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.

Free Agents Filing at Torrid Pace…

‘Tis the season for teams to decide on what members will remain on the 40-man roster, and which players will not get tendered offers based on existing options, and for other players to test the market.  So, for the next several days, the list of players on the MLB Free Agent list will grow and the number of players officially on the 40-man rosters will likely shrink for a little while.

The Rumor Mill

FoxSports reports that the Cubs are considering a three-way deal to move Milton Bradley.  The Cubs would get Luis Castillo from the Mets, the Mets would get Lyle Overbay from the Toronto Blue Jays, and Toronto would get Bradley.  Other deals suggest the Rays getting involved and offering Pat Burrell for Bradley.  [FoxSports]

The Mariners are looking to keep Felix Hernandez around (which means starting the process of a long-term deal now), but understand that there are many, many suitors for the AL Cy Young candidate.  [SI]

Thanks for Playing!

Carl Crawford remains in Tampa as the Rays honored his $10 million option.  Meanwhile, Brian Shouse and Greg Zaun were both bought out and will become free agents.  [ESPN]

Boston picked up the option for catcher Victor Martinez ($7.1 million), signed Tim Wakefield to a two-year deal loaded with incentives, but declined an option on Jason Varitek.  Varitek has the option to sign for $3 million to be a backup next year, else join the free agent market.  For Wakefield, he’ll have a chance to break the team record for pitching victories (Young/Clemens have 192) and win his 200th career game.  [ESPN]

Free Agent Filings…

The most interesting story is that a Japanese fireballer, Ryota Igarashi of the Yakult Swallows, owner of a 98-mph fastball, wants to play here.  Japanese players have to wait nine seasons before they can come to the states and Igarashi is already 30 but could be a viable late inning pitcher for somebody.  [ESPN]

The Dodgers declined a $2.2 million option on reliever Will Ohman, while Mark Loretta and Juan Castro also filed.  [ESPN/MLB]

Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, Yankee World Series heroes, joined the current list of 151 free agents.  Other Yankees on the list now include Eric Hinske, Jose Molina, and Xavier Nady.  [MLB]

Houston’s Jose Valverde, as good a reliever on the market, filed for free agency yesterday.  At least five Astros players (Erstad, Tejada, Brocail) are on the list now.  [MLB]

Octavio Dotel not only filed, but learned he was a Type A free agent, which means the Sox have to offer arbitation if they hope to get compensation should someone else sign Dotel.  [MLB]

Rockies pitchers Joe Beimel and Jose Contreras filed for free agency.  If Beimel is healthy, he’s a good pickup, but I’d be surprised if Contreras gets a lot of interest from teams.  [MLB]

Cubs closer (well, former closer) Kevin Gregg filed for free agency, and – like Dotel – was graded as a Type A free agent, meaning the Cubs have to offer Gregg arbitration to get the compensation draft pick.  [MLB]

Twins infielder Orlando Cabrera joined the list of free agents, alongside Mike Redmond, Ron Mahay, Carl Pavano, and Joe Crede on the list.  [MLB]

Toronto catcher Rod Barajas is a free agent, though he noted that he’d love to stay a Blue Jay.  [MLB]

You know who has a lot of free agents?  St. Louis.  Todd Wellemeyer became the ninth player (Holliday, Ankiel, Pineiro, Smoltz, Glaus, Greene, DeRosa, LaRue) to file.  [MLB]

Gary Sheffield also filed for free agency, trying to find ANYONE who might give him a chance to play.  He’s at eight teams and counting…  [MLB]

Free Agent Discussions

Jerry Crasnick met with a number of executives and put eight questions before them.  Want to see the answers?  [ESPN]

SI’s Ted Keith identifies his list of the ten riskiest free agents.  Well, nine + Rich Harden!!!  [SI]

Old News…

Something else I missed last week…  With several infielders on the horizon (Reid Brignac, Tim Beckham) and Ben Zobrist having blasted his way into the starting lineup, the Rays had less need for Akinori Iwamura.  So, the Rays shipped Iwamura to Pittsburgh for reliever Jesse Chavez.  Chavez probably appreciates the change of scenery, joining a contender, but he’ll need to step up his game to be a contributor.  I like this move for Pittsburgh.

