Thursday, March 31, 2011

2011 Twins Preview: Bullpen

Joe Nathan, CL?
Since he began closing for the Twins in 2004, Nathan has actually been slightly better than Mariano Rivera. But TJS is no trifle to recover from, as Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek could attest. It doesn't sound like his velocity is there yet on his fastball, and his slider isn't working yet, either. He's trying to add some other secondary pitches, which will probably help him as he ages. But after a spring training in which he was generally effective (only the Phillies got him) but struck out only 3 batters in 8.1 IP against 4 BB, it's clear that he's not himself yet. I think he'll get better as the year goes along, but it could be dicey in the early going.
Expected line: 65 IP, 7.0 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 3.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP

Capps, on the other hand, looks to be healthy and in his prime, so we can expect recent history to repeat itself with him. Whether he's used in the 8th or 9th innings, he's a perfectly solid reliever. Other than a weird year with BABIP and HR/FB in 2009, he's been consistently good since 2007. After seeing Nathan this spring, I'm glad the Twins kept him around for some insurance at the back end of the 'pen.
Expected line: 70 IP, 7.0 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 3.50 ERA, 1.30 WHIP

According to some, Mijares struggled last year. I don't see it. He missed a lot of time with injuries, but when he was in there he was pretty much the same guy we saw in 2009. The BB/9 came down, the HR and K rates stayed about the same. Sure, he gave up a bunch more hits, but the BABIP was a little high at .313, so that will probably even out a bit for this year. He's tough on lefties, and that's probably the most important trait of his given his likely role in the bullpen. Capps is the last guy I'm worried about in this 'pen; Mijares is 2nd to last.
Expected line: 60 IP, 7.5 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP

All the Twins' starters were pretty much lights-out this spring, so I guess Slowey wound up in the bullpen by virtue of being the only mid-rotation starter without a long-term deal. It's hard to say what to expect from him as a reliever, since there's so little precedence for it in his career. He's held opponents to a .646 OPS in the 1st inning of his GS, and a .683 OPS the 1st time through the batting order. They say he's throwing his fastball a little harder in short stints. I think he'll do pretty well. Though I expect him to find his way back into the rotation at some point during the season (if he sticks around long enough).
Expected line: 100 IP, 6.5 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 3.80 ERA, 1.15 WHIP

The Twins are very high Hughes, claiming him off waivers from KC at the expense of Rob Delaney. He pitched well against the Twins last year, but was pretty hittable against everybody else. Still, last season's overall line wasn't too bad, and he certainly earned a spot with a strong spring. He gives me yet another reason to decry the senseless loss of Craig Breslow to the A's, but in a lower-leverage role, he could be acceptable.
Expected line: 70 IP, 5.5 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 4.10 ERA, 1.40 WHIP

If I held the keys to the front office, Perkins wouldn't have been tendered a contract for this year. To his credit, he put together a very nice spring, with a 1.50 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 12 IP. But larger sample of his past couple of years is more telling, and it's not good. He doesn't get lefties out. He doesn't get groundballs. He doesn't strike guys out. I don't see what sort of bullpen role he could thrive in.
Expected line: 40 IP, 4.5 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9, 5.00 ERA, 1.50 WHIP

Almost by default - was he the RHP on the 40-man roster who sucked the least? - Manship took the final spot in the bullpen, despite a Grapefruit League ERA over 5.00. That performance shouldn't come as a surprise, since his career ERA in the Majors is over 5.00, and his ERA at Rochester last year was over 5.00. The decent K rate he had in the lower minors hasn't followed him to the upper levels. He's a replacement player, keeping that low-leverage spot warm until some worthier prospect is ready to come up from the minors and assume it. I hope that happens sooner rather than later.
Expected line: 30 IP, 6.2 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 5.00 ERA, 1.55 WHIP

