Monday, March 31, 2008

Opening Day Reflections

I was a freshman in college when Mr. Mosvick and I launched this little Twins blog experiment. Three years later, I find myself about six weeks away from graduating, and I'm pretty amazed the blog has lasted this long. Despite the obligations of everyday life, I manage to make time for this little hobby of mine just about every night, and the interaction with other fans and writers has rendered the entire experience worthwhile. It's been a little bit more difficult to keep up with things over the past six months or so since Mosvick left to go to law school and effectively ceased being a contributor, but I think I've done a decent job of maintaining the update schedule and covering all the big stories.

I feel like this blog has grown with me over the past three years. My writing skills have steadily increased during my time in the School of Journalism here at the U, and I like to think that's reflected in my work here on the blog. I don't purport to be a great writer by any means, but when I go back and look at some of the content from this blog's early days... yeesh. I also think that interacting with all the great baseball minds who comment on this site and send me e-mails has vastly increased my knowledge and appreciation of the game in a lot of ways. My philosophy when it comes to baseball is one that mixes the new-age Sabermetric style with a respect for the traditional values of the game, so I can respect arguments made by both sides as long as they're based in logic.

From a personal standpoint, I don't really know where I'm headed once I finish up with school in mid-May. During the summer, I'm hoping to continue working my two current part-time jobs, and it appears I'll also be doing some work with Rotoworld (thanks to AG for the hook-up on that one). It is also likely that I will be once again be heavily involved with GameDay Magazine, the independently owned and operated program sold outside of the Metrodome before home games. If you aren't picking this mag up nearly every time you attend a Twins game, you really should. I say this not just because of my involvement with the publication and my friendship with the Editor in Chief, John Bonnes; it is a really great program which I bought regularly even before I ever wrote a word for them. If you are a reader of Twins blogs like this one, there is little question that GameDay will have a great deal to offer to you.

Incidentally, I served as guest editor for the April issue, so I'll encourage everyone even more strongly to pick up a copy (or two, or three!) if you make it out to tonight's season opener or any game this month. The issue features articles by renowned bloggers such as Twins Geek, Jesse Lund from Twinkie Town, Seth Stohs and myself (not that I'm "renowned" by anyone other than my mom).

Anyway, I'll keep doing the part-time stuff this summer and should continue to fire out daily updates on this blog. In the fall it will probably be time to start thinking about getting on with my life and joining the full-time work force. I want to tell myself that that's a long ways away yet, but then I think about how quickly these past three years have gone by and I'm reminded that the summer will be gone much more quickly than I'd like to believe.

But, I'll deal with that hurdle when it comes. In any case, I just want to thank everyone who has stopped by this blog regularly and chimed in with your thoughts. I find that even those who generally tend to disagree with me (tt, I'm looking in your direction) almost always bring well-reasoned arguments and help create quality discourse.

After a long winter, Opening Day is finally here. Enjoy tonight's game. As always, you can stop by tomorrow morning to read all my inane thoughts on it.


And now, a Nick Mosvick update from Virginia:

As many of you know, in late August last year I departed for the University of Virginia School of Law. Many people left nice comments and plenty of suggestions upon my posting of a goodbye message. Not all of it came true of course. However, poster J. Lichty's comments were certainly insightful, as using five different colored highlighters became not a strategy in order to frighten others or be "gunnerish," but rather was a genuine by-product of my overt indolence. Of course, the University of Virginia School of Law is, in so many ways, completely different from any other law school. A lot of the other comments dealt with having fun and balancing time, but the fact is that going to law school here in many ways does that for you unless you absolutely have a unquenchable desire to make work for yourself.

That, in the end, is the real reason why I have had so little time to even consider posting on this blog. From organizations to get together to a collegiate atmosphere in general, it has felt since the day I arrived here that I almost always had something to do if I wanted. Obviously, it will sound to most that read this that I am big promoter of the school and they would be right. I love the decision that I made and the people that I have meet have been by in large fantastic. With that said, I still miss blogging as much as I was able to in undergrad and in no real tangible way have I actually lost my appetite for all things baseball.

With that said, when the horrible time that is finals comes to an end in early May and I settle into my summer job here in Virginia, I should have time to watch games on MLB TV and return to more regular blogging. Otherwise, I'll be cheering vicariously through all of my friends in Minnesota and will have to allow box scores and the minimal highlights on ESPN suffice for the time. Now lets go Twins!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Nicks' Picks 2008

These are pretty pointless and I doubt many people really care, so I'm posting our predictions for the 2008 season here on a Sunday evening. Guess I just wanted to have them documented somewhere so I can look back after the season and laugh about how horribly wrong I was.

Feel free to tear them apart.


AL East
New York
Tampa Bay

AL Central
Detroit (Wild Card)
Kansas City

AL West
Los Angeles

NL East
New York

NL Central
St. Louis

NL West
Colorado (Wild Card)
Los Angeles
San Diego
San Francisco

World Series: Boston over NY Mets

AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young: Johan Santana

AL MVP: Grady Sizemore
NL MVP: David Wright

AL Rookie of the Year: Evan Longoria
NL Rookie of the Year: Franklin Morales


AL East
New York
Tampa Bay

AL Central
Cleveland (Wild Card)
Kansas City

AL West
Los Angeles

NL East
New York

NL Central
St. Louis

NL West
Colorado (Wild Card)
Los Angeles
San Diego
San Francisco

World Series: Detroit over Arizona

AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander
NL Cy Young: Johan Santana

AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez
NL MVP: Chase Utley

AL Rookie of the Year: Clay Buchholz
NL Rookie of the Year: Jay Bruce

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Tying Up the Rotation

Wow, a Saturday post! It's been a while since I've done one of these. Those who have read this blog for any length of time are no doubt aware that in the past we have always posted on weekends during the season, which makes us distinct from a lot of other Twins blogs out there. Since I'm pretty much going it alone these days with Mosvick doing his thing in Virginia, I can't promise that the seven-days-a-week updates will continue; however, I'll do my best.

Francisco Liriano made his final start of spring training yesterday, and the results were encouraging. Over five innings, Liriano allowed just one run (a solo homer by Jose Bautista) on three hits while walking two and striking out seven. Phil Miller's account of Liriano's outing makes it sound like the pitcher wasn't as strong as the numbers indicate -- some command issues and a number of hard-hit outs -- but the strikeout total and the low pitch count (74 pitches) certainly give cause for optimism.

Despite his strong outing, Liriano is headed to the minors to open the season. He will pitch in the warm weather of Ft. Myers next Thursday before heading to Rochester to make a start and then hopefully joining the Twins if all goes well. It's hard to fault the Twins for playing it cautious here; missing a few starts from Liriano is hardly the end of the world and Nick Blackburn's performance this spring gives reason to believe he can fill in more than adequately.

Here are the pitching match-ups for the Angels series, per La Velle:

Monday, Mar. 31: Livan Hernandez vs. Jared Weaver
Tuesday, Apr. 1: Boof Bonser vs Jon Garland
Wednesday, Apr. 2: Nick Blackburn vs Joe Saunders
Thursday, Apr. 3: Kevin Slowey vs Ervin Santana

Friday, March 28, 2008


With the start of the season just around the corner, now seems like a good time to give some stuff away. The people at BNC were kind enough to send me five copies of Sony's latest baseball title for PlayStation 3, MLB 08: The Show, to give away on the blog. When we've had giveaways here in the past, I've always struggled to come up with any interesting gimmicks for a contest and have ended up simply drawing names from a hat. This time around, a friend had a suggestion that actually makes a lot of sense.

From an aesthetic standpoint, this blog sucks... I'm aware of it. But unlike SBG, who is constantly tinkering with the look of his site and as a result has put together a pretty slick overall design, I've been too lazy and unmotivated to do anything about it. I also lack the graphic design skills to create anything worthwhile; but, I'm guessing there are some readers of this site who are far more talented than me in this regard. So here's the challenge I'm putting forth: create a new logo graphic that we can use as the title banner. The current title -- a Twins logo and some boring text -- is hardly an exciting introduction to the site, so I'd have to imagine that nearly anything would provide an upgrade. There are no real restrictions on what you can do, so long as your graphic contains the name of the blog and is baseball- or Twins-related in some way. Also, it would help if you could size it in dimensions roughly equivalent to the current title area so I don't have to crop and warp it too much.

So, give it a shot, and send me the image file in JPEG format at [email protected] sometime between now and next Friday. The person whose graphic is chosen will automatically receive a copy of MLB 08 for PS3. Those who send in an entry and don't have it selected will be entered in a drawing for the final four copies. If you lack the software or skills to attempt this but are still interested in getting a copy of the game, just e-mail me your name and I'll enter you in the drawing.

