Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Butera Overload

Last week, I expressed concern that Joe Mauer was more hurt than he or the team was letting on, and that various bumps and bruises were largely responsible for his disappointing numbers over the first few months of the season.

His recent playing time patterns have only helped confirm those fears. Since I posted my column about Mauer last Thursday, he has caught only three of the Twins' seven games. Twice he has sat out, and twice he has served as designated hitter. That's not the type of usage we're accustomed to seeing for the former MVP, who -- when healthy -- is typically behind the plate for the vast majority of the Twins' games.

To be clear, giving Mauer a break from time to time is necessary. And I don't mind using him in the DH spot on occasion. But there seems to be a perception that the Twins aren't hurting themselves too much by feeding more and more starts to Drew Butera. That's just not the case.

Butera is arguably (maybe not even arguably) the worst hitter in all of the major leagues. After posting a miserable .560 OPS as a 25-year-old in Triple-A last year, he has gone on to hit .192/.211/.301 for the Twins this year, with five extra-base hits and one walk in 83 plate appearances. An out-making machine with minimal power, Butera is an enormous liability whose offensive production roughly mirrors what one would expect from a pitcher in the National League. When he's starting and Mauer's at DH, as was the case last night, it means that the Twins are replacing Jim Thome or Jason Kubel with Butera in the lineup. There are no words to fully describe the size of this drop-off.

The Twins' stated position for the increased playing time for Butera is that the team's starters like pitching to him, especially Carl Pavano. There are indications that Butera could even serve as Pavano's personal catcher for the remainder of the season. I don't think I buy the notion.

While it's true that Pavano has performed well over his last few starts with Butera behind the plate, and also true that Pavano was roughed up the last time he pitched to Mauer, it's important to point out that the ugly start came in Toronto against the power-laden Blue Jays lineup. That's about as unfavorable of a match-up as you can find for Carl Pavano, and I'm thinking it's more largely responsible for the mustachioed hurler's struggles than who was receiving the pitches. Especially when you consider that Pavano's two strong starts before the Toronto shellacking -- an outing against the Rays in which he allowed two earned runs over 6 1/3 innings and a complete game shutout against the Mets in New York -- both came with Mauer behind the plate.

Meanwhile, Francisco Liriano didn't seem to have any issues throwing to Mauer on Monday night or during his stellar outing against the White Sox just after the All-Star break. Nor did Kevin Slowey seem to be limited by Mauer's presence when he hurled six innings of one-run ball on Monday night.

Indeed, differences between Butera's and Mauer's game-calling ability seem mostly anecdotal and reactionary, especially considering that Mauer has won Gold Gloves in both of the past two seasons and has often been lauded for his work behind the plate in the past. If a difference between the two exists, it doesn't come close to making up for the gargantuan offensive drop-off that the Twins experience when Butera is in the lineup.

Of course, the Twins have still been playing pretty well lately, owing largely to some fairly pitiful competition. Indeed, it could be that Ron Gardenhire is taking advantage of this soft spot in the Twins' schedule to get the banged-up Mauer some much needed rest in preparation for the stretch run. Perhaps the catcher's offensive outburst on Tuesday night reflects that the rest is paying off. If that's the case, I take my hat off to Gardy, who may be employing a brilliant managerial strategy.

However, if he truly believes that the Twins are ever a better team with Butera in the lineup and Mauer at DH, he's loony. Mauer loses a great deal of his value when he's playing at DH, particularly when his back-up hits like a pitcher. If this trend of more frequently using Mauer in the designated hitter spot continues through the rest of the season, the Twins could be in some trouble.

My suspicion, though, is that all this rhetoric from the Twins' coaches about Butera's great chemistry with the pitchers is mostly a front, and that the team doesn't want to admit that their newly re-signed star player is badly in need of some additional time away from catching duties. If that's the case, I have no problem with Mauer getting a little extra rest so that he'll be more effective when the Twins get back to playing legitimate clubs.

I just wish that the answer wasn't playing the league's worst-hitting position player nearly half the time. How about some starts behind the plate for Jose Morales?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Shifting Priorities

A few weeks ago, fans were in desperation for the addition of a starting pitcher to Minnesota's struggling rotation. However, with the two most enticing pieces off the board now that Cliff Lee is in Texas and Dan Haren is in Anaheim, it's starting to appear as though the Twins might be better served holding off on the starting pitcher market as the deadline approaches.

Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey both reminded us of what they're capable of over the weekend. Granted, it was against the lowly Orioles, but both hurlers snapped trends of poor road performance by dominating the Birds and picking up much-needed victories. Despite their poor overall numbers, Baker has a 3.77 xFIP and Slowey is at 4.56. Those figures would be perfectly acceptable for mid- to bottom-of-the-rotation starters, which is what both Baker and Slowey have become while Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano have clearly established themselves as the team's top starters. I see no reason why Baker and Slowey shouldn't be able to match -- or even exceed -- those xFIP numbers during the final two months of the season.

The only pitcher who very clearly needed to be replaced in the Twins' rotation was Nick Blackburn, and that's happened. Given his mediocre track record in the minors and his low strikeout rate, I have no illusions of Brian Duensing taking the world by storm and single-handedly turning around the fortunes of this rotation. However, it can't be ignored that Duensing has accumulated a 2.93 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 132 big-league innings -- including a 2.65 ERA in 10 starts -- and he looked outstanding while pitching five innings of one-run ball against the Orioles on Friday night.

Surely Duensing will hit his bumps and one can hardly expect that quality outings against the league's worst team will set both Baker and Slowey straight. But these three have all demonstrated in the past that they are very capable major-league pitchers and if they all pitch to their level of ability while Pavano and Liriano continue their fine work, the Twins can boast a perfectly competent rotation over the final months capable of carrying the club to October.

Relying on Baker and Slowey to get things ironed out may not strike people as an ideal situation considering how terribly inconsistent they've both been this season, but none of the available trade targets represent a surefire upgrade. Haren and Lee are gone, and I'm guessing that the Twins (perhaps wisely) are unwilling to do what it takes to acquire Roy Oswalt. While it's possible that someone like Ted Lilly or Brett Myers might be a superior option to Slowey or Duensing over the remainder of the season, to me the upgrade is not likely or substantial enough to merit the prospects and financial resources that would be required to make a deal.

