Wednesday, January 20, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Minnesota Twins

Minnesota Twins:

2009 Record: 87-76

General Manager: Bill Smith

Manager: Ron Gardenhire

Organizational Philosophy: a lot is riding on the opening of Target Field in 2010 and the promise of increased finances. There has been talk about how the new ballpark won't necessitate an increase in spending but the current increase in payroll ($65 million in '09 and a projected increase to $95 million in 2010) should put some of those fears to bed.  The Twins did indulge in an active offseason by trading for JJ Hardy along with coming to terms with Carl Pavano along with talk that the team is looking to address a few other needs.

The one major increase in spending that does matter is how ownership and management will handle the looming Joe Mauer free agency after next season.  As of this writing no major developments have emerged but I would expect the Twins to move slow and gauge how other teams are handling their young superstars.  Looking at the differences between current GM Bill Smith and former GM Terry Ryan (1994-2007) one does see a major change in how the current management isn't afraid to trade off some of their youngsters in return for other promising prospects and key players (Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young; Carlos Gomez for JJ Hardy, etc.).  Like the recent situation in Toronto, Smith was also a new GM when faced with either trading or retaining superstar LHP Johan Santana.  Looking back, Smith probably overplayed his hand by trying to get the Red Sox and Yankees to outbid one another but it did shed a light on Minnesota's new management team.

Despite new revenue sources, I still expect the Twins to focus their usual philosophy of scouting and developing players via the draft and looking to fill their roster with cheaper one-year options through free agency.  They have done an excellent job in stocking their farm system with promising arms and they tend to favor athletic outfielders but an aggressive front office is something new and it will be interesting to see how the Mauer situation shapes up if no deal is reached before the 2010 season.

2010 Commitments:

Starting Rotation:

Scott Baker ($3M)
Kevin Slowey ($440K)
Carl Pavano ($7M)
Nick Blackburn ($440K)
Francisco Liriano ($1.6M)
Brian Duensing ($400K)

Barring any injury, this rotation seems to be set.  Scott Baker is slowly taking over #1 status (mostly by default) and his command and K rate have been consistently good over the past three seasons (averages 3.40 K/BB since 2007).  He still falls victim to giving up too many HR's (his HR/9 has been creeping upwards during that same span) and his growing flyball rate should cause the organization some alarm (43.1% in '07; 45.8% in '08; 47.1% last season).  Unless he is shipped off to Petco Park he'll need to display excellent command in order to justify his rotation status.

Kevin Slowey is another high FB pitcher who displays excellent command (1.49 BB/9 last season in 90IP; 1.35 BB/9 in 160IP in 2008).  Last season was cut short due to a bone spur in his wrist, his surgery was considered a success and he should have no problems coming back this spring.

Carl Pavano accepted the Twins arbitration offer and will return for one more season after he pitched 199 quality innings in 2009.  Pavano showed no signs of fatigue and posted his best K rate (6.64 K/9) since 2002 when he was a member of the Expos.  Pavano did post a high ERA (5.10) but a lot of that was due to a higher than average BABIP .335 and low strand rate of 66.1%.  In 2009, Pavano was able to induce a lot more opposing hitters to swing outside the strikezone as his slider and changeup proved to be quite effective according to FanGraphs Pitch Type Values.  If he can induce a few more groundballs (and stay healthy) then I expect Pavano to be very effective next season.

Going further down the rotation, Nick Blackburn is another excellent command pitcher who is extremely hittable (240 hits allowed in 205 IP last season) but doesn't suffer from a high BABIP (.308 last season).  Blackburn works primarily with his fastball (60% of all pitches thrown in '09) and his increasing GB% (45.8%) and low BB/9 (1.79) makes him a valuable addition.

Francisco Liriano is hoping to reclaim his old nickname Johan 2.0 and the reports coming from his stint in winter baseball has been very promising.  In his second season coming back from Tommy John surgery, Liriano showed erratic control (4.28 BB/9 last season) but his velocity did improve as he saw improvement in his K rate (8.08 K/9).  The key to Liriano's success is reclaiming his fastball and since his surgery he has relied on this pitch more but even with an improved velocity it is nowhere near the same pitch he displayed in 2006 (averaged 95 mph in '06 compared to 91 mph last season).  Liriano still has a lot of promise since he will be only 26 next season.

Brian Duensing will be a rotation candidate in 2010 after last season's September run. In actuality he profiles as nothing more than a #5 starter but he does have four serviceable pitches along with a strong GB rate and room to improve command-wise (3.32 BB/9 in 84 MLB IP last season compared to a rate of 2.10 in the minors).  He'll be 26 in 2010.

Other candidates this spring will be 24 year old Anthony Swarzak who was frustrating in 59 MLB IP last season, since being promoted to AA in 2008 he been quite hittable and his lack of a third serviceable pitch (throws mostly a fastball and curveball) could have him relegated to bullpen use if he continues to struggle next season. 

Glen Perkins is another option but age (27) and durability (shut down due to shoulder injury last August; the MRI, however, showed no structural damage) could force him to the bullpen as time seems to be running out for the crafty left-hander.  The handling of Perkin's shoulder injury seems to have caused the team to avoid an arbitration hearing and seems to have caused Perkins to be very upset with front office management.

