Monday, August 27, 2007

TWIT: This indecision’s buggin’ me

Weekly Roundup

A week after one of the least inspiring 4-2 sets in recent memory, the Twins managed an equally mixed-bag 5-2 campaign, dropping two of three at home to the Mariners before rolling the pointless Orioles in a four game set. The week got off in an inauspicious start as Matt Garza and Scott Baker got shelled to the tune of 23 hits and 10 earned runs in two starts. The result was a pair of uneven losses, 9-4 and 7-2 against sub-par opposition on the mound. If there was a silver lining to the start of the season, it may have been the reawakening of Justin Morneau’s dormant bat, which offered six total bases in the two losses, including a two double game on Monday. Any remaining hope for the Twins depends, at very least, on Morneau coming back to life offensively after a disastrous month. Things got better on Wednesday afternoon, as Mike Cuddyer’s first inning grand slam hinted at his own resurgence while simultaneously giving Carlos Silva a seven-run lead to lead off the game. Silva cruised to another quality start, keeping the brooms in Seattle’s closet.

Coming off an uneven six games in the last six days, the Twins left for the east coast with a woeful 8.5 game deficit in the division that made the postseason seem less likely than ever. After convincingly taking advantage of Baltimore’s miserable bullpen, though, the Twins are on a five-game winning streak, all of the sudden, with a three game series against the Indians providing some faint vestiges of hope for the postseason diehards who have yet to give up hope. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Twins recent warm streak has been the five consecutive games with at least five runs scored. After hitting like rookie league shortstops for the better part of two months, the lineup’s recent run of support must make the pitching staff feel like rats in the dumpster of Old Country Buffet.

Biggest Success

As I mentioned in the introduction, Justin Morneau flipped the switch back into the “on” position over the last week to the tune of .346/.419/.615, going from miserable by any standards to very good by his own standards overnight. Torii Hunter continued to affirm the classification as the Twins most consistent offensive player of 2007, hitting two more home runs, scoring eight times, and hitting .367.

Neither of these two stalwarts jumps off the page like Jason Bartlett, though, who has asserted himself royally in the last six weeks after a miserable start to the season. Since the All-Star Break, Bartlett has hit .321 with an uncharacteristic .496 slugging average (buoyed by an unbelievable 6 triples in only 34 games after only 3 in his first 259 games). This week, Bartlett bopped nine hits in 18 at-bats, including three triples and a double. His contributions netted four runs scored and five runs batted in across only five games. After the recent up tick in his output, Bartlett’s .277/.340/.380 line is beginning to approach last season’s pleasantly surprising .309/.367/.393. With plus defense, that batting line is perfectly acceptable relative to the league average of .271/.323/.394 for shortstops, making Bartlett an asset rather than a liability moving forward. For a team that can’t find a left-fielder or a DH who can hit at replacement level, I shudder to think of what they could dredge up to throw at shortstop if one was not on hand.

Biggest Disappointment

Through a wider lens, Matt Garza’s two start lull over the course of a very solid season does not seem terribly disturbing, even though he gave up 18 base runners, 4 homers, and 8 earned runs in only 7.1 innings over two starts. Since Garza’s getting the free pass this week, that means another one of my long-term favorites, Alexi Casilla, falls under the harsh light of scrutiny. With Luis Castillo succumbing to his typical lower-appendage fragility in Queens, Casilla was going to be on the hot seat either way. As things have worked out, he has been severely disappointing as a starter for the last month, leaving quite a gap where the Twins were once getting acceptable offensive output. In the last week, Casilla came to the plate 26 times, managing only four hits and a single walk. His numbers before and after his recall have been almost exactly identical, and none of his rate stats even crack .300 over that timeframe. He’s a slap hitter with a little bit of patience, but that profile does not carry much weight when the player is continuing to hit in the .225 neighborhood. Casilla needs to leverage his speed and bat control into a batting average above .275 at very least in order to be a contributor. He has a better bat in his future, but at the moment, he is helping Nick Punto slaughter the offense.

The Big Picture

The Twins are underdogs going forward, to be certain. The BPro playoff odds report pegs them for about a 5% chance at winning the division, and a barely non-zero chance of catching up to the Wild Card. Of course, Twins fans know that a non-zero possibility is eminently reachable if the former half of the stars-and-scrubs equation gets hot at the right time. In terms of run differential, the Twins get a little bit of good news, as both the Tigers and Indians are 2-3 games ahead of their Pythagorean projections, meaning the teams may cool even more down the stretch.

Another big-picture development that certainly interests Twins fans is the annual Johan Santana Cy Young campaign. Typically, this is the time of year when Twins fans have to start moaning about how win totals are not as important as peripheral stats, and how Santana has actually been better than pitcher X by a wider margin than conventional stats indicate. This year, Santana is actually a sliver behind some of his competition, such as Eric Bedard and Dan Haren, who have both been excellent all year. Santana has been consistent, but his lack of run support has given him 9 losses, and double digits in the L column will definitely cost him votes with the traditional set. If Santana can go nuts for a month, the award may be his to take, but he has not been at that level so far this year.

On the Horizon

When I say that the Twins need their stars to turn it on at the right time, I mean that they need to turn it on right now. With three straight weeks of divisional games, the Twins will get 9 cracks at Cleveland and Detroit combined, leaving at least a sliver of their destiny in their own hands. As I told a friend of mine last week, sweeping Baltimore and Cleveland successively would legitimately reenter them in the playoff discussion. Even winning two of three in Cleveland can only put them within 4.5 games of first with a month to play. To be a real competitor, they need to be firing on all cylinders. The Indians line up their experienced crew, throwing Paul Byrd, Jake Westbrook, and C.C. Sabathia against Carlos Silva, Boof (recently off the schneid) Bonser, and Johan Santana, so there will be no surprises here. Byrd has had a great deal of success against the Twins, so Silva will have to extend his respectability for one more start. After the Indians, the Twins get a chance to pile up some wins against the (playin’ for fourth!) Royals, including a double header on Friday. A series split there would doom the Twins even worse than losing the Cleveland series, so the pressure is high all around. Either way, it is better to win the games now, as the Twins dishearteningly must wrap up the season with a seven game roadie in Detroit and Boston. Look forward to that!