Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bill Smith's Greatest Weakness

Overall, Bill Smith's body of work as Twins general manager has been impressive. He took over at an extremely unenviable time, facing the task of letting two of the most popular and talented players in franchise history -- Torii Hunter and Johan Santana -- depart while keeping the team competitive. While that first winter was not a particularly strong one, Smith's Twins did surprisingly come within a game of the playoffs in 2008 and they won the division in each of the next two years.

The Twins front office under Smith has shown clear competency in a number of areas. These include targeting quality players in trades when their value is at a low point (JJ Hardy and Carl Pavano come to mind), acquiring valuable pieces through free agency (an area where Terry Ryan consistently struggled), drafting and being aggressive on the international market.

One area where Smith and Co. have not been particularly adept, however, is extending the contracts of their own players.

I'm not talking about the big fish. The heaping salaries of Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan are hard to stomach now, obviously, but no one could have predicted they'd suffer the type of major injuries they did. One can question the wisdom of paying Joe Mauer $23 million annually for the better part of the next decade, but it was a fair contract and the Twins would have been ravaged if they hadn't locked the MVP up after '09.

What I take issue with is some of the extensions Smith has given lesser players on the roster, and specifically the timing of those extensions. While he's shown an ability to bring in external players at bargain prices because their value is down, he tends to negotiate contracts with his own players when their value is superficially high.

Denard Span and Nick Blackburn, both of whom signed long-term deals buying out all their arbitration years prior to this season, are good examples. Each of these players performed in '08 and '09 at a level that far exceeded their minor-league track record. Blackburn's numbers seemed particularly difficult to sustain, as it doesn't take a hardcore sabermetrician to understand that when you constantly pitch to contact and don't draw ground balls at a particularly dazzling rate, you're liable to get blown up.

Both those players took major steps backwards this season, which shouldn't have come as an enormous surprise based on their histories and tendencies. Yet, the team is now locked into paying them both over the next 3-4 years at a rate based on their performance in the first two seasons. If Span and Blackburn continue to decline, they'll keep being paid as strong producers due to contract extensions that were totally unnecessary given that both were under team control for several more years.

Nick Punto represents another example of badly timed extension. If the team wanted to keep him around (which you'd have to guess they always did), they could have handed him a low-money extension after his historically dismal 2007 season. Instead, they waited until he put together a solid effort in '08 -- his last year under contract -- and had to pay him $8.5 million over two years to keep him from exiting via free agency. As a result they've had to pay him $4 million in each of the past two years to put up a sub-.630 OPS while characteristically battling injuries.

And then there's the Michael Cuddyer contract. This stands out to me as Smith's most egregious and baffling move yet. It's not so much the contract itself -- a three-year deal worth $24 million -- I have a problem with, although one could certainly question handing him such a sizable deal after a very pedestrian 2007 campaign. It's the stipulation regarding the club option. It had to be exercised five days after the end of the 2009 World Series, meaning the Twins had to decide whether or not they would pay Cuddyer $10.5 million in 2011 before seeing what he did in 2010.

I can't recall ever seeing a contract structured like this before. I can see why Cuddyer's agent would push for it, knowing that Cuddyer would be moving past the age of 30 in 2009 and understanding that the team might be more likely to activate the lucrative option after that season than after his 2010 season where age could start taking a greater toll on the right fielder's performance. What I don't understand is why in the world Smith would agree to it.

Was it really a deal-breaker? Was Cuddyer going to turn down an extension that paid him an average of $8 million annually after a relatively mediocre season because the club option was to be exercised after the final guaranteed year of the deal, as with any normal contract? By structuring the deal like this, Smith opened himself to the possibility that Cuddyer would have a great '09 campaign, making the option look like a no-brainer and prompting the team to activate it, then follow up with a poor 2010 season that cast doubt on his future productivity. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened and now the Twins are forced to pay Cuddyer's hefty salary next year when under normal circumstances they'd have the option of letting him walk or negotiating a new deal.

I like most of what Smith has done, but the burdensome long-term contracts of players like Span, Blackburn, Punto and Cuddyer stand as glaring examples of a pervasive weakness. This winter, he'll once again have the opportunity to extend the contracts of several players. I mentioned Francisco Liriano as a top priority on Wednesday, and players like JJ Hardy, Alexi Casilla and Kevin Slowey are also candidates for extensions.

I can only hope that the front office shows better judgment in handing out such extensions this winter, because unlike the Yankees, this team simply isn't equipped financially to deal with a multitude of poorly concieved contracts.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ace in the Hole

I've touched briefly on the subject of a contract extension for Francisco Liriano a couple times, both in a guest post on Rob Neyer's SweetSpot blog at back in early August and in my offseason blueprint which appears in the GM Handbook.

Today, I'd like to delve a little deeper into the matter, as I feel that it is arguably the team's top priority this winter.

One of the main talking points among fans frustrated by the Twins' early playoff exit is the need for a legitimate ace to head the rotation. Fans watched the Twins' starters helplessly bow to the Yankees' potent hitters during the ALDS while Cliff Lee has shredded every lineup he's faced in helping carry the Rangers to a World Series berth, so that reaction is understandable.

However, many people seem to have a vague and mystical conception of what an "ace" is. It's not Liriano, they say, because while he was one of the league's most dominant pitchers this year (fifth in the American League in strikeouts, sixth in ground ball rate, best home run rate in baseball), he wasn't consistent enough, didn't pitch deep enough into games, and -- most importantly -- didn't come through in the postseason.

The problem is that you can count on one hand the number of pitchers who would satisfy that definition of an ace. There's only one Cliff Lee, folks. And while you can add Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and perhaps a few others to the list of consistently dominant starting pitchers who have outstanding postseason track records, these guys don't grow on trees. They are extremely tough to come by.

Take a look at a couple top Cy Young contenders in the AL and how they performed in the playoffs this year. CC Sabathia was not at all sharp, posting a 5.63 ERA and 1.81 WHIP over three starts. David Price went 0-2 with a 4.97 ERA for the Rays. Liriano's first five innings against the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS were probably better than any stretch of pitching by either of those two this October.

Things came unraveled for Liriano in the sixth inning against a good offense, but that happens often to pitchers in the playoffs, even the ones that can legitimately be labeled aces. And while Liriano's inconsistency and inefficiency on the mound are marks against him, let's not forget that this was his first full, strong season since Tommy John surgery and he's still only 27 years old (younger than any pitcher I've mentioned in this article, save for Price and Lincecum). It's hardly fair to assume we've seen the best of him.

Aces are exceedingly difficult to come across and Liriano gives the Twins their best shot at having one over the next several years, so it's imperative that they keep him under team control. He's entering his second year of arbitration this offseason, so the Twins have the option of either continuing to go year-to-year with him or offering a multi-year deal.

In the Handbook, I suggest that the Twins sign Liriano to a three-year, $21 million deal. They pay him $4 million in 2011 (a bit less than he'd probably get through arbitration), $7 million in 2012 and buy out his first season of free agency in 2013 for $10 million. For a pitcher capable of the Liriano's dominance, that's a bargain, and considering his history of arm troubles I have to think that the southpaw would jump at the financial security. The downside, for him, is that if he starts to flourish his big payday comes one year later (when he'll still only be 31 -- younger than Lee is now) and the upside is that he's guaranteed $21 million no matter what happens to his arm.

It seems clear that Liriano wore down at the end of the year. Halfway through September, he was 14-7 with a 3.28 ERA, positioning himself as a sneaky Cy Young contender, but over his final four starts (including the playoffs) he went 0-3 with a 7.58 ERA. Given that Liriano racked up such a large workload between winter ball, spring training, the regular season and the playoffs, that shouldn't come as a huge surprise. But it doesn't really affect his long-term outlook, and in fact, the experience of logging all those innings may ultimately be beneficial for his arm strength. Now that he can finally spend an offseason resting rather than rehabbing or pitching in winter ball, I suspect he'll come out better than ever next season.

If that happens, he'll be a lot more expensive a year from now. Bill Smith would be wise to show foresight and buy low on the left-hander. The reward far outweighs the risk.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Losing the Fever?

"I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more Kubel."
-Christopher Walken on my sidebar.

I went to a game this summer with an out-of-town friend who'd come to check out Target Field.

He was amazed by the stadium, but sometime during the second inning he paused with alarm while sipping his beer.

