Thursday, May 31, 2012

Minnesota Vikings Offseason: Climbing from Rock Bottom

It's been almost a year since I've written anything, so I figured I would give my thoughts on where the Minnesota Vikings stand right now. Their biggest concern this offseason, a new stadium, was solved a few weeks ago after years of strife, allowing Vikings fans to focus their attention strictly on the team. Minnesota is coming off a rough season where they went 3-13 and had the 3rd pick in the draft, so there are questions a plenty for a club that shares its division with three teams that finished at least at .500 last year. Here are my three things to watch as the Vikings inch closer and closer to another training camp in Mankato.

1) Adrian Peterson's Knee 

Peterson is the face and foundation of this franchise, and the eyes of Vikings and NFL fans alike will be on the left knee of the four-time Pro Bowler.  Peterson tore his ACL and MCL during a Week 16 victory against the Redskins that cost the team both their best player and a higher draft position.  The runningback nicknamed "All Day" is optimistic he will be ready for Week 1 of this season, but the team must be careful with a runner who relies so heavily on his lower body strength.  If he isn't ready, third year player Toby Gerhart and a host of other unfamiliar backs will be forced to carry the load, clearly not the best situation for a team with a second year quarterback, Christian Ponder, who will need all the help he can get.  The Vikings have been a top five rushing team every year Peterson has been on the roster, and a great ground game is vital to taking the pressure off of an inexperience pass-thrower.  Minnesota faces a difficult quandary when it comes to how soon they need number 28 to comes back and just he needs to do to improve in Mankato.  Adrian Peterson allows the Vikings to compete regardless who they play, but a healthy Peterson in the future is a worth more than a getting few victories in another rebuilding season.  The Vikings training staff should make sure he is as close to 100 perfect he can be before letting him back onto the field.

2) Christian Ponders Development 

The Vikings pick of Christian Ponder at the 12th spot last year rose eyebrows around the league, but the Florida State graduate showed several signs of promise in the 10 starts he made in 2011.  Ponder will have to show a little more than signs and flickers of brilliance in his second season, a season that will tell the coaching staff whether or not he can be the signal-caller of the future.  The rookie had a 54.3 percent completion percentage last season and threw 13 interceptions and though some of those picks were off deflections, his at-time erratic throws left fans worried about a quarterback whose accuracy was touted coming out of college.  Ponder couldn't be blamed completely for the inefficiency of the passing game, as he had to play behind a patchwork offensive line for a large part of the year.  This was the reason the Vikings took talented offensive tackle Matt Kalil out of USC, who figures to start at the blindside from day one.  This was one indicator the Vikings have confidence in Ponder and this offseason they also picked up many weapons to aid in his progress as a young quarterback in an extremely tough division.  Former Cincinnati Bengal Jerome Simpson headlines the group of newcomer pass-catchers which includes Minnesota native John Carlson and fourth round rookies Greg Childs and Jarius Wright.  Minnesota still has Percy Harvin as well, one of the most explosive slot receivers in the league and without a doubt the Vikings most reliable target.  Though the Vikings still lack a true number one receiver at the moment, the unit has been upgraded for a quarterback who had little to throw to in his first season.  It is important that Ponder finds a receiver he can build some chemistry with during this offseason and training camp other than Harvin, whose size hinders him from being a true legitimate main target.  If Ponder and the passing game in general don't improve, the Vikings will find themselves picking high in another draft and likely looking for another new quarterback of the future.

