Wednesday, March 31, 2010

2010 Twins Preview: Lineup

Since there's no way to predict who will be healthy for a full season, I'm just going to list the rate stats I think these guys should be able to put up. These aren't projections so much as grading curves. If they can't measure up, I'll be disappointed. If they can, I'll be satisfied. If they exceed them, gold stars!

1. Denard Span, CF
I've been as big a proponent of Span's abilities as anyone since Spring Training 2008, and was thrilled to see him have an immediate impact once he was finally given an opportunity with the Twins. It did come a bit out of nowhere, and his poor spring last year had me apprehensive, but he delivered again. Now he's got 1087 MLB PA under his belt, Carlos Gomez out of the picture, and a nice, long-term contract. He can relax and show everybody what he's really got.
Expected line: .300/.385/.415, 73% SB, 6/5 K/BB

2. Orlando Hudson, 2B
Last year I picked out Hudson as a potential fantasy sleeper: a sure-handed defender (that counts in my league) with a good eye, decent pop for a 2B, and a high-percentage base stealer. Because he was coming off an injury, I was able to get him in the 12th round or so, and he didn't disappoint. Though he made the All-Star team last year, he slumped a bit late in the summer, then was benched in favor of the scorching hot Ronnie Belliard down the stretch. I guess that slow finish enabled him to fall to the Twins for $5M on February 4th. A typical season from him will be an enormous upgrade over the miserable production the Twins got from the #2 spot last year, and the defense helps, too. What a great pickup!
Expected line: .280/.355/.430, 80% SB, 3/2 K/BB

3. Joe Mauer, C
The reigning MVP, Batting Champ, Silver Slugger and Gold Glover is now a $184M man, and likely a Twin for life. As he enters his peak years, his production at catcher should justify the expense. He hit an awful lot of "just enough" HR last year, so I'm not sure he'll be close to 30 in that department, but he's proven that his BA and OBP will be among the league leaders once again.
Expected line: .335/.420/.510, 3/4 K/BB

4. Justin Morneau, 1B
I covered Morneau's case extensively a few weeks ago. He's a top-5 1B for 4 months, then tails off in August and September. This year, he's taken it easy in the offseason and spring training. I'm raising the bar for him - his terrific work in April-July now needs to extend through September.
Expected line: .311/.379/.570, 7/6 K/BB

5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
I wasn't among the folks who thought the Twins needed to add a RH bat for 2009. Cuddyer can be the guy, just let him be healthy for a season. He was, basically matching the production from his previous career year, 2006. And his line drive and walk rates were actually a little low in 2009 relative to his career averages. If healthy, I look for him to hit at least 25 HR and make things very scary for opposing managers trying to nurse a LHP through the heart of the Twins' lineup.
Expected line: .280/.360/.480, 2/1 K/BB

6. Jason Kubel, DH
Kubel finally put his horrific knee injury from the fall of 2004 behind him last year. His .300/.369/.539 line with 28 HR in 578 PA was reminiscent of the damage he had done at every level of the minors before the injury. For me, that was the real Kubel. He's healthy and in his prime. Expect no regression.
Expected line: .290/.355/.510

7. Delmon Young, LF
I wrote at length last month about Young's potential for this season. I'll repeat what I said then: As far as I'm concerned, Young has everything he needs to make 2010 a breakout season. I'm encouraged by the .286/.333/.469 line he's put up in 54 PA this spring. I'm especially impressed with the 8/4 K/BB ratio - striking out in 14.8% of his PA and walking in 7.4% would both be significant improvements if he can carry them into the regular season. Many have lowered their expectations for him - I won't.
Expected line: .300/.340/.500, 73% SB, 5/2 K/BB

8. JJ Hardy, SS
After seeming to establish himself as one of the premiere young SS in the game in 2007 and 2008, Hardy's numbers went off a cliff last year. It seems to have been a triple-whammy of poor health, poor swing mechanics, and mentally pressing. A fresh start will probably be just the thing for him. Even if his bat doesn't bounce back, he should be a very reliable defender. But the bat should bounce back.
Expected line: .275/.335/.465, 2/1 K/BB

9. Nick Punto, 3B
I'm assuming Punto will get a lot of starts at 3B early in the season, especially against RHP. He's famously been on a yo-yo between good even years and poor odd years, so this year should be a good one. More importantly, he didn't actually swing the bat poorly in 2009, despite a .228/.337/.284 line. His line drive, grounder and fly ball rates were all similar to 2008, and he hit far fewer popups while walking in a career-best 13.9% of his PA. That stellar plate discipline, combined with some better luck on balls in play could turn this into a productive year for Punto. And there's no reason he shouldn't continue to play very good defense at 3B while stealing bases at a high rate.
Expected line: .260/.340/.340, 75% SB, 3/2 K/BB

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Best #5 Starter in Baseball

Francisco Liriano sewed up the 5th starter job this afternoon by pitching 6 scoreless innings against the Pirates. Well, they were wearing Pittsburgh uniforms. As was regularly the case in winter ball, Liriano devoured the scrubs, allowing 3 H and 3 BB (shocking - 1 more than he'd allowed all spring!) with 8 K. That brings his spring line to:

20 IP, 19 H, 6 ER, 1 HR, 5 BB, 30 K, 2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 0.5 HR/9, 2.3 BB/9, 13.5 K/9, 2.33 G/F

And here's what he did in winter ball:

48.2 IP, 32 H, 4 ER, 0 HR, 7 BB, 64 K, 0.74 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 1.3 BB/9, 11.8 K/9, 1.55 G/F

And here's what he did in 2006:

129 IP, 89 H, 29 ER, 9 HR, 32 BB, 144 K, 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 0.7 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 10.7 K/9, 2.19 G/F

Some of his spring training numbers aren't quite as good as 2006, and it's a tiny sample size, and the competition was often less than stellar. But remember, if he's even 4/5 the pitcher he was his rookie year (WHIP <> 8.0) he'll be one of the 20 best starters in the league, and the best guy in the Twins' rotation. His 20 IP this spring are safely within those parameters.

I'm not sure what it served to wait so long to give Liriano this job. Even now, Gardy is reluctant to confirm that he won the spot. Is that out of respect for what Brian Duensing did last season? Even he must know that he's nowhere near as good as Liriano. If he shuts out the Yankees for 6 innings tomorrow, would they give him the spot instead? I think there's something to be said for decisiveness - it must be helpful to players to know what their role will be as soon as possible. At least they'd probably like to know more than a week before the season starts.