Like the bench, this is a weakness for the Twins, especially at the back end. There are some palatable options down at AAA, like Anthony Slama, Alex Burnett and Kyle Waldrop. One or more of them will probably come up before too long. And Bill Smith has shown over the last 2 seasons a willingness to upgrade the bullpen for the stretch run, so I expect something like that to come in July or August. In the meantime, the starters will have to pitch deep enough into games in order to keep the softer parts of the 'pen from being over-exposed. When they can't, we could be in for some long games.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2011 Twins Preview: Bench

Jim Thome, DH
Signed to be a bench bat and occasional DH, Thome was forced into regular duty after Justin Morneau went down last year, and responded with his best season since 2002. That was a godsend, providing numerous memorable moments and helping lift the Twins to the division title. With everybody healthy in 2011, he will once again be asked to be a bench bat and occasional DH. He'll normally PH for Alexi Casilla, then be immediately pinch run for. I think he'll do a good job in that role, but nothing like the herculean production he provided last year.
Expected line: .245/.370/.480, 15 2B, 20 HR

At this time last year the Twins had some enviable organizational depth at catcher. Jose Morales and Wilson Ramos were both on the 40-man roster. Each had the potential to hit. Because Ramos was green and Morales was injured, the opening day backup C job fell to Butera. I figured he'd play his way out of it by early summer, but the other guys didn't hit at Rochester, and Butera became best pals with Carl Pavano, so the Twins stuck with him all year. He gave them 44 starts, 155 PA, and hit .197/.237/.296. For some reason, the front office found that satisfactory, because they traded away Ramos and Morales, leaving the upper levels utterly bereft of competent catchers. We're stuck with Butera, who will start at least every 4 games.
Expected line: .190/.230/.285, 7 2B, HR

He's not much of a hitter, but with Jason Kubel capable of playing either OF corner, I doubt he'll get many starts apart from the 2 days a month Denard Span needs off. His real job is as a PR/defensive upgrade over Kubel or Delmon Young, and he can do that rather well. I like his glove and arm at all 3 OF spots, he's been a high percentage base stealer in his career, he knows how to take a walk, and he shows some occasional pop. A fairly decent 5th OF, all in all.
Expected line: .225/.315/.365, 10 2B, 2 3B, 3 HR, 5/7 SB

The Twins let Nick Punto walk this offseason, but couldn't resist bringing back a lesser (though younger and less injury-prone) version of him instead. Tolbert has a good glove and runs the bases well, but his bat is pretty limp, so it'll be a step down anytime he replaces one of the regulars at the plate. Well, maybe not Casilla, but we'll see. He hasn't shown anything in the minors that suggests he's better than what he's given in his limited MLB PA, so I have no hopes that he'll do any more than he has in previous years. Watch out for him on that day in Chicago when the wind's blowing out, though.
Expected line: .240/.300/.340, 5 2B, 2 3B, HR, 4/6 SB

This is a terrible bench. Thome is a great, but he doesn't run or play the field. Repko is useful as a late-inning sub, but he wouldn't be too hard to improve upon. Tolbert is replacement level, and Butera might not even be that. None of these guys is an asset with both the bat and the glove. In the days of 7-man bullpens, that kind of bench specialization isn't feasible. There is no one here who can protect Kubel and Thome from LHP. Every time Span, Danny Valencia or Tsuyoshi Nishioka need a day off, there will be a big drop-off in potency from the lineup, to say nothing of the massive drop that happens whenever Butera is in there for Joe Mauer. This is an area of the roster that needs in-season upgrades in the worst way. I'll try to keep track of how many wins these guys cost us over the season.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2011 Season Preview: Rotation

1. Carl Pavano, RHP
Pavano's name became synonymous with "injury-prone" after he made just 26 GS spanning 145.2 IP with 5.00 ERA and 1.46 WHIP over the course of a 4-year, $40M deal with the Yankees. Since coming to the Twins in August of 2009, however, he's been a front-end workhorse, leading the team in GS and IP with a 3.97 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. He fell to the Twins in the offseason for the very reasonable price of 2-years, $16.5M. Barring a return from the injury bug, he should earn that easily.
Expected line: 33 GS, 220 IP, 1.8 BB/9, 5.5 K/9, 1.0 HR/9, 4.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP

Statistical analysis bears out what I observed last season: Liriano gave up more than his share of crappy hits, without which he would have obviously been one of the top pitchers in the league. He's shown this spring that he's still prone to rushing his delivery and losing his command. Time for him to grow up and get himself under control. When he does that, there's nobody better.
Expected line: 33 GS, 210 IP, 2.7 BB/9, 9.5 K/9, 0.5 HR/9, 3.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP

Some folks seem to think that Blackburn's execrable 2010 season was an inevitable result for a guy who allows too many balls in play. I don't buy it. Maybe if he was pitching the same way he did in 2008-2009. But his mechanics were out of whack, his command slipped, he got away from his secondary pitches. He just pitched like crap for a while. He went down to Rochester, figured it out, and finished the season strong, averaging 7 IP/GS with a 3.16 ERA over his final 8 GS. His GB and K rates went up, and his BB and HR rates went down. He should be a competent back end starter this year. No excuses.
Expected line: 33 GS, 210 IP, 1.8 BB/9, 4.5 K/9, 1.1 HR/9, 4.50 ERA, 1.36 WHIP

4. Scott Baker, RHP
I have a theory that, while DIPS work well in the broad view, they consistently under or over-rate certain pitchers, because those guys have skills (or lack skills) that the equations haven't been asked to measure. I'm beginning to worry that Baker is one of the guys who gets overrated. His peripherals suggest a pitcher who should be putting up ERAs right around 4.00 every season. But, except for 2008, he hasn't been able to do it. One possible factor: he gives up too many hits (especially XBH) on 0-2 counts. The league allowed a .407 OPS in those counts last year, but Baker gave up .543, including 3 HR. Can he finally fix that and meet his potential? I don't know. Maybe, by this stage in his career, he is what he is.
Expected line: 30 GS, 190 IP, 2.2 BB/9, 7.5 K/9, 1.2 HR/9, 4.30 ERA, 1.24 WHIP

Meanwhile, DIPS might be missing something about Duensing. He doesn't blow anybody away with his stuff, but he has good command and mixes his pitches well. Throughout his career he's been able to hold opposing hitters to a fairly low BABIP and keep the ball in the yard. This will be his first opportunity to start full-time since 2008, and it will be interesting to see how well he holds up. His career high in IP is 167.1, and he hasn't thrown that many in a season since 2007. He might be one to take advantage of the frequent off days in September. Like Pavano and Blackburn, he'll be efficient and won't hurt himself. Maybe not the kind of guy you want in a short series, but pretty good over a marathon season.
Expected line: 30 GS, 190 IP, 2.4 BB/9, 5.5 K/9, 0.8 HR/9, 4.00 ERA, 1.25 WHIP

Not the sexiest rotation in the league (unless Pavano's mustache is your thing), but still a strength. With Kevin Slowey in the bullpen and top prospect Kyle Gibson hopefully progressing at AAA, it's also the deepest part of the roster. If everybody stays healthy through the first half, I would expect the front office to trade from that depth in order to upgrade the team for the stretch run.

Monday, March 28, 2011

2011 Twins Preview: Lineup

With the 25-man roster set, we can now look at the team the Twins will be bringing to Toronto to start the season. Here's the starting lineup I expect to see for just about every game in the early going, regardless of what side the starting pitcher throws from:

This lineup consists largely of guys who are neither as good as they showed in 2009 nor as bad as they showed last year. Span is the poster boy for that categorization. Everything that went right for him in the last year of the Dome went wrong in the first year of Target Field. But that's what 3-year averages are for. I've written at length about his prospects for 2011. He's not a good bet to have an IsoP much over .100, but it shouldn't be too far under .100, either. I expect a nice rebound from the IsoD into the .080 range. He should be more confident and a better communicator in CF. And Gardy's desire to run more combined with the unimpressive arms most divisional rivals will be sporting behind the plate should lead to a career high in SB.
Expected* line: .288/.367/.392, 24 2B, 10 3B, 4 HR, 30/40 SB

