Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen… they’ve arrived!

It’s official, my opening day tickets have arrived, and I feel like I would be content with camping out on Target Plaza from now until April 12th. I am literally as excited as I could expect to possibly be about the upcoming Twins season, and at the same time as disgusted as I could possibly be with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Due to the circumstances of having opening day tickets to the opening of a brand new stadium, a once in a lifetime type of opportunity, and the fact that the NBA season is almost over, I am a bit less frustrated with the Wolves than I could be.

The Timberwolves have absolutely quit on this season with 14 games remaining, counting their matchup tonight with Utah. They were absolutely obliterated by the Phoenix Suns last night in Arizona, surrendering 152 points… in a single game... The 152 points scored by the Suns were the most given up by the Timberwolves in franchise history, and the 78 points given up in the first-half were also the most given up during a single half in franchise history.

The more I think about it, the more it boggles my mind that a professional basketball team can give up that amount of points in only 48 minutes. You almost have to put forth a significant effort toward not playing defense in order to allow an opponent to annihilate you in the manner that Phoenix did the Timberwolves. However, as I mentioned initially, I am so “twitterpated” with the thought of what I will experience on April 12th, that I don’t even care that much about the fact that the Timberwolves would probably lose to the Laporte Wildcats girls basketball team right now.

On a separate note, I can’t even begin to describe how glad I am that the Twins didn’t shell out $10MM for Ben Sheets this season. Sheets gave up 10 runs to the Reds on Monday… WITHOUT RECORDING AN OUT! I don’t care how optimistic I am, if he were playing for the Twins, I would have a hard time justifying that outing by saying something like he was just “shaking off the rust.” I am having a hard enough time convincing myself that Francisco Liriano is ready to return to at least something resembling his 2006 form, especially when he says things like “my mechanics just broke down” in reference to the 2nd and 3rd innings of his most recent spring training appearance when he gave up 3 runs, including a 2 run homerun on a changeup he left up in the zone.

No matter how many people think it is a good idea, I am 100% against having Francisco Liriano as our closer in 2010. I feel this way for a number of reasons. First of all, Liriano walks way too many batters, which is the exact opposite of what you want in a closer. If people want to be sweating bullets every time a save situation presents itself, then it would be a great idea, because I can assure you that there would be plenty of runners in scoring position during his various appearances. I am not saying he is not a good pitcher, and does not have the chance to become a very good pitcher, I just think he is much more suited for a starting role.

The second reason I feel that Liriano should not be our closer in 2010 is that he must be given every possible opportunity to be successful as a starting pitcher, and a role as a closer or a reliever should be a last resort. When Liriano was good, a la 2006, he was absolutely filthy, he was better than Johan Santana during most of that season. He finished that season with an ERA of 2.16 and 144 strikeouts in 121 innings pitched, all while maintaining of WHIP of 1.00. What I am trying to say is that if he can return to anything even close to that, he could be a legitimate #1 starter for the Twins, not only this year, but for years to come. Pair that logic with the fact that he absolutely dominated the Dominican Winter League during this past offseason, and the conclusion can be made that he must be given every possible opportunity to succeed as a starter. All of this reinforces my point that Liriano as a closer/reliever should be a last resort rather than a hasty decision out of need.

Twins fans need to relax a bit about the closer situation. Yes, the loss of Joe Nathan is bad, and I am clearly upset by it (see “The 5 Stages of Grief, Joe Nathan Edition) but it is not nearly as devastating as most fans are making it sound. Many people forget that Joe Nathan came into the league as a shortstop, then converted to a pitcher, and when he was traded to Minnesota in 2003 he was not a closer at the time, but rather converted to a closer by the Twins. The Twins have a deep bullpen, and they have guys capable of closing games. Obviously the numbers that Joe Nathan has put up over the past 6 years are not replaceable, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t come up with a serviceable replacement.

In the short term, meaning this season, there will be an attempt to solve the problem in-house, either through a closer by committee solution, or by handing the job to somebody like Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, or maybe even Pat Neshek if he is healthy. If that isn’t working as well as the Twins had hoped, there is always the option to sign somebody during the season, or to make a trade prior to the July 31st deadline. I believe that the dark horse in this closer situation may be John Smoltz who is still an unsigned free agent, and was rumored to have been approached by the Twins recently and turned them down, stating that he would probably like to wait until after the season begins. I think that Smoltz improved near the end of last season with the Cardinals, he can still throw hard enough to get people out, and his sinker was looking great in the last month of the season. He is 42 years old, but for a team that’s built to win right now, a guy with all the playoff experience Smoltz has may be just what this team needs coming out of the bullpen in the 9th inning.

This is a situation to keep an eye on as the season continues to approach, because I fully expect Joe Nathan to test out his arm on Saturday, and then shortly thereafter announce that he will undergo Tommy John Surgery because it just doesn’t feel right. I still think that the Twins should be the favorites to win the Central, and I believe if they can figure out a solution for the closer spot, they can make a deep postseason run. The beauty of all this is that we will all be able to see first hand how this plays out, beginning on April 5th, and I absolutely cannot wait.

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