Friday, April 29, 2011

A Perfect Storm: Joe Mauer's Leg Injury

Mauer's injury has been the Perfect Storm
The Twins didn't offer much excitement in two games at Target Field yesterday. The Rays put an emphatic stamp on a three-game series sweep by pounding the Twins by a combined score of 21-4 in the day/night doubleheader.

The biggest story for the Twins might have been what occurred off the field. Joe Mauer was eligible to come off of the disabled list on Thursday but that did not happen. Mauer was not expected to come off of the DL but some of the other insights that were released yesterday could show a scary side to his current predicament.

When I originally heard about the Mauer injury as bilateral leg weakness, the injury sounded pretty scary. There can be a connection to the spinal cord and other serious medical conditions. The Twins shielded that worry a little bit when the team said that some of his soreness might be connected to the viral infection he obtained. As a fan, I stepped back, took a deep breath, and said, "Ok, maybe this isn't so bad."

The Twins had head trainer Rick McWane sat in on Ron Gardenhire's pre-game press conference. He provided an interesting thought on the connection between the Mauer's leg weakness and the viral infection  that impacted him last week. Originally the Twins had stated that there could be a link between these two conditions. Yesterday McWane clearly stated that "there's no connection between his virus and the orthopedic injuries." All of a sudden, a storm is brewing for the Twins.

Mauer held his own press conference between games yesterday to discuss his frustration with the way things are going. A lot of his frustration stems from the fact that he does not have a timetable for his return, he does not want to change positions, and he has not felt right all season. The Twins and Mauer keep saying that his injury situation has been the perfect storm, all the wrong things are happening at the same time.

Here is a look at each of those frustrations that Mauer is having with his perfect storm of an injury:

No timetable for return
The Twins need Mauer to be his old self and the Mauer that showed up at the beginning of this season wasn't not the Mauer of old. There was something missing in his legs and his swing was just not there to start the year. Mauer is not even getting a timetable from the team yet, so it could be a few more weeks before Mauer is even able to make his rehab starts for the Twins. At this point, my hope is the middle to end of May for the return of Mauer.

Change of position
Mauer has faced this question for most of his career and if he continues to get injured, the question will still haunt him in the future. There is no way the Twins will change Mauer's position in the middle of a season. In his press conference today, Mauer clearly stated that he is getting healthy to be the catcher of the Minnesota Twins. "That's what I signed here to do -- to catch." Needless to say the Butera/Holm combo has not been outstanding. On top of that the Twins have very little depth of major league ready catchers in the minor leagues.

Not feeling right all season
This year's spring training was irregular for Mauer as he recovered from offseason knee surgery. The Twins gave Mauer plenty of time-off from catching and allowed their superstar to ease back in to his duties behind the plate. Mauer put some of the blame on his weird spring training, some of the blame on the virus, and some of the blame on the bilateral leg weakness. He tried to play through the injury but his body was fighting back with a perfect storm of injuries for the star catcher.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A worn path from Rochester to Minnesota

The injuries for the Twins continue to mount and that means a lot of changes on the field. The injury list for the Twins entering last night's game was ridiculously long and it essentially left Ron Gardenhire with one bench player, back-up catcher Steve Holm. Here is the list of injured Twins players that piled up before last night's frigid game at Target Field:

Delmon Young- placed on 15-day DL (sore ribs)
Jim Thome- oblique injury (expects to play Thursday)
Carl Pavano- flu (start pushed back to Sunday)
Jason Repko- sore oblique (might be forced to play through it)
Tsuyoshi Nishioka- 15-day DL (broken left fibula)
Joe Mauer- 15-day DL (bilateral leg weakness)
Kevin Slowey- 15-day DL (shoulder)

That is quite the list for a team to have to digest and with a double-header scheduled for tomorrow, the Twins can ill afford to have a short bench. To fix some of these holes on the team the Twins have dug deep into Rochester. The list of players on the Twins that have spent part of the year at Rochester continues to grow.

Anthony Swarzak- exchanged for Eric Hacker
Rene Tosoni- called-up to replace Delmon Young
Eric Hacker- exchanged for Alex Burnett
Jim Hoey- exchanged for Jeff Manship
Steve Holm- called-up to replace Joe Mauer
Alex Burnett- called-up to replace Kevin Slowey
Luke Hughes- called-up to replace Tsuyoshi Nishioka

It is important to have players in the minor leagues that are ready to contribute at the major league level. The Rochester Red Wings have seen a make-over of their team from the beginning of the year because of the injuries at the major league level. The players that the Twins are getting from Rochester may not be All-Star caliber players but each of them is able to contribute.

There are two position players that have seen time with both Rochester and Minnesota. Luke Hughes has done a decent job of filling in for the Twins at multiple positions. With three hits in last night's game, Hughes saw his batting average climb to .281 for the season. Steve Holm has seen limited time but has shown some pop in his bat. Holm should make an appearance in the first game of the double-header tomorrow with another chance to show what he can do for the Twins.

There are two pitchers that are currently on the Twins team that have made the trip from New York. Jim Hoey has yet to give up a run in his three appearances for the Twins. Fans were excited to how fast the Hoey can hurl the ball to the plate, but he looked rough in one outing. The Twins had enough confidence in Eric Hacker to schedule him for a spot-start against the Rays. That plan got foiled when Liriano had a rough start to last night's game. Hacker was put into a tough spot with the bases loaded, but walking two batters with the bases loaded is something the team is not going to be happy about.

These players from Rochester are helping to keep the Twins glued together for the time being. In the end for the Twins to be successful in 2011, these players will need to make a return trip to Rochester. But that return trip only starts when the Twins get their players healthy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

2001 Twins: A Wild Card Team?

Should the 2001 Twins have been a playoff team? (Photo: Getty Images)
On Monday, I wrote about the planned expansion for the Major League Baseball Playoffs. Some members of the Twins have offered interesting perspectives on the changes that are coming in the future. The Twins recent history has included some great Game 163's and it is interesting to contemplate if these games needed to be played with the new playoff format.

Jason Stark of ESPN took an interesting look at all of the teams from each league that would have been the second wild cards following the new playoff format. The list of teams stretches back to 1995, the wild-card era, and it includes only one Twins team, the 2001 Twins.

2001 American League Final Standings (*Play-off Qualifier)
*Seattle 116 wins
*Oakland 102 wins
*New York 95 wins
*Cleveland 91 wins
Minnesota 85 wins
Chicago 83 wins
Boston 82 wins

That 2001 Twins squad was full of young players that would be pivotal to the Twins run of Central Division Championships. Doug Mientkiewicz led the team in batting average, Torii Hunter had the most HR, and Corey Koskie drove in over a hundred runs. That team may have been able to qualify for the playoffs but a rough stretch in the dog days of summer was the beginning of the end. In that stretch of games the Twins lost 14 out of 16 games including eight loses in a row. A young team crumbled in the late summer sun.

The 2001 season was also Tom Kelly's last season at the helm for the Twins. It is great to think that the Twins could have given Kelly a playoff appearance to end his career. Under the new playoff format the 2001 Twins would have been able to give Kelly his swan-song.

In 2008 and 2009, the Twins had to compete in a decisive game for the right to make the playoffs. In each of those seasons the Twins were close to making the playoffs. But how close would they have been in the new playoff format?

2008 American League Final Standings (*Play-off Qualifier)
*Anaheim 100 wins
*Tampa Bay 97 wins
*Boston 95 wins
New York 89 wins
*Chicago 89 wins
Minnesota 88 wins

Following the new format for the playoffs the 2008 Twins would have finished one game behind the New York Yankees for the second wild-card spot in the American League. This shows how important one game can be when it comes to qualifying for the postseason. The Twins were one game short of a division title and one game short of the second wild-card spot.

