Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Backup Backstop

The Twins announced 3 cuts this morning: Alejandro Machado, Jose Mijares (finally), and Drew Butera. That anoints Jose Morales as Mike Redmond's backup (Mike Redmond's backup: I don't like the sound of that). Prior to spring training last year, I thought Morales would be a good choice for the 25th man, so I'm certainly pleased to see the Twins go with him now. With Mauer hurt, Joe Crede getting starts at 3rd, and Denard Span no sure thing to lead off every game with the spring he's put together, the Twins are suddenly pretty right-handed. The switch-hitting Morales gives Gardy an opportunity to add another left-handed bat on days the Twins face a RHP. Since he's a good hitter, Morales could also be a good choice to pinch-hit (if they're not too chicken to use up their last catcher). Morales has been at Rochester for 2 years, suffering some injury setbacks along the way. He deserved this opportunity, and I'm glad he's getting it.

Mijares' demotion apparently clears the way for Brian Duensing to fill the role of 12th pitcher (unnecessary on a team with a deep rotation). His advantage appears to be mainly that he is left-handed. I can think of a LHP the Twins could have signed rather cheaply who would likely have performed a lot better than Duensing will (hint: he has no neck). However, Duensing has done pretty well at Rochester over the past 2 seasons, and I suppose he also deserves a shot. I would be inclined to option him back down once Joe Mauer is ready to return, however, since I think we're going to find over the first 2 weeks of the season that the Twins aren't going to need enough innings from their bullpen to justify keeping 12 pitchers.

Twins 12, Pirates 8
This was most likely the worst all-around game the Twins have been involved in this spring. At least a quarter of the Twins' 19 hits were fly balls that the Pirates simply failed to catch. Bucs fans could not have been comforted to see their presumed #5 starter getting knocked around by the likes of Chris Parmelee and Matt Moses - whose effort today must, sadly, rank among the finest games of his disappointing pro career - and their closer getting lit up by a succession of AA or lower hitters.

Nick Blackburn was nowhere near as good as his line. Three times, Brendan Harris dove to his right to cut off balls that were labeled for CF, twice turning them into outs. Denard Span made a catch while crashing into the wall in CF. It would be fair to say that Blackburn kept his fielders on their toes.

The same could not be said of the pitching prospects who finished the game. With the temperature on the field about 90 degrees, the game almost 3 hours old, the Twins leading by 9 and both teams using almost exclusively low minor leaguers, it must have killed home plate umpire Tim Tschida to have to call ball after ball from reliever Joe Testa. The only out the Twins were able to make of the first 8 Pirates who came to the plate in the 9th was on an infield fly that wasn't caught. Ugh.

Brian Buscher hopefully earned himself a day off by playing all 9 innings at 3rd base. I hope I'm not jinxing him, but I want to point out that he hasn't made an error this spring at either 1B or 3B. In fact, the Twins' regulars have only committed a handful or errors all spring, an improvement which I expect to continue into the regular season.

Tomorrow, RA Dickey will start against Tampa while Scott Baker gets his work in vs. some minor leaguers. This start will be Dickey's last big chance to blow it on the field before the Twins are forced to admit to everyone that Philip Humber's option situation meant all along that Dickey had no chance to make the team. For what it's worth, Dickey has had a more impressive spring than Duensing. It might be more useful to have a knuckleballer in the 'pen than a lefty who isn't that good at getting lefties out. Here's hoping Dickey makes it hard on them.

Monday, March 30, 2009

2009 Twins Preview: Rotation

I'm going to start breaking down the 25-man roster with the rotation this year, since that seems to be the most settled piece of the team at this point. Instead of giving predictions for each player's stats, I'm going to give expected lines, numbers above which I'll be satisfied, below which I'll be disappointed.

#1 - Scott Baker
Baker earned the opening day start by being the Twins' most consistent starter last season, particularly during their stumbling stretch drive in September. He delivered quality starts in 18 of his 28 games (64%), and completed at least 5 IP in 25 of them. His volatile days of 2006 and early 2007 appear to be behind him - since the 2007 All-Star break he's gone 264 IP with a 3.44 ERA, 0.9 HR/9, 6.9 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9. Finally working with the full confidence of his manager, Baker should have no trouble surpassing 200 IP this season. He's going to get hit on certain days, but he'll even that out with shutout brilliance at least as often. I had a lot of confidence in Baker heading into last season, and he certainly didn't do anything to diminish it.
Expected line: 33 GS, 210 IP, 3.75 ERA, 24 HR, 51 BB, 161 K

