Thursday, April 30, 2009

April Review

Twins Record: 11-11
4th in AL Central, 1 game out of 1st

First, the bad news: The Twins finished April 11th in the AL in scoring and OBP, 12th in SLG% and HR, and only 9th in SB. They are 10th in the league in BAA, ERA, OPS against and runs allowed, 11th in K and HR allowed, and 13th in SB allowed. Twins catchers threw out only 1 base stealer all month. In all of MLB, only the Nationals and Orioles have a worse run differential.

Only 5 Twins hitters have BA higher than .241. Only 6 have SLG% higher than .333. There has been precious little hitting with RISP. Only 6 pitchers have ERAs lower than 5.40, and 3 of them have combined for 16.1 IP. The starters are averaging fewer than 6 IP/GS.

But hey, look on the bright side: They still issue the fewest walks in the league. Their 8 errors are tied for fewest in the league, resulting in a league-low 3 unearned runs. As disappointing as their team hitting line of .262/.328/.386 with 0.73 HR/game and 4.23 R/game is, it's actually an improvement over last April's .258/.302/.361 with 0.54 HR/game and 3.81 R/game. And you will recall that the offense put it together quite well as the season went on.

Best of all, the Twins have managed to stay at .500 despite their shoddy play, within 1 good series of taking over 1st place in the division, all without the help of their most important player, Joe Mauer. He'll be back on Friday, and his .400+ OBP is going to look real nice after Denard Span and in front of Justin Morneau. The starting pitching is on an upswing, and the cold members of the offense are almost certain to get it going before too long.

It's sort of miraculous that the Twins are as well-positioned as they are. We can thank the 2 improbable Metrodome comebacks: 5 straight batters reached after 2 were out in the bottom of the 9th against Seattle closer Brandon Morrow, and 7 scored in the bottom of the 8th against the Angels, culminating in Jason Kubel's cycle-clinching grand slam that turned a 9-4 deficit into an 11-9 victory. The Twins had no business winning either of those games, and if they hadn't, their record would be 9-13, only 1 game ahead of Cleveland.

So cheer up, Twins fans. It only gets better from here.

It was a short month, so my cutoffs for qualifying for grades will be 20 PA for hitters and 5.0 IP for pitchers.

Getting It Done
Denard Span - I had my doubts after his icy cold spring training, but when the bell went off on opening day he picked up right where his terrific rookie campaign left off, reaching base about 39% of the time, picking up 5 SB to lead the team, and playing good defense at all three OF positions.

Justin Morneau - Does his .318/.365/.557 line remind you of anything? How about the .321/.375/.559 line he put up in his MVP year of 2006. Easily on pace for 30+ HR after his disappointing 23 last year. Needs to take more walks and/or strike out less, but otherwise doing his thing.

Jason Kubel - At last, a good start for Kubel. He's nearly matched Morneau offensively, and has earned the opportunity to face more LHP. He's not hitting them particularly well (.250/.294/.313 in 16 AB), but neither is anyone else on the team right now. This could be the start of the breakout season that makes the contract he signed over the offseason look like a steal.

Jose Morales - The defense hasn't been good, as Morales has made 2 of the team's 8 errors, allowed a couple of PB, and thrown out only 1 attempted base stealer. But you could hardly have asked for more from him offensively - his .349/.391/.419 isn't a very big step down from what Mauer would have done, and he's had to assume more playing time as Mike Redmond deals with nagging injuries.

Brendan Harris - I'll be the first one to admit that Harris isn't the same fielder as Nick Punto or Alexi Casilla. But he's just about the only guy we have hitting lefties right now, and he's hit RHP even better. As Casilla struggles, Gardy needs to find ways to get Harris more AB.

Glen Perkins - Raise your hand if you thought Perkins would be the Twins' best starter this month. Extra credit if you guessed he would have 1.56 points of ERA and 0.37 points of WHIP on the next best starter. Lack of run support has cost him in the win column, but those 8 IP starts have been the salvation of a shaky bullpen. The pitching MVP of April.

So Far, So Good
Nick Punto - Like most of the Twins' switch-hitters, Punto's poor splits vs. LHP have dragged his overall line way down. The .228 BA isn't too far away from the disaster of 2007. But his 11/9 K/BB rate has enabled him to get his OBP up to .343. That's productive enough for a #9 hitting SS, especially if he only makes 1 error in 19 games.

Joe Nathan - The line is pretty good: 2.57 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 7 IP with 7 K. The problem is, 2 of the 5 H he allowed have been HR, one of which cost him a save earlier this week. When he gets more use, I expect his HR/9 numbers to head back toward his career averages.

Nick Blackburn - This is Nick Blackburn: his ERA and WHIP are almost identical to his totals from last year. His K/9 is down, but he's only allowed 1 HR in 31.1 IP. Best of all, his IP/start is up over 6, thanks to Gardy's increased confidence in his starters (or decreased confidence in the bullpen).

Kevin Slowey - I hold Slowey to a pretty high standard, so I almost didn't stick him in this category. Ultimately, I decided that his last 2 starts (1.00 WHIP, 1 HR, 12 K in 15 IP) cancel out his first 2 starts (2.00 WHIP, 4 HR, 7 K in 11.1 IP). The tipping point was the fact that he got the team into the 6th inning even when he was struggling.

Jesse Crain - Overall, it's not a good line for Crain, but almost all of the ugliness (3 BB and 4 ER) came in that final, grueling outing vs. the Angels. His remaining appearances were very effective, and I expect him to resume his role as the primary RH middle reliever once he comes off the DL.

Matt Guerrier - Like Crain, almost all of the damage (4 ER, 4 H, HR) came in one lousy appearance against the Blue Jays. In his other 8 appearances, he's allowed only 2 ER on 5 H and 2 BB with 7 K in 9.1 IP. That'll work.

Need To Pick It Up
Alexi Casilla - Even if you take away his 1 for 23 vs. LHP, Casilla is only hitting .239/.300/.304. On the bright side, he's made every play but one in the field, he's 2/2 in SB, and he was hitting just about this badly for Rochester last spring before he was called up. He should lose some playing time to Harris, particularly vs. LHP, but it would be tough not to improve on his start.

Michael Cuddyer - It seems like a lot of his early AB went like this: take a strike, swing through an offspeed pitch, then do what you can behind in the count. He's basically corrected his K/BB rate with 7 BB over his last 4 games, so maybe that's a sign that he's starting to see the ball better.

Joe Crede - The defense and the IsoP are as advertised, but he's supposed to hit a little better than .212, isn't he?

Delmon Young - Incredibly, he's hitting even worse than he did last April. At least he's not playing every day.

Carlos Gomez - What I said about Young applies here as well.

Brian Buscher - Not doing much hitting, though he's drawn some big walks and HBP.

Mike Redmond - He's having a hard time physically. Tough to be an old catcher.

Scott Baker - I'm going to assume that he's on his way to figuring himself out. The first 2 starts were appalling.

Francisco Liriano - Not pitching nearly as poorly as Baker, but still well below his ability. He's showing some signs of straightening things out as well.

Luis Ayala - Seems to be giving up a run or two every other time he takes the mound.

R.A. Dickey - Home runs, walks, and the score gets worse and worse. Almost certainly heading to Rochester when Crain comes off the DL.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Notes on the Rays Series

Rays 7, Twins 1
Twins 4, Rays 3
Twins 8, Rays 3

Though it wasn't quite a QS, this was a huge step forward for Scott Baker. His command was much better, as he struck out 7 in 6 IP and, most importantly, kept the ball in the yard. He also had a string of 10 straight batters retired from the end of the 1st through the 4th. The XBH he allowed with 2 out in the first weren't great pitches, but the Evan Longoria 2B was very nearly foul and Carlos Pena's 3B was nearly caught by Cuddyer at the wall. The 2 runs allowed in the 5th, despite a WP and a PB, really just came down to: Alexi Casilla isn't quite tall enough and 2 bloopers around a BB. Baker has moved out of Baker 2006 territory and into the realm of Francisco Liriano this April, i.e. pitching OK overall, but not doing a very good job of scattering/stranding baserunners.

Speaking of Liriano, he was terrific until the 6th inning. His biggest trouble the last couple of starts has been retiring the leadoff man. He was able to work around it until the 6th, but putting the speedy guys on in front of the boppers is not a recipe for success. It's too bad he couldn't quite get through the 7th (really, Casilla should be 2 inches taller), but I love seeing him out there after the 6th with the Twins in the game.

The key to the Rays rally in the 6th was BJ Upton stealing 2nd despite being picked off. We all know that Justin Morneau has had a tendency to wear down over the course of the season, so these early days off from the field are important. But I miss him when he's not out there defensively. Cuddyer made some mistakes at 1st on Morneau's first day off in Chicago. Brian Buscher didn't exactly make a mistake in this game, it's just that he's a very deliberate player. You can see it in his ABs - it helps him avoid expanding the strike zone, but it also makes him just a little bit late on fastballs he should be attacking. On the pickoff play with Upton, he was just a smidge too slow getting the ball out of his glove. Make that play, and Longoria is batting with 2 out and the bases empty.

I have to compliment Buscher on the way he took that RBI HBP in the 6th. He barely flinched. That's the sign of someone who understood the situation and was mentally prepared to get hit.

Great work by Jose Mijares striking out the middle of the Rays' order after allowing a leadoff walk to Carl Crawford. I suspect he's seen the last of Rochester.

Joe Nathan is going to have to concentrate on throwing his first fastball down - that's twice now he's been taken deep on the first pitch of his outing.

Nick Blackburn was at his best on Wednesday night. Not just because he got 11 ground ball outs to 7 fly balls. Not just because he mixed his pitches effectively. He did a fine job of damage control in the 2 innings where the Rays were able to string some hits together, getting Evan Longoria twice with RISP. The only walk he allowed came with 2 RISP to a LH hitter with 2 out in the 7th. Because he pitches to contact, some grounders will sneak through, and some fly balls will drop in, but he was able to stay away from the fat part of the bat enough to limit the Rays to only 1 XBH.

As I predicted, Gardy has been sticking with Blackburn longer this year. He certainly had justification to make a pitching change as the 7th inning jam unfolded. But he stuck with his starter, and Blackburn held the Rays to just 1 run in the inning. That confidence in the starters is going to pay dividends down the road.

When the offense is scuffling to score runs, isn't it wonderful when the other team spots you a 4-run lead in the 1st inning? That rally went ground ball single, IF single chopped over 3B, BB, uncaught popup for a run, WP for a run, IF hit for a run, WP for a run. Almost as many runs as the Twins had mustered in the first 2 games of the series, all thanks to wildness from the pitcher and inefficient defense.

