2012 Minnesota Team Preview
The Twins won their sixth AL Central title in nine seasons in 2010 and with home field advantage in the first-round of the playoffs, the Twins seemed poised to perhaps capture the AL pennant.
The Twins were up 3-0 in the sixth inning of the first game of the NLDS series to the Yankees, but fell apart and the franchise has basically headed downhill since.
The Twins were swept in the playoffs, but entered 2011 with largely the same roster and were seen as the favorites to win the division again. However, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong last season and the Twins fell from 94 wins to 99 losses in just one season.
Despite coming off back-to-back titles, the Twins decided to make some changes heading into 2011 desiring "speed" in the infield and traded away J.J. Hardy for two relief pitchers. At the same time, Minnesota decided to sign Tsuyoshi Nishioka to help replace Hardy in the infield. It's hard to imagine a decision that could go more wrong. Hardy flourished in Baltimore and continued to display the strong defense he had in Minnesota, while Nishioka looked anything like a major league caliber shortstop.
It wasn't just bad decision making, as Minnesota suffered a spate of injuries. Joe Mauer missed 80 games with a mysterious lower leg injury. Denard Span played just 14 games after June 6 due to a concussion. Justin Morneau returned from a concussion that ended his 2010 season in July, but he was never the same as he went on the DL with a sprained left wrist on June 14 (and had further surgery on the wrist in October), had neck surgery on June 29 and had a cyst removed from his left knee and a bone spur removed from his right foot on August 19 - all before a concussion setback ended his season in September. Jason Kubel played just 38 games after a foot injury in July. Alexi Casilla took over the second base job and got hot at the plate, but then didn't play after July due to a hamstring injury. Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano also missed significant time in the rotation. To cap it off, the team's top pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, needed Tommy John surgery on the cusp of making his major league debut.
And several key players who were not injured took significant steps back in performance. Matt Capps struggled as the closer when Joe Nathan wasn't ready for the job initially after coming back from Tommy John surgery. Danny Valencia took a step back at the plate (.677 OPS) and in the field. Delmon Young struggled before he was traded to Detroit.
It's no wonder GM Bill Smith was fired at the end of the season and the Twins brought back Terry Ryan.
The Twins enter 2012 as an enigma. If Mauer, Morneau and the other injured players can return to full health, the roster still has much of the talent of the 2010 title winners. An offense with a healthy Mauer and Morneau could score 771 runs (according to this analysis by ESPN 1500 am Twin Cities's Phil Mackey after scoring 619 runs last season, 25th in MLB.
While the starting pitching struggled last season, much may have been to a defense that was last in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency. If the Twins can catch the ball, and that begins at shortstop, and stay healthy, the starting staff has provided innings in the past.
However, even if the team has good luck win health, the Twins may lack the depth and secondary talent needed to contend. Instead, the Twins may be looking to rebuild or bridge the gap until a group of promising hitters in the low minors is ready for the majors in the middle of this decade.
Agreed to terms with INF Jamey Carroll on a two-year contract.
With their decision to trade Hardy backfiring in a big way, the Twins decided to find a stopgap with Carroll. He's got the steady hand on defense that could stabilize the infield, but will he have the needed range at age 38? He could add needed OBP to the lineup as well (.362 OBP the last three years).
Agreed to terms with C Ryan Doumit on a one-year contract.
Doumit gives the Twins the needed flexibility rest Joe Mauer at DH or first base while keeping a decent bat in the lineup. Drew Butera had the second-lowest OPS of any player in baseball with 200 or more at-bats last season and the Twins couldn't let that scenario happen again if Mauer has another injury-plagued season.
Traded RHP Kevin Slowey to Colorado for minor leaguer Daniel Turpen.
The Twins sold low on Slowey after a disappointing season and his departure was fueled by a bad relationship with management after he was unhappy moving to the bullpen.
Agreed to terms with RHP Matt Capps on a one-year contract.
The Twins remain inexplicably loyal to Capps, who they brought back on a one-year $4.5 million contract to serve as the team's closer after Joe Nathan left in free agency.
Agreed to terms with OF Josh Willingham on a three-year contract.
