Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On Spackling

Last year, June’s west coast road trip cemented management’s perception that team speed needed to be upgraded. Tony Batista and Juan Castro were ditched, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett were handed jobs, and the team rolled through September. So what change needs to be made this year?

Seeing as they scored eight runs in the first five games of their road trip, the easy answer is ‘offense’ but a better answer is ‘depth’. The issue of the Twins offensive depth was first raised in spring training, as manager Ron Gardenhire lamented the lack of a backup infielder. When the season started the team carried a third catcher and a twelfth pitcher, not so much because they needed them, but because there weren’t much better options.

Then came the injuries. When Rondell White and Jeff Cirillo went down, a merry-go-round of designated hitters was plugged in. The lack of depth meant that lesser injuries to Torii Hunter, Luis Castillo, and Michael Cuddyer impacted the offense. And note that none of them were put on the disabled list because there was nobody worthwhile to use on the roster spot. As soon as Cuddyer returned, Joe Mauer was shut down, so Gardenhire has spent the last four weeks spackling over several holes in his lineup card as best he can.

The result is a lineup full of players who are being overexposed. This team is trying to get by at third base with Punto’s on-base skills and glove. They’re trying to let Bartlett overcome his neck injuries and sophomore slump. They’re trying to get Jason Kubel to battle back to his promising past. And they’re trying to fill White’s DH spot with a hodge-podge of slumping back-up position players. Oh, and they’ve been trying to do it while their best pure hitter is out of the lineup. It’s too much. It can’t be done.

The blame falls at the feet of GM Terry Ryan. Ryan has done an exceptional job in the past of stocking the high minors with decent replacements, like Dustan Mohr, Bobby Kielty, and Buck Buchanan. And when he has needed to go outside the organization, scouting has helped provide productive veterans like Jose Offerman and Chris Gomez. In retrospect, depth was one of the differentiating factors between the Twins and a White Sox team that was deemed more talented.

This offseason, those pieces weren’t put in place. Cirillo was signed to help out at both designated hitter and third base, and he hasn’t helped at either one, and the Twins need help at both. The only move to bolster the middle infield was to nab Alejandro Machado in the Rule V draft, and he’ll be injured the whole season. The right-handed pop of the bench options are either hurt (Ken Harvey) or slumping (Matt LeCroy) and the Twins passed on signing any left-handed options.

The task at hand falls at Ryan’s feet, too. With the news that White has again been shut down, the Twins will likely be short at least one designated hitter for the remainder of the year. That’s a position that provides a lot of flexibility for deal-making. What’s more, the Twins farm system is fairly lush with starting pitching, a valuable asset. The only possible reason to wait is if Ryan isn’t sure the Twins will be buyers at the trade deadline.

Are there any options? Well, there are at least five teams that can reasonably be expected to be looking towards 2008 already. One of them is visiting this weekend. Their best hitter this year is Dmitri Young, the right-handed slugging ex-Tiger, who is signed for one year at $500,000. And did I mention that this year’s Nationals starting rotation was filled reality-show style, inviting 50 guys to camp and taking the top five finishers? (I can hardly wait until they leak the footage of the threesome in the hot tub.)

Ryan is talking a lot about how the Twins don’t necessarily need to add power, they just need solid batters. He’s probably right, but there aren’t enough of those batters on the roster right now, and he’s on the hook for getting them. Hopefully, for the second year in a row, a gut-wrenching West Coast road trip will drive this organization to make some needed changes.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

One More Damn Bat (II)

What the hell is it about this team and West Coast Road trips in June? Last year it proved to be the final straw before wholesale changes were made to the left side of the infield. This year, the minor league callups have mostly already happened, but would anyone be shocked if the recent offensive mis-, er, display prompted the Twins to make some moves to bolster the offense?

So let's continue yesterday's research on the bats the Twins could/should chase from seven non-contending teams. We'll continue working our way up the ladder from worst record to best...

Cincinatti Reds (22-36)
The Reds have lately been called the National League Twins because of their penchant for picking up former Twins players, but they really bare a scary resemblance to the Rangers. Fifth best offense in their league, but the worst pitching, just like the Rangers. One difference is that their starting pitching isn't nearly as bad as the Rangers, but they also don't have a staff ace, either. Or at least, not yet. They hope to gain one this weekend when uber-pitching prospect Homer Bailey makes his major league debut on Friday.

Instead, they need bullpen help. They're desperate enough to be pining for the return of recovering 36-year-old Eddie Guardado. Not that I don't pine for Eddie and ... oh, god, what was that song? How can I not remember that song? I'm a bad fan, a very bad fan. Anyway, they need bullpen help, which the Twins really aren't in a position to provide, but there might be a couple of young pitchers that could interest the Reds.

They're also similar to the Rangers in that they could make some big names available, arguably too big. Ken Griffey Jr. has been in all kinds of rumors with the emergence of Josh Hamilton, but I think he would have veto rights for a deal because of his 10 and 5 status. You might think that his contract would get in the way, but he's only signed through 2008, it's at $12.5 M per season, and the payments are deferred at a low interest rate, so it's real value could be closer to $10 million.

Beyond the financial stuff, we all know about his injury history, but he's healthy this year and would be playing DH in the dome. And if Torii leaves next year, he could replace him in CF for a good chunk of the time. He's a veteran, and we know how the Twins love veterans. Unfortunately, he also bats left-handed, which is a significant disadvantage for this team. A trade for Griffey certainly has it's flaws, but it has enough things right with it that it's hard to dismiss it.

I should touch on two other names that have been talked about. I talked about Edwin Encarnacion a couple of weeks ago, and John Sharkey also mentioned him on GameDay's Writer's Blog recently. Since those entries, Encarnacion has been called up from AAA and hitting the cover off the ball. He won't be available, if he ever was.

The other big name that will be mentioned is slugger Adam Dunn. The problem with acqiring Dunn is his contract. If he's traded before 2008, he can opt out of the last year of that contract, which is also 2008. So any trade of him this year means he'll likely turn into a free agent, which limits what he's worth in a trade. The Reds aren't going to trade him for Scott Baker, and the Twins aren't going to trade away anyone more significant that for two months of Adam Dunn. (He's also left-handed and strikes out a lot, which doesn't make him a great fit for this team.)

It's late, and I really need to get some sleep this week. I meant to touch on a player that will undoubtedly be available, is a right-handed slugger, is even cheap and will be visiting us this weekend. You almost have to wonder why he isn't on this team already. You'll need to come back tomorrow as we explore the possibilities of adding Dmitri Young to the roster.

Monday, June 04, 2007

One More Damn Bat

Sometimes you want to write, and sometimes you want to research something, and just see who wants to go along for the ride.

Yesterday I mentioned that just about anyway you slice it, the Twins are going to need one more productive bat if they can't count on Rondell White. And, frankly, they can't. Even if he gets healthy, you don't want your team's future resting on his fragile hamstrings. So let's see what might be out there for the trade deadline.

Here's the ground rules - for now, we'll limit ourselves to the team which look like they're clearly out of this thing, which means only seven teams, and one of them is questionable. By the end of the month, there could be a lot more, but it's not like I got a lot of time tonight. And we'll look for the player on that team which seems like the best fit for the Twins AND who might be available in a trade. That player can be just about any position, because the Twins need a designated hitter.

Starting with the worst record in the majors and working our way upwards....

Texas Rangers (20-37)
Wow, did that season go to hell in a hurry. Texas leads the American League in runs allowed, and it isn't hard to find the blame - there isn't a starting pitcher with an ERA less than 6.28, which is like having an entire pitching staff of Sidney Ponson's, only without the cool curly mullets. They were supposed to have some young talent in Brandon McCarthy, Robinson Tejeda, and Brandon Loe, but they've all been terrible, and behind them the cupboard is bare. So the Twins could probably dig up a pitcher or two the Rangers might like, but it will either need to be someone proven (like Bonser) or with a very high upside (like Matt Garza), especially if they were going to move a big name.

And big names they gots. In fact, they probably have the biggest name that will be bandied about at the deadline. Mark Teixeira is 27 years old, has average 35 home runs and 112 RBI over his four-year big-league career, and is a switch-hitter to boot. When Gardy goes to bed at night, this is the guy he dreams about batting between Mauer and Morneau.

However, his long-term deal with the Rangers ends this year, so his salary for 2008 will be determined by arbitration. And he'll be a free agent in 2009. Oh, and his agent is Luci - er, I mean Scott Boras. Which means he'll squeeze about $15 million out of whatever team he plays for next year and be hopelessly out of the Twins comfort level in 2009. The Twins would also need to figure out how to handle moving Teixeira or Morneau from first base to designated hitter. (And did I mention that Teixeira has won two gold gloves?)

The Twins would not be alone in their desire to get him, so get visions of sending Silva or Baker out of your head. It's going to take Bonser or Garza. Would you do it?

Kansas City (21-37)
Talk about going out on a low note - I picked the wrong team to cover last tonight, because there just isn't much here. Mike Sweeney is in the last year of his contract, but he's also not hitting much better than Jason Kubel, who I'm starting to believe is personally taunting me everytime he starts an at-bat with two strikes. So Sweeney might be an addition, in the same way that Phil Nevin was an addition - call it "new math".

