Team Preview: Minnesota Twins

It used to be that the problems with the Twins roster stemmed mainly from their frugality. These days, thanks in part to their shiny new ballpark and recent playoff appearances, the Twins are spending with the big boys, but the roster still has uncertainties. Mo money, mo problems indeed. Despite Justin Morneau’s return to the field yesterday, it still may not be possible to know how his season will unfold. In addition to Morneau’s plight, shortstop is a question, the Twins may be incorrectly surmising who are their five best starters and the bullpen may have more unknowns than even Liam Neeson could solve. However, while these are not minor concerns, they don’t outweigh the multitude of positives the Twins have on the ledger heading into 2011, and another AL Central title is definitely within reach.

CF Denard Span
2B Tsuyohsi Nishioka
C Joe Mauer
1B Justin Morneau
LF Delmon Young
RF Michael Cuddyer
DH Jason Kubel / Jim Thome
3B Danny Valencia
SS Alexi Casilla

wRAA contributions to the Twins the past two seasons:

Joe Mauer: 79.5
Justin Morneau & Jim Thome: 87.5
Other projected starters: 70.5

Now, obviously this is a little simplistic, as Thome was not a Twin in 2009, and Nishioka wasn’t a Twin in either season, but the takeaway here is that Joe Mauer is really good at baseball. Nishioka should bump the “other” total some, but it likely won’t be by a significant amount. ZiPS has Nishioka projected at .281/.337/.403, with a perfectly average 99 OPS+. And while Nishioka has displayed good patience, so did his predecessor in the two-hole, Orlando Hudson. Having said that, it won’t be hard to top Hudson’s 2010 season (-0.6 wRAA), and a boost from Nishioka combined with a bounce back from Denard Span to his 2008-2009 levels figure to make the top of the lineup a bit more potent.

The batters in the four-seven holes should see a liberal sprinkling of Jim Thome in their diet, unless Morneau stays on the field all season, in which case, Thome will super-sub for just Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. However, in the likely case that Morneau needs breathers now and then, Minnesota will shift into the alignment they used in the second half, which was to rotate Cuddyer to first base, Kubel to right field and Thome to DH. Thome really found a home with Minnesota last season. In fact, his wRC+ was the second highest total of his career, trailing only his walk year in 2002, and his wOBA was the third highest of his career. Expecting similar numbers from the 40-year old this year wouldn’t be prudent, but Thome is still a good bet to put up better rate statistics than Young, Cuddyer and Kubel.

At the bottom of the lineup, we see two extremes. With Danny Valencia, we see a player whose rookie season may have been too good to be true. His .345 BABIP ranked 23rd in the Majors this past season, and of the 22 players ahead of him, only four had a lower walk rate, and one of those four was Ichiro Suzuki. The combination of a high BABIP and a low walk rate means that there should be some regression, but Valencia projects to be one of the more solid third sackers the Twins have had in quite some time. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Alexi Casilla. More on him below.

Pitching Staff
RHP Carl Pavano
LHP Francisco Liriano
RHP Nick Blackburn
LHP Brian Duensing
RHP Scott Baker

CL RHP Joe Nathan
SU RHP Matt Capps
SU LHP Jose Mijares

RHP Pat Neshek
LHP Dusty Hughes
RHP Jim Hoey
RHP Kevin Slowey
RHP Alex Burnett
RHP Jeff Manship
LHP Glen Perkins
RHP Anthony Slama

Resigning Carl Pavano has given the Twins the luxury of having the proverbial sixth starter. At the moment, it appears that will be Kevin Slowey, but it’s likely that all six will see the rotation at some point this season. Choosing Nick Blackburn over Slowey however, could be a mistake. Over the past three years, Slowey has been worth nearly one more win than Blackburn in 150 less innings pitched. Blackburn’s main strength seems to be that health factor, as even with his demotion to Triple-A last season, he has thrown at least 161 innings each of the past three years, whereas Slowey has not topped 161 in any of them. This however, shouldn’t be enough of an edge to overcome the red flags that Blackburn showed last season. Take a look at their K/BB ratios, with emerging starter Brian Duensing also added to the mix.

