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 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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While I’ve only been a Minnesotan for about a year, the state has been my second home since I was a kid fishing the Land of 10,000 Lakes with my dad and uncles. I’m now a Minneapolis resident and homeowner. I drive home from work on South 11th Street to avoid the backed-up Interstate 94 West at least three times per week. I attend Minnesota Timberwolves games regularly and Minnesota Twins games even more regularly. So my take on the Super Bowl is this: I’m ready for it to end and never come back.
If you have tickets to the big game, you probably have enough money to invest in warm outerwear. If you refuse to do so, you still don’t have to subject yourself to the elements. I walked nearly a mile from the Super Bowl Experience at the Minneapolis Convention Center on 2nd Ave South and South 12th Street to Target Center on 1st Avenue North and North 7th Street -- without going outside. The skyway system should allow you to get from just about any downtown hotel to U.S. Bank Stadium without going outside, so you don’t get to complain about the cold. You knew this game would be played in Minneapolis in the winter, so you had ample time to prepare. The Super Bowl doesn’t sneak up on anyone, except The Dan LeBatard Show.
Whether you’re a local or not, you don’t want to be driving around downtown Minneapolis. Army National Guard members in armored Humvees are serving as extra traffic cops and some four-lane streets are cut down to just two lanes to account for increased pedestrian traffic. Even bike lanes are being sacrificed to accommodate increased foot traffic, but at the speed of downtown traffic, bicycles will blow by cars on the crowded streets. Bicycle parking isn’t much of an issue either given the weather. I had no problem finding a place to lock up my bike just a block away from the Verizon Up stage for the free Morris Day and the Time concert on Monday night, which brings me to my next point…
Getting to the Verizon Up stage was a nightmare because of a giant, man made snow hill parked on Nicollet Mall. You couldn’t move for minutes at times because it was so packed with people. Nicollet Mall was just remodeled to better accommodate foot traffic, and the first opportunity we have to test it a sledding hill is installed instead. While streets around the stage were closed, pop-up tents selling overpriced food and drinks minimized the added area for foot traffic. So the sidewalks are basically the only means of entrance or exit to the Verizon Up stage despite the ample increase in foot traffic.
If you have children, they’ll love the Super Bowl Experience at the Minneapolis Convention Center, and at $25 per child 12 years of age or under, it’s a bargain. There are tons of games to keep them busy all day, including actual NFL combine competitions against pro football players. There’s even a mini-football field in the basement that looked to be setup for a field goal kicking contest. There’s a punt, pass and kick competition, and, of course, there’s plenty of people selling stuff.
The Super Bowl Experience might not be too attractive to adults, though. There are lounges throughout the convention center where you can play pool and get some food or a drink. There are Super Bowl rings on display as well as the Lombardi Trophy. Even some Hall of Fame busts made the trip to Minneapolis, including Vikings’ Cris Carter’s and Brett Favre’s. The most interesting thing I found at the Super Bowl Experience, though, were the tiles chronicling the game’s history. I’m betting there’s a bunch you didn’t know about football, like a touchdown used to be worth four points prior to 1898, which was less than a field goal’s five points until it was changed to four points in 1904, and then three points in 1909. A touchdown wasn’t worth six points until 1912.
I bet you didn’t know baseball’s Philadelphia Athletics and Phillies formed professional football teams in 1902. Ace pitcher Christy Mathewson played fullback for Pittsburgh, and the first World Series of pro football was a five-team tournament featuring a team made up of players from both the A’s and Phillies. I never knew the St. Paul Ideals and Duluth Eskimos existed, with Duluth having the coolest uniforms ever.
I couldn’t imagine standing around the Mall of America watching people do radio with celebrities, but plenty of fans did it with hopes of getting a picture with their favorite players. It took me about 15 minutes to realize my media pass actually granted me access to Radio Row, so upon entering I broke the only rule posted at the area: I asked Allyson Turner of The Dan LeBatard Show to autograph my headphones, and she obliged. Had I not had access, I would have gone into the office to write this immediately after my short conversation with her. Instead, I literally bumped into Drew Brees, met local, comedy legend Louie Anderson, and told Busta Rhymes how much I appreciated his music. He patted me on the shoulder with a hand the size and weight of a prize fighter’s while he said, “I appreciate you, too, man.” The highlight of my Super Bowl week was meeting Busta Rhymes. I wanted to thank Rod Carew for being such a damn fine human being, but he was the busiest person at Radio Row -- and for good reason.
