Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Are the Twins Better?

We are only part way through the off-season, but the Twins are already emerging as a better team than last year. They definitely have some more work to do to solidify those gains, but their moves so far have put the team in a better position than last year at this same time. 

They still need to finalize a deal with for Nishioka, the Japanese league batting champion and gold glove infielder. Once that is done, the infield looks to be strengthened both offensively and defensively. Unless Danny Valencia regresses dramatically , and infield of Morneau, Casilla,  Nishioka and Valencia is likely to be an improvement both offensively and defensively from last year when Hudson, Hardy and Punto started the year. The youth of that infield makes it a higher risk, but the upside of having guys coming into their prime in those roles is step up. Hardy, of course, is not that old. But he sure played old, including the injuries. Hudson wasn't signed until later in the off-season and we may still see the Twins add some infield depth besides Matt Tolbert.

They also need to add one more starter, but it seems that they are on track to re-sign Pavano. Failing that, they will probably sign a veteran more likely to end up at the end of the rotation. In any case, Pavano is unlikely to repeat last year's performance. Nonetheless, the rotation will likely be better. All five of the other starters are near their primes with one more year of experience than they had to start last year. Duensing has emerged as a solid starter after starting last year in the bullpen. Liriano is starting to show the ace qualities people attributed to him. Baker, Blackburn and Slowey are all finesse pitchers who will benefit from another year of experience fooling batters. Of course, they probably won't ALL be better. But given their youth, the net impact ought to be better.

The Twins outfield will start the same as it started last year. The exception being that they now have a solid 4th outfielder in Repko. His bat is not much but he plays plus defense at all three outfield spots. We won't hear Gardy threatening to stick Cuddyer out in center again. Kubel continues to provide an offense-oriented backup for the corner spots. If the Twins can resign Thome, Kubel may get more playing time out there against tough right-handers. But regardless, with the addition of Repko the Twins outfield is a lot more flexible than last year. Span had a down year last year and at 26 you would expect improvement from him. 

The Twins biggest question mark is the bullpen. But that was also a question last season after Nathan went down. For all the current love of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, there were a lot of questions last winter about how reliable they would be. Rauch was really mostly unproven as a closer. And Mijares was a question mark as well. Condrey, of course, got hurt and never pitched. In short, people who think the bullpen is worse are comparing it to the end of the season, not the beginning. The Twins will start the year with Capps, Nathan and Mijares. The rest are questions, but with a long list of potential answers. Last fall, Perkins looked ready to help. Neshek may be fully recovered. And there is a long list of AA and AAA pitchers who have shown some promise. The chances are pretty good that the Twins will have to make some deals during the season to strengthen the bullpen. But that is exactly the same situation as last year when they added Fuentes and Capps.

The primary improvement for the Twins is the development of young players last year. Valencia, Casilla, Young, Duensing, Liriano and others all improved last year and we can expect similar imrprovements from the young players. For instance, Span had a down year offensively last year but at 26 you would still expect him to be improving.

As always there will be two keys to the Twins season. Injuries and the improvements of young players. While much is made of the "M&M" boys, the reality is that the Twins have often not had both of them in the lineup at the same time. If they can both stay healthy, the Twins will be hugely improved.  Likewise, The bullpen will be pretty solid if Nathan comes back and pitches well and if Neshek can maintain his velocity with another season past surgery. Of course, there will be injuries. But maybe not of the magnitude of losing and MVP or a premiere closer. And if there are injuries, the Twins have a lot of depth with the flexibility their players give them. The one place that is not true is catcher. While Butera is a fine defensive backup, the Twins lineup   is seriously weakened without Mauer in the number three spot.  Jose Morales may be able to step up, but his defense is not what the Twins expect.

In terms of young player improvements, those are hard to predict. But the Twins remain rich in players who are on the upside of their career. It is that natural improvement that has made the Twins better each of the last two seasons. Next year doesn't look any different. And the moves off-season to make the team younger are part of that.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Twins Bullpen

The Winter meetings are over and the results of the Twins off-season transformation of their bullpen are a lot clearer. The bullpen lost several key players to free agency, Rauch, Fuentes, Crain and Guerrier. It appears now that none of them will be back. So the bullpen is going to have a whole new look next year with competition in spring training determining the outcome. Here is how things shape up:

All but certain to have spots: Capps, Nathan, Mijares, Jim Hooey

Capps is likely the closer with Nathan's role depending on his recovery. My guess is that Nathan will pitch in a back of the bullpen role to start while they test his arm. Hooey apparently is a hard thrower with a fastball in the mid-upper 90's. If he gets the ball over the plate consistently he probably fits a setup role. Otherwise he is one of the middle relievers. Mijares is the left-handed setup guy and may be called on as the main guy to get the ball to Capps. 

That leaves three openings. I think the front runners for two of those positions are Perkins and Neshek. There have been mixed reports on Neshek, but he apparently lost velocity as the season went along in his first year back from surgery. If he shows up throwing hard in spring training he is likely to start the year in either a setup role or in middle relief. Perkins appeared to have fallen out of favor, with lots of predictions that his days with the Twins were over. But he appears to have rejuvenated his reputation with coaches with his performance last fall. If that performance carries over to this year, he will  likely be in a middle relief role.

The competition for those two positions and the seventh spot in the bullpen can be split between two groups. One is a group includes Burnett, Slama, Delaney, Manship and Diamond (their rule 5 pick). Burnett started out well in the bullpen last year and then faded as the league caught up to him. But he is still young and has major league talent. He would likely be the favorite for the 7th spot. Manship, Slama and Delaney are all pitchers who could take the 7th spot by default. They are old enough that sending them back to AAA for seasoning is probably not an issue. They need to show they can perform in the major leagues, but their chances to do that probably depend on more talented pitchers not being ready.  Diamond is a wild card. Some speculation is that he could be a situational lefty. I think whether he makes the role depends not only on his own performance, but how confident the Twins are in the six guys they have ahead of him in the bullpen. He probably is not going to be the best pitcher of the group, but the requirement that he stay in the big leagues may win out if the Twins think they can carry him in the back of the bullpen.

The second group is a bunch of young prospects. This includes Guttierez, Swarzak, Waldrop, Robertson, Province. These guys are probably all slated for AAA. With the possible exception of Swarzak, they will have to step up in spring training and force themselves onto the roster. Guttierez is clearly the guy with the most upside. If he does well at AAA, its likely he will be in the bullpen by the playoffs. Swarzak has had opportunities as a starter in the past, but he has probably been passed by on that list. He still has some time to develop but the clock is close to run out. Waldrop, Robertson and Province are all guys with some talent, but little experience above AA. 

Finally, there is one other possibility. If the Twins sign Pavano, then one of the current projected starters (Slowey, Blackburn, Duensing, Liriano or Baker) will likely end up in the bullpen. With the exception of Duensing, I think they are all out of options, so having them start at AAA is not an option.

To summarize, there are lots of questions with the bullpen, lots of answers and a lot of sorting out to do. I think some of it will get sorted out in spring training, but it is not unlikely that, like last year, the bullpen is a work in progress for most of the season. The best case scenario is probably that Nathan regains his form and pushes Capps into a setup role along with Mijares. Hooey shows command of an overpowering fastball. Perkins and Neshek demonstrate the potential they were believed to have and Guttierez comes up and provides an additional dominant arm for the playoffs. More likely several players fall short of those lofty goals or get hurt. Then the Twins will be looking to deal for additional relievers at the deadline.

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