Sunday, April 25, 2010

These Aren't Last Year's Twins

2009 was an exciting year for the Minnesota Twins. 162 games were not enough, as they won the American League Central with a record of 87-76 after defeating the Detroit Tigers in game 163. (fun fact: only one person shown in the picture on the right is currently on the Twins major league roster)

Remember last year when the Twins led all of Major League Baseball with a bating average somewhere near .290 with runners in scoring position? The combination of their batting average with RISP, missing Joe Mauer for the first month and Justin Morneau for the last month of the season, and having generally “shaky” starting pitching seems to show that 2009 Twins may have overachieved just a bit.

That is not the case with this year’s squad. Bill Smith and the gang went into last offseason with one goal in mind, to become a legitimate contender, rather than a stepping-stone for the Yankees, Angels, or Red Sox to yet another World Series title. As the offseason came to a close, most Twins fans were extremely optimistic about the moves that had been made, and how this year’s team would fare.

The 2010 season is now 3 weeks old, and the Twins haven’t disappointed. They own the second best record in all of baseball at 13-6, second only to the Tampa Bay Rays. They have a 3 game lead in the Central division over the Detroit Tigers, who they will be facing for the first time this season on Tuesday.

The Twins are off to one of their best starts in franchise history, having won each of their first 6 series to start this season. They have scored the 4th most runs in all of baseball at an average of 5.32 per game, and have the second best run differential in all of baseball at +31 overall. But what is crazy about all of this is the fact that the Twins have hit poorly with runners in scoring position, and have been downright awful with the bases loaded.

The Twins have hit .262 so far this season with RISP, and they are an abysmal 4 for 26 (.154) with the bases loaded. What does this mean? It means that the 2010 Twins with the second best record in baseball are actually underachieving!

Can you imagine what this season may look like 3 weeks in if the Twins were hitting anywhere close to their mark of last season with RISP, or if they were able to produce with the bases loaded? One thing is for sure; the Twins would be 14-5 rather than 13-6, because the they had the bases loaded twice today in the final game of the series at Kauffman Stadium and were unable to do anything, eventually falling 4-3 to the Royals.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not searching for things that are wrong with this team, nor am I a fatalist who believes the Twins record to be empty and that it is only a matter of time before they come crashing back down to earth. This Twins team is very, very good. They possess the second best record in baseball in spite of their lack of timely hitting because they have played outstanding defense (only 1 error this season), they have pitched very well, and their offense has scored a ton of runs.

I think that Bill Smith should be proud of his offseason work, because I, along with many Twins fans can see that he accomplished what he set out to do. This team is a legitimate contender, and is ready to make a run at the franchise’s 4th World Series title (Twins 3rd). All I have to say is that the rest of the league had better look out, because when the Twins begin producing with RISP and the bases loaded, this lineup could be the most potent in all of baseball.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The "Treasure Island" Twins?

When listening to a Twins game on the radio via AM1500, just before the game begins there is a message that comes across saying “you are listening to a Treasure Island broadcast of Twins Baseball.”

Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano have seemed to take that literally for the last couple of nights, appearing as if they are employed by the casino as they were both absolutely DEALING for 8 innings in their respective starts.

Slowey shut down the Indians for 8 innings on Tuesday night, finishing his 98 pitch outing having only given up one run on 5 hits, striking out 9 while walking none. Slowey essentially made only one mistake; a second inning first pitch fastball that Travis Hafner tagged to right for what would eventually be the Indians’ only run of the night. What impressed me most about Slowey's outing was that he threw 70 of his 98 pitches for strikes, regaining the “Greg Maddux like” control (as Bert Blyleven put it) that he has been known for.

Liriano followed up his superb outing against the Boston Red Sox with another gem Wednesday night against the Indians. Liriano needed only 4 more pitches than Slowey to finish his 8 innings, also throwing 70 of his 102 pitches for strikes. This is a very promising sign for Liriano who struggled mightily with his control last season. He finished the night having given up no runs on 6 hits, striking out 6 while walking 2.

The Twins were actually outhit by the Indians 7 to 6 Wednesday night, but unlike the past week, tonight's hits came with runners in scoring position. Brendan Harris drove in the first run in the second inning on a 2 out single to center, followed up shortly by a 2-run single to center by Denard Span. Michael Cuddyer accounted for the rest of the Twins’ runs, homering to right in the 6th, and driving in Mauer and Morneau with a triple in the 8th.

It is officially time to cease speculation regarding whether or not Francisco Liriano is for real. Liriano’s numbers combined through Dominican winter league performance, his dominant spring training, and now his first three outings of the 2010 season look like this: 98.1 innings, 1.19 ERA, 114-21 strikeout to walk ratio. I realize that the winter league and spring training are not the same level of competition that Liriano will face throughout an MLB regular season, but those numbers lead me to the conclusion that Liriano is as close to his 2006 form as the Twins could hope.

Also with tonight’s win, the Twins have won their 5th consecutive series to begin the season. The only other team in baseball with the possibility of doing that is the Yankees who could do so with a win either tonight or tomorrow against the Athletics.

This Twins team is for real. If they continue to receive starting pitching like they have thus far, and this lineup hits like it should, the American League should watch out!

Random Vikings Update:

  • The Vikings signed free agent cornerback Lito Sheppard to a one-year $2MM deal tonight. With the NFL draft beginning tomorrow night, it appears that the Vikings will no longer be looking to draft a CB with the 30th overall pick, as was expected up until now. This signing also increases speculation that the Vikings will possibly select a quarterback with their pick, more specifically Tim Tebow, whom they have been said to have “serious interest” in over the past couple of weeks. Personally, I like Tebow, and I would like to see the Vikings select him at 30, but I still believe if there is a solid safety available at #30, we will more than likely go that direction.

Please feel free to comment or e-mail me with any feedback or suggestions, but in terms of topics and anything related to the blog. I appreciate receiving feedback and accept it openly. If you enjoy reading, tell your friends!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Twins Off to a Fast Start

“Orlando Hudson smacked a high fastball into the left field bleachers to lead off the bottom of the seventh on Saturday.


That’s when Usain Bolted. Hudson took one step, calculated trajectory and ball speed, tossed his bat, put his head down and sprinted like a man who is late for the bus and lacks cab fare.”

This quote from Jim Souhan, found in today’s Sports Sunday section of the Star Tribune not only describes O-Dawg’s reaction to what would eventually be a game winning homerun in yesterday’s win over the Royals. It also fittingly describes the beginning to the Twins 2010 season.

The Twins began the much anticipated 2010 season with a bang, winning 3 out of 4 in Anaheim against an Angels team that they have struggled against for what seems like forever (39-55 in the last 10 years, including 17-28 at Angel Stadium). They haven’t slowed down since.

The Twins are currently leading the league with a record of 9-3 and with a win yesterday, officially won their 4th consecutive series to begin the season. This marks something the Twins have never done in the 50 years they have been in Minnesota, a feat not even accomplished the '87 and '91 seasons when they won their World Series titles.

This also puts the Twins in some very elite company across the league. The only other team in baseball who has already won their first 4 series of the season is the Yankees, last year’s World Series champions, marking the first time they have done so since Gehrig and Ruth donned the middle of the Yankee batting order in 1926. In case you were wondering, the Yankees went on to lose 4 games to 3 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1926 World Series, one year before going 110-44 and being regarded as quite possibly the greatest baseball team of all-time.

The Cardinals, Phillies & Giants could also become winners of their first 4 series with wins today.

The Twins have not only gotten off to a great start, but have been extremely entertaining to watch. Clearly the “giddy” feeling associated with the opening of a new ballpark has yet to wear off, and playing well should keep that spirit alive.

The new additions to this year’s team are starting to get into the act with Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson both homering in yesterday’s ballgame. For Thome, his towering blast into the pine trees beyond the center field wall was his second of the year, and Hudson’s shot off of the second deck facing in left was his first. JJ Hardy has also been a solid contributor offensively thus far, while also playing flawless defense.

Pair that with solid pitching and the offensive contributions from the rest of the lineup, and this Twins team looks like everything I expected them to be throughout my offseason optimism.

In addition to my optimism moving forward, I have couple of observations after watching the first 5 full games at Target Field:

  • We have not yet seen how Target Field will play on a day-to-day basis. The wind has seemingly been different during almost every game thus far, sometimes even changing as the game progresses. It has seemed that during day games, the wind has been coming in from right and blowing out to left. Even with this wind, people were beginning to talk as if Target Field was going to be a pitchers park, until yesterday when the ball was flying out of the yard like crazy. My thoughts are that it will be fairly neutral as the season progresses, although I believe more homeruns will be hit on humid days when the temperature is a bit higher.
  • Day games that begin a bit later in the afternoon or night games that begin a bit early may pose a bit of a problem for outfielders in the later innings as the sun goes down. This was something I noticed on opening day from about the 6th or 7th inning on as the sun came through gaps between the second and third levels and just barely peeked over the canopy between home plate and first base. This was later confirmed by comments from Mike Cameron, Kevin Youkilis and Denard Span. This shouldn’t pose much of a problem throughout the season as the Twins are only scheduled to play 6 games beginning at 3:10 and 4 beginning at 6:10.

My apologies for the length of time between this post and my last post, I had every intention of posting something around Thursday, but became a bit busy and it got pushed back until now. I will resume my former pace and hopefully post more in the coming weeks.

Please feel free to comment or e-mail me with any feedback or suggestions, but in terms of topics and anything related to the blog. I appreciate receiving feedback and accept it openly. If you enjoy reading, tell your friends!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Opening Day at Target Field

There isn’t a superlative in the English language capable of describing the new home of the Minnesota Twins. Although I had previously visited an empty Target Field a few weeks back during a season ticket holder open house, yesterday’s opening day experience can be summed up in two words… “Awe inspiring.”

The above photo shows only the panoramic view of Target Field reflecting off of the lenses of my sunglasses, and if you were able to scroll down you would more than likely find my mouth hanging wide open.

My girlfriend, Jenny, and I arrived at the ballpark around 1:45 following a 10-block walk through the skyway from the University of St. Thomas. This walk, due to my excitement and impatience, seemed like it took about an hour. As we moved through Target Center and Target Field slowly came into sight, I could feel my heart start beating faster, and before I knew it I was 6 steps ahead of Jenny and had to be reeled back in.

The amount of people on the Plaza was astounding. There were people huddling around the newly unveiled statue of Kirby Puckett rounding second base following his walk-off homerun during game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Many others were anxiously waiting for their chance to climb up into the pocket of the giant golden glove to have their picture taken.

I was on a direct line toward the Tradition Wall, only to be stopped once along the way to grab a bag of kettle corn (a must for every Twins game as this is the snack of choice for my usual game partner). Back in June, I suggested that it might be a good gift idea for Father’s Day to purchase a spot on the tradition wall. As I walked up to panel 5 of the wall titled “History,” we quickly found my father’s spot on the wall, “Kevin Beck & Family.”

It seemed only fitting to enter the stadium in right field through gate 34, as Kirby Puckett was my boyhood idol (not to mention I was wearing his jersey). We were immediately greeted with some wonderful SWAG (stuff we all get), including an opening day homer hanky and certificate commemorating our attendance at the first regular season game at Target Field. Had we arrived earlier we would have also received a free hat.

After a two minutes of random stopping and staring at various aspects of the masterpiece that is this ballpark, we decided to head to our seats in section 122 as the pregame festivities were about to begin.

Upon taking our seats under the overhang of the legends club, we were wondering why nobody had mentioned that we would be sitting in the designated “alcohol section," which could be described as the exact opposite of the family section which used to reside in the upper right field corner of the Metrodome. Obviously Target Field does not include designated “alcohol sections,” however, nearly every person surrounding us was absolutely bombed. At one point during the 5th inning, a guy who appeared to be in his late twenties passed out in his seat, still holding what seemed to be his 12th beer, began drooling all over himself, and woke up surrounded by 2 security guards and a Twins official who quickly handed him a small leaflet containing the “Twins Code of Conduct.”

As the pregame ceremonies rolled along, the emotions began to take over. It was awesome to see everybody from Shannon Stewart to Jack Morris raising flags in left field, a Minnesota born purple-heart recipient raising the flag on the original Metropolitan Stadium flag pole in right field, and the sheer magnitude of the American flag coupled with an F-16 fly-over and a superb rendition of the national anthem was enough to bring tears to your eyes.

But what really got me were two specific events; when Kirby Puckett Jr. was introduced, and when the historic Twins video was played on the screen before introducing the batting orders. Jenny, who was touching my arm at the time, held it up and called out the fact that she could not only feel but also see the goosebumps on my forearm.

These goosebumps only continued as the Twins took the field to the sounds of the “We’re Gonna Win Twins,” transitioning into the Black Eyed Peas anthem “I Gotta Feeling.” As Pavano readied to throw the first ever regular season pitch at Target Field, the crowd of 39,504 got progressively louder, and Pavano proceeded to throw a ball… eventually giving up a single to Marco Scutaro.

That buzz kill didn’t last long as Pavano quickly picked off Scutaro before surrendering a double to Pedroia and eventually getting out of the first inning unscathed. The Twins didn’t waste time making “firsts” history as Denard Span drew the first walk and later scored the first run with Michael Cuddyer recording the first RBI. The “firsts” continued as Span later stole the first base at Target Field, Jason Kubel delivered the first homerun, Jon Rauch recorded the first save and Pavano was credited with the first win, his second of the year.

As we made our way toward the exits, I couldn’t help but notice just how fast we were able to not only get to the concourse from our seats, but also once we were in the concourse, how fast we were able to get to the exit. Not once did we come to any sort of a “bottleneck” where foot traffic was at a standstill. This is due mostly in part to the wider concourses (and probably to the fact that many people were hanging around their seats a bit longer to soak in just a few more seconds of Target Field).

As we exited through Target Plaza, the sounds reminiscent of the Metrodome were the same, there were a couple of guys banging on metal and plastic 5-gallon buckets, and the occasional man playing the same riff on an acoustic guitar over and over, but the feeling was totally different. This time I wasn’t walking away thinking, “how much longer do I have to get literally blown out of the doors of the Metrodome and wish that the next time I attended a game we would be outdoors?” I now could turn around, look at the amazing view into Target Field and know that for more than likely the rest of my life, I will be attending Twins games at this amazing ballpark. I absolutely can’t wait to go back!

Please feel free to comment not only with thoughts on this post, but also with recommendations for future posts. I love hearing feedback! Thanks for reading!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Reflecting on the Opening Series

Have I mentioned that I love this time of year?

The Twins opened up the 2010 season on Monday night at 9:05 in Anaheim, facing an Angels team that looks a bit different than it did last season. After seeing John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero, Darren Oliver and Gary Matthews Jr. depart via free agency, the Angels signed Hideki Matsui, the 2009 World Series MVP, to make up for the losses of Figgins and Guerrero. They also acquired Joel Pinero and Fernando Rodney to fill the pitching staff voids left by Lackey and Oliver.

There were 2 things I knew for sure going into this series with the Angels; I would not be sleeping much throughout the week, and many Twins fans would make unnecessary assumptions based on the small sample sizes of the season’s first few games.

Both of my assumptions were correct, as I have averaged a mere 6.5 hours of sleep every night since Monday, and following the Twins’ loss Monday night, the phone lines of local sports radio stations and comment sections of blogs were filled with endless negativity making it seem as if the sky were falling.

Denard Span went 0-5 with 3 strikeouts on Monday night, while Carlos Gomez was 4-5 with a double and a homerun in his debut with the Brewers. You would have thought that Gomez was Josh Gibson in the eyes of fatalistic Twins fans. What is it about opening day that makes people believe it is some sort of barometer to how the season will play out? Fun fact: the Twins won division titles in 2006 and 2009 after losing on opening day, so fear not, it is possible to have a successful season in spite of losing the first of 162 games.

I realize that I am losing all credibility for any inferences I might make from the opening series by ripping on people who get worked up over a single game, because let’s face it, the 4 games that make up the opening series are still a small sample size. There still is something that I feel I can comfortably say in regards to this new and improved Minnesota ball club, “these aren’t your daddy’s Twins.”

Gone are the days of the Twins playing the role of the “little engine that could,” both in terms of the size of their payroll and their style of play. No longer will the Twins be forced to scrape and claw for every single run they score through a constant barrage of stolen bases, sacrifice bunts and general “small ball.” This current Twins roster can absolutely mash!

The Twins hit 9 homeruns during the past 4 games, Joe Mauer, Jim Thome and Brendan Harris got into the action, with Justin Morneau, JJ Hardy and Delmon young each hitting a pair. I am not claiming that this year’s team will hit 365 homeruns (which is what they are currently on pace for), eventually shattering the current record of 264 held by the 1997 Seattle Mariners. What I am saying is gone are the days of trotting out an everyday lineup with one guy having the potential to break the 20 homerun barrier (i.e. Morneau was our only 20+ homerun guy in 2008).

This year’s lineup has 7 players with 20+ homerun power (Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, Thome, Young & Hardy), and 5 of those players have legitimate 30+ homerun power (Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel & Thome). I am not saying that we should expect to have 5 guys with 30 homeruns come season’s end. I don’t believe that Thome will have enough at bats to reach that mark, and I also don’t expect every one of the other four to put up those kind of power numbers all at once.

Pavano had an excellent outing Wednesday evening, giving up only 1 run over 7 innings, while striking out 6 and walking nobody. As I said on the Henry Lake show this past Saturday (as a caller, not as somebody who was being interviewed as a guest), when you look at Pavano’s FIP (4.00) and BABIP (.335) from last season, it becomes clear that his overall numbers were much worse than they should have been. I fully expect his ERA to come down much closer to his FIB of 4.00 than it was last season, and to be much less “unlucky” with his BABIP moving toward the league average of 3.03. Overall, I expect Pavano to have a nice season, surprising many fans with more wins and better numbers.

This Twins team has shown a bit of what they can do this year offensively in just the first 4 games. Also, with the exception of Jose Mijares’ abysmal performance Monday night, the bullpen has shown that it should be strong again this year. Pair that with starting pitching performances that hopefully resemble Pavano’s first start rather than Baker’s, and as I have said before, I believe the Twins to be not only the AL Central champions, but a legitimate World Series contender in 2010.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Opening Day!

I woke up this morning to the sweet sound of John Fogerty singing of beating drums and holding phones all because the sun was out (yes I set my ihome so that I would wake up to that song). With a smile on my face I went toward the window and pulled back the drapes to see if that was indeed the case for me.

Even though the opening day matchup between the Twins and Angels was going to be played 1931 miles away, for some reason the fact that it was sunny outside of my window made me a bit happier.

This day could easily be considered a holiday for me, and quite frankly, even if it were, it wouldn't have been much different because I basically treated it like one. I had trouble focusing, I was antsy, I had an anxious excitement in my stomach throughout the day, it was as if I were an impatient young teenager on the last day of school. All of this for opening day.

Yes I know there will be another 161 games after tonight, and that this game has no additional significance over another aside from the fact that it is the first one. There is just something about opening day that gets me amped up for summer and the baseball season to come.

As I sit here in the 6th inning, with the Twins trailing 4-3 I have a few random baseball and general sports musings:

  • Mark Buehrle pitched extremely well today in the White Sox victory over the Indians 6-0. Buehrle went 7 innings giving up 3 hits with 1 walk and 3 strikeouts. He also turned in one of the best defensive plays I have ever seen by a pitcher.
  • I went into my fantasy auction draft last week hoping to pick up Jason Heyward for cheap after learning he would begin the season as the Braves starting right fielder. I was successful as I picked up Heyward for a mere $5. I am almost willing to say that the joy I received from seeing what he did in the Braves home opener today. Not only did he homer in his first major league at bat, he also had a pretty good overall day at the dish in the braves 16-5 rout of the Cubs.
  • Albert Pujols is good.
  • I am really glad that the Twins front office doesn’t make decisions based on what fans want. Because if they did, we would have Jason Frasor as our closer right now, and he had a rough day, pitching only 1/3 of an inning, giving up 2 runs and blowing a save.
  • The Duke Blue Devils are national champions, despite Butler giving them everything they could handle, including a half-court shot from Gordon Hayward at the buzzer that was ridiculously close to going in. Had that shot gone in, Butler would have been crowned national champions, and that shot would have immediately become one of the top 3 shots in NCAA tournament history, right up there with Laettner’s in 1992 and Lorenzo Charles’ in 1983.
  • With 161.5 games to go in the Twins season, my “Twins Most Improved Player” pick has started off on the right foot. Delmon Young homered in his first at bat of the season, and then showed off the blazing speed of his now “35 pounds lighter” frame, first by beating out an infield single and then stealing a base later that inning. I seem to recall another Twin homering in his first at-bat of the season last year, and that worked out pretty well…
  • I was extremely pleased to see the 5th inning sequence in which Young hit in an infield single, stole second, JJ Hardy hit a 3-2 pitch to the right side with a clearly intentional inside-out swing, and Nick Punto drove in young with a sacrifice fly. It was very good fundamental baseball, and shows that although we may have “beefed up” our lineup, we still are very good at creating runs, as the Twins have always shown.
  • If you would have told me that Delmon Young would hit a homerun in his first plate appearance of the season, and that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau’s first hits of the year would come on infield singles, I may have laughed at you.

Check back throughout the week for new posts, including an upcoming post giving an economic analysis of Joe Mauer’s contract. I am always looking for ideas to improve the blog, including new poll ideas, writing topics you would like to see, or general suggestions. Feel free to e-mail me or comment with any ideas.

Friday, April 2, 2010

"Prediction Day" & Thoughts

Twins-Specific Predictions
• Twins MVP: Joe Mauer
• Twins Top Pitcher: Kevin Slowey
• Twins Best Rookie: Anthony Slama
• Twins Most Improved Player: Delmon Young
• Bold Predictions (there is a reason these are BOLD predictions)
o Kevin Slowey will win 20 games
o Pat Neshek will save the most games of any current Twins reliever
o Delmon Young will hit 25 homeruns this season
o The Twins will win the regular season series vs. both the Yankees and Red Sox
• A.L. Central Prediction (Standings):
1. Minnesota Twins (92-70)
2. Chicago White Sox (84-78)
3. Detroit Tigers (82-80)
4. Cleveland Indians (72-90)
5. Kansas City Royals (70-92
• Three Keys to Success for the Twins:
1. Health: The Twins have struggled in years past with staying healthy (Michael Cuddyer in 2008, Justin Morneau & Kevin Slowey in 2009, the list could go on and on). If this lineup stays healthy, it will score a ton of runs.
2. Starting Pitching: Somebody needs to emerge as a leader/ace of this staff. They need to break the constant barrage of chatter around how the staff is comprised of number 3 & 4 starters. It could be Liriano finally regaining some of his 2006 form, it could be Scott Baker continuing to improve as he has each of the last 4 years, it could be Kevin Slowey bouncing back from a season ending wrist injuring last year (see “Bold Predictions”). The Twins will score plenty of runs, we just need to make sure we don’t have a team ERA of 6.00
3. Closer Situation: The “closer by committee” approach that Ron Gardenhire will be using to begin the 2010 season cannot go on for the entire season, especially if the Twins see themselves making a deep playoff run. Somebody from the current bullpen needs to emerge as the closer, or the Twins will have to sign (possibly John Smoltz) or trade for somebody prior to July 31st.

Rest of the League Predictions
• A.L. MVP: Joe Mauer
• N.L. MVP: Albert Pujols
• A.L. Cy Young: Zack Greinke
• N.L. Cy Young: Tim Lincecum
• A.L. Rookie of the Year: Brian Matusz
• N.L. Rookie of the Year: Jason Heyward
• A.L. Breakout Player of the Year: Max Scherzer
• N.L. Breakout Player of the Year: Jay Bruce
• A.L. Comeback Player of the Year: Josh Hamilton
• N.L. Comeback Player of the Year: Russell Martin
• A.L. Playoff Predictions:
o AL East – New York Yankees (100-62)
o AL Central – Minnesota Twins (92-70)
o AL West – Seattle Mariners (94-68)
o AL Wild Card – Boston Red Sox (95-67)
o AL Champion – Minnesota Twins (defeat Red Sox 4-2 in ALCS)
• N.L. Playoff Predictions:
o NL East – Philadelphia Phillies (94-68)
o NL Central – St. Louis Cardinals (92-70)
o NL West – Colorado Rockies (93-69)
o NL Wild Card – San Francisco Giants (90-72)
o NL Champion – Colorado Rockies (defeat Phillies 4-3 in NLCS)
• World Series Prediction:
o Twins vs. Rockies (defeat Rockies 4-2)

With a new contract signed, and the distractions of contract negotiations in the rearview mirror, Joe Mauer can begin 2010 with a clear mind and focus on doing what he does best, being a stud. I fully expect Mauer to put up monster numbers this season, hopefully contributing to more wins out of the gate (rather than missing the first month of the season as he did in 2009). I am not saying that he will replicate the insane season that he had in 2009, but let’s face it, even if he comes close to those numbers, he will not only be the MVP of the Twins, but also of the American League.

Judging by the spring that he has had, Kevin Slowey’s wrist seems to be just fine heading into the season. Albeit a small sample size, Slowey has posted an ERA 0.56 with only 3 BB in 15 innings this spring, dismissing all of the talk that his control may never be the same following wrist surgery.

It is already beginning to happen in the bullpen, Jose Mijares has blurred vision, Clay Condrey has a sore arm, and it is inevitable that injuries will occur as the season progresses. The first guy to get the call may be Anthony Slama. I was actually hoping he would find a way to make the team out of spring training, but it just didn’t make sense that Slama would leapfrog anybody in the current bullpen. Slama gave up 0 runs and struck out 10 in the 6.2 innings he pitched this spring. Pair that with his outstanding minor league numbers over the past 3 seasons, and it is easy to see why I have tagged him as the “closer of the future” for the Minnesota Twins. Here are Slama’s numbers since 2007:

• 2007 A; 1-1, 1.48 ERA, 10 SV, 24.1 IP, 39 K, 0.99 WHIP
• 2008 A+; 4-1, 1.01 ERA, 25 SV, 71 IP, 110 K, 0.94 WHIP
• 2009 AA-AAA; 4-4, 2.67 ERA, 29 SV, 81 IP, 112 K, 1.20 WHIP

He didn’t dominate at the AAA level following his midseason promotion in 2009, but he still managed to strike out 112 in only 81 IP between AA-AAA. I would put an ETA of Slama at some point in June.

Delmon Young was an easy choice for most improved Twin, due to the fact most other players had great years in 2009, and also the fact that Young not only came to camp in the “best shape of his life,” but also that he has had success throughout the spring. I could have chosen Nick Punto or maybe JJ Hardy, the difference there is that Young’s ceiling is much higher than Punto’s, and JJ Hardy has had two all-star caliber seasons already, and had what I would consider to just be a "down year" in 2009.

The bold predictions speak for themselves, and before anybody rips me on these predictions, let me remind you that the definition of bold is “requiring or exhibiting courage and bravery.” Therefore I am not saying that I expect all of these things to happen, I am simply going out on a limb to make these predictions based mostly on a “hunch” or a feeling.

