May 3, 2004

Justin, Jason and Jesse

The Twins had yesterday off, so I don't have a game to talk about. Instead, I figured it would be a good time to look at what some of Minnesota's minor leaguers are doing...

First and foremost, Justin Morneau is destroying International League pitching. Morneau started last season with similar dominance, first at Double-A and then at Triple-A. The Twins called him up in mid-June, at which point he was hitting .309/.380/.622 with 19 homers in 57 total games.

So far this year, Morneau is hitting .411/.455/.778 with eight homers and nine doubles in 21 games. Now, as Twins fans probably recall, Morneau continued to hit very well initially with the Twins and then went into a sustained funk, before getting sent back to the minors.

Still, I think at this point keeping Morneau at Triple-A is fairly silly and pointless. It's quite clear that he is able to dominate minor league pitching. I think it's also pretty clear that the things Morneau struggled with in the big leagues -- namely hitting major-league breaking pitches -- is not something he can improve upon while toying with Triple-A pitching.

It's certainly a difficult situation. You've got a team that is expected to compete all season for a division title and they have quite a few quality options at first base and designated hitter. Still, you've got a guy who is basically making a mockery of Triple-A. If he's still hitting like this in a month, I think the Twins are just going to have to commit to him being their everyday DH.

Of course, if the Twins have shown anything in the past, it is that they are usually not willing to just stick someone in the lineup and let them play if they struggle (see: Cuddyer, Michael). That is, unless the guy is a middle infielder. I like Matthew LeCroy and he should be back fairly soon, and I like Lew Ford and he's killing to ball right now, but neither of them should hold Justin Morneau back.

Interestingly, Morneau isn't the only hitter tearing it up at Triple-A so far. Jason Bartlett, also known as my only hope for a Rivas-less world (it's a long nickname, I know, but it's an accurate one), is hitting .348/.422/.528 with a homer, seven doubles and three triples in 21 games. Bartlett also hit .296/.380/.425 with eight homers, 31 doubles, eight triples and 41 stolen bases in 139 games at Double-A last season.

Bartlett has played shortstop in the minors so far and he's considered a solid defender there (although he's made a ton of errors so far this season), but I am hopeful that the Twins will eventually consider sliding him over to second base. With the Twins finally seeming to sour on Rivas of late, this seems like more a real option than ever before.

Aside from the Morneau and Bartlett, the other prospect at Triple-A who is of interest to me right now is Jesse Crain. He's getting hit a little more than he did last year, when he combined to post a 1.93 ERA in 84 innings, with a 114/25 strikeout/walk ratio. He held opponents to a .160 batting average last year and he is giving up a .294 average to hitters so far this year.

I'd guess he's given up more than his fair share of bloopers and seeing-eye singles, so I'm not concerned about that. More important to me is the fact that he has 18 strikeouts in 13.2 innings, which means he has whiffed 33% of the batters he has faced. That's pretty nasty, especially combined with just three walks.

If I had to bet, I would say Crain will have the biggest impact on the Twins this season. He could very well be a big part of their bullpen by the beginning of next month. Of course, this all depends on how long they can stand letting Morneau put up huge offensive numbers in Rochester, as well as how much longer they can stomach watching Rivas, period.

I think there a lot of people who would say that bringing prospects up in the middle of the year to play big roles on pennant-contending clubs is a mistake, but I would hope that the Marlins (Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis) and Angels (Francisco Rodriguez, John Lackey) have shown that to be anything but a sure thing over the past two years.

The Twins are playing well so far, despite some major issues, but I am looking forward to reinforcements coming. First it'll be Joe Mauer, LeCroy and Rick Helling, and then maybe Crain, Morneau and Bartlett. Just in time too, because I think Henry Blanco and Jose Offerman are turning into pumpkins before our very eyes.

Today's picks:

Montreal (Vargas) -105 over Colorado (Jennings)

Arizona (Sparks) +135 over Chicago (Mitre)

Pittsburgh (Fogg) +200 over Houston (Pettitte)

Chicago (Loaiza) -110 over Baltimore (DuBose)

Minnesota (Lohse) +140 over Seattle (Moyer)

New York (Contreras) +110 over Oakland (Mulder)

Detroit (Robertson) +180 over Anaheim (Washburn)

Total to date: $90

W/L record: 29-34 (I damn near went 2-0 for +400 yesterday, but the Tigers blew a big lead to the Angels. I had to settle for 1-1 for +110.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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