Only 150 More To Go
Let's get something out of the way right off the bat: Tony Batista and Juan Castro have been fantastic during the season's first two weeks. That's not to say that they'll keep it up all year or that people like me were wrong for thinking that making them two-ninths of a lineup that was horrible last season was a bad decision, but there's no denying how well they've each played thus far.
Castro has shown off his typically fluid and impressive-looking defense while wearing out the right-side of the field with bloops and liners that find that magical spot beyond the infield and in front of the right fielder. Batista has recovered from an early display of rangelessness to show that he can make non-routine plays at third base, and has shown a ton of power and surprising discipline at the plate.
As much as any pair of Twins players, Batista (.297/.366/.568) and Castro (.355/.394/.355) have been responsible for the team's .500 start. And while starting the season with six wins and six losses may not sound like much, it's a major accomplishment considering the Twins' schedule. Opening on the road against the Blue Jays and Indians is tough, but then going home to face perhaps the league's top two teams in the A's and Yankees is downright brutal.
After the Twins' 1-5 start had everyone depressed, I attempted to play the role of an optimistic fan for once by telling someone that if the team could simply manage to get out of April at .500 they'd be in great shape for the remainder of the season. There's still a long way to go before that happens--the Angels and White Sox are next up on the incredibly unforgiving early season schedule--but there's little doubt that the first dozen games of the season have played out favorably for the Twins.
With 12 games down and only 150 more to go, let's go over the good and the bad from the early season. I'll start with the good stuff in addition to Batista and Castro, so if you're one of many optimistic Twins fans who frequents this site and gets upset when I criticize the team, you can skip the last section to avoid the indignity of having some negative aspects of your favorite team discussed (and if you're a cynical bastard like myself, feel free to skip to the bottom).
Scott Baker's performance against the Yankees Friday night was one of the most impressive I've ever seen from a young pitcher. Facing perhaps baseball's best lineup--a gauntlet of All-Stars and Hall of Famers who chew 24-year-olds up and spit them out--Baker pitched brilliantly. He changed speeds exceptionally well, used everything in his expansive repertoire of pitches, and showed an approach to pitching that is extremely impressive for a guy in his first full season.
The hype surrounding Francisco Liriano became almost unbelievable at times over the winter, but now that he's on the mound again all of it seems rather understated. Liriano has made hitters look absolutely silly in nearly every at-bat, racking up 13 strikeouts in 8.1 innings while allowing just six baserunners. He's quickly forced himself into a more important bullpen role and the cries for him to join the starting rotation have begun sooner than even I imagined.
I'll say what has become one of my favorite lines: Joe Mauer is a stud. The power still isn't there, but Mauer's plate discipline and raw hitting talent have been on display more than ever. He effortlessly lays off borderline pitches regardless of the count, seemingly willing the umpire into calling them balls, and then deposits a line drive somewhere for another hit. His ninth-inning at-bat against Mariano Rivera Saturday was amazing to watch, and behind the plate he's very quietly made the Twins a team that opponents rarely attempt to run on.
The bench has been very productive in limited opportunities, as Mike Redmond, Nick Punto, and Luis Rodriguez have each come up with big games already. There isn't a better catching situation in the majors than Mauer and Redmond, and Rodriguez has quickly become one of my favorite players. As for Punto ... like with Batista and Castro sometimes it's nice to appreciate what's already happened rather than focus on what's likely to occur in the future.
Luis Castillo has been everything I thought he'd be and more. His approach at the plate is downright fun to watch, his defense at second base has been fantastic since a shaky first game, and he's shown that there's some life in his legs when needed. Seeing Castillo man the position and bat so effectively near the top of the lineup after years of watching Luis Rivas is a revelation.
I'm not sure how it feels to the person its attached to, but to everyone else Torii Hunter's surgically repaired ankle looks great. Hunter has played his usual outstanding defense in center field and has shown enough aggressiveness on the bases to put aside any concerns that the ankle will slow him early on. There's still the danger of aggravating the injury, of course, but for now Hunter looks as good as ever.
Shannon Stewart began this season like he didn't even remember what went on last year, going 5-for-9 with two homers in the first two games against Toronto. He still looks lost at times tracking down fly balls in left field and hasn't shown any power since the second game, but overall he's been every bit as good as the guy people foolishly talked up as an MVP candidate in 2003.
Juan Rincon was a major question mark coming out of spring training because of an elbow injury, but he has looked more or less like the Rincon of old thus far. He's given up a few more hits than you'd expect, but he's also gotten out of jams effectively and racked up six strikeouts in 6.1 innings of work. Rincon has been perhaps the most underrated member of the Twins during the past three years and having him pitching at full capacity is hugely important.
