Friday, May 19, 2006
Here's an open letter to people who write open letters: You're a hack. Maybe not as bad as the ones who begin columns by giving the Webster's definition of words like "desire" and "commitment," but a hack nonetheless.That's only mildly amusing by itself, but the very next blog I happened to go to was Will Carroll's, where I saw this entry at the top of the page:
Dear Johnny,Coincidence or fate doing its part to provide me with a good chuckle? You decide.
Torii Hunter's contract includes a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to five selected teams. Interestingly, the current teams on his no-trade list are the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Detroit Tigers.None of those five teams are in the market for a center fielder, which means Hunter's no-trade clause is essentially useless. If the Twins want to deal him, they can.
Phil Sampson: Boy I hope your job consist of doing more than answering these questions in the forum because this is pretty sad. Keep up the, uh, "great" work.There are a few other interesting responses, but those are my two favorites. I particularly enjoyed the "you have no idea what I do" line, followed by Williams adding "NO IDEA" for added emphasis. In case you forgot, Williams writes about baseball for a living.
Also, put me in the "incredibly miserable person" group, because every time I read one of Williams' articles in the Pioneer Press I have to double-check the standings to make sure the Twins aren't in first place. The Twins have issued press releases that are harder hitting. For instance, in offering up his opinion on Juan Castro, Williams wrote:
I don't think he's hurting the team offensively, regardless of his average. Anything he does from the nine-hole is a bonus.As if where a guy hits in the batting order is more important than the fact that he's hitting .233/.262/.272. Sure, there's no way that .534 OPS is "hurting the team offensively." You have no idea what I do. NO IDEA.
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Thursday, May 18, 2006
More Deck ChairsAdd Kyle Lohse's situation to the growing list of the things that the Twins have botched over the last couple years.
Lohse is one of many prospects Terry Ryan has plucked from the low levels of other farm systems over the years, with Lohse coming to the Twins as part of the deal that sent Rick Aguilera to the Cubs in 1999. The Twins then developed Lohse in their own system, sticking with him through some tough times before eventually turning him into a quality big-league pitcher. For that Ryan and the Twins deserve a ton of credit.
Unfortunately, as they've done so many times with so many young players, the Twins erased many of the gains made with Lohse in the developmental stage by mismanaging him as a major leaguer. Not only didn't he improve with experience--something that's usually been reserved for the Twins' young position players--the case could easily be made that Lohse actually regressed in several keys areas.
Lohse's command wasn't consistent from start to start, let alone year to year, and early on he didn't have an approach to getting hitters out that went beyond simply throwing the ball really hard. At some point pitching coach Rick Anderson tried to change Lohse from being a hard-thrower who didn't strike many hitters out to being a hard-thrower who focused on inducing ground balls, but that lasted about a month.
This season, Lohse was worse than ever. His control was spotty, his fastball wasn't missing bats regardless of how hard he threw it, his breaking pitches were flat, and perhaps most maddening of all he seemed incapable of finishing hitters off once he got ahead of them in the count. That's a recipe for disaster, and sure enough the Twins demoted Lohse to Triple-A yesterday after he went 2-4 with an 8.92 ERA in eight starts.
On Opening Day I predicted that Lohse would "be traded or sent to the bullpen before he makes his 20th start." Technically I was wrong, since Triple-A isn't the bullpen and he hasn't been traded yet, but the point is that for me at least it was easy to see where the situation was headed. Rather than trade Lohse last season when he still had some value, the Twins chose to keep him for the remainder of an 83-win season and then compounded their mistake by paying him $4 million to return this year.
While sadly not unique, the team's handling of Lohse is a perfect example of why they are no longer contenders. Rather than trust the impressive assortment of young talent they've been able to produce on a yearly basis, the Twins jerk their young players around, stick with mediocre, overpaid veterans for far too long, and then finally turn to the young guys out of panicked necessity.
In Lohse's case that meant not getting something in return for him when his perceived value was still relatively high, inexplicably deciding to pay him far too much money to come back when the team had comparable, cheaper options available, and then finally realizing their seemingly obvious mistake only after it's too late to really do anything about it.
