Monday, June 30, 2008

Span Respawns

It's been an interesting season for Denard Span. The 2002 first-round pick competed for a spot on the roster out of Spring Training this year, but lost the center field job to Carlos Gomez. Span was sent to the minors, but didn't stay there for long, as Michael Cuddyer's trip to the disabled list in early April made room for another outfielder. Span finally got his chance to play in the big leagues, but he didn't make much of an impression, hitting .258/.324/.258 in 31 at-bats.

Rather than sulk, Span went down to Class-AAA Rochester and went on a tear. He hit .342/.432/.539 in May, and was hitting .365/.441/.500 in June. As unimpressive as he has been in his minor-league career prior to this year, it seems clear that Span has turned a corner and wants to be a major-league player. He'll get the chance now, with Cuddyer heading back to the disabled list due to another finger injury.

My guess is that Span will be more productive in this stint with the Twins. He was hitting the ball all over the place in Rochester, and he's had a taste of the big leagues already so he shouldn't be overwhelmed. Granted, I think Span has a very limited skill set so his upside is not terribly high, but if he can come up and give the team some good at-bats with a solid batting average, I think we will all be satisfied.

For some thoughts on Kevin Slowey's outing yesterday, feel free to head over to the Daily Dose column at Rotoworld, where I'm once again filling in for Mr. Gleeman today.

Friday, June 27, 2008

They Just Keep Rolling

The Twins fell behind early yesterday as the Padres mounted a 3-0 lead against Scott Baker, but as has been the case for much of the past two weeks, the Minnesota offense was resilient and battled back to a lead as the Twins went on to a 4-3 victory to complete their third sweep in a row.

The Twins are on an unbelievable roll right now, one which brings back memories of that 2006 season in that the team can't seem to lose. Now, as I wrote earlier this week, this team isn't as stacked as that 2006 unit was and certainly has a ways to go before they match the magnificent 18-2 19-1 run that the '06 squad rattled off as June turned to July, but this team has been similarly dominant against AL competition and has shown the same unwillingness to lose. What's truly surprising is the absolutely fantastic starting pitching the Twins have gotten during this current stretch, and they've done without the luxury of that unbeatable trio of Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke (a three-headed beast I dubbed Liriantanke), which buoyed the 2006 rotation during that amazing run. The Twins have held their opposition to four runs or less in each of the past 12 games, giving up an average of 2.4 runs per game during that span, and they've done it on the strength of guys like Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins.

The Twins are now 12-3 against National League competition this year, and 39-12 over the past three seasons. That's some pretty unbelievable domination, and with that in mind it's unfortunate that the Twins will be finishing up their interleague schedule with a series against the Brewers which kicks off at the Metrodome tonight. Here's hoping they can finish strong.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The New Sheriff of Saves

On Tuesday night, baseball's all-time saves king took the mound in the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie game at Petco Park. After fanning the first two batters in the inning, Trevor Hoffman surrendered a solo home run on the first pitch he delivered to Brendan Harris, a belt-high fastball that Harris deposted in left-center field. On his next pitch, Hoffman again tossed a poorly placed fastball, this time to Brian Buscher, and once again watched it sail out of the park. Suddenly, the Padres were down 3-1 and a game that had been close all night became all but out-of-reach.

Why did a two-run deficit seem so daunting? Because the bottom of the ninth would clearly belong to Twins closer Joe Nathan, who has been one of the most automatic door-slammers in major-league baseball since he assumed that position in Minnesota back in 2004. At age 40, Hoffman can still get the job done, but he is quite clearly but a shell of his former self. Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Nathan is comfortably in his prime. If Hoffman long held the title of league's most reliable closer, the torch may have been passed to Nathan now. While one can certainly argue that other closers around the league have been more effective than Nathan this season, I think it'd be tough to find a man who has consistently been better at the job over the past four-and-a-half years than the Twins closer.

Since grasping the closer reigns back in 2004, Nathan has accumulated 180 saves while posting a 1.61 ERA and a fantastic 389-to-96 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 314 innings. This past weekend at the Metrodome, there was a pre-game ceremony to induct Rick Aguilera to the Twins Hall of Fame, honoring the team's all-time leader in saves with a banner and plaque. Aguilera was the Twins closer for almost the entire decade of the 1990s, and he saved 254 games over parts of 11 seasons during that span. Certainly, he was a productive player for the Twins for many years, but there is little comparison between him and Nathan. Aguilera never posted an ERA below 2.35 nor did he ever strike out a batter per inning during a full season as the Twins closer. Nathan has posted sub-2 ERAs in three of his four seasons as closer (and appears to be on his way to doing so again this year) and has struck out more than a batter per inning every year. Aguilera was a solid closer who could consistently be counted on to get the job done (unfortunately he was typically doing it for some very bad teams); Nathan is a dominator who goes above and beyond and thrives under pressure.

Since his new contract will keep him with the Twins until at least through the 2011 season, it seems inevitable that Nathan will surpass Aguilera as the team's all-time saves leader as long as he can avoid injury. If all goes to plan, this will probably happen sometime during the 2010 season, in the inaugural year of the new stadium.

Even at that point, Nathan will only be just 35 years old. The fact that he didn't turn into a full-time closer until the age of 29 will probably prevent him from ever having a legitimate shot at challenging Hoffman's save record of 539 (and counting), but if Nathan could pitch to the age of 40, as Hoffman has, while maintaining his current average of 40 saves per year, he would reach a total of 480, which would currently be good for second all-time behind Hoffman.

Of course, it's presumptive to look down the line and anticipate seven more years of injury-free, high-level performance for Nathan, but it's worth noting that he's been quite durable up to this point in his career and has relatively little wear on his arm for a 33-year-old closer. It's a little difficult to believe because he has been so low-key during his career in Minnesota, but if he can stay healthy, Nathan is a good bet to become not only by far the best closer in Twins history, but also one of the great closers in the history of baseball.


On a side note, I'm filling in for the vacationing Aaron Gleeman on his Daily Dose column at Rotoworld today and tomorrow, so feel free to stop by over there and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Links, Because I'm Lazy

The Twins played a late-nighter on the West Coast last night, and this is a really busy week for me so I just didn't have time to stay up and write a post about it. Instead, here are a few links to other quality Twins material around the interweb:

* On Saturday, SBG held his Second Annual SBG Convention at Minnehaha Falls in East Minneapolis. It was a beautiful day in the park, filled with great food and conversation, and attending provided me with the opportunity to match faces to some familiar online monikers (although I'd already met the majority of bloggers in attendance). Naturally, one of the biggest highlights of the day was meeting the imitable ubelmann face-to-face. He has become one of the most respected Twins bloggers out there since taking over the majority of Twins-writing duties over at SBG's place, and it was especially nice to rub shoulders with him for a bit, although his stay was all-too-brief.

You can click on the link above to see some pictures from the convention. I'm only in one of them, which may be a good thing depending on your point of view. I think the best reaction to the series of photos so far came from my friend Luiza, who said that viewing the pictures of us bloggers mulling around was "like a trainwreck I can't look away from" because we "all look so nerdy." That's what friends are for.

* I recently added a new link to the sidebar for Twins Fix, a new blog operated by Andrew Kneeland, who is a frequent commenter on this site. It's looking good so far, be sure to stop by and say hi.

* Twins Geek has been very thin on content this month, but he wrote up a post on Brian Buscher on Sunday night which is absolutely worth a read. Geek draws a potential parallel between the careers of Buscher and another late bloomer in Ron Coomer, which would hardly be a bad thing. As much playful flak as Coomer takes for being one of the worst All-Stars ever, he was a pretty productive player for the Twins for a number of years and I think we'd all be satisfied if Buscher followed a similar path.

* Steve Rudolph makes a series of interesting observations over at Bleacher Bums, one of which makes note of an interesting thought brought up recently by La Velle E. Neal III:

As you may have heard, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was fined $1,500 for violating the league's pace-of-game (POG) requirements. The Strib's La Velle E. Neal raised an interesting question the other day that helped sooth my disappointment over the lack of minor league stats and the lame headline.

Neal wondered why MLB is singling out Ron Gardenhire when Twins games are among the fastest in baseball at an average time of 2:44? Yankees games average 3:03 and the Red Sox usually take 3:01 to play a game.

I'm all for a quick game, but fining the manager of a team that plays at the pace the league want while ignoring the true offenders is just another example of the inherent biases that exist in the game.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Crain Shouldering the Load

The loss of Pat Neshek earlier this season provided a potentially crippling blow to a bullpen already ripe with concerning questions. You had Juan Rincon with his continually declining performance, Dennys Reyes with his Jekyll-and-Hyde act between 2006 and 2007, Matt Guerrier with his early-season control issues, and Jesse Crain coming off major shoulder surgery and looking a bit shaky early on.

Yet, even with Neshek gone, the Twins bullpen is hanging smack-dab in the middle of the AL with a 3.69 ERA that ranks them seventh in the league. Several of the aforementioned relievers have helped contribute -- Reyes has gotten good results early on and Guerrier has rebounded from those early struggles to with a 2.52 ERA over his past 25 innings of work (though his lack of control still gives cause for concern). The one guy who has really stunned me this season, though, is Crain, and I felt it would be appropriate to spend a day talking about the remarkable season he has been having thus far.

Crain's 2007 season ended after 18 appearances, during which he had posted an ugly 5.51 ERA. Crain had been feeling some soreness in his shoulder, and imaging tests revealed some very grim news: the right-hander had tears in the labrum and rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder. As far as pitching injuries go, this is one of the worst -- arguably more devastating than a torn ligament which requires Tommy John surgery. The prognosis for a guy undergoing surgery on both a labrum and rotator cuff is generally not very good, and the odds of such a player rebounding within a year are particularly low. With this in mind, I set my expectations for Crain in 2008 extremely low. When previewing the Twins bullpen back in April, I said that while Crain had surprised me be likely earning himself a spot on the Opening Day roster, "it's tough to imagine him being overly effective this year." In all honesty, I doubted that Crain would spend much time on the major-league roster this season and even further doubted that he'd be remotely productive.

Crain got off to a slow start this season, posting a 5.59 ERA over his first nine appearances, but what surprised me about him even at that point was his velocity. I initially suspected that it would take him some time to get back into the mid-90s with his fastball, but he was pretty much right there from the beginning of the season. Up to this point, Crain's fastball has registered an average velocity of 94 mph, which is basically right in line with the 93-94 mph average he has posted each season in the past. As the season has progressed, Crain has combined that impressive velocity with increasingly solid control and with a better grasp of his slider.

The improvement is clearly visible in his results. Since starting the season with a 5.59 ERA and 7-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over those first nine appearances, Crain has posted a 1.64 ERA and 17-to-9 strikeout to walk ratio over 25 innings in his past 20 appearances and has perhaps established himself as Ron Gardenhire's go-to eighth-inning setup man in the absence of Neshek. Nothing about Crain's performance screams "spectacular," at least from a peripherals standpoint, but he's giving up less than a hit per inning and striking out batters at a reasonable rate which would actually rank as the best of his major-league career outside of 2006.

There's plenty of season left and it will still be interesting to see how Crain's shoulder holds up the rest of the way, but up to this point it's tough not to be impressed by the way he's been throwing the ball. He's doing many of the things that made him a successful big-league reliever prior to the 2007 season (although it's worth noting that his ground-ball rate is way down from where it has been in the past). If Crain can continue to prove me wrong with his gutsy performances, he'll be a huge factor in softening the blow felt by the bullpen upon losing one of its greatest assets in Neshek.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Blast From the Past

After defeating the Diamondbacks yesterday, the Twins are now 8-1 9-3 in interleague play this season, which has allowed them to move back within 1.5 games of the first-place White Sox. This this little stretch reminds me of the 2006 season, during which the Twins fueled an amazing midseason run by going 16-2 against National League teams.

To be clear, this Twins team is highly unlikely to pull off the type of historical four-month winning spree that that 2006 squad pulled off, for a variety of reasons. While it was a great game, yesterday's win represents a few of the reasons that the Twins can hardly be considered a sustainably great team. They scored seven runs while managing only one extra-base hit (a "double" by Delmon Young on a fly ball that the left fielder lost in the lights) and got another strong outing from Livan Hernandez, who allowed only one earned run despite surrendering nine hits and a walk over seven innings of work. The offense is unspectacular, the rotation is inconsistent, and the bullpen is far from dominating. Certainly, this Twins team lacks many of the elements that made that 2006 unit a great one.

