Thursday, April 30, 2009

That'll Work, For Now

After sputtering offensively on Monday and failing in numerous scoring opportunities on Tuesday, the Twins' lineup needed to have a big game in their finale against the Rays last night. And while they weren't able to do so in the most convincing fashion, they made it happen in an 8-3 victory that sealed a second straight series win and returned them to the .500 mark.

Many of the Twins' runs last night came across on either wild pitches or defensive miscues by the Rays, but a run is a run and in the end the Twins managed to rack up eight on 12 hits. Is it a coincidence that the offensive explosion came on the same night where Alexi Casilla was finally moved out of the the No. 2 spot in the order? Probably, for the most part, but that doesn't mean that sliding Casilla down was the wrong idea.

Casilla went 0-for-4 from the No. 9 spot to lower his hitting line for the season to .174/.230/.217. I didn't have high hopes for Casilla this season (see my third prediction on this page), and drew some criticism for projecting him to post a meager .270/.320/.345 line earlier this spring, but it's now looking like even that might have been too optimistic. I'm sure he'll eventually raise his numbers from where they're at now, but there's little reason to believe at this point that Casilla is going to hit enough to be a viable regular.

On his blog Over the Baggy, Parker Hageman pointed out yesterday that Casilla has the lowest OPS of any qualifying American League hitter, and the third lowest of any player in baseball. Hageman also notes that Casilla's rate of chasing pitches out of the zone and hitting the ball on the ground are both tops among qualifying major-league second baseman, and a staggering 42.9 percent of Casilla's fly balls have failed to leave the infield (also an MLB-leading figure). He's been simply atrocious at the plate up to this point, and there is little reason to believe he's going to rebound in any meaningful way. With the exception of a two-and-a-half-month hot streak last year that is looking more and more like a fluke, Casilla has been anywhere between below-average and terrible offensively everywhere he's been over the past two seasons. He doesn't appear to have a sustainable strategy for success at the plate, and there's no earthly reason he should be hitting near the top of the lineup at this juncture.

Unfortunately, Ron Gardenhire doesn't seem to see things the same way. According to Joe Christensen...
Manager Ron Gardenhire said he’s leaning toward putting Mauer right back in the No. 3 spot, when he returns. The hope is that Alexi Casilla will rediscover his form from last year in the No. 2 spot.
Having an offensive sinkhole like Casilla breaking up the team's top four hitters is a bad strategy and a potential rally-killer, yet this is another example of Gardenhire being far too slow to make lineup changes that are clearly necessary. Last year, it took the manager until late July to move Carlos Gomez out of the leadoff spot in spite of the fact that the center fielder's on-base percentage was below .300 for most of the first half of the season; now Gardy appears content to keep writing Casilla into the lineup spot that receives the second-most opportunities to hit because evidently he thinks Joe Mauer will provide better protection than Justin Morneau. Or because he thinks that the player who came up and streaked through June and July last year is the real Alexi Casilla, contrary to all the evidence we've seen suggesting otherwise over the past two years. Either way, the thought process is flawed and the decision is wrong.

If Casilla is going to be in the lineup, he should be hitting toward the bottom. But the smarter choice at this point is to start feeding more and more starts to Brendan Harris, be it at second base or at shortstop with Nick Punto sliding over the second. Harris went 3-for-5 while replacing Casilla in the two-hole last night to raise his hitting line for the season to .350/.372/.475 -- yes, that slugging percentage is higher than Casilla's OPS.

Harris got off to a slow start last year, hitting .262/.315/.372 up until the All Star break, but that's excusable seeing as how he was adjusting to playing with a new club. In the second half, Harris posted a solid .272/.353/.434 line, and he proceeded to have an excellent spring training this year before getting his regular season off to a torrid start. Harris' bat is looking legitimate and with the horrendous production the Twins have been receiving from their other right-handed bats, he needs to be getting into the lineup on a more frequent basis. Harris represents a fairly significant defensive downgrade at any infield position, but that's a necessary sacrifice at this point and his harm in the field can be reduced by strategically using Casilla and others as late-game defensive replacements.

The Twins have been playing better ball as of late, but they need to get their lineup into a sustainable mode of production. Mauer's return will certainly help toward that end, but getting Casilla out of the No. 2 spot and feeding Harris more at-bats are other important steps. It seems as though the Twins would be in significantly better shape right now if they'd taken advantage of a tremendous bargain opportunity this offseason by signing Orlando Hudson, but hey, what do I know.


By the by, if you get a chance please make sure to tune into the MN GameNight podcast tonight at 10 p.m., which Seth Stohs will be hosting alongside Glen Perkins.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lady Luck

Justin Morneau lifted the Twins to a walk-off victory last night when he hit a scalding liner at Akinori Iwamura that the Rays couldn't convert into a double play with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, but it was a position that the Twins really never should have been in.

I say that not because it was unacceptable for Joe Nathan to surrender the game-tying home to Ben Zobrist in the top half of the ninth. Nathan's one of the best in the biz, but nobody's perfect and he's going to make the occasional mistake. The fact of the matter is that Nathan wouldn't have been protecting a one-run lead had the Twins not failed repeatedly in scoring opportunities for a second night in a row.

