Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Scapegoat

Who's to blame for this fiasco? There has been an abundance of failure this season, and there will undoubtedly be changes for 2012. It would be great to find an individual whose removal would assure an upturn in the Twins' fortunes for next year. But, when a team loses 30+ wins year-over-year, can any one person account for the fall?

If I had to single out a player, it would be Matt Capps. From the beginning of the season until he was taken out of the Closer role in mid-July, Capps went 15/22 in save opportunities with a 4.76 ERA and 7 HR allowed in 39.2 IP. The Twins lost 6 of those 7 games that they were leading late. Had he converted at least 3 more of those opportunities, the Twins would have been trailing the Tigers by just 3 games in the last week of July, putting them in a clear position to deal for reinforcements and potentially head off the free-fall they've been in since the trade deadline. Capps has been better lately, but still has blown 2 leads while holding just 3, and has lost 2 games that were tied when he entered. Basically, he single-handedly cost the Twins at least 5 wins, which is a ton for a guy who's only pitched about 5% of the team's total IP. But even if he'd been great, it probably wouldn't have been enough to turn things around.

It's typical to lay blame for a disappointing season upon a head coach or manager, but I don't think Gardy deserves much. He's coming off a tremendous, Manager of the Year season. His staff is the same group of coaches who have consistently led the Twins to competitive finishes. Prior to this year, the only 2 seasons he didn't have his team in contention were 2005 & 2007, when the offense failed to support the pitching staff thanks to flukishly low BABIPs. There are certainly a couple of managerial decisions that contributed to the mess. He should have reinstalled Joe Nathan as the Closer 2-3 weeks earlier than he did. And his misguided displeasure with JJ Hardy's 2010 performance seems to have been a factor in prompting that trade and, consequently, a significant downgrade to the SS position. But more often than not, I've felt bad for Gardy. He only got to play his opening day lineup a couple of times. He frequently had to work with a short bench. Basically, he had no choice but to pencil in a bunch of guys who weren't ready to contribute at the Major League level.

Part of that was the result of poor scouting. Somebody recommended to the front office that Tsuyoshi Nishioka was capable of being an every day middle infielder in The Show. Somebody thought that Eric Hacker, Scott Diamond, Jim Hoey and Dusty Hughes were worthy of 40-man roster spots. Those scouts might find that their jobs are on the line now, or at least that they've lost some of the credibility they once enjoyed.

Part of it was the result of poor player development. With the exceptions of Anthony Swarzak and Chris Parmelee, the common thread running through all the guys the Twins brought up from the minors was that they were bad at their jobs. Position players that couldn't hit. Pitchers who couldn't throw strikes, or miss bats, or keep the ball in the yard. Baserunning blunders. Inability to execute with RISP and less than 2 outs. The reinforcements couldn't do the big things, but they couldn't do the little things either. The Rochester coaching staff already got the axe after producing back-to-back 90-loss seasons, and the organizational shakeup may not stop there.

But part of the reason that Rochester struggled so much was that the players who began the season there didn't have much upside to begin with. A few who did have some favorable projection - Alex Burnett, Swarzak, Rene Tosoni, Luke Hughes, Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe - were called up to the Majors multiple times, some before they were ready, some into part-time roles that kept them from establishing much of a rhythm. A few others were lost to injuries - Kyle Gibson, Anthony Slama and David Bromberg, for example. But guys who had been discarded by other teams - guys like Steve Holm and Rene Rivera, Phil Dumatrait, Chuck James, Hacker - were never expected to contribute much to the Twins. When the tattered depth chart forced them into service, the dreadful results should have come as a surprise to no one.

It was clear going into the season that the depth on this team was paper-thin at several positions. Bill Smith has to be accountable for that. Several rival GMs did a much better job of building depth. Tampa Bay, for example, had even more desertions to its playoff-caliber bullpen than the Twins did. But they rebuilt on the cheap, and their unit owns a solid ERA and the second-fewest blown saves in the league. Still, I don't think it would have been reasonable for Smith to expect that so many of the journeymen he signed to flesh out the AAA team should have found their way onto the Major League roster.

