Final Roster Projection Update for 2011

As this year winds down, I’m going to stay focused on the year ahead rather than posting any significant retrospective of 2011 because it was not a year to wax nostalgic about from very many perspectives. For me the two highlights remain Thome’s 600th and Liriano’s strange no-hitter.

Having done some projections of each position group for the opening day roster in previous posts, it is appropriate to do another update of the whole even though there is only one change (Marquis to the starting rotation) from the last one. This will serve as the final guess from the perspective of 2011.

One reason I’m doing this again now is I think I’m going to find it interesting and maybe even fun in the first few days of the 2012 season to look back to the dark days of December 2011 and see what might have changed as a result of more moves and/or spring performances.

Still hoping for some improvements before spring training, here is the projection again assuming no new additions to the 40-man roster between now and opening day.

Everyday lineup:

  • C Joe Mauer
  • 1B Justin Morneau
  • 2B Alexi Casilla
  • SS Jamey Carroll
  • 3B Danny Valencia
  • LF Ben Revere/Trevor Plouffe
  • CF Denard Span
  • RF Josh Willingham
  • DH Ryan Doumit

Bench:

  • C Drew Butera
  • INF Luke Hughes
  • INF Tsuyoshi Nishioka
  • OF Trevor Plouffe/Ben Revere

Pitchers:

  • S Carl Pavano
  • S Scott Baker
  • S Francisco Liriano
  • S Nick Blackburn
  • S Jason Marquis
  • Long Relief Anthony Swarzak
  • Closer Matt Capps
  • LHP Brian Duensing
  • LHP Glen Perkins
  • RHP Alex Burnett
  • RHP Terry Doyle
  • RHP Jeff Manship
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Bullpen Projection a Major Challenge

By far the most difficult group to project at this point in the year is the bullpen. It was the most significant weakness at the beginning of 2011 and proved to be so all season. It was identified by everyone as a priority to be improved for 2012, and so far, it is hard to say it will be much better.

Matt Capps as closer is not very comforting. He will need to have a year worthy of comeback of the year considerations to regain my confidence.

Glen Perkins was the best pitcher on the staff last year and he will be counted on to be as good again this year in the set-up role. He is the most likely in-house candidate to fill in if Capps fails or suffers an injury. Perkins was less effective toward the end of the year, but I am hoping that was due to overuse rather than the league adjusting to him.

Brian Duensing looks to be headed to the bullpen and that would mean an improvement in the left-handed specialist role over those who tried to do that last year. Jose Mijares being non-tendered and subsequently signed by Kansas City almost assures Duensing of that role.

I expect Anthony Swarzak to be the long-reliever and spot starter again in 2012 as he was for a good part of the season last year. He performed well in that role and seems to be liked by the manager and pitching coach, which should help to earn him a spot for opening day this time.

Alex Burnett has potential to be a good major league relief pitcher and he has shown flashes of that the last two years, but he has been inconsistent. He might benefit from some seasoning at the AAA level, but as thin as the Twins are right now, he may be counted on to improve and play the middle innings role.

The other two spots in what is probably going to be a seven pitcher bullpen are more up for grabs. I see Terry Doyle as filling one of those spots, if only because he was a Rule 5 draft acquisition. If the Twins like him enough as a starter they might work out a deal to keep him and send him to Rochester, but if that happens the bullpen will need more bolstering.

I don’t know enough yet about the several free agent minor leaguers signed this off-season to know if any of them have a real shot at making the opening day roster, so in the meantime I’m projecting Jeff Manship as the final bullpen guy.

I remain somewhat hopeful that Terry Ryan will sign one more veteran reliever or work out a trade to improve the bullpen, but that might be overly optimistic. He may wait and see how things look in the spring before making any deals.

If this is the bullpen for 2012, we are in for a long difficult year again.

Infield Projection

The first major move of the off-season was the signing of Jamey Carroll to shore up the weak infield. All indications are he will be the opening day shortstop, although most of his major league career he has been at second base. Defensively that should be an improvement over the parade of failures in 2011. If he holds true to form, he will be a good number two hitter in the batting order and he should help solidify a decent top of the order.

