Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mild Concussion Symptoms

Four hundred and twenty days after taking a blow to the head in Toronto, Justin Morneau finds himself sidelined with "mild concussion symptoms."

This technically marks the first time since the end of last year that Morneau has missed regular-season time as a result of the brain injury that cut short his 2010 campaign.

But, in light of these recurring symptoms, one does wonder how much the first baseman's dismal performance this year can be attributed to the concussion's after-effects. It's been nearly 14 months since Morneau suffered the injury, yet he still barely resembles his old self on the field and can't be in a good place if he's asking out of the lineup.

I suppose one could call Morneau "soft," since that seems to be the popular treatment for wounded baseball stars around these parts. I personally doubt that he's very much enjoying the afflictions that continue to torment him, regardless of how much money he's making.

Morneau once built a reputation as one of the game's sturdiest and most durable sluggers, yet this year he's missed starts on separate occasions due to a sore wrist, a sore foot, a sore shoulder, the flu, a neck injury and now symptoms relating to a concussion that he sustained well over a year ago.

The guy has been frustrated this year. But can anyone blame him?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Playing Hurt

It was bound to happen.

Joe Mauer's decision to ask out of the lineup with a sore neck last week on the same day that Michael Cuddyer asked in with a sore wrist unleashed a torrent of fury from the media, with Mauer being labeled "soft" -- either explicitly or implicitly -- by no less than three local scribes.

The crux of all three pieces linked above is that Mauer ought to set a tone for his teammates by forcing himself into the lineup and playing through pain. Apparently, there's some sort of unspoken honor code that is being violated by Mauer's lack of eagerness to play when he deems himself physically unable. One of the articles went so far as to suggest that the backstop would be fulfilling his duty as a leader by playing hurt and striking out three times.

Never mind that Mauer -- whose neck strain has only tacked onto leg problems that have bothered him all season and sapped his production -- hadn't sat out an entire game since coming off the disabled list in mid-June. And never mind that Cuddyer, who is cast against Mauer in all three articles as some sort of heroic iron man, missed nine games earlier this month after hurting his own neck during batting practice.

No, there's an axe to grind, because the highly paid and soft-spoken Mauer is an easy target for columnists who have run out of scapegoats in this joke of a season. What exactly would he be accomplishing by talking his way into the lineup for this completely irrelevant club? Playing poorly in a meaningless game and exposing himself to further injury risk?

What should be obvious is apparently not to everyone, so let's put it out there: an injured player is NOT helping his team by taking the field against his better judgment. This is a lesson we've learned many times before, like when Mauer rushed himself back in spring training, and when Nick Blackburn withheld an achy elbow from the team last year on the way to career-worst numbers, and when Cuddyer battled through numerous ailments back in 2008 to finish with a sub-.700 OPS.

You don't turn into one of the game's premier players by being a sissy. This perception that Mauer is "soft" is being perpetuated by accusatory columnists and a manager that seems oddly reluctant to stick up for his star player. For his part, the catcher has tried his best to fight through a mysterious and debilitating ailment that has surely frustrated him more than anyone else.

Even setting aside the neck injury, it'd probably be in the team's best interests at this point to shut Mauer down for the season with an eye on getting him strong and healthy for 2012. Contrary to what you might have read, brazen stupidity is not an admirable trait.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Thome's Gone to a Better Place

Jim Thome has been very good to the Minnesota Twins.

Originally signed to a dirt-cheap $1.5 million contract in 2010, he delivered an incredible performance at the age of 39, almost completely offsetting the loss of Justin Morneau by hitting .301/.436/.664 with 15 home runs and 31 RBI from July 7th (the date of Morneau's concussion) through the end of the season.

In the ensuing offseason, Thome reportedly turned down a more lucrative offer from the Rangers to return to Minnesota and help the Twins settle their unfinished business.

Thome has done his part this season, hitting .248/.357/.485 with 12 home runs (including the all-important No. 600) despite being 40 years old, but almost no one else has. So it was only right that the Twins granted passage from purgatory by trading the slugger to the Indians yesterday for a player to be named later, rather than forcing him to play out what might be his final season with a miserable and completely irrelevant club.

