Thursday, October 23, 2008


Congratulations to Phillies on last night's 3-2 win. It's good to see they still remember how to play baseball after their week off.

Baseball's asinine postseason schedule was introduced last year on the theory that the World Series would get better ratings if it started in the middle of the week. Does that really help? The last 4 Series haven't been particularly scintillating - the Champs lost a grand total of 1 game - and I'm not sure what kind of ratings they're going to get with a Tampa/Philly series under any circumstances. The minimal gains the broadcasters may or may not achieve are absolutely not worth the distortion of the competition that occurs under this format.

MLB has accommodated the later World Series start by stretching the first 2 rounds of the playoffs. Instead of one day off before the first Divisional Series begin, now there are 2 - and the competitors of the White Sox/Rays series had 3. There was an extra off-day added between games 4 and 5 (not needed this year - meaning each LCS competitor had 3 days off before that series). There is now - and this is the killer - an off-day between games 4 and 5 of the LCS even though there is no travel. And there is an extra off-day between game 7 of the LCS and the start of the World Series.

These 4 extra off-days in the early rounds of the playoffs are heinous for a number of reasons, the least of which is probably the deteriorating fall weather in the northern cities. With start times set for after 8pm Eastern time, the games are certain to last until after 11pm, getting into what can be some awfully frigid low temperatures. As we've seen the past couple of Aprils, baseball is harder to play in the cold - pitcher's have a harder time gripping the ball, hitters can have some painful swings. The closer we get to November, the more likely we are to face these adverse conditions. Are those conditions what we want to see the most important games of the year played in?

More crucially, the extended schedule interferes with the balance of the teams established over the course of the regular season. This doesn't happen in the other major sports. In the NFL, there is one game per week, and also one playoff game per week (with the frequent exception of the extra week to hype the Super Bowl). In the NBA and NHL, teams typically play about 3 games per week, and also play about 3 games per week in the playoffs. In MLB, there is a game almost every day - the All-Star break is the only time in 6 months teams will get consecutive days off - and yet the playoffs under the current format are riddled with off-days.

The cool thing about baseball is that there is nowhere to hide over the course of a 6-7 game/week for 6 months schedule. In the other sports, because of the frequent off-days, you can play your best guys every night. But in baseball, if you only have 3 good starting pitchers, you're going to have to run your 2 weak ones out there every 5th day and take your lumps. If you have 3 reliable relievers, your going to have to rest them every couple of days and cross your fingers with your lesser pitchers. Your starting catcher is going to need to rest at least one game a week. And so on. The teams with the best top-to-bottom talent will rise to the top of the standings because they can still put a strong team on the field even when they're resting their studs. (Imagine what the NFL would be like if teams had to start their 3rd-string QB every third game!) Also, there are very few 2-game series during the regular season, and no 1-gamers (unless you need a tiebreaker - sigh).

The extended schedule totally disrupts this reality. The extra off-day enables the Game 2 starter to pitch Game 5 on full rest. A 3-man rotation could pitch all 7 games of a series and only have to work on short rest once (Game 1 to Game 4). The best relievers could pitch an inning in every game and never exceed their normal regular season workload. The starting catcher can play in every game. With at least one fewer pitcher required, a team could add an extra bench player or two - speed or matchup enhancements they would have loved to have during the regular season, but couldn't afford. In short, a playoff team under this format could be a different team than the one that slogged through the regular season.

I would prefer to see the rhythm of the playoffs more closely resemble that of the regular season. If it's so important to the broadcasters to begin the World Series on a Wednesday, here's what I'd propose:

One league's Divisional Series begin on Tuesday after the season, the other's on Wednesday. They should play for 5 consecutive days - 2 in one city, 3 in the other. It would be up to the higher seeded team to decide whether they'd like to begin the series with 3 games at home or finish with 3 home games. I suspect most would opt for the latter, figuring they could split on the road and then force their opponent to close it out in hostile territory - though they may decide that the pitchers they have lined up to start the series do better at home - or whatever. The series conclude on Saturday and Sunday.

It's now the 2nd week of October. One LCS begins on Monday, the other on Tuesday. They play for 7 consecutive days, 3 in one city, 4 in the other. Again, the higher seed gets to choose the order. These series conclude on Sunday and Monday. After a travel day for the later finisher, we're ready to begin the World Series on Wednesday - but of the 3rd week of October instead of the 4th.

If the early rounds go the distance, you're looking at 12 games in 13 days, just like the regular season. If teams decide to hide their #5 starters or ride their best bullpen arms, they're risking some serious fatigue. That gives the advantage to the teams that have the confidence to use everybody on the roster - just like they did all summer long when they were winning enough games to make it to October in the first place.

Monday, October 20, 2008


First of all, I want to congratulate the Tampa Bay Rays for ensuring that the Red Sox won't win 3 out of 5 World Series. This outcome actually makes the series more watchable for me. I can count myself as one of the few people who expected good things from the Rays this year, though making the World Series is above and beyond. But as much as I admire this Rays team, I'll be rooting for the Phillies.

As I had the pleasure of learning in 1987 and 1991, a World Series Championship is a special affirmation for a team's players and fans, and Philadelphia is more deserving of that this year. This Phillies team has been pretty good for a while now, winning at least 85 games in each of the past 6 seasons, but previously falling short each time. With escalating salaries and free agencies approaching, it is likely that this team will begin to come apart pretty soon, so this may be their last, best chance to win together. The Phillies' fans haven't been rewarded with a championship since 1980.

The Rays, by contrast, are just getting started. As I noted back in the spring, they should be among the class of the AL for at least the next few years. I think they'll be making future trips to the series. Also, since they drew over 20,000 fans/game for the first time since their expansion, there's some question as to how many fans they even have, especially since it took them so long to catch onto what a good team they have. Attendance should grow dramatically over the next couple of seasons, and those folks can be rewarded after they've proven their loyalty.

Secondly, I want to address the other reason I started this blog. "Center" was supposed to refer not only to the position I normally filled in my playing days, but also to my status as an independent voter. I wanted to express myself on political issues from time to time, but, in practice, my obsession with the Twins has left little time for other things. Now, with a very big election coming up in a couple of weeks, I have reason to weigh in.

