The best days of the Minnesota sports year are here, and I’m not just saying that because Target Field opens its gates for baseball on Thursday. The Minnesota Twins are, as of this writing, playing their home opener against the Seattle Mariners on Thursday afternoon.
Even if the foot of snow the Twin Cities received Tuesday doesn’t melt by game time or more rain and snow moves into the area forcing a postponement, at least Minnesota sports fans will have two more games to watch later that night. Both the Minnesota Wild and Minnesota Timberwolves play games that could affect the postseason, and both play at the same time, which is frustrating and frankly, should be illegal.
Thursday is going to be the best day of the Minnesota sports season. That is until Saturday, April 14, when four professional sports teams in Minnesota could all play on the same day for the first time ever. We know the Twins and Minnesota United FC (MNUFC or Loons for short) will be in action. But with the NBA Playoffs set to begin that same day, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs also underway, Minnesota sports fans could watch their home teams for up to 11 consecutive hours on April 14. The Twins host the Chicago White Sox at 1:10 p.m. CDT and MNUFC’s match in Portland kicks off at 9:30 p.m. That leaves plenty of room in the television schedule for both the Wolves and Wild.
These really are the best days of the Minnesota sports year, and they’ll continue for as long as the Wild and Timberwolves allow. Here’s the potential schedule for the best days of the Minnesota sports year. You’ll notice this is not a complete schedule of upcoming sporting events featuring a team from Minnesota. Days during which just one Minnesota sports team plays a game are not included. Each day listed has the potential for at least two games to be played by a team from Minnesota. All times are Central. Asterisks indicate a potential game not yet scheduled. Check back for updates.
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The biggest reason for fans of every MLB team to watch Opening Day is that their team is in first place. It’s the only day of the year every team can say that, but fans of every team, even the Miami Marlins, have at least one reason to watch Opening Day baseball.
The defending champions take on their in-state rivals the Texas Rangers on ESPN at 2:30 p.m. CST, and the biggest reason for Astros fans to tune in is to see if 35-year-old Justin Verlander can repeat his stellar 2017 season and carry a staff of mostly question marks.
Dallas Keuchel followed up his Cy Young season in 2015 by posting an ERA+ of just 86 in 2016. He rebounded with an ERA+ of 136 last season, but pitched just 145.2 innings. He’s pitched 200 innings just twice in his six-year career. Verlander has done it in 10 of 13 seasons, which is five more times than the rest of the Astros’ starters combined.
But the Astros are prepared in case their starters fail to eat innings, with Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock available in the bullpen.
Clayton Kershaw takes the mound against San Francisco at 6 p.m. CST on ESPN. That’s all Dodgers fans should need to tune in on Opening Day, because it could be Kershaw’s last season with the Dodgers.
Yankees fans will get their first look at last year’s home run champion Giancarlo Stanton in Toronto on Thursday. Oh, and the runner-up in the home run race, Aaron Judge, will be there in pinstripes, too.
Jon Lester will take on Miami to kick off Opening Day on ESPN at 11:30 a.m. CST. Lester, who has struggled throwing to first base, will feature a new bounced throw he’s been working on in Spring Training. It’ll be interesting to see if his new approach limits the running game of Miami, a team that does have some speed if nothing else.
Indians fans will get their first look at new first baseman Yonder Alonso, who has become the new poster boy for launch angle despite his simple focus of becoming “a tough out.” He’s certainly been that in Spring Training, collecting 21 hits in 56 at-bats and amassing an OPS of 1.284. Defensive metrics have Alonso rated as a downgrade at first base when compared to Cleveland’s former first baseman, Carlos Santana, though.
The Nationals will have to wait until Friday to open the season due to weather in Cincinnati, but it does give Adam Eaton an extra day to recover from the ACL tear that kept him out all of last season. Eaton will most certainly be the biggest addition to a team that sees its championship window closing. Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Weiters will all be free agents at the end of the season.
J.D. Martinez debuts with Boston on Thursday at Tampa Bay, a much-needed upgrade at designated hitter, where Hanley Ramirez struggled to a .750 OPS last season. Martinez will get time in the corner outfield spots as well, but will mostly steal at-bats from Ramirez and Mitch Moreland, who will serve as a platoon at first base.
Martinez’s awesome power to all fields should play well at Fenway Park, and while he might not hit as many home runs as he did at Chase Field in Arizona, at least he’s not in Arizona this year, where baseballs will be kept in a humidor to limit home runs. Chase Field accounted for the fourth-most home runs in baseball last season. Fenway was 26th, but Martinez is more than just a power hitter. He’s hit over .300 in three of his seven MLB seasons.
The Twins’ new braintrust of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine might have won the offseason, adding reasonably-priced bullpen depth (Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney), undervalued starters (Jake Odorizzi, Lance Lynn) and an undervalued slugger (Logan Morrison). They were the second-best offense of the second half of last season, with Gold Glove center fielder Byron Buxton discovering a swing that has him poised for a breakout in 2018.
Twins fans will get a chance to see all their new additions in action on Thursday in Baltimore, most notably starter Jake Odorizzi, who takes the mound with Ervin Santana recovering from hand surgery.
The Rockies were second in the league in save percentage (77.05 percent) last season despite Greg Holland being abysmal in the second half (6.38 ERA). They added Wade Davis in the offseason, who closed out 32 of his 33 save opportunities in 2017.
The Brewers were surprisingly good last year, and will surprise no one this year. They also got better in the offseason, adding center fielder Lorenzo Cain and left fielder Christian Yelich. Those additions should help them climb out of the bottom third of the league in runs scored.
