Thursday, September 18, 2014

Chattanooga choo-choo

Ever have the feeling you were
being watched?
The Twins went back to their distant past Wednesday when they and the Chattanooga Lookouts announced a four-year affiliation deal.

No more New Britain RockCats for the Double A franchise. The Twins will have their second-highest minor league team in the Southern League again -- and in Chattanooga for the first time in more than half a century.

Back in the day -- when the Twins were still the Washington Senators, back before Calvin Griffith inherited the club from his adopted father, Clark "The Old Fox" Griffith -- the Lookouts were not only the Senators' top farm club but owned by Griffith. Indeed, for much of three decades, the Lookouts may have been the complete extent of the Senators' farm "system."

The story of Chattanooga baseball really can't be separated from that of Joe Engle, a truly fascinating obscurity in baseball history.

Engle was a Washington native who grew up a playmate of Teddy Roosevelt's kids and was batboy for the Senators, Engle pitched for the Senators for a few years in his teens and early 20s with marginal success (rooming with Walter Johnson in the process), Then he drifted into scouting for Griffith, Engle is credited with finding three Hall-of-Famers for Griffith (Goose Goslin, Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris) and landing the core of the only three pennant winning teams Washington ever boasted.

Supposedly, when Engle brought Cronin to Washington, he introduced the young shortstop to Calvin Griffith's niece by announcing:  Look, Millie, I brought you a husband, embarrassing each of the pair. But indeed, the two did marry. (Clark Griffith then traded Cronin to Boston, where the salaries were higher.)

In 1929 Griffith sent Engle to Chattanooga to run the Lookouts, There Engle remained, pretty much, for the rest of his life, essentially being a early Bill Veeck.

One of his more legendary stunts came with an 1931 exhibition game in Chattanooga with the New York Yankees, in which he had a 17-year-old lefty from Chattanooga named Jackie Mitchell pitch to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The stunt was that Mitchell was female. She struck out both the Bambino and the Iron Horse, and nobody will ever know for sure if the whiffs were on merit or because the two all-time greats were being chivalrous and/or playing along with the gag.

Eventually Calvin Griffith succeeded Engle at the helm of the Lookouts, prepping to inherit the Washington club by running the minor league team. Chattanooga was also where a young Harmon Killebrew played his minor league ball (after stewing on the Senators bench for two years under the bonus baby rules of the time), as did Jim Kaat.

All that is part of the distant past. Now the Lookouts are part of the Twins future. Presumably the Twins cut ties to New Britain because of the messy stadium situation in central Connecticut; the team's ownership appears to have burned their bridges with New Britain. but the stadium deal with Hartford hasn't been finalized.

Jim Crikket had an interesting observation on Twitter. As part of a reshuffling of Triple A affiliations, the Oakland Athletics were displaced in Sacramento and wound up in Nashville, which is not a particularly attractive geographic fit for a California franchise. That affiliation (like the Twins renewal in Rochester) expires in two years. Crikket suggests that Nashville might be an attractive destination for the Twins' Triple A affilation after 2016; having the Triple A and Double A teams in the same state (Tennessee) could be quite handy. (UPDATE: The affiliation agreement announced Thursday between the A's and Nashville runs through 2018, so a Tennessee nexus ain't happening in two years.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Perkins and Escobar

A dismayed Glen Perkins reacts after yielding a
three-run homer in the ninth inning Tuesday.
I doubt anybody believes Glen Perkins is sound right now.

He's certainly not effective.

The Twins closer sat out seven games earlier this month with a sore neck. He hasn't had a scoreless outing since: 3.1 innings, seven runs allowed. On Tuesday, protecting a two-run lead, he gave up two singles (not particularly well struck, but definitely well-paced), followed by a home run.

That the Twins rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win doesn't obscure the reality: Perkins isn't getting it done, and doesn't seem capable of getting it done.


Eduardo Escobar left Tuesday's game after a diving stop and throw. He's got something wrong with his shoulder, and he figures to have it examined today.

Whatever they find, this injury gives the Twins every reason to do what they arguably should have been doing this month anyway: Play Danny Santana at shortstop, work Aaron Hicks and Jordan Schafer in center, and look to 2015.

Personally, I believe the 2015 plan should have Santana in the outfield and Escobar as the shortstop, but the Twins will lose nothing from giving Santana these last 12 games or so at short. It certainly makes more sense than giving those innings to Eduardo Nunez.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A night at Target Field

Jordan Schafer turned the wrong way
on this first-inning double over his head
Monday night. 
Monday night's game provided a strong reminder of one of my favorite precepts about baseball: The easiest way to improve the pitching is to improve the outfield defense.

Anthony Swarzak, making a spot start, wasn't really as bad as his line -- 11 hits in 4.1 innings -- indicates. My scoresheet was dotted with notations of outfield plays unmade and resulting runs .

Jordan Schafer, playing centerfield, got turned around on a ball hit by Victor Martinez in the first inning. If Schafer makes the play the Tigers get nothing; in reality, V-Mart's double scored one run and set up his own on J.D. Martinez' subsequent hit.

The latter Martinez opened the three-run fourth inning with a double that Oswaldo Arcia misjudged in right field. That could, should, have been caught.

I didn't mark any poor plays by left fielder Chris Parmelee, but Dan Gladden suggested on the postgame show that there was a play (or more) that the first-base transplant should have made. Presumably Gladden was talking about Bryan Holaday's RBI double in the fourth and/or Victor Martinez' double in the fifth.

I will give Parmelee credit for a good throw to the plate to cut down V-Mart to end that fifth inning. Martinez isn't fast by any means, but Parmelee had to make an accurate throw to get him on Holaday's fly ball, and he made the play.

