Tuesday

11-4-14 Twins Blog: Paul Molitor - Lots of Questions



On Tuesday the Minnesota Twins introduced the 13th manager in club history, Paul Molitor, and gave him a chance to address the many questions that have been floating around since he emerged early on as the front-runner for the job.

The new field boss takes over a team that's lost 90+ games for four consecutive seasons, and has serious questions to answer before they return to baseball relevance.

But for his part the new skipper seems undeterred by the challenge.

“I'm coming here to win,” Molitor said at his introductory press conference, “I think that it's very important to lay that out there right from the start. Things can change in this game very dramatically at this level very quickly.”

So how will that change come about? Both Molitor and his boss Twins GM Terry Ryan know that it comes down to pitching.

“I like some of the things we saw about our pitching,” Molitor said, “I'm sure Terry will tell you that we're always going to keep our minds open about trying to find ways to improve our roster – I mean who doesn't do that? - but I'm also prepared to look at what we have and say hey there are some good things there.”

“We've got to address a few holes here,” GM Terry Ryan said, “As you've heard me say many times, payroll's not everything, but it certainly helps, so we'll use it to our advantage. If there's somebody out there that we think is going to help us, we'll have the ability to go chase that player.”

While Molitor will certainly have input on the eventual 25-man roster, his job will be primarily be about coaching and managing whatever players Ryan gives him.

And since Molitor's never managed at any level before, there are some questions about his experience. Questions he's aware of an didn't shy away from.

“Playing, coaching, developing, it's not the same as being the leader at the top,” Molitor said, “I certainly was transparent with Terry about I know what I know … but you have to know where you're going to need help. I think assembling a staff that's going to be supportive, that's able to fill some of those gaps for me … will be very critical, and it's something that we plan to get started on.”

Asked if Molitor's lack of managerial experience factored in his decision-making, Ryan said he was certainly cognizant of it.

“If there's one thing that Paul wasn't experienced in, it's making out the lineup card,” Ryan said, “and that certainly crosses any general manager's mind about the hiring process. And then you look at some of the recent history of major league managers, there's many guys that are succeeding that haven't made out a lineup in their life. And after obviously knowing Paul for the many years that we have around here, that's secondary.”

Beyond experience, there are questions about Molitor's ability to connect with all of his players. There's a narrative in sports that players of Hall of Fame ability struggle to coach players who aren't as naturally gifted.

Molitor didn't sound overly concerned about it.

“We've seen successful athletes not have much success in management,” Molitor said, “If that happens, it won't be because I didn't think I did the right thing, or why would you mess – just leave a good thing alone. This is a different challenge, it's totally separate from my playing.”

He even quipped that the Hall of Fame reached out to him after he was announced as manager.

“I got a text from Jeff Idelson yesterday, the president of the Hall of Fame,” Molitor said, “and he said, 'Relax, enjoy this. No matter what you do, your plaque is gonna stay in the plaque room. Give you a little freedom.'”

What about the increased use of advanced metrics in the game? Will Molitor embrace the trend towards using sabermetrics to optimize his teams performance?

“It's changed a lot. Information has incredibly increased,” Molitor said, “ I will be open to using what's helpful to me. My concern is that there is so much out there that we try to pass on to players, that you see the smoke coming out of their helmet when they're trying to remember what this guy does on Wednesdays, in a three o'clock game when he has a guy on third base in the sixth inning with two outs.”

But perhaps the most telling answer Molitor gave on Tuesday was to a pretty straight-forward question: What will a Paul Molitor-managed team look like?

“I think that people will probably have their ideas on what it's going to be after they watch our team play for a year,” Molitor said, “Everyone's going to have their own little unique stamp hopefully that they put on their club. I don't know if there's going to be major changes in certain things that we do. Hopefully part of the stamp that I put on is trying to help these guys understand the critical aspect of being good base-runners and learning how to score runs.”

That answer is reflective of a simple truth: anyone who tells you they know what kind of manager Paul Molitor is going to be – including Paul Molitor – is speculating at best.

Until he gets out there and does it, no one really knows how this is going to work out.

