Friday, April 29, 2011

A Faceless Franchise

I feel sorry for Ron Gardenhire.

In addition to having three key starters on the disabled list, he's seen multiple minor injuries pop up in recent days, depleting an already short-handed bench. Backups have failed to produce, and -- more significantly -- so have most of the starters who have managed to evade injury or illness.

Beyond all that, the starting pitcher he'd hoped would develop into a dominant ace has completely derailed. Gardy is trying to preserve the few late-inning leads his team gives him with a patchwork bullpen, morphing constantly as players shuttle in and out from the minors.

After playing three cold-weather games in two days, all humiliating blowout losses in front of a cranky home crowd, the manager now must lead his beleaguered club to Kansas City, where they'll open a nine-game road trip. His pitching staff has seemingly forgotten how to throw strikes and his relievers have been run into the ground.

As for Gardenhire's best player, his $23 million franchise centerpiece? Still no timetable for Joe Mauer's return. The words "improving" and "progress" have been uttered repeatedly by all involved, but edgy fans can be excused for their skepticism considering how many times those buzzwords were invoked throughout Justin Morneau's eight-month recovery from a concussion.

Gardy and Mauer have generally evaded questions about the specific nature of this mysterious ailment, and I'm willing to believe it's because they -- along with team doctors -- genuinely have no clue what's going on. No one can come up with a rational explanation as to why the 28-year-old catcher still has no strength in his legs four months after undergoing an allegedly minor knee procedure that wasn't even deemed necessary until the offseason was two months old.

Mauer has never been a leader in an traditional sense -- the vocal clubhouse force who steps up and takes bullets in the media at the team's low points. But in the past, at least he's been there. This year, the frazzled face of the franchise has been conspicuously absent, leaving Gardenhire to take on the full wrath of reporters who are dutifully pressing for answers on behalf of a concerned public.

Like I said, I don't envy the Twins' skipper right now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cloudy Skies

Last night's game was blotted out by a steady stream of rain and the weather forecast calls for similar conditions this evening, so the Twins -- winners of three straight -- might have to wait to find out whether they can continue their reclamation tour at Target Field.

The next few games, whenever they take place, will allow the Twins a chance to avenge their series loss in Tampa Bay earlier this month. The good news is that two of three losses at Tropicana came in contests where the since-demoted Joe Nathan relinquished ninth inning leads, and in general the Twins seem to be clicking much more now than they were at that point.

It's been a rough early going for the Twins, but better things lie ahead. Given that they've opened the season with 14 of 21 games on the road -- all on the treacherous East Coast -- a 9-12 record is hardly the worst thing they could be staring at, especially in light of their dreadful season-opening slump on offense.

Bettering their outlook is the fact that, among divisional opponents, the only teams that have jumped out to surprisingly strong starts are the Indians and Royals, who seem unlikely to stay above .500 for long. The White Sox have looked every bit as bad as the Twins in this young season.

Much traveling still lies ahead ahead, as the Twins will follow up this two/three-game homestand against the Rays with another nine-game road trip. This makes it all the more important that they win at least a couple against Tampa and -- more importantly -- get Joe Mauer back as soon as possible.

The catcher is eligible to come off the disabled list tomorrow, but his return (much like the sun these past couple days) is nowhere in sight.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Three-Bagger: Morneau, Nathan, & Span

* The biggest star for the Twins in their abbreviated sweep over the Indians this past weekend was Justin Morneau, who returned from an extended battle with the flu and went 4-for-8 with four RBI. Though he seemed lost in his first couple weeks of action before falling ill (to be expected after an eight-month hiatus), Morneau looked more like his old self in the Cleveland series, coming through with big run-scoring hits in key situations and consistently hitting the ball with authority -- even on fouls and outs.

Jason Bay, another Canadian who had his 2010 season ended in July by a concussion, went deep for the Mets on Saturday, marking his first homer since suffering the brain injury. We're still waiting for Morneau to achieve that milestone, but it can't be far off with the way he was crushing the ball on Saturday and Sunday.

* After struggling in his first handful of appearances, Joe Nathan was relegated to to a low-leverage role in the bullpen. The ninth inning of Saturday's game, with the Twins leading by seven runs, fit the bill.

It wasn't exactly a save situation, but Nathan slammed the door on Cleveland with his most impressive outing this season. He retired the side in order while striking out two, including Orlando Cabrera on perhaps the best slider I've seen him throw all year.

This one outing hardly has me declaring Nathan fit to retake a late-inning role, but it's a step in the right direction. Building confidence with performances like this might be as important as anything to the right-hander's recovery.

