Tuesday, March 31, 2009

National League Preview

At this point, given my infrequent appearances at the blog and my lack of recognizability amongst newer readers of this site, I may be a guest blogger at this point. Regardless, those who have read the site for a long time know that I normally do the National League previews before the season and that won't change this year, despite my continuing and sometimes overwhelming law school obligations. Let's begin:

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs
It's true that the Brewers had a great run last year that should make us take them more seriously, but at the same time, they lost some of the principle movers in that run: C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets. In the meantime, the Cubs added last year's OPS leader in the AL, injury-addled and personally troubled Milton Bradley. Even if he only plays 120 or 130 games, he'll add to an already potent offense that includes Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and a decline-phase Derrek Lee. And don't forget the rotation includes Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster.

Player to watch: Sean Marshall, SP
(Marshall should be the 5th starter this year, winning the spot over Aaron Heilman. His peripherals aren't great, but 58 Ks in 65 innings last year looked good. He should be good for double-digit starts and a decent ERA.)

2. St. Louis Cardinals
The Brewers will be competitive for this second spot, but ultimately, I'm not convinced they have enough starting pitching to grab second place and what could be a possible wild-card spot. The Cards will have Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright back and any offense built around Albert Pujols isn't worth worrying about, even if Ryan Ludwick regresses from a breakout season in 2008. The Cards didn't do much in the offseason, but then again, neither did the Brewers.

Player to watch: Chris Perez, RP
(Now that Jason Isringhausen is gone, Perez seems likely to succeed him as the closer. He's a well-regarded relief prospect with a outstanding fastball, if not the greatest control. Don't expect a top ERA, but he should get saves, strikeouts, and a good ERA. Colby Ramus has an argument here, but I'd expect that breakout to come in another year.)

3. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are a team I want to root for, but I'm just not sure that they are much better than a .500 or so team. Sure, they've got lots of hitters, from Ryan Braun to Prince Fielder to J.J. Hardy, but they have holes too, like Bill Hall and the frustratingly ineffective Rickie Weeks. The Brewers also have good young starters like Yovani Gallardo and Carlos Villenueva but they don't have a real ace and have mediocre leftovers like Jeff Suppan and Matt Bush to round out the rotation. More to the point, they don't have an overwhelming relief corps, with lots of big names (Trevor Hoffman, Braden Looper) but little substance.

Player to watch: Rickie Weeks, 2B
(Weeks has been around for a while and has produced plenty of lofty expectations, but he's yet to play a full season and has not shown his five-tools skills outside of good patience and speed. If he doesn't break out this year, he probably never is going to. Don't expect a high batting average (at least, not over .280), but he should hit with more power and show a good eye at the plate. )

4. Cincinnati Reds
Even though the Astros did well enough in the second half last year to finish above .500, I don't think they'll be repeating it this year. What's the difference between the team? The Reds have much better young talent in pitchers like Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey and hitters like Jay Bruce and Joey Votto. Overall, they probably aren't ready to contend, but don't count out the Reds talent-wise.

Player to watch: Johnny Cueto, SP
(Cueto had a very exciting beginning of the year last year, striking out 10 in seven innings while giving up just one hit. Unfortunately, bad control and fly ball tendencies in a hitter's park worked against him over the year. I wouldn't expect a huge drop in ERA, but Cueto should strikeout plenty again and slowly get a hold of his control.)

5. Houston Astros
One word with the Astros: old. Mainstays, like Lance Berkman, are 33 and getting closer to inevitable decline. It is not so much that Berkman and Oswalt and other Astros veterans are going to fall off the cliff (though, clearly Miguel Tejeda has), but that there are no young stars to replace them. There are gaps all over the place on the Astros team -- from the starting rotation to catcher to center field to everyone in the bullpen outside of the closer, Jose Valverde, who is no guarantee himself.

Player to watch: Hunter Pence, OF
(Pence in some respects already had a breakout in his rookie campaign, but he arguably was below expectations last year, despite knocking out 25 home runs. Pence needs to learn the strike-zone better and learn to utilize his speed (11/21 on steals isn't good), things that he has a good chance to show over this next year.)

6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Even the most optimistic of pundits isn't likely to think the Pirates are going to do well this year. They've started to make the right changes, but it's certainly going to take some time. If nothing else, they have a good young starter in Paul Maholm, a good young closer in Matt Capps, and it is possible that given time, Andy LaRoche could show his skills with a full-time job.

Player to watch: Andy LaRoche, 3B
(It's about time LaRoche showed off his skills in the show, given his good numbers in the minors, where he produced a .294/.380/.517 overall. I'm not sure that LaRoche will ever produce that in the bigs, but he should be able to aproach a .265/.350/.450.)

NL East

1. Atlanta Braves
This pick may seem a little preposterous, but I feel as if the Braves have one shot this year with their current roster to make a run at the NL East and I'm not really overwhelmed by the Phillies or the Mets. Both those teams have holes, but the Braves have a potential outstanding rotation with Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Jair Jurrgens, and their lineup includes Chipper Jones, Brain McCann and Kelly Johnson. I'm not impressed by moves like signing Garrett Anderson, but under the leadership of Bobby Cox, I have to think they can make it work.

Player to watch: Casey Kotchman, 1B
(Kotchman had been a disappointment overall for the Angels, considering that he hit .325/.401/.493 in the minors, but has managed only a .269/.336/.413 line in the majors. Kotchman will never be Prince Fielder, but I would certainly expect a better average, better discipline, and decent power in the future.)

2. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies have one of baseball's better lineups, despite losing Pat Burrell (sorry, but Raul Ibanez is not the best replacement), but their pitching worries me and the defending champs don't have me convinced. Yes, they have Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels, who are both incredible, but otherwise, I'm not impressed by Joe Blanton, J.C. Romero, and Brett Myers. And I'm pretty sure that eventually, Jamie Moyer will truly show his age. I just don't think he's the second coming of Hoyt Wilhelm. They'll be good with a lineup including MVP candidates like Chase Utley, but not good enough.

Player to watch: Jayson Werth, OF
(This is more a less a cop-out, since Werth hit .273/.363/.498 in 418 at-bats last year. But, the Phillies don't have a lot of good breakout candidates and Werth hasn't had success for a full year. Given a full year, Werth should be able to hit with power and patience again, and possible approach 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Apologies to Terry Tiffee fans everywhere.)

3. New York Mets
The Mets look good on paper and probably have an excellent chance to win the East, but given what has happened in the past, it is awfully hard to ignore the difference between two halves. If the Mets are a schizophrenic team again, then it will be another hard road to the playoffs. And no, I don't think K-Rod makes much of a difference, since he was underwhelming last year despite his guady save stats. I would expect disappointment again.

Player to watch: Jon Niese, SP
(Niese didn't have a good September appearance last year (7.07 ERA, 14 innings), but he's done well enough in the minors (3.04 ERA in the minors last year) that he should be able to have a strong rookie season with a solid K-rate. Otherwise, the Mets don't have any other clear candidates to break out yet.)

4. Florida Marlins
Don't get me wrong; I like the Marlins. Enough so, that as a team filled with young talent, I'd like to have them as a surprise pick. Their rotation is quite impressive: Ricky Nolasco (who seemed to have a great season that no one noticed), Chris Volstad, Josh Johnson, and Anibal Sanchez. But they don't really have a stable bullpen and outside of Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, they don't have any established hitters, which was only exacerbated by the offseason trades of Mike Jacobs and Josh Willingham. Still, don't be surprised if they exceed expectations.

Player to watch: Jeremy Hermida, OF
(Hermida was long a top prospect who had a memorable first big-league at-bat and who looked poised to breakout after his 2007 season. However, he disappointed last year, ending up with a .249/.323/.406 line. Hermida is still only 24, has shown solid patience and power in the past and given one more opportunity, he may surprise.)

5. Washington Nationals
The Nats, after their offseason scandal ending with the firing of Jose Rijo and the resignation of Jim Bowden, seem like the most hopeless team in baseball, competing with the Padres and Pirates. Granted, they signed Adam Dunn, but I'm not sure he'll change too much since his on-base skills and powers may be of less in a lineup with little protection. It seems like it may simply be a question of how many games they'll lose. Ultimately, they seem like the hoarding ground for drama queens and headcases like Scott Olsen, Elijah Dukes, Daniel Cabrera, and others. If nothing else, maybe that will add some intrigue?

Player to watch: Elijah Dukes, OF
(He's clearly has some issues, but as many of those as he has, he is also oozing with talent. Speed, power, and patience are all there for Dukes if he can put the package together. He hit .264/.386/.478 in 276 at-bats, so it seems entirely possible that he can display star talent over the year.)

