Tuesday, March 9, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: Minnesota Twins

Had you talked to most Twins fans last week, I'm sure the majority would have told you that they were looking forward to this season more than they had in quite a few years. The promise of a new season and a fresh start is something to get excited about every spring, but a new stadium, re-tooled lineup, deep bullpen and the recovery of key starters made for a robust blend of optimism. Three of those things remain unchanged. With the injury to Joe Nathan, the Twins' bullpen depth will be tested, but I'm not ready to panic quite yet, nor do I think is the bulk of Twins Territory. We've covered some capable in-house closer options on this blog, and I think someone will step up and take the reins in traditional Twins fashion. The AL Central is very winnable again this year, and though the Twins' advantage over other divisional contenders undoubtedly decreased when Nathan went down, there's still a lot to look forward to.

As we've done in the past for a few other previews, this one will be a tag team effort between AK (contracts/future outlook) and I (additions/departures/prospects), and we'll do our best to try and keep it from rambling on forever. Also, we're still newcomers on the blog scene, and there are plenty of great Twins bloggers out there who are worth your time - Aaron Gleeman, John Bonnes, Nick Nelson, Seth Stohs, among others - and I for one am indebted to their work. So here goes.

2009 Season: 87-76, AL Central champions after defeating Detroit in Game 163 (Redux).

Key Additions:

One of the things we've gotten used to as Twins fans over the years is watching the front office twiddle their thumbs during the Winter Meetings, content to sit by while other teams wheel and deal, perhaps signing a veteran or two hoping to wring some extra life out of them (see: Tony Batista, Ramon Ortiz, Livan Hernandez, et al). This year, however, was a little different, in that Twins management went out and filled some gaping holes in the lineup through free agent signings and trades, resulting in one of the more eventful and exciting off-seasons that AK and I have seen in our lifetime. Yeah, there's no Mauer deal yet, and the injury to Joe Nathan has muted some of that optimism, but I still think that Twins fans everywhere have to be pleased with how the lineup is looking for the inaugural season at Target Field.

J.J. Hardy (SS) - The first major move of the off-season, Hardy was acquired in a trade with Milwaukee that sent fan favorite (but somewhat underachieving) Carlos Gomez to the Brewers. I'll talk about the Gomez half of the equation later, but Hardy brings elite defense and a potentially powerful bat to a spot in the Twins lineup that has lacked both in recent years. On the defensive side, there's little doubt that Hardy possesses an excellent glove. He has a career UZR/150 of 11.2, and has been consistent over the last two years, posting an 8.5 and 8.8, the latter coming even as his bat went quiet during the 2009 season. Offensively, Hardy had his best year ever, clubbing 26 homers to go with a solid .277/.323/.463 line and a .186 ISO, good for 6th among all shortstops. He followed that up with a 2008 campaign which saw him again pass 20 homers, hitting 24 bombs while improving his on-base skills. His line increased to .283/.343/.478, and his .821 OPS ranked fourth at his position. As mentioned earlier, however, Hardy took a step back offensively in 2009, hitting .229/.302/.357 with only 11 homers, missing a number of games both due to injury (back and collarbone) and a short demotion to AAA in August. The bottom line for the Twins is this - Hardy will provide excellent defense up the middle regardless, and if he can regain anything close to his 2007-8 form, he'll be a key part of the lineup this year. Having a hitter in the 8th spot who has the potential for 20-plus home runs is certainly a luxury the Twins haven't had in quite some time.

Orlando Hudson (2B) - I'll move from the first off-season addition to the last. I spent quite a few days on "Hudson watch" to see if the Twins would be able to land the 32-year old switch hitter, and couldn't have been happier when they did. Hudson will fill a GLARING hole both at second base and in the second spot in the order, and despite some declining skills at this point in his career, should provide better than average production on both offense and defense. While not necessarily an OBP machine, Hudson has always done a decent job of getting on base, and will be a much better table-setter for the middle of the order than anyone the Twins trotted out last year (2B as a whole made BP's Vortices of Suck list this year, after Punto, Casilla and Tolbert combined for a putrid .209/.302/.267 line). Hudson's numbers dwarf this, and while his 2009 line wasn't quite spectacular at .283/.357/.417 and 9 homers, anything close to that will be a significant improvement to what we've seen lately (projections vary quite a bit, but CHONE is by far the most pessimistic at .266/.333/.384). He's no longer an elite defender, but he still posted a not-atrocious -3.7 UZR/150 last year, and his glove certainly won't be a liability.

