July 25, 2011

Twins Notes: Time’s a wastin

• Yesterday marked the two-thirds point of the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figured to define the Twins' season leading right up to the July 31 trade deadline. So far they're 6-6 and seven games out of first place, which is a half-game further back than the start of the stretch and the same deficit as a month ago. For all their getting healthy and turning things around the Twins have basically tread water for a month, leaving only 61 games to close a seven-game gap.

At this stage various playoff odds put the Twins less than five percent to win the division, but a) they're presumably better than the overall record shows, b) the rest of the AL Central is far worse than an average division, and c) memories of what happened down the stretch in 2006 make many people reject the idea of becoming sellers regardless of the odds. Tough decisions need to be made this week, the impact of which extends well beyond August and September.

Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Twins are "eyeing" Orioles reliever Koji Uehara, who's quietly been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball since moving to the bullpen full time last season. Uehara was a solid but injury prone mid-rotation starter, but as a reliever he has a 2.35 ERA and ridiculous 113-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88 innings while holding opponents to a .187 batting average.

It doesn't get much better than that and sure enough his 2.51 xFIP since the beginning of last season ranks third among all relievers with at least 80 innings. Uehara isn't a household name and as a 36-year-old with injury baggage he'd come with some risk, but if healthy he's an elite reliever and has a reasonable $4 million option for 2012. Connolly writes that the Orioles "are looking for major league-ready starting pitching," which makes Kevin Slowey a possible fit.

• Slowey has actually been linked to quite a few teams as rumors swirl leading up to Sunday's trade deadline. Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Blue Jays scouted him at Triple-A, which makes sense given that they showed interest in Slowey during spring training. Toronto is believed to be shopping various veteran relievers, including old friend Jon Rauch, so that seems like a natural fit. At this point I'd be very surprised if Slowey isn't traded.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last week that the Twins won't deal impending free agent Michael Cuddyer, but apparently that didn't stop at least one team from trying to change their mind. According to Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News the Giants expressed interest in Cuddyer with the intention of using him at second base, but were rebuffed and quickly moved on to acquire Jeff Keppinger from the Astros for two prospects.

Danny Valencia is putting together one of the most polarizing seasons by any hitter in Twins history, piling up memorable hits and RBIs while hitting terribly overall. Valencia is hitting just .236/.286/.391 overall, yet leads the team with 53 RBIs and many of them have come in key spots. Talk of Valencia's ability to come through in the "clutch" has already become prevalent, but he's actually been awful in situations normally associated with that concept.

With runners on base Valencia has hit .253/.303/.374. With runners in scoring position he's hit .247/.308/.381. And in "close and late" situations he's hit .206/.260/.235. So if he's not thriving with runners on base or in key late-inning spots, how does Valencia have so many RBIs and big hits? Because he's come to the plate with 269 runners on base, which leads the Twins and ranks 10th in the league. RBIs are a function of opportunity as much as performance.

Glen Perkins has shown no sign of slowing down, allowing one run in his last 15 games with a 17-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings. His overall ERA is down to 1.63, with zero home runs and 43 strikeouts in 39 innings. Vic Albury is the only Twins pitcher to allow zero homers in more than 39 innings, tossing 50 homer-less frames in 1976, and Joe Nathan (four times) is the only Twins pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA and more strikeouts than innings. Perkins is unreal.

Scott Baker looked good in his return from the disabled list Saturday, shutting out the Tigers for five innings. He was on a pitch count after missing two weeks with a sore elbow, but Baker had good velocity and recorded five strikeouts while allowing just three singles and one walk. In beating Detroit he sliced his ERA to 2.88, which is ninth in the American League and would be the lowest mark posted by any Twins starter other than Johan Santana since 1991.

Brian Duensing struggled Friday against the Tigers' right-handed-heavy lineup, coughing up seven runs in 4.2 innings. He's allowed right-handed hitters to bat .306 with a .486 slugging percentage off him, which is one of the reasons why I thought the Twins should have left him in the bullpen to begin the season. Early on the decision to pick Duensing over Slowey looked smart, but since May 1 he has a 5.22 ERA and 56-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 79 innings.

Luke Hughes got an unexpected demotion to Triple-A over the weekend as the Twins opted to stick with 13 pitchers and 12 position players for a while. Finding enough consistent work to go around is very difficult with a 12-man staff, so carrying 13 pitchers is absurd. With that said, Hughes didn't exactly make himself indispensable by hitting .237/.293/.322 with 46 strikeouts in 193 plate appearances. At best he's a 26-year-old platoon bat with limited defensive value.

• Assuming the Twins don't trade an outfielder it's tough to imagine Ben Revere staying in the lineup or perhaps even the majors once Denard Span returns from his concussion. Revere has looked very good tracking down fly balls in center field, but the initial excitement created by his singles and speed has predictably faded at the plate. His overall line is down to .249/.287/.284 in 62 games as the obvious limitations shown by his track record have been on full display.

Kelsie Smith covered her final game as the Twins beat reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press yesterday, announcing that she's leaving the newspaper to move to Canada and have a baby next month. Smith doesn't like me much--which puts her in some pretty good company--but I always thought she did quality work and linked to her stuff often here despite the perpetual difficulties of navigating the Pioneer Press website. Her coverage will definitely be missed.

Steve Singleton quickly signed a minor-league deal with the Phillies after the Twins released him from Triple-A last week due to reported "off-the-field issues."