Molitor won't be able to turn this thing around on his own. Unless the Twins starting pitching improves - giving the bullpen a break and maximizing the impact of the seventh-highest scoring offense in baseball last season – the difference in managerial styles from Ron Gardenhire to Paul Molitor won't show up much in the team's record.


Those looking for answers from Molitor on Tuesday got a few. But the answers to the most important questions won't start being answered until April 6th, when the Twins kick off their 2015 campaign in Detroit.


Sunday

10-26-14 Wild Blog: What Goaltending Problems?!


Coming into the 2014-15 season there was plenty of cautious optimism surrounding the Minnesota Wild.

Optimism because they'd added goal-scorer Thomas Vanek and kept the offensive-minded Matt Dumba in an effort to bolster an offense that ranked 25th (199G) in scoring last season. A season where they progressed to the Western Conference Semi-Finals before bowing out to Chicago in a series where many thought the Wild out-played the 2013 Stanley Cup champs.

Caution because for all the improvements on offense, and confidence in Mike Yeo and his staff, there were still plenty of questions surrounding the Wild netminders.

Last season began with a spectacular run by G Josh Harding, who amassed an 18-7-3 record with a 1.65 GAA and a .933 SV% before having to step away to deal with complications from his Multiple Sclerosis treatments. Niklas Backstrom was more than talented enough to pick up the slack, but his history of injuries proved prescient, and he was forced out of the lineup.

That left Darcy Kuemper and the newly acquired Ilya Bryzgalov to carry the Wild through the post-season. And considering that the result was the Wild's deepest run since the 2002-03 Western Conference Finals team, you could say they were fairly successful.

So why the caution over the goaltending this season? Harding seemed to be healthy coming into camp, but the club couldn't be sure if or when an issue with his MS might surface. Darcy Kuemper was a restricted free-agent and was at loggerheads with management over a new contract. Backstrom was healthy, but no one could know for how long and Bryzgalov, while still available, was closer to the end of his career than to his prime.

But as so often happens in pro sports things sorted themselves out quickly enough.

Harding came up with a broken foot which the Wild would only say was from an “off-ice incident” and was suspended from the team. That forced Wild GM Chuck Fletcher to drop his demand for a two-way contract with Kuemper (which would've allowed the team to pay Darcy significantly less money if he'd been sent to AHL-Iowa) and sign him to a two-year, one-way deal that would pay him $2.5 million.

Backstrom, who successfully got through the preseason without injury, would battle with Kuemper for the starting job, and Bryzgalov, who'd been signed to a try-out contract for the preseason was “wished well in his future endeavors”.

But even with things seemingly falling into line, goaltending was still seen as a potential weakness for the Wild.

So far, Darcy Kuemper has done all anyone could ask to counter that line of thinking.

After Saturday night's 7-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Kuemper is now 4-1-0 with a 0.80 GAA and a .966 save percentage.

It took him just four games to set a new career high in shut-outs with three, a number which also happens to lead the NHL. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he's just the second goalie since the 1967-68 season to record shutouts in three of his first four games – the other being the Blue Jackets Pascal Leclaire in 2007-08.

During that run, Kuemper also set a Wild franchise record for the longest shutout streak at 163 minutes and 46 seconds

For his part, Kuemper is giving the defense playing in front of him the bulk of the credit.

“I definitely feel good out there, feeling confident,” Kuemper said, “they're [the defense] allowing me to do that by the way they're playing and making my reads easy. I think right now we've just got a good chemistry going between me and the d-men, the forwards are helping us out too. We've got a good thing going right now.”

And there's certainly something to be said for that.

Ryan Suter is playing at the elite, “in the discussion for the Norris Trophy” level that Wild fans have come to expect from him. The Wild think so much of his partner Jonas Brodin that they just inked him to a six-year, $25 million dollar extension. And Jared Spurgeon is tied for second on the Wild with 5 points (2G, 3A) and leads the Wild in blocked shots with 22.

So Kuemper's not wrong to credit his defensemen. But even if he won't say it, it's clear he's having a stellar start to the year himself.

“He's playing unbelievable you know, he's making that first save,” defenseman Marco Scandella said, “we're trying to make him see more pucks and he's doing the job right now. He's a big presence.”

