Sorry for the lack of blogging this week, but the team's play over the last few days hasn't exactly inspired me to find time in what has been a busy schedule to write about them. Scott Baker's much-anticipated return on Wednesday night turned out to be a dud (reminding us that spring training performances aren't always totally without significance) and the Twins dropped three of four at home against the Blue Jays while getting outscored 31-13. Ouch.
Today I'll address a couple things that have been popular subjects of conversation amongst Twins fans here early in the season: Carlos Gomez and the bullpen.
First, let's talk about Go-Go. He's started his season with another of his signature slumps, managing just three hits in 29 at-bats for a dreadful .103/.133/.207 hitting line. Howard Sinker yesterday suggested that the Twins send Gomez to Triple-A to work on his swing, reasoning that "there’s no way (other than the “give him time, he’ll snap out of it” speech) that playing Gomez regularly can be justified right now."
Well, that's not really true. Given the fly ball tendencies of the Twins pitching staff, one could argue that center field is the most important defensive position on the field for this team (aside from catcher). And Gomez covers more ground in center than perhaps any other player in the league. Right now, Gomez is serving what I'd call the "Adam Everett role" -- that is, playing stellar defense at a crucial position while offering next to nothing offensively -- but in his prime Everett was a pretty valuable player. And we know Gomez is capable of doing more than Everett with the bat.
In spite of his offensive struggles, Gomez has still looked very good in center field. And sending him to Rochester leaves the Twins with an outfield alignment (per Sinker's suggestion) of Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer against right-handers, or the latter two and Delmon Young against left-handers. Those are both humongous defensive downgrades from the Span-Gomez-Cuddyer alignment, and would saddle an already struggling pitching staff with another disadvantage. Improving the offense is an important task right now, but by removing Gomez as a regular the Twins would be addressing this issue at the expense of another important task, which is getting better results from their pitchers.
I don't doubt that Gomez would probably benefit from some time in Triple-A, but his presence on this team remains important even when he's struggling with the bat, and the idea that he serves the Twins no benefit right now is simply false. He's been a huge liability in the lineup up to this point, but I'm confident he'll turn it around and I have a hard time singling him out when so many of this team's hitters are struggling. His utility right now is in run prevention, which is no less important than run scoring.
Speaking of run prevention, it figured to be a major strength for the Twins this season but they haven't done a very good job of it thus far, allowing an average of 6.2 runs per game over their first 11 contests. Certainly, that falls heavily on the starting rotation, which has been roundly underwhelming with the exception of Glen Perkins. But these kids are going to bounce back. They are too talented to pitch like this for much longer, and last night's game looked like a solid step in the right direction for Francisco Liriano.
The larger concern is the bullpen. Joe Nathan and Jesse Crain have looked good, but outside of them it seems that nobody in this bullpen can be relied upon to get any outs. Last night, Ron Gardenhire turned to the bullpen in a one-run game after getting six solid innings from Liriano only to watch Matt Guerrier, Craig Breslow and R.A. Dickey combine to surrender seven runs in a disastrous seventh inning. Guerrier had pitched pretty well in his first few outings but reverted to 2008 form last night as his ERA ballooned to 8.44 ERA. Breslow has apparently forgotten how to find the strike zone -- he's thrown 39 pitches this year and only 16 of them have been strikes. Dickey looks like every bit the hittable junk tosser he has been throughout his career. Luis Ayala pitched decently last night but has been extremely unimpressive overall with a 7.36 ERA and .394 opponents' batting average.
The struggles of mop-up guys like Dickey and Philip Humber aren't overly concerning, but Guerrier, Breslow and Ayala are being relied upon as key components of this bullpen, and if their struggles continue, the Twins are going to have to start looking at replacement options. In Rochester, Jose Mijares has gotten his season off to a strong start, allowing just one hit and zero walks over his first 5 1/3 innings of work. Meanwhile, in New Britain, Rob Delaney has allowed three hits while posting a 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 5 1/3 innings, and Anthony Slama has allowed one hit in four innings with a 7-to-1 K/BB ratio. It's still very early, obviously, but all three of these relievers have good arms and are coming off great seasons, so there's little reason to think they won't continue to succeed. If they can keep dominating while the big-league bullpen continues to struggle, the Twins should not hesitate to recall Mijares, or to promote Slama and/or Delaney to Triple-A... or perhaps even straight to the majors.