Sunday, June 29, 2008

5th Split: 13-4

Overall Record: 44-37
2nd in AL Central by 1.5 games

Just about every successful Twins season that I've charted has a split like this somewhere. It's fascinating to zoom out when the season is over and see that, generally, they played .500 ball give or take a game or two, except for this one magnificent 2-week stretch when everything came together. The starters provided Quality Starts in 13 of the 17 games. The relievers allowed just 11 ER, and only 3 of those came since the team left Cleveland 14 games ago. The defense improved with just 10 errors, after committing 46 in the first 64 games. And the offense clicked to an average of 5.47 runs/game. Good times!

Juan Rincon was cut early in this split, and Brian Buscher was recalled from AAA Rochester. As noted above, the bullpen appreciated not having Rincon around, and Buscher was far better for the lineup (.353/.375/.451) than Mike Lamb had been (.222/.260/.299). But the most important change came in the rotation. As I boldly predicted, each of the young starters averaged at least 6 IP/start during this split. Well, almost: Blackburn came up 1 out short on Friday. But the effect was the important thing - by pitching deeper into the games, the young starters took the pressure off the bullpen, enabling everyone to be used in ways appropriate to their roles and talents. For example, the two lefties in the 'pen, Craig Breslow and Dennys Reyes, combined to throw just 8.1 IP during this split. And they were very effective, allowing just 1 ER on 2 H, 2 BB with 6 K. At this point, everyone should feel confident that the starters will regularly work deeply into the games, and 1 of the 12 pitching spots should probably be converted to a bench spot.

The steady offensive output came in spite of a poor showing from the lead-off spot. Carlos Gomez hit just .213/.243/.227 with 18 K and 3 SB. Since his career-high 12-game hitting streak ended in Cleveland, he's been even worse: .197/.235/.212 with 17 K and 2 SB in 15 games. I have no doubt that Denard Span could far exceed those numbers if given an opportunity, while making a negligible net impact on the Twins' CF defense.

Brendan Harris ends this split in the midst of a 10-game hitting streak in which he's shown considerable power, yet his overall numbers for the split are only .262/.286/.459 with 13 K. Lousy plate discipline + below-average range at a crucial defensive position < good enough. I'd like to see Harris replaced in the lineup as soon as a suitable option can be acquired.

You have to feel good about where the Twins are right now. Their record sets them on pace to win 88 games, a number that would not only exceed my expectations for this team, but that would also likely see them in contention for the division title into the final week of the season. As this young team continues to improve (in particular, the rotation), I think that goal might very well be reachable.

Bold Prediction: Francisco Liriano and Denard Span will be recalled by the end of the next split (2 games after the All-Star Break).

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