Can the Twins Contend?

According to Dan Symborski’s latest projections, there is a 12% chance in 2012 that the Twins loss 100 or more games. Those aren’t the worst odds–the Astros are given a 53% chance of doing so and even within the division, the Royals are given a 14% chance. Still, cynical or not, I found it a hard question to avoid: Can the Twins contend in 2012? By the percentages, the answer is that a team always has some chance to contend. But is it enough to think that it’s likely? I’m just not sure about that.

Part of what has spurred me to be less optimistic about the Twins chances has been the way they’ve played the reliever market this offseason. I think every Twins fan is well aware that last year’s bullpen was a major issue–though, what wasn’t an issue? Over the last week or so, we’ve seen low-end contracts for useful relievers like Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, Micah Owings, Chad Qualls and even old Twin Pat Neshek . Just today, Todd Coffey was given a 1-year, $1.3 million deal by the Dodgers. How about Juan Cruz, who just got a minor league offer from the Pirates? Cruz had a 8.5 K/9 rate last year with Rays and a 3.88 ERA in 48 2/3 innings, even though he had some injury issues and his velocity is down. Even someone like Chad Durbin, who’s numbers looked worst than the really were (5.53 ERA last year), would have been worth the minor league deal he got with the Nationals recently. The list goes on: Manny Corpas, Manny Delcarmen, Trevor Miller, Chris Ray, Jeremy Accardo, and Clay Hensley. Lots of decent to good options out there to consider and the Twins didn’t seem to be in on any of it.

Many Twins bloggers have already mentioned how all of this makes the Twins one-year deal with Matt Capps looks–especially given that it’s for $4.75 million. No, the Twins seem to love stockpiling pitchers who can’t strike anyone out, like recent addition Luke French (4.6 K/9 in 155 major league innings, 5.7 in the minors). Once they signed the one arm with power potential for the offseason (Joel Zumaya), they seemed to give up on guys like Wheeler and Coffey. Are they so certain that they have enough to compete?

I’m hoping somebody can convince me of it, but I just can’t see it. I’m willing to believe reports that Joe Mauer is in much better shape and I’m looking forward to a bounce-back year, but I still suspect that he’ll have to change positions sooner than later, hurting his value to the team. Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham were both good signings, but with Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel gone, collectively they might not add that much value beyond Doumit’s intermittent ability to play catcher and his switch-hitting. And consider me positively skeptical about the Jason Marquis signing–I believe this will go down along with the Ramon Ortiz, Livan Hernandez, and Sidney Ponson signings as bad bargain bin shopping. It’s wishful thinking to believe that a guy like Marquis, who can’t miss bats or find the strike zone consistently, won’t get killed in the AL.

I know I missed a signing in there, but Jamey Carroll won’t change the situation much. He’s solid at getting on-base, but he’ll be hard-pressed at 38 to play shortstop everyday. The infield situation, between Danny Valencia, Alexi Casilla, Nishioka and Morneau, has disaster potential. And Willingham over Cuddyer is a improvement in offense, it’s not a huge jump. Otherwise, the outfield gives us big question marks, between Ben Revere’s complete lack of power (.309 slugging) and Denard Span’s concussion issues.

How about the starting rotation beyond Marquis? Scott Baker was great last year, with the 128 ERA+ in 134 2/3 and 8.2 K/9, but he never seems to be able to stay healthy. Sure, Francisco Liriano could give the Twins a great year, but after alternating between good and ugly years, his career ERA+ stands at 101 and his career FIP stands at 3.61. If Liriano can harness his control, he can do great things, but it’s not something I think anyone can count on–that too in his career over time has been mediocre (3.5/9). Carl Pavano has been constantly fine the past three seasons, putting up average figures (4.00/4.02/4.10 FIP), but that declining strikeout rate is downright frightening. It was at 4.14 last year and one has to question how much longer he can put up those consistent numbers, especially given that he’s a groundball pitcher with suspect defenders in the infield behind him.

Nick Blackburn is in not too much different of a situation–a increasingly groundball pitcher (up to 53.5% last year, after steadily increasing each year) with a low K/9 (4.61 last year, 4.3 career) whose control has gotten worse (up to 3.28 BB/9 last year, from 1.82 in 2008, 1.79 in 2009, 2.24 in 2010). Pavano’s swinging strike rate is at least better than Blackburn’s–7.1 versus 4.8% last year. Of qualified pitchers (for the ERA title), only Brad Penny had a lower rate in 2011. As much as things could fall apart for Pavano, it’s even more likely they will for Blackburn. And the immediate backups don’t offer too much promise.

Brian Duensing may be the better pitcher than Blackburn, though I’m not sure the Twins know that. Duensing seem to drastically change between 2010 and 2011, going from a 2.62 ERA to a 5.23, but the periparals didn’t change much. His K/9 and BB/9 only altered slight (5.3 K/9 to 6.4, 2.4 BB/9 to 2.9) while the FIP (3.85, 4.27) and xFIP (3.96, 4.05) also didn’t move that much. Instead, he went from leaving 81.6% of runners on base to 66.5 and he started getting less groundballs (52.9% to 43.3). Duensing is clearly more effective against lefties–his splits are monumental. Righties hit .330/.387/.560 with 20 home runs off him. Lefties hit .217/.242/.280. Blackburn’s problem is that everyone hits off him. Duensing is better overall, but still more suited for bullpen duty. If he’s a better pitcher than Blackburn, it doesn’t necessarily mean he should start. Rather, it’s more an indication of the weakness of the Twins rotation.

