Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Minnesota Twins' 2009 Slightly Premature Season Preview

They are in every sport—the teams that are good almost every year, but they get no love because they're about as exciting as a presidential campaign debate (dodge, dodge, stump speech, buzz word, interrupt, and repeat). In the National Basketball Association, the San Antonio Spurs have perfected the art.

In the National Football League, you could argue it's the Carolina Panthers or the Philadelphia Eagles—just remember Philly, I have a sincere attachment to the Phillies.

In Major League Baseball, it is—without a doubt—the Minnesota Twins.

Somehow, the Oakland Athletics managed to turn themselves into the sexy small ball team that everyone yaps about. Well, not somehow—it was obviously Michael Lewis' Moneyball that did the trick. The point is that the Twinkies have arguably lived the book's ethos to truer and better results, yet find themselves lost in the shuffle.

On an almost annual basis, Minnesota manages to cobble together a significant amount of youth and a pitching pipeline that seems infinite under Ron Gardenhire to fantastic results. The Twins under Gardenhire's stewardship have been nothing short of astonishing.

All the more so because the club rarely outspends anyone save five or six of MLB's biggest penny pinchers.

Using the above recipe, the Twinkies grabbed the American League Central flag in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006. They finished second in last year and third in 2005 and 2007.

Consider how many extra division titles the New York Yankees have secured over that span while handing Minnesota's entire payroll to four or five players. Granted, the AL East is substantially harder to win.

I say it's still pretty impressive.

This year should be no different. Although I wouldn't pick them to take the division and the AL Central might be tougher in 2009 than people think, Minnesota should be just as competitive as ever using that tried and true formula.

Here's how the Twinkies should hit Opening Day:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Joe Mauer
First base—Justin Morneau
Second base—Alexi Casilla/Brendan Harris
Third base—Joe Crede
Shortstop—Nick Punto
Left field—Delmon Young
Center field—Carlos Gomez
Right field—Denard Span
Designated hitter—Michael Cuddyer/Jason Kubel

Mauer's back/kidney problems are old news at this point. Unfortunately for Minnesota, that's only because it's been the talk of the baseball world (for good reason) and not because Mauer's physically in the clear. If he can't go, it barely needs to be said that the Twins have a huge problem.

The acquisition of Crede to play third—a position woefully undermanned in recent years—will help soften the blow, but not enough.

Top catching prospect Wilson Ramos is in camp for Spring Training and hitting pretty well in a smallish sample size, but he'll only be 22 in August and figures to start in Double-A ball. The same can be said of top third base prospect Danny Valencia except he's 24 and getting more at-bats in spring.

Other than that, the bench should be alright with two of the four platooners from above plus Brian Buscher.

Somebody named Dustin Martin is torching spring pitching at the moment and Gardenhire's kid, Toby, is with the Big Club as well.

Starting rotation

Ace—Francisco Liriano (L)
Second spot—Scott Baker (R)
Third spot—Kevin Slowey (R)
Fourth spot—Nick Blackburn (R)
Fifth spot—Glen Perkins (L)

For some reason, Baker seems to be the consensus ace and Opening Day starter. I guess that's to protect Liriano's general health at the tender age of 25 because there's no way his is not the best arm in this rotation. And it's a good rotation.

Even to be in the discussion with Liriano means Baker's got the goods. Slowey will be 25 in May and could be even better than Baker (who is 27). Blackburn (also 27) has more pedestrian stuff than his mates, but so do most No. 4 starters.

Perkins went 12-4 in 2008 and I have no idea how. But he's a fifth starter and Minnesota always has options there.

Five of its top 10 prospects according to Baseball America are pitchers. Kevin Mulvey (24 in May), Jose Mijares (24), and Rob Delaney (24) are all promising youngsters getting some throws in exhibition. However, no one is seeing any starts and the lefty Mijares seems to be headed for the bullpen for the moment so Perkins is the man for now.


Closer—Joe Nathan (R)
Set-up—Jesse Crain (R)
Set-up—Craig Breslow (L)
Set-up—Jose Mijares (L)
Set-up—Luis Ayala (R)

There you have it—nothing that's gonna set your heart racing, but a structurally sound baseball team built to win now and for the future. What more could you ask for?

