This is the second in a series about AL Central rivals and the race to be the tallest midget.
Offseason Comings and Goings
I don’t think any team had a quieter offseason than the Twins. While reporters wishcasted various free agent courtings – Orlando Cabrera, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Cruz, to name a few – the Twins waited until February to make their one "major" move: Joe Crede. I don’t need to go into Crede’s strengths and weaknesses here but, suffice to say, this looks like an upgrade at a low price. Whether his back holds up, especially on the turf, is an open question. They also brought in reliever Luis Ayala. And that’s about it.
The departures list is neither much longer nor more impressive. Cheap, oft-injured defensive maven (sound familiar?) Adam Everett is gone, as are relievers Eddie Guardado and Dennys Reyes.
The Twins didn’t do anything bad this offseason but, considering the young core their team has, it’s sort of sad that the ownership is wasting Mauer’s and Morneau’s prime years by failing to surround them with a more potent offense. The Twins will tell you that they have depth and young talent all around – pretty much true – but there were clear upgrades available at cheap prices this offseason and management failed to execute. A couple moves could have put the Twins in the driver’s seat in this tight division. Of course, ownership will probably tell you that's the price of being a small market team.
A projected lineup: Denard Span RF, Alexi Casilla 2B, Joe Mauer C, Justin Morneau 1B, Jason Kubel DH, Delmon Young LF, Joe Crede 3B, Nick Punto SS, Carlos Gomez CF
Bench and Spare Parts: Michael Cuddyer OF, Brendan Harris INF, Mike Redmond C, Brian Buscher INF, Jose Morales C, Jason Pridie OF, Matt Tolbert INF
This lineup features two legitimate stars, Mauer and Morneau, and then a bunch of average to less players. This lineup hasn’t and won’t hit a lot of home runs but it will make up for that a bit with doubles and triples. They’ll also get on base okay. Last season, they thrived on hitting with runners in scoring position; that is unlikely to be replicated.
The big story, however, is Mauer. After offseason kidney surgery, he’s been slowed this spring by inflammation in his low back. It is now doubtful that he’ll be ready opening day. This is a massive blow to a team that really can’t afford one (not that any team could absorb a hit like this). Mauer is worth a lot. And his backups, as they are wont to be, aren’t impressive. Neither Mike Redmond nor Jose Morales are likely to be much more than replacement level, if that. Any extended absence from the lineup would likely sink their season.
Span was supposed to be the heir to Torii Hunter in center but he never developed as the Twins expected. So they traded for Carlos Gomez. And Span decided to have a breakout season and force his way into a crowded outfield. While Span may have experienced the Lasik SLG bump, it’s hard to buy a repeat of last season based upon his track record. Gomez is not a good offensive player. But he’s probably one of the best, if not the best, defensive players in baseball and some minor improvements in his offense, which perhaps should be expected based on his age, would make him very valuable. Young is in a make or break year as he’s been barely replacement level so far in his 1/1 draft pick career – still just 23, the tools are there for a breakout - but the Twins' crowded outfield means Gardenhire is unlikely to be very patient. Kubel is a rather unimpressive use of a DH spot and guys like Cuddyer (who, like Kubel, will play both LF and RF, as well) won’t make it better.
Rotation: Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins
Bullpen and Spare Parts: Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Craig Breslow, Luis Ayala, Jose Mijares, Brian Duensing, Philip Humber, R.A. Dickey, Anthony Swarzak, Jason Jones
Kenny Williams says he likes to build his staff with a bunch of #2 pitchers. Well, that could be another case of Twin envy. 1-5 this is the best rotation in the division and there’s no real weak point. In Liriano, they have a potential ace and, another year removed from Tommy John surgery, the lefty should be fully recovered. The rest of the staff is similar in that they throw strikes and limit walks. Baker and Slowey are a step above the other two in that they also get a good amount of strikeouts.
The bullpen has long been a Twin strength and any bullpen that has Nathan at the end of it is going to be in decent shape. Their depth was weakend by the loss of Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser to injury but the Twins have arms to spare. Mijares burst onto the scene late in the season and should be a primary lefty (though he's had a rough spring), along with the smartest man in baseball, Craig Breslow - though Brian Duensing is pushing for shot and may also be in the mix for long relief. Crain, Ayala and Guerrier are likely to be primary righty set-up men. Humber is out of options and likely to take the swingman role. However, as with any Twin bullpen, expect significant shuffling during the season and the unearthing of some diamond.
Like with the Royals, most of the Twins’ prospects are a few years away. However, a couple guys are worth a mention.
Kevin Mulvey is a 24 year old right-hander who came over from the Mets in the Santana trade. He doesn’t need much more seasoning in AAA but there isn’t a spot in the rotation for him, either. He could eventually end up in the bullpen but the Twins will likely send him back to Rochester as rotation insurance. He has four average pitches – 90 MPH fastball, slider, curve and change – and that usually means backend innings eater.
Danny Valencia is a 24 year old 3B (huh, wonder why a guy who plays there would be mentioned...). The rap on Valencia has been a poor glove; however, he has improved in that area and he can hit. His strikeout rate jumped dramatically on his promotion to AA midseason but his history suggests that is likely just a temporary issue as he adjusts to higher levels. Expect a return to New Britain to see if the plate discipline issues are ironed out before a promotion to AAA. While the Twins have some stopgap options for when Crede inevitably misses games, Valencia could be pushing for a look in the second half of the season.
The height of this midget will depend upon the health of Mauer. If he’s healthy, the upside of the young core may make them a very slight favorite.
Up next: Cleveland Indians
Previously: Kansas City Royals