Friday, May 30, 2008

Friday Notes

The Twins broke their Thursday spell last night with a win to complete a sweep over the hapless Royals. Kevin Slowey hurled a complete game, allowing just one run on an RBI double off the bat of Alex Gordon with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Twins pitchers will have a bit of a tougher task ahead of them against the Yankees this weekend, but for the time being, the Twins have won five of six and are three games above .500. Life is good. A couple notes:

* Yesterday the Twins acquired Craig Breslow off waivers from the Indians. A 27-year-old lefty reliever, Breslow owned a 3.24 ERA and 7-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 8 1/3 innings this season, and a holds a 2.95 ERA over 36 2/3 career major-league innings. While the ERA is good, Breslow's big-league WHIP is an ugly 1.67, his numbers against left-handed hitters have been underwhelming and he has struggled with his control. Nevertheless, he posted good strikeout rates throughout the minors and looks like a fairly decent addition.

While the team's desire to add another left-handed reliever to the bullpen is understandable, it is interesting that they felt the need to go outside of the organization to get one. There are a pair of southpaw relievers down in Rochester who have put up pretty good numbers this season, and seemingly have earned a shot at pitching in the big leagues. Mariano Gomez has posted a 2.27 ERA and 23-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing only one homer over 31 2/3 innings, and Ricky Barrett has posted a 3.38 ERA in 29 1/3 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .216 average. While the two have pitched well this year, Gomez hadn't proven much prior to this year and Barrett has struggled with his control (as usual); those factors might help explain why the Twins sought to acquire a more reliable option.

Breslow is expected to join the Twins in time for their series opener against the Yankees tonight.

* There is a tendency amongst fans of a baseball organization to want to see prospects promoted aggressively. This makes sense -- most fans follow the big-league club and they want to see talented young players making an impact with the team as soon as possible. If a prospect goes on a hot streak, you'll almost always see message boards and blogs filled with calls to see him sent up to the next level.

People who advocate promotions based solely on statistical proficiency tend to overlook some important factors in whether or not a young player should be moved up. How is he handling things mentally? How is his attitude? Is there room at his position at the next level? Is he old enough that a promotion is warranted? I generally tend to agree with the organization's rather conservative philosophy in promoting prospects, so I have no problem with the previously unspectacular Luke Hughes -- this blog's Prospect of the Month in April -- spending some more time in New Britain to prove that his incredibly hot start is for real, or with 2007 first-rounder Ben Revere hanging in Low-A Beloit for a while despite the fact that he's hitting almost .400 there.

With that said, there are a couple guys in Class-A Ft. Myers who I think the Twins really need to move up to New Britain very soon: reliever Anthony Slama and third baseman Danny Valencia. Slama -- a lanky right-hander with a funky delivery -- has absolutely dominated out of the Miracle bullpen this year, allowing just one earned run over 28 1/3 innings (0.32 ERA) while posting a fantastic 46-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and getting tons of ground balls. While he's in just his first full pro season after joining the Twins last year, Slama is already 24 years old, which gives him a distinct advantage over the younger hitters in A-ball. Meanwhile, Valencia is hitting .347/.409/.571 in Ft. Myers with five homers and 17 doubles in 47 games. He's 23.

The outstanding numbers being posted by these young men are certainly encouraging, but it's not exactly unusual for college products like Slama and Valencia to dominate the low minors. The step up to Double-A will be a big one for both players and will likely serve as a strong indicator as to how close they are to big-league ready. Being that both players fill what are likely to be positions of need for the Twins in the near future, I think it's best that the organization move them up to a more fitting level of competition and see how they handle it.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Royal Comeback

It's very rare that I ever feel much empathy for a team that the Twins beat. But last night, as I watched Craig Monroe's pinch-hit three-run homer sail over the fence, capping a five-run ninth-inning comeback for the Twins, my heart ached for the Royals a bit. This isn't to say I wasn't ecstatic about the amazing comeback I had just witnessed from my team -- I was. But man, that is hard for the Royals. Already riding a nine-game losing streak, they get a great start from Zack Greinke, finally get a few big hits from their anemic offense, and come within one strike of a five-run victory. Then, it all fell apart.

With the Twins trailing 8-3 with two outs in the ninth, Mike Lamb ripped an RBI single to left field to score Jason Kubel. Then Brendan Harris kept the inning going with a single of his own. Carlos Gomez came up and bounced a seeing-eye single into center field, scoring Lamb. This brought Monroe to the plate representing the tying run. It was one of those moments where a fan thinks to himself/herself, "It'd be so awesome if he hit a home run right here... but what are the chances of THAT happening." Amazingly enough, it did happen. Monroe pieced together a solid at-bat and ended it by lining a low fastball over the left-field fence. One inning later, Justin Morneau ripped a solo shot to right, which proved to be the game-winner once Joe Nathan slammed the door for his 14th save. It was perhaps the most improbable comeback I have ever personally witnessed.

Obviously, it ended up being nice to have Monroe available as a pinch-hitter last night, but I'm still totally confounded that he wasn't in the starting lineup to begin with. By almost any measure, he was a smarter play than Delmon Young in left field. Young was on a terrible cold streak, having gone 2-for-22 (.091) over his last six games and coming off a night in which he went 0-for-6 and misplayed a double into a game-tying inside-the-park homer. Beyond that, he was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts lifetime against Royals starter Greinke, whereas Monroe was .389/.400/.889 with two homers in 20 plate appearances. I don't put a whole lot of stock into past performances against pitchers, especially with sample sizes like those, but I know Gardy does... or at least he claims to. There was just no reason to start Young last night other than to extend a superficial streak. Young walked twice in the game, but went 0-for-3 and committed a pair of costly errors in the fourth inning. He really seems to be in a bad place mentally right now, and I have to believe that a day off would be beneficial. How much longer can Gardenhire continue to pencil him in every night?

One other item. For those who were complaining about Gardenhire's decision to pull Nathan out of Tuesday night's game after just 10 pitches while Royals closer Joakin Soria pitched two full innings, last night's game should serve as a great vindicator for Gardy. Soria was unavailable to stop the bleeding as the Royals bullpen blew a huge lead in the ninth, while Nathan was able to come in and protect the Twins' one-run lead in the tenth. Just something to think about.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Poz on Gardy

Hey all. Sorry for the lack of a new entry today, but I do want to direct everyone over to the blog of Joe Posnanski, Kansas City Star columnist and perhaps my favorite blogger in the country. In today's post, he writes extensively about Ron Gardenhire, whom he dubs the game's best manager. I think a few of his points are muddled from not being able to watch the team regularly (one of his main qualifications for a great manager is that "they don’t make a lot of nonsensical moves based on hunches or small sample sizes," which we all know that Gardy is routinely guilty of), but there are a lot of interesting thoughts here and I always enjoy reading the in-depth perspective of an intelligent outsider when it comes to Twins-related subjects.