If Justin Morneau's HR total winds up a little bit lower than you were hoping at the end of the season, remember his 4th inning RBI double. That was within about a foot of being a HR, high off the baggie in right-center field. That's a HR in most other parks - certainly at the new Yankee Stadium.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

That's More Like It

Twins 7, Indians 1
Kevin Slowey's best games last season all came in his final start of the month: CGs at the ends of May, June and July. Saturday night's game was his last start of April, and it was easily his best start of the year so far. He took advantage of a generous strike zone to strike out 8 and carry a 5-hit shutout into the 9th inning before being chased with three straight hits to open the final frame. Luis Ayala came on to get a strikeout, RBI single and DP to end the game. Slowey's ERA has now joined Nick Blackburn's in the reasonable mid-4.00 range.

Carl Pavano did a serviceable job for the Indians. He threw quite a tantrum when he was pulled with nobody out in the 6th, but he shouldn't feel too badly about how he pitched. Though his final line wasn't pretty: 5 ER on 11 H and 1 BB with 3 K, most of those hits were nothing to write home about. This game was the equalizer for Wednesday night's game, when several liners were caught by the Red Sox. Here in the first, the Twins scored on a grounder up the middle, stolen base, 4-hopper through the right side. In the 4th, it went single off the 3rd baseman's glove, grounder over 3rd for a double, 4-hopper through the left side for an RBI single, 6-hopper through the right side for an RBI single. After Jason Kubel's HR in the 5th, Pavano was chased with a ground-ball single to LF, BB, and bunt single. Plenty of hits, but I thought the Twins had better swings against Brad Penny.

What a relief to see the Twins lead pole-to-pole for 2 straight games. And great that they kept piling on, adding back-to-back HR in the 9th from Kubel and Joe Crede. A series win against a division rival on the road!

Indians 4, Twins 2
This was more like what I was expecting from Glen Perkins this year. He had a much tighter strike zone to work with than Slowey did, and his control wasn't what it had been in his first three starts, so he wound up allowing 4 ER on 7 H and 2 BB with 4 K in 5 IP. The bullpen did a pretty nice job behind him as Matt Guerrier, Craig Breslow and Ayala finished the game with three scoreless innings. Perhaps the biggest news on the defensive side of things came when Jose Morales managed to throw out Mark DeRosa attempting to steal second - the first time a Twins catcher has thrown out an attempted base stealer this season.

Morales also had his best career day at the plate, going 4-4 with a double. He raised his BA to .375 over the weekend, and for once made me feel like the Twins wouldn't have done a lot better had Joe Mauer been there instead. Unfortunately, he was the only RH batter who was able to do anything against Aaron Laffey. Still, the Twins got back into the game in the 7th, as Denard Span pinch hit for Carlos Gomez and drove in 2 with a single. After Brendan Harris walked, the Twins had a golden opportunity to tie the game, but Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, the Twins' two best hitters this month, both struck out against rookie Tony Sipp with the bases loaded.

And still the Twins had a chance to tie things up in the 9th after Morales reached for the 4th time and PH Brian Buscher drew a 4-pitch BB off of Indians closer Kerry Wood. Gardy had pulled all the right strings up to that point, but missed an important call during Span's AB. He was right to take a strike following the 4-pitch walk, but he should have been bunting on the next pitch. In that situation, the bunt accomplishes 3 important objectives: it moves the tying run into scoring position, it eliminates the groundball DP, and it all but ensures that Morneau will bat with a chance to drive in the tying run. Instead, Span was allowed to take strike 2, nullifying the bunt and enabling Wood to induce Span to hit into a 4-6-3 DP. Harris struck out to end the game with Morneau in the on-deck circle.

Still, a good series win on the road, and an encouraging conclusion to a road trip which began with 2 embarrassing losses in Boston. Now the Twins will have another tough test vs. Tampa Bay at the Metrodome. Hopefully, Scott Baker is ready for a Slowey-style adjustment.

Minor League Notes
Mauer, feeling normal soreness after his 2 straight days of catching 7 IP, went 2-4. Not bad, but maybe not quite in Morales' league. And Shooter Hunt delivered a line for the A- Beloit Snappers that Nuke LaLoosh would've been proud of:

2+ IP, 1 H, 4 ER, 6 BB, 1 K, HBP, 2 WP

Yikes! Watch your back, mascot! Looks like someone needs to tie this kid to the bedposts and read him some Whitman. Breathe through you eyelids, Shooter!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Blackburn Owns Cleveland

Twins 5, Indians 1
As bad as things looked in Boston on Wednesday, there was reason to hopeful about tonight. Fausto Carmona was a pain in the butt in 2007, but he hasn't been nearly as good since. More importantly, Nick Blackburn did his best work against Cleveland last season, averaging nearly 7 IP over 4 starts with a 1.30 ERA.

Blackburn was a little shaky through the first 12 hitters, walking the tightrope for 3 innings as the Indians collected 4 H and lined out several times. (Special mention here for Delmon Young doing something right on defense, making a nice sliding catch of Victor Martinez' sinking liner toward the LF corner. If that ball gets down, we've got trouble.) After that, though, Blackburn did a much better job of mixing his pitches. He allowed just 2 H over the next 4 IP, one of which was promptly erased when Grady Sizemore was thrown out trying to stretch his bloop single into a double.

For all his early struggles, Blackburn has still managed to average just over 6 IP for his 4 starts this year, taking the Twins deep into the game with a chance to win. His last 2 outings combine for 13.1 IP, 14 H, 2 BB and 7 K - about the sort of control and K-rate I expected from him coming into the season. Looks like he'll be fine.

I found it interesting that Gardy elected to use Jose Mijares and Joe Nathan for the 8th and 9th innings with a 4-run lead. Those are the guys you'd expect to see utilized in tighter situations. Nathan was the only one who didn't pitch in Boston, so he certainly needed the work. But I think Gardy just didn't feel confident that any of his other relievers could protect the lead. I can't blame him.

The offense employed its typical singles parade, but got some big 2-out hits with RISP from Jason Kubel, Joe Crede, and Jose Morales. 2-4 with a 2B and RBI is the sort of line we're used to getting from our catcher. Denard Span kept his OBP above .400, and Justin Morneau drove in runs with a groundout and his 4th HR, putting him almost back on his RBI pace from last season.

Minor League Notes
Rob Delaney threw another 1.2 scoreless IP with 3 K. For the season, he's now at 12.1 IP, 10 H, 0 BB and 18 K. In case it isn't obvious why I'm so fixated on him and Anthony Slama, let me compare their career minor league numbers:

Delaney: 1.84 ERA, 6.86 H/9, 0.53 HR/9, 1.35 BB/9, 9.81 K/9, 0.91 WHIP
Slama: 1.15 ERA, 5.38 H/9, 0.00 HR/9(!), 2.95 BB/9, 14.03 K/9, 0.92 WHIP

to this guy since 2004:

Nathan: 1.82 ERA, 5.87 H/9, 0.53 HR/9, 2.50 BB/9, 11.02 K/9, 0.93 WHIP

See where this is going? If Delaney and Slama can carry their success up to the Majors, the Twins will essentially have 2 extra Joe Nathans in the bullpen. That will be a fuzzy feeling.

Also, there's this hot catching prospect in A+ Fort Myers named Joe Mauer. He went 2-4 with a 2B and 2 RBI. I know, nothing Morales couldn't do, but I think he ought to get a shot with the Twins pretty soon.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

First Split: 7-9

We're already 1/10th of the way through the 2009 season. 5 series, 11 games at home, 5 on the road. This is only enough time to determine streaks - who's hot and who's not. Generally, the Twins are not.

The Twins are 11th in the AL in runs scored, 12th in OBP and OPS. They are 10th in runs against, 11th in HR allowed, ERA and SLG% against. Those numbers combine to give the Twins the worst run differential (-31) of any team in MLB up to this point. They have trailed at some point in each of the first 16 games.

It isn't as though everyone on the team is in a funk. Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span, Brendan Harris and Nick Punto (not a great line, but OK for a #8 or #9 hitting SS who is Nick Punto) have been producing pretty well in their respective roles. What's shocking is how quickly things drop off from there. After those first 4 guys, all with an OPS of .830 or better, the next best player is Brian Buscher at .667 - and he's only had 15 AB. The entire bottom half of the lineup is scuffling with OPS south of .650. For most opposing pitchers, if they can just get past Morneau and Kubel, they're home free. Such is the state of the lineup with Joe Mauer on the DL.

Look at the pitching numbers - the drop off there is even more staggering. There's Glen Perkins, with his back-to-back-to-back 8 IP gems, ranked #1 in the league in WHIP (Glen Perkins!), #3 in ERA and #9 in IP. And Joe Nathan, with 3 saves in 5 IP, allowing only 3 baserunners while striking out 5. After that, the next best ERA is R.A. Dickey's 5.00. The next best WHIP is Jesse Crain's 1.33. Everybody on the staff has been torched at least once. Too many have been torched multiple times.

The defense has been a bright spot. The Twins have committed just 8 errors and allowed only 3 unearned runs so far. Those rates would both be significant improvements over last year. 2 of the errors came while Michael Cuddyer was playing out of position at 1B, and 2 others came from Jose Morales, who won't be behind the plate for many more games after next week. As the pitchers get their collective act together, the improved defense should result in far fewer runs allowed in the long run.

So the Twins, with the exception of 6 or 7 players, have played exceedingly poorly over this opening stretch. And yet, they are only 2 games under .500 - right where they were at this time last year - and 1.5 games out of first place. Thanks to a couple of miraculous late-inning comebacks, the Twins have made the most out of their limited production, going 5-3 in games decided by 2 or fewer runs. Compare that with Cleveland, which is 1 game behind the Twins in the standings despite having a run differential of only -2.

I'm upbeat. I can't fathom the Twins playing any worse than they have so far, they're days away from getting Joe Mauer back, and they're still just a good week away from taking over first place. Cheer up, everybody: our luck has been pretty good so far.

Bold prediction: Delmon Young will be the first hitter to break out of his funk.

Finally, Forbes has posted its annual valuation of the MLB franchises, and the Twins are once again among the leaders in year-to-year growth. I believe their $158 million revenue means they could have sustained a payroll of $87 million last year. Because they didn't spend that much, they got 33% more wins per dollar of payroll than the average MLB team. Everything still points toward the Twins being able to afford the enormous raises they're going to have to dole out to their numerous arbitration-eligible players next year.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April Showers

Red Sox 10, Twins 1
This was vintage Scott Baker. 2006 vintage. Not a good year.

