Thursday, September 30, 2010

Longoria and Price's Comments Bad For Business

When the Twins won their last World Series, I was five years old and more interested in preparing to trick-or-treat (in the midst of what would turn out to be a historical blizzard) than watching baseball.

As most are aware, the Twins followed up their championship season in 1991 with a decade-long lull. These were the formative years of my love affair with baseball. In the mid-90s, I spent many an evening inside that massive silo known as the Metrodome, watching bad teams alongside the few thousand other fans scattered throughout. In those days, you could move from your cheap Upper GA seats to the lower deck behind home plate and the ushers would hardly notice or care.

The last baseball game I ever watched within the confines of the Metrodome was played under circumstances not at all similar to those laid out above. It was October 6th of last year, and the Dome was packed with more than 54,000 raucous fans who'd come out to cheer on the Twins -- now a perennial contender -- as they hosted the Tigers in a tiebreaker that would determine the AL Central Champ.

I've seen it both ways, so I'm all too familiar with the atmospheric differences between a packed house and an empty building. The Twins fed off the energy provided by their fans in that final regular-season game, willing their way to a 12th-inning walk-off victory. Had the ballpark been only half as full, the victory would have probably been about half as sweet for the Twins -- had they won at all.

So, I can feel for David Price when he expresses his disappointment with the underwhelming crowds in Tampa Bay. On Monday night, after the Rays suffered a 4-0 loss to the Orioles, Price remarked on his Twitter account: "Had a chance to clinch a post season spot tonight with about 10,000 fans in the stands....embarrassing."

Evan Longoria voiced similar sentiments after the game. I feel for them. That doesn't mean I agree with what they said.

Whether or not they intended it, the comments from Price and Longoria come off as potshots at their team's fan base. It's unfortunate, because there are a lot of very passionate Rays fans and I've had the opportunity to meet and interact with several of them. If I were one of those fans, I'd be downright pissed off at these remarks.

While I can see where they're coming from, it's difficult for me to be sympathetic to the plight of these players. Price and Longoria are millionaire athletes who have the privilege of doing what they love in front of thousands of people, and getting paid a substantial amount of money to do it. The game in question, a Monday night contest, featured an attendance of over 12,000 people. While that's not anywhere close to capacity at Tropicana Field, it's not a small number. If I were ever given the opportunity to do what I love in front of 12,000 people I'd probably consider it the highlight of my life. And yet, Price and Longoria both refer to it as "embarrassing."

Despite the obnoxious invective spouted by a radical faction of clueless people out there, the low attendance at Rays games is not evidence of Tampa Bay having "crappy baseball fans." It's a matter of circumstance. The Rays play in a city with a poor baseball demographic, in a terrible excuse for a baseball stadium that is hours away from the most densely populated areas.

More than that, though, this team lacks the history and legacy that tend to comprise the very fabric of a fan following. The Rays have only been around for 12 years, and for most of that time they've been very, very bad. When I was a young lad learning about the game of baseball in a mostly empty Metrodome, and hearing stories from my elders about Harmon Killebrew, and reading Kirby Puckett's Be The Best You Can Be for the 100th time, the Rays were not even in existence. They don't have traditions passed from generation to generation, Hall of Fame players or a city with an ingrained sense of allegiance.

My parents both grew up in Minnesota and have always embraced the game of baseball. You might say I was born a Twins fan. Nobody who can legally drive a car right now was born a Rays fan. It takes time to build a loyal and passionate fan base, and it's especially difficult in an area like Tampa Bay which faces the inherent disadvantages I mentioned above.

But complaining about your own fans is not the way to build that loyalty. Price and Longoria should know better. I'm sure that, once upon a time, they themselves were baseball-obsessed kids sitting in a mostly empty ballpark and simply appreciating the game.

I doubt those kids would have minded playing in front of 12,000 people.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The "Overlooked MVP" Ballot

Yesterday on the TwinsCentric blog, Seth Stohs presented the results of his poll for Twins 2010 MVP, with Joe Mauer claiming top honors.

I agree with the panel's decision. Mauer was my top choice, but singling him out as the team's most valuable contributor was not nearly as easy as it was last year. This division title felt like much more of a team effort than past seasons, where a few key players were forced to shoulder the load.

Today, I thought I'd highlight some of the people who didn't finish near the top of Seth's team MVP balloting (or didn't appear at all), but still deserve credit for the their important and perhaps overlooked contributions to this outstanding season.

5. Alexi Casilla

Casilla's bounce-back year has been a quiet one. He was very much a non-tender candidate after a dreadful 2009 campaign, but the switch-hitting infielder has stepped up when needed for the Twins this year. His .738 OPS would stand as a career high (granted, he's only made 162 plate appearances). He's made multiple highlight reel plays on defense. He's swiped six bags and been caught only once. A backup infielder can only make so much of an impact, but when given the chance, Casilla has shined.

4. J.J. Hardy

Trading for Hardy was a gamble, to be sure. The shortstop was coming off an absolutely miserable campaign in Milwaukee, and Bill Smith was parting with a fairly valuable asset in Carlos Gomez to bring Hardy aboard. Fortunately, the deal has worked out well. Gomez failed to take any meaningful strides with the Brewers while Hardy bounced back with a productive season in spite of some wrist problems. While his offensive numbers don't compare to the ones he posted in 2008 or 2007, Hardy's .733 OPS is significantly higher than the .695 average for big-league shortstops, and he was absolutely phenomenal on defense with an 8.4 UZR in 832 innings.

3. Orlando Hudson

I wrote recently about my frustration with Hudson's seemingly half-hearted play late in the season, and that continues to be an issue as his September numbers are even worse now than when I posted the article a couple weeks ago. Still, there's no denying Hudson's significant impact on the team over the course of the year as a whole. Last season, Twins' second basemen combined to hit .209/.302/.267, rendering the position a complete offensive black hole. This year, with Hudson leading the charge, the team has received a far more respectable .263/.332/.380 line from second. Depending on your flavor of defensive metric, Hudson also might have been the league's best defender at the position, and his strong on-base skills throughout much of the year were critical at the No. 2 spot in the batting order.

2. Jon Rauch/Matt Capps

When it was announced this spring that Joe Nathan would be forced to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the season, panic spread across certain factions of Twins Territory. Some believed that the elite closer's absence could cost the team several games and perhaps even a shot at the division title. Instead, Nathan's injury has been almost a complete non-factor. That's because -- while it hasn't always been pretty -- Rauch and Capps have consistently gotten the job done in the ninth inning, and in my opinion they don't get nearly the credit they deserve. The Twins are 83-2 this year when taking a lead into the ninth, and there's simply no way anyone could expect better results than that even with Nathan filling the closer role.

1. Ron Gardenhire

Alright, so I'm bending the rules a little bit. Obviously, Gardenhire isn't actually a player. But if we're looking to assign credit to those who've been overlooked in the Twins' success, there's no way I can pass over the manager. It's easy to point out areas where Gardy's questionable managerial moves have been detrimental, it's less easy to clearly identify the moves that paid dividends. After all, it is the players who dictate the outcomes of games; all a manager can do is put those players in position to succeed and keep them performing at a high level over the course of a long season. Did Gardenhire's timely resting of a banged up Mauer during a soft patch in the schedule help the catcher take his game of the next level in the second half? Did Gardenhire's easing of Brian Duensing from bullpen to rotation factor into the left-hander's outstanding results? Has Gardenhire's handling of Jim Thome helped the aging slugger stay strong late into the season, something he was unable to do last year?

