Twins Opening Day outlook

Twins Opening Day outlook

Another spring has come and gone with the Twins once again facing a number of issues heading into the regular season.

Did the team add enough bats to the lineup this offseason? Will the club's defense rebound from a shaky 2005 season? Can the Twins recapture the chemistry of their championship years and return to the playoffs?

One thing is for sure, the Twins are settled in other areas. The depth in pitching is at an all-time high as both Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano appear ready for the Majors. Bullpen stalwarts Joe Nathan and Juan Rincon anchor a solid relief corps. And if the strong rotation can produce like it has in the past, it won't take many more runs to make a big difference in the win column.

The Twins are hoping that with a well-balanced mix of promising young stars and established veterans, more runs will be exactly what they get.

There are still plenty of questions surrounding the offense that finished near the bottom of almost every offensive category last season. Much of the questions concern exactly how much the new veteran acquisitions will contribute to the club. It appears that Minnesota's offense has nowhere to go but up with some stronger bats added to the club as well as another year under the belts of the younger promising hitters such as catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau.

Despite the changes, expectations have been greatly diminished for the club after missing the playoffs last season for the first time in four years. But that may be exactly what this club needs.

If there is one team that seems to embrace the underdog role, it's the Twins.

"Chicago's favored to win it all, and everyone expects Cleveland to finish ahead of us," Morneau said. "Sometimes it's good to be the underdog. That way you can sneak up on people."

1. Shannon Stewart, LF:
Injuries hindered Stewart throughout 2005, but the outfielder hopes that will change this season. A hitter that likes to take pitches and control the count, Stewart can produce just what the Twins need at the top of the order if he can manage to remain healthy.

2. Luis Castillo, 2B:
Looking to shore up their infield defensively, the Twins acquired Castillo to add a steady glove as well as a man at the top of the order with presence on the base paths. Castillo gives the Twins the prototypical second hitter that can bat the ball around or lay down the key bunt and he could help stimulate an offense that was often stagnant last season.

3. Joe Mauer, C:
In first full season in the big leagues in 2005, Mauer hit .294 with 55 RBIs and nine home runs. With one of the sweetest swings in all of baseball, even more is expected from the young catcher this season -- including a possible increase in power.

4. Rondell White, DH:
White gives the Twins the consistent, veteran bat that the club lacked in the role last season. The key for White will be if he can stay healthy enough to play all season. The move to keep him out of the outfield should help that immensely.

5. Torii Hunter, CF:
Returning from a broken ankle that sidelined him for the last two months of the 2005 season, Hunter has to prove he can maintain his trademark flashy defense and speed. Hitting between two good bats in White and Morneau could help to create even more of an opening for Hunter to emerge once again as an offensive star.

6. Justin Morneau, 1B:
It says something about your power potential when 22 home runs and 79 RBIs in a season are regarded as a disappointment. This season, the Twins first baseman arrived much stronger and healthier with a mission to reclaim his spot as the club's cleanup hitter. That kind of drive in a player with Morneau's talent could mean big results.

7. Tony Batista, 3B:
A free swinger who has made a career of hitting the long ball or striking out, Batista hasn't shown that sort of power this spring. But as long as Batista can blast over 20 homers this season, the Twins will feel he was worth the gamble.

8. Michael Cuddyer, RF:
After a quicker recovery than expected from a strained left oblique, Cuddyer appears to get the start in right field. Another strong strong offensive spring of batting over .500 has high hopes for Cuddyer, but he will have to keep up the hot bat to avoid losing the position to Jason Kubel, one of the club's top prospects.

9. Juan Castro, SS:
A great defender but lacking in the offensive department, Castro earned the starting nod for the early part due to some injuries in a close shortstop race. Castro gives the team a man that can make any difficult play look easy but whose speed is limited on the base paths. Adding just a bit of offense, though, could help to earn Castro the first everyday role of his career.

1. Johan Santana, LHP:
After back-to-back Cy Young quality seasons, trying to find a better southpaw in baseball than Santana seems to be an impossible task. Santana threw a career-high 231 2/3 innings in 2005 while maintaining his title as the strikeout king. With a bit more run support, Santana could be in for another award-winning season.

2. Brad Radke, RHP:
Entering what could be his final season, there is plenty that Radke still can deliver on the mound. A 200-plus-innings type of guy, Radke has always been an innings-eater for the Twins. With his arm feeling healthier than it has in years, Radke hopes to finish out his career in style while fans hope there are more quality years to come.

3. Carlos Silva, RHP:
Since becoming a starter for the Twins in 2004, Silva has shown consistency at being one of the best pitch locators in all of baseball. He demonstrated that with a 74-pitch complete game in Milwaukee. Another year of experience in the starting role should help Silva and look for him to emerge as the next Twins pitching star.

4. Kyle Lohse, RHP:
The pressure is on Lohse for 2006 to be his breakout year. The Twins have been waiting for the pitcher to emerge and with two young talented rookies behind him, there is not much room for error. A good spring in which Lohse didn't get into a habit of overthrowing has placed high hopes on the pitcher.

5. Scott Baker, RHP:
Baker earned the fifth spot in a tight competition with the left-handed prospect Francisco Liriano. Baker showed consistency in his few starts at the Major League level in 2005 and could be another control pitcher similar to Radke for the club.

Led by All-Star closer Joe Nathan, the Twins bullpen has become one of the club's biggest strengths. Nathan proved his emergence as a quality closer with his second straight 40-plus save season. Joining Nathan in relief will be the Twins rookie of the year last season, Jesse Crain, who emerged as a strong sixth- or seventh-inning guy. Juan Rincon will once again anchor the setup role but may be restricted early in the year due to his slow recovery from surgery to remove bone chips. Matt Guerrier will give the Twins a solid long-relief guy who may even be counted on in bigger situations this year.

New additions to the bullpen include Liriano, who proved to be the best left-handed option for the Twins. He may not last long in the 'pen, though, as he will be the first to fill in if a starter goes down due to injury. The last spot in the rotation was earned by right-hander Willie Eyre. The Twins had invited three veteran lefties to compete for the spot but Eyre proved to have the best arm and could be looked to in long or short situations as he has been a starter for much of his career.

Ruben Sierra will begin the season in the Minors until his right quadriceps heals. Sierra seemed to be making progress until he tweaked his rib cage during the final week of spring, which set him back. It's unsure just how long both injuries could take to heal but Sierra should be up with the Major League club by the end of April.

With the struggles at third base last season and no real in-house solutions within the organization to fill the hole, the Twins sought to find a quality third baseman that could also give them some power. A limited free-agent market and too high of an asking price made it a tough call, so the solution? Tony Batista, who spent the previous season playing in Japan. Sure, Batista has had power over his career, but this spring it hasn't exactly been on display. There have also been some concerns about his defense. The experiment with Batista could be huge because if he struggles, it will mark the second straight year the Twins have had to deal with problems at third base. There isn't really a Plan B so the Twins are gambling a bit with Batista and fans in Twins country are eagerly awaiting the result.

"Our pitching staff is back and we've added some help on the offense. I think we're going to be tough. A lot of people are overlooking us, picking us third or fourth in the division. But I think we'll surprise a lot of people." -- Mauer on how he feels the club will fare in 2006

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.