Hicks, Arcia are keys to respectability for Twins

After three straight seasons with 90-plus losses, the uphill climb that the Minnesota Twins face entering today’s season opener has become very steep.

There is hope for the future, which I touched on in our season preview in today’s paper. The Twins farm system is highly ranked by a number of sources, including Baseball America.

But in terms of 2014, two young players who will play significant roles in Minnesota’s fortunes are outfielders Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia.

Hicks and Arcia – who were among those top-ranked prospects entering last season – debuted in 2013, with Hicks struggling mightily and Arcia providing mixed results.

Hicks forced his way onto the opening day roster last season with a big spring, but hit only .192 in 81 games. The same spring scenario played out again this year, with Hicks once again the starting – and, like last year, lone – center fielder.

Arcia came up midseason and provided some pop with 14 homers in 97 games. But he also struck out 117 times in just 351 at-bats.

John Manuel, who is the editor in chief of Baseball America, spoke at length about the team’s prospects in today’s Forum story. But he also touched on Hicks and Arcia, saying he’s much more bullish on Arcia’s potential moving forward.

“I’m pretty excited about Arcia,” Manuel said earlier this month. “… I believe he will hit at the big league level. He impacts the baseball with consistency. I’m fairly bullish on him.”

As for Hicks, Manuel said: “Aaron Hicks is a much tougher guy to read. Didn’t read some good things about him when he got sent to Triple-A. The buzz around Hicks and how he was handling his struggles and his demotion was not great. … He had about as bad of year as you can have last year. He had to deal with a lot of failure. And indications were he didn’t handle it well. Generally the track record for guys who have a year that bad is not good.”

When looking at this team, I think the Twins – thanks to Glen Perkins, Casey Fien, Jared Burton and company – should have a solid, dependable bullpen. And while Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes probably won’t produce like the Nos. 1 and 3 starters that they are on the Twins, this is a veteran staff. And I think it’s a predictable staff. Not a great staff, but I think we know what to expect.

The hope is that Nolasco, Hughes, Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey can at the very least pitch deep enough into games to keep the top bullpen arms fresh and productive.

The lineup has the greatest amount of question marks. How much will Josmil Pinto play? Can Trevor Plouffe and Josh Willingham return to their 2012 forms? Who is the leadoff hitter? Who is the No. 2 hitter, for that matter?

But Hicks and Arcia are the keys. Right now, this feels like a team that will go 68-94. Pitching has been elusive for the Twins in recent years, and now the lineup looks like, even with a good start, that it might struggle to consistently produce enough runs each game to win.

Twins Caravan leftovers

Nothing really beats talking baseball on a cold January night like we endured in Fargo-Moorhead last night. The Minnesota Twins Winter Caravan stop at The Hub couldn’t have come at a better time.

Third baseman Trevor Plouffe, reliever Anthony Swarzak, Twins broadcaster and Baseball Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, bench coach Terry Steinbach and Twins President Dave St. Peter were in attendance Monday.

I wrote a couple of stories that ran in today’s Forum, with one focusing on the team’s pitching upgrades and the other a notebook that touched on the team’s prospects, payroll and Metrodome memories.

I had plenty more that just didn’t make the print edition. A few more notes for you diehard baseball fans out there:

Swarzak’s emergence

I mentioned in the main story that Swarzak led MLB relievers last season with 96 innings out of the bullpen. In fact, his relief innings total last season was the most for any major league pitcher since Scott Proctor tossed 102 1/3 innings out of the New York Yankees bullpen in 2006.

On a team that won only 66 games and had the worst starting pitching in baseball, Swarzak was a true unsung hero last season, posting a 2.91 ERA.

If you’re a sabermetric type, his bWAR (Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement) of 1.7 was second on the team’s entire staff behind closer Glen Perkins’ 2.1.

But Swarzak – as good as he was in the bullpen – said he still “wants to be a starter one day again” and hoped that he would get that opportunity again someday.

Next in line behind Gardy

Steinbach talked at length with me about last night regarding last season, which was his first as a major league coach of any kind.