Here's a guy who's probably not as good as his 2010, but is undoubtedly better than his 2009. Whatever you think about his recent history, nobody can be sure how well it will translate from Japan to the big leagues. But he hasn't looked overmatched this spring, hitting .346/.370/.423 with a 2/2 K/BB ratio in a little over 50 PA. In that limited sample, we have seen him make some impressive plays in the field, as well. The power he showed in the JPL can't be expected to appear at Target Field, but the rest of his game should play OK. I think he's capable of surpassing what Orlando Hudson gave the Twins last year.
Expected line: .270/.340/.400, 30 2B, 7 3B, 5 HR, 24/36 SB

3. Joe Mauer, C
Two of the big factors behind Mauer's extraordinary 2009 were about a dozen HR that landed in the 1st or 2nd row in LF, and good health all season long. Target Field may never give those HR back, but I'd settle for the health. When he's whole, Mauer is the best pure hitter in the league, and an elite defensive C as well. With his legs under him in 2011, I look for his numbers to improve across the board this year. Maybe not to the level of his MVP campaign, but more than enough to get him a lot of votes.
Expected line: .330/.410/.510, 35 2B, 2 3B, 15 HR, 36% CS%

The concussion that ended Morneau's season just before the All-Star break brought a premature end to what was shaping up to be an MVP-caliber season. Through July 7th, he was hitting .345/.437/.618 with 18 HR. Then again, impressive 1st-half production was nothing new for him. On July 5th, 2009, he was hitting .323/.399/.601 with 21 HR. On July 10th, 2008, he was at .324/.387/.515 with 14 HR. On July 8th, 2007, his line was .295/.364/.581 with 24 HR. In each of those seasons, his production fell off sharply over the final 2 months of the season. We'll never know whether that would have happened in 2010, too. In 2011, he has to prove that he's back to full strength and capable of sustaining his strong offensive numbers over a full 6 month schedule.
Expected line: .295/.370/.530, 40 2B, 1 3B, 30 HR, 145 G

Last season's breakout should not have come as a surprise to anyone who studied Young's 2009 carefully. He made mechanical adjustments in his swing to start getting more balls in the air. He improved his contact rate significantly. And, though he still loves to swing early in the count, he got wise to the fact that opposing pitchers weren't going to give him a lot of 1st-pitch fastballs down the middle. He started sitting on offspeed stuff, clobbering them when they were in the zone and putting himself ahead in the count when they weren't. Coming into his age-25 season, I expect him to make at least incremental improvements in most phases of his game. Including, one would hope, an increased likelihood of him holding onto the balls he reaches in the OF.
Expected line: .300/.340/.510, 40 2B, 1 3B, 25 HR, 6/9 SB

Of all the guys I'm analyzing here, nobody benefits from a 3-year average more than Kubel. He had a solid 2008, a sensational 2009, and then a flat 2010. He had basically the same number of PA and AB between '09 and '10, and drew the same number of BB. But he had 25 fewer hits year-over-year, including 12 fewer 2B and 7 fewer HR. Target Field wasn't the culprit, as his .746 OPS there was only marginally worse than the .753 OPS he sported on the road. LHP killed him (as always), but last year was the first in recent memory in which he didn't mangle RHP. His BABIP was about .020 points below his career rates, so write most of 2010's struggles off to bad luck. He'd be better if he didn't face so many lefties, but there's not much on the bench to keep that from happening.
Expected line: .275/.345/.480, 27 2B, 3 3B, 23 HR

At this point, I don't think we're going to see anything new from Cuddyer. He's had a couple of very good years, one injury-plagued disaster, and everything else has been give or take .775 OPS. I'll throw out his first 1100 or so PA (spread over 5 seasons) and just focus on the last 5 years. I don't put much stock in 2008's disjunct playing time caused by a litany of freak injuries. Of the other 4 seasons, 2010 was by far the worst. The lack of power can apparently be attributed to Target Field/sore knee, and at least the 2Bs were there. Of greater concern to me is his IsoD, which from 2006-2008 looked to be settling in around .080, but has slid back to about .065 over the last 2 seasons. Older players should be peaking in that regard as well as HR power, so I'm looking for Cuddyer to step up his game in those categories.
Expected line: .275/.350/.460, 35 2B, 5 3B, 20 HR, 6/8 SB

