April 26, 2013


• Sunday afternoon "Gleeman and The Geek" is back on the radio for our second season on KFAN. Beginning at 4:00 you can tune into 100.3-FM or steam the show on KFAN.com to hear us live, or you can wait for the podcast like always.

• Photographs of what death row inmates choose as their final meals are predictably fascinating.

• I've often wondered how much pot could fit inside a Pac-Man arcade game.

Yu Darvish is a helluva drug.

• What does it say about me that I grew up dreaming about getting, tried to get, and failed to get what is now deemed the worst job in America?

• One second before Oswaldo Arcia launched his first career home run approximately 1,000 feet Bert Blyleven wondered if he would be asked to bunt. So perfect.

• I would gladly have participated in Nathan Fielder's little freak-out-your-parents experiment, except my mom a) wouldn't care and b) doesn't text.

• I'm pretty obsessed with Twitter and like gaining followers, both for my ego and because it helps me get people to read my writing, but this whole thing seems pathetically shady.

• On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode we had two special guests on and at one point I tried to convince everyone that Doug Mientkiewicz is one of the best-looking Twins of this era.

• One of my favorite musicians, Richie Havens, passed away at age 72. My annual Opening Day tradition here involves ending my Twins season preview with a video of his great live version of "Here Comes The Sun" from 1971:

RIP, one of the best.

• It turns out that Tom Cruise does most of his acting standing on an apple crate.

• Try to find another MLB closer who engages idiots on Twitter between doubleheader games.

• Last week I ranked my top 10 baseball movies of all time at HardballTalk and tried to convince everyone that "The Sandlot" is underrated, so naturally Wendy Peffercorn showed up on "Mad Men" a few days later.

• Even better, the Twins and FOX Sports North announced that they'll be showing "The Sandlot" on the Target Field jumbotron after the Twins-Red Sox game on May 19.

• Stand-up comedian Rob Delaney is singing the National Anthem at the Dodgers-Brewers game tonight, and the recap of how that came to be is pretty funny.

• Netflix now has more American subscribers than HBO.

• It has nothing to do with anything, but this is my favorite GIF from "Mad Men" this week.

Nate Sandell of 1500ESPN.com wrote a very good article about new Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino getting into statistical analysis.

• In which Paul Allen suggests we go on a double-date at a Twins game.

• Of course A.J. Pierzynski was involved in this somehow.

• After years of playing through injuries and taking painkillers former Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson is struggling just to live life at age 44.

• Earlier this week I named Hannibal Buress as one of my five favorite stand-up comedians and he also does a nice job acting in this short film.

Fortunately that did not happen when I saw him at Acme Comedy Company a few months ago.

• Anyone who likes Elisabeth Moss on "Mad Men" (or liked her on "The West Wing") should check out the mini-series "Top Of The Lake" on Netflix for a really well done, slow burn mystery/drama co-starring Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter.

• IFC put the pilot episode of Marc Maron's new television show on YouTube.

• Wanna buy all of Bret Saberhagen's old baseball stuff?

• My favorite part of this week's Carson Cistulli-Dayn Perry podcast was 36 minutes in, when Perry tells Cistulli that he thinks podcasts are terrible and Cistulli tries to convince Perry otherwise by saying: "Aaron Gleeman listens to podcasts all day." (Spoiler alert: It did not work.)

• I enjoyed this video from the Sloan Conference panel about basketball analytics featuring Stan Van Gundy, R.C. Buford, and Zach Lowe. SVG in particular was really impressive/funny.

Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports examined whether Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the best-shooting backcourt in NBA history.

• I answered a bunch of mailbag questions from Twitter. I'd like to figure out a way to make the mailbag posts a regular thing here without having to specifically ask for questions each time, so let me know any suggestions.

• We made some changes to the comments section and might have a few wrinkles to iron out, so check it out, be patient, and let me know any issues.

