Last week, the Toronto Star ran a feature in which they solicited readers to submit their life story in six words. As this is my first assignment for Batterís Box - my Spring Training if you will - I figured I should start to stretch myself out and continue with The Starís theme in breaking down the Minnesota Twins.
Depressing offseason. Johan gone. 76-86 inevitable.
Iím counting their record as one word. Sue me. Well, I hope you enjoyed myÖ..wait, what? You want more? You realize Iím not getting paid for this, right? Alright, Iíll delve a bit deeper.
2007 saw the Twins and their faithful get pounded back to reality following their dizzying 2006 campaign in which they went 71-33 from June 7th onwards to pass Detroit for the Central division flag on the seasonís final day. While their playoff stay was short (they never led at any point in their series loss to Oakland) the year was capped with numerous accolades including Johan Santanaís second Cy Young Award, Justin Morneauís MVP nod, Joe Mauer becoming the first catcher to lead the Majors in batting, and Crazy Ozzie Guillen labeling the Twins a bunch of ďlittle piranhasĒ. Things were looking up for the Twinkies.
But alas, good times faded in 2007. The season kicked off on a tragic note as long time play-by-play man Herb Carneal died on April 1st, the day before the seasonís start. Then, despite a 10-5 start, the Twins ping-ponged around the .500 mark for most of the year before finally bowing out with a 79-83 record, a distant 17 games back of the Cleveland Indians. The Twins chances were torpedoed for a variety of reasons but some of the chief culprits were:
∑ Joe Mauer battling through injuries to play in only 109 games.
∑ Justin Morneau coming back to earth a bit (OPS drop of 99 points).
∑ Nick Punto being roughly half as good as an average player (52 OPS+).
∑ Sidney Ponson being given 7 starts with predictably hilarious results.
All this resulted in a run-differential swing from +118 in 2006 to -7 last year.
So, what did the Twins do to correct things? Well, for starters they dealt their best pitching prospect, then traded the best starting pitcher in baseball, but not before watching their number three starter bolt for Seattle. Finally, to cap things off, the face of their franchise for the past nine years left via free agency. Oh, and the architect of their four division titles since 2002 up and quit before all of this got under way. Told ya it was depressing. But are things really as bad as they sound? Well, maybe. But unlike most teams in the midst of a rebuilding effort, Minnesota has quite a head start. And to prove it, Iíll present you with three good reasons for Twins fans not to throw themselves from the Stone Arch Bridge:
1. If anyone can replace Johan Santana itís, well, the guy who was better than him in 2006. Armed with a rebuilt, umm, arm, 25 year-old Francisco Liriano has progressed nicely from the UCL replacement surgery that cost him all of 2007. The year before that, Liriano started 16 games for the Twins and appeared in twelve more posting a 207 ERA+ and striking out a fairly ridiculous 10.7 batters per nine innings. While Liriano will be on a strict pitch count early in 2008 and canít be counted on to immediately regain his 2006 form, various projection models place him with an ERA in the low to mid 3ís. Which is a pretty nice addition to a starting rotation. In other news, Brian Sabean asked me to point out that A.J. Pierzinski drove in 77 runs for the Giants in 2004. So thereís that.
Fun fact: Of Lirianoís ten most comparable players, five of them are named Homer, Raleigh, Chick, Pug, and Cyclone. Boof Bonser would probably fit in with that group a little better but, whatever.
2. A little over a year ago, people were calling Tampaís Delmon Young the best prospect in baseball and a future 40 HR man. Now? Heís a Twin! Coming over in a deal that saw the Twins ship top flight prospect Matt Garza to Tampa, Young will be the Twins starting leftfielder and hope to rebuild his stock which has taken a bit of a hit since running into a few character issues and then ďsluggingĒ .408 in his first full year. Heís still a tremendous talent and is just now starting his Age 22 season. So, clearly, thereís still some time here.
Fun fact: If you put stock in these things, you might be interested to know that of Youngís top three Age 21 comparables, two are Tris Speaker and Roberto Clemente. No word on whether either of them ever helicoptered a bat at an umpire.
3. The Twins still have Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan. Thatís not a bad core and one that most rebuilding teams could only hope for. Nathanís contract situation is still up in the air and itís quite possible to Twins will peddle him at the deadline. There could be quite a market for a 33 year-old closer with four consecutive seasons with an ERA+ of between 165 and 292.
Fun fact: After signing a six-year, $80 Million deal this past off-season, Morneau is looking to give Larry Walker a run for the Richest Canadian Ballplayer title. Heíll need an additional $30M or so after this deal runs its course. However, Stubby Clapp only needs to average $11M over the next ten years to vault himself right into contention.
See, itís not so bad. Combine the Core Four (new nickname alert) with all the new faces, and maybe thereíll be some fun nights at The Green Bag this year. New faces, you say? Yeah, there are a few.
In: Delmon Young (trade), Carlos Gomez (trade), Craig Monroe (trade), Mike Lamb (free agent), Adam Everett (free agent), Brendan Harris (trade), Livan Hernandez (Cryopreservation).
Out: Johan Santana (trade), Matt Garza (trade), Carlos Silva (free agent), Jason Bartlett (trade), Torii Hunter (free agent).