NL West

1. Arizona Diamondbacks
I'm making this pick because I'm fairly confident in the natural growth of Arizona's top young hitters, including Chris Young, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds and Conor Jackson. Additionally, they have some young pitching talent in Yusmeiro Petit and Max Scherzer to go with the phenomenal 1-2 punch of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. And while the relief corps isn't the best, arms like Tony Pena and Jon Rauch should make a successful one.

Player to watch: Chris Young, CF
(I think it would be easy to pick Justin Upton, since he's almost sure to impress, but Young seems more appropriate. He's shown plenty of talent in his two years with Diamondbacks, but he has yet to show the same combination of power, speed, and patience he showed in the minors. His BA/BIP of .300 (actually average of .248) says that he'll some luck to increase his average, but I think he's a solid bet to make a jump this year.)

2. Los Angeles Dodgers
I like that the Dodgers made some solid offseason moves, signing Manny and Orlando Hudson. Overall, that gives the Dodgers a solid lineup, adding them to the likes of Matt Kemp, James Loney, and Russell Martin. However, I'm not as confident about the pitching. Chad Billingsley is an ace at this point and Clayton Kershaw has plenty of talent, but they lost their second best starter (Derek Lowe) and a successful closer in Takashi Saito and are left with options like Jeff Weaver and Randy Wolf.

Player to watch: Matt Kemp, OF
(Kemp was pretty impressive last year, combining 35 steals with 18 home runs and 38 doubles. Somehow, it wasn't noticed and Kemp was considered by some to be a disappointment. Thus, he's still a breakout candidate to me and given the talent he's shown, I think Kemp can hit 20-25 home runs, with a .300 average and 40 steals. Sounds like a stellar talent.)

3. San Francisco Giants
The Giants get this ranking almost purely on the basis of their standout rotation. They have Randy Johnson, who had quite the eye-opening season for a pitcher his age last year (173 Ks, 184 innings), joining Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in a pitcher's park. Of course, their only other big signing was Edgar Renteria, who was one of the worst everyday players in baseball last year. The Giants won't hit at all, but they'll pitch enough to be in the middle of the pack in the weak NL West.

Player to watch: Matt Cain, SP
(Let me clarify: this is mostly in response to those who think wins are the best way of statistically evaluating a pitcher's contribution to his team. That luck should change at least enough to a "breakout," as he should be able to produce double-digit wins with his talent. Otherwise, Cain can improve on his ERA by reducing a walk-rate that has not moved much at all in his first three full seasons. If he can do that, he'll probably get more strikeouts and we'll see a season representing what we've expected from him since he came up and first tantalized the league with his talent in 2005.)

4. Colorado Rockies
The Rockies certainly have some good players--young pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales and hitters like Chris Iannetta and Troy Tulowitzki. They also have mainstays like Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe, as well as ancient Rockie Todd Helton, but they really don't have enough pitching or hitting overall to have much success. Despite their success in the 2007 season, after trading their best player Matt Holliday, they appear to be in rebuilding mode yet again.

Player to watch: Chris Iannetta, C
(Iannetta seems poised for a big season from the catcher's position, as he produced a solid .264/.390/.505 line in 388 at-bats, showing great plate discipline and plenty of power for the position. He's only hit .249 so far in the bigs, but he was a .303/.407/.508 hitter in the minors, so it seems reasonable that his average will come up as well this year.)

5. San Diego Padres
I've already tagged them as one of baseball hopeless teams, so it seems clear I do not think much of them. Perhaps scanning the roster will show you why; there just isn't much there to like. Adrian Gonzalez is a very good hitter and would surely look a lot better if he wasn't in the offense-suffocating environment of Petco Park. Of course, I shouldn't underestimate them -- after all, they have David Eckstein on their team and you know all the intangibles he has. Can't measure those with stats.

Player to watch: Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B
(Kouzmanoff should be a DH in the American League, and not just because he's a terrible fielder but also because he was a .292/.329/.473 hitter on road and a .226/.268/.390 hitter at Petco. Forgetting those issues, Kouzmanoff was a .332/.393/.556 in the minors. As with many of these breakout candidates, simply having a good minor league track record doesn't necessarily mean major-league success, so he could end up a bust. However, given that record, it is reasonably to believe that he'll breakout this year. Anyways, are there many other candidates on the Padres you can point to?)

Monday, March 30, 2009

American League Preview

In the days leading up to the start of the season, we always like to preview each league, with brief overviews of each team and a prediction of how each division will shake out. The tradition has been for me to cover the American League and for my former partner to cover the National League, and we'll look to do the same this year if I can coax Mosvick out of his semi-retirement for a day. For today, a look at the three AL divisions:

AL West

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels won 100 games last year, and didn't lose much of significance during the offseason. They did a fine job of replacing closer Francisco Rodriguez with the acquisition of Brian Fuentes, and Bobby Abreu figures to be an improvement over the departed Garret Anderson. Ervin Santana will open the season on the disabled list, but keep an eye on him when he returns; he's an emerging ace.

Player to watch: Howie Kendrick, 2B

2. Oakland Athletics
I have questions about the A's starting pitching, but their offense figures to see dramatic improvement this season thanks to the additions of Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera and Jason Giambi. This is a team that could really surprise some people this season, but their rotation lacks known quantities past No. 1 starter Justin Duchscherer, so they'll need a few hurlers to step up.

Player to watch: Dana Eveland, SP

3. Seattle Mariners
Under new front office leadership, the Mariners are making baby steps toward returning to competitiveness. They have some nice pieces in place offensively, and the Felix Hernandez/Erik Bedard combo at the top of the rotation can be among the best in the league if both stay healthy. Carlos Silva is definitely in line for a rebound year.

Player to watch: Jeff Clement, C

4. Texas Rangers
It's the same old, same old in Arlington. Once again, the Rangers figure to field a quality lineup, but their rotation is hardly inspiring. Their ostensible "ace," Kevin Millwood, has posted an ERA over 5 in each of the past two seasons and there's a lot of mediocrity behind him on the depth chart.

Player to watch: Nelson Cruz, RF

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians
The Central is a wide-open division but right now the Tribe seems best poised to come out on top. The addition of Mark DeRosa fills an infield hole and Kerry Wood could cure a long-standing headache at the closer position. Cliff Lee's regression should be offset by Fausto Carmona's improvement, and Anthony Reyes may be on the verge of a breakout season. If Joe Mauer is out for a significant portion of the season, Grady Sizemore is the division's best position player.

Player to watch: Shin-Soo Choo, RF

2. Minnesota Twins
The Twins are neck-and-neck with the Indians in terms of talent, in my mind, but Minnesota just didn't do much to improve on its areas of deficiency during the offseason, putting them a step behind Cleveland. The bullpen figures to be a problem area and there isn't much reliable depth behind the starting five in the rotation.

Player to watch: Jason Kubel, DH

3. Detroit Tigers
The offense remains potent and I actually see the rotation rebounding quite a bit this year. In fact, a starting five consisting of Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Armando Galarraga, Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello could be very solid, though Porcello is likely to open the season in the minors. Still, the bullpen remains a concern -- particularly if Joel Zumaya can't get healthy -- and the combination of advanced age and lack of depth across the roster could spell trouble.

Player to watch: Rick Porcello, SP

4. Kansas City Royals
Like the rest of the AL Central, the Royals are strong at the top of the rotation thanks to Gil Mecehe and Zack Greinke, but they'll have a tough time winning a bunch of games as long as they're relying on guys like Horacio Ramirez and Kyle Davies in the bottom half. I think they'll score more runs this year thanks to improved play from Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, but the lineup in general is still badly lacking on-base skills. The Royals have the divisions best bullpen, but will have a tough time building leads in the first place. A .500 record is in sight, but not a division title.

Player to watch: Billy Butler, DH

5. Chicago White Sox
The Sox are due for a tumble this year. Mark Buehrle and John Danks are the real deal, but I'm not high on Gavin Floyd. Bartolo Colon isn't likely to light the world on fire, nor are any of his potential replacements, so Jose Contreras is a real wild card for this club. Offensively, the White Sox are just another year older.

Player to watch: Matt Thornton, RP

AL East

1. New York Yankees
The Bombers aren't looking to get used to spending their Octobers at home, so they went out and spent ridiculous money this offseason to bring in some top free agents. Unlike the typical Steinbrenner winter splurge, I actually think the Yankees made some good moves this offseason. Mark Teixeira is a tremendous offensive talent, C.C. Sabathia should slot well at the top of this rotation and Nick Swisher is a great fit for this club. A.J. Burnett could prove to be a force if he stays healthy, and if he doesn't the Yankees have some pretty good starting pitching depth to back him up.

Player to watch: Joba Chamberlain, SP

2. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays seemingly came out of nowhere to capture the AL pennant last year, but their formula is not one that is conducive to a one-year wonder. The Rays feature lots of great young offensive talent, boast a rotation that is very strong one-through-five, and play excellent defense. They're probably the second-best team in the AL, but they'll have to settle for a Wild Card while playing in the same division as the Yanks.

