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


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.

Cavaliers will move ring ceremony to avoid conflict with World Series start

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 11: A general exterior image of the Quicken Loans arena which is next door to Progressive Field where the Chicago White Sox will take on the Cleveland Indians on July 11, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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In a show of good sportsmanship, the Cleveland Cavaliers have moved their championship ring ceremony start time back to 7 PM EDT to avoid conflicting with the start of the World Series opener on Tuesday. The Indians are set to host Game 1 at Progressive Field on October 25, while the Cavs will open the 2016-17 NBA season against the New York Knicks at the nearby Quicken Loans Arena, preceded by a ceremony recognizing their first franchise title.

In the event that the Indians clinch a World Series title, it’ll be the first time Cleveland has seen two championships in the same calendar year since 1948, when the Indians’ last Series title came on the back of the Cleveland Browns’ All-American Football Conference championship against the Buffalo Bills. The same was true for the Dodgers in 1988, when their World Series win against the Athletics coincided with the Los Angeles Lakers’ 11th championship, while Chicago has yet to see a multi-title year among their NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB franchises.

Regardless of the Series’ outcome, Cleveland fans will get the chance to revel in one long-awaited championship win on Tuesday before watching the beginning of a nail-biting conclusion to another long-awaited playoff run. The Cavaliers are scheduled for 7 PM EDT on October 25, while the Indians will take the field at 8 PM EDT.

Indians could benefit from long rest before the World Series

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 09: Danny Salazar #31 of the Cleveland Indians delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on September 9, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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If any team can turn a six-day rest period into an advantage, it’s the Indians. The club polished off their pennant race with another injured starter and an overtaxed bullpen, as Trevor Bauer exited in Game 3 of the ALCS with a laceration on his right pinky finger, leaving the bullpen to shoulder 16 innings through the last three games of the series. On Friday,’s Jordan Bastian reported that injured starter Danny Salazar could rejoin the rotation in the World Series, though he’ll need at least one more simulated game before Terry Francona determines whether or not he’s fit to return for the team’s last postseason push.

Bauer, who has been under the close watch of hand specialist Dr. Thomas Graham, told the press that he feels confident that he’ll be ready for a World Series start when the final showdown commences on Tuesday. Keeping the wound bandaged is not an option during games, and Bauer said that Dr. Graham decided against additional stitches to keep the laceration from re-opening. Instead, they’re banking on extra days of rest to heal the cut naturally. Should Francona pencil the right-hander into the lineup for Game 3 or 4, he’ll have had 10-11 days to rest his finger between starts — just a hair under the seven games Bauer said he was prepared to pitch.

Salazar, too, has been preparing for a World Series showdown. He’s scheduled to pitch three innings of a simulated game this weekend, and if it goes well, it could land him a spot in the starting rotation alongside Bauer, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, and newcomer Ryan Merritt. Salazar has been sidelined since September 9 with a right forearm strain, and even after undergoing a rigorous throwing program over the last several weeks, any kind of comeback is expected to be curbed by a strict innings limit. Francona has been understandably tight-lipped about his World Series roster, but he hasn’t yet nixed the idea of utilizing Salazar out of the rotation, provided the right-hander remains healthy for another week or so.

The Indians have had to remain flexible throughout their seven-game playoff run after weathering injuries to Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, pushing their rotation through several games on short rest and relying heavily on Andrew Miller and Cody Allen‘s one-two punch in the ‘pen to clinch more than a few postseason victories. While history doesn’t always favor the first team to secure their league’s pennant race, an extra week of rest should only benefit Cleveland’s beleaguered pitching staff.