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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

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