Week in Review: Home Sweet Home
Image courtesy of Marilyn Indahl, USA Today
Mon, 7/2 through Sun, 7/8
Record Last Week: 4-3 (Overall: 39-48)
Run Differential Last Week: +13 (Overall: -21)
Standing: 2nd Place in AL Central (9.5 GB)
When previewing the upcoming slate in last week's edition of this column, I noted that the "four-game home set against Baltimore in the latter portion would look like a huge opportunity if the Twins hadn't already essentially buried themselves. That Orioles team is really, really bad."
True to form, Baltimore came to town and played terribly, dropping all four games to push its MLB-leading loss total to 65. After being swept out of Target Field, the O's find themselves on pace for a 44-118 finish. A good reminder that it could be worse.
But things still aren't anywhere near good for the Twins, whose first sweep of the year came on the heels of a gut-wrenching 1-8 road trip that torpedoed their remaining hopes of vaulting into contention. As we head into a new week, the Twins find themselves nine games below .500 and 9 1/2 out in the division despite their modest four-game winning streak.
When a season goes south as this one has, one silver lining is the opportunity to extensively evaluate some potentially useful pieces going forward. One of the most interesting names in this category at present is Jake Cave, who's been enjoying regular playing time with Byron Buxton demoted and Ryan LaMarre designated for assignment.
Cave has been taking advantage in a big way.
The numbers have been solid – he went 6-for-21 with a pair of doubles this week and has a .785 OPS overall through 20 big-league games – but more noticeable is the energy and hustle. He runs hard on the bases, risked injury with a gutsy headfirst slide into home on Saturday, and has already made several highlight-reel plays in the outfield, including a home run robbery Friday night that earned him some noteworthy praise:
When acquired, Cave was described (even by Derek Falvey) as a somewhat fringy center fielder better suited for the corners, but he looked awfully capable making six straight starts in the middle this past week.
We'll see where things go from here, but right now Cave is building his case to be part of the 2019 picture. One theoretical outfield mix would have the Twins carrying four lefty-swinging outfielders (Cave, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, LaMonte Wade) on the active roster next year. We might even see that combination in place this September.
Speaking of Kepler, he also put forth a strong effort over the past seven days, going 8-for-25 with a pair of home runs while starting all seven games. During Minnesota's nightmarish road trip Kepler had produced zero extra-base hits and one RBI in 34 plate appearances, so it was good to see him hit some balls hard and drive in four during the Baltimore series.
Returning to the fold after his 80-game PED suspension to open the season, Jorge Polanco had an assuring first week of action. Starting every game at shortstop, the 25-year-old went 7-for-26 with a pair of doubles and two walks. He's looked sharp on defense, and ended Saturday's game with an excellent backhand play in the hole.
On the pitching side there were some impressive performances as well. Aaron Slegers made his first start of the season for the Twins on Thursday and he was money, tossing six very efficient innings with one run, one walk and three hits allowed to pick up his first MLB win.
Because his stuff and strikeouts have never matched up with his intimidating frame, the 6-foot-10 righty has never been viewed as a high-end prospect, but the consistent results are hard to ignore. In his tidy victory over Baltimore, Slegers showed why a manager likes to have him around – he worked quickly, pounded the strike zone, and kept his fielders busy while limiting hard contact.
Adalberto Mejia, sent back to the minors after getting one chance to start in unbearable heat, certainly deserves another look. So does Fernando Romero, who has put up a 1.45 ERA in three starts at Rochester since an arguably unearned demotion. But Slegers, much like Cave, is one of those borderline players the Twins should be using this second half to assess. It's gonna be tough to find room for holding all these auditions in the rotation unless Minnesota can open up some vacancies, which is why the trade deadline will be key.
One candidate to be dealt further bolstered his stock over the weekend. Kyle Gibson shook off a rocky first frame to get through seven innings of three-run ball with nine strikeouts. He set a new career-high by inducing 20 swinging strikes, second-most for a Twins starter all season (Lance Lynn tallied 21 at Detroit in mid-June).