3) The Pass Defense

To put it kindly the Vikings pass coverage unit struggled last year, finishing last in touchdowns allowed (34) and second to last in opposing completion percentage at 68.2 percent.  Injuries and depth were a big problem for the unit in 2011, but the unit was less than exemplary to begin with.  The Vikings obviously had this in mind in the offseason, signing cornerbacks Zackary Bowman and Chris Carr and drafting Josh Robinson along with two defensive backs from Notre Dame, Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton.  The safety position was in dire need of improvement, after featuring a revolving door of Eric Frampton, Mistral Raymond, Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford last season.  The Vikings traded up into the first round to select Smith, who will likely enter training camp as the starting free safety.  There is also talk that Blanton could start at the other safety spot, meaning the Vikings would have two rookie safeties in a division with defensive back terrors such as Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall.  I think the return of former second round pick Chris Cook has the potential to greatly benefit the pass defense.  He exhibited great promise the last two seasons and was looking strong last year before being suspended for 10 games by the team due to a domestic assault arrest.  The Vikings made the decision to hang onto him through his legal issues and he will be depended on to cover the best receivers of the division.  The other corner spot is up for grabs between Carr, Bowman and Robinson as veteran Antoine Winfield will cover slot targets as he always does.  Robinson was one of the fastest players at this years combine and his athleticism has already drawn praise at OTAs this offseason.  The Vikings have plenty of competition at cornerback and safety this offseason, so the depth is definitely there.  The experience, talent and athleticism is what Minnesota fans should be worried about.  The Vikings defensive line has done its job year after year with Jared Allen and Kevin Williams; it's time for the defensive backs to chip in their part in division that can shred secondaries at will.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Almost There

With the NFL lockout looking like it could end any day now, it's time to look at what moves the Vikings need to make in order to prepare themselves for a thankfully full, 16-game 2011 campaign. The Vikings will be led by former defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who took over for the much-maligned Brad Childress in the middle of last season. While signing their drafted players of 2011 is an obvious priority, the Vikings will have to focus a significant amount of attention on their unrestricted free agents, which include the likes Sidney Rice, Ray Edwards, Ben Leber, Pat Williams and Ryan Longwell.

The situation with Sidney Rice will be the first thing on the minds of Viking fans when free agency opens, presumably sometime this week. Rice only played in six games in 2010, due to a hip injury he sustained in the Championship game against the New Orleans Saints. However, Rice had a brilliant season in 2009 with Brett Favre at the helm, amassing 1,312 yards and 8 touchdowns. If Rice walks, the Vikings should be awfully concerned with the depth of their wide receiver position. The most talented receiver on the roster left would be Percy Harvin, who is extremely explosive in his own right but not number one receiver material. Bernard Berrian had a nice first season in Minnesota, but has flopped in the two years since. Greg Camarillo is a suitable possession target, but shouldn't be relied on as more than a third or fourth option. That leaves unknowns Jaymar Johnson and Juaquin Iglesias as the only other receivers on the roster. The Vikings need to have a back-up plan in the case Rice leaves, which more and more sounds like will happen. There are several receivers on the market in addition to Rice, with Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Mike Sims-Walker and others vying for big contracts. It would not be fair to throw rookie Christian Ponder into the fire without a true number one receiver at his disposal. Visanthe Shiancoe will be a reliable weapon for the former Florida State Seminole, but every young quarterback needs to have an option on the outside that he can trust. Besides Rice, the Vikings have no real free agent worries on the offensive side of the ball. Naufahu Tahi, Hank Baskett, Tarvaris Jackson and Greg Lewis are the notable offensive free agents.

Linebacker Chad Greenway would have been the most important free agent for the Vikings, but he was franchised by the team in February. Brian Robison was also re-signed by the Vikings this offseason, leading to an expectation that Ray Edwards will head to the free market unimpeded. Free agent Pat Williams was a huge part of the Vikings successful run defense a few years ago, but he will turn 39 this October and his play has fallen off quite significantly. South Dakota native Ben Leber has been a great leader for the Vikings since his arrival from San Diego, but odds are the Vikings will let him go as well, leaving an outside linebacker spot up for competition between Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. If the Vikings make any kind of moves on the defensive side of the ball, it should be in the secondary. The Minnesota defensive back unit left much to be desired last season, although much of the futility could be attributed to starting cornerback Cedric Griffin's season-ending injury in Week 5. Antoine Winfield is still a hard-hitter, but at his age (34) rarely covers the best pass-catcher of the other team. Rookie Chris Cook struggled on-and-off with injuries for much of the season, and Asher Allen spent the majority of his second year in the pros being burned by opposing receivers. Things don't get any better when it comes to the safeties, where Madieu Williams and Husain Abdullah were average and unremarkable. If the Vikings sign any new defensive players, expect them to be cornerbacks or safeties.