Have a great weekend everyone. Only three more days!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

The Twins have employed a very simple formula for winning games over the past several years: get five or six solid innings from the starting pitcher, then hand things over to the bullpen and let them dominate. For the most part, this has been a successful strategy because the Twins have maintained a very strong bullpen. Last year, the Twins' bullpen posted a solid 3.80 ERA to rank fifth in the AL -- this in a season where Jesse Crain was lost due to a shoulder injury and Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes regressed significantly. Breakout contributions from Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier buoyed the Twins' relief unit and another strong season from closer Joe Nathan helped keep leads safe. This year, everyone from last year's group returns, and there is a plenty of reason to be optimistic that this unit can be better than last season, perhaps even closer to 2006 when they posted a 2.91 ERA to lead the majors.

Joe Nathan - Closer
2007 Stats: 71.2 IP, 1.88 ERA, 37 SV, 77 K / 19 BB, 1.02 WHIP

After Johan Santana was traded during the offseason, there was quite a bit of speculation that Nathan would be on his way out right behind the ace starter. Ultimately, the Twins elected not to deal Nathan; on the contrary, they tabbed the star closer to a three-year extension that will pay him $11.25 million in each of the next four seasons. Regardless of your feelings on whether or not a guy who throws a maximum of 70 innings per year is worth that kind of money, there is simply no denying that Nathan is one of the very best at what he does. Since becoming the team's full-time closer back in 2004, he has posted a 1.94 ERA and 355-to-80 K/BB ratio, both of which are simply awesome. Nathan's strikeout rate dipped substantially last year (down to 9.67 K/9 from 12.51 in '06), but he still saved 37 games in 41 opportunities with a 1.88 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, so there is little reason concern. Nathan is 33, but closers tend to age well. There's no reason to expect anything but excellence from the Twins' elite closer in '08.

Pat Neshek - Setup Man
2007 Stats: 70.1 IP, 2.94 ERA, 74 K / 27 BB, 1.01 WHIP

Neshek arrived in 2006, devastating opponents with his funky delivery and posting disgusting numbers over his first 37 big-league innings. During the first half of the 2007 season, he continued to do essentially the same thing nearly earning an All-Star berth. Compare the numbers from his '06 debut to his first half last year:


2007, first half
















After the All-Star break, things went downhill drastically for Neshek. His ERA shot up to 4.82, his WHIP climbed to 1.43, and his walk rate nearly doubled while his strikeout rate dropped off a cliff. Some people figure that Neshek's struggles were due to the league's hitters getting a bead on his unique delivery, but the more likely scenario is that he wore down late in the year after being overused by Ron Gardenhire. Neshek strengthened up in the offseason and the hope is that he can get back to his early '07 form and return to being an amazingly reliable setup man in front of Nathan. The results so far this spring (10 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 0 BB, 9 K) have certainly been encouraging.

Matt Guerrier - Middle Reliever
2007 Stats: 88 IP, 2.35 ERA, 68 K / 21 BB, 1.05 WHIP

Like Neshek, Guerrier had a spectacular first half in 2007 before fading a bit after the All-Star break. In Guerrier's case, The drop-off was not as drastic -- his ERA rose from 1.70 to a still-respectable 3.34 and while his hit rate took a major leap his strikeout and walk rates remained relatively steady. It's probably not realistic to expect Guerrier to approach the type of numbers he posted in what was most likely a flukey first half last season, but he's a very solid reliever with an outstanding curveball and should again prove to be a reliable No. 2 setup option behind Neshek.

Juan Rincon - Middle Reliever
2007 Stats: 59.2 IP, 5.13 ERA, 49 K / 28 BB, 1.56 WHIP

Rincon had been on a downward slope ever since his tremendous 2004 campaign, and it all culminated last year with a brutal 5.13 ERA and 1.56 WHIP. Rincon was utterly hittable, struggled with his control, and surrendered nine home runs to nearly double his previous career high. Without any obvious injury issues to point at, it seems that Rincon has become a mere shadow of his former self. He has much to prove this season; any substantial production would be a bonus but expectations should be low.

Jesse Crain - Middle Reliever
2007 Stats: 16.2 IP, 5.51 ERA, 10 K / 4 BB, 1.41 WHIP

After making 18 appearances and posting some ugly numbers last year, Crain underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. The prognosis for pitchers undergoing such a surgery is not at all good, and I didn't feel the right-hander had much chance of being ready by Opening Day. Much to my surprise, he has pitched well this spring and it appears that he will have a spot on the big-league roster when the Twins break camp. Still, it's tough to imagine him being overly effective this year.

Dennys Reyes - Lefty Specialist
2007 Stats: 29.2 IP, 3.99 ERA, 21 K / 21 BB, 1.88 WHIP

Who knows what got into Reyes in 2006. After a career of complete and utter mediocrity, the 29-year-old exploded with an absurdly good season, posting a 0.89 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while holding opposing hitters to a .197 average and fanning a batter per inning. Last year, Reyes came back to Earth in a big way, struggling with injuries while posting an even K/BB ratio and allowing a .309 BAA. In '06, Reyes fulfilled his LOOGY role about as well as humanly possible, holding lefty hitters to a minuscule 424 OPS; last year that figure jumped to 673 while righties pounded him to the tune of .364/.509/.500. If Reyes can stay healthy this year, I suspect his performance will improve from 2007 and he should be an effective lefty specialist, but I strongly doubt we'll ever see anything close to that ridiculous season he had two years ago.

Brian Bass - Long Reliever
2007 Stats (w/ AAA Rochester): 103.1 IP, 7-3, 3.48 ERA, 80 K / 24 BB, 1.16 WHIP

Certainly the biggest surprise on the pitching staff, Bass was out of the options and earned a spot on the roster with a good performance this spring. Formerly a sixth-round pick of the Royals back in 2000, Bass has progressed slowly but had a solid season in Rochester last year. His next major-league appearance will be his first. He's not likely to be any better than Willie Eyre was a couple years ago, but he could be useful on occasions where Twins starters get shelled and have to come out of a game very early.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher

Analyzing the Twins' rotation is no easy task, mostly because we still don't really know for sure how it's going to shape up. In my Spring Training Preview several weeks ago, I predicted the the rotation would shake out as some ordering of Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Livan Hernandez, Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey. With less than a week remaining before the season opener, there is still no certainty about who will open the season in the rotation (Baker could well open the season on the disabled list and Liriano in the minors), but all five of these guys remain in camp so they are the ones I'll analyze today.

Livan Hernandez
2007 Stats: 204.1 IP, 11-11, 4.93 ERA, 90 K / 79 BB, 1.60 WHIP

Despite the fact that he could very well be the least qualified member of this group, Hernandez is lined up to start the season opener against the Angels next Monday. There's not much reason to believe that the hefty right-hander will have much success this season; his numbers have been uniformly trending downward over the past several years and he's moving to a considerably better offensive league and division. Opponents batted .308 and hit 34 home runs against Hernandez last year, and he struck out only 11 more batters than he walked. I suppose there's a chance he'll buck the trends and find some success in Minnesota, but it's certainly not likely. We'll just have to hope he can hold his own and provide the Twins with some reasonably decent innings this season.

Scott Baker
2007 Stats: 143.2 IP, 9-9, 4.26 ERA, 102 K / 29 BB, 1.33 WHIP

Baker debuted with the Twins in 2005 and had some success, posting an excellent 3.35 ERA over 53 2/3 innings. He figured to be a large part of the team's plans in 2006, but unfortunately struggled mightily with a 6.37 ERA and .324 BAA. With players like Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey stepping up, Baker was pushed out of the minds of many fans and came into 2007 with much to prove. He came through, pitching great in Rochester to earn another trip to Minnesota, where he established himself as a reliable starter with exceptional control. Baker will look to build on that success this year, and there's no reason to believe he can't.

Boof Bonser
2007 Stats: 173 IP, 8-12, 5.10 ERA, 136 K / 65 BB, 1.53 WHIP

Bonser first came up in 2006 and pitched well enough to become the Twins' Game 2 starter in their playoff series against the Athletics. Last year, however, he struggled with control and stamina problems and finished the season with ugly numbers. Perhaps most alarming was his drop-off in the later innings; Bonser held opponents to a 760 OPS in innings 1-3, but that number shot up to 911 in innings 4-6. The Twins believed that the problem may have been related to his weight, so they asked him to slim down during the offseason. Bonser complied by shedding upwards of 20 lbs, and so far this spring the effects appear to be positive.

