Likely Starter: Danny Valencia
2011 Stats: .246/.294/.383, 15 HR, 72 RBI, 63 R, 2/8 SB
Potential Backups: Luke Hughes, Sean Burroughs, Steve Pearce, Tsuyoshi Nishioka
With a lineup that will feature as many as five players who pose virtually no threat to hit the ball over the fence, the Twins are going to be heavily reliant on a few bats in the middle of the lineup to produce some pop in 2012. Among the incumbents, the only player who even reached double digits in home runs last year is Danny Valencia. He led the Twins in RBI and ranked second in homers, though that spoke more to the general struggles of the offense than to his success.
Make no mistake: the Twins need Valencia's power. But in order to win over a coaching staff that seemingly soured on him somewhat last year, he'll need to master some of the more basic elements of his game.
After an impressive debut in 2010, the third baseman was noticeably worse both in the field and at the plate last year. The hitting struggles are less worrisome – for reasons I'll address momentarily – but Ron Gardenhire will not tolerate a passive approach on ground balls.
If Valencia doesn't start doing a better job of keeping his head down when moving laterally and aggressively charging slow rollers, he'll start giving way to someone who will, at least one a part-time basis. I have little doubt of that.
If he does show improvement on the defensive side, more closely resembling the form he showed during his rookie campaign, he's poised to be a solid regular and key right-handed bat in the lineup.
Although his OPS dropped by 120 points from 2010 to 2011, Valencia remained largely the same hitter: aggressive and pull-happy with enough strength to place the ball in the left field bleachers in his home yard. His tendency to pull the ball became more pronounced last year, contributing to a dramatic drop in batting average.
There's a give-and-take there; turning on the ball has proven to be the best bet for a righty hitter to clear the Target Field fence and nearly all of Valencia's 22 career homers have gone to straightaway left. His desire to hit for power should not necessarily be discouraged, but swinging for the seats can breed bad habits. He needs to find a balance.
If he can accomplish that while sharpening up in the field, Valencia is one of the few players Twins fans won't have to worry about in 2012, especially considering that he's a rare example of a guy that doesn't carry major injury concerns into the season.
If some of his negative patterns from last season persist, however, the third-year infielder will need to start worrying about losing playing time to the likes of Luke Hughes or Sean Burroughs.
By all accounts, Valencia is determined not to let that happen, and is entering this season with increased openness to coaching advice and adjustments. There's no question that he's got the talent and confidence to succeed in the majors. I expect a solid if unspectacular campaign.
Predicted 2012 Hitting Line for Valencia: .280/.330/.430, 15 HR, 80 RBI