• And last but not least: Bert Blyleven took his rightful place in the Hall of Fame yesterday.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

April 4, 2011

Bullet points and not-so-deep thoughts on a 1-2 weekend in Toronto

• My offseason-long worries about the new middle infield defensively looked legitimate as both Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka made several mistakes in the field. Nishioka in particular committed two obvious errors--booting a ground ball and making an errant throw to first base after coming in on a chopper--and also botched a run-down situation. If nothing else all those Twins-fed, end-of-spring articles touting Nishioka as a Gold Glove candidate seem sort of silly.

Justin Morneau was 1-for-10 in the series, but started all three games while striking out just once and made three or four loud outs on hard-hit balls to the outfield, including a near-double caught in the left-center field gap and a near-homer hauled in at the warning track. To me his durability and overall health remain far bigger question marks than his bat. If he's able to stay in the lineup consistently, he'll hit.

Joe Nathan successfully converted a two-run save in his first appearance since 2009, but it wasn't pretty. He threw just 15 of 31 pitches for strikes and allowed a run on two hits and two walks, with his first out coming on a long fly ball that nearly tied the game. More importantly, as was the case throughout spring training Nathan's velocity was way down. His slider wasn't sharp and his fastball clocked in at 88-91 miles per hour compared to 93-95 mph pre-surgery.

• While not quite as "off" as Nathan's velocity, Francisco Liriano's fastball was a few miles per hour lower than last season and his command was a mess. He walked five versus just three strikeouts, couldn't make it out of the fifth inning, and served up two homers after allowing more than one long ball in just two of 31 starts last season. Of course, next to Carl Pavano's eight-run, three-homer Opening Day outing Liriano's start looked downright impressive.

Nick Blackburn's start was a gem compared to Pavano and Liriano. He couldn't complete six innings, yet kept everyone but the reigning home run champ in the park and looked way more like the mid-rotation starter from 2008/2009 than the batting practice pitcher from most of last year. Blackburn did get away with some crushable pitches, as at least three outs were drilled to center field, but he induced 11 ground balls and his beard was also in midseason form.

• I'll avoid criticizing Ron Gardenhire too much for trotting out his usual "getaway day" lineup in the third game of the season, since presumably he wants to establish a consistent pattern of rest for the regulars, but some lineup decisions left me shaking my head. For instance Jason Kubel, a left-handed hitter with an awful .236/.313/.352 career line off left-handed pitchers, started both games versus a lefty while sitting out the one game against a righty.

• Kubel and Jim Thome each have no business being in the lineup regularly against lefties, yet the lack of a decent right-handed bat on the bench means at least one of them will usually be in there unless Gardenhire gives Jason Repko a rare start. However, to sit Kubel in favor of Michael Cuddyer in the one game started by a righty is just odd. Kubel's only real value is his ability to hit righties and Cuddyer hit just .261/.319/.423 off righties from 2008 to 2010.

• While the spring training debate centered on Luke Hughes versus Matt Tolbert for the utility infielder role, Tolbert winning that job was no shock given his ability to play shortstop and the fact that Gardenhire started him there over Casilla in Game 3. However, we've already seen how Hughes could still come in plenty handy as a righty-hitting alternative to Kubel (or Thome) against lefties. Unfortunately the decision to carry seven relievers leaves no room for him.

Denard Span's ability to bounce back offensively is a big key this season and he looked good at the plate, going 5-for-11 with a homer and two walks while seeing a ton of pitches. Span and Danny Valencia were the only Twins to homer in the series, whereas the Blue Jays went deep a total of seven times while out-scoring the good guys 22 to 8. Dating back to last year Twins pitchers have now allowed 32 homers in 12 games against the Blue Jays.

• Yesterday's bullpen usage was interesting, as Gardenhire turned to Jose Mijares in the sixth inning and then used Glen Perkins for the eighth frame. Not exactly the assumed lefty pecking order and showing that much faith in Perkins is ... well, let's say surprising. Also of note is that Matt Capps worked the seventh inning for the first since 2007 after Mijares had back-to-back walks leading off the frame. In general less rigid bullpen roles are a positive, but I'm skeptical.

• New third base coach Steve Liddle made a Scott Ullger-like mistake getting Valencia thrown out at the plate in the fifth inning when holding him up would have kept the Twins in a bases-loaded, no-out situation with a 2-1 lead and the top of the lineup potentially breaking things wide open. Not every out at the plate comes from a third base coach's error and Valencia may have been safe if not for a great throw, but that's a spot where taking a risk isn't needed.

• In the first inning of Saturday's game rookie Kyle Drabek struck out the side as Nishioka and Morneau complained about umpire Angel Hernandez's spacious strike zone. Meanwhile, amid the whiffing and moaning Joe Mauer drew a four-pitch walk. Drabek, who was acquired from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade and is the 23-year-old son of former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, threw seven one-hit innings in his fourth career start and his cutter was nasty.

• Next up: Four games against the Yankees in New York. No big deal or anything.

April 1, 2011

Twins opening night live blog/chat

What better way to celebrate the start of baseball season than to stay in on Friday night and type things to each other while watching a game on television, right? I'll be blogging, chatting, and answering questions during the Twins' season opener tonight against the Blue Jays. Chat doors open around 6:00 pm, the game starts at 6:07, and I'll go until everyone is sick of me.