Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Split and a Big Splash

The Twins pulled off an exhilarating win in the first half of yesterday's doubleheader and nearly managed an improbable comeback after falling behind 5-0 in the nightcap, but ended up falling just short in the latter game and now find themselves two games behind the Tigers, just as they were when they began playing yesterday.

That's not all bad. A sweep in yesterday's doubleheader would have been great, but the Twins still did what they needed to do by getting one win on the day. Now the real work lies ahead. They need victories tonight and tomorrow afternoon to pull even with the Tigers before coming home for a final series against the Royals at the Metrodome.

The pitching match-ups work out favorably for the Twins in these next two games. They have arguably their two best starters going in Carl Pavano and Scott Baker, while the Tigers will counter with their two worst starters in Eddie Bonine and Nate Robertson. All things considered, the Twins are in relatively good shape for a team that sits two full games out of first place with only five left to play. If they can even things up against the Tigers by the end of this series, you'd have to like their chances to finish the season in at least a tie for first place, particularly in light of the news that Jake Peavy has had his next start pushed back to Friday, the first game of Chicago's final series with the Tigers.

So now it's up to Pavano and Baker to suppress the Tigers lineup for two games, and for the Twins' hitters to take care of business against a pair of very beatable starters.

Yesterday's games were both closely contested and had the feel of postseason baseball, and the intensity surrounding those contests distracted somewhat from a piece of off-the-field news that is actually quite significant: the Twins on the verge of signing Dominican prospect Miguel Angel Sano. The Twins have been connected with Sano frequently over the past several months but have never publicly been painted as leading candidates to sign him, so the news comes as a shock to many who have followed the situation (and, apparently, by the Pirates, who have long been viewed as the front-runners to end up with him).

Inking Sano is a big deal. A shortstop by trade who will likely transition to third base or the outfield once he joins the pro ranks, he is widely viewed as the top Latin American prospect and boasts massive offensive upside. The Twins reportedly will sign him for a $3.15 million bonus, which ranks as the highest given to any international player this season and the second-highest bonus ever given to a Dominican prospect (behind only Michael Ynoa, who received $4.25 million from the A's last year). It's also the highest signing bonus the Twins have ever handed to any prospect not named Joe Mauer. Given that they haven't historically been big players on the international market, this aggressive move represents a very encouraging trend when combined with the numerous other big-money international signings the Twins have already made this year.

There is risk involved with this move. The main reason many other teams backed off on Sano is because there is some uncertainly about his actual age. He claims to be 16, but his mature physique has caused some to question whether or not that is true, and tests to confirm his age have come back inconclusive. Even if Sano is 16, handing a $3.15 million contract to a kid of that age whose value as a prospect is based so much on projectability can be a perilous venture.

With that being said, the Twins have been on Sano for some time and are always pretty protective with their funds, so one has to believe they've done their homework and are confident in the legitimacy of Sano's age and ability. If he does end up signing, he will instantly become one of the organization's most promising prospects.

The signing of Sano has the Twins' long-term future looking a whole lot brighter. We'll know more about how their short-term future looks after tonight's game. Let's get 'er done, Pavano.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mid-Day Post: Twins Take the First

Well folks, that right there is what it’s all about. In the first half of today’s key doubleheader, the Twins and Tigers battled in an entertaining, riveting, nerve-racking 10-inning baseball game that the Twins ultimately found a way to win 3-2, moving them within a game of first place in the AL Central.

Ron Gardenhire called it “the most important game of the year,” and he treated as such, pulling out all the managerial stops to try and squeak runs across the board and push past a tough Tigers squad. From the sacrifice bunts to the pinch runners to the (failed) suicide squeeze play, Gardenhire was clearly putting all his chips on the table. And while some of his tactical decisions were a bit questionable, ultimately his team came through with a huge victory in the series opener.

That victory was made possible, of course, by an incredibly gutsy outing from starting pitcher Nick Blackburn. Call him gritty, call him lucky, call him what you want… the fact is that Blackburn got it done today. He clearly didn’t have his best stuff early on, as he gave up several hits over a first few innings where he uncharacteristically struggled to consistently throw the ball in the zone, but he found his way out of trouble and eventually settled in, finishing the day with seven innings of one-run ball. Coupled with his brilliant outing in No. 163 last year, this stellar road effort will have Blackburn approaching hero status here in the Twin Cities.

The Twins now have an opportunity to put some serious pressure on the Tigers by winning tonight's game. With a disadvantageous pitching match-up, Joe Mauer likely unable to catch [edit: Mauer apparently IS catching Game 2] and Joe Nathan likely unavailable to pitch, that will be no easy task. But at this point, I can't put anything past this club.

A Big Day

Inclement weather postponed last night's series opener between the Twins and Tigers, so the teams are now scheduled to open this crucial four-game set with a day-night doubleheader today. That should make for some hardcore drama.

