Instead of doing the 2010 Minnesota Twins preview in five parts, like I did last year, I’ll attempt to do it in one, long-ass article. Print if out if you need to. Let’s go.
The Twins return most of their starters from last year, and still have what I’d call an ideal regular season rotation. The rotation rolls deep, with all five of the Twins’ starters being well above average. Scott Baker’s a solid #2, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey are good middle of the rotation starters, and Carl Pavano fills out the back of the rotation nicely. Whoever emerges to claim the #5 spot in the long run – and it likely will be Francisco Liriano, as he’s getting the first opportunity – should be, at the worst, an average #5 starter.
Some questions exist as to how the Twins’ rotation will play in the new ballpark. At this point, there’s no way to tell whether the park will be a hitter’s park or a pitcher’s park, but I’ve heard most people believe that balls will more easily fly out of the yard at Target Field than at the Metrodome.
If Target Field is more of a hitter’s park than the Metrodome, it won’t affect Nick Blackburn, who’s an extreme ground ball pitcher. But Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, among others, would be adversely affected if Target Field ends up being a hitter’s park. Baker and Slowey are fly ball pitchers. They rely on the park and their outfield defense (more on that later) to turn the long fly balls they give up into noisy outs instead of home runs; ifTarget Field turns what was a long fly ball at the ‘Dome into a home run, that’s a problem for Baker and Slowey – and that problem is independent from the downgrade in outfield defense that’s sure to happen this year with the Young/Kubel-Span-Cuddyer OF.
Defense and park effects aside, the Twins’ rotation should be better than last year, provided Slowey comes back healthy. Retaining Carl Pavano was key. Pavano should be better than the jackasses Minnesota trotted out in the period of time between Slowey’s injury and Pavano’s acquisition last year. Expect Pavano to be an innings-eater who posts an ERA under 4.50 at the #4 slot.
Baker should be, well, Scott Baker – he’ll strike out a lot of hitters, walk very few hitters, but give up extra base hits and some home runs. Basically, he’s a #2 starter who can masquerade as an ace on the right day, but who’ll also turn in the occasional 2 IP, 7 ER day. His success is mostly dependent on whether runners are on base when he inevitably gives up a handful of extra base hits on any given day. Baker should be a little bit better in 2009 than in 2010, as he was the victim of some bad luck last year, but if Target Field plays as a bandbox, then Baker’s WHIP and ERA could shoot up.
Nick Blackburn’s 2009 season is repeatable, and the front office was smart to extend him, although I wouldn’t hold out hope that Blackburn turns into any kind of ace – he doesn’t have the strikeout numbers. Blackburn should be a bit worse, unless his mostly luck-based numbers are as good as last year, but the decrease in production shouldn’t be anything substantial, and there’s always a chance his control improves and he.
Kevin Slowey, if he’s healthy, should basically get the same results as he did in 2009, although, like Baker, that could also differ if the ballpark is a bandbox, because of his problem with extra base hits. And Francisco Liriano? Well, your guess is as good as mine. I’m not impressed by Winter League and Spring Training results. Pitching against lineups with 5-6 MLB hitters, tops, is much different from the regular season, and every year a handful of pitchers are said to be “revitalized” or “poised for a big year” because they can plow through lineups that are half-filled with guys who’ll be back in AA and AAA within a few weeks.
But who knows. Maybe this is the year Liriano figures it out. And if he doesn’t, maybe Brian Duensing can perform as a #5 starter.
Yes, losing Joe Nathan fucking KILLED this bullpen’s hopes of being an elite unit. But even without Nathan, the bullpen should be an average group. And overpaying for Heath Bell isn’t going to make this bullpen elite, anyway.
Matt Guerrier is a solid reliever who’s probably best in a 7th inning role, but Guerrier may be pressed into an 8th inning or rotational closer role (if the Twins decide to go with a closer by committee, as it appears they’re doing). Jon Rauch is in a similar position, except Rauch is better than Guerrier; Rauch could be a decent right-handed set-up man, and could fill in at closer in a pinch. But Rauch won’t be an elite back of the bullpen guy like Nathan was.
Jose Mijares is fine as the first lefty out of the bullpen in crucial situations. Clay Condrey is acceptable as a depth pitcher who can contribute in the 6th and 7th inning. With Rauch, Guerrier, Mijares, and Condrey, the Twins have a solid back of the bullpen – if those four pitchers are options 3-6 in the bullpen, the Twins are in VERY good shape.
But what the Twins are missing is a bona fide set-up man and, with Nathan’s absence, a bona-fide closer. They may be able to fill either the set-up man or closer internally, but they’re not going to be able to fill both roles without going outside the organization.
Regarding the set-up role, Rauch is a good fit, but Pat Neshak is the wild card. Neshak could become that set-up man eventually, but he’ll probably need some time to get his arm right. Counting on a substantial contribution from Neshak before June is foolish.
Until the summer, Rauch will probably have to hold down the fort at the set-up position, and maybe even the closer role. If Rauch serves as the closer to begin the season, he’ll probably be able to tread water, but don’t expect to see him in the All Star game.
