Five Questions: Minnesota Twins

1. What happened to the offense last year?

While the Twins have four straight winning seasons and three straight trips to the playoffs, they have been winning despite sub par offenses that have ranked eighth, ninth, sixth, and tenth in the league since 2001. Even those mediocre rankings are boosted a bit by the Metrodome, and the offense was at its worst last season with just 780 runs. Aside from stolen bases, the Twins did nothing well offensively in 2004. They ranked sixth in the league in homers (191) and doubles (310), seventh in walks (513), ninth in on-base percentage (.332) and slugging percentage (.431), and tenth in batting average (.266).

Of course, the team also won more than 90 games for just the second time since their World Series title in 1991, thanks to a pitching staff that allowed an AL-low 715 runs. But while the Twins’ league-best pitching staff returns essentially intact for this season, relying on them to make up for a punchless offense again seems like a dangerous proposition. If the pitching falters a bit or someone goes down with an injury, the entire season could go down in flames. The big question is whether or not the offense can start doing its share of the work in 2005. The answer, I think, is that it can, because Minnesota’s offense was dragged down by some truly awful individual performances last season.

Backup Henry Blanco was forced to step into the lineup on a regular basis when Joe Mauer went down with his knee injury, and ended up with an absolutely putrid hitting line of .206/.260/.368. Among major-league hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, Blanco ranked dead last in batting average and on-base percentage, while somehow managing to rank “only” seventh-worst in OPS. Cristian Guzman‘s .693 OPS ranked sixth-worst among hitters with at least 600 trips to the plate, and to help make up for a shortstop who couldn’t hit, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz provided the Twins with shortstop-like production (.246/.340/.363) at first base for 78 games.

While not on the same level as what Blanco, Guzman, and Mientkiewicz did, Jacque Jones set career-lows in batting average (.254), on-base percentage (.315), and OPS (742), while eating up 439 outs in 608 plate appearances. Utility bat Matthew LeCroy provided his worst slugging percentage (.424) and OPS (.745) since he was a rookie in 2000. And last but certainly not least, everyone’s favorite underachieving second baseman, Luis Rivas, provided his yearly collection of dreck at the plate, hitting .256/.283/.432 while eating up 267 outs in 358 plate appearances.

2. So what you’re saying is that there is some room for improvement?

Blanco, Guzman, and Mientkiewicz are gone, taking their collective .249/.301/.374 performance with them, and perhaps most encouragingly they have been replaced with players who figure to provide quite a bit more offensive firepower. In fact, a reasonable case could perhaps be made that the Twins should expect more offense from the majority of the spots in the lineup this season. Take a look at their position-by-position production last season:

        AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     MAIN STARTERS (GS)
 C     .235     .285     .396     .681     Blanco (95), Mauer (29), LeCroy (16)
1B     .255     .331     .414     .745     Mientkiewicz (73), Morneau (61), LeCroy (20)
2B     .257     .308     .425     .733     Rivas (95), Cuddyer (40), Punto (11)
SS     .271     .310     .378     .688     Guzman (143), Punto (10), Ojeda (5)
3B     .261     .346     .485     .831     Koskie (112), Cuddyer (36), Tiffee (11)
LF     .281     .363     .437     .800     Ford (77), Stewart (71), Restovich (5)
CF     .296     .355     .498     .853     Hunter (124), Ford (35), Punto (1)
RF     .258     .320     .411     .731     Jones (138), Ford (9), Cuddyer (5)
DH     .278     .357     .429     .786     Offerman (38), LeCroy (30), Ford (26)

The Twins ranked tenth or worse in OPS among the 14 AL teams at catcher, first base, shortstop, and right field. The only position they ranked in the top five in the league at is center field, where Minnesota’s combined .853 OPS at the position led the league. The production there will be tough to match this year, thanks to Torii Hunter having a typical season and Lew Ford batting .348/.419/.536 in 35 starts subbing for him. Aside from that though, I don’t see another spot in the lineup where the team can’t improve, or at the very least retain their 2004 production. And they have several spots where I think massive improvement can reasonably be expected.

