April 2, 2008

Twins Notes: Grounders, Bunts, and LOL

  • Since walking in his first plate appearance of the season, Justin Morneau has struck out twice and hit eight ground balls, including bouncing into a key double play last night after Michael Cuddyer led off the seventh inning with a single. Morneau was an extreme fly-ball hitter during his MVP-winning 2006 campaign, but hit the ball on the ground about 25 percent more often last season and hasn't been able to get the ball in the air at all so far this year.

    In fact, the Twins as a whole have been extremely ground-ball heavy through three games. The lineup has produced 2.5 ground balls for every fly ball thus far and has already hit into seven double plays (including Joe Mauer's game-ender last night). Being ground-ball heavy is nothing new for the Twins and double plays figured to be a problem, but this is pretty extreme. Beyond all the grounders, the huge number of weak at-bats lasting just one or two pitches has also been tremendously frustrating.

    The Twins offered at the first or second pitch of an at-bat 24 times last night, putting 10 of them in play. Hacking early in the count can be a good thing, but this is poor plate discipline rather than teeing off on fat pitches. The lineup has seen an average of 3.3 pitches per plate appearance, which would have ranked dead last in all of baseball last year by a huge margin. The combination of swinging at anything and hitting everything on the ground goes a long way toward explaining four runs in three games.

  • Carlos Gomez's debut went about as well as possible Monday night, especially considering that he was the lone piece from the Johan Santana trade package who was on the field and began his career as the Twins' new center fielder in front of Torii Hunter. Gomez led off the game with a double down the left-field line, bunted for a hit while sliding head-long into first base, drew a walk, and stole two bases with ease against the vulnerable Jered Weaver-Mike Napoli battery.

    He also flashed good range defensively, showing the wide array of tools that hints at stardom. On the other hand, he's already shown plenty of rough edges too. Gomez got in an 0-2 hole twice last night because he failed on back-to-back bunt attempts. He struck out to end both at-bats, swinging through a pitch at his head and pushing a third bunt foul. Gomez is bunting as often as Luis Castillo, but doesn't appear to be especially proficient yet and unlike Castillo can't afford to start at-bats behind in the count.

  • I'm on record saying that it was absurd for Baseball America to rank Nick Blackburn as the Twins' top prospect prior to the Santana trade, but he certainly looked like a No. 1 prospect last night. He lived up to his minor-league track record by inducing a dozen ground balls, but getting six strikeouts against a lineup that made the third-most contact in the league last year was totally out of character. Blackburn managed a measly 75 strikeouts in 148.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season.

    Blackburn's ability to throw strikes and keep the ball on the ground are what make me think that he can have a decent career as a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever. However, if he can somehow find a way to start missing a fair number of bats after rarely striking anyone out in the minors it would drastically change his long-term outlook. One game doesn't mean much, but it'll be interesting to see if pitching coach Rick Anderson can coax some strikeouts out of Blackburn.

  • With left-hander Joe Saunders pitching for the Angels last night, Nick Punto started at third base in place of Mike Lamb. Lamb is a left-handed hitter, so benching him against southpaws would normally make some sense, but take a look at these numbers against lefties over the past three seasons:
                       AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    Mike Lamb .244 .299 .425 .724
    Nick Punto .246 .311 .314 .625

    Lamb's .244/.299/.425 hitting line against lefties over the past three years looks bad, but it represents a 99-point OPS edge over the man who started in his place against Saunders.

  • For all the talk of Punto's supposed greatness defensively that comes from the Twins and media members who cover them, it was odd to see him at third base while Brendan Harris and Matt Tolbert manned the middle infield. Harris' defense at second base was called into question repeatedly by Ron Gardenhire during spring training and just eight of Tolbert's 121 games at Triple-A last season came as a shortstop.

    Yet Harris remained at second base last night and Tolbert got the nod at shortstop when Adam Everett was scratched from the lineup for personal reasons. Both players looked shaky defensively on several plays (including one that ultimately led to the game's lone run) and Punto made a bare-handed putout at third base that had Dick Bremer screaming in ecstasy, but it says a lot about either Punto's glove or Gardenhire's decision-making that he was manning the hot corner with that infield alignment.

