Friday, July 29, 2016

Shake-up has begun for the Twins

I don’t know how it’s possible that the end of July is here already, but it is, sneaking up on everyone just like it does every summer. That means there are only two months left of the MLB regular season and also that the trade deadline is just about here, too.

The Minnesota Twins had a wee bit of momentum going into the All-Star Break, scoring loads of runs and beating up on one of baseball’s best in the Texas Rangers. Somewhat predictably, the break squashed the momentum the Twins had going. Or, it could be that a baseball team 25 to 30 games under .500 will just struggle no matter what.

Still, the Twins were one of the top teams in baseball in runs scored for the month of July. That’s pretty impressive for a last-place team, really. The run support and runs-per-game went up. They even went into Boston for four games and earned a split in that series. David Ortiz got to the plate with the bases loaded and *didn’t* hit a grand slam. #blessed

As it goes so often in sports, things don’t always have a rhyme or reason. After the Boston series, the Twins returned home to play the NL-worst Atlanta Braves for two games in a nostalgic rematch of the 1991 World Series 25 years ago.

The Twins and Braves have kept pace all year, usually within a couple games of each other for the worst-team-in-baseball title. Well, the Braves promptly came in and took both games. Ervin Santana pitched a stellar game – a complete game – and surrendered just two runs.  Unfortunately, his teammates with the bats only managed five hits, no runs and went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

Something had to be done 
With a team that has held one of the worst records in baseball all season, there are bound to be changes. The reminder can't be said enough in times like these that sports, although entertaining and fun, is a business.

The first, and actually pretty shocking, move was the firing of  Twins general manager Terry Ryan. It was announced the Monday after the All-Star Break and just after the Twins Hall of Fame weekend at Target Field.

Here’s what I shared on my social media sites when it happened, along with an article about the firing:
This came as a shock to the Minnesota Twins community today. It’s an unfortunate situation. The Twins, based on the W-L record, are the worst team in the American League and have been among the worst in baseball all season. When that happens, some kind of change will most certainly follow. Sports is a business, after all. 
I’m sure there are fans who are celebrating that the Twins made this move. The ol’ “Fire Terry Ryan!” crowd. That’s also unfortunate. My purpose here isn’t to analyze and judge all the baseball decisions he made. 
Some of you might know that Terry spent 10 to 15 minutes with the media before Twins games. Just an informal gathering over the dinner table in the media dining room about a half hour before game time. I thought that was normal, but when I asked a colleague last year, he told me this was a pretty cool and rare thing to see from a general manager. 
Earlier this season, Sid Hartman came over to the group, playfully grabbed Terry by the shoulders and with a smile said something like: You’re still doing this, huh? 
Terry, in a serious tone, responded with: “Gotta be accountable.” 
I often scoff at public figures who refuse media interviews after something doesn’t go their way. If you talk when the going is good, you should talk when the going gets tough, right? Then there was Terry, with a ball club that made one of its worst starts in franchise history. There was no obligation for him to hold these Q and As with the media, but he was there anyway. Win or lose, and there have been a lot of losses this year. 
My time around Terry is a very small sample size compared to some of the people within the Twins organization and the local media core, of course. But when you hear or read about the kind words regarding Terry Ryan’s character, I hope this is an example shining a light on it. The job aside, Terry Ryan is respectful and accountable.

Then the next shake-up move came a couple days ago.

Trading the All-Star
Promptly after the Twins, the worst team in the American League, beat the Orioles, the best team in the American League, news of a trade came in. I saw it first via LaVelle E. Neal's Twitter: Eduardo Nunez had been traded to the San Francisco Giants.

In return, the Twins acquired left-handed pitcher Adalberto Mejia, a 23-year-old who stands at 6-3 and is listed at 220 pounds. He's rated as the 91st best prospect according to Baseball America's Midseason Top 100 prospect list. He's played double-A and triple-A ball this season, holding a combined record of 7-3 with a 2.81 ERA, 101 strikeouts and 27 walks in 18 starts.

Of course, Nunez, 29, was the lone All-Star for the Twins this season. He's a utility guy in the infield but earned his playing time as a regular shortstop. In a season where so many things have been below expectations, Nunez has provided the bright spot, with his bright smile and helmet-losing antics. His average was consistently over the .300 mark this season, though it just recently dipped to .296. He has 12 homers, 47 RBI and stole 27 bases - two in what ended up being his final game with the Twins.

Early indications from some of my sports colleagues via the Twitter machine point to this being a good move for the Twins.

