Tagged: Indians

Big Shakeup in AL Central

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With the news that Twins closer Joe Nathan has a
“significant tear” in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing
arm the AL central race has
suddenly been changed dramatically.  It’s not a certainty yet that Nathan
will get surgery, an operation that would likely put him out for the entire
season, but it appears that the Twins are suddenly without their biggest
pitching weapon and the entire division may be turned on its head.

At first glance it seems ludicrous to claim that a pitcher who appeared in only
70 games and pitched less than 70 innings could affect an entire division with
his absence (especially coming from a self-proclaimed closer hater), but Nathan
is one of only a handful of superstar closers in Major League Baseball and his
presence means more than his impressive number of saves and strikeouts. 

In a division without a dominant team and without a lot of overpowering
pitchers, he was perhaps the division’s most important arm.  That’s most
important, not best.  Zack Greinke won the AL Cy Young last year, but his
team still finished last and may likely see the same result whether he
duplicates his 2009 success or not.  The loss of Nathan, on the other hand,
not only dramatically alters Minnesota’s
end-of-game strategy, but it kills their swagger and belief that no matter
what, if they led after 8 innings, they were going to win.  The entire
dynamic of the team will be affected knowing that they don’t have their
shutdown ace to slam the door in the late innings.  

The Twins are hoping Francisco Liriano can reclaim the magic in his left arm,
but he’s still a work in progress as is the rest of their young staff, which
seems to take a step backward with every gain they make.  Even the success
of Nathan’s bullpen mates, Jon Rauch (7-3, 3.60, 17 holds) and Matt Guerrier
(5-1, 2.36, 33 holds) can partially be attributed to the knowledge that they
only had to get three outs and pass things off to Nathan in the 9th.  Now
they’ll be shuffled into unfamiliar roles, and nothing seems to cause more
chaos in a bullpen than shuffling roles.  It’s part of the stupidity of
modern bullpen use, but it’s true nonetheless. 

With Nathan at the back end of the Twins bullpen, Ron Gardenhire could manage a
game much differently than he will with an average or unproven closer or
closing committee.  The Twins were able to shorten games and could rely on
Nathan game after game.  Since he came to Minnesota
and became a full-time closer in 2004, Nathan has converted 246 of 271 save
chances, just over a 90% clip.  Compare that to the gold standard of
closing dominance, Mariano Rivera who’s converted 243 of 261 (93%) over the
same span and you see how important Nathan is to a team who needs every single
win.  Remember, two years running the Twins have had to play one-game
playoffs to decide the division.  This is a team who’s playoff hopes could
live and die with a single blown save.

As for the other teams in the division, they’ve now got an added incentive to
get into the Twins ‘pen, knowing it’s down a man.  No longer will opposing
hitters be hoping they scratch something out against one of the game’s
best.  Instead they’ll go to the plate in a close game late knowing that they’re
facing an inexperienced arm who hasn’t faced the game-ending pressure nearly as
often as Joe Nathan. 

With Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and a few key offseason additions the Twins
will still be a top team in the AL Central, but the loss of Nathan will be felt
later in games.  In a division as close as this one figures to be, every
game could come down to the bullpen and the Twins just lost their ultimate
trump card.  I think hitters in camp for the Tigers, Sox, and even the
Indians and Royals might step in the cage today with a little more bounce in
their step knowing they just might not have to hear “Stand Up and
Shout” blaring from the Target Field sound system until 2011.

Pitch Perfect: Greinke Dominates, Pirates Surprise

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With the season approaching the one month mark we’re
starting to get a better idea of how things look to shake out over the coming
summer.  Apparently the Marlins aren’t
going to set the MLB record for wins in a season and the Red Sox are much
better than their sluggish start indicated. 
In particular, though, I want to look at some of the great pitching
performances we’ve seen so far.

           

No discussion this season can begin without Zack Greinke,
this week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy. 
He’s been outstanding, showing incredible control and command, and the
ability to blow it by people when he needs to. 
His mix of pitches and speeds is what makes him so good.  In his first of two straight complete games
he faced Texas and his curveball
alone varied from 62-82 mph.  That’s 20
mph with the same pitch!  Add in a
fastball that can approach 94 and you have a variance that destroys hitters’
timing.  It looks like Greinke is finally
bringing all of his talent together and becoming a complete pitcher.  The SI cover is great, because maybe he’ll
begin to get a little more of the national recognition that he deserves.  Even though his scoreless streak was snapped
by a fluke bounce that led to an unearned run, he’s still got a 0.00 ERA, a
WHIP under 1.00, and a 6/1 K/BB ratio. 
He’s looking like a true front-end starter in his sixth Major League
campaign.

 

Tim Wakefield is also off to a strong start, and somewhat surprisingly.  He has two CG, including one near no-hitter
and last night he went seven while giving up just one hit, which came in the
first inning.  His ERA is 1.86 and even
though he walks more guys because of the knuckler, he’s been able to limit hits
and keep guys from scoring.  Wakefield
hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2002, but he’s off to a tremendous start and
is a big reason the Red Sox have ripped off 11 straight.  His gem against Oakland
in which he carried a no-no into the eighth was the first win in that streak.

 

Wakefield’s
opposition last night was Cliff Lee, the reigning Cy Young who’s gotten off to
a less than auspicious start to the year. 
Last night he looked more like the dominant guy he was last year.  He went eight innings, giving up just five
hits and no walks before giving way to Kerry Wood, who lost the game on a Jason
Bay HR.  Lee’s record stays at 1-3 with
the no decision, but he’s showing signs of snapping out of it.  He’s keeping his walk numbers down and has
limited the number of hits since his first couple of starts.

 

Johan Santana appears to have his old form back.  He looks as good as he has since getting to New
York.  He’s
giving the Mets much-needed consistency, and if he can continue to go deeper
into games it will put less strain on their currently suspect bullpen.  If Santana remains a real ace the whole
season, the Mets will once again have a chance to break into October.

 

A real surprise this April comes courtesy of my Dad.  He pointed out that currently the three best
teams in Major League Baseball in ERA are the Royals, Pirates, and Mariners.  Hard to imagine that anyone predicted even
one of those teams to be at the top, let alone all three.  The Royals are getting great performances out
of Gil Meche and Greinke, along with better than expected stuff from Sidney
Ponson and recent call-up Brian Bannister, who’s looking like the promising
prospect of a few years ago.  The
Mariners have Felix Hernandez and a rejuvenated Erik Bedard to anchor their
staff, but the true surprise has to be the Pittsburgh Pirates.  They have no big name guys or anyone that
would be considered a stopper, but their entire staff is doing great work and
has posted 4 shutouts and is five for five in save opportunities.

 

The Pirates rotation consists of 

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Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Ian
Snell, and Jeff Karstens, none of whom are exactly household names.  Duke and Maholm have ERAs under 3.00 but none
of the staff has a high strikeout total. 
In fact, the whole staff ranks 29th in MLB in strikeouts,
ahead of only the Angels.  Their middle
and late relief has been superb, allowing the team to remain in games and to
hold leads.  Their closer, Matt Capps, is
only 25 and is off to a great start and has been nailing down games at the
end.  None of the Pirates will blow you
away with velocity or stuff, but they all have shown the ability to throw
strikes and get outs somehow.  The team
will still have a lot of trouble keeping up with the NL Central, but the
development, finally, of some young players and a pitching staff with depth is
a very promising sign in a once proud baseball city.

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