Siberian Baseball

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Twins Territory Update - Pitching

What a difference a year makes.

Last season was my first full one I'd spent in Minnesota and it gave me a little rosier view of the Twins organization. Nothing has made this clearer than watching the fans eat their young with the disappointing start this year.

I think I was pretty typical in my assessment of the team before the move. In Chicago, you're mildly aware of their presence, they hang around all year, make the playoffs and then make a quick exit. Oh, and every few nights, you'll see Torii Hunter on Web Gems as he bounces off the baggies in the Metrodome.

I was never really sure of how they won - I think a lot of fans fall into that category - they just kept moving along in a sluggish AL Central.

There's really nothing new here this year - let's not forget they got off to a season-crushing slow start last year before the emergence of Justin Morneau and Francisco Liriano - but coupled with injuries and a lack of pitching depth, the Twins are in bad shape here to begin June.

On paper, the lineup isn't comprised of world-beaters, but as a team, there are enough pieces in place - and in the right positions - to contend for the Central title this year and for years to come.

Start with perennial All-Stars in Joe Mauer and Hunter, Johan Santana and Joe Nathan. Add support players in Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and assorted pirhanas and the team should win more than they lose.

But they aren't... So what gives?

Start with some bad timing. In the midst of a slump a few weeks ago, voices of the organization from upper management to team leaders like Hunter, all spoke as one in blaming a lack of hitting on the nights when the pitchers excelled and vice-versa.

They lost seven one-run games going back through April and according to LaVelle E. Neal's game recap this morning, last night's blowout loss was "the fifth time the Twins have given up at least 10 runs in a game this season and the third time in the past three weeks."

In short, the Twins' watertight bullpen of last season is gone. The bigger problem is that so is half of the usable rotation from last season. An injury to Liriano and the retirement of Brad Radke mean that there's a rotation of minor league pitchers and retreads trying to spell the team in between Santana's starts.

Currently, Santana, Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva are the meat of the rotation, with Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz having already washed out. The buzz tends to revolve around the young arms in AAA, with fans hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again and see a Liriano-like spark to help get the team back on track.

Kevin Slowey and Matt Garza lead that charge, with Slowey in the rotation and Garza still waiting for his turn. Scott Baker rounds out the rotation for now, which shouldn't be scaring anyone.

Once the starters are through, the games are handed over to a bullpen that has also seen its share of injuries and isn't seeing the same success as they did last year when a trip to the pen was nearly automatic.

Injuries to Glen Perkins, Dennys Reyes and Jesse Crain haven't helped matters. Games are falling apart before being handed over to Joe Nathan. Slumping pitchers that let leads slip or fail to stop the bleeding seem to be more situational, as the Twins are 13th in the majors in ERA this morning with a team ERA of 4.21 (for some perspective, the Padres are at the top at 2.94 and the Devil Rays are last at 5.39).

With more time or less day job, I'd love to break things down by late innings or how many starters are run before the 5th. I suspect that the problems aren't with talent or performance as a whole, but rather blow-ups that tank games for Minnesota. Much like the phenomena of the "big inning" where pitchers get into trouble, I'm betting this is a staff-wide problem.

I'm working on the other side of this equation with the Twins hitters - a glaring problem entering the season in my opinion - but I'm not really buying the "when it rains, it pours" hypothesis advanced in this season's dry spells.

Also, as much as I'd like to see the Twins do well - at least it's easier to move season tickets for a winning team when I'm out of town - I can't see it happening with Santana, Bonser, Silva, Slowey and Baker.

Well, at least without consistient hitting.

(Photo from MinneapolisRedSox for Siberian Baseball)

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