Other notes from what I expect will be my final in-person game of 2014:

* Danny Santana started at shortstop, as he did in my previous trip to Target Field 10 days earlier. On Sept. 5 he missed on what I thought was a double play opportunity; on Sept. 15 he had a similar chance (second inning off the bat of Ian Kinsler) and started the twin killing. He also had a well-turned pivot on a flashy DP started by Brian Dozier's diving play and flip with glove hand; that flip was a little behind Santana, but he handled the exchange fluidly.

I've been, and remain, skeptical of Santana's ability to handle shortstop, but those were nicely done plays.

* Swarzak, as implied by the previous paragraph, was helped by his infielders, perhaps as much as he was hurt by his outfielders. Give him credit for this: He threw strikes -- 14 first-pitch strikes to his 23 hitters faced, 47 strikes in 70 pitches, just one walk and that intentional.

* A.J. Achter, on the other hand, got through his 2.1 innings without being charged with a run, but threw almost as many balls (17) as strikes (19). He walked home one of Swarzak's inherited runners, a run set up by the intentional walk to J.D. Martinez.. Achter and Ryan Pressly kept the Tigers off the board in the sixth-through-eighth innings, but it wasn't pretty, at least on Achter's part.

* Miguel Cabrera is a beast. The man's leg is clearly killing him, but he had three hits for seven total bases and three runs scored. The way he stared out at the outfield after his first-inning double off the limestone overhang suggested that he couldn't believe that didn't get out of the park.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Trevor May can

Trevor May delivers what was
presumably a curve ball (note the
index finger tucked in) during
his stellar start Sunday.
I caught part of a Terry Ryan interview on the radio pregame Sunday in which he essentially challenged Trevor May to get deeper into games. Cory Provus had suggested seven or eight innings; the general manager said as part of his response: "I'd like to see a complete game."

Well, by that standard, May was a bit of a disappointment. On pretty much every other level, he was outstanding: Six innings, five hits, NO walks, 10 strikeouts.

Yes, he gave up three runs. The White Sox bunched their hits to good effect in the fourth.

But no walks and 10 strikeouts? Yeah, that's pretty darn good.

To be sure, he inflicted a lot of those strikeouts on the bottom half of the order, and several of those players are no more established big leaguers than May is. One start under those conditions doesn't establish a whole lot.

The fact remains that he entered the game with 19 walks allowed and 24 strikeouts in the majors, a horrid ratio. Now he's at 19 walks and 34 strikeouts -- still not a good ratio, but approaching acceptability.

I don't know where or how May fits into the 2015 pitching plans. The Twins have, in Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milone and Mike Pelfrey, five starters with seniority and/or salaries rank them ahead of May. They have, in Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios, two prospects generally considered to have higher ceilings.

But I've seen enough of Pelfrey to know I'd rather see May. And if Sunday's throw-strikes May is the May we see going forward, that might be true of all those first five except Hughes.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pic of the Week

Ike Davis of the Pittsburgh Pirates prepares for an
at-bat Monday in Philadelphia.
Dramatic pose. Dramatic angle. Dramatic sky.

I probably select a photo like this at least once every year. They never seem to get old.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

More veteran pitchers? Really?

If there's been a theme to the blog this week, it's how age and experience play into the Twins pitching problems:

  • The Twins lost almost a half-decade's worth of pitchers drafted in early rounds;
  • They have one of the league's oldest staffs;
  • Most, if not all, top-rate rotations have a home-grown foundation;
  • One of their more impressive pitching prospects has a bum elbow despite being handled with care.

So it's been a topic prominent in my mind this week. I am convinced that the Twins aren't going to spend their way out of their pitching hole -- not because they are unwilling to spend the money, but because spending the money doesn't work.

The solution is to draft better, develop better, and get a bit luckier than they've been with the process of growing their own pitchers. They need to display the patience with Trevor May (for example) that they never had with Liam Hendriks (for example).

I saw a tweet this week from a season-ticker holder who said he was renewing, but "spend it on a pitcher." That's a self-defeating piece of advice. The Twins have a rotation jammed with such veterans as Ricky Nolasco, Mike Pelfrey and Tommy Milone; to get good, they need to create room for, and use, such high-end guys as Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios. Another veteran just gets in the way.

A splashy offseason in the pitching department will be an offseason gone offtrack. That's not a sexy prospect, and it may not do much for ticket sales, but it's reality.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A pitching prospect's elbow

Lewis Thorpe turns
19 in November.
Lewis Thorpe is an 18-year-old left-handed pitcher, and a talented one.

The Twins signed him out of Australia as a 16-year-old, and they've been careful with his workload: 44 innings last season in the rookie Gulf Coast League, 71 innings this year in Cedar Rapids after spending much of the first half of the season in extended spring training.

He was 3-2, 3.52 for the Kernels, with 80 strikeouts, which is pretty solid to start with. Add in that he was about 4 years younger than the average pitcher in the Midwest League and that his ERA in his final 10 starts (16 total) was 2.40 with 60 strikeouts in 45 innings ... well, he was living up to some lofty rankings in the Twins organization.

And then he was warming up for a start in the Midwest League playoffs and felt something in the elbow.

The diagnosis: A strained ulnar collateral ligament. The UCL is the one replaced in Tommy John surgery.

Thorpe was examined in the Twin Cities on Thursday, and the verdict was in favor of rehab over cutting. He'll report next week to the instructional camp as scheduled.

We can hope the docs are right and he doesn't need Tommy John. But a strained elbow is still an elbow with ligament damage. TNSTAAPP -- There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.

The Twins handled Thorpe carefully. He got only a partial season at age 18 and was kept on a tight pitch count, averaging less than five innings a start. (Getting credit for three wins under such circumstances is pretty impressive; a starter can lose a game pitching less than five innings but can't get the win.) He got hurt anyway.