Friday, June 30, 2006

The Midseason Report

Wednesday's sweep-clinching victory over the Dodgers improved the Twins' record to 42-35. With 77 games now in the books, we are just four games short of the official halfway point of the season. With yesterday's day off, I thought it might be a good opportunity to step back and take a look at the season up to this point; the good, the bad and the ugly. Up to this point, the Twins' 2006 season has been one of the most bizarre seasons I've ever followed. There have been some towering highs and some utterly depressing lows. There has been some historical greatness and historical badness. Let's take a look at the top stories for the Twins in the first half of the 2006 season. If I miss anything or if you have any additional thoughts on the topics I list, feel free to add on in the comments section.

* The Twins are currently as hot as can be, having won 17 of their last 19 ballgames. As SBG notes, this might be the best 20 (er, 19) game stretch in team history. The turnaround during this span of 19 games has been dramatic. After struggling to score runs through the first couple months of the season and often looking just as bad (if not worse) as they did last year when they were the worst team in the league offensively, the Twins have averaged an impressive six runs per game, and since losing 9-7 to Baltimore on June 10, the Twins pitching staff has allowed more than three runs in a game only twice. In the entire month of June, they have allowed 4+ runs just eight times. Compare that to the months of April and May, in which the Twins' staff allowed 4+ runs 17 times apiece.

* Even more outrageous than the Twins' dramatic turnaround is the fact that the two teams ahead of them have pretty much played just as well. Despite their dazzling string of victories, the Twins have made up almost no ground in the AL Central after putting themselves in a deep hole with their poor play in the first couple months of the season. Up to this point, the Tigers are having a season that looks eerily similar to the one the White Sox had in 2005 -- a team that had previously finished near the bottom of the division coming out of the gates strong thanks to some terrific starting pitching and posting an amazing record in the first half of the season. The big question for the Tigers now will be whether they will continue their outstanding play into the second half and postseason like the Sox did last year or they will fade in the second half a la the 2001 Twins and the 2003 Royals.

* The M&M Boys are living up to their billing, just one year later than advertised. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau failed to live up lofty expectations in the heart of the Twins lineup last year, but that has to be seen acceptable for a pair of guys under the age of 25 and both playing their first full seasons at the Major League level. This year, Mauer has been the best hitter in the majors, leading the league with in batting average and on-base percentage at .392 and .458, respectively. While the home runs and RBI are not quite there yet, Mauer has notched an impressive 21 doubles, placing him just six behind the league leader, Michael Young. Morneau, meanwhile, has been one of the American League's premier power hitters. He has already racked up 19 home runs and 64 RBI, bringing him pretty darn close to his 2005 season totals in both categories (22/79). While Morneau's plate discipline hasn't improved much, he is using the whole field and is hitting for very good average at .288. These young lefties, along with the steadily emerging Jason Kubel, are helping the team immensely right now and also provide a ton of hope for the next several years.

* After spending a month and a half in the bullpen, Francisco Liriano finally got his chance at a regular spot in the starting rotation, and to say he's made the most of it would be a supreme understatement. Liriano has made eight starts so far, and the numbers have been staggering. He has won seven of the eight games. He has allowed more than two runs only once. He has not allowed more than three. He has added a new dimension to his game. While he can still dominate with strikeouts (as evidenced by his 11-K performance against the Pirates and eight K's in his last start) he is now inducing tons of ground balls and using fewer pitches to get outs. In his most recent outing against the Dodgers, Liriano issued no walks in a start for just the second time in his ML career and the first time this year. Liriano has not simply been the best young starter in the league. Since joining the Twins' rotation on May 19, he has been the best pitcher in baseball. Period. And he's only 22 years old.

* While Liriano's rookie status has brought him a lot of glamour, the Twins true ace, Johan Santana, is quietly on pace for his best season yet. Santana leads the American League in ERA, strikeouts, WHIP, innings pitched and opponents' batting average (among starters). Heck, he even ranks second in that pesky wins statistic. And yet, it is almost certain that he will not be the AL starter in the All Star game. Go figure. (Speaking of All Star snubs, Ozzie Guillen continues to hint that A.J. Pierzynski might be his backup catcher on the AL All Star roster. I don't have much respect for Guillen, but whatever shreds I did have will fly right out the window if Mauer is not in Pittsburgh on July 11.)

* Color me embarrassed. Before the season, I predicted that Rondell White would be a huge impact player for the Twins' lineup and would help fuel a major improvement for an offense that was perhaps the league's worst in 2005. Much to my surprise, White has been an unmitigated disaster, "hitting" .182/.204/.215 in 181 at-bats without a single home run. I can't feel too stupid about my prediction, because in all honesty there was absolutely no way to see such an atrocious season on the way for Rondell. I wasn't exactly the only person who thought White would be a valuable addition for the Twins' offense. Whether White's complete worthlessness is the result him very suddenly feeling his 34 years of age or a shoulder injury that might be more of a factor than anyone has let on is unknown, we must face one sad truth: his performance this year could easily be the least productive by a designated hitter in baseball history. Who could have possibly seen that coming?

* Almost as surprising to me as the ineptitude of White has been the emergence of Michael Cuddyer as a solid run-producing hitter. In 65 games, Cuddyer has hit .272/.373/.513. He has hit 11 home runs and driven in 44 runs while drawing 33 walks... to give you an idea of how much of a breakout season this is for Cuddy, take a look at his previous career highs in those categories: 12 HR, 45 RBI, 41 BB. Essentially, Cuddyer is on pace to double his career highs in some of the most important stats for a cleanup hitter. Most importantly, after hitting .209/.306/.269 with runners in scoring position last year, Cuddyer is hitting .324/.457/.634 in such situations this year.

* 2006 has been a big year for Twins bloggers. In addition to the fact that quality new Twins blogs are popping up on a seemingly daily basis, the blogosphere has gained an increased level of credibility based on the fact that many of us clearly showed that we would be more adept at running the ballclub than Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire. And this isn't just me bragging... if you look at what pretty much ANY Twins blogger was writing just before the season started, you will find heavy criticism of the team's decision to start Juan Castro and Tony Batista on the left side of the infield. Batista hit a miserable .236/.303/.386 and Castro hit an even uglier .231/.258/.308, while both played relatively atrocious defense. I sincerely doubt it's a complete coincidence that the Twins' winning streaks have come almost immediately after the departure of The Dictatorship.

* Liriano's dominance has made a lot of hitters look silly, but it has probably made no one look more silly than Mr. Brian Sabean. Sabean is, of course, the San Francisco GM who traded the Twins Liriano along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser in return for one year of A.J. Pierzynski's services. Aside Liriano's dominance, Nathan and Bonser are both key pieces in the Twins' pitching staff as well. Nathan has been as dominant as ever, picking up 13 saves and posting a 1.91 ERA and a magnicient 47:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .176 average. Bonser hasn't been quite as incredible as the other two members of the Sabean trio, but has made six starts since being called up last month, going 2-1 with a 4.68 ERA. Meanwhile, Pierzynski is helping the White Sox try and win another World Series and the Giants are thinking about how nice it would be to have a dominant closer and a couple promising young starters to complement Matt Cain.

* Two weeks ago I wrote about the stark contrast between the Twins brilliant play at home and their miserable play on the road. Even after going 5-1 on their most recent road trip, the Twins are just 15-25 on the road compared to a stellar 27-10 at home. The team's success at home this year and inexplicable struggles on the road have been one of the most intriguing stories of the first half of the year, but I suspect it will even out a bit in the second half.

There are probably some other big storylines that I'm missing, but those listed above are the ones that have stood out most to me over the first half of the season. Even though the Twins have a minimal chance at making the postseason, I find myself very excited to watch them play in the second half of the year. There will be plenty more fun stories to follow over the next 85 games. Will Torii Hunter be traded? Can Liriano, Bartlett and Kubel keep up their solid play and finish strong? What will Mauer's average be come season's end? Can Morneau hit 40 homers? Who will be called up and auditioned in September?

Even if the Twins don't make an unlikely postseason charge this year, there is still plenty of reason to watch and plenty to be excited about. At the very least, we are in a better situation than some fans.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Futility of Winning

Once again, as has happened for basically the month of June, the Twins won as did the White Sox and the Tigers. The Twins have won seven straight now yet still find themselves 11 games out of the AL Central lead. On the bright side for Twins fans, at least the Indians are 18 games back....that is at least some consolation, right?

But, rather, than discussing how awful it is that the Twins are winning and can't gain any ground, its still a blast now to watch them. Johan Santana, despite how good Liriano has been, is probably AL Pitcher of the Month for June. He went 5-0 with a 1.05 ERA in six starts. To help get a picture of how dominant he has been already, last year he was 1-2 in June with a 3.93 ERA and in 2004, he was 4-1 with a 2.39 ERA. However, its not just June he has improved on. In 2004, he was an awful 1-3 with a 5.79 ERA in May, but this year he was 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA.

Currently, he has a 2.59 ERA. If he goes on his usual post-All Star tear, as the last two years he has gone 9-2 with a 1.59 last year and 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA and .154 BAA in 2004. Basically, if he gets stats somewhere in between those and likely picks up a win in his next start against KC, Johan could end up with 21-22 wins, a 1.90 ERA, and around 250 Ks. In other words, one of the best years baseball has seen. The thing is, as odd as those kind of seasons are, it seems highly likely to happen. Johan is locked in and I am absolutely pumped to see what he can do.

