Friday, July 28, 2006
Matt Garza and Other Twins NotesBaseball America does a weekly feature called "Scout's View" where they interview a major-league scout about a specific prospect. The articles are subscriber-only content, but here's a small excerpt of "a veteran National League scout" on this week's subject, Matt Garza:
The impressive thing was, in his last inning ... he was throwing as high as 97. So he lost nothing at all velocity-wise later in the game. When he needed something at the end, he had it. And then, it wasn't like a one-time thing. He repeated some 97s, which was really nice to see.Garza is suddenly a hot topic because of his continued dominance in the minors and the upcoming trading deadline, but I don't believe for a second that Terry Ryan would even consider trading Garza for half-year rentals like Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee. Or at least I hope that's his stance, because history has shown that contending teams tend to overpay for midseason acquisitions and the impact of such players is relatively limited.
Quite simply, Garza is not the type of prospect you trade away, period. He's a former first-round pick who has emerged as one of baseball's truly elite prospects in just his second pro season and is one step away from the majors at the age of 22. Check out Garza's eye-popping numbers between Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A so far this year:
GS W L ERA IP SO BB OAVGThe Twins have pushed Garza aggressively and he's responded by dominating each level, posting ERAs of 1.42, 2.51, and 2.05 while holding opponents to batting averages of .169, .190, and .162. His combined record of 13-4 with a 2.04 ERA and 142-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123.2 innings is amazing, and includes a 2.05 ERA and 21-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three starts at Triple-A.
Allowing just 79 hits in 123.2 innings is a huge part of what makes Garza a great prospect, and of particular note is that he's served up only six homers. Even more so than win-loss records or ERAs, the three things to focus on when it comes to pitching prospects are strikeouts, walks, and homers. Garza is about as good as it gets in all three of those areas, which is why he has legit ace potential.
In Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, the Twins have arguably the two best pitchers in baseball and boast a one-two punch that few teams in the history of the sport can match. As if that weren't scary enough for the rest of the league, the Twins will soon add a third "No. 1 starter" in Garza. In fact, if Ron Gardenhire has his way, the rotation may contain three aces within weeks.
I think the best thing for Garza's development would be to remain at Triple-A until September, following the path Liriano took last year. Garza has thrown a lot of innings already and is coming off a complete-game, three-hitter that saw him inexplicably throw 127 pitches. With that said, if the Twins feel Garza is ready and calling him up would keep them from overpaying for a veteran starter via trade, I'm all for it.
Garza is the real deal, and if this season has taught the Twins anything it should be that trusting the young players you've developed is crucial. Plus, the sooner Garza establishes himself as a dominant starter in the majors, the sooner I can start using my poker-related nickname: Trip Aces. The best part, of course, is that both Liriano and Garza are 22 years old and Santana is the elder statesman at 27.
Some other notes I typed up while anxiously waiting for this weekend's series against the Tigers to begin ...
Prospects like Kevin Slowey or Glen Perkins are a clear step down from Garza, but giving up their entire career (or at least the six years before free agency) for 200 at-bats is a bad move, even if those at-bats come from an impact player like Soriano or Lee. Any number of studies have shown that the impact of midseason acquisitions is typically overstated and history is littered with teams who would gladly take back their prospects-for-veteran deadline deals.
It's certainly possible that Soriano or Lee would propel the Twins to the World Series, in which case giving up "too much" young talent becomes secondary to the third banner hanging in the Metrodome. However, that's impossible to know for sure and since we're only talking about one-third of a season, it's more likely that Soriano or Lee would represent a relatively minimal gain over Rondell White and Jason Kubel.
I would stand pat unless a favorable deal came along for someone like Boof Bonser or Kyle Lohse. Breaking the bank for someone like Soriano is more exciting and fans will always love trading for a big-name player while giving up little-known prospects, but those same big-name players were once "little-known prospects" to the average fan and this team as currently constructed does not need to mortgage any of its future to win now.
[The Twins] continued to show they might be the best "worst" team in baseball. Despite few household names, Minnesota has gone 34-8 since June 8 to catch the defending World Series champions.The idea that the Twins have "few household names" is either absurd or a major mark against the media's coverage of teams outside New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. Mauer is a former No. 1 overall pick who is leading baseball in batting average, Santana is a former Cy Young winner having another great year, Liriano is a rookie leading MLB with a sub-2.00 ERA after coming into the season as baseball's top pitching prospect, and all three of those guys were All-Stars.
Redmond is a perfect backup for Mauer. He hits right-handed, which allows Gardenhire to give Mauer days off against tough left-handed pitchers while taking advantage of the platoon edge. Redmond is also solid defensively, both in terms of throwing and calling a game, and is reportedly well-liked in the clubhouse. I liked the move to sign him two years ago and I like the move to re-sign him now, I just wish the option year was 2008.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Tied! (Sort Of)Late last month, with the Twins still 10 games out of a postseason spot despite winning 14 out of 16 games, I wrote about how depressing it was that they failed to make up any ground on the White Sox while winning nearly every day for three weeks. I simply didn't like the Twins' chances of making up a double-digit deficit against the defending champs in half a season.
Little did I know at the time that not only could the Twins do it, they'd do it within a month. The Twins improbably followed up winning 14 out of 16 by winning 20 of their next 26. Just as importantly, the White Sox finally went through a rough patch, dropping 10 out of 12 since the All-Star break. Here's how the Wild Card standings looked through June 7, compared to what they look like this morning:
JUNE 7 W L GB JULY 26 W L GBAfter beginning the season at a lifeless 25-33 (.431), the Twins have gone 34-8 (.810) over the past 49 days. In doing so they went from 11 games out of a playoff spot to within a half-game of the Wild Card leaders, leap-frogging seven teams in the process. What's especially amazing about their run is that within those 42 games was a three-game losing streak that involved two losses to the lowly Royals.
Surrounding those three losses near the end of the first half, the Twins have gone an utterly ridiculous 34-5 (.872). Their climb up the standings has been so fast and so relentless that it's been hard to fully appreciate how good they've been. Fortunately, today's off day provides that opportunity. Unfortunately, there's a three-game series against the MLB-leading Tigers waiting Friday.
If only for dramatic purposes, it would have been nice of the Yankees to lose last night so the Twins sweeping the White Sox, in Chicago, would have meant something other than both teams being tied at a half-game behind New York. Of course, even that's not much of a buzz kill now, not with Francisco Liriano taking the mound Friday, Brad Radke following him Saturday, and Johan Santana up Sunday.
Those three pitchers were on the mound for exactly two-thirds of the Twins' amazing 42-game stretch, combining to go 20-2 with a 2.36 ERA in 28 starts. Over that same span, Joe Nathan appeared in half of the Twins' games, saving 14 wins with a 1.13 ERA and 36-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Setup men Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, and Pat Neshek combined for a 1.72 ERA in 62.2 innings over that stretch.
The pitching (and defense) has been fantastic, but the lineup has been as big a driving force behind the turnaround. The Twins hit .305 with a .372 on-base percentage and .465 slugging percentage over the past 42 games, which is incredible considering they were hitting a measly .268/.327/.396 prior to the run. While the Twins limited opponents to 3.4 runs per game since June 8, they've scored an average of 5.7 runs per game.
Much like Santana, Liriano, Radke, and Nathan carrying the pitching staff, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau put the offense on their backs since June 8. Mauer hit .381/.475/.545 with 25 RBIs and 24 runs in 36 games, while Morneau made that look downright pedestrian by hitting .402/.434/.768 with 16 homers and 46 RBIs in 42 games.
Nick Punto set the table for them by hitting .333/.420/.442 and Jason Bartlett hit .336/.420/.459 at the bottom of the lineup, all while turning the infield defense from horrible to outstanding. Slotted between Mauer and Morneau, Michael Cuddyer hit .261/.351/.447 with six homers and 35 RBIs, while Rondell White returned from the dead to hit .288/.365/.519 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 16 games.
Even Torii Hunter (.274/.374/.453) was great before heading to the disabled list after 30 games, and Jason Tyner has taken up right where he left off by hitting .353/.389/.373 as his replacement in center field. Jason Kubel's bum knees have kept him on the bench more than anyone would like, but when in the lineup he hit .302 with six homers and 20 RBIs in 30 games.
Add it all up and you get a team that went from being out-scored by 42 runs in the first 58 games of the season to out-scoring their opponents by 97 runs in the next 42 games. It's no coincidence that the winning started almost immediately after Juan Castro and Tony Batista were let go, but as perhaps the world's biggest proponent of those moves, not even I expected them to lead to something like this.
What the Twins have done in winning 81 percent of their games over a quarter of a season is beyond remarkable and in doing so they've put themselves in position to potentially win the World Series in a year many--including myself at times--left them for dead. The long road ahead is evident by still having to look up at the Yankees (and sideways at the White Sox) in the standings, but it's tough to put much of anything past the Twins at this point.
With five off days left in the final two months, Santana, Liriano, and Radke may be able to start two-thirds of the remaining games and there are 11 dates with the Royals left on the schedule. The rest of the AL should be very afraid. Hell, if they do to the Tigers this weekend what they did to the White Sox in Chicago, the Twins will be just 5.5 games out of first place in the division.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Twins 4, White Sox 3Now this is fun.
One night Joe Mauer smacks his first career homer off a left-handed pitcher, a three-run bomb that propels the Twins to a 7-4 win. The next night Jason Bartlett delivers his first long ball of the season, another three-run shot that allows the Twins to hold on for a 4-3 victory. This afternoon I fully expect Jason Tyner to hit a game-winning grand slam.
I'm going to keep this entry relatively short, because by the time many of you read this today's game will have already been played. I'd feel silly going on and on about last night's win and what it means for the Twins' playoff chances, only to have Carlos Silva give the game back by the time some of you return from your lunch break.
Here are some notes I typed up while watching arguably the most exciting game of the season ...
That was the case right away, as both Luis Castillo and Nick Punto swiped second base during the first-inning rally that ultimately came up short. However, after that the Twins ran just once more on Contreras, with Tyner getting thrown out at second base in the fourth inning. In all, the Twins had six runners on first base with second base open in Contreras' seven innings--Tyner twice and Castillo, Punto, Michael Cuddyer, and Rondell White once each--and ran half the time.
Cuddyer later showed off some leather in right field, making a sprawling grab on A.J. Pierzynski's broken-bat line drive with two runners on base in the bottom of the ninth. If he fails to make either of those plays, there's a very good chance the Twins lose the game. Cuddyer is still a little shaky at times in right field, but he makes enough outstanding plays to make me think he can develop into a major asset defensively.
I normally disagree with the notion that people like me would benefit much from having interview access to players after games, but this is one of the rare instances where it would have been nice. I'd like to know whether or not Santana made a conscious effort to keep the ball on the ground because of the weather conditions (as opposed to it being due to coincidence or Chicago's powerful lineup).
GS W L WIN% ERA IP SONot bad.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Twins 7, White Sox 4Last night was a perfect example of why, as the saying goes, the games aren't played on paper.
With the Twins clinging to a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning, Joe Mauer came to the plate against left-handed reliever Neal Cotts with runners on the corners and two outs. While Mauer worked the count to 2-1, Nick Punto got himself into scoring position by stealing second base. Rather than engage in the now-common practice of walking Mauer to face Michael Cuddyer, the White Sox chose to pitch to him.
The decision not to hand Mauer an intentional walk made sense because of the favorable lefty-on-lefty matchup, but also because Mauer came into the game with 287 career at-bats against southpaws, all without hitting a single homer. Meanwhile, Cotts came into the game having held left-handed hitters to a .215 batting average over his career, including a measly .141 this season.
