Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Offseason Priorities

This weekend the Twins hold their annual organizational meetings in Fort Myers. It's the time to assess all the talent in the system and craft a strategy for success in 2010 and beyond. They should be happy about:

1. The Major League Core

Joe Mauer (C), Justin Morneau (1B), Jason Kubel (DH), Denard Span (Leadoff/OF), and Joe Nathan (Closer) have proven themselves to be among the elite players in the league at their respective positions. They are complimented by Michael Cuddyer (RF), Jose Morales (C), Scott Baker (SP), Kevin Slowey (SP), Nick Blackburn (SP), Matt Guerrier (RP), Jon Rauch and Jose Mijares (RP). That's about half the roster right there, all capable of turning in performances well above average.

2. Acquiring high-ceiling prospects

Bill Smith's first 2 drafts have been huge successes. Recent #1 picks Ben Revere, Aaron Hicks and Kyle Gibson all have the potential to be regular MLB contributors. And this year the Twins handed out record bonuses in order to sign elite international prospects Miguel Angel Sano and Max Kepler. Those additions should see the Twins' system rise into the upper half of the talent rankings.

3. Depth at OF, 1B, 2B, C, RP, #3-5 SP

Throughout the Twins system, you see solid performances from those positions.
OF: Span, Cuddyer, Kubel, David Winfree, Rene Tosoni, Juan Portes, Revere, Joe Benson, Evan Bigley, Angel Morales (to say nothing of Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez, Hicks or Kepler)
1B: Morneau, Brock Peterson, Justin Huber, Erik Lis, Chris Parmelee
2B: Steven Tolleson, Brian Dinkelman, Steve Singleton, Ramon Santana
C: Mauer, Morales, Wilson Ramos, Danny Lehmann, Daniel Rams
RP: Nathan, Guerrier, Mijares, Jesse Crain, Rauch, Pat Neshek, Boof Bonser, Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Armando Gabino, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Loek van Mil, Spencer Steedley, Joe Testa, Santos Arias, Matthew Williams, Billy Bullock
SP: Slowey, Blackburn, Glen Perkins, Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing, Jeff Manship, Matt Fox, Ryan Mullins, Tyler Robertson, Steve Hirschfeld, Mike McCardell, Carlos Gutierrez, Brad Tippett, Bruce Pugh
I'm probably forgetting a few guys. Needless to say, I feel like the Twins have those spots covered.

4. Attendance trends

Since bottoming out in 2000, the Twins have seen their attendance figures increase in every year but one. They drew better than 2.4 million fans in 2009 (the play-in helped!), and reached the upper half of the majors in average attendance. Target Field should ensure that those numbers go even higher in 2010. Plus, they ranked 5th among the MLB teams in local TV ratings. This should lead to lots of revenues over the next couple seasons, and correspondingly increased payrolls.

They should be concerned about:

1. Sub-Replacement Level performances

The RP in VORP and WARP stands for "replacement player," the theoretical performance that any scrub called up from AAA ought to be able to achieve. For a major leaguer to fall short of that level is not a good thing. Of the 16 position players the Twins used in 2009, 6 had negative VORP (Brian Buscher, Nick Punto, Mike Redmond, Matt Tolbert, Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla) and 2 more were essentially at replacement level (Joe Crede, Brendan Harris) at the plate. WARP incorporates defense, which lifts up Gomez, Punto and Crede but pulls down Harris and Delmon Young. 10 of the 24 pitchers the Twins used wound up with VORPs of 0 or negative. When 40% of the roster can't even surpass replacement level, there is room for improvement, to say the least.

2. Lack of high-ceiling prospects at upper levels

Look at the guys who played for AAA Rochester and AA New Britain this year. An average player in the International League hit .262/.328/.395 and pitched to a 3.92 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. The Eastern League averages were .258/.332/.385, 3.90 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. Of the above-average performers, how many of them were previously established major leaguers (Tolbert, Mijares) or guys who broke camp with the Twins (Morales, Crain)? How many proved to be overmatched in the Majors when given opportunities in 2009 (Henn, Gabino)? How many have significant drawbacks to their ceiling/game, whether because of poor defense (Luke Hughes), plate discipline (Winfree) K/9 (Manship, Swarzak) or BB/9 (Morillo, Slama)? Could any of these guys be counted on to hold down a big league spot right out of spring training next year?

3. Lack of depth at SS, 3B, #1-2 SP

Of the players listed as SS on the Twins' roster and in their full-season affiliates (i.e. theoretically within 3 years of arriving in the Majors) only Trevor Plouffe is even an average hitter, and his youth makes another year at Rochester likely. Thanks to Hughes' poor glove and Deibinson Romero's step backward in 2009, only Danny Valencia looks promising at 3B, and he could probably use a couple more months at AAA before his first call-up. As for aces, Scott Baker is a bit stretched as a #1, and David Bromberg could be making himself into a #2. Kyle Gibson supposedly has that kind of talent, but he has yet to make his pro debut. Deolis Guerra was supposed to have that kind of potential, but has been inconsistent since joining the Twins. The short-season guys still have a long ways to go.

4. Escalating contracts

The Twins only had two arbitration-eligible players last season, but that figure goes up to 8 in 2010. The core players I mentioned above are already under contract/estimated raises totaling over $62 million, nearly as much as the 2009 opening day payroll. If the Twins bring back all the arbitration players, it should take the payroll up to around $74 million. And that would still leave considerable holes to fill at SS, 3B and, possibly, #1 starter. In 2011, Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Cuddyer, Nathan and Baker could command more than $64 million between them. Mauer's next contract should make Morneau's long-term deal look cheap.

Taking all of those things into consideration, here are the steps the Twins need to take this offseason:

1. Sign Mauer to an extension

I guess my starting offer would be $90 million for 5 years, the same deal Ichiro got 2 years ago. And it goes up from there. It should be for as little guaranteed money and as few years as possible, but it's got to happen. The Twins simply cannot afford the PR hit of letting their home-grown MVP walk in the year they open their taxpayer funded stadium.

2. Acquire a #1 starter

The Twins could either trade for someone like Josh Johnson, Matt Cain, or even Roy Halladay, or try to scoop up one of the free agents, like John Lackey or Rich Harden. I wouldn't mind seeing them take a gamble on one of the oft-injured aces like Erik Bedard or Ben Sheets, provided the contract was structured properly. Whichever way they decide to go, they should be looking for someone who can matchup with Zach Greinke, Justin Verlander and Jake Peavey when those division rivals are in town.

3. Acquire a productive middle infielder

There is a pretty broad market for free agent 2B, so the Twins should be able to pick something up there. There may be trade possibilities for JJ Hardy or Brendan Ryan. If they're intending for this person to hit in the #2 spot, he should be able to bat RH and have a high OBP. Strong defense is a must for me. If this person is good enough, I can live with Punto in the other spot batting 9th.

4. Make a short-term decision about third base

Valencia seems by all indications to be the long term answer at the hot corner, but is he ready to be an everyday player in the big leagues right now? If not, who takes that spot until he's ready? One of the replacement level (or worse) guys we already have on the roster? Somebody coming off an injury could be a good fit, maybe Crede again or Troy Glaus.

5. Figure out the best way to use the major league outfield talent

Neither Young nor Gomez had particularly good seasons in 2009, and yet each showed enough to give us hope that they might be improving. Will they be able to reach their potential playing as infrequently as they did last year? Is there someone else in the Twins system who could adequately fill the roles those two were given last year?

6. Determine who can be traded in order to provide depth at all positions, especially at AA, AAA and MLB

There is enough of a surplus at certain positions that I think we can safely say that certain minor leaguers really have no shot at becoming regular contributors while they remain in the Twins' system. Do them a favor and send them to an organization where they have a better opportunity. Surely, there is another team out there that feels the same way about its 3B or SS and would be happy balance their own system.

Hopefully, those are the things the Twins management is talking about this weekend. I'll be back soon to suggest some specific moves they could make.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

2009 Season Review

Home Record: 49-33
Away Record: 38-43
1st Half: 41-40
2nd Half: 46-36
Overall Record: 87-76, AL Central Champions

A lot of people had the Twins pegged for a big drop-off in wins this year. They pointed to the fact that the offense in 2008 was largely based on an unsustainably high BA with RISP. While I agreed that those numbers would regress, I felt that the loss in runs would be largely mitigated by an increase in HR. That, combined with a maturing starting staff and far more sure-handed defense, would keep the Twins' run differential similar to 2008, and therefore propel them to 85 or so wins, enough to compete to the very end in a rather weak division.

I had the record pretty well pegged, but they took a different route to get there than I expected. Here's what went wrong:

1. What? We Only Have 7 Weeks of Spring Training?

The disruption of the World Baseball Classic prompted Spring Training to start a few days earlier and end a week later than usual. Given all that extra time to prepare, I expected the Twins' players to be in mid-season form from opening day. A handful were: Joe Nathan, Glen Perkins, Nick Blackburn, Jose Morales, Denard Span, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel. But the rest of the roster had humongous holes in their game in April: Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey couldn't keep the ball in the yard, Jesse Crain and Craig Breslow couldn't throw strikes, and Joe Crede was the only other position player to crack a .700 OPS. But, thanks to bullpen implosions by the Mariners and Angels, the Twins were able to escape the first month with a .500 record.