Francisco Liriano
2007 Stats: did not pitch

Working his way back from Tommy John surgery, Liriano has gotten mixed results this spring. He has been able to throw all of his pitches and has reportedly been pain-free, but has struggled with his command and hasn't been able to get near his 2006 velocity consistently. This season will likely be a difficult one for Liriano as he must learn how to pitch all over again with a new ligament in his elbow. Expectations should remain low, especially early in the season, but the kid certainly has the talent and ability to do some special things.

Kevin Slowey
2007 Stats: 66.2 IP, 4-1, 4.73 ERA, 47 K / 11 BB, 1.40 WHIP

In spite of his utter domination throughout the minor leagues, scouts have generally been reserved in their assessments of Slowey because he lacks devastating stuff and doesn't possess a legitimate "out pitch," like Bonser's curve or Liriano's slider. However, Slowey continues to prove the scouts wrong by hitting his spots perfectly and outsmarting hitters. The 23-year-old right-hander dominated Triple-A last year to earn a mid-season promotion to the bigs. He struggled to a 5.84 ERA over 37 innings during his first stint with the Twins, but returned in September to post a 3.34 ERA over 29 2/3 innings while striking out 28 and walking just two. After allowing 13 home runs during his first stay with the team, Slowey surrendered just three during his September call-up. Clearly, this kid can make adjustments, and that ability might take him far in this league even if he never develops a true out pitch.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Catching Up

Alright, there is just so much going on right now that I'm going to have to push back the Position Analyses for Starting Pitcher and Relief Pitcher until tomorrow and Thursday. I've been very removed from things lately, as I spent last week soaking in the sun down in Orlando (I actually wrote all of last week's Position Analysis pieces the week before; if no one noticed then I guess I did a decent job!), so there are a few things I'd like to delve into.

The biggest news, of course, is the Twins' signing of closer Joe Nathan to a four-year extension that will keep him in Minnesota until at least 2011, with an option for 2012. Between 2008 and 2011, Nathan will make $47 million, or an average of $11.25 million per year. Considering the type of money that Mariano Rivera and Francisco Cordero have gotten lately, Nathan's deal seems like a decent bargain; and most importantly, the contract includes only a limited no-trade clause (Nathan can select three teams to which the club cannot trade him), so if push comes to shove he can remain a valuable trading piece down the line.

Many people are grumbling about this deal, reasoning that Nathan is less valuable than players like Torii Hunter and Johan Santana who were let go during the offseason and that closers in general are overrated and not deserving of this type of money. I tend to find both of these lines of reasoning rather dubious. The Twins could not have reasonably afforded to pay Hunter or Santana the huge money they were seeking so there's no way this can be viewed as an either/or situation; and, while the closer position itself (mostly just the save statistic) might be overrated, dominant relievers who pitch extremely well in high-leverage situations are not. I'm of the belief that the Twins needed to retain Nathan in order to maintain a strong and reasonably deep bullpen, because with Eduardo Morlan out of the picture, this organization does not have much in the pipeline when it comes to power bullpen arms.

Aside from locking up Nathan, the Twins also made an official decision on their center field situation yesterday by cutting Denard Span and Jason Pridie from the big-league camp. Indeed, as I have long anticipated, Carlos Gomez will open the season manning center for the Twins. This is certainly something I'm supportive of, in part because I think Gomez has the tools and attitude to be able to learn and develop in the big leagues, and in part because as a fan I'd simply much prefer watching him than Span.

The Twins also cut Philip Humber and Brian Buscher yesterday, indicating that Matt Tolbert will make the club as a utility infielder (okay...?) and that Nick Blackburn and Brian Bass will hang on, one as a long reliever and one as a starter. The team has suggested that Francisco Liriano will open the season in the minors, despite his strong outing on Sunday afternoon.

So, unless something changes, this is what we can expect the team's 25-man roster to look like on March 31:

C: Mauer
1B: Morneau
2B: Harris
SS: Everett
3B: Lamb
LF: Young
CF: Gomez
RF: Cuddyer
DH: Kubel

C: Redmond
IF: Punto
IF: Tolbert
OF: Monroe

SP: Hernandez
SP: Bonser
SP: Baker
SP: Slowey
SP: Blackburn

CL: Nathan
RP: Neshek
RP: Rincon
RP: Reyes
RP: Crain
RP: Guerrier
RP: Bass

I would have liked a better final bench option than Tolbert, but none of those decisions are going to make me rip my hair out. Let's see what these boys can do.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Position Analysis: Designated Hitter

Likely Starter: Jason Kubel
2007 Stats: .273/.335/.450, 13 HR, 65 RBI

Everyone's "Pick to Click" in '08... again.

Potential Backups: Craig Monroe, Jon Knott, Randy Ruiz, Joe Mauer

Designated hitter is one of only four offensive positions where the Twins won't likely be ushering in a brand new face this season, but that doesn't mean there isn't reason for optimism. Last season, many of the team's DH at-bats went to punchless hitters like Jeff Cirillo, Mike Redmond and Jason Tyner. This year, Jason Kubel figures to take over full-time, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this will be a very good thing.

Buried beneath his mediocre 785 OPS of last year, we find that Kubel was the team's best hitter during the second half, when he raked to the tune of .303/.379/.511, and that he hit .302/.385/.500 when serving as designated hitter. Both of these trends suggest that Kubel has a big year in store if Ron Gardenhire sticks with him. Then again, it seems like we're saying this every March.

A .320/.385/.499 hitter in the minors, Kubel debuted in the majors at age 22 and projected to be a long-time stalwart for this offense along with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Yet, a knee injury suffered in the Arizona Fall League in 2004 derailed Kubel's progress, and he has struggled to return to form. He missed the entire 2005 season while rehabbing, and has struggled to find consistency over the past two years. Much of the time, there was a vicious circle taking place where Kubel would have a tough stretch and would then find himself out of Gardy's lineup. In the second half last year, things finally seemed to click, which gives hope that 2008 could be a very big year for him. If Kubel can keep his K/BB ratio close to even, he'll probably hit .300-plus with good power, thanks to his ability to make good hard contact and spray line drives all over the field.

At his best, Kubel can hold his own against lefties, but Gardenhire will likely start Craig Monroe frequently on days where the Twins face a left-hander. That's not a bad thing; Kubel hasn't proven to be particularly durable since returning from the injury, and mashing lefties was essentially the sole reason Monroe -- a career .273/.319/.495 hitter against southpaws -- was brought in during the offseason. Between those two, I suspect the Twins should be able to get at least an .850 OPS with legitimate power, something this organization has historically struggled to extract from the DH slot.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Kubel: .310/.380/.500, 20 HR, 85 RBI

Friday, March 21, 2008

Position Analysis: Right Field

Likely Starter: Michael Cuddyer
2007 Stats: .276/.356/.433, 16 HR, 81 RBI

Cuddyer will be one of only a few familiar faces in '08.

Potential Backups: Craig Monroe, Jason Pridie, Jason Kubel, Garrett Jones

Won't the real Michael Cuddyer please stand up? Is it the guy who posted an .866 OPS with 24 home runs and 109 RBI during his first year as a full-time regular in 2006? Or is it the guy who slugged just .433 with 16 home runs last year, and has slugged .450 over the course of his career? The first guy is a legitimate middle-of-the-lineup threat who provides sufficient offense for a corner outfield spot. The second guy isn't.

To be fair, Cudder was hitting .289/.373/.450 through July 18 last year before missing time due to a back injury which probably affected his performance for the remainder of the season. That's not exactly a line you'd want from your cleanup hitter, but a .289 average and .373 OBP are fine numbers for a No. 3 hitter, which is likely where Cuddyer will bat this year with Joe Mauer sliding up to the two-slot.

If Cuddyer can increase his home run and double totals this year while continuing to take walks and reach base at a good rate, he should be a solid contributor to this lineup. Being that he is a 29-year-old (as of March 27) with over 2,000 major-league at-bats, we basically know what we've got with Cuddyer at this point. But if he stays healthy all year and gets good protection in the lineup from Justin Morneau and Delmon Young, it's not out of the question that he put up numbers similar to 2006.

Craig Monroe will likely be Cuddyer's top backup, with Jason Pridie and Garrett Jones serving as options as long as they're on the roster.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Cuddyer: .275/.365/.470, 20 HR, 90 RBI

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Position Analysis: Center Field

Likely Starter: Carlos Gomez
2007 Stats: .232/.288/.304, 2 HR, 12 RBI

Gomez's game is raw and ripe with flaws, but he may get to work on them in the bigs.

Potential Backups: Jason Pridie, Craig Monroe, Denard Span

With Torii Hunter out of the picture, the Twins hoped to figure out a steady answer in center field by the start of the 2008 season. Despite trading for two center field prospects during the offseason, the Twins don't appear particularly close to figuring things out.

Showing improvement after a rough start this spring, Carlos Gomez appears to be the front-runner in the battle to start in center on Opening Day. A 22-year-old who came over as the sole position player in the Johan Santana trade, Gomez had been rushed through the Mets system and appeared in 58 games for the Mets last year, appearing in mostly the corner outfield spots. Gomez struggled and posted a paltry .592 OPS while striking out in nearly 20 percent of his at-bats, but he was only 21 years old and did miss a sizable chunk of the season with a broken hand.

Widely viewed as one of the league's fastest players, Gomez is a toolsy defender and a legitimate threat on the basepaths when gets aboard. He also projects to hit for power with his big 6-for-4 frame. The problem with Gomez is that he's basically all projection at this point; he hasn't hit particularly well in the minors (which is understandable since he's been rushed and hasn't been given much time to adjust at any level) and doesn't appear truly ready to be starting in the big leagues. Yet, the Twins are likely to eager to showcase some of the talent they got back in the Santana trade, and Gomez might be the best option considering the alternatives.

Jason Pridie, who had a breakout year in Tampa Bay's system last year that included a .914 OPS over 63 games at Triple-A, is more polished than Gomez and might be a better option for the center field spot in the short-term. However, Ron Gardenhire has made clear that he views Pridie as a backup and role player, and the battle for the starting job seems to be between Gomez and Denard Span at this point.

Span has had the best spring of the three, but is a significantly inferior prospect to either Gomez or Pridie. A first-round pick in 2002, Span has moved through the Twins' system at a reasonable pace despite a failure to produce anywhere, and his lack of legitimate plate discipline or any power whatsoever make him a marginal roster candidate. He possesses some of the same tools as Gomez -- namely, defense and speed -- but Gomez is the better player and has a much brighter future. It has become fairly clear that Span doesn't have much of a future as a major-league player, whereas Gomez is a top prospect with the tools to blossom into a star. Whether the former Met will realize that potential remains to be seen, but it would certainly be more entertaining for Twins fans to watch him grow and adjust this year than to watch Span try and beat out weak grounders.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Gomez: .265/.315/.390, 10 HR, 55 RBI

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Position Analysis: Left Field

Likely Starter: Delmon Young
2007 Stats: .288/.316/.408, 13 HR, 93 RBI

Young will need to keep his historically hot temper in check in Minnesota.

Potential Backups: Craig Monroe, Jason Pridie, Jason Kubel

The Twins entered the offseason with numerous holes to fill, most notably third base, center field and designated hitter. Trading for Delmon Young indirectly filled one of those holes by allowing Jason Kubel to slide from left field to DH. The move should improve the team's defense in left field, and also provides them with a beefy 22-year-old with a ton of potential who could become a cornerstone in this lineup.

After being selected by Tampa Bay with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, Young flew through the organization's minor-league system and was playing in the major leagues by September 2006. He has hit for big averages nearly everywhere he's gone, and last year finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting while batting .288 and appearing in all 162 of the Rays' games.

Yet, while his upside is huge, many questions surround Young. His attitude was a major problem during his time in the Rays' system; he frequently had spats with management and during the 2006 season was suspended for 50 games after throwing a bat at an umpire. Since arriving in Minnesota, Young has been saying all the right things and it appears that he has matured, but these issues will remain in the minds of fans.

Of greater concern is the fact that Young simply was not very good last year. He hit .317/.336/.476 during a September call-up in 2006, but took a step back in '07 by posting an underwhelming .724 while striking out nearly five times for every walk. I wrote recently about Young's mysterious lack of power over the past couple seasons, and his plate discipline has been almost uniformly bad throughout his professional career. These are areas where Young needs to improve if he is to become the star hitter that many believe he can be, and he needs to start showing that improvement soon. Fortunately, he's young and talented enough that it's not real difficult to see him making the adjustments to become a legitimate threat. I think he'll start making those strides this season.

Behind Young on the depth chart is Craig Monroe, who was acquired in an offseason trade with the Cubs. I've expounded upon the fact that Monroe is overpaid and really not that great of a hitter, but he should serve as a decent fourth outfielder and he's almost certain to improve on his brutal .219/.268/.370 line from last season. Young doesn't have a big platoon split, and he proved last year that he can play everyday as long as he's healthy, so I don't think there will be much need for Monroe to chip in in left field. Kubel provides an additional backup option in left, as does Jason Pridie if he's on the roster.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Young: .295/.340/.480, 20 HR, 110 RBI

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Position Analysis: Shortstop

Likely Starter: Adam Everett
2007 Stats: .232/.281/.318, 2 HR, 15 RBI

The odds that Everett made solid contact with this ball are, sadly, not good.

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Brendan Harris

Adam Everett has never been much of a hitter, but even by his standards, the numbers he put during an injury-shortened 2007 campaign were pretty brutal. He was hitting just .232 in mid-June when he collided with Houston left fielder Carlos Lee while chasing a pop fly and broke his right leg.

The Twins acquired Everett, a .248/.299/.357 career hitter, as a free agent during the offseason to replace Jason Bartlett, who was sent to Tampa Bay as a part of the package that brought in Delmon Young. Everett has been one of the league's worst regular hitters over the past several seasons, and there is little reason to believe it's going to get any better with a change of scenery. Houston's ballpark, with its short left-field porch, is notoriously friendly to right-handed hitters and probably helped him attain his modest power (he averaged about eight homers per season in the four seasons prior to 2007). With the switch to a bigger park, Everett might lose some of that power, which is really his only offensive value. He doesn't hit for average, he doesn't take walks and he's not particularly speedy (he did swipe a career-high 21 bags in 2005, but he's 31 and coming off a leg injury).

What might surprise you is that Everett's career OPS, .656, is actually identical to the OPS the Twins got from their shortstop position last year. That's not to say that Everett is as good of a hitter as Bartlett -- he's not; Bartlett got off to a slow start last year and the team's overall SS stats were dragged down considerably by Nick Punto's utterly awful .136/.211/.160 line at the position. But the fact of the matter is that as long as he can hit somewhere close to his career average (which is far from a given), Everett won't provide a major offensive downgrade at shortstop. What he will almost certainly do is provide a major defensive upgrade.

The reason Everett has stuck around for so long, and the reason he was able to score a $2.8 million one-year deal from the Twins during the offseason, is that he is an absolute stud defensively. While he has never won a Gold Glove (just another mark against the award's legitimacy), nearly every defensive metric rates Everett as one of the best defensive players in all of baseball over the past five years. There may be some reason for concern that Everett's range will be reduced as a result of his '07 injury, but he's a steady shortstop who makes all the plays.

If Everett gets hurt or if his offensive contributions are unbearably bad, Nick Punto can step in and would probably provide a slight offensive upgrade and a slight defensive downgrade. I'll be more interested to see how Alexi Casilla does in Triple-A and whether he makes an appearance at the position. Casilla had a rough season in 2007, but he's still got a lot of talent and I still believe this team views him as their future shortstop.

Everett is going to be a hole in the lineup, and it's unlikely that even the most stellar defense will be able to fully offset the horrendous offensive numbers he is likely to produce, but one can't underestimate the value of a top-notch defender at a position as crucially important as shortstop.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Everett: .240/.290/.345, 5 HR, 40 RBI

Monday, March 17, 2008

Position Analysis: Third Base

Likely Starter: Mike Lamb
2007 Stats: .289/.366/.455, 11 HR, 40 RBI

Lamb could well reverse a long-standing trend of ineptitude at third.

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, Matt Macri

Third base was an absolute disaster for the Twins last year,when the team got a collective .236/.308/.323 hitting line from the position thanks in large part to Nick Punto's historically bad season. Seeking to solve the long-standing issues at the position (the Twins haven't gotten an OPS over .712 from third base since Corey Koskie left following the '04 season), the Twins went out and signed free agent Mike Lamb to a multiyear contract.

Lamb should undoubtedly provide an instant upgrade. A .281/.339/.427 career hitter, Lamb is coming off a pair of very good seasons and at age 32 he isn't terribly old. The Cal State-Fullerton product spent his first four major-league seasons with the Rangers before traveling to Houston, where he has spent the past four years.

