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March 7, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
The Terrible Twins of 2012?
First, let’s get this out of the way: The Minnesota Twins will probably be pretty bad, at best, this season. They lost a lot of games in 2011, and though many of the names and faces have changed, they’ll take the field in 2012 looking a lot like the same team. As a matter of sabermetric best practices, it’s probably a good idea to assume that they’ll lose a lot of games again. PECOTA and the depth charts currently see the Twins losing 91 games, in a two-way tie for the AL Central cellar and a three-way tie for last in the American League. That’s all very reasonable, and nothing you read here is going to dispute the notion that that’s exactly what’s most likely to happen.
What I’m wondering, though, is why it’s being treated as a foregone conclusion. Great analysts are dismissing the team without, well, analyzing. Our own departing-and-incoming managing editors—brilliant, insightful, and devastatingly handsome men, both—had things like this to say in their recent AL Central preview: “This team should trade any veterans not nailed down” … “they can’t compete” … “The Royals are about to leave the Twins in their dust” … “It’s going to stay bad before it gets better.” And they’re certainly not alone... they’re just the example I can find right now. On Twitter and elsewhere, the Twins have very quickly become a punch line. They’ve been written off completely.
And, again, I’m not arguing with the logic of that, just the finality of it. I’m a Twins fan, and it’s spring, and in spring, we’re told fans are supposed to be hopeful. I’m also an analyst (or so I like to tell myself), and wouldn’t hope just to hope, if there were no reasons for it. That’s certainly the case with some teams, and I could well decide that’s the case with the Twins at this time next year. Or even by this April 15.
For now, I plan to keep cautiously hoping, and here’s why: This is essentially the same team as 2011’s, sure, but it’s also essentially the same as the 2010 squad. That team won 94 games and finished out in front of the AL Central by six. It’s not likely that everything suddenly clicks back into place... but each element, individually, certainly could. So, why not? Here, roughly in ascending order of importance and descending order of likelihood, is a countdown of six things that (a) were good in 2010, but (b) were bad in 2011, and (c) could be good again in 2012:
6. A solid middle infield. In 2010, the Twins’ middle infield of Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy, when both were healthy (they combined to miss 96 games), combined above-average offense for their positions with good defense. Those two were worth 3.4 WARP, and good seasons by Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla in backup roles plus the living, breathing presence of Matt Tolbert added another 2.0, for a total of 5.4.
In 2011, Casilla stepped into a full-time role and held his own, but his contributions were offset by Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s disastrous performance and way too much playing time for Trevor Plouffe and Matt Tolbert. Altogether, the middle infield combined for about 0.0 WARP.
Now Casilla appears entrenched at second base, where he should be most comfortable, and newcomer Jamey Carroll steps in at short. Tolbert is gone, Plouffe is an outfielder, and Nishioka isn’t even assured of making the roster. In 535 plate appearances over his last two seasons, Casilla has amassed 2.9 WARP; in mostly full-time duty over those same two seasons, Carroll has also averaged 2.9 WARP. If those two stay healthy and Carroll puts off acting his age for another year (and can handle shortstop), they could easily match the output of 2010’s middle infield, or better.
5. A left fielder who was... okay. Delmon Young got a lot of attention (and some down-ballot MVP votes) for .298 average and 112 RBI in 2010. He fell apart and was traded in 2011, and the youngsters who took his place were even worse.
Ben Revere isn’t going to do what Delmon did offensively, but he’s also not going to do what Delmon did defensively—namely, giving doubles away like they’re Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons. Delmon is one of the worst defensive players in baseball and put up -12 FRAA in 2010, balancing out much of his offense (which, as most readers here will understand, wasn’t actually that good) and leading to a 1.6 WARP.
Revere, in many ways, is the opposite of Delmon. He’s blindingly fast, and though it doesn’t show up in the metrics in his limited big-league time in 2011, he’s a truly phenomenal defensive outfielder. He has no arm to speak of, but in left field, where that disadvantage is minimized, he may well take over as the best defender in that position in the league. He’ll have to hit a little bit, which means getting a bit lucky with the batted ball dropping in and ripping a few more line drives into gaps (he may never hit a ball over the fence in the majors). He did plenty of that in the minors, and could do just a little of it here. With his defensive and baserunning abilities, it won’t be that hard for Revere to match what Delmon did in 2010, and far surpass what Twins left fielders did in 2011.
4. A very good top of the rotation. By some measures, Francisco Liriano was among the best pitchers in the American League in 2010, posting a 2.62 FIP and 3.3 WARP. Carl Pavano was a dependable and solid number two, throwing 221 innings with a 3.75 ERA. The Twins are always going to have those Twins-like pitchers for as long as this administration is around—your Nick Blackburns and Kevin Sloweys, guys who throw strikes and don’t care if you hit the ball, and are thus doomed to the back of the rotation. But having two guys at the top who were legitimately very effective and dependable was a huge plus for Minnesota in 2010.
Then, of course, Liriano imploded. His strikeout rate dropped by nearly two per nine, his walk rate climbed by even more than two, and his FIP jumped by nearly two runs, his ERA by a run and a half. Pavano’s ERA jumped from 3.75 to 4.30.
