2012 Minnesota Twins preview: Trying to get out of the cellar

Joe Mauer needs to return to form or Minnesota may be stuck at the bottom of the AL Central again in 2012. (AP/Andy King)

The second year at Target Field was not a successful one. The Twins finished last in the division for the first time in a decade. They mustered a mere 63 wins, finishing more than 30 games worse than the 2010 campaign. Their last-place finish was a major disappointment after they shelled out a franchise record $113 million in salaries.

Looking to right the ship, Bill Smith was fired. To replace him, ownership brought back the man who groomed Smith for the job, Terry Ryan. Ryan is quietly prepping his team for 2012. With the exception of dealing Kevin Slowey to Colorado the winter meetings were pretty tame for the Twins.

So without further ado here are the 2012 Minnesota Twins:

Catcher — Franchise icon Joe Mauer definitely gets the nod here. The team has 23 million reasons to count on Mauer for 2012. Over an abbreviated season, where he logged only 82 games, Mauer had the worst stats of his career. He batting only .287, a fry cry from the .365 he hit during his 2009 MVP campaign.

This latest injury poses serious questions about the Twins’ lynchpin. If the troubles persist, you may see him appear more in a DH role. I wouldn’t be surprised if he shifts to 1B from time to time to spell Justin Morneau, who has health issues of his own.

Mauer’s contract could be a hindrance down the road, but look for him to have a bounce-back year.

Ryan Doumit was picked up and can spell Mauer at times. Given Mauer’s fragile history, Doumit could end seeing significant time behind the plate. He also brings valuable versatility as he can fill in as DH, 1B and the corner OF spots.

Wilson Ramiro would have provided excellent insurance at backstop but he was included in the deal that brought Matt Capps to the Twinkies in 2010.

Manager Ron Gardenhire may carry three catchers, with Drew Butera rounding out the group.

First Base — Another injury-plagued former MVP, Morneau, takes the at-bats here. Due to a concussion and other health concerns, Morneau had his fewest plate appearances since his rookie year.

Losing his production accounts just as much for the slide to last place as losing Mauer’s.

Ironically, up until 2010 Morneau was one of the more durable first basemen in the game. In 2008, he played in 163 games (full season, one-game playoff,) a rare feat in this era of coddled ballplayers.

A full season from Morneau would be a huge boost and help the Twins rise out of the cellar. At $15 million a year, they’ll be looking for him to restore his WAR to above five. Another MVP season is wishful thinking, but he could return to an All-Star caliber player if healthy.

September call-up Chris Parmelee showed why the organization has high hopes for the power-hitting lefty. He may crack the roster on a permanent basis come April. Even with a healthy Morneau, Parmelee can add value as a DH or enter the conversation in right field.

Second Base — Alexi Casilla should see most of the plate appearances here. Hopes are he’ll rebound from his season-ending hamstring injury. Casilla has a pending arbitration case and should earn about $2 million next year. The job should be his to lose despite mediocre offensive production during last year’s shortened time.

The Tsuyoshi Nishioka experiment can be deemed a failure in year one. The Japanese star was oft injured and offered little production even when healthy. Most of the year, it looked like the guy couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. That’s tough to do in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Perhaps he’ll overcome those first-season jitters and turn things around. If not, he’ll join a long list of Japanese players whose games just don’t translate in the MLB. For now, he looks like he’ll provide depth at second and short.

Second-year infielder Luke Hughes should be available should either Casilla or Nishioka log serious time on the DL again. Don’t expect Matt Tolbert to gain much traction as a replacement. During his 87 games, Tolbert batted a paltry .198. Mario Mendoza sends his condolences, I’m sure.

Third Base — Suffering from the dreaded sophomore slump, Danny Valencia didn’t quite replicate his rookie numbers. Although his 72 RBI did lead the team last season. Valencia’s average dropped about 70 points after finishing third in the 2010 ROY voting. Despite last year’s struggle, he should have no issues holding his spot in the lineup. His run-production potential and lack of an alternative should assure that.

Pressure may end up coming from within the organization from Miguel Sano. Baseball America slated him as the #60 prospect in 2011. So far, he has yet to climb any higher than Rookie ball, spending 2011 in the Appalachian League.

Shortstop — Veteran Jamey Carroll will bring his talents to the Twin Cities, and all indications are he will be starting come opening day. Carroll was one of the first of handful of free-agent infielders to sign this year, inking a $6.5 million contract. While he certainly isn’t in the same class as Jose Reyes, Carroll should provide some stability in the clubhouse and be adequate at the plate.

If nothing else, he’ll be a bridge to 24-year-old Brian Dozier. Heading into 2011, Dozier was largely off the radar. Baseball America didn’t even list him in the organization’s top 10 prospects. Since then, he has climbed through the ranks.

