Thursday, May 10, 2007

Just Some Stuff

Time for a new kind of story. On Thursday nights, The Voice Of Reason wants to sit down for an hour and watch Grey's Anatomy, and I kick myself out of the room for an hour so I'm not tempted to get sucked in by it. And so I find myself with one hour of time to spew forth a bunch of random points I've been saving up all week - sounds like a solid story to me. Hell, it sounds like several solid stories, and I might very well use them next week. But for now, let's call it "Just Some Stuff".

Letting my imagination get the best of me....(Part 1)
The initial reports about Joe Mauer's injury mentioned a strained muscle, a lump and some bleeding. While everyone seems to thing that Joe Mauer will be back inside of two weeks, it did seem strange that all that detail would be mentioned. And I got downright nervous when Will Carrol mentioned the bump and linked to a description of myositis ossificans, which would keep him out considerably longer. It's a condition where the bone develops a lump, and it happens when a player suffers a strain but doesn't deal with it.

Considering the reports that this strain was what kept Mauer out of the lineup a couple of weeks ago, that'a a little worrisome. And then there are questions like "Why did they just put him on the DL now?"

Letting my imagination get the best of me...(Part 2)
Yesterday I wrote about how the hysteria around upgrading the Twins lineup needs to cool a bit, because what we see now is not what we will likely see in June. But there's a caveat there that I didn't mention, and it has to do with the timeframe for Mauer and Rondell White to return from injuries. This week it was reported that White should be back by the end of the month, but I've also heard that he might not be back until the All-Star break, or even the end of the year. I don't know what to believe.

If the prospect for White's return is not favorable, the entire strategy changes. This lineup is then exactly one bat short, and that bat can be any player at any position so long as they can hit the damn ball. If the Twins suspect that White cannot be counted on this year, patience needs to go out the window. Judging by Terry Ryan's public statements, he's either convinced White will return fairly soon, or bluffing the rest of the league for a better deal.

Playing the Game the WRONG Way
I damn near wrote a story earlier this week with that title, which is why I started applauding in my car when I heard Ron Gardenhire's post-game comments earlier today. A LOT of back-patting goes on about this team, and it can drive the cynical fan a bit nuts, but it's worth noting that this team does win games because of doing some little things right.

But not this year. This year, they're breaking even at best, and the White Sox series was almost embarassing. The Twins failed to generate offense in part because they did some stupid things (like Kubel's base running blunder yesterday) and they've lost two games this week in part because of terrible fielding by pitchers. And it hasn't just been this week. It was great to hear that Gardenhire recognizes this, and it will be a lot more interesting around here as fans start to too.

Tora, Tora, Torii!
Torii Hunter's 23 game hitting streak ended today, but that doesn't lessen the impact he's had this year. Two days ago I published where the Twins ranked in offensive production by position. At catcher, they were in third place. At first base, they were in second place. But in center field, they were in first place. That's the only position at which the Twins lead the league in OPS.

Earlier this week someone asked me if I would sign Hunter for Johnny Damon money (4 years, $52 million). Two years ago, I would have never even thought about it. Last year, I would've declined. But right now, I would do it . My biggget concern wouldn't be his age, or his streakiness or his plate discipline - it would be whether he can hold up for two more years on that damn turf. We should get a better feel about that by August, but right now, I'd take that deal and be damn happy about it.

A Story I Want To Know
Jason Tyner and Jason Kubel both play in the game today, but Kubel is in left field and Tyner is DH? Gardenhire isn't an idiot - there's gotta be a story there. I sure hope one of the reporters asks about it.

A Speed Problem
The Twins are forced to field a slap-and-hit team because of injuries. They're facing a division rival at home. And that division rival is terrible at throwing out stolen bases. And yet the Twins get zero stolen bases and zero caught stealings?

This isn't totally unique - the White Sox are doing something such that nobody is trying to steal against them despite having only thrown out three attempts all year. But if you're the Twins, don't you have to risk challenging them on that? I saw one stolen base attempt today, and it ended up being for naught because Hunter lined the ball right over second base to the player covering the bag. But that was it. I'd love to hear someone's take on what happened this series such that the Twins started playing station-to-station ball.

That's it. Grey's is over and so am I. See ya on Monday

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Fluffy’s Hope

You know how your vapid dog will become clinically depressed when you’re not home, and then reaches a state of otherwordly Nirvana as you walk in the door, primarily because she’s convinced herself that you were gone forever? The Twins season has been a lot like that, with Twins Territory playing the part of Fluffy.

For months we talked about how dismal the starting pitching was going to be, and the mistake the Twins were making by not trusting rotation slots to tomorrow’s rising stars. We reached a fever pitch as spring training concluded, and Carlos Silva was chosen over Matt Garza. The kvetching has continued all season, now as a nearly constant refrain of ‘Ditch Sidney Ponson’. We’re united and fervent in our holy crusade.

And we’ve been wrong almost every step of the way. Silva has been fantastic, and seemingly getting better. Garza can’t throw strikes in Rochester, and if the organization had to choose today, he would probably be fourth in line to be called up. We had very few concerns about Ponson at the end of the spring, and he’s been brutal. Meanwhile young stud Boof Bonser has matched Ponson bone-headed play for bone-headed play, and been twice as likely to work himself into trouble (though three times as likely to work himself out). And yet nobody mentions this.

But, of course, the biggest goof is that the pitching has been the team’s biggest strength. We continue to harp about Ponson despite the fact that the biggest problem has been the offense. Which brings us back to Fluffy the wonder dog.

The offense has struggled mightily over the last couple of weeks, but the calls for an offensive overhaul are making the same mistake that we made when the team broke spring training with three questionable veterans. And the same mistake that Fluffy is making when we’re not home. Namely, assuming that the way things are now are the way things are always going to be.

We haven’t seen the Twins real lineup since the week. The Twins have had four everyday position players miss at least a week of time, and three of them were being counted on to contribute power. The last two are out with muscle injuries, and all of them should be healthy (knock, knock) before the season is two months old.

The most significant loss has been that of Rondell White. White’s first impression last year was nausea-inducing, but guess which player was the best right-handed hitter in terms of batting average and OPS (On-base Plus Slugging percentage) after the All-Star Break last year? That’s right. Only Justin Morneau outperformed White. Replacing his bat with some combination of Mike Redmond and Jason Tyner isn’t just a decline - it’s a punchline.

It isn’t just injuries that might change the performance of this team. Players, and especially young players, can drastically improve their production. The daily newspaper speculates that the Twins should target a player like 25-year-old Cubs outfielder Matt Murton, who would likely replace (drum roll) 25-year-old outfielder Jason Kubel. Kubel has been twice the prospect Murton ever was, and debuted in the majors a year earlier than Murton. The supremely insecure hitter that Twins fans are watching now might be very different by the end of July.

Even the position that the Twins should be most concerned about is likely to improve. Nick Punto thrived for most of last year because Punto was a .300 hitter for most of last year. This year, he isn’t (.229 BA, 622 OPS). That’s one of the reasons that Jeff Cirillo was added to the roster, because he can at least platoon with Punto against left-handed pitchers. Instead, he’s also been hurt almost all season, and the Twins haven’t faced a southpaw starter since he’s returned.

All of which is not trying to say that the Twins shouldn’t be looking to get better. But Twins fans, and especially newspaper columnists who pride themselves on knowing something about this game, may want to take a step back from the ledge. Or at least recognize that things likely won’t be like this forever.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Offensive Options (Part I)

So, there’s plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the offense, but so far there have been precious few solutions offered, other than the ubiquitous catchphrase “Replace Sidney Ponson.” Obvious, replacing Sir Mullet isn’t going to help anyone score runs (with the possible exception of Rochester’s next opponent), so what exactly should the Twins do?

We can start by diagnosing the problem. If you want a great offense, you need great offensive players. And right now, at several different positions, the Twins are average or below:

Rank by OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) of the Twins versus the rest of the American League at all positions:
The Twins are very good in 3 spots, average in 3 spots, and dismal in 3 spots, which would explain why this offense is in the middle-of-the-pack right now. So where are the problem areas, and what can be done about them?

Second Base – You would think that most of the lack of production at second base can attributed to Luis Castillo’s injury, and he is hitting the best of them all. But for all the praise Castillo is generating, he’s only hitting .289, and his on-base percentage is still below the league average at .330.

Even if Castillo’s had played every game at the position, the Twins would only end up one rank higher. The real issue is that second base isn’t necessarily a spot for speedy little glove men anymore. That’s not going to change for the Twins in the near future with Alexi Casilla coming up, but if second base is going to be staffed by a Piranha, it becomes more important a true shark plays someplace else.

Third BaseNick Punto thrived for most of last year because Nick Punto was a .300 hitter for most of last year. This year, he isn’t (.229 BA, 622 OPS). There have been plenty of rumors of him battling through injuries, but the larger question is whether last year was a fluke, or whether Punto turned a corner at 28 years old.

Punto traditionally hits right-handers pretty well, so it hasn‘t helped that his possible platoon partner, Jeff Cirillo, had been almost all season (16 AB). And now, even when Cirillo is can be in the lineup, the Twins need to rely on him to play DH.

There’s not help in the minors, or at least not this year. The proverbial heir of the position, Matt Moses, is really struggling (.215, 548 OPS). Glenn Williams is down there, too, but he’s not really hitting a ton either (.256, 805). Terry Tiffee is hitting .264, but he’s doing it in Baltimore’s farm system.

