Friday, January 26, 2007

Can the Piranhas Win the AL Central Again? Minnesota Twins 2007 Season Preview...

The ever so-controversial manager of the Chicago White Sox, Ozzie Guillen christened the infelders of the Minnesota Twins the “little piranhas”, because of their style of the play, their tenacity & unwillingness to give in, along with the lack of household names. However, that should probably apply to the whole team.

The reasons above are how Minnesota came back from a horrendous April and May where they were well under .500 and pretty much buried to storming back to win the American League Central on the final day of the 2006 season. Under the guidance of manager Ron Gardenhire, and GM Terry Ryan, the small market Twins, despite their lack of resources in comparison to the powerhouse New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have been able to compete this decade thanks to intelligent scouting along with fostering a culture of winning and nurturing young talent.

Their amazing second half made for a great story for baseball and an unprecedented run for a division title, but things will probably be even more difficult in 2007. Sadly, the Twins due to their economic standing could not at all be players in free agency this winter and will probably need the same amount of good fortune it had in 2006 to be viable contenders this upcoming season. With the market is as it is right now, the Twins are handcuffed due to arbitration-eligible players, taking on Hunter’s $12 million dollar option, so much of the free agent signings were of journeyman players and reclamation projects.

Although the team wound up losing to the Oakland Athletics in the Division Series, the Twins no doubt had an amazing 2006 where hometown boy Joe Mauer won the batting title, Justin Morneau won the MVP, Michael Cuddyer broke out and had a career year, and Johan Santana was his usual dominant self. Minnesota became very scary, as a two headed monster was created in the starting rotation with Johan Santana and superstar rookie, Francisco Liriano.

Liriano went down with an elbow injury and missed pretty much the latter half of 2006 and he’s not expected to be back until 2008. As well, longtime Twin, Brad Radke struggled with arm and shoulder problems throughout the season and relied on guile as well as guts to succeed. However, after the playoffs, he decided to retire due to injuries.

As we head to spring training, the Twins have a lot of positives going for them, but they once again may have a mountain to climb. The positives are that the Twins really did not lose any of their core players, and much of the starting lineup you saw in 2006 should be back for 2007. With Twin mainstay and human highlight film, Torii Hunter returning, along with the aforementioned Mauer, Morneau, and Cuddyer, the Twins offense should be able to maintain or perhaps even exceed 2006. As well, the Twins also had some young pitching come up the pipeline and contribute as well in both the rotation and bullpen.

In light of the positives, the Twins also have a few negative forces to deal with. The forces working against them involve the lack of starting pitching, & with dealing with arbitration-eligible players. Based on the team’s track record in this decade, they might have a very good chance at working through their issues and once again surprise the league.

Let’s start with the pitching staff, most notably the rotation. Ace and perennial contender for the Cy Young, Johan Santana, will of course be back and be expected to anchor the team. For the Twins to succeed, it is vital that Johan Santana to keep up the success he’s had previously. The Twins also had young pitchers Boof Bonser and Matt Garza come up from the minor and contribute in the middle of a pennant race, although Garza had some growing pains. Probably now more so than ever, they will need to deliver in 2007 if the team has any chance of competing in the AL Central. The Twins will also need Carlos Silva to come back from a bad 2006 and regain his form in previous seasons.

The wild card of the Twins happens to be with well, the rest of the potential starting pitching staff. The team recently signed former Nationals pitcher Ramon Ortiz, former Baltimore, St. Louis and New York Yankee pitcher Sidney Ponson. I am very familiar with the two men, and Ramon’s 2006 numbers look bad, but he’s showed signs of brilliance at times and had a good track record with the Angels. If he can return to the form that he had with the Angels, he might be a diamond in the rough. Sidney Ponson’s troubles have been well chronicled, and he’s got talent, but his vices and poor conditioning have done him in. I would expect him to be in the bullpen and spot starter, but if he fails in Minnesota, this may be the last stop in his career.

As well, the Twins have rookies Scott Baker & Glenn Perkins, who might be able to secure starting pitching jobs as well. Both men struggled in the majors, but perhaps another shot at the big time may be motivation for them to pitch well in the majors.

The Twins bullpen was real strong last year, and should maintain the same level in 2007. The corps in the pen is led by super Joe Nathan who once again had a dominant year recording 36 saves. He should be good for many years to come and while he’s unknown to casual fans because he plays in Minnesota, the rest of the nation will soon see how good he is. Longtime Twin Juan Rincon, Pat Neshek, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, J.D. Durbin & Jose Mijares will also man the bullpen.

The offense for the Twins in the past usually was once of basic fundamentals, and hit & run with not a lot of focus on power. That changed in 2006. The middle of the lineup, Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer will be the key for the offense.

The nation got to see Minnesota native, catcher Joe Mauer break through as he won the batting the title narrowly over Derek Jeter and emerge as a potential star. Mauer will probably bat third, and he at this point may have a limitless ceiling. He will probably hit for more power in 2007 and even improve on his impressive ’06 numbers. He’ll be expected to be a leader on the team and continue his production.

First baseman Justin Morneau won the MVP award and overall numbers are even more impressive considering he was batting in the .230’s in May. He ended up 34 homers and 130 RBI’s, and was probably a big factor as to how the Twins won the AL Central. He’ll be expected to live up to his 2006 numbers with the upcoming season fast approaching us. He’s yet another guy on this team who has potential superstar written all over him.

Right fielder Michael Cuddyer also broke out in 2006 with 24 HR and 109 RBIs. After bouncing around in various positions on the baseball field, he’s found a permanent home in the outfield. Like Mauer and Mornaeu, he’ll be expected to main or exceed his production in 2006.

The Twins also brought back one of my favorite players and fan favorite Torii Hunter after the team took on his option for 2007. Although he had a down year offensively, the team needs his outfield presence and defensive wizardry to help out the team. Rondell White was re-signed after a subpar 2006 and will probably man the left field spot or be the designated hitter most of the time, with Jason Kubel perhaps playing in the field.

The rest of the infield is pretty much set Jason Bartlett at shortstop, Nick Punto at third, and Luis Castillo at second. Bartlett with limited playing time batted over .300 and was hot for a stretch and the Twins hope can continue has production. Punto has a strong year as well, where batted .290 and should bat at the bottom of the order. Castillo, much like Punto and Bartlett had good year at the plate as he batted .296. Although the infield outside of Morneau doesn’t have much power, they seem to do the little things right, get the key hit and contribute in key situations. They will be expected to continue their role on the team if the Twins are going to be successful.

The bench will compromise of infielder former Royal Ken Harvey, Jeff Cirillo, Luis Rodriguez and outfielder Lew Ford & Jason Tyner. All five men will be expected to platoon, especially in the case of Ford and Tyner.

A lot will have to happen in order for the Twins to win the American League Central along with contend with the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, but won the division unexpectedly in 2006 and with their young talent and pitching. However, 2007 may be a different story with the pitching situation as it is right now and in turn, may play an outcome in what happens.

In the end, the Twins have surprised the baseball world before, and there’s not reason to believe it can’t happen again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Didn't read your whole analysis, but a couple of commentws:

1.) Glen Perkins had a disappointing year with a 1.59 ERA in all 4 of the big league games he appeared in?

2.) Torii Hunter was off offensively despite hitting over 30 homeruns for the first time in his career? Keep in mind he missed some time, too.

just some thoughts...

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