Results tagged ‘ defense ’

Giving the Bullpen a Couple of Days Off

  • Nick Blackburn pitches his third complete game of the season in Twins’ 6-2 win

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Blackie (yes, that’s really his nickname) absolutely dominated the Tigers in Sunday’s rubber match, keeping them off the scoreboard through eight innings.  He struck out six and only walked one, and although teh Kittehs recorded seven hits, they weren’t really able mount much of a threat until the eighth.  Unfortunately, Blackie lost his bid for a shut out when Brandon Inge clobbered a two-run homer in the ninth, but he quickly recovered to finish the inning and (most importantly) give the bullpen some much-needed rest.  After pitching 13 innings in Friday night’s marathon exercise in futility, the relief corps will get two full days of rest (some relievers even have three, as Francisco Liriano pitched seven innings on Saturday) before the Yankees come to town on Tuesday night.  When his sinker is working, as it was yesterday, Blackie is a bullpen savior (indeed, he needed only 109 pitches to get through nine innings).  His 116.1 innings pitched are fifth most in the league, and only Zack Greinke has thrown more complete games. 

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

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Joe
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
anyway.

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 superstarAgain

Joe
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.

Joe
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.  

Twinkie Defense

Thumbnail image for casilla_groundball.JPGIn 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

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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.

  • Etc….

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.

Good News: The Pitching Doesn’t Completely Suck

Thumbnail image for kev_slowey.jpgOh 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 poorFrankie_fail.jpg 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

Thumbnail image for mlb_g_gomez_300.jpgGomez 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.

Joe Crede: Tiger Killer

crede_feature.jpgLast 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.

For Unto Us a Batting Champ Is Born

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for mauer.jpgHe 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.

It is often argued that Mauer isn’t that great of a hitter since doesn’t have much power, and since he only has 44 career home runs, one might be inclined to agree.  However, when you dig a bit deeper into his career numbers, it appears that he does have more power than a lot of people tend to think.  While his .457 career slugging percentage isn’t exactly a Pujolsian .624, he’s hardly the crappy singles hitter his critics make him out to be.  Mauer has a career OPS+ of 128, and has had an OPS+ of 130 or better three times in his career (137 in 2004 and 2008, and 144 in 2006, the year he won his first batting title).  In comparison, Justin Morneau (who is often considered the most dangerous hitter on the team), has a higher career slugging percentage of .499, but a lower OPS+ of 122 and has actually never had an OPS+ as high as Mauer in any of his seven major league seasons.

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

kev_slowey.jpgKevin 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.

Spring Training Update

Some of the Mets fans who read this blog have been wondering what happened to all of the prospects sent over in the Santana trade.  Here’s a quick update:

  • Carlos Gomez:  Go-Go was the only player sent over in the trade who spent theThumbnail image for mlb_g_gomez_300.jpg 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 ofThumbnail image for HumberRW08.jpg 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 aMulvey.jpg 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 theThumbnail image for guerra.jpg 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:

An Average Year For an Average Team

blackburn_fail.jpgThe 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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
     

  3. 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.
  4. 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.    
  5. 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.   
  6. 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.

      

Mr_Burns.pngEven 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.  

The Army We Have Part IV: the Catchers

This is the final installment in this series, since I’ve already covered the starting rotation, the infield, the outfield, and the bullpen.  The Twins are very lucky in that they have a lot of depth at catcher.  Most baseball teams struggle to find one decent backstop and the Twins have three:  an All-Star in Joe Mauer, a very good backup in Mike Redmond, and a top prospect in Wilson Ramos.  Here is a look at all three:

  • Joe Mauer:  Mauer obviously handles most of the catching duties for the Twins.  I have already written aboutmauer.jpg Mauer and how remarkable he is here.  Last season he won his second batting title, and if he’s healthy will probably be contending for a third.  And I do think he’ll be healthy this year even though he had minor kidney surgery during the offseason. His doctors recently cleared him to resume running and lifting, so he might not be in game shape just yet but should be ready by Opening Day.

According to this article on the Twins’ homepage, owner Jim Pohlad is willing to pony up the cash to sign Mauer to a contract extension.   While this is good news in a way, I’m not sure about Pohlad’s reasoning behind this decision.  Apparently he is willing to give Mauer a legacy contract, meaning he would shell out big bucks for a guy simply because he’s a fan favorite and a Minnesota native.  It’s no secret that I adore Joe, but he’s going to command a deal somewhere in the ten-year, $150 million range.  That is a large chunk of payroll to devote to one player simply because the fans like him.  I would like to see the Twins keep Joe, but only if they don’t think his health will be an issue.  Mauer is athletic enough to move to third if he has to, but a third baseman who hits .328/.413/.451 with a mere 7 home runs certainly isn’t worth $150 million.
  

  • Mike Redmond: Red Dog is the other half of the Twins’ amazing backstop duo.  He pretty much only sees any playing time when Gardy decides tomike-redmond.jpg give Mauer the day off, and that makes his offensive production even more incredible. Redmond batted .287/.321/.333 in 129 plate appearances last year, and is a career .292/.348/.365 hitter. He’s no slouch defensively either, and did a great job helping to handle the young pitching staff last year.  Red Dog is in the final year of his contract with the Twins, and whether or not he’ll re-sign with the team is unclear at this point.  Since he will be 38 this year he might decide to retire once the season is over.  Considering that he always gets clunked in the head with either a bat or a foul ball whenever he starts, I wouldn’t blame him one bit.  

 

  • Wilson Ramos:  Wilson Ramos is the heir apparent to the backstop throne should theWilsonRamosBEL07.jpg Twins decide that Joe Mauer is expendable.   Ramos is currently a top prospect for the Twins’ FSL affiliate, the Ft. Myers Miracle, and is slated to start the season in AA New Britain.  He batted .288/.346/.434 with 13 homers for the Miracle last season, which is very respectable when you consider that the entire Florida State League only hit .256/.329/.376.  More recently, he played a crucial role in Venezuela’s Caribbean Series championship, where he batted .385 and drew four walks, reaching base four times during the clinching game against Mexico last Friday.  Baseball America currently has Ramos as the third-ranked prospect in the Twins’ farm system, and it will be very interesting to see how he develops in the next few seasons. No doubt the front office will be keeping a very close eye on him to determine if they can get by without Mauer after all (and save themselves several hundreds of millions in guaranteed money over the next ten years).

So that’s the entire projected roster for the 2009 season.  It looks exactly like the 2008 roster, only without the dead weight known as Mike Lamb and Adam Everett.  I think the Twins will win at least 85 games this year since Cuddyer should be healthy and most of the young talent should show improvement offensively.  Whether or not this will be good enough to win the division remains to be seen. 

PS: I know it’s Valentine’s Day, but I don’t care.  I don’t celebrate holidays invented by marketers to get you to buy things.   It does, however, give me an excuse to post a Lemonheads video:

Oh, what the heck. Here’s Pete Townsend and Eddie Vedder singing “Heart to Hang Onto”, too.  Happy Valentine’s Day everybody!

Maybe the Twins need to get in on this PED thing

mp_main_wide_CarlosGomez452.jpgOk, maybe not, but clearly the offense needs a little help.  Baseball prospectus has recently projected the Twins to finish with a 79-83 record, second in the division behind the Cleveland Indians.  Their reasoning is pretty sound, as historically teams that have had a great deal of success based on a statistical anomaly (such as the Twins’ high BA with RISP last season) tend to fall to the norm the next season.  It’s not likely that the Twins are going to repeat last year’s offensive production, in which they scored 829 runs on 111 home runs.  However, if some of their young talent begins to show its potential to hit for power (particularly Delmon Young and Jason Kubel), then the Twins will likely win 90 games.  Otherwise, 79 wins sounds about right.

The front office hasn’t made any moves to upgrade offensively, and it appears that they’re gambling on the fact that the young talent will improve rather than regress.  For once, I’m actually not going to criticize Bill Smith for this, since there hasn’t been much out on the market that looked like it would be a good fit.  There were rumors that the Twins were going to trade for either Garrett Atkins or Kevin Kouzmanoff, but neither would be a significant enough upgrade at third to be worth the cost (reported to be Kevin Slowey AND Denard Span, plus a top prospect).  Casey Blake wanted too much money, and also wasn’t enough of an upgrade over the Harris/Buscher platoon.  Joe Crede would have been a great fit, since he would provide the right-handed power bat the Twins need as well as Gold-Glove caliber defense.   However, his health is a major concern, and considering that he is seeking a one-year deal worth $7 million the Twins are probably wise to pass.

rondell_white.jpgCome to think of it, certain Twins players have experimented with banned substances in the past.  And failed miserably at it, too. Suspected doper Bret Boone was acquired down the stretch in 2005, and batted an anemic .170 in 14 games before being released.  Howie Clark and Rondell White were both known HGH users, and both were busts during their tenure with the team.  Obviously the performance-enhancing substances these guys were using weren’t  having the desired effect.  But then again, all of these guys were suspected users while they were on other teams and had probably stopped by the time they signed with the Twins. 

Apparently the front office has it backwards: they need to get these guys while they’re still using and then release them after they get caught.

Actually, the only player who was busted for using banned substances while he was with thejuan_rincon.jpg team was relief pitcher Juan Rincon.  Rincon was one of the league’s premier set-up men, until he tested positive for a banned substance in 2005.  Of course, he denied that he was taking anything stronger than a supplement he bought over-the-counter at GNC.  But considering that he really hasn’t been the same pitcher since serving his suspension, I’m not so sure. He was released by the Twins last season, after posting an awful 66 ERA+ in 24 appearances.  Now, he is the Detroit Tigers’ problem, having signed a minor-league deal with the ballclub during the offseason.

