Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Nicks' Picks 2011

It's that time of year. Time for us all to make our trivial and almost certain-to-be-wrong preseason predictions, so that when the season comes to an end we can look back and chuckle at how clueless we were. To kick off the action, I've jotted down my predictions for various general and Twins-specific outcomes, and I've even enlisted my former blogging partner Nick Mosvick to throw his hat in the ring.

Feel free to submit your own predictions in the comments section.

Nelson's Picks


AL West: Athletics
AL Central: White Sox
AL East: Red Sox
AL Wild Card: Yankees

NL West: Rockies
NL Central: Brewers
NL East: Phillies
NL Wild Card: Braves

World Series: Phillies over Red Sox

AL Cy Young: Jon Lester
NL Cy Young: Roy Halladay

Robinson Cano
NL MVP: Albert Pujols

AL Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Hellickson
NL Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt


Twins MVP: Joe Mauer
Twins Top Pitcher: Francisco Liriano
Twins Best Rookie: Kyle Gibson
Twins Most Improved Player: Michael Cuddyer
Bold Predictions: Front office will add multiple relievers from outside before trade deadline; Liriano's ERA will rank among top 3 in AL; Delmon Young will hit 30 home runs.
A.L. Central Prediction (Standings): White Sox, Twins, Tigers, Indians, Royals
Three Keys to Success for the Twins: Good health from core players; emergence of quality relief options in middle innings; continued success against divisional opponents.

Mosvick's Picks


AL West: Athletics
AL Central: Tigers
AL East: Red Sox
AL Wild Card: Rays

NL West: Giants
NL Central: Brewers
NL East: Braves
NL Wild Card: Philadelphia Phillies

World Series: Braves over Red Sox

AL MVP: Carl Crawford
NL MVP: Albert Pujols

NL Cy Young: Josh Johnson
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander

AL Rookie of the Year:
Kyle Drabek
NL Rookie of the Year: Mike Minor


Last year, in this category, I produced a spectacularly bad pick by predicting that Brendan Harris would get more at-bats than Delmon Young. Not only did I miss on foreseeing any improvement from Young, I missed on Harris becoming the definition of a replacement-level player, or possibly worse. Nonetheless, I'll get the tires again on Twins-specific bold predictions here:

Twins MVP: Joe Mauer
Twins Top Pitcher: Francisco Liriano
Twins Best Rookie: Ben Revere
Twins Most Improved Player: Kevin Slowey
Bold Predictions: Kevin Slowey will lead the staff in ERA, Matt Capps will have more saves than Joe Nathan, Jason Kubel will top 30 home runs
A.L. Central Prediction (Standings): Tigers, Twins, White Sox, Indians, Royals
Three Keys to Success for the Twins: Morneau making a healthy and productive return to the lineup; rookie bullpen arms having success late in the season; getting at least marginal productivity from bench players not named Thome.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Minnesota Twins 2011 Season Preview

One of the reasons I launched my blog six years ago was because I felt the existing climate of Twins coverage tended to be one of extremes. Whether coming from the established mainstream media or the budding blogosphere, I found that Twins-related content often slanted too far toward either optimism or negativity.

So, along with my cohort, I set out to create a blog that would be written from the perspective of invested fans who try to see the big picture. All I've ever wanted to do is cover this team's ongoing story, with a flare of emotion but without resorting to blind optimism or cranky cynicism.

The barbs I've received this offseason about being overly negative, well, they sting. Not to the point that my feelings are actually hurt, but surely it was one of the last things I ever wanted to be accused of when I first got into this trade.

The thing is, at no point have I gone out of my way to criticize the Twins over the past few months. My goal as a writer is to see things clearly and objectively, but at the end of the day I'm a fan and want to see my team succeed, which is why I've been so frustrated by what I view as a horribly botched offseason.

Yes, the Twins had their moments. Carl Pavano for $8.5 million per year is undoubtedly a bargain, as is Jim Thome's $3 million contract. But these were moves designed to maintain the status quo; nowhere did we see any attempts to actively improve a club that was -- for a second straight year -- swept directly out of the playoffs by the Yankees.

Don't get me wrong, I'd take that same group from last year into another series against the Yankees any day, especially with a healthy Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan. Had the front office done a good job of maintaining the aforementioned status quo, I'd be satisfied.

But they didn't. In fact, they actively disrupted it.

J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and -- to a far lesser extent -- Brian Fuentes were all quality contributors to a 94-win team last  year. The Twins parted ways with all of them over the winter and added, in their steads, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Dusty Hughes.

For the most part, the Twins will rely on internal replacements such as Alexi Casilla, Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship to help ease the burden, but all have struggled in regular big-league duty.

It would seem evident that this offseason has taken away more than it's put back.  Certainly money was a factor in this, perhaps a prohibitive one with the burdensome contracts of Nathan, Matt Capps, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer and others. But, for the most part, the front office made its own bed.

Of course, for the Twins, getting worse would not necessarily equate to missing the playoffs. They won the division handily last year, and the White Sox and Tigers have their share of issues in spite of impressive offseason hauls.

Plus, the Twins aren't by any means guaranteed to get worse, even if the loss of the departing players is felt. Morneau and Nathan are both back. If healthy and productive all year (still a sizable "if"), they can be difference-makers. And numerous returning players will be looking to build off of suboptimal 2010 campaigns; in my recently completed Position Analysis series I projected offensive improvement from regulars almost across the board.

If everyone stays healthy, the Twins are absolutely a team that can win over 90 games and capture the division crown. But no team ever stays completely healthy and this group boasts more high-profile health concerns than most. This brings us to the greatest weakness that was forged through this offseason of indifference: depth.

Casilla performed well as a backup infielder last year. Now that he's been nudged into a starting role (a task he's never been up to), the top middle infield depth comprises marginal minor-leaguers like Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes.

By trading Jose Morales during the offseason, the Twins left Drew Butera as their sole backup catcher. That means that at least one-fourth of the at-bats from the catcher position will be handed to arguably the worst-hitting position player in the majors. Butera's impact could grow should Mauer's achy knee act up.

Last year Manship and Perkins were the relievers the Twins called on in an emergency or in garbage time; this year they figure to be focal points in the bullpen. That says all you need to know about the relief depth.

Pressed to predict where the Twins will finish in the AL Central, I'd have to answer second or third. They're a talented bunch, but depth is lacking on this roster and with the myriad health concerns being faced by key players, I foresee some disappointment as the summer moves along.

That's not negativity for negativity's sake. It's a reasoned, honest opinion, which is all I've ever striven to provide in this space. Once the action officially gets underway on Friday night, I'll be a fan like any other, cheering for a win from the hometown nine. And if the Twins can stay healthy and live up to their potential, repeating as division champs and breaking their postseason curse, no one will be happier to point out how wrong I was than me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

Yesterday, I broke down the starting rotation, which I deemed to be "the club's strongest and deepest position." Today we look at a unit that falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. Unless you're engaging in starry-eyed optimism, it's tough to view the bullpen as a strength for the Twins as we enter the 2011 season. They lost several quality relief arms during the offseason and signed no one to replace any of them, so much will hinge on a return to form from Joe Nathan and the emergence of several unproven hurlers in unfamiliar roles.

Fortunately, the bullpen is certainly an area that can be improved over the course of the summer through in-season acquisitions, but that means parting with assets when there were a number of established relief pitchers available for nothing but a few million dollars (or less) during the offseason.

Let's take a look at how the bullpen shapes up as we enter the 2011 season:

Joe Nathan
2010 Stats: Did not pitch

Charles Krupa, AP
After missing the 2010 season with Tommy John surgery, Nathan entered spring training this year under the pretense that he would have to earn back a closer role that had been held by incumbent Matt Capps. As it turns out, the basis for the coaching staff's evaluation on this matter was not performance, as Nathan has been awarded closing duties despite allowing nine runs on 10 hits over 7 1/3 innings this month with four walks and only three strikeouts. Those numbers are certainly concerning coming from someone who hasn't pitched in a year after undergoing a serious elbow operation, but the Twins like what they've seen in terms of velocity and command from Nathan so hopefully their confidence is well warranted. If not, they do have the luxury of Capps waiting in the setup role.

