September 24, 2010
October in Minneapolis
The Twins have appeared in the postseason five times in the past decade, and earlier this week clinched their sixth American League Central title in nine years by becoming the first team to wrap up a division race. In the previous five attempts, they advanced no further than the ALCS—and that was all the way back in 2002 against the eventual World Series champion Angels. Since that time, the Twins have missed the playoffs or lost in the first round, posting a post-season record of 2-12. As the first team to guarantee itself a playoff spot in either league, will this year be any different for the Twins?
While many of the Twins teams from earlier were praised for "doing the little things" and all of the things that the statistically oriented crowd can find irksome, this club does things the impressive way—they beat their opponents into submission. Despite missing Justin Morneau for a significant chunk of the season due to a concussion, the Twins find themselves second in the AL in TAv at .272, one point behind the Yankees and well ahead of last year's more league-average showing of .264.
Nearly everyone in the lineup is above average for his position with the bat. Joe Mauer, last year's MVP and the team leader in runs over replacement, is hitting .331/.407/.473 at catcher, one of the weakest offensive positions. Delmon Young has been a major surprise, but he seems to have finally lived up to his former top prospect status with a .299/.333/.484 showing that puts him well above the left field average. Michael Cuddyer has been forced to play first base in Morneau's absence, and his overall .272 TAv is below average for the position, but was fine prior to that switch when he was playing right field. Denard Span has been disappointing overall, but his .261 TAv still has him as a league-average hitter, even if he's a little below the expectations for center field. Orlando Hudson did exactly what he was signed to do at second base, as has shortstop J.J. Hardy, and the emergence of Danny Valencia at third base (.332/.374/.463 in his rookie campaign) has made it so perpetual replacement-level player Nick Punto gets to spend most of his time on the bench.
While Jason Kubel has been a bit disappointing, following up on his monster 2009 with a season that is well below the offensive expectations of right field, the Jim Thome signing has helped make up for that. Thome has just 271 at-bats, but is sixth on the team in runs over replacement (ahead of Kubel and right behind Morneau, who despite missing two months plus did plenty in the first half) thanks to a .631 slugging percentage and 25 homers. He is far and away the leader in TAv at designated hitter, and ranks sixth amongst all DHs in runs above replacement despite the lack of playing time.
This is a team that can mash—it's the Twins' most obvious strength, even if it's not the one you see mentioned all of the time thanks to what people are used to writing and saying about them over the years. They haven't given up much on defense to get to this point either, as the Twins rank 11th in the majors (sixth in the AL, the same spot as last year, but last amongst the league’s playoff-bound clubs) in Defensive Efficiency. It's not a great defense by any means, but it is still converting nearly 70 percent of balls in play into outs, which means it's not something the Twins need to worry about.
The pitching is a little more suspect in terms of regular season ability, but in the playoffs, with a shortened rotation, things can come together quite well for Minnesota. Francisco Liriano is a legitimate Cy Young candidate at the top of the rotation, and, except for maybe Cliff Lee, is arguably the most dominating pitcher among the AL teams that will be in the postseason. After that is Carl Pavano and his mustache—Pavano is the opposite of Scott Baker, as his ERA should be higher, but he's still a useful second starter in a playoff series. Brian Duensing will take the ball in Game Three, and though he is nowhere near as good of a starter as his 2.19 ERA suggests, he is the kind of pitcher who can keep the Twins in a game thanks to excellent control, even against the game's elite lineups. Nick Blackburn is the fourth starter if necessary, though if Baker's elbow is healthy, the Twins would be remiss to avoid using him even in place of Duensing, as he is the second-best starter on the staff, with the 33rd-best SIERA in the majors (min. 100 IP).
The bullpen was considered a potential issue before the season even began, as Joe Nathan, one of the few elite and reliable closers in the game, underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery on his elbow in March. While Jon Rauch took the closer duties early on, the Twins dealt for Matt Capps at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, switched Rauch back to his former set-up role, and also added left-hander Brian Fuentes in a trade with the Angels. Capps has been huge in Minnesota, putting up nearly two wins worth of WXRL in his 24 innings, and while Fuentes has not pitched much because of some issues with his back, he sits on the positive side of the replacement-level ledger in his time with the Twins. Jesse Crain has mostly been used in low-leverage situations, but leads the team in WXRL, a credit to his performance in those moments—this group will be tested in the playoffs coming in after whoever the fourth starter is and in relief of Pavano and Blackburn, neither of whom is a horse, but thanks to the acquisitions the Twins have capable bullpen depth
Instead of focusing on the little things and filling the roster with the likes of Punto, this Minnesota team went big. The lineup is full of mashers, even with the injuries, and is arguably the most productive unit in the league—remember, they are right behind the Yankees in TAv despite missing Morneau. Injuries have not slowed the Twins, as they have been able to plug holes with players like Valencia, and Young. This is not the same kind of Twins team that lost in the playoffs all of those other seasons. Instead, this looks like a team that can at least advance past the ALDS and maybe even get to the World Series for the first time since 1991.