Jim Thome (DH) - Although some might see this as another in the Twins' line of washed-up veteran signings as Thome will turn 40 this season and can't (well maybe can't is a bit too harsh, but it would probably be ugly) play the field, there are plenty of reasons to like the Thome deal. First, it's not a huge financial risk at only $1.5MM, at and that price the upside far outweighs any risk of failure. Second, Thome (despite a certain taint that I may always carry having been on the White Sox for years) is generally acknowledged to be a great clubhouse guy and teammate, and as much as we love to quantify everything with stats, there is obviously something to be said for that kind of veteran leadership on a team that leans toward youth. Finally, Thome (who has 564 career home runs and is undoubtedly HOF bound) still has plenty of value left in his bat. As Aaron Gleeman pointed out prior to the signing, Thome still absolutely crushes right-handed pitching,posting a .262/.383/.498 split with 18 HR last year. How much value Thome adds, however, will depend on utilization. Yes, the Twins already have plenty of lefties who destroy RHP, including the man who currently gets the lions' share of DH at-bats, Jason Kubel. However, as AG points out, Delmon Young has some pretty awful splits against righties, and if Kubel moved to left and Thome slotted in at DH for a decent number of games vs. RHPs (along with Mauer, Morneau and a left-handed-hitting Hudson), you'd have a pretty fearsome gauntlet of lefties to run in the middle of the order. Will Gardy take advantage of this as often as perhaps he should? Likely not, but I still have to think that Thome has value even in a primarily bench role, given that Minnesota was looking pretty thin in terms of bench bats as it stood.

Key Departures:

Carlos Gomez (CF) - As I noted earlier, the Twins sent Gomez to the Brewers in exchange for Hardy. Gomez was the main piece of the Santana trade and possesses excellent tools, but during his time in Minnesota, he never quite lived up to the potential that many had envisioned for him. Despite being a favorite of more than a few fans and scoring the winning run of the epic Game 163 battle at the end of the '09 season, Go-Go never seemed to be able to quite put it all together in a number of facets of the game. He looked lost at the plate at times, almost never walked (he never posted an OBP over .300) and couldn't quite figure out how to harness his blazing speed on the basepaths, including a critical gaffe in Game 1 of the ALDS. Where Gomez unquestionably shone, though, was his outfield defense, and this is where the Twins will miss him the most. Gomez posted a 16.1 UZR/150 in a full season in 2008, and managed 10.0 in 2009 while seeing more duty as a late-inning replacement. For a pitching staff as fly-ball heavy as the Twins, not having Gomez patrolling center will surely result in fewer runs prevented. I'm trying my best not to think too much about the defense of a Young-Span-Cuddyer outfield - it could be historically bad.

Mike Redmond (C) - Since he joined the Twins in 2005, Redmond had one job, and it was one that he performed admirably - serve as a backup to the best catcher in the game. However, with Jose Morales already seeing playing time last year and top prospect Wilson Ramos (more on him later) edging closer to the big leagues, Minnesota decided to part ways with the 38-year old Redmond. I always liked Redmond; he was regarded as a great teammate and did a generally more-than-adequate job at the plate (including a .341/.365/.413 line in 190 PA in 2006) but losing him obviously isn't huge for the Twins.

Orlando Cabrera/Joe Crede (SS/3B) - Neither veteran infielder was offered a contract after the season, and although both provided bright spots during the season - Crede managed 15 HR in 367 PA and provided excellent defense at 3B before getting shut down with back problems, and Cabrera provided veteran stability down the stretch and a clutch HR in Game 163 - not re-signing either was the right move for the Twins. Hardy is much better (and younger) than Cabrera, and Crede's injury history made him too much of a risk to take a chance on again, even though 3B remains somewhat of a question mark.

Talent En Route:

There are plenty of great writers in the Twins blogosphere who have done this much better than I could, but I'll try to provide a quick overview of top talent in the organization. If you want to know more, I'd suggest picking up a copy of Twins minor league guru Seth Stohs' Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook 2010 or checking out his work in the Maple Street Press Twins Annual 2010, which I read over the weekend and really couldn't recommend highly enough and is definitely worth your $12.99 (or the volume on whoever your favorite team is if it isn't the Twins). The Twins farm system was recently ranked the 6th best in the game by Baseball Prospectus, and it contains a great mix of high-upside position players and solid, if not spectacular, pitching depth.

