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June 24, 2011

Prospectus Perspective

Minnesota Miscasts

by Christina Kahrl

I touched on the Twins a bit over on the SweetSpot on Thursday morning, but they're a fun topic, and I can expand on it here. My hope is that you're willing to indulge me, even as the Twins retreat from San Francisco after a pair of losses to the world champs. They're 15-5 this month, so they still rate as one of baseball's hottest teams, and in a division where nobody's a good bet to win 90, they're worth listing among the living.

You can't blame the pitching for the outcome, of course. Nick Blackburn continued his latter-day Tewksbury turn, cranking out another quality start, and Brian Duensing did likewise yesterday. The rotation's run of success has been the key element, with 14 quality starts in those 20 games. Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano are the pitchers from whom great things have always been expected, but seeing Blackburn, Duensing, and Carl Pavano beat expectations of regression from SIERA and the like has been a bracing reminder that interpreting a performance isn't always the same thing as statistical destiny.

But the other important thing about getting innings and low scores from their starters is the heat it's taken off of a bullpen has rated among the league's worst with a 5.54 FRA, besting only Texas. While excusing Joe Nathan to the DL for the last month has improved matters some, it isn't like Matt Capps has been the picture of perfection in saves accumulation, blowing five save opportunities and taking his shots off lefties' bats. What has really made the difference is needing to call on the pen to pitch less than two innings per game for all of June; take Anthony Swarzak's six-inning long-relief spin, and it comes down to a pen that has had to get fewer than five outs per game. How long Gardenhire can avoid his bullpen, or whether he can get a working late-game trio out of Capps, Nathan, and Jose Mijares remains to be seen.

On the other hand, facing a Giants lineup as injury-wracked as their own, there probably isn't that much bragging worth airing as far as the starting pitching either. And scratching out just a run in each of the streak-ending setbacks this week is fairly representative of what's really wrong with Minnesota. It isn't just Francisco Liriano's capacity to exasperate, or a bad bullpen. While the Twins have been buried under an injury stack so high that the International House of Pancakes is exploring endorsement ideas, there's a reasonable point to be made that the Twins have inherited their deserved full measure of disappointment this spring.

That's not to say they haven't had bad luck. The injuries to Delmon Young and Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Denard Span and Kubel... well, yes, that is a bit ridiculous. But if the Twins were in a better place with their best hitters and had exerted more care as far as picking a bench, it may not have been as bad as it turned out.

The injuries you could only do so much about, but it isn't like they didn't have warning in several key cases. The Twins are reaping the downside of risk piled upon risk among their best players, operational choices they felt they had to make, but ones they couldn't afford to go wrong. Shortening Joe Mauer's job description from “superstar catcher” to just superstar has been a must-do item for the front office for several seasons, but with the left side of the defensive spectrum on this roster already stocked up with multi-year commitments, they were pre-set to risk reaping the lineup advantage of employing Mauer behind the plate, and this spring they paid for it. Counting on Jim Thome's health and constant boppery on into his age-40 season was a roll of the dice. And his current foot injury aside, Kubel has not yet proven that his 2009 season was the age-27 peak he's coming down from instead of encouraging us that we'll see it's like again.

Worst of all are the injuries we want to pretend we know what to expect, but we really shouldn't. This isn't just Joe Nathan's problems coming back from Tommy John surgery providing an always-necessary reminder that TJS isn't something everyone makes a full recovery from. The real tragedy is that we still can't really be sure what version of Morneau will be back once he ever gets reactivated: the one we want to see, the slugger that the Twins' foundation rests upon as one of their pillars of post-season possibility, or the guy whose May “comeback” involved hitting at a .264/.305/.418 clip, the sort of stuff Lyle Overbay dreams are made of. With a $45 million commitment to the man through 2013, they're in double-whammy territory, stuck with a first baseman who doesn't slug and whose contract handicaps their ability to get one who does. Moving Mauer is the easy in-house solution, but robbing Peter to pay Paul only makes sense if he has a starting catcher in the other pocket.

The thing is, the Twins get regular helpings of press pity as is. Poor old Ron Gardenhire, cranking out a “good fundamentals” team, the way the Twins do, blahblahblah... isn't this a trope sufficiently overused and well-worn to merit its own tedious Spielberg movie yet? It suffers for not being entirely true, but when you have to throw a pity party for a well-regarded manager, you pile up the left-handed compliments where you can. But Alexi Casilla playing shortstop wasn't a fundamentally good idea, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka may be no better. These were desperate gambles hazarded by a team with no alternatives they cared to contemplate, and as I suggested back in January, that was probably just as well. It would have been nice to see them expend some larger measure of faith in Trevor Plouffe, but apparently he was the one risk they wouldn't run.

