Wednesday, October 1, 2014

About last night

Ned Yost prepares to ignore the
conventional wisdom Tuesday.
That was a whale of a ball game Tuesday night, a 12-inning brawl between Oakland and Kansas City.

So much ball game. Too bad the TBS crew really wasn't up to the task, prattling nonsense about "Big James James" Shields (postseason ERA entering the contest above 5 runs a game) and blaming Brandon Moss's second-half struggles on the trade of Yoenis Cepedes rather than on a hip injury that needs surgery. Think Ron Darling would like to edit out his seventh inning claim that Jon Lester is "like a machine" pretty much just before the implosion began?

Ned Yost found a way to one-run tactic his way back against a four-run deficit. It is, in the long run, self-destructive to try that. On Tuesday, it worked.

Which, as a Twins fan, pleases me. Having a division rival get positive reinforcement for silly strategies will only encourage them to continue the silliness.

I embrace the bunt more than most internet baseball opinionmongers, but I would not object if, in the process of evaluating managerial candidates, the Twins ran Tuesday's scenarios by the candidates and rejected those who would do that which Yost did.

Yost's Royals are, in a sense, a throwback to the baseball I embraced as a young adult, built on speed and defense. Lacking from this team is the artificial turf component of Whitey Herzog's outstanding Kansas City and St. Louis teams. Lacking from those teams, but present in this one (and on the 1985 Royals team that won the World Series two managers removed from Herzog): Power arms in the starting rotation.

Which brings me to the Yost move that I most object to: His decision in the sixth inning to bring Yordano Ventura into the game with two on, no outs.

Ventura is both young and high-velocity. He started on Sunday and threw 73 pitches. Tuesday was his bullpen day, but he had never actually pitched on his bullpen day.

Yost has plenty of gas throwers in his bullpen who are used to coming in with men on base. Ventura is not. But Yost went with the tired young starter, who promptly got shelled.

Pitching Ventura in that specific situation was the wrong move both for winning the game AND for the future of the team and the player. Yost got away with it. But it was wrong anyway.

About the coaching staff

Terry Steinbach:
Manager, coach or
moving to Arizona?
When the Twins dismissed Ron Gardenhire as manager on Monday, they also put the seven coaches "in limbo." They have contracts through this calendar year, but no assurance that they will be on the new skipper's coaching staff.  Terry Ryan said Monday that he will not block any of them from moving on to another interested team in the meantime.

It should be said that managers no longer have the final say over their coaches, as they once did. That is one of many battles front offices have fought and won over the dugout bosses. Managers do have some say over coaches -- probably most strongly over pitching coaches -- but the general managers have the final say. It's no longer enough to be the manager's drinking buddy.

It wasn't Ron Gardenhire's idea to bounce Jerry White and Rick Stelmaszek for Tom Brunansky and Bobby Cuellar two years ago, after all.

I rather expect some of the seven coaches to remain on the Twins staff. Indeed, were I involved in the hiring process, I would need a really strong reason to go with a candidate who intended to replace Brunansky or Paul Molitor.

Let's go down the list and take a guess at their fates:

Rick Anderson, pitching coach: Can't see that he's returning. Ryan will almost certainly let his new manager have his pitching coach of choice. And it may well be that even if Anderson is the pitching coach of choice (if, say, Molitor or Steinbach gets the job), that Ryan will strongly suggest that a different coach be chosen.

Tom Brunansky, hitting coach: I want him to stay. The improvement of the Twins hitters from 2013 to 2014 was impressive. I can't prove that Bruno was responsible for that improvement, but the improvement was there.

Bobby Cuellar, bullpen coach: Might be considered for the pitching coach job. Might be kept as bullpen coach, Might be cut loose. My guess is he stays in the bullpen job. Sole Spanish speaker on the current staff, so naturally he was as far from the Latin contingent as possible.

Paul Molitor, baserunning/defensive positioning/first base: Conventional wisdom has him as the front runner for the managerial job. The interesting puzzle is: What if somebody else gets the top job? Would the Hall of Famer be willing to serve on a Doug Mientkiewicz staff? I hope so.

Terry Steinbach, bench coach: Also seen as a managerial candidate. The New Ulm native has also been connected to the Arizona Diamondbacks, where Tony LaRussa has installed Steiny's old Oakland battery mate, Dave Stewart, as a (relatively weak) general manager and is now looking for a new manager. Manager or coach, I expect Ryan to want to keep Steinbach; if the D'backs make a rapid offer, that might not be an option.

