Monday, July 26, 2010

Shifting Priorities

A few weeks ago, fans were in desperation for the addition of a starting pitcher to Minnesota's struggling rotation. However, with the two most enticing pieces off the board now that Cliff Lee is in Texas and Dan Haren is in Anaheim, it's starting to appear as though the Twins might be better served holding off on the starting pitcher market as the deadline approaches.

Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey both reminded us of what they're capable of over the weekend. Granted, it was against the lowly Orioles, but both hurlers snapped trends of poor road performance by dominating the Birds and picking up much-needed victories. Despite their poor overall numbers, Baker has a 3.77 xFIP and Slowey is at 4.56. Those figures would be perfectly acceptable for mid- to bottom-of-the-rotation starters, which is what both Baker and Slowey have become while Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano have clearly established themselves as the team's top starters. I see no reason why Baker and Slowey shouldn't be able to match -- or even exceed -- those xFIP numbers during the final two months of the season.

The only pitcher who very clearly needed to be replaced in the Twins' rotation was Nick Blackburn, and that's happened. Given his mediocre track record in the minors and his low strikeout rate, I have no illusions of Brian Duensing taking the world by storm and single-handedly turning around the fortunes of this rotation. However, it can't be ignored that Duensing has accumulated a 2.93 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 132 big-league innings -- including a 2.65 ERA in 10 starts -- and he looked outstanding while pitching five innings of one-run ball against the Orioles on Friday night.

Surely Duensing will hit his bumps and one can hardly expect that quality outings against the league's worst team will set both Baker and Slowey straight. But these three have all demonstrated in the past that they are very capable major-league pitchers and if they all pitch to their level of ability while Pavano and Liriano continue their fine work, the Twins can boast a perfectly competent rotation over the final months capable of carrying the club to October.

Relying on Baker and Slowey to get things ironed out may not strike people as an ideal situation considering how terribly inconsistent they've both been this season, but none of the available trade targets represent a surefire upgrade. Haren and Lee are gone, and I'm guessing that the Twins (perhaps wisely) are unwilling to do what it takes to acquire Roy Oswalt. While it's possible that someone like Ted Lilly or Brett Myers might be a superior option to Slowey or Duensing over the remainder of the season, to me the upgrade is not likely or substantial enough to merit the prospects and financial resources that would be required to make a deal.

Instead of focusing on starting pitching, Bill Smith and the Twins should shift their focus to other areas of growing concern. One is the bullpen. Duensing has been one of the team's best relievers all year long, so his removal from the 'pen creates a hole in the middle innings. The Twins might want to seek a mid-tier relief option (since front-line relievers like Scott Downs will likely prove too costly), although they could just as easily call up Kyle Waldrop since they have two lefties in the bullpen as is. There's also the matter of Jon Rauch, who owns a 7.11 ERA and 2.69 WHIP in seven July appearances, but if anyone is going to be replacing him in the closer spot I'd guess it would be Jesse Crain.

Bullpen issues aside, it's seeming more and more like the Twins might have to look at adding another bat within the next week, something that wouldn't have seemed like a possible consideration a few weeks ago. Justin Morneau remains out of the lineup indefinitely due to a concussion and now Orlando Hudson has joined him on the shelf due to a strained oblique. Given the ambiguous nature of both injuries, it's tough to gauge when either crucial contributor might return, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that both could be lost for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, Joe Mauer is clearly banged up, as he has caught only two of the team's past five games and it's no coincidence that a third catcher was called up to join the roster yesterday.

With a number of key hitters going at less than 100 percent and two others out of the lineup completely, one has to wonder how the offense will hold up. Despite his heralded game-calling ability, Drew Butera severely weakens the Twins lineup every time he starts, and Alexi Casilla will most likely prove to be a liability in the No. 2 spot. Fans groaned when they saw Sunday's makeshift lineup, but we're likely to see more of where that came from in the coming weeks if these nagging injuries persist.

I'm not saying the Twins should go out and get Adam Dunn, but if they deem the injuries to Morneau and/or Hudson to be long-term concerns, they'd be wise to kick the tires on a few available hitters.


Anonymous said...

The rotation could be worse. It wasn't long ago that there was a revolving door and all of a sudden someone you've never heard of before is pitching. Remember the guy with the mullet? Mike Smith or something?

