The Minnesota Twins had a season they'd like to forget in 2011.
A year after winning 94 games and capturing their second-straight American League Central title, the Twins won just 63 games and finished dead last in the division. It was their worst season since 1999.
The Twins were active in the offseason, but much of the focus was on the players who were leaving Minnesota rather than the players who were entering Minnesota. The Twins did not do much to significantly upgrade their team.
So they're keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best. What I mean to discover is whether they'll have good fortune in 2012.
2011 Record: 63-99
Key Arrivals (Courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): RHP Jared Burton (FA), OF Brian Dinkelman (FA), C Ryan Doumit (FA), SS Pedro Floriman Jr (waivers from Baltimore), RHP Terry Doyle (waivers from Chicago White Sox), OF Josh Willingham (FA), SP Jason Marquis (FA), 1B Steve Pearce (FA), C J.R. Towles (FA), RHP Casey Fien (FA), 3B Sean Burroughs (FA), RHP Joel Zumaya (FA), SS Jamey Carroll (FA)
Key Departures: SP Kevin Slowey (to Colorado), OF Michael Cuddyer (FA), OF Jason Kubel (FA), RHP Joe Nathan (FA)
Projected Rotation (Per Official Site)
- Carl Pavano (9-13, 4.30 ERA, 1.36 WHIP)
- Francisco Liriano (9-10, 5.09, 1.49)
- Scott Baker (8-6, 3.14, 1.17)
- Nick Blackburn (7-10, 4.49, 1.60)
- Brian Duensing (9-14, 5.23, 1.52)
- Jason Marquis (8-6, 4.43, 1.49)
C: Joe Mauer (.287/.360/.368)
1B: Justin Morneau (.227/.285/.333)
2B: Alexi Casilla (.260/.322/.368)
3B: Danny Valencia (.246/.294/.383)
SS: Jamey Carroll (.290/.359/.347)
LF: Ben Revere (.267/.310/.309)
CF: Denard Span (.264/.328/.359)
RF: Josh Willingham (.246/.332/.477)
Closer: Matt Capps (R) (4-7, 15 SV, 7 HLD, 9 BLSV, 4.25 ERA, 1.20 WHIP)
Glen Perkins (L) (4-4, 2 SV, 17 HLD, 3 BLSV, 2.48, 1.23)
Alex Burnett (R) (205, 10 HLD, 2 BLSV, 5.51, 1.40)
Anthony Swarzak (R) (4-7, 4.32, 1.34)
Scott Diamond (L) (1-5, 5.08, 1.74)
Lester Oliveros (R) (0-0, 1 HLD, 4.64, 1.50)
Kyle Waldrop (R) (1-0, 5.73, 1.45)
Joel Zumaya (R) (2-1, 1 SV, 11 HLD, 2 BLSV, 2.58, 1.12 in 2010)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Starting pitching was an area of concern for the Twins last season. Twins starters logged just 961 innings, fourth-fewest in the American League. They managed just 80 quality starts, also fourth-fewest in the American League. They posted a collective ERA of 4.64, third-worst in the American League.
There were some bright spots (Francisco Liriano's no-hitter), but by and large the Twins just plain struggled to get any consistency out of their starting rotation in 2011. When that happens, you lose 99 games.
The trouble is that this is a staff without a true ace. The Twins know they can rely on Carl Pavano to log innings (222 in 2011), but he's going to put runners on base and give up a fair amount of runs. He's a good guy to have, but he's by no means a stopper.
He's a good No. 3 or No. 4 starter who is serving as a No. 1.
Francisco Liriano isn't much better. His no-hitter last season was a nice moment, but he walked way too many guys and struck out way too few guys in 2011. It was a big step back from his 2010 season, in which he was pretty good.
Consistency and control will be Liriano's biggest priorities this season, as he needs to throw the ball over the plate and avoid putting the ball in the happy zone when he does. This will be contingent on his mechanics when he's on the mound, but whether Liriano can stay healthy will be the big question mark.
The Twins will be very happy if they get 200 or so innings from Scott Baker this season. He's never been an ace, but he's a guy who can be sneakily effective when he's on top of his game. I'll have more on him in just a minute.