I'll cut him a break on the first inning hits - they weren't so much well hit as well placed. The rest were richly deserved, as Baker consistently missed badly with his fastball, walking the backup catcher in front of a bomb from SS Nick Green, then hanging pitch after pitch in the 3rd, resulting in only 2 runs thanks to Michael Cuddyer's diving catch of Jason Bay's liner before Mike Lowell's HR. Baker looks totally uncomfortable on the mound - he walked off the field dejectedly after every inning. But I guess this was a little better than his first start - he allowed 1 fewer HR and got 2 more outs. Baby steps.

The Twins have never done much against Tim Wakefield, and he was tough again today, inducing a ton of popups. The offense was able to get a few guys into scoring position, but they couldn't string any hits together.

I was struck by how the quirky dimensions of Fenway Park played well for the Sox today. Had this game been played at the Metrodome, Denard Span's 7th-inning double would have been a HR, Kevin Youkilis' first-inning HR would have been a double (if not a foul ball), and David Ortiz' 7th-inning double would have been an out.

We got another look at waiver-wire pickup Juan Morillo in a mop-up situation, and the results were ugly. After the afore-mentioned double to Ortiz, he walked 3 straight batters, forcing in a run, and left without retiring a batter. His fastball was consistently in the high 90s, for all the good it did him. R.A. Dickey came on and surrendered an RBI single, a SF, and a bloop ground-rule double. Mercifully, the umps called for the tarp and the game ended before the inning could get any worse.

Red Sox 7, Twins 3
Of the two games, this was the matchup I liked. Brad Penny came into the game with an ERA of 11.00, and Francisco Liriano was coming off of a QS vs. the Blue Jays.

It was obvious that Liriano had electric stuff. He struck out 4 of the first 6 hitters, allowing only a BB to JD Drew. His first pitch to Jason Varitek was a slider that hit him in the back foot. After Liriano had made a string of All-Star players look silly, Jeff Bailey, just recalled from AAA, was able to time an outside fastball and lift it just over the monster in LF for a 3-run HR. Are you kidding me? The other 3 H Liriano allowed were all doubles. The one hit by Dustin Pedroia that set up the 3rd inning rally was a ridiculous piece of hitting as he went down and got a shin high pitch off the inside part of the plate and somehow kept it fair down the LF line.

Liriano was his own worst enemy in this game. As great as his stuff was, he couldn't control it, resulting in 4 BB and a HBP. 4 of those 5 hitters wound up scoring. Liriano will be very tough to score against once he tightens up his control.

It should be noted that the bullpen did a terrific job tonight. Matt Guerrier, Luis Ayala and the newly recalled Jose Mijares combined to allow 1 H in 4 scoreless innings with 3 K. Mijares threw nothing but strikes.

On the offensive side of things, the box score doesn't come close to telling the story. Penny's stuff was awful - he couldn't get his curveball over and there was no movement on his fastball. From the first batter, the Twins smacked line drives all over the field. Had this game been played in a different park, or in different weather conditions, they might have hit 5 HR: Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Cuddyer and Delmon Young (twice) hit drives to the warning track or beyond in deepest CF. In the top of the 4th, Morneau led off with a laser HR into the seats beyond the bullpen. Two pitches later, Kubel hit a nearly identical drive just a few feet to the left that missed the stands for a ground-rule double. After Brian Buscher reached on an error, Delmon Young hit the deepest ball of all, which CF Jacoby Ellsbury was able to haul in with a leaping catch at the wall about 420 feet from home plate. In addition to the 6 H they collected, the Twins hit 7 other balls off Penny well enough to get hits. There were 4 IF liners in the game, 2 of which were in Pedroia's glove so quickly that the men on 1st were helpless to avoid being doubled off. Not our night.

Mauer's Rehab or The Rake's Progress
Joe Mauer caught 6 innings of an extended spring training game today, going 3-4 with a double and a SF and throwing out an attempted base stealer. The other day I suggested that the Twins should think about accelerating their timetable if Mauer went 8-16 with 4 BB and had shown he could catch at least 6 innings by the end of play on Thursday. He's 6-11 with 3 BB so far. Think he can go 2-5 tomorrow? Me too. Doesn't look like he needs another week to get his timing down.

Let's think this through. Mauer will likely DH on Thursday, setting himself up for 7 innings of catching Friday, DH duty Saturday, 8 innings Sunday, DH Monday, 9 innings Tuesday and as many innings as he can handle Wednesday before next Thursday's off day. Why can't he follow that schedule with the Twins? This weekend's series is in Cleveland, which means that Mauer could meet his 7-inning catching quota and still hit in the top of the 8th before being replaced by a lesser player. On Sunday, that gets him every inning but the 9th, and his usage would be normal for the Tampa series at the Metrodome.

What if he aggravates the injury? Well, what if he aggravates it in Fort Myers? Is there something that could happen to him in Cleveland that couldn't happen to him in Florida? Take the gamble. If he gets hurt again, say he would've been hurt anyway and put him back on the DL. If he doesn't get hurt, the Twins get to play 5 or 6 extra games with Mauer in the lineup. Through tonight's game, Mike Redmond and Jose Morales are hitting .231/.298/.288 and still haven't thrown out a base stealer. Mauer could almost top that OBP without taking the bat off his shoulder. This is a tight division race - every game counts. Don't waste a week of Mauer's production on the Florida State League.

Minor League Notes
Another good night for Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama, who combined to strike out 5 in the final 3.1 innings of New Britain's win tonight. Delaney now has 10.2 IP under his belt and has allowed only 9 H, 0 BB and 15 K. Slama has thrown 6.2 IP, allowing 4 H and 2 BB with 12 K. If they keep this up, they need to be in Rochester by June.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Injury Front

Mauer's Timetable
The Twins announced over the weekend that Joe Mauer's rehab assignment begins today. The idea is for him to get about 50 AB, probably lasting about 10 games and bringing him back to the team around May 1. I'm glad that they've finally given us a date to look forward to. While 50 AB would be a pretty good way to make up for the time he missed in spring training, I don't think they should feel locked into that number.

Today, Mauer went 1-3 with 2 BB, and was able to run from first to third on one play and score from first on another. He spent 5 innings behind the plate, and will DH tomorrow. Now, let's say he jumps right back into his swing, and by the end of Thursday is 8-16 with 4 BB and has shown that he can run the bases and catch 6 innings without any discomfort. What would be the sense of putting him into 6 more games with Fort Myers, when the Twins are playing 3 against their most formidable division rivals and 3 against the defending AL champs?

Maybe he won't be conditioned enough to catch a full 9 innings, and he'll have to DH or rest after every start behind the plate. So what? Through the first 2 weeks of the season, Mike Redmond and Jose Morales have combined to hit .261/.333/.326 while failing to throw out a single attempted base stealer. Wouldn't it make a worthwhile difference to have Mauer's .400+ OBP in the lineup, even if it's only for 3 AB? Or to have his gold glove behind the plate, even if it's only for 6-7 innings every other game? If he's healthy enough to demolish the Florida State League, then he's healthy enough to do some damage against Cleveland and Tampa. Unless he's lost at the plate this week or suffers a setback, I'd encourage the Twins to bring him back up ASAP - the division is too close for them to be giving away games needlessly.

Crain to the DL
Apparently Jesse Crain's brutal 7th inning on Friday was so taxing that he's experiencing some inflammation in his shoulder, so the Twins are going to give him a couple of weeks to rest. Other than that disastrous inning, Crain had been the Twins most reliable reliever not named Joe Nathan all spring, allowing just 1 ER on 1 H and 2 BB with 6 K in 5.2 IP prior to his last appearance. I hope he'll be back in the minimum amount of time and can continue to be as effective as he was prior to the injury - there doesn't seem to be anyone else in the bullpen who can be relied upon right now.

Crain's injury gives a quick opportunity for Jose Mijares, whose awful spring training performance (and conditioning) cost him what many considered to be a certain roster spot. He's looked like the Mijares of last September in his early work with the Red Wings, allowing 0 ER on 2 H and 1 BB with 4 K in 6.1 IP. Obviously, if he can carry that kind of performance up to the Big Leagues, he won't be going back to AAA.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Twins 11, Angels 9
I made carrot soup Friday night (from scratch, thank you very much). The recipe said, "bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 25 minutes." I got the boil going right around the start of the 7th inning, and turned off the burner and the game as Matt Guerrier came onto the field. In the time it took the carrots to soften, the bullpen had suffered another interminable inning, and a 3-3 game had turned into a lopsided affair. Again.

And how frustrating, after Nick Blackburn had pitched a pretty good game. The first 3 runs he allowed in the 5th came on a grounder up the middle, a sinking liner just in front of Denard Span in CF, a 4-hopper through the right side to load the bases, and a grounder just past a diving Nick Punto at SS to score 2 runs, plus an RBI groundout on what would have been a DP had Span thrown to the right base on the previous play. Once the first couple hitters reached, Blackburn needed to induce some grounders, which he did, and the runs came home anyway. Arrgh!

The 7th was even worse. Blackburn allowed a 1-2 single up the middle, SB (because the Twins can't throw anybody out right now) and a sac bunt, ending his night at 6.1 IP and 106 pitches. Jesse Crain, the only good reliever in the bullpen up to that point apart from Joe Nathan, got the next hitter on a pop-up, keeping the game tied. The Twins wisely elected to intentionally walk Bobby Abreu (who was constantly on base all weekend) and pitch to Torii Hunter. Crain quickly got ahead 0-2, but Hunter was able to spoil some tough pitches, particularly a 2-2 curveball that just barely found the tip of his bat. He would eventually walk, setting up a bases loaded grounder through the right side from Kendry Morales for a 2-run single. Crain's next pitch was the only mistake of the inning, a hanger that was lined into CF for an RBI single. Then he suffered another lengthy AB, only to walk Juan Rivera on a full count.

I could see where it was going - the same place it had gone all week long vs. Toronto. Another night, another bat-around inning for the opposition, another rough loss for the Twins.

An hour or so later, I got a call from my mom. When she calls after 10:00 during the season, I know something good just happened. I went back to the game, having last checked just after supper with the Angels leading 9-4 in the 8th, and got myself caught up.

The principle differences between this series and the Toronto series were that the Angels were far below full strenght (Maicer Izturis batting 3rd, really?), their bullpen was in an even worse slump than the Twins', and Jason Kubel was en fuego. I had seen him collect an opposite field RBI double, solid single, and stand-up triple (thanks to a fortuitous carom along the baggie) earlier in the game. The best was yet to come.

Every crappy swing that had been taken against the Twins this week had seemed to result in a hit. Where's our BS infield single? Ah, there it is, thanks Michael Cuddyer. And where's our pathetic jam-shot flair over the IF? Ah yes, thanks Mike Redmond. (Credit should also be given to Joe Crede, who hasn't done a lot with the bat yet, but has found a way to be in the middle of some key Twins rallies already. It was his 3-2 BB that forced Morales to hold him on at 1B, too close to the plate to catch Redmond's soft liner.) After a BB, double and K had brought the Twins within 2 runs with 2 outs, Mike Scioscia elected to put the winning run on base by walking Justin Morneau. Kubel waited for a breaking pitch up, crushing it into the upper deck in right center for a go-ahead, cycle-completing grand slam. I remember seeing Kent Hrbek hit a couple of balls up there when I was a kid. That's in the neighborhood of 440 feet. Awesome.

A determined Joe Nathan came in and dispatched the shell-shocked Angels on just 6 pitches for the save.

Twins 9, Angels 2
I got an unhappy sense of deja vu when Kevin Slowey served up a 2-run bomb to Hunter in the second, followed immediately by a drive high off the baggie in right-center. Will he never learn to keep the ball in the yard? Well, yes, I guess he did learn, because he allowed only 3 H and a BB the rest of the way, completing 7 IP for his first QS of the year.

As for the Angels, their pitching depth is so thin right now that they were forced to start Darrin Oliver, who couldn't be expected to throw more than 50-60 pitches. This one night after Shane Moseley had to leave the game after 3 IP with elbow stiffness. That gave the Twins a lot of AB vs. the Angels' 'pen, whose ERA was over 8.00 coming into the game. You know you're facing a bad bullpen when they manage to walk Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young in the same inning. Kubel kept on raking, collecting another 4 H in 5 AB, and the Twins cruised to their 2nd straight win.

Twins 3, Angels 1
I hope the rest of the Twins pitchers are studying Glen Perkins. They all have better stuff than him, but he uses what he has so well. He only allowed a run today because Hunter's exploding bat still managed to produce a single in the 2nd inning. Otherwise, Perkins was dominant, retiring 13 in a row through the middle innings and needing just 84 pitches to complete 8 IP. If Nathan had thrown more innings over the previous 2 weeks, or had there been a game tomorrow, or had the Twins scored 2 more runs, Perkins would have certainly been given an opportunity to complete the game.

I hope everyone has noticed how long Gardy's been leaving the starters in. If you're like me, and you don't believe it's fair to take a QS away from somebody who gives up the disqualifying run in the 7th inning or later, then you'll see that the Twins have had QS in 5 of the last 6 games. The upcoming road trip vs. Boston and Cleveland will be tough, but should give a pretty good indication of whether or not the Twins have managed to right the ship, or are still searching for consistency from the starters.

Juan Morillo claimed, Philip Humber DFA
Just days after dismissing Brian Duensing from the roster, the Twins have done the same with Humber, risking 1/4 of the return for Johan Santana to the waiver wire. Of course, the highest priority for the front office has to be to put a winning team on the field, and there was little indication that Humber was prepared to help with that. He made the least of his 4 appearances in the first week and half, allowing 6 ER on 11 H and 3 BB in 4.1 IP with 4 K. Will he be claimed? On the one hand, he hasn't shown a lot lately. On the other hand, some teams have Darrin Oliver and Shane Loux in their starting rotations, so we'll see.

To replace Humber, the Twins claimed Morillo off waivers from the Rockies. At his best, in 2007, Morillo allowed 54 H, 3 HR and 32 BB with 74 K in 70.2 IP between AA, AAA and the Majors for a 1.22 WHIP and 9.4 K/9. At his worst, last year, he allowed 54 H, 3 HR, 56 BB and 55 K in 60.2 IP between AAA and the Majors for a 1.81 WHIP and 8.2 K/9. The gamble seems to be that pitching coach Rick Anderson can get Morillo to throw strikes, which would make him into a passable middle reliever. If that doesn't work, I suppose the long innings will continue. He had an efficient inning in his Twins debut, so we'll hope for the best.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Worst Series of the Year?

Blue Jays 12, Twins 2
Blue Jays 9, Twins 2

OK, this was bad. Scott Baker couldn't keep the ball in the yard. Every reliever but Joe Nathan pitched in these 2 games, and only Jesse Crain could get anybody out. The offense couldn't muster anything against Roy Halladay (understandable) or Scott Richmond (unfathomable).

I could try to break down certain pieces of this debacle, but in this case I think it's better to look at the big picture. Taking the series as a whole, the Jays outscored the Twins 31-13 and outhit them 56-36. They hit 9 HR to the Twins' 2, drew 13 BB to the Twins' 6, and didn't commit an error.

It reminded me a bit of the drubbing the Twins took from the White Sox in early June of last year. In that series, the Twins were outscored 40-15, sending them to 3 games under .500. Things worked out OK after that. At least this series wasn't a sweep. Maybe the Twins have decided to get their worst baseball out of the way right at the start of the season. It had to happen some time.

Minor League Notes
If you're already looking for greener bullpen pastures, there are some encouraging signs from the first week+ of the season. Jose Mijares pitched another perfect inning tonight. So far, he's allowed only 1 H and 0 BB in 5.1 IP with 4 K. And Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama were at it again on Wednesday night for New Britain, combining for 5 K in 2 perfect IP. Delaney has struck out 9 against 3 H and 0 BB in 5.1 IP, and Slama has allowed 1 H, 1 BB and 7 K in his first 4 IP. Anthony Swarzak allowed only 1 ER over 7 IP for Rochester tonight, giving him 11 IP, 8 H, 1 BB and 9 K with a 0.82 ERA through his first 2 starts. And Ben Revere hit a 3-run double in the bottom of the 9th for Fort Myers to win the game for the Miracle, his 2nd hit of the night to go with 2 BB.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Twins Beat Jays!

Twins 3, Blue Jays 2 (11 innings)
Glad that's over with. After 10 straight losses, the Twins finally found a way to beat the Jays for the first time since 2007. It wasn't easy, even though Glen Perkins, Joe Nathan and Jesse Crain cooled off the hottest-hitting lineup in baseball, holding them to just 2 R on 7 H and 1 BB over 11 IP.

Perkins was a hard luck loser in his last start, and this was a hard luck no decision for him. He allowed 8 baserunners in 8 IP, but 5 of them came in the 2 innings in which the Jays scored. I was just getting ready to compliment Delmon Young on his range in LF after hauling in Kevin Millar's deep drive to the corner when he turned the wrong way on Rod Barajas' 2-out liner, letting it sail over his head to drive in the game's first run.

After that, the Jays were pretty quiet, their only threat coming on a 2-out double down the LF line in the 8th. The ball took a crazy hop in front of the diving Joe Crede - had it stayed down, I think Crede would have at least been able to knock it down and hold Alex Rios to a single. As it was, he reached second, and Perkins fell behind Vernon Wells 2-0. Rick Anderson came out to talk things over, and Wells promptly lined the next pitch into CF for the game-tying single. How many times have we seen those mid-AB visits from Anderson result in hits already this season? What are they talking about?

Should Perkins have been pitching to a RH batter with the tying run on 2nd and Jesse Crain warmed up in the bullpen? Maybe not, but he'd pitched a great game up to that point, and I'd rather see Gardy err on the side of trusting the starters - that's probably going to be the right move more times than not over the course of the season. I love that he's stuck with Perkins for 8 IP in each of his first 2 starts. Perkins may not have the best stuff of the Twins starters, but he probably has the best style of pitching. Usually he throws at least 2 pitches inside to every hitter, frequently missing too far in. That tends to produce some less than assertive swings at outside pitches. I wish Slowey would do that.

I said yesterday that this would be a good game to try to get to the bullpen early. Denard Span got the Twins off to a good start, making rookie Ricky Romero throw 10 pitches leading off the game. However, the next 2 batters swung early and were retired on 3 pitches. The aggressive approach from the Twins enabled Romero to match Perkins' 8 IP. I think they would have been more successful had they been more selective. As one example, Romero didn't throw a single pitch in the strike zone to Justin Morneau in the 8th, yet Morneau struck out.

Speaking of swinging at balls, if the Twins face Scott Downs again in this series, I suggest they just keep the bats on their shoulders. He's struck out 5 of the 7 men he's faced, 4 of those on curveballs in the dirt. I don't know that he's thrown 3 pitches in the zone to any batter in this series.

The Twins' big offensive break came when Alexi Casilla's would-be DP ball was bobbled by 2B Aaron Hill - he still got Casilla at 1st, but Span advanced to 2nd and scored on Morneau's subsequent ground rule double. Their bad break also came off the bat of Casilla when he attempted to sacrifice Span to 3rd base in the 6th inning. The bunt was too hard and too close to the pitcher - though it slipped past him and Casilla was able to reach with an IF hit, Span had to head back toward the bag and couldn't advance. Had he made it to 3rd, he would have easily scored on Morneau's towering fly just over the leaping Rios off the baggie in RF. Had the Twins managed a 3rd run there, it could have been a win for Perkins and a shorter night.

Other News
Finally, some information disseminated about Joe Mauer's status. He's had two successful days of running, and is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment with the Fort Myers Miracle next week. Once he's comfortable at the plate, he can be recalled. I hope he'll be ready to go by next weekend's series with division rival Cleveland. It will be great to have somebody in the lineup besides Span taking some pitches.

Also, Scott Baker was activated from the DL, and the Twins elected to send Brian Duensing back to Rochester. I find this news mystifying, not because R.A. Dickey didn't earn the roster spot - he clearly did - but because nothing has transpired in the first 9 games of the season that made the choice between those 2 players any easier. Duensing performed adequately in March, and his 3 IP in long relief last weekend were also adequate. Dickey looked very good in March, and has done fine in 2 appearances this past week.

Here's my problem: if the Twins are OK with having Dickey stick on the roster, why were they so quick to put Baker on the DL? He was able to pitch 7 innings in Fort Myers last Friday, the same night Dickey started in his place. Why didn't they wait on the DL decision until Baker had thrown his side session, see that he was feeling OK, push him back a few days if necessary so he could pitch when he actually pitched? Why sacrifice a start from one of your better pitchers at the beginning of what promises to be another tight division race, if not to give Dickey a chance to prove that he didn't really belong? I don't get it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Blue Streak

Blue Jays 8, Twins 6
So much for my theory that the Twins would win every game in which they scored 6 or more runs. Toronto came into the series averaging over 6.5 R/G, so that should have been my first clue. The Twins haven't beaten the Jays since June of 2007, which suggests that they haven't been catching them at good times. The home series vs. the Jays last May was a time when the Twins weren't playing very well. For the away series in September, the Jays were as hot as they would be all season, and the Twins' bullpen was struggling. It looks like we're catching the Jays while they're hot this year as well.