• Some of this week's weird and random search engine queries that brought people here:

- "Is Aaron Gleeman a mensch?"
- "What to do if you're a 30-year-old kid"
- "T-ball lineup card"
- "Gordon Ramsay and George Michael"
- "Denzel Washington baseball"
- "How long should you fry wing sections?"
- "Sabermetics approach to dating"
- "Does Aaron Gleeman blog with his pants off?"
- "What synagogue does Jeselnik go to?"
- "Luis Rivas baseball"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Havens singing "Freedom" at Woodstock:

This week's blog content is sponsored by "Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes" author John Rosengren's upcoming appearance at the Minneapolis Sabes JCC on May 5. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

April 1, 2013

The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels 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"

This is my 12th season blogging about the Twins and expectations have never been lower. For a decade they were consistent winners in the AL Central. Two years ago, before injuries wrecked a roster that collapsed to 99 losses, they were considered co-favorites to win the division. Last year, before the pitching staff imploded on the way to 96 losses, there was fairly widespread hope that they could bounce back to as high as second place in the division if things went well.

This year any remaining optimism and hope seems to have vanished and in fact I couldn't find a prominent writer or projection system predicting that the Twins will finish anywhere but last place. Not one. And sadly it's hard to disagree. Two years ago injuries wrecked everything. Last year the pitching fell apart. This year it's simply a bad team, on paper, from the very beginning. Las Vegas pegs the over/under for the Twins' win total at 68.5.

It didn't necessarily have to be that way or at least not to this extreme. Last season's rotation was abysmal, as Twins starters had the AL's worst ERA and MLB's worst ERA among teams that don't call Coors Field home. They parted ways with Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, and Jason Marquis, demoted Nick Blackburn to Triple-A, and had plenty of money to spend after Terry Ryan repeatedly stressed that rebuilding the rotation was the offseason's top priority.

Unfortunately when it came time to actually spend some money to fix the rotation they didn't do a whole lot of it and what little they did spend was invested poorly. In fact, the entirety of the Twins' oft-stated commitment to rebuilding the awful rotation consisted of trading for Vance Worley and spending $14 million on two seasons of Kevin Correia and one season of Mike Pelfrey. That was it. That was the whole offseason for adding rotation help.

I liked the move to get Worley and prospect Trevor May from the Phillies for Ben Revere and as far as one-year fliers go spending $4 million on Pelfrey's comeback from Tommy John surgery is reasonable enough, but giving Correia a two-year, $10 million deal made little sense at the time and looks even worse looking back at an offseason filled with similar or better pitchers signing for one-year deals.

Clearly the Twins never had much intention of investing significant money to fix the rotation, as evidenced by the underwhelming additions and the payroll dropping from $113 million in 2011 to $94 million in 2012 to $81 million this season. Going into Year 4 at Target Field ranked 22nd in payroll is frustrating, but if they were determined to go bargain-bin shopping they could have at least done a better job of it.

Yet for all the talk of improvements and all the free agent and trade possibilities the plan was to go into the year with a rotation of Scott Diamond, Worley, Correia, Pelfrey, and Liam Hendriks. That would have been pretty ugly as is, but Diamond's slow recovery from December surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow ruled him out for what would have been an Opening Day start, pushing Worley into the Game 1 assignment and immediately exposing the Twins' lack of depth.

Once they determined that Kyle Gibson isn't ready for the majors as he comes back from Tommy John surgery the remaining options to fill in for Diamond were the same career minor leaguers who were thrown against the wall to see what stuck as emergency options last season: Cole De Vries, Samuel Deduno, and P.J. Walters. If that's the progress made after a winter spent with the rotation as the top priority I'd hate to see what a lack of progress would look like.

Ultimately the rotation will be better than last season because it almost isn't possible to be worse and there is some room for bright spots to emerge. If healthy Diamond and Worley are capable mid-rotation starters, if Pelfrey rediscovers his pre-surgery velocity and durability he could provide much-needed innings eating, for as ugly as his early numbers are Hendriks still has mid-rotation upside at age 24, and hopefully Gibson will be ready for a call-up by midseason.