The Wild are just six games into an 82-game schedule, and much will change between now and the end of the regular season.


But so far, the early concerns about the Wild's goaltenders are being allayed, and if that continues, Minnesota will almost certainly be a factor in the Western Conference playoff picture.

9-7-14 Twins Blog: Selling Hope



At the end of their penultimate homestand, the Minnesota Twins left the friendly confines of Target Field with a record of 61-82.

With only 19 games remaining in the season, it seems fairly well assured that the Twins will end their fourth straight season with 90+ losses. Speculation and debate over potential organizational change will run rampant. And Twins fans will spend another off-season wondering when their favorite team will manage to climb their way out of baseball's cellar.

In the modern American classic, “The Shawshank Redemption”, we hear Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne deliver perhaps the quintessential line of the movie in voice-over form.

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing,” Dufresne says, “maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

And really, when you boil baseball down to it's base elements, “hope” is what America's Pastime is all about.

Each season 30 fan bases begin with the dream of a parade late that year. In reality maybe 12-15 of those fan bases may have a legitimate shot at the start of the year, and only 10 of them will be granted an opportunity at post-season glory.

So what about the rest? If intellectually, you know your team has little to no chance of competing for a title when the season begins, why do you buy tickets? Why do you buy merchandise? Why do you go to the ballpark? Why do you watch on TV or listen on radio?

The answer is simple: hope.

Baseball, like life is cyclical. If things are good now, it's best not to take them for granted, because it won't always be this way. If things stink at the moment, be patient and persevere because better times are likely to come.

As was mentioned earlier, the Twins find themselves decidedly in a down-cycle. In fact, it's a historically bad down-cycle. The franchise has never in its history finished four consecutive seasons with 95+ losses, as it's currently threatening to do.

The last time it finished 4 seasons with 90+ losses was in a stretch from 1997-2000, but lost 95+ only one of those seasons (1999). Prior to that you have to go back to the 1955-59 Washington Senators to find a stretch of futility even approaching what the Twins have put together of late.

So in the face of such gross ineffectiveness, what hope is there for Twins fans? Why should they even bother coming to the ballpark for the approaching final homestand of 2014?

Well in baseball, hope usually takes the form of young players. And while the cream of the Twins prospect crop isn't here yet, several players who could play key roles on future clubs are here now and September is their chance to gain experience and prove whether they truly do fit into future plans or not.

Danny Santana has been with the team since May, and while his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is unsustainably high (.391) and his walk percentage is frighteningly low (4.7%), he's filled a couple of key roles for the Twins.

First, he's been a fixture in the leadoff spot, amassing a slashline of .320/.358/.475 with 15 stolen bases and 57 runs scored. Second, he's played solid – if not spectacular – defense in center field. A position which isn't his natural spot (he's a shortstop), but one that the Twins have been unable to fill on a regular basis since trading Denard Span and Ben Revere prior to the 2013 season.

Santana has a shot to be an everyday shortstop in this league, but even if his ceiling turns out to be a super-utility player, he'll bring plenty of value to the Twins in the years to come.

Kennys Vargas has been the apple of many a Twins fan's eye over his first 36 games in the big leagues. 15 extra-base hits and 33 RBI in your first 152 at-bats will do that to a fan base.

Like Santana, Vargas is riding the wave of a high BABIP (.358) and his walk percentage is even lower than Santana's (2.5%). So assuming those numbers normalize a little bit (and given that the only defensive position you dare play him at is currently blocked by $23 million), Vargas is unlikely to live up to the “Little Papi” nickname some wish to thrust upon him, given his close relationship with former Twin David Ortiz.

So maybe Santana gets supplanted by a Byron Buxton at the top of the Twins lineup. And maybe Vargas isn't a long-term solution at the clean-up spot. But one can easily imagine Santana being electric at the bottom of the order, and Vargas slotting in nicely in the 5th or 6th spot behind Miguel Sano and perhaps Oswaldo Arcia.

They're not the not the most important pieces, but they are valuable pieces none the less.

