Monday, September 20, 2010

Four Questions About the Playoff Roster

Yesterday's loss to the Athletics sealed the Twins' first series loss in nearly a month, and their first at Target Field since mid-July. They still made progress toward clinching a division title thanks to the plummeting White Sox dropping their sixth straight game, an ugly extra-innings loss against the Tigers. The Twins' Magic Number now sits at four, and they'll likely pop the champagne sometime this week.

With only 13 regular-season games remaining, it's fair to start casting our gaze toward the postseason. The Twins, just one game shy of the MLB-best Yankees in the win/loss column, continue to pursue the American League's No. 1 seed. For now, the Twins are at the very least virtually assured home field advantage in the first round, as their five-game edge over the Rangers has them lined up to host the AL wild card in the ALDS.

There are a few questions worth pondering as we consider how the Twins might arrange their their playoff roster, which must be whittled down considerably from its current expanded state. For today, I submit four such questions for discussion:

1) Who starts Game 1?

As the rotation currently projects, Francisco Liriano is in line to start Game 1. I'd certainly support that course of action, as I feel Liriano is one of the league's elite starting pitchers and would match up most evenly with David Price or CC Sabathia.

Carl Pavano hasn't been as good as Liriano this year and he treads a more dangerous slope with his tendency to allow contact, but he's the veteran with postseason experience and it wouldn't surprise me if he were Ron Gardenhire's preference.

2) Who starts Game 4?

We basically know that Liriano, Pavano and Brian Duensing will be Gardenhire's top three playoff starters, in whatever order. What's not nearly as clear is who might get the nod in a fourth game, if necessary. Scott Baker has fallen out of the picture due to his recent injury, so it comes down to Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn.

Slowey has significantly better numbers than Blackburn this season. He gets more strikeouts but is a lot more fly ball prone. Blackburn was arguably the league's worst pitcher over the first four months of the season, but he's gotten far better results since being recalled from a brief demotion to the minors and that improvement is supported by an uptick in ground balls. While I think the cliche oversimplifies matters, it does seem as though Blackburn has "found his sinker."

Ultimately, both Blackburn and Slowey give you reason to be nervous against a lineup like Tampa's or New York's, and it could be that the answer to this question will be dictated by who pitches better in their final turns.

At this time, though, I've got to believe Blackburn's experience pitching in big games (and pitching well) makes him the front-runner.

With all that being said, if the Twins face elimination in Game 4, I wouldn't be surprised to see Gardenhire go back to his Game 1 starter on short rest. Liriano's arm seems to need every extra day of rest it can get, which is another reason Gardy might favor Pavano as Game 1 starter.

3) What is Scott Baker's role?

He was the Twins' Opening Day starter this year, and now there's a possibility that he'll be a healthy scratch from the postseason roster. Poor kid.

Baker has been absent from the Twins' rotation over the past few weeks while battling a sore forearm, and now that he's ready to return there's no room for him. Gardenhire has indicated that Baker will work out of the bullpen and maybe make a spot start during as the season winds down, which means he's got almost no shot at starting a playoff game.

Then, Baker becomes part of a bit of a roster crunch. With the abbreviated rotation and extra days off during postseason play, there's little reason to carry more than 11 pitchers, and the Twins will already have one starter in the bullpen. There's no sense in carrying Baker as an extra mop-up guy, and it's anyone's guess whether Gardenhire would be willing to use him in tight late-inning situations.

I'll say this much: If Baker is left off the playoff roster at the expense of Matt Guerrier or Jon Rauch, I think it's a mistake. Baker has better stuff and would be a more effective weapon in middle relief.

4) Can Justin Morneau return?

It's the question that continues to resonate quietly through Twins Territory. Morneau was an MVP front-runner when he went down with a concussion in early July, and he hasn't played since. The Twins still haven't officially shut Morneau down for the season, and recent reports have the first baseman "feeling really good," so hope lingers on.