2009 American League Final Standings (*Play-off Qualifier)
*New York 103 wins
*Anaheim 97 wins
*Boston 95 wins
Texas 87 wins
*Minnesota 87 wins
Detroit 86 wins

The Twins were lucky enough to win Game 163 in 2009, but it is again interesting to think about the possibility of another wild-card team in the AL. If the Twins had lost their game against Detroit, they would have still fallen short of making the playoffs. The Texas Rangers would have been the final wild-card team to qualify for the playoffs. The Central Division would have been left with only one representative in those expanded playoffs.

It is fun to look back at what could have been for different teams in Twins history. Could the 2001 Twins have won the World Series? Most likely this wouldn't have happened. But in the game of baseball weirder things have occurred. Two 100-win teams fail to live up to their potential or an underdog team from Arizona upsets the mighty Yankees. Each of those things happened in 2001, so why not a Twins World Series? 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jason Kubel the OF vs. Jason Kubel the DH

Kubel's bat is hot to start the year (Photo: Getty Images)
One of the brightest spots in the Minnesota line-up this spring has been the presence of Jason Kubel. To Kubel, last season was a disappointment as he tried to figure out the new confines of Target Field. This made him try to swing for too much power in a park that doesn't give up too many homeruns. The result was the lowest batting average that Kubel has produced at the major league level in a full season.

At this early point in the season, there has been a lot of pressure on Kubel with many of the big bats for the Twins being absent for portions of the schedule. Kubel is either leading the team or tied for the lead in batting average, OPS, and homeruns.

With injuries plaguing the Twins, Kubel has found his name in the middle of the batting order on a daily basis. This also means that Kubel has spent a lot of time roaming the outfield for the hometown nine. Kubel confesses that he feels more comfortable at the plate when he gets to play in the field. From a psychological standpoint, this makes sense. Being involved in every play of the game is going to keep a player more focused on the task at hand.

Let's see if Kubel is right about his performance at the plate. Is he a better hitter when he plays in the outfield for the Twins?

Jason Kubel the Outfielder
Games: 341
AB: 1208
H: 331
BA: .274
R: 172
DBL: 63
HR: 54
RBI: 210
OPS: .804

Jason Kubel the Designated Hitter
Games: 288
AB: 1140
H: 143
BA: .274
R: 143
DBL: 64
HR: 36
RBI: 162
OPS: .797

Kubel has essentially played about one-third less in the DH-spot compared to the outfield role. If you take his average numbers over the course of a third of the season and add them to his DH numbers, his totals would be eerily similar. Here are the adjusted numbers for Kubel if he played the same amount of games at DH as he has played in the outfield.


Adjusted Numbers at DH
Games: 341
H: 192
BA: .274
R: 167
HR: 44
RBI: 192
OPS: .797

As a professional athlete, Jason Kubel wants every chance that he can get to be competing on the field. He wants to be in the outfield and Kubel's current production levels are going to be impossible to keep out of the line-up. However the numbers don't lie; Kubel is basically the same hitter whether he plays outfield or if he is in the designated hitter role.

If Kubel continues at this current pace, fans of the Twins aren't going to care which position that he is penciled in at for the team. They just want more Kubel!

Monday, April 25, 2011

MLB Playoff Expansion and the Twins

(Photo: Getty Images)
There has been a lot of talk in the last week of expanding the playoffs for Major League Baseball. This comes after reports from the Commissioner's Office that the league is "inexorably" moving toward adding another wild-card team from each league starting in 2012. This means there will be five teams that qualify for the playoffs from each league, the three division winners and two wild card teams. This will bump the total number of playoff teams from eight to ten.

There have been many good teams in recent years across baseball that have fell short of qualifying for the postseason. From baseball's perspective, There will be an increase revenue by adding two playoff teams and series. There will be more games to televise, more commercial endorsements, and more national attention with a longer playoff format. There will also be other positives for people that are involved with the sport of baseball. More managers will be able to claim they have guided their team to the postseason. General managers will be able to show that they can make the right moves to create a playoff caliber team. Players will be able to show their value or lack of value in high pressure situations.

There are many that are a few negatives that accompany the positives listed above. One of the strengths of the sport of baseball is the weight the long regular season schedules plays on the teams that qualify for the postseason. It is a privilege to make it to postseason play in MLB.  In all of the other major sports there is a far higher percentage of teams that make the playoffs. The NFL has 12 teams in postseason play, while both the NBA and NHL each have a whopping 16 teams fighting for the title. The other concern with expanding the playoffs is the season could go even deeper into the colder months. Bad weather can be an issue with October and November games. Adding more teams only makes the baseball schedule sneak closer to the winter months.

The layout of this new 10-team tournament is yet to be official decided but there are a few different formats that have been discussed.

Three-Game Wild Card Series
In this format, the two wild card teams from both the AL and the NL would face off in a best of three series. The winner of that series would be playing for the right to face the overall number one seed from each league. This would give the overall number one seed more time to get their rotation in order. It also has the chance to wear down some of the players from the wild card teams.

One-Game (Winner Takes All) Play-In
The other format that is a possibility is a one game showdown between the fourth and fifth seed from each league. These wild card teams would put everything on the line in a one game playoff for a chance to continue on in the tournament. This would force the wild card teams to use their best pitchers to advance. It would also allow for a lot of drama that could increase ratings for the do-or-die format.

In recent memory, the Twins have seen their season come down to a decisive one-game playoff. Game 163 in 2008 did not end up the way the Twins wanted with Jim Thome, the current Twins slugger, providing the only run of the game for the White Sox. The very next year the Twins were able to be victorious in an epic extra-inning affair to cap a wonderful last season at the Metrodome. Being on the losing and winning side of a one-game play-in has allowed the Twins to see the entire picture when it comes to that type of game.

There are positives and negatives to both of these formats but it seems as if some in the Twins organization are in favor of having a three-game series. As Ron Gardenhire told the Star Tribune, "It seems like an awful lot of baseball to go to a one-game shootout." The Twins want to stay away from as many one-game shootouts as possible. Expanding the playoffs by adding the three-game wild card series could be the best way for the Twins to avoid another stressful Game 163 situation.

Overall, it is inevitable that baseball will be expanding it's playoff format in the near future. The players aren't going to fight against adding two teams to the playoffs and the owners are always going to be in favor of earning more money. Many fans feel the current playoff format is the best that it can be. There are always going to be teams that are left on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That is one of the great things about the lengthy 162-game schedule in baseball. A team has the entire length of that schedule to get themselves in the position to qualify for the postseason. Change is coming to the playoff format but it does not mean that it is positive for all parties involved. Baseball is a sport that prides itself on great tradition over the years and MLB should heed this advice, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thome's trend of slow starts

Thome's solo homerun (AP Photo)
The Twins have a surplus of batters that are off to a cold start to the season in 2011. Hitters throughout the line-up have struggled to find a rhythm at the plate and this has caused the team to struggle at scoring runs. Denard Span and Jason Kubel have been the two bright spots for the Twins, while others have looked lost at the plate.

Jim Thome is one of those players that has been struggling to start the 2011 campaign (even with his homerun last night). In an interview before the game, Thome even admitted that he has been struggling to start the year. The Twins got more than they expected from Thome last season as he lead the club with 25 homeruns. At this young juncture in the season Thome has been able to put up the following numbers:

BA:.191
HR: 2
RBI: 7
DBL: 2
SLG: .362
OPS: .658

These numbers continue a trend that Thome has followed over the course of his career. He struggles in early season games. In fact, the months of March and April are typically his worst for offensive production.

BA: .266 (2nd worst month behind September .257)
HR: 78 (worst month)
RBI: 237 (worst month)
Hits: 330 (worst month)
Total Bases: 646 (worst month)

The Paul Bunyan of the Twins has over 90+ homeruns in the other months of the season but the early part of the year has continued to be a struggle. He has 19 fewer RBI in March/April than any other month of the season. His hit total in the opening month is 23 less than the closest other month of the year. In the warm summer months, Thome averages over 800 total bases. In comparison the cold beginning part of the year Thome only has in the mid-600's for total bases.

