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Minnesota Twins: Another year/decade begins

Fri, Mar 25th, 2011
Posted in Sports

The 00's were a very good ten-year span for the state's baseball franchise. We had two American League MVPs (Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau), a two-time Cy Young Award winner (Johan Santana), and a three-time batting champ (Mauer). Only once did the beloved 'Twinkie's finish below five-hundred (2007). They won six American League Central Titles (02-04, 06, 09-10) and thus advanced to six post-seasons. Unfortunately, the Twins only advanced past the first round of the post-season once, back in 2002. We're very good at being merely good. Even with our stars, we just can't seem to get past the Yankees of the baseball world. Two thousand eleven seems to hold the same promise.

The biggest question mark as the season begins centers on the health of our three most known and heralded superstars: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan. Mauer played just short of normal Mauer last year, batting .327 with 9 home runs and 75 RBIs, but he's returning from off-season knee surgery. Seeing him return to 2009's form, 28 home runs, 96 RBIs, and a .365 average, would be nice! Justin Morneau was well on his way to matching that kind of season last year. Exactly mid-way through, he had belted 18 home runs, driven in 56 runs, and was batting .345. Then he got kneed in the head. Can we get him a football helmet so this doesn't happen again? Joe Nathan sat out all of last year after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament. He had Tommy John surgery to correct the injury. In his previous six seasons in Minnesota, Joe had done nothing less than save 44, 43, 36, 37, 39, and 47 games, or All-Star caliber closer work.

Relief pitching is one place where the Twins will have to retool a bit. Right-handed pitcher Jesse Crain (71 games, 3.04 ERA) departed for, of all the teams, the White Sox (the traitor). Joe Nathan's early-season closer fill-in, 6'10" Jon Rauch (3-1, 21 saves in 25 opportunities, 3.12 ERA), signed with the Blue Jays via free agency. The Twins did re-sign late-season closer Matt Capps (16 saves in Minnesota, 42 on the season, 2.47 overall ERA). He and a healthy Nathan will be an imposing set-up/closer tandem. From there though, Jose Mijares (47 games, 32.2 innings, 3.31 ERA) is the next best sure-fire reliever. Alex Burnett, Jeff Manship, and Anthony Slama will be called upon to eat up innings too. Pat Neshek could help a lot if he returned to his 2007-form (70.1 innings pitched, 7-2 record, 2.94 ERA). Ron Gardenhire does have the luxury of rotating one of his six starting pitchers who doesn't get into the rotation every fifth day (Glen Perkins). That rotation will return completely intact. Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62 ERA) is technically the 'Ace.' He finished 13th in the league in strikeouts with 201. That makes Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75 ERA, 221 innings), another off-season re-signee, nothing less than a great #2 starter. Scott Baker (12-9, 4.49 ERA, 148 strikeouts), Brian Duensing (10-3 in 13 starts, 2.62 ERA), Nick Blackburn (10-12, 5.42 ERA), and Kevin Slowey (13-6, 4.45 ERA) fill out a very solid rotation.

Positionally, offensively, a couple notable players departed also. Shortstop J.J. Hardy (.268, 6 home runs, 28 RBIs in 100 games) was traded to Baltimore. Second basemen Orlando Hudson (.268, 6 home runs, 37 RBIs) left for San Diego. For whatever reason, the Twins are good at signing veterans who don't stay around long (or play particularly well). Utility infielder Nick Punto (.238 in 88 games), a Twin over the past half-decade, also left, for St. Louis. The only free agent the Twins signed to replace those three was highly heralded 2010 Japanese Pacific League batting champion/All Star Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Here's to him being the next Ichiro! 'Nishi' will play second; Alexi Casilla (.276 in 69 games) will play shortstop, though that could switch. After last year's impressive rookie showing (.311, 7 home runs in 85 games), Danny Valencia will get a shot to be our every-day guy from the hot corner. However, it's entirely likely, with our loaded outfield/designated hitter situation, Michael Cuddyer (.271, 14 home runs, 81 RBIs) could see some time there too (as well as at first base spelling Morneau). In the outfield, Delmon Young broke out last year, batting .298, belting 21 dingers, and driving in 112 runs. Denard Span stole 26 bases and was our leadoff man, but his .264-average was a 47-point drop from 2009's .311. Jason Kubel's numbers also fell off significantly from 2009 (.300, 28 home runs, 103 RBIs) to 2010 (.249, 21 home runs, 92 RBI's). Mauer will catch a majority of the time. Next time, when we build a new stadium, lets make sure it enhances our player's performances (see Mauer, Kubel, Span, and Cuddyer), not hampers them! The biggest coup offensively was resigning hall-of-fame bound DH Jim Thome. Thome will turn 41 in August, but judging by last season's performance, 25 home runs, .283-average in 108 games, he's not old yet. With 589 career blasts, it's almost inevitable he'll surpass 600 in a Twins uniform. All the way around, the Twins look highly competitive. A division title is very much in reach.

To get it, the usual suspects stand in our way (sorry Kansas City, that doesn't include you). Those pale-hosers from the Southside are 'All In!' They added Adam Dunn. That's not good. He's hit 38 or more home runs every season since 2004 (though his lifetime average is .250). Chicago's theme will again be 'long ball'. Paul Konerko hits them (39 last year with a .313 average). Carlos Quentin (26), Alex Rios (21), and Alexei Ramirez (18) bang out a few too. They also have speedster Juan Pierre (68 swipes last year). Pitching-wise, Mark Buehrle (13-13, 4.28 ERA) and John Danks (15-11, 3.72 ERA) are there headliners. It remains to be seen if Edwin Jackson (32 saves) will be there everyday closer. The Tigers could also get into the fray. Miguel Cabrera, if he leaves the sauce alone, can contend for a triple crown (38 home runs, 126 RBIs, .328 in 2009). Austin Jackson batted .293 and stole 27 bases as a rookie. Victor Martinez, an addition from Boston, is a solid DH (20 home runs, .302 average in 2009). Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge, Johnny Peralta, and Carlos Guilen are veterans who've had very good seasons in the past. Justin Verlander (18-9, 3.37 ERA) is the crème of the Tigers pitching crop. The bullpen triad of Jose Valverde (26 saves, .184 average against), Joaquin Benoit (1.34 ERA in 60 innings, .147 average against), and Joel Zumaya (2.53 ERA in 38 innings) is impressive.

It'll be nice to leisurely watch a game of hot baseball in the cool air conditioning!

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