Player to watch: David Price, SP

3. Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are one of three stellar teams in this division, but I see them as the odd one out because they're just not quite as good as the Yankees or Rays. The Red Sox won't have trouble scoring runs with David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay filling the middle of the lineup, and they boast a strong rotation along with a great bullpen, but to me they don't quite stack up to the two other sluggers in this division.

Player to watch: Jed Lowrie, SS

4. Toronto Blue Jays
There's a pretty substantial drop-off from the Red Sox to the Jays. Toronto has one of the AL's best starter headlining its rotation in Roy Halladay and I like Jesse Litsch, but the back end of this rotation doesn't do much for me and the lineup lacks punch.

Player to watch: Adam Lind, LF1

5. Baltimore Orioles
I was tempted to rank the Orioles ahead of the Jays because I like the young talent they've got assembled on offense. Nick Markakis can be a true star in this league, Adam Jones has tremendous athleticism and Matt Wieters is capable of stealing Joe Mauer's "Best Catcher in the AL Title" as soon as this season. But, this pitching staff is just horrendous. Their No. 1 starter is Jeremy Guthrie, a guy who posted a 3.63 ERA last year and is due for some regression. Adam Eaton and Danys Baez figure to be starters for this team. Yeesh.

Player to watch: Matt Wieters, C

Friday, March 27, 2009

Spring Notes

With all the days I’ve spent churning out Position Analysis pieces for the entire Twins’ roster recently, I haven’t really had much opportunity to write about the happenings of spring training. Today I’ll get caught up with a few notes about spring performances and some thoughts about last night’s televised game.

* Nick Blackburn started against the Reds last night. He had a solid outing, but more importantly made it through four innings without experiencing any apparent issues relating to his knee. His pitches looked sharp and he commanded the strike zone well. There doesn't seem to be any reason for concern regarding Blackburn's status at the start of the season.

* With the exception of Scott Baker, the Twins’ rotation has looked great this spring, which is encouraging. Kevin Slowey had an outstanding performance on Tuesday, allowing just one run on two hits over five innings while striking out five, and he did it against a Marlins starting lineup that featured some solid regulars in Cameron Maybin, Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu and Jeremy Hermida. Slowey now holds a 1.88 ERA and 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 1/3 innings. As for Baker, I’m not too concerned since he’s maintained a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio and isn’t known for great spring performances anyway, but eight homers allowed in 17 innings is pretty staggering.

* To those who are getting excited about Delmon Young’s strong numbers this spring (.314/.340/.549 with three homers and seven RBI), don’t forget that he batted .361 with a homer and seven RBI last spring before sputtering out of the gates in the regular season.

* Speaking of Young, his success should give us an interesting peek into how much weight Ron Gardenhire puts into spring training performances. During the offseason, Gardenhire said flat-out that Young was shaping up to the be the odd-man out on Opening Day, but with Denard Span struggling to the tune of a .140 average over 57 at-bats, I wonder if Gardenhire’s plans will shift.

* I don't put much stock into Carlos Gomez's increased walk rate this spring (most pitchers are still working on finding the zone so the "take everything" approach is bound to yield results), but I am a little intrigued by the power he's shown. Gomez is tied for the team lead in home runs with three and leads all Twins in slugging at .615. I'd love to see Gomez reach double digits in homers while swiping 40 or 50 bases this year.

* After all the flak I took for daring to suggest that Joe Crede was not the obvious, substantial upgrade over a Brendan Harris/Brian Buscher platoon that many seem to believe he is, I find it amusing that Crede is batting .184 here late in spring training while both Harris and Buscher are hitting well over .300 with equal power. I’m not saying it means much… but it is amusing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Stretching Your Money

Recently, the White Sox signed Gavin Floyd to a four-year, $15.5 million deal with a $9 million option for 2013. If those terms sound familar, it's because they are basically identical to those of the contract the Twins handed Scott Baker earlier this month: four years, $15.25 million with a $9.25 option for 2013.

On the surface, the two pitchers may seem similar. Both put up solid numbers last year, with Floyd going 17-8 and posting a 3.84 ERA in Chicago while Baker went 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA for the Twins. On closer inspection, however, we see that Baker was the better pitcher last year, and has been a far better pitcher in general.

Baker struck out 141 batters while issuing only 42 walks for a 3.4 K/BB ratio that easily trumped Floyd's 2.1 ratio. Baker's 1.18 WHIP -- which ranked fifth in the AL -- bested Floyd's 1.26. And while Baker struggled a bit with the long ball, allowing 20 home runs in 172 1/3 innings, Floyd was worse, as he coughed up 30 gopher balls in 206 1/3 frames.

The most important thing to note, though, is that while the disparity between the numbers posted by these two players last year is not necessarily huge, Baker's 2008 season looks much less like a fluke in the context of his overall career. Last year, Baker was backing up a solid 2007 campaign in which he'd gone 9-9 with a 4.26 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, whereas Floyd had gone 1-5 with a 5.27 ERA and 1.48 WHIP that season. For his big-league career, Floyd holds a 4.98 ERA and 1.45 WHIP, while Baker stands at 4.27 and 1.29.

A quick look at the FIP (a measure which strips away extraneous circumstances and accounts only for events which a pitcher has direct control over: namely strikeouts, walks and homers) for both players in 2008 reveals the gap between performance and results. Baker's FIP was 3.85, suggesting that a bit of luck was involved with his 3.45 ERA. Floyd's FIP was 4.78, suggesting a larger gap in performance and results. Floyd's runs against average was 4.67, meaning that a whole bunch of unearned runs came across the plate against him that weren't reflected in his ERA. His home run per fly ball rate was the lowest it's been in four years, meaning that if we normalized that figure out to the rest of his career, he'd have surrendered even more than 30 bombs, a tally which already ranked second in the AL.

It seems fair to say that Baker's successful results last year were the result of pitching very well. Floyd's successful results had more to do with good run support and luck. With that being the case, a better comparison for Floyd on the Twins' staff might be Glen Perkins.

Like Floyd, Perkins was a very nice prospect coming up through the minors who has seen his strikeout rate dip since reaching the majors (though the drop-off has been much steeper in Perkins' case). Also like Floyd, Perkins pitched over his head last year, going 12-4 with a 4.41 ERA despite allowing an 837 OPS and finishing with a 5.24 FIP. As pitchers, the two are fairly similar -- both allow a fairly high number of baserunners, both give up a lot of fly balls (and a lot of homers) and neither strikes many people out. Perkins is younger and less experienced so he may have more room to grow, but Floyd probably is the better pitcher as things currently stand. Going forward, I'd say the two have a similar outlook. Either one is capable of putting together a quality season, but both have significant flaws that can catch up with them at any time. Both these possibilities were on display last season, as each starter pitched fairly well over the first half of the season but got worse as the year went on.

Anyway, all this wordy analysis is a long-winded way of making a simple point: within the past month or so, the Twins have signed their Opening Day starter and presumptive ace to the same contract that the White Sox handed a pitcher who aligns much more closely with the Twins' No. 5 starter. I'm not saying that necessarily means that Baker is underpaid, or that Floyd is overpaid, but it's the way these things work. And from the Twins perspective, it's a pretty sweet deal.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

Today I’ll wrap up the Position Analysis series by breaking down perhaps the most concerning unit on the Twins. In 2008, the bullpen was a glaring weakness for this club, particularly late in the season when many meaningful ballgames were lost in the late innings. During the offseason, Bill Smith did little to actively upgrade the relief corps, and it seems that the Twins will mostly be relying on internal improvement. They’ll need a lot of that, since they’ll be without Dennys Reyes, Boof Bonser and Pat Neshek.

A look at the five bullpen locks, as well as the folks vying for the final two spots:

The Closer: Joe Nathan
2008 Stats: 67.2 IP, 39 SV, 1.33 ERA, 74 K / 18 BB, 0.90 WHIP

Nathan is just 55 saves shy of Rick Aguilera’s franchise-leading career total.

While the rest of the Twins’ bullpen trudged through a difficult 2008 season, Nathan went ahead and put together one of his best seasons to date, posting the lowest ERA of his career while allowing less than one baserunner per inning and racking up 39 saves. Nathan has been one of the most consistent relief pitchers in baseball over the past five years and if he stays healthy, there’s little question that he’ll remain automatic in the ninth inning. If his shoulder flare from a week ago eventually turns out to be something serious, the Twins may be in trouble.