One thing to keep in mind with the role of bench coach is that Steinbach is the quote-unquote manager when manager Ron Gardenhire gets ejected from games. And we all know Gardy doesn’t shy away from that.

Steinbach was very quick to point out that while he might be manager under that scenario, he relies more on the rest of the coaching staff than someone in that position normally would. He pointed out the extensive coaching experience of guys like Scott Ullger and Rick Anderson.

Steinbach added that he is looking forward to Year 2 on the bench and hopes last season’s time proves invaluable to him.

Offense needs plenty of help too

It slips through the cracks because of the immense ineptitude of the starting rotation, but the Twins lineup has really struggled each of the last couple of seasons. And having an entire year without a guy like Justin Morneau puts this group in a bigger hole of other players don’t emerge.

Minnesota has ranked in the bottom five in the AL in runs scored each of the last three seasons.

“Last year we had a lot of guys come up and get that experience,” Plouffe said. “It’s not easy to come up and have success right away.”

Joe Mauer is moving to first base, which fills the void left by Morneau last season. But that also opens up the catcher position, which – no offense to Kurt Suzuki, Josmil Pinto, etc. – has no chance of getting anywhere near the production that Mauer provided from that position.

But Plouffe said he thinks having Mauer at first base is a good thing.

“We want his bat in the lineup as much as possible,” Plouffe said. “If that’s what it takes to get his bat in the lineup, then we are all for it.”

Looking for outfield help

Touched on it in the notebook briefly, but St. Peter did say he would like to see the team add a little more offense still. He pointed out that players become available in spring training, which left me thinking that any upgrades there would probably just be platoon-type or bench players and likely won’t come until March when rosters start getting squeezed.

When pressed regarding what type of position he’d like to see improved, he mentioned the outfield.

The Twins have outfield options, but it’s anyone’s guess how that group will sort itself out. Josh Willingham – in the final year of his contract – is locked in at left.

No doubt the Twins would love to see Aaron Hicks emerge in center field after a dreadful rookie campaign. Alex Presley, who came over from Pittsburgh in the Morneau deal, should get a good look as well.

I thought Oswaldo Arcia, 22, had an encouraging rookie season, belting 14 homers in 351 at-bats. He was at times overmatched, as his 117 strikeouts will attest to. He should get plenty of at-bats in either right field or as the designated hitter. Jason Kubel is also on the team with a minor league deal.

Metrodome at least built memories that last

The Metrodome on its final MLB opening day in 2009.

There probably is no shortage of Minnesota Vikings fans lamenting Sunday’s victory against the Detroit Lions in the team’s regular-season finale. The Vikings were not in playoff contention, meaning the win only worsened the team’s draft position.

But I was glad to see the Vikings win in what marked the final major sporting event in the history of the Metrodome. The stadium deserved to go out with one last win.

The Metrodome was the stadium of my childhood. Often ripped by visiting players and coaches – and a lot of home fans too – during my youth for its appearance and its many shortcomings, there was no other place I’d rather be.

The eye-popping inflatable roof masked what was a pretty plain-looking stadium on the inside. The sightlines were terrible for baseball, which was more often than not the reason I was at the Metrodome. The turf – especially in its early days – looked like anything but grass.

But I sure loved being there. I first stepped into the Metrodome in the summer of 1987. My parents took my younger brother and I to our first Twins game. This was the summer that saw the Twins surprisingly in a fight for the AL West title. The season would end with Minnesota winning its first World Series.

But on that summer day, my mind was not at all focused on the standings. I was too in awe of the seemingly endless white roof over our heads or the big blue baggie in right field. There was Kirby Puckett in center field, the idol of my childhood. And, of course, who could forget the feeling of being pushed out of the stadium’s doors by air pressure when it was all over. Man, that was a rush, especially when you’re a first-grader going there for the first time.

