June 29, 2005

Whole Lotta Twins Notes

My entry earlier this week about Ron Gardenhire's refusal to bench Jacque Jones against left-handed pitching generated a ton of e-mails (as the topic always does), including quite a few that asked exactly who I thought the Twins should replace Jones in the lineup with when facing a lefty. There are several answers, all of them fairly simple.

The most obvious one involves moving Lew Ford from designated hitter to right field. Ford is a career .282/.357/.454 hitter against lefties (whereas Jones is at .233/.286/.336) and should be starting in left field anyway. Getting him some time in the outfield when a southpaw is on the mound for the other team kills two birds (including one who can't hit lefties) with one stone.

Then, with the DH spot opened up, Matthew LeCroy can get some at-bats doing what he does best, which is smacking around lefties. Whenever the Twins' offense struggles, I get e-mails from people wondering why they don't play LeCroy more. The thought being that his power could help the lineup. However, the fact is that LeCroy doesn't have great power unless he is hitting against a lefty.

CAREER          AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
vs Left .287 .355 .506 .861
vs Right .250 .302 .415 .717

2002-2004 AVG OBP SLG OPS
vs Left .302 .363 .518 .881
vs Right .257 .303 .420 .723

2005 AVG OBP SLG OPS
vs Left .288 .387 .519 .906
vs Right .262 .342 .431 .773

If he could play a premium defensive position, LeCroy's production against right-handed pitching would be acceptable. But since he care barely handle DH defensively, LeCroy should be firmly planted on the bench when a righty is pitching. That doesn't make him a bad person or a useless player, it just means a good manager would take advantage of his strength, which is hitting lefties, and minimize his weakness, which is everything else. His skill set is like the opposite of Jones'.

So, when the Twins face a lefty they should move Ford to right field, LeCroy to DH, and Jones to the bench. But wait, there's one more thing to consider. Gardenhire has shown that he likes to occasionally bench Justin Morneau against left-handed pitching. On the surface this makes as much sense as benching Jones against lefties does, since Morneau hasn't shown that he can hit lefties yet. On the other hand, he hasn't been given much of a chance to.

Jones has flailed away at left-handed pitching for seven seasons now without showing any ability to hold his own against them, while Morneau has a grand total of 174 at-bats against lefties in his entire career. I believe that Morneau needs everyday playing time over the next couple years to determine whether or not he can grow into a player capable of hitting left-handed pitching on a consistent basis. That's tough to do during a pennant race, obviously, but it is something that needs to be done.

However, if Gardenhire believes he is better off both in the short term and the long term with Morneau sitting against lefties and LeCroy replacing him at first base (a strange decision based on his dealings with Jones over the years), then that leaves one spot open in the lineup under our (dream) scenario of Jones being benched against lefties. Who steps into the DH spot, with Ford in right field and LeCroy at first base?

Well, the problem is that the Twins don't have anyone who is well suited for that job. They did just a few months ago, however, and his name was Michael Restovich. I campaigned for Restovich to make the team out of spring training, but the Twins decided to go in a different direction. And so Restovich's journey began, as he jumped from Tampa Bay to Colorado, before ending up in Pittsburgh.

Yes, that's four different big-league teams in the span of about four months, although he never actually played for the Devil Rays this season (or the Twins, for that matter). In 32 games between all of those stops, Restovich has hit .257/.316/.443, giving him a .268/.346/.443 hitting line in 93 career games. Those are about the numbers I would expect from Restovich based on his minor-league track record, and that's not great production from a corner outfielder without much defensive value.

With that said, Restovich is very similar to LeCroy in that he can be utilized for his strengths if managed correctly. As I pointed out over a year ago when making the case for a Jones/Restovich platoon in right field, Restovich put up sick numbers against lefties in the minors. And since coming to the majors he has batted a very solid (and LeCroy-like) .297/.349/.515 against lefties. In other words, had the Twins kept Restovich he would have been a perfect platoon partner for Jones, and together they would have provided excellent offensive production for one spot in the lineup.

