The Minnesota Twins head into 2010 with a mixed bag of emotions.
On the one hand the team nipped what could have been a major distraction in the bud, as they locked up reigning American League Most Valuable Player Joe Mauer with an eight-year, $184 million contract extension.
But the Mauer news was overshadowed by the elbow injury to closer Joe Nathan, who underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss all of this season.
A little adversity, though, is nothing new for manager Ron Gardenhire, who guided his team to the postseason last season with an improbable September run.
Trailing the Detroit Tigers by seven games on September 6, the Twins closed out the season with a 17-4 run to force a one-game playoff. That contest ended up going 12 innings, and Minnesota clinched its fifth playoff berth in the last eight years with a 6-5 win.
The playoff run was short-lived, however, as the Twins were swept in three games by the eventual World Series champion New York Yankees.
Minnesota will also have a new home after 28 years at the Metrodome, as the Twins will play their games this year in Target Field, a brand new state of the art open-air stadium.
Boof Bonser (RHP); Carlos Gomez (OF); Justin Huber (INF); Orlando Cabrera (SS); Joe Crede (3B); Mike Redmond (C); Jason Pridie (OF); Bobby Keppel (RHP)
The whole state of Minnesota can now breathe easy as Mauer will call Target Field home, hopefully, for the rest of his career.
Despite missing the first month with a back injury, the 26-year-old backstop had his finest year yet last season, hitting .365 to win his third batting title in the last four years, while putting up the best power numbers of his career. He belted 28 home runs with 96 RBI and also led the AL with a .444 on- base percentage and a .587 slugging percentage.
Mauer, whose previous career-high in home runs was 13 back in 2006, also captured his second straight Gold Glove Award and is the first player since George Brett in 1980 to lead the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging.
His M&M cohort, Justin Morneau starts the year fully healthy after missing most of September with a stress fracture in his lower back. In late July the former AL MVP was leading the league in home runs before injuries took over.
Oddly enough the Twins took off once Morneau went down, but he has to stay healthy for a full season if the Twins plan on repeating.
Orlando Hudson will be the team's new second baseman after signing a deal in early February. The four-time Gold Glove winner and 2007 All-Star appeared in 149 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago and hit .283 with nine home runs, 62 runs batted in and 74 runs scored.
There will also be a new shortstop this season in Minnesota, as J.J. Hardy was acquired from Milwaukee. Hardy was never able to overcome an awful start to his 2009 campaign and ended the year hitting just .229 with 11 home runs and 47 RBI.
Third baseman Nick Punto appeared in 125 games for the Twins last season and hit just.228. All he really needs to do, though, is field the position.
Designated hitter Jason Kubel enjoyed a breakout season a year ago, hitting .300 with 28 home runs and 108 RBI, while posting the eight-best slugging percentage in the AL at .539.
Although nowhere near the amount they paid Mauer, the Twins locked up Denard Span this offseason, signing the speedy center fielder to a five-year, $16.5 million deal.
Span hit .311 in his first full major-league season in 2009, finishing in the top-10 in the American League, and he also tied for first in the junior circuit with 10 triples.
The 26-year-old speedster also swiped 23 bases, scored 97 runs, roped 16 doubles and drove in 68 runs with eight homers over 145 games. His 40 infield hits were third most in the majors.
Right fielder Michael Cuddyer was a big part of the Twins' late run a year ago, but he did his damage while playing first base where he filled in for the injured Morneau. Cuddyer, though, set a personal high last season with 32 home runs.
Another big part of last season's late dash was left fielder Delmon Young, who hit .386 with 17 RBI over the team's final 17 games. Young has yet to live up to that massive potential, but could be on the verge of a major breakout season.
While the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals boast legitimate aces within the division, there may not be a team with more depth in the rotation than the Twins.
Carl Pavano is the veteran presence on the staff, as he returns after accepting the team's arbitration offer. Acquired mid-season from Cleveland, Pavano was 5-4 in his 12 starts with the Twins, pitching to a 4.64 ERA.
Of course, the big question with Pavano is whether or not he can stay healthy. He answered that question in 2009 with a career-high 33 starts. His 14 combined wins a year ago were also his best since winning 18 for the Florida Marlins in 2004.
Scott Baker slots in behind Pavano and hopes to build on a solid finish to his 2009 season. Following an awful start, Baker went on to win 13 of his final 16 decisions, ending the year 15-9 with a 4.37 ERA.
Big things are expected from righty Kevin Slowey this year after having his season cut short in July last year because of wrist surgery. He was 10-3 at the time of the injury.
Nick Blackburn started 33 games last season for the Twins, posting an 11-11 record with a 4.03 earned run average over a career-high 205 2/3 innings. He also was rewarded this offseason with a four-year contract.
Gardenhire would love to pencil lefty Francisco Liriano every fifth day, but he has never been the same pitcher since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2008. By all accounts though, he looked absolutely filthy in winter ball where he was throwing his fastball in the mid-90s along with a nasty slider.
Then again, maybe he will be more suited for the bullpen, where the Twins have a major hole.
How exactly do you replace a guy who in the last five years has saved more games than any other closer in baseball? It is impossible, you can't.
So, barring a trade, the Twins are going to go with a committee headed by right-hander Jon Rauch, who saved 17 games for the Washington Nationals in 2008. Rauch was very effective down the stretch, going 5-1 with a 1.72 ERA in 17 games.
If Rauch is indeed the guy at the outset then right-handers Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain will serve as the main bridge, while Jose Mijares and Brian Duensing will be called upon to get lefties out.
Free agent signee Clay Condrey will also see a lot of action, as will righty Pat Neshek, who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Twins have the luxury of brining a member of the 500-home run club off the bench, as the team signed left-handed slugger Jim Thome this offseason. At 564 home runs, Thome, who will also see some time at DH, is just five back of Rafael Palmeiro and nine behind former Twins great Harmon Killebrew.
Thome spent most of last season with the White Sox before being traded to the Dodgers in a waiver deadline deal in September. In 124 games between the clubs, he batted .249 with a .366 on-base percentage, 23 homers and 77 RBI.
Speedy infielder Matt Tolbert will fill in on the corners for Gardenhire, while Alexi Casilla will handle backup duties up the middle. Brendan Harris will once again serve as a jack of all trades, filling in both the infield and outfield.
You would not have been alone if you had the Minnesota Twins repeating as AL Central champions at the start of spring training. Now, though, things have changed. Nathan is as valuable as anyone not named Mauer on the Twins roster. It is impossible to replace him. Luckily, though, there are still things you like about this team. For one, they have the best manager in the game who always has his team in the thick of things at the end. Getting Hudson as late as they did was a steal. Their rotation won't dazzle you, but it is as solid as any of the contenders in the AL. Not to mention, they have this guy named Mauer. There is no dominant team in the AL Central. Even without Nathan they could make a push for a division title.