Since the Minnesota Twins were a model for small market winning over the span of a decade, their recent journey through losing and rebuilding seasons seems surprising. Our friendly rivals to the north produced nine winning seasons between 2001 and 2010, including six that resulted in playoff appearances. Twice, the club finished within shouting distance of the playoff or divisional race. Certainly, this set of clubs was a model of winning baseball, which raises questions about how they fell so far, so fast.
Entering 2014, many Brewers fans and analysts expected the team to hover around .500 at best, with some arguing that the Brewers’ roster core could not produce a winning team. As a result, the dominant narrative typically centered around the Brewers Front Office’s “Win-Now” Moves and lack of an impact farm system. With the club performing at an exceptional rate — recently, it was announced that this 2014 campaign featured the best start to a Brewers season in franchise history, one can ask how a club that purportedly only has .500 talent can perform at such a high rate.
The descent experienced by the 2011 Twins is instructive for addressing the contending potential for the 2014 Brewers. Specifically, the shift between 2010 and 2011 for the Twins shows precisely how a contending club can become a basement-dweller within an extremely short amount of time (and, by extension, how a losing club can become a contender). Even though the 2010 Twins scored 36 fewer runs than the 2009 contenders, their club’s pitching was nearly 100 runs better (without any park adjustments). One might have expected, then, that the offense might not have been as good entering 2011, but the 2010 Twins were hardly a lucky outfit; they won 94 games.
Depending on how one counts, the 2011 Twins entered the season with approximately 14 members from the 2010 contenders on their roster. These players included starting position players, prominent members of the bench, and a large starting pitching core. However, the club could not win due to extreme injuries and ineffectiveness, as well as declining performances. Six of the starting bats failed to reach 400 PA on the 2011 Twins, which meant that seven bench players were stretched beyond 150 PA. One starting pitcher reached 30 starts in 2011, which expanded the previous contender’s rotation-plus-swingman arrangement into an eight deep rotation (with yet another part-time replacement starter added on).
|Twins||2010 (94-68)||2011 (63-99)|
|C||Joe Mauer||Drew Butera|
|1B||Michael Cuddyer||Justin Morneau|
|2B||Orlando Hudson||Alexi Casilla|
|3B||Danny Valencia||Danny Valencia|
|SS||J.J. Hardy||Tsuyoshi Nishioka|
|LF||Delmon Young||Delmon Young|
|CF||Denard Span||Ben Revere|
|RF||Jason Kubel||Michael Cuddyer|
|DH||Jim Thome||Jim Thome|
|BN||Justin Morneau||Jason Kubel|
|BN||Nick Punto||Joe Mauer|
|BN||Alexi Casilla||Trevor Plouffe|
|BN||Drew Butera||Luke Hughes|
|SP1||Francisco Liriano||Francisco Liriano|
|SP2||Carl Pavano||Carl Pavano|
|SP3||Scott Baker||Scott Baker|
|SP4||Kevin Slowey||Kevin Slowey|
|SP5||Nick Blackburn||Nick Blackburn|
|SP6||Brian Duensing||Brian Duensing|
|CL1||Jon Rauch||Matt Capps|
|RP1||Matt Guerrier||Glen Perkins|
|RP2||Jesse Crain||Alex Burnett|
The basic advantages of a healthy club cannot be overstated. Even where a club receives declining performances, a healthy roster core can help to combat those holes in the batting order or rotation. As soon as a club is required to dig seven players deep on a bench, or four players deep into replacement starting pitching, that club will arguably have a difficult time combating ineffective performances or declining skills on their roster.
From this vantage point, one can also see how a club like the 2014 Brewers can arguably outplay their expected talent trajectory. Even while battling extended injuries to Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Braun at various points in this early season, the starting pitching helped keep the club afloat during some rough stretches; more recently, an offense that is beginning to reach full strength has bailed out a struggling pitching staff. When a club only needs to address one or two injuries or ineffective players at a time, roster depth and health can simply overpower those concerns. Consider Matt Garza’s role in the rotation: the club’s biggest acquisition of the offseason has failed to deliver to his potential in 2014. Yet, steady starts by Franchise Pitcher Yovani Gallardo, organizational prize Wily Peralta, average Marco Estrada, and secret ace Kyle Lohse have mitigated disaster in the rotation. On the other hand, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy have stepped up in the absence of (either) Ramirez and (or) Braun. An excellent bullpen in April helped the club squeeze out every win, and an improved offense helped counter bullpen struggles in May.
Basically, when a baseball roster is relatively healthy, the players can balance various scuffles and iron out issues. When we’re tempted to complain about the relative inability of the club to use both Ramirez and Braun in the middle of the order this year, or the ineffectiveness of Garza, we ought to think about the plight of the 2011 Twins, and think positive thoughts about the club’s health for the remainder of 2014. If a roster only needs to deal with a couple of issues at a time, their relative strengths can help them to outplay their expected potential. In this regard, the 2014 Brewers are arguably the inverse of the 2011 Twins: with a sizeable roster core in place from a losing effort in 2013, the Brewers are surging forward on the relative depth and health of their roster.
Twins (54 G): 230 RS / 249 RA
Brewers (57 G): 240 RS / 216 RA
Twins: Series Victory @ New York Yankees
Brewers: Series Victory vs. Cubs
2013 Twins: 66-96 (614 RS / 788 RA)
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)
2011-2013 Twins: 195-291 (1934 RS / 2424 RA)
2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)
In 2010, what would you have said if someone told you, “The Brewers will win 58 more games than the Twins in the next three seasons”?
