Twins Head to the Windy City

I spent the past weekend visiting friends in Chicago.  The drive to and from Chicago gave me an opportunity to indulge in one of my favorite guilty pleasures: Chicago Sports Talk Radio.  Neither the Cubs or the White Sox are performing well in 2012, an the hot heads calling into their favorite local radio station had plenty of extra fodder as the White Sox were on the north side for the first three game set of the Crosstown Classic.  One caller after the next called in to complain, what Alfonso Soriano is doing wrong, how Robin Ventura is mismanaging Chris Sale, and on and on,  about one wrong after another heaped down upon the ever faithful fans of Chicago baseball.  That lasted for two hours before the game, and after a brief interruption for a baseball game and a hat tip to Kerry Wood, the fans were back at it for another hour, blasting the Cubs in a loss, and the White Sox even in a win.  I suppose it could have went on longer, but the show had to end eventually.  If you know anything about sports talk radio in Chicago, you know that the next show picked up right where the last one left off, fans battling for a spot on the air to let listeners know what they would do if they were running the team.

The Twins are off today, but are already in Chicago, enjoying a day away from baseball before a three game series begins Tuesday night.  The Twins are scheduled to pitch P.J. Walters, Scott Diamond, and whoever is called up to replace Jason Marquis (assuming his shoulder inflammation is now behind him).  Never mind that when the Twins head back home to face Detroit on Thursdy that they’ll have to figure out how to deal with Jason Marquis‘ lack of performance (UPDATE: Designated for Assignment) and a hole in the rotation left from Nick Blackburn‘s current DL stint. Leave the starting pitching alone, it has been terrible, and without Diamond and Walters, it has been even worse than that.  Let’s look instead at the bullpen.  Below are 8 Chicago-Style thoughts on the current Minnesota Twins bullpen staff:

  1. Alex Burnett – At age 24 Alex Burnett still has plenty of upside, and thought his first 18 appearances of 2012 seems to be finally finding his stride, posting a 2.66 ERA, and a WHIP of just 1.3, both career marks.  But the reality is that while Burnett has cut down his walk rate to a career low, his strike out rate is almost HALF of what it was in 2010 (7.0 SO/9) at 3.8, and more than two strike outs per nine innings down from what it was even a year ago at 5.9.  Fangraphs FIP is a decent predictor of the pitcher Burnett actually is at 4.36, which is slightly lower than his career average.  Burnett is due for a regression, and despite his early success the Twins have remained hesitant to put him into high leverage situations (should the Twins actually have any).
  2. Jared Burton – Jared Burton seems like a guy who should be successful.  His BB/9 rate is 1.1 and his SO/9 rate is 9.2, his WHIP is a minuscule .702, and yet he’s sporting a 4.60 ERA, thanks in large part to 3 HRs in just 15.2 IP.  Burton is due for some regression to his career numbers as well, and he might even be a better pitcher than he is now, but if he continues to serve up the long ball he will not have a roster spot for long.
  3. Matt Capps – On Saturday I was listening to the Milwaukee Brewers radio broadcast and they announced that Capps had yet to blow a save.  I didn’t believe them at the time, but after the game was over, and Capps had picked up another save, I had the chance to look up his stats, and sure enough, despite having an 0-2 W/L record, Capps is a perfect 9/9 in save opportunities.  It turns out Capps has not really been that bad, sure giving up 1 run in the top of the 9th in tie games to the Red Sox and the Indians stick out in the minds of fans, but since starting the season with a couple poor performances, Capps has been pretty solid for the Twins, cutting his ERA down from 6.00 to 3.38 while quietly racking up saves in 9 of the Twins’ 14 victories.  But here’s the rub, Capps biggest strength in 2012 has been his ability to limit walks, giving up just 1 free pass so far this season.  That number is sure to go up, and when it does, Capps will be the same heart-attack inducing 9th inning guy that my brother so astutely refers to as “Cardiac Capps”.  Not exactly ideal for a closer, but the Twins do not have a ton of options.
  4. Brian Duensing – Duensing, along with Capps and Burnett is one of the few Twins relievers enjoying a successful start to the 2012 campaign.  Duesnsing owns an 0-2 record as a reliever this season, but he’s given up just 4 runs in 21 IP.  Duensing could be next in line for an opportunity in the starting rotation, depending on the team’s plans for Marquis and Swarzak, but Duensing has been most successful out of the bullpen over the course of his career, and the Twins need more than their share of bullpen arms capable of pitching 2+ innings to help bail out the starting rotation.  Duensing is really excelling at limiting base hits, giving up just 5.6 hits per 9 innings, the lowest rate of his career.  Fangraphs’ FIP back’s up Duensing’s performance at 2.59, so he should remain effective going forward, it will just be up to the Twins and Ron Gardenhire to figure out how to get one of their best relievers into games when it matters.
  5. Jeff Gray – Jeff Grey has 3 victories in 2012, two of them coming from just 3 pitches, and he has yet to be charged with a loss, but he certainly has not been a solid performer for the Twins.  His 4.50 ERA is the highest of the Twins’ most use relievers (Capps, Perkins, Gray, Duensing, Burnett) and his WHIP, Hits/9, and BB/9 are all the worst on the team among ANY relief pitcher.  Gray has 18 appearances already in 2012, and Gardenhire continues to send him out to the mound almost every other day!  Part of that has been the failure of the starting pitching staff which routinely forces the bullpen into extended action, but to give Gray the 3rd most appearances on the team is just plain ridiculous!  Jeff Gray should not have a spot on this team for much longer.
  6. Francisco Liriano in just 3.2 innings as a reliever Liriano has yet to give up a run, but he has as many strike outs as walks (4), and has been used just three times since being demoted, about every 3rd day.  He’s going to have to pitch a lot better, and limit his walks if he is going to become a valuable member of the Twins’ bullpen, and he’ll have to learn to adjust to hitters and his own nerves is he is going to end up back in the starting rotation.  At this point the Twins need to find a way to boost his value and flip him for anything they can get before the trade deadline.  Liriano is a lost cause in Minnesota and the sooner he realizes that and starts showing value to other teams, the better.
  7. Glen Perkins – Perkins signed a contact extension in Spring Training that makes him a Twin through at least the 2015 season, with a 4.5 million dollar team option for 2016.  While Perkins has continued to strike more than one hitter out per inning, his walk rate is crept up to its highest level since 2007, and his ERA is almost 2 runs higher than it was a year ago when Perkins was the most dominant reliever on the team.  This year Duensing, Capps, and Burnett all have lower ERAs than Perkins.  Despite his elevated ERA, Perkins should regress towards his career numbers, and with a FIP almost a full point lower than his current ERA Perkins can be the dominant reliever the Twins saw in the first half of 2011.
  8. Anthony Swarzak – Swarzak has started 3 games and made 9 relief appearances already this season.  His ERA currently sits at 4.73, and could be much worse if it wasn’t for an uncharacteristically low BABIP of just .253 (almost 40 points below his career average, and 30 points below the MLB average for 2012).  Swarzak does a great job handling mop-up duty when the Twins starters are blown out of a game, and that’s a fine roll for him as long as they don’t start trying to plug him in for more than the occasional spot start, because Swarzak has shown, in 2009 and 2011 (and most of his Minor League career), that he just is not cut out to be much more than the mop up guy he is now.

