By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (92-70) - First Place (AL Central); lost to NY Yankees in ALDS
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: INF - Juan Castro; C - Mike Redmond
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: C - Henry Blanco; SS - Cristian Guzman; 3B - Corey Koskie
PROJECTED LINEUP: Shannon Stewart (LF); Joe Mauer (C); Torii Hunter (CF); Justin Morneau (1B); Lew Ford (DH); Jacque Jones (RF); Michael Cuddyer (3B); Jason Bartlett (SS); Luis Rivas (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Johan Santana (LHP); Brad Radke (RHP); Carlos Silva (RHP); Kyle Lohse (RHP); Joe Mays (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Joe Nathan (RHP)
MANAGER: Ron Gardenhire
Minnesota has won the AL Central three straight years with an average of 92 victories. Last year, it was the Cy Young performance of lefthander Johan Santana that guided the Twins to the division title by nine games over the Chicago White Sox, a team that has finished runner-up since 2002. The closest finish since the division was formed, following the 1993 season, has been four games, and that occurred in 2003.
The Twins have been the most consistent winner in the Central, and they're doing it with defense, speed and small ball under the guidance of Ron Gardenhire. The team had 116 steals last season, the fourth-most in the majors. Their 4.03 ERA and 1,123 strikeouts by pitchers was sixth-best. The pitching staff walked just 431 batters, second only to San Diego. Yet, for a second straight year they were beaten by the Yankees in the Division Series.
The Twins lost shortstop Cristian Guzman and third baseman Corey Koskie this winter and will go into the season with a new look to their left side with rookie Jason Bartlett likely at shortstop and Michael Cuddyer at third. However, with a standout defensive outfielder in Torii Hunter (CF), along with a healthy Joe Mauer behind the plate, the emergence of DH Lew Ford and first baseman Justin Morneau, and Brad Radke back for his 11th season, the Twins are primed for another championship.
Morneau hasn't been criticized for his offense, but for his defense, which is actually above average. The problem stems from him being compared to Doug Mientkiewicz, who is now with the Mets. At 23-years-old, Morneau is projected to develop into one of the best hitting first basemen in the majors. In just 74 games last year, he batted .271 with 19 homers and 58 RBI. His numbers at Rochester were impressive (.306, 22 HR, 63 RBI) in only 72 contests.
Although Luis Rivas has a career .321 batting average and .375 on-base percentage from the lead-off spot, the Twins aren't going to switch Shannon Stewart from the No. 1 spot. Rivas' career average hitting second is a paltry .235, and that's why the Twins will continue to utilize him batting ninth. He does have good speed and was excellent stealing last season with 15 successful attempts against being caught once.
Bartlett seems to have won the starting shortstop job in spring training and brings great range and speed to the position. The 25-year-old suffered a broken wrist last season, but in 2003 stole 41 bases, although he was also caught 24 times. His on-base percentage was .415 last season for Rochester, and that would be a huge plus from the eighth spot.
With Koskie gone, the third base job falls to a guy who was the true definition of utility player last season. Cuddyer played five positions in the field and also was a DH four times. The 26-year-old, a first-round pick by the Twins in 1997, has tremendous upside with a quick bat, and although he hit just 12 homers in 115 games, his power numbers will rise.
All eyes will be on Mauer, as he returns from a knee injury that limited him to 35 games last season. The left-handed hitting back-stopper was regarded as one of the best hitting prospects for a catcher in the majors until a devastating injury to his knee. He underwent surgery last year, but was still experiencing soreness in spring training. That's not good news, but the Twins added insurance in the offseason with the signing of Mike Redmond to a two- year contract.
The Twins were hopeful to add more power to their outfield, but Jason Kubel is expected to be out the entire year following reconstructive surgery on his left knee In fact, the Twins don't want to rush him back since it was an injury to his ACL.
Stewart, Hunter and Jacque Jones combined for 58 homers and 208 RBI in the Twins outfield last season, but the best part of course is Hunter and his incredible defense. Stewart was a solid lead-off hitter last season with a .304 average and a .380 on-base percentage. Although Jones hit 24 homers last year, he was too aggressive at the plate and struck out 117 times, while walking just 40 times.
Ford can actually challenge for time in the outfield when Matthew LeCroy is used as the DH. Ford is also strong (15 HR) and fast (20 steals) for a No. 5 guy, a rarity for hitters in that slot. He's also careful around the plate, walking 67 times last year versus 75 strikeouts.
Santana is plain sensational, and the southpaw will prove that his 20-6 mark, 2.61 ERA and club-record 265 strikeouts last year was no fluke. The Twins think so, as they gave him around $48 million over four years. The 26-year-old Santana allowed more than three runs in only six of his 34 starts and went 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break. He had 12 double- digit strikeout games and didn't allow a run for 33 straight innings in a stretch from August 28 - September 24. He also compiled the lowest opponents' batting average of .192. His fastball is as lively as any pitcher, and his changeup is also incredible, keeping hitters off-balance. Don't be shocked to see another 20-win season, although the Twins shouldn't give the southpaw as many innings (228) as last season to avoid injury.
Two years and $18 million to get Radke may be a bargain compared to what some of the other pitchers received this offseason, and for good reason. The 32- year-old righthander has posted double-digit wins in all but one of his 10 years. His ERA last year was a career-best 3.48, while compiling an 11-8 mark. Expect the wins to escalate this year, as he's improved keeping the ball down and his strikeouts have risen for two consecutive seasons.
Carlos Silva, who will turn 26 in April, is coming off his first season as a starting pitcher in the majors. He compiled a 14-8 record with a 4.21 ERA in 33 starts. Like Santana, Silva has shown the ability to be a consistent starter. He finished strong with a four-game winning streak and a 1.42 ERA in a stretch from September 10-26.
Kyle Lohse may not be with the Twins past this season, as the righthander has a one-year deal following his win of his arbitration case in February. It's a huge raise for the righthander, who will earn $2.4 million this year after making only $395,000 last year. He went 9-13 with a 5.34 ERA, but as a fundamentally-sound pitcher there's not much more the Twins can ask of him for now.
Joe Mays won 17 games in 2001, but he hasn't pitched since 2003 following Tommy John surgery. The 29-year-old righthander may not last long in the rotation if he performs like he did in 2002 (5.38 ERA) or 2003 (6.30 ERA).
Closer Joe Nathan adapted well last season in the AL after being dealt from the Giants and went 45-for-48 in save opportunities. There's no reason why he won't top 40 saves again. Righthander Juan Rincon has developed into a good set-up man, and lefthander J.C. Romero has proven to be a reliable long reliever by keeping the ball down with good location. Hard throwers Grant Balfour and Jesse Crain also give the bullpen a boost, while 42-year-old lefty Terry Mulholland returns for his 19th big league season despite a 5.18 ERA last year. Mulholland is also being kept around as an emergency starter.
LeCroy will provide some added punch offensively and is also an asset since he can play catcher and a corner outfield spot. Switch-hitting shortstop Nick Punto and utility infielder Juan Castro will may replace Bartlett if the rookie struggles. There may also be an opportunity for Punto to steal the starting second base job from Rivas, who was struggling during spring training.
Lock and load. That's what the Twins have done the last three seasons. In this case, the Twins lost a few positional players in Guzman, Koskie and catcher Henry Blanco. If Mauer can overcome his knee injury from last year and the back end of the rotation that includes Lohse and Silva can exceed double-digit victories, and Morneau can complement his hitting skills with better glove work, the Twins will likely rise to the elite of the division again.