While the big-league club opened its season Tuesday, the Twins' minor-league teams didn't begin playing until yesterday. One of my goals for this season is to devote more of the coverage here to Twins prospects, and with last night's loss to the Blue Jays maddeningly not on television here today seems like a good time to start. Rather than focus on which teams won or lost semi-meaningless games, here are some notable individual performances from the first day of the minor-league season:
Note: If applicable I'll include each player's ranking among Baseball America's top-30 Twins prospects.
Former first-round pick Denard Span (BA #6), who may end up replacing Torii Hunter in center field some day soon, went 2-for-4 with a solo homer leading off for Double-A New Britain. The homer is particularly good news for Span, because while he is considered a very good defensive outfielder with a ton of speed and good on-base skills, he hit a grand total of one homer in 453 at-bats last season.
Another former first rounder, Glen Perkins (BA #4), started the game for New Britain and put up the following line against Toronto's Double-A team:
IP H R ER BB SO HR 5.0 2 2 2 1 7 0
Perkins struggled after his promotion to New Britain last year, so it's nice to see him getting off to a good start there this time around. With the futures of both Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse uncertain past this year, I wouldn't be shocked to see Perkins in the 2007 rotation if things go well for him in the minors this season.
Yet another former first-round pick, Matt Moses (BA #3), went 1-for-4 with a single as New Britain's third baseman and #3 hitter. The Twins are probably hoping that Moses can become the team's starting third baseman at some point next season, but after hitting just .210/.275/.366 in 48 games following a promotion to Double-A last year, he'll have to make some pretty big strides.
Triple-A Rochester doesn't have as many top prospects, but they have the guys who are next on the depth chart when the Twins need reinforcements. Jason Bartlett should be starting in the big leagues, but instead went 2-for-4 with a double and a triple against Toronto's Triple-A team to likely guarantee himself another three months in the minors. Bartlett hit .332 at Triple-A over the past two years, so I'm guessing the Twins won't even notice him putting up huge numbers there for a third straight season.
Boof Bonser (BA #25), who came over from the Giants in the incredible haul for A.J. Pierzynski that also included Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano, started the game for Rochester and put up a line even better than Perkins' at New Britain:
IP H R ER BB SO HR 6.0 2 0 0 2 8 0
In most organizations Bonser would be a top pitching prospect and probably would have been given a shot in the majors already, but with the Twins he's sort of an afterthought. I like him as a long-term middle reliever or fifth starter, and he's great insurance to have around this season.
Dennys Reyes pitched a scoreless inning in relief, allowing zero baserunners. Reyes then handed the ball over to Rochester's closer, Pat Neshek, who struck out two batters in a scoreless 1.1-inning outing to record the save. While Reyes will probably join the Twins' bullpen at some point in 2006, Neshek has the potential to be a setup man down the road. He saved 24 games with a 2.19 ERA and 95-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio at New Britain last season.
Other notables playing for Rochester: Jason Tyner went 2-for-5 with a double ... Luis Maza went 3-for-4 with a double and three RBIs ... Terry Tiffee went 1-for-4 ... Garret Jones went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts ... Alex Romero (BA #22) went 0-for-4.
In that same game former first-round pick Trevor Plouffe (BA #9) started at shortstop and went 1-for-5 with a strikeout batting right behind Casilla. Plouffe had a disappointing full-season debut in 2005, hitting just .223/.300/.345, but many seem to think he's a good bet for a breakout year.
Last year's first-round pick, Matt Garza (BA #7), started for Fort Myers:
IP H R ER BB SO HR 5.0 2 2 1 0 4 1
Another encouraging debut from a Twins pitching prospect. I like Garza quite a bit and think he'll move quickly through the Twins' system if he can stay healthy. He had a 3.57 ERA and 89-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76 innings during his pro debut last season.
That's right, Twins pitching prospects went 4-for-4 with impressive 2006 debuts yesterday, combining to give up just three earned runs in 21.1 innings while striking out 25 and allowing only 13 baserunners.
Sadly, it's not all good news on the pitching prospect front, as Jay Rainville (BA #6) will reportedly miss the entire season after undergoing arm surgery last week. Information about Rainville's status has been completely absent from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and MLB.com, which is odd considering he's one of the team's best prospects and a first-round pick just two years ago. Then again, who needs the mainstream media taking their sweet time telling us something when we can get the information online from a fellow Twins fan.