We might never know the answers to those questions, because there are a lot of things that happen behind the scenes that we aren't privy to. Considering what this team has been able to achieve without its best hitter for half the year and without its best reliever for the entire year, I'm inclined to believe Gardy's done a whole lot more good than bad.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Top Ten Prospects: Season Rundown

Back in February, I listed out my Top 10 Twins prospects, and my plan was to provide monthly updates on their progress throughout the season, as I did last year.

Unfortunately, I sort of fell off the wagon after posting my report for the month of April. However, since all minor-league affiliates have seen their seasons come to an end, we have an opportunity to review these prospects' years a whole and ponder their outlook moving forward into the 2011 season.

The team listed next to a player's name represents the level at which he finished the 2010 minor-league season, though the "Season Stats" include numbers accumulated over the course of the year at all minor-league levels.

10. Joe Benson, OF | Class-AA New Britain
Season Stats: .259/.343/.538, 27 HR, 62 RBI, 81 R, 19/29 SB

Earlier this week, Benson was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year, a wonderful honor for a prospect who has significantly raised his stock as a 22-year-old. After slugging just .399 with a total of five home runs a year ago, Benson finally discovered his power stroke, going deep almost 30 times while remaining a defensive asset in center field and a threat on the base paths. Plate discipline remains a preeminent concern (139 K, 47 BB in 459 AB) but Benson will surely rise several spots on this list next year.

9. Carlos Gutierrez, SP | Class-AAA Rochester
Season Stats: 126 IP, 5-8, 4.50 ERA, 87/52 K/BB, 1.53 WHIP

The vast majority of the numbers listed above were recorded in Double-A, as Gutierrez's experience in Triple-A this year amounted to two relief appearances in September. Overall, it was an underwhelming season for the 24-year-old right-hander, who bounced between the bullpen and rotation while battling frequent command issues. On the bright side, his sinker remained a strength, as he induced grounders on nearly 60 percent of balls in play while allowing only seven home runs.

8. David Bromberg, SP | Class-AA New Britain
Season Stats: 151.1 IP, 6-9, 3.75 ERA, 112/48 K/BB, 1.32 WHIP

After continuing his successful run through the Twins' minor-league ranks by posting a 3.62 ERA over 17 starts in New Britain, Bromberg was bumped up to Rochester, where he finished the season. In nine Triple-A starts, Bromberg went 1-4 with a 3.98 ERA and nine home runs allowed. That might seem discouraging, except nearly all of his peripherals improved during those final 52 innings in Rochester; his WHIP dropped from 1.41 to 1.15, his BB/9 rate dropped from 3.2 to 2.2, his strikeout rate rose from 5.9 to 8.1 and his BAA dropped from .273 to .234. The strong performance during his short stint at Triple-A sparks hope that Bromberg could be a contributor to the big-league club next season, perhaps in the same way Jeff Manship contributed this year.

7. Danny Valencia, 3B | Minnesota Twins
Season Stats: .292/.347/.373, 0 HR, 24 RBI, 22 R, 2/2 SB

Remarkably, Valencia's major-league numbers dwarf those minor-league numbers, accumulated in Rochester over the first two months of the season. He hit .324/.364/.471 with seven homers and 40 RBI after his early-June promotion to the Twins, helping key a division championship run while supplying much-needed offense from the hot corner. Valencia will enter the 2011 season as an entrenched big-league starter, making his placement at seventh on this list look modest.

6. Angel Morales, OF | Class-A Ft. Myers
Season Stats: .280/.362/.405, 5 HR, 55 RBI, 69 R, 29/41 SB

Morales put together a strong first half in Beloit, hitting .289/.381/.474 with four homers, 36 RBI and 18 steals in 60 games. He was bumped up to High-A Ft. Myers for the second half, where he posted a solid .272 average but came up short in the slugging department, managing only one home run and 15 total extra-base hits over 73 games. Of course, Morales is still only 20 years old, so the slow-developing power is not a major concern. If he can cut down on his strikeout rate (he continues to whiff in about one quarter of his plate appearances), the athletic young outfielder has plenty of offensive upside.

5. Miguel Angel Sano, 3B | GCL Twins (Rk)
Season Stats: .307/.379/.491, 7 HR, 29 RBI, 34 R, 4/7 SB

Splitting his time between the Dominican Summer League and rookie-level Gulf Coast League, Sano competed against plenty of other teenagers this season. Yet, presuming his birth certificate is legit, few were as young as the Twins' highly touted 17-year-old infielder. Regardless of age, Sano achieved impressive results in his first professional season. His defense was erratic and he struck out a lot (60 times in 212 AB), but Sano showed us all why scouts have been so enamored with his offensive potential.

4. Ben Revere, OF | Class-AA New Britain
Season Stats: .305/.371/.363, 1 HR, 23 RBI, 44 R, 36/49 SB

Revere had quite the season. After turning in solid production through four months in his first exposure to Double-A, the 22-year-old took a pitch to the face in early August, resulting in a fractured eye socket that was initially believed to be a season-ending injury. Instead, Revere returned less than a month later, hit .382 in his final eight games with New Britain, and received a September call-up to the Twins, where he's drawn sporadic starts. Revere seems likely to open next season in Rochester, but he's almost certain to see big-league time at some point next season.

3. Kyle Gibson, SP | Class-AAA Rochester
Season Stats: 152 IP, 11-6, 2.96 ERA, 126/39 K/BB, 1.15 WHIP

The Twins' first-round draft pick in 2009, Gibson's first pro season was a resounding success. After thoroughly dominating Single-A competition over his first seven starts, Gibson was bumped up to Double-A, where he experienced further success before finishing the year with three starts at Triple-A. With his ability to miss bats, limit walks and induce grounders, Gibson has all the makings of a successful big-league starter and he'll likely be called upon by the Twins at some point next season.

2. Wilson Ramos, C | Class-AAA Syracuse (Nationals affiliate)
Season Stats: .258/.293/.378, 8 HR, 38 RBI, 39 R, 1/3 SB

After hitting just .241 in his first 71 games with Rochester, Ramos was traded to the Nationals for closer Matt Capps just before the non-waiver deadline in July. The move was widely criticized by Twins fans, given Ramos' standing as one of the organization's most promising prospects. That the catcher played much better after the deal (.316/.341/.494 in 20 Triple-A games after the trade) would only help fuel the fire. Nevertheless, it was another ultimately unspectacular season for the ballyhooed backstop, who finished with a career-low .671 OPS.

1. Aaron Hicks, OF | Class-A Beloit
Season Stats: .279/.401/.429, 8 HR, 49 RBI, 86 R, 21/32 SB

At the age of 20, Hicks showed plenty of promising signs while playing for Beloit this season. He increased his batting average by almost 30 points over where it was a year ago. He flashed power, collecting 40 extra-base hits in 115 games. He reached base at an outstanding pace, drawing a whopping 88 walks in 518 plate appearances. He continued to impressive with his defense in center field. However, he made all those strides while repeating the Low-A level for a second year, never earning the promotion to Ft. Myers that many had hoped to see. He also struck out 115 times, increasing his rate from last year at the same level. Will the performance be enough for Hicks to retain his No. 1 status heading into next season? We'll just have to wait and see...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Obvious Priorities

When the Twins officially clinched home field advantage last Tuesday with a full two weeks remaining in the regular season, conversation began to center on whether the team would be wiser to take the foot off the pedal, resting up starters for the postseason run, or keep on pushing for home field advantage in both the ALDS and ALCS.

There's an oft-repeated truism that these things tend to work themselves out. There's a reason it's so oft repeated.

