Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Flat Lining

In a baseball season full of suprises, maybe the biggest one is how little we all seem to care about a pennant race.

Frankly, I didn't think it could be this way. I waited almost a decade for a pennant race, and entering this season I feared I might be at the beginning of another long wait. Instead I was treated to players blossoming before my eyes and not one - but two! - MVP worthy seasons from the middle of the order. The excitement should only have built as summer became fall.

Instead, this site is flat lining. My attention is also flat lining. So is the team. And attendance. And TV ratings. And community interest. And it's all happening at exactly the time that it shouldn't - in a pennant race in September with a young and likeable team.

So why haven't I been blogging? Because I haven't been watching. Judging by the numbers, a lot of people aren't. And why, with the Twins still in contention, haven't I watched more than a handful of Twins games in a month? Because it's absolutely painful, that's why. And it's even more painful because all of this pain is so damn unnecesessary.

It's that last point - the "so damn unnecessary" - which makes it especially hard for the hardcore fans to watch this team right now. We're a forgiving lot. We can understand a team, especially a young team, that can't keep their head above water in the fall. Or a team that is leveled by injuries. But watching the Twins bullpen overshadow any success this team could have is a damn hard thing for a hardcore fan to accept, because a hardcore fan knows the back story.

Namely, that the Twins have had months and months to fix this problem and the general manager and manager have seemingly conspired to do as little as possible. No. "Conspired" isn't the right word. That implies that the two of them worked together to direct this little cruise over the river Styx. To create a mildewing mess like this usually requires working at odds with each other.

I understand how ridiculous this next sentence is going to be, but that's what makes it so nauseating. If Bill Smith was intentionally and covertly trying to sabotage this team's playoff chances, I'm not sure what more he could have done since May 29th. That's the day the Twins claimed Craig Breslow off waivers.

For the next three months, the Twins only addition to the bullpen was failed starter Boof Bonser, who posted an 8.74 ERA in his first two months there. The other moves were subractions - dumping Juan Rincon and demoting Brian Bass. And, not too shockingly, over the next three months, the bullpen got gassed, and starting at the end of July, they really struggled.

And yet, nothing was done, either externally or internally. No trades were completed before the deadline, even though several relievers were traded prior to it. No waiver pickups afterwards. There were no promotions from AAA Rochester, though several candidates looked viable (like Bobby Korecky and Ricky Barret). And not only did they not call-up several high-ceiling arms from the middle levels of the minors (Robert Delaney and Anthony Slama), they didn't even promote them to slightly higher minor league levels.

That inactivity changed a little at the end of August when Eddie Guardado was acquired, but in retrospect, all that really did was make it more difficult to call up one of the promising minor leaguers. Not that it had to be any more difficult. When rosters were finally expanded, the only bullpen arms that were added were Korecky, Philip Humber and Jose Mijares. The rest of them were passed over because the Twins didn't think they would have enough opportunities for them.

Blink. Blink.

Let's unpack that logic a little. In August, the Twins lost twelve games, and in eight of them, a member of the bullpen was the losing pitcher. Almost across the board, there hadn't been a single reliable pitcher beyond Joe Nathan for most of the season. In particular, the guys who had been used as setup men - Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Jose Reyes - had really fallen apart since the end of July. And yet the Twins were worried about not having opportunities for fire-throwing minor leaguers? Really? Just what opportunities were going to be in short supply? I mean, other than congratulatory post-game handshakes? Because it wasn't going to be relief opportunities.

Or was it? Because this is where our story shifts to the only person who could make Smith's festering stasis look downright visionary - manager Ron Gardenhire. It turns out that Smith was right. There were no opportunities for these guys because Gardenhire continued to trot out the same guys who have failed nearly every test they'd been given over the last month.

He also sat on his most promising set-up candidate for almost two weeks. That would be Mijares, who finally made his first appearance on the 13th and has sinced been used four times in five days. In those four appearance, Mijares has given up just two hits in 3.2 innings and has yet to walk a batter. He'll end up with the loss for last night's game partly because of Buster Keaton inspired defense. But we also might wonder why he was pulled from a tie game with a runner on third and two outs for Guerrier - who has now given up eight hits and four walks in his last 1.1 IP.

Reread those numbers at the end of that last sentence. Tally it up. Now guess what happened.

