Friday, April 30, 2010
Manship's start tomorrow would come in place of Nick Blackburn, who has left the team to deal with a family matter. Manship, who posted a 5.68 ERA over 11 appearances for the Twins last season, may seem like a solid fill-in option based on his 3.48 ERA in four starts for the Red Wings this year, but a deeper look reveals that he hasn't been on top of his game.
While he's done a decent job of keeping runs off the board, Manship has yielded a .316 batting average to Triple-A hitters thus far. He's also getting more outs through the air than on the ground and he's already surrendered four home runs in 20 2/3 innings. Those are bad signs for a guy whose trademark coming up through the minors has been keeping the ball on the ground.
The more suitable candidate to make a spot start for the Twins would be Brian Duensing, but he's not stretched out since he's been pitching out of the bullpen. This is the downside to having your sixth starter working in a relief role; when needed in a pinch, he's not available. The Twins will have to hope that Manship can remain steady and get the job done tomorrow.
I was a bit surprised to read that the club is leaning toward sending Neshek to the minors, given how solid he'd looked over his first handful of appearances, but the move would not be unmerited. Neshek's availability as of late has been limited due to a finger injury and he couldn't throw strikes in his most recent appearance. More worrisome is that his velocity has dropped noticeably; the right-hander is averaging just 86.8 MPH with his fastball and he's showing significantly less faith in the pitch than in the past, having thrown it just 34 percent of the time compared to 45 percent last year and 51 percent in 2007.
A drop in a velocity and an unwillingness to lean on the fastball aren't uncommon traits for a pitcher fresh off Tommy John surgery, but if Neshek isn't at full strength the Twins would be wise to swap him with someone who can be relied upon right now, given that Jesse Crain has looked terrible. Maybe the team will finally give Anthony Slama a look, as the righty has continued to dominate by posting a 1.26 ERA and 18-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .109 average over 14 1/3 innings in Rochester this year.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
This season, the Twins offense has featured enough depth that the team has been able to put forth a relatively imposing lineup even with a few regulars on the bench. That wasn't the case today, as soreness kept Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and J.J. Hardy all out of the lineup. As a result, the starting nine for the Twins' series finale in Detroit featured Drew Butera at catcher, Luke Hughes at third and Brendan Harris at short, with Delmon Young and Jason Kubel manning the corner outfield spots. Even the big left-handed boppers that remained in the middle of the lineup -- Jason Kubel and Jim Thome -- had tough match-ups with a lefty on the mound. From both an offensive and defensive standpoint, it was the worst group that Ron Gardenhire has trotted out all year, making it tough to see how the Twins would be able to come away with a win.
As expected, the Twins came out with little firepower in a 3-0 loss. Despite drawing a favorable pitching match-up with the erratic Dontrelle Willis on the mound, the Twins couldn't come close to mounting a rally, managing just four singles in the game and accumulating only one at-bat with a runner in scoring position. The characteristically patient Twins' lineup drew just one walk against Willis while fanning six times. In the few occasions where they managed to get runners aboard, they killed themselves with double plays. It was a brutal offensive effort that wasted a strong performance from Carl Pavano, who hurled an eight-inning complete game and allowed only two earned runs but took the hard-luck loss.
After losing two of three to the Tigers, the Twins have finally lost a series, making them the last team in the majors to do so. That's certainly nothing to be ashamed of, nor is being shut out for the first time on April 29 (last year, the Twins' first shutout game in their fourth game).
Butera, who went 0-for-2 and set up the Tigers' first run with an errant throw on Austin Jackson's first-inning stolen base attempt, has indeed looked brutal at the plate, but those who raised a huff about his presence on the Opening Day roster have been made to look silly as he's started only three of the Twins' first 22 games while drawing a total of just nine plate appearances. One could make a valid argument that Butera might be the worst hitter in all the majors, but -- as any rational thinker could have expected -- he's had minimal impact on the team's fortunes thus far. With Wilson Ramos looking overmatched against Triple-A pitching so far, it's certainly looking like the Twins made the right choice in bringing Butera north as Mauer's back-up. That being said, Jose Morales' return from injury couldn't come soon enough.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Monday, April 26, 2010
This past weekend, I made my first trip on TwinsTrain, which headed down to Kansas City for the Twins' series against the Royals. I can happily report that, despite being in its infancy, Scott's operation went very smoothly and I certainly speak for everyone that I went with in saying that it was an absolute blast. I'll give a rundown of the experience (as best I can remember it -- there was a lot of drinking) for those who may have an interest in taking one of the remaining trips planned for this summer.
Our bus departed early on Friday morning. The fans aboard the bus were essentially divided into two groups: the rowdy and ready-to-party crowd and the more reserved folks who actually care about the state of their livers. Naturally, I fell into the first group -- come on, I'm 24 -- and we congregated on the back of the bus where coolers of beer and other refreshments were provided. Those who were more interested in relaxing sat closer to the front of the bus. Despite the disparity in intentions for these two groups, everyone got along well and Scott did a great job of mingling with everyone and helping keep all parties comfortable and happy.
We arrived at our hotel in Kansas City in the mid-afternoon and hung out for a while before hopping back aboard the bus to head down to Kauffman Stadium. There, we parked and tailgated with some fellow Twins fans for a while before heading into the ballpark and watching a Twins victory from some nice seats down the first base line.
The next day, we headed to Gates Bar-B-Q for some lunch, then swung by a local bar to kill a few hours before the game. We got out to the stadium for a complimentary pregame buffet, and Scott somehow managed to get us in a free suite for not only the buffet but for the game itself (which was extremely nice since it was a rather rainy evening). The game was a 12-inning marathon, but in the end the Twins came out on top, improving their record in TwinsTrain-attended games to 4-0. After the game, we bussed out to the Power and Lights District in downtown Kansas City to check out the night life. I was blown away by how cool this area was, and more great times were had.
