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Minnesota Twins Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 63-99 Manager: Ron Gardenhire

Name it, if it could have gone wrong in Minneapolis, it went wrong during the 2011 season. Gone are some old mainstays in the outfield, Mike Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, and also Joe Nathan. Unfortunately, they left in free agency instead of getting some decent prospects in a trade deadline deal. So now Terry Ryan is back at GM to straighten things out.

Player in the spotlight: Joe Mauer C

Great hair and a great swing. But pneumonia and other assorted issues have sidelined or affected Mauer for the past two seasons. He’s at the beginning of his megadeal that will net him over $180M and the Twins can’t afford any more seasons like last year. They need 150 games and his typical top 5 hitting season to give this team any kind of hope for this season.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Justin Morneau 1B/DH

It’s been a season and a half since Morneau suffered that concussion in July of 2010. Since then Morneau hasn’t been the same with problems from post-concussion syndrome and other physical issues. If he can climb his way back to being an average middle of the order hitter to go along with a healthy Mauer, the Twins could climb back over .500. That’s a lot of ifs, and only with two players.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Francisco Liriano

Most potential contenders would have already given up on the enigmatic, yet extremely talented LIriano. But the Twins are still hoping against hope and they need a season like 2010 out of Liriano if they have any chance to compete this year. If he doesn’t start showing the kind of consistency they are looking for, expect Liriano to be wearing a new uniform by the end of July.

Biggest pitching question mark: Scott Baker

The oft-injured Twins best pitcher from 2011 was Baker. Now he’s on the shelf with some elbow problems and he’ll be getting a second opinion next week. The Twins need a healthy Baker to contribute if they hold any hope of returning to the postseason.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Joe Benson OF

It’s just a matter of time for Benson, who will start the year at AAA. Denard Span has been rumored to be traded for a little while now and he’ll probably get dealt for some pitching health when Benson is ready.

Prediction: 5th in AL Central

Ron Gardenhire is one heck of a manager. That’s the only real reason for optimism for this edition of the Twins. He’s been able to stabilize some of the most challenging situations over the years and he’s a primary reason for hope this season. Of course, it helps if Mauer and Morneau are able to bounce back and if the pitchers can stay healthy and pitch well enough. They should be better than last year, of course. But how much better? If everything goes right, they could surprise and win 85-88 games and compete for the wildcard. But that’s a HUGE if. More likely is a season with less injuries than last year but where there’s a lot of turnover on the pitching staff and a season spent looking for the right mix in the lineup. It feels like a 75-78 win team that will compete with Kansas City more than Detroit in the standings over the season.

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MLB Daily Balk Morning Rundown 4/22

The Marlins are pulling out all the stops to draw fans

Best of Yesterday April 21

Last year’s NL MVP Joey Votto hit his third homer of the season in the Reds 7-4 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon. Votto’s blast was 406 feet officially, but looked longer and he’s now hitting .418 on the season.

Kyle Lohse threw a two hit shutout for the Cardinals against the Nationals in the final game of their 3-game series on Thursday afternoon. Lohse struck out 6 and only gave up 2 hits and 2 walks. Lohse is now 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA on the season for the Cardinals, who are tied with the Reds at 10-9 for first place in the NL Central.

Matt Kemp hit another walkoff homer for the Dodgers, his second one in a week. This time, Kemp victimized the Braves who had taken the lead in the 9th after Dodgers manager Don Mattingly left starter Clayton Kershaw in the game instead of turning to closer Jonathan Broxton with the bases loaded and two outs. Mattingly got lucky this time, but either the Dodgers need to show confidence in Broxton, or find another solution for the 9th inning.

The White Sox broke their seven-game losing streak by breaking out the bats against the Rays in the final game of their four game series. Juan Pierre, who has had a rough start to the season in the field, scored three runs and stole a base. The 9-2 margin of victory made it easy for the bullpen to finish off the Rays and a closer wasn’t needed.

The Twins got a much needed quality start from Scott Baker who pitched 7 innings, giving up 0 runs, 4 hits, and 1 walk while striking out 9 against the Orioles. Also for the Twins, Jim Thome hit career homer #591 on Thursday night. That’s his 27th with the Twins after 334 with Cleveland, 96 with Philadelphia, and 134 with the White Sox. Yes, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Chris Capuano yielded only one run in 7 innings and the Mets hit three homers to beat the Astros 9-1. Capuano, one of GM Sandy Alderson’s “bargain” pickups, is now 2-1 on the season.

The Marlins got a grand slam from Scott Cousins (first HR ever) and the first homer of the year by Mike Stanton to lead the Fish over the Pirates 9-5. Cousins played CF on Thursday, but could be asked to play a significant amount of time in left field with Logan Morrison out for up to a month.

