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Pressing Questions: The Minnesota Twins

Scott Pianowski
Roto Arcade

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North Central Rain (US Presswire)

John Sorbi, an old buddy of mine, visited a number of baseball stadiums during a cross-country jaunt in the summer of 1995. He was still jaded by the strike in those days, but he didn't let that get in the way of exploring baseball history. When Jonas walked into Tiger Stadium on a summer day in '95, he carried a simple sign to get his point across:

Just Here for the Park

The context was different for Minnesota baseball fans last summer, but they can identify with Sorbi's Theme all the same. If you attended a Twins ballgame in the middle of 2011, you were doing it for Target Field reasons, not for the product (or the home players) on the sandlot. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker couldn't stay healthy last year, and Kevin Slowey and Tsuyoshi Nishioka were flops as well (partly due to health, partly due to performance). The Twins wound up winning just 63 games, their worst showing since 1999. Other than a few Jim Thome milestone homers and Bert Blyleven's Hall of Fame induction, there wasn't much to cheer about in the Twin Cities.

A healthy Minnesota club still has to be taken seriously in 2012 (for real-life and fantasy purposes), but for the first time in a few years, the Twins don't enter the fresh season as the divisional favorite. You still want those box seats, Ted Baxter?

How did the Twins do on that Michael Cuddyer/Josh Willingham exchange?

It wasn't a direct swap, of course: the Twins let Cuddyer leave as a free agent (he got three years and $31.5 million from the Rockies) and replaced him with Willingham, brought in on a three-year, $21 million package. Cuddyer is generally seen as the better player here because of his batting average and defensive flexibility, but a deeper stat examination tells a different story: Willingham has posted a higher OPS in four straight season (to be fair, it was just about a dead heat in 2009 and 2011). So long as Willingham keeps working the count deep and knocking a few balls off and over the wall, the Twins will be content.

Neither player is going to make you happy in the outfield, but it's close to a wash. Add it all up and it looks like the Twins got a similar player, maybe a slightly better hitter, while saving $10.5 million. That works. Fantasy owners can live with Willingham's .262 career average if he makes another run at 25-30 homers. He carries a nice price with an early ADP of 193.

Willlingham shouldn't be shaken by the expanses of Target Field; he's spent his entire career in less-than-favorable hitting environments (Florida, Washington, Oakland). And being a right-handed slugger in Minnesota isn't all that terrible besides. Stay with me.

Where's the playability of Target Field at through two seasons?

Left-handed power is the early loser through the first two summers; meanwhile, right-handed hitters had no reason to gripe last season. Let's go to the index grid, courtesy of the invaluable Bill James Handbook (a rating of 100 is neutral):

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Target Field, 100 is Neutral (BJH)

With these numbers in mind, it's no surprise the Twins let lefty slugger Jason Kubel depart after the season. Mauer has no trouble reaching base in Target Field (.306 average, .387 OBP over two seasons), but he's hit just one homer in 396 at-bats there and is slugging a mere .384.

A number of right-handed Twins pitchers took advantage of the home-cooking last year, a logical thing given that lefty batters are declawed here. Scott Baker had a 2.34 ERA and 1.04 WHIP at home, 3.74 and 1.27 on the road. Carl Pavano was money at home (3.01/1.22) and counterfeit on the road (5.51/1.50). And while it's a small sample of 44.1 innings, Joe Nathan had extreme splits as well (3.04/0.83 at home, 7.50/1.67 out of a suitcase).

What's the medical story with Justin Morneau?

Get out your clipboard and pen, this is going to take a while. A concussion ruined the second half of Morneau's 2010 season, and then there was last year's laundry list: shoulder, wrist, knee and foot injuries, along with more post-concussion complications. Morneau ultimately had three separate surgeries (knee, foot, wrist) after his season ended. It's amazing that Morneau was able to play in 69 games, not that he was successful in them (.227/.285/.333, just four homers).

"The post-concussion stuff is miles ahead of where it was at this point last year," Morneau told the St. Paul Pioneer Press a week ago. "It's hard to tell exactly where it's at, as I have not started baseball activities. I will know more when I start swinging and playing catch. I am better in my day to day life, which is a positive sign for me."

I'll be rooting for Morneau's comeback - he's a good old Canadian boy, after all - but I won't be investing with my rotisserie dollars. We can't be sure the concussion problems are gone for good, and he's in one of the worst parks for his skill set. And it's not like his ADP is an absolute throwaway: he's at 174 through the first few mocks, which is more than I want to pay for someone that's facing this much downside.

What about another injury-prone lefty, Francisco Liriano?

Liriano's 2011 campaign turned into Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. He had a nagging shoulder problem in March and was absolutely crushed in April (9.13 ERA. 1.90 WHIP, four HR, 18 walks in 23.2 innings). Then he threw a bizarre no-hitter at Chicago in May, dodging six walks and numerous jams; it was a good lesson in outcome bias. He pitched reasonable well for the rest of the first half before physical problems and control issues derailed him in the second half (5.15/1.68, 30 BB in 50.2 IP).

There's still an upside here, of course. Liriano had a reasonable strikeout rate last year (7.5/9) despite a notable dip in velocity, and his ground-ball rate (48.3 percent for his career) bodes well for future success. But can he stay in one piece for a full season, or heck, even 30 starts? He's only topped the 140-inning mark once in his career. Give him a long look in spring training.

Anything else going on in the Twin Cities?

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Bombo Rivera (1978 Topps)

Ryan Doumit came on board with an affordable deal (one year, $3 million); he'll probably DH most of the time. There's a decent stick here, but as a lefty slugger he has to beat the park, of course. Perhaps he'll settle into one of those glorious faux-catchers, someone with backstop eligibility without the burden of the position. … Jamey Carroll is the new shortstop, and while he might not have the fantasy chops to help us directly (there's not much power or speed to him and he turns 38 next month), Carroll should hit for a solid average, get on base regularly, and play decently in the field. Minnesota's infield defense was a joke for most of 2011, which might have psyched out some of the pitchers. … Denard Span is another Minnesotan coming off concussion problems. His batting efficiency has been stable for two seasons, but he didn't run much in 2011 (just six bags). … If you're willing to take on a specialist for your steals chase, a rabbit who won't do much else for you, consider left-fielder Ben Revere (34 steals in 117 games, but no homers and a .309 slugging). … With Nathan departing to Texas, Matt Capps gets the ninth inning back. Capps wasn't missing anyone's bat last year, but so long as his control remains strong he can handle the demands of a modern-closing gig. Look for him to be in trade talks if the Twins aren't contenders when July rolls around. … Perhaps Jason Marquis is a late-round flier for those in AL-only pools. He's heading to the junior circuit on a one-year deal, and while there isn't much strikeout potential here, he can generate ground balls and take advantage of the home park. … If love is all around, why can't we be somewhat frivolous with it?

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