It looked for a while last night like the same problems that plagued the Twins last season were still with them. Brad Radke couldn't get out of the first inning without allowing multiple runs. The hitters appeared to be working under some sort of a time limit at the plate. When someone actually got on base they were quickly erased on a double play. And everything that came off a Twins' bat was pounded into the ground.
And then suddenly the hits started pouring in. Sixteen in all, plus four walks, totaling 13 runs. To understand how amazing that is, consider that the Twins averaged 4.2 runs per game last year and scored in double digits just seven times all season. Their season-high was 12 runs and that didn't come until early August.
Not only did the Twins score more runs in the second game of the 2006 season than they did in any game during the 2005 season, they did all their scoring in the final six innings after falling behind 4-0 early. I could say something cliche like they "were due," but considering the team's offensive futility last season that would be like saying the Washington Generals "were due" to beat the Globetrotters.
Some notes on the Twins' first win of the season ...
After Radke predictably gave up three runs in the first inning and then pitched a scoreless second frame, Twins play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer threw it to commercial by saying, "And a much better second inning for Radke." Exactly how many times do you think Bremer has uttered those exact same words over the past decade? Fifty? Seventy-five? More?
Luis Castillo looked significantly better at the plate, in the field, and on the bases, although he once again attempted to drop a bunt down the third-base line with the third baseman standing about 15 feet from the plate. I just don't see how that's a good play if the third baseman is going to be so close all the time, although it does make it easier to hit the ball past the drawn-in defense later.
Interestingly, Twins color commentator Bert Blyleven can't say "Castillo," instead saying his last name as "Castino" at least five times. I'm not sure if it's simply one of many last names Blyleven struggles with or if he's actually confusing Castillo with former Twins infielder John Castino. In either case it's sure to get very annoying.
Two games are nothing to get worked up about good or bad, but so far Shannon Stewart has been extremely impressive. I was skeptical that he could bounce back after a disappointing 2005 season given his age and injury concerns, but he's looked very good in both games. Now if Ron Gardenhire will just swap him and Castillo in the lineup, perhaps some of Stewart's extra-base hits will drive multiple runs in.
For much of the game Twins hitters appeared to be focused on taking controlled swings and simply going with the pitch right back up the middle. Even Justin Morneau came up with a nice single to center field with runners on base, which was a nice contrast to the "must ... pull ... ball" approach he had for much of last season.
Eventually hitting coach Joe Vavra will have to move the focus to hitting for some power, but for a team that has struggled to do any sort of damage at the plate, it's good to start simple and try to get rid of some bad habits. And if Vavra can convince Morneau that not pulling everything is a good idea, the Twins should double his salary.
Tony Batista didn't get a chance to show off his limited range at third base last night, but he did come up empty in a big RBI opportunity. With the Twins trailing 4-2 and runners on second and third with one out in the fourth inning, Batista fell behind 0-and-2, worked the count full, and then swung through a breaking ball that would have loaded the bases. Batista was the only starter who didn't collect at least one hit.
A lot of people acted like Bengie Molina was Mike Piazza after he hit a two-run homer off Johan Santana Tuesday, but Molina is going to really hurt the Blue Jays' pitching staff if he continues to act disinterested in actually catching the ball. You'd be hard-pressed to find a major-league catcher with worse fundamentals behind the plate.
Torii Hunter's ankle appeared to be working pretty well when he sprinted home to score in the seventh inning on one of Molina's passed balls. And the ankle looked even better as Hunter jogged around the bases after his eighth-inning grand slam.
Joe Mauer went 3-for-4 with three runs scored, and also stole his first base of the season (off a good-throwing catcher, no less). Despite being a 6-foot-4 catcher with a history of knee problems who is probably even taller than his listed height, Mauer is now 15-for-16 stealing bases during his career.
Late in the game Blyleven made a joke about his pubic hair, which I believe is a first in Twins broadcasting history. The potential for that sort of thing is why you should never turn the game off, even in a blowout.
