While Packers/Vikings may be the big ticket, Brewers/Twins isn't too shabby, and you can bet there will be plenty of Minnesota fans in Miller Park for the weekend series. You might even call it Metrodome East, except that the Twins are the worst-drawing team without an excuse, percentage-wise. Regardless, this is one of the "natural rivalries" that's actually a bit of fun, as opposed to, say, Kansas City/St. Louis (aside: Can you believe that Cleveland and Pittsburgh aren't natural rivals?)
In the past couple years, the Twins have been the better team, a perennial playoff contender with a great pitching staff, while the Brewers were, well, the Brewers. This year it's different. Minnesota stands at 17-24, already 10.5 games behind front-running Detroit. They've also lost five in a row, while the Brewers have won five of six. Their main problem has been starting pitching, with their 6.43 starters' ERA the worst in baseball by half a run. That's really, really bad. The Twins' normally staid GM, Terry Ryan, has reacted by demoting Kyle Lohse to AAA and moving batting practice machine Carlos Silva to the bullpen, replacing them with phenom Francisco Liriano and minor prospect Boof Bonser, both of whom were acquired with Joe Nathan from the Giants for A.J. Pierzynski a couple years ago. Liriano had been pitching very well out of the bullpen, with 32 K's against only 4 walks in 22.1 innings, while Bonser was lighting up AAA, though he has a bit of a control issue. Liriano pitches today with Bonser set to go on Sunday and Scott Baker in between on Saturday. Baker has been the Twins' best bad starter, boasting "only" a 5.26 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, compared to Brad Radke's 7.20/1.76, Silva's 8.62/1.72, and Lohse's 8.92/1.98. Johan Santana, whom the Brewers will thankfully miss this time around, is far and away the class of the bunch.
In stark contrast to their rotation, the Twins' bullpen has been quite sharp, fifth in baseball with a 3.48 ERA, third with 8.47 K/9 and second with 3.03 K/BB, though they'll be weakened somewhat by Liriano moving to the rotation. However, they've still got Juan Rincon and Nathan, who have combined to strike out 35 in 31.1 innings, plus Matt Guerrier, who has a good ERA but mediocre peripherals, and Dennys Reyes, who has been very effective in limited duty.
As for their hitting, well, the Twins have never really been known for their hitting. They "upgraded" in the offseason by acquiring Tony Batista to play third and Rondell White to DH, also pocketing Ruben Sierra to come off the bench. Those three players have combined to hit .207/.246/.319 thus far. Also not helping is the rather baffling decision to send Jason Barlett back to AAA for another year to rot when he'd only hit .332/.417/.475 and .332/.405/.459 there the last two years. Playing in his place is Juan Castro, he of the .233/.262/.272 line. But hey, I bet he plays great defense! On the bright side, Michael Cuddyer may finally be living up to his potential, hitting .312/.393/.548. Joe Mauer is also hitting as expected, with good on-base abilities but limited power. Justin Morneau, on the other hand, is hitting for fine power, but barely hitting in general. Luis Castillo's .341/.399.444 line has to be considered a pleasant surprise, while Torii Hunter's hacktasticism-with-power is about what was expected. Shannon Stewart is hitting for no power whatsoever, especially for a corner outfielder, but is at least getting on base. Overall, the Twins are only a couple points behind the Brewers in team average, but far behind in on-base percentage and fifth-last in slugging percentage, while the Brewers are third-best.
Okay, so the Brewers hit better and have better starting pitching (Doug Davis/Ben Hendrickson/Chris Capuano on Friday/Saturday/Sunday), but Liriano and Bonser as starters are giant question marks, and it could really go either way. Saturday's game, with Hendrickson vs. Baker, should be into the bullpens in a hurry, with the Twins thus having the advantage. Liriano and Bonser could both pitch brilliantly, but after watching the Cream City Crushers' tenacity vs. Cole Hamels yesterday, I like their chances.
Tags: Boof Bonser, Jason Barlett, Francisco Liriano, Juan Castro, Shannon Stewart, Kyle Lohse, Luis Castillo, Michael Cuddyer, Ruben Sierra, Joe Nathan, Dennys Reyes, Tony Batista, Milwaukee Brewers, Carlos Silva, Matt Guerrier, Scott Baker, Cole Hamels, San Francisco Giants, Justin Morneau, Brad Radke, Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Terry Ryan, Torii Hunter, Juan Rincon, Minnesota Twins, Miller Park, Rondell White