Monday, August 30, 2010

"Keep Your Eye On the Ball"

It's that generic piece of coaching advice that any ballplayer has surely heard barked at them hundreds of times on the field. Yet, as many times as the phrase has been uttered, it remains one of the sport's quintessential doctrines. There's just nothing more frustrating then seeing an infielder bobble away a routine ground ball because his eyes were already busy sizing up the next move.

After taking two of three from the Mariners this weekend while the White Sox dropped the second and third of their three-game set with the Yankees, the Twins now hold a 4 1/2 game lead in the AL Central with 31 games left to play. The White Sox have lost six of their last seven series and have the look of an imploding team, their frustration embodied by a manager who managed to get ejected from a game after taking about three steps out of the dugout yesterday. According to the website, which assesses playoff odds through a complex calculation, the Twins currently have an 87.6 percent chance of making the postseason.

Things look good, especially with a nine-game home stand on tap. But it's important to stay focused on the present. I know I myself have been guilty of looking forward, as I have written recently about the importance of securing home field advantage for an ALDS match-up and about the possible makeup of a Twins playoff rotation. I'm not naive enough to believe that I'm going to jinx the club by acknowledging their strong odds for a division title (and I really, truly hope you're not either), but nothing is guaranteed.

Last year on this date, it was the Twins who were 4 1/2 games out of first place. A week later, they were a full seven games out. Heck, they were three games back with four left to play. But a spectacular September run allowed them to surge past the scuffling Tigers and snatch the division right out of Detroit's grasp.

Some folks are discounting the White Sox entirely because of their recently uninspiring play, but it's never wise to judge a team amidst a slump. The Twins entered the month of September last year with a record only one game over .500. That didn't stop them from winning 21 of their final 32 games. There's no denying that the Sox have hit a rough patch lately, but this is largely the same club that went 36-17 in June and July, rattling off one 11-game winning streak and another nine-gamer (exactly the kind of runs that could put them right back in the AL Central mix). Oh, except now they have Manny Ramirez.

White Sox GM Kenny Williams acquired the veteran slugger from the Dodgers on a waiver claim over the weekend. The move represents a bold statement by the White Sox, who will assume responsibility for the remainder of Ramirez's sizable salary (a little over $4M for just a few dozen games) with the hopes that he can rejuvenate their fledgling lineup. Certainly, Ramirez represents a dramatic improvement at a DH position which has been a year-long liability for Chicago, where Mark Kotsay's name had become a running joke on the South Side.

It's true that Ramirez's numbers have slipped over the past couple years and his output no longer qualifies him as one of the game's truly elite sluggers, but when I size up this move by the Sox I can't help but remember the 2008 season, when a 36-year-old Ramirez rediscovered his motivation after a deadline trade to the Dodgers, posting a 1.232 OPS with 17 homers and 53 RBI in LA's final 53 regular-season games and then propelling the team to the NLCS with a monstrous postseason performance.

Yeah, Manny is now two years older. And his demeanor by the end of his stay in Los Angeles made it clear he just didn't give a damn anymore. (Ramirez came on as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded during a game over the weekend and was ejected for arguing a called first strike.) But what is he capable of these days when he does give a damn?

Ultimately, Ramirez isn't going to single-handedly add several games to Chicago's win total, and the White Sox have an awfully steep hill to climb one way or another. But as, the 2009 Tigers learned, it is folly to count out a pesky second-place team with a month left to play, even if the odds weigh heavily in your favor.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Post-Waiver Wizard Waves Wand Again

During Terry Ryan's lengthy tenure as Twins' GM, I don't recall one significant trade being made after the July 31 non-waiver deadline within a season. That's not to say it never happened, but nothing stands out to me. Ryan was occasionally (but not often) aggressive in late July, but that was generally the extent of this team's involvement in the mid-season trade market.

To say things have changed under Bill Smith would be an understatement. Last year, Smith made a move at the deadline, acquiring Athletics shortstop Orlando Cabrera, but that was hardly his best trade of the season. In August, he was able to acquire Carl Pavano from the Indians and later Jon Rauch from the Diamondbacks. Both helped the Twins to a late postseason berth and both have stuck around to play valuable roles this year as the Twins have built up a 3.5 game lead in the AL Central nearing September.

This year, Smith once again made a move near the deadline, acquiring Nationals closer Matt Capps to replace a stumbling Jon Rauch, and yesterday he once again managed to out-do that non-waiver deal with an August trade that could prove more meaningful. Smith sent a player to be named later to the Angels for their own closer, Brian Fuentes.

Fuentes won't close in Minnesota, where the Twins have made a significant investment in Capps by trading one of their top prospects for him. Instead, Fuentes will take over as the team's top left-handed specialist and will serve alongside Jesse Crain to set up Capps in the ninth.

The Twins underwhelmed me and many others last week when they responded to losing both Jose Mijares and Ron Mahay in a short span of time by adding mediocre left-hander Randy Flores to the bullpen. It's not that Flores is a terrible reliever, but adding a player like him doesn't seem like the move of a team aggressively pursuing a championship. Conversely, adding Fuentes seems exactly like that type of move. Fuentes, in his prime, was one of the league's best relievers, registering a 3.04 ERA and 1.16 WHIP -- along with a 302-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- in 263 2/3 innings while racking up 111 saves as Colorado's closer between the 2005 and 2008 seasons.

That track record led the Angels to sign him prior to the 2009 season as a replacement for Francisco Rodriguez, who had priced himself out of the team's desired range by setting a single-season MLB saves record in 2008. The move proved sound and helped remind us of how the closer role can be overrated; Fuentes' numbers were thoroughly unimpressive (3.93 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 3.9 BB/9IP, career-low 7.5 K/9IP) and yet he still managed to make the All-Star team and notch a league-leading 48 saves.

Fuentes, now 35, isn't quite the elite reliever he was during those prime years with the Rockies and he's now miscast as a closer. As a set-up man specializing in shutting down left-handed hitters, though, you can't do a whole lot better. He's been almost untouchable against lefties this season, holding them to a minuscule .377 OPS, and over the course of his career he's held port-siders to a .213 average. He's also good enough against righties that he can be used as a straight eighth-inning guy, which differentiates him from the likes of Mahay and (to a lesser extent) Mijares, who tended to struggle when exposed to right-handed hitters.

Crain and Fuentes figure to be one of the league's best set-up combos in front of Capps, reminiscent to the shut-down duo of Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier in 2007 and other dominating back-end relief combos from earlier in the decade. While both relievers struggled a bit in the early months of the season, they've both been insanely hot since turning the corner around the summer's mid-point; since June 20, Crain owns a 0.34 ERA and is holding opponents to a .141 average, while Fuentes owns a 1.41 ERA and is holding opponents to a .159 average.

If those two can continue to pitch the way they have over the past two months, the Twins will have the luxury of pushing Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch (and, eventually, Jose Mijares) into middle-inning roles. While that trio has struggled in recent weeks, they're hardly bad -- in fact, early in the season, they were the team's top three high-leverage options. If they can return to form, this bullpen will sport some impressive depth as the Twins move forward down the stretch and (hopefully) into the postseason. If not, well, fortunately Ron Gardenhire will no longer have to rely on them to get key outs late in games.

I think the acquisition of Fuentes clearly upgrades the Twins bullpen and helps strengthen them for the stretch run. Ultimately, whether or not this is a good deal for the Twins will hinge on which prospect they end up losing. Considering that general managers tend to overvalue the save statistic and Fuentes led the league in saves last season, the possibility certainly exists that the Twins could part with something valuable. However, it's already late August and the Angels had little use for Fuentes, who was earning $9 million this season. This has the look of a salary dump and while I suspect that the PTBNL might be a better player than many currently expect, I don't think it's going to be a hugely loss in the long run.

Fuentes has a vesting option for 2011 in his contract that activates if he finishes 55 games this year, but he currently sits at 33 so that's not going to happen. At season's end, he will become a free agent, along with Rauch, Guerrier, Crain and Mahay. The Twins will have some decisions to make at that point with Joe Nathan returning from Tommy John surgery, but for now they'll have the luxury of relying on a deep and strong bullpen for the remainder of the 2010 campaign.

Beyond the impact of the actual deal, I love the message that Smith and the Twins front office are setting by bringing in an established, proven player like Fuentes for the stretch run. This team is in it to win it, and they're not going to let a destabilizing bullpen stand in their way.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Familiar Story

When Stephen Strasburg came up earlier this season, he took the league by storm. Whereas many young hurlers go through a sometimes lengthy adjustment period against the world's best hitters, Strasburg was immediately transcendent. He amazingly struck out 14 batters without issuing a walk in his major-league debut. As he moved forward, he continued to dominate opposing lineups, racking up strikeouts while turning in quality start after quality start. His stuff was amazing, allowing him to somehow make veteran star players look totally overmatched. The spectacle seemed like nothing I'd ever seen before.