I don't understand why more people aren't high on Valencia. He's hit for a high average at every level, and has earned a midseason promotion in each full season of his professional career. At each new level he struggles with his pitch recognition, but the following spring he lifts his BB% by over 4 points, leading to huge gains in OBP. For whatever reason, he failed to hit any HR during the 1st half last year, but returned to his typical mid-teens power numbers after the Break. A lot of people point to his .345 rookie BABIP as unsustainable and ripe for regression. That may be, but I would point out that the only season in his career in which his BABIP has been below .338 was 2009, when it slipped to about .311. I'll be shocked if it drops under .300 in 2011. He's typically improved in his 2nd season at each level. I'm looking for him to keep it up.
Expected line: .285/.340/.450, 30 2B, 2 3B, 15 HR

Casilla is perhaps the most difficult member of the lineup to analyze. He's never played a full season at the Major League level, and his partial seasons have yo-yoed violently between solid for a MI and God-awful. I went into a lot of depth with him (and Nishioka) last month. Basically, as a 26-year-old with over 1000 PA over parts of 5 season in the Majors, Casilla needs to step up now. He has the tools to be a good SS, and has proven that he is a high-percentage base stealer. There's value enough in that, particularly from a #9 hitter who will be most often PH for.
Expected line: .265/.320/.370, 20 2B, 10 3B, 2 HR, 20/25 SB

It's a quality lineup, with plenty of upside relative to last year. Everyone is between the ages of 25 and 32, so nobody should be over their head or over the hill. Valencia's presence for a full season along with rebound seasons from Span, Mauer, Cuddyer and Kubel should result in a more balanced attack and an increase over last season's 781 RS. The lineup is the greatest strength of the team, and should match up with anybody in the division.

*Note the distinction between "Projected" and "Expected." Projections are for the oddsmakers and fantasy analysts. As a fan, I have expectations, which the player will either meet (leaving me satisfied), exceed (leaving me overjoyed) or underperform (leaving me disappointed). The numbers I give here are what will leave me satisfied.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Taking Shape

The front office has made a series of decisions over the last few days that have brought the Twins' opening day roster into greater focus:


They announced that Scott Baker will be the 5th starter, joining Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing. Kevin Slowey will begin the season in the bullpen in a RH version of Duensing's role to begin last season. This is how it should be for the first couple months. Baker has more starter upside than Slowey. Slowey has more upside than Blackburn, but Nick has been a very effective back-end pitcher in 2 of 3 Major League seasons. At the very least, he's shown himself to be durable, which Slowey has not, so using a 'pen assignment to limit Slowey's mileage isn't a bad strategy.

While trade rumors involving Slowey will persist, the Twins would be wise to hold him until they're confident that Kyle Gibson is MLB-ready. In 2008, the rotation they broke camp with didn't hold together for a week. In 2009, they needed about a dozen different starters to get through the season. If they're patient, Slowey will get opportunities to start, and see whether the uptempo approach he began using late last season will translate into greater effectiveness and value in a starting role.


Slowey joins Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and Jose Mijares as locks to make the bullpen. The Twins elected to place Pat Neshek on waivers, from which he was claimed by San Diego. Though he was inexpensive and had an option remaining, they obviously felt that his stuff wasn't progressing enough in the 2nd season following his TJS to make him an effective option, even in their very unsettled bullpen. There was always some question as to whether or not the Twins would want to have Neshek and Anthony Slama in the same bullpen, since they bring similar skills to the table. If Neshek has anything left, he couldn't find a more hospitable environment in which to find it than the best pitcher's park in the weaker league. Good luck to him.

