April 6, 2011

Twins Notes: Hallelujah, payrolls, handshakes, stats, and mountains

Joe Nathan's velocity wasn't much better last night, as he continued to work at 89-91 miles per hour with his fastball, but compared to his first post-surgery outing Sunday his command was vastly improved and he relied far less on off-speed stuff. Oh, and throwing a fastball past Derek Jeter to end a game is always fun.

• At some point the starting pitchers will have to avoid digging a big hole right away, but Brian Duensing recovered well from a rough first two innings. He allowed four runs in seven innings overall, but that's actually a pretty solid effort considering the Yankees averaged 4.6 runs per seven innings at home last season.

• I'm curious to see if Ron Gardenhire will make a habit out of turning to Matt Capps for more than one inning now that he's not holding him back for ninth-inning leads. Early in his career Capps was very durable, logging 160 innings in 161 appearances during his first two seasons, but once he became a full-time closer in 2008 his usage lessened considerably.

• Old friend Luis Ayala got the Yankees out of a jam in the 10th inning, which is remarkable for a guy who was washed up when the Twins signed him in 2009. Ayala followed up a 5.71 ERA in 2008 with a 5.63 ERA in 2009 and then didn't pitch in the majors at all last season, yet there he was getting high-leverage work for baseball's only $200 million team. I'm just glad I didn't have to make good on this promise. Are the North Stars still good?

• Speaking of payrolls, USA Today crunched the numbers and found that the Twins rank ninth in Opening Day payroll at $112.7 million. That's second in the AL Central behind the White Sox at $127.8 million and the Tigers aren't far behind at $105.7 million, making it the only division with three $100 million teams. Of course, with the Indians at $49.2 million and the Royals at an MLB-low $36.1 million it's also the only division with two teams under $50 million.

Justin Morneau has had plenty of hard-hit balls through five games, but an even better sign for his comeback from last year's concussion might be that he can remember all these different choreographed, teammate-dependent handshakes:

My favorite is making it rain with Danny Valencia, which should be the title of a show on FSN.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote that the Twins are more involved with statistical analysis than their reputation suggests and based on his quotes vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff certainly sounds very open to sabermetrics, but as of last year the front office's highest-profile decision-makers had only a rudimentary understanding of most new-school numbers and Christensen says they "have yet to hire a full-time statistical expert."

According to Bill Lankhof of the Toronto Sun the Rockies "were all set to pick" Denard Span with the ninth overall selection in the 2002 draft, but instead took Canadian lefty Jeff Francis. I have no clue who the Twins may have nabbed at No. 20 had Span not been there, but some of the players picked in the next 10 spots were Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francoeur, Joe Blanton, and Matt Cain. They did well to get Span, obviously, although it didn't always look that way.

• I was encouraged by Gardenhire benching Michael Cuddyer against a right-hander Monday, but we'll see if that was an acknowledgment that Jim Thome and Jason Kubel are far superior options versus righties or merely a convenient day off for Cuddyer.

Seth Stohs has a breakdown of the Twins' minor-league rosters at Rochester, New Britain, Fort Myers, and Beloit, so you can see where all their top prospects are headed.

Kevin Slowey and R.A. Dickey are going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro together in January.

Rhett Bollinger, who replaced Kelly Thesier as the MLB.com Twins beat reporter last month, now has his own blog in addition to being on Twitter.

• My favorite part of the StarTribune.com re-design? LaVelle E. Neal III's popped collar look.

October 10, 2010

The End

Wait till next year.

October 8, 2010

ALDS Game 2: Yankees 5, Twins 2

At this point writing about postseason losses to the Yankees has me feeling like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, except there's no Andie MacDowell to hit on while going through the same frustrating story over and over again. I'm not sure what's left to say, really, but here are some notes from Game 2 of the ALDS ...

