March 30, 2008

The Smiles Are Returning to the Faces (Opening Day)


Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right


- "Here Comes the Sun"

After a long, cold, lonely winter the best day of the year is finally here, but for the first time in the nearly six-year history of this blog Opening Day has arrived without the Twins being viewed as serious playoff contenders. A 79-win season followed by the departures of Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Carlos Silva, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and general manager Terry Ryan mean that the Twins will begin the year without significant expectations for the first time since 2001.

This blog was born on August 1, 2002, as the Twins and first-year manager Ron Gardenhire embarked on a stretch run that led to their first playoff appearance since 1991. I've trotted out "Here Comes the Sun" to celebrate Opening Day a half-dozen times since then, but today is the first time that the lyrics come without expectations of a 90-win season and playoff run. In fact, you'll find more people picking the Twins for last place than first place this year.

I've never blogged about a team that wasn't supposed to win and Gardenhire has never managed a team that wasn't being counted on to contend, so I'm not sure what to expect this season. There are still plenty of intriguing story lines to follow, of course, from Francisco Liriano's comeback and Delmon Young's arrival to Carlos Gomez attempting to replace Hunter and an assortment of young pitchers trying to ease the loss of Santana while working in front of a three-fourths new infield.

From the names and faces to the front office and expectations these aren't your older brother's Twins, but it's also not a bad team. If Gomez bucks the odds by holding his own at the plate, Young lives up to even a fraction of the hype, Joe Mauer stays healthy, and Gardenhire avoids the temptation of playing Craig Monroe and Nick Punto over Jason Kubel and Brendan Harris, the lineup will surprise people and the Twins' offense has a chance to be average for just the second time since 1994.

Led by Joe Nathan and Pat Neshek, the bullpen remains the team's biggest strength and could prove to be among the league's elite if Jesse Crain regains his stuff following shoulder surgery or Juan Rincon reverses his multi-year decline. And while conventional wisdom would suggest that the bullpen has to carry the entire the pitching staff because the young rotation figures to be a mess, Twins fans should know by now that lack of experience is not synonymous with lack of ability.

Replacing Santana will be impossible, but 25 starts from the Liriano who finished spring training with back-to-back strong outings would give the Twins' rotation an edge over most teams in the league and between Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, Philip Humber, Brian Duensing, Kevin Mulvey, and Anthony Swarzak there's no shortage of quality young arms ready to pitch alongside him. I'll take youth and talent over experience and mediocrity every time.

An awful lot of things would need to break right for the Twins to make another playoff push and given the strength of both the Tigers and Indians fourth or fifth place may indeed be more likely than first or second place. With that said, the team is perfectly capable of being more successful than last year's version despite vastly different expectations and if nothing else this season figures to be an interesting one regardless of where the Twins end up in the standings.

The ice may not be completely melted here in Minnesota yet, but the smile has definitely returned to my face because today marks the beginning of seven straight months of baseball. It's like opening a big present on Christmas morning and then spotting 161 more presents under the tree. Before things get rolling, here are 25 specific predictions about the Twins, followed by my guess as to how the 2008 season will play out across baseball:

- Mauer will top 1,000 innings behind the plate while leading AL catchers in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and caught-stealing percentage.

- Justin Morneau's power will not vanish in the second half on the way to his first 40-homer season.

- Livan Hernandez will lead the team in innings, but will have the worst ERA among pitchers who make at least 15 starts.

- Bonser will lead the team in strikeouts and Baker will lead the team in wins.

- Slowey will lead the team in strikeout-to-walk ratio despite his supposed lack of an "out-pitch."

- Gomez will have at least 50 percent more steals than walks.

- Liriano will stay healthy, but won't be the dominant force that he was as a rookie.

- Kubel won't get more plate appearances than last season and will start fewer than a dozen games against left-handed pitchers.

- Monroe will get the bulk of the playing time against southpaws and start at least 25 games against right-handed pitchers despite clearly being inferior to Kubel.

- Long one of the elite defensive players in baseball, Adam Everett will finally win his first Gold Glove.

- Young will be praised constantly for his RBI total, but his OPS will be below average for a left fielder.

- Between Cuddyer, Young, and Gomez the Twins will lead the league in outfield assists.

- Cuddyer and Young will both rank among the AL leaders in double plays and the Twins will lead the league at being doubled up despite a mediocre team on-base percentage.

- People will misguidedly keep questioning Neshek's ability to get left-handers out as he holds them to a sub-.200 batting average for the second straight season.

- Punto's number of plate appearances will be higher than his batting average.

- Harris' OPS will be at least 100 points higher than Punto's, but he'll never start 10 straight games.

- Mike Lamb will be one of the team's top five hitters, but will lose playing time because of his defense.

- Blackburn will show why Baseball America ranking him as the Twins' top prospect was silly.

- Brian Buscher and Randy Ruiz will both be among the International League leaders in OPS while at Rochester, but will combine for fewer than 150 plate appearances in Minnesota.

- Denard Span will complain publicly that the Twins haven't called him up from Triple-A and none of the local writers reporting the story will focus on the fact that he has a .700 OPS at Rochester.

- Julio DePaula will emerge as a reliable middle reliever in the second half.

- Mauer, Morneau, and Nathan will make the All-Star team.

- Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven will force me to wear out my mute button.

- The Twins will win at least as many games as they did last season.

- Many of these predictions will look silly by June and most of them will look silly by September.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

WEST CENTRAL EAST
Los Angeles Angels Detroit Tigers Boston Red Sox
Oakland A's Cleveland Indians New York Yankees
Seattle Mariners Minnesota Twins Toronto Blue Jays
Texas Rangers Chicago White Sox Tampa Bay Rays
Kansas City Royals Baltimore Orioles

MVP: Alex Rodriguez CY: C.C. Sabathia ROY: Joba Chamberlain
ALDS: BOS over LAA ALDS: NYY over DET ALCS: BOS over NYY

NATIONAL LEAGUE

WEST CENTRAL EAST
Arizona Diamondbacks Chicago Cubs New York Mets
Los Angeles Dodgers Milwaukee Brewers Atlanta Braves
Colorado Rockies Cincinnati Reds Philadelphia Phillies
San Diego Padres St. Louis Cardinals Washington Nationals
San Francisco Giants Houston Astros Florida Marlins
Pittsburgh Pirates

MVP: David Wright CY: Johan Santana ROY: Kosuke Fukudome
NLDS: NYM over ARI NLDS: ATL over CHC NLCS: NYM over ATL

WORLD SERIES: NYM over BOS WORLD SERIES MVP: Johan Santana

Finally, here's Richie Havens doing my favorite version of "Here Comes the Sun":


Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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