A slew of other cuts brings the candidates for the 3 remaining bullpen spots down to these 5 guys: LHPs Dusty Hughes, Glen Perkins and Scott Diamond and RHPs Jim Hoey and Jeff Manship. By all accounts, Hughes will make the team - the FO loves him and he's pitched effectively this spring. Perkins probably makes it, too - he's out of options and would have to suck pretty hard not to get a chance to stick around, and he's actually been rather good in Grapefruit League games. That's already 3 lefties, so Rule 5 pick Diamond probably misses out. I'm sure the Twins will try to swing a trade with Atlanta in order to keep him in the organization.

Between Hoey and Manship, I think Hoey gets the nod. He struggled early, but has looked solid in his last few appearances. His high-velocity fastball is a unique asset among the Twins' potential middle relievers. Manship is just another strike-thrower with fringy stuff. Like Slowey, but not as good. Slama is also technically still in camp, but his balky shoulder has taken him out of serious consideration. The Twins will probably start him on the DL, delaying any decisions about whether or not to use one of his options until the end of his rehab assignment.


Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert are still battling it out for the final bench spot. Hughes picked a most inopportune time to go into an 0 for 16 slump, though he finally broke out of it this afternoon with yet another HR, his team-leading 6th. I hope the decision-makers will look at the power potential and see the strategic value it holds as a way to keep Jason Kubel and Jim Thome from having to face too many lefties. I would expect that decision to come by the end of the weekend.

  • Good thing Nathan isn't going to have to face the Phillies this season!
  • Kubel has officially entered "Save something for the regular season already!" territory.
  • In 25 years of following baseball, I have never seen such a fascist line as Liriano's from last night: 3 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, HR, 3 BB, 9 K, 76 pitches. Though he wasn't terribly efficient in the first 2 innings, the only baserunners he allowed were on singles and a full count walk. But he was keeping his pitches down and locating pretty well. I think the loooong bottom of the 2nd threw him off. He came out for the 3rd and suddenly was up in the zone and wild. A good one to get out of the way in spring training.
  • Forbes came out with its annual valuations of the MLB franchises this week. The opening of Target Field sent the Twins rocketing up 21% to #12 overall at $490M. While putting a consistent winner on the field, the franchise has experienced year-over-year growth in revenue and value in each of the last 10 years. I bet the Pohlads are glad contraction never went down!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Irregularly Scheduled

I took my first look at the Twins' 2011 schedule the other day, and there are some unusual things on the calendar for this year.

First off, the season opens on a Friday. This was, presumably, to keep the World Series from extending into November. I think they could accomplish the same thing by cutting about 2/3 of the off days from October, but I guess the broadcast networks aren't interested in that. Anyway, I was expecting more or less a normal regular season that just began and ended a little early, so I was really surprised to see how few off days the Twins have, especially in the early going. They play 28 games in April, 27 in May, 27 in June, 28 in July (all 3 days off coming over the All-Star Break) and 29 in August.

If you're counting, that leaves just 23 games for September. At that point, I was expecting to see the season end on Sunday, the 25th, maintaining the pattern with just a couple of off days in September and getting the playoffs started before October. But actually, the season ends on Wednesday, the 28th, giving the Twins 5 days off over their final 4 weeks. I guess that leaves plenty of time to make up rainouts (or get acclimated to all the downtime coming in the postseason). Still, that densely packed first 5 months is going to include some brutal stretches, especially a span of 20 straight game days to close out August. Gardy will have to be more conscientious than ever about providing his regulars with breaks in order to keep them from wearing down by the stretch run.

The second surprise in the 2011 schedule is the lopsided distribution of Home/Away games. Through June 8th, the Twins are slated to play 41 road games and just 22 home games. That imbalance will be evened out by the end of July. The Twins were essentially a .500 road team last year, but had the league's best record at home. Bear that in mind: if the Twins are only 4-5 games over .500 by the 2nd week of June, they're actually right on track.

