Monday, December 11, 2006

Looking Ahead: Minnesota Twins

2006 W-L Record: 96-66
2006 pW-pL Record: 93-69

Runs Scored: 801 (8th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 683 (2nd in AL)
Free Agents: Phil Nevin, Brad Radke, Shannon Stewart, Rondell White

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Justin Morneau
2B -- Luis Castillo
SS -- Jason Bartlett
3B -- Nick Punto
LF -- Lew Ford?
CF -- Torii Hunter
RF -- Michael Cuddyer
C -- Joe Mauer
DH -- Jason Kubel?

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Johan Santana
Boof Bonser
Carlos Silva
Scott Baker?
Matt Garza?

2007 Proj. Closer: Joe Nathan

One of the things that holds the Twins back, in my opinion, is their steadfast old-fashioned view of baseball. There's nothing wrong with being old-fashioned now and then, and I'm a firm believer that scouting and stats can and should work hand in hand. But the Twins, in a quest to honor the spirit of Calvin Griffith, believe in the spirit of small-ball and thrift. GM Terry Ryan takes care of the former, and owner Carl Pohlad more than accounts for the latter.
The Twins' approach does give them a strong defense, but they often end up sacrificing offense, even at traditionally offense-heavy positions. The corner outfield spots are probably the most obvious examples of this. The Twins kept Jacque Jones around long after he had played his best baseball, out of a bizarre combination of loyalty and a misconception of what a left fielder is. They picked up Shannon Stewart and, after an overly-hyped stretch run in 2003, got to see his career fade out in front of them. But Stewart was a real Twin; he was a good defender, stole bases, and hit for a high average. He also probably makes "productive outs" and says "please" and "thank you," too. The Twins could keep their offensive philosophy intact so long as they had somebody else in the lineup to knock those runners home.
It probably won't happen in 2007. In right field, the Twins got a great 2006 out of Michael Cuddyer, who hit 284/362/504, giving the Twins a much-needed boost of offense. But the 27-year-old Cuddyer has never really hit like that before. His career batting line is 268/342/455. That's not bad, but Cuddyer doubled his career high in homers (from 12 to 24) to become a legitimate offensive threat. The Twins need him to retain as much of that as possible to help support the M&M boys (Morneau & Mauer).
In left field, the Twins don't currently have anyone but Lew Ford. Ford is another example of the type of player the Twins don't need any more of; he's a good defender and probably a swell guy, but he's turning 30 next year and can't hit (226/287/312 in '06). The Twins used Jason Tyner some in 2006, but that's a really bad idea; Tyner's nothing but batting average, and is no kind of left fielder. Hopefully, the Twins can see through that, and won't get bogged down in that "piranhas" nonsense.
If I were Terry Ryan, I'd make left field my top, top priority. Of course, that's difficult since the Twins don't sign big-name free agents. But then the upside of that is that they don't have to suffer through Carlos Lee.
In center field, the Twins renewed incumbent Torii Hunter's option for one more year. It's questionable if they'll be able to keep him after 2007. It's obviously in the Twins' best interests to do so, since they don't have anyone to replace him, and the going rate for a center fielder who can hit is far out of their price range.
Luckily for the Twins, Hunter was able to bounce back in 2006, setting a new career high in home runs (31) while hitting 278/336/490. The low OBP is an issue, but welcome to the club. He's not the defensive God that Baseball Tonight makes him look like, but he's a hot hand.

The other offensive spot in need of filling is the DH role. It would be great if prospect Jason Kubel could step forward and claim the role. But Kubel was frustrating in 2006, hitting a woeful 241/279/386 in his 73-game debut. Kubel has the potential to do more than that, but it's questionable whether he can do it at the major league level. The Twins are notoriously fickle with their own hitting prospects; it took them forever to go with Justin Morneau at first, and Kubel's awful 2006 may have set his cause back a year or more.
But there's really no one else in the system who can fill the role. Ryan tried a creative solution in 2006 by bringing in free agent Rondell White on an incentive-based deal. It was a good risk, but didn't work out; White was terrible (246/276/365).