2. Aren't There Supposed to Be 9 Hitters in the Lineup?

The ridiculously awesome Joe Mauer returned to the lineup on May 1, and Michael Cuddyer snapped out of his April funk to be better than he's ever been the rest of the season. Those 2 joined Span, Morneau and Kubel in consistently strong contributions. That's 5 good hitters. Even though he had a lousy BA and OBP, Joe Crede provided enough power (15 HR, 16 2B, 48 RBI) in 60% of the season that I'll throw him in there, too. So 6 good hitters, when Crede was healthy. But the other 3 lineup spots, 2B/#2, LF/#8 and SS/#9 were appallingly bad, struggling for most of the season to hit even .200, avoid making outs more than 70% of the time, and provide any XBH. Even replacement level production from those spots over the full season probably would have brought the Twins over 90 wins.

3. You Have a Pulse, Right? Wanna Pitch for the Twins?

The Twins set a dubious club record in 2009: Most Pitchers Used in a Season. 24 different players took the mound this season, and only 9 were able to best the AL ERA average (4.45) while in a Twins uniform. Lengthy DL stays by 3/5 of the starting rotation certainly didn't help, but ineffectiveness was as much a reason for the multitude of arms as anything. Breslow and Crain were demoted to AAA, Francisco Liriano was sent to the 'pen. A revolving door of Rochester pitchers were invited to fill the holes, but, until the very end of the season, none was able to provide sustained success. I had expected the pitching staff to be better than last year, but they fell well short of that.

4. Bumbling Bill Smith

Having finished just a game short of the postseason in a mediocre division, one might have expected Bill Smith to take advantage of the Twins' considerable payroll flexibility and a historically depressed free agent market in order to put his team over the competitive hump. Instead, he essentially stood pat, re-signing Nick Punto, adding Crede and Luis Ayala, but subtracting superlative LOOGY Dennys Reyes. Then, he weakened an already shallow bullpen by losing Breslow on waivers to Oakland (Breslow's numbers with the A's: 55.1 IP, 2.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP) and replacing him with Sean Henn (11.1, 7.15, 1.50). Smith's failure to add depth to the roster in the offseason kept the Twins spinning their wheels throughout the summer.

A daunting list of shortcomings to surmount, but they did it, because a lot of things went right:

1. More Powerful Than I Could Possibly Imagine!

Yes, I expected the Twins to surpass the 111 HR they hit in 2008, but by something on the order of 30 additional bombs. In fact, the Twins blasted 61 more HR, and had 4 players hit more than 25 for the first time since 1987. Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Denard Span all set new career highs, and Justin Morneau got back to 30 before being sidelined by his back injury. The offense's numbers with RISP did indeed take a significant hit (from .305 in '08 down to .278 this year), but the barrage of long balls made up for all but 12 runs of the difference, and the Twins still finished 4th in the league with 817 R.

2. Just Catch the Damn Ball!

The 108 E and 70 unearned R the Twins allowed in 2008 were unprecedented under the Gardy administration, and I knew it would be a priority for them to clean that up. Say what you want about range or defensive efficiency, the Twins are known for making the plays they're supposed to make, and last year they didn't. This year, things were back to normal. In spite of the disproportionate number of errors Orlando Cabrera committed in just 2 months with the team, they still finished tied for first in the AL in fewest errors and 2nd in fielding percentage. That translated into 31 fewer unearned runs allowed than last year.

3. Bill Smith to the Rescue!

Recognizing that the division could be won by a slightly over .500 team, but that the group he had fielded was pretty much exactly a .500 team, the Twins' GM embarked on a flurry of late-season trades unlike anything attempted by his predecessor. He brought in Cabrera to raise the production from the dreadful SS/#2 spot. He brought in Carl Pavano to anchor a reeling starting rotation. He brought in Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay to solidify a combustible bullpen. All the moves worked (eventually), as what had been a .505 team through July improved to .583 over the final two months.

4. Somebody Step Up!

Those additions were a big help, but they were partially made to make up for the subtractions of Morneau, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano. They did nothing to address the disappointing production the Twins had received from 3B, 2B, LF and the #4 starter. The Twins' happy ending resulted from contributions far exceeding what anyone could have predicted from existing role players. Delmon Young, Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto had put up terrible numbers for most of the season, but went off over the final 3 weeks to finally give the Twins a productive lineup from top to bottom. And Brian Duensing, following in the unimpressive footsteps of RA Dickey, Philip Humber, Anthony Swarzak, Kevin Mulvey, Armando Gabino and Jeff Manship, was given an opportunity to make some starts and not only made the most of it, but was one of the Twins' best pitchers down the stretch, compiling a 2.73 ERA and 5-1 record as a starter. If he pitches like he did at Rochester, the Twins don't catch the Tigers.

Baseball's postseason has always been about bragging rights between divisions and leagues, proving which of them was the strongest. I think we all knew going into the season that the Twins' division was the weakest. Among the AL Central clubs, the Twins were the only team to have a positive run differential, as well as a winning record against all of their division rivals. By those measures, at least, the Twins deserved to win the Central, and it was gratifying to see them pull it off. Maybe next year they won't have to wait until the last minute to do it.

