Monday, February 07, 2005

Two Juicy Nuggets

I don't have quite enough to craft an original post today, but we do have a little treat for you on this Tuesday morning. I perusing the internet this afternoon, in search of interesting new baseball material (never a sure thing, considering it is the seventh of February). Lo and behold, when I made it to, who did I immediately see but a picture of our very own Torii Hunter, crashing into the wall! Turns out the national media put out two (2) brand-new articles about the Minnesota Twins today, which is probably two more than have been written in the past two months combined.

The first article, which a part of the ESPN baseball page's "Hot Stove Heater" series, highlights Hunter as the best in the league at making the over-the-wall catch. It is written by Sean McAdam and I highly recommend it.

The other article available exclusively to ESPN Insider suscribers, but in yet another Twins Chatter exclusive, I have decided to save you all the $5 monthly subscription and post the part of the article that pertains to the Twins below. I think Jerry Cransick is an excellent writer and I thoroughly enjoy reading him at ESPN and in Baseball America. Enjoy today's little tidbit, and check back tomorrow when we'll have something new and original up.

Twins don't need big bucks to win

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN Insider

Twins general manager Terry Ryan was on his way to a winter caravan stop in Rochester, Minnesota, on Thursday, and the sun was shining and the temperature was approaching 38 degrees. Or as they refer to it in the Gopher State, "swimsuit weather.''

"I wouldn't be surprised if I see people out golfing today," Ryan said from his mobile phone.

With two weeks left until pitchers and catchers report, the forecast for Ryan's team is partly cloudy with a chance of finishing first. After the Twins' third straight 90-win season and American League Central title, Ryan embarked on the standard offseason task of stretching his small-market dollars. The Twins signed Brad Radke to a two-year, $18 million deal – a contract generally regarded as a good investment given the inflated market for starters – and brought back outfielder Jacque Jones for one year and $5 million.

But the offseason also produced some new causes for concern in Minnesota. Elite outfield prospect Jason Kubel blew out his knee while playing in the Arizona Fall League and probably will miss the entire 2005 season. Ryan also had to revamp the left side of his infield when Corey Koskie left for Toronto and Cristian Guzman signed a four-year deal with Washington.

As Ryan prepares to stow the parka and haul his short-sleeve shirts out of his closet, here are four items he'll be monitoring closely in Fort Myers:

  • The new left side. Michael Cuddyer moves from second to third base to replace Koskie, and manager Ron Gardenhire will give Juan Castro, Nick Punto, Augie Ojeda and rookie Jason Bartlett a chance to compete for the starting shortstop job. "It's wide open,'' Ryan said. "We're going to let the best man emerge out of that group and see who takes the job.''

    In reality, the Twins want Bartlett to assert himself and win the job outright. They like Punto as a utility guy, and a Castro-Luis Rivas double-play combination would be an offensive black hole. Bartlett, acquired from San Diego for Brian Buchanan in a steal of a trade three years ago, is capable defensively and had a .415 on-base percentage with Triple-A Rochester last season. The Twins think he can handle the position. They just don't want to put extra pressure on him by anointing him the starter in early February.

  • Who is healing well? Catcher Joe Mauer is ready to go after missing all but 35 games with a knee injury last season, and Joe Mays will compete for the No. 5 starting job now that he's 17 months removed from Tommy John surgery. Although Shannon Stewart is supposedly healthy, the Twins will be watching to make sure he's recovered from the plantar fasciitis in his right heel that hobbled him for much of last season.

  • Comebacks. The Twins are counting on better performances from two players who didn't contribute much in 2004. Rivas, a bad on-base guy even at his best, hit a new low last year with a .283 OBP. And Kyle Lohse had a season to forget. His strikeouts dropped, his walks increased, and the league batted .305 against him. Of the 86 starters who qualified in ESPN rankings, only four – Sidney Ponson, Darrell May, the Twins' Carlos Silva and Brian Anderson – got whacked around for a higher batting average.

  • Contract talks. The Twins are discussing a long-term deal with Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, who is eligible for free agency after the 2006 season. Although Ryan would prefer that talks don't drag into April and beyond, he's keeping an open mind. The Twins signed Radke to a four-year, $36 million extension in July 2000.

    "I'm not thrilled with doing it that way, just like everybody else isn't thrilled with it,'' Ryan said. "It can become a distraction. But I'm always flexible. If it makes sense for all parties, I'll give it consideration. If it doesn't, we'll shut it down.''

    Can the Twins' pitchers match their performance of 2004, when they led the league with a 4.03 ERA? That'll be difficult. But the bullpen is good, they always catch the ball, and they might improve on their status as the 10th best scoring team in the league if Mauer and Justin Morneau have breakout years. The Twins are even taking a change-of-scenery flyer on former first-round draft pick Eric Munson, who washed out in Detroit.

    "We've got work to do, but I think we're going to be OK,'' Ryan said.

    They usually are.