Justin Morneau chatted as he devoured a turkey sub in front of his locker yesterday, and he recalled that when he got hurt last year, the Twins had the depth to fill the gap, with Michael Cuddyer sliding over to play first base and Delmon Young and Jason Kubel sharing in the outfield rotation.
Getty ImagesIt may be the dugout this year for Nathan, instead of the 'pen.
The Twins also lost Kevin Slowey to an injury, and they had enough depth, and Brian Duensing stepped in and did a great job, and Minnesota moved on. But Joe Nathan's torn ligament is seen within the Twins' clubhouse as being a little different. As Morneau said, there really isn't anybody else who can easily slide into Nathan's role, and do what he has done for the Twins over the last five years.
Nathan's stature within the Twins' organization explains why, when manager Ron Gardenhire got the call late last Monday night with the news that Nathan had a tear, that his reaction was an "Oh my." It's the reason why Gardenhire felt the need to speak to his team about Nathan, to remind them that their thoughts should be for Nathan and what he is going through, rather than on the lingering question about who would step into Nathan's huge shoes as closer if Nathan cannot do the job. "I really felt bad for him," said Gardenhire, "because I know how much he cares.
"When you get down to the eighth and ninth innings -- we tried to use him in the ninth inning only -- but it's that comfort zone. You get through eight innings, with a one run lead or more, and you've got that guy at the end and you feel pretty good about it. You don't take it for granted ever in this game, but as almost a sure thing, he's been pretty close to that."
There is some hope that Nathan will be okay. The pitcher has been getting second opinions on his injury, and he is not being told that he definitely needs to have reconstructive surgery. So he will pick up a ball in the next week or two and play catch and see how he feels.
But his status is tenuous enough that the Twins are beginning the process of sorting through potential Plan Bs.
Jon Rauch has the most experience closing games, among the set-up men on the Twins' roster. In a perfect world, however, the Twins would be able to keep their middle relief guys and set-up men in their current roles. That could happen if Nathan were to come back, or if the Twins were to acquire a closer. John Smoltz would seem to be a good fit, on paper. He is a free agent and would not cost the Twins any prospects in a trade, the way that a Heath Bell would, and he has experience as a closer. Scouts who saw Smoltz in his time with the Cardinals say that the quality of his splitter increased dramatically in St. Louis, giving him a weapon against left-handed hitters that he did not have in his outings with the Boston Red Sox. The Twins have the kind of bullpen depth that would allow them to protect Smoltz physically by limiting his innings, in the way that Trevor Hoffman is protected in Milwaukee. If Smoltz needed a day between appearances, Gardenhire could give that to him.
Teams that inquired about Smoltz during this offseason got the sense that the right-hander would be willing to pitch out of the bullpen. And Smoltz would fit the team's clubhouse culture perfectly, and might like the fact that he would be asked to fill a crucial role for the Twins, who will go into this season at a time when their organization is on the rise.
We have tended to think of the Twins as a gritty, gutty small-market team, but they have a chance to become a more powerful brand than that. Jim Pohlad, the son of the late Carl Pohlad, has demonstrated that he will invest in young talent, like Denard Span, who signed a five-year, $16.5 million deal yesterday, and Jim Pohlad did not cut corners in the construction of Target Field, which opens next month. The team's payroll has been increased by some 40 percent, the club's fan base seems to be growing, and so is the team's opportunity to make money.
Keeping Joe Mauer will be a major test, though, and the Twins need to contend this year if they are to be launched into the next level of franchises, in the way that PacBell launched the Giants a decade ago. But they need a closer, whether that is Nathan or Smoltz or somebody else.
The calendar is an important part of the decision-making process in Nathan's situation. If there is a legitimate chance Nathan can pitch, the Twins will be all for that, but Minnesota does not want to put his 2011 season -- the last year of his contract -- at risk. And if he has the surgery sometime in the next month, he'll probably be in line to pitch next spring.
More on the Twins: Francisco Liriano tells LaVelle Neal that he would consider closing, but would prefer to start.
• The Span signing shows the Twins are willing to make bold moves, writes Jim Souhan.
Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information sent along this note on Denard Span:
"Span stole only 23 bases last season (tied for 32nd in MLB) but that statistic really doesn't give a complete picture of his baserunning ability. According to baseball-reference.com, Span accumulated 29 Bases Taken (includes bases advanced on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks and defensive indifference), the 2nd-highest total in the majors, according to this list of the highest from last season:
Here's another impressive stat for the speedy Span: he had a .667 batting average on bunts (10 hits, 15 at-bats), which is nearly double the major league average of .376.
