Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Life at the Half-Way Point

Well, the first half of the 2004 baseball season is officially over, and what a half it has been for your Minnesota Twins. On the surface, it seems simple enough. The Twins have a record of 47-40, which puts them just a half game out of first place. That doesn’t sound so bad when you look at it that way, does it? But here at Twins Chatter we strive to find the deeper, more subtle story that lies beyond mere wins and losses. That being said, I present to you my analysis of the Twins’ first 87 games.


Starting Pitching:
The Twins are currently tied with the Oakland Athletics for second in AL in team ERA at 4.16, and the starting staff deserves a fair amount of credit for that impressive number (4.28 starter ERA). The rotation started the year rather slowly (with the exception of Carlos Silva), but has come on nicely the past two months. Johan Santana (3.78 ERA, league-leading 136 strikeouts) has successfully regained the form that made him the Twins’ ace last season, despite a slow start. Johan has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball since early June, but lack of run support has left him with just a 7-6 win/loss record. Brad Radke, despite some recent scuffles, has actually been earning his 10 million dollar salary thus far. He has a 3.47 ERA and has pitched nearly as well as he did the second half of last season. He’s given the Twins a chance to win in just about every one of his starts, which is exactly what you ask for from a veteran starting pitcher. Kyle Lohse has had a disappointing season thus far, but he has shown signs of life lately (3.18 ERA in June and July). Look for him to have a good second half. Before the season began, no one knew what to expect from Carlos Silva as a starter, but he has put together a pretty solid first half as a starting pitcher. Sure, he’s just 3-7 since starting the season 5-0, but he had a solid month of June and I believe he will continue to be a slightly-above average starting pitcher in the second half. The fifth slot in the rotation still remains a question mark, despite the fact that we are in the middle of July. Seth Greisinger and Matt Guerrier have come and gone, and the “distinguished” (read: old) Terry Mulholland is the latest one to come through the revolving door. Rumor has it that the team is looking to trade for a solid replacement starter, with Kris Benson and Miguel Bautista mentioned as possible candidates.

The Bottom Line:Twins starters have performed above expectations this season overall. Radke and Santana have been excellent, Silva above-average, while Lohse has been inconsistent. I give them a grade of B+.

The Twins’ bullpen was a much-maligned unit before the season began, one riddled with question marks. Could Joe Nathan become an effective closer? Could the combination of Juan Rincon and J.C. Romero adequately fill the setup role vacated by LaTroy Hawkins? Could the hard-throwing Grant Balfour step up and some depth to the ‘pen? The answer to these questions, for the most part, has been “yes”. Joe Nathan has literally blown away hitters this season and has every Twins fan saying “Eddie Who?”. Juan Rincon has done his best LaTroy impersonation the past four months, posting a 1.84 ERA while averaging over 11 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. After a brief demotion, J.C. seems to have regained his dominant form (5.1 scoreless innings in July). I have championed the Grant Balfour cause for many months, and he is finally repaying my loyalty. Balfour had an outstanding spring but landed on the DL just days before the regular season began. He had a rough stretch after being recalled in May, but has since then entrenched himself as one of Gardy’s go-to guys, allowing just 2 ER in his last 13 appearances. Aaron Fultz and Joe Roa have each struggled recently, but it seems Gardenhire has finally learned how to use the pair effectively. They are not to be trusted in key situations, but both should be adequately effective in their more limited roles during the second half.

The Bottom Line: Despite losing their best two arms from a year ago, the ‘pen has hardly missed a beat this season (3.98 ERA). Rincon, Nathan, Balfour, and Romero form a solid core, and Jesse Crain will probably be called up this month as well. I give them a grade of A-.

If you read the two-month report card I wrote a six weeks ago, you’ll notice that I gave the Twins a “D” for defense (funny, I just recognized the irony in that). My, how things have changed. The Twins are no longer one of the worst defensive teams in the league (statistically speaking); they now stand in the middle of the pack in errors, fielding percentage, and zone rating. Those rankings will undoubtedly continue to improve during the second half, as no one can deny the fact that this is a very good defensive team.

The Bottom Line: Fluke errors by pitchers, some crappy Cuddyer play at 3B, and the Evil Turf™ cost the Twins a few games early on in the season, but the return of Koskie, Rivas, and Mauer seems to have revitalized this team defensively. I give them a grade of B.

