September 29, 2010

Twins Notes: Limping in, dressing up, and mustaches

• Obviously every team would like to head into the postseason playing their best baseball of the year, but for the Twins right now getting everyone healthy is of much bigger concern than winning games, ugly as that may be for fans watching those games. Consider that the Twins lost five straight games to end the 1987 season and won the World Series. Four years later they finished 10-13, losing four of five to end the season, and won the World Series again.

In both World Series-winning seasons the Twins' negative momentum going into the playoffs meant absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, last year the Twins finished 17-4, including six straight wins to end the season, and were swept in the ALDS. Three years before that they had the best record in baseball after the All-Star break at 49-27, including a 16-7 run to end the year, and were swept out of the ALDS. The key part of limping into the playoffs is "into the playoffs."

• Most teams have an annual tradition in which they force the rookies on the September roster to dress up in embarrassing outfits and the Twins are no different, with the added bonus that Pat Neshek posted some of the amusing pictures from "rookie dress-up day" on his blog. You should check out his site for all the photos, but here's a little collection of my three favorites:

From left to right, that's Drew Butera and Jeff Manship, Alex Burnett, and Ben Revere.

Joe Benson and Kyle Gibson have been named the Twins' minor league hitter and pitcher of the year, respectively. As usual there were plenty of standout pitching performances to choose from this year, including Liam Hendriks' ridiculous 1.74 ERA between two levels of Single-A, but as the organization's top pitching prospect Gibson was a relatively easy pick after posting a 2.96 ERA and 126-to-39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in a system-high 152 innings.

Benson is a different story, because he hit just .259 in 123 games and was actually demoted from Double-A back to high Single-A after a slow start. However, if you look beyond the .259 batting average he led the organization in homers (27), slugging percentage (.538), and OPS (.881). Plus, it was an underwhelming season for hitting prospects throughout the system and the Twins probably shied away from giving the award to Revere for a third straight year.

In my preseason ranking of Twins prospects Gibson was second and Benson was 14th.

• If forced to guess which Twins player was mostly likely to plunk Ron Gardenhire in the ear with an errant throwing during batting practice, I'm pretty certain most fans would have picked Alexi Casilla without much hesitation. Luckily he avoided a serious injury, although Gardenhire surely didn't enjoy the Twins' medical staff performing "an impromptu surgery to drain his ear." It did lead to this amusing quote from Gardenhire: "Best throw he's made all year."

• The widely held and oft-repeated perception that the Twins win because they "do the little things" has been off base for years now, and Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com delved into the numbers to see exactly where their reputation differs from reality. In addition to simply being lazy and ultimately inaccurate analysis, chalking up their success to little things is a disservice to all the players doing big things that help the Twins win.

Matt Klaassen of Fan Graphs put together a good statistical breakdown of the Twins' playoff rotation, concluding that it "stacks up against other playoff teams better than it has in years."

Kelly Thesier of MLB.com wrote a good piece examining 10 prominent reasons for the Twins' success this season. I might quibble with one or two entries on the list, but for the most part it's a good roundup of the key moves that led to the Twins' sixth division title in nine seasons.

Carl Pavano is the early frontrunner for the American Mustache Institute's prestigious Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year award. Seriously. According to Aaron Perlut, the institute's chairman, Pavano's performance this season "once again demonstrated that the ultimate performance enhancer is indeed the mustache on the athletic playing field."

September 27, 2010

Answering some playoff-related questions

Since the Twins clinched the division title last week many of the same playoff-related questions have been asked repeatedly in the comments section, on Twitter, via e-mail, and by the phone callers when I co-hosted "Twins Wrap" on 1500-ESPN. In an effort to address many of those questions--and also to simply get them all in one place for easy referencing--I've put together the answers, best guesses, and predictions below ...

Which team will the Twins play in the first round?

All four AL playoff teams are set (Minnesota, New York, Tampa Bay, Texas) and two teams from the same division can't play each other in the first round, so that means the Twins will host the Wild Card team while the AL East winner hosts the Rangers. As of right now that would mean a five-game matchup against the Yankees beginning October 6 at Target Field.

Which team should the Twins want to play in the first round?

In an attempt to answer that question, I wrote about the Yankees and Rays last week. I tend to think the Rays are a slightly more favorable matchup for the Twins, but both AL East teams are extremely good and ... well, you should read the whole thing.

When will the playoff games be?