So there’s a local take on the Super Bowl I’m sure my fellow Minneapolites can appreciate. Had the Vikings made the Super Bowl my take might not be so harsh, but that would be an even more biased opinion based on elation brought on by lust and desire. Do yourself a favor and heed the advice offered. We can only be “Minnesota Nice” for so long.
For the first time in a long time, the Minnesota Vikings gave fans joy instead of pain in January. Immediately dubbed the “Minneapolis Miracle” by KFAN play-by-play broadcaster Paul Allen, Stefon Diggs soared for Case Keenum’s Hail Mary pass on a play called “Seven Heaven” and ran it in for a 61-yard touchdown with no time left on the clock to beat New Orleans and advance to the NFC Championship Game. But the Vikings weren’t the only team in Minnesota playing big games in January. Both the Wild and Timberwolves were in action on Sunday, and both are in contention.
Minnesotans aren’t used to their professional sports teams being competitive. Hell, they aren’t used to their professional sports teams staying in Minnesota. Minnesota has never had a football, hockey and basketball team (and baseball team, technically) in contention this far into their respective seasons as it has in 2018. With the Wild on a five-day bye and the Wolves just a half game behind San Antonio for third place in the Western Conference, Minnesota will be making history every day the Vikings survive. For the first time ever, Minnesota has championship caliber teams contending in all four major, American sports.
Minnesota had two sports teams in contention in January of 2005, and if it weren’t for the NHL strike that cost us all the 2004-05 season, Minnesota would have likely had three contenders at once. The Vikings advanced out of the Wild Card round by winning in Green Bay, but lost in Philadelphia in the Divisional Round on Jan. 16. The Timberwolves entered that day 18-17 and second in the Northwest Division. The Wild were 30-29-20-3 the previous season and then 38-36-8 in 2005-06.
On the same day the Vikings were shutout by the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game in 2001, and the Timberwolves were running fifth in the Midwest Division with a record of 21-17. The Wild, however, entered Jan. 14, 2001 with a record of 14-19-8-2 -- last in the Northwest Division and tied for second to last in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves went onto the playoffs; the Wild did not.
In January of 1988, the North Stars were bringing up the rear in the Norris Division and sitting second to last in the Clarence Campbell Conference while the Vikings were going into the NFC Championship Game they’d lose to Washington. The Timberwolves didn’t exist.
On Jan. 11, 1970, the Minnesota Vikings were blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl while the North Stars entered play with a record of 9-15-13, good for third in the West Division but worse than every East team. The Minneapolis Lakers, though, had already been the Los Angeles Lakers for a decade. They were 21-22 at that point in the season, en route to the playoffs.
The last time any local fan base had contenders in all four major, American, professional sports in January was just last year. As the New England Patriots marched toward another Super Bowl win, the Boston Celtics were running third in the Eastern Conference and the Bruins were second in the Atlantic Division. Both the Celtics and Bruins went onto the playoffs. The Red Sox went on to the playoffs, too, and as of April 23, Boston still had a chance to win all four major, American, professional sports championships in the same calendar year.
Before that, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins won their respective championships in 2009, but didn’t and still don’t have a professional basketball team to continue the Steel City’s dominance.
All four of Philadelphia's major professional sports teams played in a championship game or series in their respective sports, but not in a calendar year. The 1980 Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series in October, but the Philadelphia Eagles lost Super Bowl XV in 1981. The 1979-80 Philadelphia 76ers lost the NBA Finals, and the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers lost the Stanley Cup Finals.
The last and only time a local fan base enjoyed winning championships in three of the major, American, professional sports was in 1935, when the Detroit Lions, Red Wings and Tigers all won their respective championships. The Detroit Pistons didn’t exist.
No local fan base has enjoyed winning championships in all four of the major, American, professional sports in the same calendar year. But things are lining up well for Minnesota, as Minneapolis hosts the Super Bowl this year, and the Vikings opened as 3.5-point favorites on the road at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.
If the Timberwolves can secure the three seed in the Western Conference, they could avoid playing Oklahoma City and Golden State in the NBA Playoffs, increasing their chances of winning an NBA Championship against a less competitive Eastern Conference.
The Minnesota Wild aren’t even in a bad position with the top Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. They’d visit nearby Winnipeg in the first round of the playoffs and just beat them 4-1 on Saturday.
