One final pre-season post about this greatest of teams. We all know that I picked them to win the World Series, we all know that I think this is the year they enter an elite crowd. This post is all about why.
What is it that makes this year the year of the Twins? What is so different from last year? How can we be special when there were no big free agents coming Minnesota, no star-studded additions? How can we be as good as other teams who went out and collected more all-stars?
Well, I'll tell you. (He's going to sing.)(Bonus points for anyone getting this reference)
Ok, so I'm not actually going to sing. But, if you would like a season preview in song, I suggest you check out Batgirl, who has put together a most amazing multimedia presentation. Genius. The file you need to download is a bit large, but worth it. Genius.
On to the post topic!
Why '05 is the year of the Twins:
First, while there may not have been any shiny new acquisitions for the Twins this past off-season, that doesn't mean they weren't active in the free-agent market. Most important, they signed Brad Radke to a two-year contract. For a small market team to keep one of the top AL pitchers (#4 in ERA last year, #3 in opponent's OBP, #2 in walks allowed) is a big deal. Combine this with the fact that they actually beat out a competing bid (Red Sox), and the move looks even more significant. But they didn't stop at Radke. The Twins locked several players from the past into contracts, choosing to build on the foundation they had already laid.
Looking to that foundation can make a Twins fan very excited. Last year the Twins led the American League in team ERA. They had one of the best bullpens in baseball, and 2 of the best 4 pitchers in the league, including Johan Santana, Cy Young award winner. This year, Santana is healthy at the start of the season, looked amazing in spring training, and is set to continue his dominance. Tack on Radke, and we've got two pitchers no team wants to face back-to-back in a playoff series. But our rotation doesn't stop there. Last year, in his first year as a starter, Carlos Silva won 14 games, and should be able to build on that this coming year. Kyle Lohse had several rough outings last season, but what many forget is how brilliant he looked when he was on. Like Radke, Lohse was often a victim of low run support, and one bad inning was often his downfall. Look for him to be more consistent this year. Finally, the pitching staff, without a free-agent signing, did see a major addition. Joe Mays, former all-star, is back from an injury. Mays threw incredibly well in spring training - 3.68 ERA - and nailed down the 5th spot in the rotation. He was hoping to do better, and nearly did, but his competition was stiff. Now, spring stats don't matter, but Mays looked great, and if our fifth starter is throwing that well we'll clearly have one of the best rotations in baseball. I don't care who the Yankees or Red Sox added, the Twins rotation can compete.
But it isn't just the rotation. Our bullpen, a big question mark at the beginning of the season last year, proved to be one of the strongest in the game. Joe Nathan is a power closer, who can throw tremendous heat. His slider hits 90. That's insane, and practically unhittable. Leading up to Nathan is a series of power pitchers, and should any one of them find difficulty this season we've got several young arms waiting in the minor leagues, ready to step up and take a spot. On most teams Scott Baker and J.D. Durbin would already be in the show. With the Twins, they'll have to wait their turn. The bullpen should be at least as strong as last year, and the Twins will again compete for the best team ERA in the AL. Our pitching is just that good.
But pitching isn't the only game the '05 Twins can play. We all know what a tremendous defensive team they are. Sure, they've lost some key defensive players in Dougie, Guzman, and Koskie. The fact of the matter is though, this version of the Twins doesn't contain any defensive slouches. Morneau has proved more than capable at first, and will make all the plays he needs to. He's far from Dougie, but he's even further from being a defensive liability. Cuddyer has taken over for Koskie at third and proved to be a worthy replacement - he's more green, but by the end of the season we won't know the difference. Cuddyer might not be an upgrade, but neither is he a downgrade. Finally, the biggest defensive question mark, is Jason Bartlett, our rookie starting shortstop. Can he fill the hole left by the strong-armed Guzman? The answer, I feel, is that hole and more. Guzman lacked, significantly, for range. He was quick and had a strong arm, both of which are important at shortstop, but he was unable to move side-to-side like Bartlett can. Fewer balls should get through the infield with Bartlett. He's also been working hard on his throws, learning how to play the position at a major league level. We've been spoiled in the past with an amazing defense. This team isn't as strong, but they're still good enough to be one of the best in baseball.
