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September 13, 2010

On the Beat

Breaking It Open

by John Perrotto

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The Twins have all but turned the American League Central race into a rout. That is seemingly unthinkable in a division noted for balance in recent years, the races so close each of the last two seasons that it took a tiebreaker game to determine the champion.

The Twins know better than anyone how tight the AL Central can be. They played in both Game 163s, losing to the White Sox in 2008 and beating the Tigers last season. However, ask Twins manager Ron Gardenhire about holding a six-game lead over the White Sox with three weeks to go and he really doesn't have much to say.

"We really don't pay much attention to the White Sox," Gardenhire said. "I mean, when we come into the clubhouse after a game we talk about them and what they did but it's not like we're thinking about them all the time. We've been fortunate to be in a number of other pennant races and one thing you understand is that it's important to just take care of your own business. The only time the Twins and the White Sox affect each other is when we play each other. Otherwise, the White Sox can't help us and we certainly aren't going to do anything to try to help the White Sox."

The Twins, though, do have the chance to put the knockout punch the White Sox this week. The teams meet for the final time this season in a three-game series that begins Tuesday night at U.S. Cellular Field.

That the Twins will enter the series with such a sizeable lead is surprising considering the AL Central's recent history. And the Twins have done it without anyone having a monster season like catcher Joe Mauer did last year in winning the AL Most Valuable Player award. However, the Twins have been able to open the advantage because of some unlikely contributions from players.

Designated hitter Jim Thome has a .349 True Average and 23 home runs in 302 plate appearances. Rookie third baseman Danny Valencia had a .301 TAv in 241 PA. Left fielder Delmon Young has started to live up to the great expectations of being the first overall pick in the 2003 amateur draft by the Rays with his .287 TAv in 532 PA.

That has helped offset the loss of designated hitter Justin Morneau, who had a .359 TAv when he suffered a concussion in mid-July that has kept him out of action for nearly two months, and sub-par seasons by center fielder Denard Span (.261) and shortstop J.J. Hardy (.260).

"What has put us in this position is that we've gotten help from so many different people," Gardenhire said. "It truly has been a team effort. Different people have stepped up at different points and made a difference. It's a tribute to the depth of talent in our organization."

Thome has justifiably gotten a lot of publicity for his renaissance as a 40-year-old and moving into the top eight on the all-time home run list. However, Young has also played a major role for the Twins, getting a chance to play every day because of the lineup juggling caused by Morneau's injury.

The Twins traded right-hander Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Rays in the 2007-08 offseason for the troubled Young, who had been suspended for 50 games in 2006 for tossing his bat at an umpire in a Triple-A game. The trade looked awful from the Twins' perspective in 2008 when Garza and Bartlett played key roles in the Rays' transformation from perennial doormat to AL pennant winner.

"We took a little bit of heat over this trade, and now it looks pretty good," Gardenhire said. "He's a very good young player. You have to be patient with him sometimes, and I'm not saying I'm always patient with him. I'm not the most patient guy in the world. But he's proven it was a good trade. We got a good player. He worked really hard in the winter and dedicated himself to having a good year, and I think you're seeing that now. He's had a heck of a year to this point, and he's still going and he's still swinging good, so you feel good for the guy and feel good for the organization."

The Twins have every reason to feel good about everything these days. Barring a collapse, they are en route to a sixth division title in the last nine years. Yet the Twins aren't ready to celebrate yet.

"The White Sox went 7-3 on their last road trip but because they lost the last three games, everyone thinks it was bad trip," Twins general manager Bill Smith said. "If they had lost the first three and won their last seven, then everyone would be saying, 'Here come the White Sox.' We know the White Sox have a good team and we respect them. We feel fortunate we have the kind of lead we do on them at this point of the season but we also know nothing is over yet because there is a lot of baseball left to be played."

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While the White Sox are scrambling to stay in the AL Central, it seems there is as much attention being paid to designated hitter Manny Ramirez's hair as the pennant race. The White Sox have a grooming policy and Ramirez was asked to trim his long dreadlocks after being claimed off waivers from the Dodgers last month.

Ramirez has had his hair trimmed three times, though apparently not to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's satisfaction. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, for his part, is tired of hearing about it.

"If Jerry wants to talk to Manny, he's there," Guillen said. "I did my part. I talked to him about this is what we need you to do. I did my part. He cut his hair like three times already. But in the meanwhile, like I said, that's not my department. What am I going to do, not play him? Manny's been great since we got him. Manny has been good for everyone. He's a very quiet guy that goes about his business."

Ramirez has fit in well with the White Sox and seems willing to re-sign as a free agent in the offseason. However, GM Ken Williams isn't ready to commit to anything in 2011 yet.

"The possibility for everyone is the same right now," Williams said. "However we end up we'll look at advertising, attendance, all the revenue streams that come in, I'll get a budget and then I've got to make the best club I can with that budget. Whether or not we can afford him or not, I don't know."

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Ramirez was actually the White Sox' third choice when they went looking to add a big bat. They had a deal in place for Astros first baseman Lance Berkman but he vetoed it and instead accepted a trade to the Yankees. The White Sox then thought they had a deal in place for Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn, even acquiring right-hander Edwin Jackson from the Diamondbacks for a possible three-way trade, but Washington GM Mike Rizzo decided not to pull the trigger.

