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May 2, 2006

Prospectus Today

Bad Start

by Joe Sheehan

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"Mayday!"

The first of May had more than one meaning in Southeastern Minnesota, where the Twins returned home from a 2-7 road trip and dropped another blowout, this time 8-2 to the Mariners. The game was actually an improvement over their weekend trip to Detroit, where they were outscored 33-1, never led for so much as a moment and saw their starters allow 21 runs in 10 2/3 innings. Last night, they managed to take the lead for a few minutes (on a first-inning RBI single) before coughing up eight straight runs to a Mariners team that came in 11-15 on the season.

The Twins have simply embarrassed themselves for nearly two weeks now. Consider that they managed to lose a game to the execrable Royals last week, and preceded that by getting swept--in a comparably noncompetitive fashion to last weekend's Detroit disaster--by the White Sox, it's hard to not see the Twins as perhaps the biggest disappointment of the young season.

Why are the Twins so bad? No part of the team has covered itself in glory, and only a few players have come close to their projected level of performance. Most of those are in the lineup: the Twins are averaging just shy of four runs per game, far from a championship-caliber offense but within shouting distance of the 4.5 a game I predicted they would score. Free-agent signee Luis Castillo is the only Twin exceeding expectations, with a singles-driven .362 batting average that is unlikely to be sustained. Shannon Stewart, Joe Mauer and, surprisingly, Tony Batista have also carried their weight.

On any given day, though, the Twins start five players with sub-.300 OBPs, "led" by the other free-agent pickup of the offseason, Rondell White. White is hitting .136/.143/.148, or a bit less than what your average pitcher does with the bat. He's yet to draw a walk this year, and he has more teammates erased--five double plays--than secondary bases (three, a double, a stolen base and a hit by pitch). He's been the worst hitter in baseball by more than five runs, and has essentially cancelled out Chris Shelton in terms of his contribution to the AL. He's been as bad as Shelton has been good. That, my friends, is a bad month.

White's nightmare has deflected attention from a quartet of Twins who have been doing their part to hamper the offense. Justin Morneau hasn't bounced back as many expected him to, and Torii Hunter has spent more time talking about not being a Twin next year than making his last year in town memorable. Lew Ford has hit just .214 with no power and Juan Castro has hit about like Juan Castro, which is to say, not as good as Jason Bartlett would.

Other than White, the Twins don't have any offensive problems they can't solve themselves. Jason Kubel probably never should have been sent down to begin with; he's at .342/.409/.553 for Rochester, and should be called up immediately to take most of Ford's playing time away. Most encouraging about Kubel is that he has a triple and a stolen base at Triple-A, both signs that his knee is ready for everyday action. Bartlett, who has also played well (.300/.330/.475), should make the same trip from New York. I defended the decision to choose Castro over Bartlett based on the Twins' ball-in-play staff, but at some point, talent wins out, and the Twins need the offensive help.

Hunter and Morneau are going to play, and both should edge back towards their norms, not that that's a comforting thought. Morneau could lose time, deservedly, to Michael Cuddyer, especially against southpaws. Ford, Cuddyer or Garrett Jones (not off to a good start at Rochester) could all be candidates to take time from White if this turns out to be his Jim Rice 1988. The gap between this offense and what they were projected to be is a gap that can be closed as the season wears on.

It's the other side of the ball that has been killing this team. The Twins have allowed a whopping 156 runs, just over six per game. The bullpen has been a small part of that, mainly Jesse Crain, who has an ERA of 9.49 with three home runs allowed in 12 1/3 innings. Other than Crain, though, everyone else has been close to expectations, and the three good relievers at the back end of the pen--Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon and Francisco Liriano--have combined for 39 strikeouts, 11 walks and one home run allowed in 33 2/3 innings. That's not where the Twins are losing games.

