I’ll get to the weekend football games tomorrow. Today is a look back at the Twins season. Didn’t want to pack it all into one blog.
The Twins fell from first place to 99 losses in 2011, but considering the literally hundreds of games missed by Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span, Jim Thome, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan, Delmon Young, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Francisco Liriano (did I miss anybody?), it was pretty easy to think that if the Twins got just a little healthier in 2012, they’d win a lot more games merely by default.
The Twins replaced Cuddyer with Josh Willingham and Kubel with Ryan Doumit, and they replaced Nishioka with Jamey Carroll and they signed Jason Marquis to provide an innings-eating veteran for the rotation.
There was a thought that, if everything went right — if Mauer, Morneau and Span could stay healthy and play close to their usual form, if Willingham and Doumit could basically replicate what Cuddyer and Kubel had done, if the previously atrocious bullpen could improve even a little — the Twins might be able to contend.
Mauer played in a career-high 147 games and had a career-high 545 at-bats, and batted .319 with 10 homers and 85 RBI. He led the league with a .416 on-base percentage, which is far more valuable and important than most fans seem to understand.
Morneau played in 134 games and batted .267 with 19 homers and 77 RBI. Not exactly the same kind of production he offered pre-concussion, but more than I think most Twins fans expected to get from him. He seemed to get better as the season went on, and he played 99 games at first base after spending most of spring training sounding like he was resigned to being a DH for the rest of his career.
Span played in 128 games and batted .283 with a team-high 38 doubles while having probably his best year in center field.
Willingham became the closest thing the Twins have had to Harmon Killebrew since Harmon Killebrew, turning “pitcher friendly” Target Field into a band box. Willingham hit .260 (with a .366 OBP) with 35 homers and 110 RBI. He was a below-average defender in left, but he far exceeded what Cuddyer would have. For the record, Willingham posted a 144 OPS+, while Cuddyer finished at a 99 for Colorado (which means Willingham was 44 percent better than the league average, Cuddyer was one percent below average, a huge difference). Willingham cost $7 million, Cuddyer cost over $10 million.
Speaking of bargains, Ryan Doumit signed for just $3 million after wearing out his welcome in Pittsburgh, and provided the Twins something they desperately needed — a capable complement to Mauer.
In his first season in the AL Doumit had an excellent year, batting .275 with 18 homers, 34 doubles and 75 RBI. He was never able to stay healthy for the Pirates, but played in a career-high 134 games for the Twins, never going on the DL. He caught 56 games, meaning that most days, whether it was Mauer or Doumit behind the plate, the Twins were going to get better offense from their catcher than most teams.
Kubel hit .257 with 30 homers for Arizona, but Doumit’s versatility probably made him more valuable. The Twins wisely signed Doumit to a 2 year, $7 million extension through 2014.
Jamey Carroll was signed to hold down shortstop and hit in the 2-hole, but for some reason the Twins pulled him off the position almost immediately, turning him into a 9-hole utility guy. To be fair, Carroll did get off to a slow start, but he was extremely reliable in the field, hit a respectable .268, and his .343 OBP ranked third on the team behind Mauer and Willingham. He gave the Twins exactly what they needed from him.
There were other bright spots.
Trevor Plouffe got hot in the middle of the summer, and finished the season with 24 homers. A wrist injury slowed him, otherwise he might have threatened 40 home runs. He batted just .235 and still has work to do at third base, but Plouffe emerged as a legit power threat and a young, cheap player the Twins can build around.
Ben Revere was in the race for the batting title for awhile, but a big slump at season’s end hurt him. He ended at .294, his defense was excellent and he stole 40 bases. Considering his lack of power, he needs to get his OBP a lot higher than .333, but it was a solid season overall.
Chris Parmelee opened the season in the lineup, but when Morneau proved he could handle playing the field and Parmelee struggled, the rookie got sent to Triple-A. He thrived there, proving that he is indeed a legit offensive prospect, and hit five homers after the Twins recalled him late. Though first base is his natural position, he could be the team’s everyday right fielder next year.
It should be noted that Span, Revere, Plouffe, Parmelee (and Mauer, of course) are all first round draft picks of the Twins. They aren’t quite as bad at drafting as some have charged.
The bullpen that had been so awful in 2011 wasn’t too bad. Glen Perkins was outstanding (2.56, 16 saves), eventually taking the closer role from Matt Capps, who was decent, but limited to just 30 games by injury. Capps had a 3.68 ERA and 14 saves — for $7 million.
Alex Burnett was servicable (3.52 in 67 games). Casey Fien came out of nowhere to post a 2.06 ERA in 35 games.
But there was no bigger surprise than Jared Burton, who went 3-2 with five saves and a 2.18 ERA in 64 games.
Kyle Waldrop allowed just six runs in 22 innings in a couple callups, but Anthony Slama was not allowed to join the team despite dominating Triple-A for the seemingly 17th consecutive season.
Anthony Swarzak had a 5.03 ERA, but served his purpose, working almost 100 innings in a mopup/emergency starter role.
Another reason to be optimistic heading into the season was that the Twins seemed to have a solid 1-2-3 to head their rotation. Scott Baker had posted a 3.14 ERA and 8.0 K/9 in 2011, while Carl Pavano had put up two and a half seasons in a Twins uniform where he proved he could eat innings, and he figured to benefit from an improved Twins defense.
