Minnesota Twins: 12 Bold Predictions in '12
For the Minnesota Twins, 2012 couldn't have come soon enough.
After nearly losing 100 games, depleting the club's reserves at the Triple-A level, and pretty much bottoming out organizationally, the Twins and its brass have been proactive this offseason, at least relative to previous offseasons, adding more key free agents this winter than any in recent memory.
Surely, some of the acquisitions have been widely panned, while others, like the Josh Willingham signing, have almost universally been received positively.
For '12 to be a successful season, and I'm among few who think the Twins could be pretty good, the club is going to need a lot of things to go right. In today's slideshow, we'll take a peek at a few bold predictions, some of which the club may need to contend, and some of which may be simply icing on the proverbial cake.
These predictions range from better health for some individuals, to unforeseen contributors, to maybe a special addition near the trade deadline. They won't all be positive either, because after all, no team makes it through a campaign unscathed.
Deolis Guerra Will Be a Key Member of the Bullpen
Since coming over in the Johan Santana trade, the only part of Deolis Guerra that has lived up to the massive expectations is his size. Standing at an imposing 6'5" and 245 pounds, Guerra has proven long on talent but short on results thus far in the Twins organization.
The Twins haven't shied from moving Guerra relatively quickly despite a lack of results, however. Despite a 6.24 ERA, 5.9 K/9, and an unsightly 1.60 WHIP, Guerra got a cup of coffee at Triple-A toward the end of 2010, with predictably bad results.
The 2011 season started down the same path over 10 starts before the club opted to move Guerra to the bullpen in June. Prior to the move, Guerra posted K/9 marks of 5.4 and 6.2 in April and May. After the move, the marks improved to an impressive 14.3, 9.5, and 9.9 to round out the season.
Clearly the move to the pen was the right move for Guerra, who had only tossed three relief outings as a professional entering last season. With some pretty gaping holes in a bullpen which has allowed Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch, and Joe Nathan depart over the past couple of seasons, the Twins are starving for some quality depth to hurl the late innings at Target Field.
As is often the case with players acquired for stars, it seems likely the Twins will give Guerra every opportunity before moving on. With only one option year left on Guerra's ledger, '12 might be the first chance Twins fans get at an extended look at him. I don't think he'll make the club out of spring training necessarily, but he should be one of the first arms up in case of injury or ineffectiveness.
Ben Revere Will Hit a Home Run
This one is just a little fun.
For a guy who is as physically jacked as Revere is, it's simply stunning he's been unable to generate more power from his 5'9", 175 lb frame. Still, Revere hasn't posted an ISO (SLG-AVG) over .100 since Low-A ball, so maybe it's not as stunning as I'm giving credit for.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Revere's first home run is an inside-the-park job at the cavernous Target Field, which StatCorner.com lists as a better-than-average park for left-handed hitters to stroke doubles and triples in. Twice in '11 Revere came within steps of inside-the-park home runs within relatively close proximity to each other, with each time resulting in a gassed Revere getting tagged out by the relay throw before flashing his trademark grin.
For a team that nearly lost 100 games last year, it was times like that which still made the team at least somewhat watchable.
Also keep in mind: Bill James projects Revere to hit a home run this year, and that fella is almost never wrong.
Scott Baker Will Be a Cy Young Candidate
Admittedly, this is the first somewhat big reach among the bold predictions. Last year was the first in which Baker didn't post an ERA of 3.45 or worse, and he only did so in 21 starts as injuries took their toll on arguably the Twins best starter.
Working in Baker's favor are a few key elements. For one, he really ratcheted up the strikeout rates in '11, fanning 22.5 percent of opposing hitters while continuing a three-year uptick in that regard. When adding in his stinginess for the free pass, Baker posted a 3.8 K/BB rate, which was the best he's posted in any full season in his seven-year career.
Secondly, Baker is an extreme fly ball pitcher. Had Baker qualified for an ERA title, he'd have had the third-lowest ground ball rate in the entire MLB. At Target Field, which suppresses home runs from left-handed hitters by nine percent and righties by five percent, this is certainly a good thing.
Additionally, if the Twins employ a defense that primarily has both Ben Revere and Denard Span in the outfield on a regular basis, there's a good chance Baker can improve on his OPS against on line drives and fly balls, both of which have hampered him a bit in recent history.
No, Baker won't win the Cy Young, but he'll be the Twins best pitcher in '12, and possibly by a good margin, health-willing.