However, there's a big difference between not-horrendous with some room for bright spots and the potential to actually be a decent rotation and it's just hard to see how the Twins' starters can avoid being well below average this season. Toss in a bullpen filled with scrap-heap pickups that looks pretty weak beyond the excellent late-inning duo of Glen Perkins and Jared Burton, plus very shaky defense at three of the corner spots, and run prevention remains a huge problem.

Run scoring doesn't figure to be a problem, but counting on the Twins' lineup to be a big strength is probably wishful thinking. Last year the offense ranked almost exactly average after accounting for Target Field favoring pitchers, and while trading Revere and Denard Span hurts the outfield defense replacing them with Aaron Hicks and Chris Parmelee shouldn't hurt the lineup and has the potential to be an upgrade.

Expecting big-time production from Hicks--or any 23-year-old center fielder making the jump from Double-A--probably isn't fair and Parmelee mostly looked lost for the Twins last season, but Hicks getting on base at a decent clip atop the lineup and Parmelee building on last year's destruction of Triple-A pitching are vital. There's also some room for upside in Trevor Plouffe sustaining last year's two-month power binge or Justin Morneau getting back to his pre-concussion norms.

On the other hand Josh Willingham is likely to come back down to earth at least a bit following a career-year at age 33, given their injury histories counting on Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit to combine for 1,200 plate appearances again would be optimistic, Brian Dozier needs to show that he can handle big-league pitching, and everything in Pedro Florimon's track record suggests he'll be among the worst hitters in the league. And there isn't much depth, if injuries strike.

Add it up and you get an offense that's somewhere around average, a bullpen that's strong in the late innings and below average overall, and a rotation that won't be historically inept again but will need things to go well to avoid being one of the league's worst. Fortunately for the Twins and their unbalanced schedule the AL Central is filled with mediocrity beyond the Tigers and by switching leagues the Astros should keep them from a third straight season as the AL's worst team.

That's as much optimism as I can manage, but that doesn't mean the season is without intrigue. On a game-to-game level Hicks' development will be very interesting to track and there's always Mauer getting on base in front of Willingham and Perkins becoming a "proven closer." By midyear there should be plenty of talk about trading veterans, calling up prospects, and Ron Gardenhire's job status. And, you know, baseball is still baseball even if the team you like loses a lot.

And in what has become an Opening Day tradition here, this is Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":

This week's blog content is sponsored by Territory Train, which takes the heavy lifting out of planning and executing Twins road trips. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

April 6, 2012

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels 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"

• Reminder: I'll be watching the Twins' opener against the Orioles this afternoon at Wild Boar in Hopkins with my "Gleeman and The Geek" co-host John Bonnes and some other familiar names. First pitch is scheduled for 2:05, so I'd encourage everyone to leave work early and join us for some baseball and beer. Click here for more details.

• Here's the Twins' lineup for Game 1 versus right-hander Jake Arrieta:

1. Denard Span, L        CF
2. Jamey Carroll, R      SS
3. Joe Mauer, L          C
4. Justin Morneau, L     DH
5. Josh Willingham, R    LF
6. Ryan Doumit, S        RF
7. Danny Valencia, R     3B
8. Chris Parmelee, L     1B
9. Alexi Casilla, S      2B

I'd have sent Chris Parmelee to Triple-A to begin the season, but if you assume that those nine players must start on Opening Day that's exactly what my batting order would look like. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's something.

• I wrote all the season previews for AL Central teams at HardballTalk and concluded that the Tigers are clear front-runners, perhaps more so than any other team in any other division, while the Indians, White Sox, Royals, and Twins are each very capable of finishing anywhere from second place to last place. If everything breaks right for the Twins staying in contention deep into the season is possible, but my guess is that they finish right around .500.

