Friday, July 30, 2010

Capps and Trade

On Thursday night, the Twins traded AAA C Wilson Ramos and A+ LHP Joe Testa to the Washington Nationals for CL Matt Capps and $500,000. First, the bad news:
  • This isn't much of an upgrade at the Closer position. As Geek and Gleeman pointed out, Jon Rauch and Capps have performed pretty similarly over the last few seasons. Each has blown 4 saves this season, though Capps has had 5 more opportunities. We'll never know how Rauch would have done as the closer for the remainder of 2010, but I doubt it would have been particularly worse than what Capps will do.
  • The Twins bought high on Capps. He's got an ERA about 3/4 of a run below his career average, and was named to the All Star team for the first time. His ERA, BB/9 and HR/9 all spiked in 2009, after which he was eventually non-tendered by the Pirates. Had the Twins been interested in him over the winter, they probably could have traded him straight up for Testa. Now, his stock may never be higher.
  • The Twins sold low on Ramos. There was a ton of buzz around Ramos thanks to his strong performances in the Venezuelan Winter League, Spring Training, and his first couple of games with the Twins. However, his first half in Rochester was pretty dismal: he hit just .210/.252/.310 with 4 HR and about a 4/1 K/BB ratio before the break. But he's been hot since, hitting .388/.412/.510 in about 50 PA. Certainly not sustainable over the long run, but maybe an indication that he was finally getting comfortable at AAA and on his way to posting overall numbers that might approach league average for the season. That, from a 22-year-old with limited experience above A+ ball, might have been enough for the scouts to dream on. Waiting even just another month might have brought the Twins a significantly better return for Ramos.
Now, the good news:
  • Adding Capps makes the 2010 Twins better. Putting him in the closer role creates a trickle-down effect throughout the rest of the bullpen. Rauch threw at least 70 innings in each season from 2006-2009, but this year is on pace for about 60 IP. He's appeared in just 9 games in July, totaling 8.1 IP. Moving him from the closer role will probably lead to longer and more frequent appearances for Rauch, which will be a good thing. Nick Blackburn was optioned to Rochester to make room for Capps, meaning that mop-up innings he might have been getting will probably go to Anthony Slama, and the middle innings of close games (like last Friday in Baltimore) will go to one of the more accomplished members of the 'pen, like Matt Guerrier or Jesse Crain. This move should also mean less strain on Guerrier, making him likely to maintain his performance deeper into the season. The Twins are likely to get a couple of short starts a week from here on out, and adding a good reliever like Capps means that the bullpen is comprised of 7 pretty solid guys - there are no glaring weak spots anymore. Furthermore, Blackburn will get an opportunity to work through his troubles as a starter, and will remain stretched out in the event that the Twins need an emergency start somewhere down the road.
  • This gives the Twins some depth for 2011. Capps will be under team control next year. He will get a raise in arbitration, but will still be making less than market value for a closer. Rauch, Guerrier and Crain are all eligible for free agency next year, and I would be surprised if the Twins were able to retain more than one of them. We hope that Joe Nathan will be recovered from Tommy John surgery and ready to resume the closer role at the beginning of next season. If he's not, the Twins can turn to Capps, filling the other bullpen slots with serfs like Slama, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop and Rob Delaney, all of whom are proving themselves to varying degrees at the upper levels. Pat Neshek will be available as well. Should Nathan bounce back like Billy Wagner, the Twins might be able to trade Capps in the spring for a return similar to what they've given up here. Speaking of which,
  • The Twins didn't give up anything they were going to need in the future. If the plan is to have Joe Mauer catching more than 75% of the Twins' games for the foreseeable future, Ramos is just a backup. Should the Twins be dissatisfied with Jose Morales and/or Drew Butera, they can find a veteran to fill that role easily enough. Right-handed hitting catchers aren't that difficult to come by during the offseason. The Rockies and Blue Jays each picked up productive players for a bargain, just as the Twins did when they signed Mike Redmond years ago. Testa struggled at AA and was rather old for A+. He was projecting as a LOOGY at best, another commodity that is readily available in the free agent market. There's nothing wrong with turning something you can't use into something you can.
I don't love this deal. Selling low and buying high is a bad way to invest in the stock market, and those principles generally apply to baseball as well. I wish the Twins had gotten more for Ramos; I wish they'd paid less for Capps. However, adding Capps makes the Twins more likely to win, not because he's an awesome closer, but because he compliments the other pieces of the bullpen. It means Gardy can have a quicker hook if Scott Baker or Kevin Slowey are struggling. It makes it more likely that the 'pen will be able to keep the score close until the offense can do some damage. So, ultimately, I'm OK with it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kansas City Barbecue

Twins 19, Royals 1

This was easily the most lopsided victory of the season. It's always a rare feat when a team is able to put up double-digit runs on 20 H. But this game was especially amazing, because:
  • It was started by Zach Greinke, the reigning Cy Young winner. He was tagged for 6 ER in the 1st inning, and gave up 8 ER overall on 8 H and 2 BB in just 4 IP.
  • Danny Valencia finally hit his 1st MLB HR, which was also his 1st HR at any level this season, off said Cy Young winner. It was a grand slam, the Twins' 2nd in 3 days after they'd had just one in the first 97 games of the year. Valencia was the 1st Twins rookie to hit a slam for his 1st MLB HR. He went on to add 2 doubles, a single and a BB to finish the day 4 for 4 with 9 TB, 4 R and 4 RBI. And that wasn't even the best line of the night.
  • That honor went to Joe Mauer, who went 5 for 5 with a homer, 2 doubles and 2 singles for 10 TB, 3 R and 7 RBI. Satisfied, Mauer declined to bat in the top of the 8th.
  • Those 2 made Delmon Young's 4 for 6 with 2 doubles and an RBI look rather pedestrian.
  • In addition to the 20 H, the Twins drew 6 BB and a HBP, giving them 27 baserunners - one for every out in the game.
The beneficiary of all this carnage was Francisco Liriano, who could have easily made due with a fraction of it. He threw 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 6 K on 84 pitches. Though he was easily on pace to complete the game, I guess Gardy didn't feel like it was necessary to put any more miles on his arm with the score 19-0. The Royals averted the shutout on a 2-out RBI double which scored the man who had walked with 2 outs. More tough lessons for Anthony Slama.

Twins 11, Royals 2

I always get nervous when the Twins score way too many runs in one game, because it may leave them susceptible to a substandard performance in the next, and it'd be a shame to lose a series in which they drastically outscore their opponents (as happened on that Yankees/White Sox road trip last May). We certainly couldn't expect them to have a 3rd big offensive day in a row. But they did. 7 of the 9 starters had multi-hit games, including another 4-hit barrage from Valencia. He wound up 14 for 19 over his last 4 games. JJ Hardy tagged his 1st HR since April. Even Drew Butera had 2 H.

Carl Pavano wasn't able to take advantage of the run support in the usual way. He was troubled by a miserly strike zone, forcing his pitch count up to 98 through just 5 IP. Along the way he walked 3, matching a season high and giving a pretty clear indication that the ump was being too stingy. (The other hint of that was the fact that this game lasted close to 3.5 hours, just 2 starts after Pavano participated in one of the shortest games of the year). With the score 6-1 after 5.5 innings, Gardy probably figured there was no need to put any extra miles on Pavano's arm, so he turned to the bullpen. They pitched well enough, allowing only 1 R on a couple of soft singles off Ron Mahay.

Twins 6, Royals 4

The Twins had scored 47 R on 72 H over their past 4 games, an average of about 12 R on 18 H. Surely, the letdown was coming in the finale. Instead, they jumped out with another crooked number in the 1st inning, thanks to a 3-run bomb from Young. Jason Repko, in the lineup because Jim Thome wasn't feeling well, hit a HR in the 2nd, and the Twins quickly amassed 5 R and double-digit H off Brian Bannister. They finally cooled off after chasing him in the 7th, adding only 1 R on 3 H and 2 BB the rest of the way.

That run came off Joakim Soria, who was brought in to keep the Royals within striking distance in the top of the 9th. Soria threw just 6 of 15 pitches for strikes, walking Mauer, moving him to 2nd on a WP, to 3rd on a Young single and scoring on a SF from Jason Kubel. The Twins finished with 5 guys with multiple H and at least 14 H as a team for the 5th straight game.

