Twins season in review

Twins season in review

The Twins spent almost the entire 2006 season defying expectations.

After missing the postseason in '05, not much was anticipated of the Twins in a tough American League Central division. And the first two months of the season seemed to prove the pundits right. Struggling to remain near the .500 mark, the Twins looked far from a playoff-caliber club.

But when June started, a different Twins team -- younger and more athletic -- emerged. Those young players helped the Twins go on a run that not only turned the season around, but earned the club its fourth AL Central title in the past five years.

Most of the Twins from those earlier title runs are now gone, except for Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. But it's the youth that has emerged that makes the Twins excited about the future.

Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer both had breakout seasons in '06, and shortstop Jason Bartlett emerged as an infield leader. Nick Punto proved that he might be the answer to the Twins' hole at third base, and more young pitchers such as Boof Bonser, Matt Garza and Francisco Liriano flourished.

With almost the entire club returning for 2007, it may be a bit harder for the Twins to defy expectations that will likely be raised once again.

Record: 96-66, first in AL Central.

Defining moment: In a season full of ups and downs, it was the dramatic regular-season finale that clearly defined the team's remarkable year.

After losing two straight games to the White Sox, the Twins pulled off a 5-1 victory on Sunday, Oct. 1, only to wait and see if the Royals could finish off a sweep of the Tigers. Watching their title hopes play out on the Jumbotron with 35,000 remaining fans in the Metrodome, the Twins finished the year as surprising as they started it, but this time on a high note with another division title.

What went right: Morneau emerged as a legitimate power bat, Mauer became the first AL catcher to win the batting title, Santana was potentially Cy Young Award-worthy once again and the bullpen proved to be the Majors' elite group.

What went wrong: Surprising as it was, the Twins' pitching staff became more of a hindrance than a strength. Troubles early in the season, along with injuries late, caused the starting rotation to be filled with more questions than answers. Offseason additions Tony Batista and Ruben Sierra faltered, as did the club's clutch hitting in the playoffs.

Biggest surprise: Dennys Reyes not only gave the Twins the left-hander they needed out of the bullpen, but became one of the best relievers in the league. The southpaw finally found his niche and showed what he could do with a steady role by producing the lowest ERA in team history (0.89). The production was enough to earn Reyes a two-year extension.

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Batting
Average: Mauer, .347
Doubles: Michael Cuddyer, 41
Triples: Punto, 7
Home runs: Morneau, 34
Runs: Cuddyer, 102
RBIs: Morneau, 130
Stolen bases: Luis Castillo, 25
Pitching
Wins: Santana, 19
Losses: Carlos Silva, 15
ERA (starter): Santana, 2.77
ERA (reliever): Reyes, 0.89 (min. 10 appearances)
Saves: Joe Nathan, 36

FORECAST FOR 2007
Lineup: The Twins will retain the core of their order that finished near the top of the American League in nearly every offensive category. The biggest question mark that remains is left field, as Shannon Stewart and Rondell White will likely become free agents. Jason Kubel and Jason Tyner will likely be in the mix for the role. One more bat could be added this offseason.

Rotation: Young arms continue to be in abundance for the Twins, and that spells good news for next season. Many of the rookie pitchers, such as Bonser and Garza, gained invaluable experience this season. Santana and Silva will likely be the lone veterans on the staff, but the most pressing issue will be Liriano's health and if he can return in time for the '07 season.

Bullpen: The Twins' greatest strength this season had to be their solid relief corps. Along with Nathan and Juan Rincon, the Twins got other solid contributions. Rookie Pat Neshek emerged as another late-inning phenom, giving a different look with his sidearm motion. Jesse Crain and Reyes also filled in during setup situations, with Matt Guerrier and Willie Eyre providing strong long relief. Nearly all will be back next season as well.

Biggest need: The Twins will have plenty of young arms to fill in the starting staff, but with Brad Radke likely to announce his retirement, the Twins need another veteran arm to help anchor the rotation. The free agent market looks to have some strong prospects in Jason Schmidt, Cory Lidle and Ted Lilly. It will come down to who the Twins can fit in the budget.

Prospect to watch: Left-hander Glen Perkins made his arrival to the Twins late in September, but showed poise under fire and became a late addition to the playoff roster. Perkins has strong stuff and could push to be another left-hander in the rotation, especially if Liriano's health prohibits him from coming back by Spring Training.

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