The 2011 baseball season is underway and our Twins start their season in Toronto at 6pm on Friday! Mark Teixeira just hit a 3-run HR off Justin Verlander to take a 3 to 1 lead over Detroit which reminds me of how the Twins ended last season! Another season ended by the New York Yankees! BAHHH!!!
At last, a new season is upon us and we can move on to bigger and better things!
An irregular amount of change was made to the roster during the offseason. The middle infield and the majority of the bullpen has been revamped but the core of the offense and the starting rotation remain intact. The Twins brought back fan favorite Jim Thome and Carl “The ‘Stache” Pavano but decided against retaining the services of 2B Orlando “O-Dog” Hudson and utility man “Little Nicky” Punto.* J.J. Hardy was traded to Baltimore for two right-handed relief pitchers, Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson. They also decided against retaining bullpen pitchers Matt Guerrier (signed by the Dodgers), Jesse Crain (signed by the White Sox), Brian Fuentes (signed by the A’s) and Jon Rauch (signed by Toronto.) Maybe we’ll see Jonny right away when we face Toronto to open the season. Then the Twins tried to send Pat Neshek to AAA Rochester through waivers and he was claimed by the San Diego Padres on March 20th! Wow, that’s a lot of change to that bullpen!
*Here’s my favorite thing about “Little Nicky” Punto! – A Day in the Life of Little Nicky Punto – Battle Your Tail Off!!!- from Twinkie Town
The Twins decided to add some more speed to the middle infield so we will have a brand new shortstop and second baseman when the season starts on Friday!!! Maybe not brand new as we are somewhat familiar with Alexi Casilla from the last 4 seasons but not too much as a full time starter. He did start the ’09 season as the full-time 2B but couldn’t find the bat from the ’08 season that got him the job and ended up batting .202/.280/.259 (BA/OBP/SLG) overall. Unfortunately, Alexi Casilla seems to be on the same every other year rotation of good and bad seasons that Nick Punto was on and, of course, 2011 is a bad year in that rotation! We’ll blame that on the MetroDome and move on. He did have a career high .726 OPS last season so hopefully that’s a sign of things to come. Its probably now or never for Alexi.
Not only does Alexi get to start the season as the starting shortstop, he has to be the leader of the infield and his biggest task might be learning Japanese so he can interact with our newest player and biggest offseason acquisition, Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka*, (pronounced Suh-yo-she Knee-she-o-ka!) Nishi is a 26 year-old switch-hitting middle infielder who has speed, can handle the bat and play good defense. He comes from Japan where he had a career year last year. He captured the batting title with an average of .346, had an on-base percentage of .423 and added 11 home runs, 59 RBI and 22 stolen bases. He’s been an All-Star 5 times and won 3 Gold Gloves while playing for the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPD) league since the age of 18. In the three previous seasons, he hit for a .287/.361/.427 line and averaged 10 home runs, 43 RBI and 23 stolen bases over that span so last season was definitely a career year in terms of average. He had an unusually high BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) of .395 that might explain most of the big jump in average. That will be almost impossible to sustain in adapting to Major League Baseball. His career BABIP is .327. From looking at his stats, he’s gotten better every season but the leagues in Japan don’t compare favorably to Major League Baseball. I will definitely go into more depth on Nishi as the season goes by!
*Find more content on Nishioka at the bottom of the article!
On to the bullpen where only Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship remain from last year’s bullpen. Gone are primary setup guys Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain as well as Brian Fuentes and part-time closer Jon Rauch. Alex Burnett was optioned to AAA Rochester. The biggest addition is Joe Nathan whose back from Tommy John surgery and was named the closer to start the season. It will probably be Joe and Matt Capps closing to start the season to ease Joe back into form. Kevin Slowey is also a new addition to the bullpen after losing out to Scott Baker for the last rotation spot. Rumors are the Twins might be looking to trade him but I think that’s a bad idea. I’ll have to go into that at a later date. The last new addition to the bullpen is Dusty Hughes who was claimed off waivers from the Kansas City Royals.
