Monday, August 31, 2009

Breaking Down a Busy Weekend

The Twins notched their third consecutive series victory over the weekend by taking two of three from the Rangers at home, but that was hardly the only newsworthy occurrence for the organization from the past few days. Bill Smith has suddenly begun wheeling and dealing, as if he woke up on Friday morning and looked at the AL Central standings, and said "Hey, we could actually win this thing." Not only did the Twins acquire a pair of veteran relievers to upgrade their weak bullpen, they also were reportedly awarded a waiver claim on Cubs starter Rich Harden, and Smith has until later today to try and work out a deal for the filthy right-hander.

Let's start from the top. The Twins signed Ron Mahay, who had cleared waivers after being released by the Royals, for a prorated portion of the major-league minimum. This means they'll pay him only about $80,000 for the remainder of the season. While the 38-year-old left-hander had posted a 4.79 ERA along with a hideous 1.79 WHIP over 41 1/3 innings while in Kansas City this season, many of his peripherals look similar to last year, when he was a very effective reliever. Mahay has been victimized by an inflated home run rate and a .341 BABIP, so if his luck evens out the rest of his numbers should come back down. He also was not used very effectively by manager Trey Hillman, who had him facing right-handed hitters (who have posted a 1033 OPS against him) far too often. Mahay has held lefty hitters to a .235/.309/.397 line over the course of his career and should be a solid second southpaw out of the bullpen over the final month of the season.

The Twins also acquired Jon Rauch from the Diamondbacks for a player to be named later. Rauch is probably best known for being the tallest man to ever throw a pitch in the majors at 6'11", but he's also a pretty solid pitcher, as his 3.87 career ERA will attest. Rauch doesn't have devastating stuff (although he did throw a few nasty breaking balls in his Twins debut on Sunday), but hitters who aren't accustomed to facing him are at an extreme disadvantage due to the unique trajectory stemming from his height. His release point is closer than any other pitcher in the league and comes at a very different angle than batters are used to seeing. This makes Rauch a great bet to succeed down the stetch against AL hitters who largely have never faced him before. He's also good enough to carry some of that success forward to next season, when he remains under contract.

The final move to discuss is the one which carries the most potential excitment, and that is the Twins' waivier claim on Harden. I will preface my analysis on this by stating that I think there's maybe a five percent chance any trade actually materializes, since he'd be a costly acquisition and it's extremely likely that the Twins only claimed him to block the Tigers and White Sox from getting a shot at him, but Harden would be an excellent fit in Minnesota. Despite a tough first half this year, he's one of the best pitchers in the game when healthy and that has been on display recently, as he has posted a 1.80 ERA, 60-to-16 K/BB ratio and .150 BAA since the All-Star break. Harden is a legitimate ace-quality pitcher, and a top three consisting of him, Scott Baker and Carl Pavano would give the Twins a fairly decent shot at overcoming the Tigers during the next five weeks and even succeeding in the playoffs.

The problem is that Harden won't come cheaply. His contract expires at the end of this season and he'll qualify as a Type A free agent, so the Cubs would need to receive a pretty substantial package to be enticed to part with him. On the surface, it would seem that sending away multiple highly regarded prospects while also taking on Harden's sizable salary for what might just be a five-week rental doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but there are some serious benefits involved with such a move. As mentioned above, Harden would significantly improve the Twins' chances of a postseason run down the stretch, and at year's end they could offer him arbitration, which would result in either having Harden next year for about $10 million or receiving a pair of high draft picks as compensation for losing him to free agency. The Twins could also try and work out a multi-year extension with Harden (some reports have in fact indicated that the completion of a trade hinges on this stipulation), which I'd be fully supportive of. One cannot understate how large of an injury risk Harden is -- he hasn't pitched 150 innings in a season since 2005 and has never thrown 200 innings -- but he's a real front-line talent and only 27 years old. Signing him to a multi-year deal would be an extremely risky gamble, but the top of the Twins' rotation suddenly looks rather shaky going forward, especially after the disappointing campaign Francisco Liriano has put together this year, and it's just not often that you get a shot at bringing in someone with Harden's ability. If he'd be willing to sign a reasonable, incentive-laden contract, Harden would be a good gamble for this team.

Last week I tried to temper excitement over the Twins' recent winning streak and climb in the standings by noting that, as it currently stood, "this pitching staff just isn't good enough to win the AL Central. Period." The Twins front office is making some late furious efforts to overhaul that staff here with the clock ticking down on the waiver trade deadline, and while the additions of Rauch and Mahay might be the very definition of "too little, too late," one must be pleased to see the front office showing a clear desire to win now by becoming active and taking on salary. Perhaps even more importantly, some key players on the team must be pleased by these developments.

If Smith can somehow find a way to make Harden a Twin under reasonable parameters, "pleased" would be an understatement for my demeanor and I might even be willing to rescind some of the unkind things I've said about the front office recently..

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Grass is Getting Greener

On Wednesday evening, I went out downtown with some friends for a random weeknight excursion. We parked in the large parking ramp that sits between Target Center and Target Field, and at the end of the night we decided to drive to the very top of the ramp to take a gander at the Twins' developing stadium, which the parking structure overlooks.

We parked our car, climbed up and looked over the railing and had an amazing view of the grounds crew laying sod on the outfield (which was nearly completely covered) and spraying water all about. While it was the middle of the night, huge lighting fixtures brought everything into view and the scene was -- to me -- absolutely surreal. I've stopped by to check out the new stadium at various points during its construction, but this was easily the most complete view I've ever had of its interior, and it was also the first time the building has really and truly looked like a ballpark. Beautiful green grass now spans the outfield, the infield diamond is clearly visible, a giant scoreboard highlights the left field sight-line, and dark green seats populate the stands, which are separated by huge lit-up concourses enclosed in glass. One really must see the inside of the stadium in person to understand just how small and intimate it is, especially when compared to the Metrodome. There is not going to be a single bad seat in this park. My vantage point from the adjacent parking ramp gave me a better view of the field than I've had from Upper GA on Student Nights at the Dome.

Here are a couple photos I snapped with my cell phone. Not the best quality, obviously, but it should give you some idea of how things are starting to look.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Not So Fast

The Twins won in dramatic fashion last night, with Delmon Young singling in Michael Cuddyer as the winning run in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off 7-6 victory. The win was fifth in a row for the Twins, setting a season-high, and with the White Sox losing the hometown nine pulled into a tie for a second place just 4 1/2 games behind the division-leading Tigers with nearly six weeks remaining in the season.

But, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

While last night's win was impressive, it came against a last-place team with a rookie pitcher on the hill. And while the Twins have excelled recently, it almost seemed like they were bound to go on a decent run at some point after the horrific stretch of baseball they had endured through the earlier part of August. These things always seem to even out.

It's good to see the Twins getting back on the winning track, but realistically the odds are still stacked heavily against their continuing on such a run with the group of pitchers they currently possess. Just take a look at the hurlers the Twins threw out last night prior to Jose Mijares' eighth inning: Armando Gabino (13.50 ERA), Philip Humber (9.00 ERA), Bobby Keppel (5.31 ERA) and Jesse Crain (6.55 ERA). Toss in Jeff Manship and Brian Duensing, and you've got a pitching staff that consists almost overwhelmingly of minor-league quality pitchers. While this group has been able to grind out some victories as of late -- with support from a truly outstanding offensive unit -- I fail to see how they'll be able to scratch out enough victories down the stretch to overcome the Tigers. Unless Francisco Liriano can find his arm strength and Boof Bonser can make some sort of miraculous late-season impact, this pitching staff just isn't good enough to win the AL Central. Period.

