Sunday, May 6, 2007

TWIT: First and Foremost

Weekly Roundup

It would be very easy for me to fill up 1200 words by talking about the ins, outs, and what-have-yous of the Joe Mauer conundrum. Instead, I will try to be concise and get it out of the way as quickly as possible. First of all, a strained quad can happen in many different ways, but one of the ways near the top of the list is compensating for a sore knee. I will not put it past a catcher to wear out his leg muscles independently of another injury, although anyone who follows players will knee injuries knows that hamstring and quad injuries are more than slightly correlated with them. In that regard, I fear that we have not heard the last of the Mauer knee saga, and that it will continue for as long as he remains at the position. Since the Twins have such a pressing need at third base, I would not hesitate to start working him out at the hot corner sooner than later, but using him in a more creative way to get some defensive contribution from behind the plate. Naturally, finding a replacement catcher is not the easiest thing to do considering the positional scarcity; that is another area where they will be better off if they start considering options now instead of waiting for zero hour to arrive.

In terms of performance, the drop-off does not go straight from Mauer to Redmond since both of them were already in the lineup fairly frequently. If Mauer was getting 90% of a full implement of plate appearances before, Redmond probably gets half of those freed up at bats, going from a half-time player to a full-time one. The rest will be split fairly evenly between reserve outfielders and DH candidates, primarily Jasons Kubel and Tyner. The way these two have been hitting, that’s a dicey proposition, as their combined effort straddles replacement level. I keep hoping that regular playing time will get Kubel’s hitting approach back on track, so there is reason for optimism in his case. We knew that a big chunk of the offense would rest on his ability to hit .290 with doubles power- it’s just becoming crucial much sooner than anyone expected.

As for the week itself, the Twins suffered the ungracious fate of losing four out of six despite outscoring their opponents for the week. The big three game set with the Red Sox yielded a total of five runs scored despite missing six-game winner Josh Becket (who Curt Schilling predicted would get crazy good on his blog due to improved fastball location), and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who just seems like the sort of pitcher who would hold the Twins scoreless on two hits for seven innings. And by that “sort of pitcher,” I mean anyone who is struggling against the rest of the league. Dropping two out of three to Tampa is far more humiliating than losing a couple of squeakers to the hottest team in the league, and they did it in a particularly gut-wrenching way. With two outs in the ninth, the Wednesday game seemed thoroughly in hand. And featured the headline, “Twins Squander Chances” for the Thursday game, which pretty much sums it up.

Biggest Success

The obvious choice here, and perhaps the correct one, would be to go with Torii Hunter for the second straight week. As far as the offense went, he carried them. Hunter has continued to absolutely rake, this week going .417/.462/.750 with four extra base hits and six runs scored. He’s stealing bases, he’s not striking out, his defense has looked good, and he is hitting better than he has ever hit in his career. There is an obvious sample size warning here. Nonetheless, it looks like Torii has found a vintage bottle of Alfonso Soriano’s Magical Contract Year Elixir: take it, and price yourself out of your team’s pay-scale.

But I’m not going with Torii; it would be too easy. Instead I’m giving credit where I almost never do. Every time I watched the Twins this week, I was impressed by something that Ron Gardenhire did. In some cases, it was something fairly large, like making the gutsy call to yank Santana after five plus on Saturday, turning it over to a hot bullpen that got the team its only win of the series. In other cases, he did his usually adept push-button job of managing the bullpen. The only runs relievers gave up all week were in the extra innings D-Rays game (and Gardy can’t be faulted for Nathan losing his command two-thirds of the way through a save), and an insurance run in the ninth inning of Friday’s 2-0 loss. I was even satisfied with the way he handled the lineup, abandoning his usual style of subbing a player into a lineup spot as well as a position for Sunday’s matchup with Schilling. While it did not yield a win, moving Hunter up to third in the order and finally moving Redmond down shows that he’s at least paying attention to what happens in games. That might not seem worthy of the “biggest success” label, but considering some of his failings in the past, I’ll take what I can get.

Biggest Disappointment

Joe Mauer. It sure was stupid of him to go out and get himself injured like that.