It appears Alexi Casilla is going to get the nod at second base. This will be the third time he has been penciled in for that slot and let’s hope that he has matured enough to make it stick this time. Until his hamstring injury put him on the DL, he was showing real signs of being a good defensive player and productive at the plate as well. It remains to be seen if he will play a full year, let alone be productive all year, but that is the Twins’ and my hope.

Danny Valencia will be at third base again unless some other deal is made before the season begins. After a sophomore slump, he is due to rebound with a good year. Following him on Twitter (@dannyvalencia19) has been revealing for a number of reasons, but it is encouraging to see he is self-reporting working out hard – including two-a-days. He may be showing some signs that he understands he needs to step it up.

Most tentative is the Justin Morneau situation. We will not know until spring training how his post-concussion symptoms are still affecting him. It is difficult to be optimistic, but for now he is the starting first baseman.

If Morneau is unable to go, Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit will be the one’s to fill in. A long shot to fill the role would be Luke Hughes. It is also possible the Twins make a trade or sign a free agent if it is clear early in the spring that Morneau is not going to be able to function.

In utility roles I have included both Hughes and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, although I think it is not beyond the realm of possibility for Nishioka to begin the season in Rochester with Sean Burroughs making the roster as a utility player.

As currently projected, this infield is not going to be much for power production. The defense should be adequate if not stellar, but only a healthy Morneau projects to hit enough home runs to qualify as a power hitter. Danny Valencia may hit between 15-20 home runs again, but if he continues to try to just pull the ball at Target Field, as he appeared to do in 2011, his average will suffer and he may end up less productive again and vulnerable to being replaced by Hughes or Burroughs.

I’m having trouble seeing Nishioka as a utility player. He is only adequate at best defensively at shortstop and showed that he is not ready to place second base at the major league level. I understand the fact that he is being paid $3 million and so the Twins want to get some production out of him, but he will not be an option as a defensive replacement late in games as most utility guys are used. The best hope is that he progresses well in spring training and earns a starting job at SS moving Carroll to second base unless Casilla has an outstanding spring and earns his way into the starting lineup ahead of him.

Luke Hughes has no more options left so he either is on the opening day roster or the Twins run the risk of losing him on waivers. I can’t see the Twins taking that chance, so unless he is part of a trade package, he will be in a backup role.

This infield, if all remain healthy, will be better than last year’s. Even so, I can’t help but think some of them are more or less place holders for soon to arrive younger players.

I’m looking forward to spring to see how this all plays out.

Catchers for 2012

Last season, the catcher position turned out to be a terrible weakness. With one significant upgrade the prognosis for 2012 is better.

Joe Mauer appears to be healthy and preparing for a good year. He is speaking more publicly than was typical for him in the past and that is another indication that he intends to prove that last year was not what can be expected for the rest of his eight-year contract now going into its second year.

Mauer is projected right now to be the starting catcher and the hope is that he will be playing 130 or so games there. Depending on how other players, particularly Justin Morneau, rebound from a disastrous season, Mauer may play a few or a significant number of games at first base and probably will DH some as well.

Ryan Doumit is the significant upgrade noted above. He will be a real improvement offensively as the backup to Mauer. On defense he may be suspect, but that will not be a major problem if Mauer is able to play consistently.

As of today, I’m still projecting the Twins will carry three catchers on their opening day roster to allow for the most flexibility in keeping Mauer and Doumit in the lineup on a fairly regular basis. Having Drew Butera available as the defensive replacement and very occasional starter should help the other two stay healthier and minimize the negative impact of his very weak bat.

The catching situation is one that I think might be somewhat fluid yet. Spring training will be  used for evaluation of Mauer’s status and Doumit’s health and defensive strength. There is even an outside chance that if Kurt Suzuki remains available he could be added to the Twins and Butera sent to Rochester, where he belongs based on his overall skill set.

Even now I still find it hard to believe the Twins allowed themselves to go into the 2011 season so thin in the catcher position, especially when Mauer’s health was obviously not very good. The good news this year is going into the spring the Twins are much better positioned to field a decent catcher even if Mauer is not fully ready to play on a daily basis or is needed as the regular first baseman, a less than optimum scenario.

Starting Rotation Becoming More Clear

My earlier guess that the Twins were not likely to make any more moves until January has proven to be inaccurate. Today they announced the signing of Jason Marquis to a one-year, $3 million contract.