I hope everyone got to see General Colin Powell's appearance on Meet the Press yesterday. If you didn't, here's a great summary.

I basically agree with everything he says there. It's not so much an endorsement of Obama, though he does appear to have the potential to be a "transformative figure." And it's not so much a rejection of John McCain, who, until the convention, consistently showed himself to be one who could put his own values and beliefs ahead of party loyalty. Rather, it's a renunciation of the direction the GOP has taken in recent years.

The conduct of the Bush administration has been repugnant to me on many levels. To name a few...

They lied to start a war, then showed utter incompetence in managing the aftermath.

They used the threat of terrorism to condone torture, extraordinary rendition, suspension of civil liberties, etc.

They couldn't be bothered to help the drowning city of New Orleans, but did everything in their power to interfere with the life and death of Terry Schiavo.

They exploited homophobia for their political gain.

They made no effort to protect the environment.

They gave every advantage to the wealthy and large corporations, while making life more difficult for working Americans. (For example, the revised bankruptcy law was designed to ensure that lenders would get more money, while average filers had to remain in debt longer. Poor banks, let's help them out!)

It goes on and on. The GOP has come to represent nothing more than deregulation and tax breaks for the big fish mixed with Christian conservatism. They should be more than that, and with guys like Powell in charge, they would be. But all their decisions seem to be based on exciting the far right, and that's a big turnoff. Because if the only way they can get their base excited is by trying to scare and divide people (Obama once sat on a board with a guy who used to be a terrorist, this is the "Real" America, etc.), basically pandering to the worst side of people, well, they've lost me.

The party that twice nominated and elected George W. Bush needs to redesign itself in a way that is more positive and inclusive. They need to listen more to the intellectuals in their camp than the rednecks. They need to seek out moderates and keep the bigots at arm's length. That's going to be hard, soul-searching work for them, and I doubt they'll make the effort unless they get their asses kicked at the polls.

So, like General Powell, I'll be voting for Barack Obama - and a better future for the GOP.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Take a Look Ahead

Now that I've had a few days to recover from the 2008 season, I'm ready to take my first look forward to 2009. Many of the blogs I link to have already gotten a good start on arguments for off-season priorities, and I'm happy to join the discussion. My approach will be to establish a baseline for off-season upgrades by answering the question: What kind of team can the Twins produce from players already within their system?

The first step is to assess how many of the players who finished the season with the Twins are likely to be back next year. The answer is extremely good news. Everyone is either under contract or team control for 2009 with the exception of Nick Punto, Dennys Reyes, Eddie Guardado and Adam Everett. Furthermore, the team's payroll obligations fall so short of its capacity (something on the order of $30 million) that the Twins could easily re-sign all of those players if it so desired.

So the 2009 Twins could be exactly the same as the 2008 Twins. Would that make 2009 just as competitive? A lot of folks point to down years in Cleveland and Detroit, the strength of the White Sox, and the strong finish from the Royals as evidence that the division will be much tougher next year. On its face, I'm not sure I buy that. Age is swiftly catching up to the Tigers and Sox, the Indians diminished themselves by trading away CC Sabathia and Casey Blake, and the Royals' young talent is at least half a year behind that of the Twins. I don't expect any of these teams to stand pat this off-season, but free agent acquisitions and trades, no matter how splashy, are no guarantee of success (just ask the Tigers). There are enough weaknesses among the other members of the division that I believe the Twins could win 88 games again with the same players.

That's also because the Twins are young enough that many of their players can be reasonably expected to match or improve upon this year's performance. We've all seen Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer hit for more power than they did in 2008, for example. Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez, each just 22 for most of '08, have plenty of time to make hitting adjustments. And the rotation of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins, having all pitched deep into September, should be even more settled and stronger down the stretch in 2009.

Certainly we expect a few players to regress or have down years (hello, Matt Guerrier). But, in general, I think it's likely that the Twins will have a lower staff ERA, allow fewer unearned runs, and remain in the top half of the AL in scoring (the BA with RISP will undoubtedly be lower, but the HR numbers should increase, which will make up for a lot of the loss). In other words, I think the Twins could run out the same squad they did in September and come away with more or less the same run differential, which would translate, on average, into about the same number of wins. Will 88 wins be good enough to take the division? Probably not, but it should be enough to keep them in the running.

But the Twins won't be running out the same squad next year. With Pat Neshek and Cuddyer returning from injuries, there are more outfielders and pitchers than spots available. Boof Bonser and Philip Humber are out of options, and will be lost if they don't make the team. And there were a couple of players whose performance doesn't merit bringing them back.

Free Agents

Guardado and Everett should be allowed to move on without a thought. Punto and Reyes deserve a little more consideration.

Shortstop is a position in which the Twins could offer someone a multi-year deal, since their is no heir-apparent to the position in the minors. But the available free agents aren't too impressive for the money they'll be demanding. If the baseline is Punto, that's not a terrible place to start. His career OPS is essentially the same as Everett's - nothing to crow about, of course, but his .320 career OBP makes him likely to be on base more than Gomez, for example. He's got good speed on the bases, and can play above-average defense at 6 positions, including SS. I'd be inclined to offer Punto a 2-year deal for around $3 million a year - then if something better comes along at SS, you've still got one of the league's most versatile bench players.

As for Reyes, anybody who thinks the Twins need to upgrade the bullpen should think twice about letting him walk. Despite missing some time and effectiveness in 2007 when he had some arm troubles, Reyes compiled a 2.14 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 126.1 IP in his 3 seasons with the club. His K/9 was 7.77, and his G/F ratio was about 3/1. Out of 531 total batters faced over his stint with the Twins, 62.7% put the ball on the ground or struck out - the sort of outcomes you're looking for when you bring in a reliever with men on base. Only 26 of 109 H were for extra bases (23.8%), and he allowed only 3 SF. Lefties hit just .202/.272/.266 against him with 3 HR and 63 K in 248 AB (25.4% struck out).

It's true that Craig Breslow and Jose Mijares pitched brilliantly for the Twins this year, but they're each relatively untested. They have just 75.2 MLB IP combined. Breslow was hurt earlier in his career by a high walk total - maybe Rick Anderson sorted that out, or maybe it was just something he was able to hide in 4+ months with the Twins that will resurface next year. Mijares was dynamite in September, but will he be as effective once the scouts catch up to him? Say he has a lousy spring training, and the team decides to give him a little more seasoning in AAA to start the season. Having Reyes on board would give the Twins that luxury. Plus, who says you only need 2 LHP in the bullpen? If 3 of your best pitchers happen to be lefties (as would appear to be the case here), why shouldn't they all make the team?

