Saturday, March 31, 2007

On the Spot: Luis Castillo

Any talk of the Twins offense this year is likely to center around a particular group of players. Questions like these will swirl in people's minds: Can Joe Mauer repeat as batting champ? Can Justin Morneau replicate his amazing 2006 campaign? Will Torii Hunter come up big in his contract year? Will Rondell White hit more like he did in the second half of last season? Can Jason Kubel keep his knees healthy? Can Nick Punto prove that he's for real?

Certainly, those are all important questions. But there is one player that tends to get overlooked in all of the excitement and uncertainty, and that player is the steady -- if unspectacular -- second baseman Luis Castillo. Much enthusiasm was generated here in Minnesota when the Twins acquired Castillo from the Marlins last offseason in exchange for pitching prospects Travis Bowyer and Scott Tyler. Fans who had just been forced to sit through a season of watching guys like Luis Rivas and Bret Boone at second base were ecstatic to get a former All-Star and Gold Glove winner at the position. The deal looked good then, and it looks even better now. The Marlins released Bowyer this spring, and Tyler had a mediocre season at Double-A last year.

Castillo was as advertised in his first season with the Twins. He batted .296, swiped 25 bags, didn't strike out much, and generally played well in the field. Perhaps his most important function was serving as an effective leadoff man after replacing Shannon Stewart at the top of the lineup mid-way through the season. Castillo has become the first true leadoff hitter that the Twins have had since Chuck Knoblauch. We fans have grown accustomed to seeing ill-fitted players like the hacktastic Jacque Jones and the complacent Cristian Guzman filling the leadoff role; even Stewart -- a good hitter in his own right -- would not generally be classified as a true leadoff guy in the sense that he was not known for his patience or his ability to work deep into counts. Castillo is extremely patient at the plate -- sometimes to a fault. He typically works deep into counts and gives his teammates on the bench and in the on-deck circle an opportunity to get a sense of what the opposing pitcher is bringing on a particular day. Some have criticized Castillo for a lack of effort on the field. Indeed, he frequently jogs to first base on grounders and occasionally slouches on defense. In the end, however, Castillo is a consistent defender who turns in the occasional amazing play, and it's tough to criticize his laziness on the basepaths when he's still able to steal 25 bases and lead the league in infield hits.

This will be an important year for Castillo. He's now had a full season to acclimate himself to the American League, which could lead to improved numbers. He is in the final year of his contract, which may provide additional motivation. Of course, he is also 31 years old and those gimpy knees don't seem to be getting any better, so the possibility of decline or injury is present.

The Twins do have a potential replacement waiting in the wings in the form of Alexi Casilla. He had a stellar season in the minors last year, and the Twins seem to feel that he is nearing major-league readiness. Ron Gardenhire expressed a strong desire this spring to take him north as a backup infielder, but in the end the team decided it was more important that he get regular at-bats as a starter with Rochester. If Casilla plays well at the Triple-A level early this season, he could make Castillo a tradable commodity. While an aging middle-infielder with bad knees is probably not going to net anything amazing in a trade, I'm sure there will be a market for a veteran leadoff presence like Castillo, and Terry Ryan is known for maximizing value on trade returns. Plus, if Castillo has a good first half, it would only help increase his appeal to other clubs.

The success of the Twins lineup will no doubt be mostly dependent on the production of guys like Mauer and Morneau, but it's important to remember that every night this lineup starts with its reliable leadoff man, and he could be important than some people think this year.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Twinkie Links

* As many of you know, the 25-man roster was finalized yesterday and J.D. Durbin was placed on waivers. He was claimed by the Diamondbacks. Just as I predicted earlier this week, a good arm like Durbin was let go in order to make way for a third-string catcher -- in this case Chris Heintz -- to be kept. It was a repeat of the Corky Miller/Michael Restovich debacle from 2005. Quite frankly, it was ridiculous. Once again I reiterate that, although Durbin may never amount to much, that really isn't the point. It's highly doubtful Heintz will do much of anything for the team, but he will be there instead of a useful arm or even another bat with some semblence of competence like Josh Rabe. Not smart. But, then again, this wasn't much of a race, as Durbin's 11.25 ERA along with 16 hits and five walks in eight innings made the battle for the last spot between Rabe and Heintz.

* Carlos Silva threw five scoreless innings against the Reds last night, giving up two hits and striking out two and walking none. He also induced nine groundball outs. I'm sure that Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan might think this vindicates their decision. But, clearly, five innings doesn't make up for what happened last year nor does it erase all the previous awful spring starts. Previously, we were hoping and praying to see as little of Silva as possible. As ridiculous as it sounds, apparently the Twins took five innings last night as a sign, ignoring his previous disaster of a start and deciding that he was so good that they are re-thinking their plan to make him the No. 5 starter. If that happens, some kind of protest movement or boycott needs to be started. This can't be happening.....

* Scot Shields signed a three-year, $14.6 million extension with the Angels. Shields is a good comp for Juan Rincon and what he might possibly get for a contract after he is out from the Twins' control. Rincon will make $2 million this season and has one year of arbitration remaining after this year. Both he and Shields are right-handed setup men who rack up appearances like few other pitcher in the league. They also put up fairly similar numbers, with each generally posting great ERAs and strikeout rates. If the Twins decide to try and negotiate an extension, those are probably the numbers they will be looking at.

* Here's an interesting story on Doug Mientkiewicz from a New York paper. When it comes down to it, Doug is a pretty interesting interview. And, of course, he has interesting things to say about being with the Twins.

* Many popular bloggers (notably SBG and Gleeman) find Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan to be a source of amousement most of the time. However, I'll grant him that his article on Garza being sent down wasn't bad and his most recent one on Joe Nathan deserves some credit. Heck, crazy stats like opposing batting average were even mentioned. Top Jimmy, Shecky Souhan... call him whatever you want. He is showing signs of improvement.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Winner By Default

Much to no one's surprise, the Twins re-assigned Matt Garza to minor-league camp yesterday, assuring Carlos Silva the fifth spot in the rotation to start the season. Garza pitched well this spring, posting a 1.50 ERA while allowing nine hits, walking five and striking out seven over 12 innings. Silva was of course horrible, posting an 11.02 ERA while allowing more than two base-runners per inning.

I feel bad for Garza. He came into this spring with the mindset that a spot in the rotation was his, and he wasn't going to do anything to lose it. And really, he didn't do anything to lose it. He pitched well. Of course, the Twins didn't really give him much of a chance to prove he belonged. He started only one game (Silva will make his fifth start tonight) and never pitched more than three innings in an outing.

As much as this move frustrates me, I can see how it is at least somewhat defensible. The fifth starter for the Twins will probably only make three starts in April, and Garza needs regular action early in the season. Furthermore, if the Twins had gone with Garza only to have him struggle badly or run into an injury, they would lack options to replace him since Silva would be gone and Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins probably need a little more time in the minors.

I realize I'm toting the company line here. Don't get me wrong, I think you need to go with the guy that gives you the best chance to win, and without question that would appear to be Garza. All I'm saying is that this probably isn't the worst thing in the world, assuming the Twins don't handle the situation the way they handled the Castro/Bartlett debacle last year. If we reach the end of April and Silva is getting shelled while Garza is tearing up Triple-A, and the Twins do nothing, I'll be furious. But every indication is that Silva's leash is fairly short at this point. It seems that Ron Gardenhire has backed off from heaping the absurd praise on Silva that he's given him in the past and that he gave Castro early last season. Gardy has said that if Silva continues to struggle, the team will "make an adjustment." Hopefully that's the case

As it stands though, the Twins will apparently open the season with a potentially disastrous rotation. Behind Johan Santana, we'll be watching Boof Bonser, Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Silva. I'm hoping the latter three can find a way to recapture the form they showed earlier in their careers. Even more, I'm hoping that if they can't, the Twins will not stand idly by and watch their 2007 season go to waste.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Late Roster Moves

Usually, I don't read much into what Twins beat writer Kelly Thesier says, unless its a funny mailbag question or something she wrote that just doesn't look quite right. However, she does provide plenty of quotes from the inner circle that controls the Twins. And manager Ron Gardenhire has had plenty to say lately.

J.D. Durbin was yesterday's hot topic and that continues to be, but more in the sense that it is becoming increasingly unlikely he will be on the team come next week. According to Thesier's article yesterday, Gardenhire sees the last roster battles as one between Carlos Silva and Matt Garza for the fifth spot in the rotation and one between Josh Rabe, Chris Heintz and Durbin for the final roster spot.

As for Durbin, Thesier says that his lack of options are "an issue with the club hesitant to lose a power arm like his," but Gardy has "made clear his preference earlier this spring to keep 11 pitchers and go with an extra bench player." In other words, Durbin is probably done. And that is because we are seeing a repeat of 2005.

As fans surely recall, the possibility of Joe Mauer getting hurt in 2005 freaked out Gardy so much that he decided to keep Corky Miller on the roster for a third-catcher. Miller managed 12 at-bats with an amazing .000/.000/.000 line before getting sent down for good. (Miller, for those tracking, holds an astounding .190/.285/.310 career line. Have to be excited about that 0.95 Isolated Discipline. This guy is patient!) By keeping Miller, the Twins were forced to part with Michael Restovich.

Restovich has a career .286/.367/.500 line at the minor-league level, with 155 homers. He had several great years in the Twins' minor-league system, including a great year at Triple-A in 2002 when he hit .286/.353/.542 with 29 homers and 98 RBI. In other words, he had the potential to be a great outfielder for the Twins and was just as good of a prospect as Durbin is, if not better.

