I intended to make this an installment of "Twins Notes," because I haven't discussed the team in bullet-point form since last week. I have a bunch of Twins-related topics set aside to cover at some point and I typically try to clear out most of them before the folder becomes unmanageable. Last night I started typing up the entry, beginning with my thoughts on Scott Bakerbeing demoted to Triple-A.
About three sentences into it I no longer felt the urge to discuss the move, so I set that aside for a moment and switched to Torii Hunterwanting to stick around until the new ballpark opens in 2010. Same thing. No matter how many of the saved-up topics I attempted to get started on, I simply couldn't muster up the energy to actually write about them.
As anyone who has read this site for any length of time knows all too well, I've never had a problem babbling about whatever random, ancillary things pop into my head on a given day. All of which means that, as sad as it may sound, I think I've probably reached the point where I no longer really care about the Twins on a day-to-day basis.
If Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire don't care enough to stop trotting out Juan Castro and Tony Batista, why should I care about whether they win or lose a series against the Angels? If the team refuses to stock the roster with the organization's best players, leaving Jason Bartlett to hit .300 at Triple-A for a third straight season, why should I care if the Twins decide to call upTerry Tiffee or Shawn Wooten?
Being in fourth place doesn't bother me after sticking with the team through eight straight losing seasons. What bothers me is that the Twins seem either unable or unwilling to address the issues that have plagued the team since last season. Crappy veterans continue to play far too much, young players are still jerked around constantly, and no one will own up to the mistakes that were made during the offseason.
Castro dropped a routine pop up the other night and I couldn't help but think back to when Bartlett did the same thing in a spring training game. Gardenhire criticized him to anyone who would listen, turning the mistake into an indictment of Bartlett's leadership ability, and then Ryan quickly shipped him back to Rochester and handed Castro the job for a second straight season. Not only didn't Castro receive a fraction of that response, no one even acknowledges that he's been sloppy defensively all year.
(Photos courtesy of Sun Appled Wood.) Whether deserved or not, Castro got a reputation for being a great defensive player many years ago. I find it hard to fathom that anyone who watches the team on a regular basis continues to think that's true, and if a .231/.270/.337 career hitter is no longer an elite defender where exactly does his value come from? It'd be one thing if the Twins lacked other options, but Bartlett played his 174th game at Rochester last night and went 2-for-4 to raise his batting average to .308.
When Batista signed this offseason Ryan showed a lack of understanding about how to score runs by saying that the Twins were willing to live with his gigantic faults because Batista had much-needed power. Batista has been predictably awful both offensively and defensively, hitting .247/.308/.412 with five measly homers in 44 games while costing the Twins countless runs with his statue-like range at third base. The move has been an unmitigated disaster, yet continues to go on with no end in sight.
I don't blame the Twins for Rondell White's horrible performance, because much like Luis Castillo there was plenty of reason to think that he'd be a solid addition to the lineup. I also don't blame the team for what's happened to the pitching staff, because I don't think anyone could have seen that coming to this degree. However, there are plenty of blatantly obvious mistakes that the Twins have no one to blame for but themselves.
That the Twins choose to misguidedly shuffle more and more deck chairs rather than actually address their wider-reaching organizational issues is what has my interest in the remaining two-thirds of the season waning. I'm perfectly willing to support a losing team, but I'm not able to care about a losing team that makes no real effort to fix its problems and compounds previous mistakes with new ones that stem from the same issues.
The Twins talk about focusing on defense, yet have been brutal in the field this year. The Twins talk about "playing the right way" and "doing the little things," yet struggle just to get bunts down, rarely hustle, and routinely let veterans off the hook for sloppy play. The Twins talk about priding themselves on developing young talent, yet treat those same players like crap once they near the big leagues.
Pollyannaish fans, the laughably uncritical mainstream media, and the team's Teflon-like front office have been slow to admit it, but something is rotten in Denmark. The Twins are 75-87 over their last 162 games.
