There's a lot of optimism surrounding the start of the 2008 Twins season, but closer examination suggests that the club hasn't been in this precarious a position since 1982.
Spring is a time of optimism; the snow is melting, the days are getting noticeably longer, and the local ballclub has a bunch of shiny new prospects to dream on. While nobody is predicting a playoff run for the 2008 Twins, most folks seem to think the Twins will do reasonably well -- at least challenging their 2007 total of 79 wins.
Being a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian, I'd like to posit that 2008 could be a historically bad season for the Twins. Let's break it down, with the starting point being the Twins' 83 losses in 2007:
The biggest change in the Twins offensively from 2007 to 2008 is the loss of Torii Hunter. Granted, Hunter is unlikely to put up another career year in 2008 as he did in 2007, but even so Hunter was still the Twins best offensive player in 2008 by just about any measure (he led the team in runs, hits, OPS, and finished second in HR and RBI by a handsbreadth behind Morneau). Even generous projections for any of the three men currently contending to replace Hunter in center field leave them behind the numbers Hunter would have been likely to put up in 2008, never mind the numbers he actually put up in 2007.
And yet despite Hunter's outstanding 2007, the Twins still had one of the lowest scoring offenses in the AL. Presuming that the Twins will be better offensively in 2008 than they were in 2007 presumes that, not only will other changes in the offense make up for the loss of Hunter's 2007 numbers, but will even exceed that impact on the offense. Looking around the diamond, I don't currently see that:
C - Mauer had a season interrupted by injuries in 2007, but he still had 450 PAs with great numbers by a catcher's standards. He'd have to rebound to his 2006 form, and garner an extra 75-125 PAs to make up for the loss of Hunter by himself, and I just don't see it.
1B - Given Morneau's age (27) and his 2006 performance, you can certainly pencil Morneau in for a bump in performance in 2008, and he really doesn't have to bump all that much to get back to his MVP-level performance from 2006. But that's the rub: Morneau wasn't that much worse in 2007 than he was in 2006, not by comparison to some others on this list (Mauer, Punto, etc.). Morneau and Mauer improving from their 2007 numbers could easily make up for the loss of Hunter; even so, that just puts us back to square one, or just a bit beyond it.
2B - Watching Brendan Harris play spring games is likely making Aaron Gleeman long for the days of Luis Rivas at second base, given that Harris hasn't made any plays that Rivas couldn't, and Rivas's worst season as a Twins regular was about 60 points of batting average above what Harris has done this spring. If Harris washes out, that makes Nick Punto the default starting second baseman, so there's no benefit to the offense here.
SS - Adam Everett's offensive woes, on the other hand, have been well-documented; Everett has a career batting mark of about .250/650 despite playing his home games in one of the best offensive ballparks in big-league history. His career OPS+, adjusted for his home park, is 69 -- compare Punto, who's career park-adjusted OPS+ is....69, dude.
So the 2008 Twins will have, instead of one Nick Punto in the starting lineup, possibly two, depending on Harris's performance in April and May. That's not a net benefit to the offense.
3B - The good news is that Mike Lamb will almost certainly improve over Nick Punto's offensive performance at third base last year. The bad news is that, even if Punto doesn't start, Punto's offensive role on the team has already effectively been absorbed by Everett (see above), so really, Lamb has to match not Punto's production but Jason Bartlett's in order for the offense to keep treading water. The good news is that's doable -- Bartlett in 2007 hit .265/700 for an OPS+ of 88. The bad news is that, while Lamb's career numbers look better than that at .281/766, those numbers were put up with Lamb playing his home games in Texas and Houston...both great offensive ballparks. Lamb's career park-adjusted OPS+? 96.
LF - For his career, Delmon Young will likely be a good player. In 2008, however, he's much more likely to come close to his 2007 OPS+ of 91 than he is to Jason Kubel's 2007 OPS+ of 109. The good news here is that, if Kubel is the regular DH, then Young isn't so much replacing Kubel in the offense as he is last year's DH position. The bad news is that the guys most blamed for stinking up the DH position last year really didn't play there all that much -- Jeff Cirillo had just 21 starts at DH, Jason Tyner 15, and Rondell White 14. Kubel was the most frequent DH.
CF - See the intro; this will be a downgrade for the Twins offense in 2008 barring a massive surprise from somebody, most likely Gomez.
RF - Mike Cuddyer played solidly here in 2007 and he'll likely play solidly in 2008; expecting a huge bump out of him at 29 isn't impossible, but it is largely wishful thinking.
DH - see LF above; between LF and DH, the Twins are probably at a wash or perhaps a bit better off in 2008 than they were in 2007.
So if Mauer and Morneau can improve enough to make up for the loss of Hunter, and Young do well enough so that LF/DH is a bit better than last year, and Lamb can do a bit better than Bartlett offensively to help make up for potentially adding a second Punto to the offense, then everything should wash out and the Twins should be about the same in 2008 as they were in 2007.
For the record, that was 718 runs scored, behind only Kansas City and Chicago in the AL. And both KC and Chicago should be better in 2008 (see below).