#2 - Francisco Liriano
Rushed back to the big leagues after sitting out 2007 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Liriano began 2008 with no command and disastrous results in April. He turned things around quickly, and by late June was out-pitching Livan Hernandez to such a degree that Liriano's agent accused the Twins of trying to game his service clock. He finally rejoined the rotation in August, and though he wasn't the otherworldly force we saw in 2006, he was just about unbeatable until his final 3 starts when, like most of the rest of the staff, he ran out of gas. Despite the poor start, his numbers between the Majors and Minors were quite good: 34 GS, 199.1 IP, 3.61 ERA, 15 HR, 188 K, 65 BB. I put no stock in his April numbers; his 11 GS in August and September yielded a 2.74 ERA in 65.1 IP with 60 K, 19 BB and 7 HR, 5 of which came in September when the fatigue had set in. If he can continue to improve his command in 2009, he won't need his 2006 stuff to be an elite pitcher.
Expected line: 33 GS, 210 IP, 3.50 ERA, 18 HR, 65 BB, 200 K

#3 - Kevin Slowey
After an injury forced him to leave his first start early and miss the rest of April, Slowey was nearly as consistent as Baker until his last 2 starts of the year, completing at least 5 IP in 22 of 24 starts during that span, including a team-leading 3 CG. With his K/9 rate climbing to 6.9 in 2008 and his BB/9 leading the league, Slowey's only remaining weakness is his propensity to serve up homers. It's telling that, in his 3 rehab starts at Fort Myers and Rochester, he allowed only 3 ER on 4 H with a 19/4 K/BB rate in 13 IP - 3 of those 4 H were HR. Even the minor leaguers can take him deep. There were many times last year where hitters were able to spoil numerous pitches and extend his pitch count, shortening his outings. He'll need to be able to put people away a little more efficiently to get to the next level. This spring, he's allowed just 2 HR in 20.1 IP with an absurd 20/1 K/BB ratio. In his last spring start, he was able to strike out Albert Pujols with the bases loaded to help escape the jam. Needless to say, if he can keep it up, he'll be on his way to stardom.
Expected line: 33 GS, 200 IP, 4.00 ERA, 28 HR, 35 BB, 150 K

#4 - Glen Perkins
For me, Perkins is the #5 starter, but Nick Blackburn's slow recovery from off-season knee surgery has bumped him down. Perkins has never had the good control of the righties in the rotation, and his strong strikeout numbers never made it past AA. His stellar 12-4 record last year was largely the result of stupendous run support. And yet, like Slowey, he managed to give the Twins at least 5 IP in 21 of 23 starts before crashing in late September. Of the 5 starters, Perkins is the one I'd bet on having a significantly worse season in 2009 - he gives up a lot of hits and walks (1.47 WHIP in '08) and HR (almost 1.5/9 IP) and doesn't strike many guys out (fewer than 4.5/9 IP). And yet, no one is having a better spring: in 26 IP he's allowed just 24 H, 6 BB and 0 HR. I'm not sure how he does it. However well he pitches for the bulk of the season, his biggest test will come in September. He hit the wall so hard last year (3.97 ERA with 18 HR allowed in his first 131.2 IP, 7.45 ERA with 7 HR allowed in his last 19.1 IP) that some have questioned whether he'll have the stamina to finish a full season. But he works so efficiently that he should be able to rack up plenty of innings before he gets to that point.
Expected line: 31 GS, 185 IP, 4.75 ERA, 25 HR, 50 BB, 90 K

#5 - Nick Blackburn
Don't let the .500 record fool you - Blackburn was a much better pitcher than Perkins last year. While their K/9 rates were almost identical, Blackburn gave up the same number of BB and 2 fewer HR in 42.1 more IP. Throwing strikes and pitching to contact enables him to be extremely efficient - it was very common for him to complete 6-7 IP last season with around 90 pitches thrown. Gardy was very soft with him last year, and the lingering knee swelling may foster a little of that at the beginning of this season as well, but with a year of experience under his belt and the relative weakness of the Twins' bullpen, Blackburn should be called upon to pitch even deeper into games this year. Like everyone but Baker, Blackburn struggled in September, but dug deep for a pair of solid games against the White Sox in season's final week. He'll need to show better endurance this season as well, but should have no trouble accumulating innings prior to September, as long as Gardy doesn't keep treating him with kid gloves.
Expected line: 32 GS, 200 IP, 4.50 ERA, 23 HR, 41 BB, 99 K

If everyone in this group can keep taking his turn all season, I think they should accumulate at least a combined 1005 IP with a 4.08 ERA. In a typical season, a staff pitches about 1450 innings, so this rotation sets up the bullpen to have a much easier time in '09 (they had to cover 500 IP last year). Along with what I suspect will be a much improved defense, the starters should be able to reduce the Twins' runs allowed enough to make up for the almost certain drop-off in runs that will result for a lower BA with RISP. If that happens, the Twins should still be able to win around 90 games, and that might be enough this year.

