By The Common Man
The Common Man took in the final game of the Twins’ weekend series against the White Sox yesterday, from the comfort/searing heat of the leftfield corner of Target Field. It turns out that watching the Twins lose 7-0 to their biggest rivals to complete a three-game series sweep is a great way to abandon all hope for the 2011 season, so TCM is ready to move on.
By amazing coincidence (or excellent stalking), TCM discovered that the one and only Mr. Horrorpants, writer of The Cedar Falls Hoose-Cows, an online baseball-related murder-mystery novel, and hilarious Twins fan worthy of your time and effort on Twitter, was seated across the aisle. Over beers, Horrorpants (that’s obviously not his real name, but The Common Man challenges you to demonstrate that it’s not infinitely more awesome than any given name could possibly be) opined 2012 didn’t look to good for the Twins either.
TCM is a sucker, however, and ever-hopeful, and so he immediately began to argue that it’s too early to write off 2012 just yet. Here’s why:
1) Morneau, Mauer, and Span should get healthy.
The Twins have definitely been decimated by injuries this year, with only Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer being the only members of the Opening Day lineup to escape the disabled list. There is simply no way that the Twins will be this snakebit again. Another year removed from his concussion, and with his lingering neck issues solved, there is little preventing Morneau from duplicating his past success. Similarly, with more time removed from his concussion, Denard Span should be back to his normal self in 2012, providing strong on-base skills and defense. And wherever he ends up on the diamond, Joe Mauer figures to provide strong offense, especially as his improving back and knee allow him to drive the ball better.
2) The rotation’s not going to be THAT bad.
While not a strength in 2011, the Twins rotation is likely to rebound in 2012. Francisco Liriano will have an entire offseason to sort out his control issues and rediscover the dominant stuff that made him one of baseball’s best pitchers in 2010. Scott Baker is under contract for two more seasons, and has remade himself, becoming a strikeout pitcher while continuing to limit walks. Baker seems a legitimate #2,or perhaps fringy #1 starter based on his performance in 2011. Coupled with a potential return by Kevin Slowey in 2012 (he has a whole winter to get out of the club’s doghouse), the Twins should have three very legitimate starters next year.
Sadly, Carl Pavano’s days as an effective starter are probably done, and the prospect of him and Blackburn both in the rotation next year is disappointing. But the Twins could easily survive with one of them soaking up innings at the bottom of the rotation for a year. Whether the other spot in the rotation gets filled by Anthony Swarzak, Brian Duensing, Kyle Gibson (probably not, given that Tommy John surgery is possibly in his future), Liam Hendriks, or a one-year rental (which would be The Common Man’s preference, barring a healthy Gibson), there are many options.
3) The bullpen will improve.
Look, the bullpen can’t really get any worse. Twins pitchers working out of the pen have combined for a 4.66 ERA in 2011, almost a full run higher than the league average. Matt Capps and his $7 million contract will be gone, and Joe Nathan may be as well, unless he’s brought back on a much smaller deal. Glen Perkins will be reprising his role as a relief ace. There’s reason to hope that Swarzak, and perhaps even Duensing and Blackburn could be contributing parts of the Twins bullpen next year, where they would probably be effective. That would also allow the Twins to stretch out their relievers for longer appearances, lightening the overall workload of the bullpen, and reducing fatigue. Bullpens are important parts of any club in this day and age, but they’re also the easiest part of a team to fix.
4) The AL Central is still the AL Central
The Twins are fortunate to play in an incredibly weak division. Every single team has been outscored this year. While the Indians have made moves to make themselves competitive, acquiring Ubaldo Jimenez and promoting their best prospects to positions where they’ve had holes, they have almost no financial flexibility. Detroit is an old and top-heavy team with rotation problems. The White Sox have been willing to shed payroll, their GM has actively discussed blowing the team up, and they have monstrous holes at 3B, LF, CF, and DH. Finally, the Royals, while likely to improve as more of their young talent graduates, have seen most of their pitching prospects stall or get injured this year. They face 2012 with a rotation headlined, yet again, by Luke Hochevar and backed up by Danny Duffy. The rest of the rotation will be, yet again, castoffs and bargain bin buys.
5) The Twins have room to move.
While handicapped this year by the contracts of Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, and Matt Capps, the Twins have only $65.75 million on the books for next year. Ben Revere should allow them to finally say goodbye to Delmon Young (though they probably won’t). Because of his low victory total, and rough looking ERA, Francisco Liriano is probably not looking at much of a raise. Ditto for Kevin Slowey. Alexi Casilla probably won’t make more than $2 million, and neither will Glen Perkins. Assuming they offer arbitration to all of those players, the Twins will probably have between $20-25 million to spend next year. That's weird, considering how the Twins were never really considered "buyers" until 2010. They can use that money to upgrade at catcher (allowing them to move Joe Mauer at least part-time), potentially targeting free agents Chris Snyder or Ramon Hernandez, or trading for Chris Iannetta or Ryan Hanigan. Resigning Joe Nathan would probably take another $5-6 million. And finding a DH to replace Jim Thome could also be fairly inexpensive (wouldn’t a David Ortiz reunion be nice?).
Aside from the glaring hole at shortstop, then, the Twins wouldn’t really have any huge gaps in the lineup. Regardless, Nishioka’s probably locked in there for one more year at least as the Twins try and recoup their investment in him. Casilla is not a great player, but he’s also better than any player who will become available on the open market, and Trevor Plouffe may be a sufficient insurance policy there. Danny Valencia, while a big disappointment this year, is also likely to see some bounce back thanks to a .271 BABIP, and has a reputation as a good 3B, even if that hasn’t shown in the defensive metrics this year.
2012 looks poised to be another wild and underwhelming year in the AL Central. Yes, the Twins have weaknesses, but they have flexibility and resources that their rivals lack that can help them to patch those holes. So while Twins fans rightfully wallow in what has been a terrible season, it’s time to look forward. The division is still wide open next year, and somebody has to step up and win it. The Twins and their fans should be wondering “why not us?” and act boldly to fill that void.