Previewing the hometown nine.
Forgive me if you’ve already run across something similar to what you’re about to read. But there is only one way to begin discussion of the Twins’ prospects for the 2012 season: the health of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer.
Discussion of the two as a pair, rather than as individuals, is an exercise in juxtaposition and comparison. The hurdles in front of the two are similar, on the surface, but once you delve a little deeper you realize how different they really are. As the hometown kid and the anointed face of the franchise, Mauer is given more praise (and more scrutiny) than Morneau, but any discussion of the on-field success or failure of the Twins must treat them as equals. For the Twins to be close to a .500 team, each needs to be healthy and at least approach their former levels of production.
The list of injuries Justin Morneau endured last season reads like a team’s injury list rather than an individual’s. Morneau is attempting to overcome injuries to every part of his body, it seems: heel, wrist, neck, back, and brain. Anyone who questions the man’s toughness is ignorant – there’s no other way to say it. From 2006-2008, he missed ten total games. Ten. In 2008, he played in all 163 regular season games for the Twins. In a time when asking for (and receiving) days off is commonplace, he made a point to suit up every single day. That singular fact implies a stubborn sense of professional pride that is becoming rare.
In 2009, he had a myriad of injuries but still appeared in 135 games. The next season, he was on his way to putting up better numbers than even his MVP season of 2006 – .345/.437/.618, with 18 home runs in 81 games. It was in that 81st game of 2010 that an errant foot to the head, as he attempted to break up a double play, gave him the concussion which affects him to this day.
For all the sports medicine available to modern athletes, brain injuries are still a mystery. The effects lingered through all of last season, and as recently as February he stated that he still has symptoms from time to time. The fact that he even gave it a go last season, with all that had gone wrong, is amazing in retrospect. The guy we saw on the field, however, was a ghost of the one we see in all those Metrodome highlights. The power and athleticism was gone.
But that chapter is closed, and a new season provides a fresh start. As far as Morneau is concerned, 2012 is an important year – is he destined to be Major League Baseball’s version of Eric Lindros or Troy Aikman, an elite talent taken from the game due to brain injuries? Or will he manage the condition and work his way back into form? Even if he’s never the 2010 version of Justin Morneau ever again, a guy producing at 80% of that clip is still a heck of a ballplayer. The question mark hanging over him looms largest.
The hurdles facing Joe Mauer are unique to him – and not just on a team level, or a sports level, but on a social level as well. Much of the good will Mauer enjoyed from the first few years of his career has evaporated. His toughness and his will to win have been (fairly) questioned to the point that they’ve become punch lines. His status as Minnesota’s Favorite Son is in jeopardy – unless he can regain his All-Star form.
What kept him out for the majority of last season’s games remains a mystery. The official reason given to us by the Twins training staff was “bilateral leg weakness”, which isn’t a known medical term. They made it up. Essentially, he had weak legs, and missed nearly three months’ worth of games – and no further diagnosis or treatment was ever released to the public.
He didn’t engender much support by saying, during his absence, that he would not return until he was 100% healthy. Reports came from Fort Myers (where Mauer rehabbed) that he was working out six hours a day, which only confused everyone more. He was healthy enough to lift weights and jog, but not to play some first base or DH?
When he did return, he hit only three home runs, and his season ended prematurely when he contracted pneumonia in September. Again, this is a new season and a fresh start. Everyone in the Twins organization would love nothing more to forget that last year ever happened. Mauer has to seize this opportunity to prove that the $184 million contract he signed prior to the 2010 season will not be an albatross around the neck of the franchise. He was brought along slowly this spring – no signs of injuries, yet. As mysteriously as the injuries and illnesses arrived last season, they’ve mysteriously gone – we hope.
There’s no reason not to expect a good season from Mauer. It’s doubtful he’ll ever hit 28 home runs again – something his staunchest defenders will blame on the ballpark – but if he can find a way to match his 2010 totals (.327/.402/.469) or even come close to it, much of the ill will should subside.
The Other 23
The rest of the ballclub, beyond the two stars, is mediocre at best. The Twins will not break camp with Drew Butera (the worst non-pitching hitter in baseball last season) or Tsuyoshi Nishioka (the worst defensive infielder I’ve seen in the big leagues) on the roster. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Carl Pavano is the Opening Day starter, and it doesn’t get much better from there. Francisco Liriano, who is likely in his last season as a Twin, remains as inconsistent as ever. Nick Blackburn is what he is – a contact-inducing groundball pitcher who requires elite defense to be most effective. Liam Hendriks breaks camp as the fourth starter – he’ll likely be replaced at some point by Jason Marquis (God help us), another aging, cheap veteran to fill a spot, a la Sidney Ponson, Ramon Ortiz and Livan Hernandez. Scott Baker hasn’t been able to top 86 miles per hour this spring and will begin the year on the disabled list.
Matt Capps returns as the Twins closer. (Insert joke here). Glen Perkins is his set up man, the lone bright spot from the team a season ago. The rest of the bullpen contains washouts from other organizations (Jeff Gray, Jared Burton, Matt Maloney), converted starters-to-relievers (Anthony Swarzak and Brian Duensing) and a guy who doesn’t belong in the major leagues (Alex Burnett). The bullpen, other than the guys at the end (Capps and Perkins) is full of question marks – only Duensing has shown himself to be a capable reliever in the big leagues for any stretch of time.
It’s unclear just how much Joe Mauer is going to catch – the addition of Ryan Doumit, who can catch, play first or either corner outfield spot, will likely lead to a mix-and-match approach by Ron Gardenhire. Chris Parmalee will get a chance to show that his hot September was no fluke, as he is the team’s starting first baseman. Up the middle, the Twins have Alexi Casilla at second and 38 year old Jamey Carroll at short. Danny Valencia will man the hot corner, hoping to rebound from a disappointing sophomore campaign.
The outfield will feature newcomer Josh Willingham in left, Ben Revere in center and Denard Span, another Twin returning from concussion issues, in right field. Justin Morneau will be the regular DH for the forseeable future – a smart approach by the Twins, who hope to maximize his availability by limiting injury possibilities.
The bench, aside from Doumit, features three utility players – one Australian (Luke Hughes), one disappointing former first round pick (Trevor Plouffe) and one former stud-turned-drug-addict-turned-bench-player (Sean Burroughs). There are a few other names to keep in mind – besides Nishioka and Butera, who will likely make an appearance at some point. Shortstop Brian Dozier had a great spring and will end up in the bigs once Casilla gets injured (which he always does). Joe Benson and Rene Tosoni could each see some time since the outfield depth on the big league roster is so thin. Jeff Manship and Anthony Slama are possible bullpen-fodder. The only elite prospect who could possibly see time is reliever Carlos Gutierrez – but it’s unlikely the club would rush him, as they are unlikely to contend.
Best case scenario – Mauer and Morneau are healthy, the pitching overachieves and the team plays better defense than last season – they’re still a .500 team, at best. They just don’t have the talent to match the Detroit Tigers, or even the Kansas City Royals, who have young talent all over the diamond.
Worst case scenario – a do-over of last season, with Mauer and Morneau missing large chunks of time, poor pitching performances and abysmal defensive performances around the diamond.
What’s my prediction? – 75-87, good enough for 4th place above the Chicago White Sox. Mauer hits .315-.320ish with minimal power, Liriano gets dealt at the trade deadline, and Morneau guts out 140 games.
It’s not exactly overly optimistic – but after what I saw last season, I’m just fortunate I have any optimism left.
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