Another game, another injury.....
The Twins will hit the halfway point of the season after this weekend’s home series with the Milwaukee Brewers. With high expectations coming out of spring training, this year’s team has struggled to overcome a slew of injuries that has left many wondering if it’s even possible to recover and salvage the season.
While injuries have played a major part in the Twins' struggles, they can’t be seen as the sole reason for the team's lack of success.
Early season issues in the starting rotation, a patchwork bullpen and a lack of pop in the lineup have been just a few of the problems this team encountered, leading to a 16-33 start through the first two months. And while things seem to have turned around as of late (17-12 in June,) the Twins still have a long climb ahead of them if they are to get back in the race for the AL Central crown.
Midway through the year, it’s report card time. In this slideshow, we’ll grade the performance of the starting rotation, bullpen and everyday lineup and tell you what needs to happen for the Twins to get back into contention in 2011.
Scott Baker has regained the form that made him one of the best Twins pitchers in the last decade.
The questions were there coming out of spring training: Could Carl Pavano duplicate his performance from 2010 as the team workhorse? Would Francisco Liriano finally become the true staff ace the team has hoped he would develop into? How would Brian Duensing handle being a starter for a full season? And could Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker bounce back from disappointing campaigns to regain their status as solid, middle-of-rotation pitchers?
After a rough six-week stretch to start the year, a stretch in which Pavano admitted he felt “out of sync,” he has bounced back to become the innings eater the Twins expected when they re-signed him in the offseason. He has lowered his ERA by over two full runs since May 8 and leads the team in complete games and innings pitched.
Liriano was brutal in April but after no-hitting the White Sox on May 3, he seems to have found his groove as well. While sometimes struggling to find consistency with his delivery, he has been completely dominant at times and looked every bit the ace the Twins envisioned him to be. It seems the only thing keeping Liriano from being among the league's best pitchers is himself.
Duensing has given the team about what they expected when manager Ron Gardenhire decided to give him a spot in the rotation this spring. After posting a 2.91 ERA in April, Duensing seemed to struggle for a few starts after having his May 7 outing in Boston postponed by rain after two innings. Overall, his poor starts have generally been when he lacks command, leading to one bad inning that gets out of control.
Blackburn and Baker were two of the bigger question marks coming into 2011. Both dealt with elbow injuries throughout last season that led to less than desirable results. This year, however, they are arguably the Twins' top two pitchers.
Blackburn has been a model of consistency over the last two months after a tough April. He has pitched deep into games, giving Gardenhire exactly what he was looking for when he named him the third starter early in spring training, a move which surprised many. He has certainly rewarded Gardenhire’s vote of confidence with his performance.
Baker, it can be argued, has regained his status as the No. 1 starter. Averaging nearly a strikeout per inning, he has been nearly untouchable at times. He blows hitters away with pinpoint control and command of his fastball. With an ERA hovering just over three, it definitely appears he is over the elbow inflammation that derailed much of his 2010 season.
Overall: The rotation has rounded out to become one of the best in baseball over the last several weeks. If they can continue to perform at this same level, the Twins will have a shot at getting back into contention for the division title.
Closer Matt Capps needs to be a dominant force in the second half for the Twins to contend.
After allowing several bullpen mainstays to leave via free agency in the offseason, the Twins bullpen came into 2011 with a completely new look. Losing Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and late season acquisition Brian Fuentes proved to be way too much for this team to handle early in the year, especially in April and May.
The first two months were characterized by several blown leads and several meltdowns in general. One example was May 27 against the Angels at Target Field. Baker tossed seven shutout innings and handed a 5-0 lead over to the ‘pen in the eighth. Four relievers combined to blow that lead, and the Twins lost 6-5.
Much like he has had to piece together the everyday lineup due to injuries, Gardenhire has had to do the same with the bullpen. Kevin Slowey was expected to be a key contributor in both middle and late relief but has been injured most of the year. Glen Perkins, who has found a home as a late-inning specialist, also spent time on the DL. Veteran Jose Mijares has been awful, to say the least. The rest of the pen has been manned with the likes of Phil Dumatrait, Alex Burnett, Jim Hoey, Dusty Hughes and Anthony Swarzak.
Not exactly names that strike fear in the opposition.
Coming back from elbow surgery, Joe Nathan was named the closer to start the season. That didn’t last long. Nathan struggled mightily with his command and blew a few saves early. He was replaced by Matt Capps, who has gone on to save 13 games in 17 opportunities. Capps has been generally average, at best, in the closer role.
Overall: The bullpen has had a fairly solid month of June, which has contributed to the Twins' resurgence. Perkins is back and Nathan has seemed to regain command and some velocity since returning from the DL. These two will be counted on in the late innings to get a lead to Capps.
The team will need Burnett, Mijares, and Dumatrait to step up and fill the middle relief roles. If they can’t, you can expect to see the likes of Anthony Slama and Chuck James getting another chance as the summer goes along. Ultimately, if GM Bill Smith decides to be a buyer at the trade deadline, he will need to make a deal to bolster this bullpen for the Twins to have a shot at catching Detroit or Cleveland.
Will the real Joe Mauer please stand up?
There isn’t anyone who could have possibly expected what has transpired with this lineup in 2011. The run of injuries this club has suffered is historic and is something we’ll probably never see again.
But that’s not to say that injuries are the only excuse for this team’s performance. Many of the regulars have struggled even while healthy. Consequently, the Twins have produced one of the most anemic offenses in baseball.
Delmon Young was awful for two months, giving the team virtually nothing at the plate. He began to find his stroke in June but is now out indefinitely after spraining his ankle in Milwaukee.
Danny Valencia has battled the sophomore slump, despite leading the team in RBI. He has generally been disappointing after a brilliant second half of 2010.
Justin Morneau never seemed to find the groove that made him an elite power hitter. He is now out until August after having neck surgery.
Denard Span was having a decent year until a concussion landed him on the DL in early June. There is speculation he may end up like Morneau last year and be out indefinitely.
Jason Kubel was having a tremendous season, leading the team in hitting in most categories—until he sprained his foot earlier this month.
And then there is Joe Mauer. Mauer missed 58 games with sore legs, and his durability and commitment has been questioned by many. Since coming back, he has been unspectacular, to say the least.
Overall: These guys just need to hit, period. The team is getting the starting pitching it needs to win ball games, and the offense needs to step up and play to its capabilities.
Ben Revere has been a catalyst filling in for Span in center field. Michael Cuddyer will probably be the Twins' rep at the All-Star game in July.
As the team continues to get healthy (Kubel will be back soon,) the offense should continue to pick up.
Mauer will need to find his groove and get back to driving the ball like a three-time batting champion. Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been a huge disappointment so far while adjusting to the American game. He needs to find the swing and the confidence that won him a batting title in Japan last year. And guys like Alexi Casilla and Luke Hughes need to continue to find ways to contribute in big spots.
2011 has been one of Ron Gardenhire's most challenging seasons ever as a manager.
Second half outlook: The Twins will need to grade out at an A if they are to win their seventh division title in 11 years. This will prove to be Gardenhire’s most challenging season to date.
The starting rotation is solid, and the bullpen is improving.
It’s a matter of the team scoring enough runs to win games. Mauer will have to get back to elite status and carry this team in stretches. Kubel will need to be the player he was before his injury. Jim Thome will need to contribute some power into the lineup as DH, and Valencia must regain his 2010 form at the plate for the Twins to start scoring more runs consistently.
As we’ve learned in years past, you can never count this team out until the very end. And after a rough first half of the season, it looks like it will be another summer of playing catch-up and trying to make things interesting in September. Let’s hope it happens.