If the Twins can find a way to sweep today's twin billing, they will be in great shape heading into the final two games of the series, needing to win only one of the two relatively favorable match-ups to leave Detroit tied for first place. If the Twins drop both these games, they're essentially sunk; they'd need to take both the final two games of the series and then they'd still need a minor miracle during the final weekend of the season to have a shot at capturing the division. If the teams split these two games -- which seems like the most likely outcome -- the Twins will need to buckle down and win on Wednesday and Thursday pull even with Detroit. That's not an absurdly tall task, since -- as I mentioned in yesterday's post -- the Tigers have their two worst starters going in those games.

So basically, the Twins need to make sure they win at least one today, and that means that if they lose the early contest they'll really their backs against the wall with Justin Verlander towing the opposing rubber in the nightcap. This is going to be a monumentally big day for the Twins, and a great opportunity for them to show exactly what they're made of. I'm excited to find out.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Crunch Time

After taking two of three from the Royals this past weekend while the Tigers dropped two of their three games in Chicago, the Twins now sit two games out of first place entering this week's pivotal four-game series against in Detroit.

Now, the real work begins. The Twins are set to venture into enemy territory knowing that each game is essentially a must-win. A series split would leave them facing a two-game deficit entering their final series and essentially needing a miracle in the season's final weekend to have a shot at the division crown. Taking three of four would leave the two teams tied for first place. And of course, a series sweep would put the Twins in the driver's seat, two games ahead of the Tigers and needing simply to take care of business at home against the Royals next weekend.

The Twins have not swept a four-game series all year. In fact, they haven't even won one. Now, they'll be looking to take at least three of four in what is sure to be an intensely raucous environment. That's not good. However, there are a few things that bode well for the Twins as they head into this critical four-game set:

1) The Tigers have Eddie Bonine and Nate Robertson scheduled to pitch on Wednesday and Thursday.
Bonine is somehow managed to take a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the White Sox on Friday night (a game he eventually lost), but he is not a very good pitcher. He holds a 4.98 ERA and 25-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 56 career innings at the major-league level and had a 4.52 ERA in 766 1/3 career minor-league innings. A right-hander with mediocre stuff, the Twins should be able to feast on him. Robertson, meanwhile, has a 5.56 ERA and 1.79 WHIP in 27 big-league appearances this year and has been one of the worst starting pitchers in the majors over the past two seasons. He handled the Twins when he last faced them just over a week ago, but like Bonine he's not a guy that should be trusted in crucial games.

2) The Twins have had success against Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander, the starters in the first two games.
Porcello is having a fine season and is a strong contender for the American League's Rookie of the Year honors, but against the Twins he has allowed 19 hits while posting a 7-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 innings while going 1-2 in three starts. Verlander, meanwhile, is enjoying an excellent year and leads the league in strikeouts, but for whatever reason the Twins have been able to get to him. In three turns against the Twins this year, Verlander is 0-2 with a 5.49 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.

3) The Twins are hot.
Despite yesterday's loss to the best pitcher in baseball, the Twins have been playing exceedingly well lately. They've won 11 of their past 13 games and have scored six or more runs in nine of those games. Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer have been in top form and some of the lineup's lesser players are contributing more than they have all year.

4) The Tigers are not.
They managed a road sweep over the hapless Indians prior to their latest series in Chicago, but still have been struggling overall recently. The Tigers have dropped 11 of their past 18 games and have failed to take care of business against low-quality clubs like the White Sox and Royals. They have seen their division lead drop from a season-high seven games on September 6 to just two games as we enter tonight's series opener. It's possible that the Tigers will amp up and get back on track this week now that the Twins are within striking distance, but momentum is certainly not on Detroit's side.

Both these teams are going to be putting it all on the line over the next four days. This is going to be intense, postseason type baseball. After a long and sometimes seemingly hopeless season-long pursuit, the Twins now have the opportunity to climb into first place in the AL Central for the first time since May 14.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Twins/Royals Series Preview

With the Tigers beating the Indians again last night, the Twins find themselves three games out of first place with 10 games to go. It's not an insurmountable deficit and the Twins will have their shot to make up ground directly when they head to Detroit next week, but first they need to take care of business in Kansas City this weekend.

The good news is that the Royals are not a very good team. The bad news is that they've been playing quite well recently and the Twins have a history of struggling against them late in the year. The worst news is that the Twins will have to finish up this series by facing Zack Greinke, the league's best pitcher and a guy they've been lucky enough to avoid up until this point.

As much as I'd like to say that a series victory here would be palatable, that's really not the case. The Twins need to sweep. They can't afford to lose any ground to the Tigers, and really they can't even afford to just keep pace with them. They need a sweep and they need to hope the Tigers lose one or two in Chicago.

With that in mind, let's break down the Twins' three match-ups at Kaufmann for this weekend:

Game 1: RHP Carl Pavano vs. RHP Robinson Tejeda

After spending much of the year working out of the Royals bullpen, Tejeda has slid into the rotation in September and he's been lights-out. In four starts this month, Tejeda has gone 3-0 with a 0.81 ERA and .117 opponents' batting average, striking out 24 and walking 10 over 22 1/3 innings of work. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and he complements it with a nasty slider, which makes him extremely tough on right-handed hitters. The Twins will have to hope their left-handed batters can carry the load. Patience will be key, as Tejeda has a history of struggling to throw strikes. Pavano has quietly rattled off six straight Quality Starts.

