Monday, April 19, 2004

The Under Appreciated Twins

I'm a big fan of Peter Gammons. He has great insight into the game and has always been a big supporter of the Twins. Imagine my surprise today when I discovered his latest article on things under appreciated before the season and the Twins were not included. Perhaps this was a result of the confidence Gammons had in the team from the start, but even so he's left it up to us to go through what both the national media and fans at home did not see going into the season.

Many members of the national media simply wrote off the Twins and their 2 straight division titles before the season, claiming they could not compete with the likes of the White Sox and Royals. This team has jumped out to a fast start and now sits tied atop its division. In doing so it has handily swept the Royals while revealing their many flaws. It has done this by overcoming several devastating injuries. The Twins have shown that they are not about to go away despite a few large free agent losses.

Their fast start can mostly be attributed to their incredible amount of depth. While its true they have been lucky so far with the likes of Henry Blanco others such as Lew Ford have hit the cover of the ball and shown why they could be starting for most teams out there. Even a much-maligned bullpen has come through tossing the most innings in Baseball while keeping the team in most games. With garbage-heap pickups Aaron Fultz (1.08 ERA) and Joe Roa (2.70) both having ERA's under 3 as of Sunday it's safe to say Terry Ryan's judgment of talent has been under appreciated as well. Add to that the 8 scoreless innings of J.C Romero, Joe Nathan’s first couple of saves and the solid work of Juan Rincon and the Twins have the makings of a strong bullpen.

Few anticipated the offensive output the Twins have shown. Everyone is hitting the ball well including off-season pickups Jose Offerman (who looks like the Jose of old), Blanco and Nick Punto. The Twins have been able to overcome adversity by having anyone they plug into their lineup hit. Too many people focused on the team’s bullpen and the strength of its starters. They forgot about this team’s potential to drive in runs.
Here at home fans find themselves rediscovering how valuable Brad Radke is to this team. Before the season many were ready to anoint Johan Santana the Ace of the staff, but it has been Radke who has delivered 2 quality starts and stability to a rotation still finding itself.

Some have grumbled about the ability of Joe Nathan to close out games. Having little experience coming into the season they worried that he would struggle. The kid has come in and got the job done reminiscent of Rick Aguilera where he gets himself into trouble and pitches out of it. Relax Twins fans; the one time he was roughed up was a non-save situation. His velocity is down so far but everything he has done to this point in his career points to him being a successful closer. With him getting the job done the rest of the bullpen sets up quite nicely.

The value of Shannon Stewart to this club has been shown in the last couple of weeks. His signing was questioned as being too much to pay for another corner outfielder but this guy makes the offense click. He gets on base as evidenced by his .306 average with 13 walks! Shannon Stewart is a professional hitter whose value has been under appreciated by both Twins fans and the rest of baseball, as he remains the team MVP to date.
So there you have it, just a few little things Gammons left out of his article today. The Twins are still going strong and will be even tougher to beat in the next month when they see the return of many starters. Yes, Florida's off to a great start but the Twins too have something to brag about as all the doubters have found out.

Notes (a la Gammons style):
It was great to see Griesinger and Roa give the Twins a good combined start on Sunday. This apparently has earned Griesinger a second start, which will probably determine his future with this team. If he performs well it would be great but I'm afraid Gardy may fall into the Hector Carrasco, Bob Wells, Tony Fiorie trap of gaining confidence in a mediocre pitcher and then taking way too long to realize he is not major league caliber. Obviously Griesinger is still in his prime and has some talent but has shown little in his brief stint this year and throughout his career.

I'm increasingly impressed with J.C Romero who looks like the pitcher of old. When he's on, he's un-hittable and he seems to have harnessed his control so that his wildness no longer is a hindrance. Obviously it's early but he looks ready to keep it up. My only worry is his possible overuse to this point in the season. He's the pitcher Gardy trusts the most and as a result it has got to be tempting to use him every game.

Luis Rivas had a pretty good weekend showing signs of coming out of his slump. He always kills Royals pitching but it might be just what he needed to jump him back into the hitting mode.

No matter how overrated I think Torii Hunter is, what an amazing human being he is! I have had the pleasure on several occasions to be around him and he lights up the area. What he did on Sunday by giving Jerry White his Gold Glove Award was incredible. He is a great role model for kids and it'll be good to see his smile back out in center in the next week.

Braves Still Struggle Under Curse of Henry "The Babe" Blanco

APRIL 19, 2014
ATLANTA, GA- The Atlanta Braves, some of you may remember, won 12 consecutive division titles from 1991 through 2003. And as most Braves fans are painfully aware, in the ten years since then they have won exactly zero. Not a single one. Most Braves fans will tell you that one man can be blamed for this "curse", and his name is none other than Henry Blanco. Ten years after they let him walk, the Atlanta Braves organization is still regretting their fateful decision to not re-sign the soon-to-be Hall of Fame catcher after the 2003 season.

"Even though I was the architect behind all those great playoff teams," says former Braves GM John Schuerholz, "the one decision that I regret the most is letting Blanco go. It probably would have saved my job and the fortunes of the entire franchise. I still don't know how Terry Ryan knew he would blossom into a perennial All-Star at age 32. All I can say is no one ever doubted his genius after that move."

For those of you who don't remember, Blanco was the Braves backup (and Greg Maddux's personal) catcher during both 2002 and 2003, playing in 81 and 55 games each year respectively. He only posted a combined .202 BA with 7 HR and 35 RBI over that span, but the Twins' Ryan knew when he signed Blanco to a $750,000 deal in the winter of 2004 he had gotten a huge bargain.

"I knew there was something special about Henry," said Ryan, the mastermind behind the Twins five World Series victories in the '00s, "When we signed him, he was only supposed to be a backup for this kid named Joe Mauer. But Mauer struggled with injuries his entire career and never really panned out. Luckily, we had Hammerin' Hank to anchor the middle of our lineup that year [2004] and the rest is, well, history."

"History" is putting it modestly. Blanco became the Twins starter only a couple games into the 2004 season and immediately began flashing the form that will make him first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2016. He hit .344 with 41 HRs and 135 RBIs and was named the both the American League and World Series MVP that year. He would go on to average a .335/38/128 over the next eight years, firmly solidifying his place as one of the best catchers of all-time.

"I always knew Henry had it in him," commented current Braves manager Bobby Cox, now 73 years old and in his 35th season as a major league manager. "I told Johnny [Schuerholz] to hold on to him because he really showed some flashes during his time here, but he wanted to go with this Estrada kid. We all know how that worked out." Johnny Estrada hit .221 as a Brave in 2004 and was out of the game within two years.

Since Ryan "stole" Blanco off the free agent pile, the Braves and Twins franchises have gone in completely different directions. The Twins became the "team of the 2000s" with their five championships in six years (anchored by Blanco, ace Johan Santana, flame-throwing closer Jesse Crain, and outfielder "Sweet" Lew Ford). The 2004 Series win also netted the Twins their state-of-the-art stadium, Pohlad Park, which helped vault them into the top five teams league-wide in terms of revenue.

The Braves, on the other hand, quickly became the laughingstock of the National League. Even the lowly San Juan Expos have posted more .500 seasons (1) than the Braves (0) since 2003. But Cox (along with long-time pitching coach Leo Mazzone) remains optimistic about the future.

"I can feel it in my bones," says Cox. "This is going to be the year that J.D. Drew stays healthy and has a breakout season."

Meanwhile, the Twins are gearing up for yet another championship run. But Twins fans will never forget the man who almost single-handedly turned a low-budget playoff contender into a perennial power way back in 2004. A man who will always live on in the annals of baseball history. A man named Henry Blanco.