We jumped back on the bus around 10:30 on Sunday morning for the long ride home. Here, I exacerbated my hangover by making the mistake of eating a Double Down sandwich from KFC for lunch. If you've never heard of it, the Double Down is a chicken "sandwich" which substitutes two pieces of fried chicken for bread and includes bacon, sauce and two types of cheese. It is perhaps the single most unhealthy piece of food I've ever seen, but I had to try one just so I could say I had. This turned out to be a mistake. Wow, that was gross.
Anyway, in summary, the trip was an awesome time. Scott did a terrific job of keeping everything organized and on track, and our bus driver Ed was a hoot. I'm definitely going to aim to make another trip later this summer and I'd recommend that everyone else do the same. For future dates, rates and all other info, you can check out TwinsTrain.com.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Slowey and Liriano have both given plenty of reason to believe they can develop into top-end starters. Slowey stampeded through the minors, posting a 1.94 ERA and 0.85 WHIP across five levels of competition before reaching the majors just two years after being drafted out of Winthrop University. He put in his first full big-league season in 2008, posting a 3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 123-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 160 1/3 innings as a 24-year-old. Meanwhile, Liriano had blossomed into a top prospect after being acquired from the Giants in the A.J. Pierzynski trade, and when he joined the big-league ranks full-time in 2006 he was an unstoppable force, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 144-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 121 innings.
Yet, Slowey and Liriano both entered this season with big question marks hanging over their heads. Liriano had seen his meteoric rise in 2006 come to an abrupt halt when his elbow gave out, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire '07 campaign and spent both of the past two years struggling to rediscover his command and velocity. Between those two campaigns, Liriano battled confidence problems while going 11-17 with a 5.12 ERA and 1.49 WHIP -- ugly numbers for the former phenom. Slowey ran into his own issues last year, as he posted disappointing numbers over his first 16 starts before succumbing to a painful wrist that ultimately required season-ending surgery. The right-hander had screws implanted in his pitching wrist, and it was unclear whether the operation would take a toll on his pinpoint command.
With Liriano looking to rebound from a lost season that had many questioning whether he'd ever be able to consistently throw the ball over the plate again and Slowey seeking to prove that his wrist surgery was but a bump in the road, this 2010 season loomed large for both starters, particularly given the hefty expectations being placed on his Twins team. Fortunately, positive signs began to emerge early for both pitchers. Liriano dominated the Dominican Winter League, garnering rave reviews and causing many analysts to declare he was back to form. The southpaw continued to impress in spring training, easily locking up the fifth spot in the Twins rotation by showing solid command of his mid-90s fastball while cruising to a 2.70 ERA and 30-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 20 innings of work. Slowey was equally sharp, posting a 1.95 ERA and 20-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 27 frames.
Of course, those encouraging signs don't mean a whole lot unless they are carried into the regular season, and thus far Liriano and Slowey have both been able to follow through. This was most evident over the last two nights, when both pitchers thoroughly dismantled the Indians at Target Field. Each hurler rattled off eight scoreless frames, and they both did it in their own signature style. Slowey outwitted opposing hitters by working all around the strike zone and painting the corners of the plate. Liriano whipped his hard fastball and darting slider into the bottom part of the zone, inducing whiffs and ground balls. Neither pitcher gave Cleveland's lineup a chance to breathe. In short, both pitched like aces.
Of course, one home start against a relatively weak lineup does not immediately vault either pitcher to elite status. But, in combination with all the promising signs they've given us leading up to this point, these outings from Slowey and Liriano are bound to boost enthusiasm among MLB betting fans starving for a true ace. And while neither pitcher is a sure bet to fill the void that continues to exist in the absence of Santana, both seem poised to go from question marks to exclamation points.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
After an impressive rookie campaign in 2008, Glen Perkins opened the '09 season with three consecutive eight-inning gems and appeared poised for an outstanding sophomore year. Then, the wheels came off. Perkins struggled over the next few months, battling injuries and posting a 7.34 ERA over his next 15 appearances (14 starts). When he was sent to Triple-A in August, Perkins and his agent cried foul, claiming that the demotion was a ploy to delay his arbitration clock and rob him of future earnings. The Twins, who certainly had legitimate reason to send Perkins down given his terrible performance, were clearly annoyed by the accusations. When the Twins assembled a vast array of past and present players late in the season for a ceremony to bid farewell to the Metrodome, Perkins did not attend. Many saw it as a foregone conclusion that the lefty, a Stillwater native and University of Minnesota alum who had seemed destined to play out his career as a Twin, would be dealt during the offseason.
Perkins wasn't dealt, perhaps due to a lack of demand, and he entered spring training this year ostensibly vying for the fifth spot in the Twins rotation. It's impossible to say whether or not the Twins truly viewed him as a candidate for that spot, but Perkins did himself no favors by performing poorly in Grapefruit League play before being sidelined by yet another injury, and he found himself in the minors to start the season. Things have continued to cascade for him there. After allowing two runs over three innings in his first start for Rochester, Perkins was pounded on Monday night, allowing seven runs (five earned) on seven hits over just 3 1/3 innings. Perkins' ERA with the Red Wings now sits at 9.95, and it's tough to imagine at this point that he'd be even third or fourth in line to be called upon should one of the Twins' current starters falter or suffer an injury.