Lefty specialists can play a long time. Based on his recent track record, I wouldn't be shy about offering Reyes up to a 3-year deal at the going rate for matchup pitchers.

Arbitration Eligibles

More incredibly good news for the Twins - only Matt Guerrier and Jason Kubel are eligible for arbitration this year. This would be the time to sign Kubel to a multi-year deal. While his power numbers began to approach their potential, his BA could still probably improve. He's entering his physical prime, and appears to be over the knee injury that cost him all of 2005 and a big part of 2006. If the Twins wait one more year, and his performance improves again, the price will go up a lot. If they act now, his actual performances should make it possible to get him for something like 3 years, $20 million (+ an option year!).

As for Guerrier, I don't think his abominable finish is indicative of anything more than physical and mental burnout, and that if he were returned to the lower leverage roles he held in earlier seasons he would be effective. But with the emergence of Breslow and Mijares, and the return of Neshek, I'm not sure there's a spot for him. I'd try to trade him before arbitration looms.

Odd Men Out

Bonser and Humber must both make the team or be lost to waivers. That's not going to happen. Each finished the season pretty strongly, but neither has the overall numbers to displace other, more established members of the bullpen. I suppose Humber would have to be considered as a #5 starter should the Twins opt to trade either Perkins or Blackburn, and Bonser could get the nod if they decide not to sign Reyes and Guerrier. There is likely no room for Bobby Korecky in any case. If it were me, I'd make every effort to trade these guys before February.

The outfield is pretty crowded. His big multi-year contract assures us that Cuddyer will be starting in RF. Denard Span had way too good a season at all levels to be denied a spot. Kubel was the 2nd-best power threat on a pretty wimpy team - most of the time, he'll DH. Delmon Young, despite a mostly underwhelming season, made strides in his K/BB rate, and was much more productive in the last 2/3 of the season. And then there's Carlos Gomez, defensive wunderkind, terror on the bases, mess at the plate.

Unless the Twins opt to trade Young, the corner OF positions are set, and there's no way Gomez beats out Span next year. Span was such an effective leadoff hitter, the Twins would be nuts to trade him to make room for Gomez. So the question becomes: Do they put Gomez on the bench as a PR/defensive replacement, or send him to the minors to refine his game? I think the right thing to do is to give him 4-5 ABs every day in AAA. Just as they did with Liriano this year, the Twins need to show Gomez that he's got to produce the goods if he wants a slot on the big club, and that means learning a plate approach that puts the ball on the ground, goes the other way, takes walks, and cuts down on strikeouts. Unless he shows up in spring training with that sort of approach, I'd be inclined to option him down and let Jason Pridie fill the bench role.

As for the rotation, the Twins have 5 starters who are average or better under team control for the next 4 years. They certainly have the option of trading one for something else they'd like to upgrade, but they can't be blamed for wanting to horde them either. That means that starters at the upper levels of the minors, unless they're undeniably awesome, are all expendable. I'd put Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak on that list.

So, looking exclusively within the organization and not fantasizing about any other players who may or may not be available, the best squad the Twins can put together for next spring looks like this:


1. Denard Span, CF
2. Alexi Casilla, 2B
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Jason Kubel, DH
7. Delmon Young, LF
8. Brian Buscher, 3B
9. Nick Punto, SS


1. Mike Redmond, C
2. Brendan Harris, IF
3. Matt Tolbert, IF
4. Jason Pridie, OF
5. Randy Ruiz, DH/PH


1. Scott Baker, RHP
2. Francisco Liriano, LHP
3. Kevin Slowey, RHP
4. Nick Blackburn, RHP
5. Glen Perkins, LHP


1. Joe Nathan, Closer
2. Pat Neshek, RHP
3. Jose Mijares, LHP
4. Jesse Crain, RHP
5. Dennys Reyes, LHP
6. Craig Breslow, LHP

Cuddyer breaks up the string of Mauer/Morneau/Kubel. The relatively disappointing contributions of Young, Buscher/Harris and Punto are all a bit more palatable when they slide down a slot in the lineup. Pridie and Tolbert provide speed and glove upgrades over the 3Bs and corner OFs. And, despite his high K rate, Ruiz has compiled a strong enough minor league resume to merit at least a platoon/PH role in the Majors. Everybody else performed well in 2008 and obviously deserves a shot at holding their spots in 2009.

With a surplus of about $30 million and Bonser, Humber, Guerrier, Korecky and Duensing all crying out to be traded, there's certainly plenty of capital available for upgrades, and the front office should make an effort to spend it. But they should remember that if they'd held their cards last season, they probably would have had a 90-win team instead of 88. This team can win 88 again in 2009 - that's the baseline. Take it from there.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

2008 Season Review

Home Record: 53-28
Away Record: 35-47
1st Half: 44-37
2nd Half: 44-38
Overall Record: 88-75

When a new season begins each spring, my best hope for the Twins is always that they will be in the thick of the playoff race right up to the end of the season. This season they did even better than that - they sent the season into overtime. So I'm pleased with the 2008 season, especially given the low expectations going in. With the Indians coming off a deep playoff run, and the Tigers stacked with a ludicrously strong lineup, and the Twins coming off their first sub-.500 season in 6 years and an off-season in which they'd lost their All-Star CF and Cy Young ace, most experts expected the Twins to finish with only 70-some wins. I thought they'd get 84, because I believed that Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker were bound translate their domination of AAA to the Majors, the back end of the bullpen was rock solid with Pat Neshek and Joe Nathan making their games essentially 7-inning affairs, and most of the Twins' lineup was due to improve on their below-average 2007 numbers.

Why were they able to exceed expectations?

