Thursday, July 10, 2008

Twins Mid Season Report

The All Star break is generally considered the halfway point of the 162 game MLB season (even though most teams have played closer to 90+ games at that point). Since that break is coming up this Monday, it seemed appropriate to review what has transpired so far this year and take a look towards the second half of this 2008 Twins season. What follows is a list of questions about the team and my breakdown/answers to those questions. If you have anything to add or a different opinion on something, feel free to get that comment section going.

--Is the Twins record (51-41 as of Friday) an indication that this team is better than most people thought, or the product of favorable schedule?
At this point in the season, most “experts” had the Twins penciled in for roughly 40-43 wins. Sitting 10 games above .500 with three games left until the break should be considered a major success. Of course part of the reason for that record is the run the team just went on where they won 18 of 21 games. Did we take advantage of a weak interleague schedule? You bet. But that shouldn’t take away from anything the team has accomplished so far. Going 14-4 against inferior competition is what good baseball teams do. It is funny to me how a couple of games can change everyone’s perspective in a very short amount of time. Before the Boston series, everyone was talking about us winning the division/wild card and discussing potential trade deadline moves that should be made. A three game sweep later (in which, it should be noted, we could/should have won at least 2 if not all 3) and suddenly the team has been “exposed” and the naysayers feel that we’re done. Not me. If you had told me, or any other Twins fan, that we would have at least 50 wins at the All Star break, I would have been ecstatic. I’m going to say that this team is good and will be in contention for both the division and the wild card throughout the rest of the season.

--Is the starting staff this good?
This might be the toughest part of this Twins team to figure out. The season started with Livan Hernandez of all people leading the way for our otherwise young staff. The young guys got knocked around a little bit, but they gained experience. As the season progressed, especially during the recent hot streak, all four of them (Baker, Blackburn, Perkins, Slowey) have showed signs of being capable, if not very good, major league starting pitchers. During that same stretch, Livan has shown signs of being the 5+ ERA pitcher that he’s been for quite some time now. Those shifts make this staff a bit tricky to figure out.

--So is the emergence of the young starters a sign of things to come?
The homer in me wants to say yes. I’ve watched a lot of games and it doesn’t appear that these are mediocre pitchers who are getting an enormous amount of run support or getting lucky throwing bad pitches. All four guys seem to have spot on control and a very good ability to mix their pitches. The only problem I see is that all four remind me of Brad Radke. That is to say that they are good pitchers who can be very solid at times, but not dominant, number one type guys. Can a team win a title with four good, but not great pitchers? Historically, you’d have to say no. Depending on what the teams around them do, they might be able to get into the playoffs with that kind of rotation, but it seems like you need that top dog in order to win in October. That said, they will be good enough to at least keep things interesting and keep the team in contention.

--What happens with Livan and Franchise?
The prevailing attitude among the fans and media in this town is that Hernandez should be shipped out for a box of baseballs at the deadline and that Liriano should be brought up to reclaim his spot as staff ace. That sounds nice and all, but there may be some issues with it. First of all, finding a taker for Livan might be quite a bit more difficult than most fans realize. Not too many contenders are looking for a starter who will pitch 6-7 innings with 10+ hits and 5+ runs every outing. Then there’s the matter of Liriano, who’s been less that dominant during his stint in AAA. It would seem that the Twins standing in the division and wild card races will be the determining factor in the fates of these two gentlemen. If we are still in contention at the end of July, Hernandez probably stays. If we seem out of it, Franchise comes up to set up the rotation of 09 and beyond.

--What do we make of the bullpen?
Oi. This has been, far and away, the most frustrating part of the Twins this year. There have been stretches where guys like Guerrier, Reyes, and even Crain have looked unhittable. Of course there have also been times where they have looked, well, let’s call it less than capable. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Here’s what we know: with Neshek out for the year, most of the guys in the pen have been pitching in situations that they are not used to. There’s also the issue of Gardy mismanaging the bullpen very badly, but we’ll get to that later. So basically, the answer is that we don’t know. If you believe that the Boston series was simply a hiccup or a learning experience for some of these guys, then they should only get stronger as the season progresses. If you’re in the camp that said series exposed our weaknesses and showed that we’ll buckle under pressure, then it could be a frustrating end to the summer.

--Can the clutch hitting continue?
Even with the struggles in Boston, the Twins still have the best batting average with runners in scoring position in the majors (and it’s not even close). The team has found a way to win games that we would not have won in the past couple years. Even more impressive is the fact that we are not leaning on guys like Mauer and Morneau to do everything. Seemingly every game has a different guy stepping up with multiple hits, clutch RBI’s, and/or some unexpected power. While this is very encouraging, you have to ask yourself, “Can we consistently expect guys like Brendan Harris, Nick Punto, and Brian Buscher to deliver clutch hits?” Realistically, it would seem like the team needs its stars to step up a bit over then next couple months. Sure we can hope that the younger players continue to improve and that the clutch hitting continues to be contagious, but in order to be a division winning team, you need the studs to carry the team at times.