The outfield is the same as last season with Delmon in left, Span in center and Cuddy in right. The corner infield spots are the same with Morneau and Danny Valencia and Joe Mauer starts at catcher in the first year of his big contract. Kubel is the primary DH but Thome will get plenty of at bats there as the season goes along.
The rotation is the same as it ended last season with Pavano, Liriano, Blackburn, Baker and Duensing! I’m not sure if the order will stay that way but Pavano gets the opening day start followed by Liriano on Saturday and Blackburn on Sunday. Baker starts the first game of the series against the New York Yankees on Monday!
Here are my concerns to start the season – inexperienced middle infield, will Valencia keep hitting, inexperienced bullpen and offensive depth.
Twins fans have become accustomed to having experience at every spot on the field so its surprising when they have 3 players in the infield who haven’t played a full season in the majors. Will Danny Velencia, Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka be able to hold their own for the whole season. If they start to struggle, do you trust anyone on the bench or in the minors to fill in for them? Matt Tolbert is our utility guy and he fits the mold for the most part. He’s a decent defensive player who will make the routine play but he doesn’t do much with the bat in his hands. Luke Hughes provides a little more with the bat and might be the first guy called up if an injury happens in the infield. Injuries will most likely play a role at some point. It will be interesting to see what happens when or if they do.
Danny Valencia was terrific last season hitting .311/.351/.448 with 7 HR, 40 RBIs, 2 stolen bases and a .799 OPS. Can Danny keep hitting this well? The thing I notice about Danny when you look at his minor league stats is that he was very consistent. Danny played well enough to be a mid-season call-up every year after his rookie season at Elizabethton. In ’07, he started at Low A and by mid-season he had been called up to High A. Then he started ’08 at High A and moved up to AA. In ’09, started at AA and moved up to AAA. He struggled for awhile at AAA last year but figured it out after the first month of the season and finally arrived in Minnesota on June 3, 2010. He was thrown into the fire right away, started hitting right away getting a base hit single in his first at bat and going 10 for 23 in his first 10 games. Only 4 of his first 28 hits were for extra bases but from then on 22 of his 65 hits were of the extra base variety including 14 doubles, 1 triple and 7 home runs. Its easy to see that Danny has what it takes to be the fixture at 3B that we’ve been waiting for since the days of Corey Koskie. Can he keep it up? It will be interesting to see how pitchers adjust to Danny now that he’s had 300 at bats! I will do a more thorough article on Danny Valencia soon!
Most of the bullpen consists of inexperienced guys other than Nathan and Capps. Slowey should be ok but he’s new to a bullpen role. I’m not too worried about Mijares either since he’s spent a couple years having more pressure situations given to him. Perkins has been questionable since he and the Twins have had their differences. Manship is getting better and more used to his role but has been shaky since he’s been up with the Major League club. The obvious name is Dusty Hughes who most of us don’t know anything about. He’s a 29-year-old left handed pitcher drafted by Kansas City in the 11th round of the 2003 Draft. he had a 3.83 ERA with a 34-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 56.1 innings last season. He has a 90 mph fastball, an 85 mph slider, a change-up and a curveball. He should be a solid reliever but nothing special! Rick Anderson will get the bullpen worked out and they should end up being fine. Manship and Perkins will need to show some improvement to keep their spots in the bullpen though.
Last but not least is the offensive depth which is a pretty big concern. We talked about Tolbert already and we know that Thome is fine although he’s had his injury problems before so I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was at least a little concerned about Big Jim getting hurt. My major concern is that they don’t have a big right-handed bat on the bench and I think this needs to be addressed one way or the other during the season. Is it Luke Hughes? He has power! We know that! Is there someone else in the minors that can help? Do they make a trade? They need to find somewhat of a threat from the right side to advance in the postseason when they have to face left handed starters and relievers.
LET’S GO TWINS!!!
Links to more Tsuyoshi Nishioka content:
“Impossible is Nothing” – Adidas commercial on Tsuyoshi Nishioka