Francisco Liriano was unhittable in spring training, leading to optimism he might be in line for a big year. Marquis figured to be an unspectacular but decent fourth/fifth starter, with Nick Blackburn hoping to be the same. What actually happened was far worse than anyone could’ve predicted.
Baker never pitched an inning. Pavano made 11 starts before getting shut down (he would later become the latest in a long line of players to question the training staff’s handling of the injury). Liriano was terrible. Blackburn was worse. Way worse. Marquis lasted seven starts. Brian Duensing was asked to step in and help out, but was surprisingly terrible as a starter. Liam Hendriks, who replaced Baker in the opening day rotation, went 1-8 in 16 starts.
Those failures led to the Twins giving a whole bunch of starts to guys we never figured to see at Target Field.
Cole De Vries, an undrafted former Gopher and Minnesota native, was remarkably not terrible, going 5-5 with a 4.11 ERA in 16 starts and a 3.2 K/BB ratio. Sam Deduno, whom I had literally never heard of when he was called up, was unhittable at times but also the wildest starter in the league, going 6-5 with a 4.44 ERA in 15 starts.
PJ Walters threw the Twins’ first complete game of the year in his second start, beating the White Sox in Chicago, but ultimately went just 2-5 with a 5.69 ERA in 12 starts. Esmerling Vasquez, acquired in a trade for Liriano, had a 5.68 ERA in six starts.
The one bright spot in the rotation was Scott Diamond, who went 12-9 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts after opening the year in the minors. His 1.6 BB/9 was best in the league, but his 4.7 K/9 makes it clear that he’s not ace material and that the Twins should consider themselves lucky if he can keep his ERA under 4 going forward. Diamond was 7-3 with a 2.62 ERA before the All-Star break, 5-6 with a 4.31 ERA after. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s nothing special at this point. He’d be a good fourth starter for a playoff team. The Twins would be better off if he was their third starter.
What did all of that result in? 66-96, worst record in the American League for the second year in a row.
How? How could the Twins only improve by three wins when so many good things happened, from the health of Mauer, Morneau and Span to the emergence of Plouffe and Diamond to the contributions that Willingham, Doumit and Carroll added through free-agency?
The answer’s pretty obvious. Pitching, pitching, pitching. Perhaps no team in recent memory has made it so utterly obvious how important starting pitching is, particularly in the post-steroid era.
If you look back at the Twins’ run of 8-straight losing seasons in the 90s, it all happened because the Twins’ starting pitching was horrible. Some of those teams had good lineups and decent bullpens. The rotations were comically bad. When Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays formed a solid 1-2-3 in the early 2000s, the Twins suddenly became winners again, and guys like Rick Reed, Kenny Rogers, Kyle Lohse, Johan Santana, Baker, Kevin Slowey, Blackburn, Liriano, Duensing and others kept them winners.
Some of those guys moved on and couldn’t be adequately replaced, others have stayed but lost their effectiveness. But the bottom line is that the Twins showed this year that no matter how much you improve your lineup and bullpen, if you trot out a fifth starter every day, you’re not going to win very much.
The Twins had a stretch of about 80 games in the middle of the season where they played decently. There’s reason to believe they can compete. But it’s going to take pitching.
Diamond is the only guy guaranteed to be in next year’s rotation. There’s a good chance Baker will be back. Rookie Kyle Gibson will probably debut next year, but there’s no telling how he or Baker will bounce back from serious injuries.
Deduno, De Vries and Hendriks can compete for the fifth starter spot.
The Twins need to add two starters. They don’t have to be Zack Greinke (that’d sure be nice, though). They need two guys that can throw 200 innings with an ERA around 4. That’d be a good place to start. Because if healthy, Baker and Diamond can do that. To get 800 innings of 4.00 starting pitching wouldn’t put the Twins in the World Series, but it’d make them a much better team. And it’d probably save the manager’s job. Which brings us to…
I would not have complained had Ron Gardenhire been fired, but I’m not all that upset that he wasn’t. I’m also glad they kept pitching coach Rick Anderson. Fans that complain about Anderson don’t seem to remember Dick Such, and I’d say that the competency showed by guys like Deduno, De Vries and others this year shows that Anderson is practically a miracle worker. Give him some real arms and he’ll get their best.
The rest of the Twins coaches (and their trainer, finally) were fired. Sure, that can come off as scapegoating, as Steve Liddle and Rick Stelmaszek probably didn’t have a lot to do with the Twins losing 200 games in the last two years.
But it was still a good move. Terry Ryan has sent a message that was long, long overdue. That the Twins will hold people accountable. That maybe the “Twins Way” that Gardy still laughably tries to pretend is in any way meaningful, is not working.
Sometimes change is necessary, and Ryan took a step towards cleaning house entirely. Gardy has too much power in this organization, he almost always gets his way, and when he doesn’t, he pouts about it until he does. The media treats him with kid gloves and the ownership has treated him like Santa Claus. Ryan stepped in and said, “You’re not calling the shots. Your way isn’t working. We’re going to make changes, and if it doesn’t work next year, we’ll make more changes.”
Ryan had the interim tag removed from his title this week. He’s going to be around awhile. Gardy better start winning if he wants to stick around, too.