August 5, 2007

Notes From The Weekend

  • Scott Baker made his 30th career start on June 15 and lost to the Brewers while allowing six runs in 4.2 innings, at which point I compared his numbers to how past Twins pitchers Brad Radke, Jim Kaat, Frank Viola, Kyle Lohse, and Eric Milton had fared through the same stage in their respective careers. The point was more or less that while Baker's 5.58 ERA wasn't pretty, it was also similar to the level of performance turned in by several pitchers who ended up having fine careers.

    I've always believed in showing patience and trusting minor-league performances when it comes to young players, so I naturally felt the need to stick up for Baker when Twins fans, media members, and occasionally even the Twins began heaping a shocking amount of criticism on him following every poor outing. Plenty of young players struggle early in their career and plenty of good prospects don't pan out, but for some reason Baker seemed to get a shorter leash and more vitriol than most.

    Ron Gardenhire was perfectly willing to skip Baker's turn in the rotation while saying that doing so with other pitchers could adversely impact their performance. Seemingly each time Baker gave up a hit, Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven would treat the FSN viewing audience to talk of having to "keep the ball down," which was clearly one of the talking points that they'd been given by the team. And after every rough start, the comments section here would overflow with people calling for Baker to be traded.

    Here's what I wrote about Baker shortly after making the through-30-starts comparison:

    I've never really thought of Baker as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter, but the amazingly negative reaction he gets from many Twins fans has sort of forced me into a position of defending him to some degree. He now has ... the type of numbers that bode well for the future of a 25-year-old pitcher with an outstanding minor-league track record. For whatever reason many fans seemingly view him as a worthless bum, but he clearly doesn't deserve that level of vitriol. He deserves some patience.

    To their credit, the Twins showed "some patience" by sticking with Baker and he's responded by going 5-2 with a 3.13 ERA in nine starts since the loss to Milwaukee, including eight shutout innings against the Indians yesterday. Baker isn't that good, just like he wasn't that bad earlier in the season, but hopefully his nine-start stretch has shown that 25-year-old pitchers with strong minor-league track records and good secondary numbers in the majors shouldn't be given up on so quickly.

  • It's not often that you'll see a 30-year-old optioned to Triple-A, but that's exactly what happened with Lew Ford's demotion to Rochester over the weekend. Ford's demotion combined with Luis Castillo and Jeff Cirillo being let go leaves the Twins' offense looking quite a bit different than it did a week ago. Unfortunately, with Jason Tyner starting, reliever Carmen Cali replacing Ford on the roster, and Cirillo's departure leaving a weak bench even weaker, the offense isn't any better off for all the changes.

    Perhaps the Twins' biggest weakness this season has been a lack of offensive depth, which is why it's odd to see Terry Ryan part with three veteran hitters after failing to acquire any help for the lineup prior to the trading deadline. Trading Castillo for two low-level prospects and allowing the Diamondbacks to claim Cirillo off waivers for nothing are the moves of a non-contending team looking to save money and clear playing time for youngsters. Except the Twins are now four games out of a playoff spot.

    Not having Castillo and Ford won't hurt much, if at all. Ford hasn't been an effective hitter since 2004, batting .250/.320/.358 in 300 games since then, including .232/.301/.366 this season. Castillo is a bigger blow given that he was one of just four hitters on the team with a better-than-average on-base percentage, but his modest .302/.356/.352 overall hitting line wasn't hugely valuable and his mobility was disappearing as his legs continued to fall apart.

    Replacing Ford is a non-issue, while the task of replacing Castillo will fall upon Alexi Casilla both now and in the future. A 22-year-old who was stolen from the Angels for J.C. Romero and looks an awful lot like a young Castillo in nearly every aspect of the game, I ranked Casilla as the team's No. 6 prospect heading into the season. He may struggle to match Castillo's OBP initially, but drove in the lone run in yesterday's 1-0 win with an extra-base hit and has already shown more range defensively.

    If there's a dropoff from Castillo to Casilla at this point it figures to be minimal, which is what Ryan had in mind when he saved about $2 million by essentially dumping Castillo on the Mets. A similar thought process was likely involved in saving $500,000 by handing Cirillo to the Diamondbacks, but the Twins are less equipped to seamlessly replace him. Cirillo was far from great, but his .814 OPS against lefties ranked fourth on the team, behind only Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, and Mike Redmond.

    Just hours after Cirillo was removed from the roster, Nick Punto and his putrid .499 OPS against lefties started at third base against one of the league's best left-handers, C.C. Sabathia. The next day, with rookie southpaw Aaron Laffey on the mound, fellow rookie Brian Buscher got the start at third base despite being a left-handed hitter who arrived from Rochester on July 27. Cirillo capably filled a role that no other player on the roster can and losing him for nothing is curious at best.

  • Joe Mauer gunned down steal attempts by Kenny Lofton and Grady Sizemore yesterday, making him 16-for-30 (53.3 percent) throwing out would-be basestealers this season. That leads the AL by a wide margin and gives Mauer a caught-stealing percentage of 42.5 for his career. For comparison, Ivan Rodriguez, who's widely considered one of the greatest-throwing catchers in baseball history, checks in at 47.5 percent for his career.

