Final Opening Day Projection

We are now less than a week from opening day in Baltimore. It is time to give my final projection for what that opening day roster will be like. The last few days have brought some clarification to the picture, so there is less guesswork than earlier.

Scott Baker has been placed on the DL retroactive to March 27 so he will be eligible to return on April 12. That opens up a spot in the rotation, but the Twins have decided to go with a four-man rotation for the first couple of weeks because they have an off day that will allow the four to stay on a normal five-day schedule. Jason Marquis has been away from the team on a family leave for a while and is not expected to be ready to pitch as anticipated, so Liam Hendriks is slated to take his spot and pitch the third game of the Baltimore series. Indications now are the Twins will carry eight relievers rather than their normal seven until Baker returns.

One of the mild surprises today was the optioning of Drew Butera to AAA to open the season. This action almost guarantees that Chris Parmelee will be on the roster and most likely will play first base while Justin Morneau serves as DH. Ryan Doumit will be the backup catcher and probably will play some in right field to keep his bat in the lineup.

If my final projection is accurate, one pitcher in particular will have made the roster without really earning it by his performance in spring training this year. Alex Burnett has not pitched well, but with both Baker and Marquis not available, he will have slipped in under the radar.

Everyday lineup:

  • C Joe Mauer
  • 1B Chris Parmelee
  • 2B Alexi Casilla
  • SS Jamey Carroll
  • 3B Danny Valencia
  • LF Josh Willingham
  • CF Denard Span
  • RF Ryan Doumit
  • DH Justin Morneau

Bench:

  • INF/OF Trevor Plouffe
  • OF Ben Revere
  • INF Luke Hughes
  • INF Sean Burroughs

Pitchers:

  • S Carl Pavano
  • S Francisco Liriano
  • S Nick Blackburn
  • S Liam Hendriks
  • Long Relief Anthony Swarzak
  • Closer Matt Capps
  • LHP Brian Duensing
  • LHP Glen Perkins
  • LHP Matt Maloney
  • RHP Jared Burton
  • RHP Jeff Gray
  • RHP Alex Burnett

Attributions

A brief deviation from the norm on this site for a little site housekeeping.

Today a story broadcast by NPR on the show  “On the Media” I heard for the first time about the “Curator’s Code”. It is a new venture to assist content providers including bloggers (and commenters, etc.) in attributing information to sources where it was first discovered.

The subject of the story is a set of two symbols for use to identify the type of source being cited or linked to. The “via” symbol () and the “hat tip” symbol () are used to denote direct discovery and indirect discovery, respectively. The  is used when linking to original sources and the  is used when linking to a site where you learned about the original source in some indirect way. Both symbols, when the proper code is used, are links themselves to the Curator’s Code Website.

This approach is a creation of Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, and is promoted by  Curator’s Code, a Web site introducing the concepts and symbols.

From this date forward, I intend to use these symbols to help show where I have found ideas, insights, quotes, etc. that I use or discuss in my posts.

Morneau Progress and Speculation

The last couple of days several of the Twins sports media/bloggers have been raising questions about Justin Morneau. Two factors in particular have been the focus of concern – weak hitting and playing only as DH the last 10 days or so.

The good news is he has been on the field every day playing A games, B games, and minor league games, including traveling with the team sometimes as he did today to Tampa for the Yankees game. No concussion related symptoms have kept him from playing, working out or doing what it takes to get ready for the season.

What is drawing attention is the wrist he had surgery on in the off-season. All reports so far from Terry Ryan and Justin himself indicate that he is not 100% yet, icing the wrist every day after playing. He has been told there is no risk of re-injury by using it, so he continues to work to strengthen it.

Obviously, the wrist is a major contributor to his hitting woes so far. Not only is he not squaring up well enough to get hits, but he also has hit no home runs. The last three or four games he has shown some improvement hitting the ball hard. For example, today he had a long fly for an out and a double over the head of the center fielder. These are good signs.

Timing is also a factor for hitting and Morneau continues to be quoted as saying he is working to improve his timing and hopes to be more consistent by the time the season opens.

Some have been concerned about his DH-ing so much rather than playing first base in so many games, but I think that is an overblown concern. Ryan and Ron Gardenhire have both said they are not concerned about his ability to play first base. They just want him to get on track as a hitter.

