Standard Stories Surfacing

We are just a few days away from the beginning of spring training and already the typical “he’s in the best shape of his life” stories are beginning to show up in the media. (By media, I should hasten to say in this case I am using the term in the broadest possible sense – including bloggers, Twitter comments, etc.)

Some of the beat reporters are on the scene in Ft. Myers already, no doubt settling in to their temporary living quarters and starting to scope out which players, coaches and family members have arrived already. That inevitably leads to sightings of players who have put in some extra work and conditioning in the off-season and as a result become subjects of the common stories.

Those of us who are fans who follow the team closely during the off-season welcome any stories that  help us get a feel for what the coming season will bring. For example, hearing today that Vance Worley has lost 25 lbs is an intriguing bit of news that will be worth following as he battles for the 5th rotation spot or even a position in the bullpen. Will the weight loss improve his strength and help his accuracy or will it diminish his velocity making his pitches even more inviting to major league hitters. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does.

Apparently, Trevor Plouffe has also arrived early and is reportedly bulked up a little in hopes of improving his power. And, some of the younger players, not surprisingly have also added some weight during the off-season.

So, the count down to Monday’s first workouts for the pitchers and catchers continues.

Shortage of Baseball News

This time of year can be frustrating for baseball fans. For us the season begins the first day pitchers and catchers take the field. In spite of that being just a dozen days away, there is not much real baseball news lately.

Local media have been posting new stories with less frequency than an eager fan is ready to read. And, those stories are mostly on topics that are essentially player profiles and feel good perspectives. I will hasten to say, I appreciate all of the sports writers no matter what they produce. Many of the recent stories are interesting for giving us some insights into what players are thinking and what goes on in the clubhouse. And, it is not the press’ fault there is very little hard news to report.

My guess is everyone – fans, sports writers, players – would love to see a little more action on the roster building front, but that requires more than one individual to get done. Whether Terry Ryan wants to add players or effect trades or not, there needs to be at least one other agreeable party. Right now with so little going on in all major league baseball, it is clear there is still some sort of log-jam that is holding up a sequence of signings. There are too many quality free agents still available for me to believe the action is done.

I thought it was the international pitchers holding up the market, but that does not now seem to be the case with the Yankees signing of the primary target and little else happening subsequently.

What else is going on? Right now, I’m baffled.

Maybe the rumors of some hitters being close to signing will break things open. There is, after all, not much time left before spring training begins. One would think it would be best to have all players in camp from the beginning rather than joining late and having to fit in to a network already established.

I am still of the opinion the Twins need to make some more moves to strengthen the regular lineup as well as maybe one more starting pitcher to compete for a spot.

And so, we wait. Impatiently.

Reasons for Some Hope

During this off-season, I have found myself daily looking for news about some Twins’ activity hoping for news of a trade and/or significant free agent acquisitions, not just the scavenger hunting on the waiver wire that has been typical for the Twins.

Most promising since the end of the 2013 season is the Twins’ activity in the free agent market. While I cannot say I’m ecstatic about all the additions, the signings so far have definitely been a step forward. The starting rotation has a chance to be something other than awful. Now if only I had a similar sense about the regular lineup being able to score runs, I would actually be a little more excited about the chances for some success in 2014.

I, like many other fans and bloggers, am most excited about the top prospects coming through the minor league system. Maybe some will be ready to succeed at the major league level this year, but I hope none are rushed. At this point, I’m willing to be patient.

Post-Winter Meeting Thoughts

With the winter meetings now history, this is as good a time as any to put together some thoughts about how much progress has been made so far this off-season. I’ve been more than a little lethargic the last couple of months when it comes to thinking about the Twins. It has been difficult to get too excited because the roster has so many needs of upgrades and my confidence in their willingness to address enough of them to field a competitive team in 2013 has so far been low.

