Twins at the Quarter Pole

How could I have been so wrong in my predictions for the Twins’ 2011 season? 45 games into the year, they have the worst record in the majors and show no sign of getting much better. In hindsight, the thinness of the Twins’ roster should have been obvious, but who takes future injuries into account when doing a preview? Of course, every team has players on the disabled list, some as valuable as the Twins’, but for other teams, the replacements have been competent. The fact that every Twins minor league team finished last in its respective league last year, or close to it, should have been a tip-off that the well was running dry. Now we are at the point where there is no confidence on the team. So much of sports is mental, and if you think you’re going to lose, you probably will.
Now for the more individual causes: Joe Mauer’s breakdown is problem #1. Most obviously, you’re trading a .350 hitter for a .125 hitter, since the Twins last year traded away the two best-hitting catchers in their system, Wilson Ramos and Jose Morales. Just as important, Mauer has always been a winner, and his unflappable confidence anchored the team’s personality.
The second biggest problem is the morphing of the middle infield from a question mark to a disaster area. I had high hopes for Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second and guarded optimism for Alexi Cassila at short. Nishi, instead, broke his leg, and Casilla has remained as erratic in the field, on the bases and at the plate, as he was the first two times he was sent down to the minors. This has opened the door for Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes, neither of whom could bat .200, and Trevor Plouffe, a default shortstop if there ever was one. He hits like an aspiring Michael Cuddyer – not a number two hitter, where Gardy is using him – while in the field his feet are slow and his throws are wild. Instead of being strong up the middle, the goal of every team, the Twins feature a black hole.
On the corners Justin Morneau and Danny Valencia, in contrast, look like legitimate Major Leaguers, but Major Leaguers having bad years. Morneau is clearly not recovered from his concussion-imposed layoff; he gets hits, but how many teams are using a cleanup hitter with only two home runs? That’s one more than Delmon Young has, and at least Morneau can field his position. Young can give up more runs in leftfield than he produces at the plate, and frequently does.
Jason Kubel is playing fine, all the more remarkable given how little help he is getting. Cuddyer is Cuddyer – a home run and double one game, three groundouts to short the next. He can be a piece of the puzzle, little more. Jim Thome has been hurt much of the year, but what can you expect from someone with his age and body? There’s a reason no other team wanted to sign him. His experience with the Twins is very similar to Brett Favre’s with the Vikings, and the sooner they cut the cord, the better off they will be.
As for the pitching, the starters have not been bad, except that they seem to be effective for six innings only, and the Twins have no one to pitch the seventh. All of them have had bad outings, but they have all had more good outings than bad, and remember that any team only need win 57% of its games to make the playoffs. It’s the relievers who have been the disappointment. Joe Nathan was rushed back to the closer spot prematurely, and we’re still trying to see where he will fit in. Jose Mijares can’t find the strike zone and is nowhere near the pitcher he looked to be two years ago. Matt Capps may have the bulldog personality of a closer, but he doesn’t have a strikeout pitch and is strictly average. Given how few times the Twins have taken a lead into the ninth, it has been especially deflating when he lets the game get away. Glen Perkins for the defense has been the equal of Jason Kubel for the offense. The other relievers are simply minor leaguers on loan.
Where does this leave the Twins? Unfortunately, like the Vikings last season, this was supposed to be year where all the pieces came together. The team was built for the present, not the future. As a result, perhaps, the future doesn’t have much to show for itself. There are no hotshots in the minors, just waiting for their chance. We’ve seen Ben Revere and Luke Hughes, and we’re worried. Can the Twins rebuild through a trade? It’s hard to see anyone on their roster whom another team would want. Someone like Denard Span is a good complementary player, but he’s not going to make an impact elsewhere, and most teams have a centerfielder. I could be wrong – and I’ve been wrong before – but all I see is a multi-year slog through mediocrity until a new generation of Mauers and Morneaus comes along. If it does.

Pelagic Birding

Took my first, and perhaps only, pelagic birding trip with the LA Audubon Society out of Santa Barbara Harbor on April 30. I found out later that this is the notorious rough-water trip. I also discovered as we returned to harbor that half the birders were on scopalamine, scopase or dramamine. The other half, I heard, including me, got seasick. The first hour, as we motored up the coast toward Point Concepcion, past Sands Beach where I watch snowy plovers and Rancho Dos Pueblos, where Serin will be married, I was fine, except for my surprise at seeing the ocean surface coated with oil slicks, allegedly from seeps in the ocean floor. As we turned out to the open ocean, however, the ups and down soon made me queasy, and a lot more was going up than down. After breakfast left me, the man behind the snack counter gave me a garbage bag, which was my trusty companion the rest of the trip. We left at 7 a.m., got back at 8 p.m., so I would say I was sick for 12 of the 13 hours, much of it spent lying on my back on a bench, half-dozing, but generally in suspended animation.
That said, the birds were, to my mind, amazing. The boat would cruise at speed until it found a slick, whatever that was, where birds were feeding. We would then float down the slick, feeding chum off the stern, and the loudspeaker would call out sightings. Having never seen ocean birds before, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was surprised at the good views we had of most species. Admittedly, there were some that excited people that I may have seen but couldn’t tell, because they were spots on the waves or were flying with other, equally nondescript varieties. The big find of the day was a Murphy’s Petrel – a lifer even for the man at the microphone. I was at the rail when people were talking about it, but, not knowing what I was looking for, I can’t say I saw it.
Easier, and more exciting for me, were the few birds that were distinctively marked, which usually meant having some white on them. Laysan’s Albatross, for one, was unmistakable, both due to its size and its color. But my favorite of the day was the Sabine’s Gull, a bird I had never even heard of before, which flashed beautiful black-and-white stripes on its forewing as it fly. Other seabirds were generally muddy – e.g., the Rhinoceros Auklet and Sooty Shearwater – but the Sabine’s Gull was crisp and handsome.
By far the most numerous birds were the Phalaropes, both Red and Red-necked. I have no idea which there were more of, because for the most part the flocks took wing as the boat approached them; but there were sharp individuals of each species that floated close by. In all, we saw hundreds of them, dainty little birds for such a big ocean. Another easy-to-identify find were the black terns. Having seen these in Minnesota I was not as excited as the Santa Barbara birder who said he had never seen so many – seven – at one time.
In all, I’d say the birds are most interesting to life listers, as they are largely drab, don’t do much and all inhabit the same environment. But what magic there is comes from that environment – being totally out of touch with land, sitting in an endless, infinite expanse of ocean, and coming across birds, like the albatross, that make this their home.