2011 Season Forecast: Minnesota Twins

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  94 – 68 (Winners of the AL Central, losers to the Yankees in the playoffs…  Again.)
2009:  87 – 76
2008:  88 – 75
2007:  79 – 83
2006:  96 – 66

This has been a great run for a well-managed franchise.

Runs Scored: 781 (5th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 671 (3rd in the AL)

With this combination, the Twins would be expected to win 93.2 games – right about where they finished.

Season Recap:

At the outset, the Twins were considered among the favorites to win the division, and having tossed aside the White Sox whenever they needed to, held off Chicago to walk away with the division for the third time and fourth in five seasons.

The Twins came out strong in April, winning 15 of 23.  They held serve in May, but when the Sox got hot in the summer, the Twins had their worst month in June.  This ended in July, however, as the Twins got stronger every month and looked like a potential World Series team until they faced the Yankees in the playoffs.

Among the hardships – Justin Morneau took a knee to the head while sliding into second base against the Blue Jays and missed the last three months of the season at a time when the first baseman was hitting like Ted Williams.  And, closer Joe Nathan went down after one spring training appearance, missing the season following Tommy John surgery.

The Twins made a few moves to shore up the bullpen after Nathan’s injury, acquiring Matt Capps from Washington in July, and later picking up Brian Fuentes from the Angels in September – in both cases for essentially spare parts.

Starters:

Francisco Liriano put his career back on track in 2010, winning a rotation slot in the spring and then winning 14 games and striking out 201 batters during the season.  This, as much as anything, gave the Twins a needed shot in the arm as the season started.  Carl Pavano had an even better 2010 than 2009, pitching 221 innings, hardly walking anyone at all (just 37) and winning 17 games.  Kevin Slowey went 13 – 6 despite pitching at essentially league average levels, but also doesn’t walk anybody (29 in 155.2 innings).  Same goes for Scott Baker (12 – 9, 43 walks in 170.1 innings) and the less effective Nick Blackburn (40 walks in 161 innings).  Swingman Brian Duensing was a team MVP candidate, making 13 starts amongst his 53 appearances, winning 10 of 13 decisions, and finishing with a 2.62 ERA.  Duensing also has great control.

All this is good – but a long-time reader of Bill James might notice something particularly troubling.  One of his predictors of future success (or decline) is looking at the ratio of strikeouts to wins.  Pavano won 17 with only 117 strikeouts – so he’d be expected to decline to something like 8 – 11.  Blackburn, already well below average with his 5.42 ERA, won 10 and fanned just 68.  He might expect to go 5 – 7.  Kevin Slowey won 13 and fanned just 116.  He’s a candidate to fall to 10 – 10 or something like that. Liriano and Baker are probably good candidates to hold steady, with good strikeout rates.

Perhaps the really high control guys can get away with this more than other pitchers because fewer guys are getting on base.  Still – I’d be a bit nervous about this.  Likely Duensing will get more starts than Blackburn in 2011.

Relievers:

When Joe Nathan went down, Jon Rauch became the first closer.  He was okay – not great, though – so the Twins picked up Matt Capps for the rest of the way – and he was fantastic.  There are other quality relievers around, too.  Jose Mijares is a decent late inning option, as is the returning Pat Neshak, with Alex Burnett picking up long relief.  Jeff Manship and Glen Perkins will battle for the other slots in the pen.  I think, however, that the Twins will miss Rauch, Jesse Crain (3.04 ERA in 71 appearances) and Matt Guerier (3.17 ERA, 74 appearances), and even Ron Mahay (3.44 ERA in 41 appearances).  Manager Ron Gardenhire will have to work a little magic here.

Catching:

Joe Mauer remains the best catcher in baseball, despite having a season that was well below his career breakout season of 2009.  Mauer is fighting bum knees and a sore back and will eventually turn into a first baseman or DH before too long.  For now, Mauer is solid defensively against the run, works well with this staff, and doesn’t make many errors.  Drew Butera is his less than tolerable backup.