In a perfect world, the Vikings would throw as much money as they could at Sidney Rice, retain steady kicker Ryan Longwell and find a way to sign a young, talented defensive back. However, that will be extremely difficult with perennial big-spenders such as the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles chomping at the bit. Nonetheless, Vikings fans should have faith that Vice President of Player Personnel Rick Spielman and the other personnel in charge will make the solid, if not shrewd, decisions, as they have not let the faithful followers down yet.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Wild's West Coast Connection

If I were to tell you on that on July 6, 2011, the Minnesota Wild would be going into the season without three of their top four scorers on the roster, you would be worried, right? Well, how about if I told you that the Wild now had a two-time 50-goal scorer and another winger who has scored 31 goals on the team? That is the reality for Minnesota's favorite hockey club as General Manager Chuck Fletcher made two separate trades with the San Jose Sharks, acquiring four-time All Star Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, along with prospect Charlie Coyle and a 2011 first round pick, which was used on center Zack Phillips.

Love him or hate him, Dany Heatley has the capability at any moment to put the puck in the net, the kind of player the Minnesota Wild has lacked since the days of Marian Gaborik. Last year was definitely a down year for Heatley, who put up a career-low 64 points, which still would have put him at the top of Wild point-scorers. However, he spent most of the second half the season dealing with a hand injury. Most of the controversy and criticism surrounding Heatley comes from the fact that he has now been on four teams in the last eight years at a somewhat younger age (only 30), leaving some to think of Heatley as a crybaby who thinks he can leave a team whenever he wants. This was not the case this time, as it was actually the Sharks' decision to trade the former Wisconsin Badger and not his own. Some have speculated that his lack of goals in the playoffs (five in 32 games)lead to his unexpected exit. Regardless of what you think of Dany Heatley, you have to respect his scoring ability and he immediately improves the Wild's rather anemic offense. Although it's a shame to see such a smooth puck mover and handler in Martin Havlat go, the Wild didn't really have anyone who makes scoring a main priority, a point Fletcher made after the trade was completed. It looks like the Wild have found that player.

The Heatley trade took away much of the attention from the Wild's first summer transaction, a draft-time trade that saw the Wild trade star defenseman and fan favorite Brent Burns and a 2012 second round pick to San Jose for Devin Setoguchi, 2010 first round pick Charlie Coyle and Zack Phillips, who the Wild selected with the Sharks first round pick. As with Heatley, the addition of Setoguchi upgrades the goal-scoring potential of team that ranked 26th in the league last season. Setoguchi, much like the departed Burns, has struggled with moments of inconsistency but still has 84 goals over his first four professional seasons. Thoughts of Setoguchi playing on a line with his former teammate Heatley must have crept into the minds of Wild fans the moment the second trade was announced, but I see the Wild balancing out their offense by putting the two on separate lines, perhaps with Heatley playing on the first with captain Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Those two possess excellent puck-passing skills, allowing Heatley to flourish in his natural role. I see Setoguchi sharing the second line with Matt Cullen and Guillaume Latendresse, who missed most of last year but was a pleasant surprise for the Wild after he was acquired during the 09-10 season.

These two trades Chuck Fletcher has made have turned the Minnesota from a bland team that is too bad to make the playoffs but too good for a high draft pick into an intriguing club that will have the eyes of the media and fans alike this season. They may still be a few players away from making the postseason, but they have made the right moves to keep up in an ever-improving Western Conference.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Finally, a Draft We Can Be Proud Of

There was much speculation coming into the 2011 NBA Draft as to whether the Minnesota Timberwolves would keep the second pick or trade it for an established veteran at center or shooting guard. Minnesota did the right thing in my opinion, holding onto the spot and taking forward Derrick Williams out of the University of Arizona. Though the selection only compounded the logjam the Wolves have at the forward position, they now have the player many thought had the most All-Star potential in the entire draft.

