Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dead Weight

Yesterday, I wrote about the early struggles of Justin Morneau. On cue, the first baseman popped off for two home runs agains the Tigers last night, doubling his season total.

Figuring I'd try and run this string out, I asked Twitter which struggling player they wanted me to write about today. The most popular answers were "bullpen" and "everyone," but among individual players the name I saw most was Delmon Young.

OK, fine, I'll write about Young. But I won't enjoy it. I'm bored with him. Can't bring myself to care about him anymore.

He lopes around apathetically in the outfield. He was a bad defender when he actually seemed to care; now he's basically unplayable out there (though Ron Gardenhire continues to trot him out daily anyway).

At the plate, Young seems similarly disinterested. Despite being a 25-year-old fresh off a breakout season, he has inexplicably turned into one of the league's worst hitters. A third of the way through through the campaign, Young has hit one home run, driven in 11, and posted a lower OPS than such sluggers as Alexi Casilla, Luke Hughes and Rene Rivera.

He's striking out once every five at-bats, and when he puts the ball in play it's typically on a weak, defensive swing early in the count. The fire that burned within Young last year, when he hit 21 homers and drove in 112 runs, has not been seen since.

On top of the lackadaisical performance, there's the external drama that habitually follows him around. Young wasted a spot on the 25-man roster for over a week in April while holding himself out of the lineup with an oblique injury, then when he was finally allegedly ready to play, he said he couldn't get loose on a cold night. The Twins immediately moved him to the DL, where he remained for almost two weeks beyond being eligible to return. What?

Seems clear we didn't get the whole story there, but whatever. I don't care anymore. Young has made himself about as unlikable as possible to fans and media members with his abrasively unpleasant personality, and now that his level of play has followed suit there's just not much reason to want him around.

I know his value is about as low as can get, but I'd still like to see the Twins move him and give him a change of scenery. Let Ben Revere play the rest of the season in left. He's got a much better shot at playing into the team's future plans, and he actually plays like he wants to be out there.

That's what fans pay to see.

Morneau's Early Struggles

With 52 games in the books, the Twins are approaching the one-third mark in their 162-game regular season schedule. It seems an appropriate time to check in on the player we expected to be the team's top individual storyline in the early part of the season: Justin Morneau.

The good news is that Morneau has been able to play. He's started all but seven of the Twins' games over the first two months, and is on pace to make over 600 plate appearances.

Sadly, the good news pretty much stops there. While Ron Gardenhire has continued to trot him out at the cleanup spot based on his past reputation as an elite power-hitting run producer, Morneau is hitting just .242 with a .626 OPS. He has managed two homers and 17 RBI while hitting .186 with runners on base. His performance thus far would put him in line for less than 10 home runs and 55 RBI in a full-season workload, which would obviously represent the worst production of his career by a pretty wide margin.

Obviously, something is wrong with the former MVP. The pertinent questions are what and why.

Studying him from afar this season, my observation is that his reactions seem to have dulled. Razor-sharp reflexes, forged in part through years of deflecting screaming pucks as a hockey goalie, were a principal strength for the slugger prior to last year's season-ending concussion. They've been conspicuously amiss this year.

It's shown in the field; while he's still competent out there he's not the defensive asset he once was. Hard grounders he used to snare routinely have escaped his reach, and we've seen him scoop far fewer low throws than in the past despite lousy infielders giving him ample opportunity.

It's also shown at the plate, and that's been more troubling. If the Twins are to return to contention next year they're going to need Morneau mashing and up to this point he's not shown that he has it in him.

It's not that Morneau looks completely overmatched at the plate. He's not striking out a ton, which is encouraging and indicates that his hand-eye coordination remains intact. The problem is his pitch selection. He's swinging at way too many balls outside of the zone -- a career-high 33.9 percent, according to FanGraphs.

Pitchers have adjusted and are offering fewer strikes -- 41.5 percent, lowest rate of his career -- but Morneau has been unable to adjust. He's walked in only 5.6 percent of his plate appearances this year, which is bordering on Delmon Young territory.

The first baseman is simply chasing too often, and while he's making contact at a solid rate, it just isn't the same kind of authoritative contact we've grown accustomed to seeing from him. He's trying to pull too many outside pitches, golfing for too many low breaking balls. Late on heaters, early on offspeed. He just isn't reading the ball well.

His natural talent has allowed him to stay afloat in spite of these issues (Morneau is  actually hitting .289 over his last 20 games) but until his pitch recognition improves he won't return to being the dominant force he was prior to injury.

I'll check in on Morneau again after another third of the season has gone by, and hopefully by then he'll have shown the kind of improvement that suggests his immense early struggles have merely been the result of rust from a prolonged layoff. I prefer not to think about the alternative.

It can hardly be understated overstated how important Morneau's ability to find his old form is to this team's future.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Three-Bagger: Posey, Home Cooking & Killer

* San Francisco's Buster Posey was crushed in a home plate collision on Wednesday night, and yesterday it was revealed that the catcher sustained a broken bone and sprained ligaments in his leg. It's a very sad situation for the 24-year-old star, who will miss the rest of the season and face a difficult rehab.

This is the second time in the past year we've seen a top young catcher suffer a catastrophic leg injury in a collision (last year Carlos Santana of the Indians, himself 24, busted his knee up on a similar play). It's also another tally against the logic of keeping Joe Mauer at catcher. On top of the exerting routine for his already battered legs, Mauer is at increased risk for this type of mishap as long as he's behind the plate.

