GameChat – Cubs @ Twins #2, 1:10 pm

It turns out all of the Knuckelballs were AWOL last night, so we didn’t get a GameChat post up. Our apologies to anyone who came around looking to hang out during the game.

Maybe the most unfortunate part of not having a GameChat is that we missed an opportunity to award Josh Willingham a well-deserved BOD designation for his 10th inning walk-off heroics! So, we’ll make up for that right now by passing on that honor to Willy. A day late is better than never, right?

Josh Willingham

Now, on to today’s game.

The good news is that we see the return of Joe Mauer and Denard Span to the line up. Mauer has been out of action for almost a week with a sprained thumb, while Span has missed a couple of games with the flu (although he did make a cameo appearance as a pinch runner in the 9th inning Friday night).

We all know the Twins have been winning more regularly the past couple of weeks and that certainly makes their games more fun to watch. But here’s something you may not realize… the Twins are now 23-34 for a winning percentage of .404. This is the first time that Twins players are waking up to a day where they’ve won at least 40% of their games since the morning of September 14, 2011.

I realize that the reason for this stretch of wins has a lot to do with playing some pretty bad teams. But I’m also a baseball romantic so forgive me if I indulge myself, just for a little while, with the fantasy that it really does have something to do with the ‘M’ caps they’ve been sporting.

And they just beat the Cubs last night. For those of us who have to live amidst way too many Cub fans, that makes today a pretty good day.

CUBS

@

TWINS
Johnson, Re, LF Span, CF
Castro, S, SS Revere, RF
DeJesus, RF Mauer, C
Soriano, A, DH Willingham, LF
Baker, Je, 1B Morneau, 1B
Mather, CF Doumit, DH
Clevenger, C Plouffe, 3B
Barney, 2B Dozier, SS
Stewart, I, 3B Carroll, 2B
  _Samardzija, P   _Diamond, P
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Chi Cubs 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 3 11 0
Minnesota 0 2 0 6 1 2 0 0 x 11 16 0

I gotta say, Nuke LaLoosh was right when he said, “I love winning. It’s like… better than losing!”

The Twins put another W on the board, this one in far less dramatic fashion than the game Friday night. The built up an 11-0 lead before the Cubs put up some meaningless runs late in the game off of Jeff Gray. Six different Twins had more than one hit, led by Joe Mauer who had three hits, and seven different hitters drove runs in. That’s a pretty balanced offensive attack. Jeff Manship (with his name spelled correctly on his jersey today) pitched a final shutout inning in the 9th.

But Boyfriend of the Day consideration really came down to two players. Scott Diamond threw six scoreless innings, spreading out 7 hits, while striking out five Cubs without issuing a single walk. Trevor Plouffe continued his hot hitting, with a double and a home run, totaling four RBI and scoring a couple of runs himself, and racking up five assists from his 3B position, just for good measure. For those performances, Scott and Trevor, you are our BODs.

Trevor Plouffe

Scott Diamond (photo: Genevieve Ross/AP)

GameChat – Twins @ Indians #2, 6:10 pm

Let’s see of PJ Walters can keep up the good work he’s been doing since arriving in Minnesota. The Twins are going to need all the pitching help they can get, as it appears that Carl Pavano could be headed to a stay on the Disabled List.

TWINS

@

INDIANS
Span, CF Choo, RF
Revere, RF Kipnis, 2B
Mauer, C Cabrera, A, SS
Willingham, LF Lopez, Jo, DH
Morneau, 1B Brantley, CF
Doumit, DH Kotchman, 1B
Dozier, SS Damon, LF
Plouffe, 3B Chisenhall, 3B
Carroll, 2B Marson, C
  _Walters, P   _Tomlin, P
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 4 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 7 12 0
Cleveland 1 0 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 4 9 0

Whew. The Twins finally get a win this season over the Tribe. Scoring four runs in the first inning was a great start, but PJ Walters couldn’t hold that lead and it was all tied up after five innings. Fortunately, the Twins weren’t done scoring, while their bullpen successfully shut out Cleveland over the final four innings.

The BOD award came down to a split vote, so tonight we have three winners sharing the award. Brian Duensing relieved Walters with two out in the fifth and kept the inherited baserunners from crossing the plate and went on to pitch 2 perfect innings. On the offensive side, Trevor Plouffe and Joe Mauer not only both homered, but also each drove in three of the Twins’ 7 runs. For their efforts, Brian, Trevor and Joe are our Boyfriends of the Day.

Brain Duensing

Joe Mauer

Trevor Plouffe

 

GameChat – Detroit Tigers @ Minnesota Twins 7:10pm

Interesting lineup for Ron Gardenhire tonight.  With Josh Willingham serving as the Twins’  DH tonight, Gardenhire had an opportunity to move Ben Revere into left field and move Trevor Plouffe into right field.  Instead Gardy leaves Revere out in RF where his weak arm is most exposed, and sends Plouffe out to LF where his limited range could come into play.  Perhaps Gardenhire is keeping Revere in RF to chase down liners and fly balls from the 5 left handed hitters in Detroit’s line-up, but a more likely scenario is Gardenhire keeping his guys where he likes them, not where it always makes the most sense to play them.

Either way, should be an interesting game.  Here are the rest of the line ups:

Detroit Tigers

@

Minnesota Twins
Berry, CF Span, CF
Dirks, LF Revere, RF
Cabrera, Mi, 3B Mauer, C
Fielder, 1B Willingham, DH
Young, D, DH Morneau, 1B
Boesch, RF Dozier, SS
Peralta, Jh, SS Plouffe, LF
Avila, C Casilla, A, 2B
Raburn, 2B Carroll, 3B
_Smyly, P _Swarzak, P

 

Detroit Tigers

0

4

0

2

1

0

3

0

0

10

16

2

Minnesota Twins

2

0

0

1

0

2

1

0

0

6

10

0

 

The Twins scored more than their fair share of runs tonight, but the pitching let them down for the second night in a row.Not a lot of positives in a game like this, but at least the Twins were not charged with an error, so that’s an improvement.

Back at it tomorrow.

-ERolfPleiss

 

GameChat – Twins @ Brewers #2, 3:10pm

My guess is that everyone wearing a Twins uniform is feeling pretty good right about now. And they should be. I really hope they get to the point where they realize that they really like this feeling of working together, playing good ball and getting wins. Even more importantly, I look forward to the time when they can win ball games that don’t involve the opposing teams hiring circus clowns for the field.

As for today’s pitching, all reports are that Pavano is feeling good enough that he supposedly even declined the cortisone shot they had proposed. I don’t know if that is good news or bad news for today but I like the sound of recovery…

Minnesota

@

Milwaukee
Span, CF Hart, C, RF
Revere, RF Morgan, CF
Willingham, LF Braun, LF
Morneau, 1B Ramirez, Ar, 3B
Dozier, SS Lucroy, C
Casilla, A, 2B Weeks, 2B
Butera, C Green, T, 1B
Carroll, 3B Maysonet, SS
Pavano, P Gallardo, P

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

R

H

E

Minnesota

0

0

0

1

0

1

1

1

0

0

1

5

8

0

Milwaukee

0

0

0

1

0

1

0

2

0

0

0

4

9

2

My guess about today’s game is that the boys all felt like they started early enough on a Saturday, they might as well play a little longer into the evening so they just kept letting things get tied up… Pavano was on a pitch count but still managed to pitch a full 6 innings which we needed. His velocity isn’t all that much higher than it was but he definitely was pretty solid.

And BOD for today? Finally an easy one. Across the board we had great outings and yes, Drew Butera STILL leads the team in Batting Average since he’s up to .375 if my count is accurate. And Matt Capps put another Save notch on his headboard. But when a game keeps getting tied up, the guy who BREAKS the tie? He gets to be BOD. That is you, Trevor Plouffe!

Fun Twins Things


(photo: Foxsportsnorth.com)

10-24: The Twins record through their first 34 games, roughly 20% of their season.  Going in to 2012 I thought the Twins would be slightly better than a .500 ballclub, optimistically projecting them to win 83 games.  Yet here they are, 14 games under .500 with little reason to expect the Twins will be much better in the 128 games left on the schedule.  With that in mind, here is a list (of arbitrary length and order) of fun Twins Things from 2012.

