MLB March Report: Minnesota Twins

The Minnesota Twins had been on a roll as baseball’s most overachieving franchise. The team that was slated for contraction in 2002 as part of the last really serious players-owners dispute in MLB, has seven winning seasons in the nine years Ron Gardenhire has managed the club, and six of those have ended with an AL Central division title. And that snapshot doesn’t even include Tom Kelly’s even more successful tenure, with World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. But it came crashing down hard last year, as the club was hit by injuries to key players, and those that were on the field seemed to completely lose the grasp of sound fundamental play, a hallmark of the Twins in the recent era. They finished 63-99. So was that an aberration, or a sign that the old era is ending? TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the 2012 Twins, on the basis of their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: In terms of a pure on-base igniter for the lineup, Gardenhire has problems. What would help the most is if centerfielder Denard Span would return to the form of 2009 when he had an OBP of .392. But he’s lost 65-70 points on that number each of the last two years, and most alarmingly, struggled with concussion problems. Third baseman Danny Valencia played extremely well in 2010, both getting on base and even mixing in a little power to the alleys. That was in 300 at-bats. With full-time duty last year, Valencia did not play well. Leftfielder Ben Revere didn’t produce last year, but he’s only 23 years and is a valued prospect. His development this season will be crucial. If nothing else, Minnesota picked up veteran shortstop Jamey Carroll from the Dodgers. He may be 38 years old and been forced out by the emergence of young Dee Gordon in LA, but his on-base percentages are consistently over .350. Carroll is reliable. Span, Valencia and Revere are the keys to focus on here.

POWER: Now we come to the big boys, with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. When healthy, they’re the modern-day M&M boys. Mauer struggled with leg problems last year and couldn’t get his strength up to par, but the reports from spring training are good. When he’s healthy he hits a decent number of home runs, drives the ball in the gaps and is a huge contributor to the on-base issue discussed above. When healthy, and given the offensive problems most teams have at catcher, Mauer is usually my default choice for MVP if he’s healthy. Morneau, like Mauer, has an MVP award on his shelf and is one of the game’s top power hitters. His health, related to concussion problems is the bigger concern in the Twin Cities. He’s ready to go for Opening Day, but he’s been battling these symptoms for a long time—his absence down the stretch of 2010 cost the team any shot they might have had at advancing in the playoffs, and he struggled in part-time duty a year ago. For support for the two big guns, the Twins may have let Michael Cuddyer walk via free agency, but Josh Willingham is a pretty good replacement. He had respectable power and could get on base fairly consistently for six years in Florida and Washington before a bad year in Oakland sunk him  in ’11. Come to think of it, Willingham is kind of a microcosm of his new team in that regard—hoping 2011 was just a bad dream.

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STARTING PITCHING: Carl Pavano is listed as the #1 starter, and ever since he completed his four-year stint of robbing the Yankees blind while rarely pitching for them, he’s gotten his career back on track. You know I loathe all things Pinstriped, but Pavano’s insistence on hanging out on the DL in New York while collecting $40 million was a form of highway robbery that most mob capos would have been too embarrassed to pull. But over three years , he’s now become reliable for taking his turn, chewing up 200 innings a year and being respectable in the ERA department. He’s definitely an asset to the club, although ideally you do not want him as your ace. But until Francisco Liriano stays healthy and consistent—he’s only done both once since 2006 and it’s no coincidence that was 2010 when the team won 94 games and played its best baseball of the Gardenhire era. Scott Baker had his best ERA a year ago at 3.14. Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis are back-end innings-eaters and as long as you don’t need more than that from either, they suit a staff’s purposes just fine. Overall, this is a group that’s well-suited to stay consistent over the long haul. But the lack of a true ace was the biggest hindrance to why the best teams under Gardenhire couldn’t reach the World Series, and now with Detroit on the rise in the AL Central, it may be a hindrance to just getting back to the postseason.

RELIEF PITCHING: Matt Capps is in the closer’s role, and while he really struggled a year ago, blowing nine of his 24 save opportunities, the previous two years he closed out 69 of 80 chances. The pen in front of the closer has long been a key Minnesota strength. It can be this year, but Gardenhire will have to work on piecing together a combination. Glen Perkins’ posted a 2.48 ERA last year after being in 5s the previous two seasons. Brian Duensing is an effective reliever who looked like he might be an effective starter before last season showed that wasn’t going to work. If nothing else, he’s back in a role this year where we know he can be effective. Beyond this, Anthony Swarzak and Alex Burnett, both in their mid-20s need to develop.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL—72: I understand where Vegas is coming from in setting the number here. To me it looks really low, but it does presume a nine-game improvement off last season, which is reflective of a belief in the betting markets that at least a certain portion of the 2011 disaster was just a bad aberration. But I still can’t over the reverse side, which says that a team which was winning anywhere from 85-94 games for a lot longer than they were winning 63, deserves a little more respect. Even if Morneau doesn’t come back healthy—and I think that’s the biggest variable—the Twins can beat this number just by getting back to playing good, sharp baseball and I think Gardenhire will demand that. If Morneau is back, Minnesota will pressure Detroit in the AL Central. Either way, I’m taking the Over with strong confidence.