Minnesota Twins 2010 preview

Once mentioned as a contraction candidate, Minnesota will christen its new outdoor Target Field on April 12 and will boast a payroll that suddenly ranks nowhere near the small-market range. However, the new ballpark won’t include a money tree in the outfield. As a result, a cloud will hang over the franchise until it can lock up catcher Joe Mauer to a long-term deal. Mauer is signed through this season, however, and that is just one reason the Twins are primed to repeat as AL Central champions. (UPDATE: The Twins and Mauer agreed to an eight-year, $184 million extension earlier this month.)

Three questions

1. How will the new park affect the team?
Say what you will about the aesthetics of the Metrodome, but you could count on temperatures in the low 70s and a zero percent chance of a rainout/snowout. And it provided quite a home-field advantage; Minnesota’s 393 home wins since 2002 rank behind only the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s totals. Target Field figures to be a challenging place to play early and late in the season when the temperatures hover around/below freezing.

The Twins, with largely the same pitching staff as in 2009, went 55-40 with a 4.35 ERA indoors last season but 32-36 with a 4.72 ERA outdoors. Offensively, they hit 1.01 homers per game in 68 outdoor games and 1.08 homers per game in 95 indoor games. However, the ball doesn’t figure to travel well in the frigid outdoor air.

Does Francisco Liriano have any of the 2006 magic left in him?
Does Francisco Liriano have any of the 2006 magic left in him?

2. Is Francisco Liriano back?
The majority of the chatter in Minnesota revolves around whether Mauer will be back in 2011, but a bigger question for this season is whether the 2006 Liriano will reappear. That season, Liriano went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 10.7 K/9 ratio in 28 games (16 starts) and showed the promise of a future ace. Then came Tommy John surgery. In 2009, his first full season back from the procedure, Liriano went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA and lost his rotation spot.

But just as the organization began to doubt Liriano’s ability to recapture his dominant form, he put on a clinic in winter ball. His velocity returned, along with his confidence. Because of the Twins’ rotation depth, they will take things slowly with Liriano in hopes of jump-starting a once-promising career.

3. Is this bullpen an elite unit?
Twins relievers posted a 3.87 ERA last season, good enough for fourth in the AL and 12th in the majors. However, closer Joe Nathan struggled late in the season and in the ALDS and had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs from his pitching elbow. Setup man Jesse Crain was less than a year removed from shoulder surgery, and late-inning reliever Pat Neshek missed the entire season after Tommy John surgery. Nathan, Crain and Neshek are healthy, and late-season acquisition Jon Rauch will be with the team all season after posting a 1.72 ERA in 17 games with Minnesota in 2009.

"He knows how to pitch, has a good breaking ball. You look at him and think he’s going to be one of these power guys, but he’s at 91, 92, which is plenty enough velocity," manager Ron Gardenhire said about Rauch. "He’s a good finesse guy, a guy who can locate the ball, another guy who can (get) us to our closer."

(UPDATE: Nathan tore an elbow ligament in spring training and underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. Barring a trade, the Twins will begin the season with a closer-by-committee.)

Projected lineup
1. CF Denard Span: .390 OBP, 17 triples past 2 seasons.
2. 2B Orlando Hudson: Career-worst 99 K’s in ’09 with Dodgers.
3. C Joe Mauer: .444 OBP led MLB; 1.031 OPS led AL
4. 1B Justin Morneau: Averaged 30 HRs, 118 RBIs since ’06.
5. RF Michael Cuddyer: Career-best 32 HRs last season.
6. DH Jason Kubel: First 100-RBI season in ’09.
7. LF Delmon Young: .266 AVG before break; .300 after.
8. SS J.J. Hardy: Hit .169 vs. LHP in ’09.
9. 3B Brendan Harris: .311 AVG at home; .207 on road in ’09.

Projected rotation
1. RHP Scott Baker: 1.08 WHIP at home; 1.30 on road in ’09.
2. RHP Carl Pavano: 5-4, 4.64 ERA after trade to Twins.
3. RHP Nick Blackburn: ’08: 11-11, 4.05 ERA; ’09: 11-11, 4.03.
4. RHP Kevin Slowey: 10-3 before wrist surgery.
5. LHP Francisco Liriano: 5.93 ERA as SP in ’09; 3.52 as RP.

PROJECTED CLOSER
RHP Joe Nathan: Career-high 47 saves last season. Jon Rauch: The likely committee chairman.

Grades

Offense: A. Mauer, the defending AL MVP and batting champion, and Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP, form one of the majors’ best 1-2 offensive punches. Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel also have 30-homer capability, and Minnesota finished fifth in the majors in runs in 2009. Orlando Hudson is ideal fit in the 2-hole, and fellow newcomer J.J. Hardy could provide pop from the bottom of the order.

Pitching: B. The Twins finished 23rd in the majors in ERA last season, thanks in large part to the starters’ 4.84 ERA (26th). However, the return to health in the bullpen and the potential for Liriano to rebound as a starter bump up this grade. (UPDATE: This grade was handed out before Nathan’s injury.)

Bench: B. Few teams have the luxury of calling upon a pinch hitter with 564 career homers. But the Twins have that late-inning option with Jim Thome. Nick Punto will compete for the starting job at third but will be more valuable as a reserve infielder. Minnesota lost outfield depth by trading Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee.

Manager: A. In eight seasons at the helm, Gardenhire has had one losing record (79-83 in 2007). He was brilliant while working with a small-budget squad, so expect even better things with arguably the best collection of talent with which he has had to work.

Sporting News prediction: It won’t be easy — and might take another one-game playoff — but Minnesota will be the first AL Central champion to repeat since … the 2003-04 Twins. (UPDATE: This prediction was made prior to Nathan’s injury.)

