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Things are looking up a bit after a fun series against the Angels. The offense has started to produce led by Josh Willingham’s MLB leading 4th homer, a monster shot from Justin Morneau and a (gasp!) Joe Mauer three-run dinger (while catching the day game after a night game no less). Jamey Carroll finally got his first few hits as a Twin and Denard Span put up the twelfth four-hit game of his career.

Unfortunately, though they stuck with what should be a very good Angels team, things don’t get any easier for the Twins. They’re about to face the Texas Rangers, a team twice as beautiful and thrice as deadly.

The Rangers put up 855 runs last season, a massive total that finished behind just the Red Sox and Yankees, and the offense looks to be similarly good this season. Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton are off to hot starts, but there’s really nobody in this lineup that isn’t a threat. Michael Young (while perennially overrated) is almost a lock to be a .300 hitter, Elvis Andrus has blinding speed and is constantly improving and there’s maybe five guys in the league with more power than Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli.

The rotation is a bit of a question mark, though it possesses undeniable upside. Colby Lewis and Derek Holland are good, dependable starters but they won’t face the Twins. Matt Harrison faces questions about whether or not he can repeat his stellar 2011 campaign, while Japanese import Yu Darvish and converted closer Neftali Feliz are adjusting to new roles. While all prognosticators agree that Darvish will be a stud, it could take awhile for him to adjust. He struggled mightily early in his first start against the Mariners before calming himself in the later innings. Feliz was tough as a closer but durability and command are going to be the questions for him as a starter.

Game One Friday at 7:10 PM CST:

Anthony Swarzak (5.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K) v. Matt Harrison (6.0 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 3 K)

-Swarzak pitched quite well in his emergency start on Sunday, something he’s had to do numerous times. I worry about his fly ball profile against this lineup.

-Harrison broke out last year, posting a  3.39 ERA and 3.53 FIP in 185 innings, after posting only a 5.39 ERA and 5.13 FIP in 225 career innings before that. His strikeouts went way up last year (5.29 K/9 in 2010 to 6.11 in 2011) but he’s still well below the league average. He gets grounders, but not a ton. His 7.1 percent HR/FB ratio was the twelfth lowest in baseball, a pretty ridiculous number considering the fact that he pitches in Texas. I’d expect that to go up this season. I think he benefited from pitching in front of what is probably the best defensive (and overall) 4-5-6 in baseball.

Game Two, Saturday at 12:10 PM CST:

Nick Blackburn (6 IP, 5 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 3 K) v. Yu Darvish (5.2 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 5 K)

-Blackburn pitched better than the above numbers would show in his 2010 debut, getting shafted by a rough defense. His two-seamer helped induce a 2:1 groundball to flyball ratio and he put up a 7.1 swinging strike percentage, still below league average, but far better than the 4.1 percent and 4.8 percent he logged in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

-Darvish, as mentioned, struggled early in his debut but settled down later on, not giving up a run after the second inning. I expect he’ll improve as he settles in and begins to understand the strike zone over here a bit better. He should be a lot of fun to watch.

Game Three, Sunday at 1:10 PM CST:

Liam Hendriks (3.36 ERA, 5.29 K/BB at AA/AAA) v. Neftali Feliz (7 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K)

-Hendriks was scratched from his first scheduled start last Sunday due to food poisoning. He looks like he’ll be a rotation mainstay as Scott Baker is headed for elbow surgery.

-Feliz averaged about 96 MPH with his fastball last season per Pitch/FX but is down to about 94 MPH this season as a starter. He also throws a low-80’s slider and a mid-80’s change. He was very, very good in his first start.

Notes:

-Friday’s game will be the first that I attend this season. I’m a lot more excited for it than I was a couple of days ago.

-Mike Napoli is one for his first thirteen after hitting for MLB’s best wOBA (.444) last season.

-Ian Kinsler broke a three-game homer streak today, though he still hit 3-4 with a double. The man just got paid a whole lot of money after ranking as one of MLB’s best players over the past three seasons.

-I had more fun watching the Twins game today than I remember having during any single game last year. What should be an above-average offense finally broke out.

Your song for today is “Village Green Preservation Society”  the opening track off of the album of the same name. The Kinks remain one of the most under-appreciated bands of the 60s.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and co. will have to switch sides for the Twins to have any chance in this series.

The Twins went to Baltimore and got swept by a mediocre-at-best Orioles team. They scored five total runs, never lead and looked generally awful (with a couple notable exceptions) the entire weekend. It was not a good start and, though I try to remain rational, had me teetering on the edge of a “We’re on the verge of a second coming of the 90’s” post.

