Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Most Irreplaceable Player in Sports

On PTI yesterday, (or maybe it was that weird thing where PTI ends, goes to Sportscenter and then for some reason Sportscenter goes BACK to PTI) Wilbon and Kornheiser were arguing about who was the most irreplaceable player in sports. The Peyton Manning injury status undoubtedly is what brought the question up, and my first thought was that yes, Peyton Manning was the most irreplaceable player. Wilbon seemed to waffle on his idea, as first he said it wasn't Manning, then he said Manning is right up there, then he said it might be Manning... and I was annoyed. But then I thought about it, and I went from thinking it was Manning for sure, to thinking maybe it could be somebody else... to this:

The most irreplaceable player. It's a pretty fascinating concept, because from generation to generation it will change greatly. Some generations it's not even debatable. Michael Jordan in the 90's, I think, is an obvious example. Sure, that one year without Jordan the Bulls went to the Eastern Conference Finals, but Scottie Pippen cried like a little bitch and they couldn't close the deal. Jordan came back and subsequently won three more championships before retiring for the second time. This generation? Much more open to discussion. Let's start by eliminating some fringe candidates.

Sticking with basketball, it can't be Kobe Bryant. Being second fiddle on any championship team means you are not irreplaceable. Sorry. That means goodbye to Dwyane Wade as well. However, LeBron James doesn't get dismissed yet because you don't need to actually win a championship to be the most irreplaceable palyer, in my opinion.

In football, it obviously has to be a quarterback and only a quarterback. Sorry AP, Polamalu, Revis and Asomugha, but you're not QBs. Tom Brady already proved he was replaceable when the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel. Aaron Rodgers? Maybe. But Packers fans keep telling me how good Matt Flynn is, so, I guess he's closer to Brady than Manning. Drew Brees? He has to be up there, but to me Manning is in a different tier than Brees and his team would miss him even more.

In both hockey and baseball, it's very difficult for one player to make such a difference they are irreplaceable. Gretzky in his prime was irreplaceable, but there isn't a current hockey player that lives up to that billing. Some may argue an elite pitcher in baseball can be irreplaceable, but the truth is they are only pitching 30-35 games a year out of 162; they are certainly replaceable.

To me, it comes down to two players. LeBron James and Peyton Manning. Manning has never missed a game in his career, the Colts have always had inexperienced and below average quarterbacks backing Manning up, so it's hard to know how irreplaceable he is. Even without an injury, it's pretty clear if the Colts switched Manning with, say, Curtis Painter, the team would go from a likely 10 or 11 win team into a 2 or 3 win team. I think that makes Manning pretty damn irreplaceable.

However, Manning being irreplaceable is entirely hypothetical at this point. Common sense suggests he'd be greatly missed, but we can't know for sure. LeBron James, on the other hand, swung the entire balance of power in the league when he left Cleveland for Miami. The Cavs went from a team with the best record in basketball to the league's worst team in one season. Miami went from a fringe playoff team to the Eastern Conference Champions. As great as Manning has been and as difficult as it would likely be for the Colts to win without him, we know how difficult it was for Cleveland to win without LeBron James. Going from a 60 win team to a 17 win team because your best player leaves is the epitome of irreplaceable, and without a doubt LeBron James has to be considered the most irreplaceable player in sports.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Top 5 Reasons Men Love Sports Teams More Than They Love Women

I've loved the Minnesota Twins since I was about four years old. My parents had bought a 1991 Twins season in review tape, and I wanted to watch the VCR tape so bad one day I taught myself how to work the VCR (This came in handy when my brother and I wanted to watch Terminator 2 on VCR when I was 5 and he was 4). I probably watched that tape more than a thousand times. In other words, I loved the Minnesota Twins before I was attending kindergarten. I first loved the Vikings in 1998 and the Timberwolves in 1999. The first girl I loved? Like 2005. I loved at least three sports teams before I loved a girl, and I don't think that's uncommon at all for most guys. So, without further ado, here's the top 5 reasons that men love sports teams more than they love women:

#5: Our sports teams will always be there.

Like I said above, I've loved the Twins since '91, the Vikings since '98 and the Timberwolves since '99. They're all still around. The first girl I loved? Long gone. Now, there is the rare occasion where a team moves (most recently, Seattle, more locally, the Northstars) and I can only imagine that would be crushing. But those sports teams moving are the exception, not the rule. Things not working out with a girl you love? Not all that uncommon.

#4: We always get a second chance.

Most of the time, when a woman breaks a man's heart, that's the end of the relationship. She moves on, doesn't look back, and the poor sap is stuck missing some girl he thought loved him. Unfortunately, a guy's ego is really the only reason he misses the girl. He's unhappy that he doesn't get another chance, his ego can't handle the fact that this girl can just move on so easily. With sports teams, we always get a second chance. When the Vikings lost the '98 NFC championship, it stung. When they lost to the Saints in '09, it stung. It even broke some hearts. But guess what? The Vikings played a full season in 1999. They played a full season in 2010. I was able to cheer for them just as hard the next season. I think because women often don't give men second and third chances when they screw up, we have no problem giving our favorite sports teams passes for years of futility.