I still expect Duensing to make the team as the long reliever, and he'll be well suited to that role. I'm rooting for Wilson Ramos to win the backup C job, and it sounds like most of the Twins' players and coaches are, too. They want to start the season with the best players available, and they know Drew Butera isn't the best. Whatever they decide, hopefully we'll all know about it tomorrow.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Deciding Not To Decide

Gardy and Bill Smith just about established the Twins' opening day roster over the weekend. Matt Tolbert was optioned to Rochester, where he'll be joined by Jacque Jones, leaving the last bench spot to Alexi Casilla. After the way he's performed over the last season plus, I'm not sure who would want to claim him off of waivers, but he'll get one more chance to prove he can have some value in the bigs.

Anthony Slama was also informed that he won't make the team. With him out of the running, and Glen Perkins in no shape to pitch, it's pretty evident which 12 pitchers will come north next week. Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn are all announced members of the rotation. Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Jose Mijares are going to be participating in a closer-by-committee early in the season. Clay Condrey's inability to get ground balls this spring is disconcerting, but he's surely going to make the bullpen.

Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing are apparently still competing for the last spot in the rotation, inasmuch as Gardy refuses to declare Liriano the winner. He will admit that Liriano is in the lead, however. So unless Liriano pitches worse against the Pirates on Tuesday than Duensing pitches against (I presume) the Yankees or Rays on Wednesday, Liriano will get his chance to outshine Baker. That would send Duensing into the bullpen as a 2nd LHP/long relief guy - a good role for him.

Gardy also refuses to guarantee a spot for Pat Neshek, despite strong numbers (8.2 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 11 K) in his first action since May 2008. Apparently, there's some question as to whether he'll be able to manage pitching 2 days in a row. Honestly. I find it hard to believe that someone who has rehabbed and conditioned as hard as Neshek would have any trouble throwing 15-20 pitches on 2 straight days. They'll test him on Wednesday and Thursday, and, assuming he doesn't get shelled or hurt himself on Thursday, he'll have to make the team. I mean, who's going to take that spot instead? Ron Mahay? He hasn't pitched in a game yet. And even when he does, I doubt he'll be able to approach the performance Neshek has given so far.

The only spot that's up in the air is the temporary backup catcher position. Wilson Ramos has shown conclusively that he's a far better all-around player than Drew Butera. But experience and concerns about starting Ramos' service clock may carry the day for Butera.

I'd like to see the Twins field the best team they can given the guys they brought to camp, and I'm not sure they're going to do that. But if they don't, at least it won't be at any positions where they're relying on that person to play a lot. The rest of the team is good enough to pick up the slack, at least for the first few weeks of the season.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Twins/Rays: The Box Score Lies!

Twins 3, Rays 5

There were a few less than thrilling parts of the box score as the Twins saw their 6-game winning streak snapped this afternoon. Box score, smox shmore. In case you didn't get to follow the game today, here's what really happened:

Francisco Liriano: 4 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
No, Liriano did not have his best stuff today, although he wasn't off by much. His fastball typically missed Joe Mauer's target by only a couple of inches. Unfortunately, the direction in which it missed was usually up and toward the middle of the plate. Still, had the Rays been in the mood to take a couple of pitches, he would have been ahead every time. But since their game plan seemed to be to attack the fastball early in the count, this didn't work out so well for Liriano.

Those who still senselessly clamor for Liriano to become the closer should know that the 1st was his worst inning, as 5 of the 6 hitters he faced put the ball in play - hard. JJ Hardy picked off a Jason Bartlett one-hop liner deep in the hole at SS, quickly planted and delivered a strike to Justin Morneau at 1B. Without that play, it would have been a really ugly inning. Carl Crawford and Ben Zobrist each lined the 2nd strikes they saw for singles. Carlos Pena struck out on 3 pitches because 1) he's left-handed, 2) he strikes out a lot, and 3) Liriano threw him excellent sliders for swinging strikes 2 and 3. When Liriano got ahead of the right-handed BJ Upton 0-1, I was hoping they'd continue that pattern, since the slider looked like it was as sharp as ever. But Mauer called for a fastball in, and it caught just enough of the plate for Upton to line it into LF for a 1-0 lead. Pat Burrell lined out to CF to end the inning.

Of the 14 hitters Liriano faced the rest of the day, only 8 put the ball in play, but 4 got hits. There were 2 doubles on which I credit the hitters for taking the fastball the opposite way (Liriano didn't appear to miss his spot on either). The other 2 hits drove in runs. The 4-pitch BB to Zobrist in the 3rd should have been erased on an inning-ending pickoff, but Hardy was late covering 2nd and Morneau's throw went behind him. (The box score gives Zobrist a SB off Liriano/Mauer. Lies! Liriano picked him off and Mauer didn't even touch the ball). The next pitch was Liriano's last real mistake of the game, a fastball in the middle of the plate that Upton drove to the gap in left center for an RBI 2B. For me, that run is borderline unearned. As for the 4th inning, with a runner on 2nd, Liriano got a bleeder up the middle that neither Hardy nor Orlando Hudson were able to come up with (though each got leather on it). Liriano got the next 2 hitters on a shallow fly out and a grounder to 2B.

So, despite not being very sharp, Liriano had 6 K against only 1 BB in 4 IP, giving him a 22/2 K/BB ratio in 14 IP for the spring. I thought he adjusted to his stuff pretty well, was better in the later innings and, with a little bit better work from his defense, might have given up fewer runs.

Brian Duensing pitched the other 4 innings, allowing 2 unearned runs on 2 H with 0 BB and 2 K. He was easily the best he's been this spring. Far from placing him in Liriano's league as far the 5th starter competition, I think this outing reinforces that Duensing could be pretty good in the roll he actually filled in this game: long-relief. Now I think it's up to Clay Condrey to show everybody that he can put up a few zeroes, too.

The error that resulted in those unearned runs seems to have been charged to Morneau. That's just wrong. The 7th inning began when James Bereford, Beloit's 2009 SS, having just been inserted in place of Hardy, fielded a routine grounder. I'm not aware of him playing in any other big-league spring training games, so he was probably a little keyed up. It looked like he was trying to slow himself down, because his arm decelerated as he threw to first, and the ball bounced in front of Morneau, who couldn't pick it. That should be an E6 every time.

Other items of note:

Denard Span was caught stealing for the 1st time. He was running on a 3-2 pitch to Hudson, a sensible thing to do with nobody out and a guy who hits a lot of grounders at the plate. It was such an obvious thing to do that I expected LHP David Price to make a token throw over to 1B, and I bet Span did, too. He went home instead, and Span didn't get much of a jump. Hudson swung threw the pitch, and Span was caught at 2B. Span gets charged with the CS, but it shouldn't count as a knock against his base-stealing ability.

Jason Kubel collected 2 H off Price, including an opposite-field HR. Kubel used to be a guy you had to platoon, but the way he's been swinging against lefties this spring, I'm not sure that's the case anymore.

Delmon Young was swinging early in the count, but he was looking for off-speed pitches. He singled on a first-pitch curveball in his 2nd AB. He fell behind 0-2 in the 7th, but battled until he went down and got a slider, driving it over the wall in LF for his first spring HR. Through 39 spring PA, Young is hitting .250/.308/.500 with an 8/3 K/BB ratio. He has more work to do, but he's certainly earning the opportunity to be in the regular lineup in April.

Mauer played the entire game behind the plate, the Twins used only 2 pitchers, and the Rays used just 3. We're getting closer to real baseball!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Breaks: Rotation

When I began looking for realistic ways in which certain Twins players might outperform their projections, the Team had just signed Orlando Hudson, presumably turning an 83-win team into and 86-win team. Subsequent projected standings haven't reflected that gain. Partially that's due to the loss of Joe Nathan. But mostly, it seems to stem from the sketchy history of the Twins' rotation.

For example, Baseball Prospectus put out an updated Depth Chart on Friday that has the Twins scoring 816 runs (sensible, given that they passed 800 R in each of the last 2 seasons, despite having only 6 good hitters in their lineup) but allowing 820, therefore finishing .500. I don't know where they're getting 820 RA. The worst run prevention team of the Gardy era was last year's squad, and they only yielded 765 RA. It's ludicrous to project that this team will be so much worse than that one.

Looking at the depth chart in more detail, it seems that they expect the Twins to allow about 735 ER over 1456 IP, for a 4.54 ERA. That's fine. Last year's team allowed 726 ER over 1453 IP for a 4.50 ERA. The individual projections look reasonable, too. They couldn't be predicting that the Twins will give up 85 unearned runs. Even the ham-handed 2008 team only allowed 70. No, I'm going to ignore their standings and calculate my own Twins record based on their depth chart plus 50 unearned runs. That would give the Twins a +31 run differential, good for a 1st-order pythagorean record of 84-78: precisely where they should be due to the loss of Nathan.

Back to the rotation. I'm comfortable with the quintet of Baker, Blackburn, Slowey, Pavano and Liriano, as I think most Twins fans are. But there are significant question marks attached to them. Slowey has never thrown 200 IP, Baker has just once, Pavano has had only one injury-free season since 2004, Blackburn has yucky peripherals, and Liriano really struggled last year. Consequently, not only are none of them expected to post ERAs under 4.00 (though none higher than 4.80), but none of them are locks to reach 200 IP, either.

That situation invites 265 combined IP (18.2% of the team total) from Anthony Swarzak, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing and Jeff Manship, all of whom are expected to have ERAs over 5.00. The less the Twins have to rely on these guys, the better off the team will be. I've already gone into Liriano's case at great length, so let's just consider the other guys. Baker is slated for 190 IP at a 4.11 ERA, Blackburn 163 IP, 4.80 ERA, Slowey 157 IP, 4.20 ERA, and Pavano 144 IP at 4.72 ERA. If they all could make it to 200 IP, that's 10 more innings of Baker (5 ER), 37 of Blackburn (20 ER), 43 of Slowey (20 ER) and 56 of Pavano (29 ER). 146 IP that can be subtracted from the other group, nullifying the contributions of Perkins (80 IP of 5.06 ERA, or 45 ER), Manship (54 IP of 5.35 ERA, 32 ER) and 12 IP from Duensing at 5.05 ERA (7 ER).

Having the starters healthy and taking their regular turns saves the Twins another 10 RA. That adds another win to the record. If Blackburn matches his performance from his first 2 seasons (4.04 ERA), if Pavano's ERA lands closer to his xFIP (3.96) from 2009, if Baker can sustain the numbers he had over his final 24 starts (3.67 ERA) for the entire season, things could get even better. That would shave another 44 ER off the projection, raising the differential to +85 and the record to 90-72.

A cursory glance at the new PECOTA pitching cards that came out today makes that sort of performance look very doable. For example, the numbers Blackburn has produced in each of his first 2 full seasons would exceed the 90th percentile projection from PECOTA.

The rotation can definitely be an underestimated strength for the Twins. Health is a big part of the breaks teams get each season. Last season, the rotation had terrible luck in that department. If 2010 turns out better, a solid rotation combined with the division's strongest offense should enable the Twins to put plenty of distance between themselves and their rivals.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mauer and Nathan

The Twins got certain answers to 2 of the lingering questions of spring training: Will Joe Nathan need TJS and be lost for the season? Yes. Will Joe Mauer sign a long-term contract extension? Yes.

I don't think the timing of the 2 announcements was a coincidence. We've known for a couple weeks that Nathan would have his desperation catch session with Rick Anderson sometime this weekend. The off day on Monday - the last of the spring - offered the perfect opportunity to hold a press conference and make the Mauer signing the focus of the day. I wouldn't be surprised if Mauer and the Twins have had the contract all but finalized for several days, waiting for the final word on Nathan. Mauer's contract buries what would have been a bummer headline about Nathan, and ensures that the fans and the team keep an upbeat feeling heading into the final week of March.

While the Twins will undoubtedly miss Nathan in what otherwise appears to be the makings of a championship roster, his loss doesn't mean the team is destined for failure. Nathan's career save conversion rate is about 91%; the average closer is around 85%. Without him, the Twins will have an 85% chance of winning any games they're leading by 3 or fewer runs after 8 innings. We're talking about a difference of 2-3 wins if things go as expected. (And it's certainly possible that the substitute closer could have a good/lucky season and match Nathan's efficiency). Though 2-3 wins was significant in the AL Central the last couple of seasons, I think the Twins should have a decent cushion this year - I'll go into that in more depth tomorrow.

