Dog Days of August

The trading deadline has passed, the season is two-thirds over, and the Twins remain in fourth place, eight games below .500. Their chances of making the playoffs, even if the Tigers weren’t a far superior team, are nil; and even if they had that chance, the Red Sox or Yankees would blow them out of the water. So it is time to look further ahead, to 2012 and beyond. What have we learned, whom should we keep, and where do we go from here?
The first, most obvious step was taken last night, when Denard Span returned to centerfield and Ben Revere was shifted to left. This took the pressure of batting leadoff off Revere and, more important, shifted him to a defensive spot where his weak arm is not the liability it was in center. Revere was routinely giving up two or three extra bases a game. In left, he is a significant upgrade over Delmon Young, who was shifted to DH, his only viable position. As for rightfield, Michael Cuddyer has a great arm but is otherwise merely competent; but if Justin Morneau can return at a high level, the outfield will be set for the foreseeable future.
Jason Kubel has shown he is a professional hitter with power and could form a potent left-right DH platoon with Young. The sooner Jim Thome gets his 600th home run and retires, the better for everyone. His home runs are exciting, but he strikes out too much and his slowness afoot is another problem.
If the outfield sorts itself out rather neatly, the same cannot be said for the infield, the Twins’ biggest weakness. Let’s pencil in Morneau at first, although his inability to play an entire season unhurt is troubling. Danny Valencia has a strong arm and pop in his bat, but his average has regressed from his rookie season and his aim is not always steady. Nor does he seem terribly popular among his teammates. One hopes that added maturity can rectify these issues and he can give the Twins a Koskie-level stability on the corner. We will know more next season.
I’m afraid the verdict can already be given for the Tsuyoshi Nishimure experiment, however. He simply does not play at the major league level. He is the weakest hitter and worst shortstop I can remember seeing in the big leagues. He is still starting because the Twins invested a lot of money in him, and they have no one to replace him, but finding a shortstop somewhere has to be the Twins’ biggest priority for the future. Obviously, there is no one currently in the farm system who is ready, as we have seen Trevor Plouffe, Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes this summer without being impressed.
Alexi Casilla, who at least can hit .250 with occasional power, could be moved to short without hurting, or helping, much. That would leave second base for Plouffe-Tolbert-Hughes. All of them are competent and could be carried, without embarrassment, in a lineup with eight solid hitters. The trouble is, with Valencia-Casilla-Plouffe in your infield, you have a bunch that needs to be carried. It’s like giving away three innings of offense.
Mauer is good, if not great, behind the plate, and the same can be said for his offense. He doesn’t have enough power or get enough clutch hits to justify his salary, but most days he’s a solid contributor. Given his inability to play every day, or get through a season unhurt, however, the Twins need a backup catcher who can hit more than .200. A winning team needs production up and down the lineup, as the saying goes, and when you get the likes of Hughes, Nishioka and Butera hitting together, that’s too big a hole for the rest of the Twins to regularly overcome.
Unless, of course, you had great pitching. Here, as Dick Bremer mentioned last night, every pitcher on the roster except Anthony Swarzak and Glen Perkins has regressed this summer. Carl Pavano probably doesn’t have much left and should be gone after this year. Francisco Liriano can be unhittable, but is far too erratic. If the Twins could get a shortstop in return, I would trade Liriano in a minute. Nick Blackburn should give way to Swarzak now in the rotation. He still could turn it around, as he did last year, but for now he’s a number five starter, at best. Scott Baker is their ace, and Brian Duensing can be an innings-eater; so those two are solid, but they would rank three and four on a good staff. Where can the Twins find a number one and number two guy? That’s a big problem, as their touted minor leaguers are either injured or having bad years themselves.
Lastly, I love Glen Perkins this year, and would be glad to give him the closer role next year, unless Joe Nathan take a paycut. I would trade or give away Matt Capps, and the same for Jose Mijares, whom I tabbed as a potential closer two years ago but who, since then, has exploded into a headcase with no control.
In sum, I see a lean four or five years ahead for the Twins. Almost every other major league team has been bouyed by fresh blood, on the mound or at the plate. The Angels, to take today’s opponent as an example, have a rookie first baseman named Trumbo, who has replaced their injured regular and hit 20 homer with 58 rbis, more than any Twin. With one of the thinnest farm systems going at the moment, the Twins will simply have a hard time keeping up.