Surely you can guess what happened next, because it's basically the opposite of what the numbers and perhaps even logic would suggest.
Mauer worked the count to 3-1 and then unleashed a mammoth blast to dead center field. Brian Anderson gave chase, but came up just short as the ball cleared the fence to give the Twins a 6-2 lead. That's right, Mauer went 287 at-bats without homering against a lefty and then hit a three-run bomb to straight-away center field off one of the league's toughest southpaws.
Apparently he saves them up for special occasions.
Some other notes I typed up while watching the Twins pull to within two games of a playoff spot ...
With the win, Radke improved to 5-1 with a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts since getting knocked around by the Indians on May 24. And after uncharacteristically beginning the season with 24 walks in 80.1 innings, Radke has handed out just two free passes in his last 45 frames. I don't know if it's the cortisone shot or something else, but if this is going to be his last season, it's good to have the old Radke back.
Of course, the nice thing is that a) fluke or not, these hits count, and b) by the time he comes down to earth, Torii Hunter might be back from the disabled list anyway. It's been interesting to watch Tyner rack up all these singles, because he's not the type of hitter you'd expect judging from his size and track record.
Just looking at his slight frame and powerless numbers, you'd expect a slap-hitting, Luis Castillo clone or, as Will Young said to me last night, "a left-handed Mike Redmond." Instead, Tyner actually pulls the ball a lot and takes relatively big swings at everything. As long as Ron Gardenhire doesn't think Tyner is an everyday left fielder once Hunter returns, he's been a gift from the baseball gods.
Sure enough, the Twins patched up the left side of the infield and Crain's grounders have turned into outs more often. Since serving up a walk-off homer to Carl Everett on June 7--at which point his ERA stood at 6.33--Crain has a 1.83 ERA and 14-to-6 strikeout-to-walk in 19.2 innings. As I've said before, Crain's ERA isn't as pretty as it was last season, but he's now on a much better long-term path.
For the first time in his career, it looks like Cuddyer will remain at one position for an entire season and receive 500 at-bats, which is something I've been pleading with the Twins to make happen for years. In fact, one of the many things I've frequently repeated in this space is that Cuddyer is "capable of putting together .275/.350/.450 seasons." After going 2-for-5 last night, he's hitting .273/.356/.494 and on pace for 20 homers, 40 doubles, and 105 RBIs.
Bartlett is batting .316/.403/.421, just like his .326/.395/.462 career hitting line in 185 games at Triple-A suggested he would. Oh, and along with the huge offensive upgrade, it's nice to have a shortstop with actual range instead of just an expired reputation.
Accompanying the picture of Mauer was an article from Rob Neyer on the all-time best-hitting catchers under the age of 24 and an article from Keith Law on Mauer's strengths and weaknesses. Law was in Minnesota earlier this month to get a closer look at Mauer and (warning: name-drop coming) we met up for lunch one day. From talking to him it was clear that he thought extraordinarily highly of Mauer and that opinion is hammered home within the first two sentences of the article:
The problem with Joe Mauer is that there are no problems with Joe Mauer. I'm not sure he's the perfect player, but he's pretty close.Amen. The other 50 sentences in Law's article are well worth reading, as is Neyer's look at how Mauer stacks up alongside the likes of Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez.
Monday, July 24, 2006
Notes From ClevelandSome notes I typed up while watching the Twins take two out of three from the Indians ...
Neshek's willingness to attack major-league hitters and pound the strike zone is impressive, and missing a ton of bats while doing so is what makes him a potential stud. Neshek threw 69 of his first 101 big-league pitches for strikes and walked just two of the 24 batters he faced. Best of all, he racked up nine strikeouts, all swinging.
Neshek doesn't have mid-90s velocity on his fastball, but he's far from a soft-tosser. The combination of a fastball at 89-92 miles per hour and a ridiculous delivery allows him to blow hitters away just like throwing 95 MPH would. Neshek doesn't paint the corners or rely on favorable strike-three calls, he simply challenges hitters to actually hit strikes and watches as they fail.