Well, I’m not going to throw in the towel on the season just yet, especially since it hasn’t even begun!  And who knows, maybe our guys will exceed everyone’s expectations and win another World Series title.  After all, baseball is a crazy game and anything can (and will) happen.  The Twins weren’t projected to win more than 79 games last season, and they won 88 (and nearly made the playoffs, too).  Maybe they can do it again, even without any umm…help.

The Army We Have Part II: the Outfield

The outfield is very crowded going into Spring Training, and it was rumored during the offseason that the Twins were looking to trade one of their outfielders to fill some of their holes.  There wasn’t really much available that was really worth getting excited over, and so the front office decided to stand pat.  Whether or not this is a wise decision remains to be seen, but with all of the injuries the team suffered last season maybe having depth is a good thing. 

  • RF, Denard Span: Span really had a breakout season last year, finishing with aspan-gomez.jpg .294/.387/.432 line and drawing 50 walks in the leadoff spot.  Span wasn’t too impressive when he first came up, and didn’t show a great deal of plate discipline,  However, when he was sent back down to Rochester in early May, it was as if a light went off in his head.  When he was called back up at the end of June to fill in for an injured Michael Cuddyer, he began spraying the ball all over the field.   There is some question as to whether or not he’ll be able to repeat those numbers, since he never displayed much patience at the plate in the minors, but who knows?  As one of our trio of speedsters (he, Gomez, and Alexi Casilla), it would be a shame to lose him in the lineup.

  • RF, Michael Cuddyer:  Cuddyer is probably the closest thing the Twins have to a bad contract on their books, and at 3 years and $24 million that’s not really saying much.  He has had to deal with injuries much of his career, but in 2008 he was really unlucky.  First, there were all of the unfortunate hand injuries earlier in the season.  Then, while completing a rehab stint in Rochester, he was hit in the foot with an errant line drive and ended up missing almost the entire second half due to a broken foot. Cuddyer has more power than Span, but Span is the superior outfielder, so it will be interesting to see who wins the starting job.  There has been talk of moving Cuddy to third, where he played most of the 2005 season, but I don’t think this will work.  He obviously didn’t stick there in the first place, and at age 30 guys don’t usually make the transition from the outfield to the hot corner very well. 

Cuddyer is also famous for performing magic tricks. Here he is showing a card trick to Denard Span during Spring Training last year:

  • CF, Carlos Gomez:  I have already written a lengthy piece on Go-Go here. I have to say, Go-Go and his .360 slugging percentage penchant for annoying opposing pitchers have really grown on me.  He once told Justin Verlander that his mind was “not good“.  He also rattled Cliff Lee so badly with a bunt attempt that he lost focus and gave up five runs in one inning.  It will be interesting to see what he does this year.

By the way, Peter Gammons wrote in an article for ESPN that Gomez is the best defensive centerfielder in the league.  I don’t agree with this assessment just yet.  Gomez certainly has tremendous range, but his, um, youthful exuberance makes him commit a lot of silly errors.  If he matures and learns to focus, then yes, he will probably be the best defensive centerfielder in the league.

  • LF, Delmon Young:  I have also written a lengthy piece on Young, too.  Young’s spot seems to be the most in jeopardy, considering how bad he was both defensively and offensively last year.  However, I think that having to compete for a starting job will be good for him, and might give him the motivation he needs to improve.

  • OF/DH, Jason Kubel:  Kubel has played in the outfield, but he’s mostly in the lineup asmlb_g_kubel_200.jpg the DH.  Kubel was once a very promising prospect who was absolutely killing the ball in the minor leagues.  Unfortunately, he suffered a debilitating knee injury in winter ball during the 2004 season, and ended up missing all of 2005.  This injury cost him a year of development at a crucial point in his career, and he is just now starting to recover from it.  Last season he posted a respectable .272/.335/.471 with 20 homers, which makes him the third-best hitter on the team.  He
    has shown steady improvement in every one of his major league seasons, and he’s young enough that he likely hasn’t hit his ceiling yet.  Hopefully he’ll finally have his breakout year.

   
The organization decided to reward Kubel with a multiyear contract during the offseason.  Of course, we all know how I feel about that:

freekubel.jpg
Unlike the infield, the outfield is hardly set.  The best defensive outfield would be comprised of Span, Gomez, and Cuddyer.  The best offensive lineup, though, would consist of Young, Span, and Cuddyer.  Nobody is exactly a lock to win the starting job, and it will be interesting to see how all of this plays out.

Next in the series:  the bullpen
On Deck: the catchers

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