MLB not offering much in terms of playoff chase this year

The Twin Cities market isn’t the only place where pennant fever has not taken over.

The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees play for the 87th time this season tonight … OK, maybe not that many times. Just feels that way when every one of the games is on national TV (tonight, it’s on MLB Network).

Network execs can likely pump up the fact that it’s the two teams with the best records in the American League. But what does this series really mean? Both teams are almost certainly going to be in the playoffs. The Red Sox are up 1.5 games on New York in the AL East, but the Yankees hold a 7.5-game lead in the wild-card race.

A glance at each division shows there isn’t much in terms of an exciting pennant chase. Things can always heat up, of course. But right now, the closest 1-2 battle in a division is in the AL West, where Texas holds a 3.5-game lead over the L.A. Angels. In every other division, the lead is at least five games.

Even the wild-card races are absurd. Aside from the Yanks’ lead, Atlanta has a nine – yes, nine! – game lead over San Francisco on the NL side.

Casilla still has plenty to prove

I can’t get enough Minnesota Twins baseball, especially this time of year when football season is winding down. Pitchers and catchers report in a couple of weeks, which seems hard to believe when you take a look outside and still see four feet of snow on the ground in these parts.

In all likelihood, Alexi Casilla will be handed a starting job. But has he really earned it? Associated Press photo

Before going into work today, I went through the transcript of a live chat that Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune had with fans yesterday. The topic that came up the most was the middle infield situation, notably the Twins’ decision to hand a starting job to Alexi Casilla, and likely at shortstop, no less.

Christensen told one of those questioning the decision that if the Twins aren’t going to give Casilla a chance, then when will they? Fair point. But that’s assuming you can convince most fans that he deserves an opportunity to not just compete for a starting job, but be handed one outright. There really isn’t anyone in camp, as things stand right now anyway, that could possibly wrest that job from him.

What separates competitive teams from the also-rans is the handing out of starting jobs to players that simply don’t deserve it. Great teams make players earn those jobs by taking advantage of injuries or the struggles of the players in front of them on the depth chart.

This puts the Twins in a tough position in that Casilla has collected nearly 1,000 at-bats at the big league level and hasn’t done a whole lot with those at-bats. And paired in the middle infield with Tsuyoshi Nishioka – who won a batting title in Japan but is transitioning to the big leagues now – creates a pretty unstable but important tandem.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Twins consider picking up a cheap leftover free agent like Orlando Cabrera to at least give them some depth here. I know manager Ron Gardenhire wants speed, but as the saying goes, “You can’t steal first base.”

Two-division format in MLB starting to grow on me

As I think I’ve blogged about before, I am completely opposed to any playoff expansion in Major League Baseball. It’s an idea that’s getting some serious consideration from Bud Selig, despite many in baseball complaining that the season is too long the way it is.

It seems to me the obvious reason – besides money – is baseball trying to find a way to give the Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles some hope that they can make the playoffs consistently rather than hoping to time their success with down years by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. To me, that’s avoiding the real problem, but I don’t want to get sidetracked.

But let’s face it: MLB has no plans to curtail the Yankees’ free-spending ways. So if the hope is to give Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles fans hope, I’m starting to become a supporter of a return to the two-division format that baseball had up until the mid-1990s.

Paul Swydan of FanGraphs got me thinking about it to begin with. When I first read his write-up – link to Part 1 here – I quickly dismissed it. “It’s too OUT there,” I thought. And honestly, it is out there. It will never happen when there’s money to be made on a potential one-game playoff between the No. 4 and 5 seeds of each league every year.

But I believe the season is long enough, and I don’t think a one-game playoff is any way to decide what team should advance when they’ve had 162 games to figure it out themselves, unless of course those two teams are tied after 162 and a one-game playoff is necessary. I realize it’s great drama, as we all say in 2009. But let’s leave that alone.

If MLB returned to a two-division format, the AL Central and NL Central go away. The Yankees and Red Sox could remain in the AL East, but a third team from that league could potentially get a playoff berth every year if that team fared better than the second-best team in the AL West. And there’s always the possibility the Yankees and/or Red Sox don’t make the playoffs.

The idea – far-fetched as it is – is growing on me.

Twins Caravan has definitely changed

I was asked yesterday whether or not I went to the Twins Caravan to report on it or to, well, just go to it this year when it made it’s Fargo stop a couple weeks ago. I was unable to go this time, since I had a desk shift that night.

But I’m not sure I would have gone this year. The lineup wasn’t overly impressive, with the Twins sending backup catcher Drew Butera and pitcher Jeff Manship – who quite possibly might not make the team this year – as player representatives.

