*From Protect the Plate
Last season, after trading away ace Johan Santana and letting Torii Hunter leave, the depleted Minnesota Twins were projected to finish last in the American League Central.
Instead, Ron Gardenhire led the Twins to their seventh winning season in eight years. The season ended in disappointment, however, as they lost a one-game playoff to the Chicago White Sox by the score of 1-0. With a young rotation that gained valuable experience returning, the Twins hope to post yet another winning season in their final year in the Metrodome.
Timing Is Everything
The Twins scored the third-most runs in the AL despite ranking dead last with 111 home runs. How? They led the majors with a .305 batting average with runners in scoring position and a .273 average from the seventh inning on. They also had the most triples (49) in baseball, ranked third in the AL with a .279 average, and fifth in the AL with 102 stolen bases.
Joe Mauer, the defending AL batting champ, will likely miss opening day due to inflammation in his lower back. Backup catcher Mike Redmond is a career .292 hitter, but he turns 38 this season.
Switch-hitting rookie Jose Morales could platoon behind the plate if Mauer is forced to miss an extended period of time. Along with the back problem, Mauer also had a kidney operation this offseason, so do not expect the Twins to rush him back.
Scott Baker, 27, is the "veteran leader" of the Twins' rotation, which returns five starters from last season. Baker went 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA and a team-high 141 strikeouts in 28 starts.
Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins led the staff with 12 wins, posting 3.99 and and 4.41 ERAs, respectively.
Nick Blackburn added another 11 wins to go with a 4.05 ERA, and Francisco Liriano returned to the big leagues and went 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA after the All-Star break.
The downside to this bunch is that only Blackburn started 30 games last season, and none of them have ever pitched 200 innings in a season.
Justin Morneau hit 11 fewer home runs than he did during his 2006 MVP season, but he still finished second to Boston's Dustin Pedroia in MVP voting. He ranked second in the AL with 129 RBI and set career highs in doubles (47), walks (76), games played (163), and at-bats (623). He also hit an even .300 and lowered his strikeouts to 85 after posting 94, 93, and 91 strikeouts the previous three seasons.
Morneau had a memorable All-Star weekend, winning the Home Run Derby before scoring the winning run the next night.
The Twins are hoping for more balance in their lineup this season after lefties Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel carried the team in '08. The team is hoping Michael Cuddyer, whose 2008 season was riddled with injuries, and Joe Crede, who came over from the rival White Sox, can even out the lineup.
Cuddyer posted a .284-24-109 line in 2006 before falling back to .276-16-81 in 2007. He played 71 games last year, hitting .249 with a .699 OPS.
Crede also missed time last year, playing 97 games, but he was much more successful when healthy. He earned a spot on the All-Star team after hitting 16 home runs to go with 49 RBI before the break. It's difficult to know what to expect from the two right-handers, as they combined to play just 20 games after the break.
Joe Nathan has recorded at least 36 saves in each of his five seasons with the Twins, including 39 last year. Jason Kubel hit a career-high 20 home runs with 78 RBI last season
Alexi Casilla hit .315 before the All-Star break but just .243 after the break due in large part to an injured thumb. Rookie Denard Span hit .294 with 18 stolen bases in 93 games.
Carlos Gomez struggled to get on base (.296 OBP), but he still swiped 33 bases. Delmon Young was a disappointment in his first year with the Twins, but he ended his season on a high note, hitting .297 after the break and .330 over the final month of the season. Brendan Harris played at least 30 games at three positions (55 at shortstop, 39 at second base, and 34 at third base).