The good? Despite looking deathly skinny, Justin Morneau went 4-10 with two doubles and a walk over the weekend. Obviously, he’s not out of the woods but it’s a strong start. Morneau will need to hit for the Twins to have any chance this year. And, if they’re not in it, he’s one of the few players who could have some value at the deadline if he can prove that he’s healthy.

Anthony Swarzak stepped up, giving the Twins five good innings while filling in for the ailing Liam Hendriks. Swarzak was excellent in a couple of spot starts last season and has clearly ingratiated himself with the FO and Gardy. I still think he’s a fringe starter at best, but he might get a chance if Scott Baker’s elbow doesn’t hold up.

Now for the bad. The Twins are about to play the toughest April schedule in the MLB facing LA, Texas, New York, Tampa and Boston in succession. They might be the five best teams in the majors and they’re definitely five of six or seven teams that will be in the hunt for a playoff spot come September.

The Angels had a big offseason, signing that Albert Pujols fellow as well as adding CJ Wilson to an already formidable rotation. Kendrys Morales is finally back and looking healthy and Mark Trumbo has displaced (for the time being) Alberto Callaspo at third, meaning this is a powerful lineup. The kind of lineup that isn’t likely to have trouble knocking balls out of Target Field. Mercifully, the outfield should be rough as Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells are in the twilight of their respective careers and Peter Bourjos isn’t likely to repeat last year’s offensive numbers.

Game 1 Monday at 3:05 CST:

Nick Blackburn (4.49 ERA, 4.84 FIP, 4.61 K/9 3.28 BB/9) v. CJ Wilson (2.94 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 8.30 K/9)

-Phil Mackey has been riding the Blackburn train all spring as his (i.e Blackburn’s) contact rate this spring was 16% lower than his career rate in the majors. It is possible, however unlikely, that Blackburn could continue this trend throughout the year, becoming a much more effective pitcher. Regardless, he’ll need to regain the control he featured in ’08 and ’09 as 3.28 BB/9 is a recipe for disaster if you’re not striking out about a batter per inning.

-Wilson, the Angels’ less-heralded offseason acquisition, was at the helm of a Rangers staff that reached two consecutive World Series. The converted reliever improved all of his core numbers last year and he’s just a mighty fine pitcher. He gets grounders, strikeouts and limits walks. His fastball (per Fangraphs) rated as 17.3 runs above average, 7th in MLB. His cutter, a nasty upper-80’s pitch, ranked as the fifth most effective cutter in MLB.

Game 2 Wednesday @ 7:10 PM CST:

Carl Pavano (7 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K) v. Jered Weaver (8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 10 K)

-Pavano didn’t pitch terribly in his first start, outside of serving up a gopherball to Nick Markakis in the 1st.

-He generated just three swinging strikes in 95 pitches but was able to get 12 groundballs.

-Jered Weaver finished second in the AL Cy Young voting last season and looked the part in his first start of the season. He’s just a very good pitcher.

Game 3 Thursday at 12:05 PM CST:

Francisco Liriano (4.0 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 4 K) v. Dan Haren (5.1 IP, 11 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 5 K)

-Liriano had Twins fans foaming at the mouth after a strong spring and a first inning in which he struck out the side. Then he went all Liriano on all of us, melting down entirely. I’m still cautiously optimistic about him this year.

-Haren might be the best Angels pitcher of them all. Last season was his seventh consecutive year with over 200 IP and his 2.98 FIP was the best of his career. He walks nobody (1.25/9 last season) and throws a monster of a cutter that ranked as 30.5 runs above average (per Fangraphs) last season. He threw it a massive 48 percent of the time.

Notes:

-If Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter and Jason Hammel can shut the Twins down, I’m not optimistic about the lineup’s chances against the three studs the Angels will throw.

-Torii Hunter has thrown a lot of mud at the Twins since leaving. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get plunked after his most recent comments. Which, by the way, were entirely inaccurate. Maybe he’ll lose his job to Mike Trout one of these days.

-This afternoon will be the third home opener at Target Field. People aren’t as optimistic about the team and new park this year but it’s still just an absolutely gorgeous place, even if the team sucks.

“There are no birds in last years’ nests” -Narrator in really awesome Twins’ 1991 World Series video.

Bud Selig has gone all John Rambo on opening day. Seattle and Oakland (seriously) were chosen to represent MLB in Japan last week in a two game series that has to have made NPB look pretty darn appealing by comparison.Then there was a game last night (where Kyle Lohse inexplicably took a no-hitter to the seventh) followed by a number of games today before we finally get to the week’s main event, Twins/Orioles, tomorrow afternoon.