It’s a pretty far cry from 2004, when I covered the Twins Caravan for The Forum for the first time. Player representatives that year in Fargo were first baseman/designated hitter Matthew LeCroy and a young pitcher about to enter the team’s rotation named Johan Santana. Little did I know at the time that Santana would go on to win the AL Cy Young Award that season, then win another one a couple years later.

But if you really want to go back, I remember the first time I ever went to a Twins Caravan stop. It was in January of 1988, just three months after the team won its first World Series. My family and I made the trek to the Thief River Falls Armory and were not disappointed, because the players that came all the way up to that small northwest Minnesota city were outfielders Kirby Puckett and Dan Gladden.

I was in first or second grade at the time, but I remember that day pretty well, getting to shake Kirby’s hand and get his autograph … it was quite a thrill. And that autographed 1987 Topps card of Puckett – you know the style of the card that year, the one with the wood grain borders – is a priceless piece of memorabilia as far as I’m concerned.

Plenty has changed since then. But there’s no doubt that you wouldn’t see those caliber of players making stops in TRF, or even a larger community like Fargo. With Santana, the F-M community got lucky because he exploded onto the scene that year. But I’m guessing a name like that wouldn’t have been put on the Fargo swing even one year later.

I’m sure it has something to do with agents or the players’ union or even the team itself not wanting to send its stars to the far reaches of Twins Territory. I understand it.

This isn’t mean to be a rip against Butera or Manship. To play in the major leagues at all takes a lot of hard work and a lot of talent. But let’s face it: They’re not Puckett or Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau.

I just remember the impression that was left on me after getting the chance to meet a star like Puckett in the prime of his career. Honestly, considering how big of a baseball fan I am, seeing Puckett in person like that was a significant, somewhat life-altering moment for me, one of those childhood moments that made me a baseball fan for life. It’s unfortunate that kids nowadays around here won’t get a moment like that.

Blyleven to get No. 28 retired, but why the wait?

Found out late tonight that the Minnesota Twins will retire Bert Blyleven‘s No. 28 during a ceremony this season at Target Field. Blyleven, after 14 years of waiting, finally got elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this month.

It makes me wonder why the Twins decided to wait for Hall of Fame induction before retiring his number. To my knowledge, there’s been no policy implemented recently regarding a player’s Hall of Fame status being a requirement for his number being retired. I know the Boston Red Sox have rules like that. Kent Hrbek, of course, has his number retired by the team and isn’t in the Hall, but maybe there’s been a change since that decision.

I think it’s an honor Blyleven definitely deserves. It’s a lifetime achievement award as much as anything. He had two different stints with the team, which were both pretty successful. He’s going to the Hall of Fame. He’s been a popular announcer for many years. It’s a good call.

Gophers guard Nolen could miss rest of season

This from the “What more can go wrong?” department at the University of Minnesota, via the Star Tribune’s Myron Medcalf:

The Gophers’ worst fears were confirmed Sunday, when the team learned that starting point guard Al Nolen broke his right foot in Saturday’s win at Michigan.

During Monday’s Big Ten media teleconference, Tubby Smith said Nolen will have surgery Wednesday. The timetable for his return has not been determined. Smith said there’s no guarantee he will return this season.

“That’s a real blow to us,” Smith said.

Tubby has got that right. With Devoe Joseph transferring to Oregon, that leaves Chip Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi running the point for the Gophers men’s basketball team.

Nolen – a senior – is as solid as they come. He’s considered a good manager and point man for the offense. He’s not flashy, but he’s just a solid, reliable player. Other than Trevor Mbakwe, he’s the toughest guy to replace on the team.

And for some Monday late morning links:

Pavano addition makes Twins roster situation more clear

Ladies and gentlemen … they got the ‘stache.

The Minnesota Twins agreed to a two-year, $16.5 million contract with startng pitcher Carl Pavano on Wednesday. His return gives the Twins a stable, veteran starting pitcher on a rotation that has quite a bit of instability and youth.

I like this move from the Twins perspective. Makes a lot more financial sense than giving Matt Capps a deal that pays him more than $7 million to pitch 60 or 70 innings when they could have afforded to keep both Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain with that money, but we’ll leave it there.

