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.

Top AL Third Basemen in 2009

Evan Longoria (TB):  No sophomore slump here, huh?  One of the better offensive performers (33 – 113 – .281), draws a few walks, and is as good a defender at his position as there is in the game.  Other than a couple of first basemen and maybe Joe Mauer, nobody was more valuable in the American League.  (114.0 Runs Scored, 31.91 Runs Saved = 146.76 Total Run Production)

If he was a full time third baseman, Kevin Youkilis would rate next.

Chone Figgins (LAA):  Gets on base, runs the bases well, and had an above average season with the glove – a sign that he’s getting more comfortable over there now that he’s not being used like a super utility player. Seattle will like having him at the front of the line up.  (104.3 Runs Created, 7.5 Runs Saved = 111.86 Total Run Production.)

If you are an Angels fan, you probably want to know more about Brandon Wood.  Wood has been the power hitting infielder in waiting for what seems like a small eternity.  Wood was a first round draft pick back in 2003, and has had seasons at Rancho Cucamonga and Salt Lake City that would suggest that he’s the next Troy Glaus.  Personally, I don’t buy it.  Now, he’s struggled to hit .190 in the majors because he’s spent a lot of time going back and forth between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.  He’s really only had one month where he got some regular MLB playing time – and that month he hit about .250 with a little power.  And that’s where I think he’ll be.  As a rule of thumb, you can usually look at PCL stats and knock 50 points of the batting average and about 40% of the power off the top.  In three seasons of AAA ball, Wood has hit between .270 and .295 with 25 homer power.  That translates to about 15 homers and a .245 batting average.  I’d like to think, hitting at the bottom of the lineup, he’d be okay.  Wood might do a bit better than that – the way Kendry Morales jumped up and hit like a monster.  A bit better than that is 20 homers and .260 – which is decent enough if he brings a solid glove and improves his strikeout/walk ratio.  Wood turns 25 in March, which is a bit long in the tooth for a prospect.

Alex Rodriguez (NYY):  Missed a month following hip surgery, and then needed some time to get back into playing shape.  After the all-star break, he was dominating at times – including during the playoffs.  Is getting better defensively, but has never been an above average fielder.  Would he still be this good had he not spent years on the juice?  (100.3 Runs Created, -6.50 Runs Saved = 93.76 Total Run Production)

Jhonny Peralta (CLE):  As a hitter, he’s declining but tolerable.  As a fielder, he was surprisingly solid at third base.  I don’t know if he’s a long term solution, but what else do the Indians have?  Besides, I’m ranking him as the fourth most productive third baseman in the AL! Andy Marte is penciled in as a backup here and at first base – and in more than a year’s worth of MLB at bats has struggled to hit .220.  Marte looked good at Columbus in AAA, but so far he has not progressed beyond prospect.  (75.6 Runs Created, 10.6 Runs Saved, 86.19 Total Run Production)

Adrian Beltre (SEA):  Couldn’t stay healthy, and his bat suffered mightily.  He’s now at the age where the chances of him returning to his 2006-2008 form are getting slimmer, but his stats might come back playing in Fenway.  He’s never been a GREAT hitter, but he’s always been above average until last year.  He remains a great fielder, though – and he will help Boston’s pitchers.  (55.5 Runs Created, 28.6 Runs Saved = 84.14 Total Run Production)

Brandon Inge (DET):  His body broke down as the season progressed, but he still played in 161 games.  I’m just not so sure he was helping in, say, September.  A surprising number of homers made up for a lack of batting average.  He remains a pretty good fielder.  (71.9 Runs Created, 9.4 Runs Saved, 81.31 Total Run Production)

Melvin Mora (BAL):  Now in Colorado.  Like Beltre, his bat fell in the tank.  Defensively, he was solid – so he can still help.  He’s not getting any younger, though…  Welcome back, Miguel Tejada, who – if he doesn’t age two more years – should be a step up here.  (51.6 Runs Created, 21.70 Runs Saved, 73.32 Total Run Production)

Adam Kennedy (OAK):  Played all over the infield, but had the most innings here.  He’s really NOT a third baseman and having been signed to play second base for Washington, is returning to his old home…  Kevin Kouzmanoff arrives from San Diego to play for the As, and Eric Chavez could always come back from injuries to play for a month at some point in the season.  Kouz is NOT a step up from what Kennedy did overall – and if we ranked him using the numbers he put up in San Diego, would rank in this exact same spot anyway.

