Note: For previous Yankee Analyst 2011 team previews, click here.
The 2010 Minnesota Twins opened their beautiful new stadium with a bang, hitting (.334 wOBA, third-best team mark in the AL) and pitching (3.91 staff FIP, second-best mark in the AL) their way to the third-best record in the American League (94-68) and second straight AL Central division crown.
Unfortunately for their troubles they drew the Yankees in the American League Division Series for the second straight year. Despite holding home field advantage this time, Minnesota wound up getting swept out of the postseason by New York for the second straight October, falling to 0-9 in their last nine playoff games against the Yankees.
As for the regular season, the Twins went 2-4 against the Yankees, avoiding being swept at Yankee Stadium in mid-May thanks to a rather shocking Jason Kubel grand slam off Mariano Rivera, and also avoiding a sweep a week later in Minnesota due in part to a wretched Javier Vazquez outing.
Anyway, onto the projections. The below charts contain key offensive numbers for what I expect Minnesota’s Opening Day lineup to look like, along with the players that will be in the mix for bench spots. On the pitching side of the ledger I have the hurlers vying for spots in the Twins’ rotation and bullpen.
I’m using 2010 actual numbers, along with each player’s 2011 CAIRO and PECOTA projections, due to the fact that they are both park-adjusted, enabling a more apples-to-apples comparison, and I opted for two projection systems instead of one because relying on only one really doesn’t tell you anything. One important thing to keep in mind in reviewing the CAIRO projections is that SG doesn’t factor baserunning into his wOBA calculation, which means for a speedier player you can probably add somewhere on the order of .010 to .015 points of wOBA to scale it to Fangraphs’ version.
Unfortunately Baseball Prospectus doesn’t use wOBA or FIP, so in the wOBA section the column on the far right is True Average, which is basically BP’s version of wOBA but scaled to batting average instead of on-base percentage; and in the FIP section I have WHIP in the far right — WHIP obviously doesn’t correlate with FIP at all, but I wanted to at least put something in that column for the PECOTA projection. I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the team leader in yellow in each statistical category for each data set for quick reference.
I’d also like to take a moment to thank Nick Nelson from Nick’s Twins Blog for his time, expertise and graciousness in helping me ensure I covered more or less every player in contention for Minnesota’s 25-man roster.
In 2010 the Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau show finally got some help from its supporting cast, with Jim Thome providing an out-of-this-world campaign; Delmon Young finally realizing the potential many had been hoping he’d reach for several seasons with a career year; and rookie Danny Valencia providing some solid pop out of third base, a position where offense has basically gone to die for the Twins since Corey Koskie left the team after the 2004 season. On the flip side, after a breakout 2009 (.359 wOBA), Denard Span took several steps backwards (.312 wOBA), and Jason Kubel fell off a cliff, from a .383 2009 wOBA to .326 in 2010 in almost the exact same number of plate appearances.
Thankfully for the Twins, CAIRO likes both Span (.329) and Kubel (.346) to bounce back some, and expects both Mauer and Morneau to continue to operate at their usual elite levels of performance. On the other end of the spectrum, CAIRO sees Thome losing nearly .080 points of wOBA, and also doesn’t believe Young can maintain the strides he made in 2010. The Twins also enter 2011 with fresh faces at both second base and shortstop, with Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka taking over for Orlando Hudson at second base and Alexi Casilla stepping in at short for J.J. Hardy. Neither Hudson (.320 wOBA) nor Hardy (.313) had particularly stellar campaigns in 2010, but both represented solid lineup pieces, and it will be very interesting to see how their replacements fare.
Of course, the biggest wild card of them all is the health of Justin Morneau. The Twins are taking their time easing Morneau back, and while he’s professed a goal of wanting to be ready to go by opening day, given his slow recovery and the team’s understanding desire to be as cautious as possible it seems more likely that he’ll be activated sometime after the season starts. Of course, once he does come back, it’s really anyone’s guess as to how he’ll perform after coming back from a concussion that kept him completely sidelined for about 8 months. Needless to say, if he can produce like the Morneau of old, the Twins will be that much more dangerous.
Here’s the pitching staff:
We’ve talked quite a bit about Francisco Liriano this offseason and whether there might be a trade between the Twins and the Yankees, and Minnesota’s naming of Carl Pavano as opening day starter only added fuel to the speculative fire. Liriano was — by pretty much every important pitching metric — not only Minnesota’s best starter in 2010, but anywhere from the second- to sixth-best lefthander in all of baseball, depending on whose version of WAR you prefer. There’s no question that Pavano had an excellent year for Minnesota as well, but selecting Carl as the nominal ace of the staff still seems like a pretty strange move.
CAIRO sees pretty significant regression for Liriano, projecting the southpaw’s ERA to inflate over half a run along with an FIP increase of a full run. This is likely primarily due to an expected regression in his home run rate (a minuscule 0.42 HR/9 in 2010), although CAIRO also expects less strikeouts and more walks as well. CAIRO also doesn’t think Pavano can duplicate his 2010, though he’s still projected for one of the tiniest walk rates in the league (1.81).
And of course, as we all know, that’s why Pavano’s fit in so seamlessly with Minnesota, as he is the literal embodiment of pitching to contact and walking no one. The rest of the Twins’ staff should be Brian Duensing followed by some combination of Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker, both of whom project to essentially repeat their 2010s, albeit with less strikeouts and more walks. Nick Blackburn had a pretty horrid year last season and I’d guess he’s probably fallen back a bit on the starting depth chart.
The bullpen, which was incredibly strong last year — 3rd-best FIP in the AL in 2010 — is probably the team’s biggest question mark heading into 2011, with many key cogs having departed and a lot riding on the successful return of Joe Nathan.
I asked Nick Nelson about his thoughts on the Twins heading into the 2011 season, and here’s what he had to say:
“My expectations for the 2011 Twins are tempered. I feel they downgraded in a few areas during the offseason, replacing Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy in the middle infield with Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and replacing Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes and Ron Mahay in the bullpen with… well, no one. They’ll build their relief corps internally, it seems, hoping for a return to form from Joe Nathan.
Justin Morneau is a complete wild card, having been removed from baseball activities for seven months, and the team has openly hinted that he might not be ready for Opening Day. In short, this is a team with a lot of talent, but also with a lot of question marks and not a lot of quality depth.”
That about sums it up for me. One advantage for the Twins is that they live in the AL Central, and neither the White Sox nor Tigers appear to be quite up to the task of dethroning Minnesota, though the three teams are probably pretty closely matched on paper. With the Indians and Royals continuing to play doormats, the Twins should be able to rack up a considerable number of easy victories — something that no one in the AL East or West can really expect to do (well, the Mariners will likely still be relative patsies in 2011) — and I’d expect that Minnesota’s strong offensive core and solid-if-not-overwhelmingly-good starting pitching should keep them at or near the top of the standings for most of the season. Is it a championship-caliber team? Maybe, although I think we’d have a much better idea of the answer to that question depending on how Morneau hits when he finally returns.
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