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Springtime Storylines: Can the Minnesota Twins get back on track after 99 losses?

Apr 3, 2012, 2:50 PM EDT

Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Can the Minnesota Twins get back on track after 99 losses?

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Twins last season, as a decade of consistently contending came to a screeching halt with 99 losses in arguably the worst year in team history.

Nearly the entire roster was wrecked by injuries, including former MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau combining to play just 151 games as the Twins led baseball with 28 disabled list stints. Even worse, the uncharacteristically weak farm system failed to provide capable reinforcements for all the injured regulars and Ron Gardenhire’s team completely fell apart down the stretch, going 13-41 in August and September.

General manager Bill Smith was fired shortly after the season, with Terry Ryan stepping back into the GM role after his surprising retirement in 2007 led to Smith getting the job. Rather than blowing the team up as Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Joe Nathan departed as free agents Ryan patched some holes with veterans Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Ryan Doumit, and Jason Marquis, overpaid to re-sign closer Matt Capps, and basically put his faith in the roster’s improved health leading to a significant turnaround.

They can’t possibly have as many injuries as last season, so improving on the 63-99 record should be easy, but by refusing to add any veteran relief help to what was the majors’ worst bullpen and continuing to lack top-of-the-rotation starters with bat-missing ability the Twins have put themselves in position to be much better without actually being good. If everything breaks right finishing above .500 is certainly possible and that would definitely be an accomplishment, but this is a team built more to simply avoid being terrible than to actually threaten the Tigers down the stretch.

What else is going on?

  • Mauer has a clean bill of health and played very well all spring, catching regularly and hitting .358 in 15 games. For now the plan is for him to be the primary catcher while also seeing some action at first base, but another injury could lead to him moving out from behind the plate with Doumit taking over.
  • Morneau got off to a terrible start early in camp, but turned things around in a big way during the past couple weeks while showing glimpses of his pre-concussion power for the first time since mid-2010. He’s also returning from four different surgeries, so Morneau is hardly out of the woods yet, but he’s finally shown some reason for optimism and the Twins hope moving to designated hitter will help keep the concussion symptoms away.
  • Francisco Liriano‘s spring performance has been excellent, with a 2.33 ERA and 33/5 K/BB ratio in 27 innings creating hope that he can be the often-dominant guy from 2010 instead of the often-infuriating guy from 2011. Liriano is also an impending free agent, so a strong, healthy season could mean $75 million or more for the 28-year-old left-hander and unfortunately for the Twins the better he pitches the less likely he is to remain in Minnesota beyond 2012.
  • Liriano is joined in impending free agency by Opening Day starter Carl Pavano, Doumit, Marquis, and possibly Capps and Scott Baker, so if the Twins fall out of contention early they could be major players at the trade deadline. Of course, if most of those players are performing well enough to draw major trade interest odds are the Twins will be playing reasonably well, so it’ll be interesting to see if Ryan is more willing to swap soon-to-be free agents for prospects than Smith was in his final months at the helm.
  • Minnesota’s lineup is deep and filled with good on-base skills assuming Mauer and Morneau are healthy, so offense should be the team’s strength. On the other hand that isn’t necessarily saying much and the outfield and infield defense both look like obvious weaknesses behind a pitch-to-contact staff that needs all the help it can get.
  • I’ve resisted the urge to make this a 3,000-word preview because it seems unlikely that many HBT faithful would be interested, but if reading thousands and thousands of words about the Twins actually sounds good to you check out my personal blog, where I’ve been writing way too much about the Twins nearly every day for the past decade.

How are they gonna do?

Las Vegas pegs the over/under for Twins victories at around 73, which is higher than only the Astros and Orioles. As low as that sounds it would be a 10-win improvement from 2011, which is huge under normal circumstances, but even without being particularly optimistic about the Twins this season I’m pretty confident in their ability to win at least 75 games and wouldn’t be shocked to see the nearly 20-game improvement needed for a .500 record.

  1. yankeesfanlen - Apr 3, 2012 at 2:59 PM

    How could a team go wrong with Carl Pavano?
    Seriously, it’s good to see the M & M Boys back.

