August 12, 2004

Calm Before the Storm

Justin Morneau is a monster. He hits 'em out to right field, he hits 'em out to center field, and he hits 'em out to left field. Sure, he's got some flaws -- he swings at anything high and inside and he doesn't draw any walks -- but he's 23 years old and he's got more power than anyone the Twins have had in at least three decades.

In my dozen or so years as a Twins fan, Morneau is the first hitter whom I actually get excited to watch every time he comes to the plate. There's just always the threat that he might launch something 450 feet. Hell, Morneau is going to have an outside chance at leading the team in home runs, despite playing in about half their games. He has 10 already, in 33 games with the team. The team leader, Jacque Jones, has 18 in 109 games.

While watching Morneau blast two homers off Ryan Franklin, I initially got happy (for obvious reasons) and then got angry, when I started thinking about what could have been this year with Joe Mauer and Morneau batting back-to-back in the lineup. This whole Mauer injury situation really has me depressed and frustrated.

The latest is that he is not going to need additional surgery and should be able to rejoin the team at some point this season, which sounds like good news. However, the team has no idea when exactly he'll be able to return and it is also sounding more and more like his chances of being an everyday catcher are basically shot. They're talking about "just getting his bat in the lineup," which is fine, but nonetheless very depressing.

As a catcher, Mauer has a chance to be one of the great players of this era. As a designated hitter, he has a chance to be a good designated hitter. There's a big difference. Not only would Mauer be sapped of all the value he brings to the table defensively (which is immense) if he was a DH, his offensive value would go way down too. You see, the average DH is about 10% better offensively than the average catcher, which immediately takes a big chunk of Mauer's value as a hitter away.

It's just so frustrating to think about what could have been, and think about the fact that it may never be. And it's not like Mauer played five years as catcher and found it too difficult to fend off nagging injuries before deciding to switch positions. He was catching just fine and was brought down with a very fluky injury. I mean, his catching gear got caught on the turf at the Metrodome while he was chasing after a foul ball.

Ugh! It's so upsetting to me.

It's not all bad news, of course, because even if Mauer can never catch another inning again, a 21-year-old DH who hits like he does is pretty damn nice. Or he could learn third base or first base (pushing Morneau to DH). Still, a 21-year-old catcher who hits like he does was unbelievably exciting.

I was thinking about this the other day, about how young Mauer is and how young Morneau is, and I realized the Twins are in pretty good shape when it comes to their future. It could be argued that, once Mauer comes back, the team's three best players are Johan Santana, Mauer and Morneau. Those three are 25, 21 and 23 years old, respectively.

And they have Jason Kubel, another potential star, tearing up Triple-A right now. Kubel, a corner outfielder who is hitting .353 at Triple-A after hitting .377 at Double-A, is just 22 years old. Personally, I'm hoping the Twins commit to Kubel as their everyday rightfielder next year, either letting Jacque Jones go or (preferably) dealing him for a middle infielder or some pitching.

Of course, the problem comes when you try to draw up a lineup for next year (or even for the end of this season). If Mauer can't catch, I assume he DHs. In which case, you've got two spots (left field and right field) for three players -- Shannon Stewart, Lew Ford and Jones this year, Stewart, Ford and Kubel next year.

Stewart is locked up to a big contract, Kubel is hopefully someone who is going to be a stud for the next decade, and Ford is cheap and has been the team's most valuable hitter this season. So, yet again, the Twins will have a logjam at LF/RF/DH. The Twins' logjam is like Bebe's Kids ... it doesn't die, it multiplies.

All of which assumes, of course, that Joe Mauer can't catch 90-100 games per year. That's not an assumption the Twins have made yet, or at least not one they've made publicly, but it doesn't sound good to me. Of course, I've been known to be a bit of a pessimist.

As usual with the Twins this year, the Mauer injury isn't the only one to worry about. Grant Balfour, who missed the beginning of the season with a bum shoulder, is back on the shelf with the same problem and apparently has a "slightly torn right labrum." A torn labrum is just about the worst injury a pitcher can have, so this is not good news.

Balfour has looked outstanding this year (4-1 with a 3.33 ERA and .179 batting average against) and he is a guy I've been hyping for about two years as someone who could be an impact pitcher. It sounds like he's going to try to pitch through it, which to me sounds like a recipe for mediocre pitching and an eventual "fully torn right labrum."

Also, Corey Koskie had his wrist slammed into by Willie Bloomquist while trying to field Henry Blanco's throw to third base at the end of Wednesday's game. At the time, I thought Koskie had broken his arm, from the way the collision looked and the way Koskie reacted (as if someone had hit him in the arm with a sledgehammer). Word is that it's only a minor injury and he'll be back fairly soon.

The good news is that Koskie could probably use a few days off and Michael Cuddyer, his replacement at third base, could definitely use a few days in the lineup. I personally want to see how Cuddyer handles third base, since Koskie is a free agent, and I have always wanted to see Cuddyer's bat in the lineup. Anyone realize he's hitting .258/.326/.441 right now, including .319/.396/.596 since the All-Star break? Remember how I kept saying he could and would hit, throughout his struggles? Just checking.

Now, onto the big series ...

Game 1: Carlos Silva (10-7, 4.21) vs. Scott Elarton (1-8, 7.19)

Game 2: Kyle Lohse (5-9, 5.17) vs. Jake Westbrook (10-5, 3.61)

Game 3: Terry Mulholland (3-6, 5.14) vs. Chad Durbin (5-4, 5.88)

How awful are those pitching matchups? The Indians avoid both Brad Radke and Johan Santana, the Twins' two reliable starters, while the Twins avoid C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, Cleveland's two lefties. As I talked about yesterday, the Twins have continued to stink against left-handed pitching this year, and Sabathia has been particularly good against them, going 4-2 with a 3.45 ERA in 11 career starts.

The pitching situation is pretty scary for the Twins, who are 9-3 in games started by Radke and Santana since the All-Star break, but just 7-8 in games started by everyone else. On the flip side, the Indians probably don't care who's on the mound for them, because they've gotten to where they are (61-55, three games back) by basically just bashing the hell out of their opponent.

The Indians are leading all of Major League Baseball in runs scored, a group that includes the Red Sox, Yankees and a team that plays half its games in Colorado. They've been particularly dominant offensively since the All-Star break, scoring an average of 6.0 runs per game on their way to a 19-10 post-break record. In other words, things could get very ugly at Jacobs Field this weekend.

This is an incredibly important series for these two teams, particularly considering it's only the middle of August. The Twins are struggling, the Indians are red hot, and they've closed the gap to three games extremely quickly and extremely quietly.

If the Indians were to sweep this series and tie the Twins for the division lead, the rest of the division race might resemble those situations in Nascar races where one car "drafts" behind the leader for a while and then just busts out in front of them, never to be caught.

If the Twins can take two out of three or sweep, it could send a message to Cleveland that the Twins aren't quite ready to give up their spot as the big shots of the division. Either way, I suspect the AL Central race is going to be a lot closer than I expected just a few short days ago.

I'm not willing to count on Silva, Lohse or Mulholland for anything more than maybe 1-2 decent starts, so the offense is going to actually have to show up for the Twins to win this series. If they can't do some damage against Elarton and Durbin, they're in serious trouble, because I'd be very surprised if the Indians don't score at least 15 runs during the series.

AL CENTRAL      W      L     WIN%      GB

Minnesota 63 51 .553 ---
Cleveland 61 55 .526 3.0
Chicago 57 55 .509 5.0

Go Twins!

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

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.