Game 1 of the ALDS will be next Wednesday, followed by Game 2 next Thursday, Game 3 on Saturday, Game 4 on Sunday, and Game 5 on Tuesday. The start times for the games won't be announced until the regular season is over, but if the Twins indeed face the Yankees there's a very strong chance most or even all of their games will be at night, in primetime.

Can the Twins get homefield advantage throughout the playoffs?

Because homefield advantage for the World Series is decided by which league wins the All-Star game, that means the team that comes out of the NL will host the World Series this season. Beyond that the Twins are basically guaranteed homefield advantage for the ALDS and would have homefield advantage versus the Rangers in the ALCS, so securing the AL's best record would only add to their homefield advantage if they played the AL East winner in Round 2.

What is the playoff rotation?

Francisco Liriano will start Game 1 of the ALDS, followed by Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing. Nick Blackburn is the fourth starter, although presumably his playoff rotation spot isn't quite etched in stone yet given that he was at Triple-A a month ago. Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey are the alternatives to Blackburn, likely in that order. If healthy and effective Baker is the class of that trio, but he's been hurt and Blackburn has done well since returning from Rochester.

Will the Twins have Justin Morneau for the playoffs?

Justin Morneau hasn't played since suffering a concussion on July 7, and while nothing official has been announced yet last week Ron Gardenhire all but ruled him out until 2011. Morneau is highly unlikely to be available at any point in the playoffs, even as a bench player.

How many pitchers and how many position players will be on the playoff roster?

Because of increased off days and the reliance on better starting pitchers there's far less need for a deep bullpen in the playoffs, and in fact many recent teams have made World Series runs while essentially relying on just 3-4 relievers. Despite that it sounds like the Twins will go with 11 pitchers and 14 position players for the playoff roster.

Who are the 11 pitchers?

Liriano, Pavano, Duensing, and Blackburn in the rotation, with Matt Capps, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and Jose Mijares in the bullpen. That would leave one spot open on an 11-man pitching staff, presumably for Baker or Slowey. I can't see the Twins trusting any starter in a key bullpen role, which means Baker or Slowey (or Blackburn) will be a long reliever, mop-up man, and "break glass in case of emergency" option for extra innings.

Who are the 14 position players?

Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia, Delmon Young, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Jim Thome are the starters, with Drew Butera, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, and Jason Repko as the reserves. That would leave one bench spot for Matt Tolbert, Jose Morales, or Ben Revere, with the latter available despite not having a 40-man roster spot on September 1 thanks to some disabled list-related roster maneuvering.

Who should get the final bench spot?

Starters rarely take days off, so playoff reserves are limited to pinch-hitting, pinch-running, and coming in as defensive replacements. Tolbert, Morales, and Revere are unlikely to pinch-hit for anyone in the lineup. Morales ranks behind Butera defensively, while Tolbert is behind Punto and maybe Casilla. Revere is behind Repko, but with Kubel and Young two outfield gloves may be handy. Revere is also the fastest runner of the three. To me he has the most playoff utility.

Will the Twins continue to use Butera as Pavano's personal catcher in the playoffs?

Prior to Mauer's knee injury the Twins planned to let him catch Pavano's final few starts to get them comfortable working together, because clearly as much as they love Butera defensively they don't want him in the playoff lineup. Butera has certainly done a nice job catching Pavano, helping to limit his weakness holding runners and posting a 3.65 ERA in 15 starts together, but Pavano also has a 3.96 ERA in 16 starts with Mauer catching. Mauer will catch everyone.

September 24, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• Hey look, the Twins have the best record in baseball.

• As a college dropout who's secretly hoping to be retired by age 33, this study confuses me.

• I can certainly understand not liking Dave Matthews, but this might be taking it a bit far.

• Stories like this one scare me away from a life of crime.

• This beats the hell out of that G.B. Leighton song FSN plays every damn night.

• I may be willing to pay extra for Derek Jeter's old apartment, but only if Minka Kelly stayed there after he moved out.

• I'll be on 1500-ESPN after tonight's Twins-Tigers game, co-hosting "Twins Wrap" with Darren Wolfson. Starting about 30 minutes after the final out we'll talk Twins and take phone calls for at least an hour. Stay up late and call in, or just listen online here.

UPDATE: We'll talk plenty about Ron Gardenhire all but ruling out Justin Morneau until 2011.

• My favorite Mad Men quote of the week, in picture form.