Let’s take a look at the roster:

  • Starting pitching: Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Brian Duensing are probably in. Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn battle for final spot, with loser probably ending up as Twins long reliever. Kyle Gibson will be waiting in the minors if anyone fails.
  • Bullpen: Joe Nathan will close if he’s healthy, with Matt Capps and Jose Mijares serving as primary set-up men. Loser of Blackburn/Slowey rotation battle will end up in bullpen. Eric Hacker was given a surprising big league contract and could make the team. Pat Neshek is still in the fold. Scott Diamond – a lefty – is a Rule 5 pick. Alex Burnett, Jeff Manship, Anthony Slama … hard to predict who will all end up here. Did I forget anyone? Eddie Guardado, anyone? I have to believe the Twins will sign a cheap veteran or two to add to this group. Makes my stomach turn just typing the relievers’ names.
  • Everyday lineup: My prediction is CF Denard Span, 2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka, C Joe Mauer, 1B Justin Morneau (assuming he’s ready to go, which is a bit of an assumption), LF Delmon Young, DH Jim Thome, RF Michael Cuddyer, 3B Danny Valencia and SS Alexi Casilla. I really think the Twins are better off bumping Nishioka to the 8 spot and sliding everyone – including Mauer – up a spot. But plenty of studies have shown batting order doesn’t matter much, so it’s not a huge deal.
  • Bench: Jason Kubel ends up here, although he’ll get plenty of playing time. Drew Butera is also a lock to back up Mauer. Jason Repko would also appear to be a safe bet as a defensive replacement in the outfield for the slow-footed Young and Cuddyer. Trevor Plouffe and Matt Tolbert should get good looks as backup infielders, though there’s a good chance there will be only four bench players if the Twins opt to carry 12 relievers. I have to assume they will. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire generally prefers that, and considering the uncertainty in the bullpen, they could probably use the extra arm.

Interesting offseason in the Bronx

Ran across a couple of pretty good stories on ESPN.com regarding the New York Yankees.

The first one is that GM Brian Cashman discouraged the Steinbrenners from signing Rafael Soriano to big bucks to be a set-up man, yet the ownership group did it anyway. The second one is about how the Yankees actually made a contract offer to free-agent pitcher Carl Pavano.

Let’s start with the Soriano deal. The dynamite reliever agreed to a three-year, $35 million contract with the Yankees within the last week. It includes opt-out clauses after each season, which seem unlikely to be exercised by him since he probably isn’t going to get a deal where he would get paid more than that.

Soriano saved 45 games with a 1.73 ERA last season for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Pavano story is a little more surprising, though I think we can all agree that there’s no way Pavano would have accepted a one-year contract offer like the story says. I’m not sure why the Yankees even bothered with an offer like that, unless they felt Pavano wanted to come back to the Bronx and try and make things right. He was signed to a four-year lucrative offer by the Yankees earlier in his career, but those four injury-plagued years led to the Pavano contract being considered one of the worst in recent history. But he’s bounced back the last year-plus with the Minnesota Twins.

The Twins are expected to have an agreement in place with Pavano by Wednesday.

It’s been a pretty quiet offseason for the Yankees until the Soriano signing. And considering the Boston Red Sox added outfielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the AL East seems to have swung in the direction of Beantown.

Twins pay big bucks for bullpen

For a team that has lost Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Brian Fuentes this offseason, the Minnesota Twins will still have one expensive bullpen in 2011.

Minnesota avoided arbitration with reliever Matt Capps, agreeing to a one-year, $7.15 million deal. Combine that with the $12 million that Joe Nathan will make in the final year of his deal, and the Twins will spend nearly $20 million on just two relievers.

I’ve never been a big fan of spending that kind of money on relievers. I have my reasoning for it. 1) I don’t think small- or mid-market teams can afford to do it and should spend money elsewhere. 2) You can build a great bullpen on the cheap.

And look at it this way: Capps and Nathan – best-case scenario – will pitch about 140 innings this season. That’s just not much bang for your buck. The Twins balked at giving Johan Santana a little more than $20 million/season when he’s averaged about 200 innings per year since the contract he received from the Mets for seven years and $151 million.

On the bright side for the organization, the contracts of both players will expire after this season.

Home run leader Thome returns to Twins for cheap again

I’m not too surprised the Minnesota Twins are bringing Jim Thome back on another one-year deal. But I did think it would be for a little more money.

Thome and the Twins have agreed to terms on a one-year deal for $3 million. That’s double what his salary was last season, when he led the Twins with 25 home runs in just 108 games.

As Manny Ramirez is about to find out, the market for DH-only players just isn’t that great. But considering Thome’s prodigious numbers last season, I figured he’d get about $5 million. Reports were that he was seeking an $8 million deal similar to the one Lance Berkman got from the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this offseason.

But back to the playing field. This is a big addition for the Twins. Thome was seemingly the one hitter who could tame the pitcher-friendly Target Field, with 15 of his 25 moon shots being hit at home.

While it might be a lot to ask the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer to repeat a season in which he posted an OPS of 1.039 – his highest since 2001 – if the Twins stick to the plan and limit his playing time to keep him fresh, he should still be one of the more productive hitters in the lineup.

It’s also worth noting that he needs just 11 homers to reach 600 for his career. Only seven players in big league history have hit 600 homers (Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Sammy Sosa.