Activity at the winter meetings has changed that. Realistic or not, the moves made by Terry Ryan this past week have been exciting enough to recharge the enthusiasm at least a little bit. Trading Denard Span was not unexpected, but I must admit I was a little disappointed in the return – prospect Alex Meyer – not because he is not a very good prospect, but because I was hoping for the first move by Ryan to be a signal that he was putting together a respectable starting rotation for 2013 and not just beyond. Trading Ben Revere did come as a surprise because I have been speculating that he would be the starting center fielder for the Twins for a year or possibly more while we waited for Aaron Hicks to be ready. The more I think about and and review what was received in return, the more I really like the move. One slot in the rotation is now filled with the acquisition of Vance Worley. Another excellent pitching prospect, who will likely start the season at Rochester, in Trevor May, sweetens the deal if he progresses as hoped for. And finally, the Rule 5 selection of Ryan Pressly may prove to be a good choice if he makes the 25-man roster upgrading one slot in the bullpen.

There was only one dark spot in the Rule 5 process and that was the loss of recently acquired pitcher, Tom Boleska, in the AAA Rule 5 draft. It remains to be seen just how large a loss that will be, but the fact that he was a free agent when he was signed November 20, means he was not highly valued by his previous franchise.

It is clear the Twins are not finished yet with off-season moves. Rumors have Justin Morneau as the next possible trade bait and that may well happen if Ryan can secure more major league ready starting pitching in the process. With some offers out to free agent starting pitchers, according to Twin Cities media reports, one or more starters may be acquired that way. It will certainly be interesting to see how that all turns out in the next few weeks.

Even as early as it is in the off-season, I am going to go out on a limb and project Darin Mastroianni as the opening day center fielder. I was impressed with him this past season and think he will be a very good fourth outfielder eventually, but an adequate fill-in until Hicks is ready – most likely mid-season 2013. Mastroianni is very similar to Revere in many respects, but with a better arm. If Revere was going to be an adequate outfielder for the short term, Mastroianni will be also. I’m expecting him to win the battle for opening day starter over Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks, although if Benson has a hot spring, he may make the opening day roster at least as the fourth outfielder. Hicks needs to play every day so will almost certainly start the season in Rochester.

I’m going to wait a little while before posting too many projections for 2013, but at least the roster actions of the past week have stirred some interest again.

Off-Season Day Two

The dust is beginning to settle a little after the tumultuous day of changes on the Twins staff. Terry Ryan, along with Dave St. Peter and Jim Pohlad, met with media this afternoon to talk about the changes in the coaching staff and head trainer.

It is clear that two years of last place in the American League finishes are unacceptable. Whether or not these changes and the coming search for pitching will be enough to produce a winning season in 2013 remains to be seen, but for now, the Twins appear to be ready to make significant changes in order to win.

The Twins organization has not been known for knee-jerk reactions. Loyalty has been a hallmark of the Pohlad era. Changes in so many positions are a signal of that changing. The Target Field era is different. There are no revenue excuses anymore. It also appears that the Pohlad sons, particularly Jim, are much more interested in winning or at least not fielding an embarrassing team anymore, than their father, Carl, was. Loyalty is no longer the dominant theme. Accountability is.

Ron Gardenhire has been retained – he has one more year on his contract – but he has not been offered an extension. Now all of the coaches are on one-year contracts. 2013 must be a turn around year, or there will be even more changes at the helm.

With the shuffling of roles (Vavra & Ullger) and retention of Gardenhire and Rick Anderson, three of the allowable six major league coaching positions are filled. That leaves three positions (as well as head trainer) to be filled. Much local media and blogger speculation is going on right now and Gene Glynn, Tom Brunanski and Bobby Cuellar are identified as the likely candidates. Paul Molitor, though he indicated interest, is not going to be in the mix.

I suspect within a couple of weeks, perhaps sooner, these positions will be announced and the promotion of current organization coaches are going to be the choice. With no inside information at all to bolster my view, I believe the staff will be settled before the organizational meetings so the focus can be on planning rather than filling of positions.

We shall see.

Off-Season Day One

Today is the first day of the 2012-13 off-season and it started out with a bang for the Twins. Terry Ryan is doing what he hinted not long ago in interviews and the meeting with the season ticket holders – making changes that are designed to put the team in a better position for future success.

