It seemed like the end of an era for the Twins last year, when a string of six division titles in nine seasons gave way to a 63–99 finish. But they are firm in their belief that 2012 will bring a quick turnaround. That’s hard to fathom. On paper, the Twins look no better than the team that bottomed out last year. Terry Ryan returned to the general manager’s role in November, replacing Bill Smith, and attempted to address the roster’s myriad needs while streamlining the payroll. The fan base watched as three more mainstays from their recent playoff teams — Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel — departed as free agents. Ryan added some interesting pieces before Christmas, but none that caused a spike in season ticket sales. Josh Willingham should offer a reasonable facsimile of Cuddyer at a cheaper price. Jamey Carroll should help solidify the middle infield. Ryan Doumit’s bat should bolster the offense, giving the team more insurance if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau struggle with injuries again. But a look at this roster reveals numerous other concerns.
This group is led by Carl Pavano, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano — three pitchers who could become free agents next fall, though Baker has a 2013 club option. This should add to that trio’s motivation. Liriano, in particular, could cash in big next fall if he regains his 2010 form after struggling with left shoulder issues last season. Twins starters ranked 26th in the majors with a 4.64 ERA last year, when Baker and Nick Blackburn also battled arm injuries. The team’s depth took a hit last summer when their top pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, needed Tommy John surgery. He won’t return until 2013. The Twins signed National League journeyman Jason Marquis, hoping he could be the workhorse he was from 2004-09. He pitched 132 innings combined for Washington and Arizona last year before breaking his right leg in mid-August. Adding Marquis should allow Brian Duensing to move back to the bullpen, where he posted a 1.80 ERA in 40 appearances in 2010. But it’s hard to see this rotation impressing anyone unless Baker and Liriano stay healthy and pitch as they have at their absolute peaks.
Here’s a list of relievers the Twins have lost to free agency since the end of the 2010 season: Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes and Nathan. The Twins are determined not to overpay for relief, even if it leaves them thin. They re-signed closer Matt Capps to a deal that guarantees him $10 million less than what Nathan got from Texas in November. Capps was an All-Star closer for the Nationals in 2010, before the Twins got him in a shortsighted trade that sent catcher Wilson Ramos to Washington. Capps helped the Twins finish 94–68 in 2010, when Nathan was recovering from elbow surgery, but fans booed Capps off the field numerous times last year after blown saves. The team stuck with him, knowing he was pitching through a forearm issue. If he falters again, the Twins could turn to Glen Perkins, their most dominant reliever from last season. Perkins and Duensing should help solidify the setup roles, but the Twins have several other holes to fill after ranking last in the majors in bullpen ERA, at 4.51.
Carroll’s best position is second base, but the Twins plan to start him at shortstop, even at age 38. That would allow Alexi Casilla to stay at second base, where he finally started to look comfortable last season. A year ago, this team had high hopes for Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but after an MVP season in Japan in 2010, he broke his leg in his sixth major league game and looked overmatched when he returned. The Twins grew impatient with his development and optioned him to Rochester midway through spring training.
Morneau is the team’s biggest question mark, since his past three seasons have been derailed by injuries, with the last two involving concussions. The Twins would love to see him return to first base, the position he was slated to start in the All-Star game just two years ago. Third baseman Danny Valencia pledged to work on his defense after drawing manager Ron Gardenhire’s ire last season. Valencia showed limited range and made 18 errors on the balls he did get to. The Twins signed Sean Burroughs to a minor league deal, knowing he can push Valencia to be better. If Valencia can give the Twins what he gave them in 2010 — he batted .311 with a .799 OPS — they’ll have an easier time stomaching his defensive flaws.
This is another area that has changed dramatically since 2010. After trading Delmon Young to Detroit last August, the Twins let Cuddyer and Kubel leave as free agents. Cuddyer signed a three-year, $31.5 million deal with Colorado, and Kubel signed a two-year, $15 million deal with Arizona. Willingham came cheaper than Cuddyer, at three years for $21 million, and might be the better right-handed hitter. The Twins need center fielder Denard Span to stay healthy after playing just 70 games last year because of a concussion. Ben Revere, who made some spectacular catches in center while filling in for Span, is slated to play left field when both are healthy. Knowing how spacious the Target Field outfield is, the Twins will count on the speedy Span and Revere to cover lots of ground alongside the less-rangy Willingham. But Ryan also has hinted at a possible left field platoon with Revere and converted infielder Trevor Plouffe.
Mauer’s goal is to catch at least 130 games, but the Twins know they can’t count on this after injury and illness limited him to 47 starts behind the plate last season. Doumit is not a good defensive catcher, but he’s a switch-hitter with decent power. On days when Doumit isn’t catching, he can DH. The Twins likely will carry three catchers, so there’s an open spot for either Drew Butera, Rene Rivera or former Astros catcher J.R. Towles, who signed a minor league deal. Butera and Rivera combined to bat .160 in 368 plate appearances last season, so Towles will get a long look this spring.
