Friday, August 13, 2004
Calm Before the StormJustin Morneau is a monster. He hits 'em out to right field, he hits 'em out to center field, and he hits 'em out to left field. Sure, he's got some flaws -- he swings at anything high and inside and he doesn't draw any walks -- but he's 23 years old and he's got more power than anyone the Twins have had in at least three decades.
In my dozen or so years as a Twins fan, Morneau is the first hitter whom I actually get excited to watch every time he comes to the plate. There's just always the threat that he might launch something 450 feet. Hell, Morneau is going to have an outside chance at leading the team in home runs, despite playing in about half their games. He has 10 already, in 33 games with the team. The team leader, Jacque Jones, has 18 in 109 games.
While watching Morneau blast two homers off Ryan Franklin, I initially got happy (for obvious reasons) and then got angry, when I started thinking about what could have been this year with Joe Mauer and Morneau batting back-to-back in the lineup. This whole Mauer injury situation really has me depressed and frustrated.
The latest is that he is not going to need additional surgery and should be able to rejoin the team at some point this season, which sounds like good news. However, the team has no idea when exactly he'll be able to return and it is also sounding more and more like his chances of being an everyday catcher are basically shot. They're talking about "just getting his bat in the lineup," which is fine, but nonetheless very depressing.
As a catcher, Mauer has a chance to be one of the great players of this era. As a designated hitter, he has a chance to be a good designated hitter. There's a big difference. Not only would Mauer be sapped of all the value he brings to the table defensively (which is immense) if he was a DH, his offensive value would go way down too. You see, the average DH is about 10% better offensively than the average catcher, which immediately takes a big chunk of Mauer's value as a hitter away.
It's just so frustrating to think about what could have been, and think about the fact that it may never be. And it's not like Mauer played five years as catcher and found it too difficult to fend off nagging injuries before deciding to switch positions. He was catching just fine and was brought down with a very fluky injury. I mean, his catching gear got caught on the turf at the Metrodome while he was chasing after a foul ball.
Ugh! It's so upsetting to me.
It's not all bad news, of course, because even if Mauer can never catch another inning again, a 21-year-old DH who hits like he does is pretty damn nice. Or he could learn third base or first base (pushing Morneau to DH). Still, a 21-year-old catcher who hits like he does was unbelievably exciting.
I was thinking about this the other day, about how young Mauer is and how young Morneau is, and I realized the Twins are in pretty good shape when it comes to their future. It could be argued that, once Mauer comes back, the team's three best players are Johan Santana, Mauer and Morneau. Those three are 25, 21 and 23 years old, respectively.
And they have Jason Kubel, another potential star, tearing up Triple-A right now. Kubel, a corner outfielder who is hitting .353 at Triple-A after hitting .377 at Double-A, is just 22 years old. Personally, I'm hoping the Twins commit to Kubel as their everyday rightfielder next year, either letting Jacque Jones go or (preferably) dealing him for a middle infielder or some pitching.
Of course, the problem comes when you try to draw up a lineup for next year (or even for the end of this season). If Mauer can't catch, I assume he DHs. In which case, you've got two spots (left field and right field) for three players -- Shannon Stewart, Lew Ford and Jones this year, Stewart, Ford and Kubel next year.
Stewart is locked up to a big contract, Kubel is hopefully someone who is going to be a stud for the next decade, and Ford is cheap and has been the team's most valuable hitter this season. So, yet again, the Twins will have a logjam at LF/RF/DH. The Twins' logjam is like Bebe's Kids ... it doesn't die, it multiplies.
All of which assumes, of course, that Joe Mauer can't catch 90-100 games per year. That's not an assumption the Twins have made yet, or at least not one they've made publicly, but it doesn't sound good to me. Of course, I've been known to be a bit of a pessimist.
As usual with the Twins this year, the Mauer injury isn't the only one to worry about. Grant Balfour, who missed the beginning of the season with a bum shoulder, is back on the shelf with the same problem and apparently has a "slightly torn right labrum." A torn labrum is just about the worst injury a pitcher can have, so this is not good news.
Balfour has looked outstanding this year (4-1 with a 3.33 ERA and .179 batting average against) and he is a guy I've been hyping for about two years as someone who could be an impact pitcher. It sounds like he's going to try to pitch through it, which to me sounds like a recipe for mediocre pitching and an eventual "fully torn right labrum."
