Five questions: Minnesota Twins

The most-discussed issue with the Minnesota Twins on the verge of the 2010 season is Joe Nathan‘s injury. While he hasn’t decided to go under the knife as of yet, it seems safe to write him off for a look ahead at the season. Nathan’s replacement in the bullpen has been discussed ad infinitum, so we’ll delve into five other questions surrounding the defending AL Central champs.

1. What will Joe Mauer‘s deal look like?

The assumption here is that this gets done. Each side has too much to lose by not reaching an agreement. The club will soon open a $392 million gift from the taxpayers, and letting hometown hero Joe Mauer walk would be a tragic blow to the relationship between the team and its fans. Mauer, of course, also happens to be the American League’s best player, so losing him would be a loss on the field as well. Even letting negotiations stretch into the season would cast a pall on what should be an enjoyable spring in the Twin Cities.

There’s some pressure on Mauer to strike a deal, as well. While his power figured to improve, few foresaw the dramatic spike Mauer enjoyed in 2009. His ISO jumped from .133 and .123 in 2007 and 2008 to .222 in 2009. Considering his unique splits, it’s somewhat reasonable to think he’ll never hit for as much power as he did last season. What’s more, he’s yet to play more than 146 games, and his broad frame leads many to question how long he’ll stay behind the plate. There are reasons to believe his earning power is at its peak, so agreeing to a nine-figure deal seems appropriate.

The question, though, is what exactly the first three of those nine figures are, and how many years of service they cover. Neither the player nor the club want his contract to keep the franchise from spending enough on the rest of the roster to be competitive. Given that new revenue streams from Target Field figure to add $50 million to the coffers each season—about half of which can go to player payroll—it looks like the club can absorb a huge commitment to Mauer while still spending as much on the rest of the club as before. Mauer may want a shorter deal, or perhaps conveniently timed out-clauses, to protect himself from playing out his career on an uncompetitive team.

The guess here is that the final deal will look something like eight years, $180 million, with some sort of assurance—contractual or otherwise—that the team will spend competitively on the rest of the roster. Staying in Minnesota makes too much sense not to happen. While the Yankees and Red Sox would love to engage in a bidding war of unprecedented stakes for the 2009 AL MVP, it’s most likely that Mauer will be playing for the Twins for many years to come.

2. Just how long is Delmon Young‘s leash?

If the World Series were to start today, the Twins’ ideal configuration against a right-handed pitcher would have Jason Kubel in left field and Jim Thome at designated hitter. At the moment, however, Delmon Young figures to start the season in left, pushing Kubel to DH and Thome to a pinch-hitting role. Young is not without potential for development, but he is without options. If Young fails to turn some of that potential into production, the Twins will be wasting hundreds of plate appearances that should go to the tandem of lefty mashers. In this year’s American League Central, sacrificing even 10 runs could be a disastrous misstep.

In three full seasons and a chunk of 2006, Young has amassed a .290/.322/.416 line. That’s just not good enough to play left field every day on a contending team. While he did catch fire in the second half, displaying serious power potential, his on-base skills have managed to decline since his 2006 debut. Last year’s strikeout (23.3 percent) and walk (2.9 percent) rates were the worst of his three full major league seasons. Simply put, Young has shown no signs of translating his tools into performance.

Kubel, on the other hand, has turned into something of a monster. Last season, he posted career highs in plate appearances (578), on-base percentage (.369), slugging percentage (.539), and—predictably—WAR (3.1). Barring injury, he’s got to come to the plate at least 600 times in 2010. While he’s no great shakes with the glove—in fact, he’s dismal—Young might be even worse. The Twins’ outfield defense is going to be rough in 2010, whether it’s Young or Jason Kubel playing alongside Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer. Giving left field to Kubel, however, allows Jim Thome to man the designated hitter spot.