While he's been able to avoid any major incidents up to this point in his career, Mauer has hung in there and taken his hits. Disastrous situations like the ones experienced by Santana and Posey have to weigh on the minds of Twins brass as they contemplate their $184 million investment.

* After falling to the Mariners 3-0 on Wednesday afternoon, the Twins dropped to 5-13 at Target Field this season. They've been outscored by 49 runs in 18 home games. Many have pointed to the team's home-heavy remaining schedule as a beacon of light, but the team has actually played worse in front of their own fans than on the road.

This is a shocking development for a franchise that has historically excelled at home . The Twins were notorious for their unique advantage in the Metrodome years and they carried that right over to Target Field last year, posting the league's best home record at 53-28.

You have to go back to the year 2000 to find the last time the Twins were under .500 at home. That team failed to win 70 games.

* The Twins haven't hit many home runs at Target Field this year, but last night's tribute to Harmon Killebrew certainly qualifies as one. Kudos to the organization for a classy memorial commemorating the man who embodies Twins history. Killebrew retired 10 years before I was born and I never had the chance to meet him, but his reputation speaks for itself. I can honestly say I don't think I've ever heard a negative thing about him from anyone who encountered him. That's pretty rare.

Killebrew is a big reason why, even in these darkest of times, I am proud to call myself a Twins fan. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Wrong Call

After Ron Gardenhire announced early in spring training that Brian Duensing would be a member of the starting rotation, I expressed my disagreement with the decision. Unsurprisingly, this wasn't a popular stance; the lefty had done outstanding work after shifting from the bullpen to the rotation in two straight seasons, including a 7-2 record and 3.08 ERA as a starter in a 2010 campaign that earned him a spot in the playoff rotation.

In the early March post, I pointed out that Duensing had benefited from a very lucky .275 BABIP last year, and that coming out of the bullpen would maximize his greatest asset -- pitching against lefties -- while minimizing his greatest weakness -- pitching against righties. My conclusion:
As a reliever, he would provide the Twins with an established commodity in a bullpen that lacks many. He'd be able to fully utilize his dominance against lefty swingers rather than facing starting lineups stacked with righties. And, should one of the five other starters get injured or fail to cut it, he'd be available to step into the rotation, as he's done successfully in each of the past two seasons.

Instead, assuming everyone stays healthy, the Twins will opt to either potentially weaken the bullpen by asking Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey or Nick Blackburn to pitch in relief -- something none of them have experience doing -- or weaken their starting pitching depth by trading one of those three.
Sure enough, while Duensing has been solid out of the rotation, he hasn't been able to replicate his sterling results from 2009 and 2010. One part of the problem is that his batted ball luck has gone in the opposite direction; he entered yesterday's start against the Mariners with a .331 BABIP. More importantly, though, Duensing has predictably struggled with increased exposure to right-handed hitters, who were hitting .315/.386/.496 against him over his first eight starts before driving in two runs in a 3-0 Mariners victory at Target Field yesterday.

Duensing has continued to excel against lefties, holding them to a .633 OPS with a 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he hasn't had the opportunity to face them all that often. If he were pitching out of the bullpen, he would see port-siders more frequently while also providing a proven weapon to a relief corps that is currently devoid of reliable options.

It's looking like the Twins made the wrong call here (broken record, I know). There's little question that they'd be in better shape right now with Kevin Slowey starting and Duensing serving in a high-leverage bullpen role. It's not too late to correct this problem, as Slowey could be whipped into starting shape with a couple outings in Rochester and Duensing could replace either Dusty Hughes or Phil Dumatrait in the bullpen, instantly upgrading the unit dramatically.

Instead, I suspect the Twins will stick with their awful bullpen and trade Slowey for pennies on the dollar while Duensing continues to get knocked around by righty hitters.

Like I said on Monday, the Twins seem more interested these days in compounding their mistakes than correcting them, which is why fans have every right to be completely fed up with the way this team is being run.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Slowey Saga

It would appear that Kevin Slowey's days in Minnesota are numbered.

We can glean from the article linked above that the right-hander has asked for a trade. It hardly comes as a surprise; Slowey has sulked all season about his role in the bullpen, and there are no rotation vacancies on the visible horizon.

Clearly, the Twins are fed up with the Slowey. He has rarely been available this season, overcome by a variety of ailments relating to the transition from starter to reliever. His act comes off as pouty and self-centered, leading to widespread criticism. Jim Souhan labeled him a "selfish, excuse-making malcontent" and the Twins broadcasters ripped him at length during Monday night's telecast.

Then again, Slowey also can't be blamed for wanting out. His behavior might seem selfish, but frankly it's not hard to understand what's brought him to this point. There has long been friction between player and organization.

I've repeatedly had reporters covering the team tell me that, like others who have been dealt away before him, Slowey's personality doesn't seem to mesh with the Twins' expectations. The team has done little to hide its lack of affinity.

While he had his inconsistencies last year in his return from a fairly significant wrist surgery, the righty still won 13 games and posted a 4.48 ERA. Yet, he was a healthy scratch from the Twins' playoff roster. I figured that was the last straw, predicting that he'd be traded during the offseason.

Turns out I jumped the gun. The Twins signed Carl Pavano for $16 million over the winter despite having five starters, and naturally Slowey was the odd man out despite posting a 1.69 ERA in spring training that was the best of any rotation candidate. And, even though they seemingly had their minds made up from the beginning, the Twins still conditioned Slowey as a starter right up until the end of March, then basically said, "Nice job starting the last few years, but we like some other guys better, now go and be a setup man because we let all the other ones walk during the offseason so we could sign your replacement."

