GameChat – Twins @ Mariners #2, 8:10pm

One Day without Ron Gardenhire, one win.  Do with that what you will.

Per La Velle E. Neal, Justin Morneau, who is still struggling with wrist, soreness has finally landed on the Disabled List.  When Morneau left the game last Monday against the Angels it seemed like a trip to the DL was inevitable. Now, after playing almost an entire week with 13 pitchers and almost no bench players, the Twins finally make the call.  The Twins probably still get no-hit last Wednesday even if someone was called up, but you never know.

Even Without Gardenhire, Scott Ullger continues the Twins tradition of putting a new player into the lineup, giving Erik Komatsu the start in right field.  Hard to blame Ullger for taking a look at Komatsu as it pushes Ryan Doumit back behind the plate and relegates Drew Butera to the bench.

Here are the lineups:

 Minnesota Twins

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Seattle Mariners
 Span, CF  Ackley, 2B
 Carroll, SS  Ryan, SS
 Mauer, DH  Suzuki, I, RF
 Willingham, LF  Montero, C
 Doumit, C  Seager, 3B
 Parmelee, 1B  Jaso, DH
 Valencia, 3B  Smoak, 1B
 Komatsu, RF  Carp, LF
 Casilla, A, 2B  Saunders, M, CF
  _Marquis, P   _Hernandez, F, P

 

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Jason Marquis pitched six innings giving up just 2 earned runs, scattering 6 walks and recording only one strike out.  In the 7th Anthony Swarzak, Matt Maloney, and Jeff Gray combined to give up 5 earned runs and the game was suddenly out of hand.

Regardless of what the pitching staff did, the real story of the night was Felix Hernandez.  He pitched 8 strong innings, struck out 9 Twins and gave up just a single Twins hit. The Twins were held scoreless again tonight and were just one Denard Span single away from being no-hit a 2nd time in a week.

Big changes to the Twins lineup are in the pipeline as Brian Dozier and Scott Diamond should be with the Twins on Monday.  Morneau will officially be moved to the DL and Liam Hendriks will most likely be option to Rochester to make room.

Twins have a chance to win the series tomorrow afternoon at 3pm, but it will take more than just one hit.

-ERolfPleiss

Two Weeks In: Who Is This Team?

I swear if there’s one thing I’ve grown more tired of than people using small sample sizes to “prove” how good or bad a player is, at this still-early point in the season, it’s people who do so while even admitting that they’re using small sample sizes. Let’s be brutally honest here, statheads, stats over a single two week period, even if it’s the first two weeks of the season, are almost completely worthless.

That’s one reason that, despite the disadvantage I have of living in blacked out Iowa, I’ve made considerable efforts to hang out in the local Cedar Rapids sports bars as often as possible this month. This allows me to actually watch the Twins, rather than just look at the box scores, to judge who’s doing well and who isn’t. Naturally, it also gives me the opportunity to purchase overpriced beer and fried food, but that’s just a sacrifice I’m willing to make for my team and our readers.

One thing about having a blog like this is that you eventually feel compelled to write something, even if almost everything you have to say has most likely been expressed elsewhere. With that said, here’s what I think about what I’ve seen of the 2012 Minnesota Twins:

I don’t know what to think.

Are they the team that might just as well have been using toothpicks for bats in their opening series sweep at the hands of the mighty Baltimore Orioles? (That’s the American League East Division LEADING Baltimore Orioles to you, Mack!) Or are they the team that took two of three games from Albert Pujols’ Angels? Or the one that got swept by Joe Nathan’s new buddies from Texas? Or the guys that have taken two out of the first three games from the Evil Empire in Yankee Stadium, no less?

It’s probably just stating the obvious, but since that’s one of the things I do best, here’s a rundown of a few things we probably have found out about this season’s edition of the Twins:

Spring Training numbers mean zip, zilch, nada, not a friggin’ thing.

  • Remember all those good vibrations we were getting in March from Francisco Liriano? Three starts in to the season and he’s the same head case he was last year. Maybe he’ll turn things around yet, but man has he looked bad after being pretty much unhittable in Ft. Myers.

    Luke Hughes, we hardly knew ye

  • For the second season in a row, Luke Hughes put up very impressive numbers in Spring Training. The same Luke Hughes who’s now been Designated for Assignment because the team needed his roster spot for Jason Marquis on Wednesday and Hughes is out of options. I suppose he COULD pass through waivers, but expectations are that some team will claim him and he’ll get a chance to join another organization’s Big League roster. Best of luck to Luke (unless he ends up with the F’ing Yankees or White Sox, of course).
  • There was a lot of hand-wringing in Spring Training over Justin Morneau with many people pretty much writing off his career. He’s attacking the ball at the plate with an intensity we haven’t seen since before his head came in to contact with a Blue Jay knee at second base almost two years ago. Three home runs in the two games he’s played at Yankee Stadium so far this week isn’t too shabby.

Josh Willingham can hit baseballs really, really well. Yes, defensively, balls hit in his direction can turn in to an adventure, but this is a fan base that’s been watching Delmon Young in LF for a couple of years… we can deal with Willingham. Especially if he keeps hitting the ball consistently. You can’t get much more consistent than starting the season with a 12 game hitting streak.

Reports of the demise of Joe Mauer and Denard Span were a tad premature. Both are still really good at baseball. Mauer still hits in to too many 4-6-3 double plays, but as is the case with Morneau, we’re seeing a version of Mauer we haven’t seen on the field in far too long. Span looks poised to reclaim his spot atop the rankings of AL lead-off center fielders.

Jamey Carroll is pretty much exactly what we thought he was… a solid shortstop that will field the balls hit near him and make good throws to first base. If the position hadn’t been such a disaster last year, that might not be big news, but I enjoy not having to hold my breath every time a ground ball gets hit that direction.