1. The starters were better than anyone could have hoped.

Livan Hernandez, signed late in the off-season to replace Johan Santana's innings (chuckle, chuckle), got off to a terrific start in April and May. Nick Blackburn lived up to his off-season ranking as the Twins' #1 prospect, far out-pitching Carlos Silva, the man he replaced in the rotation. Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker came back from early season injuries to show that they were, indeed, ready to win in the Majors. After Boof Bonser faltered in May, Glen Perkins came up and consistently pitched deep into games until September. And Francisco Liriano overcame his April control problems to dominate AAA, returning to the Twins in August and providing them with 9 solid outings in 11 starts down the stretch.

2. Return to Form

Several of the players who had shone in 2006 but struggled in 2007 regained their earlier success. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Nick Punto all saw a substantial bump in their OPS from '07 to '08. Dennys Reyes and Joe Nathan improved on their ERA and K/9

3. The Kids Can Hit

Denard Span, Alexi Casilla and Brian Buscher came up to make significant contributions over the course of the season. Their prior numbers from the minors gave little indication that they were capable of making such a positive impact. Together with better numbers from players mentioned above, the Twins were able to improve their offensive numbers enormously: they scored 111 more runs than last year, improving from 12th in the league to 3rd; they raised their team BA 25 points to .289, also good for 3rd in the league; and raised their OPS 27 points from 13th up to 9th.

4. Smallball Works!

The Twins managed to outscore all but 3 MLB teams despite finishing 29th with just 111 HR. They did it by leading all of baseball in triples, sacrifice flies, and BA with RISP. They also finished first in the AL in sacrifice bunts, bunt hits, and IF hits, and improved to 5th in the league in OBP and SB. In short, they dinked and dunked and worked counts and ran their little butts off, in the process producing more offense than the Tigers and Yankees, among others.

Despite the many successes, we have reason to feel that the team could have done even better. It certainly wouldn't have taken much more for them to be looking forward to a home playoff game vs. Tampa tomorrow instead of watching the White Sox. Why did the Twins come up short?

1. Pat Neshek's Injury

When he went down with elbow soreness on May 8th, I knew we were in for some trouble, but I had no idea how bad it would get. With Neshek and Nathan locking down the 8th and 9th innings, I had imagined that the Twins would only lose a handful of games all season when leading after 7 innings. In fact, after Neshek went down, they lost 11 times in that situation, plus a few others they were leading after 6. Would a healthy Neshek have turned enough of those around to get the Twins into playoffs (i.e. 1)? Undoubtedly.

2. The Kids Hit the Wall

It was pretty clear by mid-June that all four youngsters in the Twins' rotation (Baker, Blackburn, Perkins and Slowey) were out-pitching Livan. When he was exchanged for Liriano, the rotation was among the best in the league in August. But over the last 2.5 weeks, they seemed to run out of gas. They were only able to give the Twins 6 quality starts over the final 17 games (including the 1-game playoff). One more QS in Baltimore or Cleveland might have done the trick.

3. Bad Defense

It's become a truism around the league that the Twins always play good defense, but that certainly wasn't the case this year. They finished 12th in the league in fielding percentage and errors, resulting in 70 unearned runs, 4th most in the league (narrowly edging Chicago and Detroit by 1 run). That was by far the most this decade, 8 more than the 62 unearned runs they allowed in 2007. From 2002-2006, the Twins averaged just 51 unearned runs per season. When so many of those unearned runs seemed to come in critical situations (like when Nathan was on the mound), it's easy to imagine that had the Twins played the sort of defense we're used to seeing from them, they'd still be playing right now.

4. Bill Smith

It would be fair to say that the Twins' success this year came in spite of, and not because of, the efforts of freshman general manager Bill Smith. The three free-agent hitters he signed - Mike Lamb, Adam Everett and Craig Monroe - combined to hit .219/.280/.348 with 11 HR and 95 K in 526 AB. He signed Livan and re-signed Juan Rincon - they combined for a 5.58 ERA and 1.65 WHIP in 167.2 IP. Over $20 million was invested in these players - more than 1/4 the total team payroll - and none of them was a significant part of the team that finished the season.

Smith traded for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Carlos Gomez. Young ranked last among qualified AL left-fielders in HR and OPS, and 2nd to last in OBP and RBI. Harris was below average when compared to other AL infielders, both at the plate and in the field. And Gomez was not only the worst-hitting CF in the league, he was the 3rd-worst hitter period in terms of OPS, and he finished 4th in the league in strikeouts. Worse, he stood in the way of Denard Span, the team's rightful leadoff hitter, for most of 4 months.

As the Twins' bullpen was beginning to struggle, Smith passed on worthy waiver candidates to bolster the 'pen, such as Chad Bradford, waiting until the last week of August to acquire Eddie Guardado - who proceeded to pitch rather badly for the Twins. The only good move he made was the acquisition of Craig Breslow.

The other 4 players Smith acquired in the off-season - Jason Pridie, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra - all had underwhelming seasons in the minors. They are now, perhaps, hopelessly low on the depth chart - there is no obvious spot for Humber, Mulvey or Pridie in the Twins' rotation, bullpen, or OF for next year, and several pitchers in the system performed better than Guerra. Most people didn't think 1 year of Santana at $13.75 million, with a chance to go deep into the playoffs and 2 high draft picks was worth what he could potentially bring in a trade. Had Smith accepted the Red Sox package of John Lester, Coco Crisp, Justin Masterson and Jed Lowrie, that would have been true. Considering the quality and strategic value of what he got from the Mets, I'm not sure it was.

On to grades for individual players. I'll be limiting the discussion to hitters with more than 50 ABs (sorry, Matt Macri) and pitchers with more than 10 IP (you lucked out, Eddie).

Flat Out Awesome

Joe Mauer - The team's MVP, Mauer led the league in BA for the second time and was 2nd in OBP. He was far and away the AL's most productive catcher, starting 135 games behind the plate (2nd most), and leading AL backstops in PA and TB. Defensively, he led the league in fielding percentage and fewest errors and passed balls, and he was 3rd in CS%. To top it off, he guided a young starting rotation to big league success.

Joe Nathan - Don't be put off by the 6 blown saves. There were errors or shaky defense behind him in 4 of them. For the season, Nathan had the best ERA of his career (1.33), averaged less than a baserunner per inning (0.90 WHIP) and more than a strikeout per inning (9.84 K/9). Thank goodness he was around to anchor a very shaky bullpen.

