March 31, 2008

Free Jason Kubel!

Jason Kubel split the 2004 season between Double-A and Triple-A, hitting .351 with 22 homers, 42 doubles, 16 steals, and a 59-to-53 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 127 total games. That performance earned Kubel a September call-up to Minnesota, where he batted .300/.358/.433 in 23 games with the Twins. Just 22 years old, Kubel had dominated two levels of the minors and experienced immediate success in the majors, establishing himself as one of baseball's premier hitting prospects.

Following the breakout season Kubel headed to the Arizona Fall League and his career took a horrible turn. While chasing after a fly ball in the outfield, Kubel collided with AFL teammate Ryan Raburn and suffered extensive ligament damage in his left knee, including a torn ACL and meniscus. Some reports described the injury as Kubel's knee "exploding" and then-general manager Terry Ryan made it clear immediately that Kubel would be facing a long road back:

It's a bad deal. It's going to be a long ordeal. It's a shame. This is a serious injury. I feel bad for Jason. He had a tremendous year for us. Jason was going to be battling for playing time in right field next year

Instead of "battling for playing time in right field next year" Kubel missed the entire 2005 season while recovering from the career-threatening injury. He returned in 2006 and hit .291/.324/.485 in the first half to seemingly replant himself firmly on the prospect map, but his surgically repaired knee let him down in the second half. Clearly hobbled, Kubel often struggled just to make it down the first-base line and hit just .163 after the All-Star break, ending the season with an ugly .241/.279/.386 hitting line overall.

When Kubel batted just .237/.287/.301 through his first 100 trips to the plate last season, questions naturally began to swirl about whether the knee injury had completely sapped his potential. Fortunately, something finally clicked for Kubel in mid-May and he hit .283/.349/.492 over his final 100 games. His breakout was hidden by the awful start and many fans had already given up on him by that point, but from May 10 through the end of the season Kubel was arguably the Twins' best hitter:

                     PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Jason Kubel 365 .283 .349 .492 .841
Justin Morneau 523 .272 .338 .485 .823
Torii Hunter 524 .274 .324 .477 .801
Michael Cuddyer 502 .275 .363 .435 .798
Joe Mauer 348 .273 .359 .408 .767

For nearly five months and a span of 129 total games, Kubel led the Twins in both slugging percentage and OPS. And he got stronger as the year went on, producing a .303/.379/.511 hitting line in the second half that included batting .364 in August and .325 in September. Even with the slow start included, Kubel's .273/.335/.450 overall hitting line for the season was very solid for a 25-year-old and made him one of the team's best hitters:

                     PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Torii Hunter 650 .287 .334 .505 .839
Justin Morneau 668 .271 .343 .492 .834
Joe Mauer 471 .293 .382 .426 .808
Michael Cuddyer 623 .276 .356 .433 .790
Jason Kubel 466 .273 .335 .450 .785

For the entire season he was among the team's five top hitters, basically matching Michael Cuddyer's overall production. For the final five months of the season Kubel was arguably the team's best hitter, topping Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, and Joe Mauer in both slugging percentage and OPS. And for the final two-plus months of the season he was inarguably the team's best hitter and one of the best hitters in the entire league.

It would have been tough to finish last year any better than Kubel did and it seemed clear that he was finally healthy again after the severe knee injury essentially wiped away two seasons. Cuddyer posted a .790 OPS as a 28-year-old and parlayed it into a $24 million contract extension this offseason. Kubel posted a .785 OPS as a 25-year-old, emerging as the Twins' top hitter for a huge chunk of the season, and apparently somehow managed to lose his job during the winter.

From the moment that the Twins traded for Craig Monroe and signed him to a one-year contract worth $3.82 million, Ron Gardenhire began dropping hints that Kubel's playing time was in serious jeopardy. At first it was assumed that the right-handed hitting Monroe would simply platoon with the left-handed hitting Kubel, working his way into the lineup against southpaws. However, once spring training arrived it became clear that Gardenhire had much bigger plans for Monroe.

A career .256/.303/.446 hitter, Monroe hit just .219/.268/.370 last year--including a ghastly .194 against right-handers--yet Gardenhire acted as if the Twins had acquired a big-time weapon and treated him accordingly. He repeatedly stressed that Kubel and Monroe weren't in a straight platoon, suggesting that he'd choose which player started at designated hitter on a game-by-game basis. Asked what would influence his decision, Gardenhire said: "I think we'll probably look at success against pitchers."

