- Francisco Liriano has his worst outing of the year and still gets the win
Even though he only surrendered three runs, this really was Frankie’s worst performance of the season. It took him a career-high 117 pitches to make it through five innings, and he faced no less than five batters in almost every single inning. He gave up seven hits and walked more batters than he struck out (six Ks vs. five BBs). That he only gave up three runs speaks volumes about the Brewers’ offense, and not so much about his ability to pitch out of a jam. Unlike his previous start against the Pirates, in which he was only a couple of meatballs away from pitching a gem, Frankie was only a couple of bad pitches away from a complete meltdown. It’s been so frustrating to watch him this season because he shows so much talent, and just when it starts to look like he’s starting to turn the corner, he has a performance as awful as this. The Twins have been patient with Frankie thus far, but obviously they can’t continue to do so and hope to catch the Tigers and win the division title. Moving him to the bullpen probably isn’t going to help either Frankie or the Twins much, since he struggles to pitch from the stretch and would likely fail in high-leverage situations. If he fails to show any progress in his next couple of starts, perhaps the Twins should consider sending him to Rochester. Working with pitching coach Bobby Cuellar seemed to do wonders for him last year, and he could be sent down with the promise that he would be called back up no matter what happens. Whether he would be called up as a starter or reliever would depend upon how well he does with the Red Wings.
This game was so difficult to watch I had to keep reminding myself that the Twins were actually winning. As awful as Frankie was, Milwaukee starter Jeff Suppan was even worse, giving up seven runs (four earned) on nine hits while walking three. The Twins jumped out to an early lead in the first, when Michael Cuddyer struck out but reached first on a wild pitch, loading up the bases for Joe Crede. Crede then lashed a double over the head of Mike Cameron, plating three runs. Carlos Gomez (who had a pretty good night, going 3-for-5 with a pair of runs and RBI) later singled and then hustled to second when Cameron took his sweet time getting the ball back to the infield. He then scored on a single by Brendan Harris, putting the Twins up 4-2. A fielding error by J.J. Hardy opened up a three-run third inning, giving the Twins a 7-3 lead they would never relinquish. Good thing the Brew Crew decided to play more like a beer-league softball team, allowing the Twins to reach the .500 mark for the umpteenth time this season and keep pace with the Tigers.
Joe Mauer is SI‘s cover model this week, for only the second time in his career. The issue dealt with his pursuit of .400, so naturally he’s gone 0-for-8 in his past two games and dropped his average to a mere .395. The SI curse probably has little to do with it though, since hitting .400 is really hard to do in the first place and Mauer was starting to show signs of slowing down even before the issue hit the stands. Still, you’d better start sleeping with one eye open, Tom Verducci.
- Twins hit four homers and lose anyway
ZOMG, this is the most unclutchiest lineup ever!!!11!! I mean, for the most part, clutch hitting has a lot more to do with luck than skill. In general, even the greatest hitters will fail more often than not with runners in scoring position, that’s just how the game works. It sucks, it’s frustrating, but that’s just the way it is. Which is why I find this article in the Star Tribune so irritating. To suggest that the problem is that the Twins are relying too much on the long ball and not speed or sacrifice hits (i.e., Twins baseball) is ridiculous. The power hitters in the lineup have been remarkably productive, with Joe Mauer batting .421/.490/.738, Justin Morneau .324/.398/.524 (which is pretty good, considering that he’s been in a slump recently), Jason Kubel .315/.377/.546, and even Michael Cuddyer is starting to pick things up, hitting .281/.360/.518 with 10 homers. Joe Crede has been kind of an exception since he has a paltry .228 BA and .303 OPB, but he also has a .451 slugging percentage and is on pace to hit 20+ homers this year, so he isn’t really part of the problem, either. The real problem has been the lack of production from the bottom of the order, and it has been all season. The Twins certainly aren’t lacking speed in the lineup, with Carlos Gomez, Matt Tolbert, and even Nick Punto all threats to steal, but the three have struggled to get on base consistently. Delmon Young hasn’t been living up to his potential, either, batting .258/.286/.302 while looking horribly uncomfortable at the plate. The good news is that Gomez, Punto, and Young have all taken huge steps forward this month (Yes, even Gomez. He’s drawing more walks and isn’t swinging at so many pitches outside the strike zone, he just hasn’t had much to show for it in the way of results). The bad news however, is that all three are still barely replacement-level position players.
