Friday, August 07, 2009

Frustration

While perusing my daily slate of blogs yesterday, I came across an interesting and thoughtful post on Seth's site in which he basically wondered aloud why many Twins fans feel the need to expend so much energy complaining and venting about the same central issues when it comes to this club. The sentiment is hardly surprising coming from Mr. Stohs, who is one of the most mild-mannered and easygoing people you will ever meet, and without a doubt it's something I can connect with to a large degree. It is somewhat ironic, though, that his post popped up on the same day I chose to rattle off a rather vitriolic rant about Ron Gardenhire's continual fascination with penciling the struggling Nick Punto into the lineup on a daily basis.

Such outright negative posts are pretty rare around here; as you can ascertain from the blog's tag-line I make a pretty strong effort to remain level-headed in all my analysis. I'm not the type to get overly worked up over a single loss, or to become emotionally distraught when I disagree with a move the team makes. After all, it's just a game. But there is something distinctly therapeutic about venting one's frustration with their favorite team in situations where that frustration is clearly warranted. And apparently there's a similar benefit in reading such diatribes, since those occasional posts carrying the "rants" tag have been among the most popular -- in terms of readership and response -- in this blog's existence.

And while I'd like to keep positive and remark on the things that are going well for the Twins right now, it's difficult to do so when you've reached the point of questioning the basic competency of some of the organization's chief decision-makers.

I didn't always agree with the front office's actions during the Terry Ryan regime, but in general I almost always understood them. Acquisitions like Rondell White, Ramon Ortiz and Bret Boone might not have worked out, but a person could always at least see the logic in adding those players. Even in the early days of Bill Smith's tenure, I didn't find any of his moves to be without reason. Players like Mike Lamb and Adam Everett had been valuable pieces in the recent past, and even though they didn't work out one could see why they were brought in. The Johan Santana and Matt Garza trades both look brutally ugly right now, but one could see how Smith and Co. envisioned those moves ultimately improving the team. Moreover, during those days the organization's personnel moves were constrained by a perpetually limited budget.

Recently, my patience with the front office as headed by Bill Smith has been wearing thin. To cite a prime root of my irritation, let's talk about the bullpen. It has been a clear, unmistakable flaw for this team ever since Pat Neshek went down with a season-ending elbow injury early last year. The problem was compounded when the Twins learned that Neshek and Boof Bonser, another hurler who they'd envisioned as a potential late-inning dominator, would both miss the 2009 season due to arm surgery. And yet, the front office did nothing to address this issue other than letting Dennys Reyes walk and signing free agent leftover Luis Ayala, a supposed sinkerballer with a substandard groundball rate who was coming off a 5.71 ERA season.

The unaddressed bullpen has predictably caused plenty of problems for the Twins this year, and yet the team has done nothing to augment the unit other than calling up mediocre former minor-league starters like Sean Henn, Bobby Keppel, Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey. The trade deadline came and went without any move being made to improve the team's absurdly thin relief corps, which was made more frustrating by the assertions of Smith and other front office personnel that no usable relievers could have been acquired without giving up top prospects. Such a statement is suspect in its own right, and in fact provably false when you take into account the fact that several solid relief pitchers were swapped in late July at relatively modest costs. For the front office to shovel these excuses onto the fans is not only obnoxious, but flat-out insulting. (Aaron Gleeman has a great take on this whole situation here.)


Thinking about the severe problems facing the Twins' bullpen always brings me back to Anthony Slama. My frustration over the organization's handling of arguably its best relief prospect over the past two years has been aired here many times, but I simply cannot discuss the front office's inept management of the major-league bullpen without coming back to it. Slama was honored as the Twins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008, he holds a dazzling 1.75 ERA and 13.4 K/9 IP rate in his minor-league career, he is 25 years old, and yet still he remains mired in Double-A while veteran minor-league retreads lose games for the big-league club. Slama's numbers are, and always have been, exquisite; the only conceivable reason for holding him back is his unexceptional command (he has issued 31 walks in 62 1/3 innings this year -- a rate of 4.5 BB/9 IP). While somewhat troubling, this middling control has not prevented him from being highly effective overall in New Britain, and any notion that a mild problem with throwing strikes is sure to doom a player from having success in Triple-A and the majors should have been dismissed by Jose Mijares, who posted a 5.0 BB/9 IP rate in his minor-league career and has issued 4.5 walks per nine innings with the Twins this season but has still managed to be one of the team's three most reliable bullpen arms.

