World Series time! Enjoy Premium-level access to most features through the end of the Series!
February 29, 2012
AL Central 2012 Preseason Preview, Part Two
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 37.9
Runs Scored: 778
Runs Allowed: 729
Team FRAA: -5.1
1) Will their defensive experiment work out?
Ben Lindbergh: I’m not optimistic. I mean, look at this picture. Delmon Young isn’t exactly svelte, but Fielder and Cabrera both look like they could be hiding Adam Everett under their shirts (where he might be of use as an emergency defensive replacement). And that’s after Cabrera reportedly dropped 20-25 pounds.
The defensive spectrum is usually a one-way street, and I think the Tigers will toy with Cabrera at the hot corner for a while before giving in to the inevitable. The inevitable might come before Opening Day. Cabrera’s bat would be even more valuable if he could play a demanding defensive position, so the team’s heart is in the right place, but he hasn’t played third regularly since 2007, when he looked at least a little more trim.
The Tigers might make the playoffs even with a porous infield, but why send Cabrera back to a position where he won’t succeed? Yes, Detroit has Victor Martinez ticketed for the DH slot in 2013, but they can worry about that then, Mayans permitting. The path of least resistance in 2012 is probably putting Young in left and letting Cabrera do what he does best—hit—without having to pretend he’s capable of anything else. Young is a lousy left fielder, but he’s not quite Cabrera-at-third bad, in the sense that he’s actually played the position during the Obama presidency. That defensive alignment might hurt Andy Dirks’ feelings, but he’s probably going to have to get used to fourth-outfielder duty eventually.
Steven Goldman: I’m a little more comfortable with it, Colonel, though the problem is that I don’t want to tell you why. I can tell you why at the end of next month, when Extra Innings comes out and everyone has read Christina Kahrl’s chapter. Perhaps you will read it, too, and then I won’t have to tell you, either. I mean, given the amount of time we’re spending together on this preview alone, we’re going to need some time apart. People are starting to ask questions.
I don’t want to spoil the chapter, or maybe I’ll just make it one of the freebies we put up here at the glorious .com, but it’s about the interactions of strikeouts and defense. Now, even with Cy Verlander and Max Scherzer about, the Tigers were just an average team in strikeouts overall. We will see if that changes with another year of maturity from Rick Porcello and Brad Penny off pitching on Moonbase Gingrich or wherever he’s gone off to. I’ll be surprised if Doug Fister can keep up seven strikeouts per nine in the second year of his Detroit incarnation, but if he does, so much the better. If I can paint with a broad brush here, every strikeout is a chance fewer for the defense, and so maybe we’re worrying too much about leather.
Can I use the “market inefficiency” joke again? Fat, immobile players who hit like Babe Ruth are the new market inefficiency (and possible the old one, because, well, Babe Ruth).
Add in that there is nothing permanent about this move, and I don’t think it’s such a big deal. If Cabrera is a complete disaster at the hot corner and the Tigers are in a position where a chance is essential, they can always push him into a first base/DH share with Fielder, play whichever of Delmon Young, Andy Dirks, and the rest of the less-than-ideal left fielders are hottest, and live with Brandon Inge’s good-field/no-hit game for as long as it takes them to make a deal for something better. This isn’t a lifetime contract, no Vegas divorce necessary. Towards the end of his life, John Lennon started saying nice things about Paul McCartney’s music after badmouthing (and badsinging) it for years. Asked for an explanation, Lennon said, “I changed me mind!” That’s all Jim Leyland has to do to fix third base.
BL: Sure, there’s no harm done until the season starts, if then. Even if the proposed alignment doesn’t last, I can’t fault the Tigers for getting it out of their system in the Grapefruit League. If Cabrera is still at third when the season starts, and he’s botching (or more likely, not reaching) every other grounder, then we can criticize. But we probably won’t have to, since that would be as obvious to Jim Leyland as it would be to everyone else, and it wouldn’t last. If it does cost the Tigers a victory, though, that can’t be taken back, even if the positional switch is subsequently undone. “How Do You Sleep?” is still on Imagine, no matter what Lennon said later.
It’s getting tougher to keep track of inefficiencies. I thought we’d left the fat, immobile player phase behind with Moneyball and moved on to the era of the good fielder. Now we’re back to Jeremy Brown? Someone wake me when everyone has FIELDf/x and all the secrets of the baseball universe have at last been laid bare.