Marcell Ozuna is coming off a career year in Miami (.924 OPS) and provides added depth to a lineup that already had six players with an OPS+ over 100. The Cardinals were 13th in the league in runs scored last year, but were 20th in runs allowed. The addition of Ozuna allows the Cardinals’ best outfielder, Tommy Pham, to play center field full time instead of splitting time with the less adept Dexter Fowler, who will roam right field instead. The Cardinals are going to score more runs and limit fewer runs in 2018 thanks to Ozuna.
The Mariners’ aging rotation can’t seem to stay healthy, and Felix Hernandez is a shell of his former self, but they have the speedy Dee Gordon roaming center field to back up that aging rotation, which is the best reason for Mariners fans to watch Opening Day baseball. Gordon’s transition from middle infielder to center fielder should be an adventure worth watching, but his prowess at the plate and on the base paths is always worth watching. The addition of Gordon should lift Seattle’s run production substantially, which was 15th in the league last year. Gordon’s 60 stolen bases last season would have put the Mariners at the top of the league in that category.
The Diamondbacks still have Zack Greinke, who will open the season at home against Colorado. Greinke allowed more home runs last year (25) than he had since his rookie year in 2004 (26), but the new baseball humidor in Arizona should make him even better in 2018. It might have an adverse effect on Paul Goldschmidt, though. Still, having a Cy Young contender on the mound is reason enough to watch Opening Day.
Angels fans were probably hoping Shohei Ohtani would be starting Opening Day at Oakland, but he hasn’t pitched well enough in Spring Training to warrant the fourth spot in the rotation let alone the first (27.00 ERA). He hasn’t hit either (4-for-32). The Angels still don’t have the starting rotation to reach the playoffs, but the addition of Ian Kinsler into an already potent lineup featuring the game’s best player, Mike Trout, one of the game’s best hitters of all time, Albert Pujols, and a rejuvenated Justin Upton, should make for an Opening Day featuring plenty of runs scored.
Jake Arrieta won’t toe the rubber on Thursday in Atlanta, but Aaron Nola will, giving Phillies fans reason to watch and reason for hope. The Phillies aren’t as far from contending as some people think thanks to their young talent being quick studies at the MLB level. Nola amassed 184 strikeouts in 168 innings last year, left fielder Rhys Hoskins hit 18 home runs in 170 at-bats, and second baseman César Hernández collected 215 total bases for a second consecutive season.
New addition Randal Grichuk is going to have a career year in Toronto, and Aaron Sanchez seems to have rediscovered himself (3.06 ERA in Spring Training) after struggling last season. The key for Toronto is always health. How many games will Troy Tulowitzki and Curtis Granderson play? Even Josh Donaldson missed considerable time last year. But the starting rotation and lineup are both playoff caliber. The bullpen is the reason they’re pretenders.
Manny Machado is moving to shortstop in the final year of his contract with the Orioles. Adam Jones is also in a contract year, so both will be looking to put up massive numbers to earn big paydays in the offseason. Machado was a premiere third basemen and should make for an above average shortstop, especially given his hitting ability. Watching him at his new position on Opening Day is reason for Orioles fans to watch.
It’s another even year, and the Giants have added pieces to make another run at a championship. With Madison Bumgarner recovering from a broken hand and out three months, the eyes of Giants fans will gravitate towards Andrew McCutchen on Opening Day. At 31, McCutchen should enjoy hitting in the Giants’ effective lineup, but hate chasing balls in right field behind the Giants’ aging rotation.
Can Cole Hamels return to form after a hiccup in 2017? Rangers fans will get a clue when he takes on the offensive juggernaut Houston on Thursday. If the 34-year-old Hamels has indeed regressed, at least the Rangers now have the 34-year-old Doug Fister to back him up in the rotation.
Eric Hosmer will debut with the Padres on Thursday in San Diego against Milwaukee, giving San Diego the bat it needs to protect Wil Myers. They’re still a long way from contending, but having a guy like Hosmer in the lineup should help make the vast Petco Park look just a little bit smaller. Petco allowed the second-fewest homers last year.
Replacing Hosmer with with Lucas Duda could be a very affordable way for the Royals to get similar offensive production for $140.5 million less than Hosmer got from San Diego. Duda posted an .818 OPS and hit 30 homers playing for the Mets and Rays last year. But Jon Jay (.738 career OPS, +4 total zone/total fielding runs above average per 1,200 innings in center field) is no Lorenzo Cain (.763 career OPS, +11 total zone/total fielding runs above average per 1,200 innings in center field).
All eyes will be on Noah Syndergaard, whose 101-mph fastball has been all the rage in Spring Training. The Mets have playoff potential in their pitching, both starting and relieving, and the addition of Adrian Gonzalez gives them four professional hitters (Jay Bruce, Yoenis Céspedes and Todd Frazier) in the lineup. The Mets are also very old and injury prone, so health will be a key factor in limiting their potential.
Ivan Nova could be the next Pirate traded and will start the season in Detroit taking on Jordan Zimmerman. Nova isn’t a free agent until after next season, but the $9 million and change he’s owed this year and next will make him very attractive to a team in the hunt if he has similar success to last season (4.14 ERA).
Chris Archer has long been the subject of trade rumors, but will start for the Rays on Opening Day for the fourth consecutive season. Archer’s contract is any team’s dream and comes with two club options at just $8.25 million after next season, so if he gets off to a hot start, the Rays could be given an offer they can’t refuse. Rays fans should tune in on Opening Day to see their ace get the season started on the right foot.