• For all the media-fueled talk of Francisco Liriano being untrustworthy in big games and Carl Pavano being less likely to implode they basically turned in identical performances versus New York. Liriano struck out seven and allowed four runs on nine baserunners in 5.2 innings, while Pavano struck out three and allowed four runs on 11 baserunners in six innings. Unfortunately neither performance was particularly good.

• Of course, Pavano's line (and the game in general) would've looked much different had home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt called what appeared to be a pretty obvious strike three on Lance Berkman in the seventh inning. Instead he called it a ball and Berkman connected on a go-ahead (and ultimately game-winning) double on the next pitch. Berkman later came around to score, putting the Yankees up 4-2.

Via replays and various pitch location charts the call was perhaps somewhat less obvious than it initially appeared, but Pavano's pitch was pretty clearly a strike and even more clearly was a pitch that's almost always called a strike. However, it was also far from the only questionable ball/strike call Wendelstedt made all night and in fact his strike zone was wildly inconsistent for both sides and ... well, let's say "unique." Plus, in Game 1 a bad call went the Twins' way.

• From the moment Ron Gardenhire left the dugout there was absolutely zero that doubt he'd end up getting tossed from the game. Typically pitching coach Rick Anderson makes all trips to the mound that don't involve a pitching change and Gardenhire has a long history of incidents with Wendelstedt, so clearly he headed out there with the intention of venting his frustration with the umpire and perhaps even with the goal of getting tossed.

Jon Rauch deserves some praise for wriggling out of the bases-loaded, one-out jam against Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano in the seventh inning, just as he probably deserved more praise than he received during the regular season for converting 21-of-25 save opportunities before the closer role was yanked away and for his 3.12 ERA and 41-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57.2 innings overall.

• Lost in the talk of pitching matchups and rotation orders is that the Twins' lineup has been inept during the 2-11 playoff stretch against New York, scoring 3, 1, 1, 1, 2, 6, 4, 5, 2, 3, 1, 4, and 2 runs. That works out to 2.8 runs per game, which won't equal many wins regardless of the pitching. To put that in some context, the average AL team scored 4.5 runs per game this year. Against the Yankees the Twins have more than four runs twice in 13 playoff games.

• Coming into the series I felt that two factors being somewhat overlooked were the strength of the Yankees' bullpen even beyond Mariano Rivera and how facing four left-handed starters in five games put the Twins at a big disadvantage because they relied so much on left-handed bats Joe Mauer, Jim Thome, and Jason Kubel. Both factors have sadly played out pretty much as expected in the first two games. They face a right-handed starter Saturday in Phil Hughes.

• I'll be co-hosting "Twins Wrap" on 1500-ESPN following (hopefully) both games in New York, talking with Darren Wolfson and taking phone calls starting about an hour after the final out. Win or lose the shows will likely last for at least an hour and maybe two hours, so I'd definitely love to hear from some AG.com readers, if only for the sake of my sanity.

October 7, 2010

ALDS Game 1: Yankees 6, Twins 4

Sigh.

Everything was perfect last night, except for that damn final score. I arrived at the jam-packed Kiernan's Irish Pub in time to see the final three innings of Roy Halladay's no-hitter, eventually made my way to fantastic Target Field seats just past third base, sat in gorgeous weather at a ballpark that was absolutely rocking ... and drove home depressed after watching a story that I've seen too many times before.

Some disjointed notes on another gut-wrenching playoff loss to the Yankees ...

• I didn't like Orlando Hudson bunting after Denard Span singled to lead off the game, just as I didn't like the various times when that situation played out the same way in previous playoff games against the Yankees. Giving up an out and playing for one run just doesn't make much sense when you're facing such a potent lineup. With that said, it's ultimately a pretty marginal situation strategically and I didn't have any major issues with the in-game tactics.