Game 2: RHP Scott Baker vs. LHP Lenny DiNardo

This match-up heavily favors the Twins on paper. Baker has of course been terrific after rebounding from a dreadful start and has a history of dominating the Royals (2.95 ERA in 11 career starts). DiNardo, meanwhile, is coming off an absolute dud against the Red Sox in which he coughed up eight runs on 10 hits and six walks and threw only half of his 116 pitches for strikes. DiNardo is the type of junk-tossing lefty that has given the Twins headaches in the past, but there's no excuse for them not to romp him in a game of this magnitude.

Game 3: LHP Francisco Liriano vs. RHP Zack Greinke

This is the biggie. Finally we'll get our first look at Greinke, who is having an absolute monster season and will be the runaway Cy Young winner if there is any justice in the world. Meanwhile, the Twins will counter with Liriano, who will need to be on top of his game because Greinke doesn't give up multiple runs in a start very often. In fact, he hasn't done so since August 25; over his past five starts he has allowed one run over 35 innings (0.26 ERA). And in his last start prior to that span, he allowed two runs in eight innings and struck out 15 batters. The Twins have had some success against top AL pitchers this year (Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay come to mind) but Greinke is a different beast entirely. The last time Liriano started against the Royals he tossed seven innings of one-run ball, yielding only three hits and a single walk while fanning eight. If he can return to that form, this could be a great duel. If not, it's tough to imagine how the Twins are going to find a way to win this thing.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Another Shot For Liriano?

La Velle E. Neal III suggested on his blog yesterday that Francisco Liriano might get the starting nod on Sunday in the Twins' series finale at Kaufmann Stadium. Liriano's addition to the rotation would bump Jeff Manship, who has failed to last even five innings in any of his past three starts, and whose 6.35 ERA and 1.72 WHIP have proven that he can't be trusted to make key starts during a pennant race.

According to Ron Gardenhire, Joe Mauer said after Liriano's relief outing on Tuesday night that "it was the best the ball has come out of his hand in a long time." That's great, but how many times this season have we heard quotes similar to this regarding Liriano? It seems like there were countless occasions on which Rick Anderson would marvel about how great Liriano's bullpen session between starts was only to have the left-hander hit the mound with a dud outing in his next turn. There's little doubt that Liriano still has the stuff to succeed as a starting pitcher in this league -- he's averaging over 91 mph on his fastball and his slider has been devastating -- but mentally he just hasn't been able to pull it together for any length of time.

Nevertheless, I remain bullish on Liriano and I'd love to see him get the start on Sunday. I wrote back in early August that the Twins would need an effective Liriano in order to reach the playoffs and especially to succeed there. They've managed to close the gap on Detroit since that time without meaningful contributions from Liriano, but I really think getting a couple strong starts from the southpaw here in the waning days of the season could make the difference. If Liriano were to pitch well enough in a couple starts down the stretch here to earn a spot in a potential postseason rotation, he's got the ability to shut down the type of imposing lineup the Twins would surely be facing the ALDS.

Of course, whether or not he can actually put that ability to use remains in question, because even though Mauer claimed Liriano was throwing the ball exceedingly well on Tuesday night, the pitcher's results still didn't live up to his purported performance. Liriano allowed two hits and two walks while striking out only one batter over 2 1/3 innings, and let a key game-tying run come across the plate on a two-out double by Paul Konerko.

The story remains the same as it has all season for Liriano. If he can get it together mentally and take command of his pitches, he can be this team's most dominant starter. But that is one big, fat "if."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Somehow, Still Kicking

As the weeks began to wind down, the 2009 Twins season looked like a lost cause. The Tigers were playing better ball and starting to pull away. Justin Morneau, a crucial force in the middle of the Twins lineup for most of the season, had struggled through a terribly unproductive August before having his season shut down in early September due to a back injury. Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins, a trio of starters that had comprised three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation, had all fallen out of the starting five due to injury problems. They've been replaced by a waiver trade pick-up who held a 5.37 ERA at the time he was acquired and a pair of middling prospects in Brian Duensing and Jeff Manship who had posted only mediocre numbers against Triple-A batters and had no experience starting the major leagues.

Morneau's injury has forced Michael Cuddyer into first base duty, and he has played alongside a Twins infield that has seemingly come to resemble a Triple-A unit. At third base is Matt Tolbert, a light-hitting utility man who was demoted back in July with a 497 OPS. At shortstop is the rapidly aging Orlando Cabrera, a deadline acquisition who -- entering last night's game -- had posted a .281 on-base percentage in the No. 2 spot since coming over to the Twins. At second base is Nick Punto, whose numbers are barely better than the disastrous ones he posted in his historically atrocious 2007 campaign.

