Minnesota Twins Could Use a Quick Start

Duane WinnCorrespondent IApril 3, 2009

TUCSON, AZ - MARCH 4:  Joe Crede #24 of the Chicago White Sox fields the ball during a spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Tucson Electric Park on March 4, 2008 in Tucson, Arizona. The White Sox defeated the Angles 7-6. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The Minnesota Twins haven't been a quick study in recent years.

Under Manager Ron Gardenhire, the Twins are just three games over .500 in the first 25 games of each season since he took over in 2002.

Ironically, the Twins were under the .500 mark at that point of the season in three of the four years that they garnered division titles.

It goes to show you that baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.

And that the Minnesota Twins know how to make adjustments as the baseball season wears on.

The 2009 season is a little different.

The AL Central Division shapes up as a tight race, but the Twins, as the season draws closer, are no longer a darkhorse and they won't be able to use the element of surprise to sneak up on opponents. In fact, several baseball observers view the Twins as the class of the division.

General Manager Bill Smith has publicly stated that he's uncomfortable in the role of front-runner, but the Twins seem to have fewer problems and less need to make adjustments than most of the teams in the division, especially when it comes to pitching.

The starting rotation of Scott Baker (on the disabled list until Apr. 12), Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, and Francisco Liriano returns in toto.

The middle relief corps is no longer unsettled. And in Joe Nathan, they have arguably the most reliable closer over the past few five years (200 saves). The pitching mix all added up to the seventh-lowest team ERA (4.18) in the American League a year ago.

As far as the offense goes, the Twins scored the third-most runs (829) in the American League and compiled the third-highest batting average (.279) with youngsters like Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, and Delmon Young in the lineup.

They all return and should show steady improvement with more experience under their belt. Young, the most experienced of this trio, is a former No. 1 draft choice of the Tampa Bay Rays who many feel is due for a breakout season in 2009.

Justin Morneau, a perennial contender for MVP honors, along with Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and newly acquired Joe Crede will be expected to provide the power for a team that hit an American League-low 111 home runs.

Of course, the offense hummed as well as it did because Joe Mauer was in the lineup. Mauer hit .328, winning his second batting crown in three years, and drove in 85 runs.

How the Twins' offense  will perform sans Mauer for a few games, perhaps more, is a question to which everyone wants an answer.

However, the other teams in the division are trying to solve more riddles than Batman.

With Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman already on the disabled list, the Tigers are forced to go with a starting rotation that includes Zach Miner, who's excelled as a reliever but struggled as a starter, and rookie Rick Porcello, a former first-round draft pick.

At the tender age of 20, Porcello would probably be better served with some additional time in the minors. A return to form of ace Justin Verlander is imperative for the Tigers to stay competitive.

The Tigers are looking to Fernando Rodney as their closer. He's no bargain. His ability to strike out batters (253 in 254.3 career innings) is matched by his penchant for walks (120).

It's not exactly a reassuring thought for manager Jim Leyland, who will probably look to the struggling Brandon Lyon and the still-recovering Joel Zumaya if Rodney falters.

The Tigers' offense, with the release of Gary Sheffield (Ivan Rodriguez and Edgar Renteria are no longer Tigers, either), and the insertion of the inoffensive Adam Everett into the lineup, will find a difficult road to home plate if their big guns, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez, struggle under the weight of being the main offensive triggermen.

The Tigers will likely need a career year from Marcus Thames as their designated hitter to offset the loss of Sheffield. Thames has hit a homer every 14.6 at bats during his career, but he has yet to prove that he can maintain that rate of offensive output over an entire season of 500 or more at-bats.

Fortunately, the Tigers return multi-faceted Curtis Granderson, steady-as-they-come Placido Polanco and Carlos Guillen, who is clearly a more dangerous offensive presence than last year's statistics show.

The Chicago White Sox have formidable sluggers in Jermaine Dye (.292 BA/.344 OBP, 34 HR and 96 RBI) and Jim Thome (34 HR and 90 RBI). However, Dye is 35 and Thome is 38.