• Based on this interview with AMC's website, Kiernan Shipka (aka Sally Draper) is either the world's most brilliant 10-year-old or someone with a horrible sense of how 10-year-olds speak is answering the questions in her name. I'm honestly not sure which, but "fortunately the hair department is quite amazing"?!

• Apparently clothing from the 1960s is to Christina Hendricks what long hair was to Samson.

• Inspired by Felix Hernandez's latest tough-luck start yesterday afternoon, here's my rant on how silly it is to evaluate pitchers on "wins" and "losses."

• The first and last time I'll ever be compared to Carl Crawford. More like Carl's Jr.

• Do you think this comes in a XXXL?

• This commercial is hilarious, but I can't decide if it's intentional or unintentional:

Either way, genius.

• It never ceases to amaze me that the woman in these pictures is someone's mother.

• Journalism Barbie seems like sort of a misguided idea, although surely most guys in the Jets' locker room would approve.

• It takes a special kind of 53-year-old man to use the phrase "poopy pants" on the radio.

• So far I've only liked two (or maybe two-and-a-half) of this season's new television shows: Boardwalk Empire on HBO looks great (and has already been renewed for Season 2), Terriers on FX looks very good, and Running Wilde on FOX looks like it may be decent. Otherwise, meh.

• This isn't quite the sideways-world high school Lost spinoff I was hoping for, but it'll work.

Jose Bautista is the Kim Kardashian of 50-homer, 100-walk hitters.

Red Man is no Green Man, and Matt Diaz is no friend to the drunken doofus.

• In case you don't have time to watch Maury every day, you can get the highlights here.

Katy Perry was too hot for Sesame Street, which no doubt could have set an all-time ratings high in the "men ages 25-54" demographic.

• The team with the most strikeouts in MLB history has scored more runs than the two teams with the fewest strikeouts this season, because a strikeout is just an out.

• University of Minnesota law school student Joshua Fisher was profiled in the New York Times for his blog's coverage of the Dodgers' divorce-related drama.

Jason Whitlock also got the New York Times profile treatment and he always intrigues me.

GQ magazine's oral history of Goodfellas is a great read.

• KFAN morning show co-host Cory Cove signed a three-year contract extension.

• This year's The Hardball Times Baseball Annual is now available for pre-order, and as always I highly recommended it.

• Here are some highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- David Wells calls Joe Torre a "coward" and "terrible manager"
- Cardinals released Felipe Lopez because they were sick of him showing up late for games
- Brewers hitting coach says Alcides Escobar "has to change his mechanics"
- Bobby Jenks "may have thrown his last inning for White Sox"
- Impending free agent A.J. Pierzynski has "no idea" if he'll be back with White Sox
- Alex Gordon: "I'm going to dominate next year"
- Russell Martin faces an uncertain future with the Dodgers
- Dan Uggla wants a five-year, $58 million contract extension
- Finally! Chris Carter gets first hit after starting career 0-for-33

• Finally, because between her name being Florence and her choice of footwear the degree of difficulty is insanely high, this week's AG.com-approved music video if Florence and the Machine doing a live version of "Dog Days Are Over":

September 22, 2010

Twins Notes: AL Central champs (they gone!)

• About two hours after the Twins completed their eighth-inning comeback against the Indians last night the White Sox lost their eighth consecutive game versus the A's, which means the AL Central race is officially over. Kind of anti-climactic with two weeks left, but I'll certainly take it. And it was funny to see Paul Konerko close out Chicago's playoff hopes by grounding out with the bases loaded against Craig Breslow, who was waived by the Twins in mid-2008.

• Obviously securing homefield advantage throughout the playoffs is always a very good thing, but Cliff Corcoran of SI.com crunched the numbers and found that it's likely not as important as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Since the current playoff schedule format was adopted in 1998, teams with homefield advantage have a 45-39 record in series, which isn't all that impressive when you consider that they're usually the superior team anyway.

Of course, not represented in those numbers are both the economic and "holy shit this is fun" impacts of having extra games at Target Field. No matter who the Twins play in the first round, they'll have homefield advantage when the ALDS begins October 6 at Target Field.

• The good news on Joe Mauer's sore left knee is that an MRI exam taken yesterday revealed no structural damage. The bad news is that Mauer does have inflammation and is expected to miss at least 4-5 days after receiving a cortisone injection. Thanks to the White Sox's collapse, he has plenty of time to rest up.