At age 27 and now a full year removed from surgery, Slowey was looking to re-establish himself as a quality MLB starter this season. Instead, he's battling through injuries to try and throw long relief for baseball's worst club, and watching his earning potential plummet in the meantime.

Is Slowey putting himself before the team? Yes, but then again, it's a really bad team and an organization that hasn't exactly shown much fondness toward him.

He's a good pitcher who had an unfortunate wrist injury and never got his fair shake here. Assuming he's on his way out, I wish Slowey the best wherever he ends up. All I can do now is hope like hell that the Twins aren't shooting themselves in the foot by being forced to sell so low on him.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rebuilding the Bullpen

Some people don't seem to recognize what an integral factor the Twins' spectacular bullpen was in their success last year. Even with Joe Nathan gone for the entire season and Jose Mijares gone for much of it, the relief corps was one of the most effective in memory.

That group simply did not give up leads. The 2010 Twins lost only twice when they took a lead into the ninth inning; only three times when they took a lead into the eighth inning. They went 75-5 when they entered the seventh with a lead. That's quite the testament to a bullpen which, while somewhat amorphous and not terribly flashy, consistently got the job done.

The front office's gutting of the unit during the offseason has yielded the expect results: the Twins aren't getting much relief from their bullpen this year. Already the team has lost six games after entering the seventh inning with a lead.

Twins' relievers have posted a rather dreadful 89-to-67 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 131 2/3 innings this year, so it should come as no surprise that they've allowed 141 hits with a 5.33 ERA. No bullpen under Ron Gardenhire has ever had more hits allowed than innings pitched, but this year's group seems a good bet to break that trend.

Sadly, things are getting worse instead of better. Glen Perkins, quite literally the lone bright spot in an abysmal unit, strained his oblique over the weekend and will be out for close to a month. He was the only Twins' reliever who had made more than six appearances and posted an ERA below five; if you take his 1.59 ERA over 22 2/3 innings out of the equation, the bullpen's overall mark sits at 6.11. Yikes.

On the bright side, the Twins' crappy relief pitching won't have a chance to derail their season, as team-wide failures over the first two months have already effectively accomplished that feat. In addition, the team's lack of competitiveness should deter Bill Smith from dealing away more valuable assets for overrated "closers."

For the remainder of this season, the focus should be on auditioning relievers within the organization in an effort to determine who might be able to play a significant role in next year's pen (and beyond). So far, the Twins are doing it wrong. With Perkins and Mijares hitting the disabled list in recent days, the team has called up Phil Dumatrait, a 29-year-old with a 6.95 career ERA in the majors who had issued 11 walks in 15 2/3 innings at Triple-A, and Dusty Hughes, who had been demoted earlier this year after posting a 10.13 ERA in 12 appearances for the Twins.

Hughes and Dumatrait are both almost 30, and have established through a lengthy track record that they're not very good. Yet, the Twins opt to call them up and subject fans to their known mediocrity rather than taking a look at an intriguing player like Chuck James, Carlos Gutierrez, Anthony Slama, Kyle Waldrop or even the Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond.

There's no guarantee that any of those guys will prove to be credible MLB relievers, but they've all shown some level of promise in the minors, so why not give them a shot? The luxury of a season like this is that it enables a "trial by fire" approach for borderline prospects, and if they plan on a quick return to contention the Twins could benefit from seeing what they really have in some of these arms.

Even in terms of winning games now, calling on players like Dumatrait and Hughes is odd. Frankly, it only seems like an effort to justify the bad decisions of signing them and/or placing them on the 40-man roster to begin with.

It's what frustrates me most about this front office lately: they tend to compound their mistakes rather than correcting them.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Right at Home

Perkins is nasty.

That's not a critique of my favorite late-night breakfast haunt, it's a commentary on the performance of Twins' reliever Glen Perkins, whose emergence as a reliable setup man has stood out as one of the team's few bright spots this year.

I certainly didn't see it coming. Entering this season, Perkins had a 4.81 career ERA and 1.44 WHIP -- not the kind of numbers that scream "late-inning relief." Over the past three years, he had allowed 332 hits in 269 innings.

The 2010 season was a tumultuous one for Perkins, who toiled his way to a 4-9 record and 5.81 ERA in Rochester. He didn't fare any better during his time in Minnesota, posting a 5.82 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 21 2/3 big-league innings.

Yet, the Twins' coaching staff saw something they liked in the southpaw while he worked out of the bullpen as a September call-up, enough so that they tendered him a contract and essentially guaranteed him a spot in this year's renovated relief corps.

Perkins jumped out to a fast, yet unsustainable, start for the Twins. Over his first nine appearances, he allowed no runs on five hits over nine frames but struck out only three of the 31 batters he faced. The lefty's success in spite of an abysmal 10-percent K-rate came on the wings of a .192 BABIP, and even if your name's Mariano Rivera you don't sustain a sub-.200 BABIP.

Perkins' luck was bound to catch up with him, and it has. In 10 appearances since, he has a .400 BABIP. Yet he has continued to excel, with a 1.42 ERA and .615 opponents' OPS during that span, thanks to a huge spike in punch-outs. In those 10 appearances, Perkins has fanned 18 of 50 hitters. That's more than one out of every three.

Perkins, a former first-round pick, was considered a top prospect while coming up through the minors but it's sometimes been hard to tell while watching him work out of the major-league rotation. As a starter, he's battled injuries and mostly survived as a left-handed junk-baller. But Perkins seems to have found a home in the bullpen, where his fastball has elevated to the mid-90s and his confidence continues to grow.

