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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.

Jenrry Mejia: “It is not like they say. I am sure that I did not use anything.”

New York Mets' Jenrry Mejia reacts after getting the last out against the Milwaukee Brewers during the ninth inning of a baseball game Friday, July 25, 2014, in Milwaukee. The Mets won 3-2. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps
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Mets reliever Jenrry Mejia was permanently suspended on Friday after testing positive for a third time for a performance-enhancing drug. The right-hander is maintaining his innocence, as ESPN’s Adam Rubin notes in quoting Dominican sports journalist Hector Gomez. Mejia said, “It is not like they say. I am sure that I did not use anything.”

Mejia has the opportunity to petition commissioner Rob Manfred in one year for reinstatement to Major League Baseball. However, he must sit out at least two years before becoming eligible to pitch in the majors again, which would mean Mejia would be 28 years old.

Over parts of five seasons, Mejia has a career 3.68 ERA with 162 strikeouts and 76 walks over 183 1/3 innings. He was once a top prospect in the Mets’ minor league system and a top-100 overall prospect heading into the 2010 and ’11 seasons.

Bryce Harper on potential $400 million contract: “Don’t sell me short.”

Bryce Harper
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is at least three years away from free agency, but people are already contemplating just how large a contract the phenom will be able to negotiate, especially after taking home the National League Most Valuable Player Award for his performance this past season.

When the likes of David Price and Zack Greinke are signing for over $200 million at the age of 30 or older, it stands to reason that Harper could draw more as a 26-year-old if he can maintain MVP-esque levels of production over the next several seasons. $400 million might not be enough for Harper, though, as MLB.com’s Jamal Collier reports. He said, “Don’t sell me short,” which is a fantastic response.

During the 2015 season, Harper led the majors with a .460 on-base percentage and a .649 slugging percentage while leading the National League with 42 home runs and 118 runs scored. He also knocked in 99 runs for good measure. Harper and Ted Williams are the only hitters in baseball history to put up an adjusted OPS of 195 or better (100 is average) at the age of 22 or younger.

Frankie Montas out 2-4 months after rib resection surgery

Chicago White Sox pitcher Frankie Montas throws against the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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Per Eric Stephen of SB Nation’s True Blue LA, the Dodgers announced that pitching prospect Frankie Montas will be out two to four months after undergoing rib resection surgery to remove his right first rib.

The Dodgers acquired Montas from the White Sox in a three-team trade in December 2015 that also involved the Reds. The 22-year-old made his big league debut with the Pale Hose last season, allowing eight runs on 14 hits and nine walks with 20 strikeouts in 15 innings across two starts. Montas had spent the majority of his season at Double-A Birmingham, where he posted a 2.97 ERA with 108 strikeouts and 48 walks in 112 innings.

MLB.com rated Montas as the 95th-best prospect in baseball, slipping a few spots from last year’s pre-season ranking of 91.

Athletics acquire Khris Davis in trade with Brewers

Milwaukee Brewers' Khris Davis swings on a home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
AP Photo/Morry Gash
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The Brewers’ rebuild continues, as the club announced on Twitter the trade of outfielder Khris Davis to the Athletics in exchange for catcher Jacob Nottingham and pitcher Bubba Derby. MLB.com’s Jane Lee reports that the A’s have designated pitcher Sean Nolin for assignment to create room on the 40-man roster for Davis.

Davis, 28, was the Brewers’ most valuable remaining trade chip. He blasted 27 home runs while hitting .247/.323/.505 in 440 plate appearances this past season in Milwaukee. Adding to his value, Davis won’t become eligible for arbitration until after the 2016 season and can’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season. In Oakland, Davis will give the Athletics more reliability as Coco Crisp was injured for most of last season and is now 36 years old. Though he doesn’t have much of a career platoon split, Davis split time in left field with the left-handed-hitting Gerardo Parra last season. It’s unclear if the A’s will utilize him in a platoon as well.

With Davis out of the picture, Domingo Santana is a leading candidate to start in left field for the Brewers, GM David Stearns said, per Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Nottingham, 20, started the 2015 season in the Astros’ system but went to the Athletics in the Scott Kazmir deal. He hit an aggregate .316/.372/.505 at Single-A, showing plenty of promise early in his professional career. With catcher Jonathan Lucroy on his way out of Milwaukee, the Brewers are hoping Nottingham can be their next permanent backstop.

Derby, 21, made his professional debut last season after the Athletics drafted him in the sixth round. Across 37 1/3 innings, he yielded seven runs (five earned) on 24 hits and 10 walks with 47 strikeouts. He’s obviously a few years away from the majors, but the Brewers are looking for high upside.