Matt Capps Will Be Drastically Better
Let me preface this portion by saying that I like Matt Capps as a human being. We've had good conversations in the past, and he's by all means a great guy and teammate based on everyone I've spoken to, including a former Pirates beat writer who absolutely beams about him.
Alas, the 2011 season was one to forget for the righty. While Capps didn't bottom out like he did with Pittsburgh in '09 ERA-wise, he still posted an identical -0.4 WAR according to Fangraphs like he did in '09.
Part of the issue was strikeouts; Capps couldn't buy them. Entering '11, Capps had fanned a cool 7.0 per nine; not exactly what one wants from a shutdown closer, but enough to get by. But last season, Capps' whiff rate tumbled to a Pavanian 4.7 per nine, a full whiff-and-a-half worse than his previous career worst.
There are some signs that signal what caused Capps such strife last season. For one, it went under the radar that Capps battled right arm soreness for parts of the season. In some respects that makes sense, as Capps' heater tumbled a full tick below his 2010 average. But oddly enough, his slider gained considerable steam, adding two-plus miles-per-hour over his career average. Was he gripping the slider a bit tighter, or something to that effect? It's truly hard to say, as his slider has never really profiled as a plus pitch either way.
What remains is this: Capps has a relatively lengthy track record that suggests he should check in around a 3.50 ERA, 7.0 K/9, and a stingy 1.5-1.7 BB/9. The only time he's really failed to do so was the dreaded '09 campaign, which was an awful year for Capps all around as he also lost his father.
With an offseason of rest, there's no reason Capps shouldn't be better.
Jamey Carroll Will Prove to Be Almost as Key an Acquisition as Josh Willingham
Last season Twins shortstops hit .238/.292/.320, committed 29 errors (collective UZR of -15.8), and all in all, made everyone in Twins territory clamor for the departed J.J. Hardy.
Jamey Carroll, on the other hand, .290/.359/.347, played capable if unspectacular defense up the middle, and as a result garnered just his second multi-year deal at the tender age of 37.
Of course, Carroll isn't going to be a superstar. He has virtually no power, as seen by his career OBP exceeding his SLG, limited speed (averages about six swipes a season), and again as a point of emphasis, will be 38 when the season starts.
But as Ron Gardenhire pointed out in numerous post- and pre-game interviews last season, he needs a shortstop that can catch and throw the ball. In Carroll, the Twins think they have a guy that can do that.
As an added bonus, Carroll provides a discerning eye at the dish, as he's fanned in only 13.9 percent of his plate appearances versus a 9.9 percent walk rate. Accordingly, Carroll should slot nicely in the two-hole between Denard Span and Joe Mauer, providing the Twins the opportunity to let Ben Revere hit lower in the order, where his skills are currently best suited.
The Twins Won't Miss Any of the Departed Free Agents
Letting go of familiar faces can be tough for any fan base, and that includes a Twins base that has lost local favorites such as Torii Hunter, Johan Santana, and now Michael Cuddyer in recent seasons.
But Twins fans ought not fret about Cuddyer. As an outfielder who is neither adept at fielding his position, or hitting right-handed pitching (68.2 percent of his career PA have come against righties, against whom he's hit .264/.326/.433), his ceiling is relatively limited. That's also before considering that he's going to be 33-years-old prior to opening day. He may hit well in Coors Field, but keep in mind that Coors and Target are like comparing apples and oranges, friends.
In the case of Jason Kubel, his '09 season is beginning to look more and more like a mirage. Even with his career line buoyed by his .300/.369/.539 triple-slash that season, it still only computes to .271/.335/.459. For an outfielder who is exceedingly bad in the outfield (-41.8 fielding runs according to FanGraphs over his career), it should come as no surprise that he's only accumulated 3.9 WAR over his seven seasons in Minneapolis. Similarly to Cuddyer, Kubel is jumping ship to a park that is way more accommodating to his skill set. Chase Field was 14 percent more accommodating than the average park for left-handed home run hitters, with doubles and triples even more numerous in the Snakes' home digs. Another '09 might be in store for Kubel, as long as he stays healthy, doesn't move to first base, and can fend off defensive wizard Gerardo Parra.
The final free agent that Twins fans may fret about is Joe Nathan. Nathan scuffled a bit out of the gate in '11, allowing a .929 OPS to hitters in April before progressively trending back towards his previous, dominant self. He never did fully regain his velocity, and if his second-half self is who he is going forward, he'll be a 4.00 ERA-type who fans a guy an inning. That's plenty good, but no better than Mike Adams, whom the Rangers already had in tow, and not nearly as good as Nathan has been in the past. Some teams can afford to fritter money away on superfluous pieces, but this offseason, the Twins weren't one of them.
