Twins '06: Is the Future Still Now?

Snapshots of a long-shot season to come

THE LINEUP

Shannon Stewart, LF: Like his new teammate Rondell White, Stewart's a pretty good player on the downhill side of a career marked by extraordinary physical wear and tear. He's 32 now, and last year he dropped 60 points apiece from his on-base (.380-.323) and slugging (.447-.388) percentages. He hasn't played a whole season without injury since 2001. Likable as he is, odds are he'll be below league average as a left fielder and a leadoff hitter.

Luis Castillo, 2B: The signing of Castillo says everything you need to know about the kinds of upgrades the Twins were content to make last winter. He's an improvement over Luis Rivas because a) once you get past A ball, there aren't a lot of second basemen who could contribute less than Rivas, and b) Castillo has posted on-base percentages of .373 and .391 the past two years, including 65+ walks. He'll need all the free passes he can coax, because the rug at the Dome is going to eat a lot of those infield singles he dropped on the grass in Miami. It'll probably be a moral victory if he manages to get on base at a .350 clip—and that's not much for a guy who does so little else with a bat.

Johan Santana: The game's best starting pitcher is not enough to make the Twins favorites in the AL Central
Craig Lassig
Johan Santana: The game's best starting pitcher is not enough to make the Twins favorites in the AL Central

Joe Mauer, C: No problems here, if he proves as durable as he looked last year. Apart from Victor Martinez, Mauer's got the highest offensive ceiling of any catcher in the American League.

Rondell White, DH: Twelve years and dozens of DL visits ago, White was one of the more exciting young hitters in the National League. He's played a full season exactly once in his major league career. He can still hit some when he's not on the shelf, but chances are he'll do about what Matt LeCroy would have done, and manage to break a bone or two in the process.

Torii Hunter, CF: If the Twins are mired in the middle of the AL Central pack come June, look for Hunter to get more than his share of the blame. Too bad. Torii Hunter isn't the Twins' problem. A championship-caliber team can certainly get by with a center fielder who scores 70 runs, drives in 80, and brings his kind of glove. But Torii Hunter isn't the solution, either—he's not the offensive mainstay that fans and the front office think he is. That's not his fault. It's the lack of punch at the corner outfield spots, where defensively challenged sluggers typically graze, that hurts.

Justin Morneau, 1B: Scouts and statheads alike have agreed from the start that Morneau will rake someday, to the tune of 35+ HR a year. The question is, when? Power prospects like Morneau occasionally take a long time to develop; Derrek Lee finally had his breakout year at the age of 29. It's hard to know what Morneau's 2005 portends, seeing as how he was both ill and injured the previous winter. He could contend for a home run title this year, or in 2009, or never.

Tony Batista, 3B: Meh. I think the Baseball Prospectus guys were right about him—he could hit 30 home runs and still be barely useful due to all the outs he makes.

Jason Kubel, RF: Back from a bad injury, he could be a pleasant surprise, or not. Same with Cuddyer. But either guy would have to overachieve to give the team a league-average amount of production from right field, most likely.

Juan Castro, SS: The kind of shortstop who prevents runs with his glove and more especially with his bat, a real dime-a-dozen character. For this they sent Jason Bartlett back to the sticks? Steve Perry

 

THE ROTATION

Johan Santana, SP: By consensus the best pitcher in baseball, just 27 years old, with three complementary "out" pitches—plus-fastball, nasty slider, and a devastating changeup made all the more effective by the first two. Even with a traditional slow start in the spring, he'd be a threat to win 30 games on the Yankees.

Brad Radke, SP: A third or fourth starter in all but name—seniority has its privileges—Radke has won 15 games or more twice in 11 years (though never during the Twins' three-year run of division titles) and sports a career ERA of 4.22. He does have impeccable control and eats innings, but at age 34, the paucity of walks is a much safer bet than the surfeit of innings.

Carlos Silva, SP: The best argument for Castro at short is Silva on the mound. A smart pitcher with phenomenal location (one unintentional BB every three games!) and an effective sinker, he has hurled with Maddux-like efficiency—latter-day Maddux, but still—when healthy the past two years. Given his weight, the knee is a concern, but who would you rather have: Silva or Eric Milton? Kudos, Terry Ryan.

Kyle Lohse, SP: Lohse's not a smart pitcher, not a consistent pitcher, and not one to keep the ball down. It is a real mystery why the Twins agreed to go to arbitration with Lohse again this offseason—and why they haven't dealt him since losing at arbitration and overpaying his ass.

Scott Baker, SP: Looks to be a classic-mold Twinkie: Effectively works up and down and in and out with stuff a titch above mediocrity. Which is none too shabby for a fifth starter with room to grow.

Francisco Liriano, long relief, SP in waiting: Remember three years ago, when everyone in the world knew that Santana should be starting but the Twins inexplicably kept him in the pen? How long they repeat this idiocy will depend on how soon Silva is injured, Lohse blows up, or Baker can't handle extended viewing by major league hitters. But with a blistering fastball and a nasty changeup from the left side, there is no time like the present for Liriano to start if the Twins have any hope of competing with the Tribe and Pale Hose.