Besides Johan's (and later, Nathan's) dominance of the Dodgers, the lineup just continues to produce. By that, I mean mainly the young middle-of-the-order pack. The Mauer-Cuddyer-Morneau combo produced seven hits in eleven at-bats yesterday with two RBI and five runs scored between them. Morneau, who went 3 for 4 with two doubles and an RBI, is just continuing to hit the cover off the ball in June. His average is now up to .288, with a .558 slugging percentage good for 9th in the AL and of course those 64 RBI, second in the AL. He is after yesterday hitting .352/.392/.703 in June with 9 HRs and 27 RBI. Having a .900 OPS is huge for Justin and great to see as a fan. At this point, its difficult to call this a fluke. Morneau probably won't finish with a .288 average, but he'll probably hit .270 with 35-40 HRs and definitely 100-plus RBI.

And, lets not forget about Mr. Mauer. Mauer went 2 for 3 with a walk and a double. He is now hitting .392/.458/.538. That .458 OBP now leads the AL. Simply amazing what Mauer has done. He was 11 for 13 in the series and is back to being on fire again. There is no way that Guillen or the fans can keep this man off the All Star team. Morneau and Nathan may be long shots, but Mauer, Santana, and Liriano should all have their names ready to be announced. They are way too good to be held out of it.

And please, lets not read too much into Torii's grand slam. It was great to win, but Torii's stats are still way too low right now to justify his salary and he hasn't been consistent at all in over a month. He may go on a tear now, but I still wonder whether or not its worth it to keep him around. Tommorow is an off day, so lets go ahead and prepare for the weekend series against those Brewers!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

They Just Keep Onnnn Winning

It seems like the Twins can do no wrong right now. They are getting phenomenal pitching performances on a nightly basis. The hitters are delivering with runners in scoring position. It doesn't matter who the opposition is, they are dominating.

One could try to make the case that the Twins are doing their winning against weak teams and bad pitchers. Against teams like the Pirates and Cubs, that is a fair point, but let's not forget that this incessant winning began with a sweep of the Red Sox (who have since rattled off 10 straight wins) and last night they picked up their second straight win against the Dodgers, who entered the series in first place in the NL West.

The fact of the matter is that the Twins are just on fire right now, and it doesn't seem to matter who they face. Forgive the cliche, but this is a team that is clicking on all cylinders. You won't find a team that's playing this well anywhere else in baseball...

Oh wait, yes you will. How about the two teams ahead of the Twins in the AL Central? The Tigers and White Sox both won again last night, keeping the Twins a healthy 11 games out of first place and nine games behind Chicago for the lead in the Wild Card race. Since June 8, the Twins, White Sox and Tigers are a combined 46-9. Unbelievable.

To illustrate the point that the Twins are not just beating up on crappy pitchers, last night's game provides a great example. The starter for the Dodgers, Derek Lowe, entered the game with an excellent 2.90 ERA and an opponents' batting average of just .226. The Twins' hitters tagged him for nine earned runs on 12 hits in just 5 and 2/3 innings.

For his part, Francisco Liriano had another dominant outing. His line: 7 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K. The only damage over his seven innings of work was a pair of solo home runs from the Dodgers' top hitters, Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent.

There were many contributors on offense, but the most notable performance was a 5-for-5 night from Joe Mauer. Mauer, who had collected four hits on Monday night, is now hitting an incredible .389/.454/.533 on the season. Not too shabby.

Today the Twins will look to clinch their fourth sweep of the month as they send Johan Santana to the hill opposite LA's Odalis Perez. Perez has a 6.33 ERA this year and Santana has not allowed more than one earned run in a game since May, so I'd say this matchup favors the Twins.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Mauer Posts a Career Night

Perhaps the Twins should consider keeping the Metrodome around after all. If not for the obvious advantage the players carry by knowing the ins and outs of the ballpark, then maybe for the recent surge there. The Twins, after last night's victory over the Dodgers, have won eight straight at home. The last time that happened for this franchise, in 1924, the team name was the Washington Senators.

Eight might not sound like a whole lot, but it's a clear indication of how well things have gone for the Twins recently. It was a night of breaking personal records for an individual Twin as well. Joe Mauer, who had been a little quiet over the last week, hitting only .222 with a .555 OPS, broke out and went 4-for-5 with a career-high five RBI. He nearly hit for the cycle, collecting two singles, a double, and a triple (the hardest one), but missed a home run.

It's not something I want to read too much into, but Joe is now hitting .377/.444/.524, clearly phenomonal numbers. All he's missing, just as with last night, is the home runs. Most notably, all but one of his five home runs have come with the bases empty. And even with all of his gaudy numbers, Joe only has 36 RBI, despite the fact that he has been hitting for the most part behind speedy guys who get on base at a solid clip. Partially, it's just a matter of luck. However, it can also be explained by the fact that while he's a great hitter with runners on (.393/.489/.505), he hasn't hit for much power with runners in scoring position (.294/.443/.392). At this point, it feels like the most cynical would see only a singles hitter in the future.

That's not quite what I see. I think a good comp is Mark Grace or even Paul Molitor, his fellow Cretin alum. Mauer probably won't have all the hits (3319), stolen bases (504), or runs (1782) that Molitor racked up in his illustrious career, but he can certainly be a consistent high-average hitter with lots of doubles, some triples, some good power seasons, and plenty of stolen bases for his position. Mauer may still surprise us with power, but I think at this point, it's more important to get the kind of hits he had tonight with runners in scoring position -- doubles and triples down the line and into the gaps.

Other than Mauer, Michael Cuddyer continued to produce last night out of the cleanup spot. He hasn't been amazing with runners in scoring position (.231/.365/.442) but he continues to get a run-scoring hit on seemingly a nightly basis and he's drawing walks (two last night on his 2-for-3 night, bringing in two runs along the way).

After reading the Jim Souhan article on Torii Hunter staying or leaving and continuing to witness Hunter's issues, part of me thinks we are better off just using that money to give extensions to the productive young hitters like Cuddyer, Mauer, and Justin Morneau and invest in the future. As I said in the offseason, the moves the Indians made with their young stars like Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore set a precedent that the Twins should look to follow. Simply put, it's best to focus on the young talented stars.

As for pitching last night, Carlos Silva did have a fine start. He wasn't spectacular, but he was the Silva we got used to last year. Lots of innings (eight), not that many pitches (only 97), no walks, a few Ks (three), and he even limited the hits (six) for a sinkerballer. It was a good outing, continuing an impressive string for Carlos, who struggled mightily over the first couple months of the season. With that said, Silva continued an odd trend of getting more outs through the air (15) than on the ground (six). Tonight he was probably a little lucky, but if that trend continues thing could get worse.

Tonight, things get even more exciting. Hopefully the Twins can keep their winning streak up as a pitching duel is set up with Fransisco Liriano and Derek Lowe taking the mound.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Those Poor Cubbies

Making fun of the Cubs is becoming a little cliche, but it's tough to avoid after watching the team put on a performance like they did yesterday in an 8-1 loss to the Twins. The Cubbies committed three errors and made numerous other mistakes in the field, on the basepath, and at the plate. The Chicago players at times looked ridiculous, letting routine groundballs and pop flies turn into hits while failing to cleanly field grounders or make accurate throws. At 28-46, the Cubs are a complete mess and they lack the type of young impact players that spring hope for the immediate future. I do not envy Cubs fans... but there sure are a heck of a lot of them.

Being that the Cubs are such an awful team right now, it's not the most impressive sweep in the world, but to the Twins' credit, they deserved these wins. Yesterday's game was a perfect example. The Twins took advantage of the Cubs mistakes, but they also pitched well, fielded well, and got timely hits. The sweep is the Twins' third in the last two weeks and yesterday's victory was their 14th in their last 16 games. That's a pretty impressive run, and while it hasn't necessarily brought the Twins any closer to contention, it has brought their record to a respectable 39-35.

Brad Radke delivered seven shutout innings yesterday to bring his ERA on the season down to 5.40. In and of itself, that's not a very good earned run average, but it's fairly remarkable considering that it was over seven at the end of May and opponents are still hitting .347 against him in June. The difference is that Radke is suddenly working his way out of tough jams and is not surrendering nearly as many home runs as he did early in the season. In his first six starts, Radke was tagged for 11 dingers, and in 10 starts since he has allowed just six.

Meanwhile, Jason Bartlett went hitless for the first time since being called up 11 games ago. You know what that means... it might be time for Terry Ryan to get back on the ringer with Wayne Krivsky and see about reacquiring Mr. Juan Castro.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Boof, Young Stars Continue Streak

The Twins just continue to streak. After a four-gaming losing streak on a west coast trip, the Twins have gone 13-2 in their past fifteen games and that number would be 14-1 if not for Kyle Lohse entering a certain game this last week. Even Boof Bonser, who really hasn't been too great as a starter since getting the call up, finally entered the fray.

After 6 1/3 scoreless innings last night, his starts still aren't exactly pretty. A 4.68 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, .281 BAA, and 8 HRs in 32 2/3 innings is nothing to write home about. It was a good start, but something still tells me that Scott Baker should be the one in the rotation.

It begs the question in the midst of this winning streak as to why we still have mediocre starters and relievers left. Bonser is doing ok but he isn't the solution. Silva probably isn't worth that much in the rotation either. Its not that the Twins streak doesn't pull them into contention, but that there may be better options waiting in the wings and I think its key to remind fans of this.

Look at our Triple-A club. We have three very worthy arms sitting down there in Pat Neshek, Scott Baker, and J.D. Durbin. Yes, Durbin has control issues, but what you can't argue with is his ERA (2.37), his Ks (78), and that he has allowed only 67 hits in 87 1/3 innings. He is clearly back to a more dominant form and if he isn't a useful starter, he is definitely more useful in the bullpen than Kyle Lohse.

As for Neshek, he is fair game to replace Lohse or Willie Eyre. Lohse shouldn't even be with the club anymore and Eyre is a guy that probably needs a little more time in Triple-A. Neshek, on the other time, doesn't have any logical reason to be in Triple-A right now. He is, amazingly, currently 2nd in the International League with 80 Ks in 52 1/3 innings as a reliever. The "issues" with lefties that apparently were holding him back have been solved as well. As he touched on in a Q and A at Seth's site, Neshek has done much better since the beginning of the year. He dominates, walks few, strikes out many, and throws hard from a difficult angle.