No, the good relievers in the bullpen are finding themselves called upon to throw mop-up relief in 11-0 games of late, because the Twins' rotation--and specifically, the middle of that rotation--has been brutal. Set aside Johan Santana and Scott Baker for the moment. Both pitchers have acceptable peripherals: good strikeout-to-walk ratios, strikeout rates and home-run rates. Their high ERAs so far are a bit fluky thanks to very high batting averages on balls in play. More on that later.

It's the guys who pitch between Santana and Baker, the ones who survived last year thanks to exceptional walk rates and acceptable home-run rates who have been getting buried in a hail of bombs.

              BFP/K   BFP/BB   K/BB   BFP/HR   BABIP
Radke '05      7.10    36.13   5.09    25.18    .284
Radke '06      9.31    30.25   3.25    10.50    .359

              BFP/K   BFP/BB   K/BB   BFP/HR   BABIP
Silva '05     10.55    83.22   7.89    29.96    .295
Silva '06     13.44    40.33   3.00    12.10    .333

              BFP/K   BFP/BB   K/BB   BFP/HR   BABIP
Lohse '05      8.94    17.48   1.95    34.95    .316
Lohse '06      8.25     7.62   0.92    33.33    .351
Radke and Silva have seen their strikeout rates slip from a level where they can survive to one where perhaps they can't, a dropoff that indicates an increased level of "hittability" that is showing up in their home-run rates and their ERAs. The change in walk rate probably isn't significant in Radke's case (too small a change) or Silva's (too few walks to discuss), although it is something to watch. If these guys can't work in the zone because they're too hittable, they'll have to nibble more, and the walk rate could be an indicator of this process. Regardless, we may be seeing the two of them fall off of the knife edge they rode in 2005.

With Lohse, he's reacquired the command problems that have plagued him throughout his career, putting too many runners on base with wildness. This is not out of line with his 2004 performance, and helps the argument that he shouldn't even be the Twins' #4 starter, not with Liriano around.

In all three cases, it's fair to point out that we're dealing with just five starts, and that it's possible, perhaps even probable, that drawing conclusions from so little information is dangerous. On the other hand, these three guys are averaging 5 1/3 innings a start and just a hair under a run an inning, while showing up as three of the ten worst starters in baseball by Support-Neutral measures. A few more turns through the rotation could bury the Twins behind a White Sox team that's better than last year's and two other pretty good ballclubs.

You can't blame all of the numbers above on the pitchers, because they have gotten virtually no support from their defense. The Twins' Defensive Efficiency Rating is not just the worst in baseball, it breaks the curve. The Rangers are 13th in the AL in DER with a mark of .688 (68.8% of the balls in play against the Rangers are converted into outs). The Twins' mark of .649 is last. There's an argument that some of that number could be due to a staff that has been allowing a lot of hard-hit, "uncatchable" balls--an argument supported by the home-run rates of Silva and Radke--but the defense has to take a significant chunk of the blame. It's early, but Clay Davenport's numbers show the Twins' infield to be a problem, with Luis Castillo and Tony Batista performing well below-average with the glove.

If the Twins do absolutely nothing, they'll probably allow fewer runs as a matter of course. There's just no precedent for a team to be this bad defensively. However, they can probably get a short-term upgrade by replacing Lohse in the rotation with Liriano. Lohse can pick up the long-relief innings that have been very available on this team, and perhaps garner enough trade value to bring back a left-handed complement for White in the DH slot (a healthy Ryan Klesko wouldn't be a bad fit). In the longer term, they'll monitor the work of Boof Bonser and J.D. Durbin at Rochester, as well as Justin Jones at New Britain. If the Twins decide to make a move with Silva, they'll have an assortment of options.

Unfortunately, the changes the Twins can make were all available to them over the last couple of months, and they chose other directions. Bartlett, Kubel and Liriano are well-known to both Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan, and they all lost out to Castro, Ford, Ruben Sierra and Lohse. If they haven't chosen to play the better players yet, it's an open question whether they ever will. At that point, the focus has to shift from the disappointing performance of the players to the ongoing inability of this organization to get its best talent on the field. If the 2006 Twins don't contend, that story will move to the forefront.

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

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