But, let’s face it, the fans want more.
And, let’s also face this: the kids in Twin Cities appear to be a team in transition. Veterans who carried the early versions of the team are aging out, injuries are molding and changing players, new kids are rising up, and the club’s finances are growing more mature (the River Monster payroll sits at 106M, its budget at $120M)—can Piccoli manage a system as well as he managed its building? So, yeah, there are questions, you see? Things that need answering. And probably the first among those questions is:
HOW MANY GAMES CAN KELLY PITCH?
Because, the fact of the matter is that with Chris Kelly (10/7/9 Ratings), the River Monsters can beat anyone on any day. His repertoire of junk is all thrown hard enough that hitters start to looking for their back-ups a day before he pitches. Of course, he lost a year to ligament reconstruction 2035, emerging unscathed though, only to lose a couple months to back issues last season (an injury that may have cost Twin Cities their first Heartland pennant). So basic situation is this: Chris Kelly (10/7/9 Ratings) is 25 this year, and he’s not been able to throw more than 140 innings in a year since he was 21. Is 2038 the year that his body holds out all year?
This is an important question because without Kelly, the River Monster rotation looks considerably more hittable. Josh Brown (6/6/7 Ratings) is 27 now, and can give serviceable innings, and at 28, Travis Arnold (6/5/8 Ratings) is only two seasons removed from an 18-win year. But you’re not going to see them as candidates for Kelly’s #1 slot. Jerry Coyle (4/8/8 Ratings), too, can pitch, and at 27, can be expected to be solid—he’s a Kelly clone in his reliance on junk, but Coyle’s junk is nowhere are prime as Kelly’s. Yes, fans, Kelly has prime junk. You read it here first. Young Manuel Gonzalez (6/6/7 Ratings) is an intriguing pitcher who set Monster Nation (or is that Monster Current?) on fire in a brief stint at the end of 2037. He’ll get a chance to show what he’s got, but certainly no one in the team’s front office isn’t expecting him to be a Kelly replacement. Perhaps it’s notable that Gonzalez is probably Twin Cities’ top pitching prospect, and that he came out of the third round in 2034.
That’s probably your five guy rotation, which leaves longtime fixture Reese Raynor as the odd man out. So there’s another question for you: does Raynor go to the pen, or does the team move his $6M salary off their payroll? Generally you figure GM Piccoli wouldn’t mind moving Raynor, but then you’ve got to deal with the fact of Kelly’s fragility and that there’s not much else in the organization to step up in the case that Kelly goes down—unless, of course, you look toward the bullpen, which leads us to another question:
IS THIS GOING TO BE A BULLPEN TEAM?
With the advent of much experimentation among BBA teams in the recent past (including cyclones, mini-cyclones, 4-man rotations, short pitch counts, and a pear in a partridge tree), and with the fact that some of the most exciting arms on the team are in the bullpen, is this the year we see the team push to a more bullpen oriented/Surfer-like approach.
Because, the bottom line here is that the RHP/LHP combo of 23-year-old Claude Michaud (9/8/2 Ratings) and 21-year-old Lorenzo de’Medici are due to step in, and could well stand fans on their ears, especially if Michaud can find the plate often enough (note, a hitter in the minors once wore full swat body armor up to hit against Michaud). De’Medichi’s stuff is electric, as he showed while striking out 12.5 hitters/9 in his highly effective rookie season. There are enough solid arms in the pen, even before the dirt-cheap addition of veteran Steve Russell (6/7/8 Ratings), that we’re not sure which guys to highlight. About the only issue with them is that other than 26-year-old Joey Galetto, none of them throw from the left side of the plate.
Bottom line: while the bullpen isn’t blisteringly good, it’s very deep, and should be among the league’s top crews on the whole. Regardless, though, we expect the team to go to the bullpen early and often, especially in the first third of the season with Kelly on the hill—if nothing else, just to keep their star in top shape.
The questions don’t end there, of course. But moving to the offensive side of the coin, we have to ask:
IS MARK WAREHAM OKAY?
If there’s a single face of the franchise, it probably has to be considered shortstop Mark Wareham (5/4/7/10/4 Ratings). The kid showed up for the first time in 2030, and has since grown into a fixture at the shortstop position. He’s signed through 2042, and though he’s got an opt out after 2039, it would be hard to see his body in another uniform. That said, 2037 was not good to Mark Wareham (5/4/7/10/4 Ratings). He struggled out the gate, and finished with a career-worst .359 OBP, which looks solid on a regular guy, but pales in light of a usual Mark Wareham (5/4/7/10/4 Ratings) stint, and, given that OBP and plate discipline is kind of the Wareham jam, resulted in an OPS+ of only 98. Add in that the glove has fallen off to sub-average over the last two seasons, and you can see why the question exists.
