MLB Preview: Minnesota Twins

With baseball season fast approaching, it is time for TheWaiverWire’s inaugural Baseball Preview package. We will look at every division in baseball, starting in the American League and moving from East to West by division. Also, we each team by who will finish last to first. So, the first team you read about from each division is in the basement, and the last is who we determine to win the division.

Third Place – Minnesota Twins

Fourth Place – Chicago White Sox (read preview here)

Fifth Place – Kansas City Royals (read preview here)

Starting Line-Up

Catcher: Joe Mauer (28) – 82 games, .287/.360/.368 3HR 30RBI

First Base: Justin Morneau (30) – 69 games, .227/.285/.333 4HR 30RBI

Second Base: Alexi Casilla (27) – 97 games, .260/.322/.368 2HR 21RBI

Shortstop: Jamey Carroll (38) – 146 games, .290/.359/.347 0HR 17RBI (with Los Angeles Dodgers)

Third Base: Danny Valencia (27) – 154 games, .246/.294/.383 15HR 72RBI

Left Field: Ben Revere (23) – 117 games, .267/.310/.309 0HR 30RBI

Center Field: Denard Span (28) – 70 games, .264/.328/.359 2HR 16RBI

Right Field: Josh Willingham (33) – 136 games, .246/.332/.477 29HR 98RBI (with Oakland A’s)

Designated Hitter: Trevor Plouffe (25) – 81 games, .238/.305/.392 8HR 31RBI

The Good News…

A healthy Mauer means wins for the Twins

The good news is, kind of like the Chicago White Sox, it is no longer 2011. Joe Mauer is back and, reportedly, fully healthy, which is the best news any team could be getting. Mauer is a superstar. He will be among the league leaders in batting average as long as he can stay on the field. I mean, is it impossible to think of any active Major Leaguer right now, Joe Mauer might be the most likely to hit .400? He’s already come close once, and has two batting titles to his name.

Having lost thumpers like Jim Thome and Jason Kubel, it was imperative that the team signed Josh Willingham. He hit 29 home runs last year while playing in one of the most unfriendliest of ballparks in terms of allowing homers. Target Field is much more comfortable for a right-handed power hitter, so it isn’t unrealistic to think he could improve on those 29 and eclipse 30.

Also, it has been made clear to me that among the writers at TheWaiverWire, I may be the highest on the outfield tandem of Denard Span and Ben Revere. Span has wheels. Serious wheels. He will never hit a lot of balls out of the ballpark, but with his speed alone he can keep his doubles totals up. And when he does hit singles, he is an immediate threat to swipe a bag or two. He robbed a career-high 26 in 2010, and with a healthy start to 2012, he could easily match that number, if not surpass it.

Revere, for me, was one of the only bright spots to emerge from the mess in Minnesota last season. While Span has little home run threat, it is clear that Revere has none, that much is true. But, he is much faster than Span and is more willing to take a risk on the basepaths. In his first real taste in the Majors and first time being exposed that much to Major League pitching, he more than held his own. He stole 34 bases, scored 56 runs and played an incredible outfield defense. His speed allows him to get to balls that other outfields simply cannot. I would like to see him draw more walks than the 5.6% he did last year, but that comes with experience. For now, there is plenty of reason to believe that Revere is a true lead-off type performer at this level.

The Bad News…

Well, while its nice that the Twins were able to sign Josh Willingham, they still lost a lot of offense from last season. They traded away Delmon Young in August (to a division rival, none the less), Jim Thome was traded away and signed with the Phillies and Jason Kubel left for greener grass in Arizona. There are a lot of components missing from the Twins that made them such a steady force at the top of this division for the better part of the last decade.

Will Morneau ever bounce back from his concussion?

We’re also at a point with Justin Morneau that it may be time to realize he will simply never be the player he was before he sustained that concussion. First of all, you need to remember what kind of force Morneau was in the middle of this Twins line-up. He won the American League MVP in 2006, his breakout campaign, and before his concussion in 2010, he was having a better season than he did in ’06. His triple slash after 81 games in ’10 was at an amazing .345/.437/.618. He already had 18 home runs and 56 RBI, 25 doubles, 53 runs, 102 hits, and that’s at the 81 game mark.

His main problem now is he just can’t get healthy again. Concussions are taken much more seriously now than they’ve ever been before, and he cannot stay on a baseball field. When he was able to get back on the field, he was merely a shadow of what he was. And it is a really sad baseball story. Here the Twins were thinking that they would be able to build their offense around the star powers of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, only to have Morneau cut down in his prime because he took a knee to the back of his head trying to break up a double play. It has clearly thrown the Twins off their path, and there is no saying Morneau will do any better in 2012 than he did in 2011. There is serious reason for concern.

