Twins utilityman Marwin Gonzalez stood barefoot at his locker last Friday at Target Field, examining his right big toe, still yellow and slightly swollen from a foul ball he took off the toenail in Oakland a few days before. Gonzalez could have used another couple of days off, but the Twins expanding injured list meant he had to play. So there he was, preparing to start in left field for the American League Central Division leaders while eagerly anticipating the four-day All-Star Break.
His plans? “Going home, getting some rest, getting to know my bed again,” he said.
Giving players time to rest and recharge has been a key component of Rocco Baldelli’s personnel strategy in first season as a major-league manager. Baldelli experienced the rigors of baseball’s daily grind from his days as an outfielder with Tampa Bay and Boston, in a career shortened by injuries and a rare cell disorder that causes chronic fatigue. Even now, according to his mother Michelle, Baldelli needs to limit stress and get his rest.
So Baldelli and his staff monitor playing time and pre-game work to make sure guys aren’t wearing themselves out. Friday night, when the Twins hosted Texas after a game in Oakland the afternoon before, posed the latest challenge to that effort.
MLB’s collective bargaining agreement requires an off-day when teams fly from the West Coast to the East, but not from the West to the Central time zone. Returning Thursday from Oakland, the Twins charter landed at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport about 11:30 p.m. By the time everyone collected their luggage, drove home and presumably settled into their beds, it was nearly 1 a.m.
Frequent fliers know how west-to-east air travel messes with your body clock and sleep cycle. Even in the comfortable charter jets pro teams fly, breathing stale air for four hours in tight quarters takes a toll. So does losing two hours in flight. All of it leads to poor sleep, which hinders cognitive ability and athletic performance. The value of sleep for today’s pro athlete was a hot topic at the All-Star Game this week.
The Twins were already worn out from 18- and 17-inning games on the previous homestand, and a 12-inning game in Oakland the day before flying home.
Mindful of that, Baldelli told the players to report to Target Field on Friday between 4 and 4:30 p.m., more than an hour later than usual. He also cancelled on-field batting practice, which proved unnecessary, since rain washed it out anyway. (Some players hit in the indoor batting cages.) Pregame charts around the clubhouse indicating stretching and batting practice times as “o.y.o.”, shorthand for On Your Own, a notion Twins players have seen more this season than any other.
Short-term, it appeared to help. The Twins won 15-6 that night and 7-4 the next afternoon.
“With everything we’ve gone through over the last three weeks, I think doing whatever we can to keep our guys feeling good physically is really important,” Baldelli said.
Baldelli’s concern is a noble effort. But noble efforts sometimes fail. And in this one, baseball’s unrelenting schedule remains the winner and still champion.
Keeping players fresh sounds good until you actually try to do it. And because the Twins, like a lot of teams, carry 13 pitchers and only three reserve position players (one a catcher), backups can be overworked as well. As clubs continue to insist on 13-man pitching staffs and MLB insists on 25-man rosters, there’s no way around it. Throw in a couple of regulars playing through soreness instead of sitting out, and you’ve got the predicament facing Baldelli as the Twins open the second half of the season this weekend in Cleveland.
Eight players landed on the injured list in the last three weeks as the Twins limped into the All-Star Break losing 11 of 20 games, their worst stretch of the season. Last weekend, first baseman C.J. Cron (right thumb inflammation) and Class AAA callup outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr. (dislocated right thumb) joined left fielder Eddie Rosario (left ankle sprain), catcher Willians Astudillo (strained left oblique) and pitcher Jake Odorizzi (right middle finger blister) on the injured list. And right fielder Max Kepler left Sunday’s 11-inning, 4-1 loss with a sore right knee that has bothered him since May, when he ran into a wall in Anaheim.
Three more — Byron Buxton, Ehire Adrianza and Gonzalez — have been on and off the I.L. since mid-June. Meanwhile, surging Cleveland cut the Twins’ divisional lead in half, from 11 games on June 15 to 5 1/2 going into the break.
And yet the Twins still lead the majors in home runs (166, as many as they hit all last season), RBI (489) and slugging percentage (.497). At this rate they will obliterate the major-league record of 267 homers, set by last year’s Yankees, though three other clubs are closing. Their 56-33 record, second-best in club history before the All-Star Break, puts them just behind the Yankees (57-31) and Houston (57-33) for best record in the A.L.
That the Yankees overcame even worse injury problems — 13 players on the I.L. at the break, with pitchers Luis Severino and Dellen Betances and regulars Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit and Miguel Andujar among them — offers some hope the Twins might persevere. But there are roster issues, and for the first time a hard-and-fast July 31 trade deadline to address them.
Wade’s injury leaves the Twins without an outfielder in their farm system on the 40-man roster. That’s a problem. (This presumes Jake Cave remains when Rosario is activated.)
Pitching depth in the system is also thin, with injuries to Trevor Hildenberger (flexor strain) and Francisco Romero (sore back); neither was particularly effective when healthy. Former Cleveland closer Cody Allen, signed to a minor-league contract last month, could help if he resolves the control problems that stymied him earlier this season with the Angels. Allen walked 20 in 23 innings before he was released. In his first four innings with Class A Fort Myers, Allen did not walk a batter. Expect Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine to pursue pitching and outfield help over the next few weeks.
One more thing: The Twins face the Indians 13 times in the second half, beginning with three this weekend at Progressive Field. That’s nothing to sleep on.