We covered the Brewers the other day. Now, on to the Twins. Last season was pretty typical - the Twins pieced together a pretty good team and were contenders all the way, losing the division in a one-game playoff to the White Sox. Many of the same players return, some a year older and wiser. What will happen? A few guesses.
The everyday lineup should continue to be pretty good. The Twins have the most consistent first baseman in the American League in Justin Morneau, who has put up some excellent overall numbers each season and has improved substantially on defense. Alexi Casilla came on at midseason last year and became a steady second baseman who provides better than average offense for the position. He's young and talented, but I'd like to see him do it again. Nick Punto is likely the starting shortstop. Punto is a defensive whiz but isn't a great offensive player because he tends to be very streaky. If his usual pattern holds, he'll be closer to .200 than .280 this time around, but the Twins can probably get by with that. Third is where the hole is. The Twins have argued that they have options at the position in Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris, but neither man really won the job last year and it's not clear that either is in a position to take a step forward. Joe Crede is still out there, I believe, and if he's healthy he'd be a significant upgrade.
The key to the lineup is Joe Mauer, the local hero catcher and defending batting champion. Mauer had a mysterious kidney surgery in the offseason and may be behind in his conditioning, which is a cause for concern. If he's healthy, he's one of the 5 best players in baseball. There is a logjam in the outfield. Michael Cuddyer was injured last season and was not a factor, which opened the door for the impressive Denard Span to claim right field. While Cuddyer has one of the best outfield arms in the American League, Span is a great fielder and a prototypical leadoff hitter. In center, Carlos Gomez has a lot of talent. He's exciting and makes great plays defensively, but makes face-palming mistakes on the bases and is one of the most undisciplined hitters I've ever seen. He probably will keep center field but I wonder if he'll always be a tease. In left, you have a dilemma. Outside of Mauer and Morneau, Delmon Young may be the most talented guy on the team, but he's surly and was not nearly as productive as he should have been. He's also a liability on defense. Jason Kubel is a professional hitter but can't run a lick and pretty much has to play DH. It's possible that Cuddyer may end up in left.
Pitching, especially starting pitching, should be a strength of the team. The Twins ran out a number of young starters last season and all were successful in varying degrees. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn all were double-digit winners, but the X factor is Francisco Liriano, the talented lefthander who had electric stuff in 2006 but suffered a major arm injury. Liriano showed flashes of brilliance last year but he probably can't pitch the same way he did in 2006. If he can step up and take a turn with the others, the Twins will have the deepest starting rotation in the American League. They also have an outstanding closer in Joe Nathan. The problem is in between. There are a lot of pitchers available for bullpen duty, but none of them strikes you as a reliable 8th inning guy. If someone steps up, things will look pretty good.
The AL Central is hard to read this year. Cleveland went out and got some talent and might be the favorite on paper, but they haven't been very consistent in recent years. The Tigers still have a lot of talent, but the pitching that looked so formidable in 2006 has dissipated. The White Sox will be running out a few newcomers this season and it's not clear whether they will be as strong, while eternally rebuilding Kansas City still looks to be a year or two away. Figure the Twins to contend, but they could finish anywhere from 1st to 4th. If I had to guess, I'd say they'll finish 2nd to the Indians, especially if Travis Hafner has recovered from his myriad issues of 2007.