Finally, Carlos Gutierrez may need more developmental time but this former college closer has Twins officials excited at the possibility of Gutierrez developing his slider and changeup and heavy sinking fastball and using him as a starter (should see the beginning of next season in AA and could move fast as the team hopes to increase his innings).


Joe Nathan ($11.25M)
Matt Guerrier ($3.1M)
Jose Mijares ($400K)
Pat Neshek ($625K)
Jon Rauch ($2.9M)
Jesse Crain ($2M)
Clay Condrey ($900K)

Postseason yips aside, the main reason for Joe Nathan's late season struggled could be attributed to bone chips removed from his pitching elbow.  Nathan is as dominant as a closer gets (11.67 K/9 and 2.88 BB/9 last season) but he will be 35 next season and has two more seasons left on his contract. 

What a difference a little luck and a reduced BB rate makes... last season Matt Guerrier looked like an all-star posting a 2.36 ERA in 76 IP but looking a bit closer we can see his K rate reduced (averaged 6.30 compared to 5.54 K/9 last season) as a low BABIP and a high strand rate could be the true reason for his inflated numbers.

Jose Mijares is a promising young reliever who still struggles vs. righties (.283/.353/.433 against).  Mijares will be 25 next season and despite the luck he had last season (.266 BABIP; 89% strand rate) he will be used quite frequently in some high pressure situations.  Temper your expectations, for now.

Pat Neshak and Jon Rauch are hoping to contribute to a fairly solid bullpen in 2010.  Neshak will be returning from TJ surgery and hopes to capitalize on his usual high K and low BB rate (although most TJ survivors do struggle with command in their first season back) and Rauch is a flyball pitcher who has the tough task of trying to (again) avoid the longball while striking out less batters like he did last season.

On the field:

C: Joe Mauer ($12.5M)
C: Jose Morales ($400K)
1B: Justin Morneau ($15M)
2B: Nick Punto ($4M)
2B: Alexi Casilla ($427K)
SS: J.J. Hardy ($5.1M)
3B: Brendan Harris ($1.45M)
3B: Matt Tolbert ($405K)
LF: Delmon Young ($2.6M)
CF: Denard Span ($435K)
RF: Michael Cuddyer ($9.4M)
OF: Jason Kubel ($4.1M)

Going forward, Joe Mauer looks to be one of the more valuable players in baseball in terms of offensive ability and position scarcity.  He is the prototypical franchise player and one Minnesota needs to lock up fast.  In terms of backup, Jose Morales can hold his own offensively (think Mike Redmond with a better BB rate) but defensively he grades below average.

Next season, Justin Morneau will be 29 and looks to be past 2009's late season injuries.  Most project him to sit around .273 and club 30-32 HR's in 2010 but his upward trend in terms of flyball's hit does suggest there may be more power in store for us.  Last season, his linedrive rate was down a bit (15%) but his FB's jumped a bit to 42.9% and elevated his HR/FB rate to 16%.  If Morneau can sustain his slight rise in FB's and notch up his LD rate back around 19-20% next season; we could easily expect him to flirt with the 40 HR mark and possibly stay there for the next few seasons.

Expect another merry-go-round at 2B next season as Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert and Brendan Harris all take turns.  Punto carries the high pricetag and the Ron Gardenhire seal of approval, so expect him to get the bulk of the playing time at second.  Tolbert and Harris will linger around 3B until Danny Valencia proves he's ready to be a fulltime MLB player.

The recent trade for JJ Hardy can be interpreted many ways concerning the teams involved but, on the Twins side, they do know they are getting a solid defender at SS who will occasionally struggle against the usual RHP.  What the Twins do hope for is that Hardy's power will return as he enters his age 27 season.  Last season Hardy struggled to make solid contact and his BABIP was a bit lowish at .260.  I would expect his ISO to return to normal levels in 2010 (registered at .128 in '09 while averaging around .175) but the fact that he doesn't hit many flyballs to begin with limits him in the power department.

The Twins are loaded with plenty of OF prospects but in the meantime the usual assortment of Delmon Young, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are an able bunch.  Young may have lost his future superstar tag due to a few seasons of high K's and low BB's and not much in terms of power but his age (24) and strong second half .306/.327/.511 should have more than a few Twins fans excited.  Span has shown the ability to be an above average leadoff hitter and should fit nicely as the everyday CF now that he has the job all to himself.  Cuddyer put together a healthy 2009 (despite the occasional back flare-up) and came up with a solid career season hitting .276/.342/.520.  In Cuddyer's case, I do expect a slight regression since consistency hasn't been his strong suit but, if healthy, he should perform nobilily until his contract runs out after 2011.

Next Season's Forecast:  grumblings aside, I think Minnesota is so far enjoying a very productive offseason.  The addition of JJ Hardy and Carl Pavano is a great start and if they can solidfy their lineup either at 3B (unless Danny Valencia has a major spring) or 2B and add a quality right-handed power bat they should be the team to beat in the AL Central.

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