October 2008

SP: The Four Horseman and One Stud

LirianoReview.jpgLast offseason, the Twins lost arguably the top three starters from their pitching rotation in Johan Santana, Matt Garza, and Carlos Silva, as the money just wasn’t there to sign them to long-term contracts.  So, heading into the 2008 season, the starting rotation was the biggest question mark of the team.

Remarkably, though, by the end of the season, the Twins had again dug deep within their organization and (big props to pitching coach Rick Anderson) built a solid starting rotation.  Here is how the starters performed over the course of the season:

Livan “Fat Man” Hernandez (10-8, 139.7 IP, 5.48 ERA): The Twins signed the Fat Man before the start of the season in order to give their starting rotation some veteran experience, but he was a colossal failure.  He benefited from some extremely good luck (to get those 10 wins), with his only talent being the ability to throw a complete game nearly every start (of course, he would surely give up five runs).  Hernandez was jettisoned at the end of July.

Francisco Liriano (6-4, 76, 3.91): In 2006, the Cisco Kid wowed Twins fans with his biting slider and extremely live fastball before rupturing his arm and needing Tommy John surgery to tidy it up.  After taking 2007 off, then, Twins fans had high hopes for Cisco in ’08.  At first, things took a terrible twist, as Liriano (in his first few starts with the big club since ’06) could not throw strikes and got hammered even by poor teams like Kansas City.  After just three starts and an 11.32 ERA in April, Liriano was sent back to the minors to work out the kinks.  He returned in August and looked much more like the Liriano of old, striking out more batters with higher velocity.  He struggled a bit at the end of the season, but clearly has the potential to be the staff ace in ’09.

Scott Baker (11-4, 172.3, 3.45): With Santana a Met, the Twins were counting on Baker to be the rock of their rotation in a year where Liriano would still be gaining his footing.  The success of Baker, though, depends on how you look at it: Usually, Baker did live up to the moniker of staff ace, mowing down batters in a Liriano-like fashion when he was on.  However, Baker also struggled mightily with pitch count, often leaving games after just five innings and putting more strain on an already-brittle bullpen (more in further posts)…not what you want out of your ace.

Kevin Slowey (12-11, 160.3, 3.99): The Twins were looking for Slowey to take the next step in his development as a major league pitcher, and by and large he did just that.  Injuries prevented him from achieving the 200 inning plateau, and he (like Baker) also struggled with pitch counts and leaving games early.  When he’s on his game, it’s eerily similar to watching the departed Brad Radke ply his trade.

Nick Blackburn (11-11, 193.3, 4.05): Judging on past experience, Blackie turned in the most remarkable season of all Twins starting pitchers in 2008.  A complete unknown coming into the season, Blackburn nearly reached 200 innings and spun a legendary game in the one-game playoff against the White Sox (although sadly he was not rewarded for his effort).  He’s a sinkerball pitcher, so either he was getting his ground balls, or the balls were flying out of the park.

Glen Perkins (12-4, 151, 4.41): After missing nearly an entire season due to injuries, Perkins (a former Golden Gopher) latched on to the fifth starter position and didn’t let go for nearly the entire season.  He was arguably the Twins’ most consistent pitcher in the middle months of the season, but seemed to tire (or just stink) down the stretch, raising some concerns about his strength.

So, the 2008 Twins were able to put together a remarkable young rotation (no one older than 26) that pitched them to within one Jim Thome home run of the playoffs.  Of course, with that youth brings question marks for ’09: Can Perkins hold up over a whole season?  Can Baker and Slowey manage their pitch counts better?  Can Blackburn get the sinker working more times than not?  Can Liriano get back to version.2006?

Looking ahead to 2009, Perkins’ spot in the rotation may be in jeopardy due to the emergence of young starter Anthony Swarzak (5-0 in Triple-A).  Other than that, the starting rotation looks to be, at the very least, competent.

DH: (Finally) A Steady Presence

KubelReview.jpgSince the days of “Hot” Chili Davis in 1991, the Minnesota Twins have not had a steady designated hitter presence.  Guys like Brian “Buck” Buchanan and Matthew “Crazy Legs” LeCroy were tried for their powerful bats, but quickly discarded due to their inefficiencies pretty much everywhere else.  More often than not, a Nick Punto-caliber player was installed in the DH spot, matching up against such DH sluggers as Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, and Gary Sheffield.