By the way, if you're not already reading Posnanski's blog on a daily basis, bookmark it. I promise you will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Juggling the Rotation

Changes are coming for the Twins rotation. Scott Baker pitched in extended spring training yesterday and is scheduled to do so again on Saturday. If all goes well, he will return to Minnesota and the Twins will get back their best starter.

Of course, this means that someone will have to move out of the rotation to make room for Baker. Glen Perkins was initially called up as a temporary fill-in while Baker rehabbed, but with the way he's pitching, there's no way he's going anywhere. After earning his second win in the Twins' 6-1 victory over the Tigers on Sunday, Perkins now sports a 2.77 ERA in four starts. He has issued only four walks over 26 innings, which may be the most impressive aspect of his stint with the Twins considering his history. Perkins strikes me as a guy who perhaps dials up his performance based on the level of competition; his numbers in the high minors were never overwhelming, but he holds a 2.83 ERA over 60 1/3 big-league innings. As long as he can remain focused and aggressive, I see no reason why he can't continue to be successful with the Twins.

With Perkins performing well and Livan Hernandez and Nick Blackburn holding their own, Boof Bonser looks like the odd man out. Bonser has gotten poor results in the month of May, and while I don't necessarily think a string of four bad starts warrants a demotion (particularly when the peripheral numbers suggest that Bonser hasn't even pitched all that poorly for the most part), I would have no qualms with seeing him moved out of the rotation at this point since the Twins need Baker and everyone else has earned the right to stay.

Bonser is out of options, so he won't be heading to Rochester. The most likely scenario is that he moves to the bullpen when Baker returns. Pitching in shorter stints might help Bonser rebuild his confidence, although considering the first-inning struggles he has experienced at times this season, it could be that he needs to get into a groove, in which case pitching in relief may not be the best thing for him. Either way, it seems inevitable. Even though Joe Christensen wrote yesterday that Bonser's start against the Yankees on Friday "might be his last chance to keep his rotation spot," I believe the writing is already on the wall. Unless something changes dramatically over the course of the next week, I think we'll see Bonser in the bullpen quite soon. And as much as I've defended Bonser, I don't necessarily think that's the wrong choice at this point in time.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Patience Pays Off

With the exception of Saturday night's abomination of a game, the Twins have generally scored runs and play good, competitive baseball over the past two series. In watching the games, there's one obvious trend that I've been noticing -- the hitters are taking significantly better at-bats. This has resulted in a marked increase in walks. Twins hitters drew seven walks in yesterday's win over the Tigers, nine on Friday night, seven on Thursday, five on Tuesday and seven on Monday. The walks are putting more runners on base and allowing the offense to rely less on unsustainable numbers with runners in scoring position to score runs. As a result, the Twins scored at least six runs in all five of the aforementioned games.

Throughout the month of April, this offense was frustrating to watch largely because they consistently helped out opposing pitchers with poor at-bats and easy outs. We're seeing less and less of that now. Carlos Gomez, Jason Kubel, Mike Lamb and Delmon Young have all visibly improved their approaches at the plate. Joe Mauer continues to display one of the most selective eyes in the league. Justin Morneau is having good at-bats and drawing walks at a solid clip. Suddenly, this offense isn't as ridiculously impatient as it was early in the year, and as a result they have climbed out from last place in the AL in the walks category, having surpassed the Royals and Angels, and they're right on the heels of the Mariners. After posting just a .305 on-base percentage an April, Twins hitters are reaching base at a .339 clip in May.

You know what they say... good things come to those who wait.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thursday Bloody Thursday

In the comments section yesterday, a reader implied that Ron Gardenhire doesn't even bother trying to win on Thursdays. I'm sure that's not true, but alas, after their 8-7 loss in 10 innings to complete a split with the Rangers yesterday afternoon, the Twins are 0-6 on Thursdays this season. This is an indication that the team seems to be packing it in on the final games of series. In part this may have something to do with the players being tired or worn out on these afternoon finales, but Gardenhire's puzzling getaway day lineups probably aren't helping matters.

In some respects, it's understandable that Gardenhire isn't able to put a maximized lineup on the field on Thursday afternoons. For instance, he generally likes to give Joe Mauer a break when the team plays a day game after a night game. That takes perhaps the best hitter out of the lineup, but it's perfectly a perfectly understandable and defensible rationale.

What's not defensible is yesterday's decision to have Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young and Craig Monroe all in the starting lineup while Jason Kubel sat on the bench. Cuddyer's awful performance thus far was rewarded with a promotion to the No. 3 spot in the lineup, while Young and Monroe batted fifth and sixth. Young's bat has heated up lately, so his presence in the middle of the lineup made some sense, but Cuddyer was hitting .217/.268/.313 on the season and Monroe had collected one hit in his past 18 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Kubel has been taking significantly better at-bats as of late, and that has been reflected in his numbers (1200 OPS, 4 BB/2 K in his past eight games). On top of all that, left-handed hitters had a 200-point advantage over right-handed hitters against the Rangers' starter, Vicente Padilla. For a manager who claims to base his lineup decisions on who matches up well and who's swinging the hot bat, Gardenhire's decision to keep leave Kubel out of the starting lineup yesterday seems counterintuitive. Without a doubt, Kubel should have been starting over one of those three players.

Cuddyer actually had a good game, going 2-for-4 with two singles and a pair of walks. Meanwhile, Young and Monroe combined to go 0-for-9 with four strikeouts. It was a particularly bad game for Young, who hit into a pair of rally-killing double plays on the way to stranding seven runners in an 0-for-5 effort. Livan Hernandez didn't pitch particularly well and there were some misplays in the field, but if you want to find an individual culprit in yesterday's loss, look no further than Young. He absolutely killed this offense. It's the type of performance that would normally get a young hitter benched for a game to straighten things out, but for whatever reason Young has earned the honor of being automatically written in as the left fielder each day, so we know that's not going to happen.

Lineup construction should only get more confusing for Gardenhire after yesterday's news that Adam Everett is headed back to the disabled list. This isn't necessarily bad news, since Everett has been essentially worthless so far this season. If he was playing the type of exceptional defense that gained him a reputation in Houston, he'd be a fairly valuable player on this team despite his awful hitting, because the rest of the infield has been very shaky defensively. Unfortunately, his shoulder problems have prevented him from being anything more than a mediocre defensive shortstop at best, so his value has been negated and he's basically been Juan Castro. I'd like to see Everett come back strong, but whatever is bothering his shoulder does not seem to be going away, so I'm at the point where I've pretty much given up on him being of any use to this team.

Replacing him on the roster will be Matt Macri, who I initially predicted to make the team out of spring training. This selection is interesting for a few reasons. For one thing, there's little chance that Macri will give the team any help defensively; he had committed a team-high eight errors over 29 games in Rochester. Ron Gardenhire is clearly fed up with this team's infield defense, evident in the fact that Brendan Harris has been moved away from second base due to his inability to consistently turn the double play from that position (Harris did turn three double plays from the shortstop position yesterday, so maybe Gardy is on to something). I wonder how Gardenhire will respond if Macri comes up and keeps committing the kind of mistakes that have haunted him in Rochester. As it stands, the inexperienced and clumsy Alexi Casilla would seem to be the best defensive infielder on the roster. It feels odd to say it, but this team really needs to get Nick Punto back.

The other reason Macri's promotion is interesting is because his numbers this year are significantly inferior to Brian Buscher, who has an 896 OPS with six homers and 20 RBI in 35 games for the Red Wings. There's probably not a whole lot of difference between the two defensively (although Macri is more of a natural second baseman, which may have played a role), so my guess is that Macri got the call because he's a right-handed bat who can spell Mike Lamb at third base against southpaws.

Infield defense has been extremely problematic for the Twins this year, and replacing Everett with Macri doesn't help them much in that respect. There could be many more ugly Thursdays to come.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

State of the Offense

After ranking near the bottom of the league in runs scored last year, the Twins front office took major steps to improve the club's offensive output in the 2008 season. The overhauled Opening Day lineup featured five new faces, some of whom were youngsters with loads of potential while others were veterans with established track records. The improvements provided by these added players, along with full healthy seasons from the likes of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, would seemingly render the Twins a lock to exceed their run production from a year ago.

Little has gone right for this offense so far. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are having successful seasons, but the rest of the lineup is littered with disappointment. Brendan Harris' weak numbers, along with his defensive inadequacy, have pushed the manager to the end of his wit. Adam Everett has been even worse than his paltry career numbers had suggested he would be. Jason Kubel has flashed power, but has displayed a poor plate approach on his way to a .289 on-base percentage. Carlos Gomez has been a strikeout machine. Delmon Young, who was brought in to provide a power jolt in the absence of Torii Hunter, has watched his slugging percentage dance around .300 for much of the season. Mike Lamb has belied his successful track record by putting up a hitting line that would make Nick Punto proud. The Twins have averaged 4.47 runs per game -- barely an upgrade from their 4.43 average last year.

Yet, mixed in with all these negatives are some burgeoning reasons for optimism. The Twins offense got off to a truly abysmal start, averaging just 3.8 runs per game in April while getting disappointing performances nearly across the board from their hitters. Thanks to some solid pitching and a good bit of luck, the Twins were able to hang around .500 despite the offensive struggles, and much improvement was expected from this lineup in the month of May. We've been seeing some of that.

After hitting just .260/.305/.362 as a team in the month of April, the Twins entered last night's contest with a .272/.333/.407 hitting line for the month of May, good for an 80-point increase in OPS. Finally some players are finding themselves at the plate. Jason Kubel has gone 8-for-20 with four extra-base hits, four walks and two strikeouts over his past eight games. Delmon Young has ripped three doubles and three triples in his last six games after managing just four extra-base hits in his first 40 games. The offense as a whole has averaged 5.3 runs per game in May and has avoided any shutouts after being blanked four times in April. This is the improved offense we'd been expecting.

Another thing that's worth noting is that while -- as I noted above -- the Twins aren't necessarily scoring much more than they did last year, this isn't such a bad thing when looked at in context. The Twins' average of 4.43 runs per game last year ranked them 12th out of 14 AL teams; and while the 4.47 runs they've averaged this year doesn't seem like much of an upgrade, it actually ranks them seventh in the AL thanks to a league-wide decrease in scoring.

So, along with what I imagine will ultimately be a middle-of-the-road pitching staff, it looks like we've got a pretty average offense on our hands here. That's nothing to brag about, but it is a significant upgrade over last year. An average offense and an average pitching staff, combined with a few lucky breaks, could make the Twins a contending team, particularly if the Central division's mediocrity holds up.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

State of the Pitching Staff

With 45 games in the books, we're now more than a quarter of the way through the 2008 season, so it seems like a good time to step back and look at how the team is doing as a whole. Today I'll run down the pitching staff, and tomorrow I'll dissect the offense.

The Twins rotation took some major hits in the offseason with the losses of Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Carlos Silva. Yet, with solid youngsters available to fill the gaps left behind by these valuable starters along with a bullpen that remained almost totally intact, the Twins still were deemed by many to have at least an average staff overall. Thus far, they've essentially lived up to that billing, having entered last night's game with a 4.11 team ERA that ranked them seventh in the American League and 13th in the majors.

The rotation has not been a real strength thus far -- Twins starters have combined for a 4.61 ERA to rank 12th among 14 AL clubs. I'd say that this unit is due for some improvement, since Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey -- arguably the team's two best starters -- have both been nagged by injuries and haven't been able to settle in. Also, as I mentioned on Friday, Boof Bonser's ERA has been inflated due to some bad luck and is likely to start coming down. I think it's reasonable to expect that Nick Blackburn can hang with an ERA in the low 4's, and while Livan Hernandez is probably due for a few rocky starts, I think it's safe to say he's not nearly in as far over head as Ramon Ortiz was last April.

I suspect Slowey and Bonser will both hit a groove and start rattling off some solid starts, so once the Twins get back Baker (who is, in my mind, the closest thing to an ace on this roster when healthy), I think the Twins will sport a pretty good rotation with an ERA that should gravitate back toward the middle of the pack. The emergence of Glen Perkins as a strong option only adds to this team's impressive starting pitching depth. (Two walks in 16 1/3 IP? Wha?!) Plus, if the team experiences any further injuries or any of the current starters spin out of control, it seems that Francisco Liriano is making some real progress down in Rochester. After allowing just three runs and one walk over eight efficient innings last Thursday, Liriano tossed seven innings of two-run ball against Syracuse yesterday, issuing just one walk while throwing 62 of his 91 pitches for strikes. He managed only three strikeouts and allowed eight hits (all singles), but the fact that he's getting the ball in the zone and avoiding long, drawn-out innings is extremely encouraging.

The bullpen picture isn't quite as promising, but still not terribly alarming. The Twins bullpen entered last night's game with a 3.18 ERA to rank first in the AL and third in the majors. This success has been due in large part to 18 stellar innings from Joe Nathan, along with reliable work from Matt Guerrier and Dennys Reyes. Juan Rincon and Jesse Crain have been frustrating to watch at times thanks to their shaky control (the two have combined for 22 walks in 33 innings), but thus far they've managed to limit hits and runs while posting decent strikeout rates, so the earned run averages haven't been bad (3.63 for Rincon; 4.02 for Crain). Bobby Korecky has certainly held his own thus far, and of course had a huge outing on Monday night which will hopefully allow him to build some confidence going forward.

