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Series Preview #16: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Minnesota Twins

Last October, the Minnesota Twins were clearly a team on the rise.  They were coming off a 94-win season, they had just opened a beautiful ballpark and they had re-signed franchise catcher and Minnesota native Joe Mauer to play there for the next eight years.  Their rotation was anchored by one of the best young pitchers in baseball in Francisco Liriano, who had actually gotten unlucky in 2010, with a 3.62 ERA despite an FIP that was almost a run lower (2.66).  Sure, they had lost to the Yankees in the playoffs, but there's no shame in that.  With the return of star closer Joe Nathan and a little bit of luck, the Twins looked poised to be even better in 2011 than they had been the year before.

Then, somebody--Nick Punto, probably--divided by zero and the whole thing went straight to Hell.

Pretty much nothing has gone right for the Minnesota Twins in 2011.  Offensive linchpins Joe Mauer and Jim Thome have been injured much of the season, managing only 66 and 38 Plate Appearances, respectively.  Liriano's command has abandoned him Rick Ankiel-style this season, as he has struggled to a 6.12 ERA despite throwing a no-hitter earlier this season.  Even Joe Nathan, as reliable as they came before his injury, has faltered, posting a 7.07 ERA.  The Twins sit at 14-27, the second-worst record in the majors, thanks to an offense that has posted the worst wRC+ in the league and a pitching staff with the worst FIP.  They're consistent, if nothing else.  But as poorly as the season has gone so far for the Twins, at least they haven't given up hope quite yet, as they've won three games in a row, including a two-game sweep of the Athletics

What the Stats Say (Courtesy of Fangraphs):

                        Arizona (20-23)                                Minnesota (14-27)                                         Edge

Hitting (wRC+):     91                                                       72                                                     Arizona

Pitching (FIP):     4.02                                                    4.63                                                    Arizona

Fielding* (UZR):   8.5                                                      3.1                                                     Arizona

The stats don't pull any punches when it comes to describing just how awful the Twins have been this season.  To put things into perspective, consider the 2010 Seattle Mariners, who set all sorts of records for offensive futility.  Well, their team OPS was .637, which is just awful, but somewhat higher than the 2011 Twins' .602.  If that doesn't help, consider that Eric Byrnes put up an OPS of .641 in 2008.  I could go on, but I'll spare you.

Other terrible offenses (Giants and Padres) we've seen this season have been offset by stellar pitching to help the team stay afloat.  That hasn't been the case in Minnesota.  As I mentioned above, the Twins have the worst FIP in the league right now, and the suckage is pretty evenly distributed between the starters and the bullpen.  The starters have an FIP of 4.59 and the relievers have an FIP of 4.70.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

Ryan Roberts, 3B
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Justin Upton, RF
Stephen Drew, SS
Chris Young, CF
Miguel Montero, C
Juan Miranda
, 1B
Gerardo Parra, LF

Minnesota Twins

Denard Span, CF
Trevor Plouffe, SS
Jason Kubel, LF
Justin Morneau, RF
Michael Cuddyer, 1B
Danny Valencia, 3B
Alexi Casilla, 2B
Drew Butera, C

Note: the Twins' lineup is more speculative than usual, since I don't know who they'll sit in lieu of a DH.

Jason Kubel is having a fine season so far, with an OPS+ of 137.  Denard Span has virtually no power (career .387 slg%), but his .352 OBP is nice to have batting leadoff.  Trevor Plouffe is almost certainly a small sample size wonder, but his .872 OPS has been a nice spark for the team. 

...And that's pretty much everything positive I can say about the Twins' lineup this season.  This is a lineup that could use a good dose of Joe Mauer and Jim Thome, but neither are likely to be available for this series.  Mauer's replacements have not exactly picked up the slack from the former MVP, as the Twins have gotten an staggeringly low OPS of .344 from their catchers this season.  The Diamondbacks have pitchers (not just one, mind you, but several) with a better OPS than that.  The team has also not gotten their usual production from Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, both of whom can usually be counted on for above-average production.  Cuddyer has an OPS of .682, while Morneau is at .628, neither of which are acceptable from supposed power positions.  Danny Valencia has been another disappointment, as his current OPS+ of 71 is a far cry from the 116 he put up last year.  The Twins as a team have the lowest BABIP in the majors at .264, so on some level the offense should regress at least a little, but their LD% (third-lowest in MLB) and their IFFB% (second-highest) suggest that it isn't entirely about bad luck. 

