Saturday, March 18, 2006

Five Keys to the Twins Season

Justin Morneau’s Confidence: Morneau’s 2005 season was really a parallel for the Twins’ season. In 2004 Morneau hit 19 home runs in 74 games, allowing the team to trade Doug Mientkiewicz. With Morneau initially penciled in the four spot as the team’s primary power hitter, 30 home runs didn’t seem out of reach for 2005. Tall pressures and frustrations both seemed to snowball throughout the season.
Despite struggling with his swing, confidence and pitch selection, Morneau still hit 22 homers. He obviously can hit for power, but needs to get on base more and hit more than just home runs. He also needs to get batter versus left-handed pitchers. The good news is he is only 24 and has 1 ½ seasons in the majors. Last year he started out on fire before getting beaned in the head. If he can start out hot again, it could do wonders for his confidence.

The Fifth Element-For the first time in several years the Twins will have a youngster at the fifth spot in the rotation. No more Kenny Rogers, Rick Reed, Terry Mullholland or Rick Helling. Top prospects Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano will battle for the final starting spot. Baker spent much of 2005 in the bullpen with occasional starts. Liriano was a late season call up after dominating AA and AAA. Liriano is one of the hottest prospects in baseball, but Baker’s experience and control give him an edge for the fifth spot. The luxury of having six legitimate starters only buffers against injuries. Both Baker and Liriano will start during the season.

Lefty in the Pen-If Liriano does not start, he could fill the lefthanded reliever spot. Trading JC Romero and Travis Bowyer opens up a spot for a lefty in the bullpen. Johan Santana started his career the same way. While Ron Gardenhire probably waited too long to start Santana, the experience ultimately helped him become an ace. Liriano could do well focusing on one or two innings of work while he continues to sharpen his skills. If Liriano becomes a starter or struggles, the team’s other options are journeymen Darrel May and Dennys Reyes.

Right Power-With Jacque Jones now a Cub, the Twins will try to find some power from the Right Field spot. Michael Cuddyer moves from third base to battle Jason Kubel and Lew Ford. Kubel is the unknown factor here. Two years ago he was the Twins’ brightest prospect and was included on the playoff roster. He spent the past year recovering from torn ligaments in his knee, similar in severity to Daunte Culpepper’s. The hope is that Kubel can produce more power than the other two. Ford is most commonly remembered for his mental lapses, but is an above average hitter, has good speed and could be the most consistent of the three. Cuddyer, a former first round pick, has the potential for power, but has never hit more than 12 home runs. The Twins will probably give Kubel every chance to win the job if he’s healthy. Besides his power potential he also has the best arm of the lot.

A consistent veteran bat- The Twins signed Rondell White and Tony Batista hoping for consistent power from the veterans. White will DH, which Terry Ryan theorizes will keep him healthy. Batista was imported from Japan to man third base. While Batista will not get on base with regularity, he does provide power. His slugging percentage is consistently above the league average and has four 30+ home run seasons. He is not a great fielder, but that is not what he was signed for. If he cannot produce, third base becomes a wide open competition among Terry Tiffee, Glenn Williams and Cuddyer.
White might work out surprisingly well. When he is healthy, always a question, White is consistently well above the league average in Avg, OPB, SLG and OPS. He is not a home run hitter, but supply power through extra base hits and runs created. Things get desperate if 41 year-old Ruben Sierra surfaces in the lineup.

Outlook: Compared to Cleveland and Chicago, Twins are not expected to win the AL Central. Still the team’s pitching is deep, possibly deeper than last year. Success depends on the lineup consistently producing more power and runs than last year. Morneau, Kubel and either Batista or White need to help Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter. If this happens the Twins could do what was expected in 2005 and win the Central.