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September 17, 2008

On the Beat

Living on the Edge

by John Perrotto

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Six months ago, on a day in mid-March at spring training, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was asked about his team's chances for 2008, and how they could possibly compete in what appeared to be a stacked American League Central after trading left-hander Johan Santana and losing center fielder Torii Hunter and right-hander Carlos Silva to free agency the previous winter. "We'll show up for every game and see where we're at in September," Gardenhire said then. Well, it's the middle of September, and the Twins are 2 games off the White Sox's pace in the AL Central, while the pre-season favorite Tigers and Indians are nowhere to be found in the land of contenders.

It would be easy for Gardenhire to be smug about a season when hardly anyone outside his clubhouse felt that the Twins could be a factor, but instead Gardenhire admits to being pleasantly surprised. "I know there were a number of naysayers in spring training, and it was understandable," Gardenhire said. "We did lose a lot of key players, and I don't think anyone knew for sure how this team was going to turn out. I was optimistic that we could be pretty good, but it wasn't just the usual spring training optimism where everyone thinks they have a winning ballclub at that time of the year. I felt we had talent. I just didn't know how quickly some of our young guys would come around, but here we are in the middle of September and we're in the race. We're still alive and we've got a chance to play in October. It's hard not to be happy about that."

While the Twins have been one of baseball's surprise teams, they're not ready to settle for just having contended. After taking it this far, they would be disappointed to be sitting at home at this time next month. "I know we've surprised a lot of people, but we've never surprised ourselves," designated hitter Jason Kubel said. "There's been that quiet confidence since the beginning of spring training that we were going to have a better team than people thought. We knew we would be a different team without guys like Torii and Johan, but we didn't necessarily think that meant we would be a worse team, just a new team. It's been a lot of fun. We have a lot of younger guys on this team, and a lot of us played together coming up through the minor leagues. It's a close-knit team, and I think that's part of the reason for our success. We believe in each other. Our goal all years has been to get to the postseason, even if some people counted us out in March, and it would be a bitter pill to swallow if we don't make it."

Despite being 2 games out, the Twins still control their own destiny, with an upcoming three-game series at home in the Metrodome against the White Sox that begins next Tuesday night. Before that, however, the Twins will try to avoid being swept when they finish up a three-game series with the Indians tonight in Cleveland, and they'll then visit the AL East-leading Rays for four games beginning Thursday night in St. Petersburg. "I really think we need to stay within one game of the White Sox by the time we start that series next week," Twins left fielder Delmon Young said. "You'd love to be in a position where you don't have to sweep the series, because sweeps are always tough. Either way, though, it is good to know we'll get a crack at them in the dome."

Despite always having one of the major league's lower payrolls, the Twins have almost always fielded a competitive team these last eight years. They've continued their success this season, but the formula of good pitching, defense, and timely hitting that had worked so well for them over the years has been reversed this year. The Twins are fourth in the major leagues with an average of 5.1 runs scored per game, and tied for fourth in the AL in team-level Equivalent Average (.264). Not surprisingly, their two star position players are leading the way: Justin Morneau has a .319 EqA, and Joe Mauer is at .311, but rookie outfielder Denard Span has been a revelation with a .301 mark. On the other hand, the Twins are just 14th in runs allowed with 4.5 a game, and their defensive efficiency of .686 ranks 21st.

The Twins have stayed in the race while fielding a very young starting rotation that (now) does not include anyone over 27 years old, a unit fronted by Scott Baker (4.5 SNLVAR) and Kevin Slowey (4.3 SNLVAR). Closer Joe Nathan (4.668 WXRL) has again anchored what has been a shaky bullpen this year. "The thing about our young pitchers is they throw strikes, and our philosophy has always been that if you throw strikes then you always give yourself a chance to be a successful pitcher," Gardenhire said. "I think that we're all about the same age is really a plus for us," Slowey said. "We're all going through things together, learning together. We always have someone to commiserate with and we've all learned from each other's successes and failures this season. We're going through a pennant race for the first time and it's been an extremely valuable learning experience for us all."

