Results tagged ‘ Nick Punto ’

3 Up…or 3 Down?

andersoncallingbullpen-739405.jpgI will be very busy in the upcoming days leading up to the Minnesota Twins’ Opening Day on April 6th, so I just wanted to post a few season-preview thoughts before the regular season campaign kicks off.

The way I see it, there are three areas in which the Twins need to excel this season in order to win the division crown.  In all honesty, these areas are pretty much the same for all other teams as well, but the Twins have their own unique challenges:

1. First, the starting pitching quintet of Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins needs to continue to keep the team in games.  This is the most important cog in the machine, as if the quality starts keep pouring in the Twins will at the very least compete no matter how bad the bullpen or offense stinks.  The old baseball adage that “good pitching beats good hitting” holds as true now as it always has.  I mean, if say Johan Santana faced no one but Ichiro Suzuki all season long, the very best that Ichiro could do is get a hit four times in every ten at-bats.  Thus, the starting rotation is the anchor of every staff, and the Twins’ staff is still a bit of a question mark:

Baker: Has ace-type repertoire but struggles to pitch into the later innings.  Is usually up around 100 pitches by the fifth inning or so, putting a strain on the bullpen.

Cisco: Could dominate, could fall apart due to control issues.

Slowey: This is the guy I think is poised for a huge season.  He is essentially the second coming of Brad Radke, only with a better assortment of pitches.  Just needs to work on limiting damaging situations, as they tend to snow-ball on him pretty quick.

Blackie: As a play-to-contact, ground ball sort of pitcher, Blackburn walks the fine line between Carlos Silva and Jack Morris.  On some days he can be the most frustrating guy in the world to drive the ball off of, while on other days he gets lit up.

Perkins: The great unknown.  Was very up-and-down last season…showed flashes of both excellence and utter failure.

So, the extent to which that rotation comes together is the biggest factor in how the Twins will finish in the standings in 2009.

2. The bullpen, however, isn’t far behind.  Whereas I am confident that the starting five can find a way to hold up their end of the bargain, I’m not nearly as sold on the bullpen, which looks to include:

Joe Nathan: The only sure-bet of the bunch.  Will blow a few (who doesn’t…well, besides Brad Lidge last year), but let’s just say that a “down” year would be an ERA over 2.00.

Jesse Crain: Pretty much the root of all frustration in the world. Was overhyped even when he was good, but does have a glimmer of hope in that now is arm is finally “back” after having surgery a while back.

Matt Guerrier: Will have to prove that last year’s collapse WAS just a fluke (or due to fatigue), not because batters just figured him out.

Craig Breslow: The lefty-lefty specialist.  Will likely do a good job, and is an upgrade over Dennis “Throw One WP And Leave The Game” Reyes.

Luis Ayala: Don’t know much about his guy, only that he came from the Nats (not a good sign) and struggled mightily last year.  Has potential…but so did Mike Fetters.

The final bullpen spot, thought to be filled by Jose Mijares until he came to camp looking like Hideki Irabu, is now up for grabs between newcomer Brian Duensing, Philip Humber (obtained in the Santana trade), and R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer.

All in all, that is not a very impressive bunch.  Like I said, Nathan is solid, but getting to him will be the difficult part.  Someone is going to have to step up and become the eighth inning man that guys like LaTroy Hawkins and Juan Rincon were in the past.

3. Finally, I would like to quickly comment on the Twins’ offense.  Here is a sample lineup that the Twins could trot out on a semi-day basis:

Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Crede, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, Nick Punto.

Essentially, it would likely be the best starting lineup the Twins have had in quite some time (plus Carlos Gomez off the bench).  However, I am very wary of predicting a high offensive turnout from this bunch, as it so rarely happens up here in MN.  It seems as if the Twins are much better at developing pitchers than hitters (perhaps due to the small-ball philosophy that reins hitters in instead of turning them loose?), so even a lineup that looks rock-solid can quickly turn gooey.  Actually, I think the biggest positive this season, as opposed to ’06 or ’08, is that no old fogeys are being counted on to produce.  The days of experimenting with guys like Tony Batista, Rondell White, Mike Lamb, and (cringe) even Bret Boone seem to be behind the Twins, with the lineup now given over completely to the young veterans and just youngsters period.

So there you have it…how the Twins perform in those three areas will go very far in determining their division standings come October.  Hopefully before the season begins I will post an article about my divisional predictions for MLB (if it ever stops snowing here to allow the mail through!).

Another Hilarous Winter Meetings

Each time around the major league baseball winter meetings, there seems to be a rather hilarious article “hot off the wire” detailing the “big signing” of the Minnesota Twins in the wake of the really big boys already changing hands.  This year didn’t fail to disappoint…

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First, record-setting closer Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez moved from the Angels to the Mets by signing a three-year, $37 million deal.  With Billy Wagner rehabbing an injury and perhaps on the downslope of his career anyway, the Mets figured they needed a dominant closer and thus went out and got the best.

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Then, just a few days later, C.C. Sabathia moved from the Brewers to the Yankees (who else, really?!) for seven years and $161 million, the largest contract ever for a pitcher.  The bad news: He really could stabilize the Yanks’ starting rotation.  The good news: We (the Twins) may only have to face him 1-2 a season TOPS…hooray!!

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Finally, the inevitable “big move” came from the Minnesota Twins, as they announced the signing of “Little” Nick Punto to a two-year, $8.5 million contract.  Ooh, the cash is really flowing now!  Start printing those World Series tickets…”Little Nicky” is back.

In all honesty, though, Punto was actually a pretty good signing for the small-market Twins, as he is the best defenseman (at any position) in the league and, as long as he can keep his batting average above .260 or so, isn’t a huge drag on the lineup with the speed and bunting ability he brings to the table.

The Free Agent Shuffle

FreeAgents.jpgToday, three Minnesota Twins announced they were filing for free agency.  Here are the likely scenarios for those three guys:

Dennys Reyes- Unless he is dirt cheap (and if he’s filing that probably isn’t the case), the Twins will likely cut ties with the Big Sweat.  He is too wild and too erratic, while Jose Mijares and Craig Breslow are just as effective and cheaper options.

Eddie Guardado- Despite all the excitement when Everyday Eddie returned to the Twins, he stunk it up this second time around and is almost certain to not be brought back.  It actually wouldn’t surprise me if Eddie doesn’t receive any offers and retires before the 2009 season.

Nick Punto- Despite a bit higher of a price tag that Denny Hocking ever commanded, I can’t see Little Nicky leaving Ron Gardenhire’s side.  Punto can play too many defensive positions and is too good of a bunter/aggressive hitter for the Twins to part with him.  He has filled in admirably around the diamond and I would like to see him return.

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.

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