Friday, September 01, 2006
The Nevin TradeOne of the Twins' biggest weaknesses this season has been the complete lack of production they've received from designated hitters. That spot in the lineup has batted a combined .264/.311/.371, which is good for a .682 OPS that ranks dead last among AL teams. Amazingly, those numbers would be far worse if Joe Mauer hadn't hit .480 in 50 at-bats there while taking time off from catching.
Included in that pathetic overall production has been almost zero power. Twins DHs have managed just six homers, while every other team in the league has had at least twice that many long balls from the position and six teams have gotten at least four times as many homers from the spot. Twins DHs also rank dead last in RBIs, runs scored, and total bases.
August is never a great time to upgrade a contending team, because the available players are typically mediocre and the price to acquire them is almost always inflated. In particular, pitching is at such an extreme premium with mere weeks to go in the season that teams actually found themselves bidding for what is probably the final month of David Wells' career.
With that said, if there's one thing that is generally available at reasonable prices this time of year, it's unspectacular veteran first basemen and corner outfielders. Jeff Conine, Russell Branyan, Shawn Green, and Eric Hinske were all dealt for relatively little in return within the past two weeks, providing their new teams with capable bats at little cost.
The Twins had been standing pat while those low-cost veterans switched teams, no doubt hoping that either Rondell White or Jason Kubel could provide the offense necessary to make the DH spot something less than a huge problem down the stretch. White homered yesterday and has generally hit well since returning from Triple-A in July, but he's been far from a consistent offensive force.
Meanwhile, Kubel has been hobbling around on bad wheels for far too long and has been lost at the plate for weeks. It's clear that he's simply not right, and at this point everyone might be better off if he shut things down and focused on being healthy for spring training. In other words, there's been little to suggest that the DH problem was going to go away.
With last night's deadline looming for traded players to retain playoff eligibility with their new teams, the Twins finally decided to acquire a veteran bat of their own, sending a player to be named later to the Cubs for Phil Nevin just before the clock struck midnight. At first glance, this trade might look an awful lot like the one that brought Bret Boone's corpse to Minnesota last year.
After all, Nevin is 35 years old, has already been traded once this season in a salary dump, and is clearly winding down his career. However, while dealing for Boone looked like a bad move from the moment rumors started circulating, there's plenty of reason to believe Nevin can actually help the Twins down the stretch.
He's no longer the middle-of-the-order slugger who batted .300 while smacking 72 homers with 233 RBIs between 2000 and 2001, but Nevin remains an asset at the plate. He has hit .245/.321/.456 with 21 homers and 64 RBIs in 113 games this season, including .274/.335/.497 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs in 67 games after being dealt to Chicago.
A right-handed hitter, Nevin has hit right-handed and left-handed pitching equally well this season, posting a .780 OPS against one and a .770 OPS against the other. In the past he's shown a relatively huge platoon split, including a .924 OPS against lefties and a .727 OPS against righties from 2003-2005. In other words, in a lineup built around Mauer and Justin Morneau, he's a good fit.
Nevin will almost surely be asked to take over as the Twins' primary DH, but he's capable of filling in at several other positions. He's started games at first base, left field, and right field this year, and was an everyday third baseman just a few seasons ago. Plus, Nevin has seen sporadic time behind the plate throughout his career, thus filling the Twins' need for a third catcher.
This is not the trade many Twins fans had in mind when names like Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee were swirling around in July, but picking up Nevin for what is presumably a low-level prospect makes sense. There's a chance he'll be a Boone-like bust, but if Nevin simply hits like he has all season he'll provide a significant upgrade over what the Twins have gotten from the DH spot.
At the very least he provides a fourth power threat to go along with Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter and the singles-hitting piranhas surrounding them in the lineup. In fact, Nevin's 21 homers would rank tied for second on the team with Hunter and only Morneau has produced more long balls per at-bat.