That's all well and good on paper, but what happens when the injuries start? Note I didn't say 'if', I said 'when'; injuries are a fact of life in MLB. The Twins' 2008 bench is likely even thinner than the 2007 bench, if that can be believed. The 2007 Twins had 50 games of decent production from Cirillo (about .260/700), a half season of decent production from Jason Tyner (about .280/700), and a half-season of excellent production from Luis Castillo (who wasn't a bench player, but who we didn't take into consideration among the starters above and who has to rate somewhere). If Denard Span's new-found plate discipline (as pointed out by Twins Geek) is just an illusion, he could end up the 2008 Lew Ford; meanwhile Alexi Casilla awaits at AAA to duplicate his .222/500 line as soon as Punto comes up lame after a head-first slide into first.
Taking injuries into account, I see no way to project the 2008 offense to be any better than the 2007 offense, which was already one of the worst in the league.
Right off the top, you remove Johan Santana. While Santana was always a threat to win 20 if he got the offensive support, we'll take a conservative approach and say, with this team, Santana would have done just a bit better than his 2007 record and peg him at 18-9. Now bring in Livan Hernandez, who's tended to have fewer decisions and a much lower winning percentage over the past few seasons; let's peg him at 12-12 for the year. That's three more losses and another six games that go to the bullpen.
Then, you remove Carlos Silva. Some folks may not think major-league average pitching is worth paying millions of dollars for, but the alternative is not knowing if you're going to have anybody who's even major-league average. Boof Bonser's weight loss might be encouraging, but he's still just a 26 year old pitcher without a great pedigree who doesn't miss a lot of bats, and even his uninspiring 136 Ks in 173 innings last year was second in number among Twins starters (and the highest among those pitchers that remain). If at least one of Bonser, Baker, Slowey, Blackburn, or Humber becomes a major-league average pitcher for the Twins in 2008, then that's a wash -- problem is, none of them were league-average in 2007 and there's a reasonable chance that none of them will make it that high in 2008 as well.
(And please don't bring up Ponson and Ortiz -- among the five guys named above, the odds are, if anything, better that one of them will match Ponson's and Ortiz's combined line in 17 starts than they'll match Silva's in 33.)
Can the bullpen hold those former Santana wins-turned-no-decisions and keep them wins? Maybe, if Nathan stays effective and Neshek continues to do well. Then again, I'd have expected Juan Rincon and Jesse Crain to do better last year, based on their previous performances as well, so nothing is guaranteed.
Middle relief should be reasonably good, given that many of the guys contending for starting jobs will likely start out in middle relief -- that's the Twins way, after all.
So replacing Santana should add a number of runs to the pitching side of the ledger, while the offense probably won't be any better than last year. Even so, from a pure accounting perspective, that probably just drops the Twins from 79 wins to about 75 or so. So where does the 100 losses idea come in?
Let's set the wayback machine to 1982....
The 1982 Twins had a number of players modern fans will recognize: Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti. (Kirby Puckett wouldn't join the team until after the trade of Gary Ward in 1984.) And those guys didn't do badly -- Hrbek hit .301/848 and finished 2nd in the Rookie of the Year vote in 1982, Brunansky hit .272/848 with 20 homers, Gaetti hit 25 homers despite only hitting .230, and Gary Ward was probably the best offensive performer, hitting .289/849 and leading the team in doubles and homers.
Despite all that, the team scored just 657 runs, fourth-worst in the AL. The reason? They spent over half the season with either Bobby Mitchell (.249/644) or Ron Washington (.271 BA, .291 OBP) in the top two slots in the batting order. If Ron Gardenhire lives up to his suggestion of pushing Mauer to the #2 spot in the batting order, this likely won't happen to the 2008 Twins, but how long do you think it'll be before Delmon Young slumps, Gardy pushes him down from #5 to #6 and shifts everybody else down a slot, and sticks Punto in at #2? Welcome to the social...
Frank Viola pitched for the 1982 team, but he was a 22-year old prospect at the time and finished the year 4-10 with a 5.21 ERA. Viola was surrounded on that team by other young pitchers -- 22 year old Brad Havens, whom the Twins had received as the key acquisition in the Rod Carew trade in 1979; 24-year old Jack O'Connor; 25-year old Roger Erickson. The oldest pitcher on the team was 30-year old Fernando Arroyo, who made just six appearances out of the bullpen. The 2008 Twins have more vets, but not by much -- only starter Livan Hernandez and reliever Dennys Reyes (by my count) are older than Arroyo was on the '82 club.
The biggest difference between '82 and '08, and the biggest reason that the '08 club might not lose 100, is the bullpen -- while the '08 club has some question marks, they also have Nathan, who's been among if not the most consistent closer in the AL over the past three seasons, with no reason to suspect a breakdown this year. Meanwhile, the '82 club featured newly-acquired Ron Davis as closer and 0-13 Terry Felton as one of their most regular middle-men. Then again, if the guy who goes down with the season-ending injury turns out to be Nathan?
Let's also keep in mind the difference in competition -- in 1982, the Twins were playing a balanced schedule against a division that was likely the weakest in baseball; among the seven teams in the division, only two finished with 90+ wins and only three finished with records above .500. In 2008, the Twins are playing an unbalanced schedule with nearly half of their games (76 out of 162) being played in what might be the toughest division in baseball. In this situation, it's entirely possible that a team with more talent than the '82 Twins could finish with a poorer record, just because they have to play tougher opponents more often.
This is a team with a number of weak links both offensively and on the pitching staff, no appreciable depth to speak of, in an environment where any misstep or misfortune is likely to be punished. In many cases, that's a recipe for disaster.
My guess for the 2008 Twins? 61-101, last place in the AL Central.