It's great to see the bullpen so successful up to this point, but you have to wonder how long they can continue at this rate. If Rincon and Crain don't both significantly improve their control, it's only a matter of time before these walks start to haunt them. We've seen over the past few series how much it hurts to not have Pat Neshek in the equation -- Ron Gardenhire is forced to go to unreliable relievers in key situations, and to use Reyes against right-handed hitters (who have been quite successful against him thus far).

If the Twins end up finding themselves in need of bullpen help, there aren't any Nesheks sitting in the minors who look like sure things to come up and dominate immediately. Yet, there are a few guys down in Rochester with the potential to step in and contribute. I mentioned Tim Lahey yesterday as a sizable right-hander who is racking up impressive strikeout totals out of the Red Wings bullpen. Another right-hander who could be called upon is Julio DePaula, a 25-year-old who struggled during his stint with the Twins last year but has posted a 3.42 ERA while holding Triple-A hitters a .198 batting average this season (then again, he's also issued 17 walks in 26 innings, so he might not be the control upgrade the Twins are looking for over Rincon and Crain). Left-handers Mariano Gomez and Ricky Barrett have both pitched well for Rochester, and both have had some success against right-handers, so either one could serve as a potential option.

The loss of Neshek leaves the Twins short on dominating relievers, and I doubt we'll see this unit rank at the top of the league for too much longer, but between the major-league and Triple-A rosters, there is a wide assortment of serviceable arms. The bullpen should be just fine.

Overall, the Twins pitching staff ranks right in the middle of the league and my guess is that they'll hang there for much of the season. If a few things shake out right and the staff can mostly avoid further injuries, there's a decent chance we'll see this unit ranked solidly in the top half of the AL by the halfway point in the season. That might be enough to keep the Twins near the top of the AL Central, but these pitchers will need some help from the offense in order for that to happen. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tuesday Notes

When I saw "CF" next to Michael Cuddyer's name in the starting lineup, I got the feeling that last night's game was going to be a strange one. I didn't know the half of it.

Bobby Korecky, who was heroic on the mound, was forced to hit in extra innings. More surprisingly, he got a hit in his only at-bat . Alexi Casilla ripped a three-run homer. Delmon Young ripped a legitimate extra-base hit -- a liner to the gap for a triple. Carlos Gomez batted twice with a bum wrist, and ended up scoring the winning run.

I'm still trying to grasp everything that happened in the wild 12-inning 7-6 Twins victory. For now, here are a few random notes:

* I said in yesterday's post that "Michael Cuddyer is quietly having an awful season." It's becoming less quiet. Last night he went 0-for-6 and stranded nine baserunners. I've never been a big Cuddyer supporter, but even I never thought he'd be hitting .226/.281/.321 on May 20. With Jason Kubel heating up at the plate (7-for-14 with 2 BB and 1 K over his last six games), Ron Gardenhire should give some serious consideration to sitting Cuddyer against right-handed pitchers on occasion until he gets his head straight.

* The loss of Pat Neshek has left the Twins weak in the bullpen, a problem which was on display in Colorado this past weekend and at times last night. Jesse Crain and Juan Rincon have both had major control issues. Dennys Reyes has been solid in short outings this season, but he's been far from dominant (3 K in his last 9.1 IP). Brian Bass has been relatively effective, but he remains a long reliever who is out of his element in high-pressure situations. This leaves Joe Nathan and Matt Guerrier as the only reliable late-inning options, a problem that the Twins may soon attempt to remedy by reaching into the minors.

It seems the Twins may be grooming Danny Graves for such an experiment. The team signed the 34-year-old former major-league closer to a minor-league deal a few weeks ago, and he has since posted a 1.00 ERA while allowing only eight hits and no walks over nine innings in Class-AAA Rochester. On the exterior, Graves seems like a perfectly logical option, given that he's a veteran with plenty of experience in high-pressure late-game situations who has racked up 182 saves over the span of 11 major-league seasons. Yet, Graves is far from a dominator. He averaged only 4.78 strikeouts per nine innings (about one every two innings) during his big-league career, and in his nine innings in Rochester this year he has fanned just two batters. Graves also has not pitched in the major leagues since 2006. It's possible that he could step in and be a factor in the Twins bullpen, but don't let the recognizable name or gaudy save total fool you into believing he's something that he's not.

One minor-league reliever who does intrigue me is Tim Lahey, the 26-year-old right-hander who's been closing games for Rochester since Korecky's promotion. Lahey's 3.94 ERA isn't as impressive as that of Graves, but he has displayed an impressive ability to hit the zone and miss bats, with 22 strikeouts and just one walk over 16 innings. The Rays liked him enough to make him the No. 1 pick in last December's Rule 5 draft, and he was shuttled to the Cubs and Phillies before finally ending up back with the Twins. Clearly, teams are seeing something in Lahey that intrigues them.

Lahey is certainly old for a prospect and his minor-league track record is hardly overwhelming, but as a college product who didn't begin playing pro ball until he was 23, it's entirely possible that he could arise as a late bloomer.

* Francisco Liriano had his most encouraging start of the season for Rochester last Thursday, pitching eight efficient innings while allowing three runs and -- most importantly -- only one walk. A game story from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle described Liriano's outing as "eight always-in-control innings" and noted that his fastball was consistently hitting 90-91 mph after rarely topping the upper 80s in his earlier stint with the Twins. "I'm very close," Liriano told the D&C. "Everything is coming back together. I'm not too far away."

He'll have a chance to back up those words when he makes his next scheduled start against Syracuse today.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Downer in Denver

After rattling off five straight wins at home against the White Sox and Tigers a couple weeks ago, the Twins went to Chicago and lost a series against the White Sox. They then came back home and took three of four from the Red Sox before being swept out of Minnesota by the Blue Jays. In the wake of that painful series, the Twins headed to Colorado where they dropped two of three in a series that concluded yesterday with a 6-2 loss in which they committed numerous mental mistakes and repeatedly stranded runners in scoring position.

Mediocre teams tend to have a lot of ups and downs, and I think at this point we can fairly say that the Twins are a mediocre team. They have enough talent to win if they're getting timely hitting and displaying solid fundamentals, but as we've seen during the past two series, they simply won't win if those things are lacking.

It would seem that a positive to come out of this series would be a power surge from Delmon Young, but it certainly strikes me as an instance where the stats can be misleading. Young went 7-for-12 with three doubles and a triple in the series, raising his batting average by 24 points and his slugging percentage by 48 points. Yet, while it's good to see Young getting hits, the extra-base hits were hardly a convincing display of increased power. His two doubles on Friday night were both hard-hit grounders down the line, as was his triple in yesterday's game. The double yesterday came on a bloop to right that just fell fair, and Young barely made it into second safely (in fact, it appeared that he was thrown out). So while Young's four extra-base hits in this series did match his season total prior, I'm not going to start getting truly excited until he begins lifting the ball up and hitting some line drives.