Mike Lowell (BOS):  His hip injuries have become problematic, but he’s more productive than most.  Last year’s fielding numbers were below average and his offensive numbers weren’t great but still above the league norm.  Somebody is going to give him 400 at bats and he’s not going to be a problem.  I still predict that he’ll join the Marlins radio booth in a few years…  (69.7 Runs Created, -4.2 Runs Saved = 65.51 Total Run Production)

Gordon Beckham (CWS):  Actually, not a bad tally for a rookie and if he were staying at third, I’d like his chances to move into the top five in this group next year.  Instead, the White Sox are moving Beckham to second base and giving his job to Mark Teahen – which isn’t a great idea (I’d rather have kept Beckham at third and signed Orlando Hudson), and it might take a while for the new infield to gel.  Beckham’s OBP and SLG numbers were solid.  I like him.  (60.5 Runs Created, 4.2 Runs Saved = 64.67 Total Run Production)

Michael Young (TEX):  Newly found power source gave Young perhaps his best offensive season ever.  However, he looked out of position at third after years as a shortstop and his overall production numbers dropped him to eleventh.  Hopefully he can maintain the offense and improve his range in 2010.  (102.8 Runs Created, -39.0 Runs Saved = 63.83 Total Run Production)

Scott Rolen (TOR):  Had a remarkably productive run for Toronto, hitting .320 with a little power.  He was so good, Toronto sent him to Cincinnati…  Like Lowell, you wonder how many years he has left, but if he can hit like this, he’s got plenty.  Glove is no longer a strong suit.  Edwin Encarnacion may not have this job for long unless he finds some stability and to be honest, this is a step down for Toronto.  (63.2 Runs Created, -5.6 Runs Saved = 57.61 Total Run Production).

Joe Crede (MIN):  The best of what Minnesota threw out there (Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Brian Buscher, Nick Punto), Crede isn’t horrible but he isn’t dependably healthy either.  Minnesota will go in a different direction, but it’s hard to say what that direction will be.  As of this writing, Harris is listed at the top of the depth chart but he is NOT a third baseman.  (38.2 Runs Created, 6.8 Runs Saved = 45.01 Total Run Production)

Mark Teahen (KC):  Alex Gordon will get his old job back, but it’s not like Gordon has been as advertised since arriving with the Royals three years ago.  Teahen struggled mightily in the field for some reason – he’s usually pretty dependable.  Now, he’s a White Sox third baseman, and that may not be a good thing.  We’ll see.  (67.4 Runs Created, -23.9 Runs Saved = 43.53 Total Run Production)

Top AL Second Basemen in 2009

Robinson Cano (NYY):  A graceful hitter and smooth second baseman who has power and a keen batting eye…  Edged Hill in the closest race for top billing at his position.  Something tells me that, offensively, Cano can still be better.  Just a shade below Teixeira in total production, but a touch more valuable overall.  (120.2 Runs Created, 16.4 Runs Saved = 136.61 Total Run Production)

Aaron Hill (TOR):  Came back with a vengence – had his career year as a comeback season.  I would never have guessed 36 homers and I don’t know that it will happen again.  To be fair, his 2007 season left room for a potential breakout like this – if you remember it: 47 doubles and 17 homers in 74 fewer at bats than he had in 2009.  Still – a remarkable season and I’ll root for him to repeat.  (117.7 Runs Created, 18.8 Runs Saved = 136.46 Total Run Production)

Ben Zobrist (TB):  Speaking of breakout seasons – took over when Akinori Iwamura went down and played a solid second base while hitting like an outfielder.  Would you have guessed this when he hit 5 homers in 388 at bats in A Ball?  Or in 2006 when he hit 5 homers in 567 at bats at three different levels?  He started showing flashes of power in 2007 at Durham, cranked it up as a reserve in 2008, and launched his career with power, patience at the plate, and an amazing season.  Like Hill, however, I don’t think he’s going to repeat it…  Turns 29 in May.  (114.8 Runs Created, 9.8 Runs Saved = 124.63 Total Run Production)

Ian Kinsler (TEX):  30 – 30 member (31 of each, actually) and someone ANY team would be proud to have.  He and Andrus seal up the middle defensively like nobody’s business.  First season of 140+ games, in his three previous seasons he had missed a month somewhere…  He’s the new Joe Gordon – if anyone is old enough to remember the original.  (92.7 Runs Created, 14.8 Runs Saved = 107.46 Total Run Production

Placido Polanco (DET):  Doesn’t have the power of the top four guys, but gets his share of hits and still makes all the plays defensively.  To hear it at the end of the year, though, people were saying Polanco had lost a step.  By my calculations, he was the best defensive second baseman in the AL – and it was the best season of the last four that I have tracked.  I don’t think he’ll have the same impact in Philadelphia – he’s not quite the same hitter and he’s moving to a less familiar position.  Detroit will be hard pressed to get similar production in 2010 at this position.  (82.4 Runs Created, 23.4 Runs Saved = 106.15 Total Run Production

By the way, the guy who might have the top shot at second base is Scott Sizemore.  Sizemore hit .308 last year in AA and AAA with 17 homers, 21 stolen bases, and has a .383 OBP in his minor league career.  He’s been a top ten prospect each of the last three seasons after being drafted in the fifth round out of Virginia Commonwealth in 2006.  We’ll see if he’s got the goods defensively, but the Tigers took a reasonable gamble in letting Polanco go to give Sizemore a shot.

