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September 25, 2008

Prospectus Today

Twins Go Wild

by Joe Sheehan

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Two down, one to go. The Twins essentially needed a sweep of the White Sox this week to have a chance to win the AL Central. Effective starts from Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn helped them take the first two of those must-win games of the showdown series this week at the Metrodome.

Whereas Tuesday night's game was a romp thanks to the slugging exploits of Jason Kubel and Delmon Young, Wednesday's affair was a thriller in which the Twins scored three runs in the first two innings and sweated out the rest of the contest. The Twins' pen, such a problem this season, provided four shut-out innings last night, highlighted by Jose Mijares tossing a perfect eighth. Mijares, who suffered a broken elbow in an off-season car accident that moved him off of prospect lists, has allowed two hits and no walks in seven appearances, and has pitched the eighth inning in the Twins' last two close wins. The heavy southpaw has been a godsend for a bullpen that has struggled all year, and especially late in the season, to shut teams down in the seventh and eighth innings.

The Twins' three runs last night illustrated what has slowly become the defining trait of this organization. They don't often start the year with their best team on the field, but they do figure it out over the course of the season. Both Denard Span and Alexi Casilla reached base twice in the first two innings, and the pair scored or drove in two of the Twins' three runs in those frames. For a team that has struggled at times to put enough runners on in front of MVP candidates Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, the work of Span and Casilla has made this a viable offense.

Since Span took over the leadoff spot on July 22-he's led off in every game since-the Twins have scored 5.5 runs per game. Prior to that, mostly with Carlos Gomez leading off, the Twins had scored 4.9 runs per game. Ninety points of OBP has that effect. It may end up that the Michael Cuddyer injury, which created a job for Span, was the most important thing that happened to this team all season. As long as he's not asked to play center field-despite good speed, Span is a very awkward outfielder, comparable to Alex Cole in some ways-Span is a good player.

Similarly, the White Sox's five runs in the series tell you what they are: desperately reliant on home runs. The Sox have scored two runs on outs and three on home runs in the five games. Strangely, all five have been driven in by Ken Griffey Jr. (with no RBI in one case). Griffey has largely been a disappointment since coming over in a much-hyped trade-deadline deal. Last night, the Sox had nine hits and three walks, but came away with just two runs. They're about as one-dimensional an offense as you could possibly create:


Stat  AL Rank
HR       1
BA      10
OBP      9
2B       8
3B      14
SB      13
BB       9
%R/HR    1

(Here's a fun fact, courtesy of Clay Davenport: the White Sox could become the eighth team in history-all since 1989-to play a full season and have their team leader in triples hit just two. The White Sox have just 13 triples, with Alexei Ramirez and Jermaine Dye tied for the team lead with a pair each. There's a park effect there, but it's also an indication of the shape of the Sox offense. The Sox are 10th in the AL in doubles-plus-triples, and have out-homered the four teams below them by at least 49 bombs each.)

The White Sox hit home runs, and that's about it. They score nearly half of their runs on homers. No other AL team is above 37 percent. Even the walk total is a bit deceptive; the Sox have a handful of guys who draw a lot of walks in Jim Thome, Nick Swisher, and Carlos Quentin, and they also run some of the game's most notorious hackers out there in Ramirez, Juan Uribe, and A.J. Pierzynski. It's just a weird offense, and a very strange team to watch, but they are a testament to the value of the long ball: if you're only going to do one thing well, that's not the worst one thing to pick. The White Sox have a dead-average .260 EqA, and the shape of the lineup doesn't seem to be affecting its output-the EqA report shows that they've scored exactly as many runs as their run elements would predict.

The outcomes of the first two games mean that tonight's contest takes on a season's worth of importance to the two squads. Right now, the Sox still have an edge on the Twins-they hold a 61.6 percent chance of winning the division, and the Twins are at 38.4 percent. That number doesn't mean much, though, because we know that tonight one of the teams has to win, and the other lose.