And those are the guys the Twins have AFTER the starting staff has made a mess of the game.

-ERolfPleiss

GameChat – Twins @ Mariners #2, 8:10pm

One Day without Ron Gardenhire, one win.  Do with that what you will.

Per La Velle E. Neal, Justin Morneau, who is still struggling with wrist, soreness has finally landed on the Disabled List.  When Morneau left the game last Monday against the Angels it seemed like a trip to the DL was inevitable. Now, after playing almost an entire week with 13 pitchers and almost no bench players, the Twins finally make the call.  The Twins probably still get no-hit last Wednesday even if someone was called up, but you never know.

Even Without Gardenhire, Scott Ullger continues the Twins tradition of putting a new player into the lineup, giving Erik Komatsu the start in right field.  Hard to blame Ullger for taking a look at Komatsu as it pushes Ryan Doumit back behind the plate and relegates Drew Butera to the bench.

Here are the lineups:

 Minnesota Twins

@

Seattle Mariners
 Span, CF  Ackley, 2B
 Carroll, SS  Ryan, SS
 Mauer, DH  Suzuki, I, RF
 Willingham, LF  Montero, C
 Doumit, C  Seager, 3B
 Parmelee, 1B  Jaso, DH
 Valencia, 3B  Smoak, 1B
 Komatsu, RF  Carp, LF
 Casilla, A, 2B  Saunders, M, CF
  _Marquis, P   _Hernandez, F, P

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

R

H

E

 Minnesota

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

 Seattle

0

0

0

0

0

2

5

0

X

7

7

0

 

Jason Marquis pitched six innings giving up just 2 earned runs, scattering 6 walks and recording only one strike out.  In the 7th Anthony Swarzak, Matt Maloney, and Jeff Gray combined to give up 5 earned runs and the game was suddenly out of hand.

Regardless of what the pitching staff did, the real story of the night was Felix Hernandez.  He pitched 8 strong innings, struck out 9 Twins and gave up just a single Twins hit. The Twins were held scoreless again tonight and were just one Denard Span single away from being no-hit a 2nd time in a week.

Big changes to the Twins lineup are in the pipeline as Brian Dozier and Scott Diamond should be with the Twins on Monday.  Morneau will officially be moved to the DL and Liam Hendriks will most likely be option to Rochester to make room.

Twins have a chance to win the series tomorrow afternoon at 3pm, but it will take more than just one hit.

-ERolfPleiss

Two Weeks In: Who Is This Team?

I swear if there’s one thing I’ve grown more tired of than people using small sample sizes to “prove” how good or bad a player is, at this still-early point in the season, it’s people who do so while even admitting that they’re using small sample sizes. Let’s be brutally honest here, statheads, stats over a single two week period, even if it’s the first two weeks of the season, are almost completely worthless.

