pitched seven innings or more in his last three starts. This included a complete game shutout the last time he was on the mound.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Restarting a Culture of Winning

The Minnesota Twins have made a habit of losing over the last three seasons. With back-to-back 90 loss seasons and the team on track to make it three in a row, there hasn't been a lot to be excited about at the major league level. Poor starting pitching and a lack-luster offense have created a "Debby Downer" attitude among the former Twins faithful.

When Minnesota was in the midst of winning six division titles in nine years, a culture of winning was created even as there were changes to the players on the roster. Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Torii Hunter, and others would move on from the Twins but the organization still found a way to win. Fans could expect the Twins to finish near the top of the AL Central but something has gone missing. The culture of winning hasn't followed the Twins over the last three years so where does the change need to happen.

While the Twins major league squad has been in the dumps, the organization's minor league system has become one of the best in baseball. Stud prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are two of the top five players at the minor league level. The Twins have used high draft picks and trades to restock their system. After this past weekend's action, three of the club's four full season minor league teams will be playing in the postseason.

The minor leagues, this is where the culture of losing will begin to be changed.

Some members of the Cedar Rapids Kernels are shooting for their second ring in two years. Infielders Niko Goodrum, Jorge Polanco and Travis Harrison, catcher Bo Altobelli and pitchers Brett Lee, Jose Berrios, and Hudson Boyd all competed in postseason play for Elizabethton. That team won the Appalachian League Championship one year ago.

Other members of the 2012 E-Twins will also be striving to get their second ring even though it won't be in a Kernels uniform. Top prospect Byron Buxton and teammate Dalton Hick started the year in Cedar Rapids but these players were promoted to Fort Myers throughout the year. The Miracle started their playoff run on Tuesday night with these two players batting third and fourth in the line-up.

Since joining the Twins organization, there are some players that have yet to taste defeat at the end of the year. They only know their championship with Elizabethton in 2012 and now they are in the midst of their second playoff run. Of course, there are lessons that can be learned out of losing but other players can find the drive within by continuing to win.

For the most part, one individual player can't take over a baseball game. Some players need to pitch, defense factors in, and runs have to be scored. But by having these players expecting to be in the playoffs every year, the culture throughout the entire system can begin to change.

Changing an ingrained culture isn't an easy thing to do.

These players aren't going to get to the big league level and magically make the Twins start winning again. It is going to take time for them to make it to Target Field and even when they do, it could be a slow process.

Overall, the process has begun in the minor leagues and the culture of losing can start to reverse itself in the years to come.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

One Twins fan's "thank you" to Justin Morneau

Before he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, Justin Morneau penned an open thank you letter to Twins fans and the only organization he has ever known. He discussed how he has grown up in the organization from a "wide-eyed 22-year old kid" to now being "someone my friends and family could be proud of." Minnesota has become his "second home" and he will always have connections here because his "wife, kids, and family are Minnesotans."

In the end, he apologized for never winning a World Series in a Twins uniform but this was really something that he couldn't fully control. He will have a good chance to play on a  playoff team for the first time since the 2006 season and the Twins were able to get a couple of serviceable players for what was left on Morneau's expiring contract.

Morneau took time to thank Twins fans and it seemed only appropriate that fans write their own thank you back to the slugging Canadian first baseman. Here's an open letter from myself to and about Morneau as he exits the organization:

A certain type of player seems to come along once in a generation to grace the baseball diamond. Lucky enough for Twins fans there have often been times when two of these players were in the line-up on the same day. From Killebrew to Oliva and Puckett to Hrbek, great duos have called Minnesota home. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer were one of these duos and sadly those duos can't last forever.

Morneau's play on the field seemed to be on track for legendary status. He won the American League MVP in 2006 and two years later he would finish runner-up to Dustin Pedoria for the same award. He would be selected to four straight All-Star Games from 2007-2010. In 2008, he won the Home Run Derby Championship and the next night he scored the winning run in the 15th inning of the Mid-Summer Classic. 

Things didn't seem like they could get any higher. 

In the summer of 2010, it looked like Morneau might be well on his way to his second MVP trophy. His monster first half had helped the Twins to be near the top of the AL Central. All of Twins Territory felt the pain of what happened from that point moving forward. John McDonald accidentally kneed Morneau in the head on a play at second base in Toronto. It would take large chunks of the next two seasons for Justin to try and recover from post-concussion syndrome and a variety of other injuries. 

His last month in a Twins uniform seemed to finally look closer to the Justin of old. He hit nine home runs in the month of August but he saved one of his most memorable home runs for his last game. With the Twins facing off against Yu Darvish, a candidate for the AL Cy Young, Morneau smacked the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning. It was a home run that moved him past Tony Oliva on the franchise's all-time home run list.

Justin's mark on the field isn't the only remnant of his 14 years in the Twins organization. He was a two-time winner of the Bob Allison Award that is given to the Twins player who exemplifies determination, hustle, tenacity, competitive spirit and leadership both on and off the field. Morneau and his wife Krista are active members in trying to make a difference in the community. 

To say thank you to Justin for his time in Minnesota would not be enough. 

He gave 110% for this franchise from the time he was drafted in 1999 to his last game in 2013. Morneau has left his mark on Twins Territory and it is hard to imagine this team without number 33 in the line-up. My connection to the Minnesota Twins was strengthened because of the man Morneau was on and off the field. When my future kids ask me about players I loved to watch, the short list will include a slugging Canadian first baseman. 

Good luck to Justin as he gets a chance to pursue the ultimate goal of winning a World Series. And even though it doesn't seem like nearly enough...

Thank you.