Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Committing to a Committee?

Over the weekend, Ron Gardenhire related to reporters that he plans on opening the season with a "closer by committee" approach at the back end of the bullpen. This means that rather than having one reliever dedicated to save situations, Gardenhire will divvy up ninth-inning duties based on who's available and who matches up best against the hitters scheduled to bat.

I have a couple reactions to this. My first is that I'm not entirely convinced Gardenhire actually intends to follow through with the plan. While I generally like him as a manager, one of Gardy's most annoying flaws is his stringent adherence to traditional baseball tactics. He'll repeatedly trot out a No. 2 hitter with a sub-.300 on-base percentage, he'll waste good hitters by calling for needless sacrifice bunts and he'll insert demonstrably bad players into his lineup or rotation based on phantom intangibles like hustle and veteran presence. Sure, Gardenhire is saying that he'll run an organic bullpen this year with no designated closer -- something he has never done in his career as a big-league manager -- but my sense is that this is just a smoke screen.

My second reaction is that I hope the first one is wrong. Because I think a closer-by-committee approach is absolutely the right decision, at least initially. Heck, I think it would be the right decision -- in some form -- even if Joe Nathan were healthy.

It has been discussed ad nauseum in other places, but the role of the closer is vastly overrated in contemporary baseball. The strategy surrounding closer usage seems more concerned with helping a particular player accumulate a relatively meaningless statistic than actually winning ballgames, which is sad. While the ninth inning of a close game carries extremely high leverage and is often the ideal time for a team's best reliever to take the hill (as illustrated by the extremely high WPA figures posted by players in this role), there are plenty of times when a hurler like Nathan could be more optimally used earlier in a game, or saved for the next day. Managers will default to their closer in almost all save situations, even one where their team leads by three runs while the opposing club is sending a weak part of the lineup to the plate. Meanwhile, those same managers will not even give a thought to calling upon the closer in, say, a seventh inning situation where the game is on the line and the opposing club has runners on base for the best part of their lineup.

Of course, Nathan won't be around this year so the above paragraph doesn't necessarily apply to the situation at hand. Yet, the core argument remains. If Gardenhire is truly planning on implementing a committee for this year, he can more optimally utilize the options available to him without the restriction of being forced to save his best reliever for the end of a game in preparation for a save opportunity that may no longer exist because inferior relievers blew the lead in the middle innings. If the Twins enter the ninth inning with a one-run lead and the heart of the opposing lineup due to bat, use whichever reliever has generally been the most reliable. If the opposition is sending up a pair of tough lefty hitters in the ninth, give the ball to Jose Mijares. If the "save situation" that presents itself is one where a pitcher will be coming in to face the bottom of the lineup with a three-run lead and the bases empty, use anyone -- even Clay Condrey -- while saving the top relievers for the next day. It is extremely rare for any reliever to blow a lead under these circumstances.

One could basically always feel comfortable sending Nathan out to protect a slim ninth-inning lead, because he is good enough to be trusted in basically any save situation (and, as mentioned before, perhaps too good to be wasted on some save situations). However, the current candidates to replace Nathan in the closer role all have their own sets of strengths and flaws that will make them well suited for particular save situations and ill suited for others. With that in mind, an adaptive committee approach is the correct solution, at least until someone (perhaps Jesse Crain or Pat Neshek) emerges as a reliever dominant and reliable enough to be regularly trusted with high-leverage ninth-inning duties.

Even then, I'd love it if Gardenhire would avoid committing himself to the restrictions involved with using his designated closer in each and every save situation. But, knowing his tendencies, that's probably just wishful thinking.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Musing on Spring Performances

The Twins will wrap up their spring schedule down in Florida this week before heading back north and playing a pair of exhibition games against the Cardinals at Target Field over the weekend. This will be followed by a day off on Sunday, with the regular season officially getting underway in Los Angeles on Monday.

Between being out of town and breaking down the entire team position-by-position over the past few weeks, I haven't provided much commentary on what's happening in Grapefruit League play. So today, with the obvious caveat that spring training numbers are to be taken with a half of a grain of salt, I'll peruse some spring training performances and see if any useful insights can be gleaned.

* Yesterday I put out a tweet pointing out that Delmon Young currently leads the team with six extra-base hits this spring, which is an encouraging sign given that many are hoping that the left fielder can turn a corner and start hitting for power here in his age 24 season. As Aaron Gleeman quickly pointed out to me after I posted the tweet, though, Young also hit .361 with a .500 slugging percentage last spring before struggling once the regular season got underway.

No one doubts Young's innate ability, so it shouldn't come as any real surprise that he's been able to succeed in spring training against pitchers who are either rusty, not trying their hardest, not major-league caliber, or some combination of those things.

Ultimately, people are going to see what they want to see in the enigmatic outfielder. Is Young's strong spring a continuation of the improvement he showed late last year during the team's stretch run, or is it just another short-term fluke that won't translate into anything meaningful when the season starts? Unfortunately, I'd tend to lean toward the latter, but I'd love to be wrong.

* Jacque Jones won't be making the team out of spring training, but it's still tough not to be impressed with what he was able to accomplish at the Twins' camp. Given how long he'd been out of the majors and how dreadful the reports I'd received on him from various sources were, I half expected him to be unable to swing a bat. But Jones could certainly swing, as evidenced by his .364/.417/.625 hitting line. Unless another team swoops in to claim him, Jones will open the season in Rochester where he'll be just a phone call away from rejoining the Twins at Target Field. I'd love to see that happen.

* There were two key players I had serious concerns about entering spring training this year, based on injuries that had ended their 2009 seasons. One was Kevin Slowey and the other was Justin Morneau. Slowey has helped to ease my concerns by allowing just four runs on 15 hits over 20 innings while maintaining his pinpoint command, and while Morneau has batted just .184, he has homered twice and ripped three doubles. Since back injuries can really sap a player's power, that's the most important sign to me.

* Team leader in walks this spring? It's a tie between Denard Span and Orlando Hudson, who will be filling the first and second spots in the lineup this year. That's nice to see.

* At the outset of spring training, I had little doubt that Pat Neshek would be opening the season in the minors. He hadn't pitched in a major-league game since May of 2008 and spent all of last year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, which would seemingly be an especially big deal for a pitcher with a quirky delivery like his. Yet, Neshek has been terrific this spring. In eight appearances, he has allowed only two runs on five hits over 8 2/3 innings while striking out 11 and walking three. Suddenly, Neshek is a very real candidate to sneak into a bullpen that is now somewhat lacking in right-handed power arms, and he could easily insert himself into the closer conversation.

* The fifth spot in the Twins' rotation is still being framed as an open competition between Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing, but it seems pretty clear who Ron Gardenhire has in mind for the role. Four of Liriano's five appearances this spring have been starts, whereas Duensing has entered as a reliever in three of his four outings. Of course, Liriano also has the gaudy numbers backing him up; in 14 innings, he has fanned 22 batters while issuing only two walks. I'm withholding excitement on Liri-- OK, I can't even say it. I'm really, really excited about Liriano this year.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Odds and Ends

With the start of the season just a week away, everyone's getting geared up for meaningful baseball. I'll cover a few more topics on the blog this week as the clock ticks down to Opening Day, but for now I'd like to cover a few things so I'll touch on them all briefly.

* I recently became aware that some people using Internet Explorer on older PCs were experiencing issues when trying to read this blog (specifically, they'd receive a "Stack Overflow Error" when trying to scroll down the page). I've corrected the problem and apologize to those of you who were affected by it.

* On to baseball. Over the weekend, the Twins both optioned Matt Tolbert to Triple-A and informed Jacque Jones that he won't be making the big-league club out of spring training. That means that the final bench spot will belong to Alexi Casilla, who followed up his terrible 2009 campaign with a poor showing in winter ball and a brutally bad spring training. Casilla hasn't done much of anything above Double-AA and will turn 26 this year, so he's really not much of a prospect anymore. Being without Tolbert and Jones doesn't exactly hurt the Twins much, but I don't quite understand why the Twins feel so compelled to keep giving Casilla chances.

* In other roster news, Ron Gardenhire announced over the weekend that he plans to use a closer-by-committee format to divvy up save chances early in the season. I'm not convinced he'll stick with that approach for long, but I do think it's the right choice.

* About a month ago, I received an email from a publicist informing me about a new Twins-related publication, Minnesota Twins: The Complete Illustrated History. It's a book any Twins fan would love to have, the message said, and the publisher was looking to spread the word by getting copies into the hands of everyone with a listening audience, even little ol' bloggers like me. And one of the two authors of this book? Why, none other than Patrick Reusse. Yes, the same curmudgeonly Reusse who once compared bloggers to homeless folks on the street and who last Thanksgiving dubbed his own colleague Joe Christensen a "Turkey" for having the gall to include OPS in a baseball article has teamed up with Dennis Brackin to put out a comprehensive chronicling of the Twins franchise, and the publisher is sending free copies to bloggers in an attempt to garner publicity. Reveling in the irony, I told the company to go ahead and send me a copy, already planning out the eviscerating hack job I'd put together after looking through it.