The talk of having Francisco Liriano take over as closer hasn't stopped yet, and it really needs to. Pitchers go to the bullpen only after they show that they can't cut it as starters. Despite his troubles last year, Liriano still has the stuff to excel in the rotation. If he struggles over his first 10-12 starts this year, OK, you can try him in the bullpen, a la Boof Bonser in 2008. But the drop off from Liriano's ceiling as a starter to Duensing's or Maroth's ceiling is enormous - far greater than the difference between Nathan and Rauch or Neshek.

June should be a good time to assess how will Nathan's fill-in is doing. By then, everyone should have a good idea of how well Neshek has recovered from his TJS, which Jesse Crain has shown up for 2010, and whether Anthony Slama has the potential to be an Andrew Bailey-type rookie closer. If the internal options don't look good, the Twins can trade for somebody over the summer, when several flailing teams will likely be looking to maximize the value of veteran relievers.

As for Mauer, it's an almost revolutionary moment for baseball. For a mid-market team like the Twins to be able to retain one of the game's biggest stars and offer the 4th richest contract in history shows that it's no longer a foregone conclusion that the best players must eventually trickle down to the Yankees or Red Sox. 8 years, $184M is a ton of money, but it appears to be in keeping with Mauer's present value. I haven't seen the details of the contract yet, but Joe C. says it's going to be a straight up $23M per year. I would have liked to have seen it structured more like this:

2010: $5M signing bonus (making his effective salary $17.5M - they could use some of Nathan's insurance money for this)
2011: $18.5M
2012: $19.5M
2013: $20.5M
2014: $21.5M
2015: $22.5M
2016: $23.5M
2017: $24M
2018: $24M
2019: $25M option or $5M buyout

That comes out to $184M guaranteed, with the signing bonus and buyout helping to defer $10M outside the guaranteed years of the deal. I like this structure because, if you assume that the revenues from Target Field will enable the Twins to continue to make modest increases in their payroll each year, Mauer's contract, though enormous, doesn't have to take up even 20% of the total. That should enable the Twins to continue to assemble a strong supporting cast around him, particularly if the organization continues its good player development habits.

At $23M/year, the rest of the roster can still be good, but there won't be any Orlando Hudsons or Carl Pavanos or Jim Thomes in 2011. This makes it all the more critical for the Twins to use their prospect surpluses to fill those positional gaps with elite, cheap talent. Wilson Ramos is now officially expendable. Trade him for a four or five star SP prospect who's already in the high minors. Now you've got somebody to take over Pavano's rotation spot for the league minimum. Denard Span's extension makes Ben Revere redundant. Trade him for a 2B to take over for Hudson next year. The Twins will still have to manage the rest of their roster the same way they have in recent years. They've been successful, and they can continue to be.

The downside of this deal is the length. As a catcher, Mauer is likely to experience some significant decline once he hits his 30s, and this contract guarantees him a lot of money through his age 35 season. The lesson to other small franchises across baseball should be not only that they can retain their stars, but that they should be proactive about locking them up well in advance of free agency. Had the Twins approached Mauer last spring, while he was trying to work his way back onto the field, I have no doubt that he would have signed a 4-year extension for about $14M/year, maybe with a signing bonus and an option for 2015. 4 years, $62M with a $16M option or $2M buyout, combined with the 2 years, $23M remaining on his existing contract, would have the potential to result in 7 years and $99M, the longest, richest contract ever offered a catcher. A rehabbing, pre-MVP Mauer would have taken that, and the Twins would have saved themselves 4 years and $120M of risk.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Midway through Spring Training

Today's game put the Twins over the hump of their spring training schedule: 16 games down, 14 to go. Most of the projected members of the 25-man roster are performing quite well through their limited appearances to this point:

Denard Span: .455/.520/.455, 3/3 SB
Joe Mauer: .462/.563/.462
Justin Morneau: .263/.263/.579, HR
Michael Cuddyer: .464/.516/.607, HR
Jason Kubel: .333/.394/.600, 2 HR
Jim Thome: .273/.385/.545, HR
Brendan Harris: .400/.429/.640, HR
Scott Baker: 9 IP, 11 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
Nick Blackburn: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 3 K
Carl Pavano: 13 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 8 K
Kevin Slowey: 11 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 10 K
Francisco Liriano: 10 IP, 9 H, 3 ER, 1 BB 16 K
Jon Rauch: 5 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K
Matt Guerrier: 6 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
Jesse Crain: 6.2 IP, 7 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Pat Neshek: 5 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K

They've also seen strong work from some of their most promising farmhands:

Ben Revere: .316/.316/.447, 2/3 SB
Wilson Ramos: .381/.381/.714, HR
Danny Valencia: .273/.292/.636, 2 HR
Juan Portes: .409/.458/.864, 3 HR
Luke Hughes: .333/.333/.619, HR
Trevor Plouffe: .333/.385/.667, 4 2B
Anthony Slama: 4 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K

Among those for whom things haven't fallen into place yet, there are a lot of silver linings:

Orlando Hudson is off to a slow start with the bat (.236/.281/.269), but has made an impression with his defense.
Delmon Young has just 4 H, but 3 are for extra bases, and he's drawn 3 BB against 7 K.
Nick Punto is just 3 for 20, but has drawn 4 BB in 24 PA, a pace in keeping with his excellent BB% from 2009.
Jose Mijares has put up a 0 in 4/5 outings.
Rob Delaney allowed 3 ER on 9 H in 5.1 IP, but had 0 BB and 9 K.

Everyone's being very cautious with injuries, particularly to the veterans, which has led to very little playing time for Mauer, Morneau, Thome, JJ Hardy and Blackburn so far. They should start to ramp up their AB/IP in the coming days.

Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert are both struggling, opening the door somewhat for Jacque Jones (.318/.400/.409) to steal the last bench spot. Ramos continues to lead Drew Butera (.167/.250/.167) for the backup catcher spot.

Mike Maroth (7 IP, 9 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 1 K) is also leading the likely Rochester rotation, with Brian Duensing, Glen Perkins, Jeff Manship and Anthony Swarzak all putting up ERAs over 9.00 and WHIPs over 1.71. Though his ERA is tidy, Maroth's 1.71 WHIP and 1/3 K/BB ratio won't be nearly enough to supplant Liriano in the rotation. Gardy and the coaches are preparing Liriano to begin the season as a starter - I think that makes the job his to lose. And with a 2.70 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 16/1 K/BB ratio, he's not giving anything away so far.

