Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Twins’

The Nats, Harper — and the Lerners

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

After all of this time, and despite their uneven press, you have to give this to the owners of the Washington Nationals: they’ve apparently realized that they’re going to have to pay for talent. This wasn’t always so obvious: in the early days after the franchise moved from Montreal to D.C., the Lerners were castigated for their penny-rubbing paperclip-counting ways, as it became gut-wrenchingly clear that the moguls that owned the Nats were as concerned with the bottom line as they were with the team’s place in the standings. Or more so. Articles slamming the Penny Pinchers reached a crescendo in mid-2009, corresponding to both the team’s status as baseball’s worst team and the franchise’s continued woeful performance at the gate.

But things have turned around for the real estate developing dynasty over the last twelve months, the result of two events that took place on exactly the same day — and nearly at the same moment — exactly twelve months apart. Just minutes before the signing deadline for the MLB first year player draft in 2009, and just minutes before the closing of the same signing period in 2010, the Lerners shelled out uber millions of dollars to the most-talked-about young players in major league history: first-round-first-pick Stephen Strasburg and first-round-first-pick outfielder Bryce Harper. We’ll start with Strasburg, who was signed for four years and $15.1 million, the largest contract ever given a player out of the draft. And yesterday, just before midnight, the Nats signed Bryce Harper to a five year deal worth $9.9 million. That’s a lot of money for two players who, prior to their signing, had never played a major league game. But the Lerners signed the checks — for an exact total of $25 million.

It’s hard to argue that the Lerners have learned that (as they would be the first to testify) good investments yield good returns. The investment in Strasburg, for instance, has started to pay for itself — with an estimated additional $5 million increase in revenue in 2010 ticket sales alone. Then too, the sale of Strasburg jerseys has ensured additional revenue; it has been the bestselling baseball jersey this summer and outpaced the sale of any Nats jersey from any player — ever. It’s not much of a guess to speculate that Strasburg will now have some competition, as Harper jerseys (when they arrive), will rival anything “the kid” has sold. So it’s no secret: putting fans in the seats and eyeballs in front of a MASN broadcast will make the Lerner family financially healthy (or, rather, more financially healthy) than they were when the bought the franchise from baseball five years ago.

But let’s not kid ourselves: despite all the talk among baseball owners about how the game is really “a public trust,” it’s much more of a business — with success measured not simply by a team’s place in the standings, but by a franchise’s financial health. Players win games, but profits (big profits) make signing good players possible. Finding the right balance between the two, between investments and returns, is the key to all of this, though it’s only sometimes mastered. It’s hard to wrestle this equation into submission for small and medium market  baseball owners, though much less difficult in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But it’s possible. The relationship between investments and returns has been mastered in Minnesota (as an example), but not in Pittsburgh, in San Diego, but not in Kansas City. And in Washington?

The D.C. market is the ninth largest in the country (that’s twice the size of Pittsburgh), with a potentially large television audience and a fan base that would be the envy of Minnesota, Pittsburgh or K.C. But in the first years of their tenure as owners, the Lerners acted as if the team was playing in Boise — they cut the payroll and trimmed away what they viewed as marginal baseball operations. If there was a plan here, it didn’t work: after the two year honeymoon with the team wore off, team attendance plummeted nearly at the same rate as team wins. In 2007, the Nats were paying out a mere $37 million in player salaries, an embarrassing amount of cash for what is essentially a large market team. But the Lerners must have gotten the message, which was hard to miss: Nats fans started voting with their feet. They stayed home. The result is that the team’s payroll level has increased in each of the last three years, to nearly $55 million in 2008, $60 million in 2009 and $66 million in 2010. The Harper signing is yet another indication that Mark Lerner is going to keep his promise: that “spending money is not gonna be our issue.” Great. Good. Now then, we need only one more piece of evidence . . .

Duck Duck Goose

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

I thought it only appropriate that “the loyal opposition” should return at precisely the moment that my first date in Washington (here she is, and take a good look) arrived for our lovely evening. And if by “lovely evening” you mean watching the Washington Nationals and turning their victory into fake reporting then you’re right: but I have no choice but to do this in my current state. This CFG thing, this new-wave-inter-net “we’re down with the twitter blog,” is struggling, really struggling, so I just know that most of this blog’s readership revolves around my pen. And for the benefit of you all, here finally is a picture of me . . .

