Fire Gardy

Mismanaging games since 2002

The Sunflower Attack

I was going to write a regular post about this, but I was having trouble picking out just which quotes I wanted to use; there were just so many I wanted! Well, if that’s not a perfect invitation for a nice little fisking, I don’t know what is. So here goes … with a little help from Tom Powers of the Pioneer Press, and his latest on the Twins’ new dedication to winning in the playoffs.

Playing against the Minnesota Twins is like getting flicked in the head with a sunflower seed. At first, there’s no visible damage. But by the end of the summer, and after dozens and dozens of little pings to head, the opposition is staggered.

Plus, it really gets the troops riled up when Gardy rallies them by shouting “get your sunflower seeds ready, boys, let’s gem ‘em!” before the games. The crackling of the little plastic bags sends shivers down the spines of their opponents come mid-summer, when the oppressive heat and humidity makes it difficult to move your head out of the way of a projectile seed and you find yourself lethargically submitting to this absurd torture.

And the Twins win the division.

Well, sometimes, they do.

Then the Twins enter the playoffs brandishing their tiny sunflower seeds and — kapow! — they are the first ones eliminated. How many times have we seen this? After so many entertaining summers the team has gotten no closer to advancing in the postseason.

You mean the level of difficulty takes a big jump up, and the team that just managed to scrape by when it was easier has tremendous problems adjusting, and they get beaten by a superior team in the playoffs? Outrage!

That’s because the Twins always have been built for the long haul.

Actually, that’s interesting. Is it true that the Twins are “built for the long haul,” and if so, how exactly? I mean, is it because they always seem to have nine 4th/5th starters that they can slide in (but lack a good one-two punch at the top of the rotation, which you need in the playoffs), and a handy collection of utility infielders who can step in and play in case players need rest or get injured?

They do enough little things right, make the fewest number of critical mistakes, to be able to squeeze into the top spot.

Oh. Well, I can’t argue with the little things. It’s the little things that make up life. It’s just too bad the Twins don’t do the little things right, and are constantly making critical mistakes. They succeed in spite of that because of their star players, like Mauer, Morneau, and Span.

But the playoffs are about star power and great individual performances. They are about lightning-bolt home runs that come from anywhere in the batting order and pitching gems under fantastic pressure.

Yes, the playoffs are not about a long, boring grind through a miserable summer that drives away a great number of people from their putative national pastime because they have something better to do than watch yet another baseball game on such a nice day. They’re about exciting home runs, epic clutchitude, and gripping story lines that sportswriters can latch onto and use to tell us which players have that little special something that allowed their team to win a few games when it actually matters.

To this point, the Twins have been content to win their division and take their chances in the playoffs.

You can’t win in the playoffs without getting there, so consistently winning your division and hoping to catch lightning one of these years isn’t exactly a bad solution for a mid-market/low-revenue team like the Twins. You think other teams who pull in as much money as the Twins (Pirates and Royals) wouldn’t like to trade positions, and get their asses kicked in the playoffs while we suffer 100 loss seasons in their stead?

That strategy appears to be shifting. The organization is starting to think ahead to October. Winning the division and getting blasted out of the playoffs may not be enough anymore.

Woo hoo! Let’s all dance in the street! Bill Smith isn’t going to play second fiddle any more, and therefore, surely, he’ll start pulling the trigger on some deals that will significantly improve the team.

This is the main reason general manager Bill Smith signed Jim Thome, a veteran of 64 career playoff games. In those games he has 17 home runs. And it’s one of the reasons Smith re-signed Carl Pavano, who had a great playoff run with the 2003 champion Florida Marlins. Pavano sports a 1.71 earned-run average in nine postseason appearances.

Okay, let me get this straight. The problem is that the Twins succeed over the long haul, and have repeatedly failed to win the last series of the season (the one in the playoffs). Rather than stay rational, and realize that the best way to improve their chances in the postseason is simply to improve their team overall … they’re going to invest in players who’ve had small-sample-size success to complement their own players’ small-sample-size failures?

“That’s exactly right,” Smith said. “We have to keep our eyes on what’s at hand, which is to win the division. But once we do that we have to find a way to get past the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. We have to find a way to beat the best teams and advance in the playoffs.”

And that is why it’s important to have Thome’s 17 postseason HRs sitting on the bench, especially since he hasn’t hit any since 2001.

Smith acknowledges that it might take some effort to keep Pavano healthy. But manager Ron Gardenhire has been a staunch supporter of bringing Pavano back, and Smith agrees.

