Dan Cook

Dan Cook

Tuesday

3-4-14 Twins Blog: Replay Will Work


[Ed.'s Note - This blog originally appeared on WCCO.com: http://cbsloc.al/NQVVME ]

The Twins made a small amount of history on Monday when the first ever use of MLB's “expanded” replay occurred at Hammond Stadium in Fort Meyers. And it was so nice, they used it twice.

Cliches aside, the use of instant replay has been a hot topic amongst baseball pundits and fans.

Old School folks want keep the “human element” as a part of the game. They worry that the use of technology will slow down a game which is already played at a leisurely pace. They claim that over a 162-game season, a blown call here or there won't significantly impact which teams make it to the post-season and which teams don't.

New School fans see technology not as a threat to the game, but as a refinement of it. They think that the overriding principle should be to get as many calls right as technological advancements will allow. They say that in an era where statistical analysis has revolutionized the way that teams are constructed and run, it's only natural that the same kind of precision should be used in officiating the game on the field.

Whether you're for the use of instant replay in baseball, or against it, the reality is it's here, and it's not going away any time soon.

Moreover, the most likely outcome is that replay in baseball will work just fine.

Why?

First of all, history says it will. Every other major professional and collegiate sport in the country has adopted some form of instant replay usage. And while there have been tweaks and refinements along they way, each of those sports has managed to find a system that works fairly well.

Those sports all realized that with HD TV's and multiple camera angles, fans actually had better access to information than their own officials did. A fact they quickly moved to rectify, because fans don't want to see outcomes decided by officiating mistakes. They want to see them decided by the best athletes in the world.

Baseball's always been slower to change than other sports. And while that's an endearing quality to many of us – a strong connection to our past is a powerful thing which shouldn't be altered on a whim – it can be frustrating as well. The past few post-seasons have been a case in point. Too many times, calls were missed. Not because umpires were incompetent. But because the game moves in quick bursts, and the umpires didn't have the necessary tools to get the calls right.

That's going to change starting this season.

Which leads us to the second reason replay will likely work: because fans at the ballpark will actually be more engaged.

This seems counter-intuitive to people who believe that baseball's slower pace is an anathema to the shorter attention spans of younger generations, but it's actually not.

Heretofore, close calls at baseball games weren't replayed for fans at the ballpark, ostensibly out of concern for the umpires. (Okay, maybe that was mostly for umpires working in Philly, but the rule remained in all cities.)

Folks at home were free to yell at their TV sets as a blown call was replayed 10 times and lamented by broadcasters. But fans in the ballpark were left texting their friends who were watching at home or frantically checking Twitter to find out if the call was actually right or wrong.

That's no longer the case. Now replays will be available on the big screens, or on whatever devices fans have with them. Baseball understands that replay actually creates drama. The fans will have their take on the play and be on the edge of their seat wondering if the umpires will agree or not.

But most importantly, replay will work because the people who run the game of baseball are committed to making it work.

Yes, there's a question about whether “managers challenges” will be abused. Perhaps some skippers will see a replay challenge not as a way to overturn a bad call, but as an opportunity to give a relief pitcher more time to warm up and get in the game.

But as was mentioned earlier, tweaks are always made as replay is instituted within a game. If that abuse is a problem, then the system will be altered to fix it. Maybe bullpens will be shut down while a replay is in effect. Or perhaps “managers challenges” will be abandoned, and umpires will have total control over when a play is reviewed.

Yes, there are concerns about the amount of time necessary to contact replay umpires in New York, have them review the play and make a determination, and then communicate that back to the folks at whatever game site had the play in question.

But in Monday's game, both reviews took around three minutes, which certainly isn't any longer than the “manager melt-downs” which were so often seen over blown calls. And as managers and umpires become better acquainted with the use of replay, the process will move even more quickly and efficiently.


The point is, no replay system in sports has been as closely analyzed, scrutinized and debated as baseball's system. But if the current format needs refinement, baseball will respond and make adjustments as they prove to be necessary. And ultimately, the time has come to get the calls right, so that the beauty of our national pastime isn't spoiled by mistakes from the men in blue.


Thursday

1-30-13 - Twins Blog: Getting The Band Back Together?