The offense isn't putting up seven or eight runs a night, but it's never been Minnesota's modus operandi to overwhelm you by plating runner after runner. Far from it in fact—this year marks a potentially explosive year by the Twinkies' noble-gas standards.

Of course, it's all predicated on a healthy set of sweet-swingers from the left side—Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau (ironically, they're both righties when it comes to throwing throw).

Mauer hit .328 with 31 doubles, nine home runs, 98 runs scored, 85 RBI, a .413 on-base percentage, and an .864 OPS. In addition, he struck out only 50 times in 436 ABs, he'll only be 26 in April, and he's a catcher.

I won't try to tell you how valuable that is because I can't in a column devoted to other things, but it's special.

Morneau is only slightly less impressive—a .300 average with 47 doubles, 23 HRs, 97 runs, 129 RBI, a .374 OBP, and an .873 OPS in 2008. You could argue those numbers are better, but Justin's 28 in May and plays first base so I'd still take Mauer. No shame there.

Without those two big bats, this offense would be pretty anemic.

Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, and Brendan Harris are all speed guys who can hit for decent average. Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer (now that he's healthy) offer 20+ bombs with decent average, but are streaky.

Joe Crede is a total question mark—if he rebounds to full form, he could give you a .280 average with 30 dingers. Or he could play in 40 games and be a total void.

Denard Span and Carlos Gomez are both youngsters with speed. The problem is that Gomez has more of it, but Span gets on base far more frequently. Delmon Young is still only 23, but patience seems to be wearing thin on the talented outfielder—his 2008 was OK, but not even close to what's expected of the kid.

Enough about the offense, though. As I said and everyone knows, the Minnesota Twins are built around their pitching.

The starting rotation's already gotten some run, but a couple last things need to be thrown in about Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey. People know about Francisco Liriano because of his breakout rookie campaign and subsequent arm injury, but don't ignore the other guys at the front end.

In 2008, Baker chucked 172+ innings in the American League with its designated hitter. He registered a 1.18 WHIP, a 3.45 earned run average, and whiffed 141 batters while walking just 42. Furthermore, he surrendered 20 taters so there's room for improvement.

This year's No. 3, Slowey was only slightly less confounding than Baker in '08. He hurled to the tune of 160+ IP, a 1.15 WHIP, a 3.99 ERA, 123 Ks to 24 walks, and allowed 22 homers. He tallied three complete games and two shutouts for good measure.

Liriano rightly gets his share of the hype, but his young front end running mates aren't too shabby, either.

Do I really need to get into the bullpen?

Depending on whom you ask, Joe Nathan has been the best closer in Major League Baseball for the last several years although you can make the same argument for Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and (soon) Joakim Soria.

His last campaign was no different despite his 34 years—39 saves in 45 chances, 74 Ks against 18 walks in 67+ innings with only five home runs allowed, a 0.90 WHIP, and a 1.33 ERA. Those blown saves were uncharacteristically high and, even so, the numbers are stellar.

The rest of the 'pen doesn't get the recognition that the All-Star closer does, but it's filthy and getting filthier as the young pitching prospects get their trial by fire via relief.

This year, Jose Mijares joins the party for the full year. After making his debut late in '08, the lefty tossed 10+ innings and tallied a 0.29 WHIP, 0.87 ERA, five Ks, and zero walks. Add his potent arm to an already stout crew led by Jesse Crain and fellow southpaw Craig Beslow (0.98 WHIP i 38+ IP for Minnesota last year).

The AL Central looks to be wide open in 2009.

Both the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers got sync'd up by the end of 2008. Both are expected to carry that momentum into the new season and ride it into contention.

The Chicago White Sox are the defending champs and nobody sees any reason to doubt them despite several key losses in the offseason. And hope springs eternal for the Kansas City Royals.

Well, count the Minnesota Twins amongst the group as well.

This is a club with enough hitting and more than enough hitting to make life miserable for just about any team in baseball. And that means they've got enough to take yet another division crown.

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