Rejoice, sports fans. Baseball is back!
Sure, the Twins’ season opener was a bit of a letdown: the 3-2 loss to the Orioles was delayed nearly two hours before first pitch and was halted again during the third inning due to rain in Baltimore.
And, despite being tied with the O’s in the bottom of the ninth, the Twins’ first game wasn’t exactly pretty. Minnesota batters struck out 10 times without walking or homering once; this recipe — 10-or-more strikeouts and zero walks and home runs — is a lousy one, as the Twins are now 0-25 in their history when pulling off that particular trifecta.
But we mustn’t allow this one underwhelming tree to let us lose sight of the forest: for the first time in several years, the 2016 season brings promise and hope for Twins fans.
Entering 2016, there’s a lot of room for optimism: the Twins have a stellar farm system that’s finally bearing fruit — see Miguel Sano — and should continue to do so this year, as centerfielder Byron Buxton gets his full-season shot, first baseman Byung-ho Park brings his big bombs and bat flips from South Korea, right-hander Jose Berrios tries to make the leap from AAA ace to rotation mainstay and German outfielder Max Kepler looks to build on his brief big-league audition last September.
It is, of course, important to temper expectations. These are the Twins, after all, and they have made an annoying habit these past 20-odd years of disappointing us.
So, with equal parts expectation and trepidation, here are a couple keys to enjoying and surviving the 2016 Twins season.
Stop worrying about the money
Minnesotans are a cheap people. And that’s fine! Cheap isn’t bad.
Whether because of the brutal winters or our shared “Minnesota Nice” humility, denizens of “Twins Territory” love a good deal and loathe frivolous spending.
This innate thriftiness may help explain why so many Twins fans expend most of their available oxygen whining about Joe Mauer and Ricky Nolasco’s contracts.
I will not waste any more ink on the Joe Mauer deal — which, and I will repeat this until I’ve expended all my available oxygen, was an undeniably wise move at the time and given the context — and the Nolasco contract has been an unmitigated disaster.
But here’s the thing about both those deals: we don’t have to pay for them!
You know who does? The Pohlad family, and I have little sympathy for the financial obligations of a family whose late scion, Carl Pohlad, was a multi-billionaire — the 107th wealthiest American, according to Forbes — who began his banking career foreclosing on family farms during the Great Depression and attempted to sell the Twins (at least) twice. One of these aborted sales would have moved the team to North Carolina and the other would have literally ended the Twins — and cut two teams from baseball — so Pohlad could pocket $150 million.
Unfortunately for young players like Sano, Buxton and Berrios, baseball is not a meritocracy; you will not be paid commensurate to your abilities. Free agent contracts, by design, are conferred upon players who have already been good and are old enough to be past their arbitration years, while youngsters make (relative) peanuts, even though a player on a cheap rookie contract like Sano will clearly power the Twins’ lineup.
But that’s why there are rookie contracts: to even out the big, expensive ones.
And, again: we’re not paying Joe Mauer!
We are, however, paying for the Minnesota Vikings’ billion-dollar glass monstrosity, U.S. Bank Stadium, which will line the pockets of convicted felon Zygi Wilf, murder birds and cost the taxpayers of our fair state more than $500 million.
Billionaires bilking the public do not need our sympathy, but our ire — or at least more ire than Mauer and Nolasco, who are simply continuing to cash checks that they were paid at fair-market value by, again, billionaires.
I’m sorry Mauer hasn’t aged as well as we had hoped. It turns out brain damage is kind of a big deal.
Instead of wasting energy shouting at Mauer while he grounds out to second again, let’s be thankful for our strong farm system and its attendant cheapo rookie deals that allow us to remain 20th in the league in payroll while paying Mauer and Nolasco a combined $35 million this season.
We are paying Joe Mauer a boatload of money to be Mark Grace, granted. But plenty of other teams are literally paying players who no longer play for them — or any team, for that matter — and there are 19 teams spending more than the Pohlads (who, say it with me, are billionaires!) in a sport without a salary cap.
And you know when the outcry over Mauer’s contract was at its quietest? When we were in the playoff hunt. Winning has a way of doing that.
Appreciate the Byron Buxton show
For those of us convinced that Byron Buxton was all set to be the Twins’ best player this season, his performance at the plate Monday served as a reality check.
Buxton struck out swinging in all three of his plate appearances without ever looking particularly potent, bringing back visions of his struggles at the dish last year.
Because of the massive increase in exposure and available data for minor-league players, Buxton has been a household name for years despite only appearing in 46 games and batting 138 times as a rookie last season. That’s what happens when Baseball America declares you the top prospect in baseball a couple months before your 19th birthday.
It feels like we’ve been waiting for Buxton for ages. The truth is, Buxton is 22 and will be all season. He’s seven months younger than Sano and has been a professional for two fewer years.
“Patience” isn’t going to be a fun word for Twins fans this year: we finally tasted playoff-proximity in 2015 after tolerating so many seasons of woe and futility. But we’ll need some with Buxton’s bat.
It will take time and may cause some shouting at our televisions, but I still believe he’ll get there at the plate.
In the field, however, no patience is necessary.
On Monday, Buxton showed why numerous projection systems herald him as one of the top two centerfielders in the majors: the man does nothing but steal hits.
Watching the broadcast, there were at least four balls roped in Buxton’s direction that elicited audible excitement from O’s fans — only to be followed by a gasp of disappointment as Buxton once again tracked it down and gloved it.
Personally, I’ll take watching a good fielder over a good hitter any day — and I’ll take watching baseball over just about anything.
Happy baseball season!