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.

Mike Scioscia will return as Angels manager in 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 21:  Manager Mike Scioscia #14 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the dugout during batting practice before a game against the Minnesota Twins at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 21, 2015 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)
Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

It was assumed already, but Mike Scioscia made it official during Monday’s press conference for new general manager Billy Eppler that he will return as Angels manager in 2016.

Scioscia, the longest-tenured manager in the majors, has been at the helm with the Angels since 2000. There was a clause in his contract which allowed him to opt out after the 2015 season, but he has decided to stay put. He still has three years and $15 million on his contract, which runs through 2018.

Jerry Dipoto resigned as Angels general manager in July amid tension with Scioscia, so there were naturally questions today about what to expect with first-time GM Eppler in the fold. According to David Adler of, Scioscia isn’t concerned.

“I think we’re going to mesh very well,” Scioscia said. “If we adjust, or maybe he adjusts to some of the things, there’s going to be collaboration that’s going to make us better.”

Eppler is the fourth general manager during Scioscia’s tenure with the team.

After winning the AL West last season, the Angels finished 85-77 this season and narrowly missed the playoffs. The team hasn’t won a postseason game since 2009.

Carlos Gomez says he’ll be in lineup for Wild Card game vs. Yankees

Houston Astros' Carlos Gomez hoops after scoring a run against the Texas Rangers in the eighth inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Houston. Gomez scored from third base on a Bobby Wilson passed ball. The Astros won 4-2. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

Astros center fielder Carlos Gomez sat out the final series of the regular season in order to rest a strained left intercostal muscle, but there was good news coming out of a workout today in advance of Tuesday’s Wild Card game vs. the Yankees.

This has been a lingering issue for Gomez, who missed 13 straight games with the injury last month. He aggravated the strain on a throw to home plate last Wednesday and was forced to sit while the Astros fought to keep their season alive. Astros manager A.J. Hinch told reporters last week that Gomez’s injury would typically take 45-50 days to recover from, so it’s fair to wonder how productive he can be during the postseason.

Gomez mostly struggled after coming over from the Brewers at the trade deadline, batting .242 with four home runs and a .670 OPS over 41 games.