Monday, March 31, 2008

2008 Twins Preview

There are two things that constantly make being a Minnesotan extremely frustrating. The first is the weather. Whether it is the stifling humidity in the summer, excessive amounts of rain in the spring, or ridiculously cold temperatures throughout the entire year, there is rarely a time of year when we don’t have something to complain about when it comes to weather. Even today, the last day of March, as I write a season preview for the Twins (and count down to the opener tonight), I look out the window and it’s snowing. Eff.

The second thing that makes living in this state difficult at times is the disappointment constantly caused by our sports teams. And we disappoint in a variety of ways. We miss the playoffs entirely (most Vikings teams lately), lack playoff success (the Wolves for a number of years in a row, the Twins over the past 6-7 years, etc.), or are simply and embarrassingly terrible (the Wolves for the first 10 years and this year, Gopher hoops since we stopped cheating, Gopher football forever, the Twins from 1992-2000, etc). This year’s edition of the Minnesota Twins falls into none of these categories.

I cannot remember a year in which there were more radically different views of what to expect from this team. The so-called experts seem to agree on one thing, though, and that is we’re not making the playoffs. Various media outlets have projected us anywhere from a slightly above .500 team that finishes third in the division to dead last and vying for the worst record in the AL. I have also heard from people I respect for their sports knowledge tell me that we are going to shock the world and make the playoffs. All of this makes me very confused about what I should expect.

The homer in me wants to believe that we have a dramatically improved lineup that is going to score runs in bunches to go with a young, exciting rotation full of guys that the opposition has never seen before, and the most dominant bullpen in baseball. The realist in me, however, knows that this team is going to go through stretches where they can’t hit, and the young pitching staff gets lit up. Which is correct? Well, let’s take a look at this team before I make my final decision.

This aspect of the 08 version of the Twins should be much improved from years past. While losing Torii Hunter will definitely hurt, it appears that the team has made some major improvements at a number of other positions that will lead to a very productive hitting team. The catalyst to this lineup is the young, speedy centerfielder Carlos Gomez, who will hit leadoff. If he can get on base, there are more than enough big bats behind him to get him home…I think. You see, one of the major problems last year was the huge fall in production from the Twins two young stars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. If they can return to the form that won them the batting title and MVP respectively two years ago, then this team will score a lot of runs.

Those two will not be held solely responsible for driving in runs this year. Another x-factor in this category is the newly acquired Delmon Young. He has all of the tools necessary to become a star in this league, and could put up monster numbers (30 and 100 is not out of the question). In order for this lineup to be really productive, the bottom half must carry their weight. This means you Jason Kubel, Mike Lamb, and Brendan Harris. If these guys can provide a little bit of consistency with some timely hitting, you could be looking at an explosive team. If not, we’re back at the bottom of AL in average and runs scored, which will mean a very long season. There are question marks about the hitting, but overall this should be a strength for the Twins this year.

This team has the appearance of one of the better defensive teams in the league, starting with Mauer and his amazing ability to gun down potential base stealers. Around the infield, Morneau has gotten better and better every year at first, Harris should be a steady (but not spectacular) glove at second, Adam Everett is arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and Lamb is more than adequate at third. The highlight reel plays will be provided by the trio of cannons in the outfield. Michael Cuddyer has already proven himself in right field, regularly throwing out runners for the last couple years. Now we add in two of the strongest young arms in the game with Gomez in center and Young in left. You would have to be either extremely foolish or extremely brave to run on the Twins in 2008.

Starting Rotation
Herein lays the biggest question mark surrounding this team. The loss of Johan Santana is huge and devastating to a team that had grown accustomed to his dominance every 4-5 games. They will now rely heavily on the young arms that we’ve been hearing so much about over the last couple years. Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn. Those are the names of the kids who will, more than any other part of this team, determine the success of the Twins in 2008 and beyond. If even a few of these guys can live up to the hype that has surrounded them in the minors and during Spring Training, this team is in good hands for the foreseeable future. As for this year? Well, you have to expect some bumps along the way. Whether it be lack of major league seasoning, or coming back from injury, all of the Twins young pitchers figure to face some sort of difficulty this year. If those problems dissipate quickly or don’t show up all at once, you could be looking at the surprise team in baseball.

Dominant. That is the word that comes to mind when talking about the Twins bullpen. Joe Nathan is one of, if not the, best closers in baseball. He’s joined by the rubber-armed Pat Neshek, Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and Dennys Reyes (among others) in the pen once again this year. If the Twins bats and starters can get a lead to the 6th or 7th inning, you can pretty much bank on a win. The danger here comes from overuse. With the starters expected to take their lumps from time to time, the Twins bullpen figures to get plenty of action, especially early in the year. If that becomes a reoccurring theme, they could be in trouble. If the starters can consistently pitch into the latter stages of the game, these guys in the pen become much more effective and the odds of winning increase greatly.

We’ll go more into this in the AL preview later this week, but when you play 19 games against each of the other teams in your division, the quality of those teams becomes a major factor. A number of years ago, when the Twins were winning division titles regularly, the AL Central was very weak. Minnesota used this to their advantage and it was a big reason why they were a mainstay in the playoffs. Now the tide has turned and the Central appears to be the toughest division in baseball. Many experts are picking the Tigers and the Indians to not only make the playoffs, but make a World Series run. It is because of the high quality of these teams that the Twins aren’t expected to be a playoff factor. Keep track of how these two teams begin the season. If one or the other (or maybe both) struggle, that could open the door for our plucky, young club. If they both start strong, we may have to wait for next year.

So where does that leave us? Here are a few predictions from a guy (me) who has proven to be quite good at this kind of thing:
--The Twins will struggle early in the year, prompting the local media to tear them apart.
--A strong August and September will propel the team to 85 wins and extremely high optimism heading into the 09 season.
--Carlos Gomez will be the most frustrating Twin in recent memory. His stretches of brilliance will be outnumbered by periods of futility as he hits .248 with a dozen highlight reel plays on the base paths and in the field.
--Joe Mauer will return to form, hitting over .330, making the All Star team, and winning a Gold Glove.
--Justin Morneau, finally protected in the lineup, will make a push for a 40 HR season, but finish just short at 39.
--Delmon Young will be the talk of the Twins with his 29 HR and 115 RBI.
--Young will also frustrate Twins fans with his tendency for GIDP’s and lack of clutch hitting.
--Mike Lamb will be a welcomed addition to the team by hitting .292 with 20 HR.
--Nick Punto will fail to hit his weight, but will get a ton of at bats because he’s having an affair with manager Ron Gardenhire.
--Francisco Liriano will struggle early in the year, prompting local media members to question if he’s hurt…those voices will be quieted as Franchise wins 10 games in August and September with an ERA in the mid 2 range.
--Boof Bonser will lead the team in wins with 16.
--Livan Hernandez will get far too many starts considering his ERA will be in the 5 range, but will finally get removed from the rotation in late July—roughly two months too late.
--Joe Nathan will once again be the best closer in the game, but his save numbers will not reflect this because of the team’s lack of success.
--Overall: 85-77, third place in the Central. Mauer and Morneau will be All Stars. Mauer and Everett win Gold Gloves. There is a ton of optimism heading into 2009.

The season starts off with a bang. 3-2 Twins win and are now 1 game up on the Tigers. Looks like my 85 win prediction may have been a bit low. We're going wire to wire in the Central. And yes, it only takes one game for me to drink the Kool-Aid and be fully on board for an amazing season to remember. Delmon had two hits in his debut as did the player of the game and my new man crush Carlos Gomez.

His final line: 2-3, (bunt) single, double, walk, 2 SB, 2 R.
We're comin', we're comin'...


Fuzz said...

"Nick Punto will fail to hit his weight, but will get a ton of at bats because he’s having an affair with manager Ron Gardenhire."

Floored me...good work...

Anonymous said...

Oh well another MN team to be in the middle to below average. Oh well At least the NFL draft is coming up.

Side note- 150 days tell the college football season starts.


Dogg said...

Finn, the difference with this Twins team though is that they will be fun to watch and I believe they actually might compete with this team. Nobody is thinking we have a chance and that's usually when this organization shines. The pitching staff is extremely young but if you have one part of your team that can be young and successful it's usually your pitching staff. This team will do some things that not many other Twins teams have done in the past 20 years.