- Nick Blackburn pitches his third complete game of the season in Twins’ 6-2 win
However, even though Blackburn is putting up some of the best numbers of his career, it’s still way too early to declare him the team ace (or talk about extending his contract). He wasn’t much better than average last season, and his poor peripherals suggest that a good deal of his success this season is probably due to luck. Coming in to yesterday’s game, Blackie had a very good 3.10 ERA, but his 1.67 K/BB ratio and 2.3 BB/9 rate are at career lows. I wrote elsewhere that if those numbers don’t improve, he will likely finish the season with an ERA much closer to his 4.98 xFIP. The good news, though, is that some of his peripherals have indeed been improving. While his 1.80 K/BB ratio is still rather low, and he still gives up a lot of hits, his BB/9 rate has been steadily declining the past few months (from 3.08 in May to its current 1.00). A lot of it has to do with the fact that his fastball is nasty. The velocity tops out at around 91 mph but the movement on it has been absolutely filthy, and as long as he can sustain that kind of break on his fastball, his strikeout rate should start to improve. Blackburn will likely keep rolling through the second half of the season (and hopefully the playoffs).
- Twins once again send three representatives to the All-Star Game
Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan are all set to represent the
Twins in the ASG. Kevin Slowey probably had a good chance of joining
his teammates in St. Louis, if he hadn’t gone down with a wrist injury
(he is supposed to have an MRI on it today. UPDATE: it is just a strain. He was treated with a cortisone shot and should resume throwing in a few days). You could probably make
the case for Nick Blackburn too (Joe Nathan did), since he is sporting
a 2.94 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, but I have no problem with the likes of
Justin Verlander and Mark Buerhle getting the nod instead. I’m not
going to get into a huge debate over who got snubbed and who didn’t
deserve a starting spot, there’s already plenty of that on the
internets. I don’t think there are many glaring oversights on either
team, other than maybe Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter (who should be
starting), and the ASG isn’t something I get all worked up about
Justin Morneau has indicated
that he will probably decline an invitation to the Home Run Derby, if
asked. It’s probably just as well. His tendency to fade down the
stretch probably doesn’t have anything to do with participating in the
HR Derby, but why take that chance? Anyway, this way people won’t get
mad at him for beating a much-flashier superstar. Again.
Mauer is making his second consecutive start in the ASG, and his third
career appearance. Even after missing the first month of the
season, he’s still far and away the best catcher in the AL. Although,
5 of the 31 “greatest minds in baseball” think that Victor Martinez
should have been the starting catcher. That’s right, a guy batting
.303/.382/.506/.888 while making half of his starts at first base
deserves to be the starting catcher, while the guy batting .389/.465/.648/1.113
should be on the bench. Yes, let’s give all of the voting power to
these people, clearly the fans are too stupid to get it right.
Nathan is also quietly having one of the best years of his career. His
last blown save came against the Yankees on May 15th, and he hasn’t
surrendered a run since. Not an unearned run, not an inherited runner scoring,
nothing. His 2.40 xFIP, 6.14 K/BB ratio, 11.6 K/9 rate, and 1.9 BB/9
rate as well as 1.35 ERA and 0.750 WHIP are all at or near
career-bests. He’s been getting hitters to chase pitches outside the
strike zone a little more, which has made him extremely effective even
when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
In my previous post, I mentioned that the Twins’ had the tenth-ranked defense in the league (or a .700 Defensive Efficiency rating, the definition and formula for which can be found here) according to Baseball Prospectus and I guess I should elaborate on that. The Twins have committed the fewest errors in the AL, and have an AL-best .990 fielding percentage, but neither one of those stats really measures defensive efficiency. That is, they don’t measure how effectively a team converts balls in play into outs, at least not accurately. As I discussed in the Mauer post, in general I like to use Ultimate Zone Rating to evaluate player defense. However, because it essentially measures how many runs a particular player saves per game, the values sometimes fluctuate wildly from season to season, so it’s not the best metric for evaluating defense over the short-term. At least not on its own. To evaluate team defense during the season, I also like to use Defensive Efficiency and Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
(which, like the name implies, adjusts for ballpark factors that might
effect the Defensive Efficiency Rating) to get a full picture of how well the Twins are converting balls in play into outs. And, at least this season, they haven’t been very good at it. The team UZR is a 19th-ranked -6.5, on top of the .700 Deff Eff and 12th-ranked 0.4 PADE, so it’s clear that Twins’ defense has been mediocre at best. Which wouldn’t matter so much if they had more strikeout pitchers on the staff, but with a rotation full of contact pitchers, the defense needs to be better than just average.