Just Like the Real Thing

Twins 3, Rays 2

This was as close to a proper baseball game as I've seen this spring. Each team used just 3 pitchers with the starter going 6 IP, and Tampa made just 2 substitutions, 1 a very reasonable platoon PH in the 9th. Glen Perkins got through the Rays' best Upton-less lineup about 2.5 times, allowing 0 R on 4 H, 1 BB and 4 K. He was aided in his shutout by the mighty right arm of Micheal Cuddyer. With runners at 2nd and 3rd and no outs in the 2nd, Dioner Navarro hit a fly to medium deep RF. As Cuddy lined it up I felt myself hoping that they'd test him. Carl Crawford might have made it a close play; as it was, Cuddyer's throw beat first baseman Carlos Pena to the plate by more than 10 feet. Pena never even touched the plate - Jose Morales blocked the baseline as he tagged, deflecting Pena into foul territory.

I don't think Brian Duensing did himself any favors today. Supposedly on the bubble as a lefty specialist for the 'pen, he fell behind most of the hitters he faced and allowed a HR to Pena, a lefty. Matt Guerrier, on the other hand, continued his recent success, efficiently picking up an extra out in the 9th after Tommy Watkins kicked what should have been the last play of the game.

I continue to worry about Denard Span. He took a couple of called 3rd strikes from Matt Garza today, the same sort he was taking last year and throughout the spring. Belt-high, starting inside and moving over the corner, and down and away. Is he looking for off-speed pitches in those counts? Or is the strike zone just a bit bigger than he thinks it is? Either way, his sophomore campaign won't be a success unless he can make an adjustment to his approach and start spoiling those pitches.

More cuts tomorrow...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Draft Day

I had a good time at the draft today. Our league is scoring some unorthodox categories, and it was difficult to assess early on how many guys would be using ESPN's default rankings as their guide, and how many had wasted hours of their lives researching which players averaged the most assists/game over the last few seasons. (Like I did.) As it turned out, most were on the ESPN side, so I was able to get almost all of the guys I wanted. Unfortunately, I missed out on Russell Martin by 4 picks when someone over-exuberantly selected Joe Mauer early in the 6th round (I wasn't going to take him unless he fell to the 8th), starting a mini-run on catchers. I had hoped to take Martin, a serviceable backup like Chris Snyder (we're scoring defense), and then stash Matt Wieters on the bench until the Orioles are ready to start his service clock. I've got Snyder and Wieters, but that leaves me a catcher short at the moment.

I spent the draft at the home of my co-commissioner, Kenneth the Cards fan. I had my spreadsheets laid out on the dining room table while he did his work on a desktop + a laptop in the 2nd bedroom. My greatest satisfaction of the day was listening to him curse several times when I made my picks, depriving him of Carlos Beltran, Joey Devine, JJ Putz and Ricky Nolasco. There may have been others, it got to be a blur after awhile. Maybe that was because the draft lasted only about 2 hours for 25 rounds, and yet I managed to drink at least 5 beers while I was there. Hmm...

I got to see just a bit of the Twins game before we got started. Kevin Slowey continues to make me very happy. I thought Chris Carpenter looked very good - the Twins were rather fortunate to get a few runs off him early. But credit Carlos Gomez for looking to go the other way with a 2-out, 2-run double that ended up being the difference in the game. 2008 Gomez would have struck out feebly on 3 pitches (kinda like 2009 Gomez did in his first AB). As for Jose Mijares, can we just cut him already? Ugh.

There is an interview with Glen Perkins over at Baseball Prospectus that you might want to check out. Hopefully, he'll continue his effective spring tomorrow.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Mayor's Cup is Lost!

Red Sox 9, Twins 4
Sox win Mayor's Cup 3-1

For the 3rd straight year, the Twins have fallen short in their quest for the Mayor's Cup. While players may show a brave face to the media, saying that their main goal in spring training is to "get in shape" or "work on their stuff," we all know that losing out on this hardware has to hurt. These little setbacks build character. At least, that's what I've been telling myself since game #163 last fall.