Coming Tuesday: Tigers preview.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

Once mentioned as a contraction candidate, Minnesota will christen its new outdoor Target Field on April 12 and will boast a payroll that suddenly ranks nowhere near the small-market range. However, the new ballpark won’t include a money tree in the outfield. As a result, a cloud will hang over the franchise until it can lock up catcher Joe Mauer to a long-term deal. Mauer is signed through this season, however, and that is just one reason the Twins are primed to repeat as AL Central champions. (UPDATE: The Twins and Mauer agreed to an eight-year, $184 million extension earlier this month.)

Three questions

1. How will the new park affect the team?
Say what you will about the aesthetics of the Metrodome, but you could count on temperatures in the low 70s and a zero percent chance of a rainout/snowout. And it provided quite a home-field advantage; Minnesota’s 393 home wins since 2002 rank behind only the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s totals. Target Field figures to be a challenging place to play early and late in the season when the temperatures hover around/below freezing.

The Twins, with largely the same pitching staff as in 2009, went 55-40 with a 4.35 ERA indoors last season but 32-36 with a 4.72 ERA outdoors. Offensively, they hit 1.01 homers per game in 68 outdoor games and 1.08 homers per game in 95 indoor games. However, the ball doesn’t figure to travel well in the frigid outdoor air.

Does Francisco Liriano have any of the 2006 magic left in him?
Does Francisco Liriano have any of the 2006 magic left in him?

2. Is Francisco Liriano back?
The majority of the chatter in Minnesota revolves around whether Mauer will be back in 2011, but a bigger question for this season is whether the 2006 Liriano will reappear. That season, Liriano went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 10.7 K/9 ratio in 28 games (16 starts) and showed the promise of a future ace. Then came Tommy John surgery. In 2009, his first full season back from the procedure, Liriano went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA and lost his rotation spot.

But just as the organization began to doubt Liriano’s ability to recapture his dominant form, he put on a clinic in winter ball. His velocity returned, along with his confidence. Because of the Twins’ rotation depth, they will take things slowly with Liriano in hopes of jump-starting a once-promising career.

3. Is this bullpen an elite unit?
Twins relievers posted a 3.87 ERA last season, good enough for fourth in the AL and 12th in the majors. However, closer Joe Nathan struggled late in the season and in the ALDS and had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs from his pitching elbow. Setup man Jesse Crain was less than a year removed from shoulder surgery, and late-inning reliever Pat Neshek missed the entire season after Tommy John surgery. Nathan, Crain and Neshek are healthy, and late-season acquisition Jon Rauch will be with the team all season after posting a 1.72 ERA in 17 games with Minnesota in 2009.

"He knows how to pitch, has a good breaking ball. You look at him and think he’s going to be one of these power guys, but he’s at 91, 92, which is plenty enough velocity," manager Ron Gardenhire said about Rauch. "He’s a good finesse guy, a guy who can locate the ball, another guy who can (get) us to our closer."

(UPDATE: Nathan tore an elbow ligament in spring training and underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. Barring a trade, the Twins will begin the season with a closer-by-committee.)

Projected lineup
1. CF Denard Span: .390 OBP, 17 triples past 2 seasons.
2. 2B Orlando Hudson: Career-worst 99 K’s in ’09 with Dodgers.
3. C Joe Mauer: .444 OBP led MLB; 1.031 OPS led AL
4. 1B Justin Morneau: Averaged 30 HRs, 118 RBIs since ’06.
5. RF Michael Cuddyer: Career-best 32 HRs last season.
6. DH Jason Kubel: First 100-RBI season in ’09.
7. LF Delmon Young: .266 AVG before break; .300 after.
8. SS J.J. Hardy: Hit .169 vs. LHP in ’09.
9. 3B Brendan Harris: .311 AVG at home; .207 on road in ’09.

Projected rotation
1. RHP Scott Baker: 1.08 WHIP at home; 1.30 on road in ’09.
2. RHP Carl Pavano: 5-4, 4.64 ERA after trade to Twins.
3. RHP Nick Blackburn: ’08: 11-11, 4.05 ERA; ’09: 11-11, 4.03.
4. RHP Kevin Slowey: 10-3 before wrist surgery.
5. LHP Francisco Liriano: 5.93 ERA as SP in ’09; 3.52 as RP.

PROJECTED CLOSER
RHP Joe Nathan: Career-high 47 saves last season. Jon Rauch: The likely committee chairman.

Grades

Offense: A. Mauer, the defending AL MVP and batting champion, and Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP, form one of the majors’ best 1-2 offensive punches. Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel also have 30-homer capability, and Minnesota finished fifth in the majors in runs in 2009. Orlando Hudson is ideal fit in the 2-hole, and fellow newcomer J.J. Hardy could provide pop from the bottom of the order.

Pitching: B. The Twins finished 23rd in the majors in ERA last season, thanks in large part to the starters’ 4.84 ERA (26th). However, the return to health in the bullpen and the potential for Liriano to rebound as a starter bump up this grade. (UPDATE: This grade was handed out before Nathan’s injury.)

Bench: B. Few teams have the luxury of calling upon a pinch hitter with 564 career homers. But the Twins have that late-inning option with Jim Thome. Nick Punto will compete for the starting job at third but will be more valuable as a reserve infielder. Minnesota lost outfield depth by trading Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee.

Manager: A. In eight seasons at the helm, Gardenhire has had one losing record (79-83 in 2007). He was brilliant while working with a small-budget squad, so expect even better things with arguably the best collection of talent with which he has had to work.

Sporting News prediction: It won’t be easy — and might take another one-game playoff — but Minnesota will be the first AL Central champion to repeat since … the 2003-04 Twins. (UPDATE: This prediction was made prior to Nathan’s injury.)

Coming Tuesday: Tigers preview.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

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