Brian Duensing made his 2nd start, stretching out to 83 pitches through 6 strong IP. His only trouble was a 5-H 5th inning in which several of the base hits were not particularly firmly struck. Things got dicey in the 8th, when the Royals got an extra out on a missed force attempt from a sprawled out Hardy. That play was originally ruled an error, but was subsequently changed to a H. Matt Guerrier eventually loaded the bases, turning the ball over to Jose Mijares to get Rick Ankiel, who came into the game 1 for 21 vs. LHP. He'd already singled off Duensing earlier, and lighting can't strike twice, right? Nope, he drilled an 0-1 single to drive in 2 and make it a tight save situation. Jon Rauch was up for the challenge, despite a long break between save opportunities. He threw 11 of his 12 pitches for strikes, allowing just a 2-out single.

When a team gets hot, they can beat just about anybody. When they're a good team, the margin of victory doesn't have to be as fine. When they're playing a bad team, the wins can get rather comfortable. When the bad team is playing bad, the games can become embarrassing. That's what happened in this series. The Twins finished this road trip with 5 straight wins, the first time they've done that since the end of May. It restored them to 10 games over .500, about where they were before the Collapse. There is still work to do, though. The White Sox matched the Twins by sweeping Seattle. If they can do it, so can we.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Heating Up

Twins 5, Orioles 0

Another day, another 9 IP from Carl Pavano. It's becoming almost routine to see him on the mound in the 9th inning. He was in total control in this game, never allowing more than one baserunner in an inning, and allowing only 2 men to reach 3rd base. He gave up just 5 H and 1 BB with 4 K, and needed only 102 pitches to get 27 outs.

Another day, another huge hit with RISP from Delmon Young. The Twins ambushed Kevin Millwood with 2 outs in the 1st inning, filling the bases on a Joe Mauer 2B and back-to-back BB to Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. Young promptly emptied them with a drive to the gap in left center, and Pavano would have all the run support he needed before ever taking the mound.

Twins 2, Orioles 3

This was the first start for Brian Duensing, and it went extremely well. He gave up a run in the 1st on 3 singles, but 2 of them were little bleeders. He allowed only one other baserunner in the next 4 innings, completing 5 IP in just 66 pitches. Since he wasn't stretched out yet, that was plenty, so Anthony Slama was brought in to pitch the 6th. He gave up 3 H, 2 of which were scabby little bloop jobs. But there was nothing cheap about Luke Scott's game-winning HR. Slama got to see that, in the Majors, the difference between a knee-high pitch on the outside corner and a knee-high pitch on the inside corner is about 400 feet.

The Twins couldn't muster much offense against Jeremy Guthrie, scoring both of their runs on Mauer's 5th HR, which was their only XBH. Not shown in the box score, however, were a multitude of loud outs, including a couple of drives to the wall, a couple of sparkling plays by the O's defense, and a liner to CF on what looks to be Orlando Hudson's last swing for a couple weeks. The guys swung the bats well enough to score some more runs - the Orioles just made all the plays in the field. Shrug.

Twins 7, Orioles 2

Good Scott Baker started this game, a particularly welcome sight on the road. He went 7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, HR, 1 BB, 8 K in just 89 pitches. (The heat was oppressive in Baltimore all weekend, so he was pulled despite being in great position to at least start the 8th.) This Scott Baker, if he shows up on a regular basis, makes the Twins into true contenders this year, because he gives them a 3rd above-average starter to run out after Pavano and Francisco Liriano. Let's see if he can build off this one.

The Twins' first 3 R came in thanks to Young (SF, 2-R HR). But it was the little guys who put the game away. Alexi Casilla, getting his first start at 2B in place of Hudson, had an RBI single and a SB. Danny Valencia, Jason Repko and Denard Span all had RBI H in the 7th. Young finished the game 4 for 4, Valencia 3 for 5. As a team, the Twins racked up 14 H.

Twins 10, Orioles 4

Good Kevin Slowey showed up for this game. He outdid his performance from last Tuesday, finishing 6 IP with 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB and just 2 K, and he kept the ball in the yard. He would have pitched the 7th, but there was a torrential, heat-wave breaking downpour that delayed the game for an hour.

At that point, the Twins were up 9-1, thanks to an offensive onslaught that saw every starter get at least one H on the way to accumulating 19 as a team. Kubel hit his 2nd GS of the season in the 3rd. Young and Jim Thome went back-to-back in the 6th. Valencia had his 2nd straight 3-H game. Joining him with at least 3 knocks were Casilla, Kubel and Nick Punto. Even Drew Butera had a multi-hit game.

Alas, the series ended on a sour note when Nick Blackburn came in to mop up in his 1st appearance out of the bullpen. He got through the 8th OK, but was touched for 3 R in the 9th, leading to another ugly line overall. I still think he'd be better off working through his troubles as a starter at Rochester.

The Twins did what a good team ought to do when facing a very bad team, even on the road. They won 3 of 4 by a combined score of 24-9. It's not so hard to see how the Tigers and White Sox went on their runs in June, is it? Now the Twins get to enjoy that poor competition while the Tigers are foundering against the AL East. The Sox finished their road trip by dropping the last 2 games against the A's, bringing the Twins back within 1 game of 1st place. Bring on the Royals.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

6th Split: 7-9

Overall Record: 51-46
2nd in AL Central by 3 games

Other splits: 11-5, 10-6, 7-9, 9-7, 7-10

Another fairly disappointing stretch for the Twins. They continued to get inconsistent starting pitching, including 5 more terrible starts (more ER than IP) and a few others that were merely not very good. They only managed to win 4 of 8 games at Target Field, where they had been winning about 2 out of every 3 earlier in the year. Perhaps most disappointingly, they lost 2 series against divisional opponents, including a home series against the last place Indians.

One explanation is the loss of Justin Morneau to a concussion on July 7th. He missed 13 of the 16 games in this split, and obviously would have been a huge asset to have in the middle of the lineup, particularly during any of the 4 1-run losses that occurred after his injury. Still, the offense held up pretty well in his absence, scoring 4.6 R/G - a decent improvement over recent weeks. JJ Hardy is heating up, giving the Twins an extra threat from the bottom of the lineup to help offset the loss in the middle.

The starting pitching was the biggest reason for the poor recent performance. Every starter but Carl Pavano was terrible at least once. Nick Blackburn was bad enough to finally lose his spot in the rotation to Brian Duensing. Alex Burnett went into a nosedive, earning a demotion to Rochester in favor of Anthony Slama. But I'll hang the largest portion of the blame upon Kevin Slowey. Though he didn't factor in any decisions in this split, he had to be removed in the middle of an inning each time out. Baserunners he allowed in those partial innings came in to score, and the Twins wound up losing each of those 3 games by 1 run. If Slowey had been just a little bit better, had he been able to complete those innings harmlessly, the Twins might have had a couple more wins to show for themselves. What a difference one player can make.

At least the defense got back to catching the ball. They committed just 3 errors during this split, their best showing since May, and allowed 0 unearned runs, bringing their season totals in those categories to 34 and 16. Certainly, some of the trouble the pitching staff endured can be attributed to less than stellar defense (the inside-the-park HR in Toronto comes to mind). But so much of the run prevention problem is coming from poorly located pitches getting whacked all over the field, I have a hard time cracking down too much on the defense. And it's been a treat to have Hardy back in the field every day, consistently making tough plays in the hole and up the middle.

I'm hopeful that this split will turn out to be a transition between two larger periods: the Pre-All-Star Break collapse, and the correction to follow. The Twins are 5-3 over their last 8 games, and still have a week and a half against bottom feeders in which to bring their record back up where it belongs. With Blackburn no longer taking the ball every 5th day, the Twins should have enough pitching to keep themselves in the game even without making a splashy trade. But if they fail to produce during this coming stretch, they're really going to lengthen the odds of overtaking the White Sox, something I wouldn't have dreamed could have befallen this team a couple months ago.

Bold prediction: The Twins' starters will accumulate double-digit QS over the next 16 games.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Twins 4, Indians 10

I don't understand how a veteran, well-paid pitcher like Scott Baker can continue to have the mechanical problems he does, and then fail to make any adjustments in-game. He was missing up in the zone from the get-go, but the ball stayed there throughout his outing. It should come as no surprise that he was knocked around.