We'll likely know in the next day or so what Joe Nathan's fate will be. Assuming he opts for TJS, the Twins can place him on the 60-day DL and add Slama to the 40-man roster. Rauch still looks the guy to start the year as the closer. If, after 2 months, things aren't working out with him, they can assess whether Neshek or Crain would be ready to assume that role (they each saved games in the minors), or whether they should look for a closer in a trade. By then, Valencia may be ready to assume the 3B job, meaning Harris and/or one of the relievers could be offered, perhaps with a 3-star prospect.

In the meantime, when is Mauer going to sign that contract extension?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Francisco Liriano and the Blustery Day

Now, before you look at today's box score and jump to conclusions about how Francisco Liriano had a rough game, and can't handle pitching more than a couple of innings or one trip through the lineup, do me a favor. Scroll all the way down to the bottom. Past the pitchers. Past the umpires. To the part where it says: "Wind: 19 mph, Out to RF"

The wind played havoc with popups all day. In the 8th inning, Wilson Ramos one-armed a ball that drifted to the base of the wall in right center for a 2B. So when a dude who's 6'5" and 240 lbs. lifts a high fly ball to the opposite field, it shouldn't trouble anybody too much that it managed to carry a little ways over the RF fence. (Certainly not in the same that it should trouble the Marlins that Chris Volstad gave up a HR to Jason Kubel that swiftly reached halfway up one of the light towers in right center.) Especially when only 6 of the 13 hitters Liriano faced managed to put the ball in play, and he didn't walk anyone. If anything, the mistake he made was in allowing an 0-2 single to the hack-tastic Emilio Bonifacio. I'm not sure where that pitch was located, but it was undoubtedly too close to the strike zone.

Even with the wind-aided blemish on his record, Liriano is still the clear front-runner in the competition for the 5th slot in the Twins rotation:

Liriano: 7 IP, 3.86 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 12/1 K/BB
Perkins: 3.2 IP, 12.27 ERA, 3.27 WHIP, 0/4 K/BB
Duensing: 4 IP, 11.25 ERA, 2.50 WHIP, 5/2 K/BB

And, depending on how charitable you're feeling, you can throw in:

Manship: 3 IP, 18.00 ERA, 3.33 WHIP, 1/2 K/BB
Swarzak: 2.2 IP, 16.87 ERA, 2.25 WHIP, 4/2 K/BB
Maroth: 4 IP, 6.75 ERA, 2.25 WHIP, 0/2 K/BB

I suppose it's only fair to give everybody one more appearance, but Liriano would have to pitch remarkably poorly to even open the door a tiny bit for any of these guys.

Along those lines, Ramos looks to be running away with the temporary backup to Joe Mauer role:

Ramos: 15 PA, .400/.400/.667 with 4 2B
Butera: 13 PA, .182/.308/.182

We all knew Ramos had lots of upside with the stick and that Butera wasn't much of a hitter, and so far that's what we've seen. Ramos made an error today, but it was on one of the afore-mentioned adventuresome popups, so I wouldn't worry about it too much. He seemed to have a good report with Carl Pavano the other day against the Phillies.

At this point, I think the only reason not to bring up Ramos for the first couple weeks of the season is to postpone the start of his service clock. But for the amount of time that will accrue (15-20 days, right?), I'm not sure that should be much of a concern. Especially when the division projects to be as close as it does, I'd rather have a competent hitter in the lineup for those 3-4 April games when Mauer needs to sit down. Besides, once Mauer signs his extension, Ramos most likely becomes a trade piece, so his service clock will be someone else's problem.

I'm sure they'll drag them out for awhile, but these seem like easy choices to me.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Span Extension

Another big extension for the Twins today (though still not Joe Mauer): Denard Span agreed to a 5-year, $16.5M contract that includes a $9M option for 2015. That adds him to a cost-controlled-through-2013 core of Justin Morneau, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn. Based upon the value Span has already provided - Baseball Prospectus projects him to be worth at least 3.4 WARP/season throughout the duration of the deal - BP and FanGraphs are in agreement that he will provide a marginal value of $16M or so in every single year, including the option year. Six for the price of one sounds like a pretty good deal to me!

I also love this deal because it vindicates the faith I had in Span this time 2 years ago, when a lot of folks (including Gardy and Bill Smith) were in love with Carlos Gomez. While Gomez still has plenty of work to do to become a complete player, Span is already a standout. Though he still could stand to improve upon his CF defense and his SB efficiency. He seems like he has the determination and makeup to do that, so I'm excited to see how much better he can become over the next few seasons as he enters his peak years.

This very cost-effective deal has to add to a growing pile of evidence that the Twins intend to be competitive for the long haul - something we all hope will convince Mauer to quit stalling and finally commit to staying in MN for the foreseeable future.

The other major implication of this is that, as will be the case when Mauer finally signs and renders top C prospect Wilson Ramos expendable, this deal makes Ben Revere a redundant part of the Twins' system. Aaron Hicks and his cannon arm can move Span to LF eventually, but with the all-around tools that Angel Morales and Joe Benson have, (to say nothing of Delmon Young) I don't see a need to have 2 lefty, slappy speedsters in the lineup. It might be comfortable to keep Revere around as a credible backup to Span for the next couple of years. But I'm not sure that his value will ever be higher than it is now. BP's Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the #46 prospect in baseball (though Revere just missed the BA list). If I were the Twins, I'd be inquiring about trading him for a comparable MI prospect.

Just as one example, the Rays have Jason Bartlett under team control for the next couple of seasons, and the #1 overall pick in 2008, SS Tim Beckham, starting at A+ this year. That situation has blocked Reid Brignac, like Revere, a 4-star prospect. Brignac plays plus defense and has plus power. He could be moved to 2B and groomed to take over for Orlando Hudson in 2011, while providing depth for Hudson and JJ Hardy this year. The Rays will almost certainly lose LF speedster Carl Crawford to free agency, opening up a spot for another leadoff hitter with wheels. Revere's glove would be a plus in LF, and his arm would play better there than in CF. An exchange of former 1st-rounders who are blocked in their present organizations - could be a win-win.

Of course, the Twins could also try to deal Revere for a 4-star pitcher (can't have too many of those!). Or they could hold on to him and package him with Ramos in order to land a true Ace starter during the season. Whatever they decide, I think the Span deal pretty much ensures that Revere is going to play the bulk of his career somewhere other than MN.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fact or Faith?