Significant changes in the major league coaching staff were announced today. Details are available on the various Twins Cities media sites, so I will not reiterate any of that here, but what I will say is the moves are both expected and surprising. They are expected because the Twins cannot afford to continue another year as if all is well and Ryan and Ron Gardenhire said there might be changes in the coaching staff. The are surprising in the number of changes and in some cases individuals that many observers would not have identified as problems.

Tomorrow there will be a meeting where more detail and perhaps more changes will be announced.  I look forward to hearing more as the media reports today are rather sketchy.

The Twins Web site already reflects the changes announced today. Interestingly, Scott Ullger and Joe Vavra were listed as minor league assignments which contradicts what local media have reported so far.

Attracting less attention than the major coaching changes is the release (non-renewal?) of the head trainer. I see that as a significant event in that the Twins have had several issues with injuries and apparent dissatisfaction of some players related to injury diagnoses the past two years. It remains to be seen if they promote from within or hire from outside the organization, but I am encouraged by this situation be addressed.

Day Two, tomorrow, promises to be as interesting as Day One.

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.

Gardenhire Philosophy

On the Twins Caravan yesterday Ron Gardenhire made very clear that he was looking forward to this spring training. He compared it to last year by saying this year everything will be on HIS schedule. Last year he had to follow schedules made up by doctors for Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer. As he said, we all know how that turned out.

In his typically humorous way he said he had been practicing yelling and even has learned how to “yell a little bit in Japanese”! He proclaimed himself ready for spring to begin. Obviously, the manager likes things to be done his way.

Reading between the lines on his comments, it seems to me pretty obvious that Gardenhire is not about to change his philosophy of how to run a ML ball club, in spite of the worst year he ever had as a manager. He is convinced he knows how to prepare a team for the long season ahead and he plans to execute his plan leaving little doubt about who will be in charge this spring. It won’t be the doctors/trainers, the players, or, for that matter, the players’ agents. The latter group may have had too much influence, or at least communication control last year. It also won’t be the General Manager, so if there are any “philosophical differences” between the two, Gardenhire is prepared to put himself on the line.  For the record, I don’t think there is much difference in philosophy of how the manager should operate between Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire. They have known each other for a long time and if there was a significant problem, last fall would have been the time to correct that by moving to the future with a new manager and coaching staff.

We can debate whether or not Gardenhire’s philosophy of management of a team is as good as some other managers, but other than last year, it is fair to say that the Twins preparations for the season and spring regimen have been quite effective for winning division titles.

An important element of his philosophy appears to be having a determined role for each player. He has said he believes players respond better when they know their role and expectations for that role. This is almost certainly the reason he has named a starting pitcher for opening day already and yesterday indicated who he would like to see in his opening day lineup.

Last year he deviated from that approach because he had not seen Tsuyoshi Nishioka play before he arrived at spring training so Gardenhire waited to see how Alexi Casilla and Nishioka worked together and how they looked at shortstop and second base before making a decision on who would start where. As it turned out, that combination never got a chance to gel before Nishioka’s injury. This year, there is no hesitation on Gardenhire’s part. Casilla will be at second base and Jamey Carroll will be at shortstop.

Such an approach makes it easy for bloggers and beat journalists to “predict” who will make the 25-man roster at the beginning of the year and who will be in what roles. That does not mean there is not plenty of room for opinions on the wisdom of those decisions. In fact, I expect there will be continuing vigorous debate in the blogosphere about Casilla and Carroll with many believing Carroll would be better at second base, but barring an injury to Casilla, I don’t expect that to happen by opening day.

Another element of Gardenhire’s philosophy that many in baseball find wise is his belief that bench players need opportunities to stay sharp and regulars need periodic rest to get through the demanding 162-game schedule. Last year was an aberration, but otherwise the Twins have been strong down the stretch and many attribute that to this approach to managing players.

A little more into the speculative realm, I think Gardenhire gives more decision-making responsibility to his coaches, especially pitching coach, Rick Anderson, than most managers do, at least publicly. Glimpses of this philosophy appear every once in a while. For example, recently when talking about Carl Pavano as his opening day starter he said something to the effect that he talked to Anderson and Anderson told him Pavano was the guy. This is  certainly not the only time the manager publicly appeared to defer to his pitching coach. While this may well all be just for public display and something else actually goes on behind the scenes, I have no reason to believe Gardenhire would attempt such an ongoing ruse.

