Minnesota signed Jim Thome to help the offense and he's done just that, giving this lineup some real muscle at DH, slugging .545. Michael Cuddyer has a decent slugging percentage (.462), but has not done well getting on base. Manager Ron Gardenhire gets consistency in getting on base with Denard Span and Orlando Hudson. Offensive liabilities include J.J. Hardy, Delmong Young and Jason Kubel. Overall, the offensive support here is better than it was last season on a team that won the division. Thome is likely to continue to hit, as are Span and Hudson, and Cuddyer's on-base percentage is likely to improve. None of the supporting cast is playing radically over their heads.
The Twins have a third star on the roster, but when closer Joe Nathan went down with season-ending elbow surgery in spring training it was a big blow. The ninth inning has been handled more than adequately by Jon Rauch, the former Washington closer who's saved 8 of 9 games with a 2.08 ERA, with Matt Guerrier and Brian Duensing being very good in setup. What they have is enough to maintain, but the loss of Nathan deprives this group of the star power that can elevate them above other contenders.
For the starting pitching, certainly the most heartening development with the entire team, save the Mauer signing, has been the re-emergence of Francisco Liriano as a top young lefthander. He was on his way to becoming such when he came to the majors in 2006 before being derailed by arm trouble. One wonders if the Twins might not have won the 2006 World Series with a healthy Liriano joining Johan Santana at the top of the rotation. This year, Liriano is 4-1 with a 2.36 ERA and a Cy Young contender again. Carl Pavano seems to have found life outside the Big Apple, pitching well in the Twin Cities after a troubled--to say the least--Yankee career. Minnesota also gets reliable work from Kevin Slowey, while Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn have yet to really find their rhythm.
Prognosis: Minnesota's already playing well, with no one obviously ready to come down to earth. And pitchers like Blackburn and Baker are good candidates for an upgrade. They're not a cakewalk to win the Central, but on the flip side they wouldn't be a doormat for the powers of the AL East in the postseason. Life is good in the Twin Cities.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at two teams whom life has been surprisingly good too so far this year, the Washington Nationals and the Toronto Blue Jays.