Willingham essentially replaces Michael Cuddyer, who departed via free agency to sign a three-year, $31.5 million with Colorado. Willingham hit 29 home runs in a pitcher's park in Oakland, which gives some comfort for him moving to home run unfriendly Target Field.
Agreed to terms with RHP Jason Marquis on a one-year contract.
The Twins wanted another veteran in the rotation after deciding to move Brian Duensing back to the bullpen. He's another low strikeout pitcher for the rotation, but does induce ground balls and could be helped by Target Field.
Projected Lineup / Rotation
Lineup (vs. RH/LH)
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jamey Carroll, SS
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Josh Willingham, RF
5. Justin Morneau, 1B
6. Ryan Doumit, DH
7. Danny Valencia, 3B
8. Alexi Casilla, 2B
9. Ben Revere, LF
1. Francisco Liriano
2. Scott Baker
3. Carl Pavano
4. Nick Blackburn
5. Jason Marquis
Closer: Matt Capps
Key Bullpen Members: Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Alex Burnett, Joel Zumaya
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
1. Is Justin Morneau's career over?
After missing the second half of 2010 due to a concussion, Morneau returned last year but struggled at the plate amid several injuries – including a setback to his concussion symptoms that puts his career in question. He started the season slow at the plate and quickly developed health issues. He had a had a cortisone shot for a pinched nerve in his left shoulder in early May and then hurt his wrist. He went on the DL with a sprained left wrist on June 14, had neck surgery on June 29 and had a cyst removed from his left knee and a bone spur removed from his right foot on August 19. The biggest concern is that he didn't play after a relapse of concussion symptoms after he dove for a ball while paying first base on August 28. It was a routine play that raises doubt if he'll be able to play in the field again or hold up from a full season of activity even at DH. He also had offseason surgery to repair a tendon in the back of his left wrist. Even when healthy last season, Morneau wasn't the same at the plate as he slugged just .333, hit only four home runs and didn't even draw walks. If Morneau can't play in the field, Chris Parmalee could get a regular role in the lineup.
2. Can Joe Mauer stay healthy?
Mauer played just 82 games last season due to bilateral leg weakness, a viral infection, an upper respiratory infection and pneumonia. Mauer says recovering from minor knee surgery got him behind in offseason workouts last season and he could never get back on track.
The vague description of "bilateral leg weakness" that sidelined him in May led to speculation he was suffering from a serious ailment such as Lou Gehrig's disease (which he denied) and led to the media turning on him for being soft. Before last season, Mauer and the Twins had been adamant about him remaining an everyday catcher, but both seemed to plan for a transition as he began to play first base in July and was there for 18 games in the second half. With the Twins signing Ryan Doumit in the offseason, Mauer may only play catcher part time in 2012, splitting time at DH and first base, and he could move to another position permanently if his legs continue to be an issue.
3. Can the Twins catch the ball?
Minnesota's defense was terrible last year as Danny Valencia took as step back (-6.1 UZR from +5.9 UZR in 2010), Tsuyoshi Nishioka struggled at shortstop and the outfield defense was pourous with Delmon Young in left field. The defense could improve, and help the pitching staff, if Jamey Carroll is an upgrade at shortstop and with both Denard Span and Ben Revere in the outfield.
4. Can Francisco Liriano bounce back?
Liriano emerged as Minnesota's ace in 2010 as he seemed finally back to top form after Tommy John surgery. However, he took a major step backward last year and is an enigma for 2012. Liriano came down with a sore shoulder in spring training and never seemed right even though he threw a no-hitter in May (although it included six walks). He landed on the DL twice with a sore shoulder and made just nine starts after the All-Star break. His average fastball velocity slipped by two mph, his strikeout rate declined to 7.50 K/9IP (from 9.44) and his walk rate nearly doubled (to a staggering 5.02 BB/9IP). If there's some hope for a turnaround, Liriano seemed to struggle mentally with Minnesota's poor defense as he fell apart when runners reached base (.822 OPS with runners on) - and it's hard to see Minnesota's defense being worse. His shoulder problems also didn't appear to have any structural cause. When healthy, Liriano's slider is one of the toughest pitches in the game. He's just a year removed from a season with an excellent strikeout rate, good control and an ability to keep the ball on the ground. He's a bounce back candidate as a result.
Stars in lineup (if healthy), depth in starting pitching (if not high-strikeout upside).
