They still need to finalize a deal with for Nishioka, the Japanese league batting champion and gold glove infielder. Once that is done, the infield looks to be strengthened both offensively and defensively. Unless Danny Valencia regresses dramatically , and infield of Morneau, Casilla, Nishioka and Valencia is likely to be an improvement both offensively and defensively from last year when Hudson, Hardy and Punto started the year. The youth of that infield makes it a higher risk, but the upside of having guys coming into their prime in those roles is step up. Hardy, of course, is not that old. But he sure played old, including the injuries. Hudson wasn't signed until later in the off-season and we may still see the Twins add some infield depth besides Matt Tolbert.
They also need to add one more starter, but it seems that they are on track to re-sign Pavano. Failing that, they will probably sign a veteran more likely to end up at the end of the rotation. In any case, Pavano is unlikely to repeat last year's performance. Nonetheless, the rotation will likely be better. All five of the other starters are near their primes with one more year of experience than they had to start last year. Duensing has emerged as a solid starter after starting last year in the bullpen. Liriano is starting to show the ace qualities people attributed to him. Baker, Blackburn and Slowey are all finesse pitchers who will benefit from another year of experience fooling batters. Of course, they probably won't ALL be better. But given their youth, the net impact ought to be better.
The Twins outfield will start the same as it started last year. The exception being that they now have a solid 4th outfielder in Repko. His bat is not much but he plays plus defense at all three outfield spots. We won't hear Gardy threatening to stick Cuddyer out in center again. Kubel continues to provide an offense-oriented backup for the corner spots. If the Twins can resign Thome, Kubel may get more playing time out there against tough right-handers. But regardless, with the addition of Repko the Twins outfield is a lot more flexible than last year. Span had a down year last year and at 26 you would expect improvement from him.
The Twins biggest question mark is the bullpen. But that was also a question last season after Nathan went down. For all the current love of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, there were a lot of questions last winter about how reliable they would be. Rauch was really mostly unproven as a closer. And Mijares was a question mark as well. Condrey, of course, got hurt and never pitched. In short, people who think the bullpen is worse are comparing it to the end of the season, not the beginning. The Twins will start the year with Capps, Nathan and Mijares. The rest are questions, but with a long list of potential answers. Last fall, Perkins looked ready to help. Neshek may be fully recovered. And there is a long list of AA and AAA pitchers who have shown some promise. The chances are pretty good that the Twins will have to make some deals during the season to strengthen the bullpen. But that is exactly the same situation as last year when they added Fuentes and Capps.
The primary improvement for the Twins is the development of young players last year. Valencia, Casilla, Young, Duensing, Liriano and others all improved last year and we can expect similar imrprovements from the young players. For instance, Span had a down year offensively last year but at 26 you would still expect him to be improving.
As always there will be two keys to the Twins season. Injuries and the improvements of young players. While much is made of the "M&M" boys, the reality is that the Twins have often not had both of them in the lineup at the same time. If they can both stay healthy, the Twins will be hugely improved. Likewise, The bullpen will be pretty solid if Nathan comes back and pitches well and if Neshek can maintain his velocity with another season past surgery. Of course, there will be injuries. But maybe not of the magnitude of losing and MVP or a premiere closer. And if there are injuries, the Twins have a lot of depth with the flexibility their players give them. The one place that is not true is catcher. While Butera is a fine defensive backup, the Twins lineup is seriously weakened without Mauer in the number three spot. Jose Morales may be able to step up, but his defense is not what the Twins expect.
In terms of young player improvements, those are hard to predict. But the Twins remain rich in players who are on the upside of their career. It is that natural improvement that has made the Twins better each of the last two seasons. Next year doesn't look any different. And the moves off-season to make the team younger are part of that.