My best memory was attending Game 163 in the 2009 season. MLB Network placed that game in its top 20 list that it broadcast a couple years back. It was a wild back-and-forth game that saw the Twins outlast the Detroit Tigers in a playoff tiebreaker, sending the Twins to the ALDS thanks to Alexi Casilla driving home Carlos Gomez for the winning run.

I remember after that game sitting at a Minneapolis bar with my co-worker Tom Mix and one of his friends. We had gone to the game just for fun, not to cover it. We were all just speechless afterwards at that bar, knowing we’d never go to a game quite as crazy as that one, especially considering what was on the line. I attended the ALDS Game 3 against the Yankees, which ultimately proved to be the final MLB game at the Metrodome, as the Twins got swept in the series.

The Metrodome was a lot of things. A baseball stadium should never have been one of them.

But it’s the big events that ultimately matter when you reflect on a stadium’s life. Whether it was watching the 1987 and 1991 World Series on TV or attending game’s like the 2009 AL Central tiebreaker, the Metrodome did have a lot to offer over the decades. And I’ll miss it. Target Field, TCF Bank Stadium and the new Vikings stadium have big shoes to fill.

Previewing the upcoming baseball season

Aside from the lone Sunday night game, the Major League Baseball season will be getting under way in less than two hours. Should be a fun afternoon, evening and night planted in front of the TV. If you can’t be lazy on a day like this, when can you be?

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about the Minnesota Twins season, which starts at 3 p.m. against Detroit. This post will focus on Major League Baseball as a whole.

Before I get started, make sure to pick up Monday’s Forum for comprehensive coverage previewing the Twins and the MLB season. This is one of those cases where the print product provides much more than the online product due to graphics, illustrations, breakouts and the like. Here’s the story with Twins GM Terry Ryan discussing the team’s need for pitching and his offseason spent in pursuit of it.

My predictions for the division races (with playoff teams bolded):

  • AL East: Rays, Blue Jays, Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles.
  • AL Central: Tigers, White Sox, Indians, Royals, Twins.
  • AL West: Angels, Rangers, Athletics, Mariners, Astros.
  • NL East: Braves, Nationals, Phillies, Mets, Marlins.
  • NL Central: Cardinals, Reds, Brewers, Pirates, Cubs.
  • NL West: Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies.

In the World Series, I’ll take the Rays over the Braves. Love the pitching for both teams (and improved lineups too), and the Giants have shown that the World Series lately has been all about pitching.

Finally, a few more thoughts on the season:

  • In the AL East, any one of those teams can win, and any one of them can finish dead last. I’d have to go back to my elementary school days to find a time when the Yankees and Red Sox were in this mediocre state, while the other teams in the division realize it and have tried to make the most of their best chance to win the division.
  • The AL Central seems like the Tigers and everyone else. But we all thought that last season too, didn’t we? I’ve been surprised how many national experts have elevated the Royals to second place, and a great many of them have dismissed the White Sox. I know KC added James Shields and Wade Davis, but I just don’t think the Royals are better than the ChiSox and Indians. Cleveland had a great offseason too, adding Micheal Bourn and Nick Swisher. With all of this happening around the Twins, it’s hard for me to not imagine them getting buried in the standings.
  • I’m in three fantasy baseball leagues this year, which definitely puts me at capacity. It’s too late for sleeper talk. But among those three leagues, there are a few players I own on multiple teams. Atlanta Braves pitching prospect Julio Teheran is on all three of those teams, and the following are on two: Shin-Soo Choo, Ben Zobrist, Mike Moustakas, Justin Morneau, Yu Darvish and Matt Harvey. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m very high on Morneau this season. At worst, he’ll be a great start against righties. At best, well, you’ve seen how good he can be. As for Teheran, he was the fourth-best prospect in baseball entering 2012, after Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Matt Moore. Good company. Teheran had a disastrous 2012 season. But he has dominated in the spring, so I’ve been willing to reach for him.

Finding the positives in an otherwise down year for Twins

Anyone out there find a national pundit who hasn’t picked the Minnesota Twins to finish in last place in the AL Central? I haven’t.

