2008 MLB Preview: Minnesota Twins
Manager: Ron Gardenhire
Arrivals: SS Adam Everett, OF Carlos Gomez, IF Brendan Harris, SP Livan Hernandez, 3B Mike Lamb, OF Craig Monroe, OF Delmon Young
Departures: SS Jason Bartlett, OF Lew Ford*, SP Matt Garza, OF Torii Hunter, SP Sidney Ponson, SP Johan Santana, SP Carlos Silva, OF Jason Tyner*, OF Rondell White*
Offseason grade: B
With Matt Garza, Carlos Silva, and Johan Santana all leaving Minnesota via trades or free agency, the 2008 version of the Twins' starting rotation is vastly different than the one they trotted out in 2007.
Livan Hernandez will get the Opening Day nod for the Twins after going 11-11 with a 4.93 ERA for Arizona last year. Hernandez is 33 and can still be an effective innings-eater, but it's unlikely that he can be the leader of a staff, especially one in the offense-heavy AL Central.
Behind Hernandez will be Boof Bonser, who struggled in his first full season in the majors last year, going 8-12 with a 5.10 ERA. Even though he's just 26, it appears that his performance after getting called up in 2006 was a flash in the pan.
Scott Baker should finally start 30+ games for the Twins this year after being billed as a top pitching prospect for the last three or four years. Like Bonser, Baker is just 26, but he has a much higher ceiling than Bonser does.
A slight problem with Baker, though: he has the flu. Bad. He's missed a couple of starts late in spring training and there's an outside chance he gets put on the disabled list to open the season.
Once he gets that all cleared up and is ready to go, don't be surprised if Baker pitches very well for Minnesota this year.
Kevin Slowey, a 23-year-old righty out of Winthrop, will likely be the Twins' No. 4 starter this year. Slowey's minor-league track record is very impressive, sporting a WHIP of 0.86, an ERA of 1.93, and a K/BB ratio of 7:1. There shouldn't be a lot of pressure on Slowey this year, which should allow him to develop nicely into a very solid pitcher.
Nick Blackburn will initially round out this Minnesota rotation while Francisco Liriano starts the year off in the minors. Blackburn was impressive last year between AA New Britain and AAA Rochester, going 10-4 with a 2.36 ERA in 148.2 innings. He'll likely get two or three starts in the majors before Liriano comes back and should be first in line to fill in for an injured starter this year.
Liriano has yet to regain his 2006 form after missing all of 2007, but it would have been foolish to expect him to pitch like he did in 2006 right off the bat. The Twins seem to be handling Liriano well by sending him to Rochester to make a few starts before calling him back up to the majors.
Liriano really is the X-factor of this rotation. If he pitches like he did in 2006, it'll greatly soften the blow of not having Garza and Santana in the rotation. If he ends up not regaining that form, he'll be just another mediocre stater in a rotation that already has too many of them.
Starting rotation grade: C (For now. Liriano's performance could really raise this grade)
Joe Nathan will return to lead this Minnesota bullpen with a fat new contract and no worries about being dealt before July. Nathan is one of the premier closers in the game and gives the Twins a dominant option at the back of their bullpen.
Pat Neshek is dominant in a different way than Nathan, but he's just as effective. The right-handed Neshek's sidearm motion is effective against both righties and lefties, holidng them to .185 and .173 batting averages last year, respectively. He's developed into an excellent eighth inning man–and just in time, too, considering the problems Juan Rincon had last year.
Rincon saw his ERA jump from 2.91 in 2006 to 5.13 in 2007–a jump that possibly was due to the elbow issues that concerned the Rays so much they decided they didn't want him in the Garza-for-Delmon Young trade.
However, the return of Jesse Crain should also help offset another poor season from Rincon. Crain had season-ending shoulder surgery in May after struggling through the early part of the 2007 season. However, Crain was one of the AL's better relievers in 2005 and 2006, throwing nearly 80 innings in both those years with ERAs of 2.71 and 3.52. If he's healthy, expect Crain to return to his 2005 and 2006 performance.
Dennys Reyes will fill the LOOGY position in the Twins bullpen after holding lefties to a .264 batting average in 2007 (righties hit .364 against Reyes last year). His 1:1 K/BB ratio last year was a bit worrisome, as if he's called on to get one lefty out, the last thing Ron Gardenhire will want to see is a walk.
