How Did We Get Here? (Part 2)

Earlier, in Part 1 of this essay, we took a trip down Memory Lane back in to last offseason and through spring training and discussed some of the decisions made by Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire as they constructed the roster that the Twins would start the 2010 season with. Now let’s take a look at how those decisions worked out.

In essence, the Twins started the 2010 season with six starting pitchers that they felt pretty good about, a bullpen that was missing its anchor in Joe Nathan, but was otherwise solid, an improved starting line up and a bench with some speed and one very dangerous bat.

When Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy and Nick Punto (3/4 of the Opening Day infield) collectively made seven trips to the Disabled List, Alexi Casilla was there to fill in because the Twins decided not to risk losing him to waivers in order to keep Matt Tolbert or Danny Valencia to begin the season. The decision to start the year with Valencia and Tolbert in Rochester and Casilla with the Twins has resulted in all three of them being available to make significant contributions when the starting infielders went down.

Danny Valencia

By the way, it’s just plain mean to say that Nick Punto’s biggest contribution to the Twins success was getting injured and thereby allowing Danny Valencia to take over full time at 3B. Mean… and not altogether accurate. The truth is that Valencia’s ticket back to Rochester had pretty much been bought and paid for when Justin Morneau bumped his head against Blue Jays’ 2B John McDonald’s knee. It was Morneau’s absence and the resulting move of Michael Cuddyer to 1B that kept Valencia in Minnesota.

Of course, it was also Morneau’s injury that made Smith’s signing of Jim Thome all the more important.

Keep in mind, this is the same Jim Thome that columnist Hal Brody had written the following about during mid-March:

So, Thome, in the twilight of a career that should land him in the Hall of Fame, will be used mostly as a late-inning pinch-hitter. This is Spring Training, when most everyone oozes with optimism, but the dark side is if Thome’s skills diminish during 2010 he might not finish the year with the Twins.

Or it could be a swan song, his final season.

Jim Thome

In the second half of the season, Thome has hit for a .310 average, with a .450 on-base percentage and a .722 slugging percentage. That’s a 1.172 OPS in 44 games (38 of which he has started as the DH). “Swan song” indeed.

So yes, decisions to sign Hudson and Thome and to keep Casilla to start the season have proved to be huge.

But let’s look at the pitching.

Yes, the Twins have been without the services of Joe Nathan. But they have three pitchers who have racked up over 20 saves each this season (though obviously not all for the Twins). Jon Rauch did well filling in at the back end of the bullpen during the first half of the season. When he started to show some signs of faltering, the Twins traded for Matt Capps. Sure, maybe they overpaid for him, but he’s gotten the job done. Then just for good measure (and to have a shut down arm against lefty hitters), Smith went and got Angels closer Brian Fuentes.

Jesse Crain

So the Twins replaced Nathan with three closers… and yet none of them has been their best relief pitcher this year. That would have to be Jesse Crain (the same Jesse Crain who was rumored to be a non-tender candidate in December), who recovered from a shaky start to the season to become virtually unhittable for the past few months. He’s the guy who has come in to get the critical outs against the opposing team’s toughest hitters before the ninth inning rolls around.

Finally, how huge does that decision NOT to convert Francisco Liriano to a closer look right now? The Twins started the season with six starting pitchers they felt they could rely upon. The two who were battling for the final roster spot, Liriano and Brian Duensing, will pitch games 1 and 3 of the ALDS in October, but the other four haven’t been shabby either.

Those six pitchers, Liriano and Duensing along with Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano, have  started all but three games for the Twins this season and nobody outside of that group has started more than one game. All six have been credited with at least 10 wins this season. (By comparison, in 2009, the Twins used 11 starting pitchers, 8 of them started at least 9 games, and only three of them notched 10 or more wins.)

So, how did the Twins get here…with a Division Championship already under their belts with another week and a half of games to play?

I don’t want to minimize the contributions of the other starting pitchers or of guys like Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel who have all obviously played significant roles in the Twins’ success and the ironman versatility of Michael Cuddyer shouldn’t be underappreciated.

But in my mind, the decisions to retain Pavano and Crain, add Thome and Hudson, keep Liriano in a starting pitcher role and give Casilla the final roster spot out of Spring Training made the difference between the 2010 Twins once again being borderline contenders and being a team capable of blowing away the AL Central competition.

