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Springtime Storylines: Can the Twins win a third straight AL Central title?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: My beloved Twins.

The Big Question: Can the Twins win a third straight AL Central title?

Winning 90-something games and then losing key players to free agency or trades is certainly nothing new for the Twins and Ron Gardenhire’s six division titles in nine seasons as manager shows how well they’ve dealt with the annual departures, but this year’s winter exodus coming off a 94-win campaign might be Minnesota’s most challenging yet.

Free agent relievers Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, and Ron Mahay all signed elsewhere after combining for a 3.03 ERA in 53 percent of the bullpen’s innings, with the Twins counting on Joe Nathan’s return from Tommy John elbow surgery to stabilize things alongside Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. Gone too is the middle infield duo of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson (plus their primary backup Nick Punto), as Gardenhire hands the infield keys to enigmatic ex-prospect Alexi Casilla and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Anyone confident about what to expect from the new double-play duo is lying.

Amid all those changes Justin Morneau’s health remains the biggest question mark, but after nine months on the sidelines he finally appears recovered from last year’s concussion and is back in the lineup that ranked fifth among AL teams in scoring despite being without the cleanup-hitting former MVP for half the schedule. With a healthy Morneau joining Joe Mauer, Jim Thome, and Delmon Young the Twins will score plenty of runs, but the defense will be worse than they’re used to unless Nishioka proves to be an elite gloveman and that’s a recipe for trouble with a rotation full of Francisco Liriano and four guys who won’t blow anyone away.

As is the case nearly every season the Twins look like a 90-win team in a division where that usually equals a title, but the offseason changes, spotty depth, and some big moves from the White Sox and Tigers leaves less margin for error than usual in Minnesota.

So what else is going on?

  • Liriano’s secondary numbers last season showed him as one of elite handful of starters in all of baseball, but no pitcher had the defense behind him convert a lower percentage of balls in play into outs and so his 14-10 record and 3.62 ERA leave many Twins fans unconvinced that he’s truly reached ace status. He could pitch exactly like he did last season and win a half-dozen more games with an ERA a run lower, but as usual with Liriano his health will be just as key as his fastball-slider combo.
  • Mauer’s lack of durability is often overstated by those unfamiliar with typical catcher workloads, as he’s one of just four backstops to top 800 games since 2005. However, he’s coming off December knee surgery and the Twins have essentially zero catching depth behind him, so an extended absence would put Drew Butera and his MLB-worst bat in the lineup.
  • Nishioka won the batting title in Japan last season with a .346 mark, but his track record combined with the performances of previous Japanese hitters coming to MLB suggests his offense will resemble Hudson or Jason Bartlett in the No. 2 spot in front of Mauer and Morneau.
  • Minnesota is so deep in mid-rotation starters that Kevin Slowey will begin the season in the bullpen despite a 39-21 record and 4.41 ERA for his career and the rotation is only going to get more crowded when No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson is ready for a call-up around the All-Star break.
  • Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel are each coming off disappointing years in the outfield, but Span’s ball-in-play numbers suggest he was quite unlucky and both Cuddyer and Kubel are impending free agents playing for their next contracts. On the other hand, Danny Valencia’s track record suggests he’s unlikely to be as great as he looked as a rookie.
  • I’m worried about the rebuilt bullpen, but Twins relievers have ranked among the AL’s top six in ERA for each of Gardenhire’s nine seasons and Nathan’s pre-surgery dominance is probably being overlooked somewhat. During his first six seasons as Twins closer he led all of baseball (yes, even Mariano Rivera) in ERA (1.87) and saves (246). Even at 90 percent of his former self Nathan’s return would be huge.
  • I have no idea how to explain it and even less idea how to fix it, but it must be noted: Minnesota has lost 12 consecutive playoff games, including three straight first-round sweeps, and the Twins are 6-21 overall in the postseason under Gardenhire.

So how are they gonna do?

Various question marks keep me from viewing the Twins as clear-cut favorites in the AL Central, but I expect the division to be a three-team race for 92 wins and at worst Minnesota should enter the year as co-favorites.

Video: Bryce Harper launches a homer into the upper deck

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 24: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals looks on against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has had a tough month of May. Opposing pitchers have become increasingly unwilling to throw hittable pitches in the strike zone for him, and he’s had trouble adjusting. Entering Thursday’s action, Harper was hitting .194/.454/.306 with two home runs in 97 plate appearances this month. 31 of those plate appearances ended in a walk, nine intentionally.

Harper finally got a pitch to hit in the sixth inning against Cardinals starter Mike Leake. Leake threw a 1-1 curve and Harper promptly launched into the upper deck at Nationals Park. It’s Harper’s 12th homer of the year.

Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s hitting streak ends at 29 games

BOSTON, MA - MAY 25:  Blake Swihart #23 of the Boston Red Sox congratulates Jackie Bradley Jr. #25 after he scored a run against the Colorado Rockies  during the fifth inning at Fenway Park on May 25, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
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Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. was unable to continue his hitting streak on Thursday night, going 0-for-4 out of the leadoff spot against the Rockies in an 8-2 loss. He hit a deep fly ball to right field in the first inning, missing a home run by a few feet. He hit another deep drive in the fifth, but it was caught in front of the wall in center field at Fenway Park by Charlie Blackmon. In his final at-bat, Bradley weakly grounded out on the first pitch from Jon Gray to lead off the eighth inning.

Bradley’s 29-game streak tied Johnny Damon for the fourth-longest streak in Red Sox history. Dom DiMaggio still has the longest in club history at 34 games.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts was able to extend his hitting streak streak to 19 games. He went 1-for-3, hitting a line drive single in the first.

Softball legend Jennie Finch to manage a professional men’s baseball team

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Jennie Finch attends a press conference at Marathon Pavilion in Central Park on November 3, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images)
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Softball legend Jennie Finch will make history on Sunday when she will serve as a guest manager for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League. She will become the first woman to manage a men’s professional baseball team.

In the club’s announcement, GM Jamie Toole said, “We are really excited to have Jennie come out and manage the team. She is an incredible athlete and a wonderful person, and we hope our fans will enjoy seeing her in a Bluefish uniform for the day.”

Finch won the 2001 Women’s College World Series with the University of Arizona. She won the gold medal with Team USA in the 2004 Summer Olympics and silver in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Finch is only managing one game, but it’s still a positive step for inclusiveness in professional sports. Hopefully, in the future, we see more women in sportswriting, broadcasting, coaching, and front office positions.

Mike Moustakas out for the rest of the 2016 season with a torn ACL

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 21:  Mike Moustakas #8 of the Kansas City Royals hits a single in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium on April 21, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas has been placed on disabled list with a torn right ACL, the club announced on Thursday. He is expected to miss the rest of the season, per MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan. Outfielder Brett Eibner has been recalled from Triple-A Omaha.

Moustakas suffered the injury colliding with teammate Alex Gordon attempting to catch a foul ball. Gordon suffered a fractured scaphoid bone, which will keep him out of action for three to four weeks.

It’s a tough break for Moustakas as he missed time earlier this month with a fractured thumb. He lands back on the DL hitting .240/.301/.500 with seven home runs and 13 RBI in 113 plate appearances.