Baltimore finished a full six games ahead of our boys last season, meaning they were…well they still sucked. Prospects for 2012 are similar as they a) play in the AL East (which might be better than ever) and b) might have gotten even worse. The lineup features at least three bona fide good players in Matt Wieters, JJ Hardy and Adam Jones as well as Mark Reynolds and Nick Markakis, two guys who can still do some damage with the stick. Where the issues lie, however, is a rotation for which very little has gone right over the past few years. Once hailed as the future of the franchise, young pitchers like Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta have struggled, faced injuries and mysteriously lost velocity leaving the starting rotation as an impressive who’s who list of nobodies.

This all bodes very for Minnesota fans as we’ll get to see the Twins play in a beautiful stadium (Camden Yards) against pitchers the revamped offense should be able to hit. Our team is playing a series they have a good chance of winning and fans will (as an added bonus) be able to whine incessantly about the JJ Hardy trade. It’s a fun way to start the year unless, you know, you were hoping to watch two good teams play baseball.

Game 1 Friday @ 2:05 PM CST:

Carl Pavano (4.30 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 50.6 GB%) v. Jake Arrieta (5.05 ERA, 5.34 FIP, 4.45 BB/9)

-Arrieta logged only 119.1 innings last season before being shut down due to a “fibrous mass” in his elbow.

-No, dearest reader, you are not wrong. Fibrous mass would be a totally bitchin’ penis euphemism.

-BA’s scouting report coming into the 2010 season described Arrieta thusly: “Arrieta’s pure stuff compares with any of the Orioles’ elite young pitchers, but his command puts him a notch behind them. While some scouts think that could eventually send Arrieta to the bullpen, the Orioles see him as a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher who can pile up 200 innings a year with no problems.”

-Arrieta’s career MLB statline, however, describes him thusly.

-Pavano, among qualified pitchers, posted the MLBs second lowest K/9 (4.14). Arrieta, among pitchers with at least 110 IP, posted the 4th highest BB/9 (4.45).

-This has to be one of the most depressing opening day pitching match-ups in history.

Game 2 Saturday @ 6:05 PM CST:

Francisco Liriano (3.60 ERA, 2.66 FIP, 9.44 K/9) v. Tommy Hunter (4.68 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 4.78 K/9)

-Gotcha, that’s Liriano’s 2010 stat line. God willing, he’ll approximate that this season.

-Hunter was acquired from Texas for Koji Uehara last season.

-He looks like a Twins pitcher in that his exceptionally low strikeout and walk totals lead him to an exceptionally mediocre ERA.

-Consider him a trade target the next time the Twins have a good, young, cheap shortstop. If he’s still pitching then.

Game 3 Sunday @ 12:35 PM CST:

Liam Hendriks (3.36 ERA, 5.29 K/BB at AA/AAA) v. Jason Hammel (who?).

-For a guy who doesn’t get strikeouts (4.97/9) Hammel (that guy on the Phillies?) sure walks a lot of batters (3.59/9 innings).

-Hendriks may or may not stay in the rotation depending on Scott Baker’s elbow and his (i.e. Hendriks’) performance. Despite only 152 innings above A ball, he’s pretty much MLB ready. His upside is probably around league average starter.

-He is Australian though, so there’s that.

Look, it’s not the most exciting series on paper. But it’s plenty nice just to have baseball back in our lives.

Your song is “Oh Alberta” by Elliott Brood. It features a slight insult toward North Dakota.

2011 was a dismal time to be a Twins fan. Though the team didn’t admit it, they were out of the race in June. Regulars played poorly and a rash of injuries forced lineups that might not have cracked .500 in AAA ball. Twins brass have consistently referred to the season as a “perfect storm” and that seems like a pretty accurate assessment. Not much more could have gone wrong with the season. Expectations for the 2012 team are tempered–it looks like a 75-80 win team to me–but it’s not out of the question for this team to put it all together and rattle off 85 or so wins and challenge for the AL Central title. For something like that to happen though, just as much would have to go right this year as went wrong last year–not likely by any means. I think these five things are essential for the Twins to compete in 2012.

1. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau return to elite or near-elite levels as hitters.

This pretty much goes without saying. The Twins, as currently constructed, are built on these two guys. Just over 40 percent of the 2012 payroll is tied up in Mauer and Morneau and for this team to have any chance, it’ll need major production from at least one if not both of its oft-injured stars.