Also, Corey Koskie had his wrist slammed into by Willie Bloomquist while trying to field Henry Blanco's throw to third base at the end of Wednesday's game. At the time, I thought Koskie had broken his arm, from the way the collision looked and the way Koskie reacted (as if someone had hit him in the arm with a sledgehammer). Word is that it's only a minor injury and he'll be back fairly soon.
The good news is that Koskie could probably use a few days off and Michael Cuddyer, his replacement at third base, could definitely use a few days in the lineup. I personally want to see how Cuddyer handles third base, since Koskie is a free agent, and I have always wanted to see Cuddyer's bat in the lineup. Anyone realize he's hitting .258/.326/.441 right now, including .319/.396/.596 since the All-Star break? Remember how I kept saying he could and would hit, throughout his struggles? Just checking.
Now, onto the big series ...
Game 1: Carlos Silva (10-7, 4.21) vs. Scott Elarton (1-8, 7.19)
Game 2: Kyle Lohse (5-9, 5.17) vs. Jake Westbrook (10-5, 3.61)
Game 3: Terry Mulholland (3-6, 5.14) vs. Chad Durbin (5-4, 5.88)
How awful are those pitching matchups? The Indians avoid both Brad Radke and Johan Santana, the Twins' two reliable starters, while the Twins avoid C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, Cleveland's two lefties. As I talked about yesterday, the Twins have continued to stink against left-handed pitching this year, and Sabathia has been particularly good against them, going 4-2 with a 3.45 ERA in 11 career starts.
The pitching situation is pretty scary for the Twins, who are 9-3 in games started by Radke and Santana since the All-Star break, but just 7-8 in games started by everyone else. On the flip side, the Indians probably don't care who's on the mound for them, because they've gotten to where they are (61-55, three games back) by basically just bashing the hell out of their opponent.
The Indians are leading all of Major League Baseball in runs scored, a group that includes the Red Sox, Yankees and a team that plays half its games in Colorado. They've been particularly dominant offensively since the All-Star break, scoring an average of 6.0 runs per game on their way to a 19-10 post-break record. In other words, things could get very ugly at Jacobs Field this weekend.
This is an incredibly important series for these two teams, particularly considering it's only the middle of August. The Twins are struggling, the Indians are red hot, and they've closed the gap to three games extremely quickly and extremely quietly.
If the Indians were to sweep this series and tie the Twins for the division lead, the rest of the division race might resemble those situations in Nascar races where one car "drafts" behind the leader for a while and then just busts out in front of them, never to be caught.
If the Twins can take two out of three or sweep, it could send a message to Cleveland that the Twins aren't quite ready to give up their spot as the big shots of the division. Either way, I suspect the AL Central race is going to be a lot closer than I expected just a few short days ago.
I'm not willing to count on Silva, Lohse or Mulholland for anything more than maybe 1-2 decent starts, so the offense is going to actually have to show up for the Twins to win this series. If they can't do some damage against Elarton and Durbin, they're in serious trouble, because I'd be very surprised if the Indians don't score at least 15 runs during the series.
AL CENTRAL W L WIN% GBGo Twins!
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Thursday, August 12, 2004
OffensiveRemember last week, after the Twins lost that painful 18-inning game to the A's? I wrote this:
Is there anything worse than an 18-inning loss? That's not a rhetorical question either, I'm actually wondering. In the world of baseball, is there anything worse?Well, the Twins put that to the test last night, losing a regulation, nine-inning game by committing consecutive throwing errors. But rather than complain about that, let's set last night's loss aside and complain about something else ...
Honestly, how pathetic is the Twins' offense right now?
For the year, they rank 10th in the American League in runs scored and OPS. Before the All-Star break, they scored 4.7 runs per game. Since the All-Star break, they've averaged 4.7 runs per game.
It is just a pathetic, pathetic offense. With Joe Mauer on the disabled list and Doug Mientkiewicz in Boston, the team now has just three everyday players who I would classify as "patient" -- Corey Koskie, Shannon Stewart and Lew Ford. The rest of the regulars -- Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Luis Rivas, Cristian Guzman, Justin Morneau -- are pretty much just up there hacking.
Now, I know that's the Twins' style, and when it's working it's just fine, but when the doubles aren't flying into the gaps, the team is just pathetic at the plate. They swing at awful pitches, they don't get into hitter's counts, and when they actually do get ahead in the count, they blow it by swinging at questionable pitches.
All of which leads to getting shut down by very mediocre pitchers. Don't believe me? Here's a list of some starting pitchers who have had a "Quality Start" against the Twins since the All-Star break ...
That's 11 Quality Starts by guys who are questionable, for various reasons and to varying degrees, and the Twins have only played a total of 26 games since the All-Star break. And that's not even counting the Quality Starts they had thrown against them by guys like Mark Mulder and Pedro Martinez, or a bunch of seven-inning/four-run starts by other mediocre guys that don't qualify as Quality Starts.
It's just pathetic.
This is what happens when you have guys like Rivas and Guzman and Henry Blanco in the lineup every day, particularly when the team doesn't have a true superstar hitter to make up for their shortcomings.
As they showed last night against Madritsch, and as has been the case for the last several years, the team is particularly vulnerable to left-handed pitching. They are 19-19 in games started by a lefty this year, as opposed to 43-31 when a righty starts against them. Last year, they were 25-29 against lefties and 65-43 against righties.
This is a result of the bulk of the hitters -- Morneau, Koskie, Jones, Mauer, Mientkiewicz (before he was dealt) -- being lefties, plus the fact that righties (or switch-hitters) like Guzman, Rivas, Blanco and Hunter don't exactly destroy lefties. And Ron Gardenhire's refusal to bench Jacque Jones against southpaws isn't helping either. I literally get e-mails calling me an idiot every time Jones gets a hit against a lefty (like he did last night). Thankfully that's not too often.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that, right around the time we could start writing off the White Sox as a legitimate threat, the Indians come out of nowhere to put some serious pressure on the Twins. Cleveland has now gone 18-10 since the All-Star break, cutting the Twins' division lead to a slim three games.
The most disheartening thing for Twins fans, aside from how awful the offense has been, is that the Twins and Indians will play 13 more times before the end of the season. So while a three-game lead in the middle of August is nice to have, it can vanish in an instant.
The series against the Indians this weekend, in Cleveland, is going to be a big one.
New article at The Hardball Times: Fearsome Foursomes
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Good Old Rubber ArmThoughts I had while watching the first inning of last night's Twins/Mariners game ...
If I live to see the Red Sox actually win another World Series, I will never quite understand Ron Gardenhire. The team just got finished trading Doug Mientkiewicz in order to create the playing time for both Justin Morneau and Lew Ford, which is something I agreed with.
So what does Gardenhire do with that new lineup spot created by Mientkiewicz's departure? He puts Jose Offerman in it, of course. Offerman, a 35-year-old career .274/.361/.374 hitter who was signed during the offseason to serve as the team's "veteran pinch-hitter," has now started three of the past four games as the team's designated hitter.
I have actually been quite impressed by Offerman's incredible discipline at the plate this year and he has enough timely hits to sway me opinion of him so that I now have no problem having him around as a bench player. That said, starting him at DH three times in four games, on this team, is just crazy.
POST-GAME UPDATE: Offerman went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and the guy he replaced in the lineup, Ford, hit a pinch-hit home run in his only plate appearance of the night.
Everyone involved with the Twins, from Gardenhire and the players to Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven, can't stop talking about how amazing it is that Terry Mulholland has a "rubber arm."
While Mulholland was giving up a leadoff single to Ichiro!, Blyleven and Bremer went on and on about how great it was that Mulholland could pitch the 18th inning of the game against the A's over the weekend and then make his start against the Mariners tonight.
Yet no one mentions the fact that Mulholland's arm, whatever substance it is made of, is just not very good. He has a 5.14 ERA this year and has given up 92 hits and 19 walks in 70 innings. Also, he hasn't had an ERA better than league average since I was 16.
As for his pitching in last week's 18-inning game, is it really all that wonderful that he was willing and able to come into a tie game that had been scoreless for nine straight innings and give up three runs to lose the game?
POST-GAME UPDATE: I guess there's no need for this, since I ended up complaining about Mulholland again in about 30 seconds.
Edgar Martinez got a very nice standing ovation when he stepped into the batter's box for the first time tonight, which was great to see. I'm a big fan of Edgar's and, while I don't think he's a Hall of Famer (I'll examine this issue a little more closely soon), it's always wonderful to see a fan base so in love with a player who has been with the team for his entire career.