Instead, Restovich is doing a nice job off Pittsburgh's bench, the Twins continue to trot Jones out against lefties so he can post a .650 OPS, and they no longer have anyone capable of bashing lefties off the bench aside from LeCroy. If this season comes down to a game or two in the standings -- and it's looking more and more like it will -- this is the sort of stuff that we can look back on as part of the cause.

Other Twins notes ...

  • With the lineup turning in yet another listless performance against yet another unspectacular starting pitcher yesterday, the rumors about the Twins looking at add a veteran bat keep getting louder and louder. Aside from finding a suitable platoon partner for Jones whom Gardenhire will never use, the spots the Twins could easily upgrade offensively are second base, third base, and shortstop.

    On that front, here are a few rumors from Bob Nightengale of USA Today:

    The Twins, wanting to improve their infield, have set their sights on Blue Jays infielders Shea Hillenbrand and second baseman Orlando Hudson, along with Reds third baseman Joe Randa.

    As I've said here before, I'm a big Orlando Hudson fan. He is an amazing defensive second baseman, and although his offense has been sub par this year, he represents a clear overall upgrade at second base. I'm not so high on Shea Hillenbrand, who is limited defensively and not as good as he's shown thus far at the plate. As for Joe Randa? Well, he's average in just about every way, which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if it can be acquired cheaply. The key to any of these potential trades is not giving up the team's top prospects, and I am confident Terry Ryan feels the same way.

  • On the other hand, if you're going to part with the big boys down on the farm, how about making a run at Adam Dunn? That'd solve a few power issues, although he wouldn't do much about the middle of the lineup being so lefty dominated.
  • Oh, and about the Randa rumors ... The Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com, LaVelle E. Neal, had this to say about them in the Minneapolis Star Tribune a few days ago:
    After chewing on Cincinnati third baseman Joe Randa's name a little bit, the Twins have decided to look elsewhere for help.

    So ... the Twins have either "set their sights" on Randa or they "have decided to look elsewhere."

  • With Johan Santana struggling this month, the talk of pitch tipping has started up again. From Sid Hartman's column in the Star Tribune:
    Twins lefthander Johan Santana has walked four batters in each of his past two games. "He was tipping off his pitches, he made a change, and the result is his control is not what it was before," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

    I love reading stuff like that in the newspaper, because it inevitably comes along with absolutely no other details or explanation. I mean, if someone told you something like that, wouldn't you want to follow up with a few questions? It's not the sort of statement that should lend itself to a "reporter" shaking his head and saying, "Cool, thanks for the quote." We're talking about Sid, admittedly, but still.

  • He's been at Triple-A for about six weeks now, so I figure it's time for a Jason Bartlett update:
     G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     BB     SO
    34 127 .291 .372 .402 6 2 15 17

    I have no clue how Bartlett's defense has been, but he has a good batting average, nice plate discipline, and solid strike zone control. Oh, and while he gets on base 37% of the time at Rochester, the Twins' infielders are dropping like flies.

    Luis Rivas is fresh off the disabled list, Nick Punto and Brent Abernathy are still on the DL, Glenn Williams joined them yesterday and will likely be there for the remainder of the season, and now Juan Castro is having dizzy spells. All of which leads to things like Rivas starting at shortstop and Michael Ryan playing third base, both of which happened yesterday afternoon.

    The sad state of the Twins' infield is concerning, as is their unwillingness to give Bartlett another chance. However, what we've learned is that while Bartlett may not be the greatest shortstop in the world, there are few people better with a voodoo doll.

  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Ten Things About One-Run Games (by Dave Studeman)

    Today's Picks (69-57, +$1,235):
    Chicago (Garcia) -130 over Detroit (Maroth)


    June 28, 2005

    Rashad McCants and Bracey Wright

    I hate the Timberwolves' draft.

    Remember all that stuff I wrote yesterday about how incredibly important last night was for the franchise and how they needed to get more athletic and find a legitimate starter with a big upside? Well, instead they drafted Rashad McCants.

    Now, it's not that McCants is a horrible player, because clearly he's not. He's a fine scorer who played an important role on an NCAA championship team last season. However, he is small for a shooting guard and struggles defensively. Plus, even on the offensive end he adds almost nothing aside from scoring.