After suffering through one of the most humiliating sweeps in memory at Target Field this week, the Twins are now 55-75. That puts them on pace to finish 69-93, which might be generous considering they'll likely be playing out the season without Scott Baker, Denard Span, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, Delmon Young and now Thome.

The Indians stand 6 1/2 out in the AL Central. They're a game below .500, and have gone 30-44 since jumping out to a surprising 33-20 start. This flawed Cleveland team stands little chance of overcoming the Tigers and making the playoffs, but Thome will now at least have the opportunity to play meaningful games down the stretch rather than running out the thread with a decimated group that -- despite Joe Mauer's firm insistence to the contrary -- appears to have completely packed it in.

The PTBNL in the deal likely won't amount to much, but it's better than nothing and the important thing here is that the Twins did right by Thome. They owed him that much.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rocky Rotation

After coughing up seven runs on nine hits while recording just six outs against one of the league's worst teams last night, Brian Duensing now owns a 5.12 ERA on the season, including 7.42 since the All-Star break. Right-handed hitters, who were slugging .546 against Duensing entering the contest (a mark that would rank 11th in all of baseball for a hitter), ripped five more extra-base hits against him in the disastrous outing.

The Twins are asking for trouble if they're figuring Duensing into their future plans as a starter at this point. The problem is, the same can be said about nearly every member of their rotation.

Nick Blackburn may have dodged a bullet with his latest arm injury, but his deteriorating command and his 6.32 ERA since the start of July must have the team wondering how much they can rely on him, especially after a substandard 2010 campaign.

Francisco Liriano owns a 4.85 ERA this season and hasn't been able to settle into a prolonged groove. Carl Pavano has allowed the most hits in baseball.

All of these starters are under team control for next year, but with the way things have played out this summer, can any of them be counted on to be even quality mid-rotation options for a contender?

Kyle Gibson, whom the club almost surely had in their plans for next year, may end up needing Tommy John surgery, which would put him on the shelf until 2013.

Scott Baker, the only Twins hurler whose performance has been good enough that you could feel comfortable penciling him into next year's starting five, continues to battle elbow problems that have plagued him since last year, raising long-term doubts about the durability of his arm.

The wide array of issues circling the Twins' rotation creates plenty of questions, but also makes three things crystal clear as we look ahead to next year:
1. Kevin Slowey must be retained. 

I'm sure the Twins would like nothing more than to part ways with the embattled righty, but right now that doesn't look like a luxury they can afford. Entering his final year of arbitration, Slowey will likely cost only half what a starting pitcher of comparable ability would command on the open market. He's necessary depth.

2. Liriano also must be kept.

Liriano is making $4.3 million this year and will get a raise in arbitration. Are the Twins willing to pay that price for a pitcher coming off such a tumultuous year? Undoubtedly they'll be listening to offers for Liriano this winter, but in their position they'd be wise to hang onto the frustrating southpaw and hope for the best. He's the most talented starting pitcher they have, and you bet on talent above all else.

3. Seek a starter with some upside who can miss bats.

Even if Baker is healthy entering next season, you're counting on the reliably unreliable Liriano and a bunch of a extremely hittable strike-throwers to comprise the rest of your rotation. That's just not a recipe for conquering the Yankees or Red Sox in the playoffs. The Twins need to identify a pitcher who has demonstrated the ability to dominate. The list of pending free agents includes Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Chris Young and Rich Harden. Maybe you get brave and take a shot at Wandy Rodriguez. Take a risk, and break the mold. After a season like this, the status quo is not acceptable.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mystery Injuries

For the Twins, it's been a season of injuries that won't go away. And as much as we'd like to, we can't expect the offseason to serve as a cure-all.

Joe Mauer has been the most frustrating and perplexing example, even for medical professionals or students in online nursing programs and sports medicine classes. He underwent a knee operation that was considered minor last December, but hadn't recovered in time for spring training and -- after subsequently spending two months on the disabled list -- still hasn't shown that his legs are anywhere near full strength. He hit .356 in July but managed only four extra-base hits. In 18 August games he's hitting .268/.312/.352. This is just not the premier hitter we've come to know.