That might seem like a downer after an exhilarating walk-off victory, and I don't mean to downplay the Twins' recent success. But that 4 1/2 game gap in the standings is a lot bigger than it looks, and will be as long as the Twins continue to carry a pitching staff that isn't even half big-league caliber.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why We Should Care

Last week, Dave Cameron wrote an article over at FanGraphs entitled "Why Do We Care?" that pondered why we as fans should bother getting worked up over MVP results that are decided by a group largely comprised of traditional baseball thinkers holding values with which many of us fundamentally disagree. The column echoes sentiments I've frequently seen expressed by Aaron Gleeman and other baseball writers whom I respect. Cameron's piece was well written, thoughtful and highly logical. Yet, I still disagree with the very basis of his argument.

Like it or not, these awards play a huge part in how players are remembered, and in many cases they can be the deciding factor in borderline Hall of Fame cases. Would Jim Rice have been elected to the Hall had he not won the MVP in 1978? I kind of doubt it. And there is close to zero doubt in my mind that Bert Blyleven would have been enshrined long ago if had a couple Cy Youngs on his shelf.

The next logical step in Cameron's argument is to downplay the importance of the Hall of Fame -- after all, it's voted on by the same group of baseball writers and is thus subject to the same narrow-minded viewpoint on player analysis. Yet, when we stop caring about essentially all of the game's history and legacy, at what point do we just stop caring about the game itself?

It's true that the ultimate result of this year's MVP race has "no real world impact on me" (to quote Cameron), but really, nothing that happens in baseball does. If the Twins win the World Series, it's not going to directly benefit me in any meaningful way, but I'll be ecstatic. I watch the games because I love the Twins and it pleases me when their players succeed and are recognized for their accomplishments. If Mark Teixeira wins the MVP award over Joe Mauer, I'll be incredibly frustrated, because there's a pretty good chance that this error will shape the way these two players are perceived down the line. The MVP is the most revered and prominent award in baseball, which is a point that I think is completely missed in the column. Even if Dave Cameron is smart enough to look back years from now and realize that the logic behind the vote was incredibly flawed and that Mauer was clearly a far better player, that doesn't mean the vast majority of the baseball fan base at large will view it the same way. And if he doesn't care what anybody else thinks, then why does he take the time to write daily opinion columns for public consumption?

The MVP voting is plagued by the same annoying issues annually, and Cameron is correct in stating that we seem to have these same arguments every September. But I don't necessarily agree that the debate is without purpose. There has been some shift in the overall mentality of MVP voters over the past decade or so, which has been reflected somewhat over the past couple years in the election of Dustin Pedroia and Jimmy Rollins -- both middle infielders not known for their home run power or RBI proclivity. I think the mentality continues to shift, and I do believe that if he finishes well Mauer will ultimately win the MVP award this year, something which may not have been possible 10 years ago.

Cameron may believe that debating MVP candidates is like running in circles, but with prominent voices like Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer intelligently carrying on the battle, I think progress is being made. That won't continue to happen if people like Cameron and Gleeman simple stop caring and give up, though. Keep fighting the good fight, boys. Baseball history will thank you for it down the road.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Has Cabrera Really Been a Great Get?

While the Twins' season has been spiraling in the month of August, one thing that most fans seem pretty pleased about is the acquisition of Orlando Cabrera. The move obviously hasn't been followed by a run of excellent play like the Shannon Stewart trade in 2003, but Cabrera has received since coming over to the Twins and some have even suggested that the Twins consider bringing him back next season.

This strikes me as a little surprising, seeing as how Cabrera really has not been all that strong of a contributor since joining the team.

Upon moving to the Twins, the shortstop was just finishing up a scalding month of July in which he'd hit .373/.400/.500. Yet, a 605 OPS entering that month, combined with a .274/.322/.397 career hitting line, suggested that the impressive hot streak was not likely to last. Indeed, while Cabrera's bat stayed hot during his first week or so in a Twins uniform, he has since begun to cool down substantially. In his past 10 games, Cabrera is hitting just .214 with a 460 OPS. Thanks to his initial hot streak, Cabrera holds a solid .288 average and .425 slugging percentage overall as a Twin, but his on-base percentage is a measly .299 and he's negated his positive value to some degree by grounding into five double plays at a crucial lineup spot.

Meanwhile, his defense at shortstop has been completely overwhelming underwhelming. Cabrera came over to the Twins with an ugly -9.3 UZR, and that has now sunk to a pitiful -12.5. He has also committed four errors in 17 games at shortstop, looking awfully sloppy for a guy who has a couple Gold Gloves sitting on his shelf.

Cabrera will turn 35 in November. Despite his recent hot streak with the bat, it seems clear that he's not a very effective offensive player at this stage of his career and evidence continues to point toward his defense being in rapid decline. His addition to the team at the deadline still wasn't a terrible move by any means, but anyone who's thinking that the Twins should give one thought to bringing him back beyond this year should really reevaluate their position.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Joy and Pain -- Mostly Pain

The Twins moved back into the win column yesterday with their first comeback victory that I can remember. Joe Mauer continued his incredible August run by homering twice and improving his seasonal hitting line to a ridiculous .383/.448/.653 while Michael Cuddyer chipped in three hits and Delmon Young once again flashed his power stroke by homering, doubling and driving in four. It wasn't exactly the day's biggest Minnesota sports story, but it was still nice to see the Twins show some life and win a game.

Still, there were plenty of negatives to be drawn from the contest. Carl Pavano struggled again, surrendering five runs over four innings (unbelievable how this rotation has become completely incapable of piecing even five-inning starts with any consistency). Worse yet, Jason Kubel exited after fouling a ball directly into the knee he injured and had surgically repaired several years ago. The injury is being labeled as a contusion, but fans are understandably on edge. Kubel was sporting a 1307 OPS in the month of August, making this timing rather unfortunate.

The Twins are in pretty dire straits right now. Three of their original starting pitchers are on the shelf, and La Velle's blog entry from prior to last night's game made it seem like the recall of struggling farmhand Philip Humber was more out of desperation for a usable arm than any thoughts that he's going to realistically help this team win games. At this rate, they're going to have a tough time staying in even third place.

And just for the heck of it, my thoughts on the Brett Favre situation...

As a person who has followed and cheered for the Vikings for much of my life, of course I have historically rued Favre. And of course, like almost any sports fan, I've grown extremely tired of his indecisive "Will I or won't I?" retirement act after each of the past five or so seasons. I hate the way announcers drool over him, I hate the way he carelessly heaves balls into triple-coverage and gets credited for being courageous, and I hate the way every one of his bonehead plays is passed off as the result of a guy "having fun out there." But, I'm a Vikings fan and I want to see this team win, and I have little doubt that his addition makes this a far better football team.

I have always felt -- and continue to feel -- that Favre is a vastly overrated quarterback. To me, anyone who would claim that he's the greatest quarterback ever to play is out of their mind. But let's keep the facts straight here. He is literally the most experienced quarterback in NFL history, he'll have no trouble acclimating to the offensive system employed by the Vikings, he's still seemingly got a pretty good arm, and I trust him a heck of a lot more to make tough plays in key situations than either of the team's current backup-quality options at the quarterback position.

Detractors can point toward Favre's advanced age and well as his injury-hampered performance late last season, but the fact remains that he was excellent in 2007 and quite effective for the first 10 weeks of last season before his arm ailment became an overwhelming issue. That injury was ostensibly corrected by a recent surgical procedure, and even if his body isn't what it once was, I'd still bet almost anything on him being an upgrade over what the Vikings currently boast. Sage Rosenfels is a similarly mistake-prone pocket passer who lacks the experience and talent of Favre, and Tarvaris Jackson is an athletic but hugely flawed player who has shown very little progress since being drafted. Some might say that this Vikings roster is so stacked with talent that they need only a somewhat reliable caretaker at the quarterback position in order to succeed, but I don't trust Rosenfels or Jackson to be even that. And, apparently, neither does Brad Childress.