June 2-3, Twins @ Brewers
Kyle Gibson (1-2, 27 IP, 12 R (14 K / 6 BB / 3 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Matt Garza (1-1, 31 IP, 19 R (26 K / 12 BB / 3 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)
Kyle Gibson is the Twins’ organizational righty out of the University of Missouri, and he is in the midst of working his first full season in his career. As a first round pick in 2009, Gibson earned a spot in BaseballAmerica’s Top 100 during three of his four minor league seasons. Gibson worked as a replacement starter for the 2013 Twins, and his struggles with the walk were accentuated by his 3% home run rate and 12% strike out rate. The strike outs are still low, and the walks are still high, but Gibson has greatly improved his home run rate in 2014. Perhaps Gibson provides the Brewers bats with their best test of late: while the offense is heating up and just ousted Jeff Samardzija early in yesterday’s game, the Brewers must not be too eager to inflate Gibson’s home run rate at Miller Park. If the offense’s recent success is indeed due to their ability to be more selective, one might look for the Brewers to exploit Gibson’s command instead of the long ball. If the club is too aggressive, they could let the young starter off the hook.
The Brewers bats are nearly 10% better in Garza’s starts than one would expect. In no month was that more apparent than in May, when the Brewers bats scored 25 runs to support Garza. This helped the club eek out a 3-2 record in his starts, despite a differential of 25 RS / 22 RA. Even though the bullpen debacle in Atlanta makes it seem like Garza did not get strong bullpen support, our Milwaukee relievers only allowed three runs during Garza’s five May starts. This places the bulk of the runs allowed burden on Garza, which also underscores the importance of the Brewers’ offensive support. If the Brewers were merely average in Garza’s May starts, the club would have gone 21 RS / 22 RA when the veteran took the mound.
Samuel Deduno (1-2, 28 IP, 15 R (17 K / 9 BB / 2 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Yovani Gallardo (1-3, 28 IP, 18 R (21 K / 14 BB / 6 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)
Samuel Deduno will be the first reliever-turned-starter that the Brewers face in June. Unlike Josh Collmenter, David Phelps, and Randy Wolf, Deduno does not have a chance to convert a lead as a reliever. However, the righty was successful as a reliever, allowing six runs in 18.7 innings with 18 K / 9 BB / 0 HR as a reliever. With the Twins’ rotation facing several issues, Deduno has his chance to stick as a starter in Minnesota if he can continue to deliver quality outings as a starter.
According to MLB Press Pass, Runnin’ Ron Roenicke, Yovani Gallardo will make his second start since the rotational order was first interrupted after Jimmy Nelson‘s replacement start allowed Gallardo to take Estrada’s spot against the Orioles. In subsequent rotation turns, the club will probably work Lohse / Garza / Gallardo at Pittsburgh. With another open date on June 9, the Brewers’ trip to New York could yield Estrada / Peralta / Garza or Estrada / Peralta / Lohse rotational turns.
One wonders if Roenicke will save Lohse’s start for June 13 against the Reds, leaving the Brewers’ back-rotation to face the Mets. A Lohse / Gallardo / Estrada series could give the Brewers the advantage when Cincinnati visits Miller Park (this type of rotation would ensure that both Lohse and Gallardo also appear in series at Arizona, and vs. the Nationals and Rockies in Milwaukee).
June 4-5, Brewers @ Twins
Marco Estrada (3-1, 29.7 IP, 17 R (28 K / 10 BB / 10 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Ricky Nolasco (1-2, 27.7 IP, 17 R (24 K / 10 BB / 4 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS)
Wily Peralta (0-4, 29.7 IP, 13 R (22 K / 9 BB / 4 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Kevin Correia (1-3, 27.3 IP, 17 R (19 K / 6 BB / 4 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)
These two games in Minneapolis outline the various forms that back-rotations can take in the MLB:
Ricky Nolasco is a veteran righty that typically worked slightly-below-average-to-below-average campaigns in Miami (and, briefly, for the Dodgers). However, Nolasco’s ability to work full seasons, and his potential to produce average-at-best campaigns, keeps him in the rotation and earned him a longterm contract in Minnesota.
Kevin Correia might be renowned as a replacement-level starter, but the righty has worked 100+ IP in seven consecutive seasons, including five straight seasons as a full-time starter. If he continues to take the ball with the Twins’ rotation, he will work his eighth consecutive “reliable” season. Yet, Correia is performing at his worst level since 2010, which places his near-average campaigns in 2009 and 2013 in question: are these merely bookends for replacement seasons, or can Correia still turn those dependable starts into a quality service level for his club? In the pitching-starved MLB, where clubs typically need to employ at least eight starters to finish a season, one can imagine the reliable righty keeping a job for quite a while.
On the other hand, Marco Estrada has not reached the innings workload of starters like Nolasco and Correia, but his performance ceiling is higher. The Brewers’ change-up specialist is one of the NL’s replacement-starter-turned-regular-starter success stories, thanks to his consistently above average work in 2012 and 2013. Perhaps Estrada’s issue with the long ball and injuries will keep him from reaching the full-time workload of a Correia or Nolasco, but Estrada is dependable in his own right.
Wily Peralta might be the best kind of low-rotation starter: the young organizational arm earning his sea legs. Peralta followed an excellent September 2012 campaign with a replacement-level 2013, but the righty’s full slate of starts was valuable for a rotation that needed a dozen starters to complete the season. While Peralta sits at the back-end of the rotation, he is arguably the Brewers’ most electric starter in 2014, using his slider and hard sinker to attack batters. Having a pitcher like Peralta is valuable because it allows the Brewers to turn the tables on their opponents; while 1-through-5 orders rarely survive an MLB season, Peralta’s improvement in the fifth spot gives the Brewers a chance to turn potential mismatches into victories.
Follow Nicholas Zettel @spectivewax on Twitter for irreverent argumentation.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, LP, 2014.