  • On a related note, fresh on the heels of Forbes naming Kevin McHale the best general manager in sports, the Wall Street Journal recently pegged Gardenhire as baseball's best manager. If McHale is the best GM in sports, then Gardenhire is without question the best manager in baseball. And trust me, that only seems like a compliment.
  • As they did last week with Garrett Guzman and the Nationals, the Twins decided to let the Mariners keep Rule 5 pick R.A. Dickey. A knuckleballer who signed with the Twins as a minor-league free agent during the offseason, Dickey failed to win a spot in the Mariners' bullpen and would have been offered back for nothing. Instead, he'll stay in the Mariners' organization after the Twins accepted 21-year-old catcher Jair Fernandez for his rights.

    Dickey was an intriguing signing and without the Mariners' involvement may have claimed a long-relief role in the Twins' bullpen, but that job went to Brian Bass instead. While giving away Guzman was a mistake, dealing a 33-year-old knuckleballer for some young catching depth makes plenty of sense. Fernandez played last year at low Single-A, batting .260/.343/.377 with two homers, 13 total extra-base hits, and a 29-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 52 games.

  • While telling Bremer that he wanted to double-check the answer to last night's trivia question, Bert Blyleven said: "I'll have to go to Baseball-Reference.com." Along with giving a plug to Sean Forman's brilliant site, Bremer and Blyleven also clumsily discussed WHIP on Opening Night. Scary.
  • Switch-hitting outfielder Alex Romero ranked 18th on my list of the Twins' top 40 prospects last year, but was lost to the Diamondbacks on waivers when the team dropped him from the 40-man roster to make room for Ramon Ortiz. Losing a decent prospect for nothing was bad and losing him for nothing because of the misguided Ortiz signing was worse, but what really irked me was that the Twins could have kept Romero by dropping 33-year-old Chris Heintz from the 40-man roster instead.

    A minor-league veteran who never had any chance of being more than Triple-A filler or a third-stringer catcher, Heintz was cut loose this offseason after batting .250/.288/.250 in 24 games with the Twins and .275/.333/.341 in 48 games at Triple-A. Meanwhile, Romero batted .310/.354/.421 in 131 games at Triple-A as a 23-year-old last season and beat out veteran Trot Nixon for an Opening Day spot on the Diamondbacks' bench this year.

  • Baseball America posted the official order for June's draft. Between finishing below .500 and losing Hunter via free agency, the Twins pick 14th, 27th, 31st, 61st, and 92nd. It remains to be seen if they'll open the wallet for some decent-sized bonuses, but having a mid-first rounder and four of the first 61 selections is an excellent opportunity to restock the mediocre farm system in a hurry.
  • Speaking of opening up the wallet, Jesse Lund over at Twinkie Town notes that the Twins' Opening Day payroll ranks 24th among 30 MLB teams and at $62.2 million represents a 13-percent decrease from last season. The Twins' payroll ranked dead last in both 2000 and 2001, and just 27th in 2002, but over the past five seasons they've ranked 18th, 19th, 20th, 19th, and 19th. Ranking somewhere in the 18-20 range again this season would have meant spending $70-$75 million.
  • Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Twins have signed Danny Graves to a minor-league contract and will likely assign him to the bullpen at Triple-A. Graves was the Reds' closer for parts of seven seasons beginning in 1998, making two All-Star teams and saving a total of 182 games, but always walked a fine line because of his low strikeout rate and flamed out quickly upon reaching the wrong side of 30.

    He last appeared in the majors with the Indians in 2006, posting a 5.79 ERA in 14 innings, and spent last season pitching for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. Graves is 34 years old and had just 27 strikeouts while allowing 71 hits in 65 innings for the Ducks, so he's obviously a long shot to make it back to the majors. However, between Graves, Livan Hernandez, Craig Monroe, and Juan Rincon the Twins will be in great shape once they get that time machine dialed up for 2004.

  • Land O' Lakes Field would probably be better than most of the potential alternatives, but the constant "LOL" references in Jim Souhan's columns alone would get annoying in a hurry.

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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