The Twins could really use a legitimate power increase from Young, because as it stands, this lineup is devoid of solid right-handed sticks. Michael Cuddyer is quietly having an awful season (.240/.296/.340 with 1 HR), Craig Monroe has one hit in his last 16 at-bats, and as much as it seems like Brendan Harris has provided an offensive upgrade at second base, his 668 OPS is not all that much better than the 640 OPS they got from the position last season.

Today the Twins open a four-game set against a hot Rangers team at the Metrodome. They'll need to get the sticks going in order to win this series.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hardly a Breakout Night

Delmon Young picked up his first extra-base hit since April 22 in last night's 4-2 win over the Rockies. He had two of them, in fact, as he doubled twice in a 3-for-4 effort. That's not to say the left fielder's night was all that encouraging.

Young's biggest problem this year has been an inability to get the ball up off the ground, as his ground ball percentage of 62.7 ranks him second in the AL behind Julio Lugo. Despite the three-hit game last night, this issue persisted. His first hit was a dribbler to second base which he beat out for a single, while his doubles were both hard hit grounders down the baselines (one to left and one to right).

Some have mused that perhaps playing in the thin Colorado air will help Young finally hit his first home run, but I think he'd have to be playing on the moon to get any of these hits over the fence.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Truth About Boof

I was going to spend today's post writing about a costly lack of fundamentals that caused the Twins to lose three straight games against the Blue Jays this week, thus putting a disappointing cap on a homestand that started out so promisingly. But instead, there's another topic I'd like to delve into. And that is Boof Bonser.

After his latest poor outing on Wednesday night, fans are turning on Bonser in droves. For whatever reason, it seems like much of the fan base has always had it in for Boof, and his latest three-game slump has brought complaints to a fever pitch. The Twins generally have a fairly intelligent and patient group of followers, so I have to say I'm a little surprised by what I view as an extremely unfair fan response to Bonser's struggles. Not only would a demotion to the bullpen or minors for Bonser be reactionary and unwarranted, it would be downright stupid.

Bonser's last three starts have been ugly, there's no doubt about it. During that span, he has allowed 16 earned runs over 16 innings for a 9.00 ERA. Yet, it seems to me that the fans who are complaining loudly about Bonser's performance this year are either plagued by short-term memory or are actively choosing to ignore the good things he's done. Over his first six outings of the season, Bonser tossed five Quality Starts, though he gained only two wins thanks to some lousy run support. Bonser finished the month of April with an ERA under 4.

Even with his past three starts taken into account, Bonser's numbers for the season really aren't that bad when you take a deeper look. Yes, he is 2-5 with a 5.37 ERA, but his case illustrates a perfect example of why win/loss record and ERA are not the most telling measures of a pitcher's performance, in spite of the fact that they are the ones most often quoted in the media.

Let's compare the performances of Bonser and the team "ace" Livan Hernandez on the season. As I mentioned, Bonser has a 2-5 record and an ugly 5.37 ERA through nine starts, whereas Hernandez has surprised everyone by going 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA over the same number of starts. Looking at those numbers, one could easily conclude that Hernandez has been the better pitcher. But taking a look at some more intuitive statistics, we'll find that this isn't necessarily true:









HR Allowed



Opp. OPS









Bonser and Hernandez have both gotten roughly two strikeouts for each walk, but opposing hitters have slugged just .390 against Bonser, as opposed to .485 against Hernandez. This is a big part of the reason that fielding-independent statistics like FIP and xFIP indicate that the two pitchers have been a whole lot closer in performance than their win-loss record or ERA will tell us.

Now, to be fair, I'll note that Bonser is likely to start giving up more home runs, because his current 7.8 percent home run/fly ball rate is unsustainably low (Hernandez's is 13.1), but it's also worth noting that Bonser is currently only inducing ground balls at a 38.4 percent rate after posting percentages of 45 and 41.7 in his first two seasons, so we can expect him to cut down on the fly balls to some degree. Meanwhile, Hernandez's current 42.7 percent ground ball rate is likely to come down given that he hasn't posted a GB% over 40 since 2004. Moreover, I suspect that Bonser's K-rate will rise at least a bit, while Hernandez isn't real likely to start missing any more bats with his 85-mph "heat."

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that Bonser has not pitched as poorly as his numbers indicate, and that there's actually a pretty good argument that he has pitched at least as well as Hernandez. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not one of the people that swears by statistics like FIP and DIPS to the point where I blissfully ignore reality. Hernandez has allowed fewer runs and has helped the Twins win more games, and he deserves commendation for that. But there is plenty of reason to believe that the hefty Cuban is due for some decline while Bonser improves, so one month from now I think we could very easily be hearing the same cries of outrage directed at Hernandez. And I hope people will be counting their lucky stars that Bonser wasn't sent down to Rochester.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Slowey Slowly Getting There

Last night, Kevin Slowey struck out the side in the top half of the first and went on to cruise for a few innings before giving up a pair of RBI doubles with two outs in the fourth. Slowey recovered and pitched a 1-2-3 fifth, but in the sixth, after being worn down by a 15-pitch at-bat against Scott Rolen, he left a pitch out over the plate against Matt Stairs which was driven over the baggy in right field. That was the end of Slowey's night, his final line: 5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K.

Through three starts, Slowey sits with an 0-3 record and a 5.79 ERA. But, things aren't as bad as they seem. Opposing hitters are only batting .241 against him, and he has an 11-to-2 strikeout to walk ratio in 14 innings this season. Over three outings, his ERA has gone from 8.10 to 6.48 to 5.79. He has good peripherals and he's a good pitcher. The ERA will continue to come down.

One other note: after they both homered last night, Carlos Gomez and Jason Kubel have eight home runs between them. They also have eight walks between them. Sigh.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ever-Growing Gomez

As a kid at the ballpark, I was always most fascinated by speedy players who could put the ball in play and fly down the first base line. I remember being very fond of Cristian Guzman in his early days, marveling his ability to beat out routine grounders to shortstop and fly around second base to turn a textbook double into an exhilarating triple.

As I've aged and learned more about the game of baseball, I've come to realize that players who are exciting and athletically gifted sometimes do not produce enough to actually be considered "good." Nevertheless, Carlos Gomez is a player that I've always gotten giddy about. From the moment his name began to pop up in Johan Santana trade rumors, I felt pings of excitement. Back in December when Mets GM Omar Minaya told the Associated Press that he felt he could be a player in the Santana Sweepstakes, I said that while most people would likely be skeptical of a Mets package that didn't include shortstop Jose Reyes, "I'm pretty high on outfield prospects Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez (especially Gomez)." In the comments section for that post, I mentioned that Twins fans "would love having [Gomez] here -- he's a lot of fun to watch."

