The Week Ahead: Twins move into new home

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target-field-100407.jpgFor the first time since 1981, the Minnesota Twins will be playing a regular season home game outdoors when they host the Boston Red Sox on Monday.

The special occasion is the opening of Target Field, a sparkling new venue that opens its doors just nine years after folks were seriously considering contracting the Twins. Not a bad turnaround for a franchise that until recently was considered small market. (Don’t tell anyone, but the Twins’ payroll is at more than $97 million this season – that’s 10th in the league and just ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers.)

And while not everyone is thinking happy thoughts about the new ballpark (yes the Twins will have to keep winning for attendance to hold. Sheesh, can’t they enjoy the moment?)  it’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of a good team playing in a nice stadium. I’m sure you Rays fans out there salivate at the idea.

The real question, though, is whether or not the Twins can build a home-field edge similar to that of the Metrodome, where fly balls routinely became invisible against the Teflon roof, and a hitter’s concentration would turn to mush under the frenzied roar of the Twins faithful.

From listening to those who should know, this is no small thing. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, termed the “Metrodome mystique” as “half the battle.”

And former Twins center fielder Torii Hunter had even more to say:

“If we lost a ball [in the roof], we knew how to pick it up,” said the Angels’ Torii Hunter, who played a decade in the Metrodome.

Hunter laughed at the long-held suspicion that the Twins would turn on an air conditioner late in the game, with the home team at bat, the better to carry balls over the fence.

“We knew, when they opened the doors, all the pressure went out to right-center field, so we would swing for right-center field,” he said. “They thought it was an air conditioner. But the doors were let open in the seventh inning to let everybody leave.”

The changing air pressure never seemed to have any effect on Joe Nathan, but who knows, maybe they shut the doors in the top half of the ninth inning. What fan would want to leave at that point anyway?

Of course there will be no issues with air conditioning or air pressure at Target Field, only good, old-fashioned weather issues. But if you’re thinking the Twins will gain an edge playing outside in the Minnesota cold, remember these wise words of Joe Mauer: “We’ve got to play in it, too.”

Besides, it’s not going to matter, at least not on Monday. They’re expecting a high of 74. Our own Aaron Gleeman will be there covering the festivities. Follow him here, and on Twitter.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Red Sox at Twins, April 12, 14-15:
In addition to opening Target Field, these happen to be two pretty darn good baseball teams mixing it up this week. We get Jon Lester vs. Carl Pavano, John Lackey vs. Kevin Slowey, and Tim Wakefield vs. Francisco Liriano.

Athletics at Mariners, April 12-14: Oakland enters the week with a 1 1/2-game lead atop the AL West. Seattle is tied with the Angels at the bottom. What’s next? Dogs and cats living together? Mass hysteria?

Giants at Dodgers, April 16-18: When former New York teams move to California, they take their rivalry with them, and this is nothing if not a crazy, intense rivalry. Plus, you have this.

Mets at Cardinals, April 16-18: Always fun when you get a big city team playing against the game’s best player. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a likely Chris Carpenter-Johan Santana matchup on Saturday.

Rays at Red Sox, April 16-19: Big week for Boston, as after the trip to Minnesota they come home for four games against the Rays. Wonder if the Tampa Bay players will complain about the stadium.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 4:10 p.m. ET: Red Sox at Twins (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:15 p.m.: Astros at Cardinals (ESPN2)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: White Sox at Indians (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Giants at Dodgers (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Mets at Cardinals (FOX)
Sunday, 1:35 p.m.: Rays at Red Sox (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Mets at Cardinals (ESPN)
*Check local listings

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

Angels’ Pujols has foot surgery, could be sidelined 4 months

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols had surgery on his right foot Friday, possibly sidelining him past opening day.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler said Pujols had the procedure Friday in North Carolina to release his plantar fascia, the ligament connecting the heel to the toes. The three-time NL MVP was bothered by plantar fasciitis repeatedly during the season, but played through the pain in arguably the strongest year of his half-decade with the Angels.

Eppler said the surgery typically prevents players from participating in baseball activities for three months, along with another month before they’re ready to resume playing in games. Opening day for Los Angeles is April 3, and the Angels hope Pujols can be ready.

“He’s at that point in his career where he’s keenly aware of what’s happening with his body,” Eppler said in a phone interview. “I don’t put the timetable on Albert like you would with your younger players. We’ll just see in Albert’s case, as he progresses, what his timetable is.”

Pujols, who turns 37 next month, batted .268 last year with 31 homers and 119 RBIs, the fourth-most in the majors – although his .780 OPS was among the worst of his career. He largely served as a designated hitter instead of playing first base due to problems with his hamstrings and feet.

Pujols heads into 2017 with 591 career homers, ranking him ninth in major league history. He is 18 homers behind Sammy Sosa for eighth place.

After playing in pain until the final week of the Angels’ disappointing season, Pujols began shock wave therapy on his foot early in the offseason, believing he wouldn’t need surgery.

But Pujols’ foot became more painful in recent weeks despite the therapy, and he huddled with the Angels’ top brass to decide on surgery after his most recent trip to see Dr. Robert Anderson in North Carolina. Continuing with conservative care would have required 10 more weeks, forcing Pujols to miss the first half of the 2017 season if he still required surgery.

“He just felt that the pain had gotten to a point where he was comfortable” having surgery, Eppler said. “If we did delay it, you’re just looking at 2 1/2 more months into the season.”

Pujols had a different type of surgery on his right foot last winter, but recovered in time for opening day. He also had plantar fasciitis in his left foot during the 2013 season, eventually forcing him out for the year when his fascia snapped.

Pujols has five years and $140 million remaining on the 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract that pried him out of St. Louis, where he won two World Series and became a nine-time NL All-Star.

The Angels haven’t won a playoff game since Pujols’ arrival and Mike Trout‘s concurrent emergence as one of baseball’s best players. They went 74-88 last season, the injury-plagued club’s worst record since 1999.

Diamondbacks hire Mike Fitzgerald to head Research and Development department

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Mike Hazen, new Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Red Sox, addresses the media during a press conference to announce his promotion before the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park on September 24, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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According to an official announcement, the Diamondbacks have acquired former Pirates quantitative analyst Mike Fitzgerald as their new Director of Research and Development.

Fitzgerald joined the Pirates’ front office in 2012, where he frequently accompanied the team on the road to help breach the divide between analytics and the clubhouse. According to a profile written by Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh in 2014, Fitzgerald’s multifaceted approach brought balance and perspective to the organization, whether he was assisting coaches in making statistically sound decisions, optimizing the batting order, weighing in on scouting and personnel decisions, developing more effective defensive positioning, or keeping players and personnel appraised of the latest developments in sabermetrics.

In the wake of Fitzgerald’s departure, Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington praised the Diamondbacks for a smart acquisition and said that the club has every intention of finding a replacement analyst, albeit one who will have some big shoes to fill.