If you were at Twins Fest this past weekend – and judging by social media, plenty of you were – you may have noticed a couple of familiar faces returning to the Twins fold.

Infielder Jason Bartlett was signed to a minor league contract back in November and given an invite to Spring Training for a shot at making the big league club. Outfielder Jason Kubel was signed to a similar deal in December, and both were available for pictures and autographs at the Twins annual winter festival.

Then Wednesday, it was announced that the Twins had signed relief pitcher Matt Guerrier – also to a minor league contract with an invite to Fort Meyers.

So are the “Home 9” getting the band back together? What's next, a trade for Nick Punto?!

(Cue snarky Twins fans nodding their heads vigorously)

While it's not unheard of for players with minor league contracts and Spring Training invites to make the club, it virtually never happens three times in a single season.

So which – if any – of the three has the best shot at making the big club? Let's review a little of their history and assess their chances.

Jason Bartlett

Bartlett came to the Twins in July of 2002 in a trade for outfielder Brian Buchanan. He played in parts of four seasons for Minnesota, hitting .272/.341/.362 in just over a thousand at-bats before being shipped to Tampa as part of the “Garza-for-Delmon” deal that fans are so fond of.

That deal appeared to favor Tampa in a big way when Garza broke out, and Bartlett became an All-Star in 2009. But the Rays have written the book on trading players at their peak value, so after a slight down-tick in Bartlett's numbers in 2010, off he went in a trade to San Diego.

With the Padres, Bartlett struggled, posting a .245/.308/.307 slash line in 2011, and playing only 29 games for the team in 2012 before being put on the DL with a right knee strain, and being granted his unconditional release in August of that year.

Bartlett sat out all of last season, which has its good and its bad points. On the plus-side his knee should be as rested and rehabbed as possible. On the negative side, a full year away from the game creates a LOT of rust, and at 34-years-old, that's going to be very difficult for him to shake off.

If – and it's a sizable “if” - he can hit enough to warrant a spot on the 25-man roster, he should be able to play enough defense to fill a similar utility role to the one occupied by Jamey Carroll the last couple of seasons.


Jason Kubel

Kubel was a born and bred Twin. Drafted by Minnesota in the 12th round of the 2000 amateur draft, Jason made his Major League debut on August 31st of 2004.

His rise to an every-day player was interrupted that Fall, however, when he suffered a serious knee injury in the Arizona Fall League which would cause him to miss all of 2005.

He spent the bulk of the next five years patrolling the Twins outfield or DH'ing, compiling a slash line of .271/.334/.459.

After the 2011 season, Kubel became a free agent, and with only lukewarm interest emanating from the Twins front office, he agreed to a 2-year $15 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

While Kubel's powerful left-handed swing seemed destined to send home runs splashing into the pool in Chase Field, he joined an outfield that was already full-to-bursting with talented players, and – without a DH spot to use for at-bats – never really settled into an every-day position with the D'backs.

Kubel was designated for assignment in August of last year, and traded to the Cleveland Indians three days later.

Cleveland declined to pick up his option, making him a free agent.

Kubel probably has the best shot of the three to make the 25-man roster. He's only 31 years old (he'll turn 32 in May), he hit 30 home runs, 30 doubles and slugged .833 just two seasons ago, and has the flexibility to play either corner outfield spot, or he can DH.

With questions surrounding Josh Willingham's health and his ability to play every day in the field, Kubel could be counted on to bolster an outfield corps that could certainly use more serviceable bodies with power potential.


Matt Guerrier

Though he wasn't drafted by the Twins, Guerrier made his MLB debut with Minnesota after bouncing around the White Sox and Pirates minor league systems for several years.

Guerrier worked out of the Twins bullpen from 2004 to 2010, pitching 472 innings over seven seasons with a 2.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an ERA of 3.38.

The Twins have a history of opting for less-expensive bullpen talent, however, so when Guerrier became a free agent after the 2010 season, he left for the sunny pastures of L.A., signing a 3-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers.

2011 went well for Guerrier, but early in 2012 he experienced right elbow inflammation, and ended up appearing in just 16 games for the Dodgers that season.