Top prospect Robert Acuna Jr. won’t be on the Braves’ Opening Day roster so Atlanta can control the start of his service time and retain his rights longer, but second baseman Ozzie Albies will be worth watching. Albies posted an impressive .810 OPS in 217 at-bats last year and has been raking in Spring Training (20-for-66 with an .843 OPS).
Yoán Moncada found an effective stroke last season, posting a .750 OPS in 199 at-bats. He’s been even better this spring, posting an .833 OPS in 59 at-bats. All eyes will be on Moncada to become the star everyone expected way back when he was still with the Red Sox.
Scott Schebler has been an absolute force in Spring Training, with 19 hits in 46 at-bats and an OPS of 1.151. He’ll be manning right field for the Reds on Opening Day, looking to build on his respectable 2016 season that saw him post a .762 OPS over 257 at-bats.
Miguel Cabrera might not be a piece the Tigers can trade -- this year or ever. But Nick Castellanos has just one more year of arbitration eligibility, and Victor Martinez and José Iglesias are free agents at the end of the season. The Tigers have to move all they can to complete their rebuild, so Tigers fans should be rooting for Cabrera, Castellanos, Martinez and Iglesias to start the season hot on Opening Day.
José Ureña taking on the Cubs should be reason enough for Marlins fans to watch Opening Day. Ureña had a fantastic 2017, going 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA. If he can shut down the Cubs’ lineup, it should give Marlins fans hope that they might have an ace in the making.
California native Matt Chapman will look to stake his claim to third base for the long term in Oakland after posting a respectable .785 OPS over 290 at-bats in 2017. He’s got legitimate power potential, too, hitting 14 home runs and 23 doubles last year.
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The Minnesota Twins reportedly offered Yu Darvish $100 million over four years to be the ace of their starting pitching staff. Instead, president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine invested almost the same amount of money in three players who make them better than Darvish could have.
Darvish signed with the Cubs for five years and $126 million guaranteed and for good reason. He’s projected to be worth 2.8 WARP for the Cubs. And the Cubs are one of those teams, along with the Astros, with their championship window wide open. The Twins’ championship window is just opening, but thanks to some clever spending, that window is expected to open up even more for the Twins this season.
On March 4, Jim Bowden reported that the Twins would be unlikely to sign any of the top remaining free agent starters on the market, including Lance Lynn, who declined a qualifying offer from the Cardinals in the amount of $17.4 million. Six days later the Twins signed Lynn for one year at $12 million. Lynn called the two-year, $12-million offer from the Twins “non-starter” just days earlier, but a lack of long-term offers with Spring Training in full swing made a one-year deal worth $12 million look pretty good for a pitcher entering his second season removed from Tommy John surgery.
Overnight, according to Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections, the Twins went from 82 wins and out of the playoffs to 83 wins and in. But despite an appearance in the American League Wild Card game last season, the Twins were projected as a .500 team prior to spending the money they had reserved for Darvish.
In another affordable surprise, Falvey and Levine scored free agent first baseman and designated hitter Logan Morrison for one year and $5.5 million. Morrison hit a career high 38 home runs last season -- good for 2.8 WARP. He’s been projected to be worth one win more than a replacement player.
The Twins wouldn’t have likely traded for Jake Odorizzi had they landed Darvish, either. He’s been projected to be worth .7 wins above a replacement player at a measly $6.3 million this season and is still eligible for arbitration next year. Add it all up and you’ll find Morrison, Odorizzi and Lynn to be worth just a tenth of a win less than Darvish at $1.2 million less than the Twins were willing to pay Darvish.
Consider the 1.2 wins added by the combination of Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed at the back of the Twins’ bullpen, and you not only have a playoff-bound roster, but a formidable playoff foe that can shock an American League divisional champion. Remember, they could get Michael Pineda back for the playoffs. They’re paying him just $2 million this season while he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
If Jose Berrios becomes the ace arm the Twins expect entering the playoffs, they’ll have a starting pitcher who can win them a Wild Card game. And even if he isn’t the ace the Twins expect, Ervin Santana or Lance Lynn could win that game.
The Twins’ rotation can now hang with anyone in a five- or seven-game series. A playoff rotation of Santana, Berrios, Lynn and Odorizzi can finally hang with the Yankees’ Tanaka, Severino, Gray and Sabathia or the Astros’ Keuchel, Verlander, Cole and McCullers.
The Twins are going to be one of the top three teams in runs scored with the addition of Morrison. They were second in runs scored in the second half last year without Morrison. They’re also going to be one of the top three defensive teams in baseball, which will make Lynn, Odorizzi, Reed and Rodney very happy to be in Minnesota.
Falvey and Levine won the offseason for the Twins. They recognized the perceived values of free agents were inflated for whatever reason -- whether it be collusion or analytical analism -- and they were rewarded for not overpaying Darvish. They managed to do all this without adding a single contract beyond 2019.
The Twins enter the season with a franchise-record payroll around $130 million, but will have just under $56 million on the books entering the epic offseason that will likely feature free agents Clayton Kershaw, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz, Charlie Blackmon, Dallas Keuchel, Zach Britton, Cody Allen, Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Miller.
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ESPN’s David Schoenfield predicted the Minnesota Twins would sign 29-year-old, free agent starter Alex Cobb during the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings at Walt Disney World -- a fitting place for an MLB Hot Stove that was slow to heat up.
