2011 Record: 63-99, 5th AL Central
2011 Prediction: 91-71, 1st AL Central
Impact Player: C/1B Joe Mauer
Impact Pitcher: LHP Francisco Liriano
Best Reliever: LHP Glen Perkins
Top Prospect: 3B/SS Miguel Sano
I could not have been more wrong about the Minnesota Twins in 2011. Coming off a 94-win season without much in the way of impact changes, I predicted them to win 91 games and easily coast to the AL Central crown once again. Turns out I was just a little high on their outcome. The Twins finished with 99 losses, finishing below the .500-mark for just the second time since 2000. It was their worst season since 1982.
So how did this happen? How did a team who had won their division in six of the last nine years, flush with cash from the revenue produced by their brand new publicly-funded stadium fall so far so quickly? Losing their three best players in catcher Joe Mauer, first baseman Justin Morneau, and centerfielder Denard Span for significant portions of the year certainly didn’t help; neither did their best pitcher Francisco Liriano falling off a cliff. The Twins shocking lack of depth was exposed in 2011; when players went down with injury and/or underperformed, there was no one to step in and the team paid on the field.
The Twins should be healthier in 2012 and seemed to, on some level, improve their depth. Could this mean a turnaround of sorts in the upper mid-west?
The Twins finished 2011 with the second-worst pitching staff in the AL. They seem to love pitchers without much swing-and-miss potential, but who have good command. The problem with the strategy reared its head last season. Pitchers that the Twins stock up on tend to have razor-thin margins for error and if injuries hit on top of that, like they did last year, the results are disastrous.
Liriano’s precipitous fall from grace was perplexing. In 2010, he had an impressive breakout year, finishing with a 6.0 fWAR and a terrific 3.47 K/BB ratio, but in 2011 he struck out less, walked far more, and even saw his groundball rate fall significantly. His xFIP went from 2.95 to 4.52 and his fWAR dipped to just 1.0. The Twins tried to force him to pitch to more contact last spring despite his awesome season and a combination of tinkering and inconsistency really messed with him. If he can get back to the things he did in 2010, he’s a legitimate number one starter.
Carl Pavano appears to be over the injury problems he had with the Yankees having thrown an average of 214 innings over the last three seasons. He’s far from spectacular, but he’s a solid mid-rotation pitcher who appears to have regained his durability. His one drawback concerns his inability to strike people out; he had the second lowest K/9 in the AL in 2011.
Scott Baker was terrific when healthy last year. He only threw 134.2 innings, but he has now increased his strike out rate in each of the last two seasons. He’s a flyball pitcher who will always give up a lot of homeruns, but if he can continue to post solid K/BB ratios, he’ll be very effective.
The final two spots should go to two very similar pitchers in Nick Blackburn and offseason pick up Jason Marquis. Neither pitcher strikes out many and both manage to keep average to slightly above-average walk-rates with similar groundball rates. Neither is going to give you All-Star calibre pitching, but both are decent back-end options and potential innings-eaters; kind of the prototypical Twins pitcher.
The Twins will no longer have Joe Nathan to close out games. He came back from Tommy John’s surgery last season and was pretty good, but the Twins were wise to not sign him for the kind of money the Rangers gave him. Incumbent Matt Capps will likely start the year as the closer, but his strikeout rate dropped significantly last season to just 4.66 K/9. It won’t take long for his job to be in jeopardy.
The only obvious in-house candidate to overtake Capps is lefthander Glen Perkins who was one of the best lefties in the league last year posting a 2.92 xFIP and a 1.7 fWAR. His splits are conducive to closing; he was actually better against righties in 2011 than he was against lefties.
Like their rotation, the Twins tend to fill their bullpen with low strikeout pitchers, which limits their overall ceiling. Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak and lefty Brian Duensing should all break camp with the team, but none of them had a strike-out rate higher than 6.40 K/9 in 2011. Swarzak and Duensing could also provide some depth in the rotation.