The addition of Derrick Williams definitely improves the Minnesota Timberwolves, both from an athleticism standpoint and from a skill one. Williams, like current Minnesota forward Michael Beasley, is fantastic at driving through the lane, and can shoot from the perimeter as well. However, Beasley was often reckless with the ball and had trouble staying on the court later on in the season. Williams also possesses some nice rebounding ability, something that certainly can't hurt the Wolves. Although Williams was often projected as a power forward, I see him playing the three, possibly in a starting role, with Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson coming off the bench. It still remains to be seen whether the Wolves will try to trade an extra forward like Beasley. The likely labor conflict will put every move the Wolves have in mind on hold. In the end, I think the pick Williams will end up being better for the team then any kind of trade similar to the ones being thrown around on the days leading up to the draft. If any kind of trade should have been made, it should have involved Beasley and the 20th pick. Like the NFL Draft, you do not select players based on need. You draft by best player available, and Derrick Williams was far and away the best player on the board.

The Wolves also had the 20th pick in the first round. I thought they would take shooting guard prospect like Marshon Brooks, Jordan Hamilton or Tyler Honeycutt, but David Kahn ended up trading pick after pick until they ended up deep within the second round. The Bulls made the 43th pick for the Minnesota Timberwolves, taking UCLA shooting guard Malcolm Lee. Lee has a reputation as a nice, quick defensive player with a knack for handling the ball. Second round picks seldom make NBA rosters, but his defensive presence would be welcome on the Wolves, who traded Corey Brewer in the middle of the season and were one of the poorest defensive teams in the league. I'm not going to lie. I don't know much about the second player the Wolves ended up with from the latter round, Tanguy Ngombo. According to, he is from the Congo and played for a team in Qatar. I highly doubt he will ever wear a Timberwolves jersey.

Despite Kahn passing on a few players I think could have benefited our team (Brooks, Honeycutt) later in the first round, Wolves fans should feel nothing but excitement after Thursday night. Minnesota has never gotten a top 2 pick in a draft, and I feel they took advantage of this opportunity. I still have no idea who is going to start at the shooting guard spot, but the forward positions are more than taken care of. Dreams and fantasies of Ricky Rubio throwing up alley oops to Derrick Williams should be able to placate the minds of Wolves fans until the impending lockout ends.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Worst to... First?

First off, pardon the over-used rhyme. After finding themselves 20 games under .500 at one point this season, the Minnesota Twins stand on June 22 a mere 6.5 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians, who have won only seven games this month. How have the Twins come this close after having to play a large amount of games without their two superstars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau?

The Twins have one hitter batting over .300 (Jason Kubel, who happens to be on the DL at the moment) and yet scoring has been far from an issue for the team this month. Fan favorite Michael Cuddyer has carried the offense with his 10 homeruns while his counterparts have been riding the pine with various medical ailments. However, Cuddyer has certainly not done it all on his own. Relatively unknown players such as Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes and Drew Butera have all produced hits in important moments this season. In fact, Butera, the usual backup catcher for Mauer, hit the game-winning single a few games ago against the hapless San Diego Padres. Injuries to the aforementioned Mauer, Morneau, Kubel plus slugger Jim Thome and speedy outfielder Denard Span have led to several opportunities for players that would normally be spending their time in Rochester or New Britain. 2007 first round pick Ben Revere has filled in admirably for Span in the lead-off role, stealing bases and scoring runs regularly. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether Revere will stick in the outfield once Span returns from the DL. Another hitter that has caught my eye is middle infielder Alexi Casilla. Casilla, who struggled in 2009 and played less than half of last season, has enjoyed a fine comeback season in the number two spot in the lineup while the batter who was supposed to be in that role, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, was gone with a broken fibula. Nishioka has come back from his injury but is hitting towards the bottom of the lineup. Third baseman Danny Valencia has showed some power this season, leading the team in RBIs, but is still hitting an abysmal .221. Regardless, he has been impressive for the Twins as an everyday third basemen, something the Twins have lacked since the days of Corey Koskie. Outfielder Delmon Young has hit in nine of his last 10 games and is starting to heat up after having his breakout season in 2010. Although stars Mauer and Morneau have had their troubles in the batter's box so far this year, I expect them to find their strokes as the team goes into July and August. There is no reason for anything but optimism as injured Twins continue to gradually show up in the lineup.

The Twins hitters may be getting a lot of the attention as the team continues it's climb up the division, but it should be the pitching that gets the credit. The staff has allowed more than five runs in a game once in the month of June and has given up a grand total of six over the last three. Not bad for a unit that started the season off with a 13-3 loss to the mighty Toronto Blue Jays. Nick Blackburn looked the best out of all the starters in spring training and that his momentum has continued into the season. Blackburn leads the starters with six wins and a 3.16 ERA. This isn't to say the rest of the starters have been horrendous, however. Brian Duensing and Francisco Liriano's ERA are on the high side, but Duensing has given up only five earned runs in his last three starts and Liriano has not given up more than three in his previous five. Scott Baker and Carl Pavano have also been more than steady. Baker's ERA is lower than it's ever been in his career, and Pavano is having the consistent season we knew he would. As I predicted, the starters have been the rock on which the Minnesota Twins stand, and lately more often then not they have been given the run support they need to succeed. The bullpen has not been so fortunate. Former starter Glen Perkins has been the only pitcher in the pen who could be considered as having a strong season. Like Nick Blackburn, his strong spring training has carried into the regular season. Jose Mijares has been a solid presence, with eight holds and an ERA of 4.24. The rest of the middle relief has been a revolving door of names that most Twins fans are less than familiar with. None of them have really left a positive impression, but thankfully Twins starters have been able to go deep enough into games to not have to worry about throwing another triple-A call-up to the mound. Closer Matt Capps has done a decent job of closing out games, with 11 saves. Joe Nathan had a 7.63 ERA before ending up on the DL, only reinforcing my springtime opinion that he simply was not ready for any kind of closing role. The only real problem in the pitching staff is the middle-relief, and if they get that issue at least somewhat solved the Twins should be more than able to keep moving at their torrid pace.

This team should only improve once Morneau, Thome and Kubel are added to the lineup, and all that we need out of our starting pitchers is for them to do what they have done all season. The other teams in the division have looked mediocre recently, and now looks to be the time for the Twins to make a move. I had high expectations for the Twins coming into the season, and though I definitely soured on them at the beginning of the season, at the moment it looks like nothing can stop the small-ball team from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Timberwolves Offseason

With the NBA Draft a little over a week away, I figured I would give my opinion on what everyone's favorite basketball team needs to do in order to get better for the 2011-2012 season, providing there is one. When you have a 17-65 campaign and the second one in a row with under 20 wins, one needs to ask the question, "Who do we keep?" Do you solve a team's woe and futility by blowing up the roster for another consecutive season, or do you stick with the core of young players and hope for a better result?

In my opinion, the biggest issue for this team is the point guard position. Luke Ridnour was a fine veteran presence, but he had trouble keeping up with most of the more talented and more athletic point guards the league has to offer. However, his jump-shooting and free-throw making ability can not be overlooked. If the ever-allusive Ricky Rubio finally makes his way to the icy shores of Minnesota, Ridnour would be a great older point guard for the young Spaniard to share time with. Jonny Flynn and Sebastian Telfair are the only other point guards on the roster, something like likely won't be the case once the Wolves play their first game of the new season this fall. Flynn never looked he recovered from his hip injury and definitely lacked a shooting touch most point guards of his height need to rely on. Telfair did an admirable job of filling in for an injured Ridnour but was nothing to write home about for most of the season. Though Rubio may never fulfill the lofty expectation his high draft status gave him, Wolves fans should feel much more confident about a Ridnour/Rubio tandem in the backcourt.

