AL Central Watch: Minnesota Twins

After taking the AL Central division crown three straight years, the Minnesota Twins fell on hard times in 2005, proving barely able to stay above .500. But the Twins didn't sit by as the White Sox re-tooled and the Indians young players were developing rapidly; the Twins made it clear that while still on a strapped budget, they hope to compete.

Pitching hasn't been the problem for the Twins; their farm system has produced star pitcher after star pitcher, and with an ace like Johan Santana, they weren't in dire need of adding to their pitching staff. Santana combines with veteran Brad Radke and solid starters Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse to form a solid rotation.

The ace in the hole of course is Francisco Liriano. The 22-year old phenom struck out 33 batters in just 23 innings of work, and as one of the top prospects in baseball, could become a star in the Minnesota rotation.

The Twins bullpen is just as strong, with Joe Nathan leading the way. Nathan has put together back-to-back 40 save seasons, and will once again be relied upon to fill a similar role.

The Twins have an impressive group of setup men as well; starting with Juan Rincon and Jesse Crain. Rincon led the club with 25 holds, while Crain was actually second on the team in wins despite pitching exclusively out of the ‘pen.

The team reached into their depth and shipped out J.C. Romero, sending him to the Angels in exchange for minor league depth.

Matt Guerrier is another reliever that the team will rely on. The Twins will likely fill out the bullpen with holdovers like Scott Baker, a very impressive youngster who likely will get squeezed out of the rotation as part of the numbers game.

But bigger issues arise among the position players on the team. Despite having talented players like Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart, not a single Twin was able to post an OPS of .800. To contend, that obviously had to change.

They will rely some on development from within – namely development from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Morneau didn't have the breakout season many were predicting for him, especially after a rookie year in which he hit 19 homers in just 280 at bats. Mauer meanwhile is just 22 years old, and has all the tools that he could be in store for a breakout season.

Hunter and Stewart are still reliable and can be counted on, but the team had holes that needed to be filled, especially with the departure of Jacque Jones (who signed with the Cubs as a free agent).

The first move they made was making an attempt at solidifying the top of the order, acquiring Luis Castillo in the Marlins fire sale. Castillo gives the team a leadoff hitter and helps fill the void that has been second base for many years.

The team also decided Michael Cuddyer wasn't up to the job of filling Corey Koskie's shoes (who left as a free agent after the '04 season), and so they signed Tony Batista to a one-year deal. Batista hit 32 home runs in 2004 with the Expos, but when he didn't get the contract offer he wanted, he decided to play 2005 in Japan.

Finally, the team filled the void that opened up with the departure of Jones, signing former Tiger Rondell White to a one-year deal. With Hunter, Stewart and Lew Ford already filling out the outfield, White will likely be the team's everyday designated hitter, where hopefully he'll be able to avoid the injury bug that has plagued him throughout his career.

Shortstop still isn't settled, but that will likely get worked out in spring training, with 26-year old Jason Bartlett likely having the inside track.

The Twins may not have enough to make a run at the White Sox and the Indians, but they're certainly going to give it a run with their potentially dominant pitching staff.

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