Thursday, August 05, 2004

Post-Trading Deadline Roster Review Part One: Hitters

The main topic of conversation in Twinsland the past week and a half has been the controversy (if you could call it that) surrounding the Doug Mientkiewicz situation, as well as the July 31st trading deadline. It became more and more apparent as the deadline approached that the Twins would not make a major addition, although it could be argued that they made an addition through subtraction by substituting Morneau for Mientkiewicz. What this means is, that for better or for worse, the 25-man roster that currently resides in the Metrodome is probably the same one that will square off against one of the American League's powerhouses come October (barring an unlikely South Side turnaround). The roster has changed quite a bit from spring training, and I think it is time to go through position by position and evaluate the Twins' performance through the first 105 games and predict what the season's final two (hopefully two and a half) months holds in store for us. This is already a really long post so I will go over the hitters today and the pitching staff tomorrow.

This position, more than any other on the Twins roster, is a source of anxiety for the Twins organization and their fans alike. We all know that Joe Mauer will produce when he plays. He's been arguably the team's best overall player when in the lineup. He hits for average (.308), power (6 HRs and a .570 SLG in 107 ABs), and gets on base (.382 OBP). Unfortunately, Mauer's key statistics are 35 and 107: the number of games he's played in and the number of at-bats he's had. The Twins may even go out and deal for a veteran catcher if it is determined that Mauer's sore knee will prevent him from playing for the rest of the year.

But let's focus on what we've got right now. In my opinion, Henry Blanco has done all that has been asked of him and more. His batting average, while paltry (.218) is almost identical to his career average. But he has a surprising 7 home runs thus far and has been superb defensively: he's thrown out an impressive 50% (20-40) of attempted base stealers, has blocked everything in sight and has been an outstanding receiver behind the dish. I think that he deserves a great deal of credit for the development of Carlos Silva, if only for the way he has called the game in Silva's starts. Matthew LeCroy, on the other hand, has had a subpar season. Sure his .746 OPS looks much better than Blanco's .651, but LeCroy is simply not good enough to catch on a consistent basis in the major leagues. He blocks okay and seems to be an average receiver, but I'm afraid he couldn't throw out a runner at second to save his life. Unfortunately for LeCroy, he looks less and less like an everyday each day. Overall I think the Twins can survive the rest of this season with the Blanco/LeCroy platoon but I wouldn't be upset at all if they acquired a veteran like Dan Wilson before the August 31st deadline.

First Base:
I hate to put too much pressure on a 23 year old, but Justin Morneau may just be the difference between another early playoff exit and a World Series run. He finally became impossible to ignore back out in AAA (22 HRs, .915 OPS). The only downside (that I can see) to trading Dougie mid-season is it means the Twins are operating without a safety net. If Morneau somehow falls flat on his face (an extremely remote possibility I'll admit) or gets injured, the Twins are left with Jose Offerman and Matthew LeCroy as replacements. Offensively the Twins might be okay with that pair, but defensively those two make Morneau look like, well, Doug Mientkiewicz. We'll leave that negative voodoo alone right now. Morneau already has 7 homers this year and will probably finish out the season with 15-20 in 250-300 at-bats. He's gonna strike out quite a bit, and probably won't hit much higher than .250 or .260, but his power stroke is unmatched in the entire organization. I feel much better about this team now that the good Doctor has taken over.

Second Base:
This was a position we questioned in spring training, and neither Luis Rivas nor Michael Cuddyer has done much so far to quell those doubts. After a torrid June, Rivas came back down to earth in July by batting just .210 with a .242 OBP. I actually feel good about the direction Gardenhire is heading in regards to the second base position right now. Gardy has been playing Rivas on a regular basis, but he has been starting Cuddyer two or three times a week in order to get him playing time and spell Rivas. In games Cuddyer starts Rivas usually comes in as a pinch runner and/or defensive replacement in the late innings, which makes sense. Since neither one of these guys is hitting all that well right now (Cuddyer is hitting in the .250 range with a .326 OBP for the season) I think that this strategy will serve the Twins well if they continue to do so for the rest of the season, or until one member of the duo steps to the forefront.

Shortstop and Third Base
Shortstop, along with third base, are the two least controversial positions on the diamond for the Twins. This isn't because Christian Guzman and Corey Koskie are playing so well; it is simply because we don't really have any viable replacements right now. Guzman is hitting .287 and having arguably his best season since 2001, which unfortunately isn't saying a whole ton. He did have a .313 batting average (to go along with a .337 OBP) in July, however, so maybe he has finally turned the corner (but don't count on it). His defense has been about average. Jason Bartlett recently made his major league debut, but he's not ready to replace Guzman quite yet. There's a chance he might hold onto a major league roster spot for the rest of the season as a utility infielder/pinch runner now that Nick Punto is out for the year, but he could just as easily be sent back down to AAA. At the very least he gives the Twins some middle infield depth.

Despite his 15 home runs, Koskie has had a very disappointing season. This is unfortunate because 2004 might be his last with the team (the Twins hold a $5.5 million option for 2005). He has played outstanding defense but is hitting just .240 with 45 RBIs and an uncharacteristically low .343 OBP. While the rest of the team was surging in July, Koskie hit just .209 with one homer. While it would help this team's offense immensely if Koskie began living up to his standards, the Twins will keep sticking him out there no matter what happens. Koskie is a veteran though so I'm holding out hope that he will somehow turn his season around.

I have included the designated hitter in this category for an obvious reason: the Twins actually have four starting outfielders, but someone has to play DH in order to get in the lineup. Lately that someone has been Lew Ford. I highly disagree with this move by Ron Gardenhire for a number of reasons. First of all, Shannon Stewart has a below-average arm. It doesn't detract from his overall status as a baseball player that much, but the fact remains that Stewart has always had a weak arm and always will. Ford, on the other hand, has one of the better leftfield arms in the league. He's not always that accurate, but then again neither is Stewart. I also think that Shannon should be DHing in order to protect his foot. Anyone can easily tell that Stewart has lost a step both on the basepaths and in the outfield, and that double he misplayed against the Red Sox the other day only served to reinforce my position. Why is Gardenhire so reluctant to make Stewart the full-time DH? He's a very good offensive player. Isn't that the main requirement for a designated hitter? Instead Gardy refuses to let one of his better outfielders showcase his skills in the field. I just don't get it.

As for Hunter and Jones, you pretty much know what you are going to get with those two. Hunter has been having a pretty mundane season, and he will finish with about 20 homers, 75 RBIs, and a .275 batting average after missing a few games at the beginning of the season. Jacque's average is about 50 points too low, but his other numbers are right in line. With a late season surge he could finish with 30 homers and 100 RBIs. Twins fans have nothing to worry about here, as Ford, Stewart, Hunter, and Jones are arguably the Twins' top four hitters.

There you have it. Part One of this post-trading deadline roster review. I hope I have highlighted a few key issues that we will no doubt expand upon in the coming months. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the Twins' on-the-field exploits last night. Wednesday's 6-3 saw Kyle Lohse finally throw a decent game and Justin Morneau homer for the second consecutive night. The Twins are now the proud owners of a 6 game lead in the AL Central, thanks to Brian Anderson and his 2-hit, 11-0 shutout of the fading Chicago White Sox (note: that is not a misprint). I'll have more on Lohse and the rest of the Twins' pitching staff tomorrow in Part Two of this post.