* One of the most frustrating aspects of the Twins' slow offensive start has been their allergy to walks. After ranking fourth in the American League in free passes last year with largely the same group of hitters, they entered this past weekend ranked dead last.

Perhaps no one has been more emblematic of this lack of patience than Denard Span. The leadoff man is hitting the ball well, with a .318 average through 20 games, but he's drawn only five walks in his first 90 plate appearances – less than 6 percent.


As you can see from the table above, Span's ability to take walks has steadily declined since he debuted in the majors four years ago.

As of today, his OBP sits at .356 thanks to a robust batting average. That’s an acceptable mark for a leadoff man, but it appears as though the days of Span getting on base at a .390 clip are over, and if he can’t keep sneaking grounders through the infield with regularity his OBP could dip to mediocre depths.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Return on Investment

After losing 11-0 last night to an Orioles team that had dropped eight straight, the Twins sit at 6-11 on the season. They have been outscored 83-50 in 17 games, averaging less than three runs per contest. They rank last in the major leagues in runs, walks, home runs and OPS.

Things are as grim as can be.

They will get better. Even with the injuries and the presence of offensive black holes like Alexi Casilla and Drew Butera, the Twins are not going to remain the worst-hitting team in baseball for long. They're too talented.

But the inevitability of improvement for their mind-numbingly bad offensive start does nothing to erase the more legitimate long-term concerns that have manifested in the early going.

In analyzing the 2011 squad as the season approached, the one thing that most deeply concerned me was the precariousness of the club's principal investments. Yes, the Twins pumped payroll up to an all-time high $112 million, but much of that money was tied up in significant question marks.

It wasn't the cheap role players like Casilla and Butera who would determine this team's fate. It was the hobbled veterans whose bulky salaries forced the team to part with quality players like Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy, not to mention the entire bullpen.

So far, those pricy question marks have not fared well.

Joe Mauer, earning $23 million, struggled to a .554 OPS with one-extra base hit in nine games before landing on the disabled list with a bizarre assortment of ailments. There's no firm timetable in place for his return.

Justin Morneau, earning $14 million, has admirably returned to the field after a long battle with post-concussion syndrome, but has not been at all effective. He managed 11 hits -- no homers -- and three walks in 56 plate appearances before missing the last three games with the flu.

Joe Nathan, earning $11.5 million, also earns respect points for his recovery from serious injury, but it is evident that he does not belong on the major-league roster at this point. He is only hurting the club by occupying a spot in a bullpen that is already lacking trustworthy options.

The underrated Michael Cuddyer, earning $10.5 million, owns a .608 OPS with no homers, and still hasn't driven in one run in 16 games.

Those four players account for nearly half the payroll, and none have yielded any meaningful production up to this point. Throw in the struggles of moderately expensive players like Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young and Matt Capps, and it shouldn't be difficult to see why the team is struggling so mightily.

The front office invested a lot of money into this 2011 roster and so far they've been ripped off by the hideous product on the field. Hopefully these players can get over their illnesses, rust, slumps and mental blocks in a hurry, because these dismal performances are getting harder to watch for fans and harder to justify for a $112M team that should be amidst a window of contention.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Among sports franchises I've followed, the Twins stand out as the most boldly loyal. They promote from within, they've had two managers in the past 25 years, and they treat the players they like very, very well.

Loyalty is by no means a negative trait. To the contrary -- it's likely a big part of the reason that the Twins are held in such high regard around the league. But there is such a thing as "loyal to a fault," and I think we've seen it play out in the way Joe Nathan's return has been handled.

Nathan deserves a great deal of respect for his demeanor, determination and work ethic over the past year. When he learned last March that he was ticketed for Tommy John surgery, he immediately set his sights on retaking the closer position at the outset of the 2011 season.

Without a doubt, Nathan did everything in his power to expedite his recovery. When spring training got underway this year, he was there on the mound, throwing to live batters, just like he said he would be. Sort of amazing.

But, looking past the heartwarming story, there was little to suggest Nathan was ready to be pitching high-leverage relief innings in the major leagues. Still just 12 months removed from a surgery that normally takes at least 16 for full recovery, Nathan was throwing with noticeably decreased velocity and spotty command in exhibition play.

His spring training numbers showed it. In nine appearances, the right-hander was blown up for nine runs on 10 hits and four walks, managing only three strikeouts.

