Last week in this space I was going to take a shot at naming the Opening Day roster for the Minnesota Twins. I had attended some spring games, had talked to some insiders, and figured I had a good take on who was going to be there and who wasn't. But that has changed with the shutdown of Major League Baseball, now pushed even farther back to sometime in May — maybe.
Perhaps the X factor in all this is that now, if there is a season, Byron Buxton (271 AB, 10 HR, 46 RBI, .272 average) should be ready to play center field. It's time for the star-in-the-making to produce, as he seemed to be doing last season in 87 games until he again got hurt. If Buxton is ready to play a couple months from now, or whenever the season begins, it would be a big boost for a team that should already be proficient at scoring runs.
Buxton is one of the question marks, if for no other reason than his availability,. There is also a question mark for a utility/fourth outfielder position, and for two or three spots on the pitching staff.
Mitch Garver, after a fantastic year as a part-time player (311 AB, 31 HR, 67 RBI and .271), is set to be the starting catcher, although one insider told me he expects Garver to catch only 90 to 100 games as Manager Rocco Baldelli continues his policy of giving most of the players lots of rest. Garver will see some time as the designated hitter and will likely play first base occasionally. I'd play him for about 130 games as a catcher but Baldelli doesn't do things that way. The back-up will be Alex Avila, a 12-year veteran who has played in 995 games in the majors. He homered 9 times in 164 at-bats last season and has 103 homers and a lifetime average of .235,
With Garver as the catcher, the infield is loaded with players who had good years in 2019. Miguel Sano slides across the infield from third to first base and comes off a season where he had 34 homers in only 380 at-bats and drove in 79 runs. He did strike out 159 times (1 every 2.4 at-bats) and the Twins would dearly love to see him improve in that area. Replacing Sano at third is veteran Josh Donaldson who homered 37 times for Atlanta in 2019, drove in 94 runs and hit .259. He's an above-average fielder and has 214 homers in 1,038 career games while hitting .273. If Sano can play a decent first base, the infield defense will have improved with Donaldson at third..
The double-play combination is shortstop Jorge Polanco (631 AB, 22 HR, 79 RBI, .295), an All-Star last season, and second-year player Luis Arraez (325 AB, 4 HR, 28 RBI, .334) who was a surprise on last year's team with a team-leading .399 on-base percentage and only 29 strikeouts. Polanco appears to have arrived as a player, while the verdict is still out on Arraez because he has so little experience. But if they both hit like they did in 2019, and Polanco is a little better in the field, those four players could give the Twins one of the better infields around.
The outfield should also be a very good one if Buxton can play and plays up to that long-touted potential. Eddie Rosario (562 AB, 32 HR, 109 RBI, .276) returns as the left fielder from a year where he had some mishaps in the outfield but was a force at the plate despite some puzzling at-bats. In right field is Max Kepler (524 AB,36 HR, 90 AB, .252) who had a breakout season and displayed lots of power at times.. Both Rosario and Kepler have their good moments defensively but they're better when Buxton is playing center.
The plot thickens a bit when we talk about the fourth outfielder and utility positions. Because of Buxton's injury, Jake Cave, after a season with 13 homers in 2018 as a back-up, got 198 at-bats in 2019, hit 8 homers, drove in 25 runs and batted .258 with an on-base percentage of .351 that was fifth on the team.. He has speed but had a few mishaps in the outfield last season. Rookie LaMonte Wade got 56 at-bats late last season but hit only .106 and Cave is probably ahead of him for the position of fourth outfielder.
But, wait a minute: It has been hinted that Baldelli would like to carry a third catcher and that would be Willians Astudillo who is a fan favorite and, it appears, a Baldelli favorite. He hit .268 in 190 at-bats last year, had 4 homers and drove in 21 runs. He struck out only 8 times and some point to that, as well as him playing the outfield (not too well at times), the infield, and also catching. He might be the guy that gets the nod over Cave, with Baldelli also having Marwin Gonzalez (425 AB, 15 HR, 55 RBI, .264) to play in the outfield
Gonzalez and Astudillo, if he is picked over Cave, are the utility players, as is by Ehire Adrianza (202 AB, 5 HR, 22 RBI, .272) who has played all the infield positions and a little outfield. It appears the 13th position on the team will come down to Cave or Astudillo, if Buxton is ready to go. If Buxton can't play when and if the season opens, it seems Cave has a better chance of making the team.