The Slama dilemma has become so obvious at this point that even Patrick Reusse, who rarely delves into the realm of prospect analysis, is advocating for his promotion. In Reusse's column, minor-league overseers Jim Rantz and Rob Antony suggest the possibility that Slama could be promoted directly from New Britain to Minnesota at some point this season, but such a drastic step should not even be necessary. Apparent complacency on the part of the Twins' front office personnel kept Slama stuck in Single-A for the entirety of last season and now in Double-A for the entirety of this year, in spite of his performance at both levels clearly indicating his readiness to move on. This conservative approach would be far more acceptable if it weren't for the dire circumstances that have been facing the Twins' bullpen for over a year now.

It almost seems like stubbornness is guiding the Twins' decision-making in this situation. And that annoying sense of stubbornness extends beyond the front office personnel and down to the team's manager and his lineup decisions. Joe Mauer has hit .398/.451/.707 as the Twins' No. 2 hitter this year, and yet Gardenhire has consistently refused to leave him in that spot for more than a few weeks at a time based on some apparent golden rule of baseball that middle infielders must fill that spot in the order. Early in the season, the manager wasted numerous rally-killing at-bats on players like Punto and Alexi Casilla, apparently not understanding that the second hitter in the lineup figures to receive the second-most at-bats of any player on the team and that wasting precious outs between two of your best hitters can be devastating to run production. Now, with the acquisition of Orlando Cabrera, Gardenhire has found another player to push Mauer down in the lineup. While it might seem silly to complain about this now, considering the amount of success Cabrera has had early on with his new team, nothing changes the fact that the newly acquired shortstop holds a .322 career on-base percentage and is much better suited for the bottom of the order. Yet, once he reverts to his career hitting levels, there is little doubt that he will remain in that two-spot, separating two of the team's best on-base threats with his mediocre production. One truly wonders what Mauer has done to make the manager believe that he is not perfectly suited for that second spot in the lineup.

With the injuries and poor performance they've gotten from their rotation, the Twins really have no business being in a playoff hunt this year. Yet, they are. They are within five games of first place with nearly two months remaining, because they play in a division without a single truly outstanding team, and despite their disadvantage in the standings they still remain in great position to come out on top due to an extremely favorable remaining schedule. Such opportunities do not come along often, but through inaction and inept decision-making the Twins are still managing to let it slide away.

This team is on the cusp of greatness, with Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and others all having career seasons. The club is being held back by a number of glaring flaws that could and should have been addressed long ago, but it seems that this front office's answer is to sit still, cross their fingers and pray for the best while hoping that lateral moves like replacing Ayala with Keppel and replacing Harris with Cabrera [EDIT: and replacing Perkins/Liriano with Pavano] will appease the team members and fan base.

For a fan who dedicates a great deal of time to watching, discussing and promoting the team, that course of action can generate quite a bit of well warranted frustration.

15 comments:

neckrolls said...

Obviously, Slama would be a good idea, but first things first. Since June, Rob Delaney has a 1.50 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 8.0 K/9 in 18 IP at Rochester. Perhaps someone like that could be of more use to the Twins right now than Bobby Keppel.

Anonymous said...

Perkins
Slowey
Liriano
Baker
Blackburn

Here's your glaring holes holding this team back.

David84 said...

Here's your glaring holes holding this team back.

Since June 1, Scott Baker is 7-1 with a 3.37 ERA. His WHIP is 1.17. He has almost a 4-1 K/BB rate. His FIP stands at 4.11, which is entirely respectable. Blackburn has been probably the most consistent starter on our staff. Slowey was in only his second full season after having a freaking amazing 5-1 K/BB ratio. Slowey also had a respectable FIP at 4.23. Liriano for all his struggles has also been fairly unlucky with an average on balls in play of .324. Really, Perkins and Liriano have been disappointing. Baker, Blackburn and Slowey's flaws have been magnified by the fact that Baker is asked to be a 1 (he's not) Blackburn a 2 (he's not) and Slowey a 3 (he might be that good eventually). If the organization actually had a frontline starter (Santana or Garza (or both - imagine!)) the Baker/Slowey/Blackburn rotation would be downright enviable.