There’s no reason to think the Twins will be anything but terrible. I know it’s hard to believe, but I contend a lot of things went RIGHT for the Twins last season despite losing 96 games. They had career years from Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Trevor Plouffe and relatively healthy years from Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. And don’t forget about Scott Diamond‘s big season on the mound too. I have a hard time believing Diamond can repeat that, and starting the year on the DL only decreases the likelihood of 2012 Part Deux for him.

The Twins have actually taken away from their offense this season by trading Denard Span and Ben Revere, although Aaron Hicks has promise (I’ll get to that in a second). They’ve added a few starting pitchers, but is there any reason to think Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley will be much better than Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, etc.? I don’t think so. And my gut feeling is the bullpen’s ERA will be worse than it was a year ago. I’m thinking a 64-98 season is ahead. Tough to stomach for many of you.

There’s enough to be sour about with this group, and the shortcomings have been widely reported. Here are a few things for fans to be optimistic about heading into this season:

  • I have a hunch that Justin Morneau is going to return to his pre-concussion numbers. Maybe not the blistering start he was off to in 2010, but I think he’s going to have a very good season. Let’s go with a .290 average, 25 homers, 90-95 RBIs and an .870 OPS.
  • Aaron Hicks has looked real good this spring. The stats he posted were impressive in Florida. But beyond the numbers, I saw a player who has a great eye at the plate, something he demonstrated in the minors. He looks similar to Denard Span in that regard. I’ve liked Hicks for awhile because of his on-base percentage skills and his defensive ability. Very interested to see how he does skipping Triple-A.
  • While the major league rotation will be dreadful and is banged-up already, the minor league system has the potential to produce some big-time arms. Twins GM Terry Ryan told me earlier this spring that he sees plenty of promise in the likes of Jose Berrios, Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Kyle Gibson and B.J. Hermsen. The last four names mentioned aren’t too far away from the majors with the proper amount of development, and Berrios probably has the highest ceiling of them all.

Enjoy the season. The summer is near.

What to watch for with Twins as spring training gets under way

Something about a foot of snow and 40 mph wind guts gets me thinking about baseball this time of year.

Actually, regardless of the weather, it’s safe to say I’m in baseball mode by mid-Februrary. Temps are typically getting warmer, football is done, fantasy baseball registration is open and pitchers and catchers report. For the Twins, the latter happens on Tuesday.

Minnesota has had some turnover from a year ago, when the team posted its second straight season of 90-plus losses. I don’t believe the turnover will be overly impactful, but it’s turnover nonetheless.

So while I’m stuck in the house watching some Gophers basketball, I figured it would be a good time to review the Twins roster heading into this week’s first workouts of the season.

Let’s start with the position players for today.

The Twins had some encouraging signs regarding their offense in 2012.

Joe Mauer bounced back from an injury-plagued 2011 to hit .319 in 147 games, splitting time among catcher, designated hitter and first base.

First baseman Justin Morneau – another former AL MVP – also returned from concussion issues that had held him back the previous two seasons. He hit .267 with 19 homers and 77 RBIs in 134 games. His numbers against right-handers were very impressive (.291 BA/.531 SLG/.902 OPS).

And OF Josh Willingham (35 homers) and 3B Trevor Plouffe (24 homers) enjoyed career seasons at the plate.

However, despite all that went right, the Twins still were only 10th in the AL in runs scored. There will be concerns in 2013 as to whether or not the four players mentioned above can repeat their 2012 seasons, plus the Twins traded center fielders Denard Span and Ben Revere away in the offseason.

So the offense has some big holes to fill, notably in center field and in the middle infield. Darin Mastroianni would appear to the favorite to replace Span and Revere, with prospects Aaron Hicks and Joe Benson also under consideration.

Mastroianni actually put up a pretty similar season to Revere. Both players’ OBPs were around .330, with Mastroianni utilizing more walks in getting to his number. Both are crazy fast and neither slugs all that much.

In the middle infield, Pedro Florimon is expected to get a good look at shortstop. He hit just .219 in 43 games last season, and there’s no reason to think he’ll hit much better than that. But he brings a reliable glove, one that will be needed with the pitch-to-contact staff.