• On the other hand, I thought Joe Girardi did the Twins a favor several times with his bullpen management, first by leaving CC Sabathia in despite having David Robertson all warmed up in the sixth inning and then by using Boone Logan in a way that led to Jim Thome coming to the plate as the go-ahead run versus a righty. Sabathia wriggled out of his jam with the game still tied and Thome struck out, but Girardi's moves in those spots were questionable at best.

Francisco Liriano was thisclose to out-dueling Sabathia and putting together a great playoff debut, cruising through five very impressive innings, but things unraveled in the sixth inning. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Jorge Posada doing some damage is far from surprising, but Curtis Granderson tripling off the wall in right-center field was shocking given his career-long struggles against lefties and Liriano's dominance against lefties.

Jesse Crain was knocked around in his final appearance of the regular season Friday, giving up four runs against the Blue Jays, but prior to that he had a 1.06 ERA and .171 opponents' batting average in 51 innings spread over his previous 54 appearances. Perhaps his ugly end to the regular season was a sign that he'd serve up a back-breaking homer to Teixeira, but it would be crazy to not trust a guy who had one bad game following four months of dominance.

• Hudson has made his share of head-scratching plays on both sides of the ball all season, but his going from first to third on Joe Mauer's third-inning squibber showed a ton of smarts and hustle. And it ultimately led to a run.

• In the seventh inning Mauer slashed a line drive into the foul territory along the left-field line and a guy sitting in the row in front of me reached out and snatched it out of the air with his bare hand as if he were catching a set of car keys someone had tossed him underhanded. It sounded like a cross between a gun shot and slapping a slab of meat, yet when asked a few minutes later if it hurt his response was simply: "A little bit."

• Pinch-running for both Jason Kubel and Danny Valencia in the eighth inning is an example of over-managing. Kubel wasn't even the tying run and Valencia is certainly fast enough to run for himself. And if the Twins were going to win the game there was a good chance those two spots in the batting order would come up again, at which point Jason Repko and Matt Tolbert are hitting. A huge deal? No, but needlessly finicky.

• Thome has been so amazing that it felt weird to see him fail to come through in a couple big spots. He struck out on a ball in the dirt with two men on in the seventh inning and popped up to end the game after the umpires gifted the Twins a 28th out. J.J. Hardy also came up empty in two key spots, including whiffing off an incredibly wobbly Sabathia with the bases loaded. They weren't short on chances, but the Twins went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

• Tonight's matchup: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Carl Pavano (221 IP, 4.01 xFIP)

October 6, 2010

Twins Notes: Before the storm

I'll be in attendance at Target Field tonight--in the stands with a Twins hat and a beer rather than in the press box with a laptop--so while anxiously counting down the seconds until 7:37 p.m. here are some notes before Game 1 of the ALDS ...

A.J. Burnett is in the second season of a five-year, $82.5 million contract, but he's been so bad while going 1-7 with a 6.61 ERA in 12 starts since August 1 that the Yankees have decided to bump him from the playoff rotation. Instead of using Burnett in Game 4 at Yankee Stadium they'll bring back CC Sabathia to start on short rest, followed by Andy Pettitte on full rest in Game 5. Here are the new game-by-game matchups:

Game 1: CC Sabathia (238 IP, 3.78 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (192 IP, 3.06 xFIP)

Game 2: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Carl Pavano (221 IP, 4.01 xFIP)

Game 3: Phil Hughes (176 IP, 4.33 xFIP) vs. Brian Duensing (131 IP, 4.11 xFIP)

Game 4: CC Sabathia (238 IP, 3.78 xFIP) vs. Nick Blackburn (161 IP, 4.68 xFIP)

Game 5: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (192 IP, 3.06 xFIP)

Sabathia was scheduled for two starts either way, so the rotation shift mostly just alters his matchups, but by giving Pettitte a second start in place of Burnett the Yankees dramatically increase his role in the series. Pettitte is MLB's all-time leader in playoff wins and innings, but he's also 38 years old and has allowed 11 runs on 22 hits in 13.1 innings since spending two months on the disabled list with a groin injury.

