Impact Player: C Joe Mauer
Impact Pitcher: LHP Francisco Liriano
Best Reliever: RHP Matt Capps
Top Prospect: RHP Kyle Gibson
General Manager: Bill Smith
Manager: Ron Gardenhire (803-656, .550)
2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka, RHP Eric Hacker, RHP Dusty Hughes
2B Orlando Hudson, SS J.J. Hardy, INF Nick Punto, INF Brendan Harris, RHP Jon Rauch, RHP Matt Guerrier, RHP Jesse Crain, LHP Ron Mahay, LHP Brian Fuentes
Since manager Ron Gardenhire took over the team in 2002 from long-time manager Tom Kelly, the Twins have won six of the last nine AL Central titles and have had just one losing season. They went from being on Major League Baseball’s cutting-room floor with talk of contraction, to boasting the one of the top ten payrolls in baseball at an estimated $113-million for the 2011 season.
The Twins, along with the Athletics, were the model of small-market team building in the early part of the last decade; now they are the model of efficient team building and an example of how a mid-market team should function. Analyzing how the Twins went from small-market struggling team to mid-market success story should be on the to-do list of any team struggling to win games and stay financially viable.
The Twins return in 2011 with only one major addition after signing Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka to replace departed second baseman Orlando Hudson who signed in San Diego. Other position player departures such as Nick Punto and J.J. Hardy could be addition by subtraction as their in-house replacements are probably better than them.
The one area of concern for the Twins lies in their bullpen with a sizeable chunk of last year’s unit gone in 2011. Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Ron Mahay, and Brian Fuentes all signed with other teams, but like the Rays, the Twins could have a surprisingly good (and substantially cheaper) bullpen this season.
The Twins enter the season as the favourites to win the weak AL Central on paper and if everything goes as planned, they should do just that.
Here’s a stat that may surprise you: Francisco Liriano had the third highest FIP in the majors last season behind only Josh Johnson and Cliff Lee at 2.66. Also, his 6.0 WAR ranked him behind only Lee, Justin Verlander and Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez in the AL. What does this mean? Liriano is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. The fact that the Twins are apparently considering trading him makes me think their success in the last decade had more to do with luck than skill; unless of course, Liriano has asked for a trade, which there is no indication of. Barring any unbelievably stupid trade, he will front the rotation in 2011.
Beyond their ace, the Twins will send a deep and skilled rotation to the ballpark every night. Carl Pavano may be highly overrated, but he’s still not a bad pitcher and was re-signed to a somewhat reasonable two-year deal this offseason. He posted 17 wins, a 3.75 ERA, and a 1.51 BB/9 rate in 2011. His career trajectory suggests he’ll regress quickly, but he should still be solid at the back end of this rotation.
The remaining three probable starters for the Twins this season are all very much underrated. Kevin Slowey was 13-6 last year and posted a 4.45 ERA, which seems high, but his team-best 3.97 K/BB ratio was outstanding and placed him sixth in baseball for pitchers with over 150 innings pitched. The names ahead of him were Lee, Roy Halladay, Ricky Nolasco, Jered Weaver, and Dan Haren; that’s some serious company.
Scott Baker put up a similar season. His ERA was 4.49, but he posted a 3.44 K/BB ratio and a 3.96 FIP which suggests, like Slowey, he’s much better than his ERA would suggest. Like seemingly all Twins pitchers, Baker fits the mould of a command guy who strikes out enough to be very successful.
Brian Duensing will stop bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen this season. In 2010, he was 10-3 with a 2.62 ERA and a 3.85 FIP. He keeps the ball on the ground very well and he should benefit from a whole year in the rotation.
Nick Blackburn will provide depth, but could be gone if he doesn’t impress in the spring. Eric Hacker was also signed to a major-league contract after posting a solid season in AAA-Fresno of the Giants organization last season.
Matt Capps was acquired from the Nationals last season after they signed him away from the Pirates in the offseason because the Bucs were stupid enough to non-tender the consistent reliever. Between Washington and Minnesota in 2010, Capps posted 42 saves and a very good 3.23 FIP. He’ll enter the year as the closer.
The only reason Capps’ closing job is even remotely in doubt is because of the return of Joe Nathan who missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Nathan was one of the game’s best closers before he got hurt and if he’s healthy he should be very good in a setup role. The fact that he’s 36 does concern some.
Left-hander Jose Mijares has earned a permanent place in the bullpen for the Twins after a 3.31 ERA, 3.87 FIP season but beyond him there are definite question marks. The second lefty spot will be a spring battle between former starter Glen Perkins who had a 5.82 ERA and 4.83 FIP in 2010 and waiver pickup Dusty Hughes who was much more solid in Kansas City last year.