I wasn't surprised to see Alex Burnett knocked around, either. I thought he should have been sent back to AAA weeks ago - his early success was sort of covering up how much the league was catching up to him. This will be his first AAA experience, so I think it will be a help to him, and he should remain a big part of the Twins' plans for the future.

Any time a team gives up 20 H, you know it's beyond bad pitching. Sure, there was bad pitching, but there were also just a ton of balls falling in or finding holes. That was most of the problem in the 9th, for example. Shrug. You know they're not going to get that many tomorrow!

Twins 3, Indians 4

The series hinged on this game, and it really came down to this: the Indians got a couple of 2-out H with RISP, and the Twins didn't. It's tempting to hurl ridicule at Kevin Slowey for once again failing to complete 6 IP, but he was way too close to having a very good game for me to pan his outing. Had he retired the last batter he faced, his performance through 6 IP would have been: 6 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K. That's excellent. Inefficient, excellent. I was amazed at how much patience the Indians' hitters showed against him. He threw 2/3 of his pitches for strikes, yet they were content to work deep counts. It definitely left a bad taste that the last batter he faced drew the only walk against Slowey, and that he didn't come particularly close to the strike zone. It was almost like he was passing the baton to the bullpen to finish the job.

Jesse Crain has been awfully good lately, and he was again in this game, allowing just 1 H in 1.1 IP. Unfortunately, it came with the bases loaded, on a ball that couldn't have been any closer to being foul down the LF line.

Only 2 BB in the game, and they both contributed to run-scoring rallies for the Indians. The leadoff BB in the 8th off Jose Mijares came around to score the eventual winning run.

This game will be remembered most for Joe Mauer's attempted bunt with 2 men on in the bottom of the 7th, at a time when the Twins had just tied the game and appeared to have momentum swinging their way. Enough has been said about it - I don't really have anything to add. He'll do better next time.

Twins 6, Indians 0

Those who are caught up in Win/Loss records might be missing how well Francisco Liriano has pitched this season. He's been nearly Carl Pavano's equal in terms of amassing quality starts and pitching deep into games. On Wednesday, he looked like his fastball was only so-so, but his changeup was unusually good, and his slider was as good as ever. Drew Butera was catching, giving Mauer a day off, and he seemed eager to call changeups away far more than sliders down and in. It seemed like the Indians caught on to this around the 5th inning, laying off close pitches off the plate away and whacking liners to RF on the pitches that were over.

This led to a bit of trouble, though Liriano was fortunate that Matt LaPorta's liner went straight to the glove of Michael Cuddyer for an inning-ending DP. I started begging Butera to set up inside in the 7th, but he wouldn't do it until there were 2 men aboard. Finally, he went back to the slider, and Liriano finished his afternoon with back-to-back Ks.

Anthony Slama! He was called up to take Burnett's spot, and struck out 2 in his Major League debut. It helps that the competition he was facing was in AAA not long ago, but still, this is what he's shown throughout his time in the minors that he can do. I hope he'll stick in the 'pen.

  • Delmon Young is money with RISP.
  • JJ Hardy is doing everything except hit for power, though he's getting his share of 2B. He should definitely be in the Twins' plans for 2011, and possibly a year or two beyond that. That means that Trevor Plouffe should be someone we could trade for a SP...
  • I'm not at all convinced that Butera is some sort of prodigy behind the plate. He's had the privilege of catching the 2 best starters on the team lately. They're pitching well while he's behind the plate. Yeah, because they're good pitchers! Mauer has caught shutouts before, too. When Drew Butera starts, it means that either Mauer or Thome is not in the lineup. That's throwing away .400+ points of OPS for some pretty intangible game-calling value.
  • Nick Blackburn was officially demoted to the bullpen, opening up a spot in the rotation for Brian Duensing. This should have been done weeks ago, and Duensing would have been fully stretched out by now. Also, I don't understand why Blackburn goes to the 'pen rather than to AAA, where he could keep starting. He's had some outright clunkers this season, but a lot of his trouble has come the 2nd and 3rd time through the batting order, and he's not going to face that challenge in the 'pen. Plus, he may lose some of his stamina and be less effective as a spot starter should the need arise.
  • This series was a good example of why the Twins are underperforming their Pythagorean record. With the combined shutout on Wednesday, the 3 R the Twins scored on Tuesday would have been sufficient for the win. They needed the 6 R on Tuesday night. The differential for the series would have been identical, but the Twins would have had 2 W instead of 2 L. The Tigers and White Sox have been getting those 6 R when they needed them a lot more often this season.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Not To Worry

Twins 7, White Sox 8

The Collapse lingered for one game after the break. Kevin Slowey left the game in the 4th without retiring a batter, having already surrendered 5 ER on 9 H. To be fair, a lot of the damage done against him was the result of dinky singles from Juan Pierre followed by expertly placed hit and run singles from Omar Vizquel. The Sox executed 4 hit and runs on the night, three of which scored on SF and one on a balk. If the runner isn't going on a couple of those 4 singles, the Sox maybe come up a run short in this game.

Brian Duensing would have been the perfect guy to come in for long relief in this game, but he was under the weather. Alex Burnett came on instead. He stranded Slowey's last runner, but couldn't get anyone out in the 5th, allowing a BB, the hit and run single, the balk, and a booming RBI 2B. After that, Gardy brought in the veterans, and Jesse Crain, Ron Mahay and Matt Guerrier held the Sox scoreless over the last 5 innings. But the damage had been done.

7 runs should have been plenty to win this game, so the offense did their job. After Delmon Young's fly ball to the track in LF for the second out of the 2nd, the Twins saw 7 consecutive batters reach, capped by Joe Mauer's bases clearing 2B over third base. But there were opportunities for more: After Nick Punto's leadoff bunt single (which Dick Bremer called - if he could see it coming, why couldn't Ozzie?), Denard Span popped out on his bunt attempt. Had he gotten it down and moved Punto to 2nd, he would have easily scored on Mauer's 2-out single. Orlando Hudson led off the 7th with a 2B, but was unable to advance to 3rd on Mauer's fly ball to CF. From 3rd, he would have scored easily on Cuddyer's fly ball to LF. The Twins loaded the bases with 2 outs in the 8th, but came up empty.

Twins 7, White Sox 4

The bullpen once again overused, the Twins needed a big start from Francisco Liriano. He allowed the obligatory 1st inning BB and bunt single, but this time escaped unscathed. After that, he was in control. He made a mistake on a 2-strike fastball that Gordon Beckham lined into the RF corner for a 2B - Beckham scored moments later on a chip-shot single from Pierre. His only other mistake came after he should have been out of the game - a swinging 3rd strike that would have ended the 8th skipped away from Joe Mauer, extending Liriano for one more batter, Paul Konerko, who beat him for an RBI 2B. But, overall, Liriano was stupendous: 7.2 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 8 K.

The offense did plenty again, though 11 of their 12 H were singles. They were aided by sloppy play from the Sox fielders. The Twins got 2 extra outs to play with in the 4th, turning what should have been a single run rally into a nice crooked number (4). They tacked 3 more in the bottom of the 8th, again thanks to an extra out from the Sox defense.

It was a good thing they got those extra outs and runs, because Jon Rauch had no idea where the ball was going. He allowed 5 baserunners in just 0.1 IP, including 3 BB; only 9 of his 23 pitches were for strikes. Though he had thrown nearly 30 pitches the day before, Crain came in and retired the last 2 batters on 4 pitches, stranding the tying run at 1st for his first save of the season.

Twins 3, White Sox 2

This is probably what most games were like 100 years ago. Each starter went the distance, combining for 199 pitches. They had 9 K between them, allowed 1 HR and finished the game in 1:52, the 3rd shortest game of the season. Mark Buehrle threw about 2/3 of his pitches for strikes; for Carl Pavano, it was about 3/4.

All of the damage against Buehrle was done by 4 consecutive batters at the start of the 2nd inning. Michael Cuddyer led off with a fly ball so close to the foul line that he couldn't decide whether to run to first - it landed a few inches fair and kicked into the stands for a 2B. Delmon Young followed with a little chip shot over the SS for an RBI single. Then Jason Kubel and Danny Valencia came about 3 feet short of hitting back-to-back HR - each of their booming drives hit the top of the fence and drove in runs.

All of the damage against Pavano was done by Paul Konerko: a 2-out RBI single in the 1st and a solo HR in the 4th on an 0-2 pitch. After that, both pitchers settled down to soar through the middle innings. Pavano found himself in a jam in the 9th when Vizquel led off with a 2B and moved to 3rd on a grounder. That brought Konerko to the plate, and Pavano fanned him on 3 pitches, then got Quentin to end the game. It's wonderful to see veteran pitchers who have earned the trust of the managers - too rare these days.

Twins 7, White Sox 6

The Twins may have gotten the best of both worlds on Sunday. They got a decent enough start from Nick Blackburn through 5 IP: 6 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 1 K. His biggest mistake up to that point was hitting Alexi Ramirez leading off the 5th - he came around to score Chicago's 2nd run. The 6th inning started with a pretty weak groundball single from Alex Rios. Blackburn made a mistake to Konerko for a line drive single. But his last pitch was actually below the strike zone, even though Quentin blasted it to the wall in right center, scoring 2 runs. Quentin would eventually score, leaving Blackburn with an ultimately ugly 5 ER in 5+ IP.

And that's a blessing, really, because it should help to add fuel to the fire we hope is burning under Bill Smith in his pursuit of another SP for the stretch run. And it allowed Duensing to come in and throw 4 innings of 1-run ball in relief, setting himself up for 65 or pitches when he takes Blackburn's place in the rotation next week. (Surely, he'll be taking Blackburn's place in the rotation next week, right?)

The really good news is that the Twins won in spite of Blackburn's struggles. They began the 9th with consecutive walks from Hudson and Mauer, then RBI singles from Cuddyer and Kubel. Bobby Jenks was replaced, but Jason Repko was due up, having PR for Thome. He drew a 5-pitch walk, loading the bases for Young, who once again delivered with a blooper to short CF, tying the game. Then Rios, in what must have been a momentary loss of concentration, heaved the ball over the IF - the nearest Sox to it were the guys in the dugout. Cuddyer trotted home with the winning run.

The Twins needed to win this series, and they did that. As well as the Sox have been playing lately, they can make mistakes, just like everyone else. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Indians swept the Tigers in a 4-game series. The Indians. I should be worried about Detroit? I don't think so. This sets a nice tone for the 2nd half. Now the Twins play a series of losing teams over the next 2 weeks. Gotta make the most of that.

  • Jose Morales threw out 2 base stealers on Sunday. He also had 2 H, his 4th multi-hit game in a row and 7th in 8 games. I know he's going to allow a few passed balls, and I know Pavano is getting comfy with Drew Butera. But, c'mon. .200 points of OBP has to be worth more than a few PB here and there.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What's To Come

What can we look forward to from this Twins team that has staggered into the All-Star Break?

They still ought to be able to win the AL Central. It's a bit of a fluke that they're not in 1st place now. Even with their recent fade coinciding with season-best play from the White Sox and Tigers, the Twins still have the best run differential in the division. And that's with large swaths of the roster having middling or subpar seasons.

Look through the Twins' stats. Compare what they're doing so far in 2010 with their career averages and their career bests. The only hitters having career-best years are Justin Morneau and Delmon Young. (Morneau has always been a great hitter through the first 4 months of the season, though, so his .345/.437/.618 line isn't outlandishly better than the .311/.379/.570 hitter he's been at this point over the last 4 seasons - he's had some good luck, and he's made some improvements. Young was always thought to have this sort of potential, and posted similar numbers in the 2nd half last year.) Everybody else is underperforming to some degree relative to their career averages. That suggests to me that, at the very least, the present rate of offensive production (4.6 R/G) is sustainable.

As for the pitchers, Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Jon Rauch are all having exemplary seasons, and Alex Burnett is exceeding expectations so far. Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Ron Mahay and Matt Guerrier are putting up similar numbers to what we might expect from their career averages. Everybody else has room for improvement. Especially Nick Blackburn. So the pitching ought to be able to at least maintain the first half rate of 4.4 R/G.

That means that the floor for this team by season's end should be 751 runs scored and 685 runs allowed. That differential results in a 1st order Pythagorean winning percentage of .546, good for 88-89 wins.

Then look at the strength of schedule the Twins face in each half. The middling numbers and 46-42 1st half record were amassed against rather strong competition. 18 games against the Yankees, Rangers, Red Sox and Rays. 12 against NL contenders: the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Rockies. 17 against the White Sox and Tigers. But just 14 games against last place teams, and another 15 against the Royals and Brewers. The aggregate winning percentage of the teams the Twins played in the 1st half was .511.

The 2nd half looks a bit more inviting. The Twins finish their divisional schedule with 6 against the Tigers, 9 with the Royals, 12 against the Indians and 13 vs. the White Sox. They have 4 game series with the Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles. In the AL West, they'll face Texas 7 times, Seattle and Oakland 6 times, and the Angels 3 times. That group has a combined winning percentage of .486.

That makes the 2nd half about 5% easier than the 1st half. Let's say those opponents score 5% fewer runs and allow the Twins to score 5% more runs. That would get our boys to the end of the season with 768 RS and a devilishly good 666 RA, for a Pythagorean W% of .571, good for 92-93 wins.

As for the competition, the Tigers are in big trouble. Right now, they're about 4 wins ahead of their expected W%, meaning that they've been pretty lucky so far. They have the best home record in the AL, thanks in large part to a 9-game interleague home stand against the cellar dwellers of each of the three NL divisions. They are a poor road team, though, and in the 2nd half, they'll have to play 40 of 76 games away from Detroit, including 11 games at the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.

They have a very shaky rotation after Justin Verlander. Their lineup is dependent upon a couple of standout rookies whose performance to date drastically exceeds anything their minor league track records would have predicted. The clock is going to strike midnight on those guys at some point in the next couple months, and when it does, it will leave the Tigers with just 4 formidable hitters in their lineup. The Tigers will fall by the wayside; I expect them to have a losing record in the 2nd half, and it will be touch and go as to whether they finish the season with more wins than losses.

The White Sox don't have it quite so tough. They're already done playing the Rangers and Rays, and have just 3 games left with the Yankees. They get to play Seattle and Oakland 15 times, and Baltimore 7. The toughest thing for them will be the AL Central match-ups: they only have 6 games each left against the Royals and Indians, but have to play the Twins 13 times and the Tigers 14. That adds up to a 2nd half opponent W% of .509 - pretty close to what the Twins had to face in the 1st half. They also have to play the majority of their games on the road.

The 25-5 run the Sox have been on is just ludicrous (27 QS in 30 games? No losses by more than 1 run? Unsustainable, to say the least.) They're not really that good. On the other hand, they're not as bad as they showed in the first 2 months of the season. They would seem to be capable of sustaining their rates of scoring and run prevention, which would lead to an expected record of about 87-75.

The AL Central is still there for the taking. The Twins need to take advantage of their softer 2nd half schedule. More than anything, they need to take care of business in their 13 head-to-head meetings with the Sox. We can expect Kenny Williams to do something to improve Chicago's chances. Bill Smith must make a corresponding move in order to keep the relative strengths of the teams in balance. It's certainly within the Twins' means to do that.

Cheer up, Twins fans. Things have been lousy for 3 weeks or so. But they're bound to get better.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pre All-Star Breakdown

As the season goes along, I like to take a snapshot every month and every 16 games to assess how the Twins' play is flowing. They're useful, but arbitrary in their timing. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can look back over the first half schedule and find the season dividing itself into 3 fairly distinct periods:

1. The Breakout (19-9)
Party Central

The Twins win 8 of their first 9 series, including their first 4 on the road. They play 7 of the series against Central Division teams, and conclude those 21 games with a .667 winning percentage against each of their rivals. The offense puts up 5.3 R/game, the pitching staff has a 3.41 ERA, and the defense has been virtually flawless, yielding only a handful of errors and a single unearned run. This team looks as though it can wrap up the division by the end of July, and may stack up quite favorably against the titans of the East.

  • Francisco Liriano goes 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA and is named AL Pitcher of the Month for April.
  • Justin Morneau hits .345/.483/.646 with 6 HR, 19 RBI, and a ridiculous 18/24 K/BB ratio.
  • Jon Rauch converts 8 of his first 9 save opportunities with a 2.25 ERA, allaying concerns that the 9th inning would be a nightmare without Joe Nathan.
  • Nick Blackburn is the only member of the rotation who struggles, amassing a 5.79 ERA and serving up 7 HR in just 32.2 IP. At least he can't get any worse, right?
  • Jesse Crain sports a 5.27 ERA. All the damage against him is done in 3 of his 12 outings, but each is costly, turning close games into sound defeats.
  • Jason Kubel draws plenty of BB, but otherwise hits a rather punchless .205/.340/.313 with just 2 HR and 11 RBI.
2. The Plateau (19-18)
Warning Track Power

In the midst of some 9th inning heroics vs. the Tigers, JJ Hardy injures his wrist and spends most of the next 2 months on the DL. Orlando Hudson joins him after a game-ending collision with Denard Span and May 31st. Without the MI they acquired in the offseason, the Twins are forced to employ some combination of Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla and Trevor Plouffe in those positions. The results are similar to what we saw in 2009: a lineup full of holes, particularly at the #2 spot. The pitching and defense remain largely excellent, but the offense drops off into a feast or famine pattern, scoring 3 or fewer runs in 19 games with a 4-15 record. This epoch is embodied for me by the image of countless drives, potentially game-changers should they clear the wall, that instead fall harmlessly into the opposing OF gloves on the warning track. The Twins are this close to winning 5 or 6 more games during this time, but barely over .500 is all they wind up with.

  • Kubel bounces back by hitting .278/.357/.513 with 7 HR and 27 RBI, including 3 HR and 9 RBI to help the Twins salvage each series against the Yankees.
  • Delmon Young starts hitting like a #1 overall pick: .313/.347/.522 with 9 2B, 5 HR and 28 RBI thanks to consistently productive AB with RISP.
  • Scott Baker throws 6 or more innings in all but one GS - and one of those was the suspended game against the Yanks in which he threw 5 shutout innings - for 6.1 IP/GS and a 3.54 ERA.
  • Brendan Harris hits a wretched .131/.159/.148 with 14 K in 61 AB. That, plus his below average defense, will soon earn him a DFA.
  • Denard Span posts just a .315 OBP - not nearly good enough from the leadoff spot. Most of his trouble comes on a 7-game trip to Seattle and Oakland during which he goes 2 for 30 with 1 BB.
  • Ron Mahay allows 9 ER over 4 consecutive outings totaling just 3.1 IP. In those outings he allows 2 of the 4 HR and 3 of the 6 BB he has yielded all season.
3. The Collapse (8-15)
Digging a Hole

I might have extended the Plateau 4 more games through the Philadelphia series, since the Twins went 2-2, keeping their record flat. But the theme of this part of the season is disastrous starting pitching, and that begins with Liriano's wild 1st inning against the Rockies: 3 ER on 4 H, BB and 2 HBP. That is the first of 8 occasions in which the Twins find themselves behind by 3 or more runs after 3 or fewer innings. The starters provide just 9 QS in 23 games, and 7 times fail to reach the 6th inning. As if that weren't enough, the defense falters, regularly giving away outs and bases. The bullpen fails to protect some late leads against Tampa and Toronto. And the offense holds up pretty well, but is still stymied for 3 or fewer runs 8 times, thanks to a continuing avalanche of GIDP. Almost nothing is working. This was a pretty tough part of the schedule, but still...

  • Carl Pavano pitches into the 7th inning every time, saving the bullpen and putting the team in position to win.
  • Crain does not allow a run in 8.2 IP, allowing just 4 H, 3 BB and 9 K.
  • Jim Thome makes the most of his limited opportunities, hitting .302/.388/.721 with 6 BB, 3 2B and 5 HR in just 49 PA.
  • Blackburn makes us wish for his April performance. He is torched for 28 ER in just 22.2 IP over 5 GS. In that span he allows 9 HR and 11 BB.
  • Matt Guerrier quickly falls apart after being used 4 times in 5 days. Beginning with the 5th day, he allows 6 ER on 6 H, HR and 3 BB in 2 IP. The HR and BB totals match what he gave up in all of June.
  • Joe Mauer hits .244/.306/.385, driving in just 7 R. The Twins need a lot more than that from the reigning batting champ and MVP, especially when the pitchers are struggling.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Saved By the Bell

Twins 3, Tigers 7

In my June Review, I said of Francisco Liriano, "If he can just cut down on the HBP and IF H, we're in business." Well, in this game, he hit 2 batters - and they both scored. He allowed a bunt single on what was really just an attempted sacrifice - and that guy scored. Plus, he walked the leadoff guy in the 1st and 2nd inning - and they both scored. On top of all the bases he gave away, he allowed 5 other H (2 of which were merely well-placed grounders) to the first 15 batters, so there would have been a little damage in the early innings regardless. But the free passes turned what could have been nothing more than some early jams into an early exit for Liriano, and an insurmountable 7-0 deficit after just 2 innings.

The offense did a pretty good job against Justin Verlander - it's rare to knock him out before he's finished 6 IP. They collected 8 H and 2 BB. Unfortunately, all of the H were singles, and they were generally spaced out just enough to prevent any big damage. Except for the 6th inning, which began with 5 straight batters reaching, chasing Verlander from the game. The Twins got just 1 R out of that rally, though, because Orlando Hudson got himself picked off (the 2nd PO of the game) after his leadoff single. Trailing 7-1, there's no way he was going to steal 2nd, so it's pretty unforgivable to let that happen. He should have scored ahead of Joe Mauer on Jason Kubel's RBI single. Then, Delmon Young's bases loaded GIDP would have come with 0 outs, plating another run, and the Twins could have had a 3-spot in the inning.

The Twins wouldn't have beaten anybody playing the way they did on Friday. Especially not a top pitcher on a 1st-place team. Blech.

Twins 4, Tigers 7

I couldn't bear to watch this one. Nick Blackburn has been such a disaster on the road this season, you just knew this wasn't going to be a fun game for Twins fans. He sort of, almost, a little bit kept the team in it for awhile, allowing just 5 H through the first 4 IP. They were all XBH, though, including 3 HR, resulting in 4 ER.

Still, Jeremy Bonderman isn't anything to be afraid of on the mound, and the Twins touched him for a couple of R in the 3rd on a 2-run single from Hudson. Michael Cuddyer blasted his 2nd HR of the trip in the 4th, and the Twins were down just a run heading into the bottom of the 5th. 2B, BB, 3-run HR for Johnny Damon, and the game was once again out of reach. Blackburn got 9 groundball outs, so his sinker was obviously working, at times. But every H he allowed was either a 2B or an HR. He's an absolute mess right now, and he's giving the team no chance to win.

Twins 6, Tigers 3

Where would this team be without Carl Pavano? Once again, with the pitching staff on the ropes, he took the ball and kept the Twins in the game for at least 7 innings. He was especially good in the early goings on Sunday, retiring the first 13 batters and facing the minimum through 5 innings.

That gave the offense plenty of time to build a lead. Even with Joe Mauer taking a day off, the top of the order did a nice job setting the table. Young moved up to the #3 spot, and he, Denard Span and Hudson each reached base twice and combined to score 4 R. Big day for Cuddyer: 2-3, 2B, 2 BB, 2 RBI. He seems to be heating up. And Danny Valencia keeps having pretty good AB; he went 1-4 with an RBI 2B and hits the break at .310/.375/.345.

Mad props to the bullpen this weekend for cleaning up considerable messes on Friday and Saturday and locking down the win on Sunday. Just about everybody was called upon - even Kevin Slowey - and they combined for 11.2 shutout innings.

The All-Star Break could not be coming at a better time for the Twins. They are reeling, losers of 5 of the last 6 series and 13 of 19 games. Meanwhile, the Tigers - and especially the White Sox, are soaring. The Tigers are 18-9 over the last month. The Sox are 25-5. The break will enable the Twins to make a clean separation between their horrid play of the last 3 weeks, and the rather good play they're going to provide for the remainder of the season. And it will give the competition a chance to cool off and remember that they're not actually good enough to win 4-5 out of every 6 games.

