The Minnesota Twins began the 2011 season with aspirations of bringing back a World Series Championship to the Twin Cities for the first time in 20 years. A season full of reasons to believe quickly turned into practically unwatchable baseball over the first two months of the season.
On June 1st, the Twins fell to 17-37, last place in the division. Both injuries and uncharacteristically bad fundamentals put them 16.5 games back of Cleveland after only 54 games.
To put it in perspective, the last time the Twins were 20 games under .500, Tom Kelly was manager and David Ortiz was the Twins designated hitter (September 12, 2000).
A 15-2 stretch beginning on June 2nd brought the Twins back from oblivion, giving them hope that meaningful games in September was still realistic. As the summer got hotter, the Twins got healthy, but the winning came to a screeching halt.
The toughest job in Major League Baseball (MLB) this season may go to Twins General Manager, Bill Smith. I don't think there is a GM in the league that could prepare for the catastrophe that has struck the Twins lineup in 2011. Here is their opening day lineup, injury to each player, and number of games missed.
1. Denard Span (Center Field)—The spark plug behind the Twins offense in recent years, Span's ability to take pitches, hit for a solid average, and put pressure on both pitcher and catcher on the bases make his loss an extreme one offensively. Defensively he was their most sound outfielder until his replacement Ben Revere showed up.
Games played: 61 of 114
Twins Record Without Span: 31 - 22
Twins Record With Span: 20 - 41
Injury: Span was originally placed on the 7-day disabled list on June 9th after a collision at home plate with Royals catcher Brayan Pena.
2. Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Middle Infielder)—The Twins swung for the fences with Nishioka and are paying the price for it this season. They paid $5 million to Nishioka's Japanese club just to negotiate with him. His lack of big league experience and inability to play sound, fundamental defense led to the shortstop breaking his fibula as New York Yankee Nick Swisher slid into second base trying to break up the double play possibility.
Games played: 51 of 114
Twins Record without Nishioka:
Twins Record with Nishioka:
Injury: Broken fibula and a broken ego. His success in Japan has yet to transfer to the bigs.
3. Joe Mauer (Catcher)—The once MVP and three-time batting champion has seen better days in a Twins uniform, but he isn't lagging in his checking account, that's for sure. After signing a contract which pays him $23.5 million this season, Mauer has no power in his bat, his arm looks like it has weakened, and his untouchable image as the hometown kid making it big with the local ballclub has gone by the wayside.There are definitely some Mauer-haters in the Twin Cities.
Once he starts earning his gigantic contract, the pressure will ease on the young man from Saint Paul. Until that day, he will have to deal with questions about permanently switching positions to benefit his longevity.
Games played: 56 of 114
Twins Record without Mauer:
Twins Record with Mauer:
Injury: The ultra-mysteriousness behind Mauer's "sore" start to the season has gone unexplained by the coaching staff and the catcher himself. It is apparent that his leg weakness and shoulder pain have contributed to a decline in his batting average and power numbers from his career averages.
4. Justin Morneau (First Baseman)—This is easily the toughest injury for the Twins to overcome. Their leading power hitter has been peppered with a series of injuries while in the prime of his career and while his numbers during his last healthy month were worthy of the second MVP award of his career.
Instead, the 30-year-old suffers severe headaches daily, various concussion symptoms, and missed the entire second half of the 2010 season after batting .345 with 18 home runs and 56 runs batted in. The injury has lingered into the 2011 season. He had surgery on a pinched nerve in his neck, which has caused him to miss games for the third consecutive season.
Games played: 55 of 114
Twins Record with Morneau: 19-36
Twins Record without Morneau: 32-27
Injury: The last three seasons have been forgettable for the Twins' best power-hitter. Some people have began to question whether Justin Morneau really wants to play baseball. Including this season, Morneau has earned $41.6 million over the past three seasons. Beginning in 2009 he missed the late-season surge that won the Twins the division due to back surgery. Last year, in what looked like a harmless slide into second base, Morneau suffered a severe concussion and missed the entire second half. And subsequently in 2011, Justin Morneau was again plagued by another injury, this time to his neck. It has cost him more than half his season and he has put the Twins in a pickle when it comes to renegotiating his contract terms moving forward.
Here is a fact Twins fans can ponder. Justin Morneau has played just 271 of the Twins’ last 438 games (not including playoffs). Twins management can approach it this way. He has played in roughly 60% of possible starts over the past three seasons. Maybe he should give back 40% of his $41.6 million salary. Imagine who the Twins could have paid $16.6 million over three years to pitch out of the bullpen.
5. Jason Kubel (Right Field/Designated Hitter)—Twins fans can imagine how bad their record would be without "Koobs" crushing the ball around the park during the first two months of the season. He led the American League in batting at various points throughout the first two months, but due to some terrible pitching and no one else hitting, the Twins dropped to 17-35 with him in the line-up. His sprained left foot kept him out 46 games, and the Twins actually had a better win-loss record with their best hitter of the first half sitting on the sidelines.
