Friday, August 29, 2008

Nathan's Deep Impact

Cliff Lee is having an amazing year for the Indians. At this point, he seems like nearly a shoe-in for the American League Cy Young Award. If he wasn't, the front-runner would likely be Francisco Rodriguez, who has already notched 50 saves this year and seems likely to break Bobby Thigpen's single-season record of 57.

But, as Mr. Mosvick discussed on Tuesday, Rodriguez has not been the best closer in the AL this year. Not even close. K-Rod's gaudy save total has caused people to overlook the incredible things Mariano Rivera has been able to do this season at the age of 38, and also to overlook perhaps the most valuable reliever in all of baseball: Joe Nathan.=

The Angels have completed a lot of victories this year with Rodriguez on the mound. Yet, his value is overstated, as his save total has more to do with the fact that his team has played in a lot of close victories than any particular level of dominance on his part. Moreover, Rodriguez's presence on his team can hardly be viewed as crucial; in fact, he might not even be the best reliever on bullpen. Darren Oliver and Scot Shields both hang right with Rodriguez in terms of ERA and WHIP, and 24-year-old Jose Arredondo (Rodriguez's heir apparent) has muzzled hitters with a 1.18 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and .189 BAA here in his rookie campaign. If Rodriguez wasn't effectively closing out these games for the Angels, someone else would be.

This is not the case for the Twins. We've all watched games slip away again and again with relievers not named Nathan on the mound, so one must ask: where would this team be without its newly re-signed closer? The answer is that they probably would not be anywhere close to first place.

Win Probability Added is a fun little statistic that measures a player's contributions to his team and gives credit when he is able to deliver in situations that more strongly affect the outcome of a ballgame. Nathan leads all American League relievers in WPA at 4.28. He holds a substantial lead over the next man down the list, Oakland's Brad Zeigler (3.76) and is well ahead of the fifth-ranking Rodriguez (3.29) and sixth-ranking Rivera (3.19). Oh, and the next Twin on that list after Nathan? Matt Guerrier, at 47 (0.50).

The importance of closer role in baseball generally tends to be overrated, but great relievers who can reliably shut down opposing offenses in high-leverage situations are not. Nathan has been the best in the league in this regard.

A player's importance to his respective team is not really taken into account when it comes to Cy Young consideration the way it is with the Most Valuable Player award. But, if it was, Nathan would have to be one of the very top choices for the honor in the AL. Few players at any position have been as integral to their team's success as he has been while closing out victories for the Twins. Because his raw stats (1.11 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 36 saves, 62/13 K/BB) are highly impressive, Nathan will likely end up among the top five vote-getters for the Cy Young Award for the third time in five years, which is pretty darn impressive for a closer.

Extending their closer's contract continues to look like one of the best decisions made by the Twins this past offseason. It's pretty scary to think about where this team would be right now without him.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Not To Be Forgotten

The Twins' 6-5 victory over the Mariners yesterday was not the prettiest you will ever see. But, in squeezing past the American League's worst team and salvaging a victory in what appeared to be a lost series, the Twins showed signs of resiliency and resolve that have made them an upstart playoff contender this year.

The Twins struggled to separate themselves early in the game, and with the score tied at three in the seventh inning, Raul Ibanez ripped a homer to right field that could have been a dagger in the hearts of this inexperienced squad. Ibanez has been a nightmare for the Twins this year, and it would have been totally fitting for his blast to bury the Twins, completing a series sweep and pushing the Twins into a five-game losing streak.

Yet, the Twins battled back, scoring three times in the top of the eighth inning to take back the lead. And when the Mariners came back with a run of their own in the bottom half of the inning and sent the tying run home on a two-out Miguel Cairo single, Denard Span delivered a perfect throw from center field to gun down Tug Hulett at the plate and end the inning, preserving a one-run lead.

Span's throw continued a trend of terrific outfield defense, and his two-run double in the fourth delivered a trend of key hits that have helped the Twins succeed in the manner they have. Evan Longoria's success in Tampa Bay will prevent him from being a serious Rookie of the Year contender, but the impact that Span has had on the Twins this year cannot be understated, and yesterday's game provided another shining example of this.

Many had left Span for dead after his five underwhelming seasons in the minors, but he is playing like a man on the mission. He seems determined to prove his critics wrong, and for that he deserves all sorts of credit. Meanwhile, the Twins as a whole are set on proving all the national doubters wrong by remaining right at the top of this AL Central race. After battling back to defeat the Mariners while the White Sox were drubbed by the Orioles yesterday, the Twins are now back within a game of first place.

The Twins' series in Seattle was not an impressive one, that much is for sure. Without a doubt, they need to play a lot better in Oakland. But considering how many times they've shown the ability to bounce back from adversity all season long, I don't think it's a stretch to believe they can.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Sorry folks, but I just do not have the time or motivation to write up an entry about last night's game. The Twins have lost four straight, including two against one of baseball's worst teams, and in the process they've allowed the White Sox to gain traction in first place.

The Twins need to score some runs here today. Let's win one, boys.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Unimportant History

Over the weekend, the Twins took a tough split against one of the league's best teams. Last night, they watched their bullpen once again blow a lead against one of the league's worst teams. Sigh.

Beyond some recent tough losses, recently there has been even more of a sense of annoyance. Annoyance at having to continuously face the onslaught of major media stories about Fransisco Rodriguez's "historical run" at Bobby Thigpen's save record.

It's true that the relative unimportance of this record has already been tackled by many major writers, but it's hard to ignore when the only real story over the weekend seemed to have been Rodriguez's 49th and 50th saves. The most common point to make, and perhaps the most important thing, is that Rodriguez's talent has nothing to do with the production of save opportunities that has allowed him to make a run at the record. A combination of luck, an often mediocre offense, and a great pitching staff outside of K-Rod helped produce the 55 save opportunities that have allowed Rodriguez to make this run.

This brings up several points to consider. One is that the save itself and the save opportunity is usually converted and the statistic itself isn't all that meaningful. The majority of three-run and even two-run leads are saved. Therefore, as a raw number, the amount of saves is not as important as save percentage. Granted, 50/55 save opportunities amounts to around a 91% save percentage, which is very good. However, our own Joe Nathan (92.1%), Joakim Soria (92.3%) and Mariano Rivera (97%) have significantly higher save percentages. What is the difference? Nathan has had 38 save opportunities and Rivera only 33. In fact, Rodriguez has had 16 more save opportunities than anyone else in the majors.

That certainly seems to suggest that Rodriguez's pursuit is not any more impressive than what Brad Lidge has done this year, converting all 31 save opportunities has had for the Phillies. In fact, that arguably not only makes Lidge the better closer, but also the more valuable one. Same goes for Soria, Nathan, and Rivera. All three AL closers listed have WHIPs below 1, with Rivera's 0.72 blowing the competition away. What is Rodriguez's? An ugly 1.27, which is also reflected by his mediocre 62/29 K/BB ratio, or 2.14. Nathan's is an impressive 4.69, but Rivera's in an outerwordly 11.17 or 67/6.