So, now I'm a little disappointed. Disappointed because after reading through the thing while flying to and from North Carolina over the weekend, I can't produce any rant about it. It's excellent. It's a huge, hardcover book that exhaustively covers the Twins' 50-year existence, breaking up the considerable amount of text with plenty of big photographs and intriguing sidebars. At $30, it's a bit pricey, but the quality is great and it's essentially a must-have for the coffee table of any die hard. Even if Reusse refuses to respect the work done by me and others like me, I have no problem recognizing his excellent storytelling ability, which is on full display in this book.

If you're interested, you can check it out here. Just don't tell them I sent you.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

Today, we wrap up the Position Analysis series by taking a look at the bullpen. At one point, this was shaping up to be one of the team's strongest units; Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser were set to return after missing all of 2009, adding a pair of power arms to a group that had already finished strong last year. The Twins ended up trading away Bonser, but later replaced him with Clay Condrey, who figures to match the production Bonser might have provided (albeit in a different form). The real loss comes in the form of Nathan, who will miss the season due to an elbow injury that will require Tommy John surgery.

Nathan's loss will be felt in the ninth inning, but odds are that someone from within the organization (or outside of the organization) will be able to step into that closer role without costing the team too many wins. Yet, beyond just losing a closer, the Twins are losing 70 innings of excellent, high-leverage performance in Nathan. While the current bullpen members will have to step up and fill that void, that still leaves 70 innings that will have to be filled by a player who might not have even been on the roster otherwise. As such, the Twins' bullpen depth will be tested this year in Nathan's absence.

Fortunately, if ever there was an acceptable time for the Twins to lose their elite closer, this is it.

The aforementioned return of Neshek, combined with the return of every key member from last year's relief corps and the presence of a few seemingly ready and capable arms in the high minors, gives the Twins more bullpen flexibility than they've had in past years. Nathan will be missed, but there are enough quality arms here that the Twins should be able to withstand his loss.

Let's take a look at the five pitchers likely to make the bullpen out of spring training, as well as a few others who have a shot at the sixth and (maybe) seventh spots or could get a shot to step in at some point during the year.


Jon Rauch
2009 Stats: 70 IP, 3.60 ERA, 49 K / 23 BB, 1.33 WHIP

Rauch seems likely to get the first stab at filling Nathan's shoes in the ninth inning. At nearly seven feet tall, he delivers from a different trajectory than any other pitcher in the league, which should help him keep hitters off-balance in one-inning stints to end games. Indeed, for his career, Rauch has a 3.09 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in save situations compared to 3.79 and 1.23 overall. With that being said, he's been hit hard at times over the past few years and his control isn't great, so it's unclear how long he'll retain closing duties.

Matt Guerrier
2009 Stats: 76.1 IP, 2.36 ERA, 47 K / 16 BB, 0.97 WHIP

Guerrier was spectacular last year, ranking among the league leaders in appearances for a third straight season while allowing less than one baserunner per inning and holding opponents to a .207 batting average. It was the second time in three years that Guerrier has been one of the league's best setup men, and I suspect that his proven ability in that role will deter Ron Gardenhire from trying to nudge him into the closer spot despite the numbers suggesting that such a course of action might make sense. Be wary, though; Guerrier's tremendous overall numbers last year were buoyed by an unsustainable .214 batting average on balls in play, and there's no telling whether the extensive wear on his arm over the past few seasons might start to creep up on him again like it did late in the 2008 campaign.

Jesse Crain
2009 Stats: 51.2 IP, 4.70 ERA, 43 K / 27 BB, 1.45 WHIP

Earlier this week, I posted the following tweet: "For what it's worth, my guess is that Crain finishes the season as the Twins' team leader in saves." That's partially based on a gut feeling, but it's also based on the facts that Crain had extensive closing experience in the minor leagues, historically hasn't struggled much against left-handers (though that certainly wasn't the case last year) and pitched extremely well during the final couple months of the '09 season. That last point is the most salient; Crain underwent major shoulder surgery prior to the 2008 season and it can take a long time to fully return from such an operation. Crain's performance in August and September last year suggests that he's fully back, and if he can keep throwing like that he can be a dominant force in the ninth inning.

Jose Mijares
2009 Stats: 61.2 IP, 2.34 ERA, 55 K / 23 BB, 1.18 WHIP

Over his first 81 major-league appearances, Mijares has posted a 2.12 ERA while allowing only 53 hits in 72 innings. Those are outstanding numbers, and they're largely the result of proper usage; he's held left-handed hitters to a minuscule .458 OPS and Gardenhire has given him the opportunity to face a lot of lefties. If his role is expanded too much, Mijares' mediocre control and susceptibility to righty hitters are likely to become liabilities. Fortunately, Gardy seems to recognize those flaws, which is why Mijares isn't being viewed as a legitimate contender for the closer role and why he'll likely keep the same LOOGY label this season.

Clay Condrey
2009 Stats: 42 IP, 3.00 ERA, 25 K / 14 BB, 1.21 WHIP

The Twins nabbed Condrey after he was non-tendered by the Phillies this offseason, and will pay him $900K to handle middle-inning duty in the bullpen. That's a higher sum than they'd have been likely to pay either Bonser or Bobby Keppel, who were both sent packing, so clearly the Twins have faith that Condrey can be a valuable piece. The veteran righty has posted a 3.16 ERA in 111 innings over the past two seasons. He doesn't strike many people out but has registered exceptional ground ball rates in each of the past two years, so his four homers allowed this spring shouldn't be too alarming.


Pat Neshek
Coming into the spring, Neshek seemed like a lock to open the season in the minors. In spite of his successful big-league track record, he hadn't pitched in a big-league game since May of 2008. However, Neshek has looked great this spring, and with Nathan gone the Twins will be needing an extra right-handed power arm for the late innings. Quickly, Neshek's chances to coming north with the team seem to be improving, as do his chances of ultimately taking over ninth-inning duties.

Brian Duensing
I mentioned Duensing as a candidate to start the other day, but if he makes the team out of spring training my guess is that it will be as a long reliever. He'd give Gardenhire an extra left-handed option behind Mijares, and his history as a starter makes him a good candidate to pitch in long relief.

Ron Mahay
Mahay spent the final month or so of the 2009 season with the Twins and performed well as a second lefty specialist. Just this week, the team re-signed him to a minor-league contract. He's 38 years old and no one's idea of a dominator at this point in his career, but it wouldn't come as any surprise to see him round out Gardenhire's bullpen.

Anthony Slama
Drafted out of college as a 22-year-old and moved somewhat methodically through the Twins' system, Slama isn't viewed by many as a great prospect because of his advanced age. However, it's tough to look past his absolutely spectacular minor-league numbers, and he's been outstanding in limited duty this spring. I doubt he'll make the team out of spring training, but I'd be stunned if he's not pitching for the Twins by July.

Rob Delaney
Delaney has risen through the minor-league ranks alongside Slama and posted similarly strong numbers. He needs to prove himself over a prolonged period at Triple-A, but he's another guy who can be called upon at any point this season and figures to be a productive big-league reliever.

Alex Burnett
A converted starter, Burnett had tremendous success last year in his first season as a full-time reliever, posting a 1.85 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 78 innings split between Single-A and Double-A. He'll presumably open this season in Rochester, where a strong showing could get him a big-league look. Unlike Slama and Delaney, though, Burnett is still quite young (only 22) so he won't be rushed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Traveling with the Twins

There is perhaps no greater summer adventure than the baseball road trip. It provides an opportunity not only to see your team play in a different ballpark, but also to experience a new city and bond with friends or family. Last year, I made a couple of baseball road trips, heading to Chicago with family to see the Twins play at Wrigley Field and traveling to the heartland in a rental van with some friends to see games in St. Louis and Kansas City. Both of the trips were absolutely amazing, with the baseball games serving as only small highlights in thoroughly enjoyable overall experiences.

Each spring, I like to take a look at the schedule for the upcoming season and pick out series that might provide road trip opportunities. There are several considerations to be made in selecting appropriate destinations. Is the distance drivable? Is the stadium nice? Are there cool things to do in the city when not attending the games? Is the series during a weekend, so I don't have to take a bunch of time off work? Are there people I can stay with to save on lodging fees?

With all of these things in mind, I went through the Twins' 2010 schedule and picked out a few series that make for nice road trip possibilities:

Chicago White Sox
(April 9-11, August 10-12, September 14-16)

Those early April dates provide an opportunity to hit the road right at the beginning of the season, as it is the Twins' second series of the regular season. I've been U.S. Cellular Field and didn't come away terribly impressed -- not much personality -- but Chicago is a beautiful city and unfortunately the Twins don't play the Cubs again this year. I figure that the Sox will be the Twins' fiercest competition in the AL Central this year, so that September series could loom large.

Driving Time: About 7 hours

Kansas City Royals
(April 23-25, July 26-28, September 27-29)

Of all the big-league ballparks I've visited, I think Kaufmann Stadium is my favorite. It's gorgeous, with big splashing fountains beyond the outfield wall, and the Party Deck in right field is a great place for a guy like me to hang out and watch the game while chatting with friends and sipping a beer. The huge parking lots surrounding the stadium are great for tailgating. And of course, since it's the Royals, you know there's a very good chance you'll be walking out happy after seeing a Twins victory. Be careful about that July series -- it'll be hot!

