3 Up…or 3 Down?
I will be very busy in the upcoming days leading up to the Minnesota Twins’ Opening Day on April 6th, so I just wanted to post a few season-preview thoughts before the regular season campaign kicks off.
The way I see it, there are three areas in which the Twins need to excel this season in order to win the division crown. In all honesty, these areas are pretty much the same for all other teams as well, but the Twins have their own unique challenges:
1. First, the starting pitching quintet of Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins needs to continue to keep the team in games. This is the most important cog in the machine, as if the quality starts keep pouring in the Twins will at the very least compete no matter how bad the bullpen or offense stinks. The old baseball adage that “good pitching beats good hitting” holds as true now as it always has. I mean, if say Johan Santana faced no one but Ichiro Suzuki all season long, the very best that Ichiro could do is get a hit four times in every ten at-bats. Thus, the starting rotation is the anchor of every staff, and the Twins’ staff is still a bit of a question mark:
Baker: Has ace-type repertoire but struggles to pitch into the later innings. Is usually up around 100 pitches by the fifth inning or so, putting a strain on the bullpen.
Cisco: Could dominate, could fall apart due to control issues.
Slowey: This is the guy I think is poised for a huge season. He is essentially the second coming of Brad Radke, only with a better assortment of pitches. Just needs to work on limiting damaging situations, as they tend to snow-ball on him pretty quick.
Blackie: As a play-to-contact, ground ball sort of pitcher, Blackburn walks the fine line between Carlos Silva and Jack Morris. On some days he can be the most frustrating guy in the world to drive the ball off of, while on other days he gets lit up.
Perkins: The great unknown. Was very up-and-down last season…showed flashes of both excellence and utter failure.
So, the extent to which that rotation comes together is the biggest factor in how the Twins will finish in the standings in 2009.
2. The bullpen, however, isn’t far behind. Whereas I am confident that the starting five can find a way to hold up their end of the bargain, I’m not nearly as sold on the bullpen, which looks to include:
Joe Nathan: The only sure-bet of the bunch. Will blow a few (who doesn’t…well, besides Brad Lidge last year), but let’s just say that a “down” year would be an ERA over 2.00.
Jesse Crain: Pretty much the root of all frustration in the world. Was overhyped even when he was good, but does have a glimmer of hope in that now is arm is finally “back” after having surgery a while back.
Matt Guerrier: Will have to prove that last year’s collapse WAS just a fluke (or due to fatigue), not because batters just figured him out.
Craig Breslow: The lefty-lefty specialist. Will likely do a good job, and is an upgrade over Dennis “Throw One WP And Leave The Game” Reyes.
Luis Ayala: Don’t know much about his guy, only that he came from the Nats (not a good sign) and struggled mightily last year. Has potential…but so did Mike Fetters.
The final bullpen spot, thought to be filled by Jose Mijares until he came to camp looking like Hideki Irabu, is now up for grabs between newcomer Brian Duensing, Philip Humber (obtained in the Santana trade), and R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer.
All in all, that is not a very impressive bunch. Like I said, Nathan is solid, but getting to him will be the difficult part. Someone is going to have to step up and become the eighth inning man that guys like LaTroy Hawkins and Juan Rincon were in the past.
3. Finally, I would like to quickly comment on the Twins’ offense. Here is a sample lineup that the Twins could trot out on a semi-day basis:
Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Crede, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, Nick Punto.
Essentially, it would likely be the best starting lineup the Twins have had in quite some time (plus Carlos Gomez off the bench). However, I am very wary of predicting a high offensive turnout from this bunch, as it so rarely happens up here in MN. It seems as if the Twins are much better at developing pitchers than hitters (perhaps due to the small-ball philosophy that reins hitters in instead of turning them loose?), so even a lineup that looks rock-solid can quickly turn gooey. Actually, I think the biggest positive this season, as opposed to ’06 or ’08, is that no old fogeys are being counted on to produce. The days of experimenting with guys like Tony Batista, Rondell White, Mike Lamb, and (cringe) even Bret Boone seem to be behind the Twins, with the lineup now given over completely to the young veterans and just youngsters period.
So there you have it…how the Twins perform in those three areas will go very far in determining their division standings come October. Hopefully before the season begins I will post an article about my divisional predictions for MLB (if it ever stops snowing here to allow the mail through!).