The biggest problem with the 2011 Twins is that the 1st-string guys weren't able to play together. They had to use the DL 27 times this season. And that didn't even account for all the games lost to injuries. Regularly, 1 or more players were held out of the lineup for several days with "day-to-day" injuries, shortening the bench for Gardy. Too frequently, those guys wound up on the DL eventually, anyway. Whatever the initial estimates for recovery times, it always seemed to take longer for people to heal. On more than one occasion, a player came back, played poorly for a short period, then went right back on the shelf.

I'll try to quantify how much injuries hurt the Twins this year. Joe Mauer appeared in 82 games this year, including just 52 at Catcher. His 333 PA were about 55% of what he would accumulate in a healthy season. Justin Morneau played 69 games (we'll call that 45% of a healthy season). Denard Span played 70 games (45%). Jason Kubel and Alexi Casilla were at 70%. Nishioka was at 45%. Nick Blackburn made 80% of the 33 GS we would have liked to see. Francisco Liriano made 75%, Scott Baker 64%. Joe Nathan's 44.2 IP were only 64% of the roughly 70 IP he worked in typical seasons.

Apply those percentages to the salaries those guys earned this season, and you wind up losing nearly $30M. Throw in the DL stints for Delmon Young and Jim Thome prior to their trades and you're easily over that. The Twins' opening day payroll was in the top 10 in baseball, but injuries effectively reduced it to the bottom 12. A likely contender was turned into nothing special.

It is the job of the training staff to keep the players on the field. They should put the players on a workout regimen that will give them the strength and flexibility to play at their peak level of performance without breaking down over the course of the long season. When injuries occur, they need to diagnose them quickly and accurately, and realistically assess what the recovery time will be. They need to put hurting guys on a rehab program that will get them back to 100% within their projected timetable.

The Twins' training staff conclusively failed to do this. The injuries began in the offseason and lingered through September. The team the Pohlads paid for never came together. Head Trainer Rick McWane, Assistant Trainer Dave Pruemer and Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Perry Castellano do not have the same track record of success that the coaching staff has earned. In fact, they have drawn criticism from a number of players over the past couple of seasons for the mishandling of various injuries. I don't know the degree to which they did or not, but it's pretty clear to me that there must be somebody out there who could fill their roles better. If I were running the show, I'd make it my 1st order of business on Thursday morning to fire all three of them. That would be a solid 1st step toward making things go better in 2012.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Twins 4, Tigers 8
Twins 2, Tigers 3
Twins 1, Tigers 2

It's the Tigers' year. There have been hints of that throughout the season, most notably that their actual record has far outpaced their Pythagorean Record for most of the summer. Their key players have been healthy and productive. Their opportunistic offense has frequently been able to bail out their largely unimpressive pitching staff. They have won 9 straight. Everything is going their way.

It's not the Twins' year. Their key players have all been injured, and most have been unproductive when in the lineup. Their anemic offense has been unable to step up and provide enough runs for the pitchers to win on the rare days when the hurlers haven't also stunk. They have lost 17 of 21 and 31 of 40. Nothing is going their way.

With that as the backdrop, was there really any doubt that the Tigers would find a way to prevail in the tight games on Saturday and Sunday? Did it matter that Glen Perkins, the Twins' best reliever this season, was facing Brandon Inge, the Tigers' worst hitter? That Perkins had allowed 1 HR all year going into their matchup, and that Inge had hit just 2? When the 1st 2 batters reached against Jose Valverde in the 9th inning on Sunday, was there really any hope that they would both score and cost him his 1st BS of 2011?

Of course not.


  • Did you notice the way Perkins took responsibility for serving up the dinger to Inge and blamed it on Drew Butera at the same time? To paraphrase: "It's my fault for agreeing to throw the stupid pitch that Drew called." Was he being cunning or tactless? I can't decide. But I do know that with every passing week I grow more secure in my conviction that Butera doesn't actually call a good game.

  • The Rays just DFA'd Rob Delaney. Maybe the Twins should scoop him back up. He's been pathetic in 6 total IP for the Rays and Twins so far, but what do you really learn about a guy in 6 jittery innings? In 195.1 IP at AAA he's got a 1.18 WHIP, 8.6 K/9 and just 2.5 BB/9. It's worth a look. What have they got to lose?