I guess there isn’t a better player than Delmon Young to illustrate my point. Young has only made two errors this season, and his fielding percentage is .967, so one would think that Young is a pretty good left-fielder. However, Young has a poor -6.7 UZR this season, and his career -23.1 UZR is about as bad as it gets. So while he might not make a lot of errors, he doesn’t have much range and isn’t very good at converting balls in play into outs. But you really don’t need any fancy metrics to come to that conclusion. Anyone who’s actually watched Delmon lumbering around in the outfield can tell that he isn’t very good. The numbers simply support that assessment.
- Frankie finally has another quality start
Well, technically last night’s game against the Mariners was a quality start: one earned run on three hits over six innings but Frankie didn’t exactly pitch as well as that looks. He struck out six batters, but walked four and had to pitch himself out of a self-imposed jam nearly every every inning. He’s still struggling with his command, but at least he managed to not melt down when he got himself in trouble. He still needs to throw his changeup a little more, and needs to work on command of his fastball, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Of course, he had a similar performance at Yankee Stadium and then failed to make it past the fourth inning in his next three starts, so he’s going to need to string a few quality starts together to keep his spot in the rotation.
Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron has an interesting solution to the Delmon Young problem. Young wasn’t off to a great start before his mom died, but he’s been awful since returning to the team and just seems lost at the plate. The Twins can’t just send him down, since he’s out of options and almost certainly wouldn’t clear waivers even as bad as he’s been. It might be best for both sides to go the D-Train route: Young would have a chance to get himself together without the pressure of fighting for a playoff spot and the Twins would get to compete for the division title with their best outfielders.
What’s wrong with the South Side? Paul Konerko does his best to explain why nobody seems to want to come play for the Fightin’ Ozzies.
Justin Morneau finally made good on his bet with Strib beat writer LaVelle E. Neal, III. I guess he didn’t do too badly on his first-ever blog post, even if it is a little short (not everyone needs to write 25,000 word essays like I do). But don’t quit your day job, Justin.
Oh sure, just as I was going to post something reassuring about the performances of our young staff, they done blowed up real good against an anemic Cleveland lineup. At home, no less. Well, I’m going to put it up anyway, because it’s the truth and I wasted an entire evening on this goddam thing. Both the starters and the bullpen haven’t been as bad as their overall records would indicate. The starting pitching in particular is about as good as it was last year, even though it kind of seems worse because of the disappointing performances by Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano to date. But even Scotty and Frankie haven’t been quite as bad as their respective 6.32 and 6.60 ERAs make them look. The Twins’ defense is ranked tenth in the league, and both Baker (4.74 xFIP) and Liriano (4.94 xFIP) appear to be getting burned the most by shoddy defense behind them. It’s been particularly bad for Baker, who also tends to give up a lot of home runs (he’s surrendered a career-high 14 going into today’s game against Cleveland). His last start against Tampa Bay was a good example of the problem he’s faced all year: the defense behind him failed to make a routine play, which put two runners on for the dangerous Evan Longoria.
Baker naturally gave up a home run and was charged with three earned runs since the misplay behind him was ruled an infield hit rather than an error (never mind, it was ruled an error, but what was a tie game was quickly a three-run deficit due to poor defense). Same thing for Frankie, whose last two starts (especially the one against Boston) probably would’ve been quality starts were it not for the defensive miscues behind him.
