June 20, 2006

Twins 6, Astros 5

What an odd way to climb above .500 for the first time since April 15.

Down 4-1 early thanks to a pair of homers off Brad Radke, the Twins came back to tie the Astros at 4-4 in seventh inning and then took a 5-4 lead on a Brad Lidge wild pitch in the top of the ninth. Joe Nathan came in to lock down the Twins' 35th win of the season and at no point did it even cross my mind that he could blow the lead.

Not only was Nathan 17-for-17 converting save chances dating back to last September, with a 1.93 ERA and .178 opponent's batting average he's been so automatic this season that I can't remember the last time I felt nervous with a late-inning lead. True to form, Nathan got two easy outs and quickly got two strikes on Preston Wilson, one of baseball's most strikeout-prone hitters.

And then, much like the ending of The Crying Game except with slightly less homoeroticism, Wilson sliced a line drive down the right-field line for a game-tying homer.

Nathan shook off the blown save to retire Brad Ausmus on an easy ground out, sending the game into extra innings. Houston brought lefty Trever Miller in from the bullpen to pitch to Justin Morneau, who promptly launched the first pitch he saw into the gap in left-center field to take Nathan off the hook with a go-ahead homer.

Two outs later Jason Bartlett lined a double down the left-field line, bringing up Nathan's spot in the lineup. That gave Ron Gardenhire an interesting decision to make, because in order for Nathan to pitch the 10th inning he had to hit for himself with a runner in scoring position. The upside is that Nathan had only thrown 17 pitches and likely wanted a second chance to close out the win.

Of course, there's a downside too. Even though Nathan is a former position player who likely hits much better than the majority of big-league pitchers, letting him bat for himself basically forfeits any chance at tacking on an additional run. Plus, having Nathan pitch a second inning may make him unavailable for Wednesday's game.

The other option is pinch-hitting for Nathan, which would bring Juan Rincon in for the 10th-inning save. Whereas the best-case scenario with Nathan is him lucking into a hit maybe 15 percent of the time, a pinch-hitter like Mike Redmond gives the Twins perhaps a 30-percent chance of bringing Bartlett in for the seventh run. Plus, Rincon has been every bit as reliable as Nathan for most of the year.

Gardenhire chose to stick with Nathan and I likely would have brought Redmond off the bench to hit, but unlike many of his decisions I can't say that I find much fault in the way things went down. Adding an insurance run in that situation could be hugely important and I have nearly as much faith in Rincon as Nathan, but using Nathan for multiple innings is something I've been advocating for a while now.

Nathan predictably struck out on four pitches, stranding Bartlett at second base, but definitely got his money's worth on the two swings he unleashed. Then, as if angry at himself for goofing around in the ninth inning, Nathan struck out Orlando Palmeiro, Eric Munson, and Craig Biggio to emphatically slam the door.

Some other notes from the Twins' eighth straight win ...

  • Morneau's homer was his 17th of the season and he's now on a 40-homer, 135-RBI pace. He's also hitting .270 after being at .235 as recently as June 8 and batting .239 last season. Perhaps most encouraging is that Morneau's game-winning homer came off a left-handed pitcher, giving him five homers and a .486 slugging percentage against southpaws this season.
  • Joe Mauer went 1-for-4 to drop his MLB-leading batting average to .378 and was also intentionally walked. With a runner on second base, two outs, and the game tied in the seventh inning, Roy Oswalt put Mauer on to face Michael Cuddyer. This is noteworthy because Cuddyer is the Twins' cleanup hitter and you don't often see teams put runners on base in order to face that spot in the lineup. Beyond that, Cuddyer had already homered off Oswalt in the second inning.

    The move worked and I can't say that I blame manager Phil Garner for making it, but it either shows a ton of respect for Mauer or an incredible lack of respect for the Twins' choice to bat directly behind him. Given that Cuddyer is hitting .270/.367/.536 I'm guessing it had more to do with the guy getting a hit 38 percent of the time than anything else. Mauer has been walked intentionally six times this season after receiving a dozen free passes last year.

