If 2011 was the beginning of a steep fall for the Minnesota Twins, then 2012 can be considered rock bottom.
One season after a decade of success came to a screeching halt, the Twins recorded their second straight 90-loss season and finished last in the American League Central.
Over the offseason, general manager Terry Ryan added hope for the future by acquiring several top prospects for expendable pieces such as Denard Span and Ben Revere.
While that makes 2014 a little brighter, the Twins still have many glaring holes to fill in 2013. In other words, this will likely be another long season for the team.
2012 Record: 66-96
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): RHP Rich Harden (FA), RHP Mike Pelfrey (FA), RHP Kevin Correia (FA), RHP Vance Worley (from Philadelphia), RHP Trevor May (from Philadelphia), RHP Alex Meyer (from Washington), LHP Rafael Perez (FA)
Key Departures: OF Denard Span (to Washington), OF Ben Revere (to Philadelphia), RHP Matt Capps (FA), INF Alexi Casilla (to Baltimore), RHP Carl Pavano (FA)
Projected Rotation (per official site):
1. Kevin Corria (12-11, 4.21 ERA, 1.29 WHIP)
2. Vance Worley (6-9, 4.20 ERA, 1.51 WHIP)
3. Scott Diamond (12-9, 3.54 ERA, 1.24 WHIP)*
4. Liam Hendriks (1-8, 5.59 ERA, 1.54 WHIP)
5. Mike Pelfrey (0-0, 2.29 ERA, 1.42 WHIP)
6. Cole De Vries (5-5, 4.11 ERA, 1.20 WHIP)
* LaVelle E. Neal of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Scott Diamond is still having problems with offseason elbow surgery and that his availability for Opening Day is uncertain.
C: Joe Mauer (.319/.416/.446)
1B: Justin Morneau (.267/.333/.440)
2B: Jamey Carroll (.268/.343/.317)
3B: Trevor Plouffe (.235/.301/.455)
SS: Pedro Florimon (.219/.302/.307)
LF: Josh Willingham (.260/.366/.524)
CF: Darin Mastroianni (.252/.328/.350)
RF: Chris Parmelee (.229/.290/.380)
DH: Ryan Doumit (.275/.320/.461)
Closer: Glen Perkins (L) (3-1, 2.56 ERA, 16 SV, 4 BLSV, 11 HLD, 1.04 WHIP)
Jared Burton (R) (3-2, 2.18, 5 SV, 4 BLSV, 18 HLD, 0.92)
Alex Burnett (R) (4-4, 3.52, 10 HLD, 1.35)
Brian Duensing (L) (4-12, 5.12, 7 HLD, 1.40)
Casey Fien (R) (2-1, 2.06, 6 HLD, 0.97)
Anthony Swarzak (R) (3-6, 5.03, 1 HLD, 1.42)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
During the Twins' run of six division championships between 2002 and 2010, they had some of the best starting pitching in baseball.
On most nights, the starting staff would go at least six innings and hand it off to a solid bullpen for a chance to win.
Over the past two seasons, the Twins have lost this strength.
Twins starters ranked last in the American League in earned run average (5.40), quality starts (62) and strikeouts per nine innings (5.53)
The strikeout rate is the most concerning stat, as the rotation has taken pitching coach Rick Anderson's "pitch to contact" philosophy to an extreme, allowing 141 home runs.
While Anderson has taken the heat for the Twins' starters, it also has to be taken into consideration that he hasn't had much to work with.
Ryan tried to address that problem this offseason by trading Span and Revere for top pitching prospects, but Alex Meyer and Trevor May will not be ready until 2014 at the earliest.
However, those trades did bring Vance Worley into the fold for the Twins, and he will be a lock to make the Twins starting rotation along with Scott Diamond.
Diamond was a pleasant surprise for the Twins in 2012, and big things were expected of him in 2013 before he had setbacks from surgery to remove a bone chip in his pitching elbow.