The cardiac Royals did it again on Thursday night as they came back to beat Chris Perez and the Indians. Melky Cabrera hit a two run single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th inning to earn the Royals a 3-2 win and a split of their four game series with the Indians.  Perez hadn’t been scored upon in 26 1/3 innings dating back to early August of last year. It was his first blown save of the season after saving his first 6 opportunities and he had saved 16 straight overall. The Royals are now one game behind the Indians again in the AL Central.

Felix Hernandez was spectacular as he pitched his best game of the season on Thursday night as the Mariners beat the Athletics 1-0. Felix went to 2-2 after shutting out the A’s for 7 2/3 innings and outdueling the A’s Brandon McCarthy, who went the distance and only made the mistake of giving up a homer to Adam Kennedy.

Roy Oswalt no-hit the Padres until Chris Denorfia singled in the fifth. That was the only hit that Oswalt gave up in 6 innings. Jose Contreras made it exciting in the 9th, but he held on to save Oswalt’s third win as the Phillies won 3-0. That was the 5th time the Padres have been shutout in 19 games this season.

Josh Beckett no-hit the Angels for five innings before Erick Aybar hit an infield single to start the 6th. Beckett didn’t get the decision for the Red Sox, but kept his ERA under 2.00 with his solid 8 inning performance. Dustin Pedroia went 3 for 4 and walked twice as he reached safely in 5 of 6 plate appearances. The Sox won the game in the 11th as Jonathan Papelbon recorded his 4th save.

 

What Happened (!!)Yesterday?

Mat Latos struggled again for the Padres going only 4 1/3 before coming out after 107 pitches. He walked 5 and struck out 7, but 2 homers and those deep counts caught up to him. His ERA is now 5.94 and he’s failed to surrender less than 3 runs in each start and has given up 4 homers in his two starts at Petco Park. Latos got hurt in spring training and you have to wonder if he’s still experiencing that shoulder tightness.

The Pirates pitchers had been faring well, but they struggled mightily in their three games in South Florida. The Bucs are counting on at least two of those three pitchers (Maholm, Morton, and McDonald) to pitch well this season. The key is walks and if these pitchers can harness their control, the Pirates will surprise some people this season.

The Angels pitchers gave up 11 walks in 11 innings on Thursday night. Guess what? They lost. What’s amazing is that they only gave up 4 runs to the Red Sox.

 

AL News/Notes

The Mariners defense has been atrocious this season and it could be taking more of a toll on the pitching staff than the lack of run support. Felix Hernandez has already given up five unearned runs which are about 30% of his total runs allowed on the season. Nothing gets into a pitcher’s head more than bad defense behind him and it usually results in pitcher’s trying to avoid contact and a higher walk rate ensues. Also not calculated in the numbers is how poor defense can result in more earned runs by fielders who can’t turn double plays or hit cutoff men.

Athletics owner Lew Wolff claims that he is not interested in buying the Dodgers. Red Sox chairman Tom Werner made similar statements regarding the Dodgers ownership situation when asked.

Erick Aybar has returned from the DL for the Angels and there’s now an abundance of infielders who need playing time. Manager Mike Scioscia doesn’t worry as he plans to shift players around to give everybody playing time.

The Blue Jays sent the struggling Brett Cecil to AAA to work on his mechanics. Cecil has suffered from control problems and his velocity has been down. Infielder Chris Woodward has been called up to add depth to the bench.

With both Delmon Young and Justin Morneau suffering from the flu, the Twins might be considering placing one or both onto the DL on Friday. Young also has sore ribs and would be the more likely one of the two to go on the DL if his MRI shows anything bad. The Twins offense has struggled and middle infielder Trevor Plouffe makes the most sense to bring up since the Twins don’t have strong hitters at second and short.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland is keeping the faith that second year CF Austin Jackson is going to snap out of his season long slump. Jackson is hitting .157 on the season and his OPS is below .500. Jackson impressed last season with his solid rookie campaign when he hit .293 and scored 103 runs. So far Jackson has only crossed home plate 7 times in 19 games, causing a huge gap in production for the Tigers struggling offense.

Red Sox 3B Kevin Youkilis left Thursday night’s game against the Angels after hitting a ball off his left shin. Reports after the game indicated that the x-ray was negative but the soreness could keep him out of the lineup for a few days.

 

NL News/Notes

The Rockies are tied for the best record in baseball at 13-5 and one of the reasons has been the production of leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler.

Amanda Comak of the Washington Times gives us a rundown of the current Nationals injuries, including updates on pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang. Wang could essentially become a quality midseason pickup if the Nats are still in contention.

Braves RF Jason Heyward was out of the starting lineup on Thursday as he’s struggled in the early season. Heyward has only 5 hits in 33 road at bats as the Braves head for a weekend series in San Francisco.