--So where has Morneau’s power gone?
It seems like Justin has gone to the Joe Mauer school of hitting (Quick Swing not included) and has decided that it’s better to hit .310 with 20 HR’s (still 5x as many as Joe hits) than to hit .275 with 35 bombs—seemingly standard for all Twins hitters. While this approach is getting him quite a few RBI’s and keeping runners on base, I would say that it’s not the way to go. There’s no guarantee that guys like Span, Gomez, and Casilla are going to continue to be on base when Morneau comes to the plate. On top of that there are times, especially late in games, where a 1 or 2 out double simply isn’t going to be enough—we need the power. If it were up to me, I’d be pushing for #33 to participate in the Home Run Derby next week as a way to get the power back in his swing.

--What will the team do with the lineup when everyone gets healthy?
This is the most immediate and pressing issue facing the Twins right now. The outfield already has Gomez, Young, and Span looking like a very good, young core. Add to that Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe coming off the bench (and splitting the DH role) and you have a lot of talent. However, Michael Cuddyer is scheduled to come off the DL soon, so that gives the team a gluttony of players at this position. Do you really send Span back down to AAA? In the infield, Gardenhire has already shown that he’s determined to play Nick Punto on a regular basis at some position. Brendan Harris has been a viable player at multiple positions as well. Brian Buscher has been hitting very well, but has fallen victim to Gardy’s hatred of batting lefty’s against lefty’s. Also in the mix is Mike Lamb, who’s been terrible but is making a lot of money, and Matt Tolbert and Adam Everett are scheduled to return to the team soon.

--What can we realistically expect from The Kids in the second half?
The youngest players on the team (Carlos Gomez, Alexi Casilla, Denard Span, and Delmon Young) have been the most exciting and the most frustrating part of the offense so far this year. Gomez has the ability to bunt at any time and make things happen on the base paths, yet has shown poor plate discipline and an inability to get on base consistently. Casilla is still hitting over .300 and getting into scoring position for the big guns. Nevertheless, he was hitting only .220 in AAA for a reason. Span is flourishing (both in the bigs and in the minors) and seems to have found a bit of a niche in the 9 hole. But what happens to him when Cuddyer gets healthy? Young is hitting in the .280’s and has been hot lately, yet has shown none of the power that gained him many accolades during his rookie year in Tampa. So where does that leave us? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that each of these guys will continue to improve as the year goes along and will, at the very least, give the Twins and their fans a ton of hope for the future.

--What kind of lineup decisions are we in store for?
Loyal readers know that I’m nowhere near being a fan of Gardy’s. I think he makes sketchy lineup decisions and constantly misuses the bullpen. It is scary to think about the lineups that he will come up with once the team is entirely healthy. I still think it’s a mistake to bat Mike Redmond 3rd when he plays for Mauer. I know he’s a .300 hitter and all, but for some reason this organization just doesn’t understand the concept that a 3-hitter should drive the ball and drive in runs. The decisions that are sure to cause a lot of talk and head scratching will be who Gardy plays at short and third on a day to day basis. It’s a given that his boyfriend will play at one of the infield positions virtually every day, but the rotation at third will be the thing to watch. Brian Buscher has been ripping the ball and hasn’t been nearly as shaky in the field as he was said to be. Yet somehow he can’t find his way into any playing time. Apparently a .330 hitter with gap and HR power isn’t good enough for Ron. That leads to things like Harris playing third and Lamb somehow being our late inning lefty pinch hitter. Because, you know, that makes sense…

--How will Gardy use the pen—especially Nathan?
I’m going to try and keep this brief (because I can, have, and will go on at great length about all of the mistakes I think Gardenhire is making with this team) and just let you know about a few things that are guaranteed to happen in the second half of the season. 1) Gardy will continue to refuse to use Joe Nathan in non-save situations even though it would make sense to have your best reliever come in during the most crucial situations. 2) He will continue to pitch the “Bassman” (Gardy’s pet name for Brian Bass—gawd he plays favorites more than any other manager in the game) in situations where he has no business pitching. 3) Someone in the bullpen will get overworked to the point that their arm and performance suffers (like he did with Neshek last year). Leading candidate at this time is Guerrier.

--Will the team’s brutal July schedule be the downfall of this season?
Well, we’ve already seen the less-than-encouraging start to what appears to be a very difficult month of July. Along with the Boston and Detroit road trips that lead up to the All Star break, the teams has dates with the Yankees, Tigers (again), and White Sox, among others, still to come this month. The team’s struggles against the Bronx Bombers have been well documented, and shouldn’t come as any surprise should they struggle. They key to the month will be how well the Twins play against division rivals Detroit and Chicago. I know the media is trying to convince you that the Tigers are “coming around” right now, but that team doesn’t really scare me at all. I think we take 5 of 7 against them. Thus if we can simply hold our own against everyone else, we should be fine heading into August.

--How much will the long road trip in August affect them?
In an extremely rare scheduling quirk, the Twins will play 14 consecutive games on the road at the end of August. The majority of these games will be on the West Coast, which makes it even more daunting. With the AL West looking relatively tough at this point, except for Seattle of course, this might be a more important stretch than that brutal end to July that we just went over. If they can play well during that trip, it should give them the confidence to try and make a playoff push during the month of September. If not, it could be the beginning of a 2001-like collapse. Of course if we’ve already fallen out of contention by that time, all of this will be a moo point (you know, like a cow’s opinion—it doesn’t matter).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

LIRIANO - Last 3 starts - 21 straight scoreless innings, 24 K's, 3 BB's.

See ya Livan!!