#3: It's cheaper to love a sports team.

Unless you're one of those crazy people who spends their life savings turning their pickup truck into a Vikings helmet, it's not expensive to love a sports team. You can buy a hat, or a jersey, or tickets to a few games, but generally the price of loving a sports team is cheap, especially considering a hat or a jersey will last for years.

Dating a girl? It can be expensive. I'm not saying girls are gold-diggers, just that dating someone costs money. Going to dinners, getting drinks, seeing movies, birthday and Christmas (or Hanukkah) presents, among other things, it all adds up. Even if your girlfriend pays for things half of the time (not uncommon), that's still going to be more expensive than loving a sports team. Most men won't go to expensive dinners, movies or buy presents for people unless they're in a relationship.

#2: They encourage us to drink with our friends.

Whether we're tailgating before the game, watching the game at a buddy's house or at the local sports bar, our favorite sports teams are constantly encouraging us to hang out with our guy friends and get drunk. The only woman that would happily allow us to do that? One that's fooling around.

#1: We can yell at them as much as we want to.

When a quarterback makes a throw across his body that gets intercepted, I can yell as many four letter words I want at the TV. If I'm at the game, other fans have probably beat me to the yelling, hoping the quarterback will hear them. When a shortstop boots an easy double play ball that allows a runner to score, I can say derogatory things about his mother or sister and nobody cares. The anger is short-lived and entirely off-base, but it's accepted.

If our girlfriend steps on our brand new Madden game and shatters it? She'll apologize, but we won't ever know if it was actually an accident. Unless we want to start a fight that will end up being about much more than simply that Madden game, we know to tell her it's okay, we'll get a new one, it's just a video game. But all we want to do is scream at her and ask her how she can step on something that literally has the sun shining on it through the window. Of course, that would be frowned upon by our society, and most people would probably think we're crazy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Checking In

Sorry for the lack of updates of late, I'm starting my 397th semester of college this week and things have been somewhat hectic. Should be back to a more normal schedule next week. For now, as the Twins continue to fall apart, read this piece by Joe Posnanski about pressure and the MVP. My favorite part:

A losing clubhouse? Exactly the opposite. The downward pressure is enormous and overwhelming -- after all, who cares? The town has moved on. A Hawaiian vacation awaits. Teammates are fighting to keep their jobs or fighting to impress someone on another team or just plain fighting. The manager might be worried about his job. The reporters are few, and they're negative. Smaller crowds make it easier to hear the drunken critics. Support is much harder to come by, and there is constant, intense force demanding that you just stop trying so hard. After all: Why take that extra BP? You've got the swing down. Why study a few extra minutes of film? You've faced that hitter before. Why take that extra base? Why challenge him on that 3-1 pitch? Why? You're down 9-3 anyway.

It's not a perfect example of the Twins current situation, but it's close. The negative reporters comment is spot on, though.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Christian Ponder Looks Overmatched

When the Minnesota Vikings selected Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick, fans were generally upset, myself included. Ponder had received very little buzz leading up to the draft, and although almost every 'expert' had him as a late first or early second round draft pick, we as fans reacted as if the Vikings had just drafted a seventh round QB in the first round. I remember updating my Facebook status to simply "I'm crying" when the Vikings announced the pick, and I used Twitter to complain about the state I was born in. Obviously, I wasn't very happy with the selection.

However, because I'm a huge homer at heart (even if I routinely criticize my favorite teams) within a day I had convinced myself that Ponder could be the answer at quarterback for this franchise. His completion percentage at Florida State was impressive, nearly 62%, but even that number is inflated by short passes. The Vikings were clearly interested in Ponder because they liked his accuracy in FSU's system, and they were planning on running a similar West Coast* style to the one he ran at FSU. As of this writing, that still appears to be the plan.

*I hate the West Coast offense. Hate it. It's boring as hell to watch, it's almost impossible for teams to score quickly (making two minute drills the most boring combination of four and five yard passes imaginable until time runs out) and despite every coach ever claiming they can spread the field with this type of offense, I've never seen it. I'm sure the 49ers in the 80's and 90's looked great running it... but COME ON. That's not because of the system, that's because they had Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing the football to Jerry Frickin Rice. Two of the best quarterbacks of all-time throwing to the greatest receiver of all-time. I could have designed the passing plays for that offense and looked like a genius. I hate this offense almost as much as I hate the triangle offense in the NBA.

Through two preseason games, Ponder has looked like a rookie. Despite being touted as "one of the two most pro ready QBs" by most experts (along with Andy Dalton) Ponder has really only looked above average when scrambling with the ball. His arm strength has looked even worse than advertised, and his 6 for 12 performance against the Seahawks looked and felt much worse than that. The offense was out of sync, and Ponder's lack of arm strength was apparent on several blitzes from Seattle defenders.

