In each of the last two seasons, the American League Central was decided by one run in the 163rd game of the year. I don’t expect things will be quite so close this year. The Twins, who lost 1-0 to the White Sox in a one-game playoff in 2008 then beat the Tigers 6-5 in the 12th inning of Game 163 last year, are the clear class of the division, as much because of the backward steps taken by Chicago and Detroit (the Yankees’ just-completed series loss to the Tigers notwithstanding), as because of the slight improvements to the Minnesota squad.
In conjunction with their move into their new outdoor ballpark, Target Field, the Twins finally healed some of the wounds from the horribly-botched Johan Santana trade by ridding themselves of out-machine Carlos Gomez (who came over from the Mets in that deal and posted a .293 OBP in 963 plate appearances over the last two seasons) just in time for Santana’s supposed successor, lefty Francisco Liriano, to finally return to something resembling his his 2006 All-Star form three years after Tommy John surgery.
Liriano’s reemergence as the staff ace has been a key to Twins early success this year as the Twins have been the second stingiest team in the AL (albeit well behind the Rays and only slightly ahead of the Yankees[!]). While you’re still in a good mood from the mention of the Yankees right there I’ll add that another reason for that success has been Carl Pavano, who (brace yourself) leads the Twins in innings and K/BB (thanks to just seven walks in as many starts) and is second to Liriano with a 3.30 ERA.
The Twins also rival the Tigers for the junior circuit’s best bullpen. No Joe Nathan? No problem. Jon Rauch thrived as a closer for the Nationals in 2008 before being traded to Arizona, and he’s thriving in the role again for the Twins, posting a 1.93 ERA making like Pavano by posting a stellar K/BB largely due to a dearth of walks (just two in 13 appearances). That on top of typically fine work from Matt Guerrier and strong early showings from sophomore lefty Brian Duensing and veteran LOOGY Ron Mahay give the Twins an excellent end game.
At the plate, the Twins trail only the Yankees in all of baseball in on-base percentage with a team mark of .358. Credit defending AL MVP Joe Mauer (.413), major league OBP leader Justin Morneau (.486), center fielder Denard Span (.379), free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson (.369), and the man who eliminated the Twins with a solo homer in 2008 and has recently eliminated a struggling Jason Kubel from the lineup, 39-year-old Jim Thome (.384).
Unfortunately, despite finally going out and getting a qualified middle infield duo this winter, the Twins still have Nick Punto and Brendan Harris in the lineup. Harris because J.J. Hardy, the shortstop acquired from the Brewers for Gomez, was hit in the write with a pitch and is on the DL. Punto, because while they got Hudson and Hardy to fill the middle infield, they forgot to get a third baseman. Punto is now in his sixth (sixth!) season as a starter or replacement starter for the Twins. In that time, he has hit .250/.323/.328 yet the Twins still haven’t figured out that they win despite him, not because of him.
Nonetheless, with their pitchers keeping runs off the board and the bulk of their lineup keeping outs off the board, the Twins are on pace to post the second best record in franchise history and best since the original Senators went to the World Series in 1933. I don’t expect the Twins to keep up their 105-win pace (they haven’t faced the Yankees, Rays, or Rangers yet), but I do expect them to win the AL Central with ease.
Scott Baker starts tonight for the Twinks. The team’s best pitcher a year ago, he’s third in line this year despite little change in his own performance save some BABIP correction (from .277 to .311). In his last two starts, against the Tigers and Orioles, Baker has put up this line: 15 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 14 K. He faced the Yankees once last year and gave up five runs on eight singles, a double, and two walks in just three innings. He faces A.J. Burnett, who looks to get back on the ball after his failure at Fenway.
Francisco Cervelli starts for Jorge Posada, who gets a routine day off after two days on, which might be a pattern going forward. Brett Gardner continues to bat second (though I’m waiting for the Yankees to swap him and Jeter in the order). The lineup behind Robinson Cano is Nick Swisher, back from biceps tightness, Marcus Thames, in left against a righty, Juan Miranda at DH, and Cervelli.
2010 Record: 22-12 (.647)
2010 Pythagorean Record: 22-12 (.647)
2009 Record: 87-76 (.534)
2009 Pythagorean Record: 86-77 (.528)
Manager: Ron Gardenhire
General Manager: Bill Smith
Home Ballpark: Target Field
Baseball-Reference Park Factors: 103/102
Who Has Replaced Whom:
- J.J. Hardy replaces Orlando Cabrera and a lot of Brendan Harris (though Harris is filling in for the injured Hardy right now)
- Orlando Hudson replaces Joe Crede and Carlos Gomez
- Jim Thome is switching roles with Jason Kubel, who thus replaces Mike Redmond and Brian Buscher
- Drew Butera is filling in for Jose Morales (DL)
- Kevin Slowey is taking over the starts of Glen Perkins (minors)
- Carl Pavano is taking over the starts of Anthony Swarzak, Jeff Manship (both minors) and two others
- Francisco Liriano is reclaiming Brian Duensing’s starts
- Jon Rauch is replacing Joe Nathan (DL)
- Ron Mahay is replacing Bobby Keppel, Craig Breslow, and Sean Henn
- Alex Burnett is replacing R.A. Dickey
- Brian Duensing is taking over Luis Ayala’s innings
1B – Justin Morneau (L)
2B – Orlando Hudson (S)
SS – Brendan Harris (R)
3B – Nick Punto (S)
C – Joe Mauer (L)
RF – Michael Cuddyer (R)
CF – Denard Span (L)
LF – Delmon Young (R)
DH – Jim Thome (L)
L – Jason Kubel (OF)
S – Matt Tolbert (IF)
S – Alexi Casilla (IF)
R – Drew Butera (C)
L – Francisco Liriano
R – Scott Baker
R – Nick Blackburn
R – Kevin Slowey
R – Carl Pavano
R – Jon Rauch
R – Matt Guerrier
L – Jose Mijares
R – Jesse Crain
L – Ron Mahay
L – Brian Deunsing
R – Alex Burnett
SS – J.J. Hardy (wrist contusion)
C – Jose Morales (wrist surgery)
RHP – Pat Neshek (right middle finger inflammation)
RHP – Clay Condrey (elbow strain)
RHP – Joe Nathan (Tommy John surgery)
L – Denard Span (CF)
S – Orlando Hudson (2B)
L – Joe Mauer (C)
L – Justin Morneau (1B)
R – Michael Cuddyer (RF)
L – Jim Thome (DH)
R – Delmon Young (LF)
R – Brendan Harris (SS)
S – Nick Punto (3B)