July 17, 2006

Twins 6, Devil Rays 3

Last night's game wasn't on TV here in the Twin Cities, but there were still all kinds of interesting notes to be taken from the boxscore ...

  • Yesterday in this space I suggested that the Twins would be better off with Jason Tyner in center field and Nick Punto at third base, rather than trying to have Punto learn to play the outfield on the fly. I also opined that the team should stick Rondell White in left field, since trying to keep him healthy is no longer really a consideration.

    Amazingly, Ron Gardenhire did all three of those things last night. Tyner started in center field, Punto stayed at third base, and White started in left field for just the fifth time all season. Of course, Punto left the game in the seventh inning with an apparent knee injury, so Tyner likely would have ended up in center field regardless of where he started.

    Punto getting hurt is nothing new, but the timing stinks. I would have laughed at you if you'd have told me this spring that losing Punto would be a big blow to the lineup, but it's true. Not only has he been good defensively since taking over for Tony Batista at third base, the new-and-improved Nick Punto is hitting .312 with a .395 on-base percentage and has been one of the Twins' 10 most valuable players.

    Plus, he could be written into the lineup every day in front of Joe Mauer and gave Gardenhire a ton of roster flexibility. With Torii Hunter, Shannon Stewart, and Lew Ford on the disabled list, and Jason Kubel limited to designated-hitter duties, both of those things had a lot of value. Now Punto is just another of the walking (or not walking, I suppose) wounded.

  • Punto was replaced by Luis Rodriguez, who is certainly a capable short-term solution. In fact, prior to this season I likely would have pegged Rodriguez as the better option at third base. He's hit .203 with very little power, but should get on base at a decent clip and will play solid defense. As funny as this sounds, Rodriguez is a poor man's Punto (and Punto is now a rich man's Luis Castillo).

    While Rodriguez can hold down the fort for a while, Punto needing a DL stint would further deplete the organization's depth. They're already down to the bottom of the outfield barrel, and if another infielder is needed I'm guessing Glenn Williams or Tommy Watkins would get the call. Williams would seem like the obvious choice after hitting .425 in 13 games with the Twins before a season-ending shoulder injury last year, but he's batting .237/.310/.369 in 75 games at Triple-A.

    Similarly, Watkins entered this season as a career .246/.329/.325 hitter in 622 pro games and has hit just .234/.312/.312 in 48 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but he's an organizational soldier who can play anywhere defensively. Plus, I root for anyone who agrees to an interview with Seth Stohs and has see-through pictures of Jessica Biel on his MySpace page.

  • Speaking of players Seth has interviewed, Pat Neshek got his first high-leverage action last night. With Jesse Crain having thrown two innings on Sunday, Neshek was brought in to pitch the seventh inning with a one-run lead. He got the job done, retiring the Devil Rays in order, and handed the lead over the Juan Rincon (who then handed it to Joe Nathan).

    I've been a big believer in Neshek for several years now, so it's good to see him succeed when given a chance for meaningful work. You can never have too many quality pitchers, but if Neshek emerges as a reliable setup man and Crain continues to pitch well, the Twins' bullpen will be overflowing with late-inning options once Matt Guerrier comes off the DL.

    And it's not like the bullpen needed much help to begin with. Despite Neshek being at Rochester until last week and Guerrier being sidelined since early June, the Twins' relievers lead all of baseball with a combined 3.25 ERA. Given the seemingly inflated going rate for middle-relief help, shopping Guerrier or even Crain makes a lot of sense.

  • Mauer avoided hitting into another double play last night, but did receive another intentional walk. Mauer has been walked intentionally 10 times already after receiving a dozen last year, but only two of them came in his first 51 games (both against the Yankees on April 15). Over the past 29 games he's been issued eight intentional walks, including five within the last 11 games.

    Mauer's .375 batting average obviously has a lot to do with his being pitched around, but Michael Cuddyer's recent struggles against right-handed pitching have probably coaxed teams into not letting Mauer beat them. Cuddyer continues to crush left-handed pitching and in general has done a fine job in the cleanup spot, but his numbers against righties have dropped like a rock over the past month.

    Considering how often Mauer is being pitched around, it's time to put Justin Morneau in the cleanup spot. Gardenhire has avoided that in part to keep the pressure off Morneau and in part to avoid back-to-back left-handed hitters in the middle of the lineup, but at some point the guy on pace for 40 homers and 140 RBIs should be batting behind the guy with the .450 on-base percentage.

