Minnesota Twins Season Preview: Building a Home Atop the AL Central
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I’ll continue my previews of the upcoming seasons of each major league team with the Twins. I’m trying a different format for this one. My previews for the Reds, Phillies, Yankees and Giants were long, sprawling, analyses/rants/speculations that seem to read too much like research papers and not enough like journalistic pieces, so I’m going to go the slideshow route here.
The Twins have been successful over the past decade due largely to their ability to develop and harness homegrown talent and supplement it with the right, low-budget, free agent pieces. This team seems to have a knack for avoiding the horrible off-season deal that plagues nearly every franchise once in a while, and that’s saying a lot since they employ Carl Pavano.
Missing two of their stars, the Twins still won 94 games in 2010 and took the division, and they have the talent to do it again. If Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan can stay healthy, this team should be around in October. Or they might anyway.
Francisco Liriano has emerged as the Twins' ace after a season in which he stayed healthy and stayed dominant.
The Twins have assembled a rotation of excellent control pitchers, most of whom have developed into great ground-ball machines. While no one—except perhaps Liriano—stands out as a true, lights-out ace, there is depth here that most teams would break the bank for. It helps that the Twins as a team get to face some lousy opponents and the team’s hurlers get to face some rather undisciplined hitters in that division.
Easily the best stuff in this rotation lies within Francisco Liriano’s left arm. He’s a strikeout machine (9.44 per nine innings in 2010) who keeps the walks low when healthy (2.38 per nine in 2006, 2.72 per nine in 2010). The health problems still are a worry, but if healthy, there’s no reason to believe Liriano cannot turn in another season like his 2010. He was throwing harder last year than he has since his Tommy John surgery, with his fastball back up around 93 mph. He also mixed his pitches even more, using the slider about a third of the time. He gets ground balls when he’s on, and a ground ball pitcher with good control who strikes guys out could be an ace. I am not necessarily betting on Liriano turning in a spectacular season in 2011, but I would not be altogether surprised if it happened either.
Resigning Carl Pavano for about $16 million over two seasons was a good move. I don’t know that he’s going to win seventeen games again, or post an ERA below 4.00, but he has the tools to be successful. He just posted two consecutive seasons of 32 starts or more, following 26 starts over four seasons with the Yankees. He got tons of grounders en route to a .281 BABIP-against in 2010. I don’t see that repeating, but Pavano always gets grounders, which will help him be a productive starter for the Twins. He just turned 35, but also had a four year vacation, so he might not decline all that much. Look for him to be better than he was in 2009, but a little worse than in 2010.
Like the two guys mentioned above, Scott Baker has struggled with injuries. He has only one 200 inning season to his name (2009) despite having been mostly a starter since 2005. What he has in common with his rotation-mates is excellent control. He has walked 2.10 hitters per nine innings in his career (career-high was 2.35 in 2005). Unlike Liriano and Pavano, he’s a fly-ball pitcher, allowing 1.32 flies per grounder.
Brian Duensing didn’t make his debut until he was 26, and his impressive sophomore season will earn him a spot in the rotation. He’s a control pitcher who gets grounders, but doesn’t strike many guys out. I’ve seen projections that vary quite a bit. I’d say he could probably spin an ERA somewhere in the high threes over the 180 innings he’s likely to throw.
Nick Blackburn should probably be a long reliever. He doesn’t strike guys out and he gets hit hard. You have to worry about a guy who pitches to contact this much, even if he keeps the ball low in the zone. At best, he could be ok, like he was in 2008 and 2009.
Kevin Slowey is a great control pitcher who works up in the zone too much and that has led to some inflated ERAs over the past couple of seasons. He doesn’t throw hard, and his secondary pitches are not great, and that’s probably why he’s as low in the pecking order as he is. He'll be there if someone gets hurt or is ineffective.
The Twins' usually-dominant closer Joe Nathan missed the year, and his substitutes did a great job.
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Having Joe Nathan back will be huge as he has been one of the best closers in baseball over the past seven years, but that doesn’t relieve concerns over losing their three most used relievers of the 2010 season. Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch formed a very dependable trio. In fact, if the Twins had retained at least two of the three, one could make an argument for them having the best bullpen in the game. Instead, the Twins will rely on some younger, cheaper guys to try to step in and make innings six and seven a more comfortable affair for Ron Gardenhire.
Matt Capps returns to set up for Joe Nathan, and the setup role is where he belongs. He doesn’t have the lights-out stuff you want in a closer, despite his fine 2010 season. He throws about as hard as Nathan, but relies heavily on his fastball, which he threw 78.4 percent of the time last year. His secondary pitches are subpar in terms of runs above average, but he counters that with good control. His 17 walks last year tied a career-high, and that includes five seasons of 50 IP or more.