  • It's tough to get too excited about Bartlett's hitting since returning from Triple-A when Juan Castro was actually batting .350 for the first three weeks of April. With that said, Bartlett is now 10-for-22 (.455) with two doubles in six games. He's also looked solid defensively and has given the team an added dimension with his speed while supplying an on-base threat at the bottom of the order. With each game I wonder why exactly he couldn't have been doing this two months ago.
  • In the grand scheme of things it's not a big deal, but I'm growing tired of Gardenhire replacing Jason Kubel with Lew Ford defensively in the late innings. Kubel has shown himself to be a fine defensive left fielder and last night at least the switch forced Ford into an important situation offensively while Kubel looked on from the bench.

    The last thing I'd want to do is take Kubel's bat out of the lineup in a close game because of marginally improved defense in an outfield corner, especially when his replacement has been one of the team's worst hitters. It's somewhat astounding to me that Gardenhire has shown a willingness to let guys like Castro hit in key late-inning spots, yet feels the need to micro-manage to the point of replacing a good defensive left fielder with a very good defensive left fielder.

  • Jesse Crain came up with 1.2 hitless innings in relief of Radke and quietly has a 1.74 ERA in eight games this month. In fact, since Crain's blowup against the Mariners on May 1, he has a 3.10 ERA and 18-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20.1 innings. Interestingly, Crain has gone from being an extreme fly-ball pitcher to an extreme ground-ball pitcher, posting a 30-to-12 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio over that span.
  • The new-and-improved Nick Punto continues to avoid turning back into a pumpkin, tying the game with a two-out RBI double down the left-field line off Oswalt. Punto's numbers have slipped this month, but he's still hitting .286/.377/.357 while playing excellent defense at third base, which compared to 50 games of Tony Batista makes Punto seem like Mike Schmidt.

  • June 18, 2006


    On June 7 the Twins dropped their fourth straight game when Carl Everett hit a walk-off homer against Jesse Crain while Joe Nathan looked on from the bullpen, unused. That loss stuck the Twins with the league's third-worst record at 25-33, including 1-5 in June, and over their last 162 games the team was a miserable 73-89.

    Johan Santana took the mound the next day to halt the losing streak and the Twins have lost only once since. Less than two weeks after arguably reaching the lowest point of the season, the Twins' record stands at 34-34. Juan Castro and Tony Batista are safely in the rearview mirror, Ron Gardenhire's mismanagement of the bullpen isn't such a big issue, and Jason Bartlett looks here to stay.

    It's amazing all the problems a seven-game winning streak can fix.

    I've talked plenty already about The Joe Mauer Show, the power binges from Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, the importance of finally giving Bartlett a chance, and the impact jettisoning Castro and Batista will have. What I haven't touched on much yet is the fact that after a horrendous April the Twins' pitching staff has quietly regained its form from last season.

    MONTH        IP      ERA      AVG      OBP      SLG
    April 205.0 6.28 .322 .367 .515
    May 249.0 4.19 .287 .333 .456
    June 147.2 3.05 .246 .300 .380

    There are several interesting things to note within those numbers, not the least of which is that the Twins' ERA improved 33 percent from April to May and then another 27 percent from May to June. Despite finishing with an AL-worst 6.28 ERA in April, the Twins now rank seventh in the league with a 4.62 ERA overall and are within striking distance of claiming a top-five spot.

    The pitching staff is like a marathon runner whose alarm clock didn't go off in the morning and caused him to show up to the race an hour late, yet still managed to get into the middle of the pack by about the 10th mile. The turnaround is truly remarkable, and within those massive improvements is where it really gets interesting.