With that signing the starting rotation now appears to be tentatively set. Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn are the other four with Brian Duensing presumably returning to the bullpen where he had success before becoming a regular in the rotation late in 2010.

The latest addition to the Twins most recently pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks briefly before his 2011 season ended with a broken fibula. Most of last season he was with the Washington Nationals and pitched reasonably well there. He is known as a ground ball pitcher who fits the typical Twins’ pitcher profile, a “pitch-to-contact” pitcher.

I am less than enamored by this signing, but must recognize that in today’s MLB, he comes cheap. He also is not a long-term liability with only one year signed. If he has a great first half and the Twins flounder, he will be decent trade bait. If he fails miserably, he can be released without too much lost. And, if he performs at about the level he has in the past, he will be a decent innings-eater along with Pavano to help give the bullpen some rest. With improved infield defense, this might work out alright.

If this is the starting rotation, we are going to have to hope for decent comeback years from Baker, Liriano, and Blackburn for 2012 to be successful for the Twins.  All three were on the DL in 2011 with assorted arm problems. Blackburn had surgery this off-season to correct a problem with a pinched nerve. There certainly is no guarantee that all of them will rebound, so the Twins will need to have at least a couple of other options for starters. Right now they would seem to be Liam Hendriks and Anthony Swarzak, but Terry Doyle might work himself into the mix depending on how well he pitches in spring training. If Doyle does not make the 25-man roster on opening day he needs to be returned to the White Sox because he was a Rule-5 pick this off-season. If the Twins like him enough, they may swing a deal to keep him, but that all remains to be seen. If he makes the roster, he will likely be one of the bullpen guys, possibly as the long reliever giving Swarzak a starting rotation spot at Rochester.

It is hard to have much confidence in this rotation because of how inconsistent they have been over the last few years. Put that together with the tough schedule the first 40 games and the Twins may once again dig too deep a hole to climb out of. On the other hand, if all pitch to a level they have done at their best in the past, this could be a very good group 1 through 5.

We’ll hope for the latter.

Return to Excellence Speculations

A few days ago Michael Rand at the Star Tribune wrote about the Twins in rebuilding mode. As I read it, I was struck by not only the fact that six of the nine position players in the starting post-season lineup of 2010 were no longer with the Twins, but the other three spent a good deal of time on the disabled list in 2011. Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are those three.

It is fair to say that virtually everyone writing about the Twins believes the 2012 season hinges on at least Mauer and Morneau if not also Span’s ability to rebound from injuries and other assorted ailments that kept them out of the lineup for so many games in 2011. If they all return to some semblance of what they have done in the past, the Twins will have a chance to be competitive, at least in the Central Division. Because of their contracts and their success in the past (two MVP’s) the Twins have little choice but to bet on their return to excellence, at least for now.

Of the three, I believe Joe Mauer is the most likely to rebound from all the travails of 2011 and put up some good numbers while playing 140 or more games. I expect his playing time will include most games at catcher, but several at first base and DH. Moving him around some will help keep his legs healthy while continuing to keep his bat in the lineup. The primary reason I have for this optimism is the problems that he had last year were mostly not chronic. Only the knee has the real potential to be an ongoing issue and early reports are this winter his training has gone well and he feels strong again.

Second most likely to return to form is Denard Span, although I have significant concerns about him because the post-concussion symptoms and dizziness he has experienced in past years are not easy to overcome. Having researched non-headache migraines a little bit, one of Span’s diagnoses reported, I am aware this is a recurring problem that comes and goes with less than ideal control over the frequency and timing. Much as I would like to think otherwise, the fact that he has had at least a dizziness problem three years in a row means he cannot be assumed to be the long-term solution in center field. I certainly hope his getting some good rest this off-season and working his way back to good playing condition will bring him back to top form. Following his Twitter feed (@thisisdspan) it is encouraging that he has been practicing yoga regularly for a while now. That should help for several reasons, not the least being increased flexibility.

