Go to aarongleeman.com. That’s it. That’s my preview.
No, seriously. We’re all done here. Go home.
Look, nobody on the Internet covers one team in as much detail, and with as much insight, as Aaron covers his hometown Twins. Aaron’s blog is widely recognized as a trailblazer in online baseball writing, and the depth of his knowledge and analysis of the Twins can’t be overstated.
So why try to reinvent the wheel? Why labour away on a preview that, let’s face it, even if it’s any good, will be instantly outclassed by the big dog on the street? So click your mouse and surf over to Aaron's Website and learn everything you need to know about Minnesota’s AL Central club.
Save yourself the time and trouble. I know I did.
[Batter’s Box Roster note to readers: After receiving this submission from Jordan, we responded with a copy of his contract, highlighting specific references to both its letter and spirit. We also placed a hold on his cheque. Jordan responded shortly afterwards with the following addendum.]
Ahem ... on the advice of counsel ... I’ve decided to, er, expand somewhat on my previous paragraphs.
Okay, tell you what I’ll do. I'll give you detailed previews of four sets of Minnesota "twins." Here’s an in-depth look at eight key players for the Twins in 2005, paired according to their position. The extent to which the team contends this season will depend on how well these twins do.
1. Rotation Twins: Johan Santana and Brad Radke
Consider, if you will, these four pitching lines:
A: 7-3, 2.39, 18 GS, 116 IP, 84 H, 25 BB, 163 K, 189 ERA+ B: 13-6, 4.35, 29 GS, 180 IP, 172 H, 63 H, 192 K, 101 ERA+ C: 14-12, 3.30, 35 GS, 231 IP, 186 H, 88 BB, 146 K, 129 ERA+ D: 8-8, 4.20, 21 GS, 133 IP, 140 H, 39 BB, 95 K, 116 ERA+Not bad at all, really – Pitcher A had a great season, but recorded fewer than 120 innings, while Pitcher C did pretty well in more than 230; Pitcher B was OK and Pitcher D was not so great. Fine seasons, but overall, nothing to get excited about.
Johan Santana would probably take a keen interest in these lines, however, because these are the last four AL Cy Young winners, in the season after they won their award.
Pedro Martinez was brilliant in limited action in 2001; Roger Clemens had good peripherals but an ordinary ERA in 2002; Barry Zito was solid in 2003 but didn’t get much run support; and Roy Halladay had all kinds of problems in 2004.
Past is not always prologue: Pedro also won the Cy Young in 1999, and the Rocket reeled off his two great seasons in Toronto prior to that. Cy winners can perform tremendous encores. But Twins fans should be cautioned against expecting repeat greatness from their team’s young left-hander.
Brad Radke re-upped with the Twins for two years at $9M/per this past winter. Would you like to know how many batters Brad Radke has walked in the past four seasons? One hundred. That’s all. By way of comparison, Russ Ortiz walked 115 batters in 2004 alone. Ortiz got $9M a season for three years from the Diamondbacks, which tells you a lot about how pinpoint control is valued in the upper Midwest and not valued out in the desert.
Still, you could make a case that the Twins might have invested their shekels a little more carefully. Consider these Radke stats:
Year ERA+ OPS against 2000 118 783 2001 115 724 2002 94 747 2003 103 773 2004 136 683Basically, Radke only had his first great year out of the last five in 2004 – and just in time to hit the market, too! Radke’s unreal command, coupled with a relatively low strikeout rate (5.86 K/9 in 2004, 5.46 lifetime), means he gives up a lot of balls in play. Accordingly, Minnesota – one of the top defensive teams in the game – was exactly the right fit for him. Whether he’s a good $18 million fit for the Twins remains to be seen.
One last thing on Radke: he’ll be 32 next season. His three most similar pitchers (according to BB-Ref) are Chuck Nagy (effectively finished at 33), Pat Hengten (done at 32) and Shane Reynolds (all but done at 32). Fun with stats.
2. Bullpen Twins: Joe Nathan and Juan Rincon
Here are two pairs of setup men and closers (2004 performances):
Setup X: 9-4, 2.21, 36 holds, 89 IP, 56 H, 23 BB, 96 K Closer X: 4-3, 1.94, 53 saves, 78 IP, 65 H, 29 BB, 68 K
Setup Y: 11-6, 2.63, 16 holds, 82 IP, 52 H, 32 BB, 106 K Closer Y: 1-2, 1.62, 44 saves, 72 IP, 48 H, 23 BB, 89 KThose are two excellent one-two combinations, and there’s very little to choose between them - except for this: Combo X cost $14,390,000 in 2004 ($3.5M for Tom Gordon, $10.89M for Mariano Rivera), while Combo Y cost $770,000 ($330,000 for Juan Rincon, $440,000 for Joe Nathan). Put differently, Combo Y came in at about 1/18th the price of Combo X. Would you like fries with that, Mr. Steinbrenner?
Nathan was picked up from San Francisco in a deal for coruscating catcher AJ Pierzynski, after a 2003 season in which Nathan had hit his stride as an effective setup man for the Giants. Not all setup men make good closers, but the Twins evidently saw something in Nathan’s makeup that would give them as fearsome a closer as the majors saw last season.