Joe Nathan, closer: It seems like his rising heater is an invitation to gopher balls, but you can't argue with the results the past two seasons. More dominant than Reardon, Aggie, or Everyday Eddie, Nathan was the first dividend from Ryan's greatest personnel coup, the trade with SF that brought him along with Liriano and prospect Boof Bonser for AJ Pierzynski.

Juan Rincon, set-up: Beware of hurlers with elbow troubles and a history of steroid suspension, but Rincon looked superb in the opener versus Toronto, and, if capable without chemicals, has better overall stuff than Jesse Crain, who is temporarily getting the eighth inning while Rincon works the seventh.

Jesse Crain, set-up: A dozen wins and a 2.71 ERA for your secondary set-up man is a boon to any team, and it indicates how good Crain is at dousing rallies with men on base last year. Good fastball and slider, but now that Romero is gone and Liriano is (hopefully) headed to the rotation soon, can he consistently get lefties out? Britt Robson

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

Where they'll finish:

2nd, behind the Indians, who are poised to return to their mid-'90s form. The Twins still have the best pitchers in baseball—better than last year, even—but their offensive upgrades aren't enough to compete for the division or even the wild card (that'll go to Boston or New York, as usual). Oh yeah, and the White Sox are a bunch of clowns. —Chuck Terhark

3rd, behind the White Sox and Indians. The trouble with the Twins is that their offense stands to be middling even if all the question marks get settled in their favor. That leaves pitching, and once you get past Santana you've got a good but not great staff featuring three or four bottom-of-the-rotation types and a pair of youngsters who may or may not arrive this year. —Perry

3rd. The Indians and White Sox (in that order of finish ahead of the Twins) both hit better and pitch nearly as well. —Robson

2nd, barely. The Twinks also have a shot to win the wild card, where they could spoil into October. Cleveland and Chicago's bullpens are a full grade below that of the Twins. Besides, the current Twins batting order, flawed as it is, carries more potential surprises than anything Minnesota has seen since 1988. G.R. Anderson Jr.

 

Who to watch:

Joe Mauer: Assuming our Canadian man-child of a first baseman underperforms again, Mauer is the Twins' only non-pitcher with All-Star potential. Shannon Stewart: Any hope the Twins have this year depends on the left fielder rediscovering his power (and as of this writing, it looks like he has). Francisco Liriano: Duh. If he escapes the bullpen he'll be Minnesota's first Rookie of the Year since Marty Cordova. —Terhark

Justin Morneau, because another season as underwhelming as his 2005 would go a long way toward making a mediocre offense downright bad; Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, because the team's chances of dominating in any facet of the game are riding on their good health and strong performance; and the right-field tandem of Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, because a team already staring at one or two offensive black holes in the lineup (shortstop, third base) can't afford another. —Perry

Kyle Lohse and Francisco Liriano (a change has gotta come); Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer (best hope for an upgrade). —Robson

Whoever's in right field. Also, Jason Bartlett is the franchise's best shortstop, and, mark my words, Terry Tiffee will replace Batista, for the better, at the hot corner by the All-Star break. Finally, it's worth waiting to see if Ruben Sierra can get healthy and spell Morneau at first when the kid—who could be great, someday if not soon—has his inevitable meltdown. Injury or no, I still think signing Sierra is the best offseason move Terry Ryan made on the cheap. —Anderson

 

They could win the division if:

—I can eat a dozen Dome Dogs before the seventh-inning stretch of the home opener. Failing that, the Twins need their young players to step up big-time. When Bartlett and Kubel have jobs, the team's depth becomes playoff-quality, and with either Baker or Liriano in the rotation they stand to allow the fewest runs in the bigs. Starting both rookies might be too risky, but doing so and trading Lohse while his value is high (he had the best spring of any pitcher in the league) could bring a valuable third baseman, which would send the team's post-season potential through the roof. —Terhark

—a) the White Sox and Cleveland's team charters collide in mid-air, or b) Terry Ryan finds the will and the means to deal a couple of his only-adequate starting pitchers—or one of them plus either Baker or Liriano—for upgrades to the offense. An impact hitter at third base or one of the corner outfield spots would look mighty nice about now, as would a shortstop who could hit a lick. The latter's not as rare a commodity as it used to be, though you'd never know it by examining a Twins roster of recent vintage. —Perry

—all of their pitchers throw well, or both Baker and Liriano establish themselves alongside Santana, Silva, and Radke as the best rotation in the American League. —Robson

—the planets align, which only happens in Trip Shakespeare songs. That said, a lot can come together if Hunter starts clearing the bases, Bradke gets off the early-inning home run curse, and Jesse Crain becomes comfortable as Joe Nathan's set-up man. It's ridiculous to put Scott Baker in the rotation instead of Francisco Liriano—bundling Michael Cuddyer or Lew Ford with a prospect for a lefty in the bullpen would take care of two problems. Which brings us to a lack-of-depth issue: Cuddyer's got better offensive skills, but only Ford can replace an aching Hunter in center on this team. And there is no real backup at first base. An injury-free season—unlikely for any team—is required. —Anderson

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