Despite this, Restovich was never really given much of a chance by the Twins to prove himself at the major-league level and like Durbin, he struggled with injuries the year before he was released. He was easily disposed of so that Gardy could sleep at night. It appears Durbin will meet the same fate and once again, it will be for questionable reasons.

Restovich never latched on with another team, only to come back and hit home run after home run against them like a certain former Twin. Likewise, it isn't all that likely that if he is picked up, Durbin will join a team and destroy the Twins every time he faces them. But that isn't the point. The point is it would be a silly move to keep Heintz on the team and let go of a talented arm like Durbin's.

Many talented arms don't bloom until later. Spring training stats aren't meaningful enough to determine letting go of Durbin. And if keeping him means that Rabe or Heintz might be lost, it isn't as bad a loss Durbin.

As for the Silva and Garza battle? No use in wasting breath. Everyone knows the sad answer to that fiasco.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Is the Real Deal Done?

The Twins seemingly entered spring training with the intention of giving 25-year-old right-hander J.D. Durbin every opportunity to make the big-league club. "The Real Deal" is out of options, meaning that if he doesn't make the team, the Twins will be forced to waive him and almost undoubtedly lose him to another team without compensation.

Sadly, Durbin has done nothing to earn a spot on the team this spring. After giving up four earned runs on five hits and a walk in one inning of work against the Orioles yesterday, Durbin now holds a ghastly 12.38 ERA to go along with a 2.63 WHIP over seven appearances.

I think most Twins fans were pulling for Durbin. A second-round selection in the 2000 draft, he became a highly rated prospect after cruising through the lower levels of the minor leagues, but he struggled in a couple stints at Triple-A in 2004 and 2005. Last year, when he finally seemed to find his own at Rochester, posting a 2.33 ERA through his first 16 starts, he suffered an elbow injury that ended his season and reportedly continues to bother him now.

Despite his live arm and good stuff, Durbin's lingering injury concerns and lack of command make it tough to justify giving him a roster spot, and I suspect that's something the Twins are feeling. A player simply needs to do more to earn a spot on a major-league roster than being out of options, and really that's all Durbin has going for him at this point. I'll be sorry to see a guy with Durbin's potential go, especially when he'd be failing to make the roster in favor of a bum like Carlos Silva, but unfortunately I'm starting to think it's the way things will go down.

If the Twins decide not to keep Durbin, they have two options: they can either try and trade him before the start of the season, or -- as I mentioned above -- they can expose him to waivers. I have to imagine that Durbin's trade value is extremely low at this point. In fact, I have to wonder whether any team would be willing to part with anything of value for him knowing that he'll be probably be hitting waivers soon. Simply put, if the Twins attempt to deal Durbin, they won't have much leverage.

Now we come to this question: if Durbin does not make the team, who will claim that 25th spot on the roster? I continue to believe that the Twins will go north with 12 pitchers, so I do believe it will be a member of the bullpen. Mike Venafro seems like a natural option, as he has yet to allow a run in 10 innings of work this spring and Ron Gardenhire has expressed a desire to bring an additional lefty to complement Dennys Reyes in the 'pen. Gardy has also entertained the notion of bringing Matt Garza north as a long reliever, in an effort to stretch him out and eventually insert him into the rotation (somewhat similar to Francisco Liriano last year). Garza has pitched well this spring, but has not pitched more than three innings in a game, so it's tough to see him starting the season in the Twins' rotation. However, I'd rather see him begin the season starting games in Rochester than working out of the Twins' bullpen.

With six days remaining before the season opener, Gardenhire and the rest of his staff will probably be making some major roster decisions within the next few days. It will be very interesting to see what happens with Durbin and that 25th spot on the roster.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Nicks' Picks 2007

Last spring, we both correctly picked the Cardinals to win the World Series, but the rest of our predictions weren't terribly accurate. This year, we've both got AL teams winning the World Series, but not the same one. Here are our predictions for the 2007 season. We'd love to hear yours in the comments section.


AL West
AL Central
AL East
AL Wild Card
AL Division Round
Tigers over Yankees
Indians over Athletics
AL Championship
Tigers over Indians

NL West
NL Central
NL East
NL Wild Card
NL Division Round
Dodgers over Phillies
Mets over Cubs
NL Championship
Dodgers over Mets

World Series
Tigers over Dodgers

Grady Sizemore
Miguel Cabrera

AL Cy Young
Johan Santana
NL Cy Young
Jason Schmidt

AL Rookie of the Year
Alex Gordon
NL Rookie of the Year
Chris Young


AL West
AL Central
AL East
AL Wild Card
Red Sox
AL Division Round
Tigers over Red Sox
Yankees over Angels
AL Championship
Yankees over Tigers

NL West
NL Central
NL East
NL Wild Card
NL Division Round
Mets over Diamondbacks
Dodgers over Cardinals
NL Championship
Dodgers over Mets

World Series
Yankees over Dodgers

Grady Sizemore
Albert Pujols

AL Cy Young
Johan Santana
NL Cy Young
Ben Sheets

AL Rookie of the Year
Alex Gordon
NL Rookie of the Year
Andy LaRoche

Friday, March 23, 2007

Babying the Big Boys

It can be argued that there is little importance in what a manager or coach says about his players in the media. Most players probably ignore newspaper stories or, at the very least, take them with a grain of salt. Still, it's a well-documented fact that Ron Gardenhire has a tendency to go out of his way to make excuses or heap undeserving praise on a pitcher who has a poor outing, and that tendency has been on full display this spring. There's nothing wrong with that, in essence; a big part of a manager's job is to maintain player morale and keep the confidence of his guys up. Yet, it seems to me that Gardy is most always much more willing to provide this service to the veterans than to the younger players or prospects who have a rough day.

Most people who read either of the local newspapers have probably noticed this. Carlos Silva gets knocked around by the Twins' Double-A affiliate and Gardy is "encouraged" by the movement on his pitches. Then Kevin Slowey has his first rough outing of the spring and is promptly bumped down to the minors. In general, I rarely see the Twins' manager going out of his way to emphasize the positives when a younger guy gets roughed up, but he almost always does so for guys like Silva and Sidney Ponson.

For instance, after seeing youngster Glen Perkins struggle in a start against the Red Sox on Tuesday, Gardy had the following quote in a Star Trib recap:
"He never really found a good rhythm, and it's all about being to make an adjustment," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You see that with younger pitchers. Veterans know how to step off the mound a little bit better than some of the young guys, take a deep breath and make an adjustment."
Or, in other words, it's too bad Perkins isn't a veteran and couldn't "make an adjustment." You know, kind of like the adjustments Silva has been making this spring en route to a 7.62 ERA and 5-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Or the adjustments Ponson has made while giving up 17 hits and seven earned runs in 10 innings. Hogwash.

And then there's Boof Bonser. Gardenhire has been pretty much unwilling to come out and openly announce Bonser as a lock for the rotation, despite the fact that he was a crucial component in the team's stretch run last year and he's been outstanding this spring, holding a 2.25 ERA and 12/0 strikeout-to-walk ratio up until hitting a slight bump in the road yesterday. Even now, it sounds like Bonser will be the fifth starter, which could mean he will have a few starts skipped early in the season in order to keep the rest of the rotation on schedule when the team has days off. Meanwhile, Silva, Ponson and Ramon Ortiz have pretty much been written into the rotation all along, despite terrible numbers last season and (with the exception of Ortiz) uninspiring performances this spring.

To me, Gardenhire's philosophy makes little sense. If anything, shouldn't the younger pitchers be the ones getting babied in the media? I have to imagine that their confidence is a little more fragile than veterans who have been in the major leagues for several years.

This trend seems to provide further evidence of an ongoing bias in the Twins' organization against rookies, one that has been around since Tom Kelly was the manager. It is particularly frustrating because the Twins are a team that needs to rely on rookies to step up and produce if they want to win. That fact became blatantly clear last season, and I have little doubt that this season will be the same way.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

NL Predictions

After Mr. Nelson's AL predictions yesterday, it's time to get into my NL predictions:

NL East

1. New York Mets
Despite all the hype about the Phillies, I still see the NL East as New York's to lose. They have the offense and a strong bullpen. With a 3-4-5 of Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Carlos Delgado and a great leadoff hitter in Jose Reyes, the Mets have a pretty impressive line-up. Also, they made one of the better offseason signings, giving Moises Alou a one-year contract with the departure of Cliff Floyd. Definitely an upgrade. As for the bullpen, the Billy Wagner-Aaron Heilman-Duanar Sanchez combination is pretty impressive and adding a young, potentially good arm like Ambiorix Burgos is a solid move. I admit that the rotation isn't very impressive, as Tom Glavine is 40, Pedro Martinez is hurt, Orlando Hernandez could well be 50, and Chan Ho Park hasn't been good since Barry Bonds hit number 71 off of him. Nonetheless, they have the advantage in the NL East.

2. Philadelphia Phillies
Seems right now that the Phillies are a trendy pick to win the division. I'm not sure they have the talent to do so, but I think the Phillies will probably win the Wild Card. It will be a close race. The Phillies have a pretty good 3-4-5 too with Chase Utley, Pat Burrell (the real exemption), and Ryan Howard. And Jimmy Rollins is a pretty good leadoff hitter. But the Phillies don't have the same depth in their lineup. Likewise, their rotation isn't all that great. Freddy Garcia has been getting progressively worse, Adam Eaton was never very good, Jon Lieber is old and all-too hittable, and Brett Myers has legal troubles south of Ron Artest. Okay, to be fair, Myers is pretty good, Cole Hamels can be special if he doesn't get hurt, and Jamie Moyer is still around. But there isn't much advantage there over New York. And all you have to say about the Philly bullpen is they have the great Antonio Alfonseca.