• While a .500 record may not sound very optimistic, Las Vegas has the over/under for Twins wins around 73, which is higher than only the Astros and Orioles, and ESPN.com's season simulation based on Baseball Think Factory's excellent ZiPS projection system has the Twins going 70-92. They were so awful last season that improving by 15 games would still leave them at 78-84, so .500 would be quite an accomplishment.

Jason Marquis needs to build up his arm strength after leaving spring training to be with his family following his daughter's bicycling accident, so he's agreed to an assignment to Double-A and will have his turn in the rotation skipped at least once. And thankfully his daughter is making good progress in her recovery.

Scott Baker exited yesterday's minor-league start after just 11 pitches, so it doesn't sound like he'll be returning from elbow problems any time soon.

• As if the Twins didn't have enough question marks, Buster Olney of ESPN.com crunched the numbers and found that they have the toughest early season schedule in the league based on 2011 records.

• In addition to being an excellent guest on this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press also wrote a lengthy, even-handed, and interesting article about all things Joe Mauer. Once you're done reading it follow Goessling on Twitter and bookmark his blog. Good writer, good guy, and good addition to the local Twins media.

• As someone who loves the Twins and The Big Lebowski this commercial is pretty great:

"The Big Hrbowski" is the role Kent Hrbek was born to play.

• For months Terry Ryan insisted that Trevor Plouffe would be used exclusively in the outfield after his disastrous rookie showing at shortstop, but now that the Twins don't have a true backup shortstop on the roster suddenly Plouffe is in the infield mix again. Plans changing was the theme of this spring, but giving Plouffe some chances at second base or third base is a worthwhile idea while they try to figure out where he fits offensively and defensively.

Seth Stohs has a complete rundown of all the minor-league rosters over at Twins Daily. Of my top 10 prospects, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario will be at low Single-A Beloit, Oswaldo Arcia and Levi Michael will be at high Single-A Fort Myers, Aaron Hicks and Alex Wimmers will be at Double-A New Britain, Joe Benson and Brian Dozier will be at Triple-A Rochester, Kyle Gibson will be rehabbing Tommy John surgery, and Liam Hendriks will be in the majors.

• Parmelee working his way on to the Opening Day roster left the Twins short a Triple-A first baseman, so they acquired Matt Rizzotti from the Phillies for cash considerations. As a 26-year-old career minor leaguer available for basically nothing Rizzotti is hardly a prospect, but he's consistently had very impressive numbers that include a .295/.392/.511 line with 24 homers, 34 doubles, and 79 walks in 139 games at Double-A last season.

Matt Bashore starred at Indiana University and was the Twins' supplemental first-round pick in 2009, but arm problems have limited him to just 19 career innings and he was released last week. They also released 2009 third-round pick Ben Tootle, a hard-throwing right-hander whose career was similarly ruined by injuries, and Dustin Martin, an outfielder acquired from the Mets along with Drew Butera in the mid-2007 trade for Luis Castillo.

Joel Zumaya underwent Tommy John elbow surgery last week and instead of putting him on the 60-day disabled list all season the Twins released him. And despite his one-year contract supposedly being "non-guaranteed" they're apparently on the hook for his entire $850,000 base salary rather than the initially reported $400,000.

• Back in December the Twins traded Kevin Slowey to the Rockies for marginal prospect Daniel Turpen and then six weeks later the Rockies traded him to the Indians, who were looking for rotation help following Fausto Carmona's arrest on false identity charges. Cleveland gave up a better prospect for Slowey than Colorado did, yet even with Carmona still out of the picture the Indians decided to send Slowey and his $2.8 million salary to Triple-A.

Pat Neshek had a 0.00 ERA with eight strikeouts and zero walks in nine innings this spring after signing a minor-league deal with the Orioles, but they sent him to Triple-A anyway.

Matt Tolbert, did not make the Cubs on a minor-league deal and will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa.