Mauer is, by all accounts, feeling excellent this spring. He rededicated himself to conditioning this offseason, is a year-removed from knee surgery and hit mighty well over the last month. I’m optimistic about Mauer’s chances to return at full strength and put up another 4-6 WAR season. He’ll probably never be the power threat he was in 2009, but I’d bet the over on a .300 batting average and .370 OBP.

Morneau is another story, as concussions are such a mystery. He was still feeling symptoms this offseason and it’s tough to know what could cause any sort of relapse. He had a nice power surge in the second half of the spring and seems to be regaining a bit of his timing.

It’s easy to forget what a monster he as before the concussion. He was having easily his best season ever posting a .447 wOBA (.345/.437/.618) and had already logged 5.1 WAR (his highest total ever) in just 81 games. God knows what to expect from him this season, but if he hits somewhere in line with his career totals, the Twins might have a nice little offense.

2. Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker need to pitch to their potential for 200 innings apiece.

The rotation in 2011 stunk. The rotation in 2012 is going to be the same save for Jason Marquis stepping in to replace Brian Duensing (who’s bound for the bullpen) which, though it’s an upgrade in the bullpen, probably doesn’t do much to improve the rotation. Marquis, Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano all have very limited upside as none of them is likely to strike out much more than five batters or so per nine innings, leaving them subject to batted ball luck, something I wouldn’t bet on with the defense the Twins will be fielding behind them. Additionally, all three (with the possible exception of Pavano, who has been quite durable the last several years) have to be considered injury risks. Liriano and Baker have both been madly inconsistent in their years with the Twins but they both possess upside far and beyond anybody else in the system.

Liriano put together an underappreciated 2010 campaign, finally regaining form after Tommy John surgery on his way to an AL leading 2.66 FIP. Unfortunately, some rough batted ball luck left his ERA (3.60) almost a full run higher. Many of us expected his ERA to regress toward that FIP during 2011, solidifying his status as a bona fide ace. Rather, he showed up to camp out of shape and struggled with injuries and command walking over five batters per nine innings and losing almost two full hitters off his K/9. Early reviews on him have been good this spring, his velocity is back in the 92-94 range, his slider is a little slower but still a sharp weapon and he’s been throwing strikes. When he puts it all together he can be one of the top lefties in the game and the Twins will need that kind of performance this season, as the bottom half of their rotation is going to get knocked around.

Scott Baker spent the first half of 2011 looking like the lone bright spot on a gawdawful team, finally showing the consistency we’d been hoping for over the past few years. His strikeouts went up, he maintained his excellent control his ERA (3.14) and FIP (3.45) were right in line with what you’d expect from a quality number two starter. However, as Twins players are wont to do, Baker went down shortly before the break and finished the season with only 134 innings pitched. He’s already slated to start the season on the DL and, given his history, I’m not optimistic about him in 2012. However, he has undeniable potential and if he’s healthy for a full season, he could be a big part of a surprisingly good Twins team.

3. The defense will need to drastically cut down the errors.

Last season’s defense was terrible. Most guys had well-below average range and they finished with 119 errors, second-t0-last in the American League. I’m not a fan of the error as a stat, but it does an ok job of showing who makes the routine plays (something the FO and Gardy love to talk about). The offseason saw the Twins bringing in Jamey Carroll and sending Tsuyoshi Nishioka to Rochester in an effort to shore things up at shortstop. Newcomer, Josh Willingham, will man left field, we’ll likely see a combination of Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Doumit in right and Chris Parmelee should get the majority of reps at first.

The replacements don’t really look like world-beaters defensively. Willingham is (speaking charitably) a lateral move from Jason Kubel in left, Ryan Doumit isn’t a highly-regarded defender anywhere and has hardly played in the outfield and Plouffe is just learning the ropes as an outfielder. Carroll is generally been viewed as a good fielder but posted -6.2 and -8.0 UZR/150 scores at second and short respectively in the 2011 season. It could be a one year aberration but he’s 38–not exactly the age when players peak physically. I’m not optimistic about his range, but the FO keeps telling us he’ll make the play on any ball his old legs get him to.

Basically, outside of Denard Span and maybe Alexi Casilla, nobody on this team has anything more than average range. I don’t see Gardenhire suddenly implementing a bunch of Rays-esque shifts so this team is going to really have to minimize mistakes to make up for a lack of ground covered. Otherwise, with a contact oriented pitching staff, things could get ugly in a hurry.