  • I was hoping the Twins would be able to get through this series without using Matt Guerrier. He made 2 appearances, each lasting just 1 batter, for a total of 6 pitches. I suppose that wasn't too taxing for him.
  • Justin Morneau missed the series with lingering symptoms from the concussion he suffered last Wednesday, and will sit out the All Star Game. Filling in at 1B, Cuddyer has gone 6 for 15 with 2 2B, 2 HR, 2 BB and 4 RBI (.400/.471/.933). Wouldn't it be something if both those guys could be in the lineup, producing, at the same time?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blue Jay Way

Twins 7, Blue Jays 6

My goodness, those Blue Jays like to swing for the fences. No matter the count, no matter the situation on the bases. No wonder they're leading the league in HR. And the ball was carrying extremely well in this series. Carl Pavano was able to get 11 ground ball outs, and was barely at 70 pitches starting the 7th inning, so aggressive were the Jays. Yet he was only ahead 6-5, because Toronto had ripped him for 5 ER on 5 XBH, including a pair of HR. Whoops, make that 3 HR, and Pavano came out of the game. Credit the bullpen for retiring 8 of the 9 batters they faced.

On this night, the Twins were able to match the Jays blow for blow. Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Joe Mauer all went yard, and Delmon Young was 3-3 with a 2B, BB and RBI. Perhaps the difference in the game was that the Twins pitchers didn't surrender a BB, but the Jays gave the Twins 6 free passes, including one to Denard Span with the bases loaded that tied the game in the top of the 6th. That rally was crucial, immediately answering the Jays' big inning against Pavano.

Twins 5, Jays 6

A fly ball pitcher, like Kevin Slowey, in that park, against that team, was perhaps not in a great position to succeed. I thought the lesson from the 1st game was pretty much to stay away from the middle of the plate and throw lots of offspeed stuff early in the count. Slowey did an OK job of that, also reaching the 7th inning. But he was tagged for 4 XBH, and every one led to a run: a solo HR in the 1st, a 1-out 2B in the 4th that scored on a 2-out, bloop single down the RF line, a 2-out, 2-run inside-the-park HR, and a 1-out 3B that chased Slowey and was promptly brought home on a SF.

The inside-the-parker was a tough play, precisely in the middle of Span and Young in left center. Had Span peeled off, I think Young might have been able to catch it - he looked like he might have been distracted at the last second by Span's feet flying at his face. Even if he'd missed it, with Span backing up it would have been just a 2B and, at most, only 1 R allowed. It was a game where it felt like all you had to do was put the ball in the air and something good was bound to happen for the offense. But, in this tough stretch the Twins are going through, it seems as though all sorts of balls are falling in for the opposition, and not quite as many for our guys.

They had their share, though, and it should have been enough to win: a 3B from Orlando Hudson, and HR from Hudson and Young. The Twins pecked away for runs in 4 straight innings, but the Jays always seemed to have an answer in the bottom half. This time it was the Twins who walked too many - only 2, but the 2nd came in front of Vernon Wells' 2-out drive off the wall in CF. That was surrendered by Matt Guerrier, who I'd say the Twins should make every effort not to use between now and the All-Star Break - he looks pretty fried right now.

Twins 1, Jays 8

Same problem for the Twins in this game as the last - fly ball pitcher. How to keep these hackers in the yard? Offspeed stuff, edges of the plate. But Scott Baker was touched for a HR on the game's 3rd pitch, with an 0-2 count. That fastball either needed to be higher or tighter. As it was, it was in the perfect spot for Fred Lewis to loft into the welcoming jet stream of Rogers Centre. He allowed another leadoff HR in the 2nd, but that was on a breaking ball heading through the bottom of the strike zone - I don't blame Baker for that as much as tip my cap to Adam Lind.

Baker eventually settled down and retired 12 of the last 13 men he faced. Unfortunately for him and the Twins, he started that string one batter too late. With the bases loaded, he served up a bases clearing 2B to the wall in right center. It was another 0-2 pitch, and on this one Baker missed his spot by almost 2 feet, delivering up and away instead of up and in. He made his worst pitch of the game at the worst possible time.

Still, he was totally in control after that, and had only thrown 91 pitches through 6 IP. Why lift him from the game there, with the bottom of the order coming up? Why make the bullpen do any more than necessary with an important series against the Tigers on the horizon? Alex Burnett came in and gave up HR to 2 of the first 3 guys he faced, and the game was out of reach. Ron Mahay was also touched for a HR in his inning of work.

The offense, resting Span, Jim Thome and a mildly concussed Morneau, put up no fight whatsoever. Michael Cuddyer finally hit a HR after more than a month since his last shot off Cliff Lee in Seattle. That was it.

I look forward to seeing the Blue Jays for the final series of the regular season at Target Field. We'll see how many opposite field HR Lyle Overbay can hit into Death Valley on a cool October night.

  • Span is hitting .276/.348/.376, compared to his career line of .297/.379/.407. Off year? Underperforming? His walk rate is slightly lower (10% vs. 11 % in 2008-2009). But, mostly, I think he's just been unlucky. How many liners has he hit this year that have gone straight into a pitcher's glove, or been snagged off the turf by a diving OF? I can think of at least 5 off the top of my head. If it's more like 7 or 8 (about 1 every other week), and even just one of them would have been a 2B (the Gabe Kapler robbery from last weekend comes to mind), he'd be at .296/.368/.403 - pretty darn close to where he's supposed to be.
  • Pavano vs. the Blue Jays: 5 IP/GS 10.45 ERA 1.74 WHIP 5 HR (4.4 HR/9)
  • Pavano vs. anyone else: 7 IP/GS 2.93 ERA 0.97 WHIP 9 HR (0.8 HR/9)
  • The Twins didn't get Cliff Lee. The Yankees reportedly offered Jesus Montero, Zach McAllister and David Adams, but were rebuffed. Montero is a stud bat, but has almost zero defensive value, something the Ms clearly prize. McAllister is a back end starter at AAA and Adams is a 23-year old 2B hitting decently at AA. The Rangers won the sweepstakes, getting Lee and injured P Mark Lowe (and a little cash) for 1B Justin Smoak, P Blake Beaven, P Josh Lueke and 2B Matthew Lawson. Smoak is a 5-star stud, Beaven is a back-end finesse guy at AA, Lueke is a 25-year old, high K/9 bullpen arm, and Lawson is a 24-year old at AA. The Twins didn't have an upper-level prospect of the caliber of Montero or Smoak. But the remainder of the package was well within their means - comparable players appear to be David Bromberg, Anthony Slama, Steve Singleton. If the Twins had been willing to pair Wilson Ramos and Ben Revere/Slowey/Brian Duensing with one of those guys, wouldn't that have been a better package?
  • Lee is off the market, but the Twins should still be urgently seeking to upgrade the rotation. The next best option would appear to be Houston ace Roy Oswalt. But he's a little on the old side (he turns 33 in August), has never pitched in the AL, will be owed over $5M for the remainder of 2010, $16M for 2011 and has a $16M option for 2012 with a $2M buyout. That's at least $23M plus some prospects to shell out for a guy who may not be as good in the DH league, and whose best years are probably behind him. Plus, he has a no trade clause, and has already indicated that he would a block a deal with the White Sox or Tigers.
  • If the Twins want to go after somebody who's under contract beyond 2010, they should Target Arizona's Dan Haren. He's 3 years younger than Oswalt, and has a track record of AL success from his Oakland days. He'll cost about $3M for the balance of 2010, then $12.75M for 2011 and 2012, with a $15.5M option for 2013 or $3.5M buyout. He'd be very expensive in terms of prospects, though. The Twins would certainly need to put 2 blue chippers in the package. But Arizona already has 2 good C under team control through 2012, so I don't know that they'd need Ramos. The Twins could easily part with Slowey if they could pencil Haren into the rotation for the next 3 seasons, but I don't think Slowey's fly ball tendencies would play very well in Arizona's home park. More likely, the Twins would have to get into Aaron Hicks/Joe Benson territory in order to acquire Haren, and I'd hate to have to go there.
  • Perhaps the best solution would be to talk to Seattle about Erik Bedard. He's been injured for most of the last 2 seasons, and was scratched from his scheduled 2010 debut on Tuesday. If he's healthy, he's got ace-caliber stuff, though he can't be counted upon to pitch too deeply into games. But he's on a little $1.5M make-good contract with an $8M option for 2011. With just a few weeks to prove himself before the trade deadline, it wouldn't take too much to pry him away from Seattle at this point - one decent prospect, I should think. Bedard has every incentive to try to prove himself and earn his option. He would be the cheapest option, and the upside could be as high as anyone else the Twins might acquire.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Defensive Inefficiency

Twins 4, Rays 5 (10 innings)

The Twins had to face some exceedingly tough pitching in this series, beginning with Jeff Niemann. With runs tough to come by, it was crucial to cash in on scoring opportunities. The Twins did enough of that, it seemed. They managed just 6 H off Niemann in 6.2 IP, but bunched 4 of them in the 2nd for 2 R, including another 2-out RBI H from Delmon Young. He connected in the 7th for his 9th HR, giving the Twins 5 of their 8 baserunners off the starter in the 2 innings in which they scored. In the 8th, they used a leadoff 2B and 2 deep fly balls to plate a 4th R, and took a lead into the 9th inning.