In order to make the task of grading players easier, I'm only going to rate hitters with more AB than Jose Morales and pitchers with more innings than Jeff Manship. (Suffice it to say, Rauch and Mahay were terrific, while Breslow, Henn, Humber, Gabino and Mulvey were lousy.)

Flat Out Awesome

Joe Mauer - And I thought he had a great season last year. If it's possible for a multiple All-Star and Batting Champ to have a breakout season, Mauer did it, setting career highs in BA, OBP, SLG, HR and RBI. Not just the league's best hitter - the league's best player. Yikes, he's going to be expensive.

Denard Span - I was worried after his sluggish spring, but Span was ready once the regular season started. The XBH didn't come as easily as last summer, but he isn't paid to slug - his job is to get on base, and very few qualified hitters did it better. Span finished 9th in the league in BA, 10th in OBP, and 3rd in OBP among leadoff hitters.

Jason Kubel - After last season I noted that if Kubel could have picked up an extra knock every 2 weeks, even if they were all singles, he'd have hit .300/.360/.499. This season he got those extra base hits, and they weren't all singles. He finished at .300/.369/.539 with 28 HR and 103 RBI - all career highs.

Michael Cuddyer - Nagging injuries throughout the last 2 seasons had begun to make Cuddyer's fantastic 2006 seem like an aberration. This year, he justified the team's investment in him, setting career highs in G, AB, HR and SLG. He'd already put together a strong season when Morneau went down, but the way he stepped up to fill that void helped lead the team into the postseason.

Joe Nathan - I almost got caught up in the notion that Nathan's prominent blown saves over the season's final 6 weeks meant that he'd had a subpar year, but the numbers just don't back that up. His K/9 and BAA were the best they've been since 2006. If not for that one lousy game against the White Sox, when he gave up 4 ER on 2 HR and 2BB after the Twins' defense had recorded 27 outs, his ERA, BB and HR numbers would have been as stellar as ever.

Matt Guerrier - I figured he'd bounce back a bit from his disastrous finish to 2008, but Guerrier did better than that. He maintained his 76.1 IP workload while setting career bests in BA, OBP and SLG against, and nearly matched his career best ERA at 2.36. The only downside is that he gave up 10 HR, but at least they were mostly solo shots.

Most Satisfying

Justin Morneau - It's a testament to the ferocious pace Morneau set for the first 4 months that his deep slump in the final weeks could only drop him to an .879 OPS. In just over 500 AB, he was able to hit 30 HR with 100 RBI. He still needs to prove he can finish a season strong, but I'll give him a mulligan on this year.

Jose Morales - Asked to fill in for Joe Mauer in April, Morales hit like, well, Joe Mauer. I mean, the pre-2009 version, anyway. He drew more walks than I expected, finishing the year with a .381 OBP despite a deep slump over the final few games. He's a no-brainer to be Mauer's caddy next year.

Brian Duensing - In 14 relief appearances, Duensing didn't look much better than any of the other AAA filler the Twins brought up over the summer. But when he was given a chance to start, he was stupendous, lasting into the 6th inning nearly every time out and keeping his ERA under 3.00. Glen Perkins should be nervous.

Jose Mijares - He stumbled a bit over the final few days of the season, but Mijares was largely an excellent option out of the 'pen. Altogether, he had a 2.34 ERA over 61.2 IP with 55 K/23 BB (better than his minor league averages). He was able to hold lefties to a .480 OPS.

Nick Blackburn - If you liked Blackburn last year (and I did), then you had to like him this year, too. His final numbers were almost identical in terms of starts, ERA, WHIP, HR/9, K, BB, and W-L record. He averaged about an extra out per appearance, and was the Twins' best pitcher for much of the season. I'll expect more of the same next year.

Not Too Shabby

Delmon Young - Yes, I'm very concerned about the major step backward young took in plate discipline this season (92/12 K/BB). But I'm pleased by the career-best power he displayed (.425 SLG, .141 IsoP). Understanding that a lot of his trouble came from the funk he was in immediately after his mother died in May, check out his post All-Star Break numbers: .300/.322/.502 with 10 2B, 9 HR and 35 RBI. All this in his age 23 season. He needs to take more pitches, but he's coming along.

Joe Crede - His batting average was lower than normal, so Crede wound up with an OPS just a shade over .700. But he had a lot of big hits and played rock solid defense at the hot corner. While he was on the field, which was only about 60% of the time. Did I expect all that? Yeah, so I can't say he disappointed me.

Nick Punto - There are some who will say that Punto was awful this season, just as bad as he was in 2007. Hardly. Even when his average was south of .200, he was drawing walks at a career-best rate. When the hits started to fall in for him down the stretch, he was able to raise his BA to .228. Not good, but his remarkable .109 IsoD gave him an OBP of .337, very close to the .344 he had in his "good" year of 2008. Add in 16/19 SB and sure-handed defense, and I'm satisfied.