As the offseason progressed, Gomez's inclusion in a package for Santana became more and more realistic. On Jan. 10, Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune wrote an article mentioning that the Mets had offered Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey for Santana (a fine piece of reporting by Christensen to nail the exact package nearly three weeks in advance of the actual trade). In analyzing the proposed package, I had the following to say about Gomez:
I'm higher on Gomez than most and I like his chances to turn into a Jose Reyes type player. At 22, he's one of the fastest players in all of baseball, which makes him a very exciting player to watch, and I believe he'll build on his patience and power, both of which are fairly meager at this point. The lack of plate discipline is particularly alarming, as he'll never be able to put his blazing speed to good use unless he can get on base at a decent rate, but he is young and raw.
When Bill Smith pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Santana to the Mets for the aforementioned package, I was a bit underwhelmed with the overall return for baseball's best pitcher. Nevertheless, I was clearly glad to see Gomez's name included in the deal.

Through the first 37 games of the 2008 season, the experience of watching a 22-year-old Gomez start regularly has been everything I'd expected it to be: exciting, frustrating, humorous, torturous. He has struck out more than seven times as often as he's walked, his .299 on-base percentage is brutally inadequate for a lead-off hitter, and he's had some line drives eat him up in center field while also air-mailing numerous throws to the infield. Yet, at the same time, Gomez is tied with Justin Morneau for the team lead in extra-base hits, he is tied for the American League lead in stolen bases, and he's displayed terrific range in center field while making several Web Gem catches.

Since being benched for a day after striking out four times in an 0-for-5 effort against Oakland on April 22, Gomez has batted .333/.382/.529 with 12 runs scored and eight RBI in 12 games. The strikeout-to-walk ratio during that span (11-to-3) was still far from desirable, but Gomez has shown some improvement.

I've bristled in the past when people have suggested that Gomez should be sent down to the minors. In part that is because I feel there's no logical basis for that argument, but a part of it is also that I truly enjoy watching the kid play. Even beyond his exciting style of play, there are a lot of little things to like about Gomez, from his exaggerated throwing motion to his humorous accent; from his lighthearted cockiness to the way he grabs and steadies his helmet as he flies out of the batters box on a hit.

Gomez is a project, and he's certainly far from a finished product. But his tools are on display on a nightly basis, and watching him play is something I look forward whenever I sit down to watch a Twins game. Putting aside the poor on-base skills, the botched bunt attempts and the numerous fundamental mistakes, Gomez is a tremendously gifted athlete with a lot of upside, and watching him play brings me back to a time when the game seemed a whole lot more simple. And maybe a little more fun.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Wild Weekend

Perhaps the best part about the Twins series with the Red Sox this weekend is that it isn't over yet.

These have just been some fun games to watch. On Friday night, the two teams battled all night long, but eventually it appeared that Boston would come out on top when they sent their dominating closer out to protect a one-run lead in the ninth. The Twins spoiled Jon Papelbon's save though, putting runners on second and third and then getting a game-winning hit from the most unlikely of suspects, Mike Lamb. (Lamb carried some momentum into the next two games, going 4-for-7 on Saturday and Sunday.) On Saturday, the Twins got six great innings from Glen Perkins, who was making his first major-league start, but he surrendered a pair of homers to start the seventh and those ended up sealing a loss for him and the team. On Sunday, the Twins jumped out early against Tim Wakefield, but the Red Sox and their punishing offense kept coming back and wouldn't let the Twins get comfortable. In the ninth inning, it looked like Boston might get some payback for Friday night by coming back against Joe Nathan, but the Twins closer ended up working out of a jam and shutting the door on a 9-8 Twins victory.

I truly think that the Red Sox are the class of the American League. Prior to the season, I bet a friend 10 dollars that they'd be in the World Series. (Granted, that's not exactly a lot of money, but he didn't give me any odds.) Their roster is basically intact after winning the World Series last year, and they've certainly played like champions thus far, with a 24-15 record entering yesterday's contest. The fact that the Twins have played relatively evenly with this Boston club over the first three games of this series is impressive to me.

I've been thoroughly entertained with this series up to this point. Tonight's 6 o'clock match-up pits the veteran Livan Hernandez against the young gunner Clay Buchholz. Hopefully this game can prove to be a fitting finale for this crazy series.

Friday, May 09, 2008

When It Rains, It Pours

It's been a roller-coaster of a week for the Twins. During the weekend, they pulled off an impressive sweep over the high-powered Tigers at the Metrodome, extending a win streak to five games and launching themselves into first place in the division. Then, on Tuesday, they played their worst game of the season in Chicago, coming within two outs of being no-hit by Gavin Floyd and falling 7-1. They came back the next night with a phenomenal effort -- a 13-1 victory over the White Sox highlighted by a Carlos Gomez cycle and nine unexpectedly wonderful innings from Livan Hernandez. Last week, the Twins-coaster took a violent dive. The 6-2 Twins loss was tough to take, but it was nothing compared to the cringing pain undoubtedly felt by each fan when Pat Neshek walked off the field in the eighth inning with an elbow injury.

I wasn't watching the game when Neshek's injury occurred (you know, last week of classes), but reports indicate that he felt a pop, and while chatting later in the evening with Aaron Gleeman, he mentioned to me that Neshek's expression was "more like disgust than pain." Those signs all point to Neshek likely being out for a very long time, which is bad news for this baseball team. After a rough start to the season, Neshek was settling in and starting to look more like the dominant force he has been for most of the past two seasons; he was almost certainly the team's best reliever behind Joe Nathan.

As much as I'm a huge fan of Neshek, I've always viewed him as something of a ticking time bomb. His delivery just seemed so dangerous to me -- he throws almost completely with his arm and really snaps his elbow. This is interesting, because he actually started throwing in this style as a result of another injury suffered in his high school days. He's gotten by just fine on his new delivery up until now, but yesterday's sickening "pop" has the unfortunate makings of a career changer. Whether the elbow injury came about as a result of his mechanics or was simply a freak injury is awfully difficult to say, but for the time being I'll just cross my fingers and hope that his season isn't over.

Neshek is almost assuredly headed for the disabled list, so it will be interesting to see who the Twins bring up. There are a few options in Rochester, ranging from Ricky Barrett to Carmen Cali to Mariano Gomez. Cali is far from exciting, but Barrett and Gomez are both pitching well this year, and either one would potentially provide the Twins with a solid additional lefty out of the pen to complement Dennys Reyes. It's also possible that Glen Perkins could wind up in the bullpen upon Scott Baker's return from the DL, in the event that Perkins has some success during his upcoming stint in the Twins rotation.

Neshek's absence will mean that another right-handed reliever is going to need to step up and become a contributor in the late innings. Matt Guerrier, who has brought his ERA down from 9.53 to 3.44 over his past eight appearances, is certainly the most likely candidate considering his success last year in the late-innings role. But it would sure be nice if a guy like Juan Rincon or Jesse Crain could raise their game and become a reliable option.

