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.



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.

6-19-14 Twins Blog: All-Star Voting



We here at the WCCO.com Twins Blog are naturally big baseball fans, so we always look forward to the All-Star Game. All the more so this season because the Mid-Summer Classic is being held at Target Field.

One of the joys of baseball's annual honor for the best in the game, is that fans get to play a significant role in selecting who gets play in the game.

Sometimes it's for performance, sometimes it's a lifetime achievement award (hello, Derek Jeter) and sometimes it's just root-root-rooting for the home team.

With that in mind, we'd like to present our own All-Star ballots, and how we got around to choosing them.

We start with he who has been here longest.
-------


Peter Nelson's Ballot


If there's one thing I can't stand it’s folks who vote for their "favorites" regardless of their performance that year.  If Fantasy Baseball has taught me anything it's to respect the stats.  Here's my ballot:

American League

1B: Jose Abreu - CHW

Abreu was the second-most hyped rookie coming into the 2014 season and he hasn't disappointed.  He is destroying the ball and didn't miss a beat after coming off an ankle injury.  I'd take him over Miggy at this point.

2B:  Brian Dozier – MIN

Dozier is getting it done this season, offensively and defensively.  No hometown bias here. He's the best second baseman the first half of 2014.

SS: Alexi Ramirez – CHW

Another White Sox player on my ballot but it's hard to argue with a batting average above .300 and 30+ RBI at short.

3B:  Josh Donaldson – OAK

Many thought Donaldson should have been at the All-Star game last season.  This season he's made it pretty clear he belongs there.

C: Kurt Suzuki – MIN

Suzuki has been quite the surprise for the Twins.  He deserves to be there just as much as an injured Matt Wieters or Brian McCann.

DH: Nelson Cruz – BAL

If he's made a clean comeback then he deserves to be at the big show.  I presume they've tested him.

OF: Yoenis Cespedes - OAK, Jose Bautista – TOR, Mike Trout – LAA

Cespedes can throw anyone out.  Bautista destroys the ball.  Trout can catch everything.  This is the OF I'd like to see at Target Field on July 15.

National League

1B: Justin Morneau – COL

I'm going to get a little sentimental here.  Morneau has bounced back nicely after signing with Colorado and their potent offense.  It would be fitting for him to start the All-Star Game at Target Field.

2B: Anthony Rendon – WAS

Some think Rendon is the National's best hitter.  The young infielder is putting up the right numbers to make that argument.

SS: Troy Tulowitzki – COL

I'm sure my vote will be the deciding vote to get this guy in.  He's only batting .356 as I write this.

3B:  Todd Frazier – CIN

My heart wanted to go with Pedro but the numbers say Frazier.

C: Evan Gattis – ATL

Gattis was my favorite story from last year and I don't want it to end.  My vote goes to "El Oso Blanco."

OF: Giancarlo Stanton - FLA, Charlie Blackmon – COL, Yasiel Puig – LAD

Stanton has been unstoppable. Blackmon has been a surprise. Puig is a must-see.
-------


Tracy Perlman's Ballot


I love baseball. I love the Twins.

I don't however, love all the other teams. I'll watch them, sure. But know every player on the roster? Nope. Who's got time for that? (OK, I know a lot of people do and fantasy teams make it even easier, but I don't have time for that).

My All-Star ballot voting process is a simple one. I skim the list looking for Twins players and vote for them.

No fancy equations. No staying up all night debating who's deserving of a spot. No second guessing.

There are some exceptions.

Former Twins who I remain a fan of will get priority too. Sometimes even over the current starting lineup. For example, I continue to root for Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and AJ Pierzynski.

While I may not know every starter, I do know a good majority of them and their capabilities. Some are more deserving of an All-Star invitation than the Twins starters.

When wavering from the Twins roster, my decision is based on two things: How are they off the field? Are they a good person? Good role model? If yes, then I consider how good they are at their position.

If at this point, I've decided to give the vote that much consideration, I’ll give them my vote.

