May 2, 2011

Rotation tops, infield middles, and standings bottoms

Kevin Slowey is scheduled to make what could be his final minor-league rehab outing tonight at high Single-A, as the Twins are apparently stretching him out to possibly replace Francisco Liriano in the rotation. Ron Gardenhire hinted during a radio interview Friday afternoon that Liriano might only get one more start to save his rotation spot, but then backed off that stance somewhat while still making it clear that the Twins are seriously considering a change.

No one has praised Liriano's performance last year more than me, but instead of repeating his great secondary numbers with some better luck to take the big step forward into clear-cut ace territory he's taken several huge steps backward. He hasn't been as terrible as the 9.13 ERA suggests, but Liriano has been legitimately awful and compared to last year his strikeouts are down 38 percent, his walks are up 115 percent, and his fastball is missing two miles per hour.

Whether you thought Liriano's performance last year was ace-caliber because of his secondary numbers or merely very good because of his 14 wins and 3.62 ERA, it should be pretty obvious that the pitcher we saw in 2010 isn't the same pitcher we've seen through five starts in 2011. Not only do the Twins look smart for balking at a long-term contract extension for Liriano this offseason, he's been so bad and so different that his health is now a major question mark.

I long for those annoying-at-the-time arguments about whether the Twins' ace was Liriano or Carl Pavano. Liriano's issues are more extreme and have gotten more attention, but Pavano has been plenty terrible himself with a 5.84 ERA through six starts. More worrisome than the bloated ERA is that his strikeout rate continues to plummet, dropping from 7.2 per nine innings in 2009 after the Twins acquired him at midseason to 4.8 last year and now 4.1 this season.

For some context, Nick Blackburn's career rate of 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings is dead last among all active MLB pitchers with 500 innings. Pavano, like Blackburn, doesn't induce enough ground balls to thrive with that few missed bats, particularly with a shoddy defense behind them. As a pitching staff the Twins have managed just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is dead last in MLB. Lots of contact plus sub par defense equals runs in bunches.

Pavano lost to the Royals yesterday, but at least he defeated a trash can in the dugout:

In addition to possibly dumping Liriano from the rotation the Twins also appear to be running out of patience with Alexi Casilla. I never understood why they showed so much faith in him to begin with, basically handing Casilla a starting job in December despite the fact that he was a career .249/.306/.327 hitter with little major-league experience at shortstop and a mediocre defensive track record at second base.

He's struggled even more than usual offensively, batting .190/.257/.286 in 24 games, and his defense has been predictably sloppy and erratic at a position where he started a grand total of 24 times prior to this season. Casilla is overmatched as an everyday player on both sides of the ball, but that should have been pretty clear long before now and unfortunately the options to replace him are lacking because the Twins put so many eggs in his basket all offseason.

Trevor Plouffe is the most obvious in-house replacement and off to a good start at Rochester, but he's also a 25-year-old career .254/.305/.427 hitter in 1,300 plate appearances at Triple-A who draws mixed reviews defensively at shortstop. Plouffe will bring more power to the table than Casilla and probably be somewhat less mistake-prone, but he's a mediocre prospect and hardly a strong everyday shortstop option. They don't have one of those anywhere, sadly.

Gardenhire indicated that Tsuyoshi Nishioka could be an option at shortstop once he returns from a fractured fibula, but that's still several weeks away and he looked very shaky at second base before the injury. Nishioka has plenty of experience at shortstop in Japan, winning a Gold Glove there last year, but he also won a Gold Glove at second base and the combination of iffy arm strength and a stated preference for second base is why he ceded shortstop to Casilla.

Brendan Harris lacked shortstop range, but Gardenhire used him there because he felt Harris struggled turning double plays as a second baseman. Similar logic might apply to Nishioka, but it's unclear if his double play issues are position-based or a function of runners in Japan rarely using hard slides. Beyond that, moving Nishioka to shortstop and starting Michael Cuddyer or Luke Hughes at second base is just a different version of flawed rather than a defensive fix.

This is my 10th year blogging about the Twins and they've essentially had middle infield issues that entire time, which is remarkable for an organization that emphasizes speed, defense, and athleticism so consistently and has a former middle infielder as manager. Here's a list of all the middle infielders to play at least 100 games for the Twins since Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly as manager in 2002 (which is also the year I started blogging) and their adjusted OPS+ totals:

                     G     OPS+
J.J. Hardy         101      94
Orlando Hudson     126      94
Luis Castillo      227      92
Jason Bartlett     321      88
Luis Rivas         396      80
Brendan Harris     296      79
Cristian Guzman    436      78
Nick Punto         747      74
Luis Rodriguez     206      73
Matt Tolbert       180      70
Denny Hocking      185      70
Alexi Casilla      334      68
Juan Castro        147      64

On the OPS+ scale 100 represents an average MLB hitter, which tells you how ugly the Twins' middle infield has been for the past decade. That list also shows why guys like me wanted J.J. Hardy retained despite his injuries and felt Jason Bartlett never got a fair shake. Casilla ranks second-to-last on the list above only Juan Castro, who played over Bartlett for much of 2005 and 2006. And sadly the farm system is still devoid of any standout middle infield prospects.