Anthony Swarzak isn’t the answer either. Swarzak can’t strike out anyone either (4.9 K/9).  It certainly would be nice to have the presence of Kevin Slowey on the roster, but apparently the team couldn’t put up with his attitude. Liam Hendricks seemed overwhelmed at the major league level and he’s yet to have real success at Triple-A (5.5 K/9, 4.56 ERA last year). Beyond that, there isn’t really much more depth to pick from. Bullpen-wise, the Twins could give a shot to someone like Anthony Slama, who will now be 28, but they still seem skeptical of doing so. And, while Jose Mirajes was bad last year, his had a fine track-record and would have cost only $650,000. Instead, they let him go.

The Twins have plenty of prospects in the system worth paying attention, but most of them are still years away. Joe Benson could help next year, but he still seems to be getting control of his plate discipline. He walks plenty, but a .288 average in Double-A with a high strikeout rate doesn’t typically translate to immediate major league success. It seems like he still needs some time in Triple-A. Brian Dozier is well-liked by the organization and did well in Double-A last year, but will he break into the Twins infield? He probably should get a shot sooner than later, but are the Twins willing to cut bait in Nishioka? Chris Parmelee also did quite well in September last year, but his numbers at Double-A last year suggest he’s not ready to consistently produce at the big-league level. Otherwise, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, and Oswaldo Arcia need time and Kyle Gibson will be out the whole year after Tommy John surgery.

Really, given all of those considerations, too many things have to go right for the Twins to have a chance at contending. I don’t think the Tigers will be a juggernaught, but they’ll be hard for the Twins to keep up with. The Indians could, as I’ve suggested, bounce back. The Royals have a bevy of young talent, much of it ready to contribute this year–they could surprise a lot of people. But I’m sure the Twins will surprise. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the middle of the season, players like Doumit, Pavano, Liriano and others get traded. The Twins, if they are being honest, probably need to commit to a real rebuilding project sooner than later. While this view may come off as cynical, it is difficult for me to avoid.

If the Twins wanted to contend, they would have utilize their resources better this offseason. Their signings of Doumit, Willingham, and Zumaya were to be applauded and letting go of Kubel and Cuddyer were the right moves. But those were probably the right moves because of the draft picks they’ll get. That’s part of the reason the Capps deal was so bad–the Twins not only spent nearly $5 million, but lost out of draft compensation. And in doing so, they took themselves out of a buyer’s market, rich with cheap veteran relievers. They also went out and addressed their starting pitching issues with a weak veteran arm who’s unlikely to give them even average production. They’ll be relying on two key players coming back strong and healthy from serious concussions issues. In one of those cases–Justin Morneau–his career even be over. And the team did not seriously address one of their biggest issues, doing essentially nothing to beef up a defense that could not support the Twins “pitch to contact” starting staff and ideology last year. That may well be the case again. Spring training starts soon enough and the season will be upon us before we know it. It just may take longer than that before fans can cheer for a contender again.

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4 Responses to Can the Twins Contend?

  1. Josh says:

    I think this is a fair, if slightly pessimistic assessment. The Twins fate this season hinges on a LOT of players with some injury histories being healthy for a 75% or more of the season. It really makes this team very hard to project, I think, because health isn’t something that you can count on one way or another.

    Take Carl Pavano: if you said 4 seasons ago that you could pencil him in for 200 innings, everyone would laugh at you. The same statement today seems pretty reasonable. After Mauer’s rotten and injury-filled 2011, hardly anyone outside of the Twins organization seems willing to project him to play 130-140 games this season…but from 2005-2010, Mauer did exactly that 5 out of 6 seasons with 3 top 10 MVP performances including a win.

    It’s hard to count on health, and very difficult to predict injury. If Span, Mauer, Morneau, Willingham, Doumit, & Valencia are healthy all season, the offense should be significantly better than 2011, and adding Carroll & Revere to the defensive mix should help the Twins give up less runs. A healthy Baker, Liriano, and Capps should also keep the run totals down.

    But it could all go very wrong quickly. The Twins do have a number of hitters in the high minors this year that could be more ready to step in if/when injuries do occur (Tosoni, Benson, Parmelee with Nishioka maybe better acclimated and healthy), but on the pitching side of things it’s less clear that the depth is available. (This is where Gibson’s Tommy John surgery really hurts; he should have been pushing for a spot in the rotation this year and there’s no one with his ability and seeming readiness right now. Hendriks is the next up, but could really use the additional time, I think)

    The pessimism is very reasonable. But this team could also defeat projections with better health. I think they’ll be fairly strong out the gate, but sustainability will only happen if the injuries that wrecked the team last year are significantly reduced.

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