The Twins have a tough call on their hand with Perkins. He seems to be languishing in this organization. Whether due to confidence problems, lingering injuries or some other combination of issues, the 12-game winner with the Twins in 2008 can no longer seem to get Triple-A hitters out. At age 27, Perkins' career may hang in the balance. With Blackburn's arm hurting and the Twins dealing with some injuries in the bullpen, the opportunity definitely exists for him to get back onto the major-league roster and resurrect his career. But first, he needs to get on track in Rochester. Despite all the bad blood that seems to now exist between him and the Twins organization, I'm really hoping Perkins gets another chance -- if not here, then elsewhere.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
This is egregious because Cleveland's starter in the game is Justin Masterson, a grounder-inducing righty who delivers from a three-quarters slot. Almost without exception, pitchers that throw from this angle are extremely vulnerable to opposite-handed batters (think Pat Neshek) and Masterson is certainly no exception. During his career, left-handed hitters have posted an OPS nearly 300 points higher than righties against him. That's not a platoon split, it's a chasm. It's an enormous, glaring number that should make the decision to bench a player like Young -- who already hits the ball on the ground too often and has always struggled to hit right-handed pitching -- an absolute no-brainer.
When Gardenhire made a similarly misguided decision earlier this month, I pointed out that the thinking behind his decision was "a significant flaw in Gardy's managerial approach, and one that is likely to manifest repeatedly throughout the season." Here, we see it again, in an even more inexcusable situation. Like last time, this is but one lineup decision and odds are that it won't be the deciding factor in tonight's game, but we're seeing a manager overlooking blatantly obvious statistical evidence and failing to put key players in a position to succeed.
Monday, April 19, 2010
With Luke Hochevar getting the nod for Kansas City, the Twins consistently took quality at-bats, forcing the young right-hander to throw 104 pitches (just 53 of them strikes) while issuing five walks and littering the bases with runners. The problem was that the Twins just couldn't come up with the big hits to drive those runners in. That problem persisted when Hochevar gave way to the weak Kansas City bullpen, as the Twins continued to turn in lengthy plate appearances and draw walks but still could not get the big hit that might have pulled them back into the game after Carl Pavano's ugly start.
A lack of timely hitting has sadly been a theme for these Twins thus far rather than an isolated issue in yesterday's loss. Their .367 team on-base percentage ranks third in the American League, and yet the Twins have failed to take advantage of their copious opportunities by hitting just .248 with runners in scoring position, including an ugly 3-for-19 mark with the bases loaded. They've also hit into 14 double plays, ranking them second behind the White Sox. That the Twins have managed to score more runs than any AL club other than the Yankees while posting a 9-4 record in spite of these problems is encouraging, but at some point the marquee hitters are going to have to step up and start delivering.
This lineup is packed with talent and there's no way these guys will keep coming up short so frequently in scoring opportunities throughout the season. I'm very confident in that. With that being said, it's tough to remain patient when seeing them leave so many runners on the bases day in and day out, particularly at home against pitchers like Hochevar and the Kansas City relief corps. The Twins have got to start better punishing opposing pitchers for their mistakes. Yesterday, they screwed up royally in that department.
Friday, April 16, 2010
One wonders how much further into the doghouse Mijares will dig. He already angered his teammates and coaches late last season when he became frustrated during a game in Detroit and beaned a Tigers hitter, leading to a retaliation strike against Delmon Young. This came during a month of September in which Mijares looked increasingly hittable. The southpaw followed up his inauspicious finish to the '09 campaign by showing up to spring training late and out of shape, and proceeding to post a 6.75 ERA in nine Grapefruit League appearances. Now, his sophomore big-league campaign has gotten off to a rather dreadful start.
That the Twins recently called up Ron Mahay, a 39-year-old reliever who went unclaimed in free agency this past offseason before signing a minor-league deal in late March, would seem to reflect their current lack of faith in Mijares. The team already had a backup lefty in the bullpen in Brian Duensing, but the youthful Duensing can hardly be called upon to face tough lefties in high-leverage late-game situations, and now it seems the Twins may be hesitant to call upon Mijares in those same situations. Mahay missed nearly all of spring training and got just four tune-up appearances in Ft. Myers before his promotion. He replaces a promising young reliever in Alex Burnett, who'd performed admirably in his first couple appearances with the Twins, and bypasses the organization's top relief prospect, Anthony Slama.
Given how unreliable Mijares has been thus far, some fans are calling for his demotion to Triple-A, particularly now that Mahay is present as a second lefty specialist. Personally, I don't think it's time for that yet. Yes, Mijares is struggling, but a bad spring training and a handful of ugly April outings do not trump his outstanding performance throughout the minors and his dominance over left-handers throughout last season (.155 BAA vs. LH hitters). That Mijares is struggling with his control should come as no big surprise, given that he averaged five walks per nine innings as a prospect, but he managed to battle through that to post a 3.31 ERA in 270 minor-league innings and can overcome those issues at the big-league level as well.
For Mijares, it's all about confidence. Sending him down to Triple-A after just five appearances would send the wrong message. But at some point, if the hefty lefty doesn't shape up, the Twins will have a decision to make. That time might come when Clay Condrey is ready to return from the disabled list.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Thus far, Hudson has been a disappointment to me. Not just because he's failed to produce much on the field and has fizzled out in several key spots already, but also because of some recent comments he made off the field. In an interview with Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, Hudson implied that the main reason players like Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield have failed to find work this season is the color of their skin.