  • The Twins are now just 1/2 game ahead of the Orioles in the MLB standings. Oh, so close to the #2 overall draft pick! Keep it up, fellas!

  • The Rockies trail Cleveland by 4 games and Toronto by 4.5 games. If they can pass them both, there's a good chance that they'll move into the top half of the MLB standings, where their aspirations to sign Michael Cuddyer could really do the Twins some good. Go Rox!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Making Lemonade

There are just under 4 weeks to go until the end of the 2011 season, when the Twins and their fans can finally be put out of their misery. Though the division was lost early last month, there are still some things to hope for in September:

Just Lose, Baby

If the season ended today, the Twins would have the 4th overall pick in next summer's draft. They haven't even had a top 10 pick since they got Joe Mauer with the 1st overall pick in 2001. There's a chance that hard slotting will be a feature of the new CBA to be negotiated this offseason. If that's the case, the Twins could get a consensus stud with their top pick and sign him for a set, reasonable bonus, even if he were represented by Scott Boras. Recent #4 picks who have made good include Brian Matusz, Jeff Niemann, Gavin Floyd and Ryan Zimmerman.

A top 5 pick would also ensure a high 2nd round selection. There are typically between 15-30 supplemental round picks, meaning that the Twins' 4th pick in the 2nd round would still be a pick in the 50s overall. For comparison, thanks to an unusually high number of ranked free agents switching teams, their 2 supplemental round picks this year were #50 and #55 overall - technically 1st rounders.

But why settle for #4? Houston has a commanding lead for the 1st overall pick next year. But right now, the Twins are only 2.5 games behind Baltimore for the #2 pick. Recent #2 picks include Dustin Ackley, Pedro Alvarez, Mike Moustakis, BJ Upton, Rickie Weeks and Justin Verlander. The closer you get to the top of the board, the better your odds of picking up a guy who can become a productive major leaguer in short order. To that end...

Call Up Everybody

Gardy's into it, and why not? They've been fielding a lineup full of fringe major leaguers for most of the season anyway. They might as well go whole hog in September. Jim Hoey and Chuck James both got lit up in their earlier stints in the Twins' bullpen, but Alex Burnett is getting lit up now, so what's the difference?

Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano will all try to return before the end of the season. It would be great to see those guys push some of the scrubs out of the lineup and end the year on a positive note. Then again, what's the point? So what if Baker, Blackburn and Liriano each have 2 more decent starts on a pitch count? Or if Span and Casilla each get through 2 weeks of action without headaches or hamstring soreness? What does anybody prove in so little playing time? I'd just as soon have all of them shut down, conclusively heal their injuries and get to work strengthening themselves for next year.

Are Scott Diamond or Anthony Swarzak any good? I doubt it, but let's see what they can do. AA studs Joe Benson, Chris Parmelee and Deolis Guerra (the Reliever) are on the roster but not ready for The Show. Still, let them get their 1st game jitters out of the way in a low-stakes environment. Give them a taste of what they've been working for, so they can keep that image in their minds when they get after it at AAA next spring. They should be the more confident for it when they're called up under what we hope will be more meaningful circumstances during the 2012 season.

Filling the dugout with the few members of the 40-man roster who weren't deemed good enough to merit a call-up at some point during this injury-riddled season should make for a nice September. Gardy will finally have the long bench he's been struggling to keep all year. But the pups won't necessarily be able to produce the way veterans would when they get thrown out there. A 4th sub-.400 month would give the Twins a great chance of moving up in the draft order. Play the kids! However...

Type A Personalities

Impending free agents Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer are both likely to decline arbitration and test the market this offseason. It appears as though both are on the cusp of attaining Type A status. The Twins need to give them every opportunity to do so.

Assuming they want to bring at least one of them back, a Type A ranking would probably put Kubel into the same territory as Carl Pavano last year. Would anybody really want to outbid the open market and give up a 1st-round draft pick for a guy who doesn't hit lefties well, is a minus on the basepaths and in the OF, and has a history of failing to stay healthy? His list of suitors might become quite short, and he might even fall back to the Twins for a relatively modest commitment, as Pavano did. Or, if he is signed by, say, the White Sox, the Twins would pick up another top 20 pick plus a supplemental, giving them 4 of the top 50-60 picks. Fair compensation!