The Twins went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position in last night's game, with the only hit coming on an infield single by Denard Span during their ninth-inning rally. On Monday night, the Twins had gone 0-for-9 in scoring opportunities, and they entered last night's game hitting just .265/.344/.348 in such situations on the season. Whatever clutch magic this offense purportedly had last year certainly has not been present so far this season, and has definitely been absent in this series. It seems the Twins have ended their affair with Lady Luck and are now courting a cold-hearted mistress by the name of Regression to the Mean.

After Morneau ripped a two-run homer in the first inning, the only way the Twins could find to score in the game were getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and hitting into a fielder's choice. That's not a sustainable offensive strategy and the Twins aren't going to be winning many games if they can't start driving some runners in with legitimate hits. Unfortunately, tonight they'll be going against Scott Kazmir, who happens to be left-handed. And we all know how this team has performed against left-handers so far...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lining Up With Mauer

There had been some rumblings that the Twins were considering activating Joe Mauer earlier than expected -- perhaps as soon as today -- but it now appears that they'll stick with the original plan and bring him back on Friday in time for a three-game weekend series against the Royals.

Along with a fair amount of well warranted excitement for fans, Mauer's return will bring with it a number of interesting decisions for the Twins brain trust. The first thing they'll need to decide is which player to remove from the 25-man roster in order to make space for Mauer to come off the disabled list. Jose Morales, who is hitting .361 after going 5-for-8 in his past two games, has become a popular choice to stick around as a third catcher upon Mauer's return. Yet, this wouldn't be the correct choice for Morales or for the team. With Mauer unlikely to spend much (if any) time at DH, there will probably only be about eight at-bats per week available at the catcher position -- splitting that between two players is pointless. Morales is a nice guy to have in the organization and looks to be the backup of the future, but he should be playing more regularly than he would be as a third catcher with the big-league club right now. Unless Mike Redmond is placed on the DL (which wouldn't seem to be such a bad idea considering how beat up he looks), Morales should and will be the odd man out upon Mauer's return.

The more interesting dilemma posed by Mauer's activation is how to work the catcher into the lineup. Alexi Casilla has been a mess in the No. 2 spot, leading one to speculate that Mauer might slip in there and knock Casilla to the bottom of the order. Doing so would make sense, since Mauer seems a good for for the two-hole and a 1-4 order of Denard Span, Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel would put the Twins' four best hitters in position to receive the most at-bats.

The obvious flaw with this arrangement, however, is that it puts four consecutive lefties at the top of the Twins' lineup. Even when the Twins are facing a right-handed starter, this is a bad idea, because it makes the Twins extremely vulnerable to left-handed relievers late in close games. We saw how harmful this can be on Sunday, when both Morneau and Kubel got an opportunity to bat with the bases loaded and the Twins down by two and were both blown away by Cleveland LOOGY Tony Sipp. While Span, Mauer, Morneau and -- to a lesser extent -- Kubel can all generally hold their own against lefties, they're all much more susceptible to tough left-handed relievers than the typical right-handed hitter and there needs to be some break between the four to protect against situational lefty relievers.

So, who can fill this role? The list of potential candidates is underwhelming to say the least. Casilla, thanks to his high placement in the lineup, currently ranks fifth on the team in plate appearances, which has magnified his extremely poor production. Nick Punto has gotten on base at a decent clip up to this point (.344), but his overall offensive production (.236 AVG and .255 SLG) have not been suitable for a No. 2 hitter. Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede don't profile as No. 2 hitters in general, and certainly not with the way they've been hitting thus far. Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez have been dreadful at the plate.

Those are pretty much all of your right-handed options, and up to this point none of them look remotely deserving of a spot near the top of the lineup. If I were making the decision, I suppose at this point I'd probably try Punto in the two-spot since he's at least been taking decent at-bats, while maybe trying Brendan Harris in that spot on days when he gets into the lineup over Punto or Casilla. That's not an ideal situation, though, and unless one of the team's struggling right-handed hitters can step up, putting together a reasonable 1-5 is going to be a challenge. For lack of appealing right-handed options at the No. 2 spot, Ron Gardenhire might just end up writing in the four lefties back-to-back, even though he rightfully despises that notion.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Left Out

After recording impressive victories on Friday and Saturday night, the Twins fell to the Indians 4-2 in yesterday's series finale to leave Cleveland with a series victory rather than a sweep. It was a good weekend for the Twins, but it's not too difficult to see why they were unable to pick up a win yesterday against left-handed starter Aaron Laffey.

Coming into the game, here were the numbers for the Twins' right-handed middle-of-the-lineup hitters against southpaws:

Michael Cuddyer: .188/.272/.385
Delmon Young: .188/.235/.375
Joe Crede: .286/.333/.500

Only Crede has been having any success against lefties so far in this young season. In total, the three hitters were 2-for-11 in the game, with both the hits being singles. The Twins need these three to step up their performance against left-handers so the offense won't be completely screwed on days where the big lefty bats -- Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel -- struggle as they did yesterday.