3. Atlanta Braves
The days of Atlanta winning titles every year are over. It is, in fact, likely that the franchise may be headed in a downward spiral. They may, however, still be decent in 2007. They still have some pitching in John Smoltz, Mike Hampton, and perhaps Tim Hudson. They also have some hitting in Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones (one last year), Brian McCann, and the no-walk superstar Jeff Francoeur. But, there just isn't enough on the Braves to be more than a .500 team. And they'll probably be worse than that.

4. Florida Marlins
The Marlins young team surprised many last year, but Flordia pretty much only lost this offseason. They lost their manager Joe Girardi, who was largely credited with their surprise run. To be technical, they did add Aaron Boone, but a veteran third baseman who hits .251/.314/.371 isn't that useful. Unless he's on the Twins. The Marlins have a ton of talent, with reigning Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez to go along with Josh Johnson, Anibel Sanchez, and Jeremy Hermida. They also still have Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. That's a ton of good talent. But I'm not sure they'll be too great this year. It will probably be another year before they really compete.

5. Washington Nationals
What a sad team. This squad includes fantastic players like Dmitri Young, Christian Guzman, Travis Lee, Ron Belliard, Michael Restovich, and Tim Redding. Basically, it s a team of rejects. Not much hope here, as the minor system is pretty dry. They have Ryan Zimmerman, Chad Cordero, John Patterson and Ryan Church. Those are some good young players, but there isn't a team here.

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs
The series of signings the Cubs had this offseason added up to $300 million. And it wasn't really well spent. The Cubs will probably win the NL Central, but mainly because most of the teams aren't very good. Chicago signed Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Cliff Floyd, Mark DeRosa and Wade Miller. Soriano is a good player, but not worth his $136 million mega-deal. Likewise, Lilly and Marquis were not at all worth their contracts. The only really good sign was re-upping Aramis Ramirez. There is enough hitting here, with Soriano, Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Michael Barrett, and Matt Murton. DeRosa is nothing special, but plenty of utility players got way too much money this offseason. (*Cough* *Cough* Gary Matthews Jr.) A Zambrano-Lilly-Marquis-Miller-Marshall/Hill rotation won't be great, but it will be better than the others. Just don't expect a championship.

2. St. Louis Cardinals
They are the reigning World Series champions, but they didn't get any better this offseason, whereas the Cubs added a lot of players. The Cards are a team with the league MVP Albert Pujols (he should just be given the award each season, as he should of last year) and a perennial Cy Young candidate in Chris Carpenter. And a 3-4-5 of Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds isn't too shabby. But the other players aren't great. The rotation will include a hurt and past-his-prime Mark Mulder, Kip Wells, and Braden Looper, who is not a very good reliever, let alone starter. Just not a great team here.

3. Milwaukee Brewers
A good up-and-coming young team. Like the Marlins, they should be in contention in 2008, but they aren't quite there yet. Obviously, if Ben Sheets is healthy all year, they'll have a pretty good rotation with him, Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, and Dave Bush. They also have plenty of hitting and positional talent with Prince Fielder, Bill Hall, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy. Lots to be excited about. But it will be another year, as they don't have quite enough depth or much of a bullpen.

4. Houston Astros
Unless Roger Clemens decides to join the Astros, they just won't have much of a chance. Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman are a couple of baseball's better players and Brad Lidge has a chance to be one of the better closers if he bounces back. There isn't much past those guys though. The Astros also lack a great minor league system and their lineup isn't balanced. There just isn't much chance they'll compete. And, although it will be great to see Craig Biggio get 3,000 hits, he isn't a great player anymore.

5. Cincinnati Reds
Wayne Krivsky hasn't built much of a team since taking over last year. In fact, he made some of the worst trades in recent memory, giving up young players like Felipe Lopez, Austin Kearns, and Ryan Wagner for bullpen parts. I like Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo isn't bad (sorry, but last season was definitely a fluke), but you can't tell me former Twins Eric Milton and Kyle Lohse are inspiring. There isn't much of a bullpen here, despite Krivsky's trades, with no real closer, and the lineup has holes that standout, like Juan Castro and Alex Gonzalez.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Well, Pittsburgh fans can be comforted by their winning hockey franchise, with young stars Sidney Crosby and Eugene Malkin. As for the Pirates? There isn't much hope on the horizon. Jason Bay is great young slugger and there are a couple good pitching prospects here with Zack Duke and Ian Snell. Expect over 100 losses. Too bad, since they have such a nice stadium.

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers basically have it all. They have a good bullpen, a solid rotation, good hitting, and some good prospects as well. The rotation of Jason Schmidt-Brad Penny-Derek Lowe-Randy Wolf-Brett Tomko is potentially one of the best in the majors. If all of the pitchers are on, it may be the best. The craziest part is that Chavez Ravine is one of the best pitching parks around. The Dodgers also have a bullpen with Takashi Saito, Jonathon Broxton, Yhency Brazoban, Chin-hui Tsao, as well as potential starters Chad Billingsley, Elmer Dessens, and Mark Hendrickson. In other words, they are loaded. Oh yeah, they have hitters like Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, James Loney, Andre Either, Russell Martin, and Luis Gonzalez.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks are another team with some great young talent. Young stars include Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Carlos Quentin, and Conor Jackson. They also have Justin Upton in the minors. As for pitching, they have 2006 Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, Randy Johnson, Doug Davis, and Livan Hernandez. The pitching isn't great and the bullpen has mostly inexperienced youngsters, retreads, or guys like Jose Valverde, who was awful last year. There is a chance they could win the division or the Wild Card this year, but I think it will be another year or so before the Diamondbacks truly contend.

3. San Diego Padres
The Padres do have a very good bullpen with Scott Linebrink, Cla Meredith, and Trevor Hoffman. And Chris Young and Jake Peavy are two stellar young pitchers. However, Greg Maddux and David Wells are a little old to contribute too much. And Petco Park constantly stifles the offense of the Padres. They have some good hitters in Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Kouzmanoff, but not enough.

4. Colorado Rockies
This choice surprises people, but the truth is the Rockies have one of the best minor league systems in baseball and a ton of talent ready to blossom at the majors. Catcher Chris Iannetta and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki are pretty impressive young stars. Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday had stellar years last year. Too bad the pitching isn't too great right now, as offseason signings included Brian Lawrence and LaTroy Hawkins. Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis aren't bad, but it will be a while before the Rockies do very much.

5. San Francisco Giants
Maybe this surprises some people too, but the Giants just don't have very much going for them. Most of their players are closer to death than the average American. I'm sure people want to talk about their rotation, but although Matt Cain is good, he's also inconsistent and still raw, as he showed last year. Noah Lowry hasn't been amazing so far and Barry Zito is getting paid as an ace when he's maybe a number two or even number three starter at this point. Russ Ortiz? Brad Hennessey? Terrible. Hitting? Sure, they have Barry Bonds, but probably for one more year. But they have no one besides him. Ray Durham had a good year last year, but he's unlikely to repeat that at age 35. Pedro Feliz and Lance Niekro can't walk to spare their life. Randy Winn has no power. Ryan Klesko was done years ago. Rich Aurilla's season last year was certainly a fluke. I suppose the David Roberts signing wasn't bad, as he's a young 34.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

AL Predictions

Pulling away from our usual regiment of strictly-Twins analysis, we'll be spending the next couple days taking a look around the American League and National League, and predicting how each division will play out in the coming season. I'll be exploring the AL today, and Mr. Mosvick will have a write-up on the NL for you tomorrow.

For the past couple years when we've done these predictions, we have included projected final records for each team. This year we're going to scratch that, because it tends to be overly specific and not particularly useful (plus, the math can be a pain). Instead, we'll simply be predicting where each team will finish in their respective divisions. So, without further ado, here's how I see the American League playing out in 2007...


1. Los Angeles Angels
The Angels don't dazzle me, but they are a well-rounded team that should be good enough to come out on top in a West division that is, in my opinion, fairly weak this year. The Angels have some good young talent on offense, with Casey Kotchman and Howie Kendrick set to take over full-time at first base and second base, respectively. Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson return as the veteran presence in the middle of the lineup; and while the contract handed to Gary Matthews Jr. is a ridiculous one, he will be an improvement for them in center field, particularly on defense. The Halos' pitching staff is excellent. Veterans John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar lead the rotation, and rounding it out are promising youngsters Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver. Bartolo Colon is injured but is scheduled to return in May. Add to that one of the best bullpens in the biz, and you've got a team with a good shot to be there in October.

2. Oakland Athletics
It's tough to bet against the A's, but their team isn't overly impressive this season. Gone is 2006 MVP candidate Frank Thomas, who will be replaced at designated hitter by Mike Piazza. That will probably be a downgrade. The rest of the lineup is fairly weak. The rotation is topped by a couple great pitchers in Rich Harden and Dan Haren, but the rest (Esteban Loaiza, Joe Blanton, Joe Kennedy) leaves something to be desired. The bullpen is good, and in general this team will probably win enough to contend, but I think they'll fall well short of a division title this year.

3. Texas Rangers
The Rangers look to have an improved pitching staff this year with the additions of Vicente Padilla and Brandon McCarthy, but overall the rotation probably won't be good enough to carry them anywhere. The bullpen remains suspect despite the addition of closer Eric Gagne. Offensively, the Rangers will be good as usual, with a lineup anchored by Michael Young, Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock. My expectations for Sammy Sosa are low, but he could be a wild-card if he shows that he's still got something left in the tank.

4. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners' lineup will be similar to the one they had last year, except with washed-up vet Jose Vidro penciled in at DH. The rotation could be ugly; Felix Hernandez is a legitimate ace, but there isn't a whole lot to like behind him. There's little reason to believe the Mariners will be pulling themselves out of the cellar this season.


1. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers busted out of the AL Central doldrums last season in a big way, and it doesn't appear that they'll be headed back any time soon. Their roster is loaded this year. The lineup has essentially no weaknesses 1-9, and the addition of Gary Sheffield makes them all the more dangerous. The rotation is extremely solid. Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander could have big years; Kenny Rogers always seems to get the job done; and Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth -- while not great -- are passable fourth and fifth starters. The bullpen is strong and Jim Leyland is a top-notch manager. The Tigers could be a force to be reckoned with this season.

2. Cleveland Indians
I picked the Indians to win the AL Central last season, and ended up looking like a buffoon. This year they're a trendy pick to win the division, but I'm not sure why. The offense will be strong again; Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner are both MVP-caliber players. Yet, once again, the pitching is a question. They improved their bullpen to the point that it shouldn't be a debilitating weakness anymore, but I still don't think it's all that strong. The rotation is solid but not spectacular. C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Sowers and Paul Byrd will occupy the first four spots, with Fausto Carmona filling the fifth spot until Cliff Lee returns from the disabled list. Look out for 22-year-old right-hander Adam Miller to make an impact at some point in the season.

3. Minnesota Twins
The Twins certainly have enough talent to compete in this tough division, but I just can't see them finishing near the top with all their rotation questions. I think the offense will be as good as it was last year, or perhaps a little better, but they'll have trouble getting a ton of consistency out of the group of guys they have behind Johan Santana in the rotation. Even if they ditch Carlos Silva and Sidney Ponson early, it's tough to expect Glen Perkins or Kevin Slowey to light the world on fire considering their lack of experience above the Double-A level. Fortunately, the Twins' bullpen should be good enough that the pitching staff overall will be respectable.

4. Chicago White Sox
This might seem like a low spot for the White Sox, who admittedly have a very talented roster, but to me they seem like the weakest of four great teams in this division. Chicago's rotation is fairly mediocre, especially if Jose Contreras comes back down to Earth and Mark Buehrle's struggles from last year carry over. Their lineup is once again very strong, but for some reason I get the feeling that the injury bug is going to bite them this year.

5. Kansas City Royals
The expensive offseason addition of elite ace Gil Meche had me considering picking the Royals for a first-place finish, but unfortunately I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Kansas City has some nice young players, and I'm excited to watch 23-year-old Alex Gordon (who looks like a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year) at third base, but it looks like it will be another fifth-place finish for the Royals.


1. New York Yankees
I know I'm going out on a limb here, but I think the Yankees will make the playoffs. The addition of Doug Mientkiewicz at first base pushes them from a decent offensive team to a behemoth. In all seriousness, the Yanks' lineup is unreal (the runner-up batting champ is their No. 8 hitter!), and the rotation, while fairly old, should be good enough to take care of business.

2. Boston Red Sox
Because of the attrition in the AL Central, I think the Red Sox will win the wild card. The additions of Julio Lugo at shortstop and J.D. Drew in right field should improve their offense, and their rotation of Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Papelbon and Tim Wakefield should be a good one, although I think some people might be overrating it a little bit. The bullpen looks pretty good, but Terry Francona needs to get his closer situation figured out.

3. Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays finally managed to pass the Red Sox in the standings last year after a spendy offseason, but they still won only 87 games and missed the playoffs. They'll return a lineup similar to the one they trotted out last year, with the addition of Frank Thomas at DH. The offense should be strong, but there are some questions in the rotation past the 1-2 punch of Roy Halladay and Burnett. Halladay is the only AL pitcher who is even in the same class as Santana, but he's had a hard time staying healthy lately, as has Burnett. If those two can't stay off the DL, this team will have a real tough time finishing above .500.

4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
It'll be another developmental year for the D-Rays. They have some nice young players on offense, but their rotation is a train-wreck past Scott Kazmir.

5. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles were bad last year, and this year they might be even worse. That pitching staff is downright awful, with Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera being followed by Jaret Wright, Adam Loewen and Steve Trachsel. The bullpen is iffy as well, and offense won't be dazzling.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Big-Inning Myth?

Lately, there have been a number of articles written by various Twins writers trying to put a good face on Ramon Ortiz. Many have looked at his 0.75 spring ERA over 12 innings as a positive. Others, like Tom Powers, have pointed to Ortiz's personality, noting that he is a good fit for the clubhouse. Some, like Joe Christensen, have suggested that Ortiz is something of a bargain in the midst of a crazy offseason market. And beat writer Kelly Thesier has suggested that Ortiz is in good form; she says his sinking fastball, breaking-ball, and change-up are all working, and the coaches like Rick Anderson are trying to get him away from his "big-inning issue."

What Powers wrote is the usual fluff that goes on at the beginning of the year. If you recall, last year Twins writers did the same thing with Tony Batista, touting his fun personality and Bible-spouting antics, neither of which prevented him from performing poorly and being released a couple months into the season. This type of angle isn't all that interesting because there is no way to dispute personality. Ortiz may be a great, energetic guy, but that energy won't help if his pitching is terrible.

Christensen's take, on the other hand, was discussed yesterday by Mr. Nelson. I happen to agree with my co-writer that it's a bit of a reach to insinuate that Ortiz is a good deal in comparison to the contract handed out to guys like Adam Eaton, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Weaver. Those teams were dumb to give those guys deals, sure, but that doesn't make the Twins look any better. Their signing of Ortiz remains quite suspect.

And then we get to this "big inning" idea as presented by Thesier. It's the best thing our beat-writers could create to defend Ortiz. In essence, it suggests that, "Hey, Ortiz isn't so bad. In fact, he'd be amazing if he just wouldn't have that inning where everything doesn't go his way." Seems vaguely familiar. Kyle Lohse had the same issue. In fact, most bad pitchers have this issue. You don't simply get over it. However, my problem goes beyond that. The stats simply don't support this assertion.

For instance, take a look at Ortiz's splits from last year. With runners on, opposing batters hit .284/.352/.447. With no one on, however, hitters were even better against Ortiz, smashing hits at a .308/.364/.520 clip. While lead-off hitters hit .324/.369/.465 against Ortiz, but batters also hit .299/.365/.571 with no one out and one or two outs. That's a lot of power. Furthermore, in the most "clutch" situations, hitters actually had a harder time with Ortiz. With runners in scoring position and two outs, hitters hit .241/.383/.425.

The evidence, instead of pointing to a "big inning" issue, points to several problems Ortiz had last year. For one, the more pressure on him, the more chance he had of walking guys. The more he pitched, the less effective he was. Ortiz was at his worst in "Close and Late" situations, where opponents hit .333/.378/.667 (albeit, in only 30 at-bats, tell us how many times Ortiz lasted late in the came), and between pitches 46 and 60, when hitters hit .318/.392/.579. When Ortiz threw over one hundred pitches, he simply became a BP pitcher. Ortiz had only 15 quality starts last year, which was by his fellow pumpkin Carlos Silva.

The point is that there are a series of contradictions here. While Ortiz walked too many with pressure on, hitters did not do particularly well in most pressure situations. At the same time, Ortiz was more hittable with no one on base. None of this reasonably suggests that Ortiz's issue was consistently the "big inning." Instead, he was consistently bad. He tired quickly. He gave up far too many home runs, the majority of which (19 to 12) came with no one on base. All in a pitcher's park.

My objective here is not to further the argument that Ortiz isn't a very good pitcher. That should be clear from his statistics the last two years. The point is that there isn't a strong argument being put forth as to why he was so bad during those two years and why he'll be good for the Twins when Rick Anderson somehow "fixes" him. Sure, its possible, but it will take a lot more refining than the Twins are making it seem. He may have a "big inning" issue, but his problems extend beyond that. Just something to consider.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Spring Training Notes

With our series of positional analyses complete, it's time to move our focus back to what's happening with the Twins down in Ft. Myers. The Twins' spring record stands at 10-9-1 after a 4-3 victory over the Phillies yesterday. For today, I'll just toss out a smattering of observations, many related to the local baseball media scene.

* Joe Christensen wrote a really interesting article for the Sunday sports section of the Star Tribune about how Mike Redmond started his major-league career. It's a great story that should serve as an inspiration for fledgling minor-leaguers who are starting to lose hope of ever making it in the big leagues.

* Christensen also wrote in his notes section yesterday that Ramon Ortiz doesn't look like such a rip-off when compared to some of the other absurd contracts handed out to mediocre (or worse) starting pitchers this offseason. The point is a fair one, but I think Christensen goes a little far with this statement:
But is [Adam] Eaton, who hasn't made more than 22 starts in a season since 2004, worth eight times more than Ortiz, who has averaged 29 starts over the past six seasons?
To be clear, Eaton signed a three-year deal with the Phillies during the off-season worth a TOTAL of $24.5 million. That means the contract will pay Eaton an average of about $8 million per season, whereas Ortiz will be making just over $3 million on a one-year deal. In other words, Eaton will make less than three times as much as Ortiz, not eight times as much. By that type of logic, Barry Zito is going to be making about 42 times as much as Ortiz this season.

And to answer Christensen's rhetorical question, I do indeed feel that Eaton is worth 2-3 times as much as Ortiz (though I certainly would never endorse the Twins signing him to a contract like that).