Scott Baker underwent elbow surgery during the offseason that, like Mauer's, was deemed minor. The right-hander reportedly dealt with "setbacks" in spring training, and now those issues have seemingly resurfaced, as he's on the disabled list for the second time since mid-July.

Then there are the brain injuries. Justin Morneau took a thump on the head last July and hasn't been the same since, while Denard Span suffered his own concussion 11 months later and has gone 2-for-35 between DL stints in the aftermath.

You can make a case that, when healthy, this foursome represents Minnesota's three best position players and their best pitcher. All face significant health uncertainty that could very well stretch beyond the 2011 season. And they're all under contract next year, for a combined $46.5 million.

The front office faces a lot of important decisions in the coming months as they try to get this derailed mess of a team back on track, but those decisions may not be particularly consequential unless these four players can return to satisfactory levels of health and production.

Everything the team does the rest of this season should be built around that focus. It seems likely that Baker and Span are already finished for the year, and one could certainly make the argument that Mauer ought to be shut down as well.

As for Morneau, there's not much to be done other than hoping things will start to click for him with continued reps. Right now, he's headed in the wrong direction, with a .121/.206/.226 hitting line since returning from his neck surgery.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Power: Past, Present and Future

On Monday night, Jim Thome became the eighth player in baseball history to reach 600 home runs. It was a long time coming for the future Hall of Fame slugger, who debuted in the majors and hit his first career home run back in 1991.

Since then, Thome has averaged 29 homers per year, topping out with 52 in 2002. During that same span, the Twins have had only three players hit more than 29 bombs in a session (Justin Morneau three times, Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter once apiece). In only five of the past 20 years have the Twins' top two home runs hitters combined to go deep 52 times.

It's oddly fitting that Thome would reach this rare and awe-inspiring milestone while playing for an organization that has been so starved for home runs over his entire career.

We've long admired his majestic bombs from afar, while he was hitting 445 of them with the division-rival Indians and White Sox. And over the past two years, we've had the pleasure of observing one of baseball's great all-time power hitters from up close. To say Thome has stood out from the pack during his time in Minnesota, despite aging into his 40s, would be an understatement.

Fans have grown tired of hearing Twins' hitters pile up excuses for their lack of long-ball success in the home yard, but Thome has experienced no such issues. Twenty-one of his 36 dingers over the past two years have come at Target Field, and he completely owns the park's leader board; five of the six longest home runs hit by a Twin in the young stadium belong to Thome, according to ESPN Home Run Tracker.

That Thome has been so successful at an age where even the great all-time power hitters have generally fizzled out is incredible, but one has to wonder how much is left in the tank, especially in light of all the back problems.

Whether or not Thome chooses to continue his career after this season, he'll turn 41 in 10 days and it seems safe to say that he's at least nearing the end of his lengthy reign as one of the game's foremost slugging machines.

When he's gone, it isn't clear who will carry the torch as Minnesota's top bopper. I wrote last week about the organization's gloomy power outlook, with no legitimate home run threats in the high minors and with the future statuses of players like Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer in doubt (either due to health or expiring contracts). Trevor Plouffe leads the organization in homers this year, and it's not clear whether Ron Gardenhire will ever find a defensive position where he's comfortable playing him regularly.

It would seem that the Twins' next true beacon of hope might be Miguel Sano, who is currently 18 and playing rookie ball in Elizabethton. Signed out of the Dominican Republic with a hefty bonus after the 2009 season, Sano is already starting to fulfill his immense power-hitting potential, as he's launched 13 home runs in 51 games this year in the Appalachian League. More than half of Sano's hits have gone for extra bases, aiding a .589 slugging percentage.

Sano has had his issues with plate discipline, but to be pounding the ball like this -- at an age where power is typically an undeveloped tool -- is exciting. When Thome was playing rookie ball at 18 (all the way back in 1989), he hit zero home runs with a .296 slugging percentage in 55 games.

Sano has the type of raw power and potential that makes some analysts believe he could one day sit beside Thome on Target Field's all-time distance leader board. But he is of course only 18 years old (allegedly), and we'll have to wait a long time before that could become a reality.

For now, we'll have to simply appreciate the exceedingly rare specimen that Thome is, especially if this is his swan song.

