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Springtime Storylines: Can the Twins win a third straight AL Central title?

Mar 22, 2011, 3:15 PM EST

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: My beloved Twins.

The Big Question: Can the Twins win a third straight AL Central title?

Winning 90-something games and then losing key players to free agency or trades is certainly nothing new for the Twins and Ron Gardenhire’s six division titles in nine seasons as manager shows how well they’ve dealt with the annual departures, but this year’s winter exodus coming off a 94-win campaign might be Minnesota’s most challenging yet.

Free agent relievers Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, and Ron Mahay all signed elsewhere after combining for a 3.03 ERA in 53 percent of the bullpen’s innings, with the Twins counting on Joe Nathan‘s return from Tommy John elbow surgery to stabilize things alongside Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. Gone too is the middle infield duo of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson (plus their primary backup Nick Punto), as Gardenhire hands the infield keys to enigmatic ex-prospect Alexi Casilla and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Anyone confident about what to expect from the new double-play duo is lying.

Amid all those changes Justin Morneau‘s health remains the biggest question mark, but after nine months on the sidelines he finally appears recovered from last year’s concussion and is back in the lineup that ranked fifth among AL teams in scoring despite being without the cleanup-hitting former MVP for half the schedule. With a healthy Morneau joining Joe Mauer, Jim Thome, and Delmon Young the Twins will score plenty of runs, but the defense will be worse than they’re used to unless Nishioka proves to be an elite gloveman and that’s a recipe for trouble with a rotation full of Francisco Liriano and four guys who won’t blow anyone away.

As is the case nearly every season the Twins look like a 90-win team in a division where that usually equals a title, but the offseason changes, spotty depth, and some big moves from the White Sox and Tigers leaves less margin for error than usual in Minnesota.

So what else is going on?

  • Liriano’s secondary numbers last season showed him as one of elite handful of starters in all of baseball, but no pitcher had the defense behind him convert a lower percentage of balls in play into outs and so his 14-10 record and 3.62 ERA leave many Twins fans unconvinced that he’s truly reached ace status. He could pitch exactly like he did last season and win a half-dozen more games with an ERA a run lower, but as usual with Liriano his health will be just as key as his fastball-slider combo.
  • Mauer’s lack of durability is often overstated by those unfamiliar with typical catcher workloads, as he’s one of just four backstops to top 800 games since 2005. However, he’s coming off December knee surgery and the Twins have essentially zero catching depth behind him, so an extended absence would put Drew Butera and his MLB-worst bat in the lineup.
  • Nishioka won the batting title in Japan last season with a .346 mark, but his track record combined with the performances of previous Japanese hitters coming to MLB suggests his offense will resemble Hudson or Jason Bartlett in the No. 2 spot in front of Mauer and Morneau.
  • Minnesota is so deep in mid-rotation starters that Kevin Slowey will begin the season in the bullpen despite a 39-21 record and 4.41 ERA for his career and the rotation is only going to get more crowded when No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson is ready for a call-up around the All-Star break.
  • Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel are each coming off disappointing years in the outfield, but Span’s ball-in-play numbers suggest he was quite unlucky and both Cuddyer and Kubel are impending free agents playing for their next contracts. On the other hand, Danny Valencia‘s track record suggests he’s unlikely to be as great as he looked as a rookie.
  • I’m worried about the rebuilt bullpen, but Twins relievers have ranked among the AL’s top six in ERA for each of Gardenhire’s nine seasons and Nathan’s pre-surgery dominance is probably being overlooked somewhat. During his first six seasons as Twins closer he led all of baseball (yes, even Mariano Rivera) in ERA (1.87) and saves (246). Even at 90 percent of his former self Nathan’s return would be huge.
  • I have no idea how to explain it and even less idea how to fix it, but it must be noted: Minnesota has lost 12 consecutive playoff games, including three straight first-round sweeps, and the Twins are 6-21 overall in the postseason under Gardenhire.

So how are they gonna do?

Various question marks keep me from viewing the Twins as clear-cut favorites in the AL Central, but I expect the division to be a three-team race for 92 wins and at worst Minnesota should enter the year as co-favorites.

  1. steveflack - Mar 22, 2011 at 3:42 PM

    Hopefully they will, because it just wouldn’t be October baseball without the Yankees beating the Twins.

    • frankvzappa - Mar 22, 2011 at 6:19 PM

      if the Twins make it, they will be playing the Blue Jays, so i wouldnt get your hopes up…

      • Ari Collins - Mar 23, 2011 at 12:11 AM

        Pot, meet kettle. Kettle, pot. I think you two will find you have a lot in common!

  2. minnesconsin - Mar 22, 2011 at 3:46 PM

    I think you’re right on w/ most of this, Aaron, but one sentence troubles me: “On the other hand, Danny Valencia‘s track record suggests he’s unlikely to be as great as he looked as a rookie.”

    Coming off an impressive rookie campaign, how does Valencia’s track record suggest he’ll be anything other than solid? His minor league stats aren’t phenomenal, but it seems odd to say in the same breath that Nishioka’s stats in Japan won’t translate to similar MLB production, but that Danny Valencia’s minor league stats are somehow a more accurate measure of his potential than last year’s rookie stats.

    • nick5253 - Mar 22, 2011 at 3:55 PM

      Danny Valencia was not solid last year, he was fantastic. His minor league track record would suggest he’d end up being an average to slightly above average MLB 3B. So, I think AG hit the nail on the head here – he’ll still be a good, solid, everyday MLB 3B, but not as great as he was last year. Last year his slash line was 0.311 / 0.351 / 0.448. I would venture to guess this year’s will be more like 0.290 / 0.335 / 0.440.

