April 6, 2009

The Smiles Are Returning to the Faces


Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right


- "Here Comes the Sun"

Opening Day is my favorite day of the year, every year, but this time around is doubly exciting for me. In addition to baseball mercifully starting up again after a long, cold, lonely winter with the promise of six straight months of non-stop entertainment, I'm thrilled to be part of a new baseball blog called "Circling The Bases" that launches today on NBCSports.com and MSNBC.com and will be a three-person group effort featuring me, Matthew Pouliot of Rotoworld, and Craig Calcaterra of The Hardball Times.

I'm excited to be starting something from scratch on a big stage while teamed with two of my absolute favorite writers and together we'll be blogging about all things baseball from morning to night each day, so my guess is that anyone who reads AG.com will want to make Circling The Bases part of their daily reading routine. And don't worry, my AG.com blogging will remain exactly the same. All of which brings me from that plug for my new blog to the Twins' new season, which begins tonight at the Metrodome.

Last year at this time no one knew quite what to expect from the Twins after they won just 79 games in 2007 and then lost both Johan Santana and Torii Hunter during the offseason. More people picked the young, inexperienced team for last place than first place, but my take was that they were very capable of finishing above .500 and staying in the division race. Not only was that one of the rare times where I've been more optimistic about the Twins than the average fan, they out-played even my rose-colored view.

Last year's team surprised everyone by going 88-74 to force a one-game playoff for the AL Central title and even after the heart-breaking 1-0 loss to the White Sox the general feeling going into this season is seemingly that the Twins will build upon their 2008 success. After all, when the 2008 team that was expected to struggle because of inexperience instead exceeds expectations by winning 88 games the natural expectation is for that same team to improve even further with another year of development.

Unfortunately, things aren't always that simple. Joe Mauer's back injury leaves the Twins without their best player for an undetermined chunk of the schedule and their No. 1 starter, Scott Baker, is suddenly also a question mark due to a season-opening stint on the disabled list with shoulder problems. If the Twins don't have Mauer for 100 games behind the plate and Baker for 30 starts their playoff odds drop dramatically.

Even without injuries clouding their picture the Twins' lack of moves to improve the bullpen and certain regression from near-historic success with runners in scoring position are two issues being brushed aside by many fans eager to assume that last season's success plus another year of development will equal 90-plus wins. In reality the lineup could duplicate last year's .279/.340/.408 line and still produce significantly fewer runs and adding Luis Ayala to a bullpen that fell apart down the stretch is no big fix.

This year's team is better than the expectations people had for last year's team, but that's very different than actually topping last year's win total. Last season the Twins looked to me like an 80-83 win team, and the combination of slightly exceeding my expectations and a weak division kept them in the playoff chase all year (and then some). This year the Twins look to me like an 82-85 win team and the division remains thoroughly mediocre, so my expectation is another down-to-the-wire finish.

Before things get rolling, here are 20 random predictions about the Twins followed by my guess as to how the 2009 season will play out across baseball:

- Kevin Slowey will lead the team in wins and innings.

- Francisco Liriano will lead the team in strikeouts.

- After averaging 123 RBIs with an .880 OPS over the past three years, Justin Morneau will fail to knock in 110 runs despite an OPS above .850 because he has significantly fewer runners on base.

- Jason Kubel will rank second on the team in homers for the second straight season.

- Michael Cuddyer will rank second on the team in RBIs.

- Carlos Gomez will steal 50 bases, improve his OPS by 50 points, and win his first Gold Glove award.

- Despite sitting against most tough right-handers, Delmon Young will show only modest improvement offensively while continuing to be awful defensively.

- Joe Nathan will have an ERA above 2.75 for the first time in Minnesota, but will blow fewer saves than last season.

- Jesse Crain will spend most of the season as the primary setup man.

- Ayala and Matt Guerrier will combine for an ERA above 4.50.

- For all the bullpen struggles last year, Twins relievers will have a higher ERA this season.

- Denard Span's performance will rank right between his pre-2008 levels and his 2008 levels.

- Brian Buscher will have a higher OPS than Joe Crede.

- The team batting average with runners in scoring position will drop at least 20 points.

- Jose Morales will have a higher OPS in the majors than Drew Butera has at Triple-A.

- Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins will both see their ERA rise by a half-run.

- Nick Punto will start more games than anyone on the team save for Morneau.

- Despite beginning the year at Triple-A, Matt Tolbert will have more plate appearances than Brendan Harris.

- Robert Delaney will pitch more innings for the Twins than Jose Mijares.

- Many of these predictions will look silly by June and most of them will look silly by September.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

WEST CENTRAL EAST
Los Angeles Angels Cleveland Indians Boston Red Sox
Oakland A's Minnesota Twins New York Yankees
Seattle Mariners Chicago White Sox Tampa Bay Rays
Texas Rangers Detroit Tigers Baltimore Orioles
Kansas City Royals Toronto Blue Jays

MVP: Grady Sizemore CY: CC Sabathia ROY: Matt Wieters
ALDS: BOS over CLE ALDS: NYY over LAA ALCS: BOS over NYY

NATIONAL LEAGUE

WEST CENTRAL EAST
Arizona Diamondbacks Chicago Cubs New York Mets
Los Angeles Dodgers St. Louis Cardinals Atlanta Braves
San Francisco Giants Milwaukee Brewers Philadelphia Phillies
Colorado Rockies Cincinnati Reds Washington Nationals
San Diego Padres Houston Astros Florida Marlins
Pittsburgh Pirates

MVP: Albert Pujols CY: Johan Santana ROY: Cameron Maybin
NLDS: NYM over ARI NLDS: CHC over LAD NLCS: NYM over CHC

WORLD SERIES: BOS over NYM

Finally, here's Richie Havens doing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":


Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

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