August 20, 2006

Notes from the Weekend

I rarely have vivid dreams and almost never remember much about them when I do. However, I had a dream yesterday morning that was odd, detailed, and memorable. In the dream, I attended some sort of huge gathering at a packed stadium with Chuck Klosterman, with the draw being that Bill Simmons and Howard Stern were "answering questions from the audience" up on a large stage.

Most of the dream consisted of Klosterman and I standing in the seemingly never-ending line to ask Stern a question, but at various points we were in the Simmons-asking line as well. I remember using my digital camera to take a bunch of pictures of Stern up on the stage as he answered questions, with Klosterman posing in the foreground.

I repeatedly told Klosterman that my question to Stern was going to be: "With all the different copycats in morning radio these days, do you feel like you have to reinvent yourself all the time?" I also informed him that my question to Simmons was going to be: "What do you really think of Stuart Scott?" And throughout it all, SportsCenter played on this huge television screen behind me.

Many people believe that what you dream is meaningful in terms of what your mind is truly focused on, so I can only imagine what such a specific, oddly detailed dream like that says about me. My initial reaction is that it must have something do with my new employment, but I'm not smart enough to take the analysis much beyond that.

While I ponder exactly what dreaming about Klosterman, Simmons, Stern, and SportsCenter on a Sunday morning means, here are some notes about the weekend's Twins-White Sox series ...

  • Johan Santana wasn't at the height of his powers yesterday afternoon, but he was close enough. Santana fought off ongoing blister problems to turn in his fourth straight outstanding outing and is now 6-0 with a 3.21 ERA since the All-Star break. The win improved Santana to 15-5 with a 3.03 ERA on the year, but Roy Halladay stayed one win ahead of him for the AL lead by beating the Orioles.

    Along with ranking second in wins, Santana also leads the league in ERA, innings, strikeouts, and opponent's batting average. However, he likely faces an uphill climb for the Cy Young Award thanks to Halladay's 16-3 record. All of which isn't to say that Halladay won't end up deserving the award, just that it may not be a fair fight based on the voters' tendency to focus on wins above everything else.

  • The Twins were at their worst Saturday, making numerous mistakes defensively while their long-sequence offense wasn't stringing together the singles necessary for them to score runs. Fortunately, they were at their best during the other two games of the series, with Santana and the bullpen shutting the White Sox down and the lineup living up to Ozzie Guillen's "little piranhas" nickname:
    They can beat you in so many different ways. You wake up and say they're like little piranhas. Chk, chk, chk. You wake up and you don't have no meat, just bones. All those piranhas--blooper here, blooper here, beat out a ground ball, hit a home run, they're up by four. They get up by four with that bullpen? See you at the national anthem tomorrow.

    When I sit down and look at the lineup, give me the New York Yankees. Give me those guys because they've got holes. You can pitch around them, you can pitch to them. These little guys? Castillo and all of them? People worry about the catcher, what's his name, Mauer? Fine, yeah, a good hitter, but worry about the little [guys], they're on base all the time.

    Guillen gets a lot of heat for stuff he says, but I find him fascinating and a lot more intelligent than most people seem to give him credit for. The way he described the Twins' offense above is brilliant and something I would have been proud to write, which isn't something I've often said about a Ron Gardenhire quote.

  • As if taking two out of three from the White Sox wasn't enough to make it a good weekend, the Twins also got some good news on Francisco Liriano:
    It might be closer to mid-September before Liriano returns from the disabled list, if at all this season. Still, Twins orthopedic physician Dan Buss cleared him to take the next step by beginning a throwing program Tuesday.

    Buss re-examined Liriano's left shoulder and elbow Sunday for the first time since the team learned that the rookie All-Star has a strained elbow ligament.

    "He looks as good as he could possibly look given where he started," Buss said. "He's certainly done his work."

    Buss said Liriano's shoulder strength has improved, and based on the tests conducted Sunday, he felt no elbow pain.

    At this stage I'm more concerned about Liriano making 30 starts in 2007 than I am in him making four starts in September, but either way that's good to hear.

  • Torii Hunter came up with two big hits during the series, but continues to be shaky in center field. He continued to show a noticeable lack of range, misplayed several balls, flopped around in a futile effort to make the spectacular plays he's so used to making, and generally just doesn't look "right." Yet, Hunter's rapid decline defensively is being overlooked by the local media, who apparently have no ability to react to a "story" unless the Twins steer them towards it.

    It's not simply a matter of Hunter "losing a step," because that occurs gradually over time. Instead, he's instantly gone from being one of the best center fielders in baseball to being a liability. Hunter's age, multiple foot injuries, and recent stint on the disabled list provide plenty of foreshadowing and explanation, which makes it all the more disappointing that everyone covering the team continues to act like it's business as usual.

    If someone doesn't see that Hunter is struggling at this point, they're trying to not see. Hell, after watching Hunter whiff on a diving catch over the weekend, my mom asked: "Why don't they just move him to left field and put Jason Tyner in center?" When my mom can watch three minutes of a game and immediately supply a more critical, realistic view of the situation than the combined effort being produced by the mainstream media, you know something isn't right.

  • Mike Redmond taking Joe Mauer's place as catcher and No. 3 hitter certainly worked out yesterday thanks to Redmond's two-run single, and giving Mauer days off is crucial to keeping him fresh down the stretch. With that said, I'd like to see Gardenhire plan Mauer's days off a little better and be more willing to shuffle the lineup rather than stubbornly sticking to the "catcher always hits third" mantra.

