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Big League Stew

Spring Snapshot: After changes, Twins again aim high

Big League Stew

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Every day in spring training until we finish the entire league, Big League Stew takes a brief capsule look at each team we visit in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues. Next up is Hammond Stadium, where the Minnesota Twins are gearing up for another season of doing more with less in the AL Central.

MINNESOTA TWINS

2010 RECORD: 94-68, 1st in AL Central, swept in ALDS by New York Yankees.

BIGGEST ACQUISITION: The Twins got into the import business this offseason, signing Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a three-year deal worth around $10 million.

BIGGEST DEPARTURES: Minnesota lost a lot of depth in their bullpen, letting Jesse Crain walk to the White Sox, Jon Rauch bolt to the Blue Jays, Brian Fuentes to abdicate to the A's and Matt Guerrier to dash to the Dodgers in the offseason. The middle of last year's infield — J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson — is also gone.

FIVE THINGS TO ASK ABOUT THE TWINS:

1. Will Nishioka be a big contributor in 2011? The Twins think enough of Nishioka that they paid $5 million to the Chiba Lotte Marines for his posting rights and sent shortstop J.J. Hardy to Baltimore. Though Nishioka can play either middle infield position, Ron Gardenhire announced  on Saturday that he will slide into Orlando Hudson's spot second base, while Alexi Casilla will play short. Big things are expected of Nishioka at the plate after he posted 206 hits (for a .346 average) in 2010, but he'll have to figure out big league pitching and, more importantly, stay healthy to do so. The 26-year-old has never played more than 130 games in a season. {YSP:MORE}

2. Whither Joe Mauer's power? The pride of the Twin Cities had another All-Star year in 2010, hitting .327 for the year and winning his third straight Gold Glove behind home plate. But thanks to a David Wright-moving-to-Citi-Field-type dip and some nagging injuries, Mauer's power numbers fell precipitously upon transferring to Target Field — his homers and slugging percentage were down from 28 and .587 in his 2009 MVP season to nine and .469 in 2010, when he didn't hit his first home run at Target until Aug. 18. Justin Morneau has chastised the Twins for putting the fences so far out there, but the creation of a big prairie has done wonders for Mauer's doubles total — he hit a career-high 43 in 2010. Bottom line: A healthy season will improve those totals, but the Twins' spacious new home will probably keep that '09 season as an outlier when it comes to his power numbers.

3. When is Justin Morneau coming back? Sadly, it's still anyone's guess. Though the first baseman has been participating in spring training drills after suffering a concussion just before last year's All-Star break, Morneau still doesn't have a return to the field date. He keeps saying that he feels good and he keeps going in for checkups, but a clearance has yet to come. The only way we'll know is when we see him back where he belongs — battling American League pitchers instead of an awful head injury.

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4. Can the old guys repeat their seasons? Jim Thome and Carl Pavano were two big reasons Minnesota won its sixth AL Central title in nine years in 2010 and both re-signed with the team for 2011. But Thome turns 40 in August and Pavano turned 35 in the offseason. Can Minnesota really count on Thome smacking 25 homers in 340 at-bats and Pavano eating another 220 innings with a ERA-plus of 111?

5. Can they still make seven division titles in 10 years? Over the past decade, we've learned two things about the Minnesota Twins: 1) Never count them out in the AL Central, no matter how inactive their offseason and 2) Don't expect them to do anything with that playoff berth once they inevitably win it. While the White Sox and Tigers made big free agent splashes, they still don't have the organizational strength and philosophy that the Twins do. If Morneau can make a healthy return and the bullpen replenishes itself with the return of closer Joe Nathan and the arrival of others, the Twins will again make things interesting.

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