Ten questions facing the Twins in 2010
Mauer's contract, club's new home top key issues of year
Two American League MVPs, an All-Star closer and a manager who has finished second in the balloting for AL Manager of the Year five times in the past eight years. The current Twins ballclub certainly appears to have the makings of what could be a team built for success.
But whether they can defend their AL Central title in 2010 and find a way to go deeper into the playoffs will depend on a number of factors -- not just the core of talent the club currently possesses.So with the 2010 calendar year now upon us, it's time to look ahead at some of the current questions surrounding the Twins as they head into their first season at Target Field. 1. Will the Twins sign Joe Mauer to a contract extension? It's the biggest question surrounding the Twins this offseason, and certainly all of baseball is paying attention to whether the club can extend the catcher. Mauer is entering the final season of a four-year, $33 million contract, and he would be eligible to leave as a free agent after 2010. While Mauer has said that he'd like to remain in Minnesota, he's also made it clear that he wants to win, and the Twins will likely have to show the catcher it's still possible for that to happen in Minnesota even with the club giving him a hefty contract. But the feeling around baseball is that the Twins will find a way to get it done. With the club set to open a new ballpark in 2010 and the expectation that revenues will continue to increase at Target Field, it's hard to imagine the Twins explaining to fans how they could let the St. Paul native and reigning AL MVP walk as a free agent. 2. Who will man third base for Minnesota? Over the past few winters the Twins have had to answer virtually the same question, and that is who will play third base? The Twins currently have openings at second and third base, but the focus for now appears to be on the hot corner. During the Winter Meetings, manager Ron Gardenhire said that Brendan Harris would be the club's starting third baseman if the season were to begin then. The club also has prospect Danny Valencia, who appears to need a little more seasoning at Triple-A Rochester. But despite their internal options, the Twins are exploring the open market to see if they can find a fit for the spot. With a large amount of third basemen on the free-agent market and some available by trade, the Twins appear willing to sit back and wait for prices to fall before settling on an option. It's possible that the team could turn to Joe Crede once again on a one-year, incentive-laden deal. 3. Will the Twins' rotation rebound from a tough 2009 campaign? The Twins decided to stick with their young rotation for the start of the 2009 season, and the group suffered a setback. Injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness caused general manager Bill Smith to seek out veteran pitching help around the Trade Deadline. Carl Pavano helped the team down the stretch, and he is set to return to provide some experience to the group once again. The expectation of the Twins is that their young starters will bounce back from their struggles. Nick Blackburn proved once again to be a big-game pitcher down the stretch last season for Minnesota, and Scott Baker went 13-3 with a 3.67 ERA over his final 24 starts of the season. And with Kevin Slowey expected to return after being sidelined for the entire second half following wrist surgery, it looks like there is good reason to believe the rotation won't see a repeat of its '09 troubles. 4. Is this the year that Delmon Young fulfills his potential with the Twins? After a rough start to the 2009 season by Young, the Twins were pleased by what they saw from the outfielder in the second half when he batted .300 with a .502 slugging percentage, nine home runs and 35 RBIs. The strongest part of that surge for the former No. 1 overall pick came in September when Young was pretty much handed the starting job in left field. Young won't have to worry about competing for playing time in 2010 now that Carlos Gomez has been traded and the outfield logjam was alleviated. So this could finally be the time for Young to prove that he's indeed deserving of having an everyday outfield job. 5. Will Pat Neshek play a big role in the bullpen in 2010? Prior to suffering an elbow injury in May of 2008, Neshek was considered to be a key cog in the Twins bullpen. The right-hander's funky side-arm delivery baffled opposing hitters and provided a unique look in relief for Minnesota. But Neshek has not pitched for Minnesota in nearly two years after trying to rehab the injury and eventually having to undergo Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Neshek is on track to be ready for Spring Training and the hope is that he can get back to the success he had in 2006 and 2007 with the club. Right now, it's too early to tell whether that's possible, but the Twins will get their first real look at Neshek on the mound again in Fort Myers, Fla., this spring. 6. Will the Twins miss the Metrodome? Sure, the team will miss having the temperature controlled environment inside the Dome but this is about more than the weather. The Twins had an undeniable home-field advantage at the Metrodome, signified by their 439-290 record at home since 2001. Opposing teams certainly didn't like playing under the Dome's Teflon roof. The dimensions at Target Field are nearly the same as the Dome. But as with any team moving to a new ballpark, the Twins will have to see how Target Field plays before determining whether or not it plays to the team's strengths. Only time will tell whether it will become a pitchers' park or a hitters' park and whether the team can produce a similar home-field advantage there. 7. Will shortstop J.J. Hardy find his old form again? When the Twins acquired Hardy just two days after the World Series ended, the feeling was that a change of scenery might be just what the shortstop needed. Hardy is coming off the worst season of his young career, having batted just .229 with 11 homers in 2009. But prior to last year's offensive struggles, the shortstop had combined to hit .280 and belt 50 home runs from 2007-08. So the Twins are banking on last year just being an anomaly and that Hardy will get back to being the player he was the previous two years. 8. Who will be the Twins' fourth outfielder? Much of the attention has been focused on the bigger holes the Twins have to fill, but after trading away Carlos Gomez the club doesn't necessarily have a fourth outfielder. DH Jason Kubel has the ability to play the corners in the outfield, but he can't play center field so the Twins may have to look elsewhere for a fourth outfield option. The club has one internal choice in Jason Pridie, but it also could explore the market to see if it can find a better fit off the bench. 9. Will Glen Perkins be traded? The Twins reportedly have been listening to offers for the left-handed pitcher and even offered him to the Padres in a possible trade for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. All of this comes after Perkins filed a grievance against the team because he believed the club sent him to the Minors following a stint on the disabled list to keep him from reaching arbitration as a "Super 2." The two sides eventually settled over the phone and Smith has said that there is "no longstanding bitterness" between them. But with everything that's happened and the fact that Perkins irritated the coaching staff by twice revealing injuries after rough outings, it might be best for both sides if Perkins is moved. 10. Will the AL Central be more than a two-team race? With the Tigers shedding payroll this winter to build for the future and the Indians handcuffed by their own money issues, the White Sox and Twins have emerged as the two teams favored in the AL Central race heading into the 2010 season. But there is always a question of whether a surprise team might emerge. The Tigers have added some talent with their recent trades, but whether it will be enough to keep them in the division hunt is uncertain, and Kansas City has also made some additions to try to improve. Whether or not the division will feature more than two teams battling it out is uncertain. Yet based on the fact that this division has come down to a Game 163 in each of the past two seasons, it's hard to imagine that any team will run away with the AL Central crown.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.