Of course, this only applies to the American League. For National League, I depend solely on if I've heard of them and then what I know about them.

Or I just vote for the Cubs player, because they could use as much good morale as possible.  Here's my ballot:

American League

1B: Joe Mauer – MIN

Duh.

2B: Brian Dozier – MIN

I'm sure he'll get beat out by Robinson Cano, but I don’t care. Dozier's hair is WAY more All-Star worthy than Cano’s.

SS: Derek Jeter – NYY

This is one of those "he's a good guy and good at his position and it's his final ASG" votes. Plus, he's a future Hall of Famer, and aren't those the guys you want to see play in All-Star Games?

3B: Trevor Plouffe – MIN

Maybe not technically the best third baseman out there, but he's made a big improvement this season and he's all hustle and heart.

C: AJ Pierzynski – BOS

I know a lot of Twins fans can't stand him, but I always have and always will be a fan of his.

DH: David Ortiz – BOS

This was tough for me. I wanted to vote for Kubel, but he got designated for assignment. Since Big Papi is a former Twin, I don't feel as bad giving him my vote.

OF: Torii Hunter – DET, Aaron Hicks – MIN, Josh Willingham – MIN,

Hunter has a special place in my heart. His #48 jersey is the first, and only, player jersey I own. Hicks has made some insane catches at the warning track and should be back from the DL by the break.  I'd love to see those web gems against some of baseball's best. Willingham is likely better suited for the home run derby, but still, he gets my vote.

National League

1B: Justin Morneau – COL

He's a great first baseman. Plus, it'd be totes adorbs to have the M&M boys back together at Target Field.

2B: Rickie Weeks – MIL

He has good hair and is the only name I recognized. Sorry, not sorry.

SS: Johnny Peralta – STL

Why not? I don't know anyone else.

3B: Luis Valbuena – CHC

Cubs rule.

C: Wilson Ramos – WAS

Former Twin.

OF: Ryan Braun – MIL, Michael Cuddyer – COL, Carlos Gomez – MIL

Cuddyer is one of the nicest, most genuine guys playing the game, and even though he's hurt, I have to vote for him. Go-Go gets my vote because he's having an outstanding season and is a former Twin. Finally, Braun is a member of the tribe, us Jews have to stick together.
-------


Dan Cook's Ballot


I admit it, I'm a stat-geek.

I love the fact that while baseball lags behind other sports in so many areas, the one area it's absolutely led the way in, is advanced metrics.

Yes, there's always room for the eye-test, but the beauty of sabermetrics is that you can double-check said eye-test and either have it confirmed through statistical analysis, or have it contradicted, which gives you the opportunity to go back and reassess what it is you thought you saw.

With that in mind, here's my approach to constructing an All-Star ballot.

First I use Wins Above Replacement, WAR, to winnow down the field to three-five players at each position.  No, WAR isn't the end-all, be-all of baseball statistics, but it is the most all-encompassing one we have.

And, therefore, a good place to start.

Once I've done that, I break down players by offense, usually OPS – a denominator-challenged stat to be sure, but still useful, defense, dWAR and UZR are helpful numbers, and base-running. Stolen bases isn't totally determinative – especially depending on position – but if there's a large disparity between players, then that tells you a little something.

Notice I'm not using Batting Average, though that's nominally incorporated into OPS, I'm definitely not using RBI, which is an entirely too team-dependent statistic for me to use it in an evaluation of an individual player. I'm also not using home runs. Use that to determine who's in the Derby, fine, but it's not going to get you into my All-Star game.

With that, here's my ballot:

American League

1B: Edwin Encarnacion – TOR

My one write-in vote.  It's a shame the ballots aren't more flexible. Clearly no one saw his huge year coming, but it's undeniable he's deserving.

2B: Jose Altuve – HOU

He and Ian Kinsler are neck-and-neck, but I gave the nod to the youngster and his 20-plus stolen bases.

SS: Alexi Ramirez – CWS

As much as it pains me to vote for a South-Sider, his numbers, especially base-running and defense, stand well apart from the rest of the pack.