The Twins would like to learn what it is like to play in October, an idea that didn't seem possible in March. "We've had our ups and downs this year, more ups and downs than we've ever had," Gardenhire said. "We're still standing. We basically have a very young team, and however this all plays out, I think just the fact that our guys will have gone through a tough pennant race is only going to bode well for the future."

---

The Brewers were tied with the Phillies for the National League wild-card lead when they admittedly made a desperation move by firing manger Ned Yost on Monday and replacing him on an interim basis with third-base coach Dale Sveum. The Brewers hopes for the postseason became extremely tenuous after being swept by the Phillies in a four-game series last weekend. Following a 5-4 loss to the Cubs in Sveum's debut on Tuesday night, the Brewers are now a half-game behind the Mets in the wild-card chase, and nine behind the Cubs in the NL Central race with just 11 games to play. The Brewers had been in control of the wild-card standings at the beginning of the month, holding a 4-game lead following a 20-7 August, but they've gone 3-12 so far in September, and are being reminded that they blew an 8-game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central last year.

The Brewers haven't been to the postseason in 26 years, and owner Mark Attanasio made a major commitment in early July when he gave general manager Doug Melvin the go-ahead to trade four prospects to the Indians for left-hander CC Sabathia. With Sabathia and right-hander Ben Sheets almost certain to leave as free agents in the offseason, the Brewers know that their window of opportunity for making the playoffs may be closing soon, which is why Attanasio ordered Melvin to fire Yost. "When we talked to Ned, he didn't have all the answers as to what's gone on the last two weeks," Melvin said. "I'm not sure I have all the answers. I'm not sure this is the right one, either. I don't think any of us know, but I'm going to turn the managerial position over to Dale Sveum and hope we can kick-start a ballclub that we feel has a lot of talent."

Sveum last managed in 2003 with the Pirates' Double-A Altoona farm club. He spent two seasons as the Red Sox' third-base coach, and then three seasons on the Brewers' staff, two as Yost's bench coach before moving to third base this year. Sveum readily admits that he doesn't have any secret formula to pull the Brewers out of their tailspin. "We're hoping it's a shock reaction to get the players to perform up to their level," Sveum said. "We're trying to send a shock wave through this team."

Yost took over the Brewers in 2003, a year after they had lost a club-record 106 games, and slowly turned the franchise around until last year, when Milwaukee enjoyed its first winning season since 1992. Nevertheless, Attanasio became convinced during a Monday morning meeting that Yost was not the guy to get the Brewers to take the final step into the playoffs. "It does seem funny, it does seem odd to let someone go who has given his heart and soul to the organization," Melvin said. "I didn't have any other options at this point. I didn't know what else to do, the way we were performing. It was evident when I talked to Ned. He said he's knocking his brains out and can't figure out what's gone wrong. When he didn't have the answers, we felt it was appropriate to make a change."

---

Unable to play their three-game series against the Cubs at home in Minute Maid Park last weekend because of Hurricane Ike, the Astros were upset by Major League Baseball's solution of moving two of the games to Milwaukee's Miller Park. The third game is scheduled to be played at Minute Maid on September 29, the day after the regular season ends, but only if it has a bearing on the playoff races. The Astros felt that they were, in essence, home games for the Cubs; Milwaukee is just a short drive north from Chicago. The Astros lost both games, being no-hit by Carlos Zambrano on Sunday and one-hit by Ted Lilly and three relievers on Monday. The Astros are now three games behind the Mets in the wild-card chase with 12 games to play.

Houston had drawn to within three games of the NL wild card by winning 13 of their previous 14 games, and they voiced their displeasure in the form of a telephone conversation between manager Cecil Cooper and Commissioner Bud Selig. When Selig owned the Brewers, Cooper was their first baseman from 1977-87. "He and I are good friends," Cooper said. "We talked about it. He vented. I vented. We're done with it. He did what he thought was the best thing to do. I disagreed."

Selig said he would have preferred to have had the series in a city other than Milwaukee, but was left with few alternatives because of stadium availability and the forecast of bad weather in certain regions of the country. "Was it perfect? No," Selig told the Houston Chronicle. "I went through every option. I finally looked at it and realized I had no other option. I'm always sensitive about the Brewers but I feel in my heart this was the best option."

