When the July 31 trade deadline came and went without a move of any kind by the Twins, it signaled that the front office had talked themselves out of being sellers by virtue of hanging around the edges of contention in a horrible division, yet still didn’t quite feel strong enough about their chances to actually become buyers. So instead they did literally nothing, failing to cash in impending free agents for future value and failing to acquire any short-term help.
And now a week later, the team looks just about finished, getting swept at home by the White Sox for the first time since 2004 while falling to 1-5 since the trade deadline passed and 5-12 since the beginning of a crucial four-game series versus the Tigers on July 21. They’re also now 51-63 overall and have been out-scored by 108 runs through 115 games for MLB’s third-worst run differential ahead of only the cellar-dwelling Astros and Orioles. This is simply a bad team.
What makes that disappointment all the more frustrating is a sense that the Twins may have squandered an opportunity to better position themselves for the future by refusing to view the current situation realistically. Maybe they’ll cash in some veterans before the secondary Aug. 31 trade deadline and maybe they’ll recoup some of that squandered value via compensatory draft picks, but none of that’s a given, and right now it sure seems like they played it wrong.
• Michael Cuddyer was without question the Twins’ most sought-after player at the deadline, reportedly drawing interest from the Giants, Phillies and various other contending teams that eventually paid premium prices for veteran bats. Rather than swap the 32-year-old impending free agent for long-term help in what was a strong seller’s market, the Twins turned away all inquiries while making it obvious that they wanted to re-sign Cuddyer.
Sure enough, Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune reports that the Twins recently offered Cuddyer a two-year, $16 million contract extension, which he predictably turned down. Offering much more than that would be a big mistake by the Twins, but from Cuddyer’s point of view, he’d be silly to accept it. For one thing, that represents a sizable pay cut from his current $10.5 million salary and Cuddyer is in the midst of arguably the best season of his career.
Beyond that, many of those same teams linked to Cuddyer at the trade deadline would also be linked to him as a free agent, and even if he ultimately wants to remain in Minnesota, it surely wouldn’t be all that difficult to coax the Twins into raising their offer on the open market. After all, the Twins’ message through the media all year has been what an amazing player, person and teammate Cuddyer is and it’s hard to believe their maximum bid for that is $16 million.
• Several members of the big-league rotation have been struggling for a while now and Kevin Slowey has a 3.55 ERA and 29-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings at Triple-A, but to no one’s surprise, the Twins aren’t interested in letting him out of the doghouse. Ron Gardenhire explained during an interview with 1500-ESPN that Anthony Swarzak, not Slowey, will get the nod if the Twins make a rotation change and repeated the company line on Slowey:
Who knows what’s going to happen with him? He’s a good pitcher. He’s got a great arm. Unfortunately for us, he just couldn’t pitch out of the bullpen and it just wasn’t going to work out for him. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to go with that. … Unfortunately, he couldn’t do the bullpen thing, and that didn’t help us. It didn’t help us at all. So we definitely have to look at this thing as we go along.
Gardenhire also dropped plenty of hints about the team still being upset with Slowey, saying:
That’s definitely a situation you have to monitor. I don’t know about rehabilitating, that’s totally up to him whether he wants to come up and be a part of it. And he’s definitely going to be in the mix again for next year, unless something happens over the course of the winter where he gets moved, because he’s a good pitcher. He can get people out, there’s no doubt about that.
Slowey deserves plenty of blame for how he handled the situation — which he’s certainly gotten and then some — but the Twins’ refusal to take any responsibility is galling. Slowey didn’t simply balk at becoming a reliever, he balked at becoming a reliever after four years as a starter with a 39-21 record and 4.42 ERA. And the Twins created the situation by choosing Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn over Slowey in a questionable decision that hasn’t gone well.
Blackburn has a 5.00 ERA and .302 opponents’ batting average in 291 innings since last year, including allowing 39 runs in his last 33 innings. Duensing’s inability to get right-handed hitters out has been exposed as a starter, and in 98 innings since May 1 his ERA is 5.13 while giving up a .295 batting average and .475 slugging percentage. Slowey can’t be blamed for their bad performances and the Twins should be held accountable for the choices they made.
• Swarzak has fared well as both a starter and a long reliever, throwing 59 innings with a 3.20 ERA, but his track record is spotty, and his current secondary numbers paint a less encouraging picture if he were to grab hold of a rotation spot. His control has been solid, but with just 29 strikeouts in 53 innings, Swarzak has a lower strikeout rate than even Blackburn’s minuscule mark and his fly-ball rate would be the third-highest in the league among starters.
If you’re not missing bats and nearly half of your balls in play are hit in the air … well, it’s not a recipe for long-term success. Those weaknesses haven’t caught up to Swarzak yet because his batting average on balls in play is an unsustainably low .249, compared with the MLB average of .290 and just 5.3 percent of his fly balls have gone for homers, compared with the average of 9.2 percent. All of which is why his ERA is a sparkling 3.20 and his xFIP is 4.79.
• One key decision that the Twins absolutely made correctly was not signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term extension coming off his excellent 2010. Doofuses like me called it a mistake, but Liriano has taken several massive steps backward. Compared with 2010, his fastball is down 1.8 miles per hour, his strikeouts are down 23 percent, his ground balls are down 7 percent, and he’s already walked more batters (59) in 111 innings than he did (58) in 192 innings. Yuck.
• Joe Mauer has batted second in the lineup while playing first base three times so far, which got me curious about which first basemen through baseball history have hit in the No. 2 spot most often. Via the always amazing Baseball-Reference.com the answer is Jake Daubert, who did it 659 times from 1910 to 1924, followed by Pete Rose (487), Vic Power (408), Jack Burns (402), and Rod Carew (387). Power and Carew both racked up a lot of those games as Twins.
• Denard Span went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts Sunday, making him 1-for-20 with one walk and six strikeouts since returning from his concussion. He also went 8-for-39 (.205) with zero walks and five strikeouts while rehabbing at Triple-A. Obviously plenty of rust is to be expected after two months on the sidelines, but given the type of injury and Span’s previously fantastic strike-zone control, his 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is worrisome.
• Alexi Casilla has been on the disabled list since July 28, during which time the Twins played 10 games. Matt Tolbert started six of them and Trevor Plouffe started four of them. It’ll soon be a moot point with Casilla scheduled to return shortly, but apparently Plouffe’s spectacular performance at Triple-A can’t even convince Gardenhire to play him over Tolbert, a 29-year-old career .232/.289/.326 hitter. Now should be the time to see what Plouffe can do.
• As if the Twins haven’t had enough go wrong this season, now 2009 first-round pick and top prospect Kyle Gibson has an elbow injury that may require Tommy John surgery. Gibson was finally shut down at Triple-A following a six-week stretch in which he went 0-5 with a 6.47 ERA, and the Twins’ doctors are scheduled to examine the right-hander and his MRI results today. Surgery would knock the 23-year-old Gibson out for all of 2012 and potentially part of 2013.
• Things aren’t looking good for Gibson, but at least 2010 first-round Alex Wimmers seems to be back on track after sitting out three months with extreme control problems. He tossed four scoreless innings of relief Saturday at high Single-A, striking out six and giving up just two hits. And most importantly Wimmers issued only one walk. He has a 23-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 innings since rejoining Fort Myers, including 13/2 in his last three appearances.
• Too little too late, but still good to see: Justin Morneau went 3-for-5 with a double last night while rehabbing at Triple-A.