Monday, July 23, 2007

TWIT: Fork

Weekly Roundup

Fork. In one way, the Twins stand at a fork in the road. Fox’s uber-rumor guru Ken Rosenthal jumped on the Adam Dunn to the Twins bandwagon yesterday, mostly because it makes a ton of sense if the team has an interest in building toward a possible post-season run. A fork in the road because the Twins have reopened the Johan Santana negotiations, reportedly with an interest in deferring some of the money. Ichiro and Mark Buehrle have recently signed new contracts, each offering some good news for Twins fans hoping to retain Santana, Ichiro because his deferred contract could make it easier for the Twins to spread out the dollars over the long term to offer a contract closer to market value, and Buehrle because he’s a top of the rotation lefty in a competitive market, and he signed below market. This year’s trading deadline is at very least a fork in the road for this season, whether they can compete for the playoffs as well, and even effects what team will take the field on opening day 2010, under the stars rather than a sheet.

Fork. In another way, there is a fork sticking out of the Twins’ collective back. After dropping three in a row to the Tigers, the Twins were looking up a 9 game embankment to the top of the division, and sit 8 back of the division, 7 back of the Wild Card. The roster that the Twins have put on the field so far this year has done enough to convince me that they will not make the playoffs with huge holes at third base and DH and an average rotation that cannot do enough to compensate for the offensive mediocrities. Even if you hold the belief that Cleveland will stop outperforming their run differential by 3-4 games and that the difference between them and the Twins is more like two or three wins going forward, you have to be concerned that the Twins have slipped behind the Yankees. Nobody in their right mind would look at the offense that piled 45 runs on Tampa over three games and a rotation that will soon include Clemens, Pettitte, Mussina, Wang, and Hughes, and still believe that the Twins can overtake them down the stretch. Even though the Twins were swept at home by the Tigers in three one-run games, it was enough to effectively crush their postseason chances without any major changes.

Biggest Success

For what it is worth, the Twins played two of the hottest teams in the American league and were only blown out of one game all week. The pitching staff is rounding into form, albeit a couple of months later than necessary, and has reached the precipice of compensating for the Nick Puntos and Jason Tyners of the world. Still, five runs over three home games is not going to get it done. Matt Garza does not deserve to go 12.1 innings, giving up only 14 total base runners and 3 earned runs, while still suffering two losses for his record (bizarre Slowey?). The bullpen gave up only four runs in 14 innings of work, the only non-quality start of the week was a victory (6.2 IP, 4 ER for Silva), and the team still went 2-4.

The offense deserve pretty much all of the blame for a bad week. But that’s not to say the lineup was devoid of bright spots, even against the top two starting rotations in the league. In particular, Jason Kubel led the team in BA/OBP/SLG and was second in total bases despite having a day off. I get the distinct feeling that Kubel has turned a corner and will remain at least a serviceable major league regular until injury or age derails him. He might never become the batting title competitor that he projected to be before his knee injury, but he can provide league average on base skills and above average gap power, making him at least a playable LF, something the Twins have not had for the last year and a half. Although he is somewhat streaky, I believe that Kubel will be good for at least .260/.330/.470 for the rest of the year and next, meaning that LF is not the dire straits that it was earlier in the season. Finding someone to pair with him to alternate fielding and DH’ing would still make all kinds of sense considering his injury history and the team’s gaping wound in the DH spot.

Biggest Disappointment

Everyone knows that the middle of the Twins lineup needs to produce for the team to be successful. Without offensive fireworks from Mauer, Morneau, Hunter, and Cuddyer, all of the seeing eye singles and first to thirds in the world won’t get them to a .500 record. With sprained ligaments sidelining Cuddyer for at least two weeks (hopefully a minimum DL stint, which would have him back the first week in August), the Twins have even less margin for error. Not only does the middle of the lineup have to be even stronger, their fringe players have to offer some sort of resistance to opposing pitching.

For the week, the team did not fare well without Cuddyer. Mauer, Morneau, and Hunter filled in his stead by having slightly below average weeks for all three. None of the three were abjectly terrible, but the top OBP was merely .333, and nobody slugged over .500 or hit more than a single home run. The reinforcements were even worse. Darnell McDonald’s line looks like one of the old Timberwolves box scores where Stojko Vrankovic would have minutes played followed by a whole mess of zeroes. McDonald accumulated 9 plate appearances with zero singles, doubles, triples, homers, walks, runs, RBIs, or steals. Not the best way to ingratiate oneself to a new team. The rest of the marginal players- Jones, Cirillo, Ford, Redmond, Tyner, Rodriguez- had a total of five hits in 38 at bats (.131). Nobody expects them to be world beaters, but they have to hit better than a pitcher.

On the Horizon

I mentioned the difficult forthcoming opponents last week, but Toronto has mercifully remained stagnant, slipping two games beneath .500 to give some sort of psychological respite to the team between four other series against playoff contenders. In the opener, Shaun Marcum will go for the Jays, hoping to continue his success as a starter, but even his revelatory season will have a tough time measuring up the second-half Johan Santana for the Twins. Baker and McGowan in the second game features two young starters who have started coming around as of late, and the series finale will see two guys who struggle more and more as the game goes on in Silva and Jesse Litsch. Between missing Halladay and getting Santana twice in the week, the schedule worked out nicely for this random selection of six games. Against Cleveland, the Twins will probably get Sabathia, but with Paul Byrd and Jake Westbrook in the first two games, it could be much worse.

The Big Picture

For me, the big picture starts to extend beyond the current season at a time like this. With that in mind, let’s take stock of what the Twins have to do going forward. Ultimately I believe that the Twins will find a way to sign Johan Santana to an extension, like Kirby Puckett and Brad Radke before him. Carl Pohlad may be cheap, but he is a good businessman and he knows how popular Santana has become in Minnesota. Considering that he is willing to take less money to re-sign and that the team has already broken tradition to negotiate with him in the season, and all indicators are going the right way. Mauer is already signed below market value beyond the end of his arbitration years, and Morneau’s long-term deal will likely be the next issue to tackle.

That leaves Torii Hunter and Joe Nathan as possible cost cutting victims at the end of this season and next, respectively. With the organization’s ability to develop cheap and reliable relief pitchers, including Hawkins, Romero, Guardado, Rincon, Neshek, and Guerrier, I don’t mind skimping a bit on the bullpen budget. Nathan could make eight figures on the open market, and a mid-market team has no business paying a closer that much money unless he is undeniable the face of the franchise (Trevor Hoffman). Losing Hunter could be a bit dicey. The Twins have not done a good job of developing outfielders since Hunter and Jones came along, with only Kubel to show for their efforts, and Cuddyer switching out of the infield to fill the need. Guys like Eric Byners, Kenny Lofton, and Mike Cameron will be available in the off season as cheaper alternatives, but those approaches do not solve the problem for 2010, the year the Twins are supposed to target to make a big run in a new park. It is too early to start wrangling for the 2009 free agent class, but the Twins are rarely big players in that market anyway, which is why I have continually suggested that they try to make a play for a minor league CF prospect who is within a year or two of becoming a regular. With their surplus of pitching and the relative over-valuing of starters in the current market, I believe a deal could be reached. If they were willing to take a chance on a borderline character, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes would come cheaply, although those are risky propositions. One way or another, I see CF as the biggest challenge going forward for next year and beyond.

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