In 2008, however, the Twins finally received some steady production from the DH spot in the person of Jason Kubel.  Playing roughly half (77) of his 141 games this season in the DH hole, Kubel batted .272 with 20 home runs and 78 RBI in 463 at-bats.  Although sharing time at DH with Craig Monroe early in the season (until Monroe played his way off the team with his .202 average), Kubel pretty much inherited the bulk of the DH duty the rest of the way.  Sure, Kubel is prone to stretches of ineffectiveness (usually stemming from a loss of confidence that a few days riding the pine will fix), but he also provided support for Mauer and Morneau when they weren’t on top of their game.

Of course, under manager Ron Gardenhire, the DH will likely never be taken over by a guy like David Ortiz, as Gardy likes to shuffle the lineup depending on the starting pitchers.  Hopefully in 2009, though, Kubel (while still getting spot starts in the outfield to keep his fielding up to snuff) will handle the DH privilege and handle it well.  Kubel was once the bluest-chip prospect in the entire Twins organization before injuring his knee in 2004, so I would love for him to finally realize that full potential that scouts once saw in him.

RF: The Rifle (Hopefully Locked and Loaded)

CuddyReview.jpgBefore the 2008 season, the Minnesota Twins gave right fielder Michael Cuddyer a long-term (I believe it was either 4 or 6 years) contract.  Due to injuries, however, that money has not turned out to be a good investment (yet), as bad-luck injuries plagued Cuddy the entire season.

During the fifth game of the season, Cuddyer dislocated his right index finger sliding into third base and was out about a month.  He came back at the end of April, played throughout May, and just when his timing was starting to come back, he strained a tendon in the same left index finger, putting him on the shelf for a much longer period.  Cuddyer rested and rehab the finger throughout June and July, and just as he was predicted to return, a freak line drive from teammate Garrett Jones in a Triple-A rehab assignment smashed him on his foot (he was on first base) and broke a bone.  Thus, Cuddyer did not return to the Twins full healthy until late September, when the lineups were already pretty much set for the stretch run.  He did pinch hit a few times, but that was about it.

Essentially, then, the 2008 season was a lost one for Michael Cuddyer.  However, he should come back healthy in ’09, and when that happens he is a huge asset to our lineup.  Offensively, he provides the righty antithesis to Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel and can hit 20 home runs per season.  Defensively, he has the strongest arm on the team (and playing with Gomez, Young, and Span makes that quite an achievement) and has become very familiar playing the tricky “Baggie” out in right.

Though his return muddles the CF situation (Span or Gomez?), Cuddyer is a bat and glove the Twins need in the middle of their lineup.

CF: Spick and Span? Not With Go-Go.

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When Torii Hunter (arguably the most popular Twin since their rise to prominence in 2001) left for the Anaheim Angels via free agency after the 2007 season, a gap hole was left in center field at the Metrodome.  After an intense Spring Training competition for the job between Carlos Gomez (acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade), Denard Span (the heir apparent to Hunter’s job until he struggled in the minor leagues), and Jason Pridie (a cast-off from the Rays who had a great spring).  Although Span seemed the more polished of the three come April, “Go-Go” Gomez was named the starter due to his almost unbelievable speed and the excitement he brought to the club and their fans on a daily basis.

For the first few months of the season, Go-Go was indeed the most exciting player on the team, whether it was streaking to catch balls out in the field or flying around the basepaths after driving the ball into the gap.  As the season stretched on, however, pitchers began to learn how to pitch to the rookie Gomez, and the strikeouts and terrible at-bats began piling up.  At one point, Ron Gardenhire considered benching the fiery youngster (after dropping him from 1st to 8th or 9th in the order), but Carlos likely saw his job saved when Michael Cuddyer went down with an injury, and Span (the guy who would have taken over in CF) came up to replace him instead.

Gomez did finish the season on a high note, and his stats are respectable for essentially a first-year player: 577 AB, 79 R, .258 BA, 33 SB.  However, he also struck out a near Twins-record 142 times and also was prone to defensive lapses in CF from time to time.  His blazing speed and cannon arm more often than not made up for his mistakes, but too many times would a ball roll right under his legs or he would juggle the ball at a crucial moment.

Of course, Gomez would still be penciled in as the starting CF in 2009 if not for the emergence of Span (who will be moved back to his natural position when Cuddyer returns next year).  During the 2008 season, Span manned the leadoff spot in the order like no Twin has done since Shannon Stewart, working deep into counts, drawing walks, and spraying the ball all over the field.  In 347 at-bats, Span hit .294 with 70 R, 50 BB, 102 H, and 18 SB.  Whereas Gomez struggled in the pressure of the leadoff spot, Span thrived.  Defensively, Span made some of the most athletic catches ever seen in the Metrodome, and also has a rifle arm.