• Red Sox prospect Ryan Westmoreland will undergo brain surgery, as Peter Abraham writes.
• Delmon Young looks great and feels great, after dropping weight in the offseason with a simple program: He stopped eating as much. "I ate the same food," he said. Just less of it.
When the Twins held their winter fanfest event, Young showed up very early, signed baseballs and eagerly volunteered, and offered to do more in community events than what he's done in the past. He had a strong finish to the end of last season, and this will be an important year in his career, when he will give an indication on whether he will establish himself as an everyday outfielder in the big leagues, with the talent to be a .300 hitter.
• Twins infielder Brock Peterson had this story of justice from last year. He was at the plate and smoked a foul ball into the stands and hit a woman square in the forehead, the blood pouring off the wound. Peterson was shaken by this, stepped out of the batter's box to try to compose himself, and the home plate umpire humanely encouraged him to get settled. "He gave me something like three minutes," Peterson recalled.
As medical personnel rushed to help the woman -- who would turn out to be okay -- Peterson remained out of the box. The opposing pitcher started yelling for him to get going, to get the game re-started. The pitcher's demeanor, in the face of what was going on in the stands, apparently bothered the umpire, because when Peterson took a 3-2 pitch right down the middle, the umpire called it Ball Four.
• In the pressbox in Clearwater, Fla. Saturday, we were trying to come up with a comparable pitcher to Phillies left-hander J.A. Happ, and settled on Tom Glavine (to be clear, because of his style, and not because of the respective resumes).
Happ marches to the mound, works quickly and without displaying any emotion, and then marches back to the dugout, like Glavine. And like Glavine, there isn't a single pitch that Happ throws that wows you -- he doesn't have an overpowering fastball and his breaking ball is functional but hardly Blyleven-like. He just changes speeds, changes locations, and he gets outs.
• Another young Philly pitcher learned his lessons, writes Andy Martino.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Joe Mauer situation puts a twinkle in the eye of Red Sox fans, writes Nick Cafardo. It's hard to overstate how perfectly Mauer would fit into Fenway Park, as a left-handed hitting peppering the Green Monster in the way that Wade Boggs used to, as a strong defensive catcher whose presence would allow the Red Sox to move Victor Martinez to DH next year, and for his personality. And the Red Sox are in a position where they could pay him a whole lot of money, because they don't have a lot of pricey long-term obligations, the way that the Yankees do.
But it undoubtedly would be better for baseball if Mauer stays with the Twins -- and I think that in the end, he'll re-sign with the Twins.
2. Ryan Howard is working on his stance, as Bob Brookover writes.
3. Tim Cowlishaw thinks Vladimir Guerrero could be a very good choice to bat No. 2 for the Rangers.
4. The Brewers lost a player on waivers, writes Anthony Witrado.
The battle for jobs
1. Buster Posey is killing the ball, making a roster decision more difficult for the Giants. Hey, if he can play first base better than Aubrey Huff, then this is something the Giants should seriously consider. Perhaps Posey could be used in a hybrid catcher-first base role, with him catching 60 games and playing first base when he's not catching.
Steve Decker shares some thoughts on Posey, within this Andrew Baggarly piece.
2. The Marlins might be looking at an all right-handed rotation, because some lefties are struggling, as Joe Capozzi writes.
3. Jim Leyland saw progress in three guys battling for jobs in his rotation, writes George Sipple.
4. The Rangers have a lot of options for their bullpen, writes Anthony Andro.
5. The Angels' Ervin Santana looks great, again.
Dings and dents
1. Lance Berkman had knee surgery.
2. Kerry Wood missed a game with arm soreness.
3. Ian Kinsler is going to be sidelined for a week, at least.
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka is having more physical problems, as Peter Abraham writes.
5. Erik Bedard threw without pain. I'd bet that the Mariners would be thrilled if they got 20 starts out of the lefty -- and when he pitches, he is usually pretty good.
6. Eye surgery has helped Oakland's Daric Barton.
The art of catching
Another catching tip from Brent Mayne:
"I don't know too much about hockey, but while watching the Olympics, I couldn't help but notice how meticulous the goalies were about smoothing out and fixing the ice around the crease area. This got me thinking about catchers and the area around the batter's box, and that led me to this pointer:
"You know that 55-foot pitch that pitchers throw/spike once in a while? The one that just nicks the front of home plate and ricochets over the catchers head -- despite his best blocking mechanics? It happens about once every 8 or 9 games and everybody pats you on the back and says, ' There was nothing you could've done to keep that ball in front of you ... it was just a bad hop.'