Setup Man: Jesse Crain
2008 Stats: 62.2 IP, 3.59 ERA, 50 K / 24 BB, 1.37 WHIP

All in all, Crain’s 2008 campaign should be viewed as a success. Coming back from major shoulder surgery, the right-hander showed mid-90s velocity on his fastball and posted numbers fairly similar to the ones from his last year prior to the injury. Unfortunately, Crain’s success got lost in the bullpen’s struggles, and he was hit hard in some key situations. He’s looked good this spring so the hope is that he can become a reliable eight-inning guy in front of Nathan. If he can’t, the Twins lack compelling alternatives.

Lefty Specialist: Craig Breslow
2008 Stats (w/ Indians & Twins): 47 IP, 1.91 ERA, 39 K / 19 BB, 1.13 WHIP

Breslow was one of the most pleasant surprises of last season, posting a 1.67 ERA and holding opponents to a .180 batting average over 38 2/3 innings after being snagged from the Indians in May. Breslow was particularly effective against left-handers but pitched well against righties as well, making him a much better option than Dennys Reyes. Breslow has had success everywhere he’s been in the majors, but has only accumulated 75 /13 career innings and so must prove that he can repeat his performance from last year. I’m optimistic.

Middle Reliever: Matt Guerrier
2008 Stats: 76.1 IP, 5.19 ERA, 59 K / 37 BB, 1.59 WHIP

In 2007, Guerrier ranked fourth in the AL with 73 appearances. In ’08, he tied for first in the league with 76 appearances. All this work seems to have caught up with Guerrier, who struggled a bit toward the end of ’07 and completely broke down late last year. Through much of his career, Guerrier has proven capable of posting solid numbers, so the Twins will have to hope that he can rebound this year and show that his arm isn’t shot.

Middle Reliever: Luis Ayala
2008 Stats: 75.2 IP, 5.71 ERA, 50 K / 24 BB, 1.45 WHIP

In and of itself, the Ayala acquisition this offseason wasn’t necessarily a bad move. The problem is that Ayala is basically in the same boat as Guerrier -- both have been successful pitchers earlier in their careers, but both pitched very poorly last year. When you’re trying to assemble an improved bullpen, relying on multiple pitchers with mediocre stuff to rebound from dreadful seasons is probably not the wisest strategy.

The final two bullpen spots are not set in stone, so here’s a quick look at the contenders and the favorites to fill each spot…

Second Lefty

Jose Mijares
2008 Stats: 10.1 IP, 0.87 ERA, 5 K / 0 BB, 0.29 WHIP

Mijares was a breath of fresh air last fall when he joined the Twins as a September call-up and shut down the competition in his first big-league stint, allowing just one run on three hits and no walks over 10 1/3 innings. Yet, anyone who has followed Mijares’ minor-league career surely worried that the 23-year-old was pitching over his head. He’d consistently struggled to find the strike zone throughout the minors, yet didn’t issue a single walk during his time with the Twins. Reality has caught up in a hurry. After getting kicked off his winter league team due to attitude problems and showing up at Twins camp out of shape, Mijares has struggled badly with his control and gotten hit hard in exhibition play. He’s a real long-shot to make the team out of spring training, but still has electric stuff and should arrive in Minnesota at some point this year.

Brian Duensing
2008 Stats (AAA): 138.2 IP, 5-11, 4.28 ERA, 77 K / 34 BB, 1.33 WHIP

With Mijares losing his grip on the bullpen role of second left-hander, Duensing has emerged as a surprise contender. He has pitched very well this spring and holds a 3.46 career ERA in the minors. I openly wondered last spring how Duensing would find a way to the major leagues onto the Twins’ big-league roster considering how far back he was in the starting pitching pecking order, but this might be his best shot. He’s earned it. He’s not a dominator, but possesses the capability to deliver quality innings in low-pressure situations.

Favorite: Duensing

Long Reliever

Philip Humber
2008 Stats (AAA): 136.1 IP, 10-8, 4.56 ERA, 106 K / 49 BB, 1.42 WHIP

Overall, Humber’s 2008 stat line looks pretty mediocre. However, he showed clear improvement over the course of the season, which is something you like to see from a young pitcher still just a couple years removed from Tommy John surgery. In April and May, Humbers strikeout rate was way down, his walk rate was way up, and he allowed opposing hitters to bat around .300 against him. But in June, his K-rate shot up, the walk rate dropped off a cliff, and the BAA dropped by about 30 points. Those trends continued through the rest of the season, and in August Humber had his best month, holding opponents to a .237 average while posting a solid 3.66 ERA and 37-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio before finishing the season with the Twins in September. Humber has a good arm, has pitched well this spring and is out of options, so he’s basically assured a spot on the Opening Day roster. With his nasty curveball, he could ultimately develop into a strong middle reliever.

R.A. Dickey
2008 Stats (w/ Mariners): 112.1 IP, 5-8, 5.21 ERA, 58 K / 51 BB, 1.56 WHIP

People seem to get excited about Dickey because he throws the knuckleball, but it’s worth noting that the guy has a 5.57 career ERA and has never finished a big-league season with an ERA under 5.09. A closer look at the numbers shows that he’s been far more reliable as a reliever than as a starter, but in general he just hasn’t been a good pitcher over the course of his career. It’s nice to have a guy like him stashed in Triple-A, and that’s the role he should serve coming out of the spring.

Jason Jones
2008 Stats (AA): 148.2 IP, 13-7, 3.33 ERA, 91 K / 49 BB, 1.31 WHIP

The Twins apparently saw something they liked in Jones since they selected him out of the Yankees’ system in the Rule 5 draft, but it’s tough to say what that was. He’s a 26-year-old with barely any experience above Double-A and thoroughly average numbers throughout the minors, and he has hardly been lights out this spring. He’ll probably either be returned to the Yankees or kept in the minors in return for a minor prospect.

Favorite: Humber

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher

I took part in an AL Central preview podcast last week in which Seth Stohs interviewed bloggers from each division team and got their thoughts on the division. When talking about the Twins, the part of the team that nearly everyone mentioned first was the starting rotation. Fans of other teams (and the other teams themselves, I'm sure) greatly respect the Twins' stable of starting pitchers, and with good reason. It's a young and talented group that is very solid one-through-five; in fact, their weakest link is a hard-throwing left-hander who was formerly a top prospect and who just posted a 4.41 ERA in his rookie season.

Regression and injuries are bound to occur, but entering the season, the rotation appears to be the Twins' strongest unit. The depth behind these five is fairly questionable, but if everyone can stay on the field and continue to improve, this group has the potential to carry the Twins into October. Let's take a look at each member of The Fab Five:

Scott Baker
2008 Stats: 172.1 IP, 11-4, 3.45 ERA, 141 K / 42 BB, 1.18 WHIP

At the beginning of the 2007 season, Baker was an afterthought in the minds of most Twins fans, as he was coming off a putrid 2006 campaign and had become lost in the shuffle behind guys like Johan Santana, Matt Garza, Boof Bonser, Carlos Silva, Kevin Slowey, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson. Two years later, hes slated to be the team's Opening Day starter, and with good reason. Throughout the 2008 season, Baker was the Twins most steady and reliable starter. While he might not match his 3.45 ERA from a year ago, he should continue to be a rock at the top of the Twins' rotation.

Francisco Liriano
2008 Stats: 76 IP, 6-4, 3.91 ERA, 67 K / 32 BB, 1.40 WHIP

When he first joined the Twins' rotation in 2006, Liriano had a pretty spectacular stretch, going 9-1 with a 1.36 ERA and 0.83 WHIP over his first 10 starts. Last year, when he rejoined the Twins' rotation in August after spending three months in the minors, Liriano brought back fond memories, going 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in his first eight starts. Of course, last year's Liriano wasn't quite as electric as the rookie version, and his overall season last year wasn't nearly as amazing due to the struggles in April and late September, but Liriano reminded us all that he's capable of dominating major-league hitters even after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A full season of performance anywhere close to the level he pitched at in August of last year, and Liriano is an ace type pitcher and a terrific complement to Baker atop the rotation. Frisco's surgically repaired elbow held up through 199 1/3 total innings last season; we'll be crossing our fingers and hoping it can survive a similar workload this year.

Kevin Slowey
2008 Stats: 160.1 IP, 12-11, 3.99 ERA, 123 K / 24 BB, 1.15 WHIP

Slowey might be the starter I'm most excited to watch this year. He had his hiccups in his first full season last year, but also tossed a few absolute gems (two shutouts and a 12-strikeout performance against Oakland come to mind). Slowey is not a fireballer and he lacks great secondary stuff, but he's one of the most poised and intelligent pitchers I've seen. He'll always give up a fair number of homers, but as long as he can continue to limit their damage by keeping runners off the bases (his WHIP would have ranked fourth in the AL last year had he not narrowly missed qualifying), he'll be successful.

Glen Perkins
2008 Stats: 151 IP, 12-4, 4.41 ERA, 74 K / 39 BB, 1.47 WHIP

Perkins will probably slot as the Twins No. 4 starter due to Ron Gardenhire's preference to alternate righties and lefties in the rotation (even though this doesn't really matter -- there will be two consecutive right-handers no matter what alignment he chooses), for all intents and purposes he enters the season as the team's fifth starter. He's probably the guy worth worrying about most; with his high hit rate, low ground ball rate and paltry strikeout rate, his 12 wins and 3.96 ERA entering September last year seemed like the stuff of smoke and mirrors. Sure enough, over the season's final month he posted a 7.45 ERA while allowing 33 hits and seven homers in 19 1/3 innings. I remain bullish on Perkins though, and while he's not destined to post outstanding numbers if he pitches the way he did last year, by continuing to make adjustments he can certainly hold up as a quality back-of-the-rotation starter. It'd be great if he could remember how to miss bats the way he did in the minors, where he struck out more than a batter per inning.

Nick Blackburn
2008 Stats: 193.3 IP, 11-11, 4.05 ERA, 96 K / 39 BB, 1.36 WHIP

It was a surprise to most that Blackburn made the Twins' rotation out of spring training last year. It was probably a surprise to all that he stayed there for the whole season, posting solid numbers and leading the team in innings. Aside from his excellent walk rate, nothing on Blackburn's stat sheet jumps out at you. He had a .500 record and a middling strikeout rate. He gave up a fairly high number of hits and gave up some homers. His ERA was exactly league average. Yet, getting that kind of production over 200 innings from the back end of your rotation -- particularly from a guy who had zero experience in a big-league rotation -- has plenty of value, which is why Blackburn received a few Rookie of the Year votes. Blackburn must now prove that his successful '08 season was not a fluke, but with his ability to attack the strike zone and induce ground balls at a solid rate, he's hardly a major concern.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Position Analysis: Designated Hitter

Likely Starter: Jason Kubel
2008 Stats: .273/.335/.471, 20 HR, 78 RBI

Is this the year Kubel takes the next step?

Potential Backups: Delmon Young, Brian Buscher, Joe Crede

Last year, I expected big things from Jason Kubel. Believing he'd thrive as a regular DH, I predicted that he'd post a hitting line that mirrored his work in the minors while ripping 20 homers and driving in 85 runs. In some ways, my projection was far too optimistic -- obviously Kubel was nowhere close to the .310 average or .380 on-base percentage I foresaw. In fact, his numbers in both those categories were almost exactly the same as the year before, which was disappointing. However, Kubel did make major strides in the power department, matching my 20-homer prediction precisely and coming very close to 85 RBI.

While Kubel's 2008 season wasn't necessarily the coming-out party I'd hoped for, it was in many ways a breakout year. He proved himself as a legitimate power threat in a lineup that sorely lacks pop, and in doing so earned himself a new contract. Yet, in order for Kubel to take the next step and become a truly great hitter, he needs to bring the batting average closer to the level he was at in the minors, where he was a .320 career hitter.

It's possible that this just isn't going to happen. Kubel has transformed into a very different hitter than he was in the minor leagues, one capable of hitting for more power but also one who strikes out far more often and doesn't hit for the big averages. Yet, what if he could maintain the solid power while cutting down on strikeouts and bringing up the AVG/OBP?

One thing that is worth noting about Kubel's 2008 numbers is that -- like his 2007 numbers -- they were marred by a very slow start. On June 1 last year, Kubel held a dismal .238/.285/.384 hitting line. Then, over the last four months of the season, he batted .290/.364/.519 for an 883 OPS -- basically identical to the 880 OPS I predicted. In those final four months, Kubel also cut his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 1.5 after fanning more than three times for every walk in April and May.

Of course, we can't simply ignore the first two months of the season, and indeed it's starting to look like slow starts might be a persistent trend for Kubel (although the torrid spring he's currently having sparks some hope that he can break from that pattern this season). Furthermore, Kubel may not be able to match the career-high 517 plate appearances that he racked up last year since he'll likely be platooned to some degree with Delmon Young. Of course, all it takes is one injury in the outfield for Young to be needed elsewhere, and while Kubel's major-league track record against southpaws isn't pretty, I'm fairly confident he could hold his own against left-handers in the long run and I think he'll get a chance to see more of them if he's hitting well.

It seems like it's been forever since Kubel suffered that devastating knee injury in the Arizona Fall League that nearly derailed his career, but he's still only 26 years old. While the process has been slower than some would like, Kubel has been making steady adjustments and improvements since missing the entire 2005 season, and at times he's shown flashes of the phenomenal hitter that he was as a prospect. The final four months of the 2008 season gave us a prolonged glimpse of that player.

Now, he's right in the middle of his prime, working with a fresh contract, hitting in a lineup featuring some solid bats, and finally working with the full confidence of his manager (I don't think we'll see him benched on Opening Day in favor of Craig Monroe this year). Everything seems set up for Kubel to put together the big year I've been anticipating for some time. I would not be shocked if he finishes with better numbers than Justin Morneau.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Kubel: .295/.365/.490, 25 HR, 80 RBI

Friday, March 20, 2009

Position Analysis: Right Field

Projected Starter: Michael Cuddyer
2008 Stats: .249/.330/.369, 3 HR, 36 RBI

Potential Backups: Delmon Young, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, Jason Pridie

Michael Cuddyer is one of the biggest wild cards for the 2009 Minnesota Twins. If he can simply stay on the field, he should be expected to post numbers around his career line of .268/.344/.441. If he can actually stay fully healthy for the entire season, we could see him return to the level he was at in 2006. Either of those outcomes would be a significant upgrade over what either he or Delmon Young did last season. Cuddyer’s presence in the lineup figures to lead to an improvement, one way or another.

It’s now been two full years since 2006, when Cuddyer seemingly had a breakout season that entrenched him as that crucial right-handed bat which could be wedged between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the lineup. Cuddyer played solidly over the first half of the 2007 season, but injuries caused him to struggle over the final couple months. Last year, more injuries limited Cuddyer to just 71 games, and even when he managed to play his ailments weighed on him, causing him to post the worst numbers of his career.

Cuddyer’s standing in the clubhouse and his hefty contract guarantee him the starting job in right field to start the year, but his leash may not be terribly long. With Denard Span figuring to take the majority of playing time in left field, Young will be without a regular spot. Since right field is the position Young is best suited for, he stands as a ready replacement for Cuddyer in the event of another rash of injuries or poor performance.

I get the sense that Cuddyer is exasperated with the injuries he’s dealt with over the past two seasons and is very motivated to stay healthy and productive this season. While I’m not convinced he will ever again post the type of numbers he did in ’06, he definitely seems poised for a rebound. If he can hit for a decent average while posting an on-base percentage in the .360 range and smacking 30-35 doubles with 15-20 homers, Cuddyer will be a fine offensive player and a good fit in the middle of the lineup along with the big bats of Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and (hopefully) Joe Mauer.

If Cuddyer succumbs to injuries once again, Young should be the man to step in. Young is well suited for right field in the Metrodome, where his limited range is less of a liability since there isn’t as much ground to cover as the other outfield spots, and where his tremendous arm is most effectively utilized. I found Ron Gardenhire’s decision to use Young in left and Span in right last year to be mystifying, so hopefully if Cuddyer goes down this year the roles of those two players will be swapped. I won’t predict Young’s specific numbers during the Position Analysis series since he doesn’t project as a regular starter at any one position (he seems likely to split time between LF, RF and DH), but for what it’s worth I do expect Young to take a solid stride forward this year, and maybe post numbers closer to the .295/.340/.480 line I overzealously predicted from him last year.

Having Young in place as a backup plan for Span and Cuddyer puts the Twins in a pretty comfortable position as far as their corner outfield spots go. When I wrote up the left field analysis earlier this week I explained that I don’t expect a large regression from Span, so Young’s best shot at landing a regular spot at a particular position might be in right field. He’ll see some time there, I’m sure, but I foresee Cuddyer staying healthy for most of the year, holding down the right field job and adequately filling the No. 5 spot in the batting order.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Cuddyer: .265/.355/.450, 15 HR, 80 RBI

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ft. Myers Report

I hope everyone has been enjoying the Position Analysis series. I'll get back to it tomorrow, but today I thought I'd take a little break and share some observations from Monday's Twins/Orioles spring training match-up, which I had the pleasure of watching on sweltering hot afternoon at Hammond Stadium.

It was a good game to catch, with the Twins' starting lineup featuring mostly projected regulars (the only exceptions being Mike Redmond at catcher and Matt Tolbert at shortstop, for obvious reasons). The one outfielder left out of the mix on this day was Carlos Gomez, which is a little unfortunate because I was interested in seeing his swing, which has reportedly been reduced in ridiculousness.

