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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Twins' Opening Day 2012 Starting Lineup: What the Heck will it Look Like?

I was just driving back from the post office, and was thinking about Twins' 2012 position players. It dawned on me that, by April 6, 2012, when I am in Baltimore to watch the Twins' season opener, there is a distinct possibility that there could be turnover at the majority of positions, when compared either to the Opening Day 2011 lineup, or even the current players that have been starting these past couple months.

Catcher: Starting behind the dish, Joe Mauer is essentially a lock to start the season at catcher, of course, but you wonder how long he will remain healthy. If there's one player, however, you can build the April 6, 2012 starting 9 around, it's definitely Mauer. From there, however, things get scary, and fast.

First Base: I keep waiting for Justin Morneau to bounce back to even 2/3 the player he was before his July, 2010 concussion. I really want to give him the benefit of the doubt, even as common sense is beginning to tell me that he may never again be an effective player. I met him earlier this year, and he was an extremely nice guy -- I want him to succeed. And if there's one player on this team that is both a competitor and a behind-the-scenes leader, it's Morneau. But what are the odds now, after 3 incomplete seasons, surgeries, and multiple concussions, that he will regain form? Will he play first base next year, DH, or will his brain and body tell him it's time to retire? I'm hoping to hear optimistic reports this winter from the Twins' beat writers, but right now, I have a difficult time penciling Morneau in at 1B next April 6. Chris Paremelee has look good in his Twins' audition. Might he make the Opening Day 2012 roster?

Second Base: Where the hell has Alexi Casilla been the past 2 months? I know, he's injured with hamstring stuff. It seems like it's been longer than 2 months, though. His last appearance was on August 12, and before that it was July 27. There was a period in May and June where Casilla really put it together: he was playing solid defense, and was reaching base consistently with a mix of singles, doubles and walks. Most importantly, he was coming up with hits in big situations. It was everything that Twins fans had waited for with Casilla. Then, he regressed. If the season ended today, Casilla's line would be .260/.322/.368 (slightly above his career averages) with 21 doubles and 15 stolen bases, in 365 plate appearances. Not bad, but not good either, for a team that is supposed to be competing not only for the division title, but for a World Series. What happens next year? Does Casilla inherit the job again, because he is somewhat cheap and showed flashes of brilliance, or do the Twins look at the free agent or trade market? In any event, if this is supposed to be a competitive team in 2012, I'm not content with just handing a starting position to Casilla again. I'd like to see the front office at least explore other options.

Shortstop: As I have written before, as have many others, Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a big Japanese mistake. The signing has been a disaster and a waste of $15 million. If I were making the decisions, Nishioka would probably open 2012 in AA New Britain to learn some fundamentals from the Rock Cats' coaching staff, who actually put together a pretty nice season this year. The last report was that the Twins' sounded like they were bringing Nishioka back to the team for 2012, but that he was going to need to prove that he belonged. Gardy wanted to see better play from Nishioka the last month of the season, but that's hardly happened, as, in a small sample size, Nishioka is 4-for-13, all singles, and is day-to-day with oblique issues. When he has played, I do not recall him exactly dominating on defense, either. Nishioka is no lock for shortstop next April, and the same can be said for second base, where he was equally disappointing. Casilla, though far from perfect, is both a defensive and offensive upgrade at either position, it seems.

Third Base: You would think Danny Valencia is a lock to start at third base in 2012. Sure, his 2011 was the definition of a "sophomore slump," but he is young, affordable, and has the tools to be a productive hitter, as we saw in 2011. But then again, he might be, next to Kevin Slowey, the least popular player in the clubhouse, at least if you ask Ron Gardenhire. Gardy has taken seemingly every opportunity to slam Valencia, for his defense, his offense, and his inability to concentrate at times. These are fair criticisms, but many of the same criticisms could have -- and maybe should have -- been leveled at other rookies, and even veterans, who seemingly get a pass from Gardy. Unless the organization decides to trade Valencia away, I'm sure he will be starting at third base next year. But who knows how much Gardy might lobby the front office to ship Valencia somewhere else? Maybe to St. Louis in exchange for Nick Punto???

Outfield: The outfield is a big mess for next year. The most likely player to start, Denard Span, is currently unable to play baseball, and is concerned for his future. How's that for an ominous beginning? Span was almost traded for Nationals' closer Drew Storen at the deadline, so clearly the Twins are willing to deal him, if the price is right. IF Span is healthy, and IF he is not traded, he will most certainly be starting. But where? When Span went down with his concussion, Ben Revere came along, and has filled in admirably -- at least on defense. Make no mistake, I like Ben Revere, but I admit that he's not ready to start for the Twins, right now. I also believe, however, that he has a higher upside than a potential 4th outfielder. If the Twins can somehow work on his throwing, and when Revere learns to draw walks, he will be a solid player. He is about to set the Twins' rookie record for steals, and he only played 2/3 of a season in the big leagues. Given the likelihood that one or both of Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel will be gone next year, as well as Delmon Young's recent departure to Detroit, there is certain to be changes in the outfield. I would not be at all surprised to see Span and Revere starting (but I'm not sure who plays center and who plays left), with either Cuddyer or Kubel (if either is retained) in right. Clearly, the April 6, 2012 outfield could, and probably will, be dramatically different than the Opening Day 2011 outfield. I like Joe Benson as a prospect, but I think, based on the short sample size, that he needs "seasoning" in Rochester to open up 2012.

These are just thoughts off the top of my head. I hope, and expect, that the front office will be making trades and free agent acquisitions. This is a team that doesn't just need to fill 1 or 2 "holes" to be competitive in 2012. Rather, if fans are going to be at all optimistic about next season, significant changes must be forthcoming.

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