Yes, spring training numbers usually should be taken with a grain of salt, but Nathan was fighting for a job. Even looking beyond the hits and walks, the fact that he was able to notch only three strikeouts in nine appearances while trying to prove he had the stuff to close games should have been an immediate red flag. But when the time came, Ron Gardenhire and Co. made the decision everyone expected. They awarded Nathan the closer role over Matt Capps, who'd been vastly superior.
(Steve Nesius, AP)

It took no more than one appearance this season for the casual baseball observer to recognize that Nathan didn't have it. His fastball sporadically dipped under 90 MPH, he repeatedly missed his spots, and his breaking pitches lacked consistent bite. As the season has progressed, things have unfolded about as you would expect, given these issues.

Nathan, once a strikeout artist, has managed to whiff only three of the 27 batters he has faced. He's walked five and allowed six hits -- including a monster home run in Saturday's game that tagged him with his second blown save in a span of three days.

After the game, a humbled Nathan volunteered for a demotion. He'll settle into a low-leverage role that minimizes the damage he can do while he tries to figure things out. That doesn't really do any favors to a bullpen that's already short on trustworthy late-inning options.

Capps' move into the closer role will obviously open up more high-leverage spots in the seventh and eighth innings. Gardenhire makes it sound as though many of those opportunities will go to Glen Perkins, another player to whom the Twins have been fiercely loyal -- almost to a baffling degree.

Loyal to a fault? We'll see.

Friday, April 15, 2011

From Bad to Worst

From the very start, this has been a season full of bad news for the Minnesota Twins. Carl Pavano was shelled by the Blue Jays on Opening Night, and from that point forward it's been one dismal development after another for the hometown nine.

The power hitters in the lineup have combined for one homer in 12 games.

Francisco Liriano, the team's one hope for a true frontline ace, has been categorically awful.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the marquee offseason addition, broke his leg and was placed on the shelf before the home opener.

Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan have returned to the field after lengthy layoffs, but haven't approached their previous levels of effectiveness. Both have struggled mightily.

And, of course, the Twins have opened the season with a 4-8 record, averaging a paltry three runs per game while failing to cross the plate more than five times in any contest.

A bleak young season took a potentially catastrophic turn last night when, in the wake of their deflating extra-inning loss to the Rays, the Twins placed Joe Mauer on the disabled list with what they are cryptically terming "bilateral leg weakness."

In describing his catcher's specific injury, Ron Gardenhire was none too specific:
"He is definitely very, very sore over the last few days -- his shoulder, his elbow -- and we think it's his legs just not strong enough underneath him and he says he feels terrible.

"His knee is actually feeling OK but he's compensating for the weakness in his upper leg, this is what I was told, that's causing a lot of other problems."
I have no desire to be an alarmist, but let's take an honest look at the facts here:

* Following a spectacular 2009 campaign that earned him AL MVP honors, Mauer inked an eight-year, $184 million contract -- one of the largest in major-league history -- set to begin in 2011.

* Last year, while finishing out his prior contract, Mauer battled numerous injuries in a solid but hardly spectacular effort. The catcher acknowledged that making it through the season was a struggle, saying during TwinsFest this year: "Looking back, I was happy and proud to be out there as much as I was."

* Knee soreness that increasingly hobbled Mauer late in the season led to surgery in December. The operation was performed on the same knee that required surgery during his rookie season. In fact, it was performed by the same doctor. Afterwards, general manager Bill Smith stressed that the procedure was considered minor, stating that doctors "believe that it will be no problem for him in Spring Training and that he'll be ready well in advance of Spring Training."

* Those doctors were wrong. When Mauer reported to spring training this year, he was -- in his own words -- "a mess." He missed the first few weeks of exhibition play, debuting at catcher on March 19 and participating in only eight games. And now, with this young season underway, Mauer batted .235 with one extra-base hit, three walks and a 72-percent grounder rate in his first nine games before landing on the disabled list with a vague injury.

Frankly, I don't know how any Twins fans can look at this series of events and not feel nauseous, especially in light of the fact that recent trades of Wilson Ramos and Jose Morales have left the organization without a single passable bat at the catcher position. For an already anemic offense, the loss of Mauer is quite simply the worst thing that could have happened, and at this point we can't even begin to guess when he'll be back on the field.

When I expressed doubt about this team's outlook prior to the season, I called out a crippling lack of depth as the roster's principal pitfall. A little over two weeks into the campaign, we've got Drew Butera and Steve Holm splitting catching duties while Gardenhire writes in Michael Cuddyer at second base and ponders replacing Alexi Casilla with Luke Hughes at shortstop. Even in my darkest moments I could have hardly envisioned such a horrific scenario.

