June 23, 2006
Stealing the Spotlight
That was just terrific. One of the best pitchers in baseball, a true difference-maker in a pennant race, having a great night on national television in one of the most highly-anticipated games of the season.
Roger Clemens was there, too.
Clemens' return, the reason for the presence of ESPN cameras at last night's game in Houston, was overshadowed by yet another dominant outing by the Twins' Francisco Liriano. Liriano continued his Cy Young Award-caliber season with eight terrific innings, helping the Twins continue their June run with a 4-2 win. The rookie left-hander pounded the strike zone all night (72 strikes in 97 pitches) in allowing just two runs, while displaying the stuff that had both statheads and scouts placing him near the top of prospect lists last winter.
The Astros' right-hander was the second-best starter in this game, scuffling with his command (59% strikes) and working a number of deep counts, the end result of which was a short outing. Clemens was terrific in the first two innings, but a long third seemed to take a lot out of him, a sign that his tour of the Astros' organization didn't entirely prepare him for last night's opener. Still, he showed good heat and the same splitter he had a year ago, when he was the National League ERA leader. He'll have better nights. As the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Reds and Phillies stumble through June, it looks increasingly likely that adding Clemens could be enough to make the Astros the favorites for the NL wild card.
The better story, for one night, was Liriano. Since joining the Twins' rotation on May 19, He's made six starts with a 1.50 ERA, allowing just one homer in that time. It's no coincidence that the Twins, 17-24 when Liriano took the mound that night in Milwaukee, are 19-11 since, and have moved above .500 and to the fringe of contention in the AL. Liriano entering the rotation is one of a series of moves the team has made in the last six weeks, as they've slowly corrected the mistakes they made over the winter and in March, and finally get the team they should have had on the field all along.
In addition to Liriano replacing Kyle Lohse, the Twins have dumped their starting left side of the infield. The signing of Tony Batista was never going to work, but it took Terry Ryan two months to figure out what analysts knew in December. Playing Nick Punto there is a minor upgrade; the eventual solution should involve Terry Tiffee getting most of the at-bats. Jason Bartlett has finally taken over at shortstop, 14 months after emerging as the Twins' best player at the position. We'll see if this holds, as Ron Gardenhire has shown little patience for the good-bat, average-gloved Bartlett in the past.
In the outfield, Michael Cuddyer has taken over as the everyday right fielder in place of Lew Ford, who's a good fourth outfielder but who lacks the bat to be an everyday corner guy. Jason Kubel, who wasted a month of his season at Rochester, is back and appears to be the everyday left fielder. Once Shannon Stewart returns from the disabled list in early July, Rondell White will be the latest veteran out of a job, as Kubel and Cuddyer keep their playing time. Stewart's plantar fasciitis will likely restrict him to DH.
All of these decisions could have, and should have, been made in March. As good as the Twins have been at producing adequate-to-good major-league players over the past decade, they've developed a significant block when it comes to letting those players play. The decision to start Liriano out in the bullpen was defensible, paralleling how they developed Johan Santana years ago. But every decision on a position player was wrong; Batista never should have been signed, and Cuddyer, Kubel, Bartlett and Tiffee should have all been playing in April. This isn't the old AL Central, where you could afford mistakes; even if the Twins play at a 93-win pace the rest of the way-my original prediction for them-they'll finish far behind the White Sox and most likely behind the Tigers.
The best thing to come out of this season, if Ryan and Gardenhire take the lesson, is an understanding that experience is no substitute for ability. The decision to play veterans over the ready products of the system cost them a number of wins early in the season, and if it's too late to salvage 2006, perhaps learning that lesson can have a positive impact on 2007 and beyond. The Twins are going to have two of the best pitchers in baseball in their rotation, plus two of the top hitters in the league in Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel. Getting the other 21 roster spots right will be critical to their chances in the toughest division in baseball.