Nevertheless, it was a great game to watch, as the Twins got several strong performances and racked up 12 hits in a 5-3 victory over the Birds. Here are a few things I observed over the course of the game...

* I've been one of Joe Crede's biggest detractors this spring, so it figures that he'd wait for the game I attended in person to break out offensively. After entering the contest with an .083 spring batting average, Crede went 3-for-3 with a single, a double and a homer -- all pulled to left field. Indeed, Crede looked solid at the plate, but after watching him closely throughout the game I'm not convinced that he's close to 100 percent healthy.

In spite of his solid day at the plate, Crede didn't move around well. He seemed stiff and inflexible, and was unimpressive in the field. While his range was never really tested in the game, he failed to deliver accurately on several throws, including one which got away from Justin Morneau for an error in the first inning.

It was good to see Crede finally break his slump and hit the ball hard a few times, but I remain unsold on his health.

* Philip Humber got the start for the Twins and looked quite sharp, continually pumping the ball into the strike zone and getting a few swinging strikeouts with his curveball. I think Humber will certainly make the Twins' bullpen out of spring training, and if he is as effective with his fastball/curveball combo as he was over two hitless innings on Monday, I could see him finding success as a reliever.

* Relieving Humber in the third inning was Rule 5 draftee Jason Jones, and he looked far less impressive. Jones struggled to command his pitches and gave up several hard hits.

* Like Crede, Denard Span had entered the game in a bad spring slump, with just three singles in 31 at-bats. Yet, Span also broke free with a solid game, leading off for the Twins with a line drive single to right field and adding a triple in his third at-bat. I haven't been terribly concerned about

* I'm not ready to join the chorus of folks proclaiming that Wilson Ramos should be the Twins' Opening Day catcher in the event that Joe Mauer has to miss extended time, but I will say that the kid is built solid and looked further along than I expected. He flashed his power on double off the left field wall in his first at-bat, showed a strong arm, and looked awfully comfortable calling the game from behind the plate for a 21-year-old with no experience above A-ball.

* In the eighth inning, Trevor Plouffe hit a liner down the right field line, and checked in at second with a stand-up double. However, the Orioles felt Plouffe failed to touch first base on the play, and afterward they threw over to the bag on protest. Plouffe was called out. Not a good way for a young player to make a good impression on the big-league manager.

* Finally, here are a few pictures I snapped at the game. I didn't manage to get real close to the field so they're no the greatest, but should give you a little glimpse into the action (click on the pictures to enlarge):

Philip Humber delivers in the first inning.

Joe Crede stands in for his first at-bat.

... And later trots around the bases after a two-run homer.

Delmon Young, rocking a new high-socks look, takes some swings in the on-deck circle.

Jason Kubel on deck. He's having a very good spring.

My No. 2 prospect, Wilson Ramos, who is gaining extra attention due to Joe Mauer's injury. This kid is put together.

You can't really tell from this picture, but this seventh-inning alignment features Justin Morneau alongside arguably the Twins' top prospect at each infield position: Steve Tolleson at second, Trevor Plouffe at shortstop, Danny Valencia at third base and Wilson Ramos at catcher. Call me a nerd, but I got downright giddy seeing all these guys on the field at once.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Position Analysis: Center Field

Likely Starter: Carlos Gomez
2008 Stats: .258/.296/.360, 7 HR, 59 RBI

Gomez is already an elite fielder, but must add more offense to become a star.

Potential Backups: Denard Span, Jason Pridie

I've made no secret of it: Carlos Gomez is my favorite Twin. That affinity is probably based more on emotion than logic. Sure, I think there's a tremendous amount of value in his ability to cover more range in center field than perhaps any other player in the league. And of course I can't help but love the potential packed into his athletic frame. But more than anything, I just find Gomez to be an immensely entertaining person. His quotes in the paper frequently crack me up. He is perpetually smiling on the field. His awesome speed allows him to flag down balls in the outfield that seem uncatchable, and to beat out the throw to first on seemingly routine plays.
Yep, I am a huge fan of Gomez. But there is no overlooking his gaping flaws, and it's impossible not to worry that they will continue to prevent him from blossoming into the incredible player who could ideally become.

Gomez's approach at the plate last season was atrocious. He struck out nearly six times for every walk, making his 3-to-1 ratio in the minors look downright reasonable, and went down flailing at that same down-and-away breaking ball seemingly once or twice per game. After going 16-for-18 on stolen bases in his first 32 games, he went just 17-for-26 in his final 121 games. Most troublesome were his painful, prolonged slumps at the plate, most notably a 30-game stretch in June/July where he hit .183/.219/.237, prompting a demotion from the lead-off spot to the No. 9 slot in the order.

On the bright side, Gomez did seem considerably more comfortable hitting in the nine-hole, where he posted a .286/.328/.400 while striking out at a slightly lower rate and stealing bases more successfully. Gomez is set to open the season batting last in the order, so hopefully he's able to show similar comfort and produce the same way he did last year.

If Gomez can keep his batting average up in the .280 range while adding a bit of power (something he's shown signs of this spring) and playing the same fantastic defense he did last year, he will be a very valuable asset for this team. If he fails to make strides offensively, his defensive value still makes him a deserving regular. He's got a long ways to go before he reaches the superstar status, but in my mind there's no question that Gomez deserves to be the starting center fielder for the Twins.

And that's not just because he's so fun to watch.
Predicted 2009 Hitting Line: .275/.320/.390, 12 HR, 45 RBI

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Position Analysis: Left Field

Likely Starter: Denard Span
2008 Stats: .294/.387/.432, 6 HR, 47 RBI

Span is a prime candidate to regress this year. Will he?

Potential Backups: Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Jason Pridie

In January of 2007, I wrote a post titled "Will Span Pan Out?" that assessed the future of the Twins' once-bright center field prospect. At the time, Span was coming off a season in which he'd posted a mediocre .285/.340/.349 hitting line as a 22-year-old in Double-A and held a similar .288/.357/.346 career line through four minor-league seasons. At the time, I felt that Span looked like future light-hitting fourth outfielder with a good glove, and I concluded the article by saying that 2007 would be "a crucial season for Span and he'll have to show some improved discipline at the plate and a readiness to take his game to the next level."

That showed no signs of happening early on. Over the first four months of his first season in Rochester, Span posted on-base percentages of .261, .280, .311 and .312, striking out 80 times during that period while drawing just 24 walks. Then, in August (the final month he got extensive at-bats that year), Span displayed a dramatic shift in his plate approach, suddenly showing far more patience and drawing 16 walks while posting a .420 on-base percentage. I didn't make much of this seemingly odd occurrence, viewing it as a sample size fluke. The following spring Twins Geek made note of Span's late walk outburst in Rochester and observed that, in combination with the patience the outfielder had been showing in spring training, there might be something real there. I remained skeptical. After watching Span put together a tremendous 2008 season that would have certainly been deserving of serious Rookie of the Year consideration if not for the existence of Evan Longoria, I'm ready to admit that the Geek was right, Span was right, and I was wrong.

Now, that's not to say Span is a lock to go forth as the outstanding hitter he proved to be during the entirety of last year (both in Triple-A and the majors), but after watching him play extensively I've grown cautiously optimistic about his future. Span put up better numbers than any of his Twins outfield contemporaries last season, and with his patient approach at the plate and his ability to square up on the ball for solid contact, he seems like perhaps the safest bet of the outfield group to provide above-average numbers in 2008.

One area where Span will seemingly have a hard time avoiding regression is in the power-hitting department -- particularly against left-handed pitching. Last year, the left-handed hitter posted a .283/.402/.472 line against southpaws, which dwarfed his performance against righties. Now, Span is interesting in that he's always been a more disciplined hitter when facing left-handers. From 2005 to 2007, he posted a 76-to-46 strikeout-to-walk ratio against minor-league lefties (1.65 strikeouts for every walk) as compared to a 162-to-78 K/BB against minor-league righties (2.08 strikeouts for every walk). So, one can reasonably state that Span's ability to reach base against lefties at a rate similar to or better than his rate against righties is for real, and that makes him a great fit as an everyday lead-off hitter. The power he showed against lefties last year, however, is completely out-of-line with his track record. This gives us reason to project less power unless he can somehow repeat the strong showing against southpaws (not terribly likely) or show increased power against right-handers (more likely).

Of the four players who are likely to see significant time in the Twins' outfield this year, Span will probably move around the most. While I see him getting the majority of his playing time in left field, I suspect his ample experience in center field and right field will lead to a fair amount of playing time in both those spots. That's just fine, since Span is an above-average defender in any of three spots, but I do believe he's best-suited for left in the Metrodome, since there's more ground to coverthere than the baggy-shortened right field and since the other corner outfielders' stronger arms will play better in right.

On days that Span is sitting out or playing elsewhere, Delmon Young is likely to be manning left field. I think that Young will be a better defender this year than he was last year, when he was adjusting to a new position and bothered by a bad ankle, but he should still be kept out of left field when a fly ball pitcher like Glen Perkins or Scott Baker is on the mound. In general, I think Young represents a solid backup option in the event that Span gets hit hard by regression or injury, but for the time being Span is rightfully looking like the main man in left field.

I give Span a lot of credit. He has turned his game around and proven critics wrong, and now he seems poised to become the long-term lead-off solution the Twins have been seeking for over a decade. In order to do that, he'll have to first prove that last year wasn't a fluke; despite my past reservations, I'm pretty confident it was not.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Span: .290/.375/.415, 10 HR, 65 RBI

Monday, March 16, 2009

Position Analysis: Shortstop

Likely Starter: Nick Punto
2008 Stats: .284/.344/.382, 2 HR, 28 RBI

Punto must prove he can hold up as an everyday regular.

Potential Backups: Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert

Last year, the average major-league shortstop batted .272/.327/.391. That puts Nick Punto’s 2008 production right around average, and when his above-average defense is taken into account, he’s a quality starter at short.

Of course, Punto keeping his numbers at that comfortably average level is hardly a given. No one has forgotten about that 2007 season in which he painfully amassed 536 plate appearances while batting .210/.291/.271, posting a miserable 52 OPS+ and an astonishing -26.5 VORP. Punto’s paltry numbers were especially ugly that season because he posted them while playing a more offense-oriented position, but clearly if his production approaches that level this year even while playing shortstop he won’t cut it as a starting player.

Fortunately, there’s little reason to believe Punto has another 2007 in him. His .284/.344/.382 line from last season was extremely similar to his .290/.352/.373 line from 2006, and I think those stat lines set a fair baseline for his performance. Punto has to prove he can hold up as an everyday player over the course of the season, and it’s possible he’ll take a step back and post numbers slightly lower than the 06/08 variety, but I’m pretty bullish on his ability to adequately fill the role of starting shortstop and No. 8 hitter.

One thing to keep an eye on with Punto is his health. He has a style of play that is conducive to injuries (the head-first slides into first base being a great example) and has had a reputation as being rather injury-prone in the past. Punto’s done a pretty good job of staying healthy over the past couple seasons, but should he go down the Twins aren’t very strong on backup options. The offensive difference between Punto and Brendan Harris or Matt Tolbert might not be terribly large, but the defensive gap is considerable, which is a major concern at the most important infield position.

It seems clear that the main reason the Twins re-signed Punto and handed him the starting shortstop job is for his defensive ability. We’ve seen time and time again what he can do with the glove, so the key will be for him to maintain his defensive proficiency while hitting enough to avoid becoming a liability, the Twins should be set for serviceable production from the shortstop position.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Punto: .270/.335/.370, 3 HR, 45 RBI

Friday, March 13, 2009

Position Analysis: Third Base

Quick note here, folks. I'll be heading to Florida tomorrow to catch some spring training baseball and I won't be returning until Wednesday. I've already got Position Analysis pieces written up for the days I'm gone, so there will be no lack of new content here, but since I'm unsure what my Internet situation will be down there, I don't know whether I'll be able to quickly respond to emails/comments or cover any breaking news that might pop up. In any event, I'll be sure to give a full report next week on anything interesting that I catch while I'm in Ft. Myers, and I hope everyone has a great weekend and enjoys the televised games tomorrow and Sunday.

On to today's third base analysis, where I'll be discussing that fellow everyone seems so excited about...

Likely Starter: Joe Crede
2008 Stats: .248/.314/.460, 17 HR, 55 RBI

Can the Twins' sole prominent offseason acquisition match the hype?

Potential Backups: Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris

I've already covered the topic of Joe Crede so exhaustively that I don't feel like I've got much left to say. Crede has generated much excitement among the fan base, for various reasons. He was the team's only significant offseason addition, he has a history of hitting for power and driving in runs, he was an All Star last year, and he's hit the Twins pretty hard at times in the past while playing for the rival White Sox.

There is some legitimate reason to feel optimistic about Crede. If he can stay healthy, he's likely to provide a big defensive upgrade at third base, and he showed his power last year while slugging .460 and hitting 17 homers in an injury-shortened campaign. People look at those numbers and get wide-eyed, but unfortunately tend to look right past the .248 batting average and .314 on-base percentage he also posted last year. Those figures are not out of the ordinary for Crede; for his career, the third baseman has posted a .257 batting average and .306 OBP. Only once in the past six years has Crede hit better than .261 or gotten on base at a clip higher than .314, and it was in that 2006 season which many elect to use as a baseline for his performance even though it was as much an outlier as Michael Cuddyer's '06.

If he's healthy, Crede should be expected to deliver reasonable power numbers and solid defense while hitting for a poor average and making a ton of outs. A player like that is not without value, but those who are expecting Crede to be a superstar who will single-handedly turn around the team's fortunes are bound to be disappointed. And that's if he's healthy.

Of course, Crede's health is a major question mark. He's missed 180 games over the past two years and has undergone surgeries on his back in each of the past two offseasons. Crede claims to be back near full health, but the fact that the Twins were one of only two teams that seemingly showed any real interest in him this offseason, coupled with the fact that he was reduced to signing a $2.5 million one-year deal loaded with incentives despite employing hardball negotiator Scott Boras as an agent, suggests that I'm not the only one out there with serious concerns over his ability to play and play effectively for the majority of the season.

The beauty of Crede's contract, though, is that it features relatively little committed money, so if injuries or performance issues prevent him from seeing a ton of playing time, he won't be sucking up a bunch of unearned cash. And, fortunately, the Twins have a pretty good contingency plan in place. Bill Smith said repeatedly that he would have been comfortable entering the season with a platoon of Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris at third base, and both those players will still be available if Crede can't get the job done. Ron Gardenhire's willingness to pull the plug on Crede in a timely fashion if needed will be the key to this equation, because having quality depth just doesn't do a whole lot of good if the manager is unwilling to use it.

Crede is the Twins' starting third baseman, and I'll be cheering for him every bit as hard as I cheer for any other player on this team. But I'll continue to encourage people to keep their expectations in check so that they're not shocked in the event that Crede's offensive performance fails to live up to the hype, or he spends the majority of the season on the disabled list. There are plenty of obstacles, but if everything goes right Crede is capable of providing the Twins with a firm upgrade over Harris and Buscher at the hot corner. And, if he can't, well... Harris and Buscher aren't all that terrible themselves.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Crede: .255/.300/.425, 12 HR, 50 RBI

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Position Analysis: Second Base

Likely Starter: Alexi Casilla
2008 Stats: .281/.333/.374, 7 HR, 50 RBI

Casilla has much to prove this season.

Potential Backups: Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert

Alexi Casilla will enter the 2009 season as the Twins' third Opening Day second baseman in as many years. He'll hope to have a little more staying power than did Luis Castillo, who was traded midway through the 2007 season, and Brendan Harris, who lost his starting job at second last year after Ron Gardenhire grew tired of his defensive inadequacy at the position.

In order to hold down the starting job longer than his predecessors, Casilla will have to fend off regression, and that won't be an easy task. He seemed to be playing over his head last season, batting .313/.351/.424 with four homers and 39 RBI in 62 games from his mid-May call-up to the end of July when he went down with an injury. This after hitting just .219/.350/.250 in Rochester prior to his call-up, and .251/.313/.312 between Triple-A and the majors in 2007.

Casilla is a talented player who put himself ont he map with a great minor-league campaign in '06, and the fact that he was able to hit for a high average is not terribly surprising (he holds a .294 career average in the minors) but the power outburst was beyond unexpected. In total, Casilla ripped seven home runs in 385 at-bats with the Twins last year, matching his total in 1,486 career minor-league at-bats. A complete lack of power has always been one of Casilla's major drawbacks, since he doesn't possess elite patience at the plate and thus seemed destined for years of empty batting averages. Adding some legitimate power to his palette could transform Casilla into a quality offensive player, but unfortunately I tend to think his home run parade last year was mostly just a fluke.

Casilla is a solid defender with good speed, and if he can do the things the Twins ask (take patient at-bats, execute sacrifice bunts, swipe a few bases) he should stick in the No. 2 spot, albeit with unexceptional overall production. If he could lift his on-base percentage toward his career minor-league figure of .369, he could become an asset in the two-hole, but unfortunately Casilla has shown no signs of being an above-average on-base threat over the past two seasons.

An injury-dampened final month dragged down Casilla's overall numbers for last season, but since that span balanced out the unsustainable hot streak he experienced after his call-up, I tend to think Casilla's final line last season serves as a pretty good predictor of what he'll do this year, though I doubt he'll show as much power.