Andrew McCutchen returned to the Pirates after leaving the team for a day to visit with his ailing father. He was back in the lineup against the Marlins.

Marlins LF Logan Morrison has his left foot in a hard cast and will be out 2 to 4 weeks. Manager Edwin Rodriguez says that Scott Cousins and Emilio Bonafacio will replace Morrison in the lineup.

Ryan Braun signed on with the Brewers for an additional five years at $21M per season. He’s now signed through 2020.

It looks like Wade LeBlanc will be called up by the Padres to face Roy Halladay on Sunday.

 

Streak of the Day

  • Dodgers Andre Ethier extending his hitting streak to 18 games
  • Royals Alex Gordon extended his career long hitting streak to 15 games
  • Royals Wilson Betemit extended his career long hitting streak to 12 games

 

Top Friday Matchups

7:05 EDT White Sox (Buehrle 1-1, 4.50) at Tigers (Verlander 1-2, 3.41)

8:05 EDT Royals (Francis 0-1, 3.00) at Rangers (Holland 2-1, 3.66)

8:15 EDT Reds (Volquez 2-0, 6.75) at Cardinals (McClellan 2-0, 1.89)

10:05 EDT Red Sox (Lester 1-1, 3.20) at Angels (Haren 4-0, 1.16)

10:15 EDT Braves (Hanson 1-2, 3.86) at Giants (Bumgarner 0-2, 7.36)

 

Last night’s balks: 0

Minnesota Twins Opening Day Overview

Minnesota Twins Opening Day Overview

Manager: Ron Gardenhire           GM: Bill Smith

  Lineup:
1 CF Denard Span
2 2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka
3 C Joe Mauer
4 1B Justin Morneau
5 LF Delmon Young
6 RF Mike Cuddyer
7 DH Jim Thome/Jason Kubel
8 3B Danny Valencia
9 SS Alexi Casilla

 

Span took a step back in his development last season as his averages dropped across the board. His overall OPS dropped from .807 in 2009 to .679 last season. It’s amazing that the Twins offense was so good despite Span’s performance. If Span can revert to his 2009 numbers as a 27 year old this season, the Twins could have the best offense in the AL.  

Nishioka comes over from Japan after winning their Pacific League batting title last season. He’s got a good glove and if he can provide above average production out of the #2 hole, the Twins offense will be lethal. The Twins would definitely be happy with a .350 OBP and a modest .400 or so slugging while playing a high quality second base.

Mauer’s homer numbers dropped in his first year at Target Field. But the 9 HRs matched what he did in 2008. His 53 extra base hits were the second best total of his career to his 2009 season. Assuming that the 2009 season was somewhat of an anomaly, the Twins should expect another typical Mauer season with at least a .325 AVG, .400 OBP, and .480 SLG. Would anybody have a problem with that?

Morneau was on his way to a ridiculous season statistically last year when the concussion ended his season. Assuming that Morneau is fully recovered from the injury, he should have a huge season. There’s no reason by he can’t get over 30 HRs and get on base at a .360 or better average and drive in over 100 runs.

Young moves up in the order after a huge breakout season last year. At 25, Young should only get better. A key component in his continued improvement will come from increasing his walks to over 50 this season. If improves his pitch selection, all of his averages will increase and Young might join Mauer and Morneau in the AL MVP race.

Cuddyer is a pretty steady contributor whose biggest contribution is his versatility. He played over 10 games at 1B, RF, and 3B last year. That kind of flexibility gives Gardenhire a lot of options when filling out his lineup card. Last year, Cuddyer took a step back due to the big dropoff in HRs both at home and on the road. Assuming that he’s recovered from offseason knee surgery, Cuddyer should return to an OPS of over .800 this season.

Thome slugged over .600 last season for the first time since his final year in Cleveland in 2002. The Twins can’t count on that again but if Thome can contribute what he had in the few seasons before last year, the Twins can count on a .830 OPS or so from their lefty DH. Kubel will spot start in RF and DH against lefties. Kubel hit over 20 HRs for the third consecutive season but his average dipped below .250 and his other averages suffered as a result. The Twins could really use Kubel to return to his .800 or so career level OPS this season.

Valencia had a really good rookie season as he hit over .300 and posted an OPS close to .800. If he maintains or improves his production, Gardenhire might consider moving Valencia to the #2 spot in the order if Nishioka or Span struggles.

Casilla had a decent comeback season in limited playing time after an awful 2009. If Casilla doesn’t maintain an OPS of at least .700, the Twins could make a trade to upgrade here or give AAA Trevor Plouffe another shot.

