Twins are flexing rare muscle

The Minnesota Twins are currently tied for fifth in the American League in home runs. For most teams this wouldn’t be any sort of an eyebrow-raising feat.

But for the team that has been dubbed "Twinkies" in previous seasons, this is really something.

Entering Friday’s series against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Twins were behind only the New York Yankees for homers in the month of May.

The Twins haven’t finished a season in the top five in homers in the 14-team American League since 1988. In fact, not since the 2004 season have the Twins finished higher than 12th in homers for a season.

Justin Morneau has 14 homers and is leading the league in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). Joe Mauer has 11 homers, all in the month of May. Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede each have hit nine homers. That makes four Twins hitters who are on pace to hit 25-30 homers this season.

And this is for a franchise that went – during the "Steroid Era" – nearly two decades prior to Morneau’s MVP season in 2006 without a single 30-homer hitter.

The Twins are a far cry from contenders right now without consistent starting pitching. But so far, the Morneau-Mauer-Cuddyer-Crede foursome might, for one season, match the efforts of the Puckett-Hrbek-Gaetti-Brunansky group of the mid- to late-1980s.

The man that is Span: Part 2 of 2

To wrap up my piece on Denard Span, let’s put him in a less impressive crop of players. How does he stack up with recent Minnesota Twins leadoff hitters?

As you might guess, pretty well. In fact, it’s pretty tough to nail down who the Twins leadoff hitters were in a given year because they changed so often. Here’s a look at the last 15 years:

  • 1994: Chuck Knoblauch takes over in midseason.
  • 1995: Knoblauch
  • 1996: Knoblauch
  • 1997: Knoblauch
  • 1998: Otis Nixon
  • 1999: Nobody in particular
  • 2000: Todd Walker had many starts in the No. 1 spot, but probably not in over half of the team’s games
  • 2001: Cristian Guzman and Jacque Jones
  • 2002: Jones
  • 2003: Jones and Shannon Stewart (after Stewart’s midseason trade)
  • 2004: Stewart
  • 2005: Stewart
  • 2006: Stewart and Luis Castillo
  • 2007: Castillo, Jason Tyner and Jason Bartlett
  • 2008: Carlos Gomez before giving way to Span

Here’s a few conclusions from the above list:

  • Nixon had to be like 40 years old when he was leading off for the Twins in 1998.
  • The Twins have completely failed to develop a leadoff hitter in the years since trading Knoblauch away. Stewart is easily the best in the bunch, but he was an established leadoff hitter acquired in a trade with Toronto.
  • Jones and Gomez aren’t exactly great on-base guys. It’s hard to believe they were ever in those roles.

My feeling is Span looks like the best leadoff hitter the franchise has developed since Knoblauch came into the fold in the early 1990s. That’s almost 20 years.

In terms of league wide, that’s tough to say. I think if you’re talking strictly in leadoff ability, I would take him for sure over at least 10-12 leadoff hitters in the game today. And there are probably another 10-12 that he is in the same class as.

Because of his lack of experience, there’s no certainty that Span can keep this going. It sure is hard to find too much to complain about right now, though. He plays all three outfield positions well, he’s got good baserunning ability and he sports a .409 OBP.

It looks like the leadoff hitter the Twins lacked in their playoff lineups during the early part of this decade has finally been found.

The man that is Span: a two-part series

Denard Span had a four-hit night in the Minnesota Twins’ victory Wednesday against the Boston Red Sox. But his impact stretched beyond that, as the Red Sox committed five of their major league-tying six wild pitches while the "Span Man" was on base (who knows if he deserves any credit for it or if it was by coincidence).

Span sports a .316 batting average with three homers, 22 RBIs, 28 runs scored and 11 steals just one year after putting up numbers at a similar pace in his rookie season.

The former first-round pick has gone from what looked like a draft bust to being the leadoff hitter the Twins have been searching for over the last decade or so.

I thought I would try to figure out Span’s place in the big leagues. Just how does he stack up. We know how impressive Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have been so far, but how does Span figure into the mix.

Span is ninth in the AL in on-base percentage (a key stat for a leadoff hitter) at .409, behind the following players: Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, Justin Morneau, Jason Bartlett, Shin-Soo Choo, Adam Jones and Jason Bay.

Finally, to wrap up the first part of this piece, let’s take a look at – as best as I can tell – who the other leadoff hitters are across Major League Baseball.

  • Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks: Youngster got called up from Double-A a couple weeks ago and has looked good so far for Arizona. A little raw at 22 years old, but he’s showing some ability.
  • Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar, Braves: Johnson has taken over in the leadoff spot since Escobar suffered an injury last week. Johnson has struggled all season. Escobar is hitting .293, but he chases a lot of first pitches, making him less than ideal for the leadoff job in some managers’ opinions.
  • Alfonso Soriano, Cubs: Very intriguing case. The only person who wants Soriano in the leadoff spot appears to be Soriano. A middle-of-the-order talent who just likes hitting first.
  • Willy Taveras, Reds: A few different guys have held this job for Cincy this year. Taveras has a lot of speed, which many managers covet from their leadoff man.
  • Dexter Fowler, Rockies: Up-and-comer has shown flashes of brilliance – including a five-steal game – this season, but he’s taking his lumps in his rookie season.
  • Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins: Another big-time speedster. He’s come back down to Earth after an incredible first week to the season.
  • Michael Bourn, Astros: Very quietly living up to his potential. Hitting .286 with 16 stolen bases this season for a hapless Houston squad.
  • Juan Pierre, Dodgers: Acclimated himself nicely to the top spot in the order after Manny Ramirez‘s 50-game suspension. Hitting .404 and slugging almost .550 with 9 steals this year.
  • Craig Counsell, Brewers: Taken over for injured Rickie Weeks (out for season). Hitting .323, but merely a fill-in at this point in his career.
  • Jose Reyes, Mets: Currently injured, but not for the long term. Dynamic shortstop with 258 steals in previous four seasons.
  • Jimmy Rollins, Phillies: Considered one of the best, but really struggling this season.
  • Nyjer Morgan, Pirates: Speedy outfielder was red-hot to start the year, but his average has fallen into the .280 range.
  • Skip Schumaker, Cardinals: Offensive production hasn’t suffered since moving from the outfield to second base. Not much speed. Not much power. Not many walks. Solid average guy.
  • David Eckstein/Brian Giles, Padres: Giles is hitting under .200. Eckstein not much better, but he does have the elusive "grit factor" working for him — note sarcasm.
  • Aaron Rowand, Giants: Hitting .364 since moving to the leadoff spot. Starting to live up to contract.
  • Chone Figgins, Angels: He is what he is, as they say. Lot of speed, no pop. Nothing wrong with that from a table-setter, though.
  • Brian Roberts, Orioles: Doubles machine has great speed. One of the best in the game.
  • Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox: Lots of speed, but .335 OBP over last two years is not indicative of a leadoff hitter.
  • Scott Podsednik, White Sox: I was surprised, too. Still has wheels. That’s about it.
  • Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians: Having a great year, with .317 AVG and OBP around .390. Not a lot of power. Just 11 career steals in 206 games, but he’s only 23.
  • Curtis Granderson, Tigers: Always a threat for a triple. Has flashed some power with 11 homers already this year, but not getting on base consistently. Still one of the more exciting players in baseball.
  • Coco Crisp, Royals: Career .332 OBP isn’t great, but he does have speed.
  • Derek Jeter, Yankees: Recently moved up from No. 2 spot, he’s as steady as they come.
  • Orlando Cabrera, Athletics: Hitting just .240 with .280 OBP. Not an ideal leadoff hitter. A’s are grasping at straws.
  • Ichiro, Mariners: Hitting .343 this season. One of my favorite players. I could go on and on about what he’s accomplished, but this post is long enough.
  • B.J. Upton, Rays: Potential to be an Alfonso Soriano "leadoff hitter trapped in middle-of-the-order hitter’s body" type deal. Great on-base guy coming into this year. Hasn’t put up the power numbers he did in 2007 (other than in last year’s postseason).
  • Ian Kinsler, Rangers: One of the game’s best players. This guy does it all. He’s got power. He’s got speed. He hits for average. He’s in one of the best lineups in baseball.
  • Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays: Among the league leaders in runs scored. Longtime backup infielder in Oakland appears to have found a home in Toronto.

Check back later for the second part of this series.

This guy makes Dustin Pedroia look like Greg Ostertag

Chris Cates might be one of the more interesting minor leaguers in the Minnesota Twins’ system. Not because he has huge potential. In fact, he’s not huge at all.

Here’s a story on the 5-foot-3 starting shortstop for the Class A Fort Myers Miracle.

Maybe this guy will become the Earl Boykins of Major League Baseball. Twins fans getting buzzed by the Negatrometer can hope he’ll be ready when Nick Punto’s contract expires in a couple years.

Here’s a video of him with the Beloit Snappers:

But now I’m rambling …

Here’s what’s on my mind:

  • I’m sure "catching soreness" doesn’t feel good, but couldn’t the Minnesota Twins have waited just one more day to sit Joe Mauer rather than give him a day off Monday against the right-handed Brad Penny. Lefty Jon Lester goes for Boston on Tuesday, and if you got to sit Mauer, do it against a lefty because backup catcher Mike Redmond is a much better hitter against lefties than righties.
  • Every time I see the Nationals on TV, I feel like they should be an American League team. That’s just Washington’s history. "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League," as the saying goes.
  • I feel like I’ve gone a week without hearing Brett Favre‘s name. Someone console me.
  • I like the addition of Jay Cutler for the Chicago Bears, but how did they not get at least one proven receiver to work with him? I thought Torry Holt would be a good fit, but he’s gone.
  • One of these years, the Wolves have to beat the odds in the NBA draft lottery. They’ve had plenty of chances lately.
  • The NBA playoffs is that much more exciting with the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony representing the four teams left. They are all dominant in their own ways.
  • Why does Rick Reilly complain about how late baseball games go, when these NBA playoff games routinely finish at or after 11 p.m.? I guess "The Grand Old Game" is held to a higher standard by some. At least baseball is doing a little something about it.
  • Nick Markakis is one of the most underrated players in baseball. Who rates them, you ask? I don’t know, but he should be rated higher.
  • How ’bout those San Diego Padres! Currently riding a 10-game win streak after rallying from a six-run deficit going into the eighth inning Monday. I think a 24-22 record makes this one of the surprise teams in baseball thus far. I thought coming into the year this was the worst team. But the games aren’t played on paper, as sports philosopher Chris Berman reminds us. I hope you can feel the sarcasm in that one. :)
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Baseball’s best vote on who is baseball’s best

I came across an interesting top 50 list of players on The Sporting News today. A panel of 100 Baseball Hall of Famers, major award winners and baseball personalities voted on who they thought were baseball’s best players. A few thoughts:

  • Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are not the eighth- and ninth-best players in baseball anymore. They just aren’t. At one time they probably were. But now, no.
  • Also, I’m not a big fan of putting closers in a top 50 list. But if you’re going to, I think the two guys on the list have to be Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan, not Rivera and Francisco Rodriguez. I know K-Rod saved a record number of games last year, but his numbers didn’t stack up with Papelbon and Nathan.
  • For the Red Sox, Josh Beckett at 16 is too high. Kevin Youkilis at 36 is too low.
  • For the Twins, I can’t believe Joe Mauer is only at 39. Recent hitting tear aside, the guy’s a two-time batting champ at catcher, when no other catcher in American League has won even ONE batting title.
  • There has to be someone more deserving of a spot in the top 50 than Carlos Zambrano. Nick Markakis, perhaps?

Overall, I’d say it’s a pretty good list. I’m nitpicking. It’s very interesting to see what some of the game’s greats think of today’s talent.

If you want to find beef with a top 50 list, check out this one from Yahoo’s Stan McNeal. A teaser: Yadier Molina is on the list, and Derek Lowe is 14 spots HIGHER than Ryan Braun. Check it out.

Twins at home = Globetrotters. Twins on road = Generals.

The difference for the Minnesota Twins is as simple as turf or no turf, teflon roof or no teflon roof.

The Twins have scored 147 runs at home this season, more than any team in Major League Baseball so far this season (granted, they’ve played six more home games than road games, but the point is they’re scoring runs at home). Their record at the Baggydome: 16-9.

The Twins have scored 85 runs on the road this season, the sixth-fewest total entering Saturday’s play. Their record on the road: an American League-worst 5-14.

Yes, the Twins do have a young team. But offensively, they really don’t. And there isn’t much of a home/road differential with the team’s ERA. The home and road ERAs – both not pretty – are separated by just .36 runs/game.

Minnesota’s lineup regularly boasts Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, Joe Crede, Michael Cuddyer and Nick Punto. These are all guys with at least five years of big league experience. You wouldn’t expect lengthy road trips to shake a group like this.

So why the road struggles? Who knows. Maybe it’s just an early season anomaly.

Whatever the case, if the Twins could bottle their home success, they’d be in great shape in the very much up-for-grabs AL Central.

The emancipation of Cuddy … whatever that means

Isn’t this the Michael Cuddyer you were all hoping for when the Minnesota Twins inked him to a three-year, $24 million extension prior to the 2008 season?

Cuddyer had his second straight four-hit game and became the second Twins player this season to hit for the cycle in an 11-3 victory against Milwaukee on Friday.

Cuddyer, whose 2006 season is the only time in his career he’s posted a better than .800 OPS in a season, has been on fire for the last week.

In his last five games, he is 12-for-23 with four homers and 12 RBIs.

Of course, this pace is not sustainable for anybody. But if Cuddyer could put up the kind of numbers he put up three years ago (.284 BA, 24 HRs, 109 RBIs, 102 runs), the Twins – in major need of right-handed slugging – would be very satisfied. Cuddyer can at least somewhat balance out the lefty-laden lineup that includes Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Joe Mauer.

For the season, he’s hitting .291 with seven homers and 30 RBIs in 42 games.

Longtime member of Dragons family walks away

Strolling through Alex Nemzek Hall isn’t going to be the same.

Larry Scott, who spent 40 years as the sports information director at Minnesota State Moorhead, will retire at the end of June. If memory serves me, he is at least in the top five longest-tenured SIDs in the country, though don’t quote me on that one (Hey, this is a blog! You don’t have to fact-check.)

Scotty, as many of us call him, is synonymous with Dragons athletics. Heck, he’s the only full-time SID in MSUM’s history.

I first met Scotty about seven or eight years ago. I was a junior at MSUM in major need of sports writing experience. My college advisor referred me to Scotty, who always welcomed intern help.

I’ve often said the two years I spent working in Scotty’s office was the most valuable experience of my college life. Without question, I wouldn’t be where I am today without his help. At that point, I needed guidance and I needed a strong editor, but I also needed confidence in my writing and interviewing skills.

That internship provided all of those things. And to this day I’m very grateful for it.

So best of luck to Scotty and his future endeavors. He’s not going completely away from Dragons athletics, but Alex Nemzek Hall won’t be the same without him.