There are no shortage of problems with the Twins, but the top of the rotation and the middle of the infield are perhaps the biggest. Being swept by the Royals for the first time since 1998 leaves the Twins with MLB's worst record at 9-18, which is a 54-108 pace with one-sixth of the schedule completed and puts them 10 games behind the first-place Indians. Here's how that stacks up to their record at the same point in nine previous seasons under Gardenhire:

YEAR     W     L     GB
2010    18     9    ---
2009    13    14    3.0
2008    13    14    1.0
2007    15    12    2.5
2006    11    16    8.0
2005    16    11    4.5
2004    16    11    1.0
2003    13    14    5.0
2002    16    11    0.5

Remarkably, last season was the first time under Gardenhire they led the AL Central after 27 games, although they were within one game of first place three other times and within three games in six of the nine years. Their current 9-18 record is two games worse than they've ever been after 27 games under Gardenhire, with 2006 being the closest comparison. That year the Twins were 11-16 and eight games back after 27 games ... and went on to win the division.

  • (the other) Neil

    Blah. What a tough week. Nishioka will be fine when he gets back. He obviously had a lot of nerves when the season started. You could see it on his face. Now that he’s had some time to calm down, he’ll become a nice contributor to a team in desperate need of them. He has the tools to do so. As for the other half up the middle…uh oh.
    Aaron – Who are the best – and most realistic – options for the Twins as far as trading for a middle infielder?

  • http://Aarongleeman.com Rick

    Please change the Twins name to the Mendozas.

  • liner

    Hey, what’s up with Young?? I caught just a bit of PA this weekend where he was saying Young’s strained oblique is a sham. He didn’t want to play because of the cold and the Twins put him on the DL to spite him. I thought it was a joke broadcast, but after listening furhter, he seemed serious. His point was that the Twins have finally had it with Delmon and are bound to trade him.
    Anything more on this???

  • mike wants WINS

    Cut Casilla. As long as he’s here, some scout that is smarter than the numbers will try to convince the Twins to keep him around and start him. Bring up Plouffe and give him the job for the year. See what happens. I don’t think Plouffe is a great player by any stretch. But, he can’t be worse than Casilla.

    Cut Butera. I don’t really care who the catcher is, as long as they are not tempted keep him around. The catcher decisions over the last two years are a series of really, really, bad decisions.

    Put Slowey back in the starting rotation (where he should have been over Blackburn in the first place, and now he should be for Liriano, Pavano, and Blackburn).

    Let’s hope they don’t re-sign Cuddy either. Nice guy. Seems like a real leader. But he’s just not all that good right now. He’s 100% not a 2B.

    I’m disappointed in Hughes’ start. I was hoping he’d at least hit a little and be a utility guy for the next 5 years.

  • pk

    Great article Aaron.

    How does a team go from Division Title hopes to on pace to lose 108 games?

    Here’s the twins top 10 salaried players.

    1) Mauer – DL’d til ??
    2) Morneau – Maybe should still be DL’d?
    3) Nathan – Most certainly should be on DL.
    4) Cuddyer – No longer an everyday player.
    5) Pavano – There’s a reason nobody else wanted him.
    6) Capps – most productive reliever on team
    7) D Young – Makes my stomach hurt.
    8) Kubel – He’s locked in and has been outstanding.
    9) Liriano/Thome – terrible.

    It’s hard to win when your top players are a) on DL b) too old c) just not that good.

    KC looked more athletic, aggressive, and just better.
    WOW.

  • Dave T

    It’s hard to win when you replace your above-average middle infield (Hardy, Hudson) with a couple of question marks. If the ground ball defense were better, starting pitchers that rely on ground ball outs (Blackie and Pavano for two) would pitch with more confidence and maybe we’d be almost competitive.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Is Morneau (who hit his first homer yesterday) just rusty? I assume that if he is playing he is not having concussion symptoms, so is there any reason he won’t return to form? I guess I thought he would either be out or would be the same old Morneau. I did not contemplate that he would come back and be terrible.

    Cuddy and Nathan are in the last years of their contracts and are making a combined $22M this year. That is money that will be better spent next year. We need to trade these guys for whatever we can get for them (which may not be much).

    Given that Mauer misses time every year and was coming off surgery, can we get a better option for our backup catcher? Maybe we were spoiled by having Mike Redmond, but there has to be a better option than Butera.

