March 24, 2004

Enjoying it while it lasts

I'm one of those guys who never pays attention to what happens in spring training. It doesn't matter to me if someone is hitting .400 or .100, because the sample-sizes are so incredibly small and the competition is so incredibly meaningless, that it's foolish to get caught up in the numbers.

I've even been known to mock people who say things like "I didn't know Nick Punto was such a good hitter!" based on the fact that he's been able to collect 14 hits in 37 spring at bats. Nick Punto is, of course, Nick Punto.

If he had gone 4 for 37, he'd still be the same player, just as he'd still be the same player if his 14-37 hot-streak had come in the middle of the season, where it wouldn't have been nearly as noticeable (but, ironically, much more meaningful).

With all of that said, there's nothing quite like watching your team play for the first time in five months to make you feel nice and optimistic about the upcoming season.

The Twins were on local TV for the first time last night, playing the Pittsburgh Pirates from Florida. It gave me a chance to get a look at some of the new Twins, including Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan, Carlos Silva and, yes, everyone's favorite hot-hitting utility man, Nick Punto.

Incidentally, it is looking as if last night will have been one of the rare times I was able to watch the Twins on TV this year. The team started up their own TV channel ("Victory Sports") during the off-season and they are currently in disputes with cable and satellite companies. As it stands right now, I won't be able to watch any of the 100+ Twins games that are broadcast on their channel, leaving me a measily 27 games on other, available channels.

I've avoided talking about this issue in the past, mostly because I've sort of been hoping that, if I ignore it, it'll just go away. Opening Day is right around the corner though, so I'm starting to get a little worried. I'm not quite sure what I'll do if I can't watch the Twins on a regular basis, but it won't be pretty.

I've rarely missed a Twins game over the last few years (whether on TV or in person) and the thought of being stuck with 27 random games interspersed throughout the season is one that makes me ill. The really sick thing about it is that I have purchased the MLB Extra Innings package on DirecTV for this season, just as I have for the past couple years. And yet, despite being able to watch a dozen different games nearly every day of the week, I just might be stuck with a total of 27 games from my beloved Twins.

Anyway, back to last night's game...

Carlos Silva looked very good. I had seen him pitch several times with the Phillies over the past two years, but was never particularly impressed. Last night though, he pitched very well. He has good velocity on his fastball and just about everything he throws has a ton of movement and a lot of sinking action.

I don't think Silva's going to strike out a ton of people, but a groundball pitcher who doesn't whiff a lot of guys is someone I think might be more successful in the starting rotation, as opposed to the bullpen, where he's been for the past two seasons.

If Silva can throw strikes and keep the ball in the ballpark, I could definitely see him giving the Twins bulk innings with a solid ERA. Of course, it would be even better if the team didn't play 81 games on artificial turf and/or they had an middle infield combo that could actually play some defense, but I suppose you can't have everything. Maybe Silva can learn to induce all of his ground balls to the corners of the infield...

After Silva, J.C. Romero and Joe Nathan both pitched and both looked very good. Romero seems to me like one of the biggest keys for the Twins in 2004. If he pitches like he did last season, their bullpen might be a real mess. If he pitches like he did in 2002, it could actually turn into an asset.

Nathan has not pitched particularly well overall this spring, but he sure looked good last night, striking out two batters in one inning of work. Even moreso than Romero, I think the fate of the bullpen rests on his shoulders. Nathan enters the season as the Twins' closer, a spot they've gotten remarkable production from during their back-to-back run atop the AL Central.

It's likely the most exciting part of last night's game for most Twins fans was getting their first good look at uber-prospect Joe Mauer. The boxscore line wasn't particularly good (0-1 with a sac fly), but I definitely liked what I saw.

Just like he's done when I've seen him play in the past, Mauer displayed a tremendous approach to hitting last night. He was very patient, he took borderline pitches instead of hacking at them, and he even flashed a little power with a long sacrifice fly to deep left field, driving in Torii Hunter from third base in the second inning.

With his 0-1 last night, Mauer is now hitting .333 this spring, with 10 hits in 30 at bats, including a homer and six total extra-base hits. Of course, as I just got done mocking, Nick Punto is hitting .378, so .333 doesn't mean a whole lot.

Mauer showed off his cannon throwing arm last night too, gunning down renowned base-stealer Orlando Merced by at least three feet when he tried to steal second base. The throw was so beautiful that I'm willing to ignore the fact that Merced is a 37-year-old reserve outfielder with 57 stolen bases in 13 years.

Twins GM Terry Ryan spent an inning in the announcer's both with Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven and, as he always does, was full of praise for Mauer. He talked about how impressive Mauer's defense behind the plate has been, how every throw he makes is "right on the bag" and how even the umpires like the way he works.

Later in the game, Mauer even did an interview of his own with Dick and Bert. He looked like...well, he looked like a 20-year-old kid from Minnesota who was on TV. Which is to say he was kinda shy, very respectful, and lacking a whole lot of personality. As long as he keeps hitting and throwing lasers to second base, he can be a mute for all I care.

I know I've said this before and I know people are going to accuse me of being a "homer" and all that stuff, but I'm about as convinced of Joe Mauer becoming a superstar as I could possibly be right now. Either that, or Nick Punto is in for a big year...

By the way, the Twins lost, 5-2.

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