Of course, the impetus also falls on the team's other right-handed hitters, such as Brendan Harris (hitting .267 vs. LHP), Carlos Gomez (hitting .143 vs. LHP). The team's regular switch-hitters, Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla, have gone a combined 1-for-36 against southpaws.

Struggling against left-handers is nothing new for the Twins, but it's really not excusable given with the number of right-handed batters they can trot out against any lefty. Joe Mauer's return should provide an overall jolt to the lineup but shouldn't be expected to help them specifically in this area. Instead, the responsibility falls on guys like Cuddyer and Young to do their job and step up when left-handed pitchers are suppressing the team's big lefty bats.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Rough Starts

Here are the basic pitching statistics for the Twins' five current starters as of today:

Francisco Liriano is 0-4 with a 7.06 ERA
Scott Baker is 0-2 with a 12.46 ERA
Nick Blackburn is 0-1 with a 5.71 ERA
Kevin Slowey is 2-0 with a 5.89 ERA
Glen Perkins is 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA

Shoddy, underperforming starting pitching early in the season -- this feels vaguely familiar. On April 24, 2006...

Johan Santana was 0-3 with a 4.81 ERA.
Brad Radke was 2-2 with a 7.50 ERA
Carlos Silva was 1-3 with an 8.33 ERA.
Kyle Lohse was 1-1 with an 11.57 ERA
Scott Baker was 1-1 with a 3.31 ERA

Now, this comparison is obviously to be taken with a grain of salt since the differences between the rotation that opened the 2006 season and the Twins' current stable of starting pitchers are vast. The point of bringing up these stat lines is to remind everyone that there's a recent local precedent for almost roundly underwhelming starting pitching performances out of the gate, and it doesn't necessarily doom an entire season.

In '06, Silva and Lohse never really rebounded from their poor starts, as Silva went on to post an 11-15 record and 5.94 ERA while Lohse was booted from the rotation and later traded to the Reds with a 7.07 ERA. Baker fell off after his solid start and was also eventually removed from the rotation. Yet, Santana came back strong and ended up winning the Cy Young Award and Radke -- a pitcher with notable similarities to a few members of the current staff -- also rebounded to become a key contributor the team's amazing second-half run.

What the 2009 Twins lack is a Francisco Liriano -- or, to a lesser extent, a Boof Bonser -- who can step in from the minors and energize the rotation. Therefore, internal improvement will be the key factor for this current group. Based on their career histories and the way they finished last year, there's little reason to believe that Liriano and Baker will continue to pitch this poorly unless there are underlying health issues. Meanwhile, Slowey already showed signs of getting back on track with a very strong showing last Saturday, and he'll look to continue that progress tomorrow night against the Indians.

I'd be lying if I said I weren't somewhat concerned with the dud performances the Twins' starting pitchers have been putting forth on most nights, but I also have a very difficult time believing this nearly team-wide slump is going to last. These guys are too talented to continue getting hit this hard. Hopefully the turn-around begins tonight in Cleveland.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stormy Days

Rainy conditions in Boston prevented the Twins and Red Sox from being able to play on Tuesday night and limited one of yesterday's double-header match-ups to seven innings, but the results of yesterday's quick sweeping from the Red Sox are ones we'd probably rather forget.

Sixteen games into the season, the Twins aren't in terrible shape as far as the standings are concerned. They're just two games under .500 at 7-9 and remain within a couple games of first place. Yet, this team has played awful baseball up to this point. Six of their nine losses have come by a margin of four or more runs, they've trailed at some point in every game they've played, and their run differential of -31 is the worst in baseball. Their only series that could be considered a success thus far was a three-game home sweep over an Angels team with a decimated pitching staff and without its best hitter. The Twins are lucky to be close to a .500 record right now, and they almost certainly won't continue to be if they can't drastically improve their play.

Yesterday's day game was just about as ugly as they come. Scott Baker continued to serve up pitches on a platter, allowing three more home runs in his 4 2/3 innings of work. He's now coughed up seven homers in 8 2/3 innings this season -- this after serving up four long balls in his final exhibition outing. Baker always has been and likely always will be somewhat homer-prone, but something is clearly wrong here because the rate he's allowing balls to leave the park is nothing short of ridiculous.

The bullpen stepped in and didn't do much to stop the bleeding. After Craig Breslow tossed 1 1/3 scoreless frames in relief of Baker, Juan Morillo came on to pitch the seventh. I mentioned on Tuesday that "In spite of [Morillo's] solid showing on Saturday night, I'm sure it won't be long before we catch a glimpse of the command issues that caused the Rockies to sour on him," and it certainly didn't take long for that to happen. Yesterday, Morillo couldn't find the strike zone with his high-90s fastball, as 13 of the 17 pitches he threw were called balls and he issued three straight walks following a double by David Ortiz before being removed without recording an out. Naturally, R.A. Dickey came in with the bases loaded and sent all of Morillo's baserunners home on a single, a sacrifice fly and a double before the game was mercifully shut down due to weather.

