La Velle E. Neal III has covered baseball for the Star Tribune since 1998 (the post-Knoblauch era). Born and raised in Chicago, he grew up following the White Sox and hating the Cubs. He attended both the University of Illinois and Illinois-Chicago and began his baseball writing career at the Kansas City Star. He can be heard occasionally on KFAN radio, lending his great baseball mind to Paul Allen and other hosts. Mark Rosen borrows him occasionally for WCCO-TV.

Year 15

Posted by: La Velle E. Neal III Updated: February 19, 2012 - 1:18 PM

Spring training in 1998 opened with a Twins team loaded with veterans. Bob Tewksbury, Mike Morgan, Otis Nixon, Terry Steinbach.

It would be Paul Molitor's last year. LaTroy Hawkins and Frankie Rodriguez were in the starting rotation.

It was my first year on the Twins beat after three years in Kansas City. One of my vivid memories of that camp was Eddie Guardado reporting.

I was in the middle of the clubhouse. Suddenly, an equipment bag came flying in from one end of the clubhouse all the way to a stall in the far corner.

``Unpack my stuff!''  Guardado yelled to the clubbies, pretending to be irritated. It was his spring training ritual, and his teammates loved it.

I just left the Twins clubhouse this morning. I went in to manager Ron Gardenhire's office to say hello. There was Guardado, now in camp as a special instructor, his goatee speckled with gray, listening to instructions from Gardy.

Where has the time gone?

This is my 15th year on the beat. My first season was when the Twins were close to rock bottom. That would come after the 1998 season, when Carl Pohlad decided that he could lose 90 games like he did in 1998, but with cheaper players. The roster was overhauled, Pat Meares was non-tendered and the kids came in.

Fortunately, the Twins had a wave of prospects working their way through the system.

The Twins lost 97 games in 1999, then the recovery began. The League of Nations infield. The Soul Patrol. The Pole Patrol. Gardy took over in 2002 and started winning division titles (and losing to the Yankees). But now we're looking at a possible decline after a disastrous 99-loss season in 2011.

I'm not saying the Twins are about to bottom out like the late 90's. In fact, I think this team has a chance to play over .500 ball (that would take a 19-game improvement, I know). A lot of things would have to go right for that to happen. Contending in the AL Central? They'll need a golden horseshoe. Check that, titanium horseshoe.

They'll need Joe Mauer to have a big year. I'm putting Mauer on one - .330 average, double digit homers, 90-some RBI.

They'll need Justin Morneau to have a good year. I can't go there until I see him get through spring training.

They'll need Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker to lead the rotation. I'm putting Frankie on at least 14 wins. If Baker keeps his elbow healthy, he should be pretty good too.

They'll need the younger players to develop. I think Danny Valencia will get a little better. I think Ben Revere needs to embrace bunting. I think Trevor Plouffe can become a pretty good outfielder but it might take a couple years.

They'll need the infield defense to improve dramatically. Jamey Carroll is 38. Alexi Casilla has not played more than 98 games in a season. What does that sound like to you? Sounds like Tsuyoshi Nishioka will start a bunch of games this year.

They'll need the bullpen to step up. I think it's possible. Joel Zumaya is in a good situation here because Gardy and Rick Anderson don't overuse pitchers. And Matt Capps will be better.

This team will be better this year - it's hard to fall down when you're already at rock bottom. How much better? Not sure. Michael Cuddyer is gone. Jason Kubel is gone. Jim Thome is gone. Josh Willingham can't cover for them all.

I just threw out a bunch of opinions that might have to be modified by the end of camp. But this is the speculative part of the year. The best time of the year. And so it begins.

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