After three-straight playoff appearances in 2008, 2009, and 2010, things went south for the Minnesota Twins in 2011 as they finished the season with only 63 wins. The team was bit by the injury bug as almost every one of their best players (Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan, Jason Kubel, Denard Span, and Francisco Liriano) suffered through an injury-shortened season. There were some positive signs, however, as youngsters like Ben Revere and Danny Valencia began to emerge, and even cast-offs like Carl Pavano and Matt Capps were able to contribute.
Coming into the 2012 season, the typically low-spending Twins eschewed a major free agent signing and will instead choose to grow their talent from within. They’ve lost several free agents along the way (Kubel, Nathan, Cuddyer), but they should also benefit from a possible return to form by several of their bigger names (Mauer, Liriano and Morneau).
The Twins don’t boast any top fantasy talents, but there can always be value found in even the weakest of teams, as long as the price is right. As long as owners don’t reach for any Twins players, there are certainly some hidden gems on Minnesota’s roster that can help on any fantasy rosters. Let’s take a look at the Top Five questions about the Twins for fantasy owners going into 2012:
Can Josh Willingham fill Michael Cuddyer’s shoes?
Michael Cuddyer rewarded his fantasy owners with a solid .284/20 HR/70 RBI line in 2011, while also providing invaluable position flexibility (1B, 2B, 3B, OF). Unfortunately for Twins fans, Cuddyer’s contract demands (3 years, $31.5M) were too rich for Minnesota’s blood and the Rockies were more than happy to step in. The good news, however, is that Josh Willingham’s contract demands (3 years, $21M) fit into the Twins’ payroll and they’ll actually get more bang for their buck if you go by his 2011 numbers (.246/29 HR/98 RBI). More importantly, though, what does that mean for fantasy owners?
The cavernous outfield of Target Field has become known as a place where lefties’ power numbers go to die, but Willingham is a right-handed hitter that’s been posting solid power numbers in pitcher’s parks (Florida, Washington, Oakland) for the last six seasons. His career .262 average is a valid concern, but that’s a palatable number if he puts up 25-30 home runs and comes anywhere close to 100 RBIs. The one downside is that Willingham won’t provide the same position flexibility as Cuddyer, but he’s going to give you similar (if not better) numbers to Cuddyer’s 2011 campaign and you should be able to get him a full four or five rounds after Cuddyer.
Does Justin Morneau still need a doctor’s note?
As you may or may not have noticed, I don’t have a “Dr.” or “PhD” moniker next to my name so I’m not going to offer a medical prognosis on the myriad of injuries (concussion, knee, shoulder, wrists, foot) that have befallen the 2006 AL MVP over the past two seasons. That being said, it would be foolish to discount the fact that these injuries have caused Morneau to miss 174 games (that’s over half!) over the 2010 and 2011 campaigns. As we’ve seen with Sidney Crosby and numerous NFL players, concussions can be very tricky business and we certainly have to take that risk into account when assessing Morneau’s fantasy prowess.
The Canadian first baseman admirably fought his way through his aforementioned injuries last year, but you don’t get bonus points for being tough in fantasy baseball, and his bottom-line numbers of .227/4 HR/30 RBI just aren’t going to cut it. With Morneau entering the wrong side of 30 and Target Field sapping left-handed hitters of their power, there unfortunately aren’t any indicators that point to a turnaround in 2012. While Morneau is certainly worth a late-round flier because of his track record, there are much safer/higher-upside first base options available in the form of Paul Goldschmidt, Gaby Sanchez, Carlos Lee, and Ike Davis.
Will the real Joe Mauer please stand up?
After his 2009 AL MVP campaign and concurrent 8 year/$184 million contract extension, Mauer has been greeted with nothing but bad news. His 2010 stats were down due to a lingering knee injury and a move to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark, his 2011 season was shortened due to a reported “bilateral leg weakness”, a viral infection, and pneumonia, and he was subjected to being called “soft” by the Minnesota media and “anonymous” teammates, alike. There were also rumors over the offseason that the Twins’ franchise player had gained 30 pounds, but the latest reports have him back to his old playing weight and ready to go for training camp.
Injuries and rumors aside, the question for fantasy owners remains: who is the real Joe Mauer? We know he can hit for average, but is he the 2009 Joe Mauer that hit 28 home runs (answer: no), or is he the 2005-8/2010-2011 Joe Mauer that averaged a shade over eight home runs a season? The answer to that question is the key to determining his 2012 value. If he’s going to replicate his 2009 season, the position scarcity at catcher dictates him being a top 75-100 player. However, that 2009 season is currently the outlier in Mauer’s career, which makes him no more valuable than someone like Yadier Molina. Mauer’s talent is unquestionable, but the recommendation here would be letting someone else assume Mauer’s risk.
Is Francisco Liriano actually an Ace?
After Johan Santana left town in 2007, it was widely assumed that Francisco Liriano would ably replace the former Cy Young winner. Expectations and reality took a divergent path, however, and Liriano’s career has alternated between good (3-something ERA) and bad (5-something ERA) seasons since.
Liriano boasts an impressive strikeout rate over his career (8.9/9), but injuries and control issues have thrown a wrench into his progression into a top-tier pitcher. He’s only topped 140 innings once in his career (2010), and is coming off a season in which he posted a 5.09 ERA and 1.49 WHIP (both numbers being the second-worst in his career).
If Liriano stays healthy in 2012, he should certainly benefit from starting half his games in pitcher-friendly Target Field and a return to his 2010 stats (3.62 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 201 K’s) is not out of the question. In a “what have you done for me lately” world, most owners will focus on his putrid 2011 stats and he should still be available in the late rounds of most drafts, making him worth a speculative pick.
Is Ben Revere the Twins’ most valuable fantasy asset?
Two years ago, the statement above would be the laughing-stock of the fantasy world. As we’ve learned, however, the Twins’ stars of 2009 became the infirmary stars of 2011 and Ben Revere’s 34 steals last year are extremely hard to overlook in a world where steals come at a premium. The rookie’s 34 steals tied for 13th in the Majors last season, and were within 5 steals of speedsters like Jose Reyes and Jacoby Ellsbury. More impressively,Revere posted those numbers while having more than 100 fewer at-bats than the aforementioned superstars.
Most of Revere’s playing time in 2011 came at the expense of Denard Span, but he will enter 2012 as the leading candidate to start in left field and should be able to hold down that title. He will need to improve upon his lackluster .619 OPS in 2011, but he did end the year on an upswing as he posted a .710 OPS in the month of September. As long asReverereceives the significant playing time that he should in 2012, he will be a valuable fantasy asset for owners in need of steals and he will definitely challenge Josh Willingham and Joe Mauer for the crown of “Most Valuable Twin” for fantasy owners.
2012 Outlook: With the Tigers loading up, this is the first season in recent memory that the Twins start the year as definitive underdogs in the AL Central. All hope is not lost, however, as the Indians, Royals, and White Sox didn’t do a whole lot in the offseason to improve their 2012 chances. As long as the Twins can stay healthy (which, as we’ve covered, is a risky proposition), they should be able to improve upon their 63-win season in 2011 and have an outside shot for the AL Wild Card.
More importantly, fantasy baseball gems can be found on any team and the Twins provide owners with several buy-low opportunities. As long as the injury risks we’ve covered are taken into account, there is certainly value in scooping up Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Franscisco Liriano in later rounds. Scott Baker, Matt Capps, Josh Willingham, Denard Span, Danny Valencia, and Ben Revere are several other interesting later-round options that fantasy owners would do well to grab as players to fill-out their rosters.