Other names? Someone will throw out Mark Teahan's name because Alex Gordon was supposed to come up to the majors and take over third base for a generation, except he hasn't, and Teahan is hitting and cheap, which is the kind of guy the Royals need. I openly pined for Ryan Shealy last year because he was cheap, right-handed power, but while the Rockies might not value that, the Royals do. He'll stay there, and if he doesn't the Royals won't tempt fate by sending him to the Twins.

And while we're pointing that out, the Twins will also be hesitant to send the Royals anything that that club could use in the future. Like I said, we're ending with a whimper today.

Tomorrow I hope to be back with some other names from the next three teams on the list. Hope to see you then...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Hostility, Slowey and One More Damn Bat

Back when I was living in Philly one of the local stories had to do with Hostility. It seems some professor had established a sliding scale of hostility metrics, and used them to evaluate cities from the most hostile to the least hostile. To nearly nobody's surprise, The City of Brotherly Love topped the list.

But what was interesting was the various reactions of people. Most were in the vein of The Voice of Reason, who was pleased to hear that they had beat New York at something (NYC finished #2, btw). I consider the most brilliant reaction to be from some random city council member, who immediately said something like "Yeah? Well I'd like that pencil-necked geek to come here and say that to my face!"

But the reaction that made it all come back to me this weekend was from the mayor, Ed Rendell, who suggested that maybe this guy just happened to study the city in the midst of a Phillies losing streak. Rendell knew that Philly's mood swings with the results of her teams. I've noticed a similar reaction in Minnesota, but only on Mondays in the fall.

Not any more. It's possible I'm projecting, but scoring five runs in three games changed the mood of this city a little. There was a little more crabbiness than usual, and on Monday, I expect to hear more than my usual share of gloom and doom. Hell, I've been snippy all weekend.

Except now. Ironically, this hostility realization may be what is lifting my spirits. Turning into a baseball town is a slow and painful process, made moreso by the habits we've developed in the past. But this is another sign that it's coming. And if this weekend happens to be the one in which a pencil-necked hostility analyzer visits, I'll accept his verdict proudly.

Kevin Slowey
I suppose the big news this weekend was that Kevin Slowey pitched well in his debut on Friday night. Slowey is half-jokingly being referred to as "this year's Liriano", which, of course, he isn't. Nobody is. Though I'm hoping that once Matt Garza gets his head on straight, he might be close.

But whether Slowey is a savior or not, he could be a big part of this season, not to mention several other seasons, and his pitching on Friday is likely going to draw some rave reviews. I was hoping to give some myself, and I'll admit I had some hopes.

My review will be more measured. Slowey looked good, not great. Now, there are a couple of factors, that and optimist might point out that he overcame. First, he faced a lot of left-handed hitters with the Athletics. Second, the Athletics traditionally emphasize plate discipline, and a guy who works the edges of the zone may be more susceptible to being hit than a fireballer against that team.

On the other hand, the Athletics aren't a great offensive team. Though the have recently added some healthier left-handed bats, they're also dead-last in the American League in OPS versus right-handed pitchers. Slowey definitely had trouble putting batters away, which lead to a high pitch count and an exit after the sixth (and one might argue that he probaby should have left after the fifth). Slowey, in short, was less dominant than his box score might suggest.

Does one expect a 23-year-old who was being drafted two years ago this week to be dominant? Probably not. But, of course, that point should probably have been raised over the last two months as we pined for him to toe the rubber in the majors. Slowey looked good, and hopefully has a solid major league career ahead of him. But he didn't look like a magic bullet. Anyone suggesting that the Twins have several of those if only they would play them may want to reevaluate that expectation.

One Bat Short
Of course, after a miserable weekend devoid of runs, it isn't clear that the pitching is what needs the magic bullet anyways. When Jeff Cirillo is batting #2 versus a right-handed pitcher, it's become pretty clear that this lineup is at least one bat short. With Jason Kubel (home run not withstanding) still scuffling, and no legitimate designated hitter, the return of Chairman Mauer (supposedly next weekend) will probably still leave them a bat short. And the news yesterday from Terry Ryan that Rondell White's situation hasn't changed may well mean that shortage is going to continue for the immediate future.

So what to do? Well, sleep on it, I suppose, because it's late, and it's not like I have all the answers. But I'm sure I will tomorrow (and the topic will likely stay valid, he says hostilely) so stop by and we'll see what we can come up with.