Assuming Luis Castillo's ankle injury doesn't keep him sidelined for an extended period of time, here's what the Twins' lineup will probably look like in September:
BATS AVG OBP SLGThere's room to quibble with how Ron Gardenhire will arrange those nine guys in the batting order, but the Twins' lineup is stronger than it was yesterday and Nevin's arrival also provides more viable bench options. If White continues to play well--he's hitting .291/.317/.506 with four homers in 21 games since returning from Rochester--he can platoon with Tyner in left field.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Deja Vu (Royals 4, Twins 3)I can handle one loss to the lowly Royals and maybe even find reason for optimism in the defeat, but dropping two in a row at the Metrodome to a last-place team in the middle of the playoff race is a little much. Save for Michael Cuddyer's huge game, last night's depressing story was the same one that played out Tuesday.
Instead of Matt Garza's best start to date being wasted, it was Boof Bonser's solid outing that was for naught. Instead of Mark Redman and his 5.85 ERA shutting the lineup down, it was Luke Hudson and his 5.94 ERA doing the same. Aside from Cuddyer's performance, the only real difference between the two losses is that Luis Castillo hurt himself in the second one.
The Twins went 5-for-31 (.161) with zero walks and zero extra-base hits against Redman Tuesday night. Cuddyer went 3-for-3 with two homers and a walk all by himself last night, but the rest of the lineup went 3-for-29 (.103) with zero walks and zero extra-base hits against Hudson, Jimmy Gobble, and Joe Nelson.
Twins fans have often shown a willingness to give a ridiculous amount of credit to opposing pitchers when the lineup comes up empty, but the fact is that setting aside Cuddyer's monster game, the team went 8-for-60 (.133) without drawing a single walk or smacking a single extra-base hit in two games against pitchers whose cumulative ERA was well over 5.00.
As if that weren't bad enough, both the White Sox and Tigers had come-from-behind wins last night, meaning the standings now look like this:
WILD CARD W L GB CENTRAL W L GBHad the Twins simply taken care of business against a 100-loss team at home, they'd be a half-game up in the Wild Card standings and only four games back of Detroit in the division. Instead, any dreams of a division title can basically be written off completely with only 31 games left to play and all that hard work in Chicago has been wiped away.
The good news is that the Twins will try to salvage one win from the series with Johan Santana taking the mound this afternoon. The bad news is that the team quickly squandered whatever advantage they had over the White Sox prior to the Royals coming to town and a trip to Yankee Stadium sans Santana, Francisco Liriano, and Brad Radke is next up on the menu.
In a season that has already seen more dramatic, seemingly out-of-nowhere ups and downs than any I can remember, if the Twins aren't careful their playoff chances could be on life support come Monday morning. Stupid Royals.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Royals 2, Twins 0It's been a while since the Twins reminded me of last season's team, but last night's loss would have blended right into the second half of 2005. Royals starter Mark Redman entered the game with a 5.85 ERA on the season, including a 6.85 ERA since the All-Star break, yet had little trouble shutting down the Twins' lineup for nine innings using an assortment of well-placed slop.
Redman has certainly shown himself to be a capable big-league starter in the past and was at his junk-tossing best last night, but there's something particularly frustrating about watching a lineup flail away at 116 pitches that rarely topped 80 miles per hour. Of course, the fact that the loss dropped the Twins out of the Wild Card lead and wasted Matt Garza's best start was also tough to take.
After Garza beat the Orioles last week for his first major-league win, I discussed how impressive his outing was despite recording only one strikeout. I also marveled at Garza's ability to change gears and make adjustments between starts, as he went from trying to strike everyone out to purposely inducing weak contact. Here's a little of what I wrote:
Over the long haul, Garza's ability to rack up strikeouts is incredibly important and he figures to thrive at it. In the short term, it's impressive that he was able to switch gears, following up a horrendous first outing with back-to-back solid starts that held almost no resemblance to one another. The challenge going forward will be to produce a performance that combines those gears.Last night's outing is as close as Garza's come to putting together a well-rounded performance that combines all the things he does well. He gave up several relatively hard-hit fly balls, but kept the ball in the ballpark, worked efficiently, induced a fair number of ground-ball outs, and racked up seven strikeouts. In other words, he looked like one of the elite pitching prospects in baseball.
