Win Twins

If the first four games – and yes, I realize there’s a mere 158 left – are any indication, the 2010 MLB season is going to be a special one for the Minnesota Twins.

Taking three of four on the road from the always-formidable Angels to start the year is a solid way to get the year under way. Now come the hated ChiSox this weekend, in the Windy City (not Worthington), and an early opportunity to make at least a small statement on who’s the cream of the crop in the AL Central.

It’s not just my bias, but I think the Twins definitely have to be the choice to win their division this season. Of course, Minnesota is coming off another divisional championship, thanks to the memorable win in Game 163 last fall. But I have to think the Twins have made some improvements over their roster of 2009, while other teams either haven’t or have actually declined a bit.

The Twins, as even casual followers probably know by now, shored up their infield a bit by adding a solid second baseman in Orlando Hudson – who should be a nice fit in the No. 2 spot in the batting order and finally give provide some offensive consistency from the second base position – and a potentially fine shortstop in J.J. Hardy, who’s been plagued by inconsistency in his brief career. The Twins also went out and got Jim Thome, one of the game’s all-time home run leaders, who probably won’t play everyday but will still see a good share of at-bats. Thome’s not what he once was, but he can still change a game with one swing of the bat and therefore affect the way opponents pitch to players who bat in front of him. Most importantly, though, they signed hometown hero Joe Mauer to a long-term contract that will keep the star catcher focused on baseball and in a Minnesota uniform for many years to come.

I’m pleased the Twins were able to unload the often-frustrating Carlos Gomez and define the roles for their outfielders. Denard Span – though he had a terrible series from the plate against the Angels this week – should shine now that he’s got center field all to himself every day. Michael Cuddyer had the month of his career last September after Justin Morneau was hurt; I’m hopeful he can follow that up with a career year out of right field. My hopes for Delmon Young aren’t high, but the Twins have found ways to win with him thus far. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll finally break out.

On the mound, Scott Baker has yet to show me he’s a legitimate No. 1 ace, but that doesn’t mean the starting staff isn’t solid – though it’s more than fair to say the pitching is more of a question mark than the hitting. Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey will probably never lead the league in opposing batting average or ERA, but they are good enough to get big-league hitters out and keep the Twins (who should score plenty of runs) in the ballgame. I like Pavano’s experience, Slowey had an unbeaten spring with an ERA under 2, and even fifth starter Francisco Liriano has shown recent flashes of his former brilliance. The bullpen looks fine, and looked good for the most part this week, but I’m still not sold on Jon Rauch as the closer. Minnesota may have to look to make a deal, or hope one of their young arms in the minors can move into that slot soon (I like Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek, Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain in the roles they’re in now, thank you very much.).

As for the rest of the AL Central – the Tigers will be probably the closest rival, as was the case last year. The subtraction of Curtis Granderson, though, makes this time a bit less threatening offensively. The White Sox, meanwhile, have Jake Peavy and Mark Buehrle as a formidable one-two punch on the mound, but their bats don’t have a ton of punch (it seems like Chicago wants to win playing the kind of small-ball the Twins have long employed). The Indians are young and have traded away most of their best talent over the last couple of years. The Royals are the Royals, save reigning Cy Young Award winner Zach Greinke.

All in all, I see the inaugural season at Target Field being a memorable one – and many other baseball watchers seem to share the same view. Of course, the Kansas Jayhawks were a seemingly universal pick to win in "March Madness," but lost in the Round of 32. Upsets can always happen … and with that is the hope that the Twins, should they get the opportunity, finally vanquish the Yankees in the playoffs this year.