Liriano Update

The Twins decided yesterday that Francisco Liriano will skip his next start and throw two bullpen sessions before returning to the rotation on May 1. Obviously, this is not a huge surprise. It remains to be seen whether this is enough to help him return to form.

Several writers have taken on this topic late yesterday and today. So far, I found  Phil Mackey‘s write-up the most interesting. His mixture of quotes and use of stats paints a pretty good picture of what is going on.

The only thing I would add to the mix is what I have written about previously, the issue of communication. In and around his mechanical issues and mental approach, I believe he could benefit from a coach or manager who is fluent in Spanish. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, but with some of the great Latin talent in lower-minors of the Twins organization, it might be wise for them to consider hiring such a coach sooner rather than later. In fact, I think there are times when Alexi Casilla would benefit from some coaching in his native language as well.

Back to Liriano, I am not optimistic about his being able to get it together. At his age, 28, he should be able to self-diagnose and self-correct by making in-game adjustments. He keeps saying he has not lost his confidence, but the evidence is otherwise and not being able to admit it to himself may be exacerbating the mental problems. We all have no choice but to wait and see how things develop over the next few weeks even as the Twins need someone to step up and lead the rotation.

Even though my favorite color is blue, I don’t plan on holding my breath for a super positive result.

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What to do with Liriano

Now that Francisco Liriano has had four consecutive bad starts, it is not difficult to believe the Twins’ brass will not even let him try “one more time” before looking at some alternatives. Given the comments by manager Ron Gardenhire after Liriano’s last start, patience has run out and options are being considered.  As a result, there is a good deal of speculation on what might be in the works for him, at least in the short term.

Perhaps most likely is his being moved to the bullpen, at least to see if he can regain some semblance of consistency on locating his fastball. If this is the decision, someone else may need to be moved to the starting rotation. My guess is the number one option for that is Anthony Swarzak, who has started a couple of games and pitched out of the bullpen to relieve Liriano on Sunday putting him in the right position to rejoin the rotation in a normal time interval.

If Liriano is envisioned to return soon to the rotation, the Twins could just skip his next start using the day off to keep the others in a normal five-day rotation. That would allow him to pitch out of the bullpen a couple of times in between starts.

A more radical alternative would be to send him to AAA to give him time under less stressful circumstances to regain his form and confidence before calling him up again later in the year. Because he has been in the major leagues for five or more years, he would need to give his consent to be optioned to Rochester. He might be amenable to that because in this contract year it is also in his best interest to demonstrate his value. Pitching well in AAA would be an improvement over his poor showing so far. Sending an established player who is struggling down would not be new for the Twins, so this choice cannot be ruled out.

If he is taken out of the rotation, one other move might be considered by the Twins. The fact that Scott Diamond has pitched so well at Rochester, gives them the option of calling him up and placing him in the starting rotation leaving Swarzak for the bullpen, where he is better suited.

Least likely, but not completely out of the realm of possibility, is some kind of trade that nets a serviceable starting pitcher for the Twins. I consider this a long shot because it is never wise to trade from a point of weakness, and I cannot imagine Liriano having lower market value than he has right now. Also, if the Twins have any hope of being competitive this year (a rapidly fleeting thought), the need is for a top of the rotation pitcher not another fifth starter type. Swarzak, Diamond or even Matt Maloney or Brian Duensing could fill the latter role cheaper than a veteran available by trade at this time of year.

If the decision was mine to make, I’d have Liriano pitch out of the bullpen a couple of times to see how he does and delay a final decision on his status in the rotation for at least a week. I’d choose to skip his start keeping others in rotation and giving as much bullpen flexibility as possible because the reduction from 13 to 12 pitchers is coming soon, probably after Nick Blackburn’s start on Tuesday. If all goes well for Blackburn, someone will be sent down or released and if he has a recurrence of his shoulder cramp, he’ll be put on the DL, creating yet another problem for the starting rotation.