Look, I realize it's only been TWO games, and not even two real games, but two preseason games in which Ponder is trying to learn the offense and getting limited snaps. Judging a rookie QB by his first two preseason games would be foolish. However, when a player's weaknesses are harped on during the draft because most people felt like a team reached for said player, it becomes worrisome. It's even more worrisome when THOSE EXACT WEAKNESSES are noticeable by fans sitting at home watching the game on TV. Ponder bounced a few throws to receivers who weren't more than six or seven yards down field.

Ponder did look good when on the move, scrambling out of pressure a few times and making a few decent plays with his feet. Unfortunately, the Vikings aren't planning on running an option run offense, so Ponder's legs are far less important than his arm. As fans, we got to see Tarvaris Jackson do some great things with his feet for five years. But we also saw Jackson routinely make mistakes in the passing game that would halt a drive. Jackson was a weekly reminder that quarterbacks need to be able to throw the football first; running is only an added bonus if the guy has a good arm.

Ponder's arm looks even weaker than advertised. There was a throw he tried to make against Seattle on a free play after a defender jumped offsides in which a good quarterback would have either thrown a bullet, back-shoulder pass or a lob to the corner of the end zone, to allow his receiver to make a play. Ponder threw a lob that looked like a back shoulder pass, and the ball was so poorly under thrown that the Seattle defender who was beat by two steps had it hit him in the middle of the back. It was one of the worst fade routes I've seen an NFL QB throw in the last decade.

It's very early, and calling Ponder a bust now would be foolish. He could wind up thriving in the dink and dunk west coast system we've seen the last two weeks, because his arm strength isn't as important when he only has to throw the ball 3 yards to Percy Harvin. However, the inability to score quickly or stretch defenses could become an issue, especially since without a deep threat teams will be able to keep 8 or even 9 guys in the box in certain situations to shut down Adrian Peterson.

After two preseason games, though, I'm glad the Vikings went out and acquired Donovan McNabb, because at this point, Christian Ponder isn't even better than second-year athlete/quarterback/receiver Joe Webb. I'd love to be wrong, but consider me on the record as expecting Ponder to eventually be a bust at this level.

This post originally appeared on The Blog That Boredom Built.

Friday, August 12, 2011

This Week in Sports

I'm going to try a new feature that will run every Friday from now until, well, we'll see, called "This Week in Sports." It's just a recap of some interesting things that happened in the sports world during the previous week. Here's the first one of hopefully many to come.

Real Madrid, the soccer powerhouse in Spain, signed a 7-year-old. Seriously.

My thoughts: Insane. Absolutely, 100% insane. I don't care how good this kid looks as a 7-year-old, no professional team should ever go after a kid that young. It's also ridiculous that this kid's parents are clearly more worried about their son making them money than, you know, actually being parents. As cool as it is when we have young phenoms in sports, there has to be a line drawn somewhere, and it should be at a lot older age than 7, that's for damn sure.

Adam Scott won the Bridgestone Invitational this past weekend, with recently fired and former Tiger Woods caddie Steve Williams on his bag. Scott's win was impressive, but it was the comments Williams made after Scott had won that made the news.

My thoughts: Steve Williams, you made $9MM off of Tiger Woods during your career. You lucked into caddying the greatest golfer who ever lived. Now, Woods appears to be a shell of his former self, while Adam Scott is up and coming. Williams is probably going to make more money with Scott than he would have with Woods over the next few years, so he just needs to shut up already. It'd be like getting dumped by the high school homecoming queen, except three years after high school and about 50 pounds heavier, finding a better looking, easier to get along with girlfriend, and still being bitter towards your fat ex girlfriend because she USED TO BE SOMETHING. Steve Williams, shut the hell up.

84-year-old Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno suffered a hairline fracture in his Pelvis this week when a Nittany Lion receiver ran into Paterno during practice and knocked him to the ground.

My thoughts: Paterno is a fossil, but the guy has shown over the last few years he still has the ability to win football games. As he continues to get older the risks involved with being on a football field grow, but if he wants to coach at Penn State until the day he dies, I think he deserves that much after what he's done for that program over the years. Hopefully he has a healthy and speedy recovery.

NBCSports blogger Aaron Gleeman wrote an article about Michael Young, and how getting 2,000 hits isn't exactly an exclusive club. Brandon McCarthy then decided to call out Gleeman for his article. Rob Neyer then jumped to Gleeman's defense, which I thought was great.

My thoughts: The small blurb was factually correct, and didn't come off as ripping Michael Young, but rather the people in the media and whatnot who were making 2,000 hits seem like a big deal. Brandon McCarthy seems to be fairly intelligent, his twitter feed is decently entertaining, but he's dead wrong here. Gleeman is simply doing his job. McCarthy didn't back down despite being off-base, and not that he cares, but I decided to unfollow him on Twitter because of the whole mess.

Tiger Woods began the PGA Championship yesterday by shooting a 77. He's 7 over and in danger of missing the cut.