  1. Josh Willingham – Willingham is leading the Twins in just about every offensive category you can think of, batting average, RBIs, on-base percentage, home runs, etc.  He’s come to Minnesota and established himself as a fan favorite.  Plus he looks like he’d be right at home chopping down trees in the forest with another Twins newcomer, Ryan Doumit.  Offense and tree chopping, two of my favorite things.
  2. Scott Diamond – Not exactly a success story in 2011, in his two starts since being called up in 2012 he has been perfect.  He’s pitched 14 innings without giving up a run and now has as many Wins in just two starts as any other Twins pitcher.  Also, Dick and Bert think that he looks like Cliff Lee, so take that for what it’s worth.
  3. Jamey Carroll – Before Sunday’s game FSN showed clips of some Twins players wishing their mothers (and sometimes their wives, too) a happy Mother’s Day.  During his segment Jamey Carroll referred to his mom as “the Bomb dot com.”  That was one of the best moments of 2012.  He’s also playing pretty great defense and was even rocking some variant of the Fu Manchu for a couple weeks.  Great stuff.
  4. The Joel Zumaya Saga – It is unfortunate that Zumaya couldn’t stay healthy and wound up heading back to the operating table before Spring Training was even in full swing because Zumaya had an opportunity to be the flame throwing reliever the Twins desperately need in their bullpen.  While the signing ultimately did not work out, there was plenty of fan excitement over the winter, speculating on the health and possible impact of a guy like Zumaya playing for the Twins.  Plus I liked saying, “Zoom-zoom”.
  5. Trevor Plouffe‘s hair – Love it or hate it, Plouffe’s curly locks have provided more humorous commentary in the Knuckleballs GameChat’s than just about any other Twins topic in 2012, follicle related or otherwise.
  6. Brian Dozier – For a while there when Dozier was hitting .400+ in AAA and it seemed like just about everyday some Twins blogger would be pining for the Twins to bring Dozier up to replace Carroll or Casilla.  Carroll and Casilla, in the meantime, managed to play pretty solid defense, but ultimately their lack of success in the batter’s box (and pretty much ever other Twins hitter as well) forced the Twins’ hand and they called up Dozier to be the everyday shortstop and he has not disappointed.  He’s been fun to watch defensively, getting to balls deep in the hole and showing off some pretty decent arm strength.  And he hit a home run yesterday!  Dozier is having fun playing baseball, and he’s even more fun to watch.
  7. Ryan Doumit’s defense – Just kidding.
  8. Lots of Roster Movement – 33 players have made appearances for the Twins this season.  Of those 33 players, 13 made the Twins debut (Jamey Carroll, Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit, Jeff Gray, Jared Burton, Clete Thomas, Sean Burroughs, Matt Maloney, Erik Komatsu, Brian Dozier, Jason Marquis, Darin Mastroianni and P.J. Walters).  Lots of new faces, lots of action on the waiver wire and plenty of evidence that Terry Ryan and crew realize the on-field product stinks and are looking at ways to make it better (Like when they sent Danny Valencia down to Triple-A, that was my favorite).

So it is not all bad.  There are some fun things to watch and follow every day.  If I missed any, feel free to fill me in.  

Baseball is still fun, even if 10-24 is not.

-ERolfPleiss

Yankee Doodle Dandy

After some early season snafus relating to the Twins’ previous post-season failures against the Yankees, the Twins have an opportunity to put some of those demons to bed, starting tonight, as the open a 4-game series in New York tonight at 6:05pm central.

Image from M.T.'s Blog, http://matt7.mlblogs.com/

While some former Twins (Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, etc.) may have indicated that they Twins were mentally beat against the Yankees before their previous post-season collapses, there is a wealth of historical precedence that helped create those mental barriers.  In the past 10 years the Twins are 18-51 against the Yankees, and that does not include the three times the Yankees eliminated the Twins from post-season play.  Add those in and the Twins are an even more embarrassing 20-63 against the Bronx Bombers. A W-L% of  about .241.  To put that in perspective, over a 162 game season, playing ONLY the Yankees, the Twins would win 39 games.

In those 83 games against the Yankees, 42 were in New York, and the Twins won only 7 times, which does not bode well for the Twins as they roll in to Yankee Stadium this evening.

But here is why I think the Twins have a chance to split* this four game series, which would be a resounding victory, historically:

*Let’s just assume that C.C. Sabathia is his regular self, and Francisco Liriano is the disappointing fallen star that we’ve come to know, so the Twins are not going to win tomorrow night.  And while only two Twins have faced Hiroki Kuroda (Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham), both have been unsuccessful and the Yankees have blasted Jason Marquis to the tun of .361/.395/.778 for an OPS of almost 1200! In the other two games, the Twins will face Freddy Garcia, and Phil Hughes.  Both are beatable and if the Twins can pitch well enough to keep the Yankees to 5 runs per game, they will have a chance to steal a couple of wins from the Yanks.

Hitting:

In addition to hitting 4 home runs and 6 doubles against Garcia in 71 plate appearances, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer have combined to walk 10 times compared to just 5 strikeouts.  Of the 114 total plate appearances by current Twins, only Danny Valencia (1/4) has an OBP against Garcia that’s lower than .285.  The Twins have not fared quite as well against Phil Hughes, but still post an OBP of .317, albeit in a sample size limited to just 38 at bats.  Either way, the Twins have an opportunity to get out front of the Yankees early and to allow their starters to work deeper into games, limiting the opportunities for the bullpen to let another close game slip away.

