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.