The core of this team is the one that was swept last October, but Smith began last winter trying to find ways to help turn around the team's playoff fortunes. "We went into this offseason looking to add a little bit more veteran presence," Smith said. The moves began almost immediately after the 2010 World Series ended. The Twins acquired shortstop J.J. Hardy from the Brewers, re-signed veteran starter Carl Pavano, and added free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson and designated hitter Jim Thome to strengthen the roster. The Twins were projected as the favorite to win the AL Central heading into Spring Training this season, but then four-time All-Star closer Joe Nathan went down with a season-ending elbow injury. It was the first of two devastating injuries for the club, as Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP, saw another MVP-worthy season brought to an early end after sustaining a concussion on July 7 at Toronto. But the Twins have overcome every obstacle that was put in their way en route to yet another division title. It helped that Smith continued to bolster his club by adding other pieces down the stretch. He acquired All-Star closer Matt Capps before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, and when the Twins lost two left-handed relievers over a short stretch in August, Smith brought in left-hander Brian Fuentes, who was the closer for the Angels and who has pitched in two deep postseason runs himself. "As the season evolved, certainly losing Joe Nathan was a difficult one for us," Smith said. "But Jon Rauch stepped up big time to carry the ball for the first four months as our closer, and then we were able to give him some help. Adding Capps and adding Fuentes were critical pieces for us as we went down the stretch. We're very pleased and very excited when looking at this group about what the next month has to offer." Central dominance
Since manager Ron Gardenhire took over in 2002, the Twins have been a force within the AL Central. Not only have they won six division crowns over that stretch, they barely finished second in 2008 after losing Game 163 to the White Sox. So if there are any teams that understand just how tough it can be to face the Twins, it's their division rivals, who have seen the team be successful over the course of the regular season. "They're a dynasty," said Indians right-hander Chris Perez. "I don't think we'll ever see what the Braves did again. [The Braves won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005.] But you go back to the early '90s even, and the Twins have been pretty consistent organizationally. They've always stuck to their beliefs. They don't sign too many free agents, and they always seem to bring up players who can help. Six out of nine in any division is impressive, notwithstanding the Yankees. And the way they do it ... They do it the old-fashioned way by calling up young players and teaching fundamentals." The consistency that Minnesota has shown year in and year out has also made the club a measuring stick for the rest of the AL Central. "They're better than us," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "A lot of people say we have to build a team to pass New York and Boston. But to get there, you've got to beat Minnesota." Is this the year?
Success within their division may have come frequently in recent years for the Twins, but the team is still searching to extend that success into the postseason. One key difference this year is that this club doesn't quite resemble some of the previous teams that headed to the postseason. One difference is its budget. Unlike in previous years, the Twins feature a $100 million payroll, thanks in large part to their new ballpark. On their roster is a mix of homegrown superstars, valuable free-agent acquisitions and emerging prospects that Smith and the team's front office helped mesh together. "They definitely have a really, really good and exciting team," said Royals second baseman Mike Aviles. "They're one of those teams, if they get hot, there's no way other teams can beat 'em. They went on a stretch this year [when] they were just pummeling teams, and that's the big thing for them. They have good arms, they throw strikes and they have guys that can score some runs."
So could this be the year that the Twins finally turn things around in the postseason and give themselves a chance to win it all?"I think they have a really good chance," Aviles said. "I think it's just a matter of how hot they get going into the playoffs, because there are some other teams that are going into the playoffs that are really, really good." The Twins finished the regular season with a 94-68 record, and clinched the division early enough to rest their players while lining up its rotation for the postseason. But now comes the time when they have to build on that success and achieve their goal of making it all the way to the World Series. First up is overcoming their first-round struggles against the Yankees, but the club hopes that is just one step of what will be many in a long postseason run. "We are where we wanted to be," Gardenhire said. "Now the true test comes. Can we do what we set out to do in Spring Training? And that is to win a division and get to the World Series. "That's what we wanted to do. We said that before the winter started last year that we wanted to step it up and get better. Well, now we'll see."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.