Monday, March 28, 2005
Good Monday morning! I hope you all had a Happy Weekend and a great weekend. Not to rub it in again, but as you're reading this, I am in Florida. Sorry! :)
Anyway, today starts a run of Guest Columnists. Tomorrow, I will be posting my predictions for the 2005 season. The rest of the week, there are three writers that I really think you will enjoy.
But today, our first guest columnist is none other than Rita Maloney. Rita currently has a weekend talk show on WCCO radio in Minneapolis. Last December, I was on her show for an hour discussing funny names in sports. Before that, she was on Max and Maloney, a sports talk radio show on Sports Radio 950, also in The Cities. I was a guest on her show then two other times previously. She is originally from Pittsburgh, where her reporting career began. A few years ago, she moved to Minneapolis where she has worked frequently with the Twins.
GUEST COLUMNIST: RITA MALONEY
Spring Training 2005
It still amazes me...I'm being paid to come to Southwest Florida to watch baseball games and talk on the radio. And this is the second year I've been lucky enough to do this. I tell people it's because I've sucked up to the right people, but believe it or not, I do work hard down here. But again, I'm being paid to watch baseball and talk on the radio.
What a difference a year makes down here. Last year the big questions in camp revolved around the pitching staff. Could Johan Santana come back from surgery? Will Brad Radke have a stellar last-year-of the-contract season? Has Kyle Lohse matured into a real starter? Of course one of the big questions...will the Minnesota/North Dakota boy Rick Helling fit the bill as number 4 or 5 starter? (You forgot about Rick Helling, didn't you?) And who is this Carlos Silva and has he ever started a game in the big leagues before? Oh, and don't forget about the bullpen. Our saving-grace of a closer had never been a closer before and, in fact, actually came up through the minor leagues as a short stop. But that all worked out, obviously, as the Twins put up the best team ERA's in the American League.
Now this year, a whole different drama is unfolding. Shortstop. After the departure of Christian Guzman to the Washington Nationals, the question of Nick Puto's durability came up. The youth and inexperience of Jason Bartlett was discussed over cold beverages. And the thought of the so-called slick-fielding Juan Castro being an everyday starter got some folks excited and others...not so much. And just how tall (or short) is Augie Ojeda?
Oh yea...third base. How could I forget? With the departure of Corey Koskie to the Blue Jays, can Michael Cuddyer step up to become the everyday starter? How good is Terry Tiffee? And why did the Twins pick up Eric Munson? To challenge for the third base job? Back up Justin Morneau at first? Be the team's fourth catcher? Or just a left-handed bat off the bench?
There are, of course, many other unanswered questions. And I'll use what I've absorbed and observed down here to perhaps shed a little light on these and other incredibly interesting baseball topics.
No worries with the starting 5. It'll look like this:
Brad Radke, Johann Santana, Carlos Silva, Kyle Lohse, Joe Mays. (Not necessarily in that order.) And in an emergency, the "old man" Terry Mulholland can spot start.
Let me digress for a moment on Mr. Rubberarm.
He has been told that he's got to be up to 3 innings by the end of camp to come up with the team. He's a non-roster player, so if he doesn't make the team, chances are he'll opt not to go to the minors and ask to be released. In my time watching and covering baseball, I've never known a pitcher to not ice after throwing. Mulholland does not. He has a work ethic as good as any athlete I've ever seen. He appreciates every day he spends in the big leagues. And believe it or not, after spending all or part of 18 seasons in the majors, he's only now learning how to throw a change-up. This is a guy you want on your pitching staff. And in my estimation...he'll be on the charter flight to Seattle in April.
Now, back to the staff at large.
As for the bull pen, there are a couple of questions, but all the key players are back.
Joe Nathan will begin his second season as full-time closer. Juan Rincon returns as set-up man. Power leftie J.C. Romero is looking strong. Jesse Crain has overcome his early hamstring aggravation and recently earned not just the win in a game against the Phillies, but also drove in the winning run in the top of the eight inning.. And Grant Balfour has been put on the disabled list because of on-going forearm soreness. He'll have to work his way back up through the minors on rehab to be part of this team during the 2005 campaign.