Denard Span - Everywhere he went this year, Span was terrific. His (SfC adjusted) hitting line in spring training was .310/.420/.429. In 40 games at AAA Rochester it was .340/.434/.481. And he finished 93 MLB games at .294/.387/.432. If only someone had realized at the end of spring training that he belonged in the leadoff spot!

Craig Breslow - In three brief MLB stints before joining the Twins, Breslow's numbers were solid - a 2.95 ERA in 36.2 IP. I guess it was the 24 BB in those innings that kept him from catching on. After coming to the Twins, he cut his walks down to 14 in 38.2 IP, with a 1.63 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 0 HR allowed and a 7.45 K/9. Could be a keeper.

Jose Mijares - An off-season car accident in Venezuela kept this promising prospect off the field until midsummer. He performed well at AA New Britain, earning a September call up. He didn't get into a game until the middle of the month - by the end, he'd established himself as the setup man of the moment. He allowed just 1 ER on 3 H and 0 BB in his first 10.1 MLB IP. Also a keeper.

Most Satisfying

Scott Baker - I figured Baker would turn out to be the ace of the staff this year (it certainly wasn't going to be Livan!), and he delivered. After an illness hampered his progression during spring training, he had a solid April, then lost just about all of May to the DL. In the 22 starts after his return, he averaged 6.1 IP with a 3.29 ERA. Plus, he was at his best in some of the most critical situations of the season - after his 4 rotation-mates were blown to bits in Chicago, he responded with 1 ER in 7 IP vs. CC Sabathia; he allowed only 5 ER in 20.2 IP over 3 starts on the Twins' harrowing 14-game road trip; he allowed just 1 ER on 9 H and 2 BB over 2 starts on the season's final home stand. He's earned the opening-day start for 2009.

Dennys Reyes - The situational lefty had another fine year for the Twins. The few times he blew saves really hurt, but 3 BS in 75 appearances isn't too bad. He had a fine 2.33 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 7.58 K/9 and a terrific 2.53 G/F ratio. He held lefties to a .202 BA and .535 OPS.

Justin Morneau - Though this was his weakest HR output since 2005 (when he spent some time on the DL), Morneau still had a very productive season, setting career highs in doubles and walks and fewest strikeouts, and coming one short of his career best in RBI. Despite the falloff in the 2nd half (.903 OPS pre-All Star break, .831 after) he managed to drive in 20+ runs in every month of the season. This year, the 2nd half falloff, particularly his miserable final 8 games (3 for 30, 1 RBI, 7K) cost him a shot at his 2nd MVP.

Francisco Liriano - The overall numbers (3.91 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 5.5 IP/start, 7.93 K/9) are terrific for someone in their first year back from Tommy John surgery. But when Liriano was called up in April to replace an injured Kevin Slowey, his 3 starts were a total disaster. He spent the next 3 months in Rochester, compiling a 3.28 ERA and 1.13 WHIP with 113 K over 118 IP. When he came back up to the Twins in August to replace Livan, his numbers were superb (2.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 6 IP/start, 8.22 K/9). Between the 2 levels, he threw 194 innings. Next year, he should be even stronger.

Jesse Crain - Another pitcher in his first year after major surgery, Crain also delivered as well as could be hoped. His velocity and movement were great, and he only blew 3 leads in 66 appearances. His K/9 rate was the best of his career, and his ERA was close to his career average. He walked a few more guys than usual, especially early in the season, but that wasn't unexpected. He should also be even stronger next year.

Kevin Slowey - The best pitcher in AAA last season, Slowey began to show his promise at the Major League level in 2008. His K/BB ratio was better than 5/1, helping him to a 1.15 WHIP over 27 starts. He allowed just 6 more HR than in 2007 while pitching nearly 100 more innings. Just 24 years old, he should be ready to surpass 200 innings next year as a solid #3 starter.

Nick Blackburn - I think you've got to love Blackburn's rookie performance as much as Slowey's first year. As the only Twins starter with a significantly high ground ball rate, he filled the Carlos Silva role on the team (immeasurably better than Silva himself did in Seattle). He gave up a lot of hits, but they were mostly singles, and he induced a lot of DPs. He doesn't walk very many, and he keeps the ball in the yard (23 HR in 33 starts). He clearly tired at the end of the season, averaging just over 4 IP/start with 6 HR, 8 BB and WHIP over 2.00 in his final 4 starts. But he was money in the 1-game playoff in Chicago. He should be able to give the Twins 200+ innings in 2009.

Nick Punto - With Mike Lamb, Adam Everett and Brendan Harris joining the team, it didn't seem like Punto would be needed much this year. But when Everett went on the DL for about half the season, it was clear that Punto's range at short far exceeded that of Harris. Best of all, his bat bounced back to its 2006 level. So, by season's end, Punto was the regular SS. He nearly matched his career-best '06 XBH totals in 120 fewer ABs, and was similarly close in steals. His .865 ZR was among the best in the AL. I'll take it.

Alexi Casilla - By mid-May, the Twins had 3 middle-infielders on the DL, so they were forced to insert Alexi Casilla into the lineup, though he was hitting just .219/.250/.350 through 32 games at AAA. He stole the 2B job by hitting .340/.417/.520 the rest of May, and was hitting healthily over .300 until he went on the DL himself in late July. He wasn't the same after his return, hitting just .225/.299/.289 the rest of the way. His K/BB rate took a big step in the right direction, and his .830 ZR at 2nd put him in the top third in the AL. He's only 24, so there's plenty of time for him to refine his game further.

Not Too Shabby

Glen Perkins - Until September, Perkins' season was an unqualified success. He had pitched 6 or more innings in 17 of 21 starts with an ERA under 4.00. But he crashed hard in the final month, allowing a 7.45 ERA and 2.02 WHIP with 7 HR in just 19.1 IP over 5 starts. He amassed 181.3 IP between AAA and the Majors. He should also be able to make the jump to 200 innings next year.

Brian Buscher - After being hideously snakebit in spring training, Buscher started the year in Rochester, where he hit .319/.402/.514 with 8 HR and 30 RBI in 52 games. The walks and XBH did not follow him to the majors, but he still hit .294/.340/.390 and drove in 47 runs with some exceedingly timely hitting. He hit .316/.362/.437 with all 13 of his XBH vs. RHP, so he's an excellent candidate for a 3B platoon - though his defense needs to get a lot better.