    MONTH      SO%     BB%     HR%      DER
    April 14.5 6.1 3.7 .654
    May 21.5 6.3 2.9 .661
    June 18.6 5.6 2.6 .723

    After striking out 14.5 percent of the batters they faced in April, the Twins' pitching staff has bumped that number up to over 20 percent since May 1. That may not seem like much at first glance, but it means about 40 percent fewer balls being put in play that the Twins' defense has to convert into outs. That's huge, especially given how horrible the team's defense was early in the season.

    In addition to missing significantly more bats, the Twins' pitchers have cut way down on the number of homers they allow. In April 3.7 percent of the batters who stepped to the plate against the Twins went deep, but that number has dropped to 2.7 percent since May 1. Those percentages being so small makes it seem like another miniscule difference, but that's actually allowing 27 percent fewer homers.

    Along with the entire pitching staff boosting strikeouts by 40 percent, cutting homers by 27 percent, and improving upon what was already outstanding control, the defense also stepped up. In April the Twins' fielders turned a pathetic 65.4 percent of the balls in play into outs and their rate of 66.1 percent in May was barely better. However, that rate began to climb when the defensive personnel started changing.

    Shannon Stewart took his noodle arm and Mr. Magoo-like fly-ball tracking to the disabled list in late May, and was replaced in left field by two superior defenders in Kubel and Lew Ford. Castro and Batista, who provided perhaps the worst range of any left side of the infield in baseball, were replaced this month by significantly better defenders in Bartlett and Nick Punto.

    After struggling to convert a measly 66 percent of the balls put in play against them into outs between April and May, the Twins' defense is suddenly making outs from over 72 percent of the balls in play so far in June. The difference between turning balls in play into outs 66 percent of the time or 72 percent of the time on defense is the same as the difference between batting .340 or .280.

    It's silly to suggest that the pitching staff has had nothing to do with the defense's performance, both good and bad. After all, if the pitchers can cut down on homers why couldn't they also cut down on the hard-hit balls put in play? With that said, it's clearly not a coincidence that the defensive numbers improved rapidly once Stewart, Castro, and Batista were replaced by Kubel, Ford, Bartlett, and Punto.

    Thanks in large part to improved pitching and defense the Twins have dug themselves out of an early-season hole to get back to an even record for the first time since being 7-7 on April 19. The good news is that Francisco Liriano now takes the mound every fifth day and the defense figures to remain vastly improved assuming Gardenhire sticks Stewart at designated hitter once he returns from the DL and continues to give Punto most of the playing time at third base.

    Of course, there's some bad news too. Through 68 games last season the Twins were 38-30 and as good as the pitching staff has been over the past two months is still no better than it was for all of last year. Plus, for all the grand slams and key hits the lineup has come up with of late, the offense has scored a total of eight more runs than they had at this point last season. And we all know how that turned out.

    With some of the dead weight leaving the roster and the lineup in a position to improve further thanks to the emergence of Mauer, Kubel, and Morneau, it's unlikely that the Twins will experience a second-half collapse like they had last season. Still, simply avoiding a disastrous stretch run isn't going to cut it when you're 11 games back in the division and 9.5 games out of a playoff spot in mid-June. The Twins must continue to build on their recent hot streak for it to mean anything.

    During spring training I opined that the Twins "look like an 88-win team." It's the season's third month and they still look that way, although the route they took to get there is a lot different than I expected to see. They're back to having success thanks to pitching and defense, but it remains to be seen if this year's offense can keep up the pace that they couldn't last year.

    June 15, 2006

    Twins Notes

    Some notes I typed up while watching the Twins inexplicably sweep the Red Sox ...

  • One day after handing his job to Jason Bartlett, the Twins traded Juan Castro to the Reds for outfield prospect Brandon Roberts. Roberts is a toolsy 21-year-old putting up sub par numbers at Single-A, but if ever there was an example of addition by subtraction letting Castro go is it. It's telling that returning Castro to the backup role he was initially signed to fill apparently wasn't an option.