It's a shame the Twins' offense couldn't do any damage against Redman, because if the lineup had managed even three runs against him the big story today would be Garza's performance. For all the talk about him possibly being a bust or his fastball being too straight or his off-speed stuff not being refined enough, Garza deserves a lot of credit for how he's pitched since what was a brutal debut.
He's turned in three straight solid outings, including back-to-back starts that I'd classify as impressive, and has begun to build his case for a spot in the postseason rotation. When combined with the news that Francisco Liriano is scheduled to throw off a mound, Twins fans can officially resume dreaming about that Johan Santana-Liriano-Garza combination at the front of the rotation.
After a night that saw the White Sox leap-frog back into the Wild Card lead thanks to the Twins being held scoreless for the 12th time this year and Redman tossing his second complete-game shutout in 182 career starts, it's worth looking ahead to something less depressing. The Twins remain a good bet to make the playoffs and their chances once in the postseason are looking a whole lot better.
Between Brad Radke's mess of a shoulder, Liriano's fragile elbow, and Garza's inexperience, there are plenty of question marks to go around. However, if the injury gods play nice and Garza keeps improving, a Santana-Liriano-Radke-Garza rotation could do some serious damage in October. Now that I think about it, I can't remember ever being this enthused about being shutout by the Royals.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Building the Playoff RosterWith big-league rosters expanding Friday, it's time to think about who the Twins want available for the playoffs. Having Shannon Stewart and Francisco Liriano on the disabled list gives the Twins some flexibility beyond the normal Thursday deadline for setting a playoff roster, as Stewart can be replaced by any position player and Liriano can be replaced by any pitcher (or use the spot himself, hopefully).
When it comes to postseason roster construction, the main difference is that multiple off days during each series means there's less need for depth than during the regular season. For example, there's no real need for a mop-up man or fifth starter during the playoffs, and even fourth starters can be used somewhat sparingly.
In fact, teams typically need only eight or nine pitchers in October, compared to the 11- and 12-man pitching staffs that are now common during the season. That setup plays to the Twins' strengths, or at least downplays their weaknesses, because the back end of the starting rotation is clearly the team's biggest question mark at this point and the entire staff is very top heavy.
On the other hand, postseason bench usage becomes more about in-game strategy than resting players or divvying up playing time, which puts the Twins at a slight disadvantage. With no dangerous pinch-hitters to speak of, the Twins' bench is more suited for day-to-day management than actual in-game tactics, and unfortunately there aren't any great bench bats available at Triple-A.
With all that in mind and assuming for a moment that Liriano is healthy enough to play a major role, here's the playoff roster I'd build for the Twins:
PITCHERSI'm typically in favor of a nine-man pitching staff for the playoffs, but the Twins don't have the bench bats to make carrying a couple extra position players particularly worthwhile. It's unlikely that Matt Guerrier or Jesse Crain would get much in the way of meaningful postseason work, but it's not like Terry Tiffee or Josh Rabe would either.
The biggest decision will be who gets the nod as the fourth starter. I went with Carlos Silva, although after watching him throw batting practice to the White Sox over the weekend, I'm not sure why. Taking Silva over Boof Bonser, Matt Garza, and Scott Baker shouldn't be a no-brainer, but I doubt the Twins will give it much thought. Using Guerrier for 3-4 innings and then turning things over to the bullpen might actually be the best option.
Of course, if Liriano isn't available as a starter, then Silva becomes the third starter and the choice is suddenly between Bonser, Garza, and Baker. Bonser would likely get the call right now, but I suspect Garza probably has a chance to change the team's mind over the next couple weeks. The worst-case scenario has both Liriano and Brad Radke unavailable, but I'd rather not talk about that.
HITTERSIf the Twins go with 10 pitchers and 15 position players--which might be wishful thinking on my part--the only other possible change to the group listed above that I can see would be taking Tiffee instead of either Rabe or Chris Heintz. A surprising number of Twins fans see something they like in Tiffee, but I'm not one of them. Plus, I fail to see what tactical use he'd have in the playoffs.
There's no one in the lineup Tiffee should be pinch-hitting for, there's no one he should be coming in for as a defensive replacement, and there's no opportunity for him to platoon with someone. Rabe at least could be of some use against lefties, either pinch-hitting or starting in place of Jason Tyner, and Lew Ford could be used as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement.
My decision to include Heintz on the roster is probably surprising, but it's a move the Twins should make. As long as Ron Gardenhire lets his irrational fear of being left without a backup catcher impact the way he manages, it's vital for Terry Ryan to provide him with a third catcher to have as a safety net. Heintz's presence would allow both Joe Mauer and Mike Redmond to be in the lineup against lefties, and it would also free Redmond to pinch-hit when he doesn't start.
Given the sad state of the Twins' designated hitters and bench bats, being able to use Mauer and Redmond as much as possible without fear (irrational or otherwise) of being left short-handed could have a big impact. Plus, Heintz can play third base in an emergency, which is also about all that can be said about Tiffee's defense there.
The Twins will probably take 11 pitchers and Tiffee, leaving themselves with a worthless bench and relievers who will have cobwebs growing on them by Game 4. In other words, the 25-man roster suggested above is more of a plea than a prediction. We'll see.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Two Out of Three Ain't BadA second straight in-Chicago sweep of the White Sox would have put the Twins 2.5 games up in the Wild Card race and in outstanding position to make the playoffs with 33 games left on the schedule, but sloppy defense, too much Carlos Silva, and not enough offense against Mark Buehrle ruined those chances yesterday afternoon.
Instead, the Twins will have to "settle" for going into Chicago and taking two out of three games and the Wild Card lead from the White Sox:
WILD CARD W L WIN% GBThe Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Angels are included in the above Wild Card standings simply to show how far out of the race they've fallen. While there's certainly enough time for any of those three teams to climb back into the race if the Twins and White Sox falter, the fact is that the Twins are closer to the Tigers in the AL Central than any of those three teams are to the Twins in the Wild Card.
While it may have been difficult to believe just a few weeks ago and nearly impossible to believe just a few months ago, the Twins' only legitimate competition for a playoff spot at this stage of the season is Chicago. Here's how the remaining schedules compare:
TWINS W SOXIt's tough to make sense of the schedules when laid out like that, so let's look at things in a different way. There are plenty of common opponents left, which clouds the picture a bit. For instance, both teams play a three-game series against Boston and a three-game series against Oakland. Here's what the remaining schedules look like once you cancel those games out:
TWINS W SOXFor the sake of simplicity, I've ignored whether the games are at home or on the road, although I'll touch on that point in a moment. While certainly not identical, you can see that what's left of the two teams' remaining schedules after the in-common opponents are canceled out is pretty similar in terms of overall difficulty.
The Twins have four games against the 47-85 Royals, while the White Sox have four games against the 61-69 Mariners. The Twins have three games against the 59-71 Orioles, while the White Sox have three games against the 60-69 Indians. The Twins have three games against the 77-52 Yankees, while the White Sox have three games against the 69-62 Angels.
The Twins have an "extra" game left on the schedule, which comes against the MLB-leading Tigers. Of course, using overall records to determine the strength of an opponent is perhaps misleading this late in the season. After all, the Tigers certainly haven't looked like baseball's best team of late and there isn't a 14-game difference between the Royals and Mariners in terms of difficulty right now.
Last but not least, the Twins and White Sox finish the season with a three-game series against each other at the Metrodome. The weekend series that begins on September 29 and stretches into October didn't strike me as particularly important when the Twins were 25-33, but with the teams separated by a half-game in the standings in the final week of August it looks like a bit of scheduling genius.
It sounds cliche to say that the season will come down to that final series, but it's unlikely that either team will pull more than three games ahead of the other in the next 30 games. While it may not truly "come down" to the final series in that the final game of the season probably won't determine who makes the playoffs, it may very well come down to one team needing to sweep.
Who has the scheduling edge? Well, it depends. If you go by overall record, the Twins' remaining opponents have a combined .497 winning percentage, while the White Sox's remaining opponents have a combined .509 winning percentage. If you instead choose to look solely at second-half performances, the Twins' opponents are at .467 and the White Sox's opponents are at .542.
