Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire

2013 Preview: Minnesota Twins


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 2013 season. Today: the Minnesota Twins.

The Big Question: Did the Twins do enough to improve their AL-worst rotation?

After a decade-long run as a consistent winner in the AL Central the Twins fell apart in 2011, losing 99 games and firing general manager Bill Smith while replacing him with the man he replaced, Terry Ryan. Things were supposed to be better last season and I suppose technically they were, but the Twins lost 96 games despite a far healthier team and some strong individual performances because they simply couldn’t pitch.

Twins starting pitchers had the worst ERA in baseball among teams that don’t call Coors Field home and the pitching staff as a whole recorded the fewest strikeouts in baseball for the second straight season. At the beginning of the offseason Ryan spoke of big plans for addressing the terrible rotation, but when the dust settled the only moves were trading for Vance Worley and signing Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey as free agents.

Worley was a sound pickup who should be a solid mid-rotation starter long term and Pelfrey is a reasonable enough reclamation project with mid-rotation potential as he comes back from Tommy John elbow surgery, but giving a two-year, $10 million deal to Correia made little sense when similar or better pitchers were agreeing to one-year deals all winter.  Of the 91 pitchers to throw at least 400 innings as starters since 2010 he ranked 88th in ERA, 81st in strikeout rate, and 80th in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And that was it. That was the full extent of the Twins addressing their awful rotation.

Would-be Opening Day starter Scott Diamond will begin the season on the disabled list following a setback with what the team called minor elbow surgery in December and former first-round pick Kyle Gibson isn’t ready for the majors after Tommy John surgery in late 2011, so the Twins will likely turn to Samuel Deduno and/or Cole DeVries to fill out the rotation. It’s not a good sign when the same career minor leaguers who joined the rotation as emergency options during a miserable season are already back in the mix before Opening Day.

What else is going on?

• As dark as things look for the Twins now the future is extremely bright. Thanks to the combination of shrewd international signings, high draft picks, and veteran-for-prospect trades the Twins have built one of the best farm systems in baseball. They placed six prospects on Baseball America‘s top-100 list, including Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton in the top 10, and will add the No. 4 overall pick in the draft to the farm system in June. I’ve been writing about the Twins on my personal blog for 11 years and this is the best, deepest farm system they’ve had in that time.

• Sano and Buxton are still teenagers and years away from the majors, but the Twins look likely to get an immediate impact from the farm system by naming Aaron Hicks their Opening Day center fielder. Hicks has yet to play above Double-A, but the former first-round pick is a standout defender with an elite arm and improved significantly at the plate last season by adding power to his already strong patience. Delaying the start of his service time clock by sending him to Triple-A for a month or so would seemingly make sense, but all signs point to the Twins handing Hicks the job now.

• Ron Gardenhire enters his 13th season as Twins manager without a contract beyond this year and most of his coaching staff was fired or reassigned during the offseason, leading to speculation that another 90-loss season would lead to his exit. He’s the second-longest tenured manager in MLB behind Mike Scioscia.

• If the Twins get off to another bad start it’ll be interesting to see if they begin shopping veterans. In the past they’ve largely shied away from that, choosing to let guys like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel leave via free agency, but Justin Morneau will be a free agent after the season and Josh Willingham isn’t exactly part of the long-term plans at age 34.

• Joe Mauer took an incredible amount of heat locally for an injury wrecked 2011 season, which tends to happen when you miss half the year after signing a $184 million contract. He bounced back in a huge way last season, setting career-highs in games and plate appearances while hitting .319 with the highest on-base percentage in the league. Mauer was paid $23 million last season and Fan Graphs calculated his on-field value at … $23 million. Joe Mauer ain’t the problem.

• Target Field is an amazing place to watch a game and easily one of MLB’s best ballparks, but as the Twins enter Year 4 there they’ve already squandered much of the new ballpark excitement by putting out a terrible product. Only the Astros had a bigger attendance drop last year as Minnesota fell into the middle of the pack, and 20 percent of season ticket holders did not renew. And that becomes a chicken-or-egg situation, because the Twins have sliced payroll from $115 million in 2010 to $80 million this year in part due to decreased revenue, but the lack of spending has also helped turn the team into something no one wants to watch.

Prediction: Fifth place, American League Central

Playoff Reset: The Cards and Dodgers have their backs against the wall

Clayton Kershaw
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Historically speaking, the Cardinals and Dodgers are the class of the National League. A couple of organizations which have won a ton, have had a lot of classy alpha-types running their respective shows over the years, no shortage of glory, no shortage of history and enough evocative and grand footage in the can to make Ken Burns sepia with envy.

Meanwhile, the Cubs and Mets, while they’ve won some and have some wonderful history too, are far better known for their failures. For dubious achievements and fan bases which have, collectively, spent far more time smacking their own foreheads than high-fiving the guy in the seat next to them. Nevertheless, by the time we go to bed tonight it’s quite possible that the classy organizations with the long resumes of winning baseball will have been eliminated by the sad sacks and that we’re going to be treated to a Mets-Cubs NLCS.

In short: today’s NLDS contests are “the big game” sequences in any late-70s-mid-90s “slobs vs. snobs” comedy movie. Camp Mohawk vs. Camp Northstar. Lane Meyer vs. Roy Stalin skiing the K-12. Thornton Wilder vs. Chas in the diving meet. Once these things are over don’t be surprised to see someone on the Mets or Cubs kissing some girl way out of their league and to be asking yourself, “wait, why are there cheerleaders at a diving meet?”

Of course baseball isn’t as scripted as all of that and William Zabka is, according to IMDb, in pre-production on some Civil War project, so he can’t make it. I have no idea what that’s about. I can only assume he’s playing some stuck-up Confederate General who will lose to Curtis Armstrong’s disheveled Union general in The Big Battle, after which we cut to credits over some tossed-off Dave Edmunds song he wrote for the soundtrack just for the money.

Which is to say: we have to watch these games to see what happens:

The Game: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs
The Time: 4:37 p.m. ET
The Place: Wrigley Field
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: John Lackey vs. Jason Hammel
The Upshot: Wow, those were a lot of dingers given up by Michael Wacha and his friends last night, huh? The god news is that they’re running Lackey out there this afternoon and Lackey has owned the Cubs of late, going 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA in four starts against them, including his gem in Game 1 on Friday night. The bad news: even a half dozen recent starts aren’t great predictively speaking, and Lackey is on short rest. TBS will show highlights of Lackey pitching on short rest in the 2002 World Series today, but think about what you were doing in 2002 and whether you’d be just as good at it today as then. Hammel has the ball for the Cubs. He has not fared well against the Cardinals this season (5.37 ERA) but the same small sample stuff applies.

Injuries could be a key consideration here, as Addison Russell may be on the shelf for the Cubs following his hamstring tweak in last night’s game. Likewise Yadier Molina left early, apparently having aggravated his thumb injury. Otherwise: wear a helmet if you’re in the Bleachers at Wrigley this afternoon. Balls may be flying out your way.

The Game: Los Angels Dodgers vs. New York Mets
The Time: 8:07 p.m. ET
The Place: Citi Field
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Clayton Kershaw vs. Steven Matz
The Upshot: The Clayton Kershaw Legacy Game. It’s not fair to Kershaw that, after eight years of completely dominating Major League Baseball people will deem him worthy or unworthy of, well, whatever, based on his 10th postseason start, but they will. If he falters today on short rest, with no reliable bullpen to bail him out, people will call him some sort of choke artist. If he dominates he’ll be considered redeemed, though he’s never been a guy in need of redemption. I don’t care much for that game, but it’s inevitable it will be played so let’s just silently roll our eyes and go with it. The Mets may have a bigger question mark on the mound in Steven Matz, who hasn’t pitched in a couple of weeks thanks to a tweak in his back in the last week of the season.

This should feel like a totally different game. The Utley drama has to subside now, especially given that he’s unlikely to get the start against a tough lefty. And that tough lefty is, with all due respect, no Brett Anderson. You can bet against Clayton Kershaw and win, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d make a habit of.

In any event, the Cubs and Mets should play this on a loop in the Clubhouse before today’s games. Because . . . it just doesn’t matter!

Yoenis Cespedes and his bat flip say good morning

Yoenis Cespedes

It was a late night last night. Especially for old farts like me. I turned on my TV at 12:30 yesterday afternoon and there was baseball on it for just about 12 hours straight. Not too shabby unless you happen to root for the Astros, Rangers, Cardinals or Dodgers. Oh well, today is another day. Or tomorrow if today is a travel day.

In the meantime, we have Yoenis Cespedes to keep us happy, alert and occupied. Again, unless you’re a Dodgers fan. Of course, if you are a Dodgers fan you got absolutely no right to be upset at a bat flip following a homer. And if I catch you complaining, you’re getting a time out.

The Mets break out the whuppin’ sticks, rout the Dodgers 13-7

Cespedes d'Arnaud

So often in life the anticipation of something outpaces its reality. For Mets fans tonight, it was the exact opposite. They had a grand old time. The Mets broke out the lumber and overwhelmed the Dodgers 13-4 to take a 2-1 lead in NLDS.

So much of that anticipation was about revenge, really. Hitting Chase Utley if he was in the lineup, perhaps, or at the very least sending some sort of retaliatory message the Dodgers’ way in response to Utley breaking Ruben Tejada‘s leg on Saturday. But with Utley out of the lineup — and the notion that base runners matter a whole heck of a lot in a playoff game — Matt Harvey just set out to pitch, not plunk. And Mets hitters set out to beat the living heck out of Brett Anderson and a couple Dodgers relievers. Living well is the best revenge, and for a major league team, winning baseball games is living well.

It didn’t start out so well for Harvey, as Yasmani Grandal singled in two runs in the top of the second with a third run scoring on a Curtis Granderson error on the same play. It was 3-0 Dodgers early and Mets’ fans sphincters’ clenched. But only momentarily.

The Mets came right back in the bottom of the second with four runs with a Travis d'Arnaud single and a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double from Curtis Granderson. In the next inning d’Arnaud hit a two-run shot. In the fourth Daniel Murphy singled in a run and Yoenis Cespedes hit a three-run bomb to left to make it 10-3. The Dodgers got one back in the top of the seventh but New York scored three more of their own in the bottom half. It was never a ballgame after the third inning.

Brett Anderson was the author of the damage through three, Alex Wood gave up the four runs in the fourth and hung on in the fifth in what became mop-up duty. Harvey was done after five and took the win. He wasn’t necessarily sharp, but he did strike out seven and was good enough. Some late damage from the Dodgers, including a three-run homer in the ninth from Howie Kendrick, was too little, too late. Granderson and d’Arnaud did the damage for New York, driving in five and three runs, respectively.

Once the competitive portion of this game was over, the Mets’ crowd turned to more important matters. Chanting things like “We want Utley!” Don Mattingly didn’t give him to ’em, probably because there was no downside to smacking him after the game got out of hand. But no upside either. Because of that stuff about living well, remember?

Now it’s on Clayton Kershaw to save the Dodgers from elimination [looks at watch] tonight, technically. If he doesn’t, his detractors will write another page in their Big Book of Clayton Kershaw Playoff Failures. If he does, we get a Game 5 back in Los Angeles.

Maybe Chase Utley gets into one of those.