AL Central Preview: Royals vs. Twins

After Mother Nature’s winter reminder, both Kauffman and Target Fields are better equipped for snowball fights than baseball games. Entrance to the 2011 playoffs for AL teams in the Midwest is a snow and ice covered road through Minnesota.

The Twins are looking for their third consecutive AL Central Championship. While most of the competition will be from the White Sox and Tigers, they are still slated with the Royals 18 times this summer. Minnesota hasn’t finished lower than third in the AL Central since 2000.

Despite the regular season dominance, the Twins have lost 12 straight playoff games. Nine of those losses come at the hands of the Yankees.

Since the playoff embarrassment, the Twins have not made many offseason alterations to their lineup. Minnesota lost Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Jon Rauch to either free agency or trades.

The Twins will replace mostly from within, but are still in contract talks to return Cal Pavano and Jim Thome.

In 2010 the Twins went 13-5 against the Royals. Even though the Twins 2011 squad looks weaker on paper than 2010, the Royals will see a dip in MLB talent this season. With a vapid rotation, the Twins veteran lineup will consistently expose young Royals mistakes.

The Twins will take 13 again, if not more, from the Royals during 2011.

I’ll rundown the matchups similarly to Aaron Stilley’s look at the Cleveland Indians. All the numbers are from the same sources, Bill James (2011 projections) and Fangraphs.com (WAR, projections).

Starting Pitching

Name 2010 WAR 2011 Projected ERA

Scott Baker 2.5 4.03

Francisco Liriano 6.0 3.69

Kevin Slowey 2.2 4.02

Nick Blackburn 0.4 4.55

Brian Duensing 1.7 4.30

Carl Pavano 3.4 4.16

Total 16 4.13

Royals Totals 3.5 4.65

Pavano isn’t a Twin yet, but all signs point to his return. Pavano would round out a solid staff of young under the radar innings eaters. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Nick Blackburn have all thrown more than 143 innings in the last three seasons. Francisco Liriano, 26, headlines the young staff. The former rookie phenom put together his best season since Tommy John surgery. Liriano went 14-10, 3.62 ERA, and 201 strikeout in 2010, good enough for 11th in Cy Young Voting.

Unfortunately, just about every starting rotation in MLB has a talent advantage over the 2011 Royals. The Twins 2010 staff put up the second lowest xFIP in MLB, 4.10. With essentially the same staff, the Twins starters will easily outpace the Royals.

Advantage: Twins

Catchers

Name 2010 WAR 2011 Projected wOBA

Joe Mauer 5.6 .407

Drew Butera 0.2 N/A

With Joe Mauer protecting the dish, the Twins automatically having a catching advantage on most the MLB. Mauer saw drops in all of his numbers in 2010, but it’s hard to improve on his 2009 MVP performance of hitting .365 with 28 homers.

Significant problems would arise if Mauer went down. Drew Butera is slated as Mauer’s backup. Butera saw his first MLB time in 2010, hitting .197 in 49 games. The Twins traded away catching prospect Wilson Ramos, 22, to Washington. The Twins opted for bullpen support, dealing for Matt Capps in 2010.

Once again, the Royals backstops are inferior to the Twins. Lucas May’s experience and Jason Kendall’s health both pose significant problems. Brayan Pena would benefit from a decrease in his waist line and an increase in his batting average.

Advantage: Twins

Infielders

Name 2010 WAR 2011 Projected wOBA

Justin Morneau 5.4 .393

Alexi Casilla 1.1 .304

Danny Valencia 2.7 .339

Tsuyoshi Nishioka N/A N/A

Trevor Plouffe -0.3 N/A

The infield is anchored by perennial All-Star slugger Justin Morneau. Despite playing in only 81 games, Morneau produced at a pace to rival Mauer, who played a full season, for the team WAR leader.

The biggest hole created by the offseason for the Twins is at shortstop. After dealing J.J. Hardy to Baltimore, the Twins will turn to a trio to fill the void. The largest offseason news to date for Minnesota was the signing of Japanese star Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

It’s difficult to tell how Nishioka will translate on a big league level, as the performance of Japanese imports has varied in MLB. Nishioka won the Japanese batting title, .346, with 206 hits. The hit total toppled Ichiro’s 1994 performance as most in league history.

Nishioka played shortstop in Japan, but his glove skills are already being questioned on a MLB level. Some already project a move across the bag for Nishioka.

Alexi Casilla and Trevor Plouffe will both see upgrades in responsibility with the departure of Hardy and San Diego’s signing of Orlando Hudson. Both have acted as infield utilities, but lack the experience of consistently producing as a starter.

Danny Valencia will build upon his breakout 2010 rookie campaign. The second trip through a MLB season usually results in a sip in numbers. Valencia’s talent, combined with a lack of depth should allow his production to even out over the long season.

Of all the position battles, the Royals matchup with the Twins best on the infield. While Billy Butler isn’t Justin Morneau, he still provides a consistency at the plate with improving defense.

A platoon at third of Wilson Betemit, Mike Aviles, and eventually Mike Moustakas will produce similar numbers to what Valencia is projected to produce.

Aviles will split time at second with Chris Getz as well. Along with the major upgrade of Alcides Escobar as short, and the question marks surrounding the Twins middle infield I lean toward a wash on the infield.

Morneau’s presence is strong enough I simply have to give the nod to the Twins though.

Advantage: Twins

Outfield

Name 2010 WAR 2011 Projected wOBA

Delmon Young 2.1 .358

Michael Cuddyer 0.4 .350

Denard Span 2.9 .340

Jason Kubel 0.3 .364

Delmon Young anchored the Twins lineup in 2010. Young hit .298, 21 HR, and a team leading 112 RBIs. Denard Span added 26 stolen bases and 85 runs from his leadoff spot. Michael Cuddyer spent most of the 2010 at first base as a replacement to Morneau. This season Cuddyer should see more time in right and even a few games at third.

Minnesota’s outfield provides both more talent and depth than the Royals patchwork outfield.

Advantage: Twins

Bullpen

Name 2010 WAR 2011 Projected ERA

Joe Nathan N/A 1.99

Matt Capps 1.2 3.55

Pat Neshek -0.1 3.32

Jose Mijares 0.2 3.90

Glen Perkins -0.1 5.23

The 2011 Twins bullpen is a bit of an unknown quantity. Minnesota will be excited for the return of their All-Star closer, Joe Nathan, from arm surgery. Nathan, along with Matt Capps combines for the high-end talent of the Twins bullpen.

What they have in talent though, they lack in depth. Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain combined for 145 appearances in 2010. Both have signed elsewhere this offseason.

A healthy Joakim Soria vs. Joe Nathan coming off surgery seems like an easy choice. Gil Meche’s move to the bullpen will help level the load. Robinson Tejeda has proven he can consistently produce on a MLB level.

Hawaiian Kanekoa Texeira has been bounced around three squads since the 2010 Rule 5 draft. Texeria will look to set roots in Kansas City and prove his worth similarly to Tejeda did. Some exciting arms could be added to the bullpen in 2011 with the likes of Tim Collins and Jeremy Jeffress.

Advantage: Royals

Author: Adam Shupe

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