That’s one reason that, despite the disadvantage I have of living in blacked out Iowa, I’ve made considerable efforts to hang out in the local Cedar Rapids sports bars as often as possible this month. This allows me to actually watch the Twins, rather than just look at the box scores, to judge who’s doing well and who isn’t. Naturally, it also gives me the opportunity to purchase overpriced beer and fried food, but that’s just a sacrifice I’m willing to make for my team and our readers.

One thing about having a blog like this is that you eventually feel compelled to write something, even if almost everything you have to say has most likely been expressed elsewhere. With that said, here’s what I think about what I’ve seen of the 2012 Minnesota Twins:

I don’t know what to think.

Are they the team that might just as well have been using toothpicks for bats in their opening series sweep at the hands of the mighty Baltimore Orioles? (That’s the American League East Division LEADING Baltimore Orioles to you, Mack!) Or are they the team that took two of three games from Albert Pujols’ Angels? Or the one that got swept by Joe Nathan’s new buddies from Texas? Or the guys that have taken two out of the first three games from the Evil Empire in Yankee Stadium, no less?

It’s probably just stating the obvious, but since that’s one of the things I do best, here’s a rundown of a few things we probably have found out about this season’s edition of the Twins:

Spring Training numbers mean zip, zilch, nada, not a friggin’ thing.

  • Remember all those good vibrations we were getting in March from Francisco Liriano? Three starts in to the season and he’s the same head case he was last year. Maybe he’ll turn things around yet, but man has he looked bad after being pretty much unhittable in Ft. Myers.

    Luke Hughes, we hardly knew ye

  • For the second season in a row, Luke Hughes put up very impressive numbers in Spring Training. The same Luke Hughes who’s now been Designated for Assignment because the team needed his roster spot for Jason Marquis on Wednesday and Hughes is out of options. I suppose he COULD pass through waivers, but expectations are that some team will claim him and he’ll get a chance to join another organization’s Big League roster. Best of luck to Luke (unless he ends up with the F’ing Yankees or White Sox, of course).
  • There was a lot of hand-wringing in Spring Training over Justin Morneau with many people pretty much writing off his career. He’s attacking the ball at the plate with an intensity we haven’t seen since before his head came in to contact with a Blue Jay knee at second base almost two years ago. Three home runs in the two games he’s played at Yankee Stadium so far this week isn’t too shabby.

Josh Willingham can hit baseballs really, really well. Yes, defensively, balls hit in his direction can turn in to an adventure, but this is a fan base that’s been watching Delmon Young in LF for a couple of years… we can deal with Willingham. Especially if he keeps hitting the ball consistently. You can’t get much more consistent than starting the season with a 12 game hitting streak.

Reports of the demise of Joe Mauer and Denard Span were a tad premature. Both are still really good at baseball. Mauer still hits in to too many 4-6-3 double plays, but as is the case with Morneau, we’re seeing a version of Mauer we haven’t seen on the field in far too long. Span looks poised to reclaim his spot atop the rankings of AL lead-off center fielders.

Jamey Carroll is pretty much exactly what we thought he was… a solid shortstop that will field the balls hit near him and make good throws to first base. If the position hadn’t been such a disaster last year, that might not be big news, but I enjoy not having to hold my breath every time a ground ball gets hit that direction.

Alexi Casilla is really bad… or really good… face it, none of us have figured that out for sure ever since the Twins got him in return for JC Romero. We still don’t know, but I like the Lexi that’s been playing in Yankee Stadium this week.

The bullpen hasn’t sucked. Again, faint praise, perhaps. But given the angst most of us felt about the situation and the fact that a couple of guys that were counted on to fortify the pen have either been injured or pushed to the rotation, things could be much worse out there. I’m a bit nervous about Glen Perkins, though.

So with all of this stuff going well, why the hell have the Twins lost twice as many games as they’ve won?

The answer, of course, is a familiar one. This team has a rotation that simply is not very good and the pitchers are being backed up by a defense that’s not much better. I don’t need two weeks worth of statistics to tell me that’s a dangerous combination.

Liam Hendriks and Anthony Swarzak have looked marginally promising. Carl Pavano looks to be what we all know he is… a marginal, but gutsy, innings-eater. Maybe Jason Marquis will be something similar. Nick Blackburn hasn’t been awful, but his ceiling isn’t terribly high, not to mention this “mystery shoulder tightness” thing he came down with this week.

The bottom line is that we still really don’t know what to expect from this team after two weeks. The rest of April will continue to be a challenge, due to the brutal scheduling this month and the iffy pitching situation, but there’s nothing like a couple of wins against the F’ing Yankees at their place to raise spirits a bit. Win another game to claim the series tonight and I may not be able to contain my giddiness!

– JC

Yankee Doodle Dandy

After some early season snafus relating to the Twins’ previous post-season failures against the Yankees, the Twins have an opportunity to put some of those demons to bed, starting tonight, as the open a 4-game series in New York tonight at 6:05pm central.

Image from M.T.'s Blog, http://matt7.mlblogs.com/

While some former Twins (Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, etc.) may have indicated that they Twins were mentally beat against the Yankees before their previous post-season collapses, there is a wealth of historical precedence that helped create those mental barriers.  In the past 10 years the Twins are 18-51 against the Yankees, and that does not include the three times the Yankees eliminated the Twins from post-season play.  Add those in and the Twins are an even more embarrassing 20-63 against the Bronx Bombers. A W-L% of  about .241.  To put that in perspective, over a 162 game season, playing ONLY the Yankees, the Twins would win 39 games.