He came back in 2013 and pitched in 34 games for L.A., but managed only a 4.80 ERA before being designated for assignment and eventually being traded to the Cubs, who declined to resign him after the season.

Guerrier is perhaps the most intriguing name of the three. When healthy, he's been an absolute horse. For five straight seasons ('07 to '11) he pitched in at least 70 games, threw at least 66+ innings, and only once walked more than 25 batters.

But as we've seen so often with pitchers, when the arm starts to break down, it's very rare that they get it back.

Add to that the fact that the Twins bullpen was actually pretty good last season (leading MLB in Innings Pitched, 4th in Strikeouts and in the upper half of all bullpens in ERA), and it becomes difficult to see Guerrier finding a spot when the team wraps up Spring Training.


So, no, we're not likely to be destined for a reunion of the mid-2000's Twins roster. But when the team breaks camp and heads north to begin the 2014 campaign, one or two of the names might spark memories of a time when the Twins were winning division championships.


And that can hardly be a bad thing.



Monday

11-18-13 Wild Blog: Josh Harding - Best Story In The NHL?

With a concussed Niklas Backstrom on the shelf for an indeterminate amount of time, Josh Harding has solidified his hold on the number-one goaltender position for the Minnesota Wild. More than that, he may have locked himself in as the best story in the NHL this season.

The 29-year-old net-minder is in his 8th season in the NHL, all with the Wild. A career back-up, he was supposed to continue in that role this season after Minnesota resigned Backstrom to a three-year deal. But a series of injuries have thrust Harding into the starting role, and he's responded better than most would have imagined.

Seventeen games is a relatively small sample-size for NHL goalies, but Harding's numbers still stand out. Coming into Sunday night's game against Winnipeg, he led the league in Goals Against Average (1.26, a quarter-goal clear of his nearest competitor) and Save Percentage (.945, tied with Robin Lehner of Ottawa).

He is also tied for first in Shutouts (2) and tied for second in Wins (12). His 11-game point-streak (9-0-2) is also the longest by any Wild goaltender in the team's history.

Compared to some of his career averages – 2.49 GAA and .918 SV% - those eye-popping numbers would seem to be prime for regression. Except for the fact that his defense is playing so well in front of him.

Coming into Sunday night, the Wild led the league in fewest shots-against at 24.1 per game.

Defenseman Marco Scandella talked about building off of Harding's play, saying, “Hards has been playing great. We're breaking out of the zone clean and I feel like we have possession of the puck a lot more than we did before.”

But in typical Harding style, when asked about how few chances he's surrendering, the first thing he does is deflect the credit.

“I think our team's not giving up much. When they do, that's when I have to make that big save,” Harding said, “but I can't say enough about the way the D-men are playing. It's fun to watch from my end.”

His coach, Mike Yeo, is far more willing to credit Harding's skill and hard work.

“I'm kind of running out of things to say,” said Yeo after the game, “He just keeps going out and it's amazing what that does to your group when your goalie's playing like that. When you have that confidence in that guy back there it makes a huge difference.”

Of course, what makes Harding's story all the more special, is the one thing he hates most to talk about: namely his health.

In October of 2012, right before the season started, Harding and the Wild announced that he'd been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an auto-immune disease which attacks the central nervous system.

Because the symptoms and progress of the disease are notoriously unpredictable, no one knows when – or, thanks to advances in treatment, even if – Harding will be affected to the point that he can no longer play at a professional level.

Still, one would have to think that the threat of numbness, paralysis and even loss of vision – all potential effects of the disease – would weigh on the mind of someone who's been diagnosed.

But instead of allowing that to become a distraction, Harding has become one of the leading advocates in town for fund-raising and awareness. He established his foundation “Harding's Hope” (www.hardingshope.org/) for those expressed purposes.

And – as was noted earlier – on top of that added responsibility, he just happens to be having the best season of his career to date.

There are many story-lines in the NHL worth telling.


But it would be tough to argue that Josh Harding's isn't one of the best.

Sunday

10-13-13 Wild Blog: Lone Star Rivals

October 5th, 1993 was the first time the franchise formerly known as the Minnesota North Stars would play a home game somewhere other than Bloomington, MN.

That night they beat the Detroit Red Wings 6-4 in Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas, officially and for the foreseeable future to be known as the “Dallas Stars”.