Dustin Pedroia (BOS):  Still a solid performer offensively, but took a step back with the glove.  I don’t think anyone was serious about moving him to short – Pedroia doesn’t look like he has that kind of throwing arm.  He’s such a high energy guy, I worry about him running out of gas earlier than other guys because he’s going to run himself into the ground; but you never know.  (105.2 Runs Created, -14.50 Runs Saved = 90.68 Total Run Production)

Jose Lopez (SEA):  Good power, but little patience at the plate.  And, he’s not as good a fielder as the top guys.  I have him below average in three of the last four years and I don’t think he’s going to get better.  I don’t see Lopez getting replaced anytime soon – but his window of productivity might be smaller than other guys and the Mariners talk about moving him to first base.  (89.9 Runs Created, -10.7 Runs Saved = 79.17 Total Run Production)

Brian Roberts (BAL):  Fantastic leadoff hitter – a bit of power, gets on base, steals bases at a decent rate.  Offensively, he’s one of the five best second basemen.  And then you have his glove, which took a step back last season and affected his rating.  Like Paul Molitor, maybe he should become a first baseman/DH in a couple of years…  (106.6 Runs Created, -31.2 Runs Saved = 75.49 Total Run Production)

Adam Kennedy (OAK):  Played shorstop and second but not as the regular; slightly below average at both positions defensively but wasn’t a total loss offensively.  Mark Ellis had the job most of last year (see below), but if you were looking for options Kennedy might be worth a look.  Uh – Minnesota, can you hear me?  (80.7 Runs Created, -10.37 Runs Saved = 70.36 Total Run Production)

Alberto Callaspo (KC):  Got a full season and hit enough but was a disaster in the field.  In his defense, it was his first full season, but he had 365 innings there in 2008 and they weren’t necessarily pretty.  Still – mid range power and a .300 batting average is a good starting point.  Turns 27 this year, so he COULD break out and push 15 to 20 homers and have a Dustin Pedroia type season.  (89.8 Runs Created, -22.97 Runs Saved = 66.82 Total Run Production)

Luis Valbuena (CLE):  I think he’ll be okay if he gets a full shot at the job.  Some power, could use patience and more contact, but plays second base well enough.  Acquired in the deal that sent Franklin Gutierrez to Seattle, he’s just 24 and on his way.  If you are in a keeper league, scoop him up.  (50.2 Runs Created, 14.9 Runs Saved = 65.11 Total Run Production)

Howie Kendrick (LAA):  Better contact hitter than Valbuena, but not the fielder Luis is…  I did a study some time ago where long time second sackers were out of gas if they couldn’t generate at least 60 runs of offense – no matter how good a fielder.  In Kendrick’s case – he needs to step up for a full season and put his career in gear.  Howie has the tools to do it.  (56.9 Runs Created, -6.0 Runs Saved = 50.93 Total Run Production)

Mark Ellis (OAK):  On the downside of his career, but able to help out because he still has some power, patience and range.  His body may not cooperate much longer, but as long as Ellis can get to the playing field, he’ll contribute.  (49.2 Runs Created, 1 Run Saved = 50.17 Total Run Production)

Chris Getz (CWS):  Now in Kansas City because they can’t get enough utility middle infielders…  Getz doesn’t hit for a high average, and he while he has some patience, doesn’t have a really high on base percentage either.  He can field a little bit.  That makes him Tim Foli.  The White Sox have decided to move Gordon Beckham to second – which may not help the defense but will help put a few more runs on the board.  (45.5 Runs Created, 3.8 Runs Saved = 49.25 Total Run Production)

Nick Punto (MIN): Shared the position with Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert, and neither of them was really good enough.  None of the three can hit – Tolbert and Casilla can play the field, and Punto is the new Mick Kelleher or Steve Dillard.  We’ll see him coaching in a few years.  As of 2/4, the Twins still haven’t resolved this hole but if Orlando Cabrera or Orlando Hudson are still available, get him.  The closest thing to a middle infield prospect might be Brian Dinkelman, a AA infielder who looks like Jeff Treadway with a bit better glove but is still a year away and already 26 years old…

Notes: Like the first basemen, the median second baseman is producing about 75 runs, which means that Cano and Hill were worth about six extra wins each to his respective team.