Tonight Roy Oswalt was out for a stroll with his new team –11 million dollars in tow — when, out of the blue: it’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . no, no, no — it’s the most interesting man in the world. Nyjer Morgan!  Nyjer who? In his first at bat, Morgan hit the ball 400 feet into the center-right gap, flipped off his helmet as he sped around second base, and went totally horizontal, belly first, into third. Nyjer Morgan? It was like watching lightning strike on a clear day. Former Astro Oswalt was so confused by the entire thing he had to pay someone to tell him who it was that just did that to him. “What the hell is going on! Who is that guy on third?” It’s Nyjer Morgan, channeling Ricky Henderson. “Naw, can’t be.”

Morgan wasn’t the only Nats superhero “lifting tall buildings” on Friday night. Adam Kennedy arrived in the clubhouse before the Phillies game to find Cristian Guzman’s assistant sitting (morose and weeping) in the Nationals’ locker room. Kennedy got the message — in the first inning (and with “Rickey” Morgan on third) he hit the ball hard enough to the right side (just as he was instructed) to allow Morgan to lope across the plate: Nats 1, Phillies 0. Oswalt was even more confused — “what the  . . .” But “The Miracle on Half Street” continued. Roger Bernadina began his night by gunning out a sprinting Oswalt at first. Oh, and Craig Stammen was lights out: hitting spots, keeping his pitch count low and quietly sauntering from the mound, as if he was Greg Maddux. Oswalt wasn’t the only one surprised. As I sat watching this team’s Friday night tidal wave I could only repeat Oswalt’s words — “Who the hell are these guys . . .”

Don’t misunderstand: I’ve been watching this team with vigor, knowing that on a good day they’re only mediocre. It’s a self-inflicted baseball passion. They lallygag, throw the ball over the dugout, crash into each other, slam into outfield walls, miss the cutoff man — and their “phenom” pitcher can’t go past the All Star break. It’s fantastic fun. I expected the same on Friday against the Citizens Bank Bullies. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Nats showed up to play and made glue of the Ponies, embarrassing Oswalt and frustrating Rollins and Howard and the rest of them. So . . .  what happened? The answer is obvious: Mike Rizzo is a psycho. The proof is this photo of Rizzo sitting in Jim Riggleman’s office as players arrived for Friday’s game.

More specifically, on Friday afternoon (just hours before Miss Iowa and the Phillies showed up in Washington), Mike Rizzo decided he’d had enough of his team’s mediocre performance, and that it was time to play “duck, duck, goose.” In “Rizzo Land” the game is not as simple as it was when I was a kid, but it’s the same concept: you line up the players (in any old order) and you raise your right hand and go down the line — “in, in, traded . . . in, in, traded . . .” You only change your tune when you get to Morgan: “in, in . . . and if you don’t hit a triple Morgan, I swear to God you’ll be spending August in Oakland.” Message received. The only player not really frightened by this show of Rizzo passion was Ryan Zimmerman . . . and “the kid.” Even Adam Dunn was included. As for the rest of them. Well, we might have seen the fear in Morgan’s eyes: Rizzo’s antics was placing his bobblehead night in jeopardy. Rizzo didn’t care: “do something Nyjer, or I swear we’ll woodchip those things.”

The Mike “Corleone” Rizzo, “Duck, Duck, Goose” is more than just a cute kids’ game — it’s like rendering someone to Burma for “questioning.” It’s more like playing in the Olympics for Iraq. Okay, I admit. It could be that the appearance of Katie Conners helped to spark Friday night’s outbreak of unusual excellence, but I really doubt it. For as this mammoth publication goes to press, the Nationals are fast becoming a new team. And it’s because of their general manager. They’re getting better, a lot better, and they’re doing it quickly.

The word in baseball is that you can always get a closer and Rizzo showed that this week as he dealt Matt Capps to Minnesota. And you can always deal, at the very last minute, a slap-hitting veteran infielder for a handful of prospects, especially if the other team’s All Star second sacker ends up on the DL. As Cristian Guzman learned. Adam Dunn may be next: or maybe not. But the truth it, it doesn’t really matter. Mike Rizzo — the Washington Nationals’ true fearless leader — is playing “duck, duck, goose” in the clubhouse. And he’s made it clear to those who are staying with the team: “play hard and play hard now  – – – or you’ll be shaking your head somewhere else a year from now and wondering where it all went wrong.

Sad But True . . .