Matt Capps
2010 Stats: 73 IP, 42 SV, 2.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 59/17 K/BB

The Twins gave up too much to get Capps at the trade deadline last July and this year they're paying him too much money. What's done is done, though, and at this point we're better off appreciating what he provides to the bullpen. Nathan's status will remain a question mark until we've seen him successfully close out several games, and should his spring training struggles persist Ron Gardenhire won't hesitate in shifting the proven Capps into the role. That's not a good scenario, since someone else would have to fill Capps' role as top right-handed setup man and no other candidate for that role has much experience pitching high-leverage relief innings in the majors.

Jose Mijares
2010 Stats: 32.2 IP, 3.31 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 28/9 K/BB

The 2010 season was a forgettable one for Mijares. Injuries limited him to about half of his normal workload, and when he was on the field he often lacked his typical sharpness. This year, the lefty is reportedly adding a two-seam fastball to his repertoire, which should improve his results against right-handed hitters (a vital skill in a bullpen that already includes two other left-handers). Mijares came to camp looking trimmer this year; if healthy, he should be a quality late-inning option throughout the season.

Kevin Slowey
2010 Stats: 155.2 IP, 13-6, 4.45 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 116/29 K/BB

Setting expectations for Slowey the reliever is not easy. We know that he's a good pitcher, and it's not hard to see his outstanding control being a real asset in the bullpen. Then again, he's made only four relief appearances in his major-league career after serving as a starter almost exclusively throughout the minors, so this is new territory for the righty. How will he handle being called on to throw in tight late-game situations? Will pitching in one-inning stints allow him to add a few ticks to his 89-mph fastball? Will his secondary stuff be maximized? Slowey certainly has the potential to succeed in relief, but like many other members of this unit he's a question mark.

Glen Perkins
2010 Stats: 21.2 IP, 5.82 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 14/5 K/BB

As a 28-year-old who's out of options and hasn't been effective since the 2008 season, Perkins seemed like a lock to be non-tendered this offseason. Instead, the Twins gave him a contract and now a spot in their bullpen. The team has cited Perkins' solid performance while pitching in relief last September as a key reason for retaining him, but -- even looking beyond the fact that opponents hit .326 against him during that minuscule 12-inning sample -- this seems awfully short-sighted. Perkins doesn't miss bats, has been bad against lefties and has always been a guy who's allowed a lot of base runners. I don't get it.

Dusty Hughes
2010 Stats: 56.1 IP, 3.83 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 34/24 K/BB

The Twins were very impressed when they faced Hughes as a left-handed reliever for the Royals last year. It's not hard to see why; when playing against Minnesota the southpaw allowed only three runs on nine hits over 13 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, he'll no longer be able to face the Twins and against all other opponents Hughes posted a 4.40 ERA, 1.60 WHIP and 28-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 43 innings.  In other words, he wasn't very good, and it was his first extended look in the majors as a 28-year-old who'd been fairly unspectacular in the minors. Dedicating two spots in a questionable bullpen to pitchers like Hughes and Perkins strikes me as an extremely bizarre decision.

Jeff Manship
2010 Stats: 29 IP, 5.28 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 21/6 K/BB

Rounding out the bullpen at the onset of the 2010 season will be Manship, a guy who spent some time there last season. In his big-league career, the right-hander has posted a 5.28 ERA and 1.55 WHIP, which aren't exactly the kind of numbers that inspire late-inning confidence. Manship has been quite hittable ever since reaching reaching the highest levels (he's allowed 260 hits over 209 1/3 innings between Triple-A and the majors) and unless that changes he won't be particularly useful. It will be interesting to see how Gardenhire elects to utilize him.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher

The Twins entered the offseason with five established starting pitchers under their control for 2011. By re-signing Carl Pavano, they upped that number to six and created a logjam of sorts. With jobs guaranteed to the top two starters, Pavano and Francisco Liriano, four pitchers were tabbed to compete for the final three rotation spots during spring training.

As it turns out, all four of those pitchers have performed well this month, so it comes as no shock that the odd man out is Kevin Slowey, a talented right-handed hurler who's had some friction with the organization and was left off the postseason roster despite winning 13 games last year.

While I don't necessarily agree with the decision to start Slowey in the bullpen, his presence there gives the Twins a quick and competent fall-back option should one of the top five starters falter or suffer an injury. Each of the Twins' six starters has a track record of big-league success and the organization also has top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson waiting in the wings at Triple-A, so as we enter the 2011 season the starting rotation appears to be the club's strongest and deepest position.

Carl Pavano
2010 Stats: 221 IP, 17-11, 3.75 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 117/37 K/BB

I don't think Pavano's a better pitcher than Liriano, but the argument can certainly be made that he had a better season in 2010 and there's nothing wrong with giving him the veteran nod as Opening Day starter this year. Pavano has earned the billing with a lights-out spring training, allowing only six earned runs in 25 innings over five starts. His dramatic drop-off in strikeout rate in the waning months last season was somewhat unsettling, but all the Twins need from Pavano is 200 solid innings to make his $8 million salary look like a bargain. His FIP has been right around 4.00 in each of the past two years so that should be his baseline expectation.

Francisco Liriano
2010 Stats: 191.2 IP, 14-10, 3.62 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 201/58 K/BB

Liriano has become a rather controversial figure here in Minnesota. Debates swirl around whether or not he's a "true ace," whether his occasional struggles are more attributable to bad luck or mental weakness, and whether the Twins would be wise to trade him before supposedly inevitable injuries decimate his value. What should be universally agreed upon is that Liriano is a very talented pitcher whose arsenal is among the filthiest in baseball, and at age 27 he's still just entering his prime years. The lefty was victimized by an abnormally high number of bleeders, bloopers and seeing-eye singles last year, but these things tend to go in cycles. I expect him to be phenomenal in 2011, and when the year's over I expect the front office to be cursing themselves for failing to at least more actively pursue a three- or four-year deal this past offseason.

Brian Duensing
2010 Stats: 130.2 IP, 10-3, 2.62 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 78/35 K/BB

By virtue of his outstanding performance last year, Duensing was the first "bubble guy" to be awarded a spot in the rotation this spring. He'll pitch fifth sequentially to split up the lefties, but for all intents and purposes Ron Gardenhire views Duensing as his No. 3. That title seems to be more than earned based on the southpaw's core numbers over the past two years (15-5 with a 3.02 ERA) but a deeper glance shows a rather unspectacular 1.98 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a huge disparity in performance against lefties (.502 OPS) and righties (.747 OPS). Opposing managers will undoubtedly be stacking their lineups with right-handed batters, so Duensing will have his work cut out for him. Matching last year's magic will be an exceedingly tall task.

Nick Blackburn
2010 Stats: 161 IP, 10-12, 5.42 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 68/40 K/BB

From an outside perspective, it's tough to understand why Blackburn would have been promised a rotation spot so quickly this spring. Last year he remained one of the most hittable pitchers in baseball, and for good measure he also posted the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of his career. The result was a mostly disastrous campaign that saw him demoted to the minors in late July with a 6.66 ERA, though he returned and pitched well down the stretch to finish with a 10-12 record and 5.42 ERA. The key factors in the Twins' decision were Blackburn's previous history as an effective starter (he tossed about 200 innings with an above-average ERA in both 2008 and 2009), his newly minted long-term contract and his good standing with the manager. While Blackburn's extreme contact tendencies can be hard to stomach, it's tough to downplay his value those first two seasons and the fact that a nagging elbow injury likely contributed to his struggles last year. If he gets bombed over the first couple months, Slowey will be ready to step in.

