Guest post written by Steve Fetch, Lead Writer for Fansided’s Minnesota Twins blog, Twinkie Talk.  You can follow him on Twitter @fetch9.

You can find your Minnesota Twins tickets for the 2011 season on SeatGeek.

Minnesota Twins 2011 Season Preview

While the Twins won the AL Central title in convincing fashion this year, short term improvements by Chicago and Detroit will considerably tighten the race this season, and the Twins could momentarily see their grasp on the Central disappear.

Departures: Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy, Carl Pavano (maybe).

Whew. That is a lot of stuff to replace. An entire middle infield, their second best starter, their best reliever, and a guy who, while his performance was a bit overrated, was a perennial fixture near the top of appearances.

Hardy is probably the biggest head scratcher. Though he is due upwards of 7-8 million this year depending on how arbitration goes, his value to the team is easily quantifiable. Hardy is one of the best defensive shortstops in the American League, and while his bat isn’t anything special, it is right around average, and it is very uncertain as to whether either person who is a candidate to replace him will reach even that status. Trading Hardy to save a few million bucks, and then spending all that money on an unproven Japanese import is the type of logic that Dayton Moore would employ.

If Pavano ends up signing a three year, 30 something million deal I will probably accept it. While he has been worth 3.7 and 3.2 wins the past two seasons, Pavano  will be 35 at the start of next season, and the track record for pitchers in the mid to late 30s is, it shouldn’t surprise you, not good. If it was a two year deal I could see the Twins taking a shot at him. Paying him 10 million would be a little under market value and even if they ended up overpaying it might be worth it, because I don’t believe in Anthony Swarzak, Glen Perkins, or any of the other kids who would replace him (except for Kyle Gibson, but I hope he stays in the minors until September).

Hudson’s departure is the easiest to get over, because it was always going to happen. He had kind of a down year at the plate, with a .320 wOBA, though a lot of that appears to be BABIP issues. I would have loved to have Hudson back this year, but the Twins just never seemed interested in doing that.

As for the three relievers, their departure creates a pretty big hole in the back end of the bullpen, but given that Crain and Guerrier each got three year deals, and I am assuming Fuentes will as well, I am fine with them leaving. The list of relief pitchers to whom I would give a three year deal right now is very short.

Additions: Tyoshi Nishioka

Although the success of Ichiro tends to get the most ink, most Japanese players who have come to the majors have either failed or been nowhere near as good as they were there. Though Nishioka won the batting title in Japan with a .346 average, his career average is 60 points lower. He had a .395 BABIP last year, far above his career mark of .327. Coming to America, his BABIP figures to drop even from his career average, because for one the defenses are better and also he will probably make solid contact less frequently here than there. If he shows that he can play shortstop the Twins will have a decent player, and one who will be cheap enough over the next three years, but I would have rather had a great defensive shortstop like Hardy and pay the extra couple million for the certainty.

Question: Will the offense score enough runs?

The Twins wOBA of .334 was second in the AL, and that was with only a half season from Justin Morneau. But the Twins will possibly be without Jim Thome (.437 wOBA), and will replace Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy (.320 and .313) with Alexi Casilla, who has a career .291 mark, and Jason Kubel (.343) and the unproven Luke Hughes will take the bulk of Thome and Hudson’s at bats. The Twins also got a career year from Delmon Young, who managed a 122 wRC+ despite having a 4.6% walk rate. Whether he can replicate that is anyone’s guess, as is the case for Danny Valencia, who surpassed all expectations with a .351 wOBA. But was that fueled by a .345 BABIP or not?

Rotation

The rotation will have to overcome the loss of Pavano (maybe) by plugging in one of Nick Blackburn, Anthony Swarzak or Glen Perkins. None of them is a great pitcher, but Blackburn posted OK FIPs of 4.40 and 4.37 in 2008 and 2009 before his unseemly 5.07 mark last year. Blackburn has morphed into pretty much a fastball/changeup pitcher, which would be fine if he were in the bullpen or if his pitches had outstanding movement. Unfortunately, neither is true. Instead he has to rely on his defense to convert a lot of outs, and given that the Twins just traded one of the best defensive shortstops around I think it could be a long year for Blackburn.

2011 Prediction

The uncertainties over the rotation (which will be less so if Pavano signs. For this year at least), the defensive issues with Hardy leaving, and the uncertainty surrounding the middle infield as a whole make this an interesting Twins team. If Justin Morneau is back and healthy it will be a huge boost to the offense, but it is the defense that people should be most worried about. Going from Hardy to Nishioka will be at best a 5 run drop off, and though I think Casilla has the ability to play defense close to what Hardy can do, he has never played a full season either. I talked mostly about Hudson’s hitting, but he was also a good defensive second baseman (though UZR didn’t think too highly of him last year), and his glove will be hard to replace there. Nishioka, if he plays second, will have to be excellent defensively to provide the same value Hudson did. The White Sox signing Adam Dunn and Jesse Crain, and the Tigers signing Victor Martinez might be bad deals in the long run, but for 2011 I think both teams have the edge on the Twins. But the Twins have shown an ability lately to stay in the race when they have no business being there, and Bill Smith has done a good job at the trade deadling the past couple of years, so I wouldn’t count out the defending champs just yet.