Cuddyer seems to have a deeper market for his services, so I can easily see the Twins being outbid for him. If they have to lose him, I'd rather it be for 2 picks than one. It may be that his status is in doubt because of his mix of time between 1B and RF. If ensuring that he has more OF time is all the Twins need to do to get him firmly into Type A territory, they should make sure he spends all of September away from the IF. Joe Mauer and Luke Hughes can fill in at 1B when Justin Morneau isn't up to it, and Parmelee will be an option there shortly, too.

If anybody's going to play every day from here it out, it should be Kubel and Cuddyer. Though it would perhaps be even better if each sat out 2-3 games against same-sided SP - their rate stats would probably be the better for it. Speaking of Cuddyer...


The Colorado Rockies look like they'll be an aggressive suitor for Cuddyer in the offseason. Currently, they rank #19 in the MLB standings, meaning that they'd only have to give up their 2nd round pick in order to sign him. That wouldn't be so great. They're 5 games behind Toronto for the #15 overall spot, and 5.5 behind Cleveland and the Chisox. They've got a bunch of teams to pass up, but they've played much better than their record shows, and their September schedule is fairly soft. Only 8 of their 25 games are against teams with positive run differentials, and of those, only 2 games vs. Brewers are with contenders. They would need to go 17-8 to finish .500, but they certainly have the talent to do it.

I think there's a good chance at least one of Chicago/Cleveland/Toronto finishes the year with a losing record. The Blue Jays' remaining schedule, in particular, looks rough. If the Rox can slip into the upper half of the standings, they're welcome to sign Cuddyer. The Twins would get back the 16th overall pick, plus another supplemental. Losing both Kubel and Cuddyer under those circumstances could net the Twins 3 of the top 20 picks. To put that in perspective, the Twins have only had 4 top 20 picks in the last 10 years, and 3 of those were exactly #20. The odds of them nabbing at least one impact talent out of that draft would be pretty good. Best of luck to Kubel & Cuddyer's offseason suitors down the stretch!

Final Adjustments

Most of the young guys seeing their 1st Major League action this year have struggled desperately - a lot of OBPs below .300. But that's often the case with newcomers to the league. It takes some guys a little while to get accustomed to the next level. Remember that Alexi Casilla hit just .223/.263/.259 through his 1st 210 PAs, and now he's... well... he's not that bad.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been deer-in-headlights helpless out there for most of the season. His 1st 210 PAs were even worse than Casilla's: .214/.256/.240. But since then, he's 4 for 12 with a couple of BB and just 1 K. No one should be getting excited about 4 good starts, but if he can loosen up and have a decent September, it might be an indication that he won't be totally hopeless in 2012.

Luke Hughes was hitting .233/.296/.317 through the end of July, but in August he hit .256/.341/.641. His weak glove and high strikeout rate will likely keep him from becoming a regular, but if he can repeat his August numbers in September, it would go a long way toward proving that he can be a credible bench/platoon bat.

Through his 1st 171 MLB PA, Trevor Plouffe was hitting just .187/.228/.348 with very questionable defense. But since rejoining the everyday lineup on August 15th, he's hit .300/.338/.443 in 75 PA with much steadier glove work. If he can back that up with a strong final month, the Twins might feel comfortable penciling him into one of the MI spots next spring.

I don't have any encouraging recent numbers to point to with respect to Ben Revere. But he has spent almost no time at AAA - just 32 games, where he hit his typical .300+ BA - so it shouldn't surprise anyone that he's struggled this year. A good September from him would show that he might be ready to be the .300/.350/.350 hitter with 50 SB speed that could be a solid contributor to the lineup. If not, it might be best for everyone if the Twins plan to give him some time at Rochester next spring, and sign a short-term corner OF to bridge the gap.

Those are the things I'll be watching for in September. After that, when the Twins don't play for 5 months... As tough as this season has been, those days will be less fun for me.