Mike Redmond - Joe Mauer's monster year left Redmond with his fewest games and ABs since he was a rookie 10 years ago. His offensive numbers slipped for the 2nd straight year, but he still managed to hit .287 and drive in 12 runs in only 28 starts behind the dish. Not bad for a 37-year-old.

Jason Kubel - The numbers were career-bests almost across the board: Games, R, H, RBI, HR, triples, BB, OPS. Yet I think Kubel is capable of hitting .300. He came up 13 H shy of that mark - 1 every 2 weeks on average. Even if they were all singles, that would have lifted his overall line to .300/.360/.499 - pretty close to Morneau's numbers. With everybody else in the lineup hitting singles, the Twins could definitely use another Morneau in the heart of the order.

Matt Tolbert - It was a big surprise when Tolbert made the team out of spring training, but he justified the decision by getting off to a hot start in April. A hand injury knocked him out from mid-May until September, when he acquitted himself quite well in 30 ABs. Overall he hit .283/.322/.389 and was 7/8 stealing bases - not bad for a rookie nobody thought would make the team!

Brendan Harris - Harris started the season at 2nd base, then played himself onto the bench thanks to poor defense and hitting by early May. A slew of injuries forced his return to the lineup a couple of weeks later as the SS, where he made fewer errors but showed limited range and still hit pretty poorly. By season's end, he was platooning with Buscher at 3rd base, and actually had a pretty good 2nd half, hitting .272/.353/.434 after the All-Star break and drastically cutting down on his strikeouts (many of which were looking).

Bobby Korecky - Rochester's closer got a brief call-up in late April, and played pretty well, memorably getting a base hit and his first win in the same game vs. Texas. Despite that success, he was not recalled until September. His first appearance in Toronto was brutal, but otherwise he pitched fine the rest of the month, allowing just 1 ER in 7 IP despite a rather high WHIP. He's 29, he only struck out 6 in 17.2 IP, so he probably doesn't have much of a future with the Twins, but he gave them a decent contribution as a rookie this year.

Philip Humber - The second member of the Santana trade to appear for the Twins, Humber had a terrific spring, but then struggled for most of the season in AAA. He finished strong enough (2.62 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.18 K/9 over his final 10 appearances) to earn a September call-up. He finished Korecky's ghastly first inning in pretty shaky fashion himself, but then was solid the rest of the way, allowing 5 ER on 8 H and 5 BB with 6 K over 11 IP (4.09 ERA, 1.18 WHIP).

Not So Good

Michael Cuddyer - It was a forgettable season for Cuddyer. He injured his hand sliding into 3rd base in the 5th game of the season. He returned after 3 weeks and had a very poor May (.212 BA with 23 K in 118 AB), but rebounded nicely in June (.866 OPS, 10/9 K/BB). Another finger injury forced him to the DL late that month. He was a day or two from being recalled in August when he was struck by a line drive in a rehab game in AAA and broke his foot. He finally returned in mid-September and finished the season as a DH/PH. The result of all that physical turmoil was the worst year of Cuddyer's career.

Delmon Young - Since he was acquired to make up for Torii Hunter's bat, Young's performance was a bit disappointing. He hit fewer HR and doubles than last year, though his SLG% was almost identical. His plate discipline improved - his K/BB ratio went from about 5/1 in 2007 to 3/1 this year. Also, he got better as the season went along, hitting .260/.317/.333 in April and May, and after that hit .305/.346/.444. He's still just 22, so there's reason to think next year will be better still.

Carlos Gomez - Though it was apparent in spring training that Gomez was completely out of control at the plate, on the bases and in the field, the Twins not only chose to make him the CF over Span, they put him in the leadoff spot, where he wasted more plate appearances than anyone else on the team. A strong September enabled him to finish the year at .258/.296/.360, and by year's end he seemed to have his throws under control. He is a superlative defensive CF, but his stratispheric K/BB rate (142/25) outweighs the other pieces of his game right now.

Pat Neshek - Neshek blew a couple of hold opportunities on the Twins' first road trip in April, including serving up a grand slam in Chicago. However, he hadn't allowed any runs in his other 11 appearances that month, and finished April with a very respectable 1.00 WHIP and 11.25 K/9 through his first 12 IP. His elbow may have already been weakening in early May, when he allowed runs in each of his 2 appearances. The Neshek of '06 and '07 would have been enough to put the Twins in the postseason.

Boof Bonser - I'd assess Bonser this way: good stuff, not good at pitching with men on base, usually has men on base. After a fine April in which he gave the Twins 5/6 QS, he combusted in May, allowing an 8.60 ERA and losing his spot in the rotation. His K/BB rate improved in the 'pen, but he still found himself giving up runs almost every other outing. He finished the season pretty well, posting a 3.38 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 8.59 K/9 before his final bizarre outing vs. KC, so maybe he's turned the corner.

Brian Bass - The last pitcher to make the team out of spring training was Bass, ostensibly filling the long-relief/mop-up role. Apart from one absurdly bad game in Detroit (7 ER on 7 H in 1.1 IP), he actually pitched quite well in the first 3 months, compiling a 3.37 ERA in his 28 other appearances spanning 50.2 IP. Trouble was, he was very hittable, allowing a .303 BAA, and he walked about 3 guys per 9 IP, and only struck out about 4 per 9 IP. When the loss of Neshek forced him to assume a more critical role, his natural shortcomings were accentuated. He was DFA in mid-August and picked up by Baltimore.

Randy Ruiz - After languishing in the minors for a decade despite putting up pretty good numbers (including .320/.366/.536 at Rochester - good enough for the batting title), Ruiz finally got a shot in the show with the Twins. He hit pretty well in August, but went just 1 for 12 in September with 7 K. He struck out 21 times in just 62 AB, which is pretty alarming, though not totally out of line with the 116 K he racked up in 416 ABs in AAA. He hit quite a bit better vs. LHP, so he might be a good candidate for a DH platoon with Kubel for 2009.

Flat Out Awful

Craig Monroe - Brought in as a potential platoon DH/extra OF, Monroe was out to prove that his pathetic 2007 campaign was a fluke. It wasn't. While his power returned, his average remained very low (.202) and strikeouts very high (48 in 163 AB). Worse, his left/right splits were reversed, so that he hit just .138/.219/.230 vs. LHP. Released at the beginning of August.

