Saturday, July 25, 2009

6th Split: 7-9

Overall Record: 48-49
3rd in AL Central, 4 games back

Other splits: 7-9, 8-8, 9-7, 8-8, 9-8

As you can see, the Twins have played all 6 of their splits up to this point of the season within one win of .500. (Any guesses which extra win they should have had this time? Maybe the one they were leading by 10 runs vs. the 2nd worst offensive team in the league?) As a result, their overall record is within one win of .500. This should come as a surprise to no one. For anyone to doubt after 97 games that the 2009 Twins are essentially a .500 team is wishful thinking. If nothing changes, I would expect them to be right around that number at the end of the season.

They are basically in the middle of the pack in the league in terms of R, OPS, ERA and R allowed. They remain one of the top fielding teams despite committing their highest number of errors this split (9, giving them 40 overall on the season). It's illustrative of just how deep the holes are on the roster that the extraordinary performances of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan, together with the strong performances so far by Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Nick Blackburn and Matt Guerrier, have only been enough to bring the team back to about even. This team simply isn't a winner, and without significant changes, I don't expect that to change over the last 40% of the season.

If that's apparent to me, it's undoubtedly also the case with the players. My travel and work schedule hasn't permitted me to keep up with entries this month, but what I said last time is still true: this team needs a shot in the arm, a mental lift, a sign from the front office that the cavalry is coming. Mark Grudzelanek, if he has anything left at 39, could well be an upgrade at 2B, but he's still probably at least a couple of weeks away. Replacing one of the AAAA long relievers with Jesse Crain should ultimately improve the bullpen, but it's not enough. Since this will perhaps be my last chance before the deadline, here's a quick summary of my thoughts on the Twins' trade possibilities:

At the All-Star Break, Blackburn was among the leaders in the AL in IP and ERA. He was pitching great, but is actually only a good pitcher. If his numbers by the end of the season slip back to where we might expect from a good but not great pitcher (ERA somewhere around 4.00 in 210 IP), his ERA will be 4.85 for the rest of the season. Anthony Swarzak should be able to match or exceed that, so Blackburn, at the height of his value, would have made a terrific centerpiece for a trade. However, with Glen Perkins having shoulder trouble and Kevin Slowey suffering a setback in his recovery, the Twins are probably loathe to deal a MLB SP right now.

However, there are other positions of depth within the organization. With Grudzelanek in the system, the Twins now have 2B covered for the rest of the year, with Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla available to get spot starts or take bench spots. Steven Tolleson has performed well enough at Rochester to push Luke Hughes down the depth chart to AA. Hughes is a lousy IF, but has a pretty good bat and has also played some corner OF. Danny Valencia looks for all the world like he's ready to assume the 3B spot next season. David Winfree has taken a step forward this year, particularly in terms of plate discipline, with the vast majority of his walks coming in the last 2 months. Rene Tosoni is another OF having a breakout year at AA. Ben Revere does about what Denard Span does, and Joe Benson is another fine OF in the low minors. Jeff Manship has reached AAA, showing similar stuff to Swarzak/Blackburn/Mulvey but doing an even better job of keeping the ball in the yard. Juan Morillo still doesn't have great control, but the K/9 and BAA are outstanding.

Given that overview, Twins' biggest need is offense from SS and quality short relief. They should expect Tolleson and Valencia to replace Grudzelanek and Crede in 2010. Therefore, if they add a good SS, Brendan Harris becomes superfluous - he should be a trade piece. Mulvey is in his final option year, and will likely force the Twins into the same position they were with Philip Humber this spring. He's imminently replaceable by Manship. Pick somebody out of Blackburn, Perkins, and Mulvey and make them a trade piece. Winfree is on his way to replacing Cuddyer, but could probably do what Delmon Young is doing right now. Throw in Young, if only to clarify the OF situation at the upper levels. And, realistically, with top prospect Aaron Hicks just a year behind Benson and Revere, one of them could probably be traded.

