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.

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