"Are the fans booing one of their own players?" he asked.

I was confused. Then I noticed Jason Kubel was batting. "Oh, no," I chuckled, "they're saying KUUUUUUBES."

"I see," he sighed with a sense of relief. "I didn't think Minnesota fans would do that."

If only he could see us now. Kubel went 0-for-8 in the ALDS this year, giving him a 2-for-29 career mark in the playoffs, and now I can barely find a Twins fan who doesn't want him shipped out during the offseason. Granted, Kubel had a fairly substandard season this year, but he did rank second on the team in home runs, and second in RBI. It's not like he wasn't producing. What is wrong with these people?

Due to his anemic postseason numbers, there seems to be some question about Kubel's fortitude. This blows my mind. Kubel, as a major-league player, has an OPS sixty points higher with runners in scoring position than with bases empty. A career .394 hitter with the bases loaded, Kubel has hit seven grand slams. He's delivered some of the most memorable clutch hits of the past two seasons. He single-handedly broke the Yankees' spell over the Twins with a game-winning grand slam against Mariano Rivera in Yankee Stadium. It's silly to think that this man folds under pressure.

So, to what can we attribute Kubel's dismal postseason results? My guess would be circumstances and a lack of luck.

Kubel's first playoff experience came in 2004, when he was a 22-year-old rookie with one whole month of big-league experience under his belt. He went 1-for-7 with a double and an unforgettable late-inning strikeout against Mariano Rivera. Painful, but it's hard to hold that performance against him.

Kubel's next postseason experience didn't come until 2009, when he participated in the first of two consecutive ALDS sweeps against the Yankees. In six games between the two series, Kubel went 1-for-22 with 11 strikeouts. Ugly numbers, no doubt. But four of those six games were started by CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, both outstanding left-handers.

He is miserable against lefties. It's no secret, but it doesn't make him a bad player. He was also arguably the most dangerous hitter in the league against right-handers in 2009, and slugged 19 homers against them this past season even in a down year. Given that around 70 percent of the league's pitchers tend to throw with their right arm, a player like that has plenty of value.

The Twins have a $5.25 million option to retain Kubel's services for next season. Sure, they could buy it out for $350,000 and let him loose. But who's going to make up his 20 home runs in 2011? He's hit at least that many three years in a row and it's not often that the Twins come across players with such consistent power production. What happens if he goes somewhere else (say, to the White Sox, who sorely need a power-hitting DH) and has another season like his spectacular 2009? The Twins would look every bit as foolish as the Sox did this year for letting Jim Thome slip away to a division rival.

I'll concede that Kubel's upcoming salary is somewhat substantial for a player who can't competently field or hit right-handed pitching. If he doesn't improve on his performance from this year, it'd be a poor use of funds. But the Twins are already pumping far more money into Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, against all of whom Kubel looks like an incredibly safe bet. We know what the slugging lefty is capable of and earlier this season hometown fans were offended by the thought that he'd be booed at a home game.

Just because he failed to come through in eight postseason at-bats -- most of them unfavorable match-ups -- those same hometown fans are ready to run him out of town? It's a complete overreaction that hopefully will not gain any consideration from the front office.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Three Offseason Predictions

Based on things I've seen, things I've heard, or sheer intuition.

1) Kevin Slowey will be traded. 

This is not a move I'd endorse. I've liked Slowey since he was a star prospect obliterating minor-league hitters, and while he hasn't shown us a ton over the past two seasons I think he's going to turn the corner one of these years when he's able to stay healthy. He gave us a glimpse of his potential in 2008, when he posted a 3.99 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 160 innings, and he's still only 26 years old.

Yet, from talking to folks with a behind-the-scenes perspective, I've never gotten the sense that Slowey is particularly well liked by the Twins. That he was left off the postseason roster this year after winning 13 games during the regular season does nothing to dissuade that notion. It's not that he's a bad guy, just that his personality doesn't seem to fit with this organization. And historically, they tend to get rid of guys like that.

Despite his underwhelming results in the past two seasons, I think Slowey has plenty of trade value. He's a young pitcher with elite command and a dazzling minor-league track record who's entering his first year of arbitration eligibility.

My guess is that the Twins will roll with a rotation consisting of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and a veteran starter signed from the free agent pool. Top prospect Kyle Gibson would be waiting in the wings should that veteran addition (or any of the other starters) fail, similar to what the Twins did in 2007 when they signed Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson with Slowey and Matt Garza opening the season in Triple-A -- though hopefully they would bring in a more competent veteran this time around.

I hope Slowey's back next year. Unfortunately, I have a hard time envisioning it. But it's just a hunch.

2) Among the team's relief pitchers eligible for free agency, Matt Capps and Jesse Crain will be back. Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay will not.

The Twins have six relievers with contracts expiring this winter and not nearly enough money available to bring them all back, so some decisions will need to be made.

It pains me to predict that Capps will be back, for reasons I explained on Monday. But Bill Smith said when he made the trade that he wouldn't have done it if the reliever was not under team control for 2011, so there's little doubt that the Twins will offer him arbitration and overpay for his services next season.

It's tougher to predict how the rest of the bullpen picture will be sorted out. My guess is that Crain is the only one who stays. Mahay will probably retire while Fuentes and Rauch will likely price themselves out of the Twins' range of interest. Letting Guerrier go would be tough, but the Twins have gotten their use out of him, running him out a league-leading 302 times over the past four years. It's not a good idea to invest much money in a 32-year-old arm with that much wear.

Crain is the only player among the group that was drafted and raised by the Twins, so they likely feel a greater sense of allegiance to him. In addition, he's been a success story for the coaching staff. Last year, when Crain was struggling mid-June, he was sent to the minors to work things out and was a much different pitcher after returning a month later, posting a 2.91 ERA the rest of the way. This year, Crain was again battling through early-season struggles, but some adjustments were made and over the final four months he was one of the league's most reliable relievers.

I think the Twins feel they have a good handle on how to straighten Crain out when he gets out of wack. That, combined with his relative youth, might prompt them to bring him back on a two-year deal.

3) Jim Thome will be back.

I've gone back and forth on this one. Thome is probably going to command a significant raise, as his services will be in much higher demand this winter after an outstanding 2010 campaign. And, while he didn't show his age much this season, he will turn 41 next year and skills can deteriorate quickly at this stage.

But, with all the questions surrounding Morneau, the Twins can hardly afford to lose Thome's power. As popular as he was with the coaches, players and fans, I think the front office will see the risk involved with signing him for $3-4 million as worthwhile. Ideally, Morneau will be back next year and Thome will be able to fill the role he was expected to fill this season -- bench bat and occasional starter. If Morneau can't go, I doubt they'd want Thome to be a full-time DH, but his bat would certainly be nice to have around in that scenario.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cut the Capps

When the Twins traded for Matt Capps at the trade deadline, I didn't hate the move.

I didn't love it, but since the reaction to the swap among Twins fans was overwhelmingly negative, I spent a lot of time defending it. Despite his success in the first half, the Twins saw something in Jon Rauch that led them to believe he'd soon become a liability in the closer role (his subsequent slump suggested they were right), so they wanted a proven commodity. Sure, the Twins overvalued Capps' standing as an established closer and gave up a better prospect than they maybe should have, but I accepted the move for three principal reasons: 1) I don't think they could have gotten a much better player for Ramos; 2) in my mind, the probability that the team will heavily regret dealing Ramos when they did is quite low; and 3) I liked the statement that the move made.

It was that last one that I felt most strongly about. We're so used to seeing the Twins play it conservative at the deadline, protecting their future assets at the expense of bettering their present chances. Now, they were dealing one of their top prospects and taking on significant salary with the hopes of ensuring that a bullpen derailment would not impede their budding momentum. Very often has a prospect panned out to be less than we'd hoped; very often, also, have we looked back at the end of a season and said, "Maybe that one extra piece at the deadline would have made the difference."

So the Twins made their bold move. But they did so for another reason, one that they were perfectly transparent about the time, but that I didn't spend much time thinking about then.
"Having him for 2011 was critical," [Bill] Smith said. "We would not have had interest in having him for just two months."
As you'll find when reading through your copy of the Offseason GM Handbook, the bullpen becomes a quagmire of tricky decisions for the Twins' front office this winter. I didn't need the headache while focusing on the Twins' 2010 season, so I hadn't spent much time thinking about it. Now that I've turned my gaze to the offseason and started breaking down the numbers, I've reached one inescapable conclusion:

The Twins would be insane to bring back Matt Capps.

