Monday, May 28, 2007

TWIT: You Say You Want a Revolution

Weekly Roundup

I could hardly be happier. On the heels of a week where the Twins actually finished with a winning record, taking two out of three from a pair of craptastic opponents, I wake up on a sunny holiday Monday to this bombshell from the Strib:

“The Twins haven't officially announced anything, but all indications are that righthander Ramon Ortiz, who has a 10.97 ERA this month, will be demoted to the bullpen.

That would open the door for Class AAA Rochester righthander Kevin Slowey to step into the rotation.”

Eep! Eep! I could not be any more satisfied to be right in reading the Twins front office, correctly predicting that they were waiting to the 40-50 game mark to sit down for a family meeting and start sorting through these difficult issues. Ortiz actually looked pretty good for about four or five innings on Saturday, then he once again forgot that he was supposed to be pitching in a game and not a homerun derby. Toronto went HR-2B-HR against him, and there were two 350+ foot foul balls in the sequence, as well. I don’t know whether Ortiz is tiring, losing focus, or just coincidentally missing pitches the third time through the order, but with the organizational depth in the AAA rotation paired with the recently swiss cheese’d bullpen, it seems like it is about time to put Ramon on mop-up duty. Encouragingly, Ortiz has a sterling history as a reliever, going back to his last stint in the DH league in 2004 when the Angels became similarly frustrated with the fact that he cannot retire batters. That year, he made 20 relief appearances, limiting his ERA to 2.76 (compared to 5.47 as a starter). The most important change was the fact that his homerun rate dropped from 1.48 as a starter to 0.92 as a reliever. While 49 innings is a pretty limited sample size, the fact that anyone who has watched Ortiz this year knows that he struggles deeper into games lends credence to the idea that he would better serve the Twins in a relief role.

Replacing Ortiz with Kevin Slowey is not a lame duck move, either. Slowey has dominated AAA with a 1.54 ERA in 64.1 innings this year, compiling an absolutely jaw dropping 57-5 K/BB ratio along the way. If minor league numbers mean anything, he should step in and contribute right away. His future is bright, as well, with PECOTA projecting him to be worth 114 runs of VORP over the next five seasons, maintaining about a 40% chance to play at a “star” level across that period. The knock on Slowey in scouting circles is that his tremendous fastball command has compensated for the lack of an out pitch in the minors, but it will leave him vulnerable to getting smacked around in the majors. Kevin Goldstein, the most scouting-oriented writer at Baseball Prospectus wrote that, “Slowey’s pure stuff is middle-of-the-road, which already ran him into occasional trouble in Double-A, and leaves many observers wondering what his major league out pitch will be.” And while the K/BB ratio is impressive, the fact that he isn’t even striking out a batter per inning in the minors seems to confirm that suspicion. Still, if Slowey ends up being a solid 3-4 starter instead of a 1-2 guy, nobody is going to complain. Right now, all he needs to do is keep his ERA under 5.00, and nobody will say boo.

Biggest Success

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Mike Cuddyer needed to get himself back into slugger’s form, and that other members of the offense needed to start supporting Justin Morneau a little more until Joe Mauer returns from injury. Cuddyer’s .400/.556/.700 line with 2 HR, 7 R, and 7 RBI certainly qualifies him for success. Luis Castillo getting 9 singles for a .333 average and .379 OBP also helps. Morneau, though, has been an absolute beast, coming up with the right hits at the right times, and making one beautiful belly flop onto first base to beat out a chopper on Sunday. Morneau clearly lead the team for the week, hitting .400/.444/.900 with 4 HR, 13 RBI, and 23 total bases. He only drew one walk for the week, but there’s a big difference between an empty .300 hitter and an empty .400 hitter, and with all of those homeruns, he’s not even falling into that category. The most encouraging part is that Morneau has seemingly recaptured the heady approach at the plate that brought him so much success last year, going the opposite way when the pitchers are trying to avoid him, such as that bases loaded, two out chopper that plated two runs against A.J. Burnett.

Biggest Disappointment

It might be silly to keep piling it on Ortiz, and I want to give Jeff Cirillo (.143/.250/.214) a grace period, even though I have high hopes for his season. I give this award, then, to the sloppiness that turned what could have been an inspiring win on Saturday night into a depressing 13 inning loss that taxed an already exhausted bullpen. Scott Ulger ran the Twins into two outs at the plate that were not even close to scoring runs, one of which came with only one out in the inning and was followed by Mike Cuddyer’s two (woulda been 3) run homer. Later in the game, Torii Hunter tried to stretch a completely run-of-the-mill leadoff single into a double for no particular reason, getting himself thrown out by about a full second. Then, during their comeback in the ninth, Hunter batted with runners on first and second with nobody out, and grounded into a weak double play that squashed the chances for a walkoff hit. Those four scoring chances would have given them the win in regulation, but instead they stretched it out and lost in 13. All of that and I haven’t even mentioned the shining star that is Jorge DePaula. I know he must have thrown strikes at some point in his life to get here, so there are probably nerves at play. Nonetheless, giving up 8 runs on 6 hits, 5 walks, and a hit batsman in a single inning pitched (over two games) is completely inexcusable. I mean, that is Rafael Betancourt level failure out of the bullpen. Forget it, I’m going to stay positive this week.

On the Horizon

More home games to start the week, with three against the White Sox followed by the start of a six game Left Coast road trip at Oakland and Anaheim. The White Sox series could be interesting, because the Twins enter Monday’s game two back of the Pale Hoes in the standings. I’m a little concerned about the status of the bullpen, though, as Neshek had to work two on Saturday, and Rincon and Nathan had to pitch on both Saturday and Sunday. If ever there was a day for a Johan Santana CG, it will be Monday afternoon’s series opener. Catching Oakland right now is not such a bad thing, either. Like the Twins and Blue Jays, they have been decimated by injuries, although they knew it was coming by stacking their outfield with guys they could get on the cheap because their ability to stay healthy did not match their ability to play baseball. Kotsay, Snelling, Stewart, Bradley… no wonder they are walking wounded. Justin Duchscherer may return by the end of the week, so the Twins might not have the pleasure of facing new closer Allen Embree, who is 67 years old, but the A’s bullpen is in rough shape anyway.

The Big Picture

I already covered the major issue in the introduction, with 20% of the starts possibly going to a competent pitcher rather than an incompetent one. The bullpen should be better, as well, with Nathan, Rincon, and Neshek being backed up by Ortiz and Guerrier, then the less inspiring fresh faces down the road. The top-level guys have great career numbers against lefties, so the lack of a LOOGY should not doom the team in high leverage situations.

The Twins also moved ahead of Chicago in the adjusted standings since the Twins are +6 for the year in run scoring and the Sox are -17. With Mauer set to come back later in the week, the offense is poised to improve upon their 7th place rank in the league for runs scored and with the more optimistic forecast for the starting rotation, the run prevention could move up a bit from its current 5th place rank. With Chicago continuing to scuffle and Detroit finally suffering due to their inability to prevent runs from crossing the plate (3rd worse in the AL), the Twins have a good opportunity to get back into the race over the next couple of weeks. Now, I finally believe they have the right alignment of their personnel to make that happen.

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