There are only 13 games left in the season and probably not enough time for Morneau to sharpen his skills with a stint down in Florida and jump back in right where he left off with the Twins. If we're being realistic, the chances of Morneau starting at first base and batting cleanup in Game 1 of the ALDS are close to nil.

But one thing that I've contemplated lately is the possibility that Morneau might return to the Twins strictly as a bench threat in October. Even accounting for his time away from the game, Morneau still figures to be a far better pinch-hitting threat than anything else the Twins can muster, especially with Jim Thome likely to be an every-game starter.

Using Morneau in this limited role would prevent him from having his rust exposed in the field and would set the stage for some unbelievable October dramatics. It might not be very likely, but right now I'd say it's the best shot we've got at seeing Morneau again this year.


Durt E. Sanchez said...

I would like to see the Twins keep Morneau on the roster even if he may not be back until the ALCS. If he could pinch hit (like you said) and work off some of the rust that way and be ready to step back into his role at 1st and batting 4th if the Twins are able to advance to the ALCS. Morneau is a game changer even if he isn't in top form.

Speaking of having bats on the bench, I think it makes sense to keep Morales and NOT Butera on the playoff roster. Mauer is going to catch every game and Morales is clearly the better hitter. We appreciate the nice play for Pavano this year Drew but watch the playoffs from the couch and we'll get you a ring!

Ed Bast said...

I understand those who want to see Liriano in Game 1. But I can see him burying us in one of those Liriano-esque 3 run 1st inning holes, and that might be all she wrote vs. CC or Price.

Plus I think you can start Pavano on 3 days' rest if he starts Game 1. I don't understand automatically having a 4-man staff for a (maybe) 5-game series, particularly when your Game 4 options are Blacky and Slowey.

Oh and to second Durt's point, if Butera is on the playoff roster I'm going to flip out.

Anonymous said...

I'd start liriano game 1 because hes the twins best pitcher by a lot. He could have a "liriano-esque first inning" in a game 2 start as well, that doesnt matter. The twins should maximize the chances of getting him 2 starts.

Id take slowey or baker over blackburn. Blackburn is terrible. Even if his "sinker" has come back hes still not striking anyone out. Slowey has pitched better for the season and has been pitching well recently just like blackburn. Add to that slowey has skills other than getting people to hit ball at fielders, and inducing way more double plays than he should. But it was without a doubt be blackburn, so im hoping they run with a 3 man staff, and if they do pitch blackie i hope he gets wiped out.

Anonymous said...

Pavano seems to have the mentality of a big game pitcher. Liriano at times seems to lose confidence and control. That scares me in a big postseason series.
Pavano has come back to earth a lot though in the last month or so.

I want Morneau on the post season roster even if he doesn't play. He has had a huge impact on this team over his career (and could be a big factor as to why Mauer stayed) and he deserves a ring as much as anyone else.

Nick N. said...

He has had a huge impact on this team over his career (and could be a big factor as to why Mauer stayed) and he deserves a ring as much as anyone else.

He'll get a ring either way. I think wasting a roster spot on him if he's not going to be able to contribute in any way would be a bad idea.

Ed Bast said...

Regardless of which game Liriano starts, he's still going to be lined up to go in Game 5. The Twins will refuse to trot him out on 3 days rest (probably rightfully so), so Games 1 & 4 is out of the question. He's still have 4 days rest between 2 and 5 though. So basically he's going in Game 5. The question becomes Games 1 or 2. I say, given his mental fragility and "spotlight issues", you go with the vet and his moustache in Game 1. Plus with Frankie's Game 2 opponent you figure his margin for error is going to be greater.

Anonymous said...

Wheres the evidence that liriano folds in big games? He beat verlander 1-0 in a game, he gave up 7 er in 1.2 innings in his next start against verlanders. Whats the criteria for a spotlight big start? What ever it is there no way liriano has pitched in enough of them to say whether a few bad starts in these games is because he cant handle them or because he happened to pitch poorly in that game. And even if you believe hes not a big game pitcher game 2 of a playoff series would certainly still qualify as a big game.