Lamb was a solid hitter with the Rangers, putting up OPS figures of .701, .760 and .765 in his first three seasons before having his fourth cut short by injury. Yet, he truly kicked his game up a notch after latching on with the Astros, where he posted OPS totals of .867, .703, .836 and .819 during his four-year tenure. The improvement is undoubtedly in part due to playing in the Astros' hitter-friendly park, but certainly the park tilts a lot more toward righty hitters than lefties, so that is probably not the sole explanation.

What I find most interesting about Lamb is his split against lefties and righties. While in Houston, Lamb was consistently shielded against southpaws, never making more than 60 plate appearances against them in a season. However, it is worth nothing that his career OPS against lefties is just 23 points lower than righties (.770 to .747). His numbers against left-handed pitchers have been sporadic throughout his career -- he's had seasons where he has hit them well and others where he struggled mightily against them. This all makes it very difficult to judge his proper usage. I'd say that based on the evidence it seems like there's a decent chance he could hold his own against southpaws this year, but if not, it would be nice to have a right-handed hitter who could slide in and start against tough lefties. Brendan Harris would be a nice candidate to do so.

Because he was held out of the lineup against left-handers so often, Lamb wasn't truly a full-time player in Houston, never amassing more than 421 plate appearances in a season. The Twins probably expect him to be something close to a full-time player this year, which he really hasn't been since his rookie year in Texas when he appeared in 138 games. Since Lamb's failure to reach 500 plate appearances since that rookie season has had more to do with managerial strategy than a lack of durability, I see little reason to believe he won't be capable of handling full-time duty.

The largest problem with Lamb is that he is very limited defensively, so we should expect to see Punto frequently taking over at third base as a late-game replacement, as well as getting occasional starts when a groundball pitcher like Francisco Liriano is on the mound. Harris can also play some third, and as I mentioned he'd make a good platoon partner. If Brian Buscher makes the roster, he'd likely see some action at the position as well, but my guess is that he would serve more as a left-handed bench bat and injury safeguard than a true backup third baseman, since his skill set is incredibly redundant with Lamb's.

Even if Lamb can't put up the type of outstanding numbers he did in three of his past four years with Houston, he's still likely to provide the Twins with a fairly massive upgrade at third base. For the first time in four years, it's looking like the hot corner will not be a major concern.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Lamb: .280/.345/.430, 10 HR, 50 RBI

Friday, March 14, 2008

Position Analysis: Second Base

Likely Starter: Brendan Harris
2007 Stats: .286/.343/.434, 12 HR, 59 RBI

Harris will need to hit well enough to make up for his sub par defense.

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert, Matt Macri

Without question, second base is the most uncertain position I have previewed so far. For starters, while we can be certain that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be the starters at catcher and first base barring injury, it is far from a sure thing that Brendan Harris will be playing second base on Opening Day. Ron Gardenhire has been rotating players at second base regularly throughout spring training and hasn't given much of a hint as to who might be the leading contender. Beyond that, while we can reasonably expect that Mauer and Morneau will both put up numbers this year that fall somewhere between their excellent 2006 and disappointing 2007 campaigns, it is far more difficult to predict what type of production the Twins will get from second base, regardless of who the starter is.

I have maintained since the start of camp that Harris is the most likely candidate to get the lion's share of at-bats for the Twins at second base. While his defense leaves much to be desired, Harris was strong offensively with the Rays last year, and was an important component of the trade that sent Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan to Tampa Bay during the offseason. There is even more pressure for Harris to step up and be a productive starter at second after Gardenhire's revelation that he views Jason Pridie, the third player to come over in the trade along with Harris and Delmon Young, as a "role player" rather than a potential starter. If it turns out that the Twins gave up a young arm with ace potential, a starting shortstop and a top closer prospect for one starter and two backups, the Rays trade could end up looking like a flop, particularly if Young doesn't make major strides this year. All of which is to say that the general manager Bill Smith has got to be pushing for Harris to start and succeed.

So if Harris is the starter, as I suspect, what type of production can be expected? Last year Harris posted a .777 OPS which was solidly in line with the AL average for second basemen (.755) and would be a tremendous improvement over the .640 OPS the Twins got from the position last year. At 27 years old, there's plenty of reason to believe that Harris could repeat that type of production, or perhaps even improve on it. He was a .294/.365/.458 hitter in the minors, and has always displayed fairly decent plate discipline, so it's probably fair to say that the guy is a legitimate major-league hitter.

What is alarming is the fact that, since being drafted by the Cubs back in 2001, Harris has shuttled between six different organizations, and prior to last year had failed to appear in more than 20 games in a season with the same big-league club despite continually posting solid numbers in Triple-A. Clearly, these teams are seeing something they don't like. Maybe it's his defense. Whatever the case, it gives reason for concern. Still, Harris played in 137 games for Tampa Bay last year and hit consistently all year (with the exception of a rough August).

Of course, as long as Nick Punto is on the roster and Gardenhire is the skipper, No. 8 will get at-bats. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Punto won the starting job out of spring training, but with the abhorrent .210/.291/.271 hitting line he put up last year over a ridiculous 536 plate appearances, I think the manager is going to have a hard time writing Punto's name in the lineup too often regardless of his affection for the scrappy little tail-battler. The good news is that Punto basically has to be better at the plate than he was last year, and he remains an excellent defensive player who can sub in for the range-less Harris as a late-game replacement while also filling in as a starter from time to time.

Meanwhile, Alexi Casilla seems to be the guy that everyone forgot. Casilla was one of the organization's top prospects following an excellent 2006 campaign that saw him start in Single-A Ft. Myers and finish in Minnesota, but many fans seem to have soured on him after a poor 2007 season during which he was mediocre in Triple-A and Punto-like in Minnesota. It was a very tough year to be sure, but we can't forget the talent that Casilla -- still only 23 -- possesses. He could be a factor at some point this year, although I think it's more likely that he'd do so at shortstop.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Harris: .275/.340/.450, 14 HR, 70 RBI

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Position Analysis: First Base

Likely Starter: Justin Morneau
2007 Stats: .271/.343/.492, 31 HR, 111 RBI

Morneau will look to rebound after a brutal finish in '07.

Potential Backups: Brian Buscher, Garrett Jones, Michael Cuddyer

Justin Morneau took a notable step back in 2007 one year after winning the American League MVP, that much is for sure. It's worth noting, however, that the two seasons may not have been as different as a lot of people think. In 2006, Morneau struggled out of the gates before going on an insane tear over the last four months of the season to finish with a tremendous .321/.375/.559 hitting line. In 2007, Morneau continued to hit well through the first four months of the season, and in fact at the end of July he was hitting .297/.363/.563 with 28 home runs and 89 RBI -- basically, he was on pace to effectively duplicate his spectacular 2006 campaign.

We know the story of those last two months. In August and September, Morneau hit a putrid .222/.305/.335 while managing just three home runs. The sour ending left Morneau with an overall hitting line that left something to be desired, but while his final 2007 OPS was about 100 points lower than the 2006 figure, the two seasons weren't really as different as one might think. Observe:
























The way that Morneau got to these final totals was vastly different, but for all intents and purposes, his production in these categories (with the exception of RBI) was essentially the same both seasons. The main reason Morneau finished with a much better hitting line in 2006 was the fact that he hit a lot more singles in 2006, leading to a .321 batting average which was probably the main reason he was able to capture the MVP.

Morneau is an excellent hitter, but there is little to suggest that we can expect him to be hitting .321 on a regular basis. That's not necessarily a problem as long he can draw walks and hit for power to keep his OPS up like he did throughout the early part of last season. It will be a problem if he can't do those things. Morneau's final 2007 hitting line of .271/.343/492 is decidedly mediocre for a starting first baseman, and he'll need to improve on that in order to truly earn the big bucks he'll be making as part of his whopping new contract. I think we can fairly assume that his future numbers will look a lot more like the ones we saw from April through July last year than the ones we saw from in August and September -- there were rumblings of a back injury that was limiting Morneau during those final two months; hopefully he is now past that.

That last point is a big one. It is critically important that Morneau stay healthy this year, because the team's depth at first base is not strong. If Brian Buscher makes the team, he would likely serve as the top backup. If Garrett Jones makes the team, he would serve in that role. If neither of those two players make the team, the top backup at first base is... Michael Cuddyer? He'd be just about the only player on the roster with significant experience at the position, but he's already the starting right fielder. There was some talk that Joe Mauer might play a few games at first base this year to rest his knees, but the fact that he has seen no action at the position during spring training suggests that such a scenario isn't overly likely.

