Friday, July 21, 2006
I'm thinking I jumped on the wrong blogging bandwagon by choosing baseball. Not only are poker players infinitely more accessible and interesting to talk to, you won't find many baseball players who look like Liz Lieu. Plus, Pauly after midnight at the WSOP looks an awful lot like me at the SABR convention in Seattle, except the late-night poker tournaments are just slightly more difficult to win.
One of these years I'd love to head to Las Vegas for a month to blog from the WSOP, but sadly I haven't tricked anyone into paying me to write about poker on a regular basis yet. Until then, I'll be living vicariously through Pauly, Brad "Otis" Willis, Wil Wheaton, and Phil Gordon.
Stake in the Heart jerseys: Wanna see how quickly you can make a Twins fan cry? Sport one of these Twins No. 27 ORTIZ throwbacks that has got to grant Minnesotans impunity of all but the most violent crimes. Somewhat along those lines, I heard some New Yorkers wore Red Sox No. 6 BUCKNER shirts at Fenway for the recent Mets series in Boston. Not sure if they're out of the hospital yet. Anyway, it's easy to figure out what these duds say about you, but most of it can't be printed here.As surprising as it may be, I've never actually owned a Twins jersey. I do have retro jerseys of Joe Morgan (for obvious comedic reasons), Bo Jackson (as pictured in Sports Illustrated), and Tony Gwynn (simply because it's the ugliest jersey I've ever seen). Due to my weight loss those jerseys no longer come anywhere close to fitting, which means losing 65 pounds can be a bad thing. If you know any (really) fat guys looking to upgrade their baseball wardrobe, let me know.
Julia Gleeman joins JLG Architects as a summer intern while working on her master's degree in architecture at the University of Minnesota.My immediate family is filled with lawyers, professors, accountants, teachers, and soon-to-be architects. I have one cousin working on her master's degree at the University of Minnesota and another cousin doing his undergrad work at the University of Chicago. And me? Well, I write about sports from my bedroom. Funny how that works.
The book comes out in November, and over the past couple months Dave Studeman and I have worked hard to put together what is a great lineup of writers. In addition to the regular assortment of THT staffers, we have ESPN.com's Rob Neyer and Eric Neel, Deadspin's Will Leitch, and SI.com's Jon Weisman.
An examination of the relationship between Notre Dame and the NFL draft, and how Charlie Weis has re-opened the ND pipeline to the professional ranks.Earlier this year I wrote the American League preview for MSP's 2006 Red Sox Annual, which also included articles by Hidden Game of Baseball co-author Pete Palmer, Paths to Glory co-author Mark Armour, Boston Sports Media Watch's Bruce Allen, and Chad Finn of the Boston Globe. Palmer and Finn are back for Here Come the Irish, along with an impressive assortment of other contributors, and if you're any kind of football fan it promises to be an excellent read.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Twins NotesSome notes I typed up while watching the Twins move to within five games of a playoff spot ...
He is a good-looking 6-foot-4, 220-pounder with an unforced smile, and he politely answers every question. The media also has had some fun with Mauer's relationship with Chelsea Cooley, Miss USA 2005.Earlier this month I commented that nearly every article about Mauer written by someone outside of Minnesota contained a reference to either Paul Bunyan or Prince, but to Cristodero's credit he avoids that. He still can't help himself when it comes to Chelsea Cooley. I'm happy for Mauer and admit that it was interesting news when I first heard it, but only when it comes to Minnesota could a star athlete dating a woman who won a contest for being pretty possibly be included in every single story.
The Twins recently signed Erubiel Durazo to a minor-league contract, and up until a couple weeks ago I would have been in favor of a LeCroy-Durazo platoon at designated hitter. That would seem to make even more sense now given the Twins' injury situation, but the opposite is true. With Jason Kubel unable to play the outfield regularly and Rondell White showing some serious signs of life for the first time, the Twins simply don't have the DH spot open enough to warrant bringing LeCroy back.