Nevertheless, this group holds some similarities to the 2006 team that raise some eyebrows. Back in '06, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett came onto the scene and replaced dead weight (Tony Batista and Juan Castro) with surprisingly strong performances that gave the team a major boost both offensively and defensively. This year, Alexi Casilla and Brian Buscher are on their way to doing the same thing. In 2006, the Twins got unexpectedly great years from several members of the bullpen, most notably Dennys Reyes and Pat Neshek. This year, hurlers like Jesse Crain and Craig Breslow have been yielding surprisingly impressive numbers -- though it's still quite early to declare either one a success at this point.

Of course, one of the key aspects of that 2006 team's magical run was the emergence of Francisco Liriano as a dominating force in the Twins rotation. There's almost no chance of Liriano repeating that performance this year, but certainly he could return to the rotation and give this team a boost if he can continue to progress in Triple-A.

This isn't an instance where history is likely to repeat itself. But it's not totally unthinkable that the same ingredients which led to success for that 2006 team could manifest this season. And if that happens, who knows what is possible.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Call Your Shot

Happy Saturday. Thought I would pass along word of a contest being put on by State Farm relating to the All Star Game/Home Run Derby, which I received an e-mail about yesterday. I usually don't pay much attention to sweepstakes of this sort, but the prizes seem so cool that I figured I had to mention it. Read below, and if you're interested in entering, you can go to the official website here.

Here's how the promotion works: Fans can enter the promotion daily through June 24 (THIS TUESDAY) at The grand prize winner of Call Your Shot will win:

* All-expense paid trip for four to the All-Star Game and StateFarm Home Run Derby
* First class hotel accommodations in New York
* Tickets to a Broadway show
* $1,000 MasterCard gift card

The grand prize winner will also get the chance to pick a spot to which two of the Home Run Derby players must compete to try to hit a ball. If the first player hits the ball to the called spot, the promotion ends. If either player succeeds, the fan receives a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid vehicle and a 2009 season-ticket package for any team.

Additionally, 10 fans will win first place prizes consisting of a $300 gift card and 25 second place prize winners will receive $100 gift cards.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Notes for the Weekend

After putting the finishing touches on a sweep over the Nationals with a 9-3 victory yesterday, the Twins have won five of their last six games and have moved back above the .500 mark to 37-36. They have rebounded nicely from a 2-8 stretch which nearly knocked them into third place in the division, and are very much hanging around in this race. They currently trail the White Sox by 4 1/2 games for the AL Central lead, though it's worth noting that the Tigers have won nine straight and are breathing down the Twins' necks.

This weekend, the Twins have a three-game set against the Diamondbacks, who started the season very hot but haven't won a series in June. Tonight's tilt will pit Scott Baker against Randy Johnson, one of the game's all-time great left-handers and a pitcher who has performed quite well against the Twins historically. If the Twins right-handed hitters can't start to reverse their brutal trends against southpaws, this could be a very tough game. Tomorrow's game will be attended by a smattering of citizens from the SBG community (including myself), as Mr. Ball Guy will be holding his annual convention with a picnic preceding the ballgame. Nick Blackburn will get the nod against Micah Owings in that game; it should be interesting to see how Blackburn holds up after having his last start skipped due to elbow soreness. Sunday presents another interesting match-up with Livan Hernandez going against Brandon Webb. On May 16, Hernandez was 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA and Webb was 9-0 with a 2.56 ERA; since that point, Hernandez has gone 1-3 with a 7.91 and Webb has gone 2-3 with a 4.54. Certainly Hernandez's drop-off has been far steeper, but both pitchers have cooled off after strong starts. Webb lasted just 3 1/3 innings while surrendering seven runs in his most recent outing, and has experienced decreased velocity as of late due to what he's suggested may be a dead arm period. Webb is a terrific pitcher, but it looks like the Twins might be catching him at the right time.

I hope everyone has a great weekend, and I look forward to seeing some of you tomorrow afternoon.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cleaning Up

When you have a lineup that doesn't feature a lot of power or a lot of great on-base percentages, it sure helps to have a cleanup hitter who is as ridiculously effective as Justin Morneau has been this season. Morneau entered last night's game with a .345/.434/.619 line with runners in scoring position, and he proceeded to drive in three runs in last night's win with a sacrifice fly in the first and RBI singles in the seventh and eighth. This one night after Morneau drove in both of the Twins' runs in a 2-1 victory in the series opener against the Nats. His success in these situations has been critical, because he's gotten a ton of opportunities. Compare Morneau's number of plate appearances with runners in scoring position to the other Twins regulars (entering last night's game):

Morneau: 99
Cuddyer: 77
Mauer: 74
Young: 70
Harris: 70
Kubel: 67
Gomez: 58
Lamb: 53
Casilla: 34

Morneau is not hitting the ball out of the park the way he has the past two years -- he's on pace for just 25 homers this season -- but his RBI total of 55 ties him with Carlos Quentin for second in the AL. This makes Morneau a powerful weapon and a crucial component of the Twins lineup.

The Twins rank sixth in the AL in runs scored despite sporting a worse team OPS than five of the teams that rank behind them. In no small part, this can be attributed to Morneau, who has consistently cleaned up in his ample opportunities to drive in runs.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Left in the Dark

A timely home run from Justin Morneau and a strong outing from Livan Hernandez prevented the Twins from another upsetting loss at the hands of a soft-tossing lefty last night. This time it was John Lannan stymieing the Twins bats for most of his seven innings of work.

The Twins' struggles against left-handed starters are well-documented, and the fact that the Twins struggled against the southpaw Lannan last night is not as disappointing as the reason they struggled against him. Here's what the Twins seven right-handed hitters in the lineup (including the switch-hitting Alexi Casilla) did against Lannan last night: 2-for-21 (.095) with two singles, a walk and three strikeouts. The only hitters who managed to do anything of consequence against Lannan were the two left-handed batters in the lineup, Joe Mauer (who went 2-for-3 with a walk and a double) and Justin Morneau (whose mammoth blast to right in the sixth inning scored Mauer and put the Twins in front).

Regardless of your feelings about Delmon Young, Craig Monroe and Michael Cuddyer, one thing is certain: these are guys who should be putting up numbers against lefties. The team's struggles against southpaws last year were a big part of the reason the team spent so much in players and money to bring in Young and Monroe, but the two have both failed miserably at this key task thus far. Young has hit .246/.295/.386 against lefties, while Monroe -- who has historically mashed southpaws -- has posted a miserable .106/.176/.106 line against them. That's ZERO extra-base hits in 51 plate appearances against left-handers for a guy who was basically brought in with the specific task of hitting them. Cuddyer, meanwhile, has hit .250/.350/.327 against lefties and has yet to hit a home run off one.

The funny thing is that Mauer and Morneau have both been surprisingly effective against left-handed pitching this year, so this team could actually be a force against southpaws if they were getting reasonably decent production from any of their middle-of-the-lineup right-handed bats. They're not, and it is extremely frustrating. The Twins may have won last night's game, but it still serves as a perfect example of a significant issue that is plaguing this team.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Return of the Franchise

When Francisco Liriano joined the Twins earlier this season and went 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA and 7-to-13 strikeout to walk ratio over three starts, it seemed evident that he had a long ways to go before he'd be an effective major-league pitcher again. I felt that we wouldn't be seeing him in a Twins uniform until at least after the All-Star break, if not 2009.

Much to my surprise and delight, Liriano made very quick strides upon his return to Class-AAA Rochester. After an ugly first start back with the Red Wings (4.1 IP, 4 ER, 5 BB), Liriano started to make demonstrable adjustments. In nine starts since then, he has pitched 6+ innings eight times, allowed three or fewer runs eight times and issued two or fewer walks seven times. He's throwing more strikes and pitching deep into ballgames. Over his past four starts, he has gone 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA and 26-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 25 2/3 innings. Considering how far away he looked back in April, there's no way I could have anticipated that Liriano would be pitching so well so soon, even if it is just at the Triple-A level. Reports indicate that he has added a few ticks to his velocity and that he's harnessed his fastball, which he struggled mightily to command during his stint with the Twins.

Despite his success, the Twins would probably like to be patient with Liriano. However, just as was the case back in April, circumstances may force the team to move ahead of its desired schedule with the left-hander. Livan Hernandez's performance has spiraled as of late, and with the number of hits and runs he is giving up each time out, it doesn't seem like Ron Gardenhire will be able to continue trotting him out there every fifth day without the players and fans revolting. Even if Gardy elects to keep sticking with Hernandez, it was recently revealed that Nick Blackburn is going to miss his next scheduled start due to muscle soreness in his throwing elbow. The Twins have stated that Blackburn is still on pace to start on Saturday, but these things tend to linger and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Blackburn end up on the disabled list. If that happens and the Twins need another pitcher, it's somewhat difficult to justify calling on anyone other than Liriano.

While Liriano is basically assured to have more success in his next shot with the Twins than he did last time, it's still probably best to keep expectations low. His devastating slider was the main ingredient for his success back in 2006, and by all accounts that pitch is still nowhere near where it was prior to surgery. In all likelihood, it will probably never get back to that point. But Liriano is a good, smart pitcher who can have success if he locates and mixes his pitches, even if those pitches aren't as nasty as they once were. The fact that he's started missing bats down in Rochester is certainly an encouraging sign.

It seems inevitable that Liriano will be getting another shot in a Twins uniform. How soon? At this point, that may be dictated by factors other than his arm.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Livan on the Edge

Back on May 16, I posted an article titled The Truth About Boof, in which I examined the performance of Boof Bonser (who was then 2-5 with a 5.37 ERA) and Livan Hernandez (who was then 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA). The post came in reaction to cries for Bonser to be removed from the rotation, and my basic contention was that Bonser was not pitching nearly as poorly as his basic numbers suggested, whereas the opposite was true of Hernandez. I predicted that the numbers would start to reflect these truths as time went on, and concluded the post by stating "there is plenty of reason to believe that the hefty Cuban is due for some decline while Bonser improves, so one month from now I think we could very easily be hearing the same cries of outrage directed at Hernandez."

Exactly one month later, it certainly appears that I've whiffed on Bonser. He was demoted to the bullpen just a few starts after I wrote the article, and he has now been charged with earned runs in four of his five appearances as a reliever. I maintain that Bonser is not nearly as bad a pitcher as many seem to believe (through it all, he still has a 4.48 xFIP and his strikeout rate has been good since he joined the bullpen), but with his 6.45 ERA, it's pretty tough for me to stand by Bonser at this point.

Nevertheless, my remarks regarding Hernandez have proven prescient. He began a precipitous decline almost immediately after I made that post, and has gone 0-3 with a 9.38 ERA and .438 BAA in six starts since, allowing more than two hits per inning during that span while averaging less than six innings per start. Calls for Hernandez to be booted from the rotation have begun to surface, and indeed, that moment may not be too far off.

I can hardly feel smug about my prognostication on this one. To many, Hernandez's downfall was as predictable as John McCain starting a speech with the phrase, "My friends." Quite simply, Hernandez's strategy of not striking anyone out and letting opposing hitters hit the ball (and hard) was not going to yield remotely successful results for an extended period of time. No amount of veteran moxie or guile can magically cause batters to hit line drives directly at fielders. Eventually Hernandez's utterly hittable stuff was going to catch up with him, and it certainly appears that that time has come.

A stark parallel can be drawn between the paths taken by Hernandez this year and by another veteran free agent signing for the Twins from last season, Ramon Ortiz. Much like Hernandez, Ortiz was a mid-30s right-hander with declining numbers who many felt the Twins overpaid for. Similar to Hernandez, Ortiz got his Twins career off to a surprising start, going 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA through his first five starts. Yet, just like with Hernandez, Ortiz's luck quickly caught up with him, as he went 0-3 with a 10.97 ERA over his next five starts before being demoted to the bullpen at the end of May. Hernandez's success lasted a little longer, so the Twins are showing a bit more patience with him, but I can't imagine he's long for the rotation with the way he's getting battered in every outing.

By letting batters put the ball in play consistently, Hernandez has been living on the edge. After a surprisingly strong start, that strategy has stopped working as of late. There's no reason to believe it will start working again soon. So how long until Hernandez follows Bonser's fate?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday Rundown

Another day, another blowout loss.  The Twins fell to the Indians 12-2 last night thanks in large part to another horrendous outing from Livan Hernandez, their seventh loss in eight games.   This team is just incredibly brutal right now.  No one can hit, no one can pitch... it's bad.  Anyway, here are a few random notes:

* In Wednesday night's win over the Indians, Carlos Gomez successfuly stole a base for the first time since May 25. After a quick start -- nine steals in his first 15 games -- the speedy center field had been stuck at 17 for nearly two weeks and had been caught on five consecutive attempts.