Scott Baker, on the other hand, should have never been sent down. Bonser clearly isn't as polished or ready for the show as Baker. He doesn't have quite the fastball or breaking stuff or even the command and poise Baker does. Baker had a bad month, but if he was riding this winning streak with the rest of the team, it would probably do wonders for his confidence and his future. The idea is that Baker seems to have a long term future with the team, so its probably best he is up at this point. Plus, his stats in four starts don't hurt him: 2-0, 2.33 ERA, 28 Ks and 20 hits in 27 innings, 1.15 WHIP.

Of course, this by no means is meant to belittle the Twins winning ways or their game last night. They did, after all, beat a Mark Prior who looked a lot better then he did in his last start. The hitting wasn't fantastic, but Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett continued to show their "urgency" as they got key hits in the win.

This afternoon, the Twins look to sweep the Cubs with Brad Radke on the mound against lefty Sean Marshall. Radke has looked better recently and Marshall (4-5, 4.97 ERA, 1.39) hasn't been great, so the odds look in the Twins favor.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Want Some Optimism?

Here's what Jayson Stark has to say about the Twins' chances of a postseason run:

Through Thursday, the Twins had won nine of their last 10 games and 11 of 13. They have the AL batting leader (Mauer) in the middle of their order. They have a fast-emerging left-handed masher at first base (Morneau) who has whomped eight home runs this month.

They have the most unhittable 1-2 combo atop their rotation of any team in baseball (Johan Santana and Liriano), even if no one outside the 612 area code has seemed to notice. They have Brad Radke and Carlos Silva finally finding their rhythm in the middle of that rotation. So they have a lot of things going for them all of a sudden.

With the pitching they can run out there, it isn't out of the question they can have a second half as good as the Tigers' first half. So even though the Twins are 11 games out in the division and 10½ out in the wild-card race, they can still be dangerous, assuming those teams ahead of them decide to mix in a few losses every once in a while.

The article also discusses the Torii Hunter dilemma, something I touched on in today's other post considering Hunter's abysmal offensive production. It's a good read, check it out.

Twins Win Again

In the second inning of last night's game, Phil Nevin hit a solo home run. That was pretty much the extent of the damage that would be done against Johan Santana, as the Twins cruised to a 7-2 victory and Santana picked up his eighth win of the year. The young hitters in the middle of the lineup were solid once again as Michael Cuddyer delivered a two-run double and Justin Morneau went 3-for-4, homering for the ninth time this month. Meanwhile, the weak link in the middle of the Twins' lineup continues to be Torii Hunter. Scroll down, if you will:

Jason Bartlett1.030
Joe Mauer.951
Justin Morneau.902
Michael Cuddyer.898
Jason Kubel.824
Torii Hunter.742
Nick Punto.715
Luis Castillo.684

An argument could easily be made that Torii Hunter is the worst-hitting position player for the Twins. The only regulars Hunter leads in OPS are Castillo and Punto. Both have higher on-base percentages than Torii but trail him in slugging percentage, which is what you would expect considering that Castillo and Punto are table-setters and Hunter hits in the middle of the lineup. Hunter is slugging a despicable .408 from the six-spot. I'll say it right now, despite my love for Torii... if the Twins can get anything of value in return for Hunter in a trade this season, it would be a blessing. He is a phenomenal defensive player, but it is becoming increasingly clear that he provides very little offensively except for a few hot streaks each season. Is that worth the money he's making? I really don't think so, but I'll leave it open for discussion.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Battle for the Ages

Francisco Liriano, as discussed across the Twins blogsphere, desperately needs a catchy nickname, because that's just what the dominant pitchers have. The Rocket? Big Unit? The Big Train? Apparently, "The Franchise" is being floated around by Liriano's teammates, but I think way too many players have had that name. Regardless, it was absolutely great to watch this 22-year-old kid with amazing stuff go up against perhaps the greatest right-handed pitcher of all time in 43-year-old Roger Clemens and thoroughly dominate the competition.

Liriano's line: eight innings, four hits, seven strikouts, two earned runs, and two walks. Jason Lane's two-run dinger in the eighth as he tired was the only really blotch Liriano ran into. He, of course, had support from the ever-consistent young core of the Twins' offense.

Justin Morneau, despite Wednesday's 0-for-4 game against lefty Wandy Rodriguez, came back with authority last night. He went 3-for-3 with a solo shot in the sixth, a double off Clemens, a single, and a walk. His line now sits at .275/.331/.549, awfully impressive considering that there were loud rumors of banishment to Triple-A in late May. Since reaching a season-low .202 average on May 6th (and earning the nickname Justin Mendoza from this blog), Justin is hitting .320 with 12 HRs and 42 RBI in those 40 games. At this point, it's getting hard to really call this just a hot streak and it feels safer to say Justin is finally showing us what he is capable of doing. I think Justin can arrive at the end of year with a .265 average, 36 homers and 125 RBI. Those would be numbers to be proud of and I think right now, it's very possible.

Beyond the two obvious stars, it was nice to see Jason Kubel in number two spot. In yesterday's comments, I wrote that I couldn't figure out why Gardy keeps putting guys like Punto there when Kubel is much better suited for it. Lo and behold, there was Kubel for last night's game (Gardy also put Cuddyer in the cleanup spot a day after I suggested it, so he really must read this blog...). Kubel's response was a 2-for-5 night with a big RBI double off Clemens to get the scoring started.

But of course, even though I'm not huge on the other options and he got an RBI on the night, I couldn't figure out why Torii Hunter was in last night's lineup. I get it. He's the "face of the franchise" or whatever and he needs to play in front of his family. But after last night, Torii was 0-for-24 in his career against the Rocket, including the postseason, with way too many Ks to stomach. Why bother putting him out there? It's not like you can't pinch-hit him (and predictably get that same RBI single after Clemens is out..) and that Lew Ford may have had a chance against Clemens. With Clemens on the mound and Morneau getting on base plenty, it would have been nice to have some extra cushion with someone capable of hitting the guy in the sixth spot.

The bottom line, though, sadly is that the Twins just don't have enough bats and in some ways, Hunter has to play. Ford in the sixth spot? He's barely worth starting ever with his hitting woes. Terry Tiffee? The light-hitting utility guy who somehow is still around probably doesn't need to be anywhere near RBI situations. At this point, this run of success is lying squarely on the shoulders of Morneau, Mauer, Liriano, Santana, Nathan, Kubel, and reliable bullpen guys like Rincon. (Not Kyle Lohse, Gardy. Ever.)

Tonight, luckily for fans, promises another good matchup, though nothing near last night's. Mark Prior will be taking on Johan Santana. It's too bad Prior is so awful right now and can barely throw 90. Even though its nice we can take advantage of the lowly Cubs, I would love to see a Santana-Prior matchup when the guy could still bring it. I can hear the Steve Bartman hate mail resonating in my ears just about now...

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Astros 5, Twins 3

The Twins' winning streak finally came to an end last night as they fell 5-3 to the Astros. The Twins held a lead for much of the game before giving it up in the eighth inning, which made it a tough loss to swallow, but they were bound to lose eventually. A smattering of notes on last night's game as well as a few other subjects:

* Ron Gardenhire's decision to take out Dennys Reyes in favor of Kyle Lohse in the eighth inning after Reyes had retired the first two batters of the inning on two pitches was a terrible blunder. Taking out a guy with a 1.62 ERA and replacing him with a guy with an 8.46 ERA in a tie ballgame solely for the purpose of getting a righty-on-righty matchup at the plate is beyond stupid. Predictably, Lohse gave up the lead and came out of the game without recording an out.

* Gardenhire continues to hold Jason Kubel out of the lineup against left-handed pitchers, despite the fact that Kubel is hitting a solid .263/.300/.579 against southpaws. Lew Ford had a pretty good game in his stead, but I would like to see Kubel in the lineup just about every day at this point.

* Torii Hunter is not getting the job done in the middle of the order for the Twins. In 62 at-bats this month, he has a total of three extra-base hits and four RBI.

* Jason Bartlett, on the other hand, has been getting the job done bigtime. He went 1-for-3 to stretch his hitting streak to seven games. For reference, Juan Castro's longest hitting streak was five games, and that was when he singled once apiece in each of the first five games of the season.

* Terry Ryan has said that he is not interested in trading for a third baseman right now, but I still have trouble believing that is the case. I like Nick Punto as a short-term fix, but I think at some point the Twins are going to need to lock down a legitimate starter at the hot corner for the next several years.

The Dodgers have moved Cesar Izturis to third base, leading some to speculate that they might be showcasing him for a trade. Izturis is a good defensive player and could be a decent backup, but with a career .261/.295/.338 line, he's not much of an offensive force. I do, however, believe that if the Twins choose to make a deal at the deadline, it will be with one of the LA teams.

Some Twins fans are holding strong to the belief that the Twins could somehow acquire Florida third baseman Miguel Cabrera. If you ask me, there's absolutely no chance of that happening. I think people tend to underrate how much the Marlins would demand in return for Cabrera, who is currently hitting .344/.440/.567 at age 23. I can't see the Marlins parting with Cabrera for anything less than Johan Santana or Francisco Liriano, and I certainly don't see the Twins letting either of those guys go.

* The Indians traded Jason Johnson, he of the 5.96 ERA, to the Red Sox yesterday in return for a player to be named later and cash. That Johnson has struggled this year is no surprise to me, and his departure makes room for Jeremy Sowers, who was 9-1 with a 1.39 ERA for the Tribe's Triple-A affiliate.