The success has prompted some Twins fans to wonder whether a return to the rotation might be in order, but make no mistake: Perkins is right where he needs to be. The Twins deserve credit for figuring that out, even if it it took a few years to do so.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Prospect Rundown

This year's miserable big-league product has many Twins fans looking to the future, wondering which prospects might be able to help the franchise begin retooling as soon as this summer. Today, I'll take a spin through the NTB Top 10 Prospects and see how each of the organization's most promising minor-leaguers has fared early on this season. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of performances worthy of excitement.

10. Carlos Gutierrez | Class-AAA Rochester
25.2 IP, 2.45 ERA, 18/12 K/BB, 1.21 WHIP

Assuming the Twins' bullpen struggles continue, it probably won't be long before we see Gutierrez in the majors. Playing with the Red Wings this year, he's kept on doing the same things he's done throughout his minor-league career: inducing lots of ground balls (good) and issuing too many walks (bad). His sinking stuff could play well out of the MLB bullpen (it's helped him hold opposing hitters to a .202 average in Triple-A) but he'll have to cut down on the free passes. It'd be nice to see his high-velocity stuff induce a few more strikeouts as well.

9. Liam Hendriks | Class-AA New Britain
32 IP, 3.66 ERA, 30/9 K/BB, 1.06 WHIP

Coming off a spectacular 2010 campaign split between Low-A and High-A, Hendriks has continued to impress in Double-A this year, going 3-1 with a 3.66 ERA over his first seven appearances (six starts). His 3.33 K/BB ratio certainly pales in comparison to last year's 8.75 mark, but no one expected that to sustain and the right-hander will be in good shape as long as he's fanning close to a batter per inning and keeping the walks and hits in check. Hendriks has been as impressive as anyone on this list thus far, but his MLB arrival date is probably 2012 at the earliest.

8. Angel Morales | Class-A+ Ft. Myers
Has not played

As one of the organization's more intriguing young outfield prospects, I was looking forward to seeing how Morales would progress this season. Unfortunately, he hasn't played, as he reported to camp this year with a ligament injury in his elbow. Last I heard, he was trying to rehab and avoid Tommy John surgery, but it appears there's a good chance that the 21-year-old could be out of action for quite a while.

7. Alex Wimmers | Class-A+ Ft. Myers
0 IP, inf ERA, 0/6 K/BB, inf WHIP

Any time you see "inf" (short for infinite) in a pitcher's statistics, you know it's a bad sign. Wimmers made one start this year, walked all six hitters he faced (allowing four earned runs) and hasn't pitched since. He's now trying to find his control in extended spring training, and hopefully will be able to get himself back on track after an impressive pro debut last year. One can't help but notice the eery similarities between Wimmers and 2008 Twins draft pick Shooter Hunt -- both impressive college pitchers taken in the first round who made very strong short-season debuts and then completely lost their ability to throw the ball over the plate. Hopefully Wimmers can rebound much more quickly.

6. David Bromberg | Class-AA New Britain
22.1 IP, 3.63 ERA, 11/4 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP

The bad news doesn't stop here. Despite pitching relatively well over nine starts at Triple-A last year, Bromberg found himself back in Double-A to open this season, where he pitched well enough in four outings before landing on the disabled list with a broken right forearm after a line drive struck him in late April.

5. Joe Benson | Class-AA New Britain
.255/.342/.431, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 25 R, 5/7 SB

In 102 games at Double-A last year, Benson smashed 23 homers -- surpassing his previous career total in four seasons -- while posting an .862 OPS. This year he opened again in New Britain, with an objective of maintaining the power improvement and cutting down on strikeouts to improve his batting average. Unfortunately, Benson has mostly stagnated; his four home runs in 155 plate appearances represent a sizable drop-off from last year's pace, and while he is striking out slightly less (39 whiffs in 155 plate appearances, a 25 percent rate) he's still hitting just .255.

4. Ben Revere | Class-AAA Rochester
.293/.330/.315, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 10 R, 7/9 SB

Revere slumped horribly out of the gates in Rochester, but rebounded to bring his average back near .300 before being called up to help out an injury-depleted Twins outfield. He has batted .179 with no walks or extra-base hits in 28 plate appearances in the majors this year. Certainly he's done little to impress, but it's important to remember that he's only 23 and has a .371 career OBP in the minors. He'll be a useful player eventually.

3. Miguel Sano | Extended Spring Training

Sano, still (allegedly) just 18 years old, hasn't participated in an actual game yet this year, instead working to hone his skills down in Florida. While you can't help but love his upside, he's several years away from being relevant to the big-league club.

2. Aaron Hicks | Class-A+ Ft. Myers
.237/.344/.359, 2 HR, 16 RBI, 21 R, 3/6 SB

I, for one, am growing tired of Hicks' on-field results failing to mirror his considerable physical ability. Since a great rookie-league debut in 2008 that saw him post a .900 OPS over 45 games, Hicks has consistently posted underwhelming numbers that make it difficult to get excited about his chances of making an impact within the next few years. He's still only 21 and has plenty of time to grow, but a .237 average with 10 extra-base hits in 158 plate appearances in Single-A don't exactly scream dominance.