Clearly, those early dreams that Gomez would swipe 100 bases this bases this season were way off the mark, and at this point it appears that even 60 is an improbable goal. Opposing teams seem to have adjusted to his style, and he will have to make adjustments of his own to return to being a dominating threat on the bases. His 6-for-13 mark on stolen bases since the beginning of May simply isn't acceptable for a guy with his speed.

* In order to add an extra position player to their roster for the upcoming slate of interleague games which will open in Milwaukee this weekend, the Twins have decided to part ways with reliever Juan Rincon. As Aaron Gleeman noted yesterday, Rincon has seen a steady decline in essentially every important statistical category over the past four years, and after a decent start in 2008, he's been completely incapable of getting batters out lately. He had a 3.24 ERA on May 17, but in nine appearances since that point he has posted a 10.32 ERA while allowing opponents to bat .404 against him. It's a subject that most people do not wish to broach, but Rincon has just never been the same since he was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs back in 2005. (Although Judd Spicer shared some thoughts on the topic a few days ago on his exceptional blog over at City Pages.)

To replace Rincon, the Twins have elected to call up Brian Buscher, who has had a few stints with the Twins over the past couple seasons. Buscher had a breakout year in his first season with the Twins organization last year after being nabbed in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft the previous winter, and he has worked at Rochester this year to prove that his performance a year ago was no fluke. In 53 games with the Red Wings, Buscher has batted .319/.402/.514 with a nearly even 21-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Whatever adjustments he made last year, it appears that they have stuck with him.

I'm a fan of Buscher, as illustrated by the fact that I sponsored his page on Baseball Reference, and with the way Mike Lamb is struggling, I think Buscher will get every chance to gain regular playing time at third base with the Twins.

* The Twins will spend the next three days playing without a DH in Milwaukee, and my hope is that we won't be seeing Delmon Young starting in left field with Jason Kubel on the bench. This course of action would make little sense, for a few reasons. First of all, while Young continues to trudge along with an ugly 669 OPS and one home run on the season, Kubel has rebounded from a slow start to bat .303/.404/.539 with four homers since May 13. Also, the Twins are scheduled to face Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan and Seth McClung in the series, all of whom are right-handers. Kubel has posted an 805 OPS against righties this year; that figure is a demonic 666 for Demon... er, Delmon.

It seems entirely obvious that Kubel should be starting at least two, if not all three, of the games in this upcoming series. Hopefully Ron Gardenhire has the good sense to make it happen. The manager did plug in Kubel instead of Young against left-hander Aaron Laffey last night; the fact that he's abandoning his traditional righty-versus-lefty preference to get the better hitter into the lineup is a promising development, in my mind.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Flipping the Byrd

There's nothing all that remarkable about Paul Byrd. He doesn't strike people out, he gives up a decent number of hits, and he doesn't get all that many ground balls. He throws the ball in the strike zone and lets batters hit it. That is a strategy that has historically worked for him against the Twins, as he entered last night's game with a 10-3 career record and 3.50 ERA against the hometown nine.

Yet the Twins, mired in their worst slump of the season, would have no more of that business last night. They jumped on Byrd for five runs in the third inning and got a strong start from Nick Blackburn, leading them to a victory to end their six-game skid, in spite of a scare thanks to the bullpen.

Ron Gardenhire gets a lot of credit for the way he manages the bullpen, and deservedly so, but last night I really thought he over-managed. After replacing Blackburn to start the sixth, Boof Bonser put a pair of runners on with a walk and a ground ball base hit. Yet, he came back to get an out on a liner back to the mound and then struck out Jamey Carroll on a nice breaking ball. Bonser seemed on the verge of working out of his sticky situation, but rather than allowing the former starter to try and retire Grady Sizemore and get out of the inning, Gardenhire went to Dennys Reyes. While Sizemore was hitting just .219 against lefties this season, he sported a .367 on-base percentage and 758 OPS, neither of which are really all that far below his overall marks. Admittedly, Reyes was probably a better match-up against Sizemore than Bonser -- and it was certainly tough to predict that Sizemore would rip a three-run homer off the lefty Reyes -- but I think this is a situation where Gardenhire really should have let Bonser finish the inning. The guy isn't a situational middle reliever; he's a converted starter trying to regain confidence.

Alas, Reyes let in both of his inherited runners and Bonser saw his ERA shoot up to 6.19, really through no fault of his own. It's just been that kind of season for Boof.

In any case, the rough patch between Bonser and Reyes ultimately wound up being irrelevant because Jesse Crain and Joe Nathan shut the Indians down the rest of the way while Alexi Casilla and Justin Morneau chipped in ninth inning RBIs to seal a comfortable 8-5 win.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Despite his battles with injuries and some surprising early performances from other hurlers, I have continually pushed Scott Baker as the best starter in the Twins rotation this season. Last night, he certainly looked the part, ending a string of ugly outings from Twins starters by holding the Indians to one run over seven innings of work. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to end the Twins' current losing streak, as the offense came up empty against C.C. Sabathia in a crushing 1-0 loss.

Now, to be fair, Sabathia's 4.81 ERA entering last night's game did not reflect how well he has pitched for the majority of the season. After starting the season 0-3 with a 13.50 ERA and 14-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his first four games, Sabathia had bounced back nicely, going 3-5 with a 2.38 ERA and 68-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine starts since. Last night, Sabathia gave up a few hits early, but settled in after giving up a single to Joe Mauer in the third and retired 17 straight batters, cruising through the ninth inning with a shutout and an impressively low pitch count.

The Twins managed just five hits in the game, all singles and none after the fourth inning. Two of the hits came on bunts, and the Twins did not draw a walk in the game. Tonight they will throw Nick Blackburn against Paul Byrd, a pitcher whom they have historically struggled against. Let's hope they can get some better results and worked their way out of this skid.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

South Side Slug Fest

After being thoroughly pummeled in two straight games, the Twins finally took a lead in the fourth inning yesterday afternoon when Jason Kubel shot a line drive down the right field line to score Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and break a 1-1 tie. Nick Swisher responded with a solo homer in the bottom half of the inning, but in the next frame, Mauer and Morneau scored again, this time on a Michael Cuddyer double. The Twins led 5-2. Light was creeping through the looming clouds that smothered U.S. Cellular Field. The glimpse of light was short-lived.