After tonight’s loss to Houston, the Twins have fallen back to the .500 mark and are three games behind the Tigers. This time, the offense wasn’t the problem, since they hit four homers and scored five runs. No, this time it was the pitching staff, specifically the bullpen that fell down. The Twins had a 3-2 lead in the seventh, until Sean Henn came in to relieve Scott Baker. Henn surrendered three runs in the seventh (one was charged to Baker), including a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Jason Michaels, and was yanked in favor of Luis Ayala after recording only one out. I had written before that the pitching isn’t as bad as fans tend to think, and that’s true. But it hasn’t been that great, either. The starting rotation has started to settle down and pitch effectively, but the bullpen is still an issue. While Matt Guerrier and Joe Nathan have been as reliable as ever, and R.A. Dickey is settling into the long relief role, the rest of the ‘pen is simply a disaster waiting to happen. Ayala has been much more effective recently, but he pitches to contact and can’t really be used in close games with runners on base. Jose Mijares hasn’t been too bad, posting a 2.57 ERA in twenty-four appearances, but he’s also been suffering from control issues (his 1.70 K/BB ratio isn’t good) and is bound to get hit hard eventually. The Twins clearly need bullpen help, but so does pretty much everybody else in the league, which will obviously complicate matters at the trade deadline. Still, I guess we should be glad that our bullpen isn’t as bad as the Indians’. Yikes.
- Speaking of homers
Mauer hit his 14th of the season, setting a new career record, and it isn’t even officially summer yet. It was an opposite-field blast (of course) that had given the Twins a 3-1 lead at the time. Someday, opposing pitchers will figure out that it isn’t a good idea to throw him fastballs on the outside corner. Hopefully he’ll hit 20 homers before they do. Obviously, Mauer isn’t going to put up such Pujolsian numbers all season long, since the physical demands of being a catcher will catch up to him eventually. As of right now, though, Mauer is the most valuable player in the league, and it isn’t even close.
- Anthony Swarzak shuts down Cubs, then gets optioned to AAA Rochester
Swarzak pitched the best game of his young career against the Baby Bears, scattering four hits and striking out six while walking only one. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep his spot in the rotation, and Swarzak was notified of his demotion right after the game. Glen Perkins will most likely be activated from the DL on Tuesday, and with Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer out an indefinite length of time, the Twins can’t really afford to carry an extra pitcher at the sake of a shorter bench. They have called up backup catcher Jose Morales in the meantime, and how long he’ll stay with the team depends on Michael Cuddyer and Denard Span (more on that in a minute).
While the timing of the news might have been unfortunate, it isn’t entirely unexpected. Swarzak hasn’t pitched that much better than the starters who have been struggling this season, namely Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker, and both of them have started to pick things up as of late. And while three of his five starts have been quality ones, his peripherals suggest that he isn’t quite ready to pitch in the major leagues. In his five starts, Swarzak has an ERA of 3.90 but with an xFIP of 5.63, a 1.34 WHIP and poor 18/10 K/BB ratio, that ERA should probably be closer to
6.00 (oops, I mean 5.00. proofreading is important). He had some very good outings against the Brewers and the Cubs, but he got smacked around by the Indians and wasn’t terribly impressive against either Boston or Oakland. Still, he does show some promise as a starter, after all, a three-pitch pitcher can make it in the bigs as long as those three pitches are pretty good. Swarzak will most certainly get another shot, whether it’s as a September call-up or because someone else is injured/continues to suck. At any rate, it’s nice to know that the organization does indeed have some pitching depth, and not just a surplus of arms.