Pitching/Defense:

In addition to hitting well against the Yankees, Carl Pavano (tonight’s starter) and Anthony Swarzak (projected to take Nick Blackburn‘s start on Thursday) have managed to keep the Yankees in check.  Pavano has limited current Yankees to a triple slash of just .229/.252/.359 with just 9/30 hits against him going for extra bases.  Swarzak has faced current Yankees hitters just 39 times, but he has yet to give up a home run to any of the current Yankees, which has been one of their biggest weapons against the Minnesota Twins.  Decent starting pitching will be complemented with a defense that is likely to be near league average with Justin Morneau slotted into first base and either Trevor Plouffe or Clete Thomas taking an outfield spot away from Ryan Doumit.

Winning two games against the Yankees and splitting the series will not get this team any closer to contending for the AL Central, but it will help plant the seed in the minds of this current group of Twins that they can beat the Yankees, something the Twins haven’t really done for a decade.

It starts tonight!

- ERolfPleiss

What, Me Worry?

(This image is almost certainly the property of whomever owns the rights to MAD Magazine these days.)

Yes, I’m feeling a bit Alfred E. Neuman-ish today.

Yes, the Twins are 0-4, a trait they share with the Atlanta Braves. Yes, they’ve hit at a pathetic .165 clip and struggled to score a run or two, at most, each game. Yes, three of their four starting pitchers currently sport ERAs of 5.14, 7.50 and 11.25 after their first time through the rotation. 

But is all of that really enough to make everyone bail on the entire season?

Given that so many fans had pretty much written this season off before it started, I guess it’s not surprising that the answer to that question for just as many people is, “yes.” It just seems a tad premature, to me, after just four games, especially when everyone knew (or should have known) that April was going to be a brutal month.

No, the Orioles are not among the American League’s elite teams, but the Twins have struggled with them recently, especially on the road. And, yes, this team is likely to remain at or near the bottom of their Division through the rest of the month, given the nature of the upcoming schedule (the next 15 games are against what are probably five of the six best teams in the AL).  

But let’s keep a little perspective here. Despite the losses, there are a handful of things that haven’t gone too badly so far:

  • Josh Willingham will never be mistaken for a gold glove outfielder, but he’s done what he was brought in to do… hit the baseball hard. He’s hit .385 and has an OPS of 1.390 with a home run in Baltimore and, just to prove it can be done, another home run in Target Field Monday. (Hey, if others can use a small sample size to “prove” the team sucks, I can use it, too.)
  • Justin Morneau is hitting the ball hard. Do I wish he was playing 1B while hitting the ball hard? Of course. But given my limited expectations a month ago, I like what I see.
  • Most of the bullpen arms are looking OK. Matt Capps hasn’t blown a save (then again, there hasn’t been a save situation, yet) and he, along with Brian Duensing, Glen Perkins, Jeff Gray and Alex Burnett, have managed to hold opponents scoreless in their limited work.
  • Speaking of limited bullpen work, only Francisco Liriano failed to go at least five innings in his first start and the WHIPs (walks + hits per inning pitched) for the other three starters were very reasonable (1.20 for Anthony Swarzak, 1.17 for Nick Blackburn and 1.00 for Carl Pavano).

The bottom line, for me anyway, is that I believe this team will score some runs. My greatest fear entering the season was that the pitching staff would implode. In fact, that’s still my greatest fear. But the arms are off to a reasonably decent start, with a couple of exceptions (that would be you, Mr. Burton and Mr. Maloney, along with Mr. Liriano), so when the bats start to come around, maybe things won’t look so bad.

Even in the middle infield, where Jamey Carroll and Alexi Casilla have managed a total of one hit between them, at least they are making most of the plays they need to defensively, which is more than we could say a year ago. And if their bats don’t come around soon, Brian Dozier is already raking down in Rochester and he’s only a phone call away.

I really don’t expect a lot of wins over the next couple of weeks and I’m sure that will only intensify the grumbling among the fan base. But I’m anxious to see whether some of the young players like Swarzak, Liam Hendriks, Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee and, eventually, Dozier, can do when they get past the, “Oh my God, I’m in the Big Leagues!” phase of their seasons.

I’m still interested in this team and I hope most of the rest of you are, too. But if you really just can’t imagine the start to a season being any worse, keep in mind that things could be much worse.

Ask Ozzie Guillen.

- JC

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

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