Scott Baker - He made 33 starts, threw 200 IP for the first time in his career, and had a fine 15-9 record, but Baker should have been better. He gave up half of his 28 HR in his first 9 starts, spanning 52.2 IP. After that, he was 13-3 with a 3.67 ERA the rest of the way. He made a mechanical adjustment, apparently. Why weren't his mechanics adjusted by the end of Spring Training?

Luis Ayala - Apparently some folks were deluded about his abilities, perhaps including Ayala himself. He wasn't going to be a blow-them-away setup man or a ground ball machine. He was going to be a slightly above-average, rubber-armed middle reliever. And so he was.

RA Dickey - Signed to be filler on the AAA team, Dickey was so good in spring training that he earned a spot in the 'pen. And for a while, it looked as though he'd figured out the whole knuckleball thing, compiling a 2.45 in 44 IP with a 31/17 K/BB ratio through June. He came crashing down after that, with a 9.30 ERA and 11/13 K/BB ratio in 12 appearances before his dismissal in early August. Still, who would have thought we'd even get a couple of good months out of him when he signed?

Jesse Crain - It was a tale of two halves for Crain. Early in the year he was a mess, with a 8.15 ERA, 1.92 WHIP and 3 HR allowed in 17.2 IP before a midsummer demotion to Rochester. When he returned, he was the Crain of old: 2.91 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 0 HR allowed in 34 IP. Problem solved.

Not So Good

Brendan Harris - I was one of the proponents of the Harris/Buscher platoon at 3B heading into the season. It's a good thing Bill Smith got Joe Crede and Matt Tolbert finished so strong, because 3B would have been a disaster if we'd had to rely on just these guys. Harris' offensive numbers have declined for 3 straight years now, and his defensive range is nothing special.

Brian Buscher - I'll say one thing for Buscher: he's got a great eye at the plate. His .125 IsoD makes Joe Mauer look like Delmon Young. He kept himself marginally useful by reaching base 36% of the time and making just about all the makable plays at 3B. But after slugging like Jason Kubel for 2 years in a row at Rochester, it was a big disappointment to see him accumulate just 6 XBH in 136 AB.

Carlos Gomez - He definitely made some strides this year, lowering his preposterous K/BB rate from 5.68 to 3.27, and generally playing exceptional CF defense. But the speed pieces of his game took steps back - his SB success rate dropped from 75% to 67%, and he stopped getting bunt hits - so his overall offensive value didn't even measure up to last year.

Bobby Keppel - In an ideal world, Keppel never gets the call to join the Twins. But, having ditched Breslow and Ayala, the Twins needed another middle reliever, and Keppel was doing well at Rochester. He got off to a great start, allowing just 1 ER on 8 H (0 HR) over his first 16 IP. The remaining 38 IP were pretty dicey: 28 ER on 55 H (4 HR), beginning with the nightmare 14-13 loss to Oakland on July 20th.

Kevin Slowey - It may not be fair, but I hold Slowey to a pretty high standard. Though he was able to use prodigious run support to build a 10-3 record, he never established the consistency he's capable of, and that the rotation desperately needed. Of his 16 starts in 2009, only 9 were QS, and I just think he should be better than that.

Jeff Manship - Certainly he was over his head, having begun the season at AA and made only 9 AAA starts before being called up to the Twins' decimated pitching staff. But he was supposed to be able to throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard, and he didn't do that. Back to Rochester he goes...

Flat Out Awful

Mike Redmond - I didn't think twice about the Twins picking up Redmond's option last fall. Sure, his numbers were in steady decline from their 2006 peaks, but 2008 was the first time he'd been below his career averages as a Twin, and that was still good for a .287 BA. At 38, age finally caught up to him, as his OPS dropped below .600 for the first time in his career, and he threw out just 1 out of every 8 base stealers.

Alexi Casilla - He had pretty good plate discipline (.078 IsoD) and went 11/11 in SB attempts. But he was an easy out for most of the season, finishing the year with a .280 OBP, and he had several concentration lapses in the field as well. At least he ended the regular season on a good note!

Anthony Swarzak - Like Keppel, Swarzak started his Twins career with a run of scoreless innings. But he was quality just 3 times over his final 10 starts, and nobody was more flammable in August, when he gave up 22 ER on 33 H and 8 HR in just 13.1 IP over 4 starts (14.85 ERA).

Glen Perkins - He was the only Twins starter to come out of the gate strong, throwing 29 IP over 4 GS with a 2.48 ERA and 0 HR allowed in April. Then he got torched for 20 ER in just 18 IP with 6 HR allowed over his next 4 GS, and went on the DL. He was good Perkins again for his next 4 starts, allowing just 8 ER over 27 IP with 1 HR allowed, before he was torched again for 27 ER in 21.1 IP with 6 HR allowed over his final 5 GS. And never came back. Was it all physical? Or is he just that inconsistent?

