Preseason Preview: Minnesota Twins

The Minnesota Twins have always been plagued by a lack of funds to build a championship caliber team. And while they don't have the big market payroll, they have a farm system that has been sustaining the club for years. It's their strong farm system that will continue to keep them among the top teams in the American League.

ADDITIONS:

ARRIVALS: 3B Eric Munson (minor league free agent from Detroit), C Corky Miller (waiver claim from Cincinnati), LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith (Rule 5 draft from Seattle), C Mike Redmond (free agent from Florida), SS Juan Castro (free agent from Cincinnati), OF Jason Tyner (minor league free agent from Tampa Bay), LHP C.J. Nitkowski (minor league free agent from New York), OF Armando Rios (minor league free agent).

LOSSES:

LHP Joe Beimel (released), LHP Aaron Fultz (waiver claim by Philadelphia), 3B Corey Koskie (free agent to Toronto), SS Cristian Guzman (free agent to Washington), C Henry Blanco (free agent to Cubs), RHP Joe Roa (released, signed with Pittsburgh), RHP Seth Greisinger (released).

PROJECTED LINEUP:

1: LF Shannon Stewart

2: RF Jacque Jones

3: CF Torii Hunter

4: 1B Justin Morneau

5: DH Lew Ford

6: C Joe Mauer

7: 3B Michael Cuddyer

8: 2B Luis Rivas

9: SS Jason Bartlett

The entire top of the order returns for Minnesota, highlighted by leadoff-man Shannon Stewart. Stewart continued his excellent on base ability in 2004, and will continue to be relied upon as a catalyst for the offense.

Offensively, Jones and Hunter are very similar players (in '04 their numbers were nearly identical - each had 141 hits, Jones had 1 more Home Run (24 to 23), Hunter had 1 more RBI (81 to 80), and each had 40 walks). The only significant difference came down to final production, where Hunter's OPS was .805, and Jones sported just a .742 OPS. Either way, both remain solid for the Twins.

Next up at clean-up is one of the latest products of their farm system – 1B Justin Morneau. Morneau is just 23 years old, but in just half a season last year, belted 19 Home Runs and had 58 RBI.

The bottom half of the order is less settled, but still carries plenty of potential. Lew Ford emerged last season as a solid bat, and made the Twins think long and hard about whether or not to bring back Jones. As it is, Ford will still see plenty of time at DH, as well as in the Outfield.

Joe Mauer was poised for a breakout season last year, until a knee injury sidelined him. No worries though, as the 21-year old still carries plenty of promise and should make an impact in the lineup soon enough.

The bottom three spots are still up in the air – Luis Rivas will probably hold down second base, although that isn't guaranteed. Michael Cuddyer has been given the inside track on third base with the departure of Corey Koskie, and should finally be able to show off his immense talent given regular playing time. Youngster Jason Bartlett looks to have first crack at taking over at shortstop for Christian Guzman, but the team signed Juan Castro in case Bartlett isn't ready to take

BENCH:

C Mike Redmond

IF/C Matt LeCroy

IF Juan Castro

OF Michael Ryan

After letting Henry Blanco leave via free agency, the team went out and promptly added another obscure yet solid backup catcher in Mike Redmond. The 33-year old isn't a world beater, but should be able to adequately spell Mauer when necessary.

Matt LeCroy has been a reliable bat off the bench for the Twins, and will return in a similar role. LeCroy can fill in behind and the plate and at first base, and is always a good bat in pinch hitting situations.

The team has plenty of options for the utility infielder, but if Bartlett wins the starting job, that job will likely go to defensive-minded Juan Castro. If Castro steps up and grabs the job though, Nick Punto and Augie Ojeda will figure into the mix.

Michael Ryan will probably be the last outfielder on the bench – but he's not exactly secure in his job. Youngsters Michael Restovich and Jason Kubel are immensely talented and could be knocking on the big league door – Restovich especially, and sooner rather than later.

ROTATION:

LH Johan Santana

RH Brad Radke

RH Carlos Silva

LH Terry Mulholland

RH Joe Mays

The Twins rotation all starts with the big man, Johan Santana. Santana, who was in the bullpen up until mid 2003, emerged as the best starter in baseball in 2004, emerging as the team's ace and passing veteran Brad Radke.

There were some questions as to whether or not Radke would return, but he elected to stay and signed a new 2-year deal to be a solid #2 for the club.

Carlos Silva was at times over-shadowed by Santana, but is becoming a solid pitcher in his own right. The 25-year old reached 200 innings and won 14 games for the Twins, emerging as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

The team also re-signed crafty left-hander Terry Mulholland, who just continues to get outs despite his age. There are of course concerns about how much longer the 41-year old can keep pitching however.

The pitcher that didn't have the year the Twins were hoping for was Kyle Lohse, who regressed across the board in 2004. He won 5 less games, and his ERA went up by a full run. Which likely means Joe Mays will find himself back in the rotation in 2005, plus the Twins will have a tough time justifying paying a player so much to pitch out of the bullpen. Young fireballer J.D. Durbin might need a little more time in AAA, but rest assured, he'll be the next to emerge and push for a spot in the rotation.

BULLPEN:

Closer Joe Nathan

MR Juan Rincon

MR J.C. Romero

MR Jesse Crain

MR Grant Balfour

LR Kyle Lohse

The Twins return arguably the best bullpen in baseball to Minnesota in 2005, as all the big guns come back.

This group is headlined by Joe Nathan, a 2004 All Star acquired from the San Francisco Giants the previous offseason. Nathan was virtually unhittable, with 44 saves and an ERA well under 2.

Luckily for him, he has a group behind him that should have no problem bridging the gap between the starters and him. Juan Rincon and J.C. Romero were the top two middle guys last season, and probably will be again. Each had 16 holds in over 70 appearances, and the lefty Rincon even won 11 games.

Jesse Crain and Grant Balfour could be the top setup man in a number of other bullpens, but settle for being just another middle reliever for the Twins. Crain could have a future in the rotation, while Balfour is hoping to not let a late season slide get him down.

With Mays returning to the rotation, that probably leaves Kyle Lohse to hold down the front as the team's long reliever out of the bullpen.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:

Shortstop

Christian Guzman had his share of concentration problems, but was excellent at a very important defensive position nonetheless. Bartlett has a stick, but certainly isn't Guzman's equal defensively. Plus, some still aren't confident that he's ready to take on an everyday big league job yet. Castro on the other hand has the defensive skills, but isn't quite a strong hitter, more like the exact opposite. Castro being the veteran may become the safer choice, especially if Bartlett struggles down the stretch in a playoff race (which the Twins expect to be in – unless there's no one to challenge them for the division). Bartlett is a good prospect, but the need for consistency on defense may leave the job in Castro's hands.

BREAKOUT PLAYER:

Justin Morneau

It may seem strange to have the cleanup hitter listed as a breakout player – seeing as rarely do teams put youngsters in such important roles. The fact is, many don't know who Morneau is yet, but they soon will once he gets the chance to play over the course of a full season. Morneau already would project to hit over 35 Home Runs given his stats from last year projected over a full season, and that was at the age of just 23. The sky is the limit for this budding young star.

PROJECTION:

Minnesota has been and remains the class of the AL Central – and there still doesn't appear to be a team ready to unseat them just yet. The Twins did lose a pair of big contributors in Koskie and Guzman, but should be able to adequately replace them, and the rest of the team remains solid. The Twins might be a bit too young to expect a World Series just yet, but with the talent they have, they're certainly on their way.


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