Considering that he saw every other batter reach against him, Kevin Slowey did a pretty commendable job in lasting into the 6th inning. The first 2 RBI singles he allowed weren't particularly his fault: a check-swing chip shot into no-man's land down the RF line by Rod Barajas in the 2nd, and a groundball from Lyle Overbay on which Alexi Casilla was positioned so far over toward 1B that Michael Cuddyer ended up fielding the ball even though it was hit a few steps to Casilla's right. This game saw infield dribblers for hits, jam-shot flares to the OF for hits, soft liners off the end of the bat for hits. When you're hot, those things find a way to fall in.

Then there were the balls they hit hard. The 2 ringing doubles from AL RBI leader Adam Lind, one to the opposite alley on a backdoor slider, one down the RF line on an inside pitch, both leading off innings in which the Jays scored. The 1st HR from ROY candidate Travis Snider and the 2-run shot from Lyle Overbay, both on knee-high sliders, both absolutely walloped. Snider even seemed to be a little fooled, hitting it off his front foot, and still rocketed it nearly to the upper deck. Thank goodness his manager hasn't figured out yet that he should be hitting a little higher in the order than 9th. His 2nd HR, on a get-me-over 2-seamer from Luis Ayala, easily reached the upper deck in RF, putting the Jays ahead to stay.

I'm probably going to gripe a lot this season about the way the Twins use Craig Breslow. He was able to strike out the one LH batter he was asked to face, a la Dennys Reyes, then handed the ball to Ayala, who allowed the game-tying hit on his first pitch. 2 of the next 4 hitters were lefties, and one of the righties coming up was Barajas. Breslow can get righties out, and was the Twins' 2nd-best reliever last season. Why not leave the game in his hands?

The stolen base Vernon Wells picked up right before Breslow struck out Lind was huge. The Jays picked some good pitches to run on (low breaking balls every time, I believe), but Jose Morales wasn't able to get a throw particularly close to 2nd base. He's going to get run on a lot while he's back there.

Offensively, there was a lot to like about this game. The Twins rapped out 13 H, 6 for XB, along with 2 BB and put 6 R on the board. In most cases when Slowey starts, that's going to get it done. However, they came up short in this game, and there were certainly opportunities to do more. They twice had a man on 3rd with nobody out and failed to get him in. In fact, Morales' liner to the drawn-in SS was the only ball the Twins put in play out of those 6 AB. That's right, 5 of their 8 K in the game came with a man on 3rd. Got to get better at the situational hitting. It perhaps isn't surprising that Delmon Young was the first out in each of those innings. He hit the ball hard in his other 2 AB, but so far this season seems to have no idea what to do when he comes up with men on.

Cuddyer was twice called out to complete close DP; I think he was probably safe in both cases. The CS in the 2nd was certainly a bad call by the ump - with the throw from Barajas so far toward the LF side of the bag, it should have been clear that Cuddyer got in there even though the throw beat him. (The play was almost identical to Lind's 2nd double, where Cuddyer's high throw enabled Lind to just get in safely). 3 straight H followed that DP, resulting in 2 R, but it should have been 3.

An extra run from any of those situations would have been huge. Had the Twins been trailing by just one run entering the 9th, is there any doubt that Casilla, hitless from the right side, would have been asked to sacrifice Denard Span into scoring position? As it was, he had to try to reach and hit into a DP, clearing the bases in front of Justin Morneau's single.

Perhaps the worst break of the game for the Twins came when Jays starter Jesse Litsch had to leave the game with elbow stiffness in the 4th inning. Up to that point, the Twins had touched Litsch for 4 ER on 7 H, including back-to-back drives off the baggie by Cuddyer and Brian Buscher. No one was up in Toronto's 'pen, so the Twins would have gotten several more chances against Litsch had things taken their natural course. However, the loss of Litsch forced the Jays' 'pen to throw 6 IP after they were out there for 4.1 IP on Sunday. Tuesday's starter is a rookie, so the Twins' objective should be to make him throw a lot of pitches and get back into the bullpen as early as possible. If the Jays' relievers are fatigued, that could be an advantage for the Twins later in the series.

Minor League Notes
1.1 more perfect IP for Jose Mijares at Rochester as he picked up his first save. Luke Hughes made his 2nd error already at 3B. Rob Delaney surrendered a HR to the first batter he faced in New Britain's game, then saw the next batter reach on a fielding error. He retired the next 2, then was chased with an RBI double. Should have just been the one ER.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

White Wash

White Sox 8, Twins 0
White Sox 6, Twins 1

First the good news. Umm...

Denard Span looks to be back to his 2008 form. He drew 3 BB on Saturday, and looked comfy at the plate vs. LHP Mark Buehrle on Sunday, hitting a couple of balls very hard despite collecting no hits.

Nick Punto has a nice little OBP going this week. I like his glove in the #9 spot just fine, especially when he's drawing walks here and there.

Francisco Liriano and Nick Blackburn were both really good for 4 IP. Blackburn did a better job of pitching after his defense had committed an error than he often did in that situation last year. Gardy let him start the 7th inning even though he'd thrown around 90 pitches coming into the inning. That's a sign that Blackburn will get a chance to pitch deeper into games than he did last year.

Matt Guerrier came into an inning with men on base and didn't allow any of them to score. He retired all four batters he faced, striking out 2.

Anything else? No? Okay, on to the bad news:

Liriano may have been squeezed a bit, but that's no excuse for walking guys in. Everything that happened to him in that 5th inning could be traced back to falling behind the hitters.

I'm not feeling a whole lot of confidence in Philip Humber after the inning he had on Saturday night. Is he on his way to pitching like Brian Bass?

The defense was lousy on Sunday. Punto dropped a foul pop, the 3rd dropped fly ball of the series for the Twins. Blackburn only had to throw 2 extra pitches to get that batter. Then Cuddyer, playing first so that Morneau could DH, made 2 errors on one play, allowing the tying run to score in the 5th. Punto and Cuddyer failed to retire Carlos Quentin on his slowly hit grounder leading off the 6th - a tough play, but one they're capable of making. And Brendan Harris, getting a start at 2B, double-clutched on a would-be DP relay, giving the runner just enough time to make it to first base. Extra outs, extra bases, extra work for our pitchers.

Blackburn and Mike Redmond should have known they weren't going to strike out Jim Thome on the same pitch 2 AB in a row.

Craig Breslow has made 1 appearance as Craig Breslow, in which he began an inning and retired 3 of 4 batters with a strikeout, and 2 appearances as Dennys Reyes, in which he came in with runners on and retired 1 of 3 batters with a BB and HBP. I like him better when he's being himself.

Despite their apparent strides in spring training, Carlos Gomez is still a strikeout machine (9 in 22 AB!) and Delmon Young is still a DP waiting to happen every time he hits with men on base.

The Twins have scored 24 runs in their 3 wins and 2 runs in their 4 losses. That is what you call feast or famine.

Minor League notes
Jose Mijares picked up the win for Rochester with a perfect inning of relief including 1 K. Yesterday for New Britain, Rob Delaney came on with 1 out in the 6th and men on and got out of the inning with a DP. He pitched a perfect 7th and 8th, striking out 3, then handed the ball to Anthony Slama for a perfect 9th. Wilson Ramos came alive at the plate, going 3 for 5 with his first HR and lining out for his 2 outs.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Welcome Back, Crede

Twins 12, White Sox 5
Nothing but good news from Chicago tonight:

Apart from the HR, I'm not sure the Twins swung the bats a whole lot better tonight than they did yesterday. Where everything seemed to find a Mariner glove on Thursday, everything slipped through a hole tonight. This was especially true with RISP, where the Twins were able to amass 7 H, if I'm not mistaken, including 5 straight in a mad-cap, 7-run 7th that put the game away.

The Twins got the perfect outing from R.A. Dickey: good enough to keep the team in the game for 5 IP, but not so good that they can't justify sending him down to AAA on Wednesday. The excellent control he had exhibited all spring abandoned him in the adverse weather conditions on the South Side. I have my suspicions that that was what the Twins' brass had intended all along - if they really wanted to put Dickey in position to succeed they would have arranged things so that he could have started one of the 4 games vs. the Mariners in the controlled environment of the Dome.

The 7th inning blitz enabled the Twins to ride Brian Duensing for 3 innings, saving the better members of the bullpen for the rest of the series. Had Duensing not grazed Josh Fields with a breaking ball in front of Carlos Quentin's HR, he might have escaped his Major League debut with a nice ERA. As it was, the WHIP was fine, and he's left-handed, so I'm sure he'll stick around. Humber had another solid inning to close out the game. 9 IP from the three weakest pitchers on the staff, and it was ultimately a pretty comfortable win. Thank you, run support!

Every Twins starter reached base at least once. Jose Morales had a great night at the plate, 2 for 3 with 2 BB, and his out was a screaming liner to 2nd. Delmon Young finally got a hit, a 2-run single to break the game open in the 7th. Denard Span, Alexi Casilla and Nick Punto combined to go 8 for 16 with a BB, 4 R and 4 RBI - attack of the piranhas! Justin Morneau drove in a runner in 4 different PA, including his 2nd HR.

But perhaps the most satisfying event of the evening was Joe Crede's first AB. After receiving a nice pre-game video tribute and a standing ovation when he was announced, he homered to put the Twins up 2-0. Take that, Sox fans!

The only negative note came from the defense. The Twins had played their first 4 games without committing an error, but they made 2 tonight, both on dropped fly balls. I suppose it's fitting that the first E of the season belongs to Young, by far the shakiest fielder among the regulars. The other goes to Morales. Neither one of those guys is going to have too many innings in the field.

Minor League Notes
Kevin Mulvey pitched 4 good innings before losing it in the 5th with 2 BB, a HBP and single. Jose Mijares finished the game with 2 scoreless innings, allowing 1 H and 0 BB with 2 K. Most importantly, Scott Baker cruised through 7 IP for A+ Fort Myers, allowing 1 R on 5 H and 1 BB with 3 K. He should be ready to start for the Twins on Wednesday.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Split with the Mariners

Twins 6, Mariners 5
Last August, the Twins pitchers had a hell of a time with the Mariners' lineup, yielding an average of 5.7 runs/game. That lineup included Ichiro and Raul Ibanez, though. I really thought the Twins would have an easier time in this series. But there they were again, putting up 5 runs in the first 4 innings against Kevin Slowey.

I was disgusted with the Russell Branyan AB in the 2nd - after getting such a K-prone hitter 0-2, Slowey should have been able to put him away. Why not stay upstairs, where he missed for the second strike? Instead, Branyan was able to work the count to 3-2 while Slowey tried to get him to chase some pitches in the dirt. At that point, I was reminded of an AB Shin-Soo Choo had against Slowey last September, and I heard myself saying what I said back then: "Now, first base is open, so don't do anything stupid here."


