In case you missed Part 1 of Border Rivals’ 2012 AL Central Preview, you can find it here. Without further adieu (seriously, who likes adieu), lets get it on.
The focus of Part 2 is on the other half of the Border Rivals rivalry. That is right, fresh off 99 losses, bi-lateral leg weakness, and concussion-like symptoms, ladies and gentlemen, your 2012 Minnesota Twins.
To say 2011 was a difficult season for Twins fans is like suggesting the recent Tibetan hunger strike was a couple monks dieting for a cause. Twins fans experienced the following (in no particular order): more than uni-lateral leg weakness (Mauer), a Hall of Fame milestone (Liriano’s no-hitter), a milestone for a Hall of Famer (Thome’s 600th HR), concussion-like symptoms (Morneau), additional concussion-like symptoms (Spansy), elbow pain (Baker), twisted ankle (Kubel), the departure of a Hall of Famer/fan favorite (Thome again), an appointment with Dr. James Andrews (Kyle Gibson), and a litany of other maladies and strange happenstances (remember, it hailed during a game in May), that made 2011 both memorable and oh-so-forgettable.
The success of this season hinges almost entirely on three things: Mauer and Morneau’s return to their MVP form, the health of the starting rotation, and the squad’s ability to play “Twins” baseball — defense, advancing the runner, and making the routine play.
Mauer and Morneau are both coming off their worst seasons as professionals. It was so bad that, on more than one occasion, both guys were hearing boo birds for the first time in their careers. Particularly for the Baby Jesus, the idea that THE hometown boy would get jeered by the hometown fans, is nigh on unthinkable.
This spring, the M&M boys have shown glimpses of their old form. Mauer is making solid contact, even if he is not hitting HRs, and Morneau is pulling the ball with authority to right field. Ultimately, the key to both men having successful seasons might be the same: managing their playing time. That burden falls on Manager Ron Gardenhire. It is not an enviable task, convincing superstar players to assume a reduced role. But, putting them on a platoon (Morneau with more time at DH and Mauer at 1B) will likely decide whether they return to their All-Star forms. If they play at that level, the Twins will feature a fairly solid line-up that will put runs on the board.
In terms of the starting rotation, Moonshot Scott Baker is already injured. He will start the year on the disable list. That is exactly what the Twins did not need. With Brian Duensing moving to the bullpen, an injury to the starting rotation means either Duensing gets stretched out, or, a call-up will have to occur. That being said, if this is the only set back the rotation experiences this season, that would be a win.
Fransisco Liriano has pitched well this spring, though, he has gotten hopes up before. If he even returns to even 75% of his 2006 form, the Twins staff will sneak up on some people. The stuff is there. It is the execution that has been the problem. The Twins also need steady performances from Nick Blackburn and veteran Carl Pavano, though, if betting were legal, those steady performances are more likely than Baker being healthy and Liriano being The Franchise again.
As for the last key, defense and fundamental play, local football coach/legend, John Gagliardi, adapted a famous phrase from American businessman, Jim Rohn, and made it the Johnnie way: “Success is making the ordinary plays, extraordinarily well.” The Twins need to make sure that, defensively, they emulate that mantra. Free agent signing, Jamey Carroll, while not the sexy free agent acquisition that teams with a new stadium should be locking up, could be the engine that drives that “ordinary” approach. Carroll plays solid defense at both middle infield positions. That will be a nice change from last season.
Carroll also handles the bat well and could be a very effective #2 hitter in this line-up. The blockbuster signing of Josh Willingham gets the pulse racing to about the same degree as Carroll. Though, he has hit in spacious ball parks before. And, even more importantly than his hitting, he is a veteran that could help fill the void left by the departure of Mr. Glue Guy, Michael Cuddyer. That void might be the most important intangible to this season’s success and Cuddyer’s departure cannot be overstated. The Twins are really going to miss him this year.
Baseball, like no other sport, requires that the locker-room have a cohesiveness to it. Unless someone steps up to lead this squad, give them an identity, and bring them together, it could be another long summer for those at Target Field hoping to see something resembling a baseball game. Here’s hoping, for the sake of the rivalry series (so sue us, we are a little selfish), that someone assumes the mantle of Mr. Glue Guy.
Prediction: 78 wins. 3rd in the AL Central