In those 83 games against the Yankees, 42 were in New York, and the Twins won only 7 times, which does not bode well for the Twins as they roll in to Yankee Stadium this evening.

But here is why I think the Twins have a chance to split* this four game series, which would be a resounding victory, historically:

*Let’s just assume that C.C. Sabathia is his regular self, and Francisco Liriano is the disappointing fallen star that we’ve come to know, so the Twins are not going to win tomorrow night.  And while only two Twins have faced Hiroki Kuroda (Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham), both have been unsuccessful and the Yankees have blasted Jason Marquis to the tun of .361/.395/.778 for an OPS of almost 1200! In the other two games, the Twins will face Freddy Garcia, and Phil Hughes.  Both are beatable and if the Twins can pitch well enough to keep the Yankees to 5 runs per game, they will have a chance to steal a couple of wins from the Yanks.

Hitting:

In addition to hitting 4 home runs and 6 doubles against Garcia in 71 plate appearances, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer have combined to walk 10 times compared to just 5 strikeouts.  Of the 114 total plate appearances by current Twins, only Danny Valencia (1/4) has an OBP against Garcia that’s lower than .285.  The Twins have not fared quite as well against Phil Hughes, but still post an OBP of .317, albeit in a sample size limited to just 38 at bats.  Either way, the Twins have an opportunity to get out front of the Yankees early and to allow their starters to work deeper into games, limiting the opportunities for the bullpen to let another close game slip away.

Pitching/Defense:

In addition to hitting well against the Yankees, Carl Pavano (tonight’s starter) and Anthony Swarzak (projected to take Nick Blackburn‘s start on Thursday) have managed to keep the Yankees in check.  Pavano has limited current Yankees to a triple slash of just .229/.252/.359 with just 9/30 hits against him going for extra bases.  Swarzak has faced current Yankees hitters just 39 times, but he has yet to give up a home run to any of the current Yankees, which has been one of their biggest weapons against the Minnesota Twins.  Decent starting pitching will be complemented with a defense that is likely to be near league average with Justin Morneau slotted into first base and either Trevor Plouffe or Clete Thomas taking an outfield spot away from Ryan Doumit.

Winning two games against the Yankees and splitting the series will not get this team any closer to contending for the AL Central, but it will help plant the seed in the minds of this current group of Twins that they can beat the Yankees, something the Twins haven’t really done for a decade.

It starts tonight!

ERolfPleiss

What, Me Worry?

(This image is almost certainly the property of whomever owns the rights to MAD Magazine these days.)

Yes, I’m feeling a bit Alfred E. Neuman-ish today.

Yes, the Twins are 0-4, a trait they share with the Atlanta Braves. Yes, they’ve hit at a pathetic .165 clip and struggled to score a run or two, at most, each game. Yes, three of their four starting pitchers currently sport ERAs of 5.14, 7.50 and 11.25 after their first time through the rotation. 

But is all of that really enough to make everyone bail on the entire season?

Given that so many fans had pretty much written this season off before it started, I guess it’s not surprising that the answer to that question for just as many people is, “yes.” It just seems a tad premature, to me, after just four games, especially when everyone knew (or should have known) that April was going to be a brutal month.

No, the Orioles are not among the American League’s elite teams, but the Twins have struggled with them recently, especially on the road. And, yes, this team is likely to remain at or near the bottom of their Division through the rest of the month, given the nature of the upcoming schedule (the next 15 games are against what are probably five of the six best teams in the AL).  

But let’s keep a little perspective here. Despite the losses, there are a handful of things that haven’t gone too badly so far:

  • Josh Willingham will never be mistaken for a gold glove outfielder, but he’s done what he was brought in to do… hit the baseball hard. He’s hit .385 and has an OPS of 1.390 with a home run in Baltimore and, just to prove it can be done, another home run in Target Field Monday. (Hey, if others can use a small sample size to “prove” the team sucks, I can use it, too.)
  • Justin Morneau is hitting the ball hard. Do I wish he was playing 1B while hitting the ball hard? Of course. But given my limited expectations a month ago, I like what I see.
  • Most of the bullpen arms are looking OK. Matt Capps hasn’t blown a save (then again, there hasn’t been a save situation, yet) and he, along with Brian Duensing, Glen Perkins, Jeff Gray and Alex Burnett, have managed to hold opponents scoreless in their limited work.
  • Speaking of limited bullpen work, only Francisco Liriano failed to go at least five innings in his first start and the WHIPs (walks + hits per inning pitched) for the other three starters were very reasonable (1.20 for Anthony Swarzak, 1.17 for Nick Blackburn and 1.00 for Carl Pavano).

The bottom line, for me anyway, is that I believe this team will score some runs. My greatest fear entering the season was that the pitching staff would implode. In fact, that’s still my greatest fear. But the arms are off to a reasonably decent start, with a couple of exceptions (that would be you, Mr. Burton and Mr. Maloney, along with Mr. Liriano), so when the bats start to come around, maybe things won’t look so bad.