It's an outlandish accusation. Sheffield does indeed have a Hall of Fame caliber resume, but he's 41 with a reputation for pushing people the wrong way, and it doesn't take a tenured scout to see that his bat speed has dropped significantly in recent years. Dye, meanwhile, has turned down offers from multiple clubs this offseason. If he were willing to sign a deal that approximated the one Jim Thome got from the Twins, Dye would have been signed by December. (In fact, he probably could have gotten twice as much as Thome, as Dye reportedly turned down a $3 million offer because he didn't want to settle for a fourth outfielder role.) The reason clubs haven't signed black players like Dye and Sheffield -- not to mention white players like Jarrod Washburn and Joe Crede -- is because they don't want to be stuck overpaying aging players with diminishing skills when those players expect to be getting paid for production they're probably no longer capable of.
Of course, Hudson isn't the first guy with Minnesota ties to become vocal on this subject. Torii Hunter has lamented the dearth of African-American players in the game many times in the past, and made some waves earlier this spring when he told USA Today that dark-skinned Latin players are "impostors" who ostensibly give the false illusion that Major League Baseball's lack of black players is not a problem.
As Greg Doyel pointed out in his excellent article on the topic for CBS Sports today, the percentage of African-American players in the majors is nearly identical to the percentage of African-Americans in the overall U.S. population. Doyel also points -- as many others have -- to the expense of playing baseball as a reason that the sport isn't as popular as it could be among youngsters in the inner-city and urban communities. To his credit, Hunter has backed up his passionate words by putting a lot of his own money into helping create more opportunities for inner-city kids to get on the diamond; certainly that's a lot more helpful than making the type of bizarre accusational statements he -- and now Hudson -- have made.
Today, organizations and fans across baseball are celebrating the amazing accomplishments of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier some 60 years ago. It's certainly an appropriate time to discuss the racial issues which undeniably affect all aspects of society, including baseball. Yet, contrary to what my good friend Twins Geek says, comments like Hudson's and Hunter's don't help advance productive discussion. Claiming that major-league front offices across baseball have some sort of collective bias against American-born black players or that the dark-skinned Latin players who are helping increase the game's diversity are frauds only serves to rile folks up and perpetuate racial tensions.
I think that Hudson and Hunter, along with others who have come forth with similar sentiments, have their hearts in the right place. They look around them and see what they perceive as a small and ever-dwindling percentage of black players in the game, and they want to stem the tide. That's something I can absolutely get behind. But there are better and less contentious ways of addressing this important issue that won't cause the same type of defensiveness and divisiveness. Personally, I think that's what Jackie would have wanted. But maybe that's just me.
* You can read my recap of yesterday's game on Twinkie Town here.
* Last night, I participated in a podcast with Fanatic Jack. Jack, who I met at the TwinsCentric gathering last weekend and is a really good guy, has a voice and persona seemingly tailor-made for talk radio, so it's always fun to go on his show and try to calm him down a little bit.
* Speaking of TwinsCentric, the next viewing party was announced yesterday. It will take place on Saturday, May 15 during the Twins' noon game against the Yankees, at the Majors in Bloomington. Yes, Bloomington. Despite the strong turnout and quality reviews for our past viewing parties, one recurring complaint was the distance of the venues (Apple Valley and Blaine). At least half of those complaints came from Aaron Gleeman. Well, Aaron, you can rest easy, as our next event will have a much more metro-friendly location. As in the past, food and drink specials will be made available to our guests and prizes will be given out. Hope to see you all there.
* Today's tilt looms large in this young season. Francisco Liriano, who tantalized us with his dominant work in the Dominican League and in spring training, will make his home debut after producing mixed results in his first start against the White Sox. If Liriano can dismantle a good offense in front of the home crowd, it could do wonders for his confidence. And a healthy, confident Francisco Liriano could do wonders for the Twins.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
The Twins have similarly added some key pieces during their most recent offseason, and the early results in their 2010 campaign have been similarly -- well -- kick-ass. It might not be appropriate to compare J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson to Brett Favre and Percy Harvin, but the Twins had an immensely talented core in place already and by shoring up some holes in the lineup (and on the bench, with the addition of Jim Thome), they have seemingly taken their offensive game to the next level.
Punto remains a fixture in the Twins lineup, but if his struggles continue, Brendan Harris and Danny Valencia await as viable options to replace him at third. Meanwhile, the rest of this offense looks very strong. Hudson and Denard Span have both gotten off to slow starts, but given their histories there's little reason to expect that to continue. The middle-of-the-lineup hitters have been predictably excellent and Delmon Young is off to a very promising start. Already, we're seeing that this lineup is deep enough to sustain slumps from a few key players and teamwide struggles with runners in scoring position, as they've managed to average 4.62 runs per game despite the lack of production from the top of the order and a .239 team average with runners in scoring position. That's what power up and down the lineup and a core packed with elite hitters can do for you. Once Span and Hudson get it going and the Twins start better taking advantage of scoring opportunities in general -- look out.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
For those, like myself, who spent a lot of time raving about this lineup throughout the winter and spring, the team's fast offensive start should come as no surprise. The strong work from the pitching staff, though, was not necessarily a given. With a rotation filled with question marks and a bullpen that lost its best member during spring training, preventing runs certainly appeared to be the Twins' biggest hurdle, but thus far the team's arms have been up to the task. Starters have been delivering quality starts and the bullpen has been lights-out with a few exceptions.
The Twins have started their season on a hot streak, to be sure, and as such it would be wise not to jump to grandiose conclusions. Sure, right now they have the look of a 100-win team, but we haven't yet seen the bats hit their first power lull, nor have we seen our first late-inning bullpen implosion. These things are bound to happen, and I'm sure they will serve to dampen enthusiasm somewhat. However, what is clear is that this is a very good team, with a lineup that stacks up favorably against even the mighty Red Sox and a group of pitchers that appears more than capable of supporting that lineup. So far, so good.
