Friday, September 29, 2006

Playoff Roster Decisions

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Provided Brad Radke woke up Friday morning with his arm still attached (and that might not be hyperbole) he pretty clearly earned a postseason start on Thursday night, which has to be a huge relief to the organization. Trusting in Carlos Silva or Matt Garza is optimistic. Trusting in Carlos Silva and Matt Garza crosses into delusional.

It also clarifies the playoff roster somewhat. I suspect the names will look like this:

Starting Pitchers (4): Santana, Bonser, Radke, Silva (or Garza)
Bullpen (8): Nathan, Rincon, Reyes, Crain, Neshek, Guerrier, Garza (or Silva)
Regulars (7): Mauer, Morneau, Castillo, Bartlett, Punto, Hunter, Cuddyer
Semi-Regulars (3): Nevin, White, Tyner
Bench (2): Redmond, Rodriguez, Ford

There aren’t too many surprises, with the possible exception of Luis Rodriguez, but he can serve as a backup at shortstop or third base, and he can be a left-handed bat off the bench. The only other options would be Terry Tiffee or Alex Casilla, neither of whom has seen much time since their call-up.

The other name that might surprise is Lew Ford. Three months ago I might have thought it would be Jason Kubel, but his knees have taken the whack out of his bat, and with just five at-bats this month, I think we can safely say he’ll be watching from the stands. Ford can platoon in center field with Jason Tyner if Torii Hunter gets hurt, be a late-inning defensive replacement for Rondell White, and get on-base (and maybe steal one) if necessary late in a game.

The final option would be left-hander Glen Perkins, though that would mean keeping twelve pitchers, which is very rare for the playoffs, and the Twins have already said they’ll only carry eleven. Still, the temptaion to carry a second southpaw in the bullpen might be too much to resist, if the Twins face a Yankee lineup that features Bobby Abreu, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui (.200 vs. LHP this year) and Jason Giambi (.214 vs. LHP).

The White Sox: What Happened? What's Next?

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So, what went wrong?

It’s almost a ridiculous question to ask when a team is going to win 90 games. It’s easy to write off the year on high expectations that might have been inflated by last year’s white-hot postseason run. Or maybe they can be blamed on bad luck, especially the bad luck of finding themselves in the loaded American League Central.

But that overlooks some hard realities, like the losing record they had to the Twins and even to Cleveland. It also overlooks their 31-40 record since the all-star break. And it overlooks the 10-16 record they’ve had in September, when the games meant the most. All while many were still convinced they were the team to beat in the AL Central.

The biggest problem, or at least the expectation that was most unrealistic, was the starting pitching staff. Only one team, the Kansas City Royals, gave up more runs than the White Sox starting rotation. That’s somewhat misleading, because they also led the league in innings, and will finish in the middle of the pack in ERA. But mediocre wasn’t good enough, not when they carried the team to and through the playoffs last year. And it certainly wasn’t what the organization had in mind when it committed to spending about $45 million last year just on their five starters - Javier Vazquez, Freddy Garcia, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras. That’s nearly half of the White Sox payroll.

The decline in pitching couldn’t be patched over by the offensive improvements. The White Sox are second in the major leagues in runs scored. Minnesota is eleventh. The season isn’t over yet, and the White Sox already have scored 116 more runs than they did in 2005. Of course, the White Sox missed the playoffs regularly this decade with better offenses than they had last year, and one might wonder if the decreased emphasis on small ball might have led to the slip.

Whether you choose to believe that or not, one thing is for certain – the White Sox didn’t win as many close games this year. Last year’s White Sox ended up 35-19 in one run games. This year’s team is just 23-21. And while some have lamented the state of the Sox bullpen, they’ve actually blown two fewer saves than they did last year.

So while it’s not a ridiculous question to ask of a team that’s going to finish nearly 20 games over .500, it’s still a hard one to answer. There were a lot of little problems, a less than stellar bullpen, a very tough division, and probably less team speed. But mostly, it looks like the team committed itself to a veteran starting pitching staff that under performed.

Which naturally raises the question about what the White Sox can do next year to make sure they aren’t the odd team out.

Well, for starters, they’re going to need to spend like crazy again. One of the underreported stories this year was exactly how high the White Sox payroll sky-rocketed this year. The White Sox rode the momentum of last year’s postseason success and received an infusion of cash from some trades to increase their payroll by $27 million this year, up to $102 million. For years, White Sox fans have complained about how cheap owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been with his payroll, making 2006 a true departure – it was double the payroll the White Sox had as recently as 2003.

