The Return of the Twins Roundtable

Those of you familiar with this site may remember the series of roundtables I held last year between myself, steadfast Twins fan, along with Rake and ex-City Pages baseball columnist Brad Zellar, and former Twin Cities Reader sports columnist (and current Minnpost media columnist) David Brauer. Zellar and Brauer are my kind of conversationalists: They’re both modest about their extensive knowledge of the game and extremely good writers.

I began this conversation early Wednesday, before the Twins salvaged the third of a three-game series with the Mariners.

Britt Robson: First of all I want to apologize for not inviting you fine gentlemen in earlier to talk about what has been a weirdly but fabulously successful 2008 season by the Twins, relative to the vague rebuilding and stitched together shenanigans that accompanied their off-season. As I write this, the Twins are just a game back of the White Sox (two in the loss column) and have dropped a pair to the lowly Mariners. They have been remarkably resilient with what I believe is inferior talent compared to the White Sox and Tigers, if not the decimated Indians and the ever-buried Royals. As one who, after a fantastic bout of prognostication in ’07, has gotten just about everything wrong in baseball this year (I big-upped the Mariners and Blue Jays, ignored the Rays, called the Cardinals for last place, etc.), I want to begin by deferring to both of you on the central questions of the day.

How have the Twins been able to remain in contention this season? (You can buttress your points with numbers or just your powers of observation, since I know you both have watched a lot of Twins this year.) How likely is it that they will continue to remain in contention? What surprising trend, either positive or negative, is most likely to be reversed in the last 50 games of the season? And finally, where do you see this ballclub after the dust settles in early October?

Have at it, and, as always, thanks for participating.

Brad Zellar: How have the Twins managed to remain in contention this year? Well, shoot, that right there is the million dollar question. There have been a butcher’s handful of moments so far when I’ve turned off the TV or walked away from a game thinking the wheels had finally come off for good: the Neshek injury, the bombarding in Chicago the first week in June, the sweep in Boston in early July, and the miserable series at Yankee Stadium (for which I was, alas, in attendance).

You mention the "remarkable resilience," and that really has been the hallmark of this team –a short memory and the ability to just keep battling back (not to mention a flukish but nonetheless impressive team batting average with runners in scoring position). Based on my own email and the noxious comment boards all over the net, I didn’t ever expect this to happen, but at some point I’d think people would start to appreciate the job Ron Gardenhire and his staff (particularly Rick Anderson) do year in and year out. I’m not even sure how they do it, or what their magic consists of, but my suspicion is that it has a lot to do with creating and sustaining chemistry and a cohesive team identity. When you look at this team on paper, and compare it to Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland, there’s just no way in hell they should be where they are right now.

They got a huge break this season when everybody else in the division stumbled out of the gate. The sustained early mediocrity allowed the Twins to sort of retool on the fly and sort things out. Yahoos can bitch all they want, but Livan Hernandez was a good pick-up; his ten wins and –more importantly– his 140 innings saved their ass in the first half. Other than him, though, it’s hard to point to a single one of their off-season acquisitions as a key to their success thus far. Gomez certainly set a different tone early on, and I think they needed a guy in that clubhouse with his sort of balls-to-the-wall knucklehead enthusiasm, but the truth is he hasn’t been a very productive player. The surprising emergence of guys like Casilla, Buscher, and Span has been crucial (and the Casilla injury is another one of those moments, I guess, where it just seemed like one blow too many for this team to recover from), but they haven’t had any contribution to speak of from Cuddyer, Lamb, Everett, and Monroe have been (pretty much) busts, and the bullpen has been dodging bullets since Neshek went down.

Yet there they still are, hanging around first place. The young(ish) starting pitchers have all been nothing if not gutty, but my concern at the moment is that this is essentially the first go-round for all of them, and they look like they might be hitting the wall. The Twins aren’t going to get 200 innings out of any of them, which is going to put additional pressure on a bullpen that doesn’t look like it can handle any additional pressure. Liriano is pretty much being forced into the role of staff savior, and it’s going to be interesting and little bit scary to see how he handles that pressure down the stretch.

