MLB: 5 Over and Underrated Minnesota Twins
It's getting close. So close, even though there's more than a foot of snow outside my window, I can almost smell fresh cut grass.
Pitchers and catchers are set to report in less than three weeks, and after that, spring can not be far behind.
Before you know it, Target Field will be hosting its second home opener and the public address announcer will be proclaiming, "Here are your Minnesota Twins!"
Just thinking about it, the goosebumps on my flesh are no longer from the cold, but from the adrenaline rush thinking about the upcoming 2011 season.
There is a lot of buzz surrounding the team as they prepare to defend their American League Central Title and perhaps finally make the push beyond the Divisional round of the playoffs.
There are still some questions that will need to be answered during spring training; among them, can Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau return to form in 2011?
Here's a look at the five most overrated and five underrated players for the Minnesota Twins.
Most Overrated (Honorable Mention): Nick Punto
With Nick Punto's free agent signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, technically he should not be a part of this ranking.
However, there has been a lot of Twins fans lamenting the loss of Punto.
I liked what Punto brought to the team with his grit. You never felt cheated watching him play.
The problem is with a .238 batting average and a .302 slugging percentage, he was overpaid in 2010 with a $4 million salary as a utility player.
Even his value as a base stealer diminished in 2010 as he failed to steal at least 13 bases for the first time since 2004, his first season in Minnesota.
The Twins had given Punto a couple of opportunities to be an everyday player, yet it never materialized.
He had one good year in Minnesota when he batted .290 in 2006, 43 points above his career average.
Overrated Player No. 5: Denard Span
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For Denard Span, 2010 was supposed be his breakout season.
The Twins jettisoned Span's only competition for centerfield when they traded Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee for J.J. Hardy.
In the Target Field exhibition opener against the Cardinals, Span looked very comfortable roaming the centerfield grass. He had the first hit by a major league player, as well as the first home run at Target Field. Little did we know at the time he would only hit three more home runs for the entire 2010 season.
Span hit .308 during spring training in 2010, and this would be the best part of his 2010 season.
Things got so bad for him that at one point, after repeatedly being picked off first base, he was no longer given the green light to steal.
In his first two seasons as a platoon player with Minnesota he hit .305 with 14 home runs and 115 RBI in 925 at-bats.
In 2010, as the starting centerfielder, Span hit only .264, with three home runs and 58 RBI in 629 at-bats.
Span will need to return to the form that earned him the full-time position if the Twins are to win a third straight AL Central title in 2011.
Overrated Player No. 4: Carl Pavano
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Let me state right off the bat that I like Carl Pavano.
The Twins needed to re-sign the mustachioed one if they have any hope of making a return trip to the playoffs.
After Cliff Lee signed with Philadelphia, there was a lot of noise Pavano was the next best free agent pitcher on the market. If this were truly the case, he would not be wearing a Twins uniform in 2011.
After losing out on the Lee sweepstakes, the Yankees could have easily outbid Minnesota for Pavano.
While the $8 million the Twins will pay Pavano in 2011 is the fifth highest on the team, it would have been only the 12th highest on the New York roster.
Although Pavano led the American League with seven complete games in 2010, with a 3.75 ERA, he was 53rd among all starting pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched in the league—not exactly a stat that strikes fear in an opposing manager.
He does not command the same kind of confidence former World Series-winning pitchers Frank Viola or Jack Morris did—yet.
Perhaps he can become the dominant pitcher the Twins need in 2011.
Most Overrated Player No. 3: Jim Thome
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Yes, Jim Thome will be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and yes, he did lead the Twins in home runs last season with 25 in 276 at-bats.
It was the second fewest at-bats for Thome since his third major league season in 1994 when he appeared in 98 games.
The fewest came in 2005, his last season in Philadelphia, when he appeared in only 59 games.
However, his 11.04 at-bats per home run in 2010 was the second best over his 20-year career where he has averaged a home run every 13.5 at-bats.
The problem is, at 40 years old, Thome's body will not hold up as the everyday designated hitter. At the end of last season, the grind of playing in over 100 games took its toll on his back, and he needed some rest before going into the playoffs.
In 2011 Thome still represents a very good threat to hit the long ball, but his appearances and at-bats will be fewer in 2011, resulting in fewer home runs.
For this reason, if the Twins are to be successful, they cannot afford to have Thome leading the team in home runs again.
It will be a milestone season for him, as he needs only 11 home runs to achieve 600 for his career.
If the Twins are smart they will try to make sure No. 600 is hit at Target Field.
Overrated Player No. 2: Joe Mauer
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How can a 3-time batting champ and former MVP be overrated? How about when the third hitter in the lineup has only nine home runs and 75 RBI?
With a career .327 batting average over seven seasons, there's no question Joe Mauer is a great hitter.
But if he is going to be the force that leads Minnesota to a World Series, he needs to be more productive.
Kirby Puckett, the Twins' No. 3 hitter in their two World Series Championships, led the team in batting with a .332 batting average in 1987 and a .319 average in 1991.
In 1987, Puckett drove in 99 runs and hit 28 home runs, while in 1991, he hit 15 home runs with 89 RBI. Excluding Mauer's MVP season of 2009, these are more home runs and RBI than any of Mauer's other six seasons.
Minnesota needs him to have another MVP-like season when he led the league with a .365 average and hit 28 home runs while driving in 96 RBI.
With a healthy Justin Morneau and Delmon Young contributing like they did in 2010, there would be no stopping Minnesota.
But if the Twins fail to make the playoffs and Mauer has another season with nine home runs and 75 RBI, there could be some grumbling by fans over the $23 million he will make in 2011.
