March 17, 2008

Twins Notes: Liriano, Perkins, Casilla, Mauer, Reusse

  • Francisco Liriano had a rough outing yesterday afternoon against the Marlins and now has an 8.10 ERA in three spring starts. He's struggled with control, has shown decreased velocity, hasn't missed many bats, and has been very hittable, allowing 16 base-runners while recording just 20 outs. The hope has obviously always been that Liriano would pick up right where he left off in 2006 after missing all of last season following Tommy John surgery, but the fact that he hasn't isn't overly concerning.

    It's a long road back and there will be plenty of rough patches along the way even if things ultimately go smoothly, but the most important aspect of his recovery thus far is that he's yet to complain of arm soreness. The Twins have indicated that Liriano won't be sent back to Triple-A regardless of how he fares this spring, but he threw just 59 pitches yesterday and is running out of time to show that he's capable of beginning the season in the rotation.

    If Triple-A has indeed been ruled out as an option, then Liriano could follow the path that he took in 2006 when he worked as a long reliever for the season's first six weeks. It'll be difficult to build up arm strength working out of the bullpen, but the low-leverage situations would allow Liriano to regain his form without much pressure. Beyond that, keeping him in the bullpen for a while is an easy way to limit Liriano's workload, which is something that the Twins no doubt planned to do anyway.

    The early post-surgery results certainly don't qualify as encouraging, but with Liriano now 17 months removed from surgery simply staying healthy takes precedence over actual performance. "We just want to see him throw the ball and continue working," Ron Gardenhire said. "You hope to start seeing more crispness on his breaking balls and a little better command. He spins off a few balls still. But it's just about him pitching."

  • Along with the uncertainty regarding Liriano's season-opening role the Twins also seem undecided about what to do with Glen Perkins. He posted a 3.55 ERA and 353-to-124 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 334 minor-league innings spent strictly as a starter, but all 23 of his appearances with the Twins have come out of the bullpen. He's done well as a reliever, with a 2.88 ERA and 26-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34.1 innings, and it sounds like Gardenhire is tempted to use him in that role again.

    Perkins indicated Sunday that he thinks the Twins are leaning toward putting him in the bullpen and said, "That's fine with me if that's what they want to do." If Liriano and Perkins are both absent from the season-opening rotation, that leaves Livan Hernandez, Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Philip Humber fighting over five spots, although that could change if Baker's back injury requires a stint on the disabled list.

  • Gardenhire briefly batted Joe Mauer second in the lineup last season, but gave up on the plan after about two weeks. I've long suggested that the No. 2 spot is ideal for Mauer (or any good hitter with an excellent on-base percentage), so it's nice to hear that Gardenhire is again considering the move. One of the problems with Gardenhire's belief that light-hitting speedsters should occupy the top couple spots in the lineup is that the team's best hitters are often pushed down further than they should be.

    There's no reason for someone like Nick Punto to come to the plate more often than Mauer or Michael Cuddyer, and while his RBI totals don't necessarily show it batting Justin Morneau fifth lessened his potential impact. Given the Twins' lack of strong on-base threats an ideal lineup might actually feature Mauer leading off and Morneau hitting third, but between conventional wisdom and Gardenhire there's zero chance of that happening.

  • Alexi Casilla was predictably sent to minor-league camp in large part because of what Gardenhire called "sloppy" play at second base. "He's just got to get a few things straightened out," Gardenhire said. "That's learning to get outs when you're supposed to get outs, and get away from all the flashy stuff and get back to the basics of baseball, catching the ball and getting somebody out and using your feet and making good throws. He gets too flashy, thinks that he can do a lot of different things."

    Interestingly, Gardenhire also noted that Casilla might be better off at shortstop--where he's played extensively in the minors--because the position allows him to make better use of his outstanding arm strength, which is something that I've discussed in this space before. "I've already mentioned that to the people upstairs, he could be our shortstop of the future," Gardenhire said. "He can play shortstop. He's got great range and a great arm, a cannon."

    There's always a chance that the team will fall in love with Adam Everett's defense and turn him into something beyond a one-year solution, but with only Trevor Plouffe waiting in the immediate wings Casilla would definitely have a chance to make a run at the shortstop job if he can rediscover the form that he showed both offensively and defensively in 2006. If instead he hits like he did last season, batting .269/.345/.344 at Triple-A and .222/.256/.259 in the majors, it may be a moot point.

  • Patrick Reusse's recent column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the long odds that the Twins face this season included an interesting note: Over the past two years odds-makers made the Twins favorites in 64 of 67 games started by Santana. In a different column, Reusse chose to launch another of his odd attacks against bloggers by suggesting that we're somehow behind the annoying talk of Mauer possibly moving to third base.

    You won't find anyone more opposed to the notion of moving Mauer out from behind the plate than me, so clearly Reusse isn't much of an fan. What makes his latest anti-blogger screed especially amusing is that Reusse's fellow Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan has done more to play up the Mauer-to-third base angle than anyone, writing multiple articles in favor of the move. Of course, guys like Reusse and Souhan must stick together, and true or not us bloggers make a convenient target.

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