Sunday, August 30, 2009


Things have been getting very interesting in recent days as Bill Smith tries desperately to plug the gaping holes in the Twins' pitching staff. The Twins have already made two acquisitions, with rumors of more to come by Monday's deadline.

Ron Mahay, a 38-year-old LHP, was DFA by the Royals, so the Twins were able to sign him for the prorated league minimum without having to give anybody up in a trade. Mahay has never had great control, walking 4.4 batters per 9 IP over his career. But he's mostly been effective since 2003 despite working in the pitching unfriendly environs of Arlington, TX for 5 of those seasons. However, he's been fading recently, allowing a 9.00 ERA in August while getting banged around at a .371 average and allowing 4 HR in just 7 IP before his release. Ostensibly, he will only be facing lefties, who he has held to a .284/.314/.469 line this season, a .783 OPS. That's not so good, but he's been able to bounce back from poor months in April and June with solid performances in May and July, so we'll have to hope that pattern continues for him in September. At least he's a better option vs. a lefty in the 6th of 7th than Bobby Keppel (.848 OPS).

Back on the soapbox for a minute: Mahay is probably the final word on a position that has been as disastrous as any for the Twins this season: LHP #2, or the LOOGY. Sean Henn allowed a 1.280 OPS against lefties in a misguided attempt to replace Craig Breslow, whose first 6 weeks of the season were shockingly bad (11 BB and 3 HR in 14.1 IP). The stretch for Breslow was so unprecedented, as was the early-season success of Henn at AAA, that the Twins should have expected each of them to regress back to their career norms. This is, in fact, what happened, as Breslow has put up a 3.32 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 40.2 IP since being claimed by Oakland. Including his poor start in MN, his OPS vs. lefties for the season is .629. Of course, had the front office made any effort at all to retain LOOGY extraordinaire Dennys Reyes, they could have signed him for about $1.5 million a year. His OPS vs. lefties is .531, something the playoff bound Cardinals are very much enjoying, I should think. So, while it's great to see Bill Smith striving to improve the team here in late August, the effort is at partially necessary because he wasn't smarter back in the spring.

Jon Rauch, one of the bullpen workhorses of the NL, joins the Twins for a PTBNL. After 3 1/2 splendid seasons with the Nationals, he was traded to Arizona, and did not take well to one of the NL's premiere hitting environments. He was lit up for a 6.56 ERA with the D-Backs last season, and then got off to a horrible start in 2009, allowing 10 ER on 15 H and 5 BB in his first 9.2 IP. Since then, he's been back to his old self, with a 3.02 ERA since the beginning of May and only 2 HR and 6 BB allowed in 31.2 IP since June 1st. His acquisition not only means that Gardy won't have to ride Matt Guerrier into the ground, but that the Twins now have 3 credible late-relievers who can set up Joe Nathan. Best of all, Rauch is under contract for 2010, deepening the bullpen mix for next season and taking considerable pressure off Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser as they try to recover from their surgeries. The short-term and mid-term benefits of this deal look pretty good. We'll have to see which player winds up completing the trade, but at this point, I like this transaction a lot.

Brad Penny - The Twins' rumored interest in Penny doesn't please me. I didn't think much of him when he faced the Twins back in April, and the Red Sox think so little of him that they let him go. The only really good month he's had this season was June, when he faced the NL teams he was familiar with 3 times and held them to 5 ER over 16.2 IP. That makes his ERA vs. AL teams 6.02, and 6.25 vs. AL teams other than the Twins. Jeff Manship can probably do better than that. Let Penny go back to the senior circuit.

Rich Harden is much more intriguing. He's been a health disaster, spending time on the DL in every season since 2003. But he's been awesome when he makes it to the mound, a dominant #2 starter, if not an ace. He's been especially good since the All-Star break, allowing just 10 ER on 25 H and 16 BB with 60 K in 50 IP. He's already had his DL stint for this season, so perhaps his injury troubles are out of the way for the rest of 2009. The Twins have made a waiver claim on Harden and have until Monday to work out a trade.