Looking at "success against pitchers" is essentially how every hitter is evaluated all the time, but what Gardenhire meant specifically was how Kubel and Monroe have fared against each day's starter. After quoting Gardenhire's plan, the Minneapolis Star Tribune was quick to point out that Kubel was 1-for-5 during his career against Angels Opening Night starter Jered Weaver, while Monroe was 0-for-3. The first problem with those numbers is that they're completely and utterly meaningless.

Even with a large sample of at-bats it's unlikely that a hitter's past numbers against a pitcher will have significant predictive ability and when the "sample" is a handful of trips to the plate spread over multiple seasons it's beyond useless. Of course, Gardenhire didn't actually use those numbers. Instead, he merely offered them up as a preemptive strike and potential excuse, knowing full well that he'd be giving Monroe the Opening Night nod over Kubel. Either that or Monroe's 0-for-3 was really impressive.

What's especially frustrating about Gardenhire's decision to start Monroe against Weaver on Opening Night--and his likely decision to give Monroe regular playing time against right-handed pitchers at Kubel's expense all season--is that looking at some truly meaningful numbers shows how clearly wrong the move was. For one thing, Weaver is a right-handed pitcher who has been significantly worse against left-handed hitters during his career:

                 PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
vs RHB 608 .228 .276 .349 .625
vs LHB 577 .275 .329 .441 .770

Platooning is a viable strategy because nearly all pitchers are worse against opposite-handed hitters, but Weaver's splits are even more extreme than usual. He's dominated righties, holding them to a .228/.276/.349 hitting line that looks eerily similar to the .219/.268/.370 that Monroe hit overall last year. Meanwhile, lefties have had plenty of success against Weaver, batting .275/.329/.441 to nearly match the .273/.338/.450 overall mark that Kubel posted last season.

During his career lefties have been about 23 percent more effective than righties against Weaver, with a 145-point gap in OPS. To put that in some context, the difference in OPS between Morneau (.835) and Jason Tyner (.686) last season was 149 points. Weaver's extreme split alone would make starting Monroe over Kubel a bad decision, but that's just the beginning. Next, take a look at how Monroe and Kubel fared against right-handed pitching last season:

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Kubel .280 .336 .474 .810
Monroe .194 .247 .308 .555

Kubel was 46 percent more effective against right-handers than Monroe last season, with a massive 255-point gap in OPS. For comparison, the difference in OPS between Hunter (.839) and Nick Punto (.562) last season was 277 points. Of course, Gardenhire is surely ignoring Monroe's struggles last year and remembering the success that he had in the past with the Tigers. With that in mind, here's how Monroe and Kubel fared against right-handed pitching over their past three seasons:

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Kubel .269 .321 .443 .764
Monroe .244 .289 .425 .714

Kubel is again clearly superior, although this time it's "only" 50 points of OPS. The point here is simple and unavoidable if you're willing to take any sort of meaningful look at performance-based evidence. Lefties have been 23 percent more effective than righties against Weaver and Kubel was 46 percent more effective than Monroe against righties last season. All of which should have made starting Kubel at designated hitter against Weaver an obvious decision.

Instead, Gardenhire went out of his way to bench a left-handed hitter for an inferior right-handed hitter against a right-handed pitcher who has one of the most extreme splits in baseball. My guess is that Monroe will steal plenty of Kubel's at-bats against righties all year, but that it happened on Opening Night is maddening. It's also a direct slap in the face for Kubel, who finally got healthy last season following a major injury and was arguably the Twins' best hitter over the final five months.

Kubel hit .273/.338/.450 overall as a 25-year-old, including .283/.349/.492 from May 10 to the end of the season, 303/.379/.511 after the All-Star break, and .341/.418/.553 over the final two months. On most teams that sort of performance from a young hitter would be celebrated, but on the Twins it's ignored because of the presence of a 31-year-old veteran who hit .219 last season, has zero long-term upside, and is clearly a worse option than Kubel against right-handed pitching.

Monroe went 0-for-3 against Weaver, but Gardenhire struck out before the game even started. Say it with me: Free Jason Kubel!


Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

March 30, 2008

The Smiles Are Returning to the Faces (Opening Day)


Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right


- "Here Comes the Sun"

After a long, cold, lonely winter the best day of the year is finally here, but for the first time in the nearly six-year history of this blog Opening Day has arrived without the Twins being viewed as serious playoff contenders. A 79-win season followed by the departures of Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Carlos Silva, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and general manager Terry Ryan mean that the Twins will begin the year without significant expectations for the first time since 2001.

This blog was born on August 1, 2002, as the Twins and first-year manager Ron Gardenhire embarked on a stretch run that led to their first playoff appearance since 1991. I've trotted out "Here Comes the Sun" to celebrate Opening Day a half-dozen times since then, but today is the first time that the lyrics come without expectations of a 90-win season and playoff run. In fact, you'll find more people picking the Twins for last place than first place this year.

I've never blogged about a team that wasn't supposed to win and Gardenhire has never managed a team that wasn't being counted on to contend, so I'm not sure what to expect this season. There are still plenty of intriguing story lines to follow, of course, from Francisco Liriano's comeback and Delmon Young's arrival to Carlos Gomez attempting to replace Hunter and an assortment of young pitchers trying to ease the loss of Santana while working in front of a three-fourths new infield.

From the names and faces to the front office and expectations these aren't your older brother's Twins, but it's also not a bad team. If Gomez bucks the odds by holding his own at the plate, Young lives up to even a fraction of the hype, Joe Mauer stays healthy, and Gardenhire avoids the temptation of playing Craig Monroe and Nick Punto over Jason Kubel and Brendan Harris, the lineup will surprise people and the Twins' offense has a chance to be average for just the second time since 1994.

Led by Joe Nathan and Pat Neshek, the bullpen remains the team's biggest strength and could prove to be among the league's elite if Jesse Crain regains his stuff following shoulder surgery or Juan Rincon reverses his multi-year decline. And while conventional wisdom would suggest that the bullpen has to carry the entire the pitching staff because the young rotation figures to be a mess, Twins fans should know by now that lack of experience is not synonymous with lack of ability.

Replacing Santana will be impossible, but 25 starts from the Liriano who finished spring training with back-to-back strong outings would give the Twins' rotation an edge over most teams in the league and between Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, Philip Humber, Brian Duensing, Kevin Mulvey, and Anthony Swarzak there's no shortage of quality young arms ready to pitch alongside him. I'll take youth and talent over experience and mediocrity every time.

An awful lot of things would need to break right for the Twins to make another playoff push and given the strength of both the Tigers and Indians fourth or fifth place may indeed be more likely than first or second place. With that said, the team is perfectly capable of being more successful than last year's version despite vastly different expectations and if nothing else this season figures to be an interesting one regardless of where the Twins end up in the standings.

The ice may not be completely melted here in Minnesota yet, but the smile has definitely returned to my face because today marks the beginning of seven straight months of baseball. It's like opening a big present on Christmas morning and then spotting 161 more presents under the tree. Before things get rolling, here are 25 specific predictions about the Twins, followed by my guess as to how the 2008 season will play out across baseball:

- Mauer will top 1,000 innings behind the plate while leading AL catchers in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and caught-stealing percentage.

- Justin Morneau's power will not vanish in the second half on the way to his first 40-homer season.

- Livan Hernandez will lead the team in innings, but will have the worst ERA among pitchers who make at least 15 starts.

- Bonser will lead the team in strikeouts and Baker will lead the team in wins.

- Slowey will lead the team in strikeout-to-walk ratio despite his supposed lack of an "out-pitch."

- Gomez will have at least 50 percent more steals than walks.

- Liriano will stay healthy, but won't be the dominant force that he was as a rookie.

- Kubel won't get more plate appearances than last season and will start fewer than a dozen games against left-handed pitchers.

- Monroe will get the bulk of the playing time against southpaws and start at least 25 games against right-handed pitchers despite clearly being inferior to Kubel.

- Long one of the elite defensive players in baseball, Adam Everett will finally win his first Gold Glove.

- Young will be praised constantly for his RBI total, but his OPS will be below average for a left fielder.

- Between Cuddyer, Young, and Gomez the Twins will lead the league in outfield assists.

- Cuddyer and Young will both rank among the AL leaders in double plays and the Twins will lead the league at being doubled up despite a mediocre team on-base percentage.

- People will misguidedly keep questioning Neshek's ability to get left-handers out as he holds them to a sub-.200 batting average for the second straight season.

- Punto's number of plate appearances will be higher than his batting average.

