Friday, July 31, 2009

The Middle Infield Puzzle (w Saturday Update)

The Twins got Orlando Cabrera, but it isn't clear that their middle infield puzzle is solved. We won't know exactly what roster move this leads to until after tonight's game, but it would seem that it means Alexi Casilla will be sent to Rochester.

Could it be a bullpen arm? After all, there are seven guys in that bullpen. I doubt it. With Liriano's health up in the air a little, I can't see them getting rid of Brian Duensing or RA Dickey yet. Bobby Keppel has been good enough that he can't be sent down yet. Jesse Crain just had his best outing.

So how does the infield look then? Well, hard to say after these notes by Ron Gardenhire before the game.
Q: Will [Brendan] Harris get more time at second? Gardy: No. Harry's going to be moving around the infield. He'll probably play right out there at third base when Crede's down, and some at shortstop if I need to give [Cabrera] a break, and we'll move him around.
Q: Will
Nicky [Punto] become your primary second baseman?
Gardy: No. We'll move them all around. I'm going to move them all around as best I can.

I'm assuming Gardy is playing it close to the vest out of respect to Casilla, who is starting tonight. I suppose the other option is to send Brian Buscher down. That would give Casilla a last chance to establish himself at 2B, while Mark Grudzielanek starts doing the same in New Britain. But, that seems unlikely given that he's the only left-handed bat on the bench.

Speaking of Grudzielanek, I asked Bill Smith if this move affects his future role on the team.

Q: You also have Grudzielanek starting at Double-A tonight. Does this change his role or anything? Are they likely to form the core of the middle infield in the future?
Smith: They are completely unrelated. They are completely unrelated. Mark Grudzielanek is again a veteran right-handed bat, who has been a good hitter for a lot of years and hadn't been signed through the winter. We signed him. He's worked out in our rookie club for a week. He's going to start playing with Double-A and we'll see what happens with him over the next month.

It's worth noting that right now, there isn't room for him on this roster. If he comes up, Gardy really will be able to move Harris and Punto all around.


Saturday Morning Update: It's all but official. If Cuddyer's back doesn't open up a space, Brian Buscher will be the odd man out. It seems Gardy was being pretty straight-forward about Nick Punto and Brendan Harris in that both of them are now utility infielders and they'll give Alexi Casilla more chances to show what he can do.

The Twins are often criticized about not being patient enough with prospects, but Casilla is a pretty good counter-example. And for good reason - he really has nothing left to prove at AAA. If your someone who believes that minor league performance means something, this is a pretty good example of where the Twins agree with you.

As for Mark Grudzielanek, I spoke with a member of Twins management yesterday that said that he looked "pretty rusty". I guessed as much when they kept him in rookie ball for a week-and-a-half instead of just a week, and when rumors flew that the Twins were still chasing Freddy Sanchez this week. The guess from this source was that Grudzielanek would need closer to a month than a couple of weeks before he was ready to be recalled. I also heard he only has a 25-day contract, so if he's going to come up, it won't be later than the home series against Baltimore that starts on the 24th.

However, the Twins start also start a series at Kansas City on the 21st. You gotta think that Grudzielanek would be pushing himself pretty hard to play against his old team.

This sets up an interesting side story for the next few weeks. Casilla has his last chance to prove he can play second base regularly for this organization, while simultaneously in New Britain, Grudzielanek has his last chance to prove he can play second base regulary in the majors. If you start seeing large doses of Harris or Punto at second base, and Grudz is putting up decent numbers in AA, expect to see a change in late August.

It also introduces an equally dramatic but uglier story. I blogged earlier about how the Twins likely wouldn't send down Buscher because he's the only left-handed bat on the bench. This move does that. Are the Twins really willing to give that up just to give Casilla yet more rope to hang himself? Maybe, but Kelsie Smith also suggests that the Twins might want to show Justin Morneau that spoken words sometimes have consequences.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

More Good News Than Bad

Hey gang,

It's 1 AM, and I don't have a lot of time to post, but let's touch on today's events, because I think the tone needs to be more optimistic than pessimistic. Let's start with the bad stuff and work our way forward...

1) Pirates trade Freddy Sanchez to someone else
This is bad news, and it's made worse by the revelation that he offered to sign a 3-year contract with the Pirates for a reasonable $20 million. How much would Twins Territory like the NL Batting Champion batting second over the next three years? The Giants got him, and it cost them a promising AA pitcher who is in the top 30 prospects in the minors according to Baseball America. To match that, the Twins would've either needed to raid their starting rotation or offer up some multiple prospects, so it's not like they couldn't match it.

But the national view on this is that the Pirates did very well, and maybe even plundered the Giants. Which suggests that either some teams like the Twins were in this thing and driving up the bidding (which would be good news), or that Giants GM Brian Sabean just isn't that bright (that's who the Twins traded AJ Pierzynski to). Either way, the Twins are off the hook for that one.

2) Cleveland has decided that they will suck - and not just this year.
Trading away Mark DeRosa, Ryan Garko and Rafael Betancourt is one thing. Trading away Cliff Lee is another thing entirely. He's the reigning Cy Young winner, he was under contract next year, and the Indians most critical need for next year is starting pitching. The only way he's traded is if GM Mark Shapiro is throwing in the towel for next year as well as this year. And apparently Shapiro has admitted as much.

So looking at 2010, you have a Royals team that is an offensive (both meanings) mess. The Tigers are getting older and can't likely sustain that stratospheric payroll. And now the Indians look like they won't really be trying. That leaves the White Sox, who have done a great job of rebuilding while staying competitive, and the Twins, who are clutching their prospects like a dog on a bone.

The future looks wide open. Maybe it is a good idea to hang onto the kids.

3) Twins win!
Hanging onto kids might be especially prudent considering it looks more and more like the Twins can take this thing without much help. Last night's win moved the Twins to 7-5 versus the White Sox, and they're 6-2 versus the Tigers. In the era of the unbalanced schedule, that's the sort of thing that makes a huge difference, and the Twins have so far been better head-to-head against either of the other competitive AL Central teams.

The Twins have the easiest schedule the rest of the way, and have 10 games that they get to still play against the Tigers. Making up ground will not be a problem....

And it's also reassuring to see that the heroes of tonight's game were Alexi Casilla (who we all hope recovers his stroke enough to eventually bat second in the order, Jesse Crain (supposed to be the answer to the 8th innings setup dilemma) and Brian Duensing (who could help provide depth to the rotation or be trade bait.)

The trades today set up those players and this team to win their 5th postseason appearance this decade (or 6th if you include last year's one-game playoff). It's often preached that one should "zig" while the rest of the world "zags". On one of the busiest trading days this decade, the Twins did just that. And while we didn't get the big name we wanted, this organization looks awfully well positioned for the future.