Thursday, August 24, 2017

A trip to Cedar Rapids: Joe Cronin

The Twins have a big name infielder on their Cedar Rapids farm club -- and I don't mean Royce Lewis.

Joe Cronin was a Hall of Famer -- probably the greatest American League shortstop until the Robin Yount-Alan Trammell-Cal Ripken Jr. generation came along, and also a long time manager, team executive and president of the American League. He was a better player than manager and a better manager than executive, but he truly merits his plaque at Cooperstown.

Joe Cronin is an infielder for the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The Twins drafted him last year in the 34th round out of Boston College, and he is hitting under the Mendoza Line so far in his career. He's split time pretty evenly among third base, shortstop and second base for the Kernels. I saw him homer Sunday.

Cronin the Younger is not related to Cronin the Elder and certainly can't hit like his namesake some 80 years ago, but he seems to be a reliable fielder, especially by A ball standards. I probably wouldn't have paid him any attention were it not for his name.

The name gets him noticed. But if you're hitting .192, you might not want to be noticed.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A trip to Cedar Rapids: Travis Blankenhorn and Trey Cabbage

I get Travis Blankenhorn and Trey Cabbage confused.

They are both left-handed hitting infielders drafted by the Twins in the third and fourth rounds respectively in 2015. Both were described as third basemen on draft day. They both have first names that start with the same two letters.

Blankenhorn got to Cedar Rapids for the last month or so of the 2016 season and hit fairly well after crushing the Appy League. He played more second base than third, and DH'd more than he played second. He returned to Cedar Rapids for the 2017 season and has been a bit less productive at the plate while playing more in the field, splitting time between second and third with more time at third than at second.

Cabbage has been slower up the ladder and less productive. He spluttered last year at Elizabethton and improved some there this year before getting a late promotion to Cedar Rapids, and he's barely over the Mendoza line in less than 150 plate appearances in the Midwest League. He's played more outfield than third base for the Kernels.

On Friday, Blankenhorn was the DH and Cabbage started at third base. On Saturday, Cabbage was the DH and Blankenhorn second. On Sunday, Blankenhorn played second and Cabbage entered the game late at first base.

Cabbage drove in the winning run Friday with a sac fly. Blankenhorn homered on Saturday for the only run of the game for either side, and followed that up with a 4-for-5 game Sunday.

Somewhere in my brain, I have linked Blankenhorn and Cabbage to a 1970s Twins third baseman named Mike Cubbage (which is pretty close to Cabbage). Cubbage was a left-handed hitter who platooned at third base for Gene Mauch and occasionally played second. He finished his playing career with the Mets and went on to manage in the minors, coach in the majors and serve as in interim manager with the Mets in 1991. 

Cubbage's career might be Blankenhorn's future. Cabbage will have to find his bat to reach that high. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A trip to Cedar Rapids: Ben Rortvedt

There are few players on the Cedar Rapids Kernels roster more important to the Twins future than Ben Rortvedt, a left-handed hitting catcher selected in the second round in the 2016 draft.

Rortvedt isn't putting up good numbers for the Kernels. Indeed, backup catcher Caleb Hamilton has hit three times the homers (nine for Hamilton, three for Rortvedt) and has about 50 points of on-base percentage and more than 70 points of slugging percentage on Rortvedt.

Which does not make Hamilton a better prospect. Age matters. Rortvedt was drafted last summer out of high school and has spent the entire season in low A; he isn't the youngest player on the roster (Royce Lewis is), but he's close. Hamilton was also drafted last summer (23rd round) but out of college; he's three years older than Rortvedt.

I didn't see much of Rortvedt; he's been hampered by injury of late, and he played just one of the three games I was at. He went hitless, but he caught a 1-0 shutout.

He got off to a terrible start -- a .096 batting average in April, .175 in May -- and in that sense that he's gotten his average over the Mendoza Line is something of an accomplishment.

Obviously, one would prefer that he be tearing up the league. Rortvedt isn't, and the Twins were probably aggressive in placing him in full season ball this quickly. But his hitting has improved, and he's done the bulk of the catching for a team that ranks second in the Midwest League in runs allowed per game, so he's doing something right behind the plate. The struggles may have hastened his development.

It's going to be a while before Rortvedt appears on the Target Field scoreboard. The Twins probably hope that when Jason Castro's contract is up (he's signed through 2019) that Rortvedt will be close to major league ready. That, it appears right now, would be an aggressive ambition.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A trip to Cedar Rapids: The pitchers

While the Twins were demolishing the Arizona Diamondbacks during the weekend, I was in Cedar Rapids watching their low A team, the Kernels, sweep the Beloit Snappers.

I wrote at some length about Royce Lewis, the No.1 overall pick in the June draft who is now playing shortstop for Cedar Rapids, for the Monday print column. He's hitting leadoff and sporting a .400 batting average going into today's game, so that's going pretty well.