When the Nationals declined to make the trade, it was generally assumed that there were close to signing Dunn to a contract extension. Yet while Rizzo and Dunn's agent, Greg Genske, have talked all season, no deal is imminent. Rizzo told MASNSports.com that he is open to looking for a replacement on the free-agent market for Dunn.

"We like Adam Dunn," Rizzo said. "We think he's part of the plan. We're going to stay in communication and try and get him signed. If we can't get him signed, it'll be unfortunate, but we're certainly going to have somebody at first base that's going to be a bat for us, and I hope it's Adam, because he's done a lot for the organization and he's a heck of a good player."

Rizzo said no deadline has been set to come to terms with Dunn, who has said he wants a deal longer than the two-year, $20 million contract he signed as a free agent during the 2008-09 offseason.

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Another AL Central team will be looking for a big bat in the offseason. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski says that will be his primary winter objective.

"We have more hits than the Yankees and Red Sox but we don't score as many runs," Dombrowksi told WDFN-AM in Detroit. "So we need someone to knock them in. Some of that will come with youngsters gaining experience, but we need people in the middle of the lineup to go with (Miguel) Cabrera, knocking in runs."

The Tigers are averaging 4.55 runs a game, 14th in the major leagues and eighth in the American League. In an effort to boost their run production, the Tigers are leaning toward exercising the $7 million option on shortstop Jhonny Peralta's contract for next season. Peralta has a .283 TAv in 169 PA since being acquired from the Indians in a trade in July and has said he would be willing to lose weight in the offseason in order to help improve his range at shortstop.

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MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Padres bench coach Ted Simmons is a strong possibility for the Mariners manager's job. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik was the scouting director when Simmons was the Pirates' GM in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki is pushing for Bobby Valentine to be the permanent replacement for Don Wakamatsu and his wishes carry clout with Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln. … Though third baseman Aramis Ramirez is making noise that he might turn down his player option for 2012, the Cubs fully expect him to stay rather than leave $14.6 million on the table. … The Cubs are so pleased with how right-hander Carlos Zambrano has responded to anger management counseling that they may not put him on the trading block this winter. … The Phillies are considering moving set-up reliever Ryan Madson into the closer's role if Brad Lidge begins to struggle again. … The Tigers plan to look at left-handed reliever Phil Coke as a starter next year in spring training.

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Scouts' views on various major-league players:

Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta: "He's got the stuff to be really good—lively fastball, hard slider, and good curveball. He needs to learn to trust his stuff against major-league hitters. He becomes tentative at times instead of cutting the ball loose."

Athletics right-hander Trevor Cahill: "He doesn't overpower you as he rarely touches 90 (mph) with the fastball. But he has good command of four pitches, constantly attacks the strike zone and doesn't get rattled very often for a young kid. He's a real smart pitcher."

Indians right-hander Fausto Carmona: "You can tell he has started taking the game seriously again this year. He lost weight and got the bite back on that hard sinker. He's also greatly improved his changeup. He doesn't strike out as many as you'd think for a guy who throws hard but he compensates by getting lots and lots of ground balls."

Pirates catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit: "The Pirates are doing the right thing by moving him to the outfield because he was a bad defensive catcher to begin with and was only getting worse. The problem with the move, though, is that, as far as his bat is concerned, he's just another guy in the outfield. His value was in being a switch-hitting catcher with some pop."

Phillies closer Brad Lidge: "I don't know if he's going to hold up all the way through the postseason if they get there. His elbow has been barking and he's not throwing as hard as he used to. His slider is still a devastating pitch, but he's throwing it more than ever and that puts a lot of stress on the elbow."

Cubs right-hander Carlos Silva: "He's been rusty since coming off the disabled list, but he's turned things around about as much as any pitcher in the major leagues this season. He has pounded the strike zone all year and has thrown his changeup in all counts. He wasn't worth the money Seattle paid him but he's back to being a pretty decent big-league starter."

Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher: "He's gotten a little more aggressive this year, especially from the right side of the plate and he's been stinging the ball all year, especially when he gets a fastball. He'll still take a walk, but he doesn't let as many hittable pitches go by as he used to."

Marlins right-hander Chris Volstad: "He's added a slider this year but other than that you really can't say much about him. He's isn't particularly strong or weak in one area. He's sort of just there."

Twins left fielder Delmon Young: "He's improved as a hitter. He's learned to turn on inside fastballs for power and he's gotten a lot better at hanging in against breaking balls and making solid contact. He's a free swinger and gets himself out sometimes but I don't think that's going to change. Even if he doesn't draw that many walks, he still can help you."

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Three series with probable pitching matchups, all times Eastern:

Yankees (87-56) at Rays (86-56), Monday-Wednesday September 13-15
CC Sabathia vs. David Price, 7:10 p.m.; Ivan Nova vs. Matt Garza, 7:10 p.m.; Phil Hughes vs. James Shields, 7:10 p.m.

Padres (80-62) at Rockies (79-64), Monday-Wednesday September 13-15
Cory Luebke vs. Jeff Francis, 8:40 p.m.; Jon Garland vs. Jason Hammel, 8:40 p.m.; Clayton Richard vs. Jorge De La Rosa, 3:10 p.m.

Twins (85-58) at White Sox (79-64), Tuesday-Thursday September 14-16
Francisco Liriano vs. John Danks, 8:10 p.m.; Brian Duensing vs. Gavin Floyd, 8:10 p.m.; Carl Pavano vs. Mark Buehrle, 8:10 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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