As to other internal options, at this point in Francisco Liriano’s career, it may be better for the Twins to use him out of the bullpen, and put him in a closer committee with Rauch, Neshak, and Guerrier. I don’t see Liriano ever posting any better than #4-#5 starter numbers, and Brian Duensing and Glen Perkins (when he’s healthy) could probably replicate that production over the course of a season.
But the Twins seem to want to give Liriano one more shot in the rotation. Maybe that’s smart, as maybe they see something that leads them to believe he’ll break out this year. As already explained, I don’t see that, but I’m also not down in Ft. Myers every day.
If the Twins don’t want to move Liriano to the bullpen, they have two options. They can go with what they have, and use Rauch/Guerrier/Mijares/whoever they deem appropriate in the closer role. This appears to be what they’re doing, at least to begin the season.
If the Twins so chose, they go outside the organization to pick up a bona-fide closer. The big name brought up has been Heath Bell, but he’s probably too expensive. For example, last year at the trade deadline, the Marlins were looking at Bell, and the Padres asked the Fish for Andrew Miller AND Logan Morrison (a top 25 prospect in all of baseball) for the 32 year old closer. That’s essentially the equivalent of a Glen Perkins and Aaron Hicks package (Perkins being a little worse of a trade chip than Miller, Hicks a little better than Morrison). And that’s too much to pay for a closer. They need to find a closer who’s cheaper than Heath Bell.
If they look outside the organization, and decide Bell is too expensive, Minnesota can either wait until the trade deadline to find a cheap closer, or they can go after a different guy they’ve been linked to: Jason Frasor. Frasor, currently a Blue Jay, isn’t dominant by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s a quality, dependable arm who could slot in perfectly in a closer by committee with Rauch, Neshak, and Guerrier. A bullpen of Frasor, Rauch, Neshak, Guerrier, Mijares, Condrey, and some random long reliever is deep, fairly talented, and, overall, pretty good. Throw Liriano into that grouping, and the bullpen could be one of the AL’s best.
In short, I’d bet the Twins go with either Rauch or a closer by committee for the season’s first few months, and re-evaluate everything in June. Around June 1, the Twins can see how Rauch is performing, if Liriano’s working out in the rotation, and if Neshak is back to full health. The Twins can then adjust accordingly.
A long story short: this outfield should be as good at the plate as they are bad in the field.
Delmon Young had a nice run at the plate last September. Will that continue? I have my doubts. Regardless, Young has always hit lefties well, so he should play against them, at the least. Especially when considering that Jason Kubel is fucking atrocious against lefties. Seriously, look at his splits. Against right handed pitching, Kubel’s 2009 Joe Mauer. Against left handed pitching, he’s 2009 Nick Punto. Against righties, Young should sit down, with Kubel in LF and Thome at DH. Against lefties, Young should play the outfield, while someone who’s NOT Jason Kubel is the DH.
Still, no matter who plays LF, the defense is going to be awful, as both Delmon and Kubel are the “nice route, Magellan” type of outfielders. Delmon has problems defensively because he’s lazy, while Kubel has problems in the outfield because he’s unathletic. The reasons for their poor play notwithstanding, Kubel and Young are both poor outfielders range-wise. On the plus side, both Young and Kubel have adequate arms for LF.
Denard Span shifts from LF to CF, and that shift could put Span in the All Star game. Span’s bat was average for a LF, but for a CF, it’s one of the league’s best. Unfortunately, Span’s glove isn’t one of the league’s best. The Twins lose a ton of range by replacing Carlos Gomez with Span, and Span doesn’t have anything near Gomez’s arm, either. When looking at the move from both an offensive and defensive perspective, the CF position probably isn’t any better in 2010 than it was in 2009.
Michael Cuddyer had a career year in 2009, and, like Joe Mauer, probably will be good again in 2010, but not quite as good as he was in 2009 – expect an OPS closer to .820 than .860, as Cuddy benefitted from an unusually high HR/FB% in 2009. Cuddyer also has problems defensively, specifically with his range and his routes to fly balls, but Cuddy’s plus arm partially makes up for his other fielding deficiencies. He’s an above average right fielder, but he’s not a piece to build a franchise around.
The Twins outfielders should all be above average at the plate. Denard Span can rake for a CF, Kubel mashes righties, Young hits well enough against lefties, and Cuddy’s a pretty good player himself. Still, for all the benefit they’ll bring on offense, this outfield is going to cost runs defensively – especially when fly ball pitchers like Baker and Slowey are on the mound. How many runs they cost depends on how Target Field plays, but a few times this season, expect to be pulling your hair out because of another fielding gaffe from a Twins outfielder.
Over the offseason, the Twins massively upgraded the infield. Orlando Hudson should be better both offensively and defensively than the cauldron of suck the Twins employed at 2B in 2009. J.J. Hardy struggled with the bat in 2009, but he’s a plus fielder and should help the Twins’ defense, even if his bat never comes back. All Hardy needs to do is post like a .725 OPS with a reasonable OBP to be an excellent all-around player. And, based on his 2009 peripherals and 2010 projections, Hardy should rebound to something like a .250/.315/.420 line, at the least.