Only, I had seen it before. In 2006, Francisco Liriano joined the Twins rotation with a similar air of dominance. In his first 12 starts, he went 10-2 with a 1.58 ERA and 83-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 79 2/3 innings. He wasn't quite the strikeout machine that Strasburg has been, but with his extreme ground ball tendencies, he was even more dominant than the Nationals phenom. If you don't believe me, compare the numbers.

Of course, Liriano's amazing rookie performance didn't carry the same level of hype as Strasburg, and for some good reasons. Liriano wasn't a No. 1 overall pick who'd rocketed through the minors in just a couple of months. He hadn't been widely labeled as the game's next great pitcher before he even threw a major-league pitch. Indeed, by the time Liriano joined Minnesota's rotation, he had already acclimated himself to the majors as a member of the Twins' bullpen, and had already accumulated nearly 500 innings in the minors whereas Strasburg was a 21-year-old with only 58 innings or professional experience.

Nevertheless, the devastation that struck Minnesota when it was learned late in that dazzling rookie campaign that Liriano had a torn ligament in his throwing arm and would require Tommy John surgery was eerily similar to the shock currently shaking the nation in the wake of Strasburg's own diagnosis this morning. Just like Liriano, Strasburg's torn ligament was discovered just over three months after he stepped into his team's rotation and began dominating. Just like the Twins, the Nationals will be forced to wait at least a year until their budding ace can return to action.

The blow is a little less severe for the Nationals from a competitive standpoint, as they're not tied up in a fierce postseason race like the Twins were and probably didn't have much of a shot at making the playoffs next year either. The blow to Washington's bottom line and fan base morale, however, is far more severe. Strasburg represented a shining beacon of hope for a franchise that has experienced little success in its six-year existence.

As a person who's been through this before, I wish I could offer words of comfort to those Nationals fans who are surely reeling from today's news. Unfortunately, I can't. The wait for Liriano to return to form was lengthy and frustrating. He first attempted to rejoin to the Twins at the outset of the 2008 season but struggled early on and spent several months in the minors while trying to regain his command. He ultimately returned to the Twins and pitched very well down the stretch, but wasn't the dominating force he was pre-surgery.

The 2009 season was a disaster. Liriano's control problems came to a forefront and he continually battle issues both physical and mental before finishing with a 5.80 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. It wasn't until this 2010 season -- a full three years removed from his surgery -- that Liriano has finally started to pitch like the elite starter he was prior to injuring his elbow. He showed that again last night in thoroughly outperforming one of the game's premier pitchers while helping the Twins pick up a big road victory.

That Liriano has finally returned to the front-line ace tier can be viewed as an encouraging sign for Nats fans; that it took as long as it did has to be harrowing. On the bright side, many starting pitchers have been able to make a full recovery from Tommy John surgery in a much shorter time span. Hopefully Strasburg can follow that path.

However, when I look at the stories of Strasburg and Liriano, I see a lot of similarities. For the sake of Nationals fans and baseball as a whole, let's hope the next chapter for Strasburg doesn't follow suit.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lee and Liriano

As you might have heard, advanced statistics view Francisco Liriano quite highly this year. His combination of a high strikeout rate, high grounder rate and relatively strong walk rate have made him a sabermatrician's dream, as he ranks first in the majors with a 2.33 FIP and second only to Roy Halladay with a 3.00 xFIP (the latter metric penalizes Liriano slightly for what it views as an unsustainably low home run rate).

Of course, Liriano's actual results haven't been quite as strong as those figures would have us believe. He leads Twins starters with a 3.45 ERA but hasn't been quite the innings eater that, say, Carl Pavano has been. (Liriano has completed eight innings in a start only three times this year, while Pavs has done it nine times.)

The ability to regularly pitch deep into games is an extremely valuable skill. It is one that often eludes pitchers like Liriano, who throws very hard and often uses a high number of pitches in an effort to rack up strikeouts. Liriano is great, but he's not necessarily all that efficient, a flaw that is reflected in his less-than-stellar innings total and his unspectacular 1.28 WHIP.

That's what's so thoroughly impressive about the man who will toe the rubber opposite Liriano this evening. Cliff Lee also rates highly in most sabermetric categories, with a 2.55 FIP that ranks third in baseball and a 3.28 xFIP that ranks sixth. But he's also averaging well over an extra inning per start in comparison to Liriano. Lee has hurled seven complete games and averaged nearly eight innings per turn this season.

How does he do it? Durability is certainly a factor; Lee's arm doesn't wear down to the same degree as Liriano and he's routinely been pushed well past the 100-pitch mark this season. The key to Lee's approach, however, is his efficiency, rooted in the fact that he doesn't walk anybody. And I almost mean that literally. He's issued only 11 walks in 174 2/3 innings this year, and in that same span he's struck out 151 batters. That's good for a 13.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio that almost defies belief. The previous single-season record in the K/BB category is 11.0, set by Bret Saberhagen in 1994. Jim Whitney finished at 10.0 in 1884, an no other starting pitcher in major-league history has even managed a double-digit rate. What Lee's doing this year is historically amazing.

Liriano is special too, in his own way. He's one of baseball's best strikeout artists has amazingly allowed only thee home runs in 24 starts this year thanks to his ability to consistently keep the ball on the ground. His stuff is dazzling, but he's been susceptible to lapses in command, especially over the past couple weeks while he's been dealing with a bout of dead arm. Heck, in his last three starts, Liriano has issued more walks than Lee has all season, and as a result Liriano has looked a lot more like the trainwreck who struggled through the '09 campaign than a front-line ace on the same level as Lee.

Hopefully the additional rest Liriano was provided prior to tonight's start helps him pitch more like the guy who has dominated opposing lineups for much of the season. If so, we could be in for a treat as two of baseball's very best southpaws square off.

If not, the Twins will be in for some trouble tonight, and perhaps for the rest of the season.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bottom Flores

When Jose Mijares went down a couple weeks ago with a bit of a freak injury -- he tore the meniscus in his knee while stepping on first base to record an out -- the Twins were placed in a bit of a bind. It left them with only one left-handed option in the bullpen, in the person of 39-year-old journeyman Ron Mahay.

When Mahay suffered his own freak injury over the weekend, a season-ending rotator cuff tear sustained while the veteran stumbled off the mound to field a ground ball, the Twins were placed in an even more precarious position. The only remaining lefty in the bullpen was Glen Perkins, who -- as I mentioned a couple weeks ago -- isn't a remotely appealing option against left-handed hitters.

So it figured that Bill Smith would be busy scavenging the waiver wire for a stop gap option to suppress tough lefties as the Twins wait for Mijares' return from the disabled list, which should come in mid-September. Unfortunately, at this stage of the season, the cupboard tends to be a bit bare, so all the Twins could come up with was Randy Flores, a 35-year-old left-hander who had been pitching out of the Rockies bullpen up to this point.

One might take a quick glance at Flores' 2.96 ERA or notice that he's held lefty hitters to a .220 batting average this year and see this as a quality addition to the bullpen. That optimism is likely to fade when one takes a closer look and sees that his average versus lefties is being held down by an unsustainably low .216 BABIP, that lefties are slugging .460 against him despite the low average, that he holds an ugly 18-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 1/3 innings, and that in the past four seasons he has accumulated a 4.96 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP.

Flores isn't very good, and his strong results this year are pretty clearly the result of good fortune. Lately, it seems his luck has been catching up with him, as opponents have run up a 1.068 OPS against him in six August appearances.

With that being said, the Twins weren't going to move forward without a left-handed option in the bullpen and Flores is clearly a better fit than Perkins. While it's hard to envision Flores as a particularly effective top lefty specialist, he'll only be serving as an interim fill-in until Mijares (hopefully) returns for the final stretch run and postseason.

In the meantime, the Twins will make do with Flores in most LOOGY situations, though Ron Gardenhire would be wise to turn to someone like Jesse Crain in extremely high leverage situations, regardless of what side the batter is swinging from.

No Place Like Home

With the Twins nursing a 3.5 game lead in the AL Central and with the White Sox looking ahead at a more imposing final stretch (10 of Chicago's 37 remaining games come against the Yankees and Red Sox), some Twins fans are cautiously beginning to shift their attention toward potential postseason match-ups.

It's a question that has been posed to me often: Who would you rather face in the first round of the playoffs, the Yankees or Rays? Since those two teams have pulled away in the AL East and there's very little chance that the wild card will be coming from any other division, it's almost inevitable that the Twins would face one of those two clubs in the first round should they secure a postseason berth.

Determining which team the Twins would face is simple. If they maintain their slim lead over the Rangers in the win/loss column, the Twins would face whichever team finishes second in the East and enters the postseason as wild card. If the Twins finish with a worse record than the Rangers but still edge the White Sox and win the AL Central, they'd face the AL East champs in the Division Series.

Determining which team the Twins would want to face is a little more complicated.

Most fans would opt for a match-up against the Rays without a second thought. The Twins have played Tampa Bay very competitively this year, both at home and on the road, and let's face it: the Rays just don't have that same intimidating aura surrounding them as the Yankees. Given the Twins' hideous track record against New York over the past decade, it's almost impossible to believe there's not some sort of mental block at work.

