Tuesday, February 23, 2010
2010 MLB Predictions: Ten Burning Questions for the Minnesota Twins
Spring has officially sprung for the Minnesota Twins.
Pitchers and catchers for the defending American League Champions reported to Fort Myers, Florida, for Spring Training on Sunday.
That means that the Twins’ incredible playoff run in 2009 is officially part of the past and it’s time to look forward to the season ahead.
The 2010 season figures to be an exciting campaign for a club that is definitely in transition.
After 28 years, the Twins will be leaving the antiquated Metrodome for state-of-the-art Target Field.
Additionally, the club has—for the first time in recent memory—made some significant offseason additions to address some glaring weaknesses.
In doing so, the franchise gave a considerable boost to the usually diminutive payroll.
The payroll isn’t the only thing increasing in Minnesota this spring.
Expectations are also soaring as many are claiming the Twins could be a legitimate World Series contender this season.
While we won’t know if the Twins are championship caliber team until October, we can start addressing some concerns for the 2010 campaign today.
With no further ado, here are the ten biggest questions facing the Twins in 2010.
Can Carl Pavano stay healthy all season?
Carl Pavano is expected to be an innings-eater and veteran presence for Minnesota’s rotation this year, the same role he was brought in for late last season.
He excelled in the position for the club down the stretch and earned himself an encore performance with the Twins when he was offered arbitration last December.
Pavano, seeing a less-than-stellar market for free agents, accepted the offer and signed a one-year, $7 million deal to avoid arbitration.
Although Pavano, 34, was solid last season, going 14-12 with a 5.10 ERA in 199 1/3 innings, he is hardly a safe bet to stay healthy. Prior to last season Pavano spent four wasted years with the New York Yankees.
During his stint with the Yankees, Pavano pitched in just 26 games for a grand total of 145 2/3 innings over four years and missed the entire 2006 season with a collection of small injuries.
The Twins have depth if Pavano suddenly becomes susceptible to the injury bug once again, but with a $7 million price tag attached to his name the club is expecting a full, healthy season out of Pavano.
Who is the odd-man out in the rotation?
Assuming the aforementioned Pavano stays healthy, the Twins are in an enviable position this spring as the club currently has more starters than rotation spots.
The current list of potential starters includes: Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Pavano, all of whom figure to be locks for rotation spots.
That leaves a competition between the likes of Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak, Mike Maroth, and a smattering of other dark horse candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation.
Liriano is coming off a very impressive showing in the Dominican Winter League and is considered the front-runner for the final slot with Perkins and Duensing following closely behind.
Perkins may face a rougher road than the other candidates following a litany of arm issues last season coupled with his since-resolved grievance.
Depending on whom you ask Perkins is either deep in management’s doghouse or in good standing with the club. Either way he’s got a steep hill to climb this spring.
One or more of the odd-men out could land a spot in the bullpen, but the others figure to start the season at Triple-A Rochester where the Red Wings would seemingly boast a top-flight rotation.
Is Francisco Liriano ready to be an ace again?
In 2006, Francisco Liriano was touted as the second-coming of incumbent Minnesota ace, Johan Santana.
By year’s end he’d gone under the knife for Tommy John surgery and his future was in doubt. Since then we’ve seen a lot of Jekyll and Hyde action from Liriano.
He missed all of 2007 recuperating. He struggled out of the gates in 2008, then dominated in the minors and briefly in the big leagues, and finally struggled down the stretch.
In 2009, however, Liriano never got on track. He appeared out of shape and uncomfortable on the mound on Opening Day and was never able to right the ship during the season, eventually losing his spot in the rotation.
As such, Liriano re-dedicated himself this offseason and it showed in the Dominican Winter League.
Liriano was solid in the regular season, but did real damage in the playoffs.
He went 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in seven postseason appearances for Leones del Escogido, including a one-hit, 10-strikeout, five-inning masterpiece in the championship game. All the while he recorded 47 strikeouts and just five walks in 37 innings.
Scouts say that he looks just as nasty on the mound as he did in 2006 and appears to have found the confidence and swagger that played such a large role in his previous success.
If Liriano can translate his DWL success to the big leagues and become an ace again, the Twins rotation should be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Can J.J. Hardy bounce back?
J.J. Hardy was acquired in November with two goals in mind.
First and foremost, he figures to finally solidify the revolving door situation the Twins have been dealing with at shortstop in recent years.
Secondly, he figures to help add some serious right-handed punch to a lineup that is otherwise very lefty-heavy in the power department. Michael Cuddyer is the only right-handed hitter in the lineup to have hit more than fifteen long balls last season.
Hardy is no sure thing as he is coming off a very rough 2009 that saw his numbers and confidence plummet. Things got so bad that Hardy was demoted to Triple-A for a brief stint in August.
Prior to last season’s struggles, the slugging shortstop had put together back-to-back seasons that inspired a lot of confidence. Hardy put up a cumulative batting line of .280/.333/.470 in 2007 and 2008 while averaging 25 home runs and 77 RBI.
His efforts in 2007—his first full-season as an everyday starter—led to an All-Star bid for the slick fielding shortstop.
Hardy figures to start the season hitting low in the lineup, but a return to form could propel Hardy up the lineup and the Twins to the top of the American League Central.
Another disastrous campaign, however, could derail both Hardy’s career and Minnesota’s postseason aspirations.
Will the Twins miss the Metrodome?
The Minnesota Twins spent 28 long years playing in the albatross that is the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
The Metrodome is an awful venue for baseball, both for players and spectators. There is absolutely no denying that fact.
The Metrodome did, however, offer a significant home field advantage for Minnesota.
Whether it was another club losing flyballs in the white roof, misplaying a ball off the baggy in right field, or simply being overwhelmed by the noise, the Metrodome certainly equated to home field advantage.
Target Field figures to be a drastically better place to watch a game and certainly a better park to play in for the club. If nothing else, getting off the turf should add a year or two to the career of everyone on the 25 man roster.
The weather, a non-factor for the better part of three decades, will suddenly have a major impact on game play. The field itself will be just as foreign to the Twins as any out of town visitor for at least half a season.
The capacity has been cut drastically and with it much of the noise and intimidation factor has evaporated.
The Twins figure to enjoy the new stadium for its aesthetics and the increased revenue streams, but there’s a very real chance that in early April or in a postseason clash, they’ll miss the cozy confines of the Metrodome.
Can Delmon Young reach his potential?
Delmon Young is just that, young.
Despite being just 24-years-old it feels like Young has already been around forever. Most of this is because of the considerable hype he received as baseball’s top prospect during his tenure with Tampa Bay.
Thus far, Young has yet to live up to the hype and is widely believed to be on his last legs with Minnesota as a result.
Last year, Young dealt with plenty of adversity on the field (limited playing time) and off the field (the death of his mother) and struggled accordingly. Late in the season, however, something seemed to click.
With Justin Morneau’s back injury, Delmon Young became a fixture in the lineup and proceeded to go on a tear down the stretch. He hit a combined .353/.380/.576 over the season’s final three weeks and helped propel the club into the playoffs.
Young seems well aware that 2010 may be his last chance to prove he belongs as an everyday outfielder in the big leagues and he’s shown that awareness by dropping nearly 30 pounds this offseason.
He showed up to camp looking chiseled and appears to be in great shape—both physically and mentally—for the first time during his tenure with the club.
The question now becomes whether he can translate that preparation and late-season hot streak into legitimate results all season long.
Will there be enough at-bats for Thome?
Jim Thome is a future Hall of Famer.
With a resume that includes 564 home runs and a cumulative batting line of .277/.404/.557 there’s simply no doubting his abilities.
There is, however, cause to debate whether or not he’ll be able to garner enough at-bats with the Twins to make a significant impact this season.
The Twins already figure to have a very limited bench and Thome’s inability to play the field limits him to strictly pinch-hitting duties and the occasional spot start as a designated hitter.