Jim Thome, the long-time Twin killer, retiring as a Twin after reaching an historical milestone the very same year that Harmon Killeberew -- a legend in his own image -- passed on.

Oddly fitting.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

End of the Delmon Era

Prior to the 2008 season, the Twins traded their top young starting pitcher and their starting shortstop to the Rays for Delmon Young, hoping he'd prove to be a long-term fix for their perpetual right-handed power shortage.

In 497 games over the next four years, he'd hit .287/.324/.429 with 47 home runs. That disappointingly mediocre offensive production, in conjunction with his abysmal defense in left field, made him a liability overall during his time in Minnesota.

While he's shown flashes of transforming into the premier power hitter that his minor-league track record and pedigree suggested possible, Young's horrendous plate discipline, lack of athleticism and inability (or unwillingness) to make adjustments prevented him from permanently turning the corner.

He was amidst his worst season yet when the Twins finally made the decision yesterday to cut the cord, dealing the troubled outfielder to Detroit in exchange for Single-A pitcher Cole Nelson and a player to be named later.

The return might not be terribly exciting, but the fact that the Twins were willing to deal him within the division tells you something about what they thought of him, and the fact that Young went unclaimed on waivers all the way up until the first-place Tigers tells you something about what the league thought of him.

I'd guess that when the Twins hung onto Young at the non-waiver deadline they were hoping his bat would come alive and aid their comeback effort, but with the team promptly dropping out of contention here in August, dumping the fledgling outfielder was essentially a no-brainer. There would be no way to justify tendering him a contract during the offseason and paying him around $6 million in arbitration after the year he's had. The Twins are better off putting that money toward free agency or re-signing Michael Cuddyer/Jason Kubel.

The door is now open for Ben Revere to play regularly for the rest of the season, which should give the Twins a better idea of how he'll factor into their 2012 plans. Meanwhile, Young's salary is off the books and the Twins have added a somewhat intriguing arm in Nelson, who could develop into a quality hard-throwing lefty reliever.

At 25, Young still has the potential to be more than he currently is, but it's been clear to me for some time that he was never going to reach that potential here. I wish him the best, but I'm not sorry to go see him go and I'm not particularly worried that dealing him will come back to haunt the Twins in the long run.

Certainly not as much as dealing for him in the first place did.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Burden of Blame

It goes without saying that Francisco Liriano has had a disappointing season. His regression from top-of-the-rotation performer to erratic, inconsistent mechanical mess has been a key ingredient in the Twins' remarkable drop-off from a year ago.

Any time a player's performance deteriorates without any clear explanation, people are going to look for somewhere to pin the blame. In this case, many folks have targeted the coaching staff, for having the gall to suggest in spring training that Liriano could stand to be more efficient with his pitches.

In June, after Liriano had turned in perhaps his strongest start of the year against the Rangers at Target Field, Aaron Gleeman wrote a column that linked Liriano's horrible results in April to the Twins asking him to "pitch to contact" earlier in the spring.

Since that brilliant outing, Liriano has lapsed back into the same funk that plagued him in April and throughout the 2009 season, posting a 5.37 ERA with 31 walks over 55 1/3 innings. This should have put to bed any notion that his early issues were caused by the Twins' tinkering.

Yet, earlier this month, during a dreadful outing in which the lefty coughed up seven runs in Anaheim, Phil Mackey made his own attempt to implicitly blame the Twins' coaches for Liriano's problems, posting the following tweet:
Liriano has obviously been terrible this year. But #Twins' inference that he needed to alter his approach from '10 to '11 was ludicrous.
When I asked Mackey to clarify on this "inference," he pointed to his spring training notes, stating that "Liriano discussion centered much around trying to get 'quick outs' and throw 220 innings."

Ah, how irresponsible. Ludicrous, even.

Liriano was awesome last year and no one was a bigger fan of his performance than me. But what's ludicrous is the notion that he had no room for improvement, or that the team deserves to be castigated for bringing those areas to light.

An unwillingness, or inability, to throw the ball in the strike zone early in the count has been a problem for Liriano at different times throughout his career, and was certainly on display during one spring training outing this year when he needed 75 pitches to get through three innings. I believe the team's focus on "pitching to contact" was more a reaction to his erratic tendencies from the moment he showed up (out of shape) to camp than to his 2010 season. It's silly to think that coaches were asking him to make wholesale alterations to his approach after such a dominant campaign.