Monday, April 12, 2010
It was a disappointing conclusion to the Twins' season-opening road trip, but the overall results in the first seven games have been undeniably positive. The Twins went on the road to face a pair of relatively strong teams and came away with two series victories. The starting pitching has been solid, the bullpen -- with the exception of Jose Mijares -- has been highly effective, and of course the offense has been stellar.
Indeed, the team's play thus far has given fans plenty to be excited about. And that excitement will culminate this afternoon when the Twins officially christen their brand new ballpark. Jon Lester and Carl Pavano will face off in the inaugural regular season contest at Target Field at 3 pm, and the next chapter of Minnesota baseball will get underway.
A 5-2 opening road trip bodes well for a team that went 38-43 in opponents' ballparks last year, but one of the Twins' greatest strengths over the past decade has been their ability to consistently win games at home. Today we'll get our first meaningful glimpse of the Twins in Target Field, a stadium they are at this point mostly unfamiliar with. Acclimating to the quirks and tendencies of this field will be a process for the Twins, so it's unclear how much of an advantage they will hold in their new outdoor stadium, especially in the earlier games when cool weather might suppress the power that is shaping up to be this team's hallmark.
Boston makes for a tough match-up in a home opening series, but if the Twins can keep playing the way they did during the first week of the season they should be up to the challenge. The Angels and White Sox are viewed by many as playoff-caliber teams, and the Twins came out of both teams' stadiums looking like the superior club. If the Twins can get off to a fast start against a quality opponent in their own home park, I think fans will have enough positive signs to make them forget about the missed sign at third base yesterday.
The long wait is over. Outdoor baseball in Minnesota begins today. Let's play ball.
Friday, April 09, 2010
This year, the Twins brought back every key offensive player from last year's roster while (perhaps dramatically) upgrading both middle infield spots and signing a Hall of Famer to serve as a part-time bench bat. This created a lot of enthusiasm amongst fans eager to see what this loaded lineup could do.
Just four games into the season, these Twins have given us a pretty good idea. Already they've blasted nine home runs (last year it took them until April 17 to reach that mark) and they've demonstrated an ability go get power from the bottom of the order, something rarely seen around these parts. Delmon Young and JJ Hardy, who typically will serve in the No. 7 and 8 spots in the order, each homered twice in Anaheim. Unsurprisingly, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Jim Thome have gotten in on the action as well, and it surely won't be long until Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel join the parade.
The score in last night's game went from 3-1 to 10-1 in an awful hurry. That's the beauty of the multi-run homer, which will be a more potent weapon for the Twins this season than perhaps ever before. Sort of a surreal feeling.
Thursday, April 08, 2010
Ervin Santana, who started the game for the Angels, was basically a nightmare match-up for Young. Over the course of his career, Young has hit just .232/.266/.308 against "power pitchers" -- a term referring to hurlers who rank among the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks. That's a category that Santana will typically fall into with his nasty stuff and somewhat shaky control. Additionally, Young has posted a weak .715 OPS against right-handed pitchers, while the righty Santana has been substantially more effective against same-handed batters over the course of his career. It was a fairly obvious instance in which Young should have sat.
Instead, Gardenhire decided to bench Kubel, one of the league's premier hitters against right-handed pitching. Last year, Kubel posted a phenomenal 1.014 OPS against righties, and Santana was clubbed by lefty hitters to the tune of .323/.385/.526. Perfect match-up. Yet, Gardenhire didn't see it that way -- likely because Kubel had previously only managed two hits against Santana in a meaningless 14 at-bat sample.
Giving Thome a start at DH last night was a good choice. Doing so by sitting Kubel against a pitcher he was almost ideally suited to face was astonishingly misguided. Some might argue that it's a moot point, given that the Twins won the game in spite of Young's 0-for-4 performance. But the guiding philosophy behind this decision is a significant flaw in Gardy's managerial approach, and one that is likely to manifest repeatedly throughout the season.
Gardenhire's a good manager overall, but he's far from perfect. Last night, we were reminded of that. Fortunately, the Twins still won, reminding us that -- while impactful -- singular lineup decisions don't determine who wins and loses games. The players do. Hopefully Kubel will be back in the lineup to help the Twins win tonight with another right-hander on the hill.
Rauch's performance in last night's 4-2 victory over the Angels was not even a particularly good one. In his one inning of work, he allowed a pair of hits and a run. That's the type of outing you'll see a bit more often from a non-elite reliever like Rauch than you would with Joe Nathan. Yet, as is often the case in save situations, Rauch was given a multi-run pad and the run he allowed was ultimately meaningless.
After coming to the Twins in August last year, Rauch made 17 relief appearances. He allowed zero runs in 16 of those appearances. I certainly don't expect him to continue with that outstanding rate throughout this season, and indeed he already experienced his first blemish last night, but the fact remains that when a solid reliever comes on with the bases empty at the top of an inning, he'll rarely allow a run. And he'll very rarely allow more than one run. Rauch is no superstar closer, but if the Twins keep providing him with a two- or three-run cushion they will have very little to worry about in the ninth inning. And even when the lead is only one, Rauch will get the job done most of the time. As would basically any other candidate to fill the closer role.
Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Still, no team is perfect and there are plenty of things that could derail the Twins in their first season at Target Field. It seems fitting that I was pegged to write the counterpoint to Parker's article outlining five things working for the Twins this season. Below, I lay out five things working against the team in 2010:
1. No Established Closer
Over the past six years, most other teams around the league have envied the Twins’ closer situation. Joe Nathan has been among the most dominant and consistent closers in all of baseball during that span, leaving the Twins with little to worry about when entering the ninth inning with a slim lead. Now, with Nathan out for the year due to an elbow injury, the Twins will have to learn what it’s like to move forward without a superhuman door-slammer at the back end of the bullpen.