And, of course, Edgar hit a two-run home run immediately after his ovation ended, giving the Mariners a 2-0 lead. But hey, Mulholland could probably lose tomorrow's game too, if they let him. He's got a rubber arm!
After Martinez's homer, Mulholland gave up a double to Bret Boone and then gave up another two-run homer, this time to Bucky Jacobsen. I think Gardenhire should yank him right now, because then the Twins could use him in relief tomorrow and he could probably start again in 2-3 days, seeing as though he's got that rubber arm and everything.
Someone I have a feeling that, if no one cared about how well they pitched, a lot of guys could have a "rubber arm."
By the way, as I write this sentence it is 9:33 p.m., long before any post-game quotes or news stories appear. I'm predicting Mulholland, Gardenhire, pitching coach Rick Anderson and/or some member of the media makes an excuse for Mulholland's bad first-inning performance by saying he pitched when he wasn't scheduled to pitch in the 18-inning game, and that threw him off for tonight.
Here's the problem with that ... If a guy has a "rubber arm" because he can pitch "whenever" and the guy actually stinks when he pitches and then is given excuses because he actually pitched "whenever," then what good is having a rubber arm?
POST-GAME UPDATE: Mulholland ended up going seven innings and he didn't allow a single run after those two two-run homers. Obviously the end result wasn't so bad, but that first inning was just miserable. Oh, and from the game story on MLB.com: "The Minnesota starter was working on just one day of rest following his relief outing on Sunday in the Twins' 18-inning marathon against the Athletics."
Okay, Mulholland just gave up a single to Jose Lopez. It's 4-0 Seattle and five of their first seven batters have hits. I just changed the channel, choosing to watch the World Series of Poker on ESPN instead of smashing the TV over my head. Goodnight. By the way, in about three hours, the Indians will be four games back.
POST-GAME UPDATE: I tuned back in just in time to see the Twins score a run in the eighth and a run in the ninth, cutting the lead to one run before losing 4-3. And Cleveland is, in fact, four games out of a first place.
New article at The Hardball Times: Hardball Questions: Andy Baldwin
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Star PupilsI always have a tough time when the Twins play the A's. While I will never root for another team against the Twins, I do root for Oakland in any circumstance in which they aren't going up against my favorite team. So, while the Twins losing three out of four to the A's was tough to take as a Twins fan (particularly considering Sunday's 18-inning disaster), it's a whole lot better than losing three out of four to some other team.
In a way, losing a series to Oakland is like losing out on a girl to your best friend. There's no way you're happy about not getting the girl, but you can still sort of deal with it by saying, "At least he got her." Losing to the A's is the absolute worst thing in the world, except for losing to every other team. Plus, the A's, who have been going back and forth atop the American League West with the Rangers and Angels all year, definitely needed it, and probably a lot more than the Twins.
I got a lot of "interesting" e-mails from Twins fans and White Sox fans after I basically said the AL Central race was getting close to being over. My exact words were that the Twins "are getting very close to running away and hiding from the rest of the American League Central."
Now, after dropping the final game of the Anaheim series and losing three out of four to the A's, you might think I'd be ready to retract or at least amend that statement, but I'm not. That's because my feelings on the division race being nearly over had less to do with the Twins than with the White Sox.
The White Sox, despite a favorable schedule coming down the stretch, will not win the AL Central, and I wouldn't bet against them finishing in third place (where they currently reside). Their two best players are done for the year, their offense is suddenly awful (last night being the exception), they've lost 12 of their last 15 games, and they are already six games behind the Twins. As I said last week, I'm far more concerned about the Indians, although I don't see them making up a five-game deficit either.
As was the case at the start of the year, the Twins are a very flawed team. And, as was the case at the start of the year, there is absolutely no way they would be in contention for any other division in baseball. But because they only have to beat the other four teams in the AL Central, and because the one team among those four most people expected to be good this year is suddenly very mediocre, the Twins will once again win the division.
I sometimes wonder how much things would be different if the Twins were in a different division (or if the AL Central had some other good teams). They will likely make the playoffs for the third straight season this year and it will be their fourth straight season winning at least 50% of their games. And for that, the team -- from the players to Ron Gardenhire to Terry Ryan -- should be praised.
But what if, instead of this being their third straight division title run, they were simply going for third place in the AL East or AL West for the third straight year? Or what if the "big deal" about the team was only the part about playing .500 baseball for four straight years, without all the postseason stuff?