The stove is finally preheated, with the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball, Shohei Ohtani, choosing to play for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the New York Yankees working with former Yankee Derek Jeter to acquire Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins.
The moves certainly don’t improve the Twins’ chances of returning to the postseason in 2018. The Angels were just five games back of the Twins for the second Wild Card spot in 2017, and the Yankees finished six games ahead of the Twins for the first Wild Card spot. And while the Twins’ best division opponent, Cleveland, hasn’t done much, they finished 2017 with a 17-game lead over Minnesota.
The Twins stand to pick up plenty of games playing in the AL Central next year. With the Tigers, White Sox and Royals all rebuilding, the 2018 Twins should be better than their 41-35 record within their division in 2017. But with the Angels, Mariners and Yankees improving their rosters considerably, Twins fans can expect a worse record against AL East and AL West clubs if the Twins make no moves.
But the Twins have money to spend, which is the only reason Schoenfield offers in defense of his prediction that the Twins sign Cobb. Given the Twins’ rotation, though, a starting pitcher worth just two wins above replacement in 2017 isn’t going to be enough to hold off the rest of the American League.
There aren’t as many open spots in the Twins’ starting pitching rotation as in past years. Jose Berrios is finally entering a Spring Training with a firm hold on a rotation spot. Ervin Santana returns, and the Twins are hoping the Kyle Gibson that showed up in the final month of the season is the Kyle Gibson they get all season in a contract year.
Adalberto Mejia was worth .8 WAR in 2017 over 98 innings and should get a chance at one of the Twins’ rotation spots. Mejia improved considerably from 2016, dropping his hard-hit percentage from 42 to 32 percent. That’s better than both Cobb’s (37) and Gibson’s (36) hard-hit percentages in 2017.
So without Cobb, the Twins have four capable starters. Then there’s Phil Hughes, who is a huge question mark. Minnesota president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have to be entering the season expecting nothing from Hughes. If the Twins end up with a replacement-level reliever in Hughes, they’d likely take that. Hughes certainly has earned the right to compete for a starting role in Spring Training, though.
Trevor May could come off of Tommy John surgery and compete for a starting job, too. While the Twins need reliable relievers, which May was prior to surgery, Twins Daily’s Seth Stohs thinks bringing back May as a starter would be easier on his arm and body.
Then there’s the rotation depth in Rochester, where there are six starters fighting for five spots. If the Twins add no starters, Aaron Slegers, Felix Jorge, Dietrich Enns, Stephen Gonsalves, Zack Littell and Fernando Romero would be fighting for one big-league rotation spot with up to two other big-leaguers (Hughes and May). They’d also be fighting to all stay in AAA, with Romero the most likely candidate to return to AA Chattanooga. But at some point during 2018, one or more of these young hurlers will have earned a call-up. So what should the Twins ask Santa to bring them at the Winter Meetings?
Obtaining Chris Archer’s team-friendly contract through 2019 should be the Twins’ first priority. He’s owed less than $7 million next season, and his deal even comes with team options for 2020 and 2021 at $9 million and $11 million, respectively. He’s one of five pitchers to throw over 200 innings in three consecutive seasons, and he’s a solid number two starter despite his 1.2 WAR posted in 2017.
Archer was a victim of his hard-hit percentage increasing from 33 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in 2017, but a lot of those hard hits occurred late in games when some would argue his manager, Kevin Cash, left him in too long. Jim Turvey writes: “If Archer had exited every game in the sixth or earlier last season, his ERA would have dropped from 4.02 to 3.68.”
So Archer isn’t going to match Santana when it comes to pitching complete games, but having Santana in front of him in the rotation should make Paul Molitor comfortable pulling Archer for a reliever in or prior to the sixth inning.
Acquiring Archer would be worth parting with Nick Gordon, as the Rays’ worst hitters were at second base and shortstop last season. It would also give the Rays a reason to trade shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, who rebounded from posting a 64 OPS+ in 2016 to put up an 88 in 2017 and is a free agent in 2019.
Mostly, Archer is more desirable than Darvish because of his team-friendly contract and Darvish’s struggles in the postseason and down the stretch of the regular season last year.
If the Twins can’t score Archer, Cole is a logical second option. His 2.8 WAR in 2017 was just one win less than Darvish’s, and Cole will make a fraction of what Darvish demands in arbitration the next two seasons. And if the Twins wish to retain Nick Gordon, the Pirates could be a better trade partner than Tampa given their need for young, starting pitching.
Yu Darvish was worth 3.8 WAR last season. That’s not close to competitive with aces in the league, but would make him a solid number two starter on any team, including the Twins. Santana finished 2017 with 4.8 WAR and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting.
The Twins should resist overpaying Darvish, though, considering their starting pitching depth and the aforementioned availability of number-two starters with team-friendly contracts.
So instead of spending all that money Schoenfield cites, the Twins would be better off trading for a short-term solution to add to their pitching staff that will allow them to be even more active in free agency next year, when Clayton Kershaw is likely to be available. The Twins could even move Miguel Sano to first base and acquire either Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado with Joe Mauer’s contract expiring. Whether the new front office is willing to let the long-time face of the franchise go is a question that won’t likely be answered until next year.
The Minnesota Twins’ poor history of scouting and signing Asian players shouldn’t prevent them from offering the Nippon Ham Fighters the $20-million maximum posting fee for a chance to negotiate a contract with pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani.