    • sknut - Apr 3, 2012 at 4:10 PM

      In all honestly Pavano has been a solid contributor and turned into a bit of a team leader, I suppose the lack of expectations and the smaller market can do that to a guy.

  2. AK47 - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    I think the AL Central could be a pretty interesting division this year. Everyone (especially Twins fans) understandably has a bad taste in their mouth after last year’s 99-loss season, but the Twins have a lot of things going for them – just having Mauer and Morneau “back” is huge and if Liriano can pitch like he did in 2010, there’s no reason to think this team can’t get back to it’s winning ways. I think the White Sox will be a lot better than people think this year and obviously the Detroit Tigers are going to be pretty good – I think it could be a three-way race down the stretch come August and September.

    • kopy - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:26 PM

      If it is a three-way race, I would tend to think the Indians would be one of the teams. The Twins will need health across the board and breakout performances from several pitchers in order to sniff the postseason. A .500 record will be a great achievement. 85-90 wins would be a small miracle.

      • juicebox129 - Apr 3, 2012 at 4:49 PM

        This division could be very competitive if the Tigers faulter. With a long season like this you never know what could happen (Minesota’s injuries last year). That being said the Twins in recent years have done a lot more with a lot less overall talent, especially in the early 2000’s. Terry Ryan being back could get them a couple extra wins as well. However, for them to have any chance they will need the core players to stay healthy. Morneau being moved to DH and Parmelee at first will be something to watch also.

  3. spudatx - Apr 3, 2012 at 4:09 PM

    The team has changed quite a bit from 2011. Parting ways with Thome, Delmon, Cuddyer, Nathan, and Kubel, finally giving up on Kevin Slowey and Matt Tolbert, and sending Butera and Nishioka to the minors means the team will have a much different look this year over what they had in 2011. With M&M healthy, it gives hope that even a .500 miracle season could be a possibility for Gardy’s group.

  4. WhenMattStairsIsKing - Apr 3, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    How was it arguably their worst? Was it their biggest losing percentage of all time or not? Plain and simple.

    • kopy - Apr 3, 2012 at 5:23 PM

      Well the 1982 Twins went 60-102, but their pythagorean record for that year was 65-97 based on runs scored/allowed. The 2011 Twins were 63-99 with a pythagorean record of 62-100. Most people will decisively pick one or the other, but it is possible to argue over indefinitely.

      • WhenMattStairsIsKing - Apr 3, 2012 at 5:25 PM

        Huh. Well, thanks. I just thought actual records.

    • Cris E - Apr 3, 2012 at 5:25 PM

      I think most people would agree that having no players (and no idea where to get any) is worse than having good players that are injured. It has to do with expectations and hope. Those awful, awful Twins teams of the mid-90s after the parade of homecoming guys retired (Puckett, Winfield, Molitor, Steinbach, et al) didn’t really let you dream much. There wasn’t any way to see Alex Cole or Scott Stahoviak maturing and becoming the heart of another World Series challenger. Last year’s MIN team is much closer to contention than one without anything to rebuild around.

  5. ndnut - Apr 3, 2012 at 8:43 PM

    And yet the Royals never come up. Im a Twins fan so I expect to be better. Those of you calling it an interesting division are spot on. The normal Twins/Tigers/WhiteSocks race could come back and the Royals and the Tribe have matured over the years, giving them each a shot at a breakout year. I have no faith in the Minnesota bullpen, especially the closer. Glen Perkins did better than anyone else could last year, so I hope he takes the closer role he earned last year and tells Capps to “Get off his lawn!” That could make this year better than people expect.

  6. droopyyydog1 - Apr 3, 2012 at 9:44 PM

    I hope so or that Mauer pick in my fantasy draft isn’t going to pan out.

  7. racksie - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:30 PM

    The Liriano thing is troubling. The Twins have the option of offering him $12.5 million, and seeing if someone else is silly enough to pony up multiple years for big bucks. I see Terry Ryan making a deal with him at the deadline. Either locking him up for 3 years, or trading. I hope they trade him. Way too inconsistent.

  8. hansob - Apr 4, 2012 at 8:54 AM

    I know the Twins have some youngsters on the team, but I’m surprised to see Mauer and Morneau indulging them in games of London Bridges.

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