So, with Cuddyer (and his shiny, long-term contract) coming back to man RF in 2009 (as he should), it should be an interesting battle for the centerfield spot.  Whereas Span seems to be ready right now, Gomez is a remarkable young talent whose potential is the teflon roof.  Knowing Gardy, each player will get their share of ABs in 2009, although a riskier move would be to deal one of them for a relief pitcher that the club so desperately needs (to be discussed later).

Playoff Notes:

-Perhaps it is time I stop doubting the Rays, as their 13-4 crushing of the Red Sox tonight leaves them one game away from the World Series.  I still think the series will need to go back to Tampa to be concluded, but now the Red Sox are up against the wall and will find it extremely difficult to beat the young Tampa club three times in a row.

LF: The Breakout Candidate

YoungSlidingReview.jpgWhen the Minnesota Twins traded promising young starter Matt Garza to the Tampa Bay Rays last offseason, the keystone of the deal was Delmon Young, who had batted .288 and drove in 93 runs during his rookie season in 2007.  From the Twins’ perspective, Young was one of the most promising young talents in the American League.

Of course, as had happened at the second base (Brendan Harris), shortstop (Adam Everett), and third base (Mike Lamb) positions, Delmon got off to a slow start in a Twins uniform, flailing away at unhittable pitches and not hitting anything but singles when he did connect (his first home run didn’t come until June 7).  This was at the same time that Garza was near the league leaders in both wins and earned run average for the AL.

Then, on June 27, Michael Cuddyer (the most powerful right-handed bat in the Twins’ lineup to that point) was essentially lost for the season due to a wrist (and later a foot) injury.  From that point, Young really stepped up and became a force in the Twins’ lineup, finishing with a .290 BA, 80 R, 10 HR, and 14 SB.

Defensively, Young was heavily criticized (yes, this is you Patrick Ruesse) during one portion of the season where he misjudged a few fly balls in the Metrodome.  To me, though, that criticism was entirely undeserved.  First off, Young has a rocket arm out in left (a HUGE improvement over our last full-time left fielder Shannon Stewart).  Second, every rookie has their struggles at the Dome, whether it be with the roof (outfielders) or the turf (infielders).  Yes, Young struggled a little bit, but by the end of the season he saved many more hits, runs, and advancing base runners than he allowed.

The key thing that Twins fans must remember about Delmon Young is that his last name is synonymous with his current status in MLB.  Delmon is only 22 years old, and after his breakthrough rookie season in 2007 he had a bit of a “sophomore slump” in the early goings of ’08.  As the season came to a close, though, it became clear that Young can provide some right-handed pop to the lineup (as well as good speed), making him potentially the starting left-fielder of the Minnesota Twins for many years to come.  I, for one, have no qualms about that.

Playoff Notes:

-What a clutch win for the Phillies last night, with Shane Victorino hitting a late-inning two-run home run to give the Phils the victory.  I predicted the Philadelphia squad to win this series in five games, and right now they are one win from doing exactly that.

-ALCS Game Four Starting Pitchers (Tampa Bay 2, Boston 1): Tim Wakefield (10-11, 4.13) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38).  Can the Rays win two consecutive games in Fenway Park in October?  I lean towards one, but of course I also doubted their ability to even win one. 

3B: The Platoon

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During spring 2008, the Minnesota Twins were counting on Mike Lamb (like Adam Everett, also acquired from the Houston Astros) to man the hot corner and, more importantly, provide some pop to the offense with his seasoned bat.  Neither occurred (Lamb played below-average defense and hit just .233), and within a few months the platoon of Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris took over the third stop.

Buscher (a lefty) hit .294 in just 218 at-bats and proved to be an RBI machine (47 in 70 games).  His defense was a bit shaky earlier one, but tightened up as the season progressed into September.

Harris (a righty) moved to third after being exiled from both second and short on a starting basis.  Harris played against lefties (and a good share of righties), hitting .265 in 434 at-bats.  Harris tended to be a streaky player, going through stretches where he seemed to get all the key hits, followed by slumps that would find Buscher even starting against left-handers.

Personally, I would like to see the Busch Man installed as the everyday third baseman.  I feel that he gives the lineup more pop, and his defense will only get better.  The key, though, is how Buscher progresses in his development.  At the end of 2008, Buscher struggled for the most part, so perhaps pitchers are figuring him out and now he needs to make the adjustment.  Thus, Harris is very much worth keeping.  If Buscher fails to produce up to expectations, Harris is still a prospect to keep an eye on, as he is still pretty young.

Fan response to the 2008 Twins may lean towards signing a third baseman with a little more pop in his bat than the unproven Harris or the youngster Buscher, but knowing the Twins’ budget a move will almost certainly not be made.  We’ll have to rely on one (or both) of those two players to improve on their ’08 campaign.