Twenty-three year old Alex Burnett was fourth on the Twins in innings pitched last year with 47.2. His 5.29 ERA was ugly and his walk rate (4.34) was high for a guy with moderate strikeout stuff. He’s one of the few relievers I’ve ever seen throw from a full windup, probably because he was a starter in the minors until 2009. Jeff Manship, 26, has thrown a grand total of 60.2 innings over parts of two seasons. His career ERA is 5.49, but his walk rate plummeted in his 29 innings pitched in 2010. It could just be luck, as he didn’t throw many more pitches in the zone, just got a lot of swings and misses.
Lefty-specialist Jose Mijares has held lefty hitters to a .188 average through the first 104.2 innings of his career. Scott Diamond is a 24-year-old reliever who was a rule-5 draft pick from Atlanta. He’s been very good at every level in the minors, though he has been a starter.
Pat Neshek has a chance to make good on all the praise he got after his first two seasons in the majors. He has thrown nine innings since 2008, and will get a chance in the Twins bullpen. His funky submarine delivery had something to do with his arm problems, but he probably wont change it as a previous injury caused him to resort to that delivery in the first place. There have been too many injuries with him to be especially confident in him, but given what he’s done in the past, he deserves a chance.
Glen Perkins remains in the mix and could be used in long relief. His paltry strikeout rate as well as some rotten luck may be partly to blame, but he has been hit to the tune of .292 in his career. Anthony Slama spent his minor league career collecting strike outs. He will get a shot at the pen. Eric Hacker will as well, though he has been inconsistent throughout his minor league career.
There are a few minor-league invites worth mentioning. Yorman Bazardo has struggled in short stints with three teams. Allegedly, the Tigers were so impressed with what he had done in the minors a few years ago that they felt comfortable trading Jair Jurrjens. It was a silly move, as Bazardo is a low-strikeout guy with unimpressive stuff. Chuck James, once a heralded young starter with the Braves, will try to reemerge with the Twins. He never had anything more than average stuff, just an 87 mph fastball without a good secondary pitch. Phil Dumatrait has had poor stuff since he came up with the Reds in the mid 2000s. Kyle Waldrop is 25, without big league experience, but just spun a 2.67 ERA in 87.2 innings pitched in AAA. He should get a chance.
Scouting reports indicate that Carlos Gutierrez could be the closer of the future in Minnesota. His fastball tops out at 98 mph, but he is said to be a year away or so.
Joe Mauer was rewarded for being one of the best catchers in baseball with an uncharacteristically huge contract.
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Joe Mauer remains one of the best pure hitters in the game. He strikes out about half as often as your average major leaguer. He drives the ball more frequently than most, but he isn’t a power hitter. His 28 home runs of 2009 were an aberration, a product of extreme luck. Over 20 percent of his fly balls went for home runs, as opposed to 6.5 percent the year before despite an identical line drive rate and comparable fly-ball rates. I don’t think I would count on him for 20 home runs, but a .300 batting average is a safe bet.
Drew Butera is a fairly typical backup, except for the fact that he had an above-average contact rate in 2010. He will probably handle all of Carl Pavano’s starts.
With Justin Morneau back in their lineup, the Twins become a better, deeper team.
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Having Justin Morneau back will be huge, but as of about a week ago, he still wasn’t at 100 percent. He says he is on the road to recovery. Morneau is, to me, one of the elite hitters in baseball. I know a lot of people consider him a tier below the best, but this is a guy with plus power and an exceptional ability to hit for contact. He can hit breaking balls and off speed pitches. At his best, he should be hitting .300 year in year out, and only failed to do so in 2009 and 2007 because of bad luck.
Tsuyoshi Nishioka is the newest Twin, taking over for Orlando Hudson.
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How Tsuyoshi Nishioka will adapt to baseball in the U.S. is something of a mystery. What we do know is that he’s built like a second baseman, at 5’11" and 175 lbs. Similar to the guy he’s replacing in Minnesota, Orlando Hudson. Nishioka made his debut in Japan at age 18, so he’s logged eight seasons of pro ball. His career slash line is .293/.364/.426, making him something of the prototypical middle infielder. He hits for good average and with limited power. He hit 11 home runs last year, compared to his career-high of 14. He also hit .346, which seems uncharacteristically high. It’s hard to know what to expect of him, but he does appear to be a talented hitter. Supposedly, he plays the field well in addition.