- I guess you can’t have too many outfielders
Coming in to the season, the Twins’ outfield was awfully crowded and Ron Gardenhire was charged with the difficult task of finding playing time for all four outfielders (five, if you count Jason Kubel). Right field was the only position settled, with Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, and Delmon Young battling for the three remaining spots. This job has been made more difficult by the fact that two of them, namely Gomez and Young, have been very disappointing at the plate thus far. But now that Michael Cuddyer is out with a finger injury (go figure), and Denard Span is suffering from an inner-ear problem, suddenly the outfield doesn’t look quite so deep. It’s hard to say how long either one will be out of the lineup, both are still listed as day-to-day, but Cuddyer is scheduled to meet with a finger specialist on Monday so it’s a good bet he’ll end up on the DL. Span is recovering from what’s being called an “inner ear disorder”, but there’s no official word on when he’s expected to return to the lineup. Obviously, losing Span has hurt the most, since he’s batting .291/.380/.386 in the leadoff spot while showing a lot of versatility as an outfielder. Cuddyer might have more power, but he also strikes out a lot and can’t really play any other position than right field. In the meantime, Jason Kubel has been starting in right, and while his bat has been hot lately, he isn’t the greatest defensive outfielder and there’s always concern that playing in the outfield will aggravate his balky knees. Obviously, the Twins don’t seem to think either Cuddyer or Span will miss much time, or they probably would’ve called up another outfielder instead of a backup catcher.
First of all, what a strange ending to the series against Boston yesterday. Four ejections in the same inning, with the catchers and managers on both sides getting the boot (Which forced the Twins to play without a DH for the rest of the afternoon. Fun). Seriously, the consensus on both sides is that the umpiring in that game was pretty bad. Which is a shame, since all of the controversy overshadowed what was actually a really good ballgame. Josh Beckett and Anthony Swarzak were locked in a tight pitcher’s duel through the first seven innings, with Beckett eventually outdueling his rookie opponent. Obviously, it’s a bit disappointing that the Twins only managed to split the series against the Sox at the Dome, but it just doesn’t seem like quite as much of a letdown as the previous 1-6 roadtrip. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Twins had won four games in a row coming into the series, but it doesn’t seem as hard to watch your team lose when they play some good baseball in the process. And the Twins played well for the most part, it just wasn’t enough to win the series against the Sox. It isn’t like the series at Fenway, where the Twins never really bothered to show up in the first place. Or against the Yankees, where they let three games slip away in the later innings (and were then pummeled in the finale). Losses of that sort are enough to prompt a fan suicide watch.
The Twins’ offense has gotten really hot during the month of May, and with 55 home runs coming into tonight’s game against the Rays, has been unusually potent as well (they hit 111 the entire 2008 season). Well, at least the first half of the order has been on fire anyway: Denard Span is batting .303/.412/.404 in the leadoff spot, Joe Mauer is apparently made of magic (seriously, .407/.496/.824 with 11 HR and an OPS of 1.320 in 113 plate appearances), Justin Morneau is leading the AL in OPS and slugging percentage and is in the top five in nearly every other offensive category, and Jason Kubel is having a career year (though he’s still struggling to hit lefties, with an OPS of .429). Joe Crede will probably be good for about 20 homers this year, besides reminding us what it’s like to have an actual third baseman playing third. And even Michael Cuddyer is finally showing the type of power the Twins expected when they signed him to a multiyear deal before the start of last season, batting .330/.417/.670 with 7 homers and an OPS of 1.087 through the end of this month. Whether or not he’ll continue to be so productive remains to be seen (his career numbers suggest otherwise), but if nothing else it could make him a valuable trade piece in the offseason should the Twins fail to make the playoffs for a third straight year.
Unfortunately, not everyone is hitting so well. The bottom of the order, particularly the middle infield, stinks. Earlier this week, Aaron Gleeman compared the offensive production of Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Brendan Harris, and Matt Tolbert combined to that of national league pitchers, and the infielders just barely came out on top. Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. Before he was injured, Jason Bartlett was batting .373/.418/.596 and providing some good defense for the Rays, which just makes that trade seem so much worse. And Orlando Hudson, who the Twins could’ve signed for half the price of Nick Punto, is hitting .340/.413/.485 with an OPS of .898 for the Dodgers. The failure to upgrade the middle infield, like the failure to address the issues with the bullpen, is coming back to haunt the Twins.