Alex Burnett will be given a shot after struggling to translate his solid strike out and walk rates to the majors last year and he could be joined by Jeff Manship who may have had a 5.28 ERA in 29 big-league innings, but his 3.60 FIP suggests he was a tad unlucky. Injury-plagued Pat Neshek will also be given a shot at cracking the team and to return to his former dominant self.
Blackburn could also be in the bullpen mix if he fails to show he can start, while minor-leaguers Scott Diamond, David Bromberg, Deolis Guerra, Hacker, Jim Hoey, Anthony Slama, Yorman Bazardo and Anthony Swarzak could also have a shot with impressive springs.
Joe Mauer is the best catcher in baseball and although he may never again hit for the kind of power he exhibited in 2009, slash lines in the area of .327/.402/.469 will invariably put you among the best in the game at a very weak position. Mauer is, at best, an average defensive catcher having posted negative UZR ratings in three consecutive seasons, but if you compare his career trajectory with some of the best ever to play his position you start to see the picture of a future Hall-of-Famer being painted.
Providing Mauer stays healthy, most Minnesota fans may not even know the name of their backup catcher. It’s Drew Butera, but really, who cares.
Jair Fernandez and veteran Steve Holm provide non-roster depth.
The loss of Hudson, Punto, Hardy and Brendan Harris from the infield picture in Minnesota may actually turn out to be a good thing. Danny Valencia will start at third after posting a .311/.351/.448 slash line in his rookie year. He also managed to post a 5.9 UZR rating and 2.7 WAR in only 85 games.
Nishioka will take over at second and although it’s hard to predict exactly how he’ll do in North American ball, he did post a stupid .346/.423/.482 slash line with the Chiba Lotte Marines in the NPBL. He was a shortstop in Japan but is likely best suited to play second.
Alexi Casilla will likely start the year at shortstop where the Twins figure he’s more than competent defensively. He also contributed fairly well at the plate in 2010 with a .276/.331/.395 slash line. A repeat of that will be more than enough at short.
The question mark is at first base. Justin Morneau was on his way to another MVP-calibre season in 2010 when in July it was cut short by a concussion; the effects of which are still evident. It’s unknown if he’ll be ready for Opening Day and with head injuries, you just never know if he’ll ever be the same. The case of Aaron Hill and the fact that Morneau had a .345/.437/.618 slash line before his injury give him hope. He also finished with a higher WAR rating than Mauer in only 98 games.
If Morneau is not ready, Michael Cuddyer will likely see a lot of time at first. A healthy Morneau likely relegates him to a super-utility bench role with his ability to play all over the diamond and spell Jim Thome at DH.
The bench infielder job will go to either Matt Tolbert or the slightly more versatile and powerful Trevor Plouffe.
Starting leftfielder Delmon Young may be the most overrated player in baseball since most people will look at his .298 batting average, 21 homeruns and 112 RBI and assume he’s a very good player. What they won’t see is that despite those numbers, he posted the 9th lowest walk-rate in baseball and the 5th lowest UZR rating among qualifying leftfielders. His WAR rating in 2010 was lower than both Denard Span’s and Valencia’s who played just 85 games.
Speaking of Span, he wasn’t terrific in 2010, but he was okay posting a .264/.331/.348 slash line, 26 stolen bases and a 2.9 WAR as the centerfielder. He was also outstanding defensively finishing 3rd in UZR among centerfielders in baseball behind only Michael Bourn and Franklin Gutierrez.
When Thome is in the lineup at DH and providing Morneau is healthy, Jason Kubel will probably get the majority of time in rightfield. He’s a disaster defensively and his offense tanked last season leading to a 0.4 WAR rating. Cuddyer will also see plenty of time in right.
Jason Repko won’t provide you with a bat off the bench, but considering the woeful defence among the starting corner outfielders in Minnesota, he’ll see plenty of late-inning playing time after posting a 12.5 UZR in only 58 games in 2010. 23-year-old Ben Revere may also see some major league time.
Thome was re-signed for the ridiculously low price of $3-million this offseason after posting some insane numbers as a 40-year-old in 2010. The Twins limited his at-bats to keep him fresh and Thome responded by swatting 25 homeruns and levelling a .283/.412/.627 slash line. If used with caution, Thome could continue to swat homeruns and draw walks with the best in the league. He’s also only 11 homeruns shy of becoming just the eighth player in history to reach 600 in his career.
For a totally original, not re-directed chart detailing all the Twins roster info you need, made personally by yours truly, click here.
The Twins, like the Rays, have gone with the addition by subtraction approach this offseason and they should have little problem repeating in the weak AL Central, winning it for the seventh time in a decade. If Morneau returns healthy and Mauer continues his Hall-of-Fame trajectory, the Twins will be in the mix for World Series contention.
Final Prediction: 91-71, 1st AL Central