Thome has always destroyed right-handed pitching, as his career .288/.426/.621 line suggests. Though he’s nowhere near the player he once was, he’s still great against northpaws, putting up .463, .370 and .380 wOBAs against them in the last three seasons. The Twins need to get this guy a few hundred plate appearances against right-handers, and those can’t come at Kubel’s expense. If Young gets off to a tough start—and I don’t mean unlucky, I mean in line with his dismal performance to date—the Twins have to cut bait quickly. While it’s never fun to give up on a prospect, there’s a division to be won.

3. How will Target Field affect the season?

The weather, always a popular topic for discussion in the upper Midwest, figures to have a significant impact on the Twins this season. From a baseball perspective, Target Field represents something of a different animal. While the field dimensions are slightly smaller than the Metrodome’s, there might be significantly fewer home runs. Cool air and prevailing winds may serve to suppress home run figures at the new ballpark. The wind, in particular, looks to be particularly rough on left-handed pull hitters. This might work to Mauer’s favor, but Justin Morneau, Kubel and Thome might have a tougher time than expected in their efforts to go yard.

While Target Field might not be kind to home run hitters, its dearth of foul territory should help offenses recoup runs otherwise. The Metrodome, with its football roots and in-play bullpens, had gobs and gobs of foul room to gobble up fly balls. Target Field, on the other hand, follows the trend of putting fans closer to the action. While Twins fans will certainly appreciate not having to crane their necks just to see home plate any longer, Twins pitchers will wish the fans were a couple dozen feet farther away.

As for the concern about getting games played in the first place, I think that angle is a little overstated. Might there be games played in the 30s very early and very late in the season? Absolutely. But the same threat exists in places like Chicago and Denver, and we all seem to have survived. As an investor in Target Field (hey, taxes count!), I am very happy the Twins avoided building a retractable-roofed stadium. In addition to their extra cost, they still feel like indoor baseball to me, even when opened. Minnesota does summer better than any other place I’ve been, and warm, sunny evenings at Target Field will quickly become a staple.

What do the Twins have with J.J. Hardy?

Trading Carlos Gomez for Hardy might turn out to be the steal of the offseason. Last year was a dismal one for the still-young shortstop; he posted just 1.4 WAR in 115 games. But 2007 and 2008 were phenomenal—4.6 and 5.0 Fangraphs WAR, respectively. After that 2008 year, getting Hardy for a prospect on the verge of being a complete bust would have been ludicrous. But, gosh, that 2009… nearly every indicator that could have declined did just that. Never a plate discipline whiz, his strikeout rate peaked at 20.5 percent, leading to a worse-than-Delmon .302 on-base percentage. His power vanished, too, as he recorded a .128 ISO, compared to his .195 figure in 2008. There are, though, reasons for optimism.

It’s encouraging that Hardy posted the second-best walk rate of his career (9.2 percent) in such an otherwise-unsettling year. Additionally, his defense at shortstop remained steady—he’s always had a positive UZR. And there are those tremendous performances in 2007 and 2008. There are many reasons to believe he’ll never be as bad as he was last season. Even if he never returns to previous levels, the Twins will happily pay a three-win shortstop $5.1 million in 2010. The projection systems offer differing pictures of what’s to come for Hardy this season.

His THT Forecast is quite bearish, calling for a 0.9 WAR season in 2010, despite improving to .256/.313/.421 at the plate. The THT Forecast has Hardy costing the Twins six runs in the field, decreasing his value. CHONE projects a 2.3 Fangraphs WAR season, even worse at the plate but productive in the field. The Fans’ projection on Fangraphs is the most hopeful, reflecting a greater confidence in his power returning than any of the mathematical systems. While Gomez wasn’t a huge price to pay for Hardy, the Twins certainly are hoping he recovers some of the skills that made him an excellent player in 2007 and 2008.

