Rick Anderson, Ron Gardenhire

2013 Preview: Minnesota Twins

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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 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

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.