He's under team control for 2011 because he's entering his third and final year of arbitration eligibility. He was non-tendered by the Pirates following a crummy 2009 campaign (5.80 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, .324 opponents batting average, just 27 saves in 32 chances), and he earned only a modest $1.2 million raise on his $2.3 million '09 salary when the Nationals signed him this season because of it.

This year, however, Capps put up some of the finest numbers of his career, and scored big in areas that arbitrators put a lot of weight into. Specifically, those areas are ERA (2.47) and saves (42, fifth-best in MLB). While I certainly don't think he's as bad a pitcher as many opponents of his acquisition make him out to be, Capps is at best merely a good reliever and those numbers unquestionably overstate his value.

Unfortunately, that's the type of lens through which arbitration judges are likely to view Capps. The market has been established. For instance, the Giants have Brian Wilson locked up for $8.5 million in 2012, which would be his last year of arbitration, and that contract was signed before he notched an MLB-leading 48 saves this year. Jonathan Papelbon just earned over $9 million in his second year of arbitration. Looking at these numbers, it's not hard to imagine Capps at least doubling his $3.5 million salary in 2011.

Meanwhile, relievers of similar quality to Capps who don't carry the closer label tend to make only a couple million per year. And regardless of how you weigh the value of having an established guy in the closer spot, there's a good chance the Twins won't be using him in that role with Joe Nathan returning.

In the best case scenario, they'd be paying Capps upper-echelon closer money (which they're already paying Nathan, to a higher degree) to be a solid setup man. If you're going to spend that kind of money on a guy who'd fill a setup role and serve as an insurance policy for Nathan, you're much wiser using it to bring back Brian Fuentes who figures to be only slightly more expensive if at all. He's a better pitcher and more useful if Nathan can close. Or you can save a few million and take your pick from the deep pool of strong relievers hitting the market this winter.

I have spent enough energy defending Capps. He served his duty very effectively after being acquired and was a fine -- if ultimately meaningless -- addition to the Twins this season. If he's back next year at $7 million, though, his acquisition will ultimately do more harm than good.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Cuddyer Conundrum

Michael Cuddyer is a pretty controversial player.

Some believe he's a consummate teammate whose willingness to move around the field extends his value drastically beyond what he does at the plate. Others believe his relatively poor defense at each position he can fill makes him a liability.

Some believe his ability to provide right-handed power has been vital to the success of a lefty-dominated lineup over the past several years. Others believe that, with his inconsistency and lack of clutch hitting at the dish, his offensive game is hugely overrated.

Some believe his effervescent and affable nature helps keep the clubhouse loose. Others believe his lack of fiery competitiveness is the type of thing that keeps the team from being able to step up to the big bad Yanks.

Regardless of where you fall in this debate, it's no secret how the Twins view Cuddyer. Ron Gardenhire called him the team's MVP earlier in the season, and while that statement is laughable based on Cuddy's production, John Bonnes was astute in pointing out a few weeks ago that the manager has a better grasp than anyone on what players do behind the scenes to help a team win. Gardy's not unaware that Cuddyer's core numbers -- whether we're talking about average, OPS, homers, RBI -- were the lowest they've been since 2005 (outside of an injury-riddled 2008 campaign). I'm inclined to believe that Cuddyer is a more valuable guy to have on the roster than his statistics would suggest.

With that being said, there's almost no way to justify the $10.5 million he's going to make next year after the season he just had. Calling Cuddyer's numbers in 2010 mediocre is being kind; he spent the majority of his time playing offense-heavy positions (poorly) and came up with just a .271/.336/.417 line with 14 homers over 157 games.

Cuddyer's salary next year is tied up in a club option, but a strange stipulation in his contract forced the Twins to decide on that option after last year. At that point, Cuddy had just finished up perhaps the best campaign of his career, having posted an .862 OPS with 32 homers and 94 RBI with a late boost in September that was extremely significant in the team's surge for a division title.

So, the Twins activated his option with little hesitation. Had they faced that decision now, I'd have to think they would at least have to think twice. He's a $10 million wild card. In his best seasons, he's provided a key right-handed power bat in the middle of the lineup, but only twice in his career has he fulfilled that promise and for the most part he has been -- as Aaron Gleeman aptly puts it -- "a perfectly solid player who's paid like and treated as a star." To top it all off, Cuddyer just had surgery on a knee which he now says bothered him all season long.

The Twins already have a lot of money invested in wild cards next year. Joe Nathan will make $11.25 million in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Justin Morneau, whose status is completely uncertain after he missed the second half this year with a concussion, will make $14 million. And in Cuddyer, the Twins will be paying $10.5 million to a 32-year-old coming off a disappointing season and knee surgery.

No matter what you think about Cuddyer, there's simply no denying that his hefty guaranteed salary next year poses a serious conundrum for a team that is already staring at some considerable payroll issues. He's locked in and his contract is essentially unmovable, so the Twins are stuck with him at this point. Given the questions surrounding Morneau, it's nice to have a guy around who can competently cover at first base, but $10.5 million should buy you a lot more production than Cuddyer has given this team in three of the past four years, regardless of what he's providing off the field.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Missing Lee

Cliff Lee shut down the Rays twice in the ALDS, including Monday night's series-clinching Game 5 victory. Since the Twins were reportedly one team that was outbid by the Rangers for Lee's services at the trade deadline, his dominant postseason performances have prompted some local fans to complain about the team's lack of willingness to put the chips on the table and do what it takes to succeed in October.

I know people are frustrated with another three-and-out in the postseason, but let's employ some common sense here.

For one thing, there's no saying the Twins had any shot at acquiring Lee regardless of what they were willing to offer. It seems evident that Bill Smith at least made an effort to bring in Seattle's ace, but the Mariners clearly desired a premium, major-league ready power-hitting prospect and the Twins had none to speak of. Even if they'd been willing to part with top prospect Aaron Hicks, there's plenty of room to question whether the M's would be interested in giving up their best trade chip for a kid with no track record who's still three or four years away from the big leagues.

Even if the Twins could have acquired Lee by bundling up all of their top prospects, I'm absolutely flabbergasted by the notion that his presence would have somehow guaranteed advancement in the postseason.

The Twins were swept out of the playoffs in three games by the Yankees, and in those three games they averaged barely over two runs. If they had Lee, sure, there's a much better chance they win Game 1. A lot of people have asserted that if the Twins win Game 1, the series proceeds much differently.

But since when are the Yankees a team that gets down on themselves and unravels after losing a playoff game? The Twins took Game 1 of the ALDS in both 2003 and 2004 with Johan Santana toeing the rubber, and in both instances New York took the next three games to end the series.

As much as we want to talk about how adding Lee or Roy Oswalt (or getting back Justin Morneau) might have made the difference in this series, those theories don't really hold water. It takes a full team effort to succeed against baseball's best clubs in the playoffs, and the Twins didn't get much production from anyone in this series.

Lee just wasn't going to make the difference. Much time will be spent talking about what kind of changes the Twins need to make this offseason to beat the Yankees. The fact is that none of those changes will matter unless the guys already on the roster step up and play better when push comes to shove.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Hearty Thank You, and a Special Offer

Yesterday, I wrote an article eulogizing the 2010 Twins, and I was none too flattering in my assessment of the team's postseason performance.

It was tough to write. It's difficult to speak so coldly about the team I've cheered on all season. Difficult to come to terms with how quickly and unceremoniously they were ousted from contention. Difficult to acknowledge that we'll have to wait at least a year for another shot.

There's comfort in numbers, though, and the post did solicit some 49 responses in the comments section (29 more on the TwinsCentric blog on, where the entry was reproduced). I didn't agree with a lot of the comments -- heck, some of it was just aimless venting -- but I appreciate everyone who took the time to share their thoughts and feelings. Thank you all, for your participation yesterday and throughout the season. As always, it's the readers who have made this time-consuming hobby worthwhile.

It's been a long and crazy ride that we've shared this season, and while the Twins are done playing for the year, I will of course continue updating the blog throughout the fall and winter until spring training rolls around once again. Many of those updates will center on the team's offseason moves, and you can get a jump start on that conversation by pre-ordering your copy of the TwinsCentric 2010-11 Offseason GM Handbook today.