Aaargh! Slowey is such a better pitcher than Branyan is a hitter. I think I hold Slowey to a higher standard than the other Twins pitchers. His control is normally so great, I don't have any patience for him having a tough night with his location. 7 of the 9 H Slowey allowed came either when he was ahead in the count or had let someone recover from 0-2. And he let a run come in on a wild pitch. Slowey throws wild pitches? Bah!

Luckily, his mound opponent was not one of the better starters in the league, as had been the case the previous 2 nights. Rather, it was our old friend Carlos Silva, trying to regain his 2004-2005 form and justify his enormous contract. Not this night, as the Twins were able to alternate the expected ground ball hits with drives to the gaps - and over the fences. Justin Morneau got his first 2 H, a double and an upper-deck HR, collecting 3 RBI in the process. Denard Span had another good night at the plate, finally hitting the ball hard as he lifted a 2-run HR over the baggy down the RF line. Jason Kubel had a couple of knocks, including the RBI double that turned out to be the game-winner.

To Slowey's credit, he settled down after the 4th and managed to complete 6 IP, saving the bullpen somewhat. Craig Breslow, Jesse Crain and Joe Nathan each threw a scoreless inning to finish the game. That sequence of pitchers is pretty much what I was hoping to see on nights when the starter only goes 6 IP, so it was encouraging to see that Gardy is still willing to give Breslow a full inning rather than save him for lefties in another situation that may or may not arise.

Seattle 2, Twins 0
You know I don't like to see the Twins losing well-pitched games, but I can tolerate it when it's somebody awesome who shuts them down, like Sabathia or Matsuzaka. When it's Vicente Padilla, or Radhames Liz who's throwing up the zeroes, I find that pretty grating. Jarrod Washburn is in the latter category.

As tough a time as the Twins had squaring him up, a lot of credit has to be given to the M's defense, especially new CF Franklin Gutierrez. The catch he made on Alexi Casilla's drive to the left-centerfield gap in the first could not have come any closer to the turf without being a hit. In addition to the 5 H the Twins were able to accumulate off Washburn, there were probably just as many balls that might have fallen in against a lesser defense.

I started to get that sinking feeling that this was going to be one of those days when everything seems to break the wrong way in the top of the 3rd, when Endy Chavez led off with a grounder just out of the reach of the diving Casilla. The previous inning had seen a hit carry just over Casilla's leap. When their hits are just sneaking through, and yours aren't quite, it might not be your day.

The confirmation came in the bottom of the inning, when Mike Redmond's sharp grounder up the middle hit Washburn and caromed over to the third baseline. Ronny Cedeno hustled in and threw out Redmond by a step. It was bad enough luck that the ball didn't miss Washburn and go into CF, but consider this: the only player in the Major Leagues who wasn't capable of beating that play to first base was a nearly 38-year old right-handed hitting backup catcher with a pulled groin. I'm sure a healthy Redmond would have been safe there.

A shame to waste the first quality start of the season. That's probably about as good as Perkins is going to be this year. Of all the Twins starters, I feel like he's the most determined to throw inside, and I love that, but he's also the most likely to miss his spots and get hammered. Still, it was great to see Gardy leave him in there to pitch the 8th. He might have had a CG had he not run into consecutive 11-pitch ABs in the 7th.

On to Chicago, where the White Sox were able to muster just 5 runs in 3 games vs. the Royals.

Minor League Notes
In the season opener for Rochester, the 'Wings were able to slug their way to victory behind 2 pairs of back-to-back HR, 1 each from Luke Hughes, David Winfree, Trevor Plouffe and Dustin Martin. And in AA, stud relievers Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama made impressive season debuts: each allowed no runs on 1 H. Delaney got 2 K and Slama struck out the side. I'm hoping both of those guys will pitch well enough to get to Rochester by mid-season.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Stay 'til the End

Twins 6, Mariners 5
Wow, what a comeback! Trailing 5-3 with the bases empty and 2 out in the bottom of the 9th, 5 straight Twins batters reached, capped by Alexi Casilla's walk-off, 2-run single to center (reminiscent of the last game of the White Sox series last fall). Gardy made judicious use of his bench, getting PH walks from Jason Kubel (for Jose Morales) and Brian Buscher (for Nick Punto), and sending in Brendan Harris to run for Kubel. The inning was made possible thanks to marvelous AB from Carlos Gomez and Buscher, each of whom fouled off a few tough 3-2 pitches while managing to lay off everything out of the strike zone.

After scuffling through an anemic spring at the plate, did anyone need a couple of Dome-ball infield choppers more than Denard Span? I still haven't seen him hit a line drive, yet he's managed to open the season reaching base in 5 of 9 AB, with a sacrifice, SB, and a couple of RBI. He's also made a difference in the field.

The biggest break the Twins got in this game came in the 5th inning, when plate umpire Chuck Merriweather elected to call Erik Bedard's 2-2 pitch to Michael Cuddyer a ball. It looked to me like it had the inside corner at the belt. I couldn't tell the difference between that pitch and the first strike to Span in the 9th. Anyway, the AB continued, and 2 pitches later Cuddyer lined a 2-run single to get the Twins back in the game.

On the pitching and defense side of things, it obviously wasn't a very good night for Nick Blackburn command-wise. He walked 3 batters, something he did in only 5 of his 33 starts last season, and he went to 3-ball counts on several other hitters. He seemed to be overly reverent of Ken Griffey, Jr., especially since he was able to pop him up with RISP in the first inning. A lot of the hits Blackburn gave up were merely well-placed, with Franklin Gutierrez' double in the 1st the only big mistake that comes to mind.

Blackburn was victimized by some poor tactics in the 3rd and 4th. Endy Chavez reached with one out in the 3rd, showing that Span wasn't the only speedy leadoff hitter who could take advantage of the bouncy Dome turf. Nothing anybody could do about that bouncer over Justin Morneau's head. On the other hand, it came on an 0-2 count, so why was Morneau still playing even with the bag? Did they think Chavez would bunt with 2 strikes? Chavez got huge jumps on Blackburn on consecutive 1-2 pitches to Gutierrez back in the first inning, so somebody in the Twins dugout should have been expecting him to run. And run he did, taking off just as Blackburn began to lift his foot. No throw over to keep him honest? Then, with 2 out and Chavez on 2nd, Blackburn basically pitched around Griffey to get to Adrian Beltre. Again, I'm not sure he needs to be so chicken of Griffey there. Beltre lined the first pitch into CF for an RBI single.

In the 4th, after 2 were quickly retired, Blackburn gave up a check swing groundball single and a floater just over the head of Punto into short left. Delmon Young attempted to get the runner advancing to 3rd, rather throwing to 2nd to keep the batter at 1st. Both runners advanced into scoring position, and Chavez was able to squeak another ball through the IF for a 2-run single.

The defense saved the day in the 5th, however. After another wussy walk to Griffey leading off, Blackburn got Beltre to pop out, then gave up a liner down the RF line to Russell Branyan. Span streaked into the corner to cut it off, not only preventing Griffey from scoring, but keeping Branyan at 1B. That kept the DP in order, which the Twins managed to turn when Punto ranged about 4 steps to his right, then fired immediately behind him to Casilla for the force, and Casilla unloaded just as quickly to Morneau for the 3rd out. If anybody hesitates at all, a run scores there. The defensive play of the season (so far)!

White Sox 4, Royals 2
Two things happened in this game that I predicted we would rarely see in 2009: the Sox got a late game-winning HR, and the Royals lost a game they were leading after 7 innings. Of course, KC manager Trey Hillman didn't exactly use the formula I was anticipating when I made that prediction.

His first mistake was pulling veteran workhorse Gil Meche after 7 IP. Meche had allowed just 1 R on 7 H with 0 BB and 6 K, and had thrown just 91 pitches, an average of 13/IP. Over the past 3 seasons, Meche has averaged about 104 pitches/GS, right where he was on pace to be after 8 IP, and he said after the game that he told his manager he was OK to pitch the 8th. But Hillman has some sparkly new bullpen guys on his roster, so why not try out your lockdown 8th-9th inning duo of Juan Cruz and Joakim Soria. Wait a minute, that's not Cruz coming into the game, it's...

Kyle Farnsworth?


Farnsworth has a 4.54 ERA and 1.44 WHIP while allowing 1.54 HR/9 over the last 3 seasons. Did he get the call because he's a Kansas native? Who knows. After allowing 2 men to reach, Farnsworth did manage to strikeout Carlos Quentin for the 2nd out, bringing up Jim Thome. Even in the twilight of his career, Thome has managed to put up a 1.053 OPS vs. RHP over the last 3 seasons. Don't the Royals have any lefties in the 'pen? Sure, they've got Ron Mahay, who's allowed only a .681 OPS vs. lefties since 2006, and part of that was in the hitters haven of Texas. How about bringing in Soria for a 4-out save? He's allowed only a .495 OPS vs. lefties in his brief career.

Nope, let's stick with Farnsworth.


Dumb, dumb, dumb. The Royals have a tough enough hill to climb this season without their manager screwing things up. As I've said to myself so many times over the last several years, I'm glad I'm not a Royals fan.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Night

Mariners 6, Twins 1
Seattle starter Felix Hernandez is a good pitcher. Even worse, he's in the habit of pitching extra well in April. That meant that Francisco Liriano's margin of error for this game was going to be very thin. And he was good, on the whole, allowing only 4 baserunners in 7 IP with 3 K and 0 BB (I'd love to see him get in the habit of avoiding walks). Unfortunately, all four baserunners he allowed scored, thanks to 2 HR and a leadoff double in the 2nd. One of the HR came from Ken Griffey, Jr. That's a nice feel-good story for baseball fans, but seeing Liriano yield a HR to a guy who slugged .350 vs. LHP last season made me feel bad.

We got our first look at the Twins' bullpen, and it was more of the same. Luis Ayala's debut with the club went fine, but Jesse Crain walked the first batter he faced before retiring the next 2 in the 9th. Gardy decided to try out Craig Breslow in his new, Dennys Reyes role vs. Griffey Jr, and the result emulated the worst of Reyes' outings: 4 straight balls, walk the lefty, hand the ball to Gardy. I was perhaps unfairly nervous to find Matt Guerrier coming into the game at that point. Mike Redmond allowed a passed ball to put both runners in scoring position, and Jose Lopez bounced a single through the left side to put the game out of reach.

Offensively, I wasn't expecting a lot, but the game got off to a great start with a walk from Denard Span and a single from Alexi Casilla. After Michael Cuddyer struck out (oh, if only Mauer had been there), Justin Morneau was robbed of a hit when his bouncer up the middle was deflected by Hernandez to Lopez and Morneau was incorrectly called out at first. What a different tone that might have set for the game - even if Jason Kubel's subsequent AB had proceeded exactly the same way, the pitch he struck out on would have been a WP scoring Span with the game's first run. Morneau hit again with the bases loaded in the 5th, following Cuddyer's RBI single, and promptly hit into an inning-ending DP. The Twins wouldn't get another baserunner vs. Hernandez.