Happy Birthday!

His 1961 season put him on the map, and for much of the 1960s, he was a great Tiger slugger – Norm Cash would be 75 today…

Also celebrating with cards and cake (or rememberances):  Jimmy Dykes (1896), Birdie Tebbetts (1912), Gene Conley (1930), Mike Vail (1951), Larry Christenson (1953), Larry Parrish (1953), Bob Stanley (1954), Jack Clark (1955), Kenny Rogers (1964), Keith Lockhart (1964), and Shawn Green (1972)…

Afterthoughts…

For the first time in nearly 30 years, it looks like all 27 members of the U.S. Appeals court will review the “drug list” case, determining the fate of the list of 104 players who allegedly failed the 2003 anonymous steroid survey.  [MLB]

Your Weekend Baseball Update: Comings and Goings of the Stars

Already covered the Scott Kazmir trade – so here’s the rest of what was a pretty interesting weekend of baseball, even if the only races worth watching are the Wild Card races.

Jake Peavy was pushing it – trying to use an elbow that had just been nailed by a liner five days back.  Saturday, he left his start early and now he’s going to have an MRI.  Sheesh – if he’d just waited it out, maybe there’s nothing wrong.  If he misses more than just a turn in the rotation, it’s a much bigger problem.  [ESPN]

Randy Johnson hopes to begin throwing again, but if he returns to the Giants he’s coming back to the bullpen.  I’d love to see him one more time, as even Johnson has no idea if he’s got a 2010 season in him.  [ESPN]

Boston’s Tim Wakefield took a cortisone shot to relieve pain in his back, but it will be a few days before it will be known if he’s going to be able to pitch down the stretch.  Wakefield has been out nearly six weeks now.  Meanwhile, somebody finally signed Paul Byrd; it was Boston and he pitched well enough this weekend to offer hope as a fifth starter option.  [ESPN]

Houston’s Mike Hamption is done for 2009, another season ending in injury.  Hampton is scheduled to have surgery on both knees and his throwing shoulder – knocking off three at once rather than pushing out his career DL trip record with two more trips next year.  Manager Cecil Cooper says Hampton should come back as a pinch hitter.  [SI]

Another Astro who won’t be coming back soon – Chad Qualls.  Qualls was twisting out of the way of a liner hit back up the middle when his left leg buckled, dislocating his knee cap.  He got the save (it was the last pitch of the game), but Qualls called for help immediately after he went down.  [MLB]

The Dodgers got a utility infielder, Ronnie Belliard, from the Nationals for a minor leaguer and a PTNL.  Belliard needs playing time to stay sharp because (if you haven’t seen him lately) he’s not the fittest looking guy and if he doesn’t play his timing goes off quickly.  The Nationals get Luis Garcia, who (if I am correct in guessing WHICH Luis Garcia he is) is a pretty good, albeit very young, reliever throwing for the Great Lakes Loons in the Midwest League.  This Luis Garcia has 55 ks and 15 bbs in 71 innings, is just 22, and hails from the Dominican Republic.   [MLB]

The Twins signed two relievers, acquiring Jon Rauch for a PTNL from Arizona, and signing the waived Ron Mahay away from Kansas City.  These guys may be experienced, but I’m not certain they are going to be players who change the course of the AL Central race.  [MLB]

My old Hoffman High School friend Robb Tavill is worried that Rich Harden may be on his way out of Chicago, and according to FoxSports, he could be a Twin if a deal can be reached.   St. Louis did a lot of damage in July – the Twins are loading up in August.  [FoxSports]

