ron-gardenhire-and-tsuyoshi-nishioka-twins-spring

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

12 Comments

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.

Bronson Arroyo is throwing side-arm now

Washington Nationals pitcher Bronson Arroyo catches a pop fly during a drill at a spring training baseball workout, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Viera, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
Leave a comment

Nationals pitcher Bronson Arroyo has partial tears of tendons in his rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Considering he’s 39 years old, no one would fault him if he decided to call it quits. But he has one more idea, MASN’s Mark Zuckerman reports: Arroyo is going to throw side-arm, or at least three-quarters.

“It hurts when he gets on top [of the baseball],” manager Dusty Baker said. He continued, “So we’re taking our time. And if not, if nothing else, he’s a good guy to have in your organization.”

Arroyo missed the latter half of the 2014 season and the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Prior to that, he was known as a workhorse, racking up at least 199 innings in each of nine seasons between 2005-13.

Robbie Erlin needs Tommy John surgery

San Diego Padres' Robbie Erlin pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, April 12, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Leave a comment

Padres pitcher Robbie Erlin has a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament and he’ll need Tommy John surgery as a result, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Times reports. Erlin landed on the disabled list on April 21. Now he’ll miss the rest of the season and likely the beginning of the 2017 season as well.

Erlin, 25, posted a 4.02 ERA with a 13/3 K/BB ratio in 15 2/3 innings spanning two starts and one relief appearance to begin the 2016 season.

Cesar Vargas moved into the rotation in Erlin’s absence and has pitched well thus far in two starts, yielding only one earned run with a 9/6 K/BB ratio over 10 1/3 innings.

The Reds’ bullpen set an ignominious record

CINCINNATI, OHIO - APRIL 08: Caleb Cotham #54 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches in the sixth inning of the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park on April 8, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
2 Comments

Reds reliever Caleb Cotham allowed a pair of runs in the top of the eighth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Giants, setting a rather ignominious club record. It marks the 21st consecutive game in which the Reds’ bullpen has allowed a run, setting a new major league record, as C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer points out.

Entering Tuesday’s action, the Reds’ bullpen had been by far the worst in the majors with a 6.54 ERA. The Padres’ bullpen, second-worst, is comparatively much better at 5.27.

The last time the Reds’ bullpen had a clean night was April 10 against the Pirates. That afternoon, Dan Straily, Jumbo Diaz, and Ross Ohlendorf combined for five scoreless innings in a 2-1 victory.

Aroldis Chapman will rejoin the Yankees on Monday

New York Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman goes into his windup against the Toronto Blue Jays during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
3 Comments

Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman was suspended 30 games by Major League Baseball under its domestic violence policy for an offseason incident in which he allegedly pushed and choked his girlfriend, then discharged a firearm at least eight times in his garage. Monday marks game number 30, and Chapman is set to rejoin the club then, MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch reports. Manager Joe Girardi plans to insert Chapman directly into the closer’s role if a save situation arises against the Royals on Monday.

Chapman will make two appearances in the Gulf Coast League this week to continue warming up. He had been throwing in extended spring training games at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa.

The Yankees acquired Chapman from the Reds at the end of December, sending Caleb Cotham, Rookie Davis, Eric Jagielo, and Tony Renda to Cincinnati in return. While the back end of the bullpen hasn’t been an issue for the Yankees, seemingly everything else has for the 8-15, last place club.