The Vikings are an extremely well built team right now, with the league's best running back and a dominating defense. Relying on a second-string quarterback like Rosenfels or Jackson to run this machine would have been fairly depressing; Favre has the tools to run this offense smoothly and keep opposing defenses from being able to stack nine players on Adrian Peterson. He's also got plenty of experience in the postseason, where the Vikings were likely to end up regardless of who was taking their snaps (some might take issue with that statement, but I do not think the NFC North is a particularly impressive division).

If all goes well and major injuries are avoided, the Vikings have a great shot at the Super Bowl, and it could well be that Favre is the guy first guy to grab and hoist the Lombardi Trophy. That might make some fans' blood boil, but I'd welcome it. It would be an incredibly unique story in the history of sports and I'd be proud to watch it all unfold. And while many lifelong Vikings fans won't necessarily be all that ecstatic about Favre's individual success, there will be 52 other players on that Vikings roster that shouldn't be forgotten.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Beam of Light in Another Cloudy Day

This team just continues to find ways to disappoint. I have already lost almost all hope that they can make a run here late in the season, but I was at least hoping for positive signs as the year winds down. Francisco Liriano seemed to deliver one in his last outing against the Royals, but all that progress was erased last night when he coughed up seven runs on seven hits in just two innings of work. Liriano drew a tough assignment on the road against a tough Rangers lineup, but this is an unacceptable effort from a guy who possesses the amount of talent and ability that Liriano does.

Joe Mauer was at his finest in last night's game, going 3-for-5 and coming a triple short of the cycle while raising his batting average to .380, but it was all for naught as the pitching staff coughed up a bunch of runs yet again and the Twins lost yet again. Following the game, the Twins shelved Liriano and recalled Philip Humber, who possessed a 5.18 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in Rochester. On top of all that, Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney -- two Triple-A relievers that I spent a good chunk of yesterday's post praising and identifying as viable bullpen reinforcements -- combined to cough up 11 runs while recording just five outs in Rochester yesterday, turning a 5-4 eighth-inning lead into a 15-5 deficit.

Things are unraveling at a catastrophic pace for the major-league club, but at least the organization delivered some good news on this nightmarish day, as they were able to reach an agreement with first-round pick Kyle Gibson just before last night's 11:00 PM CDT deadline. The contract is worth $1.8 million, which -- if reports of the two sides' demands are to be believed -- means that the draftee ultimately compromised more than the team did. Gibson seems like a really good kid and he's a heck of a pitcher, so let's put this nasty little process behind us and start hoping that he can help augment this organization's beleaguered pitching corps as soon as possible.

Here is what I said about Gibson the day after they drafted him:

Yesterday I predicted that Tanner Scheppers would slide to the Twins due to signability concerns and, in an uncharacteristic move, the Twins would snatch him up. Well, Scheppers did fall to the 22nd pick (in fact, he dropped all the way to 44), but the Twins instead went another -- almost equally uncharacteristic -- route, signing college right-hander Gibson. Like Scheppers, Gibson was considered a Top 10 type talent, but his stock fell for mostly different reasons. Gibson's mid-90s velocity dropped into the 80s late this season, and it was recently revealed that this was due to an arm injury. That's the bad news. The good news is that the injury was to his forearm, not his elbow or shoulder, and the damage was a bone fracture rather than anything involving a muscle or tendon. This breeds optimism that Gibson should be able to recover well from the injury.

And if he can make a full recovery, the Twins have gotten themselves a player. Gibson is a tall and lanky guy at 6'6", 210 lbs, and he brings decent velocity that the Twins' system is currently lacking to some degree. Ranked as the fourth-best draft prospect by Baseball America, Gibson brings a fastball, a hard slider and a developing changeup.

There have been indications that the Twins were high on Gibson and I considered predicting him as their first-round target, but truthfully I didn't expect him to fall this far. He has the potential to be similar to Matt Garza in his ability to command two/three strong pitches and move fast through the system. His injury carries some concern, but I trust that the Twins have done their homework. I like this pick a lot.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Monday Notepad

After dropping yesterday's series finale against the Indians 7-4, the Twins have now lost five consecutive series while falling six games behind the Tigers for first place in the AL Central. A few notes on yesterday's game and some other topics:

* Nick Blackburn cruised through two innings yesterday before collapsing in the third, when the Indians opened the inning by going homer, homer, hit by pitch, homer, single, double, groundout, single -- scoring six times before Blackburn was removed. He has now surrendered 33 earned runs on 59 hits over 32 2/3 innings in seven starts since his complete-game victory over the Tigers on July 5. The Twins have gone 1-7 in those games. While Anthony Swarzak isn't exactly making a strong case to remain in the rotation, I don't see any way the Twins can keep running Blackburn out there right now.

* I've been pretty hesitant to jump on the Twitter bandwagon. I created an account a couple months ago so I could follow certain people, but up until this past weekend I had never made a single "tweet." I've had a hard time convincing myself to become a fully integrated user, largely because the premise seemed in many ways redundant with Facebook and because the prospect of familiarizing myself with the intricacies of the service struck as overly time-consuming and daunting.

Yet, at the strong urging of a number of people, I made my first tweet over the weekend and plan to become a more active Twitter participant going forward. For all you existing users out there, feel free to become a follower @nnelson9 and I'm sure I'll follow you back. My updates are sure to include plenty of Twins fodder, as well as random musings and perhaps even updates on my burgeoning rap career.

* Today represents the deadline for signing draft picks, and the Twins' top pick, Kyle Gibson, remains unsigned as I write this article. While there have been reports that the two sides are struggling to close the rather wide gap in their demands, I remain confident that Gibson will sign before the day is over. If he doesn't, though, it's going to be a disaster. Not only because this organization desperately needa to augment its thin starting pitching depth, but also because a failure to sign its first-round pick will make the team's refusal to chase Type A free agents this past offseason look awfully silly.

* I was thinking about writing a post on how ridiculous it is to posit that anyone other than Joe Mauer should be the front-runner for the AL MVP award at this point, but my favorite scribe Joe Posnanski has already covered the topic splendidly.

* One of the moves stemming from Glen Perkins' placement on the DL last week and Jeff Manship's promotion to the major-league roster to replace him was that Anthony Slama was at long last moved up to Rochester after dominating Double-A batters over four months. It might have been surprising to some that I didn't write up a lengthy missive detailing my thoughts on this move, given that I've ranted about this organization's handling of Slama on several occasions in the past (most recently here), but in truth -- aside from my initial relief at this long-deserved promotion -- I didn't have much to say about it.

Yes, I'm glad that Slama has finally been moved to a more appropriate level of competition. But this should have happened months ago (particularly accounting for the fact that there's no way Slama should have spent the entire 2008 season in Single-A). I don't really want to get into this whole debate again, but as much as some people want to claim that the team's conservative handling of Slama was justified based on the reliever's control issues and the organization's ambiguous viewpoint that he "isn't ready," I can't be convinced that any pitcher is capable of making meaningful improvements when he's not being challenged by opposing hitters. Accuse me all you want of leaning too hard on the statistics, but Slama's numbers in Double-A lead to the almost undeniable conclusion that he was completely and totally overmatching hitters at that level of competition. Regardless of one's feelings about Slama's true value as a prospect and his chances of developing into an impact major-league arm, I just don't see how it could possibly be argued that he rightfully belonged at that level anymore.