Any of those guys could be probably be dealt for a decent reliever. The Brewers, watching the flurry of recent moves by the Cardinals, and with SS prospect Alcides Escobar ready for the bigs, might be willing to deal JJ Hardy for the right package, particularly if it included Blackburn and Harris. A collection of those guys might be enough to pry Christian Guzman away from the Nationals. I wouldn't worry too much about upper level depth for the rest of the season - if the Twins want to contend in 2009, they're going to have to make a bold move in the next week and hope for the best.

Bold Prediction: Something is going to happen for the Twins before the deadline.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Twins' Feeble Skills No Match for Power of Dark Side

Yankees 10, Twins 2
Yankees 4, Twins 3
Yankees 6, Twins 4

Another year, another 7 games of futility vs. the Yankees. We can take some solace in the fact that 6 of the 7 games were close. But the Twins never led at any point during this series, so how close was it?

I get more worked up watching the Twins take on the Yankees than any other team. They never seem to expand the strike zone, and always find a way to foul off good pitches, wearing down the starting pitchers. And then they get numerous bloopers and infield hits to fall in around the occasional line drive. The Twins, meanwhile, when they aren't swinging feebly at balls out of the zone, seem to aim every hard-hit ball directly at a Yankee defender, so that they hardly have to move to record the out.

I could rant for awhile about the inequities between the 2 teams, but the Twins ultimately didn't get it done when they had their chances. Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer did not have their best ABs with the go-ahead runs on base. For Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, disaster could have been avoided had they taken advantage of the weakness in the Yankee lineup, but bench players Francisco Cervelli and Cody Ransom each did rally-sustaining damage against them.

The last 6 games have told us a lot about how well the Twins as constituted can compete this season. They seem to be able to handle the Tigers, but weren't able to get above water against the Yankees. The good news is that the Twins don't have to play the Yankees again this season. Their 43-36 record against all other opponents translates to a .544 winning percentage. If they play at least that well for the remainder of the season, they should end up with 84-85 wins. Will that win the division? Maybe. Let's look on an even brighter side: since Joe Mauer returned to the lineup, the Twins are 32-25 against everybody not from the Bronx. That's a .561 winning percentage, good enough for 86 wins if the Twins can keep it up over the 2nd half.

Unless the Tigers or White Sox dramatically shake up their rosters, the Twins should be right there with them at the end of the season. But is it enough to get them over the hump? What happens to them in October if it is?

The current situation reminds of the 2003 Twins. They were 44-49 at the break, but came burning out of the gate after the All-Star break and went 46-23 for the rest of the season. What happened? The Shannon Stewart trade. The 2009 Twins need something like that. Not that there aren't things they could do to improve their lineup using the players they already have. Here's my list:

1. Pass the Torch from Redmond to Morales

Everybody knows that this is Mike Redmond's last year as the Twins' backup catcher. His skills are deteriorating quickly, and once a 38-year-old loses his skills, they don't come back (without steroids). Morales, meanwhile, is just entering into his peak years, and, as a switch-hitter, doesn't have the platoon limitations that Redmond displayed even in his prime. Redmond has become an easy out on Mauer's off days; Morales is 5th on the team in OPS, albeit in limited ABs. However, Redmond and Morales have had similar playing opportunities, and Morales has better than .200 points of OPS on Redmond. Leave the old man on the bench and play the kid - the lineup is much stronger with Morales in it. In fact,

2. Put Morales in the lineup every day

He's always been a good average hitter in the minors, so while his numbers may come down some as he gets more ABs, Morales should still remain a productive addition to the batting order. And again, as a switch-hitter, he adds balance to the lineup no matter who takes the mound against the Twins. Put Morales in the DH slot on days when Mauer is catching. But where does that leave Jason Kubel?

3. Platoon Kubel and Young in LF

Jason Kubel isn't a very good defender in LF, but he's still probably just a bit better than Delmon Young, so it actually improves the OF defense to have him out there. While he's mashing RHP to the tune of a nearly 1.050 OPS with all 14 of his HR, he's hit an anemic .179/.247/.224 vs. LHP. That's like Matt Tolbert or Alexi Casilla. As disappointing as Young has been, he can definitely top that, with an OPS in the high .700s vs. LHP for his career thus far. For reasons well illustrated by Twins Geek, the Twins are stuck with Young. A platoon would be a way to give him the best possible circumstances in which to shine and raise his value for either the Twins or a future trade. But what happens to Carlos Gomez in this scenario?