For this space, I'll spend a few days talking about other things I saw there, starting with the pitchers.

The Kernels held the Snappers to three runs total in the three games. It's difficult to do much better than that at any level.

Still, I doubt I saw any future big league arms working for Cedar Rapids.

Anthony Marzi, who started Friday's game, and Charlie Barnes, who started Saturday's, are pretty much the same pitcher, left-handed strike throwers with modest velocity. The Twins signed Marzi out of an independent league; Barnes was a fourth-round pick out of Clemson University in June. Both are probably a bit old for the league; Marzi certainly is. The scoreboard gun in Veterans Memorial Stadium is notoriously slow, but neither hit 90 in the board reading.

Tyler Beardsley, a right hander who started Sunday, hit higher velocities but was less effective than the other two, although Beloit couldn't do much with him either.

The Twins have moved a number of significant pitching prospects through CR in recent years, and probably the best one to pitch this year for the Kernels is Griffin Jax, who is now on active duty with the Air Force and won't be back in the farm system for two years.

Another pitcher I'll keep in my memory bank is Tyler Watson, the lefty acquirred last month from Washington in the Brandon Kintzler trade. I didn't see him, or Bryan Sammons, the Twins' eight-round pick this June, another college draftee.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pic of the Week

Byron Buxton celebrates Friday night's
inside the park homer.
Apparently I missed quite the performance by Byron Buxton Friday night while at Cedar Rapids.

A standup triple. A standup double. An inside-the-park homer, timed by Statcast at 13.85 seconds, the fastest such jaunt in the almost three seasons that the service has been timing players.

No, he's not a bust.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A trip to CR: An Amaurys Minier jersey

The Kernels wore these jerseys Friday
to honor the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.
I'm a University of Minnesota grad.
What am I doing?
For the second year in a row, I wound up winning a jersey of a player for the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

It's quite possible that for the second year in a row, that player will get dropped by the organization before next season opens.

Last year it was Michael Cedaroth, a third-round draft pick (2014) who was released during spring training this year. This year, Amaurys Minier.

Minier is (supposedly) a first baseman and switch-hitting power bat. The Twins signed him in 2012 as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican for a bonus of $1.4 million. He's hit .220/.314/.403 in five seasons in the Twins system, .142/.276/.292 this season for Cedar Rapids. Right now he's on the disabled list.

Healthy or not, a 568 OPS in low A ball doesn't cut it.

The new regime has no personal investment in Minier. They have no particular need to make that $1.4 million pay off. It's dead money, somebody else's mistake.

Minier is only 21. Certainly he could turn it around. But my guess is that if he does, it won't be with the Twins organization.

Friday, August 18, 2017

One win, one loss, lots to talk about

Glen Perkins, in the first of Thursday's games, became the 32nd player to pitch for the Twins this year. Simply getting back onto a major league mound after essentially having his shoulder reconstructed is quite an accomplishment.

That said, his outing wasn't good. He hit two batters, walked another, threw more balls than strikes, got just one out.

He hit 93 at least once, but he didn't have command. He says he'll be better in future outings. We'll see. I'm pleased he's back; now I want to see him be effective enough to justify a role.


Aaron Slegers, in the second game, became pitcher 33. He was pretty impressive in his big league debut: 6.1 innings, two hits, two walks, three strikeouts. Paul Molitor pulled him after just 82 pitches, which struck me as a prematurely quick hook.

Slegers is being sent back to Rochester, as he was the 26th man for the doubleheader, the Twins are in the midst of a staff-straining seven-games-in-five-days stretch and he can't help further with that, and, well, numbers, man.  (Despite what Dick Bremer kept saying during the telecast, my understanding of the rules is that he could remain and somebody else removed from the 25-man roster, but all the somebodies who could be sent down in his stead might help in the next five days.)

But it's really difficult to concoct a baseball rationale for keeping Kyle Gibson in the rotation and Slegers in the minors. Plus there's an opening in the rotation with putative fifth starter Dietrich Enns going on the disabled list.


Enns went on the disabled list to make room on the 25 man roster for Perkins. Enns missed considerable time earlier in the year with a shoulder issue, but he was quoted as saying that this is in a different area of the shoulder.

Buddy Boshers gave up another homer in the first game and was demoted to Rochester between games, with Nik Turley activated. Bet you forgot Turley was still on the 40-man roster. (I knew only because I've been trying to figure out how to open enough space on the 40 to add all the Rule 5 eligible players I want the Twins to protect this winter.) Turley at least gives them another long man in the bullpen (and a potential starter). If he's still around a week from now, something went very wrong.


Robbie Grossman broke his left thumb bumping into Byron Buxton in the outfield. He's out probably three weeks or so; Molitor suggested he will be able to hit before he can throw again.

Mitch Garver, primary position catcher, was called up during the night to take his place on the 25-man roster. Garver has played a few innings in left field for Rochester, but I wouldn't advocate having him platoon in right field with Max Kepler, which was a significant portion of Grossman's playing time.

The move means the Twins don't have an true fourth outfielder. Presumably Zack Granite (left-handed hitter) will be back when rosters expand, if not sooner. Either way, with Grossman out, I'd just as soon see Kepler play even against lefties. He's too young and talented to condemn to a strict platoon role. He's not going to get better against southpaws facing them this infrequently.

My commentary on the major league team will be muted at best the next few days; I'm headed to Cedar Rapids for my annual look-see at the Kernels.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The tall tale of Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers will,
weather permitting,
be the 32nd pitcher
for the Twins this
Wednesday's rainout scrambled the Twins pitching plans.

The Twins had intended to work Kyle Gibson on Wednesday night and Jose Berrios for today's nooner. But now it's a split doubleheader vs. Cleveland today, and Gibson will start the early game and Aaron Slegers will get the late one. Berrios will pitch Friday against Arizona, with Ervin Santana pushed back to Saturday and Dietrich Enns bounced from that scheduled start.

An extra day off probably won't hurt either Berrios or Santana.

Slegers has an obvious "hook" to his story -- he's 6-feet-10. He won't be the tallest pitcher in team history (Jon Rauch was 6-11), but he'll be the tallest to start a game.

He's a righty, fifth round pick in 2013 out of Indiana University, turns 25 in a couple of weeks, has moved steadily up the ladder and has had a fine season at Triple A (13-4, 3.18 ERA, 130.1 innings with 97 strikeouts and 27 walks.)

The walk and strikeout numbers would appear to support his reputation as a man of modest velocity but top-notch control. His K/9 rate this year -- 6.7 -- is his best since he pitched in Cedar Rapids. The light velocity and low strikeout rate depresses his prospect status (he's never been on a Top 30 list), but the control has kept him a viable prospect nevertheless.

He'll be the 26th man for the doubleheader, so the likelihood is that he'll be returned to Rochester immediately after the game and come back up in September.

A short-notice spot start against a good team in a meaninful game probably isn't the ideal setup for his major league debut, but that's what he gets to work with. Regardless of how he fares tonight, Slegers figures to be a factor to fill out future rotations.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Perkins question

Another shortish start Tuesday night -- Bartolo Colon went just five innings and was fortunate to escape with just three runs allowed -- and another game in which the "nonleverage" half of the Twins bullpen struggled to get outs. Specifically Buddy Boshers, who allowed three runs in one-third of an inning to turn a 3-1 deficit to 6-1.

Boshers, of course, is left-handed; so is Glen Perkins, who was in the Twins dugout Tuesday night after pitching Sunday and Monday for Double A Chattanooga. The back-to-back outings were, in theory, the final marker in his rehab schedule. The 30 days of his rehab assignment ends Saturday.

The former All-Star expects to be activated this week. Derek Falvey indicated last week that he would be. Paul Molitor's pre-game comments on Perkins seemed unenthusiastic about his return: “We’ll contemplate what the best move is moving forward, not only for him, but for our team.”

Bert Blyleven, back in the TV booth. suggested Tuesday that the Twins could just wait until the rosters expand to bring Perkins back. With the rehab period nearly expired, that's not really an option.

The realistic choices are:

  • activate Perkins, which will require somebody to come off the 25-man active roster (there are open spots on the 40) or
  • release him.
Releasing him won't save the team any money, and would be a pretty sour way to treat him at the end of a long recovery process.

For what it's worth -- and that isn't much -- Perkins put up a 6.14 ERA in 7.1 innings over three levels in eight games on the rehab assignment. More important than those results is the caliber of his pitches.

Perkins reportedly touched 93 with his fastball velocity in his final outings, but he apparently sits around 90. That's quite a bit lower than in his glory days, but pretty impressive considering how badly his shoulder was damaged.

Velocity is only part of the equation. Also to be factored in are his command (or lack of it) and the quality of his slider. (Perkins as been a a two-pitch pitcher since moving to the bullpen.) If he has limited command of a diminished fastball and an unreliable breaking ball, he can't help the big league team. If he has a usable slider and can locate the mediocre velocity, he can.

Boshers was optioned out at the start of the season, so he can be optioned out now. It's not like replacing him with Perkins for the last two weeks or so of August will cripple Molitor's bullpen strategies, and it's not like activating Perkins will require that he step back into the (vacant) closer's role, or even be used in game situations. (Twenty of Boshers' 26 appearances have come with the Twins behind, and three of the other six have come with a lead of four or more runs.)

