Monday, August 6, 2007

TWIT: Inoffensive

Weekly Roundup

Taking all things into consideration, the Twins had an extremely eventful week. On the field, they went 4-2 without a single game being decided by more than two runs. They picked up enough ground on the division by taking a series from Cleveland that they superficially look like playoff contenders once again, but still face extremely long odds. Off of the field, they traded their starting second baseman for nothing, and may have ended up with a good deal in not having to pay his salary. They also gave away half of a DH/3B platoon to save a half million dollars, which will likely also turn out to have virtually no effect on the standings.

And then there is that matter of the bridge, the 35W bridge just outside of downtown inexplicably collapsing, causing a scene that could be described as anything from terrifying to disastrous. Anyone who has been to Minneapolis has probably driven across the Mississippi river on 35W; it is not some arterial road without traffic. The fact that roadwork had diverted some of the cars may have been a contributing factor to compromising its integrity. If not, it turned out to be a fortunate circumstance that kept more people out of harm’s way. There are so many interesting angles from which to approach this story- the economic impact, the physical causes of the collapse, the stories of the survivors in the school bus, the government’s intervention, the long process of reconstruction-, but this is a baseball site, and there is definitely an impact on the baseball team. The Twins did the right thing in postponing the Thursday game after the bridge collapse, both to let people capture the gravity of the situation and to decongest the insane city traffic. A friend who lives near the site of the bridge told me that he has given up on driving altogether for the time being, a circumstance which the Twins and Metrodome officials have to understand. Attendance could very possibly be down, not because people are mourning the crash, but because they simply cannot get to that part of town. Marketing the new light rail may help some, as well as encouraging other forms of public transportation. Anything to reduce traffic in downtown Minneapolis for the time being will help the city as well as the team.

Biggest Success

Even in a week where the team won four games, taking both of their series from divisional opponents, it would be almost impossible to find an offensive player to reward for anything. Joe Mauer broke out of his mini-slump, putting up the sort of .333/.417/.429 line we have come to expect from him. Jason Kubel also went 4-11, appearing in only four games. Alexi Casilla showed some promise in his first week back after a rough patch in his first big league stint, this time scrapping together five hits in 16 plate appearances, but with only one extra base hit, no steals, and no walks. His youth gives him an excuse, and the experience will only help him.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so for the team to win four games with an average of less than three runs per contest, something must have been going extremely well on the pitching ledger. Indeed, five quality starts in six games fits the bill, even if Johan Santana’s non-vintage second half continued with a 6 IP, 5 R, 3 ER losing effort. The shining star in this arbitrary time period was Scott Baker, and it is not close. Baker allowed six hits and two walks, an impressive stat if he made only one start, but Baker made two starts and went 8 innings in each of them. That works out to a 0.50 WHIP if you are scoring at home. He also struck out 11 and gave up no homeruns, using superb location and much improved pitch selection to keep hitters altogether off balance. Baker has grown into a very appealing style of pitching, but even if he worked like Steve Traschel, I would not complain about a pitcher who goes 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA for the week, nor one who has a 2.55 ERA for the last month.

Biggest Disappointment

I titled the column inoffensive because it fits the most literal sense of the word, as well as the one obvious to the Twins condition. Even though the offense cannot seem to cobble together enough runs to support a pitching staff that has become very solid, they do just enough to stay on the fringe of the pennant race, to maintain the interest of casual fans, and to convince everyone they are serious about winning (everyone, except Johan Santana). Maybe they are not exciting right now, but at least they are inoffensive, and Minnesotans can ask for nothing more. If a team in a more aggressive city, like Philadelphia or Boston, were to compete at the level the Twins have competed in recent years (division titles, playoff appearances, but no serious runs at the World Series), the city would be calling for the GM’s head on a pole. How do I know this? Because it happens in Philadelphia. Many people hate the Eagles because they are judicious with their cap space and try to balance between winning now and remaining competitive in the future. Sound familiar? The Eagles have been the best team in the NFC over the course of the decade, but many fans hate Andy Reid for not taking more chances, making a splash like he did the year they landed Terrell Owens, and really going for broke for one season. Minnesotans do not have that mentality. Garrison Keillor was unavailable for a fold psychology consultation, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with Lutheranism, Scandanavia, or cold weather.

What I’m getting at here is that Terry Ryan deserves a great deal of the blame for the team’s offensive struggles. A simple mistake in player acquisition or playing time allotments can happen, but when the same mistakes occur year after year, they become habits or negative traits. We know that Ryan and Gardenhire, for all of their virtues, privilege good gloves and experience a bit too heavily. This quality manifests itself in Nick Punto going 0-8 yet again, bringing his season average to .208. This man is a backup. Replacements were available. For instance, the San Diego Padres (with more wins and a lower waiver priority) got Morgan Ensberg for beans. Over the course of a season, Ensberg, at his worst, is 3-4 wins better than Punto. That’s not worth trying? Ryan’s conservatism has kept the future intact, but when it becomes a paralyzing habit, it becomes a major disappointment for the team.

On the Horizon

Which brings us to the most pressing issue of the near future: Johan Santana. Although Johan has been missing his lights-out second half by a thin margin in every start, it is clear that he is still the best pitcher in baseball. When he comes out and says that he thinks the team does not care enough about winning and envisions himself leaving, you should probably start listening. The Luis Castillo trade was nothing; Casilla can step in right away at a similar level, the two prospects might be backups in the major leagues 2-3 years from now, and they are off the hook for the last $2 mil+ on Castillo’s deal, giving up only the possibility of a sandwich compensatory pick for their troubles. However, if the ramifications include angering Johan Santana, the trade becomes the mirror image of the Pierzynski trade, one that could utterly cripple the franchise. Now I am not terrified of a rotation that includes Liriano, Baker, Garza, Bonser, Silva with Slowey or Perkins possibly mixed in. On the other hand, keeping Santana and leveraging some of the back end talent for more offense is the sort of power play that championship teams make, but the Twins never do. Trading Silva for Michael Bourn now would have helped both teams in the near term, and the Twins would have been able to seamlessly plug the Torii Hunter hole with an above average player while retaining seven starting pitchers, with more behind them in the minors. Once again, these are the moves that champions make, but the Twins never do. Signing Santana because he is outstanding and helps the team win instead of signing him because there is a gaping hole at SP would be an assertive move that puts the team in a position to win, even if it is expensive and requires them to defer some of the payments into the 2020s.

As for the schedule itself, the Twins finish up their four-gamer with the Tribe today, then hit up Kansas City for Bryant’s famous BBQ and a three game set with the second-division Royals, and wind up the week with a trip to the OC to try to do the Mariners a favor in making bringing the Angels back to the pack. A four win week would be nice with that soft patch in the middle. A five win week with some offensive fireworks might make me soften my stance on their playoff chances, as well.

The Big Picture

My diatribe about the front office tells the story here, so I will be brief. The Twins playoff odds are up to 11% today after a second solid week in a row. The reason they are not higher, even though they are within 4 games of the wild card and 4.5 of the division, is that they have multiple teams to pass at every angle. To win the division, they have to get past both Detroit and Cleveland, which is vaguely conceivable looking at the way both teams have played and the fact that their combined deadline swag amounted to a geriatric Kenny Lofton. Still, passing two teams that have outplayed them all year seems unlikely. The Wild Card is even more of an uphill battle. They still get half of that division difficulty, but they also have to get around the Mariners and the newly invincible Yankees. I said a few weeks ago that the Yankees were the real threat in the WC race, even though they were several games back. Now they are within ½ game, and they look like serious contenders, possibly for the AL East. To overcome those odds would take more bats than the Twins have.