Monday, July 9, 2007

TWIT: Going round in circles

Weekly Roundup

For two games this week, the Twins averaged 16 runs. Over the course of the other six games of the week, they averaged 2.8 runs per game. Friday’s fireworks aside, the Twins squandered the opportunity to make real gains against some of their prime competitors over the last two weeks, leaving themselves right where they have been all season long. Tim Kurkjian and Orel Hershieser summarized it well on Baseball Tonight, ranking the Twins fifth in the American league. That position is respectable, but without any major changes to the roster, is there any chance that they pass Cleveland or Detroit? Even in an era of watered down playoffs, finishing third in one’s own division amounts to a lost season. Just ask the 2006 Chicago White Sox, a 90 win team the appears headed for a fire sale a year later because 90 wins doesn’t always cut it in a division as tough as today’s AL Central. For the Twins, 90 wins remains a troublesome goal, as the would have to go 45-31 in the second half to reach that benchmark of playoff contention.

Nonetheless, a lot of interesting things happened this week. After two walkovers opened the New York series on a sour note, Johan made it clear that he has entered his Cy Young mode for the season, surrendering only 4 hits over seven innings to one of the more dangerous lineups in the league. The very next day, the Twins came back from a 5-2 deficit to tie the game at 5 for 5 innings until Hideki Matsui hit a dramatic two-run homer off of Pat Neshek. The plot thickened in the ninth, when Mariano Rivera could not slam the door, giving up one run and leaving the tying run on base as the game ended. Factoring in Torii’s freak out in the second game, the intrigue of any series at the Stadium, and the fact that it happened over the 4th of July, and the series was actually quite entertaining, even though the Twins were hopeless in two of the games.

As for the Chicago series, anyone who has watched the team all year was waiting for the other shoe to drop after Friday’s explosion. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take all of the 20 and 12 run games I can get, but it never seemed like a genuine offensive explosion. To me, it looked like Ozzie was more than willing to throw batting practice once it became apparent that each game was out of reach, artificially enhancing the run totals. His discretion proved the better part of valor, as the pitching staff had enough left after the double header to hold the Twins to 4 runs over the next two games. After Friday’s romp, a series split was almost inconceivable. As it turned out, the Twins enter the break with a losing streak, a seven game hill to climb to the playoffs, and very little momentum.

Biggest Success

A lot of players can fit into this category. If we excluded Friday from the calculations, very few players would fit into this category. Friday counts, albeit more so in the run differential column than the wins and losses, so the double header heroes have to get their due. Jason Kubel’s continued improvement netted him a .318/.370/.591 line with two homers and ten RBIs (Kubel is hitting .269/.329/.463 for the last month, so don’t blame the offensive woes on him). Joe Mauer got on base 16 times in 34 plate appearances. Luis Castillo hit .364. Torii Hunter slugged .643. Even Jason Bartlett, with a rough week at .229/.289/.286 managed to cross the plate 9 out of the 11 times he reached base. For all of these relative successes, I expect no one to argue with the selection of Justin Morneau as player of the week.

Morneau started the week in a homerun slump that lasted for nearly two full weeks. He came out of it with a .438/.471/.875 line, aided in no small part to the fact that he started his personal homerun derby four days early. While a 25 point dip in his batting average from last year has made Morneau’s OBP shrink by about 10 points, he is slugging about 20 points better, giving him a park and league adjusted OPS+ of 148, better than the 140 he had last year. He is on a pace to drive in more runs (136), score more runs (105), and hit more home runs (44) than in his MVP season of 2006. I’m not na├»ve enough to think that he will win another MVP without his team surging to another pennant, but he is quickly securing his position on the short list of great Twins sluggers since Harmon Killebrew. In fact, his average of 17.4 at bats per homerun for his career would rank him third all time in team history, behind Harmon (14.0) and Roy Sievers (17.1). His 13.4 average this year would be the tenth best single season total in team history, second best in the non-Killebrew division (trailing Don Mincher in 1964). In other words, if Morneau continues hitting for power for two more years, there is a good chance that he will go down as the best homerun hitter of the Metrodome era.

