Twins look to begin season on winning note

By Mark Thomson

Last year, the Minnesota Twins saw their season end at the hands of the New York Yankees in a three game sweep for the second year in a row. It was a disappointing, albeit unsurprising end to a great regular season. There was little doubt that the Yankees were a better team, even though I held out hope until the very end that the Twins could pull the series out and advance to the ALCS. However, with that untimely end comes a new beginning and renewed optimism this year. Like every year, I want to believe that this is the year for several reasons. Justin Morneau was having a career year last year before he suffered a season ending concussion on July 7. At the time of his injury, he had 18 home runs and had a .437 on base percentage. Even though he only played in half of the season, he still finished fourth on the team in homeruns. If he can stay healthy and come back at full strength, he’ll be the power threat in the middle of the lineup that the Twins sorely missed during last postseason. He’s been struggling to start the season, but I’m optimistic he’ll turn it around.

Joining Morneau as a significant player coming off of an injury is Joe Nathan. Over the past five years he’s probably been the second best closer in baseball behind the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera. Unfortunately, he missed all of last year due to offseason Tommy John surgery. Although the Twins were able to make do with a couple of different closers last year, none of them were as dominant as Nathan. If he can pitch at the level Twins fans are accustomed to seeing him pitch at, he’ll help shorten games and put less of a burden on the starters. So far this year, he’s two for two in save opportunities, although his velocity has noticeably decreased.

Furthermore, Tsuyoshi Nishioka should be a welcome addition for a team that spent all of last year searching for a full-time second baseman. Manager Ron Gardenhire has already given him the starting job. With that announcement, Gardy has eliminated one more variable for the upcoming season. Niskioka hit. 300 or better in three of his last four seasons for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan’s Pacific League. If he can replicate that kind of production for the Twins, I’m sure he’ll make a lot of fans happy.

Speaking of crowd pleasers, how about Joe Mauer? Although he had a typically phenomenal season last year, Twins fans are hoping he can regain his MVP form from 2009. He saw almost all of his numbers drop in 2010, going from 28 home runs to 9, from 96 RBIs to 75, from a .365 batting average to .327, and a 1.031 OBS to .871. Even though his numbers were outstanding last year, he’s demonstrated that he can play at a higher level. Indeed, a lineup with a healthy Morneau and a home run-hitting Joe Mauer is an intimidating one.

Finally, Danny Valencia is a reason for hope. In fewer than 300 at bats last year as a rookie, Valencia established himself as a major league player. He hit .311 with 40 RBIs in 85 games. Now that he’s won the third base spot full time, expectations are high. He’s gotten off to a bit of a slow start this year, but his ceiling is still extremely high.

Despite the legitimacy of the aforementioned reasons for success, their starting pitching may prove to be a problem come playoff time. Although Francisco Liriano definitely has the talent to be a number one starter in this league, his numbers haven’t always reflected it. His ERA since he’s broken into the league has been a rather mediocre 4.00 (although it was 3.62 last year). He hasn’t regained the form from his stellar 2006 rookie season when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and an unreal 1.00 WHIP. He’s not quite up there with the Halladays and Lincecums of starting pitchers (although at the age of 27, he does have time to improve), and in a playoff series he’ll almost always be worse than the other team’s number one starter. That would be okay if the rest of the rotation were better, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, and Scott Baker are all quality regular season pitchers, but to be honest they’re all much closer to number three or four starters. That’s fine for regular season success, as they’ll give the Twins a lot of quality starts and with some run support win plenty of games against the likes of the Royals and Indians. However, these four are not good enough to consistently win games in the postseason. Would you take any of those four pitchers over John Lackey or Phil Hughes? Probably not. The Twins are going to need to acquire a Cliff Lee type arm for their staff to be able to match up with the other AL playoff teams.

To make matters worse, the rest of the division has gotten better. The Chicago White Sox, a team many expect to win the AL Central, probably has a worse offense than the Twins but definitely has superior starting pitching. The midseason acquisition of Edwin Jackson last year (who posted a 4-2 record with a 3.24 ERA after leaving Arizona) makes their rotation a force to be reckoned with. With the always great Mark Buehrle at the top of the rotation and quality number three to five starters, they have the upper hand at the most important position in baseball.

In addition, with the free agent signing of Victor Martinez, the Detroit Tigers have added a career .300 hitter and four-time All Star. You add him to a lineup that already includes Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and rookie sensation Austin Jackson and you have a lineup just as good at that of the Twins. Their pitching staff, with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello (who’s probably one of the most talented pitchers in baseball), is better suited for postseason success than Minnesota.

Although both the White Sox and Tigers are improved, I still wouldn’t be surprised to see the Twins raise another AL Central flag behind the strength of their offense. There are a lot of positive signs that the Twins can make a run to the postseason, but as I said before, I’m not convinced that their starting pitching is up to the task of making a deep run in the playoffs.