If White Sox win: White Sox 86.4 percent, Twins 13.6 percent
If Twins win: Twins 62.6 percent, White Sox 37.4 percent

This may be the biggest game of the season in terms of playoff expectation; it's certainly the biggest game left between contenders, short of a potential one-game playoff next week. If the White Sox win, they become about a 7-1 favorite to hang on and win the the division. If they lose, the Twins swing to about a 3-2 favorite; I suspect that's even a bit low, as the system isn't capturing that this Twins team is better than the "full-season" version that was leading off Carlos Gomez, playing Michael Cuddyer, and starting Livan Hernandez.

In any case, tonight's game is must-see baseball. With Gavin Floyd facing off against Kevin Slowey, the pitching matchup is even, although the Sox could benefit from Slowey being a fly-ball pitcher, one who's also a bit homer-prone. They also have a very fresh bullpen, with neither Matt Thornton nor Bobby Jenks having pitched since Sunday. Really, though, the game is a coin flip, and one with tens of millions of dollars on the line.

---

There's a potentially complicated situation developing in the skies above New York. Rain is in the forecast not just for tonight, but through the weekend. This could wreak havoc with the schedule, and while the Mets and Marlins can wait out delays at Shea all weekend, the Cubs can't stick around quite as long; they have to play tonight so they can get to Milwaukee for their weekend series with the Brewers.

If tonight's game doesn't get played-and note that the rain is supposed to get worse later in the evening towards midnight and beyond-the Cubs will actually have two makeup games to play, one in Houston and one in New York. Now, you can hand-wave that Houston game because the Astros' tragic number is two, but the problem is that if a Mets game doesn't get played, the chance increases that the Cubs/Astros game will have to be played. If the Astros run the table-they close with the Braves over the weekend on the heels of tonight's game with the equally irrelevant Reds-then the Mets or Brewers would have to win two games to eliminate them. Would you put it past these squads to miss that mark?

Even if the Astros drop out of the picture, the Cubs could be forced to fly back to New York on Monday to play a game that means nothing to them, and everything to the opposition and a third party. This actually gives them incentive, of a sort, this weekend; by taking out the Brewers, they can help the Mets clinch a berth in the postseason and obviate the need for a trip to the Big Apple-and a second "last regular-season game at Shea"-on Monday. It could be even more complicated than that if the Mets play poorly (or have a bunch of games rained out) and the Astros play well; the Cubs could be in a situation where they have great reason to not win Saturday and/or Sunday's contests, as doing so could cause them to have to fly around the country playing makeups in advance of their post-season opener Wednesday. That's the nightmare scenario for MLB: a Cubs team that has significant incentive to lose to the Brewers. There's even a degenerate case in which the need for makeups and subsequent playoff games leaves the NL post-season picture a muddled mess into midweek.

This is all speculation, of course, and what is most likely is that we'll see two teams having to play a baseball game in completely inappropriate conditions this evening. Should tonight's game be rained out though, it will make the Cubs' endgame a bit more complicated than Lou Piniella would like.

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

Related Content:  Denard Span,  The Who,  White Sox Home Opener,  Twins

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

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sanott

given that the kid-gloves are off liriano in terms of his minor + major league IP totals, couldn't the argument be made to start him on one less day of rest against the sox in essentially the most important game of their season? of course, the twins will make comments about protecting his arm, etc., but if they lose there may be a lot of 2nd guessing. no offense to slowey, who's been very good.

Sep 25, 2008 09:50 AM
rating: 0
 
jefferickson

I'd have to imagine that the margin of difference between a fully-rested Slowey and Liriano pitching on short rest is pretty small. In fact, it might even be in Slowey's favor.

