Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Audacity of Hope?

On the eve of Opening Day (for some teams anyway) and with a tidy 2-0 victory under the Twins’ belt to complete Spring Training, we’re all eagerly anticipating Friday night at the Rogers Center and the beginning of the 162-game quest for another division title (and hopefully beyond). In today’s game, Scott baker tossed five shutout innings with four punchouts, Perkins and Slowey added a scoreless inning apiece, Nishioka singled and stole a base, and Kubel continued his strong spring with a double and an RBI. The Twins will have a day off on Thursday before heading north, and I figured this was a good place to wrap up where the Twins have been over the last few months and where they’re headed.

If you read Joe Posnanski’s slightly meandering but overall good piece in defense of a sabermetric approach to baseball (or spent enough time on this site or other places where advanced stats are held in high regard), it hits on the very important idea of sample size. To some extent, then, one season’s worth of spring training statistics are (or should be) nearly meaningless in terms of evaluating a player’s true talent. In other words, despite that there are a number of factors that would point to a potential rebound year for Denard Span, the fact that Span rocked a .339/.385/.458 line in spring training this year does not necessarily mean that’s a sure thing. With that said, however, I’m at least open to making some general observations interspersed with stats that should be taken with a large grain of salt.

- Delmon Young hasn’t given us a reason to think that he won’t pick up where he left off last season. He’s carrying a 1.066 OPS coming out of Fort Meyers and appears to be driving the ball with authority. In the field, though, don’t hold your breath.

- Nick Blackburn looks healthy and fairly comfortable on the mound. He put up a 1.08 WHIP in 26 innings, faced the minimum amount of batters in his last ST start, induced two double-play grounders, and is doing a generally good job of killing worms, which he absolutely has to do to be effective given the extreme lack of ability to miss bats. Do I think Kevin Slowey is a better pitcher? Yes, but the 2008, 2009 and late-2010 versions of Nick Blackburn showed the ability to be at least moderately effective when sticking to his strengths, and it appears that he’s in a position to do that heading into the season. We obviously saw last year, however, that relying on contact to get outs has the potential to send your season into a tailspin in a hurry, and with Slowey waiting in the wings, Blackburn’s leash might not be all that long.

- Nishioka’s spring training UZR...ok, just kidding. As one of the most sample-size-dependent stats, the idea of spring training UZR is especially ludicrous. I haven’t seen him play enough to have formed an opinion of his fielding skills, but Gardy seems to think he’s got Gold Glove potential (a statement which is dubious for at least two reasons, but I digress). It’ll be a while before the advanced metrics have much to say about it, so for now, I’ll take Gardy’s word for it that the kid can handle himself with the glove. As far as hitting, 58 at bats is certainly not enough for the Twins to know what they have in what I assume will be the 2nd lineup spot, but he did put together a nice 13-game hitting streak and a tidy .345/.367/.414 line. Here’s hoping!

- There haven’t been any setbacks (that we know of) with the big names coming back from injury. This might be the biggest victory of all. Mauer’s knee has been fully cleared and he seems to be suffering no ill effects. Morneau’s put in 33 at-bats along with time in the field without complaining of concussion symptoms (again, that we know of), and that’s certainly more important than his .152 batting average. His Opening Day status is still in doubt, but all signs point to progress. Joe Nathan hasn’t been dominant, but he appears to have regained most of his velocity. His slider, his most important secondary offering, has been slow to come back after Tommy John (ask Liriano about that one too), but he hasn’t complained of arm pain even after pitching on back-to-back days. And at least Cuddyer seems to be able to play with a hole in his foot.

On the blog spectrum, I’d like to consider myself more of a glass-half-full sort of guy. Sure, I’ve had my panic moments, but I try to keep things more on the positive side while still being aware of the cold hard facts where appropriate. My goal here was to point out some encouraging trends from spring training, but I'll acknowledge that there are still plenty of areas with unanswered questions. Nick Nelson wrote a well-written piece today responding to allegations that he’s a glass-half-empty type and came to the conclusion that even if we take a look at the numbers and find that they just don’t add up in the way we’d like, ultimately we’re all fans who hope for the best for the team we love. This is, after all, the time of year when hope springs eternal, even for Pirates fans. There are obviously still concerns with this team, perhaps none larger than the threat of injury to the aforementioned trio of Morneau, Mauer and Nathan that would cause the Twins to have to dip into their questionable reserves of minor league offense and bullpen help. Nick’s got the Twins finishing second or third in the Central, which is certainly fair, and if it shakes out that way, I can’t say I’d be utterly shocked. However, we picked the Twins to take the division again, and that’s not just wishful thinking. Some chips may have to fall in just the right way, but based on the spring so far, I have no reason to believe that they won’t.

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