Which once again begs another question. Why aren't fans also discussing what might be Nathan's best relief year, with sub-1.00 ERA currently (and now a 1.13 ERA partially thanks to Nick Punto's infallible defense). And why aren't fans discussing how Rivera, at 38, is also possibly having his best year, with opponents "hitting" .175/.205/.257 this year to go with a 1.53 ERA. Each are having incredible years, but have gone relatively unnoticed because while they convert saves better than Rodriguez, they just don't have that counting stat the media seems so obsessed with. Eventually, fans might lose their affinity for the overrated save, but for now, it is making a lot more news then it should, leaving better stories in the dust.

* Twins fans may have noticed the return of a familiar face to the bullpen via the trade. Eddie Guardado was acquired from the Texas Rangers for minor-league closer Mark Hamburger. (As a fun fact, Hamburger was not drafted, but rather signed through a Twins tryout camp, after displaying a mid-90s fastball.) Guardado is nothing near the All-Star closer the Twins had back in 2002 and 2003, as he only has 28 strikeouts (versus 17 walks) in 49 1/3 innings, which is not too impressive and suggests he's been somewhat lucky, but he also has only given up 38 hits. More importantly, while he is killing lefties (.167/.521 OPS), righties are not knocking him around too badly either (.252/.721).

Guardado was able to quickly help the Twins last night, working a quick, scoreless eighth inning. It will continue to occur to many Twins fans that the front office could have made claims on superior bullpen help, like Chad Bradford, but trading for Guardado while giving up very little is at least a solid move for the club. Guardado doesn't strike me as the solution to the eighth inning, but he may be a better option than anyone else at this point and any improvement is good with just over a month to go in the season.

* I won't comment too much on last night's game, as I was unable to finish it due to the sleep deprivation caused by law school interview season. However, watching the Twins offense flounder against Miguel Bastita was frankly embarrassing. They should have been able to produce more run support for Fransisco Liriano against one of baseball's worst starting pitchers. And seeing that Jesse Crain gave up a walk-off home run only increases my own worries about the bullpen. Clearly, there is only one reliable member and its not Crain.

While I am at it, though, I should point out that after a solid start last night, Liriano's ERA dropped to 3.83, giving the Twins a rotation of starters all with ERAs under four. (Baker; 3.74, Perkins; 3.90, Blackburn; 3.78, Slowey 3.74.) In terms of ERA, no one in the group particularly stands out, but having five young starters capable of putting up solid to outstanding numbers can only bode well for the future of the franchise.

Its too bad, then, that the media is largely missing this story as well, as shown by this response to a chat with Jayson Stark to a question by a Twins fan about why the Twins five-man rotation isn't considered amongst the best:

"SportsNation Jayson Stark: I hear you, Chris. But I go back to my point about the Phillies. These guys have been unbelievable strike-throwing machines. But pretty much this whole rotation consists of guys who the Twins hope will keep them in the game. And that's not normally a formula for October success. Having Joe Nathan on your team IS a formula for October success, but we're not debating bullpens or whole staffs this week. "

I'll grant that I'm glad Stark recognizes the great Nathan, and generally I like Stark as a writer, especially considering that he actually mentioned VORP in the introduction to his chat, but I'm not sure that I'd consider the rotation a group of starters that you hope will win you a game. Maybe that is the case with guys like Blackburn and Perkins, but Baker, Liriano, and Slowey have legitimately dominated teams this year and should continue to do so. Hopefully this is another story the larger baseball media recognizes soon enough.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Coming into this past four-game series on the road against the top team in the AL West, I'd have been satisfied if the Twins were to come out with a split. Naturally, that pill becomes a bit more difficult to swallow when you see your team when the first two games of the series and when you see them leading late in the finale with a chance to take three of four and start their difficult road trip on a very positive note.

The Twins weren't able to do that, as the bullpen once again blew a late lead in yesterday's game and eliminated the chance for a series victory against the Angels. Nevertheless, the Twins played relatively well throughout the four-game set and certainly did not look overmatched against a team they could possibly match up against in the playoffs, should things reach that point. In that, we should take some measure of comfort.

It's not so much annoying that the Twins lost two games in this series, but rather the way they lost those games. On Saturday night, shoddy defense was the culprit. Nick Blackburn pitched a decent game, but was really let down by some serious defensive miscues from Brian Buscher and Carlos Gomez, among others. Yesterday Nick Punto started at third base and turned in a sterling defensive performance, but even that wasn't enough to save the Twins bullpen from blowing a late lead and erasing a strong performance from Kevin Slowey. It's nice to see that when the Twins are losing, it's not necessarily because they're being completely outplayed. Yet it's unfortunate to see them unable to put away games that they quite easily could be winning.

Facing a first-place team in a hostile environment, the Twins took two of four games. It could have been a lot worse. But certainly, with the way things played out, it could have been a lot better.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"And Here We Go..."

... To quote a memorably delivered line from the Joker, Heath Ledger's brilliantly portrayed character from the recent Batman flick. It seems Major League Baseball had their own cruel joke in mind when designing the Twins' 2008 schedule.

By defeating the A's 3-1 yesterday afternoon, the Twins polished off another series victory at the Metrodome. Their play at home has been nothing short of sterling, as they've won 30 of their past 39 games there and haven't lost a series in the Dome since the first week of June. The Twins continue to look much sharper at home than on the road, and that is going to make the upcoming 30-game stretch crucial.

The White Sox once against defeated the pathetic Mariners yesterday to maintain a one-game lead in the AL Central. Now the Twins embark on a 14-game road trip which will kick off in Los Angeles tonight. After finishing up that tough stretch, the Twins will return home for six games before hitting the road for 10 more. That's 24 away games compared to six home games over the next month. Oh, and they'll get only two days off during that entire span. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that this stretch could easily make or break the Twins' 2008 season.

On the surface, this doesn't bode well. The Twins have played a lot of sloppy baseball on the road. And, certainly, they'll have a tough task right out of the gate with the road-trip-opening four-game set against the Angels, who happen to own the best record in baseball. But the Twins do have a number of things working in their favor as they set forth on this critical trip.

For one thing, they have momentum. They've won six of their last seven and are 12-6 overall in the month of August. This consistent winning has come about largely thanks to some strong hitting -- they've averaged 5.8 runs per game this month and have failed to score at least four in only three of their 18 games. They have also gotten some pretty good starting pitching lately, but of course that will be put to the test as they venture into hostile ballparks. Perhaps the most intriguing performer to follow will be Francisco Liriano. He picked up his fourth consecutive win yesterday while once again allowing zero earned runs, but he wasn't exactly sharp. He had trouble finding the strike zone, as he often has this year, and got as many outs in the air as on the ground, reversing an encouraging trend I hoped he'd started with his previous outing. If he can get locked in and start showing better command, he can be a crucial weapon for the Twins during this difficult stretch.

Of course, the Twins' biggest weakness this year has been their bullpen and it has been especially vulnerable on the road. But, things seem to be headed in the right direction in that area as well. Boof Bonser seems to be settling in, with a 2.79 ERA in his past seven appearances. He's proven himself to be a clearly better option than Brian Bass, and there was really never much utility in having both pitchers on the roster, so it made sense when the Twins demoted Bass to the minors yesterday to make room for Alexi Casilla. It had become quite clear that Bass had lost favor with his manager, as he'd found his way into only five of the team's 18 August games after making 12 appearances in June and 10 in July.

