Sunday, August 01, 2004

Trading Deadline Passes and Twins Win

Somebody needs to wake me up. The last several days have been a wild ride for any baseball fan but especially Twins fans. As the weather has heated up so have the Twins. They began the week by sweeping the division rival White Sox and have carried their momentum on through a storm of trade rumors and 1 very big deal that actually happened. Along the way they also happened to take 2 out of 3 from the team with the second highest payroll in the major leagues in thrilling fashion. Now as the team has built a 5 game lead in division there is more speculation that the deals did not end with Saturday's deadline. The Twins have all of us on the edge of our seats as we continue to wait to see what transpires next.

They did not play well Friday night. They got yet another bad start out of the enigma that is becoming Kyle Lohse. They also had the added tension of not knowing whether one of their most popular players of the last 4 seasons was going to stick around or be traded in the coming hours. The news broke Saturday afternoon that Doug Mientkiewicz would be walking across the hall to the Boston clubhouse. The first reports had the Twins getting Derek Lowe in the deal but later would have to settle on a class A lefthanded pitcher named Justin Jones.

Doug's time was up with the team. It had been apparent for nearly a week and should have been much prior to that. There were several scenarios in which Doug could have stayed and been a helpful cog down the stretch but none of them played out. Doug wanted out of town, by all reports his manager wanted him out and somewhere along the line someone made the mistake of talking about it. Add it all together and it makes for a very sticky clubhouse situation for a core of players that came up playing together and have in the past been touchy when it comes to a chemistry excuse.

Had Doug stayed he could have been a valuable piece, pitch hitting, coming in as a defensive replacement and providing insurance for team that has suffered myriad injuries already this year. Doug would have been the kind of player contending teams carry. As it turns out he did not share this belief. Doug Mientkiewicz did not enjoy being Wally Pipped by the best hitting prospect in the organization, Justin Morneau. To Doug it was a matter of respect and not performance. Nevermind that Morneau had already accomplished all there was to accomplish in the minor leagues and provided a much needed spark to a big club that was getting no production out of an offensive position. Dougie Baseball had not played the way he had in previous years to warrant the 2 year extension he signed in the off-season. That extension owed him 4 million dollars next year, a luxury that small market teams cannot afford. Enter Terry Ryan and the need for the trade.

The Twins got the best deal available to them in the market. Doug is an over priced defensive first baseman in a the league that rarely values skill at his position. It would have been nice to have added another starter for the rotation but Doug was not the piece that was going to bring that to the team. The Pirates had already said no to the Twins and the Red Sox needed to get a starter back in any deal where they traded Derek Lowe. So Terry Ryan was in the position of trying to find the most talented player available rather then just give Mientkiewicz away for free.

Ryan has had the most success in his career at finding that class A diamond and watching him develop into a prize prospect. Examples include David Ortiz, Joe Mays, Jason Bartlett and Kyle Lohse. His track record with major league talent is a little more hit and miss. No one had heard of Justin Jones before Saturday but one thing he seems to have is potential. He can throw in the mid 90's and some publications rate him quite high. He has had some arm trouble and there are some other reviews that consider him a mediocre prospect at best. He was also drafted 1 spot behind Jesse Crain. He looks like the type of pitcher who is a risk but could pay off big. What Terry Ryan did was get a guy with a high upside when he might otherwise have been stuck with nothing.

Trading Doug Mientkiewicz has also freed up salary both this year and next creating payroll flexibility. Now the Twins are in the position to make a deal in August for a guy they might not otherwise have been able to afford. The long term effects may enable them to keep Brad Radke or Corey Koskie instead of having Doug stuck on the bench next year. Justin Morneau's time is now. He possesses skills that Mientkiewicz never had. He has the ability to fill the void that has been the cleanup spot. He also forces opposing teams to fear his power while creating a level of excitement in every at bat. He deserves the chance to succeed, he has been the real deal and it wouldn't be fair for the organization to hold him back any longer. Now he can go out and play without the pressure of someone being ready to take his spot the moment he falters as has happened to other top prospects in the past couple of seasons.