The reason youd put liriano out there for game 1 is because he is more likely to need a smaller margin of error than pavano because hes the better pitcher. The only way i start pav game one is if the off time would allow them to start pavano and liriano twice and cut out the 4th starter. Even then id still prefer liriano pitching games 1 and 4 so theres a better chance he gets to pitch twice.

Ed Bast said...

There is zero chance the Twins will pitch Liriano in a Game 4 on 3 days rest. So if you want a 3-man rotation, the only way is if he starts Game 2. I think what you sacrifice in the slight matchup preference is more than overcome if the Twins don't have to throw one of their BP pitchers in Game 4.

And if you don't think Frankie tightens up in pressure spots, boy, you must not have seen him pitch the last couple years. Both mid-game (last start vs. Chicago, fails to turn a DP when he completely freezes up on a grounder) and 1st-inning (matchup vs. Jimenez from the Rockies when he hits 2 guys, walks another and gives up 3 in the top of the first. Game over.)

Nick N. said...

Ed, as much as I believe Liriano is the significantly better pitcher, I'm not sure I disagree with you. Starting Liriano in Game 2 also sets him up to start Game 1 of the ALCS (assuming a fifth game isn't needed in ALDS) and increases the possibility that he'd get two starts in that series.

Anonymous said...

You start Pavano game 1. Let him set the tone. He's the leader of our starting pitchers. He's not quite as good as Liriano but the difference isn't that huge and either way both have a chance to pitch twice if it goes to 5 games.

Pavano, Liriano, Duensing, and Black/Slowey depending on who looks best down the stretch run here. Outside chance that Baker is your 4th guy but we'll have to see. Baker probably has good enough stuff to be a relief pitcher as well.

We need Morneau back or this team won't win it all. I know since his departure we've been the best team in baseball (which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever). But still we need that guy back.

Ed Bast said...

Nick, don't get me wrong, I think Liriano is the better pitcher too. I just think any perceived advantage to starting him Game 1 is outweighed by the potential Game 4 nightmares.

By the way I fully expect Gardy to start Liriano in Game 1 and go with a 4 man rotation. He's already hinted at "breaking up the lefties", which I'm hoping is a joke I don't yet get.

Karl said...

The scariest scenario RE: Butera on the roster is this lineup twice in a 5 game series.

Span 8
Hudson 4
Mauer DH
Cuddyer 3
Kubel 9
Young 7
Valencia 5
Hardy 6
Butera 2

IE: If Butera stays on the Playoff roster and Gardy or Pavano gets stubborn and insists on Butera catching Pavano.

Yes - it seems highly illogical to the average SABR friendly to do that - however - I watched LNP bat 2 hole for nearly an entire season for a playoff team.

I wouldn't put it past the guy filling out the lineup card to write that lineup in.

Nick N. said...


I think Gardenhire effectively eliminated that concern by pairing Mauer and Pavano in CP's last start. He's clearly trying to get the two on the same page in time for the postseason.

Anonymous said...

I love Frankie but he's fragile. Start Pavano and use him again if needed, he can do it! By the sounds of things he isn't happy about sitting around right now with a week + between starts.

No way will Butera be catching the playoffs unless Mauer gets hurt or the Twins have a giant lead.

When Slowey is on he is a pretty deadly pitcher. I think I would go with Slowey over Blackburn for the playoffs but who to plug in at #4 is a toss up.

I keep thinking Morneau will be back at least for the playoffs. I think they are being quiet/sly with the media. Mornie has secretly been working out and batting. To see him back as a pinch hitter would be pretty sweet.

Anonymous said...

I think it depends on which team the Twins are facing. Against NY maybe Pavano and his "are yo talking to me" attitude is what is needed. Against Tampa, I am afraid they are going to run on him a lot.

Anonymous said...