One wonders how long they can stave off Father Time and whether this will be their last season in the sun on Chicago's South Side.

The other member of the White Sox's slugging triumvirate may be showing signs of slippage. Paul Konerko batted .240 with 22 HR and 62 RBI in 122 games a year ago. His output was affected by several nagging injuries, but Konerko also struggled in 2007 with a batting average at just .259.

Alexei Ramirez (.290 BA, 21 HR, 77 RBI) finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting a year ago and Carlos Quentin was also a pleasant surprise (.288 BA, 36 HR, 100 RBI) in his first year with the White Sox.

Josh Fields is now the everyday third baseman with Crede gone. He belted 23 homers in just 373 at-bats at the tender age of 24 two years ago for the White Sox.

With the infusion of Chris Getz, Jayson Nix, Brent Lillibridge, and a centerfield platoon of Dewayne Wise and Brian Anderson into the regular lineup, the White Sox appear to be in transition.

Then again, the White Sox could once again be the Twins' stiffest competition in the AL Central Division if their youth movement pays off.

The White Sox' starting rotation shapes up as the equal of that of the Twins, or at least three-fifths of it does.

Mark Buehrle keeps rolling along, piling up 15-win and 200-inning seasons. Gavin Floyd amassed a staff-high 17 wins and John Danks compiled a staff-low 3.32 ERA. The performances of Bartolo Colon and Jose Contreras, though, may stamp Chicago's fate.

Stopper Bobby Jenks has earned 30 or more saves in each of the past three seasons. But he only struck out 38 batters in 60 innings in 2009, a significant decline from the past two seasons when he struck out out more than one batter per inning.

Is this a danger signal?

The Cleveland Indians' pitching staff, with the exception of 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, is problematic. Fausto Carmona is trying to bounce back from an injury-riddled season a year ago. Two years ago, he won 19 games and posted a 3.06 ERA.

The Indians' projected No. 3 starter Carl Pavano has only hurled 45 innings in the past two years.

Both Scott Lewis and Anthony Reyes have showed huge promise. Lewis posted a 2.63 ERA in four starts for the Indans a season ago and Reyes was nothing less than astonishing in six starts, posting a 2-1 mark and a miserly 1.83 ERA.

Kerry Wood is pegged as the Indians' closer. When he's on, he's formidable. Witness the 84 strikeouts in 66.6 innings and 1.085 WHIP for the Chicago Cubs in 2008. His durability, though, has to be a major concern.

Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, long-time linchpins in the Indians' offense, are both looking to bounce back from injuries in 2008. Even without them, with Grady Sizemore as the main agitator, the Indians boast a solid offense that may improve in 2009.

The Kanas City Royals have steadily improved their win total from 56 four years ago to 75 last season.

With the addition of veteran position players such as Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs and relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz, the Royals have more versatility and depth than they've had in recent seasons.

They have emerging stars in shortstop Mike Aviles (.325 BA, 10 HR, 51 RBI) and David DeJesus (.307, 12 HR, 73 RBI). A resurgent Mark Teahen, another productive year by Jose Guillen  and sturdier offensive performances by young guns Alex Gordon and Billy Butler would be a big help to the Royals.

Starters Gil Meche, Zack Greinke, Kyle Davies, Sidney Ponson, and Horacio Ramirez could be sneaky good. In Joakim Soria (42 saves and 1.60 ERA), the Royals have a stellar  closer.

The big question is just how quickly things will gel in Kansas City. Will they be a contender this year or will the Royals need to wait for another season.

The onus is on the Twins to establish themselves as the class of the division. Right from the start. Minnesota will play 16 of the its first  25 games at home, including a season-opening four-game set against the Seattle Mariners, clearly a distressed franchise.

The Twins return virtually the same squad intact, one that was separated from a division title only after losing a one-game playoff to the Whiite Sox.

If the Twins break free of their pattern of sluggish starts, it could serve as an indication that they've finally pieced together a successful formula. If not, we may have to wait again until the final pitch of the season to determine the division winner.


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