By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (90-72) - First Place (AL Central); lost in ALDS to NY Yankees
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C - Henry Blanco, RP - Joe Nathan, INF - Nick Punto, RP/SP - Carlos Silva
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: INF - Chris Gomez, RP - Eddie Guardado, RP - LaTroy Hawkins, INF - Denny Hocking, SP - Eric Milton, OF - Dustan Mohr, C - A.J. Pierzynski, SP - Rick Reed, SP - Kenny Rogers
PROJECTED LINEUP: Shannon Stewart (LF), Luis Rivas (2B), Doug Mientkiewicz (1B), Torii Hunter (CF), Jacque Jones (RF), Corey Koskie (3B), Matthew LeCroy (DH), Joe Mauer (C), Cristian Guzman (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Brad Radke (RHP), Johan Santana (LHP), Kyle Lohse (RHP), Carlos Silva (RHP), Sean Douglass (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Joe Nathan (RHP)
MANAGER: Ron Gardenhire
The Minnesota Twins are trying for their third straight AL Central crown, but in order to accomplish this feat Ron Gardenhire's club will have to come up with a gigantic effort in 2004, especially after losing several key players in the offseason.
Gardenhire's team has captured the American League Central Division each of the two years he's been skipper of the Twins. Last year, Minnesota used a successful September to surge past the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox to win the division, only to lose to the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. The defining moment for the Twins came in that final month of the season, when they won 18 of their first 22 games in September. That included an 11-game winning streak, including a team-record 13-game run at the Metrodome to end the home regular season slate.
However, the success of the regular season didn't translate into advancement in the postseason, as the Twins were ousted in the division series, one year after beating Oakland in the opening round of the playoffs. The offseason exodus of several pitchers, including closer Eddie Guardado and top setup man LaTroy Hawkins, have left the Twins with a weaker bullpen. Starting pitchers Eric Milton, Rick Reed and Kenny Rogers are also gone, but the majority of their lineup remains intact, including left fielder Shannon Stewart, who signed a three-year, $18 million pact this winter. Stewart hit .322 after being acquired by the Twins from Toronto in the middle of last year.
The team is also hoping newcomers Joe Nathan and Joe Mauer, who has never played above Double-A, will help propel the team to another title in a division that seems to be the weakest in the American League.
The Twins are putting their trust behind the plate this season in a player who has probably the most upside to any rookie in 2004. Mauer, a lefthanded hitter who turns 21 in April, heads into this season as the favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year honors. He is replacing A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate following a trade with the Giants. Mauer was named the 2003 Minor League Player of the Year and rightfully so. Standing at 6'4", Mauer, a native of St. Paul, has great defensive skills behind the plate and will be very tough to run against. Offensively, his numbers in the minors were off the charts and now he'll make the jump to the majors straight from Double-A. Last season, Mauer hit .341 with four homers in 73 games at the Double-A level after hitting .335 with one homer in 62 games at Class A.
The rest of the infield is similar to last season with Doug Mientkiewicz at first base, Luis Rivas at second, Cristian Guzman at shortstop and Corey Koskie at third base.
Mientkiewicz, a sharp fielder and 2001 Gold Glove winner, hits well for average (.300 last year), but still could use better power numbers. Last season he had 11 homers and 65 RBI, well below what the average starting first baseman had in the AL last year. However, a strength for Mientkiewicz is his ability to draw walks. He had 74 last season against just 55 strikeouts.
Rivas is solid defensively, but still needs work on his offense, as he hit .259 last year. Rivas has good speed as he had 17 steals in 2003. Rivas is a solid infielder, posting a career .980 fielding percentage with just 31 errors in 1,551 total chances.
The switch-hitting Guzman, who topped the team last year with 18 steals, has seen his average dip since injuring his shoulder in 2001. He hit .268 last year, a far cry from the .302 mark in 2001. His power numbers also took a fall to three homers last season, but he is being more selective at the plate to compensate.
Koskie was on fire before the All-Star break last season before a back injury pushed him to the disabled list. He was never the same player after hitting .408 in June, but battled down the stretch to help the Twins to the postseason. Koskie, who hit .292 last year, still has lingering problems with his back and it remains to be seen if he'll need additional treatments or even need to rest for an extended period of time at the start of this season.
The strength of the team is the trio of Stewart, Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones in the outfield. Stewart almost singlehandedly led the Twins to the playoffs last year. After coming over from the Blue Jays in a trade in mid-July, Stewart smashed six homers and drove in 38 runs in 65 games in a Twins uniform. He finished fourth in the American League MVP voting.