It’s been a fantastic ride so far… let’s hope the best is yet to come! – JC

How Did We Get Here? (Part 1)

No, I’m not contemplating the origins of the universe and I’m certainly not about to begin a debate over Creationism, Darwinism, or any other “ism” that much deeper thinkers than myself have put forth to explain mankind’s existence.

I just thought now might be a good time to take a look at just how our Twins went about becoming the first team in Major League Baseball to clinch their Division’s championship banner. It feels like this season has just flown by.

It seems like just yesterday that I was earning a March sunburn as I followed the Twins around Florida for a week during Spring Training. At the same time, it also feels like ages since we’ve been able to enjoy the sight of Justin Morneau in the batters box. Still, here we are… 152 games in to a 162-game schedule and the Twins are the AL Central Champions!

When your team has put together a second half like the Twins have, it’s easy to overlook just how difficult winning the AL Central really was. So today, before we get back in to discussions about playoff rotations and whether the Twins should carry 3 utility infielders or 3 catchers on their ALDS roster, let’s pause to glance back at what the Twins have accomplished this season… and how they did it.

In the first part of this post, let’s look at what went on before the 2010 season even got started.

Bill Smith

Let’s start by giving credit to General Manager Bill Smith. While other GMs made the big offseason splashes, Smith quietly laid the groundwork for this season. Shortly after the end of the 2009 season, Smith struck a deal with Milwaukee for shortstop JJ Hardy, in return for Carlos Gomez. The trade was widely viewed as two teams exchanging spare parts, each hoping the player they were getting might bounce back from an off year and fill a need for their new team.

There was speculation that the Twins might not offer arbitration to Carl Pavano, allowing him to become a free agent without the Twins receiving any draft picks as compensation. But Smith offered arbitration to Pavano and the offer was accepted. Still, Smith and the Twins were being loudly criticized by the end of the Winter Meetings in December when none of the Twins’ perceived needs had been addressed.

There was also speculation that the Twins might not have enough money to keep their bullpen depth together. Jesse Crain was considered a possible non-tender candidate. But Smith offered arbitration to all eight of the Twins arbitration-eligible players and signed all of them to deals… including Crain (whew!).

Orlando Hudson

As January came to a close, the Twins finally created a little buzz when it was revealed that the they had interest in Jim Thome, primarily as a late inning pinch hitter and occasional DH. On February 4, the Twins signed Thome to a one-year $1.5 million base contract that would, at best, be considered adequate for a part-time role player. The buzz got a bit louder the next day when the Twins announced they had signed 2B Orlando Hudson to a one-year deal.

With most of the roster set, Smith and the Twins headed to Spring Training with really only one more major issue to spend some time working out… a little matter about a contract extension for their catcher. But only the most pessimistic of Twins fans and media doubted that eventually a deal would get done… and it did.

Joe Nathan

The Twins entered March widely considered the favorites to win the AL Central again in 2010. That consensus lasted just long enough for Joe Nathan to take the mound in his first Spring Training game. On March 6, Nathan was pulled from the game “for precautionary reasons” due to “tightness and achiness” in his right elbow. After giving the injury a couple of weeks to magically repair itself, the Twins announced Nathan would miss the 2010 season and undergo Tommy John surgery. Immediately, the national media experts declared the Twins dead meat without their All Star closer and declared that the White Sox and Tigers would battle for the AL Central crown.

While Smith sniffed around the Padres camp for a possible trade for their closer Heath Bell, Gardy declared that the Twins would have a, “closer by committee… I think… no wait… I mean Jon Rauch will be our closer… for a while.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

There were a few final roster spots and pitching roles up for grabs as the Twins prepared to break camp and a couple of them would turn out to be critical to the team’s ultimate success.

Alexi Casilla

The last position-player spot was given to Alexi Casilla, over Matt Tolbert, largely because Casilla was out of minor league options and Tolbert wasn’t. Danny Valencia was given a long look in Ft. Myers but in the end it was felt he needed more time in AAA to work on his defense.

Francisco Liriano

As difficult as it may be to imagine now, Francisco Liriano ended Spring Training in a battle for the fifth spot in the Twins rotation. A fair number of people felt he couldn’t be relied upon to pitch deep in to games, but might make a good closer. Brian Duensing ultimately lost out to Liriano for that final rotation spot but made the team as the long relief arm in the bullpen.

I don’t know who made those final roster decisions… Ron Gardenhire, Bill Smith or some combination of the two… but those decisions would prove crucial to the Twins’ ultimate success. We’ll take a look at just how that happened in Part 2. – JC