Brian Bass won a bullpen spot out of spring training, beating out Philip Humber for final spot. Bass doesn't have an overly impressive minor-league track record and has never pitched in the majors before, but he has a 2.51 ERA in spring training.
Matt Guerrier, Minnesota's long-man from last year, could see some innings later in games with Bass on the team. Guerrier threw 88 innings over 73 appearances last year with a 2.35 ERA and should be good wherever he pitches in the Minnesota bullpen.
The return of Crain coupled with Neshek and Reyes (if used properly) will give Minnesota an excellent bridge from their starters to Nathan.
Bullpen grade: B+
The addition of Delmon Young will easily offset the loss of Torii Hunter to free agency in this Minnesota lineup. Young, 22, hit .288 with 13 home runs and 93 RBI in his first full MLB season last year for the Rays and has an extremely high ceiling.
Expect Young's power numbers to climb to the 20-25 range and his RBI total to end up well over 100 this year. He'll likely be hitting fifth behind Justin Morneau to start the year, but if he can raise his on-base percentage from the unsightly .316 it was in 2007, he may end up bumping Michael Cuddyer out of the No. 3 spot before the end of the year.
Morneau, just one season removed from being the AL MVP, has developed into a powerful run-producing player, something the Twins lacked for a long time even with Hunter in the lineup. Another 30+ homers and 100+ RBI should be in store for Morneau out of the cleanup spot this year.
Cuddyer saw his production drop from the .284/24/109 totals he had in 2006 to .276/18/81 last year. He'll be hitting third this year, but should get his fair share of RBI opportunities with Carlos Gomez and Joe Mauer hitting in front of him.
It's hard to believe that Mauer will be just 25 this coming April. He's one of the top all-around catchers in the game as a guy who can hit for a very high average and get on base a lot while still calling an excellent game for his pitchers.
While his batting average did drop to .293 last year, he still posted an on-base percentage of .382. He'll be hitting second this year and will see a lot more fastballs, so don't be surprised if his batting average jumps back up into the .330s and his OBP rises above .400 like it did in 2006.
Gomez will take his lumps as a rookie leadoff hitter this year but has a very bright future ahead of him. Expect his on-base to be fairly low (currently .302 in spring training), but he shouldn't hit for a terrible average and could steal 50+ bases. This lineup will not go and Gomez goes, but a decent rookie season out of him would be a nice added boost.
The Twins have excellent depth in their lineup after the No. 5 spot.
Jason Kubel will get a lot of time as a DH against righties and could really blossom into a solid offensive threat. He once was regarded as a top offensive prospect before sustaining an injury that cost him all of 2005, but he's still just 25 and still has a lot of room to grow.
Craig Monroe will get his fair share of at-bats as a DH against lefties. His .219 batting average last year was largely due to his inability to hit against righties (BA of .194), but he did hit decently against lefties, hitting at a .271 clip against southpaws.
Mike Lamb will get the majority of starts at third base after coming over from Houston in the offseason. Lamb hit .307 and .289 in his final two seasons with the Astros and is an excellent bat to have at the back end of a lineup.
Brendan Harris, acquired in the Young trade, finally found a starting spot with Tampa Bay last year and hit .286 over 521 at-bats. Harris will see a lot of time at second base this year, but also could fill in at third or short if Lamb or Adam Everett gets injured.
Everett is an excellent defensive shortstop but doesn't provide much in the way of offense. He'll be hitting ninth in this lineup, though, so another .230 season out of him won't really affect this deep lineup that much.
Lineup grade: B+
Nick Punto is an excellent utility infielder who can play across the diamond and come up with dinky little hits whenever they're needed. If I was to describe a "piranha", it would be Punto: the scrappy, undersized utilityman who has a knack for coming up with a bloop single or swinging bunt that will break your confidence.
If there's such thing as a top-tier backup catcher, it's Mike Redmond. Redmond is a hard-nosed professional and the Twins never miss a beat when he's catching instead of Mauer.
Matt Tolbert will be the Twins' other utility infielder and Monroe and/or Kubel can always fill in somewhere in the outfield if needed.
Bench grade: B+
This is a Twins team that could have easily competed with the likes of Detroit and Cleveland had they held on to Santana. However, the team decided to look to the future by trading him. Don't be surprise if this franchise scratches and claws their way back into contention in 2009.
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