Dugout Splinters: Minnesota Twins

The following appears in this week's Dugout Splinters insert, as part of GameDay Magazine.  Once again, please forgive the formatting.

May the Best Better Team Win

With the Twins and the White Sox locked in a see-saw battle for first place in the AL Central, the winner may be the team that’s able to disguise its weaknesses.  While Minnesota has been able to win by hitting well with runners in scoring position and by holding leads granted them by five young starting pitchers, the White Sox have been able to overcome their own deficiencies with power and some strong starting pitching of their own.  But that’s what’s great about baseball—there’s no such thing as the “perfect team”.  There are always strengths and weaknesses, and some teams are always better than others, but even for teams like the Yankees who routinely out-spend the Twins by more than 2:1 there isn’t such a thing as perfection.

In this year’s AL Central race, the team that gets to 90 wins is likely to be the team that wins the division.  It won’t be enough to win the Wild Card, which means that in 2008 there will be no consolation prize for second place.  No doubt a little luck is always involved, but the Twins need to take care of their own business before hoping a bounce or two will go their way.

1.  Stay Healthy.  Nothing could damage the Twins’ play-off hopes more than having to absorb another major injury to a key player.  Alexi Casilla will be back by month’s end, but Michael Cuddyer’s return is questionable and Pat Neshek’s return is doubtful if you’re optimistic.

2.  Maintain Some Level of Unexpected Production.  On paper the Twins aren’t one of baseball’s best teams…yet, somehow, their win-loss record insists otherwise.  Again, there’s some luck involved (like having baseball’s best line with runners in scoring position:  .316/.389/.465), but the Twins have earned their record in no small part to unexpected contributions of guys like Denard Span, Brian Buscher, Casilla and pretty much the entire starting rotation.  It’s a long season, but teams who make it to October need those dark horses to keep producing like they have all year long.

3.  Take Advantage of the Weak Schedule.  Starting with this home series against Oakland, the Twins’ opponents have a combined record of 724-743 (.494), with just three series against playoff contenders (Angels, Rays, White Sox).  Chicago’s opponents are 748-720 (.510), and they’ll be taking on five contenders (Rays, Red Sox, Angels, Yankees, Twins).  Certainly the Twins have struggled on the road this season, but they’ll have chances to turn that around thanks to stops in Seattle, Oakland, and Cleveland.  Against a weaker schedule, Minnesota needs to push their advantage.

And of course, then there’s that bullpen…

Bullpen, You Say?

The organization has been searching high and low for a live arm to shove into the bullpen, and after passing on Chad Bradford last week and having Alan Embree pulled away from them, seeing Sunday afternoon’s relief performance has done nothing to quell anyone’s worries.  If the team can’t find an option on waivers, they’ll turn to Rochester.  Here’s a primer for you, so you know who these guys are.  Feel free to impress your friends by knowing all about the youngsters when they arrive (and they will)!

Bobby Korecky, 28, RHP:  Korecky’s the most likely to see a cup of coffee next month, successfully navigating 10.1 innings with the Twins earlier this year, with a 3.48 ERA.  This season he’s sporting a 2.99 ERA for the Red Wings, with 67 strikeouts and 61 hits in 69.1 innings.  He’s making a strong push with six scoreless appearances in a row, spanning eight innings (6 K, 0 BB, 4 H).  The big chink in his armor is a weakness against left-handed hitters (.278 opponent average).  He throws a fastball (89-92), slider and changeup.

Ricky Barrett, 27, LHP:  Barrett is the favorite among southpaw options and could be Craig Breslow’s replacement if the Twins decide to go in a different direction.  Ricky’s last couple outings have been rough but his season is still in good shape, and with all those strikeouts (76 in 63.2 innings) and a lack of hits allowed (just 52), are sure to make him an organization favorite.  Barrett hurls a fastball (90-92), slurve and a change.

Mariano Gomez, 25, LHP:  On Friday, Gomez was shelled for five runs in 1.2 innings, but in spite of that appearance he’s still the proud owner of a 2.97 ERA this season.  Gomez is a bit more stingy on the walks than Barrett, but he gets hit a bit harder (67 hits in 60.2 innings, .277 opponent average, 1.42 WHIP).  This is his first season of success above high-A ball however, and with another year of grooming may develop into a useful LOOGY (Lefty-One-Out-Guy/Dennys Reyes).  Gomez carries a fastball (88-91), curveball and a change.

Philip Humber, 25, RHP:  Humber’s back in Rochester’s rotation, and since his return is 4-0 in five starts and 31.1 innings with a 3.16 ERA, 36 strikeouts and eight walks.  But to get a fresh arm into the pen for use as a long reliever, don’t be surprised if Humber gets a look.  He’s a fly-ball pitcher with a fastball (90-92), curve and changeup.

Kevin Mulvey, 23, RHP:  Mulvey’s a bit of a dark horse option, but he’s been one of Rochester’s most consistent starters this season.  He’s a little soft versus left-handed hitters, but has managed a 3.37 ERA this season.  Possibly just a year away, the Twins may see him as an option as a spot starter if they aren’t comfortable with Humber.  Kevin throws a fastball (90-93), slider, curve and changeup.

ON THE HILL  

Monday: Nick Blackburn (9-6, 3.73 ERA)

¨        2008:  144.2 IP, 164 H, 14 HR, 76 K, 24 BB

¨        2007:  11.2 IP, 19 H, 2 HR, 8 K, 2 BB

¨        It’s been hill or valley for Blackburn over his last few starts.  Aggressive teams can keep him from settling into his game plan, so over the next couple weeks we’ll see if Blackburn can learn how to adapt.  Luckily, Oakland isn’t known as an aggressive team.

¨        He makes the opposition beat him.  He doesn’t walk anyone, and while he doesn’t strike anyone out, putting the ball in play is exactly what he needs to do.

¨          Usually he’s very adept at keeping the ball in the park.

Tuesday: Kevin Slowey (9-8, 3.94 ERA)

¨        2008:  114.1 IP, 107 H, 15 HR, 79 K, 17 BB

¨        2007:  66.2 IP, 82 IP, 16 HR, 47 K, 11 BB

¨        After a series of rough appearances, Slowey’s been solid or better three of his last four starts.

¨        When he doesn’t allow a home run, he’s all but unbeatable.  Knowing his troubles with the long ball in the past, and knowing that he’s a fly-ball pitcher, make this an important note.

¨          There’s a difference between “control” and “not walking batters”.  Slowey is all control, and when he’s on his game it’s a beautiful thing.

Wednesday: Francisco Liriano (3-3, 4.97 ERA)

¨        2008:  29.0 IP, 26 H, 1 HR, 22 K, 20 BB

¨        2008 (AAA):  10-2, 3.28 ERA, 118.0 IP, 102 H, 8 HR, 113 K, 31 BB

¨        Since his return, Franchise is 3-0 in three starts, with 18.2 IP, 15 strikeouts and 11 hits.  He’s a different pitcher, but he’s been effective.

¨        If he doesn’t start getting ahead of hitters, they’ll stop giving him the benefit of a doubt and just stop swinging.  He needs to get ahead of hitters to keep them honest, and keep them swinging, because his stuff isn’t as explosive as it used to be.

¨        The New Liriano throws a good changeup, and throws it more than the slider.  He’ll throw any of his pitches in almost any count.

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