In many ways the Twins had an outstanding 2008, but ultimately they walked away frustrated, having tied with the White Sox for the American League Central title after 162 games, only to lose 1-0 in a one-game playoff at US Cellular Field in Chicago. “I thought about that game every day all winter,” said Twins outfielder Denard Span. “To be that close and come up short really hurt. You think about all the little things that happened over the course of the season, and wonder if one of those things went our way, if we would have been going to the playoffs.”
While the Twins were one of baseball’s surprise teams with an 88-75 record in a season after they had traded ace left-hander Johan Santana and lost center fielder Torii Hunter and right-hander Carlos Silva to free agency, manager Ron Gardenhire hopes that his team will use 2008 as a learning experience, the lesson being that every game counts. “I think it’s a really good lesson, not just to the young players, but everybody, as to just how much every game means, and what happens during the course of every game means something,” Gardenhire said. “You look back at the close games we lost last season, especially over the last six weeks when we sort of ran out of gas getting to the finish line, and you wonder what might have been. That ground ball that didn’t get turned into an out, that pitch that didn’t get made in a key moment of the game, that at-bat with less than two outs and a runner on third base that didn’t score the run. It might not have seemed like a big deal at the time. You might just turn the page and say go get them tomorrow. Now, we know the importance of everything that happens on a baseball field. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but something I think we’re going to benefit from in the long run.”
The Twins certainly will not sneak up on the rest of the AL Central this season. They’re considered one of the favorites in what seems to be a wide-open division. “We plan on being in the hunt,” said Gardenhire. “That’s the plan every year.”
The Twins finished fourth in the major leagues with an average of 5.1 runs per game last season, even though catcher Joe Mauer (.316 EqA) and first baseman Justin Morneau (.308) were the only two hitters to have outstanding years. Mauer has yet to play in an exhibition game this spring; he had a surgical procedure to remove a blockage in his kidney in December, and has been feeling lower back pain for the last few weeks.
What the Twins lack in star power beyond the modern-day M&M boys, they feel they can make up for in depth. They have four quality outfielders to squeeze into three positions with Span, Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Gomez, and Delmon Young, and they feel that signing third baseman Joe Crede as a free agent late in the offseason will be a boost. Crede had a .262 EqA with the White Sox in 2008, but the Twins are confident that he’s over his back problems following a second surgery in two years. “We know what he’s capable of doing,” said Gardenhire. “We played against him in the American League Central for a long time. When he’s healthy, and we have every reason to believe he is, he’s a very good third baseman. He’s a good hitter with pop, and an outstanding fielder. He is going to be a very good addition to our lineup.”
Gardenhire believes that the most intriguing player in his lineup is Gomez, who was the key player in the package of prospects acquired from the Mets in the Santana trade. Gomez’s EqA was just .242 as a rookie last season; he had a horrendous 142:25 strikeout/walk rate, and was dropped from the leadoff to the ninth spot in the order late in the season because of his lack of plate discipline. Gardenhire thinks that Gomez will eventually return to the top spot, and possibly even evolve into a middle-of-the-order hitter. “I don’t think we know exactly what kind of player Carlos is eventually going to be, but the sky truly is the limit for him,” Gardenhire said. “He has so much talent that hasn’t been tapped. He’s a wild stallion at this point, but he really can become anything he wants.”
The Twins have one of the game’s best closers in Joe Nathan, who had 5.08 WXRL last season, but set-up relief was a problem; neither Matt Guerrier (0.84) nor Jesse Crain (0.03) had good years. However, the Twins feel that after finishing 15th in the majors in runs allowed per game in ’08 (4.6), they’ll improve this year because of a fine starting rotation in which no one is older than 27. Scott Baker led the way last season with 5.4 SNLVAR, followed by Nick Blackburn (3.9), Kevin Slowey (3.9), Glen Perkins (2.6), and Francisco Liriano (1.4), who has the most pure talent in the rotation and was coming back from Tommy John surgery on his elbow. “What I liked most about our rotation last season, is that they didn’t really feel pressure in a pennant race,” Gardenhire said. “They’re all about the same age, and all great competitors, so they were going out each night just trying to one up what the other guy did the night before. They really feed off each other. Ideally, we’ll have that situation again this season, and it will help take us a long way.”
Mike Rizzo would like to become the Nationals‘ permanent general manager after being named acting GM earlier this month following Jim Bowden’s resignation amid allegations he was involved in skimming bonus money from amateur players from the Dominican Republic. Rizzo, who had been the assistant GM, probably won’t find out if he gets the job until later in the season. Indications are that the Nationals will wait until after the first-year player draft in June-they hold the first overall pick-before deciding, and they may even delay the decision until after the regular season.
