The start of the 2011 season is finally here, and what better way to start it than at home against the Minnesota Twins, the defending AL Central champions?
Joining me for the series preview is Nathaniel Gilmore, Site Writer over at FanSided’s great Twins site Puckett’s Pond. He will be handling everything from a Twins perspective in the preview after the jump, including a few questions in terms of what to expect from the team. Here’s everything you need to know:
Toronto Blue Jays
2011 Regular Season Record: 17-20, 4th in AL East (5.0 GB)
2011 Regular Season Record: 12-23, 5th in AL Central (10.5 GB)
May 13: Ricky Romero (2-4, 4.04 ERA) vs. Carl Pavano (2-4, 6.64 ERA)
Romero has mixed in 2 good starts (2 ER and 7/6 IP) with 2 bad starts (5 and 6 ER over 4.1 or fewer IP) over his last 4 games. The uncertainty is definitely there as a result, but he did earn a win vs MIN April 1st when he only allowed 1 ER in 6.1 IP, struck out 7, and walked none.
Pavano has allowed 6 or 7 ER in 3 of his last 4 starts, so you know Twins fans must be fearing the worst in this case. Since he hasn’t allowed many walks in those starts, you can see just how hard he has been hit with 12 and 10 hits allowed in his last 2 starts (both within 5.1IP).
May 14: Jo Jo Reyes (0-3, 5.00 ERA) vs. Nick Blackburn (2-4, 3.95 ERA)
Jo Jo needs to get some wins under his belt if he’s going to keep a spot in the rotation, so he’s in the pressure cooker for this game. He needs to keep the ball down, plain and simple. When he gets it up in the zone, particularly late in the games, he gets lit up.
After allowing 5 ER in 3 straight starts, Blackburn has settled down and only allowed 1 ER over his last 2 starts, which brought his ERA down from 5.14 to 3.95 on the season.
May 15: Brandon Morrow (1-2, 4.71 ERA) vs Brian Duensing (2-2, 3.32 ERA)
Morrow’s still finding his groove after being on the DL to start the year. You can see his potent stuff can be unhittable at times. If he can keep his pitch count down, he should be able to go 7 strong in this one.
Duensing has done better than could be expected thus far in 2011 and should really have a few more wins under his belt when you look at the stats. The southpaw will surely be a good opponent to Morrow and it’ll be interesting to see if he can continue his surprisingly strong play.
Toronto: Jose Bautista, Marc Rzepczynski, and Carlos Villanueva
Let’s just put it this way, no pitcher wants to face or pitch to Jose Bautista, and no hitter wants to see either Marc Rzepczynski or Carlos Villanueva come out of the Jays pen to face him at any time in the game. These guys are playing extremely well and are carrying the team at this point. A small shout out goes to Rajai Davis who has really started to hit the ball of late and already has 11 SBs to his credit despite missing lots of time early on in the season. At this point, it seems like if he gets on 1st, it’s really a triple.
Minnesota: Jason Kubel
I would have bet money that Kubel wouldn’t hit the way he has, but here he is, in mid-May with a .355/.414/.532 line as the best hitter on the Twins roster. The soon to be free agent is surely seeing dollar signs at this point and is having a career year already!
Toronto: Aaron Hill
The Jays will have to make a choice at the end of the year regarding Hill, and at this point he hasn’t shown any glimpses of his former self aside from the hustle and heart he always plays with. He’s only 3 for 18 since returning from his latest injury and has a .225/.253/.263 line overall this year and is still without a HR. The last part hurts most, because if there’s one area that the Jays used to be able to count on getting from Hill, it was above-average power as a second baseman. Without that, is he really worth $8 million per season for 2012 and 2013? That’s the decision the Jays face at the end of this season, and it’s something Hill is fighting to resolve this year.
Minnesota: Justin Morneau
At 112 ABs into the season, Morneau only has 1 HR to his credit and holds a .214/.279/.313 line. Who would have ever thought he’d be sitting at this level as a healthy player? The former MVP has a lot of work to do in order to get back to his 30 HR/ 100 RBI levels of the past and the Twins need him to turn it around if they’re going to have any shot of making a comeback in 2011.
15-day DL: Jayson Nix (knee) starting his rehab in HiA
60-day DL: RP Jesse Carlson (left shoulder), RP Dustin McGowan (right rotator cuff), Dustin McGowan (Torn Rotator Cuff) making a comeback as a RP and could play in XST in mid-May
15-day DL: Joe Mauer (bilateral leg weakness), Tsuyoshi Nishioka (fractured fibula), Jason Repko (strained right quad), Jim Thome (slight back strain).
60-day DL: NA
In this section of all series previews, dubbed “3 on 3″, I’ll be asking the opposing team’s writer 3 questions regarding what to expect from the team in an effort to get more information to you, the readers. They’ll return the favor and ask me 3 questions for which my answers will be posted on here and on their site as well. As always, anything that was covered by either myself or the opposing team’s writer is an invitation for any kind of feedback in the comments section below!
Mat: The Twins have “seen better days” and are obviously struggling thus far in 2011. I can remember everyone speaking about how Carl Pavano was not a true #1 and that the Twins really needed better pitching but seemed uninterested in acquiring any help there. Has that changed with the horrible start to the year? If so, who’s on their radar if anyone?
