"You like to give them a month into the season to see what happens.''
--Ronald Clyde Gardenhire.
A month might be too late to keep the Twins hoping for a division crown, though they might still be able to contend for a wild card if they make the right moves.
According to the fearless one, several pitchers are now battling to keep their jobs. Such is the sad state of the once vaunted Twins pitching staff. Some might lose them as early as May 1. In order of the most fragile to the least: Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Kyle Lohse, and Carlos Silva. (Brad Radke could be on this list but he gets a free pass this year.) Before the Chicago series, we pundits were inclined to right off early struggles as at worst a temporary situation.
After the Chicago series, even Gardy is thinking seriously about changes. We still have 16 games against those guys. And they are better than they were last year, when they won 99 games and the World Series. Jim Thome is not the feeble aging slugger some of us (ahem, me) thought he was when the White Sox acquired him. The way he's playing, he looks like Babe Ruth, a svelt Babe Ruth at that. Sure they are all hot at the same time (can the Twins please play a team that is not hot?), but what we witnessed this past weekend is what that team is capable of, and it's an awesome spectacle.
That drubbing should be a wake-up call for the manager and the general manager. This team is not on the same level as the White Sox. Yes the Sox were hot, but it looked like an average single A team against a good major league team. It's way too early to throw in the towel and start dumping proven guys and playing for next year. But the early lesson does teach us one thing: There is little or no margin for error this year. We don't have room for marginal pitchers, especially with the depth of pitching in the organization.
Realistically, this team is not ready to contend for the division. What's the saying: Get back to respectability (.500) before declaring yourself ready to match the best of the best. And the White Sox just might be the best of the best. The Indians aren't too shabby either. Both teams have already swept the Twins this year. And there's 33 games to play with the two teams. We better start thinking about making changes now. If we wait until the end of the month, the best we can hope for is to start gearing up for the wild card race. More likely we will be in a hole we can't get out of.
Before I talk about guys who could don Twins uniforms this year, let's revisit the list of guys who must step up.
Matt Guerrier: I don't think he's ever going to be all that great. But he will have flashes like last year when his control is right there and he looks like Brad Radke at his best. If he misses over the plate, he better duck and cover, just like Radke at his worst. The problem with Guerrier is he's out of options, so sending him out is a last resort. Fortunately they can limit his damage to blow-out games until he gets his act together. If he doesn't by the end of the month, he might just clear waivers.
Jesse Crain: The saber bloggers have all said that he was lucky last year because he had a high fb/gb ratio, about as many walks as strikeouts, and too few strikeouts. I have argued that he was lucky in a sense: He got a lot of pop-ups on the first pitch. With his stuff, many of those pop-ups could have ended in strikeouts because his stuff is very good. In the minors and in his first year with the Twins, which was only a part of a season, Crain just blew people away with high fastballs and low sliders. This early success led people to believe that he's the next closer. But last year was a little different. Rick Anderson tried to convert him into a sinker ball pitcher, which reduced his velocity by about 5 mph. This virtually eliminated his strikeouts but helped him induce a lot more one-pitch outs. The results were very good superficially, but not sabermetrically.
As long as he was getting those pop-ups (IMO, an even better kind of out than a strikeout), I was fine with the adjustments. But otherwise, I can't understand why Andy wanted to make a dominant closer prospect into a ground ball pitcher. I've seen him throw a lot of high sinkers that end up over the fence, rather than being pop-ups. If he wants to pitch high for strikeouts, fine. Throw the four seamer up in their eyes and mix in some sliders in the dirt. Maybe get ahead with a strike one two seamer at the knees on the outside corner. But otherwise pitch like Nathan. He needs to make up his mind on the type of pitcher he will be, preferably a power pitcher. I see no reason for a reliever to need to conserve pitches.
The good news on Crain is he still has options. If he continues to struggle, we can send him to Rochester, swap him out with their closer, and have him get back to throwing like he did in 2004.
Carlos Silva: Can we have him jam his knee again so he has to stay tall to avoid pain? When he gets in trouble, he drops his upper body and pushes the ball toward the plate. While it comes in at 95, it's up and straight. I'd rather have him throwing 90 at the knees and sinking. If he can't get his sinker working in games, send him to the bullpen to work on it between mop-up duty.
Kyle Lohse: Another guy who must stay back and keep the ball down. What we've seen is a lot of balls up in the zone. Sometimes having a good spring is the worst thing for a pitcher. I think he was overconfident going into the season. Well, not anymore. Hopefully he can get back to where he was in the second half of last year. If not, ship him to the bullpen or trade him.
The good news is, the Twins have a number of good pitchers waiting for an opportunity.
Francisco Liriano: He might need to go down to Rochester for a few weeks to get stretched out, but he should be in the rotation as soon as possible. Period.
Boof Bonsor: This guy has found something extra this year and is throwing lights out at Rochester. Though his fastball came in at 92-93 last year, this year, it's topping out at 97. And he's a horse. He might look very good in the rotation in May or June. Remind Mr. Sabean about it when he gets the call. The way he's pitching, it's only a mater of time.
Dennys Reyes: Like Bonsor, he's not allowed a run this year as a starter at Rochester. Look for him to get the call soon when Liriano gets sent down to get stretched out. When Liriano is recalled and inserted into the rotation, one of the guys on the big-league roster will need to go down.
Pat Neshek: Second in the league in strikeouts at Rochester (Bonsor is first, in more than twice the innings pitched), and Neshek's just a closer. Neshek has struck out 2/3 of the batters he's faced (20K/3BB). He's just dominating the International League. As I mentioned in the Crain write-up, if Jesse doesn't get his act together, he might find himself the closer in Rochester while Neshek is in the bullpen in Minnesota.
There are other arms further down the system who might see action later in the year (Justin Jones, Glen Perkins, Matt Garza, to name a few), but hopefully they won't until September. If we see those guys earlier than September, it's an indication that not only did the pitchers who went north with the team fail, but the depth at Rochester did as well.
The way those guys are pitching right now, I wouldn't bet on it. My bet is that the adjustments will actually make this staff stronger this year than it was last year. Hopefully the adjustments won't be made too late to at least contend for a wild card playoff spot. The way the Mighty Whities are playing, it's too much to hope for a division crown in 2006.