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.

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