My thoughts: He's done. And I don't think it's because of all the stuff that came out about his personal life as much as it's that he's had several major knee surgeries and he's 35 years old. He might manage to win one or two more majors over his career, since he has a lot of time still, but his game looks terrible and I really don't think he'll ever be a top-10 player in the world again. We'll see.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Joe Nathan Becomes Twins All-Time Saves Leader

Joe Nathan was acquired by the Twins with Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano in one of the biggest heists of the last quarter century. The Twins sent AJ Pierzynski to the Giants for that trio, so not only did the Twins ultimately upgrade their catching position by going from Pierzysnki to Joe Mauer, they also acquired three players that would make an impact in the big leagues.

At the time of the deal, Nathan was coming off a great season, but was still not well known. Liriano was considered a decent prospect, but injury issues seemed like they'd nag him for his career (which, to a point, they have) so the immediate assumption was that Boof Bonser was the centerpiece of the trade. Bonser was a former first round pick and a solid mid-rotation prospect, but Nathan and Liriano ended up being all-star caliber players after the trade while Bonser was productive for about a season and a half before the team traded him to Boston.

Last night, Joe Nathan broke the all-time Twins record for saves. Nathan posted his 255th save as a Twin, which allowed him to surpass Rick Aguilera for first all-time. Nathan has been nothing short of great since arriving in Minnesota, as most fans understand, but it seems to get lost in the shuffle just how dominant Nathan has been.

Since 2004, his first year in Minnesota, Nathan has gone 23-13 with a 2.10 ERA, a K:BB ratio of 4.15:1, a WHIP of 0.96 and the aforementioned 255 saves in 284 opportunities. That's a success rate of 90%, which is very good. For example, in 2010, a 90% success rate on saves would have ranked Nathan 7th among closers.

Congrats to Joe Nathan, even in a lost season. Breaking the all-time saves record in Twins franchise history is a major accomplishment and I'm sure he is very proud tonight, as he should be. Here's to hoping that number continues to climb.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Criticism of Joe Mauer, Twins is Silly

After last night's 4-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox, the Minnesota Twins are an incredibly disappointing 51-64 and 11 games back with just 46 games to go. As I mentioned on Monday, that kind of deficit means the season is all but mathematically over.

There are a boatload of reasons as to why the team has struggled this season, but Twins fans seem to blame two people: Bill Smith and Joe Mauer. Bill Smith is responsible for all roster moves, and when a team deals with several injuries and has very little depth, the team's GM deserves criticism. I've been as critical of Smith as probably anyone, so I certainly understand the frustration of other fans. Joe Mauer is the team's highest paid player, and despite playing in 134 games a season from 2005-2010 (Brian McCann has averaged 139 games from 2006-2010 while being healthy) he has been labeled as an injury prone player who can't play through pain. So naturally, when Mauer went down with bilateral leg weakness in mid April, people were upset. How could the team pay $23MM a year for this guy?

We'll get to that, but first, let's talk about Mike Piazza.

Most baseball fans know the story of Mike Piazza. He was drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 amateur draft, as a favor to Piazza's family because they were close with manager Tommy Lasorda. That was the last pick the Dodgers made in the 1988 amateur draft. Think about that for a second; the Dodgers drafted probably the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history with a 62nd round draft choice.

Generally, I think Piazza is accepted as the greatest offensive catcher in history. His career .308/.377/.545 line is best among catchers in MLB history by a rather large margin. His .922 OPS is 25 points higher than second place Mickey Cochrane, and the margin is actually much greater than it would appear. OPS+ is a great tool to compare players offensive numbers across different eras, because offensive numbers have varied greatly over the years. Defense isn't factored in, like it is with WAR, but for offensive comparisons it's a nice quick way to compare players. Piazza's OPS+ was 142, which is the best ever for a catcher, while Cochrane's was 128. Piazza played in the greatest offensive era in history, but as OPS+ shows, Cochrane also played in a fairly offensive time period. For comparison's sake, from 1969-1978, Johnny Bench hit .269/.348/.493 which is good for an OPS of .841, but because the era he played in was much less offensive than the era Cochrane played in, Bench's OPS+ over that time period was 132, 4 points higher than Cochrane's, despite putting up a worse overall slash line.

It's difficult sometimes to remember that following the 2009 season Joe Mauer was arguably the league's most valuable player. And I don't mean that in a "Hey, the baseball writers' association of America gave him the AL MVP award!" way, I mean it in a "Hey, if Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer were both free agents right now, Joe Mauer is going to get more money!" kind of way.

Joe Mauer missed the first month of the season in 2009, making his debut on May 1. Injury prone, unable to play through pain Joe Mauer missed the first 22 games of that season. He then played in an unbelievable, hard to fathom 138 games out of a possible 140. That would be an impressive accomplishment for even a regular position player, but factoring in that Mauer caught 109 games, it's remarkable. He DH'd 29 times, but DHing and getting a night off are not the same thing. 

Despite missing the first month, Mauer still was among the league leaders in games caught. He finished with a ridiculous video game slash line of .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs. His OPS+ of 170 that year ranks third all-time among catchers for a single season. Only one player in baseball history had a better offensive season while playing the majority of his games at catcher, and he did it twice.; Mike Piazza put up a 172 OPS+ in 1995 and a 185+ OPS in 1997. Of course, Mauer also was a gold-glove caliber defender, while Piazza was never considered even a league average catcher. I've said it before, but to me, Mauer's 2009 season is the greatest all-around season by a catcher in baseball history. 

It's important to note that there's little doubt had Mauer tested free agency after the 2010 season, when his original contract was set to expire, he would have signed for 10 years and somewhere between $250-$300MM with either the Yankees or Red Sox. Both teams still have uncertain futures behind the plate, and with their endless supply of resources they would have certainly felt comfortable shoring up their catching position for at least the next five years, and possibly more.

The Twins, of course, re-signed Mauer before the 2010 season for 8 years and $184MM. This is the first year of that mammoth contract, and the Twins terrible record along with Mauer's injuries have upset Twins fans all season long. Mauer also hasn't been hitting like the Mauer we've grown accustomed too, although he's been much improved over the last month.

For the year, in 58 games, Mauer is hitting .288/.350/.344. For July, Mauer hit .356/.437/.413. His slugging percentage is incredibly low, which suggests he's playing with a fairly serious injury of some sort. Since the power didn't really return during his hot July, I think it's a foregone conclusion. He's had serious shoulder injuries in the past and there's been rumblings he's playing through a fairly serious shoulder injury again, which could potentially explain the lack of power. Mauer told ESPN1500's Phil Mackey that his legs are nowhere close to 100%, although that may be to hide other injuries as well. The weight he lost while on the DL, from a viral infection that Justin Morneau also had, could also be a major factor in his lack of power. Now, when I say power, I don't mean home runs necessarily. Mauer likely will never be a 28 home run player again; however, his career slugging percentage is 130 points higher than what he's done this season.

His struggles are definitely worth criticizing, because if a player is making $23MM a year he's fair game to be criticized by the people that are paying money to watch him on a daily basis. What bothers me about the criticism is that fans generally don't put up a good argument. I hear the same things everytime someone complains about Mauer; either he's "always hurt," "doesn't hit home runs," or "he can't catch anymore" which are either incorrect or unimportant. I already covered Mauer's games played since 2005, which is well above average. Him not hitting home runs means nothing, as long as he continues to put up the slash line he has over the course of his career. 

Bill Smith and the front-office, though, shouldn't be criticized for the deal they offered and Mauer ultimately signed.

Mauer's career line of .325/.405/.471 is very good. His OPS is .876, and his OPS+ is 135, which ranks second currently behind Mike Piazza among catchers. Of course, he's in his prime, and his twilight years are likely going to drop that number below Mickey Cochrane (128 OPS+) and Johnny Bench (126 OPS+), but that's not a guarantee. Mauer also has won three consecutive gold gloves, and although those awards mean little, he's always been considered a plus defender behind the plate.

During Piazza's first 8 seasons, he hit .328/.391/.575, good for an OPS of .966 and an OPS+ of 156. He was clearly a better hitter, and as bad as his defense was portrayed, there's no way it could have been bad enough to make up for the offensive difference during those first 8 seasons between himself and Mauer. 

Piazza was a better player over his first 8 seasons than Mauer, but not by a large margin. Prior to the 1999 season, Piazza had played seven seasons. He then signed a 7-year, $91MM contract extensions with the New York Mets. Before you throw something because Joe Mauer got almost $100MM more guaranteed than Piazza, it's important to look at how different MLB finances were even 12 years ago in 1999.

In 1999, the New York Yankees led baseball with the highest payroll, which was just over $88MM. The average payroll per team was just over $48MM. In 2010, when Mauer signed his extension, the Yankees again had the highest payroll, this time though it was much higher, coming in just north of $206MM. The average payroll per team was just over $88MM.

Piazza made an average of $13MM a year over those seven seasons, while Mauer is making $23MM. Piazza's $13MM salary represented 27% of the average team's payroll in 1999. Mauer's $23MM salary didn't kick in until 2011, and in 2011 the average payroll per team has increased to just above $90MM. That means Mauer's $23MM is just under 26% of the average team's payroll. As far as contracts go, that's pretty comparable, and considering Piazza was a slightly better all around player, he deserved a higher percentage of the average payroll.

Now, some of you are undoubtedly thinking it's much different with the Twins. The Mets are in New York. They are a huge market. Of course they can afford to pay an elite catcher more than the average team. If you're thinking that, you are absolutely correct, at least about the Mets being in a huge market. In 1999, the Mets payroll was just over $71MM,  which ranked 7th in baseball. So yes, they did play in a large market and could afford it.

To the surprise of a lot of Twins fans, though, the Twins also now need to be considered a large market team. With Target Field opening in 2010, the team's payroll surpassed $100MM for the first time, thanks to the mid-season trade for Matt Capps. Their opening day payroll in 2010 was just over $97MM, which ranked them 11th in baseball. This season, the Twins payroll is just over $112MM, and ranks 9th. That's not much different than where the Mets ranked when they re-signed Piazza.