I was a philosophy major in college. It was great - I had to write a lot of papers, but there usually wasn't a right answer I had to memorize or compute. Just write what you think, and support it. Pretty good prep for blogging, actually. The other thing I liked about it was the debates in class, and how open-minded the professors were (though I'm sure they'd heard all the same arguments from every class for God knows how many years). I came into college with a fairly open mind, and that experienced reinforced it.

One of the courses I took was in the philosophy of science. It was fascinating to see how regularly a new discovery would shock the world, only to have the new paradigm become entrenched until the next discovery shook things up. Astronomy, physics, medicine, etc. have been expanded over and over, right up to the very recent past. I believe that we are presently in the midst of that journey, not at the end. There will be new discoveries, though we can't conceive of what they might be. But they will turn the world upside down again. So I look at scientific understanding as it is in 2010 not as the truth, but rather as something that is a very strong approximation of the truth. Plug the right numbers into the formulae, and you'll get highly functional answers, things you can use to develop technological breakthroughs and carry the world forward. But there is always the possibility of exceptions to the rules.

I carried that attitude into my passion for baseball. The more I learned about the work being done in advanced statistics, the more I wanted to master those new numbers and use them to enhance my understanding of the game. The folks who grew up treasuring RBI, W and Fielding% are going to die out, replaced with a generation that sees deeper value in OPS, VORP and UZR. There's no going back to the pre-Sabrmetric world.

But the new-school thinkers are starting to fall a little too deeply in love with their numbers. It's leading to some new prejudices. The 2 that weigh on me most prominently are these: A hitter can't be very good unless he has a good walk rate, and a pitcher can't be very good unless he has a good strikeout rate.

I'll focus on the pitching side today. The fixation on K/9 stems from a desire to find consistency across a pitcher's career. ERAs fluctuate wildly from year to year, even for pitchers we understand to be really good. It must be something random that causes the variations: the capriciousness of BABIP. K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 don't have anything to do with defensive range or positioning and happen to correlate very well from season to season. So a formula was created to normalize BABIP, and eventually, HR/flyball: xFIP.

This stat is loaded with assumptions (pitcher skill isn't really inherent in HR/flyball) and arbitrary constants (HR get multiplied by 13, BB by 3, K by 2; the whole shebang then gets multiplied by 3.2 in order to make it look like something close to ERA). But it gives a much more satisfying correlation in year over year performance, so it seems to work pretty well. And it gets used a lot when evaluating pitchers and projecting what sort of performance they're capable of in the future.

I recently read a piece by Rob Neyer in which he asserted that none of Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares, Clay Condrey or Pat Neshek was a good bet to finish with an ERA much above or below 4.00 this year. They haven't demonstrated the skills necessary to do it. In other words, when you plug their numbers into the xFIP equation, you get something around 4.00, therefore these guys don't have what it takes to put up ERAs around 3.00 on a consistent basis.

Funny thing, though - these guys do put up ERAs around 3.00 on a consistent basis. Here are their ERAs, compared to their xFIPs, for each season they've been full-time relievers (minimum 20 IP):

There are 23 eligible seasons among the 6 relievers. xFIP managed to peg the ERA within half a run in just 5 (22%). In the remaining 18, xFIP is off by 0.61 runs or more. And in only one of those 18 seasons did it underestimate the actual ERA. That means that, with respect to these particular pitchers, xFIP has overstated their actual ERA by more than 3/4 of a run about 3/4 of the time.

Coincidence? Too small of a sample size? Could be. But it could also be that we're missing the trees for the forest: in applying a stat to the whole galaxy of pitchers, we're creating rules that apply to the group better than to particular individuals. I have a hunch that there is a cohort of pitchers out there that balances out the members of the Twins' 'pen. Guys whose ability to prevent runs is consistently overstated by xFIP. I'll try to track a few down and compare them to the Twins group. Maybe it will lead to something important about evaluating pitcher skill that xFIP is missing.

In the meantime, I'd certainly be inclined to be kinda humble about how much it can tell me about a particular pitcher's skills.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nathan's Elbow and Other Developments

The news on Joe Nathan's elbow is not good: he's got a significant tear in his UCL and will most likely need Tommy John surgery, meaning he'll be lost to the Twins for the 2010 season. Obviously, it's a huge loss for the Twins to be without their All-Star closer, who has been one of the most consistently excellent at his position since coming to the Twins in 2004. However, all is not lost.

Much has been written about how the role of closer has become overrated, and how just about any competent pitcher should be able to succeed most of the time when asked to hold a lead of up to 3 runs for only 1 inning. For as good as Nathan was last year, he still blew 5 saves (not including the one in the playoffs). And that's normal. Look down the list of the top closers last year, and you'll see that, despite sparkling ERAs and WHIPs and K/9s, only a handful got through the season with 3 or fewer blown saves. And the one who managed to have the fewest blown saves? Detroit's Fernando Rodney, he of the 4.40 ERA, 1.47 WHIP and 7.3 K/9. Would I prefer to have a guy in the role who I could basically pencil in for an ERA under 2.50 and better than 9.0 K/9? Of course. But lacking that doesn't mean the Twins will lose any more games than they would have with Nathan.

The guy is 35 this year. Closers often age very well, and he's in fantastic shape, but a decline has to come sooner or later. There's no guarantee that Nathan would have been as effective this year as he has been in the past.

The other reason I'm not too broken up about this is that the Twins did set themselves up with a very deep bullpen this year. With Nathan set to close and Duensing or Perkins probably picking up the 7th spot in the 'pen as the long reliever, the Twins still had Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain and Clay Condrey for middle relief. That's enough depth to stash Pat Neshek in the minors for awhile. Now, he will have to prove that he's recovered enough of his stuff and command to break camp with the team. If that breaks right for the Twins, I don't think that the non-save situation bullpen is going to be any weaker, even though one of the setup guys will have to move into the Closer role.

In addition, the Twins will have 3 good setup prospects at AAA: Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney and Alex Burnett. And Kyle Waldrop and recent high draft picks Carlos Gutierrez, Billy Bullock, Matt Bashore and Ben Tootle all have the potential to scoot through the system and be options late in the season. At this point, these prospects look to have the ability to eventually meet or exceed the production of some of the present members of the Twins' 'pen. So, if something goes awry with the bullpen this season, the Twins won't have to call up someone with mediocre stuff like Bobby Keppel.