Cristian Guzman, who was attempting a comeback at age 33 after sitting out all of last season for personal reasons, was released by the Indians.

Johan Santana returned from shoulder surgery to throw five scoreless innings in his first start since 2010.

Jason Bulger and Steve Pearce both signed minor-league contracts with the Yankees after being released by the Twins in the middle of spring training.

• If you're interested in keeping tabs on Twins prospects this season Twins Fan From Afar is a blog you should definitely check out, as Andrew Walter will attending games in New Britain, Connecticut and writing about the Double-A team that includes top-40 prospects Hicks, Wimmers, Chris Herrmann, David Bromberg, Deolis Guerra, and James Beresford.

• For anyone who plays Hardball Dynasty on WhatIfSports.com my league is looking for a couple new owners and our next season begins soon. Before contacting me, click here.

• If you impersonate Bert Blyleven on Twitter he will tell you to "get a life a-hole."

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped here during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up, but I'm ready to talk about actual games again and look forward to my 11th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, thanks for listening to the podcast, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.

And in what has become an Opening Day tradition, this is Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":

March 31, 2011

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels 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"

• Since the Twins open the season on the road against the Blue Jays tomorrow night I'm going to do a "live chat" here during the game. I realize Friday night isn't the ideal time for everyone to get on their computers and type things to each other while watching a baseball game, but if I'm willing to cancel my exciting plans with various supermodels hopefully at least some of you will stay in for some chat action. Carl Pavano versus Ricky Romero, chat doors open at 6:00.

• I wrote the season previews for all the AL Central teams over at Hardball Talk and concluded that the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers should basically be considered co-favorites in the range of 88-92 victories. RLYW's annual simulation of 100,000 seasons based on multiple projection systems thinks I'm a bit high on those win totals, but also has all three AL Central contenders within two games of each other. You can see my predictions for all the divisions here.

Joe Mauer's incredible popularity in Minnesota is no secret, but I was surprised to learn that he had the second-best selling jersey in all of baseball last season behind only Derek Jeter. Justin Morneau was also in the top 20 and as a team the Twins ranked No. 9 in merchandise sales. And according to Forbes magazine the Twins have the 12th-most valuable MLB franchise at $490 million, which is up 21 percent from last year. Pretty remarkable.

• There were several key statistical reasons for Denard Span's disappointing offense last year and the Twins have also talked about his struggling with some mechanical issues, but Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy combined stats and scouting for a truly unique analysis of Span's hitting that's a must-read and makes Patrick Reusse's recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column seem all the more silly for pitting stats versus scouting. As always, the best answer is "both."

• As part of my series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects I called the farm system as a whole "solidly above average" but "not elite." Baseball America agrees, as their "organizational talent rankings" released last week have the Twins at No. 12. Kansas City ranks No. 1 with perhaps the best farm systems of the past several decades and the Indians are at No. 7, but the Tigers are No. 25 and the White Sox are No. 27.

Ron Gardenhire didn't pull any punches when asked why Jim Hoey was sent to Triple-A:

Hoey needs to slow the ball down. All he can do is throw hard, hard, harder. And on our level, hard, hard, harder normally gets hit, hit, hit.

Kind of an interesting quote considering the main criticism of the Twins' approach to pitching is that collecting strike-throwers with low-90s fastballs makes them too easy to hit when facing strong lineups. Acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade, Hoey has without question the fastest fastball in the entire organization now that Billy Bullock is regrettably gone.

Brendan Harris, whose $1.7 million contract the Twins dumped on the Orioles as part of the Hardy deal, has been assigned to Triple-A after failing to win a bench job in Baltimore.

• If the Twins ever change their minds about signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term contract extension, Chad Billingsley's new deal with the Dodgers may provide a template. Their service time is equal, but Billingsley avoided arbitration in his second year of eligibility for $6.3 million, whereas Liriano settled for $4.3 million. Los Angeles bought out his final arbitration year and first two free agent years for $32 million plus a $14 million option or $3 million buyout for 2015.