But it's no coincidence that the Rays are tied with the Yankees atop baseball's best division; they are a really good team that would pose several match-up problems for the Twins. For one thing, the Rays possess an outstanding rotation led by an ace southpaw who wreaks havoc on left-handed hitters. They also lead the league in stolen bases, which could make them a nightmare for a Twins team whose likely Game One starter is abysmal at controlling the running game.

All things being even, yeah, I'd probably rather see the Twins face the Rays than the Yankees in the first round. New York's powerful lineup and the prospect of trying to win a game in Yankee Stadium are daunting enough. But all things are not even. Because, while both the Yankees and Rays are near-locks to make the playoffs, it's completely unclear at this point which team will do so as division champ and which will do so as the wild card. That's an important distinction, because the latter will have to go on the road for the first two games of the ALDS.

If they finish the year with a better record than the AL West champs, the Twins will hold home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Without question, that's more important than which team they match up against. Despite switching ballparks, the Twins have been as reliant as ever on their home field advantage this season, posting a tremendous 40-22 record at Target Field as opposed to a pedestrian 32-32 mark on the road. Throughout the history of the franchise, the Twins have traditionally leaned on winning in their home park to advance through the postseason, and while they no longer play in the quirky Metrodome, they would hold a distinct October advantage over opposing clubs (especially a warm weather/dome team like Texas/Tampa Bay) who aren't accustomed to the chilly outdoor conditions that the Twins will be able to acclimate to in September.

I learned first-hand last year in Game 163 how a team can feed off the emotions of a packed house in a pivotal ballgame. Target Field in September won't be the deafening, raucuous spectacle that the Metrodome was, but opposing teams will be none too comfortable trying to compete in that small space packed to the brim with, for my money, the best fans in baseball.

Of course, gaining that home field edge is completely dependent on the Twins finishing with a better record than the Rangers. So as long as the White Sox don't make a September surge, it could turn out that these last two games in Texas, along with the three-game set between the Twins and Rangers next weekend in Minnesota, may prove to be the most important ones on the remaining schedule.

Whether it's against the Yankees or Rays, the Twins will be in much better position in the playoffs if they force their opponent to beat them in Target Field.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Plea to Nick Blackburn

The Twins gave Nick Blackburn every chance to battle through his struggles this year. They were patient with their contact-happy right-hander, freshly signed to a four-year contract extension; patient to a fault, in my opinion. But when Blackburn turned in another dud on July 18, allowing five runs on nine hits over just five innings in a key game against the White Sox (in which Brian Duensing's lengthy and outstanding relief appearance aided a Twins victory), Ron Gardenhire and the Twins coaching staff could no longer find a way to justify his continued presence in the rotation.

They did what had to be done. They demoted Blackburn and his 6.53 ERA to the bullpen. After one shaky relief appearance, Blackburn was sent to the minors. He hadn't been there since late in the 2007 season.

Back in Triple-A Rochester, Blackburn seemed to quickly regain his confidence against inferior hitters. In his first three starts with the Red Wings, he allowed only two runs on 11 hits over 16 1/3 innings while ratcheting up his ground ball rate. Despite the fact that Blackburn looked significantly worse in his fourth start with Rochester (5.1 IP, 8 H, 4 ER), he got the call back to the big-league club, as Kevin Slowey's aching elbow had opened a vacancy in the rotation. Francisco Liriano's bout with a tired arm necessitated that Blackburn start Monday night's game, on his first day back with the team.

Despite Blackburn's 2.49 ERA and 65 percent GB rate during his minor-league stint, I was skeptical as to how he'd perform on a hot Texas night against a playoff-caliber offense. But you know what? He pitched damn well. In seven innings, Blackburn allowed only three runs, and for once I can say his results don't accurately reflect how effective he was. A couple infield singles led to damage in the first, and a muffed routine double play by J.J. Hardy allowed a run to cross in the fifth. All in all, Blackburn didn't allow much hard contact and looked a lot more like his 2008/09 self.

Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that this one start signifies a 180-degree turnaround for Blackburn. I've watched him get mashed up by opposing offenses too many times this year to be so easily convinced. What I offer is a plea to Blackburn: please, keep it going.

We know you're capable of it. We remember your final five games last season, when you bounced back from a brutal eight-week slump to lead the Twins to four pivotal victories down the stretch in the regular season (posting a 1.65 ERA) and then nearly helped pilot them to a victory at Yankee Stadium with a gritty ALDS performance. Heck, even more recently, we remember how you bounced back from an awful April this season to win all five of your May starts, posting a 2.65 ERA.

Now would be a great time for you to put together one of your little signature runs. Because the Twins are trying to build separation in the division standings and Slowey's status is uncertain. This time, there's no Brian Duensing to be called upon if you should fail; Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship are simply not appealing fallback options.

You are a pitcher who has had many ups and downs in your young career. This season has mostly been a valley, but you can erase a lot of ill will by stepping up now, in the rotation's time of need.

It's not like you haven't done it before.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Test in Texas

The Twins' impressive late-summer run, which has seen them go 26-10 since the All-Star break, has largely been keyed by strong starting pitching. After posting a 4.60 ERA and surrendering 68 homers in 88 games prior to the Midsummer Classic, Twins starters have been good for a 3.38 ERA with only 14 homers allowed in 36 games since the season's unofficial midpoint.

That improvement can be a bit misleading, since the Twins have played 19 of those 36 games against the Orioles, Royals, Indians and Athletics -- the four lowest-scoring offenses in the American League. Other games have come against a sub-.500 Angels squad and a White Sox team that was in the thick of the division race up until recently but is spiraling and dropped two of three to the Royals over the weekend.

Indeed, it appears that the only playoff-caliber team the Twins have faced during their impressive post-All-Star stretch has been the Rays, in a series where the Twins' pitching staff had its share of both highs and lows.

Tonight, the Twins will finally get another legitimate test as they head into Arlington to face the AL West leading Rangers. This series poses a number of challenges that should tell us a lot about how both clubs might potentially fare in an October series.

The Twins will have their pitching depth tested right away tonight, as they send Nick Blackburn to the hill to take on the American League's fourth highest scoring offense. Blackburn was, of course, an utter disaster over the first half of the season with the Twins, but he did post a 2.49 ERA and 65 percent grounder rate during his four-start stint in the minors. How will those numbers translate to the bigs, where Blackburn will be taking on a division-leading club led by MVP front-runner Josh Hamilton?

While Blackburn's results will be interesting and meaningful, especially if Kevin Slowey's elbow injury turns out to be a long-term concern, the remainder of the series will provide a better glimpse into a potential postseason match-up, as the Twins will send out Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano on Tuesday and Thursday. Brian Duensing, who starts between the two on Wednesday, is looking increasingly likely to grab a spot in a playoff rotation as well based on recent performance.

Given that both struggled in their last turns on the hill, I'll be interested to see how Pavano and Liriano rebound. The spotlight will shine brightly on Liriano, who was originally scheduled to start tonight but had his turn pushed back due to a bout with dead arm. He must show improved command to restore confidence that has begun to wane with three straight erratic outings. He's got his work cut out for him, as he's scheduled to face Cliff Lee on Thursday.

Of particular interest, for me, will be seeing how the Twins' top two starters handle Texas runners on the base paths. Pavano's complete inability to stop opposing base runners from swiping bags has been perhaps his greatest downfall in what has otherwise been a stellar campaign. Opponents are 28-for-34 on stolen bases against Pavano in 25 starts. Liriano hasn't been quite as bad, as he's only allowed 10 steals on 13 chances, but he did allow Juan Pierre to steal second without a throw twice in his last start.

The Rangers rank fifth in the AL in stolen bases. The Rays rank first. If they want to win in October, the Twins must prove that they can control the running game. So far, they've not been able to do that very well even with their best pitchers on the mound and their Gold Glove catcher behind the plate.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Delmon Young, MVP? Not Even Close

Ken Rosenthal is one of the most respected baseball writers in the country, and rightfully so. His work for is typically outstanding, and when it comes to mainstream baseball writers there are few that I respect more.

His latest column on Twins outfield Delmon Young misses the mark though, in my opinion.

That's because Rosenthal prefaces an otherwise fine (if formulaic) article about Young's development with this assertion: "This season he is arguably the Twins’ most valuable player — yes, even over catcher Joe Mauer — and a top MVP candidate in the American League."

Rosenthal's assessment of Young as an MVP candidate is clearly based mostly -- if not entirely -- upon the outfielder's RBI total. Yes, Young leads the Twins with 86 runs driven in. And yes, that production has been critical in a season where the Twins have seen their usual run-producing machine (Justin Morneau) sit on the shelf for six weeks and counting.