The first of those spots in catcher, where the team’s horrible .235/.285/.396 overall performance is made even worse by the fact that non-Mauer catchers combined for an absolutely miserable .214/.259/.349 line. If Mauer can stay even somewhat healthy and play semi-regularly behind the plate, he and his main backup, Mike Redmond, should have no problem blowing past last year’s catching numbers. The best-case scenario is that Mauer can start 90-100 games behind the plate, Redmond can match his .284/.348/.362 career line backing him up, and the Twins can improve by several dozen runs at the position.

Similarly, it will be almost impossible for Justin Morneau to avoid besting the team’s 2004 numbers at first base in his first full season. Morneau took over for Mientkiewicz in the middle of last year and, thanks to hitting .252/.327/.496 in his time at first base, managed to bring the position’s numbers a little closer to respectability. Still, Morneau has hit .259/.329/.492 in 114 career games, including .271/.340/.536 last season, either of which would be significant improvements over the .255/.331/.414 the Twins got from their first basemen last year.

While an unproven rookie, Jason Bartlett is a good bet to better the .271/.310/.378 line Guzman and the rest of the shortstops put up in 2004. Bartlett hit .331/.415/.472 at Triple-A last season, .296/.380/.425 at Double-A in 2003, and led the team with a .385 batting average this spring. If Jones can get back to his career norms (.291/.332/.365 before last season, .284/.329/.458 overall), right field is another spot where the team can reasonably expect much better production. As is designated hitter, where the Twins got a mediocre .786 OPS last year. This season, Ford (.302/.383/.461 career) is expected to get the bulk of the playing time there, with Mauer potentially starting at DH when he isn’t behind the plate.

Last year’s numbers in left field (.281/.363/.437) are below Shannon Stewart’s career numbers (.303/.370/.448), so even a slight dropoff would give the Twins similar production (barring Stewart suffering another injury, of course). The numbers at second base last year (.257/.308/.425) are essentially Rivas’ 2002-2004 stats (.257/.300/.399) minus a little power, so that is another place where the Twins should be able to expect similar offense. That leaves third base, where Michael Cuddyer will try to match the solid .261/.346/.485 line he and Corey Koskie combined for last season. I wouldn’t expect Cuddyer to top those numbers, but he is certainly capable of coming close to duplicating them.

Add it all up and (assuming a relatively healthy season) I think the Twins can expect significant offensive improvements at catcher, first base, shortstop, right field, and designated hitter, similar production at second base, third base, and left field, and a significant dropoff in performance in center field. Together, that should all be enough to at least bring Minnesota back to the middle of the AL pack offensively (say 800-825 runs or so), which would give the pitching staff a little more room for error this season.

3. Since you brought it up, how does the pitching staff look?

I would be nothing but a complete and useless homer if I was so optimistic about the lineup improving after a horrible season at the plate without being similarly pessimistic about the pitching staff maintaining its performance after a great year on the mound. So yeah, I definitely wouldn’t bet on the Twins repeating as AL ERA champs. As great as Johan Santana is (and as the driver of his bandwagon from way back, let me be the first to tell you that he is pretty damn great), expecting any pitcher to go 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA in a given year is foolish. Similarly, Brad Radke may have had the best season of his 10-year career in 2004, with a career-best 3.48 ERA that ranked fourth in the league.

In addition, taking the “over” on Carlos Silva following up on his 4.21 ERA from last year would be smart, although I don’t think Silva is nearly the candidate for a collapse that many do. It is not meant as knock against him specifically, but Joe Nathan will have a tough time posting an ERA better than 1.62 in more than 72.1 innings, and he’ll probably blow more than three saves if given another 47 chances. Juan Rincon was about as dominant as possible last year, striking out 106 batters in 82 innings while holding opponents to a .181 batting average, and like with Santana those numbers just aren’t what you can reasonably expect in a given year from any pitcher.