Bottom line: at $14M, if Wareham can’t get on base and doesn’t field, that’s a problem. So, when it comes to TWC and Mark Wareham (5/4/7/10/4 Ratings), it’s arguable to say that 2038 exists in order to find out what the truth is about 2037. If he’s still the guy who’s taken home five Puckett awards, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and moves on.
SAME FOR MAN?
While not on the same level, TWC fans can be forgive having anxiety about second baseman Xue-qin Man (6/7/2/3/9 Ratings), too. At 27, Man has been Wareham’s double play combo for the past several seasons, and is arguably just as important to the River Monster offense as Wareham. But 2037 saw Man’s OPS+ drop to 90, and WAR go to 2.6 (from 3.4 the year prior, and 4.6 the year prior to that). At his age, those are a little concerning—though to be sure, his glove continues to be diamond quality.
There’s no question that the team will see these two playing every day, though, and in the end the optimists should probably be winning the day right now. Bot Wareham and Man have earned the right to have a down-spot. Lace ‘em up and let’s see what they got. Of course, the more interesting organizational question is one we know Piccoli has been dealing with for awhile right now, and that’s:
WHAT IS TO BE DONE ABOUT THE $15M ANCHOR?
That is 3B Chris Limon (4/5/7/9/7 Ratings). The 31-year-old took a major five shortly after signing a big extension, and given that the budget isn’t quite high enough to just eat that kind of chicken feed, the team appears to be stuck with his contract for the next two seasons. The good news is that Limon isn’t completely out of gas. The bad news is that Limon’s $15M salary means the price of gas has sky-rocketed. After routinely dropping 4-5 WAR a season for most his career, Limon has managed an average of only .200 or so each of the last two seasons, and OPS+ scores in the low 90s. His glove, never a strong suit, hasn’t gotten better.
With 22-year-old LHB Ricardo Aragon (5/9/6/5/7 Ratings) (2nd round pick in 2033) looking like he’s ready for a shot, we’re making an assumption that TWC fans are going to see a platoon approach for the near future until Piccoli can find a palatable way to convert Limon’s $15M into something other than Limon.
Likewise, at the other corner infield slot we’re projecting a platoon of RHB Albert Gaona (6/7/8/6/6 Ratings) and LHB Duane Whitely, Jr. Both these guys rake with the platoon advantage. Together they add up to about $10M of payroll. Combined, they posted 3.7 WAR in 2037. Don’t fix what ain’t broken, am I right?
When we look at the catcher role, we get another interesting, and for TWC fans, more fun, question:
WAS 2037 SANG-DUK SIM’s COMING OUT PARTY?
Because that 4.6 WAR looks pretty sexy hanging there in the record book. Sim came to the team as a pricey IFA signing, and shot through the organization before arriving in 2035 to the tune of a pair of solid seasons that saw him hit about .270 and post WARs in the 2.5 range. Add in the fact that he’s one of the more polished defenders in the league, and that OOTP numbers probably don’t capture that value as well as it could, and you’ve got a really solid player. But them comes 2037 and his batting championship at .341, his 16 homers and 4.6 WAR, and … well, well, well … what do we have here?
Sim is 25 through most of this season, and is now working through his arbitration seasons. One suspects the River Monster front office is planning to write some big checks in a couple seasons. Until then, though, fans are going to go bonkers for Sim.
ONE PLACE WITHOUT QUESTIONS IS…
The Twin Cities outfield, where you can write in Wes Savage (6/8/5/3/7 Ratings) (23) in center, and the trio of Ray Cooper (5/6/7/6/6 Ratings) (28), Joey Newhouse (8/8/6/6/5 Ratings) (22), and Ricardo Juarez (7/7/7/3/6 Ratings) (24) into the corners. These four guys seemed to have gelled, and all four are now proven to be more than solid contributors. Add in the appearance of 21-year-old Tucker York III (5/7/7/7/5 Ratings) and defensively sound Gilberto Lopez (5/7/4/5/7 Ratings) (24), and you’ve got a group of guys who will add stability in the case of problems with the other questions.
AND IN THE END…
Yeah, there are questions. And some of the possible answers to them are harsh enough to make a pragmatic betting guy shiver—particularly, of course, the point on Chris Kelly (10/7/9 Ratings). Bottom line, though, the River Monsters aren’t going away, no matter what. Twin Cities is a team with a lot of solid parts, and therefore a team that can beat just about anyone on any given day, even without Kelly.
That said, my view is that if Kelly is healthy all year, the River Monsters are a playoff team, and if he’s not, they probably don’t have the raw offensive grunt to force their way into the mix. Let’s call it this way:
If Kelly is healthy: 89 Wins and a playoff slot
In Kelly is hurt: 85 wins and an early ticket home