What makes the situation more confusing is that when White and Shannon Stewart are cleared off the roster this offseason and Kubel is (hopefully) healthy enough to play defense every day, a LeCroy-Durazo DH platoon would again make plenty of sense. Until then, I suspect LeCroy will latch on with another AL team and Durazo will provide little more than some much-needed offense in the depleted Rochester lineup.
Demoted to Rochester, White continued to struggle against Triple-A pitching, hitting .235/.245/.294 in 13 games while Ron Gardenhire said things like, "He hasn't been able to get to a fastball." The Twins called him back up when the outfield was wrecked by injuries and since then White has gone 8-for-14 (.571) with three homers, two doubles, six RBIs, and six runs scored in four games. Seriously.
Last night White showed off bat speed and power that were non-existent during his first stint with the team, absolutely destroying two pitches by turning on them and yanking homers into the seats in left field. I'd say something cliche like "White's timing couldn't have been better," but the truth is that the Twins could have used him not being horrendous all year. Still, it's nice that he's providing a spark when given a second chance.
Without Stewart and Torii Hunter around, the lineup can certainly use another productive right-handed bat for the stretch run. I'm not sure if he's finally over lingering shoulder problems or if this is some sort of deal with the devil, but if the baseball gods wanted to be really cruel they'd have White hurt himself now that he's playing defense regularly. I'm not sure if that'd be ironic or just sad, but it'd be something.
A slick-fielding, lefty-hitting first baseman, Lee has hit just .256/.336/.406 during his nine-year career, which basically makes him a poor man's Doug Mientkiewicz. Interestingly, the player who started at first base for the Twins during Lee's rookie season in 1998 was David Ortiz, whose eventual loss was just slightly more painful.
Jared Mitchell, LSU's touted WR recruit, is still deciding whether to play college football and baseball or sign with the Minnesota Twins, who drafted the New Iberia, La., native in the 10th round in June, according to William Kalec.While Jared Mitchell has yet to make up his mind, the Twins quickly signed second-round pick Joe Benson, who likely also could have chosen to play college football. Benson has been fantastic thus far, hitting .337/.389/.558 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 23 games in the Gulf Coast League.
Despite playing only 143 games in Minnesota, Buchanan's place in team history is secure thanks to being part of two important trades. Buchanan came to Twins along with Eric Milton, Cristian Guzman, and Danny Mota in the deal that sent Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees in 1998. He hit .258/.319/.428 in three seasons with the Twins before being traded to the Padres for a minor leaguer named Jason Bartlett.
One of the Twins' strengths is getting additional value out of trades, and Buchanan is an example. They traded Knoblauch for Milton, Guzman, Buchanan, and Mota, traded Buchanan for Bartlett, and dealt Milton for Punto, Carlos Silva, and Bobby Korecky. They also took Brian Duensing with the third-round pick they received as compensation for losing Guzman as a free agent, and he's got a 3.48 ERA and 89-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 116.1 innings between Single-A and Double-A.
In other words, by dealing Knoblauch to the Yankees the Twins ended up with an assortment of seasons from Milton, Silva, Bartlett, Guzman, Punto, Buchanan, Korecky, Duensing, and Mota. Plus, it's likely that at some point down the road they'll end up trading one of the five players from that list still in the organization, at which point the Knoblauch trade tree will grow even more branches.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Twins 8, Devil Rays 1If not for Ron Gardenhire's (entirely logical) decision to pinch-hit Terry Tiffee for Justin Morneau in the eighth inning of last night's blowout win over the Devil Rays, Francisco Liriano would have tossed the first complete-game shutout of his career. Instead, Liriano had to settle for this line:
IP H R ER BB SO HR PITTiffee's inability to catch a low Jason Bartlett throw in the ninth inning led to an unearned run scoring and Liriano being yanked in favor of Kyle Lohse with one out left, but that doesn't take away from the overall performance. Liriano is now 11-2 with a 1.94 ERA as a 22-year-old rookie, including 10-2 with a ridiculous 1.58 ERA in a dozen starts since joining the rotation in mid-May.
Liriano was his typical dominant self last night, throwing strikes and missing bats, but he gave up more fly balls than normal. In fact, 13 of Liriano's 19 non-strikeout outs came through the air, which is unusual for a guy whose 2.28-to-1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio ranked third among AL starters heading into the game. Of course, most of the fly balls were more like pop ups, so it didn't much matter.
It was particularly nice to see Liriano come up with an impressive outing after having his worst start of the year last time out against the Indians. He shook off having his six-game winning streak snapped while serving up three homers to Cleveland, and looked as overpowering as ever. Last night was the sixth time in 12 starts that Liriano has failed to surrender a single earned run.
It's tough to focus on anything except Liriano after a performance like that, but here are some other notes from the game ...
Punto avoiding the disabled list is a nice change of pace given how much injuries have depleted the roster already this month and he's a big part of the new-look lineup. Losing Hunter takes away one of the team's few legitimate power threats, but with Luis Castillo and Punto at the top of the lineup and Tyner and Bartlett at the bottom of the order, the Twins have the ability to go first-to-third on singles all night.
I'm generally of the opinion that speed is overrated in terms of actual impact on wins and losses, but when the speed comes in the form of guys who actually get on base it's plenty valuable. I'd prefer a lineup full of guys like Morneau, but short of that it's nice to see hitters putting together good at-bats, scrapping to get on base any way they can, and then putting pressure on the defense once they reach.
Still, White runs the bases like a drunk little leaguer far too often given that he's not actually on base all that much. What makes it especially odd is that he's still plenty athletic and has above-average speed at 34 years old. It seems to be either a complete lack of instincts or some kind of mental block, or maybe a combination of both.
With that said, White went 2-for-3 with a walk last night and is 5-for-10 with a homer since returning from Triple-A, so it's a little easier to stomach some baserunning blunders now than when he was making four outs per game at the plate. Plus, he tracked down a fly ball in the left-center field gap last night that Shannon Stewart would have needed a bus and multiple transfers to get to.
No. 25 came off Scott Kazmir, which gives Morneau nine homers in 114 at-bats against left-handed pitchers. Not only is that impressive for any left-handed hitter, it's amazing considering Morneau came into this year with just seven homers in 255 career at-bats against southpaws. As I said yesterday, it's time to move him into the cleanup spot and let him stay there for the rest of the decade.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Twins 6, Devil Rays 3Last night's game wasn't on TV here in the Twin Cities, but there were still all kinds of interesting notes to be taken from the boxscore ...
Amazingly, Ron Gardenhire did all three of those things last night. Tyner started in center field, Punto stayed at third base, and White started in left field for just the fifth time all season. Of course, Punto left the game in the seventh inning with an apparent knee injury, so Tyner likely would have ended up in center field regardless of where he started.
Punto getting hurt is nothing new, but the timing stinks. I would have laughed at you if you'd have told me this spring that losing Punto would be a big blow to the lineup, but it's true. Not only has he been good defensively since taking over for Tony Batista at third base, the new-and-improved Nick Punto is hitting .312 with a .395 on-base percentage and has been one of the Twins' 10 most valuable players.
Plus, he could be written into the lineup every day in front of Joe Mauer and gave Gardenhire a ton of roster flexibility. With Torii Hunter, Shannon Stewart, and Lew Ford on the disabled list, and Jason Kubel limited to designated-hitter duties, both of those things had a lot of value. Now Punto is just another of the walking (or not walking, I suppose) wounded.
While Rodriguez can hold down the fort for a while, Punto needing a DL stint would further deplete the organization's depth. They're already down to the bottom of the outfield barrel, and if another infielder is needed I'm guessing Glenn Williams or Tommy Watkins would get the call. Williams would seem like the obvious choice after hitting .425 in 13 games with the Twins before a season-ending shoulder injury last year, but he's batting .237/.310/.369 in 75 games at Triple-A.
Similarly, Watkins entered this season as a career .246/.329/.325 hitter in 622 pro games and has hit just .234/.312/.312 in 48 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but he's an organizational soldier who can play anywhere defensively. Plus, I root for anyone who agrees to an interview with Seth Stohs and has see-through pictures of Jessica Biel on his MySpace page.
I've been a big believer in Neshek for several years now, so it's good to see him succeed when given a chance for meaningful work. You can never have too many quality pitchers, but if Neshek emerges as a reliable setup man and Crain continues to pitch well, the Twins' bullpen will be overflowing with late-inning options once Matt Guerrier comes off the DL.
And it's not like the bullpen needed much help to begin with. Despite Neshek being at Rochester until last week and Guerrier being sidelined since early June, the Twins' relievers lead all of baseball with a combined 3.25 ERA. Given the seemingly inflated going rate for middle-relief help, shopping Guerrier or even Crain makes a lot of sense.
Mauer's .375 batting average obviously has a lot to do with his being pitched around, but Michael Cuddyer's recent struggles against right-handed pitching have probably coaxed teams into not letting Mauer beat them. Cuddyer continues to crush left-handed pitching and in general has done a fine job in the cleanup spot, but his numbers against righties have dropped like a rock over the past month.
Considering how often Mauer is being pitched around, it's time to put Justin Morneau in the cleanup spot. Gardenhire has avoided that in part to keep the pressure off Morneau and in part to avoid back-to-back left-handed hitters in the middle of the lineup, but at some point the guy on pace for 40 homers and 140 RBIs should be batting behind the guy with the .450 on-base percentage.
Plus, both Mauer and Mauer have improved significantly against lefties. Mauer is hitting .359/.409/.452 against them, while Morneau is at .279/.300/.550. In fact, among Twins hitters with at least 50 at-bats against southpaws, only Cuddyer (1.014) and Hunter (.925) have a higher OPS than Morneau (.857) and Mauer (.836). With the rest of the lineup in shambles, the Twins need to get Morneau to the plate with as many runners on base as possible.
Forcing teams to pitch to Mauer with runners in scoring position is always good--he's hitting .333 in those spots during his career, including .357 this season--and punishing them for pitching around him by bringing Morneau up with a chance to bust the game open makes enough sense to outweigh any lefty-lefty matchup concerns.
I would still bet against White being productive for the remainder of the year, but it's certainly nice to see him doing something besides single-handedly destroying rallies. Prior to being sent down, White was hitting .182/.209/.215 with zero homers and 15 RBIs in 181 at-bats. Since coming back up, he's 3-for-7 with a homer and four RBIs. It's a meaningless sample size and only one of those hits was really all that well struck, but I'll take it.
As discussed last week, Baker's secondary numbers suggest that he'll do well going forward despite an ugly ERA. Last night was Baker's 20th big-league appearance, including 19 starts, and he has a 4.64 ERA and 79-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 108.2 innings. It may not look like much compared to 22-year-old Francisco Liriano's brilliance, but that's pretty damn good for a 24-year-old pitcher.
Former Twins executive Wayne Krivsky is in his first year as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. The lightly regarded Reds started 36-24, and he was praised for his acquisitions, such as pitcher Bronson Arroyo from Boston.Not only didn't I peg Reusse as a reader, it seems odd that he'd choose a quote from someone (me) who most Star Tribune readers have probably never heard of. Not that I'm complaining, of course, but why not pick someone from ESPN.com or any number of other mainstream sites or newspapers that had columnists ripping the trade? I'm very curious about how my quote ended up as the choice.
Perhaps Reusse wanted a local angle, although there's no mention of me being from Minnesota. Or maybe he wants to overtake La Velle E. Neal III as AG.com's Star Tribune writer of choice, in which case this is a good start (LEN3 has never mentioned me anywhere, after all). Whatever the case, thanks for the mention, Patrick (even if it was only to set up showing the Reds' post-trade record).
It's nice to know that should I venture into the Twins' press box some day, there might be as many as three local writers (LEN3, Reusse, Joe Christensen) willing to simply sit back and watch (rather than join in) as Jim "Shecky" Souhan and Jason "No Idea" Williams strangle me with Sid Hartman's soup-stained neck-tie. Either that or it's all just an elaborate set up for an ambush.