Scott Baker
2010 Stats: 170.1 IP, 12-9, 4.49 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 148/43 K/BB

Only 10 American League starters averaged more strikeouts per nine innings than Baker last year, and only 11 averaged fewer walks. Not many teams can make a claim like that about their fifth starter, but the truth is that Baker is the team's No. 5 guy in name only -- ultimately there's a very strong chance that he'll end up being a more effective pitcher than either of the two above him here. In order to make his results match his outstanding peripherals, Baker will focus on two things this year: staying healthy and limiting base runners. His elbow bothered him at times throughout the 2010 campaign and continued to cause issues early this spring. And while his fly ball tendencies will always make him somewhat homer-prone, the long balls do a lot less damage when nobody's on base. Last year Baker posted his highest WHIP (1.34) since 2006.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Position Analysis: Designated Hitter

Likely Starter: Jason Kubel

Jim Mone, AP
Potential Backups: Jim Thome

For the purposes of this article, Jason Kubel is the "likely starter" at DH in that he'll probably fill the role on Opening Day, but in truth the position is more dynamic than that. Joe Mauer will invariably make a number of plate appearances there -- probably around 100 -- and Jim Thome can be expected to at least match that number in spot starts. In an ideal world, Delmon Young would also draw occasional DH duty against left-handed pitchers.

So, even if he stays healthy and productive all year, Kubel won't really be a full-time starter at designated hitter. Instead, he'll likely get his fair share of days off and play the outfield occasionally (more than occasionally in the event that either Michael Cuddyer or Justin Morneau goes down at some point).

Kubel's lack of speed makes him a liability in the outfield, so the hope is that both Morneau and Cuddyer can shake off their injury concerns and stay healthy, enabling the 28-year-old native South Dakotan's best asset -- his bat -- to take the spotlight.

In 2009, Kubel was one of the most productive designated hitters in the league, hitting .300/.369/.539 with 28 home runs and 103 RBI while gaining a reputation as one of the baseball's premier clutch hitters (at least until the playoffs rolled around).

The lefty slugger's power and run production numbers remained mostly intact last year, as he blasted 21 homers and drove in 92 runs, but his batting average dropped from .300 to .249. He struggled against southpaws, but that's nothing new; what really poisoned Kubel's performance was a drop-off against right-handers. His ..260/.328/.464 line against them -- while nothing to be embarrassed about -- looked downright human in comparison to his .322/.396/.617 line against them the prior year.

The true Kubel may lie somewhere between his dazzling '09 and his pedestrian '10, but I'm a firm believer that he's closer to the former. He was an incredible talent coming up through the minors, and while it took him several years after knee surgery to rediscover his form, there was nothing illegitimate about Kubel's brilliance in 2009. He was just a hitting machine.

We saw flashes of that last season, but without the same consistency. Maybe it was because of injuries -- he was nagged by a few different ones throughout the year. Maybe it was the new ballpark -- he posted a higher OPS on the road than at home. Maybe it was being forced out of his comfort zone -- Morneau's concussion pushed Kubel into regular outfield duty in the second half.

Whatever the case, I expect better things from Kubel this summer, and while that might be offset somewhat by a slightly less extraordinary season from Thome I still believe we can safely view designated hitter as a bona fide strength for the 2011 Twins. For a position where the sole duty is "HIT!" you can't ask for a much better trio than Kubel, Thome and Mauer.

If you had to find a downside, it would be that all three are left-handed, which brings me back to my belief that Young should be written into the DH spot against particularly daunting southpaws.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Kubel: .290/.350/.490, 25 HR, 90 RBI

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Position Analysis: Right Field

Likely Starter: Michael Cuddyer

Paul Battaglia, AP
Potential Backups: Jason Kubel, Jason Repko, Ben Revere

Right field is Michael Cuddyer's position.

Well, sort of.

Over the past two years, Cuddyer has frequently been asked to move away from his established home, taking over first base after Justin Morneau went down in September of 2009 and last year bouncing around the infield before again settling at first in place of a sidelined Morneau.

Cuddyer has received more than his fair share of adulation from coaches, teammates and media for his willingness and ability to shift around the field, but lost in that praise is the fact that he's not terribly adept at fielding any of these positions and last year he was extremely disappointing offensively.

The average right fielder in the American League hit .276/.350/.441 in 2010. The average first baseman hit .259/.345/.443. Cuddyer, despite being an $8.5 million player who was labeled team MVP by his manager, posted a .271/.336/.417 line while splitting time mostly between those two positions. He made 25 more plate appearances than he did in 2009 and yet hit less than half as many home runs. He grounded into 26 double plays, a total that led the team and ranked second in the AL.

Despite the dismal performance, Cuddyer will be paid $10.5 million this season because of a ridiculous contract stipulation that forced the team to activate his 2011 option before the 2010 season. I'm not entirely convinced the Twins would have declined the lucrative option even if it had been triggered this past winter, but there's really no reasonable case to be made that Cuddyer is worth his hefty salary for this season based on last year's performance so he has much to prove, especially with free agency looming.

Cuddyer was one of a number of Twins players to undergo surgery during the offseason, an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee to alleviate soreness that, he told reporters at the time, had bothered him all season. This is a likely culprit for the hugely underwhelming numbers at the plate, and presuming that the issue (along with a foot wart removal that held him out of early spring training) is now fixed, we should expect much more from the right fielder this year.

Will Cuddyer actually stick in right all year long? That's obviously the hope, but if anything should go wrong with Morneau, Cuddy will be breaking out the first baseman's mitt and taking his act to the infield. In that event, Jason Kubel would once again take over regular duties in right. Cuddyer's better suited for right field than first base and Kubel's certainly better suited for DH than the outfield, so it's in the best interests of everyone that Morneau stay healthy and on the field this year.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Cuddyer: .275/.340/.470, 20 HR, 90 RBI

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Position Analysis: Center Field

Likely Starter: Denard Span

Kathy Willens, AP
 Potential Backups: Jason Repko, Ben Revere

When Denard Span burst onto the scene in 2008 and went on to cement his impressive rookie performance with an equally strong 2009 campaign, he eventually came to be viewed as a godsend by Twins fans. Not because he was, in the grand scheme of things, an especially spectacular baseball player, but because he finally provided a legitimate on-base threat at the top of the lineup.

Finally, a Twins team that had been searching for an answer at the leadoff spot since trading Luis Castillo midway through the 2007 season and had opened the '08 campaign with out-making machine Carlos Gomez filling the all-important role had found a young player with a good eye who'd managed a .390 on-base percentage in his first 1,000 MLB plate appearances. As icing on the cake, Span sprinkled in a little power and a lot of speed, leading the league in triples in 2009.

So last year, when Span's OBP dropped to .331, just a couple ticks higher than the MLB-average leadoff man, it served as a major buzz kill. In his first year after signing a long-term deal with the club, the new cornerstone center fielder went from being a major offensive asset to a thoroughly mediocre hitter with substandard pop.

The drop-off in performance could theoretically be attributed to any number of things (Span himself placed partial blame on the playing surface at Target Field, though he did manage a .302 average at home), but the main issue was that he simply wasn't hitting the ball as hard.

Fewer ground balls found their way through the infield for hits, contributing to a 47-point drop in batting average. He drove fewer balls into the gaps and over the fence, helping a explain a 67-point drop in slugging percentage. Span's speed (26-for-30 on stolen bases) and plate discipline (60-to-74 strikeout-to-walk ratio) remained intact, but when he put the ball in play the results just weren't nearly as sterling as his first two big-league tours.

So the key for Span this season, offensively, will be raising his average. And, contrary to his personal misgivings about the natural grass at Target Field, it's other ballparks that represent his greatest opportunity for improvement. Span hit just .228 on the road last year; if his overall hitting line this season can more closely resemble his .302/.371/.390 mark from Target Field he should be just fine.

On the defensive end, it's perhaps unfortunate for Span that he happens to be following a pair of truly transcendent center fielders. Torii Hunter had a lengthy reign as one of the game's best gloves, gaining a reputation for pulling homers back over the Metrodome wall, and Carlos Gomez established himself as a truly spectacular outfielder during his stint.

Span's first season as full-timer in center was a mixed bag. His speed enabled him to cover ground and he was by no means a failure out there, but he whiffed on quite a few plays that Twins fans have grown accustomed to seeing made. He won't be confused with Hunter or Gomez any time soon.

Like it or lump it, the Twins will roll with Span in center as long as he's healthy in the short-term, but I do wonder if down the line they will give consideration to shifting him back into a corner spot (where his range truly stood out) and letting Ben Revere take over.

