Sunday, June 24, 2007

TWIT: A Different Drummer

Weekly Roundup

The Twins did things a little differently this week, finding a way to take two road series from two solid National League opponents. Sure, they ran into Jorge Sosa and Josh Johnson at the right times, and nobody expects too many more one strikeout shutouts. Nonetheless, it is exceedingly difficult to trash a team that outscored its opponents 38-20 over the course of the week, especially away from a home stadium that typically serves as one of its chief advantages. The 4-2 road record for the week brought the Twins to 18-17 on the road, tied with Oakland for third best in the American league behind only Anaheim and Boston. To me, the most exciting development of the week is the collection of three wins by four or more runs. Remember, close games can swing on small bounces or luck, but one mark of a really good team is the ability to win blowouts. Minnesota can survive some close games with a solid bullpen pulling them through difficult, high-leverage situations, but giving those pitchers a chance to breathe every so often while carving out a relief role for Ramon Ortiz has to be a good thing. Considering that they only carded two wins of 4+ wins through the rest of the month, scoring enough runs to cobble together some easy wins is actually a bit out of character.

I have spent a goodly amount of effort complaining about the Twins’ lack of power hitting. At first blush, this week looks scarcely different. Heading into Sunday’s season finale with Florida, Torii Hunter had managed the team’s only homerun of the week. On the other hand, once Joe Mauer teed off for his second homerun of the day Sunday, ten different players had combined for a total of 22 extra base hits. Averaging three doubles per game will compensate for quite a few missing homeruns, even when the team’s only legitimate power hitter may be bleeding internally. Finally, with all of the problems the Twins have had finding a DH who can pass as an average hitter, maybe they should consider giving Johan Santana a shot at swinging at some right handed pitching on his off days. In his two starts this week, Johan went 2-7 with a double, a triple, a walk, an RBI, and two runs scored. I do not sincerely want Santana batting every day, but anyone who has watched him hit knows that he is the sort of unique baseball talent who possesses the physical tools and the coordination to do everything well. Just like Rick Ankiel, with developmental time, I am convinced that he could be a solid big league batter.

Biggest Success

Joe Mauer started hitting again, which is a good thing. Two homeruns in Sunday’s game help to confirm that the .333/.448/.500 week was right back on his natural level. Giving up one earned run in 15 innings, tallying two wins, and sticking the inane “slump” chatter in idiot sporstwriters’ ears puts Johan Santana on the short list, as well. But since this list goes to the player of the week, I will choose to recognize someone who needed a good week after a terrible season so far.

Jeff Cirillo began the season injured, struggled through an inability to hit for any power, and could not get a regular job, even with Nick Punto hovering around a .220 batting average. In the last week, however, Cirillo has knocked the leather off of the ball, going 12-20 from last Sunday through Saturday. An 0-5 game with a strikeout to close out the week does little to temper my enthusiasm for a .600/.619/.750 week, right when the team needed it most. Consider this: the Twins 12th out of 14 in the American league in homeruns, mashing 55 to beat out Baltimore and Kansas City (53 and 52, respectively). The league leader, Texas, has 93 bombs, and five teams have managed at least 86. Even without the DH, 14 of the 16 National League teams have gone yard more times than the Twins. Of the four teams with less total homeruns, the team leaders have 10 (Melvin Mora), 13 (John Buck), 10 (Jeff Kent), and 12 (Ryan Zimmerman). Factoring in Justin Morneau’s 20 bombs, it is clear that the Twins are extremely reliant on a singular power source. Without him in the lineup, having a reserve get hot enough to slug .750 for a week is extremely fortunate.

Biggest Disappointment

Anyone who has watched the Twins for the last few weeks has noticed this trend, but I’m not sure anyone is willing to talk about it, maybe as some sort of perverse jinx: something is clearly wrong with Juan Rincon. He earns biggest disappointment status for the week by giving up 8 runs (7 earned) on 3 homers and 9 total hits in only three innings. With four consecutive seasons of at least 74 innings pitched, it is no surprise that Rincon is showing some natural wear, particularly considering the high-leverage situations he has endured for the last two years. His strikeout rate peaked in 2004 and has dropped considerably each year since, hinting at the sort of trouble he has had this year. Still, it takes more than a tiny change for a pitcher’s ERA to jump two full runs after three stables years, or for him to give up more homeruns in a week than he gave up in either of the two previous seasons. Something is up with Rincon. Just like Jesse Crain showed some seriously diminished skills before discovering a more serious shoulder problem, I think now would be a good time to shut down Rincon for a precautionary DL stint. Before the season, I campaigned for the Twins to sell high on Rincon, shopping him for 3B or OF help while other teams might still see him as a premier setup man. Now, we’re left with a best case scenario of him suffering some sort of minor shoulder injury that rest can save. With the rest of the bullpen finding its way back to health, as well as the unlikely ascension of Matt Guerrier, now is the time to be cautious.

On the Horizon

The quirks of baseball’s schedule seem so unnecessary sometimes. For instance, I will never understand why MLB builds a wall between New York and Boston for the season’s doldrums months. Similarly, I found it odd that the Twins entered their series with Florida having played three more games than Minnesota. Those extra off days start to catch up with the Twins this week, as they will go straight home from Florida to the Dome for four with the Blue Jays, followed immediately by a three game road set in Detroit, four in New York, and four in Chicago. Including the double-header against the White Sox, the Twins will enter the All-Star Break having played 18 games in 17 days. If ever there was a time for the starting rotation to excel, now is that time.

Normally, I would say that missing Dustin McGowan is a bit of misfortune. Considering that he pitched 8+ innings of a no-hitter on Sunday, and running into Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett in the same series does not seem like such a bad thing. Those two will start the bookend games of the Toronto series, and Shawn Marcum (2.45 ERA as a starter) and the struggling Josh Towers will start the middle games. Twins fans know enough about the Tigers rotation by now, but the junk-balling, crafty lefty will be the recently healthy Kenny Rogers instead of the departed Mike Maroth.

The Big Picture

Once again, the Twins have to find a way to fend off New York and Oakland, while passing either Detroit or Cleveland within their division if they want a shot at the playoffs. Pretenders Toronto and Seattle could remain in the hunt with a few good breaks or trade deadline additions, but I do not believe either has what it takes to win the 90+ games the Wild Card winner will probably win. The Twins will take their shot against a few of these teams over the next few weeks with resurgent Toronto next on the plate, followed by the suddenly division-leading Tigers. The Yankees have cooled after a red-hot tear, and the Twins will have their own opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the Bombers with that four game set next week. And even though Chicago has struggled, a four game roadie against a big-time rival is never a sure thing. Altogether, the next two weeks will tell an awful lot about the team’s chances of contending for a playoff spot after the All-Star Break.

No comments: