As the season approached this spring, I was accused by plenty of people of being overly rosy in my assessment of these 2010 Twins. Admittedly, I think Bill Smith and his front office colleagues have done a great job of assembling a well balanced and star-heavy roster for this season, so this is the most excited and optimistic I've been about a Twins team in my lifetime.
Still, no team is perfect and there are plenty of things that could derail the Twins in their first season at Target Field. It seems fitting that I was pegged to write the counterpoint to Parker's article outlining five things working for the Twins this season. Below, I lay out five things working against the team in 2010:
1. No Established Closer
Over the past six years, most other teams around the league have envied the Twins’ closer situation. Joe Nathan has been among the most dominant and consistent closers in all of baseball during that span, leaving the Twins with little to worry about when entering the ninth inning with a slim lead. Now, with Nathan out for the year due to an elbow injury, the Twins will have to learn what it’s like to move forward without a superhuman door-slammer at the back end of the bullpen.
Between Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Pat Neshek and Jesse Crain, the Twins should still be able to field a competent relief corps and it’s unlikely that Nathan’s loss will crush them. Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that a few more leads will be slipping away in the ninth this year, which can be crushing to a team’s morale.
2. Lack of Team Speed
Twins teams in past years have been built with athleticism as a guiding tenet. Ron Gardenhire and Co. like guys who can hustle out infield hits, make opportunistic plays on the base paths and chase down balls in the field. Players like Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla have embodied this approach. This year, however, the Twins are departing from that philosophy, leaning more toward powerful but slow-footed players like Jason Kubel and Jim Thome. Neither of the team’s starting middle infielders could be described as a speedster; this is the first time I can remember being able to say that. In fact, there’s really only one projected regular who I can realistically envision swiping 20 or more bases, and that’s Denard Span.
This is hardly a crippling detriment – I’d rather see the front office focus on filling the lineup with guys who can actually hit than with guys who can run fast – but it will be a change. And the biggest impact of this lack of speed may be seen in the field, which brings us to our next topic…
3. Outfield Defense
On days where the Twins had Gomez in center and Span in left last season, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a better defensive outfield alignment anywhere in the league. Gomez has been one of the best defensive center fielders in the majors over the past two years and Span’s outstanding range in left has stood out at a position where teams often stick plodding defensive liabilities.
With Gomez absent this year, Span will shift to center field, where he is far less spectacular. Meanwhile, Delmon Young (speaking of “plodding defensive liabilities”…) takes over as the full-time left fielder. The drop-off from Span to Young in left field cannot be understated. Michael Cuddyer remains in right, and while he was never a particularly adept fielder to begin with, he’ll have a whole new set of challenges in learning how to handle Target Field’s quirky overhang.
With a fly ball heavy pitching staff, these three will get plenty of work, and chances are that fans will be subjected to some adventures out there. Since balls that don’t get caught in the outfield often turn into extra-base hits, this could be especially damaging.
4. Substandard Production at Offense-Oriented Positions
Behind first base and right field, left field and third base were the strongest offensive positions on the field across the major leagues last season. These are positions where teams often settle for less defensively in order to plug in strong offensive producers. Unfortunately, the Twins’ regular starters at left field and third base are Young and Nick Punto, neither of whom has proven capable of posting even average numbers for his respective position.
The Twins are hoping to offset this flaw by trotting out unusually strong hitters at the middle spots (catcher, second base, shortstop and center field) but if those positions should be ravaged by injury or ineffectiveness, Young and Punto could become liabilities.
5. No Bona Fide Ace in Rotation
The Twins’ 2010 rotation is shrouded in question marks and hypothetical scenarios. If Opening Day starter Scott Baker can consistently pitch the way he did in the second half last year, he could be a frontline starting pitcher. If Kevin Slowey can rebound from the wrist injury that ended his 2009 season and start to mimic the work he did in the minors, he could be one of the league’s top starters. If Francisco Liriano can translate his fine work in the winter league and in spring training into regular-season results, he could start reminding us of his phenomenal rookie campaign when he was an ace-caliber pitcher.
Unfortunately, for all their ability, these pitchers have also flashed their downside at times in the past. And having an elite starter at the top of the rotation is definitely important; in the four years when Johan Santana led their pitching corps, the Twins never ranked lower than fifth among AL teams in ERA. Last year, with no Santana and no one stepping up to deliver even a sub-4.00 ERA, the Twins ranked fourth-to-last.