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.

Nationals plan to activate Bryce Harper on Monday

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The Nationals are planning to activate Bryce Harper from the 10-day disabled list on Monday, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reports. Janes adds that Harper has been taking his knee injury on a day-to-day basis, so if he experiences pain ahead of tomorrow’s series opener in Philadelphia, then the Nationals won’t activate him.

Harper, 24, suffered a knee injury running out a grounder last month against the Giants. The Nationals hope to get him into some game action before the end of the regular season just so he can get acclimated in time for the playoffs.

When Harper returns, he’ll look to improve on his .326/.419/.614 slash line with 29 home runs, 87 RBI, and 92 runs scored in 472 plate appearances.

Here’s what Jackie Robinson had to say about the national anthem

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For a lot of people, athletes expressing their political viewpoints by protesting the national anthem is a relatively new concept. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jackie Robinson is celebrated every year across baseball on April 15, marking the day he broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson was an activist well beyond that momentous occasion, highlighting issues black athletes face as editor for Our Sports magazine. He openly criticized then-GM of the Yankees George Weiss on television for the lack of diversity on his team. He helped spur restaurants and hotels to serve black people by criticizing their segregation publicly. Robinson became the first black vice president of an American corporation when he joined coffee company Chock full o’Nuts, and he became the first black baseball analyst when he joined ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week. Of course, Robinson was also the first black member of baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Robinson had an issue with the national anthem as well. As Deadspin’s Lindsey Adler pointed out, Robinson wrote about the anthem in his memoir, I Never Had It Made.

There I was the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again perhaps the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.

Robinson is referring to systemic power that has entrenched whiteness and ostracized blackness. Robinson may have ascended as one of the greatest players of all time and he may have broken the color barrier, but the league was still owned and run entirely by white people, which is what he meant by referring to himself as a “principal actor” in Branch Rickey’s “drama.” Rickey was the white executive who signed Robinson and supported him as the color barrier was broken. Robinson could not have done what he did without the aid of white people like Rickey who have the ability to leverage their systemic power.

Without question, Robinson would have supported the protests of Colin Kaepernick and many others who want to bring attention to the unfair ways in which black people interact with the police and the justice system. And it makes one realize that the people who purport to admire Robinson and his many accomplishments would have said the same things they say about Kapernick et. al. now to Robinson back in 1947. And to Muhammad Ali. And to John Carlos and Tommie Smith. The more things change, the more they stay the same.