I'm glad Slama is finally getting a chance to prove himself against the highest level of minor-league hitters, and we'll see how his stuff and command plays in Rochester. In two appearances since being promoted, he has thus far allowed no runs on one hit and one walk while striking out three over two innings.

* Yesterday's Red Wings game, in fact, featured three pitchers who could merit a look in the Twins' bullpen. Along with Slama, who handled the ninth, the 8-1 victory also featured a scoreless inning of relief from Rob Delaney, who now holds a 2.92 ERA and 31-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 innings since being moved up from New Britain, and also a brilliant start from Armando Gabino, a former reliever who has been moved into a starting role due to the depletion of Rochester's starting corps. Gabino hurled seven innings of one-run ball, allowing only three hits and a walk while striking out nine, and now holds a 2.93 ERA and 54-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 innings this year, during which he has allowed only 64 hits. Given that the Twins continue to lean on Bobby Keppel, who has allowed runs in eight of his past 11 relief appearances, it certainly seems as though they could give any of of these three pitchers a chance in at a righty relief role in the majors.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Manship Has Landed

After complaining of shoulder pain several times over the past few weeks, Glen Perkins finally landed on the disabled list yesterday, although he and the team are still unsure as to what specifically is afflicting his ailing left shoulder since a recent MRI exam revealed no structural damage. Filling Perkins' vacant roster spot will be Jeff Manship, who was called up from Triple-A after going 4-2 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in eight starts as a member of the Rochester rotation. Manship will initially serve as a long reliever.

Last week I lamented that the Twins' "unaddressed bullpen has predictably caused plenty of problems for the Twins this year, and yet the team has done nothing to augment the unit other than calling up mediocre former minor-league starters like Sean Henn, Bobby Keppel, Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey." You can now add Manship to that list. I like the 25-year-old right-hander's long-term potential, but at this point he's not likely to be a whole lot more effective than Duensing or Mulvey. I suspect the reason he was called up, instead of someone like Rob Delaney or Anthony Slama who has the potential to be an actual difference-maker in the bullpen, is that Manship can be called upon to jump into the rotation should the struggles of Nick Blackburn, Anthony Swarzak or Francisco Liriano continue (though Liriano took a very promising step last night against the Royals, which pleased me immensely).

Even accounting for his recent successful run in Rochester, Manship has posted a 4.08 ERA and 137-to-66 strikeout to walk ratio over 202 2/3 combined innings between Double-A and Triple-A. This after compiling a 2.42 ERA and 221-to-57 strikeout-to-walk ratio between rookie ball and two levels of Single-A. That might seem like a serious regression, but it's hardly unusual for college pitchers like Manship to dominate the early levels of the minors before getting a wake-up call against superior hitters at Double-A or Triple-A, and Manship's decreased strikeout rate and increased hittability in the upper levels certainly don't doom his chances to succeed as a big-league pitcher. One thing he has continued to do well, for instance, is induce ground balls and limit home runs. Manship has allowed only 20 long balls in 444 2/3 minor-league innings, including only three in 126 innings this year.

At the very least, Manship certainly figures to be a better performer than Perkins has been lately. Since the start of July, Perkins has yielded 28 earned runs on 50 hits over 29 1/3 innings spread across seven outings (six starts). During that span, he has posted a lousy 10-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and opponents have hit .376/.410/.556 against him. It seems quite clear that his ailing shoulder has impeded his performance -- which up to that point had been adequate -- and yet many fans continue to skewer him. In tweets, blog comments and message board postings I've perused over the past couple days, I've observed numerous people essentially labeling Perkins a wuss for putting himself on the DL (which appears to be what has happened here, for all intents and purposes). The guy battles through pain and tries to contribute for a couple months, then when it becomes clear that he's not helping the team's cause he pulls himself from the rotation, and yet in both instances he's a coward? Cut him some slack.

The Twins are still very much alive mathematically in the AL Central race, but with the way they've played lately, a playoff berth is looking like a less and less feasible possibility. It's starting to appear that the rest of this season might be best spent getting a look at what the Twins have in their Triple-A system and figuring out which players might be able to contribute to next year's cause. If that's the case, handing some big-league playing time to the likes of guys like Manship and Mulvey isn't a bad idea.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Well, that was ugly.

In yesterday's post, I struggled to find beams of light in a dimming season for the Twins. But it's getting tough to come up with excuses for this team.

Last night, they were blown out at home by the last-place Kansas City Royals, who rank dead last in the American League in runs per game. The Twins managed just one run over five innings against Kyle Davies, who entered the game with a 3-8 record and and 6.37 ERA, while Nick Blackburn coughed up six runs -- four earned -- on six hits before being yanked with one out in the second inning.

In his past 30 innings of work, Blackburn has now surrendered 27 earned runs (an 8.10 ERA) on an astounding 53 hits while managing only nine strikeouts. That's the sign of a pitcher who is getting absolutely dominated and who probably doesn't belong in a major-league rotation. The problem is that the Twins currently have three starters who have demonstrated that they deserve demotions from the rotation, and yet there exist no legitimate options to replace them.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Can They Pull It Off?

As we move toward the middle of August, it's coming time for fans to figure out what mindset they should bring into the final eight weeks of the season. Do the Twins actually have a legitimate chance of battling back and making a playoff run, or has their recent run of poor play -- along with a string of unfortunate injuries -- essentially doomed their chances? Let's break it all down.

With 51 games remaining, the Twins sit three games below .500 at 54-57. They are 5 games out of first place and trail two teams in the AL Central standings. Their recent play has been downright ugly; they've dropped seven of their past nine and their pitching staff has surrendered eight or more runs in six of those contests. If all that sounds gloomy, it is. The Twins are playing very poorly right now and they're sliding fast.

But, all things considered, they remain in somewhat decent shape at this point. Of the Twins' 51 remaining games, 27 are at home -- where they have gone 31-23 (.574) up to this point. Twenty-seven of the remaining 51 games on the Twins' schedule also come against either the Royals, Indians, Orioles or Athletics -- the four worst teams in the American League in terms of win/loss record. Additionally, the Twins have several games remaining against the two teams in front of them in the standings, with six against the White Sox and seven against the Tigers. This will give them ample opportunity to make up ground directly.

You often hear about a team "controlling its own destiny," but in this case it really rings true. If the Twins could find a way to get on track and play good ball over the final several weeks of the season, they actually have a pretty good shot at capturing this division despite their current disadvantage in the standings.

Whether or not the Twins are capable of getting on track and playing good ball is a different matter entirely. In order to win 90 games, the Twins would have to go 36-15 from here on out, which is pretty much unthinkable. In order to win 85 games, they'd have to go 31-20. That's a bit more realistic, and in all honesty 85 wins just might win this division depending on what happens with the Tigers and White Sox.

Getting to 85 wins would require the Twins to play .600 ball from this point forward, which will be close to impossible if their pitching staff continues to perform as it has lately. And given that the offense has been more than sufficient and features perhaps the best middle-of-the-lineup attacks in the league, it seems fair to say that the team's fortunes are all going to come down to the pitching.

So, can the rotation turn things around and perform adequately over the remainder of the season? Well, Scott Baker was going very well prior to his latest hiccup in Detroit. And even with that rough outing taken into account, since the beginning of June, Baker has posted a 3.87 ERA and 70-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 79 innings. He has also cut down significantly on his hideous home run rate from the first couple months of the season. I think we can feel pretty confident in Baker heading down the stretch. The other four starters all carry serious question marks:

* Carl Pavano was excellent in his Twins debut, but he was awfully hittable during this time in Cleveland this year. If he maintains his strong command and benefits from some good luck, he's capable of posting a sub-4 ERA from here on out, but he'll need to avoid the implosions that haunted him with Indians.