With that said, there is enough potential for improvement in certain areas to keep the pitching staff from collectively giving back all the runs (and then some) the lineup figures to add. First, the back end of Minnesota’s rotation figures to improve. After combining to go 27-19 with a 4.43 ERA in 2002-03, Kyle Lohse fell apart last season, going 9-13 with a 5.34 ERA in 194 innings. He figures to either improve quite a bit in his age-26 season or be replaced by someone who can, namely pitching prospects Scott Baker or J.D. Durbin. Minnesota fifth starters (mostly Terry Mulholland and Seth Greisinger) combined to 6-11 with a 5.41 ERA in 27 starts last year, numbers that Joe Mays should be able to top if he’s even relatively healthy (and that’s coming from someone who has always been highly skeptical of Mays).

The bullpen, which was perhaps the team’s biggest strength last year, has the potential to be even better this season. The core of Nathan, Rincon, and J.C. Romero returns, completely healthy, and late-season stud Jesse Crain will be around for the whole year. If Grant Balfour can ever get healthy (he starts the season on the disabled list), he would give the Twins five legitimately dominant late-inning relievers, all of whom throw hard and rack up plenty of strikeouts. There aren’t many teams that can claim that, which is a big part of why I think the Twins can keep their runs allowed in the low 700s again this season.

4. Is there any hope for Luis Rivas?

This is a repeat question from last year’s Twins preview, which probably tells you all you need to know about what sort of season Rivas had in 2004. Last year at this time, two of the main tenets of my Twins preview were that Santana had the potential to be an amazing starting pitcher and Rivas had less potential, in general, than most people thought. It’s safe to say that the baseball world was sufficiently schooled on Santana’s amazing abilities during his first full season in the starting rotation, so my job there is done. As for Rivas … well, he’s still around (and making $1.625 million this year), so clearly I need to step up my efforts.

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Inevitably, when I go into my usual Rivas diatribe among fellow Twins fans, someone brings up the fact that he’s “still just 25 years old.” When I complained about him last year, the same people brought up the fact that he was “still just 24 years old.” Two years ago, it was that he was “still just 23 years old.” You get the picture. One day, when Rivas is setting the franchise record for games played in his 20th season as the Twins’ starting second baseman, I full expect to hear someone say, “You know, he’s still not even 40 years old yet!” By that point I should be so beaten down that I will just nod my head and continue staring blankly at the wall.

I am a big believer in age relative to the level of competition being a crucial factor in trying to determine a player’s potential, but the problem is that regardless of how young a player is, how much experience he has at a young age, or how quickly he was rushed to the majors, the player in question has to eventually start performing like someone with a bright future. Yes, Rivas already has over 500 career games in the big leagues under his belt. And yes, he is still one of the younger starting second basemen in baseball. But the fact is that he has yet to produce anywhere, at any time, whether in the minors or the majors. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. Back in 2000, when he was 20 years old, Rivas had 157 good at-bats at Triple-A. If you take those 41 games out of his career record, it looks like this:

LEVEL            G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
Rookie          53     .259     .318     .343     .661     .228
Single-A       253     .257     .299     .345     .644     .221
Double-A       214     .253     .317     .380     .697     .238
Majors         506     .262     .307     .388     .695     .235

Those are just awful numbers. Low batting averages, almost no plate discipline, and very little power. The interesting thing is that Rivas has actually become the player his minor-league stats suggested he would become, which is to say not a very good one. I don’t understand how anyone can look at those performances, spread across four different levels and consisting of over 1,000 games, and choose to look past them simply because Rivas is still relatively young. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, his paltry major-league numbers aren’t being dragged down by a bad first season that is hiding gradual improvements. No, Rivas has been consistently awful ever since he was given the starting job in 2001.

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA     IsoD     IsoP
2001     .266     .319     .362     .682     .234     .053     .096
2002     .256     .305     .392     .697     .235     .049     .136
2003     .259     .308     .381     .689     .234     .049     .122
2004     .256     .283     .432     .715     .235     .027     .176

The shape of Rivas’ miserable hitting has changed over the years, but the size has remained remarkably consistent. Last year, for instance, he flashed more power than he has in the past, but his plate discipline dropped to an all-time low and he posted his worst on-base percentage yet. His yearly Gross Production Averages — which measure overall offense by weighing on-base percentage and slugging percentage differently — have been .234, .235, .234, and .235. Over that same span, the average major-league second baseman has had GPAs of .253, .247, .251, and .254. In other words, Rivas has been between 5% and 8% away from simply being an average offensive player at the position.

Okay, I know what you’re saying … but he’s still so young! Fine. Let’s tackle this from another angle. Rivas has 1,908 career plate appearances through his age-24 season, making him one of just 30 second basemen in major-league history with at least 1,750 plate appearances through the age of 24. There are some very impressive names on the list, like Roberto Alomar, Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Doerr, Willie Randolph, Eddie Collins, Nellie Fox, Lou Whitaker, Joe Morgan, and even former Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. Basically, simply by playing so much at such a young age, Rivas finds himself in some great company, and thus his future potential might look promising. But this is simply another example of looking at age while completely ignoring actual performance.

According to Lee Sinins‘ Runs Created Above Position (RCAP), Rivas has been 39 runs worse offensively than a league-average second baseman during those 1,908 trips to the plate. Of the 29 other second basemen with more than 1,750 plate appearances through age 24, just six were also worse than a league-average player at the position offensively. Those names aren’t quite so promising: Lou Bierbauer, Steve Sax, Glenn Hubbard, Jimmy Bloodworth, Bert Myers, and Jerry Remy. Basically, the best-case scenario from that list gives Rivas a chance at becoming Steve Sax or a beloved New England announcer.

As for all of those great second basemen who played a lot through age 24 … well, unlike Rivas they actually played well at some point along the way. Morgan, for example, was worth 123 runs above league-average through the age of 24, giving him a 162-run edge over Rivas. Collins was even better, at +170 RCAP, a 209-run advantage over Rivas. Alomar was +83 RCAP, Randolph was +66, Doerr was +43. Even Fox, Whitaker, Mazeroski, and Knoblauch were 47, 51, 55, and 59 runs better than Rivas through the same age. In fact, only four second basemen in the history of the sport have had a worse RCAP total than Rivas through age 24: Jiggs Parrott (-63), Hal Lanier (-57), Bloodworth (-53), and Hobe Ferris (-44).

To recap: Rivas has never, in his entire professional career, had a good offensive performance for any extended period of time. He has not improved since being handed a starting job in 2001, despite holding the job each season while aging from 21 to 24. And only four second basemen in major league history have ever been as bad offensively through the same age. Just like I said last year, if you want to join along with many optimistic Twins fans in thinking that because the Twins have foolishly decided to give Rivas tons of playing time at such a young age he is comparable to Joe Morgan or Roberto Alomar, you go right ahead. Until he proves otherwise (and I’ve been waiting now for about four years), I will continue to see him as the next Jimmy Bloodworth, Hal Lanier or Jerry Remy.

5. Okay, I’m sufficiently depressed. Can you get back to the good stuff?

Sure. This year’s team, more than any of the Twins teams from the past four years (since Minnesota started winning again in 2001), has a chance to be a truly elite ball club, rather than just a good team that is fortunate to play in a weak division. If Mauer stays healthy and at catcher, Morneau develops into the team’s first real slugger since Kent Hrbek or maybe even Harmon Killebrew, and Santana has another Cy Young season, the Twins could blow the rest of the division out of the water. They have a strong front end of the rotation, a deep, powerful bullpen, a lineup that has the potential to be strong in the first eight spots, and three MVP-caliber players leading the way (they’ve rarely had even one over the last decade).

If some things don’t go their way — if Mauer’s knee starts acting up, Santana is merely good and not great, or Morneau struggles in his first full season — the Twins will find themselves back in the dogfight in a division where as few as 88 wins will likely get the job done once again. Either way, the Twins enter the season as the favorites in the AL Central, because while Cleveland and Detroit are stronger and Chicago is still a threat, Minnesota did win the division by nine games over the White Sox last season (and 12 and 20 games over the Indians and Tigers, respectively). For the first time in a long time there seems to be that extra little buzz surrounding the team. Like everyone in Minnesota senses that this could be a very special year if everything breaks right.

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