Given the injury situation the Twins are facing this week, here's the likely starting lineup for Monday's opener vs. Seattle RHP Felix Hernandez:
LF - Denard Span
I don't know if Span had a bigger booster than me last year. From the approach he showed in spring training it was apparent to me that he was better prepared to succeed in the Majors than Carlos Gomez. He was batting .340/.434/.481 through 40 games at Rochester when he was brought up to fill in for the injured Michael Cuddyer a 2nd time. He took the leadoff spot from Gomez by the end of July and finished the year hitting .294/.387/.432 with 18/25 SB and a surprising 6 HR (nearly matching the 7 he'd hit in his first 5 pro seasons). He struck out in 17.3% of his AB, consistent with his minor league average 17.0%. But the biggest improvement was in his isolated discipline of .093, considerably higher than his .070 in the minors. He also made several spectacular, run-saving plays in RF.
Span's performance this spring has me greatly concerned. After today's game, in which he produced 3 grounders and a pop-up, his line is .158/.244/.237. His IsoD for the spring stands at .086, so his leadoff approach is there, although he's still taking a lot of called strikeouts, keeping his K rate rather high at 18.4%. The real trouble is that he's just not hitting any line drives. I'd like to write it off as a spring training small sample size thing, but he's had 86 plate appearances. I don't know if his swing is off or if he's hacking at the wrong pitches, but he's not right. He'll get plenty of opportunities early in the season to turn it around, and the Twins' chances this season depend on him doing so, particularly with Mauer's OBP out of the lineup for awhile. He's hit for pretty good averages throughout his pro career, so I'll certainly give him the benefit of the doubt, but I'm worried right now.
Expected line: .265/.350/.340, 3 HR, 25 SB, 90 K, 70 BB
2B - Alexi Casilla
Recalled in May after a rash of injuries to the middle infielders, Casilla got the Twins rolling on their outrageous RISP numbers, driving in 35 runs between mid-May and the first week of July. Like Span, he came into the season with 7 career minor league HR, then hit 7 in 2/3 of a season in the Majors. He missed about 3 weeks in August with an injury, and wasn't the same confident hitter he'd been up to that point (.313/.351/.424 before the injury, .225/.299/.289 afterward).
Which Casilla can we expect in 2009? For the most part, he's been a good average hitter throughout his pro career, with a good K/BB ratio and little power. His performances in winter ball and spring training (.308/.352/.369) reflect that. A big piece of his game that was missing in 2008 was SB - he had 49 SB in 2005 and 2006 and 35 in 2007, but just 11 in 16 attempts last year. I'd like to see him run a lot more, particularly when he's not hitting in front of Mauer's 400+ OBP.
Expected line: .285/.360/.370, 3 HR, 25 SB, 70 K, 50 BB
DH - Jason Kubel
It wasn't the breakout year many of us had hoped for, but 2008 was still another step in the right direction for Kubel. Though his BA and OBP were essentially identical to those of his middling 2007, he added .021 points of SLG% thanks to a career-high 20 HR. His doubles were down from the previous year, but that may have been the result of defenders making a lot of running catches in the gaps, something I recall happening to Kubel rather often. His overall line was dragged down by a rough April in which he posted a 20/3 K/BB ratio. Once he sorted himself out, those numbers were better than 2/1 for the rest of the season. It'd be easy to look at Kubel's last 2 seasons and conclude that he's a .273/.335/.460 hitter, but I see his 2008 as that of a .300/.360/.500 hitter who had some bad luck. That evens out this year.
Expected line: .295/.360/.510, 20 HR, 30 2B, 90 K, 50 BB
1B - Justin Morneau
Another slow 2nd half, particularly in September, cost Morneau a 2nd MVP award and the Twins a post-season berth. He dropped off the 30 HR pace he had set in 2006-2007, but made up for it with a surge in doubles. Despite his lower 2nd half numbers, he managed to drive in 20 or more runs in every month of the season. Most importantly, his K/BB rate narrowed for the 3rd straight year. Morneau is in his prime, and he and the Twins have hopefully learned that he needs a day off here and there late in the season in order to maintain his level of performance. Maybe a day off every 2 weeks after July will do the trick. The HR numbers are going to come back, the doubles and walks should remain high, and Morneau should receive a ton of MVP votes once again.
Expected line: .295/.370/.525, 30 HR, 40 2B, 85 K, 75 BB
RF - Michael Cuddyer
After an apparent breakout campaign in 2006, Cuddyer has seen his numbers diminished by freak injuries in the subsequent seasons. Determined to give the Twins a full season this year, he's come to camp in great shape and hit a promising .286/.328/.500 in spring training. His range in RF won't measure up to that of Span, but his strong, accurate arm will make up for it somewhat. He's also managed to quietly steal a handful of bases each year at a high rate of success. If he can keep himself on the field, I look for Cuddyer to be the Twins' best all-around RH bat this year.
Expected line: .280/.360/.450, 18 HR, 32 2B, 100 K, 50 BB
3B - Joe Crede
Like Cuddyer, Crede hasn't been able to continue his success from 2006 due to injuries. His injuries have been much more nagging than Cuddyer's, relating to his back, and there's good reason to doubt that he'll be able to hold up through 81 games on field turf. Even when good, Crede's never been much of an average or OBP guy, hitting a very high percentage of fly balls. His defense is generally very good, so he should save the Twins a few runs there. If he holds up, he should be a decent bottom of the order guy, but I honestly expect more from Delmon Young than from Crede this year.
Expected line: .260/.310/.450, 22 HR, 25 2B, 75 K, 30 BB
C - Mike Redmond
We certainly hope Redmond won't be the starting catcher for very long, since he turns 38 a month into the season was never close to Joe Mauer in ability even when he was young. He's been a rock-solid backup for the last 4 years, putting up averages around .300 and doing a great job defensively and calling games. He's had an encouraging spring at the plate, hitting doubles at his 2006 rate and drawing walks. He'll need to keep that up to keep from being a huge drag on the offense. I don't want to project him for too many PA here - I'm hoping Mauer will be back within a few weeks.
Expected line - .290/.345/.350, 0 HR, 12 2B, 18 K, 14 BB
SS - Nick Punto
As he did in 2006, Punto rescued the Twins from a poor free agent signing in 2008, this time at SS. During the offseason, the Twins decided to forego any pursuit of other free agents and signed him to be the starter at short for at least the next 2 years. His bat plays much better there than at 3rd, and his defense is more than adequate. I'd prefer to see him batting 9th, but perhaps Mr. Gomez can play well enough to necessitate that shift later in the season. Punto has yo-yoed between good and awful at the plate over the past 3 seasons. This year, I'll be OK with OK.
Expected line: .250/.320/.350, 1 HR, 25 2B, 20 SB, 90 K, 50 BB
CF - Carlos Gomez
Though I enjoyed his antics from time to time, I wasn't much of a Gomez fan last season. Constantly giving away AB and missing the cutoff man gets on my nerves. His 142/25 K/BB ratio made him among the worst hitters in the game last year. I came into the offseason believing that a trip to Rochester would be the best thing for him to begin 2009, but September, winter ball and spring training have given me hope that Go-Go is starting to get a clue. He's playing better defense, drawing far more walks, taking the ball to the opposite field, and stealing bases at his early 2008 rate. If he can carry that approach into the season, we all know that he has the tools to be a great player.
Expected line: .270/.330/.400, 7 HR, 7 3B, 35 SB, 100 K, 30 BB