The Twins are also gearing up for a run at a championship by bolstering their bullpen. The addition of Fernando Rodney and, surprisingly, Addison Reed, to the backend of the bullpen will push guys like Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey and Ryan Pressly into lower leverage situations. If they can land the top free agent starter on the market, Yu Darvish, to go along with Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana, they’d be legitimate contenders, regardless of Miguel Sano’s status given sexual assault allegations against him.
As it stands, Minnesotans are enjoying the best days in the history of Minnesota sports and will continue doing so for as long as the Vikings allow.
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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.
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.
With his last three swings in Toronto on Sunday, Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton likely erased any doubts of his ability to hit Major League pitching -- the final step in securing his place amongst the stars of Major League Baseball. New Twins’ president Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have little reason to worry about signing Buxton to a long-term deal as early as this offseason, and that’s not an overreaction to Sunday’s three swings.
This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community for foul-mouthed sports fans and bloggers.
Falvey and Levine can probably stop worrying about Buxton’s bat. Baseball Prospectus editor Aaron Gleeman’s “life is devoted to posting positive Byron Buxton stats,” and he couldn’t keep up with Buxton on Sunday.
You don’t need stats to see that Buxton has “turned a corner” as they say. Even ignoring those last three swings you can find an at-bat that proves Buxton’s progress. His first plate appearance of the game came with two outs in the first inning with runners on first and second. Resisting his younger self, he didn’t try to pull a fastball that was on the outer half of the strike zone despite it being elevated. Instead, he drove a hot grounder up the middle for a single that scored the first run -- the perfect approach given the situation and pitch. That might say more about his progression at the plate than the three swings.
In the top of the fourth, though, again with two outs and a runner on third, Buxton banged a hanging breaking ball into the Toronto bullpen in left center, reminiscent of Kirby Puckett.
On the very next pitch he saw to lead off the top of the seventh, Buxton attacked a changeup left up that started outside and tailed back over the outer half of the strike zone. His timing was perfect because he’s no longer worried about being late on a fastball. In fact, he wants to be late on a fastball because it puts him in a better position to punish offspeed mistakes, which are harder for pitchers to locate. So instead of fouling the ball down the third baseline, he deposited the changeup into the second deck of left field seats.
And on the very next pitch he saw, Buxton bent his knees to reach a 91-mile-per-hour fastball at the bottom of the inside corner and drove a line drive home run down the third baseline. The swing actually reminded me of Reggie Jackson, who is the only other MLB player of which I know who’s homered with three consecutive swings.
Buxton’s final swing on the fastball down and in was the swing of an evolved hitter. It didn’t look like Buxton was looking fastball all the way. It looked like he reacted to the fastball and trusted the quickness of his hands. It’s another hole Buxton seems to have closed in his swing, so if pitchers are going to pitch him inside, they’re going to have to get him swinging at pitches off the plate inside.
In three swings baseball fans got a glimpse of a star being born. It took the nebula that is “The Twins Way” more than 850 MLB plate appearances, multiple swing alterations, injuries and demotions to produce Buxton the star, but Buxton’s explosion was blinding and so beautiful it probably brought grown men to tears.
This isn’t the first time Buxton’s offered a glimpse of his potential at the plate. The kid figured out big-league pitching at the end of last season, too, posting a .936 OPS in September of 2016. Trout’s OPS over the same stretch was .962.
If Buxton repeats his success from last September, the Twins will make the playoffs. They’ve gained some ground on the Angels and Mariners, sitting alone in the second Wild Card spot with a 1.5-game cushion and have two fewer losses than the four teams chasing them. And while the Twins have relied on a slew of young players (Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco) to remain in the driver’s seat, it’s been Buxton who’s contributed the most over the course of the year, and it’s not even close.
Buxton’s WAA (wins above average) of 3.0 is 1.8 better than Brian Dozier’s and 2.1 wins better than Miguel Sano’s. The second most valuable Twins player this season has been Ervin Santana, worth 2.3 wins above average. So Buxton should at the very least be Falvey and Levine’s top priority whenever they do decide to start offering contract extensions. But waiting until after next season would be a mistake for more than one reason.
Falvey and Levine could end up paying Buxton a little more than a half million dollars next season, but fear of Buxton competing for the Most Valuable Player Award next year should be taken pretty seriously. What little money the Twins might save in 2018 won’t be more than what can be saved by signing an employee to a long-term contract in an industry that only sees salaries increase.
