With baseball camps starting to open up and baseball preview magazines hitting the store shelves I can't help but to have my thoughts turn to baseball (and the fact that the Gophers are driving me crazy isn't helping). Here are my quick thoughts (ok, probably not quick) on the team this season, position-by-position:
CATCHER: Joe Mauer is going to be who Joe Mauer be, which means he'll probably hit around .330 and OBP over .400 - both outstanding numbers for a catcher. The real question is if he has power more like in 2009, or is the 2010 version the real one. Personally, I think 2009 was a bit of a fluke, but I think he has more power than we saw in 2010, although it's harder to see thanks to the power reducing abilities in Target Field. I would put his HR total OVER/UNDER at 10.5, but as long as he keeps banging out those doubles his other numbers make him one of the most valuable players in the game. And are we really going with Drew Butera at back-up catcher again? Seeing as how he's the only other catcher on the 40-man roster and both of the other intriguing options (Morales, Ramos) were shipped off I guess so. I mean, I like the guy, he's excellent defensively and his name is really fun to say, but you could DH for him and let the pitcher bat instead and at worst that's a lateral move.
CORNER INFIELD: Was it really just two seasons ago Justin Morneau played in 163 games and finished second in the MVP balloting? It seems amazing given how fragile he's been and missing half a season after getting bumped in the head is a huge red flag. It's hard to believe it's even possible he won't be ready to opening day, but then again I said the same thing about last August, September, and October. Plus, we already know from Corey Koskie that the only reason somebody born in Canada plays baseball instead of hockey is because they can't take a hit, so temper your expectations, I've got a bad feeling about this.
As far as third base goes I liked what I saw out of Danny Valencia last year, but I didn't quite see enough to be ready to hand the job over to him for the next five years. I'm also not sure what other options they have because Matt Tolbert should never, ever start a game and the only other 3B on the 40-man roster is Luke Hughes, but it's starting to look less and less likely that he's the guy. I do like Valencia, and his second half numbers were still good and probably more what we're likely to see this year. If the power he showed in September carries over, the Twins will likely have a very good defensive third baseman who hits .280/.320/.460. Solid, but not spectacular. Like Reese Witherspoon or Chipotle.
MIDDLE INFIELD: I can't wait to hear Dick and Bert butcher Tsuyoshi Nishioka's name over and over again. I guarantee that they come up with a nickname within a week of the season opener, probably something as simple as Yoshi, which is fine as long as it's not the next Kaz Matsui, which is what he's known as around my house. Maybe I've just been beaten down by scrappy, light-hitting middle infielders with little to no plate discipline for so long that I have the same confidence in him that Jerry's mechanic has in that gasket.
And speaking of light hitting middle infielders, Alexi Casilla will get another chance to start, because as Lindsay Lohan and Dean Koontz have proven if you just keep giving second and third chances things will eventually work out. Seriously, how is Dean Koontz on the best-sellers list all the time? I read about 10 of his books just thinking I must have grabbed his bad ones and kept waiting to read a good one and I never found one. Servants of Twilight was decent, but everything else is just total crap you'd have to have a brain injury or the intelligence of a lamp to enjoy. Family Guy is mostly stupid and written for cretins, but I laughed my ass off during and episode right after Stephen King got hit by a car when Peter hit somebody with his car and goes "was that Stephen King?" and Lois says "No, it was Dean Koontz" and Peter puts the car in reverse and runs him over again. Suck it, Koontzy.
OUTFIELD: Here we go again. A bunch of mediocre to kind of good bats packaged along with terrible terrible terrible defense. Honestly, with Young, Span, and Kubel out there if there was a contest between those three and Carlos Gomez all by himself who do you think would catch more fly balls?
Defense aside, Span is the biggest concern and he really needs to be more like his 2009 self than last year's version. His walk rate dipped last year from 12.2% and 10.5% in 2008 and 2009 down to 8.5% last year and after walking 17 times in April he walked just 16 times in May & June combined and 17 times in September & October combined. Basically he stopped walking and starting flying out too much. He is absolutely a key to this team and needs to be their table-setter.
He also needs to find a way to get better defensively, because he needs to cover for the three corner guys: Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, and Michael Cuddyer. Young finally put up an offensive year his potential said was there, and although it feels like the kind of thing you can't quite trust, in fact he put up the best year of his career in the same year where his BABIP was at his career low. Yes, low. Meaning with a little more luck he could have had even better numbers. I actually anticipate his power going down a bit, because I think that surge we saw was a little more fluky than anything else, but I can easily see him hitting .320 or so over the course of the year with 40 or so doubles and 15 homers. That's a very, very good year. If he ever figures out some plate discipline he would have a chance at being truly dangerous.
Kubel I don't know about anymore. He's one of the best on the team when it comes to plate discipline, but regressed quite a bit from his career year in 2009. A lot of that can be attributed to a BABIP of just .280, 20 points lower than his career mark, and he should be able to bounce back to something closer to that 2009 version than last year's, but the real problem is that Kubes continues to be absolutely dreadful against lefties and at this point I don't think you can wait for him to snap out of it. If he's in the lineup even once against a left-handed pitcher it's one time too many.