My biggest positive from the game was the performance of Denard Span. He drew 2 BB and laid down a sacrifice, and looked great covering ground in LF. A few more games like that and I can forget about his March struggles. And Joe Crede got his first hit, a gift from the official scorer on a ball that should have been handled by Adrian Beltre.

Not the way I wanted to see the season start, but Hernandez is well on his way to being an elite pitcher. Liriano was just out-pitched tonight.

Blue Jays 12, Tigers 5
What's happened to Justin Verlander? How demoralizing to get 5 runs off Halladay and still lose by 7.

Rangers 9, Indians 1
Cliff Lee my butt.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

2009 AL Central Preview

Chicago White Sox
2008 Record: 89-74

You've got to be a little lucky to outplay your projections, and the Sox certainly had their share of good breaks in 2008, at least until Carlos Quentin's bad break late in the season. They were able to turn numerous losses into victories with late-inning HR. Getting exactly what you need exactly when you need it that often is not something that can be expected to be repeated. They'll keep hitting HR in the Cell, but their lineup is starting to get pretty long in the tooth, with 4 middle-of-the-order bats beginning the season at age 32 or older. Outside of Quentin and Jim Thome, there isn't a lot of OBP in their order, so they figure to have trouble scoring when the ball doesn't go over the fence.

Where they're really going to suffer is in run prevention. Subtracting Joe Crede and Orlando Cabrera leaves them with one of the weakest all-around defenses in the league - a lot of balls are going to slip through the infield or drop into the outfield. Add to that a weak rotation after Mark Buehrle and John Danks - Gavin Floyd is primed to regress, and Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon haven't been good since 2005 and have since been injured - and I think the Sox are a team that can expect to allow more runs than they score in 2009.

Minnesota Twins
2008 Record: 88-75

The Twins roster I've summarized over the last few days is essentially the same as that which finished the 2008 season, minus Joe Mauer for the first few weeks (we hope that's all it is). My argument all winter long has been that that roster should be capable of matching their run differential from last season. Though the offense will certainly be less efficient with RISP, I expect the drop in total runs to be offset somewhat by an increase in HR from 1B, 3B, and all 3 OF positions. In other words, the Twins will be better at scoring runs when they don't have someone in scoring position. With 3 of Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, Alexi Casilla and Nick Punto likely in the lineup on any given day, the Twins should continue to rack up large numbers of sacrifices, bunt hits, and steals, putting them in position to score, as they often did last year, without the benefit of a well-hit ball. I see the Twins scoring about 50 fewer runs.

They should be able to make up those 50 runs with improved pitching and defense. Last year's staff saw 361.1 IP (nearly 25% of its total IP) given to Brian Bass, Livan Hernandez, Boof Bonser, Juan Rincon and Eddie Guardado, while suffering the fatal late-season collapse of the previously reliable Matt Guerrier. The remainder of the staff did quite well, and those are the ones who will be relied upon in 2009, with Guerrier likely returning to form. Most importantly, the young rotation, brimming with upside, should get a larger proportion of the total IP this season, leaving fewer innings in the hands of a suspect bullpen. Add to that a defense that should be much better than what the Twins brought to the field in 2008 - they allowed by far the most errors and unearned runs of Gardy's tenure, something that looks to have been addressed this spring - and the Twins shouldn't have any trouble keeping their total runs allowed around 700. They'll need some breaks to win 90, but it will be a disappointment if they don't finish with at least 85 wins.

Cleveland Indians
2008 Record: 81-81

One of the luckiest teams in 2007, the wheel of fortune spun the other way on the Tribe in 2008. They lost several key players to injuries/ineffectiveness and managed to finish just .500 despite a +44 run differential. Retaining their offensive numbers is certainly possible, and they could exceed them with bounce-back years from Victor Martinez and, especially, Travis Hafner. They'll also have to maintain the breakout performances they got from Shin-Soo Choo and Kelley Shoppach. Grady Sizemore is awesome, Asdrubal Cabrera should be better and Mark DeRosa is a nice addition to their lineup. This ought to be the best offensive team in the division.

They should have no such hopes for the defensive half-innings. Cliff Lee has never had consecutive good seasons, Fausto Carmona has had one good season, and the rest of their rotation features fringe talents and reclamation projects. Their bullpen should be rock solid, especially if Kerry Wood holds together. Defensively, they don't look all that strong in the corners, and they insist on beginning the season with a mis-aligned IF of Jhonny Peralta at SS, Cabrera at 2B and DeRosa at 3B. Though they should certainly win more games in 2009, there are so many ifs with this team, I'm skeptical that they'll be a lot better than last year.

Kansas City Royals
2008 Record: 75-87

The Royals have seen their record improve by about 6 games in each of the last 3 seasons, meaning that they're poised to finish .500 this year if they maintain the trend. Slow-starting prospects Billy Butler and Alex Gordon ought to start reaching their potential about now, which should provide a bit of a jolt to what has perennially been a punchless offense. New additions Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp could provide upgrades in production from CF and 1B. However, top to bottom, there isn't a lot of OBP or deep counts, letting opposing pitchers off the hook with a lot of quick AB.

Gil Meche and Zach Greinke will be a solid top of the rotation, and Juan Cruz and Joakim Soria are as strong a setup/closer combination as there is in baseball. However, the back of the rotation is almost laughably bad, and there are some dicey options in the bullpen in Kyle Farnsworth and Jamie Wright. The Royals are only about half of what they need to be contenders right now, even in an especially weak division. They'll need a lot of things to go right to make the .500 mark.

Detroit Tigers
2008 Record: 74-88

Was there a bigger disappointment in baseball last year than the Tigers? Their enormous investments in Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Edgar Renteria not only failed to take the Tigers to the next level, they actually created a backslide as a thinned minor league talent pool was unable to support an aging, injury-prone roster. This offseason they've opted to invest what limited funds they have available in upgrading their defense, but at the expense of offense. There are still quality hitters at the top of the lineup in Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez, but only two of those guys are on the happy side of 33. Adam Everett, Gerald Laird and Brandon Inge aren't going to hit a lick.

The defensive improvements the Tigers made are real, and should help their pitchers out a lot, particularly on the left side of the field. On the right side, the range is limited. The real problem with the Tigers is their pitching. I'm skeptical that Armando Galarraga can regain his first-half success from last year, which makes the rotation pretty thin after Justin Verlander - and how much can they even count on him? As for the bullpen, the guy they brought in to be the closer, Brandon Lyon, was too hittable, so they gave the job to Fernando Rodney, who walks about 4.5 batters/9 IP. Juan Rincon made their bullpen. That defense is going to be busy.

I won't predict a winner for the Central this year - in a division so evenly matched I might as well guess which team I think will be lucky. All things being equal, I think it will come down to the Indians and Twins in September, with the other three teams striving for the 81-win mark.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

2009 Twins Preview: Waiting in the 'Wings

Last year's opening day roster included Livan Hernandez, Mike Lamb, Adam Everett, Craig Monroe, Juan Rincon and Brian Bass. Needless to say, the Twins won't be finishing the season with the same 25 guys I reviewed earlier this week. Here are some other names that might find their way into the box scores at some point in 2009:

IF - Matt Tolbert
I'm sure it broke Gardy's heart to have to cut Tolbert, so he'll certainly be the first guy called up if anything happens to an infielder. A switch-hitter with pretty good speed, Tolbert can play any of the IF positions (although his stint at 1B this week wasn't inspiring, while Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris both did OK over there) and could even be used in the OF in a pinch. He's hit pretty well at every level but AA (even in his rehab assignment last year he didn't do well there) and has generally been a high-percentage base stealer. Pretty similar to Nick Punto or Denny Hocking: the ideal guy to have on your bench (when you have a big enough bench).

IF - Luke Hughes
Next on the IF depth chart would probably be Hughes. Other than a lousy time at A+ Fort Myers, he's been a pretty good hitter, and last year he absolutely exploded in a season split between New Britain and Rochester. He's never been much of a fielder, unfortunately, but at this stage he doesn't look any worse than Buscher, who has worked to improve his glove since arriving with the Twins. Hughes is still young enough at 24 to have some upside. He'll be a September call-up if the team doesn't need him before that.

OF - Jason Pridie
The last piece of the Delmon Young trade, Pridie was brought in to compete for the CF job vacated by Torii Hunter. This was before the Twins had acquired Carlos Gomez or realized that Denard Span had figured out how to hit. Pridie quickly fell by the wayside, staying the whole year at Rochester and putting up a .270/.305/.435 line with a Gomez-esque 152/30 K/BB ratio. Still, he has terrific range in the OF and is a pretty high percentage base-stealer, so he wouldn't be a bad guy to have on the bench as a defensive sub or PR. With over 200 AAA games under his belt already, he'll likely be the first guy they call if one of the outfielders goes down.

SP - Kevin Mulvey
With Philip Humber, Brian Duensing and R.A. Dickey all capable of providing the Twins with spot starts, it will probably be a couple of months before Mulvey is considered to fill in for one of the Twins' starters. He had mixed results for the Red Wings last season, increasing his K/9 rate but also elevating his BB/9 and HR/9. He was better in the second half, and, at 23 years old, there's still plenty of time for him to figure things out. I'm guessing that his performance will get people talking about him as the summer rolls along, and that he may put the Twins in position to make an interesting trade at the end of July.

RP - Jose Mijares
After the way Mijares pitched for the Twins last September, a bullpen spot was his to lose this spring. And lose it he did, showing up for camp out of shape and struggling through just about every appearance he made. He's been a tremendous strikeout pitcher throughout his career, allowing well under a hit per IP. His problem has been control - he's amassed an ugly 5.1 BB/9 over his pro career so far. If he can lose some weight and focus on throwing more strikes, I think he'll find his way back to the Majors before too much time goes by.

C - Joe Mauer
Oh yeah, don't forget about this guy. I'm sure his rehab will progress agonizingly slowly, but it sounds like he should be able to rejoin the team by the end of April. And this year, because of the extra week of spring training, April only has 22 games in it. As long as he can stick around and perform the way he did last year, I'll be satisfied with 140 or so games from the reigning batting champ.

