Thursday, September 14, 2006

What Lasts

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Most people look back on high school as – well - memorable anyways. Whether you were a jock, dweeb, waistoid, farm boy, party girl, motorhead, brain, fry or geek, you probably have some deeply ingrained memories. Whether you want to or not.

Baseball is the same way. It cuts across social groups, plays with your emotions and imprints its moments in your memory. It also has a less desirable similarity – the popularity contest. Otherwise known as the MVP vote.

Remember when the class valedictorian lost the class presidential vote to the homecoming king? You didn’t bat an eye. You knew it was a popularity contest that was decided long before the election.

The MVP isn’t much different. The history of the award suggests that the sports writers often act like they are still in high school, which is weird, because I suspect a lot of them wouldn’t want to relive it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the media has anointed Derek Jeter (the totally dreamy prom date) as MVP over the Canadian exchange student or our hometown boy. After all, our guys are really only sophomores.

So fight the fight, if you must, but understand that this is likely going the way of that student council election. You’ll need to shrug it off, kibitz with your friends in study hall and savor what you can of the memories. They’re what lasts, anyways.

Links of the Day for 9/14/06

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Today's loss left the Twins fans with a Silva-esque upset stomach. I didn't see the game, but the folks over at Twinkietown have been said that the outcome could have been different if not for a blown call. Of course, what really has us really upset is that popping sound coming from F-bomb's elbow. Thinking about that sound gives me the willies. Even without results from the MRI, Gardenhire is saying F-bomb's season is done.

Call me superstitious, but I always notice that bad news comes to my favorite team as soon as the national media gives them glowering praise. I saw this injury coming the moment Tom Verducci at published his article calling the Twin's the team to beat with the addition of Liriano.

Now that Big Ten football has begun making plans to change the schedule for the Twins future playoff run, I'm convinced more bad news is on the way. Was the losing of a coin toss (and home field advantage) to the White Sox an omen of things to come of a future playoff game or am I off my rocker? The good news is that we've been playing pretty good ball without Liriano and we got an excellent performance from Garza today. I'll leave it on that up note. Bring on Cleveland!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


How Francisco Liriano saved the Twins' 2006 season, regardless of their final record.

Powered by Kyle Eliason (and published in September's GameDay)

It was the morning of May 19th. The Twins had won just 17 of their first 41 games and there was no joy in Mudville... or Minneapolis. Nothing was working for the Twins.

Some of what ailed the hometown nine could not have been foreseen. No one expected Rondell White and Carlos Silva to be world-beaters, but no one expected either to fall off the face of the Earth. Kyle Lohse was overpaid for a backend starter, but not even his harshest critics expected an 8.92 earned run average through his first eight starts. Then there were the cancers seemingly everyone but the Twins could diagnose in advance.

General manager Terry Ryan and skipper Ron Gardenhire wanted "proven veterans" to shore up the left side of the infield. Unfortunately, in third baseman Tony Batista and futility infielder Juan Castro, Twins' management got what they wanted: two veterans who had already proven they weren't good enough to be major league regulars.

Batista was run out of town by a Japanese team looking to make room for a young prospect before signing with the Twins, and Castro hadn't been able to hold onto a starting job in the eleven seasons prior to 2006. Batista didn't do anything well. The Twins labeled him a more "reliable" defender at third base, but the only thing Batista did reliably was roll onto his stomach in lieu of diving while ground balls trickled into left field. Castro coasted by on his defensive reputation but did not perform as advertised and kept Jason Bartlett down on the farm to hit .300 in Triple-A for the third consecutive season. Worst of all, the pitcher many thought the third best on the team behind Cy Young winner Johan Santana and ace stopper Joe Nathan was throwing middle relief.

Losing is a part of baseball. The best teams in the league are going to lose one out of three contests. It's easier to root for a team when they're winning, but there are still people who attend Royals games. If the local squad just doesn't have the talent to contend, fans don't have to root for them to win the division. They can root for their favorite team just to win their next game. If that doesn't work there's always the next night.

What makes cheering for a team all but impossible is the feeling that they're shooting themselves in the foot. That regardless of their ultimate ceiling, they're not trying to reach it. As the Twins slid further and farther back in the standings, that feeling was growing, resulting in frustration and disinterest. Then, on the afternoon of May 19th, things began to change.