Taking away a reliever from an already depleted bullpen in order to create a logjam in the middle infield does seem a bit puzzling, and I was a bit surprised that Adam Everett was not the odd man out. My guess it that the Twins are waiting to see how Casilla's thumb reacts to everyday play, and that if he's able to handle everything, Everett will be let go shortly to make room for Matt Tolbert, who is expected back on September 1.

Even with the roster adjustments that have already taken place and the ones that are expected over the next couple weeks, it will be up to the current core players to carry the team through this tough stretch. And make no mistake, will be a tough one. But, to stick with the Dark Knight theme and quote Aaron Eckart's Harvey Dent, "the night is always darkest before the dawn." After finishing up this brutal string of 30 games, the Twins will return home to finish up their season with three-game series against the White Sox and Royals.

Let's hope that those games are meaningful, and that the Twins are in position to vanquish their divisional nemesis and take a shot at putting together their own blockbuster sequel in October.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Parallel Universe

The Twins team must have entered some vortex. Actually, let me display some fine nerdom here and make a bold science fiction reference: perhaps they impossibly stumbled on the mystery of the universe and discovered a wormhole, entering, just as Hawking (yes, the "guy in the wheelchair") predicted, a parallel universe of sorts, as time and space mix. Or, let's just say, for simplicitly's sake, an alternate universe.

Because the Twins team that won last night didn't look like the miserable offense that lost to a team that was 5-23 since the All-Star break Monday night. Instead, the Twins team last night not only pounded the A's pathetic pitching for 13 runs, but starter Kevin Slowey also seemed to similarly entered a wormhole, because after getting only three strikeouts in his previous two starts, including just one in his last start, Slowey struck out 12 Oakland hitters in seven innings, and didn't walk a batter. Most might assume that the strikeouts were strikeouts looking, as recent evidence given by Ubelmann at SBG would suggest, but ten of twelve were strikeouts swinging. Needless to say, it was an interesting and dominating performance for the young pitcher, lowering his ERA to an impressive 3.78.

Really, of course, what I should be saying is that the Twins on Monday were in an alternate universe, because the offense has been above average this season and frankly should not have stumbled against what is currently one of the worst teams in the majors. On the other hand, it can be argued that some players weren't quite themselves last night, either, with Carlos Gomez hitting his first home run in over two months (since June 6th) and Brian Buscher going 3-for-5 with five RBI and a two-run home run.

Hopefully, the Twins can stay in that part of the baseball universe today and continue to redeem themselves after Monday night's embarrassing loss.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Liriano's Ground Game

When Francisco Liriano joined the Twins' rotation in 2006, he was an absolute joy to watch. His mid-90s fastball and devastating slider made batters look foolish, and as a result he racked up a lot of strikeouts. Across two levels of the minor leagues and a September stint in the majors in 2005, Liriano struck out 237 batters over 191 1/3 innings of work for an outstanding 11.15 K/9IP ratio. He carried that over to the majors in '06, when he struck out 144 batters in 121 innings for a 10.71 K/9. (For reference, the major-league leader in K/9 among qualifiers in 2006 was Jake Peavy at 9.56.)

As a fan, it's great to watch a pitcher who can make batters miss because it is the most observable form of dominance. And in general, pitchers who can make batters miss at an exceptional rate are bound to have success. But Liriano's ability to post a phenomenal strikeout rate was only a part of the ingredient to his amazing success in 2006. Another crucial component that is perhaps often overlooked was his ability to induce ground balls when batters did manage to make contact.

Liriano induced ground balls at a rate of 55.3 percent in 2006. Among American League pitchers who qualified for the ERA title (which Liriano did not due to his injury), only four had a higher ground ball rate: Chien-Ming Wang (62.8%), Jake Westbrook (60.8%), Felix Hernandez (57.7%) and Roy Halladay (57.7%). The Twins' own supposed sinker specialist, Carlos Silva, posted a ground ball rate of 43.6 percent.

There's a truism about pitching that says there are two main things a pitcher can do in order to prevent runs: strike people out and induce ground balls. These are things that a pitcher is very much in control of, and excelling in these areas lessens the need to rely on strong defense or offensive support to win games. While Liriano was perhaps the best strikeout pitcher among all big-league starters while he was tearing up the league at age 22, he was also among an elite group of ground ball pitchers. It is this lethal combination that allowed him to go 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA over 28 appearances. This is what made him seemingly unbeatable. This is why he was -- during those middle months before his unfortunate injury -- an even better pitcher than his teammate and eventual Cy Young winner Johan Santana.

Early on this season, Liriano was not getting ground balls. During his disastrous three-start stint with the Twins in April, his GB/FB ratio was a pedestrian 13-to-11. And in his first two starts back after being recalled, although he had some success, opposing hitters actually hit more balls in the air (16) than on the ground (14).

But in his most recent start last Friday, Liriano started to look more like the guy he was in 2006. Not because he was making batters swing and miss left and right -- he struck out five in seven innings, and we shouldn't expect a whole lot more than that because his pitches just don't have the same bite that they did back in '06 (not yet at least) -- but because he was able to consistently force opposing hitters to beat the ball into the ground. In that win over the Mariners, Liriano induced 14 ground balls compared to just two fly balls. And the results glowed. He allowed only two hits, and the two runs that scored against him both came on a routine grounder that Brian Buckner -- er, Buscher -- let roll right between his legs with the bases loaded.

It would be great if Liriano could start racking up strikeouts the way he did in 2006. But given his current situation, that might be an unrealistic expectation. What's not unrealistic is the possibility that he can return to inducing ground balls at a very good rate, and that's what made his start on Friday night so hugely encouraging.

When he takes the hill tomorrow afternoon against the A's, keep an eye on how many ground balls Liriano is able to get. There are more ways to dominate a game than making every hitter miss.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Persisting Issues

While the Twins offense poured it on the Mariners yesterday in completing a sweep at the Metrodome, a persisting issue was painfully clear amidst the victory that should be discussed before any other topics: the bullpen.

After Glen Perkins gave up three home runs in the sixth inning, which in and of itself was a disappointment, Boof Bonser came in the game for the seventh, only to promptly serve up three hits and two runs, including a Raul Ibanez RBI double. (Ibanez, by the way, has destroyed Twins pitching this year, at a 13-for-19 clip, with two doubles, two home runs, and 12 RBI.) Bonser was replaced by Matt Guerrier in the eight, who continued his trek to completely unreliable, getting only one out while giving up one hit, two runs, and two walks. Guerrier's ERA now stands at an ugly 4.94, having given up a shocking 12 earned runs in just 5 1/3 August innings and 15 earned runs in 11 post-All Star break innings.

If any one particular member of the bullpen stands out in terms of the current obvious issues, it's Guerrier. But the bullpen's failings didn't stop with Guerrier last night, as Dennys Reyes came in and allowed an inherited runner to score with some help from Brendan Harris' mediocre arm. Of course, once Joe Nathan came in with the bases loaded, the fire was finally put out with a strikeout of Adrian Beltre. Nathan completed a scoreless ninth for his 33rd save, but his dominance is practically a given at this point. Unfortunately, it seems that he is also the only known quantity right now.

Needless to say, the bullpen allowing a 10-4 lead to quickly shrink to 10-8 speaks volumes about the principle issue for the Twins right now. We have often pointed this out on this blog, but it is a persisting issue that cannot be ignored when the problem is slapping the team in the face. Thankfully, the offense was out in full force against a terrible Mariners pitching staff.

