Week in Review: Digging Holes
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 8/5 through Sun, 8/11
Record Last Week: 2-5 (Overall: 71-47)
Run Differential Last Week: -14 (Overall: +127)
Standing: Tied for 1st Place in AL Central
Willians Watch: Out Indefinitely
Exactly one week after losing Byron Buxton to a shoulder injury that will likely sideline him through at least the end of August, the Twins sustained another devastating blow with the loss of Nelson Cruz, who came up wincing on a swing-and-miss in Thursday's opener against Cleveland. Prior to last week, Cruz had almost single-handedly powered Minnesota through a 7-2 stretch against the Marlins, White Sox, and Royals with eight homers and 19 RBIs. His diagnosis of a ruptured tendon is actually being portrayed as relatively positive news, but we'll see.
The Twins have fumbled away an opportunity to show something against quality competition since the All-Star break, sandwiching their successful run against the aforementioned basement-dwellers with a 7-12 record against the Mets, A's, Yankees, Braves, and Indians. The lack of effectiveness against these teams is going to make it hard for anyone to feel confident in Minnesota's outlook for the postseason, even if they're able to ride a soft remaining schedule to a division title or wild-card berth.
Outside of Cruz going down, the past week in roster moves was a medley of pitching switches. Cody Stashak was optioned on Tuesday to make room for Kohl Stewart, who himself was sent back down the next day in exchange for Randy Dobnak. On Friday, Stashak was recalled to fill Cruz's vacant roster spot. The Twins aren't exactly trafficking distinguished arms here, but Dobnak's excellent debut on Friday was (as we'll discuss shortly) a shining beam of positivity amidst a pall of darkness.
The week started on a high note, as Miguel Sano extended his resurgent offensive tear with one of the season's biggest hits: a walk-off, two-run homer to beat the Braves at Target Field on Monday. He entered the game with a .901 OPS since the start of June – trailing only Cruz (1.145) and Max Kepler (.909) among Twins hitters. Sano's production tailed off in the latter part of the week, as he went 1-for-14 with with seven strikeouts against Cleveland, but he has rightfully earned his way up to the No. 3 spot in the order with a discerning, punishing plate approach that closely resembles the pre-injury version of himself.
Sano's return to form, along with the continuing emergence of Luis Arraez (six more hits last week, including the ninth-inning single that set up Sano's walk-off), has been hugely invigorating for an offense that's otherwise seen several important contributors get hurt or cool off. Sano and Arraez are the straws stirring the drink right now.
Pitching-wise it was not a good week in general, but Jake Odorizzi certainly deserves credit for coming up with his best start in two months on Monday, when he held Atlanta to one run over six innings, even though it took him a season-high 109 pitches to accomplish it. He followed with another strong – albeit inefficient – effort on Saturday, tossing 5 2/3 scoreless innings while showing renewed life on his splitter and compiling 17 whiffs.
Odorizzi has rebounded nicely after his nine-run clunker against the Yankees in late July, allowing two runs (and only one homer) over 17 1/3 innings in three starts since.
The other big highlight of the week, especially for those who love a good underdog story, was the arrival of Dobnak. The 24-year-old right-hander originally came to the Twins organization from an independent league after going undrafted out of college. Despite lacking standout stuff or big strikeout rates, Dobnak rapidly cruised through the minors, opening this season at Single-A and jolting to the majors within four months on the strength of his stifling performance: 11-3 with a 2.02 ERA and 0.98 WHIP between three levels.
In his MLB debut on Friday, Dobnak lived up to his statistical profile. He got a few swings and misses but was more dependent on weak contact, unleashing a bevy of sinkers in the zone en route to four shutout innings.
When Eddie Rosario went deep with a solo shot on Friday night, it marked a new franchise record for home runs, surpassing the 225 benchmark set by Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, and the 1963 Twins.
With more than seven weeks remaining on the schedule, this was undeniably a remarkable and impressive feat, but somehow it felt hollow amidst another frustrating week that exposed Minnesota's inability to overcome quality opponents on the basis of this one-dimensional advantage.