There was a great quote from Ron Gardenhire in the Star Tribune about Thome's early season struggles.
"When Thome scuffles you don't recognize it as much because if he strikes out three times, they are fun strikeouts because he is ripping [at] it. He'll be find. I enjoy watching him walk up there."
Thome is also pushing to join the 600 homerun club this season. A mark that will be great for Twins fans to follow throughout the year. Some players struggle to hit the ball when they are reaching important milestones like the 500 or 600 homerun club. Thome had14 plate appearances between his 499th and 500th homerun back in 2007. It will be interesting to see how well he can hit when he sneaks closer to the 600 homerun plateau.

Jim Thome is a Hall-of-Fame player and he will find his swing as the weather starts to warm across baseball. Maybe all Thome needs is a little flannel and some facial hair. I mean, who wants to hit the ball a country mile with a cold bat???

(Photo- Minnesota Twins)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The anatomy of Kyle Gibson's near no-hitter

Gibson in fine form (Democrat and Chronicle)
The Rochester Red Wings were scheduled to play a double header against the Buffalo Bisons today. The game scheduled for yesterday between these two teams got postponed due to the bad weather in the Northeast. That means the teams were only scheduled to have two seven inning games in order to fill-in for the game that was lost yesterday.

Kyle Gibson, the star pitching prospect, was scheduled to pitch in the first game of the doubleheader. Gibson pitched outstanding and had a no-hitter in place when he took the mound for the seventh inning.

Here is the break-down of each inning that Gibson pitched in this brilliant outing.

Bottom of the 1st inning:
Jason Pridie reached on a throwing error by Trevor Plouffe (E4)
Kirk Nieuwenhuis grounded out, Gibson tossed to Bailey covering at first. Pridie to 2nd. (1 out)
During the next at-bat Gibson picked off Pridie at 2nd. (2 out)
Zach Lutz grounds out on a 6-3 play from Toby Gardenhire to Bailey (3 out)
Inning Total: 9 pitches (7 strikes, 2 balls)

Bottom of the 2nd inning:
Lucas Duda swinging K (1 out)
Ronny Paulino flew out to Ben Revere in left field (2 out)
Russ Adams swinging K (3 out)
Inning Total: 19 pitches (12 strikes, 7 balls), 2 K

Bottom of the 3rd inning:
Nick Evans grounded out 1-3, Gibson to Bailey (1 out)
Luis Hernandez grounded out 4-3, Plouffe to Bailey (2 out)
Ruben Tejada reached on an error by Gardenhire (E6)
Wild pitch from Gibson allows Tejada to reach third
Pridie grounded out 4-3, Plouffe to Bailey (3 out)
Inning Total: 16 pitches (11 strikes, 5 balls), 1 wild pitch

Bottom of the 4th inning:
Nieuwenhuis grounded out 4-3, Plouffe to Bailey (1 out)
Lutz struck-out looking (2 out)
Duda flew out to center-fielder Brandon Roberts (3 out)
Inning Total: 9 pitches (6 strikes, 3 balls), 1 K

Bottom of the 5th inning:
Paulino swinging K (1 out)
Adams swinging K (2 out)
Evans grounded out 4-3, Plouffe to Bailey (3 out)
Inning Total: 14 pitches (10 strikes, 4 balls), 2 K

Bottom of the 6th inning:
Hernandez grounds out to Bailey at first (1 out)
Tejada grounded out 6-3, Gardenhire to Bailey (2 out)
Pridie struck-out looking (3 out)
Inning Total: 11 pitches (8 strikes, 3 balls), 1 K

Bottom of the 7th inning:
Nieuwenhuis homers on 3-1 pitch from Gibson.
Gibson pulled from the game.
Inning Total: 5 pitches (2 strikes, 3 balls), 1 H, 1 HR

The Red Wings would go on to lose the game in 10 innings but it still doesn't take away from the great effort from their star pitching prospect. Gibson is still on a pitch count at this early point in the season so it would have been interesting to see if the Twins would have let him finish the 7th if the no-hitter was still intact.

Here was Gibson's final line on the day:
IP: 6.0
H: 1
ER: 1
K: 6 K (4 swinging, 2 looking)
Total Pitches: 83

The End of Cuddyer's RBI Drought

A weight off Cuddy's shoulders (Getty Images)
It finally happened last night.

The evil monkey on Michael Cuddyer's back was lifted when he got his first RBI of the season. Cuddyer hit a homerun in the second inning off of Zach Britton, the Orioles starting pitcher. It was a 1-0 two-seam fastball that Cuddyer planted in the seats to get his first homerun and first RBI of the season.

Cuddyer was in a daunting area before he got his first RBI. Going into last night's game the Twins had played 17 games and after last night's loss the team had completed 18 games. That is roughly 10% of the team's 162 schedule. A small sample size of games but still enough to consider the following information:

Michael Cuddyer was the only player in baseball with a minimum of 50 plate appearances that had yet to tally a run batted in. 

In every full season that Cuddyer has played since 2006, he has been able to collect 80+ RBI. His best season when it came to RBI's was the 2006 campaign when he racked up 109 runs batted in. The next season he saw a little slide and dropped down to 81 runs that he knocked across the plate. In 2008, he was only able to play in 71 games and that meant his RBI total decreased to 36 for the season. The last season at the Metrodome saw Cuddyer hit a career high 32 homeruns and that power helped to knock in 94 runners. The first season at Target Field saw his power numbers fall but he still managed 81 RBI.

The scariest thing might be to look at the numbers that Cuddyer is on pace for at this early point in the season. It may not be time to panic but it is time to be slightly concerned.
Current projected stats for 2011 (thru 4-20-11)
HR: 9
RBI: 9
H: 144
2B: 27
R: 45

Needless to say, those are all numbers that the Twins will need him to improve as the season progresses. As mentioned earlier, the regular season is only 10% over. That means there is a lot of baseball left to play and Cuddyer has plenty of games left to improve his numbers. 

When it comes to weird streaks like this one, the hardest thing to do is to get the first one that pushes you over the hump. Cuddyer will be able to be more relaxed at the plate and hopefully this leads to better results on the field.

It's time to start a new streak for Cuddyer. How many games in a row can he get an RBI? 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Top 5 Twins Prospects, so far in '11

The Twins offered very little to cheer about in their game last night so let's find some positives in other places. There is nothing more positive than looking at some of the prospects that are part of the Twins organization. Many of the Twins Minor League Affiliates are off and running with the start of their 2011 season. Here is a look at how my top 5 Twins prospects are fairing in games so far this year.

1. Miguel Sano @ Elizabethan Twins

The Elizabethan Twins don't start their schedule until the summer months, so there will be quite some time before Sano will get the opportunity to produce this season. Sano doesn't turn 18 until May 11th so it will still be awhile before he is putting on a jersey at the big league level. There still will be a lot of eyes on this budding star in the season to come.

2. Kyle Gibson @ AAA Rochester Red Wings

Gibson has made two starts with the Red Wings this season. In Gibson's first start of the year, he only lasted three innings. In that start he gave up seven hits, allowing three runs, and struck out four.  His second start of the year went a little bit better. In five innings, Gibson gave up two runs on five hits with three strikeouts. It is still a young season and that means that pitchers at this level are still on a pitch count. Gibson stated on his Twitter account that he had an 80 pitch limit in his last start as he continues to get stretched out for the season.

Record: 0-0
ERA: 5.63
K: 7
BB: 2

3. Aaron Hicks @ A Ft. Myers Miracle

Aaron Hicks has made appearances in ten games for the Miracle this season. He started off the season with some very good games and had a .353 BA through the first three contests. In recent games, Hicks had been struggling to get hits and find his swing. But Tuesday saw Hicks put together a nice game with two hits, a run scored, and a triple. Hicks has six strikeouts in his 40 plate appearances. That is a number to keep an eye on and for him to improve as the season progresses.

BA: .275
HR: 0
RBI: 3
2B: 1
3B: 2
R: 6

4. Joe Benson @ AA New Britain Rock Cats

After winning the Twins Minor League Player of the Year last season, Joe Benson has picked up right where he left off at the plate. Benson has been crushing the ball all over the field as he helps the Rock Cats get off to a good start. One of the most interesting stats is that he is batting .500 (10-20) with runners on base and four of those ten hits have been for extra bases. It will be great to see Benson keep up this pace for an entire season and it will be interesting to see if he gets a chance at AAA by the time the season is over.