Though Minnesota hockey fans would count on the promise of a future franchise from the NHL, they had to wait seven long years to get it.

In that time, they had to watch a Dallas Stars club – which included former North Stars: Mike Modano, Derian Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk, Craig Ludwig, and Shawn Chambers – win a Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.

Needless to say, it left a bad taste in the collective mouths of the State of Hockey.

Then came the 2000-01 season, the inaugural campaign of the Minnesota Wild. NHL hockey had returned to Minnesota and found a new home base in a fantastic new facility in St. Paul.

As one might expect, it was a bumpy first year for the expansion franchise, but one that came with a sweet, sweet highlight for Minnesota hockey fans.

On December 17, 2000, the Wild welcomed the Dallas Stars to the Xcel Energy Center for the first time. For many, that was the night that the North Stars were officially retired as Minnesota's team and the Wild really took hold of fans' hockey-loving hearts.

It began with former North Stars Captain – and to this day, the franchise's second leading scorer – Neal Broten doing “Let's Play Hockey”.

Though, in truth, many fans may not have heard him say those three famous words.

That's because Broten took to the Fox Sports North stage wearing a “Stars” jersey. One he promptly tore off to reveal a Wild sweater underneath. The ovation was so loud, it drowned out the PA for several minutes.

And with two goals within a minute of each other in the first period, the party kept right on rocking. Jeff Nielsen got it started, and then rookie sensation Marian Gaborik tipped home the Wild's second goal of the night.

Four goals later, the Wild had completed a 6-0 rout of the Stars and for one night at least, all was right in the State of Hockey.

But while there was certainly a sense of rivalry in Minnesota, it was really a one-sided affair. The folks in Dallas really had no reason to hold any animosity towards the Star of the North state. After all, Minnesotans had provided them with their chance to experience the great sport of hockey, as well as the chance to experience a Championship. What did they have to feel mad about?

Over the intervening years, Wild fans' blood has cooled somewhat. Oh sure, you'll still hear the occasional die hard try to get a “Norm Still Sucks” chant going, but it never seems to have much staying power.

Which brought us to Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center.

Why was this game a little different? Because for the first time in the 14-year history of the Wild, they now occupy the same division as Dallas, the newly-minted “Central” Division of the Western Conference.

Two things create rivalries in sports: familiarity and epic playoff clashes.

Now that the Wild and Stars are in the same division, they're playing each other four times during the regular season (once in October, twice in January, and once in March). And perhaps more importantly, they're competing directly against each other for a spot in the playoffs.

And with the new playoff format, if both teams make the post-season, there's a solid shot that they'd meet each other in the first round.

So Saturday night, the familiarity, at least, began. At the start, it felt a lot like that December 17th, 2000 game.

Justin Fontaine opened the scoring with the first NHL goal of his career.

“I mean that's a good way to start a night,” said Fontaine, “Definitely gets you in the game. We wanted to take it to their top line all night and starting with a goal was huge.”

Matt Cooke continued his offensive hot streak midway through the first with his 3rd goal of the season.

“Thank God they don't ask how,” Cooke said after the game, “Nothing pretty about it. The one I that have a chance to do something fancy, I miss. What's most important to me is the team wins.”

Matt Dumba was the beneficiary of a pretty tic-tac-toe play with the man advantage in the second for his first as an NHL'er. Nino Niederreiter continued a night of firsts with his first goal as a member of the Wild to make it 4-0.

But the Stars weren't going to allow it to keep going that way. A power-play goal at 12:40 of the 2nd got the goose egg off the board for Dallas.

Fortunately for the Wild, Zach Parise salted it away in the third period with a power-play marker of his own, making the final 5-1.

Goaltender Josh Harding stopped 18 of the Stars 19 shots on goal, but wasn't too sure it felt like a rivalry just yet, saying after the game, “They're a great club. You can't play too many games that aren't a rivalry any more. There's bad blood between everybody, because everybody wants to win.”

There weren't any fights and the physicality was average for your standard NHL game. So perhaps the rivalry isn't reminiscent of North Stars/Blackhawks just yet... but given where both teams are trying to get to, it may only be a matter of time.


Oh, and Norm Green still sucks.