The duo of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau powered the lineup over the weekend sweep, going a combined 9-for-22 with two home runs, six walks, eight runs scored, and eight RBI. Now, while Mauer and Morneau's offensive dominance is expected by most Twins fans, we may have lost the biggest offensive star of the weekend in the wake: Jason Kubel. Kubel went 8-for-10 with six RBI, one home run, two doubles, and five runs scored, raising his line to .278/.339/.486.

With high expectations over the years, sometimes Kubel's offensive production has been minimized, but enough cannot be said about a .486 SLG from a Twins hitter not named Mauer or Morneau with the majority of his at-bats coming at the DH position. An .825 OPS is not only impressive for a Twin, but is even more impressive given how offense is down throughout the major leagues.

Granted, the Twins should beat up on what might be the worst team in the majors, but beating up on the Mariners also meant that the Twins managed to tie with the White Sox for first place and stay there. The offensive output was certainly positive, but fans should keep in mind that the persisting bullpen issues haven't even gone away in wins and may remain the major obstacle to the Twins post-season chances.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Still Winning

Over their past three series, the Twins have gone 5-4. That's not a great record when two of the series were against the Mariners and Royals, but here's the bright side: all four games the Twins lost during that span were eminently winnable. In Seattle, the Twins dropped a pair of games after the bullpen blew late leads. The single losses to Kansas City and New York both came in 12-inning affairs. One can fume about the bullpen's ineffectiveness in most of those losses or the team's inability to close out wins, but I think it's a pretty optimistic sign that the Twins were hardly outplayed in any of the losses and -- had they taken care of business -- they quite easily could have gone 8-1 or even 9-0 during that span.

The Twins aren't flashy, but they continue to play well and win. They stepped up to the challenge presented by the Yankees this week, and haven't lost a series at home since early June. Many felt that the Twins' mid-season success was unsustainable, buoyed by fortunately timed hits and starting pitchers performing over their heads. Yet, here they are, just a game out of first place on August 15. And with Francisco Liriano recently joining the rotation and providing a massive upgrade over Livan Hernandez while Delmon Young's bat continues to heat up, these Twins don't seem to be going away. The final six weeks should be very interesting.

Here are some various notes to take you into the weekend:

* Carlos Silva, whom the Twins will face tonight in their series opener against the Mariners, recently ranted to the press about a perceived lack of effort from his teammates. Said Silva (while oddly referring to himself in the third-person):

"Maybe Chief [Silva] has to come and grab somebody in his neck and pin them to the wall," Silva told reporters. "I'm very close to doing that, so write that down.

"Maybe half of the team wants to do the best they can. I can talk about the starting rotation; we want to do our best every time we cross that line, you know?" he said. "But maybe half of the team doesn't have that mentality. They only think to finish strong and to put up the numbers. That's great, but that affects us. As a team, that doesn't work out.

"Instead of moving a runner, they want to get a base hit just because of the numbers. Instead of to get a ground ball, maybe I want to strike him out because of my numbers, you know what I mean? That's what we're doing right now.

"I don't care if we are 40 games behind, we should play better than this."

Silva's accusations are somewhat humorous, considering that as hard as he's supposedly trying he still sports a 4-13 record and 5.93 ERA. But furthermore, it's interesting to note that his brand of leadership involves calling out his teammates publicly rather than airing out complaints internally in the clubhouse. This is a commonality that Silva shares with another supposed clubhouse leader who left the Twins this past offseason -- Torii Hunter.

Hunter, of course, openly complained that other Twins players couldn't play at less than 100 percent, once threw a punch at Justin Morneau, and frequently had quotes in the papers with other veiled shots at his teammates. This type of "leadership" is ineffective and does more harm than good, creating hostility amongst players in the clubhouse.

Even without a clearly defined "team leader," the Twins are still succeeding right now, which is a strong indication that the whole concept is probably overrated. But the team does have quiet leaders -- Morneau, Joe Mauer and Joe Nathan most likely chief among them due to their seniority with the club. And I have not once seen any of these guys come out and complain about their teammates. Instead, they lead by example and if they're airing any grievances, it's happening in the clubhouse and not in the press.

The disruptive brand of leadership offered by players like Hunter and Silva is not missed.

* Considering how many of the Twins' losses this year have come as the result of a bullpen meltdown, what do you think the team's record would be had Pat Neshek remained healthy and effective? This is just a random question and I don't know the answer, but I'd be interested to hear some guesses.

* Adam Everett's recent mini hot streak would seem to have come about with rather ironic timing, seeing as how I spent Monday's post railing on the shortstop and concluding that he should be released post-haste. Prior to sitting out Wednesday's game against the Yankees, Everett had started five consecutive games, going 6-for-17 with a home run and six RBI during that span. Now I'm reading about how Everett is "quickly grabbing hold of the club's starting shortstop job."

The offensive boost has been nice and his run-producing contributions have certainly helped the Twins over the past week, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes and I have little doubt that soon enough Everett will revert to the incapable hitter he has been for the entirety of his career. Moreover, I'm not seeing enough of improvement in Everett's defense to make me believe he has any value at shortstop. While Everett has not committed an error since the one that cost the Twins a victory in their series finale against the Royals on Sunday, he continues to look unimpressive defensively at short. His arm continues to be erratic and even when his throws are on-target, they seem to move in slow motion.

Everett is still displaying solid range and getting to a lot of balls, but that doesn't do a whole lot of good when his arm is so weak. While chatting with Aaron Gleeman earlier in the week, he suggested that if Ron Gardenhire must continue writing Everett into the lineup, perhaps he should consider a position switch to second base. There, Everett's range would still be an advantage, and his poor arm would not be as much of a liability. Everett has played shortstop exclusively throughout his career outside of a late-game appearance at second a couple weeks ago, but there might be some merit to the idea of moving him closer to first base.

Of course, I still think the Twins are better off simply replacing him at short with Brendan Harris (829 OPS since July 1).

* After a horrendous start to the season, Jason Kubel went on a tear in May and June to bring his numbers back to respectability. Now, he has seemingly leveled off. At the end of June, Kubel was hitting .263/.324/.466; he currently sports a nearly identical line of .263/.327/.462. During that span, his batting average has never been higher than .267 and has never been lower than .259. His OPS has fluctuated within a 20-point window. All things considered, it seems fair to say that this is the true Jason Kubel.

If that's the case, there's no reason to be dissatisfied. Those are above-average numbers relative to the average AL designated hitter, and he stands as the third-best hitter on the team. Yet, I still believe that Kubel is capable of more. He might finish the season with numbers similar to the ones he has now, but I don't think he's done growing as a hitter. We'll see.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Delmon Young: Clutch Hero?

Since the trade this last winter involving Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Jason Pridie, Eduardo Morlan, and Brendan Harris, Delmon Young was on a steady slope downhill in the opinion of most Twins fans and for the right reasons. Young was not delivering on most of his promise. Sure, he had a decent average, but he was still showing little patience, despite improving it over his terrible career discipline, little for power, and his defense was nothing pretty to watch. In fact, Young entered the month of August with a pitiful four home runs.