Brian Dozier and Jamey Carroll are also battling for playing time at shortstop and second base.

With the starting lineup in flux, it’s hard to gauge the bench. But if you’re looking for an under-the-radar player to keep an eye on, Brandon Boggs might be your guy. The 30-year-old outfielder and non-roster invitee has big league experience and a career .381 OBP at Triple-A.

My projected starting lineup
OF Darin Mastroianni
2B Brian Dozier
C Joe Mauer
LF Josh Willingham
1B Justin Morneau
DH Ryan Doumit
3B Trevor Plouffe
RF Chris Parmelee
SS Pedro Florimon

Bench
C Drew Butera
IF Jamey Carroll
IF Eduardo Escobar
OF Brandon Boggs

Baseball HOF voters will come up short if no player is elected this year

There are no shortage of sports topics for which I like to obsess about: the Minnesota Twins, fantasy football, the push for NHL teams in the South to return to the North, etc.

Sometimes those rants can get a little long, which is pretty much what happened with me on Twitter yesterday. Twitter was not built for such rants as my Baseball Hall of Fame one. It merits a blog post instead.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inductees will be announced tomorrow, assuming that there are any to announce at all. According to Baseball Think Factory, which keeps a running tally of voters’ ballots when they are posted online, has 125 ballots so far tabulated. And the results? No player has the 75 percent needed to be inducted. Still a lot of votes missing – roughly 80 percent – but it’s still telling.

There are “big” Hall of Fame guys – people who want lots of players in – and “small” Hall of Fame guys. I’ve always thought of myself as a small Hall guy, keeping Cooperstown induction limited to only the best.

Yet I would be stunned to see no player inducted when the ballot appears to have no shortage of players worth voting for, even if you’re like me and don’t think known performance-enhancing drug users should be in.

And that’s where things get messy. That’s why some voters have opted not to submit a ballot, or submit an empty one (the latter counts against the vote totals of other players).

Some writers are uncomfortable with having to vote for PED users and suspected PED users. Everyone has their own opinion of who should be included in the process, and that’s fine by me. But to me, there are quite a few worthy players on the ballot with no known reason to suspect them of PEDs, so to submit a blank ballot is pretty unfair to the clean players.

Example: Craig Biggio has 3,000 career hits. No player eligible has been left out of the HOF with 3,000 hits. He’ll get in one day. So why the wait?

And if you’re worried about voting in someone who we might find out later on did test positive for PEDs during baseball’s anonymous testing (like David Ortiz did during 2003 testing), I understand the concern.

But sometimes cheaters get away with it. Gaylord Perry threw a spitball, and is in the Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were once involved in a scandal to throw a game (both were cleared, but there was solid evidence implicating them). Use of amphetamines in the 1960s and 1970s was widespread.

Some guys get away with it, and some guys don’t. That’s life. And my take is I’d rather let a couple of steroid users into the Hall than keep a couple of innocent, deserving players out of it due to suspicions.

So, as I did last year, here are the players that would get my vote if I had a ballot:

  • Jeff Bagwell. What I wrote last year about Bagwell pretty much sums up my thoughts this year. “If after his Hall induction we find out that he took steroids – and yes, I wouldn’t vote for anyone that took steroids – so be it. Sometimes people get away with it. That’s life. Not every criminal is apprehended. There are cheaters in the Hall of Fame right now. But I believe in innocent until proven guilty.” Had 449 career homers and a .948 OPS.
  • Craig Biggio. The great Joe Posnanski thinks that Biggio will be the recipient of collateral damage due to this ballot if he doesn’t get in. That’s very true. More than 3,000 hits. Bill James said in 2001 that Biggio is the fifth-best second baseman of all-time. Also played extensively at catcher and center field (who does that?). Five seasons of 20+homers. Four Gold Gloves. He’s in, and he shouldn’t have to wait.
  • Edgar Martinez. What I wrote last year still rings true: “The stats are just too good to ignore for me, even if he was often injured throughout his career and rarely played in the field. Hit .312 with a .418 OBP over 18 major league seasons in Seattle. His 147 OPS+ (basically his OPS in comparison to the era he played and ballpark he called home) is 40th all-time, tied with Jim Thome, Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell. That should give you an idea of the company he keeps on that list. He’s ahead of modern players like Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder.”
  • Fred McGriff. I think McGriff is someone who is only going to look better on the ballot as the years go by during our current pitchers’ era. McGriff hit 493 homers in 19 seasons. He slugged better than .500 for his career and made five All-Star Games, and probably lost out on other selections due to juiced-up contemporaries. Enjoyed a seven-year peak from 1988-94 in which he hits 242 homers (35 per season) and slugged .545 with a .390 OBP. Yet remarkably in that peak, only two of his All-Star selections occurred.
  • Jack Morris. Didn’t have him on my fake ballot last year. Morris collected 67 percent of the vote last year, a number that every player who has reached it has eventually gotten in. MLB Network made an interesting comparison between Morris and Mickey Lolich that was eye-opening. Morris’ 3.90 ERA would be the worst among Hall of Famers if elected. But he won 254 games, was a five-time All-Star, was top-five in Cy Young voting five times. Won World Series with three different franchises, twice serving as the undisputed ace on those teams. Had a 2.96 ERA in seven World Series starts. Another interesting stat: No AL pitcher in the DH era has more eight-plus inning starts than Morris (248). Hard to imagine that getting matched again. He was the ultimate workhorse.
  • Mike Piazza. Piazza might be the most fascinating case on the ballot. It seems that most baseball fans probably think that Piazza did steroids. And the story fits. After all, Piazza was a former 62nd-round draft pick (a favor to Tommy Lasorda) who became the greatest offensive catcher of all time. Piazza is the best example of my stance that there just isn’t enough evidence to keep him out.
  • Tim Raines. I love this guy’s case. Only got 48 percent of the votes last year. But I could go on and on about Raines’ numbers. He ranks fifth in stolen bases, and among players with more than 300 steals, he is the most efficient base stealer who ever lived. He hit .294 in a 23-year career, and he had a peak from 1981-87 with Montreal where he hit .310 and stole 504 bases (72 per season) and 63 triples. This one seems to easy to me.
  • Curt Schilling. Best strikeout-to-walk ratio in major league history of anyone with at least 1,000 innings pitched. Only 216 career wins in 20 seasons, but an ERA+ of 127 and a career WHIP of 1.137. And the postseason counts for me too just as it did for Morris. Led the Phillies to a World Series appearance and the Red Sox and Diamondbacks to titles. Postseason stats are sick: 11-2, 2.23 ERA, 19 starts. World Series ERA: 2.06. Wow!
  • Alan Trammell. Another guy I added from last year. I’ve been swayed. Enjoyed a 20-year career entirely with the Detroit Tigers. Six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner. If you believe in WAR (wins above replacement), Posnanski points out that Trammell ranks tied for sixth among shortstops behind only Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Arky Vaughan and Luke Appling. I’m not sure Trammell has the classic peak some voters desire. But 20 years at shortstop hitting .285 really doesn’t happen that often.
  • Larry Walker. What I wrote last year: “The Coors Field homer-happy reputation has no doubt hurt his candidacy. He hit .313 for his career and slugged .565. Those are facts. From 1994 (when he was not calling Colorado home) to 2002, he hit .339 with a .631 slugging percentage and averaged 28 homers and 15 steals per season. And while I can’t find advanced defensive metrics for the prime of his career, he did win seven Gold Gloves. I know the Denver air helped him, but I just can’t ignore his numbers and Gold Gloves. He was unquestionably a better hitter at home during his career. But maybe he just felt more comfortable at home too. In 1999, he hit .461 at Coors Field. Thin air or not, there was more going on there than just altitude.”

There is no Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, nor should there be. Baseball may not have been governing itself against PED use, but it was still an illegal activity that gave them distinct advantages over their peers. And there’s just too much evidence that they used for me to ignore.