    Here's an excerpt from his ESPN.com Insider scouting report:

    Scouts believe he's much closer to 6-3 and don't believe he has the handle or the head to be an NBA point guard. His long arms and athleticism make up for some of those height issues, but not all of them. He's also a spotty defender, which certainly doesn't help his cause. Combine that with reports his attitude is questionable, and you can understand why scouts have been leery.

    McCants is Glenn Robinson or Ron Mercer or Allan Houston or any number of other college scorers who were never really interested in doing anything except for shooting. That doesn't get the job done in the NBA, at least not if you're looking for something other than a decent complimentary player who is massively overrated.

    The Wolves needed to find something more than that last night, and the worst part about taking McCants is that both Gerald Green and Danny Granger, two of the seven players I said I "would be thrilled about landing" yesterday, dropped to them in the 14th spot. It was like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk and leaving it there because you already had $5 in your wallet.

    Green is considered one of the top athletes in the entire draft and has as high a ceiling as anyone taken last night. Granger is a point-forward type who brings size and versatility both offensively and defensively. Both players have a chance to develop into a legit #2 player on a contending team, which is what the Wolves need.

    Instead, they get a shorter, more athletic version of Wally Szczerbiak. I have no doubt that McCants can develop into someone who gives the team 15-18 points per game, just like Wally. Unfortunately, also like Wally he doesn't rebound or defend, and he's not a good ball handler or passer.

    The one thing McCants can hopefully do that Szczerbiak can't is create his own shot, but we'll have to see how he fares against two-guards who have a two-inch height advantage on him. Also, a Sam Cassell-McCants-Szczerbiak point guard-off guard-small forward combination will be the worst defensively in the entire league.

    Oh, and remember that second-round pick I suggested the Wolves use on a European player who might actually turn into something valuable? Instead, they drafted Bracey Wright from Indiana. The only thing he will ever accomplish is adding another name to the long list of Big Ten busts the team has wasted second-round picks on.

    YEAR     PLAYER              TEAM
    1998 Andrae Patterson Indiana
    1999 Louis Bullock Michigan
    2002 Marcus Taylor Michigan State
    2003 Rick Rickert Minnesota
    2005 Bracey Wright Indiana

    That's a pathetic list even as pathetic lists go.

    Assuming I can get over this in the next 24 hours, I'll be back tomorrow with some Twins thoughts. By the way, how's that whole Glenn Williams plan looking now?

    Today at The Hardball Times:
    - My 2005 All-Stars: National League (by Aaron Gleeman)
    - Business of Baseball Report (by Brian Borawski)

    Today's Picks (67-57, +$895):
    Kansas City (Carrasco) +200 over Minnesota (Radke)
    New York (Mussina) -160 over Baltimore (Penn)
    Chicago (McCarthy) +140 over Detroit (Johnson)


    Timberwolves Draft Stuff (and some Twins notes)

    Did anyone else not realize until just now that the NBA Draft is tonight? Anyway, having watched my fair share of college basketball games and read over nearly every possible article devoted to this year's draft, here is my wish list for the Timberwolves:

    1) Chris Paul
    2) Marvin Williams
    3) Andrew Bogut
    4) Deron Williams
    5) Raymond Felton
    6) Danny Granger
    7) Gerald Green

    Those are the seven guys I would be thrilled about landing. Of course, the Wolves don't pick until 14th, so the odds are against any of those guys being there. After that, I'd settle for Jarrett Jack. And yes, if you can't tell from the above list, I'm a big believer in point guards being crucial to success in the NBA.

    More than any specific player, however, the Wolves simply need to get younger and more athletic. Not drafting a stiff tonight would be a good start, because as ESPN.com's John Hollinger wrote about in an outstanding series of articles on the draft yesterday, finding talent in the draft is what has separated the Spurs from the Wolves (and the rest of the NBA) in recent years.

    Both the Spurs and Wolves have a Hall of Fame power forward who can score, pass, rebound, and defend. So why did one team just win their third NBA title while the other is drafting in the lottery tonight? It's fairly simple, I think. The Spurs, despite constantly picking at the bottom of the first round, surrounded Tim Duncan with young, athletic talent from the draft in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Meanwhile, the Wolves' last quality draft pick, through a series of bad decisions both in and out of the draft, was Wally Szczerbiak.