It's a baseball move 
Mejia was sent to the Twins Triple-A club in Rochester for now; rumblings are that the organization hopes he'll be a contender for the starting rotation next season. That's something the Twins will need.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking this Nunez deal might be a possibility. It makes sense for a struggling team to make a major move. It was still a little disappointing (mostly for selfish reasons, because Nunez provided the best reaction GIFs for me to use on social media).

Now, unlike many Twins fans displaying their displeasure on social media, I fully understand this was a good baseball move that needed to be made. I think you can understand that and still be disappointed as a Twins fan that it came to this in a season that held so much promise in spring training. There's a line there.

The MLB trade deadline is Monday. We'll see what other moves, if any, the Twins make before the exchanging madness is over. In the meantime, fans will try to relish things like a 7th walk-off win for the Twins, coming in 12 innings Friday over the White Sox.

Friday, July 15, 2016

First half is behind the Twins, things have gotten a little better

Whether you call 81 games the first half of the Major League Baseball season or wait until the All-Star Break, the first half is definitely behind the Minnesota Twins.

It's behind them. In many ways, the first part of the season was a disaster. One of the worst disasters in franchise history, some have said. The Twins start the second half today, after the Break, sitting 20 games out of first place in the AL Central. They're one of the worst teams in baseball, competing with the rebuilding Braves and now the Reds, with a 32-56 record.

So, that's not great.

A piping-hot July, so far
They went into the Break winning seven of their last nine games though. In 10 games so far in July, they've scored double-digits in runs in four games, scoring a total of 78 runs. How significant is that? Well, the Twins managed just 80 runs in the entire month of April. The pitching and run support has been much better recently.

The pessimistic Twins supporters could easily be annoyed that the All-Star Break came at the worst time for this ball club.

Just a reminder that the season was pretty much declared dead nine games in during the 0-9 start in April. Some were a little more optimistic and waited until the end of the month to say such things. Yes, it's a long season. Yes, there are ups and downs. However, statistics do not support a team that had the kind of start the Twins had. Being 20-some games below the .500 mark is just such a deep hole. They're on pace to drop more than 100 games for the season.

The positives
Things have turned around a little bit, but it's also come after some roster shuffling. Still, plenty of reasons to watch the boys of summer.

Eduardo Nunez was the lone representative at the All-Star Game for the Twins - after he wasn't even listed on the ballot. Fans had to write him in. Regardless, and whether you like the rule or not, Nunez was chosen by the AL manager. He was the only All Star who didn't get an at-bat and played just a quick 9th inning at second base, helping to turn a game-ending double play.

Nunez has no doubt been the team's star of the first half. He's hitting the ball, he's hit the 20-mark for stolen bases and his helmet has flown off his head too many times to count. His .321 batting average leads the team (minus Kennys Vargas, who's been on a tear in his recent call-up). He's always got a big smile on his face, too, which you'd think would help lift some spirits.

The other hot bat early on was in the hands of Joe Mauer. He started the season with a 28-game on-base streak and was in his usual form from a few years ago, drawing walks and slapping singles around the field. He's trailed off a bit the past few weeks.

Last year's first-half hero and All-Star, Brian Dozier, had an ice-cold start. So did a lot of guys, so I guess he can't be faulted too much. His bat has flared up recently though, and he leads the squad in RBI with 43 and is tied for the home run lead with Miguel Sano at 14.

Oh, Sano. In the beginning when the team was strikeout prone, he was one of the main culprits. As a power guy who can hit home runs, he'll strike out some. He's dealt with a hamstring injury that probably could have been worse. There was his time in right field. Yeah. On his return, he's starting hitting again and has showed off what a nice arm he has at third base.

Rookie leaves his mark
That brings us to perhaps the most pleasant surprise: Rookie Max Kepler. He was called up and got significant playing time in right field after Sano went down. In the final game before the Break, he hit his first career grand slam in Texas as part of a route-win, 15-5, over the Rangers.

When he hits home runs, they've been huge. His first career homer was a 3-run shot to the right-field seats at Target Field, in a walk-off, 10th-inning win over the Red Sox. He's also at 33 RBI, which ranks fourth on the team - and he only has 46 games under his belt. He's fun to watch.

There have been plenty of injuries and players being sent down to AAA. Trevor Plouffe has had a couple stints on the disabled list, Eduardo Escobar and Danny Santana have, too. Byung Ho Park struggled after his good start, so he was sent down to AAA. Eddie Rosario spent some time down there, too. Oswaldo Arcia and Kevin Jepsen were both designated for assignment - and now they've ended up with the Rays.

Starting pitching has turned around as well, with pitchers tossing quality starts after massive struggles. It's maybe not where it should be but has improved.