The Twins bullpen suffered a major blow yesterday. Neshek's injury hits hard because I know him to be a really nice guy, and of course he is a member of the blogosphere. I hope that the injury is less serious than it first appeared and that he's able to rejoin the team at some point this summer. And while he's gone, I hope the bullpen can hang together, because from the looks of it, late leads for the Twins just became a lot less safe.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

An Odd Little Game

Now that's how you get back on track.

One day after nearly being no-hit by Gavin Floyd, the Twins came out and pummeled the White Sox 13-1 last night. The game was delayed for nearly two hours due to a rain-storm, but those who stayed up and stuck around were treated to some interesting sights. Carlos Gomez hit for the cycle, Livan Hernandez tossed a complete game, Nick Punto drove in five runs... indeed, this one featured plenty of peculiar occurrences.

Much will no doubt be made of Gomez's cycle, which was pulled off in reverse order (home run, triple, double, single) and was the Twins' first since 1986. Personally, I don't find hitting for the cycle to be a huge accomplishment as much as a neat little statistical anomaly, but I'll admit that it's pretty cool and a perfect exemplification of the things that make Gomez such an exciting player. After watching the Twins consistently push their "piranha" approach, it's nice to see a player who bases his game on speed but can actually hit for some power. Since being benched for one game after striking out four times in a game against the A's on April 22, Gomez has batted .433 with an .867 slugging percentage. His hitting line for the season is up to a respectable .282/.306/.427. Still think he should be sent to the minors, Corey? :-)

The Twins picked up some offensive steam against the Tigers over the weekend, but hit a wall in their first game against the White Sox. It was great to see them break out again last night. Today Kevin Slowey makes his first start since April 3. Should be interesting to see how he fares.

Apologies for the abbreviated post today, but I'm amidst my last week of college and I'm a bit overwhelmed.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Go Figure

What a day yesterday was. I had to get up in the morning to take a five-page essay exam, then I had to go to a funeral, then I had a heavy workload of games to cover for Rotoworld which kept me busy until about 1 a.m. Needless to say, I didn't have a whole lot of time or motivation to write about a debacle of a game in which the Twins came within two outs of being no-hit by Gavin Floyd.

Floyd, owner of a 5.83 career ERA prior last night's game, was mysteriously having a very successful year in spite of an even strikeout-to-walk ratio and a ground ball percentage of only 32.6. His success against the Twins last night is nothing totally new -- he held the Tigers to one hit over 7 1/3 innings in one outing early this season, and held the Orioles to two hits over six innings in another start. Yet, all signs pointed to imminent collapse for Floyd. His FIP of 5.18 belied his actual ERA of 3.16. His DER was an off-the-charts .835. Put simply, almost every advanced statistic suggested that Floyd had been extremely lucky this season. His luck continued last night, although fortunately for the good of our sanity, it ran out when Joe Mauer cracked a double into the gap in left-center with one out in the ninth inning.

The Twins offense showed some serious signs of awakening in Detroit this weekend, but last night was probably the sleepiest they've looked all year. That's fairly typical of this team, and really I should know better than to get lulled into a false sense of security by a few strong games.

One other thing I'd like to mention. Last year, the 7-9 spots in the Twins batting order were really bad. So bad, some will recall, that I actually added a "Bottom of the Barrel" feature to the sidebar which tracked the statistical ineptitude from those three combined lineup positions over a period of time. One of the biggest reasons that I figured the Twins offense was a lock to improve this year was because I figured there was no way they could fail to improve in those three spots. And yet, here are the hitting lines of the players who filled the 7-9 spots in the Twins order last night as of this morning:

7. Delmon Young: .256/.298/.299
8. Mike Lamb: .209/.227/.275
9. Adam Everett: .162/.184/.216

I don't know what's sadder, the stat lines listed above or the one listed below:

Sidney Ponson, 2008: 2-0, 1.33 ERA.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Tiger Taming

It may very well be that in the grand scheme of things, a three-game series in early May isn't all that meaningful. Nevertheless, there was something immensely satisfying about the Twins' weekend sweep over the Tigers. Perhaps it is because the Twins have now won five consecutive games, all against AL Central contenders. Or maybe it is because, with the exception of a rough first inning for Boof Bonser on Sunday, the Twins pitching staff effectively shut down a high-powered offense that had averaged 7.2 runs over its past 17 games. Mostly, though, I think it is because the Tigers have simply dominated the Twins in the recent past. Including their two-game sweep in Detroit earlier this season, the Tigers entered the weekend with a 25-14 record against the Twins since 2006.

The Twins offense showed some promising signs this weekend, scoring 22 runs in the three games and coming back from an early 6-0 deficit to earn a sweep-clinching victory in yesterday's finale. I was stunned by this offense's meager performance during the month of April, and fully expected some major improvement in May. We might be starting to see that. After seeing his batting average drop to a season-low .230 with a four-strikeout performance on April 22, Carlos Gomez has batted .450 and struck out only twice in 20 at-bats. Joe Mauer went 7-for-11 (.636) with four RBI in the Tigers series and is now hitting .333/.396/.434 on the season. Justin Morneau picked up five hits in the series and has his average up to .284.

The one player in the lineup who continues to be a major source of concern at this point is Delmon Young. He had a decent series over the weekend and he's drawn four walks in his past seven games after working just three in his first 23 games, but he hasn't collected an extra-base hit in two weeks and now sports an awful .307 slugging percentage. The frustration with Young isn't because he's failed to live up to his supposedly vast power potential, it's that he has shown NO power whatsoever over the first five weeks of the season, which is simply unacceptable for a left fielder, particularly one who only gets on base at a .306 clip.

Here's some perspective: through 114 at-bats, Young has totaled three doubles. That's the same number as Johan Santana has in 15 at-bats.

If Young can break out and start doing something with the bat, this offense could do some damage in the upcoming weeks, because several other players seem to be heating up. It's pretty difficult to enjoy much offensive success when the guy you're counting on to be your big right-handed stick can't outhit your former ace pitcher, though.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Month in Review: April

April Record: 13-14
Overall Record: 13-14 (T-2nd Place in AL Central)

All things considered, the Twins are pretty lucky to be just a game under .500 after one month's play. They've been outscored 122-102, which gives them a Pythagorean win/loss record of 11-16. Fortunately for them, they've won some tight ballgames and avoided any prolonged losing streaks, but if they continue to play like they have so far, things could spin out of control quickly.

The Twins offense has been just miserable through 27 games. They've scored fewer runs than any American League team other than the Royals. (The Twins are at 102, the Royals are at 101. The lowest-scoring AL team outside of those two is Toronto, with 116.) The Twins rank last in the AL in on-base percentage (.305), walks (58) and home runs (14). It's been ugly.

The pitching has been better, but far from exceptional. The staff has posted a 4.24 ERA, which ranks eighth in the AL. I suspect that the team ERA will hang around that number for the entire year, but that's not going to be nearly enough unless the offense picks up the pace considerably.