Defense doesn’t account for all of Frankie’s misfortunes, however. His 1.619 WHIP and poor 1.79 K/BB ratio show that he’s not exactly pitching like the ace he was expected to be going into the season. The Twins have been reluctant to pull Liriano from the rotation, and for good reason. His 4.3 BB/9 rate is horrendous, but his 50 strikeouts lead the team and he often pitches well through the first four innings or so. His stuff still looks pretty nasty when he’s on, which makes his struggles just that much more frustrating. And he was really good after being called up from Rochester last year, posting a 2.74 ERA, 1.188 WHIP and a very good 3.16 K/BB ratio. Part of the problem is that he’s throwing his changeup a lot less, 14.2% compared to about 20% in 2008. Whenever he gets into trouble, he relies heavily on his slider as an out pitch. And this worked well when he was still throwing around 95-mph before his surgery, but now that his velocity is somewhere in the low-90s he really needs his changeup to compliment his fastball and slider (although even then he was still throwing his changeup about 16-18% of the time). On top of all that, Frankie appears to be suffering from a lack of confidence in himself and his stuff, which is often much more difficult to fix than mechanical issues (although he seems to have those, too). The mediocre defense behind him is just making matters worse.
The other reason the Twins have been reluctant to move Frankie to the bullpen is that they don’t really have a suitable replacement. With a 2.08 ERA, Anthony Swarzak had looked pretty good coming into last night’s game against the Indians and was threatening to take Frankie’s spot in the rotation. But his 1.50 K/BB ratio and unsustainable 98.5 LOB% indicated that he’d probably just been more lucky than good, so it wasn’t really all that surprising when he got beat up by the Indians. He’ll probably move to the bullpen once Glen Perkins comes off the DL (which isn’t a bad thing, the ‘pen still needs help).
As for the much-maligned bullpen, they got off to a rough start but have been pitching better as of late. Joe Nathan hasn’t surrendered a run since blowing a save against the Yankees on May 15th (Although he probably will now that I just jinxed him. Sorry, Joe). Matt Guerrier and Jose Mijares have been reliable, but not quite as good as their 3.55 and 2.60 ERAs would indicate (Guerrier has an xFIP of 4.12 and Mijares 4.56). Unfortunately, the rest of the ‘pen can’t be counted on for anything other than long relief, with R.A. Dickey posting a 1.42 WHIP and 4.88 xFIP despite his relatively low 3.06 ERA and Luis Ayala posting a 4.07 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, and 5.02 xFIP. Dickey has some value as a spot-starter, but Ayala’s been useless for anything other than mop-up duty. Jesse Crain looked a lot like his pre-surgery self early in the year, but he hasn’t been anything but terrible no matter how you look at it since coming off the DL (eep: 7.88 ERA, 5.44 xFIP, 1.63 WHIP, 1.22 K/BB).
- Carlos Gomez, sabermatician
Gomez may not be the best hitter in the league, but he clearly understands the value of defense and on-base %. He told the Star Tribune after Tuesday’s game: “Denard, me and Casilla — all we need to do is try to get on base and
try to play good defense,” Gomez said. “I know I do nothing with the
bat today, but I make a good catch. If I don’t do well with the bat, I
can do better with the glove and this helps my team. When you’ve got
Mauer and Morneau in the lineup, it makes a big difference. I know
they’re going to make some runs if I don’t get on base.”
Of course, with a mere .276 OBP Go-Go still needs to work on, you know, actually getting on base, but at least he grasps the concept. Which is more than can be said for Jeff Francoeur.
Last night, he hit a game-winning grand slam in the thirteenth inning. In the series finale earlier this afternoon (which I actually didn’t see because I was still sleeping from last night’s extra-inning marathon), he drove in a pair of runs on a single to give the Twins a lead they would never relinquish. Crede has always hit Tigers’ pitching well, posting a career .276/.339/.558 with an OPS of .897 and 24 home runs going into today’s game. And his numbers aren’t skewed just from hitting in U.S. Cellular field for so many years, either. At Comerica Park, he’s a career .287/.341/.599 with 15 homers and an OPS of .939. The Crede deal looks as though it’s starting to pay dividends. Even though he’s provided Gold-Glove caliber defense all season, his bat has been relatively slow to wake up. And that makes sense, as he’s never hit well at the Dome and he’s had to adjust to playing with a new team with an entirely different approach to hitting. But he’s been batting .290/.313/.548 in the month of May, with two homers and eight RBI in his last four games, so perhaps he’s starting to see the ball better inside the Teflon confines. And yes, it does beat having Tony Batista at third.
