Friday, August 04, 2006

Triple-A Fun

In what should hopefully be expected of a playoff contender, the Twins easily defeated the Kansas City Royals, that now resemble a mediocre Triple-A team at best. Granted, even I can admit that what new GM Drayton McClane has done since coming from the Atlanta Braves organization has been impressive; he's gotten rid of old retread veterans (Tony Graffinino, Matt Stairs, Elmer Dessens, Mike MacDougal, etc) for prospects for some potential, mainly the pitching the organization lacks so badly.

However, by doing so, the current product left on the field doesn't look so pretty. This was clear tonight, with the numerous mis-plays by the Royals and the two errors by their new shortstop who is so unknown, doesn't have a page on him. Besides looking pathetic with their gloves, their starting pitching Jorge De La Rosa could not find the strike zone from the very beginning.

De la Rosa is a 25-year-old Mexican pitcher who still looks as raw as an 18-year-old rookie. He's a lefty with a hard fastball and a curve that has plenty of movement, but he has no control. He is the kind of pitcher the Royal organization could really use, and there, the trade with Brewers (giving up Graffinino) was probably a smart one by McClane. However, De la Rosa needs time in Triple-A to work on his control. The problem is he basically is already there. After a good first start against Texas, De la Rosa walked four Twins in 1 and 1/3 innings and threw 54 pitches (half were balls) before being removed with a 3-0 deficit.

The Twins were smart and waited patiently while De la Rosa walked Luis Castillo and Joe Mauer in the first before, with two outs, Justin Morneau knocked one in with a single and Torii Hunter another with a double. By the second inning, De la Rosa's control was non-existent and Todd Wellemeyer was brought in. After Michael Cuddyer grounded out and Luis Castillo was forced out at home, Morneau once again came up big with runners on, hitting a single to bring in two before Cuddyer scored on a Blanco mental error. Basically, Morneau was undoubtedly the hitting hero of the night. The pitchers were De la Rosa, Wellemeyer, and Leo Nunez, who despite getting two double plays (nothing new for the Twins, with 10 in the last three games), showed lack of control as well by hitting two Twins hitters in essentially the same spot.

The best part of this game, other than picking up a needed win against a sad team, was seeing Brad Radke throw eight good innings and show no signs of his lingering shoulder issues. With the news on Francisco Liriano's arm soreness, Johan Santana's recent string of mediocre starts, the failures of Boof Bonser and Scott Baker, and the call-up of a Triple-A lifer, it was easy to get down on this team pretty easily the last few days. But it's comforting to know Radke still can be effective, as he got 14 straight Royals out at one point, struck out six, walked one, and gave up only four hits.

Granted, against the Royals, those are numbers to get too excited about, but knowing that Radke is healthy enough to be effective and get his fastball at least in the 88-90 MPH range is important. Radke is a key factor down the stretch and no Twin fan can honestly tell me that they wouldn't love to see Brad go out in a Twins uniform by pitching a few more brilliant playoff starts. That would be the perfect ending to a nice career for a guy who certainly did a lot for this franchise. Don't forget that Radke had two, not just one, chances to bolt this organization for big money and he spurned it for a chance to finish his career as a Twin and to win a ring here.

By no means am I predicting the Twins make the playoffs, but merely stating the importance of seeing Radke have a good game. The best thing now that can happen for the Twins is to get good news on Liriano. The only problem is that even if they get good news, Liriano's future is now up in the arm. Its clear the torque Liriano puts on his elbow with each hard-breaking slider is doing damage to his elbow and forearm area. It may only be a matter of time before he faces major problems. He may be okay for now, but winning the Rookie of the Year (*cough cough* Kerry Wood) isn't worth ruining a career. I don't wish to jump to any conclusions, but in retrospect, the Twins caution with Liriano may be a good thing.

It's likely that Liriano's delivery and mechanics will eventually need altering. It's a choice between a great season and possible playoff success and a good long career. Sure, if Liriano loses some bite on his slider due to alterations of his mechanics, he'll get hit a little harder, at least at first, but more reliance on a great fastball with movement and a good changeup (one that can be great with Santana sitting on the bench waiting to help out) isn't such a bad thing. Anyway, the fact is that Liriano probably will eventually have to rely less on the slider regardless.

There is a long list of pitchers whose careers fell apart for similar reasons or had to change their pitching to compensate (think John Smoltz, or our own Scott Erickson). It seems to me that the Twins will probably go the cautious route, as most of their decisions this year point to the future and not going to the playoffs anyway. Even this year, the staff could simply try and persuade Liriano to rely more on his fastball and changeup. But who knows if that will happen?

Of course, for now, if he is healthy, me and the rest of the Twins nation will be glad to see him on the mound. With that said, lets hope that Johan can righten his ship against the Royals as he begins August. He had a July that saw him go an un-Santana-esque 3-1 with a 4.74 ERA, with 40 hits and 12 walks allowed in 38 innings with only 36 Ks. Granted, the K rate isn't terrible, but Santana was not at all his dominating self. The numbers look awfully close to how Santana did in April (1-3, 4.45 ERA, 34 hits, 10 walks, and 28 Ks in 32 2/3 innings), so let's hope his August and September are just like his May and June. (3-1, 2.72 ERA, 5-0 1.05 ERA respectively.) Too bad Johan has a 4.61 ERA against the Royals so far this year. Lets hope he improves on that as well.