The new baseball season dawns. Maybe it’s just me, but people always seem a little friendlier this time of year. The sun shines a bit brighter. The late winter/early spring chill seems easier to bear. This is a great time to be alive.
Truly, the beginning of the season is a time for great optimism.
That is why Patrick Reusse’s Opening Day article in the Star Tribune was like finding a dead mouse in my morning bowl of Lucky Charms.
The article contains some interesting observations by former Twins owner Clark Griffith, but the central argument is that the Twins’ window of opportunity may have closed because their players are mostly past their primes. Furthermore, Reusse states that:
“The 2011 Twins, with mediocre starting pitching, a patchwork bullpen and the likelihood of going through a handful of shortstops before September, are headed for third place in the AL Central — five, six games behind the White Sox, a couple behind Detroit.”
Maybe I misinterpreted Mr. Reusse’s article. It was, after all, published on April Fool’s Day. But the spirit of the article didn’t seem quite in line with this merry holiday. I mean, we don’t call it “April Wet Blanket Day” or “April Ruin the New Season Day.” Thus, I feel the need to firmly rebut Reusse’s pessimistic analysis. The Twins are not a lock to finish behind Chicago and Detroit, and their window of opportunity remains open for at least a couple of years.
The most startling part of the article was the assertion that the Twins are a third place team. Reusse didn’t say that the Twins might fall to third place. He treats it as a foregone conclusion: the Twins can’t win the division this year.
I am not convinced in the least. That “mediocre starting pitching” includes six starters who won at least 10 games last season. The staff as a whole posted a respectable 3.95 ERA, fifth-best in the American League. If that’s mediocre, I’d like to see what Reusse has to say about the Indians or Pirates!
The Twins return essentially the same team that won 94 games and locked up the division easily last season (some changes to the middle relief and the middle infield notwithstanding). Yes, the White Sox and Tigers each added a potential impact bat (Adam Dunn and Victor Martinez respectively), but the burden is on those clubs to prove they are as good as the Twins, not the other way around. Until they do, I cannot abide such a gloomy assessment of the Twins’ chances.
Reusse’s larger point – that the Twins are aging and may already have played their best years – is less unfounded, but still overly pessimistic. First, while Delmon Young is the only 25 year old currently in the everyday lineup, many key contributors are still under 30, including Danny Valencia (26), Denard Span (27), and, of course, Joe Mauer (27). Newcomer Tsuyoshi Nishioka is just 26. Justin Morneau turns 30 in May. Even if you accept that a player’s prime years are over after age 32, the heart of the order has a few more good seasons left. On the mound, “mediocre” starters Francisco Liriano (27), Kevin Slowey (26), Brian Duensing (27), and Scott Baker (29) are far from over-the-hill.
Second, even if a player’s prime years end at 32, they don’t suddenly turn into pumpkins at age 33. Usually, the decline is fairly gradual. As long as there are younger players to complement the ones who are aging, a team can continue to be successful.
Third, there are plenty of those younger players ready to take over. Joe Benson, Ben Revere, Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks, and Kyle Gibson are just a few of the next wave of young Twins to contribute at the major league level. Michael Cuddyer (32) may be aging, but Benson (23) should be swatting long home runs at Target Field next season.
Finally, this isn’t the same small-market Twins team that used to have to pray for a championship run before the stars all left town. According to new financial reports from Forbes magazine, the Twins are now the 12th most valuable franchise in baseball, and they are number nine in total revenue. This is a team that can now afford to retain key players and invest in new ones.
Thus, it appears that the Twins’ window of opportunity to win a championship will stay wide open for at least two or three more seasons. Maybe I’m being as optimistic as Reusse is pessimistic, but at least my attitude is more appropriate for the beginning of the season.