Yes, there were a few transactions involving the Twins these past few months. New General Manager Bill Smith barely had time to change his email signature before all hell broke loose. Iím not going to harp on them too much as I trust you heard that Santana was dealt to the Mets, and Hunter flirted with a whole whack of teams before signing in Los Anaheim.
Anyway, for those keeping score at home, the changes represent a turnover in sixty percent of the starting rotation, seventy-five percent of the top four outfielders, and three of the four infield positions. Clearly, these arenít your slightly older brotherís Twins.
So theyíre different. But are they better? Well, not immediately, though the defence has improved with the addition of Everett, but theyíre probably not going to be as bad as you might think. Letís break the team down into four sections: Infield, Outfield, Starting Pitching, and Bullpen.
2007 saw four players see regular time in the Twins outfield with Jason Kubel (109 OPS+), Torii Hunter (122), and Michael Cuddyer (111) receiving the lionís share of duty. Jason Tyner mopped up here and there and managed to hit .286/.331/.355 in 304 AB (85 OPS+). Cuddyer will be the only mainstay for 2008 as Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez replace Kubel and Hunter respectively and Craig Monroe slides in as the fourth outfielder. While both Young and Gomez project as potential stars, PECOTA cautions that 2008 likely wonít be their coming out parties. While Young seems poised to improve, with PECOTA predicting a .787 OPS, fans wonít be forgetting about Hunter anytime soon, if Gomezís .660 OPS projection holds true. And while Monroe will almost certainly provide more power than Tyner, the outfield as a whole should be a fair bit worse than last year.
Again, almost a wholesale change. While Nick Punto thrilled opposing teams and bloggers alike last year in his quest to stay above the Mendoza Line, the Twins apparently felt the need to upgrade at third base. Mike Lamb isnít likely to make people forget about Gary Gaetti, but heís also pretty much twice as good as Punto. Fear not, though, as manager Ron Gardenhire has ensured that Punto, who I project to a line of .154/.175/.169 over 500 ABs*, will receive all sorts of playing time at the various infield positions. If he ends up standing just outside the batterís box and running for guys like Morneau after they hit the ball, itís a grand idea. However, in the event that MLB doesnít alter their rules, I fail to see how Punto being anywhere near the field will help the team actually win baseball games.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade, well, defensively, anyway, to the Twins roster is the fact that Adam Everett will be patrolling the left side of the infield ready to turn virtually all groundballs into outs. Francisco Liriano and his 57% GB rate thank him very much. Unfortunately, Everett also hits like Punto, but as long as heís saving buckets of runs, nobody will pay much attention.
Over at second base, Brendan Harris, who arrived along with Young, will be replacing the two-headed beast of Luis Castillo and Alexi Casilla. Casillaís a work in progress and figures to see some playing time, but his OPS+ of 39 last year wonít be entirely missed.
Oh, and Mauer and Morneau are back. But you know all about them.
*may not be true.
Well, Santana, Silva, and Garza are gone. Thatís bad. But theyíre being replaced by Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, and Livan Hernandez. Thatís, well, kinda good. Hernandez is still surprisingly effective at age 57 and will likely give the Twins about 220 innings with slightly above average results. Weíve already discussed Liriano, but the rest of the rotation is equally intriguing. Between Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, and Slowey, the Twins have three young, live arms who have already shown an ability to retire major league hitters. All three share similar strikeout rates, though Boof leads the pack with a 7.1/9 ratio. They also all give up a lot of hits but Adam Everett may have something to say about that. Bonser actually compares quite well to Jays pitcher Dustin McGowan, though in a slightly ďpoor manísĒ sense. But heís a rich manís McGowan when you factor in Name Coolness Rates (NCR) so weíll call them a wash.
All in all, the Twins rotation, assuming no major setbacks for Liriano, figures to be a pretty decent group, with the potential for excitement if one or more of their young trio breaks out.
Fun fact: Livan Hernandez was, apparently, the 10th youngest player in MLB in 1996. That seems all kinds of wrong.
BFF Bonus Alert: Baker and Bonser are each otherís Most Comparable player both overall, and at age 25. I smell a sitcom!
If the theme of the Twinsí offseason was mass overhaul, somebody forgot to mess with the bullpen. Itís probably for the best though as the Twins look to again feature one of the leagueís top relief corps. Like many Managers, Ron Gardenhire tends to stick with a couple of his favourite relievers and, in many ways, run them straight into the ground. Last year, the trio of Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, and Pat Neshek made a combined 215 appearances for 230 total innings. Thatís a fair bit of work. All three were excellent, though, providing ERAs of 1.88, 2.35, and 2.94 respectively. Add in the return of (Obligatory Nationalism Alert!) Canadian Jesse Crain, who missed almost all of 2007 following shoulder surgery, and it becomes even more evident that the Twins problems this year are unlikely to result from their pitching staff.
Iíll be honest: Iím not really one for statistical analysis and projections. I love reading about it, and certainly take it as gospel if it predicts good things for the Jays, but Iím not too great at actually crunching the numbers. So, rather than attempt to fake it, well, other than subtracting 15 wins from their total due to the Punto Presence, Iím just going to tell you that the Twins arenít too likely to be great, nor will they completely suck. In fact, with a bit of luck and Liriano, they might even finish .500. However, that may be asking a bit much of their young players so letís call it 76-86 and third in the Central.