But Young's overall performance has been far from elite. He ranks fourth on his own team in OPS, with an .866 mark that is very good but hardly spectacular for a corner outfielder. His continued inability to draw walks has limited him to a relatively modest .349 on-base percentage despite his outstanding .317 batting average. His 15 home runs, while a career high, hardly paint him as a top-of-the-line power hitter.

His RBI total, buoyed by a clearly unsustainable .378 batting average with runners in scoring position, has allowed him to stand out on a club that has often had trouble coming up with big hits in key situations. But in the grand scheme of things, Young still only ranks sixth in the AL in RBI, and that's with his blistering production in July that has predictably teetered off already. Young has driven in only five runs in 16 August games after plating 30 in August, and yet somehow the Twins have managed to keep winning.

I don't mean to belittle Young's offensive progress. Despite his lack of meaningful strides in terms of plate discipline, Young has clearly developed into a more powerful force at the plate. He's not necessarily choosing better pitches to swing at, but he's been able to make better contact with pitches out of the zone, and that's a legitimate skill.

The biggest flaw in Young's game, however, is one that Rosenthal completely overlooks: his defense. Young is a disaster in left field, which has been costly this season as several of the team's fly ball pitchers have struggled. It is because of Young's ineptitude in the field (along with the fact that he plays a non-valuable position to begin with) that he ranks 37th in the American League in's Wins Above Replacement metric, which accounts for defense.

I'm not a person who believes that WAR is the be-all, end-all statistic by which to judge a player's value (Denard Span, for instance, ranks ahead of Young by this metric, which is silly), but that's stark. The damage Young does on defense cuts into his offensive value, which on its own would not put him in the MVP conversation.

Young has emerged this season as the competent right-handed bat the Twins have been looking for. He has certainly provided a lot of value to this club and should continue to do so down the stretch. There are several players on the Twins' roster, however, who have been more vital to the team's success, and there are easily more than a dozen players in the American League who have been more valuable.

Had Young's July hot streak carried forth all the way to the end of the season, there may have been some reasonable argument to be made for him being a "top MVP candidate" based on his offensive merits alone. As it stands, the inevitable cold spell seems to have fallen upon Young and his defensive warts have been as apparent as ever. He's still only 24 and can keep on improving, but at this point he's just a good player on a good team that belongs nowhere near the MVP conversation.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Crain Game

“What have you done for me lately?”

It’s the mantra of sports fans everywhere, and especially baseball fans. It’s the reason that Twins followers have almost completely forgotten about the earlier struggles of Joe Mauer, who’s hitting at a blistering .442 clip since the All-Star break. It’s the reason that Scott Baker was the most popular odd man out yesterday when I asked readers which of the club’s bottom three starters they would exclude in a playoff rotation. (I can almost guarantee the results would have been different had I posted the article after Baker twirled eight shutout innings against the Rays just two weeks ago.)

It’s also the reason that Jesse Crain has become the relief arm du jour of Twins Territory. Crain has been flat-out spectacular since the beginning of June, having allowed only three earned runs and 17 hits over 30 1/3 innings, good for a 0.89 ERA and .167 BAA.

It’s a great turnaround story, because prior to his resurgence, Twins fans were widely at wit’s end with the right-handed reliever. On May 20, at which point Crain’s fly ball tendencies helped lead him to 7.31 ERA, Aaron Gleeman looked at the reliever’s overall body of work and declared that he “just isn't very good.” Phil Mackey last night penned his apology to Crain for a column he wrote (but didn’t publish) just two days after Gleeman’s article in which Mackey concluded that the struggling Crain might need a fresh start elsewhere. That same week, I’d posted my own Crain rant.

I like to think that Gleeman, Mackey and I are three of the least reactionary Twins writers on the web, but no one could be blamed for being fed up with Crain’s poor early results. I had liked the team’s decision to bring him back at $2M this season, figuring that perhaps his late-season success from ’09 would carry forward into 2010 and even predicting before the season that he’d ultimately steal the closer role from Jon Rauch and wind up as the team leader in saves. But, outside of the occasional strikeout, there was nothing pretty about Crain’s performance over the first couple months of this season.

Just about everything about Crain’s performance has been pretty since then. He’s been nearly unhittable and has only been getting better recently, with just four hits and one run allowed in his past four innings of work. He’s shored up his command and he’s striking out batters with regularity.

Any number of factors might be contributing to Crain’s turnaround. He credits Rauch with helping him refine his approach on the mound and he seems to have developed his slider into a lethal and unpredictable pitch. Furthermore, he’s likely gained increasing confidence as his run has gone on, which would help explain why his performance keeps getting better and better. In addition, a .230 batting average on balls in play since the start of June (as opposed to a .294 mark prior) would suggest that some plain old good fortune has played into Crain’s run. Most likely, it’s a combination of all those things, and more.

Whatever the reason behind it, Crain’s run has been hugely impressive and vital for a bullpen which has experienced its fair share of turmoil recently. If not for the acquisition of Matt Capps (another guy whose recent struggles are causing fans to forget about a long track record of success), my prediction that Crain would finish the season as closer might have actually come true.

For the time being, he’ll have to settle for being the team’s top set-up man and most reliable option in high-leverage situations. He’s come a long way since that week in May when even his staunch defenders were wondering whether a designation for assignment might be beneficial for both him and the team.

Early in the 2009 season, few would have guessed that Crain would be one of the team’s most trustworthy relievers by the time the playoffs rolled around, but sure enough, he was. This season is shaping up the same way. In a game where fans tend to judge a player by his latest appearance, there’s something to be said for Crain’s ability to finish strong.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

If the Playoffs Started Today...

With their victory last night, the Twins moved four games ahead of the White Sox in the AL Central. With their two best starters taking the mound in the final two games of the series, the Twins stand a good chance of holding a four- or six-game lead by the time the Sox leave town. With only 41 games remaining on the schedule (and with nearly a quarter of Chicago's remaining games coming against the Yankees and Red Sox), the Twins would have to be feeling pretty good about their chances.

Sure, the postseason is still a long ways away and we're getting ahead of ourselves by presuming that the Twins will be there. But, considering the resurgence of the bottom half the rotation, it is interesting to start thinking about which pitchers might get a chance to start in October.
While Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano are clearly in line to be your starters in the first two games of a postseason series (provided things don't come down to the wire in the AL Central again, deriving Ron Gardenhire of the ability to properly set up his rotation), it's not clear who might get the ball in Game 3 and a potential Game 4.

Traditionally, teams will go to a three- or four-man rotation in the playoffs. It's tough to predict which of those routes Gardenhire would choose, since he has done both in the past, but I suspect that if things are going as well as they are right now he'll use four starters. So today's question is this: If the ALDS were to start today, which two starters among the Twins' bottom three would you call upon to start in Games 3 and 4?

Early this summer, when Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn were all sputtering along, the question would have presented a "pick your poison" type of dilemma. However, now that Slowey and Baker have stepped their games up (last night's poor showing by Baker notwithstanding) while Brian Duensing has done an outstanding job replacing Blackburn, it's somewhat difficult to choose a guy to exclude.

I'll present a few strengths and weaknesses for each option and let you reach your own conclusions.

Kevin Slowey
Season Stats: 134.1 IP, 11-5, 4.22 ERA, 98/25 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP

Why He Should Start:
Slowey is currently the hottest pitcher in the Twins' rotation. He notably hurled seven no-hit innings against the Athletics on Sunday, and is 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA and only one homer allowed over his past five starts. After displaying uncharacteristically shaky command early in the season, Slowey had issued one or zero walks in each of his past 16 starts prior to Sunday.

Why He Shouldn't Start:
Slowey's recent success is a little misleading since it has mostly come against lousy offenses. His four quality starts during the aforementioned five-game span have come against Oakland, Seattle, Baltimore and Cleveland, which happen to be the four lowest scoring offenses in the American League. One has to wonder how his stuff would play against a playoff-caliber lineup in October, especially considering that he has no real big-game experience. He also has rarely pitched past the sixth inning this season and has recently battled some elbow soreness.

Scott Baker
Season Stats: 144.2 IP, 10-9, 4.85 ERA, 121/31 K/BB, 1.32 4WHIP

Why He Should Start:
On the surface, Baker looks like the obvious odd man out. His overall numbers don't compare favorably with either of his competitors in this race, and surely most fans have a sour taste in their mouth after he failed to protect a four-run lead against the White Sox last night. But let's look more closely. If the playoffs started today, the other three entrants from the American League would be Texas, New York and Tampa Bay. It seems fairly likely that those three outstanding teams will hold their ground until October. In five starts against those three opponents, Baker owns a 2.53 ERA and has posted a 31-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings. That's pretty dominant and suggests that, while Baker's results have been inconsistent this year, he has not cowered against top teams. He's also the most experienced member of the group.

Why He Shouldn't Start:
The aforementioned inconsistency is a serious concern with Baker. On certain days he looks dazzling, while on others he's prone to leaving multiple pitches hanging over the plate. It's no surprise that he leads the team in home runs allowed with 21, and in tightly contested postseason games that susceptibility to coughing up the long ball can be a death knell. Baker's K/BB ratio is fantastic, but with opponents hitting .284 and slugging .483 against him, one would have to be wary sending him to the hill for a key postseason start.

