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March 1, 2006

Prospectus Today

Half a Champion

by Joe Sheehan

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There are good teams and bad teams, bandwagon teams and teams no one cares about, but in a small place in the middle, there are teams you're not quite sure what to do with. They have some parts…and some holes. They make some good moves…and some clunkers. They've had some recent success…and failure.

Perhaps the best example of this middle ground is the Twins, whose string of division titles ended last year despite a pitching staff that allowed the fewest walks (348) of any team playing a full season since 1968, and the second-fewest ever in a 162-game season. The Twins' pitching was championship-caliber; they were fifth in the AL in ERA, tops in the league in any command stat you want to use, allowed a respectable 169 home runs and featured the best starter in the circuit, Johan Santana.

The offense, however, was execrable. The Twins finished last in the AL with 688 runs scored and last in MLB with a .245 EqA. Just one regular, Joe Mauer, cracked a .340 OBP, and not one player managed to both garner 400 at-bats and post a .440 slugging average. No one was Cristian Guzman bad, but the collective weight of so many below-average performers dragged the great pitching staff down and prevented the Twins from making a real run at the White Sox and Indians down the stretch.

Twins' GM Terry Ryan was tasked with repairing that problem this winter, but as has been his approach, he didn't do it with a big move that clearly makes the Twins better. No, he added some aging players who, at their best, have been adequate regulars or a little above that, and who come with question marks about their ability to contribute. Tony Batista, signed after a year in Japan, hasn't posted a major-league OBP above .309 since he was a 25-year-old shortstop in 1999. He makes Michael Cuddyer, 27 this year and coming off yet another desultory season, look like a pretty good option at third base. Batista isn't what the Twins need and, in fact, is likely to hurt them more than he helps.

The nominal big move was a trade for the Marlins' Luis Castillo, who has been a reliable OBP source in his late 20s (.364, .381, .373, .391 since 2002). Leg problems have curtailed his basestealing and baserunning, a tale told by plunging steal and triple totals. Moving from the grass of Dolphins Stadium to the turf at the Metrodome is likely to take a further toll on his offense, costing him a number of the infield singles on which he builds that OBP. High-mileage second basemen moving into their fourth decade on the planet are a high-risk property, as years of work around the keystone take their toll on a body, especially the legs. All things considered, Castillo seems likely to lose a win or more off of his recent value. Even at that, he doesn't have to do much to be an upgrade on the Nick Punto Experience; he just may not be enough of one.

The third notable move was the signing of Rondell White on the cheap. White continues to be a serviceable supporting bat; outside of a lousy year for the Yankees in 2002, White has been a .280 EqA guy with durability issues. He'll hit for a good average, solid doubles power and, removed from Comerica Park, likely pop 20 or so homers. That helps a contending team looking to buck up the back end of a lineup. The problem for the Twins is that a .280 EqA would make White the team's third-best hitter, maybe the second if Justin Morneau doesn't rebound.

The problem with all of these players is that they're incremental upgrades on a situation that cries out for a major one. The Twins will be a game better for having Castillo, and maybe a game better for having White. (Batista simply isn't as good a player as Cuddyer is.) That would jump them from the worst offense in the league to…the second-worst, maybe? Sure, Castillo may help the defense--not a guarantee given the surface change--but these signings are not the bold moves that a team with a 688-run offense needs to make. Not when scoring 780 runs could be enough to win 95 games.

The Twins are banking heavily on health and internal improvements, and this is where you see some cause for optimism. There's little in Justin Morneau's track record to suggest he's the hitter he was in 2005; he should hit for a higher average, walk more and sustain his power. Adding a legitimate .270/.360/.530 guy would be a boon to a Twins team that hasn't had one of those since Kent Hrbek's peak. Joe Mauer will get a little better, and allowing Jason Bartlett to claim the shortstop job would be a step in the right direction. He'll improve in '06. A healthy Torii Hunter, who was having one of his best seasons before breaking his ankle, would be a boon. How the repaired joint affects his range in center field is a more important issue, however.

Improvement by the offense is critical because the Twins will again have more than enough pitching to win the AL Central. Johan Santana is the best hurler in the AL, no matter what the Cy Young voters did last fall. Brad Radke and Carlos Silva work quickly and throw strikes, enabling them to throw a lot of innings without creating usage problems. Silva's torn meniscus, which cost him a half-dozen starts, is fine after offseason surgery. These three pitchers threw 620 innings with an ERA of 3.42 last year, and a comparable performance in 2006 is a reasonable expectation.

Kyle Lohse returns, and while that's not terribly exciting, it's worth noting that he seemed to ape the approach of Radke and Silva last season, working faster and allowing more balls in play at a cost of both strikeouts and walks. He's essentially a league-average pitcher capable of throwing 190 innings, which makes him valuable.