As Joe Christensen writes today, the Twins are dealing with a rash of injuries here as the season winds down. Numerous players are nicked up, most notable among them Joe Mauer, who John Bonnes recently named as the team's 2010 MVP (I'm in agreement.) 

Mauer's knee inflammation continues to be treated publicly by the team as a small matter, but after missing this past weekend's series in Detroit the catcher is no sure bet to be available for even DH duty in the Twins' next series against the Royals, said Ron Gardenhire. 

Mauer stated that his knee "would have to be pretty bad" for him to him to miss time in the playoffs, but that assurance provides little comfort. The fact that not being ready for the ALDS has even crossed Mauer's mind is enough to cause pings of anxiety.

The Twins are already, of course, without Justin Morneau, whose return this year was almost completely ruled out by Gardenhire in an interview with AM-1500 last week (though I continue to cling to a thread of hope that Morneau can come back for bench duty in the playoffs, because it'd just be awesome). On top of that, Jim Thome's back is acting up, J.J. Hardy's knee swelled up yesterday, Denard Span has a bum foot and each of the Twins' top three playoff starters pitched like they were running on fumes over the weekend.

Despite dropping all three of their games in Detroit, the Twins are still just one game behind Tampa Bay in the standings, meaning they've still got a shot at finishing with the American League's best record and guaranteeing home field advantage up until the World Series.

However, considering that the Rays' remaining schedule consists entirely of match-ups against the Orioles and Royals while the Twins have a four-game series against the tough Blue Jays looming (not to mention fact that the Yankees could still easily finish ahead of both teams), it seems as though locking up the No. 1 seed might be something of a pipe dream for Gardy's crew.

But that's OK. It's only one fewer home game during the entire postseason schedule. And that's only if the Rays or Yankees defeat the Rangers in the first round. Bonnes proclaimed last week that there's no room for debate when it comes to the choice of resting up aching starters or pushing for home field advantage. Assuring the health of all key players is top priority, and that's even more evident with injuries continuing to mount and only seven regular-season games remaining.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Francisco Liriano and BABIP

When Ron Gardenhire announced earlier this week that Francisco Liriano would get the nod in Game 1 of the ALDS, it officially marked an important milestone: After a long road to recovery from Tommy John surgery, the left-hander has finally claimed the No. 1 starter label that he seemed destined for as he torched the minor leagues and dominated in his first tour through the bigs.

Liriano's outstanding season has been crucial to the Twins' success. On a smaller level, it has served as a shining example of why the BABIP statistic is one worth considering whenever a pitcher's numbers don't seem to reflect his performance.

Back in mid-July, when Liriano's ERA had ballooned to a season-high 3.86 in the wake of a thrashing from the Tigers, I remarked that the left-hander is "one pitcher you don't need to worry about." I pointed out that Liriano's .361 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was unsustainably high for any pitcher, particularly one throwing as well as Liriano. He was doing what he needed -- getting ground balls and strikeouts while avoiding walks -- but had unfortunately been victimized by substandard defense and plain old bad luck.

As usual, I took some backlash for suggesting that Liriano's poor results might not be entirely his fault. Many believe that BABIP is a farce, and that if hitters are running up a high batting average against someone it's more than likely the pitchers fault. One commenter snarked, "Sometimes I wonder if you bloggers watch the games." Yet, over time, BABIP has proven to vary randomly for individual pitchers while always remaining steady for the league as a whole. (Major-league pitchers this year have a .298 BABIP. Last year: .299. The year before that: .300. And so forth.)

Liriano's BABIP since I wrote that article? It's .306, right in line with the league norm and drastically lower than the figure he posted over the first-half. Consequentially, Liriano has gone 7-1 with a 2.84 ERA since the All-Star break (compared to 6-7 with a 3.86 ERA prior), and it's not necessarily because he's pitched any differently.

Liriano allowed a lot more singles than he reasonably should have this season, and ultimately it caused him to allow more runs than he probably should have. That will cost him a shot at the Cy Young Award, for which he might have been a front-runner with better luck and run support.

It should not, however, cloud our view of him as one of the game's very best pitchers, and a guy who will give the Twins an advantageous pitching match-up in the first game of the playoffs whether he's facing CC Sabathia or David Price.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fourth Starter in the Playoffs

On Monday, I posted an article submitting four questions about the Twins' playoff roster for consideration. The topic that seemed to generate the most discussion was which starting pitcher might get the nod to start Game 4 of the ALDS, should there be one.

Right now, the choice appears to be between Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker or the Game 1 starter on short rest. None of those options seem all that unappealing, which is a good sort of conundrum to face. I can't claim to know what the right answer is at this very point in time, and if you think you do, you're probably wrong.

Ron Gardenhire made his current preference clear yesterday, laying out a planned playoff rotation that includes Blackburn as fourth starter. Gardenhire left the door open for adjustments based on what happens over the team's final handful of regular season games, but for now Blackburn stands at the front of the line for that fourth rotation spot in October.

Is Gardy on the right track?

All things being equal, you want Baker or Slowey to pitch a big game before you want Blackburn. They're better pitchers, capable of controlling a lineup with strikeouts unlike Blackburn who allows an insane amount of contact and can only dictate to a certain degree whether those copious balls in play turn into outs. Against a team filled with outstanding hitters like the Yankees or Rays, you want the guy who can get you some essentially guaranteed outs.

But all things are not currently equal. Blackburn has been steadily excellent since returning from a minor-league stint, with a hugely increased ground ball rate and a pair of strong outings against a playoff team. Meanwhile, Baker hasn't pitched into the sixth inning of a game in nearly a month and has been bothered by a sore elbow.

Slowey has battled arm issues late in the season as well, and while he's occasionally flashed brilliance he has yet to settle into a prolonged groove. While Slowey's overall numbers are drastically better than Blackburn's this year, it bears noting that Blackburn has delivered 13 quality starts to Slowey's nine. That includes four against AL playoff teams for Blackburn, one for Slowey.

A hardcore sabermetrician likely will not waver in claiming that Baker should be the guy, regardless of performance over these final games. After all, according to advanced statistics that filter out luck and defense, Baker's been the team's second-best starter this season.

The problem with strictly statistical analysis is that it tends to ignore the human aspects of the game. These aren't robots out there playing. Sometimes streaks can be meaningful. Guys have confidence highs and lows. They go through stretches where their mechanics get out of whack. They pitch through injuries that affect their results.

This might sound like a major endorsement of Blackburn, and it's not meant to be. I've been as low as anyone on the right-hander this season, and there was a point where the thought of him starting a postseason game would have induced nausea for me. But we know he's a streaky pitcher and right now he's undeniably going good. If he unravels in his final starts while his competitors excel and prove they're fully healthy, you re-evaluate. If no one looks up to the challenge, maybe a start from Francisco Liriano on three days rest is the most logical choice.

Above all, I'd encourage everyone to keep an open mind. The right answer now could very well differ from the right answer on October 6th. Only one matters.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Minnesota Twins, Your 2010 AL Central Champs

It was October 6th (or maybe, technically, October 7th) that I wrote a post crowning the 2009 AL Central Champion Twins. I'd just returned home from witnessing live, over 3 1/2 pulse-pounding hours, the most intense sporting event I'd ever seen. I vividly remember trying to sit down and type up a post fitting of the momentous occasion while my fingers still trembled from the excitement that had taken place just an hour before.

In the 12th inning of a roller coaster division tiebreaker between the Twins and Tigers, Alexi Casilla knocked in Carlos Gomez to clinch the AL Central title and earn his team a fifth trip to the postseason in eight years.