Over the past decade, Twins teams have shown an uncanny ability to come together and beat the odds under dire circumstances. I'll try and hope that this trait can reemerge in the coming weeks and months, because at this point things are about as dreary as they've ever been during this blog's six-year existence, and we're only in April.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pitching to Contact

Ron Gardenhire drew heat from some baseball analysts and fans prior to yesterday's game for telling reporters he'd like to see Francisco Liriano "pitch to contact" more in order to "become a real pitcher."

This comment embittered many of those who rightfully appreciate the value of strikeouts for pitchers, but to a degree I think it was misinterpreted. Frankly, I don't think the Twins' manager was all that off-base in his remarks, even considering the ugly results Liriano came across in his ensuing outing.

Gardenhire isn't a dope. I don't think it bothers him when Liriano strikes someone out; I think it bothers him when it takes eight pitches to make it happen. If you could pinpoint one flaw in the lefty's performance last season (aside from the exorbitant number of cheap singles he allowed) it would be his inability to pitch deep into games with regularity. In 31 starts, the southpaw threw 191 innings; in just one more start, Carl Pavano threw 221 innings. Top AL starters like Felix Hernandez, David Price, CC Sabathia and Jon Lester all logged well over 200 frames.

There's no question that efficiency has been a far more significant issue for Liriano in this young season. Many will recall a televised spring training start in which he struck out nine over three innings but also threw 72 pitches. In his first two regular-season starts, he constantly tried to nibble the edges of the strike zone. He missed frequently and the walks mounted as he failed to pitch past the fifth inning in both turns.

I think Gardenhire's comments were more a response to these recent struggles than his work last season. I was struck by another of the manager's quotes yesterday, in which he mentioned that Liriano "doesn't understand how good his stuff is."

I've wondered about this. Oftentimes, and especially over his past several outings, Liriano will work too much outside of the strike zone, trying to get hitters to chase and whiff. That's all well and good when he's got it working like he did last year, but it's the exact type of style that can lead to lengthy at-bats and high pitch counts. If he's not getting batters to chase, it will often lead to short, ineffectual outings.

Saying he'd like his top starter to "pitch to contact" is an unfortunate choice of words but what Gardy really means, I believe, is that he'd like Liriano to pitch to the zone. Attack hitters. Make them swing and miss at strikes. And if they make contact, Liriano is one of the game's best ground ball pitchers so damage will generally be minimized.

Key word: generally.

Against the Royals yesterday, Liriano followed his manager's orders and attacked the strike zone. In some respects, the results were exactly what Gardenhire had hoped for; the lefty issued only one walk and entered the sixth inning with only 71 pitches thrown (over 70 percent of them strikes). It was easily his most efficient outing of the year, be it March or April.

Of course, things unraveled in a disastrous fourth inning where Liriano allowed six runs on eight hits, so the overall outing was a poor one. The key takeaway is that seven of those eight hits were singles, and the one double was a grounder that sneaked down the third base line. Many of Kansas City's hits were aided by ugly misplays from the Twins' defense.

Hitting a bunch of singles without mixing in walks or extra-base hits is not an effective method of scoring runs in high volumes. The Royals themselves illustrated this last year, when they ranked second in the American League in batting average but 10th in runs scored thanks to their lack of patience and power.

Telling Liriano to completely abandon his style and throw the ball into hitters' bats is a bad idea, but probably not an accurate depiction of what the Twins are trying to instill. The lefty needs to trust his stuff and attack the zone more aggressively. He took steps toward doing that yesterday, and while the results weren't pretty I have faith that he'll quickly round into shape if he keeps it up and if opposing offenses aren't able to dink and dunk their way to eight-hit innings too often.

With that being said, there's not much Liriano -- or any of the team's pitchers -- will be able to do if the defense continues to play so horribly behind him.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Three-Bagger: Grounders, Injuries & Plouffe

* If it seems like Joe Mauer's been hitting the ball into the ground a lot this season, it's because he has. According to FanGraphs, a whopping 80 percent of the catcher's balls in play thus far have been grounders.

It comes as no surprise, then, that his double off the right field wall in the eighth inning Sunday was Mauer's first extra-base hit of the season. Not an encouraging start for a guy who saw his home run total drop from 28 to nine last year.

As Jon Krawczynski notes, the Twins' backstop is trying to work through some early kinks in his swing.

* The Orioles placed J.J. Hardy on the disabled list over the weekend with a strained oblique, just after I posted an article on Friday ridiculing the "injury-prone" label that has been (in my opinion) unjustly attached to him and so many other players.

Naturally, this led to many emails, tweets and comments poking fun at me. There's nothing wrong with that; I can certainly admit that the timing is pretty humorous.

