Wednesday, August 02, 2006

More Roster Juggling

After making his spot start in today's 10-2 loss, allowing 4 earned runs on 6 hits and 2 walks in 4 innings, Boof Bonser was sent back to AAA Rochester, replaced by... Mike Smith?

You're forgiven if you did not know Smith from Smithee, or that he's a 28 year-old righthander who appeared in 14 games for the Blue Jays in 2002, and has posted a 9-4 record with a 3.52 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and 6.75 K/9 in 125.1 IP with Rochester this season. The Twins plan to use him as Brad Radke's back-up in case he has another early exit on Thursday, or else give Smith the start on Sunday in Kansas City.

Scott Baker must wait at least 10 days for a return to the Twins, unless he's recalled sooner to replace a player going on the Disabled List. That may give Smith two starts to make an impression, while Baker works in Rochester to make his coaches happy and send along glowing reports to Terry Ryan's office. The timing may work out well for Baker, unless Smith catches a few flakes of magic pixie dust from hanging around Jason Tyner and Broccoli Rabe this week.

The only Red Wings pitcher besides Bonser and Baker currently on the 40-man roster is J.D. Durbin, who has pitched well but is done for the season because of a nerve problem in his right biceps. There remains one empty spot on the 40-man, which is likely to go to Matt Garza, but Terry Ryan on television lately sounds like he would prefer to keep Garza in AAA until September. That's sensible: Garza, 22, began the year at Fort Myers, moving to AA New Britain in mid-May, and now has just 4 starts to his credit at AAA. Ryan says he wants Garza to work on his secondary pitches before jumping another level. The Twins may push back Garza's arbitration eligibility by delaying the start of his service clock until September, as well.

So, depending on what happens with Smith, Radke, or Liriano this week, Scott Baker may still have one more window of opportunity with the Twins this season, before Garza will be demanding Ron Gardenhire's attention and, perhaps, great affection.

Baker Down, Bonser Up, Cisco On the Shelf

Scott Baker is back on the Yo-Yo Express to Rochester, after the Rangers touched him for 8 runs in the 4th inning in last night's 9-0 Twins loss. However, perhaps it's just a necessary roster move to press Boof Bonser into an emergency spot start in today's game, after Francisco Liriano was scratched because of what the club is calling "discomfort in his left forearm," and not a knee-jerk reaction to a blowout loss.

Baker cruised through 3 innings last night, but then Carlos Lee led off the 4th with an 0-2 double off the Baggie. A groundout moved him to 3rd, before scoring on a Hank Blalock single. Nick Punto then made an impressive diving stop on the 3rd baseline to limit Ian Kinsler to an infield single; but with the next batter, Matt Stairs, he took a routine double-play ball but botched the throw to 2nd base, scoring Blalock and putting runners on 2nd and 3rd with 1 out, instead of ending the inning.

Baker, to his credit, went right after the next batter, Rod Barajas, quickly bringing him to an 0-2 count. He meant his next pitch to move Barajas off the plate with a little chin music, just as a young pitcher is taught, but it got away from him and hit Barajas on the hands. Up comes Brad Wilkerson, and Baker again starts him with two strikes before wasting a ball. Strangely, on the 1-2 pitch, Joe Mauer set up a high, standing target, just where the club feels Baker is most vulnerable, and Wilkerson smacked a groundball through the hole on the rightside, scoring another run. 3-0, Rangers. Bases loaded still, 1 out.

Up comes Gary Matthews, Jr. Baker fell behind with a couple balls, but came back to get a full count with a couple pitches fouled off by Matthews. The 6th pitch was supposed to be low, on the inside corner. Baker hit the corner but left it up in Matthews' wheelhouse. Free breakfast at Denny's. 7-0, Rangers. Acting manager Scott Ullger, showing all the touch that was his hallmark as the hitting coach for too many years, left Baker in to face Michael Young, and the process virtually repeated. Baker fell behind, rallied to get a full count, then coughed up a homer over the Baggie.

To give Ullger some benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was slow with the hook because the inning seemed to fall apart so quickly, without much warning. Even after the Punto error, Baker was getting batters to 2 strikes. Pitching coach Rick Anderson made a note of it after the game:

"I thought Baker was down in the zone better, but the tale of the whole night was there in the big inning. Obviously, we didn't make a play or two, but you look at the hitters in the fourth inning there, we had seven of them with two strikes and all of them got on base. That was probably the biggest thing, getting ahead and putting them away, and we didn't do that very well tonight."
Could it be that Baker is just too well-trained in the Brad Radke School of Pitching to Contact? And maybe he was just a bit unlucky on a couple of those balls hit into play, again. There is a difference of 1.70 runs between his ERA and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) this season, and his 'normalized' Expected FIP approaches an encouraging level of decency at 4.80. As we've observed before, Baker also has shown a tendency to struggle when he has too much time between starts. Last night was the third time this season when Baker was rocked after Gardy skipped his turn in the rotation.

Fielding-independent indications show that Baker is a talented pitcher who belongs in the Twins rotation, and should become a reliable asset if he's given regular work, patient instruction, and the experience to help him learn. I don't think he's going to learn how to put away hitters with 2 strikes any better by shipping him back to Rochester.

We can hope that it is just a temporary move to accomodate Liriano, while we beg Merciful Jobu to let Liriano's arm problem be nothing but a little muscle soreness. After all, it was not the Cisco Kid who accepted the invitation to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

I must admit, though, that Rick Anderson's assurances ("It's not the elbow, it's just in the forearm.") do nothing to quell my sense of dread. I've seen too many pitchers go on the shelf for Tommy John surgery, or worse, after an initial diagnosis of "sore forearm." I've got my chicken bones at the ready. Jobu, please.