Well, on the bright side, at least Drew Butera didn't get 250 plate appearances this time. That was one of the few good things you could say about the 2012 Minnesota Twins, who were sunk by some miserable non-production from their middle infielders and two of their outfielders, as well as a pitching staff that was completely immolated by injury. The Twins aren't too far away from one of the most successful runs in franchise history, having won six division titles from 2002-2010. Thanks to a career-threatening concussion to Justin Morneau, and the collapse of formerly successful pitchers like Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano, they've made themselves at home in the AL Central cellar in each of the past two seasons. It was another season to forget at Target Field, but at least there was an all-world catcher to keep them from being a total waste.
Best Fantasy Hitter: Joe Mauer
This is a close race between Mauer and Josh Willingham, but you have to go with Mauer's excellence at the catcher position. Mauer led the American League in OBP for the second time in his career, and his .319/.416/.446 line represented a very nice bounceback from a disappointing, injury-plagued 2011 season. He has yet to replicate his magical 2009 MVP year, but it's becoming more evident that that season was the outlier. Even if he isn't going to put up more seasons that would make Johnny Bench shudder, he's one of the best catchers in fantasy due to his consistent ability to hit over .300 with a ton of walks and few strikeouts.
One development to keep an eye on: in an effort to keep Mauer on the field, the Twins started him at first base or DH just as many times (72) as they started him at catcher. This is likely the first step toward a full-blown transition to full-time first baseman, as the Twins seek to keep him healthy as he enters his thirties. The good part is that it gives him dual-eligibility, and fantasy owners can plug him in at first base should the need arise (like on Mondays or Thursdays with lighter schedules). The bad news is that should Mauer ever leave the catcher position for good, it'd torpedo much of his fantasy value. It's a situation to watch, but not one to panic about. There has even been some talk of giving him some time at third base, which should make his keeper league owners salivate.
I have to give a shout out to Willingham, because he's one of my favorites and he had his best season as a major leaguer. After years of being a good-not-great fantasy outfielder, Willingham was a full-on stud in 2012, setting career highs with 35 home runs, 110 RBIs, and 76 walks (as well as an .890 OPS). Just an all-around fun season for a player who I've been a big fan of since his days as a catching prospect with the Marlins (yeah, remember that?). Let's hope the shoulder injury that kept him out of the season's final week doesn't linger on into spring.
Best Fantasy Pitcher: Scott Diamond
The Twins' rotation was a mess for much of the season, but the rose in the pot of muck was Diamond, who won twelve games with a 3.54 ERA and at least gave fantasy owners some help as a back-end rotation option. His chances of duplicating this success might not be as unlikely as you think. He led the AL in fewest walks per nine innings, so if he's keeping runners off the basepaths and keeping the ball on the ground, he could have a few more good years as an AL-only end-draft option. The ultra-low strikeout rate won't endear him to many keeper leaguers, though.
Top Overachiever: Trevor Plouffe
A finalist for the 2012 WTF? Award, Plouffe had never eclipsed 15 homers in the minor leagues and made the major league roster as a super-utility man with little usefulness for fantasy owners. So you could forgive most fantasy owners for completely ignoring him, only to have him bust out for 24 home runs. He was especially valuable because he had eligibility at four positions (second base, third base, shortstop, and outfield). All in all, a great waiver wire find and a nice fill-in for owners who had an injury at an up-the-middle position.
The bottom falls out in 2013, though. Plouffe won't be eligible at shortstop or second base anymore (at least, not to start the year). Unless he starts playing a bunch of games at those two positions again, the loss of eligibility at two key positions will deplete his value. Of course, it might not matter. I think I'd rather eat my keyboard than predict another 20-homer season for Plouffe.
Biggest Disappointment: Justin Morneau
Morneau was once a star first baseman and one of the best producers at his position, but he just hasn't been the same player after he suffered a concussion halfway through the 2010 season (when he was hitting a scalding .345/.437/.618). This year, he finally crossed the 500 plate appearance threshold again, but he was a shell of his former self. While he (thankfully) hasn't had any recurrence of the concussion symptoms, it'd be folly to expect him to magically revert back into a star. He's in his early-30's, he battled nagging injuries all year, and he no longer draws walks. He's a candidate to be traded this offseason to a team that needs first base help.
Top 2013 Sleeper: Liam Hendriks
Hendriks was plenty bad in 85 innings this season, but I think he's a particularly sneaky sleeper candidate for next year. Hendriks is one of the myriad command-and-control prospects lining Minnesota's system, but with one huge difference. He doesn't give up home runs...at least, he didn't in the minor leagues. Hendriks found success in the minors by combining good control with an almost inhuman ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. In 482 minor league innings, Hendriks surrendered just seventeen home runs. That, of course, didn't translate to the majors, which is why he was so awful.
I have a strange fetish for pitchers who prevent home runs, so perhaps I'm being a tad irrational here, but this kind of ability is exactly what made Wade Miley so good this season. Hendriks isn't at that level, but if he's able to rediscover that home run preventing magic, with his control, I think he'd be a good waiver wire pickup.
2013 Saves Report
The Twins started the season with Matt Capps as their closer, but he spent much of April pitching like Matt Crapps and suffered a shoulder injury in June which effectively ended his season. Into the fray stepped Glen Perkins, who has magically transformed himself from a soft-tossing starter with a minuscule strikeout rate to a guy who is now whiffing more than a batter an inning. Waiver wire scavengers were rewarded when Capps went down, as Perkins saved sixteen games down the stretch (including eight in the final month), and was plenty effective in ERA as well. The Twinkies declined Capps's 2013 option and sent him packing, so as it stands now, Perkins is the man in the ninth inning for 2013. The Twins may pursue another option in free agency, though, so watch this situation as the offseason unfolds.
2013 Fantasy Outlook
The Miguel Sano era begins in 2014. That seems like a long ways away. Until then we've got Joe Mauer and a bunch of finesse pitchers who are borderline fantasy options on their best day. I love Willingham, but I think he had a career year, and Morneau looks broken. Otherwise this team is made up of a bunch of uninspiring players (like Denard Span and Ben Revere) who would likely be bench players on a good team. On the bright side, Scott Baker and prospect Kyle Gibson will be returning from Tommy John surgery, so the rotation should be a bit more stable. Gibson is a potential star, but it's anyone's guess how he'll do after missing so much time.
There are some exciting prospects on the horizon (Sano, Byron Buxton), but most of their top youngsters don't project to make an impact for another couple of years. The pitching should be better in 2013, but fans in the Twin Cities are still in for more ugly baseball in the near future.