The first in a series of looks at the competition for the crown in the mediocrity that is the 2010 AL Central.
Dates we play them: 4/9-4/11 at home, 5/11-5/12 and 7/15-7/18 @ MIN, 8/10-8/12 at home, 8/17-8/19@ MIN, 9/14-9/16 at home
Offense: A potential lineup: Denard Span-CF, Orlando Hudson-2B, Joe Mauer-C, Justin Morneau-1B, Jason Kubel-DH, Michael Cuddyer-RF, Delmon Young-LF, J.J. Hardy-SS, Nick Punto-3B. Bench: Jim Thome-DH, Brendan Harris-IF, Alexi Cassila-IF, Wilson Ramos-C.
That is a lot of lefties. Span, Mauer, Morneau, and Kubel all live permanently in the first-base side of the batters' box, with Hudson and Punto getting the majority of their swings in as southpaws as well. Denard Span is yet another product of the vaunted 2002 draft class. He rejected a $2 million pre-draft deal from Colorado to go 9th overall and wound up slipping on down to the Twins at pick 20. Until 2008, it looked like he was never going to make it. he proceeded to dominate AAA that year and eventually took over duties in center last year from the hated and offensively-challenged Carlos Gomez. Span is an on-base machine with plus speed that hasn't translated into great success at stealing bases (70.6% success rate). He's not that great in center, but he's the best Minnesota has ready so its his spot. Oh, Orlando Hudson, greatest Sox second baseman of all time. How could you go to the land of 10,000 lakes? Perhaps he's a really big Craig T. Nelson fan. O-Dog is in the decline phase of his career, but has still yet to underperform a contract. He is a huge upgrade for the Twins, as his signing moves Alexi Casilla and his abysmal .301 career-OBP to the bench. Hudson will act as an old-school two-hole hitter. Joe Mauer is the best catcher in baseball. Seriously, he's a freak. Having one of the best pure hitters in the game as your catcher is a huge advantage. He still runs well, but doesn't steal as often as he used to. The power spike was extreme, but probably not a fluke. His average will go down this year, but will still be above .320. Justin Morneau is their other left-handed, MVP-award winning monster. The incredibly superstitious Canadian is a constant threat to go deep, without the high strikeout totals that tend to come with 30+ homer power. His back could be a major problem, as he missed the end of the season last year with a stress fracture in his back.
Jason Kubel finally broke-out last year, posting a .907 OPS. 2008 was his first season as a DH, and the switch seems to have agreed well with him. He will see some time in the outfield this season, spelling Delmon Young while Jim Thome breaks all of our hearts by mashing for the Twinks. That being said, I wouldn't be shocked if Jason tumbled back to Earth slightly next year. Michael Cuddyer is becoming Jermaine Dye. His bat is fantastic, but he really shouldn't be playing in right. Delmon Young is never going to live up to his hype and potential. The Rays absolutely robbed Minnesota when they managed to get Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza for him. The minor league numbers never translated to big league success and he's an absolute butcher in left. J.J. Hardy is a good bounce-back candidate, though he'll probably never look as good as he did in 2008 again. He has some pop and is above-average in the field. Nick Punto is a little guy who likes sliding head-first into first base. He has no power and very little ability to get on base in general. He is quick and solid defensively.
Pitching: A potential rotation: Scott Baker-RHP, Kevin Slowey-RHP, Carl Pavano-RHP, Nick Blackburn-RHP, Francisco Liriano-LHP
Not the sexiest of rotations. There isn't anyone in this rotation that is likely going to top 180 strikeouts or post an ERA lower than 3.70. Baker is the ace by default. He posts a solid K:BB ratio, but allows more flyballs than I would be comfortable with having the terrifying outfield defense he has supporting him. He relies heavily on his fastball and slider, occasionally throwing in a curveball or a changeup. If Slowey can rebound well from his season-ending wrist surgery, he could post some good numbers. He has the same repertoire as Baker, but tends to miss more bats. Glass Carl finally pitched more than 100 innings in a season for the first time since leaving Florida in 2004. He's fairly uninteresting, throwing a fastball, changeup and slider. If he can repeat last year's performance (3.7 WAR), that would be amazing. I don't see it happening. Nick Blackburn is a slightly above-average innings eater. He depends heavily on his defense, as he gets more groundballs than anything. Liriano is the most intriguing member. He terrorized the American League in 2006, but hasn't been able to find the same success since his Tommy John surgery in November of that year. His slider hasn't been nearly as effective as it used to be, and until he gets it back he won't be anything more than a fifth-starter. The always reliable Joe Nathan is not going to be pitching this year, as its just a matter of time until he makes his appointment with Dr. Andrews. This leaves an opening at the back of the bullpen that will most likely be filled by former Sox giant Jon Rauch, since he has closing experience.
Outlook: As has been the case for the past seven years, the Twins are once again in contention for the AL Central crown. However, injuries are a rather large potential problem for this team. Is Morneau's back fully healed? Can Joe Mauer's knees continue to support his massive frame? Will Jim Thome be able to stay in one piece without Herm? I don't know. I do know that the Twins will be the main competition for a playoff spot that the White Sox will see all season though. Sox win season series 11-7.