One can make a pretty good argument that the winner of the AL Central is consistently the team with the most depth. When we prognosticate, we focus on starting pitching, the lineup and the bullpen, and that's as it should be - it's silly to award a division to the team with the best 26th guy. But year after year, it seems like the team that weathers the storms the best, whose bench and high minors guys fill the cracks that need filling, wins the AL Central.
I think that same thought every year, and it applies this year too. The Tigers fell off the map when their young guys stopped hitting. The White Sox have flailed for the last month, desperate for bullpen help and that extra bat that can play DH. Meanwhile the Twins have that extra bat (Jim Thome), the bullpen guy that saved the rotation (Brian Duensing) and a rookie that is becoming one of the more valuable Twins (Danny Valencia). And they've been fairly aggressive in adding depth this season with the acquisitions of relievers Matt Capps, Randy Flores and Brian Fuentes.
But the need for depth has been building lately, and in last night's 10-9 loss, the areas hit hardest were all on display.
Infield - About two months ago, I was gong to write a story on how exceptional the Twins infield defense has been. It would look silly now. The Twins lost last night largely on their inability to turn double plays - by my count they missed somewhere around 23 of them. JJ Hardy can't throw the ball to first base on the fly more than 50% of the time, and we'll let his bad wrist be his excuse. Hudson can't pivot, and we'll let his foot be his excuse. And Casilla is sometimes brilliant but mostly maddening and we'll let Nick Punto's hamstring be that excuse.
Meanwhile, Michael Cuddyer might as well add "catcher" to his resume, since he's being asked to field so many throws in the dirt. That said, it sure would be nice to have Justin Morneau's glove back at first base during this stretch, for two reasons. First, because he's pretty darn good at that sort of thing. And second, because he might be more willing to rip some of these guys a new piehole for consistently making him field that junk.
Power - Speaking of Morneau, as the Twins faces one of the premiere left-handed pitchers in the game last night, their top three left-handed sluggers (Morneau, Thome and Jason Kubel) were all hurt or mostly unavailable. The result? The Twins managed 15 hits - and they were all singles. This team is back to being The Piranhas, except that a good chunk of that feisty school of teeth are either hurt, gone or just plain slow.
Bullpen - But it's hard to rip the offense too much when they scored 9 runs in a game started by Justin Verlander. Last night's loss is mostly about the bullpen, and specifically about a strange reluctance the front office has shown all year.
It's fairly well documented exactly how much Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier are being overused this year. I count Guerrier being used 18 times in the last 31 games and Crain being used 21 in the last 33 games, both of which tally to about 100 games per season pace. Sure enough, last night they were the guys on the hill blowing leads, but it's hard to blame them.
For that matter, it's hard to blame Ron Gardenhire too much, too. He's consistently lost options in the 'pen this year, whether it was moving Duensing to the rotation, Ron Mahay and Jose Mijares (and Pat Neshek) getting hurt or Alex Burnett sucking. Last night you could add Fuentes and Capps to the N/A list with various ailments. So when Scott Baker went down with an injury after just a few innings, even Jeff Manship's reliable (and durable and increasingly critical) arm wasn't enough.
Gardenhire was missing several bullets out of his six-shooter last night, and one needs to ask why that is when it's September 2nd. It continues a trend we have seen all year. For some reason, the Twins don't trust the relievers at AAA-Rochester, and sure as hell don't want to rely on them, despite impressive numbers. Instead, the front office has done just about everything they could do, including trading away top prospect Wilson Ramos, to not rely on them.
That changes tonight, as the Twins try to address a brand new deficit. Remember a couple of days ago we were wondering what the Twins might do with an extra healthy and effective starting pitcher? No more. As of 8:00 this morning, we have no idea who from the Twins will start tonight's game, but the answer appears to be: nobody. Or at least not a starting pitcher. Those maligned guys in Rochester's bullpen that we have been hesitant to trust with a 4-run lead are coming up to piece together a start against the AL West leading Texas Rangers.
Late update: Oops. It looks like Seth broke the news late last night that the starting pitcher will be Matt Fox, who has been starting and relieving in Rochester this year.
Goofy? Yep. Misguided? Maybe. But desperate times call for desperate measures. And even a team that has been relying all year on it's depth can eventually run empty.