Looking at the grades I’ve given out so far (B+, A-. B), the casual fan may wonder why the Twins are still just seven games over .500. Herein, ladies and gentlemen, lies the source of our anguish. I was among the many that believed the Twins’ offense would be a team strength this year. Every key offensive player from a year ago was returning, and normal baseball wisdom states that players are supposed to improve offensively as they enter their prime. But as usual, the Twins continue to defy normal baseball logic. Three key players have taken GIANT steps backward offensively in the first half. Jacque Jones is hitting just .260 with a .313 OPB. Corey Koskie’s batting average is down to .245, and he has an extremely uncharacteristically low OPB of .331 to go along with just 37 RBIs. Then we have Doug Mientkiewicz. Dougie Baseball was absolutely putrid in the first half, hitting .244 with a miniscule .368 slugging percentage. He also has just 5 HRs and 23 RBIs in 275 at-bats. I don’t care what he does on defense: right now, Mientkiewicz hurting this team with his lack of offense. The Dynamic Duo of Guzman and Rivas have been their usually mediocre selves in the first half, and Torii Hunter hasn’t exactly been a ball of fire himself (.812 OPS). Injuries to Hunter, Koskie, Mientkiewicz, Rivas, Stewart, and Mauer can also be partially blamed for the Twins’ lack of offense, but now that most of those players are back that previously weak excuse is now a moot point.

As most of you have already divined, a pair of rookies (okay, Lew isn’t technically a “rookie”, but he’s close enough) have been the team’s best overall hitters so far. Sweet Lew carried this team in April and was solid in both May and June. Joe (nickname pending) Mauer has been outstanding for the past two weeks, and he continues to embarrass the rest of our “veteran” hitters with his superior plate discipline. I love that Joe has taken so nicely to the #3 spot in the order, but the fact that he’s there speaks volumes about the quality of the Twins’ offense.

The Bottom Line: There have been a few bright spots offensively this season (April, Lew, and Joe) but overall this is the area that has kept the Twins from taking charge in the division. I’m being generous when I give them a grade of D+.

Team Management:
This is a category I usually don’t touch on, but a thread over at the DTFC convinced me to add it. For the past two years, I have been reasonably supportive of Ron Gardenhire’s managing style, and he didn’t disappoint. This year, however, Gardy’s “stick with my guys” approach has cost this team ballgames. Why was J.C. brought in during crucial situations when he obviously wasn’t pitching well? Why does Jacque Jones continue to start against every lefty when there are plenty of viable alternatives on the bench? Why not give someone else a chance to produce at 1B (i.e. Justin Morneau) until Mientkiewicz straightens himself out? And the most befuddling question of them all: WHY DOES JOSE OFFERMAN PLAY SO MUCH?!? I think Gardy is starting to show signs of thinking outside the box (for example, Joe Nathan has been used the 8th inning a number of times this season) but it will take more of the same to pull this team out of the doldrums. I realize that Gardenhire is a loyal person, but it’s getting to the point where enough is enough. We need to move on and explore other options. I’m also loathe to criticize Terry Ryan, one of my idols, but he needs to get his act together in the second half as well if the Twins are to win a third straight division title. Whether that means promoting Morneau and Crain, trading for a hitter and/or starting pitcher, or something else altogether, it’s clear that something has to be done.

The Bottom Line: Gardy has been true to form, which isn’t always bad but has been harmful at times throughout the season. However, any grade for this section should probably wait until after the trading deadline passes. For now, I’m giving the Twins a C in this area. However, that could soon change. Stay tuned, Twins fans.

There you have it, the official Twins Chatter report card for the first half of the season. Overall, the Twins are right about where I thought they would be at this point in the year: battling for the division crown with a slightly-above .500 record. The thing is, this team is capable of being so much better! Perhaps Stewart’s return will eliminate the putridity from our bats, but I highly doubt it. It’s up to Koskie, Jones, and Mientkiewicz to turn their seasons around and get the offense firing on all cylinders again. The pitching has been good, and I see no reason to expect that it will drop off anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the White Sox are not going to roll over and die this year. On paper, they are markedly better than the Twins (especially offensively) and they also have a sense of urgency about them this year. Unless some things change soon for the Twins, the White Sox may run away with the division. Here are a few predictions for the second half (feel free to add your own in the comments section below):

-Joe Mauer continues to play well and emerges as a top ROY candidate
-Shannon Stewart struggles with his nagging foot injury and doesn’t fully recover until September
-Johan Santana solidifies his place as a top-5 AL starter (if he isn’t already)
-TR is unable to catch lightning in bottle twice as his mid-season acquisition (or lack thereof) doesn’t spark the team like Stewart did last year
-Kyle Lohse is the team’s second best starter in the second half
-The Twins stay with the Sox until September but finish in second place

I hate to be a pessimist with that last prediction, but as of right now, I think that is what will happen.

I hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy entry today, as I probably won’t have anything new up tomorrow (unless something earth-shattering happens). Like I stated earlier, feel free to post some thoughts of your own below and I’ll do my best to respond in kind. Thanks for stopping by.

-Ryan Maus