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AL Central Roundtable

Quite frankly I still find it hard to come here and make an earnest post so soon after we lost Kirby. I rationalize it this way: Kirby was my first hero that wasn't my dad, and it was Kirby who drew me to baseball in the first place. The end result of what he gave me is this site, and all of you who share this passion with me. And in the end, life goes on, even when it's difficult to justify what you're doing as meaningful.

Last week there was a brief discussion on three topics specific to each team in the AL Cenral. These talks were between The Cheat from South Side Sox, Will of Royals Review, Mark from Bless you Boys and Ryan and Jay of Let's Go Tribe.  Oh yes, and me.  As each of these sites put up their sections of the Roundtable I'll update the links on this post to make it easier for you to read them all.  Enjoy the section on the Twins...

Beyond the Box Score: Twins or White Sox: Who has the best rotation in the division. Cite examples for discussion purposes.

Jesse of Twinkietown: Wow, tough question. Santana is the best pitcher in the division if not the American League (Cy Young winner 2004, contender 2005), but as for straight-up depth it's hard to argue with the success the Sox had in 2005. While Garland isn't going to have a repeat performance and McCarthy is coming up, the depth of Garcia and Buehrle at the front is tough. Contreras can be a big-game guy, and Vasquez may or may not return to the form of a front-of-rotation pitcher.

Behind Santana there's Radke who's speaking of retirement following 2006, and could experience a drop in effectiveness this year. Silva has a nice sinker and wouldn't give a free pass to a rabbit, but if he's the number two I need to see another strong year from him before I compare a Silva/Santana front to a Buehrle/Garcia front. After Santana/Silva/Radke are Lohse and Baker.

Kyle Lohse is a good number 4 starter, and after a raise in arbitration needs to perform to earn the salary. He's 27 this year, and I look for a better season than we've seen the last couple years. He has the stuff, he needs to acquire the discipline. Scott Baker is the number two pitching prospect in the Twins system behind phenom Francisco Liriano (led minors in strikeouts in 2005), but until Liriano is ready Baker will probably win the 5th starter spot. He has a strong future as a #2 or #3 starter.

Overall Minnesota has the best talent; but Chicago has the proven experience. Ranking the top starters from each organization by success I expect in 2006: Santana, Buehrle, Garcia, Silva, Vazquez, Radke, McCarthy, Contreras, Lohse, Garland, Baker, Liriano.

Jay of Let's Go Tribe: Santana is the runaway best single starter, of course, but I think I have to go with Chicago for the whole rotation. Chicago has such nice depth in their rotation, while I don't see anything much dependable after Santana in Minnesota. They should get at least one nice season out of Baker and Liriano, but the fact that everyone is acting like Liriano is instant-ace is kind of telling.

Jesse of Twinkietown: I don't know anyone who thinks Liriano is an instant-ace, I just think there's a lot of excitement about his potential-what he could be in 2007 and beyond. I certainly don't expect anything great from him before then.

The Cheat: Minnesota has the better #1, Chicago has the better #5. As a whole, the Chicago rotation is better, but Minnesota is probably more dangerous, despite post-seasons past, in a short series.

If both Liriano and Baker turn out to be solidly above average pitchers in `06, this would be a much more interesting question. But right now, with the Twins calling Kyle Lohse their #4 (I consider him #5, if not, #6) they don't have as many horses as Chicago.

Jesse of Twinkietown: I think the easiest way to break it down is like this-the White Sox had to pick a guy to start the season in the bullpen instead of the rotation. The Twins are holding an open competition for the fifth starter between Baker and Liriano. Chicago's rotation is better because of the plethora of pitchers they can choose from.

As for Lohse, I see him as a comparable player to Garland-both have enough stuff to win, but largely they will be average pitchers throughout their careers with one or two good (but not great) campaigns. Whether Lohse can put together that kind of season remains to be seen.

Beyond the Box Score: Venture a guess as to how Jason Kubel will hold up in 2006, in a sense of both durability and statistically.

Jesse of Twinkietown: There are so many conflicting reports on Kubel it's hard to know what's true. It's like a propaganda war. Those closest to Kubel say he's healthy and will have a legitimate shot at starting in RF on opening day. If this is true, the second-best hitting prospect in the Twins organization in the last 10+ years will be in the lineup. After such an impotent offensive display last year, this idea of a hitter (even if he's a prospect) has all Twins-fans a bit giddy.

So much of his stat line will depend on how healthy that knee is. If it truly is fine, then expect something around the line of .280/.350/.430/.780. If he doesn't win the opening day spot in RF (playing 120-130 games), I still expect him to take it eventually (playing 80-90 games). He won't come out of the gate and be the high-impact offensive force he would have been sans injury, but I'm optimistic that he'll find his way back as the season progresses.

Bottom line is that we need him to produce at a decent level. With luck we'll have the third-best offense in the division, probably fourth. Mauer will continue to get better, but we need better performances from guys like Morneau, Hunter and Stewart. If these guys play to their abilities, and Rondell White and Luis Castillo play at average levels, we'll be okay with our pitching staff.

The Cheat: Health-wise, better than `05 Justin Morneau. As for his productivity, I see him starting at AAA, (He's still got options left, right?) before eventually coming up with the big club and having an incredible 350 ABs like most Twins prospects seem to do.

Beyond the Box Score: Detail the most effective and least effective transactions and moves by the Minnesota Twins this past offseason.

Jesse of Twinkietown: This is a much debated topic at our site. The most effective and best acquisition is the trade for Luis Castillo, in which we gave up nothing but one of our 7 million pitching prospects and a couple throw-ins. In Castillo we solidify the best defense up the middle in the AL Central (Mauer, Castillo, Hunter), get a major upgrade as an OBP guy at the top of the order (career .370 OBP, below this line only twice since 1998), and we pick up a bag stealer (not as effecive as he was in the past, but still more effective than what we had). Reports say he's lost his burst on the basebaths, leading to fewer stolen bases, but overall he's an excellent pick-up and nice upgrade.