Friday, April 3, 2009

2009 Twins Preview: Bench

At last, the Twins finalized their roster after today's tie with the Pirates. Matt Tolbert was the last guy to make the team in 2008, and he was the last guy cut this year. Though he had a pretty nice spring, it wasn't as nice as these guys:

IF - Brian Buscher
If you look at Buscher's minor league stats, you'll notice a slow progression from bad starts at each level to mediocre finishes once he got comfortable - until 2007, when he came to the Twins in the minor league Rule 5 draft. His power numbers exploded, corresponding with a staggering improvement in his K/BB ratio. It obviously clicked for him which pitches he should be swinging at. Buscher wasn't impressive in his time with Twins in 2007 and he had a rough spring training in 2008, earning him a trip back to Rochester, where he was even more dominant than the previous year. As down as many were on his performance with the Twins last year, it was still a .078 improvement in OPS over his first stint. He's had a monster spring, .382/.462/.545 with 2 HR and a 7/9 K/BB ratio in 55 AB, while playing errorless defense at the corner infield spots. With nothing left to prove at AAA, and with Morneau's balky back, there was no question he'd make the team. I hope he'll get plenty of opportunities to hit this year - I think he's ready to contribute at this level, particularly if he hardly ever faces lefties.
Expected line: .280/.350/.450, 250 AB, 9 HR, 18 2B, 25 BB, 35 K

IF - Brendan Harris
I was down on Harris for the first half of last year, thanks to his inadequate defensive range at 2B and SS and a plethora of called 3rd strikes. But he really grew on me in the 2nd half, shrinking his K/BB rate from about 3/1 to 5/3 and raising his OPS nearly a hundred points in the process. He's played everywhere in the infield this spring, making every play he should and a few he shouldn't, while hitting .317/.423/.417 with a 9/9 K/BB rate in 60 AB. His speed isn't much of an asset off the bench, so I look for him to PH in situations where a slappy single from Punto or Casilla won't quite get the job done, particularly vs. LHP. With Luke Hughes offering a similar skill set at Rochester with perhaps more power upside, I wouldn't be surprised to see Harris dealt at some point during the season.
Expected line: .275/.335/.415, 250 AB, 5 HR, 15 2B, 20 BB, 45 K

LF - Delmon Young
The Twins gave up a lot to get Young last offseason, and he didn't deliver anything close to the expectations many had lain on him. This offseason, Gardy let it slip that Young was not guaranteed a starting job this spring, perhaps as a ploy to keep him motivated. Has it worked? Young came to Fort Myers in great shape, made a concerted effort to pull the ball more often, and has a fine .302/.323/.508 line with 3 HR in 63 AB to show for it. He's looked better in the field, too. My concern is that he hasn't drawn a walk all spring - he'll need to get the OBP into the .350s before he can really be dangerous. Still, he seems to be making strides, and he's only 23. My guess is he'll start no fewer than 2 of 3 games this season.
Expected line: .300/.340/.450, 500 AB, 15 HR, 25 2B, 30 BB, 90 K

C - Jose Morales
When it became clear that Joe Mauer wouldn't be able to start the season with the Twins, they had to decide whether they wanted Mike Redmond's backup to be Drew Butera, a good defender who barely hit .250 at AA, or Morales, a so-so backstop who's hit over .300 in 2 seasons at Rochester. They wisely went with Morales, a switch-hitter who may be able to contribute enough to the offense to make up for his defensive shortcomings. Depending on Mauer's condition when he returns, it may make sense to keep Morales around for awhile as insurance, and he wouldn't be a bad bat to have off the bench late in games. I wish him the best of luck, but I hope the Twins don't need him for long.
Expected line: .280/.310/.370, 100 AB, 1 HR, 6 2B, 4 BB, 15 K

Thursday, April 2, 2009

2009 Twins Preview: Bullpen

Scott Baker pitched his final tuneup before his opening night start for the AAA club on Wednesday. He threw 5 scoreless innings, allowing just 3 H and striking out 4. We woke up Thursday morning to find that he had been placed on the 15-day DL with shoulder stiffness.


They didn't even want to wait 24 hours to see if he felt better? This move strikes me as an overreaction. But it certainly clarifies the remainder of the Twins' (now justifiably, at least temporarily) 12-man pitching staff. Liriano will shift up 1 slot to opening night, Blackburn will pitch Tuesday instead of Friday, and RA Dickey will make the club as the #5 for the first time through the rotation. (Wouldn't it make more sense for Dickey to start on Tuesday against Seattle? Not only would that minimize the disruption in routine for Blackburn, but it would get Dickey's knuckler indoors, where it will supposedly be more effective. I can't shake the feeling that the Twins are really hoping that Dickey will blow it one of these outings so that they can have some evidence for why he should be at Rochester.) Philip Humber and Brian Duensing both make the bullpen:

Closer - Joe Nathan
At this point, I would say that the AJ Pierzynski trade with the Giants would have been a great trade for the Twins if it had been for just Nathan straight up. He's been among the top closers in baseball since coming the Twins in 2004, 4 times posting ERAs under 2.00 and never allowing more than 5 HR in a season or posting a K/BB ratio lower than 3.86. The shoulder discomfort that kept him out of the WBC was scary and is something we'll have to keep an eye on, but at this point there's no indication that he's not 100%. And 100% of Joe Nathan is awfully good.
Expected line: 70 IP, 2.00 ERA, 5 HR, 20 BB, 75 K

RHP - Jesse Crain
I was pleased with what Crain was able to bring in 2008, less than a year after undergoing major shoulder surgery. His velocity was high, he had good movement on his pitches, and he was able to slightly surpass his K/9 from 2006, though his walk rate was the worst since 2005. It's easy to look at his 2008 and remember the consecutive losses he suffered early in the Twins' disastrous 14-game road trip in late August, but he was excellent in 9 September appearances and has looked very sharp this spring. I believe he'll get a chance to hold the 8th inning setup job to start the season, and he looks as though he can handle it as well as anyone the Twins have right now.
Expected line: 70 IP, 3.50 ERA, 6 HR, 25 BB, 55 K

LHP - Craig Breslow
Claiming Breslow off waivers in May was the only incontrovertibly good move Bill Smith has made in his brief tenure as GM of the Twins. A high-strikeout guy who was hurting himself with walks, he only needed the tutelage of pitching coach Rick Anderson to bring them down from about 6 BB/9 to 3.25. He didn't allow any ER over his final 12 IP, and has looked just as good this spring. Regrettably, he's slotted in for the Dennys Reyes role, i.e. get the lefty out. I say regrettable, because Breslow's performance against righties suggests that he might be a very effective 7th or 8th inning guy, rather than just wasting him on 1 or 2 matchups. Hopefully, Gardy will use him more liberally than he did Reyes, but I'm reluctant to expect anything more than Reyes numbers from him this year.
Expected line: 50 IP, 3.00 ERA, 2 HR, 20 BB, 40 K

RHP - Matt Guerrier
Perhaps no single Twin was more responsible for the team coming up just short last season than Matt Guerrier. A long reliever in 2005-06, he stepped into Jesse Crain's role in 2007 and enjoyed the lowest ERA and WHIP of his career while landing among the league leaders in IP among relievers. He attempted to fill Pat Neshek's shoes last year, and did rather well for about half the season before the previous year's workload seemed to catch up to him. On June 30th, he was 4-2 with a 2.95 ERA. From that game on, his ERA ballooned to 7.45 as he suffered 7 excruciating losses. It sounds like they'll try to use him a little less this season, and certainly keep him away from high leverage situations. He's looked good his last few outings this spring, so I'm optimistic he'll be able to bounce back closer to the performance we grew accustomed to in previous seasons.
Expected line: 70 IP, 4.00 ERA, 9 HR, 25 BB, 55 K

RHP - Luis Ayala
The Twins went looking (sort of) for bullpen help this offseason, and Ayala is what they found. Like Guerrier, he's coming off of the first crappy season of his career, having been a part of the Mets' late-season melt-down that cost them a playoff spot. Glancing at his stats, there's nothing that jumps out to explain why his ERA should have nearly doubled. He had similar K/9, pitches per plate appearance and inning, and better BB/9 numbers than in some of his earlier, successful seasons. He allowed a higher BAA and HR/9, but not so much higher that they would explain that kind of performance. Mostly, it seems like he just didn't strand as many runners as usual, and that's the sort of thing that can really change year-to-year. He should be more or less back to his career norms this year.
Expected line: 75 IP, 4.00 ERA, 8 HR, 17 BB, 50 K

RHP - Philip Humber
It would be stretching things to say that Humber earned a spot on the team this spring. But since he was one of the components of the Johan Santana trade with the Mets, the Twins are loath to let him just slip away on waivers, so here he is. He was the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 draft, but almost immediately had to undergo Tommy John surgery. The Mets scooted him up to AAA after just over 150 pro IP anyway, and he responded by leading the PCL in WHIP in 2007. No such luck in the pitcher-friendlier IL, where he bounced in and out of the rotation for Rochester before finishing the summer strongly and pitching decently in a September call-up. I have no idea what kind of reliever he'll be, but I'm not expecting too much.
Expected line: 70 IP, 4.50 ERA, 10 HR, 23 BB, 50 K

RHP - R.A. Dickey
The Twins signed Dickey to minor-league deal last winter, only to have the Mariners promptly steal him in the Rule 5 draft. Like all the M's pitchers, Dickey had a lousy season, but the Twins brought him back to camp this year. What were they hoping to see from him? Whatever it was, he surely exceeded it. In 17.2 IP this spring, he has a 2.04 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 9.17 K/9 and 2.04 BB/9. Those numbers far surpassed anything the other bubble guys put up, and yet Scott Baker had to get hurt before the Twins would give Dickey a spot on the team. It'll be a tough assignment pitching in Chicago. Even if he succeeds, I don't know if the Twins will really want to keep him up. Has he perfected his knuckleball, or have the conditions just been favorable this spring? I have to doubt he can continue to do what he's done in March.
Expected line: 20 IP, 5.00 ERA, 3 HR, 8 BB, 15 K

LHP - Brian Duensing
A typical product of the Twins' system, Duensing has excellent control (2.2 BB/9) and pitches to contact (6.5 K/9). He was at AAA less than 2 years after he was drafted, but took a step backward in his full season there in 2008. With Jose Mijares falling by the wayside, the Twins would like to give Duensing a shot at the bullpen, a la Glen Perkins in 2007, rather than send him back for a third season at AAA. He had a pretty nice spring in terms of ERA, but allowed BB and HR at a much higher rate and amassed K at a much lower rate than he had with the Red Wings. That does not spell success against major league hitters. Though they'll try to set him up for success by having him face primarily LH batters, that did not help him vs. Carlos Pena earlier this week. I think we're in for a repeat of Baker circa 2006 here. Mercifully, it shouldn't last long.
Expected line: 25 IP, 5.50 ERA, 5 HR, 9 BB, 12 K

Overall, I think we're in store for only a slightly better performance from the 'pen in 2009. However, it should be easier to hide the shortcomings, because the starters will be doing a lot more, and the defense behind them should be better as well. Look for the Twins' runs allowed to go way down this year, to around 700. That should just about make up for the inevitable drop in runs scored.