The center position is another vital area of concern for the Timberwolves. The Wolves gave starter Darko Milicic a huge raise in the offseason last year, a move that was likely the punchline of many a water cooler joke in NBA offices around the league. While Darko showed some signs of life, blocking 2.03 shots per game and putting in a hook shot once in a while, he struggled in the low post for the most part, fumbling passes and missing the easiest of shots. Backup Nikola Pekovic is a decent backup, but shouldn't be spending big minutes for any team in the league. Enes Kanter is certainly a tempting option for the Wolves to take with the second pick in the draft. Although he is listed only at 6'11'', he offers far more upside than either option at center currently on the Wolves roster.

One more position on the Wolves roster I have yet to really hear the media talk about is shooting guard. Like most players on the roster, Wayne Ellington provided up with some moments of optimism but was still far too inconsistent to be relied on as a starting 2. Wes Johnson wowed us with his three-point shooting skill, but still remains more of a small forward/shooting guard tweener. While it isn't as high on the priority list as point guard and center is, the Wolves still lack someone who can hit the big shots on the perimeter in crunch time.

Forward is without a doubt the position the Wolves have the fewest questions about. Kevin Love stands as one of the best power forwards in the league, and mid-season acquisition Anthony Randolph averaged 19.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in the last five games on the season. Randolph was definitely impressive when he was given full-time minutes, even putting up consecutive double-doubles in March, with one of those being a 31-point, 11-rebound performance. Former Heat lottery pick Michael Beasley started the season hot, but was cooled significantly by hip and ankle injuries throughout the season. In addition to his medical ailments, Beasley's recklessness on the court and chronic case of the turnovers drew the ire of fans. It will be interesting to see how patient the Wolves are with Beasley, who despite his lack of care for the basketball is still brimming with tremendous amounts of scoring potential. In regards to the other forwards on the roster, Martell Webster is an athletic, run-of-the-mill small forward who is better served coming off the bench. Rookie Lazar Hayward came on stronger towards the end of the season, and should remain in the mix for next season.

"So Tony, what would you do if you were in charge of the Wolves this offseason?" Well, for one thing, I would fire Kurt Rambis and look for a new head coach. I felt bad for Rambis at several times last season, but it became quickly apparent to me that he had lost his players. The Wolves also had the worst defense in the league, something that can't be simply blamed on the players alone. It would be nice if this coaching dilemma was solved by the time the draft took place, but it's looking more and more like that won't be the case. Speaking of the draft, I've said from the moment the Wolves were given the second pick that they should draft Derrick Williams from Arizona. It is the general consensus around the league that there are really only two players in the draft that have that star potential, and Willams happens to be one of them. You just don't skip opportunities like that, especially when your drafts have the reputation of being unmitigated disasters, with exception of last year's relatively safe choice of Wes Johnson. After picking Williams the next logical step would be to trade Michael Beasley, hopefully packaged with Jonny Flynn for an established player at the center or shooting guard position. A young core of Kevin Love, Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio (fingers crossed)combined with one or two more semi-talented veterans should make Timberwolves fans at least a little more excited for a team that has won 32 games the past two seasons.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Twins 2011 Preview

It's been a while since my last post, so I figured I'd give my preview of the upcoming Minnesota Twins season. The Twins won the AL Central in 2010 with a record of 94-68, leading to a three-game sweep by the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. Very few moves were made this offseason by Minnesota, an apparent suggestion that they felt little needed to be done to their roster. Whether it will be enough to keep up with improved division rivals Chicago and Detroit remains to be seen.