Did the Twins need to see another 38 innings to decide that Lohse is a lost cause? Did they need to hold onto Lohse until his potential trade value dropped to an all-time low? Did they need to waste $4 million in the process? Of course not, and it doesn't take any second-guessing or hindsight to see that. For a year I've been encouraging the team to do what they now realize they should have done, but now it's too late.
Lohse is a complete mess who is surely irate about being demoted back to the minors and has probably burned bridges within the organization. I'd be surprised if the Twins don't deal him in the coming weeks, but I won't be surprised when the package they receive in return is a disappointing one. That's what happens when you go against Branch Rickey's advice and trade a player a year too late.
Amongst fans and within the media the focus of this situation is understandably on Lohse and Boof Bonser, his replacement in the rotation. However, when patterns repeat and the same mistakes are made on a regular basis, it's no longer about individual players or specific circumstances. This goes far beyond that, and gets to the core of why the Twins have gradually lost their short-lived grip on winning.
Somewhere along the way the team got away from the very thing that made them successful, which is trusting the young talent that the organization produces. The Twins once did that and the result was three straight division titles from a team full of homegrown talent. Now young players are pushed aside in favor of guys like Juan Castro and Tony Batista. Lohse is the epitome of that changed approach, going from being "young talent" to being "overpaid veteran" while the Twins held onto him.
Bonser replacing Lohse is not going to fix the Twins' problems, and even Francisco Liriano stepping into the rotation for Carlos Silva will barely make a dent. What plagues this team runs much deeper than that, and Lohse's situation is simply the latest example. Later this year the Twins will be in a position to make similar decisions regarding pending free agents Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart, and if the past is any indication they'll botch that as well.
The Twins deserve praise for their ability to identify, acquire, and develop young talent in the minor leagues. Few teams can boast similar success and it's without question what the organization does best. Unfortunately, what the organization does worst is making the most of that young talent once it reaches the majors, as the development seems to stop around Triple-A and players like Lohse stagnate rather than reach their full potential.
Perhaps a byproduct of that is the sudden distrust in the current crop of young players, and a byproduct of that is certainly the misguided reliance on mediocre veterans that leads to things like playing Batista and Castro every day, and wasting $4 million on Lohse when he could have been traded for something useful and the money could have been better spent elsewhere.
While the Twins are being praised in some circles for cutting bait on Lohse and turning to Bonser, I find it hard to do that when they're the ones to blame for the problem in the first place. Sending Lohse to Triple-A is akin to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, because while it may seem to be making a difference at first, in the end the ship is still sinking.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #25 Brian Harper
BRIAN DAVID HARPER | C | 1988-1993 | CAREER STATS
Harper should have had a much better career than he did. He lost a lot of his career to other people's stupidity. He was drafted by the Angels in 1977, hit .293 with 24 homers, 101 RBI at Quad Cities in 1978, then hit .315 with 37 doubles, 90 RBI at El Paso in 1979. The Angels at that time were building entirely around free agents and veterans, in no mood to give a young player a chance. At Salt Lake City in '81 he hit .350 with 45 doubles, 28 homers, 122 RBI. The Angels traded him to Pittsburgh.Harper was released by the A's following the 1987 season, at which point he had hit .233/.258/.362 in 205 major-league games spread over five teams and eight seasons. The Twins signed him in January of 1988 with the intention of making him the regular catcher at Triple-A, but Harper ruined those plans by hitting .353 in 46 games there to essentially force the Twins into giving him a shot. He went 9-for-22 (.409) with three doubles in his first six starts and never looked back.
Given a chance to split time behind the plate with Tim Laudner over the last four months of the season, Harper hit .295/.344/.428 in 60 games. And just like that, he had himself a full-time gig. Laudner moved to the bench in 1989 and Harper hit .325 while starting 86 times at catcher and another 15 times at designated hitter. That was the first season of a five-year run that saw Harper rank as one of the elite offensive catchers in the AL:
YEAR VORP* RANK AHEAD OF HARPER*VORP stands for Value Over Replacement Player.