No, really, the least valuable player of the week probably has to be Justin Morneau. The reigning MVP struck out in more than 1/3 of his at bats (8 of 23), managing a single extra base hit and failing to bring his OBP or SLG over the Batista-ian .300 mark. All of this in the offense’s darkest hour, when a single big hit could have made the difference in any one of their four losses for the week. In Wednesday’s loss, he left three on base in a one run loss. On Thursday, it was 5 LOB and a two run loss (that’s nuthin! Mauer had 9 LOB in the same game). Friday: 3 LOB, 2 run loss. Sunday: 4 LOB, 1 run loss. That means that a red-hot week from Morneau could easily have swung a 2-4 week to a 4-2 week. It is not fair to place the entire onus of a bad week on one player, but Morneau was especially bad.

On the Horizon

It doesn’t get any easier from here, as the Twins return to the Dome for a week that could get ugly, but could also help them turn their fortunes around against their two biggest divisional rivals. The struggling White Sox could provide some sort of respite, although old friend A.J. Pierzynski may have started to reverse their momentum by tying their game with the Angels on a two-run homer in the 8th, then securing the win with an RBI single in the 10th on Sunday. At 14-14 and a negative run differential, the White Sox have underachieved in games in which their starting pitcher does not throw a no-hitter, so here’s to hoping the week gets off to a good start against another team playing below its level. The Twins will need to be hot out of the gates, especially since Detroit rolls into Minneapolis for a weekend series. The Tigers have been on fire, winning seven in a row heading into their series with Seattle during the week. Altogether, I think the schedule is fairly favorable, since the Twins are in a lull right now and can get by with a 3-3 record (two against Chicago and one against Detroit seems reasonable) without inching toward disaster. Even a 2-4 record would not send anyone into catatonic shock with Mauer out and the offense already struggling. These low expectations lead to possibly surprising results, and winning four or five of the games is certainly not out of the question.

The Big Picture

I have mentioned third-order wins a few times already, and it is not a stat that looks kindly upon the 2007 Twins thus far. The fact that they are fully two wins ahead of their third order stats means that they are scoring and preventing runs than their individual performances suggest should be possible. Since several key players are not performing up to their standard level- Morneau, Bonser, Crain- it is reasonable that the performance will even out and they will keep their heads above water in terms of run differential.

Two other issues piqued my interest for the future of the Twins beyond the next seven days. Primarily, the Mauer situation, which I have already addressed extensively, could become a thorn in the team’s side, since the backup catching duties fall to Chris Heintz, a player who doesn’t even hit in AAA. Terry Ryan needs to get on the phone with the league of backup catchers to see if he can buy Wiki Gonzalez out of his insurance sales business, or see if baseball seems more appealing that installing seamless siding to John Flaherty. If Mauer returns in two weeks, it is not an issue, but if a third catcher is necessary, there are cheap alternatives to Heintz who can do something well.

Lastly, I’m not sure how much more we need to see out of Sidney Ponson. Short of showing up to a start inebriated (which probably hasn’t happened, although I can make no promises), he has already proven that he is still the pitcher that washed out of every other pitching starved organization over the last two seasons. To paraphrase the immortal Denny Green: He is what we thought he was! If you’re going to knight him, then knight him! He is what we thought he was! He has made no shocking transformation, and Rick Anderson has only so much mojo to go around. Let’s give him a coupon to the Old Country Buffet, call up one of the three starters in Rochester with an ERA under 2.50 (Slowey, Garza, Baker) or stretch out Perkins, then act confused when Ponson returns from said buffet in mid-July weighing 345 pounds. It’s for the good of the land; get it done.

Oh, and if you've got two hours on your hands and you're the type of skeptical ninny who doesn't think Noah could fit dinosaurs on a boat, check this out:

1 comment:

Corey Ettinger said...

I knew Morneau had been bad, heck I rag on him every day. He's been so bad Nick Punto looks like a better option for Morneau's four or five hole than he does right now. But I didn't know he had struck out 8 of 23 at-bats. Yikes.