Glen Perkins walked Jim Thome on four pitches with one out in the bottom of the sixth. On came Jesse Crain, who surrendered a two-run homer to Swisher. 5-4. In the next inning, the Sox touched up Matt Guerrier for three more runs, capped by a two-run dinger off the bat of Paul Konerko. 7-5. The Twins threatened to come back against closer Bobby Jenks in the ninth when Carlos Gomez delivered a leadoff double and Alexi Casilla followed with a single, but the rally was foiled when Joe Mauer tapped into a double play and Justin Morneau grounded out to short.

Certainly, it's difficult to excuse the abysmal performance displayed by the Twins pitching staff during this past series. Nobody could get outs. Over four games, the Sox batted .400 and smashed an astonishing 23 extra-base hits -- including 11 homers -- for a .717 slugging percentage. Those numbers are downright ghastly. That is some bad, bad pitching. Yet, considering that nearly every pitcher on the staff took part in the clobbering this weekend, it's probably reasonable to chalk this one up largely to a red-hot offense playing in their home park. How the Twins pitchers respond in Cleveland over the next three days will be crucially important.

The Twins, scratching at first place just a week ago, now find themselves two games under .500 and very much in danger of being surpassed by Cleveland for second place in the division. The season is far from lost, but this weekend's slaughter in Chi-town was nothing less than humiliating. The Twins need to get back on track, and fast, before things truly spin out of control.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Reality Check

Between the intermittent rain showers, the belligerent screaming fans to my immediate left and the drubbing the Twins took at the hands of the White Sox, my first exposure to U.S. Cellular Field on Saturday night was not exactly ideal. Still, it was an opportunity to watch the Twins outdoors, and The Cell certainly has some interesting features.

I wouldn't say that the White Sox' stadium has a great deal of character, but it's a nice ballpark. It's industrial, it's straightforward, it's huge... essentially, it's very Chicago. The Sox fans were a bit mean-spirited, but for the most part in a good-natured way. Certainly not as amicable as the fans in Milwaukee or Kansas City, but better than Oakland.

The most humorous part of the experience was when the lady next to me, sitting alone and wearing a White Sox shirt, kept asking me questions about White Sox players. "Which one is Swisher?" ... "Which one is Thome?" ... "Who is No. 23?" I'm thinking to myself, You're lucky I'm a pretty big baseball fan so I actually know the answers to these questions, but do you really think a guy wearing a Twins jersey and a Twins cap is the best source for information on Chicago players? Eventually she started asking me questions about the White Sox base coaches, at which point I had to end the conversation.

As for the Twins, well... whew. Bad. They've been outscored 33-9 over three games against the White Sox, getting horrible pitching and mostly terrible offense. It's not over yet, but so far this has been the worst series I can remember since the one in Detroit back in early 2006 where the Twins were swept and outscored 33-1 over three games.

Indeed, the Twins are spiraling. But should we really be surprised? I'll admit that even I had gotten caught up in how well the team was playing, to the extent that I was overlooking how unsustainable that success was. With all the magical comebacks, gutsy pitching performances and big clutch hits, I had come to gleefully ignore the plain facts that were in front of my eyes. Guys like Livan Hernandez, Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn were not pitching well enough to continue consistently getting the kinds of results they were getting, and the offense was overachieving thanks to some ridiculous numbers with runners in scoring position. It's unfortunate that everything has come crashing down simultaneously, and all during the team's biggest series of the season up to this point. Over these first three games in Chicago, the Twins have ruined an opportunity to move closer to first place in the division, and instead reminded people why they were widely picked to finish fourth or fifth in the division prior to the season.

To draw one positive from the weekend, I'll say this: I was one of a select few Twins fans who actually got to see Delmon's first Twins home run in person! Yay?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Draft Recap, Plus Other Notes

I've come to loathe the NFL Draft. It seems like the day after the Super Bowl, we're already seeing every sports channel and website piling on with mock drafts and over-analysis of some offensive guard who will probably go in the fourth round. The hype surrounding the event has grown to such ludicrous proportions that by the time the April draft rolls around, I just don't care anymore.

The MLB draft is much more tolerable. Only recently has ESPN even begun televising the event, and the build-up is much less overbearing. It's like you wake up one day and say, "Oh, hey... the draft is today."

Well, that day was yesterday, and the Twins made their first seven selections in an important draft where they owned three of the first 31 slots. With their first pick, they selected Aaron Hicks, a switch-hitting outfielder out of Woodrow Wilson High School in California. I've been tracking Hicks for some time now, as he strikes me as very much a Twins type of player and there was a good chance he'd be available at the 14 spot.

Hicks is extremely athletic, advanced defensively and very toolsy all-around. He also pitched in high school and displayed a fastball that touched 97 mph, but he has made it fairly clear that his preference is to stick in the outfield as a pro. The scouting report calls Hicks "one of the more athletic outfielders in the high school ranks and perhaps in the Draft class," but notes that "if he doesn't hit, those raw tools will be wasted." Hicks strikes me as a similar player to Austin Jackson, the Yankees outfield prospect whom the Twins were reportedly targeting in Johan Santana trade talks over the winter. Hicks is quite raw and the Twins will have a lot of work to do with him, but his upside is tremendously high and he could one day turn into a dazzling big-league outfielder.

The selection of Hicks is certain to be controversial among Twins fans, since the team didn't exactly use its first pick to draft into an area of weakness. This organization is chock full of athletic center field types, from Carlos Gomez to Denard Span to Dustin Martin to Joe Benson to, most recently, Ben Revere (who is still tearing up the Midwest League with a batting average over .400). There's some truth to that notion, but considering how undeveloped his tools are, it's rather unlikely that Hicks will be nearing the majors any sooner than 2012 at the earliest. Much can change in four years -- by that time several of the aforementioned prospects may have flopped and Gomez may have shifted to right field. I think it's quite reasonable to believe that Hicks was the best player on the board when the Twins selected, and that makes him a good pick.