Health, fielding, depth in bullpen
Rising: Glen Perkins rebuilt his career last season in a setup role after struggling with injuries and lacking the team's confidence the previous two seasons. Perkins saw a two mph average increase on his fastball compared his career best last season that resulted in a big jump in his strikeout rate to 9.49 K/9IP and resulted in a strong 65:21 K:BB ratio in 61.2 innings. He had two saves and was used in high-leverage situations late in games, but the Twins likely want him to return as a setup man given his lack of experience as a closer, his shaky injury history and since he's left-handed (although he's been no better against lefties than righties in his career). He also struggled late in the season with a 4.35 ERA and 19:9 K:BB ratio in 20.2 innings after August 1. Still, his strong strikeout rate and good control out of the bullpen should make him a valuable staff filler if he stays healthy.
Falling: Justin Morneau's career is in doubt due to his concussion issues.
Sleeper: Trevor Plouffe will try to win a utility role with the Twins this spring after showing promise with his bat, but struggling with his glove at shortstop. Plouffe tore the cover off the ball at Triple-A by hitting .313/.384/.635 with 15 home runs in 51 games at Triple-A. However, when called up to the majors and given a shot to take over the everyday shortstop job, Plouffe struggled with his fielding. He made 11 errors in 45 games at shortstop, mostly with his inconsistent throws to first base. After the season, the Twins said they'd move Plouffe to the outfield and to a utility role. He has enough power to help fantasy owners in a utility role, especially since he'll qualify at shortstop in most leagues.
He could platoon with Ben Revere in left field.
Supersleeper: Brian Dozier had a strong minor league season that could put him in position to make an impact in the majors with the Twins as early as 2012. Dozier hit .322/.423/.472 at High-A Fort Myers and then duplicated that performance by hitting .318/.384/.502 in a tough hitting environment at Double-A New Britain. He followed that up by hitting .298/.358/.454 with three home runs in 26 games in the Arizona Fall League. Dozier primarily played shortstop but also saw time at second base.
It's possible that if Carroll gets hurt or if Danny Valencia loses the third base job due to poor defense, Dozier could get called up and get a shot at the starting shortstop job.
Miguel Sano - He's living up to the hype that made him a high-priced signing out of the Dominican Republic and he may be Minnesota's next star hitter. Sano hit .292/.352/.637 with 20 home runs in 66 games in the rookie Appalachian League. He displayed massive power potential at just age 18 and was drawing comparisons to Miguel Cabrera. While Sano drew more walks in his second professional season, he still needs to improve his contact rate (77 strikeouts in 267 at-bats). He alternated playing third base and shortstop and his future position likely depends how much he grows beyond his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame. The Twins haven't ruled out playing him at shortstop, but he'll likely move to third base or even the outfield at higher levels. A strong season at Low-A Beloit could bring him to the ranks of the most elite prospects in baseball.
Oswaldo Arcia - He's quickly rising up the prospect charts after continuing to thrive following his strong rookie league debut in 2010. He got off to a strong start at Low-A by hitting .420 with five home runs in 20 games before missing a month with a right elbow injury. When he returned he was promoted to High-A, but slowed a bit by hitting .263/.300/.460 with eight home runs. After previously drawing walks at a decent rate, he had just nine walks in 213 at-bats last season. However, he was just 20 years old in High-A, so he was younger than his competition. Arcia has shown good power and could be an impact player in the majors, but we'll need to see how he fares in a full season at higher levels.
Joe Benson - He got an extended look with so many Twins players shut down in September due to injury, but he looked a little overmatched with a 3:21 BB:K ratio and .622 OPS in 21 games. His power-speed combination makes him an enticing option for fantasy baseball, but it's not clear if he has the on-base skills to win a starting job. He'll likely begin the season at Triple-A, but could win a reserve outfield job this spring or be called up early in the season.
Eddie Rosario - The 2010 fourth-round pick out of Puerto Rico crushed the ball for a second consecutive season in rookie ball, hitting .337/.397/.670 with 21 home runs for the Elizabethton Twins in the Rookie Appalachian League. The Twins moved to him second base during instructional league, which should enhance his fantasy value if he sticks in the infield. He's a rising prospect to grab in keeper leagues as a result.