All that said, this really is Morneau and Mauer’s team, and if Morneau in particular can keep coming up with big hits, and if they can figure out how to keep from imploding on the road, and if they can somehow dredge up a couple warm bodies for the bullpen and hang around into September when the schedule gives them a little breather, I believe they can win the division. I just don’t have a whole lot of faith in that White Sox team.

So: this is a team looking at a lot of ifs right now, but it’s been that way since April, and I don’t know anybody who expected them to be where they are at the moment. If they do somehow manage to find their way into the playoffs, of course, I have every expectation that they’ll get smothered in a hurry.

David Brauer: Here are a few ideas I’ve been playing with:

1. The Twins have a core – a two-person core, but still – that is producing bigtime. That’s Morneau and Mauer of course. Morneau is just a hair off his MVP BA/OBP/SLG stats, hitting .370 with runners in scoring position, and thus Mauer is scoring about seven runs every 10 games, a full run above his career best. You’re talking two guys in the top 10 for walks-strikeout ratio, so you’re getting a ton of baserunners or productive outs.

2. The Twins are one run away from being second in the league in runs scored! That’s amazing, and it’s clearly the most surprising positive trend. The team is still over .300 in RISP; Morneau, but Mauer is right on his ass at .356, throw in Buscher (.344), Casilla (.322), Span (.320); even the oft-criticized Young is nearly at .300 (.298). And then there’s Little Nicky Punto! The team leader at .375! I mean, read those names and figures again and you’ll see why NO ONE saw this coming, and why a complete collapse is possible. But while it might just be a stopped watch, doesn’t Joe Vavra deserve a tertiary mention w/Gardy and Anderson, Brad?

3. Hernandez did great for innings pitched, and it was also time for him for him to go, as I think Britt noted in a previous Rake piece. My unsubstantiated recollection is the young starters have been remarkably consistent going at least 5 innings. Yeah, they’ll probably break down, and I think the pen is the single reason we’d miss the playoffs, but my god, that’s huge. And Nathan. Never forget Nathan.

4. Saw an old 60 Minutes with Bill James last Sunday and he repeated his claim about players’ primes being 25-29. I realize some of these guys have limited headroom, and some potential talents like Young, Slowey, Span and Casilla are, well, too young (the latter three by just a year), but again look at the tape: Morneau (27), Mauer (25), Buscher (27), Baker (27), Blackburn (27), Perkins (25), Kubel (26), Harris (28), Neshek (27). There’s something there.

5. This has been stated before, but by all rights the pen (save Nathan) should suck, especially without N
eshek. Instead, it’s only sucked on the road. That’s half the battle, I guess, but to answer Britt’s question, this is the trend that will be reversed negatively. It beats out the RISP regression to the mean.

Things that have bummed me out:

1. Young’s defense in left. People forget he’s making the switch from right, and the Dome has a much bigger expanse in left that folks realize, but still, it’s been the top frustration-maker for me this year, next to Gomez always swinging at the low-and-away pitch.

2. Gomez always swinging at the low-and-away pitch. It’s be number one, but he’s 22 fer chrissake, and he was rushed.

3. Cuddyer. He’ll be 30 next year, by the way.

Where do I see ’em finishing. Fuck the White Sox. Fuck pessimism. First place.

Britt Robson: Great stuff from both of you, and comprehensive enough that all I can do is counterpunch.

I can buy Morneau and Mauer. I am particularly enjoying Morneau more than ever this season. He’s got a signature swing–it’s like he doesn’t let go of the bat with either hand on the follow through, so it looks at if he is taking off his shirt or something at the end, and, as often as not, the ball is flying into the left-center field gap. This is both a good and a bad thing, however–his walks and doubles are up, but his dingers are down. His OBP is the best of his career, but his slugging percentage is well off his 2006 MVP peak. In fact both Mauer and Morneau hit for more power in ’06 and consequently both had better OPS numbers two years ago than they do now. So here is my dilemma: The Twins won 96 games in ’06 with Mauer and Morneau each enjoying career years, even taking ’08 into consideration. This season, the Twins are on pace for about 90 wins. So somehow, the supporting cast is close to matching up with the Hunters and Santanas of yore–and that was also the year Cuddyer knocked in 109 runs, and Liriano bagged a dozen wins with an ERA below 2.