Matt said...

I suppose that when Mauer returns to health enough to play regularly, he bats third while some automatic out middle infielder who "handles the bat" will fill the two hole. Get ready for even more double play balls.
I agree with Nick, we shouldn't be all giddy over Duensing yet, but I'm all for the switch and think he'll do ok in his new role. I wasn't real encouraged by his post-game radio interview, though, where he'd "take it or leave it" in regards to a starting job. I was hoping he'd want it more than that, but we'll see how he competes out there as we head down the stretch.

Ed Bast said...

In my mind Lee and Haren (to a lesser extent) were the only guys that would have made a real difference, i.e. given the Twins a shot not only at the Central but in the playoffs too (perhaps Oswalt but let's face it, he was/is never coming here). Now, I'm not sure there's much out there in terms of a significant upgrade.

Wow, that says something about the quality of available pitching out there.

Ed Bast said...

Oh and Nick, on one of the radio broadcasts last week before Duensing's first start, Gladden was pretty optimistic about a Pavano-Liriano-Duensing playoff rotation. Before he'd even made a start! That's how terrible Baker and Slowey have been: an ex-MLBer who has seen every game is ready to put a 2nd-year player at #3 in the rotation before the kid's even made a start this year. Amazing.

Doc said...

Please Gardy, don't just insert Casilla into the 2 hole. Move Mauer up to 2 and put Delmon at 3!

AK47 said...

Amen Doc!! If they do that, wow, bottom of the lineup is gonna be like facing Triple-A hitters...

Anonymous said...

@ Matt

In regards to being less encouraged by Deunsing's post-game remarks, I think it's important to note that the guy he took the job from is most likely sitting in that same locker room and being overly exuberant about taking someone's job doesn't benefit anyone and could only create dissension within the pitching staff.

He took the political way out in a wave of local media interest that night and it was the right thing to do.

I don't think it has any bearing on whether or not he is looking forward to seizing a job in the starting rotation.

And frankly, (on Deunsing in general) as Nick mentioned he has been outstanding in the pen and even if he proves to be a fair option at the back of the rotation, his absence in relief is going to be missed more than people realize.

Proud said...

@Doc, @AK47: Don't be foolish. Casilla is fast and we need fast guys at the top of the order. Mauer isn't nearly as speedy or agile as Casilla is. Where Mauer may score 7 out of 10 times from second base on a deep single Casilla will score 9 times out of 10. I'd rather count on Mauer to get the RBI than score the run.

Also, Nick, I have to disagree with you about us not needing a starting pitcher. I will admit the offensive showing in the past two games is skewed from playing against weak teams, but the Twins offense, much like every year, has shown they can hit and find ways to win, and that's the last area that needs help.

I will agree that the bullpen could use some help, and maybe an addition there wouldn't be a bad thing. However, the starting pitching is in very rough shape. Pavano and Liriano and hopefully a consistent Baker will carry us into the playoffs, but we need one more guy, and no one else on the staff, Duensing included, will be able to provide the veteran savvy to get us there.

The fact of the matter is, if the Twins front office is serious about the playoffs, we need to play good enough to beat the Yankees. Yes, that is a tall order, but it is true. How many times have we fallen victim to the Yankees in the postseason the last few years? Although we will never possess the advantages they have, we still need to find ways to win against them — and it comes down to containing the Yankees' hitters, plain and simple.

Matt said...

You're right, Anon, he was being political. Still, it would have been nice to be a little fired up or excited... I hope he is deep down.
Buck Shoewalter (sp?) was talking about Zambrano last night and said that managers usually try to fire guys up, and would rather spend energy calming them down; competitive fire is what managers want to see (he did awknowledge that Zambrano needs to tone it down, obviously)... I don't see that fire in the Twins rotation, besides a little from Pavano... They're all really laid back guys (not much fire in position players on this club lately, either). Now enter Duesning, another laid back guy. Hopefully they can turn this around against the better competition coming down the stretch and get fired up, for pete's sake.

Anonymous said...

I have some faith that baker may turn around but slowey is another story. His fastball command is hidious. He missed spots in the baltimore game by 2 feet with his fastball. Guys with great fastballs cant get away with that and slowey's is not great. Apparently he doesn't get along with mauer so you know what that means. I think duensing will be fine.

amed Muhomed