Sunday, May 13, 2007

TWIT: Punchless

Weekly Roundup

Last week, I closed by tempering expectations for a six-game set against two solid AL Central opponents. I commented that it is not such a bad week to be cold, since these games will be difficult no matter what, and a couple of good wins could help jumpstart the team’s collective momentum generator, seemingly still puttering out black smoke from last year’s winterization. In a way, I may have been making excuses in advance, anticipating a putrid performance across an important segment of the schedule and compensating by lowering expectations. After all, if you set your goals low enough, you will be sure to reach them. As it has worked out, the Twins needed a dramatic walk-off homerun by Justin Morneau- legitimately one of the most exciting moments of the season so far- to get a single game during the week (I am writing during the lead-up to Sunday Night Baseball’s feature presentation of Boof vs. Virgil in primetime, so another win is a possibility). My pessimism has fomented so substantially that I saw the name “Virgil Vazquez” on the pitching probables list and thought to myself, “Oh no, first career start, that guy’s going to kill us.”

Joe Morgan hit the nail on the head during the SNB pre-game show, pointing out that most of the Twins regulars have performed relatively close to expectations, and the team is not scoring close to enough runs to remain competitive. After lurching through an easy part of the schedule, ripe for the picking with Kansas City and Tampa Bay, the truth has come out against the real competition: the Twins do not have enough bats to stay in the race. The nagging injuries to role players, and now Joe Mauer, have played a roll in suppressing run production, but do any of these numbers look totally out of line?

Morneau- .265/.353/.529

Hunter- .313/.345/.565

Cuddyer- .270/.316/.407

Punto- .215/.301/.289

Bartlett- .257/.331/.312

Kubel- .243/.295/.320

Mauer- .353/.446/.480

Castillo- .310/.361/.340

Sure, only Mauer and Hunter would have been considered successes at those levels, but only Cuddyer and Punto are noticeably below the range of reasonable expectations. Bartlett is basically a league-average on-base guy with a good glove and little power. And that’s what he has been this year. Morneau is a solid power hitter with so-so discipline whose average from 2006 was destined to come down. And that’s what he has been this year. Assuming that Kubel would start hitting for doubles power and a high average because time had passed was based mostly on blind faith going into the season, yet I remain hopeful to that end. Since his gruesome knee injury, he has been inconsistent across the board, wildly impatient at the plate, and constantly battling to keep his OBP above water. And that’s what he has been this year. I could go on like this, but you get the picture.

The real problem is that the Twins have walked on an offensive tightrope for a long time, getting just enough out of the lineup to support a reliable defense, a solid rotation and an excellent bullpen. This year, however, the lineup has produced too many duds to remain competitive. In the early part of the decade, they relied on consistency from top-to-bottom; only Luis Rivas stands out as a true black hole in any of the lineups that helped win three straight division titles (plus, the competition was weaker). Last year, Mauer and Morneau were transcendent enough to put the entire roster on their backs, get a little help here and there from whomever else was swinging a hot bat, and pull the team back into the divisional race. Subtract Mauer from the equation and bring Morneau back to earth, and that lineup suddenly becomes a group of below average hitters waiting for someone to get hot enough to carry them for a few games at a time. Torii Hunter did it for two weeks, Luis Castillo has tried to do it this week, but they are making a crazy number of outs.

Getting on base has been an issue for many in the lineup, but the problem that really stands out is their inability to generate any sort of power. Over the last week, the Twins slugged .341 as a team, putting them slightly behind the recently departed Shannon Stewart’s season total, and even with Chris Duffy- the same Chris Duffy’s whose lack of power has made him a fringe regular in spite of solid on-base skills and blazing speed. Other than Morneau’s three homeruns and one triple, the entire team combined for seven doubles and nothing else in the XBH department. To reach the AL average of a .407 slugging average, they would have had to turn 14 of their 52 singles into doubles, tripling their non-Morneau XBH total. Bottom line- a team can’t survive hitting for such little power.

