By Mike Gallagher
What an offseason.
Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, and the best field in Major League Baseball have all arrived in the Twin Cities.
With opening day of the 2010 MLB season upon us, it’s 65 degrees and sunny in Minneapolis, quieting all the critics saying April baseball in Minnesota is logistically a bad idea and the task will be getting a game in with the cold and snow, let alone winning one.
We’ll send global warming a thank you card, because it is beautiful at the Twins new ballpark and they are ready to open possibly the biggest season in Twins history Monday at the L.A. Angels of Anaheim.
The A.L. Central isn’t the A.L. East, but it’s no pushover either. Here is everything you need to know about the 2010 Minnesota Twins.
SCOTT BAKER: B+
KEVIN SLOWEY: B
CARL PAVANO: C
NICK BLACKBURN: B-
FRANCISCO LIRIANO: Incomplete
JON RAUCH: B
JOSE MIJARES: B+
MATT GUERRIER: B+
The lack of experience in the rotation worries me, but there seems to be some stability in the bullpen with the return of Pat Neshek and the emergence of Jose Mijares and Matt Guerrier as solid setup men. If nothing else, there are options up and down the staff, and if the bullpen can be strong and the rotation can live up to the hype, expect big things. For now, though, I need to see them go out and prove their worth.
1. DENARD SPAN: A
2. ORLANDO HUDSON: B+
3. JOE MAUER: A+
4. JUSTIN MORNEAU: A
5. MICHAEL CUDDYER: B+
6. JASON KUBEL: A-
7. DELMON YOUNG: B-
8. J.J. HARDY: B-
9. NICK PUNTO: C-
With the signing of Hudson, it takes this group to another level. You know what you’ll get out of Mauer and Morneau, and if you get big things from Kubel and Cuddyer again this year, this grade improves. 7-9 in the order is holding this back from being an A right now.
WIN TOTAL: 89
Not to toot my own horn, but I’m holding it down like I just got cut off on the highway right now. I predicted the Twins to have 85 wins in 2008, they had 88. I called 87 last year, they had exactly that. Like I said, laying on the horn. But realistically, this is the hardest year to call with all the breakout players the Twins had last year, and the improvements they made in the offseason. I love the Hudson get, but really am not sold on the starting pitching at all, even with the great spring they had. 90 might be enough to take this division, but I also like the moves the Tigers have made, getting Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth. Their rotation will be improved with Rick Porcello and Armando Gallaraga gaining one more year of experience. Their bats will be what decides their fate, and it will be a very interesting year at the top of the A.L. Central.
KEYS TO SUCCESS:
1. Success of Starting Pitching: Forget about Joe Nathan completely, because we’re not talking about him in this category. Jon Rauch, who was named closer Friday, will step up and fill that void, that’s nothing to worry about. The main thing the Twins should be focusing on is starting pitching. They tried to address it in the offseason by offering Jerrod Washburn a one-year deal, but he turned it down. That leaves the Twins with a rotation mirroring last year’s, with Scott Baker starting opening day, with Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, and the question mark of the season Francisco Liriano rounding out the rotation. Pavano brings something that the previous two rotations didn’t have; experience. Going into last year, only Scott Baker had more than a season and a half of MLB starts on his resume among the Twins starters. That was cause for concern and Twins starters looked brutal at times last year. Pavano could be that stabilizing force the starters need, and it wouldn’t hurt if Liriano could return to somewhat-passable form. If any of the starters falter, Glen Perkins, who went 12-4 as a starter merely two years ago, is waiting in the AAA wings.
2. Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. It was starting to look like Jason Kubel’s potential at the plate was maxing-out at Matt Lawton or Corey Koskie for fans that remember those names. A power-every-once-in-a-while, .270 average guy, which would’ve been very disappointing considering the hype surrounding him in the minors. Ditto for Cuddyer, who’s solid 2006 season was becoming a distant memory in fans’ minds, as he followed them with a very average 2007, and an injury riddled 2008. But with the breakout seasons they had last year, it looks as if the Twins have a formidable top-six in their lineup. Cuddyer is never going to hit .300, but they don’t need him to. He took over down the stretch when Justin Morneau got injured last year, and as long as he continues to show the 25-home run power, which shouldn’t be a problem coming off his 32-homer season, the offense will thrive as it did last year. Kubel will have to back up his big season with more of the same and prove that .300 average was not an aberration. Should he continue to protect Morneau, Mauer, and at times Cuddyer, the middle of that lineup will be difficult to handle for opposing pitchers.
3. The left side of the infield: Nick Punto has gotten chance after chance after chance to prove his 2006 offensive output wasn’t a flash in the pan, and he’ll get one more. Ron Gardenhire named Punto the starting third baseman over Brendan Harris while the club was in Fort Myers, and the defensive stalwart will try to improve on the .228 clip he hit at last year. He showed signs of life in 2008 on the offensive side of the ball, hitting .284, but his play was speratic, with injuries plaguing him the first half of the year. The large step backwards last year was certainly disheartening. The everyday shortstop, two words which previously did not belong in the same sentence for the Twins, will be J.J. Hardy. Minnesota traded the centerpiece of the Johan Santana deal, Carlos Gomez, to the Brewers for the 27-year old Hardy, and the Twins are expecting big things from him. After two solid offensive seasons of .280-25-80, he struggled to a .229 mark and was even sent to the minors in August last year. The Twins are hoping he can return to his 2008 form while also attempting to not be a sieve at short as his 48 career errors would indicate. Production out of either of these two offensively would surely put the Twins at the top of the A.L. Central.
IF THEY FAIL, WHAT WENT WRONG?:
1. Lack of consistent starting pitching: This is literally the only thing that could stop the Twins from winning the division and getting eliminated by the Yankees for a 15th year in a row. But seriously, with the lack of experience and definite lack of number one pitcher on this staff, things have potential to get ugly. Carl Pavano, aside from his one 18-win year in Florida, probably pitched the best baseball of his career when he came to the Twins last year, and is being relied on heavily to step in and fill a key spot in the rotation. Can he re-produce the form of last year even though one more year has passed on his 1,200-plus inning arm? The four young starters are coming off average years, and still haven’t proven they can give you a big start when you need it. None had an ERA under four last year and Nick Blackburn is looking more and more like he is a middle-of-the-rotation-guy at best. Scott Baker being the number one starter is worrisome, as he raised his ERA nearly a run from 2008, and will need to get back to his sub-four days for the Twins to be a serious contender in the playoffs. Kevin Slowey does nothing but win, but his near-five ERA, .300+ opponents BA, and lack of health keep question marks by his name. Obviously, if Francisco Liriano can be what he once was, it would bolster the rotation, but that’s not going to happen. He was extremely dominant before his surgery, but Tommy John hurts pitchers effectiveness and takes away pop from a lot of them. It’s hard to imagine he’ll ever be the same guy he once was. He first needs to prove he can get through a season before people go nuts with “The Franchise” nickname again. This bunch has a ridiculous amount of potential, but if it does not realize it this year, the Target Field coming out party will quickly be broken up.