The spring training ticker from 2009: Mauer sidelined by mystery injury and some people question our savior's toughness... Middle infield combo of Casilla and Punto, or Harris and Casilla, or Harris and Punto or whatever... Who's going to play third? (Followed by 'Is Crede healthy enough to hold down third?')... Can Cuddyer come back from his injury-pocked 2008? ... Is Span really that good?... Will Gomez improve? ... Four outfielders for three positions with concerns about all of 'em... Delmon? ... Will the bench continue to inspire fear only to the chronically fearful?
Think back to this time last season and you could ask legitimate questions/create debate about every position except first base.
We're anxious to see Justin Morneau swing the bat after he missed the final month of the season with a stress fracture and, yes, we're wondering if J.J. Hardy's subpar 2009 was a blip. And we're hopeful that Pat Neshek can regain his form in what looks like a deep bullpen and intrigued about whether Francisco Liriano's winter league slider means that he's returned to something that resembles his rookie-season form.
But it looks like the spring training checklist of burning issues is a short one. The Twins seem to have solved enough of their issues that they can afford to go to Fort Myers with a third-base competition between Nick Punto and Brendan Harris as their only true position battle. (If the season opened tomorrow, I'd choose Punto.) How excited can you get about the battle to be the fifth outfielder/defensive caddy when your top four are Span, Cuddyer, Young and Kubel?
(Jacque Jones interlude: One sign of our feelgood winter is how we'd be looking at the Jacque Jones spring training invitation if the Twins hadn't gotten Hardy, Hudson, Thome and reliever Clay Condrey. In some other years, we'd be rolling our eyes and thinking of Tony Batista. In the current context, it seems like a nice gesture to a guy who played a significant role when the Twins stopped being doormats. Nothing but upside and nothing to lose.)
Four spots in the rotation are set with three legitimate candidates -- lefties Liriano, Perkins and Duensing for the fifth spot. If something happens to one of the presumed four, the Twins can start the season with two from the lefty list. The fact that there's still not a head-and-shoulders ace is an issue that can be deferred until later in the season when a Twins fan's mind should be allowed to turn toward the playoffs.
Similarly, there's a backup plan if all isn't right with Morneau -- a most-of-the-time outfield of Kubel, Span and Young with Cuddyer playing first base and Jim Thome as the DH. That's a stronger fix than the Redmond/Morales combo platter that filled in for Mauer through the first month of last season, right?
To wonder how the Twins will handle the mantle of division favorite is a different beast from some of the competency questions we've wondered about in the past few seasons. The early view is that the Twins and White Sox -- who have rotation depth and a solid ace if Jake Peavy returns to form -- are the best in the AL Central with Detroit as a wild card. Cleveland is building for a couple of years down the road and the Royals are the Royals, no matter how well they start the season or play for a few weeks in June.
A few housekeeping items for the curious:
*A few people have commented about outdated top of the Twins page on the web site. Most of you would prefer not to look at Carlos Gomez in Minnesota colors anymore. Be patient with us. Later this month, the Twins page will have a redesigned look that will feature Star Tribune reports (news, photos, blogs, video), as well as easier-to-access MLB news and stats and an assortment of other features. So bear with the 2009 look for a bit longer and you can expect us to move into the 2010 season with a flourish.
*For those who need extra Twins talk, some blog regulars have a real-time chat page here.
*Section 219 doesn't endorse candidates for public office, devices to improve your swing, business ventures or the best barbecue option in Kansas City (Arthur Bryant's for lunch, Gates for dinner and bring back some sauce). But if you're thinking of taking a Twins roadtrip, you may want to check this out.