Monday, July 17, 2006
In Case of Emergency Break GlassMost teams use the All-Star break to get healthy, but the Twins apparently used the time off to prepare themselves to get hurt. Within the first series of the second half, Torii Hunter, Shannon Stewart, and Lew Ford headed to the disabled list with injuries of varying severity, and Jason Kubel's ongoing knee problems kept him from playing defense and running without a limp.
All teams deal with injuries, but what makes this batch particularly difficult to handle is that they took place within the span of about three days and all involved outfielders. Hunter going down wouldn't be as big of a problem if Ford was around to sub for him in center field, and Stewart returning to the DL wouldn't hurt so much if Kubel could play every day.
Unfortunately, when taken together the injuries left the Twins with a makeshift, Triple-A outfield over the weekend. Actually, that's not quite accurate. Michael Cuddyer remains the last man standing in right field and he's certainly a major leaguer, but yesterday's lineup also included Jason Tyner in left field, Nick Punto in center field, and Rondell White at designated hitter.
Tyner has spent most of the past six years at Triple-A, including the first three months of this season. He hit an empty .329 in 80 games at Rochester and has had a remarkable impact in his brief time with the Twins, but in the end Tyner is organizational filler in the form of a slap-hitting fifth outfielder. He's been the Twins' starting left fielder for the past three games.
Calling White a Triple-A player would have been ridiculous this spring, but now it might be kind. He hit an execrable .182/.209/.215 before the Twins mercifully sent him to Rochester, and then managed a pathetic .255/.265/.319 line in 12 games against International League pitching. Now he's back, having proven absolutely nothing during his demotion ... and homered yesterday for the first time all year.
Similarly, calling Punto a Triple-A player is perhaps not fair. He's been excellent since replacing Tony Batista as the Twins' everyday third baseman, playing good defense and getting on base at the top of the lineup. However, purely in terms of defense, having Punto patrolling center field on a regular basis would not be very pretty.
The end result was a DH who has been historically bad and couldn't even get on track at Triple-A, a left fielder with a .360 slugging percentage in 3,000 career minor-league at-bats (and .305 in 834 big-league at-bats), and a center fielder who has a grand total of two dozen innings of experience at the position. Adding to the Triple-A feel was that moving Punto gave Ron Gardenhire the choice between Luis Rodriguez and Terry Tiffee at third base.
None of this is intended as criticism of the Twins, but rather simply to point out what rough shape they suddenly find themselves in. As organizations go, the Twins are typically fairly deep in terms of minor-league reinforcements that can be called upon, but that can only go so far. When you lose two starters and your primary backup at all three outfield spots, there's only so much help down on the farm.
In addition to Tyner and White, the Twins also called up Josh Rabe from Rochester. Rabe was a hot topic amongst Twins fans after hitting .350 through the first month of the season, but here's what I wrote about him back in early May:
Josh Rabe is getting a lot of attention for his hot start at Triple-A, but it'd be smart to curb most of that enthusiasm. ... Rabe is going to come back down to earth once a few of those singles start finding gloves. He is no more of a prospect or long-term option in the Twins' outfield than Michael Ryan was.Sure enough, Rabe was hitting .297/.364/.399 in 84 games at Triple-A when the Twins called him up to replace Hunter on the roster, which matches up with his career line of .273/.345/.403 heading into the season. Rabe isn't a legitimate option for more than a few games at a time, he's just what happens when you burn through the first few lines of defense.
In fact, all four of the players who have posted an OPS over .750 while playing regularly for Rochester are now in the majors, with Tyner and Rabe joining Kubel and Jason Bartlett. Toss in Tiffee (who had a .719 OPS) and the bones at Triple-A have been picked clean. The next line of defense includes Alex Romero and Kevin West, but Romero has been horrible since moving up from Double-A and West has yet to get on track after missing most of the year with an injury of his own.
