April 5, 2010

The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels 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"

Last season the Twins won their fifth AL Central title in eight years under Ron Gardenhire and the front office followed up the 87-win campaign with a brilliant offseason, adding J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson, and Jim Thome, re-signing Carl Pavano, and locking up Joe Mauer through 2018. Strong winter moves combined with the opening of Target Field after 28 years under the Metrodome roof had Twins fans as excited about 2010 as any season I can remember.

Joe Nathan suffering an elbow injury in his spring training debut and needing season-ending Tommy John surgery took some of the air out of that optimism balloon by robbing the Twins of an elite reliever and creating question marks in a bullpen that previously figured to be a clear strength, but even without Nathan around to pitch the ninth inning they look like the obvious favorites in what is once again an underwhelming division.

For many years the Twins pitched and defended well enough to win despite mediocre hitting, but they ranked third and fourth among AL teams in scoring during the past two seasons and have the potential to be even more potent offensively in 2010. Hudson combines with Denard Span to form an ideal table-setting duo atop the lineup, with Span getting on base at a .390 clip for his career and Hudson posting a .363 on-base percentage over the past four years.

They'll provide tons of RBI chances for the 3-4 pairing of Mauer and Justin Morneau that's as good as any in the league and the lineup barely lets up after that with Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. Last season the AL had 19 hitters with at least 25 homers and an .850 OPS, and the Twins have four of them hitting consecutively in the middle of the lineup following a pair of OBP machines. And unlike past years, the bottom third of the lineup packs some punch too.

I'm certainly not optimistic about Delmon Young finally living up to his supposed potential, but even relatively modest improvements would make him a plenty productive seventh hitter and Gardenhire also has the option of making the Twins downright scary against right-handers by benching him in favor of a still-dangerous Thome. And while Hardy needs to bounce back from an ugly 2009 to be an asset at the plate, he homered 24 times in 2008 and 26 times in 2007.

Nick Punto's presence keeps the Twins from potentially boasting above-average hitters in all nine lineup spots, but benching him in favor of Brendan Harris against left-handers could lead to something resembling decent production from third base and Danny Valencia is waiting in the wings as a potential midseason call-up. Even if Mauer comes back down to earth following one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time by a catcher, the Twins have an elite lineup.

Defensively they should be solid, but perhaps not particularly well suited for the pitching staff. Statistically both Hardy and Punto have ranked among the game's best defenders, Morneau is safely above average, and while Hudson has slipped considerably he's a four-time Gold Glover who can still get the job done reasonably well. Infield defense should be improved and maybe even among the league's best, but unfortunately Twins pitchers led the AL in fly balls last year.

For all his faults Carlos Gomez was a very good defensive center fielder and while most fans seem to just assume Span will also be an asset there the numbers so far certainly disagree. Because of Gomez's presence Span has just 88 career starts in center field, so the sample size is too small to draw strong conclusions, but Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as 7.7 runs below average in 704 innings at the position.

It wouldn't surprise me if those early numbers fade as Span proves to be somewhere around average in center field now that he's playing there regularly, but even if that happens left field will be ugly with Young or Kubel and Cuddyer's great arm has masked consistently poor stats in right field. I'm willing to believe Span won't remain sub par and perhaps the baggy artificially deflated Cuddyer's numbers, but the Twins' outfield defense certainly projects as a weakness.

Because much of what we tend to think of as "pitching" is actually "defense" the Twins' fly-ball heavy staff could be in some trouble, particularly if Target Field fails to suppress power like the Metrodome did in recent years. With that said, the rotation is capable of really surprising some people if Kevin Slowey can pick up where he left off prior to last season's wrist injury and/or Francisco Liriano can keep things rolling after dominating both winter ball and spring training.

Scott Baker may not be an ideal ace, but he went 15-5 with a 3.81 ERA in 179 innings after a poor start last year and is 35-22 with a 4.03 ERA in 84 starts during the past three years. Carl Pavano had a similarly strong run following a rough first month last season, going 14-9 with a 4.67 ERA and 131-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 181 innings to finish with a 3.96 xFIP overall. Health will forever be a concern, but barring more injuries he's a solid mid-rotation guy.

Nick Blackburn has also proven to be a durable mid-rotation starter, and while the mix of few strikeouts and a neutral ground-ball rate make him a shaky long-term bet another 200 innings of a 4.00-4.50 ERA is very doable for 2010. They lack a dominant ace, but the rotation has four guys likely for a sub-4.50 ERA, a fifth in Liriano who may still prove to be the best of the bunch, and some nice depth in Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Jeff Manship, and Anthony Swarzak.

If you're like me the preceding dozen paragraphs should have you energized and enthusiastic about the team the Twins have put together, which is also why losing Nathan in the middle of spring training was such a tremendous buzzkill. There's no doubt that Nathan going down is a big blow to the Twins, because you just can't replace his 1.87 ERA and 518 strikeouts in 418.2 innings over six seasons in Minnesota.

However, the oft-spouted notion that losing Nathan will cost the Twins double-digit victories is built around the mythical importance the closer role has taken on during the past two decades and certainly isn't supported by facts. Nathan has converted 90.7 percent of his save chances with the Twins, which is outstanding, but the MLB-wide average for ninth-inning saves is 86.5 percent and all but the absolute disasters tend to be around 80 percent.

Nathan has gotten 45 save opportunities per season, so if Jon Rauch and whoever else ends up working the ninth inning can be "average" it would cost two wins and if they can merely be "not disastrous" it would cost 4-5 wins. For a team that was tied for the division title after 162 games in 2008 and 2009 even two wins may sound like a season wrecker, but if you thought the Twins could win 92-95 games with Nathan they're still the class of the Central without him.

Beyond the Twins winning the AL Central, here are my other predictions for the 2010 season:


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

MVP: Joe Mauer             CY: Felix Hernandez         ROY: Brian Matusz
ALDS: NYY over MIN         ALDS: BOS over TEX          ALCS: BOS over NYY


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

MVP: Albert Pujols         CY: Roy Halladay            ROY: Jason Heyward
NLDS: STL over ATL         NLDS: PHI over LAD          NLCS: STL over PHI


And just because, here's Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":

There's a full slate of games on today's schedule, so I'll be blogging non-stop over at Hardball Talk on NBCSports.com, posting a lot on Twitter, and my Daily Dose column is also back at Rotoworld.