Brian Duensing
Season Stats: 76.1 IP, 6-1, 2.00 ERA, 42/19 K/BB, 1.05 WHIP

Why He Should Start:
For a second consecutive season, Duensing has stepped into the Twins rotation and played the role of savior, providing big start after big start. Since taking over for the beleaguered Blackburn, Duensing has gone 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA in five starts, highlighting his impressive run with a shutout of the A's on Saturday. Despite lacking the ability to miss bats at the rate of Baker or Slowey, Duensing has been the least hittable member of the group this year as he's holding opponents to a measly .223 average. He's also given up only five home runs. In last year's ALDS, circumstances forced Duensing to take the mound in Game 1 and he held his own against the Yankees in New York, so he's no stranger to the pressures of October.

Why He Shouldn't Start:
The main reason Duensing shouldn't be in the postseason rotation, and the reason I would probably choose him as the odd man out, actually has nothing to do with any particular flaw in his game. He's simply far more valuable to the bullpen than Baker or Slowey. Duensing was a tremendous asset to the Twins relief corps over the first several months of the season, posting a 1.67 ERA over 39 appearances and coming up big in several high-leverage situations. He has held left-handed hitters to a .143 average and .414 OPS this season. With Jose Mijares' health being in flux and with Ron Mahay being Ron Mahay, Duensing figures to be the Twins' top weapon against tough left-handed hitters come October.

At least that's my take. Obviously, things can change in a hurry over the next several weeks and it's possible that injuries or performance will make the decision a far easier one by the time the postseason rolls around. As things currently stand, though, I'd have Slowey and Baker starting the third and fourth games of a postseason series (though if it was an elimination game, I might be tempted to start Pavano or Liriano on short rest in Game 4).

What about you? If things stay roughly the same as they are now, how would you structure a Twins playoff rotation?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

OK, So I Might Not Hate Drew Butera

I've played a lot of organized baseball in my lifetime. From tee-ball up through high school, I was on a team every summer, and during my lengthy involvement with the game I forged a lot of great relationships and created a lot of amazing memories.

But there's one game that stands out above all others as the most memorable in my playing career. It wasn't the best game I've ever played or anything, but it's one that I'll always cherish and think back to as a transcendent moment.

Back in little league, when I was probably just entering my teens, I was playing in a park board league. Our group of guys had been playing together for several years, as had another team in our league called the SlugRats.

The SlugRats were widely reviled. They were the Yankees of park board ball -- they recruited talent and basically played the game with a repellent sense of arrogance. Their coach was a ruthless, scowling disciplinarian reminiscent of Viktor Tikhonov, coach of the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team. Their star pitcher was a "kid" who appeared to be at least five years older than anyone else in the league and whose blazing fastball tended to zip past hitters in the blink of an eye.

That ace pitcher happened to be toeing the rubber for one summer game in which my team was facing off against the SlugRats. The result of the game was nearly a foregone conclusion, for while my team was certainly one of the more talented in this league, we were routinely blown out by the mighty SlugRats (much like all other opponents).

But, on this particular day, our guys had the timing of that scorching fastball down. For whatever reason, I was all over it in particular. We won the game 5-4, and celebrated like we were hoisting a World Series trophy. I drove in four of our team's five runs on that day. You couldn't wipe the smile off my face with napalm.

Sure, the stat sheet would say that I had some hits and four RBI, but those numbers couldn't possibly encapsulate the feeling I had, born out of doing everything in my power to help my team win.

I think a lot of baseball bloggers and analysts played baseball at one point in our lives, but over time we forget about the special moments like that. The stats and numbers are important and they tell an unbiased tale of what has happened on the field, but they can sometimes overlook the smaller niceties of the game. And they can keep us from appreciating a kid like Drew Butera.

I wrote about Butera in late July, noting that his increased presence in the lineup was bound to become a drain on the team's offensive proficiency. Those feelings have not changed; in spite of the fact that he has posted a thoroughly competent .781 OPS in 27 plate appearances since I posted that article, Butera remains an enormous offensive liability. His overall hitting line this year (.208/.245/.333) is surely more reflective of his actual ability than his recent performance.

Yet, as I watched Butera gleefully slap hands with his teammate in the dugout this weekend after perfectly executing a suicide squeeze to help the Twins manufacture a crucial run, I came to a realization: I'm sort of starting to like the kid.

It's ironic, I know. I've been one of Butera's fiercest critics, and by no means does my softened stance indicate that I think he should be in the lineup any more often than he is now.

But one can't overlook Butera's contributions. Despite his relative lack of talent, he's played his ass off and managed to make Joe Mauer's limited availability over the past month a relative non-issue. That the Twins have gone 11-3 in the last 14 games started by Butera doesn't prove he's a lucky charm or a winner by nature, but it does indicate that he hasn't exactly been holding the club back.

Regardless of his recent performance at the plate, Butera is simply never going to be an asset offensively. And the stat-head inside me is still driven mad every time he's written into the starting lineup, essentially erasing the inherent American League advantage of a designated hitter.

But there's no denying that he's a strong defender at a crucial position, and while I don't necessarily believe that his presence behind the plate meaningfully improves any of the Twins pitchers, there's a clear comfort level there.

The fascination with pro athletes who appear to be "having fun" has been completely played out, run into the ground by John Madden's absurd infatuation with Brett Favre. But with Butera, I really can buy it. This is a kid who, based on his complete inability to hit in the minor leagues, might have never gotten a shot to play in the majors under different circumstances. But now he's playing and contributing on a team with playoff aspirations, helping fill the void left by an ailing MVP and Gold Glover. And he's having the time of his life.

How can I tell? Because the smile on his face as he sat in the dugout after pulling off that beautiful squeeze bunt (or after he guns down a base stealer, or hangs on to the ball during a vicious collision at the plate, or manages to muscle a ball over the fence) was the exact same one on my face after I helped lift my team to victory over the SlugRats so many years ago.

In the end, that's what this game is all about.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Slowey Taking His Foot Off the Brakes

Ron Gardenhire faced a troublesome dilemma late in yesterday's game.

Kevin Slowey had just wrapped up a seventh hitless inning against the Athletics, putting him on track to hurl the Twins' first no-hitter in almost 11 years. His pitch count sat at 106.

Gardenhire decided to pull Slowey. It was the right decision. Normally, I don't prescribe to the notion that a pitcher's arm is being horribly taxed every time a manager lets him creep over the 100-pitch mark, but Slowey was pitching on extended rest due to elbow soreness that had been bothering him earlier in the week. He's too vital to the Twins' playoff hopes to risk injury for the sake of a personal achievement.

Slowey might have had a shot at the no-no had he done a better job of keeping his pitch count in check, but this is an issue that has plagued him all season long. Whether due to lack of efficiency or lack of stamina, Slowey has regularly been unable to last deep into games this year. It's not because of ineffectiveness -- Slowey has allowed more than four runs only six times in 22 starts.

In those 22 starts, he has also pitched into the seventh inning just six times. While he was brilliant yesterday, the game was emblematic of his plight this season; Slowey was extremely advanced and poised in his approach, but his lack of truly outstanding stuff forced him to sometimes be too fine around the strike zone (three walks) and also resulted in a lot of extended at-bats from two-strike foul balls. Even when he's at his best, which he clearly was yesterday (a fifth inning in which he struck out the side after Alexi Casilla put the leadoff man on second with a brutal throwing error sticks out to me as the the highlight of Slowey's season thus far), it seems he's still just a few notches short of the elite caliber he flashed in the minors.

That's no slight. Slowey is a very good pitcher and a guy who I have always viewed as a potential borderline ace. He's been spectacular over his past handful of starts, and yesterday's pseudo no-hitter stands out as his best effort yet. His inconsistent work over the first several months of the season was baffling, but Slowey now seems to be settling in and his timing could not be better.

Is he an ace? Maybe not -- Slowey's best work has still come against relatively weak lineups and few would expect the same type of excellence against an upper echelon offense. Fortunately, with Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano already leading the pack, the Twins don't need Slowey to be an ace. He's looking like a damn good middle-of-the-rotation option, however, and is taking some significant strides in what is becoming an interesting race to earn a start in a potential postseason series.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Glen Perkins is Not a LOOGY

Middle school students associate the word "loogie" with a big wad of spit laced with mucus. Baseball fans are more familiar with the spelling LOOGY and the acronym for which it stands: Lefty One-Out GuY. This refers to a left-handed pitcher whose sole duty in the bullpen is coming in to retire tough left-handed hitters. While these relievers don't always strictly follow the usage pattern that the LOOGY label would suggest (often they face multiple batters in a game), it's clear what their specialty is.

The Twins have largely relied on two pitchers to fill this role in the 2010 season: Jose Mijares and Ron Mahay. While Mahay has been effective against left-handed hitters, most people (rightfully) do not view him as a particularly reliable option in high-leverage situations so Mijares has been the go-to guy when multiple left-handed hitters have been due up with the game on the line.