    How long do we have to keep Dusty Hughes on the roster? There is no way the relievers we have at Rochester can be any worse.

    Don’t freak out about Pavano and Blackburn. They haven’t been bad enough to write them off based on such a small sample. Lirano, though, has been a whole other level of awful. His starts not only nearly guarantee losses, but they also deplete the bullpen. It needs to stop.

    I can’t even watch Casilla anymore. Bring up Ploufe.

  • mazeville

    Perhaps it’s a good thing, in a way. Don’t get me wrong — I have been terribly depressed about the Twins’ play all season long and would obviously rather have a winning team.

    Yet, at the same time, maybe the team from the top down have grown complacent, as evidenced by an offseason that saw only one meaningful addition (Nishioka), a lot of subtractions, overconfidence in Casilla, little done to help the bullpen and a ton of assumptions. The team somehow seems to win every year. Maybe a subpar season will light some fires under people next offseason to take more drastic action.

    Or maybe I’m just desperately searching for something positive to come out of this whole, terrible mess.

    When do the Twolves start playing again?

  • mike wants WINS

    Blackburn was also this bad for 60% of last year. This is not a new thing for him. Pavano was this bad for 2-3 years before the Twins traded for him, and he’s only getting older. I was all for signing him to a reasonable deal last offseason. I may have been wrong about that.

    I love mazeville’s entire post….

  • Tom

    I think I’m agreeing with mazeville also. Let’s not pretend this is a playoff team. There are serious flaws and the only way things change is for the front office to admit it. I’m ready to see this roster turn over….

  • theOW

    Mr. Pohlad, how about giving Gardy 2-3 weeks to turn this thing around. If he cannot (likely won’t), then fire everyone: GM, Mgr, all of the coaches and start anew. Gardy obviously cannot get through to the players anymore. The brand of mistake-filled baseball that you would see on a Little League diamond makes me sick. Worst Twins baseball in over a decade.

  • mike wants WINS

    Aaron or others, is the fact taht they don’t seem to know how to run the bases, or what cutoff man or base to throw to, a matter of natural ability, minor league coaching, or major league coaching?

    I think there might be something wrong in the minors.

    btw, in the latest hotsheet chat on BA on Friday, they said Hicks is trying to take walks and hit singles to the opposite field instead of trying to drive the ball. Ugh.

  • Neil T.

    Goes without saying that Pavano v. garbage pail is the Twins’ best hitting performance of 2011…

  • frightwig

    The Twins have the worst run differential in baseball, trying to catch the club with the best run differential in baseball, while most of the lineup, the “aces” of the rotation, and the Opening Day closer are either hurt, rusty, suddenly looking old, or just suck. Yeah.

    Btw, the last time the Twins got off to a 9-18 start was 1995, the Age of Stahoviak, when they finished that shortened season in 5th place with a 56-88 (.389) record. Over 162 games, that’s 63 wins. At least that team had Kirby, Knoblauch, Cordova, and Munoz putting up good numbers, and young Matt Lawton had a very good call-up. (The big problem was the league-worst pitching staff.) There’s not much to appreciate about this year’s team, so far, apart from Kubel’s bat–and maybe Baker and Duensing.

  • La_Dispute

    I agree with many of the previous posts, especially ‘mazeville.’

    The Twins were pressing their luck going with the same group as last year, minus several key contributors (i.e., the bullpen, middle infield).

    That being said, I still think the Twins will turn things around at some point and will make it a race in the end. It’s nearly impossible to see them making an extended playoff run unless THE ROSTER changes dramatically.

    That’s why they should blow up this roster for the most part and try to supplement the next wave of players like Hicks, Benson, and Gibson.

    Cuddyer should be traded for a mid-level prospect, if that’s even possible at this point. Perhaps the Pirates haven’t been paying attention and will trade us back Garrett Jones. I don’t care if Cuddyer plays every position. He is clumsy at 2nd base and is useless when charging anything hit in front of him. His only standout defensive skill is his plus+ arm, which is in very limited display at 2nd.

  • La_Dispute

    This isn’t a new story, but is anyone else sick of the media’s infatuation with ‘Cuddy?’

    His bland commentary and ‘nice guy’ attitude is intolerable. It doesn’t take any effort to be the good guy. Nice guys finish last. Try taking a slider down and away for once. Is there a more obvious scouting report in baseball than Cuddyer chasing a slider? Rondell White thinks this guy is overpaid.

  • brian

    Hey Tom and everyone else: The Twins are by definition not a playoff team. Let’s always keep that straight. They are a team threatening to not win the Central Division.

  • mike wants wins

    yaaaaaay. I’m glad I checked mlb.com to see if they had video.

  • Tom W.

    F-Bomb drops a no-no.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Did. Not. See. That. Coming.

    Wow.