The back end of this rotation is a total crap shoot. Neither Nick Blackburn nor Brian Duensing pitched well in 2011, and you never know what you're going to get out of Jason Marquis. He has the potential to pitch 200 innings though, and the Twins will gladly take those, even if they aren't 200 good innings.
Let's be frank. This is not a great starting rotation. In the grand scheme of things, it ranks in the lower third of all starting rotations in the majors. There is some slight upside, but not a whole lot.
Scouting the Bullpen
Twins starters were bad in 2011, but Twins relievers were even worse.
Twins relievers combined to post an ERA of 4.51 last season, the worst mark in the American League. They struck out fewer batters per nine than any team in the AL, and they also had one of the highest walk rates in the league. They blew a total of 20 saves.
There's not a whole lot of room for improvement this season. The Twins are returning a lot of the same guys, save for Joe Nathan. His numbers weren't pretty last season, but he did pitch well in the second half of the season, going 11-for-11 in save opportunities and posting a 3.91 ERA.
Nathan is in Texas now, leaving Matt Capps to take over closing duties for the Twins. He's closed before, but he's coming off a bad year in which his strikeout numbers took a huge dive and he generally struggled to keep runners off the basepaths.
Oh well. Capps can only get better in 2012, and the Twins are going to need him to be better. If he isn't, they're going to have a hard time nailing down wins.
The big wild card in this bullpen is, you guessed it, Joel Zumaya. He was the hardest thrower in baseball once upon a time, but he just hasn't been able to stay healthy since his breakout season in 2006. He didn't pitch at all in 2011 thanks to a nasty elbow injury he suffered in June of 2010.
Zumaya was still throwing hard when we last saw him, but it's hard to imagine him sitting in the 98-100 MPH range like we're used to. Given the arm troubles he's had, he'll have to be more of a pitcher than a thrower.
If Zumaya pans out, this bullpen is that much deeper. He'll be able to work the eighth, leaving underrated lefty Glen Perkins to work the seventh. This would still be an imperfect bullpen, but at least there would be a solid structure in place.
If things don't pan out, it's going to be another long year for the guys in the pen.
UPDATE on Saturday, Feb. 25: Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that Zumaya felt "something" in his arm during his throwing session. He didn't speak to the media, and he didn't look happy as he went to go get it checked out.
UPDATE on Sunday, Feb. 26: LaVelle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune reported today that Zumaya has a torn UCL. He's done for the season, and I personally think his throwing days may be over. This bullpen's ceiling just got a lot lower.
Scouting the Hitting
The Twins couldn't pitch last season, and they couldn't hit either.
The Twins finished second-to-last in runs scored in 2011 with 619. Their collective on-base percentage of .306 was second-worst in the league, as was their collective .360 slugging percentage. They hit fewer home runs than any team in the American League.
Keep in mind this lineup had good power threats in Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, both of whom are gone now.
It all hinges on Joe Mauer. Above all, the question is whether he can stay healthy. If he does, the question is whether he can hit like he has for the better part of his career.
If Mauer stays healthy, I see no reason why he wouldn't hit. Mauer has spent a lot of time on the disabled list during his career, but one trend is clear.
If he gets 500 at-bats, he's going to hit .300 with an OBP over .400 and a decent slugging percentage. As long as he's in the lineup consistently, he'll hit.
Don't ask him to hit for power, though. We know Mauer does have pop in his bat, but he owns a career .384 slugging percentage at Target Field. The Twins' home ballpark has had the same affect on him as it has had on everyone else.
And then there's Justin Morneau, who has become baseball's answer to Sidney Crosby. We know he's a great player, but we don't know when he's going to be able to play or how long he's going to be able to play.
But Morneau's track record is much like Mauer's. When he plays, he hits. If he stays healthy this season, the Twins can expect to get some good production out of him.
The Twins are going to need as much production out of Mauer and Morneau as they can possibly get. With the exception of free agent acquisition Josh Willingham, there's a sorry shortage of power in Minnesota's projected lineup. They're going to have to rely on small-ball tactics and timely hits to score runs.
They won't score a lot of them either way, mind you. But if all goes well, the good news is that this lineup will produce better than it did in 2011.
Not that that's saying much, of course.
Because this is indeed a staff without an ace, it was hard to make a pick here.
But I have to go with Scott Baker.
The good news for Twins fans is that Baker said last week (h/t 1500 ESPN) that his right elbow is a "non-issue." He's heading into 2012 healthy and ready to contribute.