1. Kyle Gibson | Class-AAA Rochester
37 IP, 4.14 ERA, 37/7 K/BB, 1.11 WHIP

We'll close out this report on a high note. Gibson, who has now cemented himself as the organization's best prospect, is looking very sharp in Triple-A. While his 4.14 ERA might not wow you, his strikeout rate and walk rate are both better than he posted at any level last year during a stellar pro debut. He's allowed six homers in 37 innings, which is a little odd by his standards and helps explain the slightly inflated ERA, but overall Gibson has shined and appears ready to step into the Twins' rotation whenever they decide to give him the call.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lost Faith

In a post-game press conference following Saturday's extra-inning loss to the Blue Jays -- the Twins' seventh consecutive loss overall and seventh straight at Target Field -- Ron Gardenhire placed blame on himself, dwelling on the decision to leave starter Nick Blackburn on in the eighth inning to face Corey Patterson, who delivered a game-tying RBI triple.

"We had a lead," Gardenhire grumbled repeatedly, treating the occasion as the true rarity it has been this spring.

On a day where his team scored three or fewer runs for a 24th time in 37 games, where his bullpen allowed six men to cross the plate in the 11th inning, where his club was blown out by a margin of 5+ runs in front of the home crowd for a seventh time this year (in 2010 it happened only six times all season), a dejected Gardenhire was kicking himself for leaving his starting pitcher in one batter too long.

It's safe to say 2010's AL Manager of the Year is feeling the frustration in a season where almost nothing has gone right for the Twins. His team is the worst in baseball, finding new ways to bottom out with each passing game, and with no relief in sight.

Few will blame this team's utter incompetence on minor gaffes by the manager. This is a situation that has been brought about largely by catastrophic injuries and inexplicably awful play from established players.

But the problems for this franchise run much deeper than slumps and injuries. When the pain of this perhaps unavoidably disastrous season subsides, we must turn our glare to a front office that has brought the organization where it is today: a last-place team burdened with horrible contracts, a lack of depth across the board and a barren minor-league cupboard.

Injuries happen in baseball and are always tough for a manager to deal with, but Gardenhire's difficulties have been magnified by the poor judgment and astonishing lack of foresight from Bill Smith and Co.

The Twins entered this season with no infield depth behind the unproven question marks up the middle, no real defensive assets in the starting lineup despite an extreme pitch-to-contact staff, no workable insurance plan behind the concussed first baseman, no bullpen to speak of, and no major-league catchers to back up a starter coming off knee surgery.

These decisions go beyond questionable and into the realm of blatantly irresponsible.

The Twins have long been an organization that has emphasized scouting over statistics, and in many ways that has worked out for them, especially when they had a renowned scout at the helm in Terry Ryan. Smith, however, is not a scout, and while he obviously doesn't make personnel decisions in a silo, he's ultimately responsible for the team's personnel decisions and he has listened to the wrong people far too often during his tenure.

Ever since Ryan's departure, the Twins have regularly been bitten by poor player evaluation in signings and trades. None of the prospects in the Johan Santana trade panned out. Delmon Young has not developed as the team hoped -- certainly not well enough to justify the value they gave up in acquiring him. Free agent signings have most often yielded poor results.

More recently the whiffs have ramped up. Matt Capps, who the team dealt its top catching prospect and best trading chip for, has proven no more effective than any number of other relievers who could have been acquired -- and tendered a contract -- for much less. Jim Hoey, who the team traded its starting shortstop for, has been awful. Dusty Hughes, signed to supplement a rebuilt bullpen, has been predictably terrible.

Smith has been very questionable in his player evaluation, but what's most frustrating is his blind spot when it comes to assessing the needs of his own organization. The Twins' two weakest positions, at present and going forward, are shortstop and catcher (assuming Mauer has to move, which I think he will soon). Within the last year, Smith has traded away the team's top catching prospect, its only other backup catcher with any kind of stick and its starting shortstop, all for relief pitchers -- the most fungible asset in the game. On top of all that, the bullpen is still one of the league's worst.

The Twins are now in a position where they will have to quickly rebuild while hoping that core long-term players like Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer can rebound. What we have to ask ourselves is whether we trust a front office that has contributed in plenty of ways to the franchise's current dismal state to guide it back to respectability.

I'm not sure that I do. I was fully on board with this group as recently as a year ago, but the terrible decisions -- and, more so, the shoddy reasoning behind those decisions -- over the past 12 months have almost completely eradicated my faith.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Technical Difficulties

Since running into maintenance issues late last week, Blogger has been struggling to restore full functionality to all blogs on its network. If you have run into trouble while trying to access the blog or the comments section (or noticed that your comment got deleted from the most recent post), I apologize but please know that this problem is out of my control. All I can do is wait for these issues to sort themselves out (hopefully by Monday or Tuesday at the latest) and ask that you bear with me.

It's annoying, but it happens. Besides, with the way the Twins have been playing, maybe Blogger's doing me a favor by limiting my ability to write about them.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

When It Rains, It Pours

I got my first chance to check out the Budweiser Roof Deck at Target Field on Tuesday night. It was a fun experience. My view of the game was obstructed (all of left field and most of center were blocked from where I sat) but the casual, patio-like atmosphere was well worth it. It was like hanging out at a barbeque, only you could look walk over to one side, peer over the ledge and see a beautiful baseball stadium sprawling beneath.

My enthusiasm was quickly killed by a ball game that was, in many ways, emblematic of how this Twins season has gone. I sighed as Justin Morneau rolled over a 3-1 pitch and grounded out meekly to the right side with a runner in scoring position. I groaned as Francisco Liriano moved ahead of a hitter 0-2, only to end up walking him. Same old, same old.