For its part, the offense had a miserable day against Sox starter Tim Wakefield, managing just one run on five hits over seven innings and going 1-for-10 in scoring opportunities. Alexi Casilla's 0-for-3 day dropped his average for the season to .184 while Michael Cuddyer, Joe Crede and Mike Redmond -- who have all displayed varying levels of ineptitude at the plate this year -- also went hitless in the affair.

In the nightcap, the Twins were soundly defeated again as Francisco Liriano was tagged for seven runs in four innings and the offense had another flat showing in a 7-3 loss. Cuddyer went hitless yet again and the replacements for Casilla, Crede and Redmond -- Brendan Harris, Brian Buscher and Jose Morales -- all failed to improve on the performances of their predecessors as each went hitless as well.

Between the day's two games, the Twins were outscored 17-4 and went 1-for-15 in scoring opportunities. These were a pair of bad, bad games, and unfortunately those have not been rare this season. On the bright side, it's still early and there's plenty of time to get things turned around. We can only hope that happens soon because this is hard to watch.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Shaken and Stirred

While it was encouraging to see the Twins get back on the winning track this past weekend with a series sweep over the Angels, the bullpen remains a heavy concern. Twins relievers coughed up five runs between the seventh and eighth innings on Friday night, and weren't called upon in any remotely critical situations for the rest of the series as Kevin Slowey handed a 9-2 lead to the bullpen after seven innings on Saturday and Glen Perkins handed a two-run lead directly to the closer Joe Nathan on Sunday. Still, through 14 games, Twins relievers have combined to allow a 7.03 ERA and 829 opponents' OPS this season. It's been ugly.

The beleaguered relief corps took another hit yesterday when it was announced that Jesse Crain has been placed on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. Crain struggled with his control on Friday night when he issued three walks and was charged with four runs over just 1/3 of an inning, but up to that point he'd easily been the team's best reliever outside of Nathan, posting a 1.59 ERA and 6-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just one hit over his first six appearances. In spite of his struggles on Friday night, Crain was shaping up as a rare reliable arm in the Twins' pen, flashing a mid-90s fastball and an ability to miss bats. While La Velle E. Neal III reports that examinations of Crain's shoulder have revealed "slight inflammation ... nothing serious," one almost has to be alarmed to hear about any discomfort in Crain's right shoulder considering that he underwent reconstructive surgery for his labrum and rotator cuff less than two years ago. One also could be excused for being a bit dubious of this team's initial diagnoses of shoulder injuries considering how badly they missed the mark on Boof Bonser a few months ago.

Replacing Crain on the Twins roster for the time being will be Jose Mijares, who had a terrible spring but looks to have gotten back on track in Triple-A, where he allowed just two hits and zero walks while striking out four over 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Mijares adds a second left-hander to complement Craig Breslow and also could be a potent late-inning option if he returns anywhere close to the form he showed last September, but it's tough to know what you're getting from him considering how up-and-down his performances have been over the past couple years.

The other bullpen shakeup occurring over the past few days the move to was designate Philip Humber for assignment while using his open roster spot to claim Juan Morillo off waivers. Now, I will say that I'm not necessarily a fan of removing Humber from the roster as long as it means losing him from the organization (which is very likely). The 26-year-old right-hander didn't perform well this spring and hasn't looked good at all in a few regular-season appearances, but I tend to be very patient with once-promising players who dealt with major injuries, which is why I've been stubbornly hyping Jason Kubel for three years running, why I've been fairly patient with Crain, and why I will also be patient with Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser when they return. With that being the case, I still think Humber has some upside and don't like the idea of losing him for nothing, but I'm also willing to admit that his upside is probably limited at this point and losing him is unlikely to come back haunt the Twins in a major way. I certainly think he was more deserving of a spot on the roster than R.A. Dickey or Luis Ayala, but at this point the difference between those three pitchers might be negligible.

Anyway, back to Morillo. One of my chief concerns entering this season was a lack of right-handed power arms in the bullpen, thanks to season-costing injuries to Neshek and Bonser. That concern would be magnified if Crain's current ailment were to turn out to be something serious. Well, when you look at Morillo, "right-handed power arm" is one term that could pretty accurately describe him. Morillo is a fire-baller, and he displayed that in his Twins debut on Saturday night when he fired fastballs across the plate at speeds topping 95 mph on his way to a scoreless inning. Indeed, as Aaron Gleeman notes, Morillo has averaged 96.5 mph with his fastball over his brief major-league career, easily topping any member of the current Twins staff and in fact ranking as one of the hardest fastballs in all the league.

The main issue for Morillo has been harnessing that devastating fastball and throwing it in the strike zone on a consistent basis. Morillo has averaged 5.4 walks per nine innings over the course of his minor-league career, and last year in Triple-A he issued 56 walks in 59 2/3 innings for a ghastly 8.4 BB/9IP rate. In spite of his solid showing on Saturday night, I'm sure it won't be long before we catch a glimpse of the command issues that caused the Rockies to sour on him. Adding an erratic arm like that to a bullpen that has already been dealing with some serious control issues doesn't sound like a recipe for relief, but Morillo will initially assume Humber's role as a low-leverage backend guy, and given the Twins' history of turning discarded relievers with historically mediocre control into useful bullpen parts (Dennys Reyes and Craig Breslow come to mind), this certainly seems like a worthwhile project. If Rick Anderson can find a way to improve Morillo's control even modestly, he could turn into a powerful weapon for a Twins team that currently lacks hard throwers outside of Nathan.

