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Monday, April 23, 2012

Twins Brave Faces not Fooling Anyone

Since the beginning of a young 2012 season the rhetoric from the Twins Clubhouse has been the same: ‘This is not the same club that lost 99 games in 2011’. This is a thought that has been echoed constantly by both Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan as well as by several veteran players, so often in fact, that it has me wondering if the Twins organization truly believes this.

The Twins are currently sitting at 5-11, fourth in the AL Central, ahead only of the surprisingly bad Kansas City Royals. In some ways the message of the Twins leadership couldn’t be truer. After a hapless opening series sweep in Baltimore the Twins have started to play better baseball and have picked up offensively. The Twins are currently 9th on the Major Leagues in team batting average at .257, 14th in OBP at .317 and 6th in hits with 140 through the first sixteen games of the season. Despite this the Twins are only 21st in runs scored, 18th in home runs and 19th in RBI.

It was inevitable that the Twins would break out of their opening funk as they have some powerful bats in their lineup. Josh Willingham has proven more than an adequate replacement for Michael Cuddyer taking a .328/.425/.655 with 5 HR and 12 RBI into the last days of April and is doing exactly hat he was brought in to do. Despite this improved offensive effort, the Twins might find themselves losing over 90 games again this season, for one reason only, their starting rotation.

The Twins are indeed a different team from last year; they have not nearly had the number of injury concerns in the early going. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have been healthy and performing well and aside from Nick Blackburn missing a start primarily as a precautionary measure with forearm soreness the only real injury blow the Twins have been dealt was that of Scott Baker; and what a blow it was.

I have said this before and I will say it again. The Twins rotation is simply not good enough to compete at a big league level. Let’s take a look at how they have fared in the early going. Through 16 starts, the Twins rotation (including Swarzak) has an ERA of 6.39, a combined WHIP of 1.60 and opposing hitters are hitting a combined .305 against Twins starters. Granted there are some things to consider. Jason Marquis has only made one start, Francisco Liriano has looked truly horrible and the rotation has been a little uneven without Blackburn over the last week or so. There are certainly positives too. Liam Hendriks has looked excellent in his first two starts and looks as though he could mature into a solid middle of the rotation starter. Carl Pavano has pitched solidly in his last two starts but been undone by one bad pitch on each occasion. What the Twins have on their books currently is 4 guys who are realistically back end number 4 or 5 starters and Francisco Liriano; who looks in line for a demotion to AAA unless he gets back on track quickly.

Bullpen bound? Or even Rochester Bound?
I take a great deal of frustration reading blogs and articles as well as the messaging from the Twins Clubhouse that paints an unrealistic picture of the Twins rotation. Yes the Twins have always had a focus on ‘pitching to contact’, of letting their sound fundamental defense do the work, but this philosophy is now so ingrained in the minds of Twins fans that we have come to expect pitching mediocrity from our starters. I can’t remember the last Twins game I watched where I saw a starting pitcher go 8 IP+ and give up 2 or less runs (I believe it as the last game of the 2011 season, when Pavano tossed a 5 hit shut out against the Royals). My point is simply this. The Twins pitching philosophy has weakened our rotation and bullpen to the point that it is not capable of mounting a challenge in a competitive AL Central division. The Twins minor league system, while housing some solid prospects, has very few MLB worthy arms (the exception would be Kyle Gibson, but his status is uncertain while returning from Tommy John surgery). The Twins are ideally placed in this years draft to begin reversing this trend. If this franchise is to consistently get back to winning ways, we need to start by getting a bunch of young, high ceiling, winning arms. Any thoughts?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Baker Dilemma

The Twins, already facing stiff competition in challenging for the AL Central this year, suffered a huge blow when it was announced that their best pitcher from 2011, Scott Baker, would miss the entire 2012 season due to impending elbow surgery.