I say activate Perkins. It may not help, but it won't hurt, and it's the right thing to do.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Notes, quotes and comment

I'll celebrate Monday's offday by offloading my views on some recent news that I've ignored in the past week:

The Twins moved 1/1 pick Royce Lewis up to low A Cedar Rapids. As it happens, I already have my tickets and reservations for next weekend's annual jaunt to the Twins' Midwest League affiliate. So expect my analysis of young Lewis either here or in the Monday print column, and more likely the latter.

What's noteworthy about this move is that it, at least temporarily, moves Lewis ahead of fellow shortstop prospect Wander Javier. Javier has spent the summer at Elizabethton.

These are perhaps the most important minor leaguers in the organization, certainly the most important below Double A (current level of Stephen Gonsalves, Nick Gordon and Fernando Romero). And they are both, as of now, 18-year-old shortstops.

Obviously, they won't both play short in the majors for the Twins. One, maybe both, will move to another position, or get traded, or even fail utterly. But both should be playing shortstop on an everyday basis until its obvious that something's not working at that position. The Twins need to have Lewis and Javier uncoupled, this year and next, at least.

The front office turnover continues with the dismissal of Wayne Krivsky. Krivsky was Terry Ryan's No. 2 until he left after the 2005 season to be the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He didn't last long there; the Reds' principal owner, previously a minority shareholder in the St. Louis Cardinals, dumped Krivsky in April 2008 for Walt Jocketty, who lost his job in St. Louis for being analytic resistant. (Confused yet?)

One thing I've often wondered about since 2008 was what would have happened in Minnesota had Krivsky not taken the Cincinnati job. Ryan stepped aside after 2007, and Bill Smith, who followed Krivsky as assistant general manager, moved into the top job. Presumably, had Krivsky remained, it would have been his job.

Anyway: Krivsky, after stints with the Mets and Orioles, returned to Minnesota in 2011 as a special assistant to the general manager, a title that can mean just about anything. Under the new regime, he lost the special assistant title and was assigned scouting duties; he got the ax on Thursday.

Baseball America's annual "Best Tools" issue is out.

Highlights for Twins fans:

For the American League, Joe Mauer is No. 1 for strike zone judgment, Byron Buxton No. 1 for fastest baserunner and No. 3 for best defensive outfielder, and Miguel Sano is No. 3 for best power and best infield arm.

No Twins prospects made BA's list for the International League (Triple A).

Southern League (Double A): LaMonte Wade for best strike zone judgment, Nick Gordon as best defensive shortstop, Jake Mauer as best managerial prospect.

Florida State League (High A): Brian Navaretto as best defensive catcher, Tanner English as best defensive outfielder.

Midwest League (Low A): Jermaine Palacios as best defensive shortstop.

(Note: for the majors, BA lists the top three in each category in both leagues; in the minors, just the top name in each league.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Short starts, sloppy play, two wins

The Twins, especially the overworked bullpen, need today's off day. They have the first-place Cleveland Indians in town the next three days, and if Paul Molitor has been jumpy with his starting pitchers the last four days -- and he has -- he has reason to continue that.

The Twins took two of three from Detroit, a bad team on a death march, over the weekend. But they did so without any quality starts. Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios were yanked in the fifth and fourth innings on Friday and Saturday respectively, and Ervin Santana staggered through five. Toss in Dietrich Enns' quick hook on Thursday, and that's 46 outs from the starters in the last four games.

Enns' hook was purely the manager's descretion. Pulling the rookie southpaw in the third inning with a four-run lead at literally the first sign of trouble was Molitor managing in mid August like it is late September. I couldn't blame him at the time -- the bullpen was well-rested at that point, and the Twins can't afford to give away games -- but it set the tone for the next three days.

Saturday was frankly awful. Berros put the Twins down 5-0, they came back to take a five-run lead in the seventh, and the bullpen melted down late for a 12-11 loss.

What struck me about that atrocity was that, in a game marked by some outstanding defensive plays, the Twins infield twice failed to get out of innings -- and those failures led to eight runs.

First inning, Jorge Polanco juggled a slow grounder with two outs and two on. He needed a clean exchange between glove and throw, didn't execute it. It was ruled a hit, and no official scorer would rule otherwise, but it's a play I expect major league shortstops to make. A run scored on the play. Berrios walked the next hitter, then served up a grand slam.

Eighth inning, Trevor Hilgenberger gets a double-play grounder with men on first and third, but Miguel Sano unaccountably hesitated to go to to second and only got one out. A run scored, and the next guy homered, and a four-run lead dwindled to one. Again, no error charged, but it was a mental miscue by Sano.

And Sunday's fifth inning, which undid Santana's start, was just awful. Three passed balls and a wild pitch? I was about ready to call on Twitter for Chris Gimenez to be DFA'd in mid inning. Toss in an error by Sano at first base, and two walks and a hit batter by Santana ... ugly, ugly, ugly.

