The Minnesota Twins begin the 2011 season in search of a third straight AL Central crown. They return two All-Stars (Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau) who combined to play just 3 months in 2010 and they will be adding the services of Japan’s Pacific League MVP and Batting Champ, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Not to mention the fact that they have the best catcher on the planet in Joe Mauer.
One of the keys to Minnesota’s success last year was the rebirth of Carl Pavano who posted a 17-11 record with a 3.75 ERA. He has already been named the opening day starter for 2011 and looks to anchor a very good staff. Minnesota has 5 pitchers vying for the other 4 spots in the rotation; Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Brian Duensing.
Ron Gardenhire, who is one of the best managers in baseball, will have to rework the back end of his pitching staff as the Twins said goodbye to Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch in the off season. The good news is that in addition to getting Nathan back, who missed all of last season, Minnesota also returns Matt Capps and Jose Mijares.
Offensively, the Twins are loaded. They have 4 very good outfielders (2010 stats in parenthesis) in Delmon Young (.298 BA, 21 HR, 112 RBI), Jason Kubel (.249 BA, 21 HR, 92 RBI), Denard Span (.264 BA, 85 runs, 26 SB), and Michael Cuddyer (.274 BA, 14 HR, 81 RBI). Morneau and Mauer anchor the infield and they will be joined be a trio of talented youngsters; Danny Valencia (3B), Nishioka (2B or SS) and Alexi Casilla (2B or SS). Minnesota also retained the services of Jim Thome to fill in at DH.
Best case scenario: A perfect Minnesota summer would definitely include a healthy team. They were bit by the injury bug last year and still won the division. If they can stay healthy, a World Series is within reach. They are expecting a lot out of three relatively untested infielders; Nishioka, Casilla, and Valencia and in an ideal world all three of them will rise to the occasion.
Most Valuable Player: Joe Mauer is the heart and soul of this team. Last year they were able to survive the losses of Morneau and Nathan, but I’m not so sure they could survive without their sweet-swinging backstop. He is a career .327 hitter and has a trophy case stuffed with hardware; 4 Silver Sluggers, 3 Gold Gloves and an AL MVP.
Potential Breakout Players: Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla will form the keystone combination for the Twins. Nishioka had nothing left to prove in Japan’s Pacific League and could develop into a star. Casilla is primed to finally become an everyday player and has all the tools needed to become a good one.
Worst case scenario: If things were to unravel in Minnesota it would have to involve a series of incidents like this; Tsuyoshi Nishioka struggles transitioning to life in the majors and leaves a big hole in the Twins infield, Carl Pavano is unable to recapture the magic of his 2010 season and Francisco Liriano battles arm issues all season. Additionally, if their trio of untested infielders all struggle it will require a seasons worth of mixing and matching for Gardenhire. Something else the Twins have to watch out for is the competition; the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers are both determined to dethrone them.
Biggest areas of concern: This is not so much an area of concern, but one of unknown. The Twins entered Spring Training unsure of how they will align the middle of their infield. Nishioka played both shortstop and second base in Japan. Ideally he will settle in at short and allow Casilla to take the reigns at second base. If Nishioka can’t handle shortstop look for Casilla to slide over and Nishioka to take second base. A real area of concern is injuries. Francisco Liriano already has a sore shoulder and Joe Mauer is already getting injections in his knee.
Player who must rebound from a down 2010: Nick Blackburn began the 2010 season poised to take his pitching to another level. He was coming off back-to-back 11-11 seasons with ERAs of 4.03 and 4.04. Instead of progressing he took a giant step backwards as his ERA ballooned to 5.42 en route to a 10-12 record and a significant drop off in Ks (his strikeout rate was down 4 Ks per 9 innings from his career average).
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