Monday, February 25, 2008

Spring Training Preview

If I wanted to, I could start this post by waxing poetic about the birds and the grass and the trees all coming back into our lives as we transition from the doldrums of winter into the new life of spring. Then I would make a seamless transition into the changing of the sports scene from the ugly winter we’ve had with the Wolves, Vikes, and Gopher hoops team to the new life surrounding the only consistently productive team around, the Twins.

But I’m not going to do that. For one, we all know that winter is going to last for another month or two at least. Also, this is far from your typical Twins team from the last 6-7 years. It is a major transition period as we head toward the new stadium, and that transition is most evident in what you won’t be seeing in Fort Myers this spring.

Much has been made in both the local and national media about the Twins off-season. Gone are franchise staples Torii Hunter and Johan Santana, as well as the steady arm of Carlos Silva. Those three combined to sign for $279 million worth of contracts/extensions. Obviously those losses are going to hurt, especially Santana. Rather than dwell on the negative though, we’re going to move on with the team we have and look forward to the 2008 season. So without any further ado, here are the key things to watch for during the next month and a half as our favorite baseball team prepares to shock the world.

The Starting Rotation
This is going to be the biggest and most important thing to watch as we prepare for this season. As it stands right now, either Scott Baker or Boof Bonser will be starting for your Minnesota Twins on Opening Day. Yikes. After those two, the rest of the rotation will be filled out by Francisco Liriano, Livan Hernandez (at least for the first 3 months of the season), and either Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey (my pick), or Nick Blackburn. To the casual Twins fan, that’s a “Who’s That?” kind of rotation. For those of us who know better, this is one of the more exciting things to happen in recent memory.

Every single year I hear about how great our minor league pitching is; about how much talent we have ready to step in when we need them. Well, we need them. Since we never trade pitching prospects (which made that Garza-Young trade so unexpected), it’s about time we saw what these guys have on the big stage. I don’t want to see anymore guys in AAA going 12-1 with a 2.05 ERA and wonder when he’s going to take over for one of the stiffs in our rotation with a 5+ ERA.

The future is now. Over the next 6 months, we are going to see the future of this rotation and this team take shape. Can Liriano return to anything close as to what we saw two years ago? Are Slowey and Blackburn anywhere near as good as their minor league records suggest? Is Perkins an over-hyped hometown prospect or a legit lefty threat? Those questions and more should begin to be answered, at least in part, over the next few weeks.

The DH “Battle”/Platoon
I’ll say this right off the bat: I hate platoons. Managers all over the league fall in love with the idea of having one guy bat against righties and another against lefties. They look at splits and believe that they are going to get the best out of both players. And it never works. Tom Kelly tried it with Jacque Jones for years and all it did was stunt his growth as a player. Now Gardy is taking a page out of his predecessor’s book and is going to do the same thing with Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe (the most over paid player in Twins history) at the DH position.

My hope is that one of these guys (most likely Kubel of the two) plays out of his mind during Spring Training and wins the job outright. But seeing Gardy’s track record, this probably won’t happen. Once he gets an idea in his head, it is almost impossible to get him to change (see: Punto, Nick).

Another much talked about position battle will be in centerfield. In order for that Santana trade to not be a complete disaster, Carlos Gomez has to be a fixture at that spot for years to come. But will he be there this year? I think most fans want him to have the opportunity to grow into the position and see what he has. He is by no means a lock, however. Jason Pirdie and Denard Span are supposedly going to be given an equal opportunity to win the job down in Fort Myers. Span even recently came out in the media saying that he was going to win the spot, which almost certainly means that he will not. Personally, I think you have to go with Gomez and let him take his lumps this year. He has a ton of potential, and there’s no reason to waste it the minors while we finish .500 this year.

The New Kids on the Block
There are a lot of new faces in the Twins clubhouse this spring. Mike Lamb, Adam Everett, Brendan Harris, Delmon Young, Craig Monroe, Livan Hernandez, and the Met boys all should play prominent roles on this team in 2008. It will be interesting to see how they get acclimated to their new teammates and the “Twins-style” of play that we always hear so much about. Even more exciting for most fans will just be watching and learning about these new guys that we know so little about.

By far the most potential in that group belongs to Delmon Young. He is widely considered one of the best young hitters in the league. Of course the problem has always been his attitude (you may recall that he threw a bat at an umpire a couple years back). For the time being, he’s saying and doing all the right things. Maybe a change in scenery is just what he needs to get his shit together. Or maybe he’ll blow up and get suspended halfway through the year. Either way, he is going to be a major factor in how well this team plays this year.

One last thing that might be worth watching is how well the leaders of this team, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, start off this spring. If we’re going to have any chance at being decent this season, those two need to have seasons closer to their 2006 numbers than their 2007 ones: like how Mauer went from hitting .350 two years ago to under .300 last year. Often, a hot start in March can lead to a very good season.

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