The offense looks to enjoy another solid, but unspectacular year. If Justin Morneau can remain healthy, and that is a tremendous "if", the offense should receive a huge boost. Morneau is one of the most talented first basemen in the league but has fallen like a house of cards the last few seasons. The Canadian slugger was batting .345 with 18 homeruns and 56 RBIs through 81 games last season before succumbing to the effects of post-concussion syndrome. The status of Joe Mauer and his left knee is another primary concern for the Twins this season. Mauer had offseason knee surgery, and played his first game of spring training two weeks ago. Another thing that must be looked at closely with Mauer is his production at Target Field. The hometown hero managed a mere homerun and 29 RBIs at the beautiful new park, compared to 8 homeruns and 46 RBIs away from it. We know his average will be over .300, but the Twins offense would be much more potent if Mauer could reach into his amazing 2009 form, where he knocked 28 balls out of the park and drove in 96 runs. Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer and Jim Thome look to be the other run-producers for Minnesota this year. Young looks to build on a breakout 2010 campaign, where he hit 21 homeruns and knocked in a team-leading 112 runs. While it is unlikely Jim Thome will have the kind of year he had last season, hitting 25 homeruns in 108 games, he'll stay close to the team lead in homeruns should he hold up through the year. Denard Span and newcomer Tsuyoshi Nishioka will provide speed for the lineup, both hitting at the top of the order in all probability. Little will be expected out of shortstop Alexi Casilla, who has floated in and out of the minors the last two seasons. The presence of Justin Morneau and the consistent health of Joe Mauer will lead to one of the better offenses in the American League. Without one or both of them the Twins will find themselves relying heavily on their bend-but-don't-break pitching staff.

Pitching was not much of a problem for the Twins last season, who ended the year 5th in the AL in team ERA. The workhorse of the starting unit was Carl Pavano, who signed a two-year extension this season. Pavano, who won't strike out tons of batters but won't walk a lot either, won 17 games with an ERA of 3.75. He's had a wonderful spring training so far, boasting a 2.16 ERA through 25 innings. Burner Francisco Liriano had a great bounce-back year in 2010 before falling apart in Game 1 of the opening playoff series against the Yankees. Liriano has looked shaky in the spring, with a 4.82 ERA and 9 walks in 18.2 innings. The biggest pitching surprise in Florida so far has been Nick Blackburn, who experienced a below-average 2010. His ERA is 1.73 through seven games in spring training. Another starter looking for redemption is Scott Baker, who was recently named the fifth starter in the rotation. Baker, the opening day starter in 2010, had a weaker campaign last year with an 4.49. Brian Duensing joined the rotation in the middle of 2010, winning 10 games and losing three through 13 starts. He looks to provide a solid mid to back-end presence in the rotation. The bullpen, with the exception of the closers, caused much trouble for the Twins last season. Much of the previous corps, including Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier, has gone elsewhere, leaving the Twins to rely on Jose Mijares, Glen Perkins, Jeff Manship, and former starter Kevin Slowey for their mid to late relief. Perkins, Mijares and Slowey have had nice spring trainings, while Manship has struggled with an ERA of 5.02 in 14.1 innings. Manager Ron Gardenhire has elected to use both Matt Capps and Joe Nathan for the role of closer for the time being. Capps has yet to give up a run in 10 innings, while Nathan has allowed nine earned runs in 8.1. I personally see Matt Capps ending up as closer during some point this season. The Twins should have little trouble staying in close ball games if starters Pavano and Liriano can repeat their 2010 campaigns and if Baker, Blackburn and Duensing can be simply average. They will just need that ever-valuable run support in order to win those tight contests.

I don't see this team being that far off from 2010's, especially if Justin Morneau recovers completely from his concussion. The bullpen looks to be the biggest question mark for the team. If the Twins can get at least one or two good performers in that group the issue of relief should be resolved. However, the Detroit Tigers will be extremely strong this season, and will likely be the Twins closest competition.

2011 Prediction: 89-73, second in AL Central (to Detroit Tigers