BA: .372
HR: 1
RBI: 9
2B: 4
3B: 1
R: 8

5. Alex Wimmers  @ A Ft. Myers Miracle

The first start of the year was scary for Alex Wimmers and that is why the organization removed him from the rotation in Ft. Myers. In that first outing, he did not manage to record an out and he walked in three runs. Overall he faced six batters, walked them all, and was charged with four earned runs. He threw 28 pitches and only four of them were strikes. The Twins are going to spend some time working with Wimmers on his mechanics at extended Spring Training. Many in the organization hope this will cure his issues and this won't escalate into a much deeper problem.

Record: 0-1
ERA: Infinity (*.**)
K: 0
BB: 6

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Twins' struggles with right-handed pitching

Maybe Thome was mad about his numbers against righties? (AP Photo)
Entering the 2011 season the Twins were stacked with great hitters from the left-side of the plate. From the top of the line-up with Span and Mauer to Morneau, Thome, and Kubel  in the middle, there could be power found on any given day from the lead-off spot to the fifth or sixth spot in the order.

This excess of left-handed hitting should mean that the Twins would match-up very well against right-handed pitchers from the opposing team. That has not been the case so far in the 2011 season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Twins got their first win of the season against a right handed starter when they beat Jeremy Hellickson and the Rays on Sunday. Up to that point in the season the Twins were 0-8 when going against a right handed hurler.

That is the longest streak the Twins have had since the team moved to Minnesota. The last team in franchise history to have that long of streak was the 1904 Senators. That team was defeated in their first ten games when the opposition started a right-handed pitcher. The 1904 Senators went on that season to lose a franchise record 113 games. Let's hope the current Twins aren't on pace to catch that mark.

Last night the Twins were set to face off against another right handed pitcher. The Twins were able to come up with their second straight win against a right handed pitcher. But the problem was that the power lefties in the Twins line-up continued to struggle against the righty. Kubel and Thome were a combined 1-8 in the game with six strikeouts.

Let's dig a little deeper into the numbers of the power lefties for the Twins against right handed starting pitching:

Mauer: 15 AB, .200 BA, 2 K
Morneau: 30 AB, .300 BA, 6 K
Thome: 30 AB, .200 BA, 9 K
Kubel: 31 AB, .290 BA, 4 K

If the Twins want to continue to make a run at their third straight Central Division crown, the left-handed power bats are going to need to improve these numbers. The Twins aren't going to be able to rely on Drew Butera having three RBI's to lead the team to a win like last night in Baltimore. The left handed bats need to step up and help to lead this team to more wins. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Revolving Twins Bullpen

The weekend in Tampa Bay was a rough one for the Twins. Multiple come from behind wins for the Rays, Mauer's placement on the DL, and a new look to the bullpen. In the end, the Twins were able to squeak out a win on Sunday. But one win in a four game series is hardly anything to get excited about.

One of the biggest news items coming out of the Twins win on Sunday was the new look bullpen that Ron Gardenhire announced before the game. Joe Nathan had blown two consecutive save chances and he looked ugly in getting some of his other saves. It was great of the Twins to try and give Nathan a chance to be the closer coming out of Spring Training. The ovation he got at Target Field for the Home Opener left everyone with goose-bumps and it might have been one of the loudest moments in Target Field history. Nathan had worked his tail off to get ready for the season and it was his job to lose.

The problem is that Nathan did lose his closing job over the course of the first two weeks of the season. About a week ago, I wrote about how Nathan is trying to re-invent himself as a pitcher. The velocity of his fastball is down and that means a couple of things. First of all, he needs to be able to locate his fastball. Secondly, he needs to rely more on his off-speed pitches. Nathan met with the manager and pitching coach on Sunday and decided it was best for the team to have a different closer.

Matt Capps will now be the Twins full-time closer for the foreseeable future. At the trade deadline in 2010, the Twins traded away a great prospect in Wilson Ramos to get Matt Capps. One of the reasons the Twins were willing to part with a top tier prospect was the fact that they would have Capps under team control for multiple seasons. The Twins knew that there would be some veteran arms leaving the bullpen and Capps could be a savior for a questionable bullpen situation.

Some of the other roles in the bullpen will also be changing now as the bullpen picture continues to revolve. Glen Perkins will be getting more late-inning work to try and bridge the gap to Capps in the 9th inning. After the game on Sunday the Twins sent down Jeff Manship and called up Jim Hoey from Rochester. Hoey is a hard throwing pitcher that could be moving from the minors to grab the Twins set-up role in the big leagues. Manship beat Hoey out for the final bullpen spot but Hoey looked good in AAA and earned the call-up.

The bullpen may have been one of the most interesting story-lines for the Twins as the season began and that plot has carried over to the first few weeks of the season. The Twins needs some stability at the end of games and all of these bullpen moves could be the shot in the arm a struggling ball club needs to turn the corner.

Here is the bullpen picture as of yesterday, but as always it is subject to change in the days to come:

Closer: Matt Capps
Left Handed Set-Up: Glen Perkins
Right Handed Set-Up B: Jim Hoey
Left-Handed Specialist: Jose Mijares
Middle Relief: Joe Nathan
Middle/Long Relief: Dusty Hughes
Middle/Long Relief: Alex Burnett

Friday, April 15, 2011

Back together again: Pavano & Butera



The magic was back together again last night at Tropicana Field. For the first time in 2011, Drew Butera was behind the plate to catch his favorite pitcher, Carl Pavano. In Pavano's first two starts of the season (Opening Day and the Home Opener), Joe Mauer was behind the plate. There were some rough stretches in the first two outings of the year for Pavano. The first start was a disaster and the first inning of the Home Opener looked like a circus. Mauer came to the stadium a little sore and that meant the combo of Butera and Pavano was back together again. Pavano looked great and pitched eight shutout innings but the bullpen waisted his great outing.

The tandem of Butera and Pavano was teamed up in the middle of last season and during their time together Pavano went on a great stretch of games. From the middle of July to the middle of August, Pavano won six out of seven starts. In that time period he pitched 50 innings, allowing 14 earned runs, and striking out 32. Pavano only allowed an on-base percentage of .302 and one homerun during this run. The mustache-clad Pavano and the young Butera had formed a battery that would help the Twins on the way to the Central Division Championship.

Butera and Mauer caught around the same amount of games and innings from Pavano in 2010. But the Pavano/Butera hook-up produced a lower ERA, less homeruns allowed, less runs allowed, and more strikeouts. Here are the numbers that Pavano put up with Butera behind the plate in 2010:
Games: 15
IP: 106.0
ER: 43
ERA: 3.65
K: 58
BA: .273
OBP: .304
It was great to see the confidence that Gardenhire had to keep these two together in the heat of the pennant race. This pair rewarded him with a continued great play on the field.

News came out after the game that Mauer will placed on the disabled list because of weakness in his legs. Apparently the erratic Francisco Liriano of this season has been beating up the hometown start with all of his pitches in the dirt. This means more of an opportunity for Butera to show his value to the Twins  but it could mean even more struggles for the offense.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Meet the Twins New Back-Up Catcher: Steve Holm

The injury to Joe Mauer means the Twins will have a new back-up catcher on the roster for Friday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Steve Holm is 31 and has be a career minor league player with 53 games played at the major league level (the latest time was in May 2009).

He joined the Twins this offseason from the Giants organization. He spent all of last season at AAA Fresno and in the first half of the year he split time at catcher with Buster Posey, the eventual NL Rookie of the Year and World Series Star.