* With the departure of Jason Williams, new Pioneer Press baseball scribe Kelsie Smith has taken over blogging duties over at the newspaper's spring training blog. So far Smith has appeared up to the task, updating like crazy and littering her posts with interesting tidbits.

As for Williams, I'll miss him. He had become something of a punching bag around the Twins' blogosphere, in large part because because his "NO IDEA" mini-rant from a mailbag section in the Pioneer Press which became a running gag, but in my experience I always found Williams to be a really nice guy. I contacted him via e-mail for some quotes when I was writing a paper for a class last spring and he was incredibly friendly, extending an invitation to visit him in the press box during a game and even giving me his personal cell phone number, despite the fact that we were essentially complete strangers. I also thought he was a pretty damn good beat writer, although admittedly I don't read the Pioneer Press sports section with much regularity.

* Jayson Stark wrote an amazing article on Johan Santana for It is a guaranteed delightful read for any Twins fan. I've been kind of back-and-forth as to whether or not I think the Twins really have a legitimate chance of extending Santana's contract, but whatever happens I'm just going to enjoy watching him work this season.

* La Velle E. Neal III writes in his blog that Ron Gardenhire's actions have given indication that the Twins will open the season with the following rotation: Johan Santana, Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Boof Bonser. Just what we've all feared. Yep, Silva has certainly looked like a No. 2 starter this spring...

* On that subject, I know spring stats really don't mean much of anything, but sometimes they just can't be ignored. For instance, I'm not at all concerned about the fact that Santana has issued 10 walks in 14 spring innings, or that Justin Morneau went his first 32 at-bats without a home run (he proceeded to hit two over the weekend). Nonetheless, it's hard not to be discouraged by Silva's 7.62 ERA in 13 innings this spring. Likewise, it's painful to see Scott Baker with a 2.57 WHIP in five appearances. This is an important spring for those two guys, and thus far they have been unable to rise to the challenge.

Also, I can't help but be a little giddy to see Nick Punto leading the team in walks with seven (although he's hitting just .216 with no extra-base hits).

* Matt Garza has struggled with a strained neck this spring. J.D. Durbin has been limited to four innings by an iffy elbow. Lew Ford will miss a month or more after undergoing knee surgery. And, perhaps most significantly, the great Ken Harvey will miss several weeks thanks to knee problems of his own. But, as Howard Sinker noted this weekend in his Section 220 blog, things could be a lot worse. (Thank goodness we didn't draft Mark Prior!)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

Unlike the starting rotation, which Mr. Nelson went over yesterday, there isn't much dispute about who will be in the bullpen for the Twins this year. Last season, the Twins owned the best bullpen in the bigs and that doesn't look to change too much this year. With six guys essentially locked in, there is realistically only one spot up for grabs, and that's IF the Twins choose to carry a seventh reliever like they did last year.

Joe Nathan - The Closer
2006 Stats: 68.1 IP, 1.58 ERA, 36 SV, 95 K/16 BB, 0.79 WHIP

Baseball's best closer.

Nathan was simply amazingly last year. Beyond the basic stats, Nathan put up his best numbers with a 12.51 K/9IP rate and a very impressive 5.94 K/BB. Opponents managed only a .158/.212/.242 line against Nathan, about as good as you get for a closer (beyond Eric Gagne's unbelievable .133 opponent average in 2003). However, Nathan was even better than that. With runners in scoring position, opponents "hit" .145/.258/.200. In "late and close" situations, they managed a pathetic .146/.205/.208 line. And when games were within one run, opponents hit .118/.211/.188. In fact, Nathan was harder the hit the closer the game was. This is all to say that there is little debate that Nathan is the best closer in the game. I think Nathan will be just as good as he was in 2006. This year, I'll predict he'll save 40 games, have a 1.80 ERA, and continue to make his mark as an elite closer.

Juan Rincon - The Set-up man
2006 Stats: 74.1 IP, 2.91 ERA, 65 K/24 BB, 1.35 WHIP

Since his great 2004 season, Juan Rincon hasn't been quite as good. Last year, he obviously wasn't too bad, as his 2.91 ERA attests; however, he had a very bad second half. Rincon had a 4.11 ERA after the All-Star break along with a 5.23 ERA in August and a 4.77 ERA in September. Just as bad, he gave up 31 hits in 21 2/3 innings between the two months. Its hard to know if this indicates that Rincon will only get worse in the coming seasons, but it's unlikely he will strike out 106 hitters in relief again. I'm not sure that it means the Twins will trade him, but it should mean lowered expectations for Twins fans. I'd say a 3.40 ERA this year while leading the team in appearances, as he has the last three years.

Jesse Crain - Middle Reliever
2006 Stats: 76.2 IP, 3.52 ERA, 60 K/18 BB, 1.27 WHIP

Crain, like the Twins, was a story of two halves last season. Before the All-Star break, he had a 5.03 ERA and had allowed a .305 opposing BA. After the break, he had a 1.93 ERA with opponents only hitting .207. Crain, however, also had major issues in clutch situations. With runners in scoring position, opposing hitters smacked Crain around at a .319/.375/.464 clip. C, with no one on, batters only hit .243/.283/.320. Thus, it could be that Crain has to be used in certain situations to be effective. Pat Neshek was far more effective in close situations. Crain is good for the seventh, but he may have to be used carefully. I think he'll be better this year, but not spectacular. I'd predict a 3.20 ERA along with a similar strikeout rate and innings.

Pat Neshek - Middle Reliever
2006 Stats: 37 IP, 2.19 ERA, 53 K/6 BB, 0.78 WHIP

After his July call-up, Neshek was simply amazing. Overall, opponents managed a meager .176/.210/.321 line against Neshek. In July, he had a 1.74 ERA in 10 1/3 innings. He was even better in August, with a 0.59 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings. He didn't do particularly well in September, with a 4.77 ERA, and he struggled somewhat against lefties, as they hit .244/.300/.511 against him. Righties, on the other hand, couldn't touch Neshek, batting .140/.159/.211. Neshek's struggles against lefties are a little overplayed and don't matter much, since Nathan, Rincon, and Dennys Reyes do so well against lefties. Neshek should be great again, considering his great K/BB rate. I predict a 2.40 ERA and a 90/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Dennys Reyes, Lefty Specialist
2006 Stats: 50.2 IP, 0.89 ERA, 49 K/15 BB, 0.99 WHIP

Reyes basically came out of nowhere last year with a great season. Before 2006, Reyes had his best year in 1999 for the Reds, with a 3.80 ERA in 61 2/3 innings. His major problem was that he walked far too many, with a 72 K/39 BB ratio in 1999. He got his K/BB ratio up to 3.27 last year, far and above his career ratio of 1.63. How did Reyes change? Well, Rick Anderson's influence was surely a factor, but Reyes was also used smartly. 66 appearances and only 50 2/3 innings tells use that when Reyes was brought in, he was used sparingly against righties and wasn't left out for long innings (a stark difference from the Twins' mishandling of J.C. Romero). Lefties hit only .148/.219/.205 against Reyes, while righties hit .244/.296/.344 against him. If the Twins continue to use him the same way, he should continue his success, though he probably won't post an ERA under 1 again. I'd predict another 50 innings with a 2.00 ERA.

Matt Guerrier, Long Relief
2006 Stats: 69.2 IP, 3.36 ERA, 37 K/21 BB, 1.42 WHIP

For a second straight year, Guerrier was effective as the Twins' long reliever and spot starter. None of Guerrier's stats stand out particularly, as he had a weak 1.76 K/BB ratio and struck out only 4.78 hitters per nine innings. Also, hitters managed a solid .287/.333/.426 line against Guerrier. How then did Guerrier manage a 3.36 ERA? There is luck and a 1.35 GB/FB ratio, suggesting that besides the nine homers he gave up, Guerrier kept the ball on the ground. His FIP (Fielding Indepedent Pitching) gives him an ERA of 4.78. In other words, there is some reason to think that Guerrier's ERA might go up a bitnext year. I'd predict 70 innings and a 4.50 ERA for 2007.

And now for a discussion of the potential last spot:

J.D. Durbin
2006 Stats (w/ Class-AA New Britain): 89 IP, 4-3, 2.33 ERA, 81 K/50 BB, 1.31 WHIP

Durbin is about the only realistic candidate to be a new member of the Twins bullpen. With Willie Eyre gone, there is an open spot if Ron Gardenhire chooses to carry 12 pitchers again. Howard Sinker seems to think that Durbin has a chance to be in, reasoning that Guerrier will not be on the team because Gardy may take 12 pitchers and will take another lefty. I don't think Sinker is right in saying the Twins will take another lefty or that Guerrier will not be on the team, but there is certainly a good chance that there will be 12 pitchers on the team again, provided that Gardy isn't so obsessed with a third-string catcher that he keeps Matthew LeCroy.

Durbin is a great talent with a good arm, but his problem lies with a lack of control and the fact that he may be a bonehead. (Take a look at his "brilliant" blog.) Durbin never put up any amazing years in the minors with high K-rates and he always walked too many, but he posseses a good arm and with a pitching coach like Anderson, he'd have a chance to be an effective relief pitcher. If he makes the team, he'll probably have an ERA above 4 with a decent strikeout rate, but he may struggle with walks.

Needless to say, the bullpen is basically a decided issue. I don't think that Mike Venafro, Carmen Cali, or the awful Randy Choate have any chance to make the team. Only Venafro has been good this spring, with six scoreless innings and four strikeouts. It is possible that the Twins add him to the mix, but the problem is that they don't need another lefty. Not only was Reyes plenty effective in limited innings, but most of the Twins right-handed relievers are already effective against lefties. I can't see the Twins giving up a talent like Durbin to keep Venafro. Then again, the Twins did once part with Michael Restovich in favor of the infamous Corky Miller.

