Season-Ender 2011

The World Series seventh game was a disappointing anticlimax, perhaps because I found myself rooting for the Texas Rangers. 1. They were an American League team, thus one I was familiar with from following the Twins. 2. They seemed more deserving, having won a division, as opposed to wild-carding the party. 3. Tony LaRussa, who seems to get about as much pleasure from sport as Tiger Woods. And 4. the Rangers being robbed when a third strike, per the tight FoxTrax box, was called a ball, forcing in a run and leading to another run when the next pitch hit a batter. That inning, when two runs scored without a ball leaving the infield, gave the Cards a 5-2 lead and sapped whatever spirit the Rangers could muster after losing two-run leads in three almost back-to-back innings. Final proof that karma had descended on St. Louis came when Allen Craig leaped and took a home run away from Nelson Cruz an inning later(?).
Of course, for all intents and purposes the Series was lost by the Rangers the night before, in one of the more entertaining – not best – postseason games I’ve seen. I say “lost” not to diminish the clutch hitting of David Freese, but because the Rangers helped by giving so much away. The Cardinal runner who scored to improbably tie the game in the 9th was walked on four pitches by Texas closer Neftali Feliz. Freese’s game-tying triple with two strikes and two outs was then horribly misplayed by rightfielder Nelson Cruz, who was positioned too far in (see below), then drifted instead of sprinting back before making an ungainly leap that let the ball bounce off the bottom of the fence and roll back toward the infield. The Cardinal scoring the equally unexpected tying run in the 10th got on with a Texas League (how ironic!) single, then scored on a broken-bat hit by Lance Berkman. But in between those bloops the Rangers blew another key play: with runners on second and third and one out, Ryan Theriot hit a chopper to Adrian Beltre at third. The runner at third was halfway home, but Beltre eschewed that play for the safer out at first. Had that run been cut down, Berkman’s single would not have tied the game. This recap doesn’t even include the Redbirds’ tying run in the sixth which came about thusly: infield single, error, walk and walk – the last by ace reliever Alexi Ogando, who didn’t even come close to the plate. Or the Cards’ tying run in the third, which also came without a ball leaving the infield.
Some of the pleasure of watching the Series – of those I saw, Game Two was almost as classic as Game Six – was diminished by the annual agony of enduring Tim McCarver’s “analysis.” More than 20 years ago, early in his career, I wrote McCarver to complain about his announcing. At a key point in a game, perhaps in a Series, McCarver was mid-opinion about the positioning of the outfielders when a dramatic home run was struck. Rather than letting the game build its own tension, and recognize it, he was babbling on about an irrelevancy. He wrote me back, with schoolboy penmanship, admitting that some people said he talked too much, but blah-blah-blah. Since then, he has changed not a jot.
McCarver acts like every baseball game is a tutorial, and he is the teacher. The fact that some people watching the World Series may already know something about the game does not dissuade him. Just as bothersome as the fact that he is always talking, is that his analysis is half the time either irrelevant or plain wrong. “Because the pitcher throws with a submarine motion, his pitch will always rise,” he says, just before the replay shows it sharply dropping. “If that ball hit the runner in fair territory,” he needlessly comments, “the batter would be out” – when, in fact, the runner would be out and the batter would be credited with a single.
Outfield positioning is his personal hobbyhorse, one that bit him in Game 6. When Lance Berkman was up in the 10th, McCarver kept insisting that the outfielders were playing too deep – playing a “prevent defense” (to use his inapt football analogy) – to throw the runner at second out at the plate. Never mind that Berkman had 32 homers on the year and homered in the first. Or that the runner on second was the fleet John Jay, who would undoubtedly beat any throw from the outfield. Or that there was also a runner on first, representing the potential winning run, and maybe it was just as important to keep him from scoring on a double to end the game. But McCarver’s bigger sin here was one of omission, not commission, for he said nothing about Cruz’s positioning the previous inning, when Freese’s drive went over his head to score runners from first and second and tie the game. If ever there were a time for the “no-doubles” defense, that was it. The run on second was meaningless, all that mattered was not letting the runner on first score. Which he did. Because Cruz was playing too shallow.
Watching the Rangers and Cardinals, one could not help but realize how far the Minnesota Twins have sunk from championship contention. Position-by-position there were better players on display, even when Nick Punto was in the lineup. Most glaring was the shortstop play of Rafael Furcal and Elvis Andrus. They consistently got to balls that Nishiyoki would have barely waved at – not to mention Trevor Plouffe – and their arms were a revelation. Ian Kinsler at second gave the Rangers strength up the middle that good teams require and the Twins this year lacked. Even at the position where the Twins are expending half their payroll, catcher, both Yadier Molina and Mike Napoli showed a consistency and grit that you would be sorely tempted to trade Joe Mauer for, were he not from St. Paul. When it comes to power hitting, you recall that the Twins barely had one player reach 20 home runs for the year. By contrast, every time Pujols, Berkman, Hamilton, Cruz or Beltre came to the plate, you felt it was only a matter of their connecting before the ball would leave the park.
As for pitching, there was only one Chris Carpenter in this series, although Derek Holland did to the Cardinals what he also did to the Twins. For the most part, you just felt that most of these pitchers were plain tuckered out – either from the long season or for having to appear in so many of the playoff and World Series games. No one had the electric stuff I saw from Justin Verlander in the earlier round: if he throws his pitch, you know no one can hit it. It’s hard to compare the roster of B-level pitchers on the Twins, what they would have been like after so much work.
So what should the Twins do with their roster before next season? Which free agents should they keep? What positions do they need to bolster?
The last question is the easiest: shortstop. Identifying the need to upgrade that spot, which the manager and general manager have both admitted, is one thing; doing it another. Plenty of middle infielders move around each winter, but most tend to be of the Julio Lugo/Orlando Hudson variety – some good statistics but they don’t do much to make their new team a winner. Nor do they stay long. The best shortstops always seem to be developed in a team’s own system. That doesn’t bode well for Minnesota, since everyone in their system seemed to get a crack at the Show this year, leaving few undiscovered gems down below. If the Twins had kept J.J.Hardy and he’d hit his 30 home runs here instead of Baltimore this year, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But somehow one doubts that would’ve happened.
Of the free agents, Capps should be history, if only because Twins fans need a change of scenery. Nathan is not worth a lot of money, but I doubt any other team will think otherwise, so he should be retained as closer “insurance,” not as closer. Kubel, too, will be valued more highly by the Twins than anyone else, and I don’t mind if he becomes a platoon DH. The hard call is Michael Cuddyer. He could probably run successfully for mayor of Minneapolis, and he proved his versatility and relative durability this year. Unfortunately, he could fit into other teams’ plans, and the Twins can’t afford to give him Mauer-Morneau-type money. I would be happy with an outfield of Revere-Span-Cuddyer, but I’m afraid it won’t happen.
After shortstop, the big need is a backup catcher who can hit over .200. Is there another Molina brother out there, perhaps? The Twins traded away their two catching prospects who could hit, and that cupboard is bare. As for pitching, the Twins need to bring in a new starter, if only to keep the fans interested. Pavano won’t improve, and only Scott Baker still has the potential to be dominant. The rest – Duensing, Blackburn, Slowey, Swarzak – can be competent, but competent in this division means .500. Liriano should be traded, if at all possible. He needs a change of scenery, and Twins fans’ patience has about expired.
Most of all, the Twins need some fresh faces, even if it means rolling the dice a bit. If they come back with the same cast, there won’t be much interest, or much of a future. If they come back with the same cast and it flops, the Twins will have to resort to the standard remedy: fire the manager.