Rincon’s name was bandied about a couple of years ago as possible swag if (and eventually when) the Blue Jays dealt Shannon Stewart to Minnesota. While Jays fans can’t complain about the eventual return from dealing Stewart (hello, Ted), Twins fans must be equally happy that the homegrown and still-affordable Rincon is a mainstay of one of baseball’s best bullpens.
Minnesota GM Terry Ryan can be criticized on a number of fronts – keeping prospects in the minors or on the bench too long, for instance, or dithering over which position to assign young talents like Michael Cuddyer and Lew Ford – but it’s hard to criticize his trade record the last few years.
Ryan acquired a solid leadoff man in Stewart for now-Oakland-part-timer Bobby Kielty, and later picked up Nathan plus two pitching prospects for the difficult Pierzynski – in a deal that also allowed Joe Mauer to slide into the catcher’s position. If you throw in the plucking of Santana from Houston in the Rule 5 draft a few years back, Ryan’s record for talent acquisition grows even stronger.
3. Infield Twins: Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau
Does any team have a pair of youngsters in the infield more exciting than these two? Mauer, the first overall pick in the 2001 draft out of a Minnesota high school, injured his knee in the second game of his rookie season and missed the next 49 matches. He returned on anti-inflammatories in June, but experienced pain and swelling when removed from the drugs and finished the season on the DL.
But in between those stints, Mauer was dynamic. He posted a solid .308/.369/.570 line in just over 100 at-bats, maintaining his batting eye and adding some unexpected home run power. And the startling thing is that he won’t turn 22 till halfway through April.
The Twins brought Mauer to the big leagues relatively quickly, which is more than a lot of their young players can say, especially Justin Morneau. The B.C. native tallied no fewer than 1,867 at-bats in the minor leagues, during which time he cranked out 122 doubles and 87 homers and slugged .527. Nonetheless he didn’t get a full-time job until the mid-2004 trade of Doug Mientkiewicz to Boston.
Once given the opportunity, however, Morneau smashed 17 homers from July 16th to the end of the season (between AAA and the majors in 2004, he hammered 41 round-trippers). He learned to hit breaking balls better during the course of the season and maintained an acceptable walk rate. In other words, he’s just scratched the surface of what he can do.
Whereas Mauer was bitten by the injury bug last year, Morneau is being devoured by a swarm of injury bugs this winter. Since the end of the season, Morneau has contracted chicken pox, come down with appendicitis, and suffered a lung infection that led to pneumonia. So if you hear reports of a plague of frogs infesting the Twins’ spring training camp, you’ll know who to blame.
Now, to return to the question that opened this section: can anyone rival this young talent at catcher and first base? Well, the Twins need look no further than across their division to the Cleveland Indians, where Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner are already tearing up the league. The difference, however, is that Martinez is almost five years older than Mauer, while Hafner has four years on Morneau. I’ll take the youngsters in the Twin Cities.
Here’s another way of looking at it: consider the age-21 seasons of several star catchers:
Rookie-Ball Salem, .268/.291/.444
Low-A Columbus, .217/.312/.301
Low-A Greensboro, .277/.431/.482
Double-A Greenville, .321/.349/.507
MLB Minnesota, .308/.369/.570
MLB Texas, .273/.315/.412
Pudge’s age-21 season, it should be noted, was his third major-league campaign and covered more than 500 AB; that’s what a Hall of Famer looks like. Mauer’s in good company. So is Morneau, as evidenced by these age-23 campaigns:
High-A Charlotte, .346/.439/.580
Double-A New Haven, .332/.427/.486
Double-A Harrisburg, .336/.449/.590
Triple-A Syracuse, .318/.410/.610
MLB Texas, .259/.331/.480
MLB Minnesota, .271/.340/.536
4. Outfield Twins: Jacque Jones and Torii Hunter
Outfield is such a fun place in Minnesota. Blue Jays fans will be amused to hear that the Twins are the latest team to indulge Shannon Stewart in the delusional belief that he’s an acceptable defensive left fielder, and that the Twins might even make exciting youngster Lew Ford DH again in 2005 in pursuit of this indulgence. But we’re going to turn our focus to the other two outfield slots.
There’s good news and bad news for the Twins out here. The good news is that essentially, the club is sending two centerfielders out to play the outfield every day. Witness Jacque Jones, currently found patrolling right field, and Torii Hunter, currently found on highlight films leaping over fences to snag home runs.
Jones is a whiz in right field: he ranked in the top three among full-time AL rightfielders in fielding percentage, range factor and zone rating (and when you consider that Ichiro’s in the AL, that might as well be the top 2). He also finished 6th among all AL outfielders in defensive win shares (4.7); his teammate Hunter ranked 4th with 5.4 DWS. (Note to Ron Gardenhire: Lew Ford had 4.1 defensive win shares in 2004; Shannon Stewart had 1.3. How’s that lineup card coming?)