    Terry Ryan moved quickly to part ways with Castro once Bartlett was called up, which leads me to believe that Ron Gardenhire was behind Castro starting in the first place. I imagine Gardenhire asked Ryan to send Bartlett down this spring, but once it became painfully obvious that Castro was hurting the team and Bartlett was deserving of another chance, Ryan ended the charade.

    That Ryan looked to deal Castro immediately and found a trade partner in former assistant Wayne Krivsky also suggests that perhaps Krivsky was behind signing Castro two years ago. That's just speculation, of course, but while I place all of the blame for signing Tony Batista on Ryan's shoulders it seems obvious that he wasn't entirely responsible for how the shortstop situation played out.

  • After just two games it's startling obvious how much better the left side of the infield is defensively with Bartlett and Nick Punto instead of Castro and Batista. Bartlett and Punto each made excellent plays last night, and if Gardenhire continues to give Punto playing time at third base the infield defense is going to end up being an overlooked part of what will be an improved pitching staff going forward.

    Castro and Batista have flaws that are easy to spot, combining to hit a pathetic .234/.279/.350 while playing 50 games apiece. However, their shoddy work defensively is what really made them useless players. If Castro's defense was anywhere close to as good as his long-expired reputation, he would have been a fine short-term fix at the position. Instead, the Twins had two no-range infielders who turned grounder after grounder into "singles."

    If Gardenhire does the right thing and moves Shannon Stewart to designated hitter full time once he returns from the disabled list later this month, the Twins will have gone from being a horrendous defensive team to an average one. Knowing Gardenhire Terry Tiffee will probably get far too much action at third base and Stewart will be right back to clumsily moving in the general direction of fly balls.

  • As if installing Bartlett at shortstop and getting rid of Batista and Castro wasn't enough to make you think that the Twins are listening to my pleas, Gardenhire shockingly used Joe Nathan for a two-inning save last night. He correctly deduced that the bases-loaded jam the Twins found themselves in with no outs in the eighth inning was going to be the game's most important situation, and accordingly brought in his best reliever.

    Explained that way it may not seem like a particularly noteworthy decision, but given Gardenhire's previous handling of Nathan it is. Nathan was somewhat shaky and needed an awful lot of pitches to record six outs, but he got the job done in what was one of the more difficult save chances you'll see. With Juan Rincon already out of the game and the tying run at the plate with no outs, there may not have been a save to convert had Nathan been held back for the ninth inning.

  • It's nice to see Luis Castillo coming up with some hits again following a prolonged slump. After dropping to a season-worst .278/.343/.354 on June 9, Castillo has gone 7-for-15 with two doubles and three walks. Castillo has been incredibly streaky and worse-than-advertised defensively, but he's now hitting .290/.359/.371 after coming into the season as a career .293/.370/.356 hitter.
  • Jason Kubel continued his hot hitting with a solo blast off Tim Wakefield, giving him a homer in all three games against Boston. Kubel began the season 3-for-21 (.143) with zero extra-base hits and didn't hit especially well during his brief stint at Triple-A, but since being put into the starting lineup for good on May 29 he's 20-for-58 (.345) with five homers.

    The slow start can certainly be excused given that Kubel is a rookie who missed all of last season with a severe knee injury, and the power he's showing is a pleasant surprise. Kubel has long been one of baseball's top hitting prospects, but that was based more on big batting averages and gap power than home runs. That he's now hitting .291 and slugging .506 is great to see.

  • After finally coaxing his batting average up to an even .200 with a 2-for-4 game on May 29, Rondell White has gone 1-for-20 to drop to .183/.206/.217 on the year. With 189 plate appearances and a .413 OPS, White is entering rarefied air. Here's a list of the worst OPS totals ever by designated hitters with at least 180 trips to the plate:
                         OPS      PA     YEAR
    RONDELL WHITE .413 189 2006
    Pat Putnam .479 212 1984
    Lee Stanton .514 342 1978
    Deron Johnson .542 389 1974
    Glenn Adams .555 242 1981

    In other words, White has been the least productive designated hitter in baseball history, and it's not even close. Interestingly, the seasons listed above were the swan songs for both Pat Putnam and Lee Stanton, and Glenn Adams was done after 73 more horrible plate appearances the following year. Deron Johnson somehow received 621 plate appearances the next season, but hit .239/.300/.388 and then retired after hitting .132 in 1976.