Worley experienced the same problem, as his stats dropped from 12-4 and a 2.86 ERA during his first two seasons to 6-9 and 4.20 in 2012, also because of bone chips.
After offseason surgery to remove the chips and a bone spur, Worley is expected to be ready to go for spring training.
Elbow injuries have haunted the Twins over recent years, as the team's medical staff has had handed out several bad diagnoses that have ultimately resulted in Tommy John surgery.
As four of the five projected Twins starters have experienced some sort of elbow injury over the past year, it's a situation worth monitoring.
Diamond and Worley will make up two spots of the Twins' starting rotation, but who else will join them?
Ryan reached out to a slew of bargain-bin free-agents in the hope that they can fill some spots until the kids are ready to contribute.
Kevin Correia has spent most of his career in the National League but will attempt to make the jump to the American League by joining the Twins.
At Correia's best, he can be what the Twins have wanted Nick Blackburn to be. Correia doesn't strike out too many batters, but he has a 1.18 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, which was 13th in the major leagues last season.
If he can keep the ball down (and the Twins sub-par defense can make plays behind him), Correia can be a serviceable fourth or fifth starter.
The Twins also took a gamble by adding Mike Pelfrey from the New York Mets.
Pelfrey forces ground balls at a high rate as well (1.02 career GB to FB) and his four seasons over 180 innings shows an ability to go deep into starts.
Pelfrey is coming off of Tommy John surgery from last April. As with all pitchers a year removed from the surgery, Pelfrey may not be the same pitcher he was prior to the injury.
If he recovers, the Twins have another bottom-of-the-rotation starter at an affordable price.
If Pelfrey and Correia wind up failing, there is a long line of suitors who will have an opportunity.
Kyle Gibson was on the fast track to the major leagues before undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2011. Despite this, he is the Twins best major league-ready pitching prospect heading into 2013.
Gibson was a bit wobbly upon his return in September, but had a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League over the winter. He can get the ball down, with a ground-ball rate in the 50- to 60-percent range, but can also strike people out with a career K/9 ratio of 8.2 in the minor leagues.
Liam Hendriks will also have the opportunity to validate his minor league success. His 1-8 record with the Twins in 2012 looks bad, but he became a different pitcher when he was sent to Triple-A Rochester.
Not only did Hendriks go 9-3 with the Red Wings in 2012, he showed the pinpoint control (2.4 BB/9) he became known for in the lower levels of the Twins system and kept runners off base (0.98 WHIP).
With Triple-A pitching coach Bobby Cuellar becoming the Twins' bullpen coach, he may be able to get Hendriks to tap into the potential he's shown in the minor leagues.
Cole De Vries, Samuel Deduno (6-5, 4.44 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) and P.J. Walters (2-5, 5.69, 1.51) are also vying for a spot, but if the Twins have to reach down this deep into the minors, they will be in the same situation as 2012.
Scouting The Bullpen
After having one of the worst bullpens in baseball in 2011, the Twins threw several darts at the board to try and fix it in 2012.
While the results were mostly positive, the truth is that the bullpen didn't have an important role, due to how bad the starting pitching was.
The Twins were 13th in the American League with 49 save opportunities and 35 saves as a team. The bullpen didn't see too many intense situations either, as the average leverage index (which measures on a scale where one is an average-pressure situation) was 13th in the AL at .940.
Still, the Twins were able to do well when they had the opportunity to finish the game.
A lot of that had to do with closer Glen Perkins, who got the opportunity when Matt Capps went down with a shoulder injury.
Perkins was able to save 16-of-20 games and show life on his fastball. The mid-to-high-90s heat was able to produce a 10.0 K/9 rate for a bullpen that desperately needs it, as the Twins ranked last in the American League at 6.48.
Another reliever who emerged in 2012 was right-hander Jared Burton.
Burton battled shoulder injuries for the previous two seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, but was able to rebound and post the best season of his major league career.
