The following appears in this weekend's Dugout Splinters, part of the Gameday publication.
Minnesota wasn't a good team in 2007. Hovering around .500 most of the season, the winning streak the club needed to jettison themselves into legitimate contention never came. While the middle of the batting order largely played their part, players who were relied upon to complete the picture had a hard time picking up the slack. Rondell White wasn't able to make a comeback; Nick Punto struggled at the plate from start to finish; Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett weren't able to contribute in the earlier phases of the year; a weak bench left no options for a team that needed an offensive jumpstart.
Losses of Brad Radke and Francisco Liriano weren't offset by signing castoffs Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz, and while it can't be clear whether the Twins suffered by waiting to bring in the younger arms, the younger arms certainly couldn't have done worse. An injury to Jesse Crain here, a sudden lack of confidence by Juan Rincon there, a couple of stints on the DL for Dennys Reyes to boot, and suddenly the bullpen was getting an overhaul in the middle of the season. Matt Guerrier was thrust into a new role, Pat Neshek was overused, and when you combine a lethargic offense with a pitching staff trying to hold the pieces together, it becomes a nearly insurmountable task to remain a competitive club.
Ultimately, when the organization had to choose between trying to contend and waiting until next year, they didn't make a definitive decision. The trade of Luis Castillo said "middle road," forcing the Twins to rely on an Alexi Casilla/Punto platoon at second base while getting two lower-level non-prospects who were too old for their level in return. Nothing gained for the present, nothing gained for the future. Killer.
It's Fan Appreciation weekend, and Minnesota is closing out their final home stand against a team that has been struggling to stay out of last place. This just gives the Twins less excuse to lose to the South Siders, which we all know is possible because every game with Chicago seems to be a battle.
With the season winding down, what Ron Gardenhire should be doing when he pencils in his lineup card is looking down the bench to see who needs to get some at-bats/innings. In no particular order, these players should be Brian Buscher, Casilla, Kubel, Garrett Jones, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey. These guys are players who need opportunities to show what kind of chops they have when matching up against (largely) major league talent. Kubel has actually looked comfortable at the dish recently, but needs as many plate appearances as possible for the sake of experience. Playing every day through the end of the year could help him via seeing more live pitching, and by (hopefully) engraining that muscle memory that has seen him hit much better since August. Slowey has pitched in spots for the Twins but needs innings under his belt. Blackburn is a September callup and Perkins missed much of 2007 due to injury; both have something to prove. Buscher, Casilla and Jones have 286 MLB at-bats between them. They all need time, or they're just wasting space.
Minnesota is on the verge of having their first losing season since 2000. Sweeping the Rangers was nice, but once the White Sox series is over the Twins go on the road for three in Detroit (playing for their Wild Card lives) before finishing up with four in Boston (who are trying to fend off the surging Yankees). With both teams still having something to play for, the Twins have their work cut out for them. Finishing the year 7-3 means a winning record for the hometown team.
Bill Smith's first winter as General Manager of the Twins is the most pivotal off-season Minnesota has entered in years. First, Torii Hunter's pending free agency and how it's dealt with will give an indication in which direction the franchise wants to go the next handful of seasons. Second, Johan Santana and Joe Nathan are both under contract for 2008 - whether those contracts are addressed will tell you if either player will be a Twin in 2009 and beyond. Third, with a logjam of youthful arms, will any of them be on the move? By the same token, will Carlos Silva be re-signed? The list could go on and on, with the lack of offensive depth and production from specific positions a major issue as well.
Financially, the Twins will have money to spend in free agency. It will get tricky, because when taking into account raises through contracts and arbitration, the fiscal situation in '09 and '10 means that whatever money is spent for '08 will need to play into a 3 or 4-year plan. Specifically, the enormous constraints on team salary (with the amounts that Johan and Torii could demand) will force the Twins into some very difficult situations with some very important and high-profile players.
Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Punto, Kubel, Jason Tyner, Rincon and Guerrier will all be eligible for arbitration and raises going into 2008. Minnesota would benefit by signing a couple of these players to long-term contracts, and on the other hand wouldn't lose much by not offering arbitration to a couple others. What's available in free agency may have an effect here.
Contracts, arbitration, household names, two handfuls of pitching prospects. We may not know what's going to happen the next few months, but make no mistake: it's going to be very, very exciting.
ON THE HILL
Friday: Johan Santana (15-12, 3.14 ERA)
- 2007: 209 IP, 173 H, 220 K, 48 BB, 30 HR
- 2006: 19-6, 133.2 IP, 2.77 ERA, 245 K, 47 BB
- Santana's slider hasn't been as sharp in recent games, leaving hitters to sit on his fastball or changeup. As a result he hasn't been as effective, losing three of his last four starts and only recording one quality start since his 17-strikeout masterpiece on August 19th.
- White Sox hitters are familiar with Johan, which means he'll need to be sharp. Watch the catcher's glove to see how Santana is missing his spots. If he's missing low, he'll be okay. If he misses high, look out!
- Including Friday's start, Johan has two starts left to finish out the 2007 campaign. Even if he wins both starts, being toward the top of most statistical categories isn't going to win him his third Cy Young Award in four years. Sad, but true.
Saturday: Scott Baker (9-8, 4.15 ERA)
- 2007: 138.2 IP, 154 H, 98 K, 28 BB, 14 HR
- 2006: 5-8, 83.1 IP, 6.37 ERA, 62 K, 16 BB
- Baker is usually good for 90-100 pitches in today's game of pitch counts, which is pretty standard. Pitching coach Rick Anderson wants his pitchers to be more aggressive early, so that they aren't reaching their limits by the fifth inning. Watch to see if Baker is going after hitters early, or is trying to mix in all his pitches right away. It'll clue you in as to how long he might last.
- With a nice fastball, Baker's breaking balls still need to be effective. If he goes to his breaking balls when he's behind in the count, it should mean he's feeling good.
Sunday: Kevin Slowey (3-0, 5.00 ERA)
- 2007: 54 IP, 71 H, 35 K, 11 BB, 16 HR
- 2007 AAA: 10-5, 133.2 IP, 110 H, 107 K, 18 BB, 4 HR
- Kevin's worst enemy is the home run ball, which has been slightly less of an issue since his recall. He's still developing his "out" pitch, but has a decent 4-pitch arsenal.
- Slowey struck out seven in six innings against Texas in his last game. He'll need to continue to pitch inside to build on that start.