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The biggest Nats news on Thursday was not the welcome pitching performance of Nats starter Scott Olsen, but the departure of Nats closer Matt Capps — who packed his bags for Minneapolis, where he will join the perennially in-the-hunt Twinkies. The sad-but-true baseball news cycle is likely to remain that way for at least the next 24 hours, as teams jockey to land needed pitching and hitting help before the coming of the trade deadline. Poor Scott: his more than modest triumph over the Braves (giving the Nats a series win, and a boost in confidence) was shoved down the Nats’ homepage after the announcement that Capps was no longer the Nats closer — and shoved further down the page by the appearance of an article extolling the virtues of Wilson Ramos, a Twins catching prospect with “a positive upside.” Capps was not surprised by the trade and praised the Nationals’ organization. “The Washington Nationals and everyone involved have been absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “It’s something that I will remember for a long time. I certainly enjoyed my time. Now, I have to focus on moving forward and helping the Minnesota Twins.”

Scott Olsen is not likely to be the last Nats shoved down the page by bigger news — the Nats are reported to be interested in acquiring D-Backs starter Edwin Jackson, which would necessitate a trade of Nats power hitter Adam Dunn to the White Sox, who are willing to deal prospects to Arizona to make Jackson available. In truth, that deal may be finalized by the end of the day, as it was just reported that the Pale Hose have finalized their trade for Jackson. Which could mean, of course, that Nats starter Craig Stammen, and his appearance opposite newly acquired pony starter Roy Oswalt, would be today’s second story. The line-up for the Stammen-Oswalt tilt would give Nats fans something to talk about besides who will replace Capps (it’s going to be a committee or relievers, apparently), as Jim Riggleman would begin to shift players (like Michael Morse) into positions that would reflect how the team views its last 62 games. Bottom line? The sad-but-true events of Thursday are now likely to be followed by the even sadder departure of fan favorite Dunn — and the break-up of the 3-4-5 slots in a formidable Nats batting order.

Kennedy Now A Nat

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Adam Kennedy #29 of the Oakland Athletics is doubled off first base on a ball hit by Matt Holliday in the fourth inning against the Minnesota Twins during a Major League Baseball game on June 11, 2009 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Adam Kennedy

With Orlando Hudson going to the Twinkies, the Nationals moved quickly to sign 34-year-old Adam Kennedy, solidifying their defense at second base — and all but guaranteeing that (barring a trade) Cristian Guzman will be the team’s starting shortstop when the season begins. While the announcement is not yet official, Kennedy has said he is pleased to be coming to Washington — because he likes the way the team is structuring its roster. The signing of Kennedy, and apparently for a bargain price, puts the finishing touches on the Nats’ off-season, though Mike Rizzo admits that the team would like to add another starting pitcher. Or, as MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds said on Friday night: “Right now the starting rotation is Marquis, Lannan and question, question, question.”

The signing of Kennedy was necessitated after the Nats’ front office remained adamant on what they were willing to pay for Hudson, who was undoubtedly the first choice to fill the void up the middle. Hudson accepted a one year $5 million deal to play in the cold confines of the new Target Field in Minneapolis. What that might mean for snow dates aside, the Twinkies now look as solid as any team in the AL Central — and have to be an early favorite to win the division title. Not so the Nats, though it seems clear that the team’s off-season additions have more than marginally strengthened the team: then too, Kennedy was a bargain for one year at a reported $1.25 million, with a club second option year. “It should be fun — everybody kind of blending in and ready for a good season,” Kennedy said of coming to the Nats.

In truth (and though it might sound like sour grapes), Kennedy matches up well with Hudson. If the stars line up right, this could be the one signing that team looks back on as Mike Rizzo’s best off-season move. Both Kennedy and Hudson have a reputation for hard play and good gloves, both have experience on playing for winning clubs — and both are ready to recover their careers after suffering through sometimes strange interludes of simply not showing up. Last year, Kennedy hit .289 with 11 home runs, 63 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 129 games for the Athletics, but during the previous three seasons his presence and play were spotty — and only partly because he was slowed by injuries. His offensive numbers were mediocre. Maybe this was because in his last year in Anaheim (in 2004), Kennedy started swinging for the fences: his average plummeted, his on-field presence seemed an afterthought, and teams started losing interest. He tried to straighten that out last year: with positive results.

This is a good signing, and while a lot of Nats’ watchers might have preferred Hudson, Kennedy is a solid glove man at a good price. And honestly, if Hudson’s wrist acts up and if Kennedy can play more than the 129 games he logged last year, then this decision could turn into another Rizzo miracle.

Twin Killings: Twinkies, Bosox On The Ropes

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

 

There have been 26 Yankee juggernauts in major league history — 27 if you count the 1960 team, that could have, might have and should have won a world title: were it not for the heroics of Bill Mazeroski. This team, the 2009 version, is even more formidable. The twin killers of the Twins on Friday night (that put the reeling Twinkies down by two games to zip) were Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, one of whom is headed to the hall and the other who might well be. It’s easy to see why Teixeira — offered an off-season gift basket from the Nationals — decided to play for the pinstripes: the New Yorkers know how to spend money, and they know how to win: a requirement for any ballplayer who prizes not only a large bank account, but a handful of rings.