Driving Time: About 7 hours

Detroit Tigers
(April 27-29, July 9-11, September 24-26)

Detroit might not have the greatest reputation as a city, but I've heard plenty of good things about Comerica Park. The Twins and Tigers, of course, came right down to the wire last year, so another intense battle could easily shape up here in the 2010 campaign. The drive, nearly 12 hours, can be a bear but it does take you through some nice cities like Madison and Chicago. You could even stop in Beloit along the way to catch the Snappers, the Twins' Low-A minor-league affiliate.

Driving Time: About 11.5 hours

Cleveland Indians
(April 30-May 1, August 6-8, September 10-12)

The drive to Cleveland is similar to the one to Detroit, except that it's about an hour longer. The Indians' home park, Progressive Field, draws rave reviews so if you've got it in you to spend over half a day on the road, this is a good trip.

Driving Time: About 12.5 hours

Philadelphia Phillies
(June 18-20)

Alright, this is a pretty daunting drive by car, but the Twins don't play the Phillies very often and Philadelphia is a pretty awesome city. The main reason I've added it here is because the Twins play the Mets in New York the following weekend, so if you want to go all-out and do an expansive East Coast baseball road trip, here's your opportunity.

Driving Time: About 19.5 hours

Milwaukee Brewers
(June 22-24)

Quick vent session here: This year marks the second straight time the Twins/Brewers series in Milwaukee has taken place right in the middle of the week rather than on a weekend. What gives? Milwaukee is easily the quickest drive of any mentioned here, and with the "Border Battle" aspect and excellent tailgating at Miller Park, it makes for an awesome weekend trip that I've done multiple times in the past. Yet, scheduling the series in middle of the week makes this trip a tough one to pull off for us weekday working folk. Frustrating scheduling here.

Driving Time: About 5.5 hours

New York Mets
(June 25-27)

As I mentioned before, the Twins play in Philadelphia the prior weekend. If you manage to make it out there, the drive to New York is only two hours. Like the Phillies, the Mets are a rare opponent for the Twins, and of course there's a decent chance the Twins will face Johan Santana in this series. The Mets' stadium, Citi Field, is brand new and there are all sorts of things to do in New York. Although it is a sacrelige in the realm of baseball road tripping, I might even hop on a plane and fly out for this series.

Driving Time: About 20 hours

Last spring, me and John Bonnes talked at length about trying to organize a big road trip where a bunch of Twins fans could jump on a bus and follow the team to St. Louis and Kansas City, but ultimately the logistics became overwhelming. The idea continued to simmer in my mind, so I was very pleased to meet Scott Povolny at the TwinsCentric Viewing Party at Majors a couple weeks ago. Povolny recently launched a new company called TwinsTrain, which basically seeks to accomplish the same thing me and John futilely toyed with a year ago. Basically, for a reasonable all-inclusive fee, you can sign up with TwinsTrain and get all the arrangements of the road trip taking care of for you -- bus ride, hotel accomodations, tickets to a couple games, and some other nice perks. Destinations include most of the ones listed above. You can check out the web site (linked above) for further details, including prices and dates, if you're interested. I'll be tagging along on the Kansas City trip in late April, and I know the other TwinsCentric fellows are planning on making trips with TwinsTrain as well. As fellow Strib blogger Sooze mentioned yesterday, she'll be aboard for the Detroit trip in July.

I'm hopeful that TwinsTrain succeeds, not only because Scott seems like a really nice guy but also because the core concept relates directly to something I harped on in my inaugural post on the TwinsCentric blog: synergy. It's an opportunity for Twins fans to get together and share their passion. It's the same reason we organized that gathering where I met Scott, and the same reason we've got a similar event scheduled for Majors in Blaine on April 10 (which I hope many of you can attend). The Twins have a terrific, optimistic and well-informed fan base, and the opportunities I've had to meet and interact with these folks have made this entire five-year blogging experience a rewarding endeavor.

Whether you choose to hop on board with TwinsTrain, rent a van with some friends or jump in the family station wagon with your loved ones, I strongly recommend road tripping to catch the Twins in another city this summer. As you can see above, there are plenty of great opportunities to do so.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher

The Twins enter the 2010 season with a stacked offense, a deep bullpen and a newly re-signed MVP, so everything seems in place for a deep run this year. The most questionable aspect on the club, though, has to be the starting rotation. After all, the Twins ranked third-to-last in the American League last year with a 4.84 starters' ERA and none of Bill Smith's major offseason moves involved supplementing this unit.

However, the return of Kevin Slowey from wrist injury, the re-signing of Carl Pavano and the emergence of Francisco Liriano this winter provide plenty of reason for optimism. That the five hurlers I project to make the rotation have combined for a 1.64 ERA this spring is certainly helping to feed that optimism.

Let's break down the Twins' projected five-man rotation, with a quick look at the candidates to step in should someone go down.

Scott Baker
2009 Stats: 200 IP, 15-9, 4.36 ERA, 162 K / 48 BB, 1.19 WHIP

Having been the Twins' most consistent starter over the past three years and having been named Opening Day starter this year, Baker enters the season as ace by default. Whether he'll actually play up to that level remains to be seen -- only once has Baker posted an ERA under 4 in a full season -- but it's easy to be comfortable with him as a rock at the front of the Twins' rotation. Last year, he recovered from a rocky first handful of starts to go 15-5 with a 3.81 ERA over his final 29 starts, including 8-2 with a 3.28 after the All-Star break. Without any shoulder problems bogging him down this spring, it seems fair to expect that type of production over the course of the entire season this year.

Carl Pavano
2009 Stats: 199.1 IP, 14-12, 5.10 ERA, 147 K / 39 BB, 1.38 WHIP

After being acquired in August last year, Pavano posted a 4.64 ERA and 59-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 regular-season starts for the Twins, finishing his year on a high note with a dazzling outing against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS. Pavano tends to serve up a sizable number of hits and is no frontline starter, but he's a control pitcher fully capable of posting solid overall numbers and he provides a welcome veteran edge to the Twins' relatively young pitching staff.

Kevin Slowey
2009 Stats: 90.2 IP, 10-3, 4.86 ERA, 75 K / 15 BB, 1.41 WHIP

When Slowey went down for the season with an injury last July, his numbers weren't terribly impressive. Despite a 10-3 record, Slowey held a 4.86 ERA and 1.41 WHIP that both screamed mediocrity, and he'd allowed a painful 15 home runs in just 90 innings. That performance was undoubtedly hampered by the wrist problems that ultimately required season-ending surgery; now that Slowey has gotten that taken care of, the hope is that he'll return to his 2008 form (3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) or better. There aren't many starting pitchers around the league capable of striking out five times as many batters as they walk, which Slowey has done for two straight seasons now.

Nick Blackburn
2009 Stats: 205.2 IP, 11-11, 4.03 ERA, 98 K / 41 BB, 1.36 WHIP

No American League pitcher gave up more hits than Blackburn last year, and yet the right-hander still managed to finish with better than average numbers in the ERA and WHIP categories. That's because Blackburn is very stingy with walks and -- when he's on -- very good at inducing weak contact and keeping the ball in the park. Things can get a little ugly when he's not on, as displayed by his brutal stretch following the All-Star break last year, but overall Blackburn has posted nearly identical numbers in the past two seasons and has been a very solid middle-of-the-rotation starter in both.

Francisco Liriano
2009 Stats: 136.2 IP, 5-13, 5.80 ERA, 122 K / 65 BB, 1.55 WHIP

Liriano is the Twins' ace in the hole, so to speak. He was dreadful last season, struggling with command issues that mostly seemed to stem from mental hurdles, but he built up his confidence with an outstanding stint in winter ball and he's carried that confidence to spring training, where his numbers have been absolutely outstanding. Liriano has the best stuff of any Twins starter and has shown in the past that he's got serious ace ability. If he can fulfill that potential this year, he'll change the complexion of the entire rotation.

Other Options...

Brian Duensing
Duensing pitched extremely well down the stretch last year, providing an unexpected boost to a beleaguered rotation and playing a substantial role in the Twins' postseason run. That performance has earned him a first crack at the rotation should one of the top five starters fail and perhaps a spot in the bullpen, but his mediocre track record in the high minors, combined with his uninspiring results this spring, will likely keep him out of a starting role with the Twins for now.

Glen Perkins
After a solid 2008 campaign, Perkins entered the '09 season as a bona fide member of the rotation and a seemingly well positioned piece in the organization's long-term rotation plans. After a season full of injuries, poor performance and bickering with management, Perkins' stock has dropped off a cliff. If he's still with the organization come Opening Day, he'll almost certainly be in Rochester, and with much to prove.

Anthony Swarzak
He pitched very well upon being called up last year, but began to struggle immensely once the league caught on to him. Swarzak appears slated to start the year in Triple-A but is a nice piece to have around in case of emergency and is only 24 years old.

Jeff Manship
Manship got his feet wet at the big-league level late last year, joining the bullpen in August and then making a handful of starts in September as the Twins raced back into the postseason race. The high-pressure circumstances weren't exactly ideal for a young pitcher to be breaking into the majors, but Manship held his own and is likely to get another shot at some point this year.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Eight More Years

That sound you heard yesterday in the late afternoon? That was the sound of an entire state breathing out one huge sigh of relief.

Yankees fans can stop drooling with anticipation. Red Sox fans can stop formulating theoretical trade packages. Mets fans can let any glimmers of hope die and go back to wallowing in misery.