4. Swap Gomez for Pridie

At this stage, Gomez is mainly being deployed as a 4th OF, coming in as a PR of defensive sub late in games. Jason Pridie is a plus runner and defender, and can fill that role nearly as well. At 24 years old and in his 3rd year at AAA, he has likely reached his ceiling as a prospect - his 5/1 K/BB ratio is exactly what it was last year, meaning that he'll never develop the on-base skills to be more than a bench guy. Gomez, however, has shown some strides in that department, narrowing his K/BB from just under 6/1 to a little under 3/1. Now he needs to keep that up, while reincorporating his bunting and SB skills and continuing to work on shortening his swing and driving the ball the other way. His best chance of developing is to get 4-5 PA every day at Rochester for the remainder of their season. Let's give him 150 or so AB in the International League and see what he's learned by September 1st. And while we're looking at Rochester,

5. Swap Tolbert for Casilla or Tolleson

I'd be inclined to go with Casilla, because he's been at Rochester longer, switch-hits, and has better range and speed than Steve Tolleson. In 34 games with the Twins, Casilla could scarcely have performed worse, hitting .180/.242/.225 while playing spacey defense in the field. While he's still made his share of mistakes with the glove, in 37 games with Rochester he's hitting .340/.377/.422, so whatever was troubling him with the bat seems to have been resolved. While he was up briefly in June he hit .222/.323/.296 - even if he only maintained that for the rest of the season it would be a pretty healthy step up from Tolbert. Tolleson, meanwhile, has hit .285/.369/.421 between New Britain and Rochester this year. He has a terrific eye at the plate and so should at least be able to get on base once he's called up. However, he's only played 39 games above AA so far, so it probably makes the most sense for him to finish the season at Rochester and then come up in September. But if he were to replace Tolbert, I have little doubt that he'd be an upgrade.

6. Maximize the PA from the best hitters

Gardy had it for awhile there in May, batting Mauer 2nd and shifting the rest of the big hitters up. But then Brendan Harris got hot, and it was so nice to have a righty in between Mauer and Span, and a guy like Mauer should be batting 3rd, right? No - a guy like Mauer should be batting as often as possible. Span does a terrific job as the prototypical leadoff man, but then Mauer and his .461 OBP should be hitting 2nd. And Morneau's .390 should be 3rd. Basically, the Twins' top 6 hitters are Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, Span and Morales. They should be the first 6 hitters in the lineup, in that order after Span leads off. Don't insert filler in between them - ultimately, that will result in broken up rallies and an All-Star left in the on-deck circle at the end of the game. Yes, that leaves an opening for a LOOGY to come in late in a game, but Span (.922 OPS), Mauer (.989 OPS) and Morneau (.970 OPS) all hit lefties well enough that it's not worth worrying about. As long as Cuddyer (.985 OPS) comes before Kubel (the aforementioned .471 OPS), Gardy can either set up a nice matchup if the opponent wants to stick with the LOOGY, or force the other team to burn a pitcher.

That's the best we can do right now. These adjustments should be worth another couple of wins for the Twins, getting them up to about last year's total of 88. That's about what the Tigers are on pace for; the Sox are on pace for 84. The Twins should be just about good enough to win the division, but nowhere near enough to compete with the Eastern Division juggernaut they would almost certainly face in the first round of the playoffs.

You'll notice there are no fixes for a bullpen that currently consists of Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, Jose Morales and 3 long relievers. That's because Jesse Crain and Juan Morillo are still walking too many guys at AAA to justify a call-up right now. In order to upgrade the 'pen, and ensure that the team can win 90+ games and defeat the AL's best teams, the Twins are going to have to make a trade for this year's Shannon Stewart. How they might pull that off I'll have to leave for another time.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

5th Split: 9-8

First Half Record: 41-40
3rd in AL Central 4 games back

Other splits: 7-9, 8-8, 9-7, 8-8

One of the reasons I started keeping track of splits years ago was that, at 16-17 games, they're long enough to give you perspective, but still short enough that one game can make a big difference. When a team comes into the final game of a split at 8-7, that last game is the difference between being on pace for 91 wins and a playoff spot, or 81 wins and mediocrity.