Rizzo says that he isn’t stressing about his future. “I rarely think about the opportunity of the moment,” Rizzo told Ben Goessling of the Washington Times. “You’re so entrenched in the day-to-day dealings of a baseball team. This isn’t about me anyway. Do I think about the opportunity that I have? I’ve thought about it, I’ve appreciated it, and now it’s ‘get to work.’ If ownership has different ideas, we’ll discuss it.”
Those familiar with the Nationals’ thinking say president Stan Kasten originally considered clearing out the entire front office because of the negative perceptions brought about by the skimming allegations, but Kasten reconsidered, and Rizzo will be given a chance to show that he’s the right man for the job.
Rizzo has plenty of things to concern himself with while Kasten makes up his mind. “When you’re in charge, the buck stops here, so I have many more decisions to make,” Rizzo said. “As far as the working day goes, it’s 24/7. You’re always on call, and that’s the way I like it.”
First baseman Mark Teixeira is gone from the Angels after signing as a free agent with the Yankees over the winter, but the two months that he spent in Anaheim had an impact on the organization. Teixeira was willing to take a walk, drawing 32 bases on balls in 234 plate appearances after being acquired from the Braves in a trade on July 29.
During the Angels’ run of four AL West titles in the last five years, manager Mike Scioscia has always stressed the importance of being fundamentally sound, but the one thing his teams have not been adept at is plate discipline. The Angels have only ranked higher than 23rd in the major leagues in walks drawn once in the past seven years.
Scioscia and hitting coach Mickey Hatcher are making working the count a point of emphasis in spring training this season. “It’s been addressed in our player development system, what our philosophy is in the batter’s box, just as it is in what’s our philosophy with baserunning,” Scioscia told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. “They get the message through the instructors. The players get lectured all the time in what our philosophy is. They’ve heard the message. This isn’t Nintendo, where you sit back and make adjustments, and boom, it’s there. It takes time.”
Scioscia said that, despite the perception that the Angels’ offensive philosophy-exacerbated by having free-swinging right fielder Vladimir Guerrero in the middle of the lineup-is grip it and rip, their hitters are given a plan at the plate. “It’s all about getting a count, key holing, getting a good pitch to hit, and turning the bat loose, but with the plate discipline that allows you to get into counts where you can pressure the pitcher,” Scioscia said.
Most of the concerns that teams have about their players participating in the World Baseball Classic center around their pitchers overexerting themselves before they’re ready to pitch meaningful innings, but there is a secondary concern among managers who have players in the WBC. They worry that their hitters may not be getting enough at-bats to prepare for the regular season.
For example, the Yankees’ Derek Jeter has accumulated just 12 plate appearances since the United States team began training for the WBC on March 1, as he is splitting time at shortstop with the Phillies‘ Jimmy Rollins. “I would prefer a few more at-bats,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “All players would like to have consistent at-bats.”
The WBC does not end until the championship game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on March 23, leaving players with less than two weeks before the regular season begins. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, however, also doesn’t want to overtax his players in the finals days of spring training. “You want to get them ready, but you don’t want to have them worn out when the season starts,” Manuel said.
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Dodgers appear to be the most serious suitor for free agent Pedro Martinez, though they won’t meet his asking price of a $5 million base salary with the chance to add an additional $5 million in performance bonuses. … The Nationals are willing to trade left fielder Josh Willingham, who lost his starting job last month when free agent Adam Dunn signed a two-year, $20 million contract. … The Astros reportedly have cursory interest in catcher Ivan Rodriguez on the free-agent market along with the Marlins, Twins, Giants, and Mets. … The Cubs will go with Mike Fontenot at second base, with Aaron Miles serving as a utility infielder.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees have some interest in trading for Dodgers infielder Mark Loretta to fill in at third base while Alex Rodriguez recovers from hip surgery, and he would then serve as a utility player thereafter. Loretta would need to approve the trade, since he had signed as a free agent in the offseason. … Outfielder Andruw Jones can opt out of his minor league contract with the Rangers on Friday if he is not placed on the 40-man roster. … Right-hander David Aardsma is being considered for the Mariners‘ closer job, while left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith will be assured a spot in the starting rotation if right-hander Brandon Morrow is forced to begin the season on the disabled list. … With outfielder Fernando Perez expected to miss the first three months of the season with a dislocated wrist, either Gabe Kapler or Justin Ruggiano will be the Rays‘ opening-day center fielder if B.J. Upton is not recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. Rays manager Joe Maddon also plans to give utility player Willy Aybar three or four starts a week. … Top prospect Rick Porcello, who has yet to pitch above A-level, will receive strong consideration to be in the Tigers‘ rotation to begin the season if right-hander Jeremy Bonderman is not recovered from shoulder surgery.