2011 Twins: Are They Better?

The Twins won 94 games and cruised to another AL Central title in 2010. Then, of course, the were bounced by the Yankees in the Division Series in most unceremonious fashion. They didn’t even put up a fight. This clearly looked like a team that had plateaued; good enough to win a mediocre division, but not built to advance in the postseason. They needed a jolt, a spark, some change we could believe in. The question is, are the Twins better this year?

The only significant addition to the roster is Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka could be the Twins best second baseman since Chuck Knoblauch left over a decade ago, but at this point it’s impossible to know what kind of production to expect from the 26-year-old Japanese batting champ.

Although he’s played in 312 more major leagues games than Nishioka, I can’t say I have any better idea of how Alexi Casilla will perform in 2011. Casilla burst onto the scene in 2008 and played well (.281/.333/.374), but was handed a starting job in 2009 and floundered (.202/.280/.259). Last year, he proved his worth in a utility role (.276/.331/.395), but how will he react to being the everyday shortstop?

Casilla and Nishioka are replacing the departed J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson. In theory, they should provide much more speed than the than the two veterans, but will they be as consistent? Can you definitively say they are an improvement?

All Star closer Joe Nathan is returning from elbow surgery and will be needed. With the departures of Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes, he’ll be one of the few recognizable names in the bullpen. If Nathan can return to form - or come even close - he should team up with Matt Capps to give the Twins a potentially dominant 8th and 9th inning combination.

While I do have concerns about the rest of the bullpen, the area that really worries me is the rotation. A lot is made of the team’s starting pitching depth and while that’s true, it ignores the fact that there are few - if any - front end starters in the group. Carl Pavano was ace-like at points last year, but if history is any guide, he’s likely to be a .500 pitcher with a 4.00 ERA this year. He’ll eat innings and pitch solidly, but he’s no stud.

Francisco Liriano is the only hurler on the roster with ace potential and I’m running of patience with him. Liriano is a good to very good pitcher and any team in the major leagues would be happy to have him in their rotation. Problem is, he’s more of a No. 2 or 3 on a World Series contending team. He’ll put up numbers and dominate in stretches, but when the chips are down, can you count on him? So far, the answer has been no.

The rest of the rotation will be filled out by some combination of Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey. With the possible of exception of Duensing, none of those four have proven to be better than a 3rd or 4th starter on a good team. With the Twins payroll escalating, top prospect Kyle Gibson is the best hope for starting pitching improvement this year.

Denard Span and Jason Kubel should top their 2010 outputs, but who else can you really say that about? Possibly Danny Valencia who was a rookie last year, but he could just as easily regress. Delmon Young finally put it together in 2010, but couldn’t you see him taking a step backwards this season? Which Joe Mauer with show up, the 2009 MVP or the 2010 solid, but unspectacular Gold Glove catcher? It’s unrealistic to think 40-going-on-41-year-old Jim Thome will duplicate last year’s magical season and who knows what to expect from Justin Morneau? Will he ever be the same?

Overall, the Twins did little, if anything, to improve their team this offseason and there’s no reason to think they’ll be any better than last year. In sports - see the 2010 Vikings - if you’re not improving, you’re regressing.

(Photo by Taka via Wikipedia)

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