Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Closer Look at the Twins, Part IV

Frequent commenter The Black Freighter is a Twins Geek.  Most of the folks on this blog are, aside from freaks like Barnyard (who likes the Brewers, because they are named after beer).  But The Black Freighter (TBF) is special--he can tell you which outfielder in Double A has a shot at the bigs.  He's a little scary.  We invited him to preview the Twins season.  This is part four (part 3 herepart 2 herepart 1 here), and it is a speculative look into the future.   It is, as per usual,  in depth. 

Without further ado, TBF speaks:

Now that we’ve taken a look at the 2008 Twins, the offseason and the hitters & pitchers, it is now time to examine some difficult questions facing the squad, offer up a few predictions and take a glimpse at the future talent that might make a difference in 2009.  
5 Questions:
On paper, the 2009 Twins look pretty solid.  However, there are 5 questions facing this team that will make the difference between an early offseason and an October to remember.    
1.  Can the patchwork bullpen hold it together?
This is not your typical Gardy bullpen of the last few division winners.  The losses of Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser have hurt this team dramatically.  With those pitchers in the fold, you are looking at one of the most balanced teams in the American League.  Without Neshek, there is no clear-cut, dominant reliever to set-up Joe Nathan.  Instead, Jesse Crain will get the first crack to fill this role, but don’t be surprised to see the Twins make a deadline deal if the bullpen falters and they are still in the running for a division title.    

2.  Will injuries derail the team before the season even gets going?
With the Opening Day battery of Joe Mauer and Scott Baker on the disabled list, the Twins will be without the two stars for a couple weeks to start the season.  If the injuries linger, the Twins could be out of the central race before the all-star game.  KFAN’s Phil Mackey wrote a great entry a couple weeks ago regarding “If Redmond replaces Mauer.”  Mackey estimates that the difference between starting Mauer and Redmond is about a win a month.  My guess would be that starting R.A. Dickey over Scott Baker is about a win a month, as well.  Losing two additional games a month, could spell doom for the Twins.   And don’t forget, big free agency signee, Joe Crede is an injury concern as well.     

Big Blue Monkey Editing Note:  Since TBF wrote this, Scotty Baker has has progressed nicely.  He will making his season debut Wednesday against the Toronto Blue Jays.  R.A. Dickey will be sent down to make room for him.  Joey-Jo-Jo Maurer is still up in the air.

3.  Can the team replicate their offensive success in 2009?
As mentioned earlier, the Twins were 3rd in the American League in runs scored and led the majors with a fantastic .305 average with runners in scoring position.  If they are going to come close to 829 runs in 2009, they’ll need to increase their homerun production.  These aren’t your “Thunderdome” bashers of 1987, but this year’s squad has the ability to knock a few out of the park.  Justin Morneau, Joe Crede, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel should all hit over 20 if healthy for the season.  Joe Mauer, Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young are good bets for 10 or more, as well.  If this team can add an additional 20 homeruns and continue to hit for average, the offense will be productive once again.  

4.  How will Gardy juggle four starting outfielders at only three positions?   
The Twins have the luxury of four good outfielders (Span, Gomez, Young and Cuddyer) for three spots.  With Jason Kubel entrenched at designated hitter, one of these players will be sitting a fair share of games.  Unless someone slumps, gets extremely hot or injured, Gardy will probably sit each of the five players (Kubel included) about once a week.  Gardy likes Span as his leadoff man and if spring training serves as a prediction, he will move Denard around the outfield to get consistent playing time. 

Big Blue Monkey Editing Note:  Since TBF wrote this, Span has played every outfield position.  Good prediction.    

5.  Can Francisco Liriano be the pitcher he was in 2006?
It will be difficult for Liriano to ever duplicate his incredible numbers of ’06, but he still has the makeup to be one of the top pitchers in the game.  Since his injury, Liriano has focused on becoming a complete pitcher, not just a thrower.  He throws his wicked slider about 10% less, instead focusing on locating his fastball with controlled precision.  Word is that the fastball is back to pre-surgery velocity, so it will not be surprising to see Liriano win 15 games, strikeout over 200 and have an ERA in the 3’s.  Three of ESPN’s baseball writers picked “The Franchise” as the preseason favorite for the American League Cy Young.      

Five for the Future:
Here are five minor leaguers to keep an eye on throughout the season.  All five players have the chance to make an impact on the 2009 Twins.  