Playoff Notes:

-Boy, the Rays sure surprised me by thumping the Red Sox today 9-1.  I never thought I’d see the day when the Tampa Bay baseball organization would make a World Series appearance, but now the world is just two more victories away from that exact feat.

-Right now, the Phillies and Dodgers are just winding down a crazy contest that I believe has featured a lead change every time a run has been scored!  It is currently 7-5 Philly in the top of the ninth, but in a game like this nothing is over until the final at-bat.

SS: The Anchor

AirPuntoReview.jpgMuch like at the previous position I review, second base, the shortstop position was thought to be locked down early in the season by newcomer Adam Everett.  However, Everett’s sub-par batting average (.213) and multitude of injuries once again made it necessary to turn to old stalwart Nick Punto to become the starting shortstop.

Now, there are many of you out there you probably think that Nick Punto is not a major-league caliber player (at least offensively).  However, surprisingly enough, he added an element to the Twins’ lineup that proved crucial to them scoring runs all season: speed from the #9 hold in the lineup.  With guys like Alexi Casilla, Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, and Punto batting consecutively in some fashion, their combined speed put a tremendous amount of pressure on opposing pitchers, as every batted ball needed to be played perfectly in order to record an out.

Of course, Punto WAS effective because his .284 batting average was a huge improvement from his 2007 campaign, when he flirted with the Mendoza line for a good portion of the season.  He was on-base enough times to make himself valuable, also stealing 15 bases in the process.  In years past, when the Twins were desperate to score runs, Punto would be a huge liability in the lineup, but with the better hitting the Twins could count on in 2008, Punto’s athletic play was useful.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much here…Punto is really in the lineup every day in large part because of his spectacular infield defense.  Whether at shortstop or anywhere on the diamond, Punto is a human highlight reel, turning in remarkable play after remarkable play.

Looking ahead to 2009, Nick Punto (provided he continues to produce at least average offense) should be the starting shortstop for a large portion of the season (when he’s not filling in somewhere else!).

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For a more long-term future of the shortstop position (and in case of a Punto injury, say, diving headfirst into first base), the Twins have developed another dynamic youngster in Matt Tolbert.  First called up from the minors when Everett went on the DL, Tolbert was very impressive both in the field and at the plate.  A wrist injury then sidelined him for nearly the rest of the season, but he ended up hitting .283 in 113 at-bats.  He could easily eclipse 300 at-bats next season (as Punto is often needed elsewhere).

2B: The Rabbit

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The Twins started the 2008 series with Brendan Harris (acquired from the Rays in the Matt Garza trade) installed at second base.  After a month or two of sluggish fielding from Harris, however, the Twins called up young Alexi Casilla from Triple-A to man the second sack.  Yes, that was the same Casilla whose boneheaded plays were seen night after night as the Twins wallowed into obscurity at the end of 2007.  This time, however, things were much different…

During this season, in 385 at-bats, Casilla netted 108 hits, scored 58 runs, drove in 50, and hit .281 in the process.  More importantly, though, was the stability Casilla brought to the Twins’ lineup once manger Ron Gardenhire planted him in the #2 hole for good.  Sure, Nick Punto is great at bunting leadoff guys around the bases, but Little Nicky often breaks down (either physically or talent-wise) when used for an entire season.  So, Casilla was a perfect fit to bat behind Gomez/Span throughout the later months of the season, as his speed really put the screws to opposing pitchers.

Defensively, Casilla was spectacular.  Whereas at the end of 2007 Alexi played himself back to the minor leagues with one fielding blunder after another, it was obvious this season that all those kinks were worked out, as Casilla now makes every play required of him (and many that are not!).  Essentially, he’s Luis Castillo without the balky knees.

As far as areas of improvement, there are two things that Casilla could work on in order to become a more well-rounded player: First, he still needs to keep his head in the game on the basepaths.  Every once in awhile, he would get thrown out at a base for no apparent reason, or make a bad judgment call.  It was probably just the excitability factor that is inherent in all young players, but it still needs to be tamed just a bit.  Second, Casilla also needs to work on driving the ball more.  He did hit for a decent average in 2008, but most of those hits were singles.  Every once in awhile we saw Alexi’s ability to turn on a pitch and launch it either into the gap or over the right-field fence, but those occurences were much too few and far between.  I’m not saying he should turn into a power hitter, but he could really keep defenses honest (not just playing in all the time) if he could start driving the ball more.

However, those weaknesses (keeping a cool head and driving the ball) are areas that all young players likely need to work on, and are pretty nit-picky at that.  With a full season under his belt, Alexi Casilla will likely continue to give the Twins that dimension of speed that so often powers the offense when the big sluggers aren’t slugging.