In spring games, teams like to see a lot of players in the field. Unless they have players who are DH only, it is less crucial that they see a variety of players in that role. It therefore makes sense that putting Morneau at DH would allow for him to get more at bats per game than he would if he shared time with others at first base. Morneau has made it clear that he wants as many at bats as he can get in game situations and Gardenhire is accommodating him. The manager also does not want to take any chances of his triggering concussion symptoms by going after a foul ball or playing aggressively in the field.

There is still enough time for him to gain strength in the wrist as well as get his timing down before the season starts. Even though no one is declaring him the starting first baseman for opening day yet, I think he is probable for that role then. If he does not make the progress he hopes and his wrist is still bothering him enough that he needs more time, he should be put on the DL and remain in Fort Myers for extended spring training rather than start the season struggling.

In the meantime, I remain hopeful that he will be ready.

Nishioka Demoted

Well, that was quick. Within hours of my posting my latest roster update, the Twins announced a dozen cuts to trim the number of players in the major league camp to 45. The most noteworthy of the cuts was Tsuyoshi Nishioka being optioned to AAA Rochester.

That move is not really too surprising as he had not shown enough improvement to win a spot on the Twins. He was certainly not going to be a starter at either shortstop or second base and he is not a good enough hitter to serve as a pinch hitter. Neither is he good enough in the field to serve as a utility infielder.

It is difficult to be very optimistic about his chances to get back to the major leagues. As I have written before, his long-time habits from playing a different style of baseball in Japan are going to be very difficult to break. Playing regularly might help some, but it is going to take a lot of teaching and willingness to be coachable for him to get on track.

Terry Ryan commenting during the 2nd inning of the Twins’ radio broadcast today indicated that Nishioka was going to be playing both second base and shortstop to try to get him ready to return to the Twins. I am no coaching or baseball expert, but it seems to me that learning more than one position is more of a challenge than focusing on two or more positions. And, his hitting is going to need quite a bit of work as well.

Now that the difficult decision to demote Nishioka has been made, in spite of the $3 million he is due this year and next, it will be easier for the Twins to eventually release him to return to Japan. I have very little hope for him to be worth anything in a trade, even as an extra thrown in on a multi-player deal. He is either going to improve tremendously – and surprise virtually everyone – or he is going to be relegated to the minor leagues to play out his contract if he is not released.

 

 

Mid-Spring Assessment

According to my count, looking at the spring game schedule, today’s game marked the midpoint of spring games. So it seems a logical time to do an assessment of how things are going so far and who might be winning the “open” spots on the 25-man roster.

One of the overall positives to note is the relative health of the team. Other than one notable exception, the loss of Joel Zumaya, the Twins have had only minor bumps and bruises so far. The latest is Trevor Plouffe’s slight strain of a hamstring that Terry Ryan says is not serious. He may miss only a couple of days. Especially positive is the fact that Mauer and Morneau have been healthy and available without any known setbacks.

A second positive to note has been the number of relief pitchers stepping up, pitching well and making it a difficult decision as to which ones will make the team going north.

Also, some of the younger players who will almost certainly begin the season at Rochester, have played well giving some hope for the future, and maybe more importantly  to Red Wings fans, giving the AAA team some roster strength that will allow them to be more competitive at least, if not playoff contenders.

On the less positive side, Tsuyoshi Nishioka is not impressing anyone yet. Sports beat-writers covering the Twins this spring have reported that he is making progress in work with coaches, but so far that is not translating to play in games. They also have noted the absence of any talk from the Twins about where he might end up if not on the opening day roster. It is as if that subject is taboo, at least for now.

Biggest surprise so far? The hitting of non-roster invitee infielder Mike Hollimon. It would be a real long-shot for him to make the big club, but he certainly has solidified his utility-man status for Rochester.

Most concerning so far? Starting pitching. While it is encouraging that Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano have done well and appear to be on track to be ready for the season, Jason Marquis has not looked good and Scott Baker has a tender elbow that has pushed back his next start. If it flairs up again, he probably will be on the DL to open the season.

Roster spot battles at this point look to be – third catcher, middle infielder/utility player, and bullpen. I’m still projecting Drew Butera and Nishioka, mostly by default, but have revised my ideas on the bullpen based on some good work by some of the pitchers signed during the off season.