A roster replete with spectacularly useless bit players also calls into question whether the team's early-season trough had to be so deeply plumbed. There's nothing easy about managing a lineup with only three players present and accounted for all year: Danny Valencia, amiably manning third and mostly harmless unless you happen to be left-handed, and Michael Cuddyer and Casilla playing positions TBD on a day-to-day basis. But after that, they were pushed back into a reliance on self-inflicted evil: one of the worst benches known to mankind, and one that was assembled with intent, when they might have elected to pick people good at this sort of thing. Instead, they settled on the usual suspects: designated bunter Matt Tolbert, Drew Butera, the worst backup catcher in baseball, or Jason Repko, the outfield reserve you leave glassed in case of emergency.

These weren't the accidental choices: These are the men of the Twins first rank of replacements in case anything went wrong in the infield, outfield, or behind the plate. Perhaps I find Butera especially exasperating... would the extra half-million or so to get someone who honestly came by his union card for the International Brotherhood of Backup Backstops really have killed the Pohladlings, or is Butera's brand of bonhomie really that irreplaceable? In the wake of the injuries, an unready Ben Revere has had to be pressed into action, in part because Repko's a (mostly notional) platoon asset, but at least he has a future. There is no future where the Tolberts or Buteras should get 200 at-bats in a big-league season—anywhere but as Twins, but perhaps this is the sort of odd adaptation we just can't properly appreciate. These self-inflicted wounds were avoidable, but the Twins' brand of cronyism seems to settle for the worst of the worst.

Consider also the timetable of their lineup's happy returns: Jim Thome is back now, so they're “only” down a third of the lineup, but there are no firm timetables attached to when Denard Span, Justin Morneau, or Jason Kubel will be back. The schedule between now and the All-Star Game isn't exactly their friend, either: two series against a Brewers ballclub that might be the NL's best team by the end, homestands against the Dodgers and Rays, and a four-game set in the Cell against the White Sox.

 Colin's brand of post-season odds has the Twins with just a five percent shot, but given a spread that has them with 78 wins and the Tigers with 85 suggest to me that it's not quite that unlikely. The problem is that the Twins can't smile their way through their many happy returns. They still have their risks to run, from Mauer behind the plate to their going shortstopless, from a bullpen so bad their rotation might have to extend a hot three weeks over the next three months. They need Morneau, instead of having to mourn. And they need to be saved from themselves when it comes to picking sidekicks. Will it add up? Perhaps, perhaps also because nobody in the division seems likely to make the moves to win 90 games. But depending on your opponents to come back to greet you on your way up is just the last risk in the Twins' panoply of wishcasts. It'll be up to the Tigers, Tribe, and Sox to play along. 

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

Related Content:  Drew Butera,  The Who,  Twins

22 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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dianagram

Hey .... CK is back! Chain her to her BP office desk ... don't let her leave! :-)

Anyhow .... nice to read you again here, Christina.

Jun 24, 2011 05:26 AM
rating: 19
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Aw, shucks, Diane, much appreciated, and for what it's worth I should be posting a couple of times a month here, while still doing things more regularly (and tersely) on the SweetSpot.

Jun 24, 2011 23:05 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Welcome back-ish!

Jun 27, 2011 17:29 PM
rating: 0
 
escapingNihilism

Christmas comes in June this year.

Jun 24, 2011 05:59 AM
rating: 4
 
Luke in MN

The recent run has been 100% due to the starting pitching (with an assist from the defense), and it simply can't keep up at this pace. In a beautiful, beautiful fantasy world where all the team's position players returned healthy for the rest of the season, the offense could take the baton for the rest of the ride. But that seems like a pipe dream at best. Mauer's back, but not "back," which is probably the most concerning thing of all. He seems like he may need an offseason to get his legs under him again. Span doesn't seem to be quickly returning from his concussion symptoms. Ick, we've seen this before. Speaking of which, will Morneau ever return to form? Twins fans don't like to think about it. Cuddyer and Casilla have graciously carried the offense for a month, but they're not the types to do it for a season. Kubel and Thome could take over if they return healthy, but unless Span, Mauer, and Morneau join them (theoretically, Delmon Young could decide to help), it's hard to see where it all comes from. It's been fun for a while, but when the opposing team's announcers haven't heard of 2/3rds of your lineup on a daily basis, you probably aren't going to be able to keep cruising into the playoffs.