I discussed how I believed the AL Central would shake out in my post, “Examining the Twins Offseason.” I still believe the Twins will win the division, with the White Sox finishing second behind one of the strongest starting rotations in baseball, the Tigers coming in third behind a solid starting rotation as well, and strong contributions from a couple of young talents in Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore. The Indians and Royals are both rebuilding, and I expect them both to finish well below .500, and although I have them pegged to finish last, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kansas City finish 4th in the division, ahead of Cleveland.

Looking at my predictions for the rest of the league, I feel that I should provide at least some sort of reasoning to support my decisions. As I mentioned earlier, if Mauer comes even close to the season he had in 2009, he will not only be the MVP of the Twins but also the American League. Albert Pujols is Albert Pujols... Need I say more? I expect Greinke to have a similar season to what he did last year, possibly with a bit higher ERA but more wins. As I said with Albert Pujols, Tim Lincecum is Tim Lincecum... He is going to strikeout a ton of people, have a low ERA, and win a lot of games for a San Francisco Giants team that has a shot to win the NL West this year.

My AL Rookie of the Year prediction is a bit of a shot in the dark, but I expect Brian Matusz to have a good year on the mound for a Baltimore Orioles team that has to face the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays each 19 times a year. If he has a good year in that division, I expect him to win it. Jason Heyward is a unique talent who was just handed the starting RF job for the Atlanta Braves out of spring training as a 20 year old. That doesn’t just happen... He is a guy with enormous power, and is extremely patient at the plate for any hitter, let alone a 20 year old rookie. He could have some competition if Stephen Strasburg lights the world on fire when he is called up, but I expect Heyward to win it. Hardball Talk recently wrote about the possibilities of what Heyward could do this season.

I remember hearing Max Scherzer being touted in 2007 amongst fantasy baseball experts as the “next Tim Lincecum,” due to his excellent fastball and high strikeout rates in the minors. He wasn’t spectacular when coming up with the Diamondbacks in 2008, and followed that up with an average to below-average season in 2009. I expect with the change of scenery by moving to Detroit this offseason that Scherzer will find some success this year with the Tigers. Jay Bruce is pretty much the same story as Scherzer. Highly touted throughout the minors, but not sensational when called up with the Reds. I expect both Scherzer and Bruce to breakout this season, but to be completely honest this is as much of a shot in the dark as anything.

The comeback player of the year is a little less of a complete gamble, due mainly to the fact that the candidates have had some success in the past, and either experienced a down year or went through injury ridden seasons the year before. Both scenarios apply to my choice in the American League, as Josh Hamilton not only struggled mightily in 2009, but was also limited to 89 games and only 365 plate appearances. Hamilton hit .268/.315/.426 with only 10 HR during his limited time in 2009, after he absolutely set the baseball world on fire during a 2008 season in which he hit .304/.371/.530 with 32 HR and 130 RBI. I expect Hamilton to return to numbers a lot closer to those of 2008 as long as he stays healthy. My pick in the National League, Russell Martin, did not struggle with injuries in 2009, but rather just struggled at the plate. Martin hit .250/.352/.329 with only 7 HR and 53 RBI in 2009. This came after averaging a line of .285/.371/.434 with 10 HR and 74 RBI from 2006-2008. I expect Martin to come back from his current groin injury and return to performing similar to how he performed from 2006-2008.

Finally, I see the playoff picture shaping up to be a World Series matchup between the Twins and Rockies. In the AL I have the Twins defeating the Yankees 3 games to 1 in the ALDS, and the Red Sox 4 games to 2 in the ALCS. In the NL I have the Rockies defeating the Cardinals 3 games to 2 in the NLDS, and the Phillies 4 games to 3 in the NLCS. I then have the Twins going on to win the World Series by defeating the Rockies 4 games to 2.

This idea of a prediction day, similar to “Nick Punto Day” on February 12 was exciting to me. Then once I began writing I realized that for the first time, my preseason baseball predictions would be documented on my blog for all to see, and as a result I will not only be held to them, but also be able to see just how “off” I can be. I am excited to look back at these following the 2010 season, and hopefully I will find most of them to be true (mainly the World Series prediction). Let the games begin!