May 3, 2010

Injuries Cast Cloud Over Twins’ Great Start

Twenty-five games into the season and the Twins have the second-best record in the league at 16-9, but the Tigers refuse to fade away in the AL Central and injuries are chipping away at the team's depth. Joe Nathan, Jose Morales, and Clay Condrey all began the season on the disabled list, with Nathan out for all of 2010 following Tommy John elbow surgery, and shortly after that Jose Mijares and Nick Punto joined them on the DL.

Punto came off the shelf Saturday, but now Pat Neshek has taken his place on the DL with a finger injury that sidetracked his own comeback from Tommy John surgery. Four of the Twins' top eight relievers and their backup catcher are currently out, but suddenly all of that seems unimportant with Joe Mauer's status up in the air because of a heel injury. So far Mauer hasn't been put on the DL, but Ron Gardenhire indicated it could be more than a day-to-day issue.

In the meantime, Wilson Ramos was called up from Triple-A and will draw most of the starts over Drew Butera for however long Mauer is out. For all of the people (Gardenhire included) pushing for Ramos to make the Opening Day roster as Mauer's backup, it's worth noting that he was hitting just .179 with a 15-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Triple-A. So, naturally he went 4-for-5 yesterday, becoming the first Twin with four hits in his MLB debut since Kirby Puckett.

Of course, Ramos getting off to a terrible start at Triple-A matters little when the reigning MVP goes down and his initial backup is already on the DL. Ramos and Butera are the only healthy catchers on the 40-man roster and so will play for as long as Mauer can't, with Ramos at least getting consistent starts as opposed to the sporadic playing time he would've gotten opening the season as Morales' fill-in and Mauer's caddy.

Ramos has a very bright future, ranked No. 3 on my annual list of Twins prospects, and looked like a Hall of Famer against the Indians yesterday, but I'm still somewhat skeptical of his ability to thrive as a starting catcher in the majors right now, at age 22 and with a grand total of 70 career games above Single-A. Throw in Butera's non-existent offensive ability and the catching situation may not be particularly pretty if Mauer needs an extended stint on the DL

Fortunately even if Ramos proves human the lineup is deep enough to handle being without Mauer relatively well--at least for a little while--especially if Jason Kubel gets on track following an awful April and the absence of Mauer's left-handed bat convinces Gardenhire to start Jim Thome more versus righties. Ramos taking the AL by storm would be nice, but I'd settle for the Ramos-Butera duo holding their own defensively and hitting .225 with the occasional gapper.

This admittedly sounds silly after Ramos' big debut, but Ramos/Butera replacing Mauer figures to cost the Twins about three runs per week. Not a ton within the context of a few games on the bench or even a 15-day stay on the DL, but with the general rule of thumb that each 10 runs added or subtracted equals one win the three runs per week will begin to add up quickly and have a clear impact on the standings if Mauer's heel injury proves any more serious.

On paper the Twins were an elite team going into spring training, but now they're without one of baseball's premier relievers, half of his setup men, and the reigning MVP and his backup. All those injuries combined with the Tigers starting 16-10 has made life a lot more difficult, but the Twins are on a 100-win pace, remain the class of the division if Mauer returns relatively soon, and perhaps some of young fill-ins stepping up will even make them better off in the long run.

  • dirleton

    On the other hand — if they can get away from leaving the bases strewn with runners some people (not me) will begin asking “Mauer who?”.

  • Jake

    I like Ramos’s swing. It is a very simple motion. He uses mostly upper body. His lower body stays very quite. Usually guys that swing like that are slap contact hitters because you can’t generate as much power without that body rotation.

    But Ramos seems to have plenty of power generated just by his Popeye forearms. Dude just drops the bat down and the ball comes off hard.

    Nice looking prospect. I’d like to see someone try to run his ass over at home plate too. Dude’s built like a brick Schmidt house. Surprised the Vikes didn’t try to draft him.

  • mike

    Better to have the injuries now than Sept.

  • neil

    “Mauer who?” is indeed a foolish statement. Still, Ramos’ debut was certainly memorable, and made us forget our troubles for an afternoon.

  • By Jiminy

    While obviously it’s a big loss to be without Mauer for a while, there is an upside, too. He was on a pace to play way, way more days than you’d like your $184 million dollar catcher to play. This enforced rest could pay dividends later in the season, and possibly even later in his career.

    There’s a remote chance that his enforced rest could even pay for itself this year. Remember last year when he had enforced rest due to an injury, and he hit .400 the next two months. I’m not suggesting he’ll do that, of course. But as the season wore on, and he got tired and banged up, his production slid significantly. So I’m hoping we get through this Mauerless spell with decent production from Ramos, and Mauer comes back full of beans and ready to pop.

    Also, it’s not like it’s his back or knees that are hurting. A hurt bruised heel doesn’t sound like chronic trouble, so I’m just looking at this as enforced rest.

  • Sid

    Given the ongoing injuries to the bullpen, it’s time for a Slama update from AAA:

    IP = 16
    H = 6
    K = 20
    ERA = 1.10
    WHIP = 0.80
    K/W = 3/1

    Free Anthony Slama!

  • GAry

    Why do I have a bad feeling that in a few days, Mauer’s injury is going to turn into Plantar Fascitis, aka Marty Cordova disease?

  • Josh

    I’m on-board with a Free Anthony Slama Campaign.

    It will be interesting to see how the lineup responds. Kubel had a horrible month, but I have to believe that his track record of success as a hitter will get him back on track quickly. The O-Dog has been exactly what we hoped for (and maybe a bit more). Delmon has been a little inconsistent, but so far his approach at the plate seems better and he looks a little better in the field. Cuddyer has been a rock, and Span has been terrific. JJ is struggling at the plate but looks good in the field. 3B remains…3B. Morneau is going great again. So overall, I think the lineup is ok so long as Mauer isn’t out for extended time.

