Tuesday, April 19, 2011

1st Split: 6-10

5th in AL Central by 6 games

Click here for a reminder of why I do these.

Last fall, I advocated a quiet offseason for the Twins. Their resources were somewhat limited, and there was no way of knowing which of the many players coming back from down seasons and injuries would fail to bounce back in 2011. If it turned out that everyone was healthy and productive, they could spend on luxury upgrades to an already successful team. But if it turned out that one or more positions had broken down, they would be in position to shore up those specific areas. Unfortunately, that strategy, combined with a fairly unimpressive slate of prospects at AAA, would mean that they would begin the season with a disquieting lack of depth, especially at the up-the-middle positions and 1B.

Needless to say, the Twins haven't been healthy or productive so far. It started in spring training, when Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young and Francisco Liriano all joined the program late due to lingering physical troubles from the offseason. Kevin Slowey and Tsuyoshi Nishioka hit the DL after the 1st week of the season. Mauer joined them a week later. Now Morneau is sick. That's forced Cuddyer to start more than half of his games in the IF, where he's even more of a defensive liability. Drew Butera is now the primary catcher, with AAA filler Steve Holm as the backup. AAA filler Eric Hacker has been called up to fill in for Slowey. What began the season as a pretty good starting roster has become inundated with replacement level scrubs.

The hitters who missed half of spring training haven't done a thing at the plate. Mauer (.235/.289/.265), Morneau (.208/.250/.302), Cuddyer (.228/.279/.281) and Young (.228/.286/.281) have yet to put a ball in the seats in over 200 combined PA. The terrible BA are exacerbated by a team-wide fear of drawing walks: the Twins are last in the AL in that category. Add that to their MLB-low 5 HR, and it's not surprising to find them at the bottom of the leader board in OBP, SLG%, IsoP, OPS and RS. We heard a lot in the offseason about how the front office was trying to add some team speed. That has resulted in 7 SB so far, tied for 10th in the league. Nishioka has been hurt and Casilla can't get on base, but Denard Span (.313/.343/.422) has been at 1B plenty, and he has as many steals (1) as Jason Kubel (.316/.361/.491). Those two, incidentally, got their reps in during spring training.

The pitching, despite some rather loud setbacks, has largely been decent. After sleepwalking through the 1st 2 games of the season, they've allowed 53 R over the last 14 games for an ERA comfortably under 4.00. Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn have all been solid, averaging about 6 IP/GS with good ERAs and (for them) K/9 - especially if you give the first 3 a mulligan on their shaky, season-opening innings. Liriano has struggled, mainly due to terrible command and somewhat reduced velocity (related to a shortened spring training, perhaps?). The bullpen has had a couple of bright spots, but those are overshadowed by the failures of Joe Nathan and Matt Capps, who have blown 3 saves between them. Dusty Hughes and Jeff Manship have been horrible, with Manship earning a demotion to AAA yesterday. Hopefully we've seen the last of him.

The defense hasn't been stellar, but it's been a pleasant surprise in a lot of ways. Nishioka had a very jittery debut in the field, but the rest of the team has made just 7 E. They've resulted in 4 unearned runs so far, though I think Cuddyer should have been charged with an E and UER at the end of Kansas City's big inning vs. Liriano. The surprise has been the play of the corner OF, where Young and Kubel have made a ton of catches at the fringes of their range. Maybe those would have been easier catches with better fielders, but they've made the plays they were capable of so far.

It's been a flat-out lousy start. But, thanks to the fact that several of their opponents have been scuffling offensively as well, the Twins have managed to stay in most of the games so far. In fact, if Nathan and Capps had done their jobs, this could have been a .500 split. That's extraordinary when you think of how all-around awfully the Twins have played. The good news: this is only 1/10th of the season, they're only 1.5 games behind Detroit and 1 behind the White Sox (the true contenders for the division title), and there's nowhere to go but up.

Bold Prediction: The Twins will hit at least 12 HR over the next 16 games.

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