Gardenhire hearkens back to his time as a member of the Four Horsemen in WCW as he pulls Cole De Vries in favor of Anthony Swarzak. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
My fellow Twins fans, as your Wednesday leader, I've come to know some inalienable truths. These truths are about this year's club, and the club that we will see not only next year, but in the near future to come. The future can be so scary, but when we look around, we have to ask ourselves "Can it be more scary than this?" I assure you, my friends, the answer is no.
No, it probably can't get worse than a team that has no starting pitching to speak of. It can't get much worse than Jeff Gray throwing meaningful innings ahead of Glen Perkins just 'getting his work in' all in the same half-hour time frame.
It probably can't get any worse than an overall competent offense, one powered by great seasons from the likes of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Ben Revere, as well as good seasons from Ryan Doumit, Trevor Plouffe, and many others, being held back by a team that can't throw *redacted* strikes and when it does, they get drilled out of the *redacted* park.
But let's keep our heads.
It's obviously an exercise in futility -- and take it from who routinely does futile exercise -- to predict the roster for opening day 2013 (so expect that as next week's column, right?), but this week in the State of the Twins address, we'll examine the truths that I feel have become self-evident, and take liberty with how I think they'll propel the Twins toward prosperity.
Truth One: Scott Diamond will be in the rotation, and likely slotted at least one spot too high.
Even for someone as strikeout-obsessed as myself, it isn't hard to see how good Scott Diamond has been. And while his 2.95 ERA is about a full run lower than it ought to be (3.84/3.67 FIP/xFIP), even those numbers would be a healthy number-three starter. But haven't we seen this before? With recently-outrighted Nick Blackburn? Well, not quite. Blackburn routinely posted ERAs in the low-4.00s, and was often still considered lucky with FIPs in the higher-4.00s. But Diamond differs -- perhaps slightly, depending on your view -- is in a few ways. For one, Diamond doesn't give up nearly as much contact on his out-of-zone offerings (71.8 percent this year, while Blackburn has been over that mark since 2009). Simply put, that drops his overall contact rate about four percent lower than Blackburn's, since both have about the same overall zone contact rate (~92 percent career mark for both). That's probably enough to be more than just a small factor, but is also cause for concern with Diamond because in a lot of ways, he's coming from where Blackburn was.
So Diamond will likely be penciled in as the number two next year. Maybe even the number one. But let's not get confused; Diamond is a high-end third starter in this league, and that's assuming he doesn't regress below his FIP marks. With this skill set, and the potential fluidity of the infield defense situation, he's not a guy I'm banking on heavily, or investing a Blackburn-esque contract into.
Truth Two: Nick Blackburn will probably be on the team, but don't be surprised if it's in the bullpen.
Already due $5.5 million next year, Blackburn may have already sewn up the Gray/Dumatrait scholarship in next year's bullpen. There's good reason for it too, as not only is Blackburn already a sunk cost, but it might be interesting to see what kind of Glen Perkins/Brian Duensing effect emerges from Blackie's skill set. Will he throw a legit 93-94 mph with a heavy sinker? Maybe. Perkins is STILL throwing 3 mph over his career averages, and that's with the past two years over 94.0 factored in. My point is: Give Blackburn a month in the bullpen. If he's still getting rocked, he should be pitching those Gray innings anyway, and might even deserve the entire first half. And if he does well in those low-leverage situations, move him up as the club has done with Duensing, Perkins, Matt Guerrier, and countless other low-end relievers who've risen through the system.
Truth Three: Trevor Plouffe will open the season at third base, but with a leash shorter than it ought to be.
Since returning from the DL, Plouffe is 2-26 (.077/.138/.077) with no extra-base hits, and has been openly maligned in the mainstream media by Gardenhire about his defense at third. Given that the only viable third base candidate who could have provided any semblance of competition was dealt to Boston, Plouffe should have third base sewn up before even landing in Fort Myers next spring, but that's likely not the case. Nobody in-house will provide any competition -- no disrespect meant to Jamey Carroll, who has been a solid pick-up for the Twins -- and Kevin Youkilis isn't walking through that door. To make a circuitous route a little shorter: Plouffe deserves the unequivocal shot at third base reps next year, and he may end up having to compete for the job with a short leash if he struggles into April. I'm all for competition to breed success, but I think it may be a tad bit unfair here.
