Minnesota Twins Season Preview

The Twins will again rely on ace Santana.

Here is an indepth look at the upcoming season for the Minnesota Twins. This article features everything you need to know for the 2006 season, from projected lineups, to who is on the horizon.

The Twins may not be much closer to feeling good about filling their final two bullpen spots, but they seem to be closer to a decision.

When left-hander Darrell May, a minor league free agent, was released Sunday, that left just three pitchers in the hunt for the two spots, and one of them, lefty Francisco Liriano, is still considered a candidate for the fifth starter job.

Rookie right-hander Willie Eyre and veteran left-hander Dennys Reyes, both of whom have struggled lately, remain in the hunt.

The Twins don't have a returning left-hander in the bullpen, and Reyes and Liriano are their only two remaining candidates from the left side.

"I think that everybody was rooting for him," general manager Terry Ryan said of May. "He's a good person on a club, he's a good human being, and he's left-handed, which we were looking for that type of guy. Unfortunately, it didn't work out."

The moves Sunday almost assure that the team will break camp with Liriano, despite Ryan's trepidation over having Liriano in the bullpen instead of starting every fifth day (even if it's at Triple-A Rochester).

But if Liriano doesn't overtake right-hander Scott Baker for the rotation spot, he has looked much better than either Eyre or Reyes.

SEASON PREVIEW:

The Twins know they have the frontline pitching to compete for not only a division title but also for a possible deep run into the postseason.

But, like last year, the left side of their infield remains a major question mark, and there's nothing that's happened in spring training to make fans feel secure the team's overall run-production ability has improved enough over last year's AL-worst run scoring to make this team a contender.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett, who failed to hold onto last year's starting job six weeks into the season, was supposed to return bigger (by 15 pounds of muscle) and better (by that season of experience and adversity), but he has raised more questions than created answers of late, looking shoddy in the field in recent games despite looking decent at the plate.

That has allowed injury-prone infielder Nick Punto to sneak into the mix for the Opening Day job as camp wound down.

Meanwhile, veteran third baseman Tony Batista is probably an upgrade over the revolving door at third last year, but his pudgy midsection and middling batting average this spring has done little to inspire confidence that much has changed on the left side.

Second baseman Luis Castillo has looked like the All-Star he was advertised to be, upgrading the Twins there. And center fielder Torii Hunter seems to be healthy after missing the last two months of 2005 because of a broken ankle -- automatically shoring up the up-the-middle-defense.

Newly acquired DH Rondell White has looked strong at camp, promising a productive bat in the middle of the order.

But other questions linger: right fielder Michael Cuddyer looks like he'll open the season on the disabled list (oblique), so how much depth does that leave the Twins in the outfield if rookie Jason Kubel or journeyman Lew Ford is in the lineup?

And will first baseman Justin Morneau figure out big-league pitching and take the step forward this year that all that hitting talent promises (the 30-plus homer, .280-plus average stroke)?

And what will the Twins do for a lefty in the bullpen? Left-hander Dennys Reyes, a veteran the team brought in to compete for a relief job, had not stepped up as camp neared its end, leaving rookie lefty Francisco Liriano as the best-looking candidate for a job. The front office is strongly opposed to keeping him in the bullpen, wishing instead to have him stay on an every-fifth-day starting schedule at Triple-A if he doesn't make the Twins' rotation.

And then there's right-hander Brad Radke's pitching shoulder -- the one that bothered him much of last season, eventually causing him to shut it down once the team was eliminated. He elected against surgery to fix the minor tear, in part because he has considered making this the final year of his career.

The bottom line for Twins' optimism this year might, indeed, be the bottom line. Six members of the starting rotation or projected Opening Day lineup are in contract years, and four more are coming up on arbitration winters after the season.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON:

RHP Kyle Lohse beat the Twins in arbitration for the second year in a row, winning a $3.95 million contract, and he has looked like the best starting pitcher in camp. A turnaround May last year in which he began focusing on throwing three pitches instead of five gave him success and confidence he appears to be taking into this year.

ON THE DECLINE:

LF Shannon Stewart has been slowed by injuries since joining the Twins in a midseason trade in 2003, limited to 92 games in 2004 and playing with a sore shoulder and foot and leg issues last year that led to his lowest full-season batting average (.274 in 132 games) of his career. His heel has bothered him some this spring, and the turf at the Metrodome doesn't figure to make things any easier on his 32-year-old body this season.

NOTES, QUOTES:

  • RHP Juan Rincon fared well in bullpen sessions over the weekend and has been scheduled to make his first Grapefruit League appearance Tuesday. Rincon, who had bone chip surgery on his elbow, has been sidelined because of soreness in the muscles near the elbow. He's scheduled to pitch three times over the final week of the spring, also Thursday and Saturday, with the expectation that those three outings would be enough to prepare the eighth-inning specialist for the season.

  • SS Jason Bartlett suffered a hamstring strain over the weekend that throws more uncertainty into an already shaky battle for the Opening Day shortstop job. Bartlett said he doesn't expect to miss enough time to warrant being placed on the disabled list, but his injury could open the door wider for SS/2B Nick Punto or veteran SS/3B Juan Castro.

  • OF/PH Ruben Sierra took batting practice Saturday for the first time in almost a week since suffering a quadriceps injury, and the switch hitter experienced pain only when batting from the right side, not the left side. That suggests the possibility that Sierra, who was signed over the winter to be the team's top left-handed bat off the bench, might be recovered just enough by week's end to open the season with the club.

  • INF Jason Hart, a power-hitting prospect; OF Josh Rabe and OF Andres Torres were reassigned to minor league camp Sunday.

  • OF Michael Cuddyer (oblique) is scheduled to hit off a tee Monday and will take batting practice Tuesday if all goes well.

    BY THE NUMBERS: 18 -- Consecutive seasons the Twins have gone without a player hitting 30 home runs, more than three times the length of the second longest streak (five, by Kansas City and San Diego).

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I hear those sarcastic remarks throughout the game. People say that the Twins got a bad batch and all that. I hear that stuff. But who cares? All I care about is winning." -- General manager Terry Ryan on the fifth-longest streak of seasons without a 30-homer hitter (18) since the dawn of the live-ball era in 1920.

    ROOKIE WATCH:

    The Twins could open with two rookies if Baker wins the fifth-starter job, as anticipated, and the team decides to go against its preferred plan and keeps Liriano for the bullpen. As camp neared its close, OF Jason Kubel had an outside shot at landing a roster spot, but after missing all of last year with a severe knee injury and with a less-than-dominating spring, he's more likely to open at Triple-A. But look for Kubel, the organization's top big-league-ready hitting prospect, to rejoin the team by midseason.

    MEDICAL WATCH:

    OF/PH Ruben Sierra (quadriceps) and RF Michael Cuddyer (oblique) are expected to open the season on the 15-day DL. RHP Juan Rincon's sore right elbow bears watching in the early going after he was sidelined by the irritation much of spring training. And 2B Luis Castillo, who has a balky hip and hamstrings, has expressed concern over the Metrodome's artificial surface.

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