The Twins and their consensus AL Central Division challengers, the White Sox and Tigers, are all about 25-30% of the way through their Spring Training exhibition schedules, so maybe now is a good time to sneak a quick peek at how they’re measuring up. With the caveat being, as always, that you really shouldn’t read too much in to Spring Training performances, at least we aren’t having to do all of our evaluation “on paper”, as we did all off-season.
A lot of us were pretty harsh in our evaluations of the Twins’ moves (or lack thereof), especially during the first couple of months of the off-season. The Twins lost over half of their historically reliable bullpen and both of their starting middle infielders. With only one exception, the plan clearly became to replace those vacancies either from within or with spare parts picked up from other teams’ cast-offs. That strategy could very well work, at least in the bullpen, where there are a couple of guys with pretty good track records looking to regain past levels of effectiveness.
That one exception, Japanese batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka, comes with his own set of question marks, though the biggest is not necessarily one of his own making. Nishioka is relatively young for a guy making the transition from the NBL to Major League Baseball. He’s had a successful career in Japan, though he’s had some trouble staying healthy at times. The relative lack of experience, compared to other Japanese stars who’ve made the jump to the US, makes it impossible to know just how good he really is. On the other hand, it’s pretty tough to find comparable Japanese position players who have come over and become true stars at the MLB level. There’s Ichiro and… well… nobody else, really. The result is that American fans rightfully take a “show me” attitude toward Japanese imports.
Early returns are mixed on Nishioka. Scouting reports that his arm strength made him a better match for second base than shortstop have been somewhat backed up by his performance and after just a couple of games at each position, manager Ron Gardenhire announced that Nishioka would, indeed, play second base. Alexi Casilla, who broke in to the Angels organization as a shortstop, has the stronger arm and shortstop is his position to lose, at this point. But Nishioka seems to put bat on ball pretty well and that’s going to be critical if he hits in the #2 spot in the order.
Nishioka may be the lone “big addition” to the Twins roster over the winter, but the two biggest additions to the Twins’ 25-man roster entering the season stand to be names very familiar to Twins fans… Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau. Some of us tend to forget that the Twins essentially won the AL Central last season with little contribution from two of their biggest stars. Nathan missed the entire 2010 season and Morneau missed the last half of the year. While Nathan appears to be back and ready to reclaim his closer role, Morneau has yet to be cleared to play in games. If the Twins have a healthy Morneau on the field most of the season (especially at the end, for a change) and if Nathan’s arm stays intact and he maybe gets a little help from Pat Neshek, who’s also hoping to return to past levels of effectiveness, there’s no reason the Twins shouldn’t be considered the favorite to defend their Division Championship.
The Indians and Royals should be interesting to watch this season. Both have some very highly regarded young players, though it’s too early to know for sure how much time those prospects will see at the Major League level in 2011. In any event, it would surprise just about everyone if either of those teams was in contention for the AL Central title in September. But the White Sox and Tigers almost certainly will be.
A year ago, it seemed like everyone was handing the Division to the White Sox, on the strength of their starting rotation. The Sox’ brain trust (yeah, I know, referring to Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen as a brain trust is downright giggle-inducing) apparently felt their pitching was so good that they could and should dump Jim Thome from his DH spot and replace him with Mark Teahan… no, seriously, that’s what they thought! I don’t believe even the Sox fan base was surprised when they turned out to be wrong.
This year, the Whities have tweaked the pitching staff a bit, including signing away Jesse Crain from the Twins, but their biggest addition (both figuratively and literally) is 6’6” hitting machine, Adam Dunn. Dunn sees himself as a complete player, capable of playing defense as well as hitting, and hoped to stay in the National League, where he’s played his entire career. But he got only a token offer from the Nationals, while several AL teams made significantly higher offers, virtually all of which came with the catch that he’d primarily be a DH. Dunn may be reluctant to embrace that role, but make no mistake, he will excel at it. In his last six seasons, Dunn has hit 40, 40, 40, 40, 38 and 38 home runs. Hmmm… I wonder how many he’s likely to hit for the White Sox, especially in that Little League ballpark they have on the South Side.
The White Sox definitely should be better this year, but the Twins still have one thing going for them… that “brain trust” (giggle) can probably be counted on to screw things up somehow.
Speaking of screwing things up, I’m not sure whether Vegas let’s you bet on who will lead the Divisions at the mid-point of the season, but if they do, you can pretty safely put your money on the Detroit Tigers. Absolutely nobody will be shocked if the Tigers come out of the gate strong and lead the Twins and White Sox in to July. Likewise, absolutely nobody will be shocked if they go 10-20 in August and fade away in September.
How and why they do it is always a mystery. Maybe their pitching will fade, maybe a star player will need to detox. Every season we get to watch a new drama unfold in Detroit.
Again, make no mistake, the Tigers made some moves that look to improve themselves. Victor Martinez will make hitters around him better and Joaquin Benoit should improve their bullpen. I’m just not sure it will be enough to keep the Tigers in contention all year. Benoit can’t do it all himself and the rest of the Tigers bullpen isn’t terribly scary. Joel Zumaya throws serious heat, but the only thing he’s reliable at is getting hurt at some point. In fact, he’s already had the predictable “setback” in his recovery from elbow surgery. And let’s face it, Miguel Cabrera is a time bomb waiting to go off on that organization and, from all appearances, Tiger management’s plan to deal with his drinking problem consists of sticking their heads in the sand. Good luck with that.
So far this spring, the Tigers’ rotation is looking pretty good. Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are all throwing strikes and getting outs. The guy to watch the rest of the spring, though, might be former Yankee Phil Coke. He’s looked pretty good over his first three starts and if he carries that performance in to the season, he could make an already strong rotation a very, very good rotation. On the offensive side, things aren’t so rosy yet. The three big bats in the middle of the Tiger order, Martinez, Cabrera and Ordonez, have accumulated OPS’s of .566, .334 and .286, respectively. Yes… those are the SUMS of their on-base percentages and slugging percentages. Ouch. Then again, small sample size. One of the games I’m planning on attending down in Florida in a couple of weeks is a Twins/Tigers matchup in Lakeland. I’m anxious to get a look at this year’s edition of the Tigers as we get deeper in to the exhibition season.
Over in Arizona, the White Sox are not having fun (at least not during the games). They’re 1-6, heading in to this week, and much of the blame for that lies with their vaunted rotation. While Peavy, Danks and Jackson got through their first starts without incident, Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd got beat around pretty good. Mr. Crain hasn’t looked too good yet, either, by the way. Dunn hasn’t gotten untracked either yet and, in fact, their only regular with a respectable showing with the bat so far is Juan Pierre, who’s OPS is north of .900. Alex Rios has the only HR for the White Sox in their first seven games.
To wrap things up on a positive note, I thought I would share this video from Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, evaluating the Twins prospects for defending their Division Championship. – JC
P.S. I did a guest spot on Seth Stohs (Sethspeaks.net) Sunday night podcast and you can click here to listen to the half hour program, during which Seth and I touched on a number of Twins topics. I’m also scheduled to appear with John Bonnes (TwinsGeek) on Fanatic Jack’s podcast at 9:00 this Wednesday night. – JC