Greetings from... well, somewhere over Georgia by now. As I promised last week, I just spent my spring break down in Florida and I made a few spring games. Seeing the defending champion Phillies play the Pirates was fun and a short drive, but taking two sneak peaks at the Twins was the real treat.
Last week, I asked you for any big questions you had you wanted me to pay special attention to, and I tried to answer as many of those questions as I could, but mostly, I just have a collection of scribbles from my notepad to translate into coherent thoughts for your consumption. And so, with nothing better to do as I fly back towards snow from balmier weather...
The first game I saw was the Twins visiting the Reds in Sarasota on Thursday the 26th (box). Nick Blackburn started this game and looked pretty ok, though he didn't go very deep into the game. Throughout his start he was pounding the ball down low and generally doing his job of letting opposing hitters (most of the Reds ML lineup) put the ball in play, usually on the ground. Blackburn will struggle some in interleague play though as he looked completely helpless trying to sacrifice bunt. He just lunged at the ball three straight times and never got it in play. Good thing we're in the AL.
Denard Span gave me plenty to watch over both games as he went the distance twice. The team is clearly trying to break his struggles. One would worry about the extra wear and tear all the extra playing time will give him ( 74 PA's and counting this spring) but he'll be able to rest whenever he wants with Carlos Gomez around, so I wouldn't expect big troubles. From my vantage points, Span did not ever seen particularly frustrated or discouraged at the plate at any point. He was generally patient at the plate, taking lots of pitches and drew 4 walks during the games I saw. Of course, that had as much to do with Micha Owings's control struggles and James Shield's general struggles than maybe anything else. When swinging, Span didn't really seem terribly aggressive, and on one of his walks on a full count he seemed really unsure if he'd made the right take, but I didn't see much wrong other than that.
I caught Jesse Crain once, and two thirds of an inning in spring isn't indicative of much, but he looked terrible. He had no ability whatsoever to locate his fastball against the Reds and got hammered as a result. Fortunately it's still spring and that's the exact kind for thing to work on. It wasn't encouraging, but Crain has a pretty stable track record of good but not great pitching and I see more of the same old, same old from him this year.
A couple Twins hitters have very noticeable stance changes. Delmon Young now stands with his legs much farther apart as he waits for the pitch. He certainly looks far more stable than he did at times last year, and he may have more bat control as a result. His swing is still rather long and looping though, so I'm not sure how much of a difference it will make. I'd be surprised if the stance could be attributed to any increase in power for him, though it may increase his contact skills. Young proved several times in the Reds game, on a ball off the wall, a misplayed roller, and indecision throwing the ball in, that he remains a lackadaisical doofus in the outfield. Carlos Gomez's pre-pitch routine is radically changed as well. He now very slowly and deliberately waves the bat in front of the plate before the pitch, clearly an attempt to slow himself down. I saw him take several pitches and only saw him swing a few times, so it's tough to say much, but I did not see him flail hopelessly at a pitch like he would a times last year. Whether that holds over longer periods of time I cannot say.
Joe Nathan looked sharp in his inning against the Red. His fastball was popping the glove loudly and he was locating it mostly as he wished. More of the same from Joe.
I was not impressed overall by the baserunning of the Twins. Brendon Harris got waved home when he had no right to be and got gunned out by a mile. Nick Punto made a horrible baserunning mistake that led him to get doubled off on a line drive. Altogether I don't think the baserunning was in midseason form. This has been a quiet problem for the Twins the last couple years. I think it remains one casualty of Gardenhire's more relaxed style replacing TK's discipline.
At the beginning of the second game I saw, the Twins hosting the Rays at Hammond field on Friday the 27th (box), I was reminded of one of the best parts of spring training games. In every stadium, right before the game, they tell the mostly visiting fans what the temperature is at home and what it is at the park. The temperature in Minneapolis, 25 with flurries. The crowd laughs. The temperature in Fort Myers? 81, the crowd cheers. I love spring.
The Twins starter for the day was Scott Baker and once again he faced an almost fully stocked major league lineup. Baker changed speeds effectively throughout the first two innings and had the Rays mostly off balance. He got in trouble when he started to get too fine when runners got on base. At times, he was nibbling and getting behind in the count, and he doesn't have the stuff to do that consistently. He recovered, though, and started pounding the Rays hard inside when he got in trouble, and it was effective. He jammed several hitters up and in and got plenty of marginal contact. It was good to see Baker look aggressive and be successful.
Obviously the Twins had an offensive explosion on that day, scoring 16 runs, but it's tough to say how much had more to do with James Shield's awful day than the Twins hitters. After he'd allowed 6 or 7 runs it became clear the Rays were leaving him in to get to a pitch count no matter how bad the carnage on the field got. It was good to see the Twins punish a struggling pitcher and not let him off the hook with undisciplined hitting as they have at times in the past. In general, all the Twins hitters looked more patient and ready to work the count this year, so hopefully we'll see a bump in that.
One hitter that didn't impress was Joe Crede. He didn't look unhealthy, jut not that great, not really working the counts and not hitting anything hard. That said, I only saw a few at bats, so it's tough to damn his whole season based on just that.
Last, I wasn't happy with Punto's defense at short. He made several plays look more awkward than he had to, which cost time on each play. His throws across the diamond, in particular, were an adventure. After watching him and Casilla throw the ball, I think Casilla has the stronger arm and I'd rather see the two of them switch positions. I don't know why the Twins have never even discussed the possibility of Casilla at short.
Other quick hits:
- In case anyone forgot: Mike Redman is very very slow.
- Had a Brock Peterson sighting against the Reds. And you thought Garret Jones was all power, no contact...
- Brendon Harris does not look ready to give up his job. He is playing hard and disciplined with confidence.