Gardenhire campaigned for Terry Ryan to call Neshek up and immediately trusted him in tight spots. Instead of sending Francisco Liriano out for the sixth inning with 95 pitches yesterday, Gardenhire turned to Neshek for a multi-inning appearance, showing confidence in him (and Dennys Reyes) to bridge the gap between Liriano and the near-automatic win that begins when Juan Rincon enters the game in the eighth inning.
ERA OAVGThat's scary, especially considering Brad Radke has a 2.54 ERA over his last 10 starts. Crain has also pitched well over the past two months, but he'd barely be needed for more than mop-up duties if Neshek avoids a blowup. That's a staff built for the playoffs, with two aces, a third starter who's much better than any other options, a dominant setup-closer combination, and middle men to match up against lefties and righties.
As discussed in this space last week, Justin Morneau should be hitting cleanup. Batting Mauer and Morneau back-to-back would leave the Twins susceptible to a left-handed reliever coming in, but both Mauer and Morneau are doing well against southpaws this year. As things stand now, they're just as susceptible to Mauer being pitched around to have a righty face Cuddyer, and Cuddyer has been far less successful against righties.
Cuddyer has generally come through in key spots, including a Jhonny Peralta-aided infield single after Mauer's intentional walk yesterday. However, he'd have those same opportunities batting fifth, and moving Morneau up one spot would actually leave the bat in Mauer's hands a little more often. At the end of the season, when various fans and members of the media lightly criticize Mauer for driving in fewer than 100 runs, just remember yesterday's game.
It remains to be seen if the adjustments are permanent (or if they actually work), but at the very least it shows that someone (likely either Cuddyer or hitting coach Joe Vavra) is paying attention. Cuddyer was hitting everyone well early this season and has continued to bash lefties, but recently he's struggled against righties. That it was recognized, through stats or observation, is encouraging.
AB AVG OBP SLG 2B HR RBI BB SOI'm not one to place much value in what happens over the course of 29 at-bats, but those are some of the most amazing stats I've seen all year. Even ignoring the actual numbers, White has clearly taken more healthy, bad-intentioned swings at pitches over the plate during the past two weeks than he did in his first 190 plate appearances combined.
I have no idea how long "Good Rondell" will stick around or if "Bad Rondell" still lurks somewhere, but for now at least it's obvious that this isn't a case of a few grounders finding holes or some bloopers avoiding gloves. White is hitting balls hard, and they're finding gaps and flying over fences. If Torii Hunter comes back and Jason Kubel's knee lets up, there won't be an easy out in the entire lineup.
YEAR AVG YEAR OBPI first looked at how Mauer's season was stacking up against the all-time great years from catchers back in early June, at which point he was in the middle of a historic run that included getting on base 52 times in 20 games. It's six weeks later and his batting average has fallen just seven points, while his on-base percentage has actually gone up (thanks in part to those intentional walks).
Mauer remains safely ahead of Mike Piazza's 1997 season for the highest batting average ever by a catcher, and he's one good game away from overtaking Mickey Cochrane's 1933 season for the top on-base percentage. Assuming Mauer gets a similar amount of playing time for the remainder of the year, he'll have to hit right around .330 to stay ahead of Piazza. As of right now, he's a career .326 hitter.
YEAR OPS YEAR RCMauer is on track for a modest 12 homers, yet ranks seventh all-time among catchers with a .991 OPS and is on pace for 42 doubles that would tie him for second all time behind only Ivan Rodriguez's 47 two-baggers in 1996. In terms of overall offensive production (as shown above in the form of Runs Created), only Piazza's 1997 season is significantly ahead of Mauer's pace.
With that said, we'll have a much better grasp of the Twins' playoff chances by the time the Rangers come to town Monday. Here's what the Wild Card standings look like before Radke takes the mound against Javier Vazquez tonight:
W L WIN% GBBetween last season and the Tony Batista era, I almost forgot how much fun this is.