Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Turnaround

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Baseball can be irrationally important to some people. In fact, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you are a part of this group. When the Twins win, the sky seems a little bit bluer, and the grass a little greener. The 2006 season, however, has had its share of dreary days.

I don’t think we ask too much of the Twins organization. Most of the frustration with the season thus far hasn’t been due directly to the sub-.500, fourth place record. The real ire has been caused by how that record was compiled. It’s always easy to second-guess personnel decisions after they have failed. But over the winter and into spring, Twins fans decried front-office moves as they were made, only to see their worst fears realized. When Tony Batista returned from the Far East to man the hot corner, the anger followed almost immediately. When Juan Castro became the Opening Day shortstop, a near-revolt followed. Even the signing of Rondell White, while not blasted to the extent that some other decisions were, was viewed as just an adequate substitute for more high-reward options, like Jim Thome, Nomar Garciaparra, and Frank Thomas.

We all know what happened next. The pitching staff collapsed, and the trio of Batista, White, and Castro played horrendously (measured by VORP, White has been the worst player in baseball this season). The team free-fell to fourth, and the year looked lost. But the worst part was that the Twins appeared to be “staying the course” by playing older, aging players ahead of younger options. We were going to be in for a long summer.

Funny how things change, eh? Suddenly, with a few choice maneuvers and a set of home victories, the days ahead don’t appear as gloomy. A rash of common sense seems to have swept through the organization, and now it’s actually exciting to follow the Twins again. Even if this season is lost, the events of the last week, along with some substantial advantages in other areas, have given the future some much-needed hope.

Most obvious are the moves made of the left side of the infield. In a manner of days, the Opening Day shortstop and third baseman are not only off the field, but off the team. Tony Batista (and his .236/.303/.388 line) has been designated for assignment, and Juan Castro’s mind-blowing .231/.258/.303 is now property of the Reds and former Terry Ryan disciple Wayne Krivsky. Taking over the starting shortstop job, at long last, is Jason Bartlett. With still nearly one hundred games left, the remainder of the season will allow the Twins to finally decide if Bartlett is the long-term answer at shortstop.

Even the Punto/Tiffee/Rodriguez Triangle of Authority at third base doesn’t seem so bad. It shouldn’t be difficult for the trio to at least equal Batista’s putrid offensive efforts, and replacing a statue at the hot corner with real defensive players will surely help pitchers like Carlos Silva, who relies heavily on contact instead of striking out large numbers of batters.

This re-shuffling of the left side of the infield appears to be part of a larger youth movement, one that has long been called for throughout the Twins blogosphere. By adding Bartlett to the emerging core of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer, the beginnings of the Twins of 2007 and beyond are taking shape.

The exploits of Chairman Mauer hardly require elaboration in this space. His 33.0 VORP (through June 15) almost doubles the second-best catcher in baseball, Brian Mccann (19.5). He is eighth in all of baseball, ahead of players like Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, and Miguel Cabrera. And by the way, he’s hitting .378, if you haven’t heard.

Michael Cuddyer has staked claim to right field, it appears. I’m still in favor of giving him another run at third base (a much more difficult position to fill), but that’s just quibbling at this point. He’s been the Twins’ second best hitter this season, and while Kyle Lohse might disagree, has played a passable right field with a good arm.

Morneau and Kubel have been more recent developments. Morneau got off a truly horrid start out of Spring Training, but over the last month has begun to drive the ball to all fields, hit for power (15 home runs), and even get is OBP up into the .330 range. That’s still not good enough, but he appears to have finally found his groove at first.

Kubel is fresh off of a series spent beating Boston pitching like a pi?ata. His question has been health, and that question seems to have been answered. He is showing no ill effects from his massive knee injury, and has finally gotten comfortable at the plate again after missing all of last year. While the three-homer series will be few and far between, the system’s top hitting prospect has finally arrived.

Of course, the strength of the Twins the past five years has been the pitching. One morning, while “working” and listening to the P.A. and Dubay show on our local KFAN affiliate, co-host Jeff Dubay dropped this little piece of wisdom:

“Having pitching in baseball is like having cigarettes in prison.”

If Dubay’s analogy holds, the Twins might as well be Joe Camel. In all likelihood, three-fifths of the rotation that headed north to start the season in 2006 will be pitching elsewhere (or not at all) in 2007. Since, by all accounts, Scott Baker is still very much a part of the Twins’ future, the 2007 rotation is shaping up as a Santana/Liriano/Baker love-fest, with Boof Bonsor in the picture, along with another arm, Pitcher A.

Who this Pitcher A will end up being will likely be one of the biggest off-season debates surrounding this organization. It is possible that the Twins could go young with someone like 23-year-old Glen Perkins or 22-year-old Matt Garza, but Terry Ryan has shown reluctance to put too many young starters into the rotation, and with Lirano, Bonsor, and Baker already in place, a fourth youngster could be too much for the GM to bear. A more likely situation, it seems, is for the Twins to make a Kenny-Rogers-type signing with some open payroll space (more on that in a bit). A solid veteran at the end of the rotation could be a stabilizing presence for an overwhelmingly young staff.

The bullpen is shaping up to be a strength for this club going forward as well. A pen chosen from Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, Matt Guerrier, Willie Eyre, Jesse Crain (who I wouldn’t mind seeing get some time back in Rochester to right the ship, but that’s a topic for another day), Dennys Reyes, Pat Neshek (1.96 ERA, 6/1 K/BB ratio in AAA), and J.D. Durbin (who is quietly having a turn-around season for Rochester) would work quite nicely.

This is to say nothing of the pitching in the pipeline. The aforementioned Matt Garza is on the fast-track through the organization, and fellow 2005 draft pick Kevin Slowey has done everything possible in Ft. Myers. The ability to develop young, major-league capable pitching is invaluable when you think of the price teams like the Cubs paid last winter for mediocre bullpen arms.

There is also plenty of payroll space to look forward to this winter. With a slew of expiring contracts totaling nearly $40 million of this season’s payroll (contract numbers provided by Cot’s Baseball Contracts), Terry Ryan could be looking at a bit of flexibility for the first time in years. Even after raises due to players like Santana and Nathan (due an extra $3 and $1.5 million, respectively, payroll space will be plentiful enough to pick up Louis Castillo’s option, re-sign Juan Rincon and Mike Redmond, and maybe even hang on to Torii Hunter (if he agrees to a new deal).

There’s the new stadium to consider, as well. The payroll has been slowly expanding for the last few years, and with a new yard on the horizon, Terry Ryan’s resources will only continue to grow.

Another win on Friday; Option K strikes out eleven, and the win streak is pushed to five. With everything that is happening with this club now, the dog days of summer might turn out to be more purebred than mutt.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

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