    Surrounding a franchise player with veteran talent via trades and free agency can certainly be effective, as the Wolves showed two years ago in getting within a game of the NBA Finals. But now it is clearly time to reload (I don't want to say "rebuild" because the team will always be competitive with Kevin Garnett around), and that all starts with finding someone with the 14th pick in tonight's draft.

    Whether it is a big man to compliment Garnett, a young point guard to run the team, or an athletic swingman to give the team some much needed speed and defense, Kevin McHale, brand-new coach Dwane Casey, and brand-new general manager Rex Chapman can't afford to come up empty tonight. Finding a potential starter in the second round (as opposed to wasting picks on guys like Rick Rickert and Marcus Taylor) might not be a bad idea either, especially considering that's where the Spurs found Ginobili in 1999.

    Just so I can check back in a few years to see if I was about any of these guys, here are some players I would go after if they lasted until the 47th pick: Eddie Basden, Monta Ellis, John Gilchrist, David Lee, Aaron Miles, C.J. Miles, Jason Maxiell, Salim Stoudamire, Louis Williams. Or, like the Spurs have done, take a flier on a foreign player with a unique set of skills. Some random European guy who can shoot and dribble can't turn out any worse than Blake Stepp, right?

    A couple Twins-related notes ...

    For all the panic and doomsaying going on right now among Twins fans, the fact is that if the postseason started today the Twins would be in it. Seriously. Take a look at the Wild Card standings as of this morning:

                    W      L     WIN%      GB
    Minnesota 41 33 .554 --
    Baltimore 42 34 .553 --
    Cleveland 40 34 .541 1.0
    Texas 38 36 .514 3.0
    New York 39 37 .513 3.0
    Detroit 36 36 .500 4.0

    Well, there'd be a one-game playoff with Baltimore for the Wild Card spot, but you get my point. I don't like the idea of having to hold off the Yankees for a playoff spot, but for all that has gone wrong this season (and all that has gone right in Chicago) the Twins aren't exactly in a terrible spot at the end of June.

    Of course, that isn't to say things are running smoothly. It sounds as though Glenn Williams has taken over for Michael Cuddyer as the starting third baseman based almost entirely on a dozen good games. From Joe Christensen's article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this morning:

    Michael Cuddyer has lost his hold on the Twins' everyday third baseman job. Glenn Williams got his fifth consecutive start at the position Monday against the Kansas City Royals.

    Cuddyer was on the bench again Monday but likely will start at second base again tonight, manager Ron Gardenhire said. Though Gardenhire hasn't come out and said it, Cuddyer appears to have slipped back into a utility role.

    "He can move around," Gardenhire said. "He's moved around before. Everybody wants to play every day in the big leagues -- we all know that. You know what? We also want to win baseball games."

    [...]

    "I'm just going to mix them up the best I can," Gardenhire said. "Michael was struggling a little bit at third base. He'd have a good day and then a bad day. I'm going to put some people out there who can get it done and are a little more consistent out there. That's what we're after right now -- a little consistency."

    I'm not complaining about Williams and I hope he keeps it up for as long as possible, but he has one extra-base hit and one walk in 40 plate appearances, and has looked every bit as bad as Cuddyer defensively. His .421/.436/.447 performance is a fluke. Two straight 0-for-4 games would have him at .347/.354/.369, which is almost exactly what Cuddyer has hit this season (.260/.331/.388).

    It is as empty a batting average as you will ever see. Basically, unless Williams is some sort of Australian Ichiro!, his singles-hitting hot streak will end soon. Which is why it's amusing that Ron Gardenhire equates "consistency" with an 11-year minor-league veteran coming up from Triple-A and hitting .421 with 15 of his 16 hits being singles.

    On the other hand, if this means more playing time at second base for Cuddyer that's fine with me. I doubt it will in the long run, however, and the truth is that with Nick Punto coming back next week and Luis Rodriguez playing well, the Twins will have plenty of second-base depth for once even without Cuddyer in the picture.