Frankie's ERA is a little better this year, but when you look at FIP it's not close:
> Liriano: 2.44 FIP / 3.08 xFIP
> Pavano: 3.92 FIP / 4.00 xFIP
Based on these key stats, Liriano has been better more dominant than Sabathia or Price this year, and as good as King Felix.

Forget about 2009 and come to grip with this fact: in 2010, Francisco Liriano is an ace, and one of the 5 best SP in the AL.

The Twins should do what every other playoff team will do without any hesitation ... shart their ace in game 1.

Anonymous said...

Oops, "start" not "shart" :)

Josh said...

It will be interesting to see how the playoff roster shapes up. I think Nick is probably right about Baker, which is a bit of a shame, though I disagree with him about Baker being a better option than Guerrier; one is an established bullpen guy who has pitched in high-leverage situations, the other is not. The difference in "stuff" might not be worth it...anyways it's irrelevant, there's no way Gardy takes Baker over Guerrier.

Pitching staff is pretty set, I think, with the only question who's the odd man out between Baker, Blackburn, & Slowey: 1 in the rotation, 1 in the pen, and 1 out of luck. The rest of the bullpen should be Capps as the closer with Crain, Guerrier, & Rausch from the right side and Mijares & Fuentes from the left. Add one starter in long relief, plus Liriano, Pavano, Duensing, & one of the triad and we've got 11.

The rest gets interesting. Will Gardy insist on 3 catchers? I think he might. Will Morneau be ready and take a slot?

I would actually like to see this set (assuming health):

OF: Young, Span, Kubel, Repko
1B/3B/DH: Cuddyer, Morneau, Valencia, Thome
2B/SS: Hardy, Hudson, Casilla, Punto
C: Mauer, Morales

I would actually consider Revere over Casilla; an OF defensive replacement/pinch runner may have higher utility, and if Morneau isn't available, I'd definitely have Revere. I suspect that Morneau won't make the roster and Butera will, which I think is a mistake. A third catcher is going to be of almost no use.

I do like the way the bullpen is shaping up, especially if some of those guys can get enough rest before the end of the season and come in with fresh arms. The rotation looks good. The lineup is strong and if Morneau can come back even for PH duty it will be a big boost.

rghrbek said...

Blackburn should not start. End of story. He's just not very good, and especially this year. I know he's had a nice little run here, but so has Slowey and Bakes

This post sums it up a little better, in my opinion.

As far as Ed's suggestion, I am leaning that way with him. If you want a 3 man rotation for the first series, then you start Pavano.

Anonymous said...

Two words come to mind when I think of Morneau on the bench in the post season as a threat.

Kirk Gibson!

Ed Bast said...


So the reason they should start Liriano in game 1, which forces them to start Captain Crapshoot in game 4 instead of one of their top 3 starters, is because Liriano is an ace, and other teams start their ace in Game 1?

That's fine, but I guess I'd rather see the Twins win a series than make a statement about Frankie's ace-hood, though.

Anonymous said...

If gardy doesnt want to start baker he should go to the bullpen for sure. Hed be a relative power arm in the twins bullpen. A lot like rauch and guerrier in that hes a fly ball pitcher with good control but with the capacity to strike out a lot more guys. Baker struck out nearly 8 per nine as a starter, that could balloon to 8-9 per 9 in the bullpen. Guerrier k's 4.8/9 out of the pen. Baker should be a legitimate late inning right hand option ahead of rauch and guerrier.

As for the game one starter, if they are willing to pitch liriano on short rest id have him go games 1, 4. If they refuse to pitch him on short rest but would let pavano thats the only way i pitch pavano game 1 ,3 and liriano 2, 5. Whatever it takes to keep blackburn from pitching.

Anonymous said...


I was basing on the assumption that Gardy prefers full rest for all his starters. Assuming Gardy goes 4 starters, then I say Frankie game 1.

I think the assumption that Pavano can easily pitch on short rest (and more effectively than Blackie on full rest) is suspect, especially given Gardy has intentionally given Pavano extra days rest over the second half this year.