Mike Lamb - His track record as an NL role-player was good enough to get him a 2-year deal with the Twins. Though he hadn't had as many as 400 ABs in a season since his rookie year, there was every reason to think that he'd give the Twins plenty of doubles and some HR, as well as a respectable OBP while playing decent 3rd base. Nope. He hit just .233/.276/.322 in 236 ABs with the Twins, collecting only 16 XBH (1 HR). DFA on August 25th.

Adam Everett - Nobody expected him to hit, but .213/.278/.323 was poor even for him (though his K/BB rate was the best of his career, and he managed to drive in 20 runs in just 127 ABs). But when his balky shoulder contributed to his worst fielding numbers since his rookie year, and he failed to even attempt a SB, he pretty much left the Twins with a black hole in the lineup whenever he was out there.

Juan Rincon - With his numbers in steady decline over the past 4 seasons, I was surprised that Bill Smith offered Rincon a contract for 2008. At first, it looked like a good move, as Rincon's ERA peaked at 3.24 on May 16th. From then on, he was a mess, allowing 13 ER on 21 H (3 HR) and 8 BB over his final 11.1 innings with the team (10.33 ERA, 2.56 WHIP). Released on June 18th.

Livan Hernandez - With his numbers in steady decline over the past 4 seasons, I was surprised that Bill Smith offered Livan a contract for 2008. Well, maybe not surprised, but definitely bummed. With so many unproven starters, the front office wanted a proven "innings eater" at the top of the rotation. At first, it looked like a good move, as Livan delivered quality starts in 7 of his first 10 appearances and pitched 6 or more innings in 9 of 10. From then on, he was a mess, allowing 57 ER on 119 H and 18 BB over his final 74.2 innings with the team (6.87 ERA, 1.85 WHIP). DFA on August 1st.

Matt Guerrier - When Neshek went down in early May, the Twins asked Guerrier to step in to the 8th inning role. That was a dicey move, because Guerrier had been struggling with his control early in the year (8/6 K/BB ratio in April). He got away with it through May and most of June, blowing only 1 lead before June 30th. From then on, he lost 7 games. His season spun out of control in August and September, when he combined for a 10.07 ERA and 2.29 WHIP over his final 19.1 IP and was on the mound when the winning runs scored in 6 different games. If he'd been the Guerrier of 2007, the Twins would be in the playoffs.

Friday, October 3, 2008

September Review

Twins Record: 11-15
Overall Record: 88-75
2nd in AL Central by 1 game

After 4 straight winning months, it turned out the Twins would have made the playoffs if they'd just gone .500 in September. Instead, they had their worst record for any month of the season, finishing tied with the White Sox, and lost the division in a scintillating 1-game playoff by a 1-0 score.

Starting pitching, the Twins' greatest strength in August, let them down a bit in September. In 26 games (including the playoff), the Twins got just 12 quality starts. Only Scott Baker was strong down the stretch - perhaps not surprising, since he was the member of the rotation with the most MLB experience coming into the season. In 5 starts, he averaged 6.1 IP and a 2.53 ERA. The other 4 starters had ERAs of 4.66 or higher, and averaged just over 5 IP/start. With the middle relievers continuing to struggle, the scores started to get a little out of hand. The Twins' staff allowed 5 or more runs only 10 times in 29 August games, or about 34% of the time - it happened 12 times in 26 September games, about 46% of the time.

That meant the offense had to play even better than they did in August, but that trailed off as well. After averaging almost 5.6 runs/game in August, the Twins produced just a smidge over 5.0 runs/game in September. Denard Span, Nick Punto, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Brian Buscher and Alexi Casilla all saw their production decline in the season's final weeks, though many of them continued to draw walks at a substantial rate. The baserunners were out there, they just weren't being knocked in like they were earlier in the season.

Timing isn't everything in this league, but it's a factor, and the Twins found themselves bowled over by some of the hottest teams in the league - Toronto at the beginning of the month, and Kansas City at the end. The Twins went just 1-5 vs. those momentum trains - outside of that, they did manage to play .500 ball in September. No excuse, and the Twins certainly were able to feast on some cold teams themselves over the course of the season, just another thing to consider.

Since this is the end, I'll change the grading system slightly. As usual, I'm going to stick to the regulars: only hitters with as many ABs as Mike Redmond, pitchers with as many innings as Dennys Reyes.

Just What We Needed

Joe Mauer - The MVP of this year's team, in my opinion. Down the stretch, when we need him most, he was at his best, appearing in every game but one and amassing a .365/.414/.490 line with a season-high 19 RBI to lead him to his 2nd batting title.

Craig Breslow - What right did he have to be this good? 0 ER allowed in 9 IP over 13 appearances.

Jose Mijares - A terrific debut for Mijares, who had missed much of the season recovering from an off-season elbow injury. The only run he allowed in 10.1 IP was let in by Matt Guerrier. I wish Gardy had figured out how good he was earlier in the month.

Jesse Crain - The 'pen's best right-hander after Joe Nathan. Crain actually outpitched Nathan this month, allowing just 1 ER in 8.1 IP while striking out 8.

Scott Baker - The Twins' best starter down the stretch, Baker's only rough start came when a rainout in Baltimore forced him to start on 3 days' rest in Cleveland. His performances on the final home stand helped ensure that the season ended tied.

Delmon Young - .333/.368/.455 was Young's best line in any month of the season. The guys around him in the lineup didn't do too much, so the runs and RBIs weren't impressive, but he did his part to contribute.

Brendan Harris - Harris made the most of his platoon role in September, batting .324/.419/.459. He delivered some pretty important pinch-hits as well, including the double that started the Twins' tying rally in the finale vs. the White Sox at the Metrodome.

Carlos Gomez - Wouldn't it be wonderful if he could play like this all the time? .289/.330/.470 with 10 XBH and 5/6 SB, plus some spectacular, game-saving catches.

Matt Tolbert - When he came off the DL in Toronto, Tolbert was swinging the bat great. I was surprised he didn't get more playing time down the stretch. He finished the month 10/30 with 3 triples and 3/3 SB.