Unfortunately, Mijares injured his knee while trying to make a play at first base in last night's game and is headed for the disabled list. Since left-hander Glen Perkins had already been called up to the big-league roster as a spot starter for Wednesday's game, the prevailing wisdom as that he should be moved to the bullpen as Mijares' short-term replacement.

However, this cannot be emphasized enough: Perkins is NOT a candidate to become a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen.

That's because, despite the fact that he throws with his left arm, Perkins has proven over a lengthy period of time that he is simply not an asset against left-handed hitters.

Over 117 innings with Triple-A Rochester this season, Perkins has allowed a .327 batting average against lefty hitters, compared to .305 for righties. His strikeout rate against righties during that span (7.56 K/9IP) has actually been markedly better than his strikeout rate against lefties (4.76 K/9IP).

The trend is not unique to this season. In his minor-league career, Perkins has allowed a .277 average against left-handed batters as opposed to .254 against righties. His K-rate against righties is 8.29 compared to 7.71 against lefties. While his control has been slightly better against left-handers (3.29 BB/9IP to 3.00), the difference is negligible.

Those patterns have also been reflected during Perkins' major-league time, during which he has allowed a .327 average and .857 OPS against lefties, versus a .283 average and .786 OPS against righties. In 286 big-league innings, Perkins has posted a solid 107-to-46 strikeout-to-walk ratio against right-handers, while the ratio against lefties is an ugly 40-to-30.

I'll point out that right-handers have always been able to hit Perkins harder (69 of the 82 home runs he's allowed in his pro career have come against righties), but the statistics make it clear that Perkins is far from dominant against left-handed batters.

With his 6.08 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in Triple-A this year, Perkins doesn't belong on a big-league roster to begin with. But if the Twins are thinking he might be an asset as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen in the absence of Mijares, they're sadly mistaken.

It's just irresponsible to overlook the mounds of evidence suggesting that Perkins is far less effective against lefties than righties, regardless of which arm he throws with.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wednesday Notes

A few notes in preparation for tonight's Sox/Twins tilt:

* Tonight, Glen Perkins takes the hill in a key game against the White Sox. Chicago will counter with the outstanding southpaw John Danks, so this is about as lopsided a pitching match-up as the Twins have seen all year. If they can find a way to win, I'll be extremely impressed. If not, the Twins will still have a decent shot at taking the series with Francisco Liriano toeing the rubber tomorrow night.

* I like Scott Baker, but one thing that has always driven me mad about his approach to pitching is his tendency to throw utterly hittable pitches on an 0-2 count. Last night, with the Twins leading 5-0, Baker left such a pitch up and over the plate to Carlos Quentin and Quentin drilled it over the fence for a three-run homer. At the time, it looked like a huge mistake for Baker, though his offense took any possible heat off his shoulders by continuing to crush Sox pitching all night. Nevertheless, the issue remains prevalent for Baker, who has allowed a .389 slugging percentage on 0-2 counts this year, compared to the major-league average of .214.

I, personally, am of the opinion that 0-2 pitches should rarely be anywhere near the strike zone. Sadly, it doesn't seem as though coaches in the Twins organization instill the same philosophy.

* I was honored when Rob Neyer approached me last autumn with a proposal to join his SweetSpot Network over at Honored because I know Rob doesn't take such decisions lightly, and the fact that he felt this little old blog was up to snuff for his elite network meant a lot to me.

As such, I'm very pleased to see a couple bloggers I've started following with increased interest recently gaining similar recognition from Neyer. The Common Man (not to be confused with KFAN's mid-day host) and Bill from The Daily Something are now joining forces at The Platoon Advantage, which becomes -- to my knowledge -- the first non-team-specific SweetSpot blog.

If you enjoy smart, irreverent baseball analysis, I strongly recommend adding The Platoon Advantage to your daily reading list.

* I was featured in an interview over at earlier this week. If you're interested, you can click on over and learn more than you'd ever like to know about this blog's origin, history and impact on my life.

All About Pitching

At the outset of the season, any of three different teams could have reasonably been picked as favorite in the American League Central: the Twins, Tigers or White Sox. All three had been contenders within the past couple years, and all three had made moves to improve their roster during the offseason. Many pegged the Tigers -- who'd pushed the Twins to a tiebreaker the year before and infused some young talent over the winter -- as the most dangerous divisional opponent. Personally, the team that scared me most was the White Sox, and for one key reason: pitching.

Between Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Freddy Garcia (not to mention top prospect Dan Hudson in the minors), the Sox entered the season with a deep rotation that ranked as easily the best in the division and perhaps the best in the league.
Sure enough, the White Sox have rebounded from a slow start to put on a clinic here in the middle months. Since dropping 9.5 games out of first place with a 24-33 record on June 8, Chicago has gone 39-17 and rocketed back to the top of the division. The hugely impressive run has largely come as the result of consistently outstanding work from Chicago's starters, who rank fifth in the AL (and first in the Central) with a 3.95 ERA.

Despite losing Peavy for the season back in early July, the Sox have gotten excellent production from Danks (3.30 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) and Floyd (3.49 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) while Buehrle and Garcia have mostly been steady (last night's dud from Garcia not withstanding). The team also recently added Edwin Jackson, who has posted a 1.38 ERA and 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first two starts since coming aboard. (Not that I expect Jackson to be an asset down the stretch -- silly trade.)

As most readers of this blog are likely aware, starting pitching was an Achilles Heel for the Twins over the first half of the season, with 60 percent of the rotation turning in hugely underwhelming performances. Yet, since the All-Star break, the struggling Twins rotation has found its way back on track. Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano, who have been the unit's steadiest members all year long, have continued to dominate opposing lineups while Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey have shown marked improvement and Brian Duensing has performed well in the place of demoted Nick Blackburn.

Since the All-Star break, the Twins have gone 18-7. During that 25-game stretch, they've held opponents to an average of 3.3 runs per game. In all but three of the 18 victories, they have allowed four runs or fewer. The offense has been good, to be sure (as Phil Mackey noted earlier this week, the Twins have led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, runs, hits, doubles and triples over the past month), but that is the sign of a team being carried by its pitching staff.

Of course, it is necessary to note that the Twins have faced a soft schedule since the break, but the impressive stretch includes a four-game series against Tampa in which the Twins held arguably the best team in baseball to a reasonable average of 4.25 runs per contest. More importantly, they did it on the road, where their ERA is nearly a run higher and they've given up almost twice as many home runs.

The Twins have a clear offensive edge on the Sox, even moreso if Justin Morneau is able to rejoin the team at full strength somewhere along the line. But, in order to come out on top of this well-contested division, the Twins are going to need to keep up their fine work on the mound.

Tonight, they will be forced to start Glen Perkins in a key game, and it likely won't be the last time their pitching depth is tested here in the final months. The Twins reclaimed first place last night with authority, but their ultimate fate hinges upon the continued health and production of the starting rotation. They won't be scoring 12 runs against a team like the White Sox very often.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Let the Stretch Run Begin

All teams, even the very good ones, go through ups and downs over the course of a major-league season. The 2010 Twins have been a model for this truism; they came out of the gates fast with a blistering hot start, fell into a lull of mediocrity in the middle months, and now seem to be regaining momentum here after the All-Star break.

The Twins limped into the baseball season's unofficial midpoint, having lost six of their last eight while dropping into third place in the AL Central. They went on to lose their first game after the break at home against the White Sox, but since then they have gone 17-6, keeping pace with the similarly scalding South-Siders and claiming their stake in what is shaping up to be an intense two-team race over the final eight weeks of the season.

Sometimes you can learn more about the state of a team from their losses than their wins. It's important to note that of the Twins' six losses during the aforementioned span, five of them have been decided by two runs or less. Even when they're coming out on the short end, the Twins are playing well and forcing close games. You can't ask for much more.

It's not hard to see why the Twins have been able to right the ship so abruptly. Their schedule has been exceedingly easy over the past few weeks, with a four-game series in Tampa representing their only break in a parade of last and second-to-last place teams. But in the past the Twins have been accused of letting up against lesser opponents (late September series against the Royals come to mind) and the impressive stretch also includes three wins against the White Sox and a hotly contested split against the Rays. They've also been doing it all without the services of their best hitter, and with injuries forcing Drew Butera and Alexi Casilla into the lineup far more than expected.

With the White Sox losing to the Orioles yesterday, the Twins drew to within a half-game of first place. By the time the Sox and Twins square off at U.S. Cellular Field tomorrow night, the two teams could be knotted atop the division.

Sure, the Twins haven't always played up to their level of ability this year and the rough patches have been frustrating. But there's hardly anything better than a bunch of meaningful baseball games in September with playoff-like intensity. That's what we seem headed for.