Biggest Success

I got a little verbose in the whiny, cathartic part of the article, so I will pick up the pace here. After all, there are so few successes to discuss, that it should not take terribly long. For what it is worth, the starting rotation is rounding into form, as Boof struck out seven, walking only one, and giving up a single earned run in a seven inning start earlier in the week. Johan continued his early season passability, although the lack of endurance and strict pitch count is a potentially worrisome caution flag. Sidney Ponson still sucks, that’s nothing new. I think we’re better of treating him like the fat, old guy in a pickup basketball team who always weasels his way into games and sweats way too much: you don’t expect him to contribute anything at all, so any small victory comes off as a pleasant surprise. (Ah-ha! Just after I have written this, Ponson has been DFA’d- that’s right, he’s been sent to that big steak buffet in the sky. Here’s to hoping Garza gets another shot at the rotation and goes Liriano on us. Or Slowey. Or Baker. Oh, hell, I’m just glad Ponson is gone; it’s the 2007 Batista moment!)

Setting aside Torii’s incredibly catch on Wednesday, the overall player of the week has to be Morneau. Luis Castillo hit .400, albeit as empty of a .400 as you can dream up with only one XBH and 3 walks. Mike Redmond went 9-17 on the week, which is nice. Only Morneau put a stamp on the week, though, with his huge homerun and six runs batted in (the second best total for the week was 2). He hit only .250, but he can get away with it if he keeps slugging .800, or even .500 with the sort of patience that earned him 4 bases on balls in only 24 plate appearances. Wait, that’s not called patience, that’s called being the only batter in the lineup who can hit anything but a single.

Biggest Disappointment

I guess I already beat this horse to death, as well. In lieu of a standout candidate, I will give this week’s award as a sort of seasonal achievement nod to Mike Cuddyer, whose four singles, no extra base hits, one walk, and one run batted in typified how useless he has been to the lineup for the last month or so. After a decent start to the campaign, Cuddyer has fallen off of a cliff at a time that coincided with one of the team’s other two run producers went on the DL. Luckily, Justin Morneau is Canadian, otherwise Cuddyer would have been saddled as the team’s chief run producer for more than one game after the MVP broke his nose.

On the Horizon

When a team struggles, there’s nothing better than a road trip to visit two of the three hottest teams in the game. By the time the Twins reach Texas early next week, the Rangers may seem like a AAA team compared to the buzz saws they will see in Cleveland and Milwaukee for three games apiece. If Cleveland has a vulnerability, it may be shooting photon torpedoes into the back end of their bullpen, where Joe Borowski’s job has to be on the line after horribly botching a relatively easy save opportunity against Oakland on Sunday (two outs, two strikes, two run lead- too little). The Twins will get early-contact pitchers Paul Byrd and Fausto Carmona as the bread in a C.C. Sabathia sandwich (I hear that’s a tender cut of meat). Their groundball tendencies may line up well with Minnesota’s single-it is. Don’t be surprised if the Twins have something like 3 runs on 12 hits and 1 walk in one of these games.

The Big Picture

It’s still early. It’s still early. It’s still early. Repeat the refrain with me. The Twins have the same record today as they did after the same number of games last year. With injuries plaguing them instead of incompetence, it should be even easier to correct the course, right? If there is any value in a cold spell, it’s that the overachieving part of their peripheral statistics has sunk back to even keel, putting the adjusted record very close to the actual record. The other good news is that the Twins have actually outscored their opponents this year, hinting at the possibility that the offensive struggles are due to inconsistency rather than a persistent lack of ability. I still believe that Cuddyer will hit better, that either Punto or Bartlett will round into something more acceptable, and that someone out of the Kubel, Tyner, Ford, White grouping will be get hot enough to approach league average. It is frightening that Detroit and Cleveland have run so far out in front, but just like the Twins were overachieving when they were in first place, the Indians are 3 games ahead of their third order win projection, and the Tigers are 4.6 ahead. These things tend to even out over the course of the season, so keep hope alive. Plus, based on the sample size of the first inning of the Sunday Night game, the offense is right back on track!


Nick N. said...

Not sure I'd say Bartlett's been real good with the glove so far this year. He's been pretty sloppy. Doesn't he lead the league in errors?

Corey Ettinger said...

Since the first seven games he's been quite solid actually.