Whenever I criticize Ron Gardenhire here, people inevitably ask why I'm so harsh with him. That's understandable, because I can't take the time to recap all of Gardenhire's faults each time I bring one of them up. For instance, Gardenhire barely playing Jason Kubel for a week isn't a big deal by itself, and for someone who visits this site sporadically my being critical of that may seem like picking on him for something relatively minor.
However, when a pattern of similar behavior emerges it becomes noteworthy and when combined with a litany of questionable tactics and decision-making everything begins to pile up. Many things aren't necessarily relevant to each individual criticism I lob Gardenhire's way, but they're certainly relevant to the overall level of distrust I have in the Twins' manager.
That's a difficult point to make on a regular basis, although I've come up with a workable solution. With your help, I'd like to create a "Gardenhire File." We'll put together a list of everything Gardenhire does poorly, from the illogical to the counter-productive. Offer up as many criticisms as you want in the comments section or via e-mail, and I'll filter through them and pick out the ones that work.
To get the ball rolling and to show what sort of submissions I'm looking for, I'll offer up this:
GARDENHIRE FAULT NO. 1: Refusing to use Joe Nathan in non-save situations.
This is especially true on the road, where Nathan typically goes unused unless the Twins have a slim lead with three outs left to get. Gardenhire will go through the entire bullpen--from Juan Rincon to Willie Eyre--before he'll put the team's best reliever in with the game on the line.
The most recent example came in Monday's loss to the Angels, when Gardenhire brought Jesse Crain out for a third sudden-death inning rather than put Nathan in for the 11th inning of a tie game. Then in Wednesday's blowout win over the Angels Gardenhire put Nathan in to pitch the ninth inning with a six-run lead because he hadn't been used for several games.
The close-mindedness and strict reliance on an ultimately meaningless statistic like the "save" is why Nathan has just 18 innings through 52 games, while Crain (22.1 innings), Rincon (27.0), and Matt Guerrier (30.0) have each worked significantly more, and even a mop-up man like Eyre has thrown 18.2 innings.
Pretty simple, right? Identify and explain the fault, give an example of it in action, and then discuss why it's a negative thing. There are no strict guidelines for what type of fault I'm looking for, so anything from in-game strategy and lineup construction to newspaper quotes and run-ins with umpires are fair game. In other words, throw whatever you can think of against the wall and I'll determine what sticks.
Jason Kubel was recalled from Triple-A when Shannon Stewart went on the disabled list last week. After initially indicating that he'd find Kubel consistent playing time at designated hitter or in a left-field platoon with Lew Ford, Ron Gardenhire has predictably jerked Kubel in and out of the Twins' lineup much the same way he did the first time around.
Kubel started just two of the Twins' six games in his first week back with the team. Some of those benchings can be blamed on the team facing left-handed starting pitchers, but Kubel was also out of the lineup against right-handed starter Joel Pineiro. Plus, rather than benching a rookie for four of his first five games, Gardenhire certainly could have tossed Kubel a bone against one of the southpaws. After all, Kubel was hitting .306/.390/.639 against lefties at Rochester.
Instead, Kubel rotted on the bench. In addition to playing sporadically, Kubel's two starts came against Felix Hernandez and John Lackey--two of the best starting pitchers in the league--and his only other at-bats came as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter against elite reliever Rafael Betancourt and as a defensive replacement during C.C. Sabathia's complete-game shutout.
Here's what Kubel toldJoe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
I'm not used to [being on the bench]. It takes me a while to get back into it that way. I haven't had a good feeling since I've been up here.
Earlier this season the Twins jerked Kubel around, which is bad enough. This time they're jerking him around and making life especially tough for Kubel by putting him in particularly difficult situations in the rare instances when he's been allowed to play. As you might expect from a rookie getting eight at-bats in a week against tough pitchers with days on the bench in between starts, Kubel struggled.