Outside of Odorizzi, we saw the bottom fall out for the Twins rotation last week. A feisty and tenacious offense did its part but could not dig out of the massive holes built by starters who simply wilted against good lineups in critical spots.
On Tuesday, Jose Berrios turned in one of the worst starts of his career, coughing up a whopping nine runs (all earned) over 5 2/3 innings against the Braves. His night started with a home run on the first pitch to Ronald Acuna, and hardly got any better from there as he issued a season-high four walks while yielding nine hits. In his second start of the week on Sunday, Berrios showed improvement, getting through six frames with three runs allowed, but still looked nothing like the ace Minnesota needs him to be. Fighting through diminished velocity and a scarcity of swinging strikes, Berrios is setting off alarm bells right now.
On Wednesday, Martin Perez dropped yet another dud, allowing seven runs (six earned) on 11 hits in six innings versus Atlanta. It was the lefty's third time in his last four starts allowing 5+ ER and 3 HR, further endangering a seemingly precarious rotation spot. After coming up with five quality starts in his first seven turns through May 17th, Perez has since delivered only three QS in 13 starts.
Bumping him to the bullpen would be a mere formality at this point if a clear upgrade were readily available. But Michael Pineda remains on the IL and Devin Smeltzer tarnished his case on Friday with a thrashing at the hands of Cleveland, coughing up seven runs (six earned) in just 4 1/3 innings in a game that could've taken a major toll on the bullpen if not for Dobnak. We've seen a lot of good from Smeltzer this year, but his two letdowns have been exceedingly painful since both came against the Indians. Makes it a little tough to count on him.
All those lowlights aside, the biggest flub of the week from my perspective was Kyle Gibson's start on Thursday to kick off the Cleveland series. It wasn't the worst performance we saw from a Twins pitcher but given all the circumstances, I view it as maybe the low point of Gibson's career in Minnesota.
All of Gibson's worst traits were on display in a tone-setting struggle against Cleveland's lineup. He was constantly timid around the zone, piling up six walks in 4 1/3 innings while throwing more balls (43) than strikes (42). His tenseness on the mound manifested in the second when he botched a pickoff throw, allowing a run to score.
I've always considered myself a Gibby defender. He's a homegrown, drafted-and-developed pitcher who's been a quality organizational citizen – a likable guy that embraced analytics and outside-the-box techniques to reinvent himself. He's an above-average starter who occasionally flashes dominance, and I personally believe he has earned the opportunity to play a key role in Minnesota's first real playoff push since he's been in the majors.
But he's running out of time to alter the narrative that he can't get it done against dangerous lineups when the team really needs him to step up. This latest outing was unfortunately the kind that may well end up defining his legacy with the Twins. There are few series remaining against offenses that pose a real threat, and if Gibson can't buck his trend and come through in those opportunities (starting with Milwaukee on Wednesday), he probably won't get a chance to bolster his legacy – and free agent stock – in the postseason.
Our worst fears have been realized. The Twins have seen what was once an 11.5-game lead in the AL Central vanish entirely. Despite some grumblings to the contrary, this is due to Cleveland's torrid play more than any ostensible "collapse" from Minnesota, whose degradation from unstoppable force in the early months to a merely mortal and solid unit still leaves them 24 games above .500, and on a 97-win pace.
With that said, this team is clearly confronting a moment of truth. They are watching their once-firm grasp on the Central disappear before their very eyes. The Twins are playing their worst ball of the season as the Indians play their best, and as a result, a division title – and even a playoff entry – are very much in doubt.
The front office didn't take especially decisive action at the deadline, and while your mileage may vary on this strategy, I'm okay with protecting prime minor-league assets. Sustainability is an important consideration. Having said that, this is a crucial window of opportunity. You can't assume you'll find yourself in this position next year. The Twins need to do whatever they can to maximize their chances, not just of reaching October but of making a run there.
Does that mean taking the drastic step of, say, calling up Alex Kirilloff or Trevor Larnach from Double-A? Larnach has been raking in August and Kirilloff's pure raw talent supersedes his ordinary numbers. These are lightning-in-a-bottle type additions capable of sparking a lineup that feels very incomplete sans Buxton and Cruz.