Here is my latest opening-day roster projection.

Everyday lineup:

  • C Joe Mauer
  • 1B Justin Morneau
  • 2B Alexi Casilla
  • SS Jamey Carroll
  • 3B Danny Valencia
  • LF Ben Revere/Trevor Plouffe
  • CF Denard Span
  • RF Josh Willingham
  • DH Ryan Doumit

Bench:

  • C Drew Butera
  • INF Luke Hughes
  • INF Tsuyoshi Nishioka
  • OF Trevor Plouffe/Ben Revere

Pitchers:

  • S Carl Pavano
  • S Scott Baker
  • S Francisco Liriano
  • S Nick Blackburn
  • S Jason Marquis
  • Long Relief Anthony Swarzak
  • Closer Matt Capps
  • LHP Brian Duensing
  • LHP Glen Perkins
  • LHP Matt Maloney

and two of the following three:

  • RHP Jared Burton
  • RHP Kyle Waldrop
  • RHP Jeff Manship

Veteran Advantage

Today we saw a great example of how veteran pitchers are able to take advantage of their guaranteed roster status. Starters on the mound for the Phillies (Roy Halladay) and the Twins (Jason Marquis) used their outings to work on pitches that they felt need work. Results were a lower priority.

In Halladay’s case, he has been struggling with his change-up, so he kept throwing them to try to improve his consistency. Getting batters out was not as important than getting work done on pitches. He is arguably the best pitcher in the majors, so no one is concerned about his effectiveness at this time of year.

For Marquis, in the first three outings he has worked exclusively on his sinker and change-up and getting a lot of ground balls. He is confident when he works in all four pitches, he will be more effective. The fact that he has been successful in inducing ground balls using just two pitches is encouraging to Twins fans who don’t have much experience with Marquis and might be concerned about whether or not he will be a good addition to the starting rotation.

Young pitchers trying to make the team do not have the luxury of working on pitches in games. They must make results – getting batters out – their top priority in their limited appearances and leave their work on mechanics, etc. for bullpen sessions.

There is nothing new about this. It has been this way for a long time. And it is reasonable for teams to expect their best pitchers to do what it takes to get ready for the season and not be too concerned about getting every batter out. Seasoned fans know this and do not panic when their favorite players appear not to be doing very well.

Young pitchers also know this and the best of them do not let the pressure get to them. They come to camp in shape, prepared to be successful. They make the most of their chances to pitch and don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal to make it to the majors leagues some time, if not this year.

For fans, spring games are an opportunity to see some of the future stars as they develop and demonstrate their skills. I find it almost more fun to see the younger pitchers because they are giving it their best effort on every pitch. One joy of spring games is the chance for fans to focus on how individual players are developing rather than only fixating on winning.

Flexibility Trumps Brute Strength

It looks like it might be a trend on the rise. Off-season training that focuses on flexibility, agility and strength of muscles used in baseball motions rather than only core strength and bench pressing or other pure weight lifting moves appears to be growing among baseball players.

Two Twins in particular have indicated their changes in off-season workouts – Glen Perkins and Denard Span – are key to their success. Perkins made the shift away from primarily weight training a year ago and it may have contributed to his surge in velocity as well as general effectiveness as a reliever in 2011. Span made adjustments as part of his recovery from concussion symptoms during this off-season. Span also included regular Yoga work as well as regular massages in his routine. We shall see how that plays out for him this year.

Other players in the major leagues have deviated from the now routine weight training approach and it looks to me like this will become another development in the evolution of training strategies for professional players.

It makes sense to me to build strength through flexibility development while training the muscles and motions that one actually uses in the sport. It also makes sense that doing other athletic activities, not just the sport one specializes in, would be good for development as well as avoiding repetitive motion injuries from too much of the same.

Maybe one result of this some time down the road will be a return to the multi-sport high school athlete as a good thing as opposed to the current emphasis on specializing early. I’ve always been convinced that developing all athletic abilities is a strength one can build on for the primary sport.

