It's been a long time coming. Such a long time, in fact, that now that it's actually here, the feeling is surreal. The Twins have an outdoor baseball stadium, a payroll approaching $100 million and the league's best player locked up for the next nine years thanks to one of the largest contracts in the history of the game. Back in the mid-90s, few would have ever guessed these things would be possible, but a string of fortuitous events have ensured the Twins' long-term future in Minnesota while also setting the stage for the club to remain consistently competitive over the next decade and beyond.
Seeing a team in a beautiful new state-of-the-art stadium is always fun, but seeing a contending team play in said stadium is of course far more enjoyable. Fortunately, Bill Smith and the Twins front office took plenty of steps during the offseason to make sure that fans will be exposed to a quality club when attending games at Target Field during the stadium's inaugural season.
The acquisitions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson address longstanding concerns at the middle infield spots. The signing of Jim Thome provides a quality veteran pinch-hitting option and another daunting left-handed bat to be plugged into the middle of the Twins' lineup against right-handed pitchers. When Thome's name is written into the starting lineup, the heart of the Twins' batting order will be vastly more intimidating than any core this franchise has ever put forth. From Mauer to Jusin Morneau to Michael Cuddyer to Jason Kubel to Thome, opposing pitchers will be faced with the relentless task of trying to get past five stellar power hitters. Should Hardy and Delmon Young take their offensive games to the next level, as many believe they can, the Twins could very well boast the best lineup in all of baseball, one capable of hitting over 200 home runs and scoring over 900 times.
If there are significant concerns surrounding this 2010 Twins team, they fall on the run prevention. A starting rotation consisting of Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano certainly has the potential to be very strong one-through-five, but none of those pitchers posted an ERA below 4 last season. Liriano's outstanding work in winter ball and spring training has produced a lot of optimism and few people doubt the ability of Baker and Slowey to perform like frontline starters, but the impetus is on these young hurlers to actually step up and get it done over the course of an entire season. The Twins' offense is good enough that they stand a good chance at winning the division even with mediocre results on the mound, but if this team aspires to make a deep run in October, they'll need a few starters to turn the corner.
Of course, the one sour note amongst all the positives for the Twins the past several months has been the loss of Joe Nathan. One of the league's most consistent and dominating closers over the past six years, Nathan's absence will be felt in the late innings, where the Ron Gardenhire will be without his best bullet. Fortunately, the Twins have more bullpen depth this year than they've had in the past. That depth will be strengthened by the return of Pat Neshek, who missed the most of 2008 and all of 2009 due to elbow problems but was one of the league's best setup men prior to getting injured. Jon Rauch will hold closing duties early in the season, but if he can't get the job done Gardenhire will have a number of competent alternatives in the wings, including Neshek, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain.
With the American League Central looking eminently winnable, the Twins have an excellent shot at capturing a sixth division title in nine years. Much will depend health, and on several key players continuing to perform at an elite level, but on paper these 2010 Twins certainly look like one of the league's best teams and a legitimate World Series contender. At this time of year, that's all you can ask for.