Remember what I said last week that athletes are role models regardless of their desire to be a role model? Therefore, the excuse “I don’t want to be a role model” in invalid for poor behavior? Perhaps I should mention to Torii Hunter that while he’s often a good role model, he’ll also be the man I use as an example to children of “think before you speak, or you can get into all sorts of trouble.” (Doug Mientkiewicz will also be mentioned, along with A.J. Pierzynski.) Torii made some marginally racist comments, which were a small portion of his larger concern, but still brought the sports blogosphere up in arms. While his main focus may be true (and we could argue that), his wording was very poor.
I could write about three long posts today, but I’m shortening them. The first was shortened in my mini-rant at the beginning, so let me focus on A Tale of Two Joes for the main entry.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…*
* If you don’t recognize the quote from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, it makes me sad. I don’t care if you’ve actually read the book, but at least recognize the quote! It’s the English major in me that gets all uptight about this sort of thing.
The Twins had almost every position on the field filled with quality players (some are unproven, but have shown high potential—namely Delmon Young and J.J. Hardy’s offense). The starting rotation, while lacking a #1 starter, had a plethora of 2-5 starters. There even was hope in a true #1, if reports from Winter League about Francisco Liriano were true. Hope abounded. The bullpen issues were solidified with the addition of Jon Rauch and replacing Bobby Keppel with Clay Condrey. It wasn’t an All-Star lineup, but there were All Stars in it. It wasn’t a feared rotation, but it could be respected. It wasn’t a lights-out bullpen, but strong enough to concern other teams.
And then Joe Nathan was pulled from his first spring training appearance after facing two batters—but 20 pitches. Then it was reported that he was flying to Minnesota for an MRI—‘just to be sure it’s only from his off-season surgery, but it’s probably nothing.’ And the next thing we knew, he had a torn ligament and was possibly facing surgery (which, at his age, would likely be career-ending). Many people see this the end of the season. And many people reassure us that it’s not. I’m on the fence.
Joe Nathan is a great closer. The difference between a good closer and a bad closer is something like seven games. On one hand, out of 162, seven isn’t very many. On the other hand, the last two years, the Twins have gone to game 163. Without those seven wins, the Twins don’t make it to the playoffs in 2009. Or 2003. And gone to 163 (or not made the playoffs) in 2006. So, a good closer could make a huge difference. Joe Nathan could be a difference-maker in a season.
Yet… Remember back to 2004? In the off-season prior to the start of the season, the Twins lost their closer, Eddie Guadardo and their set-up man LaTroy Hawkins. As Torii Hunter said, “This stinks! It looks like we’re rebuilding again. If I had known this was going to happen, I probably wouldn’t have signed my deal… You’d think we could have offered that (what Hawkins got from Chicago). I think we’re forgetting who we’re dealing with here. Joe Nathan is no LaTroy Hawkins. He might be a good pitcher, but LaTroy has proven himself here, and he’s a chemistry guy.” (See above side note about Torii speaking before he thinks.) This quote was not pulled intentionally to pick on Torii. Purely a coincidence. Besides, Torii said what a lot of fans were likely thinking. Joe Nathan had one save before joining the Twins, in four opportunities and 19 holds. He pitched a total of 263 innings. His strike-out to walk ratio was 1.41. Not exactly the numbers you hand over a closer role to. If I recall, they slowly broke him in. And by slowly, I’m talking Olympic sprinter slowly. He had 47 save opportunities that year, which is the third most in his six years as a closer. And he became one of the elite closers.
The Twins don’t have a closer in the wings…yet. They have a couple of minor leaguers that could break into the role, but not for a few years (probably). And those aren’t sure things, either. Jesse Crain was groomed as a closer. His struggles with injuries have derailed those plans. Pat Neshek was a closer in the minors, and injuries have derailed that. There’s nothing saying that now that both of them have recovered, one of them couldn’t step into the role. Jon Rauch was a closer for a while. While his stature is typical of a closer (someone to fear), his pitching is not necessarily. Matt Guerrier has been a solid set-up man for years now. Perhaps it’s his time to step on the mound with the game on the line—in the ninth, rather than the eighth.
Moving onto the other Joe. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Joe Mauer is coming off a career year—that we all hope he somehow surpasses in 2010 (As CBS’s Scott Miller said to Mauer, “It’s going to be hard for you to be the Comeback Player of the Year.”) He’s definitely one of the elite players in the game. Other teams covet him. The fans of the big-money-spending teams are drooling for the day they can snatch him in free agency. He’s a nice guy, by all reports. He’s a great player. He’s a competitor. So..it is the best of times.
But his contract is up at the end of 2010. He’s an elite player, and elite players can command elite prices. Usually—but not always—one of two things happen: the player is signed to a larger contract before Spring Training, or is traded before the trade deadline. Mauer didn’t sign before Spring Training. Both sides have, mercifully, kept mum on the contract status. What it comes down to is this: Joe Mauer is a competitor and wants to win. He will play where he feels he has a chance to win. If he signs with Minnesota, he could command up to ¼ of the salary, which would hamper the team’s ability to win. Many teams, other than the big spenders, would be in the same boat regarding Mauer. It comes down to whether or not Mauer feels he can win in Minnesota, or if there are better chances elsewhere. So, for the fans, waiting on his decision, it’s the worst of times.
There is nothing we can do about either situation but wait and watch it all play out.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”**
** It’s the ending of A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t expect you to know that, though. I looked it up.
Timberwolves update: They have a 0-3 record since I last reported. They’re now at 14-51, or a 21.5% winning percentage. The have the worst record in the West, but New Jersey has the worst record in the NBA, 7-57, reportedly on pace for a record year.
Wild Update: The Wild have a 31-28-6 record, for a 47.6% winning percentage. They’re not technically out of the playoff picture yet, but neither are the Baltimore Orioles.