Friday, April 17, 2009

On Gomez and the Bullpen

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.

12 comments:

Jack Steal said...

I agree with you Nick all the Twins hitters look lost at the plate right now. Gomez is going to come around and is too valuable defensivly to be on the bench or in .AAA

J. Lichty said...

the bull pen struggles are not going to come into focus for Smith and Gardy until the team starts hitting. Glen Perkins has not won a game yet because the offense is terrible, despite pitching into the eighth twice.

Until the team starts having leads blown like last year, I am afraid the bullpen struggles are not really going to inflict enough pain on the front office to do something about it.

We already know from the Bass situation last year, that the Twins will be loathe to cut bait with Humber. For some reason, they love Dickey. Ayala was the one bull pen move they made in the offseason and they will not cut bait on that. Breslow is worth keeping, even though he struggled last night. Guerrier is in JC Romero territory for at least this season (i.e. credit for a being good two years ago).

Twins have always prided themselves staying the course and not panicking. They kept Batista around for a couple months, and Ramon Ortiz and Livan around for a little longer than that.

You may see something happen in June, but by then it may be too late.

Of course, if people not named Justin Morneau and Denard Span (who are a carrying the team right now) do not start taking better at-bats, the year will soon be lost anyway.

Thankfully, the central appears to stink again this year. If the starters do what they are capable of, this team could put together a little run, but it needs to happen soon.

John said...

OK Nick, you and I have gone several rounds on Gomez, but I think it might be time for one more.....

I agree with you that Gomez is worthwhile. I'll grant you how much better the defense is with Gomez in the lineup. I suppose we could kind of crunch the numbers, and we might even find that the defensive upgrade is equal to the offensive dropoff with him in the lineup. So let's say that between the run prevention and the run creation, the team is about the same with Gomez in the lineup as with Delmon.

Even then, I would argue they should send Gomez to AAA. I just think they're ruining this kid. He had, what, 500 AB last year? And it's arguable that he has improved one bit offensively with all that playing time in the majors. If this team is just as good with him as it is without him, wouldn't it be a wise long term move to see if he can take that next development step in AAA?

lookatthosetwins said...

John,

If you crunch the numbers, Gomez was worth over wins more than Delmon last year. While Gomez looks lost, he does at least seem to be taking the coaching staff's instruction to heart, while Delmon just does his own thing. Gomez is trying to be more patient, and because of that, is taking a lot of strikes and getting behind. But at least he's working on improving. Delmon changed his stance but continues to swing at everything thrown and will probably be close to replacement level again this year.

Gomez is way too valuable defensively and a weeks worth of games do not show that he's that inept offensively to still be valuable.

lookatthosetwins said...

over wins = over TWO wins. Ooops.

Nick N. said...

If this team is just as good with him as it is without him, wouldn't it be a wise long term move to see if he can take that next development step in AAA?Well, I don't think the team is "just as good with him as it is without him," I think it's considerably better. When you have arguably the best defensive player in the league at a position of such high importance, I don't think there's much logic to taking him off the field, particularly when the alternative option is so unappealing. Delmon Young is just an awful defensive player, and you're really putting your pitching staff in a vice when you're regularly trotting out him and Cuddyer in the corner OF spots around Span -- who is not nearly as good as Gomez in center. Also, the "offensive dropoff" you get with Gomez in the lineup right now really isn't that large considering how awful Young has been at the plate. It's not like we're choosing between a guy who's a bad hitter but a great fielder and a guy who's a bad fielder but a great slugger. Young hasn't done much of anything at the plate and while I'm sure he'll improve (as Gomez will), I'm not seeing anything that makes me think he's going to develop into even an average hitter at a corner OF/DH spot.

If I thought being in the majors was actually damaging Gomez's development, I'd be more supportive of demoting him. But, I think he'll gradually learn and adjust from facing major-league pitchers; these things just take time. Gomez had a pretty good final month last year, performed well in winter ball and had a good spring, so I'm willing to wait out this slow start and let him fall back on his defense while he tries to get on track. If he's still hitting below .200 in mid-May, obviously it's going to be time to re-think the situation, but as I said a lot of guys aren't hitting right now.

I'm also more willing to show patience with Gomez since he's got half as many major-league at-bats as Young.

John said...

I crunched a few numbers, and I basically agree with your assessment that they are 1-2 games better with Gomez than Young. That's another tally in the 'keep him here column'.

But ultimately I think where we disagree is that I have seen NO progress by Gomez offensively in 600+ major league at-bats now. I have seen a different approach, but no progress. Whether it was last April, or last September or this April, the fundamental problem is the same - he's guessing as to whether a pitch is hittable or not. Last year that meant swinging at everything. This year it means not swinging at anything. Either way, after a short adjusement period by the pitchers (i.e. spring), he's screwed.

And for the record, I LOVE the guy. And furthermore, if I had a choice, I would send Delmon Young down before I would send Gomez down. But that's not a choice, because Young is out of options. And I think Young's screwed because he can't go down and get the minor league instruction he desparately needs. Gomez still has a chance.

Send Gomez down. Let him get the full-time ABs he needs in Rochester at a slightly lower level of competition. That also frees up ABs for Young to try and develop his unique "approach" to batting here. It's the best possible solution for both guys' development, and if it costs us a game and a half over the rest of the year, that's a cost we might might need to shoulder (or hopefully overcome in the second half if either develops).

I gotta admit, I'm pretty baffled by the optimism that what the Twins are doing for Gomez somehow benefits him. I just don't see where that comes from. Look at that BB:K ratio last September.

Nick N. said...

Well put, John. I think this is one area where we'll always differ in opinion. There's good arguments to be made on either side. I guess I just rue the thought of watching an OF alignment of Young/Span/Cuddyer on a nightly basis and don't think Young does much for this team when he's in the lineup right now. And I'm confident Gomez will come around at the plate eventually.

Kim P said...

You didn't mention Brian Duensing who I think should of stayed up instead of Humber.

Kim P
ParadeSD

Nick N. said...

You didn't mention Brian Duensing who I think should of stayed up instead of Humber.I don't think Duensing has much upside as a reliever. He's got the potential to be a decent situational lefty, but he won't be a difference-maker in the bullpen. Mijares, Slama and Delaney could be, though.

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