The Twins plan to rotate their DH duties, unless Morneau decides to become a full-time DH, lessening the chances of another concussion. Doumit should see the most time at DH, though Mauer will see plenty, too, as the team looks to keep his bat in the lineup more often. The bench will have more versatility, but significantly less muscle, now that Jim Thome has returned to the Phillies. But with injury-prone players all over his roster, Gardenhire needs all the options he can find. With Nishioka sent to the minors, Luke Hughes will take on a larger role as the backup middle infielder.
Gardenhire returns for his 11th season, hoping this is more like 2010, when he was named AL Manager of the Year. His working relationship with Ryan was always better than it was with Smith, who never considered himself a talent evaluator. In Smith’s four years as GM, the Twins won two division titles and lost a one-game tiebreaker to the White Sox in 2008. Despite that success, the team’s foundation showed some serious cracks last year. It wasn’t just the 99 losses. The injury issues exposed a lack of depth at the Triple-A level. Twins CEO Jim Pohlad grew less confident in Smith as they met to discuss the team’s plans throughout October. Smith’s firing was surprising because the Twins hadn’t fired a GM or manager since 1986. It also was delicate because Ryan and Smith are very close friends. But once again, the Twins proved to be one big happy family. By mid-December, Smith was back in the fold with a new position, as an assistant to the team president and general manager.
Ryan was considered one of baseball’s best GMs during his previous tenure from 1994-2007, and Twins fans couldn’t help but feel excited when he returned to the job. But that enthusiasm was tempered when he immediately pledged to trim the Opening Day payroll to $100 million, about $13 million less than the team started with last year. This adds pressure for Mauer to stay healthy and perform better in Year 2 of an eight-year contract that is paying him $23 million annually. If Mauer, Morneau, Span, Baker and Liriano are healthy, the Twins should have no trouble playing at least .500 this year, but it’s hard to imagine a leap from 63–99 to the playoffs.
CF Denard Span (L)
Was batting .300 with a .367 OBP when he suffered a concussion June 3 and played only 15 more games.
SS Jamey Carroll (R)
Played a career-high 146 games for Dodgers last year, at age 37, and posted a .359 OBP.
C Joe Mauer (L)
The three-time Gold Glove catcher has started just 105, 107 and 47 games behind the plate since 2008.
RF Josh Willingham (R)
Set new career highs with 29 home runs and 98 RBIs last year for Oakland.
1B Justin Morneau (L)
His career OPS as a first baseman is .856, compared to .772 as a DH.
3B Danny Valencia (R)
Played 147 games at third base last year, the most for a Twins third baseman since Corey Koskie (150) in 2001.
DH Ryan Doumit (S)
Batted .328 (41-for-125) after returning from a broken ankle last year with the Pirates.
2B Alexi Casilla (S)
Had another slow start last year, batting .188 through May 22, but batted .293 after that.
LF Ben Revere (L)
Led American League rookies last year with 34 stolen bases in 117 games.
OF Trevor Plouffe (R)
Batted .308 with a .782 OPS against lefties last year, compared to .212 with a .665 OPS against righties.
INF Luke Hughes (R)
Started 34 games at second base, 30 at first base and 13 at third base in 2011.
C Drew Butera (R)
Batted .197 as a true backup catcher in 2010 but got overexposed last year, batting .167 in 93 games.
RH Carl Pavano
Has pitched 221 innings and 222 innings in his first two full seasons with the Twins.
RH Scott Baker
On July 28, he ranked eighth in the AL with a 2.86 ERA, but a sore elbow limited him to two more starts.
LH Francisco Liriano
He went 14–10 with a 3.62 ERA in 2010 but struggled with left shoulder tightness last year.
RH Jason Marquis
Has fifth-highest ground-ball rate in baseball (55.1 percent) over the past three years.
RH Nick Blackburn
Much like 2010, he had his best month in May, going 3–0 with a 2.53 ERA in six starts.
RH Matt Capps (Closer)
Blew six save chances as the Twins’ closer last year, but posted a 3.24 ERA in his final 30 appearances.
LH Glen Perkins
Averaged 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings last year, ranking 12th in the AL (min. 60 IP).
LH Brian Duensing
Pitching mostly as a starter last year, he held lefties to a .217 average, but righties hit .330.
RH Alex Burnett
Allowed just 10 of his 62 inherited baserunners to score last year.
RH Esmerling Vasquez
Strikeout rate with the Diamondbacks dropped from 9.2 in 2010 to 5.9 last year before they waived him.
RH Terry Doyle
Rule 5 pick went 8–10 with a 3.07 in 26 combined starts at Class A and AA for the White Sox last season.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals