Thursday, February 9, 2012

Playing Pepper

Every year, Baseball Bloggers Alliance founder Dan Shoptaw sends out a few questions to each team's chapter regarding the outlook for that team.  As you might have guessed, those question are much more bleak than they have been in a long time.  You can read responses from all of the Twins blogs on March 13th, at which time I will provide the link.

1) What was your opinion of the team's off-season?
All in all, it was solid.  Unfortunately, a solid off-season isn't likely to be good enough for a team that lost 99 games last season.  They avoided bad contracts with Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer (and will get draft picks in their place), they made some nice pick-ups with Ryan Doumit, Joel Zumaya, and Jamey Carroll, and they struck a good deal with Josh Willingham, their biggest free agent signing in franchise history.  But their bullpen is still riddled with holes, which could have been filled fairly easily with multiple quality relievers with the $4.5 million that instead went to Matt Capps.  Their starting rotation is likely to again be one of the worst in the league, unless Liriano returns to form (more on that in a minute), as Jason Marquis is not an appreciable upgrade in that department.  And their hitting still leaves something to be desired given the health of Justin Morneau, and, to a lesser extent, Denard Span and Joe Mauer.

2) Francisco Liriano seemed to be wildly inconsistent last season.  Is there any reason to hope he'll be more dominant this season?
He was much closer to consistently bad than wildly inconsistent.  Outside of a freak no-hitter (which was still quite the highlight in that depressing Twins season) and a great game in August against the Yankees, Liriano was plain bad.  Then again, the year before he had some sabermetrically-inclined fans calling for his inclusion at the top of the Cy Young discussion.  As such, he's probably the most polarizing Twins player in recent memory, perhaps with the exception of Nick Punto.  As for the hope that he'll be much better this year, I think it's closer to hoping against hope that he will be, rather than any rational expectation for him to be.  Like Jason Kubel's knee injury suffered  in the AFL in 2004, Liriano's Tommy John surgery will more than likely have us wondering what could have been as he disappoints once again.

3) Justin Morneau hasn't played 100 games in the past two seasons.  What are the expectations for him in 2012?
Not much.  He had so many injuries last year that I can't even keep track of them all.  Wrist surgery, neck surgery, post-concussion symptoms, the list goes on and on.  And the fact that Minnesota is spinning it as good news that he is finally no longer experiencing concussion symptoms 18 months after his initial injury?  Just depressing.  Morneau was in the midst of a magical season before that fateful and seemingly innocuous feet-first slide into second base, and since then he's been a complete mess.  I feel for the guy and hope so much that he can come back and be the player he was two years ago, but at this point if he either makes it through the whole season OR provides above average production for any significant portion of 2012, I'll be satisfied.

4) Is there a prospect that will make an impact on the team this season?
With Kyle Gibson going under the knife last year, I don't think there's one clear answer to this question.  Chris Parmelee might be a popular choice but I don't see a roster spot for him to start the season, nor do I see him maintaining the success he had in his call-up at the end of last year.  Joe Benson and Alex Wimmers might be options, but I don't think the Twins see either as being ready for extended time with the big league club this year.  To me, that leaves Brian Dozier or my choice, Liam Hendriks.  Dozier might have if the Twins hadn't signed Carroll, but now he figures to be behind Alexi Casilla, Carroll, and presumably Tsuyoshi Nishioka at the midle infield spots.  Hendriks pitched decently in his cup of coffee at the end of 2011, and figures to be one of the top choices should anyone in the rotation go down with an injury.  Or struggle, which, given the makeup of the Twins' rotation, is virtually guaranteed.  He may not have a lot of upside but I think he's the prospect most likely to make an impact this year.

5) Where will the team finish in their division and what are you most excited about for 2012?
As a fan, despite everything I've written, I think they'll come out on top.  The White Sox mortgaged for the future this off-season, the Tigers lost Victor Martinez and are playing a man at third base who could pass for an NFL offensive lineman, and the Indians just played over their heads last year.  And do I even need to mention the Royals?  As a realist, the Tigers have to be the favorite to win the division with Verlander, Cabrera, and now Prince Fielder.  After that, it's a bit wide open, so I'll be a homer and pick the Twins a distant second--around .500--to the Tigers.

And I'm most excited about Joe Mauer.  I am the biggest apologist and fan of him, even in Twins territory.  When so many fans turned on him toward the end of last year, I remained one of his staunchest supporters.  He's healthy now and he'll be back to form this year.  He'll never repeat his 2009 season, but I see another batting title coming in 2012.

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