At the end of this season Terry Ryan will have some interesting roster decisions to make, particularly regarding the starting pitching in 2013. At the press conference in which the Twins announced Baker’s surgery Ryan spoke of ‘hoping to have him ready for 2013’, in a nonchalant manner. Hold on, not so fast, the Twins have an option on Baker for 2013, for $9 million. I’m not sure if that is a price tag that I would be willing to pay for someone as brittle as Scott Baker. Would you have paid $9 million for Francisco Liriano’s 2008 comeback season? (in which he pitched 76 innings with a WHIP of 1.39), I would not. Baker, admittedly, is facing entirely different circumstances, he will not be undergoing Tommy John surgery, however his surgery does require 6 months of rehab.

Losing Baker is a big blow to the Twins 2012 hopes
Carl Pavano and Jason Marquis will be free agents at the end of the season and with Pavano turning 37 next January and unlikely to replicate the outstanding numbers he put up in his 2010 campaign; it seems unlikely the Twins will resign him. Jason Marquis was signed to a 1 year contract with the Twins, who were looking for a veteran presence to put up some innings in an inexperienced pitching staff, may also be looking elsewhere for work in 2013. Finally the mercurial Francisco Liriano is a free agent at the end of the 2012 season and may not make it that far if the Twins fall out of contention early and decide to use him as trade bait.

Baker’s injury will undoubtedly present Liam Hendriks and Anthony Swarzak with increased opportunities to start. Hendriks had an outstanding spring which followed a moderately successful September call-up for the 2011 club. Indeed he deserves his opportunity, despite being fast-tracked through the Twins minor league system and not having much experience even at the AAA level. Swarzak has had success for the Twins both as a spot starter and a reliever, so it will be interesting to see in what capacity the Twins use him, much will depend on Hendriks early success. The potential departures at the end of the season also potentially open the door for consensus top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson, who is slated for a return to the mound from Tommy John surgery in August to put himself back on the fast track to the big league club in 2013.

Whether the front office wants to admit it or not the Twins are in a prime spot to restock their mediocre minor league system this year and perhaps next. The Twins hold 6 of the first 100 draft selection in 2012, including the 2nd, 32nd, 42nd and 63rd and while this years draft class doesn’t have a Strasburg or Harper type cornerstone superstar, it is thought to be a deep class. Should the Twins live up to most expert forecasts they may well have excellent draft position again in 2013, giving them an ideal opportunity to address areas of need within the organization (particularly starting pitching).

While Baker’s injury is a devastating blow to the Twins, it might just give them the push they need to fully commit to building for the future.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Down on the Farm 04.10.12

Here’s a look at how the Twins various minor league affiliates are faring in their opening weeks of the season. Let me know what prospects you are interested in following and I will add them to the weekly update.

Low A – Beloit Snappers

Two of the Twins top prospects are beginning their seasons at Beloit. Consensus top prospect 3B Miguel Sano has a made a splash with his power bat already blasting 3 HR and 9 RBI in just 9 AB and slugging his way to a 1.335 OBP. Fellow 2B prospect and reigning Appalachian League MVP Eddie Rosario is also off to a hot start hitting .385/.589/.692 with 4 stolen bases in just 13 at bats.

Steven Gruver was the most impressive of the Snappers starting pitchers, tossing 6 innings of shut out ball while striking out 5. Eden Prairie native Madison Boer has struggled early, giving up 5 runs (3 earned) in 4 innings pitched in his first start at low A.

High A – Fort Myers Miracle

The Twins No.1 draft choice from a year ago Levi Michael has made a nice start with the Miracle, hitting .308 through the opening week of the season, but showing excellent plate discipline, taking four walks in his first 13 at bats, contributing to an excellent .471 OBP. Left handed slugger Oswaldo Arcia has made a slow start, going just 2 for his first 12, but also showing patience at the plate, walking 5 times already for the Miracle.

Pat Dean, who excelled at Beloit before struggling in a late season call up to Fort Myers, pitched well in his first start, surrendering 2 ER through 6 IP in his first start. Adrian Salcedo also fared well, giving up just 1 ER through 4 IP, striking out 3, although he did issue 3 free passes.

