The Minnesota Twins captured the American League Central title in 2010 for the sixth time in the last nine years despite closer Joe Nathan missing the entire campaign and all-star first-baseman Justin Morneau being absent after July 7 because of a concussion.
If those two important pieces to the Twins’ puzzle can stay healthy, Ron Gardenhire’s troops could improve on last season’s 94-69 ledger. However, Bookmaker.com opened the club’s ‘over/under’ victory total at just 86 wins.
The Twins accumulated last season’s 94 victories thanks to a 36-22 mark over the last 58 outings. That placed them a comfortable six games in front of the second-place White Sox.
Minnesota opened as a 7/5 favorite to repeat as Central Division champs, 10/1 to take the American League crown and 22/1 to capture the World Series.
Morneau’s health is one of several questions the Twins face this spring. He has done every normal drill during spring training and fully expects to play once the regular season begins. The big first-sacker was leading team in batting average (.345), homers (18), slugging percentage (.618) and on-base percentage (.437) before the injury.
All-star catcher Joe Mauer had an offseason cleanup procedure for the cartilage in his left knee and had an injection of fluid last week to lubricate the joint. Despite squatting behind the plate in 137 games last season, Mauer hit .327 with nine homers and 75 RBI.
Gardenhire's spring priority is to fill his bullpen after the losses of Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes to free-agency. But Nathan has seemingly returned to full health, and the Twins will have late-season acquisition Matt Capps for the full year.
Capps had 16 saves for the Twins after accumulating 26 for Washington during the first part of the 2010 campaign.
The Twins didn’t make a big splash during the offseason, but they might have done just enough.
Jim Thome, who hit 25 homers in 340 plate appearances, told the Rangers he felt comfortable in Minnesota and decided to re-sign with the Twins. Carl Pavano, a 17-game winner with a league-leading seven complete games and two shutouts, also decided to stay in the Twin Cities.
The Twins won the bidding rights for Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and the $5.3 million they paid should be money well spent. The 26-year-old switch-hitter had a .346 average for the Chiba Lotte Mariners last season, plus he can play both second-base and shortstop.
Francisco Liriano returns as the ace of the pitching staff. The hard-throwing southpaw had 201 strikeouts in 191 2/3 innings to go with a 14-10 record and a 3.62 ERA.
Nick Blackburn (10-12, 5.42 ERA) and Scott Baker (12-9, 4.39 ERA), who each had offseason surgeries, round out a starting pitching staff that led the league in wins last season (73).
The Twins went 15-8 last April, but they might be hard-pressed to duplicate that feat this time around. They will begin the campaign with a seven-game road trip against the Blue Jays and Yankees, and must also play the tough Tampa Bay Rays seven times during the opening month.
Minnesota’s interleague schedule will feature road contests against Arizona, Milwaukee and San Francisco and home series versus the Brewers, Padres and Dodgers.
Minnesota was 8-10 against the NL last season, 32-24 versus southpaw starters, 62-44 against right-handed starters, 31-23 in one-run games and 9-5 in extra-inning affairs. Any worries about the Twins not faring as well as they had in the Metrodome were put to rest last year when the Twinkies went 53-28 in their first season at Target Field.
Having a healthy Nathan and Morneau for an entire season will be imperative if the Twins are to match last year’s 94 wins. However, a tough interleague schedule and the improvement of the White Sox and Tigers in their own division might make that number a bit difficult to reach. Nevertheless, good health might be enough for the Twins to go ‘over’ the 86-win total set by the majority of offshore sports books.
Follow Don Best's season preview of all 30 MLB clubs by checking out the following links: Florida Marlins ... Tampa Bay Rays ... Atlanta Braves ... St. Louis Cardinals ... Kansas City Royals ... Texas Rangers ... Houston Astros ... Arizona Diamondbacks ... San Diego Padres ... Los Angeles Angels ... Los Angeles Dodgers ... San Francisco Giants ... Oakland Athletics ... Seattle Mariners ... Colorado Rockies