The celebration was necessarily somewhat subdued, as the Twins knew they'd be facing off against the well rested Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS less than 24 hours later in New York.

Last night's celebration was also subdued, but for different reasons. The Twins officially clinched their sixth AL Central title under Ron Gardenhire at 11:37 PM, and while the players stuck around to pop champagne in the clubhouse, they did so in a mostly empty stadium and (hopefully) held back knowing an early start awaited the next day.

Had the circumstances been different, the Twins surely would have gone all out in celebrating this remarkable season. They are on pace for one of the best second-half records in major-league history. They flat-out dominated the division, fending off a ferocious midsummer assault from their greatest rival and putting the nail in Chicago's coffin with a sweep at U.S. Cellular Field. The Twins boast legitimate candidates for both Rookie of the Year and Cy Young, and I'd be pretty surprised if Jim Thome's name didn't show up on a couple MVP ballots. (Speaking of Thome, you absolutely MUST read Joe Posnanski's cover story on him in the latest Sports Illustrated.)

The Twins could well finish with the best record in the major leagues, all while getting a combined total of one half-season from their elite closer and best hitter -- who also happen to be two of their three highest paid players.

I write this post celebrating the Twins' 2010 AL Central title on September 22nd. That's a full 14 days earlier than I did so last year, a fact that gives these Twins a distinct advantage over the '09 group -- beyond the more meaningful edges in talent and depth.

We'd be wise not to overplay the value of momentum. After all, last year's team won 17 of its last 21 regular season games and the 2006 club finished its season on an incredible high point; neither won a single playoff game.

Yet, this team has not lost consecutive games in four weeks. They possess legitimate front-line talent and excellent depth in the rotation, along with a bullpen that ranks as one of the league's most reliable. Where last year's Game 1 ALDS lineup featured Nick Punto as No. 9 hitter and Brendan Harris as DH, this year Ron Gardenhire figures to write in J.J. Hardy and Thome. And he'll more than likely be writing them in at Target Field, where his team has been ridiculously tough to beat since the All-Star break.

Oh, and the Twins will now have the opportunity to rest aching starters and set up their playoff rotation while the Rays and Yankees continue to battle for the AL East title and the valuable home field advantage that comes along with it.

Nothing is guaranteed. You don't even need to tell that to Twins fans, who are so accustomed to postseason failure that they can be excused for failing to grasp what good shape their club is in as October approaches.

The Twins have already established this as one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. How it ends will likely dictate the way we ultimately remember it. But, regardless of what happens in two weeks when the Twins step up to the national stage and try to shake a tenacious monkey off their back, it's been an awfully fun ride that's gotten us there.

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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Hudson's September Disappearance

In 12 games this month, Orlando Hudson is hitting .216/.225/.216. He's struck out 12 times and walked only once. He's grounded into three double plays and collected zero extra-base hits.

Normally I wouldn't put much thought into a short slump of this nature, especially since Hudson's month of August was quite good. Yet, I can't help but be reminded of the way his '09 campaign ended.

The second baseman had been a key contributor to the Dodgers' outstanding season. He was an All-Star, in fact. Yet, as the season winded down and Los Angeles nursed its lead in the NL West, Hudson increasingly started to find himself on the bench in favor of Ronnie Belliard. Hudson, who claimed to be perfectly healthy, was held out of the lineup several times in the final weeks of the season and then didn't start a single time in the playoffs. His team played eight postseason games and Hudson made a total of four plate appearances, all as a pinch-hitter.

The situation mystified everyone, including Dodgers fans. Joe Torre is one of the game's great managers, a man who has masterfully guided many teams through the playoffs and who has a solid reputation as a player's manager. He said little about the decision to bench Hudson, but surely one would think there was more to it than the fact that Belliard was riding a hot streak.

It would seem that Torre is not the only one with a rather low opinion of Hudson. It's taken the second baseman until February to get signed in both of the past two offseasons, and he was only able to come away with relatively inexpensive one-year deals while similarly productive counterparts signed more lucrative contracts.

There's a reason that Hudson fell in the Twins' lap late in this past offseason. Every other team had passed on him, despite the fact that he was an All-Star and Gold Glover last year.

For much of this season, it's been hard for me to understand why the league is so sour on Hudson, but the past few weeks have opened my eyes a bit. I don't really hold the low batting average against him, but it's evident from his horrendous K/BB ratio that Hudson's plate approach is in shambles. He looks lost in the batter's box and on Thursday night he made a foolish base running error that was emblematic of his late-season struggles

What's more -- and I'm not the only one to have pointed this out -- is Hudson's demeanor in games. He hardly seems bothered by his failures. After striking out flailing at a low breaking pitch, Hudson grins as he walks back to the dugout. He showboats in the field, sometimes to a fault. Sometimes he seems more friendly with members of the other team than his own teammates. For a competitive guy like Torre, I think that's a turnoff.

And judging by the difficulty Hudson has had finding a job over the past couple offseasons, I wonder whether those kinds of things have contributed to a bad reputation. It's certainly not his performance that's been keeping him unemployed until February each year.

To be clear, Hudson was still a great addition and his production over the course of the season is a big part of the reason that the Twins are where they are. And they're playing well enough right now as a team that his late-season disappearance doesn't matter all that much.

I just hope he wakes up in time for the playoffs.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Bullpen Ace

Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated storylines in this wonderful season for the Twins has been the dramatic turnaround of Jesse Crain. His performance in the early weeks of the season had most Twins fans clamoring for his dismissal, but since seeing his ERA swell to a season-high 7.31 on May 18, Crain has been one of the league's most dominant relievers.

In 46 2/3 innings of work since that date, the right-hander has allowed only 27 hits, including 22 singles and just one home run. He's struck out 46 batters and walked 18. He's been charged with only five earned runs -- good for a 0.96 ERA. I never would have expected to say this back in mid-May, but right now Crain is pretty much automatic.

His season highlight came on Tuesday night. With the Twins seeking to bury the dagger on a White Sox club that would be effectively eliminated from contention with a loss, Crain entered the game in an extremely sticky situation. The Sox, trailing by one in the bottom of the seventh, had put both of their first two hitters on against Matt Guerrier and were heading into the heart of their lineup with nobody out.

Alexei Ramirez moved both runners into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. Crain then walked Alex Rios, loading the bases with one out for Chicago's No. 4 and 5 hitters. It's a nightmare scenario for any pitcher, but Crain employed his devastating slider/fastball combo to strike out both Paul Konerko and Manny Ramirez, ending Chicago's threat. The Twins tacked five runs to their lead in the next inning and slammed the door on any realistic postseason hopes for the White Sox.

It's quite clear that Crain is the Twins' best reliever at this point, and that has some folks wondering why the team acquired Matt Capps to fill the closer role when they could have simply had Crain and Jon Rauch swap roles.

It's a fair question, but I tend to think Crain's current role is perfect, and Tuesday night's game illustrated exactly why.

Managers in today's game (and Ron Gardenhire especially) tend to use their closers in a strict, rigid manner. That seventh-inning spot was the perfect time for Gardenhire to call upon his most dominant reliever, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that Gardy never would have gone to his closer in that spot. How many times have we seen Joe Nathan called upon in the seventh inning of a game?

If Crain had been labeled closer, he'd be pigeon-holed into pitching the ninth inning regardless of circumstances. In Tuesday night's game, he may have never gotten the chance to throw a meaningful pitch, because against a lesser reliever (like Rauch, who would have probably been the guy if he and Crain had simply switched duties) the middle of the Sox lineup might have broken the game open in that seventh inning.