He was a 17th round draft pick coming out of college and made the switch from infielder to catcher very early in his career. The early portion of his career he spent bouncing between A and AA. In 2008, he was invited to the Spring Training Camp of the San Francisco Giants. He played well enough that spring to make the Opening Day roster as the back-up catcher. His firsts from that season include:

First Appearance: Pinch-runner, April 4 at Milwaukee
First Hit: Double off of Ben Sheets, April 6 at Milwaukee
First HR: Off of JC Romero, May 11 vs. Philadelphia

The Twins will be looking for more firsts out of Holm as he and Butera will be the only catchers for the Twins until at least the month of May.

In the mean time, enjoy some more information about Mr. Holm.
Bats/Throws: Right
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 206 lb.

2010 AAA Fresno
Games: 82
BA: .246
OBP: .343
OPS: .725
HR: 4
DBL: 15
RBI: 37

First-round pick catches the "yips"

Some disheartening news came out of Fort Myers in the last couple days. The Twins first overall selection in last years draft, Alex Wimmers, is experiencing a set-back in his first full season as a professional. He has been removed from the starting rotation of the Miracle after a rough first outing.

In that first outing, he did not manage to record an out and he walked in three runs. Overall he faced six batters, walked them all, and was charged with four earned runs. He threw 28 pitches and only four of them were strikes. There was obviously something lacking from this young pitcher in his first start of the year.

The Twins are going to spend some time working with Wimmers on his mechanics. In the mean time, they have placed him on the seven-day disabled list with flu-like symptoms being the cause. Last week I picked Wimmers to be my breakout pitcher for the lower levels of the Twins' farm system. This could be an obstacle that prevents him from achieving that award. 

There have been players that have come down with a baseball condition known as the "yips." The "yips" are when a baseball player gets a mental block that doesn't allow him to complete some of the simple tasks in the game. Some examples of this could be a pitcher not having control of their pitches, a infielder that can't make a simple throw to first, and a catcher that can't make the throw back to the pitcher.

Some of the most famous examples of the "yips" are Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch. Ankiel was forced to move from a star pitcher to a power-hitting outfielder because he couldn't find the plate with his pitches. Knoblauch was a star second baseman in his time in Minnesota. Later in his career, his case of the "yips" left him without the ability to make a simple throw to first.

Wimmers is still very young and has time to overcome this obstacle that has been put in his way. Bert Blyleven says there is no reason to be afraid of the big, bad yips as long as the problem doesn't become mental. The problem is that it usually does become mental and that is why players are forced to change positions. The best thing for Wimmers is to refocus his energy on his mechanics so he can regain his form.

As a first round pick, Wimmers has shown a lot of promise in his college career and that ability was shown in his short time with the Twins last season. Hopefully a quick fix is in order and this problem doesn't become more than a bump in the road for this prospect.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sell Out Streak Ends

Minnie & Paul sad for the end of the sellout streak
As a season ticket holder, I was sad to hear the game between the Twins and Royals failed to sellout Target Field. It was a beautiful evening in the Twin Cities and there could be nothing better than watching baseball in friendly confines of Target Field.

The Twins had sold out 81 consecutive games or the equivalent of one entire season of home games. According to MLB.com the attendance at Tuesday night's game was 38,154 or a couple hundred short of the sellout mark. The announced attendance according to FSN North was in the 37,000 range.

At this point last season, tickets to Target Field were a hot commodity as fans clamored to explore their newly built ballpark. There were so many new things to do and to see that fans were paying multiple times the face value of tickets to get through the gates.

Some of that luster has worn off in the second year at Target Field. The team hasn't been playing very well in the early going of the season. The Royals being in town doesn't help the Twins in the ticket sales department. Not too many people are in a rush to see the Royals on the field. In a few seasons that could change with the amount of talent that the Royals have in their farm system.

In the games I have been to this season there has still been that new stadium excitement from the fans at the game. There is still so much to explore at Target Field and that should push more fans through the gates. The Twins continue to add new food options and the ones that I have tasted so far have been fantastic.

A person could point a finger at the current state of the economy as a reason to stay home and watch the game. There are a lot of people that are still struggling to make ends meet as the United States economy is on the rebound. Spending $20 a person on tickets to a baseball game could still be out of people's budget.

The Twins play a noon game today and that could be another challenge for ticket sales. The weather looks like it could be spotty and that could deter some fans from making the trip. Schools are still in session so that means that many children have other commitments at this time of the year.

If the Twins don't get a sellout the final game of the Royals series, my fingers are crossed that the next home series will lead to greener pastures.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Twins recent dominance of the Royals

The Twins will finally have their first Central Division game tonight and that might be a positive turn of events for the team. In the AL Central last season, the Twins were able to rack up 47 of their 94 wins. This included 13 wins against the team that will make the trip to Target Field tonight, the Kansas City Royals.

In the first season at Target Field, the Twins had their way with the Royals and compiled a 7-2 record against their inner-division foe. Over the last three season the Twins have take care of business when facing the Royals and managed a 37-17 record. 

The offense for the Twins has been struggling to start the season and the team ranks close to the bottom of Major League Baseball in most statistical categories. The Twins are 30th in runs scores, 29th in batting average, 29th in on-base-percentage, and 30th in slugging percentage. The homerun department has also been an issue for the Twins at this early part of the season. There have only been three homeruns for the hometown team as the offense has struggled out of the gate.

The best cure for the Twins early season struggles could be the arrival of the Kansas City Royals. In recent years the Twins have shown the ability to dominate the Royals in almost every portion of the game. The Twins scored an outstanding 130 runs against the Royals last season. That was 32 more runs than the Twins scored against any other team. They also had more doubles (47), homeruns (20), and hits (208) than versus any other team in '10.

There have been some players in the Twins line-up that have been struggling to find their swing at this early junction of the season. Check out how the middle of the order hitters have done against KC in the past:
Joe Mauer (98 Games): .350 BA, .926 OPS, 7 HR, 74 RBI
Justin Morneau (102 Games): .259 BA, .823 OPS ,20 HR, 68 RBI
Delmon Young (53 Games): .278 BA, .805 OPS, 10 HR, 43 RBI
Jim Thome (183 Games): .306 BA, 1.016 OPS, 47 HR, 134 RBI

The Royals will send left-hander Jeff Francis to the mound tonight and this could cause some issues for the Twins. Many of the Twins have yet to face Francis in a game since he played his first six seasons in the NL with the Rockies. Hopefully the Twins dominance against the Royals shows through over their inexperience with Francis.

In game two of the series the Royals will counter the Twins with right-hander Kyle Davies. The left-hand dominated Twins line-up has seen success in previous outings against Davies.
Thome: 4 for 12 (.333), 2 DBL, 1 HR, 1 RBI
Mauer: 10 for 24 (.417), 2 DBL, 2 RBI
Young: 5 for 16 (.389), 1 DBL, 1 HR, 3 RBI
Kubel: 10 for 22 (.455), 5 DBL, 7 RBI

The Royals are near the top of the AL Central and the Twins are near the bottom in this young season. Here's hoping that a series against the Royals is just what the Twins need to wake-up their bats for the 2011 season...

Error Message for the Twins

An error on Casilla leads to a 1-0 loss
The Twins have found multiple ways to struggle as the 2011 season has begun. At times their pitching has been weak, their offense has been atrocious, and their defense has been sub-par. All of these issues have meant a 3-6 start for the Twins and a much needed off day on Monday.

The Twins spent most of last season playing excellent defense with the veteran players that they employed at key positions. This year has seen the Twins go in another direction and add different players to their defensive positioning. With these changes there has been a much higher frequency of defensive errors.

This time last year the Twins had zero errors from their starting infield and a total of one error through nine games. That lone error was charged to Delmon Young in the seventh game of last season in Chicago. This season has been an entirely different tale with the Twins amassing seven errors in the first nine games.

The infield has five of the seven errors and the Twins have witnessed some of these errors being the difference between winning and losing. Danny Valencia and Tsuyoshi Nishioka each have two errors in the small amount of games that have been played. Alexi Casilla, Carl Pavano, and Denard Span each have an error on their record this year.

During the first inning of the Twins Home Opener, Carl Pavano threw the ball into the outfield on a pick off play at second base. This error allowed the A's to score a run and it almost cost Pavano the game. The Twins managed to squeeze out a couple of late inning runs to get the win but it still could have been a very costly error.