Sep 25, 2008 10:28 AM
rating: 0
 
sanott

3.2 IP and 6 ER later...should've started liriano.....

Sep 25, 2008 18:28 PM
rating: 0
 
Mountainhawk

If tonight is rained out and the season ends:

PHI 91-71
NYM 90-71
MIL 89-73

would they give the Mets the chance to play the Cubs to win the East, or since the Mets are in no matter what do they get the Wild Card and get on with the playoffs? Obviously if the Brewers are 90-72 or better then the Mets have to play.

Sep 25, 2008 10:07 AM
rating: 0
 
Matthew

Tiebreakers are only played when a playoff entry is at stake. If only seeding is at stake, then the game will not be made up.

Sep 25, 2008 11:43 AM
rating: 0
 
Adam B.

Yes, but that's the answer to a different question: I think under those circumstances the Mets would get the right to play game #162, because if they win it, they win the division over the Phillies b/c of the h2h tiebreaker, gaining HFA, etc. They just wouldn't play against the Phillies *in* a tiebreaker game after such a tie was created.

Sep 25, 2008 12:12 PM
rating: 0
 
TLivingston

I'm pretty sure Earl Weaver would love to manage this White Sox team with all the 3-run homers they hit.

Sep 25, 2008 10:21 AM
rating: 0
 
Shaun P.
(676)

If the Twins end up missing the playoffs by a game or two, I wonder if Bill Smith will regret not jettisoning Livan sooner? Perhaps he'll learn his lesson and not sign a crappy veteran starter for millions this offseason.

Sep 25, 2008 10:30 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

or saving a few bucks down the road and keeping Liriano down on the farm.

Sep 25, 2008 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
blynch

Why on earth didn't the commissioner's office order them to play this game at 1 pm? Or 4, or whatever. It's not nice to the folks with tickets to change game time at the last minute, to a time when they probably can't make it, but them's the breaks. If they want to minimize the amount of the game fans miss, what's to stop them from starting at 5:30, or 6? Just because it's a little weird and unexpected doesn't mean they shouldn't do it, when not doing it might screw up the next six days in a row.

Sep 25, 2008 10:32 AM
rating: 1
 
drmagoo

I completely agree. I've been wondering that since I heard about the weather problems last night. If they have to do makeup games, those will be thrown together at the last minute and be all screwed up, why not minimize the chances of that and reschedule today's game? I'm a Cubs fan, so admittedly I'm biased, but I really don't see how making the team with the best record in the league play makeup games that are meaningless to them, especially if they have to play two in two different cities before flying home to open up on Wednesday, makes any sense, not when at least one of the problems could be avoided.

Sep 25, 2008 10:36 AM
rating: 0
 
mikecha

I also agree with blynch. It's been done in other sports - change gametimes based on weather. Why can't this be done in MLB? Heavy rains from TS Hanna were forecast for a Saturday in the NYC area so the U.S. Open tennis matches were moved up to 11 a.m. and the women's final scheduled that evening was cancelled hours ahead of time.

LSU's home opener was moved up six hours to a 10 a.m. local time kickoff in anticipation of people needing to evacuate due to Hurricane Gustav.

Wouldn't it make perfect sense for Bud Selig to have today's Cubs-Mets game moved up to a 1:05 start? Oh, that's right, it's Bud Selig, the same guy who had the Astros-Cubs games played in Milwaukee, transforming Miller Park into Wrigley Field North, instead of Arlington, which is much closer for the Astros.

Sep 25, 2008 11:21 AM
rating: 0
 
Robert Flaxman

I'm sorry, but "integrity of the game" be damned, if I'm the Cubs and I'm forced to play one or even TWO makeup games on the 29th and 30th, I'm throwing the Iowa Cubs out there and not looking back. The Cubs have earned the right to arrange themselves for the postseason, and forcing them to fly around like that, giving a distinct advantage to whichever team they play in the first round (unless it still ended up being the Mets, I suppose), just seems unfair. But now I sound like an Astros fan.