It's funny how similar today's game was to the Twins' last appearance at City of Palms park, when the score was 9-5 and it was Scott Baker who was touched for a couple of home runs. The real culprit today, even more than the long ball, was poor control by the pitchers. Any time you see more runs than hits in the box score, you know something was off when the defense was on the field. Twins pitchers combined for 8 BB and 2 HBP today, and 5 of those guys scored. Blech.

(My fantasy league this year is scoring IP, ERA, K, BB and HR allowed. Needless to say, Liriano had an atrocious day by those standards, only scoring well with 5 K in his 3 IP.)

Not much happened on the offensive side either (no walks for the Twins today), but that's been the exception for most of this week. Matt Tolbert is starting to look like quite a bruiser (surely the wind has helped him this spring). Delmon Young's 0-4 day including a couple of loud fly ball outs. I wish I could say the same about Denard Span's 0-4.

The Twins worked out a trade with the Yankees this morning, sending Class A pitcher Charles Nolte to NY in order to keep the rights to Jason Jones, who now heads to the Red Wings' rotation. Nolte had a 2.05 ERA in 44 relief appearances for A- Beloit last year, posting a 75/35 K/BB ratio in 70.1 IP. Most impressively, he allowed only 1 HR all season thanks to a really good sinker. He was only a 27th round pick, starting his age 23 season at A+, so I suppose he wasn't too important to the Twins' long-term plans. Then again, a guy who gave up less than a hit per IP, struck out more than a batter per IP, and got grounders almost 5 times as often as he gave up flies could have had some utility as at least a situational righty out of the 'pen. (He would be very useful in my fantasy league, especially to compliment a low-BB, high-HR guy like Kevin Slowey).

With Jones secured a place in AAA, and RA Dickey signed to a minor league contract, and Philip Humber out of options, it seems pretty clear that Humber has a place on the 25-man roster. His outing today was encouraging. Like most of the Twins pitchers, he allowed a walk that came around to score, but he struck out 3 batters in 2 IP, including Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell. His pattern reminded of Glen Perkins when he's effective: back and forth between the fastball and the slow stuff. There's potential there, as with Perkins, if Humber can command the fastball and at least one of his off-speed pitches.

Draft day is tomorrow - I'm ready to dominate!

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Middle Third

Grapefruit League Record: 12-10

I've been submerged in research for my fantasy draft coming up on Sunday. The Twins' latter games of last week weren't terribly inspiring, anyway, the losses coming from the poor play of people who won't be on the team come April. There have been some slow signs of progress, though. The Twins are 2/3 of the way through their spring schedule, so I thought I'd hand out report cards:

Getting It Done
Alexi Casilla - I'm particularly happy to see him stealing bases.
Justin Morneau - throw in his WBC performance and he's at .353/.405/.647. That'll work.
Jason Kubel - though only 2 XBH so far.
Delmon Young - good to see that the pull power he's displayed hasn't diminished his GIDP prowess. I'd like to see a couple of walks before the end of camp.
Brian Buscher - putting up the numbers he had at Rochester.
Brendan Harris - putting up the numbers Buscher had at Rochester.
Carlos Gomez - I'd be happy with a .341 OBP from him in any circumstances, but combined with a 6/5 K/BB rate and .615 SLG% is amazing. Can he sustain it? (The OBP, I mean.)
Francisco Liriano - a few too many walks for me, but the overall line is fantastic.
Glen Perkins - time to see how does with the 3rd trip through the batting order.
Kevin Slowey - damn, he's good.
Craig Breslow - seriously, what were the Indians thinking last year?
Jesse Crain - throw in his WBC performance and he's at 1.00 ERA, 0.33 WHIP and 9.00 K/9.
R.A. Dickey - I did not think he would be leading the team in K/9 at this stage of the spring.
Brian Duensing - though too many walks, not enough strikeouts.

So Far, So Good
Michael Cuddyer - if he can deliver an .802 OPS during the season, too, the Twins will be in good shape.
Mike Redmond - a .700 OPS from a 38-year-old backup catcher ain't too bad.
Nick Punto - combined with his anemic WBC performance, he's done OK this spring.
Matt Tolbert - his versatility, along with his recent power surge, however wind-blown, has him looking like he'll retain his spot on the roster.
Philip Humber - other than his first outing, he's been good - though I'd like to see some more strikeouts.
Kevin Mulvey - too bad the game went extras last week, or his line would be even better.
Jason Jones - the WHIP and K/BB ratio probably aren't good enough to make the team.