Gardenhire wins much praise on a regular basis for his ability to manage the people. Many players are very positive about working under his leadership, so much so that he has earned the reputation of a “players manager”. Many fans, on the other hand, are quite critical of this element of Gardenhire’s leadership style saying that he needs to be much tougher and take charge, show who is the boss. I happen to believe in this age of players salaries and attitudes, Gardenhire’s approach is much more conducive to a good working environment than what so many fans call leadership.

Over that last several years of following the Twins, I have come to believe he is good with people, but not very good at game management. His in-game decisions are sometimes really suspect at best and it ends up costing the Twins games. Also, when it comes to big games, such as the Yankees or the playoffs, he appears visibly nervous and I suspect that is because he knows he is not good at single-game management. In the playoffs especially, there is no long-term to balance out the errors in critical strategic decisions that sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing a game. With his particular set of skills, Gardenhire would be wise to hire a bench coach who is a master tactician who could be the game manager for him. Unfortunately, I don’t think Scott Ullger is that guy and neither was Steve Liddle.

In spite of my misgivings, I expect Gardenhire and his philosophy to be around for a long time. The Twins’ ownership and management are not only satisfied with him in the dugout, they act as if they believe he embodies the Twins’ philosophy. About the only way he would be gone is if the Twins lose another 99 or 100 games in 2012 leaving ownership and top management no real option but to sacrifice the manager and coaches to appease what will almost certainly be hostile fans.

I’d be very surprised if 2012 is the disaster that last year was, but it will take some minor miracles to go from last to first in the division. More about that in a future post.

Twins Caravan in Mason City

This morning the Twins Caravan came to Mason City, Iowa and I found my way there to see Ron Gardenhire, Kent Hrbek and new play-by-play broadcaster, Corey Provus.

There was a decent crowd for a Monday morning even including five school-age boys who I’m guessing are members of the host’s Little League team. By the way, you can’t miss who the host was for this event by the banner in the background of the photo.

This was my first time attending one of these events so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but it probably was about the same as any Twins Caravan they have done this winter throughout Twins Territory.

Each guy made some brief opening comments and then Provus acted as MC and took questions from the audience.

During the course of the morning, Gardenhire said he was on his way to spring training. He and his wife are driving to visit family in Kansas and Oklahoma before heading to Florida.

Provus said a little about how he likes to approach broadcasting a game and after some prompting made a couple of demonstration calls for the crowd including a simulated walk-off home run for Joe Mauer. He also mentioned that a new feature was being added to the Twins radio broadcasts this year – this day in baseball history. They will pick various events from the past, both Twins and MLB history, to weave in as stories during each broadcast.

Probably the most interesting bit of news was Gardenhire’s answer to the final question of the morning that came from one of the Little Leaguer’s. The question was “Have you decided on the starting lineup for opening day yet or is every position pretty much up for grabs?” I thought it was a great question and was quite surprised that he answered so directly. Here is his opening day lineup (confirmed by Corey Provus’ Tweet today).

  1. Denard Span, CF
  2. Jamey Carroll, SS
  3. Joe Mauer, C
  4. Justin Morneau, 1B
  5. Josh Willingham, RF
  6. Ryan Doumit, DH
  7. Danny Valencia, 3B
  8. Alexi Casilla, 2B
  9. Ben Revere, LF

Can’t say there are any surprises in that lineup, but it was interesting that Gardenhire would volunteer that info even before spring training begins. However, he had earlier announced that Carl Pavano is the opening day pitcher so he may be more interested in having the players know exactly what to expect than holding any in suspense. Of course, the health of the players coming back from serious setbacks last year is still the determining factor.

Overall, it was a nice event. After getting a chance to see him in person, I’m looking forward to hearing Corey Provus call the games this year.

Update: I see the Star-Tribune has picked up on the Provus tweet and has a brief story on the starting lineup.