Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stats and Questions

It's worse than the offseason.

Spring training, I mean. In the offseason, we can at least examine possible signings and trades, but that's all gone in spring training. And we still don't get to really see any baseball, since its rarely televised. (Thankfully, that changes starting tonight.) And for us working stiffs, there isn't really the chance to listen to baseball.

Finally, there's the frustration of knowing that someplace people are watching your team - and that someplace is warm and sunny. It's enough to make a Twins Geek throw back a Drano cocktail.

I count 13 days until I finally get to watch my team up close, and in the meantime I'm reduced to reading spring training stats for anything beyond the newspapers' coverage (which has been pretty good, by the way). I understand just how limited an understanding a few numbers really provide, especially when they're in relation to games that don't count, against players that are still rounding into shape. So rather than try and provide insights, let's use them to generate some questions. We'll start with the stats, and follow up with the question.

5 Walks in 39 AB
1. Is Carlos Gomez going to be less confused at the plate?
There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that he will be. Coaches are saying it, players (including Denard Span) are saying it, and the stats are at least suggesting it. Last year during the regular season, Span didn't get his fifth walk until his 129th at bat. I can think of several reasons why that stat might be invalid, but maybe he's starting to recognize when a breaking pitch is being thrown. For now, let's believe that.

0 Walks in 48 AB
2. What can we expect from Delmon Young?
Young was criticized frequently in Tampa Bay for being a free-swinger, but after watching him for a year, his biggest issue seemed to be trying too hard to make contact. I don't know if the zero walks means he's finding his inner hairy man (which might be a good thing) or if he's given up on plate discipline (bad thing) or if he's just determined to get some swings in. Stay tuned.

7 hitters with more walks than strikeouts
3. Could this be the most disciplined offensive team we've seen under Gardenhire?
Something interesting is going on here, because suddenly each of these guys looks like Joe Mauer. Several are regulars - Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, Jason Kubel and Mike Redmond. And three more are the guys looking for the last two bench slots - Matt Tolbert, Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris. This might be a fun lineup to watch, even before Mauer comes back.

33 Hits in 17 IP
4. Is something wrong with Scott Baker?
The eight home runs that Baker has given up has received most of the attention, and his unsightly 8.15 ERA has got the rest. But both of those can be explained away by a couple of bad outings with the wind blowing out. But 33 hits in 17 innings? That's consistency, and not in a good way.

22 Baserunners in 8 Innings
5. Will Jose Mijares come north with the team?
How bad has Mijares been? Bad enough that pitching a ninth inning where he gave up one hit (and was saved from another by a diving catch) versus Floriday Marlins scrubs elicited praise from his manager. More telling is that Brian Duensing pitched the inning before Mijares. That's a pretty good sign that he's passed Mijares on the depth chart.

15 strikeouts, 3 walks, 12.2 IP
6. Can we find a way to get RA Dickey on the roster?
I'm as susceptible to knuckleballers as I am to big brown eyes, so I'll admit to not being terribly objective here. But if this guy is twirling the ball around this well in Florida, just imagine what he might be able to do in the climate-controlled dome. Mabye with just a puff of air-conditioning blowing out from behind home plate. Mmmm.....

No, I don't have a way to get him on the roster. In fact, if I had my way, I'd probably carry an extra hitter over the second left-handed reliever. But if I was worried about a member of my starting staff, I might be more inclined to carry a second long reliever on this roster over either of them. Which brings us to...

5 IP
7. Is Nick Blackburn healthy?
OK, he was hurt early in camp. He hasn't been making starts versus National League teams because the Twins don't want him to run the bases, so he's been pitching in minor league games. And so we have a grand total of just five innings so far versus the major leaguers. We're left to assume he's healthy because nobody is saying that he isn't...