The dig on Harper was always that he was horrible defensively, but several of the other top-hitting catchers from 1989-1993--Mickey Tettleton, Chris Hoiles, Mike Stanley--were also questionable with the glove. In fact, Tettleton's numbers are misleading because he saw about one-third of his time at DH while Harper only appeared there occasionally. An argument could certainly be made that from 1989-1993 Harper was the best catcher in the league.
Over that five-year span as the Twins' starter Harper hit .307/.341/.431, which was about 12 percent better than the .250/.314/.371 line produced by the average catcher. He batted at least .300 in all but one season, when he fell all the way to .294 in 1990. As James wrote at the end of the passage I partially quoted above, "He was slow, didn't have real power, didn't walk and didn't throw well, but he could hit .300 in his sleep."
Until I began researching his career, I had the impression that Harper was absolutely dreadful throwing out runners; the Matthew LeCroy of the 1990s. However, the actual numbers don't back that up. From 1988-1990 he threw out 35 percent of stolen-base attempts, which was solidly above the league average of 31 percent. For comparison, Laudner's career mark with the Twins was a shade under 30 percent, including just 27 percent between 1988 and 1989.
What likely cemented his reputation as a poor thrower was his 22 percent success rate in 1991. The year everyone remembers was Harper's worst, and backup Junior Ortiz gunned down 46 percent in limited duty. Plus, the Blue Jays and Braves ran a ton on Harper during the postseason, going 11-for-14 in 12 games. Harper made up for much of that by going 13-for-39 (.333) with four doubles at the plate, but the idea that you could easily run on him stuck around for the rest of his career.
In fact, Harper allowed the most stolen bases in the league in both 1992 (118) and 1993 (114), which certainly didn't help put a stop to the image everyone had of him as a noodle arm. However, while teams were running on Harper like crazy, he actually threw out a very respectable 31 percent in 1992 and 33 percent in 1993. In other words, Harper certainly had a mediocre arm and struggled gunning down runners at times, but more often than not did just fine.
For me the idea that he wasn't a complete disaster controlling the running game is a revelation, and I suspect the same can be said for many Twins fans (and even some non-Twins fans, like James). Doing the actual research rather than trusting my preconceived notions changed my opinion of Harper's Twins career significantly, and that's part of the fun with this whole Top 40 Minnesota Twins series.
After breaking the news about Harper's respectable arm to Will Young, he offered up that Harper was like "a right-handed A.J. Pierzynski." That comparison seemed apt to me as well, but once you get past the surface it also falls a little short. If we alter Harper's numbers to adjust for the more offense-friendly environment that Pierzynski played in, here's what the comparison looks like:
It's a shame that Harper didn't latch on with the Twins earlier. He consistently put up big numbers in the minors, batting .307 in nearly 900 games before joining the Twins, and given a chance could have doubled the big-league career that he had. Even still, he ranks as one of the most consistent and underrated players of the early 1990s, was a key part of the 1991 World Series championship, and ranks as the second-best catcher in team history.
TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS:
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Two Steps Forward, Two Steps BackIt's rare to see a manager undermine his own team's chances of winning as much as Ron Gardenhire did while the Twins split a four-game series against the White Sox. There are a number of examples, some big and some small, but here are four that really stood out:
There's a huge difference between "playing small ball" and simply making bad decisions that limit your offense's ability to score runs and hurt your team's chances of winning. Small ball is moving a runner over when you trail by a run in the late innings. Sabotaging your team's chances of winning is trying to steal meaningless bases while risking crucial outs and intentionally giving up outs in order to move runners over when you're trailing by multiple runs with good hitters at the plate in the early innings.
The Twins' problems over the past two seasons certainly go well beyond the manager, but that doesn't mean he hasn't hurt them significantly. From writing out lineups that are far from optimal, handing out playing time to the wrong guys, giving his best reliever the least work out of the bullpen, leaving starting pitchers in until they've been completely shelled, and engaging in head-scratching "strategy" during games, Gardenhire consistently makes poor decisions that hurt the team's ability to win games.