3B: Josh Donaldson – OAK

This one's a slam-dunk.  Donaldson's having a MVP-like first half, and the rest of the contenders aren't close.

C: Salvador Perez – KC

Cleveland's Yan Gomes has numbers almost identical to Perez, but Perez has a stolen base and Gomes doesn't.  I guess that's a tie-breaker?  Also, anybody but A.J.

DH: Victor Martinez – DET

This came down to V-Mart and Nelson Cruz. Cruz has slightly better numbers, but Martinez has never failed a drug-test.  Advantage, Victor.

OF: Jose Bautista – TOR, Alex Gordon – KC, Mike Trout – LAA

Bautista may break both video boards at Target Field, and that's worth the price of admission alone.  Gordon's a solid player, deserving of recognition.  And Mike Trout's simply the best player in baseball, churning out yet another MVP-worthy season.

National League

1B: Paul Goldschmidt – ARZ

Though his team's having a nightmare year, last-year's NL MVP runner-up is once again putting up big numbers, and is even throwing in some value on the base-paths!

2B: Chase Utley – PHI

Great players don't die, they just keep plugging away on lousy teams because they're too loyal to ask for a trade. Or something like that.

SS: Troy Tulowitzki – COL

Talk about your MVP-worthy first halves!  I don't know if Tulo's capable of staying healthy all year, but given how well he's played so far, I'd love to see how his numbers finish if he can.

3B: Nolan Arenado – COL

Though he's cooled a touch after a torrid start, he still leads the pack at third in OPS and defensive metrics.

C: Jonathan Lucroy – MIL

First thought: this is Yadier Molina's spot to lose.  Second thought: Lucroy has a better WAR, OPS and dWAR.  He gets the nod.

OF: A.J. Pollock – ARZ, Yasiel Puig – LAD, Giancarlo Stanton – MIA

Pollock has a higher OPS than teammate, and fellow vote-getter, Goldschmidt.  Puig frustrates the hell out of me sometimes but is undeniably a joy to watch hit. And Stanton is the best player you may not have heard of because he plays for an owner only slightly less odious than Donald Sterling.
-------

So there you have it.  Three different ballots.  Three different approaches.  And ultimately, none of them are "wrong", because it's an exhibition game.

Fans get to vote however they like and the truth of the matter is, the sheer volume of the voting usually ensures that the right players get there anyway.  And if the “right players” don't get there via the fan votes, the managers can always add them as a reserve.

So head to MLB.com and cast your vote before July 3!

Or if you're feeling "old school", head on out to Target Field, grab a paper ballot, and punch those holes for your favorite players.

The point is to enjoy the process, enjoy the discussion and debate, and enjoy the fact that we get to play a part in the best All-Star Game in all of sports!

5-16-14 Twins Blog: Sid Hartman Day


Sid Hartman has graced this humble Earth for 94 years. He has been scribbling for the Star Tribune for 69 of those years and has held court on the airwaves of WCCO Radio for 59.

This Sunday, the Minnesota Twins - who've been in this state a mere 53 years – will honor those astounding numbers, and the singular character who owns them, with “Sid Hartman Day” at Target Field.

There will be a special edition of “The Sports Huddle” with co-host Dave Mona live from Target Plaza near the Majestic Clubhouse, where fans can count on seeing Sid talk with Twins names like Tom Kelly, Dave St. Peter and even a player or two.

In addition, fans will have a chance at a limited edition Sid bobblehead and a coffee mug with famous Sid quotes from his illustrious career (at least the ones fit for print).

So what is it about Sid Hartman that makes him such a legend? Is it merely being around as long as he has? Is it the seemingly endless list of contacts and “close, personal friends”? Or is it something more?

I think it's the stories. Sid's made an amazing career out of telling stories, and along the way has created a bevy of them himself.

Everybody has a Sid story. People who've worked with him usually have several. And for a select few, there are so many stories that volumes will continue to be written long after most of us have left this mortal coil.

