The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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September 11, 2011

Thoma: Fixing the Twins starts with defense

MANKATO — When everything’s broken, what do you fix first?

In the case of the 2011 Twins, little went right, and much went horribly wrong. Only one team in the American League (Seattle) has scored fewer runs; only one team (Baltimore) has allowed more.

Offense and defense — the latter of which should be subdivided into pitching and fielding. Three interconnected aspects of baseball, because what you do with one affects the others.

Let’s start by establishing a financial reality: The 2011 Twins were a bit over budget on their payroll to open the season, a bit of latitude granted by an ownership that expected better results. Expect the payroll to dip a bit for 2012.

Financial reality, part two: Justin Morneau will get $14 million in each of the next two seasons, Joe Mauer will get $23 million a year through 2018 — $37 million. Those two represent 33.6 percent of a $110 million payroll, and those obligations ain’t going away. Even without no-trade clauses, the market for those contracts simply doesn’t exist.

OK, let’s take the three interconnected aspects, one at a time:

Offense: The key here is the health of Mauer, Morneau and Denard Span. If they are sound, much of the run-scoring problem cures itself.

Of course, Morneau hasn’t had a full season since 2008, nobody — certainly nobody outside Mauer’s inner circle — seems to know what troubles Mauer — and Span’s concussion-migraine issues may always be a lingering issue.  

The Twins are committed to this high-risk, high-reward trio. if their health continues to fail, their offense will continue to fail.

Pitching: The average pitcher in the American League strikes out 6.9 men per nine innings. The Twins average 5.9.

No team strikes out fewer men, and the margin is not close; Cleveland has the next lowest total, and the Tribe is almost 80 Ks ahead of the Twins.

The Twins have become almost a parody of their pitch-to-contact reputation. That’s not going to turn around in a hurry; even their best pitching prospects are not notable power arms.

And again, finances get in the way of a serious bid for a topflight starter.

The Twins could really use a bounce-back from Francisco Liriano and a full healthy season from Scott Baker. Neither is a sure thing.

Every other rotation candidate now on hand — from Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing to Liam Hendriks and Scott Diamond — needs a lot of help from the third aspect.

Defense: This is where I think the 2012 team has a legitimate opportunity to improve with a return to first principles.

Think the Kelly Virtues — my term for the things Tom Kelly emphasized during his reign as Twins manager. TK, as a rule, was reluctant to sacrifice defense for offense, sometimes to the point of self-parody.

Ron Gardenhire has moved away from that emphasis over the years, as illustrated by his willingness to deploy Michael Cuddyer at second base. The Twins might be able to get away with that kind of thing if they had a sound Liriano and a prime-time Johan Santana in their rotation, but not with their current staff.

The easiest way to improve the pitching is to improve the defense.

That’s where I expect the Twins to focus their offseason efforts.

Edward Thoma is a Free Press staff writer. He is at 344-6377 or at ethoma@mankatofreepress.com. He also has a baseball blog at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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