Yet, through it all, the Twins have battled their way back into spitting distance of first place in the AL Central. There are plenty of reasons that one can point to for this return to contention that don't necessarily have to do with the Twins playing spectacular baseball. The first-place Tigers have imploded, dropping nine of their past 14 games -- including five of six against the hapless Royals. And the Twins haven't exactly faced a brutally difficult schedule. But this team certainly deserves credit for taking advantage of the poor play of the Tigers and their own weak schedule as they've made a completely unexpected late-season push and come with in just a 2 1/2 games of first place.

Make no mistake about it: the Twins still have a very steep uphill climb. Eight of their final 11 games come on the road -- where they've not played their best ball this year -- and winning that four-game series in Detroit next week is going to be awfully tough. But with over half their remaining games coming against arguably the worst team in the league and with four left against the team sitting in front of them, the Twins truly do have a shot. Given that most people (including myself) were understandably eulogizing the '09 Twins weeks ago, that's pretty awesome.

These final couple weeks should be interesting. Buckle in.

Here are a few other notes and links:

* With only three games remaining in the House That Puck Built, we're starting to see several Metrodome memorials pop up. Chris Jaffe over at The Hardball Times wrote up a list of the greatest games in Metrodome history.

* Minnesota Public Radio is providing fans with the opportunity to share their own favorite Metrodome memories. Here's an email I received yesterday from MPR's Molly Bloom that she asked me to share with my readers:

After 28 years, the Twins are moving on from the Metrodome to greener pastures made of real grass. In commemoration of their last season at the Dome, MPR News is collecting memories of baseball at the Dome to feature on our Morning Edition program. We want to hear your funniest, strangest or simply most memorable moments at the Dome - whether on the field or in the stands. Share your story with us here: Please contact Molly Bloom at mbloom [at] mpr [dot] org with any questions. We look forward to hearing from you!

* Finally, make sure to check out More Hardball's write-up comparing Joe Mauer to the best catchers of all time.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Still In It

I was off the grid this weekend while visiting a friend in San Diego, but returned home (very late) last night to find that the Twins had taken two of three from the Tigers this weekend to move within three games of the AL Central lead. That's obviously a surmountable deficit, but the Twins still have a very challenging path ahead of them as they now hit the road for six games against the White Sox and Royals before traveling to Detroit for what could very well be a decisive four-game series.

I still don't like the Twins chances very much, but they're certainly at the very least we seem headed toward a final few weeks of meaningful baseball, and that's about all I can ask for considering that the Twins looked ready to drop right out of the race just a couple weeks ago.

I'd love to get into greater depth, particularly considering how sparse the posting has been around here as of late, but I'm exhausted after the long weekend. If you're interested, feel free to check out my Daily Dose column at Rotoworld, where I filled in for Aaron Gleeman today.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Win For Bill Smith

Not many people are going out of their way to compliment Bill Smith right now. The Twins are on their way to a second-place finish in what was an eminently winnable division, and that has a lot to do with Smith's inability to get decent value back in the Johan Santana and Matt Garza trades, as well as his inability to find adequate talent to surround the team's outstanding offensive core.

There is one offseason move, however, that Smith deserves credit for, and that's the Joe Crede signing.

Now, I'm not saying Smith deserves credit for simply signing Crede. I don't think that the acquisition was all that elemental to the team's limited success this season. Crede -- who apparently is done for the year -- will have played in just over half the team's games while providing a pitifully low AVG/OBP along with sporadic power. Was Crede better than a platoon of Brendan Harris and Brian Buscher, or whatever other internal options the Twins might have produced? Probably, mostly because of his defense. But I have a hard time viewing him as any sort of great, hugely meaningful acquisition.

What Smith deserves credit for is signing Crede to the right type of contract. By all accounts, Crede's notoriously devious agent Scott Boras was initially seeking at least $7 million guaranteed for his client's services in 2009. Many fans were on board with simply splurging and giving Crede the contract right away, noting that the Twins were under budget and likely wouldn't have ended up spending that extra money anyway. While both those things might have been true, I opposed such a signing because to me, a bad contract is a bad contract and those should never be advocated. Smith seemingly felt the same way, because he waited out Boras for several weeks until the price for the oft-injured third baseman came down. Finally, Boras' attempts to play the Twins against the Giants (neither of whom seemed to be adamantly interested in signing Crede) failed and Smith was able to tab Crede to a one-year deal worth only $2.5 million guaranteed, with playing time incentives that could bring him to his originally desired $7 million total.

Crede was reasonably healthy over the first couple months of the season, but as was almost inevitable he broke down after a few months and will likely end the year having appeared in fewer games than he did last year with the White Sox. While he was able to earn about $1.5 million in incentives on top of his base salary, he'll come about $3 million short of the $7 million sum he was reportedly seeking initially. That $3 million may not seem like much to the casual fan who sees millions of payroll dollars thrown around all over the place, but the Twins are a frugal team -- let's not forget that they were willing to take a huge PR and negative clubhouse hit just to shed a few million dollars by trading Luis Castillo at the 2007 deadline. Had they been locked into Crede for his original demand, would the Twins have been as willing to take on the extra salary of guys like Carl Pavano and Jon Rauch, both of whom could be contributors on next year's club as well?

