Friday, April 2, 2010

Twins Preview Day in the Blogosphere

It’s “Prediction Day” in the Twins’ blogosphere, and thanks to Josh Johnson of “Josh’s Thoughts” of coordinating this special event. On a day which ushers in a new era of Twins baseball with the pre-season opening of Target Field, it’s fitting to take a look at how the “experts” see the team shaping up for 2010. Be sure to check out the predictions offered by many of the fine bloggers found on the left side of this page.

This year is unique in many respects. For the first time in several years, there are legitimate expectations for the Twins to not only win the AL Central Division but to make some noise in the playoffs. With the divisional opponents either in transition (Cleveland is a few years away and Detroit looks to be retooling), in perpetual rebuilding mode (Kansas City, and don’t buy the contentions of some which suggest they may be improved this year), or possible contenders (White Sox), the Twins are the prohibitive favorite to win a second-straight Central Division title.

The high expectations are not baseless. The Twins will sport the best lineup in decades in 2010. The starting rotation is solid, if not spectacular, and has one more year of valuable pennant race experience upon which to tack. The bullpen is well above average, although the loss of Joe Nathan to season-ending Tommy John surgery creates an uncomfortable closer-by-committee approach (at least at this point). Many teams say they plan to go ahead with this approach (think Boston in 2003), but most either make a move for someone early on or designate one guy to fill the role. We’ll see how the Twins approach this as the season progresses.

The Joe Mauer contract situation is resolved, removing a potential distraction from the team. Having to enter the season answering questions about pending free agency was distracting in 2007 (Torii Hunter and Johan Santana) and would have been so this year. Long-term extensions were reached with Nick Blackburn and Denard Span, keeping two young components under team control for the next several years. Manager Ron Gardenhire’s field staff returns in-tact again this season and the patented stability trickles into the front office as well, as GM Bill Smith enjoyed a fine off-season.

The highlights of the winter were the offer (and acceptance) of arbitration to starting pitcher Carl Pavano, who pitched well for the Twins in August and September after being acquired from Cleveland. Jim Thome was signed as a free agent to bolster an otherwise weak bench and provides a significant upgrade over the past several years. Clay Condrey was signed as a bullpen option and provides insurance in the event Pat Neshek is not ready to return to his traditional 7th inning role. More significant, however, was the improvement of the team’s middle infield with the acquisition of shortstop J.J. Hardy from Milwaukee (for Carlos Gomez) and the free agent signing of Orlando Hudson. The defense up the middle has been improved by acquiring the two, and each has some pop in their bats. The Twins have struggled with these two positions for several seasons, and they will break camp this spring with stability at SS and 2B for the first time in a while.

Off the field, the team’s PR was improved by the Pohlad family’s willingness to put the team’s payroll close to the $100M mark and the signing of Mauer to an 8-year, $184M extension, keeping him in Minnesota through at least 2018. The thing fans are most anxious to witness is the spectacle which is Target Field. Gone are the days of antiseptic indoor baseball, but the days of turf-induced infield singles and crazy outfield bounces are also in the past as well. Target Field is an open-air, natural grass, paradise which will be subject to elements the Twins have not had to face since 1982. It will be interesting to see how the dimensions play out. Justin Morneau casually mentioned last year after a batting practice session that he thought there was a bit of a wind tunnel in right field. The Twins certainly hope that Target Field does not become “New Yankee Stadium West,” and with a pitching staff which induces a lot of fly balls, the general concern of Twins’ management and fans is genuine. One thing that is certain is that the fans will pack this place all season long. The Twins say there is a chance that all games will be sold out in advance.

In short, 2010 is a season of great anticipation for Twins’ fans.

That is not to say the Twins will coast to the Central Division title. With 19 games against the four division rivals, anything can happen. The Twins usually do well in the division, clean up in interleague play (the opponents this year are Milwaukee, Atlanta, Colorado, Philadelphia, and the Mets, so the road will be tougher this season), and struggle against the AL East and West opponents, so there are certainly some question marks there. However, the Twins’ lineup should carry them to the top of the division if the hitters have the years they are capable of having. Also, adding a healthy Kevin Slowey to the starting rotation definitely improves upon last season, when the Twins were forced to send inexperienced starters like Brian Duensing, Jeff Manship, and Armando Gabino to the hill in pennant race conditions.

So, in my mind, the Twins are the team to beat in the AL Central and will make some noise in the playoffs. Here are my predictions and we’ll see how they shape up come season’s end….

Twins-Specific Predictions:

Twins MVP: Denard Span

Twins Top Pitcher: Kevin Slowey

Twins Best Rookie: Danny Valencia (I predict he’ll be called up in early May)

Twins Most Improved Player: Delmon Young

Bold Predictions:
This blogger shares the high expectations, but is careful of tempering them somewhat, given the relative disappointment of his winter sports teams (i.e., Gopher basketball and hockey). However, the Twins’ lineup is far too strong, and the Division is too much in flux, for the Twins to not at least win the AL Central Division. If Joe Nathan was healthy, I believe the expectations for this team to go beyond the first round would be legitimate, but his injury has given the expectations some reprieve. However, I still believe the Twins have the tools to go beyond the first round, and I expect them to do so this year. Remember, despite five Division titles (and one tie) Gardenhire’s eight seasons in the dugout, the Twins have advanced past the first round just once, and that was in 2002.
  1. The Twins will trade for or sign a free agent closer in mid-April
  2. Kevin Slowey will win 14 games in 2010
  3. Jason Kubel will hit 35 home runs in 2010
A.L. Central Prediction (Standings):
  1. Twins
  2. Chicago White Sox
  3. Detroit
  4. Cleveland
  5. Kansas City
Three Keys to Success for the Twins:
  1. Bullpen stability, especially in the late innings
  2. Starting pitching must hold up for the entire season
  3. The team cannot rely on Mauer and Morneau to provide all the offense; guys like Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young must produce
Rest of the League Predictions:

A.L. MVP: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
N.L. MVP: Hanley Ramirez, Florida
A.L. Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, Seattle
N.L. Cy Young: Chris Carpenter, St. Louis
A.L. Rookie of the Year: Scott Sizemore, Detroit
N.L. Rookie of the Year: Jason Heyward, Atlanta
A.L. Breakout Player of the Year: Jason Kubel, Minnesota
N.L. Breakout Player(s) of the Year: Colby Rasmus, St. Louis / Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh
A.L. Comeback Player of the Year: Francisco Liriano, Minnesota
N.L. Comeback Player of the Year: Carlos Beltran, NY Mets
A.L. Playoff Predictions:
  • Minnesota over Boston (Wild Card)
  • NY Yankees over Texas
  • Minnesota over NY Yankees (why not?)
N.L. Playoff Predictions:
  • Philadelphia over Colorado
  • St. Louis over San Francisco (Wild Card)
  • Philadelphia over St. Louis
World Series Prediction:
  • Philadelphia over Minnesota