The Twins called on rookie Francisco Liriano to end a five game losing streak and perched him atop the mound to open their three game series in Milwaukee. It was long overdue. Starters Radke, Silva, Lohse and Baker were not living up to expectations, but Liriano would. Five innings, five strikeouts and one earned run later, Twins' fans had something worth following: the wunderkind lefty with the 90 m.p.h. slider would be chewing up the best hitters in the world on a regular basis.

A week later Liriano would make the season’s first start at home. For a fourth place team the stage couldn't have been bigger. The Twins sent their phenom to the hill and the Mariners sent theirs: 20-year old Venezuelan fireballer Felix Hernandez. The future of pitching was on display for all to see and it was the Twins prodigy who would establish himself as the most promising arm in baseball. Throwing five scoreless innings and fanning six Mariners, Liriano out-dueled King Felix in a 3-0 win.

Upon inserting Liriano into the starting rotation the Twins would win a major league best 42-of-59 games. Other young players did their parts, too. Bartlett finally resurfaced from Triple-A and gave the Twins better defense at shortstop, to say nothing of his knowing which end of the bat to hold. Justin Morneau became the middle-of-the order threat Twins fans had hoped. Nick Punto began doing his best Luis Castillo impression upon taking over the third base duties. The Twins were cruising and closing in on both division leaders Detroit and the wildcard, but on July 28th, although no one knew it at the time, one of the wheels fell off.

At 12-3, Liriano took the mound against the division leading Tigers to defend his league leading earned run average. He threw eight innings of three-hit ball and tied a career high with 12 strikeouts in a game. But all was not well. In addition to getting a no decision in a game the Twins went on to lose in extra innings, Liriano was scratched from his next start with the ominous diagnosis of soreness in his left forearm. Team officials reassured the press that it was nothing major and Liriano would only miss one start.

On August 7th Liriano would again face the Tigers, but it was clear he wasn't healthy. He allowed ten hits and four runs before being chased from the game after the fourth inning. After the game it was reiterated that Liriano had a muscular problem and that nothing was wrong with his surgically repaired elbow. The Twins were going to hold him out of action and run some precautionary tests, waiting until the swelling in his arm went down before performing an MRI.

Twins nation collectively held its breath. Much of the Twins success was driven by the best one-two punch in the majors: the left-handed tandem of Santana and Liriano. The Twins, who still had ground to gain to capture either the wildcard or division crown could ill-afford to lose Liriano, arguably the team's best pitcher this season. As gloomy as the situation seemed, at least fans were holding their breath. Two months earlier very few in Twins Territory would have batted an eye and most would have been, as ESPN personality Tony Kornheiser said, "waiting for sex-boat season."

Then news broke. Much of it was good. The MRI had revealed an "abnormality" in Liriano's elbow, but it was only scarring, far from a new tear. Liriano was tearing apart the weakened portion of his once-injured and healed ulnar collateral ligament. The pain he felt caused him to alter his mechanics leading to cascade injuries, first in his forearm, then in his shoulder. Tendonitis resulted in that shoulder resulting in the Twins putting Liriano on a shoulder-strengthening program prior to any throwing program, which is where things currently stand.

How soon Liriano is back is anyone's guess, but how well the Twins hold up in his absence will be as important a factor as Liriano's health. If they're out of the race in mid-September, Twins fans probably won't see Liriano again until 2007.

Santana and Nathan are their ever-dominant selves. Hunter is back from the disabled list. Radke, in his swan song, is pitching through a torn shoulder on cortisone and guts. Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, and Punto are having career years and new hitting coach Joe Varva has the Twins leading the majors in batting average. It might be enough to contend. If rookie flamethrower Matt Garza can bury his jitters and start throwing his breaking stuff for strikes to compliment his 97 m.p.h. fastball, he may be able to fill part of the hole Liriano's departure from the rotation created.

But even if the Twins fall short, even if Liriano never sets foot on the field again this year, the 22 year-old rookie did something that might be more important than winning a division. He gave fans a reason to follow the Twins again.

For a little over two months Liriano dominated the major leagues. The numbers speak for themselves: 11 wins to three losses in just 15 starts, 110 punchouts to 89 base runners in 97 2/3 innings, a phenomenal 1.96 earned run average as a starter, and an All-Star selection. Liriano picked up the team when the fans needed it most and made every start an event. The Twins turned their season around and fans came back to the ballpark, all thanks to Liriano's golden left arm. Not bad for a player who was once a throw-in when trading away AJ Pierzynski.