But I think these people are missing the point. I never suggested that Hardy would not get hurt this year -- only that anyone can get hurt. Yes, he's been placed on the disabled list. So has Nick Punto. So has Tsuyoshi Nishioka. So will many other players over the course of the season.

In major-league baseball, injuries are frequent, and that's why it's important to have strong depth.

Hardy is no iron man, that's for sure. But if you're going to try and convince me that he was somehow more predisposed than the average player to suffer a strained oblique -- an ailment that he's never dealt with before -- just because he's experienced a variety of unrelated injuries over the past two seasons, you're not very likely to succeed.

* Trevor Plouffe opened his season at Triple-A by earning International League Batter of the Week honors. The shortstop went 8-for-18 (.444) in Rochester's first four games, hitting three homers and two doubles over the weekend.

If Plouffe keeps up his hot start, he'll increasingly be mentioned as a potential replacement for Alexi Casilla, who's looked dreadful in early action for the Twins. I'd note that while Plouffe's power is intriguing -- especially for a middle infielder -- his on-base skills and defensive aptitude are questionable. Much like with Luke Hughes, we shouldn't allow a brief power-hitting streak to skew our perceptions of him as a ballplayer.

When given his chance to make an impression on the big-league coaching staff this spring, Plouffe hardly took advantage, hitting just .206 while committing a team-high five errors in Grapefruit League play.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Baseball Gods

At times like this, it's tough sledding for Ron Gardenhire.

The manager is surely as frustrated as anyone by his team's early offensive funk, doing everything in his power to turn things around. Yesterday, he gave Michael Cuddyer a start at second base and uncharacteristically wrote in Joe Mauer at catcher for a day game following a night game.

It was the best offensive lineup he could possibly put on the field against Brandon McCarthy and the A's, but the results were the same as ever. The Twins fell 5-3, marking the seventh time in nine games  that they've been held to three runs or less.

At this point, there's not much Gardenhire can do other than pray that the baseball gods hurry up and show some mercy.

Mauer is hitting .233 with a .570 OPS. Delmon Young is hitting .188 with a .431 OPS. Cuddyer is hitting .107 with a stunningly bad .301 OPS.

Looking up and down the Twins' lineup, you find numbers like this almost across the board. Yesterday Gardenhire trotted out his 'A' lineup and when the game ended only two members of that group were hitting above .258. The team has managed a total of three home runs -- and allowed four times as many.

Ugly early-season trends tend to cause a lot of panic, but ultimately they almost always even out. You may recall that over the first couple months of the 2010 season the Twins struggled mightily with the bases loaded, but they went on to finish the campaign with a robust .320 batting average in such situations.

Mauer and the rest of the the gents powering the Twins lineup are very good hitters. It's odd to see so many of them slump simultaneously at the outset of the season, but there's virtually no doubt that those bats will ramp up, and soon.

But how soon?

Gardenhire can only hope that it will be this week, as the Twins host a Royals team that's opened with a surprising 6-3 record.

What better time than now for reality to set in for both clubs?

Friday, April 08, 2011

Dark Depths

One of the most irritating rationalizations that people came up with during the offseason in trying to convince themselves that J.J. Hardy was only a minor subtraction from the roster was that the shortstop is too "injury-prone."

In December, I wrote a post entitled The Myth of Injury-Prone, pointing out that the vast majority of major-league baseball players could be described with that silly label. It's a perilous game being played at the highest level, and injuries happen. Those players that manage to avoid stints on the disabled list year after year are the exceptions, not the rule.

Besides, although Hardy had battled ailments over a couple years, he'd at least proven in the past his ability to make it through a full season as a big-league regular. The team's two new middle infielders, Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, have proven no such thing and by letting Hardy, Orlando Hudson and Nick Punto walk out the door during the offseason the Twins left themselves with nothing in the way of experienced depth.

The play on which Nishioka suffered a fractured fibula yesterday, much like most injuries incurred by ballplayers, was a freak incident. Nick Swisher came barreling into second with a well executed takeout slide and Nishioka took the brunt of it.

Typically big-league middle infielders are adept at staying on their toes and going airborne while turning double plays, but Nishioka came up playing in Japan where the takeout slide isn't really a part of the game. The Twins spoke often during spring training about working to help the second baseman adapt in this respect, but old habits die hard and in the heat of the moment Nishioka handled the double play like he has hundreds of times before. He took the feed, turned and planted his feet to throw.