The Twins survived that. The weary bullpen can rest their arms on today's offday.

But the bigger issue remains. The Twins have two weeks to go until the rosters expand; can Molitor's bullpen, even at eight arms, survive that long pitching half the innings? He really needs more than a dozen outs a game from his starters.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Pic of the Week

A spider lies in wait in its web off the first-base dugout
during Tuesday's Astros-Whtie Sox game in Chicago.

A true web gem.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Short starts and a hot bullpen

I worried in Friday's post that Kyle Gibson would have a short start, and indeed he did: 4.2 innings. This was, of course, longer than Dietrich Enns went on Thursday, but it still required a lot of work from the bullpen for the second straight day.

No problem.

I certainly didn't expect that. The bullpen had been struggling to hold leads in the week or so leading up to the deadline, which was part of what led the front office to retreat into sell mode. Brandon Kintzler wasn't innocent in those problems, but it would be silly to see the trade as addition by subtraction.

Not playing the Dodgers helps, obviously. The Twins schedule coming out of the All-Star break was genuinely challenging (with series vs. the Astros and Yankees and a long West Coast road trip that included three games against the Dodgers). The Twins didn't handle that challenge particularly well, and "Falvine" flipped Kintzler and Jaime Garcia for prospects.

Now the schedule is considerably lighter, the Twins have climbed into the second wild card spot, and one wonders if Derek Falvey and Thad Levine would like to undo those deals.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Enns justifies the means

Dietrich Enns was on a very short leash in his major league debut Thursday night.

The lefty got just seven outs before Paul Molitor reeled him in. Even though the Twins led by four at the time, it was an explicable move; Enns had committed a throwing error, followed by single, single, walk. One could sense that lead slipping away.

There wasn't an immediate roster move; Molitor implied after the game that one would come today. I can't help guessing that the Twins had intended to ship Enns out for a bat (Mitch Garver?), but the short start and resulting heavy use of the front end of the bullpen had them thinking about bringing up a pitcher. Remember, Dillon Gee went four innings a couple days ago, and Alan Busenitz and Ryan Pressly got eight and six outs respectively Thursday. A short Kyle Gibson start tonight in Detroit could create big problems.

And the odds of a five-inning outing (or less) from Gibson are better than the odds of a seven-inning one.

What they do matters; ther current five-game winning streak has put the Twins back in the hunt:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In the world of Big Sexy

Twins Twitter, always in need of a distraction, got caught up Wednesday in the revelation that Joe Mauer, given the opportunity to put a nickname on the back of his jersey for a weekend, went with "Mauer."

There are a handful of guys on every team who decided not to play along. It's easy for me to imagine Mauer saying to himself when given the paperwork: What name do I want on the back of my jersey? My name. 

In truth, if MLB's marketers could unilaterally assign a nickname to a member of the Twins -- and the whole Players Weekend thing is about selling jerseys -- it wouldn't be Mauer. It would be Bartolo Colon, who will have "Morales" on his Players Weekend jersey rather than the far more lucrative "Big Sexy."

Colon threw seven scoreless innings Wednesday night at Milwaukee, which is pretty lucrative itself. I didn't give this Colon experiment any real chance of success; I was wrong. Five starts into his Twins tenure, the 44-year-old has a 4.02 ERA in 31.1 innings. He's pitching deeper into games on average than Adalberto Mejia, and with a lower ERA.

Meanwhile, the roster games continue. The injured Mejia -- no structural damage found in his MRI, so he'll likely be back in September if not sooner -- was replaced on the roster Wednesday not by Hector Santiago, as I expected, but by Kennys Vargas. And immediately after the game Vargas was returned to Rochester for Dietrich Enns, one of the pitchers acquired from the Yankees last month when the Twins flipped Jaime Garcia.

Enns is to start today against the Brewers, which will make him Twins pitcher No. 31 on the season. Will he stick? My track record at roster prediction this year is pretty poor, but my guess is one-and-done. He'll shuffle back to Rochester after making his major league debut for a fresh arm.

Which won't be Santiago. He started Tuesday for the Redwings and walked six men in 4.1 innings, which isn't going to make the Twins hasten to bring him off his rehab assignment. (It expires in two weeks anyway.)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Win one (game), lose one (pitcher)

Adalberto Mejia left Tuesday's game in the fourth inning with what was described as soreness in the biceps/triceps area. I guess that means the upper arm. He went on the disabled list immediately after the game, with a corresponding move to be announced today.

A good guess is that Hector Santiago's rehab assignment will be cut short, with the veteran lefty returned to the roster. He might either step into the rotation spot vacated by Mejia or into the long relief role now occupied by Dillon Gee, who threw four scoreless innings for the save Tuesday, 55 pitches.

