Thursday, June 23, 2005

Don't Panic

Just last week, as the Twins had taken a 4-3 win over the Giants in extra innings on Tuesday, the hometown team was 4 games behind Chicago in the standings--or only 3 in the Loss column. There was an 8-4 record in June, as the team scored 5.58 runs per game and allowed just 3.58 rpg. If not for a few missed opportunities and questionable managing decisions, or better luck in 1-run games, we could have reasonably expected another win or two to go our way; but that would work itself out later, wouldn't it? The future looked rosy. We had the 3rd best record in baseball. The ChiSox could not shake our team. It seemed just a matter of time until the pretenders fell to earth, and the defending champs would rise to the top of the standings once again.

Little more than a week later, Twins Territory is in a panic. The team is 2-6 since the morning after Shannon Stewart sent the fans home happy with his bloop single in the 11th last Tuesday, while the ChiSox have not lost a game. The win this afternoon only brought the team within 9.5 games of the still-streaking South Siders. Writers have begun calculating how hot the Twins would have to get to catch Chicago if the Sox can only play .500 ball the rest of the way. Even Sid is pessimistic. A Strib online poll has 23% of respondants saying the time to give up on the Twins is NOW. Many others say it's time for Terry Ryan to pull the trigger on another Stewart-for-Kielty trade to inject some life into the lineup, with Joe Randa being a name that keeps cropping up. Whatever might happen, everyone seems to agree, something needs to be done, and quick!!!

What has brought us to these depths of despair?

Mainly, the team looked flat for just 4 games. Last Wednesday, the Giants took an 8-4 win in which Kyle Lohse gave up 4 runs in the 1st inning but recovered to pitch well through the 7th as the team climbed back into the game, only to see J.C. Romero implode in the 9th to put it out of reach. The next night, the team handed a 7-6 lead to Juan Rincon in the 8th, but he let one run score; then in the 9th, Joe Nathan got rattled by an ump who was squeezing him. Automatic Joe walked 3 batters, threw a wild pitch, and gave up a single that put the team behind 9-7, before Terry Mulholland came in to make the final look like a football score.

Did the team look flat in the Giants series? I didn't think so. The bats battled to stay in each game, and the team almost always would win the rubber match when handing Rincon/Nathan a lead in the 8th. The core of the bullpen uncharacteristically melted down for one night. OK, it happens. The next night, the team recovered against the Padres to make up a 4-3 deficit in the 8th inning and eventually win the game in the 11th. The fighting spirit still appeared to be alive and kicking.

The bats got shut down on Saturday by Brian Lawrence, a "control-type" who relies on the location and movement of his sinkers and cutters to keep hitters off balance--and his game worked as designed, while Brad Radke dodged trouble for 5 innings, and then the long relief tagteam of Guerrier & Mulholland (who should partner to practice law after they retire from baseball) combined to blow up the final score.

Perhaps Lawrence threw off the batters' timing enough so they were primed to be equally befuddled by the soft-tossing lefty Darrell May, a man who had a 3.88 ERA in 55.2 IP against the Twins in the last 3 seasons. Johan Santana matched him through 6 innings, but had some disputes with the umpire, shall we say, in the 7th inning which led to 3 walks before the #9 hitter doubled down the line past Glenn Williams--and I still believe the rookie backup failed in his primary responsibility to guard against a bases-clearing double in that situation. "It's the little things," as they say. Oh, well. We dropped a pair to the NL West leaders. That's disappointing, but not quite the stuff to raise our terror alert levels into the Red, is it?

Following that up with two blowout losses at home to the Tigers really does feel like a kick in the ribs while we're down: we can shake on that. But it also seems to me that the pitching matchups in those two games were really awful for the Twins. The Tigers had their emerging young ace, Jeremy Bonderman, facing our resident enigma from the back of the rotation, Kyle Lohse. Then Detroit had a talented young lefty--which meant Mauer & Morneau were out--having a very good season, up against our #5 pitcher coming off two shaky starts. Is it a shock that they clobbered the Twins in those two match-ups?

The next time any team sends out two of its top three starters to face Lohse & Mays, I wouldn't recommend betting on the Twins unless you like gambling against long odds.

It is unfortunate that this all happened while the White Sox have gone on a winning streak, but I don't think the Twins need any radical changes right away to save the season.

I would like to see Gardy shake up the middle infield again by benching Juan Castro and allowing Luis Rodriguez to play regular SS for awhile. He was playing very well as part of the regular lineup this month; it's unfair to him and bad for the team to bench him just because Luis Rivas came off the DL. Before long, the club ought to cut out somebody (*cough*dumpRivas*cough*) to make room for Jason Bartlett again, too. He's been playing well in AAA and deserves another chance in the Twins lineup, and it's in the club's interest to take another shot on his upside, sooner rather than later, too. For now, if Gardy would play Rodriguez at SS, move Cuddyer to 2nd base, and let Williams play awhile as the regular 3rd baseman, that could be an idea worth trying. Management probably should look at adding another short reliever, and moving Lohse into the bullpen to make way for fresh blood, too. Travis Bowyer and Scott Baker, perhaps?

I like the idea of adding Joe Randa to the Twins lineup. I liked it even more last winter, when TR could have signed him to a cheap deal without giving up any players (but Rivas). Keep in mind, however, that his current .293/.364/.492 line is considerably better than his typical production--and that's because the numbers are inflated by his production at home in Cincinnati (.299/.358/.552). His career line of .286/.342/.428 is more like what we've come to typically expect of him, aside from a couple bigger years in the late '90s.

He could give the infield a lift if management moved Cuddyer to 2nd base, but probably not if he's Cuddyer's replacement. Although he had a gloomy April, Cuddles is hitting .258/.338/.452 this month; or .289/.358/.443 since the start of May. The way he's been hitting the last couple months, or even through the course of his major league career so far (.259/.330/.421), his bat is essentially what we could expect to get out of typical Joe Randa; and of course Cuddyer still has the potential to improve with experience. It's easy to forget that Cuddyer still is 26 and has only 887 total plate appearances in his career with the Twins. And although his defense at 3B has been rough at times, I think he has shown improvement at the hot corner even since the start of the season. Giving up on Cuddyer now, and trading him away for Joe Randa, I believe would be a short-sighted mistake that we'd regret within the next year or two.

I hope that Terry Ryan still looks at Cuddyer as an important part of the longterm goals of the team. There still is time for the club to right the ship and make a strong push for the wild card spot, if not the Central title, by tinkering with some in-house moves in the next few weeks. Trading a young talent with his prime years just ahead of him, in exchange for 35 year-old stopgaps, is not the Twins Way, is it? Let's hope we haven't come to that way of thinking, just because the team is finally being pushed to figure out how to win in a good division.


At 6/24/2005 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Williams at 3B, L-Rod at SS, and Cuddyer at 2B? God, that's one awful infield you're proposing.

And you complain about Gardy ...

At 6/24/2005 5:00 PM, Blogger frightwig said...

It's not a longterm plan, or even a plan for the rest of the season. As a temporary shake-up, maybe you should try explaining what's so awful about the idea.

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