Even in the middle infield, where Jamey Carroll and Alexi Casilla have managed a total of one hit between them, at least they are making most of the plays they need to defensively, which is more than we could say a year ago. And if their bats don’t come around soon, Brian Dozier is already raking down in Rochester and he’s only a phone call away.

I really don’t expect a lot of wins over the next couple of weeks and I’m sure that will only intensify the grumbling among the fan base. But I’m anxious to see whether some of the young players like Swarzak, Liam Hendriks, Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee and, eventually, Dozier, can do when they get past the, “Oh my God, I’m in the Big Leagues!” phase of their seasons.

I’m still interested in this team and I hope most of the rest of you are, too. But if you really just can’t imagine the start to a season being any worse, keep in mind that things could be much worse.

Ask Ozzie Guillen.

– JC

Another Saturday In The Park(s)

Busy day in Fort Myers on Saturday. This is supposed to be a vacation, for crying out loud!

This is a subject for another day, but there’s been a lot of tweeting lately between traditional media types that cover the Twins and various bloggers, myself included. Some of it has been interesting, some of it somewhat disappointing, but the crux of the discussion revolves around the value of “access” that the reporters have. Today was a perfect example of a situation where a blogger (that would be me) benefited from the access that a beat reporter (in this case, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Strib) has to sources within the Twins organization.

Neal tweeted late Friday that Scott Baker would be pitching in a minor league game on Saturday morning over at the Red Sox home, JetBlue Park. Thanks to that alert, I headed out for JetBlue instead of Hammond Stadium this morning. It seemed like a good opportunity to (a) get a glimpse at the Red Sox’ new digs on the east side of Fort Myers, and (b) see what kind of arm Baker has at this point.

I saw all that and then some.

It turned out that Baker wasn’t the only Big Leaguer scheduled to play in that game. Jon Lester took to the mound for the Red Sox AAA team, while David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Jarrod Saltalamacchia (yes, I had to look up the spelling) and former Twin Nick Punto all opted to stick around and face Baker rather than make the bus trip up to Port Charlotte to face the Rays in Boston’s scheduled Big League game.

Baker gave up one run on a solo HR to Sox prospect Will Middlebrooks, but otherwise got through four innings of work relatively unscathed.  Lester definitely was throwing harder than Baker was and the Twins announced later in the day that Baker would open the season on the 15-day Disabled List, retroactive to his last Big League game on March 27.

The regularly scheduled game in the afternoon against the Pirates saw another offensive blowout by the Twins who have been scoring runs in bunches lately. Anthony Swarzak gave the Twins six solid innings on the mound and Denard Span racked up four hits for the Twins as they bludgeoned the Pirates, 15-3. Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Danny Valencia and Trevor Plouffe (who played 2B… so much for him being strictly an outfielder, huh?) all doubled. Ryan Doumit and Brian Dozier homered for the Twins. (I have to confess, I missed the Doumit HR… I was standing in line for a beer with fellow Twins blogger Topper Anton of Curve for a Strike when Doumit connected in the 3rd inning.)

But you can read all the reports of the game provided by the reporters who get paid the big bucks to provide that information. What we offer here at Knuckleballs is photographic enhancement of the Spring Training experience. With that in mind, feast your eyes on the following:

Scott Baker looked sharp, but didn't seem to be throwing at full velocity

Jon Lester had Twins AAA hitters swinging late for four innings

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky chat during the AAA game

Papi did no damage to Baker. He even tried (unsuccessfully) to bunt on his final plate appearance.

Anthony Swarzak gave up 1 run on 6 hits with no walks and 6 Ks in six full innings of work for the Twins

Denard Span totalled four hits, including a double, in Saturday's win

Sean Burroughs appears close to making the Opening Day roster for the Twins

Finally, I leave you with this…

And they say Chuck Knoblauch has gone in to seclusion and won’t make appearances at Twins games…

Sunday, I’m hoping to hang out on the minor league fields in the morning before heading down Daniels Parkway to JetBlue Park for the Twins and Red Sox game in the afternoon. Things are starting to wind up here in Fort Myers… it’s time to start getting excited for Opening Day!

– JC

Looking for Breakout Seasons

By this point, everyone knows the variables that will determine whether the Twins will have a successful 2012 season, right? Mauer, Morneau, Baker and Span have to stay healthy and the bullpen needs to be vastly improved over last year. We know all of that because every beat writer, columnist and blogger has pointed at those issues over and over again since October.

Sure, if the established veterans all return to the level of productivity we’ve come to expect from them, the Twins should avoid the kind of meltdown they suffered through last season. That said, if the team is going to actually contend in 2012, they’re going to need more. They will need breakout seasons from players that have not yet demonstrated that they belong among the American League’s elite names at their positions.

But where can the Twins expect to find those potential breakout seasons?

The typical arc of a professional baseball player’s career is actually more predictable than one might think. Their prime years are pretty much from ages 26 to 32. We all spent a lot of time discussing the back end of that range during the offseason, as we discussed the pros and cons of offering multi-year contracts to Michael Cuddyer, who is just past that “prime” range, and Joe Nathan, who is well past it.