It's for that reason that I'm persistently vexed by the way managers tend to limit the impact of their best reliever just because he tends to carry that "closer" label. For now, though, I'll just be glad not to have to worry about it with Crain. He's the bullpen's ace, ready to be called upon when the game is on the line and the opposing team's best hitters are in a position to do damage.

It's in that role that Crain can be most impactful, more so even than Capps, regardless of whether or not he racks up a bunch of saves.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Straightening Out the AL Cy Young Race

Recently, there's been growing debate surrounding this year's American League Cy Young race. The three most popular candidates are David Price, C.C. Sabathia and Felix Hernandez, all of whom are having outstanding years. One could argue that a few other starters deserve to be part of the mix, including our own Francisco Liriano, but for today we'll stick with the trio mentioned above. Let's compare some key numbers for those three hurlers:

Pitcher A
: 217 IP, 3.03 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.4 K/9IP, 2.8 BB/9IP, .653 opp OPS
Pitcher B: 186.2 IP, 2.75 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.1 K/9IP, 3.5 BB/9IP, .640 opp OPS
Pitcher C: 225.2 IP, 2.39 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.5 K/9IP, 2.5 BB/9IP, .599 opp OPS

Undeniably, all three of these pitchers are having terrific seasons, but it should be clear from those numbers who's been best. It's Pitcher C, and it's not even close. He's markedly better than both of his opponents in every single category.

One factor that is not reflected above, however, is the situation surrounding all three players. Pitcher A (Sabathia) pitches for a playoff-bound team with an elite offense, and as a result, his win-loss record sits at 19-6. Pitcher B (Price) works under similar circumstances, and sports a 17-6 record.

Meanwhile, Pitcher C -- which is obviously Hernandez -- plays for a last-place team with a historically terrible offense. This has led him to an 11-11 record despite his spectacular performance on the mound. On 12 occasions this year, Hernandez has pitched seven or more innings, allowed two or fewer earned runs, and come away with a no-decision or a loss. This has happened to Sabathia and Price a combined total of six times.

The Cy Young Award is meant to go to the best pitcher in the league, and there's zero doubt that Hernandez has pitched far better than Sabathia or Price this year. Yet, because of the flawed logic that goes into the voting process, he could well finish third in the voting. That's because the writers who vote on this award have historically weighed W/L as the most important measure of success, despite it being the statistic over which a pitcher has least control.

Sadly, some of the leading voices in the baseball community have been trying to lead fans astray on this matter. Yesterday, Jon Paul Morosi of posted an article in which he suggests that Hernandez doesn't merit consideration for Cy Young honors due to the fact that he isn't pitching for a playoff-bound team. An excerpt from Morosi's column:
There’s an award for a pitcher such as Hernandez. It’s called the ERA title. Not the Cy Young Award, as voted on by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

To be the best, one must do what Sabathia and Price have all season — compete against the best lineups, in postseason-type atmospheres, before crazed crowds at hitter-friendly ballparks.

Of course, as I pointed out above, Hernandez leads his opponents in not only ERA, but essentially every measurement of pitching aptitude other than win/loss record. I'd certainly disagree with Morosi's second assertion; I'd argue that "to be the best" one simply must be better than everyone else. Hernandez has been. And, ironically, Morosi last year supported the case of rightful Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who of course pitched a ton of playoff-type games in Kauffman Stadium for the last-place Royals.

In a chat on yesterday, Joe Morgan stated that it's "a joke" that there is even debate about this year's Cy Young race, proclaiming that "the name of the game is to win and [Sabathia has] won," all while ignoring the fact that Sabathia pitches for the top scoring offense in the league while Hernandez pitches for a team whose OPS this year is lower than Nick Punto's career mark. Then he made some point about Cliff Lee not winning games since being traded to Texas while ignoring the fact that Lee has been battling a back injury since switching clubs.

The Baseball Writers Association of America, which votes on the Cy Young Award, hit an all-time low for me back in 2005 when they selected Bartolo Colon over Johan Santana in a situation that was eerily similar to this year's Sabathia/Hernandez juxtaposition. Santana rated significantly better than Colon in essentially every metric other than W/L record, and yet Colon coasted to an easy victory based solely on his 21 wins and his team's success.

The BBWAA seemingly showed that they'd finally moved away from their fixation on win/loss record last year when they awarded Greinke with the Cy Young despite his 16-8 record (not to mention Tim Lincecum in the NL, who finished with just 15 wins). This year, they will undo all that progress if they hand it to the undeserving Sabathia while punishing Hernandez for the crappy offense Seattle's front office put together.

I want to care about the Cy Young Award. I really do. It's an important part of the way the game's history will be written and one day it may be the deciding factor in a Hall of Fame case. (Does anyone doubt that Bert Blyleven would have been inducted long ago if he had a few Cy Youngs sitting on his shelf?)

Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to care when the voters show so little consideration for the numbers that actually indicate how well someone has pitched. And to see respected national figures like Morosi and Morgan present the kind of woefully misguided arguments linked above is disheartening, to say the least.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chicago's Last Chance at Big Dance

The pressure is on for the Chicago White Sox.

They know that this week's three-game series against the Twins represents their last gasp for a postseason berth. It's the last time the Sox will face the team they trail by six games in the AL Central standings, and unless they can sweep the series and cut that sizable deficit in half, they're sunk. Erasing a deficit of five or more games with only 16 left to play borders on impossible when you've got no games left against the team you're chasing (particularly said team hasn't lost consecutive games in almost three weeks).

Ozzie Guillen recognizes the magnitude of this series. He started John Danks on short rest last week, setting up his rotation in advance so that the White Sox would be able to throw their three best starters at the Twins (not including Edwin Jackson, who was one of the league's hottest pitcherrs until he got roughed up by the Royals this weekend).

On the bright side, the Twins will also be trotting out their top three starters this week. Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing and Carl Pavano will likely be the Ron Gardenhire's first three choices in a playoff series (though not in that order), so the Twins will hardly be overmatched. This might also be the last opportunity for those pitchers to brush up against quality competition in meaningful games, because the Twins won't face another above-average opponent until their season-ending four-game series against the Blue Jays at Target Field, by which point the division might be locked up and Gardenhire might already be resting up his top starters for the ALDS.

A few weeks ago, this series stood out as one that might decide the fates of both of these teams. As it stands, the Twins have played well enough over the past few weeks to place all the pressure squarely on the shoulders of the White Sox. Even with a home sweep, the Sox will still have a tough uphill battle in front of them if they want to overcome the Twins. Without a sweep, their season is essentially over.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Not So Easy to Find

Prior to last season, when the Twins handed Jason Kubel a two-year contract extension, Dave Cameron wrote an article over at Fangraphs criticizing the move. The piece asserted that Kubel was essentially a run-of-the-mill designated hitter and that the Twins could find similarly effective options on cheap one-year deals, negating the need for a guaranteed multi-year contract. As an example, he pointed to Eric Hinske, who'd inked a one-year pact with the Pirates around the time the Twins locked up Kubel.

Cameron is one of the brightest baseball analysts in the country for my money, but I found this take to be a rare whiff for him. His logic was flawed in so many ways that I immediately took the opportunity to write up my own column refuting his points. The takeaway:
The reward, which Cameron seems to believe doesn’t exist, is that the Twins have locked up a young, improving, in-house slugger to fill a position that has been a huge liability for them historically, and they’ve done so at a very reasonable price.
Cameron's column seemed completely silly after Kubel broke out last year with a monster campaign in which he posted a .907 OPS while homering 28 times and driving in 103 runs. It was precisely the type of season that many Twins fans (including myself) had long been hoping for.

