2011 Series Preview: Twins vs Rays (4/14-4/17)


Never in the history of baseball has the phrase “pitch to contact” kicked off such a firestorm among a fanbase as it has in the last 24 hours for Twins fans. There is no way around it, the 2011 Minnesota Twins – through 11 games – have disappointed easy going of fans. Now the get ready to take on the Tampa Bay, who like the Twins, have underachieved and stumbled out of the gate. One of these two teams will be feeling much better about themselves on Sunday evening but regardless of how things shake out in the next 4 games, there remains little reason to panic. At least for the Twins who don’t have to share their division with the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays and Orioles.

As is becoming a tradition on these previews I have reached across the aisle to get the Tampa perspective from someone more versed on all things Rays related. To that effect, Ben Ice, Lead Writer of Rays Colored Glasses, agreed to collaborate with me on the pitching and the Q&A portions of this preview. Also helping out on the series preview is Puckett’s Pond Staff Writer Adam Krueger who was kind enough to author the Twins half of the pitching matchups for me.

Tampa Bay Rays:

2011 Regular Season Record: 3-8, 4th in the AL East (3.5 GB)
39 Runs Scored (t-12th in the AL) / 51 Runs Allowed (t-7th in the AL)

Minnesota Twins:

2011 Regular Season Record: 4-7, 5th in the AL Central (3.5 GB)
33 Runs Scored (14th in the AL) / 54 Runs Allowed (t-9th in the AL)

Pitching Matchups

April 14th (6:40 pm EDT): RHP Carl Pavano (1-1, 6.00 ERA) vs RHP James Shields (0-1, 4.73 ERA)

After getting torched for 8 runs (7 earned) to open the season at Toronto, Pavano bounced back nicely and turned in a brilliant 8 inning performance last Friday, holding the Athletics to 1-run on 4-hits with a walk and a strikeout. Pavano owns a career 5-4 record against the Rays with a 3.84 ERA and 57:21 K/BB ratio in 75 innings. That said, several current Rays players have had quite a bit of success against Pavano in their careers including Johnny Damon (9-for-22,), B.J. Upton (7-for-14) and Ben Zobrist (3-for-8, 2 doubles). It’s hard to predict what the Twins will see out of Pavano tonight but he’s got two things working against him as a) April is statistically his worst month and b) his ERA is about ½ a point higher on the road. The Rays have really come around at the plate over the last few games so Pavano will certainly have his work cut out.

In his first game it looked like “Big Game” James was back, tossing seven and a third innings of quality ball while striking out seven against AL East-leading Baltimore. Unfortunately a dire lack of offense plagued the Rays early on and Shields lost the game. In his second game against the White Sox, the Rays first win, Shields was hit early and often, surrendering five runs and fanning, well, no body. Shields will need to impose his will early and look more like he did the first game.

April 15th (7:10 pm): RHP Nick Blackburn (1-1, 0.77) vs RHP Wade Davis (0-2, 4.38)

Against all odds, Nick Blackburn has been the most consistent of the Twins starters through the first 11 games of the season yielding only 1 earned-run through his first two starts. His success appears to be related to improved control (only 4 walks issued thus far) and a continued ability to induce groundballs. This degree of success will not hold up over time, but I certainly think Blackburn can return to the “useful” category as a starting pitcher. Through two games he has backed up Gardenhire’s decision to re-insert him into the rotation. Against Tampa he has struggled mightily in his career sporting a bloated 6.10/1.79 ERA/WHIP against them in 20+ innings of work. Both Johnny Damon and Kelly Shoppach have hit Blackburn well (2 HRs each) and of the Rays players that have had at-bats against Blackie, they’ve combined for a .356/.365/.658 line with 6 HRs in 73 at-bats.

Davis has been solid if not spectacular and will face off against Blackburn, who could be 2-0 if not for a lack of run support. Blackburn throws a lot of off-speed pitches, which the Rays have struggled against early so far this season.

April 16th (4:10 pm): RHP Scott Baker (0-2, 6.55) vs RHP Jeff Niemann (0-2, 8.31)

Baker has had a couple of rough starts to open up the season and when you look at the game-logs, it’s easy to see why. In each of his first two starts Baker has yielded two HRs which account for 6 of Baker’s 8 earned-runs. In his first start of the year, Baker allowed two early homeruns and then settled down nicely. In his second start, he pitched very well through 5 innings before surrendering a 4-spot in the 6th. Unlike Pavano and Blackburn, Baker has done pretty well against the Rays over his career holding a 3.21/1.01 career ERA/WHIP with an astounding 32:3 K/BB ratio. Current Rays’ players have had a total of 90 ABs against Baker and have only managed a 0.178/.245/.300 line against the right-hander. For a guy looking for a rebound-start, this could be just the ticket.

Heading in to the season Niemann and Baker looked like a pair of solid middle of the rotation pitchers. Niemann has struggled, including getting bounced after only two and two thirds innings against the White Sox while Baker has already allowed four home runs in his two starts.