He’ll probably begin in hard-hittin’ New Britain or Rochester but should make a case for the big-league squad by September call-up time.

Left Field — The speedy Ben Revere should have no trouble locking up the left field corner. Revere played admirably, covering center field during a banged up year for Minnesota’s outfielders. The young lefty swiped 34 bags, setting a franchise record for rookies. Should Denard Span struggle to get on base, Revere would be the top candidate to take the leadoff spot.

Trevor Plouffe may end up platooning with Revere here, especially if Revere can’t replicate or better his .267 average. All the speed in the world won’t gain the Twins anything if he isn’t on base.

Fellow youngster Joe Benson jumped from the Rock Cats to the bigs in September. He’ll most likely start the year in triple-A, but he isn’t far away from showcasing the talents that earned him the 2010 Twins Minor League Player of the Year.

Center Field — Another concussion victim will be penciled in for center field. Span was rocked during a home-plate collision mid year, but fans should expect him to be recovered for 2012.

Due to the injury, Span turned in his worst season to date last year, batting just .264. He’s under contract until at least 2014, and it’s in the Twins’ interest to ensure Span is an everyday player. A return of a capital, so to speak.

With Revere hot on his heels and Benson waiting in the wings, Span will have little room for error.

Right Field — Michael Cuddyer could leave a void here if he bolts for free agency. The club is rumored to have an offer on the table in the neighborhood of $24 million for three years.

Interest from larger-market clubs like Boston could price the Twins out of the market. They could go in a number of directions if fan-favorite Cuddy signs elsewhere.

Internal options include Plouffe or Rene Tosoni. Both are about 25 years old and may not be ready for full-time duties. Doumit would be available in this spot as well.

Heralded prospect Aaron Hicks once would have been the ideal candidate to fill this spot. He has yet to live up to hype, still toiling away in single A ball. The tools are all there but development is slow. It’ll probably be 2013 or even 2014 before Hicks sees any Homer Hankies on a regular basis.

Benson could get a shot here too, he offers more of an upside than either Plouffe or Tosoni.

Bottom line: None of the other guys are Cuddy. His numbers dwarf anything they have done to date. Don’t discount the clubhouse intangibles he possesses either. His grit and team-first attitude will make him difficult to replace.

GM Terry Ryan may explore the open market here. Josh Willingham, Cody Ross and Ryan Ludwick are viable options.

Designated Hitter — After 12 first-half homers, Jim Thome was traded last August to division rival Cleveland and has since signed back with the Phils.

Jason Kubel is a free agent, and signing him doesn’t seem to be a priority. Should a deal be reached, you can probably tab him in the six-hole. Kubel is coming off a down year, failing to reach 20 long balls for the first time since 2007. Losing Kubel wouldn’t be detrimental here. He does bring a certain versatility, but he isn’t exactly Harmon Killebrew.

If injuries concerns linger for Mauer or Morneau, one or both could end up seeing significant at-bats as the DH.

Other options include Doumit, who wouldn’t provide the power Kubel traditionally brings. This could end up being another spot where Ryan explores the free-agent market.

A veteran acquisition like Vladimir Guerrero could be available if Kubel slips away.

Starting Rotation — A slew of injuries ran through the club’s rotation in 2011. The only starter on the staff who didn’t spend time on the DL was Carl Pavano. The opening-day start should be Pavano’s to lose. He has turned out to a fine addition to the team, truly exemplifying that one man’s trash is another’s treasure.

Lefty Francisco Liriano has been something of an enigma over his whole career. Showing flashes of brilliance, highlighted by a May no-no. Unfortunately, that was last year’s lone bright spot, he went just 9-10 and managed only 134 IP.

At this point, Liriano doesn’t look like he’ll ever replace Johan Santana as hoped. Instead, he’ll likely tow the line as the number-two guy. Despite his career’s speed bumps, Liriano should be up to the task of 13 or 14 victories.

A pair of homegrown righties will get the ball every third and fourth day, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn. Like so many of the 2011 Twins both missed significant time due to injury.

Each, typically, is good for about 10 victories. Neither will dazzle, but they’ll get the job done. Baker’s deal is up after this year, so expect him to be motivated for a new contract.

The final slot is up in the air. Now that Slowey has been jettisoned to Colorado, Brian Duensing may be the one that earns it. Like his teammates, Duensing missed time on the DL last year, too.

As a handful of minor league arms develop, Duensing could also find himself in the pen. On the other hand, based off his 2010 pitching line of 10-3 and a 2.62 ERA, the team may be better off considering Baker or Blackburn for long relief instead.

Leading Minnesota’s young guns is Kyle Gibson. Gibson lost most of the 2011 season to Tommy John surgery but is still the top arm in the system.

