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For Twins, it's all about youth and enthusiasm

Youthful but talented
Twins look to rebound from heartbreak of 2008

By Josh Newman
With the first pitch of the regular season just a week away, the Minnesota Twins boast a young, enthusiastic roster that is sure to turn some heads in 2009.

Although many of the players are young, that does not necessarily mean they are inexperienced. At the top of the order is center fielder Carlos Gomez. While only 23, he had a solid season in 2008 keying the Twins’ offense. Look for him to improve on last year’s numbers, when he hit .258 and swiped 33 bases.

Another player whose performance weighs heavily on the team’s success offensively is catcher Joe Mauer. Entering his sixth season, he brings a stout glove behind the plate and a knack for hitting in the clutch. Mauer hit .328 last year with a career-high 85 RBI in 2008. Add on his first gold glove, and the sky is the limit for the St. Paul native.

Nobody likes to play cleanup in any situation, but don’t tell that to first baseman Justin Morneau. After undergoing laser eye surgery last month, Morneau should have little trouble picking up where he left off last season. The only player to play in every game last year, he made short work of almost any pitcher who threw a ball his way. With a .300 batting average, 23 home runs and a team-high 129 RBI, Morneau was born to bat cleanup.

A few emerging players will have to step it up. At designated hitter, Jason Kubel smashed a career-high 20 home runs while playing in a career-high 141 games. Notable performances include 6 RBI in a 12-5 road win over the White Sox April 9. He also went 4-for-5 with two home runs, three runs scored, and three RBI in an 8-7 loss at Seattle August 5. However, Kubel’s inability to hit left-handed pitching will keep him from a full-time position in the starting lineup.

Joining Kubel on the now-or-never list is right fielder Denard Span. As a rookie, Span saw action in 93 games last season, hitting .294 with six home runs and 47 RBI. As a bonus, Span stole 18 bases, and his speed and athleticism give him the ability to become a solid defensive player. However, he must show more patience at the plate if he is to become dependable enough to become a full-time player.

Of course, even a good offense can have a bad night. That’s where stout pitching can bail you out. This is where Nick Blackburn must step up his game. Even though he won 11 games last season, opponents hit .292 against him. He also must do a better job keeping the ball in the park – he gave up 23 home runs last season.

Joining Blackburn in the starting rotation is Kevin Slowey. Despite allowing 22 home runs last season, he still finished with a 12-11 record and a 3.99 ERA in 27 starts. His best asset is his control: Slowey walked only 24 batters in 160.1 innings and struck out 123, a staggering 5.1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Look for the Conroe, Texas native to have a breakout year.

The staff ace for the year, however, should be Scott Baker. The fourth-year player took another step forward in posting the lowest WHIP last year and finished with a record of 11-4 and a 3.45 ERA. Like former Twin Brad Radke, though, he is prone to the long ball: Baker allowed 20 home runs last season. If he continues to improve on his control, as well as overcome a shaky spring, he will have a good year.

It’s still too early to say whether the Tommy John surgery from two years ago will hold back lefthander Francisco Liriano, but if last year is an indicator, he is headed back to his old self. Liriano started only 14 games in 2008, including a three-month layoff between April and August. Upon returning to the starting rotation, however, his ERA over 11 starts was only 2.74. One highlight included a 9-3 win over Seattle August 15 where he pitched seven strong innings, allowing just two hits and a pair of unearned runs. Assuming the surgery does not hold him back, Liriano will have a career year.

Should the Twins find themselves with the lead late in the game, there is old reliable: Joe Nathan. The anchor of the pitching staff, he recorded his 200th career save Sept. 24 in a 3-2 victory over the White Sox. Look for Nathan to own just about any team he faces.

As the Twins bid farewell to the Metrodome before moving into Target Field next year, the only thing stopping them from a wild-card berth is themselves. Their farewell tour begins next Monday with a four-game homestand against Seattle, followed by a three-game series in Chicago to end the week. At 61-101, the Mariners were the bottom-feeders of the West. They need more output from outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. Last year, Griffey hit just .249 with 18 homers and 71 RBI in his return to Seattle. They also need Ichiro Suzuki to step it up. Sure, he hit .310 last year, but his 42 RBI in 162 games was a career-low and indicates that his clutch hitting was a liability. In addition, everyone on the pitching staff must improve their game.
The White Sox made it to the Divisional series last fall, where they were upended by Tampa Bay in four games. However, they displayed shaky pitching and defense in Spring Training and those are not qualities of contenders. During the offseason, Chicago’s starting pitching received a shot in the arm when the team signed starting pitcher Gavin Floyd to a four-year contract worth $15.5 million. Floyd enjoyed a breakout year in 2008 with a 17-8 record and an ERA of 3.84 in 33 starts. Of course, now he must prove it was not a fluke.

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