Finding a level of optimism for 2009

Posted on January 21st, 2009 – 9:28 AM
By Howard

Here’s what I’m thinking about as spring training approaches:

*The Twins start spring training with a young starting rotation that makes me pretty happy. Gardy can go Baker/Liriano/Slowey/Perkins/Blackburn and not feel too uncomfortable. I trust that in their second full seasons of starting, Perkins will have more mental presence on the mound and Blackburn will figure out that he has enough stuff to get through the bad times instead of falling apart. I trust there will be young pitchers to give them a challenge. The other three have the ability to be All-Star selections.

*The end game in the bullpen is unsettled but interesting. Eric Gagne or Brandon Lyon would be a nice addition, although I like that Jesse Crain went into Rochester this week and said he didn’t think a move was necessary because he expects to take back the eighth inning. Hope he can back up the talk. Nathan/Gagne-Lyon/Crain/Boof/Mijares/Breslow/Guerrier/RADickey. That doesn’t make me too nervous, for reasons we can discuss as reporting time grows closer.

*I expect Delmon Young to have a full season that’s more like the second half of 2008 than the first half. I’ll take his numbers from June 7th on — .304/.346/.443 — and I expect Carlos Gomez to be a smarter offensive player while still providing highlight-reel (and steadier) defense. I want to believe that Denard Span is really a .387 on-base percentage guy, although a slight dropoff won’t surprise me, and I want to believe that Michael Cuddyer will have a useful season.

*The left side of the infield still makes me queasy regardless of what current combination gets thrown out there.  I know the Twins are totally down on the giving up draft choices, but Orlando Hudson intrigues me in a move-Alexi Casilla-to-shortstop scenario. People who know more than I do are unsure why Hudson, 31, hasn’t been signed yet, although Ken Rosenthal of FOX says he’s still be looking for a deal of at least three years. If Hudson backs off that, he would be the kind of investment consistent with (1) improving the Twins on offense and not hurting them on defense, (2) adding a constructive veteran presence and (3) acknowledging that people will expect aggressive and reasonable acquisitions in the Target Field era. With Hudson at second and Casilla at short, which is thought to be his best position, I’ll take a random choice at third for now.

*How good are the Twins if Mauer and Morneau are solid without being MVP candidates? To me, Morneau was the league MVP for five out of six months in 2008, although he chose the wrong month to disappear from the highlights. Mauer was consistently excellent, and I wonder how often we can expect that kind of year-long offense and defense from a catcher. That means other players are going to have to bring a little more game in 2009. Just being realistic.

*Can Jason Kubel be a 30 home-run guy if he gets another 100 plate appearances? He went from one homer every 36 plate appearances in 2007 to one every 26 in 2008. Can he keep improving? And can the Twins have the discipline to settle on him as the almost-everyday DH while dividing the three outfield spots among Young/Gomez/Span/Cuddyer?

*Those are my January thoughts, which are more confident than the ones I had at this time last year.  One other thing, in my real job (as gatekeeper of startribune.com), I’ve returned the linescore from last year’s playoff game to the Twins page. It should be a reminder of how close the Twins were last season and stir up the emotional combination of frustration and hope that makes baseball worth the time and effort.

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