Justin Morneau is obviously the one I am most concerned about both for his own health and safety to enjoy a full post-career life and as a baseball player. Multiple concussions, as he has reported to have had, can be career ending and in some cases even life threatening. If all the time he has had to recover from injuries and surgeries has been enough to allow him to function without any impairment, it will be wonderful to have him back as the regular first baseman. Unfortunately, it is not only the post-concussion issues in his case that concern me. Surgery to remove the cyst from his knee should pose no problem, but the foot surgery may have potential to be an ongoing issue depending on how he heals and is able to strengthen his foot. The shoulder surgery he had earlier in the year to relieve a pinched nerve was deemed successful, but as of the last report I saw late in the 2011 season, Justin still had some numbness. From my own experience with nerve damage I can say that it can take a long time – sometimes years – to heal if it heals at all. Finally, the so called minor surgery on the wrist might also be an issue that continues to nag him. If it does, hitting will be a problem. Not to be too dour, but these are just the this year’s injuries/surgeries. It is very difficult to be optimistic that Morneau will return to MVP form again. It may be that being above average will have to suffice. Right now I’ll take that in 2012.

It is going to be very interesting beginning in February to follow the progress of each of these players in spring training. Especially in Morneau’s case, how the spring progresses is going to be essential for evaluation of his future. It will not surprise me if very early on he is named the primary DH and someone else is designated the primary first baseman. That will almost certainly happen if he has any recurrence of post-concussion problems. Much as I would not like for it to happen, it also will not surprise me if he is not able to return to any kind of consistency and ends up retiring. That would be a real blow to him and to the Twins, but from this vantage point, living in a world of pure speculation based on what little information is reported in the media, it may be more probably than anyone would like it to be.

OK, now that I’ve exorcised the demons on these three, we’ll look forward to all of them vying for Comeback Player of the Year award.

Twins Free Agents Resolved

Today the official announcement of Jason Kubel’s passing the physical and signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks completes the Twins’ free agent picture.

Going into the off-season the Twins had four players who were destined to become free agents either by the Twins not offering arbitration or by rejection of an arbitration offer. Only one – Matt Capps – has be re-signed.

Earlier in the off-season if I had been told only one of the four would return as a Twin, I would have bet it would be Joe Nathan. If not Nathan, then Michael Cuddyer or Kubel. Surprise! We now know that those three were more highly valued in the market place than the Twins could or would afford.

I find myself more sad about Kubel’s departure than either Nathan or Cuddyer. And I am more or less resigned to the fact that Capps will be the closer, although I do not like it very much.

Yesterday I posted a blog projecting the outfield for 2012 based on the free agent defections. Unless and until some other transaction occurs to change that, I expect spring training to open with that set of players penciled in.

Capps is supposed to fill the closer gap left by Nathan’s departure. That leaves some gaping holes in the pitching staff yet to fill. Obviously there is still plenty of time to flesh out the pitching roster so it is not time to get too concerned. There is even some room in the payroll to address the needs.

Given the time of year, I expect things to be quiet now until January when the old hot stove will be re-stoked again.

Roster Projection Update

It is time to update my 2012 opening day roster projection. As I did previously, I’m limiting myself to current 40-man roster members and not leaving spots open in hopes that new players will be acquired.

There is a bit more clarity now than when I did the first projection, but there are still several major holes to fill. Matt Capps has re-signed to be the closer and Josh Willingham is the new regular right fielder.

With the departure of Kevin Slowey, I’ve opted to put Liam Hendriks in the fifth starter role because I think Anthony Swarzak and Brian Duensing are more valuable in the bullpen and Hendriks projects to be a future starter who will either be in the opening day rotation or at Rochester when the season begins.

Following then is the 25-man roster.

Everyday lineup:

  • C Joe Mauer
  • 1B Justin Morneau
  • 2B Alexi Casilla
  • SS Jamey Carroll
  • 3B Danny Valencia
  • LF Ben Revere/Trevor Plouffe
  • CF Denard Span
  • RF Josh Willingham
  • DH Ryan Doumit

Bench:

  • C Drew Butera
  • INF Luke Hughes
  • INF Tsuyoshi Nishioka
  • OF Trevor Plouffe/Ben Revere

Pitchers:

  • S Carl Pavano
  • S Scott Baker
  • S Francisco Liriano
  • S Nick Blackburn
  • S Liam Hendriks
  • Long Relief Anthony Swarzak
  • Closer Matt Capps
  • LHP Brian Duensing
  • LHP Glen Perkins
  • RHP Alex Burnett
  • RHP Terry Doyle
  • RHP Jeff Manship

Outfield Projection

Slowly but surely the Twins outfield situation for 2012 is beginning to take shape.

