Monday, July 30, 2007

TWIT: The Distant Future

Weekly Roundup

Haven’t we been here before? Last week, the Twins suffered a miserably disappointing sweep, followed by a pretty solid series where they took two out of three from a better team. This week, well, the Twins suffered a miserably disappointing sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays, and followed it up by taking two out of three from a better Cleveland team. According to the BP playoff odds report, the Twins’ odds of getting into the post-season sweepstakes are down to just 7%, only seventh best in the American league, and well behind the other six contenders ahead of them.

Once again, the road to a subpar week was paved by an inability to score runs during the workweek. Last week, the Twins managed a total of five runs in their three losses to the Tigers. This week, they scored- guess what- five runs in their three losses to the Jays. In some ways, this series was even more pathetic, as the Jays don’t sport one of the hottest starting rotations in the majors, and they fell victim to the indignity of being completely shut down by Dustin McGowan. The Twins pitching was not outstanding, either. Santana got lit up like a Christmas tree his first time out, giving up gopher ball after gopher ball. Carlos Silva struggled in giving up six runs over 5.1 innings, and the situation got worse when Dennys Reyes and Juan Rincon tried to relieve him, but combined to face six batters and let every one of them score without recording an out. Altogether, there were almost no positives in the Toronto series. Minnesota’s weaknesses showed up all at once, crowding out their relative strengths.

The Cleveland series was quite a bit better. It started slowly with a Boof Bonser shellacking, a game which contributed to Ramon Ortiz piling up 5.1 innings for the week- something that doesn’t happen when things are going well. As the weekend went on, though, the Twins starting hitting a little, catching some breaks, and pitching extremely well. Santana looked like vintage second-half Johan on Saturday, teasing at a no-hitter, but settling for 12 strikeouts and five baserunners through seven innings. Matt Garza looked even better on Sunday, where he went nose to nose with potential Cy Young favorite C.C. Sabathia. Sure, the Twins are out of the race, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still cheer, and a weekend series like this one is a good way to feel good about a team that needs an unrealistic hot streak to contend again this year.

Biggest Success

Justin Morneau had another strong week, blasting two homers, driving in seven runs, hitting .409, and somehow not drawing a single walk, even without much support behind him in the lineup (Hunter hit .143 for the week). Jason Tyner mashed his first major league homerun even though I remember drafting him way back in the first fantasy baseball draft of my life.

My pick for biggest success of the week is going to Matt Garza this week. He has been absolutely revelatory for the Twins in the last few starts after looking a little rough around the edges the first couple of starts after his recall. Is it possible that he resented staying in AAA so much that he was dogging it all year? The 3.62 ERA and 95 K’s in 92 IP hint otherwise, but he was much better last year, and insisted he was uncomfortable pitching the way the team wanted him to pitch in the minors. What is more likely is that his experience throwing his curveball more often in AAA is starting to catch on, giving him the lights out pitch that baffled Cleveland on Sunday. He did a great job getting ahead of hitters, and was able to throw a nasty breaking ball that torpedoed out of the strike zone to record 11 strikeouts in six innings. With Boof Bonser, Garza makes two Twins starters who get by on an excellent curve, but they use the pitch differently. Bonser throws his for a strike, but it sometimes flattens out and gets hit hard. Garza has yet to learn how to throw his yacker for a strike consistently, meaning it works as a strikeout pitch, but hitters can sit on the fastball early in the count. If I had to choose, I would take Garza’s setup- it has worked well enough for K-Rod’s slider over the years- and his command should improve as he continues throwing it. If his peak is what we’ve seen his last three or four starts, I’ll take that, too.

Biggest Disappointment

Did anyone else notice that Matt Lecroy is hitting .193/.277/.260 at AAA? That’s pretty disappointing to me. I’m just piling it on now; there’s not much reason to look for more disappointments after a week like this one. The real culprits were the major league hitters who couldn’t get over the Mendoza line for the week. Lew Ford (.111), Jeff Cirillo (.125), Jason Bartlett (.125), Torii Hunter (.143), Jason Kubel (.158), and Nick Punto (.200) all played at least three games and flat out didn’t hit. While the offense’s problem for most of the year has been an inability to hit anything other than singles, even a few singles would have been appreciated this week. With that sort of production, averaging 2.7 runs per game is ugly, but it is not wholly unexpected. If you want to blame someone for the Twins hovering around .500 with the collection of frontline talent that they have, blame Terry Ryan for settling on Jeff Cirillo, Nick Punto, Jason Tyner, and Rondell White as long term solutions in the lineup.

On the Horizon

The Twins have just completed the first three of 20 games in 20 days, a long stretch like they had leading up to the All-Star break that taxes the pitching and requires more than simple push-button managing. I have said repeatedly that this area is one where I fully trust Ron Gardenhire to handle the team correctly; his bullpen management optimizes individual talent without overburdening one or two pitchers. The only concern I have over this stretch is that he will be pressed toward trying to win the division, even though the goal is probably unrealistic, and may continue to use Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier on back to back days when the risk is unnecessary. It is not a huge concern, but it is something to watch over the next two weeks.

The schedule itself brings the Twins an eight game home stand against the Royals and the Indians. With the way the Twins played against Cleveland this weekend, there’s real hope that next week’s column will have a more upbeat tone than this one. The Royals have played fairly well since the All-Star break, most recently sweeping Texas, but they’re still the Royals, and after Gil Meche on Monday, they the exceedingly mortal Jorge De La Rosa, Brian Bannister, and Odalis Perez to the mound. I’m going to pretend that De La Rosa didn’t already dominate the Twins once this year, and I’m also going to pretend that Kansas City’s trade deadline sell-off will distract the team enough to cripple their focus and confidence.

In the Cleveland series, the most interesting match-up will be in the first game, where Sabathia will get a rematch with Matt Garza, this time on Garza’s (literal) turf.

The Big Picture

Once Tuesday passes and the trade rumors dissipate, it will be time to stop worrying about the big picture for a while and to start enjoying the game of baseball itself. It’s late summer, the team is healthy, and they’re playing every day for the next two and a half weeks. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the majesty of ball and bat.

I’m sorry, I don’t usually engage in that sort of silly baseball mysticism, but I feel like I need to construct a fallback for a team without great hopes of a playoff run. Truthfully, there are lots of reasons to continue enjoying the Twins this year. Santana may be starting a run of excellent starts, Garza and Baker have looked very solid recently, and Justin Morneau could make a run at 40 homeruns. Plus, if you’re into gambling, you can bet on which infielder will catch Rondell White’s popup each time he bats.

In the meantime, the trade deadline still packs some punch. I recently wrote about why I think the Twins should not trade Torii Hunter, since there is just not enough time to work out the right deal. I also know that the team has more or less taken Luis Castillo off of the market, but I would at least shop him around to see if there’s any team that will give up more value that is closer to the major leagues (perhaps an outfielder?) than the two draft picks he will bring back by leaving as a free agent. With the current market for pitching, Juan Rincon and Carlos Silva should also be on the block, just to see if they can set themselves up better for next year by dealing them for prospects who are close to the majors. Plus, it’s possible that the team would be better off with Cameron Cali and Kevin Slowey playing at this point anyway. So even though the Twins are in a holding pattern of non-contention, there are plenty of intriguing story lines to follow, and lots of baseball left to enjoy.

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