In other words, depending on how you view things the Twins either have a relatively small edge or a relatively big one. The main differences between the full-season and second-half numbers are that the White Sox and Tigers aren't playing nearly as well as they did early on, while the Angels and Twins have been fantastic since the All-Star break.
Also worth noting is that the Twins have 17 of their 33 remaining games at home, while the White Sox have just 14 of their 32 remaining games at home. Both teams have played much worse on the road, which gives the Twins one final edge. All it all up and the Twins are the clear favorites to win the Wild Card, which is something I never thought I'd be saying on August 28, 2006.
A few other notes on this weekend's series ...
Hunter's overall line of .270/.343/.448 is solidly above average even without adjusting for position, but he's hit into rally-killing double plays, done poorly on the bases, and generally failed to come through in key situations.Interestingly, Hunter has come up with several hits in key spots since then, including a three-run, go-ahead homer against David Riske Friday. In case you thought WPA had some sort of anti-Hunter bias, consider that he received 42.6 WPA for Friday's game, essentially wiping out nearly one-third of the "damage" he'd done for the entire season.
His homer off Riske was without question one of the most important moments of the year, ranking right up there with Justin Morneau's walk-off hits against Mariano Rivera and Joel Zumaya in terms of its impact on the Twins' chances of winning. Hunter has still been significantly less valuable to the Twins than most fans would think, but he's looking much better both offensively and defensively lately.
As I've said before, keeping Punto at third base past this season would be a mistake. Not only would his offense be more of an asset at second base, Punto's range defensively is clearly superior to his reaction time. Third base is more about reacting quickly to balls hit right at you than any other position, which means his weakness is being heightened while his strength is underutilized.
Bartlett has been fantastic defensively overall, showing anyone with an open mind that he's a massive upgrade over Juan Castro in the field. With that said, he's made a lot more mistakes recently than he did after first taking over for Castro. When combined with Punto's erratic play at third base, the left side of the infield is both extremely effective and at times maddeningly inconsistent.
In this spot, simply getting on base (and avoiding an out) is hugely important, and Redmond's odds of doing that against a good right-handed pitcher were slim. Because of that, pinch-hitting Mauer would have been a no-brainer for me. Yes, Mauer could use a full day off, but winning a game against the White Sox is incredibly important and it's likely he would have only caught one inning after replacing Redmond anyway.
By pinch-hitting Mauer, Gardenhire would have increased the Twins' chances of eventually bringing the tying run to the plate by about 40 percent. Instead, Gardenhire let Redmond hit for himself in an unfavorable situation and watched as he hit into an inning-ending double play. It's unlikely that the Twins would have won the game regardless of what Gardenhire did there, but it's another example of his rigid thinking clouding his ability to maximize the team's chances.
Nathan deserves a lot of credit for how he bounced back from Dye's homer. The White Sox stormed back to tie a game that the Twins once led by four runs and it was just the second time this season that Nathan blew a lead, yet he still had two outs left to get with Paul Konerko stepping to the plate. Nathan kept his cool and the Twins eventually won, which was the case in his previous blown save against the Astros.
Incidentally, when it's nearly September and you can write "his previous blown save" about a closer, you know he's having a great year.
One of Gardenhire's biggest strengths is handling relievers, but Reyes' emergence appears to have turned him into just another micro-manager in the late innings. Rather than trusting Juan Rincon to do the job he's done so well and so consistently for the past three seasons, Gardenhire is suddenly trying to mix-and-match Rincon and Reyes against righties and lefties in front of Nathan.
That's obviously not the worst thing in the world and it's perhaps understandable given the many quality relief options Gardenhire has to work with, but it's also unnecessary. Of course, as long as Pat Neshek is around to bail Gardenhire and Reyes out--as he did Saturday, replacing Reyes in the middle of a bases-loaded at-bat and getting two outs--it's a relative non-issue.
Even after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts yesterday, White is still hitting .288/.318/.455 since returning from Triple-A. He hit a combined .289/.341/.487 from 2003-2005, so that's essentially the type of production the Twins should have been expecting when he signed. It just took three months of godawful hitting to get there.