Sunday, April 29, 2007

April Questions, May Answers

The Twins have finally faced each of their division foes for the first time, so one might think there would be some real insight about this team. But the only answer we’re getting is the one we should’ve learned last year – that there are precious few answers in April.

That is especially true in the AL Central, partly because each team is a mixture of veterans and youthful promise. But it’s also because this is a competitive division, and the progress of a couple of key players will likely be the margin of victory or defeat. That’s a good thing, by the way. It’s what a baseball season should be about.

Generally, one doesn’t focus on a series with the Devil Rays because, well, they’re the Devil Rays. But this series should be a little more interesting to Twins fans, because they’re going to highlight some of the key players that could impact the season.

Sidney Ponson
Time is running out on Ponson. On the one hand, he seems to be behaving himself well. On the other, even Pope Benedict isn’t going stay on a major league roster if he’s sporting an 8.44 ERA.

To his credit, Ponson is throwing strikes. Unfortunately those strikes have been extremely hittable, resulting in twice as many base runners as innings pitched. And when six of them have been hit for home runs in just 21 innings, there’s no reason to assume it’s all bad luck (though that likely played a part in at least the outing versus the Yankees).

This week Ponson gets to start against the Devil Rays, and probably again on Sunday against the Red Sox in the Metrodome. If he doesn’t show significant progress, I can’t imagine the Twins will continue to invest in this rehabilitation project. Depending on what Terry Ryan saw this last week when he was in Rochester, it’s possible the Twins wouldn’t even wait that long.

Boof Bonser
Bonser was one of the players that the Twins hoped wouldn’t be on this list in late April, but he’s been the second worst starting pitcher on the staff, and maybe the most frustrating. Bonser is pitching exactly the way he did last year – in the first half of the year, when he was earning himself trips back and forth to Rochester.

Bonser has posted eye-catching strikeout numbers for several years, but stayed in Rochester because he had trouble with his control and keeping the ball down in the zone. In his initial promotion, he showed the same problems, and it wasn’t until late in the season that the mistakes disappeared and all that remained were the wiffs.

Not this year. Bonser leads the team in home runs against (7) and in walks (16). In walks, nobody else is even particularly close, as he doubles everyone except Ponson (9). Boof has smoothed over some of those numbers with lots of Ks, posting a strikeout rate higher than anyone else on the staff, including Johan Santana.

But this organization doesn’t tolerate a lot of walks, and they rarely hesitate to demote a prospect to relearn that fact in Rochester. Bonser faces the Devil Rays, who are about as patient as a coked up commodities broker, on Wednesday. A tougher test might be the White Sox next week. In both, watch to see if he’s getting ahead or falling behind the hitters.

Jason Kubel
Sunday’s paper mentioned what you probably have noticed, which is that Kubel is getting a lot of playing time lately. The paper drew a parallel to Michael Cuddyer last year, but there is an important difference. Cuddyer was playing right field because he was hitting the crap out of the ball. Kubel is playing left field because…um…well…let’s get to that later. Suffice to say it isn’t because he’s forcing the issue with his bat.

So far this season, Kubel is hitting almost exactly the way he did last season. The only big difference is that he’s both walking and striking out less, which means he’s putting a few more balls in play. That’s resulting in a slightly higher batting average and slightly less power.

Which would be fine if last year’s production wasn’t totally unacceptable. Last year’s .241 batting average was bad enough for a left fielder (especially one whose strives to show as much range as Manny Ramirez) but it’s especially brutal for a designated hitter. If the other options weren’t currently Jason Tyner and Josh Rabe, Kubel likely wouldn’t be playing as much as he has.

The lack of other options is one reason that Kubel is playing so much lately, but there are likely two others. First, Kubel could probably use the at-bats, because the Twins need someone to start showing some production in the bottom half of the order. Developing Kubel is the only current option since RonDL White’s recurring injury is making everyone remember that his career has been filled with injuries that never healed.

