Livan's Last Start For Awhile? And The Rockets Get Artest

Those of you who claim to have known the Twins would be playing for first place on the next-to-last night in July, please stop lying.

Other commitments prevented me from going down to the Dome for Slowey’s shutout on Monday and the marvelous manufacture of five runs in the fifth en route to a 6-5 win on Tuesday. But tonight was the Twins’ opportunity to move ahead of the Pale Hose, and for veteran hurler Livan Hernandez to quiet the horde hollaring for him to be replaced in the rotation by Francisco Liriano. I’ve got some sentiment on behalf of Hernandez. First of all, through the first six weeks of the season, he went 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA, enabling pitching coach Rick Anderson to sort through his youngsters with a little more patience knowing that he had a veteran stopper on the mound to prevent things from going too far off track. That by itself made Hernandez a better investment than Sidney Ponson and Russ Ortiz combined the previous season. Second, although Hernandez has been increasingly hit harder, he’s been eating a lot of innings–he’s got 143 and 2/3, with Nick Blackburn’s 127 next-most and the rest of the starters not yet at 100. That means if the Twins stay in the pennant race and need to tax their young arms, they may be able to do so (with the possible exception of Blackburn) without worrying about blowing them out. Glen Perkins has never pitched more than 132 innings in a season at any level and Blackburn’s career high is 160. Baker has gone 190 and between Rochester and Minnesota last year, Slowey reached 200. With 55 games left to play for the five-man rotation and hopes that they’d average at least six innings per start, that’s an extra 66 innings apiece (if they each start 11 times). Baker and Slowey can handle it, Perkins, maybe. But without Livan’s 144 (minus 1/3), a bunch of pitchers in their mid-20s get pushed, and the odds of arm injuries rise.

Hernandez gets by on guile, not a bad role model for a bunch of hurlers without mediocre stuff (with the exception of Perkins). I know I enjoyed watching him befuddle the young Diamondbacks when I went to the Dome late last month. Plus, on a more personal level, as a blogger on the back side of middle age, I’ve got some empathy for an aging guy trying to wheedle his way along in a young man’s game. And a part of me resents picking up my latest Sports Illustrated and reading:

Whether because of an egregious error in evaluating Livan Hernandez or decisions of a financial nature, the Twins have continued to start Hernandez (a 5.31 ERA and fewer than a strikeout every two innings, despite his 10-7 record through Sunday) even as Liriano (10 straight victories) destroys Triple A hitters in the International League. According to Baseball Prospectus’s projections, replacing Hernandez with Liriano would save the Twins 15 to 20 runs down the stretch, making them two games better in a division race that may well be decided by less than that.

Well then, there you go: Put a bullet into Livan and ship him off to the glue factory and you might win a pennant. Because the bean counters figure 15 to 20 runs, which by their pythagoreardon berenguergringo formula comes out to two games.

Yeah, I personally resent it, but I also get the Baseball Prospectus yearbook every spring and have come to admire their scholarship, not least because they are often accurate. I was hoping to catch them badly underestimating one of the Twins pitchers who have come through for the club this season, but their thumbnail sketches of Slowey, Baker, Perkins and Blackburn are all pretty solid.

More to the point, Hernandez got shellacked tonight: 5 runs, 9 hits and 2 walks in 4 innings’ work. The Dome has been his saving grace (he was 8-1 at home before tonight) and he’s generally been able to battle back from a wretched inning to put together a little mow-through-the-order rhythm. But not tonight. Carlos Quentin crushed a pitch for a line drive homer to left center in the first inning, then cleared the bases with a three-run double (again to left center) in the 4th, prompting manager Ron Gardenhire to say "he was missing [with his pitches] but mostly to one guy."

Except that seven of the other eight guys in the White Sox lineup also got hits off Livan in those 4 innings, and none of them were cheap. He pitched out of a couple of jams to hold it to just 5 runs, and his ERA–at 3.90 in May, remember–is now 5.48, and his 6-1 record has slipped to 10-8. Despite the fact that I think Liriano remains an extreme injury risk (unless they have done wonders with his mechanics down on the farm) and should be traded now, while his perceived value is still pretty high, it is hard not to endorse the notion that he should be brought up and thrown into the rotation if he’s not going to be dealt, and that Hernandez should slide into the roles of long relief and informal pitching coach.

Most of the time after a game, I listen to what Gardy has to say and then split. But tonight, I thought it would be instructive to get Hernandez’s reaction to getting shelled at a particularly delicate moment regarding his near-future role on the squad. I waited patiently while the cluster of beat writers asked him all sorts of questions, all the while ignoring the elephant in the room. They asked him about Quentin. They noted that he seemed to get upset with some of the ump’s calls and wanted to know if that were true. They asked if the size of the crowd–over 42,000, the largest non-opening day crowd since the final day of the 2006 season–affected his performance. Hernandez was unyielding, saying he made a couple of bad pitches to Quentin, that he doesn’t get nervous, that he wasn’t frustrated, etc.