    When Mauer isn't behind the plate, Redmond has gone 13-for-29 (44.8 percent) throwing out runners, which would rank second to Mauer if Redmond had enough playing time to qualify for the leaderboard. While Mauer and Redmond have combined to throw out 29-of-59 (49.2 percent) stolen-base attempts, Chris Heintz went 0-for-8 in his brief stints with the team. Heintz, who was optioned back to Triple-A in late June, broke his hand and will be sidelined at Rochester for the next month.

    Not only does Mauer throw out a tremendous percentage of would-be basestealers, he's so good that teams rarely even attempt to run against him. He's had a steal attempted against him once every 19 innings, compared to once every 12 innings for Redmond and once every seven innings for Heintz. Jason Kendall, who has the worst caught-stealing percentage among starting catchers at 16.1, has had a steal attempted against him once every nine innings, more than twice as often as Mauer.

  • Rondell White sat out all three weekend games against the Indians, which means that he's totaled 21 plate appearances since coming off the disabled list on July 23. White has now played in 108 of a possible 272 games in two seasons with the Twins, hitting .238/.271/.350. If he's not careful, Hunter might start questioning his toughness through the media. Meanwhile, with White out Bremer's dream of seeing Tyner in the lineup every day has been realized.

    Tyner has started 11 straight games as a corner outfielder despite being one of the least-powerful, worst-hitting outfielders in baseball over the past 50 years. Worse yet, he started back-to-back games against Sabathia and Laffey over the weekend while sporting a pathetic .256/.298/.264 career line versus southpaws. Tyner has now started 47 of the Twins' 110 games this season, including 14 starts at designated hitter and another 33 starts in an outfield corner.

    While the team's lack of offense is largely forgiven when they win back-to-back games over a first-place team while scoring a total of four runs, Ryan and Gardenhire have set themselves up for all kinds of offensive struggles down the stretch. No capable bats have been added, several usable pieces have been discarded, and guys like Tyner and Punto continue to play regularly. Mediocre in the first half, the Twins' offense ranks dead last in the AL with an average of 3.2 runs per game since the All-Star break.

    If the Twins come up just short of a playoff spot, some fans will be willing to write this season off as a rebuilding year. While that's true to some extent and planning for the future is crucial for low-payroll teams to remain competitive long term, the Twins are close enough to contending right now that a few relatively minor moves could have pushed them over the top. Ryan rarely seems willing or able to make those moves effectively, and his moves (and non-moves) over the past week have been odd.

  • In breaking down Punto's horrible first-half numbers back in early July, here's what I wrote:
    Looking to put the ball in play rather than working deep counts was a good approach for a hitter who has no power and struggles to make contact. Unfortunately, he's back to old habits ... That tradeoff works for some, but for Punto it means letting hittable pitches go by. ... When you have the power to make pitchers pay for mistakes or possess the skills to make solid contact in unfavorable counts, then taking tons of pitches makes sense. When you're Punto, it just means that you've been reduced to coaxing walks in between making easy outs.

    Since then Punto has been even worse, batting .196/.220/.268, and when asked over the weekend about Punto's awful hitting Gardenhire said essentially the same stuff:

    We'd like to see him get a little more confidence in his own ability to hit. He's taking so many pitches, he gets behind. It seems like he's up there with two strikes every at-bat. Just swing. Get up there and let it fly. Instead of trying to be so patient, swing the bat. And hopefully we'll get there. It's hard. It's not easy when you're struggling. But he's a big part of this team.

    He's "a big part of this team" because Ryan guaranteed him $4.2 million over the next two seasons and Gardenhire refuses to stop writing his name in the lineup, but it certainly doesn't have to be that way. Punto is a career .248/.318/.326 hitter in the midst of his worst season, yet he's racked up nearly 400 plate appearances and is on pace to bat over 550 times this season. Again, if the Twins come up just short of the postseason, the process that led to Punto batting so often will have played a huge part.

  • Grant Balfour, a one-time AG.com favorite whose Twins career flamed out due to arm injuries, has resurfaced in the Devil Rays bullpen after missing two entire seasons. Another former AG.com favorite, Bobby Kielty, is looking for work after being released by the A's. Kielty never approached the heights that I expected and my freaking out over the Twins dealing him to the Blue Jays for Shannon Stewart is a regrettable moment, but he remains a solid role player who could help teams like the Twins.

    A switch-hitter who proved to be punchless from the left side of the plate, Kielty has hit .296/.379/.509 from the right side during his career, including .303/.367/.519 against lefties since 2004. Of course, if the Twins have no use for Cirillo's lefty mashing in their thin infield, it's unlikely that they'd see Kielty with much value in their outfield. As Oakland assistant general manager David Forst said upon letting Kielty go: "Bobby can play a role for someone, he can hit left-handed pitchers."

  • FSN studio co-host Ron Coomer was arrested and charged with drunken driving after being pulled over in the wee hours Friday night. Coomer seems like a nice guy, but I have little tolerance for people who drive drunk and his arrest leading to less time on broadcasts would make for an improved viewing experience. Six weeks ago Coomer opined that Castillo was "the Twins MVP" and "probably the best leadoff hitter in the league," so perhaps the trade led him to drink (or drinking led him to the opinions).

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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