Our Minnesota Twins are coming off an atrocious 2011 where the team finished 63-99, a full 32 games behind the AL Central Division winning Detroit Tigers and in the process posting the second worst record in all of baseball. But 2011 is behind us now and we look forward to spring and a brand new season of baseball which hopefully will see the Twins back in winning form. In just a little over a month, Twins players from all over the globe will start to congregate in Ft. Myers, Florida to get into baseball shape which I think really means that they will get in a little stretching, jog a little, catch up on the off-season gossip and start throwing the baseball around and take a few swings with those shiny new bats they just received during the off-season. When a bad season of baseball ends, there is always “next year” and that next year is just about upon us.
Long before baseball was played, back sometime between 1688-1744 the English poet Alexander Pope said “hope springs eternal in the human breast” and no truer words could be said about how baseball fans look at their favorite baseball teams. Forgotten are the numerous injuries, be they real or perceived, the dropped balls, the hitters that couldn’t run out a ground ball, the runners that had brain farts and stood there and watched as the hit and run unfolded in front of them, the fielders that couldn’t throw straight, the pitchers that keep hitting opponent bats, the perplexed pitching coach who wondered why his pitchers couldn’t find home plate even though it was always in the same spot, the manager who had to make up numerous line-ups each day because he didn’t know which of his players were in the mood to play that day, and of course the owner who was left to wonder what happened to his $113 million.
The injuries that plagued the team in 2011 are hopefully healed and with another year of experience under their belts, we all hope the Twins are back and playing baseball the way that Twins fans of today expect. We are not interested in seeing the Twins play ball as they did say between 1971-1986 when they never won more than 85 games and finished as high as second only once, we expect to see a winning team on the field or at least a team that is playing like they want to win versus the 2011 bunch that quit early and often.
So, what does history tell us will happen to the Twins in 2012? I want you to keep reading, but the bottom line is that while miracles can happen, it sure does not look good. The Twins were 31 games worse in 2011 than they were in 2010, 31 games, only once in franchise history had a Senators/Twins team played so much worse than they had the previous season and those were the Washington Senators of 1934 who finished the season 33 games worse with a 66-86 mark after advancing to the World Series in 1933 with a 99-53 record. The following season (1935) they won 67 games, one more than the year before.
So how have Senators and Twins teams bounced back from such dismal seasons? The best the Senators could ever do was improve by 27 games back between 1911-1912 and the best the Twins have done since 1961 is improve by 23 games as the 1965 Twins did when they won 102 games coming off a 79 win season in 1964.
But let’s look at more modern times so we will look at the seasons between 1997 and 2011 because it probably makes for a fairer comparison based on free agency and player movement of today. In the last 15 seasons here is what has happened in the AL Central Division.
The Kansas City Royals worst drop-off was in 2004 when the team finished 25 games worse than they did in 2003. The following season, 2005, the Royals finished 2 games worse. The best improvement that the Royals have shown their fans was when they finished 21 games better in 2003 than they had shown in 2002.
The Chicago White Sox worst drop-off was in 2007 when the team finished 18 games worse than they did in 2006. The following season, 2008, the mighty whitey’s finished 17 games better. The best improvement that the White Sox fans have seen was when they finished 20 games better in 2000 than they had shown in 1999.
The Cleveland Indians worst drop-off was in 2002 when the team finished 17 games worse than they did in 2001. The following season, 2003, the Indians finished 6 games worse. The best improvement that the Indians fans have seen was when they finished 18 games better in 2007 than they had shown in 2006.
The Detroit Tigers worst drop-off was 14 games and it happened twice, once between 1997 and 1998 and again from 2007 to 2008. The following season in 1999 the team improved by 4 games and in 2009 the team improved by 12 games. The best improvement that the Tigers have seen was when they finished 29 games better in 2004 (to a 72-90 season) than they had shown in 2003, but, 2003 was the season the Tigers put up a pathetic 43-119 record.
That brings us to the Twins, whose worst drop-off was 31 games in 2011 from their 2010 season. The biggest improvement the Twins have shown during this 15 year period was in 2001 (TK’s last season as manager) when they finished 16 games better than what they showed us in 2000. In the past 15 years the Twins have improved their record from the previous season 8 times for an average improvement in games won over the previous season of 8 games. On the minus side their record has gotten worse from the previous season 7 times for an average of -11.29 but that is obviously skewed by the big -31 of 2011. If the 2012 Twins could match their biggest improvement of say 16 games as they did in 2001, that still only moves the Twins 2012 record up to 79-83. The Twins have to improve by 18 games just to reach the .500 mark and would have to improve by 27 games to reach the 90 win mark. It does not look promising.
The Twins have improved their previous years mark by 18 games or better on 4 occassions. The feat was accomplished by the 1991 team that improved by 21 games, the 1969 team that improved by 18 games, the 1965 team that improved by 23 games and the 1962 team that was 21 games better than the 1961 team. Four times in 50 seasons, not good odds for sure and remember, an 18 game improvement only takes the team to an 81-81 record, or .500 baseball. The team has lost Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jose Mijares, Kevin Slowey and a number of bit players but then again, they lost 99 games when they had these guys. I know they added Ryan Doumit, Jason Marquis, Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll and brought back Matt Capps but how many wins will these guys put in the “W” column?
What this team needs in order to play respectable baseball is for Joe Mauer to step back to earth from the “Twilight Zone” that he was in most of last year and catch 130 games and play 1B and DH for 10-15 more. I see no reason why this can’t happen, Mauer should come out of the gate madder than hell and show everyone that 2011 was a fluke. I will believe that when I see it. The next issue is Justin Morneau, here I am not nearly as optimistic. Justin was just a shell of himself in 2011 and I worry that Justin Morneau’s baseball career is coming to a premature end. That would be so sad as Justin should have many more years in him as a productive Twins first baseman. I hope I am totally wrong about Morneau, but if I was a betting man I would say “show me you still got it” Justin. I hope that Danny Valencia thought long and hard about his baseball career since the 2011 season ended because if he continues to play in 2012 like he did in 2011, he will be receiving his fan mail in Rochester come the middle of May. Valencia might not be the .311 hitter he was in 2010 but he sure better not be the .246 hitter he was in 2011 either. A little more work with the glove wouldn’t hurt Danny either. The Twins outfield is a mess, Willingham is a left fielder and the Twins need him to play right because Ben Revere can’t throw out his grandmother. So that forces the team to play Revere in center which is OK in itself but that means you need to move Span to right field but Span says he wants to play center. In my humble opinion, any outfield with Revere and Span both playing at the same time is a bad thing. I am not sure how things are going to shake out but come the second half of 2012, Joe Benson will be playing in the Twins outfield some where. The Twins signed Jamey Carroll to play short but the man has never had a full-time job in 10 big league seasons and he will be 38 before the Twins open the exhibition season. Is that a move that a contending team makes? We can hope that Tsuyoshi Nishioka comes back to life and show us that he really is a professional baseball player……come on, really, there is a chance. Alexi Casilla at 2B is an enigma but I still have hope for this 27-year-old with parts of six big league season under his belt. The bullpen is a couple of sharp knives short of a complete set and the starting staff of Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Jason Marquis would make any manager nervous.
So here it is, you make up your mind, can the Twins compete or will they have to fight and scratch like hell just to reach the .500 mark? Me? Come October, I think we should all be dancing on Target Plaza celebrating manager Ron Gardenhire’s second manager of the year award with a cold drink in our hand if this collection of Twins can win half of their games in 2012. However; if this this team wins 70 or fewer games in 2012, manager Ron Gardenhire may be looking for a job.