By the time the rain forced a stoppage in play midway through the game, the Twins were down 4-0 and Liriano had been pulled due to illness, cutting short yet another disappointing outing. As if it wasn't enough for fans to be subjected to such lackluster play, those who weren't able to find cover were soon pelted by a barrage of hail. The large chunks of ice littered the outfield, and when the rain stopped fans had to wait while the grounds crew raked up every little piece.

Those who stuck out the hour-long delay watched the game further deteriorate, as the Tigers continued to beat up on Twins pitching in a 10-2 laugher. It was the tenth time this year the hometown nine have been defeated by five runs or more.

From rain to hail.

From loss to blowout.

From bad to worse.

That's been the story for these 2011 Twins. With another loss to Detroit in yesterday's series finale, they fell to 11.5 games out in the AL Central, with a putrid 12-23 record that puts them on pace for 56 wins. They've been the worst hitting team in the league and the worst pitching team in the league. They've struggled with routine defensive plays and basic base running fundamentals. They've managed to hit into more double plays than all but five MLB teams despite ranking dead last in on-base percentage. I was more skeptical than most about the club's chances of winning the division this year, but I never could have envisioned such a horrific scenario as the one that has unfolded.

We're not halfway through May, and yet already Twins fans must come to terms with the reality that -- in all likelihood -- the season is lost. 

For even when the offense gets healthier and the pitching staff rounds into shape (perhaps with some assistance from Kyle Gibson), this club will still be burdened by a terrible bullpen, a desolate middle infield and a major dilemma at the catcher position.

In grasping for hope, we can turn our thoughts to that 2006 team, which was 12 games out as late as July 15 before charging back to take the division with 96 wins, but that roster featured the AL MVP, the AL Cy Young winner, a sensational rookie Liriano, a healthy Joe Mauer and a lights-out bullpen headed by Joe Nathan at his peak. It was, quite obviously, a much better ball club.

This year's Twins roster was a flawed one to begin with, and not built to sustain this kind of disastrous prolonged slump to open the season. Even with improved health, I can't realistically envision them playing .600 ball from here on out, which would be required to reach even 88 wins. I say that without panic, without malice and without cynicism. Just with complete and utter dejection.

These are hard times for Twins fans.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Till It Drops

"A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse. He's got to ride that nag till it drops."
-Johnny Bench


It's a brutal assignment. A big-league backstop is subject to being battered by foul tips, back-swings and barreling base runners. His glove hand is swollen throughout the season from being pounded by mid-90s fastballs on a nightly basis. And, worst of all, there's the relentless wear-and-tear on his lower body -- the result of crouching and standing up countless times per game for seven straight months.

Given these facts, it should come as no surprise that few players are able to catch regularly throughout an entire season while still producing with the bat. Last year, only two backstops in the major leagues accumulated enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title while posting an OPS north of .700.

Joe Mauer was one of them, of course. During his career, he's usually ranked as the best offensive catcher in the league, and he's also been one of the most durable. This is precisely what makes him so uniquely valuable.

I fully understand how closely Mauer's value is tied to being behind the plate, which is why I've always maintained that the Twins should keep him there until it's no longer reasonable to do so.

I believe we've reached that point.

The final red flag probably should have been Mauer's knee injury last year, which sapped him of his power and reduced him to a non-factor by the time the playoffs rolled around. Oddly, a decision was made two months into the offseason to operate on the knee (the same one that cost him most of his rookie campaign).

Mauer is no stranger to rehabbing from injuries and surgeries, but his return from this particular procedure has been conspicuously different. Two months after the operation, he showed up at spring training "a mess" and, despite multiple lubricant injections and hours spent each day trying to strengthen his legs, he could not work his way into playing shape.

I give the hometown star credit for trying to push through the dead legs and get on the field, eager to justify his enormous new contract, but in the end Mauer's determination probably only set him back. He played poorly over nine regular-season games before landing on the disabled list. Some have speculated he could be gone until the All-Star break or longer, and with the team completely unwilling to divulge any information about the specific nature of his ailment or set a firm timetable for his return, such speculation doesn't even seem particularly irresponsible.

It's true that Mauer provides notably less value while playing a position other than catcher, but he provides no value when he's not on the field. That's a problem that's getting worse, not better, and with the investment this organization has made in Mauer it's one that is becoming less tolerable.

He missed the first month of 2009, and played in even fewer games last year. With only nine games in the books this season and no return in sight, it appears as though he may play less this year than either of the past two.

Not acceptable for a $23 million player.

Throughout his career, Mauer has routinely worn down late in the season. His .439 slugging percentage in September ranks as his lowest outside of April. He's been a non-factor in the playoffs, with one extra-base hit in 39 career postseason plate appearances.

Also not acceptable for a $23 million player.

Will Carroll, a writer who specializes in covering sports injuries for SI.com, wrote the following about Mauer back in March, before he landed on the disabled list less than two weeks into the season:
Note to self: Give up on the idea that Mauer will be moved from behind the plate while he's in a Twins uniform. They think his value back there trumps the beating he takes and the chance that Mauer is the next catcher to get in a situation like Carlos Santana, or to end up with his knees ground down and his career over early. Sure, some catchers have remained healthy -- Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza come to mind, two players who couldn't be more different. Maybe Mauer can be another one of those, but his knee, leg and back problems don't make me optimistic about it. Mauer's a special talent and last season might have been more impressive than his MVP campaign, having played through a ton of nagging injuries from June on. He fought through them, knowing that without Justin Morneau, he was the Twins offense. His example helped the team around him, one of those intangible things that also factors in when the Twins do have the occasional thought about shifting him to DH.
Over the years, people other than Carroll have pointed to many different factors as justification for moving Mauer out from behind the plate:

His 6-foot-5 frame.

