A popular pre-season pick to repeat as AL Central champions, the Twins have had nothing short of a disastrous season. On June 1, the Tigers completed a sweep of the Twins at home, dropping Minnesota to 17-37 (.315) and 16.5 games back in last place. The Twins perked up a bit from there, going 33-22 (.600) in June and July and cutting their deficit in the division to five games on July 20, but they were playing over their heads during those two months as they allowed as many runs as they scored during that span and never got above fourth place. They have since returned to their early-season level, playing .286 ball in August and falling 10.5 games back in the Central, which seems closer to their actual level. According to third-order wins, only the Astros have been worse this season, and a quick look at the Twins roster shows little reason to expect them to pull out of their current slump.
To begin with, the Twins had Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the lineup at the same time in just eight of their first 117 games. They went 2-6 in those games, two of them coming against the Yankees in early April, both losses. With Morneau being activated from the disabled list on Friday, the Twins have now had Mauer and Morneau in the lineup in each of the last five games, but have won just two of them, scoring a total of four runs in the other three. It's too early to know what to expect from Morneau, who hit .226/.281/.338 through early June before hitting the disabled list with a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery later that month. Mauer, who missed two months early in the season with bilateral weakness in his legs, a neurological condition effecting the strength of his leg muscles, has hit just .289/.356/.353 since his return in mid-June and has started behind the plate on four consecutive days just once since then and three consecutive days on just two other occasions.
Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who had his left fibula broken by a Nick Swisher take-out slide just six games into his Stateside career has been sub-replacement level at the plate, hitting .215/.254/.238 since his mid-June return but has started at shortstop (where his play in the field is also sub-par) in all but five of the Twins games over that span.
Left fielder Delmon Young, who had what looked like a break-out season at age 24 last year, alternated poor performances and disabled list stays before being flipped to the division-leading Tigers on Monday, ridding the Twins of his salary heading into his final year of arbitration. That the Twins traded him to a division rival says a lot about their expectations for his future performance.
Sophomore third baseman Danny Valencia, who finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting last year, hasn't hit (.244/.288/.381), nor has anyone the Twins have played at second base (.223/.271/.315), the main offender there being the currently-injured Alexi Casilla, and when Mauer can't catch the Twins start a player who makes them all look like Babe Ruth in Drew Butera (.181/.221/.274 in 336 career plate appearances), whose strong arm can't even begin to make up for that performance at the plate.
Center fielder Denard Span has played just nine games since June 6 due to a concussion he suffered in a home plate collision the previous Friday. He's active, but hasn't played since Saturday and was just 2-for-35 in his nine games since returning from the DL at the beginning of the month.
Lefties Jason Kubel and Jim Thome have both been productive, but both also lost significant time to injury earlier in the year, Kubel losing June and most of July to a sprained left foot, and Thome missing most of May and most of June to two separate muscle strains (oblique and quadriceps). That has made Michael Cuddyer far and away the team's most valuable player this season as he has moved between three positions (his usual right field and first base as well as 17 starts at second) while hitting a solid .296/.360/.485 and even threw an inning of scoreless relief in a blowout loss to the Rangers in late July. Of course, Cuddyer has been out since last Wednesday with a strained neck. He or Span will be placed on the DL prior to tonight's game.
The pitching staff has been no better. The Twins rank third worst in both run scoring and run prevention this season, and their best starter, Scott Baker, is, you guessed it, on the DL with an elbow injury. Joe Nathan reclaimed the closer job from a struggling Matt Capps in mid-July and has converted all eight of his save chances since, but has also allowed a run in three of his last four appearances and has a 4.09 ERA since taking over for Capps. Converted lefty starter Glen Perkins has been the team's best reliever, dominating batters on both sides of the plate, but even he has struggled of late, giving up seven runs in his last 5 2/3 innings with a blown save or a loss in three consecutive outings last week and at least one run allowed in five of his last six appearances.
I address the remainder of the rotation below except for Carl Pavano, who won't get a chance to show off his 3.9 K/9 in this series. The biggest disappointment among the men discussed below is Francisco Liriano, who pitches Saturday. Liriano has provided support to the pre-season rumors that he was being shopped by the Twins by shedding three miles per hour off his fastball, walking close to five men per nine innings, and proving to be the team's worst starter this season.
CC Sabathia (16-7, 2.93) vs. Brian Duensing (8-11, 4.53), Thursday, August 18, 8:10, Ch. 9
Duensing has been the Twins second-best starter this year behind the injured Scott Baker. That says more about the Twins than it does about Duensing, a 28-year-old lefty with average stuff and average peripherals who is especially susceptible to the fluctuations of batting average on balls in play as a result. This year, his BABIP has been fifty points higher than it was a year ago, and his ERA has, in part as a result, been nearly two runs higher despite slightly improved results in the the strike zone. Duensing posted a 2.91 ERA in April, including seven solid innings in a win against the Yankees, but has gone 6-10 with 5.06 since then. He also started against the Yankees in the ALDS in each of the last two seasons, going 0-2 with a 11.25 ERA in those two starts as the Twins were swept in both series.
Since running off eight dominant outings, Sabathia has turned in a pair of lousy outings against division rivals, first giving up seven runs in six innings in Boston, then giving up five solo home runs to the Rays in his last start. Sabathia had allowed just eight home runs all year prior to that start, and his previous start against the Red Sox was the only other game this season in which he allowed as many as four extra-base hits (the Rays also doubled twice for seven total extra-base knocks).