1.  Rob Delaney, Relief Pitcher, AA New Britain
When Delaney makes it to the major leagues, it will be a great story.  The 24-year old was an undrafted free agent from St. John’s University and has become one of the best relief prospects in the major leagues.  Delaney was last year’s Minor League Baseball Relief Pitcher of the Year where he combined to throw 72 strikeouts over 66 innings, with 9 earned runs and 18 saves.    

2.  Jose Mijares, Relief Pitcher, AAA Rochester
Jose Mijares came out of nowhere to post a .87 ERA in 10 September appearances last year.  Not surprisingly, he should be a Minnesota Twin right now, too.  Unfortunately, the lefty came to camp a little hefty with attitude concerns to boot.  He had a brutal spring where he struggled with control and allowed 11 earned runs in just 10 innings.  The Twins certainly hope he will regain his touch because he’ll most likely be the first reinforcement called upon this season.    
3.  Luke Hughes, Infielder, AAA Rochester
The 24-year old Aussie had a banner year in 2008 hitting a combined .309 average with 22 doubles, 18 homeruns and 61 RBI in less than 400 at bats for New Britain and Rochester.  Rewarded for his stellar play, Hughes played at the 2008 All-Star Futures Game.  The downside on Hughes is that he really doesn’t have a position.  Luke’s defense is not the greatest and he is limited at his current position, 3rd base.  A transition to second base or the outfield probably makes the most sense for Hughes.  Regardless, the Twins will find a place for him because of his potent bat.   
4.  Danny Valencia, 3rd Baseman, AA New Britain
Do not be surprised when Danny Valencia is manning the hot corner on opening day of Target Field.  The 24-year old is the most complete 3rd base prospect the Twins have had in years and will get his chance to be the 3rd baseman of the future.  Valencia is a slick fielder, can hit for average and has power.  In 486 at bats for Fort Myers and New Britain, Valencia hit .311, with 37 doubles, 15 homeruns and 76 RBI.  
5.  Kevin Mulvey, Starting Pitcher, AAA Rochester
Kevin Mulvey was one of three pitchers to come over from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade.  The 23-year old Villanova product has had three straight solid minor league seasons and is ready for a major league call-up.  Mulvey will not blow you away and is projected as a back-of-the-rotation starter, but is certainly capable of pitching quality innings.  In seven spring training innings, Mulvey had five strike outs and only 3 earned runs.  

5 more to keep an eye on:  
SS Trevor Plouffe (AAA)
2B Steve Tolleson (AA)
SP Anthony Swarzak (AAA)
RP Anthony Slama (AA)
OF Dustin Martin (AAA)   

Central Division Predictions:
I think the Twins have a very realistic shot to win the American League Central Division.  They have the least amount of questions of any of the other teams and have the best starting pitching (if Baker comes back soon). As long as they stay relatively healthy, it is the Twins’ division to lose.  

Here’s how I see the American League Central Division looking on October 5th, 2009:

1. Minnesota Twins, 90-72
2. Cleveland Indians, 88-74
3. Kansas City Royals, 83-79
4. Detroit Tigers, 82-80
5. Chicago White Sox, 76-86
Ten Bold Twins Predictions for 2009:

1.  Not only do the Twins win the division, they win their first playoff series since 2002. 
2.  After finishing in the top 3 multiple times, Ron Gardenhire finally wins his first Manager of the Year Award. 
3.  Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer combine to hit over 75 homeruns.  
4.  By September, Rob Delaney, Jose Mijares and Anthony Swarzak will be key components in the bullpen.  
5.  Alexi Casilla will be your breakout position player in 2009.  Casilla will hit .290 with 30 steals and solid defense.   
6.  The Twins will lead the American League in defense.  Joe Mauer and Carlos Gomez win Gold Gloves.  
7.  Although Joe Crede will not suffer any major injuries, he will struggle to hit 20 homeruns and live up to his offseason hype.  
8.  Justin Morneau finishes in 2nd place for MVP voting (again) and leads the Twins in batting average.
9.  Although he once again plays stellar defense, Denard Span will struggle offensively hitting an empty .275 with a .340 OBP.
10.  Like “Smell ‘Em RBIs” and “The Piranhas” in years prior, the new cutesy Twins trend for 2009 will be started by Nick Punto.  After a homerun ball in a 13-5 loss, Punto decides to spice things up by sliding into home headfirst.  Every homerun after that is followed by the same celebration until Joe Mauer tears a ligament in his wrist.  

I hope you enjoyed your 2009 guide to the Minnesota Twins.  Cheer loud, cheer proud and enjoy the last year in the ol’ Dome.  Win Twins!    

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