For the time being, the Twins have subbed out Crain and Humber for Mijares and Morillo. The latter two both have electric arms and considerable upside, but also have struggled to consistently throw strikes in their young careers. They'll now jump into a bullpen desperate for quality innings, in an organization known for teaching control. It would seem that both are exactly where they need to be in order to succeed.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Good Weekend

This post is going up at about noon on Monday, and these mid-day postings might become a more common occurrance this season as I won't always have time to get something up before bed but would like to have new posts up on most days. So if you come by in the morning and there is nothing new, please consider checking back later in the day. Anyway, back to baseball...

The Twins seemingly got back on track this weekend, and all the jolt they needed was a two-out, cycle-completing, go-ahead grand slam. Who would've thought it'd be so easy?

After Jason Kubel's heroics highlighted a dramatic late comeback on Friday night, the Twins got a resurgent outing from Kevin Slowey in a dominant 9-2 victory on Saturday night and then received yet another eight-inning gem from Glen Perkins on the way to a 3-1 win yesterday to complete the series sweep. Finally the doomsday proclamations have calmed down as the Twins are back to .500 and a game out of first place. What a difference a weekend makes.

Of course, three straight wins don't make this team's problems go away. The bullpen looked absolutely awful on Friday night and remains a heavy concern. We still need to see Scott Baker get on track, which he can hopefully do tomorrow night in Boston. And several hitters in the lineup continue to struggle, including Alexi Casilla and Carlos Gomez.

But, for the time being, this was a good weekend. It must have felt good for the Twins to be on the other side of some tough outcomes they've suffered through this year: the bullpen implosion, the blowout loss, and coming up short in a low-scoring affair.

Now, the challenge becomes keeping it up and turning a good weekend into a good week. Next on the docket is a two-game series in Fenway Park. Let's hope it takes a little bit less to spark the team into action in this series than it did in the last one.

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.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Avoiding the Inevitable

Last night's Twins game was the first I've attended this season, and aside from the 15 or so text messages I received at the end of the game containing some variation of "How about that Crede, eh??" after the Twins' third baseman delivered a walk-off RBI double in the eleventh, the memory that sticks with me the most is the horrible managerial decision that nearly cost the Twins a win.

There are plenty of occasions where I disagree with a coaching decision in a baseball game, but it's pretty rare that I am absolutely, unequivocally positive that the wrong move was made. That happened tonight, though. With Glen Perkins pitching in the eighth inning and working on a second straight gem, the Twins held a 2-1 lead with two outs and the tying run on second base. Vernon Wells, a righty and one of the Blue Jays' better hitters, was at the plate, and Perkins had fallen behind 2-0. Rick Anderson came out to talk to Perkins, and it seemed obvious how he would advise his pitcher. On deck was Adam Lind, a left-handed hitter with a .241/293/.374 career line against southpaws, so the clear strategy was to have Perkins stay away from the strike zone on his last two pitches and walk Wells, filling first base and taking on Lind in a much more favorable matchup. Instead, Perkins came right at Wells, surrending a game-tying RBI single on his very next pitch to tie the game. The Twins still won and Perkins still finished with another excellent outing, but that was a potentially disastrous managerial decision that really cannot be excused.

Someone sitting near us at the game last night called me a "Negative Nancy." I realize this post has done nothing to dispel that nickname. Oh well. Hopefully the Twins pull off a more convincing victory tonight and leave me with nothing to complain about.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Thoughts on the Weekend Series

The Twins dropped two of three in Chicago this weekend, and aside from the win on Friday night in which they broke out for 12 runs, the offense really hasn't looked good so far in this young season. The Twins have been held to one or zero runs in four of the seven games they've played up to this point, and unsurprisingly have gone 0-4 in those contests. They'll need to get on track if they hope to succeed in their four-gamer against the 5-2 Blue Jays, who've averaged 6.6 runs per game.

Here are a few observations on the series against the Sox, and the rest of season up to this point...

* Francisco Liriano really struggled with his command on Saturday, issuing four walks -- two forcing in runs with the bases loaded -- while lasting just 4 2/3 innings in a blowout loss. Through two starts, Liriano is 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA and has had trouble hitting his spots in both starts. Let's not forget, though, that Liriano also experienced command struggles at the beginning of last season before bouncing back splendidly in Rochester and carrying those improvements forward to become one the American League's better second-half pitchers.

Watching Liriano has been a bit frustrating up to this point, but I don't think there's a ton of reason to worry yet.

* Joe Crede has started all seven games up to this point, and his back appears to be in fine shape. Defensively, Crede has looked very solid, flashing his range on a few impressive plays and handling almost everything sent his way. Offensively, he's looked like just the player I expected; he hasn't gotten many hits -- just four in 25 at-bats -- but when he has hit he's been able to do so with some power, as two of those hits have gone for extra bases.

