Five Questions: Minnesota Twins

1. What happened on the way to a fourth straight division title?

Since becoming competitive again in 2001, the Twins have focused on pitching, defense, and fundamentals. That’s another way of saying that they favor drafting and developing pitchers over hitters, go after position players with athleticism and raw tools over big bats, and don’t score a whole lot of runs. After all, how many high-scoring teams with mediocre pitching get praised for their fundamentals? Anyway, regardless of how you classify Minnesota’s style of play the point is that offense wasn’t the driving force behind the Twins’ back-to-back-to-back American League Central titles.

From 2002-2004, the Twins put up three straight 90-win seasons while ranking just ninth, sixth, and tenth among AL teams in runs scored. They scored just enough runs to support a pitching staff that ranked sixth, sixth, and first over that same span. Plus, it helped that the rest of the division just wasn’t particularly strong. While dropping to third place in 2005, the Twins learned two things the hard way. The first is that it’s not so easy to win a division when it’s no longer the worst in baseball. The second is that there’s a big difference between having a mediocre offense and having a nonexistent offense.

Minnesota scored a measly 688 runs in 2005, which ranked dead last in the AL and 222 runs behind the league-leading Red Sox. The result was just 83 wins despite a pitching staff that ranked fifth in the league in runs allowed. As you might expect, the pitchers eventually became frustrated by their lack of run support and the hitters started turning against each other, which led to things like Johan Santana being robbed of a second straight Cy Young Award and Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter reportedly getting into a fist fight.

The offense was hurt by injuries to Hunter and Shannon Stewart, but the bigger issue was that nearly every hitter on the team performed below expecations. The end result was a sorry group that didn’t hit for average, power or get on base, and struck out too much while grounding into an obscene number of double plays. If one game epitomized the season it was August 31 against Kansas City. The Twins held the Royals scoreless for eight innings, failed to score a run of their own despite 13 hits, and lost in the bottom of the ninth when Kansas City eeked a run across on two singles and an error.

2. Will the offense be better this season?

The nice thing about scoring the fewest runs in the league is that it’s not all that difficult to improve significantly the next season. The bad thing about scoring the fewest runs in the league is that even a significant improvement the next season will leave you with a sub par offense. The Twins’ pitching staff remains relatively intact and there’s even some hope for improvement from the back-end of the rotation, which means the lineup regaining mediocre status could get the Twins back into 90-win territory.

Can they do it? The good news is that there are plenty of places to improve. Minnesota received good production from exactly two positions last year: Joe Mauer and backup Mike Redmond combined to rank third among AL catchers in OPS, while Hunter and injury replacement Lew Ford combined to rank fifth among center fielders. Other than those two spots, it was really ugly:

POSITION          AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      RANK
First Base       .244     .310     .429     .739      13th
Second Base      .256     .320     .345     .665      12th
Shortstop        .235     .283     .325     .608      14th
Third Base       .256     .318     .394     .712      10th
Left Field       .276     .326     .389     .715      12th
Right Field      .252     .322     .426     .748      10th
Des. Hitter      .254     .330     .391     .721      10th

The biggest potential for improvement is at second base, where Luis Castillo replaces the Luis Rivas-led collection of stiffs who have manned the position since Chuck Knoblauch left. Acquired from the Marlins for a pair of pitching prospects over the winter, Castillo gives the Twins some much-needed on-base skills at the top of the lineup and his .302/.381/.373 hitting line from 2003-2005 would be a massive upgrade over the .256/.320/.345 the Twins coaxed out of the position in 2005. After that it gets a little tricky, although there is room for optimism.

Rondell White hit .289/.341/.476 from 2003-2005 and if healthy will be a major upgrade over the .254/.330/.391 the Twins got from their designated hitters. First base is ripe for improvement if Morneau can bounce back from a disappointing first full season and even a mediocre year from him should top the .244/.310/.429 production the position provided in 2005. Similarly, a healthy Stewart would team with Castillo to provide a boost at the top of the lineup, giving Mauer, Morneau, and White actual runners to drive in. Jason Kubel is an excellent prospect who hit .346 with 24 homers in his last season and could establish himself as the team’s second-best hitter while replacing Jacque Jones‘ modest production in right field.

Of course, there’s also a pessimistic (or perhaps even realistic) view. “If healthy” and “Rondell White” haven’t gone well together for years. Morneau actually started out hot in 2005 and got worse as the season wore on, showing sizable flaws in the process. Stewart is 32 years old, coming off the worst season of his 11-year career, and will be playing through the same nagging injuries. Kubel is an inexperienced rookie and his “last season” was actually 2004, as he missed all of 2005 after suffering a severe knee injury that he is just now coming back from.

And as if those question marks on top of last year’s struggles weren’t enough, the Twins made life even more difficult on themselves by handing everyday jobs to elite out-makers Tony Batista and Juan Castro. Jason Bartlett entered spring training with what appeared to be the inside track on the shortstop job and hit .382, yet somehow lost the job to Castro and his .271 career on-base percentage. Having one sub-.300 OBP in the lineup will do plenty of damage to the Twins’ chances of putting together a decent offense, but Castro will also be joined at the bottom of the lineup by Batista and his .298 career OBP.

Batista spent the 2005 season in Japan, getting released by the Fukuoka Hawks after a disappointing season. Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan signed him to an incentive-laden contract over the winter, promising him first crack at the third-base job in a decision that eventually led to the Twins passing on better (and also inexpensive) options like Corey Koskie. Ryan accurately determined that the Twins desperately needed more power in the lineup, but even a 25-homer season from Batista won’t make up for the incredible number of outs he makes.