SG: Not completely germane, but I look forward to seeing FIELDf/x more than I did The Empire Strikes Back, and I was RELIGIOUS about that stuff when I was a kid. I thought you were going to say, “wake me when everyone has FIELDER,” because FIELDER justifies the loss of outs in the field with the runs from his bat. What we’re saying here wouldn’t necessarily apply to most other players. Call it the Harmon Killebrew Exception—hide that bat wherever you have to, but get it into the lineup. Jeremy Brown doesn’t live up to that standard, but FIELDER and Cabrera do.
BL: I wouldn’t get your FIELDf/x hopes up too high—unfortunately, Sportvision isn’t a non-profit organization, so you might be less likely to see that data than you were the Battle of Hoth.
SG: I had the snowspeeder toy for my orange-jumpsuited Luke Skywalker action figure to ride around in, but my mother wouldn’t buy me the giant AT-AT; it was really expensive for the day (in fairness to mom, I did have the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star playset, which were also quite pricey). As a result, Snowspeeder Luke didn’t really have anyone to fight except for one snow-suited stormtrooper, who was easily overwhelmed by superior firepower, after which he would have little to do except ferry Han Solo and Princess Leia up to the top of the Imperial Slalom Run.
Have you ever considered how easily “slalom” starts to sound like an obscene act involving grotesque extrusion of the tongue?
2) Is there any reason to worry about Justin Verlander’s workload?
SG: I hate this kind of question, whether about Verlander or CC Sabathia. People like to suggest that because they have stood up to it so far, they will always stand up to it. This is a bit like concluding that because you’re not dead, you’re immortal. Yes, there are reasons to worry about it. There are always reasons to worry about it. You also can’t do much about it except try to not abuse the privilege of Verlander’s durability.
BL: When it comes to pitcher workloads, extremes instinctively make me nervous, but I don’t know whether my instincts are correct. The Tigers’ rotation wasn’t deep beyond Verlander last season, so Leyland rode him hard and was rewarded with a trip to the ALCS. The fact that Verlander has handled all the innings so far means he’s more resilient than plenty of other pitchers who’ve fallen apart under lesser strains, but as you say, that doesn’t automatically make him the Adamantium Ace. If Leyland can spare him an inning here and an inning there in games that are already won, he should err on the side of Verlander’s arm not being indestructible.
3) Will Max Scherzer find consistency? Is this all we’re gonna see from Rick Porcello?
BL: I think we’ll see better things from Porcello before we close the book on his career. Not that the things we’ve seen so far have been bad—Porcello has been roughly a league-average starter since making his big-league debut, and he gave the Tigers over 500 innings before turning 23. With most pitchers, that kind of production would make us content. With Porcello, it leaves us wanting more. That’s not unreasonable, since he was a first-round selection in the 2007 draft and was ranked the 21st-best prospect by Baseball America for two years running before we saw hide or hair of him in Detroit.
That kind of hype leads to high expectations, and there’s still a sense that Porcello’s reliance on his two-seamer and resulting pitch-to-contact style are affectations that he could easily cast off if he’d let his stuff of its leash and embraces his destiny as a high-strikeout pitcher. I don’t know if a metamorphosis quite that extreme is in the cards, but I think he could still emerge from this early-career chrysalis as a more valuable arm.
Scherzer is still a fairly easy mark against lefties, which could continue to hamper him, but as we noted in BP2012, he wasn’t all that different under the hood last season. Unlike Porcello, Scherzer is already 27, so I wouldn’t expect a dramatic improvement, but I could certainly see him stringing together a few more 2010-like seasons.
SG: Scherzer was 26 last year, an age at which many pitchers are not yet 27. Were he with the Yankees, he would just be old enough to merit draft consideration. This is a bit like our Ubaldo talk from part one, isn’t it? The stuff is good, the peripherals are better than the results, and we await greatness—and PECOTA 9000 likes him as well. Now all Scherzer has to do is live up to our expectations. As you mentioned, left-handers had their way with him last year (.281/.345/.495). That wasn’t the case after his minor-league refresher in 2010, and maybe the very fixable problem in 2011 was just a loss of feel for the changeup. Then again, left-handed hitters slugged only .426 against the change, so maybe the greater problem was that his signature heavy fastball has been less heavy with each passing season (while maintaining velocity); his fly balls were up and his home run per fly ball rate was way up.