Between Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Pat Neshek and Jesse Crain, the Twins should still be able to field a competent relief corps and it’s unlikely that Nathan’s loss will crush them. Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that a few more leads will be slipping away in the ninth this year, which can be crushing to a team’s morale.
2. Lack of Team Speed
Twins teams in past years have been built with athleticism as a guiding tenet. Ron Gardenhire and Co. like guys who can hustle out infield hits, make opportunistic plays on the base paths and chase down balls in the field. Players like Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla have embodied this approach. This year, however, the Twins are departing from that philosophy, leaning more toward powerful but slow-footed players like Jason Kubel and Jim Thome. Neither of the team’s starting middle infielders could be described as a speedster; this is the first time I can remember being able to say that. In fact, there’s really only one projected regular who I can realistically envision swiping 20 or more bases, and that’s Denard Span.
This is hardly a crippling detriment – I’d rather see the front office focus on filling the lineup with guys who can actually hit than with guys who can run fast – but it will be a change. And the biggest impact of this lack of speed may be seen in the field, which brings us to our next topic…
3. Outfield Defense
On days where the Twins had Gomez in center and Span in left last season, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a better defensive outfield alignment anywhere in the league. Gomez has been one of the best defensive center fielders in the majors over the past two years and Span’s outstanding range in left has stood out at a position where teams often stick plodding defensive liabilities.
With Gomez absent this year, Span will shift to center field, where he is far less spectacular. Meanwhile, Delmon Young (speaking of “plodding defensive liabilities”…) takes over as the full-time left fielder. The drop-off from Span to Young in left field cannot be understated. Michael Cuddyer remains in right, and while he was never a particularly adept fielder to begin with, he’ll have a whole new set of challenges in learning how to handle Target Field’s quirky overhang.
With a fly ball heavy pitching staff, these three will get plenty of work, and chances are that fans will be subjected to some adventures out there. Since balls that don’t get caught in the outfield often turn into extra-base hits, this could be especially damaging.
4. Substandard Production at Offense-Oriented Positions
Behind first base and right field, left field and third base were the strongest offensive positions on the field across the major leagues last season. These are positions where teams often settle for less defensively in order to plug in strong offensive producers. Unfortunately, the Twins’ regular starters at left field and third base are Young and Nick Punto, neither of whom has proven capable of posting even average numbers for his respective position.
The Twins are hoping to offset this flaw by trotting out unusually strong hitters at the middle spots (catcher, second base, shortstop and center field) but if those positions should be ravaged by injury or ineffectiveness, Young and Punto could become liabilities.
5. No Bona Fide Ace in Rotation
The Twins’ 2010 rotation is shrouded in question marks and hypothetical scenarios. If Opening Day starter Scott Baker can consistently pitch the way he did in the second half last year, he could be a frontline starting pitcher. If Kevin Slowey can rebound from the wrist injury that ended his 2009 season and start to mimic the work he did in the minors, he could be one of the league’s top starters. If Francisco Liriano can translate his fine work in the winter league and in spring training into regular-season results, he could start reminding us of his phenomenal rookie campaign when he was an ace-caliber pitcher.
Unfortunately, for all their ability, these pitchers have also flashed their downside at times in the past. And having an elite starter at the top of the rotation is definitely important; in the four years when Johan Santana led their pitching corps, the Twins never ranked lower than fifth among AL teams in ERA. Last year, with no Santana and no one stepping up to deliver even a sub-4.00 ERA, the Twins ranked fourth-to-last.
Tuesday, April 06, 2010
Among the few bright spots in the game were Delmon Young, who homered, beat out an infield single and stole a base in the game, prompting numerous premature declarations that his offseason weight loss has truly transformed his game. Jesse Crain's performance was also highly encouraging, as he picked up where he left off in the '09 campaign by tossing 1 2/3 innings without allowing a baserunner.
Unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good last night. Baker, as mentioned, seemed uncomfortable throughout his start. Jose Mijares, who came on in relief in the eighth inning, let the game get out of hand by serving up a pair of homers and expanding the Angels' lead from one to three. Denard Span went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel combined for just three singles.
Of course, the beauty of baseball is that this was only one game and the Twins will have their shot to erase all the bad memories tonight, when Nick Blackburn faces off against Joe Saunders. I'm not particularly optimistic about this match-up, as the southpaw Saunders could present some problems against the Twins' lefty-heavy lineup and I've got real concerns about Blackburn this season, but as they say, games aren't decided on paper.
Monday, April 05, 2010
It has become tradition on this blog that every year on Opening Day, I post an update on the current state of this site and of my life in general. I know most people don't come here to read about me, which is why I only do this once a year, but some folks are interested and really I do this for myself as much as anyone, so that I can look back in the future and recall how things have progressed.
As far as blogging and baseball writing are concerned, the past year has been very, very good to me. Starting in the middle of last season, I teamed up with three talented, passionate and motivated fellow bloggers to form TwinsCentric. Together, we have produced three publications: the Trade Deadline Primer last July, the Offseason GM Handbook last October and most recently the Maple Street Press Twins 2010 Annual this spring. These projects have each presented their own sets of challenges, but overall the work has been fulfilling, particularly since all three publications have been met with such support and enthusiasm from our readers.
