"People overlook what they still have."
It's easy to write off a team that went 79-83 last year and lost both its ace -- the best pitcher in baseball -- and its top outfielder over the winter. Not so fast, says a rival AL general manager. "People are overlooking what the Twins still have," he says. "They still have one of the best bullpens in the big leagues. They still have one of the most fearsome middle of the lineups. They still are better than most people are giving them credit for."
Even with lefthander Johan Santana traded to the Mets and centerfielder Torii Hunter (.839 on-base plus slugging percentage last year) signed by the Angels, Minnesota will win plenty of games on the strength of a relief corps -- headed by righthanded closer Joe Nathan and setup men Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier -- that last season ranked fifth in the AL in ERA (3.80) and second in fewest blown saves (14). And the lineup features the AL batting champ (catcher Joe Mauer) and league MVP (first baseman Justin Morneau) for 2006, plus a player who averaged 95 RBIs over the past two seasons (rightfielder Michael Cuddyer) and a former No. 1 draft pick (leftfielder Delmon Young).
Young, who was acquired from the Rays in November, could soon make Minnesotans forget about fan favorite Hunter. Often lost in the frequent discussion of his past misdeeds -- flipping a bat at an umpire, butting heads with Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon -- is the fact that Young, 22, might be the game's finest young position player. (Rays G.M. Andrew Friedman refutes the notion that personality issues had much to do with the trade, in which the Twins gave up pitching prospect Matt Garza, 24, and 28-year-old shortstop Jason Bartlett. "It was a case of giving up talent to get talent," he says.)
Young possesses one of the strongest outfield arms in the majors and is one of those players you can identify by sound alone when he's taking batting practice, so explosive is the crack of the ball coming off his bat. While he might never match the beloved Hunter in gregariousness, he should soon do so in offensive output: Young played 162 games as a rookie last season and outhit Hunter by a point (.288 to .287) and drove in only 14 fewer runs (107 to 93). Still, the Twins' biggest challenge on offense is finding meaningful production beyond their big four. Last season the club ranked 25th in the majors in runs scored (4.4 per game) with Cuddyer, Hunter, Mauer and Morneau accounting for 69% of the team's home runs and 54% of its RBIs. Only Jason Kubel hit more than five homers or drove in more than 43 runs.
While Minnesota doesn't appear to possess any new reliable power bats, an offensive spark could come from 22-year-old centerfielder Carlos Gomez, one of the four prospects acquired from the Mets in the Santana trade. Gomez has already wowed teammates with his defensive prowess -- "He throws out people he has no business throwing out," says Cuddyer -- and he should prove to be a disruptive force on the base paths if he can reach first with any regularity. The 6' 4" Gomez reluctantly acknowledges, after a good deal of cajoling, that he typically beat former teammate Jose Reyes, the game's preeminent speedster, in impromptu 60-yard dashes. "In 10 times," Gomez says, "he won probably two."
The Santana deal did nothing to immediately fortify a largely inexperienced rotation. While free-agent pickup Livan Hernandez has pitched at least 199 innings in each of the last 10 seasons, none of the other hurlers has started even 50 big league games. Plus, presumptive ace Francisco Liriano, who underwent Tommy John surgery in November 2006, hasn't thrown a regular-season pitch since then and could start the season in Triple A.
The Twins are used to being overlooked. "That's fine with us," says Cuddyer. "Four out of the last six years we won the division, and all four of those years we weren't predicted to do much." The division, though, has never been stronger. This year's team might be better than you think, but that's not nearly good enough. -- Ben Reiter
Issue date: March 31, 2008