  • Ichiro Suzuki had some interesting thoughts after watching Joe Mauer destroy the Mariners' pitching staff last week:

    His style is kind of unique. He has a huge body, but he doesn't hit like other huge guys. He looks like he is a very smart player and very much understands what he has to do. I assume that is also why he is playing catcher.

    The beat writers in Seattle must love Suzuki, because you can always count on him for a good, non-cliched quote.

  • Similarly, Melvin Mora had some good quotes after facing Francisco Liriano Sunday:

    Nasty. Everything nasty. What I hear is he throws a nasty slider, a nasty changeup, a nasty fastball, a nasty everything. We just went over there to just try and hit the ball. Even that ball he threw for a walk to Brian Roberts was nasty.

    I've been trying to think of a nickname for Liriano, since it seems like he needs one. I haven't come up with a good one yet, but I like the sound of "The Nasty Boys" for Liriano and Johan Santana. As in, the Twins are 14-5 (.737) when The Nasty Boys start this year, but just 17-29 (.370) with everyone else on the mound. Sadly, the nickname has already been taken by Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers.

  • I've long been in favor of teams building pitcher-friendly ballparks, both because it makes for better baseball and because it seems to make it easier to build winning teams. I'm pleased to note that the Twins appear to feel the same way:

    Twins President David St. Peter accompanied the club on its recent trip to Seattle and reiterated that team officials want their new ballpark to have nearly identical dimensions to that of the Mariners' Safeco Field, which they consider a "fair" park for players.

    "We will try to do everything we can to replicate it," St. Peter said Thursday. "It's a great, great ballpark."

    What the Twins don't want is a stadium comparable to those in home run-friendly Houston, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

    "We don't want a band-box park," St. Peter said.

    That's music to my ears, and 2010 can't come soon enough after watching David Ortiz's would-be homer drop for a "single" after smacking into a speaker attached to the Metrodome roof last night. Luckily the game was on ESPN, so a national audience got to see what a joke of a ballpark the Twins play in.

  • Matthew LeCroy was a favorite of both fans and teammates while with the Twins, and he's quickly become the comic relief in the Nationals' clubhouse. My favorite revelation from LeCroy: "Nick Johnson doesn't like a man singing him love songs." Will Young feels much differently.
  • Last week Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Ryan asked the Brewers about a Kyle Lohse-for-Bill Hall deal. I discussed Ryan's reported asking price in this space Thursday, calling it "laughable" and suggesting that the Twins might as well ask for Prince Fielder if they're going to throw out ridiculous offers.

    Here's what Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had to say about the rumor:

    You know a trade rumor is absurd when the general managers involved feel compelled to apologize to each other.

    That was the situation last week when a rumor made the rounds that the Brewers were considering trading infielder Bill Hall to Minnesota for right-hander Kyle Lohse, who pitched poorly for the Twins this season and was sent to Class AAA Rochester. He fared better there and was recalled Friday.

    Brewers GM Doug Melvin called Minnesota's Terry Ryan to assure him that Melvin had nothing to do with the rumor. Ryan apologized as well, realizing it made him look silly for people to think he would ask for an emerging star such as Hall in exchange for a pitcher who was sent to the minors.

    "When things come out like that we get embarrassed as GMs," said Melvin. "It makes no sense whatsoever."

    Well, I'm glad that's settled.