Danny Valencia earned the starting job at third base after his fine season at the plate.
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Twenty-six year old Danny Valencia won the job after an impressive half-season with the Twins in 2010. He hit .311, which seems a little high (.345 BABIP), but he doesn’t strike out especially often, so I think he’ll post a decent to good average in 2011. The Twins made a habit of promoting Valencia to the next level of the minors during the middle of each season. He would start the seasons with high walk rates which would then decline upon his promotion. If that continues, maybe he improves his plate discipline in 2011. He looks to me like a guy who could hit something like 12 home runs, and be a productive player for the Twins. His swing seems to stay in the zone for longer than most.
Alexi Casilla will be the shortstop after J.J. Hardy was traded.
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The Twins have a decent shortstop in Alexi Casilla. His 2009 was a fluke and he should hit somewhere closer to .280 with no power and a few steals. Aside from at first base, there has been a lot of turnover in this Twins infield, and I expect more to come. He doesn't have the power of J.J. Hardy, but is faster and fits the mold of this Twins team that values good contact hitting.
Matt Tolbert remains on the Twins bench after Brendan Harris was traded.
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Matt Tolbert: Tolbert has spent parts of three seasons with the Twins, amassing only 454 plate appearances during that time. He has spent most of his time at second and third.
Trevor Plouffe: Somehow he managed to post and OBP lower than his batting average when he debuted in 2010. He did not hit for high average in the minors and probably wont as a major leaguer, but has 10 HR power.
Luke Hughes: He was probably the most disappointed when the Twins signed Nishioka. His minor league stats aren’t anything special and his seven major-league plate appearances tell us little.
Michael Cuddyer begins his 11th season with Minnesota, representing their tendency to accrue talent through homegrown players.
Michael Cuddyer is the longest-tenured Twin and his greatest asset is probably his above-average power, or should I say, power potential. His home run totals fluctuate wildly, from 14 last year to 32 the year before to 16 in 2007 to 24 in 2006. He’s probably closer to the 14 HR guy than the 32 HR guy, but he hits for decent average since he cut down on the strikeouts a few years ago. A good hitter, but not a great one.
Denard Span fits comfortably on the top of the Twins lineup.
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Denard Span is a fast runner who probably should be posting higher-than-average BABIPs. This is why another .300 average is not out of the question. He will walk and steal bases, and gives the Twins a potent leadoff man. He has great range in the outfield as well.
Delmon Young has quietly put together a promising start to his career over the last four seasons.
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I like Delmon Young. He consistently posts high batting averages, due partly to high BABIPs even though he isn’t especially fast. He swings at everything, almost to a fault, but hits most of it. Pitchers still haven’t caught on and are throwing him about as many pitches in the zone as your average hitter sees, which is strange since he spent most of last year hitting at the bottom of the Twins’ order. I think he will continue hitting for good average—somewhere around his career mark in 2011—and continue to display the power he showed last year.
Kubel is just one of several powerful lefty hitters on this team.
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Jason Kubel should be good for another 20 home runs and another above-average walk rate. The batting average should bounce back up a little too, but probably not as high as the .300 he posted in 2009. Kubel should also spend some time at DH.
Jason Repko is your classic quadruple-A player. He can run and play good defense, but wont hit.
Ben Revere, now a few months shy of his 23rd birthday, skipped AAA altogether and should probably spend much of 2011 back in the minors.
Future hall of famer, Jim Thome
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It’s hard not to want Jim Thome to win a world series ring before he calls it quits. He is, and has been, a tremendous player for such a long time. He led the team in home runs last year despite only logging 340 plate appearances. The Twins already had a talented lineup that was overly left-handed. They already had the DH spot covered and had ample depth at first base, but Jim Thome still, somehow, seems like a good resigning.
Expected Win Total
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Expected Win Total: 90-95
Another typically productive season is in the cards for this team. They were missing Justin Morneau for much of last year and Joe Nathan for all of it, and they still took the division with a 94-win season. Part of that is due to absolutely beating up on their division rivals, some of whom are unimpressive. In a weak division, it is sufficient to merely be good, but the Twins are better than that.
Aside from the stars, the emergence of Danny Valencia, Brian Duensing, and the reemergences of Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano and Delmon Young played a role in their 2010. This is a deep team with pitchers who control the ball well, hitters who can make contact with the ball, ample power and a deep bullpen.
I know the White Sox have come on strong this offseason and the Tigers aren't bad, but the Twins remain the team to beat. They are deeper in nearly every aspect of the game (rotation, lineup, pen) and will be strengthened by the return of some key players and continued development of others.