Monday, July 24, 2006

Take Me Out Of/To The Ballgame

I've been a Twins fan for upwards to 33 years now. I don't think I've ever seen them play better over an extended period of time than they have over the past month or so. Even the world champion teams of 1987 and 1991 never put together a streak like this- where the team is so thoroughly dominating in all aspects of the game- pitching, hitting, defense and strategy.

That said, I don't think I've ever been more frustrated with a Twins squad as I am the 2006 version. They find themselves nine and a half games out of first place, and four games out of the wildcard race. And the maddening thing about their place in the standings is they didn't have to be where they find themselves to be. It's all been self-inflicted.

The team was limping along when management finally decided to pull the plug on the brief (but all too long) Tony Batista, Rondell White, and Juan Castro era. The club broke out of spring training believing that those veterans were better options than younger players (with far greater upside) like Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett, and Nick Punto. Far more puzzling (and unforgivable) was the decision to open the season with Kyle Lohse and Scott Baker in the starting rotation and Francisco Liriano in the bullpen. Manager Ron Gardenhire is now defending this decision saying that Liriano wasn't ready for starting because he spent much of the spring on the Venezuelan team in the World Baseball Classic.

This is outright bunk. Even if it meant that Liriano's first few starts were limited by a pitch count, having him out there was a far better alternative than anyone on the pitching staff not named Johan Santana. That it took into June for the team to concede this is unforgivable. If Liriano had been given four or five more starts like he should have been the Twins likely would be that much closer to the top of the division.

Liriano has been electric. He's been the key to this turnaround. When he's on the mound there is a sense of something special about to happen. When he gives up a hit you are almost shocked. He makes Santana (who is among the elite pitchers in the game) look like a lesser pitcher in comparison.

By any measure 2006 was going to be a year of transition for the franchise. Going into the season the team appeared to be on a downward path after dominating the division from 2001 to 2004. The White Sox and Indians were clearly teams that had finally passed the Twins in talent. Detroit looked like a team ready to contend as well. This was likely going to be Brad Radke's last year in the game and Torii Hunter's last year as a Twin. Prospects for the long needed new stadium seemed dim at best.

Signing Rondell White seemed smart. A career professional hitter, White seemed to fill the cleanup hole that Justin Morneau clearly wasn't ready to fill last year. And after losing Matthew LeCroy and Jacque Jones the offense that was so weak last year needed some experience and personnel changes to make it more productive.

But if this year was the start of another rebuiding phase the decision to start the season with Castro at short and not Bartlett, and Kubel only given a nominal look before being sent to the minors was confusing at best, stupid at worst. It was time to see what these two could do and it was also time to give both of them the chance to learn at the Major League level so some of the growing pains could be endured this season rather than further down the road.

The season isn't over but to expect this team to continue on this torrid pace is unrealistic. To giveaway two and a half months while floundering along is what makes this season so frustrating. If the team is to somehow make the playoffs you gotta love our chances given that Santana and Liriano will be given four starts in any seven game series. If we don't make it, you can blame it on some boneheaded decisions, some of the worst in the team's history.

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