2007 Record: 79-83
Third in the NL Central – 17 games back
SP Phil Humber (trade from New York Mets)
LF Carlos Gomez (trade from New York Mets)
3B Mike Lamb (signed as a free agent)
SS Adam Everett (signed as a free agent)
SS Brandon Harris (trade from the Tampa Bay Rays)
RF Delmon Young (trade from the Tampa Bay Rays)
LF Craig Monroe (traded from the Chicago Cubs)
SP Johan Santana (traded to the New York Mets)
LF Jason Tyner (non-tendered)
LF Lew Ford (to Japan)
SP Matt Garza (traded to the Tampa Bay Rays)
LF Rondell White (free agency)
CF Torii Hunter (free agency, now with Angels)
SP Carlos Silva (free agency, now with Phillies)
The Skinny: With the team’s (if not the majors’) best pitcher Johan Santana being traded to the New York Mets, some people will pedict the downfall of the Twins. But remember that Santana’s spot in the rotation will be filled by Fransisco Liriano, no slouch himself. Remember his 2006 season? No? How about a 12-3 record, a 2.16 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP and 144 K in 121 IP. You can make the case he was even better than Santana that year when he pitched. Now, Liriano comes back from Tommy John surgery and you never now what you are going to get those guys, but if he returns strong, don’t count out the Twins just yet. I’m not saying they are favorites to win the AL Central, but they are more likely to finish ahead of Cleveland and Detroit than behind Chicago and Kansas City.
(Former) Strength: The Twins are built on pitching and defense. Unfortunately, their three best pitchers last year – Santana, Carlos Silva and Matt Garza – are all gone now, so the rotation in 2008 will consist of a lot of question marks. Right now, the depth chart lists Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn as starters behind Fransisco Liriano, not a sure thing himself. However, the Twins have a lot of arms in the minors that could step up any time during the season, including Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey who both came over from New York and will join the rotation sooner or later.
The real strength of the team however might be the bullpen now. Behind top closer Joe Nathan (nobody converted a higher percentage of his save opportunities than him), the Twins have a solid collection of arms in Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek and Juan Rincon (off year last year).
(Former) Weaknesses: The Twins offense ranked 12th among the 14th teams in the AL. Torii Hunter, who had the second best season of his career last year is gone, but he will be replaced with Delmon Young, who drove in 93 for the Rays as a rookie. He must learn how to be a little more selective at the plate, but Hunter wasn’t the most patient hitter ever either. The offense also figures to improve thanks to Mike Lamb taking over third base from Nick Punto. Lamb is no A-Rod, but even if he swings one-handed, he should be able to do better than Punto, who’s .562 OPS was by far the lowest of any hitter who qualified for the batting title. Throw in improvements from Mauer and Morneau and the Twins might actually be doing ok on offense. The only thing that the Twins really lack is a good leadoff hitter, although second baseman Alexi Casilla could eventually grow into one.
2B Alexi Casilla / Brandon Harris
C Joe Mauer
RF Michael Cuddyer
1B Justin Morneau
LF Delmon Young
3B Mike Lamb
DH Jason Kubel
CF Carlos Gomez
SS Adam Everett
Nick Blackburn (or Phil Humber or Kevin Mulvey)
Set Pat Neshek
Closer Joe Nathan
Keys to success: The Twins’ season lies on the shoulders of their young pitchers, especially Liriano. If he can lead a young staff that holds its own against tough competition in the American League, Minnesota should be fine. Last season, the Seattle Mariners showed that you don’t need a first class rotation to hang in there until late in the season. For that to happen, the offense needs to play at the upper limit of its possibility and the bullpen needs to be lights out. Could happen. Probably won’t happen, but could.
Prediction: Too many things need to go right for the Twins to seriously challenge the Tigers and Indians, but this team is not barren wasteland without Santana. They need to find at least four pitchers whom they can give the ball with confidence every fifth day and they need to refrain from bringing in a couple of “veteran” pitchers to fill the rotation like they did last year with Sidney Ponson and Russ Ortiz. In that case, things might get ugly indeed. However, if they go young, with such a deep pool of fresh arms available, I’m pretty sure they will be able to find some stability. I see them finish ahead of the White Sox and Royals with a record around .500.