What was billed as a pitchers’ duel turned out to be exactly that: as Yankee A.J. Burnett mixed four kinds of fastballs to put the Twins down through six innings. But Burnett, a puzzling mess at odd times, was pulled after six complete, with Yankee manager Joe Girardi suddenly dependent on a relief core that has often been shaky. And so it proved: even Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera were merely human, while former Ahoy fireballer and reclamation project Damaso Marte was a disaster. The often so-so Nick Blackburn, meanwhile, was brilliant — posting a 1.59 post season ERA and befuddling Yankee hitters through 5.2. So when Joe Nathan arrived with the Twins’ lead intact we could be forgiven for thinking the game was over. Not so: Alex Rodriguez’s ninth inning home run tied it, while Tex’s walk off against Jose Mijares in the 11th won it. “It’s really disappointing,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I’ve been walked off enough times here. Some of the things that happened out there were pretty disappointing. It was a good baseball game. A lot of things could have went either way, but didn’t go our way again tonight.” 

The Boston Red Sox Are Being Eaten In Anaheim. After a not-even-close 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Belinskis on Thursday, “the Nation” sent ace Josh Beckett to the mound against Jered Weaver. It was a bookie’s fantasy: the lanky if talented Weaver brothers have “never quite” and have a tendency to implode (and what a sight it is!), while Beckett is calm to the point of perversity — and it’s downright weird. If Jered is Yosemite Sam (arms akimbo, fist slapping glove), then Josh is Mr. Magoo (calmly asking for another ball, as the one he just pitched sails into the night). So it was that — if you were to actually bet (and you wouldn’t would you?) — you would have been all-in on Beckett. And you’d have lost.

It happened in the seventh inning in Anaheim and it went something like this: Vlad Guerrero walked (Howie Kendrick runs for him), Kendry Morales lines out, Kendrick steals second, Juan Rivera grounds out to third (two outs), Maicer Izturis singles (Kendrick scores), Mike Napoli HBP, Erick Aybar triples, (Izturis and Napoli score), Chone Figgins strikes out for out number three. Score: 3-1 Angels.  What was most unusual was that Beckett seemed to lose his cool — complaining to homeplate umpire C.B. Bucknor that Mike Napoli hadn’t moved out of the way of a fastball that hit him in the back. Beckett seemed to come unhinged. “I wasn’t much [ticked] that he wouldn’t overturn the pitches, but show me a little bit of respect,” Beckett said. “He just straight-faced me and then walked away. I was just like, I went up to [catcher Victor Martinez]. I said, ‘Vic, he’d be [ticked] if I did that to him.’ I’m not asking him to even overturn it, just listen to what I have to say. Don’t like, take your mask off, straight-face me and then walk away. I can’t say anything to the point of getting thrown out.” 

The Red Sox, now down two games to none, must win three games in a row to advance to the league championship series. “We’ve just got to regroup,” Beckett said. “We know what we need to do now. We can’t lose another one. A lot of guys in here have been through this. It’s not an ideal situation, but we have to win.”

Mock and Clippard Subdue Braves

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

Garrett Mock outdueled Braves’ rookie Tommy Hanson on Thursday, delivering a six inning, 2-1 performance that marked the Nats’ fourth victory in a row. Reliever Tyler Clippard registered the win, with 2.2 innings of one hit pitching — a stellar, but by now standard, performance. Once again, the Nats won on a late inning hit: this time delivered by former Tomahawk Pete Orr, who singled in the top of the ninth to drive in Ryan Zimmerman with the winning run. This was Mock’s best performance of the year: “With the way my arm feels, my body feels, I felt I made some steps in the right direction,” Mock said after the game. “I wish I had a couple of more starts.” The Braves appeared sluggish, the likely result of being eliminated in the N.L. Wild Card race earlier in the day, when the Colorado Rockies defeated the Brewers 9-2 in Milwaukee.

After a terrible 2008 (72-90) the Braves were philosophical about their failure to make the post-season: “To make that dramatic of a jump gives us a lot of confidence, and it should give Braves fans a lot of confidence that next year we can contend,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said before the Nats-Braves tilt. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind in here that we can be a playoff team next year.” As it was, the Braves had a late-season rush that compares favorably with the streaky Rockies, winning fifteen of their last seventeen games. Just two weeks ago, the Braves trailed the Rockies by 8.5 games in the Wild Card standings. Braves pitching carried the team to the near-Wild Card triumph — with one of the best starting rotations in baseball. The N.L division and Wild Card champions are now decided (the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rockies and Phillies), but the Minnesota Twins remain alive for the A.L. Central Division crown — and take on the Royals today in Kansas City. The Twinkies will need help from the White Sox (who play the Tigers in Detroit) to have any chance of catching the Kalines.