A look at three players whose performances were outstanding over the past month, and three who fell bellow expectations.

Three Up:
1. Nick Blackburn: 38.1 IP, 2-1, 3.52 ERA, 19 K / 6 BB, 1.38 WHIP
The rookie right-hander has been the team's most pleasant surprise over the first month of the season. He's shown no fear, pumping the ball in the strike zone and trusting his defense to take care of business. That method has worked so far, as Blackburn has induced ground balls at a 47.7 percent rate and has surrendered just one home run in nearly 40 innings. In all likelihood, the GB rate is going to come down and the HR rate is going to go up, so Blackburn will probably need to start missing a few more bats to maintain his success.

2. Joe Nathan: 11 IP, 9 SV, 0.82 ERA, 11 K / 2 BB, 1.00 WHIP
So far Nathan has lived up to his new contract. In 11 appearances during the month of April, he allowed only one run, and that came in a blowout loss when he was just getting his work in. Nathan's value wasn't maximized thanks to Ron Gardenhire's sometimes frustrating late-inning bullpen management, but nonetheless the Twins closer did everything that was asked of him.

3. Justin Morneau: .268/.345/.495, 6 HR, 22 RBI, 12 R, 0/0 SB
Morneau was really the only hitter on the team who excelled in the season's first month. His overall hitting line is far from amazing, but he was a crucial force for this offense, hitting six homers and driving in 22 runs (T-3rd in the AL). The run production has come about thanks to some incredibly clutch hitting -- Morneau hit .481/.571/.889 with runners in scoring position.

Three Down:
1. Mike Lamb: .203/.224/.278, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 4 R, 0/0 SB
No matter what you thought about the Lamb acquisition, you had to at least believe he was going to provide improved production over Nick Punto's atrocious 2007 performance at third base. Thus far, he hasn't. Lamb has been a complete and utter disaster. He's managed to drive in 11 runs thanks to a .438/.400/.688 line with runners in scoring position (which is probably the sole reason fans haven't completely turned on him), but with the bases empty he has batted .152/.188/.196. I've been very patient with Lamb, and quite frankly I'm dumbfounded that he hasn't started hitting yet. Time to get it going in May.

2. Delmon Young: .265/.306/.314, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 13 R, 6/7 SB
The Twins brought in Young in a major offseason trade in an attempt to replace Torii Hunter's production in the lineup. So far, the new left fielder has been a massive disappointment. I can deal with the unimpressive .265 average. I can deal with -- and even expected -- the terrible plate discipline and accompanying ugly on-base percentage. But Young's lack of power has been extremely painful. He's managed just four extra-base hits (zero of them homers) in 27 games.

3. Jason Kubel: .237/.257/.381, 4 HR, 16 RBI, 11 R, 0/1 SB
As one of the biggest Kubel supporters, it pains me to write his name on this list. And really, he has been one of the team's chief run producers, ranking second to Morneau in home runs and RBI. But a .237 average and .257 OBP simply are not acceptable. He needs to get that 20-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio turned around, and soon.

Luke Hughes - New Britain Rock Cats
Signed out of Australia back in 2002, Hughes had some success in the rookie leagues before struggling his way through Low- and High-A ball. Yet, last year he had something of a breakout at Class-AA New Britain, posting a 794 OPS in 92 games while playing mostly second base. Still, he finished the season as a 23-year-old with a .263/.322/.382 career hitting line in the minors. He started this season back at New Britain, and he was nothing short of spectacular over the season's first month, batting .354/.430/.677 with eight homers and 18 RBI in 24 games. He posted a solid 18-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio and went 3-for-3 on stolen base attempts. One month into the season, Hughes is just one home run short of setting a career high. He should find himself in Rochester quite soon if he continues to rake like this. (UDPATE: Hughes went 4-for-5 with his ninth home run last night.)

The Twins pitching staff will be put to the test this month, with series against the Detroit(twice), Boston, the White Sox, the Yankees and the Rangers, plus a three-game set in Colorado.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Tidy Little Sweep

There was nothing particularly astonishing about the two-game sweep that the Twins completed against the White Sox in a midweek series concluding yesterday at the Metrodome. The Twins did not dominate the games and they did not win either contest in a flashy manner. They didn't bust out of the prolonged offensive slump which has held them down all season. Instead, they got strong starting pitching, timely hitting, and lights-out performances from their bullpen. The result was a pair of wins that brings the Twins back within a game of .500. And I'm on record as saying that the longer the Twins can stick around .500 early in the season the better off they'll be, because -- at least in my mind -- this young team figures to get better as the year progresses.

Here are a few notes on the short series and on some other topics:

* In Tuesday night's game, the Twins got seven strong innings from Boof Bonser, and used a combination of Pat Neshek, Dennys Reyes and Joe Nathan to get the last six outs in the game. Yesterday, starter Nick Blackburn delivered seven frames, and the same trio of relievers protected a one-run lead in the last two innings to seal the Twins' 13th victory of the season. I was glad to see Ron Gardenhire utilize these relievers in both games -- it was a short two-game series sandwiched by off-days, so there was no real concern with using any of the pitchers two games in a row, and these three have easily been the team's best arms out of the bullpen this season. Nathan is now 9-for-9 in save opportunities with a 0.82 ERA. Reyes has allowed just four hits and zero runs over 9 1/3 innings this season. And Neshek, after a rough start, has now recorded seven straight scoreless outings and has brought his once-inflated ERA down to 3.75.

* White Sox leadoff hitter Nick Swisher is hitting only .226 this season, but his .381 on-base percentage is 21 points higher than that of the Twins' leader in that category, Joe Mauer.

* After striking out three times in yesterday's game, Jason Kubel has now fanned 20 times this season while drawing just three walks. His horrendous plate discipline has been perplexing, as it seemed he had turned a corner in the second half last season. Whatever the case, here's hoping he can turn things around, because there is little question that his terrible K/BB ratio has been the chief contributor to his disappointing .237 batting average and .257 OBP.

* Here's a note that I know at least one reader of this blog will be delighted to see:
Twins right-hander Scott Baker threw a bullpen session Wednesday morning and felt no soreness in his strained groin muscle, keeping him in line to start Saturday's game against Detroit.


"He ran as hard as he could run, threw as hard as he could throw and he feels nothing," Gardenhire said. "So I can't argue with that. He's ready to go for Saturday and that's great news."
Aside from being a heart-throb in some circles (and looking like he's about 16), Baker is an extremely important piece of the Twins' rotation puzzle this season. If he can settle in and stay healthy from here on out, I fully expect him to post an ERA around 4 and become a leader on this staff.

* In a bit of not-so-good news, the line from Francisco Liriano's start for Rochester yesterday looked a lot like the types of lines he posted during his short stint with the Twins: 4.1 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 3 K. Liriano threw only 51 of his 94 pitches for strikes.