Need To Pick It Up
Denard Span - showed some flashes early last week, then right back into the funk.
Joe Crede - with Buscher and Harris both enjoying an OPS in the mid .900s, it'd be nice to see Crede at least crack .600.
Jose Morales - I'd prefer to see him make the team over Drew Butera, since Morales is the better hitter. So, hit Jose!
Scott Baker - almost got through 5 quality IP yesterday. At least he didn't give up any homers. Baby steps...
Matt Guerrier - hopefully, today's quick 1-2-3 inning is a harbinger of things to come.
Jose Mijares - oh, just cut him already!

Need To See More
Joe Nathan
Luis Ayala
Nick Blackburn
Drew Butera
Joe Mauer - someday?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

First Cuts

Red Sox 9, Twins 5
Sox lead Mayor's Cup 2-1

Happy St. Patrick's Day! It was fun to watch all the Sox fans in their green garb this afternoon.

I'm going to have to add Scott Baker and Matt Guerrier to the list of players I'm starting to worry about. Baker has now been blown to bits in consecutive starts, allowing 8 ER on 6 HR and 2 2B in 6 IP between the two games. Sure, he's a fly-ball pitcher, and those were hitter's parks with the wind blowing out. But none of the homers were particularly cheap. The worst was the shot by our old friend David Ortiz. Baker had just made him look silly half-swinging at a high and tight fastball, then followed it up with a hanging changeup over the heart of the plate. On 0-2. Eek. Bad pitch selection, bad execution. Hitters are very comfortable against Baker right now, and he's not locating his pitches, and the results aren't pretty. I really want to see 5 solid innings from him the next time out.

I was hoping to see Guerrier shake off his late-season meltdown and get back to business as usual this year, but what we've seen of him so far this spring (8.22 ERA, 1.96 WHIP, 2.35 HR/9, 4.7 BB/9, 4.7 K/9) looks awfully similar to the Guerrier of last August (10.13 ERA, 2.06 WHIP, 2.53 HR/9, 5.1 BB/9, 6.7 K/9) and September (10.00 ERA, 2.56 WHIP, 3 HR/9, 8 BB/9, 6 K/9). Never mind my confidence in him - his self-confidence probably depends upon him throwing up a couple of comfortable 0s over his next few outings.

Another inning, another run allowed for Jose Mijares. He was set up to escape with just 1 H allowed, with 2 K under his belt and ahead 0-2 on Jacoby Ellsbury's sub, but he lost him for a walk, then gave up an RBI single. Carlos Gomez bailed him out by cutting down the trailing runner trying to go first-to-third. As you'll see below, Mijares survived this round of cuts, but he still doesn't look like big-league material right now.

The bright spot in today's game for me was Denard Span. He put up his second straight multi-hit game, capped by an aggressive HR leading off the 5th against Jonathan Papelbon. Though it wasn't quite enough to bring his BA north of the Mendoza line, these 2 games have quadrupled his TB, bringing his OPS to a much more palatable .592. The way Casilla and Gomez are swinging, the Twins could have the exciting 9, 1 and 2 hitters they're hoping for in the lineup.

There were some great examples today of how the box score doesn't really tell you how people performed. Brian Buscher, though 0-3 with a K, was pitched exceedingly toughly by Josh Beckett on the strikeout, then was robbed of a base hit on a diving snare of a sharp liner in his last AB. Beckett had a tough 2nd inning, but without ever really being squared up: Michael Cuddyer led off with a hardish grounder right over 3rd for a double, Buscher struck out, Gomez walked on a very close 3-2 pitch, Jose Morales chipped a ball just out of the reach of SS Jed Lowrie, Brendan Harris reached on a swinging bunt down the 3B line, Denard Span got a bloop RBI single just out of the reach of a diving Jason Bay in LF, and Alexi Casilla reached on a swinging bunt down the 1B line. Though he'd needed about 45 pitches to record just 4 outs to that point, Beckett was able to get the next 8 outs on just 15 pitches. (A reporter asked him how it felt to see the offense doing so much to support him on a day when he didn't have his best stuff; a deadpan Beckett replied, "I don't understand the question.")

The Twins cut 20% of the players in camp this morning. Armando Gabino, Anthony Swarzak, Trevor Plouffe and Steve Tolleson were optioned to AAA Rochester, Deibinson Romero was optioned to A+ Fort Myers, and Rob Delaney, Ben Julianel, Danny Lehmann, Danny Valencia, Toby Gardenhire and Dustin Martin were reassigned to minor league camp. No surprises there. Many of those players made the most of their limited opportunities this spring, and will be watched with interest over the course of the coming season.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Signs of Life

We're about halfway through spring training, a time when the sample sizes are beginning to get large enough that you'd like to start to see some signs that the players are going to be able to perform. So far, I've been very pleased with most of the Twins' returning players, particularly Carlos Gomez (.333/.400/.815, 3 HR, 5/3 K/BB in 27 AB), Delmon Young (.414/.452/.621, 3 2B, HR in 29 AB), Alexi Casilla (.387/.424/.484, 3 2B, 1/2 K/BB) and Jesse Crain (6 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 1 BB, 6 K including the WBC). There are just a handful of guys on last year's roster who were beginning to worry me coming into today's game:

Joe Mauer - hasn't done anything on the field
Denard Span - 3 for 31 with no XBH
Joe Crede - 2 for 24 with no XBH
Nick Punto - 1 for 10 for the Twins and 1 for 12 with 2 BB in the WBC
Mike Redmond - 4 for 20 with 1 XBH
Matt Tolbert - 4 for 32 with no XBH

With the Crede signing likely relegating Brendan Harris to a bench IF role, and Mauer's balky back perhaps necessitating placing a 3rd catcher on the roster, Tolbert's spot is by no means guaranteed, so his struggles don't trouble me too much. However, that also means that Crede and Redmond had better be ready to do some hitting, or the Twins' lineup isn't going to be very deep.

So it was most encouraging to see Redmond, Crede and Span all drill XBH today, combining to go 6 for 8 with 2 R and 3 RBI. This was Redmond's second day in a row with a double, nearly matching his XBH total from all of 2008 (OK, he actually had 6 XBH in 2008, but you get the point). At this stage, it seems like the best case scenario that Mauer would get more frequent days off early in the season, so it's critical that Redmond delivers closer to his 2005-2007 performance, at least in April.

Span and Crede each managed to more than double their Grapefruit League total bases. Between them, they hit for the cycle (guess which one had the triple). Hopefully their numbers will continue to improve over the next week or so.

Philip Humber and Jason Jones both pitched well enough to keep themselves in the running for the last bullpen spot.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Losing Streak

Some thoughts on the last three games:

Pirates 6, Twins 4

Scott Baker was apparently having a lot of trouble locating his breaking stuff, and the Pirates' Bradenton stadium is apparently very friendly to hitters, but 4 HR? Next outing, work on throwing the fastball inside.

I realize he's done a lot of work since he last played to get in shape and prove he's still got it, but 3 HR by Craig Monroe? All off RHP? Nobody learned how to get him out last year? Pirates fans should be prepared for disappointment - Monroe had a pretty good spring for the Twins last year, but it didn't carry over into the regular season.

Reds 1, Twins 0

Francisco Liriano is having a very encouraging spring so far. I don't know how close he is to his pre-surgery form, but he certainly looks good enough to win a lot of games.

One of the things I was hoping to see Denard Span improve on in his second season was a reduction in strikeouts. He took a lot of called 3rd strikes last year, so learning to spoil some of those close pitches seems like an adjustment within his control. But I didn't see any of that in these games, though the strike zone was apparently overly generous in the early goings. I hope we can start seeing some successful ABs out of Span very soon.

Joe Crede is a fantastic glove at 3rd. Still waiting for the bat, though.

Marlins 9, Twins 5

Like most of the Twins starters, Kevin Slowey looks terrific. I'm really excited to see what they can do this year.

Carlos Gomez needed to do a lot to convince me that he's ready to be a productive MLB hitter. And so far, he's doing it. The best sign is his improved discipline. He led off the game with a walk on a 3-2 pitch, then created a run when his speed (going first to third on a groundout) drew a bad throw from Dallas MacPherson. How many times last year did he come up in the middle of a rally and fail to put the ball in play? Today he batted with the bases loaded and no out and hit an RBI groundout. And on his triple, he battled at 1-2 for a few pitches, took a breaking ball off the plate, then drove an outside pitch to the opposite field. If he can keep having those kinds of PAs, he's going to be a big contributor on both sides of the ball.

The first round of cuts is coming up, and if I had a vote, Jose Mijares would be the first name on the list. His putrid outing today, on top of all the walks he's issued previously, plus his terrible conditioning, shows that he's not ready to be a big-league regular. Perhaps he felt that his sterling September, combined with the Twins' disinterest in re-signing Dennys Reyes, meant that he was going to be handed a spot on the roster and that he could start living the good life. His unceremonious demotion would serve as an example to the rest of the Twins' prospects that nothing is given.