Nick Laham, Getty
It was difficult to foresee this disastrous "welcome to the big leagues" moment for Nishioka, but envisioning a scenario in which the Twins needed to call on at least one backup middle infielder for an extended period of time was not. Now, they're forced to delve into their paltry depth after just six games and find someone who can fill in as a capable starter for at least the next month.

Luke Hughes has been called up to fill Nishioka's vacant roster spot, and he'll battle with Matt Tolbert for playing time at the position. Neither one really has much business starting in the majors, which is especially troubling when you consider that it's not clear Casilla does either.

Nishioka, the Twins' only high-profile offseason addition, had done little to establish himself over the team's first handful of games and unfortunately he'll have to wait a while before he gets a chance to change that. In the meantime, the Twins are going to have a real headache on their hands with the middle infield.

It's hardly the type of catastrophe that will sink the season, but this offense could be in dire straits if some of the other hitters in the lineup don't get it going -- and soon.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Live Chat at Noon

I'll be home during today's game, so I figured I might as well take the opportunity to host a live chat here on the blog. Check in at noon; I'll field questions and comments while also providing observations for those who are following from work.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Burden of Proof

The Twins' sole victory at Yankee Stadium last year sort of came out of nowhere.

It was May 16th, and New York had already decisively won the first two in a four-game set. They were on their way to a victory No. 3.

The Yanks led 3-1 heading into the eighth inning before, suddenly, the Twins started to show signs of life for the first time in the series. They loaded up the bases against Joba Chamberlain, who gave way to Mariano Rivera. Jim Thome pinch-hit for Drew Butera and coaxed a run-scoring walk, and then, in one of the most improbable moments in recent Twins history, Jason Kubel (who'd entered the at-bat with a .218 average) launched a grand slam against the greatest closer in history, pushing the Twins ahead for good.

Optimists viewed the spectacular bomb as a sign that the Twins had finally overcome their Yankee demons. Such hopeful thoughts were quickly abolished after the Bombers took two of three at Target Field a week later and went on to sweep Minnesota in three games -- for a second straight year -- in the ALDS.

Last night's thrilling come-from-behind victory shared many commonalities with the aforementioned ballgame. Again, the Twins had come into the game with their tails between their legs and fallen into an early hole. Again, the rally began innocuously enough -- a pair of walks and a single. And again, it was a free pass issued with the bases loaded that started the bleeding for New York.

But this time, the hit that buried the dagger was far less authoritative. Indeed, Delmon Young's chip shot into right field that managed to evade Nick Swisher's reach, clearing the bases, stands in stark contrast to Kubel's epic bomb against Rivera.

Twins fans who have grown tired of watching the Yankees stomp all over their club in recent years desperately wanted to believe that last year's epic Bronx comeback signified a true turnaround in this lopsided rivalry. That team failed to prove this was the case.

This, however, is a new year. Last night's victory was hardly enchanting, but it was a victory. And these 2011 Twins now have the opportunity to succeed where their predecessors failed: putting together a convincing, complete victory in Yankee Stadium. They'll have their top two starters on the mound the next two nights to try and accomplish the feat.

As far as early-season tests go, they don't get much more significant than this.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Baker's Base Runners

The Twins lost 4-3 in New York tonight, with all four of the Yankees' runs coming on homers against Scott Baker. I know a lot of fans are upset about the bombs, which came on grooved pitches to Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, but those weren't the real issue for the Twins' starter. Heck, two is about where we should set the over/under for homers allowed by an opposing starter at Yankee Stadium.

No, the mistakes I would point to would be the runners Baker put on base beforehand. He preceded Rodriguez's home run by plunking Mark Teixeira with an 0-2 pitch, and preceded Posada's shot by issuing a lead-off walk to Nick Swisher in the next inning. It's those sorts of lapses -- and not the home runs -- that will determine Baker's fate this season.

By now, we've come to accept Baker for what he is: a fly ball pitcher through-and-through who gives up home runs. It's always been the case, and while it would be nice if he could reinvent himself as someone who isn't so susceptible to the long ball that's not very likely.

Baker can succeed in spite of this flaw. The key is limiting base runners so the damage from those homers is minimized. In 2008, the righty posted a 3.48 ERA despite allowing 20 home runs over 172 innings. We can largely attribute the positive results to his outstanding 1.18 WHIP. Last year, Baker posted a 1.34 WHIP -- the worst full-season mark of his career. It only follows that he also posted his worst full-season ERA (while allowing homers at the exact same rate he's allowed them throughout his career).

The home runs weren't what sunk the Twins tonight. If Baker doesn't give first base to Teixeira and Swisher, he leaves the game with a 3-2 lead.