AA – New Britain Rock Cats

After going 1 for his first 12, Aaron Hicks had an excellent game for the Rock Cats Monday, going 2-4 with a 3R HR and an RBI single. Evan Bigley and Pedro Florimon have also been raking early.

Jason Marquis had a solid rehab start at New Britain, giving up just 1 ER in 6 innings pitched. He is scheduled to pitch one more rehab start this Thursday before being recalled to the big league club. Deolis Guerra and Alex Wimmers, giving up 2 ER combined over 8+ innings in their respective opening starts.

AAA – Rochester Red Wings

Brian Dozier has been the story early for Rochester this season and is already knocking on the door of the big league club, going 9 for his first 19, including 3 doubles and a HR. Scott Diamond had an excellent first start for the Red Wings, going 6.1 innings of shut out baseball. Carlos Gutierrez has also had a solid start, striking out 5 in just 3.1 innings of work.

Home Openening Reflections

The Twins continued their offensive struggles yesterday in a disappointing home opener against this summers’ big spending Angels. After struggling to make his sinker, well, sink in the first inning, giving up two early runs, Nick Blackburn settled down in a big way, at one point retiring fourteen straight and inducing twelve ground ball outs in six innings of work. Once again the Twins defense let their pitching down, committing two errors behind Blackburn and despite the fact that these did not lead to runs, it was another defensive miscue that allowed the Angels to open up their lead in the 7th inning.

With the now pedestrian Bobby Abreu on 1st, Alberto Callaspo hit ground ball up the middle which SS Jamey Carroll over-dived for and what should have been a routine double play was deflected allowing both runners to advance. Blackburn was made to pay as he left a meat-ball over the plate for Chris Iannetta to drive to the left center field wall for a two run double. This passage of play again was indicative of the carry over the Twins have seemed to experience from last season, poor fundamental defense and no hitting.

Josh Willingham was perhaps the only Twin ho looked like a real threat at the plate, hitting the ball hard all four times against C.J Wilson including a solo home run in the 4th and narrowly pulling another potential long ball foul his next at bat. Wilson himself induced 14 ground balls, another indication of how much Twins hitters have struggled so far to drive the ball, yesterday’s struggles putting the Twins at six runs through their first four games.

Interestingly Ron Gardenhire went with his 4th different line-up in as many games and while it was understandable getting as many right handed hitters in the line-up against a dominant southpaw like C.J Wilson, to me this speaks to the fact that outside of his core players, Ron Gardenhire really isn’t sure of what his best lineup maybe. So far the most noticeable and yet least talked about offensive struggle had been getting the Twins speedy table setters on base, Span, Casilla and Jamey Carroll combining for an OBP of just .146 through four games. The next two starters the Twins face are Jared Weaver and Dan Haren and with Scott Baker’s return anything but immediate, the Twins face a real test of character over the next few days.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Slow Out of the Gate

Well after all the excitement, conjecture and apprehension the Minnesota Twins 2012 season is finally underway; and in the blink of an eye, the Twins are 0-3. 0-3, oh no, time to panic! Not so fast. Despite the Twins lackluster efforts in their opening series against the Orioles (more on this in a minute) let us not jump on the complaining and whining bandwagon. The Red Sox are 0-3; the Yankees are also 0-3. The last time the Yankees were 0-3 was 1998, guess who won the World Series that year? This is not to say that the Twins are currently of the same caliber as those teams, nor is it to say that opening weekend wasn’t incredibly frustrating, but it is just three games.

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the last three days is that the Orioles never really looked in danger in any three of those games. Unfortunately the Twins came out of the gate the way they crossed the finish line in 2011, with so-so pitching, and incredibly poor hitting.