4. Somebody will need to step up in the bullpen.

The opening day bullpen features Brian Duensing and Glen Perkins, two bets to be solid 7-8th inning guys, a mediocre closer in Matt Capps and five guys who remain entirely unproven. I don’t expect much from Capps, even if you throw out his struggles last year, he’s never been anything too impressive.

Somebody in this quintet (Jared Burton, Alex Burnett, Matt Maloney, Jeff Gray, Anthony Swarzak) is going to have to give the Twins a solid 65-70 innings. It’ll be interesting to see what righthander will become a reliable eighth inning guy as the proven options (Duensing and Perkins) are lefties. It might end up being Kyle Waldrop, who was set to break camp with the team before some arm pain intervened, giving Alex Burnett another shot with the big boys.

All things considered, the Twins have a ton of guys in AA or AAA that could help if these guys struggle and relievers are so fungible that I can’t imagine the bullpen struggling like it did last season.

5. A few things have to go wrong in Detroit.

After running away with the division last season and adding Prince Fielder in the offseason, the Tigers are major favorites this season in the AL Central. To me, they look like a 92-4 win team that, if everything clicks, could easily push the century mark. I’d argue though, that they’re far from a sure thing as the lineup features a number of guys who seem due for regression and the defense features at least 3 designated hitters.

I’ll concede that Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder are total studs and (speaking conservatively) should be worth at least 15-17 WAR. But let’s look at some of the numbers other guys posted in 2011. Jhonny Peralta was a 5-win player, posting a wRC+ of 120 at shortstop, a monster number. He was coming off two years where was good for only 81 and 89 wRC+s respectively (remember 100 is league average). He’s shown enough in the past to prove that 2011 wasn’t a total fluke, but given that he’s on the wrong side of 30 I can’t see him ever having a season as good as last year again. Alex Avila put up a massive 140 wRC+ as a catcher, but only holds a .796 career OPS in the minors. He can hit, sure, but I wouldn’t bet on him approaching last season’s numbers. Brennan Boesch is another guy that might have had a career year, posting a 116 wRC+, despite only managing a 97 in his rookie season. Prospect evaluators never liked him much and it’s probably that he returns to near league average levels this season. Doug Fister shoved last season and was absolutely lights out (1.79 ERA, 11.40 K/BB) in his half season with the Tigers. Does anybody expect a repeat of those numbers from a pitch-to-contact guy whose infield is Fielder, Raburn, Cabrera, Peralta?

The defense in Detroit might be historically bad. Fielder has a career -6.4 UZR/150 at first,  Raburn is -23.8 in his career as a second baseman, Cabrera hasn’t played third base regularly since 2007 when he was moved off because he couldn’t handle it. His career UZR/150 at third is -4.5 and he’s four to five years removed from that and  has been bad at first in the meantime. Jhonny Peralta rates out just under average -3.0 in his career UZR/150 at short though he’s had two years where he’s been near a +10 fielder that seem to scream fluke. Boesch isn’t well regarded in right, we all know what a butcher Delmon Young is in left leaving only Austin Jackson and Alex Avila as potentially good defenders. It could be really, really bad.

I still expect the Tigers to dominate the AL Central, but stranger things have happened.

It doesn’t look good for the Twins this season but hey, the division still sucks and if everything breaks right they could be right in the thick of the division race, possibly even headed toward another first round exit.

Your song for today is “Expanding Anyway” by Morning Teleportation, one of my favorite new bands. They’re totally off the wall but are more fun than just about anyone I’ve ever heard.

The opening day roster pretty much dropped today. It won’t last that long–I’d expect to see Hendriks and Burnett sent to Rochester when Baker and Marquis return–but this is the team we’ll see for the season’s first couple of weeks. If there’s one thing we can take from the spring, it’s that Chris Parmelee sure impressed the Minnesota brass.

Parmelee seemed like he had an outside shot of starting 2012 with the team coming into the spring, but I don’t think many expected him to break camp as the starting first baseman. He’d mashed in the bigs last September–but 88 strong PA’s does not a major leaguer make. With Morneau and Mauer looking fairly healthy, the addition of Ryan Doumit, and Revere, Willingham and Span seemingly entrenched in the outfield, there didn’t seem to be much room for the first baseman and part-time outfielder. And surely the Twins would rather have one of their better prospects playing every day than sitting on the bench, waiting for time. Or at least that is what I was expecting a month ago.