On the other hand, Twins third baseman Joe Crede is back on the DL with a sore back – a back that is so bad that it’s now considered career threatening.  Crede’s had epidural shots to help relieve pain, but at some point he’s going to have to deal with the pain that has linked to his last operation.  [MLB]

Back to the Cubs… Alfonso Soriano is hoping that the MRI done on his ailing knee gives him hope, else the Cubs could be shutting him down for the rest of 2009.  After a rather disappointing 2009, those six remaining years on his contract seem like such a LONG time…  [FoxSports]

Mets third baseman David Wright wants to play in September and is scheduled to come off the DL soon, a stint caused by a beaning two weeks ago.  One gets the impression from the news stories that Jerry Manual likes that Wright isn’t around and I’m not sure why that is.  But then again, I don’t understand those guys running the Mets.  [FoxSports]

Seattle’s Ian Snell was drilled in the right wrist by a liner on Saturday, but he’ll be fine – didn’t even leave the game.  Snell thanks milk for his bone not breaking – he put up his right arm in self-defense.  [MLB]

Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce is finally able to swing with his injured wrist – he hopes to get back to the Reds before the season is out.  Bruce broke his wrist diving for a ball in right field on July 11th and has been out since then.  [MLB]

Padres outfielder Kyle Blanks injured his foot rounding the bases on a home run trot and had to leave Saturday’s game – so the plantar fasciitis that he’s been suffering from (similar to the injury that hobbled Carlos Quentin and my running partner Mike Coe) is rearing its ugly foot.  Now, Blanks is on the DL.  [MLB]

Toronto’s Marco Scutaro was drilled in the head by a Josh Beckett fastball on Friday night, suffering a mild concussion, and remains day-to-day.  Scutaro and Aaron Hill have carried the Jays offense this season.  [MLB]

FoxSports reporter Chris Ballard wonders why teams are hooked on the five man rotation.  I think Ballard is even missing a more important point – and that’s why do teams use a five man rotation and not a five DAY rotation?  A baseball season is essentially 183 days, so if your ace started every fifth DAY rather than every fifth GAME, you’d get 36 or 37 starts out of him, rather than 33.  Why wouldn’t you take 16 starts away from your fifth starter and give them to the first four slots in the rotation?  I am also in favor of having rookie starters work on six days rest rather than five.  One year in long relief, one year as a fifth starter – getting 16 starts and maybe 10 – 15 relief appearances in between those starts – and then moving into the rotation.

There are teams that have a ton of young pitching that could just go with a six man rotation, too.   We digress.

Hurry Back! Chris Snyder, D-Backs catcher, heads to the DL with inflammation in his lower back.  Seattle’s Russell Branyan is having his best season, and now goes to the DL with a herniated disk in his back.  Florida sent Chris Volstad to AAA New Orleans – he needs to find his command.

Welcome Back! The Rays brought back Akinori Iwamura, who had injured his knee in a collision with Marlin outfielder Chris Coghlan in May.

2009 Season Forecast: Kansas City Royals

KC Royals
75 – 87 (4th AL Central)
Scored 691 Allowed 781

Quick Season Summary:

The Royals got off to a slow start, but seemed to get things turned around in August, and built steam down the stretch. Along the way, they found a new ace in Zach Greinke, who pairs with Gil Meche to provide one of the best starting duos in baseball. The problem was that the offense was tolerable at times, but had too many holes.

Tell Me About That Offense:

Mike Aviles was the best rookie hitter since 1987 (Seitzer), hitting .325 with some pop. He’s old for a rookie – 27 – and if you think he’s a long term answer, you’re probably wrong. He is, however, a nice short term solution. David DeJesus was solid. Jose Guillen was added, had 97 RBI, but was generally overrated because his batting average was just .264 and he drew 23 walks. The lineup features a lot of average to below average hitters; they still need a couple of good bats. Tony Pena couldn’t buy a hit. On the whole, too many holes. Only two teams scored fewer runs.