Harden would come at a fairly substantial cost for someone who would make, at best, 7 regular season starts for the Twins. His remaining salary will be a little more than $1.3 million, though the Twins certainly have payroll space available. Perhaps more significantly, Harden is about to be a Type A free agent, meaning that the Cubs could expect to get a first-round and supplemental round draft pick next season if he signs with another team. They will want 2 players with pretty high upside in return for trading him. The Twins must decide whether 2 such players, plus the money, is worth it for 6-7 starts by Harden and 2 extra draft picks of their own.

For me, this is a no-brainer: finish the deal. Harden has better stuff than Scott Baker. Were the Twins to take the 6-7 starts currently slated for Manship and give them to Harden, they are likely to win at least 2 more of those games. Manship keeps the ball in the yard, and is an intriguing prospect for 2010 or 2011, but he's not a good bet to help the Twins make up their deficit with the Tigers. Harden can be a difference-maker. What's more, if the Twins were to overtake the Tigers and reach the post-season, their present rotation (or one with Penny) makes it unlikely that they would last more than 4 games in October. But, as the 1987 Twins proved, you only need two good starting pitchers to win a post-season series. With Baker and Harden fronting the rotation, and Rauch, Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Nathan at the back end of the bullpen, all of a sudden the Twins are contenders. Bill Smith has an opportunity to make this team legitimately good enough to win - he just has to have the stones to give up something decent in return.

What should that be? When we're talking about compensating someone for high draft picks, I don't think we have to get too far above the low minors. Recent supplemental or 2nd round picks like Carlos Gutierrez or Billy Bullock should be on the table. With the Twins' OF situation as settled as they want it to be for the next 2 seasons (Cuddyer, Span, Kubel, Young and Gomez all under team control), 3 decent bench options at AAA in Jason Pridie, David Winfree and Dustin Martin, and 1st-round super prospects Ben Revere and Aaron Hicks due to arrive in the majors between 2012-2013, why not deal one of the other OF in between? I heard a rumor that AA RF Rene Tosoni was part of the package for Harden. Apparently not true, but he's just the sort of guy who should be.

It's hard to part with good prospects, but what are they for if not to help the big-league team win? The beauty of this situation is, they will be replaced next summer with 2 more good prospects. If 2 guys who may or may not ever fulfill their promise as MLB talent can be turned into an elite starter for the stretch run of a pennant race, I say do it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

8th Split: 9-7

Overall Record: 64-65
2nd in AL Central by 4.5 games

Previous splits: 7-9, 8-8, 9-7, 8-8, 9-8, 7-9, 7-9

The Twins continued their .500-ish malaise with yet another moderate split. However, considering that they lost 4 of their first 5, they did pretty well. The big comeback game in Texas on the 18th was the turning point, for this stretch of games at least. They've won 8 of 11 games since then, and the starting pitching has been pretty good the last two times through the rotation (with the exception of the Armando Gabino experiment, of course). Most importantly, the feeling around the team has changed - at least it has for me. When the Twins reached the 9th inning of Tuesday night's game tied with the Orioles, I finally, really believed that the they were going to find a way to win it, something I haven't been able to say for several weeks. And, sure enough, they did.

The offense has continued to be strong, averaging nearly 5 runs/game. Denard Span had a particularly good stretch, reaching base 35 times over the last 16 games and scoring 11 runs. Just as helpful has been the resurgence of Alexi Casilla, who reclaimed the 2nd base job by hitting .375 and scoring 9 runs in the 12 games he played over this stretch. Justin Morneau is in the midst of his typical August slump, but Michael Cuddyer has picked up the slack by hitting .300/.344/.533 in recent games.

Pitching-wise, Scott Baker has re-established himself as the ace of the staff, winning all three of his starts by allowing only 5 ER on 15 H and 3 BB over 21.1 IP for a 2.13 ERA and 0.85 WHIP. But the most surprising contributor to the staff's turnaround had to be Brian Duensing, who gave the Twins a 3.00 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 15 IP while collecting his first two Major League wins. Also encouraging is the improved work of Jesse Crain - his 3.52 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 11.7 K/9 will do nicely for the remainder of the season.

The Twins' defense committed 8 errors in this split, few enough to remain 2nd in the league in that stat and fielding percentage. More importantly to me, they allowed only 1 unearned run in the last 16 games, maintaining the #2 spot in that category, just 1 behind Texas. And the defense turned in some spectacular plays during this split - most notably Casilla's ridiculous diving backhand shovel/flip to Orlando Cabrera for an inning-ending force out against the O's.

We've seen some better baseball recently, at last. But the Twins must keep playing at this rate, particularly against their division rivals, from here on out. I don't think the Tigers will be able to finish with more than 86 wins. Even so, that almost certainly means that the Twins must reach double-digit win totals on their last two splits in order to take the division lead away. And that's something they haven't shown themselves to be capable of doing so far this season.

Bold prediction: The bullpen isn't going to be a problem over this next split.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Signs of Life

When they sank back to a season-low 6 games under .500 on Monday, I realized that the only thing that could save the 2009 Twins was a winning streak. The prospects of that seemed grim when they fell behind 5-0 after 3 innings on the road against the wild card contending Rangers. But then the Twins' offense, which has been so prolific in August, rose up in support of the flailing pitching staff, scoring 4 runs in the 6th to tie the game, then 3 more in the 7th to win it. This rally was magical not just because it included 4 RBI and 6 TB worth of heroics from Delmon Young, but because it happened without the help of Justin Morneau, who has missed most of the week with an inner ear infection, and Jason Kubel, who left the game after fouling a pitch off his knee in his first AB. For those reasons, I thought that rally could prove to be a turning point for the Twins.

We won't know for another 6 weeks whether that will be the case, but the Twins are sitting in about the best spot we could have hoped following a 7-game road trip. Their 5-2 record nullifies three of their recent series losses, and the sweep of the Royals brings their record vs. the worst team in the AL to a respectable 4-2 this month. Most importantly, they've been able to gain ground on the Tigers and White Sox, perhaps finding themselves as few as 4.5 games back in the standings by the end of the day.

The pitching hasn't particularly improved, so I can't attribute this 5-1 stretch to that. The Royals bumbling defense certainly helped. But mostly, I'm going to credit the improved play of the bottom of the lineup. With Morneau out, Cuddyer has had to play first base, meaning Carlos Gomez and Young have been in the lineup for the last 6 games. Gomez has hit .348 with 5 R, Young has slugged .545 with 10 RBI over the last 8 games, and Alexi Casilla, finally given some playing time at the expense of Nick Punto, went 5 for 11 with 4 R over the weekend in KC. Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer have kept on producing, so to have some power and speed reaching at the bottom of the order makes this a pretty complete lineup, one that can overcome some severe shortfalls from the pitchers.

Ultimately, the pitchers will have to step up to at least average in order for the Twins to make a serious run. To that end, it was comforting to see solid performances from Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Carl Pavano this weekend. Yes, they were just facing the Royals' terrible lineup, but I'll take good starting pitching anywhere I can get it this month. After next week, I look forward to an onslaught of arms from Rochester coming up to bolster the big league bullpen.

The Twins have a big 9-game home stand coming up. They've got to go at least 6-3, including winning the series vs. the White Sox. This is the time for the Dome field advantage to materialize one last time.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

7th Split: 7-9

Overall Record: 55-58
3rd in AL Central, 4 games back

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

The Twins' season of mediocrity continues. It's been 10 games since Orlando Cabrera joined the team at the trade deadline, and Carl Pavano has has arrived to bolster the rotation as well. But neither new face has been enough to shake the Twins out of their doldrums. They are 3-7 so far in August, and failed to gain any ground in the division despite the continued strugges of their rivals.

