(Chunky) Minnesota Twins 2008 Season Preview

"The identity you think you are does not exist." -- Source and Date Unknown

And so it begins. But before we delve into what the answers are for this 2008 campaign, we must first recognize the questions, the most important of which is: WHAT THE HELL ARE WE? What are we? A small market club building toward the proverbial future (with a payroll nearing $70 million)? A retooled American League Sleeper just one season removed from a divisional title? Cheapskates? A team waiting in the weeds, preparing to pounce in 2010 upon the unveiling of our still-to-be named, uncovered (please note predicted temperature of this year's Opening Day) ballpark? Or perhaps, like so many other clubs: sanguine, hopeful, grinding, streaky, enigmatic, and perhaps, woefully average.

I don't know. And truly, nobody does. But as the season began halfway around the world earlier in the dawn of this writing day, and our home opener arrives in less than a week, the answers will slowly come. And, in my opinion for this version of the Twins, so will the questions ...

There is no doubt that we have talent, more so than probably half the teams in the A.L. But it's the other half that concerns me. And while I'll detail other clubs in my ensuing M.L.B. Preview, I'll simply say herein that Boston, Detroit, the Angels, and Seattle are clearly better than us. Furthermore, I'd have to say that the Yankees and Cleveland are above us as well. Lastly, I look for Toronto to be pretty solid, and also for the White Sox to rebound. So, in my mind -- we're about the 7th best team in the American League. That's not playoff ready. With Santana at the top of the rotation -- or should GM Bill Smith have been able to trigger the Johan trade with the Red Sox for Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester -- I'd put us at 4th, ahead of the aforementioned Mariners. But alas, we got what we got and did what we did, and our roster is ready for battle. Let's look at a few numbers:

Last year, the Twins scored 718 runs, ranking them 12th among A.L. teams. Gone from that equation is Torii Hunter, who scored a team-high 94 of said runs, and drove in 107, second on the club behind Justin Morneau's 111. Hunter (who is allegedly considering removing the second "i" from his name in a newfound measure of L.A. chic) has essentially been replaced in the lineup by the young and beefy Delmon Young, who once ate an entire busload of schoolchildren during an off-day. Nonetheless, dude can really hit, as evidenced by his awesome 2007 in which the former #1 overall draft selection played every game, accrued 93 R.B.I. on a crappy Tampa Bay squad, and hit a very solid .288, while finishing 2nd in Rookie of the Year balloting.

In addition, Michael Lamb should do his .281-thing at the plate, although defensively he'll make Nick Punto look like Brooks Robinson. Adam Everett, he of the .997 career fielding percentage, is a major defensive upgrade at SS over Jason Bartlett, although the juice with that trade-off is that Everett has hit above .256 just once in his seven seasons of Major League service. Also notable is the DH slot where longtime Twin-killer Craig Monroe, and his .304 lifetime average at the Dome, will match with the supposedly-ascending Jason Kubel to instill great fear in whomever the #5 starters are for the Royals, Rays, Rangers, and Orioles, respectively. At 2B, Brendan Harris will likely share time with Punto (as will Lamb at 3B). Like Lamb, the ball looks like a Lion to Harris and he should piss off Gardy in short time with questionable fielding and suspect turning of double play balls. His acceptable lifetime average of .273, however, should behoove the bottom of the order.

And then there's Carlos Gomez, whom the Twins acquired from the Mets in the Santana trade- becoming the lone principle from the transaction to make our roster. Gomez, by all accounts, is loaded with crazy potential. At 22, he'll man Center Field, having won the spot over Denard Span, the team's top draft pick back in 2002. That doesn’t bode well for Span, for whom I felt pretty bad. The guy had himself a strong spring, hitting .282, stealing 3 bases, while committing 0 errors in 16 games and talking some smack that he ultimately backed up. Gomez' speed, as evidenced by his Spring A.L. best (tied) 10 steals, is, without question, a tantalizing talent to have at the top of our lineup that should follow with the studly likes of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Morneau and Young. But I fear we'll all soon learn that batting leadoff in the Bigs requires additional talents (e.g. Patience, Bunting) that may still be beyond his years.

Relating from a personal anecdote, I recall a meeting of "cuts" at the onset of season back when I was assistant coaching Varsity baseball, and the head coach sliced a kid, a senior, who was decent enough talent-wise, but who had ultimately, I felt, put in the time required during his high school career to be given -- if nothing else -- an earnest opportunity to succeed at the highest level. Alas, he was cut in favor of a younger kid with more upside. And the senior? He walked out of that meeting room bawling his eyes out -- and I couldn’t blame him. Accordingly to recent reports out of Fort Myers, Span was said to have done the same ...

Here's how the lineups compare from Opening Day 2007, to this year:

2007 2008 L. Castilo- 2B C. Gomez- CF N. Punto- 3B J. Mauer- C J. Mauer- C M. Cuddyer- RF M. Cuddyer- RF J. Morneau- 1B J. Morneau- 1B D. Young- LF T. Hunter- CF C.Monroe/J. Kubel- DH R. White- LF M. Lamb- 3B J. Cirillo- DH B. Harris- 2B J. Bartlett- SS A. Everett- SS

Moving onto the hurlers, I'll exercise brevity in saying that the bullpen should again be amongst the A.L.'s best. Joe Nathan's recent signing of a contract extension was nicely timed by GM Smith, and should boost confidence and morale. While the vast dollar amount has its doubters, I'm all for it -- it's not my money and Nathan has 160 saves since arriving in Minnesota in '03. Otherwise, the middle relievers look to be very strong and very similar to our recent past. Journeyman Brian Bass, despite a funny name, had a great spring and will likely come north with the club as the 12th pitcher. Bass also has the valuable ability to spot start if needed.

Which brings us to the rotation, which compares as such from Opening Day 2007 to this year:

2007 2008 J. Santana- L L. Hernandez- R B. Bonser- R B. Bonser- R R. Ortiz- R K. Slowey- R C. Silva- R N. Blackburn- R S. Ponson- R

Note that I opaquely left both Scott Baker and "The Franchise," Francisco Liriano off of the Opening Day list- that's just my gut. Despite his great spring showing on 3/23, those who know far more about ligaments than yours truly have duly noted how gingerly the Twins have handled Liriano post-Tommy John surgery. Add to that the recent reports in which Gardy oft-attached the word "leery" to his speculations of Liriano's Opening Day readiness, and in my mind we have an extended spring training for "The Franchise."

I'm thinking that Baker will start the year on the D.L. given his recent lat injury and flu bug, and that Liriano won't see a great deal of action in April. Look for the "Fisherman" to get those aforementioned spot starts on Friday, April, 4, against K.C., and perhaps again on Monday, April 14th at Detroit.

All told, the club's projected 4 starters (combined with the injured/Bass) have a Total of 183 big league wins. Sounds acceptable, yes? Perhaps -- until one looks at the fact that 134 of those W's come compliments of Hernandez who was 11-11 last year, has never won 18 games in a season, and has seen his win totals decline for three consecutive years.

And therein, for me, sports fans, lies the rub. The Twins should have an improved offensive standing in the A.L. this year, Everett will shore up the Defense, and Gomez will no doubt have moments that leave moths agape -- but at the end of the day, our strong bullpen, and the great Nathan, will only save our starters' asses so many times. Expect higher scoring games accounting for both victory, and loss, in 2008. The young staff surely has some terrific potential and talent, but unless Liriano can rediscover his 2006 form, miss minimal time and astound us with 25 wins of his own, we may need binoculars to view the wild card from Metrodome come August.

My prediction: 81-81 (what can I say- I like synchronicity ...)

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