September 19, 2007

Twins Notes: Butch Huskey, 2000, and Punto's DVDs

  • By completing a three-game sweep of the Rangers, the Twins must now go 7-3 against the White Sox, Tigers, and Red Sox to finish with their seventh straight winning season. Going 6-4 over the final 10 games would let them avoid their first losing season since 2000, when they went 69-93 as the AL's worst team. Matt Lawton was the Twins' lone All-Star that year, David Ortiz was the regular designated hitter, and a 24-year-old Torii Hunter spent 55 games at Triple-A following a midseason demotion.

    Here's the lineup that took the field against the Devil Rays on Opening Day:

    1. Todd Walker, 2B
    2. Cristian Guzman, SS
    3. Matt Lawton, RF
    4. Butch Huskey, DH
    5. Corey Koskie, 3B
    6. Ron Coomer, 1B
    7. Jacque Jones, LF
    8. Matthew LeCroy, C
    9. Torii Hunter, CF

    Hunter hit ninth while Butch Huskey batted cleanup, Matthew LeCroy started behind the plate, Denny Hocking replaced Corey Koskie defensively, Brad Radke gave up six runs to take the loss, and Johan Santana followed Bob Wells and Hector Carrasco out of the bullpen with a scoreless ninth inning as the mop-up man. Oh, and I was nearing the end of my junior year of high school. There's really no difference between 80-82 or 82-80, but it'd be nice to stay as far away from that 2000 team as possible.

  • Part of my motivation for starting this blog in 2002 was being frustrated by reading things about the Twins that either lacked or contradicted evidence. The local coverage has gotten significantly better over the past five years, but there are still plenty of instances where someone's opinion is treated like fact without any examination. For example, someone apparently floated the idea that Justin Morneau's lack of power in the second half is due to participating in the Home Run Derby during the All-Star break.

    That's an intriguing thought and an idea that's certainly worth examining, which is why it made sense for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and MLB.com to report on it. Unfortunately, no one actually examined the issue and MLB.com's Kelly Thesier instead chose to imply that it was simply a fact while writing that "a lot of his second-half woes are traced back to taking part in the Home Run Derby." In a different MLB.com article, Leslie Parker wrote:

    Justin Morneau at least partly blames his participation in the Home Run Derby for his second half offensive slump, and his manager does not disagree. Morneau is batting just .254 in the second half, compared to .295 in the first half. He's only hit six home runs post-All Star break, whereas he had 24 before.

    Parker's version at least treats the suggestion as speculation rather than fact, but the quoted numbers are rigged to support the idea anyway. Meanwhile, as Ubelmann points out, the Home Run Derby didn't hurt Morneau when he homered four times in the first 11 games following the break. Either he had some sort of delayed reaction that didn't kick in for three weeks or his power has simply declined in the second half like it did last season (when, incidentally, he didn't participate in the Home Run Derby).

  • The one positive thing about Morneau's second-half struggles is that they might make it easier for the Twins to lock him up to a long-term contract after failing to do so this winter. Here's what Morneau had to say regarding that possibility when asked about it this week:
    I'm still open to it, if it makes sense. But who knows? If we don't sign Torii back, and it doesn't look like Johan is coming back--obviously, I want to be here, but it's a question of how much is in the budget. Radke is one of the only guys who stayed.

    I think after how I did [in 2005], they were waiting for me to prove I could do it again. I would love to do a five- or six-year deal that goes until I'm 33 or 34. So, do I want it to happen? Yeah. But I don't want to get my hopes up.

    Of course, Morneau also made the most important point when he said, "I'm going to be here through 2010 no matter what."

  • Much has been made of this season being Hunter's best, especially now that he's established a new career-high in RBIs, but it's worth noting that so far at least his numbers are nearly identical to his totals from 2002:
    YEAR       G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     SB
    2002 148 604 .289 .334 .524 37 29 23
    2007 149 607 .291 .336 .520 43 28 17

    There are still two weeks left on the schedule, so Hunter will continue to add to his counting stats, but on a rate basis he's been almost exactly as effective as he was in 2002. All of which is to say that he's been extremely good. Interestingly, Hunter signed what turned out to be a five-year contract extension following that 2002 season. I'm not a believer in players being able to adjust their level of performance based on when they hit the open market, so I'm not suggesting that Hunter has done that.

    With that said, the similarities between the seasons are striking given that they came five years apart. When the Twins signed Hunter back in 2002, they did so following what was then the best season of his career and failed to receive that level of performance again until this season. Now they're again in position to potentially sign him to a long-term deal following another career-best season. For Hunter the timing has been perfect, but it's tough for the Twins to pay for his best if they don't always get it.

  • Last week in this space I noted that no one in the local media seems able to discuss Nick Punto's struggles offensively without also talking about his defense, with the praise for his glove increasing as his batting average declines. A good example of this comes from Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com LaVelle E. Neal III, who makes sure to praise Punto's defense with nearly every mention of him in the Star Tribune and seemingly increases the level of praise each time.

