Dan Cook

Dan Cook

Sunday

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.



Sunday

7-6-14 All-Star Game Blog: Twins All-Stars



The Minnesota Twins will have at least two players representing them as they host the 2014 All-Star Game.

Kurt Suzuki is getting his first shot at an appearance in the Midsummer Classic. Glen Perkins can now call himself a two-time All-Star.

Suzuki broke into the big leagues with Oakland in 2007. A career .257 hitter, he's never been known as an offensive juggernaut. But as a reliable backstop, he's carved out a solid career by handling pitching staffs and answering the bell daily despite his fair share of bumps and bruises.

After deciding to move Joe Mauer to first base, the Twins needed a veteran presence at catcher. Josmil Pinto showed some signs last season, but certainly wasn't ready to be behind the plate day-in and day-out.

So Minnesota signed Suzuki in the off-season to a 1-year, $2.75 million deal. Not rich by Major League standards, but reasonable considering he hit .232/.290/.337 in 2013 while splitting time between Washington and Oakland.

To say Suzuki has exceeded expectations is putting it mildly.

Coming into Sunday's game with the Yankees, he'd put together a slash-line of .308/.366/.400.

Among American League catchers, Suzuki ranked 1st in Batting Average (.308) and OBP (.366), T1st in Doubles (17), 2nd in Hits (77) and T3rd in RBI (34).

Manager Ron Gardenhire cited those numbers as making Suzuki deserving of an All-Star nod.

“He has the numbers. He's done a great job for us and we're very proud for him,” Gardenhire said, “and very happy for him and his family. It's a big thing for him and he's very excited.”

Baseball reference puts his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 2.1 games. Fangraphs has him slightly lower at 1.2 WAR.

Whichever version you prefer, there's no question that the number is higher than would've been predicted before the year began.

He was asked if he came into this season thinking he'd have a shot at making the AL All-Star squad.

“I always try to be positive. I always envision it. After the last two years there was definitely a little bit of doubt in there,” Suzuki said, “but you try and stay positive and put in a lot of hard work and time. I believed in myself, it's just a matter of going out there and performing.”

And his contributions haven't just been on the offensive side of the ball.

Suzuki has taken multiple foul balls off thinly-protected areas over the course of the season, and even managed to clothesline himself on a railing chasing after a foul ball in a game this past week. But even with the wear and tear that's unique to the catching position, Suzuki has caught 72 of the Twins 87 games this season.

Asked if he was going to have to cancel previous plans, Suzuki said he had planned to stay in town anyway.

“This is definitely a much better plan for the [All-Star] break than what I had,” Suzuki said.

It's an honor to be selected to an All-Star Game - an honor that most players don't receive over the course of their career. But a player really starts to enter rarefied air when he's selected to multiple All-Star Games.

And you can now add Twins closer Glen Perkins to that list.

Perkins had his first All-Star experience last year at Citi Field as the Mets hosted the Midsummer Classic.

This season, he not only gets to make an appearance in his home ballpark, but also in the town he's called home most of his life.

“I did everything I could do to be here,” Perkins said, “I don't think it's really sunk in yet. But I'm excited to represent the Twins and the state. It's a dream come true.”

Manager Ron Gardenhire could tell how badly Perkins wanted to make the All-Star roster.

“When I talked to him [Perkins] after I talked to the manager [Boston skipper John Farrell], he took a deep breath and sighed,” Gardenhire said, “he was really excited. It was something that was weighing on his mind heavily. This was something that he wanted very badly and rightfully so.”

Perkins was drafted by the Twins in the first round of the 2004 draft and made his Major League debut with the club in 2006.

Beginning his career as a starter, Perkins eventually transitioned to the bullpen and after collecting a pair of saves in 2011 and a handful more in 2012, he became the Twins closer full time and turned himself in to a two-time All-Star.

Perkins ERA is up a touch from last season – 3.22 as opposed to 2.30 last year – but that may be slightly misleading since his FIP (1.84) would indicate he hasn't exactly had rock-solid defense working behind him.

His peripherals would support his inclusion in the All-Star Game as well. His Home Run Rate (0.5) and Walk Rate (1.7) are down from his career averages (1.0 & 2.3) and his Strikeout Rate (11.9) is up (7.2).

Each of those statistics are also improved over his numbers last season – when he joined Joe Mauer as All-Star representatives from the Twins.

Asked about having Kurt Suzuki alongside him, Perkins had a joke at the ready.

“I have a knack for bringing catchers,” Perkins said, “I'm excited for him. He's had a heck of year. He's been our best player. Hopefully I'll get to throw the ball to him.”

After not getting into the game in 2013, Twins manager – and All-Star coach - Ron Gardenhire is determined to make sure he gets in this year.


“I'll be on the bench,” Gardenhire said, “I'll just sneak him out there.”



Friday

6-20-14 Twins Blog: Waiting Game


Ten years. Two hundred ninety-two games. One thousand ninety-three and two-thirds innings. That's how long Yohan Pino (pronounced PEEN-oh) had to slog his way through the minor leagues before finally getting his shot at the big leagues.

And in an ironic twist few sports other than baseball could provide, he had to wait an extra two hours on Thursday night thanks to a steady rain that delayed the start of the Twins vs. White Sox until 9:16 p.m.

It was a long, winding road for Pino.

Born on December 26th, 1983, in Turmero, Aragua, Venezuela, he was signed by the Twins as a minor-league free agent out of the Venezuelan Winter League on May 12, 2004. He began what looked like a steady march through the minors in 2005 in Elizabethton, advancing to Beloit in 2006, Fort Meyers and even Double-A New Britain in 2007.

He spent all of 2008 with the Rock Cats before getting promoted to Triple-A Rochester during the 2009 season, agonizingly close to the big leagues.

But after just eight games with the Red Wings, he found himself traded to the Cleveland Indians organization and spending the rest of the 2009 season in Columbus.

Hey, if the Twins didn't have room for him in The Show, maybe Cleveland did?

Except something in Columbus didn't agree with Yohan and his numbers went in the wrong direction. That got him traded to the Toronto Blue Jays organization in 2011 where he bounced around from Triple-A Las Vegas to Double-A New Hampshire.

After finishing the 2012 season in Vegas, Pino moved on to the Reds organization where he hoped to finally get his shot.

He started 2013 in Double-A Pensacola and managed to work his way up to Triple-A Louisville to finish the season but still couldn't find his way to the majors.

Which brought him back to where it all began, as he signed with the Twins organization for 2014 and began the year back in Rochester.

Did he think he'd ever make it to the majors?

“At times I found it difficult to think I might get here, but I kept on working hard,” Pino said.

All he'd done so far this season in Triple-A was go 9-1, with a 1.92 ERA, an 0.934 WHIP, a 3.81 K/BB, and 9.0 strikeout rate.

Eventually, those numbers became too good to ignore, and when the Twins decided to take Samuel Deduno out of the rotation, Pino – at 30 years, 175 days – became the oldest Minnesota Twin to make his Major League debut.

It just took a couple of extra hours to make it happen.

After the rain finally let up in Minnesota, and the Twins took the field against Chicago, Pino promptly struck out the first two batters he faced: Adam Eaton and Gordon Beckham on five pitches each. A Conor Gillaspie ground-out gave Pino his first big-league 1-2-3 inning. An unsurprising start since he'd gone 1-2-3 in the first in each of his seven starts in Rochester.

Pino wasn't overpowering. His fastball sat in the upper-80's, touching 90 once in a while. He mixed in a mid-70's curveball and an 80'ish mph changeup to keep White Sox hitters off-balance.

Catcher Kurt Suzuki was asked about catching Pino for the first time in his career.

“It helps when the guy hits every single spot you go to. It was nice,” Suzuki said.

Chicago small-balled their way to a couple of runs off him in the 3rd, but that was all the offense they could muster off Pino.

His final line: 7IP, 5H, 2ER, 1BB, 7K, 94 pitches, 68 strikes.

If you'd offered the Twins those numbers before the game, they'd have taken them gladly.

“They've got some pretty good hitters over there and he held them down pretty good. That's fun to watch. He gave us a great opportunity to win a ballgame,” said manager Ron Gardenhire.

And though he didn't factor in the decision, the Twins still got a win in Pino's debut, as they scored two in the 8th on the way to a 4-2 win over Chicago.

After the game he was all smiles when asked what he'll do with the game ball.

“I'm going to get it signed by the whole team and save it for my family,” Pino said.


Given how long he waited to get to the big leagues, it's a memento well-earned.