Twins Notes:

-I heard the other day that the Twins are going to (and perhaps already did) pick up their $900,000 option on backup catcher Mike Redmond for 2009.  Print the World Series tickets now…(I shouldn’t joke, though, as I wish Justin Morneau had someone to back him up like Joe Mauer has in Red Dog).

Playoff Notes:

-ALCS Game Three Pitching Matchups (Boston 1, Tampa Bay 1): Jon Lester (16-6, 3.21) vs. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70).  It will be interesting to see how the fiery former Twin Garza handles the pressure-cooker of October baseball in Fenway Park.

-NLCS Game Four Pitching Matchups (Philadelphia 2, Los Angeles 1): Joe Blanton (9-12, 4.69) vs. Derek Lowe (14-11, 3.24).  Lowe was beaten by the Phillies in Game One of this series, but if anyone can come back on short rest in the postseason it’s the grizzled Lowe.

1B: Everything We Asked For (And Probably A Bit Too Much…)

MornyDerbyReview.jpgWhat did Justin Morneau NOT accomplish during the 2008 season?!  His offensive stats read as follows: 683 AB, 97 R, 187 H, 47 2B (a new team record), 23 HR, 129 RBI, and .300 BA, far and away leading the rest of the team in nearly all of those categories (and likely garnering him at least a few MVP ballots behind probable winner Dustin Pedroia).  Defensively, Morneau has also developed himself into an above-average (and borderline spectacular) defenseman (much like Corey Koskie did years ago).  Oh, and on a personal level, Morneau won the MLB Home Run Derby and scored the winning run in the All-Star Game.  What’s to complain about, right?

While Justin (much like his buddy Joe Mauer) was the team MVP throughout the 2008 season, he also seemed to succumb to a bit of fatigue at certain points (163 games will do that to a player).  Basically, he carried the team when he was hot, but also was abhorrent when he was cold (like the last week of the season).  I hope that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will view this as just another learning experience with his always-potential MVP candidate, as it would be smart to give him a few days off next season whether or not it messes up the lineup.

In order for that to happen, though, the Twins may need to go out a sign a part-time player (much like Mike Redmond does at the catcher position) to play 1B, or give Brian Buscher a bit more work at the position so they at least feel moderately comfortable giving the Big Canuck some rest.

All in all, it was a great season for Morneau and I hope he continues his success in subsequent seasons, as he is the rock that our offensive lineup is built on.

Playoff Notes:

-Talk about some bad blood in Los Angeles…the Dodgers got back into their NLCS with a 7-2 win over Philadelphia.  Besides some early offensive fireworks from the men in Blue (knocking Phillies’ starter Jamie Moyer in the second inning), both benches also emptied when Hiroki Kuroda (the Dodgers’ starting pitcher) threw over the head of Shane Victorino, with Manny Ramirez leading the charge out of the home dugout.  A bunch of other beanballs were exchanged (whether intentional or not) during the contest, setting up a Game Four tomorrow night that was the potential for high drama.

-Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays evened the series with the Boston Red Sox on Saturday night, but with the series moving to Fenway Park tomorrow afternoon, does anyone really think the Rays will take two of three on that hallowed ground.  IF this series goes back to The Trop, it WILL be with the Sox holding the advantage.

C: The Great One

MauerReview.jpgWith this post, I will begin my series of evaluating the positions/players of the 2008 Minnesota Twins, looking at what went wrong, what went right, and what we can expect in 2009.  Now, you may think that this assessment is a bit premature (what with the playoffs just heating up), but I would like to comment on these things before they fade from my memory and become generalizations instead of observations.  Let’s start with the catcher position:

In 2008, Joe Mauer was the most consistent batter in the Twins’ lineup.  His stats read: .328 BA (AL leader), 85 RBI, 98 R.  He doesn’t hit for much power, but he is pretty much money to get at least one hit a night.  Basically, he’s the perfect table-setter for the Twins’ “big bats” (do those exist…more later), as he always seems to be on base (where he runs well) and making something happen.

Defensively, Mauer still has a cannon-like arm and can throw out pretty much anybody.  His defensive numbers seemed to droop this year, but that was likely because of the Twins’ young pitchers’ inability to effectively hold runners on first base (something that will only improve with time).

This position is really the simplest to “critique”, as nothing is wrong!  Mauer can hit, run, field, throw, catch, and handle a young pitching staff with the best of them.  Though some people may want the power numbers to improve, I will take a .320 hitter batting third in the lineup until kingdom come.  Mauer will be the catcher of the Twins for a very long time.

Next: First Base

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