Damn the torpedoes, as it were. It’s important to invest in fragile middle-of-the-rotation guys and call them the ace of the staff because they’re the oldest and had success in the playoffs many years ago, in their prime. Gardy knows this, that’s why he’s been so good at winning playoff games in his career.

As for the 39-year-old Thome, Smith said he appears to be in good enough shape to play the odd game at first base. Thome has played just four games in the field since 2006, though, so such a scenario seems unlikely.

At this point, I can’t tell if Powers is writing a puff piece, or ripping the organization. He keeps relaying what the team thinks, then pointing out why it’s kind of stupid … but not nearly directly enough.

“But I talked with him and he’s willing,” Smith said.

Oh, he’s willing to play first base? Do you not realize, Mr Smith, that his willingness to play in the field is trumped by his inability to actually do so? Or that the White Sox might have tried to use him at first when Konerko was hurt, or the Dodgers might have tried to use him once or twice to give Loney a break down the stretch?

Smith said he’s still looking around but isn’t likely to make any more moves before spring training. At least, he probably won’t do anything considered major.

So you’re saying that the Twins are no longer content with just winning the division, and they want to start making a move in the playoffs … and they want us to believe that while they’re leaving question marks at half the infield, and the top of the rotation?

That means the Twins will be in the familiar position of trying to “make do” at a couple of positions. As it stands, second base and third base will consist of a mishmash of players. But there just aren’t any decent third basemen available. And the Twins are unwilling to go through the Joe Crede “day to day” thing again in 2010.

Well, the fact that there aren’t any good third basemen available means they shouldn’t consider second base options like Orlando Hudson or Felipe Lopez. That’s how free agency works, people!

They also lack backups in center field, first base and catcher. In other words, they lack depth.

Because Pridie isn’t a backup at CF, Morales isn’t a backup at C, and Cuddyer/Thome/someone-from-AAA isn’t a backup at 1B.

“Ideally, if we could put a wish list together, we’d get a right-handed bat that can play center field and first base,” Smith said.

That’s your wishlist?! A guy who plays both 1B and CF (?!?!?!) … rather than a solution at second base or third base? A 1B/CF doesn’t even exist in the baseball universe (though something tells me Bill Smith doesn’t realize that), and wasting a roster spot to take playing time away from Morneau and Span doesn’t exactly scream “Great Idea!” to me.

The projected backup catcher, Jose Morales, had wrist surgery and won’t return until toward the end of spring training. Morales is a heck of a hitter but a liability in the field.

It’s more important to have depth in March than it is in August and September, so Morales being injured now means we won’t have depth during the season. And when it comes to a backup catcher, he’s pretty much pointless if he’s not as good as your regular catcher.

But it’s too early to evaluate the roster.

Which is why it’s a good thing the Twins still haven’t evaluated theirs. If they had, they might have realized that they’re planning to play with only half and infield.

There will be plenty of competition among the pitchers, and it’s difficult to say how that will turn out. However, the bigger news remains the recognition of the need to build a bit differently for playoff success. Thome will limit Gardenhire’s flexibility all season. If he’s healthy in October, though, it could be worth it.

Thome will take up a bench spot all season and Gardy will blame the team’s struggles on his lack of flexibility, but once they get to the playoffs then Thome jumps up off the bench and starts socking dingers all over the place! What a plan!

Pavano had four years of health problems before rebounding in 2009. If he finds his pre-2005 groove, he could be a real asset, especially in October. With the exception of the veteran Pavano, the Twins’ rotation is rather green.

The Twins’ rotation has been “rather green” for three years … and it’s all the same guys. At what point are they no longer “fresh-faced youngsters”, and instead “disappointments?”

Soon the Twins will begin flicking their sunflower seeds in Fort Myers.

If the Mayor’s Cup were 100 games instead of just 5, the Twins might have more of a chance of winning it. That’s how The Sunflower Attack works, right?

Once again they hope to ping their way to a division title. Their hope is that, come playoff time, they will be better equipped against the big boys.

Yup, Thome and Pavano will make the difference this year. Or, since Pavano pitched in the 2009 playoffs (he pitched well and lost because he didn’t get any run support), I guess he won’t be a big difference in how they’re equipped this year. So the addition of Jim Thome and his commanding presence on the bench is supposed to put the Twins over the top this year?

