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September 15, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Minnesota Twins

by Jay Jaffe, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.

Today we say farewell to the Minnesota Twins, who endured one of their worst seasons in recent memory. Major injuries to major players made Minnesota's margin for error miniscule. It's time to give the Twins two kisses goodbye.

Baseball Prospectus' Take
Signs of hope:
The Twins began the year with a $112.7 million payroll, the ninth highest in the majors and the highest in club history, about 15 percent higher than in 2010. They haven't come anywhere close to getting good value for their money, but the good news is that they have a lot of it coming off the books; between Joe Nathan ($11.25 million), Michael Cuddyer ($10.5 million), Matt Capps ($7.15 million), Delmon Young ($5.375 million), Jason Kubel ($5.25 million), and Jim Thome ($3 million), they're clearing $42.5 million worth of salary spent on six players who have been worth a collective 3.7 WARP this year. Thanks to their lovely new Target Field, they currently rank second in the league in attendance, but they'll need to reinvest some of those savings to convince fans that they can return to contention.

Signs of disaster: Nearly everything that could go wrong for the Twins did in 2011. Among American League teams, the Twins have scored more runs than only the Mariners and allowed more than all but the Orioles. They're headed for their first last-place finish since 2000 and their lowest win total since 1999. They've gotten horrible work from newcomers such as Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.226/.278/.249) and once-promising youngsters such as Danny Valencia (.247/.295/.396).

But much more disconcerting is the decline of the team's most valuable commodities. Joe Mauer's health was misevaluated at the start of the season; he spent two months on the DL due to leg woes and has hit a thin .290/.358/.372 with just three homers—an ominous showing for a player still owed $161 million over the next seven seasons. Justin Morneau has hit .227/.285/.333 with just four homers while struggling with wrist and neck injuries; he lost two months to surgery to repair a herniated disc. More troubling is the fact he's still battling post-concussion syndrome, and the Twins owe him another $28 million.

Carl Pavano regressed as feared; his strikeout rate tumbled to 4.0 per nine, and his ERA ballooned from 3.75 to 4.52. He's due another $8.5 million next year. Francisco Liriano, coming off his strongest season since Tommy John surgery, wandered back into the wilderness and posted a 4.84 ERA while walking 5.0 per nine. Instead of being a candidate for a long-term deal he's a big question mark.

Signs you can ignore: When injuries hit the Twins, Ben Revere was pressed into big league service after just 32 games at Triple-A. The 23-year-old rookie has hit just .249/.295/.283. He's shown off his speed and made some highlight-worthy defensive plays, but he could use more minor league seasoning and will need to develop more strength if he's ever going to reach his ceiling as a dynamic leadoff hitter. —Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Twins have a myriad of problems to solve this offseason, and this winter will be the biggest challenge of general manager Bill Smith's career. The team obviously has some health issues, as it used the disabled list an astounding 24 times this year, but beyond injuries, Smith need to upgrade his roster.

The Twins were trying to get more athletic and improve their range in the middle of the infield this year when they handed the shortstop job to Alexi Casilla and signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a three-year, $9 million deal to play second base. Casilla and Nishioka were both injured and inconsistent, and the team really missed the defense and offensive energy that the former double-play combination of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson brought each night.

The Twins were close to trading Denard Span to the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline for Drew Storen, one of the top young closers in the game. However, when the Twins got greedy and asked for second-base prospect Steve Lombardozzi to be part of the deal and Span hadn't yet recovered from his concussion, the deal collapsed. If Span is healthy, they should make the bold move and deal for Storen and Lombardozzi even if they have to put another prospect in the deal for the Nationals. Then they should let Revere become the full-time center fielder and use some of the money they have coming off of the books to re-sign Cuddyer because of his leadership, loyalty, and what he means in the middle of their lineup.

A trade for Storen and Lombardozzi would solve their closer dilemma and upgrade second base while reducing the payroll considerably with the impending free-agent departures of Capps and Nathan. The Twins have a long way to go, but getting younger with payroll flexibility is the better way to go than patching up a team that has so many issues beyond health. —Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 87-75

It's hard to see it now in the midst of a disaster of a season, but the Twins still have a lot going for them, enough to make them a dangerous team in a good year. Joe Mauer's bat is coming around, and while neither the ZiPS projection system nor the most optimistic Twins fan sees another .365/.444/.587, 28-home run season like he put up in 2009, the odds of Mauer being a .320/.400/.430 hitter going forward are very good, and he should be a major improvement for the offense for 2012. There's certainly still hope left for Justin Morneau, and while ZiPS has been continuing to project Morneau downward after his nightmare year, he's still young enough to recover from his injuries and snag a Comeback of the Year award. Four of the five pitchers in the rotation have better mean projections for next year, and with a little bit of luck, the Twins can be in the thick of it 12 months from now.

Worst-case scenario: 66-96
The 10th percentile projection for the Twins isn't hard to imagine as that's how the Twins have played this season. To get the Twins playing as poorly next year as this year, you have to look way down in ZiPS' percentiles, around the 4th or 5th percentile for expectations. There's just realistically not a lot of ways for them to get worse at this point. It's hard to imagine Mauer or Morneau having worse years, the rotation and bullpen being more disappointing or Nishioka not improving significantly. He wasn't a scrub in Japan, but rather a .304/.379/.443 hitter, and while Japan isn't the majors, it's not the Carolina League, either. —Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The bad news is that the Twins have an excellent chance to finish last in one of baseball's weakest divisions. The worse news is that help from the system is most definitely not on the way, at least anytime soon. Outfielder Joe Benson should provide some much needed muscle to the lineup in 2012, but with righty Kyle Gibson undergoing Tommy John surgery earlier in the month, the cupboard of prospects at the upper levels is bare.

Teenage sluggers like Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario provide upside but are still years away, so the future of the Twins consists of prospects that don't seem like much of an improvement over what's already on the roster, thanks to a consistent over-reliance on strike throwers when it comes to drafting pitchers and a seeming favoritism toward fundamentals over athleticism when it comes to selecting position players. That's enough to create a productive system in terms of quantity, but what the club needs now is quality, and that's not coming in 2012 or the year after. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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