We published our first GM Handbook when the Twins' season concluded last year and to this day it's my favorite product we've released. For one thing, I loved the concept -- putting the reader in the role of Twins' general manager and providing all the information necessary to craft your own offseason blueprint. In addition, I think we executed it really well. I'm quite proud of how accurate the Handbook was; for example, the first trade target we listed was JJ Hardy and the top free agent second baseman listed was Orlando Hudson.

A lot of hard work goes into these projects, and as a result, the final products contain a lot of valuable information and entertaining content. We sold last year's version for $9.95 and had a lot of satisfied customers. This year, we'll sell the e-book at that same price.


To reward the loyalty of our readers, we're announcing a special offer on our blogs for a limited time only. If you're one of the first 500 people to pre-order your copy, you'll get it at a special price of $4.95, and you'll receive it a week or two before it becomes available to the general public. Feel free to share this offer with as many people as you like, but it's aimed at rewarding those who've checked in on the blogs regularly.

For all the details, head over the TwinsCentric site, where you'll be able to pre-order with quickness and ease. As we did last year, we'll hold a contest wherein people can submit their offseason predictions using the Handbook and the one that ultimately proves most accurate will take home a prize next spring. I look forward to seeing your submissions.

The GM Handbook is not a necessary companion to my offseason coverage here (nor at the other TwinsCentric blogs), but I'll refer to it often and I have no doubt that any Twins fan will get a ton of mileage out of it. Not to mention that, in purchasing a copy this week, you'll be supporting this labor of love and doing so at a special price.

Yesterday's comments section would seem to indicate that many of you disagree with Jim Pohlad's use of the term regarding a contract extension for Ron Gardenhire, but I really do believe this deal is a "no-brainer." Whether or not you choose to take advantage of it, thanks -- as always -- for stopping by.

Monday, October 11, 2010

E-Z Passed

Many Twins fans took exception to the above headline, which appeared on the cover of the New York Daily News prior to the ALDS. The newspaper, known for being outrageous and controversial, was condescendingly declaring the Twins to be no challenge for the Yankees, a sentiment that seemed echo throughout the Big Apple.

As it would turn out, the arrogance was well warranted. The Twins brandished home field advantage and a $100 million payroll this time around, but the result was no different from past meetings with the Yankees: complete and utter failure.

In fact, this was Minnesota's most feeble postseason effort against the Bombers yet. In 2003 and 2004, the Twins at least managed to take a game. Last year, while they were swept, the Yankees needed extra-inning heroics and help from an umpire to win Game 2.

This year, the Yankees came into Minnesota and soundly defeated the Twins in a pair of games that held little drama. When the series went back to New York, the Yankees vanquished their dejected opponents with such ease and nonchalance that the result seemed predetermined.

We can spout off all we want about the Yankees' hex over the Twins or Ron Gardenhire's ineptitude in the postseason, but ultimately what this comes down to is a complete letdown by this team's players. These guys fought so hard all season to get to the big stage, and once they got there no one could step up and carry the load.

Francisco Liriano was among the league's most dominant starting pitchers this season. He certainly looked like it over the first five innings of Game 1. Somehow things spiraled so badly that when it was all said and done, Liriano -- who held lefty hitters to a .517 OPS this season -- was chased in the sixth inning by a two-run triple off the bat of a guy who has never hit southpaws.

Carl Pavano pitched so many brilliant games this season; he just couldn't do it when they needed him most.

Brian Duensing continually amazed us all summer long, but when push came to shove in Game 3, he was made to look like a player who did not belong in the major leagues. (Duensing threw 58 pitches in that outing; the Yankees did not swing and miss at one of them.)

Jesse Crain was, by any measure, one of the league's most dominant relievers this season, even accounting for his early-season struggles. Over the final four months, his tweaked slider was a pitch that rivaled Mariano Rivera's cutter in effectiveness. Yet, with a playoff game on the line and Mark Teixeira -- himself coming off an unremarkable season and battling wrist soreness -- at the plate, Crain left that slider hanging and it cost the Twins dearly.

Joe Mauer was a stud this season, shaking off a pedestrian first half to key the offenese with some monster production after the All-Star break. He contributed three singles in the series.

Delmon Young had a breakout campaign, becoming the chief run producer in the lineup after Justin Morneau went down in early July. He drove in 112 runs during the regular season. In this series, he drove in zero runs and managed zero extra-base hits.

Jim Thome was one of the league's most feared hitters this season. He came up with one single in 10 at-bats.

Jason Kubel has homered 69 times in the past three seasons and has delivered some of the team's biggest clutch hits during that span. He went 0-for-8 in the series and is now 2-for-29 lifetime in the postseason.

None of the role players did much of anything, but it wouldn't have made a whole lot of difference. When you get those kind of performances from your core players, you're not going to win a series against a team like New York.

I think it's hard to ignore the fact that almost none of the players mentioned above was playing at a high level as the season came to an end. Team momentum might be overrated, but when almost each and every one of your key players slumps into the end of the regular season, maybe you shouldn't be so surprised that they all come out ice cold in the playoffs.

The natural reaction for many fans is to blame the manager. After all, Gardenhire has been the one common thread among all these disappointing postseason teams. Yet, I find that almost lazy. He's proven his ability to win games, of both large and small magnitude, throughout his managerial tenure. I can't find fault much with the way he prepared the team for the playoffs nor the way he managed once they got there. It almost defies belief that so many of a good team's players can simultaneously shut down at the most important point in the season, and I'm sure Gardy's more baffled than anyone.

Maybe the visceral masses are correct. Maybe Gardenhire has a mental block when it comes to the Yankees and he lets it soak into his players. Maybe he made the wrong choice in giving Pavano a few extra days rest between his final regular-season and first postseason starts. Maybe he should have let banged up starters keep playing after the team clinched to keep them sharp. Maybe these 12 straight playoff losses really are on his shoulders.

But the manager can't go out there and complete six innings for Liriano. He can't stop Crain from leaving a high slider to Teixeira. He can't make the team's No. 3 hitter and reigning MVP deliver a danged extra-base hit in the postseason for once.

It's on the players. The teams that win in the postseason do so on the foundation of lights-out pitching performances and big hits, and in this series the Twins got neither of each, just like usual.

So ends the sixth season I've covered the Twins on my blog. During that span, I've watched the team make the playoffs three times and I still haven't had the chance to write about one single postseason victory. That's hard to swallow.

I'd say this one stings the most, but I don't know if that's true. Compared to 2006 and 2009, this club's regular season came to an anticlimactic end and the ALDS sweep by the Yankees was so quick and bereft of drama or memorable moments that it's almost like it didn't happen.

I feel a little robbed. Maybe that's why this one stings the most after all.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

ALDS Game 3 Preview: Twins @ Yankees

The Twins battled their way to 94 wins this season, ensuring themselves home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That figured to factor heavily for a club that finished with a historically strong home record this season.

Unfortunately, the Twins have dropped both of the first two games of this ALDS at Target Field, so they now must climb a very steep hill in order to avoid another first-round exit from the postseason.

It begins tonight at Yankee Stadium. A series victory seems like a real long shot at this point, but fans could at least take solace in one Twins win to snap the team's long postseason drought and provide a single success for a franchise that has experienced nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs over the past eight years.

The pitching match-up, as you'll see below, is not all that daunting. It would also seem as though the Twins almost have to break through offensively -- they went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position over the first two games; how long can that last? We can talk all we want about how the Twins shrivel in the playoffs and cower to the Yankees, but at the end of the day this is a baseball team with a lot of talent and these guys can't just keep failing forever.

Something's gotta give. Maybe that starts to happen tonight. It's the only thing that can save the Twins now.

On to pitching match-ups (skipping key players today because I'm lazy and dejected)...

Brian Duensing | 130.2 IP, 10-3, 1.62 ERA, 78/35 K/BB, 1.20 WHIP

Duensing has done everything this organization has asked of him. For years he toiled away in the Twins' farm system, consistently posting solid results while blocked by more advanced pitching prospects. He got his chance to debut as a major-leaguer last year, at age 25, but it was initially in a relief role rather than the starting role he'd filled throughout his professional career. Duensing adapted well, got his chance to join the rotation in August and ran with it, going 5-1 with a 2.64 ERA in eight starts down the stretch to help propel the Twins to an unlikely postseason berth. There, Duensing drew about the toughest assignment a rookie pitcher could get -- starting Game 1 of a playoff series in Yankee Stadium -- but the lefty held his own and gave the Twins a chance to win.