And now Punto is on the 15-day DL
because he sucks with an ouchie groin. Alexi Casilla has been called up from Rochester and Brendan Harris will be the starting SS for the time being. Hopefully the middle infield will now be a little more productive at the plate than NL pitchers.
The Boston media has apparently been fawning over Joe Mauer already, even though he won’t be a free agent until after the 2010 season. It doesn’t bother me if an organization wants to pursue high-profile free agents to address one of its most glaring needs, even if some of those free agents happen to be Twins. Obviously it makes a lot of sense to go after the best talent on the market, especially if you have the resources available to do so. The problem is that Mauer isn’t available yet, and it’s a bit presumptuous to simply assume he will be. While the Twins are notoriously frugal as an organization, they have expressed a desire to keep their native son in a Twins uniform through the prime of his career. SO KEEP YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF OUR CATCHER YOU F***ING VULTURES. But please help yourselves to one of our
useless gritty, scrappy middle infielders who do the little things right and battle their tails off. No really, I insist.
Hmm, maybe I should add “This Week in F–k You” as a regular feature during the offseason. Of course, most of those posts would probably be directed at Bill Smith, anyway.
- Scott Baker manages to not give any home runs, Twins lose anyway
Scott Baker, who has had a lot of trouble keeping the ball in the park in his first two starts, had what was his most successful start of the season against the Rays last night (though he still surrendered four runs on six hits). Things got off to a rough start when he gave up two runs in the first (after he had retired the first two batters he faced). But then he settled down and retired ten straight batters before running into trouble again in the fifth. All in all, it wasn’t a terrible outing, as Baker struck out seven and walked only one, and his pitches had a lot more movement than in his previous starts, but in the end it just wasn’t good enough. Baker’s recent struggles, coupled with the fact that his mechanics were so awful, led to some speculation that he might be hiding an injury (he didn’t want to go on the DL in the first place). However, it seems as though his mechanics have been causing problems before his issues with shoulder stiffness (he gave up a league-leading nine homers during ST), and that perhaps these mechanical issues were what led to his shoulder issues in the first place.
Although the young pitching staff has had its share of struggles early on, it isn’t the starting pitching that concerns me. While all five of them might not exactly be Cy Young winners, they are a lot better than their overall records would indicate. However, the offense, or lack of it, is something to be concerned about. The Twins struggled to do much of anything against Jeff Niemann, who for his part, wasn’t all that impressive. They had runners on base with less than two outs in each of the first three innings, and yet each time failed to drive in a single run. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but this has really been a problem for the lineup (well, at least for the hitters not named Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, anyway).
Even though Morneau and Kubel both struck out swinging against Niemann with RISP, it’s difficult to get too frustrated with them since both have been essentially carrying the offense. Actually, all of the left-handed hitters in the lineup (and switch-hitter Jose Morales) have been hitting pretty well. The righy bats, however, are a much different story. Outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gomez are struggling, with Cuddy batting a miserable .208/.275/.306 and Go-Go an anemic .195/.250/.293. Delmon Young has been a bit more successful, batting .255/.296/.333, but his focus on trying to pull the ball more has led to a lot more double-plays. The crowded outfield situation might be part of the problem, since only Cuddyer has seen much regular playing time (though he hasn’t exactly benefited from it). All of this depth in the outfield was supposed to be one of the team’s major strengths this season, but except for Denard Span, none of them have been very productive at the plate, and two of them are mediocre defensively at best.
While Joe Crede has only twelve hits in 66 plate appearances, half of those have been for extra bases and three have been home runs. Crede was always more of a power hitter with the White Sox and never really hit for average, so it will be interesting to see if his career numbers hold up outside of U.S. Cellular field. Right now, the Twins are 9-11 and in fourth place in the AL Central. While it is still very early in the season, the Twins should be concerned about the lack of production from all of the right-handed hitters in the lineup. They may be blessed with four very good left-handed hitters (Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, and Span), but these four can’t carry the offense by themselves. For now, with such huge holes in the lineup and no major moves in the works, a fourth-place finish looks to be about right.
