Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer

Springtime Storylines: Can the Minnesota Twins get back on track after 99 losses?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Can the Minnesota Twins get back on track after 99 losses?

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Twins last season, as a decade of consistently contending came to a screeching halt with 99 losses in arguably the worst year in team history.

Nearly the entire roster was wrecked by injuries, including former MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau combining to play just 151 games as the Twins led baseball with 28 disabled list stints. Even worse, the uncharacteristically weak farm system failed to provide capable reinforcements for all the injured regulars and Ron Gardenhire’s team completely fell apart down the stretch, going 13-41 in August and September.

General manager Bill Smith was fired shortly after the season, with Terry Ryan stepping back into the GM role after his surprising retirement in 2007 led to Smith getting the job. Rather than blowing the team up as Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Joe Nathan departed as free agents Ryan patched some holes with veterans Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Ryan Doumit, and Jason Marquis, overpaid to re-sign closer Matt Capps, and basically put his faith in the roster’s improved health leading to a significant turnaround.

They can’t possibly have as many injuries as last season, so improving on the 63-99 record should be easy, but by refusing to add any veteran relief help to what was the majors’ worst bullpen and continuing to lack top-of-the-rotation starters with bat-missing ability the Twins have put themselves in position to be much better without actually being good. If everything breaks right finishing above .500 is certainly possible and that would definitely be an accomplishment, but this is a team built more to simply avoid being terrible than to actually threaten the Tigers down the stretch.

What else is going on?

  • Mauer has a clean bill of health and played very well all spring, catching regularly and hitting .358 in 15 games. For now the plan is for him to be the primary catcher while also seeing some action at first base, but another injury could lead to him moving out from behind the plate with Doumit taking over.
  • Morneau got off to a terrible start early in camp, but turned things around in a big way during the past couple weeks while showing glimpses of his pre-concussion power for the first time since mid-2010. He’s also returning from four different surgeries, so Morneau is hardly out of the woods yet, but he’s finally shown some reason for optimism and the Twins hope moving to designated hitter will help keep the concussion symptoms away.
  • Francisco Liriano’s spring performance has been excellent, with a 2.33 ERA and 33/5 K/BB ratio in 27 innings creating hope that he can be the often-dominant guy from 2010 instead of the often-infuriating guy from 2011. Liriano is also an impending free agent, so a strong, healthy season could mean $75 million or more for the 28-year-old left-hander and unfortunately for the Twins the better he pitches the less likely he is to remain in Minnesota beyond 2012.
  • Liriano is joined in impending free agency by Opening Day starter Carl Pavano, Doumit, Marquis, and possibly Capps and Scott Baker, so if the Twins fall out of contention early they could be major players at the trade deadline. Of course, if most of those players are performing well enough to draw major trade interest odds are the Twins will be playing reasonably well, so it’ll be interesting to see if Ryan is more willing to swap soon-to-be free agents for prospects than Smith was in his final months at the helm.
  • Minnesota’s lineup is deep and filled with good on-base skills assuming Mauer and Morneau are healthy, so offense should be the team’s strength. On the other hand that isn’t necessarily saying much and the outfield and infield defense both look like obvious weaknesses behind a pitch-to-contact staff that needs all the help it can get.
  • I’ve resisted the urge to make this a 3,000-word preview because it seems unlikely that many HBT faithful would be interested, but if reading thousands and thousands of words about the Twins actually sounds good to you check out my personal blog, where I’ve been writing way too much about the Twins nearly every day for the past decade.

How are they gonna do?

Las Vegas pegs the over/under for Twins victories at around 73, which is higher than only the Astros and Orioles. As low as that sounds it would be a 10-win improvement from 2011, which is huge under normal circumstances, but even without being particularly optimistic about the Twins this season I’m pretty confident in their ability to win at least 75 games and wouldn’t be shocked to see the nearly 20-game improvement needed for a .500 record.

Mike Matheny tried to have his own son picked off at first base

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 26: Manager Mike Matheny #26 of the St Louis Cardinals looks on from the dugout during the first inning of a MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 26, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Diamondbacks 3-1. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Ralph Freso/Getty Images
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Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has a son, Tate, who was selected by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2015 draft out of Missouri State University. Tate, an outfielder, spent the 2015 season with Low-A Lowell and last year played at Single-A Greenville.

Now in spring camp with the Red Sox, Tate is trying to continue his ascent through the minor league system. On Monday afternoon in a game against his father’s Cardinals, Tate pinch-ran after Xander Bogaerts singled to center field to lead off the bottom of the fifth inning. Mike wasn’t about to let his son catch any breaks. Via Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

That’s right: Mike tried to have his own son picked off at first base. That’s just cold, man.

Tate was erased shortly thereafter when Mookie Betts grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. Tate got his first at-bat in the seventh and struck out.

Do we really need metal detectors at spring training facilities?

sloan-metal-detector-1
Craig Calcaterra
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MESA, AZ — Over the past couple of seasons we’ve, more or less, gotten used to the sight of metal detectors at major league ballparks. And the sight of long lines outside of them, requiring us to get to the park a bit earlier or else risk missing some of the early inning action.

Like so much else over the past fifteen and a half years, we’re given assurances by people in charge that it’s for “security,” and we alter our lives and habits accordingly. This despite the fact that security experts have argued that it’s a mostly useless and empty exercise in security theater. More broadly, they’ve correctly noted that it’s a cynical and defeatist solution in search of a problem. But hey, welcome to 21st Century America.

And welcome metal detectors to spring training:

scottsdale-metal-detector

Beginning this year, Major League Baseball is mandating that all spring training facilities use some form of metal detection, be it walkthrough detectors like the ones shown here at the Giants’ park in Scottsdale or wands like the one being used on the nice old lady above at the Cubs facility in Mesa.

I asked Major League Baseball why they are requiring them in Florida and Arizona. They said that the program was not implemented in response to any specific incident or threat at a baseball game, but are “precautionary measures.” They say that metal detection “has not posed significant inconvenience or taken away from the ballpark experience” since being required at big league parks in 2015 and believe it will work the same way at the spring training parks.They caution fans, however, that, as the program gets underway, they should allow for more time for entry.

And that certainly makes sense:

sloan-metal-detector-2

I took this photo a few minutes after the home plate gate opened at Sloan Park yesterday afternoon. As I noted this morning, the Cubs sell out every game in their 15,000-seat park. That’s a lot of wanding and, as a result, it could lead to a lot of waiting.

But the crowds here all seemed to get through the line pretty quickly. Perhaps because the wanding is not exactly a time-consuming affair:

Not every security guard was as, well, efficient as this guy. But hardly anyone walking through the gate was given a particularly thorough go-over. I saw several hundred people go through the procedure soon after the gates opened and most of them weren’t scanned bellow the level of their hip pockets. I went back a little closer to game time when most people were already in the park and the lines were shorter. The procedure was a bit more deliberate then, though not dramatically so. This is all new for the security people too — spring training just started — and it’s fair to say that they are trying hard to balance the needs of their new precautionary measures against the need to keep the lines moving and the fans happy.

On this day at least it seemed that fan happiness was winning. I spoke with several fans after they got through the gates and none of them offered much in the way of complaint about being wanded. The clear consensus: it’s just what we do now. We have metal detectors and cameras at schools and places of work and security procedures have been ratcheted up dramatically across the board. That we now have them at ballparks is not surprising to anyone, really. It’s just not a thing anyone thinks to question.

And so they don’t.