Infield:

Morneau’s injury has already been covered – as a hitter, he’s remarkable and as a fielder he has little range.  After sitting out for three months (and much of the early spring), here’s hoping he can get back and play 150 games this year.  If not, the Twins will move Michael Cuddyer back to first base.  Cuddyer is better in terms of range, but can’t hit like Morneau.  Last year, the Twins had the second best second baseman in the AL in Orlando Hudson.  This year, the Twins imported switch hitting Tsuyoshi Nishioka to play second.  Nishioka won the batting title in Japan last year, has gap power and blazing speed.  The new shortstop will likely be Alexi Casilla, who played well in a utilty role last year.  I like Casilla a little, but I’m not certain his defensive skills will make up for his not being as good an offensive player as J.J. Hardy.  At third will be rookie Danny Valencia, who came up and did a nice job replacing the injured and ineffective Brendan Harris.  Trevor Plouffe and Matt Tolbert will replace former utility player Nick Punto, who joins the Cardinals.

Outfield:

Delmon Young had a breakout season offensively, but can’t seem to run down anything in the field when playing in left.  Denard Span has solid defensive skills and occasionally hits like a leadoff hitter.  Last year, not so much, but the Twins survived anyway.  In right, Jason Kubel or Michael Cuddyer will get the bulk of the action.  Both are slightly above average hitters and barely tolerable fielders.  Jason Repko is a pretty good fourth outfield option, and Ben Revere might gallop onto the roster and take the #5 slot.

DH:

The 40-year-old Jim Thome had a remarkably productive season in 2010 and will return for another go in 2011.  When getting a day off, look for Cuddyer or Kubel to take at bats.

Down on the Farm:

My son, Casey, is playing on his first little league team and it’s fashioned after the Rochester Red Wings.  We use their hat; their tee-shirt is our uniform.  I’ll be ordering a hat later today.  But if you are looking at THIS Red Wings team and not ours, you’d be a little concerned.  Most of the guys who can play some and played in Rochester have already arrived.  Danny Valencia is now your regular third baseman, Trevor Plouffe (a low average hitter with some power) got a cup of coffee and may be the utility infielder.  One of the regulars on this team, I was surprised to see, was corner outfielder Jacque Jones.  Yeah – THAT Jacque Jones…  The Red Wings hitters were a little light, and the pitchers – mostly the starters – weren’t very good.  The one arm that impressed me was Anthony (Phi) Slama, who saved 17 games, fanned 74 in 65.1 innings, and allowed just 41 hits.  Oh – since I mentioned that Jacque Jones was still playing, I should note that Mike Maroth logged 11 innings in AAA as well here.

Ben Revere is a centerfielder who got a cup of coffee after hitting .305 in AA New Britain; he’s a burner with no power – and that lack of power also means a lack of triples, even for a guy who stole 36 bases in 94 games.  He’s the new Matty Alou, I guess.  Joe Benson hit 23 homers, can run a little, and is just 23.  The power was a surprise, he had 23 homers in his previous four seasons and 21 games of A+ ball in 2010.  If this is a legitimate change in his skill set, he’ll get to the majors in a couple of years.

The pitcher in this group I really want to see is reliever Billy Bullock – the third round pick from 2008 out of Florida.  In 36.2 innings, he struck out 60 batters.  60!  He walked 24 guys, must be wild as all get out, but WOW that’s an impressive number.  The Twins moved Deolis Guerra up from AA to AAA at the end of 2010 – after a year he went 2 – 10 with a 6.24 ERA.  I don’t get that.  He’s young and must have amazing stuff.

A couple of pitchers catch your eye at A+ Fort Myers.  Bruce Pugh was just 7 – 10, but he struck out 106 in 102.2 innings and allowed just 81 hits.  Reliever Liam Hendriks fits the Minnesota control mode – in 74.2 innings, his K/W ratio was 66/8.  Another reliever there, Bobby Lanigan, was 41/7 in 54.1 innings.  As such, a guy named Shooter Hunt probably won’t make it – walking 84 in 67.1 innings with 19 wild pitches.  He also struck out 79 in 67.1 innings – so he must have an amazing arm.  In 2008, he was a first round draft pick, but he’s still figuring things out.
2011 Forecast:

I see too many reasons for the Twins to take a step back in 2011, and won’t pick them to repeat.  I know the new Target Field gets in the way of people having great offensive seasons and helps the pitchers.  However, I think three of the six starting pitchers will fall back and fall back a lot.  The bullpen doesn’t seem as deep as in 2010.  Nishioka could be a revelation, but Orlando Hudson was really good last year.  If Nishioka is that good, it’s just a wash.  Valencia played well, but is already 26 – so he’s a bit long in the tooth to have a long and successful career.  Mauer is starting to accumulate wear and tear and his knees are already problematic.  Jim Thome turns 41 in August.

The offense is going to fall back some – the question is how much, and depends in large part how much Delmon Young falls back, Mauer or Thome fall back, and how Morneau returns.  I think the Twins will be lucky to score 725 runs, and the pitching staff will probably fall back to about 725 runs.  As such, we’re talking about a .500 season, which will likely be well behind the Sox.

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Kids – Wear a Cup; Peavy and Hudson Nearing Returns

On a day with a limited baseball schedule, most of the news was focused on Johnny Gomes hitting three homers, Prince Fielder hitting  a pair – including one high off the scoreboard about 460 away in centerfield – and a number of great pitching performances, highlighted by Bronson Arroyo’s two hitter over Washington yesterday.  However,  a few other things caught my attention and might be of interest to my baseball brethren…

Speaking of Bronson Arroyo, he’s admitted to doing Andro while a member of the Red Sox (again – Boston may really have been the hub of PED usage, alongside Texas, Oakland, and New York).  Now, he talks about his own supplement usage and whether or not he thinks it really matters.  [ESPN]

Tiger Rick Porcello changed his mind – he’ll accept his five day suspension, though he really did nothing to deserve it other than plunk Kevin Youkilis.  It’s not like he SAID he would do it, like – say – Matt Garza.  [SI]

Meanwhile, Tiger slugger Miguel Cabrera’s hand is still sore, but is willing to play through the pain at the base of his left thumb – the spot where he was hit by a pitch three days ago.  [MLB]

Seattle’s Adrian Beltre doesn’t like to wear a cup.  Now he is paying for it.  A couple of nights ago, he took a grounder in the groin – stayed in the game to score the winning run in the 14th inning – but the pain never went away.  He’s got bleeding in a testicle and is on the DL while it’s being treated.  Ouch.  [SI]

Jake Peavy fanned five of the eleven batters he faced in his first rehab outing, and now the new White Sox ace needs to build up some endurance.  He’s a few weeks away from joining the rotation, which could put Chicago over the top in the AL central.  [ESPN]

Another ace making his way back?  Tim Hudson of the Braves, who had a solid four inning performance at AAA Gwinnett.  I always liked Hudson and hope his return is steady and long-term.  [MLB]

How long before Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija signs with the Bears?  After getting shelled by Philadelphia this week, the Cubs sent Samardzija back to AAA.  Now – the Cubs need help with none of the starters getting the job done and the bullpen being savaged lately.  Justin Berg was recalled in part to have a fresh arm in the pen. [FoxSports]

There is some good news for the Cubs though…  Cubs starter Ted Lilly had success in his minor league rehab start and proclaimed himself ready for Monday’s start…  [MLB]

FoxSports reports that the Red Sox may be interested in Red shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who played in Boston back in 2006.  Not sure how much help he will be as he’s been fighting injuries and aging for the last couple of years…  [FoxSports]

Twins starter Glen Perkins learned that his shoulder problem is a strain and will not require surgery.  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back!  Royals ace Gil Meche, who beat the Twins last night in his first start after returning from the DL.

Hurry Back!  Royals reliever Doug Waechter, who heads to the DL with a shoulder strain just days after coming off the DL.  Not a good sign.

Afterthoughts…  If you want a good read, take a look at SI’s Joe Posnanski’s article about the worst active contracts in baseball.

News and Notes Before Pedro’s Start vs. Cubs Tonight; Is it Over for Percival and Gordon?

The Reds got some good news and bad news…  Good news?  Starter Johnny Cueto’s hip is fine – and now he says it must have been a cramp.  (His pitching is cramping the Reds right now…)  Bad news?  Scott Rolen is going on the DL to deal with concussion symptoms following his getting hit by a Jason Marquis pitch a couple of weekends ago.  [ESPN]

Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez will miss at least two more games resting his sore left shoulder after receiving a cortisone shot to help deal with the pain.  Where is Bill Madlock when they need him???  [FoxSports]

Miguel Cabrera is day to day after getting hit in the hand by a pitch last night.  When Rick Porcello retalliated and hit Kevin Youkilis, there was a brawl (sort of) between the Tigers and Red Sox.

