Will talks with Aaron Gleemman about the Twins‘ chances on
Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click
to download the mp3

Making the case for the Twins, who have won four of the last five AL Central titles, winning the World Series, wouldn’t seem that difficult. They return the AL’s MVP and Cy Young Award winners, its batting titlist and its best closer. That’s a good start to any championship chase.

All is not perfect in the land of lakes, however. The Twins also return a ton of questions at the back of the rotation, unproductive and injury-prone players at DH, left field and, arguably, second base, and once again did little to improve their team over the winter. Meanwhile, the AL Central has become perhaps the deepest, toughest division in baseball, with the AL’s last two World Series participants and an Indians team that may be the best of them all.

What’s it going to take for the Twins to once again rise to the top? With help from Rotowire‘s Peter Schoenke, who loves the Twins like Will Carroll loves coffee, here’s the plan:

  1. The Twins make the right decisions at the back of the rotation. Just like last year, the Twins have imported some veterans to do jobs better given to younger players. In ’06, it was position players such as Tony Batista and Juan Castro soaking up outs. Now, it’s marginal major leaguers such as Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz, who are nominally around to shore up the back of the rotation. Neither pitcher, however, can be expected to provide an ERA below 5.00. With prospects such as Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins just about ready to contribute, and Scott Baker still in the room, the Twins should remember the impact Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser had last year and go with the younger pitchers, preferably to start the season. Even Carlos Silva should be on a short leash, given his longball problems in ’06. Picking the right starting pitchers is essential for a team that won’t be among the league leaders in runs.
  2. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau don’t regress much. Both left-handed-hitting beasts are likely to experience falloff from their monster seasons. At 24 and 26, respectively, the Twins can hope that the slide from last year’s offense-carrying numbers won’t be too steep. PECOTA likes their chances, projecting Mauer at .329/.411/.500, and Morneau at .293/.360/.526. Given that the Twins have very few places from which they can expect to get more production in 2007 than they did last year, holding serve in the #3 and #4 slots is imperative.

    Jason Kubel hits. Compared to Edgar Martinez in these pages, Kubel struggled to return from his devastating knee injury, hitting just .241/.279/.386 in 220 at-bats. The Twins made his life hard by bringing in Rondell White and Ruben Sierra, but Kubel didn’t make them regret that decision with his lousy performance. The disturbing number was a 45/12 K/BB in 220 at-bats; this wasn’t just bad luck with balls falling in. Kubel was a completely different hitter last season, undisciplines, perhaps pressing, unproductive. Take this with a grain of salt, but Kubel has drawn no walks in 36 at-bats this spring.

  3. The bullpen is once again dominant. From Joe Nathan at the end through Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes setting him up to midseason call-up Pat Neshek, the Twins were very, very difficult to beat from the sixth inning onward. With so many questions about the rotation, they’ll have to get another big year from those guys again.

    Nathan is an anchor, but all the others come with questions: can Rincon arrest a decline in his peripheral stats (Stuff scores of 32, 25 and 13 since 2004), especially his strikeout rate, to remain a top setup man? Can Reyes repeat his first sub-4.00 ERA season since 1999 for a team with no other good option from the left side? Will Neshek and his oddball delivery be as effective the second time around the league, and will be be able to get left-handers out frequently enough to be more than a specialist?

  4. There aren’t many lineup holes. Nick Punto and Michael Cuddyer had career years, and Torii Hunter his second-best season, to give the Twins some production outside of the Big Two. Even at that, left field and DH were problems all season long, and the bench, outside of Mike Redmond, was not an asset. With very little depth either on the roster or in the system, the Twins will have to assemble a lineup around Mauer and Morneau that doesn’t drag them down too far. Luis Castillo and Punto, hitting 1-2 in front of the M&M Boys, are the key to helping the Twins score enough to win.

Any team with stars such as Mauer, Morneau and Johan Santana is a threat to go all the way. There’s recent precedent for teams with a small cadre of stars doing great things: last year’s Cardinals and the 2005 Astros are good comps for this Twins team, one that just needs to not drag down its championship-caliber core to get back to October and have another chance to win the World Series.

Will talks with Aaron Gleeman about the Twins’ chances on
Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3