Scott Ullger: Jack of all
coaching trades,
master of none.
Scott Ullger, outfield/first base/third base: Can't see that he's returning. Ullger has been around since the Tom Kelly regime and has been given a variety of assignments over the years: Hitting coach, first base, third base, dugout, fill-in manager, outfield defense. He didn't do any of them so well that he kept the responsibility for long. Ullger has long struck me as the most dispensable member of the staff.

Joe Vavra, infield/third base: Longtime hitting coach, had hip replacement surgery during the season and spent most of the second half in the dugout. My guess is that he'll be offered the minor league hitting coordinator job he held before Brunansky was elevated to the major league job. (The Twins early in September dismissed Bill Stoneman, who had held the minor league coordinator post for eight years.)

Bottom line: Even if one of the current coaches is chosen Gardenhire's successor, I expect substantial turnover on the staff this winter. The relative stability that accompanied Gardenhire's assent 13 years ago is not going to be repeated.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Life after Gardy

Ron Gardenhire at Monday's press
Ron Gardenhire didn't go kicking and screaming when fired Monday, He took part in the press conference, made a few jokes, and even said removing him from the managerial job might be the best thing for the team: "A different voice, a different face."

Meanwhile, Terry Ryan emphasized that the next manager may not be a current Twins employee. When Gardenhire was hired in the wake of Tom Kelly's retirement after the 2001 season, the known candidates were on the coaching staff: Gardy, Paul Molitor and dark horse Scott Ullger.

There's no shortage of legit in-house candidates this time around, starting with current coaches Molitor and Terry Steinbach. Ullger is known to want to manage but probably has no chance at the job. From the minors, there's Doug Mientkiewicz. (Jake Mauer is also racking up an impressive resume in the farm system, but the presence of his younger brother on the roster probably precludes Jake as a serious candidate in Minnesota.) I've seen Gene Glynn and Jeff Smith mentioned, but I can't believe either would rate above Mientkiewicz.

If Ryan and Company go outside the organization, a name to be aware of is Dave Martinez, currently bench coach for the Tampa Bay Rays. Martinez, as Joe Maddon's understudy/protege, figures to be more openly attuned to the analytic approach to running a team than was Gardenhire (who was, I am convinced, more aware of the numbers than he wanted us to believe.) There are plenty of other outside possibilities being floated -- Torey Lovello from the Red Sox, Chip Hale (former Twin form the Tom Kelly era) from Oakland, Jose Oquendo from the Cardinals -- and almost all come from more openly sabermetric operations than the Twins.

I do not take the Ozzie Guillen chatter seriously; that's just talk radio nonsense. I do want the revamped coaching staff -- and there are likely to be changes -- to include at least one native Spanish speaker. There are just too many young Latin players of importance in this organization to allow things to get lost in translation.

My guess right now is that Molitor and Mientkiewicz are the two most likely choices, but that sense stems in part from past practice. My personal preference would be Mientkiewicz, who would be the most likely to have a decade-plus tenure. But I think it's more likely that Molitor would be the pick with Mientkiewicz added to the coaching staff.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ron Garden-fired

Ron Gardenhire during his last game as Twins manager.
So it happened Monday: The Twins dismissed Ron Gardenhire as manager.

I'm not celebrating.

The suspicion here is that Gardy got ousted for the wrong reason: To appease the columnists, talk radio loudmouths and critical Internet voices, none of whom have any responsibility for anything in the Twins organization.

It's possible that the ax dropped for a good reason, such as the possibility that Gardenhire and the front office were at cross-purposes on how certain players should be used.

The most likely case would appear to be Danny Santana. Gardenhire was reluctant to play the rookie at shortstop, even when he had two other center field options in Aaron Hicks and Jordan Schafer. Both Terry Ryan and his assistant GM, Rob Antony, said repeatedly this month that Santana is viewed as a long-term shortstop, even as Gardy persisted in using Santana in center.

My sense on this possible source of friction is that Gardenhire is more correct. I don't think Santana is going to be a quality shortstop. If Santana has a future as a one-position player, I think that future is at a spot he has yet to play in the majors (left field).

But we've seen signs that Gardenhire and Ryan had different views on the talent before -- see Gardenhire's similar reluctance to play Jason Bartlett in 2005-early 2006 -- and they've worked it out.

We'll see who the Twins fill the job with -- and how his approach to the game differs from Gardenhire's. My sense is that this might be akin to what happened when Ted Turner fired Bobby Cox after the 1981 season. Somebody asked Turner at the press conference, "What kind of manager are you looking for?" Turner replied: "Someone like Bobby Cox."

If the Twins are looking for someone like Gardenhire, they probably shouldn't have fired the real one.

End of the season

The Twins would have liked to keep the Tigers from clinching the division title on the field this weekend in Detroit. They couldn't quite do that.

The Twins did split the four-game series. They did win the season series (10-9). They did outscore the Tigers by 17 runs head-to-head for the season, which would suggest a much better record than 10-9.

But Detroit won 90 games and a fourth straight division title, while the Twins won 20 games fewer and finished last.

Brian Dozier sees better days:

Dozier has said things that I disagree with (for example, that Derek Jeter is the greatest player ever). On this, I think he's right. There is real reason for optimism about the future this offseason.

The growth of the Twins lineup this year was impressive. Anybody watching the slow veteran bats in spring training -- Jason Kubel, Josh Willingham, Jason Bartlett -- had to wonder how the Twins would even match 2013's dismal run production. The 2014 Twins outscored their 2013 selves by more than 100 runs, and things really picked up when the old guys gave way to the new blood.

And I think Dozier -- and the others who were in camp early -- remembers what he saw from Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton before their injuries. They are the "couple of new things around the corner." This was a lost season for the two megaprospects, but their talent is undeniable, and they are coming, if a year later than expected.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pic of the Week

Derek Jeter exults after his walk-off hit in his final
game in Yankee Stadium on Thursday.
I avoided adding to the Derek Jeter adulation and backlash as much as I could this year, and the past week in particular. I doubt anybody's missed my contribution. You want to read about Jeter, about the Captain, about "RE2PECT," there's plenty of other places to find that.

Still, he was a special player, the linchpin of a special team. For my money, the 1998-2001 Yankees were the greatest team ever --- better than the 1936-39 Yankees, better than the 1975-76 Reds, better than the 1926-28 Yanks, better than all the magnificent multi-year dynasties and mini-dynasties. And Jeter himself, I say, is the second best shortstop in major league history -- not up to Honus Wagner's standard, but better than Cal Ripken or Arky Vaughn or Ozzie Smith or Alex Rodriguez or anybody else one might care to nominate.

Thursday's game wasn't merely the last home game of Jeter's career. It's also the only game he ever played in the Bronx with the Yankees mathematically eliminated. The expanded playoff system certainly had something to do with that, as the the quality of the teams he played for. But that's still an astounding fact.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tigers and Royals

Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez
celebrate as the Kansas City Royals
secured their first postseason berth
since winning the World Series in 1985.
They are, going into the final two days of the schedule, separated by just one game. But as close as they are in the standings, the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are very different teams, with almost mirror image strengths and weaknesses.

The Tigers have a brawny lineup. They stand second in the American League in runs scored and are closer to first than to third in that important stat. They're first in doubles (you'll never guess which team is second*), first in batting average, first in slugging percentage, first in on-base percentage,

Their starting rotation boasts the last three American League Cy Young Award winners, and they also have last year's ERA champ, who isn't one of the Cys.

But their bullpen -- despite the addition of numerous "proven closers" -- remains a minefield, and they are -- despite their drastic offseason infield makeover -- a dismal defensive team. The Tigers shed Prince Fielder so they could move Miguel Cabrera to first base and insert Nick Castellanos at third, and this was expected to improve the defense. Um ... not so much:

(Last night Castellanos committed a throwing error that allowed the Twins two runs.)

The Royals, on the other hand, are ninth in the AL in runs scored, more than 100 fewer than the Tigers. They are the one AL team with fewer than 100 homers. They are dead last in walks drawn.

Their starting pitching is competent, but certainly James Shields, Danny Duffy, Yolando Ventura and Jason Vargas don't have the cachet of Max Scherzer, David Price and Justin Verlander.

What makes the Royals -- at least in the standings -- the virtual equivalent of the Tigers is their prowess afield and the smothering capacity of their bullpen. Kansas City has a collection of fleet outfielders and skilled infielders, with legit Gold Glove candidates at four or five positions. (Torii Hunter owns more Gold Gloves than the entire Royals roster put together, but he now covers about as much ground as those ugly trophies.)

To be sure, the Pythagorean Theorem doesn't see the two teams as near equals. By the simple formula of runs scored vs. runs allowed, Detroit "should" be four games better than Kansas City. By wins and losses, they're only one game better after 160 contests.

I've been neutral between the two teams. But the novelty of Kansas City in the playoffs is intriguing, and -- well, the Royals aren't winning the division title without help from the Twins this weekend. So let's go Royals.

*OK, I was wrong, and you did guess that the Twins are second.