As I sit and stare at the last melting of winter, here on April 2nd, I take pause to review the upcoming roster/season for the 2009 season. I hope to add a few more Twins fans along the way, and encourage you all to write your thoughts as well. Let's have a good pennant run.
Catcher: The Twins start the season with 25 year-old Joe Mauer on the DL. This is a bad thing. Mauer, a lifetime .317 hitter, has a bad back that makes it difficult to run. Last year Mauer played in 146 games, batted .328 with an OBP of .413. He added 85 RBI. But if you recall, in 2007 Mauer was only able to play in 109 games. In that year Mike Redmond contributed by playing in 82 games, with 272 ABs, and hit .284. The 37 year-old is in his 12th year at the majors. In 2008 he only played in 38 games. In fact, he has never played close to a full season in any year with the Twins or Marlins. However, he has batted .300 or better in 6 of those seasons of limited at-bats, and is a lifetime .292 hitter. Twenty-Six year old Jose Morales is the benefactor of the Mauer's absence, and looks to continue a statistical anomaly, a perfect 1.000 batting average. He went 3 for 3 with a double in the 2008 end of season. Morales batted over .300 in both of his last 2 seasons in the AAA minors, so he has a fighting chance.
First Base: 27 year-old Justin Morneau is in his 7th season with the Twins, and is the heart of the offense especially with Mauer out. In his last three seasons Morneau has averaged 29 HRs with 123 RBI. He has a lifetime slugging percentage of .499. He hit 23 HRs and collected 129 RBI last year, but most importantly, played in all 163 games. And Morneau had a .300 batting average. Michael Cuddyer, Brian Buscher, or even Matt Tolbert could fill in for an emergency.
Second Base: 24 year-old Alexei Casilla will be in his 4th professional year in a Twins uniform. He accounted for 385 at-bats in 2008, hitting .281 with 7 steals. It was a learning year for Casilla, and he responded well. In his 5+ years in the minors he averaged 30+ stolen bases, and hopes to give more of that to the Twins in 09. He will need to improve on his lifetime .261 average and the .310 OBP. Brendan Harris will also play some second. The 28 year-old from Tampa Bay is in his 6th season, and his 6th team. A journeyman, played 130 games for the Twins, batting .265 in 434 ABs. Harris hit near .300 in the minor league, and hopes to improve his present lifetime average of .269.
Third Base: Recent acquisition 30 year-old Joe Crede takes over after 9 seasons in Chicago. Joe played in only 97 games in 2008, but hit with power as in 17 HRs with 55 RBI, something the Twins will need in 2009. Joe's achilles heel is injuries, his last "full" season was 2006, when he played in 150 games and hit 30 HRs, 94 RBI, and batted .283. He played in over 130 games for four straight years, so he has been durable in the past. The Twins look to keep both Brian Buscher and Matt Tolbert on the squad. The 27 year-old Buscher, a lefty, is in his 3rd season with the Twins. 2008 saw his biggest contribution, with 218 ABs, a .294 average, and 47 RBI. The 26 year-old switch-hitting Tolbert is in his 2nd season, and can play all infield positions if needed. He had only 113 at-bats last year, but hit .283. He averaged hitting .280 in his minor league career, so it was no real surprise to those in the know.
Shortstop: Switch-hitting Nick Punto is baaack. The Everett experiment a failure, the 31 year-old Punto will go back to regular duty in this his 9th season with the Twins and Phillies. In a reduced role in 08, Punto hit .284 and stole 15 bases in 99 games. In 2007, Nick was asked to play in 150 games and he hit .210. Lifetime Punto is a .252 hitter, so this season should be somewhere in between. In 611 games over his nine year career, Punto has stolen 10+ bases 4 times. He will steal more in a full time role. Brendan Harris could see significant time, as well as Tolbert.
Outfield: The outfield is uncertain, with four players all with reason to start in 2009. The top performer in 2009 was probably 25 year-old Denard Span. Playing mostly right field, Span hit .294 with 18 stolen bases in his 93 games after being called up. He also had a .387 OBP, making him valuable atop the Twins batting order. Span had over 100 steals in the minors, so speed is a given. This will be Span's 3rd year up with the Twins, and could be his biggest. Carlos Gomez is also 23 years old, and enters his 3rd season as well. But Carlos is struggling at the plate far more, and in 08 batted a mere .258 with an OBP a dismal .296. By year's end, he had plummeted to the bottom of the order. His minor league average was .274, so there is hope he will adjust. But his 142 strike-outs of last year could end up spelling his doom as a major leaguer, if he cannot adjust. Delmon Young enters his 4th professional season as a 23 year-old. Young played in 152 games last year, and fans go to see a glimpse of his potential as he batted .290 with 10 HRs and 14 SBs. Young averaged 20 HRs and 25 SBs each of his three years in the minors, so his upside is high. Young's defense is his liability, and his mistakes were very painful through the 2008 season. Gardenhire will not want to play him if he cannot improve quickly. He may end up as the DH often. The x-factor is Michael Cuddyer, who hit only .249 with 3 HRs in 71 games in 08. The 30 year-old in his 9th season entering this year, wants to return to 2006 form, when he hit 24 HRs with 109 RBI, and batted .284. But that was the only year Cuddyer hit 20 or more homers, and he could be the off man out if his bat does not improve. Or it could be Gomez, or Young. Jason Kubel we can say for sure will not get many starts.