The Twins, sadly, have been firmly in the latter category this first half. Wednesday was the first time in 8 tries that they won a game after starting the day one game over .500. Having finally reached the 2 games over plateau, they lost Friday night's marathon in 16 innings. Had they won, I'd be writing about a satisfactory split of 10-7. Because Kevin Slowey's wrist acted up and RA Dickey allowed more damage in 3 innings (4 ER on 9 H) than he did in all of June (2 ER on 8 H in 13.2 IP), the Twins finish the first half essentially on pace to be a .500 team, surely not good enough to win even the middling AL Central.

The team generally did a terrific job of preventing runs, allowing fewer than 4 runs per game thanks to strong starting pitching and a defense that committed just 8 errors and 17 games and has risen to 5th in baseball in defensive efficiency. However, 2 of those errors occurred on the same critical play with 2 out in the 8th innings of a 1-run game, costing the Twins a victory. How many times have we seen a Twins pitcher cruise into the late innings of a game, only to allow a succession of hits that undermine with shocking quickness the gem we thought we were watching develop?

This team should have at least a couple more wins than it does, based on its overall quality of play, and the 2nd half schedule won't be as tough as what's come up to now. But I can't help getting the sort of downer vibe I had by the middle of 2005 and 2007, when the Twins kept finding ways to lose close, well-played games. At just 4 games out of first, trailing the at least equally flawed Tigers and White Sox, it's hardly time to write this season off. In fact, if the Twins can come back and win this series with Detroit, they will have won 6 out of 7 series for a record of 13-8 in their last 21. That's going to get it done over the long haul.

Bold Prediction: The Twins will still be over .500 at the end of the next split.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

June Review

Twins Record: 15-12
Overall Record: 40-39, 2nd in AL Central by 4 games

The Twins finally put together a winning month in June. If they could have achieved these results every month, they'd be on their way to 90 wins and a likely playoff spot. In other words, months like this are what you hope for.

And yet, it feels like it should have been better. According to Bill James' Pythagorean Expectation, the Twins' 112-93 run differential this month should have led to a 16-11 record. How did that extra win get away? We need only look to Nick Blackburn's 5 starts. They were all quality, to say the least - he averaged 2 ER over 7.2 IP - but the team came out on top just once. Two of those games were lost in the bottom of the 8th inning, with Blackburn just an out or two from handing the game to Joe Nathan. Of course, it didn't help that the offense provided just 9 R of support in those 4 losses.

From the rarefied heights of May, the offense inevitably came crashing back to earth in June. They scored 26% fewer runs, hit about 1/3 fewer HR, and saw their team OPS drop from .821 to .737. Some of that had to do with the pitchers going 0 for 27 in the 9 interleague road games. Some of it was the result of Denard Span spending about half of the month on the DL, inviting extra ABs from Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez. But mostly, it was a simple regression from the otherworldly numbers that Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer were able to produce in May.

Luckily, the pitching staff picked up the slack. They were 3rd in the league in ERA and R allowed this month, and first in fewest walks, as usual. Perhaps most importantly, they cut their HR allowed rate by 40%. I would attribute part of that to a relatively easy schedule - 18 of the 27 games the Twins played this month were against teams with below average OPS. But the starters definitely stepped up, too, pitching deeper into games more consistently, enabling Gardy to more or less avoid the weaker pieces of the bullpen.

Though the Twins didn't quite win as many as they should have, it's important to give them credit for what they did accomplish. Considering that they were a disaster on the road through 2 months, it's a great achievement for them to have gone 10-8 on the road this month. From here on in, the Twins play more at home than away, and against easier competition than they faced in the first half (other than 3 home games with the Yankees, the Twins are done with the Titans of the East). Three more months like they just had should be enough to keep them in contention right to the end.

Only hitters with 20+ AB and pitchers with at least 6.1 IP qualify for grades this month.