Then Parmelee had a mighty fine spring, hitting .290/.389/.597 with 5 home runs (including a monster earlier today) and generating some fairly ridiculous hype. A week or so ago, it seemed he’d pushed his way into the starting lineup–most likely at the expense of Revere who most thought was a lock to (at the very least) platoon with Trevor Plouffe in a corner spot. Now, it looks like Parmelee will be the everyday 1B, pushing Morneau to DH (where some think he’ll be at less risk of injury) and Ryan Doumit and Trevor Plouffe into even more of a super-utility role (expect Doumit to see time in right, at 1st, catching and DH. Plouffe will probably see some time at all those spots save catcher).

The best case scenario here is that sometime in the last 8 months or so, Parmelee turned a corner. He hit 12 of his 17 home runs last season in the second half and obviously killed the ball during his September cup of coffee. This guy was a first round draft pick for his power potential, and you have to hope that some of that is starting to materialize. The Twins certainly seem to think so, as both Gardy and Terry Ryan have publicly noted his ability to mash. If he has, indeed, unlocked some of the power promise we’ve heard a lot about, Parmelee could be a solid player. He’s always shown good plate discipline (a 13.6 percent career walk rate) and makes enough contact to hit a solid .270. Gaby Sanchez numbers (.266/.352/.427 .342 wOBA in 2011) aren’t out of the question. That’s not world-beating, especially at first base where 16 of 23 qualified hitters matched or exceeded that wOBA last season, but it’s serviceable. And for a league-minimum salary, I’d be plenty OK with that.

The less-optimistic view here is that Parmelee has just gotten hot at the right time, and he’s still the hitter he was in the minor leagues. The guy who owns a .436 slugging percentage  and has averaged just over 12 homers per season over his six-year career. ZIPS (which working only from numbers probably couldn’t spot a potential breakout in the power department) pegs Parmelee for a .244/.311/.357 line this season, and while I think he’ll exceed that, those numbers aren’t even acceptable for a shortstop, let alone a first baseman.

I obviously don’t have the full picture here (I’m working primarily from numbers and third hand scouting reports) but I’m not convinced Parmelee can hit enough to be a major league first baseman. He seems to have convinced the Twins though, so for now we’ll have to trust Terry Ryan’s decision-making and hope for the best. If nothing else, it’ll be nice to see a fresh face and some youth in the increasingly decrepit Twins lineup. It’ll be fun to see what Parmelee can do with a full time job.

Song selections are back after a lengthy hiatus. Nothing is better than some calypso on a beautiful day such as this. And nobody does calypso better than the Mighty Sparrow. Here he is singing “Only a Fool.”

Reading over at Twins Daily, there are a lot of different perspectives on the state of the upper levels of the Twins’ systems. Conventional wisdom says that the vast majority of impact prospects in the system are at the lower levels and at AA and AAA the best we can hope for is some bench guys and some second-division starters. Other, more optimistic folks, point to a number of guys who could fill big league roles within the next couple of years, guys who may not be studs, but look to be upgrades over what the Twins currently have.

Terms like “impact prospect” and “difference maker” which get thrown around a lot are tough to pin down. For instance, just about everybody would apply those labels to a guy like Miguel Sano, few though, would have done the same with Danny Valencia a couple of years ago. Then Valencia came up in 2010, proceeded to wOBA .351 while playing a good third base and put up 2.7 WAR in just 322 PA–absolutely an impact performance. The Twins have constantly found guys who caught fire upon call-up (Chris Parmelee last year, Lew Ford, Doug Mientkiewicz) despite lacking the talent to be long term starters. Hopefully a few guys can do just that, outperforming their track records and providing the Twins with some solid production on the cheap over the next few seasons. The fact is, for a team with a mid-level payroll like the Twins to compete they need to fill a few spots with league-minimum guys. So, lets take a look at what guys might have an impact on the Twins in the next two seasons.

1. Joe Benson OF

Benson is the closest thing to and industry consensus “impact prospect” on this list, making two of the big three (Law, BA, Golstein) top 100 rankings, coming in at 99 on BA’s list and 90 on Goldstein’s list at BP. Benson has, like most Twins prospects, spent ample time in the minors (2012 will be his 7th season) and just turned 24. Repeating AA last year he showed a the tools that made him a second round pick in 2006. He hit a robust .285/.388/.495 good for a 141 wRC+ all while playing quality defense. He struggled mightily, however, during his September call-up, hitting just .239/.270/.352 in 74 PA’s.