Should be fun.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Credit Where It's Due

It's easy to be impressed by the results of the Twins' four-game series in Tampa Bay this week. They went on the road to face arguably the best team in baseball and came away with a split. They rebounded from tough losses in the first two games of the series to gain big victories in the final two, building momentum as they travel to Cleveland and Chicago for the final two legs of their current road trip.

It's less easy to be impressed by the way they achieved those results. On Wednesday night, the Twins let a one-run lead slip away in the ninth inning, wasting a brilliant start from Scott Baker and forcing a 13-inning marathon before finally managing to pull off the victory. Today, Kevin Slowey and the bullpen crumbled late in the game as the Rays erased a 6-0 deficit before the Twins, again, were able to scratch out a late victory.

It was tough to watch the Twins allow a pair of games they'd been in complete control of slip away late. But these are the types of games that are extremely difficult to win on the road, especially against a fantastic team like the Rays, and the Twins do deserve a lot of credit for managing to finish the job in both the final two contests in this series.

They probably won't experience the good fortune of having a routine pop-up hit off a cat walk and land in the middle of the infield to score the winning run if they face the Rays again in the playoffs, but the Twins did play neck and neck throughout this series with a team that is tied for the MLB lead in victories. The Twins received gritty pitching performances in the first two games, losing on both occasions only because their offense was stymied by a very good starter, and more importantly they received dominant performances on the road from Slowey and Baker in the final two games. Those two have struggled immensely when pitching outside of Target Field this season, so for both to step up against a great team in a statement series like this speaks volumes about how far they have come and helps legitimize their recent success against weaker lineups.

In the spirit of assigning credit (and blame) where it is due, here are some other notes on the series in Tampa:

* There was plenty of head-shaking after newly acquired Matt Capps coughed up his first big save situation for his new team on Wednesday, as he came in with a 1-0 ninth-inning lead and allowed the tying run to cross the plate, but anyone who watched the game can hardly hold Capps accountable for the blown save.

Evan Longoria led off the ninth inning by hitting a fly ball to left field. It was a ball that most left fielders around the league would have caught in the air, and at worst it should have been smothered for a single, but Delmon Young awkwardly slid into it and kicked it back toward the infield, allowing Longoria to move into scoring position as the tying run with no outs. He'd eventually score.

The muffed play by Young was just one of many miscues in a game that was easily the ugliest of the season from a defensive standpoint for the Twins outfield, as he and Denard Span failed to track down numerous catchable balls. Miraculously, the Twins still only allowed one run in 13 innings -- all the more reason to praise Baker and the bullpen for their outsanding work in the game -- but Wednesday night's contest spotlighted something that has been a subtle issue for this club all year long: poor outfield defense is costing the Twins' pitchers.

With his minimal range and terrible instincts in the outfield, Young seems destined to become a designated hitter within the next few years. He probably should be one already. Keep that in mind when this premature MVP talk starts bubbling up.

* I have to admit, I have taken quite a liking to Jason Repko. His stellar play in the outfield has been a breath of fresh air in light of the issues mentioned above, and it doesn't hurt that his bat has been red-hot when he's gotten into the lineup, racking up a .319/.385/.617 hitting line with three homers and five doubles in 55 plate appearances.

I've enjoyed Repko's play so much that on Wednesday night I jokingly started using a #Repko4MVP hashtag on Twitter, though the gag seemed a little less silly yesterday when Repko was a crucial contributor in the Twins' victory.

Obviously he won't continue to hit like this, but a solid .274/.336/.433 hitting line in the minors (including .289/.357/.461 in Triple-A) suggests that there's no reason he can't keep his bat afloat, and if he's able to do that while maintaining his rangy defense in the outfield, he figures to be a useful piece for the Twins down the stretch.

Just maybe not an MVP. Yet.

* Speaking of unsustainably hot recent performances, I'd be remiss not to mention the play of Drew Butera, who has now started five consecutive games at catcher with Joe Mauer's shoulder aching. In those five games, Butera has gone 4-for-15 with a homer and a double while performing well defensively.

The "hot streak" has raised Butera's overall hitting line .205/.237/.341, which borders on palatable for a defensive specialist in the majors. However, before anyone starts getting keen on the idea of keeping Butera in the lineup more regularly even after Mauer's shoulder has healed, keep in mind that the kid has a long (LONG) history of not hitting in the minors.

Soon enough, he'll go back to being a massive liability with the bat, and -- as the first two games of this series against the Rays helped illustrate -- that's something the Twins can ill afford against contending clubs with good pitching staffs.

* J.J. Hardy has been on a tear since the All-Star break, and after going 3-for-4 in yesterday's contest he's hitting .270/.310/.398 on the season. The average MLB shortstop has hit .264/.322/.371 this year, so Hardy's production is firmly above average for his position. When accounting for his spectacular defense, Hardy has been a very good contributor for the Twins this season in spite of his wrist issues; meanwhile, while his defense in the outfield is missed, Carlos Gomez has essentially made zero strides offensively in Milwaukee. Looking like a nice trade for Bill Smith.

* Has there been a more enigmatic player than Alexi Casilla over the past few years? An apparent breakout season in 2008, when he hit .281/.333/.374 as a 23-year-old while helping the Twins mount a late charge for the AL Central crown, was followed up by an absolutely abysmal season in '09. Casilla has spent much of this season on the shelf, but he's returned to fill in at second with Orlando Hudson on the shelf and has performed admirably, using a combination of plate discipline in speed produce solid offensive numbers much like he did in '08.

His defense has also looked spectacular at times, most notably on the play that ended today's game, when Casilla ran about 20 feet to his left to track down a grounder and threw to first while twirling in mid-air to retire the speedy Carl Crawford.

During his career in Minnesota, I have seen Casilla track down some seemingly unreachable ground balls, yet UZR pegs him as a very poor second baseman, with a -9.7 rating in close to 2,000 MLB innings at the position. It strikes me that, like with his offense, Casilla's inconsistency on defense is mostly mental. The kid clearly has enough talent to be playing in the big leagues, but seemingly has a tough time staying focused. Whatever he's doing right now, hopefully he is able to keep it up until Hudson returns and beyond.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Helping the Little Guy

No new post here tonight, but I did do a guest post for this little site to help fill in while their baseball blogger is on vacation. I wrote about the need to set aside money for a Francisco Liriano extension. Cruise on over, I'm sure their upstart operation would appreciate having a little traffic sent their way.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Morneau's Head

The whole sports world has been a flutter today after reports arose that Brett Favre has been informing his teammates that he won't be returning for this season. It's yet another chapter in a seemingly endless drama, but I'm confident that when it's all said and done, Favre will be starting for the Vikings against the Saints in their season opener.

The matter that is weighing on my mind is a far more ominous and immediate concern, and that's the continued absence of Justin Morneau from the Twins' lineup. The slugging first baseman sustained a concussion in early July against the Blue Jays, and a month later his return to the lineup still is not in sight.

Morneau was a human wrecking ball over the first three months of the season, posting a stellar .345/.437/.618 hitting line to go along with 18 home runs and 56 RBI. While the Twins offense slumped at times early in the season, Morneau did not, as he kept on pounding the ball while looking more comfortable and disciplined at the plate than ever before. It seemed as though this might finally be the year that Morneau kept on hitting through the end of the campaign and clearly established himself as the American League's most dangerous offensive first baseman.

Then, on that July 7 game in Toronto, Morneau suffered a seemingly innocuous injury when he hit his head against the knee of Blue Jays shortstop Alex Gonzalez while trying to break up a double play. The woozy Morneau initially expected only to miss a couple games, but days have stretched to weeks and those weeks have now stretched to a month. How much longer will it be? No one seems to know, but one can't help but be alarmed at today's report via that Morneau "was not feeling as good Monday as he did Sunday following a light workout back in Minneapolis."

This tells us that Morneau is not particularly close to returning, perhaps confirming a report by USA Today's Bob Nightengale from a couple days ago that the first baseman is "still likely weeks away from returning."

Concussions are the most tricky of injuries. They can confound even the most respected of physicians, and there is generally no treatment capable of curing the effects of the injury. Either Morneau's headaches will go away with rest or they won't, but either way it's something that will largely have to happen on its own.

In seeing Morneau's post-concussion effects continue to linger on, one can't help but be reminded of another former Canadian Twins slugger, Corey Koskie. After spending several outstanding (and, in my opinion, often underrated) seasons in a Twins' uniform, Koskie signed with the Blue Jays following the 2004 campaign. After the '05 season, the Jays traded Koskie to Milwaukee, where he sustained his fateful concussion in a July game against the Reds.

At first glance, Koskie's injury was as minor as Morneau's. Patrick Reusse recounted the situation in a 2007 Star Tribune column:
Koskie was chasing a looping fly ball that day in Miller Park. "My only chance to catch it was to put my head down and run to the spot," he said. "When I got there and looked, the ball was behind me. So, I bent back and reached, caught the ball, and hit the ground."

Koskie crashed onto his back. His head didn't clearly slam to the ground, but his neck whiplashed. The ball popped from his glove and Bill Hall caught it for the half-inning's final out.