On the flip side, if Morneau does rebound, this Twins line-up becomes so much deeper. If he doesn’t, then, sadly, its time to get back into the first base market.

You’re also asking a lot out of a 38-year old Jamey Carroll every day at shortstop, and you’re hoping you get 2010 Danny Valencia that finished 3rd in the American League Rookie of the Year voting as opposed to 2011 Danny Valencia that came tantlizingly close to playing his way out of the everyday line-up. But, again, those are smaller concerns than the one this team has to deal with in regards to Justin Morneau.

Starting Rotation –

Ace: Carl Pavano, RHP (36) – 33 starts, 9-13, 4.30ERA, 222.0 IP, 102 Ks, 40 walks, 1.36 WHIP

#2: Francisco Liriano, LHP (28) – 24  starts, 9-10, 5.09ERA, 134.1 IP, 112 Ks, 75 walks, 1.49 WHIP

#3: Scott Baker, RHP (30) – 21 starts, 8-6, 3.14ERA, 134.2 IP, 123 Ks, 32 walks, 1.17 WHIP

#4: Nick Blackburn, RHP (30) – 26 starts, 7-10, 4.49ERA, 148.1 IP, 76 Ks, 54 walks, 1.60 WHIP

#5: Jason Marquis, RHP (33) – 23 starts, 8-6, 4.43ERA, 132.0 IP, 76 Ks, 43 walks, 1.49 WHIP

The Good News…

Baker proved to be a quality pitcher last season

Scott Baker really turned the corner in his career last year. He transformed from a back-of-the-rotation, probably best used in long relief type player to a strong option you can slide into either your #3 or #4 spot and feel that those are games you’re going to win. Hands down, he was the best player on the team by the end of the season. He has pinpoint control, highlighted by his low walk numbers. And, his stuff is sneaky good, as it keeps hitters off balancec and unable to predict what may come next. At this point in his career, he is right where you would hope him to be.

Carl Pavano’s numbers might not have reflected this last year, but he is a guy any team would love to have in their starting rotation. He will give you competitive innings that can save you from taxing your bullpen and, more importantly, he will battle to keep his teams in games. There will be starts where he gives up five runs and looks vulnerable, but he will still go 6+ innings and you’ll have a fighting chance at the end when all is said and done.

The Bad News…

Any team would love to have Carl Pavano in their starting rotation. However, there isn’t one person in baseball who thinks Pavano is an ace or top-of-the-rotation anchor. He is best suited where Scott Baker is, somewhere in the middle. You go to war with Carl Pavano, but aces are expected to carry the team. I mean, there are teams in the league that will do worse than Pavano as the ace (namely the Orioles or the Royals until their young arms improve), but you shouldn’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside knowing that on Opening Day, the Twins will trot out Pavano in a division with Justin Verlander, Ubaldo Jiminez and even John Danks in it.

Liriano is in the danger zone

Francisco Liriano is mind-numbingly frustrating. In 2010, Liriano looked as if he turned the corner in his career. He won 14 games, struck out 200+ hitters, made 31 starts and appeared to make good on that breakout rookie season from 2006. Then, he just came out in 2011 and put up a stinker. You can tell me all you want that Liriano was never fully healthy last year, and I’d agree with you and see your point.

However, this wasn’t his only stinker. His 2011 numbers are eerily similar to his 2009 numbers. Both years he made 24 starts, had a bloated ERA over 5, and his walk rates were alarmingly high. The main difference in his game from ’10 to ’11 was his walk rate, which doubled from 2.7 BB/9 to 5.0 BB/9. I’ll say it flat out: you will not be a successful Major League pitcher, regardless of how electric your stuff is, if you walk five guys a game.

Look, I just spent a paragraph explaining how Carl Pavano isn’t an ace. I know what Twins fans are saying right now “Francisco Liriano can be an ace!”. He absolutely can be. In fact, if this team wants to do anything productive in 2012, he has to be an ace. The fact is, he hasn’t put two years together to prove to me that 1) he can start 30 games and 2) he can be lights out on consecutive days. Until that happens, he’ll be a pipedream in the form of Jonathan Sanchez and Oliver Perez. He has hope, but you’re banking a lot on hope with Liriano.

Bench – 

C Drew Butera (28) – 93 games, .167/.210/.239 2HR 23RBI

UTIL Ryan Doumit (31) – 77 games, .303/.353/.477 8HR 30RBI (with Pittsburgh Pirates)

IF Tsuyoshi Nishioka (27) – 68 games, .226/.278/.249 0HR 19RBI

OF Rene Tosoni (25) – 60 games, .203/.275/.343 5HR 22RBI

IF Luke Hughes (27) – 96 games, ,223/.289/.338 7HR 30RBI

The Skinny…

Ryan Doumit could easily turn out to be this team’s designated hitter. When he is healthy, he can be a solid bat to have included in the line-up. His major problem over the last couple of seasons, is that whole staying healthy thing. The Pirates line-up really could’ve used him over the last couple of seasons (among other things), and his versatility between being able to catch, play first or right field provides a lot of depth very few players can offer.

As for the rest of the bench, their a main component to the Twins struggles last season. If one player goes down in the Twins starting line-up, there aren’t replacement level players available currently on this roster to step in. Nishioka flat-lined in his Major League debut, while the likes of Drew Butera and Luke Hughes didn’t provide any kind of offense.

Bullpen –

Closer: Matt Capps, RHP (28) – 69 games, 65.2 IP, 15 saves, 4.25ERA, 4.7 K/9, 13 walks, 1.20 WHIP

8th Inning Reliever: Glen Perkins, LHP (29) – 65 games, 61.2 IP, 2 saves, 2.48ERA, 9.5 K/9, 21 walks, 1.23 WHIP

Middle Reliever: Alex Burnett, RHP (24) – 66 games, 50.2 IP, 5.51ERA, 5.9 K/9, 21 walks, 1.40 WHIP

Middle Reliever: Anthony Swarzak, RHP (26) – 27 games (11 starts), 102.0 IP, 4.32ERA, 4.9 K/9, 26 walks, 1.34 WHIP

Middle Reliever: Joel Zumaya, RHP (27) – Did Not Pitch in 2011

The Skinny…

The Minnesota bullpen is rather underwhelming. Long ago are the days of Joe Nathan dominating the 9th inning of games, slamming the door shut. He’s moved on to Texas where he will likely get a crack at the closers job with Neftali Feliz moving to the starting rotation. The team did not tender lefty Jose Mijares a contract, leaving Glen Perkins as the only lefty option on the Major League roster currently.

There has to be a better option at the end of games then Matt Capps

As far as closers go, I have made it clear that I find the position itself to be overrated and based solely off the pursuit of a statistic. With that being said, if you’re going to enter a season with Matt Capps as your best option out of the bullpen, you have some serious concerns at the end of games. He is a very hittable reliever, with his strikeouts-per-9 innings figure being below 5. You want someone who will miss bats and keep people off base. Capps failed at both of those. I understand that teams are skiddish about investing heavily in their bullpens, and I completely agree with the safe approach. But, how can you not find an upgrade on the open market? They could’ve done better than Capps.

And if you’re going to try and convince me to believe that Joel Zumaya is the answer to that question, you’re crazy. After bursting onto the scene in 2006 with his blazing fastball, Zumaya has battled injury after injury. When he has been healthy, he’s been a shadow of the pitcher many thought he would become. He has never posted a K/9 higher than 8.7 since ’06. While it did appear that Zumaya may have righted the ship in 2010, he broke his arm while throwing a pitch and has not appeared in a Major League game since. The Twins signed him as a low-rish, high-reward type guy that really isn’t expected to make a major impact. If he does, great. If he doesn’t, then this team still has questions once their starters exit the game.

UPDATE 2/29 – Zumaya has left Minnesota Spring Training after blowing out his throwing elbow. He is now debating whether to have Tommy John surgery, or just retire. 

Top 10 Prospects (courtesy of MLB.com)

#1: 3B Miguel Sano (18) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

An international signing in 2009, Sano enjoyed a good deal of success last season as one of the youngest players in the short-season Appalachian League. He showed the plus power skills that earned him the large signing bonus as a teenager, bopping 20 home runs and a .637 slugging percentage while playing in 66 games. With a patient approach at the plate and the skill-set to develop into a upper-tier third baseman, there is reason to be excited about the potential. However, he is still a very long way away from making a Major League impact, as 2012 will likely be the first time in his professional career he plays in full-season Minor League Baseball.

#2: OF Aaron Hicks (22) – Expected 2012 Level – AA

A first round pick in 2008, Hicks has been slowly working his way up through the Twins system. His slow development isn’t unusual for prospects in Minnesota, as the organization as a whole does not rush their prospects. His speed and plate discipline are still his best skills, which will allow him to remain a possibility one day in center field. He finds the gaps well, while his home run potential does seem to be limited. No matter, Hicks will need to preform better in AA than he did A+ ball, which is a tall task. 2012 may be a turning point in his development.

#3: OF Oswaldo Arcia (20) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

Arcia came out guns blazing in 2010, but sustained an elbow injury that limited him to only 81 games last season between three levels. When he did play, Arcia lived up to his expectations as a power-hitting outfielder. He combined to hit 13 home runs while slugging .531. He will need to grow more patient at the plate, drawing only 18 walks in 292 at bats last season, but that may come as he matures. He should be given at least another half-season in High-A before the Twins even think about promoting him to AA. But, given the Twins record of patience, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he spends the entire season in the Florida State League.