April 17th (1:40 pm): LHP Brian Duensing (0-0, 4.15) vs RHP Jeremy Hellickson (1-1, 4.09)

The Twins have won both of Duensing’s starts so far this year and both of those have been wins of the comeback variety. Like Baker, Duensing gave up some early runs in his first start against the Yankees but settled in nicely and finished 7 innings for the Twins. In his 2nd start he surrendered a few more hits, but kept the Twins in the game with 6 innings of 3-run (2 earned) ball. Duensing doesn’t have very many innings against the Rays during his young career so it’s not really worth looking at the stats there. Against current Rays hitters he has a little more experience, holding those who have at-bats against him to a 0.133/.316/.333 hitting line in 15 collective plate appearances. Fortunately for Duensing, 5 of the 9 Rays regulars are lefty hitters and Duensing has held lefties to a .191/.248/.246 line so far in his career.

Hellickson is a strike-out artist facing Duensing, a control freak with a low K/9. Both are promising young pitchers in their respective organizations who have earned their way into the bigs. Duensing was a spot starter and long reliever in the Twins organization the past two years and is 15-5 with a 3.08 ERA during his time in the bigs. Hellickson is the reason the Rays traded Matt Garza to Chicago. Rays fans have to appreciate that move, since it brought Fuld into the fold.

Who’s Hot

Tampa Bay Rays:

The legend of Sam Fuld carries on like a runaway freight train. Aside from making a spectacular defensive play seemingly every night, he leads the Rays in OPS+ (172) and went 5-10 with 3 R, 4 RBI and 4 XBH in the last 2 games against Boston. On the season he’s hitting 0.313/.371/.594.

After a slow start, Johnny Damon has at least one hit in each of his last 5 games. Against Boston he went 5-9 with a HR, 2 R and 5 RBI. He does have 12 SO on the season however.

Minnesota Twins:

Denard Span continues to produce at the top of the lineup. After a 5-10 series against the Royals he is now hitting 0.333/.375/.422 on the season and carries a team leading OPS+ of 124 to Tampa. The Twins have a second player who has pushed their OPS+ over 100 on the season now and for that, Jason Kubel lands on this list after going 4-10 with a double against the Royals. Michael Cuddyer is only hitting 0.222/.300/.222 this season but he did go 5-9 with a walk in his last two games.

Who’s Cold

Tampa Bay Rays:

Sean Rodriguez is 0-9 in his last 4 games and is hitting just 0.190/.227/.476 on the year. RHP Jeff Niemann, who the Twins will face on Saturday, has allowed 14 H, 3 HR, 3 BB and 10 R (8 ER) in 8.2 IP this season.

Minnesota Twins:

In two games agains the Royals the Twins managed 25 hits and scored 9 runs so the offense is starting to show some life. However the team still ranks last in the AL in: Runs Scored, HR, SB, BB, SLG, OPS and Total Bases.

After giving up 3 runs on Opening Day, LHP Dusty Hughes reeled off 4 straight scoreless appearances (3.2 IP). Beyond preventing runs from scoring, he was rarely in trouble and in his last 3 appearances he didn’t allow a single runner to reach base. Things were going great for Hughes until yesterday when he gave up 3 hits, 1 walk and 2 earned runs while failing to record an out in the 9th inning against the Royals. As his 9.64 ERA and 2.14 WHIP clearly show, Dusty’s 4 excellent outings in the middle fail to cancel out his first and last outings.

Francisco Liriano looked better in yesterday’s loss than he did in his first 2 starts this season but his ERA still jumped from 7.71 to 9.42. For me, it’s just a bad stretch and I saw positive signs against the Royals, but a bad stretch is all it takes to land on the Who’s Cold portion of our list.

Injury Update

Tampa Bay Rays:

15-Day DL: LHP-J.P. Howell (Left shoulder surgery), 3B-Evan Longoria (Oblique strain)

Minnesota Twins:

15-Day DL: 2B-Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Fractured left fibula), RHP-Kevin Slowey (Shoulder strain)

3 on 3 Questions

Rays Questions:

Wally: What is the ETA for OF prospect Desmond Jennings and what can realistically be expected of him when he arrives?

Ben: Rays Colored Glasses staff writer Kris Dunn and I disagreed on Jennings place on the roster during spring training. My contention was that he needed a little more seasoning in the minors and should not come up just to ride the pine. With the emergence of Sam Fuld the Rays can afford to take their time with Jennings this season, and almost certainly aren’t eager to start the arbitration clock any sooner than necessary. That means, at the earliest, a June 1st call up.

As far as what to expect, since many have compared him to Carl Crawford, if he does come up this summer, he’d be good to mirror Crawford’s first year in the bigs, which wasn’t anything to write home about; in 2002 Crawford logged 259 at bats, hitting two home runs, driving in 30 runs and stealing nine bases (while getting caught five times.) Bottom line: I don’t expect Jennings to have a huge impact this year, but it would be good for him to spend a half season with the team to set the stage for next year.

