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Springtime Storylines: Can the Twins win a third straight AL Central title?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: My beloved Twins.

The Big Question: Can the Twins win a third straight AL Central title?

Winning 90-something games and then losing key players to free agency or trades is certainly nothing new for the Twins and Ron Gardenhire’s six division titles in nine seasons as manager shows how well they’ve dealt with the annual departures, but this year’s winter exodus coming off a 94-win campaign might be Minnesota’s most challenging yet.

Free agent relievers Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, and Ron Mahay all signed elsewhere after combining for a 3.03 ERA in 53 percent of the bullpen’s innings, with the Twins counting on Joe Nathan’s return from Tommy John elbow surgery to stabilize things alongside Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. Gone too is the middle infield duo of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson (plus their primary backup Nick Punto), as Gardenhire hands the infield keys to enigmatic ex-prospect Alexi Casilla and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Anyone confident about what to expect from the new double-play duo is lying.

Amid all those changes Justin Morneau’s health remains the biggest question mark, but after nine months on the sidelines he finally appears recovered from last year’s concussion and is back in the lineup that ranked fifth among AL teams in scoring despite being without the cleanup-hitting former MVP for half the schedule. With a healthy Morneau joining Joe Mauer, Jim Thome, and Delmon Young the Twins will score plenty of runs, but the defense will be worse than they’re used to unless Nishioka proves to be an elite gloveman and that’s a recipe for trouble with a rotation full of Francisco Liriano and four guys who won’t blow anyone away.

As is the case nearly every season the Twins look like a 90-win team in a division where that usually equals a title, but the offseason changes, spotty depth, and some big moves from the White Sox and Tigers leaves less margin for error than usual in Minnesota.

So what else is going on?

  • Liriano’s secondary numbers last season showed him as one of elite handful of starters in all of baseball, but no pitcher had the defense behind him convert a lower percentage of balls in play into outs and so his 14-10 record and 3.62 ERA leave many Twins fans unconvinced that he’s truly reached ace status. He could pitch exactly like he did last season and win a half-dozen more games with an ERA a run lower, but as usual with Liriano his health will be just as key as his fastball-slider combo.
  • Mauer’s lack of durability is often overstated by those unfamiliar with typical catcher workloads, as he’s one of just four backstops to top 800 games since 2005. However, he’s coming off December knee surgery and the Twins have essentially zero catching depth behind him, so an extended absence would put Drew Butera and his MLB-worst bat in the lineup.
  • Nishioka won the batting title in Japan last season with a .346 mark, but his track record combined with the performances of previous Japanese hitters coming to MLB suggests his offense will resemble Hudson or Jason Bartlett in the No. 2 spot in front of Mauer and Morneau.
  • Minnesota is so deep in mid-rotation starters that Kevin Slowey will begin the season in the bullpen despite a 39-21 record and 4.41 ERA for his career and the rotation is only going to get more crowded when No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson is ready for a call-up around the All-Star break.
  • Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel are each coming off disappointing years in the outfield, but Span’s ball-in-play numbers suggest he was quite unlucky and both Cuddyer and Kubel are impending free agents playing for their next contracts. On the other hand, Danny Valencia’s track record suggests he’s unlikely to be as great as he looked as a rookie.
  • I’m worried about the rebuilt bullpen, but Twins relievers have ranked among the AL’s top six in ERA for each of Gardenhire’s nine seasons and Nathan’s pre-surgery dominance is probably being overlooked somewhat. During his first six seasons as Twins closer he led all of baseball (yes, even Mariano Rivera) in ERA (1.87) and saves (246). Even at 90 percent of his former self Nathan’s return would be huge.
  • I have no idea how to explain it and even less idea how to fix it, but it must be noted: Minnesota has lost 12 consecutive playoff games, including three straight first-round sweeps, and the Twins are 6-21 overall in the postseason under Gardenhire.

So how are they gonna do?

Various question marks keep me from viewing the Twins as clear-cut favorites in the AL Central, but I expect the division to be a three-team race for 92 wins and at worst Minnesota should enter the year as co-favorites.

‘A lot of pain’ – Marlins cope with Fernandez’s death

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) Jose Fernandez made his major league debut against the New York Mets in 2013 and was scheduled to face them again Monday night.