- You can’t spell V-E-Z-I-N-A without B-A-C-K-S-, dang it
On a non-baseball related note Niklas Backstrom, Boston’s Tim Thomas, and Columbus’ Steve Mason are all finalists for the Vezina trophy. While none are certainly terrible choices, they are a bit controversial since they do play for teams that implement a defense-oriented system (allegedly, more on that in a minute). Oh, I know there are some people who would disagree with me on this, but when you look into the numbers and examine the season in general, Backs is really the most deserving of the three.
While it’s true that Mason and Thomas have both had very good years, and that both have led their teams to the Stanley Cup playoffs, Backs is the only goaltender who has ranked consistently in the top five in GAA, save percentage, wins, and shutouts all season. And while he plays for a team that supposedly plays stifling defense, that certainly wasn’t the case this season. Niklas Backstrom faced 2,059 shots this year, second only to Calgary’s Miikka Kiprussoff (who saw 2,155), and yet he still put up a stellar 2.33 GAA and .923 save percentage. Considering all of the horrible defensive plays made in front of him on a regular basis, and the overall lack of offensive support (the Wild finished near the bottom of the league in goals scored), Backs had to perform a miracle almost every single night. And considering that his mediocre team wasn’t officially eliminated from playoff contention until after the second-to-last game of the season, it’s clear that Backs has been more valuable to his team than any other goaltender in the league.
And he did all that while playing with an injured left hip. But I guess if that isn’t convincing enough, maybe this is:
- Twins score 16 runs against Rays
Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel all belted homers off of Rays’ starter Scott Shields en route to a 16-2 rout of Tampa Bay. Denard Span, who has been struggling all spring, went 2-for-4 with a pair of hits and a pair of walks. Even Nick Punto had a couple of hits and an RBI. Punto has been hitting .435/.500/.652 this spring, and though I doubt he’s going to continue to be so productive during the regular season, I am hoping that this is a sign that his worst years are behind him. I would be perfectly happy if he put up similar numbers to last year.
Scott Baker had his best outing of the spring, allowing two earned runs on five hits in five innings (one of which was a solo homer to Carl Crawford). He recorded two strikeouts but only one walk, so it appears as though he had better command of his pitches. Matt Guerrier bounced back from his awful appearance against the Red Sox in which he gave up two two-run homers, and pitched a scoreless frame. Brian Duensing and Craig Breslow were also effective in shutting down the Rays.
- No Surprises Here
There were five more players cut from the 25-man roster this morning, none of which were terribly surprising. Jason Pridie was optioned to AAA Rochester, as there is no room on the roster for yet another outfielder. Non-roster invitees Sean Henn, Bobby Keppel, Brock Peterson, and David Winfree were all reassigned to minor league camp. Jose Mijares has survived the cuts so far, but i suspect this is because the Twins want him to continue working with pitching coach Rick Anderson some more before optioning him to AAA. I would be extremely surprised if he actually made the team, considering the way he’s been pitching as of late.
Boof Bonser and Joe Mauer will be placed on the DL, which would make room for two additional roster spots. Whether or not the Twins will decide to carry extra pitchers or extra bench riders remains to be seen. Right now, though, it looks like catcher Drew Butera, infielders Brendan Harris and Brian Buscher, and relief pitchers Philip Humber and R. A. Dickey are the top candidates to win the final roster spots.
Speaking of Mauer, the change in his medication appears to be working and he is able to run without pain. It is now a matter of getting back into game shape, so it’s not likely that he’ll be on the DL for very long. By the way, that same article has a nice story about former Yankee catcher Johnny Blanchard, who sadly passed away from a heart attack on Wednesday.
- North Dakota is experiencing record flooding
About a third of the residents of the Fargo-Moorhead area have been asked to evacuate their homes today due to the record flooding. The President has already declared a State of Emergency for seven nearby counties, and the National Guard has already been deployed to help out with the relief efforts. The river is expected to crest sometime
tomorrow (the National Weather service now expects the flood waters to crest on Sunday), at about 43 feet. This is higher than the record of 40 ft. set in 1897 and considerably higher than the 39.5 ft. in the recent 1997 flood, which caused some $3.5 billion in damages. Let us please act like civilized humans for once and not let this turn into another Hurricane Katrina.
If you would like to help out the victims of the Red River flood, go here.