Pedro Martinez gets the start tonight against the Cubs, but the guy who lost his job – Jamie Moyer – isn’t happy about it.  Moyer says he’s going to be a team player and all, but if that’s the case why is he discussing his being “misled by management” with the press?  [FoxSports]

Texas infielder Ian Kinsler heads to AA for a couple of rehab games – should be back soon.  [ESPN]

Todd Wellemeyer, mentioned earlier this week, heads to the DL to rest and heal an elbow with excessive inflammation.  [SI]

Scott Schoeneweis heads to the DL to battle depression, just three months after his wife was found dead in their Arizona home.  His stats show the signs of someone whose heart is somewhere else – completely understandable.  The D-Backs are trying to be as supportive as possible…  [ESPN]

Colorado centerfielder Dexter Fowler crashed into the wall chasing (and catching) a Geovany Soto flyball against Chicago the other night – and now is headed for a precautionary MRI to check out a sore knee.  His offense isn’t changing the world, but Fowler’s range in center has helped keep Rockie pitchers happy…  [SI]

Troy Percival’s shoulder hasn’t allowed him to throw a couple of days in a row – and he’s resigned himself to retirement.  The Rays closer admitted he may not have but one bullpen session left in him at this point.  [ESPN]

Speaking of former Angels relievers, Justin Speier is now a former reliever having been released yesterday.  In his last outing four days ago, Speier gave up three homers in an inning to Texas.  [FoxSports]

Hurry Back!  Twins pitcher Glen Perkins heads to the DL with shoulder discomfort.  Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick heads to AAA with Pedro joining the roster…

Welcome Back!  Braves infielder Omar Infante returns from the DL, as does Reds outfielder Chris Dickerson.

Is it Over?  Arizona released Tom Gordon – the last active player to have played with Royals legend Frank White.  Several weeks ago, I figured out that you could get from Tom Gordon to Rube Waddell in six degrees…  Props to anyone who can figure out how I got there.

Farnsworth Bit by Dogs; Smoltz to Start on June 25th

Kyle Farnsworth won’t miss time, but needed four stitches to repair cuts caused when he had to break up a fight between his two pet bulldogs, who apparently were arguing over the affection of a child.

John Smoltz’s rehab is nearly complete, and the Red Sox announced that Smoltz will likely start a game on June 25th against the Washington Nationals – which is really just another rehab start against a AAA team.  Smoltz last pitched in June, 2008; he was pitching in relief since he couldn’t deal with the discomfort as a starter for the Braves at the time.

What are the Red Sox going to do?  They have more pitching than they know what to do with, they have a solid offense and even Big Papi seems to be coming out of his slump.  They have one of the great stockpiles of talent – three guys with closer’s stuff in the pen (Papelbon, Soriano, Saito), seven starters (the current rotation plus Smoltz and Clay Buchholz in AAA) – what more do they need?  Can they loan it to Washington???  (Hey, that’s what the Yankees would have done in the 50s and 60s – send extra players to Kansas City until they needed them.)

Johan Santana says that his problems are not tied to a sore knee, as his pitching coach Rick Peterson suggested.  He says he’s dealing with location issues.  Santana admits, though, that he’s nicked up a bit (split fingernail, blisters) – but it’s not the reason for getting bombed by the Yankees.

Speaking of nicked up…  Derek Jeter has a stiff ankle.  Torii Hunter got bruised ribs for crashing into a wall yesterday – he skipped today’s game.

Shoulder pain put Carlos Guillen on the DL; now the Tiger slugger may lose the season to shoulder surgery.

On the mend?  Joe Crede and Michael Cuddyer both played for the Twins today.  Kyle Lohse may be ready for rehab soon.  Roy Halliday played catch without pain; even Brad Lidge says his leg feels better.  Casey Kotchman returns to the Braves from the DL.  Brian Bruney is back with the Yankees after a DL stint, as is Glen Perkins of the Twins.  Kaz Matsui retured to Houston from his DL stint.  And Emmanuel Burriss (Giants) and Will Ohman (Dodgers) get rehab trips.

On the other hand, Houston’s Geoff Blum heads to the DL with a hamstring injury, and Cub lefty Jason Waddell sits 15 days with a non-injury related medical condition. 