It would be interesting to see what the Twins would do if Morneau were to go down with a serious injury this year. Let's hope we don't have to find out.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Morneau: .285/.355/.540, 35 HR, 105 RBI

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Position Analysis: Catcher

As we roll into mid-March, it's about the time for us to get started on something that has become an annual spring tradition around here: the Position Analysis series. Each year we go through every position for the Twins and take a look at potential battles, project the likely starter, and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the position.

As always, we'll kick off with catcher, which once again projects to be a position of strength for the Twins:

Likely Starter: Joe Mauer
2007 Stats: .293/.382/.426, 7 HR, 60 RBI

Can Mauer stay healthy in '08?

Potential Backups: Mike Redmond, Jose Morales

Joe Mauer was unable to replicate his 2006 numbers last year, but that shouldn't really come as a big surprise. Can a 24-year-old really be expected to hit .347 two years in a row? It's surely unfair to hold it against Mauer that he "only" hit .293 with a .382 OBP last season (ranking third and second in the majors among catchers with 400-plus plate appearances, respectively), but there were a couple aspects of his game that gave cause for concern, namely power and health.

In 2006, Mauer appeared in 140 of the Twins' games and made 608 plate appearances. Last year, those numbers dropped to 109 and 471 due to various injuries, mostly to his legs. This prompted renewed calls for a position change, but for the time being Mauer is sticking at catcher. The hope is that he can stay in the lineup more this season.

Last year's health issues seemed more like a prolonged string of bad luck than anything, so I'm fairly confident he'll be in the lineup more this year. What I'm not really sure about is whether his power will materialize. Each year since he's entered the league, we've been saying the Mauer is going to grow into that 6-foot-5 frame and start showing some legitimate power. It hasn't happened. Last year he managed only seven home runs and 37 total extra-base hits, compared to 13 and 53 in '06. Obviously that is somewhat attributable to the fact that he made 22.5 percent fewer plate appearances, but as the 79-point drop in slugging percentage will attest, Mauer is clearly not showing the expected type of growth in his power game. There's reason to think that the power will come this year if he can stay healthy, but we really have no way of knowing.

Looking at Mauer's 2007 splits, there are a few things that stick out. For one thing, he was significantly better on the road than at home. When playing away from the Metrodome, Joe Mauer pieced together a .342/.436/.520 line that is roughly the same as his amazing overall hitting line in 2006. Yet, under the Teflon roof, Mauer struggled to the tune of .246/.336/.333. This massive home/away split is rather inexplicable, and I don't know that there's really any evidence to show that it's a systematic problem that can be expected to continue. (Although, it is worth noting that for whatever reason, Mauer has posted a better OPS away than at home in each of his four major-league seasons.)

The other split worth looking at is Mauer's disparity versus lefties and righties. Against right-handed pitchers last year, Mauer hit .299/.395/.481 with 32 extra-base hits; against lefties, just .283/.356/.319 with only five XBHs (all doubles). Considering Mauer carries a left-handed stick, the disparity is hardly earth-shattering, and in reality his line against southpaws wasn't really that bad (except for the abysmal lack of power). We may have expected more from Mauer against left-handers considering that he posted a .331/.401/.425 line against them in 2006, but my guess is that his success against them that year was something of a fluke, and we probably shouldn't expect him to post superhuman numbers against them.

Fortunately, this is something that the Twins can easily remedy, because Mauer's backup, Mike Redmond, is a right-handed hitter who has great success against left-handers. For his career, Redmond has posted an outstanding .332/.389/.436 line against southpaws; last year it was an even more impressive .330/.410/.443. If Ron Gardenhire can use Redmond properly -- spelling Mauer about once a week and almost always against left-handed starters -- this team stands to get fantastic production from the catcher position once again this year.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Mauer: .315/.405/.500, 15 HR, 70 RBI

Monday, March 10, 2008

You're Cut

"Now it's time for the easiest part of any coach's job: the cuts. Although I wasn't able to cut everyone I wanted to, I did cut a lot of you. Wendell is cut. Rudy is cut. Janey, you're gone. Steven, I like your hustle. That's why it was so hard to cut you. Congratulations, the rest of you made the team! Except you, you and you."
- Homer Simpson, pee-wee football coach.
The Twins made their first round of spring cuts on Sunday morning, sending 12 players to the organization's minor-league camp. The group includes the following: pitchers Zach Day, Deolis Guerra, Oswaldo Sosa, Jose Mijares, Armondo Gabino and Brian Duensing; catchers Jose Morales, Allen de San Miguel and Jeff Christy; infielders Alejandro Machado and Felix Molina; and outfielder Darnell McDonald. Among these names, the only ones that are mildly surprising are Duensing, Morales and Machado.

It seemed like Duensing would be a strong contender for the fifth spot in the Twins' rotation this spring after effectively conquering Triple-A last year, posting a 3.24 ERA over 116 2/3 innings there following a mid-season promotion from New Britain. Yet, for whatever reason, Duensing never seemed to be a legitimate contender to make the Opening Day roster despite possessing a reliable left arm. His name was rarely mentioned in the local papers when that fifth rotation spot was being discussed, and that means the beat writers probably weren't hearing about him much from team officials. Duensing struggled mightily in two appearances this spring, allowing five runs, five hits and five walks in 2 1/3 innings, but it's a little surprising that the Twins didn't give him more of an opportunity to showcase his skills.

Morales had a very good season in Rochester in 2007, batting .311/.366/.399 while showing some solid skills behind the plate, but he won't be on the major-league roster as long as Mike Redmond and Joe Mauer are both healthy, so there wasn't much sense in keeping him in the big-league camp.

Machado was one of about 4,523,309 utility infielders in the Twins' camp, but he is by all accounts a good defender and his plate discipline (.372 minor-league OBP) makes him an intriguing prospect, so I wouldn't have minded seeing him stick around for a bit longer.

Nonetheless, none of the cuts from this first round came as a big surprise, and there are still a lot of important decisions to be made. For what it's worth, Ron Gardenhire has indicated that Carlos Gomez may have an upper hand in the battle for center field, despite having batted .190/.208/.333 in 21 at-bats this spring:
"Sometimes with young hitters, it's better to get them 500 to 550 at-bats than worry about on-base percentage," Gardenhire said. "Just let them play."
D'oh! Homer would be proud.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Can Delmon Deliver?

Between classes on Wednesday afternoon, I had the opportunity to catch the first hour or so of the Twins' ESPN-televised match-up against the Yankees. I made several small observations -- Kevin Slowey looked shaky, Carlos Gomez looked predictably raw, ESPN announcers were overly obsessed with the Yanks as usual -- but one thing really struck me when Delmon Young stepped into the box for his first at-bat of the game: the guy is huge. I've seen Young play a little bit before, but never really noticed how beefy he was; he's got big strong shoulders and bulky, muscular arms that seem capable of generating a ton of power. His listing at 6-foot-3, 200 lbs. on the Twins' official site seems conservative. Needless say, I wasn't too surprised when Young unloaded on a belt-high fastball from Yankee starter Ian Kennedy and sent it soaring over the center field wall.

It makes sense that Young has gained comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero and Alfonso Soriano -- both athletic free swingers who have developed into 40-homer threats in the big leagues. Certainly, Young was flashing that type of power potential in the low minors, when he amassed 45 home runs and slugged .562 over 215 games between Single-A and Double-A as a teenager.

Yet, ever since moving up to Triple-A midway through the 2005 season, Young's power has dissipated noticeably. After ripping 20 homers and slugging .582 through 84 games at Double-A to start that season, Young hit just six home runs in 228 at-bats as his slugging percentage dropped to .447 upon being promoted to Triple-A. He spent much of the next season at that same level, and his power actually waned further -- Young hit only eight home runs over 342 at-bats and while his slugging percentage rose to .474, this was clearly an auxiliary effect of a rise in batting average. His Isolated Slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) actually dropped slightly from .162 during his first stint in Triple-A to .158.

Since reaching the majors, Young has shown that he can hit, with a .293 batting average, but his power has yet to manifest as evidenced by a disappointing .419 slugging percentage. Despite his size and pedigree, Young simply was not a power threat last season. His counting stats -- 38 doubles, 13 home runs, 93 RBI -- don't look too shabby, but they're a bit misleading considering that he was one of only two American Leaguers to play in all 162 of his team's games, and ranked second in the league in at-bats. Rate stats paint a more disconcerting picture: Young slugged just .408 and his Isolated Power (.120) was lower than Joe Mauer's (.133).