What's funny is that if Liriano had actually been able to heed the team's advice and throw the damn ball over the plate, he'd likely be having a very good season. His problems are almost 100 percent attributable to an inability to throw strikes. He's among the league leaders in swinging strike percentage and batters haven't been able to do much with his pitches when putting them in play, managing a measly 15.5 percent line drive rate and a sub-average .286 BABIP.

The key issue with blaming Liriano's troubles on the Twins is that he's done the exact opposite of what they asked. He couldn't throw strikes consistently in April and he still can't here in August, as his most recent outing saw him deliver just 53 of 109 pitches in the zone. 

I'm as big of a Frankie apologist as you'll find but it's crystal clear to me that he's created his own problems this season. No one can go out there and throw strikes for him. And if a relatively simple request from the coaches in spring training psyched him out so horribly that he's still out of sorts more than five months later, well, that's on him too.

There are plenty of things the Twins can actually responsibly be blamed for in this mess of a season. How about if we stick with those rather than drawing these kinds of strained causal assumptions?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Chance For Redemption

Scott Baker has been the only exception to the starting rotation's funk since the season's halfway point. His departure to the DL due to continued elbow soreness leaves behind a rather unimpressive bunch.

Here are the remaining Twins starters' marks in ERA and WHIP since the beginning of July:

Brian Duensing: 4.30 ERA / 1.33 WHIP
Francisco Liriano: 5.04 ERA / 1.66 WHIP
Carl Pavano: 5.84 ERA / 1.46 WHIP
Nick Blackburn: 7.34 ERA / 2.03 WHIP

Duensing is pacing the group with his average numbers, and from there it just deteriorates, with Blackburn -- who has amazingly allowed an average of two base runners per inning over his past seven starts -- serving as the anchor.

In other words, the bar is not set very high for Kevin Slowey.

Recalled to fill Baker's vacant rotation spot, Slowey will start in Cleveland on Sunday. I said at the beginning of the month that I felt it was "time to set this rift aside and let Slowey help the Twins again," so I'm pleased he's getting an opportunity.

And, while Twins fans might find this a sad fact, all Slowey needs to do is pitch up to his mediocre career norms (4.43 ERA and 1.29 WHIP) and he's got a chance to be the team's best starter from here on out. Given the uncertainties that currently surround the health statuses of Baker and Kyle Gibson, not to mention the competence of Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn, trading Slowey might be a luxury the Twins can no longer afford.

If the embattled righty can pitch well down the stretch and rebuild bridges with his coaches and teammates, it would provide a meaningful positive development as this mercilessly awful season winds down.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Tuesday Notes

* Anyone get the feeling that the Twins are cosmically cursed this year? Practically every break has gone against them. Beyond all the injuries and the generally lackluster play, one can't help but notice that impending free agents like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel have raised their value with good seasons while potential trade chips like Delmon Young, Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano have cratered their value with poor play and off-the-field issues.

On top of all that, and their best pitching prospect might be destined for Tommy John surgery.

* Oh, and it wouldn't surprise me if Scott Baker, one of the few bright spots of this season for the Twins, is headed for the same fate

* My hunch is growing stronger

* After surrendering six extra-base hits to righties on Sunday, including mammoth upper-deck homers by Paul Konerko and Brent Lillibridge, Brian Duensing has now yielded a .309/.367/.515 hitting line against opposite-sided hitters.

Properly utilized in the bullpen, Duensing would be a dominant late-inning force thanks to his otherworldly success against left-handed batters. In the rotation, where he continues to face righty-stacked lineups, he's a mediocre back-end starter on a team that's full of them. He's an asset that's not being maximized, and that's a shame.

Eventually, the Twins have to figure it out. Right?

* If you're interested in getting out to a game during this week's series against the Red Sox at Target Field, TiqIQ has the line on third-party tickets, which are in demand thanks to Jim Thome's chase for 600.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Contemplating Cuddyer and Kubel

Only two American League teams (Oakland and Seattle) have hit fewer home runs than Minnesota this year. After hitting just one homer at Target Field over the weekend while the visiting White Sox clubbed seven, the Twins are on pace to barely edge the 100-homer mark as a team. If they fail to reach triple digits, it would be the first time since 1980 that it's happened for this franchise.