So let's review. The Twins have known since early May (when Pat Neshek was injured) that their bullpen was going to struggle, but the only moves they made were to pick up two left-handed setup guys, one in May and the other in August. Otherwise, they sat in a state of suspended disbelief, while claiming that they didn't dare risk losing any of their valuable bullpen arms.

(Of course, when they needed the roster spot for a hitter, they convinced one of those Valuable Bullpen Arms that he wasn't so valuable, so he accepted a demotion rather than try free agency. Then, three weeks later, they decided that the Valuable Bullpen Arm wasn't even worth calling up for September. And then, a week later, they gave the Valuable Bullpen Arm to the Orioles for a minor league player to be named later. So maybe the whole "Valuable Bullpen Arm" thing might have been a stretch.)

When the Twins finally had oodles of roster space, they call up just three guys, and only two of them are perceived as having any kind of future as a set-up reliever. And then the manager refused to use them anyway, because he said he can't trust them with a six run lead. Instead he trusted the guys whose WHIP has spiked like an introductory ARM rate. Of course, he might have been more comfortable if they tried out some of these guys in July or June instead of sitting on their VBAs.

If Smith and Gardenhire are both truly trying to pull this team over the finish line (and it's not totally apparent they both are) they may want to try pulling in the same direction. Otherwise you just get a tug of war, and a lot of effort that results in almost no movement.

Oh, and a rope that looks an awful lot like a flat line.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, John. Like you and probably most other die-hard Twins fans, I have been totally frustrated by the handling of the bullpen situation by Smith and Gardenhire.

Nick said...

Great stuff, John. Your feelings are quite similar to mine. I'm impressed as to just how strong your indictment of Smith's lack of effort regarding the bullpen was without even mentioning the names Hawkins or Bradford.

Nick N. said...

I've been trying to think of a way to encapsulate my frustrations over the way this team has handled the bullpen this season in a column. Thanks for doing it better than I could have.

TT said...

the only bullpen arms that were added were Korecky, Philip Humber and Jose Mijares. The rest of them were passed over because the Twins didn't think they would have enough opportunities for them.

You really haven't been watching have you? Korecky, Humber and Mijares have not been over-worked. I suspect that is largely because Gardy and Anderson don't think they would do any better than the major league guys who were in the bullpen to begin with.

And you might have noticed Eddie Guardado in the bullpen. That was supposed to help. It hasn't because, as usual, reality doesn't compare to the imaginations of some bloggers.

Other than imagination, there is little reason to think pitchers who have had some success at A and AA are going to suddenly step into a major league pennant race and contribute more than the guys who got them there to begin with.

Anonymous said...

tt, I think you need to read the column again. John never said Korecky, Humber, and Mijares have been overworked. He said 1) Smith was too slow to bring them, or other promising pitchers, up to the majors; and 2) once they were here, Gardenhire was too slow to use them. Of course it's possible that Gardy (and Anderson?) has good reason not to trust the newbies. But given how CONSISTENTLY TERRIBLE the veterans have been for the last month (3-14 since August 14th!), and how good Mijares has been since he's finally gotten some action, that's really hard to imagine.

TT said...

But given how CONSISTENTLY TERRIBLE the veterans have been for the last month (3-14 since August 14th!), and how good Mijares has been since he's finally gotten some action, that's really hard to imagine.

No, it isn't hard to imagine. Its hard to imagine anyone drawing any conclusion based on facing 14 batters. But as I said its not lack of imagination that is the problem. Its imagining that the Twins had their best relief pitchers in the minor leagues all season.

Anonymous said...

...the problem [is] imagining that the Twins had their best relief pitchers in the minor leagues all season.

Again, you're knocking down a straw man. Neither John nor I said anything about the callups being better pitchers in some overall sense. Our point is that the existing workhorses have been terribly ineffective for the last month. Now recently, Reyes seems to be sharper; but Guerrier (sp?) shows no signs of coming out of his slump. I'm not saying he's not a good pitcher; maybe he's got a tired arm, or an injury. Maybe he'll be good again next week, next month (if the Twins make it to the playoffs) or next season. But it makes no sense to me to keep bringing him (or Crain) into game-on-the-line situations until there's some evidence from other situations that he's turned things around.

I hope I've said it clearly enough this time to avoid any more misunderstandings.