Francisco Liriano - He never really got it going this year, mostly due to an inability to command his fastball. That led to nearly a BB every 2 IP, and a HR served up every 6-7 IP. There was some hope that he'd be a co-ace along with Baker, at least a solid #2. Not even close. And moving to the bullpen didn't make him any more likely to throw strikes or keep the ball in the yard.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

September (and a little October) Review

Twins Record: 21-11
Overall Record: 87-76, AL Central Champions by 1 game

After stubbornly hanging around the .500 mark for most of the season, the Twins looked to be headed for more of the same in September. A shocking loss to the White Sox on the 2nd after 2 were out in the 9th inning started a 3-7 skid that killed their late August momentum and dropped them back to 2 games under at 70-72. During that stretch, the Tigers surged to a 7-game lead in the division. And then the Twins found out that Justin Morneau was going to miss the last 3 weeks of the season with a stress fracture in his back. With all that weighing them down, the Twins finally found themselves.

Joe Mauer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer had played well all season. But when Cuddyer moved from RF to 1B he stepped it up a notch, racking up a .920 OPS with 10 HR and 29 RBI. Orlando Cabrera scored from the #2 spot in nearly every game, 28 times altogether. Nick Punto gave the Twins a .400+ OBP from the #9 spot, with 7/8 SB. Matt Tolbert, filling in at 3B for Joe Crede, hit .333 from the #8 spot. And Delmon Young found his power, slugging .544 with 18 RBI from the #7 spot. In short, the Twins finally had a lineup without holes, and it bludgeoned the opposition to the tune of 6.3 runs/game over the last 21 games of the season.

The pitching mostly maintained the steadiness it found at the end of August. Led by Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn, the starters reliably found their way into the 6th inning, where they were buoyed by superb relief work from new acquisitions Ron Mahay and Jon Rauch, a resurgent Jesse Crain, and the constant good work of Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, and (mostly) Joe Nathan.

With their backs against the wall for most of the month, the Twins played their best baseball of the season, catching the Tigers on the final weekend and defeating them in a play-in for the division championship. Their rapid defeat at the hands of the Yankees was utterly forgettable, but their incredible drive to the finish is something Twins fans can always remember fondly.

Grades this month go to hitters with at least 25 PA and pitchers with over 8.0 IP:

Just What We Needed

Joe Mauer - He wound up leading the league in OPS, so it's no surprise that he led the Twins in that category for September. The HRs tailed off, but with an OBP pushing .500, he was still quite an offensive force.

Denard Span - Quickly becoming one of the league's premiere leadoff men, Span followed his searing August with a strong September, hitting .317/.383/.442 with 23 R.

Michael Cuddyer - Perhaps the offensive MVP of the month. When a veteran steps up like that in the absence of a star like Morneau, that's leadership.

Jason Kubel - A typical month in Kubel's breakout campaign, he went berserk over the final weekend to finish Sept/Oct at .287/.358/.546 with 26 RBI.

Orlando Cabrera - He seemed to get stronger as the pressure increased. Cabrera was constantly crossing home plate in the final weeks of the season, finishing Sept/Oct at .315/.343/.477 with 4 HR.

Matt Tolbert - Called up when the rosters expanded, he found himself in the everyday lineup beginning on the 14th - the second day of the run. He stayed there because he hit .333 and played strong defense at 3B.

Delmon Young - Could this be a harbinger of things to come? Young's .340/.370/.544 line must have been what Bill Smith envisioned when he made that trade with TB.

Nick Punto - A #9 hitter with a .406 OBP is a very good thing.

Jesse Crain - After returning from his AAA demotion, Crain was as good as he's ever been, allowing only 8 H (0 HR) over 16 IP for a 1.00 WHIP and 1.13 ERA.

Jon Rauch - The big man had a fine introduction to the Junior Circuit, allowing just 3 ER in 14.2 IP (1.84 ERA), all of those coming in one appearance. The other 15 times he took the mound, he kept the score right where it was.

Ron Mahay - He alternated good and bad months all season, and the Twins were fortunate to catch a good one for their 5-week rental. He had a 2.16 ERA and 1.08 WHIP down the stretch.

Matt Guerrier - A far cry from last September, Guerrier finished off his bounce-back season with another steady month. He gave up 4 HR in 13.1 IP, but they were the only ER he allowed, good enough for a 2.70 ERA.

Nick Blackburn - Whatever he lost after the All-Star Break, he found it down the stretch. Blackburn gave the Twins 37 IP over 6 starts, with a 3.41 ERA and 1.14 WHIP (thanks to a 18/3 K/BB ratio).

Brian Duensing - My vote for pitching MVP of the month. Where the Twins had struggled for most of the year to find a solid 5th starter, Duensing delivered 35.2 IP over 6 starts with a 2.78 ERA. The comeback falls well short without that performance.