Also keep in mind that bad clubs don't necessarily need closers. Until the Twins prove otherwise, they're still the same bad team from '11.
Trevor Plouffe Will Be an Unsung Hero of the Offense
First let me note that I say "unsung hero" in a sense of 'from whom little is asked, little is expected.'
The Twins made Plouffe its first-round pick in 2004, and though it took seven-plus arduous seasons on the farm, finally he made his big-league debut late in '10.
Still, it wasn't until last season that Plouffe really started to come into his own as an offensive player. He absolutely obliterated IL pitching for the Red Wings, triple-slashing .313/.384/.635 (.437 wOBA) in between a couple of trips to Minneapolis before finally sticking with the big club in the second half. What was nice about Plouffe's numbers was that they weren't kept afloat by an unsustainable BABIP; his mark in Rochester was .319.
Plouffe didn't exactly embarrass himself with the big league club either; at least not with the bat. Playing nearly exclusively in the infield, Plouffe triple-slashed .238/.305/.392, good for a .305. Those figures don't exactly portray offensive prowess, but if he can take even a slight step forward in '11, he should be able to combine his defensive versatility into making himself a sort of poor-man's Michael Cuddyer. Make no mistake, like Cuddyer, Plouffe shouldn't play anywhere in the infield unless he finds himself holding down first, but his arm should project relatively well in the outfield, where one starting spot would seem to be up for grabs.
The Twins Will Add a Key Piece at the Trade Deadline
When the Pohlad Family axed Bill Smith after the awful '11 season, it was hinted at the accompanying press conference that the club was likely to slash payroll considerably. Despite just wrapping up a second wildly-successful season at a new ballpark, the notion was that the club would scale back finances from a team-high $113.2 million* payroll in '11 to closer to the century mark in '12.
And while this was met by considerable blogger/fan backlash, it makes sense on a couple of levels. First of all, with so much money tied up into question marks in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau ($37 million combined in '11), the club is obviously going to sink or swim based on whether or not those two are healthy and productive. Ergo, continuing to spend money on top of what is 'comfortable' for the Pohlad brothers doesn't make a ton of sense, especially when it wouldn't guarantee anything but making a possibly bad club just a little less awful.
But the other benefit is that this added wiggle room could be thrown at a rental-type player should the Twins find themselves in contention come late-July. In a division that's seen champions win fewer than 90 games twice in the past four seasons, it's not altogether out of the question that the club might find itself in a veritable dog-pile with Detroit and maybe Cleveland for the Central title in '12.
If this is the case, the Twins should be able to grab that extra bullpen arm, starting pitcher, or third outfielder which would bolster what would to that point be an already pretty good club.
Payroll figures courtesy of Cot's/Baseball Prospectus.
Liam Hendriks Will Pitch Extensively (and Successfully) in 2012
With the Jason Marquis signing, otherwise fifth-starter candidates Liam Hendriks, Scott Diamond, and Anthony Swarzak will all be headed to the bullpen, or more likely in the case of the former pair, Rochester.
Like many other writers, I'm extremely bearish on Marquis; he's out-pitched his xFIP and FIP numbers over his entire career, relies a bit too much on balls in play, and his K/9 and BB/9 rates just don't jive to make a successful hurler. Essentially, I think he should have gotten a minor league deal, or maybe about half what he got. He just doesn't provide much in the way of upside.
Nonetheless, my notion is that Marquis, like Sidney Ponson, Livan Hernandez, and Ramon Ortiz before him, will pitch himself out of favor before midseason, leaving the last rotation spot open to any upstart who may dare to claim it.
One such contender is Hendriks, an Australian right-handed hurler who has quietly established himself among the Twins more stable prospects.
Hendriks' raw stuff doesn't exactly play up; his fastball averages exactly 90 miles-per-hour, and his secondary offerings don't profile as elite pitches either. But what Hendriks does, and what the Twins preach ad nauseum, is limit the free pass. So while Hendriks may be unlikely to repeat his minor league K rate of 8.2 per nine, he should still be able to limit damage due to a pretty good WHIP (1.09 in the minors) and a disdain for the long ball (0.3 per nine).
In an organization that has turned pitchers with Hendriks' skill set into middle-of-the-pack starters, it's a good fit for him. He should get the first chance over Scott Diamond, come injury or poor performance.
Francisco Liriano Will Regain His 2010 Form
Despite tossing a no-hitter on the south side early in the season, '11 was a big step back for the Dominican lefty. The strikeouts came and went, his control was spotty, and a couple disabled-list stints really never allowed Liriano to build on what was an excellent season in '10. The Twins opted to not have Liriano pitch in winter ball, but after such a lost season, a mental break was probably for the best.