The least effective transition is the Tony Batista signing. It's not the doomsday prediction some are proclaiming, but that doesn't make it a good signing. His career OBP is nothing more than miserable, and rumor is that he's out of shape. His defense isn't good, he's slow, and he has a funny batting stance. He'll hit for some power, but that doesn't make up for the deficiencies in the rest of his game. His contract is non-guaranteed, so if he doesn't play not just average but well, I'm not sure how long he'll stick. Regardless, I expect Cuddyer back at 3B at some point in the season, with an OF of Stewart, Hunter and Kubel/Ford.

Another way of looking at it is that the Twins didn't make the move for a big hitter. That could be the least effective transaction in the fact that it didn't happen. With all our prospects, especially off the mound, there was a way to get something just didn't happen. At the chance of sounding outrageous to fans at my site-Minnesota's window of opportunity may be closing. If this is true, waiting for Liriano may just waste more time. Liriano, who is second only to the young gun in Seattle in terms of prospective talent, and another mid-level prospect could have yielded a 40-HR designated hitter. This may have weakened the starting rotation three years down the line, but the return would have been ten times as good as the combination of Rondell White and Tony Batista.

Having said that, the eventual tag-team of Santana/Liriano runs shivers down my spine...

Will of Royals Review: I still think the Twins are going to struggle scoring runs, especially if Stewart, Hunter and Ford struggle at all. I liked the Batista signing, warts and all, since the team clearly needs power. Minny just might be one of the more fascinating teams of the `06 season, sorta like a Central version of the Blue Jays in terms of the variance of their performance. Everything just looks a little shaky: you throw Rondell White, Luis Castillo, Batista, Torii and Shannon Stewart together and what do you get? That has the potential to be an above average core or something pretty awful.

Jay of Let's Go Tribe: I think the Twins are in real danger of being outscored by the Royals this season. Hunter is one of their very best hitters, and it's been several years since he was significantly better than average at the plate. Note the career OPS+ of exactly 100 - this is their third-best hitter! I respect the pitching talent and several of the young position players, but I honestly think they would have been better off going for a "mini-rebuilding," dumping off Hunter and Stewart and possibly Radke for guys who can help them in 2007 and beyond. If I were a Twins fan, I'd be absolutely livid at my team for bringing in Batista and White - two guys with recognizable names who will probably be less productive than your average Triple-A lifer. It really calls into question if that front office has any idea what a good hitter even would look like.

Jesse of Twinkietown: The issue of a "mini-rebuild" has been brought up a numerous times, and Terry Ryan refuses to acknowledge that a move of that magnitude would be necessary. I can see arguments from both sides, but if the Twins can continue to infuse young talent to an established roster (as they did pre-2005), then there won't be a need for a mini-rebuild. I tend to agree. Making a more high-risk move to improve the team now, however, like trading some of those all-too-precious pitching prospects (see Liriano thoughts above), would definately help.

As for the comments on Hunter, there's an idea floating around (even in Minnesota) that Hunter is supposed to be a great hitter. The fact is that he never was, but he had one good season in 2002 and people don't forget that. We've had a below-average offense (especially for power) since we've become competetive again, and unfortunately Hunter has been asked to hit third or fourth in a jab-and-doge offense. Hunter is an ideal hitter in the six or seven hole-decent average, good power, not the best plate discipline. With Batista there's a number of livid fans running through the streets gnashing their teeth and ripping their clothes off in agony. I've seen it. As for White, he's not what anyone was looking for, but he's not as bad as your comparison.

Even though it won't happen, we could be outscored by the Royals and it wouldn't matter. We'd still win more games.

Jay of Let's Go Tribe: Of course the Twins will still win more games than the Royals. But when two other teams in the division also have good pitching, how can any team contend that is even-odds to have the worst offense? And not to harp on the mini-rebuild idea, but Ryan's view is indefensible. It isn't a question of whether it's "necessary." It's a question of asking whether 2006 is really "your year," and if it isn't, then you make the best possible decisions with an eye towards 2007 and 2008. Frankly, it's rare that a team would have the opportunity to re-load that quickly - just coming off a nice run of contention and yet loaded with very young talent. And they're just blowing the opportunity completely.

The Cheat: Luis Castillo is obviously the Twins best move of the off-season. I don't think many people recognize how brutal Twins' batters were in the #2 spot last season. They combined to post a, worst in baseball, .307 OBP. Castillo, even though he's about to turn 30 and at a position notorious for their precipitous collapses, represents the single largest upgrade at any one position of any team in the division.

Of course that move is offset by the Twins ridiculous quest for a "30 homer guy." I'll be interested to see where Gardenhire chooses to bat Batista. All the Twins had to do to finally get their 30 HR guy was wait a year; Morneau will top that mark this year, assuming he doesn't come down with the bubonic plague.

Jay of Let's Go Tribe: Wandering a little off-topic, the Twins' best move for the 2006 season actually happened last offseason, when they extended Santana's contract. It seems like it shouldn't be necessary to praise teams for fostering positive relationships with their own players, and then locking them up long-term under financially favorable terms. But apparently it is necessary, given the number of teams that either (a) fail to recognize when the time is ripe to do this, or (b) for whatever reason, fail to get terms that are even slightly better than market value. The Phillies and Orioles come to mind. In any event, the Twins clearly know who they want to keep, and they manage to keep those players happy and get them to sign great contracts. And I'm glad to see the Indians modeling them in this regard (and others), because those are some of the smartest moves you can make.

That's all for now.  Keep checking back later in the day for additional links.