In the end, it's tough to be overly upset about what Crede gave the 2009 Twins, as long as your expectations were properly scaled. He hit some home runs, he played some good defense, and he'll end up missing a huge chunk of the year. From a fan's perspective, it might not matter much whether he was providing this production for $7 million or $4 million. From the front office's perspective, it could matter quite a bit.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Morneau Out For Season

I had a full post written up (and posted briefly) discussing Justin Morneau's annual late-season slumps, but it was revealed late last night that the first baseman will miss the remainder of the season due to a stress fracture in his back, which might help explain why he was going through the worst late slumps of his entire career this season.

This severely damages any hopes the Twins might have had of mounting a miraculous comeback in the AL Central, but I don't have the time or energy to go real in-depth on the matter right now. Here's hoping Morneau can recover fully and come back strong next season.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Any time a team acquires a new player with a remotely accomplished track record, the move seems to incite the fan base. So, when the Twins were rumored to be after free agent third baseman Joe Crede late in the offseason, I wasn't surprised to see numerous fans brimming with excitement over the possible signing. And when the Twins actually signed Crede, I wasn't surprised to see folks repeatedly pointing to his 2006 season and gushing about how much his powerful right-handed bat could help put the Twins over the top in the Central division. Similarly, the Twins' deadline trade for Orlando Cabrera was widely lauded by fans who noted that he was a two-time Gold Glove winner who has perennially played in October in recent years.

Surely, the media contributes to this sensationalized view of nearly any new player acquisition. Shortly after the Twins added Crede, the Star Tribune published an article proclaiming the signing as "low risk, All-Star reward," which is a little misleading to say the least, and other media outlets have falsely painted Cabrera's addition to the team as a charge that has rejuvenated the shortstop position and No. 2 spot in the lineup.

Of course, Crede's been nowhere close to an All-Star and Cabrera has only added to the team's woes at the second spot in the batting order. Neither of these developments should come as any surprise. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to downplay expectations for both Cabrera and Crede on this blog, and sure enough both have played almost exactly up to my expectations. Cabrera continues to show his age and has been a defensive liability (earning the deserved nickname "Caberror") while hitting just .261/.286/.394 since coming over from the A's. He has been an out machine in front of the league's best hitter. Speaking of out machines, Crede has broken down due to injuries for a third straight year and hasn't been very productive anyway, as his .229/.293/.421 hitting line with 15 home runs and 48 RBI puts him in position to finish the year with numbers almost identical to the unimpressive ones I projected in March (.255/.300/.425, 12 HR, 50 RBI).

The troubling thing is that there a rumblings that the Twins may bring back at least one of these players for next year. A recent Star Tribune column noted that Cabrera "made a quick impression on the Twins after getting traded from Oakland on July 31, leaving some insiders saying the team should hurry and re-sign him to a two-year contract extension." That would be an immensely bad idea. The shortstop market will be thin this offseason, but the Twins need to find a better solution than committing to a 35-year-old Cabrera for even one more season. There had been some sentiment that the Twins might seek to bring back Crede on another one-year deal, but fortunately that seems to have been squashed by his latest ailment.

Interestingly, the acquisition that seemed to have drawn the littlest fanfare -- the signing of Carl Pavano -- has been by far the most beneficial to the club. If there's one impending free agent that the Twins should go out of their way to bring back next year, it's him.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Belly Up

The Twins took an early 3-0 lead last night, but the Blue Jays rallied back with six runs in the sixth inning to win and prevent the Twins from gaining any ground on the Tigers, who fell the Royals in Kansas City. If it hadn't already, the time has come for any realist to stick a fork in these 2009 Minnesota Twins.

I actually give this team some credit. They have played a lot better over the past few weeks than I suspected they would with three-fifths of their expected rotation on the shelf and guys like Brian Duensing and Jeff Manship becoming fixtures on the pitching staff. Yet, despite their improved play, the Twins haven't been able to make the slightest dent in their deficit in the standings. It was August 18 when the Twins began their current successful stretch -- going 13-7 in 20 games -- and on that date they trailed the Tigers by 6 1/2 games, which is exactly the same deficit they face today.

The Twins have played well enough to have eaten into Detroit's lead if the division leaders had faltered, but these Tigers have not faltered -- far from it. I think they made a resounding statement over the weekend by going into Tampa Bay and sweeping a Rays team that had been extremely tough to beat at home all season. In one fell swoop, the Tigers effectively suffocated the postseason hopes for two teams -- the Twins and Rays -- while making a strong case that they deserve to be playing in October, and not only because they play in a laughably bad division.