Scott Baker suffered from yet another big inning that got away from him when the Tigers scored five runs on six hits in the sixth. It wouldn’t be such a big deal, except this is at least the third time he’s had such an inning this year. Dr. Baker was very effective through the first five innings, and though he may not have matched Justin Verlander’s impressive performance, he pitched well enough to keep the Kitties off the scoreboard. Unfortunately, Mr. Scott came out to pitch in the sixth, and things promptly fell apart. Of course, it didn’t help that he had Jason Kubel in the outfield, who rarely plays in the field and missed a fly ball that probably should’ve been caught (and would’ve ended the inning). Kubel is usually the DH because his defense is less than stellar, but he was in the outfield today because Delmon Young is out with a family emergency and is expected to miss at least the next three days. Jose Morales has been called up from Rochester in the meantime. Still, if this doesn’t make the case that Denard Span and Carlos Gomez should both be starting in the outfield, then I don’t know what will. Yes, Kubel is swinging a hotter bat than Go-Go, but his lack of range in the field nearly cost the Twins the game.
Most importantly, though, the bullpen was handed a one run lead and actually held onto it for a change. Craig Breslow pitched a scoreless seventh and retired the first two batters in the eighth before being lifted in favor of Matt Guerrier. Breslow struck out a batter and didn’t walk anyone, which is good news for a guy who has an ugly 0.90 K/BB ratio. He didn’t surrender any home runs, either, something he had become prone to doing lately. Matt Guerrier bounced back from a terrible appearance the night before, when he gave up a three run homer to Miguel Cabrera and a solo shot to Jeff Larish to put the Tigers ahead by a couple of runs. Still, one has to wonder why Guerrier was asked to get the final out in the eighth. While it is perfectly understandable that acting-manager Scotty Ullger (Ron Gardenhire was ejected after arguing with the home plate umpire) didn’t want to leave Breslow in to face Ryan Raburn with a runner on base, since all of the homers he’s surrendered have been to right-handed hitters, Matty G. has pitched 18.1 innings so far this season and has made five straight relief appearances. Why not bring in Joe Nathan? He’s going to pitch the next inning anyway, and unlike Matty G, has only pitched thirteen innings so far this year. Save Matt Guerrier’s arm!
Oh, yeah, and that Joe Mauer guy sucks.
He has two batting titles. He has a Gold Glove. He has his own theme song. And since today is his 26th birthday, I’m going to make the case that Joe Mauer might be, if not the best, certainly one of the most irreplaceable players in any position in the league.
Mauer has consistently ranked near the top of the league in two of the best measurements of a player’s value to his organization: VORP and Runs Above Average. Last season, Mauer was fourth in the league in VORP, and his 43.0 RAA was the best for a catcher in either league. He’s also ranked in the top five pretty consistently throughout his career, with his worst year coming in 2007, when he was limited to 109 games due to injury. However, the problem with both VORP and RAA as statistical measures is that they both weigh each plate appearance exactly the same. For example, a solo homer when the team is up (or down) by ten runs is equal to a walk-off home run, when one clearly affects the outcome of a game more than the other. Thankfully, we also have Win Probability Added, which takes such things into account. Last season, Mauer’s 4.88 raw WPA led the entire league, and once again, he ranks near the top pretty consistently.
Of course, one of the biggest problems with all of those metrics is that they only measure offense and fail to account for a player’s defensive contributions. While there are some pretty good metrics for evaluating defense, each have their own limitations and there is little consensus as to which metric is really the most accurate. Basically, all of these defensive metrics attempt to measure a position player’s defensive contributions by determining how many runs per game he saves, and despite their limitations, they are pretty good at evaluating defense for most position players. Except for catcher, that is. Since so much of a catcher’s defense depends upon the pitcher, it’s really difficult to determine just how many runs per game a catcher actually saves. But it’s interesting to note that, whichever metric you use, Mauer once again consistently comes out near the top for catchers, and a good case could be made that he is one of the best defensive players at any position in baseball. He is also very good at throwing out baserunners (about 36% of them), though he isn’t the best in the league. I sometimes wonder if his reputation sort of precedes him and guys are simply less likely to run on him in the first place, which in and of itself might be more valuable than his actual ability to throw runners out.