Twins scouts have dropped the ball in Asia, resulting in the firing of their international scouting director. They’ve been paying ByungHo Park $3 million annually to play mostly minor league games, and they’ll do so for the next two years. He’s appeared in 62 MLB games and might not see the majors again, making Park a worse mistake than Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
Nishioka appeared in just 71 MLB games, finishing with a .503 career OPS and 22 runs worse than a replacement-level player on defense. He made $6 million over two years, but was kind enough to opt out of the final year of his contract to go back to Japan, saving the Twins $3.25 million.
But both Park and Nishioka are hitters. The Twins have had at least some success scouting and signing Asian pitchers who have found success in the majors. Chih-Wei Hu, a right-handed pitcher from Taiwan, might not be with the Twins anymore, but struck out nine batters in 10 innings for Tampa Bay in 2017. The Twins traded Hu for Kevin Jepsen and new chief baseball officer Thad Levine probably wishes Terry Ryan hadn’t.
Most scouts see Ohtani’s arm playing better in the bigs than his bat, but Ohtani wants to develop his bat. While the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees can offer Ohtani a slightly larger signing bonus than Minnesota, Ohtani will reportedly give preference to a team that will allow him to both pitch and hit in the big leagues. The Yankees won’t likely be willing to allow Ohtani on-the-job training in the hitting department given their abundance of young hitters.
Since any team who signs Ohtani wouldn’t likely risk his health playing the outfield, any National League team looking to sign him is working at a disadvantage. Texas would have the most at-bats to offer Ohtani, with Carlos Gomez a free agent, but this shouldn’t deter Minnesota from posting the maximum $20 million for the right to negotiate with Ohtani for 30 days. They’d only pay the posting fee if they end up signing Ohtani, and Texas will likely post the maximum amount anyways.
The Twins shouldn’t hold back from posting the maximum of $20 million because Ohtani is that type of pitching talent. His triple-digit fastball is enough to make him an effective reliever in the bigs, but his nasty splitter and slider are reportedly just as good, giving him legitimate ace potential. Scoring an ace in his prime for a staff that desperately needs one would be worth the $20-million posting fee. And it wouldn’t cost the team much more to pay Ohtani’s salary next year.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, Ohtani can only agree to a minor league contract that is subject to signing bonus pools, which would make his salary about $545,000 next season. That would make the entire cost of Ohtani in his first season around $24 million, which is less than the Twins would pay Yu Darvish, who is eight years older than Ohtani. A team’s available signing bonus money and its ability and willingness to sign Ohtani to a long-term deal will be what seals the deal.
The Twins will have just $21.2 million on the books for 2019 if they don’t pick up Ervin Santana’s team option. The Rangers have nearly $54 million on the books for 2019 if they don’t pick up Cole Hamels’ team option, plus $18 million owed to Prince Fielder. The Yankees have $85 million on the books in 2019 if you include Brian McCann’s sunk contract of $15 million. So the Twins are in the best position to offer Ohtani the most in a long-term deal, and while they can’t sign him to a long-term deal immediately -- even secretly -- Ohtani’s representatives from CAA sports will be very aware of this fact.
While the Twins have plenty of designated-hitter depth, they likely aren’t committed to any of them. To the surprise of some, Kennys Vargas was left on the Twins’ 40-man roster. Vargas was slightly better than a replacement player at the plate and playing first base, but he’s out of options and will be fighting for his job in Spring Training. The Twins won’t hesitate to subject Vargas to waivers, especially with Robbie Grossman on the roster.
Grossman was third amongst designated hitters in on-base percentage in 2017 and is arbitration eligible for just the first time at 28 years of age. But even he would take Ohtani’s potential at-bats since Ohtani swings from the left side of the plate and Grossman is considerably better against righties than lefties. Grossman likely has some trade value since he’s under team control for the next three years, but finding a trade partners looking for a designated hitter who’s a defensive liability will be tough. Regardless, only Texas is in a better position to offer Ohtani at-bats, and the Twins could simply waive players in order to do so.
Since Ohtani can only agree to a minor league deal, the Twins can afford to be wrong on Ohtani. They don’t have to sign him long-term after next season or at all. He won’t be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2020 season, so Ohtani’s betting on himself big time by not spending another year in Japan, which would likely net him a $300 million deal as a free agent following next season. Given Ohtani’s injury history, that should provide a warm, security blanket for Falvey and the Twins. The Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball is well worth the risk.
In a season that took 2,468 games to decide a champion, it might seem foolish to base any conclusions on the result of one game. But no game is more important and, therefore, more revealing, than a World Series Game 7. So here’s what we learned from the Astros’ World Series win.
The Astros took the lead in the first inning of Game 7 with a leadoff double followed by an error by 22-year-old, first baseman Cody Bellinger, who also struck out thrice in the game and finished the series with a .565 OPS. Alex Bregman then stole third base on Darvish, who seemed to forget about him, which resulted in a second run when the likely American League Most Value Player, Jose Altuve, did exactly what he needed to do -- hit a ground ball past the pitcher. That was enough to win the game.
Darvish’s thoughtful, Twitter reaction to Yuli Gurriel’s insensitive, racially-charged gesture following a home run in Game 3 was a pleasant surprise in what’s been a year defined by racial divisiveness. But Darvish’s World Series performance might leave some MLB general managers reluctant to sign the starter to a big-money, long-term deal in free agency this offseason. As the moments got bigger, Darvish got worse. He allowed eight runs over three-and-a-third innings in the World Series while allowing just two runs in 11-and-a-third innings in his other two postseason starts. He was responsible for two of the Astros’ four wins.
