Written by Robert Democh
Published: 02 April 2009
A dark cloud hovers over Minneapolis on the eve of the 2009 season. Favorite son Joe Mauer’s sore back threatens to sideline him indefinitely. For a team that was already resorting to magic potions as a way to manufacture runs, his prolonged absence would prove devastating. Don’t be discouraged, because Mauer isn’t the only talented Twin you’ll want on your fantasy roster. Top Tier:
Justin Morneau (1B):
Justin Morneau should hit more home runs this season.
It’s been close but no cigar for Morneau. Last year, he finished as AL MVP runner-up for the second time in his promising career. He’s that rarity, a power hitting first baseman who seldom strikes out and can reliably hit at or above .300. Morneau failed to reach the 30 home run plateau in 2008 (23), smacking an amazing 47 doubles instead and keeping his average glued to .300 by practicing uncommon patience at the plate. Assuming a representative number of those doubles mature into homers this season, he’s back to 30. Morneau quieted the critics who maintained he couldn’t solve lefties, raising his OPS against them nearly 80 points last year. That new found ability allowed him to play 163 games last year, so cross durability off your list of potential concerns. He’s never going to ascend to 35-40 home run territory, but 30-100-.300 with 95 runs is worth a pretty penny on draft day. Joe Mauer (C):
Putting off-season kidney surgery behind him, Mauer enters 2009 tormented by persistent back pain from an inflamed sacroiliac joint. Despite taking medication for the condition, there is no timetable for his return. Club officials suggest he’ll miss one to four weeks, but they’re not physicians. This represents the second time in three seasons Mauer will sacrifice at bats due to injury (he missed significant time in 2007 while nursing a sore quadriceps). He also missed assorted games last year due to ankle and hamstring discomfort. The career .317 hitter knows how to wield a bat, capturing his second AL batting title in three years in 2008 and striking out a paltry 50 times in 536 at bats. His Achilles heel is limited power. Mauer drilled just nine homers last season, matching his career average over four full seasons. He’s such a physically imposing specimen (6’5”, 225 lbs), it’s puzzling why he hasn’t attained the 20 home run pop scouts once confidently predicted. He’s regressed as a base runner, falling from a high of 13 steals in 2005 to one last season, probably in an effort to preserve his legs. The Twins should acknowledge that having the injury-prone Mauer occupy a physically demanding position needlessly jeopardizes keeping his bat active. The lack of fence-busting power and the back problem have caused his stock to drop in recent drafts. Fantasy success depends upon minimizing unnecessary risk and Mauer is no longer a sure thing. He’d hit .300 blindfolded, but last year looks increasingly like his offensive ceiling (nine homers, 85 RBI, 98 runs). Buyer beware, because bad backs have a nasty tendency to linger. Joe Nathan (RP):
If he left his heart in San Francisco, Nathan never let on. Since being acquired from the Giants in 2004, Nathan has become a prodigious collector of saves, averaging just under 40 in each of his five Minnesota seasons. The 34-year-old has deservedly earned praise as one of the elite closers in the game. His peripherals remain impressive if in gradual decline. He still averages better than a strikeout per IP with precision control (88:19 K:BB ratio in 2008). Combine that with amazing durability (a single visit to the DL since 2000) and it’s easy to see why he has become a fantasy institution. Nathan will be among the top three closers taken, probably by the sixth round in mixed league drafts and is a near unanimous choice for 35 saves.