Danny Valencia (3B) -
Although not regarded as the best prospect in the Twins' system (9th in BP's rankings, 8th in Gleeman's), I'll start with Valencia as he may be the closest to reaching the big club. Spring training is going to be a competition between Punto, Brendan Harris and Valencia for playing time, and while the job may be Harris' to lose at this point, Valencia has a decent chance of grabbing the starting job with a good spring. He's a solid player both offensively and defensively, but likely won't be a star, with a minor league line of .299/.354/.480 per 500 AB. He could hit 15-20 HR annually and has a good arm, and honestly, when the only other options are Harris and Punto, there's not a lot standing in his way. I'd expect him to open the season at AAA, but he should see a call-up at some point.

Wilson Ramos (C) - Ramos has excellent skills on both sides of the plate. His approach is a bit more contact than power oriented, as his .317/.341/.454 line in 54 games at AA demonstrates, but some think the power stroke is there (and Ramos swatted 12 homers in 54 games in Venezuela winter action). He's got a great arm for throwing out baserunners and works well with pitchers, and the combination of offense and defense makes him one of the better catching prospects in the game. Obviously there's a huge elephant in the room here that happens to wear number seven - should (God forbid) the Twins not sign Mauer, Ramos is the future, but if they do, I have to think the Twins could get some good value for him as a trade piece.

Aaron Hicks (OF) - There is general consensus among prospect-watchers that Hicks is the Twins' best prospect. A true five-tool player, Hicks was drafted with the 14th overall pick of the 2008 draft, and perhaps the most surprising thing about him so far is his patient approach at the plate for someone his age. Although his overall line dropped off a bit from rookie ball in 2008 to Single A last year(.318/.409/.491 to .251/.353/.382), he drew 40 walks in only 297 PAs. I'll let Aaron Gleeman sum up Hicks:

He has plus speed with an absolute cannon for an arm and is expected to develop 20-homer power as a switch-hitter, which along with a strong walk rate would make him pretty close to a perfect all-around player. At this point Hicks is far more about projection than performance, but his OPS was solidly above the Midwest League average as a 19-year-old and any way you slice it his upside is tremendous.

If Hicks is ready by the 2012 season, there will likely be a spot for him in the outfield should Michael Cuddyer not be re-signed (and you could certainly make a case that he shouldn't be, as much as I love Cuddy). I am looking forward to seeing him there for years to come.

Miguel Angel Sano (SS) - Signed as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic for a bonus of $3.15MM (the highest the Twins have ever awarded for an international player), some scouts describe Sano as having "limitless" upside on offense. Obviously he has a great deal of maturing to do, and plenty can go wrong down the line, but it's encouraging to see the Twins take this sort of gamble on a high-risk/reward international prospect. Kevin Goldstein's BP profile on Sano notes that "One scouting official said that he's never seen a 16-year-old Dominican with Sano's combination of the ability to hit for average and power," which is certainly high praise. He hasn't played a professional inning yet, so stats aren't available, but it will be intriguing to watch his progress. He probably won't stick at SS because of his size (unfortunate given the dearth of middle infield prospects in the system right now), but could work at 3B or a corner outfield spot.

Kyle Gibson (RHP) - The highest-upside pitcher in the organization, Gibson was a potential top-five pick in 2009 before forearm troubles allowed him to fall to the Twins at #22. He's not quite a power arm, but he has great command of his 91-94 MPH fastball and two off-speed pitches, a plus slider and a changeup. He posted a 11-3 record with a 3.21 ERA and 131-to-19 K/BB ratio in 106.2 innings in his final season at the University of Missouri. BP sees him as a third starter, but he could be a potential #2 should he show enough in the minors. Hopefully Gibson will turn out to be a great draft value for the Twins.

2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook:

Everyone knows that the signing of Joe Mauer (or his impending free-agency) is the biggest story for the Twins right now. There has been a lot of back-and-forth over the past few months with lots of rumors flying around. It's been pretty well documented here on this blog and really, you don't have to go far to find news about the situation. Mark Rosen of WCCO was the first to break the erroneous report on Feb. 1st that Mauer had signed a 10-year deal with the Twins. That news spread like wild-fire to every corner of the internet until a few hours later, when Mauer "laughed at reports that he agreed to a 10-year contract with the Twins." Rosen was subsequently skewered.

