A year ago I predicted the Twins, if everything went right, might have one of their best team's ever and win 110+ games. Obviously a lot went wrong and the Twins ended up with their worst record in over a decade.
Since last spring there has been a large turnover on the roster. In fact, less than half the current Twins were on the opening day roster last year. I thought it would be interesting to compare how this year's team projects compared to how I saw things last year. To be clear, I am comparing my projection of the team on opening day last year to this year's opening day lineup. I am not comparing the reality of last year to my projections this year.
Last year, I thought Joe Mauer was a solid number three hitter with the potential to be an MVP and gold glove. There were questions about his power. That projection hasn't changed, but the upside seems a lot less likely after a year of injuries and low performance. Last year's backup, Drew Butera, was a solid defensive catcher whose bat was a big question mark. This year's backup, Ryan Doumit, is a solid hitter whose defense is a big question mark. Overall, the catching position projects slightly lower than last year on opening day.
Last year, I thought Justin Morneau was another potential MVP. This year he is at DH and Chris Parmelee will take his place, likely batting 8th. Parmelee is a rookie, but he turned heads in his callup last fall and then again this spring. His career projection is a good hitter for average with moderate power, but he probably won't hit .300 or 20 home runs this year. His defense still needs work. The projection for first base this year is a lot lower than last year. Parmelee just doesn't compare to Morneau.
Tsyoshi Nishioka was the second basemen last year and batting second in the order. Here is what I said about him then "Nishoka looks like a solid number two hitter. He will hit for average, can play little ball and is the fastest runner in the system. And he knows how to use that speed to steal bases." He wasn't close to that description, but it probably isn't far off from the projection for this year's second baseman Alexi Casilla. The major difference is that Casilla will likely be batting 9th. I don't think Casilla has the optimistic upside I saw in Nishioka, but he has most of the same tools I thought Nishioka was bringing to the table. I am slightly less optimistic that Casilla will harness them and my projection for second base is slightly lower than last year.
Last year, Alexi Casilla was the shortstop and his projection was much the same as this year at second base. The difference was that his defense was less certain at shortstop. This year Jamie Carroll is the shortstop with a different skill set. He is expected to be an adequate shortstop, with adequate range and arm. His defense doesn't project as well as Casilla's, but he projects more reliably there than Casilla did. As a number two hitter, he is expected to get on base and can steal occasionally but, again, doesn't have the potential upside I saw in Casilla. Overall my projection for shortstop is slightly lower than last year.
My projections for Danny Valencia haven't changed much. We got about what I expected last year with perhaps more problems on defense than I projected. His actual performance will have to improve only slightly to match my expectations last year. So my projection for third base is unchanged.
Last year, I saw Delmon Young as the third potential MVP in the Twins lineup. It looked like he had broken out in 2010 and was poised to reach the potential projected for him when he was the first player taken in the draft. My projection for Willingham doesn't approach that level. He looks like a solid bat with some pop in the middle of the lineup, but he isn't going to be a star. My projection for production out of left field this year is a lot less optimistic.
Here is what I said about Span last year: "Span has the potential to hit .300, will take a lot of pitches and is a good baserunner who can steal when called on." Nothing has changed about that projection.
Last year, Michael Cuddyer projected to be a solid middle of the order hitter who would produce 20+ home runs while playing adequately in the field. Ryan Doumit, who I think will get most of the playing time here, projects a lot like Cuddyer as a hitter. But his defense is going to be severely challenged. There has been at least a slight decline in my expectations from right field.
Last year, Jason Kubel was the DH. He projected as a solid left-handed hitter who could hit .300 with 20+ home run power. That is about what Justin Morneau projects as this year, albeit a slightly better version all round. Morneau's upside is an MVP quality bat, which Kubel's was not. Morneau's injuries leave some big questions about how productive he will be. I still expect more out of him than I projected for Kubel last year.
Bench: Last year the bench had Jim Thome, Matt Tolbert and Jason Repko. This year's bench is Luke Hughes, Trevor Plouffe, Ben Revere and Sean Burroughs. There is no bat on this year's bench to compare to what we thought we were going to get from Jim Thome. But Tolbert and Repko projected as defensive replacements and neither one projected to match the offense any of the players on this year's bench. This year's infield bench is mostly defensively challenged with the exception of Sean Burroughs at third base. Revere projects as a better defender than Repko in the outfield. Plouffe isn't as good on defense as Repko, but is a much better bat. Overall the bench projects as much deeper this year. But the infield defense isn't there and no one projects to step up and carry the offense like Jim Thome. Overall, I think that makes the bench look a bit weaker than I thought it was last year.
If you look at those evaluations the Twins offense look much worse at two positions (3,7), slightly worse at two positions (4,6), three positions are unchanged (5,8,9) and two positions have a slight improvement in offense (2, DH). The bench is about the same, with better depth this year compensating for Thome last year. Remember this is comparing my projections last year to this year's projection, not actual performance. The Twins are almost certainly going to be a better offensive team than last year's actual performance. But they leave spring training with, deservedly, a lot lower expectations.
The Twins defense is much worse at two positions (3,9), slightly worse at two (2,7) and unchanged at four positions (4,5,6,7). The bench is much worse overall.
Last year, the Twins started the season with six experienced major league starters. The bullpen had two closers in Capps and Nathan. And I thought the spring training competition had surfaced a bunch of effective bullpen arms with several backups at Rochester. Remember we are comparing projections, not reality.
The Twins have shifted Brian Duensing to the bullpen and installed Jason Marquis as the 5th starter. I am not as optimistic about Marquis as I was about Duensing. I am not sure I would change my projections for any of the returning pitchers. Pavano will be consistent, Liriano will be inconsistent. Baker and Blackburn will likely be solid starters. Liam Hendricks doesn't project to be the pitcher Kyle Gibson did, but it looks like he will get an earlier shot at winning a spot.
Overall, this year the Twins starting staff appears to be less deep without a Slowey. They have some guys like Swarzak and Maloney who are in long relief roles that may be able to step in if needed. But neither one has proven themselves as major league starters the way Slowey had. Scott Diamond is again at AAA, ready to help if needed.
It again looks like the Twins have surfaced a bunch of effective bullpen arms in spring training and with several backups at Rochester. But the only closer is Capps. Perkins and Duensing add a couple more arms that have proven reliable in the past, but neither one compares to Nathan.
Overall the both the starting staff and the bullpen look slightly weaker than they did last year at this time. Combined with the weaker defense in the field, I would project the Twins to give up more runs than I projected they would last year at this time.
So its not just the bad taste in our mouths from the last season's August and September collapse. The Twins have changed since last spring and not for the better. Even if everything goes right, "on paper" this team is likely going to have to overachieve to make the playoffs. But they play the games on the field, not on paper.