Joe Mauer is staying in Minnesota.

The Twins announced yesterday that they'd signed their 26-year-old homegrown MVP to an eight-year contract extension that will keep Mauer at Target Field through 2018. The catcher will make $23 million per season over the life of the $184 million deal, which includes a full no trade clause.

Jittery fans and bored newspaper columnists had been stirring up some anxiety over the past few weeks, but ultimately there was little reason to believe this deal would not get done. While premature announcements from a couple of prominent local sports personalities proved false, there Twins organization's confidence that this extension would eventually get hammered out was clear on almost every report on the subject. With a new stadium opening this year and fan interest at the highest point been it's been in recent memory, the Twins were not going to let Mauer get away.

With the contract officially signed, the Twins have locked up the reigning MVP throughout his prime years. Mauer is the best player in the American League and he's not even 27 yet, so the benefits of this deal figure to be huge over the next several years. Of course, there's room to question whether Mauer will still be worth $23 million at the age of 34 or 35. There's also room to question how drastic the impacts of dedicating such an enormous percentage of the team's total payroll to one player will be; the Twins are setting an all-time high in payroll this year at $96 million, and Mauer's $23 million would account for 24 percent of that.

But those are discussions for another day. While it's not without its downsides, this is a move that needed to be made. Mauer staying in Minnesota is good for baseball and certainly good for Minnesotans.

The final piece of offseason drama has offically been settled. Now, can we get this season started?

Finally, a quick word from today's sponsor...

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Position Analysis: Right Field

Likely Starter: Michael Cuddyer
2009 Stats: .276/.342/.520, 32 HR, 94 RBI

Cuddyer brings big value to the Twins on and off the field.

Potential Backups: Jason Kubel, Jacque Jones

Plodding right fielders who can hit post an 850 OPS while playing marginal defense aren't terribly uncommon, and that's basically the mold that Michael Cuddyer falls into. Yet, his value to the Twins stretches far beyond those traits.

He's the big right-handed power stick that can break up the big left-handed boppers in the middle of the Twins lineup. He's the cannon-armed defender who has kept even speedy runners from trying to take the extra base on hits to right field. He's the longest-tenured member of the Twins, a charismatic veteran and a clubhouse leader. One could argue that the $19 million Cuddyer will make over the next two seasons is exorbitant, given that players with his skill set are generally available at a lower cost. But the Twins are paying for a lot more than what shows up on the stat sheet.

Cuddyer demonstrated his value late in the 2009 season, when Justin Morneau's back injury forced the outfielder to don a first baseman's mitt and take over a position he'd barely played before during the most crucial stretch of the season. Cuddyer didn't complain; in fact, he stepped up and took his game to an all-new level, batting .325 and cranking eight homers while driving in 24 runs over the team's final 21 games. The Twins went 17-4 during that stretch, and Cuddyer -- who'd had a relatively mediocre season at that point -- was the offensive catalyst. Seeing him power the offense as he did during that final stretch has to make fans giddy to see what he'll be able to do this year, back in his natural position and sandwiched between two of the league's most feared left-handed power hitters.

Indeed, Cuddyer's 843 career OPS against southpaws looms large in the Twins' lefty-heavy lineup. He figures to garner plenty of RBI opportunities this year with a set of quality hitters in front of him. Health is always a concern for Cuddyer, who had his performance hampered in both 2007 and 2008 by injuries, but if he can stay healthy he'll be a crucial cog in the Twins' lineup. His range in the outfield is far from stellar, but much like the Metrodome, Target Field features a short right field wall that helps cover up for Cuddy's lack of foot speed.

From a visual standpoint, Cuddyer is not the most intimidating guy in the world. He's a red-cheeked Southern boy with a big smile usually smeared across his face. But there's no doubt that opposing pitchers feared him when he stepped up to the plate during those finals weeks of the 2009 season, and he'll likely be instilling similar fear this summer when he steps up to the plate as part of the parade of sluggers populating the middle part of the Twins' lineup.

Not too bad for a dime-a-dozen slugging corner outfielder.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Cuddyer: .275/.340/.500, 25 HR, 100 RBI

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Position Analysis: Center Field

Likely Starter: Denard Span
2009 Stats: .311/.392/.415, 8 HR, 68 RBI

Span has quickly become one of the team's most indispensable players.

Potential Backups: Jacque Jones, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert

Following the 2007 season, the Twins were left needing both a center fielder and a player who could competently fill the leadoff spot, as the departures of veterans Torii Hunter and Luis Castillo had left vacancies in these key areas. When newly appointed general manager Bill Smith acquired Carlos Gomez in the Johan Santana trade during the ensuing offseason, he hoped he'd found a player who could ultimately thrive in both those roles. Two years later, Gomez is gone and a different -- and rather unexpected -- player is flourishing as the Twins' leadoff hitter and center fielder.

Back at the time when the Twins were scouring for Hunter's replacement, few would have guessed that Denard Span would ultimately be the answer. The former first-round pick was coming off his second straight minor-league season with a sub-.700 OPS, and seemingly lacked the on-base skills to project as a table-setter at the top of the lineup, which was how the Twins had envisioned him when they drafted him.

Yet, not visible in Span's overall Triple-A numbers from 2007 is that he came on strong late in the year and began to show increased patience. Span carried that success forward into spring training the next year, putting together a strong showing but still losing out on a roster spot to Gomez. Span returned to Triple-A and scorched the ball for a couple months, batting .340 in 40 games, before joining the Twins and putting together a season that merited serious Rookie of the Year consideration. Given that Span's .387 on-base percentage and .432 slugging percentage in his big-league debut seemingly came out of nowhere (he'd posted a .323 OBP and .355 SLG in Triple-A the previous year), many were skeptical of his ability to sustain that level of production. Span essentially erased any doubt last year by putting forth another tremendous effort and cementing himself as the club's long-term leadoff hitter.

As a result, Span was rewarded with a five-year contract this spring. While the deal only covers years that Span was under team control anyway (with an option to buy out his first year of free agency), it is a good faith showing by the organization. Combined with the Gomez trade, the contract seems to emphatically state that Span is the Twins' center fielder and leadoff man for the foreseeable future. And that gives the team's fans plenty of be happy about.

Span has essentially been a prototypical leadoff hitter over the past two years. He takes quality at-bats, gets on base with great regularity and has excellent speed. He can bunt. He's not vulnerable to left-handed pitchers (in fact, his numbers against southpaws have been significantly stronger). His ability to fill this role exceptionally is not in doubt. What is in some doubt is how he will fare as a full-time center fielder.

Span spent much of the past two seasons playing left field, where his defense was exquisite, but his work in center has not been quite as stellar. From an observational standpoint, Span noticeably missed balls last year that Gomez would have reached, and from a statistical standpoint Span rates drastically worse in center (-13.8 UZR) than he does in (16.7) left. Now, his number of innings in center field don't provide a large enough sample to draw real statistical conclusions, and indeed I don't believe that his ugly UZR in 700 career innings there really does him justice. Span has enough range to track down most of the balls he should and is equipped with an adequate arm, so I don't see him being a liability at the position. In fact, given his athleticism, he could easily become an asset there as he gains more regular big-league experience and grows accustomed to his new home park.

From the past several paragraphs, you can probably tell that I'm more than comfortable with Span as the team's starting center fielder. What I'm not comfortable with is the backup plan should Span go down with injury. That's because, right now, it doesn't appear that there really is one. The top candidate in camp right now to back up center field is Jacque Jones, but given that he was out of the majors last year it's a bit of a stretch to imagine that he'll be on the Opening Day roster. Nick Punto can play the position in a pinch and the Twins have given Alexi Casilla some reps in center field this spring, but neither is a particularly attractive option. If Span suffers a serious injury and needs to head to the disabled list, the Twins can call up someone to fill in (and Ben Revere is starting to look like a more and more legitimate candidate to do so this spring), but should Span get dizzy again and need a few days off, there doesn't appear to be anyone who can adequately handle the position on a short-term basis. This will certainly be something to follow throughout the season.

With a dearth of alternative options, Span's absence would leave an immense void in center field and in the leadoff spot, so his health and productivity will be of vast importance to the Twins' chances this year. I've doubted him in the past, but after watching him consistently thrive as a big-leaguer over the past two years, I'm done with that.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Span: .290/.375/.410, 5 HR, 50 RBI

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Position Analysis: Left Field

Likely Starter: Delmon Young
2009 Stats: .284/.308/.425, 12 HR, 60 RBI

Will this be Young's year? (Photo courtesy of Keith Allison)

Potential Backups: Jason Kubel, Jacque Jones

Yesterday, in preparation for writing this article, I sent out a message from my Twitter account asking Twins fans to summarize their feelings about Delmon Young in one word. The responses, predictably, were mostly negative.







During his time here in Minnesota, Young has never really been embraced by the typically warm fan base because, for various reasons, I think it's been tough for fans to get behind him. Off the field, he doesn't have a particularly good reputation (although, to his credit, he hasn't had any publicized incidents since coming over from Tampa). On the field, he has been a major disappointment, having posted similarly underwhelming numbers in each of his three major-league seasons. His style of play can be frustrating to watch; he doesn't get to many balls in the outfield, swings at just about everything at the plate and hits into a lot of double plays. And while Young has failed to establish himself as a Twin, the two key players that Bill Smith traded for him -- Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett -- have blossomed into stars while wearing Rays uniforms.

