Monday, May 21, 2007

TWIT: A New Hope

Weekly Roundup

A second straight week looked like it was going to be utterly disastrous before the team got enough of a rebound over the weekend to let fans exhale, albeit just a little bit. Going 2-4 and looking absolutely miserable in getting swept by Cleveland (outscored 24-8) is a pretty ominous start to the week. Taking a series against a division leader and nominal rival on the road while coming up a couple innings short of a sweep helps temper the sting just a little bit, and keeping in mind that this road trip has been one of the particularly difficult kind provides the kind of excuse that any worthy failure would desire.

If there was a theme to the Cleveland series, it was that the Twins never really had a chance. Getting blown out by 8 in the slow-pitch softball series opener- Ortiz versus Byrd, 28 combined hits, 10 for extra bases- set a nasty tone, since the bullpen-reliant team had to five relievers for eight innings on the first day of nine straight games. Carlos Silva gave them six mediocre innings the next day to aid in the recovery, although they were not nearly good enough to keep the offense in the game against a dominant C.C. Sabathia. Between Silva and Sabathia giving a combined 14 innings of work, I am extremely glad that I was not the pitching mound, trampled under foot by two of the girthiest pitchers left (now that Sid has beached himself in Aruba, of course). The next day, Johan Santana was out-dueled by Fausto Carmona, who lived up to the rhetorical idiom, “Who is the best young starting pitcher in baseball? Whoever starts against the Twins.” Carmona did nothing more than keep the ball down and in the strike zone, and the Twins gleefully obliged, hitting 17 ground ball outs. The idea for a ground ball pitcher is to work deep into games, give up hits here and there, but limit walks and extra base hits to keep the damage to a minimum. Against Carmona, the Twins hit 6 fly balls, and only one extra base hit, a double by Morneau. A team total of five total bases does not usually get the job done.

At least the weekend series saw the Twins hitting Milwaukee at just the right time, as the Brewers have seemingly hit the high-water mark and are in the process of regressing to their true level of ability, still good, but not .700 good. Boof kicked off the festivities with one of the team’s best starts of the year on Friday, making fans forget all about poor, departed Sidney. Ponson’s replacement, Scott Baker, followed suit on Saturday with another strong outing, propelling the team to an easy win and hopefully restoring organizational confidence that he can be a solid major league pitcher, even if he doesn’t have a dominating out pitch. Ramon Ortiz looked good for four innings on Sunday, and a 5-2 lead gave the appearance that the team was headed for a sweep and a full rebound from the Cleveland debacle. Three Brewers runs in the fifth and another lackadaisical outing from Reyes (against a pair of lefties, no less) ended that notion, preventing a truly happy Monday.

The team is still struggling to hit for power and to get on base. The bullpen is still below what we anticipated coming into the year, especially with one of the better pitchers on the shelf for the remainder of the year. The rotation still has major problems, as Silva is good for innings exclusively, and Ortiz cannot even say that. Nonetheless, I think the highs and lows of the early season are starting to plane out, as the team is hitting about as well as it should without Joe Mauer, and the pitching is starting to become predictable. The next step is finding solutions to the now-apparent problems, which I will discuss later.

Biggest Success

Even though Boof Bonser had an exceptional start on Saturday, functioning like an ace in stopping the team’s bleeding through sheer force of will, he was not the most impressive success of the week. That title goes to newly promoted Scott Baker, the triple-A all-star who won plenty of supporters with a gritty and effective outing against a good offense on the road. Before losing his spot in the rotation, Sidney Ponson’s top single Game Score was 66, a May 1st outing against Tampa Bay- his average GS for the year was 37. Against a tougher offense, Baker came up with a GS of 68 on Saturday, not a career performance, but pretty awesome in comparison. Through seven starts, Ponson had exactly one quality start, the aforementioned Tampa game; Baker matched that total in his first outing. In 37.2 innings of work, Ponson accrued -6.9 runs worth of value over replacement level, while Baker’s one start was worth 3.3. Obviously, Scott Baker is not going to go 8+ innings in every start, and his stats will look different when he gets back into the DH league, but when he has already bested six weeks worth of work by Ponson in only one night, there is finally some room for optimism at the back end of the rotation. Why Baker needed another 30 or so AAA innings instead of starting the season with the big club is beyond me. Why the Twins felt the need to pay Ponson the salary that only became guaranteed when he made the major league roster is also beyond me. How the Twins could imagine that Ponson was going to be part of a contending ball club is way beyond me. But those demons are in the past, and it’s now time to worry about the future. If that future includes an honest shot at a full-time gig for Scott Baker, I think his extensive minor league track record should speak for itself.

