Monday, August 13, 2007

TWIT: Dead Again

Weekly Roundup

You’ve made your bed, Terry Ryan, now sleep in it. The Twins GM knew at the trade deadline that his moribund offense was going to struggle to keep up with the rest of the division, even as Cleveland and Detroit started sliding slowly backwards. He knew that ripping off a hot stretch on the field could get the team back in the race, at least enough to make the latter part of August and most of September more marketable to fans. He knew that none of these benefits were accessible without more support for a lineup that has nearly stopped scoring runs altogether- as evidenced by the inquiries about Mike Piazza and Jermaine Dye. Instead, the Twins swapped out a weak hitting 2B for another one down on the farm, saving some money and picking up a third string catcher of the future for their troubles. Then, they dumped the half-million dollars remaining on Jeff Cirillo’s contract on the eager Diamondbacks, creating opportunities for people named Watkins and Buschner. But hey, Rondell White was about to come back, and it seemed Jason Tyner was flourishing at the top of the lineup, maybe there would be enough offense to go around.

For one day, there was. Wednesday, August 8, 2007- remember that date, because it may be the last time the Twins score more than five runs in the season. An 11 run outburst, fueled by Cuddyer and Hunter homeruns, is the only time since July 20 that the Twins have scored more than five runs. In fact, since the trade deadline passed bye without adding any offensive help, it is the only time the team has scored more than three runs in a game. While going 1-6 over the past week, the Twins averaged 7 runs in their 6 losses, a paltry 1.167 runs per game. Two of those losses this week were of the one-run variety, including a 1-0 flop against the less-than-stellar Kyle Davies, a game in which Matt Garza struck out 6 in 6.2 innings, allowing only five total bases against him. On Saturday, the Twins built a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth, about as much as one could expect from this lineup right now, only to see the worn down Pat Neshek let four out of five batters faced reach base, all eventually scoring. Looking at the games individually, one could say that the breaks simply didn’t go Minnesota’s way. Looking at them collectively, though, shows the total offensive impotence, and just how difficult it is to win without support for a solid pitching staff.

Biggest Success

Doing his best Scott Baker impersonation, Big Chief Carlos Silva allowed only 9 base-runners in 14 IP over his two starts for the week. An 8:1 K:BB ratio bolstered an already strong set of peripherals (including only 1 HR allowed), giving him an outstanding 1.29 ERA. The way the offense has been playing lately, it wouldn’t be surprising if Silva only got one win out of those two excellent starts. It would be surprising, however, if Silva didn’t win a game for the week, which is the case. Only recording one loss is hardly a consolation for a pitcher going through his best stretch of the season, especially in a contract year.

Speaking of Silva’s contract, I may differ from some in my belief that the Twins would be wise to extend Silva for a couple of more years, especially considering that he is willing to take a discount to stay with the team that has been so patient with him. First, let’s acknowledge what he is not: a top of the rotation starter who can be expected to post an ERA in the 3.00s. He is a solid back end guy who can eat up a lot of innings, occasionally work very deep into games, and typically keep his ERA around or below 5.00. That type of pitcher can command $7-8 million on the open market (Jason Marquis, anyone?), and while the Twins can develop cheaper talent than that, they can also keep Silva for less money. I have heard the figure of 2 years at $5 million per season- only a $1 million/year raise from his 2007 figure-, and I would even try to go for 3 years at somewhere between $4.5-5 million per year. He will almost certainly provide more than market value over the life of such a deal now that he has learned to pitch in line with his abilities (no more silly sinkers that turn into gopher balls), and if the deal implodes, it will be easy to find some team to take his contract on the hope that they can fix him. After all, he is an average starting pitcher, and those are worth quite a bit these days. The resulting pitching depth could also facilitate a trade down the road if Terry Ryan decides he is into that sort of thing.

Biggest Disappointment

I gave Justin Morneau a pass last week as a sort of reward for a season well done, but after another miserable week, going .179/.179/.321, it is time to acknowledge that Morneau has found his way into a pretty bleak slump. He has stopped driving in runs this month, letting the league leaders pull way out in front of him. Even more troubling is the fact that he is hitting only .140 for the month of August, and has failed to draw even a single walk. The power is still there, sort of, with five doubles out of his six total hits, but for a player who was supposed to have become a sure thing, a full month with a .278 OBP is the kind of discouraging sign that any fan wants to see reversed as soon as possible.

On the Horizon

Sad as it may sound, it may be time for the Twins to play spoiler. Their west coast swing concludes with three games in Seattle to start the week, highlighted by a Johan Santana-Felix Hernandez matchup in the late game on Monday. Matt Garza will try to get his second win of the season (incongruently paired with a 1.70 ERA) against Horacio Ramirez on Tuesday, but with his recent track record of run support against god-awful opposing starters, I would not get my hopes up. The business person’s special on getaway day features Scott Baker against Jarrod Washburn. A series with Santana-Garza-Baker is starting to look pretty tough if the offense can get any support at all. But beware the resourceful Mariners, who have outperformed their run differential all season, recently ripping off 10 of 14 wins while still getting very little out of supposed offensive stalwarts Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, and Raul Ibanez.

Over the weekend, the Rangers travel to the dome, playing out the string with less star power than ever before. Go check out a game if you are particularly intrigued by Jared Saltalamacchia, because the pitching matchups are not going to bowl you over. If Kason Gabbard’s stiff forearm allows him to make his Friday start, he will kick off the series, followed by Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, who have been two of the worst regular starters in the American League.

The Big Picture

If you have yet to notice, the Twins indeed slipped below .500 with their butchering of the weekend series against the Angels. It may not make a difference for the postseason this year, but if the team is trying to calm the nerves of its stars who do not feel that the team is serious about winning, the first losing season since 2000 is not the best elixir. The difference between an 82-80 season and an 80-82 one could be bigger for this team than it would be for any other team, excepting a team like Pittsburgh who has endured 14 straight losing seasons. To get back over the hump, the Twins will have to take advantage of a soft portion in the schedule, running into Texas, Baltimore, and Kansas City before the month is over. To win those games, at least two of Mauer, Morneau, and Cuddyer have to start hitting again, and Gardy has to keep the back end of his bullpen rested enough to get another month and a half out of the beaten-down corps. Although making the playoffs may be a lost cause, this team is perfectly capable of rebounding for a winning season, and that improvement can start right away.