Tuesday, June 15, 2010

3 Up, 3 Down: 6/15/10

I feel compelled to kick off my 3 Up, 3 Down series with a player who I’ve ripped more than anyone over the last two seasons.
Delmon Young came to the Twins in November of 2007 with a ton of hype. He also brought with him a poor work ethic, a reputation for being uncoachable, the stigma of an epic bat toss, and a lot of baby fat. Watching Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett excel for the Rays over the last two seasons, while the key cog in our side of the deal inexplicably struggled, was beyond frustrating for Twins fans. Despite a surprisingly strong finish to 2009 and worlds of untapped potential, many fans were ready to cut their losses and move on without Young, like we did Carlos Gomez. Our power-swinging prospect had morphed into, at best, an undisciplined seeing-eye singles hitter. And, what was worse, he didn’t seem to care.

But something clicked last offseason. Young showed up for Spring Training 30 pounds lighter. He started showing dedication to improvement. He hustled. He listened. He cared. Yes, Delmon Young suddenly appeared to have
become a professional. Building upon his late ’09 upswing and a newfound commitment, Young has emerged as the Twins’ most dangerous right handed bat throughout the first half of 2010. Batting .295 and slugging .500, he tops fellow right-handed masher Michael Cuddyer in both categories. In 45 less at bats, he also bests Cuddyer in Home Runs (8), Doubles (15), and RBI (41). It's worth noting that he trails only Justin Morneau in the RBI department (43). It doesn't end there. He's drastically cut down his strikeouts. He's having good at bats; he's already taken more walks than all of last year. He's hitting in the clutch. And while his fielding is still suspect, he's covering more ground this year since unhooking the plow. This is the player we thought we were getting in 2007, and as of right now, he's entrenched in a battle with Francisco Liriano and John Rauch for the best surprise of 2010.

After a shaky May, Liriano is dialed back in. In his two June starts, he's struck out 21 in 15 innings, with a 1.20 ERA. His 87 strikeouts currently rank 5th in the Majors, and he leads the four pitchers in front of him in K/9 and ERA.

John Rauch doesn't have Joe Nathan's stuff. Not even close. But he's done everything the Twins have asked of him. What he lacks in a dominant strikeout pitch, he more than makes up for with a perfect closer's mentality. He has poise, he's fearless, and he has a short memory. This is something for which I've been openly critical of Nathan, especially with last season's stretch-run tailspin that snowballed into the playoffs. So while murmurs of an "upgrade" via trade continue to swirl through Twins Territory, Rauch's 16 saves are tied for the league lead, and his 2.52 ERA remains stellar. He's getting the most out of limited talent, and for that I applaud him.

After a 5-0 May, Nick Blackburn has gone the other way. His three June starts have been 13.1 innings of batting practice (an 8.10 ERA). Gross, but not all that surprising. Blackburn is an average pitcher, and a pitch-to-contact type who can't strike anyone out, so there was bound to be a correction. It's just never pretty when it happens.

I know, it's too soon to be hard on Trevor Plouffe. But after two hits in his debut, he's gone 1 for 21, and has looked a bit lost at Shorstop filling in for the injured J.J. Hardy. A former first round draft pick, I guess my criticism is more a cumulation of failed expectations and disappoinments. Selected 20th overall in 2004, Plouffe has hovered around mediocrity every step of the way. I have an easier time picturing him as the classic Twins' fringe AAA/MLB middle infielder than I do as an everyday Shortstop. He certainly doesn't have the limitless upside of Miguel Angel Sano, who's replaced Plouffe as the organization's new "Shortstop of the Future."

I feel a little guilty mentioning Denard Span here. He's so solid and fundamentally sound in every facet of the game, which makes me think that this funk will be over soon. Good mechanics usually prevent long slumps, and his .204 June BA is surely a mirage. In fact, I'd have let it slide, if not for his more troubling .235 June OBP. With just 2 walks in 51 June plate appearances, the Twins simply need better from their table setter. I'm not worried.

You may have noticed that I omitted Jesse Crain from this list. It's just too easy. He's out of options, and I'm out of bourbon, so we're calling it a night. Check back in the coming weeks for more 3 Up, 3 Down Twins analysis.

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