The Twins are looking to build upon their 2009 campaign which ended with a win in game 163 to clinch the American League Central Division. A beat up and inexperienced team was no match for the eventual World Series Champion New York Yankees even though their were 2 games where Minnesota should have won (game 2 and 3).
Right as the off season began, Bill Smith got right back to work trading super toolsy center fielder Carlos Gomez for former All Star shortstop JJ Hardy. During the off season Minnesota made other moves such as picking up Michael Cuddyer's 2011 option, signing reliever; Clay Condrey, future Hall of Famer; Jim Thome and Gold Glover' Orlando Hudson. All that remains was an extension for defending American League MVP; Joe Mauer.
As the Twins arrived in Fort Myers for spring training all seemed to be going smoothly. The team was getting along. Justin Morneau, Kevin Slowey and Pat Neshek all seemed to recovered well from their off season surgeries and rehabs, and potential stars Delmon Young and Fransisco Liriano came into camp in the best shape of their lives and were both ready to take the next step towards stardom.
Then came last Saturday's spring game. After 20 pitches All Star closer Joe Nathan had to exit the game after experiencing what was called soreness and stiffness in his pitching elbow. All indications were that the move was strictly precautionary. On Sunday, Nathan was then sent back to Minneapolis to have CT scans in MRI's done on the elbow. Again, strictly precautionary. Tuesday, those precautionary, trips and scans indicated that arguably the best pitcher on the Twins staff has a significant tear in his UCL and could miss not only the 2010 season but the rest of his career. The season that looked so promising, started to go down the tubes. What was the curse of Minnesota sports which struck again in January when the Tracy Porter picked off Brett Favre to cap off a fumble fest in the NFC Championship seemed to strike one of the nicest most impressive guys the Twins had.
However, this is not the end! Although this is a hit to the season this is still too good of a team to be eliminated for title contention already and here is why.
Reason 1: They are going to slug. This is the best Twins lineup I have ever seen. CHONE projects them to average around 5.80 runs per game. In 2009 the Twins were 4th in the American League in runs scored behind the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox (who lost Jason Bay). When you look top to bottom the only hole in the line up is coming from the 9 hole where the first couple months is expected to be platooned by Nick Punto and Brendan Harris. The best part of this is the only thing these guys have to do is mainaing a .330+ OBP to be able to turn over the line up where Span, Hudson, Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, Young and Hardy can do their damage. And if Danny Valencia can play well in AAA and take that over to the big team in June or July, that is a scary thought.
Reason 2: They actually have a bench. When the Twins when on their stretch run in September they relied on everyday players to be Carlos Gomez in CF, Jose Morales at DH, Nick Punto at 2B, Matt Tolbert at 3B, and Micheal Cuddyer at 1B. After trades and signings, we now know Gomez will never make a crucial mistake in a Twins unifrom. Jose Morales will only see playing time if Joe Mauer needs a day off or if it is the 19th innings of an exhausting division game. Matt Tolbert will have to impress in spring to even make the 25 man roster. Nick Punto will go back to his super utility role by the time June rolls around. And Michael Cuddyer will park back in RF with the return of 2006 MVP Justin Morenau. Oh yeah and did I mention that Minnesota has a future Hall of Famer Jim Thome now as their big bat off the bench. Look out Bobby Jenks.
Reason 3: The rotation will and has to improve. After a very successful 2008, the young 5some of Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Perkins and Blackburn fell apart in 2009, with Nick Blackburn being the only one to not land on the DL. Causing the team to have to trade for Carl Pavano (which was a great deal) and rely on young guys like Brian Duenseng and Jeff Manship. In 2010 Scott Baker will start opening day and may not be as good as he was in 2008 with a 3.45 ERA but definitely not as bad as he was in 2009 with a 4.27 ERA. The new $14 million dollar man Nick Blackburn should take on the number 2 role with his bulldog mentality and ability to eat inning. 2008 and 2009 were identical for Captain Blackbeard and there is reason to believe he can continue on in the future. The number 3 spot will be taken on by Carl Pavano which should be able to take steps forward in 2010. He had a BABIP right around .330 with an ERA of over 5.00. Basically meaning he either had terrible defense behind him or lucky spots balls would drop. In 2010 Pavano will have a strong defense up the middle lead by Mauer, Hudson, Hardy and Span. His ERA should be somewhere in the low 4.00's, maybe high 3's if he has a great year. The 4 spot will be taken by Kevin Slowey. Unfortunately this is the guy I am most worried about in 2010. He is coming off major wrist surgery that left 2 screws permanently left in his wrist. Now Kevin is not a stuff guy by any means. He works with a 2 seam fastball that is about 87-90 MPH. Slowey gets by with painting the black and not walking ANYBODY. With a guy who has such a good feel for the plate it is interesting to see how he reacts to his wrists feeling different for the fist time in his life. So far this spring he has seemed to prove me wrong by not giving up a run. The wild card on every one's lists in Fransisco Liriano. Liriano right now is the favorite for the 5th spot in the rotation barring any retardation by Twins management to move him to the closers role. Since the end of 2009, everything done by the former phenom has been positive. He had an incredible showing in the Dominican Winter League finishing off as the game 9 winner with a line of 5 innings, 1 hit, 0BB and 10K. Radar guns although sometimes skewed had his fastball ranging from 93 to 96 and his slider 86-90. I admit I was pumped when I was watching this on ESPN 360. Liriano showed up in camp excited and mind clear for the season. Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Andreson said the ball is exploding out of his hand and his slider has looked as good as when they first saw it in 2006. Liriano's first 2 spring starts have showed a lot. In 2 games he has a total of 4 innings, 2 hits, 1BB and 6K. His fastball has been clocked as high as 93 but is expected to get higher as spring goes along when he starts to put more and more effort into his outings. Liriano is literally an ace in the hole. If he can do what we all think he can if gives the Twins a face to their pitching staff that can match up to the likes of Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and Jake Peavy.
Reason 4: Deep Bullpen. Joe Nathan is gone. Possibly forever and he was only a handful of saves from setting the all time Twins mark. It is a sad and unfortunate situation for Nathan and the Twins but it is not the end. Out of a possible 1548 innings in a 162 game season Joe Nathan usually pitches anywhere from 65 to 70 innings. That is right around 5% of the time. To say that 5% of a teams season can decide whether they make the playoffs is ludicrous. The Twins have a very deep bullpen. And they have at least 3 arms in the minor leagues who can be willing to take new open spot (Rob Delany, Anthony Slama, Alex Burnett.) As for who the closer will be I have no clue. I expect the player to not be named until the end of March. The obvious favorite for it it Matt Guerrier. Next in line would probably be John Rauch. Both are worthy options. My wild card for it is Jesse Crain. Crain's first half of the season was atrocious (ERA=8.15). It was so bad that Crain pitched nearly double the innings in the second half and could only lower his ERA to 4.70 for the season. However his post All Star break numbers were really great. He regained his mid 90's fastball which made his breaking pitches look a lot better. Crain threw 17 innings in the first half to get his ERA over 8 but threw 34 more innings after the break with a 2.91 ERA with 30K, 0HR and a .217 BAA.
All in all the season is definitely still going to be a positive. The loss of Joe Nathan is big however the Twins have a top 10 minor league organization a surplus of outfielders and pitchers at all levels. It could be enough to lure over a Jason Frasor or Heath Bell at the right price. My pick for the division crown will still go to Minnesota, however it will be a little closer race now with Nathan gone. Chicago and Detroit both have good teams and will make the season competitive.