Granted, the sterling effort came against a truly lousy Orioles squad, but it was another reminder of Gibby's vastly improved arsenal. There were reportedly scouts on hand to watch the right-hander's previous outing, and if any were in the house at Target Field on Saturday they undoubtedly came away impressed.
My stance is that the Twins shouldn't move Gibson unless they're blown away by an offer. But that's not an implausible scenario.
Another strong week worth mentioning: Trevor Hildenberger bounced back from his weird implosion at Wrigley Field with three scoreless appearances, striking out five while allowing one hit and two walks. That's more like it.
And finally, in the Baby Steps Department: At Triple A, Buxton collected seven hits, including a two doubles and a homer, while scoring seven times and keeping his K-rate below 25%. At Single A, Miguel Sano went 7-for-21 and is sporting a .340 average.
Before his monster sixth inning on Sunday, in which he hit both a leadoff double and a subsequent three-run homer, Brian Dozier was 4-for-24 (.167) with nine strikeouts and zero walks on the week. Like much of the second baseman's scant production this year, his big blast – a signature upper-decker yanked to straightaway left – didn't exactly come at a pivotal time, as it extended the team's lopsided lead from seven runs to 10.
This trend has led Dozier to a -1.67 Win Probability Added, worst on the team by far, and magnifies the disappointing nature of his performance this season. According to Baseball Reference, the 31-year-old is hitting .123/.206/.193 in "Close and Late" situations, compounding a conspicuous career-long weakness (Dozier's lifetime OPS in such spots is nearly 200 points lower than his overall mark).
None of this will do much to prop up his value in the eyes of shopping contenders as the deadline approaches.
The only longer-tenured Twin, Joe Mauer, also had a quiet week, picking up five hits in 24 at-bats (.208) with one RBI and one walk. Mauer's keen eye has disappeared since his return from the disabled list. He's coaxed only two free passes in 79 plate appearances (2.5%) after drawing 28 in 167 PA (16.8%) before stirring up concussion symptoms in May. As a result, his OBP has gone from .404 before the injury to .253 since.
When answering a fan's question about whether Mauer might return on a one-year deal in 2019, Star Tribune beat reporter La Velle E. Neal III responded, "He wants to play next year, so yes." If it's a true reflection of the organization's mindset, it's annoying. With all due respect, Mauer's desires and preferences should not be dictating the team's plans.
He is a leadoff man who, over the past month, hasn't been able to get on base. A first baseman who can't hit for power (subtracting those weird two games at Wrigley Field at the end of June, Mauer has slugged .266 in 18 games since coming off the DL). A lineup staple and ostensible team leader with a 0.3 WAR through half the season.
Maybe this is just a short-term slump, and Mauer will soon get back to the level he was at before. But given his history of prolonged droughts following concussion issues, it's not easy to feel confident in that.
Bobby Wilson badly needed a game like the one he had on Saturday. The "backup" catcher was sporting an unsightly .114/.191/.203 slash line before breaking out with two hits and three RBIs in the victory. Obviously his overall numbers still aren't pretty, and it's fairly clear Wilson doesn't belong in the majors, much less starting on a semi-regular basis.
I put the word "backup" in quotes above because Wilson really hasn't functioned as one – more of a straight-up timeshare partner. Since the start of June, Mitch Garver has made 18 starts behind the plate to Wilson's 17, and the two have been pretty close in total plate appearances (72 for Garver versus 56 for Wilson, despite the former out-hitting the latter by 500+ points of OPS during that span).
In recent weeks, the catching workload has actually swung very much in Wilson's favor, as he's made 10 starts behind the plate to Garver's seven over the past 17 contests. That Paul Molitor has shifted the balance this way, despite a massive offensive chasm, speaks to a pretty evident lack of faith in Garver's receiving skills.