Mike Redmond - Mauer made sure he wasn't needed much, but when he did get in there, Redmond went 5/15 with 3 RBI, making him and Mauer the best catching tandem in the league once again.

As Good As Could Be Expected

Denard Span - Span moves down a category only because his OPS slipped under .800. Despite seeing his BA drop to .278 for the month, he managed to keep his OBP very high (.391), which is what a leadoff man needs to do.

Nick Punto - After a fantastic July and August, Punto fell off quite a ways to .268/.348/.305. Still, that's right around his career averages, and a .348 OBP with 6/7 steals and 10 R from the #8 hitter isn't too bad.

Joe Nathan - Coming off 3 straight months of ERAs below 1.00, Nathan's 2.53 ERA for September stands out. All that damage came in one brutal loss at Cleveland. His blown save for the month was the result of poor defense behind him.

Dennys Reyes - Like Nathan, Reyes' September line (7.2 IP, 6 H, 9 K, 2.35 ERA, 10/5 GB/FB) looks great, especially when you consider that 2/5 BB he allowed were intentional. The only 2 R he allowed were solo homers, but one of them was a killer, a tying shot by Curtis Granderson in the 8th inning at the Metrodome - another of the games the Twins would love to have back.

Michael Cuddyer - .200/.400/.267 is certainly nothing to get excited about. But considering that Cuddyer had been out since late June and made his September comeback without the benefit of a rehab assignment, I think a .400 OBP (and 3/4 K/BB) was a pretty solid contribution for 15 ABs.

Let Us Down

Justin Morneau - Though he drove in 20+ runs for the 6th consecutive month, overall Morneau faded down the stretch. He finished September at .243/.298/.398, and drove in just 1 run on 2 XBH over the season's final 11 games.

Jason Kubel - The Twins might still be playing if Kubel had performed this month the way he did last September (.325/.404/.584). Instead, he came in .239/.313/.465. Though more than half his hits were for extra bases, there just weren't enough of them.

Brian Buscher - Pretty much a non-factor, hitting .222/.333/.234 with just 1 XBH in 45 ABs. At least he showed the best plate discipline of his MLB career so far (12/8 K/BB), making himself reasonably useful with a .333 OBP.

Alexi Casilla - Too bad he got injured when he did - he wasn't the same afterward. He finished up with just 1 XBH in September, hitting .221/.321/.253, and he missed some key bunting opportunities in the season's final week. Still, the 14/13 K/BB ratio is great, something to build on for next year.

Francisco Liriano - After being infallible in his first 8 starts since his recall, Liriano had a couple of clunkers at the end. Not bad for his first year back from Tommy John surgery, though.

Boof Bonser - I thought Boof's final appearance vs. KC pretty much summed up his season: 4 straight hits to begin an inning, only one of them hit hard. 14 K in his 14.1 IP, and a respectable WHIP before that final outing.

Kevin Slowey - Seemed to run out of gas in his final 2 starts before being beaten out of his last game by a Juan Uribe line drive. He gave up as many hits in 26.2 IP this month as he did in 37 IP in August.

Glen Perkins - Nobody hit the wall harder than Perkins. After going 6 or more IP in every start since June 30th, he failed to do it once in September. He allowed 6 HR in 35.1 IP in August, and 7 HR in 19.1 IP this month. His ERA was 7.45, and his WHIP was over 2.00. After skipping his start in the Chicago series, he ended the season on a good note with 5 quality innings vs. KC.

Nick Blackburn - Didn't hit the wall quite as hard as Perkins, but still had some ugly starts down the stretch. He allowed a season-high 8 HR, though his overall GB/FB numbers were very good. Whatever stock he lost in Baltimore and Tampa, he made it back up with his gutsy performance in the playoff vs. the White Sox.

Matt Guerrier - September was just as bad as August for Guerrier. The ERA was slightly lower (10.00 vs. 10.13), the WHIP was higher (2.56 vs. 2.06) - but when you're talking about numbers that bad, who cares? He allowed one or more baserunners in each of 9 appearances over the final 3+ weeks, taking the loss in 3 crushing home losses (and he was on the mound for another road loss). He's probably the LVP of at least the 2nd half of the season.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


White Sox 1, Twins 0

Well, shoot.

If someone had told me Nick Blackburn was going to allow 1 R in 6.1 IP in that game last night, I would have said the Twins will win for sure. His effort was exactly what the Twins needed, enabling them to forego every dicey member of the bullpen and hand the ball straight to Jose Mijares and Joe Nathan. The only damage he allowed was a titanic solo HR from Jim Thome - and as Bert Blyleven often reminds us, that's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. It was the performance the Twins needed in a high-pressure game on the road.


John Danks was even better, and on 3 days' rest to boot. I'm astounded that the White Sox were able to string together 3 consecutive outstanding starts from pitchers on short rest. I would have been amazed if they'd all thrown quality starts, but these were well beyond that. Danks allowed only 2 H, and really had only one threat to contend with after Alexi Casilla lined into a DP with Denard Span in motion in the 1st inning.

Michael Cuddyer led off the 5th with a double, advanced to 3rd on a fly ball from Delmon Young, and attempted to score on a shallow fly ball from Brendan Harris. Junior Griffey made a pretty weak throw, bouncing twice before the plate despite the relatively short range from which he let it go, yet it still beat Cuddyer - the ball just wasn't hit deep enough. Cuddyer did everything he could, slamming into AJ Pierzynski just after the ball arrived, but he wasn't able to jar it loose. The Twins did everything they could with what they had in that inning, but the Sox made the play.

That was how it went - last night, the Sox, a mediocre fielding team at best, made all the plays. I'll put it another way - they didn't make any mistakes. The Twins just made the one to Thome, and that was enough.

So the 2008 season ends with the Twins in 2nd place, an accomplishment no one would have expected them to achieve prior to the season. I'll break down September, review the season and look forward to next year in the coming days. But I want to remind you that the division wasn't lost in that hard-fought, extremely well-played 1-0 game last night. As I stated in my post yesterday, the division was lost 5-4 in KC, or Boston, or 3-2 in Oakland, or 4-2 in Seattle, or 4-3 in Toronto. We can proud of the road game the Twins played on September 30th - it's so many of the earlier road games that let us down.