Against such tough competition, run prevention was just as critical, and that's where the Twins faltered a bit. Carl Pavano pitched well, but he wasn't able to complete the 7th, thanks to back-to-back grueling innings in the 4th and 5th. Young nailed a runner at the plate to limit the damage in the 4th to 1 R. In the 5th, all the trouble came with 2 outs. The inning was prolonged when the IF failed to get the final out on consecutive grounders. The first was fielded by Justin Morneau, but Pavano was beaten to 1B by the super speedy Carl Crawford. The 2nd was a grounder almost right to Nick Punto at SS. He bobbled it just long enough to allow Evan Longoria to beat his throw, and a run scored.

That was key play of the game. The extra out the Twins gave the Rays enabled them to send All-Stars Crawford and Longoria to the plate with 2 outs in the 9th. The extra run the Twins gave them enabled them to tie the game, rather than merely cutting the lead in half. The 10th inning wasn't very important to me, other than that it provided further evidence that Matt Guerrier is in one of his slumps. And that 3B umpire Alfonso Marquez is on drugs.

Twins 2, Rays 1

On Friday night the Twins faced David Price, who came into the series leading the league in wins and ERA. They needed good Scott Baker to show up. Crawford and Longoria once again combined for a run in the 1st. But after that Baker was wonderfully stingy, allowing just 4 more H, 0 BB, and 8 K through 7 IP.

Though he walked 3, Price had allowed just 1 H through his first 6.2 IP. A lot of that is a credit to the Rays' athletic defenders, who made a handful of fine plays to take hits away from the Twins. Then, suddenly, in a span of 4 pitches, Jason Kubel, Young and Danny Valencia ripped base hits, and the Twins were on top 2-1. The Rays responded with threats in the 8th and 9th, but Brian Duensing, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch held them scoreless.

Twins 6, Rays 8

This was the matchup that seemed to favor the Twins, with Francisco Liriano starting against Wade Davis, a highly touted rookie who was having his struggles. Liriano delivered on his end, shutting the Rays down for 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB and 10 K. The only run against him scored when, with a runner a 3rd, Crawford once again blazed his way aboard with a little swinging bunt single. One of the other hits Liriano gave up didn't reach the OF, either. One of these days, all of the grounders he induces will be converted into outs, and that will be a quick game.

On the offensive side, the Twins were all over Davis. He was rocked for 8 H (6 for extra bases), 4 ER, 3 HR and only 1 K in 4.1 IP. 2 of the HR came from Jim Thome, moving him ahead of Harmon Killebrew in career HR. There was a video message from the Killer, a couple of curtain calls for Thome. The game was under control, and it was the Twins' day.

Liriano came out after throwing 103 pitches, a slightly conservative move, but it was a hot, muggy day. Alex Burnett came in and got Jason Bartlett to hit a fly ball to RF that Cuddyer, who had just that minute been moved from 3B, let hit off his glove for a 2B. That should have been one out. Then Sean Rodriguez legged out an IF H on a slow chopper to SS. Jose Mijares came in and allowed a ground-rule double to Crawford, a ball that just landed fair down the LF line. Gardy went to Guerrier, whose first 2 pitches were raked for RBI H. In a span of 6 pitches, 3 relievers had undone Liriano's good work. Eventually, with the bases loaded and 2 out, PH Matt Joyce's deep fly to CF carried just over the fence. Span wasn't able to jump for it, because he collided with the wall. Catchable? Perhaps. But the ball that Cuddyer dropped certainly was. That extra out turned a 2 run rally into 7, and turned a comfortable win into shocking defeat.

Twins 4, Rays 7

The matchup, James Shields vs. Nick Blackburn, clearly favored the Rays. The teams traded runs in the 1st inning, but then both pitchers settled down. The only other run through 6 IP came on a solo HR from Rodriguez in the 3rd. For Blackburn, it was as fine a performance as he ever makes: 6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, HR, 1 BB, 3 K, with more grounders than flies. He broke down in the 7th, though. The first 2 batters singled, prompting a sac bunt from #9 hitter Jason Bartlett. Blackburn threw wildly to first, bringing in a run and putting 2 in scoring position with nobody out. He held the runners when he got Rodriguez to ground out, intentionally walked Crawford, then was knocked out when Longoria delivered a 2-run single. Duensing got the 1st guy he faced, but yielded a 2-out, PH 2B from Gabe Kabler. The extra out Blackburn gave away cost him 3 unearned runs.

The Twins responded immediately, putting the 1st 4 hitters in the bottom half on base to knock Shields from the game, then greeting reliever Grant Balfour with an RBI single from Young to make it 7-4 and bring the tying run to the plate. But the Rays bullpen retired the next 8 Twins rather easily, and there was no more scoring. The margin of defeat came from the 3 unearned runs.

This will go down as another failure by the Twins to compete with one of the elite AL East clubs. The athleticism of the Rays was on display, as their speed throughout the lineup not only produced multiple IF H, it took a bunch of would-be hits away from the Twins, especially in the OF. The Twins used to be a team that could out-run and out-hustle just about anybody. That's not the case this year.

But did the Twins compete? Absolutely. They were in every game for at least 7 innings, and every game had to be saved. Compare the starters:

Twins: 26.2 IP, 26 H, 8 ER, HR, 5 BB and 25 K, 2.70 ERA and 1.16 WHIP.
Rays: 24.2 IP, 26 H, 13 ER, 4 HR, 7 BB and 14 K, 4.74 ERA and 1.34 WHIP.

Clearly, the Twins had the edge there. The bullpen had a bad series, but they've been, on the whole, one of the best units in the league. Sure, the Twins can play with the Rays.

The series hinged on the ability of the Rays to get from the plate to 1B in a hurry, and on the inability of the Twins to make all the plays they're supposed to make. The Twins we saw in April, the team that made only a couple of mistakes in the field over an entire month, would have won the first 3 games of this series and had an opportunity to sweep it in extras on Sunday. I want to see that team again.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

5th Split: 7-10

1st Half Record: 44-37
Tied for 1st in AL Central

Other splits: 11-5; 10-6; 7-9; 9-7

When all is said and done, I hope we'll look back on this split and see it as the low point of the season. As well as the Twins played in all phases of the game back in April, they were pretty weak in the latter half of June. It looked as though they were poised to turn a near-disaster into a spark when they pulled off an elating come-from-behind win against the Phillies at the start of the NL road trip. Instead, they finished this stretch 4-8, dropping them below a 90-win pace for the first time this season.

The offense sputtered a bit in the middle games, scoring just 15 R across 6 losses in 7 games from the 22nd-28th, including 2 shutouts. Denard Span, Orlando Hudson and Joe Mauer were all underwhelming at the top of the lineup, providing fewer opportunities with RISP for Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel than we're accustomed to seeing. The pitchers didn't contribute much of anything during the 9 NL games. Nick Punto, Danny Valencia and Delmon Young did a pretty good job from the bottom of the lineup, though.