I was glad to see Francisco Liriano get a chance for a multiple-inning appearance, but was a little disappointed that Gardenhire didn't leave him in to get the three-inning save. Liriano had thrown only 28 pitches through two innings and the Twins were leading 13-4.
I understand wanting to get Matt Guerrier some work, but Liriano looked great and it would have been nice to see him finish things. In 15 years, when he's got 200 wins, having one save on his record would have been amusing. Incidentally, Liriano now has 36 strikeouts and seven walks in 25.2 big-league innings. He might be pretty good.
I watched last night's game with Bat-Girl and about 50 of her closest friends, so I don't have my usual copious assortment of notes and observations. I'll give you the short (or at least less long) version, though ...
The Twins got three hits from Shannon Stewart, a homer from Tony Batista, and two errors from the Blue Jays ... yet still lost with Johan Santana on the mound. That's all kinds of wasted good stuff, although I wasn't expecting much against Roy Halladay and Santana is certainly prone to early-season struggles.
I thought Santana looked decent early, but was clearly having trouble commanding his off-speed pitches. He was able to work out of a couple jams, but eventually the bloop singles started adding up and Bengie Molina's homer really hurt. As ugly as Santana's outing was, that's basically par for the course with him early in the year. In fact, take a look at how his first start of 2005 compares to what he did last night:
IP H R ER BB SO HR PIT 5.2 10 4 4 1 3 1 98 5.0 5 4 4 1 6 0 94
This year's first start was more discouraging, because he doesn't give up double digit hits very often and had only three strikeouts, but Santana being knocked around last night isn't quite as a concerning as it would be for most other aces. More concerning is that the rest of the team also looked pretty rough both offensively and defensively.
The non-Stewart portion of the lineup combined to go 2-for-27 with zero walks and six strikeouts, Batista showed a noticeable lack of reaction time and range at third base, and Luis Castillo looked surprisingly sloppy at second base. I was also shocked to see Castillo strike out twice in three at-bats against Halladay, because he struck out a grand total of 24 times in 327 at-bats (7.3 percent) batting left-handed last season.
I was disappointed to see Castillo bunt Stewart over to second base in the first inning. I understand wanting to put a run on the board against Halladay, especially with Santana pitching, but Castillo bunting there defeats an awful lot of the purpose of having him in the first place. Why not see if he can actually get on base himself -- he did that 39.1 percent of the time last year, after all -- which would create a rally with the team's best hitter coming to the plate.
And if Castillo wasn't actually sacrificing in that spot -- which seems possible, I suppose -- he might want to stop trying to bunt for a hit when the third baseman is standing 15 feet from the plate. All of which is why I would much rather see Castillo leading off and Stewart batting second, just so the temptation to play for a single run early in the game isn't there for Castillo or Ron Gardenhire.
Considering that it was the first game of the season and the Twins were facing one of the best pitchers in baseball, it was mostly just good to see a Twins game that counts for the first time in six months. There were also some good moments, like Stewart perhaps showing that last season was indeed just an off-year, Batista showing that he has the power to take one of the best and most extreme ground-ball pitcher in baseball deep, and Gardenhire showing that he's willing to pinch-hit for Juan Castro.
But aside from those few things, it was a bit of downer. It's tough to get pumped up for Opening Day (or at least Twins Opening Day) only to watch Johan get knocked around and the hitters pound the ball into the Rogers Centre turf all night (Halladay recorded 16 ground-ball outs). Thankfully the company at Bat-Girl's get-together was significantly less depressing and there's another game tonight.
I made my overall predictions for the 2006 season here yesterday, but since the Twins didn't actually play on Opening Day I saved my Twins-related predictions for today. Before I get to that, here's a link to my official (and Gleeman-length) preview of the 2006 Twins, over at The Hardball Times:
Assuming that you'll all do me the favor of heading over to THT at some point today to read that -- I worked very hard on it and would hate to see 2,300 words go unread -- here are 20 random Twins predictions for this season ...
Justin Morneau will become the first Twins hitter with 30 or more homers since 1987 and will lead the team in RBIs, but won't bat above .275.
Joe Mauer will hit over .300 while topping last year's totals in homers, RBIs, and runs scored, and will make his first All-Star team.