"I thought I was OK, but when I went up to hit, the pitcher was out there somewhere ... like he was behind a TV screen," Koskie said. "I felt nauseous. I was woozy. I slapped at a couple of pitches and fouled them. I got to a 3-2 count and remember thinking, 'What happens if I draw a walk here and have to run the bases? I won't be able to do it.'

"As it turned out, I struck out. And when I got the dugout, I told the trainer, 'This isn't going to work,' and left the game. I assumed I would be back in the lineup the next day."
But he wasn't. In fact, that ended up being the last regular-season major-league game that Koskie would ever play in. At the age of 33, the third baseman's career as a baseball player was effectively done. But the effects of the injury stretched far beyond Koskie's career. For years after the concussion, he regularly dealt with headaches and nausea. I recall reading stories suggesting that at times Koskie couldn't even manage to play with his young children. The story was heartbreaking.

Now, plenty of other baseball players have experienced concussions and bounced back without issue. In fact, Morneau himself took a pretty nasty hit to the head early in the 2005 season, and it's now a distant and oft-forgotten memory. But post-concussion syndrome is very real and as Koskie's situation proved the effects can be long-lasting and extremely serious.

Baseball is a secondary concern for Morneau right now, but it's going to be a real shame if the Twins are forced to play through the final months of the season without him for a second straight year. When he was healthy, his bat was easily the best in the lineup, and his return is of particular importance now that Joe Mauer's ailments are forcing Drew Butera's terrible bat into the lineup on a more frequent basis. Being without Morneau's outstanding (and expensive) bat for the remainder of the season would be devastating. I don't even want to think about the complications that could arise if the issues stretch beyond September.

Hopefully, Morneau can eventually put this injury behind him return to the lineup at full strength down the stretch. The Twins will need him.

But, however long the recovery takes, please (PLEASE) don't accuse the Twins' first baseman of being "soft." Concussions are nasty business.

Monday, August 02, 2010


I've been in Denver for the past four days, so I had to track this season's trade deadline drama from afar. That means I had only an outside glimpse of the local reactions to the Twins' big move, which involved sending prized catching prospect Wilson Ramos to the Nationals in exchange for reliever Matt Capps.

Amongst my like-minded and esteemed blogging brethren, the response to the trade was overwhelmingly negative. Gleeman hated it. Same for the Geek. Parker ripped it. Even mild-mannered Seth was critical of the move. Sentiment ranged from disappointment to flat-out disgust.

Yet, in spite of all the many reasonable arguments that I read deriding the trade, I just couldn't bring myself to truly dislike it. I think the widespread backlash to this deal is extremely hyperbolic. The Twins shored up an area that could potentially become problematic over the final two months of the season, and in order to do so they had to part with an asset. The value of that asset is the subject of some debate.

If there's one thing this swap tells me, it's that Wilson Ramos was being wildly overrated as a prospect by the vast majority of Twins fans. In all honesty, this doesn't surprise me, because it's something I had been thinking about more and more over the past few weeks. Ramos is a nice prospect, to be sure, but would any team really be willing to part with an established star player for a guy who is getting utterly dominated at Triple-A?

Granted, Ramos is only 22 years old and he's taking his first stab at the highest level of the minors. But he hasn't hit this year. After narrowly missing a spot on the Twins roster out of spring training, Ramos got his season off to a terrible start in Rochester and he hasn't shown a whole lot of improvement over the course of the season. This is a fact that far too many people seemed content to overlook, enamored with his shiny scouting reports and impressive build.

For all his power potential, Ramos has hit only five home runs this season. In fact, he's only hit 36 of them in five minor-league seasons. During that span, he's also drawn only 86 walks. Undoubtedly, a large part of the reason that Ramos' innate power has not manifested in games relates to his terrible plate discipline, an issue that has been clearly present this year and has helped contribute to a .241 average and a ghastly .277 on-base percentage.

Ramos' name arose in trade rumors opposite Cliff Lee, Dan Haren and other prominent stars. There is little doubt that the Twins tried heavily to shop their top catching prospect, since moving Ramos was all but a foregone conclusion. I wrote as much back in early May, when the Ramos hype machine was at its peak in the aftermath of a spectacular major-league debut. While there's no denying that the Venezuelan catcher has the potential to become a very good big-league contributor, rebuilding teams like the Mariners and Diamondbacks don't want to trade away their top trade piece for a player who is as much of a gamble as he is.

Jesus Montero, whom the Yankees reportedly used to outbid the Twins for Lee (though they themselves were subsequently outbid by the Rangers and Justin Smoak), currently owns an .809 OPS in Triple-A. Last year, he posted a .951 OPS between Single-A and Double-A. Ramos, whose OPS sits at .619 this season, hasn't posted a figure above .783 in a full season (although he did put up an .835 OPS in his injury-shortened 2009 campaign) and his career mark sits at .757. He's been young for every level, which is why Ramos is rightfully regarded as a very good prospect, but there are holes in the his swing that the kid simply hasn't been able to figure out. Montero is highly regarded not only because of his talent and youth -- he's almost two years younger than Ramos -- but also because he's translated his skills into impressive on-field results. That's what teams want in a big deadline deal. It's what Ramos doesn't have.

Ramos would only languish in the Twins' organization, whether being held in Triple-A in the hopes that improved performance would boost his stagnating trade value or being used as Joe Mauer's major-league back-up. The Twins had to trade their top catching prospect because they are making their push right now, with a championship-caliber roster assembled. After dangling Ramos all around in the weeks leading up to the deadline, Capps was the player that Bill Smith judged to be an appropriate value for Ramos. I don't doubt that Smith tried to turn Ramos into a better player than Capps, I just don't think he could.

Without question, the addition of Capps improves the Twins' bullpen. He's a better reliever than Jon Rauch, whom he'll be replacing at the back end. Rauch has performed admirably this year, converting 21 of 25 save opportunities while posting a 3.05 ERA. But he'd shown weakness in recent weeks, with his stellar control display early in the season trending back toward his mediocre career norm, and a 5.40 ERA and .361 opponents' batting average in July were doing nothing to inspire the Twins' confidence in their interim closer. This team has World Series aspirations and they wanted a more legitimate option taking care of the ninth inning.

Capps might be nine inches shorter than Rauch, but he is nonetheless an imposing presence on the mound. Weighing in at 245 lbs, the right-hander hurls a fastball that averages about 94 mph, several ticks faster than Rauch's offering. Whereas Rauch, who is four years Capps' senior, owns a relatively unimpressive 3.73 career ERA and 1.24 WHIP, Capps' career marks stand at 3.45 and and 1.19 in those categories, and this in spite of a down year in 2009 that has all the signs of a fluke. Capps possesses elite command, misses more bats and deserves more trust in high-leverage situations.

His addition also has a positive ripple effect on the Twins' bullpen. It pushes Rauch down into a set-up role he's better suited for, and eliminates Nick Blackburn -- who was of little use as a relief arm -- from occupying a roster spot. The Twins' once teetering bullpen now has the looks of a solid strength. Its right-handed options (Capps, Rauch, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Anthony Slama) are all well above average and the Jose Mijares/Ron Mahay combo stands as a fine defense against lefties. Perhaps most importantly, Capps is under team control for next season, which will make the looming free agent departures of Rauch and Guerrier far more palatable as Joe Nathan attempts his comeback from Tommy John surgery.

You'll notice I've gone through this entire post defending the trade without referring to two hot phrases that often pop up in tirades against the acquisition of Capps: his status as an established closer and his standing as a National League All-Star. To be clear, I don't doubt that both of these factors caused the Twins to overvalue Capps to some degree. But the front office is hardly delusional for thinking he makes their bullpen better, and with the rotation seemingly rounding into shape while the offense continues to churn out runs, the relief corps looked to be the only aspect of this team deserving of a significant external upgrade.

The Twins might have overpaid for an asset in Capps. But they didn't overpay to the degree that a lot of people seem to think, and in my opinion the organization should be lauded for making a bold move in their push to bring home a World Series title in their first season at Target Field. Ramos might turn into a very good player and he might not, but whatever his outcome it wasn't going to be realized as a Minnesota Twin. He had no future here with Mauer entrenched, and Smith moved his valued trade piece for what he could to give a little additional help to the excellent roster he's assembled this year for the stretch run. The Twins made a play for now -- how often have we been able to say that so confidently in the past? We haven't seen this type of aggression before and I personally like it.

The Twins are building steam and have won eight straight. With Capps added to the roster, a bullpen meltdown becomes less of a threat to derail their momentum as they ease back into a more difficult stretch of the schedule. By the time the playoffs roll around this year and onward into 2011, I anticipate that people will be happy Capps is around. I don't think they'll miss Ramos.

* I do realize, by the way, that I tweeted only a couple days before the trade that I wouldn't deal Ramos for Capps. Call it a change of heart. After looking at all the facts, I just can't criticize the Twins for making this move, even if it doesn't initially strike me as a great deal.