Tonight the Twins and Stros meet in the rubber match of the series, with Francisco Liriano and Roger Clemens facing off. A win would put the Twins back above .500 as they return home to face the Cubs this weekend, but it won't come easy.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Morneau Comes Up Big Again

Wow. He just continues to tear the cover off the ball when the Twins need him to. Morneau had a pretty mediocre night up until the 10th inning. He doubled in the second but popped out in the fourth, grounded into a double play in the 6th to end a rally, and struck out in the eighth. But all was forgiven when he stepped up to the plate in the 10th and knocked the first pitch from lefty Trever Miller out of the ballpark to the opposite field to the put the Twins ahead after Joe Nathan had allowed the Astros to tie the game with a devastating home run in the bottom of the ninth.

Morneau now has five home runs against lefties this year (he hit four against southpaws all of last year) and continues to drive the ball to the opposite field with authority. He is now hitting .338 in June with a .692 slugging percentage, seven home runs, and 21 RBI. He seems to gain more and more confidence with each ball he crushes into in the seats.

Besides Justin, Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett continue to hit the ball well. Since replacing sloppy veterans, Kubel has hit .357 in June after going 2-for-4 last night and Bartlett is hitting .455 after a great 3-for-4 night with a walk. With all these young players doing so well (let's not forget Michael Cuddyer, who had another home run last night, bringing his season total to 11) it's hard not to get excited amongst this eight-game winning streak, even though the Twins can't seem to make up any ground in the central.

The disheartening thing is that some problems still clearly exist. For some apparent reason, Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire wish to keep a walking zombie named Ruben Sierra on the roster. It's hard to really find a good reason for having this guy on the club. I don't see him having the Rondell White or Tony Batista clubhouse presence, where he is well liked enough to give him way too many chances. Sierra isn't even a great career hitter. Those 306 career homers are deceiving. Guess what, Dave Kingman hit 442 home runs but was a .236 career hitter who didn't walk very much. Sierra is the same deal; he has never walked more than 60 times in a season, his career K:BB ration is over 2:1 at 1237:609, and his best seasons came (suprise) with Texas. Outside of Texas, his best season would seem to be 1993, when he had 22 HR and 101 RBI, but he had a terrible .233/.288/.390 that year.

The .158/.261/.211 he has in 19 at-bats this year is potentially just as disasterous and torturous as White's numbers. His presence to me is simply mind-numbing. Both these guys need to go fast, especially if the Twins think they have even a semblence of a chance to get back in this thing. Just witness last night, as Sierra came up to pinch-hit and proceeded to go down on three Brad Lidge pitches. (Apparently, according to Bert, split-fingers. His scouting report was a "good fastball, a splitter, a slider, and an occassional change. As far as I know and the sports world knows, he has two pitches: a upper 90's fastball and a wicked slider. Bert, as a former pitcher, should be able to tell the difference, but he used the reference around ten times. That lack of knowledge gets annoying.)

Besides how worthless Sierra is, I can no longer stand Torii Hunter's terrible timing on stolen bases or Lew Ford's inability to protect the plate. Following the big Morneau homer, Torii had a quick single. Then, as he did against Boston last week, he tried to steal with two strikes while Lew watched a strike go right over the middle and Torii was subsequently thrown out easily. The Twins could have used another run, seeing that Nathan was mortal and blew a save in the ninth (although he was great in the 10th, striking out the side), and would have had a two-run cushion since the next hitter, Bartlett, followed with a double. About the only thing that came out of his mistake was the opportunity for Joe Nathan to bat. And please, for God's sake, let no one ever call him a "vulture" again. That word is reserved for mediocre pitches who get lucky and get wins on a winning team.

Today, the Twins face the easiest pitcher in the series in lefty Wandy Rodriguez but unfortunately, they have Carlos Silva pitching. Last start, he managed to shut down the potent Red Sox lineup, so lets hope he has similar luck tonight.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The 2006 Cy Young Race

Johan Santana picked up his seventh win of the year on Sunday, lowering his ERA for the season to 2.87 as he held the Pirates to one run over seven innings. Santana has never been this strong in the first half of the seas on before, which leads one to believe he might be on track for his best season yet. Will that be good enough for a Cy Young Award? That's not so clear.

The Cy Young lost a lot of its luster to me last year, when Bartolo Colon won the AL honor over several far more deserving candidates and Roger Clemens missed out on the NL award despite posting baseball's first sub-2 ERA since Pedro in 2000. Still, it is fun to track the top pitchers in the league to see who might be the frontrunner to win the award at season's end.

2005 was a down year for AL starting pitchers. Just two starters posted an ERA below 3, and the Cy Young award winner was not in the top five in ERA or OBA. Santana had a very good year (16-7, 2.87 ERA, 0.97 WHIP) and so did a few other guys like Mark Buehrle (16-8, 3.12 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), Kevin Millwood (9-11, 2.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) and Bartolo Colon (21-8, 3.48 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) but for the most part the league's traditional top pitchers had relatively sub par or injury-shortened seasons.

This year is shaping up to be a totally different story. Santana is off to a better start than he was last year, but so are a number of other pitchers. There are at least ten guys who at this point look like legitimate contenders for the Cy Young Award. So what I'm going to do is break down the top ten, in order of where they currently stand.

Please note that I am ranking the pitchers in terms of how I feel their chances of winning the Cy Young will be, not necessarily how good they've been. As we learned last year, they are two different things. I'll be taking into account voter tendencies (WINS WINS WINS), as well as where the pitcher plays and how they tend to perform in the second half of the season.

Also, I'm sure some people are going to be a little perturbed that Francisco Liriano's name is not on the list. The fact is that while he will almost undoubtedly be in the discussion by the time the All Star break rolls around, at this point he has still only made six starts and it is simply too early to put him on the list.

So without further ado, the 2006 Cy Young race, as of June 19:

85 IP, 7-0, 2.96 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 60 K / 22 BB, .214 OBA
Whether or not he is deserving, Contreras is probably the frontrunner at this point. While his WHIP and strikeout numbers aren't the best you'll find, Contreras is holding his opponents to a miniscule .214 batting average and .583 OPS, both tops in the league. He also hasn't lost a start yet, and until some teams start beating him, he's sitting in the driver's seat in this race. It also doesn't hurt that he plays for the defending World Series champs and was a major force in the postseason last year.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Hasn't lost a decision since the Twins beat him on August 15th of last year. If he has a strong second half and the White Sox win the AL Central, the award will be his.

100.1 IP, 8-3, 3.14 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 90 K / 17 BB, .227 OBA
Mussina cruised through the first two months of the season, holding a 7-1 record and a 2.42 ERA at the end of May. However, he's struggled in June, posting a 6.27 ERA in three starts. This has brought his numbers down to Earth a little bit, but they are still good. He is holding opponents to a measly .626 OPS. The facts that he plays on the big stage in New York and should easily get enough run support to win 20 games both help his cause quite a bit. The only question is, at age 37, will he hold up over the second half of the year?
THE BOTTOM LINE: Mussina has had a great career but has never won a Cy Young. If he gets 20 wins and proves to be an ace for this Yankees staff, the voters might be inclined to give him one.

101.1 IP, 9-2, 3.55 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 86 K / 12 BB, .266 OBA
Schilling's statistics are hardly jaw-dropping, but he is on pace to win 22 games and that could be crucially important. Schilling projects to finish the year with numbers similar to what Bartolo Colon had last year (albeit with much better strikeout/walk rates). He also pitches in Boston and has historically been a great pitcher, so there's no doubt that he's going to get plenty of love from the voters.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Like Mussina, Schilling has had a great career but has never won a Cy Young. If Colon could win it last year, Schilling can win it this year with 21-22 wins, even if his ERA and OBA don't come down much.

103.1 IP, 7-4, 2.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 109 K / 16 BB, .227 OBA
All things considered, Santana has pretty clearly been the most dominant pitcher in the league. He's racked up more strikeouts than any other pitcher in baseball while, impressively, issuing the second-fewest walks of any AL pitcher with 50+ innings pitched (next to Halladay, whose strikeout total is less than half of Santana's). Johan's numbers are all fantastic, but unfortunately he continues to be haunted by his lack of run support and has picked up just seven wins in 15 starts. Even if Santana gets a couple more wins before the All Star Game, he would need 11 more following the break to reach 20 on the season (for whatever reason, 20 wins seems to be the all-important measure of a Cy Young caliber pitcher). That's a pretty tall order. In each of the past two seasons, Santana has gotten 15 starts after the All Star break. In 2004, he amazingly got 13 wins in those 15 starts. Last year, despite posting a 1.59 ERA in those 15 starts, he got only nine wins. So, in other words, it would take his usual otherworldly post-break dominance and a lot of luck for him to be able to win 20 games. Santana's numbers are probably going to be very strong at the end of the season, but I fear the fact that he likely won't be playing for a contender coupled with a possible lack of wins may screw him over once again.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Santana leads the league in ERA and strikeouts, but as we learned last year, that's not enough. He'll need to pile up some wins for the remainder of the season in order to take home the award.

101 IP, 8-2, 2.94 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 53 K / 13 BB, .258 OBA
In our preseason predictions, Halladay was my selection for AL Cy Young winner. So far, he has put together a season that puts him near the top of the list. His strikeout rate (4.72 K/9) is not very good, but everything else is. He's on pace for 20 wins and ranks third in the AL with his 2.94 ERA. Ever the workhorse, Halladay leads the league in complete games with three and has averaged about 7 and 1/3 innings per start.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Halladay has been a terrific ace for the upstart Blue Jays, and his name will be in the mix at the end of the season if he stays healthy. However, while he is very good in all the categories, he's not the best in any category. He'll need to separate himself with a dominant second half.

99.1 IP, 10-3, 3.17 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 57 K / 22 BB, .255 OBA
Rogers has turned out to be a huge acquisition for the Tigers, providing a terrific veteran presence in a very good young rotation. At first glance, Rogers looks like a nice choice for Cy Young frontrunner with his league-leading 10 wins and his position as the ace of the top team in the American League. However, Rogers has a history of pitching poorly in the second-half. Last year he went 10-4 with a 2.54 ERA before the All Star break, but afterwards was just 4-4 with a 4.72. Before the break in 2004 he posted a 4.21 ERA, afterwards it dropped to 5.46. If Rogers can keep his production at this level and finish the year with 20+ wins and an ERA around 3.10 while the Tigers win the AL Central, he will have a good shot at the Cy Young. All I'm saying is that I'll be very surprised if any of those things happen.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If the vote were to be taken today, Rogers probably wins the Cy Young. However, with the knowledge of his tendency to collapse in the second half of the season, I'm holding my reservations about his ability to continue to pitch like he is now.

97.1 IP, 8-3, 3.51 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 77 K / 43 BB, .222 OBA
Zito, who is set to become a free agent after this season, is putting up solid numbers in what might be his last year in Oakland. As usual, he is holding opponents to an extremely low batting average, which helps to make up for his lack of control (he has issued the third-most walks in the AL). It's hard to anticipate what might happen in the second half of the season with Zito, since his name has been popular in trade discussions, but I don't think he's going to put together the type of numbers necessary to be considered a top Cy Young candidate -- he still hasn't been able to recapture that magic of 2002 when he won 23 games and posted a 2.75 ERA.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Zito is having a nice season, but is behind the pack in all categories and unless he can piece together a very strong second half and improve on his control, he probably won't be a top candidate.

64.1 IP, 5-3, 3.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 62 K / 18 BB, .231 OBA
Sabathia got hurt in his first start of the year and spent a month on the disabled list, but since his return he has been, for the most part, lights out. Sabathia has allowed more than two earned runs in only two of his nine starts since returning from the DL, but in those two starts he was shelled, giving up 5 ER to the Brewers and 7 ER to the Angels. Still, Sabathia's K/BB ratio (3.44) is by far the best of his career so far and he has looked truly dominant at times. With that said, he has only five wins and due to the time spent on the DL it will be difficult for him to pile up enough numbers to get his name in the conversation with the top dogs.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Sabathia has been dominant since his return from the DL, but it would take a pretty monstrous second half for him to be a serious contender considering his missed time.

88.2 IP, 8-4, 3.39 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 92 K / 33 BB, .263 OBA
The young Tampa Bay right-hander had a break out year in 2005 and is continuing to pitch strongly this year. Kazmir walked 100 batters last year, and his control remains a problem although it is improving. Kazmir will probably finish with very solid numbers but will not likely be a top contender in the Cy Young race unless he has a monster second half.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Kazmir could easily take home a Cy Young within the next few years, but he's cooled down after a hot start and is probably not quite there yet.

90.2 IP, 8-4, 3.21 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 53 K / 28 BB, .276 OBA
The 23-year-old Verlander is having an excellent rookie year for the Tigers. He has been a huge part of the resurgence of the Detroit rotation. However, while his ERA is good, his peripherals are not very strong. The low strikeout-to-walk ratio and his relatively high FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 4.67 lead me to believe he's been getting fairly lucky and that we'll see his numbers regress to some degree in the second half.
THE BOTTOM LINE: His ERA is very good, but he hasn't been particularly impressive in any other area. I don't think we'll see Verlander's name in the discussion for Cy Young at the end of the year, but he could be a major contender for Rookie of the Year.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Brooms for the Bucs

For the first time this year, the Twins swept an opponent on the road this weekend. Granted, the Pittsburgh Pirates aren't exactly baseball's best team, but this is a Twins team that couldn't sweep the hapless Royals. The great part is that they did it with some authority and yesterday even without the bats of Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel. They also, most notably, finally got back to .500.

With 11 hits and eight runs all coming on two-out hits, the Twins offense looked a lot more impressive. Just as they did on Friday night, they initially didn't show a lot of life against starter Oliver Perez, who has struggled the last two years since a breakout 2004 season in which he went 12-10 with a 2.99 ERA and 239 strikeouts, second in the Majors that year to the Twins' own Johan Santana. But, just as they did against Ian Snell Friday, the Twins seemed to figure Perez out in the later innings, got a break (with an error by Perez), and got some clutch hits.

The breakout hit came from Justin Morneau again. Saturday night, after going hitless in his first three at-bats, he got a tie-breaking home run against lefty Damarso Marte. Yesterday, after going hitless in his first three at-bats, he came up with the bases loaded, worked the count, and drove a pitch to the opposite field for a bases-clearing double. Justin now has 56 RBI to go with 16 home runs, quite impressive considering its June 19. Morneau is starting to show that he can have good at-bats and consistently drive in runners. Those 56 RBI now trail leader David Ortiz by only three.

Johan Santana, of course, pitched another great game. He wasn't close to being as dominating as he was his last outing against the Red Sox, but he still managed to keep the Pirates at bay. In seven innings, he allowed only five hits and a run and struck out five. Most impressively, he didn't walk a batter. In his last four starts and 28 innings, he has walked only one and has 16 on the year. That puts him on pace for 38 walks and 260 strikeouts, an amazing 6.81 Ks/BB ratio. Keep in mind, the record was set at 9.58 by Curt Schilling in 2002.

Now with a 7-4 record, 109 K to lead the Majors, and a 2.87 ERA, Johan looks poised to make another great run at his second Cy Young and he should be a lock for the All-Star Game. That would have him returning to Pittsburgh in a few weeks with hopefully Joe Mauer, Francisco Liriano, and Joe Nathan. Of course, guys like Nathan may not have a chance with low save numbers, but he should be there.

Today is an off day and tomorrow the Twins start a series in Houston. Thursday's matchup of Francisco Liriano and Roger Clemens easily has to be one of the most exciting games of the year. Can't wait to see the New Kid take on one of the greatest pitchers ever.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Six Straight

The Twins picked up their sixth consecutive victory last night with a 5-3 victory in Pittsburgh, clinching a rare road series win and bringing them within a game of .500. Once again it was the young bats powering the Twins' offense, as Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel each homered to continue their torrid hot streaks (between them, they have homered nine times in the last eight games) and Terry Tiffee hit his first home run of the season. Jason Bartlett drove in a crucial insurance run in the ninth inning to give some breathing room to Joe Nathan, who picked up his third save in as many days.

Boof Bonser struggled a bit and was pulled after just 3 and 1/3 innings, but the Twins got surprising contributions from struggling relievers Kyle Lohse and Jesse Crain. On the post-game show, Ron Coomer talked about how he wouldn't be surprised to see Lohse back in the rotation soon. Yep, two solid innings in relief against one of the worst teams in baseball is plenty to make me forget about that 8.46 ERA and .330 opponents' batting average. Let's get him back in the rotation where he belongs! Maybe we should stick him in at short and get Bartlett back to Triple-A so he can work on bringing up that pathetic .429 batting average.

The Twins have a favorable pitching matchup today with Johan Santana going against Oliver Perez, who has struggled mightily this season. That gives them a good chance to be back at .500 when they head into Houston for what should be a very interesting series against the Astros.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Liriano Fans 11

Francisco Liriano continues to prove something each time he pitches: there should have been no doubt he'd be great. Now 6-1 with a 2.16 ERA, Liriano struck out 11 Pirates in seven innings as the Twins got a win on the road last night. Besides the two-run home run he gave up to Jack Wilson (shouldn't have happened, considering the walk to pitcher Ian Snell was ridiculous and there were borderline pitches in the Wilson at-bat as well), he was absolutely nasty. His slider had the kind of break I haven't seen from a lefty since Randy Johnson in his prime. It has that "whip"-like effect, as it flies down and in to righties. If you watched him throw to Pirates star Jason Bay, he made him look pretty bad as Bay weakly swung threw Liriano's slider. Most impressively, when he had the pressure on him in the seventh, clinging to a 3-2 lead, he was able to get a big K to end the threat. Reminds me of another guy on the staff, Mr. Santana. The 1-2 punch he and Santana have given the Twins is huge; with Johan pitching on Sunday, it's entirely possible the Twins can take the series.

As for the bats, the same guys continue to produce. That is, the youngsters. Michael Cuddyer got things started with an RBI double, his 35th RBI of the season. Cuddyer, now with 10 HRs and 35 RBI, projects to have 28 HR and 97 RBI by the end of the season. Though it's certainly possible he'll hit a major slump some time, in June, these are numbers no one was expecting from him. He's been a pretty consistent force since jumping into the regular lineup in late April.

Same with Justin Morneau, who went 1-for-3 and picked up his 52nd RBI with a deep sacrifice fly in the seventh. The sac fly was impressive simply because, for one, it was on an 0-2 pitch from a sharp-looking Snell and two, because it was nearly a home run or extra-base hit to the opposite field. Watching him drive balls consistently has been a pleasure the past few weeks. Mauer, who appeared to be slumping a bit this week, went 2-for-4 and raised his average to .381.

With their fourth straight win, the Twins appear to be getting on a roll. If that's the case, they may yet have a slight chance at competing. With the way the Sox and Tigers have played, it's not likely, but if these young guys can go out, compete, and put up a good record this year, then they'll have tons of confidence going into next year. If anything, that's one of the best scenarios the Twins can hope for now.

Boof Bonser takes the hill tonight and I suspect he may have another mediocre or rough start ahead of him. Eventually, with all the roster moves, my hope is that by the end of the month, Scott Baker will be back in the rotation, Pat Neshek will be in the bullpen, and we won't be speaking of Rondell White anymore. (Another lucky walk with the bases loaded and an RBI are not exactly convincing reasons to keep a guy around.)