    • billtpa - Mar 22, 2011 at 4:07 PM

      It shouldn’t be controversial that Danny Valencia’s minor league stats are a more accurate measure of his potential than last year’s rookie stats. That’s just obviously true. Any player can get hot for around half a season (or more accurately, any player can have a great half-month, as Valencia’s unbelievable July is almost solely responsible for his impressive overall numbers). On the other hand, he’s had more than six times as much experience in the minors, and I’d have to disagree with nick5253–those numbers don’t come close to suggesting that he might be an average big-league 3B. He very well might be, but the projections one might draw from his minor league numbers suggest something less than even that.

    • minnesconsin - Mar 22, 2011 at 4:17 PM

      i would call last year “very good,” but probably not fantastic. To the contrary of what you guys are saying, I expect Valencia to continue to improve. Maybe that makes me naive, maybe I’ll be right on.

      That said, after reading Gleeman’s blurb about Nishi and looking at his Japanese stats more carefully, I see how stupid my original comment was. Hey, at least I admit it :)

      • Ari Collins - Mar 23, 2011 at 12:13 AM

        You… you admitted you might’ve been wrong? You do realize this is THE INTERNET, right?

  3. florida76 - Mar 22, 2011 at 4:25 PM

    Winning the AL Central is a nice achievement, but nothing more than that. Despite having a solid organization, this franchise has been left wanting when it counts most.

    With the increased payroll and new stadium from last year, the stakes have been officially raised for the Twins. In Minnesota, a growing number of fans are concerned this team is content with making the playoffs. Since 1991, the Twins have been a playoff disaster, and now the fans are expecting a pennant at least with the increased resources. Unfortunately, the virtually unlimited resources of teams like the Yanks and Red Sox will continue to make that goal extremely difficult.

    • minnesconsin - Mar 22, 2011 at 4:38 PM

      I don’t think it has anything to do w/ the resources that the Yankees and Sox have. The Yankees’ $200M+ payroll couldn’t get them past the Rangers ($55M 2010 payroll) last year. Boston’s $160M+ payroll couldn’t get them into the playoffs at all.

      Meanwhile, the Giants had a payroll within a few hundred thousand of Minnesota’s last year, and they won the Series.

      I love the Twins, and I hope they do well. But they have problems and it’s a cop-out to chalk them up to financial inequities. We’re talking about a team who just extended a manager with a 6-21 post-season record.

  4. atribecalledtwolves - Mar 22, 2011 at 6:29 PM

    As a Twins fan, I sure hope so. I really like our chances, but the White Sox and Tigers will be pretty good teams.

    I’m worried about the bullpen, but I think Gardy and Rick Anderson are very good at giving the relievers the best chance to be successful (favorable match-ups, don’t require a lot of outs).

    I think the offense will be on the upswing. A lot of guys had down years and Morneau missing the stretch didn’t help our power numbers. I think Valencia, Kubel, Cuddyer, Mauer and Span are all capable of having better years. I think the hitters will get used to hitting at Target Field this season (not the best reason, just a unproven theory).

    The rotation has depth, but will it have results?

    I think the addition of speed in the line-up and increased power, along with the addition of Gibson will lead to 92-96 wins.

  5. cjvirnig - Mar 23, 2011 at 3:48 AM

    I don’t think there’s any reason to believe defense won’t continue to be a huge strength for the Twins. Before I elaborate on that, there is absolutely no denying that the Twins defense in 2011, even if it’s not quite as good as it was last year, will be noticeably better than either the Tigers or White Sox.

    My contention is that I don’t see any reason why it can’t be as good as it was in 2010. Tsuyoshi Nishioka probably won’t be the next Ichiro Suzuki. As Aaron suggests, his offensive numbers may indeed come to parallel those of former Twin Jason Bartlett. But where is this skepticism of his defense coming from? I’ve seen a handful of Twins spring training games and I’ve seen Nishioka make very good plays in every one of them. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that Nishioka’s glove is not only superior to that of either JJ Hardy or Orlando Hudson, but quite a bit better.

    O-Dawg was one of those players who would make a dazzling defensive play one inning and then boot a routine grounder the next inning. He did that time and time again last year. Hardy, too, was capable of making Web Gem plays in the hole, while also being capable of screwing up easy double plays (which he did several times last year).

    In short, if we’re skeptical of anyone on the Twins infield, it should be Alexi Casilla, not Nishioka. Casilla, in his handful of stints as a Twins starter, has shown to be a gifted but often times lazy infielder. From a defensive standpoint, he sort of reminds me of Luis Rivas in that there are many instances where Casilla just doesn’t seem to give it 100%. Also like Rivas, he doesn’t seem to CARE that he’s not giving it 100%. That will need to change if he’s going to last the whole year on a Ron Gardenhire team.

    The only other major defensive question mark is obviously left field. Span in center is superb and Cuddyer’s cannon arm in right usually makes up for his lack of overall speed. But Delmon Young and/or Jason Kubel leaves us wanting. If Delmon can replicate his numbers from 2010, I think most Twins fans will be more than willing to overlook his defensive awkwardness (for lack of a better term). Kubel, as Aaron mentioned, is playing for his next contract, so hopefully he’ll have a little more pep in his step.

    In all, middle relief is the biggest question mark for the Twins. Personally, I’m not worried at all offensively or defensively.

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