The Twins remain mathematical contenders for the division title, but with 24 games left, the hill is looking too steep to climb, even with seven head-to-head match-ups with the Tigers remaining. Even if the Twins' postseason window is all but closed, there are still plenty of interesting storylines to follow here in the final weeks of the season. Joe Mauer will continue his quest for a third batting title and an MVP award, Justin Morneau will try to avoid slumping into the finish line for a third straight year, Duensing and Manship and other youngsters will make cases for next year, and the Twins will look to fend off the White Sox for second place while closing out their tenture in the Metrodome.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Light is Dimming

The past couple days have been tough for Twins fans. Just as the team was starting to build steam and make believers out of skeptical fans (such as myself), they watched a seemingly safe ninth-inning lead slip away at the hands of their usually reliable closer on Wednesday afternoon. The Tigers defeated the Indians later that night and then proceeded to complete a sweep over the Tribe on Thursday to widen their lead in the AL Central to a full five games. A 3 1/2 game deficit with 31 games left to play seems a whole lot more surmountable than a 5 game deficit with 29 left to play. The Twins still aren't out of it, but this 1.5-game swing hurts, bad.

The Twins will try to regroup and pick up some ground on the Tigers this weekend. It's a prime opportunity, as the Twins head to Cleveland to take on a downtrodden Indians club coming off a sweep in Detroit while the Tigers head to Tampa Bay for a three-game set against a quality Rays club that doesn't lose much at home. If the Twins can't take advantage of this opportunity and make up a game or two this weekend, they might be toast.

Here are a few notes to take you into the long weekend:

* Justin Morneau has four hits in his past 37 at-bats and is stuck in the middle of one of his all-too-typical late-season swoons. He's hitless in two September games after hitting .220/.319/.390 with only three homers and 13 RBI in 22 August contests.

Last year, Morneau entered the month of August with a .320/.394/.532 hitting line, but hit just .263/.335/.437 over the final two months and went 3-for-26 during the Twins' crucial final two series at home against the White Sox and Royals and the one-game playoff in Chicago.

In 2007, Morneau entered August with a .297/.363/.574 hitting line along with 28 homers and 89 RBI. In the final two months of the season, he hit .222/.305/.335 with three home runs and 22 RBI as the Twins faded from contention.

Now it looks like he's going through yet another late-season slump. This is getting a little ridiculous. I'm tempted to overlook Morneau's tendency to tail off late in the year because of all the great things he's done outside of that window -- much the same reason that I've given Joe Nathan a pass for his recent hiccups -- but the fact of the matter is that the Twins are paying this guy too much money to buckle every year while they're fighting for their playoff lives.

* There's been a fair amount of widespread debate regarding the actual usefulness of Twitter, and I've doubted the social network's utility myself on occasion. But I was swayed a bit by what transpired on Tuesday. I posted an afternoon tweet directing people to an article on reputed sportswriter Jonah Keri's blog, in which Keri made a case for Zack Greinke as AL MVP. In my tweet, I pleaded that Keri change the color layout of his blog. I enjoy Keri's work but rarely visited his blog because reading white text against a black background for any prolonged period of time makes my eyes hurt and gives me a headache. Keri must have noticed my plea, because moments later he posted his own tweet polling his followers on whether or not he should junk the white text/black background design. Apparently the majority of responders sided with me, because yesterday Keri introduced a new site layout with a traditional white background and it is much easier on my eyes. His site design wasn't something that bothered me so much that I'd have gone out of my way to email him and complain, but just a quick tweet appeal got the gears in motion and now allows me to visit his site and read his fine work without reservation. Thanks Jonah, and thanks Twitter!

By the way, make sure you do read his column propping up Greinke's MVP case. I still back Joe Mauer, but there's a pretty decent argument to be made for Greinke. I'd also recommend that folks check out Keri's recounting of a recent near-death experience he had after falling asleep at the wheel. Really helps put things in perspective.

* Last Wednesday, after the Twins defeated the Orioles to extend their winning streak to five and draw within 4 1/2 games of the division-leading Tigers, I wrote up a post entitled "Not So Fast" in which I cautioned against becoming overly excited about the Twins' run of strong play and their resulting climb in the standings. My basic argument was that the Twins didn't have the pitching to continue winning games at a steady pace. Since that point, the Twins have gone 4-2 and allowed an average of 2.67 runs per game. Twins starters -- including Brian Duensing and Jeff Manship, who I singled out as minor-league caliber pitchers -- have pitched well in each of those games and the bullpen has mostly been very solid. Shows what I know.

Yet, the Twins now still sit a half-game further back in the standings than they did that day. That's one of the main reasons I was curbing my enthusiasm* over the Twins' winning streak, and it's why I said "that 4 1/2 game gap in the standings is a lot bigger than it looks." The Twins have seemingly gotten back on track and are playing some good ball right now, but it may have come too late. Five games is a tough deficit to overcome, and while many would counter that point by noting that the Twins do face the Tigers seven more times, I'd note that the Tigers are a pretty decent team that won't be easy to beat, especially the five or six times the Twins will need.