Instead of focusing on starting pitching, Bill Smith and the Twins should shift their focus to other areas of growing concern. One is the bullpen. Duensing has been one of the team's best relievers all year long, so his removal from the 'pen creates a hole in the middle innings. The Twins might want to seek a mid-tier relief option (since front-line relievers like Scott Downs will likely prove too costly), although they could just as easily call up Kyle Waldrop since they have two lefties in the bullpen as is. There's also the matter of Jon Rauch, who owns a 7.11 ERA and 2.69 WHIP in seven July appearances, but if anyone is going to be replacing him in the closer spot I'd guess it would be Jesse Crain.

Bullpen issues aside, it's seeming more and more like the Twins might have to look at adding another bat within the next week, something that wouldn't have seemed like a possible consideration a few weeks ago. Justin Morneau remains out of the lineup indefinitely due to a concussion and now Orlando Hudson has joined him on the shelf due to a strained oblique. Given the ambiguous nature of both injuries, it's tough to gauge when either crucial contributor might return, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that both could be lost for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, Joe Mauer is clearly banged up, as he has caught only two of the team's past five games and it's no coincidence that a third catcher was called up to join the roster yesterday.

With a number of key hitters going at less than 100 percent and two others out of the lineup completely, one has to wonder how the offense will hold up. Despite his heralded game-calling ability, Drew Butera severely weakens the Twins lineup every time he starts, and Alexi Casilla will most likely prove to be a liability in the No. 2 spot. Fans groaned when they saw Sunday's makeshift lineup, but we're likely to see more of where that came from in the coming weeks if these nagging injuries persist.

I'm not saying the Twins should go out and get Adam Dunn, but if they deem the injuries to Morneau and/or Hudson to be long-term concerns, they'd be wise to kick the tires on a few available hitters.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Duensing's Debut (Take Two)

Last year, Brian Duensing stepped into a ravaged Twins rotation in late August and performed admirably down the stretch, going 5-1 with a 2.64 ERA in eight starts and helping the Twins surge for a division title.

This year, he'll look to pull off a similar feat.

Nick Blackburn was demoted to the bullpen earlier this week after getting shelled yet again, so Duensing -- who has been serving in a relief role all season -- will once again get an opportunity to step into the rotation during the final months of the season. It's not realistic to expect Duensing to maintain the 1.67 ERA he has accumulated largely through situation-based relief appearances (his vulnerability against righties will be more exposed, for instance) and it's probably not realistic to expect him to repeat the 2.64 ERA from his rotation stint a year ago, but all the Twins need from Duensing is better performance than they were getting from Blackburn, and that shouldn't be difficult to achieve.

Tonight, Duensing makes his first start of the season in Baltimore. He won't have the luxury of pitching in spacious Target Field, where nearly every Twins starter has performed far better than on the road, and a strict pitch count limit will likely prevent him from being able to go past the fifth inning or so, but Duensing does have a few things going for him as he makes his transition to the rotation.

1) The Twins are hot. They've shut out their opponent in each of the past two games, so Duensing won't feel pressure to step in and stop the bleeding as he might have if he were starting in the wake of a Scott Baker or Kevin Slowey meltdown.

2) The Orioles suck. They're in last place at 30-65 -- a whopping 30.5 games behind the Yankees in the AL East. They rank second-to-last in the American League in both runs scored and team OPS, ahead of only the dreadful Mariners offense.

3) The Orioles especially suck against left-handed pitchers. They've hit just .251/.308/.360 against port-siders, with only 17 of their 81 homers coming against them.

It's a great situation for Duensing to step into. Let's hope he can take advantage and keep the run of strong pitching going for this team.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Even Heroes Bleed

It seems I've got some positive mojo going right now. Last Thursday, I wrote an article about J.J. Hardy, noting that his disappointing numbers up to this point have largely been the result of a pesky wrist injury and that with the ailment behind him he should be primed for a much better second half. Since that point, Hardy has gone 10-for-26 (.385) with three doubles and four RBI in seven games. A day after my Hardy post, I wrote a blurb about Francisco Liriano, noting that a lack of good fortune and support from his teammates had led to his unspectacular W/L record and ERA leading up to the All-Star break and positing that "I fully expect Liriano to be one of the American League's best pitchers during the second half." Liriano has won both of his subsequent starts in dominant fashion, allowing only two runs over 14 2/3 innings.

Now, I'm wishing I could work some of that magic on Joe Mauer, who remains one of the team's biggest underachievers. Fresh off signing the largest contract in franchise history, Mauer is following up his MVP season in 2009 with a completely ordinary campaign, as he enters tonight's play with a .297/.367/.429 hitting line to go along with four home runs and 41 RBI. Those aren't exactly bad numbers for a catcher, but considering that Mauer is a historical talent right in the middle of his prime and set to start earning $23 million per season next year, his performance has been more than a slight let-down.

Beyond the underwhelming numbers listed above, there are several aspects of Mauer's game that have come under fire. Here are a few:

* One can hardly make the argument that Mauer hasn't played enough -- he's among the league leaders for innings caught and is on pace for the second-most plate appearances of his career -- but the timing of his days off have sometimes been bewildering. (Most notably when he sat out the last game of a crucial series against the Tigers in Detroit a couple weeks ago despite the All-Star break being on deck.)

* His defensive work has been noticeably worse than in the past; he's not moving around well to block pitches behind the plate and his throws don't have their usual zip or accuracy. It's gotten the point where some fans are actively calling for Drew Butera to catch games more frequently. Considering that Mauer has won two straight Gold Gloves and Butera is one of the worst hitters in the major leagues, that's not a good sign.

* We're nearing August and Mauer still hasn't hit a single ball out of his home park. Overall, he's managed just four home runs in 357 plate appearances, which is two less than he hit in 122 plate appearances as a 21-year-old rookie back in 2004. Many folks, like myself, expected the catcher's power output to pick up as we've moved deeper into the summer months, but it's not happening. Mauer has hit only one home run per month and at this rate is on pace to finish with just six on the year. That's an astonishing drop-off for a 27-year-old who went deep 28 times in his breakout campaign last year.