Minnesota Twins' Most Overrated Player: Tsuyoshi Nishioka
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Tsuyoshi Nishioka has not even played a single inning in a Twins uniform, and yet there is a lot riding on the Japanese import who played in the Pacific League with the Chiba Lotte Marines last season.
At only 26 years old, Nishioka comes to the Twins with more than seven years of professional experience—one year younger than Ichiro Suzuki when he debuted with Seattle in 2001.
Nishioka led the Pacific League last season with a .346 average, but before 2010, he had never hit better than .300.
For most of his professional career he has been hampered by injuries, including sore knees, a wrist injury, pain in his neck and a hamstring injury.
Since joining the regular lineup for the Marines in 2005, Nishioka has averaged 124 games and 481 at-bats per season. That may compare nicely with Orlando Hudson's stats in 2010,—126 games and 497 at-bats—but Hudson also spent a couple stints on the disabled list.
At $3 million a year, Nishioka is a cheaper option than the Gold-Glove second baseman Hudson, whom the Twins paid $5 million last season.
Here's hoping Nishioka will have a rookie season even close to that of Suzuki when he batted .350 playing in 157 games, while also winning the AL batting title and AL Rookie of the Year.
Underrated Player No. 5: Drew Butera
Drew Butera has a tough job: back up the best catcher in baseball and play about once every five games or so.
Currently going into spring training Mauer and Butera are the only two catchers on the Twins' 40-man roster. Butera's value is that if anything happens to Mauer, there is no one else ready to step in and handle the Twins' pitching staff.
The Twins traded the only other catcher in the organization who looked to have major league potential when they sent Wilson Ramos to the Washington Nationals for All-Star closer Matt Capps.
In his rookie season, Butera only played in 49 games and batted a paltry .197 with two home runs.
Of course his two home runs were only one fewer than Denard Span and the combined total of Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert in 2010.
Underrated Player No. 4: Brian Duensing
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In 2010 Brian Duensing led the Twins' pitching staff with a 2.62 ERA in 53 appearances and 13 starts.
In his 13 starts he was 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA, best among the six pitchers who took a regular turn in the rotation. Overall he would win 10 games for the Twins and lose only three.
His flexibility to either pitch out of the bullpen or take a turn in the starting rotation makes the left-handed Duensing invaluable to the Twins.
With the departure of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, Minnesota loses a combined 145 relief appearances from 2010, making Duensing even more valuable to the Twins.
Now, if only he could replicate his regular season success in the playoffs.
Over the last two seasons, he has been given the opportunity to start against the Yankees in the playoffs. He has gone 0-2 with an 11.25 ERA in eight innings.
Underrated Player No. 3: Matt Tolbert
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Matt Tolbert will make the Twins as the utility infielder replacing Punto.
The Twins will not lose anything with Tolbert replacing Punto and just may be a little bit better.
In about one third as many at-bats, Tolbert had 18 RBI compared to 20 for Punto. He equaled Punto's single home run and had three triples in 100 at-bats.
While Punto has a .978 fielding percentage over his 10 seasons, Tolbert so far in three seasons has an acceptable .975 percentage.
Both are switch-hitters with little power, some speed and are able to play just about anywhere in the field.
The biggest difference in 2010 was Punto was making $4 million compared to about a half million that the Twins paid Tolbert.
Underrated Player No. 2: Joe Mauer
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I know this sounds like a contradiction, how can Mauer be one of the most overrated and underrated players on the Twins team?
Including his rookie season in 2004 when he was limited to 35 games due to a knee injury, the Twins have had only one losing season and four Division titles.
The 2009 American League MVP has three batting titles in 2006, 2008 and 2009, along with three consecutive Gold Gloves from 2008 to 2010.
Since joining the league in 2004, only Pujols and Suzuki have a higher batting average than Mauer's .327.
Mauer also brings so much more to the Twins than the hitting and fielding accomplishments.
He is the proverbial local kid done good. Raised in St. Paul, Mauer was taken first overall in the 2001 amateur draft, a move that was criticized by some who felt the Twins should have selected pitcher Mark Prior.
Although Prior would make his debut two years earlier than Mauer, he last pitched in the majors in 2006, making the Twins look like geniuses.
Mauer may be a good part of the reason the Minnesota Twins were able to get an outdoor stadium—as a way to ensure Twins fans would get to see their native son play and prevent the team from relocating to another city with the lure of a new stadium.
The Minnesota Twins' Most Underrated Player: Michael Cuddyer
The Minnesota Twins may not have won the last two AL Central Division titles without Michael Cuddyer.
The last two seasons, the Twins lost their MVP first baseman, Justin Morneau. In 2009, he missed the last 30 games of the season due to a stress fracture in his back, and in 2010, he missed half the season after suffering a concussion.
In both instances, the Twins were rescued by Cuddyer, who was able to fill in at first base to close out both seasons.
Excluding 2008 when he was limited to 71 games because of injuries, Cuddyer has averaged 21.5 home runs and 91.2 RBI with a .276 batting average since 2005. He has been one of the top three run producers for the Twins over that time.
Cuddyer has been a member of the Twins for 10 seasons, and in that time, he has played seven different positions.
In 2005 when the Twins lost long-time third baseman Corey Koskie, Cuddyer played 95 games at third.
The following season, he moved to rightfield and developed a reputation as an outfielder with a strong and accurate arm, leading all AL rightfielders in assists in 2006 and 2007.
Cuddyer has been a model professional for Minnesota. He goes about his business and does whatever the team asks without ever complaining.
He is in the last year of his current contract. It would be a shame, if like Torii Hunter, the Twins don't find a way to re-sign Cuddyer and lock him up so he can finish his career as a Minnesota Twin.