One of the main things I've harped on here over the years is that by jerking around young position players the Twins have stunted the development of many of their most promising hitters. There are numerous examples of this happening--from Michael Cuddyer and David Ortiz to Jason Bartlett and Michael Restovich--with the most recent being Kubel.
Last month I chronicled Kubel's journey from "winning" the right-field job out of spring training to being benched after a week and demoted to Triple-A after two weeks. In addition to laying out exactly how the Twins had jerked Kubel around, I concluded the piece with a prediction about Kubel's future:
When Kubel does return to the Twins he'll almost certainly be feeling added pressure because of how he was treated this time, which is the exact opposite of how you want a young player to feel.
Sure enough, it's clear that Kubel is feeling immense pressure to perform well immediately in order to avoid being jerked around again. Here's what Gardenhire toldPatrick Reusse of the Star Tribune:
Right now, he thinks every time he makes an out it means he's going back to the minors.
The amazing thing is that Gardenhire seems completely unaware of the fact that he and Terry Ryan are the people causing Kubel to feel that way. The reason Kubel "thinks every time he makes an out it means he's going back to the minors" is that earlier this season that's essentially what happened.
Here's what Gardenhire toldGlenn Rabney of MLB.com:
It seems like he's trying to prove something to everybody while we don't necessarily want him to prove anything. We just want him to relax and get some at-bats.
How is it even possible for a manager to have this little awareness of what impact his actions have on players? And how exactly is Kubel supposed to "relax and get some at-bats" when he's playing twice a week?
Here's one last Gardenhire quote from that same article on MLB.com:
He thinks he has to get it done or he's out of here, and that's one of the issues with younger players.
If you ask "younger players" on teams that actually put them in the lineup and commit to keeping them there, I'll bet you'll find that they don't have nearly the same "issues" that the Twins' jerked-around hitters have. Through their own doing the Twins have created an environment where young hitters become basket cases who begin to doubt themselves and fear for their job with every poor at-bat.
The most maddening part is that Gardenhire seems surprised when it happens, completely oblivious about his own role in giving "younger hitters" those "issues" on an annual basis. Gardenhire and Ryan have gone out of their way to make life overly difficult for young position players over the years, and sadly they've been very successful.
Given a chance to start a game against a run-of-the-mill right-handed pitcher last night Kubel delivered his first homer of the season, a solo shot to center field off Jeff Weaver. If he's lucky, he might actually be in the lineup tomorrow too.
I managed to stay away from the Metrodome for the Twins' first 22 home games of the season, but Friday night's Felix Hernandez-Francisco Liriano matchup was far more than I was willing to pass up in the name of not watching baseball indoors.
Ranked second behind only Joe Mauer among my Top 50 Prospects of 2005, Hernandez made the case last season for being the best teenage pitcher since Dwight Gooden, blowing through the minors before posting a 2.67 ERA in a dozen starts with the Mariners. No slouch himself, Liriano ranked third behind only Delmon Young and Ryan Zimmerman among my Top 50 Prospects of 2006 after posting a 2.67 ERA and 204-to-50 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A last year.
Hernandez, now 20 years old, was baseball's premiere pitching prospect heading into last season. Liriano, now 22 years old, was baseball's best pitching prospect heading into this season. I may be frustrated by the Twins of late and despise the warehouse that they call a ballpark, but it's not often in baseball history that a show like Hernandez-Liriano has come to town.
After living up to what may have been unmatched hype as a 19-year-old, King Felix has shown that he's human this season by coming into Friday's game with a 5.84 ERA while somehow allowing opponents to bat over .300 against him despite stuff that is second-to-none. Meanwhile, Liriano began the season by tossing 22.1 innings with a 3.22 ERA and 32 strikeouts out of the bullpen before the Twins moved him into the rotation on May 19. He turned in five innings of two-hit ball in his first start.