- Harris' OPS will be at least 100 points higher than Punto's, but he'll never start 10 straight games.

- Mike Lamb will be one of the team's top five hitters, but will lose playing time because of his defense.

- Blackburn will show why Baseball America ranking him as the Twins' top prospect was silly.

- Brian Buscher and Randy Ruiz will both be among the International League leaders in OPS while at Rochester, but will combine for fewer than 150 plate appearances in Minnesota.

- Denard Span will complain publicly that the Twins haven't called him up from Triple-A and none of the local writers reporting the story will focus on the fact that he has a .700 OPS at Rochester.

- Julio DePaula will emerge as a reliable middle reliever in the second half.

- Mauer, Morneau, and Nathan will make the All-Star team.

- Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven will force me to wear out my mute button.

- The Twins will win at least as many games as they did last season.

- Many of these predictions will look silly by June and most of them will look silly by September.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

WEST CENTRAL EAST
Los Angeles Angels Detroit Tigers Boston Red Sox
Oakland A's Cleveland Indians New York Yankees
Seattle Mariners Minnesota Twins Toronto Blue Jays
Texas Rangers Chicago White Sox Tampa Bay Rays
Kansas City Royals Baltimore Orioles

MVP: Alex Rodriguez CY: C.C. Sabathia ROY: Joba Chamberlain
ALDS: BOS over LAA ALDS: NYY over DET ALCS: BOS over NYY

NATIONAL LEAGUE

WEST CENTRAL EAST
Arizona Diamondbacks Chicago Cubs New York Mets
Los Angeles Dodgers Milwaukee Brewers Atlanta Braves
Colorado Rockies Cincinnati Reds Philadelphia Phillies
San Diego Padres St. Louis Cardinals Washington Nationals
San Francisco Giants Houston Astros Florida Marlins
Pittsburgh Pirates

MVP: David Wright CY: Johan Santana ROY: Kosuke Fukudome
NLDS: NYM over ARI NLDS: ATL over CHC NLCS: NYM over ATL

WORLD SERIES: NYM over BOS WORLD SERIES MVP: Johan Santana

Finally, here's Richie Havens doing my favorite version of "Here Comes the Sun":


Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

March 27, 2008

Link-O-Rama

  • As hinted at last week, I've joined the staff at MinnPost, where my byline will appear in the sports section alongside the likes of former Minneapolis Star Tribune reporters Steve Aschburner and Jay Weiner, former City Pages editor G.R. Anderson, and frequent New York Times contributor Pat Borzi. My weekly contribution to MinnPost will be primarily "best of" content pulled from AG.com that runs each Thursday, with my analysis of Joe Nathan's contract extension serving as my debut column.

    I'm a fan of what MinnPost is doing and admire many of the veteran journalists founder Joel Kramer has assembled since launching the venture just months ago, so I'm thrilled to be joining the team. If you're looking for some good, Minnesota-based journalism that goes beyond what's offered in the two local newspapers, the site is a daily must-read. And if you just want to visit MinnPost each day to stare at the lovely drawing of me that they commissioned, I wouldn't blame you for that either.Scary, huh? If only my hair looked even half that good in real life. Along with Aschburner, Weiner, Borzi, and Anderson, the MinnPost staff also includes familiar names from the world of local journalism like Doug Grow and Britt Robson, not to mention my idol and former journalism-school professor (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Chris Ison. As someone who was unable to fulfill his childhood dream of writing for a newspaper, it's surreal to see my work alongside so many of the journalists I grew up reading.

    Kramer was formerly editor, publisher, and president of the Star Tribune, and at MinnPost he's put together an interesting mix of old-school journalism in an online format. It's a non-profit outfit that aims to "provide high-quality journalism for news-intense people who care about Minnesota" while aiming for "a thoughtful approach to news." My hope is that you'll stop by to sniff around my page and then stay to check out everything else, because even ignoring my involvement the site is definitely worth reading.

  • While searching through my archives the other day looking for something else, I stumbled across a crazy story about Livan Hernandez that was originally linked to here way back in 2003:
    San Francisco Giants pitcher Livan Hernandez denied Thursday that he pushed an elderly warehouse owner or swung golf clubs at him, saying that he was the victim in a scuffle that resulted in his arrest.

    Hernandez posted $10,000 bond and was released from Miami-Dade County Jail late Wednesday after he was charged with felony aggravated assault and battery on the elderly. Each charge carries up to five years in prison. He is scheduled for arraignment Jan. 29.

