The first nine years of the Ron Gardenhire Managing Era were glorious ones in Minnesota, an extended honeymoon. The Twins won six AL Central division titles between 2002-2010, with only one losing record (a reasonable 79-83) thrown into the mix. Playoff success was elusive for Gardenhire's Gang - the Twins collected just one playoff series victory in the 2000s - but it's hard to quibble with a team cranking out October appearances on a modest budget. Throw in a snappy new ballpark and the Twins were one of baseball's small-market success stories.
And then, without any warning, the wave broke. Today's Twins are just another team stuck in the doldrums, trying to figure out how to fix things and return to contention.
Minnesota has owned the basement of the AL Central for two years running, and it's hard to see this team making a strong playoff push in 2013. Injuries were the main component to 2011's collapse, while last year's team was sunk mostly by a lack of talent (though a patchwork pitching staff also held the club at bay). There haven't been sweeping changes or upgrades. Even the most optimistic fan from the Twin Cities probably has to concede it's going to take a while to fix the broken foundation.
Crank up your favorite Replacements record and let's try to sort this all out.
Josh Willingham really hit 35 homers and drove in 110 runs? Did someone hack into the MLB stats database?
Nope, those numbers are legit. Willingham's surprising 2011 career year in Oakland (29 homers, 98 RBIs) was surpassed by what he did in his Minnesota debut. The Twins didn't regret letting Michael Cuddyer flee to Colorado on a three-year, $31.5 million deal; they got a better year from Willingham, and at a cheaper price (three years, $21 million). Well played, Terry Ryan.
The biggest Willingham takeaway for fantasy owners relates to the playability of Target Field. Minnesota's outdoor park has been unfairly labeled an offensive graveyard in some circles, but the numbers don't bear that out. From a runs-scored and batting-average perspective, Target Field has played essentially as a neutral park - no adjustment needed.
Power takes a holiday in the Twin Cities, but that tax isn't distributed evenly. The lefty swingers absorb a 26-percent hit to their power numbers at Target Field, but it's just a six-percent loss for the right-handed batters. Willingham, a dead pull hitter, actually did most of his damage at home last year (.293 average, 21 homers, 1.018 OPS). He lost 63 average points and 248 OPS points on the road.
I'm not trying to suggest you should aggressively chase Willingham off his recent power numbers, mind you. We're talking about an outfielder that turns 34 in February, and someone who's been moderately injury-prone throughout his career (last year's 145 games were a career best). Pencil him in for a .255-74-25-82 type of season; if you get him you get him, if you don't you don't. But make sure you grasp the bigger point here - Target Field is a park that has a slight pitcher lean to it, but we're not talking about an offense-suffocating yard. And your right-handed sluggers can survive, even thrive, here.
So what about Trevor Plouffe? He reached the seats a bunch last year, didn't he? Right handed power and all that.
Plouffe was headed for a spot in the Wiggy Hall of Fame after a shockingly-good month of June: .327, 11 homers, 21 RBIs. The numbers sent roto owners scurrying to the waiver wire, and (sadly) it also launched about 750 horrible Internet puns. Plouffe, there it is.
Plouffe posted a solid .302/.343/.476 slash line through 16 July games, but a thumb injury hit in the latter part of the month. You don't mess with the thumb, my friend. He spent three weeks on the shelf, then slumped over the final quarter of the year (.196/.254/.344, five homers in 177 plate appearances). Breakout turns to breakup.
It's convenient for many roto players (and scribes) to simply toss the Plouffe season into the fluke file, but I'm going to have him on my late-sleeper list. We're talking about a former first-round pick (yep, that's pedigree: drink up, collegians) who doesn't turn 27 until the middle of June, and this is another pull-happy righty who likes the home cooking of Minnesota (15 homers in 220 at-bats). Plouffe will carry third base and outfield eligibility in most leagues, and he might see time at other positions during the summer (he's not a good defender, but at least he's versatile). Keep an open mind here.
