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May 2, 2013

On the Beat

Minnesota Mediocrity

by John Perrotto

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The Twins are 12-12 one game into May. While .500 may seem to be the epitome of mediocrity to some, after finishing the last two seasons at 66-96 and 69-93, respectively, the Twins will take it.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of fun the last couple of years,” catcher Joe Mauer said. “It’s been difficult. When you get used to winning and you expect to win every year, it’s tough to have to take a step back, especially as far as we have. I’m not ready to get too excited yet, but there is certainly a better feeling than there has been here in the last couple of years. We’ve been competitive, and I’m hopeful we can eventually be more than that.”

For years, the Twins defied the odds of being a low-payroll franchise playing in a facility—the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome—more suited for human pinball than baseball by winning big. The Twins captured six American League Central titles in nine years, the last coming in the inaugural season of Target Field in 2010.

The opening of Target Field was supposed to make the Twins’ franchise even stronger, as ownership gave former general manager Bill Smith the OK to take the payroll over $100 million. However, Smith made a series of bad trades, the farm system became depleted because of bad drafts, and Minnesota became the antithesis of everything it was during their last decade at the Metrodome—an underachieving team with a bloated payroll.

“We kind of got away from being the Twins,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We’ve never been the most talented team or the most flashy team in the league, but we’ve always prided ourselves on playing winning baseball—fundamentally sound baseball where we catch the ball, the pitchers throw strikes, and we maximize our scoring opportunities.

“I wouldn’t say we’re all the way back to what we used to be, but we’re playing better than we have the last two years.”

General manager Terry Ryan made acquiring starting pitching nearly the entire focus of the offseason. He traded two center fielders for pitchers, shipping Denard Span to the Nationals for prospect Alex Meyer and Ben Revere to the Phillies for Vance Worley and prospect Trevor May, and signed Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey as free agents.

With their new rotation and a good bullpen, the Twins are 18th in the major leagues in runs allowed with 4.30 a game. That is a marked improvement from last season, when they ranked 28th among the 30 clubs at 5.14.

“I know everybody says it, but they say it because it’s true—it always starts with pitching,” Mauer said. “Our staff has been so unsettled the last couple of years. This year, we have a solid rotation and a solid bullpen. When you have good pitching, then you always have a chance to win, and we’re back in that position again.”

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This certainly needs a small sample size qualifier in front of it, but I’ve asked 25 players since the beginning of spring training how a teammate would be accepted if he came out as being gay. The plan was to ask more players, but in light of NBA center Jason Collins coming out this week, it seems timely to reveal the results now.

Fifteen players—60 percent—said they did not think a gay player would have any problem being accepted by his team, while seven players—28 percent—said there would be some resistance, and three players—12 percent—said it would likely create a problem.

“I honestly think I speak for the majority of players when I say a gay player would be accepted,” Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels said. “Times and attitudes have changed so much. I really think he would be treated just like anybody else. It would be a big story for a day or two in the media and that would be it.”

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The Phillies are 12-16 and are looking like no match for the Braves and Nationals in the National League East, one season after having their five-year run of division titles end. Furthermore, there is an unsettled feeling around the team, as manager Charlie Manuel is in the last year of his contract and has no desire to retire while general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. must decide whether this is the last hurrah for an aging team and think about rebuilding.

“People can think what they want of us,” Manuel said. “I still think we have a good club. We haven’t played consistently good yet, but I know we have a team that can win a lot of games.”

While Manuel is seemingly in the minority, a scout who frequently covers the Phillies also believes it is too early to write them off, especially following the recent returns of catcher Carlos Ruiz from an amphetamine suspension and outfielder Delmon Young from an ankle injury.

“They have two new players back, a couple of guys who are upgrades,” the scout said. “I think you have to see how they play with those two guys before you make any snaps judgments. Give them a little time with their full team, especially this early in the season.”

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Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg is expected to make his scheduled start Saturday against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Nationals manager Davey Johnson said after Monday’s game against the Braves that Strasburg had experienced some stiffness in his forearm, a revelation that seemed to bother Strasburg. The following morning, general manager Mike Rizzo was quick to tell reporters that Strasburg was as “strong as an ox.”

So what gives? Is Strasburg hiding an injury? Was Johnson overly concerned about a small matter? Many people inside baseball are wondering.

“It just seems like everything that happens with Strasburg gets totally blown out of proportion,” said a front-office type. “My instincts tell me that he must be fine. That arm is too valuable to mess with. If they wouldn’t use him in the playoffs last year because he reached his innings limit, then there is no way in the world they are going to have him start a regular-season game in May if he is at any risk of being injured.”

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Scouts' views:

Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings: “He’s developing into a good player, but I think there’s something bothering him physically. His swing doesn’t seem free and easy. It seems like something is holding him back from really cutting loose.”

Indians left fielder Michael “Dr. Smooth” Brantley: “I think he’s going to break through this year. His swing path is really consistent now, and he has the strength to become a good gap hitter with a lot of doubles.”

Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley: “I’m starting to wonder whether he’s going to be the player everyone thought he was going to be coming out of college. He struggles against good major-league pitching, and he doesn’t seem to be making much improvement.”

Astros left fielder Chris Carter: “I love his power. He’s going to hit 30-35 homers now that he’s getting a chance to play every day. He could strike out 200 times, but he’s going to hit homers and be a productive hitter. It was a good pickup for Houston.”

Reds outfielder Xavier Paul: “He can crush a good fastball, but he can’t hit anything that spins to save his life. Still, I like him as a bat off the bench. Put him in a situation in a tight game where they’ve got to throw him a fastball and he’ll turn it around and do some damage.”

Cardinals right-hander Mitchell Boggs: “He’s just all over the place with all his pitches. It surprises me that he’s struggled this badly. He was outstanding as the set-up man last year, and I thought he would move right into the closer’s role and the Cardinals wouldn’t miss a beat. I didn’t see this meltdown coming.”

Braves catcher/first baseman/outfielder Evan Gattis: “Everything about him screams fluke because of his lack of experience, but he’s for real. He’s not going to be one of those guys that the league catches up to once he goes around the first time. He’s a legitimately good big-league hitter. He’s got a chance to be a special hitter.”

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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