Sunday, March 30, 2008

2008 Minnesota Twins preview

As I've leafed through the pre-season magazines and read the experts' picks online, I've found that they all have at least one observation in common: The Twins will not be going to the playoffs this year. Unfortunately, I agree.

You can point at the loss of Johan Santana as the death knell of the team's chances of playing in October, but even with him last year, the team only won 79 games. Without him, they'll certainly be worse, though not as much as most people seem to think. Every publication I've read has the Twins finishing no better than third in the division, with Detroit and Cleveland occupying the #1 and #2 spots. Some, however, rank the Twins much lower, and one I glanced at yesterday -- the Sporting News' pre-season publication, I think it was -- had the Twins in fifth, even though it was published before the Santana trade.

People fear change. And the general consensus among many is "change = bad." The Twins may or may not be a better team in 2008 than they were in 2007. They will definitely be a different team, given all their offseason changes. However, apart from the loss of Johan Santana and probably Torii Hunter, it's not as if any of the other changes were automatically for the worse.

With Francisco Liriano inexplicably made to toil away at AAA, the rotation consists of Livan Hernandez, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Boof Bonser, and Nick Blackburn -- and your guess is as good as mine as to how this group, Liriano included, will perform. Hernandez is the only one with any kind of sustained track record. Unfortunately, it's not a very good one. His ERA has been a hair short of 5.00 the last two years, and that was without facing a DH regularly. If he's still in the rotation by the All-Star Break, I'll be surprised. Still, even that would be longer than Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz lasted.

His other rotation-mates young and inexperienced, which, in many people's minds, means they won't be good. Never mind the fact that Baker and Slowey posted better ERAs than Hernandez last season (while facing a DH) and that Bonser was just a shade higher. Boof's lost weight, so they say, and there's no reason to believe that the lot of them can't at least post a bunch of ERAs in the 4-5 range. None of them are Johan Santana (though Slowey could be the next Brad Radke), but just because they're young doesn't mean they'll suck either. And if they do, there's Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey waiting in the wings to replace them. With a strong bullpen, led by Joe Nathan and Pat Neshek, there's no reason to think the Twins will be any worse than any other team when it comes to pitching this year.

Then there's the lineup. Yes, Torii Hunter is gone. But can you say without a shadow of a doubt that Delmon Young won't have as good a year? It's a bit of a stretch, to be sure, but Hunter has, I think, been playing way over his head the last two years and is 10 years older than Young, in any case. Hunter hit 31 home runs last year to Young's 13; I think both players arriving in the 20-25 homer range for 2008 is realistic, and Young's 2007 OBP was only 18 points lower than Hunter's. If I had to bet for the 22-year-old to improve or the 32-year-old to decline...well, I'd pick both.

Then there's the (almost) totally new infield. I've always been a fan of Mike Lamb and thought he was criminally underutilized in Houston. He'll hit around .280 with 15 home runs. Adam Everett won't contribute much with the stick, but he's a Gold-Glove-caliber fielder. I actually think Brendan Harris was a first-half wonder in Tampa Bay last year -- he only hit .256/.316/.397 after the break last year -- and I worry that he'll be able to produce much on offense. Harris and Lamb are also not the greatest of defenders; hopefully Everett can make up for some of that. In any case, if the trade is Alexi Casilla/Jason Bartlett/Nick Punto for Lamb/Everett/Harris, I think I'll take the latter most any day.

Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer all return, with Jason Kubel and (ugh) Craig Monroe splitting DH duty. That, of course, leaves center field to be manned by the key player in the Santana deal, Carlos Gomez. Nobody doubts that he's fast, but can he get on base enough to justify his spot at the top of the order?

You'll hear the term ISOP (Isolated Power) bandied about a lot. Basically, it's slugging percentage minus batting average. A player with a .200 ISOP has more "power" than a player with a .100 ISOP, even if they might have the same slugging percentage. It's a far more accurate measure of power than SLG% alone Ichiro Suzuki has a career SLG% of .437. Rob Deer has a career SLG% of .442. Will you say that Deer (ISOP .222) is only a slightly better power hitter than Ichiro (ISOP .104)? He's a better hitter, overall, to be sure, but Deer is far more likely to hit a home run.

I like to look at something I call ISOBP (Isolated On-Base Percentage), which is simply on-base percentage minus batting average. It's a way of telling, in general, how good someone is at drawing a walk (or HBP), and, as ISOP removes batting average from figuring power, ISOBP removes batting average -- the ability to put the ball in play -- from OBP, which is often about not putting the ball in play. Even as batting average (and therefore OBP) can fluctuate throughout a player's career, ISOBP tends to stay fairly even.

In 2007, Gomez had an average of .232, an OBP of .288, and an ISOBP of .056. That's not great for a leadoff hitter, but it's not bad either, and he was only 21 years old. It's also roughly in line with his minor-league ISOBP of .058, meaning that Gomez will likely never have an ISOBP of better than about .060.

So, what's an acceptable OBP for a leadoff hitter? I'd say the conversation starts around .350. That means Gomez will need to bat about .290 to be a valuable player. Given his speed and extra-base power, I think that's a reasonable possibility, especially when you consider how young he is. He may not do it this year, but I think it's likely he'll make it into that range before too long. And if he doesn't ever fully develop, well, Deolis Guerra also came over in the Santana deal, and he's not even 19 years old yet and looking good.

I agree that Cleveland and Detroit will rule the division and that the best the Twins can hope for is a third-place finish. That said, I also think Kansas City is on the rise and could actually surpass the Twins. The White Sox? Too full of their own hubris (and old, injury-prone players) to be any good this year. I think the 3-4-5 positions will be pretty close -- and the Twins could be a force in 09-10, once the young players get a little experience -- but my final prediction for the Twins is:

75-87, 4th place

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