I would keep them out.

Finally, I’ll leave you with Raines’ most memorable moment. This was Raines’ first game in 1987 after collusion kept him from being on a team in the season’s first month. He had quite a debut in this May game against the Mets on national TV.

Is Span deal just the beginning?

The Atlanta Braves found their center fielder in B.J. Upton on Wednesday. On Thursday, the Minnesota Twins wasted no more time in trading their center fielder to one of the remaining teams in the baseball marketplace looking for help at that position.

The Twins shipped Denard Span to the Washington Nationals in exchange for top pitching prospect Alex Meyer.

The surprise for me isn’t so much in the trading of Span (which has been rumored for weeks months years) as it is in what the Twins received in return.

That’s not meant to be a slight on Meyer, who has plenty of promise. However, I always thought the Twins would be seeking a major league-ready arm in exchange for Span.

Newly acquired Minnesota Twins prospect Alex Meyer pitched in the MLB Futures Game last season. Associated Press photo

That leaves me wondering if the acquisition of Meyer isn’t a sign that the Twins are thinking about, to some degree, blowing up the major league roster. After all, almost all of the team’s top prospects – Meyer included – were in A-ball last season and years away from being able to help out. The Twins’ loss total in each of the last two seasons has approached 100, and there isn’t a lot of hope that the farm system will provide any help in the next couple of seasons.

With Joe Mauer‘s massive contract still on the books, the Twins probably aren’t looking to do a Florida/Miami Marlins type of dismantling of the roster.

But could we see Josh Willingham – coming off of a career season in 2012 – get dealt at next week’s winter meetings? Is there a market for Justin Morneau? Will the Twins keep dealing for help in A-ball and Double-A with hopes of that wave of players – led by Miguel Sano, Oswaldo Arcia, Meyer and Co. – will be the ones to revive the franchise? Only time will tell.

Twins fans know all about Span and what he brought to the table. He is a reliable leadoff hitter known for taking a lot of pitches. Among major leaguers that qualify for the league lead, Span was second to Marco Scutaro in swinging strike percentage.

He is under a very reasonable contract that called for $21 million over the next three seasons (the last of those three is a $9 million club option, which in all likelihood would be picked up by the Nats when the time comes).

However, Span’s durability has suffered lately, and now he has a concussion history that clubs need to think about.

As for Meyer, he was drafted 23rd overall in the 2011 draft. The 6-foot-9 right-hander from the University of Kentucky brings a mid- to upper-90s fastball along with a slider according to reports. One post-draft assessment said that he needed work on his change-up.

In 129 innings at two levels of A-ball in the Nationals’ system, Meyer struck out 139 with an ERA of 2.86. As a 22-year-old, he would be expected to play well at that level of the minors, but FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron writes that there’s still considerable upside and plenty of risk – in this deal for the Twins. 

 For more on Meyer, you can go back to the FanGraphs’ well and check out this re-published story about him.

Offseason work starts to get under way for Twins

The Minnesota Twins should have one goal in mind this offseason: acquire pitching. As much pitching as they can find.

That’s not to say the Twins don’t have other warts. But after back-to-back seasons with win totals in the 60s, Minnesota isn’t going to turn its franchise around overnight. There needs to be a priority.

What do we know? Scott Diamond is coming back to provide what the Twins hope will be a steady option in the rotation. But beyond that, the starting staff gets pretty sketchy.

They probably won’t spend the big bucks it would take to get right-hander Zack Greinke in free agency, even though it’s been reported in the past that he would prefer to avoid large markets.

So their attention will likely turn to the trade market. And in order to get something, you have to give something up.

Denard Span is often discussed as a trade chip for the Minnesota Twins. Associated Press

The most talked about trade chip for the Twins is outfielder Denard Span, who seems somewhat expendable with the emergence of Ben Revere. Span has been a reliable on-base threat at the top of the batting order and provides a great glove in the outfield. His contract is reasonable, and all of those factors make him coveted (this FanGraphs piece goes into further detail).