Instead, Miami mourns and the Marlins must push on without their 24-year-old ace, who was killed in a boating accident early Sunday.

“Deep in our hearts there is a lot of pain,” third baseman Martin Prado said. “Somehow we’ve got to overcome that.”

Fernandez and two other men died when their 32-foot SeaVee slammed into a jetty off Miami Beach at 3:15 a.m. Sunday, authorities said. The news sent shock waves throughout Major League Baseball.

The other two victims were Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, according to Darren Caprara, operations director of the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.

The Marlins’ Sunday afternoon game against Atlanta was canceled, but there were pregame tributes and moments of silence for him throughout both leagues. Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel a pregame tribute they scheduled in his honor before his final game in their ballpark Sunday.

Fernandez’s backstory made his death even more heart-wrenching. He escaped from Cuba by boat on his fourth try as a teenager, and when his mother fell into the Yucatan Channel during the journey, he jumped in and pulled her out.

“I don’t have the words to describe the pain I feel,” Ortiz said. “Jose was one of the special cases. The story behind him and his family and the way everything happened. You know how remarkable his career was going. But the most important thing was his kindness and the kind of person he was. It’s hard, man.”

A jersey with Fernandez’s name and number hung in the Mets’ dugout as they played Philadelphia at Citi Field. Mets manager Terry Collins reminisced about Fernandez’s debut against his team three years ago.

“When the first pitch left his hand, the first thought is, oh, wow, this is something special,” Collins said. “This was not only one of the greatest pitchers in the modern game, but one of the finest young men you’d ever meet, who played the game with passion and fun and enjoyed being out there.”

Marlins players and team officials gathered at the ballpark to grieve together.

“All I can do is scream in disbelief,” said Hall of Famer Tony Perez, a Marlins executive and native of Cuba. “Jose won the love of all. I feel as if I had lost a son.”

An emotional news conference was attended by every player on the Marlins, except their ace. The players wore team jerseys – black ones.

Manager Don Mattingly and president of baseball operations Michael Hill flanked team president David Samson and unsuccessfully fought back tears. Slugger Giancarlo Stanton didn’t speak but later posted a tribute on Instagram.

“I’m still waiting to wake up from this nightmare,” Stanton said. “I lost my brother today and can’t quite comprehend it. The shock is overwhelming. What he meant to me, our team, the city of Miami, Cuba & everyone else in the world that his enthusiasm/heart has touched can never be replaced. I can’t fathom what his family is going through because We, as his extended Family are a wreck.”

Fernandez was on a vessel that hit a jetty near a harbor entrance, said Lorenzo Veloz of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The boat remained in the water for several hours, its engines partially submerged as its nose pointed skyward, as debris from the crash was scattered over some of the large jagged rocks.

Veloz described the condition of the boat as “horrible.”

There was no immediate indication that alcohol or drugs were a cause in the crash, Veloz said.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, he and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Tampa, Florida, with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

The Marlins drafted him in 2011, and Fernandez was in the majors two years later at 20. He went 38-17 in his four seasons with Miami, winning the NL’s Rookie of the Year award in 2013, and was twice an All-Star.

Last week Fernandez posted a photo of his girlfriend sporting a “baby bump” on his Instagram page, announcing that the couple was expecting its first child.

Fernandez became a U.S. citizen last year and was enormously popular in Miami thanks to his success and exuberant flair. When he wasn’t pitching, he would hang over the dugout railing as the team’s lead cheerleader.

“When I think about Josie, it’s going to be thinking about a little kid,” Mattingly said, pausing repeatedly to compose himself. “I see such a little boy in him … the way he played. … Kids play Little League, that’s the joy Jose played with.”

Mattingly then wiped away tears, and he wasn’t alone.

Associated Press writer Freida Frisaro contributed to this report from Miami.

All Marlins players will wear number 16 in honor of Jose Fernandez tonight

MIAMI, FL - JULY 09:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins pitches during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Marlins Park on July 9, 2015 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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The Marlins game was understandably cancelled yesterday. The baseball schedule has always gone on in such situations, however, and the Marlins will host the Mets tonight in Miami.

As they do so, they will all be wearing number 16, Jose Fernandez’s number, in honor of their fallen teammate.

A nice gesture on what will certainly be an emotional night.