But when you are looking for potential breakout years, it makes more sense to focus on the front end of the range. The Twins are notorious for bringing their minor league prospects along slowly through the organization and, for a club with a reputation for disregarding advanced statistical analysis, it appears that they may have a basis for this particular proclivity. Projecting that most players hit their strides at age 26, I doubt that it’s a coincidence that most Twins prospects aren’t often starting their Major League careers (and their arbitration clocks) until they’re at least 24 years old. The Twins apparently try to time a player’s Big League debut a year or two before they expect him to break out and become a fully productive Major League ballplayer, then get as much of their peak years as possible while they’re still affordable.

Glen Perkins

For example, Cuddyer was getting his first real full-time duty with the Twins at age 25 and had his first OPS above .800 (or first OPS+ season over 100, if you prefer that metric) in his age 27 season. Torii Hunter got a taste of the Big Leagues in the season during which he turned 24, but he really figured it out in 2001, the season he turned 26. More recently, Glen Perkins may have made his debut at age 24, but it wasn’t until last year, in his age 28 season, that he carved out a meaningful role for himself with the Twins.

Armed with this knowledge, who should we be looking at in 2012 as having the potential to have breakout seasons? Here’s a list of possible candidates:

Trevor Plouffe turns 26 years old in June. He’s shown some pop in his bat and, let’s be honest, if he had demonstrated passable defensive abilities, he’d be the Twins regular shortstop right now. If he can play a decent outfield, Plouffe could establish himself this season. But few players really get it all figured out in their first full year of regular time in the Show, so we should probably hold off on establishing those expectations of Trevor quite yet. Maybe next year.

The same would be true of pitchers Anthony Swarzak and Kyle Waldrop. Both will be 26 years old pretty much throughout the upcoming season, but given their relative lack of Major League experience, it’s probably not realistic to expect them to have Glen Perkins-like results already this season.

Luke Hughes

Infielder Luke Hughes is starting his age 27 season and he got a few swings in at the Big League level last year, so we can hope to see him step his game up a little bit. He’s not currently penciled in for a regular starting job, though, so you have to wonder if he’ll get the plate appearances necessary to make significant strides in 2012.

So if those candidates aren’t likely to break out, who will?

First, keep in mind that Denard Span just turned 28 years old a couple of weeks ago, so while he’s arguably already had his breakout season, he’s still on the front side of his peak years. He’s reached the point of being physically mature and has enough experience that he really should no longer be seeing much of anything offensively or defensively for the first time. That being the case, I’d like to see Span take a big step forward with his game this season, assuming he can stay healthy.

Another familiar name on my list of potential breakout seasons is Francisco Liriano. We’ve been waiting for him to have a true breakout season for what seems like forever. Despite having several seasons of Major League experience in the books, Liriano is still just now entering his age 28 season. That’s slightly past our “breakout season” ages, but it’s not too late to see it happen… yet. That said, this is arguably the last year that anyone can make the, “he’s still a young pitcher with potential,” statement, so it’s now or never (at least with the Twins organization) for Frankie.

If it seems like Alexi Casilla has been around forever, too, it’s because he has. He was rushed a bit after being acquired from the Angels for J.C. Romero and his service clock started while he was still just 23 years old. That means he’s just now entering his age 27 season (he turns 28 in July). Casilla has been inconsistent, to say the least. But this season, he’s starting off at what’s arguably his best defensive position, second base, and so far this spring he’s making good contact from his spot at the bottom of the Twins order. The game should finally be slowing down a bit for Lexi and if he can play decent defense while getting on base with regularity, he could play a significant positive role for the Twins in 2012.

Danny Valencia

Finally, the guy with perhaps the greatest potential for having a true breakout season is third baseman Danny Valencia, who will be 27 years old throughout the first five months of the season. Valencia’s had two full years now to adjust to Big League pitching and there’s no reason he shouldn’t take a major step forward in 2012. Everyone seems to project Valencia as hitting in the #7 spot in the Twins lineup and he very well may start the season there, but if he’s still hitting in the bottom third of the order in August, I’ll be disappointed.

So those are my “breakout season” picks… Liriano, Casilla and Valencia (with some additional improvement also from Span). Talk all you want about Mauer, Morneau, Baker and the bullpen, but in my mind, the Twins’ success, or lack thereof, this season is riding just as much on the ability of these players to make significant strides as any other factor. They are hitting their prime years and it’s time for them to show fans what they’re made of.

– JC

If The Price Is Right

If it’s the All-Star Break, then it must be time for fans to start talking about trades. We are, after all, just past the mid-point of the season and the non-waiver trade deadline is less than three weeks away.

At this point there are three kinds of teams… obvious buyers, obvious sellers and everyone else. The Twins are in that “everyone else” category because they haven’t established themselves as an obvious contender nor have they fallen so far back in the standings that they have virtually no chance of becoming contenders.

So, that means everyone is (or soon will be) posing the question, “Should the Twins Buy or Sell?” To me, the answer is… “Yes, if the price is right.”

What’s that you say, it wasn’t a “yes or no” question? Too bad.