More importantly to his free agent value, Darvish was either really good or really bad in 2017. In his 10 wins during the regular season, Darvish averaged just 1.6 earned runs allowed. In his 12 losses during the regular season, Darvish averaged 4.17 earned runs allowed. He allowed five or more earned runs five times during the regular season. Including the postseason, Darvish allowed four or more earned runs eight times.
Kershaw tossed four innings of scoreless ball in Game 7 but blew his chance to shake his bad postseason reputation in Game 5 -- the most important game of the series. He allowed six earned runs over four-and-two-thirds innings pitched, and like Darvish, performed better earlier in the postseason. Kershaw actually lowered his postseason ERA from 4.44 to 4.35. His regular season ERA of 2.31 led the majors. Unlike Darvish, I doubt Kershaw’s postseason struggles will scare away any general managers looking to sign him next offseason if he declines his player option with Los Angeles. He’s still the best regular season starter in baseball.
The Astros will likely return their entire roster next season, but the team is built for long-term success thanks to home-grown talent. Altuve won’t be a free agent for another two years, and Carlos Correa won’t hit free agency until 2022, which is the final year of Bregman’s arbitration eligibility. And now Houston has Justin Verlander signed through 2020, so look for the Astros to be perennial contenders for the next three to five years.
Regardless of what happens with Kershaw after next season, the Dodgers aren’t built for sustainable, long-term success. While the Dodgers could have up to $96 million coming off their books after 2018, they would like to stay under the $195 million luxury tax threshold to avoid paying the 50-percent tax reserved for teams exceeding the threshold for three consecutive seasons. So paying Kershaw $40 million annually might not be feasible. The Dodgers will also have to consider signing 25-year-old, center fielder Joc Pederson long-term, who was their best player in the World Series with a 1.344 OPS. He’s eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason.
Look out sports fans! Maybe, just maybe, baseball is making a big comeback. Now I know we are in the middle of football season. Down my way in the Bayou State, both the Saints and the LSU Tigers are on a roll. And a hyped-up basketball season is just beginning. But baseball is drawing record crowds with the World Series ringing up the largest TV audiences in years.
The luster is off pro football. The “take-a-knee” controversy has turned off thousands of viewers. Just check out all the empty seats at any Sunday NFL game. Quite frankly, many of the pro games are, well, just boring. Then there is the “thug factor” and the statistic that some 50 NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence. To many former sports fans, politics has become their favorite entertaining diversion.
Just what is America’s favorite pastime? Is it politics or baseball? Politics has always been a major spectator sport, particularly here in my home state of Louisiana. But don’t sell baseball short. Not only has baseball been around longer than any of America’s professional team sports, the game’s highs and lows have been injected in national politics almost from the sport’s inception.
Now I’m a diehard baseball fan. I grew up in St. Louis and was in the stadium the Sunday afternoon back on May 2, 1954, when Stan the Man Musial hit five home runs on the same day in a doubleheader. I’m a regular at spring training down in Tampa, where I follow my perennial favorite, the New York Yankees.
Baseball has been well ahead of the NFL in confronting issues of race. The problems of major league baseball have often served as a mirror image of the problems facing America. Its history is both a reflection of this country’s fears and ignorance, and its hopes and promises. Like almost any other cultural phenomenon of such prominence, baseball has served as solace and as a poke to our conscience.
In 1948, the major leagues faced the problem of segregation earlier than the politicians in Washington, DC, did. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and won the rookie of the year award in his first season. It took court cases and sit-ins to get the attention of our political representatives to follow suit.
A few years back, the Tampa Bay Rays were the Cinderella team that went from “worst to first,” winning the American League pennant. Maybe it has something to do with their name. They used to be called the “Devil Rays” and their record was terrible. As soon as they dropped the word “Devil,” they became victorious overnight. Is it baseball pure and simple, or is the Religious Right involved?
Maybe it’s impossible to get away from campaigns and politics by focusing on the current World Series, but I’m going to give it a shot. The Fox network carried many major league games this season. In the National League, everyone, even the pitchers, get an equal chance to bat. Will Fox News say that the National Leaguers are socialists? Will their commentators argue they should call some home runs out if they are too far to the left? And I guess you can’t blame the Democrats from bemoaning that every time someone steals a base, they get reminded of the 2000 presidential election.
There is also a lesson to be learned from Babe Ruth as Congress is considering limiting executive pay and bonuses of corporations who received bailout money. When the Babe was asked how he could justify making more money than the President, he shrugged off the question by answering, “I had a better year.”
I suppose one of the biggest differences between these two spectator sports is the sense of optimism that baseball brings every spring. The crack of the bat, a pop fly against a blue sky, and the green grass seem to offer a sense of renewal. It harkens back to the essence of youth and heroes of the past, and you feel that almost anything is possible in the coming season. But in today’s political climate, there is little thought of great statesmen and principled political figures. Political courage today is too often defined by poll watching and sticking a wet finger to the wind.
So when the TV remote offers a choice of the NFL, politics or baseball in the coming week, I’ll choose the great American pastime. It’s baseball hands down. Like a fellow once said: “The difference between politics and baseball is that in baseball, when you are caught stealing, you’re out.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown is a guest contributor to GCN news. His views and opinions, if expressed, are his own. His column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show, Common Sense, each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Communication Network.
Target Field staff played a delayed feed of the national anthem on the Jumbotron while Brian Dozier homered to open the game and Eddie Rosario followed it with a two-run dinger, but despite missing nearly all the action, and the game becoming predictably uncompetitive, I still think the world needs more one-game playoffs.