As for Porcello, he gets younger every year while the rest of rapidly age, a tremendous burden given how few toddlers pitch successfully before wholly geriatric audiences. At the risk of contradicting myself, earlier on I argued that the risk of Detroit suffering from its distorted defense was small, because pitchers like Verlander and Scherzer need less help than the average bear. Throw in regularly used strike ’em out relievers like Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit, and you have a lot of at-bats that end at home plate. However, Porcello, with his pitch-to-contact style, may suffer disproportionately if the third baseman is staggering around like Curly Howard after being slapped down by Moe.
I know people (crazy dreamers!) keep saying Porcello is going to reach back and find some strikeouts one of these days, that this is all just an affectation, and he’s just a baby so have patience. In fourth grade, I had this social studies teacher who used to yell at us all the time, then feel bad and say, “I will not yell at you. I will NOT YELL at you! I WILL NOT YELL AT YOU!” until he turned red in the face and spit sprayed over the front row. That’s what the Porcello Dreamers are like, and they’re not as pretty as the ones in the Bernardo Bertolucci film. (Eva Green’s groin, where is thy sting?) Maybe the secondary pitches will develop more and the 90-mph fastball will play up someday, but until then, I love groundball guys (as I proclaimed in part one), but I’d like him better in front of another set of fielders—say Tinker, Evers, and Chance, or even Bagels, Cream Cheese, and Lox.
4) Can Doug Fister do that again?
SG: Can we just stop and say that Twisted Fister really fooled us all? On July 30 of last year, it seemed like the Tigers had overpaid for a mediocre hurler. Instead, Fister gave them a close approximation of Doyle Alexander ’87, and it seems unlikely that they gave up a John Smoltz this time around. I really hope Fister can do it again, because 0.6 walks per nine innings is not something we see too often. It’s something out of the Eckersley, Saberhagen, or (hell) Babe Adams catalog.
Fister won’t maintain that level because no one is that consistent, and let’s keep his Seattle record in mind. Will he be a useful starter for the Tigers? Sure. Will his ERA be 1.79 again, or 3.33 (Seattle only) or 2.83 (combined)? I think it unlikely, Lindy.
BL: As do I, though I was Fooled by Fister, too. (Maybe we should make t-shirts.) I thought he’d wilt away from Safeco and Seattle’s defense, but he only got stronger (and luckier) after the deadline. He’s going to give up more hits, he’s going to give up more home runs, and despite his 6’8” frame, he’s a slow thrower for a righty, so he doesn’t have much margin for error, but how bad can you be when you don’t walk anyone and miss a lot more bats than Brad Penny? PECOTA foresees a 4.31 ERA and a 4.9 K/9 for him this season. I think I’d take the under on the former and the over on the latter, though I’d still describe him as a mid-rotation arm at best.
BL: In 2007, the Tigers scored 887 runs. After the season, they added Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, who was coming off a .288-TAv season for the Braves. Cabrera was replacing Sean Casey, and the addition of Renteria pushed Carlos Guillen to third, where he displaced Brandon Inge, who hadn’t hit at all. Suddenly, the narrative called for a 1000-run season in 2008. Instead of reaching the millennium mark, the Tigers scored 66 fewer runs. The moral of the story is that
I think Detroit’s lineup is clearly the class of the division, but it’s still a cut below those of the Yankees and Red Sox. Delmon and Dirks don’t scare me, Boesch is better than I gave him credit for when he first arrived but still no great shakes for a right fielder, and Inge will get some punchless plate appearances because of his glove. Fielder and Cabrera make quite a combo, and there are some strong supporting pieces, but I don’t think anything historic is in store.
SG: Once again, Ben, we are in harmony here. The PECOTAvac calls for about 780 runs, no big deal, and that’s because even with the two big boys in the middle of the lineup, there is no one else truly exceptional but perhaps for Alex Avila, and it’s not a given that he’s going to repeat, considering his zaftig BABIP of .366.
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 25.2
Runs Scored: 676
Runs Allowed: 782
Team FRAA: 15.5
1) The Royals seem to have some breakout candidates and some regression candidates. Which is which?
SG: This seems like a question more appropriate to the Michigan primary, but alas, too late. Let me take a stab at this: Hosmer and Moustakas are the breakout guys, Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon the regression candidates (a mild backslide, I hope, for A-Gord). Everyone else stays the same or isn’t interesting enough to talk about. Oh, and let’s throw in Melky Cabrera on the regression side, even if he’s San Francisco’s property now.