One has to wonder why Joe Mauer is so consistently overlooked as an MVP candidate, even though he puts up better numbers than anyone else on the team (and most of the league, especially when adjusted for position) and is arguably one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. Justin Morneau is often considered the most dangerous hitter in the lineup, but other than his power numbers, Morny isn’t significantly better than Mauer in most offensive categories (he’s actually a bit worse in some of them). And while Morny is certainly a very good hitter, his career numbers are actually pretty average for a first baseman. This is an issue that has been explored in depth by other, smarter Twins bloggers (and Joe Posnanski), so I’m not going to go into much detail on the subject. I tend to think that voters (and opposing teams) are dazzled by Morneau’s raw power and all of the RBI he racks up and tend to undervalue Mauer’s ability to simply put the ball in play with runners in scoring position.
The Twins have Joe Mauer locked up until after the 2010 season, and there is a lot of debate among fans as to whether or not it would be worth the estimated $150 million to keep him. Although Mauer is much more durable than people give him credit for, he plays a physically demanding position and doesn’t have the greatest health history. He missed much of his rookie season with knee surgery, missed most of 2007 with leg problems, and so far has missed the first few weeks of this season with back problems. Having said all that, I do think the Twins would be wise to extend Mauer’s contract. Yes, it’s a lot of money for a small-budget team to risk on a player with his health history, but his bat has been so invaluable in the lineup that I think it is a risk worth taking. Even if the Twins end up moving him to a position where he would be less injury-prone, like third base, Mauer is athletic enough that he should make the transition successfully. And though a 3B who hits .317/.399/.457 certainly isn’t as valuable as a catcher who does, it’s possible that Mauer’s power numbers might improve if he were in a less physically demanding position. But there’s also the distinct possibility that, with the move into the outdoor stadium, his health will no longer be such an issue. Either way, signing Mauer to a long-term contract would be in the best interest of the organization.
- There’s the Kevin Slowey we know and love: Twins defeat Angels 9-2
Kevin Slowey rebounded from his awful first couple of starts, in which he gave up ten earned runs on twenty-three hits in 11.1 innings. Slowey was coming off of his worst start of the season on Monday night, when the Blue Jays smacked him around for five earned runs on thirteen hits in 5.1 innings. Other than one mistake to Torii Hunter in the second, Slowey managed to shut down the Angels for seven innings, giving up just two earned runs on six hits and striking out five. Of course, it helps that the offense managed to provide some much-needed run support, b
eating up the Angels’ bullpen for nine runs in two innings.
And um, I guess until the pitching staff has a game like this one, maybe I should stop complaining about them so much. Yikes.
Jason Kubel had another good night at the plate, going 4-for-5 with a double and 2 RBI. This is his second consecutive four-hit game, and the first time a Twin has had back-to-back four hit games since Mauer did it against the Dodgers in 2006.
Lefty reliever Craig Breslow continued to struggle with his command, walking the first batter he faced, but settled down and pitched effectively enough to keep the Angels of the scoreboard in the eighth. Juan Morillo made his debut with the Twins in the ninth, and his 94 mph was as good as advertised. Morillo has been working with pitching coach Rick Anderson on his command, and whether or not he’s put his control issues behind him is still a huge question, but he certainly wasn’t having any problems finding the strike zone last night. He retired the first two batters he faced before giving up a harmless single to Juan Rivera.
Oh, and as much as I love both baseball and hockey, even I think that this is an abomination.
- Carlos Gomez: Go-Go was the only player sent over in the trade who spent the entire season with the big club. While he showed tremendous range in the outfield, and has great speed on the basepaths, his offense left something to be desired. I have already covered Go-Go’s offensive struggles in greater detail here. However, he spent the offseason developing a better eye at the plate and his work does seem to be paying off so far this spring. Go-Go is hitting .256/.341/.615 with 3 home runs in 39 ABs, though he still strikes out nearly three times as often as he walks. Gomez is currently competing with Denard Span (who has had his own struggles at the plate during camp) for the CF job. Whether or not he wins the starting job in the outfield depends on his continued success at the plate.
Actually, there is a really good article about Go-Go in today’s Star Tribune.