Truth Four: You won't like the starting shortstop.
Based on 1500 ESPN's Facebook page, there aren't a ton of fans enamored with Carroll. In fact, one commenter, who shall remain nameless, makes reference to Jamey in every single status update that is posted on the site. And while Carroll only has a .277 wOBA, he's been worth 1.2 wins via Fangraphs WAR because he's played solid defense across the board. Simply put, he's been worth the money. Nevertheless, whether it's Carroll, Eduardo Escobar, or Pedro Florimon playing shortstop next year, the Twins will likely focus on someone who can pick it at short and provide nearly nothing with the stick, hopefully a la Alcides Escobar, pre-2012. Those are lofty expectations, but with what shortstops cost on the free market, it's probably not the worst idea until the rest of the team is shored up. Don't rule out Brian Dozier, either.
Truth Five: The Twins will have too many outfielders.
In some respects, the Twins already do have too many outfielders. Ben Revere is probably miscast as a right fielder, but his range and improved release have really made him into a fine overall outfielder, but long-term, it's unlikely he can stick in a corner if the club cares to be any good. This is especially true considering the complement of possible corner guys rising through the system, and Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks may beat down the door sooner rather than later, and one can't forget Joe Benson even though his play this year has been largely forgettable. Hamate bone injuries linger, and it may just be chalked up as a lost season overall, but I think some serious questions will emerge about if Joe is still prominent in the club's long-term plans, given the number of competitors for those outfield spots.
Truth Six: Without outside help, the rotation will be lousy.
I've chronicled this numerous times both here and on my twitter account (@Brandon_Warne), but there are plenty of affordable options that could bolster this rotation greatly, including Joe Blanton, Bartolo Colon, and even someone like Kevin Millwood. Those three guys have combined this season to be worth 6.3 wins via fWAR. As a best guess, that'd probably improve the Twins' record by about 10 games, considering how poor the starters who would be replaced by those three grizzled veterans have been. Those 10 wins get the Twins to .500 more or less, and right now a .500 ball club would be four games out of first place right now. But, if the club chooses not to address the rotation any further than bringing back Scott Baker -- a possibly good move -- the potential of another 90-plus loss season looms large yet again. The only possible bright spot would possibly be Kyle Gibson making his big-league debut.
Truth Seven: Without outside help, the bullpen will probably actually be really good.
Perkins and Jared Burton have been nails all season, and would be a good foundation on which to build a bullpen next season. Hell, bringing back Matt Capps to throw the seventh wouldn't be the worst idea either. But even if the Twins stay on the internal side, there are plenty of options for this bullpen. Casey Fien has been quite a find (or fiend, depending on if you like terrible puns like I do), and has further backed my favorite bullpen notion of "throw at the wall and see what sticks." He deserves a shot to come back next year, and possibly crack a bullpen that will probably also have Alex Burnett and Brian Duensing in it. Searching the organization for options also proves relatively fruitful, as Tyler Robertson certainly deserves a shot, as may others such as Lester Oliveros, Kyle Waldrop, Deolis Guerra, Anthony Slama, Carlos Gutierrez, Esmerling Vasquez, and countless others at Double-A as well. If the Twins can also supplement with the lower-level signings again, this should be a fun group to keep an eye on.
Truth Eight: If the Twins lose 90-plus games again, Ron Gardenhire will not survive 2013*
I've been pressed on this issue a number of times from family and friends who follow the team a bit less religiously than I do, and I always come up with the same answer: "How long did Tom Kelly stick around while the club was lousy?"
And that's not entirely fair. Kelly won two World Championships, and Gardenhire has won none. But then again, how many division titles did Gardenhire win? And Kelly, granted it was pre-Wild Card for much of it? It's hard to argue decisively whether Gardenhire or Kelly were a better manager, but I think Gardenhire's time is up after next year if the Twins stink again. It really sums up the Twins Way, as most skippers would have been axed after Gardy's 2011, while the Twins are forever waiting just a bit too long to make that move/DL stint/trade.
*As manager, you guys.