Jason Bartlett will hit over .300 at Triple-A for the third straight season and make the International League All-Star team.
Twins shortstops will rank dead last among AL teams in OPS for the second straight season, yet most fans and media members will blame the team's lack of offense on something else.
Luis Castillo will steal fewer than 25 bases and spend at least one stint on the disabled list.
Kyle Lohse will be traded or sent to the bullpen before he makes his 20th start.
Jason Kubel will be platooned way more often than Jacque Jones was.
Tony Batista will hit at least 20 homers, but he'll have the worst on-base percentage in the league and lead the team in errors, strikeouts, and double plays hit into.
Nick Punto will start far too many games.
Shannon Stewart will be among the worst offensive left fielders in the league.
Lew Ford and/or Michael Cuddyer will be traded.
Juan Rincon will struggle early, but end up with a sub-3.50 ERA.
Jesse Crain will see his ERA rise by at least 50 percent from last season.
Francisco Liriano will have a better ERA than Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, Scott Baker, and Lohse, but won't throw more than 100 innings.
Johan Santana will lead the league in ERA and strikeouts, but will be robbed of the Cy Young Award for the second straight season because the Twins don't score him enough runs to win 20 games.
At some point, in some game, Radke will get out of the first inning without allowing a run.
If the team sticks with him through early struggles, Willie Eyre will be the Twins' third-best reliever.
Just prior to the trading deadline, Terry Ryan will give up too much pitching in a deal for a hitter who is either overrated or a pending free agent (or both).
Only two AL teams will allow fewer runs than the Twins, but only two AL teams will score less often.
The Twins will start out slow due to a very rough early schedule, but will rebound enough to stay in the division race all season before eventually falling out of contention in the final week.
* * * * * * * * * *
Bat-Girl has organized a little get-together for Twins fans to watch Johan Santana square off against Roy Halladay tonight, and since it's only about 15 minutes from my house I'm thinking of attending. Plus, even if I'm not able to make it you'll surely have a great time hanging out with Bat-Girl and a few dozen other Twins fans. After all, she's far more exciting to meet than I am.
If you're interested, the get-together is at The Park Tavern in St. Louis Park and begins at five tonight. For more information, click here. And if you're going, drop me a note in the comments section or an e-mail, so I can look for you if I do stop by.
Little darling, it's been a long, long lonely winter Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here Here comes the sun Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right
Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there Here comes the sun Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right
Little darling, mmmmmm, I see the ice is slowly melting Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear There goes the sun Here comes the sun And I say, it's all right
- Here Comes the Sun
It was a long lonely winter, but thankfully there's a full slate of games today and another seven months of baseball ahead. I'll be back with Twins-specific predictions tomorrow, since for some unknown reason the Twins don't actually play on Opening Day, but for now here are my general predictions for the 2006 season:
AL WEST W L AL CENTRAL W L AL EAST W L Athletics 94 68 White Sox 92 70 Red Sox 94 68 Angels 88 74 Indians 90 72 Yankees 93 69 Mariners 78 84 Twins 88 74 Blue Jays 82 80 Rangers 77 85 Tigers 77 85 Orioles 76 86 Royals 60 102 Devil Rays 68 94
NL WEST W L NL CENTRAL W L NL EAST W L Giants 86 76 Cardinals 91 71 Braves 90 72 Dodgers 82 80 Brewers 84 78 Phillies 89 73 Padres 80 82 Astros 81 81 Mets 86 76 D-Backs 75 87 Cubs 80 82 Nationals 71 91 Rockies 65 97 Reds 75 87 Marlins 68 94 Pirates 70 92
ALDS: Athletics over Yankees AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez ALDS: Red Sox over White Sox NL MVP: Albert Pujols
NLDS: Cardinals over Phillies AL CYA: Johan Santana NLDS: Braves over Giants NL CYA: Jake Peavy
ALCS: Athletics over Red Sox AL ROY: Justin Verlander NLCS: Cardinals over Braves NL ROY: Prince Fielder
WORLD SERIES: Athletics over Cardinals
I'll be around all day watching baseball -- it is my job, after all -- so feel free to hang out with me in the comments section. Make your own predictions, criticize or praise mine, and keep up to speed on what is without question the best day of the year.