One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
The Twins are no strangers to reversing their record, as twice they went from being well below .500 one season to being the World Series champs the next, but the inversion that took place from 2010 to 2011 was a most unwelcome change. The team went from 95 wins to 99 losses and now has to figure out how to right the ship despite having a huge portion of its payroll tied up in a few players.
Perhaps 2011 was the swoon they seem to need to propel them to the World Series, but as they limped to the worst record in the American League, they looked nothing like a team playing possum and every bit like an overmatched boxer.
The Twins found out the hard way that prolonged exposure to Drew Butera can be hazardous to one’s record. Joe Mauer, in the first year of his massive new contract, was beset with injuries from the opening of spring training to the team’s last game. He played in just 82 games, and while his 1.8 WAR was fourth-best on the team, that’s almost a perfect definition of damning with faint praise.
The expectation is that Mauer will be healthy in 2012, but expect the Twins to move him from behind the plate more frequently in order to limit the wear and tear on him and to keep his bat in the lineup.
Adding Ryan Doumit is part of the Twins’ plan to keep Mauer healthy, as they can use Doumit to soak up a few of the remaining innings without subjecting the lineup to Butera’s bat 93 games, as happened in 2011. Neither Doumit nor Mauer is anyone’s definition of durable, but the hope is that being able to use one in order to rotate the other out from behind the plate will keep both healthy and in the lineup.
If the Twins get a combined 270 games from the two, irrespective of where those games are played, that has to be seen as a win for a team that saw players like Butera, Steve Holm, and Rene Rivera get far too many plate appearances for a team that thought it was headed back to the playoffs. Butera is likely to stay on the roster, however, meaning the team will carry three catchers.
Some concussions come from big, bone-crushing hits, while others come from hits with much less force that land in just the right place, and there is very little correlation between size of the hit and the lingering effects. When Morneau ran into John McDonald on July 10, 2010, it hardly looked like the type of injury that would keep him out for two weeks, let alone most of two years. He managed 69 games in 2011, though just 21 after June 1, and finished the season on the disabled list.
In addition to the concussion from which he still is not fully recovered, Morneau underwent wrist surgery at the end of September. The procedure was minor, but it adds to the litany of issues he has faced over the last 18 months. While the Twins surely hope to have a healthy Morneau back, they’re also wisely preparing for another extended period of time without him.
This is, without a doubt, part of the reason the Twins want so badly to bring back Michael Cuddyer. In addition to the fact that he was a leader on the club last year and has spent his whole career with the organization, Cuddyer fills a number of the voids the Twins presently have.
They need a backup first baseman who doesn’t need to be trained into the position; they’ve done that too many times over the last few seasons, and it is part of the reason the infield defense has slipped over the last two seasons. They also need a right fielder with a solid arm and a right-handed bat with some power for the middle of the order.
The Twins’ preference of keeping their own players over hitting the wider free agent market may be the source of some derision, but this is a case where retaining Cuddyer solves their issues better than most of the other options out there.
Should another team outbid the Twins for Cuddyer’s services, expect to see Mauer get a number of the reps at first base. He played well there during his time learning the position in 2010, and Doumit can take over catching duties. The team would like Chris Parmelee to spend most or all of the year back in the minors, but he didn’t look overmatched during his September call-up and could be the team’s choice if Morneau appears to be out for a month or more.
It is entirely possible that these what-if scenarios never come to pass and that Morneau is ready for Opening Day and plays close to 160 games, but given that it has been since 2009 since that was the case, the team is wise to consider alternatives.
Opposite whoever mans first base will be Danny Valencia, one of the few Twins who managed to avoid the disabled list in 2011, though that didn’t save him from having something of a sophomore slump. The reality is that Valencia’s rookie campaign probably represents something very close to his ceiling; 2011 isn’t a fair representation of his true talent level either, so the truth, as it often does, probably lies somewhere between the two.
The team hasn’t had a real answer at third base since Corey Koskie left in 2005, so even if Valencia isn’t a first-division starter, he’s likely to be a fair sight better than the motley crew the team suffered through between 2005 and 2010.
Alexi Casilla will get the nod at second base with the team feeling like he deserves a chance to show what he can do over the course of a full season, but Tsuyoshi Nishioka gets no such courtesy, The team’s biggest free agent signing of the 2010-2011 offseason flopped in every way possible and, perhaps most worryingly, didn’t really show signs of improving as the season progressed. A broken leg early in the year didn’t help his adjustment to the American-style of play, but the Twins felt they had seen enough to warrant bringing in Jamey Carroll early this winter.
