The Twins wrapped up an impressive series win against Toronto on Wednesday afternoon. Phil Hughes was outstanding and newly acquired Kendrys Morales provided the offensive spark. The Twins currently sit two games below .500 with 12 of their next 16 on the road and in tough environments (Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Texas). It seems that the Twins are planning to take a run at a playoff berth despite the rough stretch they face over the next few weeks.
When they signed Morales to shore up the lineup and cut Jason Kubel despite his lengthy history with the organization, they essentially announced their intention to win now. They later sent Josmil Pinto down to AAA to get more at-bats, an admission that they cannot sit Kurt Suzuki because he has been too good. They are sticking with their veterans in the rotation, despite talented youngsters ready at AAA. Publicly, the Twins can state that these moves are all aimed at optimizing their current roster and doing everything they can to win games in 2014.
All that said, I still think the Twins are sending mixed signals. Are they trying to build a veteran team or a winning team? Look no further than the rotation, where there is at least one pitcher who could be easily replaced. In the bullpen, there are a couple of performances that stand out like a 90s hypercolor shirt. Even the newly optimized lineup is somewhat puzzling, especially if current performances are being used to make decisions at the expense of the future and despite the past.
As recently as a week ago, I was clamoring for the Twins to replace Kevin Correia in the rotation. I can understand if the Twins prefer to ride out his "hot streak" for a few more starts. Since his May 14 start against Boston, when Correia only made it through four innings, he has put together five decent starts. He's averaged six innings per start, walked just three batters and somehow put together a 3.90 ERA despite giving up 36 hits over those 30 innings. Correia's a veteran and veterans win games, right Gardy? This team has shown a recent reluctance to replace veterans.
Correia isn' the only veteran starter facing massive struggles. Ricky Nolasco is a really nice guy. He clearly offered to take all of Phil Hughes' home runs this season. Nolasco's home run to fly ball ratio is 13.5%, a career-high and way out of line with his figures from 2011 to 2013. His BABIP is also about 30 points higher than his career figure. Of course, luck is part of the game and some of Nolasco's struggles are on him. His walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down. The Twins aren't going to bench their most expensive free agent of all time, especially not when that same player is another veteran who "knows how to pitch."
Of course, Sam Deduno is hardly a veteran. With just 247.1 MLB innings under his belt, Deduno has less experience than any Twins starter not named Kyle Gibson. In addition, Deduno hasn't been great since moving to the rotation. In seven starts, Deduno has pitched 36 innings, struck out just 20, walked 17 and has a 5.25 ERA. Deduno had a 2.89 ERA when he entered the rotation and might provide more value as a swingman than he has in the rotation. I would bet my extensive pog collection that Meyer or May would perform better than Deduno from this point on. Moving Deduno could strengthen the bullpen and rotation at once, as Anthony Swarzak has been ineffective in his role in 2014.
Obviously, replacing three pitchers in the rotation is not the right thing to do. Odds are, Nolasco and possibly Correia will pitch as well or better than the guys at Rochester. However, Deduno is a pretty fungible player and replacing him with Alex Meyer or Trevor May (or possibly even Logan Darnell) would improve the rotation and the bullpen all at once. Plus, there are still reserves at AAA if Correia falters or someone suffers an injury. If the Twins really are in "win now" mode, they can prove it with a move that improves the rotation. By the way, if Correia does falter, the Twins need to yank him as soon as possible, veteran or not. He's been good for five starts, but he was awful before that.
I mentioned Swarzak earlier, but he's hardly the only struggling member of the bullpen. The Jared Burton signing after the 2011 season was a great move. He provided the Twins with two effective seasons at a relatively low cost. This year, he's been ineffective. He is walking too many batters and his strikeouts are down. Relievers kind of come and go. They have a couple of good seasons and then they aren't good anymore. Michael Tonkin might be ready to have his good seasons and even though the Twins would be replacing a veteran with a youngster, the move would likely improve the bullpen and help them win more games.
Brian Duensing should not face right-handed batters. He should be used as a situational lefty in close games. If the game is out of hand, go crazy, use him everywhere. Over the past two seasons, Duensing's strikeout rate against right-handed batters is about 13%. His walk rate is about 13%. These are bad figures. Against left-handed batters, his strikeout rate is over 24% and his walk rate is around 5%. Those are good figures. If Brian Duensing faces a right-handed batter in a big spot, the Twins are clearly valuing his experience over his performance. This is not what a winning team does. There are better, albeit younger, options to face those batters.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this because it will never happen, but is it time to move Joe Mauer down in the lineup? I don't mean permanently because a productive Mauer should be batting in the top third of the lineup to receive a lot of at-bats. Currently, Mauer is mired in a pretty lengthy slump. A move down in the lineup has been used as justification for struggling players in the past and it's not like he can't be moved back up when he starts to hit again (which I am certain he will). Hypothetically, Danny Santana and Brian Dozier are on second and first in the top of the first, who do you want up next, Joe Mauer or Oswaldo Arcia? It's at least become an interesting question.
The one pro-veteran move that is easy to justify is sending Josmil Pinto to AAA while keeping Kurt Suzuki as the full-time catcher. Right now, Suzuki is ahead of Pinto in OPS+ 119 to 103. Suzuki is an adequate defender while Pinto is not. The fact that Suzuki is a veteran is somewhat irrelevant because he has also been the better player in 2014. However, I still believe that Pinto's bat gives the Twins a better chance to win games. Suzuki's BABIP and ground ball rates are sky high when compared to his career averages. When those grounders start finding gloves, his OPS+ is likely to fall more in line with the figure from the first seven years of his career (86). If that happens and Pinto is mashing at AAA, will the Twins call on the youngster or stubbornly stick with the veteran?
The Twins need to prove whether they are out to win games or if they want to build a veteran-friendly roster. Kendrys Morales fits the "win" and "veteran" categories, so it's not entirely clear which direction the Twins are going. More likely, the Twins equate veterans with winning. I don't necessarily disagree, but using veterans over more talented youngsters is not a good formula for the present or the future. If the Twins want to contend for the Wild Card, they might need to trim some of that veteran fat and get back to their roots when young players were contributing all over the place in the 2000s. The optimal Twins roster is much more balanced between veterans and youngsters than this current roster.