  • June 14, 2006

    Twins 8, Red Sox 1

  • Brad Radke's early struggles have kept his ERA looking really ugly, but he's quietly turned things around. He posted an 8.89 ERA in April, but after six innings of one-run ball against Boston last night Radke has a 4.33 ERA in nine starts since May 1. In other words, he's basically back to being the Radke of old.

    The source of Radke's turnaround is pretty easy to spot. After serving up 10 long balls in his first 26.1 innings, Radke has now given up just five homers in the 54 innings since then. If Radke continues to pitch well and the Twins continue to sit below .500, it'll be interesting to see if any talk about him waiving his no-trade clause pops up around the trading deadline.

    Radke has talked about calling it quits and I'd certainly like to see him retire having played his entire career in Minnesota. On the other hand, the chance to finish with a contender might be appealing and cashing Radke in for prospects would help the Twins. After seeing Radke last night and previously pursuing him as a free agent, the Red Sox would probably be among several teams interested.

  • Justin Morneau got off to a fantastic start last season, hitting .439 in April, but then batted just .220 for the remainder of the year on his way to what was a very disappointing first full season. So far at least, this year has been the exact opposite. Morneau struggled in April, hitting .208, but since then has batted an even .300 with 10 homers and 36 RBIs in 38 games.

    He's still not walking much and remains very inconsistent against left-handed pitching, but the power has been extremely impressive. Perhaps just as importantly, Morneau is showing the all-around hitting skills that allowed him to post big batting averages in the minors after looking like an all-or-nothing slugger far too often with the Twins.

    New hitting coach Joe Vavra appears to have convinced the previously pull-happy Morneau to use the whole field without sacrificing his power, which is something the Twins have struggled to instill in their hitters for about two decades. Last night's grand slam gives Morneau 15 homers and 51 RBIs, putting him on pace for a 35-homer, 130-RBI season.

    For many teams that type of production wouldn't be particularly out of the ordinary, but the Twins haven't had someone with 30 homers since 1987 and their last 120-RBI campaign came when Kirby Puckett knocked in 121 runs way back in 1988. In fact, over the past 10 years the Twins had just four 100-RBI seasons. Morneau is already halfway there with 98 games to play.

  • While veterans Rondell White, Tony Batista, and Juan Castro are largely behind the Twins' poor record, a major bright spot has been the emergence of the team's young hitters. Morneau seems on the verge of becoming the player many hoped he would be, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer have been the team's top hitters, and Jason Kubel is on fire since coming back up from Triple-A.

    At some point I expect those four hitters to line up back-to-back-to-back-to-back in the Twins' batting order, either at 2-3-4-5 or 3-4-5-6. Cuddyer is the oldest of the bunch at 27, meaning the core of a quality lineup is in place for years to come. If Jason Bartlett can establish himself at shortstop, that would give the team five 27-and-under starters to build around and lessen the need for Terry Ryan to go after more mediocre veterans.

  • Speaking of Bartlett, he looked good last night in his season debut. In addition to going 2-for-4 at the plate Bartlett fielded everything hit his way, including starting a relatively tough double play. I'm hopeful that Ron Gardenhire will simply stick him ninth in the lineup and let him be for a couple months. If nothing else, Bartlett and Mauer give the Twins one of the top combinations of sideburns in recent memory.
  • Mauer went 0-for-3 to drop his MLB-leading batting average to .376, but was walked intentionally in front of Morneau's grand slam. As a team the Twins drew a total of 10 walks last night, and for once it was nice to see the lineup actually take advantage of pitchers who couldn't find the plate. Well, almost the whole lineup.

    Torii Hunter continued his infuriating trend of letting a struggling pitcher off the hook. Matt Clement walked Mauer, Cuddyer, and Morneau to load the bases with one out in the third inning, but Hunter hacked at the first pitch he saw and bounced into a rally-killing double play. While the Twins' young hitters thrive, Hunter is down to .257/.335/.414 and has hit into a team-high nine double plays.