Crede has looked fine thus far, but I would like to see Brian Buscher get a chance to start against a right-hander. He may get that opportunity tonight when the Twins face Jesse Litsch.

* For all the talking about his efforts to improve his plate discipline during the offseason in spring, Gomez has struck out nine times while drawing one walk in his first 23 plate appearances.

* The Twins' offensive struggles are understandable to some extent given that they've been playing without one of their best hitters in Joe Mauer, but the rest of the hitters in this lineup simply aren't pulling their weight right now. Gomez, Crede, Mike Redmond and Delmon Young are all hitting below .200 thus far. Michael Cuddyer is hitting .231 and Justin Morneau is hitting .259. The only Twins regular with a batting average over .300 thus far is Nick Punto. Go figure.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Quick and Painful

Yesterday, Glen Perkins finally answered the Twins' call for a strong outing from a starting pitcher. In fact, he went above and beyond, tossing eight innings of one-run ball. Unfortunately, the rest of the team didn't show much appreciation, delivering a punchless performance against Jarrod Washburn and dropping the series finale 2-0 to finish with a split in their opening set against the Mariners.

The game was reminiscent of so many we've seen from this team before. Going against a mediocre left-hander, the Twins could never string together any type of rally, managing just five hits (zero for extra bases) and failing to move a runner past first base until the eighth inning. If there was one positive to be drawn from the game, it may have been that those who cut out of work to head over to the Metrodome had plenty of time to go back to work and finish their day (then again, maybe that's not really a positive). The contest barely ran longer than two hours thanks to the quick work of Washburn, who posted a 4.69 ERA last season and a 6.60 ERA this spring.

A series victory would have been nice entering this weekend's series at U.S. Cellular, where Twins pitchers surrendered a 928 OPS and 6.80 ERA last season. As it stands, the Twins will have a tough time leaving Chicago with a winning record. Tonight they'll be trotting out R.A. Dickey, who has a 6.31 career ERA as a starter, and on Sunday the White Sox will start Mark Buehrle, a much tougher lefty than Washburn. I'm confident that the Twins will get on track and start rattling off some wins at some point, but I'd be surprised if it were this weekend.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Slow Start

Kevin Slowey was a popular sleeper pick entering the 2009 season. In fact, he was so popular that by the time Opening Day rolled around, he wasn't really a "sleeper" at all.

Slowey went higher than I expected in each fantasy baseball draft I participated in, and if you asked just about any Twins fan which pitcher they expected to deliver a break-out performance this year, his was the name you'd almost always hear. But can a player really "break out" after posting a 3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 123-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 160 1/3 innings? How much more are we expecting from Slowey. The pressure has been building for the 24-year-old to match some suddenly lofty expectations in just his second full season as a major-leaguer.

In his first start of the 2009 season, Slowey fell short of those expectations. He picked up a win last night, but that was mostly because he was going against Carlos Silva, who the Twins punched around for six runs in five innings. For his part, Slowey allowed five runs on nine hits over six innings, surrendering a pair of homers while never looking totally in control.

Now, this is not a major cause for concern. Being that Slowey tops out at about 90 mph on the radar gun, he's bound to have problems unless he's commanding his pitches to a tee. Most nights, he's able to do that. Last night, he wasn't, and the results weren't particularly pretty. I think we saw enough from Slowey last year and this spring to be confident that he'll bounce back with better command the next time around.

It's worth noting that this pitching rotation which figured to spit out Quality Start after Quality Start has yet to produce a single one through three games. We'll see if Glen Perkins can buck that trend today when he goes against Jarrod Washburn this afternoon.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Wild Finish, First Win

These Twins are no strangers to comeback victories -- they had a few memorable ones last year. Yet, last night's 6-5 victory over the Mariners came about in perhaps the most unlikely of ways.

The Twins had struggled offensively for much of the night in large part because they consistently put together poor at-bats. Against starter Erik Bedard, Twins hitters struck out eight times over five innings while drawing zero walks and chasing several pitches out of the zone. Yet, in the ninth, the Twins took advantage of a potent but erratic young arm, spoiling Brandon Morrow's first save opportunity of the year by drawing three straight two-out walks and then bringing them all around to erase a 5-3 deficit and notching their first win of the season.

The real highlight of that thrilling ninth inning was the work put in by the Twins' bench bats. As I discussed with John Bonnes on the GameNight podcast following the game, this bench is one of the best the Twins have boasted in recent memory, and it was on full display last night. Jason Kubel, who was the odd man out of the outfield shuffle last night, followed Carlos Gomez's two-out walk by drawing a four-pitch walk of his own while hitting in place of Jose Morales. Nick Punto was next in the lineup, and so Ron Gardenhire went to Brian Buscher, who put together a great at-bat of his own and ended up walking to load the bases. That sent the action back to the top of the Twins' lineup, where Denard Span and Alexi Casilla delivered consecutive hits to give the Twins an exciting first victory.

