Perhaps no franchise had more momentum heading into spring training than the Twins. Seemingly everything was going into the right direction for the franchise. The Twins were coming off an inspiring run to the American League Central title last season, their fifth in eight years, overcoming a seven-game deficit in the final month and a three-game disadvantage with just four games to play to finally chase down the Tigers in a classic one-game playoff. Furthermore, the Twins had made significant progress in their attempts to keep catcher/batting champion/MVP/franchise player/hometown hero Joe Mauer from testing free agency at the end of this season as they seemed near a contract extension. The Twins were also gearing up to move into Target Field in April, which will bring outdoor baseball back to the Twin Cities for the first time since Metropolitan Stadium closed after the 1981 season, giving way to the Metrodome.
However, all those good feelings that surrounded the Twins since the time the first wind sprints of the spring were run got tempered Tuesday morning with the news that closer Joe Nathan has a large tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his right elbow. So much for the hope that Nathan was suffering from the tearing of scar tissue when he felt pain in the elbow last Saturday while delivering a pitch against the Red Sox in a Grapefruit League game.
The Twins will have Nathan rest for two weeks, and then being a throwing program. They talked hopefully of Nathan being able to rehab the injury and return to being one of the best relief pitchers in the game However, the glum looks on the faces of the men saying these things made it clear that the Twins realize that the chances are good that Nathan will need season-ending Tommy John surgery.
"It a significant injury, even if he does avoid surgery," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Nathan struggled to hold back tears Tuesday as he talked about the injury, and recounted his reflections during a flight back to Florida from Minneapolis on Monday night after he had undergone a CT scan earlier in the day. Nathan was sure his injury was not serious.
"I was doing a lot of thinking about the season," Nathan said. "I thought about the potential of our club, opening the new stadium, all kinds of factors and I was excited. That's the tough part of getting this news, knowing what a great season it could for us but potentially not being a part of it."
While Nathan hopes he can avoid the knife, hope and reality are often two different things. Thus, the Twins have to consider making alternate plans at closer for the first time since Nathan took over the job at the start of the 2009 season. The only pitcher on the roster who has any major-league closing experience is right-hander Jon Rauch, and his time pitching the ninth inning was limited to the first four months of the 2008 season with the Nationals before being traded to the Diamondbacks.
Finding an outside solution would be difficult, as the Twins' Opening Day payroll stretched to the limit at a projected $96 million, which will be a club record. The free-agent market for closers is so shallow that the best available options are past-prime pitchers like Tom Gordon, Jason Isringhausen, and David Weathers.
"We'll figure something out if Joe isn't able to pitch," Gardenhire said. "We'll have meetings, think things over and we'll have some kind of plan. The good thing is we still have a lot of time before Opening Day. If this happened with two days left down here, then we'd be really scrambling. We'll be all right."
"My biggest concern right now is for Joe. It's really tough news for him. He's meant so much to this team for so long that all of our hearts go out to him. Hopefully, he can avoid surgery. If he can't, I know he'll work hard and come back to pitch again."
The AL Central appears to be the most balanced division in baseball. PECOTA currently projects the Twins to win the division with an 81-81 record with the White Sox only one game behind and the Tigers and Indians just two back. Losing Nathan could make a difference, especially since he's been the best reliever in baseball over the past six seasons in terms of WXRL. Nathan has a 34.0 mark in that span, edging Mariano Rivera (33.9). Rounding out the top five are Francisco Rodriguez (29.4), Trevor Hoffman (22.1), and Jonathan Papelbon (21.6).
However, Gardenhire says his team will not allow a worst-case scenario with Nathan to potentially ruin its season, observing, "There a lot of good things happening with this organization. We've got some tough news with Joe, but it doesn't put a damper on all the good stuff going on."
The Blue Jays' Alex Anthopoulos is certainly young enough (32) to be considered a new-age general manager. He understands statistical analysis and the modern means of evaluating players. However, Anthopoulos is also very much old school. He believes in the value of having veteran scouts to evaluate players and advise him on potential trades and free-agent signings. In fact, Anthopoulos began his overhaul of the organization after being hired to replace J.P. Ricciardi by majorly beefing up the Blue Jays' scouting operation. He added a whopping 32 scouts to the staff, 14 for professional coverage, and 18 to evaluate amateurs.
"I think it's the best thing Alex could have done because the success we've had as an organization has come when we have been able to draft, sign, and develop players who eventually made an impact at the major-league level," said manager Cito Gaston, who guided the Blue Jays to their two World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. "It's a huge step in getting this franchise turned around."