Last year was the 14th consecutive season of revenue growth for MLB -- a record of nearly $10 billion. Those long, slow games have really cut into the bottom line, eh Commissioner Manfred? Despite those long, slow games and people cutting cable at record rates, MLB seems to be doing just fine thanks to the live streaming market. I’m pretty sure MLB was the first major sports league to debut live streaming in 2002, which has allowed them to work out the many kinks that were present even when I watched my first game on MLB.TV in 2006. The streaming service is so valuable that Disney bought a majority stake in it to include with ESPN’s streaming service expected to launch sometime next year.
So the biggest reason to sign Buxton long-term this offseason is because it’s unlikely he’s less valuable next year. If he stays on the field, he can only improve, and even if he doesn’t improve, arbitrated salaries most certainly will improve for players -- every year -- until Manfred ruins the game by starting extra innings with a runner on base. At this point, it would be more of a surprise for Buxton to regress than progress.
Joe Mauer was also in Buxton’s boat. If you ask just a few Twins fans the biggest mistake the organization has ever made, it won’t take long for you to hear someone complain about Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million contract. But the mistake in signing Mauer long-term when the Twins did was not a failure to predict injury. You can’t predict that one too many foul tips to the head will alter your best hitter’s vision and force him to change positions.
You can predict a player’s prime, though, and Terry Ryan didn’t do Bill Smith any favors by extending Mauer for four years prior to the 2007 season. Mauer was coming off his first All-Star appearance at age 23 -- just his second full season after the knee injury. While Ryan bought out Mauer’s arbitration years for $33 million, why he didn’t sign Mauer through his prime is mind-boggling. Sure he’s a catcher that’s had a knee injury, but he caught over 1,000 innings the previous season and won the batting title -- as a catcher!
Mauer’s monstrous contract isn’t Bill Smith’s fault; it’s Ryan’s. That 2007 extension should have been for at least six years, making Mauer a candidate for an extension in 2011, an injury-plagued season, or a free agent after a rebound season in 2012 that saw him finish 19th in the MVP voting. Instead, Smith was forced to act after Mauer’s MVP season in 2009 to avoid losing the league’s best player to free agency after the 2010 season. That would have been a hell of a trade chip, though, huh?
Waiting for an up-and-coming player to prove his worth always costs more because you’re paying for past success instead of potential success. Offering arbitration to an All-Star-caliber player is like writing an IOU that changes in value but always comes due, and generally at a higher rate than the original figure.
That’s the big worry isn’t it? There’s nothing worse than signing a player to a long-term contract only to see said player get hurt and get paid the same amount to be a lesser version of the man who earned the contract.
Buxton’s injury probability is likely higher than average due to his propensity to go all-out all the time. But only injury history, not injury probability, should influence contract negotiations, and Buxton’s injury history isn’t worrisome.
Remember that collision that left him concussed in 2014? Twins fans everywhere gasped in collective fear and concern for their top prospect. Twins fans know better than most what blows to the head can do to careers. But Buxton came back two months later and collected 15 hits in 13 games of Arizona Fall League action. And while the next concussion will be invariably worse, it’s not as though Buxton is running into outfield walls at the rate Joe Mauer was taking foul tips off the head. Besides, Buxton’s legs are his most valuable asset to the Twins, and those have managed to stay out of harm’s way for the most part (knock on wood).
If Buxton ends up carrying the Twins into the playoffs he will have earned a long-term contract, especially if Sano can only provide designated hitting services the rest of the season due to his shin injury. Buxton wasn’t an All-Star this year, and while Sano was, the Minnesota Twins center fielder has been more valuable than the slugging third baseman, and any other Twin for that matter.
Buxton has been flying under the radar because of his well-documented struggles finding his swing. Given Sunday’s three swings, that won’t be the case much longer. Buxton is probably going to win the American League Gold Glove in center field this year and maybe for the next 10 years. Even before he was hitting, Buxton was contributing more than the slugging Sano thanks to his speed and defense. His 23 defensive runs saved so far is best amongst fielders let alone center fielders. But now he’s starting to figure it out at the plate, culminating in the first two- and three-homer game of his young career on Sunday.
Buxton’s 3.8 WAR was fifth amongst all MLB center fielders entering Sunday’s game and more than a win better than Sano’s 2.5 WAR thus far. After Sunday, Buxton’s WAR improved by half a win (4.3) -- third amongst MLB center fielders, behind Charlie Blackmon (4.8) and Mike Trout (5.4).