J.D., Riggleman, and Dunn’s Dinger

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

adamdunn

The Milwaukee Brewers came into Nationals’ Park the proud owner of a four game losing streak that had put them ten games behind the St Louis Cardinals in the NL East. The Brewers will not likely catch the Redbirds, but they must have been pleased to escape Friday night’s game at Nationals Park with a decisive 7-3 win. There was much to be proud of in the Nats’ play, except for the final score: J.D. Martin threw 6.2 innings, gave up eight hits and struck out four. Perhaps most important of all, he didn’t walk one Blatzman and gave the Nats’ bullpen a rest. His solid showing placed him firmly in line for future starts — and a potential place in a revamped 2010 rotation. But Martin gave up home runs to Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee, which proved decisive: and Brewers’ starter Braden Looper gave up four hits in six innings of work.

The most memorable moment of the day, of course, was Stephen Strasburg’s appearance at Nationals Park, where he was introduced by the front office and Nats’ All Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Nats’ fans packed the stands along the third base line to get a glimpse of the college phenom. Strasburg appeared genuinely complimented by the lavish attention and modest enough to admit that his journey to the big leagues was dependent on his own success — and the decision of the organization’s baseball people. This is amazing,” Strasburg said of the crowd. “To play at San Diego State, where we didn’t get many fans until this year, this is pretty special.” The Strasburg introduction was well-handled, a down payment on the promise made by the ownership at the all star break that things would get better for Nats fans. The Nats front office must believe the Strasburg investment has already started to pay dividends.

There were two other memorable events of the day, both important. The first was the light stand shot that Adam Dunn launched against the Brewers in the 1st inning. The home run, Dunn’s 32nd,  landed on the concourse just off the second deck in upper right field. My guess is that it was the longest dinger hit in Nationals Park. Ever. Dunn’s OBP is at .420 and after a late-July swoon, his batting average is .288. The second post-Strasburg event of note was interim manager Jim Riggleman’s praise of Nats’ fans in his post game comments after the loss to the Brewers. Riggleman seemed genuinely humbled by the fact that Nats fans are still showing up, night after night, to see major league baseball’s worst team. Riggleman noted that the players appreciate the support. Rigs has it right and it’s about time people noticed. Night after night, between 18,000 to 24,000 fans are showing up to see the Nats play. True: the high end numbers (some 30,000 or more) come to see the Red Sox or Cubs or Cardinals. But that hasn’t been true recently, when the Nats have faced the Rockies and Brewers.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Yankees-Red Sox tussle is over in Boston, with the final score 20-11. The Empire sealed the victory in the last minute with a field goal by Hideki Matsui. The Yankees drove the ball on the Red Sox with ease, picking apart their secondary. “This shows our character,” a Yankees player said after the game. “This was smash-mouth baseball all night. We were really able to get into their backfield. I just want to thank God for giving me this opportunity . . .” The Back Bay is burning: the Sawx are trailing New York in the NL East by 7.5, and are only one game ahead of the Rays in the wild card . . .

I mean, I can see why the Nats continue to play Ronnie Belliard instead of say, oh, Mike Morse. Can’t you? I mean, really, if we give Morse a chance you never know what might happen. Why, we could even lose some games. We wouldn’t want that to happen. Listen, Ronnie justs needs to get over the nervousness of playing in the big leagues. Like last night for instance: when he got picked off of first base for no damn good reason . . . The Centerfield Gate board of directors (by a very close vote) has instructed me to add three names to my list of underrated MLB Players: Naps’s outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, Belinski’s outfielder Kendry Morales and Ahoys’ outfielder Garrett Jones. So who the hell is Garrett Jones? Jones is the Pirates’ new right fielder, whom the Pirates got from the Twinkies  for ah . . . well, for no one at all. Jones is the guy the Ahoys signed as a free agent after the Twins released him. Will someone please, please, please, wake up the Twins. Garrett Jones has fourteen home runs in 43 games. Every time you turn on the television, there he is, plunking another one into the stands at PNC Park. Then the three people in attendance stand and cheer as one. It’s enough to shake your lack of faith in Neal Huntington . . .

Mets Pirates Baseball

On Baseball Tonight on Friday night, Tim Kurkjian said that the Cubs might be done. What? C’mon, really? There’s forty games left. Are you sure?

Yup.