His need to sit out about a game per week even when healthy.

Diminished offensive production due to the rigors of catching.

The severe knee injury he suffered during his rookie campaign.

The mounting lower-body injuries and surgeries that have piled up since.

And now, mysterious leg weakness that has the Twins' most valuable asset on the shelf and out of sight indefinitely.

None of these issues in isolation represent compelling reasons to depress Mauer's peak value by changing his position. But, when you look at the big picture, and the amount of money the organization has invested in him over the next eight years, there's one inescapable conclusion:

Mauer has to be moved. And soon.

Johnny Bench, the Hall of Famer quoted at the beginning of this article, caught until he was 33, then switched to first and third base. He kept playing with reduced effectiveness for two more years before retiring at 35. Bench rode that nag as long as he could -- maybe for too long (he required hip replacement surgery at age 57).

With the investment they've made, the Twins can ill afford to keep sending Mauer down that path, especially when his body is screaming out that it's had enough.

By now, the dilemmas being mulled at 1 Twins Way should be where to move Mauer and how to replace him with someone competent behind the dish.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Three-Bagger: Sophomores, Rivera and Reinforcements

* Austin Jackson and Danny Valencia finished second and third, respectively, in the AL Rookie of the Year vote last season. Both players shared one common trait: very good batted ball luck. Jackson led the league in strikeouts but still managed a .293 average, thanks to an astronomical .396 BABIP. Valencia batted .311, his highest mark since he was at Ft. Myers in early 2008, aided by a .345 BABIP.

Given the volatile nature of BIP luck, it was fair to expect second-year regression for both players, and sure enough that's what we've seen. Valencia is hitting .218/.301/.327 for the Twins, and Jackson is hitting .190/.258/.281 for the Tigers.

Of the two slumping sophomores, I'd say Jackson has more to worry about. He was extraordinarily lucky to maintain a such a good average while striking out in over a quarter of his at-bats in 2010; this year he once again leads the league in whiffs and the balls he has put in play haven't been as apt to evade gloves.

Meanwhile, Valencia's funk seems more like bad luck than regression to the mean. He has actually upped his line drive rate from last year (from 18.8 percent to 23.9 percent) and has shown very good discipline at the plate, with 13 strikeouts and 12 walks in 113 plate appearances.

Valencia was unlikely to rattle off another .800 OPS in his second season, but I think most of us would have been content if told he was walking more, striking out less and hitting more liners after a rookie campaign that wasn't exactly shabby.

* I wrote on Monday about the dire state of the catcher position for the Twins. Joe Mauer's replacements have produced a worse hitting line than the average National League pitcher, and they're not exactly making up for it on the other side of the ball; Minnesota pitchers have generally struggled and opposing teams have run wild on the bases.

I concluded then that the Twins ought to either sign or trade for a catcher if they sensed that Mauer's return was still weeks or months away. The combination of Drew Butera and Steve Holm was simply not acceptable as even a moderately long-term solution for a major-league team.

It turns out the front office agreed with at least part of that sentiment. They optioned Holm to Rochester yesterday, but he's only swapping places with another lackluster option who was already there. In order to jolt their fledgling squad, the Twins have replaced Holm and his .343 OPS (which, mind you, was actually superior to Butera's .306) with 27-year-old Rene Rivera and his .583 OPS in Triple-A.

I suspect the Twins were dissatisfied with Holm's game-calling (opponents scored 26 runs over the last two games he received) and inability to control the running game (he was 0-for-5 throwing out runners). A shakeup at the catcher position was beyond necessary. But replacing Holm with another no-bat minor-league journeyman who has no business playing in the majors is not a passable solution for an offense that has been baseball's worst over the first five weeks of the season.

* In addition to Rivera, the Twins called up two other minor-leaguers who merit a bit more enthusiasm. With both Jim Thome and Jason Repko hitting the disabled list earlier this week, Trevor Plouffe and Ben Revere have been promoted to try and build on their brief 2010 MLB debuts.

Revere, who hit .375 over his last 10 games in Rochester, is a welcome addition. His bat isn't much of an asset, but he's a better defender than Rene Tosoni -- who has looked very green -- and he adds significant speed to the roster.

Plouffe has gained attention by smashing six home runs over his first 21 games in Triple-A this year, and would have a hard time proving a worse option at shortstop than Alexi Casilla, but I maintain the stance I took on him in early April:
I'd note that while Plouffe's power is intriguing -- especially for a middle infielder -- his on-base skills and defensive aptitude are questionable. Much like with Luke Hughes, we shouldn't allow a brief power-hitting streak to skew our perceptions of him as a ballplayer.
The Twins themselves don't seem to believe in Plouffe as a legitimate answer, as they've directed Tsuyoshi Nishioka to take reps at shortstop while he rehabs from a broken leg.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The First Step

Charles Rex Arbogast, AP

What I'll remember was the smile.

The Twins haven't had much cause for smiling this year. Between the offensive incompetence, the pitching struggles, the constant fielding gaffes, the strange ailments, and the mounting losses, it's been a dire scene.

Francisco Liriano has had more to frown about than most. He had his name bandied about in trade rumors during an offseason in which he failed to come away with a long-term deal, and from the very onset of spring training he's run into nothing but trouble on the mound.