* Most disturbing of all for Mauer has got to be his increasingly clear lack of confidence. Never has it been on display more obviously than on Tuesday night, when Mauer stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the seventh of a tie game against the Indians, with runners on first and second, and attempted to bunt his way on base. The logic behind the move was technically sound -- there was a ton of room on the left side and had Mauer properly executed he'd have loaded the bases with one out for Jason Kubel -- but the implications here are grave. The team needed one run to take a lead that they could hand over to their bullpen, and rather than step up like a No. 3 hitter and reigning MVP should, Mauer elected to defer the responsibility to Kubel, who is having a thoroughly mediocre year and is miscast as clean-up hitter. Kubel has a .680 career OPS against lefties, so Mauer's move was essentially tantamount to passing the duty of driving in the go-ahead run on to Nick Punto (bit of an exaggeration, but not much).

Mauer, who last year led the league in slugging percentage, and was not long ago being mentioned alongside Albert Pujols in the "best hitter in the game" debate, laying down a bunt with the game on the line. It's about the most depressing thing I've seen all year.

When interviewed after the game, Mauer came up with a lengthy list of statements defending the decision, but this nugget strikes me as the most telling: "I'm not feeling the greatest at the plate right now, and that factors in."

You don't say, Joe?

Mauer started this season hitting at an all-world clip, just as he did throughout the '09 campaign. Against the Royals on April 24, Mauer went 5-for-6 with a double, a triple and two RBI. At that point he was hitting .381 with a 1.025 OPS and nine of his 24 hits had gone for extra bases. The early signs were there for another MVP run.

Since that point, however, Mauer has hit just .276/.344/.394 in 66 games, managing only three homers while grounding into 14 double plays. Those figures -- particularly the batting average and on-base percentage -- are staggering. Who would ever expect such an accomplished hitter to be posting such pedestrian numbers over an extended period of time, especially when he's 27 years old and surrounded by better hitters in the lineup than ever before?

No, I don't believe Mauer has forgotten how to hit. Nor do I believe he's resting on his laurels after signing a big contract.

I think Mauer has been hurt. In fact, I know he's been hurt. He was sidelined by a lingering heel injury back in May, and he's reportedly also been bothered by a sore shoulder, not to mention other various ailments that are likely unbeknownst to fans and the media. I think these injuries have taken a significant toll on Mauer's performance, and unfortunately it's tough to fully heal when you're regularly playing the most demanding position on the baseball field.

There's not much the Twins can do to solve this problem, either. Even at his reduced level of effectiveness, Mauer is still a far better option than the alternatives, with Butera sporting a .422 OPS and neither Wilson Ramos nor Jose Morales appearing ready in Triple-A. With the Twins in the midst of a tight three-team race in the AL Central, they can't afford to give Mauer a couple weeks off in the hopes that he can shake off these ailments and regain some of his strength.

I wish I could say that I expected the same type of surge from Mauer as we've seen from Hardy and Liriano recently, but I'm just not seeing the signs. He remains an intelligent and valuable player at the plate, but he's just not the dominating force with the bat that he was a year ago.

And if he himself doesn't believe that he can step up and lead this lineup, how can we?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


When the Twins took the final three games of their series against the White Sox at Target Field over the weekend, it marked the first time they'd won three consecutive games since the end of May. This team has played well enough to remain safely above .500, sure, but they haven't been remotely consistent. Good wins that would seemingly build momentum are almost inevitably followed by depressing lulls in performance. That has happened again this week, as the Twins have followed up their thrilling ninth-inning, walk-off, series-clinching victory against Bobby Jenks and the White Sox by dropping two straight at home against the last-place Indians.

Last night's game featured another disheartening performance from Kevin Slowey, who seemingly ran out of gas at around 75 pitches, failing to complete the sixth inning for a 12th time in 19 starts. Fans who were already calling for Nick Blackburn's removal from the rotation (which now seems to be in the books) are now setting their sights on Slowey, and not without good reason.

We all look for scapegoats when trying to determine the roots of this team's continued inability to get going. We blame the manager for not acting quickly enough to replace players who are hurting the team. We blame the general manager for not calling up reinforcements soon enough, and for not more hastily seeking to pull the trigger on a trade that would bolster the front end of the rotation. We blame the team's slow plodding outfielders, as if their sub par range is costing the team dozens of runs. We blame plain old bad luck. (I myself am probably a little too guilty of that one; one cannot deny that there's more to all this losing than most of the team's players concurrently being snakebit.)

In the end, there's only one rightful party upon which to burden this thoroughly uninspiring performance: the players themselves. Be it because of injury or some other deterrent, too many members of this team are not playing up to their level of ability.

Scott Baker is a better pitcher than he has shown this year. Ditto for Slowey. Ditto for Blackburn. There's talk of trading for starters like Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Millwood; these are not better players than Baker and Slowey, and the Twins would be better served hoping those two can figure things out -- while hoping Brian Duensing conjures some of his late-'09 magic in the fifth spot -- than pumping resources into a doubtful upgrade.

Joe Mauer is a great hitter and a reigning MVP, not an over-matched kid who tries to lay down a bunt with one out and the go-ahead run in scoring position (and a hitter who's hopeless against left-handers due up next with a southpaw on the hill). What on earth was that?

Jason Kubel proved last year that he can be one of the league's most punishing righty mashers, but last night -- as he has done far too often this year -- he failed to seize an advantageous opportunity against a pitcher who is prone to getting clobbered by left-handed hitters.

Denard Span seems to be perhaps the most mystifying of all. He lets seemingly catchable balls drop in the outfield. He runs himself into outs on the base paths. He goes through prolonged cold spells and disappears offensively for games at a time. He has hit .198 on the road.

Span was in past seasons a young player with uncommon discipline. His keen eye at the plate was seemingly matched by his acumen around the field. He was sharp. This year, he hasn't looked sharp, and that's a trait he shares with far too many players on the roster.

People can rev up the "Fire Gardy" bandwagon and berate Bill Smith in the event that he doesn't make a loud move at the deadline, but ultimately the responsibility for this team's woes falls upon the players themselves. They're just not playing very well, and if you don't play well you don't win games and you don't make the playoffs.

On paper, I fully believe this Twins roster is good enough to win the American League Central by a fairly wide margin.

