Spring training is in full swing, and in two weeks we will begin our regular season! This is the time of year where Twins fans like me can forget about that dreadful 99-loss season a year ago and focus on what we can do to win the American League Central Division. It was a long offseason, and the Twins were as active as ever. Before we get to why our chances of winning the World Series are slim, let’s walk through all the change in personnel and see why we still can be excited.
First off, our General Manager, Bill Smith, was replaced last November by former Twins GM Terry Ryan with an interim tag. Smith had four years in command of all our signings and dealings and unfortunately caught most of the blame for last year’s injury-riddled season. Ryan had managed for 13 years prior and created the best decade in Twins history with only one season below .500 and six playoff appearances during his reign. In his first offseason back, he has made many very exciting changes on the roster.
Losing very talented players because of our budget is something every Twins fan is all too familiar with– the biggest heartbreaks in recent years being Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. This year we had our former All-Star closer Joe Nathan opt for free agency and land in Texas with a giant contract (7 million, two years, third year team option). We also lost fan favorite Michael Cuddyer to the Colorado Rockies in free agency (10.5 million for three years). Finally, outfielder and designated hitter Jason Kubel left us for greener pastures in Arizona–set to earn 7.5 million for two years with the third team option. These are the noticeable losses we have to endure this year–not to mention losing Delmon Young and Jim Thome late last season. It sounds a little like “Moneyball,” doesn’t it? Except we still have a $100 million payroll.
On the acquisition front, GM Ryan was as aggressive as ever. To tighten up our insurance for the injury-plagued Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, we grabbed first baseman and catcher Ryan Doumit from the Pittsburgh Pirates. If everyone is healthy, he will play primarily DH since he hit .303 last season with limited playing time. Regardless of where Doumit plays, he’s a drastic step up from Drew Butera, the main catcher last year when Mauer was out, who hit a whopping .167 batting average in 93 games. Doumit may be an unknown with limited success, but he strengthens our offense exponentially.
Ryan also decided that our middle infield was subpar last year as Nishioka, Plouffe and Casilla all had double digits in errors. So he added a veteran, 38-year old Jamey Carroll, to help this young group of kids. Carroll is scheduled as the starter shortstop, but Casilla, Nishioka and Hughes all want playing time for those two spots.
Plouffe realized he was the odd man out in the offseason, so he started learning to play outfield, but where he’ll end up is anyone’s guess. Carroll brings back the veteran leadership we lost when Thome was shipped out, but he doesn’t bring anything spectacular on either side of the ball. He most likely will play the on-field coach until Casilla and Nishioka learn to communicate like professionals–then he becomes trade bait or injury insurance.
The most exciting acquisition of this offseason is right-fielder Josh Willingham from the Oakland A’s. Number-wise, he is nearly identical to Cuddyer but a few million dollars cheaper. He comes with a poor .262 career batting average but a .475 slugging average, which means that when he makes contact, it is often for extra bases or homeruns. He won’t replace both Cuddyer and Kubel in RBI’s (Runs Batted In) or homeruns, but he is a very thrilling consolation prize. Twins need power, and Willingham will bring it to the plate.
Our starting rotation got beefed up a little by the addition of Jason Marquis. He is scheduled to be our fifth starter, after Pavano, Liriano, Baker and Blackburn. He was brought in because of the loss of Kevin Slowey and also so we can keep Glen Perkins in the bullpen as he was a diamond in the rough last year for our relievers. Marquis is coming off of a disappointing few seasons with ERA’s (Earned Run Average) around and above 4.50, so our expectations are minimal for now.
So far in his spring training games, Marquis has struggled to find a rhythm but hopes to still make the team on the rotation. The Twins have a few players in the minors that might be earning a spot on the rotation if Marquis isn’t halfway effective by June.
Joel Zumaya was also added this year for bullpen help, but after throwing 12 pitches in a Twins uniform during a warm-up session, he blew out his elbow and now requires a second Tommy-John surgery. He opted for the surgery instead of retirement. His contract with the Twins does not go past the surgery so he will be a free agent when he is healthy.
Despite all our personnel changes, the success of the team depends on the health and productivity of stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. A consistent starting rotation would also help, since all our starting pitchers experienced career lows last season. We can’t assume our team can bounce back to our winning ways just two seasons ago based on our additions. But we can assume that a team gets stronger when dealing with adversity, and they had their share last year.
So if everyone is healthy, the Twins should have a less shameful year, but they’re still not glory-bound yet. This year’s goals should be shooting for .500 baseball (half of the games played are wins, half losses; it’s considered the very middle of the pack). That way we will be utterly elated when they beat out Detroit for the Central Division Championship. The World Series may be out of the picture, but I urge you to have no fear because GM Terry Ryan will correct this losing team into a playoff contender once more.
Michael is a Sports Writer for the 2011-2012 season of The Concordian.