Sep 25, 2008 10:37 AM
rating: 0
 
lpiklor

I have to agree with the good Dr and Mr Flax and add that if the conditions are "sloppy", I'd throw the B Team out there tonight. Why risk Harden, Soriano etc. on a wet field? I'd hate to see someone integral to the Cubs postseason wrench an ACL on wet turf in a game that doesn't mean too much to them. It's looking a no win proposition for the Cubs tonight unless the weather cooperates.

Sep 25, 2008 10:46 AM
rating: 0
 
jonasquad

As a guy who watches quite a bit of Twins baseball, there's no pitcher I'd rather have out there than Slowey. He adjusts, pitches well without his best stuff, and is very intelligent. I'm feeling real good about our chances tonight.

Sep 25, 2008 10:47 AM
rating: 0
 
ZeusIsLoose

If the cubs have to make up games in both NY and in Houston on Monday why not make it like spring training and let them play a split squad?

Ok, I kid. But it's that or somehow changing the laws of physics or delaying the start of the NLDS.

For some reason I really enjoy the thought of elaborate tie breaker/makeup games going on Monday and Tuesday. I'd like to see whitesox tigers followed by a whitesox twins playoff.

I'd like to see the brewers/phillies/mets/astros 3 way tie in some combination.

I figure whatever gives Bud's ulcer a reason to flare up is probably good for us baseball fans.

Sep 25, 2008 10:55 AM
rating: 0
 
Mountainhawk

Bud will just move both games to Milwaukee, and have the Cubs play a doubleheader on Monday.

Sep 25, 2008 11:31 AM
rating: 1
 
stinkypete

There's precedent for MLB moving starting times to miss out on weather, I'm almost certain that the Red Sox moved a start time once this year for that reason. Heck, if MLB can allow the Orioles to schedule a Saturday double-header and a Sunday off-day to avoid conflict with the Raven's home opener, then this should be a no-brainer.

I do wonder how much this being the last home series at Shea is playing into this. Honestly, I don't know what would cause the bigger uproar, moving the start forward and causing some fans to miss their final game, or leaving it alone and forcing them to sit in the rain for hours. I'm glad it's not a decision I have to make.

Sep 25, 2008 12:22 PM
rating: 0
 
ClubberLang

The White Sox also start a guy tonight who probably represents their best chance of a complete shutdown start, but also the second most likely of their starters to be completely lousy. When Floyd is on he's perfectly capable of firing off 7+ no hit innings (which he's done twice this year already), as his good stuff is just filthy. When he's not on he'll battle but he'll probably end up giving up 5 runs.

I have to think the Sox bats will show up tonight though. Griffey has driven in all the runs, but has also cost them in the field (Brian Anderson absolutely catches Kubel's triple), and it isn't like these guys haven't been in pressure spots before. I expect Dye to come up big tonight in particular.

Sep 25, 2008 12:35 PM
rating: 0
 
Justice


Gavin Floyd has been the White Sox big game pitcher all year. He is 9-3 after losses and some of those wins (like his win in last week's series with the Yankees and his win in the Sox' previous series in the Metrodome) came in a series where nobody else in silver and black got a win.

It is only fitting that Floyd has an opportunity to lead his team to victory in what is surely the White Sox' biggest game of the year.

Sep 25, 2008 14:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Evan
(47)

Should this arise, the Cubs should absolutely play a team of scrubs against the Brewers, and should they happen to win anyway, send a team of scrubs (don't even put the regulars on the plane if you can help it) back to New York for the makeup game.

Sep 25, 2008 14:36 PM
rating: 0
 
mkapellas

A quick look at the Cubs lineup tonight, in what is almost a must-win situation for the Mets (aren't they all), and you'll get a feel for how little it would bother Lou Piniella to draft up a lineup laden with backups in those makeup games.

Sep 25, 2008 16:26 PM
rating: 0
 
TCHaag

Best baseball game of the season so far? Considering how it turned out, and what was on the line, I think you could easily make a case for it...

Sep 25, 2008 21:00 PM
rating: 0
 
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