True to 2011 form the Twins are already struggling with some injuries, with Scott Baker being on the DL with shoulder tendinitis (nothing new here) and spring stud Liam Hendriks missing his well earned first start of 2012 with a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Let’s look at the pitching performances from the Baltimore series. Carl Pavano settled down after a rough opening in which he shoed uncharacteristic lack of control and falling behind in several counts. Pavano finished having given up 4 ER over 7 IP. Let’s get one thing straight Twins fans; this is pretty much a standard Pavano performance. Despite the status afforded him by being the opening day starter, this effort is only 1 ER away from being a quality start. Other than Josh Willingham’s two run blast, the Twins gave him nothing in return, going 0-4 with RISP.

Liriano’s start on Saturday was more puzzling to me. I watched this game and I could not get one overriding feeling out of my head while I was, Liriano looked pretty good. Don’t get me wrong, you are only as good as your pitching line and Liriano gave up 5 ER in only 4 IP, but there is a little more to read between the lines here. Liriano struck out the side on the first and looked dominant in doing so. The solo HR that Adam Jones hit in the second inning was a sharp pitch, down in the zone and nothing more than a great piece of hitting. Liriano’s defense gave him little help, committing two errors behind him and Baltimore’s Babip in this game was .538 – which is simply unreasonable. In short, Baltimore found every hold they could find, the Twins defense as poor and Liriano made a few mistakes. I’m looking for a big improvement in his second start.

Finally, props to Anthony Swarzak, no matter what he is asked to do by the Twins, he does it well. 5 IP, 1 ER, Swarzak certainly gave the Twins a chance to be competitive in this game, sadly the pitiful two hits that they mustered off Jason Hammel did not. 

Justin Morneau has driven the ball well early on
Hitting has been the struggle out of the gate for the Twins, they have managed just 5 runs on 15 hits through 3 games, the only highlight, which cannot be understated is Justin Morneau being 4-10 with 2 doubles through this trying opening series. It is the Twins hitting that really needs to wake up as they head back to Minnesota for the home opener against C.J Wilson and the Angels on Wednesday. With the next 16 games coming against the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Rays the Twins will need to find form across the board in order to not find them selves in a big hole by the end of April.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Roster Taking Shape

With only a few days left of spring the Twins only have a few final roster decisions to make before heading to Maryland to face Baltimore in their opening series beginning April 6th. The Twins announced via Twitter on Friday that Drew Butera was being optioned to AAA Rochester opening the door for former Astros prospect J.R Towles to travel with the team as their third catcher. Aside from the celebratory fist pumps at reading this news and all jokes aside, this does leave the Twins brass with some interesting decision still to make and potentially a more fluid roster than expected.

It would seem that there are two positional roster spots up for grabs and the Twins are choosing between Chris Parmelee, Sean, Burroughs, Brian Dozier and Brian Dinkleman for those final two spots. My contention would be that Dinkleman is out and Ron Gardenhire as much as admitted Parmelee made this roster in comments to the press on Saturday. Parmelee certainly deserves his shot following up his excellent September call up with a .288 spring average, while launching 4 HR, collecting 11 RBI and getting on base at a tidy .382. Parmelee will likely serve as relief for Morneau at 1B but also creates an interesting dynamic in the outfield. It seems the Ben Revere’s spot in right field is no sure thing and Parmelee will be amassing some ABs there, with Denard Span and Josh Willingham filling out the rest of the outfield.

The battle between Dozier and Burroughs for the last roster spot is a fascinating one. Ron Gardenhire suggested in comments lat week that if Dozier was to make the lineup is would be as the clubs’ starting SS, whereas Burroughs would likely fill more of a platoon and utility roll, given his infield versatility. Both have had solid spring, with Burroughs currently possessing a .444 spring OBP. Dozier, while a little less consistent at the plate, has also been solid, sporting a .277 average to go along with 3 spring HR and 9 RBI. Personally I would like to see Dozier start the year at AAA and build on his momentum from last year, where he had an outstanding minor league season. Burroughs offers versatility, a little more experience and a solid pinch hitting option off the bench for Ron Gardenhire. If nothing else Twins fans should be excited about their team’s prospects in the infield, where names such as Parmelee, Dozier, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Levi Michael suggest that the Twins may be two or three years away from turning around an area of their team that has always been a significant weakness, into a dependable strength.