Justin Morneau returns at first base. Assuming he’s healthy, Morneau should continue to be one of the league’s best first basemen. Sure, his defense could use some work, but when Morneau’s bat is as good as it has been, defense can take a back seat.
At third base, the Twins figure to employ a platoon between two players best served as utility infielders: Nick Punto and Brandon Harris. Harris has a capable bat, especially against lefties, but his defense leaves things to be desired. Punto’s excellent with the glove, and he’s all gritty and shit, but he can’t hit worth dick. When compared to the rest of the American League,the Twins' third base production figures to be below average .
Still, all Punto and Harris have to do is play good defense and put up #9 spot worthy numbers at the plate. They can do that, and if not, the Twins can find a cheap replacement at the trade deadline, as they did last year when they picked up Orlando Cabrera. If Danny Valencia hits well at AAA, the Twins could even look to upgrade at 3B by promoting Valencia in June or July, before looking outside the organization.
At catcher, Joe Mauer’s back, with an 8 year contract extension in hand. Mauer’s extension removes a potentially huge elephant in the room, and, all in all, is a pretty reasonable deal for both sides. It may be a year or two too long, but Mauer also took a bit of a discount in accepting $23 million per year. There’s not much to complain about in that deal.
On the field, unlike last year, Mauer’s healthy to begin the season, although he may make a customary DL trip at some point. Still, Mauer should again post terrific numbers. It’s probably asking too much for Mauer to repeat his 2009 season – after all, that 2009 was one of the best seasons from a catcher in MLB history – but asking for, say 85% of Mauer’s 2009 production is reasonable. And that’s roughly what I’d expect out of Mauer – another tremendous season, but not quite as good as 2009. Mauer certainly has the capability to improve on his 2009, but it’s more reasonable to expect something like a .415 OBP/.950 OPS, as opposed to a .440 OBP/1.031 OPS. The former would still make him the frontrunner for the AL MVP.
On the bench, the Twins added Jim Thome. Thome literally can’t play first base anymore – he hasn’t played the field in years, and when he was traded from the Sox to the Dodgers last summer, he told the Dodgers he’d only play the field in an “extreme emergency.” But Thome’s bat should help at DH and off the bench. He’ll be an asset against right-handed pitching.
The rest of the bench is pretty average. The loser of the Harris-Punto pillow fight has one bench spot, and Alexi Casilla has another. Wilson Ramos may be MLB ready, but I’d bet the Twins keep him in AAA, to delay his arbitration/service time, and go with Drew Butera as the backup catcher, so long as Butera is healthy.
The Twins probably won’t keep around a backup OF who can play CF in a pinch. Jacque Jones has had a nice spring, and he may have been a decent option off the bench, but whatever. Jones can’t play CF, and Alexi Casilla has more upside. If Jones ends up walking away instead of heading to AAA, the Twins don’t lose much.
Prior to Joe Nathan’s injury, I had the Twins pegged for 90-91 wins…and another exit in the ALDS. Without Joe Nathan, the Twins should be able to win 87-88 games…and still lose in the ALDS.
This Twins team is built to survive the regular season. The rotation is deep. The lineup should score enough runs. The bullpen has enough arms to cycle through and not be crushed if one fails to perform. The defense is adequate. The deep rotation, offense, deep bullpen, and average defense are enough to get the Twins to the postseason.
But the Twins don’t have the ingredients to go far in the postseason. Specifically, they lack an ace at the top of the rotation and 2-3 power arms in the bullpen.
The bullpen problem could have been overcome if Nathan was healthy and Neshak’s return was strong. But the lack of an ace wasn’t going to be overcome, and that lack of an ace is going to continue keeping the Twins from having postseason success.
The Twins can succeed in the regular season, because even without an ace, Minnesota’s #2-5 starters are as good as most other teams' #2-5 pitchers, and the Twins are one of the AL's premiere offensive ballclubs. But in the postseason, when a team only uses three starters, the Twins suffer without that ace at the top of the rotation. The Yankees can throw CC Sabathia, and count on a 7 inning, 2 run performance, while the Twins have to hope Scott Baker pitches out of his mind to give the same performance. And when the Twins go down the rotation against someone like the Yankees, the Twins only match up well with the #3-5 pitchers in the rotation. In the playoffs, that’s what costs Minnesota a division series or LCS. And even with a healthy Joe Nathan, that problem wasn’t going to be fixed.
The 2010 Twins should be good. Maybe even very good. Even without Joe Nathan, the Twins have enough talent to repeat as AL Central Champions – partially because the AL Central should once again be mediocre, partially because the Twins are a solid ballclub. If Minnesota gets a few breaks, they could, maybe, even advance to the ALCS. But until the Twins can find a true ace – whether that ace come from outside the organization or internally – the Twins’ ceiling will always be the ALCS.
Pick: 87-75, AL Central Champions