Biggest Disappointment

Personally, I was most disappointed by the fact that the team failed to win a single game in which they did not jump out to a large lead. I discussed some of the failings in the intro, so I will be brief. The biggest failure of the week has to be the combination of Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva, the nominal 2-3 starters on the team, who combined to give up 19 runs in 22.2 innings, losing four games in the process. Some of their problems are different- Boof can strike batters out, totaling 10 in his 12.1 innings for the week, and Silva cannot, managing only 3 punchouts in 10.1 innings. Boof tends to have a few good innings before going in the tank, while Silva spends more time getting hammered than Lindsey Lohan. The results are the same, though, with 7 combined losses over the last month and an ERA of 5.18. With Radke and Liriano holding down the middle of the rotation, two guys with 5 ERAs could survive at the back end, but without those reinforcements, it is no wonder that the rotation has slid this year.

The Big Picture

A recent poll on the Twins website asked what has to happen for the Twins to catch Cleveland and/or Detroit in the division. There were four options: Young guns must stabilize rotation; More offense from 3B, SS; Mauer has to stay healthy; Have to acquire a power bat. In my mind, no less than 3 ½ of these things have to come true in order for the Twins to contend.

First, some combination of Baker, Garza, and Slowey has to combined for an ERA close to 4 or below it to function as the middle of the rotation, as described in the last section. With Baker’s recent improvements and Garza’s domination of a tired, blown-out, below-average Chicago lineup on Friday, one could see these two achieving that goal in an extremely optimistic world.

Next, the more offense part mostly has to come from third base. Bartlett has hit .286 with a .345 OBP for the last month, which dovetails nicely with his ability to steal bases and play solid defense. He’s not a power hitter and he never will be one, but a SS with above average OBP skills goes a long way. The same cannot be said for third base, where Nick Punto costs them production on his best day. When he slugs .272 for the season, suffice to say he has not met that “best day” condition. I know that Jeff Cirillo’s knees can’t hold up playing every day, but if he gets starts for the flyball pitchers in the staff- Santana, Bonser, Baker- his defensive liabilities will not show up as much as his .871 OPS over the last month (note to Gardy: excellent job getting him in against lefty pitching. Keep it up). If he gets 60% of the 3B at bats and Punto fills in on defense and groundball pitcher days, the pain of watching Twins’ third basemen will go from torturous to inconvenient.

Keeping Mauer healthy is a no-brainer, as there is simply not enough on-base percentage in front of Morneau and Hunter when he is out of the lineup. To do so, he might need a few more days in the DH slot, and I don’t think it would be the end of the world to have him shag some flies in left if it leads to a few chances to rest his knees and not a permanent position shift. The Yankees did it with Yogi Berra early and late in his career to keep him fresh, and he has a handful of rings to show for his success.

Acquiring a power bat remains a priority. Naturally, we fixate on the big ticket items like Adam Dunn, who could be had for any two guys from the 2002 Twins roster as long as Wayne Krivsky is in the GM chair. But his price tag is too high. If you want to find candidates, look for middle-aged sluggers on teams without postseason hopes. Xavier Nady, anyone? The Pirates need prospects to build for their eternal next year, and Nady has hit .291/.344/.504. He can split LF/DH duties with Kubel, and his bat plays much better than Tyner or Ford.

On the Horizon

Take a deep breath and enjoy the All-Star break…

After the break, the Twins play yet another four game set at home against the A’s, always a tough opponent in the second half. With the days off, we’re sure to see their best pitchers, unless Joe Blanton’s temper tantrum nets him an extended break. On the positive side, the Twins get 10 straight in the Dome (where they have not been at their best this year). On the negative side, they Twins might not play a team with a losing record until July 30th, when the Royals mercifully return to town. Only Toronto (currently 43-44) provides any sort of respite in the interim. In other words- if you’re going to make a move, do it before it’s too late, Terry.

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