Monday, June 30, 2008

2008: 2nd Quarter Review

With 82 games finished in the 2008 season, the Twins have found themselves positioned well. At 45-37, the Twins are the owners of the fifth best record in the American League, trailing the White Sox by a game and a half in the Central following Sunday's victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. As was the case with the results of the first quarter of the season (Game 1 through 41), Minnesota is an overachieving team. Sporting a 42-40 expected win-loss record the Twins have stole three wins reinforcing once again that baseball isn't always as predictable as statistics would suggest. Last season, the Twins posted the exact record (42-40) as the current expected win-loss record through 82 games. Instead of being in the thick of a division the Twins were buried 8.5 games out behind Cleveland and Detroit. The second-half of the season last year was a huge disappointment as the team played .463 baseball the rest of the way (37-43) in 2007.

The current season's second quarter (Game 42 through 82) record of 23-17 was supplemented with the 10 game winning streak combined with a 14-3 run in the past 17 games. Prior to that streak the 2008 Twins seemed destined to sink into oblivion. In the 12 games before the run began, the Twins went 3-9 including an embarrassing four-game sweep at the hands of the White Sox. To add salt, the Twins were outscored 40 to 15. The starting pitching was absolutely destroyed at US Cellular. Nick Blackburn, Livan Hernandez and Kevin Slowey were pounded in consecutive outings for game scores of 18, 19 and 10, respectively. The bullpen was taxed to the limits. After having the longest losing streak of the season (six) the Twins started a 10 game winning streak a week later. There are several moves and factors that have been critical to this resurgence at the midway point.

Minnesota Twins' Joe Mauer follows through on a single home run to put the Twins ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Friday, June 27, 2008, in Minneapolis.

* Mauer is healthy. No need to search on WebMD for something Joe Mauer related. Last year Twins catcher Joe Mauer's various left leg maladies limited him to 50 games in the first half of the season. His slashes were very good (.302/.392/.464) in his 224 plate appearance in the first half of 2007, however, in 2008 Mauer has been healthy enough to play in 72 games and while maintaining that same output (.326/.411/.466) in 79 more plate appearances. This sustained production has led to Mauer overtaking Boston's Jason Varitek in the All-Star voting. Having someone who is reaching base 41% of the time in the line-up fills a great prerequisite for scoring a run. He takes pitches (23 bbs to 11 ks) and has also found his power swing jacking three home runs in the second quarter as well as having a .225 isolated slugging average in the month of June.

* Interleague Play. Can the Twins petition the Commissioner's office to have the team reassigned to the Senior Circuit? The Twins are 14-3 against the National League opponents and to some people's surprise, Gardenhire managed the club well under the National League rules winning 6 of 9 on the road.

* Releasing Juan Rincon... Yes, he had at one time been the sturdiest of bridges from the 7th and 8th inning to the closer. Unfortunately seeing Rincon on the mound in 2008 meant that the Twins were either winning big or losing big (and if they weren't before Rincon's appearance, they certainly would be shortly thereafter). In his 11.1 innings of work in the second quarter of 2008, opponents had hit 3 home runs along with a .404/.492/.673 batting line. What's more is that in those 9 games Rincon came to the mound with five baserunners on and all five would score. Had Rincon been younger and more affordable, losing an arm like Rincon might have been an issue for an organization however after declining assignment Rincon is now Cleveland's problem where he is at triple-A Buffalo working on his mechanics.

* ...Gaining Craig Breslow. So Cleveland doesn't want Breslow but will accept Rincon with open arms? I thought General Manager Mark Shapiro and Assistant General Manager Chris Antonetti were supposedly the great sabermetric braintrust at the helm of the Indians organization. Reviewing the statistics, there is nothing to suggest that this was even close to intelligent. The Twins have recieved 10 innings of the lefty Breslow and he has yet to yield a run. In those 10 innings, Breslow has been asked to strand 6 runners on base, a task that he has completed with flying colors. In order to maintain this kind of production the Twins need to continue to bring him into situations that he would have greater opportunity to succeed, namely against lefties. The Breslow addition has also alleviate the usage of Dennys Reyes. In his 16 innings prior to the Breslow acquisition, Reyes's slashes were decent (.290/.343/.371) but possibly a cause for concern if Reyes would be the only left-handed option for Gardenhire out of the bullpen. Post-Breslow Reyes has thrown 6.2 innings and has stepped up admirably (.100/.250/.250). Sure Breslow's scoreless streak is bound to come to an end but having him in the bullpen gives Gardenhire that option that will keep from having to burn out Reyes's arm.

* The Slow-Man. Aside from his tango with the white hot White Sox, Kevin Slowey has been pitching like an ace this quarter of the season. In his last four starts, Slowey is 3-0 with a 0.93 era. This, of course, was capped off by Sunday afternoon's surgical precision carving up the dangerous Milwaukee Brewers line-up for a complete game three hitter striking out 8 along the way. If Minnesota wants to experience post-season dreams, the Twins are going to need Slowey as the complement to Scott Baker at the top end of the starting rotation. While nothing is promised with Francisco Liriano and with Livan Hernandez inconsistencies, Slowey is the stabilizer that the rotation needs going forward.

San Diego Padres' Brian Giles slides across the base to break up a double play in front of Minnesota Twins second baseman Alexi Casilla in the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 25, 2008 in San Diego.

* Recalling Alexi Casilla. Technically Casilla was recalled with two games remaining in the first quarter, but his production in the second has been one of the biggest reasons the Twins are still within striking distance of the White Sox. In 163 plate appearances in the second quarter, Casilla has hit .314/.363/.450 in the number two spot in the order. His patience and bat control is the perfect antidote to Carlos Gomez's flaying plate approach. On the field Casilla is electric at turning the doubleplay (ranked 9th among MLB second basemen according to the Fielding Bible), something that the pitching staff is greatly appreciative of, but his overall ability is still raw. Moving to his left he is above average however he is rated below average at plays up the middle. His revised zone rating of .762 is one of the worst among professional second basemen. Still, his offense is carrying his glove for the time being.

Minnesota Twins' Brian Buscher is met by teammates after he hit a solo home run against the San Diego Padres in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, June 24, 2008 in San Diego.  Buscher's home run was the second of back-to-back homers in the inning as the Twins won 3-1.

* Brian Buscher at Third. This time the promotion better stick. In his 47 plate appearances since his second recall, Buscher is pummeling major league pitching with a .372/.383/.465 batting line. His hands and range are brutal (.759 rzr) but it looks like Brooks Robinson compared to Mike Lamb (.602 rzr). The disappointment of Mike Lamb is overwhelming, considering that there is still another year on his 2-year contract that the Twins will either eventually eat or Bill Smith will prove that he can barter a cow for magic beans at the trade deadline. Personally, the former seems to be the logical result of the Lamb era. Nevertheless, Buscher is doing at third what the Twins would have liked from Lamb...for pennies on the dollar. Had Smith considered the option of carrying Buscher and Matt Macri has the third base platoon instead of signing Lamb, the team might have a few more victories under their belt instead of insisting on trotting Lamb to the plate as frequently as they have.