Here was a guy who everybody knows is going to get yanked from the rotation sooner rather than later unless things change, soon and dramatically, in his favor. He just crapped out and reporters were asking if it was because of the size of the crowd! So I stepped in it. "You’ve heard all the talk about Liriano I’m sure. Did that have any effect on you mentally as you pitched tonight?" I asked. He looked daggers into my eyes, his mouth somewhere between a sneer and a smirk, said something to the effect of, "Okay, that’s enough," and turned his back on the throng. Interview over.

Now Hernandez doesn’t know me from Adam, so I get his pique at some new guy jumping his case. The question would have been better coming from someone else (and perhaps then would have been more elegantly worded). But the question had to come from somebody. And by turning his back on us, Hernandez answered it.

People who call Ron Artest crazy aren’t exactly lacking for anecdotal evidence. My favorite Artest moment was less than three weeks into the 2004-05 season, when he told his team that he wanted to take some time off to promote his new music record. Yeah, that sounds like a plan. Of course less than a week after that, he went up into the stands and started wailing on a guy who he (mistakenly) thought threw ice at him (it was another guy, of course), precipitating the largest, ugliest, fans-players brawl in NBA history. The domestic abuse and animal neglect charges, and the destroying of a television camera, etc, etc, are also on the books. But I give him a pass for getting into a confrontation with Pat Riley, one of the few times when I understood exactly what he was thinking.

When he wants to be and the planets are alligned, Artest is also an incredible basketball player, especially on defense, where his stuck-on-overrevved motor can change the dynamic of a game. He epitomizes the phrase, "high risk, high reward." And now that the Houston Rockets have acquired him, I can’t imagine a better place for him. Houston is the armpit of America–hot, humid, oily, and unattractive, a huge city that alternately feel like a ceaseless warehouse district and a suburb on steroids. It’s a place without much of an identity–compare it to Dallas, Austin, San Antonio–but craving a winner. Having come from the political cowtown of Sa
cramento, Artest will enjoy the upgrade in visibility and scale. More than that, he’ll love the chance to play for a winner (and the Rockets will win if Artest doesn’t flip out), and for coach Rick Adelman. According to a story today by the Houston Chronicle‘s fine beat writer, Jonathan Feigen, Artest florished in the 40 games he played under Adelman after being traded from Indiana to Sacramento, where Adelman coached before Houston. Artest was named to the All NBA first defensive team, and offered to donate his salary to the Kings if they kept Adelman (they didn’t). The fact that Ron Artest is happy with his coach is a great first building block, if such a thing is possible in the ever-changing world Artest inhabits. One of the reasons the Kings were willing to let him go for an apparent song–Feigen is reporting the compensation is Bobby Jackson, promising rookie forward Donte Green, next year’s top draft pick and another player yet to be named–is because he had begun berating himself for not opting out of his $7.4 million contract in Sacramento. Kings management wisely gauged that as rumblings from potentially damaging volcano, and peddled him forthwith.

People have already started to wonder if Artest and shutdown forward Shane Battier are redundant talents. But if you like defense, that is akin to somebody wondering if an art collector’s Monet is now redundant because the collector just purchased a Renoir. No, while Battier and Artest are similar, and have overlapping strengths, the defense they can play together will only seem redundant to the opponents they are smothering.

Of greater concern is how well Artest will mix with center Yao Ming. The men are polar opposites in terms of temperament. Yao is deferential, overrated on defense, and slow. Artest is egotistical and ball-hungry, overrated on offense and very quick. If they are both Rockets, I think they will move in different orbits. As a longtime Yao hater, I see all the ways Yao’s game could get under Artest’s skin, even as Yao is being accorded his usual global veneration, upping the resentment ante. And we won’t even go into all the ways Artest could be the problem.

I am falling prey to the trite temptation to make trades for other ballclubs. I believe it is a trade that would make both participants at least co-favorites to win their respective conferences. It won’t happen for a boatload of reasons I won’t go into now (like the commercial power of Yao’s nationality), but it would be of enormous benefit to both teams: Send Yao, the expiring contract of Steve Francis, and a sign-and-trade deal with Dikembe Mutombo to make the sides match, all to Philadelphia in exchange for center Samuel Dalembert and a sign-and-trade contract for Andre Iguodala.

Philly would have Yao to pair with Elton Brand on the front line, with Mutombo as a backup and Andre Miller still running the point, with emerging scorers like Thaddeus Young in the mix. That is a team that could make some serious noise in the East. Meanwhile, Houston would have a front line of Dalembert, Artest and Battier, with Luis Scola and Carl Landry if you needed to get bigger at the 4, and a backcourt of Iguodala and T-Mac swinging with Rafer Alston at the point. And that is a team that would sit beside the Hornets and the Lakers as monster conference contenders.

Even if they stand pat, Houston is suddenly very much in the championship conversation. No team in basketball has quality muckers the likes of Artest, Battier, Scola, Landry and Chuck Hayes–that’s sweat equity by the gallon, and doesn’t even include your two superstars. And looking at San Antonio and Dallas right now, they’ll own Texas.