The Baseball Notebook

March 15, 2010 11:00 AM

Minnesota Twins Preview

The Minnesota Twins are baseball’s model franchise, having found ways to contend on a shoestring budget. They’ve produced superstars and they’ve produced gritty, under-the-radar players. They’ve competed in two straight thrilling AL Central races, each coming down to a one-run game in a one-game playoff (with the Twins winning last year, losing in ’08). And now they’re moving into an outdoor park—a real baseball stadium if you will, that will be worthy of this franchise. Can they usher in the park with another division title?

Their chances took a huge hit this past week when Joe Nathan was diagnosed with a torn elbow ligament, meaning one of the game’s top two or three closers will probably miss the entire year. Minnesota has depth in the bullpen. Matt Guerrier is projected as the closer right now, and he had a 2.73 ERA last year. The Twins have also brought in Jon Rauch (3.60) who has some experience getting the last three outs and Pat Neshek is back in the fold after missing all of last year. Jose Mirajes is very solid in the setup role. But even if all goes well, they no longer have that one lights-out guy that makes the opposition throw up its hands and say “It’s over” when he comes walking in. Nathan was a rare talent, and he can’t be replaced.

The season-ending injury is a curse that prevents the Twins from taking the ultimate step. It happened a couple years ago to Francisco Liriano, just as the lefthander was looking like the game’s top young starter. He’s never regained the form of 2006. The Minnesota budget forced them to trade Johan Santana to the Mets a couple years ago. Yet in spite of these hits, they still trot out a respectable rotation with no obvious weak points. But, as with the bullpen, no obvious ace either.

Superstars are there in the everyday lineup and none more so than catcher Joe Mauer, the reigning AL MVP. Mauer is an on-base machine, and while last year’s .444 might not be repeated, he’s always in the .400 neighborhood. Getting last year’s power might be another question—he hit 28 home runs for a .587 slugging, something well above his career norm and counting on a repeat would be risky. Justin Morneau, the other half of the modern-day M&M boys (the original was Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle for the 1961 Yankees), is a steady power hitter and very consistent getting on base himself.

Whether Mauer and Morneau get help depends largely on Michael Cuddyer in right field and Jason Kubel at DH. Both had career years in 2009, especially in the power area. They either need them to sustain, or they need newly acquired shortstop J.J. Hardy to find his power stroke after a bad falling off led him to be chased out of Milwaukee. From the standpoint of setting the table, Minnesota made a nice acquisition in getting Orlando Hudson from the Dodgers to play second base.

So you have a team whose best pitcher just got hurt and a lot of players coming off career years unlikely to be repeated. Do you write off their chances of repeating? If so, you haven’t paid attention to baseball. You never write off the Twins. They play good defense across the board, they execute well and Ron Gardenhire is a sound manager. They find ways to compete and the division is manageable. They’ll find a way to win 85 games as a benchmark. Will they get to 90 and a possible first-place finish? That’s what the final season preview pick is for.

Up Next: Colorado Rockies tomorrow
Final AL Central & Picks & Preview: April 2

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