Habits Hurting Nishioka

Habits are both helpful and a hindrance. We all know from our own personal experience how regular habits help keep us on an even keel and in times of crisis are what get us through. We also know how difficult it is to kick a bad habit.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s failure to get out of the way on a double play attempt today may be evidence of a habit tough to break. Fortunately, he was not injured, but it was a clear reminder of what took him down and out for several weeks last year with a broken leg.

He may have more talent than shows right now, but the habits he has developed over  years of playing Japanese style aren’t going to go away quickly or easily. Because of the work he has been doing with coaches, I’m guessing he knows now, intellectually, what he needs to be doing and can do it in drills (from comments made by Paul Molitor), but when the pressure of game-speed decision-making hits, he seems to revert to the old habits. Not surprising, but this is not a good sign. For him to make the opening day roster, he is going to have to demonstrate that he can be a competent middle infielder. So far this spring, he has not demonstrated he is ready.

It is still early in the spring training schedule, so there is time yet for him to come around, but right now I’m thinking he is more likely to open the season at AAA. If that is the case, I think he should play second base, not shortstop, so he has an opportunity to develop at a position where he has a better chance of succeeding.  If he improves quickly, he can be recalled in September, or earlier if needed. If he doesn’t improve enough, he probably should be released rather than trying one more year just because he is under contract through 2013.

Nishioka said himself in an interview earlier this year, if he did not show he could compete in the major leagues, he would probably go back to Japan. As a result, I would not be surprised if he chooses to get out of his contract and return to Japan so he has an opportunity to resurrect his career there. That could happen as early as this year, but I suspect he will want to try to make it this year.

Liriano

There were several encouraging things today about Francisco Liriano’s performance in the two innings he pitched against the Red Sox. It is good that he is healthy and showing promise for a good season.

He started the first official game in the Red Sox’ new jetBlue Park against most of the probable starting lineup for the Sox. With his tendency to be over-excited to begin ballgames, that might have contributed to his walking the first batter. Ultimately, pitching well against those major league hitters was the first encouraging sign.

Probably more significant was the fact that he made adjustments after walking the lead-off batter. Knowing he needed to make an adjustment, doing so immediately and without a visit by the pitching coach is progress for him. Rene Rivera may have helped him after throwing the first pitch very high and inside to the second batter when he went to the mound, which may have contributed to his settling down and making an adjustment.

His two strikeouts came on his slider, most often his strikeout pitch. That is not surprising, but his being able to locate the fastball better is another encouraging sign.

Maybe I’m making too much of this, but I don’t think it is just a coincidence that his catcher today was Rene Rivera. Last year he generally did better with Rivera behind the plate and calling the game. No doubt one reason is they can communicate in Spanish. If the Twins keep three catchers for opening day, will one be Rivera? I will hasten to add that I don’t think it is a good idea for pitchers to have “personal catchers” and I will be more than a little surprised if Rivera is on the 25-man roster when the Twins break camp. Even so, it bears watching to see how often this spring those two are matched up.

Of course, Liriano will have to continue to be effective as he pitches more innings this spring, but this first outing is a good start. If he is able to be consistent, the Twins may have a true #1 pitcher after all.

Leadership

Much has been said during the off-season about the Twins’ lack of leadership. Although there may be some truth to that argument, I believe this situation is much more nuanced than that.

I find the topic of leadership one of interest, not only because of how much it is being discussed these days, but also because it has been a topic I have researched, studied and practiced for a whole career. So, here is my take on the Twins and leadership.

There are many levels of leadership in an organization such as the Twins – owners, senior management, field manager, coaches, players. Owners demonstrate leadership in how they set the expectations for the senior management. Senior management lead in the choices they make for lower level managers, etc.

One could argue that the two most important leaders in a major league baseball operation are the general manager and the field manager. They certainly are the most high profile positions when it comes to evaluating the success of the franchise. While some of the chatter about leadership the past few months has involved discussion of those two positions, most has been about team leadership or lack thereof from key players.

Once the tone is set by Twins’ ownership and senior management, including Gardenhire, leadership from the players can play an important role in the success of the team, but the tone definitely is set from the top. Ownership made a change in general manager and Terry Ryan has been public about some of the changes he wants to see. He has set the tone.