With the Twins now 1.5 games out of a playoff spot, this is a potentially important decision. My thinking, which may not be shared by management, is:

  • If the primary purpose is to try to snag one of the wild card berths, they should put Gee in the rotation.
  • If the primary purpose is to get something in an August waiver deal, they should put Santiago in the rotation.

Paul Molitor sounded in his postgame comments like he was leaning toward the first.

There are other possibilities, including putting both in the rotation and putting Kyle Gibson in the bullpen.

As for Mejia: The hefty lefty is to have an MRI today. (I like the sound of "the hefty lefty" and expect to run that description into the ground.) His ERA is 4.47, which is exactly league average by ERA+. He's been their third-best starter for much of the season, but has seldom worked deep into games. Mejia has pitched 86.2 innings across 18 starts, less than five innings per start, and has finished six innings only four times.

I've had Mejia penciled into the 2018 rotation whenever I look to the near future. We'll see if this injury forces that to change.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

RIP, Don Baylor

Whitey Herzog, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals,
congradulates Kent Hrbek in the Twins clubhouse after
Game Seven of the 1987 World Series. Don Baylor is
behind them.
The Associated Press moved nine photos of Don Baylor in the wake of his death Monday. This is the only one from his time with the Twins, and it is easily the worst of the bunch.

I suspect most Twins fans of my age -- meaning old enough that the '87 Twins' implausible World Series title is something we lived through -- have an outsized memory of Baylor's role with that team.

Baylor was 38 when he came to the Twins in a waiver-wire deal just ahead of the postseason roster deadline, in exchange for an A-ball pitcher who never got out of A ball. Baylor played just 20 games for the Twins, 58 at-bats, zero homers.

In the regular season.

Saturday, October 24, 1987, Game Six of the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals lead 5-2 going into the bottom of the fifth, with their supurb veteran lefty John Tudor on the mound. Seated in the Metrodome's Section 232, Row 22, Seat 33 -- nosebleed territory down the left field line -- I'm mentally writing my obit for the Twins.

Kirby Puckett leads off with a single. Gary Gaetti doubles him in. And Don Baylor follows -- if memory serves (and it probably doesn't on that detail) on the first pitch -- with a line drive home run to left. Tie game. Pandenomium. The Twins would take the lead later that inning, and the Cardinals never scored again.

Baylor's blast wasn't the signature moment of that game -- Kent Hrbek's grand slam off lefty reliever Ken Dayley the next inning was -- but it is one moment forever etched behind my eyelids.

I heard Dan Gladden during Monday's game say that Baylor gave the Twins "something we needed -- a big bopper in the middle of the lineup." The 1987 Twins were overflowing with big boppers in the middle of the lineup. Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky all topped 30 homers, and Puckett hit 28.

What they didn't have until Baylor arrived was a reliable designated hitter against lefties. Randy Bush, left-handed hitter, was a straight platoon hitter. Roy Smalley and Gene Larkin were switch hitters, but Tom Kelly let the veteran Smalley have just 26 plate appearances all season against southpaws, and the rookie Larkin slugged just .377 from the right side. Baylor filled a niche role -- right-handed DH -- that has disappeared in today's age of 13-man pitching staffs.

Baylor was a lot of things in his remarkable life, on and off the baseball field. He intregrated Stephen F. Austin High School in the capital city of Texas. He was the 1979 American League MVP. He was the first manager of the Colorado Rockies. He had three seasons of 30 or more homers and three seasons of 30 or more steals. For a while he held the career record for getting hit by pitches.

But this fan will always remember that fifth-inning swing and the moment of that ball clearing the plexiglass atop the leftfield wall in the Metrodome.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Getting some relief

The Twins on Sunday had their first save opp since the Brandon Kintzler trade -- really, the first time in more than a week that the bullpen was asked to protect a lead, as Ervin Santana and Bartolo Colon had complete games in their two wins last week.

The 'pen came through: Trevor Hildenberger threw two scoreless innings, Taylor Rogers got through the eighth and Matt Belisle worked a perfect ninth for his first save since 2012.

Not the way I would prefer, but it worked.

Dick Bremer at least twice, and maybe more, invoked Belisle's "senior status" Sunday as justification for giving him at least a share of the closer role. Bremer may be an imperfect conduit for the mind of Paul Molitor, but my working assumption is that the broadcasters for a team reflect the thinking of management. If Molitor genuinely prefers Belisle late in games because he's got more years in the pension plan than anybody else, that's a bad sign.

The veteran has been getting outs more consistently than anybody else in the bullpen for weeks now; Belisle hasn't been charged with a run, earned or unearned, since June. Rogers, meanwhile, had allowed at least one run in six straight appearances befors Sunday.

At least Hildenberger finally got to pitch with a narrow lead.