Do not despair, however, because the Twins have finally put their faith in their home-grown first baseman, and he did not disappoint. Granted, he didn't deserve the AL MVP; he wasn't even the most valuable player on his team. But he did "mash," as they say, hitting 321/375/559 and hitting 34 homers. It was the first 30-homer season by a Twin since Kent Hrbek. There's something not to be proud of; it's also perhaps a sign that we're taking our small-ball a little bit too far.
Either way, the Twins are set at first, which is more than can be said for third base. Nick Punto filled the role after the team wisely ditched Tony Batista, and Punto hit well enough (290/352/373). The problem is that even that is better than Punto's hit in the past, and he's not the kind of guy you want to install as a full-time third baseman. He's a fine insurance policy, but you can't really afford to run him out there every day when your lineup already has a few holes in it elsewhere.
Up the middle, the Twins seem set for now. Luis Castillo is the Twins' kind of player; speed, batting average, defense, and steals. Castillo got off to a slow start in '06, but fought back to a 296/358/370 finish. Castillo isn't the centerpiece of a killer offense, but he's a great guy to fill in a gap. The Twins finally killed off the Luis Rivas experiment and traded for Castillo, and should be happy with the results. He should have a couple more seasons like 2006 left in him, and he comes much cheaper ($5 million) than former teammate Juan Pierre, a lesser player.
At shortstop, the Twins have Luis Castillo Lite in Jason Bartlett. Like seemingly everybody else on the club, Bartlett hits for a pretty empty .300 average, but he draws enough walks to make it worthwhile (309/367/393 in '06). He also provides strong defense at shortstop. So Bartlett, like Castillo, is no All-Star, but he's good enough for now while you go looking for a left fielder and third baseman.
But I have saved the best for last. Because behind the plate, the Twins have Joe Mauer. Mauer, who will be 24 next year, is coming off a season where he might have been the most valuable player in the American League. He wasn't a major factor in the voting, but he hit 347/429/507 with excellent defense behind the plate.
It's really hard not to hurl superlatives at Mauer. Catchers who hit this well and field this well at age 24 are very, very rare. I'm talking Hall of Fame rare. And while it's too early to inscribe the plaque, Mauer bears a strong resemblance to a lot of the elite catchers of the past.
There is one difference -- size. Mauer is 6'4" and 220 lbs, which is pretty huge for a catcher. It's not just a cosmetic complaint, because Mauer's size will likely mean a heavier burden placed on his knees. The Twins certainly want to keep Mauer around for as long as possible. But he's such a good defender behind the plate that they don't want to get rid of a good thing. What will probably happen is that they'll watch Mauer's progress and leave him behind the plate unless something bad starts to develop.

With Mauer and Morneau on top, supported by Torii Hunter, Luis Castillo, and a couple others, the Twins have a decent lineup. If they could add an impact bat at just one of the empty positions (with LF being the emptiest), they could afford to keep their glove men where they are and still be contenders. Here's hoping that Terry Ryan sees the value of big-time offense. Because your pitching staff won't always be brilliant . . .