However, in just a week, that has changed very quick. Yesterday, after his heroics Tuesday night off of all-time closer Mariano Rivera, Young came up again with a huge blast, smashing a Darrell Rasner offering to right field just over the baggie for a three-run homer that would give the Twins a lead they never relinquished. In his last six games, Young is hitting 9-for-25 with three homers, eight RBI, a double, and a much more powerful swing than we have been used to over the course of the year. Is it possible that Young is finally showing the power he's supposedly had since he was drafted or is this all a week-long facade that will quickly fade and be forgotten?

Let's keep in mind that even with his recent power surge, he still only has seven homers and is hitting .290/.336/.407 overall. However, in 88 at-bats since the All-Star break, he also has a OPS over .800, and has already hit more home runs than he had (3) in 339 pre-break at bats. Of course, its also worth pointing out that more thorough researchers than myself, like Aaron Gleeman, have rightfully observed that Young show a steady decline in power in the minors before he even reached the minors. The counter-point is that Young was always young for whatever level he was at, reaching the majors at just 20.

Therefore, its probably way too early to conclude much of anything from such a small sample size and it could very easily be facade. At the same time, a small sample size like this can at least suggest slow, steady improvements from a very young player. Young may not become a 40 home run masher and his progress may ultimately be stalled by lack of plate discipline, but small improvements in patience and power nonetheless can be seen in Young's second half so far and, if Twins fans show enough patience, a good and even possibly great hitter may emerge in the coming years.

The Yankees series, then they might say, is just a taste of things to come.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Not Enough Bullets

Without question, Delmon Young's game-tying three-run homer against Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning of last night's game was one of the most exciting moments of the season. For that, we should be glad. Unfortunately, the Twins just couldn't find a way to convert on the opportunity afforded by Young and ended up losing to the Yankees in 12 innings.

Young's homer was unexpected to say the least. The Twins seemed downtrodden late in the game. The Yankees batters had been wearing down the pitching staff with long at-bats all night, and had opened up a three-run lead for their near-perfect closer, who was called upon in the eighth inning. Somehow, Young managed to take a Rivera pitch over the baggy in right field, tying the game and handing the incredible Rivera his first blown save of the season.

But that was seemingly all the magic the Twins had up their sleeves. They were unable to capitalize on Young's huge homer, as the offense could must only one single over the next three innings while the Yankees scored three times against Matt Guerrier in the 12th to claim victory.

Certainly, Guerrier's ugly outing continues to cast doubt on his ability to get important outs for this club. The team needed him to step up in Neshek's absence, but recently he's developed into the least effective arm on the roster. Since the All-Star break, Guerrier has posted a 10.64 ERA while allowing 20 hits -- including four homers -- over 11 innings. During that span, he has watched his ERA shoot up from 3.35 to 4.67, while his opponents' batting average has escalated from .241 to .302. It's hard to blame Guerrier for his downfall, as the situation has very likely come about from his extremely frequent use this season, but it's still unfortunate to see one of the team's few reliable bullpen arms turn into a pumpkin. Guerrier's pitches quite clearly had nothing on them last night. Bill Smith is looking more and more foolish for not finding a way to acquire Chad Bradford or LaTroy Hawkins...

But I digress. Guerrier can hardly be handed the majority of blame for this loss. The Yankees offense can't be suppressed for too long, and they were bound to get to someone as long as the Twins' offense kept extending the game by failing to mount a rally.

In spite of the result, this was still an impressive game for the Twins, who showed resiliency battling back in what seemed like a lost cause against the Evil Empire. This could have been a depressing, lackluster nine-inning loss, but instead it turned into a thrilling extra-inning affair in which the Twins simply ran out of bullets. Let's dwell on that positive, and hope the Twins can find a little more ammo to support Kevin Slowey this afternoon.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good to be Home

After a sloppy weekend series against the Royals, embodied by the very weak play of both Adam Everett and Nick Punto, the Twins garnered a very solid victory over the Yankees yesterday. Rather than discuss Everett's self-admittedly fluke home run that barely made the stands, the aspects of this game that deserve analysis are Glen Perkins' awesome start, the hustle of Denard Span and the overall play of the team. It would seem that Everett's homer comes as a timely slap in the face to my colleague who ripped on the shortstop in this space yesterday, but I am not ready to get too excited about a guy with a .213/.276/.351 hitting line.

Perkins didn't display outstanding control (70 strikes to 37 balls, three walks), but he only allowed four hits in eight innings while striking out four and picking up his ninth win, giving him a 9-3 record. Nothing in his numbers screams dominance, as he's allowed 129 hits in 110 2/3 innings with only 56 strikeouts against 29 walks. It feels like his success isn't terribly sustainable, given that he's a fly ball pitcher (0.90 groundball-to-flyball ratio) who doesn't rack up strikeouts, but to his credit last night's terrific start ended a short slump and brought his ERA back down to 4.07.

Span was probably the brightest offensive star, showing great hustle on the basepaths and scoring two of the Twins runs to help secure a victory. In the sixth inning, Span doubled, moved over on a Punto sacrifice, and scored on a Joe Mauer sacrifice fly. More impressive, though, was scoring from second on a infield hit by Justin Morneau in the eighth inning, adding a run that all but sealed the victory. Otherwise, the Twins didn't do too much against Sidney Ponson, but at least they finally scored a victory against the former Twins hurler.

In the end, though its disappointing that the Twins are a much more solid, fundamentally sound team at home while being a frustrating enigma on the road, at least they seem to be getting the job done against all comers -- including potent squads like the Yankees -- in their home stadium.

That home cooking will be put to the test tonight with Mike Mussina, a career Twins-killer, on the hill against Nick Blackburn.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Biggest Disappointment

One can make the argument that each offseason acquisition currently playing for the Twins has been a disappointment to some degree. Carlos Gomez has looked raw and over-matched. Brendan Harris has failed to meet his hitting line from last year. Mike Lamb has had a miserable season at the plate. Delmon Young's rumored power potential has not materialized in any form. Livan Hernandez and Craig Monroe, of course, were recently released as a result of their ineffectiveness (and Hernandez has gotten his career as a Rockie off to a great start!).

Yet, to me, no acquisition has been a greater disappointment than Adam Everett.

I was not a fan of the Everett signing to begin with. The Twins were one of the worst offensive clubs in the league last year, and they entered the offseason with a need to add players who could help them score more runs. As such, I found little logic in signing one of the worst-hitting regular players of the past several years to fill a position of need. Many made the argument that Everett's reputedly spectacular fielding ability at one of the most important defensive positions on the field was enough to offset his offensive shortcomings and make him a decently valuable player. There's certainly some truth to that, and I made sure to acknowledge Everett's track record as an outstanding defender, but added that "I'm not really sure the Twins are a team that can afford the luxury of a superb defensive shortstop who can't hit worth a lick."

Here we are on August 10, and Everett has fallen far short of even my meager expectations. His hitting has been atrocious, as expected; even after poking a pair of RBI singles in yesterday's game, he is batting .209/.275/.319, which is quite awful even for him. But what has truly been frustrating is his defense. Everett has not been a spectacular defensive presence at shortstop. Frankly, he hasn't even been adequate. His arm is absolutely horrendous. While he has often shown the solid range and slick glove that he was known for in Houston, Everett's total lack of arm strength has prevented him from making more than a handful of impressive plays at shortstop this season, and has frequently caused him to fail to convert on routine plays.