For his efforts, the Twins rewarded Burton with a two-year, $5.45 million extension over the offseason with a team option for 2015.
With the exception of Casey Fien, the rest of the Twins bullpen had its share of problems in the middle innings.
Alex Burnett has been inconsistent over the course of his career, and Anthony Swarzak broke a couple of ribs playing WrestleMania in a hotel hallway with an unnamed teammate during TwinsFest last month.
The wild cards for this bullpen are going to be Brian Duensing and possibly Rich Harden.
Duensing has bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen since his debut during the 2009 season, but is better as a left-handed specialist, with lower career numbers coming out of the bullpen.
|Duensing as a Starter||23-24, 4.57 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, .289 AVG, .455 SLG|
|Duensing as a Reliever||5-7, 3.38 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, .244 AVG, .644 OPS|
If the starting pitching struggles, the temptation will be there to put Duensing back in the rotation. However, there needs to be restraint and to allow him stay in the pen.
Harden was signed as a minor league free-agent after taking the 2012 season off.
Many thought that he would be used to fill the gaping holes in the Twins' rotation, but his injuries suggest that a bullpen role could be more beneficial to not only the team but himself, as he has thrown more than 100 innings just four times in nine seasons.
While his stuff isn't as potent as it was in the early part of his career, he can add a couple of miles-per-hour to it and increase his K/9 rate.
Obviously, this would be a plus for the Twins.
If all goes right, the Twins bullpen has the talent to improve in 2013. But they'll need the starting pitching to provide more opportunities to make an impact.
Scouting the Hitting
If there are two things that the Twins could do well last season, it's hit for average and get on base. A .260 team average ranked seventh in the American League and the on-base percentage fifth at .325.
But once those runners got on base, the Twins had problems driving them in.
The Twins were tied for last in the AL with the Kansas City Royals by hitting just 131 home runs in 2012. They also could not hit for any power, as they slugged a measly .390 that was good for 12th in the AL.
So the Twins decided to make a change and reassign Joe Vavra to third base, while calling up Triple-A Rochester hitting coach Tom Brunansky as the new hitting coach.
Brunansky knows how to hit the ball for power, as he had 271 home runs in 14 career seasons. If he's able to teach this lineup to hit for power, it will help the Twins score more runs after being 10th in the AL with 4.33 per game.
As has been the case the past couple of seasons, the lineup's production will depend on the health of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
Mauer played in a career-high 147 games in 2012, but roughly half of those were played at first base or catcher to keep him fresh.
The strategy worked to an extent, as he contended for a fourth batting title and hit double-digit home runs for the first time since 2009.
However, Mauer's season also included a career-high 88 strikeouts, and he grounded into 23 double plays (second most behind 2006 season with 24).
I'll talk more about Mauer later, but he needs to cut down on those mistakes to justify his third spot in the batting order and drive in more runs.
As for Morneau, it was a tale of two seasons in 2012.
In the first half, Morneau went .246/.312/.440 with 11 home runs and 38 RBI. But Morneau looked like himself for the first time in years after the All-Star break hitting .289/.354/.439 with eight home runs and 39 RBI.
After a dismal 2011, Morneau seems to have bounced back, and it will be interesting to see if he can carry that momentum into 2013.
Sandwiched between Mauer and Morneau in the lineup will be 2012 Silver Slugger winner Josh Willingham. The Hammer hit a career-high 35 home runs in 2012 and was their most consistent power threat.
Willingham also did most of his damage at Target Field, abusing the left field wall for a .293/.407/.610 line with 21 home runs and 63 RBI in 71 games.
Target Field suits Willingham's pull-happy approach at the plate, and it's safe to assume his power numbers are not going anywhere in 2013.
The biggest question that the Twins lineup will have heading into this season is the top of the batting order. With the departures of Denard Span and Ben Revere, the Twins lost two quality table-setters who allowed the middle of the lineup to have the opportunity to drive in runs.