Slowey is clearly the more efficient pitcher, and Duensing is moving in the right direction. Blackburn, however is not. While he was better after his stint in Triple-A, the graph clearly shows that Blackburn’s ratios have been moving in the wrong direction for the past few years. What’s more, it’s hard to get a read on how real that late-season improvement was. Four of the starts came against the Mariners, Indians and Athletics, and a fifth came against a Josh Hamilton-less Rangers lineup. Blackburn had a 1.43 ERA in those five starts. Is that true improvement, or is that beating up on the little kid during recess? When you take Blackburn’s K/BB regressions into account, it would appear that the latter is more likely.

Elsewhere in the rotation, Pavano was oddly deemed the Opening Day starter, which may not be a task he’s up to, but then, the roles of who is one and who is two frequently become muddled over the course of 162 games. The key phrase there is 162 games. Should Pavano, Liriano and Baker stay healthy, they should all be effective cogs in the Twinkies machine, though Baker’s strike out percentage will likely drop back closer to his 2009 levels. That health may not be a sure thing though, and while there have been trade rumors surrounding Slowey, the Twins would be wise to hang onto him. The combination of one of these three pitchers getting hurt combined with conerns about Blackburn’s effectiveness and the chance that Duensing may not be able to be stretched out to 200 innings all make Slowey a good bet to get 15+ starts this season.

In the bullpen, Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and Jose Mijares should be mainstays, but there a lot of candidates for the remaining four spots in the bullpen, hence the gap. A lot will depend on whether or not they want to keep Slowey on the Major League roster as a long man or stash him at Triple-A or on the disabled list with some sort of phantom injury.

The uncertainty of the bullpen mix has been labeled a prime concern in the media this spring, as the Twins go about trying to replace Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes and Matt Guerrier. But those four didn’t provide much value last season, combining for just 2.4 WAR, or what’s also known as a typical Nathan season. If Nathan is even 80% of his old self, and one or two from this set of competing relievers steps up, the Twins bullpen will be just fine.

Key Player
Last season, Alexi Casilla was the third option at shortstop, behind J.J. Hardy and Nick Punto. Hardy was traded to Baltimore along with fellow infielder Brendan Harris, and Punto signed with the Cardinals, leaving Casilla as the last man standing. Last season, in a small sample, Casilla’s BABIP rose by 66 points from 2009, but the two seasons were otherwise almost identical. Looking at his last three seasons, it could be argued that the 2009 number is the outlier, and that his other two seasons fall comfortably in the range of average. Should that trend continue in 2011, Casilla could end up as an above average shortstop. That says as much for the current dearth of talent at shortstop as it does for Casilla’s play. Last season, Casilla’s wOBA of .327 would have ranked fifth among qualified shortstops. But if his BABIP does regress – and his wOBA with it – he could end up near the bottom. Casilla’s career wOBA of .291 – a good compromise between his 2009 and 2010 seasons – would have ranked fourth to last among qualified shortstops last season. Manager Ron Gardenhire is apparently enamored with the possibility of the Twins better utilizing the large gaps of Target Field, and that may be why Casilla is getting another shot. Unfortunately, Casilla didn’t really exploit that last season. In the past three seasons, Casilla’s LD% at home has fallen from 15.90%, to 14.8% to 12.9% last season, and that 12.9% LD% was the lowest home LD% for any Twin with more than 80 home plate appearances last year – and it wasn’t close.

Counting on Casilla’s high BABIP to repeat itself isn’t a good strategy, but that’s what the Twins have done. This season, there aren’t any other real solutions on the roster, but there is little to suggest that without that high BABIP that Casilla can contribute effectively across a whole season, which by the way is something he still hasn’t done (his career high in games played is 98). Minnesota will be in the playoff hunt no matter what, but if Casilla is taking wins off the table, it might be enough to tip the scales in favor of Chicago or Detroit.

Despite the fact that the Twins may be shaky at shortstop and they may have some new guys in the bullpen, this is essentially a facsimile of their 2010 roster, which was a pretty good team – third in team batting WAR and sixth in both team pitching WAR and team UZR. If the Twins get a full season from Morneau, then Thome becomes a highly productive luxury item rather than a necessity. Similarly, the rotation has depth, and the losses in the bullpen had more name value than game value. If there’s one thing the Twins manage to do well, it’s separating that name value from game value, and while that may not lead to topping Sportscenter every night, it does help you make the playoffs, and that is something the Twins have excelled at for the past decade. 2011 figures to be more of the same.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

31 Responses to “Team Preview: Minnesota Twins”

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  1. mike wants wins says:

    Nice writeup….I think Casilla is a huge key. For all of his faults, Hardy was darn good when on the field. The combo of Hudson and Hardy will be hard to match defensively, won’t it? I mean, even had they kept them, how likely is it that they would have been that good in the MIF defense again? Plus, now instead of Casilla off the bench, it is Tolbert, and he’s even worse than Casilla….