Biggest Disappointment

Now that the Ponson situation is resolved, the Twins only have three starting pitching candidates who are more qualified for the rotation than Ramon Ortiz. Ortiz compiled a stunning 18.56 ERA over two starts last week, keeping the team in one game and keeping them out of another. When a good day includes 4.1 innings of work and five earned runs, it might be time to pursue other career choices. The junk that Ortiz got to work in April is simply not working in May; he’s routinely getting tagged as if he were throwing batting practice. In 5.1 innings for the week, he gave up an astonishing 17 hits and 11 earned runs. His control is fine, as he walked only one, but it may be a little too fine, considering that he only struck out a pair of batters. Even though he’s not terribly old (34 on Wednesday), the weak, straight fastballs suggest that Ortiz might be totally done. I’d rather give Perkins, Slowey, or Garza a whirl than spend another 2-3 months trying to figure that one out.

On the Horizon

It wasn’t easy to do, but the Twins finally found a patch in their schedule where they will face a couple of teams struggling even more than they are. The Rangers had high hopes before the season, but at 10 games under .500 and missing Hank Blalock and Kevin Millwood, there is plenty of trouble to go around. Even in a miserable division, the Rangers are already talking about blowing up and starting over, as the Mark Teixeira trade rumors have started earlier than usual this year. Aside from Tex, no regular has an OBP above .335, and the starting pitching has been as bad as it usually is. If not for games like Sunday’s blowout win over the Astros where the team hit six homers, the cause would be even less hopeful. Either way, the Rangers are weak enough that anything less than a series win would be a disappointment for the Twins.

The same can be said for the Blue Jays, whose struggles lie in the fact that they have become the walking wounded. They had a high-risk, high-reward roster, and the season thus far has demonstrated the former part of that duality. It should not come as a surprise that the team has health problems when the last two years’ big ticket items have included Troy Glaus, Frank Thomas, A.J. Burnett, and B.J. Ryan. On Friday, a caller on Philly sports radio commented that the Phillies have no excuse for anything less than a sweep against the Jays. I don’t know how that over-excited gentleman felt about taking 2 of 3, but I’m going to take a slightly more measured approach into the weekend. In any case, if the Twins come out of this week with a losing record, it is something just short of an abomination.

The Big Picture

Cleveland and Detroit are playing extremely well, but recent history has taught us that a seven game divisional lead is not nearly enough to consider run-away-and-hide status. Three games under five hundred is less than optimal, but the Twins are still on the positive side of the ledger in first, second, and third order wins, including a net run surplus of 6 for the year. Since they are losing plenty of close games, there is room for improvement without any major roster tinkering.

That’s not to say that some roster tinkering wouldn’t do them some good. Moving Baker in place of Ponson has probably already given them at least a two win improvement over the course of the season, with the possibility of a much higher upside. The next step must be to fix the “Ortiz” section of the rotation. The franchise has enough bad memories associated with that last name, there’s no reason to miss the postseason on account of another one. With better alternatives up and down the system and enough time having passed to alleviate arbitration concerns, it would be extremely prudent for the Twins to swallow Ramon’s sunk cost and go with whomever they trust out of the Perkins-Slowey-Garza triumvirate. Enough time has passed that we can say that this problem is real and tangible, and the passage of more time will not alleviate it.

Also the offense needs to produce more, even accounting for the absence of Joe Mauer. Specifically, Jason Kubel needs to continue his slow march back to respectability, and Ron Gardenhire has to find a way to get something out of third base. If he can fashion some sort of platoon out of Jeff Cirillo and Nick Punto, they may get a passable amount of production. I’m still concerned that there isn’t enough young offensive talent to support the roster as time goes on, and I would welcome a sort of dashing challenge trade where Ryan tests his scouting chops by trying to get more than value in the form of hitting prospects for one of his young pitching prospects.

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