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Spring Postcard: Veteran Twins have AL Central title aspirations

1. Underdogs no more. The Twins have for years thrived on being viewed as a small-market underdog in the American League Central, as they did last year when many experts (including those at a certain sports publication) picked them to finish last in the division. Minnesota, playing without departed leaders Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, went 88-75 and would have made the playoffs had they not lost two of three to the lowly Royals in the season's final series, and then a one-game playoff to Chicago. "I hope people pick us fifth again," says GM Bill Smith, but that's unlikely to happen, not after last year's run and with the Central featuring no clear-cut superpower.

In fact, the Twins should probably be viewed as a favorite within the division -- but that doesn't make any difference to them, says right fielder Michael Cuddyer. "It's not going to change anything, because we don't really worry about anything outside of this clubhouse," Cuddyer says. "Regardless of if people think we're going to win or don't think we're going to win, we believe in ourselves, and that's half the battle."

2. Consistency rulesIn 2008, Smith notes, the Twins played some games in which eight of the 10 starters on the field were new to the club (with the exception of superstars Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer). Nothing like that will happen in '09, as this spring the clubhouse contains hardly any unfamiliar faces, and there are very few roster spots up for grabs. The five-man rotation (Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glenn Perkins) has been set since last fall, as has the group of five who will regularly play in the outfield and DH (Cuddyer, Carlos Gomez, Delmon Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel) and the majority of the relief corps and the infield. "We didn't make many moves, and that's usually not a great thing," says Smith. "But very rarely do you get a second crack at something, and we like this club. We said if we go into the season with the same team as last year, we're OK with that."

Smith points out that the team's only major roster move was replacing a Mexican left-handed reliever, the departed free agent Dennys Reyes, with a Mexican right-handed reliever, Luis Ayala. That one, and the addition of ...

3. The X-factorMinnesota's offensive philosophy famously doesn't stress power. In fact, the franchise didn't have a 30-home run hitter between 1987, when Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti and Kent Hrbek all exceeded that figure, and 2006, when Morneau and Hunter did the same. Last season's team ranked last in the AL in homers (111) but finished third in runs scored (829), thanks largely to some consistently timely hitting -- their .305 average with runners in scoring position was baseball's best. Still, when Smith saw a legitimate power hitter languishing on the free-agent market well into late February, he scooped him up at a bargain price. When Joe Crede plays, he hits home runs -- 16 of them in the first half of 2008, which earned him a trip to the All-Star Game. He only played in 11 games after the break, though, and that's the problem, as ongoing back issues derailed his last two seasons. If Crede's back flares up again in '09 and he makes fewer than 250 plate appearances, he'll earn $2.5 million; if he reaches 250, incentives in his one-year deal will start to kick in, all the way up to $7 million for 525 plate appearances. It's a very wise investment either way -- certainly wiser than the two-year, $6.6 million deal the franchise gave Mike Lamb last winter, $3.1 million of which they still owe him. Lamb hit .233 in 81 games with Minnesota, and was released last September 4. Crede's tenure should have a far better result.

Delmon Young. "Delmon is whacking the crap out of it," manager Ron Gardenhire told reporters last week, and the crap has continued to be whacked. Through seven spring training games, the 23-year-old former No. 1 overall pick is hitting .526 with one home run and five RBIs. He's performing like the player the Twins thought they were getting when they traded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett -- both of whom proved to be instrumental in the Rays' World Series run -- to acquire him in November 2007. Young wasn't bad last season (.290, 10 homers, 69 RBI), but he didn't appreciably improve from his rookie season in Tampa and had some difficulty becoming comfortable in his new surroundings. That might all be behind him.

Jose Mijares. The Twins promoted the left-handed Mijares, 24, directly into their bullpen from Class AA New Britain last September, choosing him over three Triple-A lefties, and that gamble paid off: He posted a 0.87 ERA in 10 appearances and threw 1.1 perfect innings in Game 163, the 1-0 loss to the White Sox that cost Minnesota a playoff berth. Mijares might begin 2009 with Class AAA Rochester, but if he does, he won't be there long.

"I think he's going to pleasantly surprise the national audience," says Cuddyer, before slightly reconsidering. "Well, I know the national audience really doesn't watch the Twins. But I think even the casual baseball fan is going to take notice of what this guy is going to do. He just has electrifying stuff."

Mijares could become the Twins' regular eighth inning man before long.

Mike Redwood -- I mean, Redmond. He's not quite that old. But the stalwart Twins backup catcher will turn 38 on May 5, making him by far the elder statesman on this young club (closer Joe Nathan is next, at 34). The well-liked Redmond, who is embarking upon his fifth season in Minnesota, could see the field frequently this year, particularly early on, as starter and two-time AL batting champion Joe Mauer is still recovering from a Dec. 22 surgery to repair a kidney blockage. "I think Joe's doing good. He's getting better. I think he's getting close to getting out there on the field," says Redmond. "[But] it's nice, as a backup, to go out there every other day in spring training and get to play, and kind of get in a little bit of a rhythm. The more you play, obviously, the better you feel."

Not only is Kevin Slowey -- a 24-year-old control artist who had a strong second half in '08 (6-5, 3.69 ERA) -- a prime sleeper candidate in fantasy baseball circles, but he's also a likeable guy with a wide range of interests, for what that's worth, including the works of the graffiti artist Banksy and of the writer Malcolm Gladwell. ... Count Denard Span as the latest member of the outstanding 2002 draft class to make an impact at the big league level. Span was the 20th pick in a first round that has produced a veritable All-Star team, one that includes B.J. Upton (2nd overall), Zack Greinke (6th), Prince Fielder (7th), Joe Saunders (12th), Scott Kazmir (15th), Cole Hamels (17th), Jeff Francoeur (23rd) and Matt Cain (25th), among others. ... Sidewinding reliever Pat Neshek won't pitch this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but if you wish you can follow his recovery (he includes photos of his scars) at his regularly-updated 'On The Road with Pat Neshek,' which surely sets the standard for blogs by pro athletes.

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