Alexi Casilla is really bad… or really good… face it, none of us have figured that out for sure ever since the Twins got him in return for JC Romero. We still don’t know, but I like the Lexi that’s been playing in Yankee Stadium this week.

The bullpen hasn’t sucked. Again, faint praise, perhaps. But given the angst most of us felt about the situation and the fact that a couple of guys that were counted on to fortify the pen have either been injured or pushed to the rotation, things could be much worse out there. I’m a bit nervous about Glen Perkins, though.

So with all of this stuff going well, why the hell have the Twins lost twice as many games as they’ve won?

The answer, of course, is a familiar one. This team has a rotation that simply is not very good and the pitchers are being backed up by a defense that’s not much better. I don’t need two weeks worth of statistics to tell me that’s a dangerous combination.

Liam Hendriks and Anthony Swarzak have looked marginally promising. Carl Pavano looks to be what we all know he is… a marginal, but gutsy, innings-eater. Maybe Jason Marquis will be something similar. Nick Blackburn hasn’t been awful, but his ceiling isn’t terribly high, not to mention this “mystery shoulder tightness” thing he came down with this week.

The bottom line is that we still really don’t know what to expect from this team after two weeks. The rest of April will continue to be a challenge, due to the brutal scheduling this month and the iffy pitching situation, but there’s nothing like a couple of wins against the F’ing Yankees at their place to raise spirits a bit. Win another game to claim the series tonight and I may not be able to contain my giddiness!

- JC

GameChat – Angels @ Twins #3, 12:10pm

One win certainly does make things feel a little better but I’ll tell you, more would be better! LOL Today would be a great day for Liriano to improve on what was not a great first appearance. Yes, the Twins need to score more runs but this is a team sport. The pitching has to do their job and the defense needs to do theirs as well. We’ve been kind of weak on all fronts so far – everyone needs to step it up.

Speaking of a team needing to step it up, if you want to see a truly keystone cop moment on the field, AND the reason that you play it out no matter what as a baserunner, you can see Michael Cuddyer and his fellow Rockies pull off a baserunning miracle. It’s definitely worth the watch.

 

LA Angels

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Izturis, M, SS Span, CF
Kendrick, H, 2B Carroll, SS
Pujols, 1B Mauer, C
Hunter, To, RF Morneau, DH
Trumbo, DH Willingham, LF
Wells, V, LF Parmelee, 1B
Callaspo, 3B Valencia, 3B
Wilson, Bo, C Revere, RF
Bourjos, CF Casilla, A, 2B
  Haren, P   Liriano, P

 

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I can’t begin to figure out how to summarize that game… LOL Of all the games to play during a day game when half (or more) fans can’t even see what’s happening!??!?! I can guarantee that even the most diehard fan didn’t EXPECT a win today but we all hoped. To get the win in this fashion seems to be about the only way the Twins are willing to do it. They have to rip our hearts out, stomp on them, and put them back and inflate them just for the fun of it. THAT is what it means to be a Twins fan people…

Things started to look both familiar and disastrous in the second inning.. Liriano gave up a big hit and those of us who have watched him for a long time knew the meltdown was coming. And what a spectacular meltdown it was. We finally managed to get enough outs to get out of the inning.. 5 runs later. Franky DOES get points for coming out and working to put his brain back into the game for three more innings.. But for all that he only gave up one more run after that, his line is still not pretty. 5 ER, 3 BB, 1 HR and only 3 K’s means it was not a good day for Liriano, again.

Lately, this is about what you expect to be the end of the story for the Twins.. not today!

Today? They brought out the good bats!! hooray! We had lots and lots and lots of hits – more than we actually took advantage of for scoring purposes anyway. And when the runs started, they just started getting bigger and bigger! Guess what folks, it was the return of the HOMERUNS finally. And more importantly, it wasn’t just Josh Willingham! (who did hit his 4th homerun of the season however which leads all of MLB) We finally have the return of both the Big Boppers: Mauer AND Morneau. All of Twins Territory had collective fits when they went LONG. It’s the first time in June of 2010 that both have hit HRs in the same game and the first time EVER that it’s happened in Target Field.

It’d be great if that was the end but no… after two spectacular scoreless innings by Alex Burnett, we went into the 9th with a 3 run lead (10-7) which meant it was up to Capps to close it out for us. I know he’s really trying hard to improve the impression he left with Twins fans last year but that doesn’t mean we don’t hold our breath when he comes out. And today he showed it was with good reason. But he still managed to squeak the out the necessary outs before giving up more runs than we had lead.

Of course, that means we WON which means we have a STREAK which also means we had to vote on BOD! And again, like with the first win, the whole team was involved in getting these runs on the board so voting for who contributed the most was tough. In the spirit of the team victory, we have a chat team consensus as we assembled several ideas into the final offering we put to the public.

Your CO-BODs of the day are the M&M Boys!

 

But just so we don’t leave out our ever big bat, Josh Willingham, we offer him the finest of all Girl Scout Cookies – his own box of Thin Mints! This box is donated by our ever loyal TallDrinkOWater in California! Congrats to Josh for holding the biggest bat in MLB right now! That’s actually a very impressive accomplishment for someone wearing a Twins jersey. As your defensive abilities continue to improve, I’m sure that your selection of baked goods in the pantry will grow significantly!

 

We also offer a selection of tasty treats to Alex Burnett and Denard Span for their efforts today to hold the team together with both the bat, baserunning and solid pitching. As I mentioned in the pre-game, the only way to make a go of this with the roster we have is for everyone to step up their game in ever facet of play. They really seemed to take me at my word and go for it today.

If you get a chance to watch the replay, it’s totally worth it even when you already know how it ends! Besides, knowing the end will keep you from the ulcers that several of us got this afternoon during the live presentation.