. . . or will it? One thing that you can't take away from the Twins is their knack for getting good pitching. You could quibble with their offense and their misuse of resources, but it's hard to argue with a farm system stacked with the best arms in the minors. The Twins have the best pitcher in baseball in Johan Santana and a fleet of pitching prospects coming along to back him up.
Do they even need hitters?
Johan Santana in short: Good like Tom Seaver; If he keeps it up, Hall of Fame -- First Ballot.
The only worry about the Twins' pitching prospects is that they don't have enough major league experience to count on for 2006. If they had Santana and wunderkind Francisco Liriano, that would be much less of an issue. But the fabulous Liriano (who was nearly as good as Johan in '06) will likely miss all of 2007 with Tommy John surgery. It's the best thing for his career, but it does put the team in a bit of a bind for next season.
One guy who's already pitched well in the majors is Boof Bonser. Bonser came up in 2006 and made 18 starts, posting a 4.22 ERA with a 24:84 BB:K ratio. His minor league numbers suggest that he's likely to improve upon that. Boof came over from the Giants in the same deal that brought Liriano and ace closer Joe Nathan. All the Twins had to give up was grumpy ol' A.J. Pierzynski. Sweet.
Another likely member of the rotation is prospect Scott Baker. Baker, who will be 25 next season, bears a strong resemblance to Brad Radke. He doesn't strike out a lot of batters (although he gets his share), but he compensates with great control (1:4 BB:K ratio in the minors). He is prone to the home run, which was the main thing that troubled him in 2006. Baker made 16 starts with the big club, and while his command was fine, his 17 HR allowed in 83.1 IP help explain his 6.37 ERA. But Baker's much better than that, and he looks good enough to start out 2007 in the rotation.
The only other person with a "lock" on the starting rotation is also the only veteran (other than Johan), Carlos Silva. The Twins re-upped Silva for the 2007 season. They didn't pay him much money, but even then it might be a bad deal. Silva is looking more and more like a lost cause on the mound. Silva has incredible control, allowing very few walks (his 2005 saw him post the best walk rate in nearly 100 years). But he also doesn't strike out many batters at all. That means that he allows a lot of balls in play, and not even the Minnesota defense can help him there. While Silva did fine in 2005, all that contact stung him in '06, as he finished with a 5.94 ERA in 180.1 IP. Silva is still young, but it's doubtful that he'll do much better than he did last year. His very pitching style is such that he allows far too many balls in play to be successful. He would have been a sensation back during the Dead Ball Era, but nowadays those balls are lively, and a lot of them leave the park (38 HR allowed in '06).
It should be noted that the Twins are trying to talk Brad Radke out of retirement. But Radke has suffered so much in recent years (4.32 ERA last year at age 33, with only 1.5 human arms) that it's doubtful he'd have much left in the tank. Certainly, it wouldn't be worth plunking down $8 million+ when he wouldn't pitch much better than the kids. Here's a place where excessive sentimentality can really hurt you (Radke's rag-arm performance in '06 made him a big hero in Minnesota, which would have been great if he'd actually been pitching really well).
With Santana-Bonser-Silva and probably Baker as the team's 1-4 , there are several possibilities for the #5 spot. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the Twins have at least a half-dozen minor league pitchers who could hold their own in the majors. That kind of depth is not only a great boon to your team but a great chance to make some trades.
The most likely candidate for the #5 spot is Matt Garza. Garza started 2006 in A-ball and looked like just another in a long line of promising Twin pitchers in the low minors. But then he caught fire. In 8 starts, he posted a 1.42 ERA and looked ready to move on. He made 10 starts in Double-A (2.51 ERA, 68 K in 57.1 IP) before getting moved on to Triple-A. With the big league rotation full of holes, the Twins put Garza on an express train for the Twin Cities. He threw just 5 starts in Triple-A (1.85 ERA) before he made it to the majors . . . and sucked (5.76 ERA in 9 starts).
Yes, Garza was really, really rushed last year. And if the Twins hadn't had such a strong need at the big-league level, he probably wouldn't have been pushed so hard. But a lot of the speed was justified, as Garza was dominant at A-ball and Double-A. It may be a good idea to let him plant his feet in the minors before he gets a full-time big-league job, but that decision will likely be made in Spring Training.
A few more names to toss out there: J.D. Durbin (2.33 ERA in 16 Triple-A starts last year); Justin Jones, Glen Perkins, and perhaps Adam Harben and Errol Simonitsch. Those are the established starters the Twins have who could fill it at the big-league level. Don't be surprised if you see most of these guys pass through the majors in 2007. In a lot of systems, they'd have a spot in the rotation.

What do you do with disappointing/extraneous starters? Why, you turn them into relievers, of course? It worked swimmingly with Matt Guerrier (3.36 ERA) and could do so in the future for Willie Eyre (5.31 ERA). But either way, the Minnesota bullpen is just fine. I don't quite agree with the long-term extension given to Dennys Reyes, but the Twins like him as a LOOGY (0.89 ERA and 49 K in 50.2 IP), and it's easy to see why. Juan Rincon (age 27, 2.91 ERA in 74.1 IP) and Jesse Crain (24, 3.52 ERA in 76.2 IP) are the cornerstones of the setup corps right now and should be for some time. Look for more relief prospects (Pat Neshek) as well as some young starters (Glen Perkins) start in the bullpen in 2007.
But the ace, of course, is closer Joe Nathan. Nathan has been the Twins' closer for three seasons now; his saves totals are 44, 43, and 36, and he's never thrown less than 68 innings. He's given up 11 HR over the entire three years, and has never allowed more than 23 walks. The best part? His strikeout totals: 89, 94, 95. And his ERAs: 1.62, 2.70, 1.58.
Oh yeah.

With this pitching staff, the Twins would be contenders with their Triple-A offense (which roughly describes their 2005 season). But they would be well-told to take some this excess pitching talent -- which is in very high demand right now -- and turn it into some young offense with some upside. We may be dreaming to see the Twins signing Barry Bonds or trading for Miguel Cabrera. But the Twins have an embarassment of riches in the pitching department. It will mean more than just rounding out a great staff, but hopefully offering some chance to trade for offense.

Offseason Game Plan:
As I've mentioned often, the Twins really need one or even two impact bats. The free agent market is basically bereft of them, not that the Twins could or would pay market price. So that leaves a creative trade. If the Twins want to take a step forward with teams like Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, then they must improve their offense by more than just a run or two.

Other than that, the Twins just need to keep their young pitchers healthy and cross their fingers for Liriano's rehab.

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