Bill Smith

July trades generally are made between two parties, one a contender and one… well… not. The contender (or “buyer”) has a spot or two to fill to help push them to the top of the standings and/or prepare them to be a stronger playoff team. Their GM has to be willing to do one of two things… or both… (a) give up highly rated prospects or young (read: cheap) MLB-ready players; and/or (b) take on significant salary owed to an established (and often overcompensated) veteran player.

The other party to these trades (the “seller”) has some highly paid veteran players that are either having good seasons or have put up good numbers recently enough that a contending team might be willing to bet they could help put their team over the top this season and that team is looking to restock with young players that will help next season… and for several years to come. They also are likely looking to shed some salary because they recognize attendance is going to be dropping the rest of the season.

I think the Twins, thanks to the very weird season they’ve endured, find themselves in a unique position… they’ve pressed a lot of young players in to Major League action and many of them have performed well enough to demonstrate that they fit the “MLB-ready” criteria that “sellers” are wanting in return for established players. They also find themselves with an abundance of veteran outfielders and pitchers… many of whom will be free agents at the end of this season… that could be attractive to contending “buyers”. Finally, they’re already certain to exceed 3 million in paid attendance, so there’s no need at all to consider shedding salary to be a factor.

Denard Span

It amazes me how many suggestions I’ve read that the Twins trade a Denard Span or a Delmon Young for established relief pitching. That’s absurd on two levels. First, nobody who has top veteran relief pitching to trade is likely to look for expensive veterans in return. They’re going to want young players they can continue to pay the league minimum to for a while. Also, you simply don’t trade players of the quality of Span, Young, Cuddyer, etc., for relief pitching. Ever.  MAYBE you trade your Rene Tosonis and Trevor Plouffes… legitimate prospects (but not future superstars), guys you can (and likely will) find a way to live without in the future… for relief pitchers. The Twins SHOULD be “buyers”… they SHOULD get relief help… and they have enough decent young talent to use for that purpose. There are a lot of decent relievers (meaning better than what the Twins have been trotting out there for middle relief) on the market so it should be a buyer’s market. There’s no need to overpay.

At the same time, the Twins have demonstrated that they can compete without the likes of Delmon Young, Denard Span, and Jason Kubel in the line up. The question is… should they trade away a veteran or two and continue to try to compete without them? If the price is right, sure, why not?

Delmon Young

Of course, you do not just give any of these guys away. Even those who are going to be free agents are likely to be good for compensatory supplemental draft picks if they walk away at the end of the season. But because guys like Ben Revere, Luke Hughes, Anthony Swarzak, and Glen Perkins have demonstrated they can be relied upon to play a role with a contending team, the Twins CAN afford to deal SOME of their veterans and still remain in contention in the AL Central Division. If Twins GM Bill Smith can get real prospects in return for one of his outfielders or one of his pitchers, he should go ahead and do it. Would that mean running a risk in the event the Twins get hit with more injuries? Absolutely… but a GM’s job is to evaluate and take acceptable risks.

But what if the Twins do none of this? What if Smith takes a summer vacation and leaves his phone in the Twin Cities? Can the Twins compete if they do nothing at all?

Well, I still think getting some relief help is important, but otherwise… yeah… the Twins could stand pat and make a serious run the second half of the season… and in to the playoffs. How is that possible?

Justin Morneau

It’s possible because, even if Bill Smith takes that long summer vacation, he will be adding three quality veteran players by the July 30 deadline and another… a former MVP… by the August 30 waiver-deal deadline. Delmon Young has been reactivated and Denard Span sounds like he won’t be far behind. Jason Kubel should be returning not long afterward. Justin Morneau’s recovery seems on target for mid August. Name me a contending team that wouldn’t give a boatload to get four players like that over the next 5 weeks! And Smith doesn’t have to give up a thing.

And here’s the bonus, in my mind… many teams (including past Twins teams) expend so much emotion and energy trying to make the surge necessary to dig out of a deficit in the standings that their tank is empty in September and October. They’re worn out mentally and beat up physically. But most of the Twins top players shouldn’t be feeling worn down. Mauer, Morneau, Young, Kubel, Span… they’ll all be far fresher than most players at that point in the season.

The Twins also have enough starting pitching, with Swarzak, Kevin Slowey and Kyle Gibson (again, we’re assuming the GM makes no deals) ready to step in, that any member of the current rotation who gets as much as a hangnail could be DL’d for 14 days, allowed to get rested up, and come back strong.

This is not the time for Bill Smith to overspend. He doesn’t need… in fact can’t afford… another trade where he gives up a top prospect for a relief pitcher, like the Ramos-for-Capps deal a year ago. He can afford to wait for a trading partner who’s willing to overspend and, if necessary, settle for a moderate deal for middle relief help.

I hope he shows patience because God knows the blogging world is likely to urge otherwise.

– JC

GameChat – Twins @ White Sox #4, 1:10 pm

Changes are coming.

Heading in to this series, the Twins trailed the White Sox by 3.5 games. As the Twins head in to the AllStar Break after today’s game, they will either trail by Chicago by that same 3.5 games or will have closed to within 1.5 games of third place. No, your goal should never be to reach 3rd place in the standings, but when you’ve spent most of the season in 5th place, I believe you have to focus on catching… and passing… the next team in front of you. You can’t get to 1st place until you’ve moved in to 4th… and 3rd… and 2nd.