There are plenty of interesting storylines to come out of this game -- from Nick Blackburn's disappointing start to the bullpen's resilient performance to Span's great night at the plate -- but in the end the quality pinch-hit at-bats late in the game are the lasting memory. A bench made up of Buscher, Brendan Harris, Mike Redmond (once Joe Mauer returns) and whichever outfielder isn't starting has the potential to be one of the best this franchise has seen in years, and perhaps one of the better units in the league.

The Twins have struggled against the first two starters they've faced this season, but in both cases they've had a pretty good excuse. If they both stay healthy, Bedard and Felix Hernandez can potentially be one of the very best 1-2 punches in baseball this year. If the Twins lineup continues to struggle against Carlos Silva tonight, though, perhaps some criticism will be deserved. For now, though, I'll just bask in a wild but supremely satisfying finish to the second game of this young season.

Monday, April 06, 2009

An Inauspicious Start

Plenty of excitement led up to last night's season opener, which fans have been looking forward to ever since the Twins dropped game No. 163 against the White Sox last fall, but unfortunately the sellout crowd in the Metrodome found little to get excited about during the actual game. The Twins managed just one run on six hits while falling 6-1 to the Mariners in their season opener.

While there's nothing fun about dropping the first game of the season, nothing from Monday night's contest merits particular concern. The Twins offense was shut down by an excellent starting pitcher, and while Francisco Liriano's results weren't great -- four runs over seven innings -- he allowed zero walks after struggling with his command this spring and induced a ton of ground balls.

I suspect the Twins will give a better performance tonight, when Nick Blackburn faces off against Erik Bedard. 

Opening Day Site Update

After a long offseason of waiting, baseball is here again. With it comes a wonderful mix of excitement and uncertainty. Not to mention some fairly significant changes to this old blog.

Those who have visited this site regularly are undoubtedly aware that, in spite of the "Nick & Nick" title that has existed since its inception, I have been essentially the sole contributor for about a year and a half now. Nick Mosvick, who originally alternated daily posts with me, is in Virginia working hard on earning a law degree, and his obligations there make it impossible for him to be heavily involved with this site. His hard work in the past remains an important foundation of this blog and I hope he'll still stop by on occasion to chime in with his thoughts, but the reality is that for now and for the foreseeable future, I'll be running this thing.

To reflect this, and to eliminate the confusion that the original title seems to create amongst newer readers, I've changed the blog's name to "Nick's Twins Blog." Creative, I know. I've also changed the Web address so the site can now be accessed through the URL: The old URL will still lead you here, so there's no need to change bookmarks, but the new one is simpler. To be honest, I've been meaning to get a domain name for this site for some time and to do away with the old address, which I originally thought was quite clever but have now come to find juvenile and extremely hard to explain in regular conversation.

Changing the title, URL and logo (special thanks to Tom Ecker for the new design!) of the blog certainly qualifies as the most drastic change this place has seen in its four-plus years of existence, but it won't really affect the site's day-to-day operations in any meaningful way. It'll still be me posting my inane thoughts about this club and generally getting ripped for overrating Brian Buscher. With that said, I will admit that the frequency of posting may drop a little bit this season. It currently looks like I'll have summer writing obligations with, Heater Magazine,, probably GameDay Magazine and possibly Inside Edge. Balancing all that with this blog, a "real world" full-time job and leisure activities will undoubtedly prove to be a challenge. It's likely that there will be weeks where I'm only able to post three times or so, and if that happens please try to bear with me. By no means do I want to neglect my writing duties here, but sometimes it gets to the end of the night and I just don't have the energy to write up a worthwhile post. Especially when the Twins lose 1-0 and strand 12 runners on base. If posting gets to be too sporadic for comfort, I might look into some new possibilities, such as bringing in guest writers or ditching the current formula of posting at midnight every weekday and instead posting at random times of day whenever I get an opportunity, without any set schedule.

Anyway, I suspect most of you don't care much about an ultimately trivial name change to the blog or my personal workload, which is why I generally try to do these "site update" things only once a year. So if you've read this far, I'd just like to say thanks for visiting, and thanks especially to those of you who visit regularly and share your thoughts in the comment section or my email box. Interacting with readers is definitely my favorite part of this whole deal and I've learned an immense amount about the game of baseball through conversations with some of the awesome fans this team has. I'm really looking forward to what should be a fantastic season of baseball. Let's wish the boys luck tonight, and for the next 161+ games.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Nicks' Picks 2009

Without further ado, mine and Mosvick's predictions for the winners of each division, the World Series and the major postseason awards.