In many ways Liriano is where Hernandez was last season--a young pitcher on top of the world, blowing away overmatched big-league hitters who are getting their first real look at him. Hernandez is where Liriano--or any great young hurler--might eventually be, struggling to figure out what will work for him against those same, suddenly capable big-league hitters over the long haul.
Given those plot lines and the level of talent involved, perhaps the only way the Hernandez-Liriano matchup could have lived up to my expectations would have been with matching perfect games. They didn't quite provide that sort of show, but I came away from the game convinced that the experience is something I might look back on when they're each going into the Hall of Fame in 25 years or so.
The final pitching lines looked like this:
IP H R ER BB SO HR PIT Liriano 5.0 4 0 0 1 6 0 83 Hernandez 7.0 5 3 3 1 8 1 104
Liriano was masterful from the first pitch, and only a lack of stamina from beginning the year in the bullpen limited him to five shutout innings. He threw strikes with his fastball and made hitters look silly chasing his slider down and out of the strike zone. On the other hand, Hernandez watched several balls maneuver their way through the defense for hits despite not being particularly well-struck early, and then Mauer smacked a solo homer on a chest-high fastball with one out in the third inning to make the score 3-0 Twins.
After the pitch to Mauer that ended up sailing over the fence in right-center field, here's how King Felix finished the game:
IP H R ER BB SO HR 4.2 0 0 0 0 7 0
Unfazed by Mauer's homer--or perhaps motivated by it--Hernandez retired 14 straight hitters. In doing so he worked so quickly and seemingly effortlessly that I'd be shocked if most of the 28,000 fans in attendance really noticed. Hernandez's overall line was good (7 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 8 SO), but it's the way he so thoroughly dominated after Mauer went deep that showed why his future remains as bright as any in baseball.
From my 14th-row seat along the first-base line I had a good view of where pitches crossed the plate vertically. Liriano consistently worked the bottom half of the strike zone, and got hitters to swing through balls that started low and got even lower as they either dove away or rode in on the batter. Hernandez seemed to work more up and down, and the pitches he gave up hits on were significantly higher in the strike zone than most of Liriano's offerings.
Once Hernandez settled in he also began to work low, although his pitches appeared to have less side-to-side movement than Liriano's. All of which makes sense, given that Hernandez is an extreme ground-ball pitcher and Liriano is merely a regular ground-ball pitcher. Hernandez's pitches plow through the bottom of the strike zone as they drop, while Liriano's pitches sort of scoot away from bats as they slice through the plate.
I've watched Hernandez on television as often as possible, and many times his mechanics seem somewhat out of whack. In particular he's shown a tendency in the past to fall off the mound with his follow-through. Friday night his delivery looked smooth and easy, almost like he was going at half-speed, and Hernandez didn't have a single exaggerated, Francisco Rodriguez-like follow-through in seven innings.
It's difficult to say for certain given how many lesser pitchers have looked like Cy Young Award winners against the Twins over the past two years, but I wouldn't be surprised if Friday's start is the beginning of Hernandez getting back on track. As David Cameronwrites at The Hardball Times today, the root of Hernandez's problems this season don't appear to be based on his stuff, but rather his approach to using it. The beauty of Hernandez, of course, is that at 20 years old he's got plenty of time to work out the kinks.
The funny thing is that only when compared to Hernandez could Liriano actually take a backseat (he even lacks the cool-sounding nickname). With a 2.51 ERA and 43-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32.1 innings this season Liriano now has 76 strikeouts in 56 career innings, striking out 37 percent of the batters he's faced. Quickly entrenched in the rotation alongside Johan Santana, the Twins could boast the best one-two combination in baseball by midseason (or whenever they ditch Liriano's pitch count).
Mariners manager Mike Hargrovetold reporters after the game that he'd "just as soon not see Liriano again," adding that "the Twins probably say the same thing about Hernandez." Probably true, but I'm looking forward to a couple decade's worth of rematches.