On September 28th of last year, Carl Pavano tossed a five-hit shutout at Target Field, leading the Twins to a 1-0 victory over the Royals. It was the final game of the 2011 season, and its only significance was keeping the Twins from reaching 100 losses – a deflating milestone even if it's virtually no different from 99.
On Friday, Pavano will again be on the mound, this time looking to kick off the 2012 Redemption Tour. Returning after the worst season in the past three decades of the franchise, these Twins have much to prove to a disgruntled fan base. In Year Three at Target Field with a payroll that hovers near nine digits, they'll receive plenty of scrutiny and little patience.
For the Twins to reverse course so drastically that they actually contend for a playoff spot – which may require a 30-game swing in win/loss record – might be too much to ask. But fans will be looking for clear signs of improvement across the board, be it on-field play, off-field accountability or organizational direction.
One year after derailing completely, the Twins don't need to pull into the station. They do need to demonstrate that they're back on the right track.
Terry Ryan, who took over as general manager in November after Bill Smith's abrupt dismissal, executed a sound offseason plan that altered the state of the roster rather dramatically. In the largest exodus of franchise mainstays since Ryan first resigned back in 2007, the team said goodbye to Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan, all of whom inked lucrative contracts elsewhere as free agents.
In signing Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Ryan Doumit and others over the winter, Ryan's objectives were threefold: replacing the departed players, addressing areas of weakness and creating the type of depth and flexibility absent from last year's roster.
If I had one overarching frustration with Smith's strategy last offseason, it was the lack of proactive planning. The 2010 season was a very successful one for the Twins, but it also created a number of ongoing health concerns, and the former GM left the roster woefully unequipped for the avalanche of injuries that was to come.
Granted, the Twins stood no chance last summer one way or the other with the endless barrage of bad breaks they endured, and the same would be true this time around. But Ryan has installed legitimate contingency plans, with a number of different moving parts and bench players actually capable of stepping up to make an impact.
As long as the injury bug doesn't bite hard again, the lineup should be decent at worst, with the potential to be quite good if, say, Justin Morneau's late spring performance is a sign of things to come or Chris Parmelee is for real. With that said, this offense isn't going to be confused with the Yankees. If the Twins are to stay afloat in the AL Central, they're going to need quality pitching, which was in short supply last year.
It's here that my optimism fades somewhat. If all goes well with the starters – Francisco Liriano commands his fastball, Scott Baker's elbow doesn't blow up, Carl Pavano craftily succeeds, Nick Blackburn returns to 2008/09 form and Jason Marquis throws strikes – the rotation could be an asset. But, so rarely does all go well. Whereas the lineup has suitable depth, it's not clear that the Twins will be prepared to adequately replace multiple starters if that need arises.
And then there's the bullpen. Ryan took an incredibly passive approach to addressing this unit during the offseason, cobbling together a group of minor-league journeymen, failed starters and reclamation projects. Matt Capps, Glen Perkins and Jared Burton, who have had two good seasons between the three of them since 2008, are hardly guaranteed to be a lockdown trio at the back end, and the rungs get shakier as you make your way down the bullpen ladder.
Ron Gardenhire will need to determine a hierarchy on the fly, since few of these pitchers have been able to establish consistent roles on a big-league staff. The approach of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks didn't work as a bullpen solution last year but maybe the results will be better with a true talent evaluator in charge.
I'd like to think that the Twins could sport a respectable rotation with a relief corps that consistently holds leads, but in order for that to happen they'll need a lot to go right and very little to go wrong. Maybe I'm too jaded by last year, but I can't see it.
I see a staff that allows a ton of contact and probably ranks among the league leaders in hits allowed because the defense still isn't very good.
I see a lineup that, while vastly improved, remains several notches behind the true AL powerhouses like New York, Boston, Texas and Detroit.
I also see big bounce-back years for several players, including the restoration of Joe Mauer's pristine reputation. And thanks to a weak division, I see a finish around the .500 mark, which would count as a sizable step in the right direction and might keep things interesting into August and even September.