BL: I’ll see you your breakout guys and raise you Felipe Paulino, who might actually become something if he can get his BABIP (.340 in almost 350 career innings) under control. I also like Johnny Giavotella to be a lot better than he was last August and September, and with Melky out of the picture, Lorenzo Cain will have a chance to replicate his strong Triple-A season in center field at Kauffman. The Royals also have a full season of Salvador Perez to look forward too, though that probably won’t be as exciting as his partial 2011 stretched out over a full schedule. I think you nailed the regression guys, though we can probably lump Bruce Chen in with that group. It looks to me like there are a lot more breakout candidates than regression risks on the roster, which is as it should be for a team on the rise.
SG: Oh, definitely. Bruce Chen is the eternal regresser. When FDR gave his “Quarantine the Regressers” speech in 1937, he was talking about Bruce Chen. A few questions: When a BABIP is .340 in 350 innings, shouldn’t we perhaps say that the dude is just hittable, or do we buy into 350 innings of bad luck? What did he do, break the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles? Second, how breakout-y is Salvador Perez, really? I know he’s young and hit well enough in the majors that the Royals just locked him up through the end of time, but his minor-league stats don’t really speak to me, you know? And what do you think about “A-Gord” as a nickname for Alex Gordon? Does it make him sound too much like a pumpkin? In this case, the pumpkin analogy might be appropriate.
BL: It wasn’t long ago that we all got fooled into thinking John Lannan was a low-BABIP guy after his first three seasons and 423 innings: at that point, his stood at .275, with a 3.91 ERA to go with it. That BABIP has been .311 in his last 328 innings, and his ERA in that span rose to 4.12 despite a decline in scoring across the league. So no, I’m not ready to consign Paulino to the Eternally Hittable pile just yet. I share your feelings about Perez, whom I’m not sure I knew existed before he arrived on the scene, but maybe his offensive improvement last season was real. Even if it wasn’t, he’s good behind the plate, and with memories of Jason Kendall’s KC years still so fresh, I’m grading Perez’s breakout potential on a curve.
If Gordon does go pumpkin, maybe this can be the Royals’ new mascot. I’ve never been a big fan of Sluggerrr.
2) How much of a difference can Jonathan Sanchez make to this pitching staff?
BL: That we’re even asking that question almost gives the answer away. Sanchez’s bat-missing ability supplies something that was sorely lacking in a rotation whose top three starters all struck out under six batters per nine innings last season. Two of those three—Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen—will be back, but between Sanchez, Aaron Crow, and Paulino (who turned out to be a very nice find for the team after he was purchased from the Rockies in late May), the team’s starters stand to make things a lot easier for their defenders this season.
Still, your staff is in a sorry state if Jonathan Sanchez might be starting on Opening Day. No matter how many bright spots there are in KC’s lineup and bullpen, not to mention the upper levels of the minors, low-ceiling starters will keep the Royals’ young talent grounded at least until 2013. Sanchez dealt with two DL stints last season, and when he was on the mound, he showed that his impressive ability to miss the strike zone in his previous five seasons had been little more than a warm-up act for a 5.9 BB/9 opus. Now he won’t get to face the opposing pitcher two or three times per game, not that pitchers were ever automatic outs against Sanchez—in 2011, he walked four of them, too.
It’s possible to put a more optimistic spin on Sanchez. The best thing a pitcher can do is get whiffs, and he’s consistently done that, ranking among the most strikeout-happy arms over the past few seasons. And yes, he’s also walked batters more frequently than anyone over the same span, but it’s easy to summon the names of other southpaws with tantalizing stuff who made good after discovering the strike zone at an advanced age. What’s more, Sanchez was worked hard (by his standards) during San Francisco’s 2010 title run, so maybe the time off last season and this winter will do him some good.
Realistically, though, he’s probably no better than a league-average starter, and though he hasn’t yet hit free agency, he’s not exactly the best bargain in baseball at $5.6 million. He’s a suitable stopgap who’ll make himself scarce at the end of the season, giving way to Mike Montgomery or Danny Duffy, fellow lefties with greater expectations. His presence might help the Royals look respectable despite their rotation, but it won’t make their starters into a strength.