5. Will the Twins prevent enough runs to run away with the Central?

Before Nathan’s injury, a number of observers pegged the team to win the Central. The absence of one of the game’s elite closers brings them much closer to the pack. The Twins are going to score a whole lot of runs, especially if Young either figures it out or is replaced. As simple as it sounds, the problem is going to be keeping other teams from scoring even more. The 2009 club outscored its opponents by 52 runs, and outperformed its Pythagorean W-L by that single, crucial game. Keeping opposing runners from crossing home plate will be more difficult this year.

While the Twins will get a full season out of Carl Pavano, who was really quite good, they will not have Gomez’s 848.2 excellent innings in center field. With fewer home runs and less foul ground, the mobility of the outfield grows in importance. When using their best lineup, the Twins will be playing a right fielder in center (Span), a left fielder in right (Cuddyer) and a DH in left (Kubel). While the infield defense should be at least above average (and possibly very good), it will have a tough time offsetting the outfielders’ negative value.

As far as the pitching staff goes, it’s exactly what you think it is. THT projections have Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Pavano and Francisco Liriano each logging 160-plus innings. Baker and Slowey are the best of the bunch, with Baker being more valuable because of Slowey’s injury history. Blackburn and Pavano are acceptable middle-of-the-rotation options, and Liriano is the catch-lightning-in-a-bottle candidate. If he can be anything close to what he once was, the Twins have a very nice rotation. His performance in winter ball inspired hope he might be on the way back. His progress this spring has been much less inspiring.

There’s plenty of depth to the starting pitching, as well. The Twins just churn out strike-throwers, and Jeff Manship, Brian Duensing and perhaps even Glen Perkins are available should the need arise. You have to give credit to an organization that decides on a particular philosophy and sticks with it. The Twins have cornered the market on relatively boring, no-walk, no-strikeout pitchers. Redundancy, here, is good.

The bullpen, which figured to be a strength, is not nearly what it was when Nathan was available. Assuming his elbow issue does keep him out for the year, the bullpen is full of a bunch of decent-to-pretty-good players. Most notable is Pat Neshek‘s return from the same surgery Nathan faces. If Neshek is anything like he was pre-injury, the bullpen on a whole might not take a big hit. Twins fans will miss what Nathan brought to the game day experience, but his absence doesn’t need to doom the season.

Conclusion

The Twins are poised for a tremendously interesting season. Opening a new park is always fun, and the product on the field ought to be exciting. The AL Central seems to attract eventfulness, and there’s little reason to suggest the division crown will be won peacefully this season. If any team stands to throttle it into submission, however, it’s the Twins. Hardy and Liriano have the potential to be excellent, and if both recover their prior performance levels, the Central championship will be tough for any other team to win. This isn’t likely, however, and the division seems certain to be won with 85-89 wins. The Twins, Tigers and White Sox all look capable of reaching that level, so look for another dramatic September in the AL Central.

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Comments

  1. Bob said...

    Josh,

    Nice summary and a balanced assessment. One area I was surprised you didn’t address in item #3 was the ‘unnatural’ home field advantage the Metrodome provided with the astro turf (complete with seams) and the white dome (to say nothing of the HVAC system). As a Tiger fan, I have seen too many fly balls turn into doubles or triples because the outfielder lost them in them in the roof, or balls bounced off the turf and past the infielders for hits. All this will go away (thank God) with the new stadium. In 2009 the Twins had 75 fewer AB at home vs away, yet hit only 1 fewer doubles (135/136) and 6 more triples (25/17). While other teams have this same kind of split, I am interested to see if the Twins maintain the same kind of home field advantage they had with the Metrodome.

  2. JD said...

    Liriano has been decent this spring, outside of his last outing.  Short sample size aside, what makes you say he is struggling this spring?  Velo?  Command?

  3. Mike B. said...

    Nice piece Josh. I would only disagree slightly on the grounds that the Twins have exponentially more to lose than Mauer does. I highly doubt that the Steinbrenner family reads Fangraphs etc., so given the chance, the Yankees (and the Red Sox ) will have no qualms about throwing god money after Mauer… Regardless of whether he has peaked or not. We’ve seen them do it a number of times before. Mauer is surely no genius, but he is at least smart enough to know that.
    Like I said though, great piece.