A couple other notes about the pitching staff:

Dillon Gee isn't, as I assumed when he was called up last week, filling the rotation spot vacated by the Jaime Garcia trade. He made his Twins debut in relief, and Kyle Gibson was returned for Saturday's start. It was SOG -- same old Gibson. He got 16 outs and allowed nine baserunners; this is not a good OBP allowed.

And the return of Glen Perkins to the major league bullpen is presumably imminent. Perkins was in the Twin Cities this weekend and will throw what is described as "an extended bullpen session" today, then report to Double-A Chattanooga to continue his rehab assignment. The plan is for him to pitch three times, including one set of back-to-back days.

His rehab assignment officially expires on the 20th. He apparently expects to be back before then. Even with the bullpen roles unsettled, I wouldn't expect Perkins to step back into the ninth inning immediately. But then, I didn't expect Belisle to get the ball in the ninth inning after the Kintzler deal.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Pic of the Week

Former Twins infielder Eduardo Nunez, now with the
Red Sox, is covered with powder dumped on him after
he drove in the winning run on Saturday, July 29.

This is the second year in a row that Eduardo Nunez got traded in a deadline deal, which is why he's now with Boston.

He is part of what has turned into a long trade tree for the Twins:

In 1999 the Twins took Travis Bowyer in the 20th round; in 2001 they took pitcher Scott Tyler in the second round (a draft better remembered for the first round pick, Joe Mauer). In December 2005 they swapped those two pitchers to the Marlins for second baseman Luis Castillo, who was the leadoff man for the memorable 2006 Twins.

At the trading deadline in 2007 the Twins moved Castillo to the Mets for two minor leaguers. One didn't make it to the majors, but the other was Drew Butera. Butera was traded at the deadline in 2013 to the Dodgers for a minor league lefty named Miguel Sulbaran,

The next spring, the Twins traded Sulbaran to the Yankees for Nunez. He stuck with the Twins until the deadline last year, when they traded him to the Giants for another minor league lefty -- and that lefty, Adalberto Mejia, is now in the Twins starting rotation.

As for how Nunez has done since the Red Sox got him, let us hear from a member of the Red Sox front office:

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A non-player transaction

The Twins announced a front office move Friday:

The Derek Falvey-Thad Levine regime has treaded relatively lightly on the front office it inherited from former gemeral manager Terry Ryan. Goin was Ryan's top analytics guy, and "Falvine" has been expanding that portion of baseball operations.

I don't know if Goin's departure was a firing, a resignation, a mutual agreement that this isn't working. A few weeks ago my Monday print column was a review of Keith Law's explanation of the current status of sabermetrics, "Smart Baseball," and noted that Law, who was at one point the analytics department of the Toronto Blue Jays, says flatly that he would now be unqualified for that same job.

Goins was once the analytics department of the Twins. It would not be greatly surprising if Falvine want more from that department than Goins is capable of providing. That's not meant as condemnation of Goins; it's an acknowledgement of the demand for increasingly sophisticated analysis and data presentation. It's a different job than it was when Ryan hired Goins, with more being required of it.

It remains to be seen if this is followed by more departures of prominent front office personnel.

Friday, August 4, 2017

30 pitchers and what do you get?

(Answer: A lousy ERA.)

Dillon Gee on Thursday became the 30th man to make a pitch for the Minnesota Twins. He fared well, which can't be said for most of the other 29.

The Twins team ERA is 4.83, which (news flash) is not good. Thirteen of the 30 pitchers have lower ERAs (with the Twins) than that, with Matt Belisle sporting the highest of the better-than-team ERAs (4.64) and Alex Wimmers the lowest of the worse-than-team (4.91).

Eleven "pitchers" -- the quote marks are because this includes Chris Gimenez, the backup catcher who has made six mopup appearances on the mound -- have ERAs of 6.00 or higher. Those 11 pitchers have totalled 24 starts, or more than 22 percent of the team's games -- so basically, one rotation spot has that dismal ERA. (Most of those starts, 18, were made by Kyle Gibson; the rest went to Nik Turley, Felix Jorge and Adam Wilk.)

Another 26 starts have been divvied up among Hector Santiago, Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon; their ERAs range from 5.63 to 5.87. That's another rotation slot (and change).

Which all adds up to something we already knew. The Twins have shuffled the rotation behind Ervin Santana steadily. Jose Berrios has thrived since his call-up. Adalberto Mejia is flawed but acceptable. The rest have been injured, ineffective or both.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Buxton and Gee

OK, I'm a couple days late on these moves but ...

1) It's probably no coincidence that the Twins fell out of the race during the two weeks plus that Byron Buxton was out of action. As Baseball Reference figures WAR, Buxton is the second-most valuable Twin and best position player (as of this morning). (He's been moving up the list even without playing.)