Yes, the Twins are amidst a rather distressing power drought. And unfortunately, the outlook going forward is none too bright.

Jim Thome is not likely to return next year. There's a good chance Delmon Young will be non-tendered or traded. And no player in the Twins' farm system can safely be projected as more than a 15-HR guy in the majors.

These factors add urgency to the decisions involving Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel in the upcoming offseason. Both slugging outfielders are eligible to become free agents, and losing the two of them could prove devastating for an organization that is already desperately short on pop.

Unsurprisingly, the Twins have made it clear that they intend to pursue Cuddyer, with reports suggesting that they've already uncharacteristically tried to open negotiations midseason by offering a two-year, $16 million extension.

Cuddyer and his agent smartly turned down that offer, knowing his outstanding season amidst the Twins' meltdown in 2011 has raised his price tag. Assuming he finishes strong, I'd be surprised if Cuddyer were asking for any less than three years and $30 million once he hits the open market. He can probably get it somewhere. Hopefully not here.

I appreciate all the things Cuddyer brings as a member of this team, but the Twins are already in bad shape with some bulky contracts and handing an expensive three-year deal to a 33-year-old who's never put together consecutive good seasons is bad business.

If it comes down to a choice between the two, the Twins would probably be better off re-upping Kubel. While he, like Cuddyer, has looked great at the plate this season, Kubel has missed significant time due to injury so his stock won't be quite as high.

Prior to this year, Kubel had played at least 140 games in three straight seasons, averaging 23 home runs and 91 RBI. While his platoon splits have been a chronic issue (one that's showing signs of improvement), Kubel's bat has been at least as good as Cuddyer's and he's also three years younger.

If the Twins want to loosen the purse strings and re-sign both outfielders, so be it. But keeping Cuddyer with a hefty contract at the expense of Kubel would be a mistake. In fact, outbidding any other motivated GM for Cuddyer's services will likely backfire in the long run, worsening an already murky financial situation.

Unless Cuddy is willing to accept a hometown discount, the Twins ought to offer arbitration, let the Type A free agent walk and use the draft picks next year to replenish a depleted minor-league system.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Morneau: Down on His Luck

Midway through a feature I wrote on Justin Morneau for the Maple Street Press Twins Annual this spring, I made a rather bold proclamation: "It seems Justin might be the unluckiest man in baseball."

The suggestion stemmed from Morneau's back-to-back season-ending injuries in 2009 and 2010, injuries that would have to be described as -- at the very least -- unusual.

Two years ago, Morneau missed all of September, and the playoffs, due to a fractured vertebrae that had apparently been sustained gradually over time. The following season, he missed the final three months, and again the playoffs, after suffering a concussion on a seemingly innocuous play in Toronto.

I've had my quibbles with the ridiculously over prescribed "injury-prone" label in pro baseball, but if there was ever a Twins player who represented the antithesis of the term it would have been Morneau prior to September of 2009.

Between 2006 and 2007, the first baseman missed a total of only 10 games. In 2008, he started every single one of the Twins' 163 contests. And, through August 17th of '09, he'd started all but one game.

Then, the back issue popped up. That cleared, allowing him to go on an MVP-type tear through June of 2010 before the early-July concussion. This year, in trying to return from a brain injury, Morneau has been plagued by a nasty flu, a sore wrist (the only one of these ailments that, from what I've heard, might actually be his fault), and a pinched nerve in his neck that required surgery and has had him shelved since early June.

Last week, Morneau had to temporarily stall his rehab from this latest setback when migraine headaches -- supposedly not related to the concussion or neck problem -- began to bog him down. Of course.

He's probably the best young slugger to wear a Twins uniform since Kent Hrbek retired, so it's a real shame to see Morneau's prime years being absolutely ravaged by repeated unlucky injuries. The guy is more than due for a few good breaks.

