Twins fans this offseason have obsessed mainly about two things: Joe Mauer's contract and upgrading the team's infield as the club moves to its brand new ballpark. Our take: Mauer is, of course, the top priority. But we've never felt there was more than a 5 percent chance a deal wouldn't get done. The Twins know there is too much at stake. Mauer is a low-key guy. This will happen. The infield upgrade would be nice, but it was less essential to us than these two things: adding some punch and depth to the lineup, and finding a potential ace for the rotation.
Those are things that, to us, separate a possible division champion from a team that can do real damage in the playoffs. Being able to match aces in Game 1 of a series is crucial. So, too, is not having to rely too heavily on 2 or 3 batters who can be shut down by dominant playoff pitching.
The lineup figures to be improved greatly, particularly against righthanders. Even without any more moves, here is how it could look:
Span (CF), Hardy (SS), Mauer (C), Morneau (1B), Cuddyer (RF), Kubel (LF), Thome (DH), 3B, 2B. We're not saying those last two spots can be afterthoughts, but some combination of Punto/Harris/et al wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. And if the Twins manage to add one more player to that mix? Look out.
The rotation, of course, was trickier. Aces, after all, typically don't just come out of nowhere. And while the Twins have a nice core of middle-of-the-rotation guys, none of their horses last year were aces. To have an ace, then, the Twins were going to have to hope one of those pitchers showed something they previously had not -- or take a chance on a star pitcher like Ben Sheets with plenty to prove after injuries.
But there's another man who fits that "injured with something to prove" description. He's been largely forgotten after being out for 2007 and anywhere from OK to awful since then. But when he was right in 2006, he was even more dominant for a stretch than the Twins' best pitcher of the last decade, Johan Santana. And accounts seem to indicate he could be back to his old self. Yes, what if Francisco Liriano could be that ace? Let's check out MLB.com:
Despite struggling in the Major Leagues the past two seasons after undergoing elbow surgery, left-hander Francisco Liriano has been a star in the Dominican Winter League.
And it was never more evident than Thursday night, when the Twins pitcher struck out 10 batters over five scoreless innings to lead Leones del Escogido to a 5-3 win over Gigantes del Cibao to claim the Dominican League title in the deciding ninth game of the series at Julian Javier Stadium in San Francisco de Macorís.
It marked just the fifth time in the league's storied history that the series reached a Game 9, and with the win, the Leones will now head to next week's Caribbean Series against the league winners from Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico on Margarita Island in Venezuela.
Liriano allowed just one hit in his five innings of work, improving to 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in seven playoff starts along with 47 strikeouts in 37 innings.
Not only that, but Liriano was apparently consistently hitting 95 mph. And yes, we know it's just January and these are not Major League lineups. But this flash has to be encouraging -- and it has to give the Twins a lot to think about in terms of their rotation. As good as Liriano might look in the bullpen (something the Twins are clearly thinking about), we still say his greatest value when he's pitching to his potential is in the rotation. If Liriano can be THAT GUY again, look out. We really could find out what late October outdoor baseball in Minnesota is going to be like.
1) How much do you trust what you're seeing from Liriano at this point?
2) Will Joe Mauer be signed at this point next week?
3) Are you OK if the Twins make no more offseason moves, or are you still holding out for either a 2B or 3B?