Every indication is that Gibson is destined to be a frontline starter. If not for the surgery, he probably already would have made his debut. Rehab has been slow going, and it may be the end 2012 or the beginning of 2013 before Gibson displays his talents at Target Field.

On the international front, Aussie Liam Hendriks may be ready for a starting role with the Twins, too. Hendriks impressed with the Rock Cats at 8-2 and in the annual Futures game, quickly meriting a call to triple-A and eventually the majors. He made four September starts with mixed results, going 0-2 and watching his ERA balloon over 6.00. If nothing else, big-league experience was good for him, and he should contribute to what will be formidable Rochester rotation.

Alex Wimmers is another name to follow in 2012. Not likely that he’ll see any time in Minneapolis next season, but he shouldn’t be too far off. Look for Wimmers to replace Gibson as the top minor-league arm when Gibson is inevitably promoted.

This week’s Rule 5 selection may provide help to the rotation. Terry Doyle was acquired from the White Sox organization. If his performance this fall is indication of his potential, the Twins may have found themselves a steal. He went 4-0 with a 1.98 ERA in eight Arizona Fall League starts.

Again, Ryan might look to round out his rotation through free agency. A number of bargain veterans are still available. Paul Maholm should fall within any budget restraints they may have. Another would be Javier Vazquez, if he doesn’t retire.

I know I took a lot of heat from Jays fans by mentioning Jeff Francis as a possibility, so here we go again. Francis would be a decent fit. He can be an innings eater and, based on last year’s endless DL trips, the Twins will need someone to get outs. You wouldn’t want the guy in your playoff rotation at this point, but lets face it, a lot would have to go right for a return to the postseason.

It’s doubtful the Twins had any illusions of being able to sign any of the top-tier arms like C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle.

Bullpen — Easily the biggest area of concern last year. The Twins were the not-so-proud owners of the worst relief corps in the AL. Like so many other Twins, the injury bug bit incumbent closer Joe Nathan. Coming off a 2010 season where he didn’t see the field, Nathan only made 48 appearances last season. His lowest total since joining the club.

Backing him up was the portly Capps. He certainly did little to fill the void left by Nathan’s ineffectiveness, going 4-7 with nine blown saves. Maybe, a bit surprisingly, the Twins weren’t competitive in pursuing Nathan and he left for Texas. Instead, they extended Capps with a two-year contract and a club option for 2014. For the Twins’ sake, hopefully, he can trim up for the 2012 campaign. If they expect Capps to be the full-time closer, he’d better make sure to limit his intake of fried walleye on a stick over the winter.

The biggest contributor out of the pen was Glen Perkins. He was the only full-time pitcher with an ERA under 3.00, ending the season at 2.48. Perkins had an impressive 17 holds. Not bad for a team that only won 63 games. The lefty should have an increased role next year and continue to perform well.

Help also may come from the minors. Twins 2008 first-round pick Carlos Gutierrez should make the team out of spring training. He has dominated at times in late-inning work in New Britain and Rochester. Gutierrez has drawn comparisons to Derek Lowe, as he has a high groundout to flyout ratio. His velocity is a tick better than Lowe’s, so once command of his sinker comes around, he should crack the roster. If Capps struggles, you may even see him in the closer role at some point in 2012.

The remaining bullpen is comprised of marginal talent like Alex Burnett and Jose Mijares. Mijares was somewhat effective against lefties and did improve over the second half. In fact, he had a dominant August, giving up just three runs in 14 innings. Don’t forget Duensing could transition out to the pen as well.

Don’t be surprised to see Ryan make a pickup or two here to shore things up, but don’t count on them adding Ryan Madson.

Daniel Turpen, acquired in the Slowey transaction, will probably start the season in Rochester, unless he dazzles in camp this spring. He could aid the pen at some point too.

Projected Lineup
1. Denard Span CF ($3MM)
2. Jamey Carroll SS ($2.75M)
3. Joe Mauer C ($23MM)
4. Justin Morneau 1B ($15MM)
5. Josh Willingham (free agent)
6. Ryan Doumit DH ($3MM)
7. Danny Valencia 3B ($437M)
8. Alexi Casilla 2B (arb)
9. Ben Revere LF (arb)

Projected Rotation
#1 Carl Pavano ($8.5MM)
#2 Francisco Liriano ($4.75MM)
#3 Scott Baker ($6.5MM)
#4 Nick Blackburn ($4.75MM)
#5 Brian Duensing ($462M)

Matt Cain ($4.5MM)

If the Twins can’t put on a show, Minnesotans may have at least one chance to be entertained this summer. Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw will team up to perform at Target Field on July 8. Following the latest trends at ballparks, this will be one of 18 concerts on the “Brothers of the Sun” Tour (already sold out.)

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