Twins Crumble

In the Yankees’ three-game playoff sweep, the Yankees displayed superior starting pitching, relief pitching, power hitting, clutch hitting, defense, baserunning, bench and managing*. The Twins excelled in…nothing I can think of. How do you explain the one-sided nature of a series between two teams that finished only one game apart over the regular season?
First, their similarity of record was largely a chimera. The Twins amassed wins over weak Central Division teams, while the Yankees’ schedule largely consisted of the Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles. Based on head-to-head competition, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the Twins would have finished fifth in the Eastern Division this year.
Going down their lineups, one to nine, there wasn’t a Twin I would take over the corresponding Yankee. Yes, Mauer has a higher average than Texeira, but which would you consider more dangerous in a playoff game? Same for Delmon Young v. Alex Rodriguez.
Still, talent in baseball, unlike football, only counts for so much. The best Major League team will lose a third of its games, and the worst will win a third. So talent alone can’t explain the Twins have lost nine straight playoff games to the Yanks. For this, we have to look at intangibles. One, confidence is key in any sport. How can the Twins have it when they know they always lose to New York, not only in the playoffs, but in the regular season? Two, experience adds to that confidence. The Yankees are veterans who have been in pressure games so often before. Rivera, Pettite, Jeter, et al.? You know they won’t feel intimidated. Even newcomers like Lance Berkman and Curtis Granderson bring experience. Can we say the same about Brian Duensing, Jesse Crain, J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia? Conversely, Jason Kubel does have playoff experience with the Twins, but his experience consists of hitting 2-for-29. Third, team makeup. The Twins are a solid, unspectacular team, built for the long haul of a 162-game season, not prone to beating themselves or going into prolonged slumps. Without Morneau, there is no one who can carry the team, like A-Rod or Texeira can. There is no dominant pitcher, like Halladay or Lincecum or Lee. They need several players to be hot at the same time.
Which leads us to Four, the final ingredient of momentum. If the Twins had ended the season on a hot streak, they might have carried more confidence, some mojo, into the playoffs. Instead, they sputtered the last two weeks of the season, playing by far their worst ball, losing eight out of ten. Every one of the starting pitchers had a bad outing. Mauer, their best player, was hurt, and never returned to form.
When Cuddyer opened the series with a two-run homer and Hudson scored another run on hustle, it seemed that the Twins might overcome both the immediate and the recent past and make a real run at the Yankees. But once the New Yorkers came back and eliminated this early lead, all spark and all hope seemed to drain from the Twins, from their fans, and from Yankee-haters around the country.

*while the other categories are supported by obvious statistics, the judgment of managing is more subjective. Using hindsight as my guide, however, I can’t help but criticize Gardenhire’s batting Kubel cleanup in Game 3, pitching Crain in relief in Game 1, leaving Liriano in to face Granderson in Game 1 and failing to be aggressive in the two games Span led off with a single. There was nothing illogical about any of his moves; it’s just that all his hunches proved wrong.

The Twins – Postseason and Beyond

After a surprisingly successful 94-win season in 2010, the Minnesota Twins will be facing their nemesis and mine, the New York Yankees, in the AL Division Series in two days. Just as sportswriters have to vote on player awards before the postseason begins, I should memorialize my thoughts on the state of the Twins as they conclude this campaign and transition into the future.

First, an admission of error. I pronounced in June that the Twins would go “as far as Justin Morneau takes them.” As it happened, Morneau, enjoying the best year of his career, suffered a concussion before the All-Star Game and never played again, yet the Twins played their best ball without him. On the other hand, I also identified Jon Rauch as, at best, a stopgap closer. The Twins apparently agreed, for they picked up Brian Fuentes and Matt Capps and relegated Rauch to 7th-inning duty.

Strengths and Weaknesses. The Twins’ strengths are 1) relief pitching, 2) depth of starting pitching, 3) team defense, and 4) a balanced offense. What they lack: 1) a #1 starter, 2) home run power, 3) speed, and 4) depth at catcher and in the outfield. Losing Joe Nathan for the year was a blow, but it spurred the Twins to add personnel that resulted in a stronger bullpen than if Nathan were still around. Randy Flores was a complete bust, and we need never hear his name again. But Matt Capps, acquired from Washington, seems the equal of Nathan, and he is several years younger. The real coup, however, was then adding Brian Fuentes (why did the Angels let him go? Why did the White Sox miss him on waivers?). Not only is he an experienced closer who is lefthanded and can shut teams down in the 8th inning, his presence freed up Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain for the 7th or earlier, where they seem to be more effective. Throw in Jose Mijares, who can be unhittable for lefthanded batters when he isn’t wild and Gardy has all the pieces for the relief ballet he likes to dance.