(image courtesy BBC News)
- Twins’ pitching has been pretty impressive so far
Once again, the pitching staff just missed a no-hitter in yesterday’s game against Baltimore, when Matt Wieters singled off of Bobby Keppel in the bottom of the ninth. This is actually the second time this spring that the Twins have taken a no-hitter into the late innings. Francisco Liriano was perfect in this outing and recorded five strikeouts. Joe Nathan pitched brilliantly too, recording no hits and no walks while striking out two in his lone inning of work. Better yet, his shoulder doesn’t seem to be bothering him at all anymore, which is great because the Twins don’t anything else to worry about right now.
Kevin Slowey pitched pretty well against the Rays today, giving up two runs on four hits, but striking out four batters in 3 1/3 innings of work. The bullpen looked pretty good once again, too, including Matt Guerrier. Matty G struck out one and walked one in 2/3 of an inning, but didn’t give up any hits or runs. Actutally, his worst performance so far this spring was probably against the Pirates, when he gave up two runs on two hits and walked one in one inning. I think that, as long as he can return to his previous role in the seventh and doesn’t have to pitch too many innings this year, Guerrier will likely bounce back from his awful 2008 campaign.
- The offense, however, is not
It’s a good thing the pitching staff has been so stingy about giving up runs; the offense has been reluctant to score any. I realize that most of the regulars are playing in the WBC, and so the offense might be a little anemic when it’s being carried by the likes of Carlos Gomez. Still, some key players are still in camp and haven’t been terribly productive yet. Michael Cuddyer has been a miserable .188/.235/.313 so far, and Joe Crede has recorded only one hit in his 14 plate appearances (though he has two walks). These guys are both coming off of injury-shortened seasons last year, and it will probably take awhile for them to get comfortable at the plate. In particular, Crede’s back doesn’t seem to be bothering him anymore, so it will probably just be a matter of time before he starts hitting.
I am more worried about Denard Span, however. As I’ve written elsewhere, he was a great leadoff hitter for the Twins last season, something the lineup has lacked since the departure of Doug Mientkiewicz in 2003. However, he never had that much success at the plate in the minor leagues, and so I have been concerned that last season might have been a fluke. So far, that concern has been real since Span has only hit .111/.111/.235, though he’s drawn four walks in 18 at-bats. Span has grounded out 9 times, and flown out 5 times, so it appears as though he’s simply hitting the ball to a fielder. This might be an issue with his mechanics, and I would much rather he go through these problems here in camp than during the regular season (or the middle of the playoff chase).
The news isn’t all bad, though. Delmon Young, another big question mark entering into spring training, seems to be taking Tony Oliva’s advice to heart:
Young apparently wasn’t very happy with his disappointing performance last year. While he hit a respectable .290/.336/.405 with 10 homers overall, most of his offensive production came in the second half. Before the All-Star break he was a mediocre .286/.330/.390 and had shown little power. Worse yet, he had struck out 62 times in that period and seemed to be struggling to find his swing. His name had been mentioned in several trade rumors during the offseason, and it looked as though he would be out of a job with the crowded outfield situation. But so far Young has responded by tearing the cover off the ball, hitting .529/.550/.789 and has driven in five runs in his 19 plate appearances so far. Three of his ten hits have been for extra bases, and his only homer of the season is the two-run bomb he hit today against the Rays. He still hasn’t shown a ton of patience at the plate, though, and has yet to draw a walk (though he has yet to record a strikeout, so I guess that’s progress).
Jason Kubel has been a menace at the plate too, hitting .400/.538/.800 in his ten plate appearances thus far. Kubel doesn’t have a lot of extra base hits yet, just a double and a solo homer, but I think those will come. At least he’s showing more confidence anyway.
- This is not good news at all
Joe Mauer is apparently still having a lot of back pain and is scheduled to have a magnetic resonance anthrogram on Wednesday. Obviously we don’t know yet what, if anything, is wrong, but it doesn’t look like Mauer will be ready for Opening Day. Mauer swings what is arguably the most valuable bat in the lineup, so losing him for any part of the season would be a huge blow. I will hold off any speculation as to what the Twins will do without Mauer in the lineup until we know if indeed he will be out of the lineup.