• I'm unsure if yesterday afternoon's game against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta counts as the spring training finale or a preseason exhibition, but it was nice to see Minnesota native, good guy, and friend of my family Andy Baldwin close out the win with a scoreless inning. He'll be assigned to Triple-A, where the combination of top prospects moving up the ladder and the Twins signing lots of minor-league veterans has Rochester looking strong after a terrible 2010.

• Most of the focus is obviously on the competition for spots on the Twins' roster, but this time of year also means making cuts in the minors and Seth Stohs notes that the Twins released a dozen players. No surprises or big names, but Michael McCardell twice cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects, not so long ago some people thought Juan Portes had a shot to be a useful player, and once upon a time Justin Huber was a top prospect for the Royals.

• 1500ESPN.com has a mouth-watering collection of pictures showing all the new food choices available at Target Field. I'm planning to just stare at the pictures all season because I'm back on another diet, although as longtime AG.com readers unfortunately know by now that's highly unlikely to last until the All-Star break, let alone for 162 games. My (wildly unrealistic) goal is to lose more pounds than the Twins' win total. So far I'm really kicking their ass.

• I'd love to have overheard this conversation. I prefer to imagine they talked neck tattoos.

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped by here on a regular basis during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up here, but I'm definitely ready to start talking about actual games again and look forward to my 10th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.

April 5, 2010

The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels 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"

Last season the Twins won their fifth AL Central title in eight years under Ron Gardenhire and the front office followed up the 87-win campaign with a brilliant offseason, adding J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson, and Jim Thome, re-signing Carl Pavano, and locking up Joe Mauer through 2018. Strong winter moves combined with the opening of Target Field after 28 years under the Metrodome roof had Twins fans as excited about 2010 as any season I can remember.

Joe Nathan suffering an elbow injury in his spring training debut and needing season-ending Tommy John surgery took some of the air out of that optimism balloon by robbing the Twins of an elite reliever and creating question marks in a bullpen that previously figured to be a clear strength, but even without Nathan around to pitch the ninth inning they look like the obvious favorites in what is once again an underwhelming division.

For many years the Twins pitched and defended well enough to win despite mediocre hitting, but they ranked third and fourth among AL teams in scoring during the past two seasons and have the potential to be even more potent offensively in 2010. Hudson combines with Denard Span to form an ideal table-setting duo atop the lineup, with Span getting on base at a .390 clip for his career and Hudson posting a .363 on-base percentage over the past four years.

They'll provide tons of RBI chances for the 3-4 pairing of Mauer and Justin Morneau that's as good as any in the league and the lineup barely lets up after that with Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. Last season the AL had 19 hitters with at least 25 homers and an .850 OPS, and the Twins have four of them hitting consecutively in the middle of the lineup following a pair of OBP machines. And unlike past years, the bottom third of the lineup packs some punch too.

I'm certainly not optimistic about Delmon Young finally living up to his supposed potential, but even relatively modest improvements would make him a plenty productive seventh hitter and Gardenhire also has the option of making the Twins downright scary against right-handers by benching him in favor of a still-dangerous Thome. And while Hardy needs to bounce back from an ugly 2009 to be an asset at the plate, he homered 24 times in 2008 and 26 times in 2007.

Nick Punto's presence keeps the Twins from potentially boasting above-average hitters in all nine lineup spots, but benching him in favor of Brendan Harris against left-handers could lead to something resembling decent production from third base and Danny Valencia is waiting in the wings as a potential midseason call-up. Even if Mauer comes back down to earth following one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time by a catcher, the Twins have an elite lineup.

Defensively they should be solid, but perhaps not particularly well suited for the pitching staff. Statistically both Hardy and Punto have ranked among the game's best defenders, Morneau is safely above average, and while Hudson has slipped considerably he's a four-time Gold Glover who can still get the job done reasonably well. Infield defense should be improved and maybe even among the league's best, but unfortunately Twins pitchers led the AL in fly balls last year.

