This is the first of a short series of posts where I will take a look at each of the Tigers AL Central rivals in advance of Spring Training. Since they are the two-time defending division champs, it seems fitting to start with the Twins.
Minnesota moved out of the dome last year, but the terror didn’t end for visiting clubs. The Twins posted a 53-28 home record, which was the best mark in the American League. They did it with solid, if unspectacular starting pitching, an elite bullpen, and a versatile offensive attack that ranked fifth in the league in runs and second in team on base percentage. While Minnesota ranked in the lower half of the league in long balls, they made up for it by leading the AL in triples and finishing third in doubles.
They also did most of their damage without former MVP Justin Morneau. After suffering a concussion on July 7 in a game at Toronto, Morneau missed the remainder of the season while dealing with the symptoms. The Twins were able to plug the hole left by their missing first baseman by using Jim Thome as their regular DH and calling up third baseman Danny Valencia to man the hot corner when Michael Cuddyer shifted to first.
I don’t want to gloss over the loss of Morneau here. Before the injury, Morneau was possibly the favorite to win the MVP award for the second time. In 81 games last year, Morneau was outstanding, posting 18 home runs and 65 RBI coupled with a .345/.437/.618/1.055 slash line and an amazing .447 wOBA. That the Twins were able to not only stay afloat, but surge from third place to win the division handily without him is a testament to their depth.
Morneau remains a question mark entering camp this year for Minnesota, however, and one has to wonder if Thome has another big season left in his now 40-year-old body. Morneau has recently begun baseball activities for the first time this offseason. He’s working out and taking batting practice and to this point at least, the signs are encouraging. But concussions are a difficult injury to shake sometimes, just ask former Twin Corey Koskie whose career was basically ended because the symptoms just wouldn’t go away.
In an article by Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune, Morneau said “things are going well” in his recovery.
“I am starting to feel more confident during my workouts, as I am not going through a mental checklist of how a certain exercise feels while I am doing it, every time I try something. I am happy with the progress recently, and it has been a long winter for me, but I am excited to hopefully be back on the field with my teammates soon.”
You might note that was nothing definitive in Morneau’s remarks, but with concussions there is nothing that’s ever definitive. Personally, I’m pulling for him to get back on the field with a clean bill of health. What’s the fun in beating the Twins if you do it when they’re without one of the best hitters in baseball?
Fresh Faces Up The Middle
Morneau’s presence in the lineup will play a major factor in Minnesota’s fate this season, but the production of their new double play tandem might play an even bigger role. Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy are gone from last year’s club and they’re replaced by Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Casilla filled in admirably for Hardy last season but will be a full-time starter for the first time in his career. Nishioka is perhaps a bigger question mark, however, as not much is known about the Japanese import.
Nishioka will likely get a chance to play some shortstop this spring, but it is expected that he’ll wind up starting at second base instead. Here’s what Baseball America had to say about the switch hitter, whom they would rank sixth on the Twins prospect list.
He had a career year in 2010, batting .346/.423/.482 and winning the Pacific League batting title. Nishioka profiles as a No. 2 hitter. A natural righthander, he learned to switch-hit as a 19-year-old at the Japanese big league level. His best attributes are his ability to make contact and play a speed-oriented game. Nishioka bunts well and has the pitch recognition and plate discipline to draw walks, though he’ll have to prove that pitchers can’t knock the bat out of his hands.
According to BA, some scouts have rated Nishioka’s power as low as 30 on the 20-80 scale and while he has plus speed, it isn’t elite. Without seeing him play, his profile reminds me a bit of Ramon Santiago, albeit with a much better batting average. Nishioka is listed at 5’11” and 175 lbs so he isn’t a big guy, either. After back-to-back .300 seasons in 2007 and 2008, Nishioka dipped to .260 in 2009 before rebounding to win the batting title last year.
If he’s what the reports seem to indicate, Nishioka will be a slap hitter with a good ability to draw walks. He should provide very good defense at second base, so the Twins will be essentially trading an aging Hudson for a younger (better?) version. If Nishioka winds up better than BA’s scouting report, the Twins might have the best second baseman in the division for the next few years.
When closer Joe Nathan was lost for the season early in camp last year thanks to an elbow injury which lead to Tommy John surgery, most baseball folks figured Minnesota was in trouble. Jon Rauch stepped in and did a better-than-expected job during the season’s first half and the Twins added reinforcements with Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes down the stretch last year. Rauch and Fuentes are gone, along with long-time Twins Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier, but Nathan is on schedule for Spring Training.
The bullpen has been one of the trademarks of Minnesota’s successes over the past several seasons, but this year they have many holes to fill. Left hander Brian Duensing figures to be the go-to southpaw, though I think he’s better suited to start games. Capps will be used as the set-up man if Nathan is healthy and closer if not.
Nathan will be just one year removed from surgery on Opening Day and Tommy John patients have been known to struggle in that first year. It took Francisco Liriano two full years to regain his career after having the surgery, but Billy Wagner came back to form much more quickly. There is a lack of battle-tested relievers in this season’s Minnesota bullpen, so having Nathan back and healthy will allow them to have a shut-down 1-2 punch in the eighth and ninth. If Nathan struggles to regain his old form, and some of the younger arms struggle as well, a strength could become a liability in a hurry.
For more on Minnesota’s club, check out Puckett’s Pond.