"Well, yes and no. Yes, bad hops are unfortunate, but it's not true that 'there's nothing the catcher could've done about it.' While I'll admit a 55-foot pitch is tough to block, and next to impossible if it hits the lip of the plate, let me ask you a question. Why is the dirt lower than the front of home plate in the first place?
"The point is, the catcher (just like the goalie) is responsible for the dirt (or ice) around him. By paying attention and constantly grooming the area around the batter's box (i.e, making sure the plate and dirt are on the same level) bad hops will decrease. That ball that careens off the plate and over your head really should never happen. Pitches that bounce in the dirt will be more predictable and you'll become a much more consistent blocker."
1. Oliver Perez was The Man for the Mets, throwing four no-hit innings. To repeat: Perez has a chance to be the Mets' equalizer. He needs to be the Mets' equalizer.
2. B.J. Upton provided a sign that he has turned the corner, mashing two opposite-field home runs.
3. The Nationals still haven't won a game this spring, and at some point, that does matter; they have probably crossed that threshold already.
4. Mark Teahen is hitting .105, and Ozzie Guillen wants to see more.
5. Ricky Romero battled the wind, as Mike Rutsey writes.
6. Big Papi is off to a slow start this spring, writes Michael Silverman and John Tomase.
7. Paul Maholm had a good day.
8. Homer Bailey stepped up in class.
9. The Padres stole a bunch of bases.
• Eric Chavez swings bats -- and makes them, too, as Susan Slusser writes.
• Ozzie Guillen launched a tirade against Sean Penn.
• Pessimism is starting to creep into the equation for Orioles fans, writes Peter Schmuck. The O's have had some stuff go wrong this spring, Jeremy Guthrie got knocked around on Saturday, and their early-season schedule is just an absolute killer.
• The Rays are feeling good about their prospects, as Marc Topkin writes. They have to keep the pipeline going, writes Roger Mooney.
• Joakim Soria is already seeing benefits from staying in K.C. during the winter, writes Bob Dutton.
• Ramon Hernandez has found a comfort zone, writes John Fay.
• A touted Braves prospect has arrived, writes David O'Brien.
• Aaron Hill leads by example.
• The Dodgers' clubhouse is a sad place to be, writes T.J. Simers. Chad Billingsley is working on his changeup.
• Adrian Beltre is respectful of Mike Lowell's situation, writes Amalie Benjamin.
• The Cubs' owners look like they know what they are doing, writes Rick Morrissey.
• Ken Griffey, Jr. let the fans share in the fun, writes Larry LaRue.
• Brandon Morrow is making the most of his minor league lessons, writes John Lott.
• Colby Rasmus believes that his rookie struggles will help him this year, writes Joe Strauss.
• Aaron Laffey starts for the Indians today, writes Paul Hoynes.
• The Yankees' Jesus Montero is looking to establish himself at catcher, writes Ben Shpigel.
• The Mets could find hope in a couple of rookies, writes Mike Vaccaro.
• Cito Gaston and Bobby Cox are both retiring but have been treated differently, writes Richard Griffin.
• John McLaren is working as Jim Riggleman's bench coach, writes Adam Kilgore.
• Tending to minds is the business of Jim Leyland, writes Lynn Henning.
• The D-Backs are buoyed by a fresh start, writes Dan Bickley.
• Jose Tabata is showing his strength.
• A team philosophy has allowed the Rockies to flourish, writes Jim Armstrong.
• Troy Renck makes the case for Todd Helton for the Hall of Fame.
• J.C. Romero is being sued.
• Chuck Lofgren's Mom is an inspiration to him.
• A-Rod needs to answer questions about Dr. Galea, writes Mike Lupica.
• Joel Sherman thinks rivals should be separated in realignment.
• Vanderbilt's offense was terrible against Mississippi State, and now they're probably looking at a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. Bummer. But I do have some new favorite enemy players in Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado and Phil Turner, who compete like crazy.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said he had the wrong guys doing the wrong things. If I had to guess, it was after Vanderbilt made a comeback and on repeated possessions, the ball went inside to some of the Commodore big men who are not really scorers. Varnado, a shot-blocker, swallowed them up and the momentum turned.