  • Nick Punto received the first post-Batista start at third base, going 1-for-4 while turning a double play defensively. This spring Punto talked about changing his approach at the plate to focus more on trying to put the ball in play. I was skeptical, writing that "you know it's officially spring training when a new batting stance and a handful of hits can convince people that Nick Punto is capable of big things."

    He's only had a total of 102 plate appearances, but so far at least it looks like Punto has successfully changed his hitting style for the better. After striking out in 20 percent of his trips to the plate last year Punto has whiffed just 11 percent of the time this season. In the process he's hit .304/.396/.380 with an 11-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio while doing a better impression of Luis Castillo than Castillo himself.

  • Aside from Morneau's grand slam and Kubel's two-run shot, the highlight of the night was one of the batboys tackling an idiot who ran onto the field during a David Ortiz at-bat. As Ortiz and everyone else looked on, the batboy put a Brian Urlacher-style spearing takedown on the guy, and then pinned him to the turf until security showed up.

    Ortiz looked highly amused when it was over and the Twins dugout exploded, basically giving the kid a standing ovation. FSN, which has a policy of not showing people who disrupt play, showed a replay afterward much to the delight of announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven. The batboy probably earned himself a ridiculous amount in tips and rightfully seemed pretty proud of himself afterward.

  • Here's a prediction: The next two roster moves will be cutting White loose and activating either Ruben Sierra or Shannon Stewart from the disabled list, and sending Willie Eyre down and calling up Pat Neshek. I still think Eyre has a chance to be a solid middle reliever, but Neshek is more deserving of a chance right now and until the team decides to finally part with Kyle Lohse Eyre is the odd man out.

    Meanwhile, White looks finished. He's had maybe one good stretch all season and has been reduced to playing once a week at this point. Plus, even if the Twins felt the need to keep White they can only use him for another 200 plate appearances until his option for 2007 kicks in. Cut bait now, let White try to latch on with another team, and get on with trying to figure out who'll be in next year's lineup.

  • Finally, I'll leave you with two observations my mom had while watching about 30 seconds of last night's game.

    Upon seeing Dennys Reyes, presumably for the first time: "This Reyes guy is kind of pudgy."

    Upon hearing that Lohse was warming up in the bullpen to relieve Reyes: "Lohse? Yuck."

  • June 13, 2006

    Bartlett Up, Batista Out

    The final image I'll have of Tony Batista in a Twins uniform is him excitedly teaming up with Michael Cuddyer to dump a bucket of Gatorade on Jason Kubel following Kubel's walk-off grand slam against the Red Sox. In fact, it sounds likely (and somewhat sad) that Batista was told of the Twins' plan to designate him for assignment just moments later, making him perhaps the last person to know.

    After going 1-for-4 with a single last night in the 185th game of his Triple-A career, the Twins finally decided that it's time to give Jason Bartlett another chance in the big leagues. Bartlett is expected to join the team in time for tonight's game against the Red Sox and Batista is being let go to make room on the roster.

    The natural reaction is to praise the Twins for calling Bartlett up and cutting bait on Batista, because both moves are good ones. However, this isn't a team simply making two good decisions. This is a team making two good decisions that are only possible because of worse decisions that came first. This is a team attempting to fix mistakes.

    Bartlett should have been up a long time ago and Batista never should have been signed in the first place, and that it took falling completely out of the playoff picture in mid-June for the Twins to realize that is pathetic. While making both moves now is certainly better late than never, another cliche is just as true: It's too little, too late.

    The Twins wasted $1 million and bypassed numerous other third-base options to secure Batista's services this winter, and then watched as he hit .236/.303/.388 with horrible defense in 50 games. The day after Batista signed I called the move "an unqualified disaster" and despite hearing a seemingly endless stream of rose-colored arguments to the contrary all offseason that's exactly what it turned out to be.

    I can't even begin to imagine how many words were wasted by people defending the Batista signing in the comments section here and at any number of other locations, but in some twisted way it pleases me that things turned out the way they did. Now perhaps a few more people can begin to see that when something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck even if Terry Ryan tells you otherwise.