    As for the starters, I think they should be about the same as last year. Assuming Nathan is healthy, the pen should be about the same as last year. So the key will be how/if Span/Mauer come back to being what they have been in terms of offensive production. Obvioulsy, having Morneau back makes them better, but I’m not sure how much better. It would be hard to be better than Thome was last year, once Justin went down. I’m more confident Justin can repeat those numbers than Thome could, but I’m not sure he can beat those numbers.

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  2. Fenam says:

    As a Twins fan, I really like your analysis Mr. Swydan.

    My worst case scenario for the Twins goes as follows: Nishioka doesn’t translate well to the MLB, Mauer’s knee is a bigger issue than we think, Morneau doesn’t get over his concussion, Nathan has a snag, the SP have numerous injuries (they are prone), the bullpen is less than sexy behind Matt Capps.

    All of those are possibilities make me wary. Now, hopefully none or a small amount of those possibilities exist throughout the season. If that happens, the Twins are a season away from what’s looking like a perennial playoff berth. If two or more start to happen, though, the Twins will be struggling. There are a lot more risks this season than last. But, last season was the one where a lot went wrong and the Twins still prevailed. Hopefully the Twins had their fill of tragedy last season and will continue to prosper in their fiefdom of the AL Central. Go Twins!

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  3. Barkey Walker says:

    Why is Pavano the #1 pitcher? Liriano just imploded in his first outing. Looks like that arm has more healing to do. 1k, 4 ground outs, 3 walks, 6 hits. Sigh. I realize the sample is small, but when you are coming off an injured shoulder, there is good reason to believe it is still injured.

    Also, the Twins have not had at bats from Mauer, Morneau, or Young at spring training. I’d bet Gardy will sleep better when he gets some at bats from these guys.

    About the only things that are going right is that Nathan actually appears to be well and Luke Hughes has three homers. A small sample, to be sure, but add in his 2010 majors appearances and you get 4 HR in 29 at bats. I wouldn’t bet on Bonds like production in the future, but a guy is really unlikely to do that if he is a 1 in 50 HR hitter.

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    • Oscar says:

      That sample isn’t small…it’s nonexistent.

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      • Josh says:

        It’s his first start of the Spring, slow down turbo. Did you see Lincecum’s first start? He also got lit up. Lots of time before the season starts.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        How many outings with that bad a first 14 PA do you think Liriano had? I couldn’t find a single one. With 30 starts, that gives it a p-value of <0.033.

        Even small samples can be informative… I'd be the arm still hurts and we don't see him again for 7 or 8 days.

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      • morbo says:


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      • Barkey Walker says:

        It follows from an exchangeability assumption, it is considered one of the mildest assumptions that you can make when analyzing data.

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      • Clay says:

        Those are nice probability calculations, but you’re comparing stats in spring training to the regular season. Cool your jets.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        He also got lit up.

        All the pot smokers love your clever pun about Lincecum.

        He got burned, roasted, blazed, and on and on.

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    • Bryz says:

      Hughes is a good hitter, for sure. It’s his lack of defense that’s the problem, and that could possibly earn him a ticket to Triple-A to start the season. However, he’ll likely be the first infielder called up to the majors this season.

      I agree with Oscar, that sample size from Liriano is ridiculously small. Pavano is the #1 starter because of his ERA and pitching deep into games last year, but Liriano is definitely the more dominant starter.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        Hughes says he is better now, but even he doesn’t claim to be able to play shortstop. He looks like his bat might be good enough to play a corner outfield spot, and its not like the Twins defense is worth much out there anyways. If they need someone to fill in here and there in the OF, I’d think he would be a good option.

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    • Luke in MN says:

      Add Cuddyer and his wart to the mix of no-shows. Morneau and Young are just joining the party now. Mauer sort of intentionally sandbags in spring training since it’s pretty well established that it’s irrelevant to him.

      I’ll be concerned about Liriano until he flashes his 2010 self this spring. But even if he were already doing so, the Twins just think Pavano’s one of those guys who’s a mascot of what they want Twinsiness to be (and yes, I realize how ironic this is considering Pavano’s reputation prior to 2009). Liriano, not so much.

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    • adohaj says:

      Mauer not getting AB’s in the spring is the last thing Gardy is worried about. I think you need to realize that spring training numbers aren’t worth beans.

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  4. Luke in MN says:

    Nice write-up. I agree that Slowey is a better starter than Blackburn, but it’s just one of those things. Blackburn skills just don’t work in the bullpen–he’s either a fifth starter or he’s nothing. And the Twins are committed to him for the next 3 years. It’s just a 13 million commitment, but that’s enough that you aren’t going to get much in a trade, and at the same time it’s hard to just put him down in Rochester while he’s making that money. Also Gardy said Blackburn’s “one of my guys.” Seriously, he said that.

    If Casilla is a league-average shortstop this year, you have to credit the Twins internal talent assessment because you’d never guess it by his numbers. And unlike a Blackburn or Punto, Casilla’s not one of “Gardy’s guys,” so the org must legitimately like his talent. He’s shown some flashes, so I’m cautiously optimistic, but it would have been nice to have hung on to the surer thing in Hardy.

    Big organizational emphasis on “speed” this offseason, so I’m nervous Gardy won’t play responsibly with his new toy. Unfortunately, the lesson Gardy seems to have learned from last year’s miserable hit-and-run and bunting results seems to be: “My players should be faster,” not “I should do this crap less.”

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  5. phoenix2042 says:

    i can’t believe you linked that song lol

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  6. durf81 says:

    The Twins always find a way to be competitive in the AL Central regardless of what players get injured or which average starting pitchers they throw out there with Liriano…with that said, both the White Sox and the Tigers look much improved from last year.

    I think it will be a three-legged race right down to the final week of the season. Seems like whichever team stays the healthiest will be crowned in 2011.

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    • Sox2727 says:

      I see it as a 3 team race until August. I think by that point the Tigers rotation will be exploited for being top-heavy, and their awful defense will keep them from winning the division. I just don’t see a team competing for a division title in September with Ordonez seeing significant action in RF, Perralta at SS, Guillen at 2B and Cabrera at 1B.

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  7. mike wants wins says:

    I’d love it if Hughes was on the bench. He’s supposedly not a good defender, but sometimes you just need a hit, and I do think he can hit. I’m convinced he’s a better corner OF than about 10%+ of the MLB corner OFers today. He’s probably as good as some 2B or even 3B. Of course, I have no data to “prove” that. I’d be happy if they took 1 less pitcher (hahahahaha) and had Hughes on the bench.

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    • OB says:

      Good one. Gardy’ll lead the charge against excessive pitching staffs just as soon as he embrace Danny V’s flamboyance.

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  8. OB says:

    Making Casilla the linchpin seemed foolhardy from the get go. Especially when the money needed to retain Hardy was instead spent on Capps. C’est la vie. Hopefully the qualitative assessment proves wise.

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  9. OB says:

    On Slowey v Blackburn: rWAR tell a different story. Namely, Blackburn been 0.4 wins better across the same period. Granted, the extra innings no doubt play into it, but the difference between the two is not as stark when fielding dependent aspects are taken into account.

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  10. Dexter Bobo says:

    What exactly does it mean to see a liberal sprinkling of Jim Thome in one’s diet? Should I be checking my stool to make sure someone hasn’t been slipping some into my food?

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  11. Sox2727 says:

    “the takeaway her is that Joe Mauer is really good at baseball”

    who knew?

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  12. jvstephens says:

    Whoa, a Biggie reference on the anniversary of his shooting? This place just got real.

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  13. Nick says:

    I agree that Casilla is a big concern, but there are options should he faulter. Nishioka could move to SS (Gold Glove there in Japan) and Luke Hughes could get a shot at 2B. Trevor Plouffe is also waiting in AAA.
    In the end I feel that Casilla’s defense will be the bigger factor as to whether he keeps his job at SS. I can stomach a .250 average from a SS with solid defense. Plus if Span, Mauer, Morneau, Thome/Kubel, Cuddyer, Young and Valencia are hitting well in front of Casilla, all he needs to do is play solid defense.

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  14. odditie says:

    Kyle Gibson

    There – no idea how he was not mentioned yet.

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    • JTC says:

      Because this is the Twins organization, and barring injuries, he is not likely to play any significant role on the major league team this year.

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