* Speaking of that term, is anyone other than me incredibly excited for the upcoming Seinfeld reunion story arc on the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm? That is going to be some epic television.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


I was going to write up a nice, long, thoughtful post for today, but the conclusion of yesterday's game sapped me of all motivation. What a painful loss. The Twins battled their way to a 2-0 lead with two outs in the ninth inning only to watch Joe Nathan implode, delivering the worst performance in his six-year career as Twins closer at an extremely inopportune time. Throwing away such a brilliant outing from Brian Duensing (7 IP, 0 R, 5 H, 2 BB, 7 K) makes the loss all the more difficult to swallow, because one really has to wonder how many more outings like that the Twins are going to get from him this season.

There's reason to worry about Nathan, who simply hasn't looked like himself in recent outings -- if he is going to be a liability for the final month of the season, the Twins won't have much of a chance. Of course, rebounding from such a heartbreaking loss will be enough of a challenge in and of itself.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Prospect Rundown: August

With August now behind us, it's time for our second-to-last monthly check-in on my preseason Top Ten Prospect group. I'll note that I would have some of these guys rearranged if I were to redo to the list now (Jose Mijares, for instance, has been with the big-league club nearly all year and certainly can't be viewed as a prospect anymore), but the plan was to create this list prior to the start of the season and track these 10 guys throughout the year. At the end of September (or perhaps sometime during the month, since minor-league seasons are on the verge of ending), we'll take a look at each of these guys' seasons as a whole and their outlooks going forward.

For now, a look at how each of our Top Ten fared in August:

10. Steve Tolleson (AAA): .250/.301/.346, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 15 R, 0/2 SB
(Season Totals: .275/.348/.395, 8 HR, 39 RBI, 75 R, 13/20 SB)
Tolleson hit well early on after being promoted to Rochester in late May, but his performance has gradually regressed and August was his worse month yet. The low average and lack of power (just six extra-base hits in 104 at-bats) are palatable, but the fact that Tolleson barely reached base at a .300 clip this month is quite disappointing, since his on-base skills have been one of this greatest strengths. Ultimately, though, his defense will dictate whether he can make a major-league impact.

9. Angel Morales (A): .337/.404/.576, 5 HR, 24 RBI, 17 R, 9/12 SB
(Season Totals: .267/.328/.455, 13 HR, 60 RBI, 60 R, 19/25 SB)
While Tolleson has been watching his offensive performance regress over the past few months, Morales just keeps getting better and better. August was a tremendous month for the power-hitting outfielder, as he posted a season-high 980 OPS. He flashed power by homering five times and plating 24 runs, and also showed aggressiveness on the basepaths by more than doubling his previous monthly high in stolen bases. He continues to strike out at an alarmingly high rate and has now fanned 100 times in 363 at-bats this season, but for a 19-year-old to be posting numbers like this is pretty special. He's almost a lock for a top three spot on this list next year.

8. Shooter Hunt (GCL): Did not play
(Season Totals: 32.2 IP, 0-5, 10.19 ERA, 26/58 K/BB, 2.54 WHIP)
After a dreadful month of July, Hunt was sent home for the season, where he'll try to get his head straight and overcome his horrendous control issues. The kid has great stuff so obviously we're all hoping he can get things figured out.

7. Anthony Slama (AAA): 9 IP, 2 SV, 5.00 ERA, 9/5 K/BB, 1.44 WHIP
(Season Totals: 74.1 IP, 27 SV, 2.78 ERA, 102/37 K/BB, 1.22 WHIP)
After allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out nine to start his month in New Britain, Slama FINALLY received his promotion to Rochester when the Twins moved Jeff Manship up to the major-league club. In his third appearance with the Red Wings, Slama was rocked for five runs on four hits and three walks over 1 2/3 innings, but he's rebounded from that disaster with five straight scoreless outings and has issued just one walk over 5 1/3 innings during that span. Slama might get a look as a September call-up with the Twins, but would need to be added to the 40-man roster so perhaps such a move isn't terribly likely. Either way, I'm just glad to see him finally facing an appropriate level of competition.

6. Kevin Mulvey (AAA): 34.2 IP, 1-2, 2.60 ERA, 16/9 K/BB, 1.18 WHIP
(Season Totals: 149 IP, 5-8, 3.93 ERA, 113 K/54 BB, 1.39 WHIP)
After struggling through July and making an ugly debut stint in the majors, Mulvey bounced back with his best month of the season in August. Unfortunately, in the wake of his strong month he was shipped out of the organization, as yesterday he was announced to the PTBNL in the Jon Rauch trade. Mulvey is now a Diamondback, and the Twins' already thin organizational starting pitching depth takes another hit. Very unfortunate.