Benson will always have a lot of swing and miss in his game (he’s only once posted a K-rate under 20% (’06) and the .285 average he put up last year was the best of his career) but he should bring enough secondary skills to the table to offset his contact issues. He’s big and fast, the kind of guy who could post consistent 20-20 seasons, while playing excellent corner defense and maybe some centerfield as well. He’s always posted solid walk rates, nearly hitting 12% at New Britain last year. He’ll likely begin the year at AAA as he’s still behind Span, Revere, Plouffe, Willingham and Doumit on the outfield depth charts. I’ve no doubt, though, that we’ll see him some this season, and hopefully in a full-time starting role in 2013. At the very least, he can be a solid platoon guy in a corner, and if he can solve some of the contact issues he could turn into a 3-4 win outfielder.

2. Brian Dozier 2B/SS

Brian Dozier was essentially a non-prospect entering the 2011 season. An 8th rounder in 2009, he’d posted solid but unspectacular numbers in two minor league seasons but he’s not the possessor of the physical gifts that can offset statistical production in prospects. Then, in 2011 he began the year by destroying (151 wRC+) Ft. Myers, earned a midseason call-up to New Britain and just kept hitting, rocking a .318/.384/.502 line at AA that had Ron Gardenhire clamoring for a late-season call up to The Show. The only caveat to those number is Dozier’s age. A senior sign, he played last season at the age of 24, quite old for A+ and AA ball.

Dozier isn’t long on tools, but he can really hit and has soft hands that provide solid defense in the middle infield. It doesn’t look like he has the range or the arm to play short, but he should be able to play a quality second base while hitting enough to justify the position change. Dozier has earned rave reviews out of Ft. Myers this Spring and could likely handle a spot in the infield on opening day. As it stands, he should begin the year at AAA and be first in line for a call-up should Jamey Carroll or Alexi Casilla struggle or hit the DL. Dozier looks like he could be about a league-average second baseman, posting 2-3 wins annually–perfectly acceptable for a guy making the league minimum.

3. Chris Parmelee 1B

Parmelee is another guy who hit the ball well at AA last year, owning a .287/.366/.436 line that earned him a cup o’ tea in September. Parmelee proceeded to impress with the Twins, mashing his way to a 187 wRC+ in 88 PA’s in September. Parmelee was rated as one of the best power-hitters coming into the 2006 draft (where the Twins took him with their first selection) and put up good power numbers in the low minors. He then reworked his swing to make more contact, and hasn’t shown much power since.

Parmelee’s September was impressive, but we’ve got a long minor league track record that would indicate that he doesn’t possess the bat to play first base in the bigs and doesn’t possess the physical tools to play defense at any other position. In what was termed a breakout by many, Parmelee slugged only .436 as a 24 year old at AA last season, a number dwarfed by middle infielder Brian Dozier’s .502. Parmelee could see a lot of time this season depending on Justin Morneau’s health, but unless he can start posting some slugging percentages at or near the .500 mark, he’s likely nothing more than a decent bench bat or platoon guy in the majors.

4. Chris Herrman C

Herrman signed as an outfielder after the 2009 draft but has since converted to catcher. Like any decent college guy should, he destroyed the Appy League as a 21 year old in 2009 but gave everything back by hitting .219/.310/.301 in the FSL in 2010. Repeating the level last year, however, Herrman mashed a .380 wOBA in 24 games before moving up to AA where he posted a very respectable 119 wRC+ (.356 wOBA). For what it’s worth (likely very little) Herrman put the hurt on the Arizona Fall League last year, hitting a bonkers .380/.456/.620 (.478 wOBA).

Herrman is, by all accounts, still learning the intricacies of catching but has the makings of a solid defender, nailing a solid 37% of runners over his career. He still has to prove that 2011 was his true talent with the bat and the plethora of AAA catchers in the Twins’ system means that he’ll likely repeat AA. While he lacks great contact skills or impact power, Herrman has shown excellent plate discipline in the minors and could be in for a breakout year as a hitter. It’s unlikely that we see any of Herrman this season but continued improvement coupled with Joe Mauer’s iffy future as a catcher could see Herrman competing for a roster spot right out of the gate in 2013.

5. JR Towles C

Towles’ inclusion on this list is a bit of a cheat as he’s not really a prospect at all (that should tell you a bit about my view of the Twins’ system at the upper levels). Back in 2008, Towles was a prospect, in fact he was a hell of a prospect ranking 53 on BA’s annual list. He was coming off a .324/.425/.551 line in AA and built upon that hitting .304/.370/.500 in AAA that year. Unfortunately, he has pretty much sucked as a big leaguer hitting a Butera-esque .187/.267/.315 in 155 games.