We'll get to find out tonight. Because he's the starting pitcher on that televised game. Looks like working stiffs can finally watch a game. And spring training will have a chance to redeem itself.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Debating the 25th man

Geez, when was the last time I talked significantly about the Twins in this space? Too freaking long ago, I can tell you that. And that creates its own dilemna, because there are about fifteen things that need to be addressed, and not enough time to do them all justice. So today I'm resorting to a bunch of bullet points. And not even bullet points, since blogspot handles them so poorly. Let's start with:

Patrick Reusse's Roster Story
Yesterday, Strib columnist Patrick Reusse cranked out a story on the Twins roster decisions that completely ruined a similar entry I was going to put out today - and I couldn't be happier. If there were stories like this, a nuts and bolts baseball story that was still entertaining, in the Strib seven years ago, TwinsGeek.com would never have existed.

And the nuts and bolts that Reusse passed along were significant. He predicted that Drew Butera replaces the injured Joe Mauer. He speculated that the bench includes Brian Buscher and Matt Tolbert, but does NOT include Brendan Harris. And he predicted the Twins carry 12 pitchers, making room for Philip Humber and a second lefty, who he predicts will not be Jose Mijares.

There's only one prediction there I think highly questionable, facilitated by a strange trap common for local baseball writers. And that trap is, strangely enough, talking to the manager. One usually sees this gaffe at the end of the season, when reporters publish the manager's predilections as the direction of the organization. Doing so overlooks other factors, like budget, the market, and the fact that it's the general manager who makes those decisions. The manager has input, and often signficant input, but it's the GM's butt on the line.

And while that's not quite as true going into the regular season, it's still true. The GM is still going to have the final decision on who is on that roster, just like the manager is going to have the final say on who is in the lineup. The Twins are very conscious of that division. You'll hear both the GM and manager refer to that clear border throughout the season.

Which is why, barring a trade or (his own) injury, there is no way that Brendan Harris isn't on this roster on Opening Day. Gardy might prefer the slicker fielder, but the Twins aren't going to lose Harris when they can demote Buscher or Tolbert. Nor should they, because there is a message that that baseball gods are trying to drive home to the Twins this spring: depth matters.

Still, let's unpack Gardy's thought process a little. This team only has two players they'll consistently pinch-hit for:

1) Nick Punto (SS) - When Punto is up late in a game, and the team needs a timely hit, Gardenhire will likely be looking at a different strategy facing a left-handed pitcher than a right-handed pitcher. If it's a right-hander, he'll likely bat Buscher (who creamed right-handers last year), and might then burn a middle infielder as a defensive replacement. Tolbert would be the better choice in that situation.

And if they face a left-hander? You could argue that Harris would be the better choice in that case, but Gardenhire will also have the option of using whoever is his fourth outfielder - Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span and Carlos Gomez. Three of those guys are clearly better choices at the plate over Harris, so why not bat one of them and go with the defensive replacement again? Advantage: Tolbert.

2) Drew Butera (C)- If he makes the team, the Twins will likely pinch-hit Redmond for him when the situation presents itself. I suppose versus a tough right-handed pitcher, they could try Buscher and then bring Redmond in as the defensive replacement. That would leave them with the fourth outfielder (Span, Young, Cuddyer or Gomez) and one middle infielder, either Tolbert or Harris. Which brings us back to the Nick Punto options above.

In both of these cases, a change has shifted the balance in Tolbert's favor. That change is Carlos Gomez. More specifically, Carlos Gomez doesn't appear overmatched at the plate this spring. Last year, the fourth outfielder wouldn't have been used to pinch-hit for Nick Punto because the fourth outfielder would have been needed to pinch hit for Gomez. This debate seems to suggest that the Twins aren't convinced they'll need to pinch hit for him as often this year. Which makes Tolbert's glove more valuable than Harris' bat.

But that still doesn't mean Tolbert is going to be on this roster Opening Day. It makes more sense to keep Harris in the fold and stockpile a little depth at Rochester. It also makes sense to see if Gomez's plate approach lasts past March.

What doesn't make sense is spitting out another 750+ words tonight, so let's wrap it up for now. So much for "so much" to cover. We'll get to some other topics tomorrow.