It's apparently The Common Man's day to criticize Rob Neyer,which he totally doesn't mean it to be. But Rob wrote a lot yesterday, and TCM was paying very close attention to his old boss. And anytime Rob writes about the Twins, TCM's ears perk up. Rob's debut on SB Nation was largely terrific, but this stuck out as a bit of a clunker:
"Just about everyone's back except Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy and Jesse Crain. Sure, those guys will be missed. But they weren't exactly All-Stars, and if Justin Morneau's back the Twins should be fine. After all, this is a team that won 94 games with Morneau for just half a season and Joe Nathan for no season at all. Baseball's a funny game and they might finish third, but that seems like a reach."Look, as a Twins fan, The Common Man desperately wants this to be true. But, even as someone who's not usually very pessimistic about the team, TCM can easily see how the Twins could end up in 3rd in 2011.
First, Rob forgot about Matt Guerrier, who has been an stallwart part of the bullpen. Jon Rauch, who was solid. And Nick Punto, but he's no great loss.
Let's also try and remember why the Twins won 94 games last year, and actually won at a higher rate after Justin Morneau went down than before it: Most importantly, Jim Thome hit .303/.438/.669 with 15 homers over the last three months of the season, which actually outproduced what Justin Morneau did in his half-season before getting injured (.345/.437/.618). And frankly, they cannot expect a 40 year old to do that again.
So, in order to keep pace with last year's club, the Twins need to not only get a full, healthy, and productive season out of Justin Morneau, but they need to replace Thome's additional production on top of that. Maybe they can. They will have Danny Valencia for a full season, and while Valencia was likely a little over his head last year, he's a good bet to provide more overall value in 2011 than the combination of him, Nick Punto and Brendan Harris did in 2010. Also, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer are likely to experience some rebound in their offensive stats after down performances last year. But Delmon Young may be in line for some decline, the middle infield is suspect (to put it generously), and the back end of the bullpen will be filled with Anthony Slama, Jim Hoey, Dusty Hughes, and whatever Pat Neshek has left rather than Rauch, Crain, and Guerrier.
And even if the Twins' overall quality holds steady with last year's 94 win team, Rob doesn't address the improvements made by the White Sox and the Tigers last year and this offseason. Chicago's rotation, which includes a fully healthy Jake Peavy and a full season of Edwin Jackson, is going to be formidable. And the increase in offense Adam Dunn brings, in addition to a full season of either Dayan Viciedo or Brent Morel at 3B, and a strong bounceback for Gordon Beckham figures to help the Sox win even more games in 2011.
And while the Tigers may have not helped themselves in the long term with their signing of Victor Martinez, it's hard to argue that he makes the club better in the coming season. His bat, along with a full season of Jhonny Peralta and Carlos Guillen will be a sizable improvement over the rotating middle infield of 2010. Plus, Brad Penny and Phil Coke will make a much more appealing back end of the rotation than Armando Galarraga and Jeremy Bonderman did.
Both these clubs have improved, and some of their extra victories are going to come at the expense of the Twins, meaning it's likely that the AL Central will have three teams with at least 85 wins, putting the Twins' reign at the top of the AL Central in jeopardy, and threatening to drop them behind their two biggest rivals. The Twins are walking a very thin line in 2011, and the slightest deviation from the plan that's been drawn up could easily turn the club into another also-ran.