Ron Gardenhire stood in the ballroom of the St. Francis Westin Hotel this past Monday and watched as one of his star players entertained a horde of reporters for an hour during the media availability session held a day before the All-Star Game in San Francisco. “Gee, what do you think they’re asking him?” Gardenhire, the Minnesota Twins‘ manager, said with a smile.
Gardenhire knew why everyone wanted to talk to center fielder Torii Hunter. Hunter is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and inquiring minds were curious where he might consider going. For the record, Hunter seemed amenable to every professional team in the world, including the Joliet Jackhammers or the Yakult Swallows. “We just played in New York last week, and I thought we were going to have to leave Torii behind,” cracked Gardenhire, who served as a coach for the American League at the All-Star Game. “I thought he was going to sign with the Yankees on the spot.”
Whether Hunter re-signs with the Twins remains to be seen. However, Gardenhire ended speculation that the Twins might deal Hunter before the July 31 non-trading deadline. “We’re not sellers,” he said. “We think we’re still in it.”
The question of whether or not the Twins might cash out was a legitimate one, as they came out of the All-Star break in fourth place, eight games behind the first-place Tigers. However, the Twins beat Oakland three nights in a row to start the second half, and have shaved their deficit to six games in the division, and 5 ½ games behind Cleveland for the wild card.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet, I really don’t,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve played well in spurts but we have also struggled at times. On the whole, I like our team. We pitch pretty well and we catch the ball pretty well. What we need to do a little bit better is hit. If we can score some more runs, I really think we can make a nice little run down the stretch.”
The Twins are fifth in runs allowed, giving up 4.5 per game. Left-hander Johan Santana is second in the AL in SNLVAR with 4.5, while a fine bullpen includes three of the top 17 in the league in WXRL, including Pat Neshek (2.841, sixth), closer Joe Nathan (2.605, ninth), and Matt Guerrier (1.658, 16th).
Though the Twins actually rank higher in the league in runs scored, tied for fourth with Boston at 4.97, their offense is being carried by only four players: first baseman Justin Morneau (31.7 VORP), Hunter (30.9), catcher Joe Mauer (22.6), and right fielder Michael Cuddyer (19.4). Only four other hitters on the roster are performing above replacement level: second baseman Luis Castillo (8.1), shortstop Jason Bartlett (5.2), infield reserve Jeff Cirillo (4.5), and backup catcher Mike Redmond (3.0). That leaves holes at third base, left field, and designated hitter.
As a result, the Twins can’t afford to simultaneously think about trading Hunter while staying in the race. While Hunter has expressed frustration about the Twins not having made a contract extension offer-General Manager Terry Ryan’s policy is to not negotiate during the season-he has not let his impending free agency become a distraction. “I’ve been in this organization my whole career, 15 years, and I don’t want to leave,” said Hunter, who was Twins’ first-round draft pick in 1993 and made his major-league debut four years later. “So far, though, the Twins haven’t even talked to me. I don’t know if that means they don’t want me anymore or what. My focus, right now, is on winning with the Twins. I love my teammates, I love the fans and I’ve loved being part of the organization all these years. If this is my last year, I want to go out as a winner.”
Gardenhire, though, made it clear that the Twins very much want to retain Hunter and have him playing center field when their new stadium opens in 2010. “As soon as the season is over, Terry Ryan is going to make a big pitch to sign Torii,” Gardenhire said. “We definitely want him back. He’s a great player and I’m hoping it works out. We’ve been in situations before when we’ve had some holes to fill. Sometimes, those holes have been pinholes. In Torii’s case, it would be a manhole.”
The Giants finished either first or second in the NL West in each of Sabean’s first eight seasons from 1997-2004, but were third in both of the last two years. The continued downward trend this season led to the speculation about a possible dismissal. “Frankly, this is an emotional time,” Sabean said. “When you’re in a position where you don’t want to leave an organization that has been so good to you, in a city and place you love so much, especially with your family concerned, I’m deeply flattered. This is a great first step for ourselves and the staff to get busy as we need to turn our fortunes.”
If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, there’s another-the Giants, after years of loading up on veteran players under Sabean in an effort to win a World Series with Barry Bonds in the lineup, plan to start a youth movement, and they wanted to give their GM enough security to execute that plan. “The hope is we can surprise ourselves with what I think the team could be, led by our young pitching staff,” Magowan said. “But if we need to develop patience so that we’re in a better chance to win and sustain winning in a couple of years or so, we’re prepared to do that.I don’t want you to think we have no interest in winning in ’08-we do. But it’s a different philosophy, a different emphasis, where every year we have felt, possibly incorrectly, that we have a chance to get into the playoffs. I think the emphasis is changing.”
The building blocks are to found among the starting pitching, notably left-handers Barry Zito and Noah Lowry and right-handers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. Zito is 29 and Lowry is 26, but Lincecum is 23, Cain 22. Despite his 3-10 record, Cain leads the rotation this season with a 3.3 SNLVAR, while Lowry trails him at 2.6, followed by Zito (1.6) and Lincecum (1.4, but in barely two months’ work).
Look for the Giants to start selling off most of their older parts between now and the end of the month. Among those who could be moved are right-hander Matt Morris, catcher Bengie Molina, first baseman Ryan Klesko, second baseman Ray Durham, third baseman Pedro Feliz, shortstop Omar Vizquel, center fielder Dave Roberts, right fielder Randy Winn, infielder Rich Aurilia, and left-handed reliever Steve Kline.
Don’t expect a third big surprise, though-the Giants won’t trade Bonds in a season in which their icon left fielder is primed to become baseball’s all-time home run leader. However, the franchise’s new direction makes it clear he won’t be re-signed as a free agent, ending a 15-year run with his hometown team.
“His talent is unbelievable,” Bonds said. “I don’t think people really appreciate that. He’s got eye-hand coordination. He’s got strength and great action toward the ball. Those are things you can’t teach. A lot of us who are at this level have it, but some of us are better than others and he’s one of them.” Bonds also said he connects with Rodriguez at a different level than most. “It’s freaky,” Bonds said. “I know what he knows. I can see what he sees. I’m just older and can’t do it as often. Willie Mays told me, ‘I can see everything you see, but I just can’t do it anymore.’ That’s like I am with A-Rod.”
Much has been made of Aaron refusing to attend when Barry Bonds breaks his all-time home run record. Yet, Bonds says he will be there when someone surpasses him. “In a heartbeat, as long as you give me a ticket,” Bonds said.
Rodriguez seemed flattered by Bonds’ praise. “I kind of feel shy talking about it because I hit 14 home runs in April and people started saying I was going to hit 140 this season,” said Rodriguez, who has 31. “I think it’s kind of ridiculous to even think about breaking the record but I really respect Barry and I take it as a compliment if he feels that way.”
Though the Phillies have tried to put off the milestone as long as possible by beating the Cardinals in their first two games after the All-Star break, it’s still represents a lot of losing, as both the Philadelphia Daily News‘ Paul Hagen and Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Frank Fitzpatrick have noted. Hagen points out that the Phillies would need 32 consecutive 100-win seasons to get up to .500, while Fitzpatrick notes the Phillies would need to win 1,189 straight games to reach the break-even point. The official response? “It is mind-boggling,” Larry Shenk, the Phillies’ vice president for public relations, told the Inquirer. “But it’s what it is. We’ll take it and move on.”
One distinction the Phillies may lose in 2009 is the all-time record for consecutive losing seasons, which they set with 16 from 1933-48. Pittsburgh is at 14 and counting, as the Pirates are 40-50 and seem to be a lock for another sub-.500 finish this year.