Here comes Der Twains.
Way back in the day (Fall 2001), Bud Selig floated the most unfloatable of ideas. "The Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos are sucking," Selig thought (They weren't....alright maybe the Expos were), "Let's blast them off into nonexistence."
It was met with uh, understandable amounts of disapproval, and failed. Worse yet, it transformed the Twins nationally from "team too far North for me to pay attention to" into "The little underdog team that could!" This brought increased amounts for shame divisional rivals like the Sox, who didn't just watch the Twins win three straight division titles from 2002-4, but "the team that almost got contracted" win three straight titles.
Bad ideas just seem to linger in infamy forever, and as such, the Twins have held onto their charming underdog mystique, when in actuality, they're a lot better than that.
If the Tigers can't help but be competitive due to how good their top two players are, then the Twins are hard-pressed to not be competitive due to having the elite Morneau & Mauer combination, and a little lefty by the name of Francisco Liriano, who led all AL starters in Fielding-Independent Pitching last season. That was about 16 fWAR between them in 2010 even with Morneau missing half the year, and as far a top-tier contributors go, that'll do fine. With plus defense in centerfield from Denard Span and the return of Joe Nathan to end of the bullpen, there should be enough that the Twins remain in the AL Central conversation for the duration of the 2011.
It's the other elements besides what I just listed whom with the Twins manage to propel themselves over the top in unanticipated ways that makes them so darned annoying. Last season, they dined on 220 innings of 3.75 ERA from a resurgent and 34 year-old Carl Pavano, had beyond-vintage production from 40 year-old Jim Thome as a dessert that nearly erased the ill-effects of what could have been a disastrous injury to Morneau, and had two stiff after-dinner drinks of top-notch defense up the middle from J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson. Now all of these guys were pros; starting-quality players, to be sure. But the Twins didn't exactly secure them after winning intense bidding wars, and all wound up being values.
Hudson and Hardy are gone. Thome is a year older, had his back act up on him a bit at the end of the year, and will now be thrown back into a rotation with whichever of the decent-bat/no-glove combo of Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer isn't playing right field that day. Pavano is back for a bit more money, but is now having to face life without the ability to strikeout batters, and some unknown commodities around to trust his groundball tendencies in.
Hardy will be replaced at short by Alexi Casilla, previously the back-up 2nd baseman (uh....), and Hudson is getting swapped out for Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Casilla has no power to speak of, and there's doubts about his arm strength, and when it comes to unknown quantities, a 2nd basemen with one year of dominance in Japan that I've never seen play is pretty unknown. This could definitely be an area of downgrade for the Twinkies.
Fortunately for them, they walked away with the division last season and bludgeoned the nearest competitor in head-to-head matchups...they didn't have to knock the offseason out of the park. But given that they may have botched the middle infield and decided that they piss out competent relievers (more on that later), surely the Twins have some plan for improvement.
It can come from within. Kubel, Span, Mauer, Cuddyer, and obviously Morneau all slacked off in production from previous seasons. While Cuddyer is exiting his prime years, and his worsening defensive numbers foretell doom, Kubel and Span could return to be above-average contributors if just their BABIPs rise to career norms.
As for Big M's, a big story was the fall of Mauer's power to well....what it usually was before he decided to murder the league in 2009. Knee injections are a concern (maybe it's all the jogging during innings) but with his relative youth, the safe projection is for him to hit HRs in the 15-20 range...even in Target Field. Morneau is the more unpredictable case. He was playing the best ball of his career last season, then missed the last half of the year with post-concussion syndrome. He could return to form, never be the same, or bounce back and forth, looking like both from week-to-week.
If there's big room for improvement--and a kinda depressing Dayan Viciedo comparison--it's Delmon Young. He can't walk much, and routinely cost his team 10 runs a season in outfield defense, but is extremely young (25) for a man with four full seasons under his belt, and appeared to start to tap into his power in 2010 (21 HR, .493 SLG). 2nd-year 3B Danny Valencia was solid last season, but is too old (26), and was too mediocre at Triple-A to become a star.
We've already discussed the flagrantly superb Liriano, who really can't be stopped unless the he's inexplicably traded. But the rest of the Twins rotation has to be viewed in the scope of their defense. This team will be bad in the outfield corners, and did just kinda throw the most important infield position up for grabs. These are not great things to do ever, but especially when starters Brian Duensing (5.37), Carl Pavano (4.76), and Nick Blackburn (3.80) all posted low K/9 figures, and put the ball in play at Buehrle-esque levels. Scott Baker can rack up whiffs (7.82 K/9), but also flyballs (only a 35.6% groundball rate) in a park with massive gaps for Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer to wander off to. This is how you turn good pitchers into 4.40 ERA guys.
And then there's the bullpen. Joe Nathan returns and....uh....well he's good.
Jose Mijares gives the team their go-to lefty guy. He's not Matt Thornton, but if he can stay healthy, he can pitch in the 3.00 ERA range. Curiously, the Twins poached Kevin Slowey from their good-but-not-great starter crop to work in the pen. I understand that Slowey hasn't been durable and brings stability to a barren area, but would you would rather have Slowey throw 70 innings while God-awful Nick Blackburn throws 180?
The rest of the pen are the type of guys who get described in one line
Glen Perkins - Soft-tossing failed starter
Dusty Hughes - Underwhelming Royals castoff
Jim Hoey - No Major League time since '07
Alex Burnett - Won't be effective until his control improves
Anthony Slama - REALLY won't be effective until his control improves
Jeff Manship - Alright fine....maybe
The Twins clearly feel they can develop bullpen contributors without big investment, and they're probably right, but they could be set to really feel the latter part of 'Trial & Error' something awful.
It may seem like I have just spent the last--what 10 minutes?--ripping apart the Twins' divisional candidacy, and I kinda have, but you always fear the Twins. You have to. They have the capability to mash any team in the division under the table if things break right, and at the very least have the depth to shuffle around their starters if anyone struggles. It's hard to say that the White Sox have a defensive advantage given how reliant they are on no one hitting the ball to the right, but the Twins' combination of contact pitchers and a shaky shortstop & corner outfielders seems highly dubious, and it doesn't get better from the 7th on.
The Sox could be good enough to keep a 90-win Minnesota team home, and may very well need to be.
Links, as if you want to read more
Jim Margalus is packing great levels of snark in his criticism of the management of Peavy, and of games at Camelback Ranch.
Mike DePilla isn't blown away by the Peavy news, and is also leaving his network (Is this trending?)