Great Expectations

With Opening Day upon us, everyone is making their predictions for how this season will unfold. And why not? It’s harmless fun.

But here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about pre-Opening Day prognostications:

  1. They tend to be based way too much on the previous season. I’m amazed every year by how many people who are supposed to be “experts” about Major League Baseball seem to come up with their predictions apparently by doing nothing more than looking at a team’s record the previous year.
  2. There’s a lot of “groupspeak” going on. Once a couple of these “experts” render an opinion about a team, that’s the end of the discussion. Everyone else falls in line with that “conventional wisdom.”
  3. The pre-Opening Day conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong as often as it’s right… and sometimes it’s very wrong.

Don’t believe me? Take a glance at the picks by the ESPN staff (all 45 of them), FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the Yahoo Sports trio of writers, and just to make sure the computer projections are represented, take a look at a composite of several such projections (James, PECOTA, etc.). That’s  an even 50 prognostications you can go back to look at.

Or, if you trust my math skills, I’ll save you the trouble of looking:

  • 37 of the 50 picked the Red Sox to win the World Series (the computers didn’t pick a WS champion, but they did project the Sawx to have the best record in baseball). In case you’ve forgotten, Boston collapsed and didn’t make the playoffs. Oops.
  • None… zero… picked the Cardinals to win the World Series… or even be in the World Series. Only ESPN’s Doug Glanville, Peter Pascarelli, Bobby Valentine, Dave Winfield, Joe McDonald and Mark Mulder foresaw the Cards to make the post-season. That’s six out of 50 who believed that the eventual NL champion would even play post-season ball.
  • But what about their AL Central predictions… and specifically, what did they think the Twins would do? Twelve out of the 50 predicted the Twins would win the Division. Then again, why shouldn’t they? They won the AL Central the previous season, right? So who DID the experts like to claim this Division? Well, for 33 of the 50, that would have been the White Sox. The Tigers, who eventually pretty much lapped the field in the AL Central, were the choice of just five prognostications. Give the computers credit, though, they were the consensus pick of the machines (though the same machines did predict that the Twins would win about 84 games).

All of that considered, why shouldn’t we retain some optimism for our Twins?

Last year’s Opening Day roster was good enough that nearly every media “expert” believed they should at least compete in the AL Central Division. What’s changed? While many don’t believe the rotation is any better, I think that’s just a matter of people having short memories of recent failures. I expect the rotation to be stronger. I also expect the bullpen to be better (there are decent arms on this staff AND a couple of guys in Rochester capable of coming up to help, when necessary).

Newcomer Ryan Doumit adds versatility (Photo: Jim Crikket)

The bench depth is considerably better. The starting line-up is better, just considering how much healthier Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are, compared to a year ago. Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit are at least the equals of Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel offensively. Is there reason to question whether young players like Chris Parmelee, Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes can perform at Major League levels over the course of a full season? Of course. Then again, they’re bound to be better than Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Drew Butera and Jason Repko.

So, the question I keep asking myself is this: If last April’s roster was expected to win enough games to contend within the AL Central Division, why shouldn’t the expectations for this roster be similar? To my mind, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have similar expectations, last year’s record aside.

It’s fine to keep expectations in check. There remain concerns with the health of key players like Morneau and Scott Baker. Denard Span still speaks of occasional lingering concussion issues. But from top to bottom, I like the looks of this roster much more than I expected to.

The Tigers are still the smart-money choice to win the AL Central Division and, outside of the White Sox, perhaps, the rest of the division could be better than last year, as well. But I fully expect the Twins to be contending at mid-season. If that turns out to be the case, we’ll find out whether ownership is willing to step up and make a deal or two, even if it means nudging the payroll a bit closer to last year’s level.

No team has ever made the playoffs a year after losing 99 games. Then again, few 99-game losers had as many health issues contribute to their lousy season as the Twins had a year ago, nor have others likely had two former MVPs (both still 30 years old or younger) returning from injury the following season.

Am I expecting greatness out of this Twins team? No, of course not. I’m not expecting more than I expected going in to last season. Then again, I’m not expecting a lot less, either.

My point is… there is reason for hope. And hope is really all that fans of any team have this time of year, because no matter how good the experts say your favorite team is, there are no guarantees. Just ask Red Sox fans.

- JC

 

Twins Predictions

Real live baseball (in America) begins tonight, before ramping up on Thursday, leading to the Twins’ opener on Friday in Baltimore.  With opening ceremonies in mind, here are the Knuckleballs Twins Predictions for 2012:

Pitcher of the Year: Scott Baker (minor early season DL stint not-withstanding) Baker was the best of a bad Twins pitching staff in 2011, despite missing chunks of the season on the Disabled List.  I couldn’t tell you why I think he’s going to be healthy and productive this year (which already seems like a bad idea), but I think he will be great.  Jim Crikket thinks that Francisco Liriano will be the best pitcher of the year.   His spring numbers were very positive, he limited his walks and earned plenty of strike outs.  Unfortunately, if you look back just a little farther to his Winter numbers, they’re terrible.  Let’s hope the recent results tell more of a story for 2012.

Hitter of the Year: Justin Morneau  “Morneau is swinging like I haven’s seen him swing in a couple of years. Vicious cuts.” – Jim Crikket  Again, these are only Spring Training at bats, but ever since Morneau flipped the switch and hit two home runs in a game a couple weeks ago he’s been a man on fire.  Moving into the DH position and focusing solely on hitting seems to be working for Morneau.  Success in 2012 will help distance Morneau from his 2010 concussion and he could be playing first base everyday by the All-Star Break.

Defender of the Year: I wanted to select Alexi Casilla as the defender of the year, hoping against hope that he will remain focused, healthy, and attentive at second base and play more than 100 games for the first time in his career.  Jim wanted to go with Denard Span, because for the Twins to succeed in 2012 Span is going to need to cover huge amounts of ground in the left field and right field gaps (gaps which are now wide open with the move to put Josh Willingham and some combination of Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Doumit in the corners).

Rookie of the Year: Chris Parmelee/Liam Hendriks If Parmelee continues to hit like he did last September and this Spring he’ll be a top choice for the Twins’ best rookie.  The other candidate, who made the 25 man roster and will open the season in the starting rotation is Liam Hendriks.  Hendriks was probably slated to come up after 5-10 AAA starts, but because Scott Baker and Jason Marquis are not ready to start the season Hendriks gets a chance to showcase his skills earlier than anticipated.  If he keeps his spot in the rotation when both Baker and Marquis are back you’ll know he’s pitching well and on track to steal a Rookie of the Year award from Parmelee.

Most Valuable Player: Justin Morneau The engine that makes the Twins go is Joe Mauer, but Mauer is even better with a healthy Justin Morneau hitting behind him, forcing pitchers to attack Mauer allowing him to hit doubles all over spacious Target Field and driving in runs for the Twins.  If Morneau comes back and is indeed the hitter of the year, selecting him as the MVP will be as much about what he does as an individual, as what he does in the lineup to help those around him.

Comeback Player of the Year: Francisco Liriano Obviously Justin Morneau is a candidate here if he hits well and helps the team succeed, but after a horrendous 2011, if Liriano returns to his 2010 form he’s one of the best players in baseball.  If Morneau and Liriano are both All-Stars, this team will be lucky to two potential comeback players on their squad.

Expected Record: The Marcel projections peg the Twins for just a 70-92 record, relying heavily on the Twins’ 2011 results as a predictor of 2012 success (and a heavy dose of regression to the mean).  Even if Joe Mauer’s Cindarella Spring Training Clock strikes midnight and he turns in another injury plagued 2012, simply trading Drew Butera for Ryan Doumit means turning a -1.2 WAR into a 1.2 WAR, 2.4 additional wins, and that’s not even factoring in upgraded seasons the Twins are likely to receive from Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Jamey Carroll (vs. Tsuyoshi Nishioka), Danny Valencia, and at least half of the Twins’ pitching staff.  Assuming then that the 70-92 record is the worst that the Twins could do in 2012, what is a reasonable expectation for the Home 9?  My best guess, 82-80, Jim Crikket is more optimistic, suggesting even 86-76 for the Twins.  Either way, the Twins are going to be competitive, entertaining and might even be relevant in September.  Will any of this come to pass?   I don’t know, but we’ve got 162 games to find out.  Bring on the baseball!

-ERolfPleiss

Another Saturday In The Park(s)

Busy day in Fort Myers on Saturday. This is supposed to be a vacation, for crying out loud!

This is a subject for another day, but there’s been a lot of tweeting lately between traditional media types that cover the Twins and various bloggers, myself included. Some of it has been interesting, some of it somewhat disappointing, but the crux of the discussion revolves around the value of “access” that the reporters have. Today was a perfect example of a situation where a blogger (that would be me) benefited from the access that a beat reporter (in this case, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Strib) has to sources within the Twins organization.

Neal tweeted late Friday that Scott Baker would be pitching in a minor league game on Saturday morning over at the Red Sox home, JetBlue Park. Thanks to that alert, I headed out for JetBlue instead of Hammond Stadium this morning. It seemed like a good opportunity to (a) get a glimpse at the Red Sox’ new digs on the east side of Fort Myers, and (b) see what kind of arm Baker has at this point.

I saw all that and then some.

It turned out that Baker wasn’t the only Big Leaguer scheduled to play in that game. Jon Lester took to the mound for the Red Sox AAA team, while David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Jarrod Saltalamacchia (yes, I had to look up the spelling) and former Twin Nick Punto all opted to stick around and face Baker rather than make the bus trip up to Port Charlotte to face the Rays in Boston’s scheduled Big League game.

Baker gave up one run on a solo HR to Sox prospect Will Middlebrooks, but otherwise got through four innings of work relatively unscathed.  Lester definitely was throwing harder than Baker was and the Twins announced later in the day that Baker would open the season on the 15-day Disabled List, retroactive to his last Big League game on March 27.

The regularly scheduled game in the afternoon against the Pirates saw another offensive blowout by the Twins who have been scoring runs in bunches lately. Anthony Swarzak gave the Twins six solid innings on the mound and Denard Span racked up four hits for the Twins as they bludgeoned the Pirates, 15-3. Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Danny Valencia and Trevor Plouffe (who played 2B… so much for him being strictly an outfielder, huh?) all doubled. Ryan Doumit and Brian Dozier homered for the Twins. (I have to confess, I missed the Doumit HR… I was standing in line for a beer with fellow Twins blogger Topper Anton of Curve for a Strike when Doumit connected in the 3rd inning.)

But you can read all the reports of the game provided by the reporters who get paid the big bucks to provide that information. What we offer here at Knuckleballs is photographic enhancement of the Spring Training experience. With that in mind, feast your eyes on the following:

Scott Baker looked sharp, but didn't seem to be throwing at full velocity

Jon Lester had Twins AAA hitters swinging late for four innings

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky chat during the AAA game

Papi did no damage to Baker. He even tried (unsuccessfully) to bunt on his final plate appearance.

Anthony Swarzak gave up 1 run on 6 hits with no walks and 6 Ks in six full innings of work for the Twins

Denard Span totalled four hits, including a double, in Saturday's win

Sean Burroughs appears close to making the Opening Day roster for the Twins

Finally, I leave you with this…

And they say Chuck Knoblauch has gone in to seclusion and won’t make appearances at Twins games…

Sunday, I’m hoping to hang out on the minor league fields in the morning before heading down Daniels Parkway to JetBlue Park for the Twins and Red Sox game in the afternoon. Things are starting to wind up here in Fort Myers… it’s time to start getting excited for Opening Day!

