The Minnesota Twins head into the 2011 season with very few changes to their 2010 Central Division Champion squad. Can they repeat this year? Let’s dig a little deeper and look into some of the key questions that will play a role in that answer.
How will Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s game transfer to the United States?
Every Japanese player who makes the transition to the majors comes with an excess amount of fanfare. Some (Ichiro Suzuki) manage to live up to the hype, while others (Hideki Irabu, Masao Kida, etc.) don’t. The 2010 season marked the first time that he remained healthy and played in more than 130 games, and he responded in a huge way, hitting .346 and winning the NPB batting title. He is also a very capable defender, but scouts believe he projects better as a second baseman in the major leagues, rather than his familiar shortstop position.
I’m projecting Nishioka to hit around .300 with 10-12 home runs, 20-plus steals and around 100 runs. Combined with playing solid defense, he should have no problem exceeding the production the team got out of Orlando Hudson last season.
Is Joe Nathan fully recovered?
From 2004-2009 Joe Nathan was clearly one of the elite closers in the game, and a true weapon to have at the back end of the bullpen. However an injury early in the spring of 2010 derailed his entire season, as he was forced to have the dreaded Tommy John surgery. All signs look promising so far this spring, but I still expect the Twins front office to go easy on him in the early going. You may not see him saving games on back to back days, especially with Matt Capps capable of closing games himself. As long as he can remain healthy, the Twins will once again have one of the better bullpens in the league.
Is Delmon Young ready to become a superstar?
When he was taken with the first overall selection in the 2003 draft, people drooled over the potential that Delmon Young possessed. So far, he has yet to completely capitalize on it, but 2010 was definitely a step in the right direction. Young cracked the 20-homer plateau and 100-RBI plateaus for the first time last season, while posting a career best .298 average. He’s been slowed by a toe injury this spring, but it doesn’t appear to be anything that would jeopardize him being ready for the season opener.
Though Young is entering his fifth full big league season, he’s still just 25 years old and should be entering his prime. I’m a huge believer in the potential here, and think that something along the lines of .315, 30 HR, 120 RBI could be within reach as early as this season, provided he hits in a premium spot in the order.
What do you do with Kevin Slowey?
All Slowey has done is go a very respectable 39-21 over his four years in Minnesota, with decent ratios and average strikeout potential. However, rumors have swirled around all offseason that the Twins were looking to trade Slowey. Also this week, it was announced that Brian Duensing would win a spot in the rotation, leaving Slowey with the short end of the stick. I believe he’s one of the best five starting pitchers the Twins have, and has the most value to them in the rotation.
It’s possible he could end up as the long reliever and sixth starter when someone inevitably goes down, but getting dealt is also a very real possibility. If so, I doubt the Twins receive very much in return as they are in a desperate place here. I’m intrigued to watch how this one plays out.
Can Mauer find his power? Is Morneau ready to go?
Yes, I know that Joe Mauer is a terrific baseball player and the best offensive catcher in the league, I’m not debating that. What I do question however, is if he will ever again show the power that he displayed belting 28 home runs in 2009. If he can repeat that performance, he’s one of the best five players in baseball. However, he’s averaged fewer than 10 per season the rest of his career, so maybe 2009 is the outlier. I still expect Mauer to contend for the batting title, but regaining that power stroke takes him from being an incredibly good hitter to one of the game’s truly elite.
Justin Morneau was arguably the AL MVP the first half of the season until his concussion and subsequent post-concussion symptoms sidelined him for the second half of the season. Just this week, he finally began fully participating in team drills and saw his first game action. When healthy, he’s obviously a tremendous player, but concussions can have lingering effects that could come into play again this year.
Overall, I expect the Twins to do what they seemingly do every year, and that’s contending for a Central Division title. The Tigers and White Sox are both improved from last season, so it should be a very exciting three-team race.