July 11, 2004

0.5 Games

I've been known to be pessimistic about my beloved Twins. For some reason though, I found myself optimistic (for me, at least) prior to the Detroit series. The Twins, after being swept by Chicago and knocked out of first-place, had won five out of six from Arizona and Kansas City and had a chance to enter the All-Star break with the division lead.

As usual, my rare optimism proved to be nothing but disappointing, as the Twins took the first game from Detroit and then dropped the next three, falling out of first-place by a half-game. It could be worse, of course. Last year, for instance, the Twins lost eight straight and 22 out of 28 heading into the All-Star break and found themselves 7.5 games out of first.

It feels a lot better being 0.5 games back than 7.5, but it's still sort of disappointing. This team, with all its flaws, had an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the White Sox so many different times and just couldn't get the job done.

Getting swept by the White Sox, losing three of four to the Tigers, dropping seven out of 10 to the Devil Rays and Royals, back before Tampa Bay was looking like a real major league team. This is a Twins team that should be three or four games up at this point.

Of course, the other way to look at it is that they had a ton of injuries in the first-half, including losing two of their best players, Shannon Stewart and Joe Mauer, for significant chunks of time, and are still right in the thick of things. In fact, after half a season, they're basically right back where they started.

So I suppose if you thought the Twins would win the division this year (as I did) than you've still got to like their chances of winning it this year, since all they have to do is be one game better than the White Sox once they resume play.

Still, I can't help but wonder if this version of the White Sox will be quite as easy to overtake as past versions were. They've now lost Frank Thomas for a while, which will help, but they did just fine without Magglio Ordonez.

The Twins always talk about pitching and defense as the things that they pride themselves on, the things that they win because of. But if you look at the first-half numbers, they haven't been any better than Chicago in either of those areas.

Chicago has allowed 4.80 runs per game thus far, compared to the Twins' 4.61. And now that the White Sox have Freddy Garcia going every fifth day, instead of the assortment of mediocrity they had alongside Buehrle, Garland, Loaiza and Schoeneweis for most of the first-half, their pitching numbers figure to improve.

On defense, Chicago did a better job than Minnesota turning balls in play into outs during the first-half, coverting 69.6% of them into outs, compared to 67.8% for the Twins.

Meanwhile, the offenses weren't even close. Chicago scored 5.50 runs per game in the first-half, while the Twins managed just 4.66 per game, a difference of over 23%. And those numbers are perhaps skewed by the Twins' good opening month, in which they averaged over six runs per game.

Since April ended, the Twins have scored a measly 4.18 runs per game. Chicago, on the other hand, has been consistent all year, scoring 5.43 runs per game in April and 5.52 runs per game ever since.

If the Twins are going to win this division for the third straight season, they are simply going to have to find a way to score more runs. And not a few more, either, I'm talking a big improvement.

Maybe that means they get Shannon Stewart back immediately after the All-Star break and he hits .322/.384/.470 like he did last year or Doug Mientkiewicz gets his act together and puts together another .305/.438/.433 second-half.

Or maybe they do something crazy, like choosing to have the best hitter in the organization play at the major league level, and Justin Morneau can give them a big power boost from the DH spot. Whatever it is, it needs to happen.

I'm getting sick of losing to the Jason Johnsons, Gary Knottses and Doug Waechtlers of the world, and I would guess Brad Radke and Johan Santana are pretty sick of it too.

Radke enters the All-Star break with a 3.47 ERA that ranks 6th in the American League and he leads all AL pitchers with 14 Quality Starts. But, thanks to getting absolutely zero run support for nearly every one of this starts this year, he is just 5-5 and has but one win since the end of May. Radke ranks 41st in run support among the 45 AL pitchers who currently qualify for the ERA title

The team stopped hitting for Johan Santana recently too. Santana pitched eight brilliant innings yesterday afternoon, striking out 11 batters while giving up just two runs. It was his eighth straight excellent start, a span during which his ERA is a sparkling 2.01. Yet his won-loss record during that brilliant stretch is just 5-3. He ranks 34th among the 45 AL pitchers in run support.

Yesterday, while Santana was mowing down the Tigers after giving up a home run in the second inning, the Twins managed three singles, two doubles and a walk against Jason Johnson, while striking out 11 times. They failed to score a single run against the Detroit righty, who threw a complete game shutout for the first time in his eight-year, 152-start career.

Back on July 1 against the White Sox, Santana also made the mistake of giving up a home run early, but finished the game with eight innings of three-hit ball, allowing just two runs while striking out 12 hitters. The Twins scored just one run.

There are teams that can succeed with a horrible offense. The A's, for the most part, did that last season, winning 96 games while ranking 9th in the league in runs scored. They also played in a pitcher's park and had Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Keith Foulke. In other words, that's not a recipe for success when you're like the Twins and your third-best starting pitcher has a 4.71 ERA.

Minnesota's offense has been carried by two guys -- Joe Mauer for the last six weeks and Lew Ford for the entire year. And really, as good as Ford has been, his numbers (.307/.374/.466) aren't all that special for a corner outfielder.

Aside from a good month from Henry Blanco and a great week from Luis Rivas, no other hitter has been anything but mediocre all year. Jacque Jones still can't hit lefties (.260/.330/.323) and still plays against them every game. He's also got a grotesque .305 on-base percentage against righties.

Doug Mientkiewicz is one of the worst offensive first basemen in baseball, Corey Koskie is having the worst season of his career, and Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman, with their .295 and .313 on-base percentages, continue to kill the team at the plate.

Matthew LeCroy has been mediocre when he's not pinch-hitting and Michael Cuddyer continues to frustrate the hell out of me by not taking advantage of whatever little playing time he's given. Jose Offerman is still getting regular playing time, despite the fact that he's hitting about .010 since April (in addition to the fact that he's Jose Offerman).

The hitters are simply a mess right now, there's just no way around it. My suggestions are the same as they've been all year.

Justin Morneau needs to be hitting homers for the Twins, not the Rochester Red Wings. Jacque Jones needs to have his ass on the bench against lefties. The Twins need to find a middle infielder who can hit.

If Shannon Stewart is healthy at some point, the Twins could kill quite a few birds with one stone by trading Jones for a middle infielder or a starting pitcher, putting Stewart in left field and Ford in right field, and sticking Morneau at DH. They'd get cheaper, they'd get better, they'd get younger, and they'd actually turn some of their outfielders into players who can help them in other places.

Of course, with that said, a good idea for those of you who have become suicidal over the team's lack of offense might be to hold your breath until that happens.

My second-half wishlist:

1) Trade Jacque Jones and/or Michael Restovich for a middle infielder and/or starting pitcher.

2) Call Jesse Crain up from Triple-A and make him a setup man.

3) Call Justin Morneau up from Triple-A and make him the everyday designated hitter.

4) Cut Jose Offerman.

5) Stop writing Henry Blanco's name on the lineup card.

Not asking for much, right?

Today's picks:

No Games Scheduled

Total to date: -$2,975

W/L record: 121-164 (0-1 on Friday for -125.)

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