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.

Casey McGehee signs one-year deal with Yomiuri Giants

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 19: Casey McGehee #31 of the Detroit Tigers singles in the fourth inning of the game against the Boston Red Sox on August 19, 2016 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
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Former Tigers infielder Casey McGehee has reportedly signed a one-year deal with the Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball, according to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal.

It’s the fourth move the corner infielder has made in the last two seasons after seeing short-term stints with the Marlins, Giants and Tigers. He signed a minor league deal with the Tigers prior to the 2016 season, providing the club with some infield depth behind 24-year-old Nick Castellanos. When Castellanos hit the disabled list in August with a broken hand, McGehee was recalled from Triple-A Toledo for a 30-game stint and slashed .228/.260/.239 with one extra-base hit in 96 PA. His career batting line (.258/.317/.384 over eight seasons) isn’t too shabby, but his age and a long history of knee injuries puts a damper on his potential.

McGehee last appeared in the NPB circuit in 2013, when he signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. He spent the bulk of his season at the hot corner, batting an impressive .292/.396/.515 with 28 homers in 590 PA and appearing in the Eagles’ first and only championship run to date.

The deal comes with a club option for 2018, Rosenthal reports, though no figure has been specified.

Report: Dodgers could pursue three-year deal with Rich Hill

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Rich Hill #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs in game three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Free agent left-hander Rich Hill is rumored to be entertaining a three-year, $40+ million offer from the Dodgers, reports Peter Gammons. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo corroborated the report, adding that Hill could receive somewhere between $46 and $48 million from his former team.

Hill, 36, pitched to a 2.12 ERA and 3.91 FIP in back-to-back stints with the Athletics and Dodgers in 2016. While a chronic case of blisters on his pitching hand limited the frequency of his starts, he still figures to be one of the most productive and noteworthy starting pitchers on the market this winter.

The Orioles, Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Astros have all been mentioned as potential suitors for the left-hander’s services, though Orioles’ GM Dan Duquette said the club has yet to make a play for Hill and ESPN’s Jim Bowden pointed out that the Red Sox are less involved in trade talks than other interested parties.