The bad news is that the Twins are also essentially sending two centerfielders to the plate each game. Check out the last five offensive seasons of Hunter and Jones; note in particular their near identical age-27 peaks in 2002 and their otherwise uninspiring overall numbers:
Torii Hunter Year OPS+ 2000 77 2001 102 2002 126 2003 97 2004 105For a master centerfielder like Hunter, those numbers are acceptable. In right field, however, Jones’s numbers are a little less so. He had an off-year in 2004 – his father became ill and died during the season – but still, in three of the last five seasons, his OPS+ has not cracked 100.
Jacque Jones Year OPS+ 2000 89 2001 96 2002 125 2003 106 2004 90
What’s keeping Jones from true stardom, as you probably know, is an inability to hit lefties: over the past three seasons, he’s hammered right-handers at a .303/.342/.514 clip, but flailed away against southpaws at a .241/.299/.350 rate. (Hunter, by comparison, has no real performance splits, but he rarely finds himself anywhere near .303/.342/.514 against either type of pitcher.) With 460 of Jones’ 1649 at-bats over the past three seasons (27.8%) against portsiders, it’s no wonder his overall numbers suffer.
If there’s hope, however, it’s that Jones’ OPS against lefties rose steadily, from 424 in 2001 to 590 in 2002 to 703 in 2003, before falling to 657 in slump-ridden 2004. But if Jones can continue to improve against lefties, and keep his OPS against them within 100 points of his OPS against righties, he’ll be a solid offensive right fielder and will give the Twins a much-needed boost at the plate.
Jones’ future with the team is uncertain: he’s signed for one year at $5M; there’s been talk of platooning him; and trade rumours seem to follow him wherever he goes. He’d be a fine centerfielder for a lot of teams. But the Twins might be wise to give Jones one more season to figure out left-handers before giving up on him in trade or free agency. His defence almost makes his offence – even against left-handers – worthwhile.
So there you have it – four sets of twins, eight players who’ll make or break 2005 in the Twin Cities. Hope you liked it. Enjoy the season. Thanks for dropping by.
[Batter’s Box Roster note to readers: our next e-mail to Jordan used the terms "key omission" and "breach of contract."]
Of course, yes, there's also that small matter of the, uh, actual season preview. Right. Okay, here we go.
The Twins took the AL Central crown handily last year, finishing with a 9-game cushion over second-place Chicago. They should not look for a similarly smooth ride in 2005.
As already noted, both Santana and Radke can be expected to slide backwards somewhat from two excellent performances in 2004. Accordingly, pressure will be brought to bear on #3 and #4 starters Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva. That might not be such a good thing for the Twins, because in 2004, these two gave up almost 500 hits between them.
Silva, a control artist, allowed 255 hits and struck out just 76 batters in 203 innings, leading one to believe he won 14 games by remarkably good fortune; he also threw more innings in 2004 than in his first two big-league campaigns combined. Lohse is entering his fifth major-league season, and his ERA has risen in each of the last three. The best that can be said for these two is that they’ll eat up innings in the middle of the rotation.
The bullpen appears solid; Nathan, Rincon, JC Romero and other Twins relievers had good track records before 2004, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do it again. One potential source of concern, however: those three hurlers made 223 appearances among them last season. With a less-than-steady rotation in front of them, the spectre of bullpen overuse and breakdown hangs in the background.
The Twins should have power to spare: Mauer, Hunter and Jones each seem capable of cranking out 25 homers, while Morneau is a serious threat to put as many as 40 over the fence. The question lies with the supporting cast, which will include two newcomers on the left side of the infield. Michael Cuddyer is the leading candidate to replace Corey Koskie at third base, while Jason Bartlett should be the early favourite to replace Cristian Guzman at shortstop.
Cuddyer, a longtime Minnesota prospect, has shown both power and patience in the minors (30 HRs and 75 walks in 500 Double-A at-bats in 2001). His bat should benefit from finally getting full-time work, although his glove might be a departure from Koskie’s reliable work. Bartlett has shown speed, gap power and a fine batting eye in his minor-league career, but his defence didn’t suit Ron Gardenhire last year, and the alarming possibility exists that former Red Juan Castro will get many of the innings there.
Manager Gardenhire is a favourite target of sabrmetrically inclined fans, and indeed, his lineup choices and strategic philosophies leave something to be desired. But he also appears to be an excellent communicator, and his troops stand behind him. No manager is everyone’s cup of tea, so as long as Gardenhire doesn’t cost his team games by, say, giving Shannon Stewart 120 starts in the outfield, he should be OK.
Aside from beating themselves in 2005, the Twins also have to keep an eye on their divisional rivals. Cleveland looks like the smartest and hungriest team in the AL Central, and while the ChiSox might well have the dumbest managerial team in baseball, they have enough talent to cause trouble and they have a serious hate-on for the Twinkies. The Tigers should be better than last year, and the Royals really shouldn’t lose 100 games again.
In other words, the Twins are probably still the favourites to take the division, but their rivals are gaining on them. Moreover, as last year’s playoff loss to the Yankees demonstrated, the Twins are a long way from the class of the American League. A payroll boost to even league-average levels, and a renewed focus on giving their youngsters job security and confidence, might be all that separate the Twins, a well-run organization, from joining the American League’s elite.