But Liriano is just 28 and has had brilliant flashes before, so it’s not as though 2010 was a fluke. Could he put it back together and do it again, or come close, in 2012? Nobody really knows, so why not? Pavano, on the other hand, is 36, and his strikeout rate appears to be in a free fall. However, his underlying numbers were otherwise the equivalent of 2010’s or better, and he could have another solid 220 innings in him (with improved team defense and thus a better ERA). If not, and/or in addition, Scott Baker, when he was healthy, was brilliant in 2011, driven by a very solid, improved strikeout rate. If that improvement is real and Baker can stay healthy enough to throw 200 innings for just the second time in his career, this rotation could be downright good. Or, at least, not bad.
3. A healthy Denard Span. Span’s 2010 actually felt disappointing at the time, his OBP plummeting from .390 in his first one-and-a-half seasons to .331. Yet he was a useful player to have, with slightly below-average offense and excellent defense in 153 games in center field. Last year, Span saw an offensive resurgence, batting .294/.361/.385 with even better defense through June 6. That was the day Span suffered his concussion. He came back in early August, in body if not in spirit, and posted a miserable .132/.179/.245 line, including a 2-for-35 first half of August before shutting it down again for a couple weeks.
Span has been cleared to play with no restrictions and has been doing well in the early spring. He still feels occasional symptoms of his concussion, but if he manages 140 games or so at the level at which he was playing prior to his injury, that could be a four-win player, two and a half or so better than Minnesota got out of center in 2011. That may well be too much to expect, but nobody actually knows—that’s the whole point of this—so it’s fair to hope.
2. A healthy Joe Mauer. You know the story here: Mauer had a monster MVP year in 2009, signed a huge contract, and hasn’t been the same since. Except that’s not a fair description of what happened. If Mauer were being paid based on his 2009, he’d probably still be the highest-paid player in baseball. He was paid not to be the MVP of 2009, but merely the probably-should-have-been MVP of 2006 and 2008, a good defender at an important position who hits like a really good-hitting first baseman. And that’s exactly what he was in 2010; Mauer batted .327/.402/.469, good for a .303 TAv.
Of course the contract didn’t actually start until 2011, and that was a disaster by both Mauer’s standards and by the standard set by his new income bracket. He got into just 83 games and hit “just” .287/.360/.368 while spending 52 games at catcher and 18 games at first (though they didn’t have any reason to push him and didn’t have a real first baseman, so that wasn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of Mauer’s ability to catch regularly).
That’s still just one injury-wrecked year. Mauer is 12 months removed from being the indisputable best player in baseball at his position and a perennial MVP candidate. He won’t turn 29 until the middle of next month. Coming into this season, all reports are that the injuries are well past Mauer and that he feels as good as ever (I hate to tread so close to BSOHL territory, but here it’s pretty relevant). Mauer was a 5.0-WARP player in 2010, 3.5 wins more than he produced in 2011. He’s probably not likely to get back to that level in 2012, but he certainly could.
1. One superstar hitter. From Opening Day through July 7, 2010, Justin Morneau hit .345/.437/.618 in 348 plate appearances. From July 8 on, Jim Thome hit .303/.438/.669 in 178 plate appearances. Altogether, for the entire season, the two combined for 688 plate appearances, 43 homers and 6.8 WARP—basically one complete season from an elite power hitter.
As you know, Morneau hasn’t played in any meaningful sense of the word since then, and Thome’s 2011 production was significantly lower, and then he was traded. And... well, I’m not even going to pretend here. Morneau, even if he’s as healthy as he’s ever been, won’t put up seven wins or a 1.150 OPS. But if he’s healthy and moves a bit back toward his career norms, he could put up 3-4 WARP, a gain of 3-4 wins over the replacement-level play they got at first (mostly from Morneau himself) in 2011. I think it’s reasonable to expect Josh Willingham to outproduce Michael Cuddyer’s 2011 and Ryan Doumit to best Jason Kubel’s, making up a good amount of the rest of the difference.
There’s nothing remotely scientific about this, but eyeballing it, my perfect-world version of these six areas, wearing glasses more rose-colored than the actual color rose itself, gives the Twins about 24 WARP more than they got from these areas in 2011. That’d put them around 86 wins, within the range of contention for the division or wild card.
Will all those things happen? Almost certainly not, though they happened with an awfully similar team in 2010. But then what if some of them happen and take the team halfway, from a terrible team to a mediocre, 76- to 82-win sort? Or, what if Mauer, Morneau and Span all have wasted years again, Carroll can’t handle short at his age, Liriano never finds the magic again, and the Twins lose 105 or something? That’s possible, too, maybe more likely than any of the other options. But the point is—and I think it’s even more true with this team than any of the 29 others, since so much of what killed the 2011 squad was an endless string of injuries to key players, the status of which going forward we can’t possibly know—that none of us has any idea what to expect from this team. They’ve got essentially the same pieces that a 94-win team that plays in their stadium had two years ago, and 94 losses might be a lot more likely, but both are well within the range of possibility.
At any rate, it’s more than enough for me, as an analyst, to allow me, as a fan, to feel some hope. At least until they’ve had a month or so to prove it misplaced.