LIttle needs to be said about designated hitter Nelson Cruz who, in only 454 at-bats in 120 games, hit 41 home runs and drove in 108 runs while hitting .311. His on-base percentage of .382 was second on the team. (Garver was third at .365, Polanco fourth at .356 and Rosario a surprising fifth at .346.) Garver, Gonzalez and others will likely take turns giving the 39-year-old Cruz a rest here and there.
So, unless the 2019 season was a mirage, the team should score a lot of runs. The question remains: Can the pitching staff hold up its end?
Jose Berrios, already in his fifth year, is set as the Opening Day pitcher after an up-and-down 14-8 season accompanied by a 3.68 ERA. Jake Odorizzi was 15.-7 with a 3.51 ERA last year and some thought he was the team's best pitcher. After those two it's a bit of a guessing game, although it appears Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey are set for the starting rotation.
Maeda, who has pitched in 24 postseason games, was 10-8 with the Dodgers in 2019 and had a 4.04 ERA. Bailey was 13-9 with two teams, posting a 6-3 record with Oakland in its quest for the postseason, and has pitched 1,393 innings in the majors.
The fifth spot in the rotation is apparently up for grabs, with the surprise pick by some writers of Jhoulys Chacin as a possibility. He won 13 game in 2017 with San Diego, won 15 for Milwaukee in 2018, and then slipped to 3-12 in 2020 with an ERA of 6.01. Randy Dobnak (2-1, 1.59 ERA in 28 innings in 2019) had a good spring until it was called off and there was a veteran reporter who thinks Dobnak should get the No. 5 slot. Also in the running is Devin Smeltzer (2-2, 3.86), a lefty on a team that is heavily right-handed in the pitching department.
Waiting in the wings are Michael Pineda (11-5, 4.01) who was having a good 2019 season until suspended. He'll be beck about 40 games into the season. Also in the mix is left-hander Rich Hill, a veteran of 15 major league seasons who was 27-14 with the Dodgers the last three seasons, 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 2019 before an arm injury. He's recovering from the arm injury and the date of his return to action is a bit clouded.
There are proven pitchers in the relief corps, such as Taylor Rogers (2.61 ERA, 30 saves last year as the main closer), Trevor May (5-3, 2.94 ERA, .181 batting average by opponents, 11 strikeouts per 9 innings.), Tyler Duffey, (5-1, 2.50, 12.8 strikeouts per 9 innings) and Sergio Romo (.198 average against). With the expansion of MLB rosters to 26 this year, it's expected most teams will carry 13 pitchers. Who will be the other four relievers for the Twins?
Dobnak and Smeltzer could be in that mix. Zack Littell was 6-0 with a 2.68 ERA last year and he'll be one of the relievers. Tyler Clippard, who had a 2.90 ERA in 62 innings with Cleveland last season, will make the team. He has a 3.14 ERA in 1,816 major league innings. Cody Stashak posted a 3.25 ERA in 25 innings with the Twins last year and could make the team. A newer name is Matt Wisler who some think will make the team. He had a high ERA with two teams in 2019 but did average 11 strikeouts per 9 innings.
There is usually at least one surprise when the rosters are announced but many of the position players and pitchers are sure things for a team that won 101 games last season.
Now all we need is a season.
The time I scooped Sid — well, almost
As I listened for six hours Sunday, 1,700 miles away through the magic of a phone, to the accolades that poured in on WCCO for Sid Hartman, two thoughts came to mind. One was of the near scoop of Sid in 1982 (more later), the other was about covering sports as Sid has done for three-quarters of a century.
I'm a neophyte compared to Sid (only 53 years) and have covered mostly high school sports, with a little amateur, college and professional sports mixed in, while Sid has covered mostly college and pro sports, with some high school coverage mixed in. But I found a similarity.
People talked Sunday at length about how Sid genuinely cared about the people he covered, and how compassionate he was with people. It made me hope that people realize most of us who do such coverage care very much, try our best to be impartial while occasionally offering criticism when we feel it is warranted, and — at least in my case — die a little when things go wrong for young athletes who are trying their best. It's just a fact of life — those tough times happen. Sports, with the ups and down that happen even to stars, are a microcosm of life, especially at the high school level. The sun does come up the next morning but it can be a tough afternoon, evening, week or month.
Scooping Sid? It nearly happened in 1982. A new sports paper published in St. Cloud was started to cover high school, college and professional sports in central Minnesota. The owner found out I was going to spring training games in Orlando for the Twins and asked if I would do a story about Jim Eisenreich, a St. Cloud Tech athlete who had excelled in baseball at St. Cloud State. I said I would try, not knowing if an editor of a weekly paper from the small town of Princeton, Minn., could even get an interview.