Jun 24, 2011 06:40 AM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

And now, with the latest unhappy truths coming out about Morneau, plus his latest surgery... if Morneau's season is already over (again), the Twins' lot boils down to a challenge, to do the easy thing and find a first-base bat due for free agency after the season, or trade for a catcher (call the Reds), put Mauer at first most of the time of the rest of the season, and figure out 2012 later. Like I said, I'd call the Reds, because Hernandez and Hanigan are both affordable, and Cincy should wise up and make room for Mesoraco sooner rather than later.

Jun 24, 2011 23:14 PM
 
Luke in MN

I hope the Twins have good doctors giving them realistic assessments of whether Mauer can continue catching in the future without seasons like this becoming routine. They sort of doubled down on Mauer catching about a year ago by trading Wilson Ramos last season, and since Ramos would be exactly the type of guy they'd try to acquire if they moved Mauer to a corner, trading for a catcher involves the sort of "admitting of mistakes" that GMs don't tend to like.

Jun 25, 2011 06:28 AM
rating: 4
 
fawcettb

Nice to see you in print, however temporarily. More...

Jun 24, 2011 07:40 AM
rating: 4
 
CRP13

We miss you.

Jun 24, 2011 07:54 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I'm flattered, but thank you.

Jun 24, 2011 23:14 PM
 
jhardman

A Christina Kahrl sighting! Awesome.

Jun 24, 2011 08:39 AM
rating: 2
 
timber

While it's certainly true that not everybody makes a 100% recovery from Tommy John surgery, it's a little to soon the hang that label on Joe Nathan. He tried to come back too soon. His surgery was on 3/26/2010 and he pitching in spring training games 11 months later. That's pretty quick. Not everybody recovers at the same pace, and Nathan is a tad on the older side anyway, pointing to the possibility of a longer recuperation. There's still time for him to rediscover his mojo.

Jun 24, 2011 09:04 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Sure, but on the other hand, this is the same organization that dickered endlessly with trying to get Morneau back in action last year, and look how well that worked out. I wouldn't check my reservations about Nathan just yet.

Jun 24, 2011 23:15 PM
 
evo34

"Dickered endlessly?" To my knowledge, Morneau has had more time off due to a concussion than any other baseball player. Long-term brain damage due to a concussion is nearly impossible to assess. You cannot see the damage done and therefore cannot see if/when it has healed. So the Twins' approach, in my opinion, is what any other team would have done. But you are saying that most teams would have helped Morneau's brain heal better?

Jun 25, 2011 04:44 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Actually, no, he did not. They kept trying to get him back last year, having him take batting practice, work out, starting, stopping, shutting him down, starting him up again, and hoping they'd get him back at some point last year. My point is that they did anything but leave him be.

Jun 25, 2011 15:59 PM
 
evo34

And any other team would have taken one look at him and said, "Yep, this looks like a textbook 9-month concussion. Don't even let this guy think about coming back until next year"?

Don't think so. Unfortunately, that's not the way concussions work.

Jun 26, 2011 13:40 PM
rating: 3
 
Daddyboy

I'll stay with the thought that most professional baseball analysts always seem to be wrong about the Twins, as the Twins ALWAYS seem to outperform expectations. Until the first half of this year, anyway. I'm not optimistic about their chances, but that's when they seem to prove me wrong.

Jun 24, 2011 09:12 AM
rating: 0
 
Deadheadbrewer

Yes--good to see a C.K. article again!

Jun 24, 2011 10:00 AM
rating: 2
 
CalledStrike3

I enjoyed the well written piece ... few smiles along the way.

I do agree that the division they are in, and the potential for players to get healthy - as well as reversion to the mean for Delmon Young, Valencia, and arguable Mauer offensively - along with Nishioka hitting near his 50-60 pecota percentile - makes them competitive.

Ben Revere is an upgrade in the OF even as a 4th OF and their aweful bench gets better with Revere,Luke Hughes,Kubel joining it as part of Gardy's mix and match system.

The back end of the bullpen looks alot better if Nathan can close - with Capps and Glen Perkins setting up ....
It has been a cold and wet spring in Minneapolis and some nice summer days along with healthy ballplayers might get them playing well enough to creep up on the divisional lead.

Jun 24, 2011 11:53 AM
rating: 1
 
pobothecat

We all miss you, CK. But no one more than TA.

Jun 24, 2011 13:05 PM
rating: 0
 
John Collins
(110)

The Twins have also played 13 more road than home games, so balancing that out ought to help them a bit going forward.

Jun 24, 2011 14:24 PM
rating: 2
 
ScottyB

Great to read you again, Christina. However, this article treads the exact same topic as Jay's article from two weeks ago:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=14179

Jun 26, 2011 10:34 AM
rating: 1
 
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