By the way, any Twins fans feeling like this team has made insane management decisions should check this out: The Angels sent Jered Weaver, of a 4-0 record and 1.37 ERA, to Triple-A to bring Bartolo Colon off the DL. It should be noted that his brother, Jeff, is 3-9 with a 5.96 ERA and the Angels were considering moving him to the bullpen. An obviously asinine move like this should give Twins fans comfort and drive Angel fans insane.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A Different Ballgame

Over the past few days on this blog (and others) I have made it very clear that I felt there was absolutely no way the Twins would win last night's ballgame to complete a sweep of the Boston Red Sox. My feeling was that the pitching matchup of Tim Wakefield vs. Carlos Silva simply tilted way too far in Boston's favor. Well, I am pleased to admit that I was dead wrong. Silva came out of nowhere with his best outing of the year, pitching into the seventh inning without allowing a run before leaving the game with a sore hammy. The Twins' offense manufactured runs against Wakefield. Jason Kubel homered for a third straight game. Joe Nathan battled admirably through two innings to pick up perhaps the toughest save of his career. When all was said and done, the Twins had come out on top 5-3 and completed a sweep of the Red Sox, who had entered the series atop the AL East.

I was surprised that the Twins played so well and took all three games in this series. And yet, maybe I shouldn't have been. After all, the series was played in the Metrodome.

The Twins have been a very good team at home this year and an absolutely horrible team on the road. It is not uncommon for a baseball team to perform better at home than on the road, but the Twins' splits are drastic. They are an excellent 21-10 at home and an abysmal 10-24 on the road. To put that in perspective, only one team in baseball has a better record at home: the Chicago White Sox. Conversely, only Kansas City and Pittsburgh have worse road records. The White Sox are the defending World Series champs, and the Royals and Pirates are pretty much unanimously the two worst teams in baseball. The Twins have been swept four times on the road; at home they have lost only one series.

If the Twins were playing .500 ball on the road, they would be 38-27, just a few games behind the White Sox in the AL Central and very much in contention for a playoff spot. There's no question that their inability to win on the road is pretty much the sole reason they find themselves essentially out of the playoff race in mid-June. So why have the Twins been so incredibly bad away from home? Is it because they have played a tougher road schedule? No, that can't be it. Look at their performances against the same teams at and away from the Metrodome. At home, the Twins swept the Athletics. In Oakland, they lost three of four. At home, the Twins split a two-game series against the Mariners and later swept a three-game series. In Seattle, they lost two of three. The Twins took two of three from the Tigers at the Metrodome, but in Detroit they are 0-6.

There are a number of factors that might contribute to this success at home. The Dome does have its advantages as the Twins are more accustomed to the way the turf plays and to the hitting backdrop. Also, you have classic Dome moments, such as the instance such in last night's game when David Ortiz had a sure upper-deck home run hit off a speaker and fall in center field for the most well-struck single you will ever see. The players also seem to feed off the crowd to a great degree, especially in late and close situations, as evidenced by the large number of walk-off hits and home runs.

Still, neither of these factors really explain the gaping disparity between the Twins' level of play at home and on the road. So I'll open the floor to any theories that people might have as to what is causing their miserable play away from home. Feel free to comment below with any thoughts you might have.

Incidentally, the Twins open a series tonight on the road against the worst team in the National League. How will they fare? It should be interesting. At least they will be without Juan Castro, who was traded to the Reds yesterday in return for Single-A outfielder Brandon Roberts. More on that move tomorrow.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Walks and Another Grand Slam

The Twins now have six grand slams on the year, their most since 1970 (with names like Allison and Killebrew doing the damage), after Justin Morneau hit one opposite field in the sixth inning last night. With a strike zone about as small as the leash that's been on Jason Bartlett for the last year, the Boston staff walked 10 hitters and the Twins walked eight. If you watched the eighth inning with Willie Eyre out there, you knew how ridiculous it got.

However, it did benefit the Twins. Once again, someone (Joe Mauer) was intentionally walked to load the bases and it ended poorly for the Sox. In this case, Michael Cuddyer walked in a run (one of three walks on the night for Cuddy) before Morneau hit another not-so-towering drive into the Home Run Porch. Just like Kubel's game-winner from Tuesday night, it was hard to predict it would go out when it came off the bat, but the Morneau's showed through as he muscled it into the left field seats.

Justin now has 15 homers and 51 RBI to go with a .267/.326/.521 line. The OBP isn't great, but the .847 OPS is and so is being tied for 6th in the league in RBI with Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada, only five behind the leader, David Ortiz. That's pretty impressive. I realize that a lot of statheads discount RBI, but with this offense it's pretty good and considering we haven't had a guy with even 100+ RBI since 2002, it's worth noting. I think now Morneau is truly getting comfortable and feels like he has a chance every time he is in the box.

The other guy getting comfortable, with 2 home runs and 6 RBI in the past two games, is Jason Kubel. Kubel is hitting .293/.325/.480 now with 4 HR and 14 RBI on the year, greatly improving his .188 average he owned when he was sent down. The hope is that this hot streak will spell the end for Rondell White, despite White's unexplained appereance in a major league lineup last night (he went hitless).

In his first game of the season with the big league club, Jason Bartlett looked like he belonged, going 2-for-4 with a run scored out of the 9-hole. He also started a double-play in the sixth inning.

The last great thing to pick up from this game, other then the absolute clobbering of the Red Sox and the excessive amount of walks, is Brad Radke. His 5.93 ERA, .343 OBA, and just about everything else are ugly. But the guy has four straight quality starts now. He's no longer even a good number two starter, but he looks like he can give some solid innings for the rest of the year. The only problem is that it's unlikely that will matter. Still, it would be nice to see Radke end his career in Minnesota and on a good note.

The good news is that the Twins managed to win this series, but it's questionable whether or not they can get a sweep when the hapless Jose Lima clone Carlos Silva takes the mound against Tim Wakefield and his knuckleball tonight.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

12 Innings of Insanity

The Twins have played in some roller-coaster ballgames this season, but perhaps none more crazy or fun to watch than last night's 5-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox. Whether you like pitchers' duels, big home runs, spectacular defensive plays, or extra-inning drama, last night's game had some of everything.

For the past couple days, last night's matchup was being hyped as a premier pitchers duel, and it did not disappoint. Johan Santana and Curt Schilling were both in top form. Schilling took advantage of a weak Twins lineup that featured three players hitting below .240 (Lew Ford, Luis Rodriguez and Juan Castro, all of whom went hitless on the night) and allowed just six hits and one walk over eight innings while striking out five. Santana had one of the most dominant outings of his career, striking out 13 over his eight innings while allowing just five hits and walking none. Santana struck out six of the first seven batters he faced and fell behind in the count against just four batters in the eight innings he pitched.

Santana was near-perfect until the seventh inning, when Jason Varitek hit a line drive over the center-field wall to put the Red Sox up 1-0. The Twins quickly retaliated in the bottom half of the inning with a solo shot from Michael Cuddyer to knot the score. Both pitchers came out of the game one inning later with the score tied, meaning neither would figure in the decision despite brilliant outings from both.

The bullpens dueled until the 12th inning. At that point, the Twins had used up both of their good relievers -- Joe Nathan and Juan Rincon -- which meant it was time to go to Jesse Crain. It was a good bet that the Sox would break the tie against Crain, against whom opponents are hitting .351 this year. Sure enough, Crain made a valiant effort at picking up his fifth loss of the season by loading the bases and then delivering a pitch to Alex Gonzalez that would have been a two-run single if not for a phenomenal play by Nick Punto at shortstop. Punto, who had entered the game defensively in the ninth inning after Terry Tiffee pinch-hit for starting SS Juan Castro, dove to his left to stab a grounder that seemed totally out of reach. He flipped it to Luis Castillo who got the out at second and threw to first to nearly complete an inning-ending double-play. Even though the go-ahead run scored, the play by Punto was a game-saver, as it saved a run and produced a big out. There's absolutely no question that, had Castro still been at short, the grounder would have rolled into center field for a base hit that would have kept the Sox rally going.

The Twins entered the bottom of the 12th down by a run. Julian Tavarez plunked Michael Cuddyer with a pitch. This put a runner at first with one out for Justin Morneau, a guy who has come through with several clutch late-game hits for the Twins this year and who we have praised on this blog quite a bit over the past few days. In fine fashion, Morneau drove a 2-1 pitch into right-center field for a double that would've easily scored Cuddy from first and tied the game had it not bounced over the fence. The Sox intentionally walked Torii Hunter to bring up Jason Kubel with the bases loaded and one out. Kubel, who has struggled in pressure-packed situations at times in his young career, worked the count full, and then hit a fly ball to right. Off the bat, it looked like the ball would be caught in medium-deep right field and Cuddyer could tag up and score from third to tie the game. Instead, the ball carried over the baggie for a walk-off grand slam.

The dramatic homer brought an exhilarating end to a long and thoroughly entertaining ballgame. Afterwards, we were treated with another sweet bit of news. The Twins have finally decided to cut bait on the disastrous Tony Batista experiment and will free Jason Bartlett from Triple-A. I have been waiting for two and a half months to read this beautiful sentence:
Bartlett will join the team tonight and replace Juan Castro as the team's starting shortstop.
In fairness, Rondell White is probably more deserving of a pink slip than Batista, but the atrocious defense at third base had become unbearable. Hopefully Bartlett will get the rest of the season to audition to be the Twins' starting shortstop of the near future. Meanwhile Castro, Punto, Tiffee and Rodriguez will all split time at third base.