So, there are a few thoughts about the Twins in their first half. Some good things and definitely some not-so-good things. Here's a the second-half of the summer!

No competition for the accomplished Serena

Serena Williams won the women's Wimbledon singles title this year, her seventh, giving her 22 Grand Slam titles for her career. That ties her with Steffi Graf for the most-ever in the Open era. Serena has been praised as one of the greatest (female) athetles of all time.

I say, she's one of the most accomplished athletes. In my mind, it's difficult to judge how good she really is - because she hasn't had a lot of strong, rivalry-type competition.

For years now, it seems every Slam is Serena's to lose. She's the dominant favorite. Has she won every Slam? Of course not. Sports are still sports. Upsets happen and sometimes she had an off day, as anybody does. Still, who has challenged her reign consistently?

In the earlier years of her career, it was her older sister, Venus. The sisters matched up in a few finals together. Venus, 36, is still playing, though her game has understandably dropped off. Venus actually made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon this year though, and she and her sister took home the doubles title.

Playing the rest of the field
So who else on the women's side? Caroline Wozniacki looked like she had a chance, but she's never won a Slam after being ranked No. 1 in the world in 2010. She's choked away matches, and her distracting relationship with Rory McIlroy probably didn't help her game either. Entering the tournament unranked, she was ousted from Wimbledon in straight sets this year.

Maria Sharapova is a five-time Grand Slam winner and also a former world No. 1. The Russian-born Sharapova added screams and small fist-pumps to her the game, but her career has pretty much been killed by a drug test violation at this year's Australian Open. Before that, her career was plagued with shoulder injuries.

Victoria Azarenka is one of the top players, ranked No. 1 in 2012, and if she spent less time shrieking the entire match and more time focusing on tennis, she might have a shot at rivaling Serena. The only two Slams for Azarenka were back-to-back Aussie Opens in 2012 and 2013. She just announced this morning via Twitter that she's pregnant, so she'll be out of competition for the rest of this year but hopes to return.

Genie Bouchard looked to be on the rise, too, until a fall in the locker room at the U.S. Open last year resulted in a pesky concussion. I'd like to see her come to normal form again, but we'll see. Like I said, pesky concussions. She's made it as far as a singles final at Wimbledon.

Americans are still waiting for Sloane Stephens to break out as the next tennis phenom, perhaps taking the torch from Serena. Her best year was in 2013, when she reached career-best rounds in the Slams, including the semis in Australia. She's still just 23, so maybe give her a little more time.

Madison Keys is an up-and-coming American player as well. 2015 was her best year so far, reaching the semifinals in the Australian Open. Maybe the 21-year-old has what it takes to dominate. Most of the Slam results for Stephens and Keys have been first through fourth round exits however.

No women's rivalries to be found
All of these players have had a shot. They've had a chance. They give a glimmer of hope that they'll be a consistent threat at Slams. Then they'll make a first-round exit a couple times, and it's two steps back. Mostly, it's different players winning at different times.

Who's a consistent threat in women's tennis? Serena Williams. That's it. Gone are the days of Chrissy Evert-Martina Navratilova rivarly. If you want rivalries of top players, look to the men's side the past few years, or even past decade.. It went from Connors-McEnroe, to Sampras-Agassi, to Nadal-Federer and Djokovic-Federer, with a little Andy Murray thrown in there, too.

The women's bracket is a totally different match.

She's a great player, but...
I'm not saying Serena isn't talented. You don't win that many Slams without some raw ability and strong performances over a career. If she gets into trouble in a match, she can serve up those high-powered aces for an entire game to get the momentum rolling again. She pulls off shots that you wouldn't think anybody else could. She never seems to let a first-set loss get her down; it usually means a three-setter is on the way, and that she'll be victorious.

She's packed with plenty of amazing talent.

I just think she hasn't had the competition along the way. No one has consistently challenged her. That's not her fault, of course; I just think it's significant and why I say she's one of the most "accomplished" athletes. I'd love to see her go up against Djoker or Federer, actually.

What will be really interesting in the next few years is to see how Serena's career will end. She's 34, so already playing past her prime and the domination at this age is remarkable. Will she step away near the top? Or will she continue on and have a tough time walking away from the sport, even as her success and her play drop off?

I'll be interested to see which players are thrust into the spotlight after Serena's exit, whenever that may be. Maybe things will continue as they are and it will be a smattering of upsets and new faces making names for themselves in Grand Slams. Or maybe new rivalries will develop. It would be refreshing to see a few players rise to the top and stay there for a while.

Because Serena won't be the tennis queen forever.