Baker is sneaky-good. He doesn't walk too many guys, he strikes out more hitters than you probably think, and does a good job of lulling hitters to sleep and getting them to hit lazy fly balls. A good percentage of his outs are going to come on fly balls.
Last season, Baker was able to keep those fly balls from leaving the park. Only 8.7 percent of the fly balls he gave up resulted in dingers, down from 10.2 percent in 2010. He was on his way to having a very good season before his elbow issue cropped up.
If Baker can stay healthy, he'll be the top-of-the-rotation starter this team needs. He won't be Roy Halladay, but he could easily be better than Pavano.
Then again, that's not saying much either.
It should be obvious. It's Joe Mauer. It has to be Joe Mauer.
There is hope for Mauer in 2012. Last season was essentially a lost year, and Mauer was never right physically after battling various ailments early in the season. He just wasn't up for the grind when he came back.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported in January that Mauer has gotten himself ready. He gained roughly 30 pounds during the offseason, putting him right at the 235-pound mark. That's right where he's supposed to be.
The Twins can only hope that Mauer can recapture the form he showed from 2008-2010. In that span, he led all major league hitters with a .340 average and all lefty hitters with a .420 on-base percentage. His WAR in those three seasons was 19.7.
That's the Joe Mauer the Twins need, not the one who was barely healthy and who could only manage singles last season.
His signing went under the radar, but Ryan Doumit is going to be a huge player for this Twins team.
Doumit is billed as a catcher, but he has experience playing first base and right field as well. His versatility makes him a key asset for a team that, let's face it, needed to pick up a versatile player.
If Mauer needs a day off behind the plate, Doumit can catch. If Morneau needs a day off or isn't able to play at all at first base, Doumit can play first. If Ron Gardenhire feels he just needs to have a switch-hitter in the lineup, there's Doumit.
Doumit has had his own issues staying healthy, but he's been pretty good when he has been able to stay healthy. He's a career .271/.334/.442 hitter, which isn't bad for a platoon guy coming off your bench.
Doumit is going to be just that and more for the Twins.
Prospect to Watch
This is a big year for Aaron Hicks, the center fielder the Twins drafted 14th overall in 2008. Big things were expected of him, but Hicks has so far failed to deliver.
Despite being in the Twins' system since 2008, Hicks has failed to rise above A-level ball. Last year with Fort Myers, he hit just .242 with a .722 OPS. Everyone expected Hicks to dominate in the minors, but he's moving backward more than he's moving forward.
Nonetheless, hope remains for Hicks. ESPN's Keith Law still likes him enough to include him in his list of the Top 100 prospects in baseball, in which he referred to Hicks as a "potential star."
This is the year Hicks needs to put it altogether and show the Twins that he deserves to be moved up through their system. He needs to start hitting.
If he doesn't, people are going to start tossing around the B-word.
What the Twins Will Do Well
As much as I want to focus on the positives, the truth is that this Twins team doesn't stand out as being particularly excellent at any one thing.
We just don't know about their pitching. Their starting staff has little upside and likely won't be significantly better than it was in 2011. Same goes for their bullpen.
This lineup will get a big boost if Mauer and Morneau stay healthy and start hitting again, but disaster awaits it if both of them struggle to stay healthy and/or fail to produce. Even if they do produce, runs are not going to be plentiful.
If nothing else, I suppose the Twins will be a better defensive team than they were last year, when they posted a fielding percentage of .980 and had a collective UZR of 0.0.
What the Twins Won’t Do Well
I said it above, but I'll reiterate it here: They're not going to be a great pitching team, a great hitting team or a particularly great fielding team.
Yes, there is upside in a few key places. But on paper the Twins just don't look that great.
Since you're asking, the Twins should be better in 2012 than they were in 2011, but not by much. They're banking on a lot of things going right this season—the exact opposite of what happened for them last season.
Even if things do go right, the Twins just don't stack up against the rest of the AL Central.
The Tigers are one of the best teams in baseball, the Indians are a team to watch out for, the Royals are on the rise, and the White Sox still have a powerful lineup and a semi-deep pitching staff. All four teams will make life tough for the Twins.
So will the rest of the American League.
Projected Record: 69-93, fifth in AL Central.
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge mancrush on Derek Jeter and he would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:
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