Given the Twins' organizational philosophy, they are almost always going to be dependent on their young players stepping up and playing well.
A step back for a few key players could be the difference between winning a tight AL Central and wondering what went wrong, as happened in 2007.
So, being in that position again this season is hardly something to crow about. However, unlike in previous years, the Twins have a small margin for error.
A regression by Denard Span, for example, won't kill the Twins, because they have other players who can step in at a moment's notice.
Still, the Twins have players they are relying on: Scott Baker, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Crede among them.
Then there are those who will step up and help to shoulder the offensive or pitching burden. Last season, Alexi Casilla and Denard Span were early season call-ups who made a huge impact for the team, and with Craig Breslow, the Twins wouldn't have gotten anywhere near that one-game playoff.
So, with that in mind, here are three hitting and pitching sleepers I expect to boost the Twins this season.
1. Carlos Gomez
Defensively, the Twins found a gem in Carlos Gomez. He's still a work in progress in terms of routes to the ball, and he's been known to get a little over excited and miss a cut off man, but even with these drawbacks, he saved 17 runs more than the average center fielder. This year, he'll be even better.
Offensively, Gomez was the definition of a free swinger. His 142 strikeouts were fourth worst in the AL, which would be passable if he had walked more than 25 times or hit 50 home runs.
Gomez struck out 5.68 times more than he walked, and that has to change if he's going to be an effective hitter at any position in the order, let alone the lead-off hitter the Twins would like him to be.
Gomez brought his K/BB ratio down to 10/6 in 60 spring training at bats, which is a big improvement. There are issues with basing decisions on spring training stats, but Gomez had a 20/10 K/BB ratio in 71 winter league at bats.
Not only is he trending in the right direction, he's getting into normal-player range.
Gomez's issue may be getting playing time, but the Twins are very interested in making the Johan Santana deal look a little less lopsided, and a breakout season for Gomez would go a long way towards that goal.
2. Jason Kubel
Kubel will never be the prototypical, Adam Dunn-like DH. He's not a 40-50 HR hitter, but 30 isn't out of the question. Kubel's value to the Twins comes from the fact that he very rarely gets cheated at the plate. He takes good at-bats and gets good results.
He hit .270 last year with 20 HR, solid numbers, but what is exciting about Kubel is that he's still improving.
Kubel turns 27 this season, so he should be nearing his prime, but given that a knee injury cut short one season and lingered into others, Kubel still has a lot of room to improve.
I don't see Kubel breaking out like Gomez or Young might, but another year of solid improvement with a little more power would make him a huge asset to this team, even bigger than he already is.
3. Brian Buscher
One of the Twins' greatest weaknesses over the last few years is their overreliance on veterans who can no longer perform: Mike Lamb, Juan Castro, Tony Batista, Ramon Ortiz, the list is nearly endless.
While Joe Crede isn't likely to end up on that list, the possibility exists that he might. Brian Buscher's strong spring should give Ron Gardenhire the confidence he needs to bench Crede if that becomes necessary, or if the Twins need someone with a high average at the expense of power.
Even if Crede proves to be a wise investment, Buscher will see time off the bench. There is talk of a platoon, but even if that doesn't materialize, having a solid bat off the bench is a nice change for the Twins, who frequently used to run Jason Tyner out as a pinch hitter.
1. Kevin Slowey
Slowey just concluded a stellar spring which included over the course of his six starts: 2-0 record, a WHIP of .87, an ERA of 2.13, and 22 Ks in 25.1 innings.
My admiration of Slowey is no secret, but the numbers bear out. Kevin Slowey is a huge asset for the Twins, and I see this season as his coming-out party.
He's the type of guy national media members hardly notice, but pretend they've been following all season when he starts the season like a man on fire.
While the Twins rotation should be solid, having Slowey pitching like an ace in the third slot means that no team will be able to miss all of Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, and Slowey. There's no easy turn through the rotation, thanks to years of hard work by the minor league staff.
2. Craig Breslow
Another guy I've raved about, Breslow opens the season with the same team he ended the previous season with for the first time in his career. The Twins are banking on him to be as good as he was last year, especially since he is one of just two lefties in the 'pen.
Breslow will probably be the set-up man for Joe Nathan until Jesse Crain establishes himself, which is no guarantee that he'll ever move away from that role.
The worst thing the Twins can do is treat him like a LOOGY, when he's shown himself to be able to get both lefties and righties out at a pretty good rate.
If Breslow locks down the eighth inning, the Twins will have their first real setup man since Pat Neshek went down early last season.
3. Glen Perkins
Oddly, I expect Perkins to advance in skill and in his peripherals, but regress in overall wins.
Perkins won 12 games despite mediocre stats in large part because he received some of the best run support of anyone on the team.
Since there is no way to know if he will continue to receive the same level of support, unless he morphs into a phenomenal pitcher, 12-4 seems like a stretch.
Like Kubel, Perkins is still on the road back from a serious minor league injury, and is still learning to play in the majors. Rick Anderson suggested that he add a slider to his repertoire last year, and the consistency of the new pitch has helped him a lot.
Most teams have a good front end of the rotation, but what makes a team elite is the back end. If Perkins and Blackburn can consistently give the Twins quality starts, it will make them much more difficult to beat.
There are a number of other players who will help the Twins win games here and there, but if these three pull through and have the types of seasons they are capable of having, there will be fewer spare games to be decided by that lucky strike.
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