This spring, Duensing was once again nudged to the bullpen by an overly crowded rotation. He once again adapted well, becoming the team's best left-handed reliever, and when Nick Blackburn earned his way out of the Twins rotaiton Duensing got another chance to join it. Once again, he ran with the opportunity. In 13 starts since joining the rotation in late July, Duensing has gone 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA.

The Twins will have to hope that success can carry forward, as tonight they make their most desperate plea to Duensing yet: save our season. Will the left-hander be up to the task?

Phil Hughes | 176.1 IP, 18-8, 4.19 ERA, 146/58 K/BB, 1.24 WHIP

Opposing Duensing will be a pitcher with one of the most misleading win/loss records in baseball. Hughes' 18-8 mark would have you believe he was one of the best pitchers in the league but the truth is that the Yankees' No. 3 starter finished with merely decent numbers across the board, and by the end of the season he wasn't viewed by any team as a particularly tough draw.

When we last saw Hughes in October, he was serving as a setup man out of the Yankees bullpen. It was a role that suited the young right-hander well; he stepped up his velocity in shortened outings and managed a 3.03 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while pitching mostly as a reliever last year, averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings. This year, New York has transitioned Hughes into a full-time starting role and as a result his performance has declined.

That wasn't the case right off the bat. In April and May, Hughes jumped out to a 6-1 start while posting a 2.70 ERA and averaging over a strikeout per inning. In June, he managed to go 4-1 despite a 5.17 ERA. He went on to run up a 4.67 ERA over the final three months of the season, surrendering 17 home runs over 88 innings while notching only 65 strikeouts.

The drop-off in dominance suggests that either Hughes has not responded well to the rigors of a full season in a major-league rotation or the league has adapted to him with increased exposure. Either way, it leaves him vulnerable and beatable. He's not a bad pitcher by any means, but he's not the dominant force he was throughout the minors or in the Yankees bullpen last year.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Same Old Story

The Twins' loss in Game 2 of the ALDS last night wasn't as painful as some of the team's past postseason heartbreakers, but perhaps that's only because we as fans have been conditioned to these failures.

Certainly, the game had all the requisite attributes of a typical Twins playoff loss to the Yankees: an early lead that disappeared, a blown call by an umpire that proved costly, and -- most importantly -- a complete lack of offensive output from the Twins.

We can savage Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano for failing to deliver quality starts, though there's nothing embarrassing about the results they got against the league's top-scoring offense. We can demonize home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt for another in a long line of whiffed umpiring calls that threaten the integrity of this great game (while commissioner Bud Selig seems content to ignore the issue). We can continue heaping blame on Ron Gardenhire, because his teams have now dropped 11 straight postseason games and while I don't think that has much to do with his managing I'm not going to waste my breath defending him anymore.

Ultimately, the Twins' failure to come away with even a single win over the first two games of this series falls squarely on the offense, just like it has throughout this miserable postseason drought.

The Twins last night faced a pitcher who'd started four games since the All-Star break and who was knocked around for nine runs on 19 hits in his two final regular-season tune-up starts. In front of a packed home crowd, the Twins manage to push two runs across. You don't beat the Yankees scoring two runs.

The game marked the seventh time during Minnesota's current postseason losing streak that they've scored three or fewer runs. You don't win games like that very often in the regular season (the Twins went 13-46 when scoring three times or less this year) and you certainly don't win them in the playoffs against an offensive juggernaut like the Yanks.

In Games 1 and 2, the Twins went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position in front of their home crowd. It's difficult to label that kind of effort anything but pathetic. In fact, over their past five home playoff games, they have gone 2-for-30 in scoring opportunities. The players change but the story stays the same: the Twins can't get big hits and because of it they've turned into a postseason joke that no one takes seriously come October.

It's a reputation they've earned.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

ALDS Game 2 Preview: Yankees @ Twins

Well, ain't that a punch in the gut?

The Twins spent over $100 million on payroll this year. They played well enough over the regular season to earn home field advantage in the first round. They got to CC Sabathia early for three runs and Francisco Liriano was locked in over the first five innings.

The Twins still couldn't get it done. They dropped Game 1 by a score of 6-4, putting them in a position where they will need to win three of the final four games in this series to move on. With two of those games to be played in New York and one of them to be pitched by Sabathia, it's a tall order. But my initial prediction for this series was Twins in five, with Liriano losing in Game 1 and winning in Game 5, so I'll have to try and optimistically cling to it.

On the bright side, the Twins now move into the more questionable portion of the Yankees rotation. Tonight they will get Andy Pettitte (profiled below) and on Saturday in Yankee Stadium it will be Phil Hughes, who's been no world-beater since the All-Star break and will finally give the Twins a break from their steady diet of left-handed pitching in this series.

Rest assured, this series is still winnable. But it starts with tonight's game -- one that the Twins simply cannot allow to get away from them. They've already surrendered home field advantage by dropping last night's contest, but with a victory tonight and a split in New York they can force the series back to Minnesota for Game 5. Realistically, that should be their goal at this point.

The term "must-win game" tends to get overused. It only truly applies in elimination games, and in those cases the necessity of a victory is obvious and needs not be stated. The Twins could conceivably lose tonight, win the final three games of the series and move on. But I don't think anyone believes that's going to happen.

The Twins have got to find a way to hold onto a lead tonight and leave Minneapolis with a split. If not, they'll be heading to Yankee Stadium staring down the barrel of yet another first-round sweep.

A look at tonight's starting pitchers and key players...

Andy Pettitte | 129 IP, 11-3, 3.28 ERA, 101/41 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP

When Pettitte made his first postseason start for the Yankees, Joe Mauer was 12. The southpaw represents one of the last remaining links to the dynastic New York teams of the late '90s, and at the age of 38 he's still going strong, as demonstrated by the strong numbers posted above.

It might be difficult for Twins fans to view Pettitte as a weakness for the Yanks. After all, he's gone 11-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 21 career regular-season match-ups against the hometown nine, including a dominant eight-inning victory at Target Field back in May. His numbers this year were outstanding, with an ERA and WHIP that stand as his best since 2005.

Yet, what you don't see from one glance at those shiny numbers is that they were all accumulated during the first half of the season. Since the All-Star break, Pettitte has made only four starts, and he's pitched into the sixth inning in only one of them. He hasn't thrown more than 88 pitches in a game since July 8th. That fact makes it rather unlikely that Pettitte pitches particularly deep into tonight's game, so even if the left-hander is effective there's a good chance that the Twins will get a more extended look at the New York bullpen. While we saw last night that New York boasts some dominant arms in the back end between Mariano Rivera and Kerry Wood, it is in the lower levels of the relief corps that their weaknesses lie.

It's probably not fair to expect a hit parade against Pettitte tonight. The guy's postseason track record is daunting -- he's made 40 starts and gone 18-9 with a 3.90 ERA, numbers that are extremely impressive when you consider that he's routinely been facing the best teams in the league in the most pressure-packed environments. Pettitte also proved over the first half this year that, despite his age, he's not lost much when he's healthy. But he hasn't really been healthy for three months, and that is where the Twins' advantage lies.

Get after Pettitte early, make him uncomfortable, force a lot of pitches, and make the Yankees rely on their bullpen to chip in several innings. This will be the Twins' recipe for success this evening.

Carl Pavano | 229 IP, 17-11, 3.75 ERA, 117/37 K/BB, 1.19 WHIP

Pavano's history with the Yankees is well documented. After an 18-win season with the Marlins in 2004, the right-hander signed a four-year, $40 million deal with the Yankees and -- due to perpetual injury problems -- ended up pitching only 145 innings (with a 5.00 ERA) over the life of the contract. His name became a running joke in the Bronx and he is now so reviled by New York fans that he'd probably need to wear a bullet-proof vest if he was pitching in Yankee Stadium tonight.