As Good As Could Be Expected

Jose Morales - About the only guy slumping in the final days of the season, Morales ultimately found his way back to the bench, but still hit a decent .269/.367/.308 for the month.

Jose Mijares - Stellar in September, Mijares really hit the wall when the calendar changed. Altogether, he delivered a solid 3.48 ERA with 10 K in 10.1 IP.

Scott Baker - I would have liked to have seen more innings from the de facto ace of the staff, but he gave the Twins a chance to win almost every time out and started two very big wins against the Tigers.

Joe Nathan - By his lofty standards it was a rather poor month for Nathan. Although, if you throw out that one horrendous outing against the White Sox, he gave up just 2 ER (both solo HR) on 7 H and 4 BB in 15 IP with 19 K, and converted 12 straight saves.

Carl Pavano - The Twins didn't bring in Pavano to be an ace, but rather to regularly pitch into the 6th inning and keep the team in the game. And, except for his start in Detroit, he did that, and the Twins won 5 of those 6 games.

Bobby Keppel - Though I continued to cringe every time he took the mound, Keppel managed to hold things together in middle relief up to the final weekend. Things got hairy then, but he was able to escape with the win in game #163.

Let Us Down

Brendan Harris - He had an opportunity to grab hold of 3B when Crede went down for the last time, but his poor hitting (.222/.311/.296) opened the door for Tolbert.

Justin Morneau - .077/.178/.179. I have to believe that the back injury can explain that.

Jeff Manship - He was pretty far over his head, having pitched just a handful of games at AAA before his call-up. But he was known for his control (2.8 BB/9 in the minors) and keeping the ball in the yard (0.4 HR/9), so to see him give up 12 BB and 4 HR in 24.2 IP was disappointing.

Francisco Liriano - Moved to the bullpen except for one not-so-great start against the Royals, Liriano didn't do particularly well there, either. He walked 7 in 9.1 IP. Will he ever throw strikes again?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Turn Out the Lights

I remember thinking last Tuesday how I wished the Twins' 2009 season could be like the movie "Major League:" come back to win the division on the last day of the season, kiss the girl, roll credits. Instead, before the champagne buzz had a chance to subside, they were thrust into the lion's den, the site of 4 rough May losses, against a team the Twins hadn't beaten all year. The Yankees were well rested, and their rotation was set up, beginning with their innings-munching, Cy Young, mega-contract ace, CC Sabathia. The Twins had to overcome all this minus their All-Star, former MVP 1B, their battle-tested 3B, and 3/5 of their original starting rotation, necessitating a Game 1 start from a guy who'd been in the Majors for only half a season, and a lineup that featured a handful of guys who had been bench players in August.

This mismatch was almost comically huge. Maybe that's why the result doesn't sting too badly. Did I really expect this Twins team to beat the Yankees? No, I don't think I did. But did I expect them to win at least one game? Yes. And, the way things developed, did I expect them to be able to win Game 2 and/or 3? Definitely.

The lack of precision that the Twins got away with against the Tigers was fatal against the Yanks. Overzealous baserunning cost the Twins a run in each of the last 2 games. Had Carlos Gomez prudently stopped at 2B, unwisely continued to 3B, or even gotten himself caught in a rundown, the Twins would have outscored the Yankees in the first 9 innings of Game 2. Had Nick Punto put the brakes on in the 8th inning of Game 3, the Twins could have gone into the 9th inning tied, and with momentum and the crowd behind them.

That might not have been enough, however, because the Twins' pitching, though rather good for most of the series, had a terrible habit of giving runs back as soon as the offense could produce them. The Twins scored first in each game, only to find Derek Jeter or A-Rod waiting to answer in the subsequent half-inning. Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano gave the Twins everything they could ask for, but the offense didn't show up. Delmon Young and Orlando Cabrera, so hot down the stretch, couldn't knock anyone in, and Jason Kubel struggled against the Yankees' LHP. Perhaps most egregiously, Joe Nathan couldn't get big outs. Yes, Mark Teixeira and A-Rod are great hitters, but Nathan is a great pitcher, just as reliably an All-Star, just as highly paid for his position. The 9th innings of Games 2 & 3 are why the Twins pay Nathan the big bucks, and he failed to do his job.

So ends the story of the 2009 Twins, a team that was mostly worse, but briefly, gloriously better than we had a right to expect them to be. I'll take another few days to savor the good things that happened in September, then analyze the whole season, then begin looking forward to 2010.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Time Warp

Twins 6, Tigers 5 (12 innings)

I've been running around asking my friends here in LA: "Were you watching the 1991 Worlds Series? No? Because every game was just like that!"