For all his faults Carlos Gomez was a very good defensive center fielder and while most fans seem to just assume Span will also be an asset there the numbers so far certainly disagree. Because of Gomez's presence Span has just 88 career starts in center field, so the sample size is too small to draw strong conclusions, but Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as 7.7 runs below average in 704 innings at the position.

It wouldn't surprise me if those early numbers fade as Span proves to be somewhere around average in center field now that he's playing there regularly, but even if that happens left field will be ugly with Young or Kubel and Cuddyer's great arm has masked consistently poor stats in right field. I'm willing to believe Span won't remain sub par and perhaps the baggy artificially deflated Cuddyer's numbers, but the Twins' outfield defense certainly projects as a weakness.

Because much of what we tend to think of as "pitching" is actually "defense" the Twins' fly-ball heavy staff could be in some trouble, particularly if Target Field fails to suppress power like the Metrodome did in recent years. With that said, the rotation is capable of really surprising some people if Kevin Slowey can pick up where he left off prior to last season's wrist injury and/or Francisco Liriano can keep things rolling after dominating both winter ball and spring training.

Scott Baker may not be an ideal ace, but he went 15-5 with a 3.81 ERA in 179 innings after a poor start last year and is 35-22 with a 4.03 ERA in 84 starts during the past three years. Carl Pavano had a similarly strong run following a rough first month last season, going 14-9 with a 4.67 ERA and 131-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 181 innings to finish with a 3.96 xFIP overall. Health will forever be a concern, but barring more injuries he's a solid mid-rotation guy.

Nick Blackburn has also proven to be a durable mid-rotation starter, and while the mix of few strikeouts and a neutral ground-ball rate make him a shaky long-term bet another 200 innings of a 4.00-4.50 ERA is very doable for 2010. They lack a dominant ace, but the rotation has four guys likely for a sub-4.50 ERA, a fifth in Liriano who may still prove to be the best of the bunch, and some nice depth in Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Jeff Manship, and Anthony Swarzak.

If you're like me the preceding dozen paragraphs should have you energized and enthusiastic about the team the Twins have put together, which is also why losing Nathan in the middle of spring training was such a tremendous buzzkill. There's no doubt that Nathan going down is a big blow to the Twins, because you just can't replace his 1.87 ERA and 518 strikeouts in 418.2 innings over six seasons in Minnesota.

However, the oft-spouted notion that losing Nathan will cost the Twins double-digit victories is built around the mythical importance the closer role has taken on during the past two decades and certainly isn't supported by facts. Nathan has converted 90.7 percent of his save chances with the Twins, which is outstanding, but the MLB-wide average for ninth-inning saves is 86.5 percent and all but the absolute disasters tend to be around 80 percent.

Nathan has gotten 45 save opportunities per season, so if Jon Rauch and whoever else ends up working the ninth inning can be "average" it would cost two wins and if they can merely be "not disastrous" it would cost 4-5 wins. For a team that was tied for the division title after 162 games in 2008 and 2009 even two wins may sound like a season wrecker, but if you thought the Twins could win 92-95 games with Nathan they're still the class of the Central without him.

Beyond the Twins winning the AL Central, here are my other predictions for the 2010 season:


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

MVP: Joe Mauer             CY: Felix Hernandez         ROY: Brian Matusz
ALDS: NYY over MIN         ALDS: BOS over TEX          ALCS: BOS over NYY


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

MVP: Albert Pujols         CY: Roy Halladay            ROY: Jason Heyward
NLDS: STL over ATL         NLDS: PHI over LAD          NLCS: STL over PHI


And just because, here's Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":

There's a full slate of games on today's schedule, so I'll be blogging non-stop over at Hardball Talk on NBCSports.com, posting a lot on Twitter, and my Daily Dose column is also back at Rotoworld.