- Philip Humber: Humber didn’t make the team out of camp last year, and spent most of the season in Rochester. He struggled during the first half of the season, but eventually settled down and finished with an ERA of 4.56 and a WHIP of 1.42 which was good enough to earn him a September call-up. Unfortunately, his audition didn’t go particularly well, as he gave up six runs on eleven hits in 11.7 innings pitched. He’s been having a very good spring so far, with his worst appearance coming against the Reds when he gave up four runs on four hits in a single inning. Since then, his ERA has plummeted to 1.13 in eight innings and is considered a top candidate for the long-relief job vacated by Boof Bonser.
- Kevin Mulvey: Mulvey spent the entire season in Rochester last year, and posted a decent 3.77 ERA and 1.35 WHIP, though he didn’t earn a September call-up. Although he was a having a pretty good spring, giving up three earned runs on eight hits in seven innings, there just isn’t any room for him in the rotation at this point. Mulvey was just reassigned to minor league camp so he can get some more work in before reporting to Rochester. He might see some time in the big leagues if one of the starters goes down with an injury.
- Deolis Guerra: Guerra shows the most promise of all of the pitchers who came from the Mets’ organization. He struggled a lot during the season with the Ft. Myers Miracle, posting a 5.47 ERA and an even 71 walks and strikeouts. Most of his problem stems from a drop in velocity, most likely from the Twins’ attempts to tinker with his mechanics. Guerra’s only 19, though, and still has tremendous upside. If he can regain his lost velocity, he might eventually live up all of the hype.
Update: here is video of Guerra and his delivery, which explains the drop in velocity:
- In other news:
Matt Macri, Luke Hughes, and Luis Matos were all reassigned. Hughes and Macri were optioned to AAA Rochester, and Matos was sent to minor league camp. Macri is a decent utility infielder, and is mostly a victim of a lack of roster space as Brendan Harris, Brian Buscher, and Matt Tolbert are all competing for the final spot on the bench. Hughes is a very promising 3B prospect, and he hit very well during camp (and in the WBC for Team Australia), but he still needs to work on his defense. He’ll probably see time at second and in the outfield while in Rochester this year to try to find the best fit. Matos is a former Orioles prospect who has never really panned out. At 30, it’s pretty obvious that he never will. Matos batted .125 during camp and will probably have to fight for playing time in Rochester.
- Frankie Says Relax:
Francisco Liriano says he’s working on his command and is almost ready for the regular season. Liriano is coming off of his worst start of the spring, in which he gave up three runs on four hits in five innings, though he still struck out five and only walked two. Frankie has been struggling with his command a bit during camp, as he’s walked eight batters in 21.1 innings. However, he still has a 2.95 ERA and 1.03 WHIP even with his control issues. This is his second full season after having Tommy-John surgery in 2006, and whatever lingering questions about Frankie and his place in the rotation will probably be answered.
By the way, Wild rookie Cal Clutterbuck now has the NHL record for hits in a single season, collecting his 317th against the Islanders last night. Hits are a subjective stat, so it’s not like anyone collected his elbow pads to put in the Hall of Fame or anything. And the kinder, gentler NHL doesn’t exactly approve of that kind of thing anyway. Also, after igniting a firestorm of (not undeserved) criticism for fighting with his visor on, Clutterbuck simply threw his helmet off before tangling with Sean Avery during Tuesday’s loss to the Rangers:
The Twins had an off day today, so I had a lot of time to think about what’s going to happen this season. This is generally a bad thing, as I tend to think of all of the ways the season could go horribly, horribly wrong. To be honest, I don’t think the Twins are going to win the division this year. And a lot of people seem to agree with me. Here’s why:
- The starting rotation doesn’t have much depth: The Twins will get at least league-average production from their young starters, with Francisco Liriano poised to have a very big year. But that’s only if everyone manages to stay healthy. While none of the five besides Liriano have had serious arm issues yet, it is almost certain that somebody is going to face some sort of injury at some point this year. There has already been concern with projected fifth starter Nick Blackburn’s knee, which he had arthroscopic surgery on in the offseason. The Twins do have some promising prospects in Anthony Swarzak and Brian Duensing, but neither one really appears to be major-league ready at this point (though there is talk of Duensing earning a spot in the bullpen). Otherwise, Philip Humber or R. A. Dickey would probably be called upon to fill out a spot in the rotation. If that doesn’t make you nervous, I don’t know what will.
- Joe Mauer might or might not be healthy this year: There is still no official word on what exactly is wrong with Mauer, but whenever he faces injury issues the news is not good. While he’s certainly more durable than most fans tend to think (he’s caught 4296.7 innings since 2004), his injuries tend to sideline him for a significant period of time. The Twins do have some competent backup catchers, but it’s extremely difficult to replace a batting-champ catcher in the lineup.
Update: Mauer has been officially diagnosed with an inflamed sacroiliac joint. No surgery will be necessary, just a change in medication. It’s not likely at this point that Mauer will be ready by opening day, and I’m still worried that this is the kind of thing that might linger and affect him the entire season
- The lineup still doesn’t have much power: Last year, the Twins managed to score 829 runs despite hitting only 111 homers. Most of their success had to do with an unusually high batting average with RISP, which essentially makes them a statistical anomaly. Since these things don’t generally repeat themselves from season to season, the Twins will have a tough time scoring runs without some pop in the lineup. And this is going to be a problem, considering that Justin Morneau is really the only power-hitter in the lineup. The Twins are essentially relying on Michael Cuddyer (who will be thirty), Delmon Young, and Jason Kubel to all have breakout seasons this year. Oh, and if Joe Crede stays healthy he might provide another 20+ homers this season, but that’s a big if.
- The front office failed to address the bullpen issue: They signed Luis Ayala, but that doesn’t really count as an upgrade. Ayala was once a dominant relief pitcher, but that was before Tommy John surgery in 2005. While he does have some upside (he is a workhorse, and has a pretty good K/BB ratio), whether or not he’ll pitch effectively against some of the American Leagues’ toughest hitters is another question. Otherwise, the bullpen looks as though it’s going to consist of Matt Guerrier (who should be fine if he isn’t overused), Jesse Crain (who’s been really sharp so far, but it’s still early), Craig Breslow (a lefty specialist), whoever wins the Jason Jones/Humber/Dickey/maybe Duensing battle for the final two spots, and closer Joe Nathan. While the ‘pen should bounce back from last year’s poor showing, it certainly isn’t going to be one of the best in the league. It probably won’t even be the best in the division.
- The infield defense will be mediocre at best: Joe Crede (if healthy) provides a significant defensive upgrade at third. And Justin Morneau is pretty reliable, though he isn’t the best defensive first baseman in the league. Otherwise the rest of the infield is a huge question mark. Nick Punto is really better suited to a utility role, not as a starting shortstop. Alexi Casilla had a rough start last year, and seemed to lack focus in the field when he was first called up. He did improve as he settled into his role at second, but whether or not he will ever be a decent second baseman remains to be seen.
- The outfield defense won’t be much better: Delmon Young was terrible in the field last year, and while he’s young enough to improve his defense, I doubt he will ever possess much range. Michael Cuddyer is pretty good with the glove, but has never shown tremendous range, either. Carlos Gomez and Denard Span can cover a ton of ground in the outfield, but both will probably have to split time in the outfield with all of the outfielders competing for a spot. This is obviously going to be a problem for the flyball pitchers on the roster, namely Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker, who will most likely see a rise in their respective ERAs.
Even with the core of young talent on the current roster, I don’t hold out much hope for the Twins to win a World Series any time soon. I hope I’m wrong, and I would love it if someone would show me that I’m wrong, but with the Pohlad family ownership and Bill Smith as the brains of the operation, I just don’t feel terribly optimistic. And it’s so frustrating, because this team is probably only a few key pieces away from being great. But the ownership has consistently refused to invest in the team, and while the front office has done a good job with what little they’ve been given to work with, it isn’t going to be enough to compete against the talent-laden teams of the AL East (who they will most likely face in the playoffs). I realize that the Twins will never have the sort of resources available to them that the larger-market teams do. I also realize that spending doesn’t guarantee a championship, and that increasing payroll for the sake of increasing payroll is not a good idea. However, if the Twins ever hope to be anything more than AL Central champs (or also-rans, as is likely the case this year), they will have to spend a little money to acquire solid major-league talent to fill their holes and to hang onto some of their young stars. And while there is nothing wrong with the oc
casional low-risk/high-reward deal for a cheap veteran player, you should not be relying on these types of players to fill all of your holes.