    Police said Hernandez pushed Francisco Martinez, 65, to the ground during an argument outside a warehouse he rents from the man. The dispute escalated and police said Hernandez grabbed some golf clubs from the trunk of his car and tried to hit Martinez.

    All of that stuff is plenty good, but by far the best part of the story was this picture:

    Hernandez appears to be doing some sort of Gilbert Gottfried impression.

  • The good people at Sony have been kind enough to send me five copies of MLB 08: The Show for Playstation 3, which retails for around $60. The idea was that I'd get them in the hands of my readers via some sort of giveaway and I'd love to do just that, but so far no great giveaway ideas have come to mind. I'm very much open to suggestions, so if you have a good idea for a way to pick the five AG.com readers who get a free copy, please post a note in the comments section or e-mail me.

    My lone potential giveaway idea was to hold a logo-making contest, similar to what friend of AG.com Tim Dierkes is doing over at MLB Trade Rumors. This blog is long overdue for a redesign given that it's essentially had the same basic look for the past five years, but I'm not skilled enough to create a logo. If you feel like putting your design skills to the test, come up with a logo (or multiple logos) that you think would work well atop AG.com and send it to me.

    If you submit something that I end up using, I'll send you a copy of MLB 08: The Show for Playstation 3 and give you a nice plug. The only requirements are that the design can't involve copyrighted images, such as the Twins logo or a player's picture, and must feature "AaronGleeman.com" prominently. Other than that, I'm open to anything that looks good. And for those of you who aren't much for logo-making, don't forget to send me any other ideas you have for a potential giveaway.

  • The Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com throne remains vacant for now, but Keeley Hazell may be on the verge of taking over the title that has gone unclaimed since Elisha Cuthbert was stripped of her crown over 15 months ago. No doubt sensing that new episodes of The Office are right around the corner and Jenna Fischer may be gearing up for a strong run, Hazell had a fantastic week, with new photo shoots showing her in bikinis, out of bikinis, and somewhere in between. It's your move, Jenna.
  • Speaking of Cuthbert, she's seemingly well on her way to becoming the Alyssa Milano of the NHL, hopping from hockey player to hockey player much like Milano does with pitchers. Her career has gone downhill since 24 and her Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com stock has plummeted since The Girl Next Door single-handedly won her the title, but Cuthbert appears to be looking better recently and is set to star in a new hour-long drama on CBS:
    In Ny-Lon, Elisha plays Edie Miller, a free-spirited, New Yorker who works in a record store and also moonlights as a literacy teacher. On a trip to London, she meets a British stock broker, Michael. Their whirlwind romance leads to their deciding to try a cross-continental love affair.

    My grandmother's name was Edie, no record-store clerk in the history of the world has looked anything like Cuthbert, and that show sounds like it'll be painful to watch. Interestingly, the show is a remake of a British series in which Rashida Jones starred in the same role as Cuthbert. Jones used to be on The Office, where her character Karen Filippelli had a rivalry with Fischer's character Pam Beesly. I'm not sure what all of that means in the grand scheme of OFGoAG.com business, but it's something.

  • Last month I wrote about how silly it was that various fans and media members were comparing Delmon Young to Frank Robinson. It seemed like a worthwhile point to make at the time, but now I'm not so sure. Earlier this week Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan referred to Young as "a former No. 1 overall pick who has been compared, however unwisely and prematurely, to Frank Robinson." Either Shecky is reading this blog or we're simply starting to think alike, and I'm not sure which is worse.
  • Speaking of Souhan thinking like me, his recent column about the Twins' lineup contains the phrase "on-base percentage" six times in fewer than 1,000 words, which might be more mentions than OBP had previously received in the entire history of the newspaper. As if that weren't enough, Souhan wrote the following about Joe Mauer in the same column:
    I'd prefer to see Mauer as the leadoff hitter. Even in a down year, Mauer had the Twins' best on-base percentage last season. If I were writing the lineup, I'd want my best on-base percentage hitter leading off, to try to build big innings.

    That said, Mauer should be an ideal No. 2 hitter, as well, because of his ability to work the count and pull grounders through the right side.

    Souhan writing that "Mauer should be an ideal No. 2 hitter" scares me, because just last week I wrote that "the No. 2 spot is ideal for Mauer." If Souhan starts writing regularly about on-base percentages and Mauer being a good fit atop the lineup, does that mean I have to start making cheesy one-liners and poultry references?