All in all, the bullpen should be among the best in the business again in 2007.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher

Up to this point, we have analyzed all eight starting defensive positions as well as designated hitter, and there is essentially no debate about who will be filling any of those spots. The Twins lineup is pretty much set in stone. The pitching staff, on the other hand, is very much up in the air. When previewing the 2007 Twins, the pitching rotation has to be the focal point of any discussion. This will almost undoubtedly be the unit that decides whether or not the Twins can truly compete in the AL Central. So today, we'll take a look at the four guys who are widely considered locks, and then we'll look at the group of young players who will compete for the final spot. Keep in mind that just because most of the young guys will probably start the season in the minors, it doesn't mean they won't play a big part in the potential success of the 2007 Twins. If and when the washed up vets crash and burn, the team's success could very well lie in the arms of these untested and inexperienced yet hugely promising prospects.

Johan Santana
2006 Stats: 233.2 IP, 19-6, 2.77 ERA, 245 K/47 BB, 1.00 WHIP

Will Santana capture his third Cy Young?

A third straight marvelous season earned Santana his second Cy Young Award in 2006. The 27-year-old led the league in nearly every pitching category, and was the one consistently stable member of a Twins rotation that was erratic and injury-prone. I felt, and continue to feel, that Santana was the most valuable player in the American League last season. He has been tremendously consistent over the past three years, and this year I'm going to predict that Santana comes out of the gates strong and actually has the best season of his career, regardless of the instability around him in the rotation. I predict the 28-year-old Santana will win 21 games with a 2.50 ERA and will add a third Cy Young trophy to his collection.

Ramon Ortiz
2006 Stats: 190.2 IP, 11-16, 5.57 ERA, 104 K/64 BB, 1.54 WHIP

After signing a $3.1 million contract in the offseason, Ortiz is essentially guaranteed a spot in the Twins rotation to start the season. As hard as I try, I have a really difficult time envisioning positive results for Ortiz this season. He posted absolutely horrendous numbers last year, and now he's moving into a less pitcher-friendly ballpark and into a league loaded with more offensive talent. Ortiz will turn 34 this season, and at this age pitchers generally tend to decline rather than turn things around for the better. Is it plausible that pitching coach Rick Anderson could help Ortiz straighten things out and post an ERA under 5? I suppose so, but I just can't see it happening. I say Ortiz has an ERA over 6 when he gets pulled from the rotation around the end of May.

Carlos Silva
2006 Stats: 180.1 IP, 11-15, 5.94 ERA, 70 K/32 BB, 1.54 WHIP

Regardless of how little reason he gives them to do so, the Twins continue to consider Silva a lock for the rotation. Coming off a 2006 campaign that saw him post arguably the worst numbers of any regular starting pitcher in baseball, Silva has looked absolutely awful this spring with an 0-2 record and 7.62 ERA. His sinker still isn't sinking consistently and opponents are knocking him around. Silva was a good pitcher back in 2005, but with each appearance that form seems to fade further into the distance. I'm not even going to bother projecting Silva's numbers, because I've lost hope that he can even be a competent major-league starter at this point. Hopefully the Twins' leash will not be as long as it was last year.

Boof Bonser
2006 Stats: 100.1 IP, 7-6, 4.22 ERA, 84 K/24 BB, 1.28 WHIP

Ron Gardenhire has shied away from specifically tagging Bonser as a sure thing for the rotation, but with Boof's outstanding performance down the stretch last year and his solid numbers this spring it's pretty tough to see him starting the season in the minors. Bonser isn't spectacular in any respect, but he's got good stuff and he knows how to pitch. I think he can be a very solid piece in the middle of the Twins' rotation, and I think he'll be there all year. I'd project 12 wins and a 4.50 ERA.

And now, a look at the three young guys (and the one old guy) vying for the final spot in the rotation:

Matt Garza
2006 Stats (minor leagues): 135.2 IP, 14-4, 2.00 ERA, 154 K/32 BB, 0.87 WHIP
2006 Stats (w/ Twins): 50 IP, 3-6, 5.76 ERA, 38 K/23 BB, 1.70 WHIP

Man, take a look at those minor league numbers. They don't get more dominant than that. Garza started the 2006 season at Class-A Ft. Myers, then got a promotion to Double-A New Britain, and then was bumped again to Triple-A Rochester. At each level, opposing hitters were no match for Garza, who racked up big strikeout totals while showing good control and keeping runners off the bases. By the end of the season, the 22-year-old had thrown 50 innings for the Twins. Obviously, Garza's performance in the majors was a far cry from the dominance he showed at each level of a minors, but the results weren't overly discouraging for a young kid getting his feet wet in the big leagues. I think Garza could turn a corner this year (a la Justin Verlander 2006) and become one of the better young pitchers in the game. It may seem optimistic, but I'm going to go ahead and predict that Garza spends the majority of the season in the Twins rotation and wins 15 games with a 3.25 ERA.

Sidney Ponson
2006 Stats: (w/ St. Louis & NY Yankees): 85 IP, 4-5, 6.25 ERA, 48 K/36 BB, 1.69 WHIP

Ponson was absolutely terrible last season, and really it has been several years since he was even a half-decent pitcher. Still, the Twins signed him to a low-risk minor-league contract in the offseason, allowing the 30-year-old to come in and show the team what he's got left in the tank this spring. Ponson has made only one appearance in the big-league camp so far, and it was dismal. He was shelled for four earned runs on seven hits in just two innings, allowing a walk and failing to strike anyone out. Gardenhire and the Twins have insisted that they will give Ponson every chance of making the team out of spring training, but unless he can get things turned around, Ponson's chances will not be great. The younger guys are just pitching way too well at this point to justify giving him a spot.

Kevin Slowey
2006 Stats (minor leagues): 148.2 IP, 8-5, 1.88 ERA, 151 K/21 BB, 0.83 WHIP

Despite his brilliant work in two levels of the minor leagues last year and his nearly spotless performance this spring, Slowey is considered a long-shot to make the rotation at the outset of the season because he lacks experience past the Double-A level. Still, if he continues to pitch the way he did all of last year and the way he has this spring, there's no way the Twins will be able to hold him down in the minors much longer. Slowey has superb control and a fastball with good movement, but the one major concern with him is that he lacks a great second or third pitch, so when major-league hitters become aggressive and start swinging away at his fastball on the first few pitches, it could lead to problems. Nonetheless, Slowey has given us no reason to think he won't have success in the majors, and he could play a big role in the team's potential success this season.

Glen Perkins
2006 Stats (minor leagues): 121.2 IP, 4-12, 3.85 ERA, 134 K/50 BB, 1.36 WHIP
2006 Stats (w/ Twins): 5.2 IP, 0-0, 1.59 ERA, 6 K/0 BB, 0.53 WHIP

Perkins is an interesting case. The left-hander was a first-round pick out of the University of Minnesota in 2004, and he tore through the low minors to put himself on the prospect map. He first reached Double-A mid-way through 2005, and he struggled there in his first stint, posting a 4.90 ERA over 79 innings. He started last season back at New Britain, and he didn't improve his stock a ton. While he vamped up his strikeout rate considerably, his ERA was still unspectacular at 3.91 over 117.1 IP. Nevertheless, he received a promotion to the pitching-depleted Rochester in time for the International League playoffs, and he pitched well there. He then received a September call-up to the Twins and impressed the coaches by allowing just one run over four relief appearances, striking out six and walking none. Perkins has pitched well this spring, allowing two earned runs on nine hits while striking out eight and walking one over nine innings of work. Garza probably has a better chance of making the rotation to start the year, but Perkins may be next in line thanks to his aggressive pitching this spring and his brief stint in the majors last fall.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Position Analysis: Designated Hitter

Projected Starter: Jason Kubel
2006 Stats: .241/.279/.386, 8 HR, 26 RBI

Kubel's knees may limit him to DH duty this year.

Potential Backups: Jeff Cirillo, Rondell White, Matthew LeCroy, Ken Harvey

Out of all the Twins offensively talented minor leaguers that fans couldn't wait to see in the majors a few years back, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were at the top of an elite three-man list. The other member was Jason Kubel. However, after a knee injury in the 2004 Arizona Fall league took him out of 2005 play and rendered him largely ineffective last year, Kubel's talent has been forgotten by some. Many now are picking him to be the "surprise" or "break-out" player for this year. People who followed his minor-league path won't be surprised at all if Kubel busts out with a big season.

In 1,654 minor-league at-bats, Kubel hit .320/.385/.499 with 49 home runs and 316 RBI. Two years stand out. In 2002, at Single-A Quad City, Kubel hit .321/.380/.521 with 17 HR and 69 RBI. In 2004, he hit .377/.453/.667 in 138 Double-A at-bats with six homers and 29 RBI before hitting .343/.398/.560 in 350 Triple-A at-bats with 16 HR and 71 RBI. In total, Kubel hit .352 with 22 HRs and 100 RBI between the two levels. He put the icing on the cake by batting .300 with a couple home runs and 60 at-bats with the Twins after a late-season call-up.

Clearly, Kubel is an offensive talent. Neither Mauer or Morneau ever produced averages that Kubel did at each level and Mauer has never shown the power Kubel has. Kubel doesn't project the kind of home-run power Morneau has, but he has the talent to hit .320 with 40 doubles and 20 homers every year. He's showing that talent in spring training, where he's batted .409 so far.