Through his first couple years here in Minnesota, Young also had the misfortune of being juxtaposed against Carlos Gomez, another young player who was competing for playing time in the outfield. While the flaws in Gomez's game were perhaps no less frustrating than those in Young's, Gomez had a much more fan-friendly allure. His energy, enthusiasm and glowing personality portrayed him as a vastly different character than the more quiet and reserved Young.

After hedging back and forth between the two promising outfielders for much of the last two years, the Twins finally made a full commitment to Young this offseason by trading Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy. Young enters this season with regular playing time in left all but guaranteed. He's 24, with three full years of big-league experience under his belt and with nobody breathing down his neck. Everything seems aligned for him to finally emerge and fulfill -- at least to some degree -- the immense promise he showed as an elite teenage prospect. But will it happen?

Young's defenders often point to his youth. After all, they note, the typical 24-year-old player is still getting his feet wet at Triple-A, not preparing for his fourth season as a full-time major-leaguer. But what's troubling is that Young has now amassed over 1800 big-league plate appearances and has not evolved one bit as a hitter. His offensive production has been nearly identical in his three full seasons, and that production -- .288/.321/.411 with an average of 12 home runs and 74 RBI -- is simply not satisfactory for someone playing a non-valuable defensive position (and poorly). The average American League left fielder batted .267/.338/.442 last year, so Young's offensive performance wasn't even average, and defensively he rated as one of the league's worst at his position. He struck out far more often than any of his past big-league seasons, and he drew only 12 walks in 416 plate appearances. This isn't exactly the type of progression you'd like to see from a hitter who should be figuring things out in his third full year against major-league competition.

Before we all go writing Young off, though, there are a few promising signs to be gleaned from his 2009 campaign upon closer inspection. For one thing, his overall numbers were significantly dragged down by a terrible slump that immediately followed the passing of his mother, which very obviously affected his focus on the field. In the weeks after returning from a (perhaps overly) brief absence from the team, Young was striking out in every other at-bat and his batting average sunk by about 60 points. Take out this understandably poor stretch of performance and his overall numbers look a whole lot better.

In addition, Young finished the season very strong, which always helps breed hope heading into the next season. During the 17-4 stretch that propelled the Twins past the Tigers and into the playoffs, Young hit .353 with four of his 12 home runs and 17 RBI. During those final weeks of the season, Young was consistently hammering the baseball, and his three-run double off the right-field baggy against the eventual Cy Young winner Zack Greinke in a must-win October contest still stands out to me as one of the most memorable moments in the Twins' amazing run.

Yet, the hot streak did not coincide with any discernible change in approach for Young. During that 21-game stretch, Young continued to hack away at the plate, drawing just two non-intentional walks in 92 plate appearances. And there are plenty of people -- myself included -- who believe that unless Young takes meaningful strides with his pitch recognition he'll never be able to take his game to the next level for an extended period of time. He's a great contact hitter with the body of an imposing slugger, but Young just isn't good enough to become an outstanding hitter while he's consistently swinging at bad pitches. Simply put, he's not Vladimir Guerrero.

So far this spring, Young has seemingly shown little interest in becoming a more patient at the dish, as he's drawn only one walk in seven games (and batted .176). But spring training stats are relatively meaningless and Young has at least indicated that he plans to become more selective now that he doesn't face the prospect of being benched after a bad day at the plate with Gomez gone. Of course, his comfortable leash in left field won't last forever; if he's not getting it done, Young will have to start worrying about Jim Thome -- who can nudge Jason Kubel into left field -- cutting into his playing time.

As it stands, Kubel will likely spend some time in left field with Thome serving as designated hitter against tough right-handed pitchers. That should benefit Young, who has been much more effective against lefties than righties over the course of his career.

It's now or never for Young. While he's only 24, this will be his fourth full season and now that he's in his arbitration years he's becoming quite expensive. If he can't take a legitimate step forward this year, I suspect that the Twins will seek to move in a different direction. There are certainly still those out there who believe in Young, as illustrated by those few tweets I received yesterday with positive tones like "optimistic" and "promising." And while those words ceased to describe my take on Young as I've watched him fail to make adjustments over the past three years, that doesn't mean I'm not hopeful.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Young: .300/.335/.430, 15 HR, 60 RBI

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Position Analysis: Shortstop

Likely Starter: J.J. Hardy
2009 Stats: .229/.302/.357, 11 HR, 47 RBI

Will a change of scenery help Hardy rebound from a brutal '09 season?

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla

The Twins entered the 2009 season with Nick Punto as their starting shortstop and finished it with Orlando Cabrera there. If you're wondering how urgently they wanted to upgrade beyond those two, it should be clear from the fact that Bill Smith pulled the trigger on a trade for J.J. Hardy just days after the conclusion of the World Series, while other organizations were still drawing up their offseason plans.

Many fans viewed the addition of Cabrera at the trade deadline last year as an integral part of the team's late surge to the postseason. That makes sense, given the timeline; Cabrera arrived at the end of July with the Twins' record at .500 and by the end of the year he was one of the first players charging onto the field as Carlos Gomez crossed home plate to send the Twins to the playoffs after the team had gone in 34-25 over the final two months of the season with Cabrera as their starting shortstop.

While Cabrera was a relatively productive player in the second half last year, his defense left plenty to be desired and his lack of on-base skills made him a rather poor fit for the No. 2 spot in the lineup. He also turned 35 years old just after the season ended, so retaining him would have, at best, given the Twins yet another passable one-year stopgap at short. Given the team's existing instability at second and third, Smith wanted to go a new direction at short and find a player who could settle in as a long-term solution. He hopes he's found that player in Hardy.

By now, we all know Hardy's story. He came into the league as a 22-year-old, and in his third season turned into a stud, ripping 26 homers and driving in 80 runs while posting a .277/.323/.463 as a 24-year-old shortstop with an excellent glove. That's a tremendous performance -- one that earned Hardy his first All-Star appearance -- and he followed it up with a similarly dazzling effort in 2008, when he batted .283/.343/.478 with 24 home runs and 74 RBI while remaining stellar in the field.

At that point, Hardy was a 26-year-old power-hitting shortstop with excellent defense and several years of team control; he was a player any team in the league would have loved to get their hands on, but one that would require a pretty overwhelming package to pry away from the Brewers.

What a difference a year makes. Last year, Hardy stumbled out of the gates, hitting just .156 over the first month of the season, and after rebounding a bit in May, he slumped through the next couple months and found himself demoted to Triple-A in mid-August (a move that could have had as much to do with delaying his free agent eligibility as getting him out of the Brewers lineup). Hardy returned to Milwaukee in September, but continued to struggle down the stretch and finished the season with hugely disappointing offensive numbers. His drop in batting average coincided with a drop in power (just 11 home runs in 465 plate appearances) and a rise in strikeout rate -- both troubling signs.

Without any major injury to explain away the struggles, there is serious cause for concern that Hardy is no longer the outstanding player he seemed to be emerging as in the 2007-08 seasons. With a strikeout rate that has risen in each of the past three years, it could be that scouts are catching up with him and pitchers have started to figure him out. That very fear has drastically reduced the market for Hardy, as evidenced by the fact that the Twins were able to acquire him in return for their own underperforming head case, Carlos Gomez.

At the very least, Hardy does have a few things going in his favor as he moves across the border to Minnesota. For one thing, he's moving to a new league, where opposing pitchers and managers are generally unfamiliar with him. Getting a fresh start, with new teammates as well as new opponents, may help Hardy get back to doing the things that made brought him success in the past. In addition, Hardy will be under far less pressure in a Twins lineup that already has its fill of star players. He entered last season as the No. 5 hitter for Milwaukee; this year, he'll likely open the season as the Twins' No. 7 or No. 8 hitter.

The Twins seem confident that the change of scenery can get Hardy back on track, and if they're right, his powerful right-handed bat would be a boon for an offense currently dominated by lefties. This club isn't accustomed to having heavy hitters at the shortstop position nor in the bottom part of the lineup, and if Hardy can get back to the level he was at in 2008 -- or close to it -- he'll provide a breath of fresh air while adding balance to the batting order.

Even if Hardy isn't able to return to the level of production he enjoyed during the '07 and '08 campaigns -- and as you'll see below I'm fairly conservative in my projections for him this year -- he'll still be a valuable piece for the Twins as long as he continues to cover significant ground at shortstop. Even with the offensive drop-off last season, Hardy posted an 8.8 UZR/150 in the field, ranking him sixth among MLB shortstops and placing him miles in front of Cabrera, whose -13.7 UZR/150 ranked as the worst in baseball outside of the immortal Yuniesky Betancourt. That's a lot of extra balls gobbled up in the middle infield, which can make Hardy an asset even if his stick is mediocre.

Backup up Hardy at short will be Punto, Matt Tolbert and Alexi Casilla. Should Hardy go down with an injury or continue to decline on offense, I suspect we'd see Punto slide over to short with Brendan Harris taking over at third, although there's a slight chance that prospect Trevor Plouffe could get a look.

As we've seen over the past three installments in this Position Analysis series, the Twins have had a difficult time finding long-term solutions at all of their infield spots outside of first base. With a platoon of backups set to handle third base and a one-year veteran stopgap manning second this year, the 27-year-old Hardy represents the team's best chance at finding a true regular who can hold down his position for multiple years.