It isn’t the pitching. In 2006, the ERA was an impressive 3.95, and that’s with Carlos Silva throwing 180 innings of 5.94. You can cite Santana, half a year of lights out Liriano, a typically stellar Nathan, and Dennis Reyes was unhittable as the lefty specialist. This year, despite all the heartwarming kids, the ERA has jumped to 4.36, 8th in the league, but behind only the White Sox, whose staff is imploding, in the Central Division. So, that’s part of it I guess–an uneven schedule really helps when the division sucks.

But it is also the hitting. Despite worse on-base and slugging percentages than in 2006, the Twins are scoring slightly more runs per game, and, as both of you noted, a lot of it has to do with clutch hitting. You’ve covered that territory, so I want to bring up a name that both of you barely mentioned: Jason Kubel. Now I’ve been down on Kubes for awhile now, in part out of perversity because so many die-hard fans kept lauding his potential, but now, surprise surprise, his 16 dingers are only two behind Morneau for the team lead (in 110 fewer at bats), his 57 rbis are likewise second to Morneau, and his slugging percentage is better than Mauer’s and, again, second only to Morneau. I know he doesn’t show up in the clutch hitting category, but the situations wouldn’t be clutch for others if he hadn’t knocked in 57 runs in just 96 games and 321 at-bats.

Brad mentioned Span and Casilla. A month or so ago, I ridiculed Jim Souhan for suggesting Span be given more playing time, and that Punto supplant Harris at short. Well, both Span and Punto have made him look good. Span’s *slugging percentage* of .469 ranks behind only Morneau and Kubel, by the way.

David, you mention a disenchantment with Young in left. I reluctantly agree that he is not fleet afoot, a weakness compounded by the slow jumps he gets on the ball off the bat. His arm is great–I’ve seen him gun down runners at second from the left field corner on two occasions live this season. But his range–not very good. Plus the gossip among media members around the team is not positive toward Delmon Young–whether that’s the media talking to themselves or word on the QT from coaches or other inside personnel is unclear. But more than one person with decent relations inside the Twins organization has not been kind in their assessment of Young’s work habits. My position has been that I trust the Twins scouts, and if they thought he was worth Garza, he must be pretty good. But I’m beginning to waver.

My pet peeve is the defense of Harris. Almost every game there is a ball I became accustomed to seeing the shortstop get to that now eludes Harris’s grasp. Sometimes he knocks it down, as happened the other night in Seattle, but they are never close enough to be errors because Harris’s range doesn’t put him in a position to make an error.

As I write this, the Twins have beaten the M’s, with Span the hero, robbing Beltre of a homer, plus clearing the bases with a triple down the line. You guys both say they take the division pennant. I say it is the White Sox by default in a very weak division. But I like a team with Gomez, Span and Casilla, a team who should have at least two capable starters among the four kids (and I’m not putting Liriano in that mix). Gardy, Anderson, Vavra, give them all raises. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun, and coming in second or third (I keep waiting, like Godot, for the Tigers) is alright with me.

[continued Thursday morning]

In light of Span’s heroics Wednesday night, Gardy says he’s batting leadoff and playing every day, even when Cuddyer gets back. So, who sits? Since Young, Gomez and Cuddyer are all righties, it’s not a platoon situation. You don’t want to revisit the experience of Cuddy at third, even though it would work into a nice platoon with Buscher, do you? The problem is that Young is the only one of the four with left field experience, even if, as David points out, he hasn’t exactly starred in those spacious confines. Having already shifted Span from center to right, do you go with another shift of the kid to left? Because nobody on the roster can play right like Cuddyer, who has a gun for an arm and knows the soft baggie carom by heart. If Cuddy plays and it isn’t at third, it needs to be RF. I don’t think you can sit Gomez except on occasion; the kid’s confidence is too erratic, which is to say fragile. But if you sit Young, you risk messing with a guy who already has questionable makeup, a guy you traded a potential ace for, a guy who turns 23 next month.

Despite Gardy’s comments, I chicken out and play all four about the same amount. You need Young, Span and Gomez for the future, but I have a lot of faith in Cuddyer’s defense and think he’ll come around at the plate. You can rest some legs and maybe even get some RH at-bats out of the DH position against lefties, although that sits Kubel, whose numbers I’ve already cited. It’s a pleasant problem to have, but still a problem.

As for the bullpen, I like Guerrier better than Crain, and have actually liked what I’ve seen out of Breslow in short spurts. I can see making Breslow the lefty specialist and trying Reyes for more extended outings, meaning against more righties. I don’t have much faith in Bass, and endorse the rumored notion that he flip places with Bonser and become the blowout early relief guy, giving Boof more chances to make an impact later in the game. And yeah, I’d give Nathan more 8th inning chances, especially do-or-die situations with men on base. He is the best closer in franchise history, and flat-out the best pticher on this ballclub right now. If it means Crain, Guerrier or Reyes has to finish the 9th with a two or three run lead on occasion, fine. Give the ball to Joe when the game in on the line.

Last, but certainly not least, let’s remember that these meaningful games in August, and hopefully September, are all a bonus, and should not distract from the main mission of building this club for the future. How does that square with playing Cuddyer over the kids and using Natha
n in the 8th? Good question. My only defense is that I think Cuddyer should be a part of this team’s long-term future–I like his defense and his attitude and believe he will hit. And I don’t think depriving Guerrier or Crain of opportunities to blow ballgames exactly hurts their development; nor do I believe the slightly longer stints will affect Nathan’s arm any. If it does, then he should go back to 9th inning only duties.

Bottom line, I think the Twins are in an excellent position to wheel and deal at the end of this season. Let’s get those ace scouts together in a room and let them decide whether or not they made a mistake on Young, which of the quintet of young starters has the most limited long-term upside, and what pieces might be pried from other ballclubs in exchange for one of our outfielders, our young starters, or even our high-minors guys (as much as the team likes Jason Pridie, for example, is there any room for him up in Minnesota?).

So, to toss the baton over to you guys: How do you allocate outfield/DH minutes? How do you align your bullpen duties? And how do you finesse winning now versus building for the future?

David Brauer: Gents, there is no doubt in my mind someone fast should be playing left, be it Gomez or Span. Given our lack of righty DH, Young can suck up some of those ABs, and frankly, with his gun, should get some time in right, even though Cuddyer is great out there. I’d sit Gomez more, Young more, and Cuddy more to make it work.

In other words, I agree with Britt.

Kubel hits righties better than Young (makes sense given Kubel is a lefty and Young isn’t) so you can’t dump Jason to make it work.

Brad would know the Cuddy-at-third thing better than me – is he permanently that bad? If you’re talking trade, you’re thinking anyone but Span. Go-Go, fan enthusiasm aside, is the most tempting dumpee, since he has value but is the most iffy. Young would fetch something but that would make the Garza trade too loathsome. Cuddy is the obvious choice to go, but poor performance + vets contract makes that hard. That’s why I’d try to find a modified, ¾-time platoon here.

Don’t trust Breslow as more than a spot guy. Reyes is intriguing – he’s not back to his ’06 form, but he’s improved a lot from ’07. Did you know he pitched 108 innings for KC in ’04 (and had his worst professional season for San Diego the following year)?

I think the Twins are so appropriately young (see my previous post) that they have wiggle room to go for it. A season like this may not come along next year. But it has to be picking up pen pitching.

The countervailing view is that this team is appropriately young, no real threat to the Angels and Bosox this year, and MORE of the core will be in the 25-29 honeyspot next year.

Brad Zellar: The outfield/DH situation with Cuddyer coming back is, as people are fond of saying, a good problem, but, all the same, it’s a problem I’d just as soon the Twins didn’t have, because I don’t see any truly satisfying answer. I’d much rather they had a couple more solid arms for the bullpen, or a true stud at third base.

Regarding Span, he’s been a refreshing blast to watch, but I’d issue a warning about sample size (143 at bats). There is nothing –not a damn thing– in the guy’s utterly undistinguished minor league record prior to this year that would indicate that he’s capable of sustaining his current level of performance. Remember how excited everybody was about Gomez in the first couple months of the season? Remember that Span was up in April, when he his line was .258, .324, and .258 (that was more in line with his minor league projections). Granted, he did seem to have a breakthrough of sorts when he went back to Rochester and put up some terrific numbers, but still, the previous five seasons were what they were, and they were no where near what we’ve seen in his second stint with the club.

I think Cuddyer’s a major league hitter. I think he has to play somewhere, and I’m pretty sure that somewhere isn’t third base (or –God forbid– second). The guy’s a right fielder. I also think they need to keep finding ways to get Kubel at bats. It’s time they let him take his rips against both righties and lefties, and find out how good he really is. If I was writing out the lineup cards he’d be my DH 80% of the time the rest of the way.

I wonder why people don’t cut Delmon Young as much slack as they do Gomez? He’s been frustrating at times (and, yes, too many adventures in left field), but he’s essentially the same age as Carlos, and put up extremely promising numbers last year at Tampa Bay. I don’t know about the rumors regarding his work ethic or manners with the press, but I suspect from what I’ve seen that he’s a pretty good teammate, and my impression is that he’s been pressing and is going through an adjustment. I really believe he’s going to be a terrific player, once he learns to relax and stop listening to so many different people.

I guess the one thing that sort of surprises me about this discussion in particular, and about the discussions that have swirled around this team all year, is the prevailing attitude about Gomez. People are worried about his confidence? For shit sake, he’s been doing a pretty good job of destroying that without a whole lot of help from anyone else. How high should the confidence be of a guy who’s hitting .257 with a .291 OBP (and 17 walks and 105 Ks)? This team is in a pennant race; you want to build the kid’s confidence, sit him down or send him to Rochester. I’m confident he’s going to be a player, but he’s really not a major league hitter right now. His value even when he was scuffling earlier was his speed, but as the season’s gone along he’s gotten worse (and more tentative) as a base stealer, and worse as a bunter (which is really saying something).

I don’t know, maybe I’m nuts, but he seems like the plainly obvious choice to lose at bats, at least until Span cools off or somebody else comes up lame.

I agree with Britt that if they’re going to stay in this thing and keep the bullpen from imploding entirely, they’re going to have to stretch out Reyes, get more innings out of Breslow, be a bit more flexible with Nathan (before his eighth-inning blip in Seattle the other night, I was agitating for them to turn him into Goose Gossage for the last couple months), and flip the roles of Bass and Bonser. I don’t ever want to see Bass come into a game to protect a 7-6 lead again, and I’m really not comfortable seeing him protect any sort of lead. Let him eat innings in blowouts, if need be. And please assure me that we’re going to see a few more warm bodies for the pen come September (at the latest).

I’m not worked up about Morneau’s homerun falloff, if only because I can tell he’s becoming a better hitter. Teams are pitching him much more carefully, and he’s learning to be patient and take what he can get. He’s working the count and punishing mistakes, and he’s also had some huge hits on what were pretty damn good pitches (he’s gotten good at driving that down-and-away pitch). I think this development bodes well for him becoming one of the truly elite hitters in the game –power, average, on base percentage– and he’s already almost there.

As for Harris’ defense, I was railing about it from the first series of the season, but at this point I guess we’re going to have to live with it, and he’s at least demonstrated he can hit a little bit.

I’m standing my ground and predicting that they’re gonna win the Central.

Maybe.

Because I want them to.