The schedule is also front-loaded with non-divisional games, a collection of opponents against whom the Twins were barely over .500 last year (47-43). But they kicked ass against their divisional rivals (47-25). They play 63 of their 90 interdivisional games in 2011 before the All-Star break. And those 63 games are disproportionately against the AL East (28, with just 17 against the West), the only division in the league against which the Twins had a losing record in 2010. Add in an interleague schedule which includes a series against the defending champs and the usual 6 games against a much improved Brewers team, and it's easy to see that the 1st half sets up to be much more difficult than the 2nd. If they can keep their heads above water through that, they'll be well positioned for a stretch run.

Last year, the Twins were buoyed through their June and early July doldrums by a hot, 21-11 start to the season. That's going to be difficult this season. Through their first 35 games this year, they'll play just 11 times at home. Half of their 24 road games in that stretch will be against AL East powerhouses New York, Boston and Tampa. If they can pull through the 1st 5 weeks of the season anywhere close to .500, be happy. If they can get through it over .500, they'll be sitting pretty.

The 1st week of the season is a nice microcosm of the schedule. The Twins open with 3 games in Toronto and 4 in New York. Since 2006, they're 5-13 (.278 Win%) at Rogers Centre and 3-14 (.176) in Yankee Stadium. It's hard to imagine a less advantageous way for the Twins to begin the season. If they come home from that 1st week 3-4, we should be ecstatic.

The upshot of all this is: be patient. All is not lost if the the Twins are struggling through the first couple months of the season. They should consider themselves in the hunt as long as they're within single digits of the division leader in July. If they are the division leader, they could be on their way to another successful season.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring Break

This being the Twins' only off-day during their Florida schedule, and about halfway through that schedule, and the day after the first round of cuts, it's a good time to weigh on the events of spring training so far.

The biggest thing for me has been the absence of the heart of the Twins' lineup. Thanks to an assortment of nagging/lingering injuries, Joe Mauer (receiving injections of synthetic lubricant after offseason knee surgery), Justin Morneau (the concussion), Delmon Young (sore toe) and Michael Cuddyer (foot wart removal) have combined for 15 PA in official spring games. That was making me very nervous this time last week. But then Morneau and Young showed up in a B game last Wednesday, and have since appeared in Grapefruit League play regularly. Mauer has finally begun catching bullpens and could DH in tomorrow's game. And Cuddyer's foot is healing - he's already ramping up his activities and could get into action by the end of the weekend.

That should make the last 2 weeks of spring training games extra fun as the Twins' regulars scramble to get enough PAs to get their timing down and prove they're in game shape. I imagine them staying in games a little longer than they might have, and playing more on back-to-back days. It's also comforting to know that everyone is expected to be ready by April 1, so we won't have to have Jason Repko or Matt Tolbert in the Opening Day lineup.

Speaking of Tolbert, there is reason to hope he won't make the team. Luke Hughes has been one of the Twins' best hitters so far, batting .361/.385/.778 with 3 2B, 4 HR and 1/1 SB through 13 games and about 40 PA. He's a right-handed stick, and he's showing himself to be capable of spotting at the corner OF positions and all over the IF (though, with his limited range, I can't imagine him ever playing SS when Gardy could just slide Nishioka over). Tolbert, for his part, has hit .240/.286/.240 with 0/2 SB. He's a much better IF glove than Hughes, and probably a faster baserunner. But he's never going to have the bat that Hughes does.

Which of them should be the 25th man on the roster depends on which of these situations everyone thinks is more important:
  1. Jim Thome, pinch-hitting for Alexi Casilla, draws a late-inning BB. We need a PR who can score from 1B on a double, then go in and play the IF.
  2. Jason Kubel comes to the plate with RISP late in the game. The opposing manager can go to the bullpen for their LOOGY. We need a PH who can hit LHP enough to make that pitching change less of a slam-dunk move.
I'm solidly in the camp of #2. If you're really intent on having a PR score all the way from 1st, you can put in Repko and have Cuddyer play 2B the following inning while Repko goes to RF. Or you can just let Hughes run for Thome - he's definitely an upgrade speedwise. There's simply no potential for Repko, Tolbert or Drew Butera to be of any use covering for Kubel at the plate. Hughes could do that, and also be a formidable PH for Casilla or another light hitter if there's a southpaw on the mound late in the game - or if the Twins just want to try to win the game with one swing. Keep hitting Luke Hughes - I want you on the team!

