In my attempts to determine a plausible best-case scenario for this year's Twins team, I've struggled to come up with real-life examples to use for comparison. On the forum earlier this week, Twins Daily member sam.ekstrom pointed to the 2008 Twins
as a potential "doppelganger" for the 2012 squad. I've got to say, I find this to be an encouraging model for a positive outcome if things break reasonably well.
Now, to be clear, that 2008 team was by no means great. They won 88 games, were a middle-of-the-road club by most statistical measures and came within a game of the playoffs only by virtue of playing in a pretty bad division. But then, coming off a 99-loss season, these current Twins can't very well aspire for true greatness. Instead, they can try to follow the course that turned them from outsiders to contenders four years ago.
Expectations were low for the '08 Twins. They had finished 79-83 in 2007 – their worst mark in eight years – and had watched multiple franchise mainstays depart over the offseason. Yet, they went on to surprise the baseball world by pushing Chicago to a division tiebreaker game, and they didn't do it with outstanding pitching (they finished seventh out of 14 AL teams in ERA) or power hitting (last in the league with 111 homers).
Instead, those Twins hit for average, ranking third in the AL at .279, and they were extremely opportunistic (.305/.380/.446 with runners in scoring position). Their pitching wasn't great, but it was good enough. Many point to this year's rotation as a crippling weakness, but take a look at the numbers from that club's starters and tell me that this year's bunch can't at least match them:
: 33 GS, 11-11, 4.05 ERA, 1.36 WHIP
: 28 GS, 11-4, 3.45 ERA, 1.18 WHIP
: 27 GS, 12-11, 3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP
: 26 GS, 12-4, 4.41 ERA, 1.47 WHIP
: 23 GS, 10-8, 5.48 ERA, 1.63 WHIP
: 14 GS, 6-4, 3.91 ERA, 1.40 WHIP
Boof Bonser also made 12 starts and finished the year with an ERA near 6. This group was a beacon of neither durability (only Blackburn threw more than 173 innings) nor dominance (Liriano led all starters with a 7.9 K/9 rate and the Twins' staff as a whole averaged 6.1 whiffs per nine -- nearly identical to last year's 6.0).
The 2008 starters were sufficiently effective because they threw strikes and benefited from solid defense. That's a formula that this year's rotation will seek to follow.
Holding leads in the late innings is also important, and while the 2012 bullpen won't likely feature a performer as stellar as Joe Nathan, the overall unit should be able to match the effectiveness of an '08 group that ranked sixth in the AL in ERA, seventh in WHIP and 10th in K/9.
From an offensive standpoint, this year's team will similarly have to find ways to push runs across without big power numbers. That 2008 group managed to finish third the AL in runs scored despite ranking last in homers, thanks largely to their ability to hit for average. That ought to be a strength this year for a lineup that will feature Joe Mauer, Denard Span, Ben Revere and Jamey Carroll, among others. Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Danny Valencia will need to chip in some pop and drive in runs, but they've shown the ability to do so in the past.
The point of all this is to say that the Twins don't necessarily need Mauer to return to '09 form, or Morneau to go back to hitting 30 home runs, or Liriano to rack up 200 strikeouts. Rather, they can rely on a recipe that's worked for them in the past, which is hitting for a high average, converting on scoring opportunities, throwing strikes, playing strong defense, and hoping that a high-80s win total will be enough to give them a shot in the AL Central.