SG: In this century, the Royals have had five seasons of 150 or more strikeouts in a season, three by Zack Greinke, two by Gil Meche. Otherwise, the line starts with Mac Suzuki’s 135 in 2000 (if you even count 2000 as part of this century) and quickly drops off from there. To find the last real strikeout pitcher the Royals have had for any length of time, you have to go back about 15 years to Kevin Appier. The Royals need this kind of guy, as Kerouac might have put it, with the energy of a benny addict. The problem I see here is that command is a problem and he’s not one for lasting in games—he’s like a benevolent Oliver Perez—and you add the DH to his list of problems and he’s going to run up his pitch counts in a hurry.
3) Will the Royals EVER have a shortstop?
SG: They sort-of did, at one point; they rented Jay Bell for a year and he hit .291/.368/.461. Other than that, though, it’s all Freddie Patek, U.L. Washington, Angel Berroa, Kurt Stillwell, and Greg Gagne. The first great Royals shortstop isn’t going to be Christian Colon. Baseball America calls last year’s 16th-rounder, Jack Lopez, “the purest player and hitter in the Royals’ draft class” with “a good swing and good finish, as well as surprising power for a 5-foot-10, 170-pounder.” Yeah, that description makes me feel skeptical, too. Lopez is just a teenager and hasn’t yet played his first game in the Royals’ system, so we can revisit this question in September.
BL: Hey, the Royals do have a shortstop! They just don’t have one who can hit. Alcides Escobar is only 24, and you have to go all the way to number 20 on Kevin Goldstein’s Kansas City Top 11 before you get to another true shortstop—and even then, it’s Humberto Arteaga, an 18-year-old whom KG calls “a potential defensive wizard who will need to make great strides with the bat” (in other words, Escobar all over again). So it’s Escobar for the foreseeable future, and there are worse things than that. Yuniesky Betancourt, for instance.
BL: You’re right, FRAA isn’t high on him, but flesh-and-blood observers are—Escobar scored a 15 in Tom Tango’s 2011 Fan Scouting Report, the sixth-highest mark in the majors and the second-highest at shortstop, behind only Troy Tulowitzki. Maybe those fans were unduly influenced by his ratings according to other fielding systems, or maybe they were blinded by Escobar’s gift for the spectacular play—plenty of people thought Rey Ordonez, who retired with a negative FRAA, was another Ozzie because of his knack for stylishly sinking to one knee as if plighting his troth to every grounder in reach of his glove. I don’t think Escobar is another Ordonez, though—there’s some substance to go with his style.
4) Can Aaron Crow make it in the rotation?
BL: I’m less confident of that than I was about Chris Sale when we sized up his chances as a starter yesterday. Like Sale, I think he has the stuff to make a successful transition, but I’m less confident that his arm will hold up, given that he dealt with a stiff shoulder and forearm tightness after the All-Star break last season and finished with a seasonal velocity chart that looked like this. Breaking down in the bullpen doesn’t scream “starter” to me, though it’s still worth a shot.
SG: I’m with you, and let’s add in that the last time Crow started, at High-A and Double-A in 2010, he was unmercifully rogered by opposing hitters. He has stuff, and we both were just talking about how the Royals need stuffy pitchers. This is one I hope works out, but I’m as skeptical as Richard Dawkins at a revival meeting.
5) Will dipping Eric Hosmer in the waters of Kauffman Stadium’s fountains confer invulnerability or actually make him (or any other of these young Royals) stay past the point they become expensive?
BL: As you alluded to, Steve (and as R.J. Anderson transaction-analyzed elsewhere), the Royals just locked up Salvador Perez to a long-term deal. That seems like a good sign—at least we know that there’s room in Dayton Moore’s so-called “Process” for holding onto the youngsters he has beyond the Billy Butler deal—but It’s hard to say whether it’s the first domino to fall in a series of extensions or an isolated incident. Perez’s presence won’t be much comfort if Hosmer, et al. bolt for bigger markets at the first opportunity.
Royals fans have waited a long time for something to look forward to, and it would be a shame if they got to enjoy this current crop of talented youngsters for only a few years before they all went the way of Damon and Beltran. I’m cynical enough to know that money usually talks when it comes to free agents, but if the Royals do succeed in forging a group of players who led a farm system for the ages into winners at the major-league level, I wonder whether the idea of keeping the gang together would appeal enough to some of them when they’re nearing their primes to yield a hometown discount or two. With Scott Boras behind Hosmer, I don’t think the Royals are about to luck into a sweetheart extension like the ones the Rays got Evan Longoria and Matt Moore to agree to, but if they’re ever going to spend, the time to do so is fast approaching.