It's just really unfortunate that so many players aren't bringing their A-game.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Best Foot Forward

The Twins came out of the All-Star break badly needing a boost. It didn't come initially. On Thursday night, the Twins returned to play at Target Field, having just learned that their best hitter would be landing on the disabled list. Their first game out of the break featured more of the same: a starter getting clobbered, questionable fundamentals and missed offensive opportunities. The Twins fell to the division-leading White Sox 8-7, dropping them a distant 4 1/2 games out of first place (and four behind the idle Tigers). There was a lot of depression floating around Twins Territory on Friday afternoon.

My, how things have changed over the weekend.

The Twins took the final three games in their series against the Sox, wrapping things up with a thrilling ninth-inning comeback against Bobby Jenks on Sunday. Their two top starting pitchers dominated, and while Nick Blackburn struggled once again yesterday, his outing may finally make clear in the eyes of management something that has been clear in the minds of many for weeks: he needs to be removed from the rotation.

I wrote last Thursday about J.J. Hardy, suggesting that now that he's finally put his wrist issues behind him he could be primed for a big second half. I concluded the post by noting that the Twins "need a number of players to step up in the second half, and Hardy is at the top of that list." In the Twins' four-game series against the Sox, Hardy went 5-for-11 with two doubles and two RBI. Joe Mauer, whose name is obviously at the top of that aforementioned list right along with Hardy, also had an excellent series, finishing 7-for-18 with three doubles and five RBI.

The Twins, in general, did some impressive damage with the bats, running up a total of 24 runs on 52 hits over four games against a pitching staff that has been exceedingly hot.

Now, they've cut their deficit in the AL Central down to 1 1/2 games while leap-frogging the Tigers, who managed to lose four games over the weekend in Cleveland. Things get no easier for Detroit, who are looking at their schedule and seeing the following eight series lined up: Rangers, Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox, Angels, Rays, White Sox, Yankees. Meanwhile, the Twins are coming upon a much-needed soft spot in their schedule where they'll face the Indians, Royals, Orioles and Mariners in successive series.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Notes

* With three members of the Twins' rotation struggling to consistently deliver quality performances, the team would undoubtedly like to add any of these three starters to the mix:

Pitcher A: 57.2 IP, 6-2, 3.28 ERA, 51/9 K/BB, .247 BAA
Pitcher B: 53.1 IP, 5-3, 3.54 ERA, 43/11 K/BB, .257 BAA
Pitcher C: 55.2 IP, 5-1, 3.72 ERA, 21/11 K/BB, .278 BAA

The thing is, all three of those pitchers are already in the Twins rotation. Those are the home splits for Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn. The problem is that all three hurlers have been absolutely terrible on the road. See for yourself:

Baker: 51.1 IP, 1-6, 6.66 ERA, 44/10 K/BB, .321 BAA
Slowey: 43.2 IP, 3-2, 5.98 ERA, 25/8 K/BB, .333 BAA
Blackburn: 41.1 IP, 2-6, 10.02 ERA, 13/16 K/BB, .398 BAA

Those numbers for Blackburn are especially egregious. Opponents have tagged him for a 1.164 OPS while hitting notching as many home runs (13) as strikeouts in nine starts.

The fact that all three of these pitchers are performing about as well as anyone could possibly expect when throwing at home suggests that whatever problems they're facing this season are largely mental. Sure, Target Field is a spacious and pitcher-friendly park, but that doesn't come close to explaining the enormous disparity in performance for all three of these guys. And if injuries were contributing to their struggles, why would those problems seemingly disappear when they're pitching at home?

The impetus is on Baker, Slowey, Blacbkurn and the Twins' coaching staff to figure out what is causing these issues on the road. These guys are now experienced major-league pitchers; for them to be unraveling in opposing ballparks again and again like this is beyond unacceptable.

* One pitcher you don't need to worry about is Francisco Liriano. Sure, he got roughed up in his last start before the break and neither his 6-7 record nor his 3.86 ERA scream "elite ace," but Liriano's performance this season has been much better than those numbers indicate.
In 107 1/3 innings, Liriano has struck out 117 batters while issuing 30 walks. He has allowed only two home runs. He has induced grounders on over 50 percent of balls in play; only 10 American League pitchers have a higher rate.

In other words, Liriano has been flat-out fantastic when it comes to factors that are under his direct control. That's why his FIP (a fielding independent metric) registers at 2.18, the best mark in the majors. The problem is that when batters are making contact, an inordinate number of balls are falling in for hits, especially over the past couple weeks. Despite the outstanding strikeout rate, Liriano has allowed about a hit per inning thanks to an inflated .361 batting average on balls in play. Compare that figure to the big-league average (.300), Liriano's career average (.318) or even Liriano's mark from last year (.324) and you can see that this is clearly a far higher BABIP than anyone should reasonably expect from the hard-throwing lefty. It's the result of bad luck and substandard fielding behind him.

With J.J. Hardy back in the mix and bad luck likely to even out, I fully expect Liriano to be one of the American League's best pitchers during the second half. In spite of what his record and ERA suggest, he already has been up to this point.

* Speaking of bad luck, lingering effects from Justin Morneau's concussion a couple weeks ago have landed the first baseman on the disabled list, forcing him to miss this weekend's key series against the division-leading White Sox and potentially setting the stage for yet another disappointing second half. I'm hopeful that Morneau can shake off his ailment and return to the outstanding level of production he provided throughout the first half, but we've been through this song and dance before and it's seemingly never ended well.

* Remember back in spring training when a faction of Twins fans was claiming that Wilson Ramos absolutely needed to be on the roster, drawing regular playing time while splitting his workload at catcher and DH? How silly that looks now. Ramos currently possesses a .252 on-base percentage in Triple-A and has hit only four home runs all year. His .562 OPS in Rochester barely edges Drew Butera's .560 mark there last year.

Ramos remains a very strong prospect and by no means am I saying that these struggles will prevent him from eventually turning into a very nice hitter. But maybe people will think twice before calling the Twins' front office morons for sending a 22-year-old with only 54 games of experience above Single-A back to the minors despite his strong performances in winter ball and spring training. Ramos clearly was not ready to be playing in the majors in April, nor is he now.

