2013 Opponent Preview: The 2013 Minnesota Twins might be better than last year, but not by much

Yes, Joe, just by a little bit - J. Meric

The Minnesota Twins are just two years removed from their last division title, but seem a lot further away from their next one.

The Minnesota Twins nearly went wire-to-wire last season... in last place, that is. They were five games behind the Tigers and Chicago White Sox by mid-April, and never got any closer the rest of the way. The offense was slightly below average, ranking 10th in the AL in runs scored, seventh in batting average, and 10th in OPS. The pitching? It blew chunks. They made a few offseason moves to shore up the rotation, one of which might actually do so. Simply put, it's going to be a long season in the Twin Cities.

Manager: Ron Gardenhire (12th year)

2012 record: 66-96, 5th in AL Central

SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town

First series vs. Tigers: April 1-4 @ Target Field

Lineup

Center fielder Aaron Hicks hit .286/.384/.460 with 13 home runs and 32 stolen bases for Double-A New Britain last year, but made the Twins' roster with a strong spring. He's on the fringes of most top prospect lists, but should be a solid replacement for the now-departed Denard Span in a year or two. I don't know about throwing a rookie into the leadoff spot right away, but it's not like Ron Gardenhire has many other solid options.

One corner outfield job may still be up in the air, but left fielder Josh Willingham proved to be one of the bargains of 2012 by hitting .260/.366/.524 with 35 home runs and 110 RBI while making just $7 million. Considering that the Tigers paid Delmon Young almost that much money when they could have signed Willingham himself, you'll see why I'm a bit salty.

Chris Parmelee will probably get the majority of playing time in right field after a solid spring, with Darin Mastroianni backing up all three positions. Parmelee hit .229/.290/.380 last season with just five home runs in over 200 plate appearances. He has shown decent gap power and 15+ home run potential in the minors, but his 24.8% strikeout rate from 2012 needs to come down before he improves his other numbers. Mastroianni is probably destined to be a fourth outfielder for the rest of his career now that Hicks has the center field job, but he gets on base frequently and showed decent speed with over career stolen bases in the minor leagues. Catcher Ryan Doumit played a handful of games in the corner outfield spots last season as well.

The Twins might be better in 2013 than they were in 2012, but this roster is still far from competing in the AL Central.

After exclusively playing at shortstop for the Twins in 2012, Brian Dozier won the starting job at second base over Jamey Caroll. Dozier's offensive numbers weren't great, but he only has one minor league season above rookie ball with an OPS above .800. Pedro Florimon, the reason Dozier was moved to second, is an even lighter-hitting middle infielder, but his above average glove will save his team more runs than his bat costs them. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe had a breakout season in 2012, hitting 24 home runs in just 119 games. He was hobbled by a mild calf strain earlier this spring, but should be good to go for Opening Day. Expect Plouffe's .235 batting average to improve -- his BABIP was just .244 last season.

Here's a scary thought: Justin Morneau might finally be back. After a good showing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, Morneau has hit .267/.298/.533 with three home runs in 15 Spring Training games. He played in 134 games last season, but didn't show the same type of power that he had during his heyday in the late 2000s. If he hits 30 home runs and drives in 100 runs, the Twins might challenge for fourth in the division.

In a surprising move, the Twins optioned catcher Drew Butera to the minor leagues, leaving Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit as the only catchers on the roster. Similar to the Tigers' catcher dilemma in the 2011 season, either Mauer or Doumit will likely serve as the designated hitter on days that they aren't behind the plate. This strategy, along with 30 starts at first base, allowed Mauer to play a career-high 147 games in 2012. He's no slouch behind the plate, but Mauer's true value is his presence in the Twins' lineup. The more often he plays, the better. Similarly, Doumit hit a career-high 18 home runs in a career-high 134 games in 2012. Funny how that works.

Rotation

Twins fans might want to avert their eyes in this section. The Twins' pitching staff had the third-highest ERA, 4.77, in baseball last season. Only the Colorado Rockies (duh) and Cleveland Indians were worse. Their 4.66 team FIP was tied for worst with the Toronto Blue Jays. The rotation was even worse, posting a 5.40 ERA and 5.02 FIP, both of which were second-to-last behind the Rockies.

The Twins were able to add Opening Day starter Vance Worley from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Ben Revere, a move that should shore up the rotation (somewhat) down the road. Worley's career home/road splits are promising. He has a career 3.27 ERA away from Citizens Bank Park, though his FIP and xFIP are 3.90 and 3.74, respectively. Still, Worley is just 25 years old and under club control through the 2017 season. Look for his walk rate to decrease in Minnesota's "pitch to contact" driven system.

Left-hander Scott Diamond will begin the season on the disabled list, but was the only decent option in the Twins' rotation in 2012. In 173 innings, he won 12 games with a 3.54 ERA/3.94 FIP/3.93 xFIP. He only walked 1.61 batters per 9 innings, instead forcing hitters to pound the ball into the ground. His success looks sustainable, provided he can stay healthy.

Right-handers Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia won starting jobs largely by default this spring, as both P.J. Walters and World Baseball Classic hero Samuel Deduno were more impressive statistically. While Pelfrey has the allure of being a former first round pick and top-20 prospect, Correia is an innings eater who inexplicably got a multi-year contract offer in December. Still, I'm baffled by both of these moves.

Liam Hendriks pitched well against the Tigers last season, but his overall numbers were ugly. His 5.59 ERA can be partially explained by an elevated home run rate -- his xFIP was just 4.75 -- but his .313 BABIP was largely due to a 24.1% line drive rate. The 24 year old Aussie will likely improve in 2013, especially if he can improve his strikeout rate.

Cole DeVries' final numbers weren't as bad as many of the Twins' other starters in 2012, but they should have been. DeVries was aided by a .258 BABIP, which elevated his FIP to 4.90. Like Hendriks, he also allowed a high line drive rate and didn't miss many bats, striking out fewer than six batters per nine innings.

In the bullpen, former starter Glen Perkins will be the full-time closer after having quite a bit of success down the stretch in the role last year. He has found his stride in the bullpen, striking out 143 batters in 132 innings over the past two years with a combined 2.52 ERA.

Spring Training storylines

One of the biggest stories for the Twins this spring has been the ascension of rookie center fielder Aaron Hicks. After Denard Span and Ben Revere were traded this offseason, the Twins were left with two players who totalled 38 1/3 innings in center field over the course of the entire 2012 season, Darin Mastroianni and Clete Thomas. Enter Hicks, a consensus top-100 prospect who has hit .379/.419/.682 this spring, and the choice was clear. The 23 year old will take his lumps this year -- facing Justin Verlander in his first big league at-bat on Monday probably won't help -- but should be a player for the Twins to build around in the coming years.

Player to watch: Justin Morneau

If he weren't playing for a divisional rival, I would be rooting like hell for Morneau to return to the power-hitting force that he was prior to multiple concussions in 2010 and 2011. Even then, I'd still like to see Morneau do well against everyone except the Tigers. He put up decent numbers in 2012, but his OPS and ISO show that his power wasn't quite back. If he can regain his form, the middle of the Twins' lineup will be pretty formidable. Unfortunately, the rest of it won't be.

Outlook

The Twins might be better in 2013 than they were in 2012, but this roster is still far from competing in the AL Central. The pitching staff was a mess last season and hasn't improved much, while the lineup also leaves a lot to be desired. With the improvements made by the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians, not to mention other teams around the league, the Twins will be a punching bag for most of the season and compete for the worst record in the league.

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