This gives me one last (hopefully) opportunity to harp on the short-sightedness of letting Reyes walk. Today's outing notwithstanding, R.A. Dickey has performed rather well this spring, as has Jason Jones. Philip Humber will get an extended look on Monday. With Joe Mauer's nagging back making it ever more likely that the Twins will need to take an extra catcher north, and the rotation showing that they're capable of pitching efficiently and eating some innings, a 6-man bullpen looks plausible. Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Craig Breslow and Luis Ayala will certainly take up 5 of those spots, with Dickey, Jones or Humber as the long reliever. That means there will be one lefty in the 'pen, which means that Breslow will almost certainly be used just as Reyes was - as a one-hitter matchup guy. He can do that, but he could have done more. I feel better about Breslow starting the 7th inning with a lead than I do Guerrier or Ayala. Rather than duplicate Guerrier by signing Ayala, the Twins could have brought back Reyes for essentially the same salary and given Gardy more flexibility, while demonstrating to young Mijares that he still had work to do to make the team. If he had pitched lights-out this spring, great! Take 3 lefties and have a balanced bullpen. Instead, the Twins will likely underuse one of their better relief assets, thereby giving more innings to weaker pitchers.

One of the reasons the Twins had been winning so many games this spring was the solid, and sometimes spectacular, play of their defense. That all went to pieces today, beginning in Mijares' brutal 7th inning. As badly as he was pitching, his outfielders didn't do him any favors, as Michael Cuddyer and Dustin Martin both let catchable balls get over their heads for 2-run doubles. In the 8th, R.A. Dickey was victimized by a missed cutoff and an unfielded bunt. And Brian Duensing suffered the capper in the 9th, as Gardy's boy threw away a DP, leading to 3 unearned runs.

I'm sure tomorrow will be better.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back to the Games

It was great to get to listen to a game after more than a week of going without. Even if it was the Orioles broadcast, and they aired pre-taped interviews during the top of the 7th and 8th innings. And then started singing show tunes in the 9th when they couldn't pronounce our players' names correctly ("I feel Pridie..."). They're obviously bored already.

Despite tallying 17 H in the game, the Twins managed just 4 R, thanks to some especially poor hitting with RISP by Mike Redmond and Brendan Harris. Bad base running was also a problem, as the Twins ran themselves out of rallies in the 1st, when Michael Cuddyer got doubled off 2nd base, and the 4th, when Carlos Gomez got picked off after a leadoff single. Joe Crede got off the schnide, though, and Jason Kubel continues to swing a hot bat - save some of that for April!

Not a great day for Glen Perkins, although not many of the hits he gave up were hit hard. The biggest blow against him was a bloop single down the RF line by Greg Zaun that plated one run and sent another runner to 3rd where he was able to come home on a SF. Perkins seemed to tire in the 3rd, walking 2 to load the bases before escaping unscathed. Nick Blackburn had another efficient inning in his return to game action. And RA Dickey continues to make a strong case for a roster spot with another scoreless frame including 2 K.

The best news of the day, of course, came from back in Fort Myers, where Joe Mauer's MRA revealed no additional problems. The doctors will make an adjustment in the medication he's already been taking to relieve the inflammation in his lower back. Hopefully, that will give him an opportunity to get on the field in time to be ready for the season. We've only got 3 and a half weeks to go, and it's a much bigger step down from Mauer to Redmond than it was a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Spring So Far

The Twins have played about 1/3 of their spring schedule, going 7-3 (plus 2-0 in exhibition games vs. WBC teams). The WBC has made it a little tougher to evaluate players at this stage, since the exhibition and WBC stats don't count in the normal spring stats. But I'll take a crack anyway.

Getting It Done
Delmon Young - 3 XBH in his first 19 AB and 0 K. 0 BB, too, but I'll take it.
Jason Kubel - .400/.538/.800 doesn't even include his 3 for 3 game vs. Puerto Rico.
Alexi Casilla
Brian Buscher
Brendan Harris - perhaps the Crede signing fired them up?
Justin Morneau - 3 for 7 with 2 doubles for the Twins, 4 for 9 with 2 doubles for team Canada.
Carlos Gomez
Glen Perkins - of course, the first couple times through the order usually wasn't the problem last year
Francisco Liriano
Kevin Slowey - his spring also includes 3 perfect innings vs. the Netherlands
Craig Breslow
Jesse Crain - he struck out all 4 batters he faced in the WBC
RA Dickey
Jason Jones
Dustin Martin
Danny Valencia
Wilson Ramos
David Winfree - good to see some of the Twins' better prospects faring well

So Far, So Good
Joe Nathan - glad the shoulder is OK
Brian Duensing - too many walks, though
Luke Hughes - too many strikeouts, though