While Buxton is looking like a player who can carry the Twins into the playoffs, he’s still not Trout, but he deserves the same treatment when it comes to his contract. If the Twins were to sign Buxton to a six-year deal like the Angels did Trout, Buxton would hit free agency for the first time at 29. Trout will be just 28 when he hits free agency for the first time.
Buxton’s arbitration years aren’t going to be cheap and will only get more expensive with every season that passes. He’ll likely enter arbitration after next season as the most valuable arbitration-eligible player on the field -- physically and fiscally. When considering what Buxton could earn in 2018, Marcell Ozuna is Buxton’s most comparable contemporary (5.0 WAR this year). The two-time All-Star is making $3.5 million in this his first year of arbitration, which is probably a bit less than Buxton would demand.
So if Buxton makes the same Ozuna made in his final year of team control ($.57 million) and the same Ozuna’s making in his first arbitration year, that’s $4.07 million over the next two years. Call it $5 million just for sake of inflation. In Buxton’s second year of arbitration eligibility, he could be making Charlie Blackmon money ($7.3 million). In his final arbitration year, Lorenzo Cain’s $11 million salary doesn’t seem unreasonable, but Cain’s not being paid via arbitration.
Bryce Harper is making $13.625 million in what would have been his second season of arbitration eligibility, which is also a problematic comparison since the Nationals bought out his remaining arbitration years. Still, if Buxton is better than Cain (and he is), it’s not unfeasible that in his third season of arbitration eligibility, Buxton could get what Harper got in his second year. Add it all up and it’s nearly $26 million to buyout Buxton’s arbitration years. He would be 27 years old -- right in the middle of his prime -- with another one or two years of peak performance left. So what would Buxton’s prime years cost the Twins?
To give you an idea of how much contracts for baseball players have increased in just the last 15 years or so (and how little the dollar’s value has increased), Torii Hunter signed his four-year, $32 million contract with the Twins after the 2002 season. He had just won his second Gold Glove and finished sixth in the MVP voting. That’s not out of Buxton’s realm of potential. In 2017 dollars, Hunter’s contract is worth just just over $37 million over four years. So despite Hunter being the most obvious Buxton comparison, the massive increase in MLB revenues via television and live streaming deals makes a more contemporary example necessary.
Christian Yelich got seven years and nearly $50 million from Miami before the 2015 season. Buxton will get more.
Enter Trout -- arguably the best all-around player of all time, so far. In no way am I implying that Buxton is the next best all-around player of all time, but Trout is the best example of a player who shares Buxton’s diverse skill set playing a position of scarcity, and the average salary from Trout’s six-year, $144.5 million deal signed in 2014 is probably close to what Buxton can expect over his prime given inflation. That’s roughly $24 million annually, or $1 million more per year than Mauer makes -- at least through next year.
Falvey and Levine have all or part of Mauer’s contract coming off the books after next season, and they’ll need at least half of it to pay Buxton. A potential six-year deal for Buxton comes to $74 million, or $12.33 million per year. Adding another year or option likely lifts the contract over $100 million in total. Falvey and Levine will likely load most of the money on the back end of the contract to allow more flexibility in free agency the next few seasons.
There will be plenty of money left over for Sano with Ervin Santana’s contract expiring after next season (assuming the Twins don’t pick up his 2019 club option), and Glen Perkins likely entering free agency or retirement after this season. Brian Dozier could even free up a few million dollars for Falvey and Levine, which they’ll likely need to retain Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario.
Despite being rushed to the majors, and despite starting his career 2-for-22, and despite the changes to his swing, the demotions and the injuries, Buxton’s weathered the storm rather impressively for being just 23 years old. While Buxton didn’t take to the big leagues like Trout, Harper or even Mauer, he’ll be even better for it. All the failures of his young career culminated in the superstar we saw born on Sunday. Those three swings wouldn’t have been possible without the many failures experienced along the way.
When Buxton was truly struggling to make contact at the plate, I never saw a look of despair in him, and that’s what it takes to be a superstar in the big leagues. All the tools in the world can’t help the player who’s discouraged by a seemingly endless streak of failure. Buxton deserves to be paid because he’s paid the price to become his team’s best player and proven his dedication to his craft.
The way Buxton has dealt with failure should earn him the respect of his teammates and better allow him to lead his team. He’s shown the ability to lift his team with his speed, his glove, his emotion and now his bat. He has become the new face of the Twins and should be paid like the new face of the Twins.