Given this history, Pavano undoubtedly would have taken some extra satisfaction out of defeating the Yankees in last year's ALDS. Certainly, he pitched well enough to do so, allowing only two solo home runs over seven innings at the Metrodome, but unfortunately the Twins offense came up short against Pettitte and Pavano's strong outing was wasted as the Yankees completed their sweep.

Tonight, Pavano will get another chance to beat the Yankees, and he'll do it with a much stronger lineup backing him against a much more vulnerable version of Pettitte. Pavano differs from Liriano in that he's not by any means a strikeout pitcher -- in fact, he finished the season with a paltry 4.8 K/9IP rate and fanned only 10 of the 143 batters he faced in September. Allowing that type of contact against the Yankees' powerful lineup can be dangerous, and if that lineup starts putting baserunners on they're liable to terrorize Pavano, who was one of the easiest pitchers in baseball to run against this year.

The way Pavano pitched against the Yankees last October sparks hope that he can step up and shut down their powerful lineup again this year. If his command is sharp and he's able to keep hitters off-balance by changing speeds and working the edges of the strike zone, he can find success.

KEY PLAYER -- YANKEES: Brett Gardner, LF

Gardner is very tough to keep off the base paths; he's a patient hitter who drew 79 walks this season and he's not easy to strike out. He was especially pesky against right-handed starters, against whom he hit .307 with a .402 on-base percentage. Gardner was the Yankees' leading base-stealer this season, swiping 47 bags on 55 attempts. If he gets on base, there's little doubt he'll be running, and that's where things can start to spin out of control for Pavano and the Twins.


Pavano's ineffectiveness at holding runners will put additional pressure on Mauer defensively. The catcher will need to deliver perfect throws in order to gun down base-stealers. In addition, Mauer has got to step up offensively. He's the Twins' No. 3 hitter and best player -- a guy they absolutely need to produce in order to get past the Yankees. Last night's pedestrian 1-for-5 effort with two strikeouts simply isn't going to cut it. Sabathia was a tough match-up for Mauer, but so is Pettitte tonight. Great players step up in situations like this, regardless of who they're facing.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

ALDS Game 1 Preview: Yankees @ Twins

Tonight, the Twins and Yankees will commence yet another ALDS face-off. It will mark the fourth time in eight years the two have matched up in the opening round of the playoffs -- same old story, right?

Except, this really isn't the same old story. Each of the past three postseason meetings between these two clubs has resulted in the same outcome -- a relatively comfortable series victory for the Yankees and a disappointing end to the Twins' season. Yet, none of those outcomes should have been particularly surprising, because in each case the Yankees were heavy favorites and clearly the superior team.

Never have the Twins been more disadvantaged than they were last year. They crept into the playoffs after an exciting but exhausting run in the final weeks of the regular-season, capped by a 12-inning marathon victory in Game 163. Emotionally and physically drained, the 88-win Twins traveled to Yankee Stadium to face the well-rested No. 1 seed in the American League.

In my preview of that series, I was appropriately pessimistic, listing the Twins' numerous shortcomings and concluding: "It's tough to imagine the Twins taking this series. In fact, it's pretty tough to imagine them even taking a game." Sure enough, they did not, but that should have come as no surprise and by no means should it have been viewed as some colossal failure on the part of Ron Gardenhire's club.

Similar circumstances have faced Gardy's Twins in each of their past ALDS match-ups with New York. As I mentioned earlier this week, on every occasion the Twins entered the playoffs with the worst record of any playoff qualifier in the American League, while the Yankees have been the league's No. 1 seed with over 100 regular-season wins. This year, for the first time, the Twins hold home field advantage and -- thanks largely to a substantial boost in payroll -- they actually match up pretty evenly with the Bronx Bombers.

Now, that's not to say that this series should be viewed as a cakewalk. The Yankees are a very good team that won 95 games in baseball's toughest division. They led the AL in runs scored, ranked second in OPS and third in homers. They have the game's best closer. Their Game 1 (and probable Game 4) starter is a top Cy Young candidate. As much as the Twins can claim to match up better than ever with the Yankees on paper, they still went 2-4 against them in the regular season after going 0-10 overall last year.

These Twins have much to prove. And winning Game 1 tonight is absolutely vital. Not only does it put Minnesota in the driver's seat -- costing the Yankees one of their two CC Sabathia starts and forcing them to win three of the final four games to move on -- but it helps address a stigma that has followed this team from the Metrodome to Target Field.

I don't doubt that the Twins believe they can beat the Yankees in a series, but let's be honest... they haven't done it in a long time.

Now, to break down tonight's pitching match-up and highlight one key player for each side:

CC Sabathia | 237.2 IP, 21-7, 3.18 ERA, 197/74 K/BB, 1.19 WHIP

Because he won 21 games this season while being backed by the league's best offense, there's a pretty good chance that Sabathia will capture the AL Cy Young Award for a second time in six years. That honor would be undeserved -- for reasons I detailed a few weeks ago -- but he certainly deserves to be in the conversation as one of the league's finest pitchers.

Sabathia excels in just about every aspect of the game. He's almost equally tough on lefties and righties. He boasts a solid strikeout rate and limits walks, hits and home runs. He's a big-framed workhorse who threw 110 or more pitches in 19 starts this season (his opponent in tonight's game surpassed the 110-pitch mark twice).  He seemingly faltered a bit late in the year, posting a 4.11 ERA over his final five starts, but mixed into that stretch were dominant road outings against the Rays and Blue Jays.

If the way Sabathia pitched all season, or the way he pitched for the Yankees in the postseason last year, are any indication, the Twins are not going to be scoring much against the hefty lefty this evening. And since Sabathia routinely completes seven or more innings, the Twins won't be able to rely on mounting their attack against the Yankees bullpen. In order to win, the Twins will need to try and scrape a few runs across against Sabathia and hope for a strong outing from their own guy...

Francisco Liriano | 191.2 IP, 14-10, 3.62 ERA, 201/58 K/BB, 1.26 WHIP

Liriano's stats looked a whole lot better halfway through September, when he was 14-7 with a 3.28 ERA, but he took a loss in each of his final three starts while allowing 12 runs on 17 hits -- five homers -- in 13 1/3 innings.

In spite of the uninspiring finish, Liriano was still one of the most dominating pitchers in the league this year. He was one of only five AL hurlers to notch over 200 strikeouts, posted an elite 53.6 percent ground ball rate and was better at keeping the ball in the park than any other starting pitcher in the majors. Those traits should play well against a Yankee offense that was heavy on homers and hit just .263/.343/.394 against ground ball pitchers. Basically, if Liriano is on top of his game, he can neutralize the strengths of this New York lineup.

The question, of course, is whether or not Liriano will be on top of his game. As mentioned before, he's not pitched well in any of his past three starts, and the fact that his historically fragile arm has now logged over 250 innings this year between the regular season, spring training and winter ball is somewhat worrisome. He also has little experience performing on this type of stage and some believe he gets overly jacked up when pitching in big spots.

Regardless of those factors, Liriano is the guy the Twins want on the mound tonight at Target Field, where he was a significantly better pitcher than on the road this season. If he can come through with a strong performance, he can help dispel two lingering myths -- that he shrivels in the spotlight, and that the Twins can't beat the Yankees.

KEY PLAYER -- YANKEES: Mark Teixeira, 1B

Liriano didn't allow a lot of home runs this year, but when he did, it usually didn't end well. In Liriano's seven starts that resulted in a loss, he allowed seven home runs. In his 21 starts that resulted in a win or no-decision, he allowed two. For a second straight year, Teixeira was New York's top home run hitter, going deep 33 times. As I mentioned in yesterday's Scouting the Enemy piece, the switch-hitting first baseman was also much more dangerous when swinging from the right side, and Liriano gave up all nine of his homers this year to right-handed batters.

KEY PLAYER -- TWINS: Delmon Young, LF

When the Twins have lost in the playoffs, it's been because they haven't scored. They'll have a tough time bucking that trend against Sabathia tonight, but one player who could play a big role is Young, their best hitter from the right side. Young had a breakout campaign, launching 20 homers and driving in 112 runs, and he'll be batting from the clean-up spot tonight. If he can keep his bat hot like it was in the final weeks of the regular season, he could be the difference-maker in the Twins lineup.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Scouting the Enemy: Q&A with IIATMS

Jason Rosenberg and his stable of writers do a terrific job of covering the Yankees over the site It's About the Money, Stupid. The blog is a member of Rob Neyer's SweetSpot Network, and with good reason -- they offer the type of cogent, even-handed analysis that many might not typically associate with New York sports.