The culprit for the Twins' troubles this split isn't hard to identify. They averaged 5.8 R of offense over their past 16 games. That's pretty robust run support for a team with a losing record. Lest you think that they did all of their scoring in their wins, the Twins actually averaged 4.8 R/game in their 9 losses. They lost 6 games in which they scored 5 or more runs. When 5 R aren't enough to get you wins, you know you're not pitching.

In fact, the trouble with this last stretch was that the Twins did all of their pitching in their wins. The staff surrendered just 11 R in their 7 wins, but 88 in their 9 losses. Nearly 10 runs a game! Never in the Gardy/Rick Anderson era have I witnessed such an appalling stretch of pitching futility. Had the Twins gotten merely league-average pitching over this split (4.43 ERA), they would have surely won all 3 games in Detroit last weekend and been no worse than tied with the Tigers and White Sox at the top of the standings. League averaging pitching now sounds like a sweet dream.

That's because the offense is 4th in the AL in scoring and 5th in OPS since the All-Star Break. The defense continues to slide a bit, committing 10 more errors in this split for a season total of 50. But they're still 2nd in the league with just 30 unearned runs allowed, so it hasn't hurt them too badly. If the Twins are going to stay in the race, they'll need to sustain the production they've gotten out of their big hitters while reverting to the sort of pitching and defense they produced in the first half. That's not so much to ask, is it?

Bold Prediction: The Twins' staff ERA for the next split will be under 5.00.

Monday, August 10, 2009

It's Not Our Year

For the second time this season, the Twins come staggering home from a losing road trip despite having outscored their opponents (38-29). That leaves them three games under .500, even though their run differential (+9) suggests a team that should be three games over .500 and right on Detroit's butt. That the team with the best scoring differential doesn't always have the best record is one of the things that makes sports so compelling. It's not enough to be good - you have to be good and execute when you need it.

The Twins aren't executing when they need it. Some of that's luck: Mike Redmond's soft liner with 2 RISP on Thursday afternoon would have scored both runners had the Indians been playing the IF in. The slow grounder to 2nd he hit in his next AB would have driven in a run from 3rd had the IF been back. Thursday could have been a happy day if Eric Wedge had made different decisions. But mostly, the Twins have only themselves to blame. Any kind of hit or productive out in any number of situations would have won the rubber game in Cleveland. Any kind of decent starts from Anthony Swarzak and Scott Baker in Detroit would have led to a Twins' sweep. But the Twins aren't getting what they need. Not this year.

Yes, I'm starting to feel fatalistic about the season, and I wouldn't be surprised if the players are, too. That's why it's so important for Bill Smith to keep infusing fresh blood into the team, so that they can have some reason to believe that things are different now, tomorrow will be better. Each of the Twins' recent additions, though not necessarily impact players on paper, have given the team the strongest production anyone could hope for so far. Since joining the team on August 1st, Orlando Cabrera is hitting .361/.378/.611. That's fit right into an offense that's averaging 6.0 R/game in August, and that's including a couple of RISP clunkers in Cleveland. Carl Pavano stepped into the rotation and delivered 7 shutout innings, meaning that the Twins have allowed 53 R in the 7 games this month he didn't start.

Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Jesse Crain are the only pitchers to have avoided disaster so far in August, although most of them had their troubles in July. With an offense that's rolling, the Twins just need league average pitching to stay in the race. The players already on the roster must be able to improve upon their recent performances. But Bill Smith should keep his eyes glued to the waiver wire in hopes of picking up other players, especially pitchers, who might be able to give the Twins some stability in the 'pen or the rotation. And he should also be willing to take some chances on some of the guys at Rochester, perhaps even before rosters expand.