There is a certain sameness to Blackburn, Baker and Slowey, all young righthanded middle-of-the-rotation type guys, who can be alternately lights-out or bombed. I love watching them when they’re on, but whether we’ll ever see more than a 15-win year from any of them is an open question. Carl Pavano was the Twins’ ace this year, and despite some subpar outings in September, he is the best bet to hold the Yankees to two runs when he pitches. Whether that will produce a win is the issue. Liriano has a devastating slider, and when he can spot his fastball he is a strikeout machine. He is, however, erratic and more prone to emotion than the righthanders, and I don’t like his chances against C.C.Sabathia, even at home. Brian Duensing has done remarkably well, given his lack of pedigree and experience, and if he continues to improve can be a cornerstone for years to come. You will note that these names add up to six, and since a team generally needs only five starters, that means one will sit out – for the ALDS it seems to be Baker, an erstwhile Opening Day starter. Also in the wings is Glen Perkins, who has been an effective starter in the past and is still young. Does that mean the Twins needn’t resign free agent Pavano, or should trade a starter for a more pressing need, like an outfielder, or backup catcher? Given the fact that someone is always hurt, it may be more necessity than luxury to have someone in reserve. But if Pavano demands a long-term deal, or someone offers something good for Perkins, I would let them go.

Defense has been a hallmark of the Twins in recent years, and for most of this year the Twins had a ridiculously low number of errors. All the same, there are no obvious Gold Glovers on the team (if Mauer wins one, it will be for his hitting), Cuddyer was merely an adequate replacement for Morneau at first, Young is well below average in leftfield and Kubel is competent but not fast in right. If Morneau comes back next year, Cuddyer can return to right, which leaves left as the problem spot. If the Twins can add one player for next year, it should be a speedy leftfielder, who can occasionally spell Span in center. That would allow Young and Kubel to form a powerful left-right DH tandem and allow them to give Span, Cuddyer and even Morneau the occasional rest they could have used this season.

The infield epitomizes the Twins’ offensive balance, now that rookie Danny Valencia is a fixture at third (what an arm!). Hudson, Valencia and, to a lesser degree, Hardy, Punto and Casilla all contributed big games without overpowering anyone. What will become of the middle infield next year? I was frankly surprised that both Hudson and Hardy worked out as well as they did, but I’m not sure Hardy did enough to lay any longterm claim to the shortstop position. If Casilla were slightly less flashy, I would take him over Hardy. I would certainly rather have him at bat in the 9th inning with the game on the line. Trevor Plouffe seems to be rising through the minors. If he is the answer at short, then Casilla can play second, with Punto in his usual super-reserve role and the Twins would have an exciting, affordable infield for several years to come.

I’ve addressed outfield depth above – Jason Repko has been a fine fill-in, but is offensively challenged – which leaves the gap at backup catcher. Joe Mauer, for one reason or another, is unlikely to catch more than 110 games a year, so this is a serious need. Drew Butera is good behind the plate, but a black hole at it. I was counting on Jose Morales to be an upgrade on Mike Redmond, but for some reason Gardy finds him defensively deficient. It may be easier to improve Morales’s skills than to find anyone better via trade.

Home run power raises some interesting points about Delmon Young. He doubled his output from last year, and his 21 homers placed him behind only Jim Thome’s 25 on the Twins’ meager list. (The Blue Jays, by contrast, had seven players with 21 or more homers, led by Jose Bautista’s 54!) The Twins thought they were getting a power hitter when they traded Matt Garza to the Rays for Young, but it has taken three years for even his potential to show up. There is no chance the Twins will find another home-run hitter for next year. Valencia showed some power and could help. Morneau’s return to health would provide the biggest boost, and if Mauer could add just a tad more oomph, his warning-track drives would bring back his numbers of a year ago. If Bautista can go from 18 to 54 in one year, maybe the Twins’ best hope is for a similarly miraculous burst from, say, Cuddyer. What I wanted to say about Delmon Young, though, is this: for two years, we thought the Rays had gotten the better of that trade: Jason Bartlett has lasted much longer at shortstop in Tampa than Brendan Harris has in Minnesota, but they were the sideshow. Garza’s success on the mound, including in postseason, underlined Young’s underachievements before this year. But as we’ve just seen, the Twins have much greater need for power hitting than for pitching. Garza, this year, is not markedly better than any of the six Twins starters; they simply don’t need him. Young, on the other hand, led the Twins in rbi’s and is an immensely better hitter than anyone the Twins could replace him with in the outfield – see, e.g., Repko, above. So this trade should probably eventually go down as a win-win for both sides.

Finally, the above analysis omits this year’s principal DH, Jim Thome. Will he return? At one point he said, or implied, that if the Twins win the World Series, he could go out on top. Let’s hope that happens.