Spring Postcard: Twins hope to take good with bad back to October
All-Star closer Joe Nathan will miss the entire season with an elbow injury
Reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer signed a long-term contract to stay in Minnesota
The Twins offense has improved, led by Mauer and Justin Morneau
This spring, SI.com writers are filing postcards from all 30 major league spring training camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. No Nathan, no panic
The loss of Joe Nathan has been the talk of the division this spring training. Nathan has been so dominant in the American League Central that he almost seemed like a mythic figure warming up in that Twins bullpen. If you were a Central Division team, and you didn't get the Twins by the eighth, you were not going to get them. With Nathan out for the season, that aura is gone. But Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says the team has many different options, including internal candidates like Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch or Pat Neshek, a wildcard choice like starter Francisco Liriano or the option to go out and get somebody. "We've talked about a lot of things," Gardenhire says. "We'll be fine."
2. Signed, sealed, delivered
When the Minnesota Twins signed Joe Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million deal they sent out a powerful message to fans and players that the team is planning to contend for a long time. It was the right message to send to a fan base after public money built a new stadium. But it was also the right message to send to the players; the Twins are committed to winning. There really is something encouraging about playing for a team that you know is trying to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox and Phillies ... and something utterly discouraging about playing for a team that feels overmatched. With the signing, the Twins announced that they are not backing down.
3. This will be a really good lineup
The Twins have won the AL Central five times in the last eight years. But for a long time, it was not because of their offense. Take a look at their first four division titles.
2002: 9th in runs scored
2003: 6th in runs scored
2004: 10th in runs scored
2006: 8th in runs scored
In 2009, though, the Twins finished fourth in the league in runs scored. And since, they have added Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy and Jim Thome. The Twins have a lineup good enough that against right-handers Thome (who clearly showed his age last year but still managed 18 homers in 271 at-bats against righties) figures to bay seventh and Hardy (who hit 50 home runs total in 2007 and 2008) should bat eighth. The Twins built their reputation as a scrappy team that did all the little things. But now, they have a lineup that can swat.
Middle of the lineup
No team in the division -- and few teams in baseball -- can match a 3-4-5-6 of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel. The four AVERAGED 29 homers, 98 RBIs, 79 runs scored and a 138 OPS+ in 2009.
Gardenhire has made it clear that nobody is going to win the closer job in spring training. They will go into the season with a plan, and as he says, "It will become clear in time." The best bet is that he will try to match up his best relief pitchers -- Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch, Pat Neshek -- to the spots where they can be most successful. For years now, people have argued about whether or not a "closer by committee" thing can work -- Gardenhire and the Twins are in position to find out of that's the case.
Then, there are many people intrigued with the idea of making Francisco Liriano the closer. At his best, before having Tommy John surgery after the 2006 season, Liriano looked to be unhittable. But there are many people in the Twins organization who still believe in Liriano as a starter, especially now that he's healthy. He looked dynamic in winter ball.
And Gardenhire did say that management has talked about other options as well.
New Face, New Place
It's hard to fathom how someone as good as Orlando Hudson -- Gold Glove second baseman, above average hitter, All-Star, non-stop chatterbox -- has been so overlooked. For the second straight year, he signed very late and for only a one-year deal. The Twins have loved Hudson's attitude and energy ... at least so far. Hudson was an All-Star just last year, though at the end of last season, Dodgers manager Joe Torre had so tired of Hudson that he benched him for the playoffs. The Twins seem to believe they got themselves one of the best second basemen in the game and a perfect fit for their team.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has taken a lot of heat for playing Nick Punto as much as he has over the years. Last year, Punto got 440 plate appearances despite hitting .228 and slugging less than .300. But if pattern holds, this should be Punto's year. Look at his seasons.
2006: .290 average, 73 runs scored.
2007: .210 average, .271 slugging percentage, 53 OPS+.
2008: .284 average, career high .382 slugging percentage.
2009: .228 average, 67 OPS+.
So, things should be looking up again in 2010.
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