* Nick Blackburn was a tremendous surprise over the first few months of the season but has been hit hard by Mr. Regression over the past month; in his last five starts he has posted a 7.22 ERA while allowing a .376 batting average, and the Twins have gone 1-4 in those games. The Twins need him to bounce back and start rattling off Quality Starts like he did during the first three months of the season.

* Anthony Swarzak performed admirably over his first eight major-league starts despite relatively unimpressive peripherals, but in his two August starts he has allowed 13 runs -- 11 earned -- on 17 hits over just four innings of work spread across two starts. It's entirely possible that the league is catching up with Swarzak and I'm really not convinced that he's prepared to succeed as a full-time big-league starter, but at this point he's really the Twins' only option so we must hope he can bounce back and find a groove over his remaining starts. The alternative is that the Twins turn to another untested rookie like Brian Duensing or Kevin Mulvey, and in that case the outlook would not be a whole lot better.

* Finally, there's Francisco Liriano. I wrote about him extensively yesterday and I truly believe he will be the key to the Twins' success over the final weeks of the season. If he can't harness his fastball and improve on his erratic past couple outings, I don't think the Twins stand much of a chance. Even with a soft schedule, it will be tough to string together any winning streaks while relying on Baker, Pavano and Blackburn as their top three starters. But Liriano has better stuff than any other starting pitcher on this team. If he can perform like a top-of-the-rotation starter in the majority of his remaining outings, while Baker and Pavano chip in with above-average production and Blackburn reverses his recent struggles, the Twins might have a shot.

That's obviously a lot to ask, and the bullpen remains a concern, but the Twins certainly have a lineup capable of winning games when supported by adequate pitching. When that lineup is taken into account, along with a favorable remaining schedule and the fact that neither team currently ahead of the Twins in the standings is really all that great, there's no reason for fans to completely give up on this team. Not yet.

That could all change in a short span of time, though. If the Twins continue to slide, they will find themselves with a deficit too large to overcome. Indeed, the next couple weeks will decide whether the September call-ups should be viewed as reinforcements or auditions.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Perkins to Pen: The Right Move

When the Twins acquired Carl Pavano from the Indians on Friday to help stabilize a struggling rotation, debate immediately turned to which current Twins starter would be supplanted. It was quickly clear that the two candidates for a demotion to the bullpen were Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins, who have both struggled in recent starts while also battling various arm ailments.

That question was put to rest, at least for now, when the Twins announced that Perkins would be undergoing an MRI for his aching left shoulder and that the team will be "moving forward without him in the rotation." Liriano will draw another start in the second or third game of the Twins' upcoming series against the Royals, and will get at least one more chance to work past his severe command problems.

For some who have been pushing for Liriano's demotion to the bullpen (Sinker, Twins Geek, SBG and ubelmann, among others), I'm sure this comes as disappointing news. I tend to disagree -- I think the Twins have made the right move here, for a few reasons.

First, let me say that I agree with one of the main arguments in support of sending Liriano to the bullpen instead of Perkins, which is that Liriano is more likely to improve that unit. Many point to Liriano's strong secondary pitches and his .206/.292/.335 opposing line the first time through the batting order as reasons that the hurler has a good chance to succeed as a reliever. Those are both perfectly valid points and I fully connect with them.

But, I just think the Twins need Liriano in the rotation more right now. The Twins have gotten Quality Starts in only seven of their past 20 games, and all too often the bullpen hasn't even been put in position to hold a lead. Liriano has been frustrating to watch as of late, to be sure, but prior to his past two starts he had posted a solid 3.83 ERA in eight turns since the beginning of June, and had completed at least six innings in six of those games. It's also worth noting that this is the same, post-surgery Liriano who posted a 2.74 ERA and 60-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Twins after returning to the big-league club in early August last season. Liriano was a big part of the reason the Twins were able to hang with the White Sox and force a 163rd game last year, and they'll need him to find that form -- or something close to it -- if they're going to make a similar push this season.

If Liriano can gain some semblance of command over his fastball, he can still perform like a top-of-the-rotation starter; he proved that last year. That's a pretty big "if," but the Twins are 5.5 games out of first place and fading fast, so it's simply something they're going to have to hope for. Liriano has the stuff to miss bats and has the talent to dominate good lineups. This team is going to need him in order to make the playoffs, much less win a series there.

Moreover, I just don't trust Perkins right now. It kind of stuns me that so many people are calling for Liriano's removal from the rotation considering how Perkins has looked in his most recent outings. Two of his past three starts -- a 1 IP, 8 ER performance against Oakland and a 4 IP, 8 ER performance against the Angels -- were worse than any outing Liriano has had this season. I actually think Perkins is a solid pitcher when healthy, but I did not for one second believe he was healthy even prior to the news that he was being scheduled for a "precautionary" MRI.

I've heard people mock Perkins for the way he seemingly comes out and complains about shoulder pain after every loss ("How convenient!"), but there is legitimate reason to believe that he's been pitching through some serious pain. Perkins has dealt with shoulder issues frequently throughout his pro career, and during that pro career he had not thrown more than 150 innings in any season prior to last year, when he racked up about 180. There is every reason to believe that this significant workload increase has taken a toll on his already problematic shoulder, and that this injury is now causing him serious issues. If he were to remain in the rotation, my sense was that Perkins would either be overly susceptible to disastrous outings like the ones mentioned above, or he'd end up on the disabled list. I just don't see him lasting as a starter for the remainder of this season.

The Twins' bullpen has been a sore point all year, but right now the rotation is a greater concern. On too many occasions, the Twins' starters have not been giving the team any reasonable chance at winning. It might be a stretch to believe that Liriano is going to turn things around and find anything resembling the form he showed during the final two months of last season. But we also know he's capable of it, and if he's healthy (which is far from certain given that he missed his most recent start due to forearm soreness), there doesn't seem to be any real physical reason he can't perform in a similar manner down the stretch this season.

It's a long-shot. But I certainly like Liriano's chances of providing above-average production as a member of this rotation in the final seven weeks of the season than a sore-shouldered Perkins who, even at full health, is probably about a league-average starter.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


If there's one thing capable of prompting a Saturday post on this blog, it's a post-deadline waiver trade for a mediocre veteran starting pitcher. So let's get to it.

The Twins acquired Carl Pavano from the Indians yesterday in return for a player to be named later. The 33-year-old right-hander will add that ever-valuable veteran presence while jumping into the rotation and creating additional depth in what has become a paper-thin starting pitching corps. R.A. Dickey gets a one-way ticket to Rochester to create room on the 25-man roster.

First, I'll say that I actually don't mind Pavano. When the Indians signed him this offseason for $1.5 million plus incentives, I spoke rather glowingly of the move, giving the following brief analysis:
I’m not a big fan of Pavano, but he’s 33 years old and has a history of pitching well. If he stays healthy, he can probably [be] counted on for close to league average production; if he doesn’t stay healthy, the Indians aren’t on the hook for much money at all. This is what a low-risk veteran signing should look like. When you hear complaints about the Twins handing $5 million to Livan Hernandez and $3 million to Ramon Ortiz, this is why.
Pavano has indeed stayed relatively healthy, and while his production up to this point doesn't look all that good at a glance (9-8 record, 5.37 ERA), it's worth noting that he has performed better than his results would indicate. The mention of Hernandez in the above quote seems apt, since I would basically describe this year's version of Pavano as a rich man's Livan. He has given up a lot of hits and home runs (.299 BAA with 19 HR allowed in 125 2/3 innings) but he actually hurls a respectable fastball which averages over 90 mph, and he has posted a solid 88-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio while limiting baserunners to a large degree thanks to his quality control. His 4.15 xFIP suggests that if he keeps pitching the way he has up to this point, he'll probably be good for an ERA lower than 5.37 from here on out.