Well, 5 of the 7, anyway. When Alexi Casilla was thrown out at the plate in the bottom of the 10th, it was apparent that it was going to take an extraordinary effort from somebody to finish things off. Each team had to play most of the extra frames with defensive subs (Carlos Gomez, Clete Thomas) in for their 2nd-best hitters (Jason Kubel, Magglio Ordonez), with pinch runners (Alexi Casilla, Dan Kelly) in for their DHs (Brendan Harris, Carlos Guillen). And those scrub subs wound up getting some of the biggest hits of the game.

I had said that Scott Baker needed to keep the ball in the yard to give the Twins a chance. He didn't, and it's especially galling to me that the HR he allowed to Miguel Cabrera came on an 0-2 pitch, just after he'd gotten Cabrera to swing and miss at a breaking ball down. Why that pitch was anywhere near the strike zone, let alone up, I don't understand. The Twins pitchers did a terrible job of finishing guys off after they got 2 strikes on them. That's not going to take them very far against the Yankees.

Unlike the the Yankees, the Tigers only had a couple of bats to worry about in their lineup: Ordonez and Cabrera. Were the Twins taking extra care with them? Each had 2 H, a HR, and 2 RBI. As keyed up as Cabrera was over his adventures last weekend, I don't think it was necessary to throw him anything inside the margins of the strike zone. Again, more precision will be required vs. the Yankees.

I think Gardy panicked a bit going to the bullpen in the 7th. I was already thinking that extras might be likely, and he ended up burning 2 of his best relievers (Jon Rauch, Jose Mijares) on just 3 hitters. Yes, the leadoff walk to Brandon Inge was a bad thing, but Gerald Laird is a RH batter, and not a very good one. Why not let Baker face him and his impending bunt attempt? Bring in Mijares to turn around Ramon Santiago, if you want, but then you've still got Rauch to work a full inning (or 2) later on. Gardy's use of the bullpen in the 7th was the reason that Bobby Keppel was on the mound in the 11th and 12th.

But then Keppel, the 2nd-weakest guy available in the 'pen (I'd put him ahead of Manship, at this point), wriggled out of a bases-loaded, 1-out jam. Incredible. And in the bottom half, we found ourselves right where we were 53 weeks ago: the division on the line, the winning run in scoring position in extra innings, a man intentionally walked to get to Casilla. And, just as he did against Bobby Jenks last September, Casilla delivered, despite having just 19 PA in the last 5 weeks. Awesome.

It was a great game, to be sure. But the Twins will have to play even better if they're going to beat the Yankees.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

10th Split: 13-4

Overall Record: 86-76
Tied for 1st in AL Central

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

Hmm, which one of these things is not like the others?

For 9/10ths of the season, the Twins were one of the most stubbornly .500 teams I've ever seen, never falling more than 6 games below or rising more than 3 games above the break-even mark. Whether it was holes in the lineup, weak starting pitching, or shaky bullpen work, the Twins' impressive strengths (Mauer, Span, Kubel) were never enough to do more than cancel out their glaring weaknesses.

But over the final 3 weeks of the season, everything came together. Orlando Cabrera scored in all but 1 game from the #2 spot. Delmon Young, Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto all hit over .300, providing consistent offense from the bottom of the order for the first time all year. Michael Cuddyer was having a solid year, but he found another gear, hitting 7 HR with 19 RBI over the last 17 games. Add that to the guys I already mentioned, and suddenly the Twins were putting up over 6 runs/game, failing to score at least 5 in only 5 of 17 games.

The starting pitching was good enough for that much run support. They were led, as they were in the first half, by Nick Blackburn, who pitched into the 7th inning in each of his last 4 starts, with a 1.65 ERA and 18/1 K/BB ratio. The bullpen was not so cozy, as big leads frequently turned into save situations, but most of the trouble came from middle relief allowing inherited runners to score. Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Ron Mahay, Matt Guerrier and Joe Nathan combined to allow 5 ER of their own over this split, and Jose Mijares had only allowed 1 before his final appearance on Saturday. So let's bring those guys in with the bases empty!

The Twins' defense committed 10 errors over this split - 4 in the ugly finale at Comerica last week. OC seems to let something get away from him almost every day at SS, and Brendan Harris had a terrible time with his limited opportunities at 3B. I'm impressed that Cuddyer has played so well at 1B, where he made several errors earlier in the year on Justin Morneau's off days. Overall, if the Twins can play an errorless game today, they'll finish tied with Toronto for the fewest E in the AL, and will have allowed just 39 unearned runs, a far cry from the 70 they yielded in 2008.

The Twins have lost just 4 times over their last 20 ball games, but 3 of those came at the hands of the Tigers. However, the Twins were 7-2 vs. the Tigers at the Dome this year, and have won 9 out 10 at home overall. The Twins have surged to the finish, the Tigers have sputtered. If Scott Baker can keep the Tigers in the yard, things should go well.

Bold Prediction: Today's game will not be the last the Twins play at the Metrodome.