We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

With spring training opening this week, we’ve had almost four months to dissect literally every aspect of the Twins roster as they head in to the new season. You would think we should all pretty much have it all figured out now, wouldn’t you?

Then again, it’s educational, entertaining, and more than a little bit humbling, to go back in to the archives and take a peek at what the Twins’ perceived strengths and weaknesses have been as pitchers and catchers reported to spring trainings past and compare those to what actually happened.

Glen Perkins, Spring Training 2009 rotation lock (Photo: Jim Crikket)

Two Years Ago

How well do you remember the winter leading up to the 2009 season? Our guys had wrapped up 2008 with a heartbreaking Game 163 loss to the White Sox, despite a gallant pitching effort in that game by Nick Blackburn. In fact, the Twins rotation had finished the season strongly enough that if there was one area part of the roster that seemed set heading in to 2009, it was the rotation. All five members of the Twins’ young rotation (Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey) were returning. Four of them (all but Liriano) had won 10 or more games the previous season and the future looked bright.

The Twins finally seemed to have someone they could plant at 3B with the newly acquired Joe Crede, leaving Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, Brendan Harris and a few others to mix and match in the middle infield and fill the utility role.

We thought the set-up roles in the bullpen were a bit questionable, but when the Twins brought on Luis Ayala just before camp opened up, that seemed to add the depth necessary to make most people more comfortable. After all, the team still had Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier. Jose Mijares was also coming off an impressive 2008 and was the guy a lot of people thought was set to take on the 8th inning role.

Joe Mauer had been dealing with a kidney issue, but word from the Twins’ office was that he was working his way back in to shape and expectations were that he would be ready to go by Opening Day. A lot of people weren’t so sure and, as it appeared to turn out, with good reason. Mauer missed the first month of the regular season. There was significant angst over who the catchers should be, especially with Mauer’s season in doubt.

The Twins didn’t even open the season with their rotation intact. Baker went on the Disabled List just before camp broke and RA Dickey started the season as the fifth starter. Mijares started the season at AAA Rochester and Ayala never impressed.

As July turned to August, Slowey’s season was finished due to wrist surgery and Liriano had a 4-10 record, a sore forearm, and the worst ERA in the League. The rotation, which was “set” in February, was a mess. The Twins were led down the stretch by newly acquired Carl Pavano and newly promoted Brian Duensing. Crede never seemed to be on the field and the Twins brought in Orlando Cabrera from Oakland to provide some semblance of stability in the infield. Oh… and that catcher everyone fretted about ended up turning in an MVP season that ended after a successful Game 163 and a quick exit from the playoffs.

One Year Ago

As for a year ago, everyone was relieved that Mauer was returning healthy, but there was concern with his M&M partner, Justin Morneau, who had missed the final several weeks of the 2009 season with a back injury. Everyone agreed Jim Thome’s days as a regular contributor were probably behind him but it was good to have him aboard to provide depth at DH and a pinch hitting option that wouldn’t make opposing pitchers giggle when he stepped in to the on deck circle. The arrival of JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson gave the infield the appearance of having more stability, but now third base was once more a concern with the overly-reviled Nick Punto the likely heir. Fortunately, the back of the bullpen was returning virtually intact, so at least nobody had be concerned with the late inning arms!

Joe Nathan's 2010 season was over before it started (Photo: Jim Crikket)

Oops… that lack of concern, as we now know, lasted all of one week in to March, when Joe Nathan’s season came to an abrupt end. By the time the season started, all anyone could talk about was the one thing nobody had had to talk about before camp opened… who would the Twins use as their closer? A significant number of people felt the job should go to Liriano. Maybe he wouldn’t ever be a reliable starter again, but perhaps the Twins could salvage something by turning him in to a closer. In the end, Ron Gardenhire gave the closer role to Jon Rauch and the final rotation spot to Liriano. Neither decision was met with unanimous (or even consensus) approval in the Twins blogdom.

Once again, by the time the Twins were preparing to enter the final couple of months of the regular season, they had needs that weren’t apparent in February. The perennial black hole at 3B had been filled by Danny Valencia, but the bench depth that Thome was to provide had disappeared when he was pressed in to near-everyday service following Morneau’s July concussion. The rotation once again seemed one solid arm short and the back end of the bullpen was showing signs of wear. Once again, it was Brian Duensing who provided a stabilizing force to the rotation, while Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes were brought in from outside the organization to shore up the bullpen.

Which brings us to today

As camp opens this week, the rotation seems six arms deep, led by Liriano at the top, filling the “ace” role in the minds of many (if not the Twins front office, themselves). There’s understandable concern about the health of both Mauer and Morneau, but the outfield is set. In fact, the only non-pitching spot arguably up for grabs is the utility infielder role. Most of the concerns being expressed focus on the likely performance of the new middle infield and the rebuilt bullpen.

So here’s my final pre-spring training prediction: On March 30, there will be a position causing consternation that few of us are talking about right now and by the July 30 trading deadline, we’ll be pleading for the front office to go get help to fill a role that nobody sees as a major issue today.

Today, we just don’t know what we don’t know.

But I’m sure glad that we’re all finally about to find out.

– JC