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.

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