Minnesota Twins Season Preview

Joe Mauer
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1) How was the off-season?  What kind of grade would you give it?

For the Twins, the 2009 offseason was one of the best in recent history. After the (unfortunate) early exit from the postseason to end the 2009 season, the Twins had several clear and pressing needs. The most notable and obvious of which was Minnesota’s virtually empty infield, with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau the only clear starters. Two of the 2B/SS/3B hole would need to be filled, with Nick Punto most probably filling the third.

Just days after the conclusion of the World Series, Twins’ general manager Bill Smith dealt from a position of excess (Carlos Gomez, CF) for one of need (JJ Hardy, SS) in a straight swap with the Milwaukee Brewers. While Gomez is an excellent defensive center fielder, and his presence will be missed by a rotation that is very prone to the fly ball, the Twins feel they can provide Hardy with the atmosphere and coaching he needs to return to his elite 2007/2008 status.

The next significant moves were reaching a deal with Carl Pavano, trading Boof Bonser to the Red Sox for Chris Province, and signing relief pitcher Clay Condrey, who figures to play a minor, but significant, role in the 2010 bullpen. Jim Thome was then signed to a very inexpensive one-year contract. He provides some insurance for both Morneau at first base and any one of the corner outfield positions, as current DH Jason Kubel would play defense should there be an injury with Thome sliding into the full-time DH slot. Right now, though, Thome figures to provide legitimate power off the bench and will receive plenty of late-inning at bats.

The Twins then shocked their fanbase by signing Orlando Hudson, who fills the second base hole, but perhaps more importantly, gives the Twins a No. 2 hitter to bat before Joe Mauer. Were it not for Hudson, either Hardy or Punto (!) would have batted second.

As a whole, the offseason was incredibly fulfilling forTwins’ fans. Thanks to the revenues brought in from Target Field, the Twins’ payroll is nearing the $100 million mark, which up until this point has been unheard of in Minnesota. The Twins addressed two infield needs, greatly solidified their bench, and strengthened their rotation as well as, to a lesser degree, their bullpen. The Twins’ offseason was a perfect case study in a wise allocation of resources, and giving them anything less than an “A” would be inaccurate.

2) What is the key to success for 2010?

As is the case with all other teams, health is the first key to success. The close second, though, would be the effectiveness of the starting rotation. The Twins lack a clear ace, although they have no fewer than three very capable No. 2 or No. 3 starters along with a plethora of No. 5 options.

Scott Baker has been named the Opening Day starter, with Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, and most probably Francisco Liriano rounding up the rotation. Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak will both be waiting in the wings, however, should anyone struggle.

Minnesota shouldn’t have a problem scoring runs, but the key to a successful season will be the starting rotation.

3) What will be the team’s strength?

The team’s ability to score runs will be their strength. A lineup of Span/Hudson/Mauer/Morneau/Kubel/Cuddyer/Hardy/Young/Punto has the potential to do some real damage to opposing pitchers. The addition of Hudson not only provides the Twins with a legitimate No. 2 hitter, but it breaks up their long run of left-handed hitters. With a relatively diversified lineup and at least four batters with the ability to hit 30 home runs (five if you include Hardy), Minnesota shouldn’t have trouble driving runs across the plate.

4) What could be their Achilles’ heel?

Health has been a concern for the Twins, and several of their crucial players could go down with an injury on any given day. Mauer missed the first month of 2009 with a back injury, and Morneau missed the last portion of the season with a back injury, as well. Cuddyer has suffered from quite a few bad-luck injuries, while Kubel’s knees have always been a concern. Slowey and reliever Pat Neshek are returning from injury, and both Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano have “iffy” health.

If everyone remains healthy, the Twins could be a dangerous team. If poor health takes its toll, though, the Twins’ season could be over very quickly.

5) Who will be the team’s MVP?

I don’t think there is much doubt the best statistical performance will come from Joe Mauer, but the Minnesota catcher could very well win “MVP” honors, as well. Denard Span could be another candidate if he is able to remain healthy out in center field for the entire season, as Minnesota doesn’t have an adequate back-up.

6) Will a rookie make a significant impact on the team in 2010, and if so, who?

There won’t be too many rookies on the team in 2010, but it is almost certain that third baseman Danny Valencia will be called up at some point. Depending on how he looks in Spring Training, he could make his debut on Opening Day or as late as July. Valencia provides average defense at the Hot Corner, while his bat is solid and very capable of consistently putting up a .280/.330/.440 with around 15 home runs a season. He may not be able to reach this level in his first year, though.

7) Who will be the breakout player for the team?

Hopefully Francisco Liriano. The young lefty looked fantastic in Winter Ball in the Dominican Republic, where he was able to throw his deadly slider without restraint. Should the Twins’ pitching staff insist that he throw his pitches with less aggression, though, there is little doubt that Liriano’s career in Minnesota would be nearing an end.

While Liriano may not be able to return to his 2006 form, he is very capable of emerging as the ace of the Minnesota rotation. He is just as likely, though, to throw way too many fastballs and get shelled out of Minnesota.

8) Which player will drop off the most from 2009?

In terms of statistical points, probably Joe Mauer. Though it pains me to say, there is little doubt that Mauer will be unable to repeat last year’s ridiculous numbers (.365/.444/.587), but he will still be one of the best offensive catchers in the league (My guess? .340/.420/.530). On a non-superstar scale, though, Brian Duensing will probably take a large step back. In 84 innings last season, the rookie posted a 3.64 ERA. I doubt he can do that again.

9) Who is the most likely player to be dangled as trade bait?

Joe Nathan or Michael Cuddyer could fill these roles, but any trades the Twins make will probably involve a few of their talented minor-league players. Catcher Wilson Ramos is obviously blocked from the majors for the time being (and hopefully for the next 7-8 years, assuming Mauer is re-signed soon), and there is no room for all of Ben Revere/Aaron Hicks/Angel Morales/Joe Benson/Rene Tosoni in the outfield.

A few of them will earn the title of “bust,” there is no reason why a few couldn’t be traded at the deadline for a rental pitcher along the lines of Brandon Webb.

10) What will be the team’s final record and divisional standing?

I haven’t done any real projections lately, but I would say the Twins will have a final record of 90-72 and finish first in the AL Central. They will defeat their ALDS opponent in five games, but fall in the ALCS in five games.

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