Anonymous said...

why would anyone want baker in the mix? blackburn can at least put together a few good starts in a row when he is on. baker can't. he can throw 1 good game followed by 3 or 4 bad ones.

Anonymous said...

baker has had a far superior year to blackburn just about anyway you want to measure it. A lot lower era on top of monstrous peripheral advantage. I dont think blackburn should have a spot on the playoff roster. Hed be awful out of the bullpen and i would do everything in my power to keep him from making a start.

Anonymous said...

The question of who had the better season, Baker or Blackburn, is meaningless.

Baker had an inconsistent (borderline bad) year, and is coming off injury.

Blackburn had a bad year, but is pitching well now. The fact he gave up 15 hits a game in June-July doesn't matter ... or at least no more than the fact he was pretty good in 2008, 2009, May 2010, etc.

There is no way the Twins start Baker over Blackie, and they shouldn't.

Baker this year
- 10 of 27 starts with 7+ IP
- 12 of 27 starts quality

Blackburn since his return from minors (including 2 vs Texas)
- 5 of 5 starts with 7+ IP
- 5 of 5 quality starts
- 1.91 ERA / 0.98 WHIP

The Twins lost despite Blackburn's pitching in game 163, ver 1.
The Twins won in spite of Baker's pitching in game 163, ver 2.

Anonymous said...

agreed. what have you done for me lately, scott baker? blackbeard has a much better chance of delivering a quality start right now than baker.

Anonymous said...

There not much chance baker makes a start but hes been better than blackburn this season, and pitched a lot better than his era. As for the what have you done for me lately argument i think its sketchy. Its 5 starts, three against bad offensive teams and hes still not doing a ton anywhere near enough to sustain say a 4 era even. 8 k's in his last 22 ip which works out to 3.2 k/9 which is awful. Blackies gotten back on the right side of batted ball luck and has managed to keep the ball in the ball park against some bad offenses, and thats enough to convince lots of people that hes "back". But nick blackburn is the same time bomb of suck hes always been. If the twins start him in the playoff i hope he gets crushed.

Anonymous said...

8 k's and 6 bb in his last 3 starts for blackburn. Thats electric stuff.

Anonymous said...

You can be effective without being electric.

It's baseball, not a strikeout contest. There are fielders for a reason.

Matt Capps has a better K/9 than Mariano Rivera this season. Does that mean he's better? Hell no. It means when guys hit Rivera's cutter, it goes about 50 feet. Same thing goes for Blackie's sinker at times. The same cannot be said for Baker's hanging curves or Capps' BP fastballs.

Over the past 3 years, Blackie has been good much more than he's been bad. With or without a high K/9 rate. The sample size is much too large to casually ignore all success as just 'luck'.

Nick said...

I think we've got to go with Frankie game one. He's so electric and has been amazing at home. He hasn't given up many HR's and has been a K machine. I think he's got his head in the right place, and who would love to see a CC/Price vs Liriano matchup?? Pavano is great too and if we trot him out there with a 1-0 series lead who better to get us to a 2-0 lead?? Duensing is an obvious game 3 starter. And I think the best option is Slowey after that. IF it goes to game 5...hopefully it doesn't, but if it does, Frankie will have enough days in between to go for game 5.

Anonymous said...

There is no sample size large enough to make a lucky results not lucky. Nick blackburn gets way more double play than he should, gives up few homeruns than he should (more true last year than this year) and strands more than he should. Even if there were some magic innings pitched where this stuff would stop becoming lucky, that inning total would be WAY more than 2 years. Theres a million pitchers that put together 2 good seasons based on era that dont continue to have success. So to say the sample size much too large to call success luck is wrong.

Also, nick blackburn has an mlb era of 4.47, a fip 4.56 and an xfip of 4.56. I wouldnt say hes be a wild success even by a bad era standard. Im not sure what it is that blackie does to hypnotize the fans into thinking hes a solid major league pitcher.