- JC

Looking for Breakout Seasons

By this point, everyone knows the variables that will determine whether the Twins will have a successful 2012 season, right? Mauer, Morneau, Baker and Span have to stay healthy and the bullpen needs to be vastly improved over last year. We know all of that because every beat writer, columnist and blogger has pointed at those issues over and over again since October.

Sure, if the established veterans all return to the level of productivity we’ve come to expect from them, the Twins should avoid the kind of meltdown they suffered through last season. That said, if the team is going to actually contend in 2012, they’re going to need more. They will need breakout seasons from players that have not yet demonstrated that they belong among the American League’s elite names at their positions.

But where can the Twins expect to find those potential breakout seasons?

The typical arc of a professional baseball player’s career is actually more predictable than one might think. Their prime years are pretty much from ages 26 to 32. We all spent a lot of time discussing the back end of that range during the offseason, as we discussed the pros and cons of offering multi-year contracts to Michael Cuddyer, who is just past that “prime” range, and Joe Nathan, who is well past it.

But when you are looking for potential breakout years, it makes more sense to focus on the front end of the range. The Twins are notorious for bringing their minor league prospects along slowly through the organization and, for a club with a reputation for disregarding advanced statistical analysis, it appears that they may have a basis for this particular proclivity. Projecting that most players hit their strides at age 26, I doubt that it’s a coincidence that most Twins prospects aren’t often starting their Major League careers (and their arbitration clocks) until they’re at least 24 years old. The Twins apparently try to time a player’s Big League debut a year or two before they expect him to break out and become a fully productive Major League ballplayer, then get as much of their peak years as possible while they’re still affordable.

Glen Perkins

For example, Cuddyer was getting his first real full-time duty with the Twins at age 25 and had his first OPS above .800 (or first OPS+ season over 100, if you prefer that metric) in his age 27 season. Torii Hunter got a taste of the Big Leagues in the season during which he turned 24, but he really figured it out in 2001, the season he turned 26. More recently, Glen Perkins may have made his debut at age 24, but it wasn’t until last year, in his age 28 season, that he carved out a meaningful role for himself with the Twins.

Armed with this knowledge, who should we be looking at in 2012 as having the potential to have breakout seasons? Here’s a list of possible candidates:

Trevor Plouffe turns 26 years old in June. He’s shown some pop in his bat and, let’s be honest, if he had demonstrated passable defensive abilities, he’d be the Twins regular shortstop right now. If he can play a decent outfield, Plouffe could establish himself this season. But few players really get it all figured out in their first full year of regular time in the Show, so we should probably hold off on establishing those expectations of Trevor quite yet. Maybe next year.

The same would be true of pitchers Anthony Swarzak and Kyle Waldrop. Both will be 26 years old pretty much throughout the upcoming season, but given their relative lack of Major League experience, it’s probably not realistic to expect them to have Glen Perkins-like results already this season.

Luke Hughes

Infielder Luke Hughes is starting his age 27 season and he got a few swings in at the Big League level last year, so we can hope to see him step his game up a little bit. He’s not currently penciled in for a regular starting job, though, so you have to wonder if he’ll get the plate appearances necessary to make significant strides in 2012.

So if those candidates aren’t likely to break out, who will?

First, keep in mind that Denard Span just turned 28 years old a couple of weeks ago, so while he’s arguably already had his breakout season, he’s still on the front side of his peak years. He’s reached the point of being physically mature and has enough experience that he really should no longer be seeing much of anything offensively or defensively for the first time. That being the case, I’d like to see Span take a big step forward with his game this season, assuming he can stay healthy.

Another familiar name on my list of potential breakout seasons is Francisco Liriano. We’ve been waiting for him to have a true breakout season for what seems like forever. Despite having several seasons of Major League experience in the books, Liriano is still just now entering his age 28 season. That’s slightly past our “breakout season” ages, but it’s not too late to see it happen… yet. That said, this is arguably the last year that anyone can make the, “he’s still a young pitcher with potential,” statement, so it’s now or never (at least with the Twins organization) for Frankie.

If it seems like Alexi Casilla has been around forever, too, it’s because he has. He was rushed a bit after being acquired from the Angels for J.C. Romero and his service clock started while he was still just 23 years old. That means he’s just now entering his age 27 season (he turns 28 in July). Casilla has been inconsistent, to say the least. But this season, he’s starting off at what’s arguably his best defensive position, second base, and so far this spring he’s making good contact from his spot at the bottom of the Twins order. The game should finally be slowing down a bit for Lexi and if he can play decent defense while getting on base with regularity, he could play a significant positive role for the Twins in 2012.

Danny Valencia

Finally, the guy with perhaps the greatest potential for having a true breakout season is third baseman Danny Valencia, who will be 27 years old throughout the first five months of the season. Valencia’s had two full years now to adjust to Big League pitching and there’s no reason he shouldn’t take a major step forward in 2012. Everyone seems to project Valencia as hitting in the #7 spot in the Twins lineup and he very well may start the season there, but if he’s still hitting in the bottom third of the order in August, I’ll be disappointed.

So those are my “breakout season” picks… Liriano, Casilla and Valencia (with some additional improvement also from Span). Talk all you want about Mauer, Morneau, Baker and the bullpen, but in my mind, the Twins’ success, or lack thereof, this season is riding just as much on the ability of these players to make significant strides as any other factor. They are hitting their prime years and it’s time for them to show fans what they’re made of.

- JC

Twins Projections, Reactions & Words From @TwinsPrez

I spent the weekend doing almost no thinking about baseball, as difficult as that is to imagine. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve totally run out of opinions, so here are a few things on my mind at the moment.

Focus on Pitching

I think it’s almost a given that Terry Ryan will be bringing in at least one more pitcher and probably some more potential bullpen help, but I really don’t expect that to happen until at least January some time (and perhaps even right up to the date pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers in February). Honestly, I think waiting out the market at this point is probably the smart thing to do.

Paul Maholm can pitch in inclement weather. That could be handy, right?

I advocated in my “blueprint” for consideration of adding Rich Harden and/or Paul Maholm to the rotation and I wouldn’t mind seeing the Twins pick up either guy (or both, if Ryan is feeling particularly ambitious with the Pohlads’ credit card). Frankly, however, the difference between those guys and any of about half a dozen others that are still floating around out there is so marginal that it probably makes sense to see who’s still available in a few weeks when the players and their agents start getting nervous about not having a roster spot and the prices come down.

If you’re just going to sign a guy to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation and maybe a guy to pitch the 6th or 7th inning out of the pen, what’s the hurry?

Exit Kubel

Jason Kubel

We formally bid farewell to Jason Kubel this week as Kubes signed on with the Diamondbacks. I didn’t expect to see him return to the Twins (like Cuddyer and Nathan, it was pretty clear he wanted out of Minnesota). That said, I sure didn’t see the D’Backs as a logical landing spot. They’ve kind of got a pretty full roster of outfielders already and it’s not like they have a DH spot to offer. Maybe they have additional irons in the fire to open up a spot for him and, if so, I can certainly see him having a big year in that ballpark in Arizona.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of player Kubel could have turned out to be for the Twins if he hadn’t blown up his knee in the Arizona Fall League just as he was getting ready to become a regular in the Twins outfield. In any event, I wish him well in Arizona.

Will the Twins be Better?

Since it is now likely that the Twins are done shopping in the free agent market for position players this off season, I was comparing the Opening Day line up the Twins fielded in 2011 with the line up we would anticipate opening the season in 2012.

2011 Opening Day   2012 Projected
Span CF   Span CF
Nishioka 2B   Carroll SS
Mauer C   Mauer C
Morneau 1B   Morneau 1B
Young LF   Willingham RF
Cuddyer RF   Doumit DH
Kubel DH   Valencia 3B
Valencia 3B   Casilla 2B
Casilla SS   Revere LF
  _Pavano P     _Pavano P

Yes, I know the Twins could still trade away one of the projected starters for some pitching and/or payroll relief and that, even if they don’t, the line up could see Willingham hitting 4th and Casilla may be 9th, but these are the players in play right now and this projection is good enough for comparison purposes. Keep in mind, many of us had every expectation that the 2011 line up was at least good enough to compete in the AL Central Division. Essentially, you’re replacing Nishioka, Cuddyer, Young and Kubel with the foursome of Carroll, Willingham, Doumit and Revere.

We could debate whether or not that’s an overall upgrade or downgrade offensively, depending upon which offensive categories you value over others, but I think we would reasonably have every hope that the replacements constitute an improvement on the defensive end. I’d give Cuddyer an edge over Willingham in RF purely based on Cuddyer’s arm and Willingham’s lack of recent experience playing in that corner of the OF. But while Revere’s arm doesn’t have half the oomph that Young’s does, I’d still take Revere in the outfield over Young every day. I think it’s also clear that we all expect the combination of Carroll/Casilla will out-defend the Casilla/Nishioka pairing that opened 2011 in the middle infield.

Of course, the factors that will likely determine whether the 2012 Twins improve their run production and scoring defense enough to restore some level of pride to the organization are the guys hitting in the 1, 3, and 4 spots. Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have to return healthy enough to put up the kind of numbers we expected a year ago. If that happens, I can see it being enough to lead this team to 81 wins and a .500 record.

To improve more than that, it’s going to take similar significant improvement from the pitching staff and we’ll have to wait a while longer to even project the likelihood of that happening.

Executive Communes with the Masses

Twins President Dave St. Peter (Photo: John Mowers)

Twins President Dave St, Peter continues to make himself available to fans via Twitter (@TwinsPrez) and I think you have to give him credit for putting himself out there. Every so often, he sits down and just responds to one question/comment after another. I certainly don’t agree with everything he writes, but he’s by far the most accessible member of the Twins organization when it comes to interacting directly with fans.

Here are a few interesting things I learned from St. Peter’s tweets on Monday night:

  • The Twins’ special event calendar will be announced in February, but he did whet fans appetites with news about one thing planned for 2012: The Twins will have a promotion this season that will involve wearing 1951 Minneapolis Millers throwback uniforms. The opponent will be the Kansas City Royals, with the Royals wearing KC Blues throwbacks. The Millers throwback jerseys and caps will, of course, be available for sale.
  • In response to a question from TC Bear (@TC_00), St. Peter was noncommittal concerning TC getting a Millers throwback jersey to wear, as well. He asked TC whether the Millers had a bear for mascot. TC asked if that meant he would get a night off. The Prez’s response: “No chance!!!!” I guess you can’t blame a bear for trying.
  • He believes the Twins can overcome the losses of Nathan, Cuddyer and Kubel much the way they did the losses of Santana, Hunter and Koskie.
  • Spring Training tickets go on sale January 14.
  • The autograph schedule for Twinsfest will be made public in early January.
  • He likes Bing Crosby Christmas carols. Then again, who doesn’t?!

Again, I could take issue with St. Peter on some issues and I’m certainly not on board with the organization’s mandate to slice payroll more than 10%, but I like that he is willing to answer fans’ questions and even respond to criticisms occasionally. If you’re a Twins fan and aren’t yet following him on Twitter, you definitely should be!

- JC

Room for Willingham AND Cuddyer?