Kyle Eliason would like to use this space to recognize Chris Vallancourt of Massachusetts who had the foresight to draft Francisco Liriano as early as the fifth round in the writer's fantasy baseball league.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Dugout Splinter - Oakand Athletics

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Published this week in GameDay, and republished so the last line can prove, once and for all, that I'm an idiot.

Long September
The Bay area seems fond of grand juries investigating baseball. Can someone please investigate what the hell this team does over the All-Star break? The A’s have been unstoppable since the All-Star break – again. Last year they went 32-14 from the All-Star break through August. The year before that they were 31-14. They were 35-13 in 2002. 32-13 this year is practically yawn-inducing.

This year’s streak has led some to suggest the AL West race is over. What hasn’t been as widely reported (at least nationally) is that September hasn’t been particularly kind to this franchise. Over the last two years, the Athletics have slumped in September, which essentially cost them postseason appearances. There are similar concerns this year, since the Athletics are only 5-4 in their first nine games of the month.

That may not sound like cause for concern, but consider that they’ve had home series versus the Rangers and Orioles, and a road series versus the Devil Rays. Now comes the hard part. This series begins a 10 game set versus the AL Central, though they get to host series versus the White Sox and Indians. Following that, seven of their last ten games are versus the Angels, who are lurking just 5.5 games behind them in the AL West.

What’s Working
A team’s that won twice as many games as it has lost since the All-Star break obviously has some things working…

Billy Bean’s Offseason Deals - This winter, in true Moneyball fashion, the Athletics tried to exploit a perceived market inefficiency – obtaining talented “clubhouse cancers”. First they traded for Milton Bradley, (yes, that’s his real name.) who had been traded by the Indians and the Dodgers despite being a center fielder with speed and power entering the prime of his career. He missed a good chunk of the season with an injury, but when healthy he’s been the Athletics third best hitter.

The biggest offseason gamble was signing Frank Thomas, who wasn’t just a clubhouse cancer, he was an injured (and fragile) clubhouse cancer. He also hasn’t stayed healthy the entire year, but he’s batted enough to qualify for the end-of-year awards, which makes him a leading candidate for “Comeback Player of the Year”. Heck, with 35 home runs and 97 RBI in this anemic lineup, you could make a decent case for MVP. Best of all for the cash-strapped Athletics, he was only guaranteed $500,000 this year, though he’ll likely make almost $3 million when all his incentive bonuses are paid. That’s still a bargain for his production.

Youth - Oakland’s other power source has been second year player Nick Swisher. Swisher had a monster April and May, but has slipped significantly since then, and is only batting .248 since the All-Star break. But his 31 home runs and 85 RBI are second on the club, and at just 25 years old, he looks to be a productive player whom Oakland can count on in the future.

The Defense – Oakland’s reputation is that of a softball team, going back to the Bash Brothers and continuing through the Giambi Brothers. That’s too bad, because this team is the polar opposite of that perception. They now live on pitching and defense, and if you think that’s playing the game “the right way,” you’ll love this team.

I’d like to spout some statistics about how fantastic Oakland’s defense is, but the statistics that are usually cited are mostly worthless, and the statistics that might be more useful are both obscure and lack obvious value. Nevertheless, in their May visit, they were clearly the best defensive team to come through the Metrodome this year. Watch and judge for yourself.

The Bullpen – Everyone is wondering how the Athletics ran away with the AL West. The answer is their bullpen. Barry Zito is one of the most highly regarded starting pitchers in baseball, and he leads the Athletics rotation in ERA. But there are six members of the Athletics bullpen who have ERAs lower than him.

Closer and 2005 Rookie of the Year Huston Street (30 saves, 3.17 ERA) is returning from a groin injury, but his replacement, Justin Duscherer (3.19 ERA) saved eight games in his absence and will now return to the eighth inning setup role. Pitching in front of them is Kiko Calero, whose 3.12 ERA is lower than either one of them. In less critical roles are guys like Ron Flores (2.96 ERA), Chad Gaudin (2.48 ERA) and Joe Kennedy (1.11 ERA). If you’re someone who likes to beat the traffic, you can feel pretty comfortable that the score won’t change much after the sixth inning in this series.