There are some recognizable non-outfielder names on the Rochester roster, but Garrett Jones, Glenn Williams, Shawn Wooten, Luis Maza have been awful and come with suspect track records. And while Double-A has somewhat more legitimate long-term outfield options in Denard Span, Trent Oeltjen, and Doug Deeds, none of them are ready now. In other words, barring a trade of some sort, this is it.
I suspect the Twins used Tyner in left field over the weekend because of his weak throwing arm, but in terms of actual game impact, a center fielder's arm matters significantly less than his ability to simply run down fly balls. I'm hopeful that once the roster settles in a bit Gardenhire will move Tyner to center field, because he's the best defender with the most experience there left on the roster.
There's little doubt that Tyner is far more equipped to handle center-field duties than Punto would be learning on the fly, and it would allow Punto to remain at third base, where he's been so good. The defense won't suffer as much with Tyner in center and Punto at third, and it shouldn't be that difficult to mix and match various warm bodies between left field and DH.
The nice thing about White being horrible is that there's no longer any need to worry about him getting hurt. That means the Twins are free to put him in left field, and in the past White has actually been a quality defender there (albeit with a Stewart-like noodle arm). If Kubel and White can rotate between left field and DH depending on which one is somewhat healthy, that leaves Rabe as the backup outfielder and gets the Twins out of playing guys completely out of position.
If the Twins have higher hopes than finding guys who can hold their own defensively, they have the option of calling up Erubiel Durazo. Durazo was signed to a minor-league contract last week after being let go by the Yankees, and went 2-for-3 with a double yesterday in his Rochester debut. Durazo is among baseball's worst defensive players, but as a DH he could give the lineup a boost.
Age and elbow surgery appear to have sapped much of Durazo's power, so it would be wishful thinking to expect anything close to his .281/.381/.487 career line in nearly 2,300 big-league plate appearances. With that said, he still batted .290/.381/.428 in 40 games at Triple-A prior to latching on with the Twins, which suggests he could be an upgrade over White, Tiffee, and Rabe should Kubel get healthy enough to play the field.
Whether it's Tyner, Rabe, Durazo or White, their role with the team comes down to when the injured outfielders are due back. It sounds as if Stewart is done for the season, which means the Twins will almost surely have to let him walk as a free agent this offseason rather than dealing him for something of minimal value before the trading deadline.
I also expected Hunter to be done for the year upon hearing that he had a stress fracture in his left foot, but the early reports seem optimistic that he could return at some point in August. As with Stewart, the injury likely wipes out any chance the Twins had of cashing Hunter in at the trading deadline and his health status complicates (or perhaps makes easier) the decision whether or not to pick up his $12 option for next year.
Ford's oblique injury isn't as severe as a broken bone or torn plantar fascia, but it's something that has a tendency to linger. I've become somewhat familiar with recovery timetables thanks to my news-gathering gig at RotoWorld, and there are numerous cases of seemingly innocuous strained oblique muscles turning into lengthy rehabs involving multiple setbacks.
The rash of injuries is a blow to the Twins' already slim chances of making the postseason and also takes away the option of trading two veterans. That means even if the Twins decide to be sellers as the deadline approaches, they won't have a whole lot to offer. It's a shame, because anything they could have gotten for Stewart would have been gravy, and I believe the best thing for the team long term would have been dealing Hunter for prospects and using his money on something else this winter.
Depending on how quickly he returns and how healthy he looks if he does get back next month, it may be significantly easier for the Twins to justify declining Hunter's option for 2007. However, if the team is going to part ways with Hunter now, they'll probably have to do so without receiving anything in return. That makes the decision more about strictly money than before, because the team can no longer trade Hunter with the idea of it helping the rebuilding effort.
Oh, I almost forgot in the midst of all this injury stuff: The Twins took three out of four from the Indians and are now "only" 6.5 games out of a playoff spot with 72 games left to play. Assuming Joe Mauer stops hitting into multiple double plays per game and Tyner continues to collect multiple RBIs every time out, I think they have a chance.