April 1, 2013

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"

This is my 12th season blogging about the Twins and expectations have never been lower. For a decade they were consistent winners in the AL Central. Two years ago, before injuries wrecked a roster that collapsed to 99 losses, they were considered co-favorites to win the division. Last year, before the pitching staff imploded on the way to 96 losses, there was fairly widespread hope that they could bounce back to as high as second place in the division if things went well.

This year any remaining optimism and hope seems to have vanished and in fact I couldn't find a prominent writer or projection system predicting that the Twins will finish anywhere but last place. Not one. And sadly it's hard to disagree. Two years ago injuries wrecked everything. Last year the pitching fell apart. This year it's simply a bad team, on paper, from the very beginning. Las Vegas pegs the over/under for the Twins' win total at 68.5.

It didn't necessarily have to be that way or at least not to this extreme. Last season's rotation was abysmal, as Twins starters had the AL's worst ERA and MLB's worst ERA among teams that don't call Coors Field home. They parted ways with Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, and Jason Marquis, demoted Nick Blackburn to Triple-A, and had plenty of money to spend after Terry Ryan repeatedly stressed that rebuilding the rotation was the offseason's top priority.

Unfortunately when it came time to actually spend some money to fix the rotation they didn't do a whole lot of it and what little they did spend was invested poorly. In fact, the entirety of the Twins' oft-stated commitment to rebuilding the awful rotation consisted of trading for Vance Worley and spending $14 million on two seasons of Kevin Correia and one season of Mike Pelfrey. That was it. That was the whole offseason for adding rotation help.

I liked the move to get Worley and prospect Trevor May from the Phillies for Ben Revere and as far as one-year fliers go spending $4 million on Pelfrey's comeback from Tommy John surgery is reasonable enough, but giving Correia a two-year, $10 million deal made little sense at the time and looks even worse looking back at an offseason filled with similar or better pitchers signing for one-year deals.

Clearly the Twins never had much intention of investing significant money to fix the rotation, as evidenced by the underwhelming additions and the payroll dropping from $113 million in 2011 to $94 million in 2012 to $81 million this season. Going into Year 4 at Target Field ranked 22nd in payroll is frustrating, but if they were determined to go bargain-bin shopping they could have at least done a better job of it.

Yet for all the talk of improvements and all the free agent and trade possibilities the plan was to go into the year with a rotation of Scott Diamond, Worley, Correia, Pelfrey, and Liam Hendriks. That would have been pretty ugly as is, but Diamond's slow recovery from December surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow ruled him out for what would have been an Opening Day start, pushing Worley into the Game 1 assignment and immediately exposing the Twins' lack of depth.

Once they determined that Kyle Gibson isn't ready for the majors as he comes back from Tommy John surgery the remaining options to fill in for Diamond were the same career minor leaguers who were thrown against the wall to see what stuck as emergency options last season: Cole De Vries, Samuel Deduno, and P.J. Walters. If that's the progress made after a winter spent with the rotation as the top priority I'd hate to see what a lack of progress would look like.

Ultimately the rotation will be better than last season because it almost isn't possible to be worse and there is some room for bright spots to emerge. If healthy Diamond and Worley are capable mid-rotation starters, if Pelfrey rediscovers his pre-surgery velocity and durability he could provide much-needed innings eating, for as ugly as his early numbers are Hendriks still has mid-rotation upside at age 24, and hopefully Gibson will be ready for a call-up by midseason.

However, there's a big difference between not-horrendous with some room for bright spots and the potential to actually be a decent rotation and it's just hard to see how the Twins' starters can avoid being well below average this season. Toss in a bullpen filled with scrap-heap pickups that looks pretty weak beyond the excellent late-inning duo of Glen Perkins and Jared Burton, plus very shaky defense at three of the corner spots, and run prevention remains a huge problem.

Run scoring doesn't figure to be a problem, but counting on the Twins' lineup to be a big strength is probably wishful thinking. Last year the offense ranked almost exactly average after accounting for Target Field favoring pitchers, and while trading Revere and Denard Span hurts the outfield defense replacing them with Aaron Hicks and Chris Parmelee shouldn't hurt the lineup and has the potential to be an upgrade.

Expecting big-time production from Hicks--or any 23-year-old center fielder making the jump from Double-A--probably isn't fair and Parmelee mostly looked lost for the Twins last season, but Hicks getting on base at a decent clip atop the lineup and Parmelee building on last year's destruction of Triple-A pitching are vital. There's also some room for upside in Trevor Plouffe sustaining last year's two-month power binge or Justin Morneau getting back to his pre-concussion norms.

On the other hand Josh Willingham is likely to come back down to earth at least a bit following a career-year at age 33, given their injury histories counting on Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit to combine for 1,200 plate appearances again would be optimistic, Brian Dozier needs to show that he can handle big-league pitching, and everything in Pedro Florimon's track record suggests he'll be among the worst hitters in the league. And there isn't much depth, if injuries strike.

Add it up and you get an offense that's somewhere around average, a bullpen that's strong in the late innings and below average overall, and a rotation that won't be historically inept again but will need things to go well to avoid being one of the league's worst. Fortunately for the Twins and their unbalanced schedule the AL Central is filled with mediocrity beyond the Tigers and by switching leagues the Astros should keep them from a third straight season as the AL's worst team.

That's as much optimism as I can manage, but that doesn't mean the season is without intrigue. On a game-to-game level Hicks' development will be very interesting to track and there's always Mauer getting on base in front of Willingham and Perkins becoming a "proven closer." By midyear there should be plenty of talk about trading veterans, calling up prospects, and Ron Gardenhire's job status. And, you know, baseball is still baseball even if the team you like loses a lot.

And in what has become an Opening Day tradition here, this is Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":

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