Over the weekend, Casilla took his error very hard as it resulted in the Athletics winning a game. His throwing error allowed the A's to score their only run of the game. Kurt Suzuki came in to score and the Twins wouldn't be able to push across a run through the rest of the contest. A valuable game that hopefully won't cost the Twins any positioning late in the season.

The injury to Nishioka means that the Twins are going to be playing mix-and-match in the middle infield for the next four to six weeks. The Twins have used Luke Hughes and Michael Cuddyer at second base since the injury to their newly acquired Japanese player. Both Hughes and Cuddyer were shaky in their time up the middle. Hughes has seen balls squirt out of his glove and Cuddyer has seen some bad hops. This patchwork infield might only add to the error problems for the Twins.

In recent years the Twins have prided themselves on strong defense and pitching to win multiple division titles. For the Twins to continue their run in the AL Central, they are going to need to cut down on these defensive lapses. Getting a few more hits with runners in scoring position would also help to cover up some of the early season errors, but that is an entirely different story.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Live from Target Field: Mike & Mike

Target Field was ready
A Friday morning alarm clock can sure sound annoying when it goes off at 3:30 AM but that is what it takes to get to Target Field in time for the start of Mike and Mike in the Morning. A friend and I made the trip from my apartment and got to see a behind the scenes look at the nationally televised radio show.

The show was scheduled to start at 5:00 AM so that meant being at Target Field by 4:30 AM. Needless to say there wasn't much traffic to worry about at this early hour. We entered the Legend's Club from the walk-way that connects Ramp A to Target Field.

After waiting a little to get to let into the building we were allowed to follow the Legend Club to the Rod Carew Atrium. When we got there we got a free t-shirt and the chance to sign-up for prizes to be given away during the show. After claiming our seats, the next step was to find some coffee to keep the juices flowing for the entire show.

Mike and Mike were busy prepping for the show and that was one of the coolest things to see. Golic was already eating something and they talked about a few of the main stories that would be covered during the broadcast. The First Round of the Masters and the Red Sox losing streak were the two biggest topics from the perspective of ESPN.

The food went well beyond the expectations of those in attendance. There was a warm buffet filled with a variety of different things to chose from. There were seasoned breakfast potatoes, cheesy scrambled eggs with asparagus tips, maplewood smoked bacon and sausage, fresh fruit, banana bread, pecan coffee cake, muffins, and plenty of other pastry selections. Attendees could eat as much as they liked and no one left the room searching for more food.

For Twins fans the most exciting parts of the show had to be the interviews with Hall-of-Famer's Rod Carew and Bert Blyleven. Both Greeny and Golic sported custom Twins jersey's before they started interviewing Carew. At the beginning of the interview Carew presented each of the hosts with a Twins jacket. Carew gave a great interview and even explained how he developed his unique batting style. Listen to the interview by clicking here.

Bert Blyleven also joined the show to discuss with the hosts his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The best line of the entire interview had to have been when they asked Bert what he thought about the writers and how long it took to get elected. He said, "To hell with the writers." That got a roar from the crowd and the hosts seemed to enjoy it too. Listen to the interview by clicking here.

Overall it was great to get to experience a show like that from and up close and personal perspective. It was fun to get to know some other Twins fans that were crazy enough to get up in the middle of the night to come and watch a radio program. I would have liked more Twins talk but there is some east-coast bias when it comes to the television network that dominates the sporting world.

Below you will find some other pictures from the event. Enjoy!
A behind-the-scenes look
The crowd for the show. I'm in the lower right corner.
Carew being interviewed
Blyleven being interviewed

Friday, April 8, 2011

Minor League Award Picks

Seth Stohs over at SethSpeaks.net has put together a series of posts this week where bloggers have picked out who they think will shine in the Twins Minor Leagues this year. You can check out all of the picks from the other writers over at Seth's site, but here are my picks and a little about each player.

Breakout Hitter (Upper Levels): Chris Parmelee, 1B
Parmelee had a good enough season last year that the Twins placed him on their 40-man roster for the 2011 campaign. He has shown steady improvement in the minor leagues and this could be the year that he breaks out of his shell. The power numbers have been there and he continues to improve in other areas of the game. Big things are in order for Parmelee this season.  
Runner-Up: Rene Tosoni, OF

Breakout Pitcher (Upper Levels): Liam Hendriks, RHP
Hendriks was well on his way to being the break-out pitcher of the lower levels last season with the Twins. He fits the mold of a "Twins Pitcher" by throwing strikes and keeping the ball down in the zone. It is going to be great to see what kind of season he can have without an injury interrupting the middle of his year. 
Runner-Up: Kyle Waldrop, RHP

Breakout Hitter (Lower Levels): Oswald Arcia, OF
One of the Twins rising starts from the Dominican Republic, Arcia had a great season in 2010 and that should transfer to the coming year. He seems to be a pure hitter that can spray pitches to every part of the field. At only 19-years-old, he still has plenty of time to develop a more muscular physique and continue to add power. 
Runner-Up: Niko Goodrum, SS

Breakout Pitcher (Lower Levels): Alex Wimmers, RHP
Many are comparing Wimmers to last year's break-out prospect, Kyle Gibson. Wimmers has the chance to make some big strides this year and it will be interesting to see if he can advance all the way to AAA like Gibson did in 2010. Since he doesn't have an overpowering fastball, keep an eye on his ability to strike out batters as moves through the Twins system.
Runner-Up: Adrian Salcedo, RHP

Minor League Hitter of the Year: Chris Parmelee, 1B
There are so many good players in the Twins minor league system that it is tough to decide on which player will shine above the rest. There are many players in my top prospect list that I feel will have great seasons this year. Parmelee seems to be on the right track with the path he is on in the farm system. He seems poised to make strides this season that will be hard for the organization to ignore. He is ready to make the jump and that advancement will lead him to this award.
Runner-Up: Aaron Hicks, OF

Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Liam Hendriks, RHP
Depending on how the season is going at the major league level, the Twins could be digging deep into their pitching prospect pool at the major league level. This award is a tough call for me between Hendriks and Wimmers. If Wimmers can be successful at three different levels for the Twins, the award could be his for the taking. Hendriks will be pitching against tougher competition for the entire season and his success against those players will be what puts him over the top. 
Runner-Up: Alex Wimmers, RHP

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nathan's heeding the advice of Santana

 

The Twins have always found a way to get creative with their advertising campaigns. A couple of seasons ago the Twins ran the above advertisement that featured current Twins player Joe Nathan and former Twins player Johan Santana. In the video Nathan is getting sick from the way that Santana is driving. Santana is driving the way that he pitched in games for the Twins. He would constantly change speeds to keep the batters on their toes. Nathan was more in favor of always going fast with the speed of his car and the speed of his pitches.

Nathan is at an interesting point in his career where he could find himself taking the advice of Santana, the Twins former ace pitcher. Since Nathan returned from Tommy John surgery there has been a noticeable drop in the velocity of his fastball. Pre-surgery he could hit in the high to mid 90's and now he finds himself at the lower end of the 90 mph range. Below you will find a chart of all of the pitches that Nathan has thrown in his two outings this year.
Nathan vs. Toronto 4-3-11
Save vs. the Blue Jays (4-3-11)
Four-Seam (5): 91, 91, 92, 91, 91
Two-Seam (1): 91
Curveball (19): 81, 87, 88, 87, 86, 87, 87, 88, 82, 88, 87, 82, 82, 86, 86, 82, 83, 87, 81
Slider (5): 90, 90, 90, 91, 90
Nathan vs. New York 4-5-11
Save vs. the Yankees (4-5-11)
Four-Seam (7): 91, 91, 90, 91, 91, 91, 90
Two-Seam (3): 89, 91, 91
Curveball (1): 81
Slider (4): 85, 87, 85, 86
Changeup (2): 91, 89

Against Toronto Nathan stayed away from his fastball and relied heavily on his curveball. On his pitch-chart you can see how he continued to change speeds during his entire first outing. The difference between in MPH between his fastball and curveball was 3-10 MPH. Last night Nathan made quick work of the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth. After throwing 19 curveballs in his first appearance, he only threw one to a Yankee hitter. Nathan was able to use all of his pitches to clinch the win for the Twins.

