Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is This Who the Minnesota Twins Are Now?

The Minnesota Twins have only played eleven games. So any early observation has to be taken with some word of caution about sample size. And while other perennial winners like the Red Sox and the Bay Rays have played worse than the Twins, the team from Minnesota currently sits at 4-7 and in last place in their division. Fortunately, it's very early and they aren't that far off the pace from the leaders. That's the good news and bad news in a nutshell. What will follow here is discussion on some observations made long before the season started. This team doesn't seem to fit. The same observations were made in this space about the White Sox last year. And though the White Sox did have a mid-summer run to catch the Twins in the AL Central last year, they again sunk out of the race, thus proving out those observations. So, for the sake of writing its own safety net, let's just call this post one about observations made with reservations.

That was a long-honking opening paragraph, eh? You still here? Whew! Good. Let's explain why the Twins just don't seem to fit this year and why their early results don't seem to be out of place. First, the Twins have  a pitching staff built around contact. As stated here many times before, the Twins hate a pitcher giving up walks as much as most humans hate cockroaches. And with that philosophy, they eschew strikeout pitchers and focus on pitchers that can throw strikes. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates have a lower K/9 rate than the Twins this year. The Twins were fifth from the bottom (out of thirty teams) in that same category last year. They hate walks so much that they once released Craig Breslow, who has become a very successful reliever (don't worry, he'll come around this year) for the Athletics, simply because he didn't throw enough strikes.

When you have a team pitching philosophy of pitching to contact and throwing strikes, you need to be able to handle all those balls put in play. The Twins already had weaknesses at corner defense in the outfield last year with the statuesque Delmon Young in left and Cuddyer/Kubel in right. And in the off season this year, they set about with determination to weaken their infield defense up the middle.

J. J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson drove Ron Gardenhire crazy last year. Both have already moved a lot in their careers. Hardy can't seem to stay healthy (he's on the DL with a strained oblique right now) and Hudson is famous for playing to his own rhythm and giving you a healthy dose of base running blunders along the way. But darn it, both guys could sure play some defense. Both have rated highly in their careers for their glove work and range. The same could be said about Nick Punto--one of the favorite punching bags of this site--who played short before Hardy. Punto couldn't hit, but he was a fine fielder by most metrics for most of his time in Minnesota.

Since the Twins knew they were going to let Hudson walk, one of the team's biggest acquisitions in the off season was signing second baseman, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, from Japan. From everything we heard, Nishioka was sort of the Ichiro-lite who would get his bat on the ball and give you an exciting brand of slap and run offense. The one difference from Ichiro is that Ichiro was also known for his defense. None of the pre-season pundits were unanimous on Nishioka's ability to translate his infield defense in the majors. And certainly, the Japanese player struggled early on for the Twins on defense. But then he broke his leg in the Swisher take out slide and the point has become moot for at least two to three months. By all appearances, Luke Hughes, Nishioka's replacement can hold his own with the glove.

Meanwhile, over at shortstop, the Twins dispatched Hardy to the Orioles for a minor league player and Jim Hoey, which rhymes with hooey. They didn't get a major league tested shortstop to replace him. Instead, they handed the spot to former utility player, Alexi Casilla. Casilla, in six years in the majors, has only played 50 total games at shortstop. It's probably his best position, but despite the small sample size, hasn't really shined (shone?) defensively at the position. He's adequate, the numbers show. But his defense hasn't show the ability to save runs on defense. Add to that fact that Casilla has a 72 lifetime OPS+ and you get a weaker shortstop position than you had last year. The unfortunate fact is that barring trades, the Twins have no Plan B at short to turn to.

Let's now turn our attention over to third base. Danny Valencia took the position over by storm last season. He did so well offensively that it overlooked that he did pretty well defensively as well. But again, we are talking about sample size and in the minors, Valencia wasn't thought of as a great defensive third baseman and we are starting to see that this year.

So if the Fan were to wrap this all up in a bow, the Twins pitch to contact and need its fielders to make that contact pay off in outs. To be fair, Delmon Young's defensive metrics this year look much better, so we'll leave that one alone. Span is very good in center, but no matter who the Twins put out in right will hurt them. The infield is suspect at third and short. Now that Hughes is at second, he should be pretty sold there. Morneau was very good at first but he missed a lot of time and it will take a few more weeks for his glove to catch up with his much better head. To say it more succinctly, the Twins' defense doesn't match its pitching aspirations.

And could that defense account for the surprising number of walks the pitching has given up this year? That may be a stretch, but they are currently 11th out of 14 American League teams in walks allowed after two years in a row where they led the league in that category by a long margin. Liriano has walked nine all by himself. And let's talk about Liriano for a second while we're here. Has any team had less respect for a pitching talent than the Twins have had for Liriano?

Francisco Liriano was in the top five of all AL pitchers last season. He was dominant and he was effective. What was the first story we heard this spring? That he was being shopped around. His pitching coach has gone on record that Liriano's strikeouts weren't viewed with favor because he could be more effective pitching to contact. Last year, Liriano struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings while only walking 2.7. But that's not good enough? Just like his season in 2006 wasn't good enough. Has any dominant pitcher ever received so little praise from his own organization? His early struggles this season only exacerbate his situation. He needs to get out of there. He really does.

The Twins will hit better than they are now. Mauer hasn't gotten going yet. Morneau is just now starting to hit the ball hard. Valencia has started slowly. But there are holes in this line up. On any given day that Mauer doesn't play, the Twins have one of the weakest players at back up catcher in baseball. Casilla has never proven he can hit. Kubel and Cuddyer get more offensive respect than the numbers indicate. And there has yet to be an indication that Jim Thome has anything left in his tank. Hughes has been solid in the minors but how will he do over two or three months in the majors? That's anyone's guess.

So, yes, friends, the Twins are in trouble. It is very, very early. But this Fan is not impressed with the construction of this team. And don't call the Fan a hater. The resurgence of the Twins in the Minnesota marketplace has been one of the shining stories of baseball in the last decade. They have done a fabulous job of building up their fan base. And that's great for baseball. But the bottom line here is that the Twins do not seem to be a favorite to maintain their longstanding hold to the top spot in the least this year.

No comments: