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Hayden Goethe, Published April 01 2011

Goethe: "Target" practice in AL Central, but will division catch up to Twins this time?

FARGO - Entering the 2011 season, there’s a different feel in this part of Twins Territory.

Last year at this time, baseball fans across the Upper Midwest could barely contain their excitement. There was a brand-new stadium set to open, which led to a higher payroll, which led to free-agent acquisitions like Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson.

This time around, that excitement is still there. After all, a winter like this past one will give the most hardened of baseball fans a case of cabin fever. But some of that anticipation has been replaced by nervousness for a lot of Twins fans.

That’s largely due to roster turnover during this past

offseason.

Four key members of last year’s bullpen – Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain – signed contracts with other teams. The Twins also replaced their two starting middle infielders, as Hudson signed with the San Diego Padres and J.J. Hardy was dealt to Baltimore.

Replacing these players is a cast of largely unproven ones.

Last week in an InForum.com poll, nearly half of the more than 600 readers who voted felt that in light of the team’s free-agent losses in the offseason, the Twins would not repeat as AL Central division champs.

That’s quite an eye opener, especially when you consider that Minnesota has been division champs in six of the last nine years.

Baseball Prospectus, which makes projections during the offseason, has the Twins, Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox in a dead heat entering the season. BP gives each of those teams at least a 30 percent chance of winning the division this season.

“It’s going to be a good race,” Twins general manager Bill Smith said during a phone interview from his Fort Myers, Fla., office last week. “The teams in our division are all going to be better. The White Sox and the Tigers, but also the Royals and the Indians.”

The White Sox and Tigers made significant offseason upgrades, with Chicago signing designated hitter Adam Dunn, and Detroit adding catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez and high-priced reliever Joaquin Benoit.

Minnesota re-signed Thome and starting pitcher Carl Pavano. But the only significant addition is second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who has never played in the major leagues. He won the batting title in Japan’s Pacific League with a .346 average a year ago.

“I think he’s going to be an exciting player,” Smith said. “He’ll be exciting on offense because he runs really well. He’s a smart hitter. In the time he’s been here, he’s shown some patience and some maturity at the plate.”

The Twins are also banking on having first baseman Justin Morneau and closer Joe Nathan back and healthy.

Morneau was off to another MVP-type start until he missed the final three months of last season after suffering a concussion July 7. Nathan was out all season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Those two players have been selected to a combined eight All-Star teams.

Joining Morneau and Nathan in getting back onto the field are catcher Joe Mauer and outfielder Michael Cuddyer.

Mauer had offseason knee surgery, while Cuddyer had a wart removed from his foot. Both players missed the first couple of weeks of spring training games.

“It’s interesting,” Smith said. “Some years you report to camp and everyone’s healthy, then some guys start to drop off. We reported the other way. As the spring has gone along, every few days we get a player back. We’re inching toward pretty good health on Opening Day. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to jinx it.”

All four of those players joined the rest of starters in the lineup for the first time together on March 23.

When asked whether or not fans should expect to see the team repeat in the AL Central this year, Twins general manager Bill Smith said, “We certainly hope so.”


Readers can reach Forum Assistant Sports Editor Hayden Goethe at (701) 241-5558 or hgoethe@forumcomm.com