This disappointment was on display over the weekend in Kansas City, in series where Everett started all three games. On Friday night, he committed an error while fielding a ground ball. In Saturday night's game, a wide throw from Everett pulled Justin Morneau off first base, allowing a runner who should have been out to reach. Yesterday, in the most egregious example of the weekend, Everett essentially cost the Twins a sweep-clinching victory when he allowed the tying run to score from third with two outs in the eighth inning because he threw high to first base after fielding a routine grounder that should have gotten the Twins to the ninth inning with a lead.

In fairness, Everett's poor defense has not necessarily been his fault. From the very beginning of the year he has been affected by shoulder problems, and he's spent much of the year on the disabled list as a result of these issues. Yet, as his performance during the past few days has shown, these issues continue to deter his performance and are still preventing him from getting the job done at shortstop. And since he cannot hit nor field adequately, Everett really has no use to this club. The Twins were on the verge of designating him for assignment a couple weeks ago before Alexi Casilla's injury, and that was the right decision. There are other players who can more effectively fill Everett's role.

Say what you will about Hernandez and Monroe, they did serve a purpose for this team. Hernandez ate a lot of innings and gave the team several Quality Starts, while Monroe delivered some huge home runs. When it became clear that the players had worn out their usefulness (well, maybe a little while after that became clear), the team parted ways with both and replaced them with more deserving replacements. The time is now to do the same with Everett.

Friday, August 08, 2008

No Relief

During the Twins' two losses in Seattle earlier this week, we were reminded of the issues that can be presented by a thin and overworked bullpen. Pat Neshek's season-ending injury, combined with a need to limit Jesse Crain's workload in the wake of shoulder surgery along with a lack of other compelling options, have led Ron Gardenhire to use Matt Guerrier 55 times already this season. Recently the problem has been especially prevalent, with Guerrier appearing in eight of the team's past 11 games. He clearly appears to be worn down, as he's posted an 11.37 ERA while allowing 11 hits over 6 1/3 innings during that span. All these problems have forced Gardenhire to use Brian Bass in high-leverage situations on multiple occasions, and even to relent that he's finally ready to budge on his stringent use of Joe Nathan in save situations (which is a good thing, but alas).

The Twins rank 10th among 14 AL teams in bullpen ERA, with a 3.95 mark that puts them above the league average of 3.86. It's been a long time since the Twins have had a below-average bullpen, and the effects of this have been painfully evident with the number of winnable games that have slipped away, especially on the road. Looking ahead, the Twins will have to hope that Neshek can return effectively next season, but that is far from a given at this point. This bullpen is going to need all the help it can get, which makes the team's handling of its relief prospects all the more mystifying.

There are several intriguing relievers in the Twins' system. Most of them hold one commonality -- they are all relatively old and none of them are being moved through the system very aggressively despite getting very good results.

One example is Rob Delaney. After posting a 1.42 ERA and 30-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opposing hitters to a .207 batting average over 31 2/3 innings in Ft. Myers to open the season, Delaney was promoted to New Britain in June, where he has posted nearly identical numbers over 24 innings of work. He isn't a horribly frustrating example, since he has already been moved up one level this season, but Delaney turns 24 in a month and appears to have quickly mastered the Double-A level. With a dearth of quality relief prospects in the high levels of the minors, it would make sense to bump Delaney up to Triple-A for the remainder of the season to get a handle on where he stands and whether he can be an option for the Twins out of spring training in 2009 or even in September of this year.

A pair of teammates in the Ft. Myers Miracle bullpen provide a more upsetting example of inexplicably stalled prospects. Blair Erickson has posted a 1.39 ERA and 39-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just 12 hits in 32 1/3 innings out of the Miracle 'pen after an early-season promotion from Low-A Beloit. More unsettling is the case of Anthony Slama, who has posted video-game numbers (60 IP, 0.90 ERA, 92/21 K/BB, .172 BAA) but has spent the entire season in Ft. Myers. Back in July after Delaney and others had been promoted from Ft. Myers to New Britain, I lamented that the dominating Slama was not part of that group, remarking that the right-hander was "stagnating at the Single-A level." Two months later, Slama continues to dominate and continues to stagnate at a level that is clearly below him. Erickson is 23, Slama 24; these players have no business playing in Single-A, and their numbers provide clear evidence of this.

Delaney, Erickson and Slama were all drafted out of college, and it is considered common practice to promote college-trained players more quickly since they enter pro baseball already having gained experience against relatively high-level competition. Yet, the Twins continue to move these three somewhat slowly in spite of their success, which wouldn't be quite so irksome if it weren't for the glaring needs developing in the Twins' bullpen.

It's worth noting that all three of these relief prospects are dominating levels that they are clearly too advanced for, and none are sure bets to develop into useful major-league relievers. Furthermore, moving prospects up through the system can be tricky business because it involves a ripple effect with players being displaced at other levels. But at this point, it makes every bit of sense to place these young men in a more appropriate competitive environment so that the organization can evaluate whether they may provide answers for a question-filled big-league bullpen in the near future.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Span the Man

With the Twins' frightening inability to hold a lead over the first two games of their series against the Mariners, yesterday's seventh inning seemed utterly predictable. The Twins had already let a four-run lead slim down to one, and the Mariners were threatening with Raul Ibanez on first and Adrian Beltre batting and representing the go-ahead run. Jesse Crain, who had just come on to face Beltre, worked ahead in the count 1-2 but then left a pitch up that was hammered the opposite way by Beltre. As the screaming liner sailed toward right field, there seemed little doubt that it was headed into the stands and that the Twins bullpen had relinquished yet another lead. But what wasn't predictable was the action of Denard Span.

Span saw the ball approaching, turned around and raced to the wall. Once he got there, he turned back around, found the ball and leaped up with perfect timing, grabbing the liner about a foot above the yellow line that runs across the top of the outfield wall. Span had robbed Beltre of a go-ahead two-run homer, and the Twins' narrow lead was safe. They'd add a few more runs in the eighth inning en route to a comfortable 7-3 victory, but Span's spectacular catch still looms as a series salvager.

Of course, Span was also the reason the Twins had a lead to protect in the first place thanks to his bases-loaded triple in the second inning. In total, he went 3-for-5 on the day with a stolen base and five RBI in what has to be considered the highlight of his major-league career thus far. While credit should be given to Brendan Harris, who doubled twice and scored twice, and to Nick Blackburn, who battled and turned in a Quality Start despite not having his stuff working very well, it seems quite clear that Span was the driving force in this victory. For the season, he's now hitting .315/.399/.469, and he's hardly slowed down the torrid pace he returned to the big leagues with. He's been a godsend in the leadoff spot, getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time in front of the team's best hitters, and his range in right field has been hugely beneficial -- never more so than yesterday.

It's easy to blow the importance of Monday and Tuesday's games out of proportion, especially because of the brutal fashion in which they were lost, but losing two of three in a road series is hardly devastating. Escaping from Seattle with a win was critical for the Twins, and the rookie Span deserves a whole heap of credit for making it happen.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

On the Edge

I feel like there has been a strong commonality between the two games the Twins have played in this series, and that is that they have not been able to put away the obviously weak Mariners. Specifically, there were two common themes: bad defense and starting pitchers living on the edge, only to be replaced by relief pitchers that have largely failed as of late.