The Minnesota Twins were the David to the Goliaths of the Major League Baseball Playoffs. ESPN’s Sports Nation staff ranked Minnesota’s roster last amongst the MLB playoff teams in all three areas -- lineup, starting pitching and relief pitching.
The Twins were huge underdogs not just to win the American League pennant, but the Wild Card Game. A $100 bet on the Twins to beat the Yankees would have paid $225. Those are the worst odds in the short history of MLB one-game playoffs. In the first American League Wild Card Game, a $100 bet on the Baltimore Orioles to beat the Texas Rangers paid $195.
Better yet, a $100 bet on that guy who had never boxed before against that guy who had never lost before would have paid just $40 more than a bet on the Twins to beat the Yankees. Apparently 50 million Americans watched that fight, which would be 15 percent of the U.S. population. The overnight rating for the American League Wild Card Game was 5.2, meaning Nielsen estimates 5.2 percent of households watched the game -- up 58 percent from last year.
So people watched because anything can happen in one game -- and did it ever. We saw baseball like never before because of the one-game playoff format. For better or worse, we saw how managers can affect a game -- something that isn’t the case over the course of a 162-game season -- or even a seven-game series.
Paul Molitor might win the American League Manager of the Year Award, but Joe Girardi was the better manager Tuesday. He made all the right moves. Girardi lifted starter Luis Severino after a third of an inning before his postseason ERA ballooned over 100 (it’s 81.00). When the Yankees badly needed to strand two runners in scoring position with just one out down three runs in the first inning, Girardi called on Chad Green, who struck out Byron Buxton and Jason Castro -- who didn’t touch a ball and probably should have been lifted for a pinch hitter at some point with three catchers on the Twins’ roster.
Molitor could have lifted Ervin Santana after a third of an inning, too. Santana was visibly struggling with his command, but instead of going to Trevor Hildenberger with two runners on, Molitor left Santana to allow the home run that tied it and sucked whatever mojo the Twins had stolen in the first half of the inning.
Girardi used his best bullpen pitcher (by the numbers at least) in the most dire situation while Molitor used his best bullpen pitcher, Trevor Hildenberger, to start the sixth inning down three runs -- with nobody on base! And instead of lifting Santana for Hildenberger, Molitor went to Jose Berrios, who like Santana, struggles to find his command early in games. Berrios predictably allowed a home run that put the Twins in a seemingly insurmountable three-run hole with the best of the Yankee bullpen yet to come.
Whatever mojo Molitor might have had in negotiating an extension with the Twins, he’s lost it in my opinion. When one game is your season, that game must be managed flawlessly. But that’s part of the beauty of one-game playoffs. Managers are faced with situations that don’t exist outside of a one-game playoff -- like removing your starting pitcher with one out in the first inning.
Anything could have happened on Tuesday in New York, but the better team won, as is mostly the case in MLB one-game playoffs. The favorite is 7-3 in MLB Wild Card Games, with those previously mentioned 2012 Orioles being the biggest underdog to advance. The 2014 Kansas City Royals were barely underdogs against the Oakland Athletics at +101, and the 2015 Houston Astros and Yankees were basically drawing even, but the Astros were playing in New York.
So if the better team wins the one-game playoff 70 percent of the time, the world needs more one-game playoffs. I’m not advocating the expansion of the MLB Wild Card format, but in a world where so much is wrong, one-game playoffs like that of the MLB and NFL Playoffs and NCAA March Madness provide wildly entertaining relief. I hope there’s a tie for a division championship or a three-way tie for a Wild Card spot next season.
Prior to the Minnesota Twins taking on the New York Yankees to close out their regular season series in New York, I wrote that I thought the Twins were a better team than the Yankees in a five-game series. The Twins proceeded to be swept by the Yankees in a three-game series at New Yankee Stadium, proving me wrong and leaving an all-too-familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach.
That all-too-familiar feeling is the result of 12 consecutive playoff losses by the Twins, nine of which came at the hands of the Yankees. And with 12/1 odds to win the American League pennant and 20/1 odds to win the World Series, the Twins are the short stack at the Major League Baseball final table.
On paper, the Yankees are overwhelming favorites in the American League Wild Card Game. They’re playing at home, where they will have played their final seven regular season games and where they have hit 134 of their 235 home runs this season. So the Yankees will be comfortable, especially coming off a three-game sweep of the Twins at home.
New York will run Cy Young candidate Luis Severino to the mound against Ervin Santana -- a right-handed, fly-ball pitcher in an unforgiving ballpark for right-handed, fly-ball pitchers. And Santana has been susceptible to the long ball, especially in New York. He allows one every five innings at New Yankee Stadium.
Santana did show improvement over his career numbers at New Yankee Stadium (0-5, 6.43 ERA, 1.714 WHIP) in his last start, however. He went five and two-thirds innings allowing seven hits and two earned runs, but he did allow a first-inning home run to Aaron Judge that might not have carried out of Target Field. The Twins will need the Santana who showed up that day to have a chance at ending the Yankee playoff curse.
Despite the Twins having so few at-bats against Severino coming into the game, they showed an ability to at least make contact in an 11-3 loss two days after Santana’s start. All three runs were charged to Severino, as he struggled to put Twins hitters away over the course of three innings and 71 pitches. The Twins connected on 21 foul balls to extend at-bats against Severino. That patience will be a key to success again for the Twins, as the earlier Minnesota can get into the Yankee bullpen the better their chances will be to win.
