The 2008 Minnesota Twins presented an entirely new look to the baseball world.
Young guns like Carlos Gomez, Alexi Casilla, and Denard Span made solid strides forward last season.
Jason Kubel developed into a reliable power hitter. And Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau continued to terrorize opposing pitchers.
When all was said and done, the Twins scored the third-most runs in the American League last season.
The Twins' youthful pitching staff, regarded as suspect by many baseball observers, proved their mettle by posting the seventh-best team ERA in the American League. They also issued the fewest walks in a surprising display of maturity for such relatively untested Major League arms.
All of these signs point to a successful 2009—a season in which they hope to erase the dark shadows cast by a one-run loss to the Chicago White Sox last September to determine the American League Central Division champion.
Fantasy baseball enthusiasts may also enjoy a successful season by including a Twin or two on their rosters.
Here's the five best bets:
5. Carlos Gomez
With Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer and Gomez vying for the three outfield spots, it still isn't clear who will emerge as everyday players.
Gomez was part of a trade that sent Johan Santana to the New York Mets before the beginning of the 2008 season. This puts pressure on the Twins' management to show that they didn't make a mistake. It should mean that Gomez will get enough playing time this season to live up to his potential.
Besides, Manager Ron Gardenhire likes what Gomez offers. The young outfielder has the type of speed that turns heads and he used that to good advantage in 2008 with 33 stolen bases. However, his knowledge of the strike zone thus far (142 strikeouts in 577 at-bats) during his Major League career makes Gardenhire want to tear his hair out.
If he can make contact more often, draw a few more walks, and improve his .296 on-base percentage, Gomez could have a breakout season. There's even an outside chance that Gomez could develop into the power threat that he believes himself to be.
One worrisome sign this spring is that Gardenhire has been trying Gomez out at different spots in the batting order. For Gomez to have maximum value for fantasy owners, he needs to be at the top of the order where he will have the ability to score runs.
4. Scott Baker
Baker bears all the hallmarks of a quality starter. He won 11 of 15 decisions last season with a credible ERA of 3.45 and a tidy WHIP of 1.178. The Twins locked him up to a four-year contract earlier this month.
The last two spring training sessions have not been kind to Baker. In 2008, Baker suffered an injury. This spring Baker has been knocked around a bit. He may be a slow starter, as evidenced by his 3.44 ERA after the 2007 All-Star break. Before that, his ERA stood at 5.71.
3. Joe Nathan
Nathan doesn't get much ink, not even from the local scribes. He's been the most durable, reliable closer over the past five years with 199 saves. In four of those seasons, Nathan has compiled a nasty WHIP below 1.000.
A concern is whether Nathan will be given enough opportunities to earn saves. The Twins' stable of middle relievers and set-up men looks shaky at best. They even tried to obtain a brittle Eric Gagne over the winter, an obvious sign that they're not confident in the abilities of the relievers that will be setting the stage for Nathan.
Nathan has been experiencing minor shoulder woes off and on during spring training. It's a condition that forced him to miss the World Baseball Classic. It merits close scrutiny.
2. Kevin Slowey
All the signs point to a stellar 2009 for Slowey.
In 2008, Slowey, 24, won 12 and lost 11. He posted a 3.99 ERA with a better-than-average WHIP of 1.15. What's most impressive about Slowey is the pinpoint command he has over his pitches at such a young age (6.9 strikeouts per nine innings last season as opposed to 1.35 walks).
An intangible that bodes well for Slowey is that as he gains experience, he seems to be developing greater knowledge of American League hitters' strengths and weaknesses. That seemed to be the case in the second half of the 2008 season when he had two games of 10 or more strikeouts. In his last eight starts last season, Slowey struck out 44 in 46 innings.
And one more thing—f all the Twins' pitchers in spring training, Slowey has been the most consistent.
1. Justin Morneau
The closest thing to the gold standard on the Twins' roster.
Morneau enjoyed a breakout season in 2006, hitting .321 with 34 home runs and 130 RBI and earning him the American League MVP. In 2007 (.271, 31, 111) and 2008 (.300, 23 129) posted numbers that moved him into the upper echelon of first baseman.
Morneau, at 27, should enjoy several more productive seasons.
One cause for concern is the status of Joe Mauer. Morneau's production could be affected adversely if Mauer is in and out of the lineup for most of the season.
If you're of the opinion that Joe Crede will suffer an injury this season and miss significant playing time, unheralded Brian Buscher may bear watching.
Buscher, 28, doesn't have much power. He hit only four round-trippers last season in 218 at-bats, but he hit for average (.294) and was unusually productive (47 RBI) in a part-time role.
Avoid at All Costs
Delmon Young, if he gets adequate playing time, may very well enjoy a breakout season of sorts in 2009. But if you expect him to up his power numbers, you're likely to strike out if you pay too much for him in a fantasy draft.
Delmon's career arc is likely to assume that of his older brother, who is a solid hitter (.292 career average) and an adequate run producer. However, Dmitri Young has only had two 20-plus home run seasons during his 12-year career.