A return to his 2008 form would make Hardy one of the American League's finest shortstops and an absolute godsend at the bottom of the lineup. A continuance of his 2009 struggles would render him another in a long line of failed experiments at the shortstop position. I'd settle for something in the middle of those two extremes, which I suspect is what we'll get.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Hardy: .260/.315/.405, 16 HR, 50 RBI

Monday, March 15, 2010

Position Analysis: Third Base

Likely Starter: Nick Punto
2009 Stats: .228/.337/.287, 1 HR, 38 RBI

Punto will rely on his keen eye at the plate to buoy his offensive game.

Potential Backups: Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert

Much like second base, the hot corner has becoming a revolving door for the Twins over the past handful of seasons. Since Corey Koskie's departure, the Twins have auditioned Michael Cuddyer, Tony Batista, Nick Punto, Mike Lamb, Joe Crede, Brendan Harris, Brian Buscher and others at third base and have never come up with very strong results.

Not surprisingly, third base is shaping up to be the weakest position on the field for the Twins this year. Rather than signing or trading for an established regular to replace the departed Crede, it appears that the Twins will install some combination of Punto and Harris at third this season. Neither of the two figures to be much of an offensive contributor, but they both have their strengths and since they will likely be occupying the ninth spot in the lineup most days, expectations will be fairly low.

Punto is the favorite to man third on Opening Day and draw the majority of starts at the position. How come? Well, for one thing, despite his poor overall performance last year he finished the season strong and was a key contributor in the team's late surge. That helps, particularly since Ron Gardenhire has a tendency to find any reason he can to defend Punto's regular presence in the lineup. In addition, Punto will make $4 million this year, and the Twins likely aren't too keen on paying that kind of money to a bench player.

Punto has molded himself into a walk-taking machine, which helps offset his weak bat. Despite posting terrible numbers in the batting average and slugging percentage columns, Punto managed a respectable .337 on-base percentage last year thanks to a team-leading walk rate. If Punto can stick with this approach (and he has already drawn three free passes in 12 plate appearances this spring) he should avoid being a liability in the nine-hole even if his bat doesn't experience its usual even-year resurgence.

Of course, Punto's greatest value comes in the field, where his outstanding mitt makes him an asset. He's a strong defender all around the infield, but third base rates statistically as Punto's best position, as he has amassed a UZR/150 of 19.9 in nearly 1800 innings there. For reference, Crede's career number in that category is 10.2.

With the Twins' bench shaping up to be relatively thin this season, Gardenhire may look to utilize Punto's versatility by moving him around the field to fill in elsewhere frequently. On these days, and days where Punto is simply on the bench, Harris figures to be called upon at third. While he's not a real strong defender, third base is probably Harris' best defensive position and he's certainly got a more potent bat than Punto. While somewhat useless against right-handed pitching, Harris holds a .302/.348/.403 career line against southpaws so it's obvious when he should be in the lineup.

In the even that both Punto and Harris struggle (which is hardly unthinkable), the Twins' fallback plan will be Danny Valencia, who is slated to open the season in Rochester. The 25-year-old needs to demonstrate improved plate discipline and steady glovework at Triple-A before the organization will be ready to give him a stab at the big-league job, but it would hardly be surprising to see him manning the hot corner at Target Field in the later months of the season.

Early on, though, it appears that the best recipe for the Twins will be a combination of Punto and Harris at third. With more groundball-heavy pitchers on the mound -- such as Nick Blackburn and (hopefully) Francisco Liriano -- the Gardenhire should opt for Punto, who can team with J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson to form the rangiest infield we've seen around here in some time. With lefty pitchers toeing the rubber for the opposition, Harris stands out as the best option.

The two aren't likely to make anyone forget about Koskie, but they don't need to. If Punto and Harris can take care of all the balls hit at them while getting on base enough to turn the lineup over, they'll be adequate.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Punto: .240/.335/.305, 2 HR, 40 RBI

Friday, March 12, 2010

Position Analysis: Second Base

Likely Starter: Orlando Hudson
2009 Stats: .283/.357/.417, 9 HR, 62 RBI

Hudson can fill some significant needs for the Twins in 2010.

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert

After the Chuck Knoblauch trade in 1998, Todd Walker took over second base duties for the Twins and was a quality contributor there for a couple years. Yet, Walker never seemed to mesh with manager Tom Kelly, so the Twins dealt him to the Rockies during the 2000 season and called on a promising young Venezuelan named Luis Rivas to anchor the position. The Twins stuck with Rivas for several years, but he never really developed into the player they'd hoped he would become, and by the middle of the 2005 season the team was in such dire need of a replacement that Terry Ryan made a desperation trade for a washed up, 36-year-old Bret Boone.

The Boone experiment failed, and so Ryan went out during the ensuing offseason and traded for an accomplished veteran in Luis Castillo. For a year and a half, Castillo provided solid production as the team's second baseman, but midway through the 2007 campaign the team once again decided to put its faith in a promising young Latin player, trading away Castillo and handing the second base gig to Alexi Casilla. Like Rivas before him, Casilla has failed to fulfill his promise as a major-leaguer and now the Twins have once again fallen on a temporary veteran stopgap as they continue to search for a viable long-term solution at the position. Orlando Hudson, signed to a one-year deal last month, will become the fifth different Opening Day second baseman for the Twins in the past six years.

Much like Castillo, Hudson comes to the Twins as a respected and reputed vet. In his eight major-league seasons, he has won four Gold Gloves and made two All-Star appearances while accumulating an impressive .282/.348/.431 career hitting line. Reporters and teammates often commend Hudson's affable nature and strong work ethic. He also hit .283/.357/.417 last year and comes to Minnesota to play a position that put forth a miserable .209/.302/.267 hitting line, and he seems perfectly suited to fill a second spot in the lineup that had become an enormous liability. In many ways, Hudson seems like an ideal fit for the Twins.

Yet, in spite of his solid overall performance, there was something distinctly odd about the way Hudson's 2009 season ended. As the Dodgers made their final charge down the stretch, an apparently healthy Hudson found himself frequently relegated to the bench in favor of Ronnie Belliard. Then, in the Dodgers' eight postseason games against the Cardinals and Phillies, Hudson didn't draw a single start.

So what happened in Los Angeles last year? To get a better idea, I asked Chad Moriyama of the Dodgers blog Memories of Kevin Malone. Here's his take on Hudson's 2009 campaign:
Before the 2009 season started, I projected Hudson's numbers to regress from his Chase Field days, but he made me look foolish early on by absolutely destroying the ball to the tune of a .332/.407/.469/.877 clip. Unfortunately, that didn't last long, and he hit .253/.325/.385/.710 the rest of the way, leading the Dodgers to explore other options at second base late in the season. On the upside though, he handled his benching like a true professional, and Hudson's end line of .283/.357/.417/.774 was right in line with his career norms after taking into account park factors, so there doesn't appear to be any age regression occurring in his offensive game.

The same can't be said on the defensive side of things though, as the once elite defender is now merely average. Whether it's age or the wrist injury, something is definitely not the same about Hudson, and his Gold Glove was won on pure reputation. He is still a joy to watch when tracking down pop-ups, and he's great moving to his left, but Hudson has a lot of difficulty moving away from first base nowadays. That opinion is backed by statistics, as the Plus/Minus system puts Hudson at +9 on fly balls, +13 going to his left, and -15 going to his right or handling balls hit right at him. I don't think he's a below average defender like UZR (-3.7 UZR/150) says he is, but it's certain that he's no longer the gloveman that he once was.

Then again, on a one year contract for a mere 5 million dollars guaranteed, it's hard to argue against the deal the Twins made. I really wouldn't worry about his late season benching, as that was just Joe Torre playing the hot hand. The bottom line is that Hudson was a godsend at times for the Dodgers last year for 7-8 million, and there aren't any signs that things are going to change for him in 2010.
As Chad notes, there was a "hot hand" dynamic at work with Hudson's benching, as Belliard was scalding hot during the month of September and continued to hit well in the postseason. Hudson has expressed nothing but bafflement over the situation and insists he had no health issues, and if that's the case Twins fans can breathe easy. He's been very consistent over the past four years, with a hitting line that has never veered far from .290/.360/.440, and if he can put forth a similar effort this year he'll be an excellent cog between Denard Span and Joe Mauer.

While -- as Chad hinted -- Hudson's defensive reputation might be a bit inflated, he is a solid fielder who should be able to team with J.J. Hardy and dramatically upgrade the Twins' middle-infield defense this year. In the event that Hudson gets hurt or needs a day off, Nick Punto and Casilla (assuming he makes the team) will be the top fill-in options. Brendan Harris can play second but Ron Gardenhire is clearly squeamish about his defense there. Matt Tolbert, if he's on the roster, can also play the position.

The Twins have struggled to find a legitimate answer to their second base woes over the past decade. Hudson, 32 years old and signed to a one-year pact, likely won't be a lasting solution. But for this year, O-Dog looks like a great fit and should effectively add some bite to the top of the Twins' lineup.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Hudson: .285/.345/.415, 8 HR, 60 RBI

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Position Analysis: First Base

Likely Starter: Justin Morneau
2009 Stats: .274/.363/.516, 30 HR, 100 RBI

Is Morneau's back fully healed?