That obviously gives a lot of weight to Buxton's defensive prowess, and defense is the part of such evaluations that is most difficult to pinpoint. But the eye test suggests that the Twins may have lost a couple of games during this stretch because Buxton wasn't in center field.

2) Gee presumably takes the rotation spot vacated by the Jaime Garcia trade. The former Mets mainstay was certainly patient; he could have opted out of his minor league deal with the Twins a couple weeks ago. He made five starts in Rochester, 27 innings with a 2.00 ERA, 20 strikeouts and just three walks.

I rather expected Kyle Gibson to return. This may be a piece of evidence that the front office is ready to turn the page on the former first-round pick. Or it may be simply be that they figured that Gee deserved a reward for hanging around. I'm fine with Gee over Gibson.

I will say this, however; having veteran retreads Gee and Bartolo Colon in the rotation while Aaron Slegers rolls along in Triple A is a bit irking.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The post-Kintzler bullpen

Alan Busenitz got the call for the eighth inning Tuesday night and got dinged for a two-run homer that expanded a 1-0 deficit to 3-0.

At least it wasn't one of the usual suspects.

I quit playing fantasy baseball years ago, so I'm not overly wrapped up in saves and the identity of the closer. I'm less concerned about who gets the ninth inning with a three-run lead than with who gets the ball late and close. For the first four months of the Twins season, that's been Brandon Kintzler and Taylor Rogers, with others sprinkled in on a only-as-needed basis.

But Kintzler was traded Monday and Rogers has been charged with at least one run in each of his last five outings, with his ERA expanding from 1.93 after July 22 to 3.79 entering play today. And as I said in the previous post, I don't know now how the Twins will get their outs when the game is late and close.

It's quite possible that Rogers will inherit Kintzler's ninth-inning duties despite his current struggles. If he does, it opens the eight-inning chores, since Paul Molitor is unlikely to try to have Rogers set up and close.

Molitor at one point referred to Tyler Duffey, Rogers and Kintzler as his "triumph trio," the idea being that a parade of those three from the middle innings on was the route to victory.

Duffey has entered three games in the eighth inning, none in the ninth and twice in extra innings, and he's averaging more than an inning per appearance. He's gotten four or more outs in 18 of his 39 appearances. He has been used on consecutive days only twice. All of which describes an old-school middle reliever, and I think the role suits him.

Busenitz and Ryan Pressly have the stereotypical power arms of late-inning relievers. But Pressly has not been effective this year (seven homers in 33.2 innings and an ERA of 6.68) despite an impressive strikeout rate (40 Ks). Busenitz has allowed now three homers in 10.2 major league innings, an even worse home run rate.

Matt Belisle hasn't been charged with a run, earned or unearned, since June. But he has fared poorly when called upon to pitch in back-to-back games, which is pretty much part of the job description for closers and primary set-up men. And he's 37 and a free agent at year's end; giving him a late-inning role doesn't compute for an organization that has signaled that it's looking to future seasons more than the current one.

Of the pitchers in the current bullpen, the one I'd most like to see moved to a late-inning role (closer or primary set-up) is Trevor Hildenberger, the rookie sidearming righty. So far Molitor has largely avoided him in close games; half of his 12 appearances have come with the Twins either trailing by more than four runs or leading by more than four runs, and Molitor has yet not used him to protect a lead of four runs or fewer.

I hope that's about to change.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Good-bye, Kintzler

The Twins traded Brandon Kintzler to the Washington Nationals in the final hour before the trading deadline Monday. It was a rational move, but that doesn't mean I have to like it, and I don't.

It really wasn't any more of a "white flag" trade than the Jaime Garcia trade Sunday, but it feels more like it. Garcia's departure still leaves the Twins with their three best starters this year and with the rotation plan for the future intact; with Kintzler gone and Taylor Rogers suddenly addicted to the gopher ball, I have no idea how Molitor is going to find outs late in games.

Molitor's bullpen handling is a topic for other posts and columns; today I mourn Kintzler's departure, which is something I could not have imagined 18 months ago. He was a minor league free agent when I first saw him pitch, in spring training 2016; he leaves as an All-Star.

But ...he's 32, his strikeout rate is bizarrely low for a pitcher of his effectiveness, he's a free agent to be, and it's a good guess that "Falvine" isn't interested in committing to him as the back end of the bullpen in the future. So they cashed him in for a Class A lefty named Tyler Watson.

Watson is 20 and he has put up truly impressive walk and strikeout rates at Low-A Hagerstown (South Atlantic League). He is said to have an advanced changeup and breaking ball but is a bit light on velocity. The Twins presumably think/hope he can add some power to his repertoire as he matures (listed at 6-5, 200 pounds).

All that is well and good, but the return seems too light for what Kintzler means to the current team. We've had four months of playoff aspirations with this team; despite the debacles of the past week, I'm not emotionally ready to relinquish those ambitions.