Should Span go down with an injury at some point this year, you can bet Revere will get his chance early.

Predicted Hitting 2011 Hitting Line for Span: .285/.370/.380, 6 HR, 55 RBI

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Position Analysis: Left Field

Likely Starter: Delmon Young

Jed Jacobsohn, Getty
Potential Backups: Jason Repko, Ben Revere, Jason Kubel

With circumstances being what they are, it's difficult to maintain a completely positive outlook on most of the Twins' key players this year without inserting rather significant caveats.

"Joe Mauer could return to MVP form this year if the knee which bothered him throughout much of last season and into this spring is at full strength."

"Francisco Liriano could be a Cy Young contender if he can overcome the mental hurdles which have plagued him."

"Justin Morneau could have a dramatic impact in the middle of the Twins' lineup if he can keep his concussion symptoms at bay."

And so forth.

With that being said, one player I'm unabashedly optimistic about this season is Delmon Young. Unlike the majority of core hitters who suffered through disappointing and/or injury-riddled seasons in 2010, Young finally broke through with a career year, tallying 21 homers and 112 RBI while besting his lifetime OPS by nearly 100 points. At age 25, he's entering his fifth full big-league season and there's little reason to think he won't be able to build on that success.

I've not been one of Young's biggest proponents over his first few years in Minnesota. That's not because I doubted his talent or ability, but because he simply wasn't a very valuable player. In each of his first three big-league seasons (including '07 with the Rays), Young was essentially the same player -- a guy who could post a solid batting average but wouldn't supplement it with much in the way of patience, power or defensive aptitude.

In his breakout 2010 campaign, Young continued to avoid walks like the plague, drawing only 28 in 613 plate appearances, but he made substantive improvements in other areas, most notably contact (he struck out in only 13 percent of his plate appearances, compared to 22 percent in '09) and power (his 68 extra-base hits nearly matched his total of 72 from his first two seasons with the Twins).

While his approach at the plate wasn't always picture perfect (and it likely never will be), Young had the look last season of a young player who was finally growing into his muscular physique. As you can see in the table below, he hit the ball on the ground less often, which helped him turn some of his singles into doubles and home runs:


When you're hitting the ball in the air only once out of every four plate appearances, like Young did as a 22-year-old in his first season with the Twins, you're not giving yourself a lot of chances for deep outfield drives and home runs, which explains why about 75 percent of his hits that season were singles. However, as Young has matured over the past three years he's started to get under the ball with increased frequency, and the results have been very positive. If the trend continues this year his fly ball rate could rise well over 40 percent, and if he's hitting the ball in the air that often with his powerful frame it could result in a whole lot of gopher balls, even in spacious Target Field.

Even if the power incline continues, Young still won't be a hugely valuable all-around player. The run production is nice, but he doesn't draw walks and remains a slow-footed, abysmal defender -- an issue which could worsen this year if his early troubles with turf toe carry over into the regular season.

Ron Gardenhire would be wise to find more opportunities to work Young into the lineup as a designated hitter this season, especially against lefties and with fly ball pitchers on the mound for the Twins. His bat is turning into an unquestionable asset but that doesn't fully offset the damage he can do in the outfield.

Should Gardy choose to lessen Young's outfield load this year, superior defensive replacements would include Jason Repko and Ben Revere, who could ultimately be Young's successor in left.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Young: .310/.360/.550, 30 HR, 120 RBI


I also wanted to take some time today to explain a new feature I'm adding to the site this year. You may have noticed a new widget on the sidebar, just above the classic Christopher Walken pic, with the header "Twins Blog Tickets."

Here's the deal: I've partnered with a company called TiqIQ to offer readers this new avenue for finding tickets to games. If you click through the widget, you'll be taken to a TiqIQ Twins page (sporting a slick NTB co-branded design) with aggregated ticket and price listings from such third-party sellers as StubHub, TicketsNow and eBay.

Here are some of the unique features of TiqIQ:

1. Aggregated Listings: They aggregate all major sellers in the market so you can find the best deal.
2. TiqZone Categorization: They break each venue up into TiqZones, which are groupings of sections that we’ve determined are comparable in value.
3. TiqIQ Statistics: They provide ticket-level buying intelligence through their IQ rating and TiqIQ Statistics.
4. E-Ticket Filter:  Want tickets last minute?  You can find all the available e-tickets so you can print your tickets from home or the office.
5. All-in Pricing Option:  Before you complete your sale you'll be able to tell exactly how much your tickets will cost including all service and shipping fees.

I've added this feature because I think it can provide real value to readers who are looking for tickets to games, as third-party is often the only way to go for Twins fans considering the high demand at Target Field. If you decide to use TiqIQ to buy tickets, please let me know how it goes.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Position Analysis: Shortstop

Over the weekend, the Twins waived reliever Pat Neshek, who was claimed on Sunday by the Padres. For my thoughts on the move, read my entry from yesterday. For analysis of the shortstop position for the 2011 Twins, read on...


Likely Starter: Alexi Casilla

Potential Backups: Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Trevor Plouffe, Matt Tolbert

Good starting shortstops are tough to come by. The Twins know this better than anyone; since Cristian Guzman's departure following the 2004 season, they have struggled mightily to find a legitimate long-term solution at the position, with 12 different players making starts there over the past six years and only one (Jason Bartlett in 2007) starting more than 100 games in a season.

A position that has seen more changes of direction than a drunken frat boy after a bat spin will once again follow a fresh blueprint in 2011, with the Twins turning to perpetual underachiever Alexi Casilla in what will likely be his last chance to prove himself as a starter.

You can count on two fingers the number of times in the past decade that the Twins have had someone play in 100 games at shortstop and post an OPS higher than .700 (Guzman in 2001 and Hardy in 2010 -- that's it), so offensive expectations for Casilla should be set low, particularly considering that he himself is a .249/.306/.327 hitter in 1,073 career plate appearances.

Fortunately, since he'll be hitting ninth in the batting order, low expectations are OK on the offensive end. If Casilla can prove merely competent with the stick while swiping a few bases here and there, he can avoid being a liability at the bottom of the lineup. Competency is no given for Casilla, though, as his lifetime hitting line and execrable offensive performances in 2007 and 2009 will attest.

Casilla is also a question mark on the defensive end. He's made only 24 big-league starts at shortstop and, given the mixed reviews for his glove at second base, there's plenty of reason to wonder whether he can hack it full-time at one of the field's most challenging and important positions.

The Twins like Casilla and were adamant about giving him one more shot, largely because he's fast and inexpensive, but their ability to identify quality shortstops over the past six years has hardly been a strength, and given his spotty history and lack of prolonged success as a starter we must acknowledge that there's a fairly decent chance Casilla will fizzle out.

That's a rather frightening scenario because the depth behind him is almost non-existent.

Should Casilla warrant removal from the lineup, it's possible that Ron Gardenhire could shift Tsuyoshi Nishioka to short, since finding a new starter at second base would be considerably easier. I do wonder, however, if the coaching staff would actually trust Nishioka as anything more than an emergency play at shortstop, given that they've shown little interest in having the Japanese import even try his hand at the position this spring.

The other options to replace Casilla would be Trevor Plouffe, a natural shortstop who seems nowhere near ready to play in the majors, and Matt Tolbert, who is stretched both offensively and defensively as a regular.

Ultimately, the Twins are counting on a player with a .633 career OPS who has never played 100 games in a big-league season to finally overcome his flaws and transform into a serviceable starting shortstop. If that doesn't happen, they'll have to cycle through unproven and inexperienced players until they can find someone who will adequately carry the load.

In short, this position has an awful lot of potential to become a major headache for the Twins in 2011.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Casilla: .250/.310/.320, 3 HR, 30 RBI

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Padres Claim Neshek

Rarely has there been a player easier for Twins fans to like than Pat Neshek. The Brooklyn Park, MN native was drafted out of Butler University by his hometown team in the sixth round in 2002. He possesses a well established level of humility and a reputation as a player whose interaction with the fans is unrivaled.

