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Twins reaching higher in 2007

Twins reaching for higher goal in 2007

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It seems that every year, a team adopts a certain motto or mantra to carry into the new season.

Heading into 2006, the Twins' goal was to return to the playoffs. But this season, they want to do something when they get there.

It's an unspoken notion that is not necessarily talked about, but everyone understands it. There's no question that last season's sweep by Oakland in the first round of the playoffs still churns inside Twins players.

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"The way it ended kind of soured the run that we made," Mike Redmond said. "We all realize the season ended too quick last year. I don't think anybody was ready for it to end, and unfortunately, it did. But I think it's given us a little bit of extra spark and fire for this upcoming season to be ready to go in April."

Motivation doesn't seem to be something the Twins are lacking as they prepare for their return run at the playoffs in '07. Coming off a remarkable 2006 season where the Twins defied expectations to come from as many as 12 1/2 games back to earn a division title, there hasn't been much attention given to the club at all this spring.

That wasn't the case right after the season ended so unexpectedly during a three-game sweep by Oakland in the American League Division Series, and the prognosis for the Twins' chances in '07 was deemed to be good, considering what a large percentage of the talented club would return. There was even some discussion that the Twins would be early favorites to win the 2007 World Series. But that was before Francisco Liriano underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in early November, meaning he would miss the entire '07 season.

And quickly, the expectations all faded away.

Now, many of the baseball pundits have picked the Twins to finish fourth in the American League Central. But that's nothing new for this club. It's become almost commonplace for the Twins to be overlooked in an AL Central race that features plenty of fearsome foes.

"It's just a good division with a lot of good baseball teams," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Cleveland, they didn't get it done last year and they added some key parts. Detroit definitely added some key people again with [Gary] Sheffield and bullpen help. And then there's the White Sox, I read today that they were an aging group. I think they are a good baseball team, in fact a really good baseball team."

Still, it wasn't hard to detect Gardenhire's annoyance with the fact that his team wasn't getting more respect after what it accomplished just last season.

"We're seeded fourth and we think we're OK," he said. "Really, there had better be some good baseball in [the division] if we're seeded fourth."

One of the main reasons for the lack of belief in this ballclub has to do with the big question marks that still surround the rotation. Aside from ace Johan Santana, the rest of the rotation was under debate all spring. Veterans Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson were brought in to help solidify the staff, but there are still plenty of unknowns.

Rotational issues aside, the Twins aren't lacking for much when it comes to talent. They're still a group that features arguably the best pitcher in the game, in Santana. The bullpen has one of the most coveted closers in Joe Nathan, along with a slew of quality setup men. And of course, there's the potent lineup that led the AL in batting last season which returns the reigning AL MVP in Justin Morneau and the reigning AL batting champion in Joe Mauer.

opening day 2007

"This is the best team I've ever been a part of," center fielder Torii Hunter said of the '07 ballclub. "I feel this is the best chance I've had out of all my years to get to the World Series. And I think we can do it."

Even with all the talented pieces in place, Twins general manager Terry Ryan is hesitant to label this team as his team most primed for a World Series title. After all, the most talented club isn't always the most successful.

"That's very difficult to equate, what you have on paper and the type of season you're going to have," Ryan said. "We'll play this next six months to decide where this team is. We've got a club that accomplished a lot the last number of years. Last year, we had more individual awards than ever, but it's bullpen, it's defense, it's speed, it's power, it's balance, it's run production, it's innings by starters, reliability. Before you can start equating what kind of club you have, you have to play 162 games because it doesn't matter what you look like on paper."

Though there is comfort in knowing that many of the pieces are in place, there is also a sense of urgency. That's in part due to the fact that the team doesn't know exactly how long it will be able to keep many of its key players in Minnesota.

One of the team's most integral pieces for the past eight years has been Hunter, and he could likely be gone at the end of the season. The center fielder is signed only through the end of '07 and with the free agent market exploding the way it has over the past few winters, Hunter is sure to draw some lucrative offers.

But he's not the only core player that the Twins could lose in the coming years. Santana's contract runs out after the '08 season and Nathan could also be a free agent after '08. There are plans in place to try to sign the two players to extensions, but so far that has not taken place.

With so much in question about the makeup of the team when it comes to the future, there is a feeling that this could be the season when the team needs to put everything together to reach its biggest goal -- the World Series.

"You don't really want to look ahead to '08 because we have yet to play '07, but in a way it does give you a sense of urgency," Michael Cuddyer said of the potential players leaving in the coming years. "Knowing that some of those guys may or may not be back, I think everyone wants to step up and see what this group can do."

The outsiders may have written this award-winning group off into the sunset, but there is a belief around the club that what's going on inside these walls is something that only the team can truly understand.

"We know what kind of team we have and we're excited about it," Redmond said. "We've built up such a great camaraderie and chemistry in this clubhouse. And we're going to push each other to be ready. We're going to get this thing going and in the right direction.

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

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