Tampa Bay’s James Shields is one of the bigger names being thrown around in rumors in early November. It would take quite a bit more than just Span to get Shields. And do the Twins dare deal with the Rays after what happened in the Matt Garza-for-Delmon Young swap? It’s a dangerous game swapping with the best front office in baseball.

David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote on Twitter that he thinks it would make sense for the Braves to deal one of their young arms to the Twins for Span. The Braves could lose Michael Bourn in free agency.

“Anybody that’s got numbers [of starting pitchers] or anybody that’s got a possibility maybe of having a lot of depth, then more than likely we have talked to them,” Twins GM Terry Ryan told O’Brien, without naming specific teams. “They aren’t just going to distribute pitching to other clubs unless they can get something back that fills a need. Some way or another we kind of know who we match up with.”

The Braves have Tommy Hanson and prospects Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran competing for the fifth spot in their rotation next season.

While Span could get the Twins one solid starting option, there’s still massive holes in the rotation. And that’s what makes Ryan’s job a difficult one.

And that’s also why I’m quick to defend pitching coach Rick Anderson, who was spared while other coaches were let go this offseason. Who have the Twins given Anderson to work with in recent years? Besides Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, how many starting options has Anderson had in the last 10 years who had good stuff? Not many. A lot of pitch-to-contact guys in an era dominated by power pitching.

Ryan has turned the Twins around once before at the beginning of this century. I’m starting to wonder if this turnaround won’t be more difficult to orchestrate.

Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and the AL MVP debate

An exciting afternoon of baseball – featuring the Oakland A’s improbable AL West title – was capped by a pretty dull night. The New York Yankees won the AL East, keeping the Baltimore Orioles in the AL wild card game.

When compared to last year’s final day of the season, this one couldn’t and didn’t measure up.

Even Miguel Cabrera‘s pursuit of the AL Triple Crown is lacking in drama. How did he become the first player in 45 years to win the batting average, homer and RBI titles, and accomplish it without even needing a big hit on the season’s final day?

There are some great arguments to be made for many of Major League Baseball’s regular-season awards (Can R.A. Dickey win the NL Cy Young?). But how about Cabrera vs. Mike Trout for the AL MVP award.

Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly from the AL MVP race, even though Miguel Cabrera (not pictured) won the AL Triple Crown. Associated Press photo

Cabrera’s accomplishments seem to make it a foregone conclusion that he will win the  award. Heck, I was in the Trout MVP camp for most the year, but the Triple Crown has swayed me. How can a Triple Crown winner not be named MVP? And yes, I realize Ted Williams many decades ago didn’t win the MVP after a Triple Crown season. But that was then. Much has changed.

So what about Trout? He opened the year in the minor leagues and didn’t debut with the Los Angeles Angels this season until April 28. And since then, he has also done things that we have never seen before. Combine an average in the .320s with 30 homers and nearly 50 steals plus Gold Glove-caliber defense in the outfield, and you have the total package.

No player in history has ever had at least 30 homers, 45 steals and 125 runs in a season. That is, until Trout did it this year. Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times argues that type of historic season is why Trout SHOULD be the MVP, not Cabrera. 

If you’re a sabermetric-type of fan, Trout blows Cabrera out of the water in WAR (wins above replacement). Trout leads all of baseball at 10.1, with Cabrera ranking sixth at 7.3.

Why is that? Because of defense. Cabrera ranks very poorly among MLB third basemen, though I think some credit should be given to Cabrera for attempting to make the difficult transition back to third base from first base. That’s not exactly a normal defensive progression as a player ages.

Trout, though, ranks among the best outfielders – according to FanGraphs – in all sorts of defensive metrics.

It’s a difficult decision. I just don’t think either player should be robbed of it. I imagine I’ll get lambasted in the comments section for saying it, but if there was ever a year to name co-MVPs, this is it. I know, I know. I’m taking the easy way out.

Both players did remarkable things on the diamond in 2012, and they should both be considered the AL’s best.