Age is obviously a concern with the 38-year-old Carroll, but it has been for the last 3-4 seasons as well, but they’ve been some of the most productive of his career. Whether he’ll be an asset to the team or not is more a question of if he can stave off the inevitable for at least one more year, but even if this year is the first season of his decline, he’ll give the team more credible defense than Nishioka (-10 defensive runs saved and –6.3 UZR) or Trevor Plouffe (-17 defensive runs saved and –8 UZR) did.
Plouffe joins an outfield that surely has enough bodies to fill out the roster but is still fairly unsettled. Assuming Cuddyer does not return, the team will have just one of the three Opening Day 2011 outfielders still on the roster, Denard Span.
Span struggled with his own concussion issues in 2011, which were exacerbated by a lingering case of vestibular neuritis, which cut short a very promising year. The team believes Span will be healthy by the time camps open in February and is progressing through the offseason with him penciled in as both the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Getting Span back on the roster leaves Ben Revere somewhat homeless. The speedy slap-hitter doesn’t have the arm to play right field, but the team seems to be leaning towards giving him time there. Having him hit towards the bottom of the order rather than leading off better fits his offensive skills, and few, if any, balls will land between right field and center field, which helps mitigate his suspect arm.
If Cuddyer does come back to claim his spot in right field, don’t be surprised if Revere’s name pops up in trade rumors, especially those involving pitching. Other names that will be thrown around for an outfield spot include Plouffe, Rene Tosoni, and Joe Benson, who will almost certainly be called up at some point during this season.
The Twins’ pitching will be better in 2012 than it was in 2011, if for no other reason than Carroll won’t be 17 runs below average at shortstop. The Twins’ pitch-to-contact philosophy makes the pitchers extremely vulnerable to poor play behind them, and that’s exact what happened in 2011.
Carl Pavano’s peripherals (4.10 FIP, 4.14 xFIP) were very similar from 2010 to 2011, yet his record fell from 17-11 to 9-13, and his ERA rose from 3.75 to 4.30. Scott Baker looked good when he was healthy last year, and the team will look to him to lead the rotation. He’s their only option who could be considered even a nominal strikeout pitcher with a strikeouts-per-nine rate of 8.22.
Francisco Liriano is a puzzle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a thin beard. He has two fantastic seasons to his name, two seasons where injuries killed his production, and two where he looked nothing like a pitcher who was even capable of having two good seasons.
The team did well not to sign him to a long-term contract after his stellar 2010 season, but who knows what 2012 will bring. The sense is that his issues are largely mental, but that’s cold comfort if they can’t find the right solution to the problem.
The fifth starting slot is a bit of a puzzle. Kevin Slowey had a rough year, refusing to pitch out of the bullpen, getting injured, getting shelled in Triple-A, then returning to pitch poorly in the majors, while reports of a strained relationship between him and the team weren’t hard to find.
It was a near given that Slowey would be non-tendered before the start of the 2012 season, but new/old GM Terry Ryan told a conference call of season ticket holders that they were looking to “wipe the slate clean” with him. This smooth talk allowed the Twins to get at least a little something for Slowey, as he was dealt to the Rockies for a player to be named later.
Brian Duensing could take the fifth starter spot again, though his splits suggest he ought to be pitching out of the bullpen, not as a strict lefty specialist, but as someone who can take a full frame if two or three of the next few hitters are left-handed. The Twins had hoped Kyle Gibson would rise up and grab a rotation spot this year, but Tommy John surgery will mean a lost year or so for Gibson.
The additions of Doumit and Carroll fill some of the team’s most glaring holes from last season, but it’s hard to look at this team and see a real challenger in the AL Central. Staying healthy will be key for the Twins, but it isn’t a silver bullet.
If the team gets really productive years from Mauer, Span, and Doumit, and near league-average production from Casilla and Carroll, they have a chance to survive an extended absence from Morneau and the loss of Cuddyer. Even in that case, they need Liriano to cycle back to his 2006 or 2010 self before they’ll be viewed as a serious contender.
For a team that didn’t actually change much between 2010 and 2011, everything changed, including how the team is viewed. It’s possible that 2011 was the aberration and most everyone will come back to their productive selves in 2012, but it feels a bit like expecting a deus ex machina. Expect a team that sits around .500 for most of the year and finishes the season with between 78 and 83 wins.