Although Hunter hit just .250 last season, he did drive in a career-high 102 runs and belt 26 homers. However, his stolen base numbers took a dive, going from 23 in 2002 to six last year. In fact, Hunter was caught seven times trying to steal. He will likely get more opportunities to drive in runs, hitting in the middle of the order, especially with Stewart and Mientkiewicz in front of him. Signed to a four-year contract extension in January 2003, Hunter is also one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, as evidenced by his three consecutive Gold Glove awards.
Jones had to go through an offseason listening to rumors about him possibly being traded and there are still whispers of his departure. The Twins have an array of outfielders. Michael Cuddyer, Lew Ford, Mike Ryan and Michael Restovich are waiting in the wings for their chance to play every day.
Jones was slowed by a groin injury last season and finished the year hitting .304, but he wound up with just 16 homers and 69 RBI. That's off his 2002 production of 27 homers, 96 runs and 85 RBI.
Matthew LeCroy will serve as the DH, but he also has the ability to back up Mauer and can relieve Mientkiewicz at first base. LeCroy's first full season in the majors turned out to be a success at the plate, as he hit .287 with 17 homers and 64 RBI. His power numbers should increase this year.
The pitching staff is razor thin going into this season any injury to the staff this year could prove to be devastating. Righthander Brad Radke, who had an excellent second half of 2003 with a 3.24 ERA, will be Gardenhire's No. 1 man in the rotation. Southpaw Johan Santana, who moved from the bullpen to a starter's role in the second half of last year, will be behind Radke. Righthander Kyle Lohse, who tied for the team-high with Radke in wins (14), will be moved to the third position. After that though there are major questions at the back end with newly-acquired Carlos Silva and possibly righthanders Grant Balfour or Sean Douglass being inserted in the No. 5 position in late April. The Twins aren't expected to have the services of Rick Helling probably until the end of April due to a fractured right leg.
Radke had a rough start to last season with a 7.48 ERA in the first month of the season, but recovered nicely and is still the most dependable starter Gardenhire has. At 31-years old, Radke has really only had one dominant season in the majors, when he went 20-10 in 1997. However, he is the best of this bunch.
Lohse and Santana are both being counted on to carry the middle of the rotation. The 25-year-old Lohse went 14-11 with a 4.61 ERA last year and has added a lot of velocity to his fastball since breaking into the majors in 2001.
Santana had plenty of success as a starter, even though only 18 of his 45 appearances came in that role. He pitched eight innings in three straight starts in August, a month in which he went 5-0 with a 1.07 ERA. In fact, Santana didn't lose a game after July 23, going unbeaten in his final 12 regular season appearances. In the playoffs he imploded in the final game of the division series, letting up six hits and six runs in 3 2/3 innings.
Silva, who came over from Philadelphia in the deal that sent Milton to the Phillies, has started in just one of his 130 career major league appearances. The hard-throwing righthander though will be throwing into the mix and Gardenhire has liked what he's seen from the young pitcher from Venezuela.
Balfour had a slow start to spring training due to a sore elbow. The 26-year- old righthander from Australia has also made just one big league start, but is showing promise to join the rotation at some point this year.
The team will not likely have Joe Mays pitch this year after he underwent Tommy John surgery.
This figures to be the problem area for the team this year. After losing Guardado and Hawkins, the Twins are hoping Nathan will develop into a solid closer. The 29-year-old Nathan, who came over in the deal that sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants, made 78 appearances last year and had a 2.96 ERA. He also blew three save opportunities, and has just one save in his career, and that came in 1999.
Lefthander J.C. Romero and righty Jesse Crain figure to be the top setup men for Nathan. Romero, who made 73 appearances last year but had a 5.00 ERA, has a great array of pitches and he'll be counted on heavily as a situational pitcher.
Righthanders Joe Roa and Juan Rincon are expected to work in long relief.
Nick Punto, who was acquired in the Milton deal, will be used extensively as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. Punto started a number of games for the Phillies last season due to injuries, but he hit only .217. Henry Blanco will spell relief for Mauer, while Cuddyer will be asked to play several infield and outfield positions like he did last year.
For a team that has been decimated by free agency in the offseason, the Twins still have a solid nucleus on offense, but pitching may be the downfall of this year's squad. The rotation took a major hit as did the bullpen and both are extremely shallow. However, in the weak AL Central Gardenhire's team may have enough offense to overcome the shortcomings on the mound to challenge for a third straight division title.