Take a look at the pitch-charts from Nathan's last two saves of the 2009 season before he went through the Tommy John procedure.
Nathan vs. Kansas City 10-2-09
Nathan vs. Kansas City 10-3-09
The difference between Nathan's fastball and off-speed pitch was as much as 14 MPH before the surgery. There is also a much higher frequency of fastballs that were being used against the hitters. 

To succeed in his post-surgery career, Nathan is going to have to evolve into a pitcher that can use his breaking pitches at any time in the count. Before the surgery, he was able to overpower batters with the strength of his fastball. The difference in speed between his fastball and other pitches has dropped significantly and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues or if Nathan is able to find more velocity in his right arm. 

No matter how pretty or ugly the outing were the only numbers Twins fans care about right now is two for two. Nathan is two for two in save situations this year. A perfect start but still a long way to go as he evolves into a new pitcher...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Beating the Yankees Just Feels Right

It is only one regular season game, but it still felt good for the Twins to get a come from behind win in the Bronx. There were times that this game felt like many of the other losses that the Twins have piled up  at Yankee Stadium. The Twins found a way to pull ahead and get their first one-run win in New York since 2001.

Here are some of the key headlines for the Twins from last night:

Duensing settles in
Duensing Settles In: The beginning of the game looked like it was going to be rough for Duensing. He gave up a three-run homerun to Mark Teixeira and a solo bomb to Andrew Jones. Both of those came in the first two innings and Duensing was able to settle down to pitch through the seventh inning. It had been nine days since Duensing had pitched in a game so the slow start can be attributed to that amount of time between outings. The zeros that Duensing put on the board helped to allow a comeback to occur.

Efficient Capps: In a post I wrote at the beginning of the season, I picked Capps to be the Twins' Relief Pitcher of the Year. Performances like last night show why he can be such a valuable piece of the bullpen for the Twins. Capps had 1-2-3 innings in both the eight and ninth to set the stage for Nathan later in the tenth. The nicest part of the outing might have been how quickly he was able to get outs. It would have been interesting to see if Capps returned to game if the Twins hadn't taken the lead in the tenth.
Nishioka's big hit

Nishioka's Big Hit: As the tenth inning began to unfold it was frustrating to see Nishioka not being able to get the bunt down to advance the runner. But behind in the count, he was able to come up with a clutch hit down the line to keep the inning moving. Let's hope this hit will snowball and Nishioka can continue to have productive at-bats as the season progresses.

Mauer's safe at the plate
Mauer runs and hits: To say that Mauer has been struggling to start the season, would be an understatement. Mauer worked a key walk as the Twins rallied in the eighth inning. He would later score on the bloop hit by Young but it was surprising to see that the Twins sent Mauer on that play. For a big man Mauer was flying around the bases. The other nice thing was to see Mauer step up to the plate in the tenth inning with two runners on and a chance to take the lead. He found the hole right between Teixeira and Cano to give the Twins the lead.
Mauer and Nathan celebrate the win

Nathan 1-2-3 Tenth: Nathan struggled in his first save situation against Toronto by allowing a run and having to get out of a bases loaded jam to preserve the win. It is interesting to see how Nathan has changed himself since his Tommy John surgery. The velocity on his fastball isn't what it use to be so he is using his off-speed pitches more frequently. He was locating his fastball very well last night so hopefully that continues to improve.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Twins Mix-and-Match Lineup

(Click to Enlarge)
The Twins are four games into the 2011 season and they have yet to field the same lineup in back-to-back games. These shifts in the batting order for the Twins can signify a few different things.

First of all the Twins have a few players that are still struggling to find their swings. Yesterday, I wrote about the "Lessons Learned from Opening Weekend." The middle of the lineup has some rust from the games that each of them missed in Spring Training. Mauer, Morneau, Young, and Cuddyer all have struggled at different points to start the year.

Secondly the Twins have a lot of good players that Gardenhire wants to get at-bats, so all of the players are staying fresh. The Twins have ten players that can be considered their regulars: Span, Nishioka, Mauer, Morneau, Young, Kubel, Cuddyer, Valencia, Casilla, and Thome. This means that the Twins are going to have one of these ten players on the bench for any given day.

These pre-season injuries and the struggles thus far have lead to Gardenhire to shake-up his lineup in every game this season. But are these differences in the batting order a good idea or will they lead to players not being able to gain a rhythm at the plate?

In the Opening Game of the Toronto series the Twins had a decent amount of hits but it only lead to three runs. The 3-4-5 hitters (Mauer, Morneau, and Young) also struggled going 2-12 in the first game. The team ended up losing by double digits so more production was definitely needed from those spots in the order.

The second game saw Kubel getting a rest and Thome taking his place. This lineup struggled mightly against the young pitcher, Kyle Drabek, as they only managed one hit and one run. Once again the heart of the order struggled to find their swings going 0-8 in the game.

Mauer was not part of the line-up for the series finale in Toronto and that meant a revamped team on the field. Some of he changes in the field were Morneau moved to DH, Cuddyer played 1B, and Kubel got the start in RF. Once again the middle of the lineup found struggles in the batter's box. Young, Morneau, and Cuddyer went 2-13 in the Twins first win of the year.

Last night's game saw the Twins turn to a very left-handed lineup to face the young right-handed pitcher, Ivan Nova. This meant that Cuddyer was the odd man out. The middle order batters for the Twins compiled three hits for the first time this year but each player had some bad at-bats that could have been difference makers in a close game.

The Twins will face a dominant lefty tonight, so there is a good chance that Gardenhire will pencil in a different look to the Twins batting order for the fifth consecutive game to start the 2011 season.

Will the Twins be able to be successful with these continual changes in the lineup?

What is the best line-up that the Twins can field on a given day?

Leave a comment below to let me know your thoughts.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Lessons Learned from Opening Weekend

 The Twins struggled through a rough Opening Weekend and found themselves losing two out of three games to the Toronto Blue Jays. The Twins did fight their way to a win in the finale of the series to avoid the sweep.

There were a few lessons learned from these rough games played north of the border.

Nishioka's Nerves- The first three games have definitely been an adventure for the Twins newest import from Japan. Nishioka has misplayed some balls on defense and struggled at the plate. After the first game he mentioned that he was battling with his nerves. He was able to pick up his first hit and first RBI in the opening series so that should be a weight off his mind. The nerves of playing at Yankee Stadium for the first time might be next in line for Nishioka.

Middle Infield Communication- Along with Nishioka's nerves, there were some problems with communication in the middle infield. Gardenhire discussed this after the games and a solution needs to be made sooner rather than later on how to handle this problem. The Twins inserted Matt Tolbert into the line-up for Casilla on Sunday but this isn't a long term solution to the infield communication issue. Who is going to make the play on the ball? Who is going to cover the bag? How far should Nishioka go out to receive a cut-off? All of these simple things can be tough to handle when the players don't speak the same language.

Use of the Bullpen- For most of the spring the Twins have taken a deep look at their bullpen situation. Sunday was the first game that the Twins had a lead and were allowed to use their set-up men in their normal roles. Mijares relieved Blackburn in the sixth inning with two outs. Capps was brought in during the seventh to get out of the jam that Mijares had created by walking back-to-back batters. In the surprise of the day, Perkins pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth. It was a surprise for the fact that I don't think many fans saw Perkins as being a bridge between Capps and Nathan. Nathan pitched a rocky ninth but got his first save since returning from Tommy John surgery.

Middle of the Line-Up Rust- Many key players in the Twins line-up missed a large chunk of Spring Training. This might have produced a little rust to open the season. Morneau has been hitting the ball hard but struggled to get a hit in the first series. Mauer took Sunday off but only has one hit in eight at-bats to start the year. Young is also struggling to find his rhythm posting a .083 BA through the first three games.These good hitters are going to get their hits but Twins fans are hoping that they dust off the rust for the Yankees series.

