Twins can point to 10 reasons for success

Twins can point to 10 reasons for success

Throughout a season, there are many things that have to go right for a team to secure a trip to the postseason. Although the Twins had high expectations for the 2010 season, they certainly wouldn't have envisioned their latest American League Central title coming in exactly the way it did.

The Twins lost closer Joe Nathan in Spring Training, when he had season-ending Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Catcher Joe Mauer got off to a slow offensive start. All-Star first baseman Justin Morneau was absent for the second half of the season after he suffered a concussion on July 7 at Toronto.

Yet whatever challenge the Twins faced, they somehow managed to make it merely a speed bump. There were many decisions made by Minnesota over the past year and some standout performances along the way that have led to the team capturing their sixth AL Central title in the last nine seasons.

Although there are numerous reasons there will be playoff baseball in Minnesota once again this season, here are 10 that stand out:

Signing Jim Thome: It's considered to be one of the best free-agent signings from last winter. The Twins inked Thome to a one-year, $1.5 million contract with incentives to be a veteran slugger off the bench and to get some at-bats in the designated hitter role.

But after Morneau went down with his concussion, the Twins needed another power left-handed bat in their lineup. And Thome, who turned 40 on Aug. 27, has filled that hole. The slugger has been playing like someone half his age, hitting 25 home runs and delivering one of the more memorable seasons of his already impressive 20-year career.

Offering arbitration to Carl Pavano: The Twins knew they wanted a veteran starter for their club in 2010. One option was to offer salary arbitration to Pavano, who was a free agent after spending a little over two months with the club.

Pavano was due for a significant pay raise, after signing a one-year, $1.5 million incentive-laden deal with the Indians in 2009. But the Twins felt that Pavano would be a leader in the rotation and a guy who could eat up innings. He has not only pitched over 200 innings for the Twins this season and provided a mentor to a young staff, but also leads the club with 17 wins.

Putting Danny Valencia at third base: The Twins didn't sign a short-term solution at third base this past winter with the idea that Valencia was getting close to the Majors. When Michael Cuddyer went on the bereavement list in early June, Valencia got an opportunity at what was expected to be his first brief stint in the big leagues.

But Valencia never headed back to the Minors.

Injuries to other players initially kept Valencia around, and he made good use of his opportunity, earning everyday playing time at third base. He may not have the at-bats to earn the honor, but Valencia has at least put himself in consideration for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

Moving Brian Duensing to the rotation: The Twins' starting staff was scuffling heading into the All-Star break, and there had been talk of how the team might get things turned around for the rotation.

The answer came on July 23 when Duensing was moved from the bullpen to the rotation, which allowed the Twins to send Nick Blackburn to Triple-A Rochester to get himself back on track. Duensing's addition seemed to jump-start the entire rotation.

Duensing pitched so well that he's now the club's No. 3 starter for the postseason. Blackburn got things turned around in Rochester and thrived in his return to the Twins' rotation on Aug. 23, putting himself in line to be the team's fourth starter in the playoffs. The starting depth was also a boon for the Twins, who had six pitchers reach at least 10 wins for the first time in club history.

Acquiring shortstop J.J. Hardy from the Brewers for outfielder Carlos Gomez: The ticker tape had barely stopped falling after last year's World Series parade when the Twins dealt Gomez to Milwaukee. The move not only gave them an everyday shortstop in Hardy, who has provided a solid glove and a little pop with his bat, but it also cleared up a crowded outfield situation.

Gomez had split playing time with Delmon Young last year. There had been talk of the Twins listening to offers for Young after his disappointing play in the 2008 season and into '09. But after a strong finish in '09, the Twins used the trade to give Young an opportunity to play every day in left field. And Young has rewarded the club by delivering a breakout year, which includes leading the Twins in RBIs.

Keeping Francisco Liriano in the rotation: There was talk immediately after Nathan went down with his season-ending elbow injury in Spring Training of trying out Liriano in the closer role. There were members of the Twins staff that felt Liriano possessed the best stuff of any pitcher in camp, and he has a key closer trait -- the ability to work himself out of trouble by striking out guys.

But Liriano preferred to remain a starter, and so the Twins kept him in the rotation. Liriano has made that look like a great decision thanks to his resurgent season. He's now in line to start Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

Filling the closer role successfully: The Twins didn't expect to have to have any questions about the ninth inning when they arrived at Spring Training. But rather than panic after Nathan's injury, the team waited until the exhibition games at Target Field to name Jon Rauch as closer. Rauch performed more than adequately in the spot, recording 21 saves in 25 opportunities through the first four months of the season.

But when the opportunity came to deepen their bullpen by adding All-Star closer Matt Capps at the July 31 Trade Deadline, the Twins took the chance. With Capps for the ninth inning and Rauch back in a setup role, the Twins strengthened their late-inning options. The group got another boost in late August when general manager Bill Smith traded for left-hander Brian Fuentes -- giving the club a third closer in their relief corps and a bullpen that's perhaps as deep as any they've had in the postseason.

Deciding to stick with Jesse Crain: After a disappointing start to the 2010 season, Crain's spot in the Twins' bullpen looked to be in jeopardy. Through May 20, Crain had posted a 6.88 ERA in 17 innings while allowing 22 hits.

But rather than give up on Crain, the Twins kept giving him more chances. Their faith paid off when Crain got on a roll. Since May 22, Crain has allowed just six earned runs in 49 innings, which equates to a 1.10 ERA, and he has emerged as one of the strongest setup options for the club.

Increasing the team's depth: Any successful team is able to overcome injuries throughout a season, and there was no question that the Twins had to weather their fair share in 2010. But whenever a player went down, the Twins had other players who were able to step in and fill the void.

Moves like signing Thome and adding second baseman Orlando Hudson to move other guys into utility roles helped the Twins add depth in the offseason. The Twins signed Jason Repko to a Minor League deal in April, and he arrived in June to give the team a true backup outfielder. The infield got a boost from guys like Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert. Even when the team needed an emergency starter, the surprise callup, Matt Fox, stepped up and filled the void.

Tapping into Michael Cuddyer's versatility: When the Twins needed a backup center fielder early in the year, Cuddyer was called on to fill the spot. When the Twins needed a second baseman for a day due to Hudson's wrist injury, Cuddyer answered the call. And when the team wanted to keep Jason Kubel in the lineup during Interleague Play, Cuddyer moved to third base -- his first time playing there since 2005.

The Twins' primary right fielder has not seen his own position since the first half, as for the second straight season Cuddyer has helped fill the void at first base when Morneau has gone down with an injury. That flexibility by Cuddyer is part of the reason manager Ron Gardenhire has labeled him as one of the club's MVPs.

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