    Within the past week LEN3 has described Punto's defense as "spectacular" and "tremendous" while suggesting that he "could make a tidy sum selling DVDs on how to field the position." While I recognize that Punto is a good defensive player, the idea that he's suddenly some sort of cross between Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith, and Frank White is laughable and can traced directly to his historically awful season offensively.

    If Punto was hitting .275 his defense wouldn't be mentioned in every note about him and when it was discussed you can be sure that the descriptions would be less flowery. FSN announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven constantly mentioning and exaggerating Punto's defensive ability is expected, because they've shown little ability to do anything but spout whatever company line they've been given most recently, but for LEN3 and other media members it's disappointing.

    Punto is a good defensive player, but constantly suggesting that he's "spectacular" or "tremendous" or "could make a tidy sum selling DVDs on how to field" is stretching things quite a bit and attaching exaggerated praise for his defense with every mention of his offense is applying a disingenuous spin. How many other players are guaranteed an exaggerated mention of something they do well alongside each mention of something they struggle with?

  • On a related note, LEN3 recently wrote a lengthy article about the Twins' "season-long breakdown in fundamentals." The piece was well done and I'm glad to see the topic finally addressed given the Twins' long-expired and oft-stated reputation for "doing the little things." With that said, it's odd that Punto's repeated inability to lay down sacrifice bunts was left out of the article when fundamental miscues by a handful of other players were mentioned. The article also included this excerpt:
    Overall, the Twins ranked 12th in the American League in runs.

    "[Gardenhire] realizes that to be a winner, it's the little things that count," bench coach Steve Liddle said. "And we haven't done a good job of doing the little things. And that comes from having younger players and maybe having to rush a couple of guys along. Overall, he takes it personally, and it eats at him like cancer."

    First, it's noteworthy that Steve Liddle places the blame on "younger players and maybe having to rush a couple of guys along." In reality, the team's lone position player under the age of 24 is Alexi Casilla, who's played all of 50 games. While it's true that Casilla was perhaps rushed to the majors and has made a number of fundamental mistakes over the past six weeks, the team is filled with veterans (like Punto) who have done the same all season. As usual though, youth gets called out.

    Beyond that, I found it amusing that Liddle's quote about "doing the little things" came directly after the note about the Twins' offense ranking 12th in runs. When you look at the top offenses in the league and see the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers with 150-200 more runs than the Twins, do you really think it's because of "little things" rather than the fact that those teams have hit 38, 52, and 78 percent more homers than the Twins? It'd be refreshing to hear someone talk about "the big things" once in a while.

  • With a homer last night, Jason Kubel is now hitting .298/.373/.503 since the All-Star break, which is good for an .876 OPS in the second half that leads the team by 80 points (Hunter ranks second at .796 and the team as a whole is at .709). Kubel has hit .343/.419/.552 since August 1, but Gardenhire's season-long refusal to simply stick him in the lineup every day means that he's started only 31 of a possible 46 games over that span.

    During that 46-game stretch, Jason Tyner (25) and Rondell White (17) have combined for 52 starts between left field and designated hitter, and Punto has been in the starting lineup 35 times. Kubel is hitting .279/.342/.487 since May 10 and has remained healthy all season, yet he's going to end up coming to the plate fewer than 500 times for a team that ranks 12th in the league in scoring and will likely give about 550 plate appearances to the worst hitter in baseball.

  • Perhaps it ultimately means nothing, but Gardenhire was apparently unaware of Terry Ryan's decision to step down as general manager until about 12 hours before the announcement was made publicly. According to LEN3:
    Gardenhire ... wasn't kept in the loop about Ryan's decision to step down after 13 years and suddenly must build a working relationship with new GM Bill Smith. Ryan has spent the past several months discussing with Twins ownership a change of his role. Gardenhire wasn't informed of Ryan's decision to become a senior adviser until after the team's charter flight landed Wednesday night from Kansas City. "I was as shocked as anybody," Gardenhire said.

    ...

    It seems odd that Gardenhire wasn't in on Ryan's plans, given how closely the two work together. But Ryan was so concerned about news of his intentions leaking out that he kept it quiet among selected members of the organization.

    The same article also included Hunter talking about Ryan being "the face of the franchise," which is amusing for reasons that I've discussed here in the past.

  • After using him 74 times in 149 games, including 24 times when the margin was at least four runs, the Twins have shut down Pat Neshek. Talk of Neshek tiring and losing velocity started weeks ago, but Gardenhire continued to use him constantly and often needlessly put him into games that were already decided one way or another. Giving Neshek rest now beats letting him reach 80 appearances, but the damage may already be done and lessening his workload a month ago would have been smart.

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

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