Can you feel it?!?! Fresh cut grass, the Florida sunshine, and the crack of a wooden bat...that's right - Spring Training 2010 is almost here!
As pitchers and catchers report this week and have their first workouts next week, I'm looking forward to what, on paper, appears to be one of the most promising Twins teams in years. With an overabundance of young arms, a bullpen that can be considered one of the best in the majors, and a lineup that is extremely well-rounded in power/speed/contact the Twins should be the hands-down favorite for the AL Central and in the discussion for best in the AL.
This aspect of the roster will be the determining factor for how the season goes. It is currently the biggest question mark because most of them are still very young, but also shows the most promise as they have all proved at one point or another they belong in the big leagues. With Baker named opening day starter the rotation will go Baker, Pavano, Slowey, Blackburn, and a 5th start TBD in spring. That 5th spot will more than likely belong to a lefty and I would lean towards Liriano if he continues his resurgance that we've all heard about from the Dominican league this winter. Washburn is still a possibility to sign (although I'm very doubtful that'll still happen) and Duensing showed a lot of promise last year down the stretch. The point is, no matter who performs and who flops, we've got some interchangability among pitchers. If they are able to step in and take a start or two from a guy who is struggling, it will be a very nice convenience for Ron Gardenhire. It can also provide the front office with some nice trading chips to fill holes that will come about during the season.
After being the best or near the best in the majors over the past several years, the bullpen faltered at times last year and it was enough to have fans worrying whenever a starter came out. I am not, and have never been, a huge fan of Jesse Crain and would put him about on the same level as Juan Rincon for middle inning relief. I think if he struggles again this year as he did through a lot of last year, he'll end up in the same place as Juan...on the waiver wire. With that said, I'm extremely excited to see Neshek coming back this year and anxious to see what he can do while returning from surgery. Very rarely do you see anyone have a stellar year returning from major surgery, but he was one of the best set-up men in baseball before getting hurt and it'll be exciting to see if he can return to that form as the season progresses. Rauch, Mijares, Duensing (if he's not a starter) are all awesome options to eat up innings and, ohh yeah, we still have one of the best closers in baseball in Joe Nathan. While a lot of people think we should have traded him to free up some money, I think many of those same people are pleased to see that we were able to spend money this offseason without trading him. Despite his struggles in the post-season last year, this guy is still a lights out closer and I'm happy to have him on our team.
What's not to be excited about? You have perhaps one of the best up-and-coming lead-off men in the game in Denard Span, you have a proven high percentage player in O-Hud, and then one of, if not the, best 3-4 punch in all of baseball in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Follow them up with a taste of Kubel/Thome, Cuddyer, Hardy, and Young (September hitting) you've got a lineup of all-star talent. As much as I can't stand his offensive incompetence, even Punto can contribute to this lineup as a number 9 hitter. His on-base percentage got better last year when he learned to velcro the bat to his shoulder and take some walks. This appears to be something that could be very special and is a very exciting way to open the new ballpark this year.
I'll even go as far to say this line-up, from top to bottom, is better than the New York Yankees line-up this year! That's right, I said it...better than the New York Yankees. I'll compare on a position-by-position basis. Outfield - outside of Granderson the Yankees are in a world of hurt here, 2-1 Twins. 3B - A-Rod hand-down is better than Punto, 2-2. Shortstop - Hardy will recover from his abissmal season last year and Jeter is on the decline, Hardy's numbers will be better than Jeter's this year, 3-2 Twins. 2B - I'll give the nod to Cano here, Hudson is solid, but I think Cano provides more potential and consistency, 3-3. 1B - This is very arguable, Tex or my favorite Canadian...I'm gonna call this one a draw, I believe they'll have very similar numbers and will both benefit greatly from the protection they have in the lineup, still 3-3. Catcher, easy...Joe Mauer, 4-3 Twins. And finally you have the DH, a place the Yankees usually have an abundance of power in but are lacking this year with somebody like Nick Johnson or Nick Swisher who can both hit for power, but nothing special. Put them against Thome and Kubel and I think again, you give the slight edge to the Twins putting the final score at 5-3 which I hope is the final score of Game 7 of the ALCS this year with the Twins over the Yankees!
Tried and true, the Twins always have a stellar defense and I really hope this year will be no different. Gold glove catcher, an outfield that has three guys with cannon arms, and a renewed infield that all has incredible range and gold-glove potential (O-Hud already has 3 of them). A big consideration, however, is the new ballpark (see worries for more on that). I'm confident though that Gardy and the coaching staff will have them ready for this change and given some time, they'll be right back at or near the top as they've been the past several years.
There are some things to consider with the team this year. As I mentioned, the pitching, with the exception of Pavano, is all really young and all of them still need to prove they can be consistently solid throughout an entire season. It's a worry, but not a large one I think. The biggest worry I have is a subject that one of my favorite members to follow (JohnnyBalls) brings up frequently in the message boards....this field is new to both the Twins and other teams. The Twins have had a tremendous "Dome-Field Advantage" being in the Metrodome with weird turf hops, bright lights under a roof the same color as a baseball, and a crowd that could be louder than any in the league. Under the open skies on real grass is something they'll have to get used to at home. Sure, they are professionals and play on real surfaces all the time over the course of the season, but you aren't gonna stuff 50,000+ fans into Target Field (capacity is 39,800 last I heard) which means you have less people screaming and also don't have the roof to cause all of the extreme noise. They're gonna have to get used to the different nuances of the field and that will take some time. Sure they'll get used to it over time, but even if it causes a 1 or 2 game difference, would that be enough to find them missing playoffs. I don't think it will and I surely hope it doesn't.
Phew - a lot to read, hope you enjoyed! I'm excited to hear your opinions on the 2010 Minnesota Twins as well so please correct me if I'm off on something and add to it if I'm missing anything. Thanks for reading!