Outside the organization, there might be some National League team’s willing to make a move a little later:
  • 26-year-old Wilson Betemit has had a terrible start for the Dodgers, and may just be keeping the spot warm for prospect Andy Laroche. If LaRoche gets hot, Betemit would be available.
  • Ty Wigginton’s name is always thrown around, but Tampa is competing this year, and Wigginton gives them a lot of flexibility.
  • Colorado has Garret Atkins at third now, and 22-year-old Ian Stewart just starting AAA. They won’t give either one away, but might be willing to trade one for the right pitching.
  • Morgan Ensberg has been rumored to be on the Twins wish list before, and Houston’s streaky (and injurr-prone) third baseman has been finding himself on the bench recently. Gawd knows Houston could use pitching…

The prospects that the Twins might be able to acquire are risky, and they would block the progress of Matt Moses, who is still only 22-years-old. Still, are some options, though and ENsberg or Betemit deal would likely take some time until things developed, so Punto and Cirillo will likely get another month to get things back on track.

We’ll talk about more tomorrow.

I gotta run…


Sunday, May 06, 2007

White Sox Preview

I'd love to cover about 3 different stories from this weekend, but they'll need to wait because GameDay's Dugout Splinters are due tomorrow. For today, we'll run with a preview of the next team to come to town, the Chicago White Sox.

The Offseason

Going into the offseason, the White Sox were perceived as needing to fill some holes in their offense in order to give a core group of players that was in danger of moving beyond their playing primes another chance at a champioship. Maybe more challenging, they needed to do so without increasing their payroll significantly, in part because it had surged up and extra $30 million after the team won the 2005 World Series. It didn’t happen, and by the end, White Sox GM Kenny Williams was under significant fire for moves that emphasized pitching over offense, and future performance over present competition.

He certainly seemed to start well enough. The one thing the White Sox could afford to move, both in terms of talent and payroll, was a member of their expensive starting pitching core. After all, the White Sox had fireballer Brandon McCarthy stuck in long relief last year because they couldn’t find room for him in the rotation. When the Phillies expressed interested in pitcher Freddy Garcia, who was scheduled to make $10 million this year, Williams was well on his way to solving his problem.

Except that the White Sox didn’t get the offense they needed in the trade. Instead, they got back a minor leaguer that they had traded away the year before in the Jim Thome deal, and Gavin Floyd, a 24-year-old starting pitcher who had bounced back and forth between Philly and (AAA) Scranton for the last two years.

And that wasn’t the trade that really had everyone scratching their heads.

That distinction belongs to the second big trade the White Sox made. Remember McCarthy, who was going to step into the rotation to replace Garcia? Well, he’s in the rotation, but it’s the Texas Rangers rotation, because he was traded for yet another minor league starting pitcher. They received John Danks, who was the shiniest bauble in the Rangers minor leagues, but he still only had a half-year in AAA under his belt. Suddenly he and Floyd were the leading contenders for the fifth spot in the rotation.

The White Sox had gone from having six starting pitchers to having four, and they still hadn’t filled the offensive hole in center field. And while they had started restocking a minor league system that they had previously depleted in trades, they hadn’t done anything to help this group of players get back to the offseason.

And so Sox fans waited for the big free agent signing and it finally came in the person of – Darin Erstad? The 32-year-old fits Ozzie Guillen’s scrappy mold, but he also spent most of last year injured, and hasn’t been much of an offensive asset since 2004. They got him for a great price, and he’s been well-received, but when a guy has a incentive clause written into his contract for winning ‘Comeback Player of the Year’, you can understand that fanst might not be overly excited about him.

What’s Not Working

In Williams’ defense, despite some holes, the White Sox offense wasn’t a problem last year. After all, they finished third in the American League with 868 run, 67 more runs than the Twins. Unfortunately it’s a completely different story. The White Sox are last in the American League in offense, and it threatens to be the facet that keeps them out of the postseason. For instance, Jermaine Dye was a legitimate contender for MVP last season. This year, all anyone can talk about is his struggles (.217 BA, 757 OPS).

And he’s the top of the class.

Paul Konerko has been even more disappointing (.204, 657). Twins fans are upset about the start of Nick Punto (.231, 628), so you can imagine how apoplectic Sox fans are about the brutal start of third baseman Joe Crede (.208, 536). Our old friend AJ Pierzynski just had a big game this weekend, but his production (.227, 719) is still down from the rest of the season. (And, of course, he’s also only thrown out 3 of 15 stolen base attempts. If the Piranhas get on base this series, you can expect some fireworks.)

In the beginning of the season, there were some White Sox that were hitting, but they’re hurt. Jim Thome was on fire, but has been on the DL with a rib cage injury since the end of April, so the Twins won’t need to worry about him slugging the ball over the baggy. And they won’t need to worry about Scott Podsednick running rampant on the base paths, because he’s laid up with a strained abductor muscle.

What’s Working

All that, and this team is still a .500 ballclub? Yep.

They’re still solid defensively. Their starting rotation has been fairly average, with the exception of a huge huge bounce-back season by Mark Buehrle. Their bullpen has been excellent, with Bobby Jenks doing a great job of closing out games (and more importantly, staying healthy). When the offense gets healthy and back on track (and it will, they just are not this bad), this team is going to be truly scary.

Twins fans need to hope it doesn’t happen this week.