If the 2008 Minnesota Twins are any indication of what baseball enthusiasts in Minnesota can expect, the future looks promising.
Last season was an enormous question mark for the club. The Twins entered 2008 with low expectations, and with holes in the infield, outfield and throughout the pitching staff.
Johan Santana was traded to the Mets, Matt Garza was shipped to Tampa Bay, and Carlos Silva signed with Seattle.
So what was left? One of the youngest starting rotations in baseball that by season’s end, was also considered one of the best.
When Livan Hernandez was designated for assignment in early August, mostly to make room for a healthy Francisco Liriano, the five starters for the Twins were all under 27 years old, and had 207 major league starts between them.
The young staff did more than turn heads, however, leading the Twins to a tie for first place in the American League Central, eventually losing in a one-game playoff to the White Sox.
Perhaps the most surprising starter last year was Nick Blackburn. Despite finishing the season with an 11-11 record, Blackburn, who will be 27 when the season starts, made 33 starts and posted a 4.05 ERA in 193.1 innings in his sophomore campaign.
Blackburn was most impressive down the stretch, showing a lot of poise and confidence as the Twins were fighting for a playoff spot. In the one-game playoff with the White Sox in Chicago, Blackburn went 6 1/3 innings, giving up just one run in a losing effort.
Francisco Liriano had an impressive 2006 season and was a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year before an elbow injury ended his season. Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery that also kept him out of the 2007 season
Liriano, 25, missed the first half of 2008, but proved to be effective in the second half. He finished the season with a 6-4 record, posting a 3.91 ERA in 14 starts.
Right-hander Scott Baker is probably considered to be the veteran of the group with 76 starts under his belt. Baker seemed to be the backbone of the Twins staff in 2008, going 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA in 28 starts.
Kevin Slowey entered the season with only 38 starts, but showcased major league talent finishing 2008 with a 12-11 record and a 3.99 ERA, throwing 160.1 innings.
The starter with the least amount of experience in the starting rotation was 25-year-old Glenn Perkins, who has started just 26 games. The left-hander ended 2008 12-4 with a 4.41 ERA, winning four straight starts in August.
With the starters set and looking forward to a big 2009 season, the only question is in the bullpen.
Nearly all of the bullpen will return, with four players competing this spring for the set-up role. The bullpen will need help after struggling late last season, going 5-15 after August.
The bullpen will be without left-hander Dennys Reyes (3-0, 2.33 ERA in 75 appearances) and Pat Neshek who will miss the entire 2009 season after having Tommy John surgery in November.
Matt Guerrier, who re-signed a one-year, $1.3 million deal, became the main eighth-inning reliever after Neshek went down with an injury in May. Guerrier posted a 3.35 ERA in 51 innings during the first half, but tired down the stretch due to the increased workload.
Guerrier will compete with Jesse Crain, who appeared in 66 games last year with a 5-4 record and a 3.59 ERA. The Twins pitching staff eased Crain back into the bullpen after shoulder surgery ended his 2007 season.
To add even more competition, the Twins signed 31-year-old Luis Ayala last week. Ayala made 86 appearances in 2008 with the Nationals and the Mets, going 2-10 with a 5.71 ERA.
Newcomer Jose Mijares will also compete for the job this spring after getting called up from class AA New Britain late last season. In 10 September appearances, Mijares had an ERA of 0.87 and had a scoreless streak of 6.1 innings, holding opposing hitters to a staggering .088 batting average.
Boof Bonser and Craig Breslow are the final two pitchers competing for the final spot in the bullpen. Bonser started the 2008 season in the starting rotation but struggled in his 12 starts before being moved to the bullpen.
Bonser will likely be the favorite for short-inning stints because of a mid-90s fastball, but Breslow will get some looks because the Twins will need another lefty in the bullpen.
There are definitely no concerns when it comes to the closing role, as All-Star Joe Nathan returns after saving 39 games last season with a 1.38 ERA in 68 appearances. Nathan has been as solid as any reliever in the league, accumulating 155 saves since 2005.
A year after scrambling to patch holes in the pitching staff, the only question that remains is...
When does the season start?