It's assumed that the two players who will be filling these roles will be the starting second baseman and center fielder.
The second-base battle will include Brian Dozier and Jamey Carroll.
Offensively, the Twins would be best suited if Dozier won the job. While his 2012 line of .234/.271/.332 was awful, the career minor league line of .298/.370/.409 suggests that there is offensive potential. The same can't be said for Carroll, who is what he is at age 39.
But the Twins are going to rely on several pitchers who use their defense to get outs, and Carroll is the better defensive player with a career .354 on-base percentage; it won't sink the lineup if they have to use him.
Center field is a murkier situation, as the Twins will either lean on utility outfielder Darin Mastroianni or top prospect Aaron Hicks.
Mastroianni has his moments, but it doesn't hide the fact that he's best suited as a utility outfielder off the bench. His .252/.328/.350 doesn't provide excitement, and it won't make up for the loss of Revere or Span.
Hicks must assert himself as the starting center fielder in spring training for the Twins to have the best lineup possible. His line of .286/.384/.460 at Double-A New Britain last season shows potential to be a star similar to former Twin Torii Hunter, with the defense to back it up.
Overall, this lineup needs to drive the ball into the gaps at Target Field to make a difference in 2013. If they can't, they'll have a hard time keeping up with their awful pitching staff.
It's hard to pick any of the current Twins starters as a pitching stud, because not only do they not have the stats to back it up, but they're all the same pitcher.
Pitching coach Rick Anderson's pitch-to-contact philosophy requires pitchers who can induce ground balls and eat innings while pounding the strike zone. Recently, there hasn't been a starting pitcher to successfully do that in Minnesota.
With the entire starting staff ruled out of this discussion, you have to go to the back of the bullpen to find the best pitcher on the team in Glen Perkins.
And he's going to be good.
The situation is similar to that of 2001, when the Twins needed somebody to close games.
The selection of Eddie Guardado didn't send Twins' fans into a frenzy, but he quickly became one of the dominant closers in the game and registered back-to-back 40-save seasons before leaving for the Seattle Mariners prior to the 2004 season.
Like Guardado, Perkins is a converted starter who found that a move to the bullpen made him more effective.
Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2011, Perkins has thrown 132 innings with a 2.52 earned run average and 1.12 WHIP. Unlike most of the Twins staff, he also can strike batters out with a 9.8 K/9 rate in that same time span.
If Perkins can get enough opportunities, he has the ability to save 40 games for the Twins in 2013.
Because of his 2012 performance, you may expect that Josh Willingham would be featured in this spot.
But Joe Mauer can do it all at the plate. He led the Twins in on-base percentage and nearly captured a fourth batting championship in 2012, hitting .319.
The only problem for Mauer is that fans expect more after his monster 2009 season, which saw him hit .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs and 96 RBI. That season also netted him the American League MVP award and an eight-year, $184 million contract extension.
The Twins have moved to Target Field since then, which has made home runs and extra-base hits hard to come by for the home team. But it's Mauer's consistency that gives him the nod here.
No catcher had ever won an AL batting title before Mauer came to town. By the way, he has three of them.
The power isn't on par with Willingham's, but if I'm in a situation where I need a hit, I want Mauer and his career .323/.405/.468 line at the plate.
Mauer will turn 30 in April, but the Twins have figured out a way to keep him in the lineup by rotating him at catcher, designated hitter and first base.
That should give Mauer an opportunity to produce a quality season in the middle of the Twins batting order.
Usually there is one X-Factor on a team, but the Twins happen to have two of them.
Trevor Plouffe and Chris Parmelee have shown glimpses of talent in the major leagues, but haven't been able to put it together for a long stretch of time.
In September 2011, Parmelee made his major league debut and tore the cover off the ball with a .355/.443/.592 line in 21 games. However, the success didn't translate to 2012 at the major league level.