While only one error was made, the Twins still made several mistakes in the field, including bad plays from Delmon Young and Brian Buscher. Just as some bad defense added to the issues in Monday night's loss, they certainly did not help last night either, but it isn't really news to Twins fans paying attention that the defense of this team is often porous.

As for the starting pitching, just like Glen Perkins on Monday (13 base-runners, 6 1/3 innings), Scott Baker put way too many Seattle hitters on base, allowing a total of 11 base-runners and paying for it, ultimately giving up four runs before leaving with a 4-3 deficit, only to watch Craig Breslow quickly give up a two-run single to Raul Ibanez (with both runs being charged to Baker). Later, when the Twins offense finally rallied for a 7-6 lead, beating around Seattle's bullpen, Matt Guerrier and Joe Nathan blew the lead to give Seattle the win, with Nathan giving up the game-winning, two-run double to Jose Lopez and Guerrier getting charged with the runs, bringing his ERA to a not-so-stellar 4.25.

With that, Baker's ERA has now risen to 3.86 and has gone up each of the last three starts after reaching a season low of 3.26, as he's given up 13 runs in his last 16 1/3 innings, with an uncharacteristic eight walks. The best you can say is that he's struck out 17 over that time as well, still displaying good stuff, but his recent run is troublesome.

While it's been easy to blame the recent atrocious work of much of the bullpen, especially on the road, it's worth noting, through these observations, that the Twins starting pitching has certainly struggled so far in the Seattle series and that may not bode well for a team that is going to spend a significant amount of this month on the road. The positive remains that the Twins offense hasn't totally stalled at the same time, as they scored six runs on Monday night and saw some positives last night as well, most particularly with Jason Kubel smashing his 15th and 16th home runs. Let's just hope Nick Blackburn breaks the pattern of poor starting pitching this afternoon.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Picking on the Meek

Last night, the Twins' 6-1 lead was looking pretty good until Glen Perkins gave up a grand slam to Raul Ibanez and Brian Bass was stupidly allowed to come into another high leverage situation in which he, not surprisingly, quickly gave up the lead. Things deteriorated quickly, and a humiliating 10-run seventh inning ultimately led to an 11-6 Twins loss. With that, the most general and best conclusion I can make about the game is that the Twins, simply put, should be doing their jobs.

The Mariners are, at this point, more than just a bad team. They are a depressing team that has no sense of direction and that may become the first team ever to lose 100 games with a payroll north of $100 million. Of course, the Mariners aren't alone in paying for futility, as teams like the Houston Astros have paid plenty for losing and embarrassing teams.

As a team, the Mariners' hitting is pretty embarrassing, with a team .695 OPS and .259 average. One might think that with hitters like Ichiro Suzuki and Adrian Beltre this would be untrue, but those players are not having overwhelming years at all, with Suzuki's OPS at .743 and Beltre's at .756. The team's best hitter, in fact, has been Ibanez, with a .281/.347/.464 line, and he was almost traded at the deadline. The pitching, outside of Felix Hernandez and young flamethrower Brandon Morrow, has also been quite mediocre, with "standouts" like Carlos Silva and last night's starter, Miguel Batista.

What is the point? This is certainly a team that fans should expect the Twins to knock around, especially if the offense has truly improved, as some numbers suggest, and the young pitching is as good as they appear to be. While it should be expected, it still would certainly be nice to see the Twins take care of business the way they could have last night.

Perkins was having a good start, until he ran into a lot of trouble in seventh inning, resulting in the slam given up to Ibanez. In total, Perkins tossed 6 1/3 innings, giving up an ugly 12 hits and five runs with only two strikeouts and a walk. Perkins always appeared to be walking a fine line and it appears that some of his luck may have run out.

As for the offense, hits were well-distributed, with Justin Morneau picking up a two-run double as well as picking up two walks on the night, Joe Mauer picking up two hits and a run, and even Nick Punto smacking his second home run of the year along with two walks. In fact, if one thing stands out, its the patience, as the Twins picked up eight walks on the night, with even the less-patient portion of the lineup getting in on the walk-fest, with Delmon Young, Mike Lamb, and Brian Buscher taking free passes against the unfortunate Mariners staff.

With that, I now wake up roundly disappointed. The Twins offense did their job against mediocre pitching, but the Twins pitching did not. I'm afraid that, the way things look right now, it will be hard to look back on this game without thinking that Ron Gardenhire once again made the mistake of trusting Bass with a lead. However, while Bass can be blamed for giving up the lead, the Twins porous defense and pitching did nothing to stop the bleeding. A few singles, a Denard Span throwing error, and a Brendon Harris throwing error, and suddenly the Mariners had a five-run lead. Humiliating, embarrassing, and disappointing are all words that can describe last night's lost, but its just as good to say that the Twins failed to do their jobs in not doing what they should and need to be able to do: beat terrible teams.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Coming Together

By defeating the Indians yesterday while the White Sox fell to the Royals, the Twins overtook the top spot in the AL Central for the first time since May. At this point in the season, being ahead of the Sox by a half-game really isn't much different from being behind them by a half-game, but it still feels good to be in first place.

Things have been coming together quite nicely for this team. Conventional wisdom stated that this young and inexperienced group of players would improve over the course of the season, and so far that has proven to be the case. Just look at the team's month-by-month OPS totals:

April: 666
May: 740
June: 777
July: 802

Meanwhile, the pitching has held steady and, if yesterday's game is any indication, the addition of Francisco Liriano to the rotation could pay large dividends down the stretch. If he can continue to pitch well and the other young starters can stay the course, the Twins' rotation is essentially without weakness. That's important, and probably more important than a modest upgrade at third base, which is why I'm glad to hear that Bill Smith shied away from the Mariners' reported request of Blackburn/Slowey/Perkins plus prospects for Adrian Beltre.

With the current rotation, the Twins can be confident that each night they'll be sending out a hurler capable of delivering a strong outing and giving the team a chance to win. The offense, as noted above, has been improving each month and should be able to hold up over the rest of the season. As teams increasingly start to pitch around Justin Morneau, the impetus will be on guys like Jason Kubel, Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer (if he ever returns). One key player to watch will be Brian Buscher. Many people seem unsold on him -- thus the cries of outrage that the Twins didn't acquire an established third baseman at the deadline -- but at some point people need to start giving the man his dues. While his track record prior to 2007 is certainly spotty, he's done nothing but tear up minor-league pitching since coming over the organization last year and he's now hitting .314/.341/.432 over 115 at-bats with the Twins this season. And while some are convinced that he can't be a regular player, I'm not sure where this sentiment came from. His poor numbers in 23 plate appearances against lefties this year hardly provide compelling evidence, especially considering that he's always held his own against southpaws in the minors, including an 843 OPS against them in Rochester this season.

Shortstop and second base will be the team's chief areas of concern as long as Alexi Casilla is out of the lineup. Nick Punto is holding his own and Brendan Harris has hit well recently, so it will be interesting to see whether both those trends hold through the end of the season. If they do, the Twins should be in good shape on the offensive side of the ball. Combine a bullpen that can get the job done on most nights, and the Twins certainly should be capable of sticking with the White Sox all the way to the bitter end.