What isn’t clear is whether this is a new level of spending based on increased interest in the White Sox, or whether it was a one-time boost partly based on cash the White Sox acquired in trades. Because you’ll never guess how much money GM Kenny Williams received from the Phillies and Diamondbacks to cover the salaries of Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez last year. That’s right - $27 million.

It’s an important question for White Sox fans because there isn’t much payroll flexibility next year. It looks like the White Sox are committed to about $90 million in guaranteed contracts, arbitration dollars, and contract options before they start to improve their team. And that’s assuming that they don’t bring back perennial staff ace Buehrle, whom they can opt to have back for $9.5 million.

The leading candidate to replace Buehrle in the rotation would be Brandon McCarthy, but his 4.88 ERA as a long reliever this year hardly inspires confidence. That single hole in the rotation is surrounded by four other starting pitchers who will each be guaranteed $10 million, and none of them have an ERA lower than 4.27. Williams likely will need to trade some offensive assets for pitching, and that still may leave the problem of what to do with some $10-million-per-year pitcher that currently is in a starting slot. His only other choice is to hope they pitch better next year, when they’re all a year older.

The White Sox biggest hope for improvement might be offensively. If the White Sox decide to offer 2005 hero Scott Podsednick arbitration, he’ll likely make $4 million. Podsednick stole 40 bases last year, but also hit just .260 and only made it on base about 33% of the time, so it wouldn’t be too shocking if the White Sox identified left field as a place they can upgrade. Brian Anderson’s first year in center field this year was also disappointing (he hit just .230), but upgrading that is going to take money, because for all his faults, at least Anderson was cheap.

The best bet is that Williams is aggressive in trades again this year, moving one of his offensive assets for some pitching. It'll be interesting to see if he has any wiggle room on their payroll, and how White Sox fans react if the payroll level drops.

Links of the Day for 9/29/06

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Yikes. Suddenly these last three with Chicago really do mean something, if not in the way he had anticipated.

If you hadn’t heard, the Twins won last night ( The Chairman tied the game at one with a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth, and Jason Bartlett knocked in the winning run in the tenth. This game was significant for a few reasons.

First of all, Brad Radke pitched well. Of course, it’s the Royals, but 57 pitches in 5 innings is a good outing regardless. I mostly saw his velocity around 87-88 MPH, which is enough for him. If the Twins could squeeze five innings out of him in the playoffs, and avoid using Carlos Silva, that will be big.

And secondly, the Tigers lost last night ( Kenny Rogers got smoked. And suddenly, the Twins and Tigers are both 95-64. The Tigers hold the tiebreak (season series), so the Twins are still a de facto one game back. But it’s been a long way to the top, and this is something to savor, no doubt.

So now you’re up to speed. Enjoy the final weekend, and see you in the playoffs.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Links of the Day for 9/27/06

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After clinching a playoff spot there's been a lot of love for the Twins from baseball writers. The Twins success is being viewed as the story of the season. Justin Morneau's MVP run has benefited from this view he is leading a fan poll on and has at least one vote in the bag from Kyle Veltrop of the Sporting News. Even Bud Selig is dolling out some praise for the Twins, with the obligatory swipe at the Metrodome.

A couple of national sports commentators weighed in on the debate featured in this weeks dugout splinters article. Dayn Perry of thinks it will work to the Twins benefit to play the Yankees in the ALDS, citing that it favors the Twins to have Santana on the mound for two of the possible five games against the bombers. Mike Celizic on is somewhat ambivalent agreeing with Dayn on the Santana issue but also citing importance of home field advantage to the Twins (who are sporting the league's best home record). I find it interesting that everyone seems to take wins from Santana efforts to be a given, even though he hasn't been his dominant self in his last three outings.

Swing by the bleacher bums and check out their great entries this week. Today, they posted a link to a story about MLB pulling their podcasts from itunes. The reason they did this was that they didn't like their podcats being listed next to those posted by fans. From the link:

"That may sound immaterial, but again the brand is very important to us," said Bob Bowman, of MLB.

