With Opening Day on Thursday, many media outlets believe the Twins will be much improved and, more important, will be the lone challenger to Cleveland for the AL Central crown.

When ESPN.com released its preseason MLB power rankings, it had the Twins ranked No. 11 overall, writing, “The biggest question is whether new manager Rocco Baldelli can unleash the talent of some of the Twins’ much-touted former top prospects.”

NBC Sports ranked the Twins as the No. 18 team in all of baseball but had similar thoughts about their chances for success, writing: “The Twins took an expected step back in 2018, but the talent is still there in 2019. Perennial breakout candidate Byron Buxton is still young enough to put it all together one year, and there’s no one else outside Cleveland with a chance of competing for the division right now.”

USA Today has the Twins at No. 16 and wrote that they “quietly got a lot better this winter” in their free-agent signings.

The Twins are mostly healthy except for the injury to Miguel Sano’s heel that will keep the third baseman sidelined for at least the first month of the season.

But there’s no question that they figure to be the only challenger to Cleveland in a very weak AL Central.

The Vegas oddsmakers have the over/under on season victories as such: Cleveland at 90.5, the Twins at 84.5, the Chicago White Sox at 74.5, Kansas City 69.5 and Detroit 68.5.

One thing to keep an eye on is that the Indians also lost four key players to free agency. Outfielder Michael Brantley signed a two-year, $32 million deal with Houston. Third baseman Josh Donaldson signed a one-year, $23 million deal with Atlanta. The Indians also lost their two best relievers as Andrew Miller signed a two-year, $25 million deal with St. Louis and Cody Allen signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.

The only free agent that Cleveland signed to a major league deal was 37-year-old reliever Oliver Perez.

So there’s no doubt that the Twins, who brought in Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, Marwin Gonzalez, Martin Perez and Blake Parker, have really improved their roster while Cleveland has weakened a little.

Brand-new infield

One area where the Twins’ new players will really be apparent is around the infield.

None of the infielders expected to start Thursday was with the team on Opening Day 2018. Jorge Polanco should have been the starting shortstop for last year’s opener, but he missed the first 80 games last year while sitting out a suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey broke down what fans can expect around the infield.

C.J. Cron is somebody who has had a great camp at first base,” Falvey said. “He is somebody who we brought in [off waivers] and who had a highly successful year last year. He is a guy who has been on our radar in the past, but he has had a really good camp to start.

“Jonathan Schoop, we talked about his potential for a bounce-back [year], one of the best second basemen in the American League and I think we’re seeing why. He’s playing really good defense at second base, swinging the bat well, he looks like he’s in a position that is much more like the 2017 version of himself.

“Jorge Polanco is coming in in great shape. Looks the part. Certainly someone who we saw in the second half of last year really be a leader for us offensively. We’re seeing the same type of approach for his at-bats.

“And then Marwin Gonzalez, our multi-position player, will fill in at third to start the year while Miguel is out. I like that group. It’s a great mix. There’s some real power with guys that switch hit and have versatility and on-base ability in Jorge and Marwin. That’s a good group.”

At catcher, Jason Castro is back from last Opening Day, but he played in only 19 games last season before being lost to injury.

“And then Castro behind the plate, who looks healthy and feels really good,” Falvey said. “That will be a big boost for our pitching staff.”

Yankees pride on roster

It’s hard to remember a Twins roster that could have so many former Yankees make the cut.

“You know it’s funny, that’s a bigger deal than I fully anticipated, and it wasn’t by design, I promise you that,” Falvey said. “Certainly Jake Cave and Tyler Austin, those two right off the bat. Michael Pineda pitched in New York. Those guys played in meaningful games with that team, and I think that experience should help us. Those three immediately jump to mind. Ronald Torreyes is another one.”

Last year, Cave hit .269 with 13 home runs and 45 RBI in 91 games for the Twins, while Austin hit .236 in 35 games but had nine homers and 24 RBI. Pineda didn’t play last season while recovering from surgery, but he will be a big part of the rotation.


• Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman on how the team got Everson Griffen to rework his contract: “We were able to come to an agreement with his agent. That process started back when I met with his agent at the combine. We were able to come to terms that we felt could keep Everson here but also help us, as well, to keep an Anthony Barr, and those kinds of things we’ll do down the road here.” Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer were at Ohio State this past week looking at offensive linemen.


• The Vikings signed guard Josh Kline, who was released by Tennessee on March 15. Titans GM Jon Robinson told reporters even though Kline had started all 16 games last year, the team “felt like we needed to kind of turn the page on that one.”


• The Green Bay Packers have spent big money to improve their defense and their offensive line this offseason. They have spent $182 million on linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and guard Billy Turner.


• Former Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson had played four NFL seasons on one-year contracts before the Browns gave him a four-year deal. He told Cleveland.com, “I wanted to find a home and make myself a dominant force in one organization and not just get passed around.”


• The Eagles and Jets, respectively, signed ex-Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo and quarterback Trevor Siemian to be backups.


• Kate Mortensen, president of the Minneapolis Final Four Local Organizing Committee, said she expects 90,000 visitors from out of state for all the events.


• Gophers men’s hockey got a commitment from Jonny Sorenson, who has been playing for Fairbanks (Alaska) in the North American Hockey League. The former St. Louis Park High athlete is the grandson of Paul Wiggin, the Vikings player personnel consultant.