FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Coming off an improbable division title run in 2006, the Twins are looking to prove that this group wasn't just a one-hit wonder.Building around a core of young players that includes the reigning American League batting champion, Joe Mauer; reigning AL MVP Justin Morneau; defensive stalwarts Torii Hunter and Luis Castillo; and, arguably, the best pitcher in the game, Johan Santana, the Twins certainly bring back a group that not only has playoff experience but has seen the pressure of a season-long comeback run. Still, it's hard to overlook an exceptionally dangerous AL Central that will pose plenty of tests. From an improved Tigers club that is coming off an AL pennant to the White Sox and Indians, who are looking to rebound from down years, the Twins will have their hands full in proving to the division that they indeed still are the team to beat. Team strength: There is one thing the Twins have that every team in the Majors covets -- a rock-solid bullpen. Stacked from front to back, the Twins not only carry one of the best closers in the game, Joe Nathan, they possess two strong power arms to set him up -- right-handers Juan Rincon and Jesse Crain. Dennys Reyes emerged as one of the best left-handed specialists in the game last season, and with Pat Neshek's unique sidearm angle, the Twins have ample ammunition to throw at clubs even if the rotation sees some early-season struggles. Achilles heel: The Twins lacked any real backup middle infielders in 2006, and the long grind seemed to wear on shortstop Jason Bartlett by the end of the season. With Rule 5 Draft pick Alejandro Machado headed for the disabled list to start the year and still no real backup shortstop in the system, the Twins are going to rely on players with a lack of range to call on if needed in a pinch, or they'll have to move Nick Punto off third base as a solution. Any sort of injury to the middle of the infield could prove to be disastrous considering the team's lack of depth there.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Top newcomer: Veteran right-hander Ramon Ortiz has been one of the bright spots so far this spring for the Twins. The pitching staff held a lot of question marks, and Ortiz's signing didn't appear as though it would help much, considering his 5.00-plus ERA in each of his past two seasons in the National League. But Ortiz has adapted to pitching coach Rick Anderson's program and has shown to be reliable over his four Grapefruit League starts this spring, delivering the lowest ERA of any starter in camp, with a 0.75 ERA in four outings.Ready to make the leap: Coming off knee surgery that kept him out during the entire 2005 season, Jason Kubel struggled to get back into playing form last year. But Kubel has looked strong this spring, batting .326. Because of his ability to play in the outfield and hit in the DH spot, the extra left-handed bat should help balance an already potent lineup. And with some power remaining in his bat, Kubel could be just the spark that the Twins were missing when they were swept in the AL Division Series by Oakland last October. On the hot seat: Right-hander Carlos Silva struggled throughout the 2006 season with his trademark sinker, and that hasn't changed so far this spring. The Twins have placed a lot of high hopes on him being able to turn things around from last year, although he's had to find solutions by working on a variety of pitches this spring. With more young arms, such as Matt Garza and Glen Perkins, likely to be waiting in the wings should any problems arise, Silva will be on a very short leash when it comes to proving he can perform in the way the club expects. You can bank on: Santana, the team's ace, has proved that he will continually be the dominant pitcher that a team can ride even when others around him struggle. Despite all the turmoil going on around him in the rotation last season, Santana helped lift the club to its fourth division title in the past five seasons and earned his second unanimous Cy Young Award in the past three seasons. His stuff will be good enough for him to earn close to 20 victories. Litmus test: If the Twins can find a starter to play second fiddle to Santana, the rotation might not be as big of a concern as many have anticipated it to be. There are still plenty of question marks surrounding the veteran additions of Ortiz and Sidney Ponson. Sure, their springs have been good, but the team will need those two to hold up over the long haul if Minnesota is to have a chance in an AL Central that is stacked with quality competition. Games you don't want to miss:
Twins vs. Yankees, April 9-11: Facing the stacked lineup of this New York squad is never easy, but it could prove an early indicator of just how the Twins rotation may fare. Twins vs. White Sox, May 8-10, 28-30: The Twins host their division rivals twice during the month. These games could be an early indicator of how the AL Central race might play out. Twins vs. A's, July 12-15: The four-game series will give the Twins a chance to redeem the two losses they suffered to Oakland at the Metrodome in last year's ALDS.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.