So when Liriano was mobbed by celebrating teammates after putting the finishing touches on last night's no-hitter, it was the grin on his face that really hit home. I've been one of the left-hander's biggest proponents, harshly criticizing the front office for failing to reach an extension with him over the winter, so I've been as upset -- and dumbfounded -- by his early struggles as anyone. To see him, and the team, finally experience a good break was heartwarming.

It wouldn't have been a stretch to say that Liriano was among the most unlikely pitchers in all the majors to deliver a no-no. In 204 professional starts between the majors and minors, he'd never before thrown a complete game. He had failed to record more than 15 outs in four of his five starts this year. His 9.13 ERA ranked as the second-worst in the majors. He'd battled severe command issues all season, and that continued into last night's outing as he issued six walks and threw only 66 of his 123 pitches for strikes.

To be sure, last night's momentous achievement did not signal a turnaround in the southpaw's troubling performance. He might have a badly slumping White Sox offense to thank as much as anything he did himself.

But he can also thank his teammates, and that's the biggest takeaway for this scuffling Twins club. Jason Kubel gave Liriano a lead to protect with a solo home run in the fourth. Danny Valencia made a spectacular stab-and-throw on a grounder down the line in the seventh. Justin Morneau made a great scoop on a throw in the dirt from Matt Tolbert in the ninth -- Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports tweeted that it was the first time this year Morneau has successfully executed a scoop. It was also perhaps the first time that we've truly seen this team come together.

A dreadful start to the season has had just about everyone in the clubhouse on edge. Last night, Liriano and the Twins finally got to smile. Remembering how to do that could be the first step toward getting things turned around.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Battle of the Bad

Over the past decade, the battle for AL Central supremacy has often come down to two teams: the Twins and the White Sox. Since 2001, the Twins have won the division six times, and that success has often come at the expense of the Pale Hosers, who finished second behind them in four of those seasons.

Of course, Chicago has also had its notable victories in this classic rivalry, edging the Twins in a tiebreaker for the division title in 2008 and reaching that ultimate achievement -- one that has eluded the hometown nine -- when they captured a World Series Championship in 2005.

This year, the Twins have been so outrageously bad over the first month of the season that some fans have failed to take notice of Chicago's own struggles. While the Twins (9-18) have scuffled in basically every aspect of the game, leading to a league-worst negative-64 run differential, the White Sox (11-19) have had their own share of issues and currently sport the second-worst run-differential in baseball -- albeit a much less appalling negative-32. (They're tied at that mark with -- you guessed it -- the Cubs. Tough times for the Windy City.)

Tonight, the two teams face off for the first time this season at U.S. Cellular Field. The pitching tilt will feature Francisco Liriano, who has been a major contributor to his club's woes with a 1-4 record and 9.13 ERA in five starts, and Edwin Jackson, who himself has regressed significantly after an impressive South Side debut last year.

Something's gotta give, right? There's no way two teams with as much talent as these can continue to play at such an abysmal and embarrassing level.

Which group is ready to step up?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Caught Empty-Handed

When the Twins limped out to a slow offensive start in early April, fans assumed things would turn around in short order. This was one of the better offenses in the league last year, and they'd kept their hitting corps mostly intact.

Yet, rather than improving, the offense has stagnated and at times further deteriorated as the season has unfolded, with Saturday night's effort establishing a new low point. The Twins faced crummy right-hander Sean O'Sullivan, who issued seven walks over six innings of work yet allowed only two runs. One hundred and four pitches, 55 strikes, two freaking runs. TWO!

Bad games can happen for any offense every now and then, and in isolation that kind of performance doesn't merit such agitation. But for a group of hitters that has collectively underperformed as much as this one throughout the season? Atrocious. More shameful than the eighth-inning bullpen implosion that saw the Royals add eight runs to a narrow lead in the same game.

There have been many contributors to this lingering drought. Delmon Young posted a .566 OPS over 16 games before landing on the disabled list; he now has the overmatched rookie Rene Tosoni starting in his place. Justin Morneau has looked totally lost at the plate. Michael Cuddyer inexplicably can't do a thing with the bat. The middle infield has been a giant black hole.

Yet, perhaps no position has been a bigger liability to the Twins than the one where they made a $184 million investment only a year ago.

Injuries and an inexcusable lack of depth have exposed catcher as arguably the team's biggest present weakness. Joe Mauer hasn't been right all year, slumping through nine games before landing on the disabled list indefinitely. He's given way to Drew Butera and Steve Holm, who quite obviously are not major-league caliber ball players.

Altogether, the Twins have gotten a .158/.206/.200 hitting line from the catcher position, including .111/.149/.159 from Mauer's replacements. For reference, National League pitchers have hit .133/.161/.161 this year.

Not acceptable. It's tough to concentrate blame on a single position with nearly the entire roster playing at such a miserable level, but even when Young and Tsuyoshi Nishoka return, and some other guys (hopefully) remember how to hit, the Twins will have an awfully tough time breaking out of this slump while getting sub-pitcher-level offensive production from a position their lineup was initially built around.

It's time for this front office to wake up. They blundered badly by entering the season with no quality depth behind Mauer, who they now acknowledge was never ready for the start of the campaign. They're exacerbating this mistake by continuing to alternatively trot out two of the league's worst hitters in the former MVP's stead, with plenty of offensive issues already plaguing the rest of the lineup.

The Twins need to figure out what's going on with Mauer and lay down a firm timetable for his return. If they can't do that, or if they determine that his return is still several weeks away, then find another catcher. Sign one from free agency or trade for one. This is ridiculous.