    Mauer has improved significantly against left-handed pitching this season and is certainly an asset against them, but he's still far more effective against right-handed pitching. Given the high number of southpaws the Twins face by being in the AL Central, there's little reason for Mauer to be getting his days off against righties.

    JOE MAUER SPLITS

    CAREER AVG OBP SLG OPS 2006 AVG OBP SLG OPS
    vs RHP .346 .431 .538 .969 vs RHP .372 .460 .563 1.023
    vs LHP .268 .325 .319 .643 vs LHP .331 .394 .415 .809

    For his career, Mauer has been about 51 percent more effective against righties. He's closed the gap some this season thanks to a .331 batting average against southpaws, but he's still been about 26 percent better against righties this year. Meanwhile, the opposite is true for the right handed-hitting Redmond.

    MIKE REDMOND SPLITS

    CAREER AVG OBP SLG OPS 2006 AVG OBP SLG OPS
    vs RHP .273 .333 .338 .671 vs RHP .295 .325 .372 .697
    vs LHP .324 .379 .427 .806 vs LHP .396 .411 .491 .901

    Redmond has been about 20 percent better against lefties during his career, including about 29 percent better against them this season. Now, obviously it's not always possible to schedule Mauer's days off against a southpaw and I'm not even suggesting that he should have played over Redmond against Javier Vazquez yesterday.

    I'm suggesting that the Twins would be better off if they avoided playing him against a lefty one day and sitting him against a righty a couple days later. In fact, each time Mauer sits out against a right-handed pitcher is a tactical mistake that shows either Gardenhire doesn't recognize Mauer's sizable platoon split or isn't willing to plan ahead enough to take advantage of it.

    Gardenhire not only benched Mauer against the right-handed Vazquez yesterday, he stuck Redmond into the No. 3 spot. Redmond has hit .295/.325/.372 against righties this season and .273/.333/.338 against them during his career, which makes him ill-suited to hit anywhere but the bottom of the order. Gardenhire's decision worked well yesterday, but this is the sort of stuff that bugs me about him.

    For the year, 35 percent of Mauer's at-bats have come against lefties, while 61 percent of Redmond's at-bats have come against righties. There's room for improvement there and it's the sort of thing Gardenhire might figure out if he took a few minutes to examine at the situation. The Twins have a near-perfect catching combo, but only if they are utilized optimally.

  • Earlier in this very entry I commented on the local media's tendency to let the Twins steer them towards a story. Here's a good example, from Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
    Gardenhire mentioned several candidates for a promotion from Class AAA Rochester when rosters expand Sept. 1, including infielder Terry Tiffee, catcher Chris Heintz and speedy outfielder Andres Torres, who could be used as a late-inning base stealing threat.

    Christensen does an excellent job and that's certainly a worthwhile note, but it reeks of going straight from Gardenhire's mouth and into the newspaper despite the fact that it wasn't a direct quote. Saying Andres Torres "could be used as a late-inning base stealing threat" is obviously a throw-away line, but it's also something that Christensen shouldn't have simply taken Gardenhire's word on.

    While fast, Torres is a sub par base-stealer and not much of a threat, going 16-for-23 (69 percent) at Triple-A this season and 9-for-16 (56 percent) in 89 career big-league games. Instead of just passing along whatever comes out of Gardenhire's mouth, I'd love to see Christensen actually comment on Torres' base-stealing ability (or decide that it doesn't warrant mention).

    After all, if Gardenhire told reporters that the Twins were calling Terry Tiffee up from Rochester so they could potentially use him as a "middle-of-the-order power threat," that statement wouldn't just find its way into the newspaper. A little skepticism and a critical eye go a long way when it comes to the thin line between being a reporter and being a spokesperson.

  • With 508 plate appearances, Luis Castillo has triggered the $5.75 million option on his contract for next season. As discussed here several times, Castillo has been a disappointment. His defense has been inconsistent and not as good as advertised, and his .340 on-base percentage is mediocre and his worst since becoming a full-time player in 1999.

    Nagging leg injuries are clearly at least partially to blame for Castillo's disappointment performance. That may offer an excuse or explain how his season has gone, but it doesn't provide any reason for optimism going forward. Castillo turns 31 years old next month, and guys who rely on speed tend not to bounce back once they hit the wrong side of 30 and injuries start taking a toll on their wheels.

    With that said, paying Castillo $5.75 million in 2007 is far from the end of the world and there's little doubt that the Twins could find a taker for him during the offseason. I'd like to see the team explore trading Castillo, for a number of reasons that include payroll flexibility, the need to add power to the lineup, Nick Punto's presence.

    With Castillo declining and Punto improving, Punto is now a better version of Castillo than Castillo himself. Punto is also better suited to play second base than third base, both because his offense would be more of an asset there and his above-average range would actually be used. If the Twins enter next season with Punto as their starting third baseman, they'll have missed an opportunity.

  • Since I love to say "I told you so," here are Pat Neshek's numbers since being called up:
     G       IP      ERA     SO     BB     OAVG     OOBP     OSLG
    15 21.1 0.98 32 3 .100 .137 .186

    Neshek threw 60 innings at Rochester, which means he's on pace to throw about 100 innings this season. The last Twins reliever to throw 100 innings was Greg Swindell in 1997 and before that it was Juan Berenguer in 1990, which tells you either big-league relievers don't pitch enough or the organization's game plan for reliever usage doesn't really extend below the majors.


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