The moves often go against the most basic logic of baseball, and to top it all off any pretense of the Twins playing smart baseball or at least busting their tails at all times went out the window long ago. Gardenhire's team frequently looks sloppy and physically unable to hustle, and as their inability to get bunts down against Chicago showed, they aren't even fundamentally sound. As if that isn't enough, Gardenhire makes a fool of himself by throwing a hissy fit in front of an umpire every couple weeks.
Monday, May 15, 2006
Sad WeekendFor me, Mother's Day weekend was filled with sadness. A CT scan last month revealed that my 6-year-old Boston Terrier, Samantha, had a brain tumor. We were told that she had at most two months to live, but she was doing relatively well with a few days to go before making it a month when she began having seizures Thursday night.
Sammi foamed at the mouth and experienced violent spasms that were incredibly frightening to watch, and in the process seemed to go blind. I was hoping it was a one-time thing, but over the course of about 10 hours she had a total of six seizures that got progressively scarier. By around three in the morning she was in horrible shape and obviously very scared.
We decided to take Sammi to the vet once they opened Friday morning to have her put to sleep. As tough as the decision was, it was infinitely easier than watching her in such pain. I will never forget holding her in my arms as she writhed in pain, her eyes rolling back into her head and her mouth overflowing with foam. I only wish we would have known to end her life a day earlier, so she didn't have to go through such suffering.
The actual process of putting her to sleep was quick and easy, which is good because of what a tired, emotional wreck I was after staying up with her all night. I would have liked one more day with Sammi, to make peace with the whole thing and give her a little more love, but by the time we got to the vet I just wanted the whole thing over with as soon as possible.
As I wrote last month after finding out that Sammi had a tumor, it seems sort of odd to feel so strongly about a dog. However, after six years of spending nearly every day with her it's amazing how strange life feels without her. I'll get over that eventually, I hope, but for now I find myself thinking about Sammi constantly throughout the day and it's tough to deal with.
I also feel guilty for the way her life ended. In trying to selfishly coax some extra time with her, we made her go through more suffering than was necessary. I feel awful that she died so young, but even more than that I feel horrible about her dying scared and in pain. That's the last thing I wanted, and if I had it to do over again I would have ended things once we found out that she had a terminal diagnosis.
From the moment we took her home six years ago and tried unsuccessfully to get her to sleep somewhere other than in a bed, it was clear that she was extremely high-strung and a little crazy. She had bad knees that didn't stop her from jumping over couches and on top of anyone who dared to enter our house, and her delicate stomach never stopped her from eating anything she could find, from kleenex to chicken wings that were perched atop the kitchen table.
None of it was truly bad behavior, rather just a dog who never really got over the puppy stage. She got so excited to be around people--especially little kids--that at 25 pounds she often overpowered them with her wild enthusiasm. Her trips outside to go to the bathroom would almost always be interrupted by whatever sound from the neighborhood grabbed her attention. Whether it was a car driving by or a basketball bouncing a block away, those floppy ears heard everything.
All of which is why it was so tough to see her fall apart over these last few months. Even at her worst point--blind and weak, hobbling around the house with numb limbs and drugs ruining her bladder--she found the strength to make it outside a dozen times per day. She was an iffy bet to make it down the stairs each time, but as long as she could control it there was no way she'd let herself have an accident in the house because of some stupid tumor and a bunch of diuretics.
I'll get another dog some day, but I'll never find one as lovable as Sammi. She was so sweet and energetic, and so in love with her owners that she hated to leave our side for a second. She'd sit with me all day watching baseball, following me around the house every time I got up to answer the phone or get something from the kitchen. And each time we left the house it was like she'd never see us again. Holding her at the vet Friday morning, I knew how she felt.
As one of my mom's friends said Saturday, Sammi is another in a long line of great athletes to fall victim to the Sports Illustrated curse.