The long-term implications of this seem bigger to me. I was already preparing to think of trading Nathan next offseason, particularly if one or more of the prospects I mentioned progress up to the big leagues. The way the last couple of offseasons have gone, Type A free agents haven't necessarily been signed, especially relievers. Maybe Nathan would be a special case, but he'd be heading into his late 30's by the time his Twins contract is up, and there's no guarantee that another team would want to give up 2 high draft picks for Nathan at that stage of his career. Would he opt for arbitration with the Twins? Maybe, and that would probably keep him at around $12M for 2013. Will there be room in the payroll to give that much money to a 38-year-old Joe Nathan, when the Twins will have so many other cheap relievers in their prime?

Since they can't count on getting much value for him should he depart as a free agent, the best strategy for the team would probably have been to trade Nathan after this year, saving $23.75M while gaining 2-3 quality prospects. Now that's out the window. I can't see another team giving up good prospects for a guy coming off TJS. The Twins will have to see what Nathan can give them in 2011. If that creates payroll problems, they'll have to look to unload one of the other veterans.

Blackburn's Contract

I've been working on a separate post about this, but it's expanded itself into an attempt to make a case for why Blackburn is a better pitcher than his numbers indicate. That's proving to be sort of difficult to compile. Lest the news get too stale, let me just say that I think the contract is pretty reasonable. 200 IP of average-ish pitching is certainly worth $3.5M/year. Look at what the Twins are paying for Carl Pavano. Maybe he'll be a little better than average. But how good a bet is he to make 200 IP?

Pitchers like Blackburn frequently make way more than that in free agency and arbitration. So he'll be an attractive trade candidate should the Twins develop better options (like Kyle Gibson). Not a huge risk for a guy who has been remarkably consistent through his first 2 full seasons.

The First Week of Grapefruit Games

Carl Pavano became the first Twins pitcher I projected to make the opening day roster to allow an ER this spring. Even with his semi-rough outing (and Delmon Young could have saved him a couple of runs in the first had he been able to make a sliding catch), those 12 pitchers have a 0.84 ERA and 0.90 WHIP through 32.1 IP with 9 BB, 22 K and 0 HR allowed. We've also seen 2 perfect IP from Anthony Slama with 3 K.

The hitting also portends well. In 2 games so far, the Twins' (mostly) regular lineup has demolished elite pitchers Jon Lester and Adam Wainwright to the tune of 8 ER in 3 IP. They've also been getting some nice AB from some of the prospects who might be needed depending on who hits the DL over the course of the season - guys like Danny Valencia, Brock Peterson, Wilson Ramos and Ben Revere.

Shout Out from the Geek

Finally, I got a nice mention for a comment I recently left the Twins Geek. Thanks, Geek. That means a lot coming from you. You know, I write like that on this blog all the time. And I don't stop at "preposterous" - I've been known to use "auspicious" and "asinine" too.

Don't be a stranger!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The First Setbacks

After 2 games of pretty stellar pitching, things were bound to break down for the Twins. On the plus side:

Francisco Liriano pitched 2 scoreless innings, allowing 1 single, 1 BB and a HBP with 3 K. All of the baserunners came in the first inning - chalk that up to being too keyed up for his spring debut. 2 of the 3 non-K outs were grounders. I'll take it, and look forward to seeing what he can do in his next start when he should be more relaxed out of the gate.

Nice debut for Jose Mijares today, a 1-2-3 inning with a K. Quite a contrast from last spring.

Through 3 games, the pitchers I expect to make the opening day roster have thrown 13.1 shutout IP, allowing 4 H and 5 BB with 10 K.

Now the minuses:

Joe Nathan had to leave after facing 3 batters with tightness in his pitching elbow. This is supposedly a normal side-effect of the bone chip removal surgery he had during the offseason. Having just had some soreness in my surgically repaired knee at my softball game on Thursday, I can accept this explanation. I felt better yesterday and perfect today, so we'll hope Nathan's pain also dissipates quickly. Never a good thing to hear that one of your All-Star pitchers is having elbow pain, though.

Glen Perkins, whose job this spring is essentially to raise his trade value, didn't do much on that front. He bailed Nathan out of a 2 on, 1 out jam in the 3rd, but then got touched for 2 ER on 3 H and 2 BB in the 4th. His comments after the game suggested that his shoulder still isn't quite 100%. That isn't of any use to anybody.

Jeff Manship had a 1-2-3 6th, but then got lit up in the 7th for 4 ER on 6 H, including a 3-run HR. It occurred to me that one indicator of the Twins' success in 2010 will be how few innings they need from Manship. If he's in Rochester all season, it means the big league rotation is both healthy and productive. Relying on Manship for any length of time would be a pretty big step down from the intended starters.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Another Fine Day

The members of the Twins' 25-man roster continued their auspicious start to the Grapefruit League season. 8/9ths of the opening day lineup torched Red Sox co-Ace Jon Lester for 4 ER on 3 H and 2 BB, forcing him from the game after just 1 IP. Denard Span, Orlando Hudson and Joe Mauer did their jobs, loading the bases for Justin Morneau, who drove in 2 with a 2B. Michael Cuddyer followed with an RBI single, and Delmon Young later added a SF to RF. Alexi Casilla subbed in mid-game and drove in the Twins' 5th run with a single to CF. He was moved to CF in the 8th inning, and allowed a deep drive to bounce off his glove for a 2B. You'd think the guy never played OF or something.

Carl Pavano didn't have the greatest control, walking 2 in 2 IP, but he was able to pitch around trouble. Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier and Clay Condrey all threw perfect innings. Then Rochester's back-end trio of Rob Delaney, Anthony Slama and Alex Burnett combined for 3 scoreless IP with 2 ground ball singles and 3 K. Deolis Guerra wrapped it up by pitching around Casilla's misplay in CF, inducing a game-ending DP with runners at the corners.

Tiny sample sizes, to be sure. Then again, you feel better about the way Nick Blackburn pitched last night while facing 6 Sox regulars than the Sox fans must feel about how Lester did against 8 Twins regulars.

Tomorrow: Francisco Liriano's spring debut!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Games Begin

At last, the Twins have a game in the books, and we can start talking about how people are performing against real competition. Well, as real as spring training games get. During the first half of March, I just want to see players showing signs that they're going to be ready to do their thing once the regular season starts. Are the pitchers hitting their spots? Are the hitters having good PA? Is everyone making the plays in the field? For the guys that have a legitimate shot at breaking camp with the Twins, the answers to those questions were almost uniformly positive.