Earlier this spring, the Star Tribune approached me and my TwinsCentric colleagues about starting our own blog on the newspaper's website. That blog is now fully operational, with the four of us alternating posts and hopefully infusing the more traditional brand of coverage at the Star Trib with a refreshingly different modern flavor. Having a blog on a heavily trafficked and respected site like StarTribune.com has broadened our scope and allowed us to reach out to a whole new set of Twins fans, which has been terrific.
In addition, you may notice a new emblem on the top of the right sidebar. As I revealed in earnest last fall, my blog is now partnered with ESPN.com as a part of Rob Neyer's SweetSpot Network. Through this arrangement, I will be involved in various ways with the baseball coverage on their site, which is obviously a big thrill and a huge honor. As a sports writer, you can't really ask to be affiliated with a more prominent network.
When I launched this little blog experiment back in 2005, I never would have imagined at any point that my writing would be featured on the websites for organizations like the Star Tribune and ESPN -- definitive sports sources that I grew up reading. It's basically a dream come true and I can't begin to express how flattered and grateful I am to have these opportunities.
It's going to be a busy summer for me, though. Keeping up with the blog will be harder than ever. Between working two "normal" jobs as well as my writing gig at Rotoworld, playing in a softball league, advancing my musical hobbies, contributing to John Burnson's wonderful Heater Magazine, churning away on upcoming TwinsCentric projects, actually watching the baseball games and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life, my plate is going to be full to say the least. I share this not to elicit pity, but to inform the faithful readers of this blog that posting here may be more sporadic than ever this summer. While it has been customary over this blog's lifetime for me to have a new post up almost every weeknight around midnight for folks to read the next morning, I'm not sure it will be possible for me to stay true to that schedule this year. Instead, I'm going to have to post new entries whenever I have the opportunity to write them, whether that's on my lunch break from work, at 2 am on a Thursday night, or on a lazy Sunday afternoon. If you come here looking for a new post in the morning and don't find it, check back later in the afternoon. On my end, I'll try and do a better job of updating my Twitter account when I post new entries. Of course, you can also subscribe to the blog's RSS feed or follow through Google Reader.
As always, my favorite aspect of operating this blog over the past year has been interacting with fellow fans and bloggers. I've conversed a lot of great people online through this avenue, and was fortunate to meet many of you in person at the TwinsCentric Viewing Party back in early March. I hope to meet even more of you when we hold a similar event at Majors in Blaine this Saturday.
I don't think there's ever been a better time to be a Twins fan. The club is opening a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium that has drawn rave reviews from folks across the nation. The franchise player and reigning MVP has just been signed to a massive long-term deal. An outstanding slate of offseason moves by Bill Smith and Co. have positioned the Twins as legitimate World Series contenders and almost unanimous AL Central favorites. This is going to be an awesome season, and I'm pleased as pie that I'll be able to write about it on so many different forums.
But it all comes back to this blog, and to the loyal readers who have helped make it such a successful and satisfying venture. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all of you who have supported me, even by stopping by and leaving a comment from time to time.
Now, with all of that out of the way... let's play ball!
Sunday, April 04, 2010
Seeing a team in a beautiful new state-of-the-art stadium is always fun, but seeing a contending team play in said stadium is of course far more enjoyable. Fortunately, Bill Smith and the Twins front office took plenty of steps during the offseason to make sure that fans will be exposed to a quality club when attending games at Target Field during the stadium's inaugural season.
The acquisitions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson address longstanding concerns at the middle infield spots. The signing of Jim Thome provides a quality veteran pinch-hitting option and another daunting left-handed bat to be plugged into the middle of the Twins' lineup against right-handed pitchers. When Thome's name is written into the starting lineup, the heart of the Twins' batting order will be vastly more intimidating than any core this franchise has ever put forth. From Mauer to Jusin Morneau to Michael Cuddyer to Jason Kubel to Thome, opposing pitchers will be faced with the relentless task of trying to get past five stellar power hitters. Should Hardy and Delmon Young take their offensive games to the next level, as many believe they can, the Twins could very well boast the best lineup in all of baseball, one capable of hitting over 200 home runs and scoring over 900 times.
If there are significant concerns surrounding this 2010 Twins team, they fall on the run prevention. A starting rotation consisting of Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano certainly has the potential to be very strong one-through-five, but none of those pitchers posted an ERA below 4 last season. Liriano's outstanding work in winter ball and spring training has produced a lot of optimism and few people doubt the ability of Baker and Slowey to perform like frontline starters, but the impetus is on these young hurlers to actually step up and get it done over the course of an entire season. The Twins' offense is good enough that they stand a good chance at winning the division even with mediocre results on the mound, but if this team aspires to make a deep run in October, they'll need a few starters to turn the corner.
Of course, the one sour note amongst all the positives for the Twins the past several months has been the loss of Joe Nathan. One of the league's most consistent and dominating closers over the past six years, Nathan's absence will be felt in the late innings, where the Ron Gardenhire will be without his best bullet. Fortunately, the Twins have more bullpen depth this year than they've had in the past. That depth will be strengthened by the return of Pat Neshek, who missed the most of 2008 and all of 2009 due to elbow problems but was one of the league's best setup men prior to getting injured. Jon Rauch will hold closing duties early in the season, but if he can't get the job done Gardenhire will have a number of competent alternatives in the wings, including Neshek, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain.
With the American League Central looking eminently winnable, the Twins have an excellent shot at capturing a sixth division title in nine years. Much will depend health, and on several key players continuing to perform at an elite level, but on paper these 2010 Twins certainly look like one of the league's best teams and a legitimate World Series contender. At this time of year, that's all you can ask for.