SG: It would be ironic if they found the scratch to sign Salvador but not Hosmer. Their window is small now that these guys are up, because they’ve already got one foot in arbitration and the other out the door. The pitchers had better come along in a hurry. It’s depressing given the glorious history of the Royals in the ’70s and ’80s, but that was now a long, long, time ago and the team has for too long been caught in a vicious circle of not winning, not spending, and not getting the attendance it needs to take it higher. There is a way out, but David Glass doesn’t seem likely to share Mike Illitch’s itch to leave this world with a ring on his finger. And guess what? He won’t.
PECOTA Team Projections
Team WARP: 22.7
Runs Scored: 696
Team FRAA: 0.7
1) Why do the Twins hate fastball pitchers?
SG: Someone high up in the organization misread the Book of Leviticus, with its injunctions against eating the badger and the great vulture, thinking that when He said, “Of their flesh ye shall not eat, and their carcasses ye shall not touch; they are unclean unto you,” he meant pitchers who could bring it. There is no other rational explanation for such a self-defeating emphasis on pitchers who put the ball in play. It reflects either an incompetent’s understanding of how the game works in a home run era (which is to say for nearly 100 years now), incompetent execution in scouting and selection, or incompetence by those holding the purse strings, because with a new park these guys should be bidding on hurlers and bringing in real arms.
BL: It’s not as if the Twins have never warmed up to a strikeout pitcher, and you don’t have to go back to Bert Blyleven to find one—as strenuously as they seem to avoid seeking out high-strikeout guys, Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano showed that they’re not self-destructive enough to cast out an ace who falls into their laps because he misses too many bats (although they’re not above provoking infinite facepalms around the internet by suggesting that one start pitching to contact). But you still get the feeling that the Twins, unassuming midwesterners that they are, would rather have a dependably above-average arm like Brad Radke, or even an off-brand knock-off like Nick Blackburn, than a star who selfishly racks up outs by himself and embarrasses all the other pitchers on the staff by winning Cy Young Awards.
That won’t always be the case, but a change in philosophy would require a change in whatever front-office personnel subscribe to the belief that strikeouts are the devil’s work. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen anytime soon, since Twins executives tend to stay on the job longer than Supreme Court justices. This is a team that not only chose to reassign its GM elsewhere in the organization rather than fire him when he proved unequal to the task of running the team, but replaced him with his predecessor. The Twins haven’t embraced baseball’s statistical revolution, but it doesn’t take a stathead to see that strikeouts aren’t the enemy.
The only other thing I’d add is that that’s a lot of accusations of incompetence to throw around when you’re talking about a team that had been on a pretty remarkable run of success despite a succesion of modest payrolls until the music stopped last season. The Twins’ aversion to strikeouts might be baffling, but clearly they have been doing a lot of things right, even if they worked in mysterious ways.
SG: In baseball terms, that makes Terry Ryan his own grandpa. I think the “pitching to contact” link relating to Liriano you provided proves my point about their perversity: they can’t even recognize a good thing when they see it. It reminds me of their similarly bizarre approach to David Ortiz back in the day. Somehow, they wanted to take Big Papi and turn him into Jason Tyner, and Ortiz’s response gave me my favorite chapter title in Mind Game: “You want me to hit like a little bitch?” Add in that they actually made Scott Baker fight for a rotation spot last spring, another example of their unique racism—the Twins, my friend, are strikeist.
I think the keyword of what you just said was “remarkable.” As I said yesterday, this is the Unserious Division, and they won not on the strength of that approach, but in spite of it, and then paid the price in the postseason every single time, because a good lineup against a pitch-to-contact staff means a bad outcome for the latter most of the time. Thus: “Incompetence.” Also, “Jonah Number.”
2) Can Justin Morneau come back?
SG: I sure hope so, but as we’ve seen with players from Corey Koskie to Brian Roberts, concussions aren’t easy things to overcome. Remember that Morneau’s concussion took place not in 2011 but in 2010, and it (as well as other injuries, for which he underwent three surgeries in September) has limited the slugger to 150 games over the last two seasons and severely hampered his production when he was on the field. We’re a long way from finding out if Morneau can come back, and he hasn’t sounded too thrilled with his chances early this spring. I hope he was just being conservative.
