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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 22 June 2011

Just how good of a fielder is Tsuyoshi Nishioka?

When the Twins signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka last winter, they knew they weren't adding another power bat to the lineup. Minnesota hoped the Japanese star would bring his speed and bat control across the Pacific, but didn't know whether his defensive skills would allow him to effectively play either shortstop or second base.

There is no telling whether Nishioka's line-drive swing and speed on the base paths have cleared customs yet, as the 26-year old has played just 11 games this year. An unfortunate take-out slide prevented Nishioka from playing in Target Field's grass until mid-June, and nothing can be gleaned from such a small sample size.

What Twins fans can analyze, though, is how comfortable Nishioka looks in Minnesota's infield.

Since his return, Nishioka has played five games at shortstop for the Twins. Many balls have been hit his way, and he's been given dozens of chances to prove his worth.

After the jump, I'll take a look at each time Nishioka touched the ball in his Target field debut. It's a very small sample size, but the "scouting" aspect of the game is almost as important as numbers and actual performance. By re-watching this June 16 game, I hope to find clues to several questions people have about Nishioka: Does he look comfortable? Is he still getting used to the grass infield? Will he be a defensive liability for the team?

Let's find out...
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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 20 June 2011

A few short weeks ago, Twins fans were preparing for one of the biggest fire-sales in franchise history. Now, many are preparing for October baseball.

The Twins have won each of the five series they've played this month. They swept a four-game series against the Royals, a three-game set against the Padres, and a two-game stand against the White Sox. Minnesota has gained plenty of ground in the AL Central, but they're still just eight games behind the division leader.

Even though the Twins opened the season with twice as many losses as wins, they still hope to compete. If that's not evidence of how awful the AL Central is this year, I don't know what is.

Let me paint you a picture: Minnesota continues to soar through interleague play, and wins at least nine of the next 12 games. To close the season, the Twins play like they did in 2010 and win 58 percent of their remaining games. That would give them a final record of 86-76. Is that enough to win the division?

Or, more importantly, is that enough wins to give the Twins a chance to become buyers at the trade deadline?

The Cleveland Indians are going to slowly fade from the playoff picture in the AL Central, and the Detroit Tigers are currently on pace for 88 wins. If 90 wins is enough to qualify for the postseason, the Twins have got to bring in any help they can find. Whether that be through an expensive half-year rental (Vladimir Guerrero?), an effective trade (Michael Cuddyer, a few million dollars, and a B-level prospect for Kevin Gregg?), or an impact-making mid-season promotion (Kyle Gibson?), it's going to be tough to find any maneuvering space in the $113 million payroll.

But that's not to say the Twins shouldn't feel obligated to make a move if they are within sight of the AL Central leader. Even though they wouldn't be a favorite in the postseason, the “anything can happen in the playoffs” cliché applies, and the extra few million in extra expenses would be quickly recovered. 

Come July 4, if Minnesota can count on two hands the number of games they're behind, they need to make a move. But getting to that point won't be an easy task, even in the laughably-soft AL Central. The Twins need to finish filling the hole they created in the first two months of the season, and they have to do it as soon as possible.

There are still 92 games to be played this year, but I'm going to create a series of short-term goals Twins fans can use to gauge the team's ability to contend.

The first on the list: Nine victories in the next 12 interleague games.

Failing this goal doesn't necessarily end their season, but if the Twins aren't in a position to compete as they head into the All-Star Break, they should feel free to hold a fire-sale; fold their cards, and reload the roster for next season.

But if they hope to compete this year, every game counts. And time is running out.

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 14 June 2011

I tossed in the towel a few weeks ago. Is it too late to take it back?

The Twins were more than a dozen games out of the divisional race, injuries had ravaged the lineup, and those who had managed to stay healthy weren't performing well. I was growing disinterested in Minnesota's major-league club, and turned my eyes to the future.

It was time to call it quits.

I was hardly alone in making this jump. I just jumped earlier than most. But now that the team has won nine of their last eleven, I want back on board.

The growing prevalence of social media and knee-jerk reactions makes it difficult to watch a baseball game without rooting for either team to win. Long gone are the days where you can enjoy a game without caring about the outcome. As a fan of a team over 16 games behind the division leaders, I decided a few weeks ago that I would rather see the Twins lose than win.

Minnesota has an excellent scouting and development team, and are more than willing to spend money in the draft. If the Twins were to qualify for a high draft pick next June, they would undoubtedly be able to sign some of the best amateur talent in the country. If a team is willing to spend as much as $5 million on a signing bonus, a high draft pick can be turned into a left-handed ace or an MVP-caliber infielder.

But it turns out Minnesota can't even properly secure the top overall pick in next year's MLB Draft. It's time for me to stop worrying exclusively about the future and enjoy this stretch for what it is: an exciting time where the Twins can do no wrong.

Tonight, when Carl Pavano takes on the White Sox in Target Field, I will be rooting for a Twins win. And I don't want to apologize for wanting my “fan-hood card” back.