But another reason might well be that the Twins need to find out if Kubel is ever going to be the answer, because they’ll need to do some shopping this season is he isn’t. The paper and radio shows like to float around the name of Jacque Jones, but the Twins are likely interested in a cheaper, right-handed bat. A player like that can often be plucked away from teams cheaply, ala Phil Nevin last year, and some teams wouldn’t need to wait until the trade deadline to do it.

For instance, if Twins scouts saw ability in someone like Kansas City’s Ryan Shealy, a deal could probably be made prior to the All-Star break. Or, in about a month, when Ken Harvey is recovered from his knee surgery, the Twins might like to know if they’re ready to trust Kubel full-time, or bring Harvey up to platoon at DH. And don’t forget that Matt LeCroy is still plugging along (or is that up?) in Rochester, too.

So Twins fans have a good reason to lean a little closer to their TVs when Kubel is batting over the next couple of weeks. And a couple of good reasons to pay attention to some road games before the Red Sox come to town on Friday. The jury is still out on the seasons that Sidney Ponson, Boof Bonser and Jason Kubel are going to have. The answers will likely reveal themselves in the fairly near future, and they’ll go a lot further in determining the AL Central champ than an April weekend series in Detroit.


Adam said...

You might care to mention Kubel has something like 10 hits the last 4 games, including some doubles (one today that's a three run homer in any ballpark but Detroit) and about half of his outs were lineouts. He looked real good last year before we realized his health issues weren't resolved yet either. I'm excited about Kubel.

Bonser is the one that concerns me, because I really expected him to get it done...

Jim H. said...

Kubel in the field reminds of Brian Buchanan in the field -- painful to watch. At least Mickey Hatcher, who couldn't run either, had fun with the fans sitting out in left field. But, hey, if Koobs can get bunches of RBI, I guess we'll take it.

brianS said...

Kubel's performance so far is hard to figure out. He seems to be hitting a LOT of line drives right at people. Hardball Times says his LD pct is 34.5 so far -- waaaaaaay up from his 20-25 pct range in 2004 and 2006. Yet his BABIP is a weak-but-not-utterly-horrific .316 (league average currently is .286; last year it was .305). The lack of BBs is absolutely killing his OBP. (His K rate is around 16 pct -- high for someone with no HRs, but lower than Cuddyer's).

At Rochester last year, he hit 24 line drives in 99 balls in play (per Minor League Splits, right in line with his Major League track record prior to this spring. So a 20-25 pct LD rate should be considered a floor for him. He won't stay above 30 pct all year.

Still, I have to believe that if Kubel keeps driving the ball the way he has, his BA and SLG will come way up because more of those drives will turn into singles and doubles.

Kunza said...

For you to say that Ken Harvey and Matt LeCroy are basically viable options at the DH tells me that you have very little knowledge about baseball - they didn't sign Harvey to be the DH and they sure the hell didn't sign LeCroy to be their DH -

Regarding Kubel..... it's easy to take jabs at him for one or two fielding mishaps, but the facts are this... he has an above average outfield arm and a much, much, much, better arm than RonDL ... plus, he has something that I think Tyner, White, or whomever you want to play in LF - young age and potential

Anonymous said...

Has anyone actually seen Kubel smile? I think he might be the most depressed-looking person on that team right now.

markominne said...

Kunza's comments intrigue me. If not DH candidates, why does he think the Twins DID sign Harvey and LeCroy? Defensive replacements? Top of the lineup speed? Or potential publicity as Jenny Craig spokesmen?

Kunza said...

You really mean to tell me that they signed LeCroy and Harvey to be a full-time DH or even a 50/50 split at DH - Come on!!!!!!!

Jeepers cripes - do you watch baseball?????


Every team signs a few of these stiffs in hoping to have them come off the bench in the so called "key situations" to get a quality AB because they are "vets"

I would ask you to look it up and tell me when the last time both of those two stiffs received more than 200+ AB's per season - Harvey - 2004 and LeCroy - 2005

They both suck and everyone knows it!! They have ZERO chance of becoming even 1/2 or a regular player