The Twins are getting no respect from the so-called experts at ESPN and Sports Illustrated. Both magazines have the Twins finishing dead last in their division this year, and many of the commentators have them fourth (ahead of the Royals) or last. The optimist in me thinks the Twins could finish third behind the Tigers and Indians and ahead of the White Sox and Royals. But I think the White Sox will play better this year and the Twins will finish fourth or fifth. The Royals swept the Tigers to start the season, but can they keep it up? Kansas City has improved their team while the Twins lost Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. The Twins, with Santana and Hunter, finished 79-83 last year. Can you realistically think the Twins can beat that record this year without these players?
The Twins start this season with a lot of new faces on the roster. There are three new starters in the infield. Two of them are rejects from the Houston Astros, third baseman Mike Lamb and shortstop Adam Everett. The second baseman is Brendan Harris, whom the Twins obtained in the trade with Tampa Bay along with outfielder Delmon Young. Lamb replaces Nick Punto, as Punto's lack of hitting (.210 last year) moved him to the bench. Lamb hit .289 last year and is a better hitter than Punto, but was a part-time player last year. If Lamb has trouble hitting the ball, Gardy will go back to Punto because he is still a good defensive player. Did you see the play Punto made on that bunt Wednesday night? Everett is the prototypical light-hitting shortstop, somewhat like Punto. Everett managed to hit .232 last year. But he has a good glove, or so people claim. Everett replaces Jason Bartlett, who was sent to Tampa Bay along with starting pitcher Matt Garza. The Twins are losing offensive production here as Bartlett is a better hitter than Everett. Harris is a decent fielder and hit .286 last year. This new infield appears to be an upgrade defensively, but I'm not sold on their offensive ability quite yet. The Twins have already lost a 1-0 game and scored only one run in another game. Everett and Punto won't hit, so Lamb and Harris better pick up the slack, otherwise the Twins are just giving outs at the bottom of the order.
The outfield also has new faces. Delmon Young takes over in left field and Carlos Gomez takes over for Hunter in center field. Young has a good arm and played right field last year. He will put an end to the revolving door of left fielders for the Twins during the last few years. He hit .288 with 13 home runs and 93 RBIs as a rookie last year. Hunter had more homers than Young, but Young's other numbers are similar to Hunter's. If he continues to put up those numbers and doesn't get injured, he could emerge as a good player. Gomez was the key player in the Santana trade. He covers a lot of ground in center field, has a good arm, and has speed on the base paths. Gomez showed what he can do on opening night, with two stolen bases, a bunt single and a good catch in the outfield. The question is whether he can hit consistently and get on base as the leadoff hitter. He only hit .232 last year with the Mets and looked bad on some at bats against the Angels. He can show flashes of brilliance, but he can also look like a rookie who is overmatched at the plate. If he plays like he did on opening night for most of the season, the Twins will be set with Gomez as the leadoff hitter for years to come.
Craig Monroe is a new face as well. He played with the Cubs last year and with the Tigers prior to that. He only hit .219 last year. He will be a back up outfielder and get an opportunity as designated hitter along with Jason Kubel. The Twins really need one of these guys to have a break out year as a DH to have any chance of contending for the division. Both have had their chances in the past. This may be Kubel's last chance to show what he can do.
As for the pitching staff, the relievers are the same, with closer Joe Nathan getting a new contract. The starters will be the biggest question mark on this team. With Santana, Carlos Silva and Matt Garza gone, the Twins have been unable to replace them with quality starters. The Twins signed Livan Hernandez for a year, and he looked good in the opener. But his past history is as an average starter, not a number one pitcher on a staff. He will eat up innings and will win some games, but he isn't close to replacing Santana. He was 11-11 last year, with an ERA of nearly 5.00. He's more like Carlos Silva than a Johan Santana. Francisco Liriano is expected to make a few starts in the minors to build up his arm before coming up to the big leagues. While he was having a great rookie season two years ago, he has a blown out elbow and will not regain that form. He could still be a decent starter, or he could be a pitcher with arm problems on a regular basis. The Twins are taking their time with him, hoping the longer rehab time will make a difference. Time will tell.
While Liriano is in the minors, the Twins are giving Nick Blackburn a chance. He was the tough luck loser in the 1-0 loss, throwing a wild pitch which scored the only run of the game. But he won't keep pitching that well. The other starters are Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and Boof Bonser. Baker is hurt already, Slowey got hurt in the fourth inning on Thursday with arm trouble and Bonser got shelled his first time out. Not exactly off to a good start, are they? Over 162 games, the starters simply are not consistent enough to keep them in games, especially if the offense disappears on some nights.
The big three of Mauer, Cuddyer and Morneau need to have better years than last season for the Twins to have any chance. Mauer needs to hit over .300 again. Cuddyer needs to hit more than 16 homers, especially with Hunter's 30+ homers not in the lineup. Morneau needs to come close to the MVP numbers from 2006. But even if they are able to put up better numbers, there are still too many holes on this team to compete with Detroit and Cleveland. The lack of quality starting pitching, the lack of production at the DH spot, and the lack of offense at the bottom of the order will keep the team down. If this team finishes over .500, it will be a good year.