While the Twins are young, so are the Yankees. In fact, the Twins’ active roster has an average age of 28.1 to the Yankees’ 27.8, so the Twins are actually more experienced than the Yankees on average.
When it comes to playoff experience, though, the edge goes to New York -- big time. The Yankees have 14 players on their active roster with playoff experience to the Twins’ six. The Yankee players with playoff experience are more likely to get into the Wild Card Game, too.
Of the 14 Yankees with playoff experience, seven of them are position players. Of the Twins’ six players with playoff experience, just Joe Mauer and Jason Castro are position players. Mauer is 10-for-35 in the playoffs. Castro has just one hit in 14 playoff at-bats.
Yankee players have 466 playoff at-bats and are hitting .253 as a team in the postseason. Their starter in this game, however, has not pitched in the postseason, but Dellin Betances, David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman have.
The Twins can call on closer Matt Belisle and, perhaps, Glen Perkins, for bullpen arms with playoff experience. Perkins might not make the Wild Card Game roster, though, so no lead is big enough for the Twins on Tuesday in New York.
So if the Twins can score early and often and get into the Yankee bullpen, keep the ball in the ballpark and play clean defense, and score runs like they have since the All-Star Break (5.67 runs per game is second only to the Cubs), they can end the Yankee playoff curse. At least an incorrect call on a double down the third base line won’t be their undoing this time.
With the Minnesota Twins collecting just their fourth walkoff win of the season at Target Field, Wednesday night, they are two games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels for the second Wild Card spot in the American League. They could now become the first team ever to make the playoffs having lost more than 100 games the previous year.
The Twins have a 60 percent chance to make the playoffs given that seven of their last 17 games are against the hapless Detroit Tigers. I wrote about how these Twins could be the biggest underdog overachievers of all time, but now the team doesn’t look like overachievers. What once was a -68 run differential is now +8. Everything’s coming together like it did for the Twins in 1987 and 1991.
The Twins traded their All-Star closer and got better! The Twins lost All-Star slugger and third baseman Miguel Sano to injury and got better! The Twins lost the designated hitter with the highest on-base percentage in baseball, Robbie Grossman, and got better! So not only does Paul Molitor deserve an extension with the Twins, he should probably win the AL Manager of the Year award.
I was not a supporter of Paul Molitor’s when Ron Gardenhire was let go by the Minnesota Twins. In fact, I had Ozzie Guillen and Rusty Kuntz ahead of him on my dream list of managers.
I didn’t like Molitor’s first lineup, and there are few I’ve agreed with since, because batting your best home run hitter in the leadoff spot has never made much sense to me, especially with two players with on-base percentages in the top-10 in baseball (Joe Mauer and Robbie Grossman). Dozier gets himself out on the first pitch a lot, and that’s not helpful to his teammates when leading off a game.
I do appreciate Molitor’s willingness to move everyone else around the lineup, though. The rigidity I expected has never been the case, and Molitor has even platooned players effectively, namely Max Kepler. He’s also managed to get Grossman plenty of at-bats without using him in the outfield.
Most impressive is what Molitor’s done with a baby-faced bullpen and over-the-hill starting rotation. When he badly needed someone to step into the rotation and eat some innings, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine gave him 44-year-old Bartolo Colon. That was enough to satisfy me, and it has been enough to satisfy Molitor so far.
Right now, I think these Twins are better than the New York Yankees in a five-game series. They’ve been better in a three-game series thus far this season, and will have a chance to close the three-game gap between them and the Yankees starting Monday in New York. Here’s how the potential playoff preview lines up:
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 18 at 6:05 p.m. CST
A battle of the aces -- Ervin Santana versus Sonny Gray. This should be a good one. Santana tossed six innings of shutout ball to give Eddie Rosario the chance to win it with a walkoff homer deep into the Minneapolis night.
Sonny Gray has been great for the Yankees, but the Yankees haven’t been great for him. In five of his eight starts, the Yankees have managed just one run or less of support despite Gray’s sterling 2.66 ERA since the trade from Oakland.
Game 2: Tuesday, Sept. 19 at 6:05 p.m. CST
Jose Berrios takes on Twin-for-a-game Jaime Garcia. Garcia has struggled mightily since the trade from Minnesota. In fact, he hasn’t pitched six innings since his first and last start in a Twins uniform.
Berrios, on the other hand, is coming off his best start of his career. He might have not gotten a win in Kansas City, but he pitched his best in yet another high-pressure situation early in the game. With the bases loaded and one out in the second inning, Berrios got a double-play grounder off the hot bat of Whit Merrifield. He went on to complete seven innings, allowing just two runs.
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 20 at 1 p.m. CST (ESPN)
Two players who’ve seen their seasons turnaround in the second half -- Bartolo Colon and Masahiro Tanaka -- close out the season series. Both pitchers are coming off ugly starts, though.
Tanaka allowed seven earned runs over four innings against a tough Texas lineup, but he had won four consecutive starts prior visiting Arlington.
Colon was even worse in Kansas City, failing to complete two innings and allowing six earned runs. He too had been great in his four previous starts, though.
If the Twins are to overcome the history of failures against the Yankees in the playoffs (1-9 in their last 10 postseason games), playing at Target Field might help, despite a better record on the road this season (39-32). The Yankees will enter the postseason on a seven-game homestand ending Oct. 1.
The Twins finish the regular season with a three-game series against Detroit ending Oct. 1. The American League Wild Card Game is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 3 with a time to be determined.