Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Minnesota Twins

"Know Thy Enemy: Minnesota Twins" is first in a twenty-eight part series that will take you, dear readers, all around this glorious nation of ours in order to offer you an inside look at the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of every club in the majors that does not play in the Bronx or the Fens. But Ben, you say, you and that Bryan fellow know virtually nothing about the other teams; you're so busy playing with your Big Papi bobbleheads and scouring the Internet for nude photos of Hazel Mae that you couldn't possibly have time to keep tabs on the opposition. Aha! That's just it, we're not authoring these pearls of wisdom. Nope, instead we're turning to a distinguished panel of experts, some of the finest minds in their respective fan bases. I am sure you'll be impressed by their wit and wisdom. And with that, take it away, Minnesota Twins Bureau Chief Andy Reinsch!

Q: Why should anybody outside of Minnesota be interested in a Twins team without Torii Hunter and Johan Santana?

A: They probably shouldn't. While their success can remain an open question, the organization is likely more concerned with fielding a good team than one that the semi-literate hordes who keep Baseball Tonight on the air would find worthy of their attention. That said, Liriano's coming back.

Q: I remember that Liriano fellow. He was pretty good. What's going on with him?

A: He's now well more than a year out from Tommy John surgery, and has been cleared to join the regular pitching staff in preparation for the 2008 season. Ron Gardenhire has announced his intentions to "baby" Liriano, so there may not be more than 150 innings worth of opportunity to watch him in 2008. But with Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projecting a 3.42 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning, he may still be worth watching.

Q: That's not a whole lot of innings. I assume they've bothered to employ other pitchers?

A: In point of fact, they have. After Livan Hernandez, 2008's adventure in stout veterans, Minnesota's oldest starter will be 26. At the moment, the most plausible rotation features 24 year olds Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano, 26 year olds Boof Bonser and Scott Baker, and Hernandez. The bullpen remains largely intact, and could gain some stability with a healthy return by Jesse Crain from shoulder surgery.

Q: I don't know who any of those people are. Can you at least assure me that one of them is "in the best shape of his life"?

A: Indeed I can. During a regrettable sophomore campaign resulting in an 85 ERA+, Boof Bonser was repeatedly criticized for his conditioning and weight. Early returns say he's lost around 30 of last season's listed weight of 260. Having seen him personally at TwinsFest in January, I can confirm that he is noticeably thinner. He's still got a fat guy's name to match his fat guy goatee though.

Q: You haven't captured my interest yet. What about these position battles you mentioned?

A: Brendan Harris, imported from Tampa Bay with Delmon Young and Jason Pridie, will compete for the second base job with semi-incumbents Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla. Harris offers a real offensive upgrade over Punto and Casilla, but as is common with any new player, Harris' ability to conform to the "say the black, do the red" attitude towards Spring Training's unique liturgy will be more important to Ron Gardenhire than it probably should.

Q: Don't they need a CFer too?

A: Spring Training holds a three-way competition for the spot between Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, and Jason Pridie. All three would be adequate flycatchers, and each has some appeal. But Gomez needs further time in the minor leagues to develop both his power and his plate discipline. And Span's hot finish to 2007 still hasn't marked him as an MLB starter. Jason Pridie is, so far, the only of the three to really hit AAA pitching, with a .318/.375/.539 in 274 PAs at AAA Durham in 2007. I think he'd be the best choice for starting CFer on Opening Day and though tepid, ZiPS endorses my position.

Q: Tossing it around in my head, that doesn't look like much of a lineup.

A: The appropriate question would be, "Is this the 718 run offense of 2007 that lost its only regular to slug over .500 or is it the 801 run offense of 2006 that retains its young, talented core?". For every talented offensive player, 2007 had a corresponding sinkhole of outs that could be monstrously upgraded with only an average offensive performer. Handing the 3B job to Mike Lamb, the 2B job to Brendan Harris, and installing Kubel and Young as LF/DH regulars all offer marked improvement. But it's a young lineup and the on-base talent necessary to really make the lineup really go is scarce. I think 760 runs is a reasonable, if optimistic, outlook for the 2008 lineup.

Q: So where does that leave the team? Make a prediction?

A: Even with Santana's loss, I think the return of Liriano, the development of Baker, Slowey and Bonser, and a more stable bullpen will keep the team in the upper third of AL staffs. If they allow 750 runs, this will look like an 82 win team.

Andy Reinsch is a Twins fan presently living in Chicago. He named his cat after Lew Ford and believes the entire baseball world would be different if Corey Koskie's ground-rule double in game 2 of the 2004 ALDS had stayed in the park.

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