There was some initial talk of using Thome as the primary DH against right-handed pitchers and moving the incumbent DH, Jason Kubel, to left field.
Doing so would give the Twins the best statistical lineup on the field, but would figure to negatively impact the growth of Young as an everyday player and would expose Kubel’s fragile knees to excessive wear and tear.
Thome is a beast when given ample at-bats, but the roster—as currently comprised—doesn’t figure to provide him with enough opportunities to do what he does best, crush the ball and get on base.
As great as it is to have a legitimate masher like Thome on the bench, one has to wonder if it was the right move given his inability to play the field will likely keep him from garnering consistent at-bats.
Does the club have enough depth?
Minnesota isn’t known for keeping a bench full of mashers like other clubs in the American League.
Manager Ron Gardenhire, perhaps using more of a National League mindset, generally employs a small legion of good glove, no bat types who offer positional flexibility above all else.
That’s a great system, in theory, but in practice is may leave the Twins in a bind this season. The club currently figures to have a four man bench. We already know that one of those four will be a backup catcher and the other will be the club’s backup DH, the aforementioned, Jim Thome.
That leaves two spots and a whole lot of needs.
Brendan Harris was locked up on a two-year deal, so he’s a lock for a bench role despite his less than impressive glove-work and his average-at-best offensive prowess.
The club could still use a legitimate fourth outfielder who can play center field to spell Denard Span.
The club missed out on the likes of Eric Byrnes, Willy Taveras, and Endy Chavez earlier this offseason. Any of those three would have made a fine fourth outfielder and come at a reasonable price.
The club has a small platoon of players vying for the fourth spot, none of whom is overly inspiring.
The biggest victim, however, may be second baseman Alexi Casilla who is out of options and would benefit from a year under the tutelage of Orlando Hudson, but likely doesn’t offer enough positional flexibility to make the club.
Can Michael Cuddyer repeat last year’s success?
Michael Cuddyer has been a mainstay in the Minnesota clubhouse for the better part of a decade.
In that time he’s bounced around the field and the lineup, but has proven that when he’s healthy, he can be a legitimate middle of the lineup force.
Last season Cuddyer hit .276/.342/.520 with 32 home runs and 94 RBI. It was a monster campaign that prompted the club to exercise his $10.5 million option for 2011.
The question becomes whether or not Cuddyer can replicate last season’s success in 2010. He is a career .270/.344/.457 hitter, so most of those averages were in line with his career marks.
His 2009 power spike, however, may not be as easy to duplicate.
Prior to going yard a career-high 32 times last season, Cuddyer had only hit more than 12 home runs in a season twice. He hit 24 long balls in 2006 and then followed it up with his then-second-best total of sixteen home runs in 2007.
Given that he’ll be 31-years old this season, it isn’t out of line to expect a regression in 2010 and another in 2011.
It is entirely possible that the Twins will regret not “selling high” on Cuddyer this offseason.
Can the Twins sign Mauer long-term?
The Minnesota Twins cannot win without Joe Mauer.
Joe Mauer is the face of the franchise and a local icon. He is also the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, a three-time batting champion, a three-time All-Star, a three-time Silver Slugger, and a two-time Gold Glove Award winner.
Oh yeah and he’ll be just 27-years old this season. Needless to say, he’s pretty good. He’s also currently set to be a free agent at season’s end.
The Twins have been working to sign Mauer to a long-term deal for most of the winter and— despite considerable hype—have yet to accomplish that feat.
The club is no doubt aware of Mauer’s importance both to the club’s chances in 2010 and the long-term success of the franchise.
If the club is unable to work out a long-term deal, Mauer would undoubtedly become the hottest commodity on the trade market and could reap a huge return for the club.
There is no way that the Twins could withstand the public backlash the club would receive if the biggest star since Kirby Puckett were allowed to simply walk away at season’s end.
Luckily for Twins fans, the common belief is that a deal will get done and is more a matter of when and not if.