The Blue Jays haven't been to the postseason since '93, but Anthopoulos is hoping to change that with better scouting. He started by promoting assistant scouting director Andrew Tinnish to scouting director. Anthopoulos also hired two former scouting directors, Dana Brown and Bob Fontaine, as amateur scouting supervisors. Among the new pro scouts are two former GMs in Jim Beattie and Ed Lynch, a former interim GM in Roy Smith, and a former major-league hitting coach in Rick Down.
"We want to know as much about a respective organization as humanly possible," Anthopoulos told the legendary Bob Elliot of the Toronto Sun. “How many times do we see a guy for three games and he looks like Babe Ruth? This will allow our organizational guys to get multi-looks at players."
In 1992, Brad Mills was managing the Cubs' Triple-A Iowa farm club and Brad Arnsberg was a pitcher trying to hang on in professional baseball after being released by the Indians early in the season. Arnsberg never made it back to the major leagues as a player, but he has been a pitching coach with the Rangers, Marlins, Blue Jays, and now the Astros, serving under Mills, in his first season as a major-league manager.
Arnsberg made an impression on Mills that summer in Des Moines, and continued to do so during his time as Blue Jays' pitching coach while Mills was serving as the AL East rival Red Sox's bench coach. Thus, when the Astros began looking for a pitching coach in the offseason, Arnsberg immediately came to Mills' mind. As Mills notes, "He has such a passion for the game and for teaching. I'm happy we had the opportunity to hire him. I've been very impressed with the work he is doing with our pitchers this spring."
Arnsberg has developed the reputation of getting his pitchers to quickly become receptive to his methods of teaching. Such stars as Roy Halladay, Josh Beckett, and A.J. Burnett credit Arnsberg for helping their development as young major leaguers. Arnsberg is able to quickly break down barriers by doing such unorthodox things as catching his pitchers' between-starts throwing sessions.
"One of the first times I threw this spring, he grabbed a catcher's mitt and started catching me," left-hander Wandy Rodriguez said. "I never had a pitching coach do that before. I was surprised, but it was good for him to do that."
Arnsberg says it is just all part of the job and building relationships: "The biggest thing I can do as a pitching coach is have the pitchers trust me, and you build trust by showing how much you care about them. If you can establish trust, then you can get the pitching staff to be one big family and good things start to happen."
Embattled Dodgers owner Frank McCourt spoke to the media last weekend. It was a waste of 11 minutes for everyone involved during his press availability.
McCourt declined to answer almost all questions, including ones pertaining to documents in recent filings in his divorce case that detail the Dodgers' plan to keep its payroll below last year's $100-million figure all the way through 2018 while nearly doubling ticket prices. He also wouldn't say why his two sons were on the payroll for a combined $600,000 a year, though one works at Goldman Sachs and the other is going to graduate school at Stanford.
McCourt claimed he had no reason to answer those questions because they did not affect the fans. He also pooh-poohed the idea that his image has suffered a major hit with the revelations that have come in the court filings.
"It's just really impossible to try and deal with allegations and things like that and deal with every one of them because it's an endless process," McCourt said. "I think the fans want to focus on baseball."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Blake DeWitt appears to be the favorite to become the Dodgers' starting second baseman over Ronny Belliard and Jamey Carroll. … While Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez are ostensibly battling to be the starting first baseman, the Marlins would also consider making Rule 5 Draft pick Jorge Jimenez the starting third baseman and shift Jorge Cantu to first base. … Rangers manager Ron Washington has had to pull second-year shortstop Elvis Andrus aside twice this spring to remind him to keep his focus. … The Braves are happy with how Troy Glaus is handling the conversion from third baseman to first baseman. … Astros center fielder Michael Bourn says his primary goal this season is to cut down on his 140 strikeouts in 2009. … Pirates third baseman Andy LaRoche says he plans to stick with the aggressive plate approach he adopted late last season when he hit six home runs and drove in 20 runs in the final five weeks. … Tigers catcher Gerald Laird has completely overhauled his hitting mechanics, which is a good idea considering he had a .228 TAv last season.
Orioles rookie left-hander Brian Matusz has been, in the words of multiple scouts, the most impressive pitcher on Florida's Gulf Coast during the early stages of the exhibition season. … Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick feels he is better equipped to handle major-league hitters after adding a cut fastball ball to his arsenal and changed the grip of his changeup. … Mariners utility infielder Jack Hannahan is learning how to catch this spring. … Reds first base prospect Yonder Alonso has been playing third base and left field, as he is blocked at first by Joey Votto. … Padres third-base prospect Logan Forsythe is seeing a lot of action at second base to increase his versatility. … Cardinals outfield prospect Shane Robinson is being tried at second base, following in the footsteps of a conversion that Skip Schumaker made a year ago.