In 2006, the Twins boasted a rather impressive offense. Joe Mauer won his first batting title, Justin Morneau captured the AL MVP award, Michael Cuddyer enjoyed a career year, Luis Castillo excelled at the top of the lineup in his first season as a Twin, and Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto delivered strong offensive contributions after taking over the left side of the infield midway through the season. All told, the Twins led the American League in batting average and surpassed the 800-run threshold that team officials seem to consider the bar for a successful offensive season.
Content in his lineup's quality production, Terry Ryan remained relatively inactive on the offensive side during the following offseason. This proved highly detrimental, as the Twins' offense suffered a massive slide the next year. The team's OPS+ dropped from 103 to 93, pushing them from above average to solidly below, and their average run output dropped from 4.94 to 4.43.
One could hardly have expected Ryan to predict that the production of Morneau would drop so significantly, or that both Mauer and Cuddyer would battle injuries for much of the year, or even that Punto and Bartlett would regress so dramatically after seemingly putting together breakout campaigns in '06. Yet, with a little foresight, Ryan could have better prepared the team for these types of circumstances. Entering the season with a useless Rondell White as a starter and with the offensively challenged Lew Ford and Jason Tyner as the team's top backup options in the outfield was pretty clearly a recipe disaster, leaving little margin for error amongst the offense's core. Ryan certainly had the right idea in signing Jeff Cirillo as a backup option for Punto at third base, but the aging Cirillo proved incapable of filling in at third on a regular basis and Ron Gardenhire seemed unwilling to pull the struggling Punto out of the lineup for prolonged periods of time anyway.
The 2009 season bears some similarity to that '06 campaign. Several members of the lineup's core -- Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Denard Span and Jason Kubel -- enjoyed absolutely phenomenal offensive campaigns, and the team's impressive late run at a playoff spot was once again boosted by unexpected late contributions from infielders who took over new spots and rose to the occasion. Smith must now learn from the past and avoid the complacency that led to the 2007 club's demise, because if just one or two of the lineup's core players battle significant regression or injury problems next year, the holes that surround them in the lineup could be magnified significantly.
Fortunately, Smith doesn't have to deal with deciphering the illusions present on that 2006 team. Despite his strong finish, Punto's overall numbers were terrible, and one would have to be out of their mind to think that Tolbert looks like a legitimate full-time major-league third baseman. There's also a clear hole in the outfield and no obvious candidate to start at shortstop unless Orlando Cabrera is re-signed (which in itself is an unsafe bet considering his age and declining production).
Given that the Twins ranked fourth in the league in offense this past season while averaging over five runs per game and ranked fourth-to-last in team ERA, one could logically conclude that improving the pitching staff should be Smith's chief focus during this offseason. I'm not sure that's the case. With guys like Kevin Slowey, Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser returning from injury next year, and with the defense hopefully taking some steps forward, I think the team's run prevention is bound to improve even without significant outside reinforcements (particularly if Carl Pavano is brought back). Meanwhile, I see lots of room for regression on the offensive side of the ball, because it's tough to expect all five of the aforementioned "core" offensive players to repeat what they did during the 2009 season -- especially considering that three of those players have somewhat troubling injury histories.
Adding solid depth and filling lineup holes with adequate supporting players could go a long way toward protecting the Twins against the type of drop-off that struck that 2007 team. If the 2009 unit enters the season with a starting infield that consists of Tolbert, Cabrera and Punto, this lineup could be in serious trouble should Mauer's back act up or Kubel's knee give out.
Oh, and congrats (I guess) to the Yankees, who won the World Series in six games. Who could have seen that coming? :-)