BL: I’d say this is more a question for Morneau’s doctors than for me, but the scary thing about concussions, perhaps the most insidious of baseball injuries, is that often even medical professionals can’t offer a more reassuring prognosis than “wait and see.” Morneau underwent so many surgeries last season that he’s quite literally no longer the player he was from 2006 until disaster struck two seasons ago. He’s still young enough that we could reasonably hope for him to return to his MVP heights if his body would cooperate, but in light of his comments linked above, it seems more likely that he’ll follow in Koskie’s footsteps.
3) Is Joe Mauer?
SG: That’s not an unfinished sentence, but an existential question. I don’t think so. What do you think, Ben? In Baseball Prospectus 2009, I wrote, “Want to see something really scary? Through his just-completed age-25 season, Mauer has hit .317/.399/.457. Through his age-25 season, Jason Kendall batted .312/.399/.451. Just sayin'.” Mauer then went out and had an MVP season, seeming to disprove this particular analogy. Since then, I’m not so sure I was wrong. I’m also a bit skeptical of R2-PECOTA’s calling for the big backstop to smack 12 home runs this year; it’s apparently not worried that Mauer has still hit only one round-tripper in 457 career PAs at Target Field.
Mauer is a fun player and would be less valuable almost anywhere else on the field you can think of moving him (short of a Craig Biggio-like transformation into a middle infielder) but there were always realistic concerns about a catcher of his size having longevity. The days on the DL are piling up, and his everlasting gobstopper of a contract will only weigh more heavily upon the franchise as times passes. The Twins’ best candidate to replace Mauer now catches for Washington, but it’s not like they’re going to be competitive any time soon, so they might as well move him to an outfield corner and suck it up behind the plate until a real alternative suggests itself.
BL: I was going to bring up that Kendall comp if you didn’t (which would have been surprising, since it was yours). PECOTA’s rosy power projection is a fading echo of his 28-homer, MVP 2009, which—fortunately for him and unfortunately for Minnesota—came along just as he was about to enter his walk year. Rather than subject themselves to a season full of contract speculation, the Twins struck quickly and signed him to a 10-year mega-extension. Mauer’s opposite-field power in that fateful season was off the charts and completely out of line with anything he had shown before or has shown since. In fairness to the Twins, Mauer wouldn’t have been the first player to take a big step forward to age 26, but in retrospect, they bought high. In 2010, he went right back to being the player he’d been before. That player was really, really good, but maybe not one who was worth $23 million a year in virtual perpetuity. And now it seems like even that player might be little more than a memory.
As long as Mauer can get on base 40 percent of the time, he won’t be a bust wherever he plays, but his position was what made him so special. The games he spent at first base, right field, and DH last season seem like signs of things to come. Even if his bat would rebound without the wear and tear of constant crouching and getting foul tipped, what Joe Mauer is changes dramatically if he’s not behind the plate, and not in a good way.
SG: Follow-up question: Is Ben Lindbergh?
BL: I knew the answer to that question when we started this preview, but I don’t think I know now. By the time we wrap this up, the AL Central may already be decided.
4) This team should trade any veterans not nailed down, but will they?
SG: I need to pause here to say that it’s 5:05 AM, I haven’t slept in two days, and I’m starting to see imaginary bugs crawling all over everything. At least, I think they’re imaginary. Let me taste one and see... Yes, I was right; that tasted nothing like an actual insect. Forgive me for being terse: the Twins didn’t move Carl Pavano last year, they didn’t move Mike Cuddyer even though he was about to play out his option... You would think Scott Baker might be attractive to a contender, and he’s a Twin in 2013 only if the club picks up a $9.25 million club option. That would make him the third-most expensive Twinkie after Mauer and Morneau. No doubt last season’s injuries have damped down his trade value, but he should probably be on another team now.
BL: If Ryan Doumit starts every day at DH, he could make himself attractive to an AL contender. Jason Marquis was traded to the D-Backs last July, and he could find himself on the move again. Both players are signed to one-year, $3 million deals, so the Twins aren’t under a ton of pressure to trade them and wouldn’t get a lot back. I would’ve said Matt Capps might luck into enough saves to interest a desperate team at the deadline, but the Twins might be the only club crazy enough to look at someone who struck out 34 batters in 65 ⅔ innings last season and still see a closer.
5) If they don’t trade, can they compete?
SG: Colonel Lindbergh, old buddy, they can’t compete even if they do trade. Call me when Miguel Sano comes up in 2014.
BL: The Royals are about to leave the Twins in their dust, which might leave the White Sox as the only AL Central organization in a sorrier state than the Twins. It’s going to stay bad before it gets better.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.