I strongly recommend checking out Jason's ALDS series preview, and after you're done with that you can scroll down and read my brief Q&A session with the IIATMS crew here. I asked Jason and his gang five questions that I felt might help illuminate some aspects of the opponent for Twins fans. Make sure you head over to the IIATMS blog later today to check out my answers to their own five questions.

NTB: Many people don't seem to realize what a disappointing season Derek Jeter had, by his standards at least. From your vantage point, are his reduced numbers simply the result of a down year or is he showing his age? Give us a synopsis on his season and rate your confidence in him heading into the ALDS.

IIATMS: Anyone who got within 100 yards of IIATMS knows about Jeter’s disappointing season. We KNOW that something is off with Jeter this year. When we look at his stats, the one that jumps out is a 65.7% ground ball rate, by far the highest in baseball for anyone with at least 300 ABs (there are only three other players with at least 300 ABs and a GB% over 60%). Jeter’s always had a high ground ball rate (career average of 57%), but 65.7% seems extreme, particularly coupled with a career-low line drive percentage of 16.1% and a career-high O-Swing percentage (percentage of balls swung at outside of the strike zone) of 28.2%. These stats confirm what we think we saw all year: Jeter did not make the same kind of ball contact as in prior years, nor did he have the same kind of plate discipline. Is age a factor? Of course age is a factor, he’s 36 years old. But this also may have been an off-year for Jeter, as suggested by his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). BABIP fluctuations are supposed to be mostly a matter of luck. Jeter’s 2010 BABIP is .307, which is better than normal for most players but 50 points below his career average. So, chalk up Jeter’s 2010 to a combination of factors, and figure that (subject to the small sample size) Jeter is probably a better player than he showed this year, but not as good as he was before this year.

NTB: Mark Teixeira's splits this season are striking to me. The switch-hitter's OPS was about 140 points higher from the right side, which bodes well for your club with the Twins starting southpaws in Games 1 and 3. I also notice that Teixeira's OPS was 240 points lower on the road than at home, which obviously doesn't bode nearly as well. What do you make of these splits?

IIATMS: Don’t try to figure out Mark Teixeira. Just don’t. We’ve given up trying. Yes, his 2010 OPS number is down about a hundred points from last year’s near-MVP level, but a year for this guy is either too small or too large a sample size. We’re not sure. Yes, he was more productive from the right side in 2010, but he’s not predictable here either. In 2009, his OPS was 40 points better from the left side; in 2008 he was 92 points better from the left side; in 2006 he was 125 points better from the right side. You tell us what that means. We’re listening. More significant to us is his OPS fluctuation from month to month: .559 in March/April of this year, 1.160 in July, .694 in September/October. But somehow, the guy always seems to make a contribution. For example, Teix manages to draw walks when he can’t get hits – in his combined March/April and September/October, he had more walks than hits. When we make a list of the things we’re worried about for this October, Teix doesn’t make our top 20. (And by the way, thanks for not asking us to explain why Teix’s 2010 UZR was worse than Adam Dunn’s.)

NTB: Give us a breakdown of the Yankees bullpen. Mariano Rivera struggled a bit late in the season but he had another great year and is a postseason legend. Beyond him, however, this doesn't appear to be one of the better groups in baseball. Is there a lefty specialist that you'd trust against the likes of Joe Mauer and Jim Thome late in a game?

IIATMS: Our relief corps got better as the year went on. They ended with a 3.47 ERA (0.02 better than the Twins). Our FIP is not great at 4.06, but blame that on Mo Rivera, whose FIP is usually higher than his ERA (this year a full point higher). The addition of Kerry Wood at the trade deadline was a huge help down the stretch (0.69 ERA, .160 BA against, 10.73 K/9). We don’t expect Wood to be that good in the post-season, but he doesn’t have to be that good to help get us to Mo. As for our LOOGY? That would be household name Boone Logan, a guy whose mere appearance warming in the bullpen used to trigger a spasm of hate tweets in Yankeedom. Only Logan ended the season with an ERA under 3. Against lefties he had a K/9 of over 12 and a FIP of 1.87. He also got better as the year went on: he allowed just one earned run in 13 innings of pitching in July and August. That’s not bad for a LOOGY, and no, we don’t trust Logan versus Joe Mauer in a high-leverage situation. If you know of a LOOGY who IS effective against Joe Mauer, please let us know who that LOOGY is, and we’ll sign him to an eight-figure free agent contract before Wednesday. Only kidding. We wouldn’t do that. So there wouldn’t be any harm in recommending a LOOGY to us. You can trust us.

NTB: What are your thoughts on the Yankees' playoff rotation? CC Sabathia is obviously a horse. Andy Pettitte has owned the Twins historically but carries injury concerns this October. Phil Hughes strikes me as a wild card. Unless they're up in the series 2-1, is there any chance the Yanks don't go back to Sabathia on short rest for Game 4?

IIATMS: We haven’t seen the Yanks’ projected starting rotation, but we think the Yanks will go back to CC in game 4 even if the Yanks ARE up 2-1. The Yanks’ starting rotation consists of a Cy Young runner-up, two question marks, and a threesome that seemed to fight down the stretch for the honor of being left off the post-season roster. We haven’t seen a Yankees-announced post-season rotation yet, but we’ve penciled CC in for three days’ rest in every post-season series in which the Yankees manage to play. CC may need half of 2011 to rest up from what we plan to do to him in the remainder of 2010.

NTB: Finally, give us one key reason the Yankees could win this series and one reason they could lose it.

IIATMS: Same key reason both times: starting pitching. If the Yanks can hold you guys to an average of 4.5 runs a game, then we like our chances. If not, then we’ll be spending much of the post-season making goo-goo eyes at Cliff Lee.

Huge thanks to all the people over at IIATMS for their thoughtful answers. I'm sure we'll be hearing from them again over the course of this series. A few more notes to take you through this final agonizing day before we get this thing started...

* If I did a live, interactive Twins chat here on the blog within the next few days, is that something that people would be interested in participating in?

* One cool aspect of the increased interest in the Twins this year as a result of the new stadium and the quality product on the field is all the new independent apparel that has sprung up. I'm sure you're all familiar with Parker's DiamondCentric label, which has released a number of humorous player-related t-shirt designs including the ever-popular Thome Is My Homey (now available as a hooded sweatshirt).

If you haven't yet, I strongly recommend checking out the "Let's Get Denarded" shirts from the clothing line Seventh.Ink. I got my hands on one of these t-shirts last week and was extremely impressed with its quality; the slick design is printed on American Apparel, so they're actually really nice threads. Please go pay my friends at Seventh.Ink a visit and order your t-shirt or hoody in time for the playoffs!

* Finally, TwinsCentric and a number of other Twins fans will be gathering at at Park Tavern in St. Louis Park for Game 3 of the ALDS, which takes place in New York on Saturday night starting at 7:30 CT. Please join us!

Monday, October 04, 2010

Gardenhire and the Playoffs

With a 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays, the Twins' 2010 regular season came to a close yesterday. Their final record: 94-68, good enough to clinch home field advantage for the ALDS, which will -- for the fourth time in eight years -- pit the hometown nine against the New York Yankees.

The Twins, of course, have a rather sordid history with the Yankees in October. In each of the teams' three postseason meetings, the Bronx Bombers have moved on with relative ease. This, coupled with the Twins' hideous regular-season record against New York over the past decade, has caused some fans to wonder whether Ron Gardenhire has the mettle to lead his team to victory against baseball's most legendary club.

I find the criticisms of Gardenhire based on his lack of postseason success to be shallow, at best. In no way does a 6-18 record in a tiny 24-game sample outweigh the manager's .550 record in almost 1,500 regular-season games. It's not as if he manages differently in the playoffs than he does otherwise.

The only time during Gardenhire's tenure that the Twins have lost a series in which they were clearly favored was against the A's in 2006. In that instance, the league's hottest team completely shut down offensively, scoring no more than three runs in any of the series' three-games despite holding home field advantage. Tough to blame that on the manager, in my opinion.