So far New York and Philadelphia are the only playoff teams committed to using a three-man rotation in the first round, although thanks to an extra off day in the NLDS schedule the Phillies can do so without starting anyone on short rest. Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1995, pitchers starting games on short rest are 21-31 with a 4.65 ERA. Sabathia has made just six career short-rest starts, but he's 4-1 with a 1.52 ERA.

• Burnett getting bumped from the Yankees' rotation means the Twins will face a left-handed starter in four of five games, which is a definite advantage for New York. In the regular season the Twins had a .776 OPS versus right-handers compared to a .736 OPS versus left-handers, in large part because Jim Thome and Jason Kubel both struggle against lefties and the Twins don't have a good right-handed bat to sub for them.

Sabathia and Pettitte starting four times lessens Thome's likely impact, because for as great as he's been this season his OPS is 400 points lower versus lefties than righties. Thome just isn't JIM THOME against southpaws, and that's been true for his entire career. Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, and Danny Valencia need to step up as the lineup's top right-handed bats with Thome, Kubel, and Joe Mauer all at a big disadvantage in four of five games.

• On the other hand, the Yankees' lack of southpaw relievers plays into the Twins' strengths in the late innings. New York's bullpen has the potential to be extremely good, but Boone Logan is the lone left-handed option. He's held lefties to a .190 batting average and .501 OPS this season, but also has a 5.10 career ERA. Even if Joe Girardi trusts him in key spots the Twins' lefty heavy lineup will eventually get opportunities to face righties late in games.

• As expected, the Twins are going with 14 position players and 11 pitchers on the first-round roster. They don't have to submit an official list until this afternoon, but Scott Baker reportedly will be the odd man out in favor of Kevin Slowey unless Jon Rauch is deemed unavailable due to his knee injury and they both make the cut.

Matt Tolbert, Jose Morales, and Ben Revere were the candidates to fill the final bench spot and Tolbert is expected to get the nod. I think that's a mistake, because he's redundant with Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla on the roster and Revere offers far more playoff uses as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for Young in left field. With that said, because the Twins are unlikely to pinch-hit for anyone in the lineup the bench's impact figures to be minimal.

• Last week Justin Morneau expressed a bit of optimism about potentially being available for the ALCS or World Series, but after some of his post-concussion symptoms returned following vigorous workouts the Twins have officially shut him down until 2011.

Francisco Liriano was named the Comeback Player of the Year for the American League, as voted by MLB.com's beat writers. Tim Hudson won the NL version over R.A. Dickey.

• Twins fans will be happy to see that Phil Cuzzi is not umpiring the ALDS and in fact is absent from MLB's first-round assignments along with Joe West and Bob Davidson. Jerry Crawford, Hunter Wendelstedt, Greg Gibson, Brian O'Nora, Gary Darling, and Chris Guccione are the crew for the Twins-Yankees series. Ron Gardenhire has a history of run-ins with Wendelstedt.

• I received a lot of e-mails, comments, and tweets from Twins fans upset about the New York Daily News' front page Monday, but the whole thing seems pretty silly to me. Don't confuse the people who write headlines for newspapers with the people who play for the Yankees.

• Released by the Indians in July after hitting .206 in 22 games, Mike Redmond announced his retirement. He's long been touted as a potential future manager and surely has a job waiting for him with the Twins if he wants it.

Terry Ryan is said to be on the Mets' initial list of targets to replace general manager Omar Minaya, although given his stated reasons for stepping down as the Twins' general manager in September of 2007 it seems unlikely that Ryan would want the same gig in New York.

• My primary regret about choosing to attend Game 1 sans press pass? Not getting a copy of the Twins' postseason media guide and its awesome cover photo.

• I'll have some Game 1 thoughts posted here by tomorrow morning, but if you're interested in reading my real-time babbling live from the Target Field stands tonight follow me on Twitter.

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