Savor the sweetness of last night's win while you can, because the outlook for the rest of the series is not nearly as good. The Twins have a decent shot at winning tonight with Brad Radke going up against Matt Clement, who's been shaky this year, but I'll eat my laptop if they win tomorrow with Carlos Silva going up against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

On a final note, if anyone needed any more evidence that The Win is one of the most worthless statistics in baseball, keep this in mind: Dennys Reyes, whose night consisted of getting Coco Crisp to ground out to second base to end the 12th inning, "earned" the win in last night's game, while Santana was awarded a no decision for his incredible outing. Thank goodness we have Reyes to carry the team to victory when Johan can't get 'er done.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Morneau Report

Just over a year ago, Justin Morneau was being thrown in with the dogs after reporters and writers had christened him and Joe Mauer with the "M & M Boys" title. Of course, this nickname also referred to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of the 1961 fame, making the notion that it could be applied to a couple second-year players a tad ridiculous. Mantle was one of the best players ever and Maris had a few great seasons, including the 61 HRs in 1961. Yet, while the comparison was unfair, there was every reason to believe that Morneau would build on some success in 2004 with a big '05 campaign. What happened?

Morneau hit just .239/.304/.437 with 22 home runs and 79 RBI last year. He only had one great or even good month, hitting .439/.442/.707 in April, much of which came in after returning from some missed time due to being hit in the head by a pitch. The rest of the year Justin was awful. But for a 24-year-old, it wasn't that bad. After all, some of his notable comparables through age 24 are Carlos Delgado, Derrek Lee, Pat Burrell, Nick Johnson, and Cecil Fielder. Those guys are some pretty good company. And his .273/.345/.473 numbers with runners on were pretty good, leading one to the conclusion that he was not a total failure as a middle-of-the-lineup presence.

The great thing is that so far this year, Justin has been much more consistent. Though he slagged through April, hitting .208/.274/.416, he did it with 5 HRs and 15 RBI, which put him basically on par with last year's numbers, if only a little better in the run-producing department. Since then, he has hitt .282 with 9 HRs and 32 RBI. The great thing is that he was pretty good in May (.274/.333/.505) and has been hot in the first couple weeks of June (.306/.350/.667). Two good months, as opposed to the one he had in the entirety of last season, shows to me Justin is improving.

The RBI numbers have improved greatly. He is hitting .287/.359/.667 with runners on and .278/.368/.537 with RISP. His 47 RBI currently rank 12th in the AL, with his 13 dingers ranking 15th. For a Twin, that's not too shabby. Neither are the 39 HRs and 129 RBI he is currently projected to finish the season with. Most will say he won't reach those heights, but I think Morneau is steadily improving, as he showed this weekend by hitting lefties for power and poking outside pitches the other way as well, a la Mauer.

I certainly think that Justin has a 30-100 season in him and he'll probably hit about .265. To me, that would be huge, not just for a Twin, but particularly for a 25-year-old. A confident Morneau sitting in the middle of the lineup and supporting Mauer will be a big boost. As my associate Mr. Nelson pointed out yesterday, it may be time to try him out in the fourth spot again. This may well be just a hot streak, but I see indications of consistency as well.

He may end up more Harmon Killebrew than Derrek Lee (defense included), but that's alright for me. An underrated performer who has taken more than his share of criticism from the Twins fanbase, perhaps now is the time for a little praise.

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.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Hunter's Slump

Ignoring the almost comeback the Twins had last night, I want to focus on the guy who probably helped the Twins lose: Torii Hunter. I want to touch on how awful Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse were, but thats not really news. Hunter, as expected, has slumped awfully after being hot for a few weeks. The thing is, after a long time of watching it, it's getting on my nerves. For the $10.75 million he's being paid this year, you'd think he could be a little more consistent with the bat.

Yes, he is drawing a few more walks, which is cute. But when your hitting .257/.327/.420, your just a little overpaid. After a May in which he hit .336/.402/.505, Torii is hitting an atrocious .192/.313/.269. As I said, the walks are fine, but he doesn't walk enough to really make up for that, especially in the cleanup spot. The jumps aren't really news, but he has never really jumped that much. From 2003-2005, he hit .241, .253, .291, .258, .261, .282 in the months of April through September, respectively. The worse part is how much this inconsistently hurts. Despite his initial success jumping into the cleanup spot, his numbers with runners in scoring position aren't pretty. They are .247/.301/.384 and an even worse .200/.273/.433 with two outs.

The thing is, after watching Michael Cuddyer, and yes I know this sounds a little absurd, I don't see why he can't handle the cleanup spot just fine. After last night's grand slam, he has two in the last week. Cuddyer, though he went through a little slump recently, has been a lot more steady then Hunter. He is hitting .273/.467/.636 in his last seven games and .212/.381/.455 in June after a .312/.383/.581 May. Those numbers look a little low, but there is nothing wrong with a .835 OPS or 2 home runs and 9 RBI so far since he has heated back up over the past week. I just wonder if maybe Cuddyer could not only have more success than Hunter, but be the long term solution.

As for the pitching, there are no suprises here. Carlos Silva continued to be just awful. Six innings, ten hits, five earned runs, one walk, two Ks. I don't see why this guy is getting the rotation spot over a guy like Scott Baker, sitting in Triple-A right now, who has a lot more potential and did significantly better in the rotation than Silva, even with a 6 plus ERA. Lohse, on the other hand, helped loss the game, as he put it out of reach with two and two-thirds innings of relief, in which he gave up four earned runs after allowing five straight baserunners to reach to start his appearance. So, despite the Twins seven-run near comeback, the terrible pitching got in the way. Its just another reason calling up Lohse doesn't make any sense. And that 9.22 ERA makes me sick.

On a more positive note, Joe Mauer did go 2 for 3 with two walks and two runs scored, setting a major leauge record by reaching base four times in five consecutive games. He's now hitting .388/.451/.544. Simply amazing.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Power Outage

Justin Morneau won the game last night for the Twins with a couple home runs. An early three-run shot put the Twins on the board, and a dramatic two-run dinger in the 11th won the game. With the two homers from Morneau, the Twins now have 50 on the season. That ranks them third-to-last in the majors, ahead of only the Cubs (who are missing their best power hitter in Derrek Lee) and the hapless Royals.

There's no question that the long ball tends to be overrated by the media, but as last night's game will attest, it is a powerful weapon that can change the course of any game, particularly if there are runners aboard. The Twins have struggled to hit home runs for the past few decades, and it is a problem that Terry Ryan has seeked to fix on the cheap almost every year, without a whole lot of success. In the past offseason, Ryan looked to address the team's power need with Rondell White and washed-up slugger Tony Batista. The move has been disastrous to this point, as White has yet to hit a home run and Batista has hit only five, which hardly justifies his .237 batting average and his abysmal defense.

Morneau has provided decent power but he's simply too inconsistent as a hitter to be considered real valuable. Joe Mauer is a great hitter, but not a legitimate power threat by any means. Torii Hunter hits the occasional homer, but probably will not reach 30 this year. The Twins don't have any decent power hitters on the horizon in their farm system. The most home runs in the Twins' minor league system belong to Garrett Jones, who has hit nine homers in Rochester while posting an ugly line of .216/.290/.404 and striking out about once per every four at-bats. He doesn't exactly look close to MLB-ready. Perhaps the most promising power hitter in the Twins' system is Erik Lis, who is hitting .335/.427/.565 but is still playing low-A ball in Beloit. The Twins continue to look for home run hitters in the draft, selecting Henry Sanchez in 2005 and potential slugger Chris Parmelee in the first round of last week's draft. If either of these guys are going to make it to the majors, it's going to be several years from now.

So essentially, the only way the Twins are going to be able to address their need for power is through trades or free agency. Judging by Ryan's track record, I'm guessing that it's going to be a while before the Twins will hit a respectable number of homers. Clutch home runs like the ones Morneau hit last night are sweet, but unfortunately they will be far and few between until the Twins can plant a real power threat in the middle of their lineup.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Friday Notes

Is it just me, or does anyone else get the feeling the Twins will probably only win games this season that either Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, or Fransisco Liriano participate in (and Jesse Crain doesn't)? Anyway, I'll try and keep this post simple. There are some positives going on in the Twins world and a few added negatives. Let's break it down:

* Joe Mauer continues to be on fire, getting hit after hit, night after night. Yesterday, he went 3-for-4 with a walk, an RBI, and two doubles. He's driving the ball with absolute authority off all pitchers to all parts of the field. Mauer is now hitting nearly .380 and that .978 OPS is awesome, considering no Twins hitter has been near those heights since Chuck Knoblauch in 1996.

* Unfortunately, Ichiro is back in top form and has been scaulding the ball at a .571/.586/.821 clip in his last seven games (against Twins and Royals pitching, though). Ichiro has quietly raised his average to .362. Competing for a batting title might be hard with Ichiro around, but let's not forget that Mauer is a superior hitter who drives the ball. Ichiro is great at what he does and since no one else can really match him in that department, it works wonders. It's just fairly clear that Mauer is the better pure hitter.

* On the offensive front, the Twins continue to be a headache. Yes they scored seven runs in yesterday's game, which is a feat, but the team left nine men on base. After Wednesday's disasterpiece of a game, it's still frustrating to see this. Jason Kubel, though he drove in two in the 6th, left six men on base himself.

* Juan Castro went 2-for-3. Great. Another week with this lame excuse for a shortstop. What do the Twins have to do to get rid of this guy? The defensive argument stopped being legit a long time ago...

* Oh wow. Look! A Joe Nathan sighting. Its a 7-2 and Gardy decides that now it's okay to be flexible and bring the guy in for a little inning. What a shame. So, Wednesday, when Gardy had a great chance to win the game, had momentum on his side and all, he leaves Jesse Crain and leaves Nathan in the pen. You know, something tells me that the roles should be reversed here. A 7-2 game is the only kind of situation Crain deserves to be in right now.

* As per my introductory comment, Johan Santana started and -- not surprisingly -- the Twins won. He wasn't at his sparkling best, as he only struck out two and labored at times, but he certainly got the job done by holding Seattle to one run over five innings. He's 6-4 now with a 3.16 ERA at the beginning of June. That projects him for a 14-11 season, but if he pulls off his usual win streak starting now, he could very well hit 18 wins or so and compete for that Cy Young.