    I have no inside information on this subject, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Twins traded Cuddyer. I still think he can be a solid regular at third base or second base, but he has botched every chance the Twins have given him. And regardless of how legitimate some of the chances have been, he was handed the third-base job this spring and allowed to play there nearly every day for three months despite poor hitting and fielding.

    Cuddyer is hitting around .285/.350/.435 since April, which is why I think yanking the third-base gig away from him at this point and giving it to Williams based on a dozen fluky games is a mistake. Still, it feels like he has worn out his welcome in Minnesota. I'd like the Twins to keep playing him, but short of that, trading him for someone they can (and actually will) use would be the next best thing.

    Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Franchises at Birth: The Angels and the Senators (by Steve Treder)
    - Runs Per Game (by Dave Studeman)

    Today's Picks (66-56, +$895):
    Chicago (Buehrle) -140 over Detroit (Robertson)
    Cincinnati (Claussen) +185 over St. Louis (Mulder)


    June 27, 2005

    The Margins

    One of my biggest complaints about Ron Gardenhire is that he does not squeeze the most out of his offense at the margins. There are dozens of examples of this over the years, most prominent among them batting guys like Juan Castro in the second spot in the lineup, refusing to platoon Jacque Jones with a right-handed hitter, and frequently writing up lineups that include multiple bench players in an effort to "get everyone involved."

    Now, none of these things mean the difference between winning and losing over the course of a season. However, the Twins' offense is really struggling right now and the fact that Gardenhire is unwilling (or unable) to get every little bit of extra scoring he can out of the tools he has available is very discouraging.

    Things such as platooning hitters and creating optimal lineups are not advanced strategies, but rather basic, fundamental abilities a major-league manager should have. The fact that Gardenhire doesn't is something I have complained about in the past, which has fallen mostly on deaf ears as the Twins succeeded despite his weaknesses. This season, however, with their margin for error smaller than it has been in the past, the little things add up.

    Jones playing against lefties is where Gardenhire is most stubborn. The fact that Jones has essentially never hit left-handed pitching over a significant period of time during his entire career is often ignored when he gets off to a decent start against southpaws seemingly every season. He did that again this year, and the result was Jones/Gardenhire supporters saying things like, "It looks like he's finally figured lefties out" or "See, Gardenhire knew what he was doing with Jones."

    Well, now we're three months into the season and Jones is hitting just .237/.280/.382 against left-handed pitching. Not only has Gardenhire kept him in the lineup against lefties in typical situations, he has refused to bench him in spots like Friday night, with lefty Chris Capuano on the mound and Lew Ford on the bench with the game being played by NL rules. Rather than give Ford a chance to play in an NL park (something that rarely happened during the first round of road interleague games), Gardenhire stuck with Jones and saw him go 0-for-4.

    Now, Jones going 0-for-4 Friday night was not the reason the Twins lost, just as Jones playing every day against lefties is not the reason the Twins are in second place. However, separating those facts from the idea that Jones playing against left-handed pitching is hurting the team's ability to score runs and thus hurting the team's ability to win games should not be difficult. Yet there Jones is, out there in right field every time a lefty is on the mound.

    Here is what Jones has done against left-handed pitching with Gardenhire as his manager:

    YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    2002 .213 .259 .331 .590
    2003 .269 .310 .393 .703
    2004 .245 .328 .329 .657
    2005 .237 .280 .382 .662

    Essentially, the Twins have handicapped themselves by playing a corner outfielder who hits like a horrible shortstop in a third of their games. And there is little reason for it, other than Gardenhire's stubbornness and inability to accurately view Jones' faults. Sticking Jones in the lineup against southpaws every day is tantamount to the birds who fly into glass windows all day long because they think it's open air. The window isn't going to go away, so there's little point in flying into it over and over again hoping it does.

    The Twins are struggling. The pitching staff is springing leaks, with pitchers getting knocked around, coming up injured, and suddenly unable to throw strikes. The offense has been among the worst in baseball over the last month, as Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau go through rough patches and the veterans struggle along with them. And the defense, baserunning, and situational hitting, once supposedly the team's strengths, have looked sloppy at best.

