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March 4, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Mourning for Morneau?

by Christina Kahrl

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Is the news coming out of the Twins' camp good or bad? I suppose it depends on how you want to see it spun, but the easy confidence that the Twins will win because that's what they do has taken its share of hits.

First, there's the case of their first baseman, Justin Morneau, still trying to come back from last season's concussion, still “making progress.” Morneau has been participating in workouts and some batting practice, and that's better than where he was in January or November, and certainly better than where he was at the start of October, when he was shut down as the Twins sailed into the playoffs.

It's easy to see this as good news—who doesn't want Morneau back? Who doesn't want to see him tearing up pitching and recreating that nice problem to have, of whether the modern M&M boys might split the vote for American League MVP, because both Morneau and Joe Mauer have hardware on the mantelpiece and talent enough to earn more?

Not to be a killjoy, but it also doesn't sound as if Morneau is actually further along from where he was in September, when he was participating in batting practice and “strenuous” workouts. Is it really all that promising that, eight months later, Morneau has to say, “If I'm getting through every day symptom-free, without any headaches, without any fogginess ... when we have that more than one or two days in a row, whatever it is, we'll go and hopefully get cleared."

It's eight months later, and Morneau still can't get through three days without symptoms? As much as we want him back, the problem is that we don't know when, and, because we're talking about a concussion, there's the nagging worry that the question could always become one of “if”: if Morneau comes back, not when, and if he'll be the same bopper he was before. Just because he wants it, the Twins want it, and you or I want it doesn't make it so.

The more basic problem is that with or without Morneau, the Twins cannot assume that what ever was shall be. History provides cause for this confidence, of course. They were able to win without Morneau and Joe Nathan in 2010. They were able to win without Morneau (for a shorter period of time) and without Francisco Liriano pitching effectively in 2009. They almost won in 2008 despite the extended absence of Michael Cuddyer, settling for elimination in a 163rd game.

They've won while seeing every starting pitcher not named Carl Pavano go into a bad funk for varying lengths of time. They've won while indulgently carrying around the last few little piranhas until, one by one, each one floated to the top of the tank. They've won while waiting around for prospects like Delmon Young and Glen Perkins and Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla to develop, and if Young was the only one who at long last has, that's OK—he was the best of them.

They win, it seems, no matter what they do, inspiring a circular logic that makes you wonder if the question isn't if they'll win, but how. Is this Scott Baker's year to break out, or Kevin Slowey's? Will 2011 be Nick Blackburn's shot at beating the rap as the Human Piñata? Maybe Jim Thome will slug .600 forever. Maybe Carl Pavano will just keep cranking out duplicates of his career year. Maybe a bullpen headlined by a comebacking Nathan and Matt Capps will be Ron Gardenhire's best yet.

In the seeming reliability of the proposition, the Twins owe a debt of gratitude to their four rivals in the AL Central. Ambition in Minnesota can take its due from their ability to beat up on their fellow dwarves in the division. Over the last three years, the Twins' record in intradivision action is 136-82 (.623), versus 101-115 (.468) against the rest of the league. Lou Boudreau's advice, about playing .500 against the good teams and beating the bejeebers out of the cellar-dwellers, didn't anticipate the existence of divisions, let alone an unbalanced schedule, but it still holds true—although getting to be in the division with the Royals and Indians in it certainly helps. Last season had the benefit of the Twins' first winning record against either of the other AL divisions (the West, of course), but if they don't repeat the experience, and win the Central just the same, would that surprise anyone?

The problem is that the past cannot be the Twins' guide for 2011. The White Sox have assembled their strongest rotation yet, even if you choose to be skeptical about which flavor of Edwin Jackson's performance they get, or how much and how effectively Jake Peavy will pitch. They also won't suffer as badly from last season's self-inflicted head wound, when they picked Juan Pierre over scoring runs by using the expense of the former as an excuse to punt being able to afford the ubiquitous Thome. The Tigers are taking their chances with the back end of the rotation by employing Brad Penny and converting Phil Coke, but their projected front five nevertheless ranks fifth in the league. The addition of Joaquin Benoit gives them a power tandem for late-game leads no worse than the Twins, and Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta will provide more offense than Johnny Damon and Adam Everett and Gerald Laird did.

The “good fundamentals” Twins took another hit with the revelation that Francisco Liriano failed to keep his shoulder in shape. Assertions that they can afford to deal Liriano seem especially foolhardy if they're punctuated with assertions that they have enough rotation depth to be fine without him. They're already betting on the proposition that the fuzzy-faced altiverse Pavano stays in our dimension. Brian Duensing may be locked in for a rotation slot, but as a swingman with a short resumé for success as a starter, and as someone whose delta between his RA9 (2.89) and his SIERA (4.22) ranked among the largest in either league, it seems sensible to expect him to take a few hits with the regression stick.

Mostly, the Twins can ill afford to be without Morneau for much more than the 550 plate appearances we're anticipating so far. While Morneau isn't projected to hit as well as last year, and thus won't provide a full half-run per game in marginal value more than Michael Cuddyer might as their first baseman, that's less the scope of the problem. Cuddyer's a multi-purpose solution who will be in the lineup regardless.

Instead, the challenges are legion, not to Morneau finding a magic bullet, but to a series of propositions working out in the Twins' favor. Thome's ability to keep fending off Father Time seem fairly secure; even PECOTA, generally bloody-minded at the sight of a few gray hairs, seems satisfied that the aging slugger can crank out a .297 True Average. Delmon Young has to keep developing into the mid-order slugger he finally became last year; PECOTA's skeptical, but it's on Young to kick his career permanently into a higher orbit. Jason Kubel needs to be something more than the guy he's looked like outside of the abandoned Metrodome, more like the hitter he was in 2009; a career .257/.330/.449 performance on the road suggests that, highlights aside, there's only adequacy on tap.

All of these things could work out well enough. But in the meantime, we have to wait and see what comes next for Morneau. For better or worse, that's a clock running on its own time, one the Twins may have to get used to not watching as they gear up for 2011.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Justin Morneau,  The Who,  Twins

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