From all the public comments Ron Gardenhire has made this year, he seems to have decided that he needed to change his approach and is asserting himself more vocally and boldly. That may simply be because last year’s disaster was so embarrassing that he does not want anything like that to happen again, or it may be that he realizes he needs to be more directive with younger players and not assume they have absorbed all they have been taught coming up through the system. His previous style of practically deferring to veteran players who he knew would do the right thing did not work last year and so he is going to be more vocal and directive.

Since Gardenhire has clearly set that new tone this year, player leadership will emerge to compliment his new approach. With several new players on the team and some dominant personalities gone, it will take a little time for it all to work itself out, but before long we will see players settling into their new roles.

From outside the clubhouse, it appeared that Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan were key leaders in the past. I think it is important to emphasize the point about “outside the clubhouse” because none of us know what really goes on behind the scenes. We are thus left to speculating based on reading between the lines of comments made by management and players as reported by the media.

Leadership by players can take many forms. In sports, it is almost a worn out cliche that the best kind of leadership is leadership by example. One can find many stories throughout the history of baseball that illustrate the importance of this kind of leadership. Their play showed how it is done and others learned from that success trying to emulate it in their own work to be better.

In the last decade or so, it appears to me that more emphasis has been put on vocal leadership than in the past. Leaders are now quite often identified as guys who speak out, call out teammates who are not playing up to their potential, and assert a dominant role by their dominant personality. I think there may be some truth to that kind of leadership being important in today’s game, but I also think players who lead quietly by example are critical to success.

It would be interesting to know who really commands the most respect in the Twins’ clubhouse. Was Cuddyer really the acknowledged leader among peers or was he just the public face because he was most comfortable talking to and with media? With Cuddyer and Nathan gone, who now do the players look to as the most respected guys?

I have a feeling the real, most highly respected leaders might contain a few surprises to us fans and even the beat writers. My reason for that is I think some of the more introverted players may have more influence than we think. We might get occasional glimpses or hints of who the real leaders are by comments made by players in answer to less direct questions. Maybe even some of the tweets provide insight that might not be obvious if you are not looking for it.

From some of this year’s evidence, it appears Jamey Carroll has quickly gained respect and may become a key leader. If that is true, it will be very good because on the field one of the positions that requires leadership is shortstop. In my opinion, it was as much the failure of leadership at shortstop as it was poor play and errors that led to such a bad year for the Twins last year. Alexi Casilla has all the physical skills to play shortstop well, but he does not, apparently, have the leadership skills needed. It may be largely a language issue with him, as I’m sure was a factor for Nishioka, but it is more than that. It requires a take charge personality that exudes quiet confidence and Alexi seems to be more of a good follower than a leader. He is, therefore, better suited to second base, if he is going to be a regular.

Catcher is the other most important leadership position on the field. Mauer does that well when he is able to play, but may not be a forceful enough personality or extroverted enough to do that much off the field. The other players who played so much behind the plate last year may have done alright calling the games, etc., but the inability to hit made them liabilities as complete leaders. This year it will be interesting to see if and how Doumit emerges as a leader.

Although I have no way of knowing this for sure, I suspect Jason Kubel may be missed more in the clubhouse and on the field by some players than Michael Cuddyer. The reason I say that is he led by example. He apparently said very little, but always showed up and gave full effort. I think the younger guys noticed that and those with less than big personalities will emulate that, or at least I hope so.

I’m going to be bold and predict that Denard Span, Matt Capps, Jamey Carroll and Glen Perkins are going to be important leaders this year. They will each lead in their own way. For example, Perkins is their new union representative, and that demonstrates that players have some level of respect for him.

In addition, I think Morneau will lead again if he is able to play well, otherwise he will not be a dominant voice on this team. It will take a full MVP year for Mauer to assert himself and even then he may never be a clubhouse leader because of his mild manner and introverted personality. His value off the field may be in how well he relates to and works with the pitchers and pitching coach, Rick Anderson. Both Mauer and Morneau have publicly stated more than once that they believe they lead best by example, so they need to be in the lineup regularly and playing well.

One more player to watch is Josh Willingham. He is said to be similar to Cuddyer off the field and if that is the case he could emerge as a leader.

With spring training games now underway, the players are no doubt feeling their way into their appropriate roles for this year. I am looking forward to this year in part to see who the players look to for leadership from their peers.