Here is an interesting one. The Twins spent exactly one day alone in first place in the AL Central last year -- the one that counted, the last day of the regular season. The franchise took home almost every award they have to give away in the American League, with MVP Justin Morneau, Cy Young winner Johan Santana, batting champ Joe Mauer, and ML Executive of the Year Terry Ryan. But as is so often the case the postseason didn't go according to script. The Tigers, the team Minnesota hunted down like dogs to finally edge at the finish line, rolled through the AL playoffs with little mercy while the Twins got punked by the overdue A's in their ALDS. The Twins also lost their #2 and #3 starters, Francisco Liriano (for the '07 season) and Brad Radke (permanently) to injury. It's nagging questions about their rotation that have most folks picking Chicago and Detroit ahead of the Twins in 2007.
Me? I disagree. I think they're going to be real good again. 2006 seemed to me like a new beginning for Minnesota baseball. Yeah, Morneau didn't deserve the MVP. (It's killing me to say this, but that award should have gone to Derek Jeter.) Yeah, Torii Hunter has at least one foot out the door already. And yeah, they're relying an awful lot on the likes of Carlos Silva to be named as a World Series favorite. Despite all that, I think the Twins more than any other team will benefit from the absurd levels the free agent market reached this offseason. They might have reached on some fifth-class veteran starter if the Brewers and Royals weren't much more excited about doing so. Now the Twins' rotation after Santana and Matt Garza will be determined wholly on merit, and they have enough organizational talent to turn their perceived Achilles' heel into a net strength.
The biggest questions on the roster are the ones about the veterans they do have. Why is Rondell White back for an encore when Jason Tyner can so obviously play? Wouldn't they be better off dealing some of their surplus of slugging corner types for an upgrade from Luis Castillo at second? What possible reason could there be to bring a washed-up whiner like Jeff Cirillo into camp? If anything I have too much faith in the Minnesota organization's ability to generate highly effective tiny-salaried players from thin air, but like the A's, they've earned that respect over the past several years.
And that's why I think the Twins' rotation is going to be fine. They've got barely a proven major leaguer from three through five, but it means the world that #1 is Johan Santana, who has powers beyond the imaginations of mere mortals like you and I. Seriously, if you know you're going to have to face Santana one game in a three-game series, aren't you going to be pressing like mad in the other two games? I wonder if that has a demonstrable effect. Of course, if somehow you manage to beat Santana, like Oakland did last year in the playoffs, it has a reciprocal effect on the Twins. So no problem, just beat Johan Santana! Easier said than done. It appears that veteran Ramon Ortiz is going to crack the rotation out of camp, so I guess the Twins have more experience than I thought. With the Twins willing to give Silva the benefit of the doubt for now at least, that leaves it for young'ns Matt Garza, Glen Perkins, and Boof Bonser to settle among themselves who gets the last two spots. I feel fairly confident that Sidney Ponson will not be able to elbow two of those guys out of the way. As it stands, the Twins are set up nicely to make the switch sooner rather than later if Ortiz or Silva is ineffective.
As for the offense, all of the guys who Ozzie Guillen perfectly nicknamed "the f---in' piranhas" last year are back. Morneau had a slow start last season and probably won't this time around, so by that logic he'll win the MVP again. Joe Mauer is one of those guys. I met somebody who had seen him play three sports in high school at a wedding a while back and their voice was hushed as they described his absurd physical gifts. Torii Hunter in a contract year is a good bet to perform at his highest possible level. Their offensive role players like Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett are reliably productive for guys with such short major-league résumés. For young mashers Jason Kubel and Mike Cuddyer, the only things that can get in the way are injuries. Or veterans, but for once there aren't any here. See what I mean?
When it comes to the bullpen, the Twins have shown an admirable tendency to look for in-house solutions before opening up the checkbook. Thanks to the largesse of the Giants' front office, they seem to have reasonably hard-throwing righties falling out of lockers left and right. Joe Nathan is a top-five closer, Jesse Crain and Pat Neshek have yet to peak, and Juan Rincon is a trusted veteran at 28. It bodes well for the Twins' plans to fill the rotation with rookies that they have so many guys capable of multiple-inning shutdown relief appearances plus a hammer like Nathan. As you can tell, I'm quite bullish on this team.
Vegas has Minesota at 15-1 to win it all, and I don't see a better bet on the board. If I had fifty dollars I would put it on the Twins right this minute. Only I don't have fifty dollars. Their over-under is 83.5, which I think is ridiculously low -- they should cover that with a month left in the season. I expect the Twins to comfortably win 90 games and the AL Central as the Tigers return to planet Earth and the White Sox disappoint. If anyone gives them a scare, it'll be the Indians.