There are also plenty of other roster questions to be decided. Can Aaron Hicks actually develop into an every-day Major League outfielder? Can Josmil Pinto's defense behind the plate catch up to his offensive skill enough to allow him to stick? Can Trevor May overcome the rough start to his big league career and become a long-term part of the Twins rotation?

And it's not just the kids who pose questions for the Twins. Assuming Sano will be serviceable at third base, what does Trevor Plouffe's future hold? A move to the outfield perhaps? Can Ricky Nolasco bounce back from a tough first year of the four-year, $49 million contract the Twins signed him to? Can Brian Dozier take the next step and graduate from “solid every-day major leaguer” to “All-Star second baseman”?

The answers to all of those questions won't come quickly, but they'll start to be answered as the 2014 season winds down over the final homestand September 15th through the 24th.


Is there hope for Twins fans? There's only one way to find out. Keep watching.


Friday

9-5-14 Twins Blog: Plenty to See Here





The calendar has turned to September. Kids are back in school. Football season has begun. And the Twins find themselves on the wrong side of another lop-sided record.

The temptation to turn the page on the baseball season and forego any further trips to the ballpark is strong. But that would be a mistake.

It can be argued that there are plenty of reasons to come watch the Twins themselves – arguments which you'll find in this same place later this weekend.

But today, the focus is on a reason to come to the ballpark, regardless of how the Twins are faring: to see some of the best players in baseball ply their trade.

We were spoiled earlier this Summer when most of the greats were here for baseball's Midsummer Classic.

But for those of you who weren't able to find your way into the ballpark for the All-Star Game there are still chances to see some of those same players. And the best part is, this time, the games actually do count.

This weekend, the Los Angeles Angels are in town trying to extend their lead in the AL West, and with them comes arguably the best player in all of baseball (not to mention the MVP of the aforementioned All-Star Game): Mike Trout.

Trout made his Major League debut on July 8, 2011. All he's done since then is compile a .306/.394/.546 slash-line with 223 extra-base hits, 294 runs driven in, 350 runs scored and 981 total bases in just under 1800 at-bats. He's been an All-Star three times and finished second in AL MVP voting twice.

How good are those numbers?

Just compare them to the man Trout is most often comped to: Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle.

In the Mick's first 4 seasons he compiled a .296/.391/.505 slash-line with 200 extra-base hits, 346 runs driven in, 389 runs scored and 956 total bases in just under 1900 at-bats. Mantle was also a three-time All-Star at that point, but hadn't finished higher than third in the AL MVP voting, and he hit that threshold only once.

Give Trout another 100 at-bats and it's likely he will eclipse all of Mantle's numbers from his first four seasons.

What separates guys like Trout from the rest of the field, however is the value he adds beyond the bat.

Trout's attempted to steal 113 times in his career. Catchers have thrown him out just 14 times. So if he doesn't drive the ball in the gap for a double, he's nearly as likely to turn a single into a double with the strength of his speed.

He's no slouch in the field either. Fangraphs has a statistic called “Ultimate Zone Rating” which attempts to measure a players contribution in runs above or below average. For his career Trout is a full 14.3 runs above the defensive level an average outfielder would play at.

Baseball Reference calculates forms of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in both offensive and defensive categories. For his career, Trout's added 1.2 wins above a replacement player for his defense alone. By way of comparison, Mantle wasn't able to get above 0 dWAR until his fifth season in the big leagues.

But not all of you are stat-heads, right? So how does this translate for you?

Simple. If you want to see a guy hit the cover off the ball, run the bases like he was shot out of a cannon and cover more ground in the field than Alexander the Great, you want to go watch Mike Trout play baseball.

All the more so because he seems to enjoy playing at Target Field.

“I love it, the atmosphere is great, and the fans are great,” Trout said.

Does he think there's a downside to Minnesota baseball's pride and joy?

“I would like to see a dome on it,” Trout said laughingly, “but it's great to play here.”

Perhaps you're not a Trout fan? Possibly you're one of those folks who come down on the Miguel Cabrera end of the AL MVP debate? Maybe you're not sure?

No worries, Cabrera brings his Tigers to town one week from Monday. So check out Trout this weekend and Cabrera in a week and decide for yourself.


Either way, there are still plenty of reasons to head out to Target Field to watch baseball over the last month of the season.