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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2011 Season Forecast: Chicago White Sox

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  88 – 74
2009:  79 – 83
2008:  89 – 74
2007:  72 – 90
2006:  90 – 72

The White Sox have been competitive for much of the last six or seven years, 2007 notwithstanding.

Runs Scored: 752 (7th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 704 ( 8th in the AL)

With this combination, the White Sox would be expected to win 86 games or so – right about where they finished.

Season Recap:

At the beginning of the season, many expected the White Sox to contend with the Twins for the AL Central crown, and they contended until the last few days of the season.

The Sox actually got off to kind of a slow start, having losing records in April and May.  At one point, the Sox were eight games under .500 and threatening to finish in last place at 24 – 33 after a loss to Detroit.  However, the Sox got SCORCHING HOT, winning eleven in a row and fifteen of sixteen to sprint back into the race.  (Of course, they played the Cubs, Pirates, Nationals, and Braves for that stretch, losing only a 1 – 0 game to Ted Lilly and the Cubs which likely saved Lou Piniella’s job.)  Another nine game winning streak got the Sox to 50 – 39, at which point people started to think playoffs.

Once they had to face teams in their division, however, the Sox fell back.  Only one more hot streak – a seven game winning streak in the beginning of September – kept them alive.  Then, facing the Twins and Tigers, the Sox lost eight in a row (the last two to Oakland), and they were done.  The Twins beat the Sox 13 times, the difference between first and second place.

During the season, the Sox acquired two players, trading Daniel Hudson and David Holmberg to Arizona for Edwin Jackson and claiming Manny Ramirez from the Dodgers after he had been waived.  Neither player figured heavily in the team’s fortunes down the stretch.  Jackson pitched reasonably well in his eleven starts; Manny – not so much, but only batted 69 times.
Starters:

The Sox have a LOT of quality starting pitching.  John Danks was fantastic – 213 innings and saving his team 24 runs over that span.  Mark Buehrle did what he always does, throws strikes, eats innings, and wins games.  Gavin Floyd was saddled with a losing record but, like Buehrle is an above average pitcher with a record of durability.  Jake Peavy was expected to be the ace, but he suffered a significant tear in a muscle behind his throwing shoulder and hopes to be back for much of the 2011 season after having an experimental surgery to repair it.  Last year’s #5, Freddy Garcia, was surprisingly effective in 28 starts but won’t be back because Edwin Jackson is about the best fifth starter you can possibly imagine.  37 wins in the last three years, a no-hitter last year, and a power arm.  It’s hard to find a better overall rotation outside of Philadelphia anywhere.

Relievers:

Bobby Jenks and his 4.44 ERA is no longer the closer, having moved on to Boston.  And, J.J. Putz, the former set up man, is a closer in Arizona.  Don’t worry about the Pale Hose, though, because the rest of the bullpen is as good as the rotation.  Chris Sale was impressive in 23.1 innings, striking out 32 batters and allowing just 15 hits – and becomes the new closer.  His late season dominance allowed Jenks, who was losing his effectiveness, to leave town.  Scott Thornton has been a solid reliever for a couple of years now and becomes the lock down set up man.  Sergio Santos was effective, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman have been imported to provide middle inning support options, and Tony Pena can do the job as a swing man or long reliever.

Catching:

The Sox have a decent tandem in A.J. Pierzynski and Ramon Castro.  Pierzynski is starting to show signs of age, but is still reasonably effective.  Castro is a good enough hitter to warrant more playing time if needed.  As a defensive unit, the two were above average in five categories (ERA, Winning Percentage, Caught Stealing, Mistakes per Game, and Fielding Percentage on plays other than strikeouts), and below average only in mobility categories.

Infield:

Both offensively and defensively, you had two positions working in the Sox favor, and two working the other way.  Paul Konerko remains a sturdy bat in the middle of the lineup, but defensively he and his 2010 backup, Mark Kotsay, are well below average.  At second base, Gordon Beckham, you had the opposite.  Beckham has decent enough defensive skills, but didn’t hold his own with the bat in 2010, unlike what he suggested was possible in 2009.  At short, Alexei Ramirez was solid offensively despite a rather low OBP because he hit for power and had a reasonably good batting average.  And, defensively, he played at a gold glove level.  Then you have the hole at third, where Mark Teahan had an off year and couldn’t stay healthy either – costing the team runs with the glove and bat.  The person who played the most at third was the elder statesman, Omar Vizquel, who looked very out of place defensively and hit like Paul Bako with even less power.

Arriving to help the cause is Brent Morel, a third round pick in 2008 out of Cal Poly, who has shown a plus bat and some power.  In AA and AAA, he hit 10 – 60 – .322 and earned a 21 game tryout with the Sox in September.  If Morel can hold his own at the position and hit .280 with a dozen homers, this would be a significant step up for the Sox over what played there in 2010.

Outfield:

Alex Rios came over from Toronto, played center extremely well, and put a lot of runs on the board – his best season since signing that huge contract a few years ago.  Juan Pierre remains the left fielder – though Mighty Casey can’t explain it.  For a guy who is supposed to be fast, he’s NOT a plus range fielder, and unless he’s hitting .320, he’s a waste of at bats.  In right, Carlos Quentin was so bad defensively that he offset whatever benefits having Rios and Pierre in center and left may have provided.  His power is still around, but he misses a lot games (much less pitches).  I think the Sox will miss Andruw Jones, who can’t really cover any ground but hit 19 homers in essentially a half season of at bats.  Alejando De Aza is the new fourth outfielder, a guy I used to root for in Florida, and is running out of chances to stick.  He can play a little.

DH:

Last year, there was a rotation of hitters, none who will be anywhere as good as the newly signed free agent, Adam Dunn.  Dunn is an offensive force, and gives the team depth at left or first base, too.  (He can’t field them, but he can certainly hit enough so that you won’t notice too much.)

Down on the Farm:

Brett Morel we covered…  Behind him on the AAA depth chart is 3B-1B candidate Dayan Viciedo, a 22-year-old Cuban kid with serious power and upside and didn’t disappoint when given a shot with the parent club in 2010.  If Paul Konerko starts to get old, Viciedo could step in and be a quality first baseman for more than a decade.  Pitcher Daniel Hudson looked to be close to ready, but was sent to Arizona for Edwin Jackson at the trade deadline.  Hudson looked like he could be as good as Jackson, but Arizona is rebuilding while the White Sox are merely retooling.

At AA Birmingham, first baseman Jimmy Gallagher had a season that looks like something on the back of Mark Grace’s baseball card, but may not have a future here unless it’s as a pinch hitter.  The pitcher who stands out, to me anyway, is reliever Deunte Heath, who fanned 84 in 57.2 innings, but may have issues harnessing his control.  Anthony Carter also had a decent season in relief.

A guy who seems to have the team’s eye is Gregory Infante, who converted from a starter to a reliever and blew through A+ Winston-Salem and then Birmingham.  69Ks in 60 innings, didn’t allow a single homer (just 12 in 291 minor league innings), and for a really young kid out of Caracas, Venezuela, he may get a shot at closing in AAA.  A guy you may read about in 2011 could be Justin Greene, a centerfielder with speed and power who also blew through A+ and landed at AA.  Dylan Axelrod had a 1.99 ERA in Winston-Salem, earning a promotion to AA, and things are finally starting to click for him.  Working against him is the fact that he’s a late round pick originally drafted by San Diego, and the Sox having a lot of starters at the big league level who aren’t going away anytime soon.

2011 Forecast:

I’m feeling a bit optimistic about the Sox, mostly because Dunn and Morel could quickly address the two biggest weaknesses they have.  You have the potential regression of Pierzinski, Konerko, Pierre, Rios, and Quentin, weighed against the potential of gaining 80 or more offensive runs with Morel and Dunn.  The pitching staff will be equally solid and could be marginally better – and would be really good if there weren’t two holes on the same side of the field (Konerko, Quentin).  Still – a full season of Morel at third should help the overall defense, too.  I like getting Jenks out of the closer role, and the Sox pen is still very, very good.  I like the White Sox scoring 825 runs and allowing barely 700, which puts the sox at 95 wins.  I also think the Sox could win the World Series, another shot across the bow at Cub fans who continue to wait for a miracle that won’t arrive until they figure out how to manage resources.

Working against the Sox is the idea that Jake Peavy’s shoulder may explode at any moment, and Ozzie Guillen imploding after another irrational outburst at his general manager, who has assembled quite the roster.  Ozzie – sit back and enjoy the ride to the playoffs.

Pirates Sell Out Again; Does Adam LaRoche Help Boston? And, I’m Embarrassed for Broward County (FL)

Red Sox Nation, awash in fear after (a) being swept by Texas, and (b) watching the Yankees take over first place in the AL East, can rest assured that help is on the way.  Maybe.

The Boston Red Sox made two deals yesterday in hopes of stirring a sleeping offense.  First, Boston recalled Adam LaRoche from Pittsburgh, the new AAA team for Red Sox Nation, requiring only a small deposit of minor leaguers.  Then, St. Louis, desperate for a productive shortstop, chose to take a chance on Julio Lugo for the relatively low price of OF (DH) Chris Duncan.

In the case of Lugo for Duncan, St. Louis gets a slowing infielder who hits like Brendan Ryan and unloads a disappointing Duncan, who is a hitter without a glove – albeit a hitter who has been less and less productive (and powerful) since his arrival in 2005.  Every year has seen declines in his batting average, slugging percentage, and on base percentage.  If the Sox wanted someone who could hit a little, pinch hit a little, and occasionally DH or log innings, couldn’t they have conned Sean Casey out of retirement?  Duncan, who had been dispatched to AAA by the Cards, now heads to Pawtucket.

For the soon to be 30-year-old Adam LaRoche, the Red Sox hope to get a player with a second half hitting reputation.  Adam has power – but only once has cleared 30 homers (2006).  And, I’m not convinced he has decent fielding skills.  His numbers in 2008 showed him to be among the most immobile first basemen in the league (Ortiz is probably more immobile, which is why he’s a DH).  And – what does that say about Ortiz and Mike Lowell?  Who is going to sit to let LaRoche play?  Is Mark Kotsay heading to the broadcast booth?  I think these are fair questions to ask, Boston fans.  If Boston had picked up Jack Wilson, I would have understood.  But Adam LaRoche?

What does Pittsburgh get?  Argenis Diaz, a AA shortstop who must be a whale of a fielder because his career minor league average is about .273 with no power or speed, and he doesn’t wrestle his way to first with walks or getting hit by pitches.  They also received a 20 year old pitcher, Hunter Strickland, who is doing well for an 18th round pick out of high school.  He has good control (just 13 walks in 83 innings with Greenville in AA), but isn’t necessarily overpowering.  While he looks like he might help in two years, Strickland hasn’t registered on the top ten list for Baseball America.   I have never understood what the Pirates management was doing – they unloaded Jason Bay and Nate McLouth and Adam LaRoche despite being just a few games away from topping .500.  Aren’t they supposed to get serious MLB potential talent for three established MLB hitters?

For your latest Roy Halliday trade rumors, give this a read.  [FanNation/SI]

Jason Marquis will miss a start to heal a blister on his throwing hand.  [FoxSports]

I’m saddened by this…  The Baltimore Orioles are moving spring training from Ft. Lauderdale to Sarasota.  That means the furthest south spring training hits on the east coast will be Jupiter – home of the Cards and Marlins – an hour north of Ft. Lauderdale.  Look, Roger Dean Stadium rocks, but his is embarrassing for Miami’s sister city.  We used to have spring training in Pompano Beach (Texas), and to lose the Orioles is to basically give up on baseball from February through March down here.  What does Sarasota have that Ft. Lauderdale doesn’t?  Okay – the Ringling House and Circus Museum.  Woo Hoo!!!  Broward County should be embarrassed.

The Tigers are watching to see how Joel Zumaya’s shoulder responds to treatment, else it’s surgery for the hard throwing reliever.  Maybe he throws too hard.  [MLB]

Hurry Back!  Washington placed Jordan Zimmermann on the DL with elbow discomfort, then recalled Collin Balester from AAA Syracuse.

Welcome Back!  Minnesota sent Kevin Mulvey back to AAA, and recalled Jesse Crain.