With Kubel taking a step back this season, Cameron took the opportunity today to pat himself on the back with the following tweet:
Jason Kubel: .335 wOBA, 0.4 WAR. Eric Hinske: .333 wOBA, 0.6 WAR. Maybe I'm not crazy after all...
If I were Cameron, I'd be trying to forget I ever wrote that terribly misguided article, but now he's defending it? After Kubel emerged as one of the league's best designated hitters last year while Hinske posted a mediocre .780 OPS in limited duty between two clubs? Oh, never mind last season... according to Cameron, that was a fluke.

He positions the standout campaign as an anomaly based on the fact that Kubel's 2010 numbers look quite similar to the ones he posted in 2007 and 2008. The thing is, those numbers aren't bad. Kubel's current .774 OPS rates better than the average DH and also ranks him fourth on a Twins offense that has been one of the league's very best this year. This type of performance has essentially been established as Kubel's baseline, and his numbers in 2009 were no more a fluke than Mauer's '09 or Justin Morneau's 2010 (prior to injury). Sometimes good hitters have really good years, and the Twins -- like myself -- were of the belief that Kubel was a good hitter.

My main issue with Cameron, then and now, is that he looks at issues such as this through an isolated, statistical scope while failing to account for any contextual factors. Never mind that Kubel was a minor-league monster who spent several seasons working his way back to form after a devastating knee injury, leading to the underwhelming numbers that Cameron used as a basis for his Hinske comp. Never mind that Kubel's production, even before that breakout '09 campaign, was especially valuable to a Twins club that had often struggled to find legitimate power hitters in years past. (If Kubel hits one more home run this season, he'll become the team's third player to have three straight 20-HR seasons in the past decade.) Never mind that, in spite of Cameron's assertion that competent and inexpensive designated hitters can easily be found each year on the scrap heap, the position had been a liability for the Twins ever since David Ortiz's departure.

Cameron's core point was that a team could potentially get cheaper DH production from a free agent found on a one-year deal, and there's some validity to that. In hindsight, I'm sure you could find a less expensive option with similar production to what Kubel's given the Twins in three of the past four years. But it's awfully hard to predict how players -- especially those who haven't been in your organization -- are going to perform and Kubel seemed like a safe option, having put together two straight strong seasons and having shown the potential for more.

Adam Lind led all qualifying designated hitters in OPS last year and this year he ranks last. There's a reason that Hinske, Cameron's suggested alternative, has not been able to stick with any club for more than a year since 2006. It's a volatile game, and the Twins made a safe bet on Kubel that -- at this point -- looks awfully smart to everyone except Cameron in light of the fact that they would have likely had to pay Kubel quite a bit more this season based on last year's production had they not already locked him up for $4 million.

Perhaps I'm overreacting to this whole situation because I've always been bullish on Kubel and because I find Cameron extremely aggravating to engage in debate because of his blatant air of condescension. But it stuns me that, at this point, a person so intelligent can still try to smugly defend an article that featured this statement as its central premise:

"In what world is Jason Kubel a significantly better player than Eric Hinske?"

The real world, Mr. Cameron, which apparently is not the one you live in.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

In Control

The White Sox lost to the Tigers today, with Manny Ramirez -- whose offensive production since being acquired at the end of August has amounted to seven singles in 24 at-bats -- grounding out to end the game. By dropping three of four in Detroit this week, while the Twins swept the Royals, the Sox have fallen a full six games out of first place in the AL Central with 22 left to play. If you're into sports betting, your money's probably safe on the Twins at this point.

That's not to say this race is over. We can't easily forget that the Twins faced a similar deficit in the standings one year ago and managed to overtake the Tigers with a fierce push in the final weeks. There are plausible ways that Chicago could work there way back into the thick of this race. If, for instance, the Sox were to pick up a game over the weekend (Chicago hosts the Royals while Minnesota travels to Cleveland) and then sweep the Twins at home next week, they'd shave the deficit down to two games.

But let's be realistic and give our team some credit. It would take a significant collapse on the Twins' part to let the Sox move past them, and they've simply given us no reason to believe that's going to happen. This is the hottest team in baseball, led by a strong pitching staff and an intimidating offense.

If the Twins stay even with the Sox over the weekend and take two of three in Chicago next week, their lead will bulge to seven games with 16 left to play. At that point, even if the Twins played .500 ball the rest of the way, the Sox would have to go undefeated to surpass them in the standings. Not happening.

The White Sox still have a chance to make their last gasp within the next week, so it remains a bit too early to count them out. One week from today, though, it might be time for the Twins to start planning out their postseason rotation

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Managing To Win

By throttling the Royals 10-3 at Target Field last night for their fifth straight victory, the Twins were able to expand their lead in the AL Central to 4 1/2 games, thanks to a White Sox loss in Detroit. Having built up a seven-game lead over the Rangers in the win/loss column, the Twins' latest hot streak has helped ensure that they'll get home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs should they get there. By quietly moving within 2 1/2 games of the Rays in the standings, the Twins have also positioned themselves for a possible wild card berth in the event that the Sox manage to overtake them in the AL Central.

That the Twins have gotten to this point is impressive. That they've done it without the services of Justin Morneau almost defies belief.

Consider this: When Kendry Morales seriously injured his knee while celebrating a walk-off home run back on May 29, the Angels were 3 1/2 games out in the AL West. He hasn't played since, and the Angels now find themselves 9 1/2 games out in September -- effectively eliminated from the postseason.

The Twins were 1 1/2 games out after Morneau suffered a concussion on July 7. But instead of folding faced with the loss of their best hitter, the Twins regrouped and made a second-half charge with help from a number of contributors who were able to step up. Now, they find themselves in the favorable situation I described above.

Morneau and Morales both served as key sluggers in the middle of their respective lineups. Both are widely viewed as elite players; Morales finished fifth in the AL MVP voting last year, while Morneau finished second the year before. Both injuries were flukes, but both were the type that could potentially ruin a season.

The Twins deserve a lot of credit for refusing to fall apart despite Morneau's lingering absence. He's been gone for so long now that it's hard to remember, but the Canadian slugger essentially carried the Twins offense through the first couple months of the season. When he went down, Morneau led the league in OPS and was looking more locked in at the plate than ever before in his career. He was an MVP front-runner, and yet somehow the Twins have managed to sustain his loss without flinching.

The Twins are on pace to win 96 games. They rank first in the American League in batting average. Third in OPS. Fourth in runs per game. They've done this without Morneau -- who was the league's best hitter -- for 40 percent of the season. That is some kind of amazing.

A multitude of factors have made it possible. Joe Mauer hit .400 in the weeks following the All-Star break, picking his game up when the team was in desperate need. The value of Michael Cuddyer, who has played a very decent first base while contributing with the bat, has been underrated. Jim Thome has somehow morphed back into one of the league's most feared hitters at the age of 40, while making $1.5 million (can someone get Bill Smith a trophy already?). The Twins are getting production from third base that they never expected.

And on top of it all, there's a captain who's been holding the leaking ship together, just like he did last year when the Twins lost their star slugger down the stretch. Managers get judged by fans based on a lot of trivial minutia, but ultimately it comes down to winning and Ron Gardenhire has overseen an awful lot of winning. This year, he's paced to lead a flawed and injury-riddled team to 96 wins and a sixth division title in nine years.