Outside of that series, Gardenhire's postseason history since 2002 -- when he pushed the Twins to the ALCS in his first season at the helm -- consists of three losses to Yankees teams that were vastly superior. To review:

2009: Yankees 3, Twins 0.

Frankly, Gardenhire deserves credit for keeping the Twins in this series at all. It was about as lopsided a match-up as you can get in October. The Yankees, winners of an MLB-high 103 games during the regular season who would go on to win the World Series, had the opportunity to rest up before welcoming an exhausted and undermanned Twins team to New York in Game 1.

Circumstances forced the Twins to throw rookie Brian Duensing against CC Sabathia in Game 1, a contest that no one could have expected the Twins to win. In Game 2, the Twins held a two-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth before Alex Rodriguez blasted a game-tying two-run shot off one of the league's most reliable closers. The game went to extra innings, Phil Cuzzi blew a call, and Mark Teixeira hit a walk-off homer. In Game 3, Andy Pettitte out-dueled Carl Pavano and the Twins' offense once again shut down as the Yankees completed their sweep.

Gardenhire's fault? Good luck making that case.

2004: Yankees 3, Twins 1.

Comparing this year's club to the 2004 team in any way is a slippery slope, since the two have almost nothing in common. But since we're discussing the myth that Gardenhire somehow lets up against the Yankees in the playoffs, we'll take a look at what went down.

The scenario was similar to last year; the Yankees had won an AL-high 101 games during the regular season to earn home field advantage in the first round. In Game 1, Cy Young winner Johan Santana tossed an absolute gem in Yankee Stadium, notching seven scoreless innings as the Twins went on to win 2-0. Gardenhire's team nearly took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series by stealing Game 2, but an unfortunate hop turned Corey Koskie's potential go-ahead hit in the eighth into a game-tying ground-rule double and the Twins were ultimately thwarted in the 12th inning. The Yankees beat up on Carlos Silva in Game 3 and won another tightly contested extra-inning thriller in Game 4 to take the series.

Can Koskie's bad bounce and a couple tough extra-inning losses against a team whose payroll was $130 million higher really be blamed on the manager? If you say so...

2003: Yankees 3, Twins 1.

Yet another series opened in Yankee Stadium, against a New York team that finished with the AL's best record, 101-61. The Twins won the first game 3-1 behind a brilliant collaborative effort between Santana and the bullpen. They scored only one run apiece in the next three games and, sure enough, lost them all. You can blame Gardenhire for the lineup's failures in these games if you want, or you can blame the fact that he was managing a team with serious payroll restrictions that featured Matt LeCroy as its DH and cleanup hitter.

The lineups have changed dramatically between these three teams, which is why they shouldn't be considered all that seriously when assessing the Twins' chances this year, but a few things have remained constant. The Yankees have been the best team in the American League, with 100+ wins, and have held home field advantage. The Twins have worked on restricted budgets, owned the worst record of any qualifying playoff team, and been horribly over-matched in almost every phase of the game.

None of those things are true this year. The Yankees won one more game than the Twins in the regular season, but they enter the postseason as wild card rather than AL East champ and for the first time will be forced to come to Minnesota to open a playoff series.

Where the Twins last year threw out an unknown and untested rookie to start Game 1, this year they'll rock one of the game's best starters. Where last year's lineup featured Brendan Harris as starting DH, Nick Punto as starting second baseman and Matt Tolbert as starting third baseman, this year the Twins will roll out Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson and sensational rookie Danny Valencia. J.J. Hardy, the No. 9 hitter for the 2010 Twins, posted a better OPS this year than four members of last year's ALDS Game 1 lineup did in '09 -- including the guy manning the two-hole. Among all those players I just mentioned -- Thome, Hudson, Valencia, Hardy -- none could be accused of having any sort of mental block when it comes to the Yankees.

I realize that this post will sound to some like another lame defense of Gardenhire from a guy who's expended all too much energy on the subject, but let's be clear: the Twins have been clear underdogs each of the three times they've faced the Yankees in a playoff series over the past seven years. It'd be nice if Gardy could have come out on top once, but it hardly could have been expected.

Things are different this year. As Bonnes noted last week, these Yanks are far more vulnerable than past iterations, and this time they'll have to come into Target Field to open the series. The Twins will arguably have a pitching advantage in every game, and even without Justin Morneau this lineup packs far more punch than any we've seen in any of the aforementioned series.

Hold the Twins' past postseason failures against them all you want. But don't make the mistake of thinking this year's situation bears any real resemblance to them. And don't act like the manager who's brought them here for a sixth time in nine years is a liability.

Friday, October 01, 2010

What, Me Worry? Maybe a Little

I'm breaking no new ground in stating that the Twins have been struggling lately.

After being blown out by the homer-happy Blue Jays last night 13-2, the Twins have now dropped six of their last seven games, being outscored 61-27 in the process. They were rather thoroughly pummeled throughout a road trip that brought them through Detroit and Kansas City, and then returned home to open their final series of the season by surrendering six home runs in a stadium where they -- as a team -- have gone deep only 50 times in 78 games this year.

Aaron Gleeman and Phil Mackey have both offered some perspective recently on the true impact of momentum heading into the playoffs, noting that historical evidence suggests no real correlation. Mackey also points out that the majority of damage done against the Twins during this ugly stretch has come against players who will not be factors on the postseason roster.

These things are true. However...

Francisco Liriano, looking to rebound from an outing shortened by illness and sharpen up in his final tune-up start, surrendered three home runs -- half of his previous season total -- in 5 1/3 innings. Since seeing his ERA dip to 3.24 after hurling seven two-run frames against the Royals, he's gone 1-3 with a 6.98 ERA. Five of the nine home runs he's allowed this season have come during that span.

Not that many of you need to be reminded, but Liriano has a history of arm problems. He missed the entire 2007 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, had a documented bout with dead arm last year and had another one this year. After last night's start, he's thrown more than 190 innings this season, and that's not counting the 50 or so innings he tossed in winter ball prior to spring training.

Liriano will take the hill five days from now at Target Field, most likely against the Yankees, who have scored a lot more runs than the Blue Jays this year. Taking the hill in Game 2 will be Carl Pavano.

The same Pavano who was knocked around for seven runs on 11 hits over four innings in Detroit last weekend. Another guy with a history of arm problems, Pavano is at 214 innings this year entering tonight's start. He's given up 19 hits over nine innings in his last two turns.

Do these slumps have any bearing on how those two (not to mention Brian Duensing, also coming off his worst start of the season) will fare in the opening round of the playoffs? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But to leisurely play these simultaneous slumps off as random statistical noise seems awfully short-sighted.

The poor play hasn't stopped with pitching, of course. The Twins have been held to two or fewer runs four times during this seven-game span, being shut down by such household names as Sean O'Sullivan and Shawn Hill.

Much of the offensive ineptitude over the past week can be pinned on scrub-filled lineups, but last night, with Joe Mauer returning, Ron Gardenhire sent out his A-lineup minus one hitter. That lineup was held to two runs on four hits by a group of pitchers consisting of Hill, Brian Tallet, Robert Ray, Casey Janssen, David Purcey and Taylor Buchholz. It happened in the same stadium the Twins fought so valiantly to ensure they'd open their postseason run.

Orlando Hudson, who was benched during the playoffs last year in Los Angeles, has hit .194 with three extra-base hits in 93 September at-bats. Jason Kubel, who might as well have been on the bench during the playoffs for the Twins last year, is at .222 since the All-Star break and .173 with an 18-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio this month. Mauer went 0-for-4 last night in his first action since September 19th. Jim Thome was expected to take swings at the ballpark yesterday but wasn't able to, as he's reportedly suffered a setback with his back injury.

I'm normally one to caution against overreacting to slumps, and to be clear, the Twins' abysmal performance recently does not in any way doom them in the playoffs. Teams can emerge from slumps at any time, and over the course of the season as a whole these Twins have proven that they're one of the league's most talented clubs.

But this isn't just a slump. This team is getting throttled, with several of their worst losses of the season bunched up closely. And while that's partially attributable to the inferior players they're trotting out, one can't exactly take solace in the way the regulars have been performing when given a chance.

The Twins have a grand total of three regular-season games remaining. I'm going to be grasping desperately for positive signs, because -- regardless of what the historical data says -- there's just no way I'm going to feel very confident heading into the playoffs with almost the entire team playing like absolute trash.