* Finally, if you haven't picked up a copy of the TwinsCentric 2010 Trade Deadline Primer yet, to me a favor and at least check out the free quarterbook sample here to see all it has to offer. A lot of work from a lot of talented people went into this sucker and we're pretty proud of it. I'm quite sure you'll find it to be an indispensable reference over the next couple weeks.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hard Times for J.J. Hardy

J.J. Hardy's best game as a Minnesota Twin was, ironically, the one that has largely ruined his 2010 season.

On May 4, the Twins were facing the Tigers at Target Field in a key divisional match-up. The game was tied at three in the top of the ninth, and the Tigers had Alex Avila on second base representing the go-ahead run with two outs. Ramon Santiago tapped a grounder to the hole between short and third, and initially it appeared that the ball would easily roll into left field for an RBI single that would put the Tigers in front. Avila lowered his head and charged around third, determined to beat Delmon Young's throw to the plate.

Yet, the ball never got to Young. Hardy flashed his amazing range, sprinting and diving to his right to stop the ball. Avila realized too late that the grounder had been fielded in the infield, and by the time he slammed on the brakes in an effort to get back to third, Hardy had already delivered the ball to Nick Punto, who slapped a tag on Avila to end the inning.

In the bottom half of the ninth, Hardy delivered a one-out triple off the center field wall, setting himself up to score the winning run on a wild pitch in the subsequent at-bat. With his outstanding defense and considerable power -- the two strengths that led the Twins to trade Carlos Gomez for him during the offseason -- Hardy had single-handedly turned a loss to a win.

We'd learn a couple days later, however, that Hardy had hurt his wrist while sliding into third base on that game-breaking triple. And what initially seemed like a minor hurdle has transformed into a debilitating issue for Hardy, resulting in two separate disabled list stints and multiple cortisone shots while likely contributing to a punchless .186 average when he's been able to get into the lineup since that date.

When looking at Hardy's overall hitting line this year -- .226/.268/.340 with just three home runs and 14 RBI -- there's a temptation to declare him finished as an offensive threat. After all, Hardy posted similarly ugly numbers in Milwaukee last year, and clearly the Brewers had lost faith in him considering that they were willing to deal the one-time elite power-hitting shortstop for a relatively modest return. Yet, it's unfair to judge Hardy based on his first half this year. He's historically always been a slow starter, and while that May 4 performance is the kind of confidence-builder that can often get a struggling hitter on track, it instead resulted in an injury that effectively shelved Hardy for two full months.

Now, though, Hardy finally appears to be back at full strength. He's hit .286 since coming off the DL earlier this month, and while he still hasn't homered since April 23, it does seem like he's finally starting to hit the ball with some authority again. Hardy's strikeout rate is down this year, so it's not like he's looked completely lost at the plate. If his wrist is fully healthy, we can expect his .252 batting average on balls in play and 6.8 HR/FB ratio (both well below his career averages) to both rise in the second half, leading to much better offensive production.

Without a doubt, the Twins have been scoring fewer runs than expected in recent weeks. Yet, I don't expect the front office to make any moves at the deadline to improve the team's offense, because they've got all the talent they need in-house. They just need a number of players to step up in the second half, and Hardy is at the top of that list.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Life After Lee

I woke up last Friday believing -- as many others did -- that the Twins were front-runners to ultimately land Cliff Lee. After all, the Mariners were thirsty for young hitting help, particularly at the catcher position, and the Twins were reportedly dangling a package headlined by Wilson Ramos.

The Yankees changed the game when they put their own top catching prospect, Jesus Montero, on the table. This almost immediately pushed the Twins out of the running. With past deadline failures in mind, many fans reacted with anger to this development. Just another instance of the pushover Twins failing to do what it takes to outbid the big boys and do what's necessary to improve the roster.

Not the case here. As soon as Montero became available (assuming he actually was available, and this whole thing wasn't a ploy by either the Yankees or Mariners to force a higher offer from another club), the Twins weren't going to be coming up with a more attractive package, nor should they have tried. Montero ranked fifth on Baseball America's recently released Midseason Updated Top 25 Prospects list, four slots above Twins top prospect Aaron Hicks, who I think would have been too much to give up in a package alongside Ramos.

Of course, the Yankees themselves were outbid for Lee when Texas stepped in and offered a package built around young slugger Justin Smoak. Considered one of the best hitting prospects in baseball, Smoak provides the type of immediate power potential that the Mariners sought above all. By the time his name was mentioned, the Twins were distant on-lookers.

If the day's roller coaster of events made one thing clear, it's that the Twins may not have the expendable assets to haul in a premier piece at the deadline. I suggested an offer of Ramos and Ben Revere -- two of the Twins' very best prospects -- for Lee last Wednesday and some felt that it was too much to surrender for a half-season rental. Yet, even that deal couldn't hold a candle to the eventual offers from New York and Texas.

If Ramos and Revere are still on the table, the Twins might have a shot at landing a front-line game-changer like Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren, though financial restrictions will become a serious roadblock in acquiring either hurler. The Twins clearly need help in the rotation, but may need to lower their focus to the next tier of starters.

Our 2010 Trade Deadline Primer (pick up your copy today!) features a handy guide to nearly every player who could be available during this year's deadline season, as submitted by bloggers who closely follow their respective teams. Since these Trade Targets are divided up by position, we can use this list to easily identify starting pitchers beyond Haren and Oswalt who could interest the Twins in the coming weeks. Let's look through a few potentially desirable names:

Fausto Carmona, Indians
Cleveland has dealt aces at the deadline in each of the past two seasons, and may be tempted to do so again this year with contention still looking like a distant hope. However, Carmona's control issues reduced him from Cy Young contender in 2007 to disaster in '08 and '09. While he's gotten his walks in check this year and returned to effective (albeit not dominating ace) status, his precarious nature will likely prevent the Twins from offering what Cleveland will likely require.

Ted Lilly, Cubs
The veteran lefty is most likely available and the Twins would love another experienced hurler who could reliably deliver quality innings in bunches. Yet, the Twins have to figure that Brian Duensing, a much cheaper and readily available left-handed arm in the bullpen, could provide similar production. Tom Gorzelanny would seemingly be a more desirable target.