  • My friend and Rotoworld colleague Gregg Rosenthal was in Japan for the Red Sox-A's series this week and wrote a pair of good articles about his experience.
  • Speaking of the series in Japan, my fellow Highland Park native Jack Hannahan is starting at third base for the A's while Eric Chavez is sidelined and ranks second among all MLB hitters in OPS behind only Manny Ramirez.
  • I'm not proud to admit this, but for a brief time in the early 1990s there were Zubaz in my closet. Then I turned 10 years old and realized how ridiculous they looked. It's now 15 years later and my guess is that Zubaz's attempt to find relevance again will rank somewhere between "Juan Gonzalez" and "Bret Boone" on the comeback scale.
  • Pat Jordan's piece about spending three months trying to interview Jose Canseco may be 4,000 words long, but my favorite part is the final line.
  • Patriots coach Bill Belichick was recently seen scouting tight ends at the University of Florida.
  • I'm not sure if Royals pitcher Brian Bannister can duplicate the success that he had as a rookie, but I'll definitely be rooting for him when he's not facing the Twins.
  • A new blog to check out: Super Terrific Happy Hour.
  • Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is John Mayer doing a live version of "Belief":


  • March 26, 2008

    Twins Notes: Cuts and Kicks

  • Ron Gardenhire gave Nick Punto a chance to claim the starting second-base job this spring, giving him plenty of at-bats and consistently pairing him with shortstop Adam Everett. Brendan Harris' shaky defense and modest hitting further opened the door for Punto, but going 5-for-41 (.122) made it hard for even Gardenhire to hand him the job. Instead, Gardenhire said Tuesday that he'll "probably start Harris and go from there," which may be code for "as soon as Punto shows any sign of life, he'll be starting."

    Gardenhire has already taken to referring to Harris' defense as "hit-or-miss," which while accurate isn't a good sign for his chances of holding off one of the manager's favorite players while hanging onto the job all year. Meanwhile, Gardenhire has predictably been brainstorming ways to get Punto into games, saying: "Believe me, he'll get used quite a bit. I like to see him out there on the field." Unless Harris hits .350 in April and never looks back, I'll be shocked if Punto isn't playing regularly before midseason.

  • While Harris is merely the unofficial and perhaps temporary starter at second base, the Twins left no doubt that Carlos Gomez is the starting center fielder. Denard Span's never-ending "confidence" and a .282/.404/.385 hitting line in 16 spring games weren't enough to keep him from being sent to Triple-A along with Jason Pridie, leaving Gomez as the only true center fielder on the roster (although Punto, Craig Monroe, and Delmon Young have each played center field in the majors).

    As usual Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com LaVelle E. Neal III wrote plenty about Span's point of view, reporting that he "took the news hard" and "choked up a few times while he spoke with reporters." I've poked fun at Span for over-confidence and at the local reporters for chronicling his every thought while failing to note that he's simply not a very good player, but he deserves credit for playing well this spring and will no doubt be first in line for a call-up should Gomez struggle.

  • Gomez will also lead off for the Twins, showing that Gardenhire values speed over on-base skills at the top of the order. Unless Punto works his way into the lineup, Gomez and Everett have a good shot at posting the two worst on-base percentages among Twins regulars. They'll be batting back-to-back, directly in front of Joe Mauer in the No. 2 spot, which guarantees that we'll get to hear people like Dan Barreiro and Jim Souhan continue to misguidedly criticize Mauer's lack of run production.

    I'm as excited as anyone about Gomez's future, ranking him as the Twins' top prospect, but it's likely a mistake to put him in a position to receive the most plate appearances of anyone on the team while batting directly in front of the lineup's most dangerous hitters. There'll no doubt be flashes of brilliance while Gomez shows off his amazing speed on the bases and in center field, but leading off should primarily be about getting on base and at 22 years old he doesn't figure to do that especially well.

  • Along with Span and Pridie, Brian Buscher was also among the Twins' last batch of position-player cuts, meaning that Matt Tolbert will be on the Opening Day roster as a backup infielder. Buscher can be a useful role player if given the chance, but coughed up whatever opportunity he had this spring by going just 5-for-35 (.143) and will likely never make much of a fan in Gardenhire because of his weak glove and patient approach at the plate.

