The Minnesota Twins are in trouble. Coming off a 99-loss season, the Twins are off to an ugly 1-4 start. Now the news comes down that Scott Baker, probably their best starting pitcher, is going to miss the rest of the season with elbow surgery and rehab.
Does the Baker injury spell doom for the the Twins in 2012?
No, and not just because one player, even one better than Baker, does not make that much of a difference. The real reason is that the Twins did not have a real chance in 2012 (outside of “anything can happen” possibilities) before the season started.
Let’s back up and start with Baker.
The right handed starter has had some durability issues over the years. Moreover, he looks and is named like just another generic low-walk, low-strikeout white guy from the Twins’ pitcher assembly line. However, he is actually a bit more than that. While he has the low walk rate we normally associate with Twins pitchers (his highest seasonal BB/9 was 2.35 in his rookie debut back in 2005), he also has above-average strikeout rates, going over eight per nine in 2011.
Baker is not superstar, but he would be a good number three or even number two pitcher on a contender. The Twins have him on an affordable contract, too, at $6.5 million for the rest of this season with a club option for $9.25 million in 2012.
Losing the three marginal wins a pitcher like Baker might be expected to provide hurts, maybe not as much as some might think, but it hurts nonetheless. However, should the Twins really have been expected to be anywhere close to a playoff race in 2012?
It is not simply that they were bad in 2011. After all, one can’t simply add and subtract from a previous season’s performance and personnel to project a team’s expected record. No, the Twins really never had a chance this season, long before the Baker injury.
Back in 2010, Minnesota won the American League Central behind a big comeback year from Francisco Liriano and a surprisingly useful Carl Pavano on the pitching side. As for the hitters, Joe Mauer put in a typical five win season after the heights of 2009 (when he stole the AL MVP award from Zack Greinke), Justin Morneau hit like Albert Pujols for half of a season before going down with a concussion, Jim Thome picked up the slack with one of his best seasons ever, and Delmon Young was actually not terrible for the first time in anyone’s memory.
Sure, they lost to the Yankees yet again in the playoffs, but we all know what a Beane-shoot that is. Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer were singing praises to the Genius of Ron “Gardy” Gardenhire (“Thome, hit a home run!… I told him to do that!”).* Good times were had by all. All Twins fans, that is.
So, if we have to factor in more than just last season, why do I think that a team that was so good two years ago doesn’t have a chance right now?
Well, obviously, 2010 isn’t a constant, but it goes deeper than that. The Twins simply do not have that much talent. Yes, they finally shed Delmon Young, and not having him or Jason Kubel in the outfield is nice for the pitchers. And while Josh Willingham was a nice addition to replace the amazingly overrated Michael Cuddyer, the combination of Ryan “Doh Mitt” Doumit and Trevor Plouffe is uninspiring, to say the least.
Jamey Carroll is sort of an underrated player as a second basemen, but while the 2010 Twins had J. J. Hardy (briefly) and his power and bat at shortstop, Carroll is severely stretched there. Denard Span is nice in center, but injuries may have sapped his abilities.
Mauer and Morneau are the big question marks. Morneau never really came back from the 2010 concussion. He was a good, if overrated, player prior to 2010. Now he is seemingly going to be spending more time at DH and the Twins can just cross their fingers and hope (beyond the obvious priority of his health) that he can produce. Despite the power loss, Joe Mauer can still hit well for a catcher. The problem is that it is not clear how much he can play catcher and stay healthy. Who would have thought The Contract That Was So Great for Baseball could go wrong?
As for pitching, it’s not an overstatement to suggest that Liriano fell apart last season. Perhaps he can get it together again in 2012, if the sliders don’t break his arm apart, but I have my doubts. Carl Pavano has been a nice little find for the Twins, but he is not going to carry a Bakerless rotation if Liriano can’t return to acedom. As for the bullpen, the Twins traded Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps, because with Mauer catching, they could afford to dump a young prospect at that position. Right?
That’s simply running down (some of) the Twins’ woes for those who need a quick review. But it is not simply that the Twins have problems. The American League Central is full of flawed teams, but are they flawed enough to give the Twins hope?
The Tigers obviously were the big pre-season favorite, and I thought they were even prior to signing Prince Fielder, and that has not changed. Cleveland is a bit of an afterthought, but their pitching was better than Minnesota’s, and even a healthy Mauer and Morneau would not make Minnesota’s hitting better. The Royals are looking at 2013 and beyond, and the Twins might have expected to have better starting pitching. However, I think most would have more faith in the fielding and offensive upside of Kansas City’s group of hitters than in the Twins’ lineup. The White Sox might be the team most comparable to the Twins in terms of being caught between age and a lack of youth to build around, but they still have at least a couple of good position players, and their pitching is clearly superior.
This is all a quick summary. I realize that some projections may have had the Twins doing better prior to the season. My own rough number-crunching and observations, however, told me that upon looking at the Twins talent compared to the rest of the American League Central, prior to the season they seemed more likely to end the season in last place than in first place. Even if that is harsh, Scott Baker would not have made that much of a difference had he stayed healthy.
I will say this about Baker — it is still a loss for the Twins. After all, given Mauer and Morneau’s big contracts and positional/injury situations, Baker was one of the few valuable trade pieces the Twins had going into the season.
*Where was all the Gardy love last year?