Aaron Harang, Reds
Harang has always been a somewhat interesting pitcher because of his durability and his solid strikeout totals, but his results have never really matched his stuff. He hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2007 and continues to struggle with the long ball. That's the last thing the Twins need.

Derek Lowe, Braves
Atlanta would love to dump Lowe's contract but the Twins are hardly equipped to take it on. Not that they'd want to, as Lowe has regressed to the point where he is (as Braves blogger Peter Hjort puts it in the Primer) "not one of the five best starters the Braves have."

Ben Sheets, Athletics
Sheets was sort of an interesting possibility during the offseason, when his injury history had him looking for a one-year make-good deal. The right-hander eventually inked a $10 million contract with the A's while the Twins elected to spend their money on retaining Carl Pavano -- a very wise choice. Sheets sits with a 4-8 record, 4.63 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and 82-to-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 112 2/3 innings. He's been healthy, just not very good. Can't imagine the Twins will even bother making a call.

Brett Myers, Astros
The former Phillie is enjoying a change of scenery in Houston, where he's posted a 3.41 ERA over his 18 starts thus far. Myers' peripheral numbers, however, don't paint a pretty picture; his strikeout rate, walk rate and hit rate are all nearly identical to where they were last year in Philadelphia, when he posted a 4.84 ERA. He's been fortunate enough to see only 8.9 percent of fly balls leave the yard -- easily a career low. His luck would likely catch up with him in the less pitcher-friendly American League.

That's pretty much it. The rest of the players likely to be available are either worse than the ones listed above or they play for a rival who won't be going out of their way to help the Twins in their quest for a playoff spot. If none of those names get you particularly excited, you're not alone. While they'd all probably be better than Nick Blackburn, these just aren't impact additions likely to turn around the fortunes of a fledgling rotation.

If the Twins want to make a real, significant upgrade to their rotation at the deadline this year, they're pretty much going to have to set their sights on Haren or Oswalt. But, as John Bonnes noted earlier this week on his blog and in his Twins essay for the Primer, there may not be payroll space to take on either of those hurlers. Oswalt is owed more than $20 million over the next two years while Haren is in the second year of a four-year, $44.75 million deal.

Simply put, with Lee gone, the Twins might be out of luck when it comes to adding a starting pitcher this month, unless they're willing to significantly lower their standards.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Blackburn's Tumultuous Season

It's funny how people tend to draw non-existent subtexts from internet opinion pieces. As an example, I've written about Nick Blackburn quite a bit this year, and much of that writing has carried a negative tone. Now, any time I write about him I invariably have people accusing me of "hating" Blackburn or going out of my way to disparage him in my columns.

Neither of those things are true, of course. By all accounts, Blackburn is a very nice guy, and I fully appreciate some of the big games he has pitched for the Twins over the first couple years of his major-league career. I like Blackburn. But there's no masking the fact that he's been one of the worst starting pitchers in major league baseball this year.

One of my random preseason predictions this spring was that Blackburn would have a tough season and finish with an ERA north of 5. Now even that seems charitable, as Blackburn sits at the All-Star break carrying a ghastly 6.40 ERA with 100 more hits (134) to his credit than strikeouts (34). On Saturday, Blackburn had perhaps his worst outing of the season, coughing up seven runs on four homers in a crucial match-up against the (then) division-leading Tigers.

It was one of those instances where the starter was clearly left in too long. I think baseball fans have a tendency to rip the manager for leaving in a starter based on hindsight judgment far too often, but this was a case where everyone watching the game could clearly see that Blackburn had nothing. He'd started out the fifth inning by allowing a lead-off double to the No. 9 hitter, Ramon Santiago, and issuing a walk to Austin Jackson, putting two on with nobody out for Johnny Damon.

I tweeted: "I think this would be an appropriate time to bring in Duensing. Blackburn is overmatched." Undoubtedly, most Twins fans shared that sentiment. Blackburn had already allowed six hits -- all of them extra-baggers -- and was preparing to face a tough left-handed hitter in a one-run game with the outcome still hanging in the balance. Duensing was warming in the bullpen. Unfortunately, the southpaw reliever didn't come in until after Blackburn surrendered a mammoth three-run shot to Damon, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 7-3 deficit and crippling the Twins' chances for a crucial victory.

Blackburn now owns a 1-6 record and 10.00 ERA since the start of June. On the season, opponents are hitting .333/.378/.565 against him. (For reference, perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera's career line is .314/.386/.550). Blackburn was reportedly on the hot seat during his June 29 start against the Tigers after failing to complete even four innings in four of his previous five starts, but managed to salvage his rotation spot with a solid (but very ordinary) outing in which he allowed four runs over seven innings in a win.

In the two starts since, Blackburn has reverted right back to his old ways, allowing 14 runs (11 earned) on 18 hits -- including five homers -- over 10 1/3 innings. Yet, Ron Gardenhire came out on Sunday and announced that Blackburn would stunningly remain in the rotation after the All-Star break.

Blackburn's numbers this year are jaw-droppingly bad. Most pitchers in the league with results like that have been dropped from their respective rotations long ago. I understand that Blackburn has earned extra trust with his two strong seasons and with his very good month of May this year, but he's only managed one quality start in his past eight turns on the mound and the league is hitting at an MVP-caliber clip against him. He can't strike anyone out, his command is deteriorating, and he visibly lacks confidence on the mound.

I compared Blackburn to John Lannan a couple weeks ago, noting that the two pitchers have followed very similar paths in their major-league careers and both are experiencing a great deal of adversity here in 2010. Much like Blackburn, Lannan had gained a level of trust in Washington, having been the Nats' Opening Day starter for two straight seasons. Yet, when Lannan's ugly numbers and absurdly low K-rate made it clear that he wasn't equipped to be starting the majors, the Nationals -- who have essentially nothing to play for at this point -- made the difficult decision to sending their former ace lefty to the minors. Unfortunately, Ron Gardenhire and the Twins remain too attached to Blackburn to do the same.

The Twins managed to make the playoffs in 2006 despite a disastrously bad campaign from Carlos Silva, but this '10 squad doesn't have the luxury of a Cy Young winning Johan Santana or a rookie version of Francisco Liriano at the helm. With an already shaky rotation, the Twins can't afford to be sending the league's most hittable pitcher to the hill every fifth day and hoping the offense can churn out enough runs to eek out a victory.