Potential Backups: Michael Cuddyer, Brendan Harris, Jim Thome

Justin Morneau entered the All-Star break last season with a stellar .311/.390/.575 hitting line to go along with 21 homers and 77 RBI, and it appeared that he'd be competing for another MVP award over the final months for the season. Unfortunately, things went south from that point; Morneau hit just .201 the rest of the way and finished the season with relatively ordinary numbers overall.

Late-season slumps are certainly nothing new for Morneau, whose career second-half OPS is 115 points lower than the first-half figure, but this time around there was a clear explanation for his drop-off in August and September: a fractured vertebrae that landed him on the shelf for the final weeks of the season and the playoffs.

The injury clearly took an immense toll on Morneau's performance -- in his final 20 games before being shut down he totaled only seven hits in 70 at-bats -- so if it his back is not fully healed this year, Twins fans have real cause for worry. Given that doctors prescribed rest rather than surgery to address Morneau's injury, I suspect that there will be persistent concerns early in the season that these issues may re-emerge.

The Twins need Morneau's back to be healthy and strong, because he'll be carrying a significant portion of the load as cleanup hitter in the Twins' powerful lineup. He's been one of the league's finest run-producers over the past several years, as a penchant for big knocks with runners aboard and a spot behind Joe Mauer in the lineup have helped produce four straight 100-RBI campaigns. This year he will bat behind three players with a knack for getting on base, and he'll have power threats looming behind him in Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. If his back holds up, Morneau is positioned to thrive in this lineup and help churn runs across the board like never before.

In the event that Morneau's back (or surgically repaired wrist) should act up, Michael Cuddyer would likely would likely step in at first base. Cuddyer donned his first baseman's mitt last year after Morneau went down and did an admirable job there, hitting .325/.398/.675 with eight homers and 24 RBI in the Twins' final 21 regular-season games while performing well in the field and playing a central role in the team's late surge to a division title. Beyond Cuddyer, there aren't many options on the roster to back up Morneau. Brendan Harris has a bit of experience there and could play it in a pinch. Jim Thome was once a full-time first baseman but he's now 39 and he hasn't played a single inning in the field over the past two years.

The Twins charged down the stretch last year with Morneau on the sidelines but he's clearly a focal point of this offense and if he's healthy he can help turn the middle of the lineup into a murderer's row. The Twins have surrounded their cleanup man with more offensive punch than ever before, so let's hope his back can hold up.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Morneau: .290/.375/.580, 35 HR, 120 RBI

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Lost Link

There haven't been many constants for the Twins over the past six years. A look back at the 2004 roster seems like a study in ancient history. Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Cristian Guzman and Corey Koskie manned the infield. Michael Cuddyer had not yet established himself as a regular. Joe Mauer entered the season without a major-league at-bat to his credit. Johan Santana was just finally becoming a full-time member of the rotation.

Yes, it was a different era in Twins baseball. But it was also the year Joe Nathan, who'd been acquired from the Giants during the previous offseason, took over as the team's closer. And in the six years since, he has been one of the most consistent forces in baseball, annually posting elite numbers from the closer position while remaining remarkably healthy and durable.

Between 2004 and 2009, Nathan never appeared in fewer than 64 games and never pitched fewer than 67 2/3 innings. He never posted an ERA higher than 2.70, and never posted a WHIP higher than 1.01. He's had his blips from time to time, but for the most part Nathan has been a model of consistency.

In those six years, he racked up a whopping 246 saves, the highest total of any closer in baseball during that span. That figure places him just eight short of the Twins' all-time saves leader, Rick Aguilera, so Nathan seemed certain to claim his place in the franchise history this year.

Now, that won't happen this season. And it might not happen at all.

After experiencing pain in his elbow during his first spring training appearance last week, Nathan flew back to Minnesota, where imaging scans revealed a "significant tear" in his ulnar collateral ligament. While he and the team have suggested that the closer will wait a couple weeks for the swelling to go down before making a decision on his future, there is almost no chance that Nathan will avoid Tommy John surgery. At the age of 35, bouncing back from this serious procedure will be difficult for Nathan. Not only is his 2010 season likely done, his future as a major-leaguer could be in grave doubt. That's pretty heartbreaking, not only because the Twins owe him $24.5 million in guaranteed money on his current contact, but also because he is truly one of the good guys in baseball and one of the last remaining links to that previous era in Twins history.

For now, though, the Twins can't afford to look at the big picture and sulk. They'll need to determine who will pick up the slack this year in the absence of Nathan, who has converted 91 percent of his save opportunities since taking over closing duties in '04. While a closer-by-committee approach based on match-ups and who's available may be the most desirable solution, La Velle suggests that the Twins are unlikely to follow this path and my guess is that he's right. Ron Gardenhire will likely try to settle on an individual replacement for Nathan who can regularly be called upon in most instances to close out the ninth inning when the Twins lead by three or fewer runs.

Nathan has been one of baseball's elite closers over the past several years and no one the Twins can call upon internally will come close to filling the void he leaves in the bullpen. Yet, in a sense, the timing of this injury is as good as it possibly could be. The Twins enter this season with more relief depth than they've had in past years, and the injury comes early enough in spring training that they'll have plenty of time to weigh their options and formulate a plan before the season starts. There are a number of guys who could be called upon to overtake the closer reigns for the 2010 season, so I'll break down the candidates in order of likelihood of winning the job:

1. Jon Rauch
Rauch possesses many of the traits Gardenhire is likely to look for in a replacement closer. For one thing, he's a veteran, with 356 major-league appearances spanning seven seasons. He also has closing experience, having filled that role with the Nationals for a period of time during the 2008 campaign. After joining the Twins last year, he posted closer-type numbers, posting a 1.72 ERA while striking out 14 batters over 15 innings. Yet, that small sample hides the fact that Rauch's strikeout rate dropped overall last year (he fanned just 35 batters in 54 1/3 innings in Arizona prior to being traded) and that he has a tendency to get hit hard, having allowed a .425 slugging percentage while coughing up 17 homers over the past two years. Tall, tattooed and mean-looking, Rauch has the imposing look of a closer and seems the favorite to get save opportunities early in the year. There's no guarantee he'll stick in that role, though.

2. Jesse Crain
Those who recall watching Crain pitch over the first half of last season -- when his performance got so bad that he was demoted to the minors -- might be a bit baffled to see him rank second on this list. But after being recalled in July, Crain posted a 2.91 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a measly .217 batting average and .292 slugging percentage. While he's not a strikeout artist, he has proven capable of missing bats (7.3 K/9 over the past two seasons) and he had plenty of closing experience in the minors, where he was groomed to become a late-inning dominator. If Crain can pick up where he left off last season, he'll be the best candidate to fill in for Nathan. Of course, given his inconsistency since returning from shoulder surgery, that's no given.

3. Pat Neshek
When he first broke into the league, Neshek was about as dominant as Nathan. In 2006, the quirky right-hander posted a 2.19 ERA and 53-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 37 innings. He carried that success forward into his first full season with the Twins, dominating as eighth-inning setup man during the first half of the '07 campaign, but he wore down late in the year and the next spring he felt his UCL go pop, requiring Tommy John surgery (sound familiar?). Neshek hasn't pitched in a big-league game since early 2008 and we all know how difficult the initial return from TJ surgery can be (paging Francisco Liriano), so he seems like a longshot to even make the Opening Day roster this spring. Still, he's looked sharp in exhibition play and it would be no surprise to see him get a shot at closing out games somewhere along the line.

4. Matt Guerrier
Guerrier was Mr. Eighth Inning last year and he handled the job well, posting a 2.36 ERA and 0.97 WHIP while effectively bridging the gap to Nathan on a regular basis. This would suggest that he ought to be first in line to step in for the fallen closer. Yet, Guerrier seems perfectly suited for the role he has been in for the past couple years. His durable arm has racked up more appearances over the past three years than any other big-league pitcher, and as a guy who used to start and work in long relief he's capable of tossing multiple innings. Certainly, Guerrier has the resume to suggest he could be effective in a ninth-inning role, but I think the Twins would be doing themselves a disservice by removing him from his current spot. I suspect Gardenhire would feel the same way.

5. Francisco Liriano
Given that he has some of the filthiest stuff of anyone on the staff, Liriano has frequently been brought up as a candidate to move to the bullpen, where he ostensibly could unleash the full power of his arsenal in shorter stints. Indeed, Liriano's mid-90s fastball and dirty slider could make him a natural fit in the closer spot, but if he has truly regained his confidence and command he's too much of an asset in the rotation to be removed. If Liriano experiences problems similar to the ones that plagued him last year and is wearing down by the fifth inning in his starts, we could see the Twins give him a shot to close out games. But I'm hoping that won't happen.

6. Jose Mijares
In 72 big-league innings, Mijares has registered a 2.12 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .206 batting average -- very nice numbers. However, Gardenhire requires a situational left-handed specialist and Mijares fits that role perfectly with his tremendous numbers against lefties (not to mention his mediocre numbers against righties). He could get some chances to pitch the ninth when opposing lineups are sending a couple left-handed hitters to the plate, but outside of that I'd be extremely surprised to see him notch many saves this season.