Now, I certainly don't expect Kubel to reach that level of production this year. It's hard to know, for one, how Kubel will respond to work in the DH position. He's been very good defensively this spring, and general has much more to offer than Rondell White in the outfield. There is always the chance that Kubel would be better with the bat if he was allowed to use the glove. Then again, concerns remain about Kubel's knees, which have a chance to act up anytime.

There aren't many other options to DH. White was a horrible DH last year, as Mr. Nelson recently mentioned in his LF analysis, and the pool of other "candidates" is pretty pathetic. Cirillo is a good bench guy at this point, but he doesn't have the power to be an every-day DH. LeCroy has never turned into the talent he was drafted to be out of Clemson in 1997 and his inability to hit right-handed pitching or run the bases competently will always hold him back from being an option as a regular player, even in the DH spot. Harvey is injured and never was much of a talent to begin with.

With that, I'd say that Kubel, if he makes it through the whole season, will hit around .280/.345/.460 with 18 HR and 80 RBI. With more at-bats, I think his patience will return to what it was in the minors and he should show some power. Designated hitter won't be the strongest position in the Twins lineup, but it also shouldn't be the pathetic weakness it has been in past year. Kubel won't have too much pressure with Mauer, Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter in front of him in the line-up.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Position Analysis: Right Field

Projected Starter: Michael Cuddyer
2006 Stats: .284/.362/.504, 24 HR, 109 RBI

The Twins are hoping the good-natured Cuddyer can continue to produce in the cleanup spot.

Potential Backups: Jason Kubel, Jason Tyner, Lew Ford

From the moment the Twins selected Michael Cuddyer with the ninth overall pick in the 1997 draft, the pressure has been on him to produce. The right-handed hitter showed his potential with some big seasons in the minor leagues, and made his big-league debut as a 21-year-old in 2001. Yet, for various reasons, it wasn't until last year that he truly blossomed as a major-league hitter.

Prior to last season, Cuddyer had drawn my ire because of his frustrating inability to showcase his true talent in the majors. On multiple occasions he had received a crack at a starting job (be it in right field or at third base) and each time he had failed to produce enough offensively to hold down the spot. He had shown significant propensities for striking out, getting off to miserably slow starts (he's a career .217 hitter in April), and failing to come through in important situations.

As it turned out, 2006 was the season that Cuddyer finally managed to turn things around and put together a big season. He still got off to a fairly slow start, and he still piled up the strikeouts (130 on the season), but he was extremely clutch and he delivered the big power with his bat that had not consistently been there throughout his major-league career. With runners in scoring position last year, Cuddyer hit .313/.412/.580. Against left-handed pitching, he hit .297/.376/.518. His ability to drive in runs and mash lefties made Cuddyer a perfect fit in the cleanup spot between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and Cuddy's ability to thrive in that spot was of crucial importance because of Rondell White's hugely disappointing first half.

Now Cuddyer enters the 2007 season entrenched as the team's starting right fielder. Right field has been a shaky position for the Twins for the past several years, and this is the first time since the departure of Matt Lawton that the team can really enter a season feeling comfortable that they have a true offensive force locked in there. While Cuddyer's performance last year was head-and-shoulders above anything he's done previously as a major-leaguer, it was in line with his skills and his minor-league numbers, and at 28 he will still be right in the middle of his prime years, so there is really no reason to expect his numbers to regress much this season. I would project a hitting line around .270/.360/.510 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI.

Defensively, Cuddyer isn't supremely talented but he does possess a strong arm that can keep opposing base-runners conservative. He'll misread a fly ball or make a boneheaded mistake every now and then, but for the most part he is not a liability in the outfield.

As for depth, Lew Ford and Jason Tyner appear to be the top backup choices at this point. Jason Kubel is a capable right fielder, but his future appears to be in the other corner outfield spot for now. The Twins have been working on giving power-hitter Garrett Jones, who has played first base through much of his minor-league career, some work in the outfield. Unfortunately, Jones has had a horrible spring and doesn't project as a decent major-league hitter. On top of that, he has reportedly looked lost in the outfield. I don't think we'll ever see him playing an outfield spot in a Twins uniform.

Cuddyer has turned himself into a prototypical right fielder and cleanup hitter, with the ability to hit for power and drive in runs. It's certainly reasonable to expect him to post numbers similar to the ones he put up last season, and if he's able to do that he'll once again be a crucial component in the Twins' lineup.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Position Analysis: Center Field

Projected Starter: Torii Hunter
2006 Stats: .278/.336/.490, 31 HR, 98 RBI

How long will Hunter be around?

Potential Backups: Jason Tyner, Lew Ford, Denard Span

For the last six years, center field has been a position that Minnesota Twins fans haven't had to worry about. That may change soon, but for at least one last season, center field is a pretty strong position in the hands of Torii Hunter.

Hunter is many things to Twins fans: he's media-friendly, he's emotional, he's perhaps overly outspoken, he's a hacker, and he's also loyal to the organization. Hunter isn't a Hall-of-Fame caliber player, but he's pretty solid. This year, fans shouldn't expect "Spiderman" Hunter in center field to making great catches. In fact, Twins fans might be wise to lower their expectations.

Hunter isn't the same guy he was in 2002 or 2004. His defense probably won't be subpar, but he has been passed by Grady Sizemore and Vernon Wells for top American League center fielders, both defensively and offensively. Hunter will continue to be a player with some good speed on the bases, plenty of power, a lack of patience, and a decent average.

This year, I'd predict that Hunter will have another good year. As with 2002, Torii is in a contract year and will have some motivation to put up big numbers again. I'd say a .285/.345/.500 line with 32 HRs and 90 RBI with 15-20 SB is a reasonable expectation. However, Torii may not be putting all of those numbers up for the Twins, as a mid-season trade is very possible. Also, expect Hunter to be his usual inconsistent self, having a few great months and a few long slumps, like his 2006 April.

As I wrote a few weeks back, Hunter appears to have a professional attitude toward the upcoming season despite the fact that he'll likely be leaving by the end of the year, whether it is through a trade or free-agency. If the Twins aren't in a position to make the playoffs in June or July (likely because of certain moves involving "veterans"), Hunter will probably be traded and that may be a good thing. The Twins will need some hitting or even pitching if they can't trust their young guys for a 2008 run.

If Hunter gets hurt or traded, Lew Ford and Jason Tyner will be around to provide depth. Denard Span is still considered by many to be the center-fielder of the future at this point, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him in a Twins uniform at some point during this season.

Needless to say, as Twins fans are well-aware, Hunter is good center fielder and it can't be denied that he at least has an effect on the clubhouse and the team. It should be another consecutively fun and frustrating season involving No. 48.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Position Analysis: Left Field

Projected Starter: Rondell White
2006 Stats: .246/.276/.365, 7 HR, 38 RBI

The Twins need White to remain healthy and productive in '07.

Potential Backups: Jason Kubel, Jason Tyner, Lew Ford

Last offseason, the Twins signed Rondell White as a free agent with the goal of shoring up their designated hitter spot. I was optimistic about the move, seeing as how White was coming off a very good 2005 season with the Tigers in which he had hit .313/.348/.489. He had also batted .301/.387/.501 with runners in scoring position over the previous three seasons, which made him a good candidate to regularly drive in the high-average guys at the top of the Twins' lineup.

As most readers are no doubt aware, things did not go as planned for White in 2006. He struggled out of the gates and couldn't get himself on track. By June 17, he was hitting a miserable .182/.209/.215 with no home runs, just 15 RBI, and 30 strikeouts to go along with just five walks. White was a disaster. After a trip to the disabled list and a rehab stint in the minor-leagues, White found himself back in the Twins' lineup on July 16, and he looked like a different player. Upon returning, White picked up multiple hits in four of his first six games, including a two-homer performance against the Devil Rays on July 19 and a four-hit, four-RBI outbreak against the Indians on July 21. In total, White was two different players for the Twins in 2006: the unspeakably horrible player before the All-Star break (.182/.209/.215, 0 HR, 15 RBI in 181 AB), and the outstanding hitter after the All-Star break (.321/.354/.538, 7 HR, 23 RBI in 156 AB). Because White seemed to perform so much better offensively when he was playing left field (.326/.366/.507) than when he was at DH (.195/.216/.277), the Twins brought him back during the offseason with the plan of handing him the full-time starting gig out in left, and hoping he can hit the way he did when he was playing there last year.

There are some legitimate reasons to believe that White's 2007 numbers will be closer to his stellar second-half form from 2006 than his horrific first-half form, and in my mind none of them have much to do with the fact that he'll be playing the field.

White has a history of injuries that has earned him the nickname "RonDL" over the course of his career, and his terrible numbers for the first half of the 2006 season can likely be attributed in large part to nagging issues resulting from a surgery he had undergone on his left shoulder following the 2005 season. White felt stiffness in the shoulder that took away from his quickness at the plate and prevented him from being able to get around on hard fastballs. Said White in a March 6 Star Tribune article by Patrick Reusse: "I never want to be looked at as a whiner, but, honestly, the shoulder didn't feel good. ... It made me slower with the bat. So, I had to jump out to hit the fastball. And when you're jumping out, and it's not a fastball, you don't have a chance."

White reportedly went through an intense workout regiment during the offseason to strengthen his shoulder and increase his flexibility. Hopefully this will make his shoulder issue a thing of the past. In looking at White's 14-season big-league history, he did have one other season that was similarly abysmal to 2006; that was in 2002 with the Yankees. That year, White hit a remarkably similar .240/.288/.378 with 14 HR and 62 RBI in 126 games. He bounced back the next year by hitting .289/.341/.488 with 22 HR and 87 RBI in 137 games between the Royals and Padres. If White could have a similar rebound year for the Twins, I think fans would be more than pleased. Of course, he is now 35 years old, so perhaps a bounce-back is not in the cards. At the very least, the emergence of Michael Cuddyer as a reliable right-handed cleanup bat will take a lot of pressure off of White, as he will be able to slide down in the order. Perhaps that will work to his advantage.

