April 30, 2006

Limping Into May

When I initially looked at the Twins' tough opening-month schedule, I had hoped for a 12-12 April. With seven of the season's first eight series against legitimate contenders, a .500 start would have kept the Twins from falling behind much in the division while allowing them to build some momentum once the schedule let up a bit. Instead, the Twins finished April at 9-15 and find themselves in fourth place, eight games back.

There isn't a ton of difference between 12-12 and 9-15, but it's the way the Twins played in April that's so disappointing. The offense was predictably ineffective and the pitching was shockingly horrible, and the team often looked both overmatched and disinterested. The defense was sloppy, the starting pitchers put the team in an early hole nearly every time out, and the manager continued his annual tradition of giving at-bats to the wrong guys.

The month came to a fitting end in Detroit, where the Tigers embarrassed the Twins over the course of three games, outscoring them 33-1 while exposing nearly every conceivable flaw. It's easy to point to the pitching staff as the main problem, both for the Detroit series and the entire season, but in reality the pitching and hitting have been equally responsible for the team's 9-15 start.

The offense has produced 22 percent fewer runs than the AL average, while the pitching has given up 23 percent more runs than the rest of the league. That the pitching staff has received so much more of the blame is due entirely to expectations, because while the pitchers have been more disappointing they haven't been any worse. In an effort to balance the blame-to-responsibility ratio a bit, I'd like to focus on the hitters' April performances today.

First, the team as a whole ...

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG     R/G
2005 .259 .323 .391 4.2
2006 .250 .311 .355 4.0

I'd have thought it impossible, but for all the talk about improving the offense and all the offseason moves, the Twins' lineup has been even more punchless than last season. The Twins are getting on base four percent less often and their already-pathetic slugging percentage has dropped nine percent. The end result is that the worst offense in the league last season has scored even less frequently this time around, with only the Royals keeping the Twins from bringing up the rear in the AL again.

Now, the individuals ...

                      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG
Torii Hunter 96 .189 .240 .378
Rondell White 91 .136 .143 .148
Shannon Stewart 86 .325 .372 .413
Justin Morneau 84 .208 .274 .416
Tony Batista 83 .267 .337 .427
Joe Mauer 82 .319 .402 .406
Luis Castillo 81 .362 .436 .420
Juan Castro 67 .234 .258 .266
Lew Ford 62 .214 .290 .286
Michael Cuddyer 43 .256 .326 .564
Nick Punto 29 .231 .310 .346
Luis Rodriguez 28 .304 .429 .522
Mike Redmond 25 .375 .400 .500
Ruben Sierra 20 .188 .300 .250
Jason Kubel 18 .188 .278 .188

The sad thing about the continued lack of scoring is that it's come despite outstanding performances from the top three spots in the lineup. Shannon Stewart, Luis Castillo, and Joe Mauer have set the table beautifully by getting on base at .372, .436, and .402 clips, respectively. That's about as good as you can ask for and under normal circumstances would put the Twins in position to score a ton of runs.

Instead, the supposed big boppers in the middle of the lineup who are being counted on to drive all of those runners in have been absolutely pathetic. One good April performance from Rondell White, Torii Hunter or Justin Morneau and things would have been a lot different. White in particular has killed the offense, driving in just five runs despite the top third of the lineup working perfectly to provide him with 83 runners to drive in.

Not only has White hit an execrable .136/.143/.148 and matched his measly RBI total by grounding into five double plays, he's eaten up an astounding 83 outs in 91 plate appearances while doing so. That'd be difficult to do if you tried and it has washed away nearly all of the good work the top of the lineup did. Hunter's .189/.240/.378 line and Morneau's .208/.274/.416 performance have safely wiped away the rest.

While the middle of the lineup has dragged the offense down the most, at the bottom of the lineup Tony Batista and Juan Castro have been as bad as I feared. Batista's .267/.337/.427 line for the year is certainly above my lowly expectations, but when combined with statuesque defense at third base has made him the overall liability I expected. Meanwhile, Castro's magical ability to bloop singles into right field expired some time ago and he's now hitting a wretched .234/.258/.266.

The Twins can blame much of their struggles to score runs in April on surprisingly awful months from White, Hunter, and Morneau, but they certainly have no one to blame but themselves when it comes to Batista and Castro. Right field has also been a source of offensive futility, with Lew Ford starting the bulk of the time and hitting .214/.290/.286 while Michael Cuddyer stays glued to the bench with a .564 slugging percentage and Jason Kubel bats .303/.385/.545 at Triple-A.

One of the many things I've repeatedly opined here over the years is that if given everyday playing time for an entire season, Cuddyer is capable of hitting .275/.350/.450. Dating back to May 1 of last year--one full baseball season's worth of time--Cuddyer is batting .273/.343/.461. Yet despite that and the defensive versatility to play nearly anywhere on the diamond, Cuddyer has been given a grand total of 43 plate appearances in 24 games.

It's easy to blame the lack off offense on White, Hunter, and Morneau, but at some point the manager and general manager have to be held accountable as well. Terry Ryan chose to ignore extensive track records of sub par performances to bring in proven out-makers Batista and Castro rather than give chances to young players with actual upside or seek out more capable veteran options, and both decisions have predictably hurt the team.

Ron Gardenhire has done his part to keep the offense down by giving Batista, Castro, Ruben Sierra, and Nick Punto nearly one-fourth of the team's plate appearances while Cuddyer and Luis Rodriguez rot on the bench and Kubel and Jason Bartlett beat up on International League pitching. And in case simply handing out playing time to undeserving players isn't enough, he's further compromised the offense by drawing up faulty batting orders on a regular basis.

Given the highly flawed offseason maneuvering, the short-sighted refusal to trust the current batch of young talent, the organization's complete lack of planning, and the manager's illogical lineup preferences, the Twins are getting exactly what they asked for. A crappy offense.

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