  4. Josh Fisher said...

    JD—

    I happened to catch his two bad innings yesterday, and he looked much more like the ‘bad’ Liriano of the last couple years than the ‘good’ one we saw pre-TJ. I didn’t realize he’s sitting on a 12/1 K/BB so far this Spring, for what such things are worth.

    I sure hope his winter league performance translates to the field. He’s got to limit those occasions where his mechanics just get completely out of whack. He has a tendency to fly open so early.

  5. Paulie L. said...

    I just wanted to point something out regarding the weather.  It’s not just the cold, which will have an impact on the players.  Minneapolis receives nearly half it’s annual percipitaion from June to August.  For example, over those same summer months the Twin Cities gets nearly 2 more inches of rain than Chicago.

    Either way it should be an interesting year in the Central.

  6. Bear said...

    Nato – that blows my mind that Punto could have a higher OPS than anybody, in any situation. Interesting idea. Punto in the OF? Could he do it?

  7. sean said...

    Joshua, thanks for linking to my field study, but I’m a bit disappointed that you still said that Target Field has smaller dimensions than the Metrodome. This is patently false. In left field they’re similar enough that I would call it a wash. In center field, Target Field has a bit more depth, but not a whole lot. However, the baggie/wall now extends nearly to straightaway center, which will suppress home runs. Right field in Target Field is noticeably deeper, with one exception: the overhang. However, the overhang only matches where the Metrodome has its wall and it ends before Target Field’s deeper power alley.

  8. Nato Coles said...

    According to baseball-reference.com, going by OPS, Jason Kubel seems like a worse hitter against lefty pitching than Jim Thome is.  This suggests, to me, a more complicated picture in the DH spot than simple righty/lefty matchups.  Factor in Delmon Young’s weight loss/better fitness and the potential improved defense, and things get murkier still. 

    Now here’s the crazy part.  In addition to that, Jim Thome is not faring well anymore against “power pitchers” (as termed by baseball-reference.com), about as well as Delmon Young is.  When the Twins face the Greinkes, Verlanders and Peavys of the world, it might be wise to keep both Young and Thome out of the lineup entirely, and throw Nick Punto – yes, Nick Punto – into the outfield.  Why?  Because Nick’s 2009 OPS was better against power pitchers than either Young’s, Thome’s, or anybody else’s left on the roster!  And yes, I’m as surprised as anybody else by this, but it’s a fact – his OPS was about 100 pts higher against power pitchers than Young or Thome last year.

    Anyway, there are a ton of factors Ron Gardenhire needs to consider when making his lineup cards.

  9. Nato Coles said...

    Bear, I know, I know, I couldn’t believe it myself!  But it’s true.  Nick Punto has practiced in the outfield occasionally, there’s even been talk of using him as a backup CF this year.

    This weird Punto Power split, along with Young and Thome’s ineffectiveness against “power pitchers” suggests that he should either DH or play LF against “power pitchers,” with Kubel in the other spot.  It all comes down to who the better left fielder is:  Jason Kubel or Nick Punto?

  10. Beanboy said...

    Overall nice article.  Couple of things….  Span is true center fielder, he’s just played left and right because Go-Go was in center. And Cuddy was injured, and Delmon Sucks.  Also Kubel is bit on the slow side but his glove is nowhere near dismal and his arm is above average.  Give me Kubel, Span, and Cuddy, with Thome at DH any day.  Central division title here we come.

  11. Steven Ellingson said...

    “His performance in winter ball inspired hope he might be on the way back. His progress this spring has been much less inspiring.”

    Hmmmmm.  10 IP, 16(!) K, 1(!) BB, 1 HR

    I don’t know, if that is “much less inspiring,” I can’t imagine what “inspiring” looks like.

  12. Steven Ellingson said...

    I realize now that this was posted a week ago, but still.  Liriano has been ridiculous all spring.

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