So that leaves an opening. Who will fill it, you ask? I'm not sure.
Scott Baker has pitched in both starting and relieving roles this spring. But with his recent departure to the Minor League facility here in Fort Myers, expect to see him in a Rochester Red Wings uniform this summer. CJ Nitkowski has been impressive and in my humble opinion, you can never have too many lefties in the pen. But Nitkowski has been an underachiever his entire career...always looking strong in Spring Training and early in the season, but faltering when things really count. Willie Eyre has been solid and he's a product of the Twins farm system. Southpaw Dave Gassner is the "player to be named later" in the Shannon Stewart-Bobby Kielty trade in July 2003. (Perhaps one of the best deals ever made by Twins mastermind Terry Ryan.) But he's already been assigned to Rochester to get more innings under his belt.
Who will be on the commercial jet flying from Ft. Myers to Seattle in early April? I'm guessing that decision rests in the hands, or on the arms of those young guns remaining in the hallways under Hammond Stadium.
Boof Bonser, JD Durbin, Trey Hodges also have been reassigned and I don't think they are destined for Twins uniforms in the 2005 campaign.
Rule V player Ryan Roland-Smith has been shipped back from whence he came.
The southpaw just didn't show the coaches enough to make a trade to keep him.
*Note: The last Rule V player the Twins picked up when on to win the 2004 AL Cy Young Award.
Now, let's tackle the shortstop position. Jason Barlett has been impressive at times, young at other times. But in all honesty, I think he may be best suited for the job. He can hit the ball, batting .331 in 67 games with Rochester last season and hitting better than .300 so far this spring. Defensively he can scream youth, but works hard on throwing- arm angles, turning double plays, whether on the front end or back end, and just walks around with the right attitude. I think if Nick Punto would have come into camp healthy and stayed healthy, shortstop would have been his position to lose, but his strained back kept him out of more than two weeks of games, and since his return has been moved from short to second to centerfield. My impression is the coaching staff likes his versatility and will use him as a utility player.
The fact that he's a switch hitter who makes contact doesn't hurt his chances either. Augie Ojeda may be the best of bunch defensively and he's also a switch-hitter. But he doesn't seem to be the whole package yet. Then there's Juan Castro...a free agent signed in November. He came with a slick-glove reputation...but multiple error games have haunted him thus far. But he works hard and can make the spectacular play that the others may not have in their arsenal. I think it's safe to say that Bartlett is the future shortstop of this franchise. It's just a matter of confidence from the coaching staff.
If Koskie was still at third, I think it would be Bartlett's job, no question. But Michael Cuddyer has the third base position locked up, so that leaves an inexperienced left side of the infield. In my first few days here, I never thought Bartlett could run away with the job. But, I think he will be the starting shortstop come April and if he performs, will see his named penciled-in on the line-up. He has changed my mind. As for the utility player? Look for Punto, if he stays healthy. He can play all three infield positions and outfield.
Okay...left-handed bat off the bench. I can't see where Eric Munson will make this team. He's not hitting at all. Granted, it does take work for a hitter to get his timing down, but I don't see Munson improving at all. Michael Ryan isn't a power hitter, but is a left-handed bat, has some speed and can play all three outfield positions. Todd Dunwoody had a little more power and a better arm from the outfield, but he's more comfortable in right field than anywhere else. Jason Tyner is among the fastest on the team and an above-average outfielder. Armando Rios has some baggage but can play some outfield and hits from the left side. But all these players have either been released, sent to minor league camp or optioned out. So look for Terry Tiffee to provide depth at the corner positions and be that left-handed bat off the bench.
Here's my prediction of the 25-man roster:
I know. This list does not include Rochester, Minnesota native Michael Restovich. I just think the team needs a left-handed bat off the bench and since Rios and Ryan have all ready been reassigned, Tiffee is the only leftie that remains. (By the way, Tiffee is a switch-hitter and can play both infield corner positions.)
Just remember, I'm not making any of these final decisions.
Thanks to Seth for inviting me to be part of his blog. And here's to a fourth-consecutive American League Central Division Championship.
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