Sunday, October 01, 2006

Dugout Splinters: Minnesota Twins

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Status Report – This team has defied every expectation, both good and bad. When they were supposed to be great, they were awful. When they were supposed to be unbeatable, they couldn’t gain a game on the leaders. And when they were supposed to be finished, they won a division.

So is it good or bad that we’re excited to face the A’s instead of the Yankees? At this point, I have no idea. I just know it won’t be what I expect.

What’s Working

Name me the Twins’ hottest hitter. I dare you.

No, it’s not Torii Hunter. Maybe you chose Torii because he’s the name most associated with the franchise, and maybe you chose him because he’s often been referred to as unbelievably hot (and not just by The Voice of Reason) over the last month. He has been unbelievably hot, hitting .314 with nine home runs in September. That’s great, but Hunter’s weakness, patience at the plate, has limited his ability to get on-base, decreasing his value. (Though, when he’s been on base, he’s made things happen. He had six stolen bases just last month.)

Then it must be Justin Morneau, right? Well, Morneau has been awfully good, despite (or maybe because he’s) not hitting many home runs recently. Justin “-credible” Morneau had just two home runs in all of September, but hit .348 and drove in 19 runs. In the past, when he’s hit for average, it’s been a precursor of hitting for power, as pitchers adjust to his opposite field hitting by trying to sneak balls past him on the inside of the plate.

If we want to focus on batting average, we might want to look at the number of the American League’s batting champion, Joe Mauer. “Chairman” Mauer has regained his swing and his confidence in September, hitting .329 with patience (16! walks) and power (.506 slugging percentage). He should also be slightly more rested as he’s had three off days in the last week. But he’s still not the Twins hottest hitter.

That honor belongs to the most unlikely candidate of all – Rondell White. Yes, the same guy that inspired you to make that #24 voodoo doll back in June. And stuff it with firecrackers in July. White’s overall numbers are still pathetic because he did so much damage before the all-star break, but it’s been a different story since his return from the disabled list, and especially in September. He’s hit for nearly as much power as Hunter (.568 slugging percentage) while hitting .351.

Combine those four with Michael Cuddyer, whose production has remained steady in the critical spot between Mauer and Morneau, and for the first time in fifteen years, the Twins have a middle of the lineup that should cause some teams concern. And just in time.

What’s Not Working

For several months we waited for the light-hitting infielders to come back to earth. For several months they defied us, even earning praise and a “Piranhas” nickname from White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.

At which point they came crashing back to earth.

Hey, I like the piranha concept as much as anyone, but for the last month they’ve been more hype than bite. Jason Tyner has been put into a platoon role because he not only struggles to hit left-handers (.265 BA vs. LH pitching), he struggles to even get on base against them (1 walk in 50 at-bats). Oh, and he doesn’t have a single extra-base hit against them either.

The heralded left side of the infield has continued their stellar defensive play, but clearly wore down offensively in September. Or maybe they just regressed back to the mean. After all, Nick Punto was a career .238 hitter coming into the season. In that light, September’s .252 batting average wouldn’t be viewed as a disappointment, but considering he was hitting .307 on August 31st, there’s plenty of cause for concern.

Even worse has been the quiet regression of Jason Bartlett. Bartlett has had some big hits for the Twins over the last month, which conceals the adjustment the league seems to have made to him. Over September he hit just .228 with just three walks and two extra-base hits. That’s not just bad, it’s Juan Castro-phic.

There is an exception. The piranha with the sharpest teeth is the one most likely to be wearing dentures, veteran Luis Castillo. One of Castillo’s more infuriating traits is that he seems to play better when he’s interested, and he looks interested now. His sore knee (that kept him out of several games after the Twins clinched) didn’t slow him down as he got on base at a .400 clip for the last month.

What to Watch

Manager Ron Gardenhire has been praised for his ability to handle a bullpen, mostly because it’s been a strength for his tenure. This playoff appearance will test that perception.

For the first time this postseason, it isn’t clear exactly what each reliever’s role is in the bullpen, or exactly when each will be used. Juan Rincon doesn’t own the eighth and Jesse Crain doesn’t own the seventh. Instead, Pat Neshek seems to be the most trusted reliever – unless he’s facing a left-hander with power. In which case Dennys Reyes is the most trusted – unless he’s facing a right-handed hitter. In which case it can be Crain. Or Rincon. Or even Joe Nathan if it’s late enough in the game.

That might sound like a problem, but it’s also liberating, as Gardenhire no longer has to play his bullpen “by the book”. In the postseason, where every pitching change is packed with pressure, it will be interesting to see if this new found freedom is a benefit or a curse.

Thanks for stopping by. Below you'll find Sam's links of the day, which are fantastic. Tomorrow we preview The Oakland Athletics and the pitching matchup. See you then.

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