Signing the league's best catcher, coming off the third greatest season by a catcher in league history, to an 8-year $184MM contract actually was a fair deal. Factoring in that Twins fans likely would have burned Target Field to the ground if they had to endure Mauer signing with the Yankees or Red Sox, it was probably a deal that favored the Twins. It's definitely a high-risk signing, because when you give someone $184MM it's going to be risky no matter what, but as far as track record before the deal and expected future production, Mauer's signing was not as bad as fans have cried it is this season.

And when Joe Mauer comes back in 2012 and wins the AL MVP Award, I'm going to sit here and tell all of you Mauer-cynics that I was right. And I'm going to enjoy it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Maybe Next Year

After a weekend sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox, the Twins season is all but mathematically over. The Twins are currently 10 games back of Detroit with just 48 to go, and with the Tigers on pace to win 87 games, the Twins would need to go a ridiculous 37-11 to end the season, and even then 88 wins isn't guaranteed to be enough to win the division.

Basically, no matter how great the Twins play down the stretch, a 37-11 record is all but impossible, and even if the Twins magically put up that kind of a 48-game stretch, Detroit could still win the division. After cutting a 16.5 game deficit to 6.5 games in 20 days, the Twins appeared poised to catch the Indians and Tigers and if they could have stayed hot likely passed them in the standings.

Unfortunately, the Twins have come back to earth over the last three weeks, and what was once a 6 game deficit is once again into the double digits. Poor decisions during the off-season really hurt this team, as the bullpen and the team's middle infield have been the two weakest parts of the team. Trading JJ Hardy for basically nothing while he's breaking out again in Baltimore would be disappointing if it wasn't so predictable. Refusing to sign any solid relievers despite losing four key ones was a mistake, and seeing cheap free agent options like Chad Qualls pitching well elsewhere is frustrating.

And, going with Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing over Kevin Slowey in the rotation was a mistake from opening day, and now Slowey is in the doghouse and sitting in AAA for not wanting to pitch out of the bullpen, while Blackburn and Duensing have been pretty disappointing. But yet Slowey continues to sit in AAA, because the Twins are upset with the way he handled being moved to the bullpen, which is insane. It's a professional sport, personal grudges need to be put aside so the executives can put the best team possible on the field. Kevin Slowey gives the Twins a better chance to win much more consistently than Duensing or Blackburn, but because Slowey is in the doghouse, he's not getting any real chances to make the big league club again this year.

The whole "It's Happening" thing should die down now, as even the most optimistic of Twins fans can't expect the team to climb out of a 10 game hole in 48 games. Hopefully, the team will be able to cash in some of their aging veterans before the August waiver trade deadline, after failing to trade anyone before the July deadline. If Carlos Beltran can get Zach Wheeler, a former #6 overall pick who's been dominating in the minors this year, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel should be able to fetch at least a future starting caliber player. Beltran certainly had more value than Cuddyer or Kubel, so expecting a Wheeler type return is silly, but a solid return would be likely. Of course, the team probably would have gotten quite a bit more for their veterans on July 31, but Bill Smith and company refused to make the tough decision and sell parts.

The Twins season is all but over, and without much of a race over the last month the team could use September to take a look at some of their minor leaguers, although with Kyle Gibson's recent elbow injury and no other top prospects considered close to major league ready, the September callups are unlikely to draw a lot of attention.

As is always the case for Minnesota sports fans, there's always next year.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What's Wrong with Liriano?

During Spring Training, it was reported that the Twins didn't feel comfortable giving Francisco Liriano an extension. Most people, myself included, felt the Twins were making a mistake by not locking Liriano up for a deal that would likely be below market value if he repeated his 2010 performance. However, with Liriano getting hit hard again last night, he's now 7-9 with a 5.03 ERA. That's terrible, no doubt, but he's actually been much improved since April. So is there anything wrong with Liriano? Let's take a look.

In April, the Twins reportedly were telling Liriano to "pitch to contact" more often, which for a strikeout heavy pitcher seemed ridiculous even before factoring how poor the Twins defense is on most nights. After the year Liriano had in 2010, it was insane to try to change his entire approach to pitching.

In April, Liriano went 1-4 with an ERA of 9.13. That's not a typo. He gave up 24 earned runs during that month in 23 and 2/3 innings. After struggling mightily, Liriano told reporters before his first start in May he was going to try to go back to the way he had approached hitters in the past, rather than try to "pitch to contact."

In May, he went 2-1 with a much improved 2.52 ERA. He gave up just 7 earned runs in 25 innings. It looked like Liriano had figured it out and April was basically just an extended Spring Training, at least on the surface. However, Liriano struck out just 16 batters in May while walking 14, so it should have been clear he wasn't back to the Liriano of old. However, the performance was much better than it had been in April and definitely a positive sign.

In June and July Liriano went 4-3 with a 3.83 ERA, which means after he stopped trying to pitch to contact Liriano had gone 6-4 with a 3.43 ERA before last night. Even with last night's performance, Liriano is sitting at 6-5 with a 3.75 ERA since his disastrous April. I know it can seem like players blame their coaching when they fail, but the fact is the Twins acknowledged they were trying to change Liriano's approach and Liriano said he was going to stop pitching 'their way' in early May.

What about Liriano's secondary numbers, though? Just because his ERA since April is similar to his ERA last year doesn't mean he's pitching as well; he was very unlucky last year as his opponents' batting average on balls in play was abnormally high. It's possible he's been very lucky this year, and pitched quite a bit worse than last year, yet still put up similar numbers. Again, let's take a look.

In 2010, Liriano put up a very good 3.47:1 K:BB ratio, which ranked just outside the top 10 in baseball among starters. In 2011, his K:BB ratio currently sits at a rather poor 1.54:1. Of course, his terrible April hurt the overall numbers, but just how much? Since May, Liriano's K:BB ratio is an improved 1.79:1 but still nowhere close to last year's numbers.

Basically, 2011 Francisco Liriano has been nowhere close to 2010 Francisco Liriano, and the Twins deserve a lot of credit for not extending him during the spring. Bill Smith and company have made plenty of mistakes, but deciding not to spend more than $30MM guaranteed on Liriano was a great decision.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Trivia Question

The first person to answer this question correctly will win two 1991 Twins DVD's from A&E Home Entertainment. Scroll down to the next post or click here to see the rules. If you post the answer in the comments, please leave an e-mail address so I can get a hold of you if you're right.

Trivia Question:

Who was the last player to win a batting title without hitting a single home run during the season?

Good luck.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Trivia Contest w/ Prize

As promised, here are the rules for the giveaway that I will be doing tomorrow:

- I will post the trivia question at 2 PM CST on Thursday, August 4th
- It will be posted both on the blog here and on Twitter
- Follow me on Twitter here if you wish
- The first correct answer is the winner, I will accept comments on the blog or @mentions on Twitter.
- The winner will receive a 1991 World Series collection DVD set and a 1991 Twins recap DVD.
- Both are compliments of A&E Home Entertainment
- If you aren't comfortable giving me an address to mail the prize to, don't participate

And finally, A big thanks to Suzanne Dobson over at A&E Home Entertainment for helping put this together. The DVDs are great.

Make sure you guys check out TwinsBaseball.com as well, there's tickets, merchandise and other items available daily.

Check back here tomorrow for your chance to win two great 1991 Twins DVD's, and even if you don't win, the DVDs can be purchased at the links above. Thanks guys.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Deadline Passes Without Moves

Another trade deadline passed without the Twins making a single trade, although the general sentiment is that the Twins made the right decision by choosing to not make any deals over making a bad deal. That's true, but unfortunately the most rumored trade may have actually benefitted the Twins in the long-run.

Had the team decided to trade Denard Span for a package that was centered around Drew Storen, it would have been a mistake. Trading an above-average lead off hitter and center fielder who's under team control through 2015 for a closer would be a mistake, regardless of Storen's age or the fact that he's under team control through 2016. A closer will throw between 55 and 70 innings a season generally, which is less than 5% of a pitching staff's innings usually. Giving up an everyday player in a key position for a closer would have been silly.

However, reports emerged on Sunday that the Nationals were indeed willing to part with Storen in a deal for Span, but they weren't willing to include 22-year-old AAA second baseman Stephen Lombardozzi. Depending on the reports we choose to believe, the Twins either asked for Lombardozzi and Storen for Span or Lombardozzi, Storen and Roger Bernadinha. Either way, the Nationals ultimately passed on sending Lombardozzi away in a deal for Span. I've seen multiple writers whom I respect say the Twins were saved only by the stupidness of the Nationals--but I tend to disagree. Originally I was 100% against a Span-Storen swap, but once Lombardozzi's name came up in the talks it was worth taking a look at his minor league numbers to see if he had a future.

Last year, between high A and AA Lombardozzi hit .294/.371/.431 as a 21-year-old, good for an OPS of .802. The average age in high A was 22.6, with an average slash line of .260/.330/.388 while the average age in AA was 24 with an average slash line of .259/.332/.397. He was well above average offensively despite being young for both levels and he plays a premium defensive position as a second baseman.

This year, Lombardozzi got off to a .309/.366/.454 start in AA in 65 games before getting promoted to AAA. As a 22-year-old, he's hitting .315/.356/.420 in 38 games so far, compared to the league average .260/.329/.401. The average age for AAA is 26.7, so again he is far younger than average while outhitting most of the league.

So, what could a team expect from Lombardozzi in the future as a major leaguer? Obviously there are variables that are beyond anyone's control, but to get an idea of how minor league numbers translate for second baseman let's take a look at a few current big league second baseman and see how Lombardozzi's minor league stats compare.

Dustin Pedroia: As a 21-year-old Pedroia spent time between AA and AAA, which puts him about a year ahead of Lombardozzi as far as development time. Pedroia also hit very well at all levels, posting OPS' north of .900 at four different levels in the minor leagues. Pedroia's final season in AAA he was a 22-year-old and he hit .305/.384/.426, which is about 5% better than Lombardozzi has done this year. Pedroia is a career .305/.376/.465 hitter in the big leagues.