• Last week Mauer became just the fifth catcher in baseball history to reach 1,000 career hits at age 27. Here are the all-time leaders in hits by a catcher through age 27:

Ivan Rodriguez      1333
Ted Simmons         1279
Johnny Bench        1246
Joe Torre           1087
JOE MAUER           1009

Mauer's hit total is hurt by missing most of his rookie year following surgery on the same knee that has him out of action right now, but also by his being so patient at the plate and passing up hits for walks. Here are the all-time leaders in walks by a catcher through age 27:

Johnny Bench         516
Darrell Porter       510
Butch Wynegar        450
JOE MAUER            433
Ted Simmons          427

Butch Wynegar ranked 31st on my list of the best players in Twins history.

Ozzie Guillen had a particularly amusing quote when talking about Danny Valencia coming out of nowhere to hit .340, noting that Valencia played in the same high school conference as his son Ozzie Guillen Jr.:

They go and get this kid Valencia. When you play against Ozzie Guillen Jr. in the same division in high school, you're very horseshit because Ozzie Guillen Jr. is not going to choose any good conference to play baseball. And [Valencia] is a superstar [for the Twins].

As usual, Guillen had all kinds of praise for the Twins after they dispatched with the White Sox.

• Something to consider when debating who should get the Game 1 and Game 5 starts in the ALDS: Francisco Liriano has allowed zero or one run in 11 starts this season, compared to six from Carl Pavano. And they've both allowed three runs or fewer in 22 starts.

UPDATE: Liriano has officially been named the Game 1/5 starter for the ALDS. Good call.

• Last week I mentioned discovering a podcast called "Jesse, Jordan, Go!" hosted by Jordan Morris and Jesse Thorn, the latter of which is a big baseball fan. Over the weekend I listened to various episodes from their archives and stumbled across a show from 2007 in which they had a lengthy discussion centered around the question: "Shia LaBeouf or Boof Bonser?" As if that weren't enough, they interviewed Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press about Bonser.

For literally five minutes she answered very serious-sounding questions about Bonser's name, Bonser's personality, Bonser's weight, and other pressing matters. It was pretty hilarious, and it was long enough ago that Smith a) described herself as "the backup Twins beat writer," and b) had never even heard of LaBeouf. If you want to hear the Boof-related hilarity for yourself, the segment occurs about three-fourths of the way through this episode.

Jim Thome and Target Field are on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, with a feature article written by the great Joe Posnanski and this spectacular looking photo:

That scaled-down version doesn't even begin to do it justice, so click on the photo and then hit zoom to see the full-sized masterpiece.

• Speaking of the Twins getting some national attention, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wrote a good article about pitching coach Rick Anderson and his strike-throwing machines.

• I stepped in for an on-vacation John Gordon as the Monday afternoon guest on 1500-ESPN, talking Twins with Patrick Reusse and Phil Mackey. Surprisingly, during the 15-minute chat I was the only one to bring up a pitcher's win total. And the pitcher was Tony Fiore. You can get the segment here. I'm on about halfway through the clip. I'll also be co-hosting "Twins Wrap" on 1500-ESPN again with Darren Wolfson Friday night, starting 30 minutes after the final out.

• And finally: Woo!

September 20, 2010

Pick your poison: Yankees or Rays?

To be the man, you gotta beat the man. - Ric Flair

Now that the Twins have chewed up and spit out the White Sox to lock up the AL Central title, attention can be turned to potential playoff matchups. Barring something crazy happening in the next two weeks the Twins will begin the postseason on October 6, at Target Field, against either the Yankees or Rays. Two teams from the same division can't play in the first round, so the AL East winner will host Texas while the runner-up heads to Minnesota as the Wild Card.

Because only a half-game separates the Rays and Yankees in the AL East trying to predict the Twins' likely ALDS opponent makes little sense, but trying to figure out which team represents the more favorable matchup is another story. In nine years under Ron Gardenhire the Twins are 18-54 against the Yankees, including 2-9 in the postseason with three ALDS losses, so I'm sure most fans would answer "not the Yankees" regardless of the alternative.

My gut reaction is the same, in part because of how much the Twins have struggled versus the Yankees and in part because New York is simply a really good team. They're the reigning World Series winners and headed to the playoffs for the 15th time in 16 years with the best record in baseball at 90-59 and have out-scored opponents by an MLB-high 181 runs. With all that said, the Rays are no joke and in some ways represent an even tougher matchup for the Twins.

As usual the Yankees have a very strong lineup, leading MLB in scoring and ranking among the AL's top three in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, and walks. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are having career-worst years, but for Rodriguez that still means batting .273/.342/.502 and they have many other dangerous bats in Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada, Lance Berkman, Curtis Granderson, and Marcus Thames.