Oh, Canada

The Twins don't match up very well against power-hitting teams in homer-friendly stadiums. This has been the case throughout recent years, and will likely remain true as long as they continue to emphasize pitching to contact and swinging for singles.

Last year the Twins went 3-6 against the Blue Jays, and over the offseason the front office only increased its emphasis on the aforementioned dynamics, so I hardly expected the team to fare well in its season-opening series against the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Still, I don't think anyone was anticipating the sort of hideous effort the Twins put forth in their first two games of the season. After a winter full of bad news, things had finally started to come together at the end of spring training for this group. Everyone had finally gotten healthy just in the nick of time, and the majority of key players had looked extremely sharp in exhibition play.

It seemed as though this team was ready to jump out of the gates and take some people by surprise. Instead, the Twins were blown out 13-3 on Friday and held to one hit in a 6-1 defeat on Saturday. They looked stunningly bad in every aspect of the game: starters failed to complete even five innings, defenders blundered repeatedly, relievers allowed deficits to grow, and hitters looked totally clueless.

The Twins salvaged the series by squeaking by in a 4-3 win yesterday, but it's tough to be encouraged by much of what we saw on opening weekend. Some thoughts:

* The short-term reaction to yesterday's game is to be relieved that the Twins escaped Toronto with a win. The long-term reaction is to be perturbed by how shaky Joe Nathan looked in closing out the victory.

Nathan entered with a two-run lead after Denard Span homered in the top of the ninth to provide some extra breathing room. That insurance run would prove crucial, as Nathan labored through his first save chance since 2009, allowing one run on two hits and two walks while throwing 31 pitches (only 15 of them strikes). Two of the outs Nathan recorded were line drives tracked down by sprinting outfielders at the warning track.

Facing the Blue Jays in Toronto in his first official outing since Tommy John surgery is certainly a tough assignment so I'm tempted to cut Nathan some slack, but what's most worrisome is the actual quality of his pitches. His fastball, which regularly sat in the mid-90s prior to surgery, topped out at 91 mph and on occasion failed to even reach 90. His breaking pitches, snappy and precise prior to surgery, registered in the low 80s and bounced before reaching home plate multiple times.

Nathan is only 12 months removed from having a ligament replaced in his elbow, and for most pitchers it takes longer than that to fully regain velocity and command. If his work in spring training and Sunday's regular-season debut are any indication, those capacities haven't returned yet for Nathan. It's not clear whether he can be effective in the closer role -- or even a late-inning relief role -- without them.

* The Twins have shown a lot of confidence in Nathan throughout his recovery process.

During the offseason, they let Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes all walk as free agents, trusting that the departures would be largely offset by Nathan's return.

After Nathan struggled through spring training, posting a 9.72 ERA with more walks than strikeouts, the Twins continued to show confidence in him by awarding him the closer role despite Capps' almost flawless performance in Grapefruit League play.

Yesterday came Ron Gardenhire's boldest vote of confidence yet. Nathan had loaded the bases and thrown over 30 pitches in the bottom of the ninth, and the Jays had left-hander Adam Lind stepping into the box. Dusty Hughes was warm in the bullpen, ready to relieve the beleaguered closer, but Gardenhire remained in the dugout, leaving Nathan on to face Lind.

That confidence paid off, as Nathan induced a weak grounder to first to end the game, but one is left asking: should Nathan continue to pitch this way, how long will Gardy's confidence remain intact?

* In his final plate appearance yesterday, Tsuyoshi Nishioka stood with the bat on his shoulder with two strikes and watched at least two pitches from Rauch clip the strike zone. Fortunately for him, home plate umpire Paul Schrieber was apparently feeling generous and Nishioka ended up on first base with a walk rather than in the dugout with his sixth strikeout in three games.

The Japanese import has looked out of his element against major-league pitching early on. At the plate, he's been tentative, seemingly unaware that umpires at this level will call strikes on the edge of the zone. Many of the balls he put in play over the weekend came on weak contact created by defensive swings.

Regardless of all the enthusiasm created by a superficial spring training hit streak, a slow start should be the expectation for Nishioka. As with any rookie playing in the majors for the first time, he must adjust to a learning curve, and the transition is made more difficult by a new culture and -- in many ways -- a new style of playing the game.

* As one of his most avid supporters, I take no pleasure in saying that Francisco Liriano looked dreadful in his season debut on Saturday. His results weren't quite as disastrous as Carl Pavano's dud on Opening Night, but Liriano was able to work through only 4 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on four hits (two homers) and five walks while striking out three. Only 44 of the southpaw's 90 pitches met the strike zone. No one is going to be blaming this one on bad luck.