Nathaniel: During the offseason, the Twins appeared to have 5 solid #2 or #3 starters in their rotation, but no true ace. I don’t think anyone thought of Pavano as an ace; if anything, Twins fans hoped that Francisco Liriano would take the next step and become one. There were no real attempts to acquire a #1 guy because there were really none available – the Royals would never have traded Zach Greinke within the division, and the Twins could never afford a 6 year $20+ million per year deal that Cliff Lee commanded.
I haven’t heard any talk lately – from fans or from the media – about the Twins trying to acquire an ace. Everyone in Twins Territory is just hoping that the current crop of starters can hold it together. There is some help on the way later this year, though. 2010 first round pick Kyle Gibson looks ready to jump to the Majors.
M: Francisco Liriano threw a gem recently, and that had to feel great for all Twins fans. Is he steadily pitching great in 2011, or has he been inconsistent?
N: Liriano has been very consistent – consistently terrible! He has taken the mound seven times, and only twice has he managed a quality start. In 35 innings, Liriano has an astronomical 27 walks and only 21 strikeouts. For comparison, last year he threw 191 innings, struck out 201 and walked only 58. His season has been shaky from the beginning , as he reported to Spring Training without keeping up on his offseason conditioning routine, and he hasn’t gotten on track since then. The no-hitter has been the only bright spot so far in a dismal season for Liriano.
M: A lineup that’s missing Joe Mauer is always missing a huge piece of the puzzle, but others (Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, and Justin Morneau) have not pulled their own weight at all, while another – Jason Kubel – has been an offensive juggernaught. Is there a sense that once Mauer returns and the slow bats get going, this team could be in for one great winning streak – like the Colorado Rockies have shown can happen in recent years?
N: I could write a book about all the Twins hitters who haven’t hit well so far this season. But to be fair to Young, he’s been on the Disabled List almost as long as Mauer. The Twins #2 through #6 hitters (Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Mauer, Morneau, Young, and Jim Thome) have all had significant injury problems this year. The Twins need someone to step up and fill the gap, but there’s almost nobody left to do that.
As a Twins fan, though, I can’t help but think they do have one great winning streak in them. I’ve seen it so many times in the recent past: 2003, 2006, 2008, 2009, and to a lesser extent, 2010. The Twins always seem to have a very rough patch in the season and then go on a huge tear after the All Star Break. I just hope they haven’t dug too deep of a hole for themselves this year.
Nathaniel: Jose Bautista is off to another great start. Has he proven that he is more than just a one year wonder? If so, how is it that the Blue Jays were smart enough to give this guy a chance when the Royals, Rays, Orioles, Pirates and Mets all gave up on him?
Mat: It’s not really that they were smart enough to give him a shot, it’s that circumstances prevailed in his direction. At the time, the Jays were left relying on an oft-injured Scott Rolen at 3B which meant that Jose got more playing time than was planned. Once the Jays dealt Rolen to Cincinnati, in return for Edwin Encarnacion, Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke, Jose has already proven that he could play well enough to deserve more playing time and got more playing time in the OF as a result since Travis Snider was struggling. The writing should have been on the wall for all doubters at that point, because he was able to knock out 10 HRs in the month of September alone with regular playing time and managed 56 walks (3rd most on the team) despite having only 336 Abs to his credit. That’s why 2010 didn’t surprise some of us as much as it did others. Would we have predicted that many HRs? Not likely, but 30-40 was expected by some of us.
N: When I look at the Blue Jays’ roster, I see a lot of very talented young pitchers. But like the Twins, they don’t appear to have a single standout ace. Who is the team ace right now, and who do you think has the brightest future on the Jays’ staff?
M: Personally, I love Brandon Morrow’s stuff, and also believe that Kyle Drabek has the stuff to become an ace. Whether they settle in as #2 calibre guys or have “the” breakthrough that makes them real aces in debatable, but to have 2 x #2s is a nice problem to have. In terms of leadership, Ricky Romero is undoubtedly the leader of the rotation, but he’s a #2 or #3 as well. Therefore, in my humblest opinion, the Jays will have to wait for Morrow or Drabek to mature into an ace, or wait for one of Asher Wojciechowski, Aaron Sanchez, and/or Noah Syndergaard to take that role on in 2-3 years. I still like the Jays rotation overall, as any rotation that should have 5 x #2 or #3 starters in it in 2012 (Romero, Morrow, Drabek, Wojciechowski, McGuire) is fine by me!
N: Is this the year that the Blue Jays finally do the American League a favor and end the Yankee/Red Sox dynasty in the AL East?
M: I can’t really tell at this point because I’m not sure of a few key things. First, what will the likely promotions of Brett Lawrie, Travis Snider, Eric Thames, and Zach Stewart do for the Jays in the second half? Will they be lightning rods for the lineup and rotation, or will they fizzle under pressure? If they come on like gangbusters and spark the Jays, I don’t see why the Jays can’t contend for the wild card. They’ve been able to stay 4 games back of that spot despite tons of injuries and lacklustre pitching from Jo-Jo Reyes and others, so a good run could get them far in the second half. But, if the young guys come up and struggle, it could be end-game for 2011 and the Jays would wind up gaining experience to make a very strong push in 2012.
My best bet at this point would be that it’s 50/50. If they get healthy and get help from the minors, however, I fully expect them to be in the race right up until the last few weeks. It should be a fin summer as a result!
Thanks to Nathaniel for joining me on the series preview and check out Puckett’s Pond for everything you need to know on the Minnesota Twins!