    Everett is a prime candidate to be pinch-hit for in key spots, it seems obvious that Gardenhire plans to remove Harris' glove from the equation late in games, and he may eventually want to do the same with Mike Lamb at third base, so Tolbert should get some work as a late-inning sub even if Punto is the first choice off the bench in such situations. While Gomez headlined my aforementioned annual list of the Twins' top prospects, Buscher ranked 38th and Tolbert ranked 40th.

  • While the 13 position players are settled barring a last-minute move, the dozen pitchers haven't yet been finalized. Philip Humber was sent to Triple-A along with Span, Pridie, and Buscher, suggesting that Brian Bass has beaten the odds to win a spot in the bullpen. Bass is out of minor-league options and pitched well this spring after putting together a career-year at Triple-A last season, so the Twins would rather give him a look in a low-leverage role than risk losing him for nothing on waivers.

    Assuming that Bass sticks as a long reliever, that leaves Nick Blackburn waiting to see whether Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano begin the season in the rotation. If Baker needs a stint on the disabled list or Liriano heads to Triple-A, Blackburn will slide into the rotation along with Livan Hernandez, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, and either Baker or Liriano. If both Baker and Liriano are ready, Blackburn will join Humber, Glen Perkins, Kevin Mulvey, and Brian Duensing in an amazing Rochester rotation.

  • Lew Ford's career in Minnesota fell apart after he batted .302/.383/.461 through his first 188 games, but his new career in Japan is off to a pretty strong start. Playing right field for the Hanshin Tigers in an exhibition game against the Red Sox over the weekend, Ford reportedly "made a highlight-reel running catch into the right-field wall to rob Jacoby Ellsbury of an extra-base hit" and "singled, drew two walks, and scored twice."

    Interestingly, Ford was originally selected by the Red Sox in the 12th round of the 1999 draft out of Dallas Baptist University and hit .315/.378/.479 with 52 steals for their low Single-A affiliate in 2000 before being traded to the Twins for Hector Carrasco that September. Carrasco appeared in just eight games for the Red Sox, allowing eight runs on 15 hits in 6.2 innings, and then re-signed with the Twins that offseason. Ford hit .272/.349/.402 in 1,716 plate appearances with the Twins.

  • Given all the weight that he's lugging around it's not surprising that Hernandez avoided bending over to field a ground ball yesterday, but what followed was apparently pretty amusing:
    Elliot Johnson led off the third by trying to bunt down the first-base line. He kept it close to the line and it rolled down close to the bag. Morneau went to cover the bag and Hernandez moved his considerable bulk over toward the ball. Seeing that he wouldn't be able to scoop it up in time to get Johnson, Hernandez instead kicked the ball, right on the toe, and it went straight into Morneau's glove.

    Your average, everyday 1-3 putout. Unbelievable.

    Now on the Rays, former Twins shortstop Jason Bartlett had plenty to say about "The Kick":

    That was awesome. Usually you'd see that and you'd get mad about it, but it was so amazing that everybody in our dugout was taking their hat off and just bowing to him. To kick it and to hit it in the air right at Morneau's glove is impossible, but he did it. Any other first baseman, it probably would have hit off their knee or something, but Morneau, with that hockey instinct, kick save and he got it in the glove.

    Sure enough, Justin Morneau also brought up the hockey angle, adding: "Usually that's no goal in hockey, kicking it in."

  • Over at MinnPost, Pat Borzi catches up with Torii Hunter as he prepares to return to the Metrodome for Monday's season opener as a member of the Angels.

  • March 25, 2008

    Book Excerpt: Torii Hunter on "Facing Clemens"

    Excerpted from “Facing Clemens: Hitters on Confronting Baseball’s Most Intimidating Pitcher,” © 2008, by Jonathan Mayo. Published by The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT.

    Jonathan Mayo is a senior writer for MLB.com and has been working for the official site of Major League Baseball since 1999. His focus is on the minor leagues and the draft, but he has covered MLB for a number of years. He wrote "Facing Clemens" prior to the release of the Mitchell Report, so the work is free of performance-enhancers. It takes readers into the batter’s box and provides insights from hitters on the challenges of trying to succeed against Clemens over the course of his career. One of the chapters is on former Twins star Torii Hunter and the following is an excerpt from that chapter.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Torii Hunter knew he had been given a gift once he heard the news. It came by way of an announcement from the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, May 6, 2007. Roger Clemens made it official, speaking to the Yankee faithful in the Bronx that afternoon via the video scoreboard. “Well, they came and got me out of Texas and I can tell you it's a privilege to be back,” Clemens said. "I'll be talking to y’all soon.”