What's the No. 1 rule of Midwest Traveling?
Never travel far without a little Big Star. Oh, and bring layers of clothing.
They really pay you for stuff like that?
I know, I know. It's a racket, isn't it?
Is there anything encouraging to say about the pitching rotation?
Not much, frankly. Minnesota's 4.77 ERA was second-worst in the AL (a hair in front of the Indians), and that's despite the cushy environment of the AL Central. Scott Diamond was the only pitcher to top 20 starts or six wins (good grief). Scott Baker (elbow reconstruction) missed the entire season. Regretfully, Francisco Liriano (5.31 ERA) was healthy enough to pitch 100 innings.
Baker and Liriano have left the building, but the Twins did make a snappy trade with the Phillies, swapping speedy-but-disposable Ben Revere to Philadelphia for a pair of interesting pitchers (established Vance Worley and prospect Trevor May). Worley would be a No. 4 or No. 5 starter on most contending clubs, but Minnesota will slot him somewhere near the front of the bus. If he's over last year's bone-chips issue, we might have an intriguing sleeper here (what he loses from the NL float is probably offset by the park switch he'll enjoy). May is a right-handed power pitcher who had control problems at Double-A last year. He's still just 23, so there's time to figure things out.
Diamond isn't a bad pitcher, though he's miscast as anyone's ace and has limited 5x5 value due to a paltry strikeout rate (4.68/9). He's from the Mark Buehrle mold: throw strikes, work quickly, don't walk anyone or give anything away. A 53.4 percent rate on ground balls should prevent a disaster campaign, but there's not a lot of upside here. The AL-only players can throw a few bucks here, but you need to shoot for higher upside in the mixed-league world.
What about the bullpen? Can I feel good about closer Glen Perkins?
I'll sign off on Perkins as a decent candidate for saves on a budget. He's ticked his strikeout rate up nicely the last two years, his control improved nicely in 2012, and he went 12-for-13 in the closing chair in the second half of last season (along with a 1.93 ERA and crazy 0.58 WHIP). No one's going to pay for those ratios going forward, obviously, but Perkins has a fair share of job security - and even losing ballclubs can support a useful fantasy closer.
The biggest key for any left-handed stopper is the ability to retire right-handed hitters consistently. Perkins is passable in this area, but keep an eye on this angle. He permitted a .241/.297/.383 slash in the platoon disadvantage last year, but righties also hit seven homers against him. If he winds up losing his job in 2013, it will likely be on the heels of a few gopher balls.
With Revere and Denard Span gone, who steps into the outfield?
Speedy Darin Mastroianni and power prospect Chris Parmelee will probably open the year in center and right field, respectively. They won't be buzzy sleepers in most leagues, but they do have some skills worth filing in the memory bank - maybe we'll consider them as springtime pickups.
Although Mastroianni collected just 163 at-bats during his 77 games with Minnesota last year, he was a terror on the bases (21 steals in 24 attempts). Maybe he can succeed as a poor man's Revere, a rental rabbit. Mastroianni is never going to win a Silver Slugger Award, but pitchers don't knock the bat completely out of his hands, either (.250/.328/.350, three homers). If he doesn't make good, Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks are around.
Parmelee would be a better fit at first base, but obviously he's blocked by Justin Morneau. The Twins will do some wishcasting with Parmelee in right field, but rotoheads are just in it for the offense. He didn't do much with 192 MLB at-bats last year (.229/.290/.380), though the 24-year-old was a monster in Triple-A (17 homers, .338/.457/.645). Bill James projects a .274 average and eight homers for Parmelee over 64 games; prorate that to a starting share and you have a potential sleeper.
Alas, Parmelee will have to find a way to beat the park, given that he's a left-handed slugger. Morneau's career slugging percentage at Target Field is an underwhelming .411, and Joe Mauer has just five hometown homers over 187 games since the new park opened. All the action's on the other side of the mall.