Twins Opening Day outlook
Minnesota's biggest challenge is pitching in '07
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins came into the spring with one clear mission -- find a rotation.For a team accustomed to multiple position battles rather than pitching concerns, it certainly was a very unusual task. But with some solid performances by some of the new additions, as well as a few of the young arms emerging as strong candidates, the Twins depart Fort Myers feeling pretty good about their starting rotation. The Twins are on a mission to prove that their 2006 regular season was more representative of the club than their sweep out of the first round of the playoffs. And with very few changes to the roster this offseason, the Twins are hoping they can build off the results of last year. So with Opening Day right around the corner, this is the outlook for the Twins this season: BATTING ORDER
1. Luis Castillo, 2B: Castillo overcame questions surrounding his health and his ability to still be a reliable leadoff hitter with his 25 stolen bases last season. He provides the Twins with a consistent bat at the top of the order and sets the table for the offense. 2. Nick Punto, 3B: In his first full season as an everyday player, Punto will be counted on to deliver similar speed and defense that he did when he took over at third in the middle of last season. Punto's .290 batting average in '06 was a career high, but the Twins are hoping for a repeat performance of his .352 on-base percentage. 3. Joe Mauer, C: Coming off his breakout season when he became the first AL catcher to win a batting title, Mauer's not focused on trying to repeat his .347 batting average. Instead, the catcher's main goal is helping steady the team's mostly new rotation and providing offense when he's able. Power is still something that Mauer has yet to develop, but the Twins are happy to rely solely on his ability, and consistency, to hit the ball to all fields. 4. Michael Cuddyer, RF: The Twins' search for a cleanup hitter generated an unusual selection last year when Cuddyer emerged as the best candidate. Cuddyer not only provided 109 RBIs, but he also posted a solid on-base presence as he scored 102 runs. The hope is that after a slow start to '06, those types of numbers can improve this year. 5. Justin Morneau, 1B: Last season was the year the Twins finally saw the Morneau they had been expecting -- and more -- as he earned MVP honors with his 34 home runs and 130 RBIs. With a more patient approach at the plate, Morneau even hit for average (.321), and that's something the Twins hope can continue in '07. 6. Torii Hunter, CF: Known most for his stellar defense, Hunter put up impressive numbers in almost every offensive category last season. He delivered a career-high 31 home runs and hit a respective .278 after heating up in the last two months. The Twins would gladly take similar numbers from Hunter again this year. 7. Rondell White, LF: The hope for White is that he resembles the hitter who batted .321 after the All-Star break and not the one who struggled to a .182 average in the first half. All seven of White's homers came in the second half, and he'll need to prove this year that he can hit the fastball, something that was missing for him last year. 8. Jeff Cirillo, DH: The Twins' option at DH against tough left-handers, Cirillo hit .413 against southpaws last season with the Brewers. And just as importantly, Cirillo will be relied on to provide a quality backup at the corner infield positions.
9. Jason Bartlett, SS: Speed at the top and bottom of the order is something Gardenhire desires, and that's exactly what Bartlett brings. His 10 stolen bases in 99 games last season is something the team feels Bartlett can improve upon, but as long as he keeps up a similar average (.309 in '06), it won't be that much of a concern.ROTATION
1. Johan Santana, LHP: Just when it seems Santana can't take his game up another level, the perennial Cy Young Award winner delivers another stunning season like in '06. With command of his pitches better at this point than in years past, Santana is looking to improve upon his career 4.42 ERA in April. 2. Boof Bonser, RHP: An unlikely No. 2 starter in the playoffs last year, Bonser has backed up his performance with a strong spring. The Twins just hope he can duplicate his numbers in September, when he went 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA. 3. Ramon Ortiz, RHP: The veteran righty has been known to give up a big inning, but with help from pitching coach Rick Anderson in trying not to overthrow the ball, the hope is that Ortiz has put those problems behind him. 4. Carlos Silva, RHP: Silva has continued his search for his sinker all spring, and the Twins need him to find it if he's to be effective in '07. After leading the league in home runs allowed in '06 (38), Silva must be more effective or risk losing his spot in the rotation. 5. Sidney Ponson, RHP: Ponson is a proven innings-eater who has reemerged this spring with a healthy elbow and a plan for pitching to contact. Ponson will be counted on to get ground balls and limit his penchant for giving up the long ball. BULLPEN
One area that isn't of any concern for the Twins is their stacked bullpen. Closer Joe Nathan anchors a group that led the American League with a 2.91 ERA last season and returns with almost the exact same look. Right-handers Juan Rincon and Jesse Crain have proved to be solid setup men and should get the majority of the work in the eighth inning. But one of the things that sets this bullpen apart is the ability to use almost any pitcher in late-game situations. Dennys Reyes is the lone left-hander of the group and will be used as a situational reliever. Side-armer Pat Neshek is a strong option for righties but has worked this spring to improve against lefties. Matt Guerrier will provide the team with at least one long-relief option. OPENING DELAYED
Outfielder Lew Ford and infielder Alejandro Machado will both start the year on the disabled list. Ford did not play in a single spring game after tearing the meniscus in his right knee and undergoing surgery to repair it. Machado is suffering from a torn labrum in his right shoulder and still has yet to decide on whether he will undergo surgery. BURNING QUESTION
Can the Twins overcome their rotation and a tough divisional race to return to the playoffs? The first question will play a big part in answering the second one, as the Twins will need strong performances from their pitching staff if they are to be a force in the AL Central. On paper, the Twins lineup looks to be one of the most truly formidable in the division, considering it boasts the reigning AL batting champion and the reigning AL MVP. But the team's unproven rotation is a concern, as even the veteran additions the club made this offseason have struggled in recent years. If any of the other arms prove to be able to provide a solid six or seven innings on the mound while keeping the club in the game, the Twins could prove many of their critics wrong. ON THE RECORD
"It's always fun to come into a clubhouse when you've got all the guys still there. As a guy that didn't play all the time, I got to sit and watch a lot and I saw all these young guys get themselves to another level in the way they played last year. They felt what it takes and what pressure can do to get you to that next level. Sure, we've got a few question marks, but we always seem to find a way to step it up, and that's what we feel we'll do again this year." -- Twins backup catcher Mike Redmond
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.