Oakland: Kirk Saarloos (7-7, 4.68 ERA)

  • 2006:109.2 IP, 130 H, 38 K, 45 BB, 17HR

  • 2005:10-9, 4.17 ERA, 159.2 IP, 53 K

  • Q: How can a right-hander who can’t strike people out and has questionable control survive as a starter in this league, let alone have a respectable 4.68 ERA?

  • A: He keeps that ball down. Way down. Saarloos is an extreme groundball pitcher, getting twice as many ground balls as fly balls this season.

  • He’s also induced 23 double plays this year, which ranks him fifth in the American League, despite having 35 fewer innings pitched than anyone above him.

Tuesday: Matt Guerrier (0-0, 3.04 ERA)

  • 2005: 0-3, 71.2 IP, 46 K, 3.39 ERA

  • 2006: 53.1 IP, 62 H, 29 K, 17 BB, 5 HR

  • We know Guerrier as a middle reliever, but he started 80 games in AAA before being called up. His record was 23-29 with a 3.99 ERA, and 348 K in 487.2 innings.

  • Guerrier is the lucky recipient of the decision to protect Scott Baker by placing him in the bullpen. With Liriano returning, it isn’t clear whether the Twins view this as a one time start, or whether he’ll get some more opportunities as the season continues. That may depend as much on how Silva pitches on Monday as how Guerrier pitches on Tuesday.

  • In his career, he’s pitched in 85 games, most of them in long relief, and still doesn’t have a win. This would be a nice time for it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Links of the Day for 9/11/06

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Well, so much for the offensive drought! Thanks to a couple of outstanding pitching performances from Boof Bonser and Johan Santana (and an important assist from Cleveland’s Victor Martinez,) the Twins finished the weekend in firm control of their own playoff destiny, a game and a half in front of the White Sox, and only two games off the division lead.

Jim Leyland’s voodoo no longer seems to be working on the Tigers, who now look more like the team everyone thought they would be in 2006: a scrappy bunch of youngsters capable of beating anyone, but unlikely to do it very regularly. Dropping three in a row to the Twins after winning the series opener had to be a crushing blow, particularly when at least one of the games (Saturday) looked eminently winnable for the Tigers. Still, Detroit has an easier remaining schedule than either the Twins or the Sox, so it’s definitely too early to start writing their obituary.

  • In case you missed it, Liriano’s rehab start in Scranton, Pennsylvania went off without a hitch Saturday night, and he’s scheduled to start Wednesday against the A’s.

  • This Tuesday, Matt Guerrier will become the Twins’ 10th different starting pitcher of 2006, replacing Scott Baker in the rotation. Baker will get some work out of the bullpen, but as long as the pennant race stays tight, he probably won’t be seen in too many important situations.

  • Next weekend’s series at Cleveland just got a little less scary with the news that Travis Hafner is out for the season with a broken right hand. From an objective fan’s perspective, this is really a shame, since Pronk was having an outstanding season, and had an outside chance to lead the league in homers and RBI. While he may make Twins’ fans shudder, it’s hard to think of many hitters who are more entertaining to watch than Hafner.

  • Carlos Silva may have made nice with his teammates, but the PiPress’s two-headed baseball monster still hasn’t forgiven him for his early exit last week. Jason Williams suggests that, for the Twins to reach the playoffs, Silva will need to begin emulating Brad Radke, who, for all his shortcomings, was winning crucial games in August while pitching with a broken shoulder.

  • The Twins aren’t the only team in the playoff race dealing with injuries. Down in Chicago, Joe Crede’s got a bad back, Bobby Jenks may or may not have a hip injury, and Ozzie Guillen’s gotta be working on a pretty good-sized ulcer right about now…

  • Who says Carl Pohlad is the worst owner in baseball? People who haven’t met Jeffrey Loria, that’s who…

  • LaVelle Neal has a handy roundup of the top prospects in the Twins’ system, as well as a quick assessment of their individual strengths and weaknesses. Among other interesting notes is Neal’s report on shortstop Alexi Casilla, the only position player in the top five…

  • Venezuela is the new Dominican Republic as far as baseball talent is concerned, and Gordon Wittenmeyer is on the story.

  • A-Rod is really having a tough year…