Nobody knows what the future holds for the Twins, but we’re always wondering. Sometimes, if you want to predict the future, the best you can do is look at the past.
The Twins finished last place in 2011. If you use the team’s recent history as a guide, the Twins have to be hoping for a 2008-style rebound. 2007 was a disappointment, as the Twins plunged to a sub-.500 record for the first time since 2000. Expectations were dramatically lowered for the next season, especially after some key players departed. But the Twins surprised a lot of people by playing very well in 2008, fighting for the division title to the last day of the season (and beyond).
Could 2012 be a repeat of 2008? Let’s start with the similarities.
By coincidence or not, both seasons featured a change in the GM’s office. Terry Ryan handed over control of the team to Bill Smith after 2007. Last November, Ryan resumed his former position. In both cases, the former GM stayed with the team as an assistant. If quantity equals quality for General Managers, this year’s team might have a big advantage. Former Reds GM Wayne Krivsky gives the Twins a trio of execs at the top.
As long as this doesn’t turn into a “Triangle of Authority” situation, it’s probably a good thing to have so much experience in the front office.
Departure of Popular Players
The end of the 2007 season was the end of the line for Torii Hunter and Johan Santana. Both had been big reasons for the Twins’ success in the early 2000s, but the team let Hunter leave via free agency and traded Santana to the Mets. Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer weren’t as dominant as Santana in his prime, but both were very popular players who had a lot to do with the Twins’ postseason runs in 2009 and 2010. And both departed as free agents.
Free Agent Sluggers and Shortstops
The 2008 club tried to replace Hunter’s bat with Craig Monroe, a 31 year old outfielder who had swatted 28 homers for the Tigers just two years previously. That signing didn’t turn out well; Monroe hit just .202 and was released in the summer. This year, the Twins hope that Josh Willingham turns out better. This year’s power-hitting outfield acquisition is a little older than Monroe, but he has better on-base skills.
They also hope that new shortstop Jamey Carroll fits better than 2008 shortstop Adam Everett. Everett was great in the field (11.9 UZR/150), but his .213/.278/.323 batting line and several injuries deprived the Twins of a long term answer at the position that is still a problem today.
Bargain Basement Rotation Solutions
It might be a stretch to call Livan Hernandez‘s $5 million 2008 salary a “bargain,” but Hernandez was a less than impressive solution to the hole Santana left in the rotation. This offseason the Twins again found themselves in need of a starting pitcher, and they signed Jason Marquis for $3 million. Both were 33 year old right-handers who rely on ground balls and defense to succeed. Marquis actually has more life on his fastball than Hernandez, who averaged 84 mph during the ’08 season.
Now what are the differences?
One advantage the 2008 Twins had over this year’s team is the plethora of young pitchers on the cusp of Major League readiness. Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser were all promising prospects aged 26 or younger. Baker, Blackburn, Slowey, and Perkins all won 10 games in ’08. The crop of youthful starters was so deep that Minnesota felt comfortable trading away Matt Garza before the season. This year, the rotation is made up of veterans. Blackburn, Baker and Liriano are still with the team, but they’re four years older. Carl Pavano, the likely Opening Day starter, is 35 years old. Kyle Gibson‘s elbow injury deprived the team of its strongest pitching prospect. Liam Hendriks is the only remaining prospect comparable to the 2008 cadre.
This year’s team isn’t without its own young bright spots, though. Ben Revere has the same combination of running speed and outfield athleticism that Carlos Gomez did in 2008 – but without Gomez’s inconsistent style of play. Brian Dozier also has a chance to make an impression as a speed and on-base type hitter, a la 2008 Alexi Casilla.
The 2007 Twins had plenty of problems, but injuries were not among the biggest ones. By contrast, the 2011 team failed in large part because it had to use the Disabled List 27 times. Many players enter this season with injury-related question marks, but the injury factor might actually be a cause for optimism. If the injury picture clears up, the current group of Twins is a structurally superior team that can bounce back to its old form.
The 2012 Twins have a much steeper distance to climb than the 2008 Twins did, but they have some of the same problems as before, and they’ve taken some very similar steps to address them. If the past is a reasonable guide, we can be optimistic about this year’s Twins team.