Sunday, February 3, 2008

Minnesota Twins: Post Santana Era

While the Mets are now lavishing their talented new pitcher, Twins fans are left wondering "what now?" Well, many of the Twins vacancies have been filled at this point and now it is just time to put the puzzle pieces together. As a result of the Mets trade, the Twins now have a young outfielder in Carlos Gomez capable of stepping into both their leadoff hitting role and centerfield position. In addition, while the Twins don't have a distinguishable number one pitcher, the Twins added pitchers Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber in the Santana trade who are both capable of being in the rotation this year, as well as around five Twins that could be part of the rotation also.

Gomez becomes for the Twins the kind of player at the top of the lineup that they hoped former first round pick Denard Span would develop into. However, Span hasn't yet shown he can handle Triple-A, let alone the majors. Gomez is younger and has better overall tools than Span, in addition to a solid minor league career behind him. Gomez has been rumored to have better overall speed than former teammate Jose Reyes, and he is also still developing his power. All of this indicates that the Twins will be opening the season with Gomez at CF, barring a terrible showing in Spring Training.

The biggest question for the Twins lays in the five pitchers who will end up in the starting rotation to begin the season. The Twins have numerous options: Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, and Glen Perkins all pitched for the Twins last season; Francisco Liriano was an All-Star in 2006 but injured for the 2007 season; Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Humber and Mulvey, all of whom spent the majority of the season in the minors last season; and Zach Day and Randy Keisler, two players with major-league experience who are spring training invites. At this point, it seems as those with the most experience with the Twins are guaranteed spots. This means that Baker, Bonser, and Slowey will undoubtedly be in the rotation. In addition, the Twins will evaluate who most deserves a spot and who will benefit most from a spot in the rotation. Obviously Liriano factors into the Twins long term plans in terms of a rotation spot; however, the Twins would be fools to rush Liriano along and risk further injury. Granted, Liriano is a future ace for the team and could be ready by Opening Day, but knowing how conservative the Twins generally are, Liriano will be in the bullpen to start the season. This leaves two rotation spots for the rest to battle over. At this point, without spring training to gauge progress, it is difficult to predict which players will occupy those final two spots. Based upon previous performance, it makes the most sense for the Twins to begin the season with Blackburn as their fourth starter, and Humber as the fifth starter. Humber started one game for the Mets last season, but at 25 years old needs to be given an opportunity in the bigs.

Many Twins fans remember Bonser, Baker, and Slowey from their starts for the Twins last season. Bonser and Baker performed relatively well, but Twins fans will remember Slowey for struggling at the major-league level. It is true that Slowey performed rather terribly in the majors, yet Slowey performed so well at Triple-A last season that he was named International League Pitcher of the Year. In addition, Slowey had a 2.89 ERA with 19 K's and no walks in his last three starts of the season last year, indicating that Slowey is ready to start for the Twins in '08. Blackburn, who earned a September callup with the Twins last season, is rated as the Twins top prospect for 2008 by Baseball America. Blackburn's story is similar to Slowey's, in that Blackburn had a spectacular Triple-A season last year (7-3, 2.11 ERA, 57 K's), but struggled in his limited time with the team. In addition, Blackburn simply dominated the Arizona Fall League this past October, going 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA and 20 K's. Blackburn has certainly earned a spot in the rotation, and more than likely the Twins will give him that spot. Humber, on the other hand, most likely gets his spot in the rotation by default. Humber has the right combination of potential and experience that none of the other players have, which grants him the final spot in the rotation. However, when Liriano is ready to enter the rotation, Humber will be the odd man out, and most likely will spend a bulk of the season making spot starts and being a long reliever.

From this analysis, the Twins starting lineup to start the season should be:
#1 - Scott Baker RHP
#2 - Boof Bonser RHP
#3 - Kevin Slowey RHP
#4 - Nick Blackburn RHP
#5 - Phil Humber RHP

If there is one glaringly obvious problem in this rotation, it is that every pitcher is a righty. While this is the best rotation that the Twins can put on the field (until lefty Liriano is better), they may actually throw lefty Glen Perkins into the rotation to start the season in order to throw a different look at teams. This is the only way in which I can envision Perkins making the Twins rotation. If the Twins are determined to start Liriano to begin the season, then Liriano moves to the top spot in the rotation, and everyone else moves down, with Humber dropping out.

Despite the fact that the Twins are a rebuilding team on the pitching side, the Twins are set to put their best hitting lineup on the field in years. After offseason acquisitions of a slugging left fielder, power hitting 3B, a slick fielding shortstop, strong hitting second baseman and the aforementioned Gomez, the Twins have an extremely strong lineup to begin the season, with no unknowns unlike previous years. The Twins lineup projects as-

Carlos Gomez, CF, R
Joe Mauer, C, L
Delmon Young, LF, R
Justin Morneau, 1B, L
Michael Cuddyer, RF, R
Mike Lamb, 3B, L
Jason Kubel, DH, L
Brendan Harris, 2B, R
Adam Everett, SS, R

While Gomez is still unpolished at the top of the lineup, he has pure speed, and has shown flashes of the top hitter he could be. From Gomez, though, the rest of the lineup is extremely solid until you get to the nine spot, where Adam Everett hits. Mauer moves into the 2-slot, where he can move Gomez over in addition to get on base for Young or Morneau to hit in. This lineup allows Young to hit in Mauer's 2007 spot, where he will generate more power, in addition to having Mauer on base in front of him most of the time. In addition, Morneau slides up into a more apt role for him, the cleanup spot. The past two seasons, Morneau has had the bulk of his at-bats in the 5-spot, robbing him of RBI opportunities. This small change in the lineup could help in Morneau deliver the best season of his career (Yes, even better than his 2006 MVP season).

The lineup follows with Cuddyer, Lamb, Kubel, and Harris, all of whom have power potential, something the Twins lacked in the back half of the lineup last season. Kubel showed what he could do over the last two months of the season last year, finally fully recovered from his horrific knee injury of 2004. Kubel hit .364 in August, and .325 in September, while at the same time not earning all the at-bats he should. This season he enters as the full time DH, and is poised to break out in his second full season. The Twins have also added Lamb and Harris, former part-time players who the Twins feel have earned a starting role, and hopefully will take full advantage of their opportunity. The lineup rounds out with Everett in the nine hole, who has always been a no-hit, all field player. The Twins expect more of the same this season, but hope the rest of the lineup can make up for what he lacks at the plate.

While most of this can change during Spring Training, this is the best idea of what is in store for the Twins this upcoming season. It will most likely be a difficult one for the Twins, but hey, at least we have that new stadium on the way!

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