The relatively impressive peripherals don't change the fact that Pavano has been fairly hittable this year, and given the fact that he's 33 and has never been much better than average in his career (with the exception of a season or two), it's not likely that he'll step in and change the fortunes of the Twins rotation. What he does do is add much-needed depth to a pitching staff that was one more Glen Perkins shoulder flare-up or Francisco Liriano control meltdown away from turning to Kevin Mulvey as a starter. That in and of itself makes this a pretty good move, particularly when you consider that the Twins aren't likely to end up losing anything of much value in the deal. The PTBNL is probably conditional based on Pavano's performance, but will likely end up being an older farmhand whose chances of making a serious impact at the major-league level are minimal.

Now we turn to the predominant question at hand: who will Pavano replace in the rotation? It's almost certainly going to be one of the Twins' struggling lefty starters; Pavano will start tonight in place of Perkins, but Ron Gardenhire has stated that the team has yet to make a decision whether Liriano or Perkins will be the odd man out in the long run. Twins Geek seems to think Pavano replacing Liriano is a foregone conclusion, and Howard Sinker was strongly advocating for Liriano's dismissal from the rotation on his blog just the other day. I disagree with both of them. But that's a matter that I'll tackle another day -- probably Monday.

Friday, August 07, 2009


While perusing my daily slate of blogs yesterday, I came across an interesting and thoughtful post on Seth's site in which he basically wondered aloud why many Twins fans feel the need to expend so much energy complaining and venting about the same central issues when it comes to this club. The sentiment is hardly surprising coming from Mr. Stohs, who is one of the most mild-mannered and easygoing people you will ever meet, and without a doubt it's something I can connect with to a large degree. It is somewhat ironic, though, that his post popped up on the same day I chose to rattle off a rather vitriolic rant about Ron Gardenhire's continual fascination with penciling the struggling Nick Punto into the lineup on a daily basis.

Such outright negative posts are pretty rare around here; as you can ascertain from the blog's tag-line I make a pretty strong effort to remain level-headed in all my analysis. I'm not the type to get overly worked up over a single loss, or to become emotionally distraught when I disagree with a move the team makes. After all, it's just a game. But there is something distinctly therapeutic about venting one's frustration with their favorite team in situations where that frustration is clearly warranted. And apparently there's a similar benefit in reading such diatribes, since those occasional posts carrying the "rants" tag have been among the most popular -- in terms of readership and response -- in this blog's existence.

And while I'd like to keep positive and remark on the things that are going well for the Twins right now, it's difficult to do so when you've reached the point of questioning the basic competency of some of the organization's chief decision-makers.

I didn't always agree with the front office's actions during the Terry Ryan regime, but in general I almost always understood them. Acquisitions like Rondell White, Ramon Ortiz and Bret Boone might not have worked out, but a person could always at least see the logic in adding those players. Even in the early days of Bill Smith's tenure, I didn't find any of his moves to be without reason. Players like Mike Lamb and Adam Everett had been valuable pieces in the recent past, and even though they didn't work out one could see why they were brought in. The Johan Santana and Matt Garza trades both look brutally ugly right now, but one could see how Smith and Co. envisioned those moves ultimately improving the team. Moreover, during those days the organization's personnel moves were constrained by a perpetually limited budget.

Recently, my patience with the front office as headed by Bill Smith has been wearing thin. To cite a prime root of my irritation, let's talk about the bullpen. It has been a clear, unmistakable flaw for this team ever since Pat Neshek went down with a season-ending elbow injury early last year. The problem was compounded when the Twins learned that Neshek and Boof Bonser, another hurler who they'd envisioned as a potential late-inning dominator, would both miss the 2009 season due to arm surgery. And yet, the front office did nothing to address this issue other than letting Dennys Reyes walk and signing free agent leftover Luis Ayala, a supposed sinkerballer with a substandard groundball rate who was coming off a 5.71 ERA season.

The unaddressed bullpen has predictably caused plenty of problems for the Twins this year, and yet the team has done nothing to augment the unit other than calling up mediocre former minor-league starters like Sean Henn, Bobby Keppel, Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey. The trade deadline came and went without any move being made to improve the team's absurdly thin relief corps, which was made more frustrating by the assertions of Smith and other front office personnel that no usable relievers could have been acquired without giving up top prospects. Such a statement is suspect in its own right, and in fact provably false when you take into account the fact that several solid relief pitchers were swapped in late July at relatively modest costs. For the front office to shovel these excuses onto the fans is not only obnoxious, but flat-out insulting. (Aaron Gleeman has a great take on this whole situation here.)

Thinking about the severe problems facing the Twins' bullpen always brings me back to Anthony Slama. My frustration over the organization's handling of arguably its best relief prospect over the past two years has been aired here many times, but I simply cannot discuss the front office's inept management of the major-league bullpen without coming back to it. Slama was honored as the Twins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008, he holds a dazzling 1.75 ERA and 13.4 K/9 IP rate in his minor-league career, he is 25 years old, and yet still he remains mired in Double-A while veteran minor-league retreads lose games for the big-league club. Slama's numbers are, and always have been, exquisite; the only conceivable reason for holding him back is his unexceptional command (he has issued 31 walks in 62 1/3 innings this year -- a rate of 4.5 BB/9 IP). While somewhat troubling, this middling control has not prevented him from being highly effective overall in New Britain, and any notion that a mild problem with throwing strikes is sure to doom a player from having success in Triple-A and the majors should have been dismissed by Jose Mijares, who posted a 5.0 BB/9 IP rate in his minor-league career and has issued 4.5 walks per nine innings with the Twins this season but has still managed to be one of the team's three most reliable bullpen arms.

The Slama dilemma has become so obvious at this point that even Patrick Reusse, who rarely delves into the realm of prospect analysis, is advocating for his promotion. In Reusse's column, minor-league overseers Jim Rantz and Rob Antony suggest the possibility that Slama could be promoted directly from New Britain to Minnesota at some point this season, but such a drastic step should not even be necessary. Apparent complacency on the part of the Twins' front office personnel kept Slama stuck in Single-A for the entirety of last season and now in Double-A for the entirety of this year, in spite of his performance at both levels clearly indicating his readiness to move on. This conservative approach would be far more acceptable if it weren't for the dire circumstances that have been facing the Twins' bullpen for over a year now.

It almost seems like stubbornness is guiding the Twins' decision-making in this situation. And that annoying sense of stubbornness extends beyond the front office personnel and down to the team's manager and his lineup decisions. Joe Mauer has hit .398/.451/.707 as the Twins' No. 2 hitter this year, and yet Gardenhire has consistently refused to leave him in that spot for more than a few weeks at a time based on some apparent golden rule of baseball that middle infielders must fill that spot in the order. Early in the season, the manager wasted numerous rally-killing at-bats on players like Punto and Alexi Casilla, apparently not understanding that the second hitter in the lineup figures to receive the second-most at-bats of any player on the team and that wasting precious outs between two of your best hitters can be devastating to run production. Now, with the acquisition of Orlando Cabrera, Gardenhire has found another player to push Mauer down in the lineup. While it might seem silly to complain about this now, considering the amount of success Cabrera has had early on with his new team, nothing changes the fact that the newly acquired shortstop holds a .322 career on-base percentage and is much better suited for the bottom of the order. Yet, once he reverts to his career hitting levels, there is little doubt that he will remain in that two-spot, separating two of the team's best on-base threats with his mediocre production. One truly wonders what Mauer has done to make the manager believe that he is not perfectly suited for that second spot in the lineup.

With the injuries and poor performance they've gotten from their rotation, the Twins really have no business being in a playoff hunt this year. Yet, they are. They are within five games of first place with nearly two months remaining, because they play in a division without a single truly outstanding team, and despite their disadvantage in the standings they still remain in great position to come out on top due to an extremely favorable remaining schedule. Such opportunities do not come along often, but through inaction and inept decision-making the Twins are still managing to let it slide away.

This team is on the cusp of greatness, with Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and others all having career seasons. The club is being held back by a number of glaring flaws that could and should have been addressed long ago, but it seems that this front office's answer is to sit still, cross their fingers and pray for the best while hoping that lateral moves like replacing Ayala with Keppel and replacing Harris with Cabrera [EDIT: and replacing Perkins/Liriano with Pavano] will appease the team members and fan base.

For a fan who dedicates a great deal of time to watching, discussing and promoting the team, that course of action can generate quite a bit of well warranted frustration.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Perpetual Punto

It's amazing how predictable some things are.

During the All-Star break, I put together a bit of a rant about Nick Punto. I railed on his ghastly play up to that point in the season, and lamented that "no matter how poor his performance gets, he will seemingly always maintain a starting role on this club." Lo and behold, despite having batted just .226 since the day I wrote that article, Punto has started 15 of the team's 18 games. And while the acquisition of Orlando Cabrera would have seemingly nudged the underperforming Punto out of his starting job at shortstop and onto the bench, the move has instead only slid Punto over to second base, where he has started three of the team's four games since Cabrera's arrival.

Meanwhile, Brendan Harris has started just one of the Twins' past six games, and since Ron Gardenhire remains steadfastly opposed to letting him play second base, it appears that Harris has been essentially banished from any type of middle-infield duty. I guess that's what he gets for outhitting Punto by 56 points while posting a better fielding percentage than either Punto or Cabrera at short.

In the previously linked rant, I noted that Punto had "kept his offensive game afloat to some degree with a respectable .319 on-base percentage, buoyed by an impressive walk total of 32," adding that he had drawn an impressive 10 walks in 33 July plate appearances at that point. Yet, I went on to opine that there was no way this would last, stating that "there's simply no reason for pitchers to throw him anything but strikes until he shows he can actually hit them with any type of authority." In 59 plate appearances since then, Punto has drawn four walks and posted a .276 on-base percentage. In his past 37 plate appearances he's drawn exactly one walk, good for a .250 on-base percentage.

Predicting this outcome doesn't make me any sort of masterful prognosticator. This turn of events was pretty easy to foresee, which makes it all the more frustrating that Gardenhire willfully elects to ignore basic facts in order to keep writing his favorite pet into the starting lineup. I am not easily driven to frustration with matters like this, but this team is in the middle of a pennant race and needs all the help it can get; Gardenhire's stubborn refusal to take Punto out of the starting lineup is driving me close to insanity. Benching Harris in favor of Punto against left-handed pitchers -- as Gardy has the past two nights -- is particularly inexcusable, considering that Harris is batting .306 against southpaws this year and holds a solid 787 lifetime OPS against them.

I'm not saying Harris is having a great year, and I'm not saying he's the answer at second. But he is at the very least a competent hitter and if he's starting over Punto, this lineup suddenly has only one real hole. Does this trade-off lead to a defensive downgrade? Sure, but the negative effects can be reduced when Harris plays on days that a fly ball pitcher is on the mound, and certainly no one is saying that he needs to be starting every game. I don't buy that Harris' difficulties turning a double play here and there are going to cost the Twins more than Punto's constant rally-killing at-bats.

If the Twins truly want to stop second base from being a liability before this season is over, their best bet might come in the form of Steve Tolleson or Mark Grudzielanek. Until one of those players is deemed ready for major-league action, though, Gardenhire must discontinue his habit of starting Punto there every single day. Punto has his merits, but he's better served as a utility player and Harris' performance has not warranted a permanent benching when the alternative options are taken into account.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Good Medicine

In the wake of their three-game calamity at home against the Angels, the Twins were in need of a good long outing from a starting pitcher to erase memories of a roundly dreadful performance from their rotation over the weekend. Even more, they were just in need of a sound victory to wash the whole sour taste left by that ugly sweep out of their mouths.

They got both last night, courtesy of Scott Baker and a lineup that was able to crank out 10 runs on 16 hits. The refreshing laugher came at the expense of a deconstructed Indians club that has pawned off two of its three best players in the past week.

Hey, we'll take what we can get.

Six members of the Twins lineup notched multiple hits in last night's game, as nine of the team's 16 hits went for extra bases. Joe Mauer doubled three times, Orlando Cabrera continued to impress his new teammates with a pair of doubles himself and Carlos Gomez snapped an offensive cold spell by coming a triple short of the cycle. Meanwhile, Baker was terrific, allowing only three hits and a walk while striking out four over seven shutout frames. It was just the second time in his past nine outings that Baker was able to complete seven innings -- something the Twins will need him to do much more down the stretch if they wish to stay in contention for the division title.

An astonishing 40 of the Twins' final 56 games come against AL Central opponents, and many of those will be against the Indians and Royals, who are arguably the two worst teams in the American League. In order to have a shot at the postseason, the Twins will need to take care of business against these clubs like they did in Cleveland last night.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Prospect Rundown: July

Now that July is behind us, it's time for the fourth monthly check-in on our Top Ten Prospects. Let's see how the boys fared over the past month...

10. Steve Tolleson (AAA): .271/.357/.396, 2 HR, 12 RBI, 18 R, 4/5 SB
(Season Totals: .288/.364/.421, 7 HR, 34 RBI, 61 R,13/18 SB)

Tolleson took a small step back in July but still posted quality numbers, displaying excellent plate discipline (16/14 K/BB) and scoring runs at a solid clip. He has shown an ability to maintain a good average while drawing walks and delivering extra-base hits at the highest level of the minors, so it seems it's only a matter of time before the Twins give him a look.

9. Angel Morales (A): .361/.375/.541, 1 HR, 11 RBI, 13 R, 4/4 SB
(Season Totals: .244/.302/.423, 9 HR, 38 RBI, 45 R, 11/15 SB)

Morales bounced back from a disappointing month of June to post a stellar 916 OPS in July. He's still not walking and isn't displaying the type of power we'd like to see -- he has followed up a 5-HR May with single-homer months in June and July -- but the average was way up and he continued to cut down on his strikeout rate. He has transitioned into the No. 2 spot in the Beloit lineup.

8. Shooter Hunt (GCL): 7 IP, 0-3, 19.29 ERA, 3/19 K/BB, 3.43 WHIP
(Season Totals: 32.2 IP, 0-5, 10.19 ERA, 26/58 K/BB, 2.54 WHIP)

Yikes. The wheels continue to come off for Hunt, who had a disastrous month of July while pitching in the rookie-level Gulf Coast league. In seven innings spread over five appearances, Hunt managed only three strikeouts while issuing a ghastly 19 walks. That's a BB/9IP rate of 24.4, which is basically just cartoonish. In two of his five appearances, he failed to record a single out. If he can't figure out how to find the strike zone, it seems that his pro career could be in jeopardy.

