Monday, April 23, 2007

This Week in Twins: The Start of Something New

Welcome to the debut edition of "This Week in Twins," or TWIT. I'm your author, Andrew Berg, and from this point forward, you can anticipate a weekly wrap-up of where the Twins have been and where they are going. Also, I will do my best to keep week-t0-week developments in the context of the bigger picture and how they implicate Minnesota's chances of the postseason. If another big story intrudes during the year, I will make room to facilitate its inclusion. For now, expect a broad review with something of an analytic bent. If you enjoy the reading, don't be afraid to check out my own site, www.MinnesotaBaseballCentral.blogspot.com, or my other work at Write On Sports.

Weekly Roundup

The Twins endured an up-and-down road trip, sweeping the usually feisty Mariners in Seattle, then succumbing to the Royals twice over the weekend. While it is hard to complain about a 4-2 record, the Twins have yet to take a bit out of the meat of the schedule. Even though Kansas City is not the pushover they have been the last few years, there is no excuse for managing one run against Jorge De La Rosa.

Before the disappointment came the glee of pounding the Mariners, averaging 7.3 runs per game in the series, even if some of that good fortune came at the expense of Felix Hernandez’s royal sinews. Mike Cuddyer led the hit parade, piling up 8 total bases and five runs batted in through the series. The starting pitching continued to impress, as well, with Ortiz, Silva, and Santana turning in a trifecta of quality starts. These early season trips to Safeco have become something of a tradition in the last several years, and they usually give the Twins fits- despite the disparity in the quality of the two teams over the last five years, the Twins are only 8-8 at Safeco since 2002. In that light, a series sweep looks even more appealing.

While the Twins sparkled against the M’s, all that glitters is certainly not gold. The same team that looked so capable mid-week looked inept throughout dropping two of three to a team that has come to know a thing or two about ineptitude. Game one saw another seven runs scored, including another Cuddyer homerun and three hits from the typically scorching Joe Mauer. The run prevention side of the equation left us wanting, though, as Sidney Ponson kept the question open as to whether his ERA or his waistline would end the year further above league average. I would say Ponson is some sort of pathetic example of déjà vu from 2006, but nobody on that roster- not even Tony Batista- was as remarkably hopeless as Ponson. If he remains this out of shape, he may challenge Patrick Ewing’s record of “sweatiest athlete in the first five minutes of a sporting event.” Sixteen hits and four shutout innings of relief helped to pick up Boof Bonser in Saturday’s 7-5 win, making it the weekend’s biggest highlight. The week ended on a sour note nonetheless, as poor weather kept the team from hitting any batting practice. And keeping in mind the adage that “how you practice is how you play in the game,” it should be no surprise that the Twins did not hit in the game either. Jorge De La Rosa cast an eight inning spell on the entire lineup, allowing only another RBI double from Cuddyer. Buddy Bell wisely switched to Joakim Soria for the ninth, putting De La Rosa back in his carriage before he turned back into a pumpkin. The game was something of a microcosm for what has gone wrong for the Twins outside of the pitching staff- although Cuddyer and Mauer each played well, the rest of the lineup mustered only a few singles, and Bartlett committed his Jeter-esque 6th error of the young season. Now I don’t want to tempt fate by suggesting that he needs more AAA seasoning, but if he keeps fielding this poorly, the AL Gold Glove voters might start thinking of him as serious competition for Jeter’s throne.

Biggest Surprise

Even though it seems counterintuitive to believe that a lifelong underachiever could turn around his career after spending one month with a new pitching coach (his fourth), I keep hoping against hope that Ramon Ortiz is for real. He has been the team’s most valuable pitcher in terms of Value Over Replacement Player, and he has done it by pulling off his best Carlos Silva impression. No, not that Carlos Silva. I’m talking about the one who kept the ball over the plate constantly, but with enough downward movement to prevent extra base hits. Sure enough, Ortiz has given up some singles- a respectable, but not earth-shattering, 6.6 per nine- but walks and homeruns are tougher to come by. His two quality starts this week only resulted in one victory, although the 25-12 groundball-flyball ratio hints at the potential for continued success. Let me be clear: I don’t make a policy out of banking on pitchers with a 3.3 K/9 rate; he’s demanding entirely too much from his defense. With a little improvement, however, the rest of the peripherals are there to keep up a very solid season, munching innings just as Terry Ryan had hoped.

Biggest Disappointment

Maybe it is not fair to call it a disappointment if everyone could see it coming. In any case, Nick Punto’s .204/.283/.315 line could not cut it in the middle infield, and it certainly does not cut it at the hot corner. I know he has not been entirely healthy this year, and I know that he actually managed 5 hits (2 XBHs) over the weekend. Still, this piranha has a long way to go before he convinces me that he is more solution than problem. The history books are littered with guys who could draw a walk now and then with good pitch recognition skills. Without the ability to punish mistakes, though, these same batters eventually stopped walking as pitchers realized they could throw the ball over the plate without repercussions. With an anemic .342 career SLG, Punto does not profile as a Mark Teahen type who eventually learns to start pulling the ball. If he can use his speed and ability to make contact to squeak out a few hits or turn some singles into doubles here and there, he could make himself a solid contributor as an infield super-sub. As a full-time player, though, he is all disappointment.

On the Horizon

The Twins have a full slate this week, welcoming Cleveland and Kansas City to the Dome for two apiece, then traveling to Detroit for three over the weekend to rekindle a matchup that generated some very entertaining games a year ago. Cleveland has looked good, if a little disjointed. That fault can be easily forgiven considering their odd schedule so far. The Twins will likely see the back end of Cleveland’s rotation, with Jeremy Sowers matching up against Silva on Monday, and Fausto Carmona trying to prevent Santana from starting a new Dome winning streak on Tuesday. The Twins could feast on this pair of starters with 5+ ERAs, or they could make them into this week’s Jorge De La Rosa. Only time will tell. Against the Royals, the Twins will get a repeat look at Odalis Perez and Zack Greinke. All four starters saw the opponent over the weekend, so there should be plenty of runs scored.

The Big Picture

Nobody ought to complain about first place in the division. Be wary, though, as the competition has not been terribly stiff and the rest of the division has not found any consistency so far. The Twins are already a win and a half above their run differential, and two and a half wins above their third order projections (based on how many runs they should have scored and prevented, derived from individual performance). According to those numbers, they’re only a .500 team so far, not so hot after facing a bunch of teams who figure to occupy fourth or fifth place in the standings by year’s end. The early returns on the playoff odds report from Baseball Prospectus place the Twins as roughly an even-money bet to make the postseason. Since I saw them as something less than a playoff team before the season began, I have no complaints.

2 comments:

Pollyanna said...

Corey,

Interesting bit in the Sunday "Washington Post" on Ortiz. Appearantly he rejected a lot more money from Washington to go to a "Winner".

His comment was in essence, he'd rather be the 5th starter on a winner, than #1 Starter on the Nationals (loser, baby).

It's way to early to say how the year will turn out, yet I don't remember too many consistant Cy Young type pitchers on really bad teams (Cin & Wash).

Ortiz wants to WIN and he seems willing to listen to coaching to get to that objective. Maybe some of the young pups could learn something from that.

We'll find out in the fullness of time.

Regards,

Corey Ettinger said...

It'll certainly help his Cy Young campaign.