Posted 03/31/2009 at 03:23 AM
Todayís reports are on a pair of teams that narrowly missed post-season play in 2008. I believe both teams have the stuff to get to October this season, but neither is a sure thing by any stretch. The Minnesota Twins should have won the AL Central last season. They failed to do so because they decided that saving a few bucks was more important than winning a couple more games, and in the end, that train of thought cost them a playoff spot. Francisco Liriano wasnít ready to pitch at the big league level at the outset of the 2008 campaign. The talented lefty was still in recovery from his elbow surgery and needed to start the year rehabbing in the minors/ The Twins eventually figured that out and sent Liriano down. To the surprise of nobody, Liriano eventually found his groove in Rochester and began stringing together strong performances. Naturally, everyone assumed the Twins would recall Liriano once he established his rhythm, particularly since #5 starter Livan Hernandez was getting torched with the big club. Everyone except the Twins, that is. They kept Liriano in Rochester, with the company line being something about there not being room in the rotation for him. They apparently felt we were all away from the planet on the nights Hernandez was pitching, or maybe they just assumed weíre all stupid. Lirianoís agent wasnít buying it and threatened to file a grievance against the Twins. The real reason Liriano didnít get recalled is that the skinflint Twins were hoping to make sure Liriano didnít qualify as a ďSuper TwoĒ player, which would have left him eligible for contract arbitration. So they lied in an effort to save about $1 million dollars. And trying to save that money meant a couple more starts for the hapless Hernandez, and a couple less for Liriano, and there went the division crown in the process. I see the Twins having an excellent chance to win the division this season, although that prediction comes with a huge cautionary note. The other teams in this division will be far more likely to add a player for the stretch run if they feel it will get them over the hump and into the playoffs. The Twins wonít, because they never do. That might mean parting with a few dollars, and thatís just not the Twins way. Regardless, I think this team might be pretty good. Liriano might never get back to stud status. Heís not the same pitcher he was before the injury. But heís still good, and so are Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker. Add in an improving Glen Perkins and youíve got what is clearly the best starting quartet in the division. No one else is close. The fifth spot belongs to Nick Blackburn, who Iím not as sold on, but there arenít many solid #5 starters around the majors, so thatís not a big deal. The bullpen isnít as strong. No worries late with Joe Nathan, but the setup roles arenít as stable. Jesse Crain probably gets the eighth inning, although Jose Mijares has the right stuff to assume this role if he can figure out a way to find the strike zone consistently. Craig Breslow looks like an acceptable lefty specialist. The rest of the pen appears pretty shaky. Pat Neshekís absence due to Tommy John surgery will be costly. The Twins would probably be best served to keep Anthony Swarzak with the big club as a reliever. But theyíre saying they want him to remain a starter, so heís heading to Rochester. Forgive me for being skeptical, but my suspicions are that theyíre rather save a year of big league service for economic reasons, and thatís the real reason Swarzak will be starting for Rochester. After all, itís the Twins. The everyday lineup hasnít got much power, but thereís loads of speed and with the good pitching, this team can grind out lots of low scoring wins. Carlos Gomez got bigger in the off season and I think youíre going to see substantial improvement from him this year. Justin Morneau is a superior talent whoís probably still underrated, despite having won an MVP award. A healthy Michael Cuddyer creates great outfield depth, with talented Delmon Young and Denard Span all vying for playing time. Young has all the tools, but hasnít broken out yet. Span may end up as the odd man out of the rotation, as heís having a terrible spring. Jason Kubel will get the bulk of the DH duties. Joe Crede wonít likely hit for average, but he will provide some needed sock toward the bottom of the order. The middle IF combo will be mostly Alexi Casilla and Nick Punto, and Brendan Harris figures to get a decent number of starts at three infield positions in a true utility role. The one player I havenít mentioned yet is the most crucial. Thatís Joe Mauer, whoís having back problems and Iím wondering how many games heíll be able to catch this season. It might be time for the Twins to think about a position change for Mauer. They need his bat in the lineup for 150 games, not 120. Considering his status entering the new season, I wonder if we might see Mauer taking some DH turns against lefties later on, as Kubel is shaky against southpaws and Mauer can hit against anyone. I like the team, I like the way Ron Gardenhire manages them, and as of March 30, 2009, I think the Twins are slightly better than the rest of the AL Central, thanks to their starting pitching. I donít like the organization at all, and thatís the rub. Call it an extremely shaky vote for the Twins to win the division and rack up around 86 wins. But donít take this one to the bank. óó- The New York Mets are petitioning Bud Selig to shorten the schedule to 130 games and eliminate September baseball. Okay, not really, but if they could, they probably would. Once again, the Mets enter a season as one of the teams to beat in the National League. Two years ago, they had an absolutely disastrous close to the season that cost them dearly. Last year, the bullpen was beyond atrocious and was the clear culprit that cost the Mets a great chance to win a pennant and perhaps the World Series. That bullpen problem appears to not only have been solved, but should go from a total liability to a big asset. Francisco Rodriguez may not throw as hard as he once did, and heís no longer a wipeout 1-2-3 in the ninth inning. But K-Rod knows how to close the show and he did so in record-setting process last year with the Angels. The Mets have also added J.J. Putz and Sean Green to the mix, they have a good lefty specialist in Pedro Feliciano and ample depth to fill innings if needed during high scoring games. The fortification of the bullpen means the starters wonít have to take the mound thinking they need to pitch a perfect game to win. The big beneficiary will be the brilliant Johan Santana, who becomes a good bet to win 20 games this season. It means John Maine can go full bore for six innings and call it a day. It means Mike Pelfrey wonít have to sweat falling apart after 60 pitches. Less innings translates into better numbers for both righties. Oliver Perez remains the ultimate enigma. Heíll be great at times and horrible at others. The #5 spot is a big problem right now, as Livan Hernandez canít even eat up innings anymore. I have no doubt the Mets will address this later, either handing the spot over to Jonathon Niese or perhaps, if he gets it together, Freddy Garcia. Or they will go out and add someone if necessary. (The Mets are definitely not the Twins.) The offense is loaded. Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, and the Daniel Murphy-Ryan Church-Fernando Tatis trio in a platoon. Thatís a pretty good group. Brian Schneider is a solid backstop. Luis Castillo is probably the weakest link in the everyday lineup, and heís not the worst player in the world when heís healthy. The bench is more than adequate. The Mets are moving to new digs this season, and word is that this park will be more hitter-friendly than Shea. The ball apparently carries better and thereís much less foul territory. That should result in increased power and production from what is a strong lineup and even if it impacts the pitchers a little negatively, I think itís a net gain for the Mets. This looks like the best team in the league to me. Iím going with the Mets to overtake the Phillies for the NL East crown, and I like them to win about 93 games in the process. I also see them as the team to beat for the NL pennant.