On its own, the Twins getting swept at the hands of the Yankees in New York is not overly troubling. Yet, since the start of June, the Twins have been swept in the stadiums of the White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees -- three contending teams. This is a problem. This Twins team needs to start beating good opponents on the road.
The three losses in New York were particularly damaging, since the Tigers were able to sweep their series in Kansas City to move back within three games of the Twins while the White Sox picked up a couple victories against the Rangers to increase their lead in the AL Central to 2 1/2 games.
The Twins need to rebound in Cleveland this weekend, and the following four-game series against the White Sox at the Metrodome looms large.
Some various notes for the weekend:
* Between 2003-2005, his first three seasons in the big leagues, Justin Morneau struck out in 18.4 percent of his plate appearances while drawing walks 8.4 percent of the time. That's not a bad strikeout rate for a young power hitter, but the roughly 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (178 to 81) was far from ideal. Over the past three seasons, Morneau has cut down his strikeout rate to 13.7 while increasing his walk rate to 9.1. Each season, his K/BB ratio has drawn closer to even. This year, he has struck out 58 times while drawing 45 walks, and considering current trends (19 walks to 11 strikeouts in his past 25 games) it would seem that by the end of the season the two totals might be close to even.
There's nothing surprising about Morneau's improvement in this regard. As players become more accustomed to major-league competition, it is perfectly normal for them to improve their plate approach and cut down their K/BB ratio. The fact that Morneau is the prime run-producing force in this lineup has clearly caused opposing teams to start pitching around him, so the increased walk rate this season (10.3 percent) is likely to continue escalating.
Kent Hrbek, a former Twin to whom Morneau draws many comparisons, followed a similar path early in his career. Like Morneau, Hrbek never struck out much for a power-hitting first baseman, and early in his career his walk rates were relatively low. As Hrbek's career progressed, however, he started walking more and striking out less. In 1987, his sixth year in the league, he drew more walks (84) than strikeouts (60) for the first time in his career, and he went on to do that every single year for the rest of his career.
Will Morneau follow the same path? We'll see.
* The early results of the Twins' recent June draft have been extremely encouraging, especially the first-round selections. Top pick Aaron Hicks has been working to silence questions about his bat by hitting .330/.423/.455 with two homers and 17 RBI over 22 games in the rookie Gulf Coast League. He has also flashed his speed by going 5-for-5 on stolen base attempts. Carlos Gutierrez, the University of Miami closer whom many felt the Twins reached to draft at No. 27 in the first round, went straight to Advanced-A Ft. Myers and has settled in nicely there with a 3.60 ERA and terrific ground ball rate over four appearances.
The most startling numbers, however, have come from Shooter Hunt, the Tulane right-hander whom the Twins nabbed with their supplemental pick at the end of the first round. In four starts in the rookie-level Appalachian League (one step above the GCL) Hunt posted a minuscule 0.47 ERA, allowing just four hits and six walks while striking out 34 over 19 innings. These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, because really Hunt had no business pitching at such a low level -- he's a finely tuned 21-year-old college product pitching against mostly teenagers with little experience against high-level competition. It's not entirely clear why the Twins elected to start Hunt at a level that he pretty clearly was too advanced for, but they've quickly reacted to his overt dominance in Elizabethton by promoting him to Low-A Beloit. Hunt has very good stuff and could move quickly through the Twins organization if he keeps his control in check and his shoulder stays healthy and strong.
* I recently mentioned Casey Blake, who we'll see this weekend when the Twins play three games in Cleveland, as one of the most likely trade targets for the Twins to pursue as the deadline approaches. I haven't really seen the Twins attached to many Blake rumors, and ESPN's Buster Olney did not mention them as a suitor in his recent trade speculation column (Insider only). Olney says that the Mets, Rays and Phillies are among the teams with serious interest in Blake. Interestingly, Olney also provides the following tidbit:
The Dodgers keep making it clear to other teams that third baseman Andy LaRoche is available -- and if L.A. makes a move, he will likely be the chip used in a trade.
The Twins haven't really been mentioned in connection with LaRoche, but I've always viewed him as a guy they should seriously look into. It doesn't seem like he's ever going to get a fair shake in Los Angeles, and he would potentially provide the Twins with a highly disciplined right-handed bat at the hot corner.
* According to another ESPN scribe, Jayson Stark, states that the Twins are still pursuing Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, contrary to what the Star Tribune reported last weekend. Says Stark:
Despite reports that the Twins have given up on their attempts to pry Adrian Beltre away from Seattle, we're hearing those discussions are far from dead. The Twins' No. 1 trading priority is to upgrade at third base. One team that reportedly has packed it in on Beltre is the Dodgers, after they learned that Beltre's no-trade list specifically blocks his return to Chavez Ravine.
As I've said before, Beltre would be a solid addition at the right price, but I still have a hard time envisioning such a trade taking place. In the same column, Stark lists the Twins as suitors of Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock. I've read of this interest in numerous places and don't really understand it. Blalock is a left-handed hitter with an ugly platoon split who doesn't hit well away from his hitter-friendly home park. He also has only one year left on his contract.