Ominous reports came in on Joe Mauer's knee this weekend and it could be awhile before he plays again. This news is a big set back for the organization and they may have to acquire another catcher. Matt LeCroy can't field or more importantly throw and Henry Blanco despite occasionally being possessed by unnatural forces, can't hit. For those fans who are upset that the Twins did not add anybody to the major league roster more deals are on the way. More teams are going to drop out of the race as the summer progresses and more players will be available that could fit the team better. There is no doubt this team needs at least 1 more starter.

The good news is that Mientkiewicz's spot on the roster was filled by Jesse Crain. It might be too much to put all the pressure of a pennant race upon him right away but young pitchers with nasty stuff seem to generally fair well in that situation(K-Rod). Crain helps to further solidify the pen and if nothing else is a better option then Joe Roa who like Jose Offerman is playing on borrowed time. If he is able to have some success he will lesson the workloads of Juan Rincon and the consistently inconsistent JC Romero, giving the Twins a much needed second option for the middle innings while giving up nothing to get it.

Crain was up in the bullpen on Sunday but never had a chance of entering the game. Lately when Johan Santana pitches most of the relievers can expect to have the day off. Sunday was no different, as he continued his dominance. In the last 2 months he has catapulted himself to the top of major league starters. On the way he has erased doubts that last season was a fluke. He has held up under pressure while continuing to throw 2 very unhittable pitches and a third almost as devastating. He alone gives the Twins a shot in any playoff series.

He continues to get stronger as the season progresses. Some of his stats have been unreal. He is virtually unhittable, yesterday allowing just 2 hits in 8 innings of work. The only way other teams score off of him are solo homeruns or on errors. He leads the American League with 173 strikeouts and easily outshone the guy behind him, Pedro Martinez yesterday. Even his wins are starting to come around as the team finally came through and helped him pick up number 10.

It was an amazing game to watch. Both pitchers were dominating and matched each other pitch for pitch. The Red Sox would hit a homerun and the Twins would get a big hit to tie it up. The difference in the game was the Twins aggressive baserunning. Billy Beane may believe that the stolen base has no place in baseball but on Sunday afternoon the Twins used it to win the game. The double steal in the 8th was a gutsy play and if Cristian Guzman had been thrown out it would have been highly criticized. He wasn't thrown out though. Instead it set up Justin Morneau to come to the plate with the chance to tie the game again. Morneau did his job and the Boston defense did the rest giving back the unearned run from the inning previous and putting the Twins up for good.

The Twins continue to play like they deserve to be champions. They are finally beginning to gain the respect they deserve as the White Sox fall further and further in the standings. Everything has gone right as they have put pressure on their opponents. There remains a lot of baseball to be played and they are bound to cool off at some point. No matter what they need to keep their swagger and avoid the offensive struggles they suffered through earlier in the season. The additions of Shannon Stewart and Morneau to the lineup make this more likely while making the lineup respectable. They proved during the last week that they can go out and beat good playoff teams and they can carry that into October with their top two pitchers who match up with anybody else's out there.

It was a wild weekend as the Twins continued to make believers out of even themselves. They said good bye to a former keystone but seem to have found the ingredients needed to win ballgames. The team takes it to the opponents with strong defense, devastating pitching and a little bit of late inning heroics. The pieces continue to fall into place as the summer progresses and the Twins try to transform themselves into more then just a playoff team. This weekend they looked capable of beating anybody while holding onto their best parts for making that possible for the next 5 years.


NOTE FROM RYAN: I also wrote a piece describing my thoughts and reactions to the Mientkiewicz trade, Justin Jones, and the Twins' weekend series against Boston, but I have decided to hold it off until tomorrow because there won't be a game to write about (the Twins are off). Although it may be considered "old news" by then, I hope you all will check this space tomorrow for another take on the monumental events that took place over the weekend.