What's exciting for Twins fans is that they have two top prospects who seem ready to make contributions to the '06 rotation right now. Francisco Liriano was named BP's top pitching prospect, and #4 overall. The lefthander, part of the neverending booty from the A.J. Pierzynski trade, has impressed statheads and scouts alike, most recently with a dominant cup of coffee (33 K, 7 BB in 23 2/3 IP) at the end of 2005. He's ready for a major-league job.

The potential upgrade from 2005's #5 starter slot--mostly Joe Mays, who was awful--to a legitimate #2 starter like Liriano, is as much as four or five wins. That would give the Twins a shot at having the best rotation in the AL.

Liriano isn't even assured a job, however. Scott Baker, a 24-year-old righthander who pitched well down the stretch last year, may edge him out for the last rotation spot. Baker doesn't have the pedigree of Liriano, but he fits the Twins' rotation in that he's a control freak: just 40 free passes allowed in 188 1/3 innings at Triple-A and in the majors in 2005. He's got more experience at the upper levels and, being two years older than Liriano, carries fewer concerns about usage.

Regardless of which pitcher holds the job on Opening Day, the Twins are assured of having six starters available, all at or above league-average. Liriano could find his way to the bullpen for a few months, a pen that currently lacks a second lefthander or a truly effective one (Terry Mulholland is the lone southpaw, although Gabe White probably has a line on a roster spot). More likely, he'll open the season in the Brandon McCarthy slot, waiting out an injury or a stretch of ineffectiveness that creates an opportunity. It's a wonderful problem to have.

The Twins also return a deep bullpen, loaded with righthanders who keep the ball in the park and miss bats. Jesse Crain had a weird '05 season, but his skill set remains intact, and he should see a jump in his strikeout rate this year.

So the 2006 Twins, who want to look like the 2005 White Sox, actually resemble more the 2005 Astros. They aren't rising to even the below-average offense that the Sox put together in support of their good pitching and otherworldly defense last year. While they'll challenge the ChiSox and A's for the best run prevention in the league, they're also going to challenge the Royals and Angels for the worst run production. That's a recipe for a long and frustrating season.

Once again, we look at Ryan. Throughout the Twins' 2001-03 run atop the AL Central, we chastised him for not making a move to push the Twins over the top, to take them from a 90-win team getting fat off of weak competition to a true championship-caliber squad. He never made that move, the Twins never took that leap or advanced past the ALCS.

Now, after a season amidst the commoners, the exact same scenario has emerged. The Twins are good enough to contend, perhaps even good enough to make the postseason. But like the '01-'03 teams, they're not really one of the very best teams in baseball, despite having one of the four or five best pitching staffs in the game. Ryan has to find a way to leverage that strength and that depth to add offense, because the Twins desperately need it. Luis Castillo and Rondell White aren't enough; Ryan has to make the big deal, has to bite down and maybe move Scott Baker to add the Scary Monster(tm) to a lineup that doesn't have one. He needs a six- or seven-win hitter to complete his offense, and push the Twins over the hump.

Hoping that Justin Morneau will improve or that Shannon Stewart will bounce back or that Jason Kubel will be healthy isn't enough. Ryan has to identify the Twins' greatest need and fill it while his pitching staff is still this good.

The White Sox had a .251 EqA last year and scored 741 runs, figures which serve as the bare minimum for contention with a great pitching staff. If the Twins can get to .255 and 750, they can think about more than a new stadium--they can think about having a very nice flag to fly in it.

--

Later today, I'll be participating in the fourth Rotowire Staff League auction. In three years, I've never won, placing second, last and fifth of 18 teams.

I actually think I can pull it off this year, but I have very little room for error in the auction. So I'm turning to the readers to offer a strategy. The league is a 5x5 Rotisserie setup, with seven-man reserve lists and a ten-man minors. Here's my roster (and where it was a year ago):

C McCann $3
2B Hill $3
SS Lopez $5
3B Rodriguez $62
CI Wright $3
OF DeJesus $2
OF Wilkerson $15
OF Griffey $16

P Arroyo $5
P Martinez $58
P McCarthy $3
P Loaiza $2
P Reitsma $5
P Valverde $6

M Kinsler
M Barton
M Snell
M Gutierrez
There were a lot of tough calls at the end of the keeper process. I left a roster spot open at the end, cutting Jeremy Reed, Javier Valentin, Derek Lowe and Wilson Betemit, all for $5 or less. David DeJesus is a guy I have pegged for a breakout, and I think Esteban Loaiza will outproduce his price for a second straight year.

I think this is the core of a winning team. I'll have just $72 to play with, however, so I have to choose between making one big play--Albert Pujols is in the pool, and I don't even know if my max bid of $64 would get him--or carefully doling out that money throughout the auction. My gut says to go after Pujols, but I also like the idea of bargain-hunting for first basemen and outfielders, in a deep pool in a year where inflation should be reduced due to the effect of long-term contracts.

I'm no fantasy expert--I just golf and play poker with them--so you have until 6:30 EST today to hit me with your ideas. I'll recap the auction in the next day or two so you can see how it turned out.

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

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