I like Blackburn. I hope he can get things turned around. But right now, there's just no way he should be in this rotation. He's costing the Twins way too many meaningful games.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The 2010 Trade Deadline Primer

Last year around this time, the newly formed TwinsCentric group was just publishing its first e-book, the 2009 Trade Deadline Primer. A lengthy guide to baseball's exciting in-season hot stove period geared exclusively toward Twins fans, the publication sold a bunch of copies and received strong reviews from most folks who perused it. One of the chief complaints we received about the product, though, related not to the content within its pages but rather the overall concept upon which it was conceived. "The Twins never do anything big at the deadline," people would say. "Why would I spend money and time on an e-book totally dedicated to it?"

It was a fair point. But the Twins did make a deadline move -- albeit not a blockbuster -- and they made more trades after the July 31st non-waiver deadline passed, all them factoring into their late run for an improbable AL Central title. One year later, the Twins seem primed to make a far bigger splash during the frantic deadline season. After maintaining a comfortable grasp on first place for much of the first half, the Twins suddenly find themselves in the midst of a tough three-team race in the AL Central. With a flawed roster, a revenue-boosting new stadium, an increasingly antsy fan base and a general manager who has proven over the past year or so that he's not afraid to shake things up, a significant move at the deadline seems almost inevitable for these Twins.

The Twins have already missed out on the biggest fish, Cliff Lee, but his trade to Texas will undoubtedly set the stage for more dominoes to fall. There are a number of other players the Twins could take an interest in as the deadline approaches, and we've got them all extensively profiled in our newest venture, the 2010 Trade Deadline Primer. Here you'll find not only Twins-centered deadline reports, essays, first-half player grades and prospect breakdowns from the familiar stable of TwinsCentric writers, but also deadline reports and player write-ups for every team in the league. And while similar content was featured in last year's Primer, this year it is being provided by a star-studded list of bloggers who passionately follow and cover these teams on a regular basis.

Want to read about who the surging White Sox may pursue as the deadline approaches? Scroll down to their team report, written by J.J. Stankevitz of White Sox Examiner. Curious as to whether the Tigers might make a run at Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren? The Tigers' team report, written by John Parent of the Motor City Bengals blog, will have you covered. Looking to get caught up on where the top National League teams stand at baseball's mid-season point? Check out the extensive write-ups from Bill Baer of the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley, or Peter Hjort of the Braves blog Capitol Avenue Club, or Matthew Philip of the Cardinals blog Fungoes.

We hand-selected writers -- the vast majority of whom operate prominent blogs dedicated to their particular club -- to cover every MLB team for this Primer, so each page is filled with well-crafted inside analysis that you can't find anywhere else. The writing is professional quality through and through, from the foreword (written by Rob Neyer of to the team summaries, essays, trade target profiles and prospect write-ups. There will surely be other publications out there with similarly slanted coverage in the coming weeks, but I am very confident that none will be as comprehensive and knowledgable as the one we've put together in collaboration with all these passionate bloggers and writers from across the nation.

With the All-Star break upon us, this is a great time to reflect on all that has happened so far and to look ahead to the remainder of the season. The next few weeks will be crucial for Bill Smith and the front office as they search for ways to best position the Twins for a postseason run. By purchasing a copy of the 2010 Trade Deadline Primer, you can put yourself ahead of the curve with advanced analysis of the Twins as well as every other team across the league while supporting bloggers nationwide.

You can check out a free quarterbook sample here, buy the Twins Primer for $9.95 here or browse other teams' Deadline Primers (all published by TwinsCentric) here.

Thanks, as always, for your continued interest and support. Tomorrow we'll get back to dissecting the Twins and figuring out what they need to go to get back on track after the All-Star break.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Mangled in the Outfield

The Twins outfield did not have a good night defensively in Toronto on Wednesday. With Kevin Slowey on the mound surrendering several drives to the outfield, the Twins' fielders were plagued by miscues and misplays. Delmon Young let one ball bounce right out of his glove and failed to reach others that seemed catchable. And then there was of course the inside-the-park home run that fell between Young and Denard Span, which essentially decided the outcome of the game.

When the Twins traded Carlos Gomez during the offseason and committed to a regular outfield alignment of Young, Span and Michael Cuddyer, many groaned about the potential defensive repercussions for a team that features several fly ball pitchers. Slowey possesses the most extreme fly ball tendencies of any pitcher in the major leagues (a full 51.4 percent of balls put in play against him have been hit in the air this year) and last night's game was one of those nightmarish occasions where balls were flying all over the outfield and the Twins' lack of range out there was fully exposed.

Young, Kubel and Cuddyer all rank toward the bottom of the team in UZR, and while Span has improved his mark this year he's still not much above average and continues to miss a number of balls that we're used to seeing Gomez catch. The flip side is that each of these outfielders has been at least competent offensively (and in some cases very good) so the Twins don't have to deal with Gomez creating another hole in the lineup.

Last night, unfortunately, the offense couldn't quite do enough to make up for the defensive lapses in the outfield. For the most part, though, I'll take the boost in the lineup and stomach an adventurous night in the field from time to time.

With that said, I'm hoping Scott Baker gets a little more help tonight.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Steep Cliff

It's no secret that the Twins are interested in Cliff Lee. They have been connected to the left-handed starting pitcher -- widely considered to be the biggest prize of this year's deadline derby -- by various media outlets for over a month now. One report that emerged a couple weeks ago stated that a deal was done in principle that would have included Wilson Ramos and Brian Duensing as the key pieces from the Twins' side, but fell through due to an injury suffered by Ramos. Another report emerged on Monday from a Detroit radio station that a deal between Seattle and Minnesota was done. Around that same time, Jeff Fletcher of AOL Fanhouse posted a tweet indicating that he'd heard from an MLB source that the Twins had offered Ramos and outfield prospect Aaron Hicks for Lee.

The reports created some brief excitement around Twins Territory, but up to this point none have panned out into anything substantive.