First, we finally get the big news about the Twins officially signing free agent outfielder Josh Willingham to a 3 year/$21 million contract, then quickly there were follow up reports that the Twins were also still holding out some hope to re-sign Michael Cuddyer, as well.

That’s big news! How big? Big enough that I couldn’t convince myself to post my already-written and ready to post column regarding my feelings about the Baseball Hall of Fame, that’s how big!

Instead, we have to discuss the possibility of having both Willingham and Cuddyer as members of the 2012 Minnesota Twins.

Josh Willingham (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Media reports indicate that Willingham’s paycheck pushes the Twins payroll to $96 million. I have no idea how accurate that is, but since checking the accuracy would require me to do the math myself, let’s just say it’s accurate. That means adding another $8+ million for Cuddyer pushes the payroll over the $100 million ceiling that GM Terry Ryan has been operating under. What we don’t know, of course, is how hard or soft that ceiling really is.

So that’s part of the question regarding “room” for both players. Is there room in the payroll for both? The other part of the question concerns whether there’s room on the field for both players.

On paper, Willingham is primarily a left fielder and Cuddyer a right fileder, so technically there’s room for each. You simply sandwich them around Denard Span and tell Denard to go after anything he can possibly get to, because Willingham and Cuddyer aren’t likely to be covering a lot of ground in the corners.

It would make for a pretty fair offensive line up, as the Strib’s Joe Christensen points out, inviting us to picture this line up:

1. CF — Denard Span (bats L)
2. SS — Jamey Carroll (R)
3. C — Joe Mauer (L)
4. LF — Josh Willingham (R)
5. 1B — Justin Morneau (L)
6. RF — Michael Cuddyer (R)
7. DH — Ryan Doumit (S)
8. 3B — Danny Valencia (R)
9. 2B — Alexi Casilla (S)

The Twins need to score more runs than they did in 2011 and that line up, when healthy, would do so.

Michael Cuddyer

Then again, the Twins also need to prevent opponents from scoring as many runs as they did in 2011. There’s little doubt that asking Span and Ben Revere to cover most of the expansive grass of Target Field’s outfield while Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Delmon Young manned the corner positions contributed to the elevated ERAs among Twins pitchers. You have to ask yourself whether an outfield with only one legitimate defender is the smart thing to do in Minnesota.

On the other hand, the only way you end up with that defensive alignment intact for most of the season is if you get full, healthy and productive seasons out of Morneau, Mauer, Doumit, Cuddyer, and Willingham. How much are you willing to bet on THAT happening?

I guess what I’m saying is that I like the chances of seeing Span and Revere side-by-side in the outfield an awful lot, assuming they both stay healthy themselves. Having Willingham and Cuddyer both just provides a lot more depth.

So, yes, I think there’s room for both free agents on the field.

But what about that payroll?

I’m not going to get too deep in to this because I’m still not convinced the Twins need to, much less should, reduce their payroll dramatically from last season. If they believe having both of these players will make the team better and if both will sign for what the Twins have established are amounts that the players are worth to the organization, then they should do so.

The only consideration is that screwed up “ceiling”. If Ryan truly has to stick to a number close to $100 million, he has to realize that scoring more runs is only half the challenge. He needs pitching that will prevent more runs from scoring and he needs a little more money for that, as well.

The Twins have enough money to sign both Willingham and Cuddyer, as well as adding another decent, but not top of the order, starting pitcher and still stay at or below last year’s payroll level. So long as that’s the case, then yes, Mr. Ryan, go ahead and sign both of these guys.

But if signing both means you have no money to improve the rotation or, worse yet, that you have to trade away Span or other critical returning players, well… that would be a really bad idea.

For now, I have to say I’m allowing myself to ponder the possibility of having Willingham and Cuddyer both in the line up and I like that thought.

- JC

 

Twins Regime Change: Winners and Losers

You may have heard the news… the Twins fired General Manager Bill Smith Monday and replaced him with his predecessor, Terry Ryan.

The news has been received well among most Twins fans. That’s not surprising. Most of us had lost much of whatever confidence we may have once had in Smith’s talent as a GM and what better guy to replace him with than the GM who gets most of the credit for molding the Twins in to a contender for most of the past decade? It does seem pretty convenient though, doesn’t it, that fans tend to overlook the fact that he also failed miserably at the GM job during his first half dozen or so years in the GM chair. Then again, he was barely over 40 years old when he first got the job and we all know that nobody under 50 knows a damn thing, anyway.

In any event, I’m certainly not disappointed to see Ryan back in charge. It was a good and necessary move by the Twins ownership and top management.

But make no mistake, this move means things are going to be done differently and there will be changes, both at Target Field and across the Twins organization, from the minor leagues to the international scouts and beyond. You might not think that someone with merely an “interim” GM title would have the clout to turn an organization on its head, but this is no ordinary “interim” GM. There is nothing “interim” about his level of authority.

All of this has me thinking a bit about who the potential winners and losers are likely to be when the dust settles on this little internal drama that’s playing out within the team’s front office.

WINNERS:

Twins prospect Aaron Hicks

Minor league prospects: If you’re a prospect in the Twins organization and were starting to get concerned that the Twins might go out on the open market and sign a free agent to a multiple-year contract that could essentially block your path to the Big Leagues, you’re a winner in this deal. It wasn’t all that likely to happen in the first place, but now, those chances are considerably smaller.

By association, our friend Seth Stohs over at SethSpeaks.net is a winner, too. Seth lives and breathes minor league baseball and nobody knows that stuff better. I doubt that Seth was ever too concerned that the Twins might become a “trade all your prospects for old guys” organization, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Terry Ryan will make improving the Twins minor league organization a high priority. That’s going to make Seth (and, eventually, the rest of us) very happy.