W: The Rays have what I consider to be one of the best rotations 1-5 in all of baseball and despite the 3-8 start, most nights it looks like the rotation has kept the team the games. What is the perception among Rays fans about this group of starters and what do you expect from them the rest of this season?

Outside of Philadelphia I’m on board with your comment about the rotation. I’m actually in the minority in that I think James Shields will be traded around the break unless he returns to his 2007-2009 form. The Rays could easily call up Chris Archer or, if I had my druthers, Matt Moore to replace him. Rays fans are more concerned about the offense, although there have been rumblings recently with the poor start from what was considered one of the best rotations in the game prior to the start of the season.

The case for Moore, who led the minors the past two years in strikeouts and owns a ridiculous 12.9 K/BB, is compelling. Like they did with Garza, Shields will garner interest around the break as contenders look for help to bolster rotations, and the shrewd Rays management team continues to score points for finding players like Zobrist and Fuld in those deals. I think we’ll see a change regardless at some point this season. Hellickson is already flashing his top of the rotation talent, so adding Moore to that lineup along with Neimann and Davis makes a lot of sense. I think the Rays are expecting this to be a transitional year, regardless of what they are telling the media, and who they call up will tell us a lot about what they expect as the season progresses.

W: Last year we watched the Twins survive without Justin Morneau for the second half of the season. How have the Rays been coping without Evan Longoria on the field and what is the timetable for his return?

Longoria is the team leader and losing him left a huge hole, not just in the lineup but in the team psyche. His bat is sorely missed as we have seen early on, although the team woke up a bit after Manny suddenly retired. More to the point however is the loss at the corner defensively. Sean Rodriguez missed several balls that Longoria would have fielded and it cost them at least two games against the Orioles. Unfortunately for Rays fans there isn’t much the team can do to speed up the process with Longo. A strained oblique needs time, pure and simple. Joe Maddon did say on Tuesday that Longoria’s injury is progressing as expected, so a return by early May still looks on track.

Twins Questions:

Ben: The Twins offense is struggling mightily, sitting at the bottom of the American League in runs scored. Is this just a bump in the road or is it endemic of something more serious?

I think this is clearly just a slow start and nothing to be overly concerned about. The Twins lineup is too talented and too deep to continue on as they have through the first 11 games. With Mauer, Morneau, Span, Cuddyer, Kubel, Thome and Delmon Young they will be in the top-5 of the AL in runs score by the end of the season.

B: When Francisco Liriano exploded on the scene in 2006, winning the AL Rookie of the Year, he looked like the heir apparent to Johan Santana. Since his injury the following season he has been incredibly inconsistent. While he has probably one of the nastiest pitches in the game (slider) is that pitch the reason he is such an injury risk? And which version of him will we see this year? The 2009 (5.80 ERA, 1.551 WHIP, 8.0 K/9) or the 2010 version (3.62 ERA, 1.263 WHIP, 9.4 K/9?)

I’m far from an expert when it comes to pitching mechanics but the slider does tend to put more stress on the elbow than other pitches. That said, there have been plenty of guys who had long and very productive careers featuring a slider and I don’t necessarily consider Liriano any more of an injury risk than any other pitcher in baseball at this point in time. Any starter’s career can evaporate in a single pitch, but as the team continues to evaluate whether or not to offer him a contract extension, his reliance on the slider and his past have to be weighed into what they are willing to offer/pay him in the future. Then again Roy Halladay struggled with injuries and consistency early on in his career in Toronto and things have gone pretty well for him since. We will see much more of the 2010 version of Liriano than the 2009 version this season.

B: The Chicago White Sox made some serious moves during the off-season and it shows in their AL leading 73 runs scored in the first dozen games. With their offense on cruise control and the pitching starting to solidify, can the Twins hold them off and repeat as AL Central champs or are they going to get bulldozed by the White Sox juggernaut?

Frankly, the thought of the White Sox as a juggernaut makes me laugh. Just like the Twins and Tigers, the Sox have flaws and significant cracks are already apparent in their bullpen. The key parts of their lineup are past their prime years and the have very little depth in the minors to rely upon during the season. That lack of depth and the gutted farm system (ranked 27th by Baseball America) will also handcuff their ability to trade for reinforcements this summer.

Ozzie Guillen is already publicly wishing for Bobby Thigpen to walk through the door to close games and the season isn’t even 2 weeks old. It’s not the last time he’s going to freak out or overreact to something and his tirades do have an impact on this team. Sometimes that impact is negative and sometimes it is positive, but as a result, Chicago has always been an incredibly streaky team under Ozzie. They go through more sharp peaks and valleys than most teams so I never put much stock in their place in the standings until they are mathematically eliminated or the last game of the regular season has been played. Their offense is on a roll right now, but it will come back to the pack just as the Twins offense will improve over the course of a 162 game season.

There is little doubt in my mind that the AL Central is still the Twins division to win in 2011.