---

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has been universally lauded for the job he has done in his 30th season as a major league skipper, but a six-game losing streak has nearly dashed the Cardinals' hopes of winning the NL wild card, and they're now five games off of the Mets' pace with only 12 left to play. St. Louis was expected to battle with the Pirates to stay out of the NL Central cellar after making few off-season moves following a 78-84 season in 2007. "I'm as proud of this team as any team I've ever managed," La Russa said. "It's a good group of guys. They've given me everything they have. Regardless of how this thing turns out, we can feel good about what we've done this year."

La Russa has been able to make do with a pitching staff that has gotten only three starts from Chris Carpenter, who was recovering from elbow ligament replacement surgery, and one start from Mark Mulder, who had two shoulder operations last year. Furthermore, closer Jason Isringhausen had a -2.318 WXRL before succumbing to elbow surgery last week.

GM John Mozeliak, wrapping up his first season on the job, promises that the Cardinals will be aggressive on the trade and free-agent markets in the offseason in an effort to get back to the playoffs for the first time since they beat the Tigers in the 2006 World Series. Last winter, his main objective was unloading third baseman Scott Rolen and center fielder Jim Edmonds, a pair of veterans who had come to have irreconcilable differences with La Russa. "I thought the only way we could improve last offseason was addition by subtraction," Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "This year is different. I think we will identify holes and aggressively pursue closing them in a number of ways."

La Russa still won't say if he will return next year for the final year of his contract, though he has dismissed the rampant speculation that he wants to pursue GM openings in the winter. "Being a GM has become a young man's job," La Russa said. "I'm 63 years old."

---

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Dodgers are considering pursuing Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre in an off-season trade and leaving rookie Blake DeWitt at second base rather than moving him back to third. ... The Braves plan to pursue a power-hitting outfielder in addition to two starting pitchers during the offseason, and their primary trade targets are Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay and Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday. ... Right fielder Brian Giles, who had vetoed a trade to the Red Sox in July, wants to remain with his hometown Padres, though there is the question of whether they will exercise his $9 million club option for 2009 or instead pay a $3 million buyout. ... While the Cardinals won't rule out acquiring a closer in the offseason, they also would be comfortable giving the job to right-hander Chris Perez next year.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: While the Red Sox want to re-sign catcher Jason Varitek as a free agent, they will also make finding his successor an off-season priority, and they have their eye on the Rangers' Jarrod Saltalamacchia. ... Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake becomes a free agent in November, and he wants to return to the Indians, who traded him in July. The interest is mutual. ... The Tigers would be willing to trade right fielder Magglio Ordonez for a shortstop and pitching help.

Scouts' views on various major league players:

  • Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez: "He's a very, very good player, but I just wonder how badly he wants to be great. He gives away at-bats, and he's nonchalant on a lot of ground balls. Hopefully, with age will come maturity and he'll reach his full potential."
  • Twins first baseman Justin Morneau: "I know he was the American League Most Valuable Player two years ago, but nobody ever seems to mention this guy among the best hitters in the game. He just loves hitting in big situations and he can smell those RBI with runners in scoring position. Someday, he's finally going to get his due."
  • Nationals outfielder Elijah Dukes: "The kid has the type of talent to be one of the best players in the game, but I'm really starting to wonder if he'll ever grow up. I thought maybe he would change after getting traded out of Tampa Bay, but he's still pulling the same immature antics. I've got to believe [Nationals manager] Manny Acta is sick of that act already."
  • Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon: "I know there has been talk that he looks tired and his pitches really don't have the same life as earlier in the season. This kid loves the spotlight, though, and I guarantee he will dial the intensity back up to 10 and be lights-out in the postseason."
  • Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado: "It's hard to remember the last time a guy completely turned his season around like this. He looked ready for the scrap heap in April and May, and he's been as tough an out as anybody in the National League since then. I wouldn't have even have given up a B-level prospect for him in May."
  • Royals third baseman Mark Teahen: "I keep waiting for him to have a breakout year, but I'm afraid it's never going to come. He is stretched as an everyday player, but I do think he would make a good super-utility guy."

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

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