#4: 2B Eddie Rosario (20) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

Along with top prospect Miguel Sano, Rosario provided the Twins Appalachian League team with another high-power infielder with serious potential. Rosario out-slugged Sano, hitting 21 home runs and a .670 slugging percentage, and he profiles as a middle infielder, while Sano is slated at third. That type of power is rare from a second baseman, and there is growing excitment as these two advance through the Minors. But, much like his Appy League teammate, Rosario is a long ways off and will only be making his full-season debut this year.

#5: OF Joe Benson (24) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

Benson is the first Major League-ready prospect to appear on the Twins list. He made his debut last season, playing in 21 games at the end of last season. The team promoted him straight from AA, where he hit .285 with 16 home runs. Having Denard Span back and healthy, the team will likely send Benson to finishing school in AAA, where he may be promoted on a full-time basis back to the bigs by June. Much of that promotion relies on how the Twins current outfield performs or if there are any major injuries. Either way, should the Twins need to upgrade at a corner outfield spot during this season, Benson will likely get the call.

#6: RHP Kyle Gibson (24) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

Gibson would’ve made his Major League debut last season if not for Tommy John Surgery. Now, his promotion has obviously been pushed back. If you want to look at the glass half-full, you can say that he’s got the surgery out of the way early in his Major League career and, with the advancement in the procedure, should be good to go. The glass half-empty approach is the Twins need big league arms, and Gibson’s untimely injury prevented him from helping this team last season, and will delay his start this season.

#7: 1B Chris Parmelee (23) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA, with a real chance to be on the Opening Day roster

With the uncertainties surrounding the health and future of current first baseman Justin Morneau, Parmelee supplies Twins fans with a glimer of hope. Though nobody is projecting him to perform at the level Morneau became accustomed to pre-concussion, Parmelee did hit .355 with 4 home runs in the Majors during his 21 game, 76 at-bat promotion at the end of last season. With Trevor Plouffe right now projected to be the designated hitter in Minnesota, there seems to be a clear path for Parmelee to make this Opening Day line-up as a part-time DH/1B, power hitting lefty. Or, the team can send him to finishing school as well in case of injury. Neither would surprise me.

#8: RHP Liam Hendriks (23) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

With Gibson injured, you can make a case that Hendriks is the Twins top pitching prospect. He blew through AA last season, and showed signs of continued success in AAA when the Twins pushed him to the Majors at the end of last season. In his four start audition, Hendriks came back down to Earth. With big leaguers hitting a robust .312 against Hendriks last season, its safe to say the Twins will let him get work in AAA before thinking about another promotion. Should an injury hit the parent club, however, Hendriks will have the first ticket to the Show waiting for him.

#9: RHP Adrian Salcedo (20) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

Salcedo worked his first full season of Minor League ball with modest success. He has a three-pitch resume that he can command for strikes, which, right now, is the basis of his value. He has time on his side to grow into his 6’4″ frame and add velocity to his fastball. Right now, he projects as a solid #3 type starting pitcher. But, his ultimate ceiling is much higher than that, which is why he cracks the Top 10.

#10: 3B Travis Harrison (19) – Expected 2012 Level – Short-Season Rookie Ball

The Twins supplemental first rounder in last year’s draft did not sign in time to make his debut in the Minor Leagues. He will likely start this season hitting extended Spring Training, and the Twins will ease him in to their professional ranks. The Twins signed him over-slot because they like the power potential. We’ll have to wait and see if that potential translates into success on the pro level.

Give it to me straight, Greg…

As has been the theme of these American League Central projections, anyone can finish as high as second or as low as last in this division. There just isn’t that much talent separating the Royals, Whtie Sox, Twins and Indians from each other, while the Tigers sit at the top of the standings with the most talent-rich roster of the five.

Should things break right for the Twins, and that’s absolutely possible, they could be one of the surprise teams in baseball next year. However, there are a large amount of “ifs” that will have to turn out positive. If Joe Mauer stays healthy and performs at his career averages. If Justin Morneau can recover from his debilitating concussion. If Francisco Liriano can put it all together for one full season. If Danny Valencia can establish himself as a reliable source of offense. If Denard Span can stay healthy. If Scott Baker can duplicate his strong 2011 season.

The ingredients are there, but how likely is it that they all fit into place perfectly? That’s hard to predict. However, there is talent here with strong track records. This team could be one top-of-the-rotation pitcher away from a 90+ caliber team.

IF everything else goes right…

2012 Season Projection – 79-83, 3rd Place in American League Central

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