Apart from the Mauer discussion, there is a lot of other things to talk about regarding the Twins, particularly when it comes to their overall payroll. In the last 10 years, the payroll-philosophy of the Twins, to the great relief of the fans, has changed drastically it seems. See Below:

2000: $15.7M
2001: $24.1M
2002: $40.2M
2003: $55.5M
2004: $53.6M
2005: $56.2M
2006: $63.4M
2007: $71.4M
2008: $56.9M
2009: $67.9M
2010: ~$96M (projected)

Those numbers really surprised me, particularly the low numbers from 2000-01, I mean just think, Justin Morneau alone is slated to make $15M this year and for the next 3 years after that. Getting back to the philosophy change though; the Twins used to the be the type of team that would bring up good young talent, keep them around till they got too expensive at which point they would trade that talent away, a very Marlins-esque way of doing things. As the Marlins have found, and as the Twins front-office started to realize, that philosophy is great for saving money, but not great for creating and sustaining a fan-base. The Twins traded away Johan Santana and allowed the uber-popular Torii Hunter to walk in back-to-back seasons and attendance was not great despite a relatively competitive team.(division winners 5 out of 8 years). After those two departures, the Twins seemed to get more serious about keeping the talent they were developing. In 2008 they signed Cuddyer to a 3-year, $24M deal with an option ($10.5M) for 2011, which I have to imagine he'll take. That same off-season, the Twins doled out their longest and most-expensive contract ever, signing MVP and All-Star 1st basemen Justin Morneau to a 6-year, $80M contract. The Twins also extended the contract of All-Star (and now injured) closer Joe Nathan, signing him to a 4-year, $47M deal.

As it stands right now, it seems like the Twins have identified their somewhat obvious 'core-players' and have taken to signing them to longer term deals. The last remaining puzzle piece is Joe Mauer. As I've said before, the Twins owe it to their fans who have been quite supportive of the team, even going so far as to help build them the beautiful new Ballpark that they will be moving into this coming season. Whether the contract involves deferred compensation, or no-trade clauses or whatever, is unimportant to Twins fans, what's important is they keep a guy who was once Mr. Baseball Minnesota, who graduated from Cretin-Durham Hall High School in St. Paul, and who is the face of the Minnesota Twins.

To further delve into the Twins contracts situation, they really are pretty well set up for the next few years. Aside from Mauer, the free agents next year will include: Orlando Hudson 2B, Carl Pavano SP, Matt Guerrier RP, Jesse Crain RP and Jim Thome DH. In other words, with relatively low money, the Twins could probably retain the important elements within that handful of players (i.e. Hudson, Guerrier, possibly Pavano). I'd like to see them at least hold on to Hudson and Guerrier, especially as there aren't many in-house options at 2B. Valencia may be nearly ready for the Majors, which would be a cheaper option at third.

The Future of the Minnesota Twins:

I've seen the bad times, I've really enjoyed the good times during the past few years and I'm unusually optimistic about the Twins right now. I'm normally a pessimist and this team has given me plenty of reasons to be pessimistic in the last 15 years. The reason for my optimism lies in what I see to be a definite change in the way this organization handles its talent. At this point, the Twins have a young rotation, a solid lineup comprised mostly of players who are at or headed toward the prime of their careers, and a farm system that should be able to supplement this team with additional talent when necessary (as seen by the #6 overall system ranking). To me the true test, and I hate to say it, will be this Joe Mauer deal. If the ownership steps up and says, "whatever it takes, we have to have Mauer," that will be a clear sign that this organization is committed to winning, at least over the next 5 years. If they don't, especially in light of the new stadium, it will be a huge blow to the team and the fans alike.

I really want to get away from the Mauer thing though, it's consumed far to much attention on my part and others. I like the moves the Twins made in the off-season, I'm starting to believe more in Bill Smith, it's taken awhile after Terry Ryan departed. J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson improve the Twins SS and 2B positions substantially and with a Hudson, Hardy, Punto and Morneau infield, you're looking at some very good defense all around. If the Twins re-sign Hudson after this year, you could be looking at this same infield for a few years to come as Hardy has another year of arbitration-eligibility after this season and Punto is signed through 2011. In addition to all that, Jason Kubel finally came through last year and looks to finally have found that offensive groove that everyone knew he had. Denard Span really took the reins in terms of leading off and playing center field last year and Cuddyer looks to be worth every penny of the $24M contract he signed. Add to that a older, but healthy Jim Thome and you've got a pretty fearsome lineup.

The Twins window for a championship is now. They lack a dominant ace pitcher (could Liriano be that guy?), but this team has enough talent all the way through to make a run. Starters 1 through 3 are consistent, the bullpen is improving, the lineup will definitely score runs and the management seems to have the latitude to shore up the holes when the time comes. Here's to hoping, oh, and I (we) can't wait to see a game at Target Field.

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