Second Tier:Francisco Liriano (SP):
The Twins starting rotation returns intact from a year ago, headed by Liriano. At the end of last season, he finally resembled the pitcher who authored a storybook rookie campaign in 2006 that ended prematurely due to Tommy John surgery. His return to the limelight wasn’t without drama. After missing all of 2007, Liriano returned to the Twins last April before he was ready, surrendering 13 walks and 13 runs in 10.1 innings. Farmed out to fine tune his mechanics, he slowly rounded into shape. After a flawless Triple-A interlude in which he went 9-0, the Twins beckoned in August. Liriano was 6-1 down the stretch with a 2.74 ERA in 65 innings. He was not as dominant as in 2006, averaging under a strikeout per inning and his fastball was consistently clocked 4-5 mph slower. Liriano also discontinued using a slider, thought to be the main cause of his earlier elbow problems. The 2009 edition may be less dominating but perhaps more skillful, forced to rely on his full arsenal instead of merely cutting loose with his fast ball to escape jams. Pitchers often gain increased velocity two seasons removed from Tommy John. If Liriano does, he advances to the top five AL starters and justifies a sixth round pick in mixed leagues. Third Tier:Scott Baker (SP):
Capitalizing on a strong finish to his 2007 season, Baker made further progress, resembling an ace at times last year. He possesses excellent control along with a passable career 6.7 K/9 IP, but has a penchant for the long ball. After permitting 1.5 HR/9IP his first two seasons, he showed definite improvement last year (1.1). The future looks bright, particularly if Baker can successfully translate some of his 14 non-decisions from a year ago into wins. Barring a relapse in his home run tendencies, he’s easily capable of 15 wins. He’s been a mover in fantasy circles; grab him a round earlier than you think necessary to lock in his breakout potential. Denard Span (OF):
Span resided well down the Twins’ outfield depth chart at the commencement of 2008, but willed himself into being an everyday outfielder, supplanting Carlos Gomez as leadoff hitter. His minor league pedigree suggested limited power and questionable plate discipline but Span proved a quick study. He learned to take more pitches, accumulating 50 walks and a .387 OBP while striking out just 60 times. It’s a new season and Span is playing big league musical chairs, as one of five players vying for four spots (three outfield and DH). He will either earn the starting nod in right or enter platoon mode, splitting time at DH or center field. If Span can complement his base running gifts with greater plate maturity and enhanced power, he could mature into a marquee player. Kevin Slowey (SP):
Slowey claimed the No. 3 spot in Minnesota’s rotation after his productive 2008 rookie season yielded 12 wins. Touted for his exceptional control, Slowey served notice that he could also bring the heat, striking out 44 batters in his final 46 innings of 2008. He has been nothing short of sensational this spring. Through March 28, Slowey had a 2.21 ERA with an astounding 20 strikeouts and but one walk in 20 innings. Like Baker, he is prone to long ball excess (28 allowed last season). If he can overcome that, his pinpoint control and new found heater portend 12-15 wins and a sub-4 ERA, depending upon the quality of his offensive support. Question Mark:Delmon Young (OF):
Young saw the wheels come off during a disappointing first season with the Twins. His power dissipated (Young didn’t hit a homer until June 7 and finished with 10 overall) and his plate discipline vanished while he led the majors by first pitch swinging an alarming 47.4 percent of the time. Minnesota fans gnashed their teeth, considering the success enjoyed by those traded for him (Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza). Time is the one thing on the 23-year-old Young’s side. Those with selective memories forget he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2003 and winner of the prestigious minor league player of the year award from Baseball America in 2005. He’d trade all that hardware for some consistency. Far from the superstar role many believed was his destiny, Young approaches the 2009 season projected as Minnesota’s fourth outfielder. Great Debate:
Carlos Gomez (OF):
Gomez was a must-have for Minnesota when they traded Johan Santana. The Twins saw a budding star and promptly installed him as their starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter. Gomez’ abundant speed was readily apparent as he led the junior circuit in infield hits and set a club record for bunt hits. Then there were the blemishes. Gomez proved a hacker at the plate, striking out far too often to remain a fixture atop the lineup. By July, he was relegated to the ninth spot in the order. His base stealing technique has major flaws (11 apprehensions in 44 attempts). Given the crowded outfield picture, Gomez may not enjoy as much on-the-job training this season without showing a more disciplined hitting approach. If he turns the corner, he could muster 35 steals. Prospect Watch:Ben Revere (OF):
Not among the best known prospects, Revere wasn’t selected until the 28th pick of the 2007 draft. He showed his distaste for such a low ranking by leading the minor leagues in hitting last season, dancing above the rarified .400 mark for much of it. He slowed in August, hobbled by a bad knee that required surgery but completed his season hitting .379 with 44 steals in Low-A. Admittedly it’s a small sample size, but this 20-year-old can rake and run and qualifies as Minnesota’s top hitting prospect. He’ll start 2009 at High-A and deserves consideration by those who enjoy speculating on the next big thing.