These are all traits that have worked in Neshek's favor, but I think his most endearing characteristic is his uniqueness. Never before have we seen a delivery quite like his, and when he arrived on the major-league scene in 2006 none of us knew quite what to make of it. Neither did big-league hitters, apparently, as Neshek flat-out dominated, debuting in July and posting a 2.19 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and astounding 53-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 37 innings despite working with a fastball that barely edged 90 mph.

For the first half of the next season, Neshek continued to baffle AL hitters with his quirky arm action, delivering pitches from a side-arm slot and following through by hopping toward home plate on his toes (a style he'd adapted after suffering an arm injury in high school).

From his MLB debut on July 7, 2006 through July 7, 2007, Neshek accumulated one full season of pure relief dominance, hurling 79 innings with a 1.94 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 104-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It doesn't get much better than that, and it was startling to see from Neshek, a likable hometown kid who lacked the bulldog mentality, standout velocity or gravity-bending stuff that typifies elite late-inning relievers.

Unfortunately, whatever magic the right-hander was employing for that first year quickly dissipated. Neshek faded in the second half of the '07 season and has never really recaptured his electricity. Since the one-year anniversary of his first outing in the bigs, Neshek has a 4.79 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 47-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 50 2/3 innings.

As spectacular as he was that first year, Neshek walked a fine line with his lack of overpowering stuff and his reliance on a unique release. Eventually, the novelty of his delivery would wear off and big-league hitters would start to adapt; moreover, he needed every last tick of velocity for his approach to work and since suffering a torn ligament in 2008 that required Tommy John surgery, that consistent 90-mph heat simply hasn't been there.

As someone who greatly admires Neshek as a person and loves watching him pitch when he's on top of his game, I was fiercely hoping to see shades of his spellbinding rookie form this spring. Unfortunately, when I had the opportunity to watch him pitch an inning in Ft. Myers, I just didn't see it. His velocity remained stuck in the mid-80s; his once frisbee-like slider continued to lack its previous bite.

Apparently the Twins saw the same thing as they watched Neshek pitch this spring. They placed the righty on waivers on Friday, and this afternoon he was claimed by the Padres. Considering the Twins' huge questions in the bullpen and Neshek's minimal $625,000 salary this year, the move says a lot about the organization's feelings about the side-armer. If they don't make a move to fill his open spot on the 40-man roster (Bill Smith said in the article linked above that it could remain open for "two weeks or six months"), waiving Neshek would really signal a complete and total lack of confidence.

I'll miss Neshek, but it's important to note that despite his amazing performance in the year after he made his major-league debut, he simply hasn't been the same pitcher since. I hope he can resurrect his career in the National League, where fewer hitters have been exposed to his delivery and he'll move further and further away from surgery, but for the time being I'm going to have to trust the front office's evaluation that Neshek was not ready to contribute as a quality member of the Twins' bullpen this season.

The question is, where are those guys going to come from? Neshek, one of the players Bill Smith labeled a "wild card" for a rebuilt bullpen during the offseason, is now gone, and a number of other relief candidates have failed to impress this spring.

While I can't find it in myself to criticize the Twins' brass over letting go of a 30-year-old pitcher who hasn't gotten results in the majors for over three years, Neshek's release does nothing to alleviate my concerns about an increasingly dire bullpen situation that seems to have been completely ignored during the offseason.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Position Analysis: Third Base

Likely Starter: Danny Valencia

Photo by Jim Donton
Potential Backups: Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes

Danny Valencia seems hell bent on proving everyone wrong.

Drafted in the 19th round back in 2006 despite his impressive productivity for a major college program, the native Floridian signed rather than returning for a senior year, eager to showcase his ability in the pros.

Valencia did just that. He hit .311/.365/.505 during a 48-game debut at rookie-level Elizabethton after signing in '06, and throughout his steady ascent of the minor leagues he never really stopped hitting. Questions occasionally swirled about his plate discipline, his true power potential and his maturity, but through it all Valencia just kept hitting. He never posted a batting average lower than .284 at any level, and every single year after being drafted he showed enough to earn a midseason promotion.

One could certainly argue that last year's promotion -- from Triple-A to the majors -- wasn't earned. Valencia was hitting .292 at the time he was called up, but sported a mediocre .720 OPS and had managed zero home runs in 202 plate appearances.

He was called up out of necessity. Nick Punto had been staggeringly awful at the dish and Ron Gardenhire had resorted to Michael Cuddyer at third. The team was desperate for a legitimate option at the hot corner, but expectations for Valencia were set low.

All he did was hit .311/.351/.448 with seven homers and 40 RBI over 85 games, finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year vote.

The third baseman's determination to prove everyone wrong seems to fit with his personality. Anyone who's spent time around him will tell you the kid is cocky. But that cockiness is not to be confused with arrogance. What Valencia possesses is an amiable self-assuredness, at times brash but rarely pompous. Frankly, it's a trait I wish more Twins players possessed (but, of course, it's one that tends not to mesh well with Gardenhire).

Like any player coming off an out-of-nowhere rookie splash, Valencia is a candidate to regress this season. Depending on your viewpoint, that likelihood may be increased by a rather lofty .345 BABIP last season (though his imperviousness to poor batting averages in the minors would seem to suggest he has a skill).

So far this spring, Valencia has been one of the most impressive players in camp, hitting .393 with a cool 1.095 OPS. If a sophomore slump is supposed to be setting in, no one has apparently informed him as of yet.

Should their newly entrenched third baseman succumb to advanced scouting reports or injury, the Twins would look to either Matt Tolbert or Luke Hughes. But I don't expect that to happen, and I'm sure Valencia would agree.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Valencia: .290/.340/.410, 10 HR, 50 RBI

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Position Analysis: Second Base

Likely Starter: Tsuyoshi Nishioka

J. Meric, Getty
Potential Backups: Alexi Casilla, Luke Hughes, Matt Tolbert

Much like catcher and first base, we find a question mark topping the depth chart at second base for the Twins entering the 2011 season. Unlike Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, however, the uncertainty surrounding Tsuyoshi Nishioka has nothing to do with his health. Instead, it sprouts from the fact that the 27-year-old, recipient of a $15 million financial commitment during the offseason, has yet to play his first major-league game.

As the 2010 season came to a close, we knew the Twins were going to give Alexi Casilla a shot at one of the middle infield spots this year. We also knew Orlando Hudson was not going to be back. So ultimately, the front office decided to replace J.J. Hardy with Nishioka. Knowing this organization's modus operandi, this preference comes as no surprise.

In many ways, the two are polar opposites. Whereas Hardy was a slow-footed, strong-armed power hitter by nature, Nishioka is a slap-hitting speedster whose lack of arm strength quickly dissuaded Ron Gardenhire from even giving him an extended look at shortstop.

And so, Nishioka will serve as the Twins' second baseman, where his mediocre arm will be less exposed and where his quick feet should be a greater asset. While his three Japanese Gold Gloves may overstate his defensive value, it's not difficult to envision Nishioka as an above-average fielder at second.

We find far less clarity with his offensive outlook. He captured a batting title in the Nippon Professional Baseball league last year by hitting .346, but prior to this emergence he'd been a sub-.290 career hitter, which quickly puts a damper on comparisons to Ichiro (who was a .350 lifetime hitter in Japan). Nishioka's plate discipline is merely decent and I expect his power to be almost non-existent, so his success at the plate will be largely dependent on his ability to maintain a high batting average.

Last year's .346 mark -- which bested his previous career high by nearly 50 points -- was heavily influenced by a sky-high BABIP. For hitters, this can be a sustainable skill, and it's certainly an area where Nishioka could continue to excel considering his high contact rate, his quickness out of the box and his outstanding foot speed (Bill Smith has called him "one of the faster runners in the game").

With that being said, the Japanese infielder will find it more difficult to turn weak grounders and soft liners into hits stateside, where the pitchers and fielders are far superior. It's also worth noting that in 2009, the year prior to his breakout campaign, he batted just .260.

NPB stars transferring to Major League Baseball don't have a particularly strong historical success rate, but Nishioka carries the advantage of being a rising star coming off the best season of his career and just entering his prime years of age.