Choosing Castro over Bartlett was explained by manager Ron Gardenhire‘s preference for defense, but by sticking two horrible hitters in the lineup every day the team has erased many of the gains made by bringing in White and Castillo. In all, it’s an intriguing group that also carries an awful lot of risk and uncertainty. There is the potential for improvement in many places, but for every two steps the offense took forward it just as quickly took a big step back. The Twins almost can’t help but score more runs this season, but their offense won’t be nearly as good as it could have been and it’ll be mediocre at best.

3. What’s in Joe Mauer’s future?

The amazing thing about the Twins’ horrendous offense last season is that Mauer had a fantastic year and was a major upgrade over what the team got from its catchers in 2004. In his first full year in the big leagues Mauer hit .294 with 37 extra-base hits, drew 64 walks for a .372 on-base percentage, and stole 13 bases while being caught just once. He also stayed healthy enough to catch 1,000 innings and threw out 42.6 percent of attempted basestealers to rank third in MLB behind only Yadier Molina and Ivan Rodriguez. At 22 years old Mauer was arguably the most valuable catcher in baseball.

His outlook now is quite a bit different from what it was this time last year, when knee problems put Mauer’s ability to stay behind the plate in question. But how good can Mauer become and how unique is his performance so far? Mauer has hit .297/.371/.440 through 166 career games, which comes out to 33 Runs Created Above Position. Over the past 50 years, only four other catchers have managed 25 or more RCAP through age 22:

                      RCAP
Johnny Bench           83
Joe Torre              35
Bill Freehan           34
JOE MAUER              33
Ted Simmons            27

That’s quite a list. In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James rates those four other guys as the #2 (Johnny Bench), #10 (Ted Simmons), #11 (Joe Torre), and #12 (Bill Freehan) catchers in baseball history. Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system identifies Torre, Freehan, and Simmons as the top three comparables for Mauer through age 22, and that’s based on specific attributes like height, weight, power, plate discipline, and defense.

Looking only at what Mauer accomplished in 2005 puts him in similarly elite company. He produced 22 RCAP, which only Bench (43 RCAP in 1970), Freehan (32 RCAP in 1964), and Simmons (23 RCAP in 1972) have topped as 22-year-old catchers over the past 50 years. Add in his substantial defensive value and Mauer was worth 23 Win Shares in 2005, which is tied with Simmons’ 23 Win Shares in 1972 as the third-best total for a 22-year-old catcher over that span (Bench’s 34 in 1970 and Freehan’s 25 in 1964 top the list).

In other words, being this good this young is extremely rare for a catcher, and the only other guys in the last half-century who have done so have gone on to have Hall of Fame-caliber careers. With that said, Mauer is far from a fully-formed superstar and whether or not he is able to develop significant power will ultimately determine exactly how great he can become. Even with that as a question mark, there is little doubt that he is in rarified air through the age of 22.

4. Can the pitching staff come up with another great year under such pressure?

They’ll have to, because otherwise the Twins have no chance. Thankfully, the only offseason losses were J.C. Romero and Joe Mays, which in Mays’ case at least is addition by subtraction. Replacing his 5.65 ERA in 156 innings will not only be easy, it’s a chance for the Twins to get significantly better. Mays’ replacement is Scott Baker, a 24-year-old former second-round pick who moved quickly through the minors and posted a 3.35 ERA in 53.2 innings with the Twins last season. Upgrading from Mays to Baker alone could mean allowing 25-35 fewer runs, which will help the bottom line just as much as adding offense would have.

The beautiful thing about the Twins’ situation is that Baker isn’t even their brightest young pitcher. Francisco Liriano, who had a 2.63 ERA and 204-to-50 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 167.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2005, is arguably the single best pitching prospect in baseball. He’ll begin the season in the bullpen, but by mid-year could be the Twins’ second-best starter. That would allow Minnesota to ditch Kyle Lohse, perhaps in a trade for a third baseman or shortstop who won’t make an out 70 percent of the time, and would give the Twins a second-half rotation of Santana, Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, Baker, and Liriano.

The bullpen remains deep and very good, with Jesse Crain (79.2 IP, 2.71 ERA in 2005), Matt Guerrier (71.2, 3.39), Willie Eyre (82.2, 2.72 at Triple-A), and Liriano bridging the gap from the starters to the elite combination of Juan Rincon (77, 2.45) setting up Joe Nathan (70, 2.70) at the end of games. The Twins allowed just 662 runs last season and barring an injury to Santana—which is just about the only thing they don’t have the depth to overcome—I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number drop in 2006. Regardless of the offense, the pitching staff is good enough to keep the Twins afloat.

5. Will it be enough to win a significantly improved division?

For all the talk about wanting to improve the offense and all the new faces in the lineup, the Twins still don’t have a great understanding of how to score runs. When the lowest-scoring team in the league begins the next season with two proven out-machines like Castro and Batista in the lineup—creating perhaps the worst left-side of the infield in baseball—it’s very difficult to take them seriously as contenders.

Pitching will carry the Twins again and that may have been enough to win the division in the past, but this year it just means they’ll be in the race. The Twins are a difficult team to predict because of their many question marks, but for the most part they look like an 88-win team that will need a number of things to break their way in order to outlast the White Sox, Indians, and Tigers in what should be a very competitive division race. I’d give Minnesota a 25-percent chance to win the division and a 30-percent chance to make the playoffs, which probably looks pretty good to most Twins fans after suffering through last season.

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