Getting It Done

Joe Mauer - How awesome was he in May? His OPS dropped by .441 month-to-month, and he still finished June at .897. That number, along with 3 HR, is probably what we can expect from Joe going forward.

Jason Kubel - Led the team with 8 HR and 17 RBI in about 15 fewer PA than Morneau had, and showed he could be competent in the field. In order to keep his bat in the lineup, Gardy should routinely send Kubel out there on the days Mauer is the DH.

Nick Punto - He only got to play in 11 games, which is a shame, because .323/.371./355 is about as much as we can reasonably hope to get from him at the plate.

Joe Nathan - 12 appearances, 11 SV in 11 chances, 0 ER on 4 H and 1 BB in 11.2 IP with 18 K. It's hard to imagine a closer having a better month.

RA Dickey - Signed to be a long reliever (if not AAA starter), Dickey has pitched his way into a setup role. This month he allowed just 1 ER in 13.2 IP with a 0.80 WHIP and 7.9 K/9.

Matt Guerrier - Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the improved starting rotation, Guerrier made 14 appearances this month, but only totaled 10.1 IP. Hopefully that will keep him fresher for the 2nd half this time around.

Nick Blackburn - The Twins' most valuable pitcher of the first half. The innings he's been able to rack up every fifth turn have done incalculable good for what was at times a beleaguered bullpen. I don't know if he can keep it up much longer, but I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

Glen Perkins - Whatever was troubling him in May seemed to get fixed, as Perkins averaged 6.2 IP in his first 3 starts back from the DL, with a terrific 1.10 WHIP.

Scott Baker - Just 3 HR allowed in 39.1 IP over 6 strong starts. This is the guy we thought would be the ace when the season began.

Bobby Keppel - 6.1 scoreless IP to begin his tenure with the Twins. Maybe he can match Anthony Swarzak's debut...

So Far, So Good

Brendan Harris - Taking over as the regular SS, Harris has provided steady defense and pretty good production at the plate, although the strikeout rate was a little higher than I'd like to see this month.

Michael Cuddyer - .278/.333/.481 is pretty close to what I would expect from a healthy Cuddyer over any reasonably lengthy stretch of games.

Joe Crede - Not nearly the power he displayed in May, but I'll still take a .323 OBP from him along with his stellar defensive contributions.

Francisco Liriano - Excellent progress in the BB and HR department, leading to a good 3.77 ERA and an average of 6 IP/start.

Jose Mijares - He keeps getting away with it, but his shaky control (5 BB in 6.1 IP) is going to get the better of him if he doesn't clean it up soon.

Luis Ayala - He was actually more or less doing what he was expected to do when his attitude got on Gardy's bad side. No big loss, I guess.

Need To Pick It Up

Denard Span - Even when nothing's falling in for him, Span still does a great job of working counts, as evidenced by his 8/8 K/BB ratio. But yeah, he needs to hit better than .208/.311/.302.

Justin Morneau - An .801 OPS with a 14/14 K/BB ratio and 5 HR would be a great month for a lot of guys, but for Morneau, it's not his best.

Delmon Young - While I appreciate the 5 XBH (however many came courtesy of the Metrodome roof) and the .284 BA, 18 K in 67 AB is a problem, especially when it's accompanied by 0 BB.

Carlos Gomez - I think I'm seeing growth from Gomez. He seems to be having good ABs more consistently. But he still manages to throw enough of them away to keep his numbers way down.

Brian Buscher - With his superlative plate discipline (.142 IsoD), Buscher would be a tremendous hitter if he could get anything to fall in.

Matt Tolbert - At least he's drawing walks, because he can't do anything when he swings.

Mike Redmond - His age is really catching up to him. I would advise mixing Jose Morales in more on Mauer's off days.

Kevin Slowey - Albert Pujols was the difference between Slowey landing down here or in the previous category. The 10 BB in 26.1 IP is unheard of, and I expect that to be cleaned up in July.

Anthony Swarzak - 2 of his 3 starts this month were clunkers, but the last one was a gem. He's been dealing again since he returned to Rochester.

Sean Henn - We threw away Craig Breslow for this?