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Ian Kennedy (4-1, 3.05) vs. Brian Duensing (2-3, 4.61)

Insightful Commentary: Don't look now, but Ian Kennedy has struck out 16 batters in his last two starts.  Up until now, Kennedy's K-rate has been one of the few weak points of his season, but these two starts have pushed it up to 8.08 per 9 innings, which is good territory to be in for a pitcher and it's better than his rate in 2010 (7.79).  I still don't think this outstanding performance will last forever, but I'm running out of stats to justify that claim and I'm desperately hoping Ian continues to prove me wrong. 

Brian Duensing was a pleasant surprise last season, as he made a smooth transition from the bullpen to the rotation while posting a 2.62 ERA and becoming one of the Twins' most reliable starters.  His FIP said that ERA wasn't entirely sustainable, and sure enough Duensing has regressed this season.  He's actually getting unlucky this season, as his BABIP is currently at .324.  His walk rate is up as well this year, jumping from 2.41 per 9 to 3.51.  That's not going to cut it for a pitcher who seeks out contact. 

Saturday: Micah Owings (0-0, 0.00) vs. Scott Baker (2-3, 3.99)

Insightful Commentary: Full disclosure: Micah Owings is one of my favorite Diamondbacks.  Partly because of his skill with a bat, but mostly because he played a major role on and, in some ways, exemplified the spirit of the 2007 D-Backs, who were one of my favorite teams I've ever rooted for, in any sport.  Owings came out of nowhere that year to pitch in some of the biggest games of the season.  He wasn't flashy, and I now know he wasn't entirely sustainable, but he got good results for a team that brought me back to baseball after a Russ Ortiz-induced hiatus, so I root for the guy.  I don't know if he's "found himself" after getting knocked around for a couple of seasons, but I think he'll perform adequately in these next few starts before Duke returns.  Beyond that, who knows?

Scott Baker is the only pitcher in the Twins' rotation with an above-average strikeout rate, and as a result he is having one of his best seasons.  He's walking more batters this year (3.08 per 9), but otherwise he has been pretty reliable this year.  His last two starts have been a bit rough though, as he's allowed 9 runs in his last 10.1 innings.

Sunday: Daniel Hudson (4-5, 4.03) vs. Francisco Liriano (3-5, 6.12)

Insightful Commentary: Francisco Liriano has made eight starts this season.  One of those starts was a no-hitter.  Despite that no-hitter, Liriano's ERA on the season is 6.12, which tells me that all of his starts other than the aforementioned no-hitter must have been pretty damned awful.  While any no-hitter is impressive, Liriano's was more of the "EJax in 2010" variety than the "Randy Johnson's perfect game" type, as he walked six batters.  Walks have been a problem for Liriano all season actually, as his BB/9 is currently 5.91, which would make Armando Galarraga blush.  Even more of a concern is his K/9, which has dropped precipitously from 9.44 to 6.33.  Liriano has all the talent in the world, but he's a couple of bad starts from being dropped from the rotation, no-hitter or not.

One of Daniel Hudson's only bugaboos this season has been giving up runs in the first inning.  But while Tuesday's game against the Padres was shaping up to be more of the same, thanks to a leadoff triple, we saw something new from Hudson.  He found his composure immediately, let the run score and a sacrifice fly, and proceeded to shut the Padres down the rest of the way.  Maybe this was nothing, but it certainly felt like Hudson was improving in one of the few places that he can stand to improve, and that's wonderful to see.

Final Verdict: Series like this terrify me, partially because the D-Backs have not done well against AL teams the past few seasons, but mostly because they have not done well this season when they are expected to succeed.  The Twins have been flat-out awful this year, the D-Backs are at home and they have their two best pitchers going in this series.  It would be a disappointment if they didn't take this series.  But still, these Twins, as bad as they are, bear quite a strong resemblance to a team that won 94 games last year, and I can't help but worry that Cuddyer and Morneau are going to wake up, Liriano will find his form, and the D-Backs will be disappointed once again. 

Aww hell, Diamondbacks two games to one.  Read it quickly, before I change my mind.

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