The Nelson Picks

AL East: New York

AL Central: Cleveland

AL West: Los Angeles

AL Wild Card: Tampa Bay

NL East: New York

NL Central: St. Louis

NL West: Los Angeles

NL Wild Card: Phillies

World Series: NY Yankees over St. Louis

AL Cy Young: CC Sabathia
NL Cy Young: Roy Oswalt

AL MVP: Grady Sizemore
NL MVP: Albert Pujols

AL Rookie of the Year: Matt Wieters
NL Rookie of the Year: Dexter Fowler

The Mosvick Picks

AL East: Tampa Bay

AL Central: Cleveland

AL West: Oakland

AL Wild Card: New York

NL East: Atlana

NL Central: Chicago

NL West: Arizona

NL Wild Card: Phillies

World Series: Tampa Bay over Arizona

AL Cy Young: Zack Greinke
NL Cy Young: Dan Haren

AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera
NL MVP: Hanley Ramirez

AL Rookie of the Year: David Price
NL Rookie of the Year: Cameron Maybin

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Spring Wrap-Up Notes

I'm going to post some quick final spring-related thoughts today, then tomorrow I'll post predictions for division winners and awards, then it's the weekend and then Opening Day. We're so close!

* Yesterday's game received a lot of hype since R.A. Dickey and Philip Humber, two relievers vying for one of two remaining spots on the pitching staff (or perhaps competing for one spot if you believe that Brian Duensing has a lock on a bullpen spot as a second lefty), were both scheduled to pitch. Dickey got the start and tossed four scoreless frames, allowing three hits and a walk while striking out three. Humber relieved him and struggled in his three-inning appearance, surrendering two runs -- including a homer -- on five hits. He did fan three batters without allowing a walk.

From a numbers standpoint, Dickey has certainly made the better case for a roster spot this spring, posting a 2.04 ERA and 18-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing 13 hits over 17 2/3 innings. For his part, Humber has posted a 5.14 ERA and 8-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing 15 hits over 14 innings. Yet regardless of the numbers, the Twins should certainly opt for Humber, who is out of options and would surely be lost on waivers if he was cut. Humber has shown enough glimpses of hope during the second half of last year and during this spring that he's worth keeping around as a long reliever. If he continues to struggle early in the season, Dickey will be available in Rochester.

* With Jose Morales behind the plate yesterday, the Rays went 5-for-5 on stolen base attempts. Now, those steals all came with Humber on the mound, so it's possible that the Rays runners saw something in his delivery that allowed them to get big jumps. But if getting run on like this becomes a habit for Morales, he's going to have a tough time serving as the Twins' part-time catcher early in the season.

* Denard Span posted another 0-fer yesterday, going hitless in four at-bats to drop his spring average to .158. Boy, has he had a tough time in Ft. Myers.

* The Tigers scare me a little more after announcing that Fernando Rodney will be their Opening Day closer and Rick Porcello will open the season in their rotation. Plus, they parted ways with Gary Sheffield.

* The forecast for Minneapolis on Monday is a high of 38 degrees with scattered snow showers. I can honestly say I'd still rather be watching the season opener outdoors than in the Metrodome.

* If you're interested, be sure to check out the baseball page at tomorrow for my "The Week Ahead" column. I'll be writing it for every Friday during the baseball season. Speaking of fantasy baseball, I've got a lot invested in Grady Sizemore this year -- he was my first-round pick in three of the four leagues in which I participate. In the Twins Blogger League, I somehow managed to get Sizemore and Miguel Cabrera. Other players I'll be leaning on this year include Joba Chamberlain, who I selected in three leagues, and Jason Kubel, who I own in every league. Surprisingly, I resisted the urge to nab Joe Crede in the late rounds of each draft.

* Finally, I'll note that some relatively big changes for this blog are on the way. They'll be announced on Monday. It's not anything that will really change the content or anything like that, but it's something.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Trimming and Tweaking

With Opening Day only five short days away, the Twins’ final roster is starting to shape up. Yesterday, they predictably cut Jose Mijares following a very rough spring as well as infielder Alejandro Machado. Catcher Jeff Christy was informed that he’ll stay with the team until Saturday before being dismissed from big-league camp.

The surprise of the day came in the news that the Twins will carry Jose Morales north as backup catcher rather than Drew Butera. All spring, indications had been given that Butera had a substantial edge over Morales thanks to his defense and game-calling ability, but in the end the Twins went with Morales and his higher offensive upside.

Ah, how things have changed. It seems that the Ron Gardenhire of 2006 -- the one who cut Jason Bartlett in favor of Juan Castro -- would have almost certainly opted for the punchless defensive specialist in this situation. But clearly Gardy’s methods have changed, otherwise we’d see the Twins bringing both Morales and Butera north, considering how fiercely the manager once believed that a third catcher was a dire necessity. Gardenhire retains some of his annoying managerial habits, but if you’re looking for proof that he is evolving and adjusting as a big-league skipper, this is a pretty good example.

For what it’s worth, I think Morales is the right choice. There’s sound logic in carrying a backup catcher who is a great game-caller and can ably handle the young pitching staff, but the 26-year-old Morales deserves a shot. Plus, since Morales isn’t a total offensive liability, the Twins can afford to play him more often in an effort to keep the 37-year-old Redmond fresh. The move might backfire if Morales proves unequipped for the job defensively or if his ankle flares up, but coaches seem adamant that he’s made serious progress in that department this spring. And if anything goes wrong, calling up Butera to take over is a quick and easy process, which is why carrying three catchers never really made any sense.