Phil Hughes (3-4, 6.55) vs. Kevin Slowey (0-0, 4.91), Friday, August 19, 8:10, YES
Phil Hughes has turned in a quality start in his last three turns and four of his last five. Since coming off the disabled list in early July, he has allowed more than two runs just once in six starts. He has also struck out 13 men against two walks in his last three starts, K-ing a season-high six in his last start against the Rays. He was actually the Yankees' best starter the last time through the rotation, and if he keeps this up, he could well earn himself a spot in the postseason rotation, particularly given the memory of his dominant Game Three start against the Twins in last year's ALDS (though not so much the two duds against Texas that followed).
This will actually be Slowey's first major league start this season after missing most of April with a sore shoulder, spending May largely inactive in the bullpen, and missing June and most of July with an abdominal strain. In and around those injuries, Slowey did make 11 minor league starts, most of them rehab, including seven for Triple-A Rochester where he pitched a lot like Kevin Slowey, which is to say he walked almost no one. That's Slowey's main trick. He has walked just 80 men in 488 career innings in the major leagues. By way of comparison, A.J. Burnett walked 78 last season alone in barely more than a third of as many innings.
The 27-year-old righty does indeed throw slowly, working with a sinker/slider combo in the upper 80s with a slower changeup and an even slower curve. None of those pitches miss many bats, and his sinker doesn't generate many ground balls. Still, his strikeout rate, while ordinary, has historically been at least average thanks to his getting a third of his strikeouts looking.
Freddy Garcia (10-7, 3.16) vs. Francisco Liriano (8-9, 5.12), Saturday, August 20, 7:10, YES/MLBN
If Freddy Garcia's sliced finger has healed enough to allow him to throw his split-finger, he'll make this start (he may also get pushed back a day to start Sunday, swapping places with Burnett). He's second on the team in ERA, third in wins and K/BB, hasn't allowed a home run in his last ten starts, and has gone 6-2 with a 2.53 ERA over that span, which included eight quality starts.
Liriano's 2011 season has looked a lot like his 2009, which makes the lefty's strong 2010 look like the fluke. It's worth noting, however, that his worst pitching came in April and was followed by a no-hitter in his first start in May. Since the no-no, Liriano has gone 6-5 with a 4.58 ERA, which isn't great, but it makes him less of a sore thumb in this rotation. Still, the loss of nearly three miles per hour off his fastball is a significant red flag. The Yankees beat him with four runs in five innings back on April 7, which is almost exactly what they did against him in Game One of the ALDS last year.
A.J. Burnett (9-9, 4.61) vs. Nick Blackburn (7-10, 4.53), Sunday, August 21, 2:10, YES/TBS
Burnett's peripherals are right in line with a year ago. The only real difference in his performance this year is a change in luck: .323 BABIP last year, .282 this year, a forty-point change in his favor. He broke a seven-start winless streak on Monday, but still hasn't had a quality start since June, though six times he has fallen either one out or one run short.
Looking at Blackburn's peripherals, it's amazing the 29-year-old righty has as much success as he has this season. Blackburn doesn't strike anyone out (4.7 K/9 this season, 4.3 K/9 career), he gives up a ton of hits (roughly 11 H/9 both this year and on his career), an excess of home runs (1.2 HR/9), and his walk rate has increased each of the last two years and is now only league average. What he does do well is generate ground balls, thanks to a high-80s two-seamer, which he throws half of the time and mixes with a cutter, curve, and changeup, all slower than the sinker.
2011 Record: 53-68 (.438)
2011 Third-Order Record: 45-76 (.369)
Manager: Ron Gardenhire
General Manager: Bill Smith
Home Ballpark: Target Field
Bill James Park Indexes (2010):
LH Avg-105; LH HR-65
RH Avg-99; RH HR-66
Who's replacing whom:
• Luke Hughes (mL) replaces either Michael Cuddyer or Denard Span (DL)
• Ben Revere (mL) replaces Delmon Young (DET)
• Trevor Plouffe (mL) replaces Alexi Casilla (DL)
• Rene Tosoni (mL) replaces Jason Repko (DL)
• Phil Dumatrait (mL) replaces Scott Baker (DL) via Kevin Slowey moving into the starting rotation
• Alex Burnett and Anthony Swarzak (both mL) replace Dusty Hughes and Jeff Manship (both mL)
1B - Justin Morneau (L)
2B - Trevor Plouffe (R)
SS - Tsuyoshi Nishioka (S)
3B - Danny Valencia (R)
C - Joe Mauer (L)
RF - Michael Cuddyer (R)
CF - Denard Span (L)
LF - Jason Kubel (L)
DH - Jim Thome (L)
S - Matt Tolbert (IF)
L - Ben Revere (CF)
L - Rene Tosoni (OF)
R - Luke Hughes (IF)
R - Drew Butera (C)
L - Francisco Liriano
R - Nick Blackburn
R - Carl Pavano
L - Brian Duensing
R - Kevin Slowey
R - Joe Nathan
R - Matt Capps
L - Jose Mijares
R - Alex Burnett
L - Glen Perkins
R - Anthony Swarzak
L - Phil Dumatrait
2B - Alexi Casilla (strained right hamstring)
OF - Jason Repko (left shoulder bursitis)
RHP - Scott Baker (flexor strain in right elbow)
L - Denard Span (CF)
L - Joe Mauer (C)
L - Justin Morneau (1B)
R - Michael Cuddyer (RF)
L - Jason Kubel (LF)
L - Jim Thome (DH)
R - Danny Valencia (3B)
R - Trevor Plouffe (2B)
S - Tsuyoshi Nishioka (SS)