Most realistic fans didn't view this season as one where the Twins would be likely to contend. Yet, here on August 4, this group of young players (younger now with two of the veteran offseason acquisitions sent packing) finds itself in first place and in control of its own destiny. With the powerful White Sox breathing down their backs and a whole lot of road games coming up in the next 30 days, these young men will really have their fortitude put to the test.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Month in Review: July

July Record: 15-10
Overall Record: 60-48 (2nd Place in AL Central)

While it did feature a pair of brutal sweeps in New York and Boston, July was a good month for the Twins. They dominated division rivals (13-3 against AL Central opponents) and capped off the month with a huge series victory against the White Sox. The Twins started the month 2.5 games out of first place, and ended it a half-game out. Progress is good.
The offense averaged 5.52 runs per game with a season-high 802 OPS, and the pitching staff held its own with a 4.56 ERA (which was dragged down by the bullpen's 5.21).

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

Three Up:
1. Justin Morneau: .360/.473/.708, 6 HR, 23 RBI, 23 R, 0/0 SB
Absolutely monstrous. Morneau set season highs in essentially every category, drew 19 walks while striking out only eight times, and had 19 of his 32 hits go for extra bases. This was probably the second best month of Morneau's career, behind June 2006. If he is in the MVP discussion at the end of the year, which seems highly likely right now, the series he just completed against the White Sox will be a major point in his favor.

2. Joe Mauer: .307/.424/.467, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 16 R, 0/0 SB
His July wasn't quite as good as his June, but Mauer continued to get on base at an excellent pace and set a season high by driving in 16 runs. When Morneau and Mauer are at the top of this list, you know it was probably a pretty good month for the Twins.

3. Denard Span: .321/.424/.488, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 20 R, 2/5 SB
Span has stepped into the leadoff spot and provided the Twins with exactly what they needed -- a patient bat who gets on base steadily. As a result, he scored 20 runs and set up numerous opportunities for Mauer and Morneau to do their damage.

Three Down:
1. Livan Hernandez: 29.1 IP, 2-3, 6.44 ERA, 15 K / 9 BB, 1.74 WHIP
Hernandez finds himself listed here for a second consecutive month, and now finds himself designated for assignment.

2. Kevin Slowey: 24 IP, 2-1, 5.62 ERA, 15 K / 7 BB, 1.33 WHIP
A bad stretch in the middle of the month places Slowey here, but he certainly got back on track in his last start, tossing a complete-game shutout against the White Sox.

3. Carlos Gomez: .220/.256/.268, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 11 R, 0/1 SB
A truly terrible month for Gomez. He didn't hit, he didn't take walks, he hit for no power, and even his speed was nowhere to be found, with zero stolen bases on the month. Hopefully he can string together some decent numbers over the final months while hitting from the ninth spot in the lineup.

Danny Valencia - New Britain Rock Cats
Certainly Francisco Liriano could have occupied this spot, but I don't really view him as a prospect anymore in spite of the fact that he spent the month pitching in the minors. Instead, the honor goes to Valencia for a second time this season. Valencia was promoted from Class-A Ft. Myers to Double-A New Britain at the end of June, and after some initial struggles he turned it on, batting .319/.355/.469 with 11 doubles, two homers and eight RBI in the month of July. His 35-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 113 at-bats is a bit disconcerting, but Valencia is showing clear signs of adjusting to the increased competition, as the 13-to-5 ratio and .556 slugging percentage over his past 10 games suggests. For an organization that has struggled mightily to find and answer at third base in recent years, Valencia's success at multiple levels this year has to be viewed as extremely encouraging. He's on pace to finish the year in New Britain and hopefully open the 2009 campaign in Rochester, with an appearance in a Twins uniform perhaps on the not-too-distant horizon.

It's no secret that the Twins have struggled away from home at times this year, so the month of August will present a major challenge. They play 16 of their 28 games on the road, including 11 straight to end the month. On the bright side, six of those road games come against the Mariners, one of the worst teams in baseball; three come against the Royals; and another four come against the spiraling Athletics. The Twins will be tested against potential playoff competition with seven games against the Yankees and Angels.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Return of the Power?

There was something unusual about the Twins victory last night. In the course of beating the Chicago White Sox 10-6 and taking the series 3-1, the Twins got six of their runs on two big two-out hits. Both Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel had huge, three-run homers, with Kubel's giving the Twins the lead for good in the seventh inning when he took Octavio Dotel deep.

Considering that they came into the game 29th in the majors (above the lowly Giants, who have only 61) with just 73 homers (though that number shot up to 28th after this game), getting two huge blasts like that not only feels like an aberration, but is awfully surprising. Of course, it is not surprising in that Morneau and Kubel hit them, considering they are the only two legitimate home-run threats in the lineup, only that the Twins won the way that they did. This should only give fans appreciation for the importance of not only Morneau's bat in the lineup, but Kubel's power, which can be key to offense's success when considering the void in the lineup of any other power source.

Of course, just discussing the power surge and the general offensive display last night would miss some other important storylines:

* Once again, despite some struggles, Scott Baker showed why he is likely the ace of the this staff last night and more than likely has the best stuff of any starting pitcher on the team. Baker went six innings, gave up five hits, four runs, and three walks, but he also struck out eight batters, showing good life on his fastball and an excellent slider that was getting many Chicago hitters to swing and miss. After last night's start, Baker has an excellent and very impressive 7.85 K/9 rate to go along with a outstanding 89/21 K/BB ratio.

* The Twins, not surprisingly, did not make any moves of the deadline. This may upset some fans, and rightfully so, as they did not pursue any of their targets, be it Brian Roberts or Adrian Beltre, with any lasting speed. However, the Twins appear on the verge of finally making one big and key internal move: La Velle E. Neal III reports that the Twins will likely eat the rest of Livan Hernandez's contract and designate him for assignment very soon so that they can make room in the rotation for Francisco Liriano.

Now to some, this might feel as good as a trade, but the fact remains that the Twins should have made this move earlier to say give them a chance for a sweep against their divisional foe this week and be in command of first place, instead of back a half game. Nonetheless, its a very important move to make and is just as exciting as a good trade. There is no way yet to know how effective Liriano is going to be once the move is actually made, but there is no doubt that he will not put up stats that would put him on pace to give up the most hits in a season in three decades.

* On a final note, the White Sox did make a big move of their own yesterday by competing in the headlines with the Manny Ramirez trade when they dealt two marginal players for Ken Griffey, Jr. Some fans may be worried that getting such a prestigious name as Griffey means that the White Sox will now run off with the division, but that is simply not the case. Griffey sports a .245/.355/.432 line this year with the advantage of playing in the Great American Ballpark. Yes, a .787 OPS is nothing terrible, but it's nothing to get excited about either. Griffey, with his diminishing skill-set, has gained patience recently, but with it, he's lost a lot in average and power. Keep in mind that Nick Swisher is batting .230/.348/.404 and he also has 15 home runs this year.

Yes, Griffey could get hot and do a lot for the White Sox, but he's also 38 years old and might be asked to play center field when he is already a sub-par fielder in right. If he was being brought over to DH, maybe it would be different, but the White Sox already have a good DH in Jim Thome. This deal might sound like a lot to think about, but the White Sox probably didn't improve that much and now they just have a lot of invitees to an ongoing game of musical chairs, especially if they think they are going sit a guy with a $60 million contract in Paul Konerko.