7. Anthony Slama (AA): 17 IP, 6 SV, 3.18 ERA, 25/10 K/BB, 1.24 WHIP
(Season Totals: 61.2 IP, 22 SV, 2.63 ERA, 86/31 K/BB, 1.22 WHIP)

More of the same for Slama. Once again, he posted an excellent strikeout rate while proving extremely tough to hit (.183 BAA), and once again he remained mired in New Britain while the Twins' big-league bullpen continued to struggle. Slama continued to display middling control with 10 walks in 17 innings, but it didn't prevent him from getting solid results. That the Twins haven't even given Slama a look in Triple-A yet is simply a travesty.

6. Kevin Mulvey (AAA): 24.2 IP, 1-2, 5.84 ERA, 24/13 K/BB, 1.58 WHIP
(Season Totals: 114.1 IP, 4-6, 4.33 ERA, 97 K/45 BB, 1.45 WHIP)

July was a tough month for Mulvey. Not only did he have his worst month yet for the Red Wings, he also made his major league debut and was tagged for four runs on six hits while recording just four outs over two appearances before being sent back down to the minors. At 24, Mulvey is still young, but he's taken pretty clear step backs from last year in nearly all categories. Hopefully he can finish strong and reemerge as a rotation candidate for next season.

5. Danny Valencia (AAA): .287/.305/.465, 3 HR, 20 RBI, 11 R, 0/0 SB
(Season Totals: .289/.353/.483, 12 HR, 56 RBI, 62 R, 0/3 SB)

After a scalding hot start in Rochester, Valencia cooled off in the latter half of July but still finished with very respectable numbers. His inability to walk (just five in 36 games) has severely limited his ability to reach base, but he has clearly demonstrated that he can hit the ball at this level. Defense and plate discipline will be the main obstacles he must overcome to reach the majors.

4. Jose Mijares (MLB): 12.1 IP, 2.19 ERA, 10/5 K/BB, 1.05 WHIP
(Season Totals: 36.1 IP, 2.72 ERA, 29/18 K/BB, 1.35 WHIP)

Mijares posted good numbers for the Twins once again in July, with a solid strikeout rate and improved control. His peripherals haven't been overwhelming this season, but he has posted an ERA of 2.84 or lower in every month so far and has been one of the only reliable arms at the back end of the Twins' bullpen.

3. Ben Revere (A+): .288/.316/.397, 0 HR, 6 RBI, 11 R, 5/7 SB
(Season Totals: .309/.371/.382, 2 HR, 37 RBI, 56 R, 33/47 SB)

Revere saw his batting average bounce back a bit in July and flashed some extra-base power with two doubles and three triples, but the majority of his value stems from getting on base and using his speed, so seeing him draw just two walks and steal a season-low fives bases over the course of the month is disconcerting. In fairness, he did miss about a walk and a half at the end of the month due to a knee injury.

2. Wilson Ramos (AA): Did not play
(Season Totals: .308/.326/.444, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 22 R, 0/0 SB)

Sidelined by a pair of partial hamstring tears, Ramos missed the entire month of July and hasn't played in a game since June 12. There is hope that he'll be able to return for the final couple weeks of the season, but it could be that Ramos is done for the year and will finish with only 36 games played. It's always a shame when a talented prospect loses nearly an entire season to injury, but on the bright side Ramos still doesn't turn 22 until next week, so there is plenty of time for him to bounce back and put together a good career.

1. Aaron Hicks (A): .223/.333/.372, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 15 R, 3/8 SB
(Season Totals: .225/.342/.341, 1 HR, 15 RBI, 20 R, 4/9 SB)

It was a tough month for Hicks, who continued to struggle with his batting average and did not fare well on the basepaths. On the plus side, though, he started to hit the ball with more authority, as 10 of his 21 hits went for extra bases, and he posted a nearly even strikeout-to-walk ratio (17/16). In spite of the underwhelming numbers, there is little reason to worry about Hicks at this point.

Monday, August 03, 2009

A Steep Hill to Climb

When I left town on Thursday, the Twins were riding a four-game winning streak and were involved in numerous trade rumors. There was a prevailing sense of optimism amongst fans; the Twins were closing the gap in the division and it seemed that with a wise move or two, Bill Smith might be able to give them the boost they'd need to overcome the Tigers and White Sox.

Four days later, things are very different indeed. The Twins' sole deadline acquisition came in the form of Orlando Cabrera, and the team responded to the trade by being absolutely thumped in a three-game home sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels.

I'll address the Cabrera trade first. If you've read my post from last October about the possibility of signing Cabrera as a free agent or last Thursday's post that addressed the notion of trading for him at the deadline, you can probably guess that I'm not overly enthused about this trade. Cabrera isn't much of a hitter and it seems clear that his once-strong defensive skills have deteriorated as he's aged into his mid-30s. While Cabrera is a competent offensive player who is certainly capable of providing better production than Nick Punto, his playing time is likely to come more at the expense of Brendan Harris, who is a pretty similar hitter. All in all, Cabrera is likely to provide a marginal upgrade at best.

With that being said, I don't mind the move. My opposition to signing Cabrera during the offseason stemmed from the notion that he'd be able to land an expensive multi-year deal (which he didn't). My opposition to trading for him this past week stemmed from the notion that he'd command a valuable return -- after all, there were rumors that the A's were seeking Danny Valencia in return for their shortstop. Ultimately, Cabrera cost the Twins Tyler Ladendorf, a shortstop acquired in the second round of last year's draft. And while Ladendorf is an intriguing prospect whose absence cripples the organization's already thin minor-league middle-infield depth, he's a long ways away from contributing at the major-league level, and has enough flaws that there's a pretty good chance he never will.

Also, while Cabrera might be essentially equal to Harris from both an offensive and defensive standpoint at this juncture, Ron Gardenhire will actually play Cabrera. So he is an upgrade, even if the Twins have an in-house option who could seemingly make the same impact. Cabrera's arrival likely signals the end of the disastrous Punto/Casilla middle-infield combination that had been written into the starting lineup far too often as of late, and also slides Punto over to a position where I feel he is much stronger defensively. So, while I don't feel that Cabrera is a particularly good player at this stage, the domino effect from his acquisition should make the Twins a better club. But, as I said, only marginally so.

And unfortunately, the areas that Cabrera is impacting aren't the ones that were likely to prevent the Twins from being able to make the playoffs. As I suggested in Thursday's post, pitching is the area that has become a cardinal issue for the Twins, and that was made abundantly clear during this weekend's series in which the Twins allowed 35 runs over three games in a trio of blowout losses. At this point, it seems that no one other than Scott Baker can be remotely relied upon for a Quality Start. The bullpen continues to struggle with only three trustworthy late-inning arms, and Smith's inability to add an extra reliever with eighth-inning ability will likely force Gardenhire to once again lean too heavily on Matt Guerrier, with potentially terrible consequences.

I'm fine with Smith's addition of Cabrera, given the low cost and the fairly good chance that the move appeased some unrest within the clubhouse over this front office's lack of action. Yet, Cabrera's addition isn't likely to have a particularly large impact; certainly not as large as the additions made by the Twins' two competitors in this division. For better or for worse, the Twins will probably go forward with the pitching options that they currently have in their organization, and right now that's looking like a pretty glum path to tread.

If Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins can all get back on track to some degree while Jesse Crain emerges as a legitimate consistent late-innings option and at least one other reliever -- either on the current roster or in the minors -- can step in and make some key outs, the Twins might have a chance at taking this division and making a splash in the postseason. Short of all those things occurring, I really don't think they have much of a chance. I'm certainly not the type to declare a season over with two months remaining, but it's tough to be optimistic about the Twins' chances right now. Even with Orlando Cabrera.