Bill Smith's trophy can wait. This year, I think Gardy deserves his.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tuesday Notes

Happy Tuesday everyone! I hope you all enjoyed the holiday weekend (I know I did, since for me it was an extended five-day stay-cation), but now it's back to work. So let's get caught up with some notes.

* In beating the Royals yesterday, the Twins notched a victory for the ninth time in their past 11 games. Unfortunately, they've been unable to create any separation in the standings during that excellent stretch because the second-place White Sox have been on fire themselves. Chicago came back to beat the Tigers yesterday, marking the seventh straight victory for Ozzie and Co. Like the Twins, the White Sox have won nine of their past 11.

Last Monday, when the Sox were at their lowest point of the season, I wrote that they shouldn't be counted out because they were a streaky team stuck in a slump that could snap at any time. At that point, they'd just finished dropping a series to the Yankees that pushed them 4 1/2 games out of first, but since I posted that article the White Sox haven't lost and they've actually gained ground on a Twins club that's gone 6-1.

As the season winds down, an upcoming three-game series between the Twins and White Sox in Chicago begins to look increasingly pivotal. It commences a week from today and, depending on what happens in the six games between here and there, it could either give the White Sox a chance to vault the Twins with a home sweep or the Twins a chance to effectively bury the South Siders with only 16 games remaining afterward.

I'm reminded of a somewhat similar situation (with roles reversed) two years ago. Minnesota sat 2 1/2 games behind Chicago in the AL Central standings when they welcomed the White Sox to the Metrodome for a late September series. In a thrilling series capped by an epic 10th-inning walk-off in the finale, the Twins swept the Sox and found themselves in first place by the end of the three-game set.

Hopefully this year's Twins squad will be mindful as this series in Chicago looms.

* Matt Capps can't seem to get a break from the fans around here. For whatever reason -- perhaps because they feel like the Twins got stiffed in the trade that brought him here -- many of the Twins faithful that I interact with continue express serious doubts about Capps. Any time he allows a base runner or two in an outing, it seems that Twitter explodes with venom.

That was certainly the case on Sunday afternoon when Capps entered and allowed three hits and a walk to nearly cough up a gift-wrapped sweep-clinching victory against the Rangers. But, like he typically has since coming over, Capps got the job done. In fact, the Twins have yet to lose a game that their new closer has entered with a lead.

Ultimately, that's the barometer by which he should be judged. His saves may not always be pretty, but that's because he's merely a good reliever, not an elite shut-down guy. People should have stopped expecting the latter back in March when the Twins announced Joe Nathan's season-ending surgery.

Yesterday, Capps delivered a perfect ninth inning to seal a one-run victory over the Royals. That's the result he's usually going to get, even if he doesn't always get there all that cleanly. He's obviously not one of the game's great closers, but he's clearly a better option than Rauch -- who continues to look terrible -- and while many would prefer to see Jesse Crain taking care of the ninth, let's not forget that he's a guy with a history of bad slumps.

The Twins wanted a closer with an established track record, and they got one. So far, it's worked out just fine.

* I was delighted to see the Twins call up prospect Ben Revere over the weekend. Revere, a 22-year-old selected in the first round of the 2007 draft, has become one of my favorite stories in the organization.

A top prospect ever since bursting onto the scene with a .325 average in rookie ball after being drafted, Revere was enjoying a successful first season at the Double-A level when he was hit in the face with a pitch in early August, fracturing his eye socket. At the time, his season was thought to be done, and one couldn't be blamed for wondering whether his game would be affected by the traumatic incident.

Revere surprised many by returning to the New Britain lineup less than a month after taking the pitch, and he showed no fear at the plate, batting .382 in eight games. Now, he'll get the opportunity to help a major-league club make a push for a division title in September.

I don't know how much we'll see of him over the next few weeks, but I'll certainly be rooting for Revere every time he gets a chance to contribute. With his blazing speed, he's capable of providing us with some exciting moments.

* I didn't think I could be any more impressed with Jim Thome. Then, yesterday, he hit a home run that deflected off the top of the highest flag pole beyond the right field wall in Target Field.

It was the decisive blast in a 5-4 victory, and part of a 2-for-3 day that pushed the 40-year-old slugger's OPS into quadruple digits. His mark now sits at 1.020; only fives times in his illustrious career has Thome finished higher. He's averaging one home run per every 13.9 at-bats, which is almost exactly in line with his career rate of 13.6. Simply put, while it almost defies logic, Thome doesn't seem to have really lost anything at all.

I've said this before, but with the Vikings season upon us, I'm reminded of how fortunate we Minnesota sports fans have been over the past year to have the privilege of watching a couple of all-time greats in their respective sports playing at their very best despite being in the fourth decade of life. Especially considering that both legendary men had spent much of their prior careers playing for hated rivals.

I'm talking, of course, about Thome and Brett Favre. Much like with Favre, I'll bet we have plenty of folks clamoring for an encore to Thome's amazing performance.

* Today, Shawn Berg is celebrating the one-year anniversary of his "On the Road" blog, which features great Twins takes and eyewitness accounts of minor-league affiliate games (he did a nice report on Kyle Gibson's Triple-A debut back in the middle of August, for instance). Please do me a favor and go pay Shawn's site a visit. He's even giving a Rod Carew figurine away to his 1,000th visitor today!

* If some of these note themes sound familiar to you, it might because I've probably mused about all of them at one point or another on my Twitter page. I've basically started using Twitter as a stream of consciousness to post any Twins-related thoughts I have throughout the day (many of which become the seeds for lengthier blog posts), and I've also found it to be a great tool to interact with other fans. So if you've got an account and you haven't already, I'd love it if you gave me a follow and joined the conversation!

Friday, September 03, 2010

A Bad Night

Scott Baker left last night's game after two innings with a sore elbow; he may join fellow starter Kevin Slowey -- already fighting an achy elbow -- on the disabled list. In a game prolonged by repeated blown umpiring calls and baffling fielding gaffes, the Twins ran through eight pitchers, including the scheduled starters for the first and third games of this weekend's series against the Rangers.

Brian Fuentes remained unavailable due to sudden back problems. Matt Guerrier, whose overuse I complained about yesterday, made his 63rd appearance of the season and looked terrible, serving up a mammoth home run along with two other hits while helping cough up a four-run lead. Jesse Crain appeared for the 21st time in the team's past 33 games and gave up his first home run since May 18. Brian Duensing, who threw 103 pitches in the series opener on Tuesday, had to chip in two innings. Acting manager Scott Ullger -- at the helm since Ron Gardenhire had long since been ejected for arguing one of Joe West's many embarrassing whiffed calls -- was forced to call on Friday night's scheduled starter, Nick Blackburn, to pitch the 13th. That leaves the Twins turning to Matt Fox, a 27-year-old career minor-leaguer having an unexceptional season in Triple-A, to come up and pitch against a first-place Rangers club on three days rest.

Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Justin Morneau and Orlando Hudson remain sidelined. Joe Mauer got beat up behind the plate on Wednesday night and caught 13 innings last night. J.J. Hardy suddenly can't throw the ball accurately to first base and Alexi Casilla's bumbles in the field are mounting. And the Twins' lead over the White Sox has been whittled down to 3.5 games with Texas coming to town.

To be sure, the Twins are still favorites to come out on top of this AL Central division. But after last night's game, the White Sox have to be feeling a whole lot better about their chances. The Twins probably aren't feeling so hot.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Gassing Guerrier (Again!)

Something is wrong with Matt Guerrier.