NL PREVIEW - By Nick Mosvick
1) Atlanta Braves
2) Philadelphia Phillies
3) Florida Marlins
4) New York Mets
5) Washington Nationals
1) St. Louis Cardinals
2) Milwaukee Brewers
3) Chicago Cubs
4) Cincinatti Reds
5) Houston Astros
6) Pittsburgh Pirates
1) Colorado Rockies
2) San Francisco Giants
3) Los Angeles Dodgers
4) Arizona Diamondbacks
5) San Diego Padres
Friday, April 02, 2010
Without further ado, our humble predictions for your 2010 MLB season, which kicks off on Sunday night:
AL West: Mariners
AL Central: Twins
AL East: Yankees
AL Wild Card: Red Sox
NL West: Dodgers
NL Central: Cardinals
NL East: Braves
NL Wild Card: Phillies
World Series: Red Sox over Cardinals
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young: Chris Carpenter
AL MVP: Joe Mauer
NL MVP: Albert Pujols
AL Rookie of the Year: Neftali Feliz
NL Rookie of the Year: Jason Heyward
Twins MVP: Joe Mauer
Twins Top Pitcher: Francisco Liriano
Twins Best Rookie: Anthony Slama
Twins Most Improved Player: Liriano
Bold Predictions: Jesse Crain will lead team in saves; Nick Blackburn will post 5+ ERA; J.J. Hardy will win first Gold Glove
A.L. Central Prediction (Standings): Twins, White Sox, Tigers, Indians, Royals
Three Keys to Success for the Twins: Slowey and Liriano stepping up, bullpen staying healthy, success at Target Field.
AL West: Rangers
AL Central: Twins
AL East: Red Sox
AL Wild Card: Yankees
NL West: Rockies
NL Central: Cardinals
NL East: Braves
NL Wild Card: Phillies
World Series: Rockies over Yankees
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young: Tommy Hanson
AL MVP: Joe Mauer
NL MVP: Hanley Ramirez
AL Rookie of the Year: Neftali Feliz
NL Rookie of the Year: Buster Posey
Twins MVP: Joe Mauer
Twins Top Pitcher: Scott Baker
Twins Best Rookie: Anthony Slama
Twins Most Improved Player: Kevin Slowey
1) Brendan Harris will get more at-bats than Delmon Young. I say this because of two reasons. One, I'm just not sure I buy into the notion that Young is new and improved and ready to break out. I think that it's going to become clear early that the Twins are better off putting another subpar fielder, but a much better hitter in the field (Jason Kubel) in order to get another superior hitter in the lineup (Jim Thome). Maybe I'm hoping for too much out of a 39-year old hitter, but I think that Thome has plenty left in terms of power and plate discipline. Second, I think that Punto may struggle again out of the gate at the plate and may force Gardy to play Brendan Harris a lot more at third and use Punto as a defensive replacement.
2) Jon Rauch will have 30 saves. While I would probably prefer Neshek to be the closer, I suspect that Rauch will end up with the role to begin the year. And I think he'll probably keep it. This is mostly because I believe that Gardy prefers to have defined roles in the bullpen and I doubt that he will really do too much playing around with who gets saves. I think he'll stick with one candidate most of the year, the Twins will get plenty of save opportunities, and that the guy picking them up usually will be Rauch.
3) Scott Baker gets over 200 strikeouts. I feel like this is probably my "boldest" claim, but I really like Baker, even though he just got beat up in a spring training game. Baker had an outstanding K/BB ratio last year (162/48 in 200 innings) and posted a good strikeout rate. My sense is that Baker will make the jump this year and get up to around 220-230 innings. If he does so and just moderately improves his K-rate, he'll be able to hit 200 strikeouts. It would be quite the impressive accomplishment, but I think Baker can do it. I'm sure most Twins fans feel that Liriano is more likely to get 200 strikeouts, but I think Baker will get the innings necessary to do so before Liriano does.
A.L. Central Prediction (Standings): Twins,Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Royals
Keys to Success for the Twins:
1) Proper Lineup Management. To clarify, by this I mean a few things. For one, I mean that Gardy will have to use his players in a way somewhat uncharacteristic for him. He'll have to pay more attention to splits, especially given Jim Thome's presence on the bench. I think that in order to maximize wins, Gardy is going to have to find a way to get Thome's bat in the lineup versus right-handed pitchers. This is especially true given that the AL Central has many more good right-handers (Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke) than great lefties (Danks is the only real standout). Getting Thome as many bats as possible will be key.
2) Bullpen Stability. I doubt this will be an issue, but its still important to the Twins' success. As Nick Nelson has already noted earlier this week, its unlikely that Gardy actually sticks with a closer-by-committee set-up. Whether its Pat Neshek or Jon Rauch who becomes the primary closer, it will be important that the bullpen maintains some defined roles that I'm guessing it will. That is, Jose Mijares should stick as a lefty-specialist, Matt Guerrier should stick as a set-up guy, and so on. As noted, I don't think this is an issue, because they Twins have a good amount of talented arms in their bullpen, but with a still-relatively young rotation, the Twins will need have strong bullpen in to maintain success.
3) Health. Health is always important. And its hard to ignore it for the Twins. Joe Mauer missed a month last year and has battled injuries throughout his career. Justin Morneau is coming off a serious back injury. Pat Neshek is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Kevin Slowey is coming off of major wrist surgery. This isn't to say that any of these guys is going to get hurt again, but just to make a fairly obvious point. Any of the Twins top stars could get injured at any time and keeping Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Baker, Slowey, and many other key contributors healthy is going to determine how the season goes. Granted, the Twins could get lucky again and have a situation like last September in which a slumping star goes down with an injury (Justin Morneau) and is replaced by a streaking hitter (Cuddyer), but that's something hard to count on.