Towles is getting a chance to compete with Butera to make the roster as the team’s inevitable third catcher. He has continued to hit at AAA and the hope is that he can at least provide a modest upgrade with the bat–maybe a wOBA north of .300. He’s posted pretty much neutral defensive numbers in the bigs so defense shouldn’t be much of a concern. The upside here is minimal but taking a flyer on a guy with a strong minor league track record was a no brainer here.

A few more to keep an eye on:

Ray Chang IF

Chang is a career minor-leaguer who has played all around the diamond, providing solid defense and unspectacular offense. He hit well at Rochester last year and could be in the mix as a utility guy.

Pedro Florimon IF

Florimon was claimed from the Baltimore Orioles this offseason. He’s got a reputation as a defensive ace and posted solid (.267/.344/.396) numbers with the bat at AA last year. Another guy who could be in the mix as a utility infielder.

Rene Tosoni OF

Tosoni lost his prospect eligibility last year thanks to a number of injuries. Up to that point, he had posted solid minor league numbers over four seasons. He struggled at the bigs–he clearly wasn’t ready–but has the makings of an OK fourth outfielder and can do a little bit of everything.

There is very little to be hopeful about as far as minor league hitters go. Benson and Dozier could develop into solid major-leaguers but are far from sure things. Beyond that there’s very little upside. The two glass half full outlook here is: a) the upper minors as a whole have been weak the last year or two and b) the list of pitchers looks to be a lot stronger. I’ll write up the pitchers tomorrow.

The Twins have been known as one of Major League Baseball’s most loyal teams. At every level of the organization they seem to value their own, while weeding out those who are not. They’re so loyal, in fact, that when they fired much-maligned GM Bill Smith, they ended up just shuffling him into a new place in the front office. Who replaced him? Not some outsider (though many qualified GM candidates were available this offseason) but rather former Twins’ GM Terry Ryan. It was perhaps the most Twins-esque front office shake up imaginable. If any Twins player of the last 10 years was one of the Twins’ guys, it was Michael Cuddyer. The guy was seemingly beloved by everyone: the FO, Gardy, teammates, the press etc. If any Twin ever seemed like a lock to be re-signed, it was Michaeld Cuddyer. Yet somehow, some way (perhaps because Cuddyer (gasp!) didn’t want to re-sign) the Twins let Michael Cuddyer go, bringing in former A’s, Marlins and Nationals outfielder Josh Willingham to fill a similar role.

Willingham and Cuddyer are statistically-speaking pretty similar players. Both are 33, good-not-great hitters and butchers in the outfield. Cuddyer has consistently drawn praise for his “ability” to play multiple positions, though I’d argue that the willingness play several positions terribly isn’t versatility. Last season, the two were almost identical in terms of production (Cuddyer .284/.346/.459 124 wRC+, Willingham .246/.332/.477 123 wRC+). Over the past 4 seasons, though, Willingham has been the better hitter by a slight but significant margin posting a wRC+ of 126 to Cuddyer’s 113. Willingham has more power and better patience, though he strikes out quite a bit more often. He’s a dead pull hitter and At Over the Baggy, Parker Hageman showed why this approach might bring him more success in Target Field. Bottom line though, both of these guys can be solid 2-3.5 WAR cogs on good teams but can hardly carry whole offenses like they both needed to last season.

Despite their similarities, however, Cuddyer seemed to have the edge on the market. More teams seemed to be interested in his services (though a few National League teams seemed to mistakenly think he could actually play a position other than RF on more often than emergencies) and he was expected to command a better contract. That held true as the Twins locked up Willingham for $21 million over three years and Cuddyer drew a hefty 3 year $31.5 million dollar contract from the Rockies. This seems like a significant overpay for Cuddyer while the Willingham contract seems about right. Cuddyer’s superficial numbers might look pretty good in Coors Field, but there’s almost no chance he provides the Rockies with a suitable return on their investment.

The Twins are to be commended for this undoubtedly difficult decision. They’ve acquired an arguably superior player at a lower cost. Additionally, they’ll receive two supplemental picks due to Cuddyer’s type A status. These picks, especially for a team with a depleted farm system, are great compensation and, according to research by Victor Wang should provide an extra $5 million or so in value. Party. Bonus.

Could this move signal a shift in the FO’s thinking? Might we see more decisions based on analysis rather than loyalty in the future? Well, based on the Matt Capps signing, probably not. But we can sure hope so.

As for Mr. Cuddyer, I wish him the best of luck in his new digs. The guy was an absolute professional in every sense of the word over his tenure here and is, by all accounts, a great guy. Play well and enjoy that payday, sir.

Your song for today? A particularly heavy version of Ballad of a Thin Man by Bob Dylan.

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