Twins Record without Kubel: 29 - 17
Twins Record with Kubel: 22 - 46
Injury: Kubel is back from his sprained left foot and has seemed to pick right up where he left off. One big problem, the team is back to losing with him in the lineup. The Twins are 5-11 since Kubel returned off the DL on July 22nd.
6. Jim Thome (Designated Hitter)—The Twins really had no choice but to put pressure on Thome's back, and hope that he could fill-in, stay healthy, and help the Twins keep their heads above water. He tried, he keeps fans in the stands in his chase for 600, but the ballclub has faltered in the win column. It has nothing to do with Thome, but the big man also missed time and the Twins suffered badly without his presence.
Games played: (Missed 23 games due to a sore back)
Twins Record without Thome: 6 - 17
Twins Record with Thome available: 45 - 46 (Thome has played in 58 of 91)
Injury: Thome is as healthy as he can be at age 40, and to think he has been in the lineup more days than both Mauer and Morneau proves even more that the Twins need a locker-room attitude adjustment, and the guys need to start playing baseball. After the sacrifices that Thome has made for the team, showing up to work every day, a lot of the players on the team need to look up to him and get on the field to finish this season.
Will the Twins make a comeback into contention in 2011?
7. Delmon Young (Left Field)—It's so hard to classify Delmon Young as a veteran baseball player. He has been in the league five years now, but seems like he is still learning at the plate and in the field. Last July, it seemed as if Delmon had finally figured it out. He looked comfortable at the plate, he was crushing both fastballs and off-speed pitches, and the league was taking notice. It seemed like every time he strode to the plate there were "ducks-on-the-pond" and he brought them home. He ended the season batting .298, he hit 21 home runs, and compiled 121 RBI.
Everything would point to a huge year for Delmon in 2011, but the exact opposite has happened. Delmon has become complacent at the plate. He lost his aggressiveness. And just like every other starter in the opening day lineup, he got hurt. He missed two stints, so he has yet to get completely going this season. He went on the DL two weeks into the season and missed 19 games due to rib soreness. It's amazing that soreness would keep another Twin out of the lineup, isn't it. On June 26th, Young's prancing in left field led to an ankle sprain of his left ankle. In turn, Young missed another 14 games before returning after the all-star break on July 14th.
Games Played: 79 of 114
Twins Record with Young: 35 - 44
Twins Record without Young: 16 - 19
Injury: Delmon Young appears healthy at this point. He has re-established himself in left-field and has five hits in his last four games, including two home runs. It is unclear why Young wasn't on the trading block at the end of July. It's apparent that the Twins desperately need arms out in the bullpen, and with a surplus of outfielders, GM Bill Smith fumbled away an opportunity to move either Young, Denard Span, and/or Michael Cuddyer.
Over the last 48 games of 2011, it will be interesting to see who steps up their game in the outfield. If Young can't, he might find himself with a one-way ticket at the Lindbergh Terminal in South Minneapolis.
8. Alexi Casilla (Second Base)—It was Alexi's job to lose in 2011 and if it weren't for the plague hitting the Minnesota locker room, Casilla might have found himself in Rochester (AAA) or with a completely different ballclub had he not sparked a rally in early June to bring the ballclub back from the brink of disaster.
Since his departure on July 27th, the Twins have struggled mightily to hold it together, and it has since crumbled to pieces. Casilla's hamstring isn't the reason the Twins are nearing last place in the A.L. Central, but a combination of his defense, Nishioka's errorability, Plouffe's non-readiness, Tolbert's inability, and the organization dismissing perfectly good options in J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, the Twins find themselves double-digits behind Detroit, and peeking at that final game in October.
Games played: 96 of 114 (Casilla was available for 104)
Twins record without Casilla: 2 - 8
Twins record with Casilla available: 49 - 55
Injury: It looks like Alexi will be coming of the 15-day DL next week and maybe he and Justin Morneau can spark a late season rally, so the Twins can play spoiler in the division.
The Starting Pitching
Is Kevin Slowey hurt? Or is Kevin Slowey ANTI-Gardenhire?
The answer really doesn't matter, or does it? Is Ron Gardenhire really manager of the year? Did he deserve those accolades for patching together a division title last year?
I don't think so. I think Gardenhire has faltered in big spots. He fails to put pressure on opposing managers in late game situations. He has handcuffed himself multiple times in late game situations by making changes either too early or not at all.
And what changed his mind this year when it comes to stretching out his starters as long as possible? There is a reason they all have dead arms this early in August. He has coddled them every year by using his saving grace to save them in tough situations. The Twins bullpen has been outstanding over the past decade, and I have been awaiting the day that it fell apart. I knew when Gardenhire had to call on his horses that their would be no juice left in the tank. Just like in horse racing, he gave a little chirp in their ear and went "yaw! yaw!" Problem is they're already fully extended. We pulled up within striking distance of that front-runner, switched leads, asked for more, and the tank was empty.
It's time to put a wrap on this injury-plagued season and move onto football season. The Twins are back in their stall, waiting for some oats, and definitely need about a six month layoff.
Mark my words, the Twins finish last in the division for the first time since 2000.