Media reports indicate manager Ron Gardenhire has promised roster changes will be made following the game. One of them is obvious… Delmon Young is ready to return and that almost certainly means Rene Tosoni will be returning to Rochester. But what else?

It just seems to me that Trevor Plouffe has done all he can do in Rochester. I’m not sure if he’ll ever be a good defensive player and I’m not convinced he’s really as good with the bat as he’s been in Rochester this year, but it’s time to bring him back up. I don’t think he needs to start on this team, but he’s got to be a more valuable bat off the bench than the Twins’ third catcher, whoever that might be. I suspect it will be Rene Rivera who gets a plane ticket back to AAA.

I won’t be surprised if Chuck James is recalled from Rochester, as well. The question is, which member of the current bullpen will be dropped? Another thing to consider is that Kevin Slowey’s rehabilitation assignment is drawing to a close and a decision will have to be made with regard to his future, as well.

But first things first… let’s beat down the Bitch Sox today and head in to the break on a positive swing!

TWINS

@

WHITE SOX
Revere, CF Pierre, LF
Casilla, A, 2B Ramirez, Al, SS
Mauer, DH Konerko, 1B
Cuddyer, 1B Dunn, A, DH
Valencia, 3B Quentin, RF
Tosoni, LF Rios, CF
Nishioka, SS Pierzynski, C
Butera, C Beckham, 2B
Repko, LF Teahen, 3B
  _Swarzak, P   _Peavy, P
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 0 2 3 0 0 0 1 6 13 0
Chi White Sox 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 3 8 0

That’s 3 of 4 from the BitchSox heading in to the break and while it wasn’t the prettiest of wins, any win over AJ and his buddies is a good win!

Good balance on the offensive side today with 13 hits, but only two were for extra bases (2B by Repko, 3B by Casilla). Anthony Swarzak picked up right where he left off the last time he was pressed in to a starting role and threw six very solid innings. Things got a bit hairy after he left the game, but Glen Perkins cleaned up the mess he inherited and then pitched another good inning for 1 2/3 of terrific relief. Matt Capps looked just fine getting the save.

GameChat votes broke right down the middle, so our Boyfriend of the Day honors are shared today by Swarzak and Perkins. Get some rest, boys… the fun really starts after the AllStar Break!

Anthony Swarzak

Glen Perkins

.

GameChat – Twins @ Royals #1, 7:10pm

Our guys (they ARE still our guys, right?) start a four-game series with the Royals in Kansas City tonight and it gives us an opportunity to see what Anthony Swarzak can do for an encore following his near no-hitter on Saturday vs. the Angels. It also gives us a chance to get a good look at some young Royals who are reportedly on the cusp of becoming a pretty fair ballclub.

After the game last night, word came that the Twins would likely be placing either Jason Kubel or Jim Thome on the Disabled List today and that Ben Revere was on his way back up from Rochester. Today, it seems Gardy couldn’t make up his mind which of his lefty DHs to put on the DL list, so he decided to drop both of them from the active roster. That left him short on lefties, so now Brian Dinkelman will be coming up, as well.

I know I’m not the first to say this, but it really is true… this roster and the line ups we’re seeing really do resemble what we’re more accustomed to seeing at road games in Spring Training. At this point, frankly, there’s probably an argument to be made that we all might as well get a good look at the “next generation”.

Joe Mauer caught three innings of extended spring training baseball today and told media he felt “fatigued” afterward. I’m not sure what to make of that and I’m really not sure what else we should expect. If you put anyone behind the plate for three innings after he hasn’t played baseball for three months, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll feel fatigued. Still… I can’t help but feel like there’s a helluva lot more to this story than anyone is reporting. But I could do a 1,000 word post on the Mauer issue itself (and probably will… soon).

Here’s tonight’s lineup:

TWINS @ ROYALS
Span, CF Gordon, LF
Casilla, A, 2B Cabrera, Me, CF
Morneau, DH Hosmer, 1B
Cuddyer, 1B Francoeur, RF
Valencia, 3B Butler, DH
Young, D, LF Betemit, 3B
Revere, RF Aviles, 2B
Rivera, R, C Treanor, C
Tolbert, SS Escobar, A, SS
Swarzak, P O’Sullivan, P

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 1 0 6 0 0 0 1 0 0 8 10 0
Kansas City 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 2 9 1

Well that was kinda different. I’m not sure that, over the course of the entire game, the Twins really were all that impressive. But wow, that 3rd inning was a piece of work unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time!

No one particular offensive player had a huge game but Denard Span and Matt Tolbert both managed to get a couple of hits, six different guys had RBI and seven different players scored runs. Nice team effort.

The bullpen contributions of Jose Mijares, Alex Burnett and Matt Capps didn’t suck at all, either!

But while his six innings of work wasn’t quite as impressive as his near no-hitter on Saturday, it was still solid enough to earn Anthony Swarzak his second consecutive Boyfriend of the Day award! Do the Twins have a new “stopper”?

Anthony Swarzak