It is unfortunate that the Twins seem to feel that White is more productive offensively when he's playing the field, because he is a liability defensively. His range is average at best, and his arm is weak. Jason Kubel is far superior defensively, so if he's healthy I'd hope to see him take over defensive duties in left at some point during the season.

Playing the outfield also puts White at a higher risk of suffering an injury, another reason it would be to his and the Twins' benefit to move him back to DH at some point. Presuming he can stay healthy all year, I would project his numbers somewhere close to the ones he put up with the Tigers in 2004: .270/.337/.453 with 19 home runs and 67 RBI in 121 games. He'll need to show a little patience at the plate, because it was non-existent last year (11 walks in 355 plate appearances) and pitchers took advantage. If White can produce numbers similar to the ones I projected above, I think that would be plenty sufficient for the six- or seven-spot in the lineup.

As for depth, Kubel projects as the starting DH, but presuming he's healthy he can back up left field as well (and hopefully take over full-time at some point). Jason Tyner and Lew Ford can also fill in out there.

If White can bounce back and put up numbers close to his career averages, he'd give the Twins' lineup a big boost in 2007. If he looks more like he did in the first half of 2006, hopefully Ron Gardenhire and the Twins will not hesitate too long to bench him and insert Kubel in left.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Position Analysis: Shortstop

Projected Starter: Jason Bartlett
2006 Stats: .309/.367/.393, 2 HRs, 32 RBI

Will Bartlett deliver another strong season?

Potential Backups: Jeff Cirillo, Alejandro Machado, Luis Rodriguez, Alexi Casilla, Tommy Watkins

Jason Bartlett hasn't had a very easy time getting to the majors for good. He's spent much of the last few years fighting for a job. Last year, despite having a great spring, Bartlett didn't make the team because he wasn't "assertive enough" and Juan Castro was given the job. As everyone remembers, Castro was beyond awful as the starting shortstop.

When Bartlett finally returned in June, it was what every Twin fan was waiting for. Bartlett hit .353/.450/.431 in 51 June at-bats and continued hitting well through July (.325) and August (.351). He did let down in September, hitting a measly .228/.259/.267.

Overall, Bartlett remained impressive. Of the 28 major league shortstops who had 350 or more plate appearances last year, Bartlett ranked 11th in OPS (.760), 5th in batting average, and 15th in stolen bases. Projecting for a full-year, Barlett would have been one of the better shortstops in the majors. Along with his offense, Bartlett was a much better defender than manager Ron Gardenhire and some others had figured him to be.

This year, I wouldn't expect Bartlett to be as he was good last year, but he should be somewhere close. I'd project a .295/.350/.390 with 7 HR, 50 RBI, 15 SBs and solid defense.

As for backups, there are plenty of potential infield backups, but it's likely that Bartlett will get most of the starts with maybe Cirillo spelling him sometimes along whomever wins the backup infield job. I should note that I mention Casilla because there is some reason to believe that Gardy may be considering using him as a backup infielder as a result of Machado's shoulder injury.

Regardless, shortstop should be a fairly strong position for the Twins. Bartlett isn't an elite shortstop, but he is a solid one who should be able to give the Twins consistent production if given a full years worth of at-bats.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Position Analysis: Third Base

Projected Starter: Nick Punto
2006 Stats: .290/.352/.373, 1 HR, 45 RBI

Will Punto still be starting in July?

Potential Backups: Jeff Cirillo, Alejandro Machado, Luis Rodriguez

So far we've analyzed three positions for the Twins--catcher, first base and second base--and each of those spots looks pretty strong and well-set heading into the 2007 season. Now we come to third base, which is a different story. Last year the Twins entered the season with Tony Batista as their starter at the hot corner, and the results were disastrous. Batista was simply horrendous on both offense and defense, and in mid-June the Twins finally dumped him and gave Punto a shot at the position. Punto stepped in and never looked back, locking up his spot in the starting lineup with a ridiculous .374/.432/.515 hitting line in the month of July.

Punto finished the season with a .290 batting average, which stunned a number of people because his career average prior to the 2006 season was just .238. I can honestly say that I wasn't all that surprised. I have always felt that Punto had the skill set to be a solid little hitter given regular playing time. He started to show this back in 2005. When the Twins pulled the plug on Luis Rivas early in the season, Punto started to see regular playing time at second base. On June 2 of 2005, Punto was hitting .293/.351/.423, but it was on that day that he suffered an injury that kept him out for a month. Punto was never the same after returning and finished the season with an ugly .239/.301/.335 line, but he did show me something during his hot stretch in May, and he showed it again last season. That's why I'm one of the few people who believe Punto has a chance repeat--or perhaps even improve on--his offensive production of last season.

The big key to Punto's offensive emergence last season was his ability to cut down on strikeouts and put the ball in play more often. Prior to last year, Punto had struck out in 130 of his 588 career major-league at-bats (22%); in 2006 he struck out just 68 times in 459 at-bats (15%). He started to stray from this new trend toward the end of the year (in September, he struck out 18 times while drawing just three walks), but if he can get back to a that low-strikeout zone while drawing a decent number of walks, I think he stands a good chance of hitting for a good average again this season. He's never going to hit for a ton of power, but he is an excellent bunter and he can steal bases (17 on 22 attempts last year), so he definitely has a chance to be a decently valuable piece at the top of the Twins lineup this year, even if his production will never be ideal for a third-baseman.

At the very least, Punto showed great defensive ability while playing third base last season, despite the fact that he had relatively little major-league experience at that position in the past. He has good range to both sides and can make accurate off-balance throws. These are important factors, because I think the importance of third base as a defensive position is an underrated.

Should Punto regress back toward his old banjo-hitting self and cause the Twins to feel that his offense is not sufficient to warrant a starting spot, there is a back-up plan in place in the form of off-season acquisition Jeff Cirillo. The 37-year-old right-handed hitter holds a career hitting line of .298/.368/.432. He was a great hitter in his earlier years with Milwaukee and Colorado, but he hit a rut when he went to Seattle in 2002 and just finally got back on track when he returned to the Brewers in 2005. Cirillo hit .319/.369/.414 in 263 at-bats for Milwaukee last year, including .413/.451/.493 against southpaws. For that reason, he will probably see a number of starts against left-handed starters this season, be it at third base or first or second. It's worth noting that Punto, a switch-hitter, performed better against lefties than against righties last year so it is unlikely that Cirillo will see action at third for platoon reasons. But Cirillo is an established veteran with good plate discipline and solid defensive skills. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him in place as the regular third basemen by the All-Star break should Punto struggle in April and May.

Luis Rodriguez or Alejandro Machado are both capable third basemen as well, so whichever one makes the roster (if either one does) will provide additional depth at this position.

Despite what has thus far been an unimpressive spring for him, Punto has a solid grasp on the starting third base spot for the Twins, and it would take a couple months of putrid offensive performance for him to lose it. If that happens, Cirillo should be ready to step in and provide solid offensive production along with reasonable defense at third. This position is not as strong as the others we've covered so far, but it's not exactly a weak spot either.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Position Analysis: Second Base

Projected Starter: Luis Castillo
2006 Stats: .296/.358/.370, 3 HR, 49 RBI

Will Castillo be here all season?

Potential Backups: Jeff Cirillo, Alejandro Machado, Alexi Casilla, Luis Rodriguez

At $5.75 million, Luis Castillo is one of the better bargains around. He isn't the best leadoff hitter and there is some reason to believe that the Twins would be better off with Jason Bartlett or Nick Punto at the top of the order; however, Castillo provides decent defense at second, he hits around .300, he has some speed, and he takes walks (as shown by his career 0.76 Isolated Discipline).

Now, Castillo obviously doesn't have much power, as his total of 29 extra-base hits from last year will attest, but at the second-base position, he gives more than the expected offensive production. He isn't the .334 hitter with 62 stolen bases he was in 2000 and he won't have another 35-game hitting streak anytime soon, but he can still get the job done at age 31.

Castillo also provides the team with some needed skill against lefties. He regressed last year, hitting .310 against righties while hitting .270 against lefties with only a .370 slugging percentage. However, in the last three years, he's hit .321/.380/.469 with 8 home runs and 40 RBI in 458 at-bats against lefties.

Castillo's main enemy has been injuries, as he battled through them last year and it appears he'll have to again this year. His injury this spring has been a sore back. Hopefully, he'll get through it and be healthy for the start of the season. Assuming he does, I wouldn't expect a spectacular year, but he could come up with a higher average and more walks as he has had a year to adjust to the AL now. I'd predict around a .305/.380/.385 line with a few home runs and probably around 25 stolen bases again.

With his contract expiring after this season, there is a good chance Castillo could be traded during the season, and if he does, it will likely be for pitching or even a hitting prospect. Terry Ryan may do it if he thinks Alexi Casilla is ready and if he thinks the Twins have no chance to keep Castillo, which they probably don't. If Casilla is up by July or so, he'll probably have around 100 or 200 at-bats and hit .250 or so. Otherwise, its likely that Rodriguez will take over or Machado if he makes the team. Cirillo can play second, but he is primarily a backup corner infielder.

Overall, regardless of what happens with Castillo, second base will be a fairly strong position for the Twins, especially from the outset of the season.