David84 said...

Nick - thanks for the therapy. The Twins have one of the best blogosphere's in baseball for two reasons - number of blogs, and level-headed quality of the blogs. You, Seth, Gleeman, SBG, Josh Johnson, Thrylos, Hageman, Bonnes, Kneeland, etc. offer such quality, level-headed analysis that it gives you plenty of capital, so to speak, when you decide to rant on the Twins. If Ron Gardenhire were a doctor or a lawyer, he'd be sued for malpractice; rants on blogs are more than fair.

I heard the other day the Twins are one of like 3 or 4 teams that don't employ a sabremetrician. No wonder we're all scratching our heads and losing our minds.

Nick N. said...

Perkins
Slowey
Liriano
Baker
Blackburn

Here's your glaring holes holding this team back.


Don't forget Carl Pavano!

Slowey's injury and Liriano's inability to get on track might be the reason the Twins fail to come back and take the division at this point, but they wouldn't be 4.5 games out right now if not for the lack of foresight displayed by the front office. It did not take a rocket scientist to see that the bullpen and middle infield were going to be major liabilities this year.

Kyle said...

Your frustration is justified more than ever before. You hit the nail on the head when you mention the amazing seasons of Nathan, Mauer, Morneau, and Kubel. It is unlikely that we see that type of production from out stars (if we have any left) for many years.

Running a club is a bit like plugging holes in a boat. This season, there were just a few holes to fill and no meaningful action by the front office. It is unlikely we will be in this good of position for many years to come.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Nick. However, I think that Pavano is actually a very good pickup (even if it is a little late). His high era doesn't paint the correct picture - his peripheral numbers this year have been quite good: 4.26 FIP, and a 4.15 xFIP, providing a better indication of what his ERA should look like going forward.

Nick N. said...

I didn't mean to indicate that Pavano was a bad pickup. I just don't think he'll be a real meaningful improvement over whoever he replaces. Saturday post coming tomorrow.

TT said...

"the only conceivable reason for holding him back is his unexceptional command "

Actually its not the "only conceivable reason". Its only the most obvious. If you actually read Reusse's column you would have seen a lot of others. His velocity is in the high 80's-90 mph range, he doesn't change speeds and he is getting minor league hitters out because of a slight deception in his delivery. He relies on a "well located fastball" to get ahead in the count and then gets strikeouts with his slider. Short summary: a control pitcher with mediocre velocity who walks a lot of batters and can't change speeds.

The reality is that he has been dominating much younger competition and those "re-treads" you complain about mostly dominated AAA hitters and are still struggling at the major league level. If the Twins call up Slama it will be an act of desperation, not because they really believe he can do the job.

Slama has almost no simlarities to Mijares. The fact is Mijares walked only one batter at AAA before he was recalled this spring. He didn't walk a single batter in the major leagues after he was called up last fall. He is walking major league hitters this year at about the rate Slama is walking AA batters.

As for Mauer not batting second, the guy is on a pace to hit 20+ home runs even after missing a month. He's the Twins best hitter. He belongs in the number three spot. The only reason he has ever batted second is the inability to find someone else who can hit in that spot. Cabrera gives them that. Is he an ideal sedond hitter? No. But Mauer is an ideal third hitter, Morneau is an ideal cleanup hitter, Kubel and Cuddyer are ideal 5th and 6th hitters and they all end up in less than ideal slots if you move Cabrera to the bottom third of the lineup.

The narrative that its the Twins management who are idiots is frankly both old, and stupid. They have been in the pennant race in late July every year for a decade and have only one losing season. There isn't a player on the team not named Mauer that the blogsphere hasn't given up on at some point. And there are dozens of overrated never-weres from Kielty to Restovich to Nakumara that bloggers have elevated to next hometown hero.