The Twins have lost just three times this month, and are sprinting back into the division race. They still have a lot of ground to cover, but there are reasons to be optimistic: the bullpen has been fantastic as of late, and the lineup is slated to receive reinforcements as several top players return from the disabled list.

Is a healthy Joe Mauer the only thing holding this team back? Probably not. Will Tsuyoshi Nishioka's presence in the infield significantly improve the team's winning percentage? I doubt it. But those two returns -- combined with Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Glen Perkins, and Denard Span – make Twins fans excited for these next few weeks.

I still don't think the Twins can contend in the division this year, much less reach the postseason. The hole they dug in April and May can't be filled by a two-week surge. Is it possible? Sure. But if they intend on being the last team standing in the AL Central, they'll have to catch some lightning in a bottle.

And I want to be rooting for them while they try.

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 09 June 2011

On the surface, it seems the Twins' season has taken a turn for the better.

But we all know better.

Minnesota may have jumped ahead a few games in the standings, but they're still the same dismal team they've always been. This same team that won just five of their last 23 games to close out the month of May has now won seven of their last eight. If that's not the definition of an aberration, I don't know what is.

While the Twins suffer through their worst season in franchise history (at least since the team moved to Minnesota), blame is dished out to everyone and fingers point in each direction. Finding a single lightning rod to direct all of our frustration is impossible; too many people have made too many mistakes.

After being swept by the Detroit Tigers on June 1, the Twins were 17-37 and 16.5 games behind the division leader. That's just a tad better than the pace set by the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Even the most steadfast of fans had given up all hope of contention, and watching a complete Twins game became a feat of Herculean magnitude.

It was then the Twins decided to turn things around. Only, they really haven't.
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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 22 May 2011

I hate to be that guy, but the Twins are an awful team. My lack of optimism is justified.

Injuries, bad luck, and ineptitude have a death-grip on the team, and reaching the postseason already seems like too tough a task. Minnesota figures to be full-fledged sellers at the trade deadline, and I'm already looking at prospects for the 2012 amateur draft.

Being a Twins fan hasn't been easy this year. Being a Twins in the deserts of Arizona has been especially rough this weekend.

Thanks to some of God's perfect timing, this recent Minnesota/Arizona series coincided perfectly with my graduation in Phoenix   and a quick Grand Canyon trip with the cousins. Unfortunately, the Twins decided to give me three consecutive 'heartbreaker' losses.

Because I'm too lazy to craft a few effective transitions and sound semi-intelligent, here are some quick thoughts via the always-popular bullet points. I posted some pictures below the jump. Enjoy!

  • On Friday, Gardenhire set the tone for the weekend by intentionally-walking Willie Bloomquist to load the bases for Ryan Roberts. (Howard Sinker likened the move to intentionally-walking Nick Punto.) I still haven't heard an acceptable explanation for that decision, and it only goes to further my theory that managers can only ever make a negative impact on the game. At least from the first inning until the last, the best manager is one who stays out of the headlines.
  • The Twins did manage to get the bases loaded with one out for Jason Kubel and Justin Morneau, but they both failed to put the ball in play with any authority. Story of the season.
  • Both Baker and Liriano dealt with some high pitch counts in the early innings. Either the Diamondbacks are way more patient than they were last year (nope), or the Twins are pitching poorly and inefficiently. I suspect the latter.
  • Minnesota's bullpen was miserable this entire series, as well. If they weren't complaining of obscure probably minor aches and pains, they were being lit-up for multiple-run innings. Now, I'm not trying to sound excessively cynical; Glen Perkins may really have an "injured oblique," Kevin Slowey may really be suffering from a "muscle tear near his stomach," and Jose Mijares may really be unavailable because of a "strained elbow," but it also smells like a convenient excuse.
  • In some paradoxical form of schadenfreude, I'm actually looking forward to the trade deadline this year. I've never intimately followed a team as they hold a fire-sale, and it will be interesting to see how many players Bill Smith is able to move. He'll certainly be shopping just about everyone: Joe Nathan is on the block, Michael Cuddyer barely escapes 10/5 no-trade rights and will hopefully be among the first moved, and I'm sure Smith will listen to offers for Francisco Liriano and even Justin Morneau. A heap of talented, young prospects are likely headed to Minnesota.
  • I was able to make it to Chase Field for the Saturday and Sunday games. Both were great experiences, but were painful to sit through. I took some pictures, so click below to see a random assortment.

Click below to read more...

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 03 May 2011

It wasn't pretty, but Francisco Liriano hurled a no-hitter Tuesday night against the Chicago White Sox.

In a symbolic gesture that represented my apathy towards the MLB-worst Twins, I had muted the game and moved it over to my secondary monitor. I may have been half-heartedly watching, but I could recognize that Liriano didn't have his best stuff working. Being far too concerned with Liriano's half dozen walks, I didn't realize he was working on a no-hitter until the 9th inning, when I caught a glimpse of the scoreboard.

A little part of Ron Gardenhire may have died for every pitch Liriano threw beyond his 100th, but thanks to some lucky defensive positioning (and my incredible anti-jinxing power) Liriano retired 27 Chicago batters without allowing a hit.