The final spots could go to any number of pitchers such as Lester Oliveros, Esmerling Vasquez, P.J. Walters, Scott Diamond, Matt Maloney and Rule V pick Terry Doyle among others.
The Twins were no better at the plate than they were on the mound in 2011; they finished 13th in the AL in runs scored and dead last in home runs. Morneau’s concussion symptoms kept resurfacing all year long as he played only 69 games. It was obvious that he wasn’t 100% hitting to just a .274 wOBA with four home runs. There’s a good chance his career is all but over.
Mauer also struggled with injuries all year playing in just 82 games and catching just 52. He started the year with something called bi-lateral leg weakness; I really have no idea what it is or what causes it, but I don’t imagine it’s good for a catcher. When he was on the field, he wasn’t the same hitter posting a wRC+ 32% lower than his career mark. Mauer still has seven year and $161-million left on the mammoth extension he signed that kicked in last season and him moving off catcher to first base or a corner outfield spot does decrease his value significantly. However, Mauer was perfectly durable before last season and there’s nothing saying he can’t get back to that and continue to be one of the league’s best hitters. If the Twins are forced to move him off of catcher from time to time, they did bring in Ryan Doumit via free agency. Doumit has been a good hitter for much of his career and had a .360 wOBA last season. His defense at catcher is more than a little suspect so he’ll likely get significant time at DH.
Span is an excellent defensive outfielder who has also shown tons of ability at the plate in the past. Like Morneau and Mauer, however, Span was also injured for much of 2011, robbing him of his value. Joining him in the outfield will be offseason signing Josh Willingham who is very underrated offensively. Last season in Oakland, he hit 29 home runs and posted a 123 wRC+. He won’t provide a ton of value defensively but considering the Twins will only pay him a maximum of $22-million over the next three years, they should get a solid return on their investment provided he doesn’t decline rapidly.
Speedster Ben Revere has the inside track for the starting job in leftfield, but Rene Tosoni, Joe Benson, Trevor Plouffe, Wilkin Ramirez and Darin Mastroianni all have a shot if he falters. Second base could also be a spring battle with Alexi Casilla likely becoming the starter, but a slight chance exists for Tsuyoshi Nishioka to take over if he improves on a horrendous rookie campaign.
The left side of the Twins’ infield will be Jamey Carroll at shortstop and Danny Valencia at third base. Carroll was signed to be the starting shortstop despite playing most of his lengthy career as utility infielder. At 38, he won’t set the world on fire, but he gets on base quite often and has been a very good defensive player for the duration of his career. He has posted an fWAR of 2.2 or higher three times including in each of the last two seasons. Valencia, meanwhile, struggled in his first chance as an everyday player. He had a dismal .292 wOBA and hit just .224/.274/.352 against righties. If he can’t hold down the job, there’s not a lot in the well; Plouffe, Luke Hughes, Brian Dinkleman, Sean Burroughs or possibly Nishioka are the best bets, which shouldn’t excite Twins fans.
Because of Mauer’s durability and Doumit’s defensive inability, the Twins could break camp with three catchers, saving a spot for the punchless Drew Butera. Butera had a comically bad .167/.210/.239 slash line despite some significant playing time in 2011. Against righties he had a wRC+ of 7! He does provide some defensive ability which is truly his only value to a Major League team. Hughes and Nishioka will back up the infield and one of the aforementioned leftfield candidates will be the fourth outfielder.
The Twins are a much better team on paper than the one that lost 99 games in 2011. Their three best players in Mauer, Morneau and Span all missed at least half the year; any team that has that happen would struggle to keep their head above water. The return to health of two of those three along with help from the offseason acquisitions should see their offense rebound significantly. Their pitching lacks upside and consistency, but they should do enough to raise the win total to something respectable. If things really break right, they could challenge for the division.
2012 Prediction: 80-82, 3rd AL Central