Although impressed with MLB's embrace of web related media, I find their excuse for pulling their podcasts from itunes hard to swallow. It seems inconsistent that they would advocate fan blogs linked to their site while trying to separate themselves from fan podcasts. It's all the more reason to subscribe to RSS feeds to get your mlb casts and your favorite Twins podcasts avoiding the middle man entirely.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Debate

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I know Yogi – it’s never over til it’s over, right? Well, now it's over, and starting tonight the Twins face a decision. Will they try like hell to catch the Tigers by the tail, or ease their foot off the gas in hopes of setting up their rotation and resting some key players?

There’s some mixed signals coming out of Twins camp regarding this. Manager Ron Gardenhire doesn’t anticipate a big celebration if the Twins clinch their playoff spot, since they’ll still be gunning for the AL Central championship. On the other hand, there is NO WAY Santana will be starting next Sunday if the Twins have clinched a playoff spot. In his weekend radio show, Terry Ryan talked about the division race being the focus. But he also talked about Brad Radke returning to the mound at least one more time this year (likely Thursday), which is hardly the type of gamble a team in a tight division race would take.

There aren’t a lot of strong arguments for either side. Wild card teams have done very well in the playoffs the last few years, overcoming whatever scheduling disadvantages they might encounter. Furthermore, the Twins haven’t been particularly strong at home in the playoffs in this millennium, winning just two of eight games from 2002-2004, so it’s not like dome field advantage is critical. Finally, if the Twins play games 1, 2 and 5 on the road, it allows Johan Santana to battle on the road twice, and can give rookies like Boof Bonser or Matt Garza some starts at home.

But that argument also demonstrates why it isn’t critical that the Twins juggle their starting rotation. Other than making sure Santana starts game 1, does it really matter if Bonser or Carlos Silva starts Game 2? Or Radke or Garza for that matter? Picking a pitcher from the middle of the Twins rotation is like choosing a fortune cookie from the basket at Kwan’s – until you open it, does it really matter which one you chose?

The best reasons behind the debate are far more nebulous. In support of chasing tigers, the Twins don’t want to face the Yankees in the first round, who seem to have some kind of evil mojo in the Dome come playoff time. The best reason for accepting the wild card berth is that some important players in the lineup and bullpen could probably use the rest. Is a short respite going to undo a season’s worth of strain on Torii Hunter’s foot, Joe Mauer’s hamstring, or Juan Rincon’s shoulder?

It isn't the importance of the debate that makes it popular. It's the accessability. A fan doesn’t need to be armed with much knowledge to have an opinion on rest, or the Yankees, or the importance of home field advantage. But for all the hand-wringing, it’s hard to see that the final choice will make much difference.

Links of the Day for 9/26/06

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The incredible shrinking magic number continued to shrink. After the Indians’ pounding of the White Sox, the magic number was 1. So what happened after the Twins held on to clinch last night? They celebratee, that’s what. And while Ron Gardenhire had to put some thought into whether they should celebrate, he made the right decision. The Twins are not the Yankees after all—the playoffs aren’t guaranteed by their payroll. While it may seem inevitable now, a playoff berth seemed to be an impossible dream the first half of the season. And so, when they clinched last night, I hope you opened some bubbly, maybe even fired up a victory cigar, because the Twins have accomplished something amazing.

And while you’re celebrating, make sure you raise a toast to the Detroit Tigers, who are back in the playoffs for the first time since 1987. This is a franchise that’s gone through a lot. They’ve seen rebuilding year after rebuilding year, culminating in the historically awful 2003 season and now, their long nightmare is over, because they are in the playoffs.

And they, along with their fans, have done it in an unassuming, workmanlike way that everyone should be able to appreciate. There was no annoying monkey, no whining about a curse and no bitching. All they’ve done is make the playoffs and I’ve been pulling for them ever since their torrid start (except against the Twins, of course). I know I’ll continue pulling for them in the playoffs as well (again, unless they meet the Twins in the ALCS), especially because I remember what it was like to break a playoff drought of more than a decade. If you need a reminder, I suggest you check out The Roar of the Tigers.

  • If you’re like me, you’ve been joining the new bloggers over at Pulling a Blyleven during games. Trust me—they will have you laughing no matter what happens.

  • It turns out that Johan’s father is in town to watch the rest of the Twins’ season. His name? Jesus. Is anyone surprised?

  • Be thankful the pixie vests are the worst thing the Twins have done to their uniforms recently. It could definitely be a lot worse.

  • The New York Times continues their obsession with the Twins. As always, bugmenot has login info if you need it.