The big problem recently has been the rotation. Carl Pavano was awesome. Francisco Liriano was decent, but got himself into trouble with 1st inning wildness in 2 of his starts, digging the Twins a hole they couldn't get out of. Scott Baker had 2 splendid starts, 2-1 wins, and 2 stinkers in which he couldn't keep the ball out of the middle of the plate. Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey each had a couple of nightmare starts in which they couldn't even finish 5 IP. The bullpen generally did a splendid job covering for them - until this afternoon, anyway.

10 errors led to 5 more unearned R in this split, costing the Twins at least one win against the Rays last Thursday. Again, those numbers are about equivalent to the totals the Twins had accrued in their first 3 splits combined (10 E, 4 unearned R). Worse than that, the Twins let numerous innings get out of hand when they failed to convert bunts, choppers and other rather gently hit balls into outs. They were scored as H or FC, but they still represent plays that could have been made, weren't, and therefore placed extra stress on the pitchers to try to control the damage, and on the offense to try to make up for the extra runs.

One important change: the Twins moved Cuddyer to 3B in order to keep both Young and Kubel in the lineup in the NL. That move has carried over back into the AL games, providing a spot for Jim Thome to get regular AB at DH. This has paid immediate dividends, as Thome seems to be the only person who can hit the ball out of Target Field with any regularity. Cuddyer will weaken the IF defense, but Thome's stick should more than make up for it.

One more game with the Rays, then the Twins spend the next 15 playing teams whose 1st half run differentials top out at -6. If they can return to the form they showed in April, there's no reason the next split can't get them back to their high-water mark of 11 games over .500.

Bold prediction: The Twins will enhance their roster with a trade sometime in the next 20 days.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

June Review

Twins' Record: 12-15
Overall Record: 43-35, 1st in AL Central by 1.5 games

The Twins took a pretty significant step backward this month in just about every phase of the game. June is so often the point when the Twins put the pedal down, because they are routinely dominant in interleague play. But they went just 6-9 in their games against NL opponents this month, while playing .500 against AL teams. There's no shame in playing Atlanta, Colorado, Philadelphia and the Mets to a draw, but dropping 3 straight to the Brewers was a major low point, particularly when the Twins have won so regularly in Milwaukee in recent years.

The offense dropped off another half run from where they were in May, scoring just 4.26 R/G, good for just 11th in the league. They scored 3 or fewer R 12 times, going 2-10 in those games. A lot of that was related to Orlando Hudson spending half the month on the DL, then needing a while to get back up to speed. A lot of it has to do with a subpar month from Joe Mauer, and a fairly punchless month from Michael Cuddyer. The Twins drew far fewer walks, dropping their OBP below league average for the first time this season. Where they did succeed, it was due especially to the soaring OBP Nick Punto provided at the bottom of the lineup (even when Denard Span and Hudson were scuffling) and the clutch hitting of Delmon Young, who always seemed to come through when he came up with RISP.

The pitching slumped from the top tier of the league down to the middle of the pack with a 4.22 ERA. They allowed 5 or more R 13 times, going 1-12 in those games (the only win coming in the Saturday afternoon slugfest in Philly). The back end of the rotation was the main culprit: Scott Baker (6.07 ERA), Kevin Slowey (5.29) and Nick Blackburn (10.17) were regularly battered, combining for just 87.2 IP over 17 GS (5+ IP/GS) and allowing 19 HR (1.95 HR/9) in that span. Thankfully, Carl Pavano was brilliant, mopping up 40 IP over 5 GS with a sparkling 2.25 ERA. And Alex Burnett was the weakest link in the bullpen with a 4.22 ERA - not too shabby.

I was used to seeing zeroes from the Twins in the Error column of the box score, but this month that wasn't the norm. After committing just 12 E and allowing only 5 unearned R over the first 2 months of 2010, the Twins had 17 E and 7 unearned R in June. 3 of those E and unearned R were the difference between winning and losing the finale against the Royals. And there were several times when the IF failed to convert bunts and fielded grounders into outs, extending innings and allowing more damage to be done. I blame the absence of Hudson and JJ Hardy for a lot of this - hopefully those two will both be able to stay on the field for the 2nd half.

While the Twins were stumbling along, the White Sox and Tigers were rampaging through a slate of National League cream puffs, so the standings are suddenly pretty tight. The next month will set the tone for the 2nd half of the season. If the Twins play the way they did in April, they'll rebuild their lead and force the competition to make some tough choices about whether they want to upgrade their rosters in order to stay in the race. If they play the way they did in June, they'll embolden the rest of the division, and we'll be in for another fight all the way to the final days of the season.

This month I'll just be looking at guys who contributed at least 30 PA or 9 IP:

Getting It Done

Jason Kubel - It took a couple months to get going, but .316/.356/.537 is a line that any team will be happy to have from a corner OF.

Jim Thome - Here's how to make the most of limited playing time: in just 28 AB, Thome had 8 H, 7 for extra bases. Giving him regular PA for the rest of the season could be one of the keys for the Twins in the 2nd half.

Delmon Young - The walks really trailed off, and the IsoP wasn't terribly impressive, either. What was impressive was the timeliness of Young's hits, as he seemed to come through in every situation with RISP. His 24 RBI were 50% more than any other Twin accumulated.

Carl Pavano - The pitching MVP for the month, Pavano not only soaked up 40 IP in 5 GS, he did it with a 2.25 ERA and 0.80 WHIP.

Jon Rauch - Only 4/5 in save opportunities, but he was generally pretty reliable, allowing just 6 baserunners in 9 IP and only 1 ER, a memorable 2-out PH HR in the bottom of the 10th.

Jesse Crain - I wasn't sure he was going to stay on the staff after May, so I can forgive a few too many walks (6 in 9.2 IP) if it comes with 9 K, 9 H and 0 HR allowed for a 1.86 ERA.

Brian Duensing - Whether he needs to pick up a few innings after a short start, face a tough lefty or two, or give a full inning in the setup role, Duensing has been totally effective this year.

Matt Guerrier - Another great month for Guerrier in terms of ERA (2.03) and WHIP (1.20), and he finally had the strikeouts (12 in 13.1 IP) to justify it.

Ron Mahay - Last season, Mahay bounced between good months and lousy months. That pattern is continuing in 2010. June was one of the good months.

So Far, So Good

Justin Morneau - .299/.349/.505 is about the least I'd expect from an All-Star first baseman.

Danny Valencia - He was surprisingly punchless in the minors, and that's continued with the Twins. But he's hitting for average (.304) and has drawn enough walks to get his OBP to .360. That, plus competent defense at 3B, is a solid contribution from a rookie at the bottom of the lineup.

Nick Punto - .301/.396/.386 is about as good a hitting line as we'll see from Punto. Unfortunately, his defense was shaky at times - the mistakes he made in the field led to a few extra runs that really hurt.

Francisco Liriano - Just look at the key peripherals: 6.2 IP/GS, 2.2 BB/9, 10.9 K/9, 0 HR/9, 1.18 WHIP. Those are ace numbers. If he can just cut down on the HBP and IF H, we're in business.

Alex Burnett - I feel like we're starting to see some cracks in Burnett's game. But, he's a rookie, and a rather young one, and he's holding his own.

Need To Pick It Up

Joe Mauer - .271/.349/.396 is decent for a C, but it's not worth $23M/year.

Denard Span - Only 7 BB this month, dropping the OBP to .319. That's not going to cut it from the leadoff spot.

Orlando Hudson - He's been slow to recover from his injury, striking out 12 times in just 50 AB since his return to the lineup.

Michael Cuddyer - He hit a HR the 2nd game of the month, and that was that in the power department. Great to see him willing to take on 3B, though - letting Thome into the lineup should be a net gain for the team.

Matt Tolbert - A .625 OPS isn't too far beneath what one could have expected from Tolbert. It's also not enough to make it worth keeping him around.

Kevin Slowey - The WHIP is identical to Liriano's, the BB/9 is better. But 5 HR in 32.1 IP is too many, not to mention all the other XBH he gave up - usually in quick succession.

Scott Baker - A strikeout per inning, a walk every 10 IP. That's excellent. But 8 HR in 29.2 IP? That's horrendous.

Nick Blackburn - Whatever he had going for him in May didn't follow him into June. He was shelled for 45 H, including 6 HR, in just 25.2 IP over 6 GS. Even worse, he walked 11 in that time, a rate someone with his stuff can ill afford.