2012 Twins projections: Getting comfy in the AL Central cellar

The Twins open their 2012 campaign this afternoon in Baltimore. Coming off last year's injury-plagued last-place finish, there's less optimism about the team's chances this year than any season since Ron Gardenhire took over as manager in 2002.

Only two years removed from an AL Central-winning campaign (and subsequent playoff sweep at the hands of the Yankees), many of the faces we know and at one time loved are still here -- Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Francisco Liriano, Denard Span, and opening day starter Carl Pavano, to name a few. But injuries (Mauer, Morneau, and Span), declining performance (Liriano and Pavano), and the franchise's inability to develop young prospects means that few expect the Twins to return to the playoffs in 2012.

Here's a look at what a handful of national and local pundits are expecting from the Twinks this season:

ESPN -- 50 baseball experts pick division winners and World Series champions. Every single one of them projects the Detroit Tigers to win the AL Central, and none of them have the Twins snagging either of the AL's two Wild Card playoff births. Hence, not a single one of ESPN's experts has the Twins making the postseason.

Grantland -- Baseball writer Jonah Keri predicts records for each MLB team. Here's his AL Central projection:

Tigers: 89-73
Indians: 83-79
White Sox: 77-85
Royals: 74-88
Twins: 73-89

About the Twins, Keri writes: "The Twins almost can't help but be better after last season's injury-plagued debacle, but core players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Francisco Liriano remain far from sure things a year later."

Yahoo -- Three experts predict final standings. Tim Brown has the Twins finishing second with an 80-82 record, Steve Henson has the Twins finishing last with a 69-93 record, and Jeff Passan also has the Twins winning 69 games but finishing one game ahead of the last-place White Sox.

AccuScore -- AccuScore uses an algorithm to simulate each game of the season one play at a time, 10,000 times over. Out of those 10,000 projections, the Twins made the playoffs 1.6 percent of the time. The average outcome was a 71-91 finish -- good for last place.

Nick Nelson of TwinsCentric -- Regarding the Twins' 2012 prospects, Nelson writes:

A year removed from being bitten by the bilateral leg weakness bug, Mauer looks to bounce back.
A year removed from being bitten by the bilateral leg weakness bug, Mauer looks to bounce back.

I'd like to think that the Twins could sport a respectable rotation with a relief corps that consistently holds leads, but in order for that to happen they'll need a lot to go right and very little to go wrong. Maybe I'm too jaded by last year, but I can't see it.

I see a staff that allows a ton of contact and probably ranks among the league leaders in hits allowed because the defense still isn't very good.

I see a lineup that, while vastly improved, remains several notches behind the true AL powerhouses like New York, Boston, Texas and Detroit.

I also see big bounce-back years for several players, including the restoration of Joe Mauer's pristine reputation. And thanks to a weak division, I see a finish around the .500 mark, which would count as a sizable step in the right direction and might keep things interesting into August and even September.

SB Nation -- Jared Smith has the Twins in the AL Central's second tier of teams along with Kansas City and Chicago, ahead of Cleveland, but behind the division-favorite Tigers. He writes:

Some good news -- Morneau made it through spring training concussion-symptom free. He'll start tonight as DH.
Some good news -- Morneau made it through spring training concussion-symptom free. He'll start tonight as DH.

As for the Twins, I like their chances. But a lot will need to go right for Minnesota to contend with Detroit.

First, catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau need to be 100-percent healthy, and that's asking for a lot. Currently, the Twins have a lot of expectations and dollar bills tied up into those two franchise players, who just have had a lot of bad luck in the past few seasons.

Second, young hurlers need to step-up. Carl Pavano has found new life in the Twin Cities, but Francisco Liriano and Nick Blackburn haven't despite a lot of patience from the organization. The hope is, newly acquired Jason Marquis can bring some stability and veteran leadership to the staff, while closer Matt Capps and set-up man Glen Perkins can anchor the bullpen.

Twins and NBC Sports blogger Aaron Gleeman -- Gleeman, like Nelson, has the Twins finishing right around .500. He writes:

I wrote all the season previews for AL Central teams at HardballTalk and concluded that the Tigers are clear front-runners, perhaps more so than any other team in any other division, while the Indians, White Sox, Royals and Twins are each very capable of finishing anywhere from second place to last place. If everything breaks right for the Twins, staying in contention deep into the season is possible, but my guess is that they finish right around .500.

Las Vegas -- The over/under 2012 win total for the Twins is 73. Here's what the Las Vegas Sun has to say:

It's hard to believe the Twins were favored to win the AL Central a year ago in Las Vegas. Minnesota imploded in 2011 and now finds itself on the other side. The Twins are favored to come in last in their division. They missed last year's over/under win total of 85.5 by a staggering 22.5 games. A weak pitching staff contributed to the problems. But it wasn't all the franchise's fault. Some things were out of its control, including the time missed by cornerstones Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau with injuries. Minnesota signed outfielder Josh Willingham to place in the middle of the order along with a returning Mauer and Morneau this year.

So while there's nowhere to go but up after last year's 99-loss Run for One Hun, experts don't expect the Twins to return to the thrilling form of yesteryear (aka, 2010) this season. But look on the bright side -- unlike 2000, the last time the Twins were roundly expected to suck going into opening day, at least this year we get to watch games from the beautiful confines of Target Field. And hey, if the Twins performance matches projections and the team languishes around last place, then you'll be able to get tickets for real cheap just in time for Minnesota's beautiful July and August weather. That's not all bad, right?

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