I think, despite some flaws, Terry Ryan and the Twins' front office staff have done a tremendous job. I think, despite some even more obvious flaws, Ron Gardenhire has done an acceptable job. And certainly the players deserve a ton of credit for the success this team has had over the past 3-4 years. But more than any of that, I think you have to look long and hard at the competition in the AL Central as the main reason why the Twins have gotten so much praise of late.
Take the Philadelphia Phillies, for example. They're getting a ton of criticism, just like they did last year, because they haven't done as well as many people (myself included) thought they would. But what if the Phillies didn't have to compete against the Braves and the Marlins, but instead simply had to beat the White Sox each year?
WINSSince the Twins became a good team again, they've won 331 games while playing half their games against the White Sox, Royals, Indians and Tigers. During that same time, the Phillies have won 310 games while playing half their games against the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Expos.
One team, the Twins, is looked at as a huge success story and an organization other teams model themselves after. The other team, the Phillies, are viewed as a huge disappointment. Yet the only thing separating them is 21 wins over the course of four years. Again, if the Twins were fighting the Braves and the Marlins every year, instead of just the White Sox, don't you think things might be a little different?
And it's not just the Phillies. The Dodgers won 86, 92 and 85 games from 2001-2003 and are on pace for 96 wins this year, but if they can hold on to their lead in the NL West, it will be their first playoff appearance since 1996. The Astros have won 319 games over the same time span the Twins have won 331 games, but they will likely have just one playoff appearance to show for it. The Blue Jays won 80, 78 and 86 games from 2001-2003, but didn't even come close to sniffing first place.
Unless they go into a huge funk for the final two months of the season, the Twins will make the playoffs for the third straight year. In those three years, they've played the easiest schedule of any team in baseball. The Twins' "Strength of Schedule" ranks dead last in all of baseball this season, it ranked dead last in 2003, and it ranked dead last in 2002.
Being the smartest kid in the dumb class has its perks, as Twins fans have found out over the past 2+ seasons. At the same time, it's worth remembering that there are teams out there playing against quality competition who, if put in the Twins' situation, would very likely have had the same amount of success, and maybe more. In other words, you might be the smartest kid in the dumb class, but that's just because the kids in the smart class are stuck there.
While this may seem like an anti-Twins rant, it is not. It is just what I've been thinking about lately, while wondering if, at some point along the line, the Twins could have done a few things and made a few moves to move them into the realm of serious contenders.
Instead, it seems to me they've been content simply being the teacher's pet in the dumb class that is the AL Central and, while that's fun and a nice boost to the collective egos of Twins fans, it also leaves a feeling of "what could have been" if only they'd set their goals a little higher.
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Monday, August 09, 2004
UghIs there anything worse than an 18-inning loss? That's not a rhetorical question either, I'm actually wondering. In the world of baseball, is there anything worse?
To waste another nice start by Carlos Silva, a game-tying home run by Cristian Guzman off Mark Mulder, scoreless relief appearances by Juan Rincon, Aaron Fultz, Jesse Crain and Joe Nathan, and a nearly flawless "second start" by Joe Roa (five innings, one hit, zero runs) ... it's beyond frustrating.
And the thing about losing an 18-inning game is that you're almost excited that the game actually ended, so you don't quite realize how awful you feel until a few hours later. It's like stubbing your toe and then dropping a 50-pound weight on your foot after the initial pain goes away.
I could give you my thoughts on the game, with some comments on just how awful the Twins' offense was while not scoring a single run for nine straight innings, or on the many interesting managerial decisions made by Ron Gardenhire, but frankly I just want to forget this game ever happened.
Let's just pretend the Twins lost in nine innings, let's just pretend they didn't look completely lost at the plate for what was an entire regulation game, let's just forget about the fact that they blew their bullpen out and have a game this afternoon, and let's just pretend I didn't spend four hours and 57 minutes of my life preparing for that weight to be dropped on my foot.
In an effort to take our minds off the incredibly frustrating game that may or may not have happened yesterday, let's talk about something that I think will make all Twins fans smile ... Johan Santana.
Go check out this article ...
The Hardball Times: Getting What You Wished For
And please, for the love of Twins fans and bullpen arms everywhere, how about seven strong innings today, Kyle?
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****