I expected there to be some sort of competition for the back end of the rotation, but Gardy quickly anointed Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing as starters, leaving Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker to compete for the final spot. As much as I like what Slowey can do, I have to pull for Baker. After all, when Slowey's got everything working, he's a solid #3 starter. When Baker puts it all together, he's a poor man's #1, or at least anybody's #2. Carl Pavano (though showing this spring that he knows what he's doing out there) is a really good #3 for me, and everybody else tops out at #4. With Baker in the rotation and pitching to his potential, I think the Twins have a rotation that can match up with just about any team in the AL. With Baker in the 'pen, they're a little soft at the front end.

I'm a little disappointed the Twins didn't keep their options open with Brian Duensing, who has a track record of pitching well out of the 'pen, and has very strong numbers vs. LH batters. However, I can't really argue that his 2nd half stints in the rotation in 2009 and 2010 haven't earned him the opportunity to have a full season as a starter. I think he'll do just fine there.

If Slowey does lose out, he'll either become the long man in the bullpen, or he may be traded. I'd be loathe to give him up too quickly, though. Pitching depth can disappear pretty quickly (as the Dodgers recently found out), and until Kyle Gibson gets enough innings at AAA to prove he's ready for the Show, I think it would behoove the Twins to hoard as many quality pitchers as they can. Slowey has options left, so why not send him to Rochester? Keep him stretched out, impressing opposing scouts, building trade value and ready to step into the Twins' rotation at a moment's notice. That move would have the added benefit of avoiding spot starts from the likes of Jeff Manship or Anthony Swarzak. If everyone pitches well, when midsummer rolls around, Slowey can be a piece of the blockbuster that lands 2011's Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren.

The bullpen seems to be coming together OK. Joe Nathan has had 4 clean outings and one in which he got thumped (though his OF defense didn't do him any favors there). I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be on target to resume his role as Closer. Matt Capps has been terrific in his limited appearances so far. Jose Mijares has been his typical self: hardly dominant, yet putting up solid numbers overall. Pat Neshek and Dusty Hughes look to be on track to earn spots. Assuming one position goes to the 6th starter, that leaves one spot left in the bullpen. Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond has allowed just 1 run in 6 IP, but he's got a lousy 2/6 K/BB ratio. Anthony Slama's sore elbow likely takes him out of the running. Alex Burnett hasn't been too impressive, and James Hoey has been erratic and hittable. Carlos Gutierrez and Kyle Waldrop have faired pretty well so far, and remain on the big league side of camp. Maybe one of them can make it as Burnett did last year.

As for the cuts, I don't think there were any surprises. Everybody who went down in the first wave was either signed to provide minor league depth or a prospect who would clearly benefit from some more seasoning. I was disappointed to see Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson head back to New Britain, though. I understand that the Twins like to take it slow with their prospects, and that neither of those guys has a full season at AA on their resume yet. However, I think they both played well enough in the Eastern League in the 2nd half (after their brief demotions to Fort Myers) that, with their experience in the Arizona Fall League thrown in, they could have been set straight up at Rochester.

They have the potential to fill the roles of Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer in 2012, though that would certainly require them to have pretty awesome seasons in 2011. The savings would be considerable, as Kubel and Cuddyer together make nearly $16M this year. The idea of replacing those two with a couple of serfs (who run better and play better defense) has a lot of appeal for me. Starting Benson and Parmelee at AA makes that dream that much further from reality, though. Sigh.

I guess the other thing that's been interesting to observe so far is the play of Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nobody was sure of what to expect from him stateside. He was quickly named the everyday 2B, and has hardly looked overmatched in his spring appearances. He's started out .318/.348/.455 with a 1/1 K/BB ratio and 2/2 SB, and he's already made a bunch of sparkling defensive plays. I continue not to worry about him.

That's it until the next round of roster decisions...