Finally, Cuddy will be returning to the outfield, assuming Canada-boy gets himself back into play, and that's not exactly a good thing. I know he's a great teammate and his ability and willingness to play any position where he's needed is an excellent quality to have, and he's got a great arm. He is also nearly as slow as Young or Kubel and still refuses to lay off the outside slider in the dirt with two strikes despite the fact that every single pitcher throws it at him every single time he has two strikes on him. Honest to god, how do people watch Mark Reynolds day-in and day-out? Cuddyer doesn't strike out nearly as often as Reynolds, but he just makes me so angry. I'm not even especially anti-strikeout, even if they are fascist, but he just looks so weak and over-matched when he does it. At least Adam Dunn has the decency to swing hard when he misses a ball by 2 feet.
DH/BENCH: Jim Thome should basically have the DH locked down. I'd say the Twins would be better off sitting him against lefties, but what's your other option? I already mentioned Butera and Tolbert, neither of whom could get a hit even if they were married to Whitney Houston. And, assuming they carry 11 pitchers, they only other player on the bench will be Jason Repko. I secretly love Repko and have even used his name as a password on an account for something or other, but sometimes reality sets in and I remember he OPSed just .671 last year, a number basically identical to Tolbert, even if Repko seems like 10x the hitter Tolby is. So basically this is a pretty damn shallow bench.
STARTERS: Pretty underwhelming here, yeah? I hate that they're just rolling with the same group, although I can't really come up with any kind of master plan to make it any better, but lame, right? Baker is a #3/#4 on most teams, Slowey is a #4, Pavano - although I'm glad to have him back - is a #3, and Blackburn should be in AAA. We still don't know how good Duensing can be, but I think his absolute upside is a #3, which leaves Liriano for the excitement factor, and the Twins seem to be doing everything they can to try to make sure he isn't in their long term plans, which is ludicrous considering his 3.62 ERA last year was basically a worst case scenario based looking at his other stats - Aaron Gleeman breaks it all down better than I ever could here. Is it a good enough rotation to win the Central even though it's not as good as Chicago's group? Yes. Good enough to win the World Series? Well, I'll just wait for Kyle Gibson while I ponder that one. But no.
CLOSER: I'd imagine that Matt Capps will start the year as the closer with Joe Nathan getting eased in, but if Nathan looks close to form he'll slide back into his old job. That's as it should be since Nathan can be unhittable at times and has stuff Cappsy can only dream about. And a full season of Nathan, regular season only I mean, makes me feel pretty good. A full season of Capps makes me feel sweaty and nervous, like a fat girl before her first aerobics class. Don't you fear he's got a little bit of Bobby Jenks in him? Like, he's just a half mph or half inch or a little bit worse luck away from a 6.00 ERA? To put it another way, if Nathan is even 90% back from injury his downside is basically Cappsy's upside.
BULLPEN: As much as I don't love Capps as a closer, I think he's a good option as a set-up guy and that's good because if the starters are underwhelming the bullpen is just a picture of guy with a thought balloon and in that balloon is a question mark. Basically other than Capps and Jose Mijares we have one gigantic guessing game, with the biggest question being, "Why the holy hell did they essentially get rid of Rob Delaney in order to grab Dusty Mother Effing Hughes, somebody so bad at pitching a baseball that the KC Royals didn't even want him?" And who is Scott Diamond and why, by taking him in the Rule 5 draft, is he good enough to warrant a guaranteed spot on the major league active roster? Jim Hoey is getting a lot of play as a guy who could be a big-time setup guy, but he hasn't pitched in the majors since 2007 and owns a career ERA over 8. What about Neshek in year 2 since his elbow fell off? Is Glen Perkins head on straight and is his stuff good enough to become a reliable bullpen option? Can Anthony Slama's mustache get anybody out, or is he your classic AAAA type player? Is Alex Burnett a mop-up/long relief type who won't embarrass you or something more? Are Jeff Manship and Anthony Swarzak future starters, relievers, or ushers? Why did Eric Hacker get a major league contract?
I mean, look at this. That's what, 9 possible guys for 3-4 spots and doesn't even take into account that they have 6 non-Gibson starters for five spots. I guess the one big positive is that they do have a lot of options, so maybe that increases the odds that enough of them work out to make this a viable, quality bullpen. Sort of like increasing your chances of winning the Powerball by buying two tickets instead of one.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: I don't know, man, it seems like everywhere I look the Twins are getting picked to win the central again, but I don't know. It feels to me like the White Sox and Tigers did more this offseason and it wouldn't take much to push either of those teams out ahead of the Twins. I haven't really broken down the rosters to really get a clear view, but right now it feels like the downside is a rough year and third place division finish, while the upside is a narrow division win and a quick exit from the playoffs. It's hard to get excited about that. Again.
But you know what? I'll be watching. Damn near every game. And I'll be living and dying on damn near every pitch. And when I'm fishing up at the cabin the radio will be tuned to the game every damn night. Because it's the Twins, it's baseball, and I couldn't shake it if I tried.