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.
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.
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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