  Starting Pitching
1 RHP Carl Pavano
2 LHP Francisco Liriano
3 RHP Nick Blackburn
4 RHP Scott Baker
5 LHP Brian Duensing

 

Pavano had his second best season last year for the Twins. At 35, it’s difficult to forecast another near career best season, but if Pavano can keep his ERA under 4.00 and start another 32 games, then the Twins should expect about 15 wins.

Liriano is the best starter the Twins have in the majors. He’s fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery of a few years back and whatever problems he seemed to have appeared corrected. The key for Liriano is to continue to keep the HRs down and get his IP over 200. If he can continue to pitch like last season and add some innings, Liriano could improve his win total to 16-18 this year.

Blackburn struggled last season and his numbers didn’t reflect a more pitcher friendly home field. The Twins need Blackburn to return to his 2008-2009 form when his ERA was just over 4.00 and he won 11 games each season. With this offense, he might be able to increase the win total by a few wins with a similar performance this year.

Baker has been a steady performer over the years and an offseason surgical cleaning of his pitching elbow might help him improve this season. The biggest challenge for Baker is keeping the ball in the park as his HR rate is above average. If he can improve that, then he could provide 200 IP and 13-15 wins.

Duensing pitched very well after entering the rotation in the middle of last season. While he’s not expected to be a top of the rotation guy, he could be a solid #3 starter if he makes 30+ starts and keeps his ERA under 3.50. If he does this, he could win 15 games and the Twins will most likely play important games in October again..

  Bullpen
CL RHP Joe Nathan
SET RHP Matt Capps
  LHP Jose Mijares
  RHP Jeff Manship
  LHP Glen Perkins
  LHP Dusty Hughes
  RHP Kevin Slowey

 

Nathan returns after undergoing Tommy John surgery in spring training last year. The Twins are hopeful that Nathan is ready to return to his dominating form, but history tells us that TJ surgery patients typically need about 18 months to return to normal. Nathan has a chance to defy those odds, but the Twins shouldn’t count on it.

Capps is the backup closer in the event that Nathan isn’t fully recovered. He’ll probably fill in for Nathan on back-to-back save opportunities as the Twins shouldn’t press their luck with Nathan’s new elbow. Capps was very good last year after coming over from the Nationals and as long as he doesn’t revert to his uncharacteristic 2009 form with the Pirates, the Twins have a very good alternative to Nathan.

Mijares has served as a lefty specialist and might be called on to face more righties this season. If he’s able to produce at the same levels given the additional work, the Twins should be solid in the 7th and 8th innings.

Manship hasn’t proven to be capable in his parts of two seasons with the Twins. Perkins is a former starter moved to the pen but it’s difficult to see what value he has right now. Hughes had modest success last season with the Royals and could be a viable lefty specialist. Slowey competed for the 5th starter role and will be the first to replace an ineffective or injured starter and provide long relief.

  Farm Prospects who could help in 2011
1 RHP Kyle Gibson
2 OF Ben Revere
3 SS Trevor Plouffe

 

Gibson is the top prospect and could be called up if there are problems with their starters and Slowey isn’t the answer. Revere is the Twins top OF prospect and could replace Span in CF if Span doesn’t return to his previous production levels. Plouffe will get a call up if Casilla doesn’t hit at SS.

Three Questions:

1. Will Justin Morneau make a full comeback from his concussion issues and stay healthy?

  • The Twins excelled last year without the former AL MVP but it’s difficult to imagine that they would continue to be better without Morneau returning to his highly productive ways. The key last year in Morneau’s absence was the resurgence of 40 year old Jim Thome. It will be difficult for Thome to repeat that performance again.

2. How long will it take before the Twins address their glaring bullpen holes?

  • Joe Nathan is a major question mark because of last year’s TJ surgery. Capps would be a really solid 8th inning setup guy if he isn’t needed to replace or fill-in for Nathan. After these two, Mijares has some talent and could be solid in the 7th and 8th, but he’s the last known proven commodity. Everybody else in the bullpen is a major question mark and the bullpen would be paper thin if Nathan isn’t ready to pitch well.

3. Can the Twins rotation help the Twins win a postseason series?

  • The Twins starting staff is filled with #2, #3, and #4 starters with nobody that’s great or really bad. That’s a solid formula for regular season success as long as the lineup hits at a high level. But when the calendar turns to October, you typically need a great pitcher to lead the way and the Twins don’t appear to have that guy. Could top prospect Kyle Gibson step in an provide that or does Bill Smith need to work the phones to find a top of the rotation guy by July?

 

Projection

The Twins are well built for another AL Central winning season. With a top ranked offense and solid starting pitching, the Twins should be near or at the top of the AL Central all season long. They are going to need to address their bullpen, probably sooner than later and unearthing a top flight starter could be the difference in going from another Division Series loss to a trip to the ALCS.