While that's understandable enough given his relative lack of MLB experience, the Twins can't exactly afford to exhibit endless patience with Garver, who turns 28 in January. If he's this far away now from where he needs to be, is he going to get there? How's it gonna happen when he's not getting regular reps? And even if they are unenthused with his defense, why aren't the Twins finding Garver more starts at DH or first? Why was he batting ninth on Friday despite a .333/.393/.451 line over his previous 20 games, and eighth on Sunday after chipping in two hits and a walk on Friday?
The handling of Garver has been odd, and the present state of the catcher position is unacceptable. One would think something's gotta give.
DOWN ON THE FARM
It's been a little bit of a weird season for Lewis Thorpe. The lefty, who returned successfully to Single-A last season after losing two full years to injury and illness, has now taken the step up to Double A where he has dominated... kinda.
The core numbers don't reflect it. Through 82 2/3 innings Thorpe has a 4.04 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, which are hardly eye-popping numbers for a 22-year-old in the Southern League. But he has also posted a stellar 104-to-24 K/BB ratio.
His stuff has by all accounts been excellent, and at times that has clearly manifested, like on June 21st when he struck out 12 over seven shutout innings while allowing one hit and one walk. But then he has weird games, like his dud in early June where he coughed up nine runs on nine hits over 3 1/3 innings, even though he induced 16 whiffs on 85 pitches. There was another start in April where he yielded 10 hits over 4 2/3 despite striking out seven, walking none, and again drawing 16 swings and misses.
Thorpe has struck out hitters in droves while showing good control, but he's been haunted by a .370 BABIP and elevated pitch counts. Luckily, the folks assembling the Futures Game rosters looked past this and handed the Melbourne native a spot on the World team. He'll likely take the mound at some point next Sunday in DC during the prospect showcase.
Maybe he'll even get a chance to face Alex Kirilloff, who will represent the Twins on the U.S. team.
The most impressive week on the farm belonged to Brent Rooker, who collected multiple hits in five of seven games and doubled in the winning run for Chattanooga on Saturday. Sporting a 1.047 OPS since the start of June, the 2017 draftee is a compelling candidate to spend time in Rochester or even Minnesota later this season.
If they want to keep this winning streak going, the Twins could hardly ask for a better slate in the final week before the All-Star break. The Royals, closely trailing Baltimore for most losses in the majors at 64, arrive on Monday for a three-game series. Then it's a four-game set versus the mediocre Rays.
If the Twins were able to go, say, 6-1 in the coming week while cutting into Cleveland's sizable division lead, one wonders if the front office's deadline calculus would change at all.
MONDAY, 7/9: ROYAL @ TWINS – LHP Danny Duffy v. RHP Jose Berrios
TUESDAY, 7/10: ROYALS @ TWINS – RHP Ian Kennedy v. RHP Aaron Slegers
WEDNESDAY, 7/11: ROYALS @ TWINS – RHP Jason Hammel v. RHP Lance Lynn
THURSDAY, 7/12: RAYS @ TWINS – LHP Blake Snell v. RHP Kyle Gibson
FRIDAY, 7/13: RAYS @ TWINS – RHP Nathan Eovaldi v. RHP Jake Odorizzi
SATURDAY, 7/14: RAYS @ TWINS – RHP Chris Archer v. RHP Jose Berrios
SUNDAY, 7/15: RAYS @ TWINS – RHP Matt Andriese v. RHP Aaron Slegers
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
- Game 81 | MIL 6, MIN 5: Oh, That Rodney Experience
- Game 82 | MIL 2, MIN 0: Strikeouts Galore
- Game 83 | MIL 3, MIN 2: Pushing Against a Stone
- Game 84 | MIN 5, BAL 2: Slegers, Cave Lift Twins Out of Slump
- Game 85 | MIN 6, BAL 2: Jake Cave Is the Hero We Deserve
- Game 86 | MIN 5, BAL 4: More Baltimore, Please
- Game 87 | MIN 10, BAL 1: Twins Pick Up First Sweep of 2018
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