Defense and pitching has been the recipe for success the past three years, and this year is no different. Except that this year, the Twins can hit too. Of the players we've lost in the last year - Doug, Guzman, Koskie, and Henry Blanco at catcher - only Koskie was offensively an asset. He's been replaced with Cuddyer, who should produce roughly at Koskie's pace. Doug has been replaced with Justin Morneau, who, as we saw last year, can hit with tremendous power. As he works his way into the season - expect a slow start, coming off a winter and spring limited by assorted ailments - he'll become a huge asset. Guzman was replaced with Jason Bartlett, who can hit - for average and power - and will probably be able to steal a base or two. Guzman was an offensive let-down, with a paltry on-base-percentage. Bartlett will step into the number 2 spot in the order, get on base and knock home runners in a way Guzman never could. Shortstop is becoming a hitting position in baseball, and now the Twins have one who fits that bill.
And finally, Joe Mauer will bring his golden touch to the lineup. He's young, there are doubts about his stability. But when I look at this kid I see Roy Hobbs, complete with the uncanny maturity and grace that surround the natural. Mauer was born a veteran, and will someday be looked at as one of the greatest to ever play the game. This year, he's the Twins number 3 hitter - behind Bartlett and in front of Morneau. He'll have 100 RBI and 100 runs. He'll hit for average, he'll hit for power. He's taking the spot of last year's offensively anemic Henry Blanco, and immeasurable upgrade.
With new and improved hitters in the 2, 3, and 4 spots, the Twins lineup is better than it's been in a long time. People might point to the youth, but these three are surrounded by veterans who will help them throughout the season, and that youth won't hold them back.
But what about the rest of the division, you say? They've all improved too.
"Ha!" I say. Detroit, a little. Cleveland, maybe. Chicago? Doubtful. Anyone thinking these teams will challenge the Twins is delusional. Detroit improved 29 games last year, from their dismal '03 season. Cleveland improved 12. But both haven't proved themselves to be competitors - they both improved against a weak division. Remember what happened to the Royals? In '03 they looked good, and everyone said they'd challenge for the AL central title last year. They were a trendy pick. But did they? No, they looked like fools. I see the same happening with these teams - they won't slide as far as the Royals, but the improvements of last year won't be replicated, and the Twins will run away with the division - and the best record in the AL.
But surely the Yankees and Red Sox are better? Again, I say "Ha!" Last year the Twins were a foot from taking game 2 in Yankee stadium, heading back to MN one game from sweeping the series. The next two losses were heartbreakers. The bounces fell for the Yanks. Last year the Twins took the season series from Boston, 4 games to 2. I'm convinced the Twins were better than the Red Sox, they just didn't get the chance to prove it.
But that was last year, aren't the Yankees and Red Sox better this year? And maybe they are. But the Twins still improved more. Just ask Peter Gammons. He'll tell you exactly what I said in that previous post. Maybe we can't really pick the Twins over the Sox or Yankees - but they're just as good a pick as either one. There isn't really a favorite in the bunch. Anyone who tells you the Sox or Yankees are better than the Twins doesn't really know their baseball.
Or better yet, ask Jayson Stark. He's even more confident in the Twins than Peter Gammons. And the man knows his baseball. Or check with ESPN's top baseball analysts. Of their 7 most respected (and knowledgeable) experts 4 have the Twins winning it all, 5 have the Twins winning the AL, and 6 have the Twins winning the Central.
Face it people, we're the favorites. And that proves true in two senses. The people who know baseball think we're going to win. And everyone wants us to.
'05: The Year of the Twins.
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