March 21, 2010: a date that will forever be considered one of the most important in Minnesota Twins history.
A time in the baseball calendar that is generally reserved for spring training updates and fantasy buzz was dominated by the news that Joe Mauer and his hometown Twins had agreed on an 8-year, $184M contract.
Just add one more layer to a season already full of history, even though it isn't even under way yet.
On April 12, Target Field will open its doors for regular season baseball for the first time, as the Twins are set to take on the Boston Red Sox. This stadium is the culmination of over 15 years of work and political strife.
In fact, the Twins once threatened to move to the Carolinas and then were on MLB's contraction chopping block along with the woebegone Montreal Expos in 2001.
Fast-forwarding to the present, the franchise's outlook is considerably sunnier. Mauer and Target Field have combined to save the franchise.
However, with brand-new tax-funded stadiums and large contracts to star players come high expectations. Now the question is whether or not the Twins can win their third World Series.
The Twins were a playoff team last season after an exhilarating extra-innings win over the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central tiebreaker. They went on to get swept by the New York Yankees in the ALDS, but the season was still generally considered a success.
Other than the Mauer signing, the Twins made other moves to bolster an already strong lineup. The O-Dawg, Orlando Hudson, was brought in to man second base, and they also traded the streaky Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee for shortstop J.J. Hardy to complete the new-look double play tandem. Also, former All-Star Jim Thome was brought in to help off the bench and DH part-time.
On paper, the Twins boast one of the best lineups in the majors—but the pitching staff has more question marks than their hitting counterparts.
Kevin Slowey is returning from a wrist injury that ended his 2009 campaign. He has looked phenomenal in spring ball, but the true test will come when the regular season kicks off.
Francisco Liriano had a disastrous 2009, and he and the Twins hope he can come near the form he showed before blowing out his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery. In the bullpen, Pat Neshek is returning from his own Tommy John operation.
Unfortunately, Tommy John has become as big of a name in the Twins' organization as Kent Hrbek. (I don't think they will name an in-stadium sports bar after him, though.)
All-Star closer Joe Nathan injured his elbow in a spring training game against the Red Sox and will undergo the procedure and miss the entire season. Even though Nathan looked extremely shaky in the playoffs last season against the Yankees, 40-plus saves every season are very difficult to replace.
If the pitching staff holds up, the Twins should be considered the favorites to win another AL Central championship and return to the postseason in 2010. Even if they don't make it to the playoffs, though, a season short on extra games is assured to be long on meaning for the Twins.
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