Twins stay true to their roots

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports
Justin Morneau's return from a concussion will be key to the Twins' fortunes

Twins stay true to their roots

Justin Morneau's return from a concussion will be key to the Twins' fortunes

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Minnesota Twins.

2010 record: 94-68
Finish: First place, AL Central
2010 final payroll: $103 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $116 million

Offseason action

With every reason to conduct themselves as the nouveau riche, the Minnesota Twins don't forget where they came from. Sure, their payroll will be twice what it was three years ago and nearly five times what it was a decade ago, but it's not like the Twins are makin' it rain in free agency like so many of their nine-figure brethren.

The Twins spent about $34 million this winter: $16.5 million for two years of Carl Pavano(notes); $14.3 million for the posting fee and three years of Tsuyoshi Nishioka(notes), from whom they expect more than Kaz Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi or Aki Iwamura(notes), the three other Japanese middle infielders to play in the majors; and $3 million for a year of Jim Thome(notes) mashin' taters. None of the figures is unreasonable; in fact, each is eminently sensible, and it's nice to see the Twins pull a Keillor and stay true to their roots.

Pavano's stuff played well in front of Orlando Hudson(notes) and J.J. Hardy(notes), the former off to San Diego via free agency and the latter to Baltimore in a trade for two minor league relievers. How Alexi Casilla(notes), the new shortstop, and Nishioka, a shortstop moving to second base, replace their predecessors defensively will say plenty about the Twins' success. Pavano, Francisco Liriano(notes), Nick Blackburn(notes) and Brian Duensing(notes) all are extreme groundball pitchers, and a porous middle infield is debilitating for a staff oriented thusly.

In addition to a revamped middle infield, nearly the entire bullpen from last season is gone. Twins relievers signed elsewhere for $39 million, a staggering amount considering none was a closer. Matt Guerrier(notes), Jesse Crain(notes), Brian Fuentes(notes) and Jon Rauch(notes) all are good pitchers. They're simply not worth breaking the bank on, something the Twins get – or, at least, were forced to understand after signing closer Joe Nathan(notes) to a $47 million extension and watching his elbow blow up last spring.

Nathan's back, and the Twins still have Matt Capps(notes), Jose Mijares(notes) and enough depth in the minor leagues and from an overflowing rotation to fill the bullpen ably. They're smart like that, rarely prone to ambush. It's part of the organizational instinct that came from scraping by for years on the lowest payrolls in the major leagues. Although they've got a Bentley budget, the Twins will always be a team that thinks Dodge.

Reality check

No team in baseball comes into the season with as many health concerns as the Twins. Joe Mauer's(notes) inevitable shift from catcher will be hastened should injuries plague him again this year. Nathan's return from Tommy John surgery likely will be a success, though, with the human arm, no one ever knows for certain. And most pressing is Morneau's recovery from a concussion that, like so many, looked benign only to plague him for months.

Morneau still hasn't swung a bat this offseason, and the Twins are reticent to put any date on his return. While Thome's return mitigates the pressing need for Morneau, he is a former MVP who, lest we forget, was hitting at every bit the pace of Josh Hamilton(notes) (.345/.437/.618) before his head hit John McDonald's(notes) knee. Morneau's presence gives manager Ron Gardenhire a wealth of options with his corner outfield and DH spot: Delmon Young(notes), Michael Cuddyer(notes), Jason Kubel(notes) and Thome, four players who would get 600 plate appearances almost anywhere else.

Mauer's power reverted to previous levels after what looks like a freak 2009, in which he slugged 140 points above his career average. Oh, well. The Twins won't complain about having merely the best catcher in baseball, as opposed to an MVP-winning catcher. As long as Mauer stays at catcher and gets on base 40 percent of the time, he's worth every scintilla of the $23 million a year the Twins are paying him.

To offset the expense, Minnesota continues to churn out major leaguers from its farm system like they're widgets. Denard Span(notes) and Danny Valencia(notes) are the latest everyday players. Starter Kyle Gibson could arrive sometime this year, if injuries or ineffectiveness take out a rotation that already runs seven deep (Liriano, Pavano, Blackburn, Duensing, Scott Baker(notes), Kevin Slowey(notes) and Glen Perkins(notes)), and deeper in the minor leagues are Miguel Sano and Aaron Hicks, everyday players with All-Star-level tools.

The Twins are fine without them for now and prohibitive favorites for AL Central supremacy over a refreshed White Sox team and revamped Tigers group. For the time being. We'll know better in April. All we have to do is take a peek in the trainer's room.

Twins in haiku

Proper equation:
Mauer, Morneau greater than
Walleye on a spike

Next: Atlanta Braves

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