5. Danny Valencia (AAA): .283/.307/.396, 1 HR, 13 RBI, 12 R, 0/1 SB
(Season Totals: .289/.344/.467, 13 HR, 67 RBI, 74 R, 0/4 SB)
Valencia's numbers during his second full month in Triple-A were quite similar to those he posted during his first full month there, except with a drop-off in power. Valencia encouragingly cut down on his strikeout rate (just 12 whiffs in 106 at-bats) but continued to reach base at a substandard rate. Like Slama, Valencia is not on the 40-man roster, so a September call-up may be unlikely. Yet, if Joe Crede is going to miss the remainder of the season, calling up Valencia and feeding him regular at-bats at third base in September might be in the team's best interest, particularly if they view him as a serious candidate to take over the position next year.

4. Jose Mijares (MLB): 16 IP, 1.69 ERA, 17/3 K/BB, 0.81 WHIP
(Season Totals: 51.1 IP, 2.10 ERA, 45/20 K/BB, 1.15 WHIP)
August was easily Mijares' best month yet, as he posted a sub-2 ERA for the first time over a meaningful sample size and displayed dramatic improvement with his control, walking only three of the 57 batters he faced over the course of the month.

3. Ben Revere (A+): .284/.339/.294, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 14 R, 11/14 SB
(Season Totals: .306/.366/.364, 2 HR, 46 RBI, 70 R, 44/61 SB)
Many folks ranked Revere as this organization's best or second-best prospect during the last offseason, but I never had any thoughts of doing so. In fact, I was somewhat hesitant about ranking him as high as third, though eventually I just couldn't battle off that temptation considering he led all the minor-leagues in batting average last season. Basically, this month's numbers encapsulate the reservations I had about Revere -- once the batting average dropped, his lack of true patience or any semblance of power would severely limit his offensive contributions. In August, he posted just a 633 OPS while managing only one extra-base hit (a double) in 106 at-bats. Revere remains a skilled baserunner and swiped 11 more bags during the month, but his lack of production with the bat is causing his prospect stock to drop rather quickly.

2. Wilson Ramos (AA): .326/.380/.435, 0 HR, 7 RBI, 5 R, 0/0 SB
(Season Totals: .313/.338/.441, 3 HR, 25 RBI, 27 R, 0/0 SB)
On a happier note, Wilson Ramos is back. When we last checked in, the catching prospect hadn't appeared in a game since June 12 and had recently experienced a setback while rehabbing from injury, so I expressed some concern as to whether he'd be able to return at all this year. Fortunately, he was back in the Rock Cats lineup halfway through August and was able to piece together some solid numbers, hitting for a strong average and striking out only five times against three walks in 46 at-bats.

1. Aaron Hicks (A): .264/.350/.358, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 15 R, 4/7 SB
(Season Totals: .242/.346/.352, 3 HR, 23 RBI, 34 R, 8/16 SB)
Hicks was able to ramp up his batting average in the month of August, though he still wasn't flashing a ton of consistent power. His raw tools aren't translating to big numbers just yet, but a 700 OPS for a 19-year-old in A-ball is pretty respectable.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Mauer For MVP: An Open and Shut Case

Note: A slightly condensed version of this article appears in the Dugout Splinters section of the Twins Official Scorecard being sold outside the Metrodome during the Twins' current series against the White Sox. Please support GameDay by picking up a copy or two if you make it to tonight's or tomorrow's game.


By now, you’ve probably heard many of the arguments propping up Joe Mauer’s MVP worthiness. He leads the AL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He is one of only five players in baseball history to enter the middle of August with a .380 average and 25 home runs. (The other four: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio.) He is a reigning Gold Glove recipient at perhaps the most important defensive position on the diamond - one where the average player has produced a meager .253/.320/.397 hitting line this season. Even without diving into the more advanced, complex statistics available to us (which further cement his case), it seems clear that Mauer is on his way to completing one of the greatest seasons for a catcher in baseball history, and has quite easily been the league’s best player despite missing the first month of the season.

If the remarkable nature of Mauer’s performance doesn’t sway you, then the unremarkable performances of his competitors should. The most oft-cited rival of Mauer in the MVP race is Mark Teixeira, the slugging first baseman of the New York Yankees whose production is in many ways tough to discern from a number of other players that fall into that mold, such as Kevin Youkilis and Justin Morneau. Tex is currently hitting .283 with 32 home runs and 101 RBI. His numbers don’t stand out above Mauer’s, particularly accounting for positional context, and the arguments in Teixeira’s favor are thin. Leadership? Isn’t Derek Jeter the Yankees’ captain? Clutch-ness? Mauer has been a markedly better hitter with runners in scoring position and has done some of his best work during the month of August while the Twins have been trying to claw back into the AL Central race. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by stating that Mauer is not the reason the Twins have been losing ballgames.

Virtually every argument in Teixeira’s favor is based on the rest of his team’s performance, which seems awfully misguided when discussing the game’s greatest individual honor. People often emphasize that the award is called Most Valuable Player and not Most Outstanding Player; I’d retort by asking: why is there a difference? A player provides value to his team by producing offensively, excelling defensively and setting an example for his teammates. In all those areas, Mauer has been the league’s best. MVP, MOP, whatever you want to call it… Barring drastic changes in September, it’s Joe Mauer.