I'm not terribly concerned about Liriano's shoddy command; that's not uncommon for power pitchers early in the season (see Jon Lester's debut for the Red Sox). More alarming was the lack of bite on his pitches. His fastball sat several ticks lower than we typically saw it last season and was ineffective in setting up the slider, which itself was inconsistent in location and velocity.

When he's on top of his game, Liriano makes a living on mixing mid-90s heaters with biting sliders -- overpowering pitches that often miss the zone but induce a lot of whiffs. This style could be referred to as effectively wild. When the offerings are lacking as they were on Saturday afternoon, there's nothing effective about his wildness.

* Pavano was absolutely crushed on Friday night, but here's a fact to keep in mind. In his third start last year, the veteran righty allowed seven runs on 11 hits over 3 1/3 innings against the Royals (yes, the Royals). He followed that up with four straight quality starts in which he pitched at least seven innings. Pavano is susceptible to the occasional bombing, but he should be fine going forward.

* The Twins don't match up very well against power-hitting teams in homer-friendly stadiums. Have I said that before? Well it's a bitter truth as the club now heads to New York for a four-game series against the Yankees.

With no break in sight (the Twins don't have an off day until the 11th), the back end of Gardenhire's bullpen is worn down. The team's been very vocal about protecting Nathan's arm early in the season, and he threw a lot of pitches yesterday. Meanwhile, Jose Mijares and Matt Capps have appeared in consecutive games. It will be interesting to see how the manager deploys relievers over the next couple days, especially if he faces tight late-game situations.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Opening Day Site Update

After a brutally long winter and offseason, Opening Day has finally arrived. Tonight at 6 PM, the Twins will officially kick off their 2011 season in Toronto, and for the next six months we will never have to suffer through two consecutive days without a ballgame (save for the All-Star break and rain-outs). For fans of baseball and summer, it's a sweet feeling.

Over the past few years, I've made a habit out of writing a post on Opening Day updating the state of the blog. I've often taken the occasion to celebrate some sort of major development: in 2009, the re-naming and redesigning of the site; and in 2010, my newly formed partnerships with and the Star Tribune.

I'm very happy with how far this little site has come along. So, for this year, my goal is simply to keep up with it and make it the best it can be.

That won't always be easy, I'm sure. Contrary to common belief, I have a life outside of obsessing over baseball and it can be demanding at times. Even within the realm of this hobby I've tried to diversify and broaden my brush stroke.

The exposure to much larger audiences through the and Star Tribune outlets has been gratifying, not to mention highly amusing (the comment section "troll" in action is a fascinating phenomenon).

I'll also continue doing a few regular radio spots this year, which is different but enjoyable. (Shout-outs to my friends on the airwaves: Dean DeBoer in Austin, Trent Condon in Des Moines, R.J. Richards in Grand Forks, and of course Doogie Wolfson at ESPN 1500.)

In addition, I'll continue to produce a couple weekly columns at Rotoworld. If you happen to play fantasy baseball, I hope you'll check them out. I should mention that one of the columns is accessible only to those who've purchased the Season Pass membership, but doing so is a no-brainer if you're hardcore.

That lame bit of self-promotion aside, my top writing priority has been and will continue to be this blog. I've got plenty on my plate, but my goal this year is to continue pumping out quality content with as much frequency as anyone else out there covering the Twins. Little will change going forward content-wise, but one feature I have added to the blog this year that I'm pretty excited about is the integration of TiqIQ as an avenue for fans trying to track down tickets to games.

I've mentioned this new feature in passing, but want to reiterate that I've implemented it on the site as a resource for readers, and I'm hoping it will prove useful. If you click on the sidebar widget (or the image to above) you can check out the Twins ticket page, which aggregates listings from third-party vendors such as StubHub, TicketsNow and eBay. If you're on the hunt for those ever-elusive passes to Target Field, I encourage you to check it out, and if you end up purchasing through TiqIQ, let me know how the experience goes.

Beyond that, it'll be business as usual, starting with a post on Monday that will undoubtedly contain some rumination about this weekend's series against the Blue Jays. This series, not to mention the one in New York that follows, strikes me as a fitting start to what will be a challenging year for the Twins. I wish I felt more optimistic about their chances, but from any perspective the 2011 season is shaping up to be an exciting and entertaining one. I hope you'll keep checking in regularly so we can share the ride. Your readership and interaction, as always, are what make this time-consuming hobby worthwhile.

Now let's freaking play ball already.