In the event that Casilla reverts to 2007 form, the Twins don't have much in the way of reliable fall-back options. Obviously Gardenhire isn't comfortable with Harris at second, and Matt Tolbert would be stretched as a regular. Should someone like Luke Hughes or Steven Tolleson get off to a strong start in Rochester, they could get a shot if Casilla struggles. In my opinion, though, the Twins have less depth at second base than they did at third base prior to the Joe Crede acquisition, which is why I so strongly advocated the signing of Orlando Hudson.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Casilla: .270/.320/.345, 4 HR, 40 RBI

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Position Analysis: First Base

Likely Starter: Justin Morneau
2008 Stats: .300/.374/.499, 23 HR, 129 RBI

Can Morneau avoid another September thaw?

Potential Backups: Michael Cuddyer, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris

If not for an ugly final few weeks last year, the season may have had a very different conclusion for Justin Morneau. After all, the slugging first baseman finished second in the AL Most Valuable Player voting behind Dustin Pedroia despite hitting just .243/.298/.398 in a September during which the Twins went 11-15 and failed to make up a half-game deficit to the White Sox. Had Morneau maintained the type of hitting line he carried into September (.312/.388/.519) the Twins would likely have made the playoffs and the Morneau would likely have been hoisting his second MVP trophy.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons the Twins narrowly missed the playoffs last season, and a poor final month does not take away from the fact that Morneau put together another solid campaign and was a driving force in the team's success thanks to his incredible production in scoring opportunities. Despite not ranking among the American League's top ten hitters in terms of OPS, Morneau was able to drive in 129 runs -- ranking him second behind Josh Hamilton's 130 -- in large part thanks to a magnificent .348/.443/.602 line with runners in scoring position and a huge number of opportunities created over the 163 games he started.

I wrote back in late November about what I termed Morneau's mysterious legacy*, making not e of the fact that, in spite of his overall numbers not painting him as one of the league's truly elite hitters, he is clearly viewed by one by his peers, by coaches, by fans and by the media. That's evident in the fact that he was intentionally walked 16 times last year -- tying him for the league lead. It's evident in the fact that he finished second in the MVP voting even with a limping finish to the season and with the Twins missing the playoffs. And it's evident in the adulation he receives from his teammates, his opponents, and talking heads around the country.

When you watch Morneau play, he sure looks like an elite hitter. So maybe this is the year his numbers finally catch up with his reputation. It's not hard to see what the key will be in order for this to happen: he needs to avoid slumps. Weak finishes have dampened Morneau's final numbers in each of the past two seasons, and in his MVP campaign in 2006 a terrible start to the year prevented his overall numbers from being even better than they were. If Morneau can cut out the month-long dry spells, he should certainly be capable of putting up numbers that place him among the league leaders in every category, not just runs batted in. He's unlikely to perform quite so well with runners in scoring position this year, so if Morneau wants to continue to be the monstrous run-producing force he was last season, an overall uptick in production may be necessary.

One encouraging thing to keep an eye on with Morneau is his plate discipline. Four years ago, he struck out more than twice as many times as he walked (94 K/44 BB). He has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio with each passing year, and last season the two figures were nearly even (85 K/76 BB). This is partially attributable to the fact that opposing hurlers have been pitching around Morneau far more often than they used to, but from watching him it is clear that he has developed a much more discerning eye at the plate. If he can continue to refine his pitch selection this year, he could see a boost in all of his offensive numbers as he'll be able to draw more walks and make better contact while batting in more hitter's counts.

Morneau has been an iron man over the past several seasons and showed up in camp in great shape, so there's little reason for concern about his health. Yet, if he should go down, the backups options aren't terribly enticing. Michael Cuddyer and Brian Buscher figure to be the top backups, and neither is likely to be an above average hitter or fielder at first base.

Morneau probably won't make 163 starts again this year, but he is expected to be a regular fixture in the Twins lineup and there's little reason to believe he won't once again be one of the league's best run-producing first basemen.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Morneau: .300/.390/.515, 30 HR, 115 RBI

[*On a side note, if you haven't read it before, I strongly recommend going back and taking a look over the aforementioned Morneau's Mysterious Legacy post from last November and the comments that it generated. I really feel that it was one of the most interesting discussions this blog has created.]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Position Analysis: Catcher

It's that time of year again. In the middle of March each year since this blog's creation, we have done the Position Analysis series, in which we break down the Twins' situation at every position on the field. For each spot, I'll project the likely starter (which shouldn't be too tough this year), sort through potential backups, and finally predict what the starting player will do offensively this season. Today, we kick off the series with the catcher position, where a familiar face is looking to build on another outstanding season...

Likely Starter: Joe Mauer
2008 Stats: .328/.413/.451, 9 HR, 85 RBI

Will Mauer chase another batting title in '09?

Potential Backups: Mike Redmond, Jose Morales

The Twins continue to be one of the most well set teams in all the majors at the catching position. Joe Mauer is coming off a season in which he captured his second AL batting title and won his first Gold Glove, and Mike Redmond remains the perfect caddy for Mauer, with his ability to hit left-handed pitching and handle the pitching staff well while providing a tremendous clubhouse presence.

After being limited by injuries in 2007, Mauer was fully healthy and hugely productive last year. Playing in a career-high 146 games and racking up a career-high 633 plate appearances allowed Mauer to put up the best counting stats of his career, as he scored 98 times, drove in 85 runs, and drew 84 walks. Those marks ranked Mauer first, fourth and second among major-league catchers, respectively. While his power numbers failed to grow (31 doubles, four triples, nine home runs), Mauer also hit .362/.465/.449 with runners in scoring position, so it'd be tough to accuse him of being a poor fit in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. Mauer led the Twins and ranked sixth in the majors with a 4.88 WPA (Win Probability Added); the next catcher on that list was Russell Martin who ranked 20th.

Staying healthy last year allowed Mauer to post MVP-caliber numbers for the second time in his relatively short career, and if he can remain healthy this year there's no reason why he shouldn't be able to do so again at the age of 26. Unfortunately, he hasn't gotten this year off to the best start in the health department, as recovery from offseason kidney surgery has kept him out the lineup this spring and some doubt has now arisen regarding his status for Opening Day. He's scheduled to undergo an MRI exam tomorrow to get to the root of the problem, and hopefully the results will be positive, but the notion that Redmond will be in the starting lineup on April 6 is starting to shift from plausible to likely.

For his part, Redmond had a somewhat poor offensive season last year, posting a 654 OPS that stands as the lowest during his tenure in Minnesota. Of course, he was also 37 years old and never had much of a chance to get into a rhythm, as Mauer's consistent health limited Redmond to just 38 game appearances. The hope is that the same thing can happen this year, as Redmond's effectiveness is unlikely to rebound much at the age of 38. He can still call a game and serve as a valuable backup, but should Mauer go down for any extended period of time, the Twins will probably want to look to Jose Morales, a quality backstop who has reportedly put some serious ankle problems behind him.

Mauer first came up in 2004 and was excellent that season despite missing much of the campaign due to a knee injury. In 2005, he took a step backward, but came back strong with a phenomenal '06 campaign. Mauer had another down year in 2007 and once again bounced back with brilliant numbers in 2008. If he follows his career pattern, Mauer is due for a bit of regression this year, but it bears noting that a "down year" for Joe Mauer is still a very good season, and he now seems so in control of all aspects of his game that it's tough to see him posting anything less than outstanding numbers.

I see another very good year on the horizon for Mauer, but as always, health will be the biggest key.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Mauer: .305/.400/.440, 10 HR, 75 RBI

Monday, March 09, 2009

Cost Control

The beauty of a five-man pitching rotation comprised entirely of young, controllable pitchers was evident on Saturday when the Twins signed Scott Baker to a four-year, $15.25 million contract. The deal is not huge news -- the Twins are simply gaining cost certainty over the next four years, a span during which Baker was under their control anyway. This contract will probably save them some money over the arbitration route and the $9.25 million team option for Baker's first year of free agency is very nice, but the magnitude of this signing certainly is not on par with, say, the Justin Morneau contract last offseason.

It's good to see the Twins being proactive with Baker, who was a logical candidate to be first member of the rotation to receive a long-term deal since he's closer to free agency than everyone other than Francisco Liriano, who still carries some injury concerns. Baker will deservedly be the Twins' Opening Day starter on April 6, and on the open market a pitcher of his caliber would likely cost at least $10 million per season. The fact that the Twins will pay just over $15 million to him over the next four years combined and will face similarly inexpensive commitments with the rest of the team's starters leaves them with plenty of money to spend elsewhere. And of course the most important place for that money to be directed is very clear.

Time to get to work on a new contract for Joe Mauer.