Need To Pick It Up
Denard Span - nothing's falling in, though the 4/2 BB/K rate shows that the leadoff approach is still there
Michael Cuddyer
Jason Pridie
Mike Redmond
Luis Matos
Joe Crede - 14 H behind Buscher/Harris so far
Nick Punto - please don't be that Nick Punto this year!
Matt Guerrier - too many walks
Jose Mijares - way too many walks
Scott Baker - too many hits, though 3 scoreless innings vs. Puerto Rico bring his spring ERA to 4.00
Philip Humber - really just the one bad outing, but it was really bad

Need To See More
Luis Ayala
Nick Blackburn
Joe Mauer - starting to get nervous, now.

It's nice to see that the majority of the team is performing well so far. Morneau and Crain should be back from the WBC this week now that Canada has been eliminated.

There are very few spots up for grabs on this year's roster. At this point, I'd have to wonder whether Tolbert can make the team over Busher and Harris. Dickey and Jones both look like better options than Humber for the long relief role.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Back from Tech Week

Back in middle school I used to participate in the school play every year. As I got older, I realized that theater wasn't going to fit into a schedule that usually included piano lessons, choir and chamber choir, soccer, etc. Partly that was because I realized I was a bigger music geek than a theater geek. But mostly it was because of tech week - the week before the show opens, when a sparse rehearsal schedule expands to a nightly obligation as the cast runs the entire production while integrating lights and sound. I gave up theater because I felt like a couldn't afford to do nothing but theater for a week.

Flash forward to this winter, when I decided to supplement my stay-at-home dad days with my first-ever job as Sound Designer for a play. My experience with film prepared me for this rather well, and I got to write a bunch of incidental music as well. It's a credit I'm proud to have on my resume. The show opened Saturday night. So the reason I haven't blogged so far in March is, of course, because last week was tech week. Night after night I came home after 1:30 AM, then had to fill my days with composing, mixing and my normal dad duties. Exhausting. Today feels like a vacation.

Some interesting things have happened around the Twins in that time, and I've kept abreast of them as best I could:

Scott Baker's contract
The Twins and Baker agreed to a 4-year, $15.25 million contract that buys out Baker's arbitration years and includes a $9.25 million club option for his first year of free agency in 2013. For someone who has shown himself to be no worse than a #2 starter over the past season and a half, that strikes me as a bargain. All he has to do is stay healthy and continue to produce at the same level throughout his peak years and the Twins will more than get their money's worth. Good job, Bill Smith! Now go extend Joe Mauer.

Juan Cruz to the Royals
Royals GM Dayton Moore has made some bizarre choices as he's tried to build his team, but the signing of Cruz is a great move for them. With Closer Joakim Soria already one of the game's better 9th-inning pitchers, the Royals now have the best late-inning combination in the division. Their record in games they lead after 7 innings is likely to be very good. The question is: how many late inning leads will they have?

Joe Nathan's shoulder
Nathan had to pull out of the WBC, but he looked none the worse for wear in a perfect inning of work yesterday which included 2 K. A loss for team USA, but probably better for the Twins to have him in camp.

Dennys Reyes signs with the Cardinals
It took Reyes almost 3 weeks into spring training to finally find a team. The Cards will pay him $3 million for 2 years, $1 million more than the Twins paid him for the last 2 years. For a team uncertain about the back end of its bullpen, it never made sense to me that the Twins would be willing to let Reyes walk and hand his role to either Craig Breslow or Jose Mijares. Both of those guys seem to be capable of getting out more than just lefties, and therefore should have been considered for more than just the lefty fireman job that Reyes held. They may assume a broader role as the season goes along, but will probably see unnecessarily limited use, at least at the beginning of the season, when they are asked to get the last out of the 7th inning, then see the ball handed to Jesse Crain or Luis Ayala for the 8th. When you have a guy whose skills are as perfectly suited to bailing RHPs out of jams as Reyes' are, and whose contract requirements are so modest, it strikes me as a bit narrow-minded to let him walk away in favor of someone who may be overqualified for that job. Basically, I don't think putting Breslow or Mijares in Reyes' role is the most efficient use of the Twins' limited bullpen resources. Oh, well.

The spring so far
Now that we're about a third of the way through the spring schedule, I'll take a look at how people are performing so far and post that tomorrow. I can generally say that I've been pleased with the quality of the pitching and defense, and disappointed in much of the offense, although most of the games so far have been played without Mauer and Justin Morneau. It's nice to see the team getting in the habit of playing well and winning - hopefully that will carry over into April.