I expect Blackburn to pitch well demonstrating he is fully recovered and the focus will then remain on Liriano and how to get him back on track.

Next Roster Shuffles

This week the Twins had to make another roster adjustment to create space for Jason Marquis on the 25-man roster. Marquis had been in New Britain building arm strength due to missing so much of spring training.

Luke Hughes was designated for assignment to make room, a decision that came as a surprise to the Twins blogger/sports writers community. After doing a little musing about it, I’ve decided it is the first in what is most likely going to be a series of moves in the next few weeks.

Here are some reasons why I think moves are coming soon.

First, the addition of a pitcher and dropping a position player is almost certainly a temporary measure. Carrying 13 pitchers is not sustainable for any significant period of time. While it is easy to see why this number might be useful for the short-term, 12 is going to be the number eventually. Uncertainty with regard to Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn is what brought about the need for more pitchers. Neither one appears to be going on the DL, so numbers are needed to get through until they are pitching again. So far reports indicate Blackburn will be starting next Tuesday and Perkins could be available as soon as today.

Second, the removal of Hughes from the 40-man roster creates a spot for someone who is not currently on that extended ML roster. Much speculation has already begun about what that means with the most common conclusion being the vacant slot will be given to Brian Dozier as he is called up sometime in the next few weeks. Other speculation has concluded the slot is being held for a possible waiver claim in the near future. And, one blogger has even posited Drew Butera will be brought up because Ron Gardenhire likes having three catchers at his disposal. My guess is the Twins are creating flexibility with no specific action determined yet.

Third, as the Twins continue to play out the tough April schedule, it will become increasingly clear if they are going to be at all competitive this year. If not, the rebuilding will begin in earnest. If they are playing well, winning more than losing by the middle of May, the process will be delayed.

Finally, now into the realm of pure speculation on my part, I am anticipating rebuilding sooner rather than later. If that is the case, the next move to reduce the pitchers to twelve will be quite interesting. I think Jeff Gray is the most vulnerable to go. He has no more options so will be designated for assignment. Earlier in the season I was almost certain the first to go would be Alex Burnett because he had a less than stellar spring training and he has never had a full season in AAA. Instead, he has pitched very well so far and Gray has been less effective.

Continuing with the speculation on the position player side, the next few weeks will also be important for both Jamey Carroll and Alexi Casilla. If both continue to play and hit as well as they have over the past week or so, the promotion of Dozier will be delayed giving him even more time to prove he can be consistently effective at AAA. If one or the other falters, Dozier will be called up and he will get his shot at holding down the shortstop position.

When the rebuilding effort has definitely begun, I’ll get into more speculation about which veterans will be shopped for trades before the mid-summer deadline.

First Roster Adjustment of 2012

In the last couple of days, the Twins made what some might have thought an odd waiver claim. Clete Thomas was placed on waivers by the Detroit Tigers and the Twins claimed him. In doing so, the Twins had to make a corresponding set of roster moves.

To create a spot for Thomas on the 40-man roster, Scott Baker was put on the 60-day DL. That is no surprise as Baker will be out for the season following his elbow surgery. What came as a mild surprise to fans who had hopes for a starting spot this year for Ben Revere was his being sent down to AAA Rochester.

The moves make sense in the bigger context. Rochester has had some injuries to outfielders and Revere needs more regular playing time if he is to continue to develop. He is still quite young and has some upside, so the opportunity to play every day is important.

Thomas is a capable, versatile outfielder who is used to a bench role and is not seen as losing much by not getting playing time regularly. In fact, his role will likely be limited to defensive replacement most of the time. With the pressure off Gardenhire to play Revere enough, the right field situation becomes less of a log jam and Trevor Plouffe is almost certainly going to get more time on the field than he has to this point.

I am hoping this will also improve the outfield defense at least a bit. So far, Ryan Doumit has been adequate at best in right field and Josh Willingham has been less than that in left field.