Denard Span led off the game with a single off Josh Beckett, and scored what would be the Twins' only run of the game. Alexi Casilla went 0-2, but had a hit taken away by a diving Marco Scutaro leading off the 4th. Jason Kubel drove in Span with a single off Beckett, then drew a walk against tough LHP Hideki Okajima. Michael Cuddyer went 1-2. Jacque Jones struck out after a lengthy AB vs. Beckett, but he made a nice diving catch in LF. Only Brendan Harris failed to do something memorable - and he was only around for 4 innings.

The pitching side of things was just as encouraging. Nick Blackburn worked 2 scoreless IP, allowing just an IF single to Dustin Pedroia, and getting 4 of 6 outs on the ground. Kevin Slowey followed with his first appearance since July. He raised some doubts about his readiness in an interview earlier this week, suggesting that his wrist wasn't feeling right. However his wrist felt, it didn't seem to effect his pitching. He also allowed just 1 H in 2 IP, while striking out 2. And, of course, walking no one.

Perhaps the best story of the night was the return of Pat Neshek, absent from the Twins' bullpen since early May of 2008. In his first inning back, he set down Scutaro, Jeremy Hermida and prospect Josh Reddick in order, striking out Reddick. The 2 balls put in play were weakly hit. No signs of struggles with command, a typical side-effect for those trying to recover from TJS.

That the folks who will be filling out the Rochester and New Britain rosters failed to muster any hits (save one single by Luke Hughes) doesn't trouble me in the least. Nor does the fact that Mike Maroth couldn't handle the top of the Red Sox order, or that Jose Lugo lost the game in the bottom of the 8th. The minor leaguers will have plenty of chances to win or lose games late over the next couple of weeks. I'm just glad to see the big leaguers put their best foot forward in their brief appearances in this first game.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Breaks: Morneau

When Justin Morneau took over 1B for good in the middle of the 2004 season, I didn't just think that the Twins were sure to snap their drought of 30 HR seasons. That was certain to happen, based on the young slugger's 19 HR in just 280 AB that season. No, I figured the Twins were going to have their first 40 HR hitter since Harmon Killebrew. Though Morneau hit just .271/.340/.536, hardly the most slugtastic line we'd seen in that juiced-up period, his combined total between the Majors and AAA in 2004 was 41 HR in 568 AB. In Rochester, he'd been slugging close to 1.000. Surely, if he could accomplish that as a 23 year-old rookie, he was bound to repeat the feat soon in a full season for the Twins.

This May, Morneau will turn 29. Some would say he's already peaked. And his career averages with the stick are .280/.350/.501 - actually lower than what he put up in his rookie year - with about 30 HR/162 G. Most of the projections I've seen for his 2010 season so far have him hitting around that, but with improved OBP. PECOTA has him at .284/.372/.508 with 29 HR. After 5+ seasons and about 3500 PA, we should know what kind of player Morneau is, and that projection looks about right based on his career so far. He's a good 1B, not a great one.

But I still think of Morneau as a 40 HR guy who is underachieving. Why? Because, with the exception of a fluky 2008 in which more drives than usual found the top of the wall (leading to a career-high 47 2B, but only 23 HR), the guy has consistently put himself on pace through the first 2/3 of the season to hit 40 HR. Look at his numbers through the end of July from the last 4 seasons:

2006: .321/.364/.601, 28 HR
2007: .297/.363/.574, 28 HR
2008: .321/.396/.534, 18 HR
2009: .305/.390/.576, 26 HR

And remember, last year the season started a week later than the previous years. Give him a few days into August and it goes up to .301/.391/.589 with 28 HR.

So from the start of the season until the 1st of August, Morneau is a .311/.379/.570 hitter with 35-40 HR power. That's somebody who fits right in with Miguel Cabrera and Mark Teixeira. A great 1B.

Unfortunately, once the calendar turns to August, things invariably go downhill. His combined line from August 1st on since 2006: .255/.334/.406 with 12-15 HR power. That's somebody who fits right in with Brendan Harris. If that's what you're getting from your 1B, you've got problems. And even that line is propped up a bit by his strong finish to 2006. Look at his BA over the last 4 seasons:

And then his OPS:

4 years of Aprils, Mays, Junes and Julys make 16 individual months. In just 2 of those months did Morneau have a BA below .250, and his OPS dipped below .750 in just one. But he failed to meet those thresholds in 5 of the 8 individual Augusts and Septembers over those seasons. Basically, that means Morneau is about 10 times more likely to hit poorly in the last 2 months of the season as he is in the first 4 months. And even in the 3 late-season months in which he didn't suck, he still wasn't hitting HR anywhere close to his early season pace. Look at what happens to his power:

His IsoP has been above .200 in 13 out of 16 months from April-July. But it's never been above .200 in August or September.

This isn't a matter of luck - variances in BABIP or the like. This is a systemic problem with Morneau himself. He runs out of gas before the season is over. He may have thought it was a problem with his conditioning. Maybe that's why he's trained so hard in the offseason, reported early to spring training, and showed up first thing in the morning to work on his hitting. But that regimen hasn't paid off. He still wore down over the course of 2008, playing all 163 games and fading badly enough down the stretch to cost the Twins the division and himself a 2nd MVP award. Then he arrived in game shape by mid-February 2009 so he could go off to play for Canada in the WBC (and hit quite well in their brief appearance). Though Gardy tried to give him more days off and at DH, Morneau still broke down by mid-August, when he missed a week, and finally shut things down 3 weeks before the end of the season.

Time to try a different approach. That's why reading these stories has given me new hope for Morneau in 2010. If he can adjust his training schedule so that he doesn't reach his previous mid-February shape until the first week of April, could that mean that he won't reach his early-August fatigue level until late September? What would it mean for the Twins if he could sustain that .311/.379/.570 line through the final 2 months of the season?

The PECOTA projection I gave above, combined with his typical, above-average defense, would be worth 3.9 WARP. His 80th percentile projection is for .306/.391/.577 with 38 HR. That season would be worth 5.8 WARP. If Morneau's lighter offseason workload can translate into a more consistent full season, it could mean 2 more wins for the Twins. And we all know from the last 2 seasons how far an extra couple of wins can take a team in the AL Central.