Designated Hitter: 26 year-old Jason Kubel enters his 6th season as a pro, and last year he played in 141 games, batted .272, and had 20 HRs with 78 RBI. This was maybe a sign of even better things to come. Kubel had a .320 average in his minor league career. He presently has played in a total of 365 major league games, and this year looks to be his biggest yet. His left-handed power bat will balance Crede, Young, and Cuddyer. Any of the outfielders may also DH this year, along with potentially Mauer.
Starting Pitchers: Unfortunately, original game one starter Scott Baker has been sent to the DL with arm concerns. Baker has struggled in recent spring games and now will miss a few starts. The 27 year-old enters his 5th season with a career 28-24 record in 76 starts and a 4.23 ERA. In 2008 Baker was at his best, 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA. in over 170 innings baker walked only 42 men, a Twins theme in starting pitching. With Baker shelved number one duties fall on 25 year-old Francisco Liriano. Liriano has a season of recovering from the injury that cost him 2007. He managed 14 starts, a 6-4 record with a 3.91 ERA. Lifetime Liriano is 19-9 with a 3.14 and has 244 Ks in 220 innings. Now in his 4th season, Liriano will hope to pitch all season injury free, like 2005 when he logged over 220 innings, albeit mostly in the minors. The up and comer suddenly is Kevin Slowey, a 24 year-old in his 3rd season with the Twins. Slowey has looked great in spring training, and in 2008 was 12-11 with a 3.99 ERA. He had 160 innings in his 27 starts. He did go 10-5 with a 1.89 ERA in 2007 in AAA, so even better things could be hoped for in 2009. In 40 career starts, Slowey has issued only 35 walks. Glen Perkins was the surprise of the mound in 2008, going 12-4 with a late-inflated ERA of 4.41. In 26 starts Perkins pitched 151 innings. The 4th year pro, and ex-Gopher, converted to starter for 08 and the move paid dividends. If he can repeat his last year performance the Twins will be in good position to compete. Nick Blackburn is the biggest question mark of the five starters. In 2008 he was 11-11 with a 4.05 ERA, and a spectacular 39 BBs in over 193 innings. He was called up in 08 because he was 10-4 with a 2.36 ERA and a WHIP of 1.03 in AAA in 2007. Only in his thrid season, this 27 year-old does not have overpowering stuff, but like all Twins starters, has a knack for finding the plate. The 5th spot will probably be filled by R.A. Dickey, a 34 year-old from Seattle via Texas. Last year, his best since 03, he went 5-8 with a 5.21 ERA. The knuckleballer will be hard pressed to better those stats as everyone prays Baker gets better soon. Brian Duensing, a lefthanded 26 year-old rookie may get a start, or possibly recent Rule 5 acquisition from the Yankees, Jason M. Jones. Jones, another 26 year-old, was 13-7 with a 3.33 ERA in AA last year, and pitched even better in 2 starts of AAA.
Relief pitchers; The best thing going for Twins pitching is not all the control starters, but the 34 year-old Joe Nathan entering his 10th pro season, and 6th as closer for the Twins. Last year Nathan had 39 saves and an ERA of 1.33. In his 5 seasons with Minnesota he has 199 saves and an ERA under 2.00 for the last three. He is that good. 27 year-old Jesse Crain is given the set-up role, after an 08 campaign where he pitched in 66 games with an ERA of 3.59. Crain had about 1.3 Ks per inning pitched in the minors, so there is hope for improvement. 26 year-old Phil Humber, who may end up a starter, will make the squad in long relief. His 5th season as a pro, Humber has only 20 innings of major league experience. The last two years in AAA, he was 21-17 with a 4.40 ERA in 275 innings. 28 year-old journeyman Craig A. Breslow will be back in the lefty reliever role. He appeared in 49 games last year and had a respectable ERA of 1.91. The Twins are Breslow's 4th team in this his 5th season. Luis Ayala joins the Twins in 2009 after a 3 year career with Montreal, Washington, and the New York Mets. The 31 year-old was 2-10 in 2008, with a 5.71 ERA. Not good. Lifetime he has accumulated 350 innings and has a 3.44 ERA. Maybe 08 was an off year? Finally, 30 year-old Matt Guerrier is back, hoping to not be so available in 2009. he has pitched in 149 games in the last two seasons, and now entering his 5th season with the Twins, is starting to show the wear associated with overuse. His 5.19 ERA last year was bad. He was 2.35 in 2007, and a lifetime 3.66 ERA. Guerrier will need to improve or be a casualty of minor league depth, much like recently DL'ed Boof Bonser has been.
This year will be a tribute to a bad stadium that brought good results. Goodbye Metrodome. Hello another AL Championship Series.