The only decent starter they haven't tried yet is Jeff Manship, who's currently sporting a 3.22 ERA in 50.1 IP. He's only allowed 3 HR in 126 IP between New Britain and Rochester, so at least he knows how to keep it in the yard. The IF has plenty to offer, as Steven Tolleson (.301/.372/.435) would likely be an upgrade at 2B over Casilla/Punto, Jose Morales (.321/.417/.409) could definitely outperform Mike Redmond, and Danny Valencia (.292/.315/.474) might already be a better hitter than Brendan Harris or Joe Crede (though in his case I would definitely wait until September to bring him up).

But the minor leaguers could really change the complexion of the bullpen. Rob Delaney, after a brutal introduction to AAA, has a 1.42 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 8.5 K/9 since the beginning of July. Juan Morillo has an ugly 6.0 BB/9, but has 12 K/9, a .210 BAA, and has allowed only 1 HR in 51 IP at Rochester. And there's Anthony Slama, who has an unseemly 4.5 BB/9, but has 12.9 K/9, a .201 BAA and has allowed 5 HR in 65.1 IP. Maybe he'd get lit up if he skipped a level, but maybe he'd give the Twins a stretch run like they got out of Jose Mijares last year. Either way, I don't think the Twins have a lot to lose. As the team is now, even with the additions they've made so far, I can't help wondering at the beginning of every game what they're going to do to blow it this time.

Monday, August 3, 2009

July Review

Twins Record: 12-12
Overall Record: 52-51, 3rd in AL Central 2 games back

I return home from my month of travels to find our heroes more or less where I left them: hanging around the .500 mark, a couple of games out of first. It seems clear that a mediocre team will win the Central Division this year, and that last year's 89 wins would comfortably get the job done if anyone could get there. The Twins have to go 36-23 over the final two months just to match their 2008 win total. That would be a stretch of excellence unprecedented so far in 2009. Adding Orlando Cabrera may marginally upgrade their lineup - particularly if he can maintain some of the scorching hotness at the plate he had in July - but it's not suddenly going to turn this .500 team into a winner.

The offense isn't going to score as many runs as last year - that shouldn't surprise anyone. However, as I predicted, the regression in BA with RISP has been made up for somewhat by an increase in power. The Twins have already surpassed their meager HR total from 2008, and are currently on pace to score 780-ish runs, within the range of scoring they had in all of their competitive seasons under Ron Gardenhire. The acquisition of Cabrera somewhat cements the likelihood that the Twins will have a solid offensive season.

Unfortunately, they're also on pace to allow 780-ish runs, which would be by far the most of the Gardy era. In July, for the first time in a long while, the Twins' pitchers finished dead last in the AL in R, ERA, BA and, tellingly, K. The Twins' staff, and in particular the middle relievers, is now overwhelming composed of "Twins pitchers" - strike-throwers who pitch to contact. While that model has served the Twins well over this decade, it can be a weakness if, say, someone has a lapse of control, or a fielder overruns a foul pop. Those extra baserunners and swings can become fatal when you rely on converting balls in play into outs. Sometimes bloopers fall in, grounders trickle through, fly balls elude the grasp of even the fleetest outfielders. But a swing and a miss is always a swing and a miss.

No one is coming to the rescue of the pitching staff, especially now that Kevin Slowey is out for the balance of the season. They will all have to step up and put their poor July performances behind them. And there is some hope that this can be done. While the Twins were outscored 140-128 this month, the majority of that damage was done by the two best teams in the league, the Yankees and Angels. In 8 games against those two perennial contenders, the Twins went 1-7 and were outscored 55-37. In the balance of their schedule, the Twins went 11-5 and outscored their opponents 91-85. Other than 7 games with the Rangers and 4 with the Blue Jays, the bulk of the Twins' remaining schedule comes against mediocre or worse teams. As long as they can avoid any further once-in-a-generation collapses like they had in Oakland, that still gives them a reasonably good chance to finish on the happy side of .500 and, therefore, in contention for the AL Central title.

This month I'm grading hitters with at least 20 PA and pitchers with at least 10 IP.

Getting It Done

Justin Morneau - Once again, we find him on pace to hit 40 HR. He's got to keep it up - this pitching staff can't afford one of Morneau's typical late-season slumps.

Jason Kubel - Nearly matched Morneau's numbers in slightly fewer PA. Doesn't his contract look like a bargain now?

Joe Mauer - Another decline from the godly heights he ascended in May, but still fantastically productive and the best around at his position.

Denard Span - Every month, he delivers an OBP around .380, steals a few bases, and plays solid defense. What a luxury to have such consistency at the top of the lineup.

Delmon Young - .313/.343/.500 with a reasonable K/BB of 7/2 - that's what we were hoping for when he came to MN. Now if he could just keep that up for longer than 32 AB.

Matt Guerrier - The guy gives up one ER on 7 H and 1 BB in 16.1 IP, and it's a game-tying HR in the 8th inning of a game the Twins wind up losing. That's the kind of season they're having.

Joe Nathan - And Nathan finally blows his first save in 2 months, and that costs the Twins a win. This team doesn't have much margin for error...

Jose Mijares - The walks are a little high, but he didn't give up many hits and had 10 K in 12.1 IP, so it worked out just fine.

Anthony Swarzak - 3.50 ERA in 18 IP over 3 starts. Boy, does he need to find a way to keep that up!

So Far, So Good

Michael Cuddyer - Too many K this month, but an OPS around .800 with 6 HR is still not too bad.

Carlos Gomez - .250/.323/.411 isn't dynamite, but it shows real progress for Gomez, particularly the 13/5 K/BB rate.

Brian Buscher - Though he didn't manage any XBH, Buscher hit .321 for the month with an OBP over .400. He'll get regular playing time at Rochester for a month before undoubtedly joining the expanded roster in September.

Scott Baker - An ERA under 4.50 and nearly a K/IP are huge improvements for Baker. If the Twins are going to get over the hump these last two months, he's going to have to step up the way he did down the stretch last year. That means regularly pitching into the 7th inning.

Brian Duensing - I don't know if he's ever going to do a lot better than a 4.95 ERA, but that spot start he gave the Twins against the White Sox was huge.

Need To Pick It Up

Joe Crede - He needs to hit for higher average, draw more walks, and hit for more power than he did in July. But most of all, he just needs to stay on the field.

Nick Punto - His 11/15 K/BB ratio made him reasonably valuable at the bottom of the lineup with a .337 OBP. But even he should be able to hit over .200.

Mike Redmond - No XBH, no BB. I love the guy, but Jose Morales should be getting those AB.

Brendan Harris - His .525 OPS for the month is a big reason why OC is on the team now.

Alexi Casilla - Like Punto, he did some good at the bottom of the lineup by drawing enough BB for a .315 OBP and going 5/5 in SB. Do that while hitting over .200 and maybe we've got something.

Francisco Liriano - 22/9 K/BB ratio, 8.37 K/9, not bad. It was the 6 HR in 23.2 IP that killed him (and the Twins) this month.

Nick Blackburn - This was bound to happen, and why I thought the Twins should have traded him at the All-Star Break. He pitched poorly enough for the Twins to lose two games on the recent road trip in which they scored 5 or more runs. With Slowey out, it's a good thing he wasn't traded, but he needs to be a 3 ER in 7 IP starter for the rest of the season for the Twins to contend.

Bobby Keppel - That sparkling start evaporated pretty quickly this month as Keppel walked 8 while striking out just 5 and was on the mound for some of the Twins' most difficult innings this month.

Glen Perkins - Remember back in April, when Perkins was briefly among the league leaders in IP and ERA? He'd better figure it out in a hurry, or the Twins are going to be throwing away every 5th game.

RA Dickey - OK, that's one bad month after three pretty good ones. Let's see where he takes it from here.