BitI wangled an audience with Billy Gardner, manager of the Twins, and in our interview as we stood outside the dugout at Tinker Field he revealed that Eisenreich, in a bit of a surprise, was going to be his starting center fielder when the season opened. I quickly wrote my story (longhand, no computer), included a roll of black and white film, and sent it off to St. Cloud in the mail. I'll admit to being kind of excited that I had a story I guessed no one else had.
Imagine my consternation when I got home a few days later, saw the latest issue, and there was no story. The publisher told me when I called him that he wasn't sure what I had written about a hometown boy making the starting lineup of the Twins was really going to happen. Then Sid had in his column that Eisenreich was going to be a starter. My story appeared in the next issue of the St. Cloud publication AFTER Sid reported it. I would/should have scooped Sid.
An addendum to the story: Eisenreich was hitting .303 after 34 games that season, a season that ended early when he walked off the field in Boston as he was being booed by the boorish Boston fans because of nervous tics that were caused by Tourette Syndrome. He didn't play the rest of that season and then had a few at-bats with the Twins the next two seasons as he battled Tourette Syndrome.
He went home to St. Cloud and began playing in 1985 with the St. Cloud Saints, a very good amateur baseball team. The Saints, two other St. Cloud teams and Princeton formed a new league called the Middlesota League and Eisy, as he was called by many, played a couple games in both 1985 and 1986 at Solheim Veterans Field in Princeton. We had some great games with the Saints and had a good record against them, Eisenreich once hitting one of the longest homers by a left-handed hitter at the Princeton field that I have ever seen. I got to know him a little and talked to him about that spring in Orlando. He was still battling Tourette.
After the 1986 season a former Sauk Rapids player who played in the Kansas City system talked the Royals into signing Eisenreich, he had a hot streak in AA ball, and got called up in 1987 after a drug had been found to help deal with Tourette. He had a good year with Kansas City, where he lives now, and later played with the Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins, getting into a World Series with both. The Marlins, a wild card team, won the Series in 1997 as Eisenreich batted .500 and hit a three-run homer. He retired after the 1998 season, leaving behind a .290 career average and five seasons of hitting .300 or more, including a .361 average in 1996 in which his on-base percentage was a lofty .413.
He was a nice guy and all who got to know him were happy for his success.
PRINCETON SPORTS MEMORIES
March 25, 1965 - In the annual women's bowling tournament held at Princeton Recreation (VFW building now) and Kenby Lanes (Princeton Lanes now) Cecile Walters had the high series, 568, and Marie Gannon won the all-events title.
March 25, 1970 - Pete Metcalf and Mike Barg were named co-captains for the 1970-71 basketball team . . . Mark Jacobs finished eighth in Rum River scoring at 14.2, Jerry Bergeron was 12th at 12.8 and Mike Barg 13th at 12.3.
March 26, 1975 - Keith Julson was all-conference in basketball . . . The volleyball team, without post-season play in the early stages of girls sports in Minnesota, finished 6-8.
March 27, 1980 - Janet Rogde was all-conference in basketball and Don Andrews was given that honor from the boys team . . . Credit Union (18-0) won its third straight city basketball league title with an 83-66 win over Marv George Builders. The team had won 55 games in a row over three years. Bob Koelman and Buzz Johnson each scored 21 for Credit Union.
March 28, 1985 - .Jay Bekius and Tom Blomberg were all-conference in basketball. Blomberg averaged 16.4 points a game for 61 varsity games over three years (teams were allowed fewer games in that era), and was named by the St. Cloud Times as its Class AA Player of the Year (there were only two basketball classes then).
March 29, 1990 - Matt Ruble and Paul Sather were all-conference in basketball. Sather was named by the St. Cloud Times as its Player of the Year. He averaged 25.4 points, 12.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocked shots that season.
March 30, 1995 - .Mandee Young, Sandy Thompson and Heather Carlson were all-conference in basketball . . . Jeremy Miller, Chris Opskar, John Vollan and David Morisset were all-conference in hockey.
March 23, 2000 - The MVP award for the boys hockey team went to sophomore John Stockler, chosen as co-captain for the next season with Jesse Beckers. All-conference were Josh Miller, Beckers and Stock.er.
March 24, 2005 - John Gloege, filling in as sports columnist for a couple weeks, noted that Princeton would be competing in the new Mississippi 8 Conference the following year.
March 25 2010 - Boys hockey coach Todd Frederick resigned as coach after 12 seasons. His record was 156-144-14 and included two state tournament appearances.
(Dorr is the former editor of the Princeton Eagle (2 years) and Princeton Union-Eagle (31 years) and has covered sports in the area for the past 53 years.)