Five questions: Minnesota Twins

For what it’s worth, I have the Twins pegged as the wild card this year. The teams in the East have some disadvantage due to unbalanced scheduling; the Twins should rack up several wins against its division, and the team’s less prone to having no backup plan (Yankees) or one-season sample sizes (Rays). A close fight among the three should see the Twins on top. But why do I think this, besides a potential case of insanity? I will answer that question with a pentad of questions.

Are the kids alright?

Although his performance didn’t drag down the 2008 team record, Livan Hernandez (10-8, 74 ERA+) is gone, as is his archetype, and the Twins are much better for it. No more Ramon Ortizes and so forth; that wasn’t even the plan going into spring training, and the Twins are far less likely to be burned by a single game at the end of the season this time around, because they didn’t waste starts in April.

Sure, R.A. Dickey is on the team, but: A) the Twins didn’t throw much money at him, and B) how long he stays on the team is directly tied to his performance, and not his veteran leadership or his contract. It’s bugged me for years that teams like the Twins would waste starts on “proven veterans” when those veterans have proven they’re not that good. Last I checked, each team does have a guy who’s tasked with making the pitchers better and all that…a coach of some sort.

Anyway, one of the reasons I feel good about the Twins is that they’re finally entrusting the team to their kids, instead of holding the team back in the beginning to wonder later how they got to game 163. The rotation is full of young players, but they’ve got some seasoning now, and the depth 1-5 (Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, Nick Blackburn, and Scott Baker once he’s healthy) is enviable. Even though the market had plenty of semi-stale starting stock to be had for a pittance, the Twins saw no reason to bother, and this should pay off down the road. If they find they need one of those guys, they’re certain to be available.

What’s the defense like?

Whilst interviewing Twins’ PR guy Dustin Morse just two weeks ago, Dustin was all excited about the team defense this year, citing athleticism all over the diamond (including pitchers), Joe Crede at third base to take over for…well, no one guy was there to take it from, Mauer’s Gold Glove, and so forth. It sounded like a good question to answer, so I started looking.

And I can’t find where Dustin’s confidence comes from. Mind you, he knows his team far better than I do, and there are some defensive growing pains with young players sometimes. But the 2008 version of the Twins was -13 in the middle infield, -21 at the corners, and -6 in the outfield, one of only five teams to get the boo birds for every grouping of the Plus/Minus system. They were quite good at turning double plays and keeping baserunners from advancing too far, so it’s not like the defense is just sitting there or anything, but this isn’t encouraging:

A grades from the RZR grading system: Carlos Gomez, Denard Span
B grades from the RZR grading system: Joe Mauer
F grades from the RZR grading system: Justin Morneau, Alexi Casilla, Delmon Young

The Twins did take the right step by signing another A in Crede, but team defense is not normally considered airtight when it’s great down a line and in some of the outfield but porous up the middle. It’s not bad defense, but it’s not the 2008 Rays (who had four As including two A+s, three Bs, and a C, with nothing worse). I hate to fulfill Dustin’s request for writing about team defense in this way, but I’m not seeing what he’s seeing. Crede can’t play all the infield spots, good as he is.

Speaking of Crede…what about him?

By all accounts, Joe Crede is healthy, having had offseason surgery and feeling much better than the last couple of years. Then again, he hasn’t played on the turf yet. A lot of the team’s success this year hinges on a healthy Crede, and not just for the fielding.

The offense scored the third-most runs (829) in the AL last year, its highest total since 1996. A lot of that was RISP luck, but the talent’s generally there. The Twins don’t walk much as a team (MLB average for percentage of PA with a walk was 10; only four guys cleared that figure, and none higher than 13), but they don’t strike out much either (MLB average percentage was 18, and only four guys cleared that, and Craig Monroe‘s gone now, so it’s effectively three). Crede fits the BB/K pattern of the team just fine, providing another source of power that can also make contact.

But the thing that interests me the most, although its value is unknown, is the batted ball profile of the team. The MLB average for fly balls as a percentage of all batted balls is 36 percent; of the holdovers from last year, only one guy, Jason Kubel, even cleared 40 percent. It’s just not a fly ball hitting team. This may not mean anything, but it may say that the Twins can’t take full advantage of certain pitcher weaknesses due to the offensive capabilities of the players.

Enter Crede, whose flyball percentage was 54, third in the majors behind Jonny Gomes (56) and Russell Branyan (57), but without all the strikeouts. If the Twins were looking to diversify their lineup without disrupting the overall picture, they got their man for sure. Again, it’s unknown whether having a flyball hitter to diversify the lineup even matters, but if it does, the offense just got more intriguing.

Whither Delmon Young?

I attended the Montgomery Biscuits’ home opener in 2005, a game against the Mississippi Braves that featured four players who made the majors that year straight from Double-A: Chad Orvella on the one side, and Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, and Anthony Lerew on the other. Nineteen-year-old Montgomery-born Delmon Young played right field in that game and looked the part of the prospect he was. In those four years, he’s hit someone with a bat, been considered a prospect, got traded, and is a question mark headed into 2009.

A lot changes in three years. Young’s THT projection is .731, but David Gassko disagrees, noting the age and productivity and feeling optimistic about Delmon’s chances of improvement. I’m with him, but for half-statistical, half-personal reasons.

Delmon was born four days before me, making him the closest MLB player in age to me as far as I know. A lot about me has changed since Delmon and I crossed paths in 2006, especially in maturity level and ability to understand how to accomplish what I want to accomplish. Given that Delmon doesn’t seem to be a source of trouble in Minnesota the way he was in the Rays’ system, I suspect he’s undergone a similar transformation, and he’s certainly got enough experience at the major league level to learn from now that he’s getting older and wiser. This may all be conjecture, but as Young’s behavior seems to have improved and the talent’s still there, progress is likely not far behind. If Young lives up to his potential this year, Morneau/Mauer/Young/Crede is suddenly a pretty rough 3-6 to get through. The Twins almost made the playoffs without him breaking through, but the Young in the magazine would make it so much easier to do so.

Just how hard is it in the AL Central anyway?

Probably not very. Getting wins at the expense of the White Sox, Tigers and Royals shouldn’t be that hard, as the Sox are rebuilding in a number of places, the Tigers are in an identity crisis, and the Royals are advancing but slowly. Only the Indians and Twins had offseasons that I’d consider as improving their teams, and the Indians had a bit more to improve to catch the Twins. No major free agent left Minnesota, and there’s less of Livan Hernandez and more of Joe Crede.

Whether that’s enough to beat the teams in the East out for wild card or the Indians for the division, I don’t know, but their division favors them significantly for a few extra wins. They won 88 last year and improved; 90 wins isn’t out of the question if Crede and Young are significant factors in the offense. There’s still a bullpen to sort out, and the top-shelf talent isn’t quite as obviously good as what the Yankees picked up in the offseason, but they’re in a good spot right now, and they didn’t make any massive blunders in the offseason. The Central is a perfect storm of rebuilding teams for the Twins to take advantage this year, and while I’m not sure that’s enough to carry them past the first round, it’s still a rosy picture in the Metrodome.

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