Probably the most disappointing thing for me so far this season has been Willingham on defense. He has been exciting to watch as a hitter, but quite an adventure – similar to the foibles of Delmon Young – in the field. My disappointment stems less from his weakness as a defender and more because he seems to be so lackadaisical in his effort so often. To give credit where it is due, he has made a few nice running catches, some in foul territory, so he appears more capable than he has played at times. In spring training, I noticed he did not run out ground balls and otherwise seemed to lack hustle. In the field, he has looked very much like he doesn’t care much if he gets to a ball in time or even throws to the right base with much authority. Again, credit where it is due, he did once make a nice foul territory catch and a subsequent great throw to home to get a runner trying to score, but one good play has been overshadowed by some very weak play.

This bears watching, because right now, the Twins seem to have too many DH types and not enough defensive players. As it looks currently, I would not be surprised to see a shift in alignment to Morneau at first base, Parmelee in right field, Plouffe and Doumit platooning in left field with Willingham as the full time DH. It may just be marginal improvement, but I think in the long run Willingham is a tremendous liability in the cavernous left field of Target Field.morn

Orioles Sweep the Series

It’s tough to be optimistic right now the way the Twins played the first three games of the season. Very few flashes of good play and too many signs of mediocrity have a tendency to lead to thinking this could be a rebuilding season sooner rather than later.

Yesterday the offense was anemic – again too little too late – and the defense left much to be desired. Willingham looked bad in left field more than once, and Valencia was very slow reacting a couple of different times on plays he probably should have made. My guess is he took his failings at the plate (hit into two DP’s) out on the field and didn’t have his head in the game on defense. Whether it was the cause or just part of the early season rotation plan, Valencia found himself on the bench for the next game.

Today at least Swarzak pitched well giving up only one run in five innings, a home run to Hardy in the first. Unfortunately, Maloney proceeded to get hit hard and gave up two runs in his first inning of work. Brightest spot in pitching today? Second effective appearance in relief by Duensing – both very good. On the offensive side, it took until the eighth inning to get even the first hit, but then back to back doubles by Morneau and Willingham produced the only run of the game for the Twins.

For the series overall, very weak hitting and less than stellar pitching against the team that is likely to end up in last place in the AL east is discouraging. The next stretch of games will be a continued test even though they will at least be home for six game.

My expectations for the season were not all that high to begin with for various reasons, but I did expect one win out of this series. The best news as the season began has been the health of Mauer and Morneau. Too bad only Morneau is hitting the ball well right now. Returning to the cold weather of April in Minneapolis is not exactly a recipe for sudden improvement at the plate either.

The next few weeks may prove to be agonizing for Twins fans with only the hopes of seeing some of the young rising starts perhaps earlier than I and others anticipated. Of course, three games is not much in the context of a 162-game schedule, and a three game sweep in the middle of the season doesn’t feel quite as dire as it does to open the season, but this team is not awe-inspiring yet. A good run of a six-game win streak would change that quickly.

Game 1 Observations

Opening day has finally arrived and game one is in the books. A little disappointing, but great to have the season under way. I’m not going to do any kind of game summary, but instead will make a few comments about what I noticed in the season opener.

Worrisome: The defensive play of Ryan Doumit in right field. His misplay led to a run-producing triple. He may have just lost the ball in the sun, but he was anything but graceful out there.

Encouraging: The defensive play of the infield, especially Jamey Carroll; the strong arm of Josh Willingham throwing out a baserunner at home after making a catch in left field foul territory; and the offense mounting a comeback in the ninth inning even if it fell short.

Interesting in a curious sort of way: Relief pitching decisions. Jeff Gray the first pitcher out of the bullpen; letting Brian Duensing pitch to a right handed hitter with two runners on base; and apparently being prepared to bring Alex Burnett in if needed. Did Gardenhire think it was already a lost cause?

Most surprising: How well Jake Arrieta pitched for Baltimore. Is he really a budding ace or are the Twins hitters just not in a groove yet?

Twins Player of the Game: Josh Willingham.