Well, let's backtrack a bit. Last night, Francisco Liriano dueled with Max Scherzer over seven innings in the type of game that bores casual fans but delights hardcores. Both pitchers were at the top of their game; Scherzer mowed down the Twins hitters for nine impressive frames but hiccuped in the sixth inning and yielded a single run, while Liriano executed big pitches and performed well enough to exit after the seventh with a 1-0 lead.

It's a shame that Ron Gardenhire, a man whose bullpen management I typically commend, felt the need to engage in a needless chess match with his relievers that ultimately cost Liriano a win and could have cost the Twins the game.

With Liriano gassed after seven innings, Gardenhire rightfully turned to his best reliever, Jesse Crain, to start the eighth. Crain gave up a lead-off single to Austin Jackson but then got Will Rhymes to pop out on a bunt attempt. With one out and the tying run on first, and lefty-swinging Johnny Damon due up, Gardy decided to flex his managerial muscle and counter the Detroit lefty with one of his own. He turned to Randy Flores. The manager was ostensibly playing the percentages, but Flores has not proven to be a particularly effective weapon against lefties (certainly not more effective than Crain, whose devastating slider baffles hitters from both sides) and Damon doesn't have much of a platoon split.

Gardenhire's move completely fizzled when Jim Leyland subbed lefty-mashing righty Ryan Raburn to face the southpaw. Fortunately, Flores was able to get a strikeout anyway. With MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera stepping in and representing the tying run, Gardenhire elected to turn to Matt Guerrier.

This is where he lost me.

I could understand the reasoning behind Gardy's prior moves in the inning. Tying run on base, you want to get the lefty-lefty match-up, maybe preserve Crain a little bit... sure, you use Flores. But when I saw Gardenhire call upon Guerrier from the bullpen, I shook my head. Guerrier hasn't been effective lately, and he'd worked in three of the team's past five games. Why not let him rest a little? I wondered to myself (and to my tweeps) why the team was unwilling to turn to Matt Capps for a four-out save. They traded one of their best prospects for the guy, you'd think they'd be willing to trust him to come in and get one extra out against the opposing team's best hitter.

As I questioned the decision, I decided to put my perception that Guerrier has been struggling to the test. So I looked up his numbers since the All-Star break. His ERA sat at 4.50 -- not too bad. He'd allowed only 15 hits and five walks in 20 innings, which is actually quite good. Then I looked at this strikeouts. He had four. Guerrier has struck out four of the 76 batters he'd faced since the All-Star break.

He came into the game, walked Miguel Cabrera, gave up a game-tying RBI single to Jhonny Peralta and then got Brandon Inge to ground out and end the inning. That pushes Guerrier's post-break total to 79 batters with only four strikeouts.

Guerrier has never been a strikeout artist, but that type of minuscule whiff rate makes Nick Blackburn look good. It's irresponsible to repeatedly trust a guy that's allowing contact that frequently high-leverage late-game situations. Yet, Gardenhire continues to do it, and did it again last night.

That appearance marked Guerrier's 62nd of the season, which ranks him third in the American League. Guerrier is being used more than almost any other reliever in the league, and he's breaking down late in the season. We've seen this exact story before. More than once.

It's one lesson that Gardenhire just refuses to learn. Brian Fuentes' unavailability puts the Twins' manager in a bit of a bind, but there was no reason he really needed to use Guerrier last night and he should be taking any possible opportunity to rest him because at this point the righty reliever isn't fooling anybody and it's hard to believe his taxed arm isn't running on fumes.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

No Ordinary Rookie

Their bats went into a bit of a slumber during the team's most recent road trip, but the Twins have still boasted one of the most prolific offenses in baseball since the All-Star break. Most impressively, they've done it without the services of their best hitter, as Justin Morneau remains sidelined by the lingering effects of a concussion suffered in early July.

Several players have stepped up in Morneau's absence to keep the offense on track, most notably Joe Mauer and Jim Thome. One perhaps underappreciated contributor to the team's success, however, is the kid who has taken over at third base.

Few knew what to expect from Danny Valencia when he was called up from Triple-A in early June to provide depth while Michael Cuddyer was away on bereavement. It was expected, at the time, that Valencia would be with the team for only a short period of time and that Cuddyer would return to third base indefinitely. Valencia was, after all, having a rather unremarkable season in the minors (he'd posted a .720 OPS with zero home runs in 49 games at Rochester) and the organization was understandably wary about relying on such an unproven commodity amidst a heated pennant race.

Valencia began to make an impact immediately, collecting hits in nine of his first 11 big-league starts. When Morneau went down on July 7, the plan of using Cuddyer at third base ceased to be palatable (not that it was anywhere close to ideal to begin with), and so the team looked to Valencia, owner of only 48 major-league at-bats, to take over at the hot corner.

Take over he has. Since the day Morneau went down, Valencia has started 40 of the team's 47 games at third base, including the last 35 in a row. During that span, he's hit .329/.368/.489. He's struck out only 19 times in 163 plate appearances. His defense at third base has been outstanding, as he's run up a 5.2 UZR while committing only three errors in 58 games.

Had Valencia not stepped up and proven a capable regular at third base, it's frightening to think where this team might be. Brendan Harris was so terrible early in the season that he was designated for assignment. Nick Punto hasn't been able to keep himself off the disabled list late in the season. Cuddyer has been needed at first, and probably will be for the remainder of the year. Had Valencia struggled in his initial taste of the majors -- as many expected he would, since he often took a few months to adjust to heightened levels of competition in the minors -- it's possible we'd be looking at Matt Tolbert as the club's regular third baseman right now. Or else, Bill Smith might have been forced to part with valuable assets at the deadline out of desperation for a replacement. Heck, maybe they'd have even called Joe Crede to see if he could hobble out to the field for a couple months.

Fortunately, none of that was necessary, because Valencia has been a revelation at third base. He has also provided hope that he can be a long-term answer at a position that has been a peristent liability for the Twins ever since Corey Koskie's departure. Over the past five years, the Twins have shuffled through Cuddyer, Punto, Crede, Harris, Brian Buscher, Tony Batista and Mike Lamb at third base, and never come up with a remotely suitable solution. Valencia's excellent debut suggests that he could be a competent, durable and cheap answer at the hot corner for years to come. That last factor weighs heavily, since the Twins' significant payroll commitments to core players leave them needing to save money in other spots.

To be clear, I don't expect Valencia to continue to be a .330 hitter going forward. He hit .289 in the minors and hadn't posted a mark over .300 since he was in Single-A back in early 2008. Keep in mind that Valencia has always been a streaky player and we've yet to see a cold streak, so chances are we're seeing his numbers at a high point. His offensive production since joining the Twins has been propped up by an unsustainably high .363 batting average on balls in play and if you take away seven of his singles (less than one per week), his hitting line drops from .328/.373/.446 to a much more ordinary .294/.341/.412, which would register as only slightly above average production for an AL third baseman.

Unless Valencia can add some patience and/or power to his game, that type of performance is probably his long-term upside. But that's hardly an indictment, because the Twins would love for a player who can give them cheap, average production over the next few years. And there's certainly no saying Valencia can't improve the aforementioned aspects of his game. He's improved over time at nearly every level and while he's never been a true power hitter, his low home run output this year (only two bombs in 418 plate appearances between the majors and minors) has been an anomaly in the context of his career. While watching him drive the ball deep twice last night, including one crucial RBI double to center that closed the gap late, I found myself in disbelief that the kid has only gotten the ball over the fence twice all season.

But, homers or not, it was fun to watch him drive the baseball and jump-start the offense in an exciting comeback victory. Both at the plate and in the field, Valencia looks like a natural. Hopefully we'll have the pleasure of watching him man third for many years to come.