Michael Cuddyer is gone to Colorado and Josh Willingham is signed to be the primary right fielder. Denard Span is expected to be in center field with Ben Revere the occasional backup.

Today in an interview on 1500 ESPN Radio with Jim Souhan and Tom Pelissero, Terry Ryan confirmed what I have been suspecting. If the Twins do not have any other personnel changes, Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe will begin the season platooning in left field.

Ryan did say that while the highest priority right now is to find a veteran starting pitcher, he was still looking for another outfielder as well. No names were mentioned and it was more or less assumed that pitching was much more likely to be the focus. If a starter is not found, then one more reliever will be signed to fill out the bullpen.

If by some happenstance another outfielder is signed to be the regular left fielder, presumably Revere will end up beginning the season at Rochester because Plouffe is out of options.

The Revere/Plouffe makes a good deal of sense if the roster remains the way it is now. The Twins need to find out if Plouffe can be an adequate outfielder and get his bat going consistently at the major league level. He also is a DH option if all the regulars are able to play their positions and Doumit is ailing.

Revere needs to continue to develop as a hitter and playing at least semi-regularly should help him. If he does not improve his on-base percentage, he will end up being just a role player and will not be as useful in the long run as one might hope. His arm also limits him greatly, but the team can compensate by sending infielders out a little deeper to get the relays.

If this scenario is what becomes the reality for the Twins in 2012, the team will again be offensively challenged. Presumably Revere will get the majority of starts in left field because he hits from the left side and most starting pitchers are right handers. In addition, it will be much more likely for Revere to replace Plouffe for late inning defense than the other way around. Given that situation, the Twins outfield will most often have two low power players in the lineup. Not a scenario that bodes well for scoring runs.

We shall see.

Mid-December Speculation on Off-Season Goals

Even with some action in recent days by the Twins to provide fodder for new posts, I am finding plenty of room for speculation on what is yet to come. Not all the holes have been adequately filled and it is fun to do a close reading of comments made by Twins officials that allude to what they are trying to accomplish this off-season.

Based on direct comments and actions to date, it seems to me there are two primary goals Terry Ryan is pursuing this winter:

  • First, build a major league roster that can win without Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau;
  • Second, build a AAA roster that will be much more competitive fulfilling the need to give Rochester fans and management a reason to continue a relationship with the Twins after the current contract expires in 2012, as well as provide viable substitutes for the Twins in case of prolonged injuries as was the case in 2011.

The first goal comes from a statement made by Ron Gardenhire during the winter meetings. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, albeit a welcome one, that the Twins were going to be that aggressive in building the roster. And I must admit when I first heard it, I thought it might just be Gardenhire in a bit of hyperbole, but as the off-season progresses, I’m not so sure it is just hype. I am surprised because Bill Smith did virtually nothing last year to provide a plan B for either Mauer or Morneau when it was obvious that they were not a lock to be back to form as the season started, and even with the GM change this year, radical changes seemed unrealistic. I was critical last year because I did not see Cuddyer as a good option long term to replace Morneau at first base, and I couldn’t believe they did not even have more than two catchers – Mauer and Butera – on the 40-man roster during spring training with Mauer struggling to return from knee surgery. Evidence that this goal is operative might be a bit thin, but the signing of Willingham followed by the confirmation that Cuddyer and Kubel were still possibilities is a pretty strong indication that Ryan is a long ways away from being finished and plan B’s are much stronger this year than last.

The second goal is a continuation of what was begun by Smith this fall when the manager and hitting coach of AAA Rochester were fired after two consecutive 90+ loss seasons. The Twins have committed to improving that Red Wings roster as well as management. The roster will get a boost when some of the Twins’ top prospects – Joe Benson, Chris Parmelee, Brian Dozier, Liam Hendriks – are promoted to Rochester from AA last year. Additional evidence of that commitment comes by way of hiring strong leadership and signing a bevy of minor league free agents assigned to Rochester. Several of those are players who have good AAA records and have seen time in the major leagues. Initially I was not impressed with all the minor league signings, but the more I think about the need to improve the Red Wings, the more it makes sense to view these free agents as part of a grand plan to add depth.  This coming season should be a much better year for the Red Wings.

When spring training arrives, with the then advantage of hindsight, we’ll know just how accurate my speculation about the off-season goals is. More to come.