The Twins second pick came later in the first round, with the No. 27 selection they received from the Angels as a result of the Torii Hunter signing. With this pick, the Twins selected right-hander Carlos Gutierrez, a closer from the University of Miami. This selection was far more questionable than that of Hicks, as Gutierrez was rarely mentioned as a first-round talent and was ranked by Baseball America as the 82nd best player in the draft. Gutierrez has already gone through Tommy John surgery, and he throws between 90-94 mph with good downward movement. He seems like an unremarkable player right now, but perhaps the Twins believe he will gain velocity and turn into a dominator as he moves away from his elbow surgery.

The Twins have a fine history with drafting college pitchers, but it's tough not to be a little disappointed by this pick, as Gutierrez very likely would have been available in later rounds. My thinking is that the Twins wanted to use this selection on left-hander Christian Friedrich out of Eastern Kentucky University, who had gone to the Rockies just two picks earlier. The Twins are likely to need bullpen help within the next few years though, and Gutierrez is likely to move quickly through the system, so certainly there is some logic behind taking him. There is also some talk that they may try and convert him to a starter.

With the No. 31 sandwich pick -- another return from the Hunter signing -- the Twins grabbed Shooter Hunt, a right-handed pitcher from Tulane University. Hunt is a much better pick, considered a mid-to-late first-round talent with electric stuff. He throws in the low-to-mid 90s and features a power curveball and has the potential for an above-average changeup. Hunt has struggled with his control at times, but the Twins seem like the right organization to help him with that issue. Here's the scouting report for Hunt:
With a strong junior season, Hunt has moved himself into serious first-round contention. While the right-hander doesn't always command his pitches well -- he's walked a few too many this year -- he's got terrific stuff, most notably his fastball and curve, both of which are above average. He hasn't needed a changeup much, but he has the feel for one. There might be one or two right-handers who rank ahead of Hunt heading into the Draft, but he's not too far behind them in the pecking order.
The Twins didn't pick again until No. 60, where they took 20-year-old shortstop Tyler Ladendorf. Ladendorf is a somewhat uncharacteristic pick for the Twins, who generally like to go after projectable high school hitters with selections in this area. Ladendorf was drafted by the Yankees out of high school in the 34th round in 2006, but he opted to go to to Howard College. He was again drafted in the 34th round in 2007 -- this time by the Giants -- but elected to return to Howard for another year where he increased his stock substantially. At 5'11" and 190 lbs, Ladendorf may be too big to stick at shortstop, but he's said to be athletic enough to handle a position switch and could be a contributor down the line if he hits.

At 92, the Twins took right-hander Bobby Lanigan of Adelphi University. Lanigan doesn't throw particularly hard, but has a good mix of pitches that he can locate well. He was ranked by Baseball America as the 129th best draft prospect, and as such seems like a bit of a reach in the third round, but certainly he is the type of pitcher that this organization has had success with in the past (see: Baker, Scott and Slowey, Kevin).

The Twins used their final two picks of the day to grab center fielder Danny Ortiz out of a Puerto Rican high school in the fourth round at No. 126, and third baseman Nicholas Romero out of San Diego State in the fourth round at No. 156.

All in all, this was a fairly typical draft for the Twins. They used their highest picks to get a toolsy high school outfielder and some college arms. They definitely reached on Gutierrez, but made up for that by nabbing Hunt at 31, who easily could have gone somewhere between 10-20. Overall I'm fairly happy with the new players they've acquired and look forward to seeing how the kids handle the rookie leagues in the second half of the season.

* The Twins fell to the Orioles 3-2 yesterday, capping off a series loss in the wake of a solid string of games against the Royals and Yankees. On the plus side, Scott Baker pitched well in his first game back from the disabled list, holding the O's scoreless over five frames outside of a two-run homer off the bat of Nick Markakis.

* Ron Gardenhire's choice to carry 13 pitchers seemed pretty silly to begin with, and it seems all the more misguided after the team had to risk an injury to one of its best starting pitchers yesterday when Kevin Slowey was used as a pinch-runner for Mike Redmond in the eighth inning.

* Matt Macri didn't even board the plane back to Rochester before learning that he'd be sticking with the Twins for the time being, as Nick Punto is headed back to the disabled list with a bad hamstring. Unfortunate timing for Punto, who doubled twice in yesterday's game and currently sports numbers quite similar to the ones he put up in his career year of 2006.

* Francisco Liriano started for Rochester yesterday, going six innings and allowing three runs (all on a home run). His control took a step back, as he walked four and threw just 53 of 96 pitches for strikes, but he did notch seven strikeouts for a second consecutive outing. Liriano seems to be making strides, but don't expect to see him up anytime before the All-Star break.

* I'm heading out to Chicago this weekend, and I'll be taking in the Twins/White Sox match-up at U.S. Cellular Field on Saturday night. I'll be sure to check in with a full recap on Monday. Have a great weekend everyone.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Key to the Division?

There's been an interesting trend in the AL Central over the past few seasons, and that is that the team that has won the division has consistently done so thanks in large part to phenomenal bullpen performance.

Now, this fact in and of itself is not terribly surprising; a strong bullpen is necessary to hold leads and win games. Yet, in each of the past three seasons, the AL Central Champion has received absurdly good performances from multiple relievers -- performances that seeming came out of nowhere. Observe:

Reliever: 2005 ERA (Career ERA)
Dustin Hermanson: 2.04 (4.21)
Neal Cotts: 1.94 (4.49)
Cliff Pollitte: 2.00 (4.40)

OK, that's freakin' ridiculous. The Twins captured similar lightning in '06, though to a lesser degree...

Reliever: 2006 ERA (Career ERA)
Dennys Reyes: 0.89 (4.37)
Juan Rincon: 2.91 (3.60)
Pat Neshek: 2.19 (2.91)

And last year, the Tribe...

Reliever: 2007 ERA (Career ERA)
Rafael Betancourt: 1.47 (2.98)
Aaron Fultz: 2.92 (4.26)
Rafael Perez: 1.78 (2.59)

In some cases, these were good relievers that simply had exceptional years. In other cases (Reyes, Fultz, all the White Sox guys) we saw mediocre pitchers put up unbelievable numbers out of nowhere.

In any case, this odd little trend suggests that the team with the ridiculous bullpen will end up winning the division. Does that pattern hold up this year? Well, the first-place White Sox currently rank No. 1 in the AL in bullpen ERA at 2.86. Meanwhile, the second-place Twins rank sixth at 3.48, while the Tigers (4.40) and Indians (4.44) rank 12th and 13th, respectively.

This year, Chicago's crazy bullpen contributions are coming from the likes of Boone Logan (2.29 ERA, 5.03 career), Scott Linebrink (1.50 ERA, 3.12 career) and closer Bobby Jenks (1.54 ERA, 3.06 career). Meanwhile, the Twins have gotten typically great production from Joe Nathan, but have lost their second-best reliever for the year and are getting sub par performances from guys like Juan Rincon and Jesse Crain.

You don't HAVE to have a great bullpen to succeed -- the Tigers sported a 4.40 ERA last season on their way to the World Series -- but as the trends above illustrate, it sure does help. Currently, the Twins' relief corps seems to be heading in the wrong direction. They've fallenf rom the top of the league to the middle of the pack over the past couple weeks, and it's hard to feel comfortable any time a starter hands a small lead to the bullpen in the sixth or seventh inning.

How to improve on this issue? Maybe the answer is to bring in some fresh blood in the form of a Tim Lahey or a Mariano Gomez from Triple-A. Maybe the answer is, as Howard Sinker suggests, parting ways with Rincon, who just can't seem to get anyone out these days.

I don't really know what the best solution is. What I do know is that we Twins fans have become accustomed to seeing a stellar bullpen over the past several years, and that the Twins are going to have an extremely difficult time remaining near the top of the standings if the quality of the 'pen continues to deteriorate.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Orioles 5, Twins 3

Not much to say about a game like last night's. The Twins didn't play terribly, but simply got beat. Radhames Liz pitched a surprisingly good game, Kevin Slowey made a few too many mistakes, and the Twins took a 5-3 loss.

I thought Slowey pitched OK. The offense was probably due for a bit of a letdown since it has been so hot as of late, but it was nice to see the Twins still push a few runs across. I suspect they'll have a hard time doing so tonight against Daniel Cabrera, a pitcher whom they have historically struggled against and whom is having a very good season.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Month in Review: May

Apologies for being AWOL yesterday. I was up north for a bachelor party over the weekend and needed a day to recover. Anyway, here's the Month in Review for May, a couple days late.

May Record: 15-13
Overall Record: 28-27 (2nd Place in AL Central)

The story of the month for the Twins was offensive improvement. After averaging only 3.8 runs per game in April, the Twins bumped that number up to 5.5 in May thanks to individual improvements nearly across the board. The pitching took a bit of a step back, with Boof Bonser having a real tough month that will likely see him knocked out of the rotation and Pat Neshek's injury taking a toll on the bullpen. Nevertheless, the improved offense led to a run differential of +8 (this in spite of the 19-3 shellacking in Detroit), a clear improvement over the -20 run differential in April.

Essentially, the Twins in May were pretty much exactly the team I was expecting overall this year. Solid offense, inconsistent starting pitching, and a record right around .500. What I didn't anticipate was that that record would put them within a couple games of first place.

A look at three players whose performances were outstanding over the past month, and three who fell bellow expectations.

Three Up:
1. Joe Mauer: .333/.442/.387, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 17 R, 0/0 SB
The lack of power from Mauer is disconcerting, as he managed only five extra-base hits (all doubles) in 93 at-bats and slugged only .387 for the month, but he's certainly contributing in other ways. Mauer drew 19 walks compared to only eight strikeouts in May, good for a fantastic .442 on-base percentage. He also stayed healthy and in the lineup, appearing in 24 of the team's 28 games.

2. Carlos Gomez: .299/.349/.448, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 17 R, 6/10 SB
After posting a ghastly .279 OBP in the season's first month, Gomez raised his batting average considerably in May and, in turn, reached base about 35 percent of the time. While far from ideal, that type of clip makes Gomez a useful leadoff man, especially when he's stealing bases and showing solid power. He's still striking out too much (more than once every four at-bats in May), but it was nevertheless an encouraging month for the young man.

3. Mike Lamb: .302/.340/.407, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 11 R, 0/1 SB
Lamb was one of the worst regulars in baseball in April, but finally started to look more like the hitter the Twins thought they were getting during the month of May. He still didn't show a great deal of patience or power, but he improved his batting average by more than 100 points.

Three Down:
1. Boof Bonser: 30.1 IP, 0-2, 8.60 ERA, 20 K / 11 BB, 1.62 WHIP
Bonser simply could not find his way out of the funk he got himself into. He was frequently the victim of bad luck and poor defense, but there's no denying that he had a poor month on the hill. He'll likely find himself in the bullpen when Scott Baker returns this week.

2. Brendan Harris: .217/.320/.289, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 11 R, 1/2 SB A solid contributor during the season's first month, Harris struggled at the plate in May. His batting average was horrible, and so was his slugging percentage thanks to a total of four extra-base hits in 23 games. Harris showed decent patience and drew 12 walks, but he needs to start hitting the ball.

3. Michael Cuddyer: .212/.273/.297, 1 HR, 17 RBI, 12 R, 3/3 SB
Just a really bad offensive month for Cuddyer. Could be that he's still being affected by the hand injury that seemingly sapped his power late last year. At the very least, he's off to a better start in June.

Danny Valencia - Ft. Myers Miracle
It wasn't too long ago that third base was a major sore spot for this organization. Last year, the team was getting horrid production at the position from Nick Punto, and Matt Moses and David Winfree had basically fallen off the prospect map. Trading for a third base prospect seemed like the only way to give this team some hope at the hot corner. Fortunately, that's starting to change. Along with April's prospect of the month, Luke Hughes (who continues to hit well in New Britain), Danny Valencia is really making a case to be the Twins' heir at third. After a solid April, Valencia flipped a switch in May and raked to the tune of .402/.431/.663 with 17 extra-base hits and 25 RBI in 24 games. He'll likely move up to Double-A in the near future, which will be a good test for the college-trained hitter.

The Twins held their own with a fairly tough schedule in May, but things won't get too much easier in June. The Twins finish up their current homestand against the Orioles, then have a tough divisional road trip where they travel to Chicago to face the first-place White Sox and then to Cleveland to face the underperforming Indians. Then it's on to interleague play, where the Twins have the misfortune of playing nine games against the Brewers and Diamondbacks (though they also have three games apiece against the Nationals and Padres, both of whom have struggled this year).