And another thing. Given that the biggest improvement the Twins made this year was adding JJ Hardy, who will make a bigger difference on the field during the regular season and the postseason than Thome will … why was he completely omitted from this article? After all, he’s had amazing success in his playoff career. He’s batting .429! He has a 1.000 OPS! What a clutch superstar! (Small sample sizes are important, right?)

That was refreshing. Just as the players are starting to hit the gym again in preparation for heading down to spring training, I need to shake the rust off after a winter of inactivity. So I’d like to thank Tom Powers and Bill Smith for the material, and hopefully material like this keeps on flowing in.

Just remember: baseball season is right around the corner.

11 comments

11 Comments so far

  1. FunBobby February 1st, 2010 9:00 am

    wasn’t this the main complaint of Billy Beane’s “moneyball” teams from earlier in the decade? I don’t really understand how this argument holds water. You can win 100 of 162 games, but you can’t win 3 of 5 or 4 of 7? I get that “anything can happen in a short series”, but I see this as a lame excuse for losing big games.

  2. sirsean February 1st, 2010 9:07 am

    It’s a symptom of people putting too much stock into small sample sizes, and it bothers me.

  3. FunBobby February 1st, 2010 9:55 am

    according to buster olney, the twins appear to be in “strong pursuit” of orlando hudson. Great news if true.

  4. sirsean February 1st, 2010 10:00 am

    Alas, according to Joe C, they’re unwilling to spend as much as $3M on him. So … I wouldn’t expect a deal anytime soon.

  5. rghrbek February 1st, 2010 11:40 am

    Great post!

    I saw both things above about O-Hud. I want to believe Buster more, but….

    Can you believe the twins wouldn’t sign an all star, gold glove, caliper 2nd basement for 3 million? How cheap is that. Why doesn’t Powers write about that, when talking about how the Twins are not trying to compete with the big boys?

    Now with a new stadium, we will bump the payroll up to 92 mil but not 95 mil?

    If Jesse Crain was non tendered, they could afford Hudson or someone else for 3 to 5 mil.

  6. sirsean February 1st, 2010 11:45 am

    It really is mind boggling that they consider $3M to be too much for Hudson. If he’s available for $3M … that’s an even better deal than we got for Thome. And we should jump on it immediately.

    I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that Punto makes more than that and is currently penciled in as the starting 2B.

    But, budget-wise, the Twins don’t really know how much money they have available. It’s possible that they set their budget at $90M for 2010, and only went above it because Thome dropped to such a low price. If they’re already over-budget, they’re going to have trouble adding Hudson at any price. It sucks, of course, but that’s generally how budgets work, especially for teams without unlimited funds.

    Even the Yankees are unwilling, this year, to stretch beyond their budget (even though their revenues are sky-high).

  7. rghrbek February 1st, 2010 12:06 pm

    Sometimes you gotta bite the bullet and go over because you think it makes you that much better or gives you a shot at a ring.

    The Twins are responsible to a fault and will not do this.

    I just want to feel like they really want to go to the next level.

    Regardless they are a better team on paper than last year, in the worst division in baseball.

  8. FunBobby February 1st, 2010 12:54 pm

    I did some fuzzy math, and if we have one home playoff game we can make that money back. I assumed and average playoff ticket price of 75 bucks, and 45K people. Seems like an easy decision.

  9. sirsean February 1st, 2010 1:00 pm

    The problem is that if we go over and it doesn’t work, then all the fans will still be calling for them to raise the budget further, not realizing that they were already spending too much.

    I’d be careful about the short-sighted “give it to me now, nothing could possibly go wrong” attitude … it seems to have worked terribly in another sector of the economy lately.

  10. FunBobby February 1st, 2010 1:07 pm

    It is very frustrating that they think Punto and Jesse Crain are worth 4 and 2 million respectively, but Orlando Hudson is not worth 3 million for one year. Unless that salary figure for Hudson is wrong and he really wants somewhere in the 7-9 range.

    While everyone is talkng about Hudson, why don’t we go out and get Lopez on the cheap? I rarely hear anything about him anymore.

  11. rghrbek February 1st, 2010 1:55 pm

    Apparently a twins scout thinks he cannot field, despite everything and anything I can find on Lopez, stating that he is average to above average.

    I think Lopez can be had for cheaper, and although not as good in the field as Hudson, his bat is proven and he is a patient prototype #2 hitter.

    Makes sense to us maybe, but not to the Twins.

    I really don’t feel they are going to do anything.

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