    There was no surprise that Roger Clemens decided to make another late return to baseball for the 2007 season. And it would be difficult to find someone shocked that he chose to return to New York over the Red Sox or Astros. Hunter may have been more interested than most, especially once he perused the Twins schedule and saw that Minnesota would be heading to Yankee Stadium for four games in the beginning of July.

    That would give him another chance--perhaps his last one--to accomplish something that had eluded him throughout his very successful career. He’s logged over 1,200 games of big-league time, surpassing the 1,200-hit plateau. He’s slugged over 190 home runs and stolen over 125 bases. He’s been to the postseason with the Minnesota Twins four times, went to two All-Star Games and has a shelf full of Gold Gloves for his play in center field (six entering the 2007 season, to be exact).

    But there has been one achievement that has eluded the veteran star, the thing he hoped he’d finally be able to pick up in that visit to the Bronx in July 2007. Without including one playoff meeting, Hunter entered the 2007 season with an albatross-around-his-neck 0-for-22 against the Rocket. Then opportunity knocked one more time with Clemens’ decision to return to the American League after three seasons over in the National League.

    Clemens had rushed back to help rescue the Yankees in 2007. A series of injuries had decimated the pitching staff and New York was under .500 with the Red Sox threatening to run away with the AL East. So the Rocket accelerated his timetable, made a trio of minor-league starts, got delayed slightly by a balky groin, and made his season debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, June 9, just a month after announcing to the Yankee Stadium faithful he was coming back.

    Clemens got the win against the Pirates, but it was an uneven performance, as he allowed three runs in six innings. He was up-and-down for the rest of the month, finishing June with a 5.32 ERA. There were more than a few whispers saying the Yankees had made a costly mistake in bringing back the 44-year-old. But Clemens would show he had more than a little left in the tank when the calendar turned to July.

    It did seem like a perfect opportunity for Hunter. Clemens still looked very rusty and the Twins center fielder was having his best season since being an All-Star back in 2002. Hunter hit .302 up until the game against the Yankees and Clemens, with 17 homers, 63 RBIs, and 11 steals. He was optimistic, yet philosophical, about the opportunity to face his nemesis one more time.

    “For me, I get a chance to get that hit I need. I’m excited,” said Hunter, who signed a big free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels following the 2007 season. “Me as an athlete, you don’t want to be the guy who has no hits off anybody. I’m a better hitter, better player. I think I have a good chance getting that hit off him.

    “I’m not that young kid any more. I’m older. I have more experience, I’m more under control. I understand the game. You get a hit three out of ten times, you’re a hero. It’s a game of failure. I’m going to try my best to get my hit, but I won’t let it get me down. He’s the only one who gets my number. He’s struck out lots of people. If it’s going to be one guy, I’ll tell my grandkids Roger Clemens got me. It’s something you have to cope with. If it doesn’t happen, it was a good run, a good race. He’s a Hall of Famer. Hang with ’em.”

    It didn’t happen. Clemens, it seemed, chose July 2 to look like the pitcher the Yankees signed to help them climb back into the race. The right-hander went eight innings and allowed just one run on two hits. Once a strikeout machine who put up fairly big pitch counts, this Clemens was extremely efficient. He only threw 97 pitches in the game, 67 for strikes, while striking out four. It was win number 350 in Clemens’ storied career and he hit that stratified air with the second-lowest loss total in the history of the game (only Cy Young had fewer losses when he reached the 350-win plateau).

    Once again, Roger Clemens was redefining the kind of pitcher he was based on what he could still bring to the table. Hunter knew ahead of time this wasn’t going to be the guy who dominated him--and everyone--in the American League early on and probably not even the pitcher who found success in the National League over the previous three seasons.

    “I think he’s a different pitcher now,” Hunter said before facing him. “He probably has a different way of getting it done. He’s probably smarter. If I jumped at the first pitch all the time, he might go slider off the bat. I may have to watch how he goes at other guys like me. I’ll get my game plan from that. That’s how you feel them out. You watch and see what they’re doing. Once he gets on the mound, I’m going to watch to see what he’s doing. And trust me, I’ll have the scouting reports from everywhere.”

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