    The pitching staff is a bit confounding. Baker & Slowey seem off in their control, but I think they’ll be ok. Pavano is what he is: a solid middle rotation guy who can give innings and will turn in an occasional clunker. Blackburn clearly needed the time off, but might be ok as the 5th guy. Maybe? The bullpen is hard to read. Between injuries and inconsistency I really don’t know if we have the right mix there. Crain looks terrific one moment, awful the next. Gurrier is going to be in danger of overuse all year, I think, because he’s the only one Gardy really trusts. Unfortunately, overuse will really crash his effectiveness. Rauch is Eddie Guardado: effective enough, but also an adventure. The rest are meh.

    But it was a great month to start the season. You have to love the patience at the plate and the power. If the situational hitting comes around, the offense will be there.

  • Jose Hernandez

    Ramos is from Venezuela, football is not played there, so it was imposible for him to draw NFL interest.

  • Aaron

    Can someone with the ability to break down some stats give me verification of what I see with my own eyes, that Michael Cuddyer has been absolutely brutal in clutch situations this year?

  • http://stickandballguy.com/blog SBG

    JI

    JIM THOME IS A HUGE BARGAIN AT HIS PALTRY SALARY.

  • zebano

    Gah, terrible timing. I would love to see Ramos go on a tear so that we can move him (unless Mauer agrees to learn to play 3B) for a decent return. I was really hoping that Neshek’s injury would prompt a Slama callup.

  • Adam S.

    Easy solutions:

    -Mauer to DL, call up Slama (put on 40man, find some slob to get gett off 40man)

    -Start Kubs vs RHP, Young vs LHP & make Thome full-time DH

    -Keep Manship in the rotation in place of either Baker or Blackburn

    -Baker/Blackburn goes to bullpen, replacing Burnett

    -Start Punto vs RHP, start Harris vs LHP

    Wow, easy as that!!!!

  • Tom W.

    I read somewhere that Ramos was getting a steady diet of curve-balls at AAA, and that until he learns how to hit the curve, his average will not be great. I noticed that two of the pitches he hit yesterday were fast balls. Hopefully he can hit the curve, otherwise Aaron’s hope for .225 might be too much.

  • Jake

    Screw it. Put Cuddy at 3rd and play Kubel, Delmon, and Thome. With Mauer back we would be having JJ Hardy hit 9th and I like Kubel hitting 8th. That would be sick.

  • scott

    Ramos is not getting moved anytime soon, unless of course some team offers up a jason heyward type player. This is the very reason they held on to him, when mauer goes down the offense is still 9 deep (and not 8 deep with butera).

  • jimbo92107

    I can’t believe I’m seeing people talk about getting rid of Wilson Ramos. Trade bait? How about a fantastic backup for Joe Mauer for the next three years, then a king’s ransom of draft picks or prospects in trade?

    It’s become apparent that for Mauer to last the whole year, he needs a backup catcher with a credible bat. Enter Wilson Ramos, an excellent defensive catcher with serious power at the plate. Now Mauer can take every third or fourth game off to keep his body fresh, while the Twins enjoy the bat and defense of a young star catcher.

    I just hope I never see Wilson Ramos in a Yankees or Red Sox uniform. If and when he graduates to a starting role, for goodness sake trade him into the National League!

  • Steven Ellingson

    “Can someone with the ability to break down some stats give me verification of what I see with my own eyes, that Michael Cuddyer has been absolutely brutal in clutch situations this year?”

    Your eyes are correct. Micheal Cuddyer has a -.46 WPA this year. WPA takes the win probability of the game before your at bat, and subtracts it from the win probability after your at bat.

    So overall, we’ve been a total of a half a win worse off after his at bats, despite the fact that he’s been above average when situation isn’t taken into account.

    It is interesting to note, that if you take out the game we lost 4-3 to the Royals, and yesterday’s game against the Indians, he’s been exactly average.

  • Steven Ellingson

    “Ramos is not getting moved anytime soon, unless of course some team offers up a jason heyward type player.”

    Jason Heyward? You have got to be joking. Heyward is one of the best prospects of the decade. Ramos was a good, but not great, hitter in AA last year, and is 2 years older than him. They are not anywhere near comparable prospects.

    “I can’t believe I’m seeing people talk about getting rid of Wilson Ramos. Trade bait? How about a fantastic backup for Joe Mauer for the next three years, then a king’s ransom of draft picks or prospects in trade?”

    I understand that it’s nice to have a good backup. But it’s also a waste, when we have an adequate backup in Morales, and we will have holes elsewhere in the lineup. I’m not saying we should just get rid of him, but they should entertain offers, and if someone offers a top 50 prospect that fits our roster better, they should do it.

    Ramos is a very good prospect, but so are guys like Reid Brignac (going to need an infielder next year) and Jennry Mejia (going to need guys to fill in the rotation in the next few years).

    Obviously it would be great to have a stud backup catcher, but I’d rather have the second basemen, or ace pitcher of the future.

  • scott

    the point i was making steven, was that the twins will have to be blown away with a trade offer to trade ramos, hence the reason i threw heywards name out there (obviously, a team would have to be smoking something to offer that in a trade).

    Also, I disagree with you that its a waste having a stud backup catcher. Do you think its a waste right now? I dont have too much faith in Morales, hes adequate AT BEST. Having a stud backup allows the team to DH/pinch hit both catchers through out the year and not miss a beat when they do so