When sent to Triple-A Rochester, Parmelee became the second coming of Roy Hobbs. In 64 games, he hit .338/.457/.645 with 17 home runs and 45 RBI.
Oddly, Parmelee's career has mirrored that of current third baseman Trevor Plouffe.
After eight seasons in the minor leagues, Plouffe had a Ruthian effort in 2011, hitting .313/.384/.635 in Rochester before being called up. That success didn't translate either, as he hit .208/.305/.392 in 81 games.
The struggles continued in the early part of 2012, as Plouffe was hitting .163 at the end of May, but the light bulb went on from there.
Plouffe channeled his inner Triple-A All-Star last June and hit .327/.391/.735 with 11 home runs and 21 RBI.
While Plouffe faded after suffering a bruised thumb on July 21, the key is that he and Parmelee have both shown flashes of brilliance at the major league level.
I talked about the lack of power in the Twins' lineup earlier, but hitting coach Tom Brunansky needs to find a way to consistently unleash these two power bats.
If it happens, the Twins will be more enjoyable to watch at the plate this season.
Prospect to Watch
If the Twins are going to be surprise contenders, the pitching has to improve. Therefore, one of the team's top prospects needs to rise to the major league level and give quality innings in 2013.
Alex Meyer and Trevor May will be worth keeping an eye on, but it's unlikely either will get to the majors this season.
This puts the spotlight on Kyle Gibson.
The Twins first-round pick in 2009, Gibson has the stuff that the Twins need in a top-of-the-rotation starter and the development necessary to help them out right now.
The one variable is going to be whether Gibson has fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. While he is just 17 months from going under the knife, the quick success of other pitchers who have recently had the procedure is encouraging.
The likely scenario is that Gibson will be sent to Triple-A Rochester, but the Twins might opt to use a similar approach to what the Atlanta Braves did with Kris Medlen by starting him in the bullpen.
However Gibson starts, the end result must be the same, with him contributing in the major league rotation by the end of the season.
What The Twins Will Do Well
I think the Twins lineup shows improvement under Tom Brunansky. While Denard Span and Ben Revere were electric players, they just could not give the Twins the power this team needs.
Some fresh faces, including Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks and possibly prospect Oswaldo Arcia, can make a big difference for a team that has struggled offensively over the past two seasons.
The Twins will also have an underrated bullpen to go to if the starters can give them a lead.
Jared Burton and Glen Perkins have the stuff to become a dominant end-of-game duo, and if they can find an arm or two to help in the seventh inning, holding leads won't be a problem for the Twins.
What The Twins Won't Do Well
I'm not sold on the revamped pitching rotation.
General manager Terry Ryan had the right idea by not spending the obscene amount of money that was being given to mediocre starters on the free-agent market, but signing Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey will not get the job done in 2013.
The Twins also have questions in the field. I'm curious to see how Chris Parmelee will play in right field, as the Twins had the opportunity to use him there during the 2012 season once Trevor Plouffe moved to third base, but decided to use Ben Revere instead for defensive purposes.
Trevor Plouffe (19 errors in 2012) and Brian Dozier (15 errors) make me leery of the Twins infield defense as well. They will both need to improve, but I'm not sure whether that will happen.
Where will the Twins finish in the AL Central in 2012?
Over the entire 2012 offseason, I had the feeling that the Twins were willing to concede the 2013 season in order to build a competitive team in 2014.
Those were confirmed with the Denard Span and Ben Revere trades, and now it's time to take a look at the young players.
The Twins teams that dominated the American League Central during the 2000's began with a 69-93 season in 2000 that saw several young players get an opportunity to play in the major leagues.
2013 will be a time to find out who is a part of the long-term solution for the Twins. If those players can't seize the opportunity, a loaded farm system will have some prospects get their chance.
It will be another long season for the Twins, but the hope is that it will lay the groundwork for another successful run, beginning next season.
Projected Record: 65-97, last in AL Central