    It would be nice if, for once, Gardenhire was doing the little things to help the Twins squeeze a few extra runs out of the margins during a time like this. Instead, it is business as usual, except this time it might end up mattering.

    Today at The Hardball Times:
    - My 2005 All-Stars: American League (by Aaron Gleeman)
    - Pythagoras and the White Sox (by Dan Fox)

    Today's Picks (65-56, +$795):
    Los Angeles (Colon) -140 over Texas (Wilson)


    June 24, 2005

    Link-O-Rama

    It's been a while since I dumped some links on you, so let's go ...

  • Quote of the Week, from friend of AG.com Paul Katcher:
    Do you think Sam Cassell has Internet access, or did he cancel his AOL account after coming across the 500th website that cited him as the ugliest player in sports?

    I can't even begin to tell you how many Sam Cassell-related jokes I've made since he joined the Timberwolves. And that's coming from a guy who looks like this.

  • Don't ask me how I stumbled across this site, but you've really got to check out Billy Ray Cyrus' incredible mullet. Cyrus is to mullets what Cassell is to giant alien heads, and I mean that as a huge compliment to both men.
  • I linked to this already in one of my THT columns last week, but it's worth pointing out again for any Twins fans who may have missed it: "Heave the Hawk." And yes, with the Twins several billion games out of first place, I have resorted to picking on Chicago's announcers. "D.J. Sucks Too," apparently. Personally, I miss Wimpy. I loved it when he analyzed.
  • The more I read about new Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey, the more enthused I am about the team hiring him. It seems as though he is one of the most respected coaches in all of basketball. Friend of AG.com Kevin Pelton wrote a very nice farewell to Casey at SuperSonics.com.
  • I agree completely with my buddy Steve Silver: HBO's new series, The Comeback, is horrible. The show has a similar feel to Curb Your Enthusiasm, except without any of the humor or wit. Whereas Larry David plays himself brilliantly, Lisa Kudrow is playing an over-the-top character who belongs in a bad Saturday Night Live sketch (which I'll admit is a bit redundant these days).

    I decided to give it a few weeks before judging the show, but each episode is like a long, drawn-out setup for a big joke with absolutely no payoff. It's a shame too, because the show's plot has a lot of potential if it weren't being done so horribly on every level.

  • On the other hand, Entourage improves every week. Plus, "let's hug it out, bitch" has officially replaced "I'm Rick James, bitch" as the most-used bitch-related TV line.
  • No one asked me, but here's my vote for the most underrated woman of all-time: Lori Loughlin. And like with the Billy Ray Mullet link, don't ask me why I am randomly bringing this up now. I have always been confused about why Loughlin and Monica Potter aren't bigger stars. You know, aside from their acting.
  • Comedy Central is coming up with a lot of good show ideas lately.
  • I think this site basically sums up the best and worst things about the internet. And it's funny as hell, of course.
  • Lisa Gray sent me a series of e-mails earlier this month basically calling me a jerk and a sellout. So here's a link to her blog.
  • Speaking of women and baseball blogs, apparently sass is no longer allowed at Bat-Girl's "Less Stats, More Sass" blog. I wonder if the new lack of sass means that there will now be more stats? It is, I'm sure, a delicate balance. The lesson, as always: Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw around "Bitch Sox." Or something like that; I've never been big on lessons.
  • Poker players are so sexy. Yeah, you heard me.
  • Happy 30th birthday to Seth Stohs, the man behind Seth Speaks. Why, I remember way back when Seth was just a guy in his 20s who decided to start up a Twins blog. Now he's ... well, he's a 30-year-old guy with a Twins blog, I guess. (Remember, we kid because we care.)
  • And finally, this week's Rotoworld column is posted, and it includes several Twins-related notes that may be of interest.
  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - National League Cy Young Candidates (by John Brattain)

    Today's Picks (62-54, +$715):
    Detroit (Maroth) -100 over Arizona (Estes)

    Sunday's Picks:
    Boston (Wells) -105 over Philadelphia (Myers)
    Minnesota (Lohse) +120 over Milwaukee (Santos)
    Atlanta (Smoltz) -130 over Baltimore (Lopez)
    Detroit (Bonderman) -140 over Arizona (Vargas)


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