The three-time American League Central champion Twins already appear to be a playoff team again in 2005.

But are they a team built to go deeper into the postseason?

The long journey to the answer begins with Monday's Opening Day vs. the Mariners.

Minnesota, which was eliminated in the first round of the ALDS by the Yankees two straight years, returns with an exceptional rotation led by Brad Radke and Johan Santana. A bullpen anchored by closer Joe Nathan and setup man Juan Rincon should be equally formidable.

Entering their first full seasons, a healthy Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau could bring some bang to the middle of the lineup.

"Having those two young men in middle of the lineup, we're going to be better offensively," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We have to wait to see it happen. We plan on it being better."

Batting order
1. Shannon Stewart, LF
He sets the tone with patient, professional at-bats and was a catalyst last season when healthy. With the kind of lineup expected behind him, Stewart should score a lot of runs.

2. Jason Bartlett, SS
The 25-year old rookie won a four-way battle to be the starting shortstop in camp over three more experienced players. His lively bat and quick speed should add even more to an already improved order. Bartlett has been more reliable defensively, but still has to work on his throwing.

3. Joe Mauer, C
If healthy, Mauer's perfect swing is expected to yield a high average and clutch hits. Expect more than a few home runs too.

4. Justin Morneau, 1B
This will be Morneau's first full season and he will bring plenty of power to the cleanup spot. However, an off-season full of ailments -- from appendicitis to pneumonia -- had him falling behind during camp.

5. Torii Hunter, CF
Hunter should benefit from hitting behind Mauer and Morneau. Now more aggressive on the bases, he could easily be a 20-20 man again. The four-time Gold Glove winner will continue to best defensively at his position.

6. Jacque Jones, RF
A streaky 2004 season caused his average to dip 50 points. But even when he struggles, Jones always finds ways to help his club. He also offers more power from the left side.

7. Lew Ford, DH
Ford was the team's breakout star last season and led Minnesota in hits and games played. His quick speed will mean plenty of infield hits. Expect him to rotate around the outfield when the others need a rest.

8. Michael Cuddyer, 3B
An excellent spring, both offensively and defensively, has left many more confident that Cuddyer will successfully replace free agent departure Corey Koskie. Increasingly comfortable knowing he'll play everyday, his power could bring 20 or more home runs.

9. Luis Rivas, 2B
On the hot seat for too many poor at-bats and mental lapses over the years, patience will be thin if Rivas doesn't show improvement. He must be smarter at the plate. The 25-year-old should continue to be reliable defensively.

Rotation
1. Brad Radke, RHP
The club can always count on Radke to be consistent and throw strikes. Performance-wise, he's coming off the best season of his career. A lack of run support prevented him from a chance to win 20 games. He could benefit a lot from the increased run support expected from the lineup.

2. Johan Santana, LHP
The reigning AL Cy Young Award winner with a 20-6 record and 2.61 ERA, Santana gives the Twins two No. 1 starters. Unlike last year, the lefty is entering the regular season fully healthy and with command of his pitches.

3. Carlos Silva, RHP
Silva was a 14-game winner in 2004, his first season as a starter. Having developed off-speed pitches to complement his tough sinker, he could be a more complete pitcher in 2005.

4. Kyle Lohse, RHP
Although he's coming off a dismal 2004 season, the club knows Lohse has the stuff to be a successful starter in the big leagues. Now it's time to see it.

5. Joe Mays, RHP
After he missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, Mays was a pleasant surprise during Spring Training. He had command of his pitches and threw without pain or discomfort. An already tough rotation is stronger if Mays is really back to his 17-win form from 2001.

Bullpen
A solid bullpen that surprised everyone last season is back mostly intact armed with another year of experience. Leading the group of power arms, All-Star closer Joe Nathan saved 44 saves last season in his first year in that role. Top right-handed set-up man Juan Rincon should be very dependable in the eighth inning and has put last season's meltdown in the ALDS way behind him. He will be pitching with the comfort of a new two-year contract. So is left-handed set-up man J.C. Romero, and the club expects that security will make him more consistent. Right-hander Jesse Crain should be more comfortable after being a late call-up last season. At 42 years old, lefty Terry Mulholland will fill a variety of roles ranging from long relief, short situations and spot starts if needed.

Opening delayed
RHP Grant Balfour will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right forearm. He will have to go through extended Spring Training before returning.

OF Jason Kubel is on the 60-day DL with a left knee injury and is out for the entire 2005 season.

Spring cleaning
The Twins had few roster spots up for grabs in Spring Training but found leading candidates emerge for those roles and clearly separate themselves. A long shot coming in, rookie Jason Bartlett won the four-way battle for starting shortstop over Juan Castro, Nick Punto and Augie Ojeda. Bartlett impressed with his bat and although there will be some adjustments needed, the 25-year old will make plays defensively. Michael Cuddyer silenced anyone who doubted whether he could handle the defensive demands of third base while also appearing quite comfortable at the plate. Joe Mays appears to ready to reclaim his place in the rotation and be a contributing member again.

Burning question
Joe Mauer's surgically repaired and rehabilitated left knee will continue remain under close scrutiny throughout the season because of the phyiscal demands of his position. A small setback of soreness and swelling on Mauer's knee early in the exhibition season had the club proceeding cautiously. Also, a mouth infection following the removal of his wisdom teeth over the winter kept the 21-year-old out of action and took away some at-bats. Once the regular season begins, everyone will watch to see how Mauer's knee responds to catching several days in a row. If he's not feeling right and needs a break, he will have to let the club know. But if healthy, expectations are again high that Mauer will fulfill the promise that comes with being a former overall No. 1 draft pick.

Although Spring Training evoked optimism there will also be focus on the new-look infield and how it handles itself behind a strike-throwing pitching staff that frequently puts the ball in play.

On the record
"That's our goal going into Spring Training every year -- get that playoff spot. To do four in a row, that'd be pretty amazing." -- Mauer