* Here's an unfortunate and awful bit of news: The Twins recalled Kyle Lohse last night, as Matt Guerrier went on the DL with a broken thumb stemming from yesterday's win. For some reason (I can't fathom why), the Twins skipped calling up their best reliever prospect by a long shot in Pat Neshek to call up Lohse. Even after blowing a save last night, Neshek is 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA to go along with 73 Ks and only 31 hits in 44 innings pitched. Also, he's only walked 12 batters in those innings. But certainly Lohse has done plenty to be deserving of another chance with this organization.

Okay, so the Jason Bartlett situation is ridiculously stupid, but this is almost worse to me. It just indicates a major problem with the organization. What does a guy like Neshek, or Bartlett for that matter, have to do to earn a call-up? Does Neshek need to strike out the next 50 guys he faces or what? Lohse wasn't throwing relief in the minors and his arm isn't adjusted for it, but Neshek has been one his whole career. When one of your better relievers goes down, what in God's name are you doing calling up a starter? It's not like Lohse was dominating Triple-A anyway. Yes, he had a 1.50 ERA, but his 12:6 K/BB ratio isn't great, especially considering the competition. All I can say is thank the high heavens we still have Mauer, Nathan (in big lead games like this one!), Santana and Liriano around to make the games worth watching. Otherwise, with this kind of organizational insanity, I'd be done.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Playing the Game "the Right Way"

When Kirby Puckett passed away this year about a month before the Twins opened their regular season schedule, manager Ron Gardenhire promised that the 2006 team would honor Puckett's memory by playing hard just like Puck did, running out grounders and bringing a passion out onto the field every night. "As long as I’m running this club we will treat the game with respect like Kirby did,” Gardy said.

I find it sad that a team that made such a claim can play in as lackadaisical and sloppy a manner that the Twins have lately. It's not all that tough watching your team lose because they are simply outplayed by a better opponent, but when they are losing in the manner the Twins did last night, it is incredibly frustrating.

Sure, the pitching was horrible once again. Boof Bonser gave up another three home runs and Dennys Reyes allowed a three-run shot from left-hander Raul Ibanez on the second pitch he threw after entering the game in the sixth inning. Jesse Crain got five outs before surrendering the game-winning home run to Carl Everett in the 11th inning. And yeah, the offense missed numerous opportunities, stranding baserunner after baserunner. But the Twins' ugly play runs beyond that.

In the bottom of the first, Jose Lopez tried stealing second. Ibanez, who was batting at the time, struck out on the pitch, and Joe Mauer's throw was in plenty of time to retire Lopez and end the inning. Unfortunately, shortstop Juan Castro didn't take the extra second to actually catch the throw before going down to swipe the sliding Lopez with his tag, and he dropped the ball. That's the second time this has happened within the span of a couple weeks. Instead of the inning being over, Richie Sexson was able to bat with a runner on second, and he hit a two-run homer to put the Mariners up 3-2. Castro also went 1-for-5 with a strikeout at the plate, failing to advance the go-ahead run from second with one out in the ninth. That's a performance that doesn't exactly bring memories of Puck to my head, but Castro will continue to start, regardless of how disrespectful to the game -- and to the fans who pay money to watch the team -- it may be.

In the third inning, Mike Redmond singled to left with the bases loaded. Torii Hunter, who had been on second base, rounded third and tried to score, running past the stop sign from third base coach Scott Ullger. The throw beat Hunter, who made absolutely no effort to touch the plate safely. Rather than running into the catcher or trying to slide around the tag, Hunter leisurely trotted into an out. What passion!

In the fourth inning, Luis Castillo hit a sharp grounder down the third base line that Adrian Beltre was able to knock down. Beltre recovered, picked up the ball, threw to first, and Sexson scooped up the throw on a short hop to retire Castillo. It was a great play, but a play that the speedy Castillo should have easily been able to beat out. From the replay, it was fairly evident that he was not running his hardest. From watching him play all season, it is fairly evident that he pretty much never does. I realize that Castillo has bad knees and plays through pain, and I don't really have a problem with the fact that he doesn't run out routine groundouts, but on a play like this there is no excuse for not running your hardest and flying through first base. Puck did every time.

And then there were the called third strikes. Five Twins struck out looking within the span of three innings late in the game. Not only is this type of behavior out of line with the promise that the team would play the game the right way, it sets a bad example for kids who are taught above all to protect the plate with two strikes.

Despite all of the blunders and bad pitches by the Twins early in the game, they still had a chance to win when Michael Cuddyer hit a two-out grand slam to tie the game 9-9. Unfortunately, the Twins could not score after that despite a few golden opportunities and Gardenhire continued his gross misuse of Joe Nathan. While Willie Eyre, Dennys Reyes and Jesse Crain were sent out to pitch with the game close, Nathan sat in the bullpen the entire night while Gardy waited for that save situation to come along. As usual, that situation never came and the Twins' best reliever was left to stagnate on the bench while their worst reliever gave up the game-winning home run.

How can Gardenhire claim that his team will "treat the game with respect" when he can't even treat his own players with respect?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mauer, Kubel Great But Team Doesn't Follow

Keeping with the theme of yesterday's post, I'd like to at least look at the positives of last night's discouraging loss to Seattle 4-2. Basically, there were two positives: The play of Jason Kubel and of course, Joe Mauer, who now leads the majors with a .368 average.

Mauer, who also stole a base, now spots a .368/.423/.521 line with 5 HRs and 27 RBI. We've talked about Mauer before, so there is no real need to go into it. He's just hitting everything lately, as he went 4 for 4 on the night with two doubles. At this point, if he gets an All-Star snub, it would just be plain ridiculous. Its early June, so obviously things can change, but if he is hitting .330 at the break, it would still be beyond belief. (As it is now, the starting lineup will consist of one Angel, three Red Soxs, and four Yankees. That wouldn't be worth watching at all)

Kubel, on the other hand, we haven't discussed too much. He came up struggling and Gardehnhire continued to mess with him until now, where after some consistent at-bats (surprise) he starts to hit. He went 3 for 5 tonight with a home run off of former Twin Eddie Guardado, who just looks awful out there. The .250 average doesn't really stand out, but he is starting to get it going it appears. In his last seven games, Kubel is hitting .375 with two home runs. The hope is that Kubel will continue this trend and the one guy most deserving will stay and another will go.

Who should go? Its got to be Rondell White. Its not just the absolutely putrid .193 average. (Ok its June 7th now. Enough excuses the guy is not going to help this club at all.) Its not the .209 OBP or .229 slugging percentage. Its that the guy doesn't even get the basics right. With a clear hit and run on and Justin Morneau going to second in the sixth, White look at strike three and Morneau was thrown out, ending the inning. Adding up all the mental mistakes, the times getting thrown not paying attention, the complete lack of any offensive input, and essentially costing the Twins four games (Check out Aaron Gleeman's post from yesterday)

He needs to go. Whether he is cut, traded, or put on the DL for made up reasons, I don't care. Rondell is a good guy and he should get credit for it, but he isn't doing this team any good. And he doesn't have a future here either and Kubel does if he gets the time now to hone his skills. Kubel could be an All-Star outfielder for years to come. White is 34 and looks done. This should be an easy choice, but then again, I wouldn't be surprised if they make the idiotic choice to keep White and send Kubel down.

Of course, anyone watching the game probably noticed the complete ineptitude with runners on. The Twins left nine men on base, seven of them in scoring position with two outs. Obviously, having a giant hole in the bottom third of the order doesn't help, but Torii, Cuddyer, and Morneau haven't been producing lately either. But give Gardy credit for finally using Luis Castillo in the leadoff role (Although it didn't pay any immediate dividens with him going 0 for 5) and Kubel in the number two hole. At least he is trying smarter lineup construction. It just doesn't help as much when you have 1 for 12 night from your bottom third (Nick Punto was pinch hitting for that one) of your lineup.

Needless to say, lets hope the Twins can beat up soft-tossing Jamie Moyer again tonight with Boof getting another start. With Mauer getting better each night it seems, there is hope.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Draft Update

With their first pick in today's draft, the Twins selected Chris Parmelee, a first-baseman out of Chino Hills High School in California. Says the scouting report:
A smooth left-handed swing provides line drives now and presents the kind of power potential scouts like. His arm may play in right field and he's a good baserunner, but the bat is what will get him drafted.
Says Baseball America:
He established himself as one of the best high school hitters in the Class of 2006 last summer, earning Aflac All-American honors as well as the MVP award at Team One Baseball's Cape Cod High School Classic. He has carried that momentum into his high school season this spring in California, hitting 11 home runs in his first 26 games while still drawing 32 walks, evidence of his plate discipline which is the best in this year's high school class.
Last year the first hitter the Twins drafted was Henry Sanchez, a slugging high school first baseman. To this point Sanchez has not had much success, as he's hitting just .205/.270/.349 with 56 strikouets and just 10 walks in 156 plate appearances in Beloit this year. Of course, at age 19, he's still very raw, so by no means am I passing any kind of judgment.

With that said, Parmelee strikes me as the type of guy who could have more immediate success. A line-drive hitter with excellent plate discipline is the type of guy that can develop into something pretty special. Many people feel that Parmelee was a steal at the 20th pick.

The Twins were offensive-minded throughout the early rounds, taking another high school outfielder in William Benson in the second round (says the scouting report: "He has a power-speed combination that excites scouts") and third baseman Garrett Olson in the fourth ("He handles the lumber well with at least average power. Defensively versatile, he's played all over the field").

It's no secret that the Twins have struggled mightily to develop hitters in the past, but this year they have used some high picks on guys with a lot of upside. We'll see what they do with them.