There's a lot at stake for Liriano in '12. After brief rumblings of a contract extension fell through prior to last season, Liriano is playing out his last season of arbitration-eligibility before hitting the open market next offseason. If this is Liriano's last dance in Minneapolis, he'll enter his final season as a Twin with a star-crossed career line of a 4.19 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 3.5 BB/9 and a 1.33 WHIP.
Much of the onus on Liriano's rough '11 has to fall on Frankie himself; in late-February reports emerged that shoulder issues he was enduring were caused by his failure to keep up on the exercises prescribed to him by team doctors. Add to this a bit of a reputation of as a headcase, and one can see why it's imperative that Liriano proves his merit before wading in free agent waters that can prove choppy for inconsistent hurlers (see Jackson, E.).
Part of what Liriano can do to get back to who he was in '10 is to induce more worm-burners. His ground ball rate declined by five percent, and as a result, his HR/9 rate ballooned by double. Strikeout pitchers who induce ground balls like Liriano did in '10 are hard to come by, and by simply keeping his shoulder healthy and strong in the offseason, Frankie should enter '12 poised to deal whiffs and grounders yet again, and snag himself a nice multi-year deal in the offseason.
Joe Mauer Will Remain Healthy and Regain His Pre-Injury Production
Admittedly, this bold prediction is more of a hunch; with one more year of studying Mauer's issues to see exactly what's causing him to miss games, the Twins medical staff is bound to be more prepared come '12, right?
Well, maybe not. But even an unhealthy Mauer, who played inconsistent stretches of time, and for a brief period, with pneumonia, managed to keep a healthy .287/.360 split in his AVG and OBP. Obviously his power was sapped, but so was his strength due to his respiratory issues.
The season really hinges on the health of Mauer. With recent reports suggesting Morneau is still 'recovering', it may be safe to suggest he can't be counted on for much in the way of production in '12. The Twins have efficiently safeguarded themselves by inking Ryan Doumit to play a bit of the right corners and to catch a bit, and Chris Parmelee's late-season surge can't be completely ignored.
Part of what might also not hurt as much if Morneau needs more time to heal is that Mauer can see time at first if Justin is the DH, or in the worst-case scenario, has to be on the disabled list. Indeed, Mauer's value is sapped as a first baseman, as he then becomes more of a Daric Barton-type than a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher, but ultimately the Twins need to consider not just the short term, in which Mauer is an uber-valuable catcher but a complete wreck towards the end of his deal, but rather moving him to a corner where his bat is merely OK, but he's less likely to have a Dale Murphy-esque career collapse.
The contract is already signed; there's no going back.
The Twins Will Be in the Mix for the AL Central Title Come Season's End
This might be the absolute boldest of all predictions, but hear me out:
1. The division isn't exactly top-heavy. The Tigers ran away with it in 2011, but were aided largely by excellent seasons from Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Doug Fister, and Jose Valverde, all of whom will have to prove those campaigns weren't a fluke for the club to win 90-plus again. Outside of Justin Verlander, their rotation has a lot to prove. That may be why the club is possibly in the Matt Garza derby.
2. The Twins fill the offensive black holes with competent hitters who should provide a great deal of improvement over the likes of Brian Dinkelman, Rene Rivera, Steve Holm, among others. Doumit, Willingham, and Carroll all help fill roles that were either left wide-open by the previous General Manager, or didn't have the depth required once an everyday player went down. This team is considerably deeper.
3. Every hear of Murphy's Law? Well that applies to the Twins in '11, as everything possible under the Minnesota sun went wrong for the club last season. Even Francisco Liriano's no-hitter was unsightly, as he walked six hitters and only tossed 66 of 123 pitches for strikes. Every single regular, with the exception of Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer, missed significant time with an injury. Drew Butera, Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, and Rene Rivera won't combined for 1000 PA again, either.
4. This club should simply catch the ball. Last season, the Twins infield saw a 30 point rise in ground ball BABIP from '10. That's absolutely huge for a team fanned a mere 6.0 per nine innings last season, or a full whiff off the league pace. If Carroll, Casilla, and Valencia catch the ball in the infield, look for guys like Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn to reap the benefits.
All in all? This is probably about a .500 ball club as it currently sits. There's still time to make a few moves, as Dan Wheeler's agent reached out to the Twins in the last week, and there's still room for more positivity to be added to an already relatively positive offseason.