Monday, July 11, 2005

Mid-Season Progress Report

Well, it's that time of the baseball season. The unofficial halfway point; the All-Star break. The time when the game's best gather to show their stuff on the national stage, and all the rest get to take a nice little three-game vacation. It's also a time when many fans and analysts get a chance to sit back and mull over the season to this point, and try and prognosticate where the rest of the season is headed.

I'm going to use today's post to think back to what the general expectations were for this team back in spring training, and see which ones were met and which were not.

1. The Twins' record is slightly better than it was last year at this point.
The record this year stands at 48-38. Last year at the break it was 47-40. I think there was a general feeling amongst Twins' fans at the beginning of the season that this year's team was slightly better than last year's, so I think that a slightly improved record was expected.

2. Joe Mauer is hitting .300.
.305, to be exact. We knew this kid was a great hitter, and I don't think it was unreasonable to expect him to post an impressive batting average. He's also posting a .373 OBP. The power numbers are down a little bit from last year, as he's hit the same number of home runs (6) in over twice as many at-bats, but I don't think many expected him to come out and jack 30 homers in his first full season.

3. Shannon Stewart has been very steady.
This has been one of the streakiest lineups I can remember seeing, with Jacque Jones and Justin Morneau starting out great and then disappearing, Michael Cuddyer having a very hot couple weeks amid his pathetic season, and Torii Hunter continuing with his streaks and slumps. But the guy at the front of the order, Mr. Stewart, has been very consistent. His numbers aren't dazzling at .290/.339/.422, but the guy never seems to go on a big slump and that is very refreshing. Of course, that's what he's been doing since he got here, and that's why we've come to love him so. Surprisingly, he's also provided some flash with the glove this year, if only because he gets later jumps on the ball and has to make tougher plays.

4. Johan Santana and Joe Nathan are All-Stars.
After tearing up the league and winning the Cy Young award last year, it was a foregone conclusion that Johan would be an All-Star this year. He leads the Majors in strikeouts and finds himself on the AL All-Star roster for the time in his career. Nathan has been terrific in the closer spot for the Twins, and been about what Twins Nation was expecting. He's dominated with his fastball, racked up tons of strikeouts, and leads the league in saves. He hit a few bumpy spots and his ERA and walks are higher than one would like to see, but he has certainly protected his spot as one of the game's elite.

5. The Twins are among the AL leaders in ERA
The Twins' pitching staff has posted a 3.78 ERA to this point in the season, which puts them second in the AL behind the White Sox. Pretty much where most people expected them to be, I think, since their starting rotation and bullpen had both been vaunted as one of the best in the Majors.

1. The Twins are 9 games out of first place.
This is the doozy, the most obvious. Coming into the year, it looked like if the Twins had any competition in the AL Central, it would come from Cleveland. While Cleveland has been solid (despite a slow start), it has been the White Sox who have taken the league by storm, posting an MLB-best 57-29 record in the first half. This has come as a shock to many, I admittedly had the Sox pegged as one of the worst teams in the division before the season started. They'd lost their two most consistent power threats in Mag Ordonez and Carlos Lee, and didn't have an all-too impressive team on paper. However, their small-ball approach and out-of-nowhere performances from guys like Jon Garland, Dustin Hermanson, and Carl Everett have put them on top of the Central and in very good position to nab the division crown from the Twins.

2. The Cuddyer Disaster.
Michael Cuddyer was the Twins' hottest hitter in spring training, and seemed poised to pick up right where Corey Koskie left off at third base for the Twins. A guy who had long yearned for an opportunity to start on a regular basis, Cuddy was looking to post solid numbers that would round out the bottom part of the Twins' order very nicely. Instead, Cuddyer has been abysmal. The once-promising hitter has struggled mightily, hitting just .259 and showing pathetic power with a .384 slugging percentage. His defense at third base has been despicable. Now Cud finds himself on the DL going into the break, and there is a good chance he won't have a spot when he returns.

3. Mauer's been healthy.
This is actually a good thing that we weren't expecting. Mauer missed most of last season with a bad knee injury, and it flared up again in spring training. The team said he would be fine, but when Ron Gardenhire made the decision to keep a third catcher in Corky Miller at the expense of power-hitter Michael Restovich coming into the regular season, Twins fans everywhere got the idea that there was more wrong with Mauer's knee than the team was letting on. Surprisingly, Mauer has missed no time aside from the occasional precautionary day off, and he has been in fact the ONLY infielder who hasn't missed time due to injury. Who'da thunk it.

4. Santana has been hittable.
Johan's election to the All-Star team was really probably more due to his performance in the last half of the 2004 season than his performance so far this year. Not to say he doesn't have deserving statistics this year, leading the league in strikeouts is never something to scoff at, but the guy hasn't even been the best pitcher on this team, let alone one of the best in the league. He's gotten lit up, especially lately, and as a result has an ERA near 4.

5. Morneau has only 11 homers.
It's hard to be disappointed with that number out of a guy experiencing his first full year as a starter. Still, he's fallen short of pretty much everyone's expectations I think. And why shouldn't we have high expectations? I realize he's young and inexperienced, but the guy smacked 19 homers in just 280 at-bats last year. He's already had 237 this year, and he's hit 8 fewer dongs, indicating that he has regressed rather than improving. His OPS is nearly 70 points lower than what he finished with last year. What's most distressing is that after a torrid April in which he his .439, he hit .222 and .239 in May and June, indicating that the league seems to have figured him out. Featured as one of the up-and-coming premier power hitters in the league coming into this season, Justin has lost his spot as the team's cleanup hitter and been relegated to the number 7 spot in the order.

What has or hasn't surprised you?