Ian Kinsler: As a 22-year-old Kinsler played 72 games in AA and hit .300/.400/.480, which is about 8% more productive that Lombardozzi was in AA this year. In Kinsler's last full minor league season, he hit .274/.348/.464 as a 23-year-old in AAA. That's about 5% better than Lombardozzi has been, but Kinsler also was a year older. I think Lombardozzi could match Kinsler's final AAA season if he repeats AAA again next year. Kinsler is a career .275/.355/.462 hitter in the big leagues.

Chase Utley: Utley spent two seasons at AAA while he was 23 and 24, and he hit .291/.370/.491 in 271 games. While Lombardozzi is a year younger than Utley was when he debuted in AAA, there's little evidence to suggest he'll one day be able to match the slugging numbers of Utley.

There are many other examples as well, and hitting well in the minor leagues doesn't always equate to stardom (See Wood, Brandon) but had the Twins acquired an offensive minded second baseman for the future as well as their closer of the future all for an above average center fielder who likely won't be here past 2012 anyways, it may not have been the end of the world. Unfortunately, after the deal originally looked like a poor one for the Twins, they ultimately couldn't convince the Nationals to pull the trigger on a deal that likely would have helped both teams for years to come.

I was surprised the team didn't trade Slowey, not surprised the team held onto Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, and generally not worried about the team not acquiring any more relievers. Relievers get traded every August, and with the team barely hanging onto hope, there's no reason to give up prospects for a reliever unless you're sure your team is going to be in the race. The Twins can see where they are in two weeks and then, if necessary, go out and acquire a reliever.

It's hard to throw in the towel on a team that has made miraculous comebacks a yearly tradition, and I'm not saying the season's over yet, but if the Twins don't start making another charge soon, it's going to be too late. They'll be trying to make that charge with the same guys they've been with all year, so here's to hoping getting some key players healthy in the near future will provide enough of a boost to elevate the Twins to the playoffs.

**By the way, I'll be doing a giveaway for two free Twins 1991 World Series DVDs on Thursday for one lucky winner. It'll be a trivia question, and I'll post it on Twitter and the Blog. Rules, links to the prizes and more information will come Wednesday.**

Monday, August 1, 2011

Randy was simply straight cash, homies.

Randy Moss retired today. He is and probably always will be my favorite athlete of all-time. The 1998 NFL draft is the first draft in any sport I remember watching. I had no idea then just how rare a talent like Moss was, or how rare it was to draft a player like that with the 21st overall pick. But boy was that 1998 Vikings team fun to watch. I wasn't even 10 years old yet but I could still tell you today that they lost to the Bucs in week 9 27-24 on a Mike Alstott touchdown run which was their only loss during the regular season. I remember the '98 NFC Championship game too, but I'm trying to forget.

Randy Moss made them fun to watch. Sure, the combination of Randall Cunningham's arm, Cris Carter's route-running and hands, Robert Smith's speed and Randy Moss' athleticism were the reason they went 15-1 and at the time shattered all of the offensive records. Most people in Minnesota still love Moss, and that says a lot considering he "hit" a traffic cop with his car and berated a caterer for really no reason. Of course, despite people saying athletes need to be good role models, all that really matters to fans is what they do on the field.

Joe Mauer is theoretically one of the best role models someone could have. He's well-mannered, he's a hometown kid playing in his own state, the first overall pick and the highest paid player in franchise history. He signs autographs for anyone, responds to all of his fan mail, donates to charities, volunteers across the state and never gets in any sort of trouble. But, since Mauer hasn't been playing very well this year, a lot of people aren't very big fans of him anymore. He's "too injury prone." He's "a baby." He "refuses to play first base." It's made me realize a lot of people simply want someone to produce on the field, and off-the-field issues really aren't that big of a deal to them.

That's why us Vikings fans have always loved Randy Moss. The guy produced, year after year. It's that simple. Moss played in 109 of his first 112 games while with the Vikings before being traded to Oakland. Over those 7 seasons, here were Moss' touchdown totals and ranking:
1998: 17 TD, 1st
1999: 11 TD, 6th
2000: 15 TD, 1st
2001: 10 TD, 4th
2002: 7 TD, 13th
2003: 17 TD, 1st
2004: 13 TD, T-4th
Moss scored 93 touchdowns in 109 games as a Viking (90 receiving, 2 passing, one bad ass punt return), led the league in receiving touchdowns three times, mooned Packer fans* at Lambeau in a playoff game the Vikings won and got fined $10K, famously told a pair of fans in the parking lot "when you rich you don't write checks" and then when pressed on how he would pay his fine Moss delivered the beloved "straight cash homey." We loved him here in Minnesota.

*Fuck Joe Buck.

Randy Moss was the most physically talented receiver probably to ever play the game. Jerry Rice was better, no doubt, but it was called "getting Moss'd" when someone would win a jump ball for a reason.

Randy, we'll all miss you. There's not much else to say, so here's the best Moss highlight video on YouTube. The DeAngelo Hall interview at the beginning is hilarious.



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