In fact, come playoff time New York's starting lineup will probably include just one player with a below-average OPS: Jeter. Tampa Bay's offense is also very strong, scoring the second-most runs in baseball, but the Rays have done all that damage without a particularly dangerous lineup. They rank just 11th in batting average, eighth in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging percentage, and eighth in OPS, which would normally add up to a middle-of-the-pack offense.

So how have they scored more runs than any team but the Yankees? Clutch hitting and speed. Tampa Bay has hit much better with runners on base and leads MLB in steals while hitting into the fewest double plays. Consider that the Rays have 160 steals and 86 double plays, while the Twins have 58 steals and 153 double plays. They won't bludgeon you into submission like the Yankees, but the Rays will run you to death and Evan Longoria is an MVP candidate.

There's no doubt that the Yankees have the deeper, more dangerous, and superior lineup and that shouldn't be overlooked regardless of how many cliches people spout about pitching and defense winning in the postseason. However, not being as scary as the Yankees offensively doesn't mean the Rays have any trouble scoring runs and their exceptional team speed could present big problems, particularly if Carl Pavano is tabbed to start twice in a five-game series.

Pavano has surrendered the second-most steals in the league this year and in 42 starts since joining the Twins last season he's allowed 46 steals at an 88 percent success rate. As a team the Twins have 58 steals and Denard Span is the only guy with more than seven. Tampa Bay has six different guys with double-digit steals, including 43 from Carl Crawford, 40 from B.J. Upton, and 24 from Ben Zobrist. They have the ability to wreak havoc in Pavano's starts.

On the pitching side the Yankees and Rays look very similar, ranking third and fourth among AL clubs in runs allowed behind the A's and Twins. Both rotations are headed by a stud southpaw (CC Sabathia and David Price) and both bullpens feature an elite closer (Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano) and potentially dominant setup man (Joba Chamberlain and Joaquin Benoit). And both teams have some question marks in the rotation after the ace.

Andy Pettitte has been as good as ever at age 38, going 11-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 19 outings, but just rejoined the rotation yesterday after spending two months on the disabled list with a groin injury. Phil Hughes went 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA in the first half, but has a 5.37 ERA since the All-Star break and may be wearing down from throwing twice as many innings as last year. A.J. Burnett has a 5.08 ERA and Javier Vazquez has been demoted to the bullpen.

Matt Garza has been his usual self, going 14-8 with a 3.88 ERA after posting ERAs of 3.70 and 3.95 in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay, but Opening Day starter James Shields has taken a step backward with a 4.86 ERA and AL-high 32 homers allowed. Jeff Niemann has struggled in the second half, so Wade Davis or maybe August call-up and Baseball America minor league player of the year Jeremy Hellickson are likely to get the nod as fourth starter.

Tampa Bay's staff is deeper, with Hellickson a versatile weapon in any role and Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and Randy Choate as the bridge to a Benoit-Soriano duo that has combined for a 1.64 ERA and 122-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 115 innings. Of course, if Pettitte is healthy and Hughes gets back on track a Sabathia-Pettitte-Hughes-Burnett rotation is plenty imposing in a five-game series, Chamberlain has been lights-out in the second half, and Rivera is Rivera.

Exceptional team speed also gives the Rays one of the best defenses in baseball, with the top Ultimate Zone Rating of any sure playoff team, an outfield that chases down everything in the gaps, and a pair of truly elite defenders in Crawford and Longoria. If you believe pitching and defense rule in October and expect low-scoring games the ALDS the Rays' base-stealing and fly-catching should not be overlooked. They're the team the Twins are often perceived to be.

Another factor is that trying to defeat the Yankees three times in five games sure sounds a lot more doable than four times in seven games, so in that sense you'd rather tackle them in the first round. On the other hand, not playing the Yankees at all may sound even better and if the Twins face the Rays in the ALDS there's at least a decent chance the Rangers will knock off the Yankees. Although then the Twins might have to face Cliff Lee three times in seven games.

Some years there's a clear weak spot in the playoff field, but this isn't one of them. New York and Tampa Bay are excellent teams with unique strengths that make them very dangerous to the Twins and with Lee atop the rotation Texas is anything but a pushover. If given the choice I'd likely take my chances with the Rays, but ask me tomorrow and that may change and part of me wants to see the Twins slay the dragon if they're going to make a World Series run.

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