These 2008 Twins look nothing like the team that ended 2007, which is a good thing. That team won a paltry 79 games, and finished the season with a run differential of -7, so shaking up the system was exactly what the doctor ordered. Built around a core of Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau, with a healthy Francisco Liriano, the Twins looked to enter 2008 with better role players and take the division by surprise.
Then the off-season took its wicked toll.
The Twins lost Hunter and Silva, traded Santana, and were forced to come to grips with the fact that Liriano wasn't going to be the phenom he was in 2006. Still, Mauer and Morneau were left, Michael Cuddyer was due for a comeback from a disapointing 2007, and the bullpen was basically unchanged from their great year.
Cuddyer spent most of the year on the DL, the Twins lost Pat Neshek early in the season and the rest of the bullpen not named Joe Nathan seemed to melt down throughout the year.
So, given all that adversity, how in the world did Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau get the Twins into a position where they control their own playoff destiny with just three games to play?
Simpy put, they had help in spades.
Alexi Casilla, Carlos Gomez, and Denard Span led a cast of characters that the rest of the league perceived to be misfits, cast-offs, and AAAA stars to the cusp of the playoffs.
Gomez opened the season with unreasonable expectations, due to his status as the keystone of the Johan Santana trade. The free-swinging center fielder showed his age through much of the season, but since returning to the lineup after being benched in Toronto, Gomez has just four games in which he didn't get a hit. His OPS for September is .915 and he is a defensive wiz. Gomez's zone rating and range factor are both the best in baseball.
The player Gomez beat out in spring training, Denard Span, has been a huge addition of in his own right.
Span was called up when Cuddyer was injured the first time, but played so well, he has basically stolen Cuddyer's right field job. Span's newly developed plate discipline has set him in good stead as the team's leadoff hitter, as has his .387 OBP. Span isn't as mercurial as Gomez, but that is why they compliment each other so well.
Alexi Casilla was nearly lost for the year when he injured his thumb sliding into second base in last July. Casilla hasn't been as good since his return as he was right after his call-up, but having him back as a consistent number two behind Span has helped Mauer and Morneau a lot. Casilla sees a lot of pitches and has gotten much more deliberate about his pitch selection, which has help raise his OBP substantially from last year.
Beyond these three are even more surprises. The Twins essentially traded a washed up Juan Rincon to the Indians for Craig Breslow, which improved the bullpen substantially. Jose Mijares stepped into the 8th inning role in the middle of a heated playoff chase with great success. Nick Punto has raised his OPS and BA to near his career highs and has given Ron Gardenhire great flexibility in his lineups by playing great defense at third and short. Francisco Liriano made a triumphant return from AAA to give the Twins a true ace and someone they can depend on.
Stop-gap third baseman Brian Buscher has hit at or above .300 almost all year, Boof Bonser has emerged as a viable long reliever, and these are just a few of the contributors to the Twins' run. Almost everyone on the Twins' roster has added value to this team.
Don't believe me? Look at their VORP listings. Of the seven Twins with negative VORP, two are Sept. call-ups with under 10 PAs, one is a pitcher, two are no longer with the Twins, and the other two have spent most of the year on the bench for injury reasons.
The Twins young players, as in 2006, have come through once again. This time next year, don't be surprised if players like Span, Gomez, Mijares, and Casilla are this year's Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Brad Ziegler, and Alexi Ramirez.