(And Sid will probably still be here when we do.)

My first, and best Sid story occurred on June 25, 1998.

As a young radio reporter, I was covering the Brewers as they traveled to the Metrodome to face the Twins. In the top of the 5th, Brewers second baseman Mark Loretta lined a shot to Brad Radke's left. The normally sure-gloved pitcher got said glove on the ball, but wasn't able to gather it in time to throw Loretta out at first.

Twins official scorer Tom Mee watched several replays and ruled it an error. Sid, however, upon learning that was Brad Radke's first ever error in a big league uniform, decided that he disagreed.

For those who've seen Sid “disagree” with a team official before, it wasn't anything that unusual. But there were enough “colorful metaphors” and “decibel levels rarely matched in press boxes” that I was apparently left with a look of stunned confusion on my face.

I say “apparently” because after one look at me, WCCO's Mike Max quipped, “There's only one Sid, right?” To which I mumbled some sort of, “Yeah, sure, okay...”-style agreement.

Had Mike ended his quips there, it wouldn't be much of a story. But moments later, as Sid – resplendent in a “not-quite-Augusta” green sportcoat - walked over to tell Maxie why he thought the error on Radke was such a lousy call, Mike stopped him, looked at me and said, “I don't know why you'd say that, I think that jacket looks great on Sid!”

Gulp.

Again, I was a punk kid doing radio in Wisconsin. But I had grown up in the Twin Cities, and knew enough to know that Sid's a legend and suddenly being put in the position of having dared critique his sartorial splendor was not good.

Naturally, my entire future career flashed before my eyes.

Until Sid took two looks at me, decided I was probably just some punk kid doing radio in Wisconsin and moved on as though I'd never said anything in the first place... which, technically, I hadn't.

And that was fortunate for me, since it turns out I'd spend 13 years (and hopefully still counting) at WCCO Radio.

Over those years Sid's asked me who I was more than a handful of times, “when was I going to get one of those hair transplants like Lynch” at least half a dozen times, and “hey, can you look this up for me” more times than I could possibly count. And the truth is, I treasure every one of them... simply for the stories.

Most people only cross paths with honest-to-goodness legends a handful of times in their lives. When you get to work with one, you soak it up and try and enjoy it as best you can.

Sure, Sid's earned a reputation as curt, irascible, and lacking patience with “selective listeners”. But ultimately, those things are all a part of his charm. Or what another legend, Dark Star, used to call, “the wonder of it all.”

Come Sunday, there will be more than a few “Sid Stories” shared at Target Field. And, knowing Sid, there'll likely be one or two created that day as well.

So head down to the ballpark early, catch The Sports Huddle, and enjoy the spectacle of Sid trying to figure out how a kid from Venezuela got a name like “Felix” as the Twins take on the Mariners and 2010 Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez at 1:10pm.


Who knows? Maybe you'll end up with a “Sid story” of your own!



Saturday

4-26-14 Twins Blog: The Unlikely Story of Chris Colabello



Each season baseball produces more than its fair share of unlikely stories. That's one of the things that makes the game so special.

And yet, even though we know to anticipate the unlikely, to count on the improbable, and to prepare for the implausible, it still manages to catch us off guard.

I give to you, the case of one Chris Colabello.

An undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts, Colabello has had one of the more round-about routes to the majors you'll ever see.

He began his professional odyssey in 2005, playing for the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Can-Am league. He remained there (outside of a 43-game stint with Nashua) for seven years.

At one point, rumors swirled that he and a teammate were going to have their contracts purchased by the Mets. His teammate got the call. He didn't.

According to minor league reporter Jessica Quiroli, “He expressed disappointment that didn't happen, but I recall was how loyal and supportive he was of his teammate. Chris was a consistent hitter that could do a lot of things to help a team win and he had that great attitude. There's always players in [the independent leagues] that stand out from the pack because of their approach, because of their willingness to work, and he was one of them.”