Young's drop-off in power over the past couple years has been a bit perplexing. He has maintained an ability to make contact and hit for average, but for whatever reason he hasn't been able to hit the ball out of the park much against higher levels of competition. My best guess is that this relates to the fact that Young is not waiting for good pitches to hit (it is well documented that he took more swings than any other player in baseball last year), in which case he might benefit from a more patient approach. It's hard to believe that his fundamental ability to hit for power has dropped off when I look at those big arms and ferocious swings.

Young's power has been on a downward slope for the past couple seasons. The Twins are hoping that his big blast on Wednesday afternoon is an early sign that he's ready to reverse that trend in Minnesota.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

National League Preview

It's been at least a few months since I mysteriously disappeared from this blog, except for having the title "slacker" bestowed upon me. Of course, Mr. Nelson has done a fine job of keeping things moving along on this blog while I've been trying to make it through my first year of law school. After completing a journal tryout this weekend (something, if you go to law school, I'm not sure I'd recommend), I am on spring break with a little time to try and write something up. Usually, during Spring Training, I write the National League preview for the season and I'd like to continue this year before I return to the grind.

NL West

Outside of the pathetic San Fransisco Giants, this actually should be the most competitive division in the National League.

1) Arizona Diamondbacks
As much as I love the Rockies, their young organization, and the amazing run that they had last year, it's kind of hard to pick against the Diamondbacks considering the move the made this offseason. As big as the Johan Santana trade was, the trade for Dan Haren has just as much potential for impact in the NL. By that I don't mean to imply that Haren is a better pitcher than Santana, but he is younger (27 to 29), cheaper, and is ready to combine with one of the best, if not the best, starters in the NL over the last five years -- Brandon Webb.

If you haven't been paying attention, Webb has had an ERA under 3.59, over 200 innings, and a K rate above 6.7 in each of the past four years and he had the amazing shutout innings run last year. In addition to the Webb-Haren tandem, the Diamondbacks also have Randy Johnson in the rotation. Johnson is 44, coming off major back surgery, and very close to retirement, but he showed in limited time last year that he can still be effective. With Doug Davis and Micah Owings finishing off the rotation, the Diamondbacks look pretty intimidating. While their offense isn't too potent, they are supported by up-and-coming stars like Justin Upton, Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, and Orlando Hudson. The bullpen is suspect (having traded Jose Valverde to the Astros), but two aces in the hole should have a positive effect on that.

2) Colorado Rockies
As you might be able to tell, I really like the Rockies and yes, I think they are for real. They have an impressive lineup that includes an MVP candidate in Matt Holiday (who hit .340/.405/.607 last year with 92 extra-base hits) and four above-average hitters in Todd Helton, Garrett Adkins, Brad Hawpe, and Troy Tulowitzski that can carry the team offensively (as evidenced by the .791 team OPS last year). Of course, most people point to a home-field advantage, which is understandable given the team's .298 average and .853 OPS at Coors versus a .730 OPS on the road. However, most of the best hitters outside of Tulowitzski performed adequately or above-average on the road anyway.

However, the most significant development that bodes well for the Rockies, outside of their outstanding team defensive play, is the development of a good, young pitching staff. In addition to Jeff Francis, the Rockies have solid middle-of-the-rotation guys like Aaron Cook as well as young up-and-comers like Ubaldo Jimenez, who had some memorable outings late in the year last year, and Baseball America's No. 8 ranked prospect Franklin Morales. They also have a good young closer in Manny Corpas and other potential solid starters like Taylor Buchholz (aren't you glad the Twins didn't trade for Jason Jennings?) who may survive the Rocky Mountain air.

3) Los Angeles Dodgers
Perhaps I'm being too hard on the Dodgers. After all, they have one of the best bullpens around (Takashi Saito, with a 1.77 ERA and a 185/36 K/BB ratio in 142 2/3 big league innings, and young flamethrowers Jonathan Meloan and Jonathan Broxton) as well as an impressive rotation lead by Chad Billingsley, Derek Lowe, and Brad Penny, with Jason Schmidt returning as well. The Dodgers also added 33-year-old Hiroki Kuroda from Japan, who is nearly impossible to project, as he could easily be the next Kei Igawa or the next Hideo Nomo. That staff had a 4.20 ERA last year. However, it isn't the pitching that is the most worrisome aspect of the Dodgers that will hold them back.

Even with a more competent manager in Joe Torre, the Dodgers do not possess enough firepower to get it done in the NL West. Yes, they have Jeff Kent, who somehow just keeps on hitting, as well as new addition Andruw Jones, James Loney and Russell Martin, one of the best-hitting catchers in the bigs. However, the Dodgers also have plenty of question marks. Juan Pierre is an overpaid one-tool player who will likely remain in the outfield, keeping bats from young stud Matt Kemp and the solid Andre Ethier. Despite the fact that potential star Andy LaRoche waits in the wings, the awfully mediocre Nomar Garciappara will keep sucking at-bats away at third. And shortstop Rafael Furcal is a big question mark after a sub par year last year in which he posted a .687 OPS and stole only 25 bases.

4) San Diego Padres
I predict a close and hard fought battle in the West and ultimately, I don't think that the Padres are up to the task to keep up with the Diamondbacks and Rockies. They have a very good 1-2 at the top of their rotation in Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and Chris Young, but the starting staff looks spotty to me after that. Greg Maddux can still eat innings, but he's a league average starter at this point with outstanding control keeping him in that realm. Outside of that, the rotation will likely be made up of two injury-prone pitchers (Randy Wolf and Mark Prior) and possibly a fringe-starter in Justin Germano. It's possible that Prior or Wolf, or maybe both, will have great comeback seasons, but I don't see it as likely and that hurts the Padres' chances of getting to the postseason. In limited time last year, Wolf didn't look very good (4.73 ERA, with Petco helping) and last time Prior pitched, he was a disaster (7.21 ERA in 43 innings in 2006).

Also, the Padres offense isn't terribly impressive. Outside of Adrian Gonzalez and possibly Kevin Kouzmanoff as young studs, the Pads have a shortstop with a sub-.300 OBP (Khalil Greene, who, in fairness, did show good power last year with 44 doubles and 27 homers) and two past-their-prime former stars in the outfield in Brian Giles and Jim Edmonds. In other words, too much would have to go right for this team to go to the postseason.

5) San Fransisco Giants
Outside of the awesome 1-2 punch of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, there is nothing to like about this team. Barry Zito is perhaps the most overpaid player in all of sports, as he can not even make it as a flyball pitcher in the cavernous A T & T Park. Noah Lowry is solid, but walks too many hitters and doesn't strike out enough to have lots of future success. There isn't much of a bullpen in the Bay to speak of. And the offense? Who is the star now that Barry is gone? Rich Aurilla (.252/.304/.368 last year)? Ray Durham (.218/.295/.343)? Omar Vizquel (.246/.305/.316)? I really feel for you, Giants fans.

NL Central

The NL Central is pretty clearly the weakest division in the NL and it is likely that only two teams will be competing for its title.

1) Milwaukee Brewers
The difference between the Cubs and the Brewers isn't all that great, but I'm giving it the Brewers simply because they have more young talent that can carry them into the playoffs. With a core of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, and Ryan Braun, the offense of the Brewers is pretty set for a few years. Specifically, Fielder and Braun were on fire last year, combining to hit .304 with 84 home runs, 216 RBI, and 200 runs. In other words, the offense will likely be the best in the NL Central.

There are questions about the rotation to be for sure. Ben Sheets is awfully talented, but he hasn't been truly healthy since 2004 and Jeff Suppan is nobody's idea of an ace. However, Yovani Gallardo is one of the better young pitchers in the game, having gone 9-5 with a 3.67 and 101 strikeouts in 110 1/3 innings last year. Also, starters Dave Bush and Chris Capuano are potential comeback candidates, as both took steps back last year. While Eric Gagne isn't the most sure-fire closer, there are as many if not more questions about the Cubs' bullpen.

2) Chicago Cubs
Out of all the NL Central teams, the Cubs are the only ones that made a big signing with some potential by giving Kosuke Fukudome a four-year, $48 million deal. That certainly improves their outfield but I am still not blown away by their offense. Alfonso Soriano was good last year, rattling off 80 extra-base hits, but he's on the wrong side of 30. Derrek Lee lost a lot of his power last year and at 32, that might be a permanent trend. (Though, in fairness, if he follows the Todd Helton path of plus .300 averages, lots of walks and doubles, no one should complain.) Outside of cockfighting lover Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs have a lot of young players and question marks filling out positions. Thus, it seems easier trust the younger talented Brewer offensive core over this aging core.

Pitching-wise, the Cubs have a very questionable bullpen, two good starters (Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly), and lots more question marks. Beyond Zambrano and Lilly, neither of which are true aces (for different reasons, as Zambrano walks far too many hitters and has seen negative trends the last few years, while Lilly is much more of a good number two), the Cubs are looking at the likes of Jason Marquis, Ryan Dempster, and Jon Lieber. Nothing to get too excited about. As for the bullpen, it sounds like Bob Howry is the closer and I can't say that is a good thing.

3) Cincinnati Reds
The Reds have plenty of talent, especially young talent, but for whatever reason, felt the need to hire possibly the worst manager in the business at dealing with young talent: Dusty Baker. If this is a win-now strategy, I'm not sure I understand it, because, frankly, the Reds haven't been a winning team for a long time, so I don't so the need for a big push. Baker will likely make silly decisions, like keeping "gritty" players like Ryan Freel over some of the best talent around like Jay Bruce, or not giving young stud Joey Votto enough time at first because "veteran" Scott Hatteberg is blocking him. Despite these likely events, the Reds will still have a good offense, because they still have Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Brandon Phillips.

Naturally, that leads to the problem of pitching. The Reds do have an ace in the annually underrated Aaron Harang (who led the NL in strikeouts in 2006 and got NO Cy Young votes) and Bronson Arroyo is a good option, though there are plenty of negative trends to worry about with him. After that, the Reds have "dragon-slayer" Josh Fogg and the talented but inconsistent Homer Bailey. The Reds bullpen did improve with the signing of Fransisco Cordero, but the move isn't enough to convince me that the Reds are going to be contenders this year.

4) Houston Astros
The 'Stros could easily be worse than this. Honestly, this is a team with a few stars and almost nothing else. You can blame that partially on the owner, the previous GM, and then pile the rest on Ed Wade. There was not a worse trade this offseason, at least in terms of timing, than the Miguel Tejada trade, pulled off just a day before the Mitchell Report gave us reason to think Tejada may have troubles with the law in the the future. Other than having Tejada on the downside of his career, the Astros have Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and young star Hunter Pence. Beyond that, there are plenty of retreads on the team, like Darin Erstad, Shawn Chacon, and Woody Williams, along with one of the worst signings of the offseason in Kaz Matsui. Yes, the trade for Jose Valverde helped their bullpen, but they have little else and they blew up the issues with Brad Lidge to get a closer who in the past has had similar issues. Doesn't sound like the Astros are stepping forward anytime soon either, since they have an absolutely bare minor league system. Thus, if there are any injuries to major stars, the record will go down progressively.

5) St. Louis Cardinals
A lot of people will probably object to such a low placement, but this Cardinals team really is not very good at all and there is a high likelihood that they will lose their only superstar, Albert Pujols, to injury during the year. Why would he play through such a painful season when there is no chance the team will go the playoffs? Outside of that, the offense includes a Troy Glaus with his own injury/legal issues, HGH-using Rick Ankiel, and... Cesar Izturis? Seriously? Sure, there is uber-prospect Colby Rasmus, but he isn't ready to save this sinking ship.

And the pitching is not much better. Sure, Jason Isringhausen remains a middle-tier closer, but no one else is exactly sure material. As for the rotation, there is no ace, because Chris Carpenter is out. Adam Wainwright is a talented starter who can have a good year, but past that, its DL candidates like Mark Mulder and Matt Clement and bottom-of-the-bargain-bin guys like Todd Wellemeyer and Ryan Franklin.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates
The Cards would be last in my mind if the Pirates weren't such a sorry organization that just now starting to see a few bright spots. Of course, that hasn't stopped the Pirates from filling its roster with retreads like Chris Gomez and Byung-Hyun Kim. The offense has some potential with guys like Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche, and Steven Pearce, who had a great year in the minors last year. However, that doesn't amount too much of an overall offense and the same can be said about the pitching. Guys like Ian Snell, Matt Capps, and Tom Gorzelanny are talented pitchers, but there is little else surrounding them to convince anyone that the Pirates won't have another ugly, losing season.

NL East

The national press will certain put bias on this race and ignore what will likely be a tighter and potentially more interesting race in the NL West. Nonetheless, there are some good teams in the East that will fight it out.

1) New York Mets
Once again, I should note that this will be a close race, which means that the Phillies could just as easily win it, but I give the Mets the edge due to the Johan Santana trade. Although Pedro Martinez is nothing close to a guaranteed commodity anymore, the Santana/Martinez combo is certainly one to look out for. As already noted on this blog, Santana is likely to have more success, at least in 2008, by moving to the weaker National League and playing in Shea Stadium in its last year. The rest of the rotation is pretty solid, with John Maine, Oliver Perez, and Orlando Hernandez. Billy Wagner is 36, but he's still a top-tier closer and Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez round out a solid bullpen.

As for their offense, some of the core is old (Carlos Delgado is going on 36 and has a possible bad injury and Luis Castillo's skills are clearly deteriorating with age), but they have two young superstars in David Wright (who arguably should have been last year's NL MVP) and Jose Reyes, as well as stars like Carlos Beltran and good bats like Moises Alou (despite being 41 and injury-prone) and newly acquired Ryan Church, who should continue to hit plenty of doubles at the spacious Shea.

2) Philadelphia Phillies
I imagine things might come down to the wire again, but I'm not sure that the Phillies will win out again. The Phillies do have a great lineup and two ace-quality starters in Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, but everything else looks suspect. The Phillies have a great core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley that is supplemented by the offensive firepower of the underrated Pat Burrell, but every other position is questionable.

Pitching-wise, the Phillies have too many mediocre pitchers on the staff, from 45-year old Jamie Moyer to spotty potential starters like Adam Eaton and Ryan Madsen. Sure, they traded for Brad Lidge, but he likely starts the season hurt and is no guarantee at this point. With that, I would expect a similar season to last year -- outstanding offense held back by a below-average pitching staff.

3) Atlanta Braves
I can't see the Braves being anymore than a .500 team. The pitching staff seems far too reliant on aging veterans. Of course, John Smoltz is still an elite pitcher according to last year's numbers, but that could change anytime. Tim Hudson has been an enigma since his arrival in Atlanta, although his numbers were good last year, and Tom Glavine is clearly at his last stop before retirement. Otherwise, Atlanta is relying on a guy who hasn't pitched in the majors in over two years and a young (for Atlanta), league-average starter in Chuck James. So, while the rotation potentially could be good, the bullpen will be the real problem. They have Rafael Soriano, but no one else unless Mike Gonzalez is a comeback miracle.

The lineup has similar issues. Chipper James is a Hall of Fame caliber player, but he's also 36 and coming off a season that may be tough to top (.337/.425/.604). Mark Teixiera will be a great slugger at first, Brian McCann will likely provide above-average offense at catcher, and Kelly Johnson is looking like a very good second baseman. However, there is no obvious replacement for Andruw Jones in center (Mark Kotsay is coming off an awful offensive season) and there is a hole at shortstop as well with Edgar Renteria traded. The Braves may well be a good team, but it just isn't as easy to project them as a winning team as it was a few years back.

4) Washington Nationals
It doesn't really matter if I pick the Nationals or Marlins in the fourth spot. Both teams will be pretty hard to watch. About the only big positive Nationals fans have to dwell on is their new stadium. Marlins fans (if they exist) have no such positive news to look at. What you can say about the Nationals is that in a year or two, they may have some potent offensive players. They have lots of potential in the outfield with Elijah Dukes, Willy Mo Pena, Lastings Milledge, and Austin Kearns. That is, if Dukes doesn't lose it on his teammates anytime soon. They also have a great player at third in Ryan Zimmerman. But most of those players aren't guarantees. And, naturally, the pitching situation is far less optimistic. There are about two names on the pitching staff worth recognizing (Chad Cordero and John Patterson) and one of them is coming off a bad, injury-riddled season. The rest of the candidates for the rotation include Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, Matt Chico, Tim Redding, John Lannan, recent No. 1 draft pick Ross Detwiler and former Yankees prospect Tyler Clippard. Don't get too excited. It might be a few years for this team.

5) Florida Marlins
I'm picking them down here partially as punishment for what I see as selling out the fans. Owner Jeffrey Loria is infamous and he should be. The returns on the Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis trade are pretty good, but the trade also shows that Loria and the Marlins have no real commitment to winning any time soon. Thus, the Marlins will be The Hanley Ramirez Show for now with some possible excitement from guys like Jeremy Hermedia, Josh Willingham, and potential star Cameron Maybin. Of course, who knows? Maybe Dallas McPherson wins the home run title. But I'm kind of doubting it.