July 10, 2006

Twins Notes

  • I received a lot of e-mails and comments earlier this week wondering why I hadn't made a bigger deal out of Francisco Liriano not making the All-Star team. I ignored the topic in part because I stopped caring about the All-Star game years ago and in part because I figured Liriano still had a decent shot at making the team as a last-minute replacement. Sure enough, Jose Contreras announced yesterday that he'll be missing the game and Liriano was chosen as his replacement.

    I'm generally in favor of giving All-Star spots to established stars rather than players having great first halves, but elite prospects in the middle of their first big year like Liriano are obviously an exception to that rule. In that sense I'm very pleased that Liriano is getting what he clearly deserves, although had Contreras not backed out of the game I wouldn't have mustered up much anger.

    The chance to see Joe Mauer catch an inning from Liriano or Johan Santana tonight might be enough to make me watch the whole game. Plus, the best thing about Liriano making this season's team is that when they're introducing him on a stage in Cooperstown, New York 25 years from now he'll be a "12-time All-Star" instead of a measly "11-time All-Star."

  • The Twins released Ruben Sierra yesterday, meaning three of the four veteran hitters Terry Ryan brought in during the offseason didn't make it past the All-Star break with the team. Sierra and Tony Batista were released, while Rondell White has been exiled to Rochester. Among Ryan's offseason acquisitions, only Luis Castillo remains on the roster.

    Even Castillo has been far from a great acquisition. Not only has he missed 11 games with nagging injuries, Castillo is hitting just .280/.342/.355 despite a great start and has been mediocre at best defensively. And as Tom Powers discussed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Castillo's overall lack of hustle has been tough to take:

    Early in the season, I thought Luis Castillo was one of the most dynamic players I had seen. Since then, there have been times he has appeared absolutely lifeless. Sometimes he appears interested, sometimes he doesn't. I have to assume his knees are bothering him. Still, I've never seen a player who can go from looking energetic to lethargic, and maybe back again, from game to game.

  • As always, I weighed in after each of the four veterans were acquired. I bashed the Batista signing as much as humanly possible, calling it "an unqualified disaster." While not quite as harsh, I opined that Sierra "simply doesn't bring a whole lot of value to a team." On the other hand, I approved of bringing in both White and Castillo, calling signing White "a quality decision" and dealing for Castillo "an excellent trade."

    The bad news is that I was wrong about White and, to a lesser extent, Castillo. The worse news is that I was right on the money about both Batista and Sierra. In a season that has seen several of the Twins' young players emerge as stars, that Ryan completely whiffed on his attempts to surround them with solid veterans is a huge part of why the playoffs are a long shot heading into the second half.

  • The decision to release Sierra is particularly interesting, because his last plate appearance in a Twins uniform came as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of a close game. That obviously suggests that Ron Gardenhire still thinks highly of him, but apparently what Sierra did during that plate appearance is what led to his release:

    Sierra didn't help his cause by ignoring a take sign with two outs and a runner on second base in the ninth inning of Sunday's 5-2 loss to Texas.

    Sierra, pinch-hitting for Nick Punto, was ahead 3-0 in the count. The dugout called for Sierra to take right-hander Akinori Otsuka's next pitch, but Sierra swung and missed. It appeared to be a ball. Sierra ended up striking out.

    Manager Ron Gardenhire wasn't pleased. "That was kind of disappointing," he said. "We'll leave it at that."

    Sierra was brought in to provide veteran leadership and an impact bat off the bench, and as his track record suggested would be the case, he failed in both areas. An injury limited his damage to just 33 plate appearances, but worse than that is the Twins' continued inability to see the seemingly obvious uselessness of "veterans" like Sierra, Batista, and Juan Castro. I'm hoping Ryan won't make similar mistakes next season, but his track record suggests that he probably will.

  • I've often suggested that Santana's biggest (and perhaps only) weakness is that he's a fly-ball pitcher who gives up a fair number of homers. That means as unhittable as Santana typically is, he's always just one bad pitch away from giving up multiple runs. Because of that, it surprised me to read this note in the Minneapolis Star Tribune following Santana's loss to the Rangers Sunday:

    Santana gave up multiple home runs in a game for the first time since June 2005.

    Santana doesn't have many bad starts, period, but it surprises me that his few shaky outings over the past year haven't involved serving up several homers. The lesson, I suppose, is that the eyes of even the most obsessed fan can always lie and even the biggest stat-head can learn something new from looking at the numbers a little harder.

  • It was all too easy for Gardenhire to fly under the radar while the Twins put up 21 victories in 23 games, but under the cover of all that winning he quietly went back to his unfortunate specialty of jerking young hitters around. Jason Kubel is hitting .291/.324/.485 on the season, including .305 with big power since coming back up from Triple-A, yet he was out of the starting lineup for seven of the Twins' final 19 first-half games.

    Giving Kubel a day off occasionally is smart considering he's a year removed from a season-ending knee injury, but this goes far beyond that. Not only has he been benched for nearly half of the team's games since mid-June, Kubel is frequently replaced defensively in the late innings even when does start and is essentially being platooned against left-handed pitching. Of the Twins' last nine games against a left-handed starting pitcher, Kubel has been in the lineup just twice.

    What makes Gardenhire benching Kubel against left-handed pitching especially galling is that he's the same manager who refused to sit Jacque Jones against southpaws well past the point it was clear that Jones couldn't hit them. Now Gardenhire has a 24-year-old rookie who has actually shown signs of hitting lefties well and he refuses to give him a chance against them.

    Kubel has hit a very solid .303/.343/.485 against lefties during his brief big-league career and batted a robust .303/.390/.639 against them at Rochester earlier this season. Meanwhile, he's on the bench far more than Jones ever was under Gardenhire and those are numbers Jones could only dream about. And why? So Gardenhire can get Lew Ford and his .261/.333/.415 career line against lefties into the lineup.

    It's amazing that with all that has gone on with the Twins this year, Gardenhire still isn't completely convinced that simply trusting (and playing) the young, talented guys is the way to win. At this point, I'm not sure there's any real chance of teaching this particular dog any new tricks, which means it's a good thing that Jason Bartlett came right out of the gates hitting .350.

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