Michael Cuddyer went hitless in his first seven at-bats, but since then he's gone 3-for-11 with a homer and a double. That's not particularly meaningful, obviously, but more than that I've been encouraged by how good he looks defensively in right field. I still think Cuddyer should be in the infield, but he's shown good range to go along with what is an extremely strong arm. Now, if only the Twins would have planned ahead far enough to not have their starting right fielder spend the first week of the season on the bench.
The Twins haven't had a 30-homer hitter since 1987 and have had just two 100-RBI seasons since 1996. Through a dozen games Justin Morneau has four homers and 13 RBIs, putting him on roughly a 50-homer, 160-RBI pace. He's not walking much and still can't hit lefties, but man it's nice to see someone with some big-time power for once. Plus, no one bloops a single past Robinson Cano's outstretched glove better than Morneau.
For whatever problems the Twins may encounter in the first eight innings of games this season, they can be confident that with Joe Nathan around the ninth inning with go smoothly just about every time. Nathan has been limited to just three innings thus far because Ron Gardenhire continues to use him in a very rigid way, but he's looked as dominant as ever.
As I feared because of his overly fortunate 2005 campaign--he had a good ERA despite a sub par strikeout rate and mediocre control--Jesse Crain has gotten off to a very rough start. Here's what I wrote about him Thursday in this space:
Crain has missed more bats so far this year than he did last season, but he remains far too hittable for a guy with his stuff. At this point he is simply trying to throw a 95 MPH fastball past every hitter, on every pitch. That'll work some of the time, and maybe even most of the time, but when it doesn't work things will get ugly.
And that was before he coughed up the lead (and a win for Johan Santana) against the Yankees Saturday night. Until pitching coach Rick Anderson (or perhaps Baker) convinces Crain that the key to getting big-league hitters out goes beyond throwing the ball really hard, he's going to be unreliable in the late innings. Luckily Rincon is ahead of schedule, so Crain can safely be pushed into a low-leverage role until he gets things straightened out.
Jason Kubel looked out of sync at the plate, trying to pull just about every pitch he saw and ending up with little more than a whole bunch of ground outs to second base. With Ruben Sierra now off the disabled list, Kubel is headed back to Triple-A for a while to get his bat going. Kubel playing at Triple-A for a few months is fine--he missed an entire year after all, and was far from an established major leaguer before the injury--but that the Twins had to yank him around beforehand is both par for the course and sad.
Gardenhire has always struggled to make good decisions setting his lineup, but so far this year his actual in-game managing has been iffy. He's wasting outs by allowing one of the team's best hitters to bunt nearly every time someone is on base and starting pitchers are almost never pulled from a game until they've gotten themselves into trouble. There are some other head-scratchers too, but they are fairly insignificant compared to those two things. Oh, and the baserunners blunders that were so hard to take last season? They haven't disappeared.
Crain has very little movement on his fastball, and regardless of how hard you throw good major-league hitters can catch up to something that is arrow straight. He also seems very hesitant to rely on his off-speed pitches despite the fact that they can be effective.
Santana is 0-2 with a 5.71 ERA in three starts, although he's pitched well enough to have picked up a win with better support from the lineup and to have a lower ERA with better support from the bullpen. Still, he's definitely struggling. The good news is that he essentially starts off like this every season, before eventually morphing into baseball's best pitcher sometime around June 1. After three starts, Santana had a 6.46 ERA in 2004 and a 4.00 ERA in 2005, and he ended up being the league's best pitcher in both seasons.
Brad Radke has put the Twins in a hole in each of his three starts, and while he continues to be a strike-throwing machine he has served up seven homers in 19 innings. When Radke's big decline comes--and it hits nearly every pitcher eventually--it will likely be because he can't keep the ball in the ballpark. He'll always have great control and will always be crafty enough to get people out, but at some point he's going to simply be throwing batting practice. I'm willing to cut him some slack because of the lineups he's faced, but I'm far less optimistic about Radke getting on track than I am with Santana.
Rondell White has been horrendous. Everyone keeps saying that he's "hitting the ball hard" and has just "been unlucky," and that's certainly true to some extent. However, he's not hitting the ball at all in a high percentage of his at-bats, and his penchant for laying off fastballs over the middle and swinging wildly at breaking balls out of the strike zone is already becoming tough to watch. White will surely get on track at some point, but the double plays and strikeouts in key spots have really hurt thus far. When your third-place hitter is being pitched around so teams can get to your cleanup guy, that's a bad sign.