And the Defense:

David DeJesus was out of position in center, but better than Joey Gathright who is fast except when chasing fly balls. Tony Pena was atrocious in the field, his bad hitting going to the field with him. Alex Gordon wasn’t great, and Mark Grudzielanek was tolerable when healthy. Most of the first basemen couldn’t field. Mark Teahan fields well no matter where he plays.

Pitching:

Royals pitchers were either really good or really bad. Zack Greinke and Gil Meche were really good. Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar were really bad. Why did they try Brett Tomko, who we all know can’t pitch? Kyle Davies looked good as a rookie. In the pen, the Royals were better than expected. Joakim Soria is a stud, Leo Nunez was good, Ramon Ramirez was solid, and ancient veteran Ron Mahay was good, too. However, Jimmy Gobble, Joel Peralta, and Kip Wells (predictably for Wells) were awful.

What is Different for 2009?

Kansas City lost Ramirez to Boston (he’ll be missed), but got Coco Crisp to play center. They traded Leo Nunez for Marlin Mike Jacobs, like they needed another first baseman, but Jake can hit for power. Luke Hochever was sent back to AAA, and they will be trying Sidney Ponson (why?). Kyle Davies moved into rotation permanently. Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth were signed for bullpen – Cruz is an especially good acquisition. Brian Bannister has to improve or his career ends – he allows too many balls in play, many of which left the yard. The net result, though, is positive. Probably 25 runs better than last year.

Crisp in center is a step up from Gathright, which means a full season of DeJesus in left – another good idea. No Pena, more Aviles is a positive. I’m not happy with Gordon’s progression, but he’ll get better (he has to), and Jacobs won’t be worse than what they had. They’ll miss Grudz at second; Alberto Callaspo isn’t that good. The net result is positive if Crisp stays healthy, so that’s another 15 runs better than last year.

The offense might be better. Billy Butler showed improvement after he got back from AAA. Jacobs adds some run production, but he needs to hit better than last year in Florida – a few more walks wouldn’t hurt. Crisp COULD be really good, he’s going to be way better than Gathright. More Olivo and less Buck is good. Did I say that the Royals would miss Grudz – he hits better than Callaspo, too. I think they score 40 runs more than last year.

When you add it up, the numbers suggest about 730 runs scored, allow about 740. With the right breaks, they finish with 80 wins or even sneak over .500. However, they actually played a bit better than would have been expected last year, and I’m not convinced that Bannister will be that much better. So, I’ll go with 78 – 84, which will still be a slight improvement and in the AL Central, could be competitive.

On the Farm…

One look at AAA Omaha and you see that one of the Royals’ problems is the lack of depth in the organization. The best players got a shot – Ryan Shealy, Shane Costa, Angel Berroa (how sad, really). The only real prospect is Billy Butler and quite possibly the Hawaiian Volcano, Kilo Kaaihue (11 homers in 114 at bats at AAA, another 26 homers in AA, which makes you wonder why the Royals traded for Mike Jacobs…). Brett Bigler got moved up – he was 23 last year. The best pitcher was Kyle Davies – 6 – 2, 2.03 ERA, he’s already on the team. Jorge De La Rosa got four starts, but is 27 and too old to be called a prospect. Carlos Rosa might be good – 4 – 3 in 11 starts, 44 Ks and 12 BBs in Omaha, after going 4 – 2 with a 1.20 ERA in AA with an even better K/W ratio.

Dan Cortes won 10 games in AA Northwest Arkansas, but could stand to improve his control. Moving to A+ Wilmington, at least you see some youth and speed. Derrick Robinson is a burner but doesn’t hit for average or power. Joe Dickerson can run and hit some, shows plate discipline – probably the best prospect here. The best pitcher is either Greg Holland, a 22-year-old who fanned 96 in 84.1 innings, or 22-year-old Henry Barrera, a reliever with 78Ks in 57.2 innings.