For the time being he's an unproven rookie, and I hope that Gardenhire will treat him as such in spite of his high profile, but if his ability to hit around .300 transfers over from Japan the switch-hitter could be a quality fit between Denard Span and Joe Mauer in the No. 2 spot.

If not, he could become a considerable liability there.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Nishioka: .270/.330/.330, 3 HR, 35 RBI

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Position Analysis: First Base

Likely Starter: Justin Morneau

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune)
Potential Backups: Michael Cuddyer, Justin Huber, Jeff Bailey

When he's been in the lineup, production has never been an issue for Justin Morneau. Over the past five years, the Canadian first baseman has consistently been among the most productive in the league at his position, averaging a .900 OPS with 27 home runs and 105 RBI.

The issue for Morneau, recently, has been staying in the lineup. In both 2009 and 2010, he missed lengthy stretches of time due to freak injuries; first a fractured vertebrae, then a severe concussion.

To their credit, the Twins have made do without the former MVP in each of those two seasons, surging to postseason berths with Michael Cuddyer filling in at first base. Still, it's clearly a situation they'd like to avoid this year. There's no doubt that Morneau, with his uncommon ability to hit for both average and power with increasingly excellent plate discipline, can have a profound impact on the offense's fortunes when he's performing at peak level.

Morneau missed the final three months of the 2010 season due to concussion symptoms that persisted into the offseason and even into early spring. He overcame a huge hurdle last week by making his Grapefruit League debut on Friday, marking the first time in more than eight months he'd taken part in a live baseball game.

By his account, Morneau's symptoms are finally just now clearing up. That the afflictions which haunted him for eight months would suddenly disappear just weeks before the start of the baseball season seems awfully convenient, so it's entirely possible that they've grown more mild and he's simply decided to start pushing through them a little more than he's been willing to in the past. Either way, Morneau is now taking part in all baseball-related activities and, barring a setback, he's on pace to take the field on April 1st when the Twins return to Rogers Centre for the first time since he suffered his concussion there last July.

Projecting the slugger's performance for this year is exceedingly difficult. He's a tremendously talented hitter and last year, prior to the mishap in Toronto, he was putting together the most impressive offensive campaign of his career. If he can pick up where he left off it'd be a coup, but I'm hesitant to expect that for two reasons: residual injury effects and plain old rust.

Ideally, Morneau will be completely free of symptoms from the get-go this season, putting the traumatic brain injury behind him without issue. That's a best case scenario but probably not an entirely realistic one. Given the persistence of the concussion's lingering after-effects throughout the offseason it's hard to imagine he won't at least experience some minor symptoms as he attempts to return to everyday duty. Should he encounter some level of fogginess, nausea or sensitivity to light, one has to wonder how it will impact his performance as he attempts to read, register and swing at 95 mph fastballs and wicked breaking pitches.

Even if he does fully overcome concussion symptoms, we must acknowledge the fact that Morneau is returning from what is likely his longest hiatus from the sport since he began playing it. Not only has he been unable to participate in games for the past eight months, he has largely been unable to even take part in off-the-field activities designed to keep his skills sharp (such as batting practice and fielding drills). If he gets off to a bit of a slow start, it shouldn't come as a surprise.

It goes without saying that Morneau will now be extremely susceptible to any type of blow to the head. While every possible measure will be taken to protect his cranium, certain incidents are unavoidable. I suspect the Twins will show maximum caution with him this year, providing him with more frequent days off and holding him out of the lineup for weeks (or months) should symptoms reemerge.

With this being the case, it seemingly would have made sense for the front office to invest in some sort of legitimate backup who could keep Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome in their natural (and most suitable) roles. Unfortunately, it looks like Cuddyer will be Morneau's sole legitimate backup; no other candidate to play the position can be found on the 40-man roster (save for Chris Parmelee, who is a far cry from big-league ready).

Much like with Joe Mauer, Morneau's health is a question mark and the depth behind him is less than stellar, so the Twins will have to cross their fingers and hope for the best. We have a lot more reason for optimism than we did just a couple weeks ago, but there's a distant chasm between appearing in a couple exhibition games and permanently conquering one of the most serious concussion cases in recent history. Morneau's challenge is just beginning.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Morneau: .290/.360/.480, 25 HR, 100 RBI

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Position Analysis: Catcher

Today I launch my annual Position Analysis series. Over the next few weeks, I'll break down each position on the 2011 Twins, sorting through depth and setting expectations for the starter's performance.

Likely Starter: Joe Mauer

Potential Backups: Drew Butera, Steve Holm, Rene Rivera

We kick off this year's series of Position Analysis pieces with the most important position for the Twins: catcher. I say this not just because the starter there is the team's best and highest paid player, but also because the drop-off from starter to backup is the most drastic on the roster -- and perhaps in all of baseball.

As such, the health of Joe Mauer will be paramount to the Twins' success this year. Quite simply, if Mauer is healthy he'll be one of the best players in the league and a pivotal difference-maker. The three times in his career that he's amassed 600-plus plate appearances in a season, Mauer has won three batting titles and finished first, fourth and sixth in the American League MVP balloting.

The fact that he has reached that 600-PA plateau only three times in a seven-year career, however, helps illustrate what a pervasive issue the injuries have been. And this spring, as is often the case, the stud catcher's health is a point of uncertainty.

While Mauer managed 584 plate appearances over 137 games last season -- very respectable numbers for a catcher -- there's little doubt that various ailments took a toll on his performance. Over the course of the summer, he dealt with a bruised left heel, tendinitis in his right shoulder and inflammation in his left knee (not to mention other issues we likely weren't privy to). It's that last injury that has presented an ongoing concern.

Mauer's balky knee -- the same one that cost him most of his rookie season -- bogged him down late in the season and into the playoffs, sapping his power by limiting his ability to push off from his back leg. He underwent surgery during the offseason but admitted that when he reported to camp this spring he was "a mess"; and he's received multiple injections over the past several weeks to lubricate the achy joint. He caught two bullpen sessions over the weekend and is reportedly set to begin seeing some action at DH this week, but there's still no timetable for him start crouching behind the plate in actual games.

If the offseason surgery proves successful and Mauer's left knee is close to full strength this season, there's little reason to expect anything other than a stellar campaign. If not, we'll start seeing more and more (somewhat warranted) discourse about the necessity of a position switch, and we'll also be exposed to increased dosages of his backup, Drew Butera.

Butera is a good defensive catcher with an excellent arm, but his complete lack of ability with the bat renders him a considerable liability as a regular. His .533 OPS last season reflects his offensive chops with a fair amount of accuracy (he posted a .613 OPS in the minors) so if Mauer goes down and he becomes a starter, Butera essentially erases the AL advantage of a designated hitter because his production isn't far from what one would expect from a pitcher.

The depth behind Butera is even more disconcerting. The Twins signed a couple veteran minor-leaguers in Steve Holm and Rene Rivera during the offseason, but might be better off looking to one of their own prospects like Chris Hermann or Danny Lehmann. In any case, we'd be looking at a backup who would be extremely overmatched in the big leagues.

The hope is that this doesn't become an issue. For a multitude of reasons, it's absolutely vital to the Twins' chances that Mauer stay healthy and productive this season. He's shown in the past that he can take the field by storm without much of a spring tune-up, putting together the best month of his career in May 2009 after skipping all of March and April, so there's plenty of reason to believe that once he finally suits up Mauer will be ready to once again stake his claim as one of the best players in baseball.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Mauer: .340/.430/.520, 17 HR, 90 RBI

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Location in Ft. Myers

I regret to report that I have in fact returned from my week-long getaway to sunny Southwest Florida. It was a great trip and I spent plenty of time down at the ballpark, so let's cut to the chase and go over a few observations, thoughts and pictures from spring training:

* The timing of my trip to Florida (and specifically my trips to Hammond Stadium) worked well in that I was able to witness a number of important firsts for the Twins this spring. As I mentioned last Wednesday, I made it down to the minor-league fields at Lee County Sports Complex on Tuesday just in time to catch a bit of Justin Morneau's first live game action since last July, as the first baseman participated in a B-game against the Pirates.