    Plus, both Mauer and Mauer have improved significantly against lefties. Mauer is hitting .359/.409/.452 against them, while Morneau is at .279/.300/.550. In fact, among Twins hitters with at least 50 at-bats against southpaws, only Cuddyer (1.014) and Hunter (.925) have a higher OPS than Morneau (.857) and Mauer (.836). With the rest of the lineup in shambles, the Twins need to get Morneau to the plate with as many runners on base as possible.

    Forcing teams to pitch to Mauer with runners in scoring position is always good--he's hitting .333 in those spots during his career, including .357 this season--and punishing them for pitching around him by bringing Morneau up with a chance to bust the game open makes enough sense to outweigh any lefty-lefty matchup concerns.

  • In a moment that fittingly happened when most Twins fans weren't able to actually see it, White came through with a hit in an important spot. With the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning, White drove in two runs with a single to center field, pushing the score from 4-3 to 6-3. He came into the game hitting .179/.258/.179 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

    I would still bet against White being productive for the remainder of the year, but it's certainly nice to see him doing something besides single-handedly destroying rallies. Prior to being sent down, White was hitting .182/.209/.215 with zero homers and 15 RBIs in 181 at-bats. Since coming back up, he's 3-for-7 with a homer and four RBIs. It's a meaningless sample size and only one of those hits was really all that well struck, but I'll take it.

  • Scott Baker got off to a rough start in his first outing back from Rochester, allowing two runners in each of the first three innings. He wriggled out of trouble in the first two frames, but Greg Norton's two-run homer in the third inning gave Tampa Bay the game's first lead. To Baker's credit, he settled down considerably after that and put together a Quality Start on the way to his third win of the year.

    As discussed last week, Baker's secondary numbers suggest that he'll do well going forward despite an ugly ERA. Last night was Baker's 20th big-league appearance, including 19 starts, and he has a 4.64 ERA and 79-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 108.2 innings. It may not look like much compared to 22-year-old Francisco Liriano's brilliance, but that's pretty damn good for a 24-year-old pitcher.

  • Last but not least, Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted me in his column today:

    Former Twins executive Wayne Krivsky is in his first year as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. The lightly regarded Reds started 36-24, and he was praised for his acquisitions, such as pitcher Bronson Arroyo from Boston.

    The Reds followed this with a 9-20 stretch before the All-Star break. In response, Krivsky traded shortstop Felipe Lopez, outfielder Austin Kearns and pitcher Ryan Wagner to Washington for relievers Gary Majewski and Billy Bray, shortstop Royce Clayton and two minor league infielders last week.

    "The Reds completed a disaster trade," Hardball Times blogger Aaron Gleeman wrote. "Cincinnati essentially sent its starting right fielder and starting shortstop -- both solid young players making reasonable salaries -- to Washington for two middle relievers [and] a 36-year-old no-hit shortstop."

    Krivsky was asked Monday about his rapid transformation from Executive of the Year frontrunner to bonehead. "We're trying to win," he said. "We're leading the wild-card race. To stay there, we needed to fix the bullpen. So, we got Everyday Eddie [Guardado] from Seattle, and the two relievers from the Nationals."

    Guardado is 3-for-3 on saves and the Reds are 4-0 since the All-Star break. If that keeps up, Krivsky will go back to being smart.

    Not only didn't I peg Reusse as a reader, it seems odd that he'd choose a quote from someone (me) who most Star Tribune readers have probably never heard of. Not that I'm complaining, of course, but why not pick someone from ESPN.com or any number of other mainstream sites or newspapers that had columnists ripping the trade? I'm very curious about how my quote ended up as the choice.

    Perhaps Reusse wanted a local angle, although there's no mention of me being from Minnesota. Or maybe he wants to overtake La Velle E. Neal III as AG.com's Star Tribune writer of choice, in which case this is a good start (LEN3 has never mentioned me anywhere, after all). Whatever the case, thanks for the mention, Patrick (even if it was only to set up showing the Reds' post-trade record).

    It's nice to know that should I venture into the Twins' press box some day, there might be as many as three local writers (LEN3, Reusse, Joe Christensen) willing to simply sit back and watch (rather than join in) as Jim "Shecky" Souhan and Jason "No Idea" Williams strangle me with Sid Hartman's soup-stained neck-tie. Either that or it's all just an elaborate set up for an ambush.

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