An even more intriguing option, given the club's needs, would be Brusdar Graterol, the flame-throwing righty who returned to the Double-A mound last week, striking out three of the six batters he faced in a relief appearance for the Blue Wahoos. This pitching staff needs a difference-maker. Graterol could be it. And the silver lining of his shoulder injury, which sidelined him for more than two months, is that the downtime kept his innings total in check.
The problem, in any of these scenarios, is twofold: First, you're talking about throwing inexperienced youngsters who are still acclimating to the Double-A level into a major-league pennant race. It's an insane amount of pressure, and the kind of thing that could adversely affect development if it goes poorly. Second, you're starting the service clock on players who are still probably a ways away from being full-time big-league contributors. In the case of Graterol, who's still just 20 years old, you'd be setting him up to potentially be out of options by age 23.
Then again, those are the kinds of risks you necessarily take when you're in it. And the Twins are very much in it. We'll see hold bold this regime can be.
DOWN ON THE FARM
If the Twins were feeling hints of buyer's remorse for the Sergio Romo trade, which sent prospect Lewin Diaz to the Marlins, they might have gotten some relief over the weekend. Yes, Diaz has been on an absolute tear since joining Miami's Double-A affiliate, with five home runs in 13 games. And the pitching prospect Minnesota got back in the swap, Chris Vallimont, was shelled in his first start for the Miracle. But Romo's been very good and Vallimont bounced back in a big way on Friday, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth and finishing with seven superlative innings.
Diaz definitely looks like a player, but all-in-all, the Twins will happily swap out a defensively limited hitter for pitching upside at this point. Vallimont has some real steam in prospect circles and in his second start with his new organization, he showed why.
Speaking of pitchers, one other development worth watching on the minor-league front: Trevor Hildenberger opened up a rehab stint in the Gulf Coast League on Saturday, logging a scoreless inning against the Red Sox affiliate. It was his first official appearance since June 8th. Who knows what to expect from Hildenberger at this point, but if he can find any semblance of his old form it could provide a much-needed infusion for the big-league bullpen. Stephen Gonsalves also returned to the mound in the GCL following a long injury layoff, but seems much less likely to be a factor for the Twins down the stretch.
Another tough week awaits, with Minnesota heading across the border to face Christian Yelich and the Brewers, then traveling south for four games against Texas in the August Arlington heat. These aren't great teams, but they're good teams, and both will present a brisk challenge for the reeling Twins. Afterwards, the schedule gets much easier – 12 straight games against the White Sox and Tigers – but a winning week ahead will be important, both for keeping pace with the unrelenting Indians, and for restoring confidence.
TUESDAY, 8/13: TWINS @ BREWERS – LHP Martin Perez v. RHP Chase Anderson
WEDNESDAY, 8/14: TWINS @ BREWERS – RHP Kyle Gibson v. LHP Gio Gonzalez
THURSDAY, 8/15: TWINS @ RANGERS – LHP Devin Smeltzer v. RHP Pedro Payano
FRIDAY, 8/16: TWINS @ RANGERS – RHP Jake Odorizzi v. LHP Mike Minor
SATURDAY, 8/17: TWINS @ RANGERS – RHP Jose Berrios v. RHP Ariel Jurado
SUNDAY, 8/18: TWINS @ RANGERS – LHP Martin Perez v. RHP Lance Lynn
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
- Game 112 | MIN 5, ATL 3: May Throws Fire, Sano Launches a Walk-Off Bomb in Twins Win
- Game 113 | ATL 12, MIN 7: Berrios Bad Night Leads to Braves Blowout
- Game 114 | ATL 11, MIN 7: Perez Struggles and Offense is Too Late in Rubber Match
- Game 115 | CLE 7, MIN 5: Gibson Struggles, Late-Inning Rallies Fall Short
- Game 116 | CLE 6, MIN 2: Twins Set Home Run Record, Lose to Cleveland
- Game 117 | MIN 4, CLE 1: Odorizzi Solid, Offense Takes Advantage of Key Opportunities
- Game 118 | CLE 7, MIN 3: Frustrating Loss Marred by Heartbreaking Moments
- mikelink45 likes this