Monday, June 12, 2006

Cleaning Up

Yesterday, Mr. Mosvick wrote that the time had come for the slumping Torii Hunter to be removed from the cleanup spot in the batting order, suggesting Michael Cuddyer as a possible replacement. As if responding to the post, Ron Gardenhire's lineup for yesterday's match-up against the Orioles had Hunter batting sixth with Cuddy being bumped up to fourth. The results? Cuddyer struck out in each of his four plate appearances.

Cuddy is probably a better answer in the cleanup spot than Hunter right now, but I don't think he will suffice in the long run. Pitchers have started to take advantage of his guesswork at the plate, striking him out 18 times in his last 12 games. He's a decent fit in the number five spot at this point, as his 1.054 OPS with runners in scoring position will attest, but Joe Mauer needs protection in the lineup or opponents are going to just start pitching around him.

With the group of hitters the Twins have, no one stands out as an obvious choice to fill the role of cleanup hitter, but I would contend that it might be time to give Justin Morneau another look in the spot. Granted, this creates the late-game conundrum of having back-to-back lefties in the lineup, but Mauer is hitting .377 against southpaws this year and while Morneau will probably never be much of a force against left-handers, his last two home runs have come against them and he has shown some signs of improvement. Therefore, having the two lefties hit back-to-back is probably not as much of an issue as it was last year.

Morneau has shown some very promising signs lately, with a couple of those coming in yesterday's 4-0 victory over the Orioles. Despite striking out twice, Morneau had a pretty good game against a tough left-handed pitcher in Orioles starter Erik Bedard. In his first at-bat, he fell behind in the count 0-2 before fighting off an outside curveball and driving it to left field for a single. That's the type of hit we need to see more often out of Justin. In his next at-bat, Morneau swung at the first pitch. His tendency to do this frustrates some fans, but in fairness, the first offering is often the most hittable pitch a batter will see in an at-bat. That was the case in this situation, as Bedard tried to sneak a fastball past Morneau on the outside corner and Justin reached out and drove it over the right-field fence for a two-run homer.

Morneau is now hitting .255/.315/.500 on the year to go along with 14 home runs and 47 RBI. That projects to about 37 HR and 125 RBI for the season. While I don't suspect he will reach those gaudy numbers, I'd be happy with 30/100 from the 25-year-old. If he can continue to bring his average up and drive in runners, Morneau would be a nice fit behind Mauer in the lineup.

Speaking of Mauer, he had only one hit yesterday, ending a streak of five straight multi-hit games, and he struck out for the first time since May 28 (with the bases loaded, no less). He also committed his second error of the season trying to throw out a stealing Luis Matos at second. It was a bad game by Mauer's standards, but certainly nothing to scoff at.

Meanwhile, Francisco Liriano sparkled once again, taking a no-hit bid into the fifth inning for the second time in his five starts. Since moving into the rotation, Liriano has allowed just 15 hits in 29 innings. He also pitched seven innings in yesterdays game, marking the first time this season that he has pitched past the sixth. Its apparent by now that Liriano not only belongs in the rotation, but that he will and is dominating the league. The 1-2 combo of Santana and Liriano will win lots of games, but the question lies with everyone else in the rotation.