Three days later, I was in attendance for Morneau's Grapefruit League debut against the Red Sox. He went 0-for-2, going down on a called third strike in his first at-bat and then reaching on a Carl Crawford error in his second. Morneau also cleanly fielded a couple grounders. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about his performance, but the fact that he was out there and generally looking like his old self is plenty encouraging, especially considering that a week ago it seemed his return was nowhere in sight.

 Morneau's first official AB since July 7th of last year.

* I missed a chance to witness another big first on Saturday, as I arrived at the complex just minutes after Joe Mauer wrapped up catching his first bullpen session of the spring. He caught another session on Sunday and while he continues to deal with some soreness in his knee it sounds like he'll start getting into games as DH this week. The situation remains uncertain, but the best thing I can say at this point is that Mauer still has almost three weeks to get himself ready for Opening Day.

* On a side note, I was struck by the fact that Ron Gardenhire gave no advance notice to the media that Morneau would be playing in Tuesday's game (as a reporter on hand told me, Morneau simply went on the field and started warming up, causing a lot of scurrying). Later in the week, when asked by reporters how close Mauer was to catching a bullpen session, Gardenhire indicated the timetable by spreading his arms open wide and saying "this much," before adding, "You can write that." The very morning this was reported, Mauer caught a bullpen session.

I have no way of knowing whether these were smokescreens intended to deceive or the innocent result of a manager being as blindsided as the rest of us by his star players' important spring milestones, but considering Gardenhire's recent vocal frustration with how quickly news reports are traveling through the media these days (most notably through Twitter), it seems rather conspicuous.

In the event that Gardy is actually starting to build barricades between himself and the media, it's going to be a long season for the reporters who cover the team, as well as the fans who rely on those reporters to get their fix.

* Much of the team traveled to Jupiter on Saturday for an exhibition match-up against the Cardinals, but there was still plenty to see around the Twins' spring training complex. When I arrived in the morning I happened upon Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, Jason Kubel and prospect Joe Benson taking batting practice. Interestingly, the guy from that group who hit the most balls over the fence while I was spectating was Benson (though it's worth noting that he was the only righty, and a left-hander was throwing the BP session). Think he felt like he had something to prove while being grouped with those guys?

Jim Thome gets his hacks in, while Joe Benson (No. 87) looks on.

* The next group to take batting practice included Michael Cuddyer, which is notable because it was his first BP session since undergoing surgery to remove a wart on his foot. Cuddyer put on quite a show, launching the majority of pitches over the left field fence. I don't often watch batting practice but I'm told this is routine for him; nevertheless, a good sign.

* One player I was interested in seeing was Pat Neshek, who's looking to take a step forward in his second season back from Tommy John surgery and could be key to the bullpen's success this season. Unfortunately, when I watched him pitch an inning against the Pirates on Tuesday, the side-winding righty did not look sharp. According to the stadium scoreboard, he only topped 84 mph once (though I can't vouch for the accuracy of the radar gun at Hammond) and he seemed to have a hard time hitting the catcher's mitt.

* Another player I was excited to check out was, of course, the Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka. He started at second in both games I attended and I also had a chance to see him take some batting practice on Saturday.

Nishioka certainly presents an interesting dynamic. His interpreter is around at all times during practice, and when he chats with teammates there's a delay between statement and reaction on both sides. Given his skinny, athletic build and deliberate, methodical mannerisms it's not hard to see why folks would draw superficial comparisons to Ichiro.

I can't make any real judgments about his play based on the very limited sample I witnessed, but I will say that in the games I saw him in I don't think he hit a single ball hard (he did have a couple singles, a ground ball and a blooper). Even in batting practice, he seemed to hit a relatively high number of weak grounders and soft liners, but that could be part of his approach during practice. Defensively, he looked comfortable at second base and made a great diving play on a hard-hit hopper up the middle off the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury in Friday's game.

Alexi Casilla, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Nishioka's translator during BP.

* Ben Revere is fun to watch. He wasn't on the field a ton during the games I attended, but in his limited time I saw him lay down a perfect bunt, steal third base and make a spectacular diving catch in the left-center gap. With his lefty swing, smallish stature and big smile, I think we'll see a lot of Twins fans compare Revere to Jacque Jones, especially now that he's switched his uniform number to 11.

* I spent some time hanging around the minor-league fields, watching some of the organization's prospects run, throw and take part in drills (the actual games for minor leaguers don't start until this week). It was cool to put faces to some of the names I've been following and haven't previously had a chance to see. Liam Hendriks is listed at 6'1", but compared to other top pitching prospects like Kyle Gibson (6'6"), David Bromberg (6'5") and Billy Bullock (6'6") he seemed downright diminutive. Conversely, Miguel Sano might (allegedly) only be 17, but he stood out physically like a man among boys with the other minor-leaguers he was doing drills with.

Mostly, the thing that struck me while hanging out at the minor league fields was how young these kids are. We get so caught up in the stat sheets and projections that we can forget many of these guys are fresh out of high school and extreme long-shots to ever see major-league action. Largely, the players working out in the minor-league area are friendly, outgoing, and-- for anyone who's played organized baseball and worked through the endless tedious drills -- relatable.

* On my last note, I'll veer away from baseball and toward -- what else? -- food. La Velle had the restaurant situation around Ft. Myers pretty well covered in his guide (I tried Michelbob's for BBQ and Iguana Mia for Mexican -- both thumbs-up) but the best food I had during my stay was at a Cuban restaurant called Fernandez the Bull. There are two locations, both in Naples (about 40 minutes from Ft. Myers) but if you're at all into Cuban food it's definitely worth the trip.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Pleasant Surprises

I arrived at the Lee County Sports Complex a couple hours early for Tuesday's game between the Twins and Pirates, so I wandered over to the minor-league field, where a relatively sizable crowd had assembled to take in the "B-game" between the two clubs.

Just as I walked up, Trevor Plouffe was at the plate, and on one of the first pitches I saw he drove a base hit to the outfield. The runner who'd been on second charged around third and slid across home plate to score on a close play. This wasn't particularly noteworthy until the runner popped up and I realized it was Justin Morneau.

I soon learned that Morneau, who had started without advance notice and was seeing his first live game action since last July, had put himself on second just moments earlier with a three-run double down the right field line. Music to my ears.

There was plenty to like in that B-game, played on a side field away from the eyes of most fans who were making their way out to Hammond Stadium for the day's main exhibition match-up. Delmon Young also made his spring debut in the game, though he was finished before I arrived. Kevin Slowey started and pitched well; I spied a few scouts in the stands who apparently were checking in on him on behalf of the Blue Jays. I got my first look at Kyle Gibson, who had hitters consistently beating the ball into the ground with a tailing fastball delivered from a 6'6" frame (though he did give up a well struck home run to Andy Marte).

The main feature didn't end up being quite so noteworthy, as the Twins delivered a rather punchless offensive performance (as one would expect in a game where Matt Tolbert was the team's first baseman and No. 5 hitter) on the way to a 5-2 loss. The contest was highlighted by four very sharp innings from Carl Pavano, and I had the privilege of spectating from some pretty amazing seats.

With Michael Cuddyer on track to return after having a nasty wart removed from his foot and Joe Mauer being cautiously eased back into duty, the Twins seem to be on their way to fielding all their star sluggers, which hopefully will prevent us from ever being subjected to Tolbert at first base again.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Migrating South

At least temporarily.

I'm heading down to Florida for a week, with my flight departing at 6 AM (yes, apparently there is a 6 AM) on Monday. I plan to take in two or three spring training games while I'm down there, the first of which is Tuesday's tilt between the Twins and Pirates at Hammond Stadium. Parker has arranged a little fan get-together after the game at Potts' Sports Cafe -- just a few blocks away from the ballpark -- so if you'll be around I'd encourage you to join us.

Most likely I'll check in with a few updates here over the course of the week, especially if any major news emerges. When I return next week I'll have a full recap of the action and then I'll get my annual Position Analysis series underway. That should take us right up to the start of the season.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Done Deal

Ron Gardenhire made it official yesterday: Brian Duensing is a starter.

Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano have to be considered rotation locks, but it seemed as though the manager might use spring training performance to determine which of the remaining four would be awarded starting jobs.

Not so for Duensing. Apparently, in Gardenhire's mind, the left-hander earned the billing through his performance last year, when he went 7-2 with a 3.08 ERA after joining the rotation in July.

That performance, combined with his excellent work after stepping into the rotation late in the 2009 season, has convinced many people -- including Gardy -- that Duensing is the team's third-best starter. And, looking only at his ERA and win/loss record from the past two years, that certainly seems to be the case.

Unfortunately, for anyone looking past those categories, it's tough to see him sustaining the kind of success he had last year in a starting role. Duensing doesn't have the stuff to throw past hitters -- evidenced by his 5.5 career K/9 rate -- and as his .275 BABIP from last year inevitably begins to normalize his other numbers will see regression, perhaps drastically so. It seemed as though his luck started to catch up with him late in the season, when he gave up 19 runs on 35 hits in 27 innings over his final five starts, including a playoff dud against the Yankees (though one could make the case that he simply wore down).

To be sure, Duensing is a solid pitcher with admirable poise and there's no reason he can't be a fine back-of-the-rotation arm, but guaranteeing him a starting job also minimizes his greatest and most sustainable asset, which is domination of same-sided batters. Duensing held lefties to an anemic .162/.217/.239 hitting line last year, and showed similar proficiency against them in the previous season.

As a reliever, he would provide the Twins with an established commodity in a bullpen that lacks many. He'd be able to fully utilize his dominance against lefty swingers rather than facing starting lineups stacked with righties. And, should one of the five other starters get injured or fail to cut it, he'd be available to step into the rotation, as he's done successfully in each of the past two seasons.

Instead, assuming everyone stays healthy, the Twins will opt to either potentially weaken the bullpen by asking Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey or Nick Blackburn to pitch in relief -- something none of them have experience doing -- or weaken their starting pitching depth by trading one of those three.

It's frustrating. Not so much that Gardenhire has reached a decision I disagree with, but more so that -- on March 3rd -- his mind is apparently already made up.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Core Four

In 2009, the Twins scored 817 runs, ranking them fourth in the American League. They hit 172 home runs, which -- while below the league average -- marked their highest total in the past six years and an increase of 61 from the prior season.

They managed this relatively gaudy offensive production despite underwhelming performances from such regulars as Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, Joe Crede, Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez.

The lineup's overall success in '09 was keyed by four players that comprised the heart of the lineup: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. Each of the four posted an OPS of .862 or higher, went deep at least 28 times and drove in at least 94 runs, transforming an otherwise sub par offense into one of the best in the league.

Last year, the Twins' lineup featured greater balance, but scored 45 fewer runs and hit 30 fewer homers. To pinpoint this drop-off in production we need look no further than those four players.

Mauer struggled with injuries and adjustments to his new home park; his home run total dropped from 28 to nine and his OPS dropped by 160 points. Morneau was tremendous over the first half of the season but didn't play a game after July 7, finishing with career lows in home runs (18) and RBI (56). Cuddyer never seemed to get his power swing going, tallying less than half as many home runs as the previous year (from 32 to 14) and posting the lowest full-season slugging percentage of his career (.417). Kubel saw his OPS drop from .907 to .750.

In my opinion, the lineup has gotten worse around these four players since last year. I see Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka as offensive downgrades from Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy, and I have a hard time expecting the same kind of production from the likes of Jim Thome and Danny Valencia.

Even if those auxiliary players don't pan out as the team hopes, though, it doesn't mean the offense can't be more productive overall. If the four players at the heart of the order can move closer to their 2009 levels of production, they can change the entire complexion of the lineup, especially with Delmon Young now adding another legitimate power bat to the mix.

Whether or not these hitters can rebound will be largely dependent on health. It seems fair to say none of the four were completely healthy last year, and unfortunately three of them are already dealing with injury issues this spring that have prevented them from being able to take the field for a game thus far.

If the "Core Four" can put these pesky problems behind them and remain relatively healthy throughout the summer, they could easily be the difference between a mediocre lineup and an upper-echelon one.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Five Spring Training Questions

The Twins opened their Grapefruit League schedule with an 8-4 victory over the Red Sox on Sunday night. March has arrived, exhibition play is underway, and spring training is officially in full swing.

The month leading up to the start of the regular season always carries with it a number of issues needing to be sorted out, and this year -- more than most -- the Twins face significant uncertainty as they try to whittle their roster down to 25 players by Opening Day.

Below, you'll find five burning questions that the coaching staff must answer before the team heads to Toronto to open up meaningful play on April 1st.

1) Who's on first?

All reports have been good on Justin Morneau thus far. He's on the field, launching balls over the fence in BP and taking part in all drills without issue. Still, the first baseman is sitting out exhibition games and the team has been cautious about setting timetables. Until that changes, we can't say with full confidence that he'll be in the starting lineup on Opening Day.

What's troubling is that his sole big-league backup at first, Michael Cuddyer, is also being held out of games due to a wart on his foot. The medical staff is currently trying to treat the ailment with a specialized cream, but should that course of action fail the wart could require removal, which would shelf Cuddyer for weeks.

So, in the event that neither Cuddyer nor Morneau is ready to go at the start of the season, who opens at first base? The only other first basemen in camp (with the exception of prospect Chris Parmelee, who hasn't played above Double-A) are minor-league journeymen like Jeff Bailey and Justin Huber, and none of them are on the 40-man roster.

2) Where's the relief?

Teams typically enter spring training with one or two spots in the bullpen up for grabs. This year, the Twins have openings at three or four spots, with about a dozen pitchers warranting legitimate consideration.

Joe Nathan's sharpness will be under heavy scrutiny as he participates in live games for the first time since going under the knife a year ago, and similar uncertainty surrounds a number of other bullpen candidates. Can Pat Neshek show increased velocity after struggling to reach even the high-80s last year? Can Jim Hoey find a way to command his blazing fastball? Are players like Alex Burnett, Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship ready to rebound from disappointing 2010 campaigns?

3) How will the middle infield shake out?

We know that Alexi Casilla and Tsuyhoshi Nishioka project to start at the middle-infield spots. What we don't know is which one will play where. Nishioka played shortstop in Japan last year, but some scouts have questioned whether he possesses the requisite arm strength to play the position effectively in the majors. Early reports from spring training have echoed that sentiment, and Nishioka started at second in the team's first game on Sunday. Meanwhile, Casilla has made only 24 career starts at short.

While it is assumed that Nishioka and Casilla will be the Opening Day starters up the middle, it is hardly guaranteed. In his recent interview with Jesse Lund of Twinkie Town, assistant GM Rob Antony hinted at the possibility that Nishioka could open the season "in more of a utility role or platoon situation or something" (though that seems highly unlikely) and nothing is assured for Casilla, who has often frustrated the team in the past with lacking focus and production.

4) Will a starter be shipped out?

With six pitchers vying for five spots in the rotation, the Twins haven't been too secretive about the fact that they're open to trading one of their starters to supplement another area of the club. Kevin Slowey's name has been floated by reporters as a trade candidate throughout the offseason, and over the weekend Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweeted that the Twins are keeping tabs on Yankees prospects, later suggesting that Francisco Liriano could be dealt to New York within the next two weeks (a move that would make my head explode).

Starting pitching depth is important, and the Twins almost certainly won't deal anyone in the early weeks of spring training, but if we get to the end of March and everyone's healthy, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see someone flipped, especially if Kyle Gibson continues to impress.

5) Which prospect(s) will emerge?

It seems like every spring, at least one prospect breaks out in big-league camp, putting himself on the map with fans and -- more importantly -- the coaching staff. Last year, it was Ben Revere, who hit .326 and impressed Ron Gardenhire and Co. with his blazing speed and cheery attitude. Gibson is generating the most talk among prospects early on this spring, but players like Parmelee, Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes could easily work themselves into the team's plans by performing well over the next several weeks.