In baseball, like life, hard work will eventually earn you opportunities, and Colabello's finally came.

In 2011, Colabello was named Baseball America's Independent League Player of the Year. That was good enough to get him a look with a minor league affiliate – in this case the New Britain Rock Cats whom he joined for the 2012 season.

He promptly went out and earned Twins Minor League Player of the Week on April 20th after hitting .381 with two doubles, three home runs and eight RBI. And he kept right on going through the rest of the season. He had 40 multi-hit games that season, 21 multi-RBI games, led the Eastern League in doubles (37), ranked second in RBI (98), fourth in runs scored (78) and was tied for fourth in home runs (19). He was the runner up for the Eastern League MVP award and was named the first baseman for the MiLB.com Twins organization All-Star team.

Taking advantage of that break, led to his next opportunity: a spot on the 2013 Team Italy roster for the World Baseball Classic. All he did in those five games was hit .333 with two home runs and seven RBI.

That helped get him invited to big league camp in 2013, though he was reassigned to Triple-A Rochester to start the season. But he wouldn't stay there long.

On May 22, at age 29 and in his ninth year of professional baseball, Colabello finally got the call after Trevor Plouffe was placed on the 7-day disabled list with a concussion.

It wasn't quite the debut Colabello had hoped for, collecting just one hit in 11 AB's while striking out six times.

On May 29th, he was optioned back to Rochester, only to be told that he'd need to turn around the next day and head right back to Minnesota, because after coming off the concussion-DL, Plouffe injured his calf and was placed on the 15-day DL.

Chris bounced back-and-forth between Rochester and Minnesota a couple more times before finally getting called up for good on July 19th.

He finished the 2013 season hitting .194/.287/.344 in the big leagues with seven home runs, three doubles and 17 RBI.

But his minor league numbers were good enough to earn him a spot in the Triple-A All-Star game, the International League MVP and Baseball America's Triple-A Player of the Year award.

In the business of baseball that's enough to get the “4-A” label slapped on you. Good enough to dominate Triple-A, but not good enough to get it done in the big leauges.

So Colabello's career was at a cross-roads.

During this past off-season, the Twins presented Colabello with an opportunity to play for the LG Lions in the Korean league. An easy, “no thanks”, right? After all the time Colabello had spent chasing his big league dream and finally getting a taste of it, why would he go play in Korea?

For a guaranteed $1 million contract, that's why. There was no guarantee he was going to make the Twins big league roster, and the club decided that some flexibility on their 40-man roster wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, so they worked out the deal with the Lions, but made it Chris' choice.

In the end Colabello decided to continue following his dream.

“I don't think it was that hard [of a decision],” he said to Phil Rogers of MLB.com “My heart never went that way. I've followed my heart my whole life. I use my head too, but I follow my heart. ... It has never steered me wrong.”

Which brings us to the first month of the 2014 season, where it would seem that Chris' decision as been fairly well vindicated.

Through Saturday's action, Colabello is hitting .308/.351/.505 with nine doubles, three homers and 27 RBI.

That last number is especially important, since it broke a 20-year old mark for most RBI by a Twins batter in the month of April. The previous owner of that mark? One Anthony Kirby Puckett.

“Pretty impressive,” said manager Ron Gardenhire, “He's got his name sitting next to one of the best players I ever saw. That's a pretty cool thing. You tip your hat to him. That's pretty special.”

As for Colabello, as you might expect, he's taking it in stride.

“You know Kirby obviously was quite the player… and represents everything that's right about the Minnesota Twins. For me personally, it's a great honor, but I still feel like I have a lot of work to do and a lot of stuff that I want to contribute to this team.”

There's no question that he's limited by the lack of a natural defensive position. His best spot, first base, is currently occupied by $23 million. And his BABIP is a sky-high .397. So even if the Twins are able to stay creative and get him at-bats, his hitting numbers should normalize a bit.

But on a team that was expected to struggle to score runs, any production is welcome. And it's all the more entertaining when the story behind it is as unlikely as Colabello's.



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.