After Nathan's struggles in the playoffs last year, I was frustrated by fans who focused on his late-season issues while overlooking how amazingly well he'd pitched over the first five months of the season, not to mention his previous five years in a Twins uniform. Now, with Nathan gone, those same fans will come to realize what they'd been taking for granted in their rants. For the vast majority of his career in Minnesota, Nathan has been close to automatic in the ninth inning. And while I'm confident the pitchers above can do an adequate job of replacing his contributions, none of them will be able to fully fill his shoes. Panicky fans who are suggesting that Nathan's loss suddenly makes the Twins a far worse team are grossly exaggerating the effect of a dominant closer on the win/loss column, but there Nathan's absence will be noticeable.

Sometimes you don't miss a good thing until it's gone.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Position Analysis: Catcher

Every March, I go through the Twins' roster position-by-position to project a likely starter and sort through potential backups. Today, we kick off this year's iteration of the Position Analysis series by taking a look at the catcher spot, where a hometown hero will be returning to defend his MVP crown...

Likely Starter: Joe Mauer
2009 Stats: .365/.444/.587, 28 HR, 96 RBI

Will Mauer's power sustain in 2010?

Potential Backups: Jose Morales, Drew Butera, Wilson Ramos

Despite missing all of spring training and the entire month of April with a back injury, Joe Mauer managed to surpass 600 plate appearances last season while obliterating his previous career highs in just about every statistical category. The amazing efforts helped lift the Twins to a postseason berth and earned Mauer a batting title, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and an MVP award while heavily increasing his celebrity on the national scene.

Imagine what he can do now that he's entering the 2010 season healthy.

It's March 9, and Mauer is still without a contract extension as he enters the final season of the four-year deal he signed with the Twins back in 2007. That uncertainty surrounding his contract will surely be the center of much discussion here as we approach the start of the regular season, but his focal role in a lineup that figures to surround him with more talent than ever before will be the spotlight of today's article.

Last year, Mauer managed to drive in 96 runs despite generally hitting directly behind terrible hitters, as the No. 2 spot in the Twins lineup put forth a .232 average and .272 on-base percentage when Mauer was not inhabiting it. This year, the Twins will fill that void with a legitimate veteran hitter in Orlando Hudson, who along with leadoff man Denard Span figures to provide plenty of opportunities for Mauer to inflict damage. And given that Mauer has historically been a tremendous hitter with runners in scoring position, with a .347 career average in such situations, it's a good bet that he'll take advantage.

Adding to the headaches for opposing pitchers are the batters following Mauer in the lineup. Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel each hit at least 28 bombs while driving in at least 92 runs last season, so if those three can remain imposing power threats (with new additions Jim Thome and J.J. Hardy possibly joining the pack), there will be no pitching around Mauer. The Twins' lineup is starting to look like a "pick your poison" conundrum for opposing managers, and as the best hitter of the bunch, Mauer is the guy who makes all the gears turn.

Mauer has always been an excellent contact hitter with one of the league's most discerning eyes, but what transformed him into an MVP last year was the emergence of legitimate power in his game. The big question as we go forward is whether that power is going to stick. He hit a huge percentage of his long balls during that insane month of May when he first joined the club, going deep 11 times in 122 plate appearances. The rest of the way, Mauer homered 17 times in 484 plate appearances -- a rate of one home run per 28.5 PAs which would translate to about 21 bombs in 600 plate appearances. As pitchers continue to adjust to Mauer, who hit nearly all his home runs to the opposite field last year, I suspect we'll see some reduction in the home run proclivity, particularly considering that many of his round-trippers barely cleared the wall last season. One might argue that a drop-off in homer frequency might be offset by not missing a month of the season, but it probably isn't realistic to expect a whole lot more than 600 plate appearances from Mauer this year given that his previous career high in that category was 633 (again, this only helps reinforce how amazingly durable Mauer was after coming off the disabled list last year). I'd guess that Mauer's home run total this year will drop closer to 20 while his doubles total moves closer to 40.

Of course, those figures are nothing to scoff at and if Mauer can stay among the league leaders in batting average and on-base percentage, which almost seem like givens at this point, he'll remain one of the two or three most valuable players in all of baseball. That is, in large part, because of the fact that he plays catcher and plays it well. His Gold Glove nod last year may not have been entirely deserved, but there's no doubt that Mauer is a very solid backstop, with quick reactions to smother balls in the dirt and a cannon arm that limits what opposing clubs can do on the base paths.

Should Mauer experience any health problems this year, the Twins will be without the player who has backed him up for nearly his entire career. Mike Redmond ended a five-year run with the club by signing with the Indians this offseason, which may have been for the best given that his skills have declined dramatically across the board in recent years. This season, the Twins will likely trot out Drew Butera as Mauer's caddy to start the year, with Jose Morales likely to take over that role once his wrist is fully healthy. Butera seems a capable defensive fill-in but he'll provide almost nothing with the bat, which would become a burden if Mauer went down. Morales has posted a .328 batting average in 137 major-league plate appearances, and while that figure is unsustainably buoyed by a .396 average on balls in play, his .319 average at Triple-A over the past three seasons suggests that he'll at least be a competent big-league hitter, albeit without much power or patience.

Wilson Ramos, who I recently ranked as the organization's second-best prospect, could also see playing time with the Twins this year in the event that Mauer should go down for an extended period of time.

As has been the case for the past several seasons, catcher enters the season as the team's strongest position. I'm hopeful that Mauer's contract situation can get worked out soon so people can stop worrying about his long-term future with the club and start beaming about what he's likely to provide from the No. 3 spot in a potentially dominant lineup this year.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Mauer: .330/.425/.550, 20 HR, 110 RBI

Monday, March 08, 2010

On Location in Fort Myers

On Friday, the Twins played for the first time this year at their spring training home, Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. I was in attendance, making it the first of many outdoor baseball games I will attend this season. Ironically, the southern Florida weather was about what can be expected at Target Field in early April -- it was a sunny but breezy day with a temperature that sat in the high 50s and warranted long sleeves rather than t-shirts. While the chilly conditions had many native Floridians complaining, I know that I'd easily prefer watching 81 home games in those exact same conditions to being cooped up in the Dome.

The lineup that the Twins trotted out was pretty close to the one we can expect to see on Opening Day in April. The only exceptions were Jim Thome, who started at DH and batted sixth, and Danny Valencia, who started at third base and batted ninth. If the first inning of the game was any indication, we'll be in for a treat when watching this offense go to work this season; by the end of the first frame, the Twins had put four runs on the board. And the pitcher they were terrorizing was no slouch, it was Boston's Jon Lester, who has established himself over the past couple years as one of the league's finest left-handed pitchers. Now, this was Lester's first start of the spring and he clearly was not at his sharpest, but seeing the Twins pester him relentlessly with a lineup that gives opposing pitchers no breaks 1-through-6 was plenty encouraging.

Here are a few observations from the game, followed by some photos I snapped...

* Justin Morneau struggled for several weeks before being shut down in September last year due to a fractured vertebrae. That seems like a pretty serious ailment, and Morneau also underwent offseason wrist surgery, so there is certainly reason for folks to be a bit nervous about the first baseman's health this spring. In the first inning of Friday's game, he turned on a fastball with the bases loaded and drove it down the right field line for a two-run double. Good sign. He also made a nice diving play defensively in the game.

* Much has been made of Delmon Young's slimmer physique this spring, and after seeing him in person I can attest that there is little doubt he worked hard to shed pounds during the offseason. Still, if the game I attended was any indication, Young's weight loss has not drastically improved his mobility in the outfield. He still seems to plod around, and on Friday he allowed a seemingly catchable a line drive to get over his head for a double, and later forced J.J. Hardy to race into shallow left to catch a fly ball that a more fleet left fielder would have likely been able to haul in.

Nevertheless, it is foolish to put too much stock into a couple plays within a single game, so by no means am I passing judgment on "Delmon Young 2.0," as some folks at the ballpark were affectionately referring to him. The Twins would hugely benefit from increased range from Young in left now that Carlos Gomez is gone.

* Reliever Anthony Slama has been one of my favorite prospects over the past couple years, so it was fun to finally get to see him live for the first time. Slama, a strikeout machine throughout his minor-league career, finished the 2009 season in Triple-A and could very well spend time with the big-league club this season.

I was excited to see Slama's delivery, which has been described by some as unorthodox. And while he does throw from a three-quarters slot, I would say that tales of Slama's funky throwing style have been somewhat exaggerated. I took a quick 30-second video from my seat at the game, so if you've never seen him pitch before you can click below to get some idea of how he delivers. (Please excuse the crappy video quality.)

* Aside from Slama, a pair of other relief prospects who could make an impact for the Twins in the near future also pitched in the game: Rob Delaney and Alex Burnett. Neither allowed a run (in fact, nobody did in the 5-0 Twins victory). If Joe Nathan's elbow issues from Saturday turn into something significant, pitchers like these could become important contributors this season.

* And now, a few (poorly shot) photos from my day at the ballpark:

A trimmer Delmon Young stands in for an at-bat.

New shortstop J.J. Hardy trots back to the dugout after recording an out.

Danny Valencia chats with first base coach Jerry White after grounding out to end an inning.

Obligatory Toby Gardenhire shot.

Finally, many Twins fans will surely recognize this shirt being worn by the gentleman sitting in front of me.