Aberdeen, S.D. -- This week's mailbag comes to all of you from the beautiful plains of South Dakota.
I'm answering many of your questions from the Twins Caravan bus as it is heading down Highway 28 toward Aberdeen for the first day of the Northwest leg. After making a quick stop at the Home Run Hitters indoor batting cages in Golden Valley, the group was all set to head into the Dakotas and northern Minnesota for a few days of visiting with Twins fans.
On this trip is manager Ron Gardenhire, outfielder Lew Ford, shortstop Jason Bartlett, pitching coach Rick Anderson and Twins radio voice on WCCO, John Gordon. Most of Sunday's bus ride was spent watching both of the NFL playoff games as the guys autographed pictures for some of the stops.
The Northwest leg is just the first of four legs for this year's Twins caravan. Seeing the team head out to visit with fans before TwinsFest is just one sign that the start of baseball season is coming faster than anyone can imagine. So while I'm sitting in the midst of a little baseball talk, let me start to get to your questions.
Seeing as the Twins haven't signed any dominant lefty relievers, what are the chances that they could go with an all righty bullpen? Also, is Grant Balfour still being considered for a Spring Training invitation?
-- Pat M., Ft. Myers, Fla.
With Terry Ryan never being a general manager to eliminate any possibilities, there is a chance that the Twins could go with an all right-handed bullpen. But if I were a betting person, which I'm not, I wouldn't be placing any wagers on that occurring anytime soon.
The ideal situation for a club would be to have two lefties in the bullpen but right now, the Twins are focusing on finding one to fill the role. Already it seems like there will be at least one arm to emerge from the competition with the signings of some veteran arms to Minor League contracts. Between Dennys Reyes, Gabe White and Darrell May, it is almost certain that the Twins will have a left-hander to come out of the pen.
As for Grant Balfour, he just signed a one-year deal this week with the Reds for $340,000. Balfour is coming off shoulder and elbow surgery that was performed by the Reds' team medical director, Dr. Tim Kremchek. The team doesn't expect him to be able to pitch until June.
It seems to me like the AL Central has quietly become the toughest division, top to bottom, in the league, which doesn't bode well for Minnesota considering weighted divisional scheduling. Does this give teams like Boston, Oakland, Toronto and Texas an advantage in terms of the Wild Card?
-- Joe K., Portland, Ore.
A tough division isn't necessarily an automatic elimination in terms of the Wild Card, Joe. Surely a top-heavy division where the teams beat up on each other through the season can have an impact on the record of a club. But that doesn't mean one team has an advantage over another if it is in a particularly tightly contested division.
In the past few years, plenty of teams that weren't looked at as contenders in a division have challenged the powerhouses and affected their records. Tampa Bay gave the Yankees fits last season and Oakland certainly has had its share of losses thanks to division rivals, the Angels. Looking ahead to this year, Toronto will certainly have its challenges with both Boston and New York in the East.
That being said, the Twins do have their work cut out for them as an improved White Sox club and a matured Indians team wait to take them on this season for the AL Central title. Still, if some of the changes to the offense work and the pitching continues to be a pillar of consistency for Minnesota, it could be back to the playoffs for the club, particularly as a Wild Card team.
What Twins player will lead the team in home runs? Will someone finally get 30 in a season?
-- Mike G., Rochester, Minn.
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Well, Mike, if I look into my crystal ball and see into October of 2006 ... OK, just kidding with the crystal ball. But really, guessing right now which player on the Twins will hit the most home runs this season is a pretty difficult task. With some new bats being added to the mix and not having seen them in person, I'm not quite sure exactly who to pick.
The home run leader for the Twins this past season -- Jacque Jones with 24 -- is gone, as well as the man who finished third on the club, Matt LeCroy with 17. It could be a breakout year of sorts for first baseman Justin Morneau, who hit 22 bombs last year, or Torii Hunter could once again emerge as he was limited to only 14 this past year in an injury-shortened season.
Minnesota also has the bats of Rondell White and Tony Batista, who have shown their own surges of power-hitting in the past. Batista has averaged around 31 home runs in his last six seasons in the Majors. White's career high is 28 homers in a season, but he hit 19 long bombs in 2004 when limited to only 121 games.
With the question of whether a Twins player will hit over 30 home runs this season, my guess is that it still won't happen this season. No Twins player has hit 30 home runs in a season since 1987. There may be one player who comes close, but there still doesn't seem to be a bat with enough consistent power to drive in more than 30 this season.
Last season there was concern over Brad Radke and the health of his right shoulder. I heard he opted not to have surgery. What is the condition of his shoulder as the team gets ready for Spring Training next month?
-- John R., Rolla, Minn.
Though Radke was shut down toward the end of the season, it really had more to do with the Twins' status as a team than health questions, John. Since the team was out of the playoff picture, pitching coach Rick Anderson and Gardenhire felt it would be best for Radke to take a break, since he was not needed to help the team at the time.
At age 33, Radke is getting older and his shoulder has taken its fair share of abuse over his 11-year career. The extra rest in 2005 was just to make sure that he would be ready to deliver over 200 innings once again this season for the Twins. There is no worry about the status of his shoulder heading into Spring Training, and look for Radke to once again be a workhorse for the club.
Now that the questions are answered, it's time to head off to an event at the local Boys and Girls Club. Keep sending your questions and watch this week for more news as the caravan continues through the northwest corner of Minnesota.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.