Hopefully we see a reversal of fortunes get underway when he gets back on the field for the Twins, which should be within the next couple weeks. (Barring a bout with the bubonic plague.)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Pavano and Blackburn: Contact Kings

Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn haven't had particularly memorable seasons up to this point, but at least they do find themselves atop the American League leader board in one category: hits allowed.

Pavano has yielded 168 knocks this season, more than any other AL hurler. Blackburn, with 158, comes in second.

Hey, it's something, right?

The rate at which these two pitchers have given up hits should come as no huge surprise, as both have been quite hittable throughout their respective careers. In 2009, Blackburn led the AL with 240 hits allowed while Pavano checked in third at 235. Last year, Pavano ranked fourth at 227 and Blackburn (limited to only 161 innings due to injury and a minor-league demotion) ranked 15th, allowing the same number of hits as Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez (194) in 88 fewer innings.

There's no mystery as to why Pavano and Blackburn are coughing up hits with such generosity. Pavano's 3.7 K/9 rate is the lowest in all of baseball, while Blackburn's rate of 4.8 (which would actually be the best of his career) is the ninth-worst in the AL.

The Twins continue to preach pitching to contact as if it's some generally desirable trait, but the truth is that exorbitant contact rates are these pitchers' greatest downfalls. It's exceedingly difficult to find sustained success while giving up hits at a higher clip than almost any other pitcher in baseball, and while Pavano and Blackburn ease their burden by limiting walks, it's difficult to expect anything better than back-of-the-rotation mediocrity unless they run through a prolonged period of good luck (as Pavano did through the first four months or so last year).

It's a rule of thumb in baseball that about 3 out of every 10 balls put in play will turn into a hit. In his eye-opening article for Baseball Nation yesterday, Jeff Sullivan found that, since 1970, even position players who have taken to the mound have registered a .296 BABIP.

By letting hitters put almost everything in play, you walk a dangerous line, and we've been reminded of that over these last several weeks. Since the start of July, Pavano owns a 6.87 ERA and Blackburn is at 7.45. These performances have contributed to a screeching halt in momentum for a rotation that looked spectacular in June.

Pavano and Blackburn have both certainly proven that they are capable of succeeding in spite of their heavy contact tendencies, but it should be intuitively obvious that it's not a reliable recipe for sustained success.

The two are under contract next year for a combined $13.25 million. It's more than likely that they'll once again be two of the most hittable pitchers in the majors.

You reap what you sow, I guess.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Staying Put

The non-waiver trade deadline came and went yesterday without the Twins making a single move. The fan base had been on edge with Denard Span's name being thrown around by a lot of reporters, but when push came to shove nothing materialized between the Twins and Nationals.

It sounds like the main sticking point was Washington's unwillingness to include closer Drew Storen, and I'd guess they were at least a little tentative about Span's health. Either way, the Nats likely did the Twins a favor.

It probably says something about the level of faith people have in Bill Smith that the general reaction to a non-move at the deadline is relief rather than disappointment, but that's certainly where I'm at. The Span-for-Storen rumors reeked of another instance where Smith and the front office were undervaluing their own asset while vastly overvaluing the save statistic. (One report from Scott Miller of CBS Sports suggested that the Nats were pushing to include Tyler Clippard -- a reliever who is at least as good as Storen -- and the Twins balked because he's a "setup man.")

I said last week that I felt the Twins should sit tight at the deadline so I'm not upset by the lack of activity. I was pleasantly surprised to see Kevin Slowey stay put. Smith was undoubtedly dangling the right-hander, but didn't get an adequate offer and didn't cave in. For that, I give him credit.

It's time to set this rift aside and let Slowey help the Twins again. He was stellar in a Triple-A start in Rochester on Saturday night and should be starting in the majors. A spot could be created in the rotation by either shifting Brian Duensing to the bullpen (where I continue to believe he'd be a greater asset) or by bumping the struggling Nick Blackburn.

At the very least, Slowey would hopefully be able to build up some value for an offseason trade.

After dropping two of three in Oakland, the Twins enter August in fourth place and seven games back in a weak division. They still hold a faint chance at resuscitating their postseason hopes, and one could quibble with the lack of a move to add some bullpen help, but those kinds of deals can be pulled off in August -- in fact, that's where Smith has made done some of his best work.