The fate of the 2012 Twins rests on the shoulders of five players. They are the five most talented players on the team, and all five have demonstrated the ability to carry the offense or the pitching staff for long periods of time. Unfortunately, all five lost large portions of the 2011 season due to injury.
If Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span stay on the field and play at or near their peak performance, Minnesota actually has a shot to win the AL Central. If all five get hurt again or fail to meet expectations, the Twins will earn another very high draft pick. If, as is most likely, they end up somewhere in between, the team will probably end up somewhere near the .500 mark.
I’ve dubbed these players “The Ferocious Five” partly because at their best they have the power to instill fear into opposing players and partly because I wanted an adjective that begins with F (“Fantastic” is overused, and “Fabulous” doesn’t quite have the right connotation). Periodically throughout the season, Puckett’s Pond will check in and see how these five are doing, and how closely their performance mirrors that of the team as a whole.
The Quiet Ace
Baker is not a flashy pitcher, but he is arguably the best on the Twins. For much of 2011, that fact wasn’t even arguable, as Baker kept his ERA well under 3.00 before injuring his arm in the early summer. He finished with a 3.14 ERA and 8.2 K/9, which are borderline ace numbers if he can repeat them. Baker has never kept up that kind of dominance over a full season, but he did win 15 games in 2009 despite a weak start.
The Contract Year
Like Baker, Liriano has had trouble pitching at peak performance for an entire year. The closest he came was his 14 win, 3.62 ERA 2010 season, but even then he had some severe ups and downs. 2011 was an unmitigated disaster for him (aside from the no-hitter) as he racked up a 5.09 ERA, a 5.0 per nine inning walk rate, and dealt with his own share of injuries. He’ll be a free agent after this season, so he’s got something to prove if he wants a job in MLB for 2013.
The Local Hero
Mauer’s 2011 struggles have been well-documented, so there’s no need to reiterate them here. Whether he’s behind the plate, at first base, or in the DH hole, the local boy needs to get back to his rightful place atop the AL batting race. Fortunately, indications are that he has the right attitude to bounce back.
The Franchise Slugger
Morneau is one of the most accomplished sluggers in Twins history, and he has a chance to pass up several of the team’s greats on the home run list. That is, he has a chance as long as concussion symptoms don’t force him back on the DL or into retirement. That would leave a massive hole in the infield – one that would be impossible to fill.
Span had a superb season in 2009 after two thirds of a similarly superb season in 2008. But his on-base percentage nose-dived from .392 in ’09 to .331 in ’10, and it fell three more points last year. He has been consistently exceptional in the outfield, but the team desperately needs him to get on base more. Like Morneau, Span will deal with the ghosts of concussions past this year, though his fight with concussions seems more winnable (to an outside observer, that is).
Other regular players like Danny Valencia, Ben Revere, and Carl Pavano will certainly be important in the team’s success as well. It’s also important for bench players and AAA players to be ready to step in and perform when called upon. Guys like Chris Parmelee and Brian Dozier will have roles to play in 2012. But even if all of those players have career years, it probably would not be enough to overcome another down year by Baker, Liriano, Mauer, Morneau, and Span. Conversely, even if most of the rest of the team plays below expectations, strong performances by the Ferocious Five could still lift the team into contention.
That’s why we’ll be watching how they do all season long.