Twins in '06: Callin' it

class=img_thumbleft>The 2006 baseball season is officially underway, which I suppose means it's finally time to stretch our legs, wipe the crust from our eyes, and take stock of the situation here in Minnesota. It's also time to make the predictions that will invariably embarrass us in September. But first, an off-season round-up.

After a miserable 2005 season that resulted in just 83 wins and a third-place divisional finish behind Chicago and Cleveland, Minnesota kept their pitching strong and made a modest offensive upgrade. They lost Matt LeCroy, Luis Rivas, Jacque Jones, J.C. Romero, Terry Mulholland, and third base coach extraordinaire Al Newman, while adding former all-stars Luis Castillo (2B) and Tony Batista (3B), the latter of whom, it has been widely reported, is fat and sucks at baseball but really likes Jesus. They also added Detroit's Ron "DL" White, a move I like because he was cheap and as DH should produce some the best numbers of his career, as well as veteran Ruben Sierra, perpetrator of the heartbreaking three-run jack that cost the Twins their season in 2004 but is nonetheless a sub-par offensive boost. They also called up pitchers Scott Baker (the new fifth man), Francisco Loriano (the bullpen's new ace-in-training) and reliever Willie Eyre. In the last week of spring training, Ron Gardenhire decided send shortstop Jason Bartlett back to the minors after hitting .382 this spring, opting instead for veteran defensive-specialist Juan Castro, a banjo-hitter if ever there was one. Ronny told Bartlett he needed to learn leadership skills; two days later Bartlett led the Triple-A Rochester Redwings to a 15-3 ass-kicking over their big-league counterparts, going 4-for-5 with a homer in the Twins' final exhibition game. With that embarrassment behind them, the Twins will open their season tonight at Toronto, with former Cy Young winners Johan Santana and Roy Halladay squaring off.

So how does 2006 look for our Twins? According to PECOTA--a computer program developed by the thick-lens'ed savants over at Baseball Prospectus (essentially the Deep Blue of baseball analysis)--the Twins will win 84 games, good for second in a tight Central Division race behind the Indians, with the Tigers, White Sox, and Royals bringing up the rear. The flesh-and-blood faction of the baseball world disagrees with that dig at the World Champs, however, having almost unanimously declared Chicago the winner of at least 90 games, with the Twins taking third behind Cleveland with a flaccid Wild Card hunt in September.

The Sox's rout of Cleveland on Sunday's rainy opener certainly bodes well for the grey matter side of this debate, but in the end I'm with PECOTA. The Sox don't have the bullpen to win that many games. The Twins do, but they lack the punch of Sox batters (especially if Jim Thome stays healthy). The Tribe has better balance, although you couldn't tell watching their pitchers on Sunday. And don't forget the Tigers. They've got a great new manager in Jim Leyland and could be the sleeper hit of the central this year. Whatever happens, the division is better now than it's been in years, and it's going to be great to watch how it unfolds.

My call: The Twins will win 86 games, finish second behind Cleveland and fail to reach the playoffs after a Wild Card chase that includes Chicago and the Yankees. New York will go to the ALCS and lose to the A's, who will win the World Series.

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