Ben Revere

Ben Revere: Terry Ryan made perfectly clear on Monday that the Twins need to improve their defense. There are questions about whether you’ll ever be a Major League hitter, but if Ryan truly believes that better defense will lead to better pitchers, I think you just got locked in to a starting spot in the 2012 Twins outfield.

Talented prospects buried in other organizations: Terry Ryan’s forte is identifying young talent, whether in his own organization or others, and bringing that talent to the Twins where they get a chance to prove themselves worthy of a shot at the big time. If your organization has been holding you back, there’s a decent chance Ryan already has a file on you that’s about an inch thick. Make sure your agent has Ryan’s number on speed dial.

Wayne Krivsky: It’s been quite a rollercoaster ride for you over the past week. A week ago, you were a frustrated, seldom listened to, advisor in the Mets front office. Then you got the good news… the Twins GM wanted you back in the organization in an advisory capacity. Then you got the bad news… the GM who wanted you back was being canned. Then you got more good news… the new interim GM is your old buddy Terry Ryan and now you’re close enough to sniff your next opportunity to become a Major League GM, once again. That is, if you’re the one person on the planet who actually believes that Terry Ryan is just the “interim” General Manager of the Twins.

LOSERS:

Twins Medics: You may have breathed a sigh of relief a while back when Bill Smith stated publicly that there would be no blood-letting among the organization’s doctors and trainers. Better get back to work on those resumes, folks.

Cuddyer, Nathan, Kubel (assuming any of them wanted to return to the Twins for 2012 and beyond): Bill Smith grew to genuinely like certain players and some feel that he allowed those feelings to affect his decisions. Terry Ryan isn’t heartless, but he is first and foremost an evaluator and appraiser of baseball talent. The next time he overpays for the declining years of a player who’s productivity level has arguably peaked will be the first time.

Mike Radcliff: A week ago, you were being mentioned as a possible GM candidate in Baltimore, then the Twins declined to allow the Birds to interview you. Now, your new boss is publicly talking about how you’ve been spread too thin and will have some of your responsibilities reassigned. Word is that you decided you weren’t interested in their job and the Twins “declined permission” for the Orioles to talk to you merely to allow them to save some face. If that’s the case, you may be regretting that decision. Now, instead of the organization’s highest ranking player-personnel guy and heir apparent to Bill Smith, your new boss is twice the baseball man you are and he’s bringing back his former right-hand man in Krivsky. Ouch.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: There is absolutely no way Terry Ryan would have committed $15 million to acquire you a year ago and given that you embody everything that Ryan feels is wrong with the current roster, your already meager hopes of ever playing another inning of baseball for the Twins just became virtually non-existent. I don’t know where you’ll be playing ball in 2012, but it won’t be in the Twin Cities.

Trevor Plouffe: Did you hear what Ryan said about needing to improve the Twins defense? Yeah… he was talking about you, Trevor. You’re still inexpensive, so if you’ve been improving your glovework, you may get a shot at redemption in Ft. Myers, but you’d better demonstrate marked improvement or you’re going to be the “throw in” player in one of Ryan’s inevitable trades.

Anyone who pitched for the Twins in 2011: Glen Perkins might be the only pitcher on the roster who’s spot is relatively safe. The rest of you, either by virtue of your performance or your contract (or both… see: Blackburn, Nick, et al), are just as likely to be playing elsewhere in 2012 as playing on a Terry Ryan team.

Carl Pavano

Carl Pavano: I don’t believe for an instant that Ryan would have re-signed you to a two-year deal last offseason. If he can find someone willing to take on most of your remaining salary, I believe you’ll be wearing another uniform in 2012.

Bloggers who spent time assembling a 2012 “blueprint” (unless you didn’t really like your blueprint, in which case you’re in luck because now you can start over and do a new one): Back to the drawing board. Any of us that still want to spend $35 million on free agents need to get creative about figuring out how to cut $15 million from the existing commitments. Then again, we can pretty much rule out the Mark Buehrles and anyone else likely to get several million dollars for multiple years.

TOO EARLY TO TELL:

Ron Gardenhire

Ron Gardenhire: You didn’t see eye-to-eye with Smith on a number of personnel issues, so you’re probably feeling pretty good about things right now. But keep in mind that Terry Ryan just actively participated in the firing of one of his best friends. He says he’s going to assemble a team that he thinks should be competitive in 2012. If it isn’t, he’s not going to hesitate for a moment to send you packing, too.

Danny Valencia: On the one hand, Danny, you’re young and cheap and you hit the ball a little bit. On the other hand, your defense is not good and some reports indicate you’re not exactly the prototypical “Twins guy” in the clubhouse. That may not have been a big deal a week ago, but there is absolutely nobody in the organization that’s more of a believer in the “Twins Way” than Terry Ryan. If you thought Gardy was anal about that kind of thing, you’re REALLY gonna love the new sheriff in town.

Denard Span

Denard Span and Alexi Casilla: I’m honestly not sure what Terry will do with you two. You’re not gold-glovers in the field, but by comparison to almost everyone else the Twins have on defense, you almost look the part. I suspect he will start his purge elsewhere, but your salaries are getting to the point where Ryan starts to think he can find someone comparable for less money. Not to mention, you may be two of the few members of the current roster with actual trade value.

Fans: I stand by my previous statements that fans should not accept a slashed payroll without loud objection. We can hold out some hope that Ryan was just tossing out numbers during the press conference and, by the time spring rolls around, the payroll is pretty close to the 2011 levels. At any rate, if (and this is a very big “if”) Ryan can actually unload some dead weight and replace it with players who can actually… you know… play baseball, then fans may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

What are your thoughts? Who do you project to be the big “winners” and “losers” under the Terry Ryan Regime, Part Deux? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

-  JC