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(NOTE FROM GREY: Last week I sent out feelers to the top baseball team blogs to see if they would be generous enough to write a quick preview for their favorite team. So over the course of the next two weeks, mixed in with your daily fantasy info, you will get some of the most astute, in-depth coverage of teams around the major leagues for the upcoming 2008 season from the people that know these teams best. Each post will include a link to their site, please take time to visit these bloggers’ sites, because these posts are truly the tip of the iceberg for their team knowledge. Now enjoy the 2008 Minnesota Twins preview.)

Starting Pitching

For the first time in a half decade, the Twins will not have ace Johan Santana to count on. He will be missed, but the Twins and their fans have got to move on. With the losses of Carlos Silva and Matt Garza, it is fair to say that there are question marks all over the Twins starting staff. Fortunately, if nothing else, the Twins have a lot of young pitchers with abundant talent and little experience.

The Twins decided to start the season with ace-to-be Francisco Liriano making a few starts in the minor leagues while he continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery. His long-term value to the Twins makes this a no brainer, but expect him up soon. The Twins decided to sign the very hittable Livan Hernandez to eat up innings to save the bullpen some since the rest of the rotation is young. Scott Baker and Boof Bonser are the two pitchers with the most experience. Each has made just 48 career starts, but they will be counted on heavily. Kevin Slowey has an historical 2007 at AAA Rochester, and in September, he replaced Bonser in the rotation. His control  and moxie make him a future star, much in the mold of Greg Maddux. OK, how about Brad Radke? The fifth starter job was won by Nick Blackburn this spring. He will be given a few starts until Liriano is ready, but he has the stuff to stick around if he pitches well. If anything happens, it is important to note that the Twins have plenty of young pitchers who are, or soon will be, ready to contribute at the big league level. Philip Humber, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak lead that list.

The Bullpen

The Twins have typically outperformed their Pythagorean win projection, and we wonder why? Well, it is probably because of the strength of their bullpen. They may not have had the offense to have many blowout wins, but when the team is in a close game, the dominance of the Twins bullpen always gives them a chance.

The Twins decided to sign Joe Nathan and keep him around for the next four years. He has been as good as any closer in baseball since the Twins promoted him to the position to start the 2004 season. Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier were terrific in their set up role last year. This year, the Twins hope for a healthy Jesse Crain, who missed much of the 2007 season after shoulder surgery, as he was excellent to start his career. Juan Rincon looks to bounce back, and Dennys Reyes would love to prove that 2006 was no fluke.

The Twins bullpen will again be a very important part of their success in 2008

Position Players

Joe Mauer and Mike Redmond combine to be a very productive catching duo. Mauer is fully healthy and had a strong spring. If he can stay in the lineup, he is as good as it gets. Justin Morneau was the AL MVP in 2006 and had a strong first half in 2007. What he needs to do is put together a full season. His recently signed six year, $80 million deal is hopefully motivation to do just that. Michael Cuddyer signed a three year deal worth at least $25 million on the same day, and he will again patrol right field where he led the league in assists last year. The team acquired Delmon Young in an offseason trade and he will be set in left field this season. Jason Kubel put together a great second half in 2007 and should build on that as the team’s primary DH. (Craig Monroe will likely see some time as the DH and occasional OF as well) Those are the Twins two through six hitters, and should remain so over the next three or four years. Those five hitters should be very productive.

Adam Everett takes over shortstop duties after Jason Bartlett was traded in the Garza/Young deal. This is a big step down for the Twins offensively, but probably a small step forward defensively as Everett is as good as it gets. Carlos Gomez and Denard Span battled all spring for the starting CF job, and in the end, the Twins went with the very talented Carlos Gomez. He will be the Twins leadoff man as well, providing incredible speed to the top of the order, allowing those two through six hitters plenty of RBI opportunities. Mike Lamb, Everett’s teammate with the Astros the last several seasons, will take over at 3B for the Twins. Last year, Nick Punto put up historically horrible numbers for a player at the hot corner. Lamb’s defense may not be great, but the guy can take good at bats and hit gaps, so he will help the lineup as well. Finally, Brendan Harris, also acquired in the Twins/Rays deal will start the season as the Twins starting 2B. He put up very strong numbers last year as the Rays starting SS, and will move to the other side of the diamond for this season. Expect Punto to get some playing time here as well as Twins rookie Matt Tolbert.

Fantasy Must Haves

Many people are down on this year’s Twins team, but there is a lot of talent. My assumption is that fantasy baseball participants know this. Here are some guys to consider drafting:

Joe Mauer – There are only four, maybe five, catchers that you really want on your team. Joe Mauer is one of them. Even in a “down” season for Mauer, he provides good all around numbers. If healthy, he should reclaim the top spot among catchers.

Justin Morneau – Normally 1B has been one of the strongest positions in a fantasy draft, but this year, that isn’t as much the case. However, Morneau is still one of the guys that you will be happy to have on your team.

Joe Nathan – Over his four seasons as the Twins closer, he has averaged just over 40 saves per season. He has also had an ERA of 1.94 combined over that time.

Delmon Young – His lack of walks makes him a mid-round pick in rotisserie leagues where on-base percentage matters, but I think he could be a monster in points leagues. At just 22 years old, his power and average should continue to rise.

Francisco Liriano – With risk, there can be reward. Sure, in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, there is risk in drafting Liriano. However, let’s not forget that during his 2006 run (12-3, 2.16 ERA, 144 Ks in 121 innings), he was better than Johan Santana. That is how special he could be again.

Sleepers

Jason Kubel – his second half gives Twins fans hope that he has returned to full health and can be the hitter we projected him to be when he first came up to the Twins in 2004.

Michael Cuddyer – Don’t forget that in 2006, he had over 100 runs and 100 RBI. He is forgotten in the lineup that includes so many mashers.

Pat Neshek – Arguably the top set up man in the game, Neshek does well in strikeouts, WHIP and ERA. If anything happened to Joe Nathan, Neshek would be the guy to step in.

Summary

The American League Central is very tough. The Tigers improved themselves and we forget that Cleveland is back with much of the same team that was one win from the World Series. The White Sox and even the Royals will both be very competitive. But don’t sleep on this Twins team. As you can see, there is a lot of talent. Yes, a lot of things have to happen right for this team, but this is the beauty of baseball and its 162 game season. You just never know.

Seth

Seth Stohs runs  www.SethSpeaks.net