If The Season Started Today…

There have been a lot of things written and said around Twinsville lately concerning the comparative off-season activities of the Twins and their AL Central competitors. Those discussions generally are boiled down to this conclusion: “If the season started today, the Twins would be picked to finish third in their division behind the White Sox and Tigers.”

I’m not going to sit here and loudly proclaim that such an opinion is wrong, but I’m also not going to join the chorus quite yet.

Before I make my contrarian points, let’s be clear about a couple of things. First, I’m not impressed with the way the Twins have molded their 2011 roster, so far. I wanted to see a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher added and someone with better defense and speed added to the outfield (even if it meant trading someone like Jason Kubel). Obviously, the Twins were no more impressed with my suggestions than I’ve been with their moves, since they’ve done nothing whatsoever with regard to improving their rotation and have publicly stated that their plan is to bring back last season’s outfield group (though this would include Michael Cuddyer getting most of the playing time in RF, rather than Kubel).

Another thing I would make clear is that I agree that the Tigers and White Sox have been making moves that could improve those teams significantly. Picking up Victor Martinez will improve the Tigers and adding Adam Dunn should be a significant offensive upgrade for the Sox. I’m giving them less credit for their bullpen additions of Joaquin Benoit and Jesse Crain, respectively. If “closers” are significantly overvalued on the market and by many fans and analysts, then middle relievers who cash in with three-year deals for eight-figure guarantees are hitting the lottery.

In fact, it sounds like Crain is going to get his shot as a closer for the White Sox. Jesse did a very nice job for the Twins last season (after the first couple of months anyway), but is there anyone around here who’s watched Crain pitch for the past few years that would be comfortable with him as your closer? Not me. If the Sox fans dreaded seeing Bobby Jenks take the mound to protect small leads in the ninth inning, then they’re really in for some Maalox moments with Jesse. At least that’s my gut feeling. (Get it? “gut feeling”… Maalox… come on, this is my best Monday stuff here!)

So if I’m unimpressed with the Twins’ moves, so far, and I agree with the masses who think the Tigers and White Sox have improved themselves, why am I not jumping aboard the “Twins will fall behind the White Sox and Tigers” bandwagon?

Because even as currently constituted, the Twins have not merely swapped out JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson for Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla (which I do believe has a chance to reflect a more significant upgrade over the tandem they’re replacing than most others seem to believe will be the case). They’ve also added Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan to their active roster.

I don’t expect Nathan to walk in to Spring Training and immediately be the closer he was in 2009, but I do believe that he and Matt Capps comprise as solid a set-up/closer duo as any other team in the AL Central is likely to have (granted, I’m bigger on Capps’ potential  than most people are). In addition, as they tout the White Sox, I’ve read so many people talking about Chicago not only adding Dunn, but also re-signing Paul Konerko. That’s fair… but only if you ALSO mention the Twins getting their All Star 1B back, as well. Is it possible that Nathan or Morneau (or both) will fail to return to their prior levels of productivity? Of course. But I have to say I like Morneau’s chances of having a big season as much as, if not better than, Konerko’s.

But the biggest reason I’m not ready to hand over the Division to the Kittens and BitchSox is that, obviously, the Twins aren’t finished forming their roster yet. I still want more at the top of the rotation. Ideally, I’d prefer they make a deal for a Wandy Rodriguez-type, if they can find a willing trade partner. Failing that, bringing back Carl Pavano wouldn’t be a terrible idea, either. The Twins are likely to be less experienced (and thus, less reliable) with their middle inning bullpen options, so having a guy that has been pitching in to the 7th or 8th inning with some regularity wouldn’t be a bad idea.

I also still expect to see Jim Thome back on the Twins bench and, hopefully, playing the role he was intended to play last season before injuries forced him in to the regular DH spot. If it were me, I’d also try to find a spot for someone like Marcus Thames on my bench as well… though that seems unlikely since the Twins re-signed Jason Repko.

The way the chips have fallen, I also won’t be a bit surprised to see Nick Punto return at a reduced pay rate. The dangerous side to that prospect, of course, is that Ron Gardenhire may yank Nishioka or Casilla the first time one of them irritates him (which, let’s face it, isn’t likely to take long), giving him the excuse to insert Nicky in to the line-up as a regular again.

Let’s also not forget that the Tigers and White Sox aren’t necessarily finished making deals yet. While some people suspect the Tigers may still have some payroll flexibility, the White Sox seem to be in just the opposite condition. The price tags on Dunn, Konerko and Crain have already pushed their payroll above what many people speculated they would be prepared to spend. As a result, there’s still talk of them perhaps trading away someone like Edwin Jackson in a salary dump. Without Jackson and with Jake Peavy not available, at least to start the season, that Sox rotation doesn’t look nearly as formidable.

Spring Training is now less than two months away from getting started and while the Twins’ front office still has a lot of work to do before pitchers and catchers report, I think it’s premature to write off 2011 and just hand the Division Championship to the White Sox or Tigers.

In fact, I think the only thing we can safely say for sure is:

If the season started today… fans and players alike would be freezing their butts off at Target Field! –  JC

Picure: MLB/Minnesota Twins