  • 33 for MVP!!

  • If you don’t get goose bumps after reading this, you might want to check your pulse. Something magical is occurring this season—make sure you celebrate it.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Links of the Day for 9/25/06

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The Twins wrapped up a 7-3 road trip Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, and reduced their magic number for clinching a playoff spot to two. But catching Detroit for the division lead may still be harder than anyone thought a few weeks ago.

Even assuming Minnesota wins their first game against Kansas City on Monday night, thus reducing the idle Tigers’ lead to one game, they will still have to make up two full games to win the division, since Detroit won the season series between the two teams. Furthermore, the White Sox will likely be in full spoiler mode when they arrive at the Dome for the final three games of the season, and they would naturally take great joy in sending the Twins into the playoffs on a bad note.

Meanwhile, the Tigers will play their last six games at home against Baltimore and Kansas City. As noted in this space two weeks ago, schedule matters, and Detroit really caught a break with all the cupcake opponents on the back end of theirs. Of course, given how close the win-loss records of the AL playoff teams are, who wins the Central may not make a lick of difference. Still, overtaking the Yankees for the best record in the league looks at least as achievable as overtaking Detroit, and that Dome-field advantage can be a doozy, so what the hell, why not just keep winning?

  • One of the biggest questions for the Twins’ field staff has been how they would use Johan Santana during the last week of the regular season and the opening round of the playoffs. Would it be worth starting him on the last day of the season, if it could mean the difference between hosting the A’s or playing at the Yankees? The answer, apparently, is no.

  • Whether it will be a serious start, or just an opportunity for Twins fans to say goodbye to a class act remains to be seen, but Brad Radke is tentatively scheduled to start Thursday’s game against the Royals.

  • One thing that seemed to be sadly lacking around the Twins clubhouse in 2005 was a sense of humor. From rumors of clubhouse scraps to a decidedly defeatist attitude in press quotes, it was abundantly clear that the ’05 Twins just weren’t having a lot of fun. Patrick Reusse says those days are most decidedly in the past.

  • Speaking of humor, you think that Sports Illustrated article about A-Rod was blistering? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Batgirl’s got her hands on anadvance copy of Mpls/St. Paul’s upcoming expose on the Twins’ head piranha and tiny superhero…

  • Free agency has never been a big part of Terry Ryan’s team building strategy, and this look at the big-money free agents of 2006 by LaVelle Neal suggests that Ryan may be saving himself a lot of headaches as well as cash.

  • That having been said, LaVelle also believes that Torii Hunter is worth the $12 million the Twins would have to pay him in 2007 if they pick up his option. The case for Torii: he’s fourth in the league among center fielders in RBI and home runs, and there’s a strong likelihood that his defensive prowess will return after the stress fracture in his left foot heals in the offseason.

  • The Twins’ new ballpark may be in line to get some sort of leftist pinko commie environmental certification. Perhaps they can sell the naming rights to Ralph Nader…

  • In one of those bizarre tales of Yankee greed that seem to rear their head a few times each season, the Pinstripers are informing their season ticket holders in no uncertain terms that the reselling of tickets on sites like StubHub will not be tolerated. They’re even banning some of the offenders from buying postseason tickets. “The letter… doesn't accuse the ticket-holder of doing anything illegal when he sold the ducats to games on May 28 and June 9. But according to the note, the sale, resale or transfer of tickets at any price is a violation of the license agreement.” Way to hold onto your most loyal fans, there, New York.

  • Okay, we admit it, we’re at a loss. Does this make RFK Stadium the worst ballpark in the majors? Or the best? (Warning: this item is probably safe for work, but you might not want to click it while anyone’s reading over your shoulder.)

  • Finally, the news is a few days old at this point, but the case of two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, who are now staring down 18 months in prison for the heinous crime of refusing to reveal the confidential source who allowed them to blow the Barry Bonds steroid story wide open, is well worth another look. There has never been an absolute legal right for journalists to maintain confidentiality, but until quite recently, the courts gave journalists wide latitude in such cases, believing that the value of a free and unfettered press justified such confidence in their methods.

    That’s all changed, in large part because of the Bush Administration’s decision to aggressively pursue a “reining in” of the media establishment in various federal court cases. The overall wisdom of that course is highly debatable and not really a subject for a sports blog. But many in the sports media are incredulous at what is being done to their colleagues in the name of justice.