Quick Crime Report…  Former MLB outfielder Mel Hall was convicted of sexual assault with a 12-year-old girl – three counts of assault, and two more counts of indecency.  Sentencing continues tomorrow.  Yuck.

Vin Scully, Voice of the Yankees? Say it Ain’t So!!!

Carlos Delgado is out ten weeks to surgery on his impinged hip – the new injury of the new decade. The Mets can cope as they have a few outfield options and could choose to give one a shot at first base. Fernando Tatis for now. Still – this could be troublesome, costing the team about two to three games in the standings if they can’t find a comparable replacement.

Rickie Weeks went down to a wrist injury, leaving the Brewers with difficult choices in their lineup. He’s having surgery to repair a torn sheath – similar to David Ortiz a while back – and may affect his really quick bat. Weeks is a great fielder and a decent enough hitter who was really putting it together. For now, the Brewers look to platooning and may call up an infielder from the minors. Craig Counsell is probably the best fielder, but Casey McGehee can play some. This is probably worth five wins over the next four plus months in terms of lost productivity.

Eric Chavez’s back is REALLY bad – he said a degenerative disk is so bad that the next pop in his back will require fusing disks and end his career. One day after announcing that, Chavez has reversed that to some degree, saying that he hopes that strengthening and stretching will help, but he’s really just trying to avoid another surgery. Jack Cust has been playing third. As many other writers have reminded Oakland fans, they signed this guy to a six year deal for a LOT of money ($66 Million) and then missed more than two seasons worth of games…

Noah Lowry had problems with numbness in his hand and underwent surgery to fix issues in his forearm. That didn’t work, and now doctors are calling it a misdiagnosis of a circulatory problem and will be removing one of Lowry’s ribs – costing him this season, too. Once a prospect, Lowry’s career is on the brink as well. Others to have had this surgery? Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman.

Josh Hamilton came off the DL, strained his groin, and now is missing a couple of games and hoping not to go on the DL.

David Ortiz took a series off and will play today hoping to get his first homer of the season. Wow. That’s a sentence, huh?

Jason Kendall got his 2000th hit against the Cardinals. MLB.com, in reporting the story, says that his teammates celebrated by putting the honor on the labels of specially marked Bud Light bottles. BUD LIGHT? Not Miller Lite??? Either the reporting is wrong, or somebody should tell whoever put this together that the Brewers play in Milwaukee.

Todd Helton looked like he got his 2000th hit last night, but it was ruled an error. Some are suggesting that the official scorer may reverse that decision (it was a SHOT past a ducking Yunel Escobar). I hope they saved the ball.

Nate Robertson’s back feels better, but he’s not ready to pitch in a rehab start.

Speaking of Tigers, Magglio Ordonez is the second player given time off to attend to a personal matter (Minnesota’s Delmon Young is caring for his extremely ill mom), so Detroit is calling up prospect Wilkin Ramirez. Ramirez is a free swinger who can run some – but there are some odd things in his record. He gets caught stealing more than you would like, and he strikes out as frequently as you get advertisements for credit cards in your mailbox – at least once or twice every day. Ramirez was hitting well in Toledo, though, and earned the shot.

Pat Burrell is on the DL with a neck strain.

Glen Perkins is on the DL with inflammation in his left elbow, as is Oakland’s Dan Giese – though with Giese it’s his right elbow and tied to his ulnar nerve. C’mon, say it with me. He’s got some nerve!

Need saves? David Aardsma is the new closer for Seattle. Until recently, Aardsma’s biggest claim to fame was moving ahead of Henry Aaron for the first spot in your baseball encyclopedia thanks to alphabetical superiority.

The Mets’ Alex Cora injured his thumb sliding into second base and now is on the DL. Cora was playing because Jose Reyes has swelling in his calf (see Jose Valverde) and has called himself “day-to-day” for six days now. (What player on my team isn’t day to day???)

Speaking of day-to-day, Cincy’s Joey Votto has had dizzy spells following a bout with the flu and didn’t make the trip home because he couldn’t fly with the team, so he’s being watched in San Diego.

On the mend? Tom Glavine, Kevin Youkilis, Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, and Hiroki Kuroda. Glavine’s recent simulated game went over well.

Want a crazy story? Read this.  Says here that Vin Scully very nearly became the voice of the Yankees.