The first no-hitter of 2011. The first nine-inning performance of Liriano's career. All this from a pitcher on the verge of losing his spot in the rotation?

Maybe all the Twins' problems can be solved with a little threatening? Liriano was on the verge of being moved to the bullpen in favor of Kevin Slowey, and tonight's no-no lowered his ERA from 9.13 to 6.61. He's still got some work to do, but if his offpseed pitches can become effective once again, he may yet return to his dominant self.

It couldn't come a minute too soon.

Minnesota is the worst team in baseball; literally, figurtively, and probably even gastronomically. The White Sox may be the second-worst team in baseball, but beating them always feels good. Especially when it comes at U.S. Cellular Field.

No, this game doesn't solve the Twins' problems. It doesn't remove them from baseball's cellar, or even give us any hope that they'll win more than 60 games. But, even so...

It sure feels nice, doesn't it?

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Written by Andrew Kneeland | 03 May 2011

BY MICHAEL L. WHITE

The Minnesota Twins are 9-18. .333 Winning Percentage. Bottom of the AL. Worse than the Astros.

Worst rotation in baseball. Worst offense in baseball. Ineffective bullpen. Forgettable defensive unit.

With all the signs pointing to failure, including the not-mentioned disabled list pile-ups, the time is now to show improvement. The division disparity is ten games, but five full months remain for redemption.

The questions remain: Is this roster capable of a climb? Does the farm have impact players capable of saving the season?

I have no real answer right now for the former. The latter, however, can be answered, “Yes and no.”

The Twins farm system has some depth, ranking in the upper half (#13) in Baseball America’s organizational rankings earlier this year. Young hitters Aaron Hicks and Miguel Saño bring a lot of promise for the future, but the impact potential the Twins need desperately right now is not there in the upper minors, ready for the picking.

We all know about Kyle Gibson, the Missouri arm who fell to the Twins in the 2009 thanks to injury concerns during the late portion of his junior year. He’s the best arm in the system and the number one prospect in BA’s team rankings.

Some see him (including BA) as a hurler with number one starter capability, but they note that staying healthy and creating more deception are important for his development. Bar none, he’s not ready. He induces groundouts well with his repertoire and Baseball Prospectus scouting guru Kevin Goldstein says he will always need to lean on his defense for help. As I noted earlier this week, the Twins defense is not an inspiring bunch, falling in the lower half of the AL. Gardenhire’s attempts to make Francisco Liriano lean on said defense has been a contributing factor to his horrific start to 2011.

As shown by recent callups, defensive help won’t be coming from the farm. Rene Tosoni has looked amateurish at times manning the outfield, and Matt Tolbert is no savant with the leather and laces (hard to call Tolbert a farmhand; he’s more of a shuttle-jockey between Rochester and Minneapolis). Ben Revere can certainly play CF well, but his lack of power leaves him useless in a corner with the exception of spot duty, and moving Span to a corner to accommodate Revere is not a gain unless you’re lined up against the Padres' inept offense for a few weeks.

The only hope for offensive help in the upper minors comes from OF Joe Benson, a 2nd-rounder from the 2006 draft. Benson has slowly moved up through the minors, developing the power scouts projected he had coming out of high school in Joliet, Illinios, slugging over .500 for the first time in 2010 in Hi-A Ft. Myers and continuing in his callup to AA New Britain. “He has center-field range to go with a right-arm,” says BA in their prospect appraisal. A rarity of defensive range, solid throwing arm, speed, and power, Benson is sure to be valuable to the Twins down the road.

A mammoth problem remains needing work: Strikeouts.

Despite an improvement all-around offensively in 2010, Benson struck out in over 26 percent of his 519 plate appearances, a glaring weakness to his game that would hamper his development should management bring him up in his age-23 season. Strikeouts were the cause of all-world prospect Cameron Maybin’s ills in Florida, and his lack of development in pitch recognition in the majors led to his ultimate dealing away to San Diego this offseason. If the Twins looked to him for help this year they’d be unlikely to see the type of production they expect and sorely need.

From a practical and business perspective, leaving guys like Benson, Gibson, Revere, etc. in the minors is about as big of a “No, duh!” moment as there can be in baseball. The prospects can’t help the big league club until the veterans are able to help themselves out by starting to look like even 70 percent of what we thought they were/are capable of producing. The defense won’t help Gibson like he needs it, Benson surely isn’t ready to take on big league arms yet, and Revere isn’t much help in the outfield when he can only assist in CF.

The Twins are best left leaving these guys in the minors to prove themselves repeatedly until no doubt is there how effective they’ll be and save burning up more time on their service clocks by letting them toil in the majors and add to Gardy’s headaches.

I’m not (necessarily) saying give up on the 2011 Minnesota Twins, but I am saying leave the current roster to save or strangle themselves. The sorry performances of April plague nearly the entire roster and it’s up to the guys getting paid to perform. Either way, by the end of 2011 the organization will know who is worthy of offers for 2012 and who needs to be non-tendered and sent packing.

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