Lots of premature reports. Lots of static. It's all par for the course as the trade deadline approaches. But it's not hard to believe that the Twins have a very legitimate interest in acquiring Lee before the non-waiver deadline on July 31. Their inconsistent starting pitching has left a clear need for another frontline starter and they've got a pool of expendable prospects to deal from, with Ramos leading that group (and unsurprisingly attached to almost every rumored trade).

From a historical standpoint, it would be very uncharacteristic for the Twins to trade away valuable future assets for a half-season rental, which Lee would almost surely be. But in the past it would have also been uncharacteristic for the Twins to run up a $100 million payroll and dole out one of the largest contracts in major-league history, as they did this spring. This isn't business as usual. With a new stadium, a team that is on the brink of greatness and fan interest at a feverish high, the Twins are in a unique position this year. Make no mistake, they will not hesitate to make a significant splash at the deadline if the right deal materializes.

Is that a good thing? I think so, certainly. This organization has never been anxious to sacrifice long-term success for short-term gain, which is why they've generally passed on trading prospects for stars and why they've almost always skipped top free agents whose signing would cost them a draft pick. That approach has been understandable, given that the team's finances have been extremely limited in past years and they've often been forced to build from within.

There comes a time, though, when a team has to put the chips on the table and go for it. This seems like an appropriate time to do so. Lee would improve their odds of making the postseason considerably -- by as much as 20 percent, according to some estimations -- and he'd certainly make them a far more dangerous contender once they get there. I'd be extremely hesitant to move Hicks, who I think has more upside than any player in the organization (outside of perhaps teenager Miguel Sano) and is one of the team's only prospects I would label "untouchable." My guess is that Bill Smith shares this sentiment, which is why I'm highly skeptical of the report that both Hicks and Ramos were formally offered for Lee.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't be willing to move multiple top prospects to acquire Lee, even if it's just for a couple months. Ramos is essentially a given in any deal, which is fine because his main value to the organization at this point is as a trade chit and you can hardly trade for a better player than Lee. Another guy I'd strongly consider including is Ben Revere, who is putting together yet another strong season in New Britain this year.

Revere is a good player, with a .331 career average in the minors to go along with a nearly even strikeout-to-walk ratio and a whopping 164 stolen bases in 318 games. While not without his flaws (he has almost no power and his production is highly dependent on his batting average), Revere has the look of a top-of-the-lineup threat in the mold of a young Juan Pierre. He also could make an impact in the relatively near future, as he's already handling himself well in Double-A despite being only 22 years old.

That's just the type of player the Mariners could use. While Ichiro continues to be effective as their leadoff hitter, the M's have gotten a .600 OPS from the second spot in the order this year after getting a .673 OPS there last year. They thought they'd be getting their answer when they signed Chone Figgins during the offseason, but Figgins is hitting just .238/.336/.279 and isn't getting any younger at 32.

Revere would be tough to lose, especially when considering that the Twins have had their own share of troubles getting production from that No. 2 spot over the years, but with Denard Span, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel all under control through at least next year, there's no room for Revere in the immediate future. Further down the line, he's behind Hicks and perhaps even Joe Benson in the outfield prospect pecking order. Simply put, Revere's expendable in the right deal, and adding a legitimate ace who can anchor the rotation over the next two-plus months strikes me as the right deal.

If the Mariners are truly pushing for Hicks, or for someone like Kevin Slowey who would produce a sizable gap in the 2011 rotation, the decision becomes a little more tough. It is important to keep in mind, though, that while there's almost no chance that Lee re-signs with the Twins, his departure would be compensated by two high draft picks that can help replenish whatever the Twins lose from their farm system. Their increased payroll also enables them to better find reinforcements on the free agent market and restock their minor-league ranks with high-profile international players.

A package that includes Ramos, Revere and perhaps one more mid-level pitcher seems like fair compensation for two months of Lee. It's certainly a price that the Twins could afford to absorb. We'll have to wait and see whether something like that gets it done, because the Mariners are sure to bide their time and weigh their options before they move this most valuable asset. That fact alone should stop you from believing the next premature early-July report you read about Lee switching teams. Unless an offer truly blows them away, the Mariners are likely to remain patient.

So should we.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Twins Still Unproven

Life has kept me away from they keyboard for much of the past week, so unfortunately I've been unable to comment much on the Twins' most recent home series against the Rays. I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Without question, the weekend's four-game set with the Rays at Target Field (of which the Twins lost three) was the most disheartening of the season. We saw late leads slip away in soul-crushing fashion. We saw a typically reliable bullpen cough up nine earned runs and 19 hits over 12 1/3 innings. We saw a magnificent outing from Francisco Liriano go to absolute waste.

In the grand scheme of things, this series doesn't tell us much. The Twins are still just a a half-game out of first place in the division, the offense looks fine with J.J. Hardy back and hitting eighth/ninth, and they got three strong starting performances over the four-game set. The bullpen had a rough weekend, but they've been excellent for most of the season and there's no reason to think this hiccup will become a prevalent issue.

Nevertheless, there is a perception that the Twins aren't a legitimate contender capable of hanging with the well-built AL East clubs. They're doing nothing to dispel that notion. The Twins have a .500 record or worse against every club from the East this year (including the lowly Orioles) and this weekend they were thwarted in their own stadium by a Rays team that simply seemed to want it more.

Whether an actual energy lull or just another symptom of a lingering team-wide slump, this most recent series has once again shown the Twins incapable of grinding out big victories against quality clubs. There's no doubt that this roster is talented enough to make the playoffs and succeed once there, but too many players are underperforming right now and the team is failing to execute in too many big spots.

I imagine the Twins players are anxiously awaiting the All-Star break, which will afford them an opportunity to briefly recharge and start fresh, in an effort to break out of a stretch that has seen them fail to play consistently good ball for well over a month now. (They haven't won more than two consecutive games since the end of May.)

Unfortunately, the Twins will have to go through Toronto and Detroit before the break arrives. At this rate, they'll be lucky to make it in one piece.


TwinsCentric will be hosting another gathering at Park Tavern tomorrow night, where folks can get together over great specials and watch the Twins face off against the Jays. There will be all sorts of cool stuff going on at the event; Tim Laudner will be there from 5-6 to chat and sign autographs, and ESPN1500 will be hosting their pre-game show there. We'll also be releasing the latest TwinsCentric publication, which I'm pretty excited about.