Span's Hot Start- Span seems to be the one player that is ready to go and prove that his 2010 season was just a fluke. His HR in the 9th inning of Sunday's game provided a huge insurance run that turned out to be the difference in the game. He is also batting near .500, which is great to see from a player that the Twins need to be their table-setter.

After the first weekend of the year the Royals are in first place in the AL Central. And for the Twins, there is still a lot of the season left to play...

Ultimate Twins Team Bracket: 1991 vs. 1965

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The Championship Game for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament will be played tonight and that means that it is also time for the Ultimate Twins Team Bracket. It has been an exciting tournament so far and each of the teams that have advanced to this point have World Series experience.

Two different eras in Twins' baseball will square off for the right to call themselves the Twins Team Champion. Each team has some of the greatest players in the history of the franchise. One team has been crowned champion before and the other came within one game of doing the same.

Who will have their one shining moment to end the Ultimate Twins Team Bracket?

1991 Team Batting/Positions (By Games Played)
C Brian Harper (.311 BA, 10 HR, 69 RBI, .783 OPS)
1B Kent Hrbek (.284 BA, 20 HR, 89 RBI, .834 OPS)
2B Chuck Knoblauch (.281 BA, 1 HR, 50 RBI, .701 OPS)
SS Greg Gagne (.265 BA, 8 HR, 42 RBI, .705 OPS)
3B Mike Pagliarulo (.279 BA, 6 HR, 36 RBI, .706 OPS)
LF Dan Gladden (.247 BA, 6 HR, 52 RBI, .662 OPS)
CF Kirby Puckett (.319 BA, 15 HR, 89 RBI, .812 OPS)
RF Shane Mack (.310 BA, 18 HR, 74 RBI, .893 OPS)
DH Chili Davis (.277 BA, 29 HR, 93 RBI, .892 OPS)

1965 Twins Batting/Positions (By Games Played)
C Earl Battey (.297 BA, 6 HR, 60 RBI, .783 OPS)
1B Don Mincher (.251 BA, 22 HR, 65 RBI, .853 OPS)
2B Jerry Kindall (.196 BA, 6 HR, 36 RBI, .563 OPS)
SS Zoilo Versalles (.273 BA, 19 HR, 77 RBI, .781 OPS)
3B Rich Rollins (.249 BA, 5 HR, 32 RBI, .641 OPS)
LF Bob Allison (.233 BA, 23 HR, 78 RBI, .787 OPS)
CF Jimmie Hall (.285 BA, 20 HR, 86 RBI, .810 OPS)
RF Tony Oliva (.321 BA, 16 HR, 98 RBI, .870 OPS)
DH* Harmon Killebrew (.269 BA, 25 HR, 75 RBI, .885 OPS)
*No DH in 1965

Best of 7 Series
Game 1 Match-Up: Jack Morris vs. Mudcat Grant
Each of the Game 1 starting pitchers have been very good in their previous series. Something had to give in Game 1 of the Championship Series. The '91 Twins are tough to beat in the Dome and that trend held true in this opening game. Grant was good but Morris was better. The middle of the line-up (3-4-5 hitters) for the '91 combined for 11 hits to power the club to the victory.
1991 Twins 7
1965 Twins 3 ('91 Twins Lead Series 1-0)

Game 2 Match-Up: Scott Erickson vs. Jim Kaat
This game turned into a battle between the two closers for each team. Tom Kelly turned to Rick Aguilera with only one out in the 8th inning and a two-run lead. Aguilera would give one run back but the '91 team would escape the 8th with a lead still intact. In the top of the 9th Sam Mele would turn the ball over to Al Worthington and he kept the opposition from adding to their slim lead. Aguilera allowed a couple of runners in the 9th but still got the save.
1991 Twins 6 
1965 Twins 5 ('91 Twins Lead Series 2-0)

Game 3 Match-Up: Kevin Tapani vs. Jim Perry
The '91 Twins continued their road woes in the first game of this series in Bloomington, MN. The '65 Twins gave Perry an early lead and never looked back. Killebrew and Allison lead the way with a pair of 2-run HRs. The only positive for the '91 Twins was a 3-run HR by Hrbek in the 6th to cut into the huge lead. The '65 Twins protected their home field to get their first win of the series. 
1965 Twins 10 
1991 Twins 3 ('91 Twins Lead Series 2-1)

Game 4 Match-Up: Jack Morris vs. Camilo Pascual
Different pitching philosophies for the two managers in Game 4 of the series. Kelly continued with the three-man rotation that he had used throughout the tournament. Mele went with a four-man rotation that had served his team well in the postseason. The decision by Kelly turned out to be a mistake because Morris looked uncomfortable on the pitching on the road. The '65 Twins had pulled even in the series.
1965 Twins 7
1991 Twins 2 (Series Tied 2-2)

Game 5 Match-Up: Scott Erickson vs. Mudcat Grant
The '65 Twins have found their stride since the series came to Metropolitan Stadium. Game 5 turned into a blowout very quickly. Killebrew lead the '65 Twins with five RBI in the game. The '91 Twins limped back across town after three rough games in Bloomington. The '65 Twins need to find one road win to crown themselves champions.
1965 Twins 14
1991 Twins 4 ('65 Twins Lead Series 3-2)

Game 6 Match-Up: Kevin Tapani vs. Jim Kaat
Another Game 6 for the Twins and another magical ending at the Metrodome. Most of the game had been back and forth but the '65 Twins had a one-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth. The '91 Twins had some of their best hitters coming to the plate in the ninth. Knoblach lead-off the inning with a nine pitch at-bat that lead to him getting walked. Puckett stepped up to the plate with the game on the line. Stigman started the plate appearance with two balls to Puckett. The next pitch was a fastball that got left over the plate. Puckett pounded the fastball into the left-field seats. "And we'll see you tomorrow night..."
1991 Twins 9
1965 Twins 8 (Series Tied 3-3)

Game 7 Match-Up: Jack Morris vs. Jim Perry
It seems only fitting that the Ultimate Twins Team Bracket Champion would be decided in a seventh game at the Metrodome. The wonder of a tournament of this caliber is the fact that the champion can be any team and anything can happen when the outcome relies on one single game. The game provided as much drama as the night before. Each pitcher threw an outstanding game but this one would be decided long after they both left the mound. The game entered extra-innings with the score tied at six apiece. The '65 Twins would silence the crowd by scoring three runs in the top of the 12th to take the lead. The '91 Twins would come back to tie the score in the bottom of the 12th to keep their hopes alive. By the 15 inning, both teams had used up most of their bullpen. The '65 Twins would get a pinch-hit double from Joe Nossek to take a 2-run lead. The bottom of the 15th inning was full of surprises as Mele turned to Mudcat Grant to get the final three outs of the game. Grant struck out the first batter Scott Leius on three pitches. Gladden came to the plate and skied a ball to the outfield. Oliva lost the ball in the Metrodome roof and this allowed Gladden to end up at second base. Knoblauch grounded to second base for the second out of the inning but on the play Gladden moved to third. This left the tying run only 90-feet away. Puckett returned to the plate with the chance to play the hero again. The '65 Twins would avoid that fate by walking Puckett. It was now first and third with two out in the bottom of the 15th inning. Hrbek stepped to the plate with the game on the line and the roar of the crowd was almost deafening. Grant got ahead in the count on two straight breaking balls to start the at-bat. Hrbek took two close pitches to even the count at two. Grant came inside with a hard pitch that broke the bat of Hrbek. The ball floated into no-man's land in shallow right field. Oliva and Kindall charged after the ball with the game on the line. Oliva called for the ball and at full speed he dove to make the final out. The 1965 Twins were finally champions.
1965 Twins 10 
1991 Twins 9 ('65 Twins Win Series 4-3)
15 Innings

Final Bracket
So here is how the final bracket turned out. How did you do on your picks?