Nick N. said...

The reality is that he has been dominating much younger competition and those "re-treads" you complain about mostly dominated AAA hitters and are still struggling at the major league level. If the Twins call up Slama it will be an act of desperation, not because they really believe he can do the job.

There's this level between Double-A and the majors called Triple-A. It's ideal for getting 25-year-olds a chance to compete against an appropriate level of competition and giving teams an idea of whether or not those who succeed in the early levels are likely to carry that success forward to the big leagues.

By the way, people were saying the same thing last year about how Slama's stuff wouldn't play at the next level, and his strikeout rate has remained pretty steady. People also said the exact same things about Neshek when he was coming up through the minors.

As for Mauer not batting second, the guy is on a pace to hit 20+ home runs even after missing a month. He's the Twins best hitter. He belongs in the number three spot. The only reason he has ever batted second is the inability to find someone else who can hit in that spot. Cabrera gives them that. Is he an ideal sedond hitter? No. But Mauer is an ideal third hitter, Morneau is an ideal cleanup hitter, Kubel and Cuddyer are ideal 5th and 6th hitters and they all end up in less than ideal slots if you move Cabrera to the bottom third of the lineup.

This all seems pretty silly to me. What exactly defines an "ideal third/cleanup/5th/6th hitter" other than old traditional baseball mantra? (I suppose you'd also preach that Joe Nathan is an "ideal closer" and should not be used outside of ninth inning save situations?) They're all very good hitters and it's in the Twins' best interest to get them as many at-bats as possible and to put them in position to succeed. Sticking a mediocre hitter who will makes outs 68 percent of the time in the middle of that pack just so all those guys can hit in the arbitrary lineup positions you consider them natural for isn't in the best interest of producing runs. Mauer would be an ideal third hitter if the Twins could put two speedy OBP-heavy guys in front of him, but as this roster is constructed, he's an ideal 2-hitter and everyone else can move up a spot.

The narrative that its the Twins management who are idiots is frankly both old, and stupid. They have been in the pennant race in late July every year for a decade and have only one losing season.

I have never pushed such a narrative in the past. The organization's moves over the past year, however, have been incompetent. This team has a lot of talent and is going to miss a prime opportunity to take the division because zero foresight was shown in addressing obvious flaws.

Bryz said...

Is it conceivable to think that Mauer is stuck at #3 because of how good of a hitter he is, therefore causing Gardy to think that he'll be able to drive in more runs? With this logic, the Twins do add another run producer (along with Morneau, Kubel, and Cuddyer) but they also have a runner on base 10% less often for that 3rd hitter.

It's not that Gardy wants a middle infielder as his #2 hitter, it's just that he wants a bunting, move 'em over-type hitter in the 2 hole, and it just so happens that Casilla, Punto, Tolbert, and Cabrera fit this mold. It also happens that they all either have a poor BA or OBP. Funny thing is that prior to this year (and if you ignored his BA) Mauer would fit this mold as well.

Bryz said...

Sorry, should have clarified....that 10% that I pulled up is roughly the difference of OBP between Cabrera and Mauer.

TT said...

Bryz -

"Is it conceivable to think that Mauer is stuck at #3 because of how good of a hitter he is, therefore causing Gardy to think that he'll be able to drive in more runs?"

That is the logic baseball people have been using for over a century when they have made out the batting order.

The first time through the order, if Mauer is batting second he will have a little less than half the runners on base as when he hits third. After that he will have the number nine hitter, instead of the number two hitter, creating opportunities for him.

Morneau batting third will have the same opportunities to drive in Mauer or the leadoff runner as when he is batting fourth. But with only two hitters ahead of him, he will have fewer RBI opportunities overall. Kubel and Cuddyer will get more opportunities.

So if you want to give Mauer and Morneau fewer at bats with runners on base and have Kubel and Cuddyer get more opportunities, batting Mauer second makes sense. Otherwise it doesn't.

When people have been doing something the same way for over 100 years there is probably more to it than simple stubborness. No matter what the blogger community might think, their computers don't make them any smarter.

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