Opening Day for the Minnesota Twins is only a week away.
On Wednesday Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire had the first glimpse of what his Opening Day lineup would look like as right fielder Michael Cuddyer finally made his spring debut with the major league club after three minor league games.
Two of the up-and-coming stars for the Twins from 2010 have picked up right where they left off—third baseman Danny Valencia is hitting .340 and right fielder Delmon Young is hitting .424 this spring—and Minnesota's biggest acquisition, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, has a .357 batting average and appears ready to face major league pitching.
All's well in Twins' Territory—right?
Maybe not. Here are the biggest questions facing the Minnesota Twins as they look to win their third consecutive AL Central Division title.
The Twins have taken their time making sure Justin Morneau is ready to return to full-time duty at first base.
Before he suffered the concussion on July 7th, 2010 he was hitting .345 and leading the club with 18 home runs and 56 RBI.
So far this spring he has played in only five games with the major league club, and so far he is only one for 13, an .077 batting average. On a positive note, the one hit was for extra bases.
The upside is that Morneau appears to be fully recovered from the effects of the concussion—physically.
However, he does not appear to have the same ability as Joe Mauer, who missed all of spring training and the month of April in 2009 before he had his MVP season leading the Twins with a .365 batting average with 30 home runs and 96 RBI.
The bigger question might be if Morneau has a relapse who fills in at first base?
Jim Thome led the Minnesota Twins with 25 home runs in 2010. For the season he hit a homer once every 11.4 at bats.
Last spring, his first with the Twins, he belted three home runs in 33 exhibition at-bats.
So far this spring he has yet to hit a home run in 23 at bats and his .130 batting average is the lowest over the past three spring training seasons.
On the positive side the Twins will be using Jason Kubel who is hitting .429 this spring with a home run and 11 RBI in 17 games.
Can Thome get the 11 home runs this season he needs to reach 600?
In 2009 Alexi Casilla hit .306 in spring training and was named the Twins starting second baseman. He promptly opened the season going .167 before being sent down to Triple-A Rochester. He ended the year with a .202 batting average.
This spring the starting shortstop position was his to lose. He is hitting .237 in 17 games this spring, only down slightly from his career average of .249.
Slated for the ninth spot in the order the Twins don't need a lot of offense out of Casilla—an occasional sacrifice bunt or a stolen base should suffice for a lineup boasting a lot of potential in hitters one through eight.
If he struggles defensively there could be a short leash between him and another trip to Rochester.
Of course then the question becomes who takes over at shortstop?
Jason Repko was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of spring training last season. In his four partial seasons with the Dodgers he batted .226 with 11 home runs.
The Twins signed him as a free agent a week later and assigned him to Triple-A Rochester.
With Michael Cuddyer taking over at first base the second half of the season Repko found his role as the utility outfielder.
Repko did not commit an error free in 48 games playing all three outfield positions for the Twins.
With Cuddyer back in right field, and Jason Kubel available to play either of the corner outfield positions Repko just does not provide enough offensive production to take a roster spot from someone like Luke Hughes who leads the Twins with six home runs this spring, or Ben Revere who could benefit from some on the job training.
There is no question that Joe Mauer is one of baseball's premier hitters for average.
With three batting titles, three Gold Gloves, four Silver Slugger Awards and an MVP taking up space in his trophy case the only thing missing might be a World Series ring.
As Mauer demonstrated in 2009, there are few concerns with his limited play this spring as he recovers knee surgery and slowly gets himself in playing shape for the opener.
The problem is what happens when he is out of the lineup as the starting catcher?
Since 2005 Mauer has averaged 133.5 games a year—that's 28.5 games he is out of the lineup.
Once a position the Twins were deep in, they now find themselves a little thin at catcher.
In 2010 as a rookie Drew Butera backed up Mauer, playing in 49 games while hitting eight points below his weight of 205 pounds. So far this spring Butera is only .167 with four singles in 24 at-bats.
The Twins need a healthy Mauer for the entire season, if he suffers any prolonged injuries in 2011 the Twins will have a huge hole within their lineup. While Butera may be an excellent defensive catcher and does a great job handling the pitching staff, he has no future as an everyday starter in major league baseball.
Only 10 days ago it looked like Luke Hughes was a lock for the Twins utility infielder position.
On March 14th Hughes was batting .361 and leading the Twins in home runs and RBI.
At the same time his main competition, Matt Tolbert was struggling with a .240 batting average.
Oh what a difference a week and a half can make!
While Tolbert, who must have been feeling the pressure, has raised his average to .306, Hughes has slumped, losing over a 100 points as his average has fallen to .254.
Hughes still leads the Twins with six home runs and 15 RBI, but because of his lack of experience at shortstop may have fallen back in the battle to replace Nick Punto as the utility infielder.
The likely scenario would be for Hughes to be sent to Triple-A Rochester where he can play everyday in preparation for a call-up later this season.
Michael Cuddyer was the Twins iron man in 2010. He appeared in all but five games as he took over at first base when Justin Morneau was lost for the season just before the All-Star Break.
Now he is struggling to return following the removal of a plantar wart from his foot.
So far he has played in only two major league games this spring and has only six at bats. With only a week until Opening Day he may not be ready for full-time duty.
The last time the Twins kept a Rule 5 draft pick on their roster he would eventually break into the starting lineup and win two Cy Young Awards for the Twins.
It's a stretch to think that Scott Diamond, who the Twins signed from the Atlanta Braves, can replicate the success of Johan Santana.
So far this spring Diamond has pitched only six innings in five games. While his 1.50 ERA may appear impressive, opposing hitters have a .273 average and he has a 2.00 WHIP.
Perhaps the Twins will be more willing to hold on to Diamond, since like Santana he is left-handed and quality left-handed pitchers are harder to find.
With the promotion of left-handed Brian Duensing to the starting rotation and the demotion of right-handed Kevin Slowey to the bullpen, the Twins might be better off with another established left-handed reliever, and send Diamond back to the Braves.
The good news is in his last start this spring Francisco Liriano struck out nine batters.
The bad news is he only lasted three innings and used 76 pitches to accomplish this feat.
In 2010 when Liriano opened the season 3-0 with an 0.98 ERA on his way to being named the AL Pitcher of the Month last April.
From May until the All-Star break he would go 3-7 with a 4.94 ERA.
He would recover to finish the season 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA on the season.
Liriano did not make the best impression this spring when he did not follow the exercise routine the coaching staff had established for him in the offseason. His lack of discipline was the blame for a sore shoulder that has limited his innings this spring.
So far the 12.2 innings Liriano has pitched this spring are the fewest he has had the last three seasons.
If the Twins stumble the first half of the season, Liriano could be a trade-deadline casualty.
After missing the entire 2010 season after having Tommy John surgery last spring, Joe Nathan is eager to make his Target Field debut.
After making only one appearance during spring training in 2010, Nathan pitched in back-to-back games for the first time since October 9th and 10th, 2009 in the ALDS against the Yankees.
It's a good thing Minnesota signed Matt Capps to a one-year contract. So far this spring Nathan has pitched 7.1 innings with an 11.05 ERA as opposing batters are hitting .303 against him.
It is going to take Nathan some time to regain his form. The loss of Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier will really be felt if Nathan struggles and the Twins need to mover Capps into the closer role full time.
Considering it took Francisco Liriano almost two years to recover, the odds that Nathan at the age of 36 can pitch anywhere as effective as he did in 2009 are slim.
There are a lot of questions that need to be answered to determine the fate of the 2011 Minnesota Twins.
There are plenty of positives as the Twins build upon a good young nucleus with Valencia, Young and Nishioka.
Along with some promise in the starting lineup with Pavano, Liriano and Duensing.
Whether they can outweigh the question marks as the Twins head North will take a season to determine.
Either way it has been a long tough winter and I, for one, am ready for some baseball!