    Unfortunately, Ryan's misguided pursuit of Batista leaves no viable alternatives. Platooning Terry Tiffee and Luis Rodriguez will almost certainly be an improvement over Batista, but won't stop the Twins from having one of the least-productive third-base situations in baseball. And come November the team will once again be looking for a starter at the position.

    As for Bartlett ... well, this is where the Twins should have been with him last June. Instead of showing some patience with him last season and potentially having him established as the starting shortstop heading into this year, now the team will try to work him into the mix in preparation for 2007. And why? So he could hit .300 for a third straight season at Rochester while Juan Castro dragged the team down for a second year.

    Within the Twins' online community the arguments about Bartlett have been almost as plentiful and heated as the arguments about Batista. As is the case in such situations, both sides have taken on an exaggerated view of the other side's stance. In particular, the pro-Bartlett faction has been met with cries that Bartlett won't turn the Twins' season around and may not be a huge upgrade over Castro.

    Both of those things are true, of course. The Twins are far beyond needing whatever help a rookie shortstop can provide and there's a good chance that Bartlett will not become anything more than a moderately useful player. However, given the Twins' dearth of other options over the past two seasons it's mind-boggling to me that they've been so unwilling to at least find out.

    Now, instead of finding out what they had in Bartlett last season, they've delayed things by a year for no good reason. Bartlett went to Triple-A and did what he always does, knocking around International League pitching. Castro stayed at shortstop and did what he always does, being one of the league's worst players. And in the process the Twins fell completely out of contention.

    Here are Bartlett's career numbers at Rochester:

      G      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB     SO
    185 .326 .395 .462 9 69 72 96

    Whatever you think of Bartlett, there's just no way a relatively young player who performs that well at Triple-A should have been left there for nearly 200 games spread over three years. Whether it's making him the starting shortstop, using him as a utility man or even trading him, anything would have been better than letting Bartlett rack up 800 plate appearances in Rochester, New York.

    Last night's moves are a definite step in the right direction, but as I said last month this is all ultimately as meaningless as shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic until the Twins address the organizational issues that have led to these mistakes in the first place. The ability to stop sticking with and acquiring sub par veterans at the expense of jerking young players around is what can save the Twins, and that's not something Bartlett can help them with.

    Now, let's see if Ron Gardenhire actually plays him.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Lost in the Bartlett-Batista news is that last night's Johan Santana-Curt Schilling matchup lived up to the hype, with both aces turning in dominant performances. In fact, Santana was as good as I've ever seen him, beginning the game with five straight strikeouts and ending up with the following pitching line:

     IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT
    8.0 5 1 1 0 13 1 102

    As fun as it was to watch Santana, it was equally frustrating to see the Twins run themselves out of an inning and then bunt themselves out of an inning. The go-ahead run was thrown out at third base in both instances--with the second time being the game-winning run--and only a Cuddyer homer off Schilling saved Santana from picking up a 1-0 loss.

    I should probably write something about how it's a shame that Santana ended up with a no-decision after pitching so well and how having too many games like last night's may rob him of yet another Cy Young Award. To be honest though, the Twins' lack of run support for Santana over the past two years has made me sick of saying that.

    It's sad that something completely beyond Santana's control may end up keeping him from what will probably be three straight deserved Cy Youngs, and down the road it'll be even worse if that ends up keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. Last year Santana's run support ranked 59th among 80 MLB starters who qualified for the ERA title, and this year it ranks 76th.

    Incidentally, Dennys Reyes was last night's "winner" despite throwing exactly four pitches and getting a grand total of one out. As Joe Morgan would tell you, some pitchers just know how to win.

    Oh, and since returning from Triple-A and being put into the lineup for good on May 29, Kubel is hitting .353 (18-for-51) with three homers and 11 RBIs.

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